Béziers—centerpiece of the Canal du Midi and the Languedoc's capital du vin (crowds flock in for tastings during the October wine harvest festival)—owes its reputation to the genius of native son and royal salt-tax collector Pierre-Paul Riquet. That's his statue presiding over the Allées Paul Riquet. He was a visionary at a time when roads were in deplorable shape and grain was transported on the backs of mules, yet he died a pauper in 1680, a year before the canal into which he sank his fortune was completed (it was begun by the ancient Romans), revolutionizing commerce in the south of France. Few would have predicted much of a future for Béziers in July 1209, after Simon de Montfort, leader of the crusade against the Cathars, scored his first major victory here, massacring thousands. Today the Canal du Midi hosts mainly pleasure cruisers, and Béziers serenely overlooks the distant Mediterranean and the foothills of the Cévennes Mountains. Early August sees the four-day féria—a festival with roots in Spain and replete with gory bullfighting (you've been warned).

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