As mentioned on Tuesday, sparkling wine originated in the south of France, specifically at the abbey of Saint-Hilaire about 15 minutes’ drive south of Carcassonne. The abbey itself is a magical place where time stops. There were only two other people there during our visit, a real opportunity to let the imagination run among the old stones that echo with the past. There are even ghost stories.It’s hard to pinpoint when the abbey was founded, but Charlemagne made donations in the 800s. It originally was named for Saint Saturnin, aka Saint Sernin, the first bishop of Toulouse, but in the 900s the name was changed to Saint Hilaire, after the sixth-century bishop of Carcassonne. In the 1500s, the monks invented sparkling wine, with documentation dated 1531.
That’s also about the time–1534–that the abbey got a lay financier. The main abbot, Gérard de Bonnet, administered the abbey from 1509 to 1536 and had his own room lavishly decorated. The ostentatiousness was to signal to anyone who entered just how powerful he was.In the most private room of the already off-limits abbey, we see some wild stuff. Hard to know where to start. The historical notes in the room described the panels below as “inappropriate,” so avert your eyes if you’re more delicate than a dirty old monk.The part on the left has a naked woman in a bath, and a guy is slipping his hand into the water. The inscriptions are like comics bubbles, with the woman saying “what do you expect to undress?” and the man says “I was just waiting for your invitation.” The guy in the panel next to it, dressed in red, holds a pot of oil and ointment, wanting to participate in the bath scene. My goodness!The other eyebrow-raising panel, above, shows a guy mooning us, known as “souflacus,” or “man who farts.” I supposed that back in the day of chamber pots (which were emptied out the window onto the street below) or just going in the street, people must have been rather relaxed about bodily functions. Even the Christmas santons of Provence usually include some vulgar examples.The historical notes speculated the half-man, half-beast above was intended to ridicule someone, but it isn’t known who. Pre-Twitter burn! The woman emerging from a snail shell isn’t explained beyond a note that snails are hermaphrodites and can change their sex. Make of it what you will.The hand is Saint Hilaire’s, and the inscription says “Saint Hilaire blesses people.” Next to it is a falconer leaning out a window.The archer above is shooting at a menacing rat in the next panel, which didn’t turn out. Sorry! It has to do with the plague, which nearly wiped out the population in the 15th century.Not every panel is explained, but above you can make out a carpenter and a joiner.I think this might show Jeanne d’Arc.Monsters are on the beams across the middle of the room. Threats to those who defy authority.There was no explanation of this panel, which seems to show people of African origin. A similar depiction is on a coat of arms above the door. It says “fidelity and valor” on both. Anybody know?It resembles the coat of arms of Henri-Marie-Gaston de Bonnechose, born in 1800 and bishop of Carcassonne in 1847. The Carcassonne link makes sense, and the room was renovated in the 19th century. It was then that the ceiling, which (luckily) had been covered with panels was rediscovered and refreshed and the walls were painted with the names and coats of arms of all the the 55 abbots, along with their date of election.The whole place was fortified, and a village grew up around it. The bad old days, when you had to be in by dark or you could be jumped by roving bandits. The church itself is mostly austere, but there are interesting carved things.The most interesting piece is the sarcophagus of Saint Saturnin, aka Sernin, made of white marble from the Pyrénées. Saturnin/Sernin was the first bishop of Toulouse in the third century, around 250, and is pictured being arrested, martyred by being dragged by a bull, and buried.The sculptor, whose name isn’t known, is called the master of Cabestany and is credited with more than 100 works across Europe–as far as Spain and Italy, plus several around here (Rieux-Minervois, the Saint-Papoul abbey and the Lagrasse abbey, in addition to Saint-Hilaire).
Whether you like knowing where the skeletons are buried….…or you just like old stones, Saint-Hilaire is a trip in time. There is so much to see, all while listening to the wind whistle. If you come in summer, the wind will be drowned out by the chattering of the cicadas. Still peaceful. Probably unchanged since Saint Sernin’s era in 250. Or before.I highly recommend taking the back roads. The main one is very nice–the Pyrénées are smack in front of you–but the little country roads offer spectacular views.