IMG_2197As 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.IMG_9428IMG_9429IMG_2148It’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.

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You’re seeing it: where sparkling wine was born. This kind of aggregate is called poudingue.
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Trap doors in the ceiling for locals to give food to the monks without actually interacting. Because you know, they can’t be tainted with thoughts from the outside world.

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.IMG_2174In 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.IMG_2181The 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!IMG_2185The 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.IMG_2187The historical notes speculated the half-man, half-beast above was intended to ridicule someone, but it isn’t known who. Pre-Twitter burn! IMG_2191The 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.IMG_2182The hand is Saint Hilaire’s, and the inscription says “Saint Hilaire blesses people.” Next to it is a falconer leaning out a window.IMG_2186The 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.IMG_2176IMG_2183Not every panel is explained, but above you can make out a carpenter and a joiner.IMG_2175I think this might show Jeanne d’Arc.IMG_2188Monsters are on the beams across the middle of the room. Threats to those who defy authority.IMG_2189There 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?IMG_2194It 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.IMG_2177The 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. IMG_9432The church itself is mostly austere, but there are interesting carved things.IMG_2160IMG_9434IMG_2157The 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.IMG_2153The 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).

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Under this stone, no human bones but animal remains and pieces of pottery!
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This unmarked tomb holds a mix of bones, probably of nobles, lords and monks.

Whether you like knowing where the skeletons are buried….IMG_2164…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.IMG_2161IMG_2163IMG_2159I 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.

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Do you see the snowy peaks of the Pyrénées?

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27 thoughts on “Abbey Secrets

  1. Fabulous! And a bit odd on the side. 😉 All those tiles, yup, very odd. Thank you for taking me to places I will never be able to see in person. ❤

    Although, seeing the outside of the Abby did remind me of one of the California Missions back home. Many of the missions on the El Camino Real bear a likeness in one aspect or another, but they didn't have the funding and artisanal skills of this lovely place.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was always told the the missions in California are one stage coach day’s ride from one another. They are all special in their own way and always in a beautiful setting. Some are in the middle of wine country others have ocean views. A wonderful way to travel and see the state.

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  3. I’m very surprised I didn’t hear of this and make a visit when I lived in Roquebrun. Its a wonderfully kept place, and far more interesting than most sites of this type. Thanks for all those wonderful photos, even if they were a bit naughty.
    bonnie in provence

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve seen some painted ceilings around, but not naughty ones. And plenty of abbeys, but not with painted ceilings, though each has something special to make them worth a visit.

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      1. Yes, nothing nearly so racy around here from that time, although some titillating stuff from the 30s in an old bourdel that I’ve only ever seen in photos — much more languidly sensual. Several farting men in sculpture on medieval buildings, but not painted.

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  4. That was fascinating. I had never heard of this Abbey. You truly are surrounded by so much beauty and history….I can understand why you chose this area to live. You have opened up my eyes to this part of France.
    Ali

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Fabulous photographs and story telling, all very interesting. yet another place to add to my every growing list of places to see on our next visit. Thank you so much for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Quite an extraordinary tour! Those painted panels (bath-time hijinks) are a hoot!

    I find knowing that there are lords, noblemen, etc. buried beneath those marked floor stones a tiny bit disconcerting and macabre if one walks over them. Fascinating, nonetheless.

    (I see the images on my iPad fine, btw.)

    Liked by 1 person

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