You can see so much art for free in France–in all of Europe. Just walk into a church, the bigger the better, and amazing works will be in front of your nose, usually without crowds and almost always in wonderful silence. Aside from the really major attractions, like Notre Dame de Paris before the fire, you can wander in without lines. Sometimes there’s even mood music.You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the work for its quality. Back in the day, the Catholic church was a major benefactor of the arts. Maybe benefactor isn’t the right word–it was a major consumer/commissioner/purchaser/collector. Churches are chockfull of sculptures and paintings, and the buildings themselves are wonders of design.This is part two of my day trip to Narbonne. (Part one is here.) We’re going to explore le Cathedrale de Saint-Just et Saint-Pasteur, which is part of the same cluster of buildings as the city hall/former archbishops’ palace.
First, the name. Just and Pasteur were two Christian brothers who were martyred near Madrid around the year 304 (A.D., obviously) under the Diocletianic Persecution. The Roman Emperor Diocletian rescinded Christians’ rights and required them to make sacrifices to the Roman gods. Just and Pasteur, 12 and 9 years old, refused. There are multiple versions of their grisly deaths.
Pope Clément IV (born Gui Foucois but known as Guy le Gros–Fat Guy) decided in 1268 to build a fancy new cathedral in Narbonne, where he had previously been archbishop. Emphasis on the word fancy. The cathedral was started in 1272 in a gothic style. Only the choir was finished, around 1330. Remember that the vicious crusade against the Cathar heretics ran through the area in 1209, from the sacking of Béziers just north of Narbonne, to the surrender of Carcassonne just to the west; Narbonne, between them, was the headquarters of the Catholic forces. The bishop of Narbonne had been fairly tolerant of the Cathars, which led to him being fired in 1211. The crusade was lucrative for the church, which grabbed the land of dispossessed lords who had been linked to the Cathars. This led to the construction of a bunch of churches in the region, including the cathedral.
The cathedral and the archbishops’ palace were built like fortifications, perhaps because they abutted the city wall. In fact, finishing the cathedral would have possibly required tearing down part of the wall, which might have been a factor in it not getting finished. The other reasons it wasn’t completed were the plague and economic decline of the city.
What they accomplished shows how ambitious the plans were. It’s still one of the tallest churches in France. But back to art.
There are tapestries and paintings and frescoes.
There’s a strong preoccupation with the afterlife. It was the cudgel raised over the the people, to keep them in line. Obey now or else you’ll be sorry later.
In good gothic style, the exterior is studded with gargoyles, impressively expressive.The stained glass windows offer more tableaux. I failed to zoom in, happy to just appreciate the play of light and color.Almost every surface is decorated.Doors upon doors upon doors.The cathedral and its archbishops’ palace rise above the plain like some kind of shipwreck, or an island, even a mountain. Not discreet in the least. Bold, daring. Declaring “yeah, we’re here. What about it?”
Are you a beach bum? I’m way more interested in history and culture than sun and sand, but Narbonne, on the Mediterranean coast, has both. Just half an hour’s drive from Carcassonne, Narbonne’s history has been closely linked with Carcassonne’s, but it’s even older, at least as a modern city.
Around 120 B.C., the Romans showed up, forming the first Roman colony in the land of the Gauls, dubbed Narbo Martius. They built la Voie Domitienne–aka la Via Domitia, or the Domitian Way–to link Rome with the Iberian Peninsula, roughly where the A9 autoroute goes today. It was named after Cneus Domitius Ahenobarbus, a Roman general who oversaw its construction, although some called it la Voie Héraclénne, after Heracles, the strongman demigod who supposedly did the work. Eventually, the Romans built more roads, including the Via Aquitania that cut across southern France to the Atlantic, more or less along the A61 autoroute.
Roman stuff is all over town, despite the fact that the Barbarians (literal Barbarians, not figurative ones) tried to destroy everything. A square still respects the outlines of the Roman forum, and a couple of columns from two centuries ago stand there. Other bits of columns show up here and there, and of course recycling was big back in the day; some Roman rocks (we know because they’re carved) ended up in a later city wall.
It’s easier to find “new” architecture, like from the 1200s. I love a place where “old” is 2,000 years old, and “new” is just 800 years old.The stunner is le Palais des Archevêques (the Bishops’ Palace), which is an accretion of a couple of centuries’ of styles. Le Vieux Palais (the Old Palace) dates to the Romans in the 5th century and butts up to the cathedral; le Palais Neuf (the New Palace) is across from it, started in the 14th century as a fortress in a gothic style. It’s flanked by two towers: the 42-meter-tall donjon, built from 1295 to 1306, and the smaller Saint Martial tower. The city hall, as well as museums of art and archeology, are housed in the Bishops’ Palace since the place was renovated in 1845 by Eugène Viollet le Duc at age 24 and without an architecture degree. Viollet le Duc went on to renovate Notre Dame and la Cité of Carcassonne, among other important sites.
The Aude river passes through Narbonne passes near the palais on its way to the Mediterranean. The city has done an impressive job of making parks along it. The historic center is closed to vehicles, which is great for walking. Cafés spill out into the medieval streets. On the other side of the Aude, les Halles, or the covered market, is a pretty Belle Epoque building that bustles in the mornings only. Look for the café where former rugby stars call out orders to the nearby butcher, who throws the requested cuts of meat through the air (wrapped in paper).
You also can visit the home of Charles Trenet, the crooner from the 1930s to the 1950s, probably best known for the song “La Mer.” You probably know the cover by Frank Sinatra or Bobby Darin, translated as “Beyond the Sea.”
Getting to the beach from Narbonne is a little tricky if you don’t have a car, in which case it’s about 10 or 15 minutes’ drive. By bike, you have to go up, then down, the Clape “mountains” (very steep hills). Plenty of folks do it, but it’s very steep, there are no shoulders, and lots of campers, which take up every bit of the lane. Also, it runs through a pine forest that smells amazing but that has fire warnings every few feet. Or you can go to Gruissan, which goes around the Clape, with a wider road. Alternatively, you can take the No. 4 bus. Personally, we prefer Gruissan.Last time I was there, we ate at le Bouchon Gourmand, on Quai Valière, because with a name like that! Two of us had mussels, which were correct (the French sense of “correct” is good quality and quantity for the price). And one friend had something I don’t remember now but it wasn’t worth taking a photo. It was partly our own fault–we went on a Monday, when most of les Halles is closed (including the rugby restaurant with flying meat).
More Narbonne on Friday–insane details from the unfinished cathedral of Narbonne, which rises like a beached ship from the oh-so-flat plains.
The number of adorable villages in the south of France is nearly infinite. Each is unique, boasting something special–a château or some historic artifact, a location that offers spectacular views, a quirky market–yet they are all, if not alike, then from the same family, with narrow streets that wind between ancient stone houses, built as needs arose, without planning but with a great sense of purpose, many generations ago. They were built to stand for generations, too, and despite the lack of advanced engineering or equipment, they have indeed survived.Saissac is all of those things. Château: check. Sweeping views: check. Streets too narrow (and vertical) for cars: check. Stone houses that aren’t quite plumb: check. I wanted to take some recent visitors to a ruined Cathar castle, but one that didn’t entail a long, vertiginous hike. And so we went to Saissac, which offers gentler access. Just west of Carcassonne, Saissac is in beginnings of the Black Mountains, enough above the plain that sprawls between the Black Mountains and the Pyrénées that you can take in vast vistas. At one time, the castle towered over the village, but after a few ransackings the castle was ruined and the village moved up. That means you get to trundle gently down to this castle, doable even in sandals, not too far for little ones with short legs or elder ones with tired knees, doable with strollers and possibly wheelchairs, though inside there are still ancient bits that require climbing and jumping. The principle of “if you get hurt it’s your own fault” applies here.
The Saissac castle was started around 900 BCE, and it was mentioned in a document in 960 in which the bishop of Toulouse gave the castle to the count of Carcassonne. It got passed around various noble families until the Revolution; it was already in ruins by then and its condition just got worse. In 1864, some bounty hunters dynamited the keep, which didn’t help matters. The village bought the castle in 1994 and started renovations, more to keep what was left from crumbling than to put anything back together.The bounty hunters weren’t wrong in their choice of target, even if they came up empty–in 1979, a treasure of 2,000 deniers, or coins, was found during some repairs. The coins dated to 1250-1270 and are on display in the castle. They’re behind glass, and my photos of them didn’t turn out. You’ll have to see for yourself!
We clambered around the ruins like wannabe Indiana Joneses, looking at details to imagine what it must have been like. Traces. A doorway, filled in. Holes peering to other rooms or cavities or something mysterious. The angled ghost of a staircase. One lower-level room had been set up to look like a medieval kitchen.These castles were never just one thing. At times, they were fortresses against invaders. They often were safe havens against the marauders that plagued Europe in the Middle Ages. At other times, they were elegant residences, and the owners added on rooms or wings. Jean de Bernuy was one of them. He bought the château in 1518 and added a living area with large windows, a couple of fireplaces and a staircase–it was the Renaissance, after all. De Bernuy was an immigrant success story: he came from Burgos, Spain, and made his fortune in the pastel business. He was so loaded that he stood security for the ransom of King Francis I, who was held hostage in Pavia in 1525. Pastel came from woad, and would be ground up and pressed into balls to use as blue dye. The balls were called coques and gave the region the name Pays de Cocagne, which means land of milk and honey. Even Carcassonne had a big textile industry, and this region just to the west made fortunes from the blue dye, especially between 1460 and 1560, when indigo from the Americas started to show up. Globalization.
Saissac’s church also was interesting. It seems to date to 1290, after the crusade against the Cathars (1209). The Cathars and Catholics had lived side by side until the crusade, so maybe the surviving villagers wanted to show allegiance to the church after the Cathars had been exterminated. By 1568, there were other troubles–the Wars of Religion. The church was burned, the priests massacred and the village pillaged by the Huguenots. Only the castle resisted the attack. The village and church were pillaged again in 1591 by the Antoine Scipion, the duc de Joyeuse, brother of Anne (who was a male and whose name is the brand of blanquette de Limoux–the family had a castle nearby, in Couiza). Scipion had become military leader of the Catholic extremists. Why did he attack the church, if he was after the Huguenots, and why did he do to the village the same damage the Huguenots had done? Maybe the people of little Saissac were too live-and-let-live liberal for his tastes? He was known for his brutality, for having the injured executed at Montastruc, and for killing without regard to age or sex.
Things in Saissac eventually got better, and more additions were built onto the church in the following years until the Revolution–the church was closed in 1794, only to reopen in 1795. The back-and-forth could give a person whiplash. Somehow I suspect that the folks of Saissac, which today borders on 1,000 inhabitants, just wanted to live their lives in peace and quiet, tending their fields and animals and focusing on getting enough to eat. I’m sure everybody in Saissac has enough to eat these days, but overall in the world, very little has changed. The worries and crises haven’t evolved much.The village itself is cuteness personified. We passed some residents of a certain age who were outside on the sidewalk/street/their personal patio, seeking a little fresh air and breeze in the shade. We greeted them as we passed, and they seemed resigned to having outsiders traipsing through and cutting into their conversation (which was about when melons would be ripe…). There was only one other family at the château when we were there. It was a delicious luxury having the place practically to ourselves, but I imagine a lot more people come through in the summer, perhaps shooting photos of the quaint locals trying to get cool in the shade. When I lived in New York. I don’t think I ever managed to get a coffee at an outdoor table without having my photo taken by somebody, and I am not, and was not then, a beauty. I was just local color. At least then, the cameras used film and I didn’t have to worry about my mug being on the Internet. Call me old-fashioned. With facial-recognition technology, I have no intention of making it easier for anybody to find me using my face.I live in one of these little villages, not quite as vertiginous as Saissac, but similar insofar as it has little streets that even my itsy-bitsy Aygo can’t squeeze through. Even Google’s Street View car can’t negotiate them. They were built for wheelbarrows. The more a place is authentic, the less it’s practical. There’s another village that I absolutely must show you soon if I can organize myself to get back there; it’s just far enough that every time I think about it I also think, nah. On the one hand it’s paradise–no cars at all. It’s insanely beautiful but WTF for bringing home anything heavy? Actually, it’s so beautiful that it’s mostly gîtes and AirBnBs and B&Bs. The quaint locals might not be locals at all. Who wants to haul groceries from a car park half a mile away (come to think of it, I don’t think there’s a grocery store there). When you’re on vacation in an unspeakably cute village with lovely, delicious restaurants that have jaw-dropping views, then you don’t buy groceries, you eat out and walk home along the stone paths, not having to worry about cars, though you might have to worry a tiny bit about not getting lost, since little villages are crazy mazes but hey, they’re little. You can’t stay lost for long.
It looks as if it were a castle designed by Disney for a princess. But Carcassonne isn’t a castle. It’s a fortified city (la Cité) with a castle inside it. I’ve been to the castle many times, and recently went back with visitors. I really don’t get tired of it–there are so many details. La Cité became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1997.The castle is a museum and you have to buy a ticket to get in. Only fair–I can barely keep up with maintenance of my house; I can’t imagine what this joint must require. The oldest parts date to 2,500 years ago. Ouf! Talk about built to last.
You enter through a barbican. The castle was the last defense within the well-defended city. The city itself had a drawbridge and walls–eventually a double ring of walls, which is unique–with many barbicans. A barbican is a brilliant piece of design–a half circle, it allows the residents 180 degrees of range of attack toward the outside. If, horrors, the attackers overwhelm the residents, the residents retreat farther inside and the attackers find themselves in the half-circle of the barbican–which has transformed from defense to trap, because there’s always a spot just a little beyond the barbican from which the residents can shoot at those in its confines, like fish in a barrel.
So if attackers made it over the first drawbridge they would be stuck in the sets of double doors that would drop down to trap invaders between, with a trap door above so the residents could pour boiling water, boiling oil, stones or whatever down on them. The trapped invaders would be left to die of their injuries/starve to death or, if the invaders seemed not worth the wait, the outer door could be opened so they could flee.If the attackers breached this defense, they could run up the narrow lanes of la Cité. The residents would have already absconded for the castle, the final refuge. It has a barbican–a big one, separated from the castle proper by a drawbridge over a dry moat. Why a dry moat, you ask? Well, Carcassonne is on top of a hill, so it isn’t like there would be water in the moat. (Except during the filming of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” with Kevin Costner.) But the structure was useful anyway because it slowed down the attackers and kept them corralled where it was easy to shoot at them.
There’s another set of double drop-down doors and then you’re in the Courtyard of Honor. Time to forget about invasions and to think more about court life.
The museum shows a wonderful short film about how Eugène Viollet le Duc restored la Cité, starting in 1844, saving it from almost being torn down. How he looked for traces of what was before–where there was a window, supports for a ceiling, etc. In other words, what you see today is a restoration of what was left centuries later but not quite as it was in its heyday in the early 13th century.
What do you think of historic restorations? I think it’s important to preserve the past, but you can’t bring it back. And so I like la Cité. It takes me to another time, another perspective.
Do you go to the tourist attractions in your town? In France, the entire country is a tourist attraction. La Cité is very popular, and in the summer, in the afternoon, it is crowded and hot and unpleasant with daytrippers who come over from the Mediterranean beaches for a few begrudging hours of culture. But even in summer, in the mornings and evenings, it’s not crowded and is so interesting. And off-season you can practically have the place to yourself, to let your imagination run wild. I love going to la Cité. After all these years, I still make discoveries.
The little details grab me more as time goes by. Long ago when I lived in New York, I had a membership to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and would pop in once or twice a week. When you go that often, you don’t feel obliged to see everything. I spent one visit just looking at the Grecian urns–a room full of them–marveling at the stories painted on them. I also was impressed by how few people stopped to look at them, instead just passing through to more “important” things.
The museum holds quite a few things from the cathedral, especially mascarons that were too fragile to leave in the elements.
Check out this pillar…hard to get good exposure on the two sides, so there are two shots of the same thing.
What people did with stone is so incredible. Sculptors’ names lost to time. The other cool thing about visiting the museum is you have access to the ramparts, which offer amazing views over the “new” (1260) city and the countryside, down to the Pyrénées, if you’re lucky.
While it’s great to see Carcassonne off-season, the summer has advantages despite–or thanks to–the crowds. Tonight, I’m going to see a dance performance in the Cour d’Honneur–talk about a setting! It’s part of the Festival of Carcassonne, with concerts, theater and more, some awfully expensive but other events free. And in August, it’s all things medieval, with jousting tournaments between the walls.
OK, 926 years. Old. The previous post focused on the gardens at the Abbaye de Fontfroide in the south of France. This time, we’re going inside.
The abbey is founded in 1093. By 1145 it joins the Cistercian order, which itself starts at the Citeaux Abbey in Burgundy in 1098. Lots of monastic orders start in the 11th and 12th centuries. It was a turbulent time (when wasn’t it?) and people were searching for answers. Western Christian monasteries are based on the rules of St. Benedict of Nursia, who lived from 480 to 547, give or take. He didn’t become a saint until 1964 (two of his miracles involved avoiding being poisoned which makes me think of SNL’s Father Guido Sarducci describing a saint and saying two of the miracles were card tricks), but we’ll cut Benedict some slack because he was upset about the excesses of his time. Was it like the ’80s (not to mention Gordon Gekko…who was the villain! Not the hero!!!) the ’90s, the 2000s, the 2008 or was it–gasp–even worse?
The monks, about 80 of them plus 250 brother converts (except around 1438, when the Black Death cut their number to around 20…can you imagine?), are committed to hard physical labor, silence and poverty. The vow of poverty is one reason why, despite the huge size of Fontfroide, the decoration is austere, though you can pick out that later parts have faces, etc., though nothing as naughty as Saint-Hilaire. Even the columns in the cloister show only plants, not faces as you would see elsewhere.You would think that the vow of poverty and dedication to hard work would make Fontfroide’s monks find common cause with the Cathars, but in fact the crusade against the Cathars is set off by the assassination of Pierre de Castelnau, a Fontfroide monk who is the papal legate, sent to negotiate with the Cathars. Even before the actual battles begin, the Cistercians fight to stamp out the Cathar beliefs, though how they do this, stuck in a remote abbey and under a vow of silence, is unclear. I guess the lay brothers could talk, being the ones to leave the abbey walls to work, but they are lay–not all-in on the religion, though in that time everybody is all-in on the religion, like it or not. It dictates every aspect of everybody’s lives down to the smallest detail, no matter who you are, like in Iran today. After the Cathar crusade, Fontfroide rises in prominence, thanks to Jacques Fournier, head abbot in 1311 (succeeding his uncle…nothing like a little nepotism). Fournier is named bishop of Pamiers in 1317 and is part of the Inquisition court trying Cathar holdouts (the crusade was in 1209, so they’re exacting revenge more than a century later!). He is then named bishop of Mirepoix, then is promoted to cardinal in 1327 and is elected pope in 1334. This happens during the Great Schism, or the Avignon papacy, from 1309 to 1376, when seven consecutive popes live in France, not Rome. In fact, it’s Fournier, as Pope Benedict XII, who builds the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, and he is buried in the Avignon cathedral. Things go downhill from there. More of the monks are nobles appointed to sinecures by the king and not very interested in monastic life. In fact, the so-called commendatory abbots suck up all the money of the abbey–and it covered 30,000 hectares between Béziers and Spain, versus 4,000 hectares today–to the extent that the real monks are probably in greater poverty than even they had signed up for. There are only seven monks left by 1594. About the same time, the non-religious monk-nobles build the fancier additions to the abbey, like the Court of Honor, built between the 16th and 17th centuries. They eat meat and chocolate (!!! a treat from newly discovered North America!) and play billiards. Can it be any worse? Sure it can–the church is one of the targets of the French Revolution in 1789, and the cushy noble-in-a-castle-that-pretends-to-be-an-abbey gig ends. The abbey is turned over to the Hospices of Narbonne in 1791. In 1833 the abbey is sold to the Saint-Aubin family, who want Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (the guy who restored la Cité of Carcassonne and Notre-Dame de Paris) to take it on. But it doesn’t work out.
By 1901, the last monks leave the abbey. It sits empty until 1908, when Gustave and Madeleine Fayet buy it at auction and start renovations. Gustave is a painter from a family of artists, and later adapts paintings into carpets, which are a big hit. Apparently, he also is an architect, industrialist, banker and winemaker. But to make money, it helps to already have money. Above all, he inherits an immense fortune from three generations of running barges on the Canal du Midi and transporting eau de vie–which better explain how he could afford such a project. He is so loaded that he buys another abbey as a gift for a female poet, because, hey, why not! Before buying Fontfroide, he flits around Europe and Algeria buying up art from the likes of Gauguin and Odilon Redon. In fact, he sells two Gauguins to a Russian collector in order to pay for the Fontfroide renovations in 1908, then in 1910 sells seven (!!!) works by Cézanne to fund more renovations. Meanwhile, he hosts musicians and artists, including Redon, who does a little decorating of the library while at the abbey. I found an article that called Fayet a cultural elitist, and it was meant as a compliment. So French.
Gustave Fayet died in 1925 in Carcassonne, and his wife, Madeleine died in 1971. The Fontfroide abbey is still operated today by descendants of Gustave and Madeleine.
Fontfroide isn’t related to the Cloisters that are part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. That said, the museum’s four cloisters were acquired from the general vicinity of Fontfroide–the abbey of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa not far to the south, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert just to the north, Bonnefont and Trie-en-Bigorre near Toulouse to the west. Those were bought by U.S. art dealer George Grey Barnard between 1934 and 1939, well after Fontfroide was in the Fayets’ hands.Fontfroide has two sets of interesting stained-glass windows. When Fayet bought the place, all the windows were destroyed. Traditionally, they would have been just grisaille, or gray, in keeping with the ascetic décor. In 1920, Fayet hired his buddy Réné Billa, alias Richard Burgsthal, to assemble collages from fragments of church windows in northern and eastern France that were destroyed in World War I. Very touching.In the church and, especially its Chappelle des Morts (Chapel of Death), which overlooked the cemetery and was built during the plague, the windows are audacious, full of vibrant colors. In the church, they depict moments from the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. In the Chapel of Death, Father Kim en Joong in 2009 created contemporary abstract windows with deep reds and blues that make the dark space even more meditative. Sorry, but my photos didn’t turn out. (I have others!)
The central courtyard, or Louis XIV courtyard, is the site of workshops, from the forge to the joinery and bakery. There’s an underground cistern that provides very cold water–Fontfroide means cold spring. So much to see. Big stuff and small details.Check out this drone video, which gives an idea of just how alone the abbey is in its setting.
In a place that’s a thousand years old, gardens that date to the 1500s are relatively modern. Or are they timeless? Certainly they are a place without time, where the minutes seem to stop ticking by, replaced by the rhythmic crunch of one’s footsteps on gravel or dry leaves.I haven’t been to the Abbaye de Fontfroide (Coldspring Abbey) for years, and the previous time was with my mother-in-law, who wasn’t up for any climbing or hiking. With that in mind, on a recent return I stupidly wore sandals, remembering the abbey as a classy kind of place. What a mistake. We took the “short,” 45-minute walk through the surrounding countryside (there’s a shorter climb to the hilltop cross, but it also takes 45 minutes, and then there’s a longer trail through the abbey’s vineyards). The path was mostly flat, but rocky and uneven, and my feet slid around in my sandals. I was so focused on trying not to break them and wind up barefoot far from the car that I didn’t really get into the moment. There are few things I love more than a hike in the garrigue, but usually I get the footwear right.We were alone on the trail but the breeze carried the chatter of those who had climbed to the cross was carried across the valley until we rounded the hill and heard nothing but birds. This landscape must be nearly the same as when the abbey was founded in 1093.
The abbey sits in the heart of a nature reserve, and in the windy dry summers, when wild fires can rampage through, the hiking trails are sometimes closed. In fact, a fire destroyed 2,000 hectares around the abbey in 1986. Smoking is forbidden on the paths–get that! In France! But fires are serious business around here. They also don’t allow dogs–there are kennels for them at the entrance. Even after culling photos, I have too many for one post, so the abbey itself will come next time. It’s different from the Abbaye de Saint-Hilaire, yet similar. You’ll see.This post will be about the outside. The abbey has a hectare of terraced gardens that were created in the 16th century and a rose garden with nearly 2,500 rose bushes, including a variety of rose named for the abbey.Each garden is different. In the cloister, wisteria–no longer blooming–climb the walls. The central fountain is framed by classic parterres. Two basins are for the “mandatum,” or ritual washing of the monks’ feet every Saturday.
The cloister provided a covered passageway between the church and the kitchen, refectory and scriptorium, a place to walk, meditate and read. Think of the luxury of that–reading. It’s relatively recently that almost everybody learns to read. Back in the day, it was reserved for elites. The rose garden had been planted with roses and with wild flowering plants over the former cemetery of the monks. Since 2008, the abbey has stopped using any chemical treatments in the gardens. I would love to know what they do because my roses are being gobbled up by something. We saw compost bins and insect hotels discreetly tucked into corners of the different gardens.I didn’t capture as many photos of the terraced “Italian” gardens. They climb the hill that the abbey hugs, offering sweeping views, almost like going up in a glass elevator. The terraces feel like individual rooms–in fact, they were created as refuges for introspection. The first terraces were designed by Constance de Frégose, whose son would become the head abbot. Over the centuries, more were added. As one does over the centuries.Do you garden? Do you enjoy it? My grandmother had a green thumb. She had an enormous vegetable garden that produced enormous zucchinis and enormous tomatoes and so many other things. Not a weed to be found. She worked on it every single morning and evening. She also had flowers everywhere. I was taken by the fragrant peonies. There were bright poppies, which might have been planted by her or by her in-laws (who lived next door…can you imagine!) to remind them of the vast red fields of poppies in the Europe they had left behind. The poppies once led to an investigation by the police, who figured out fast that this granny wasn’t running a homegrown heroin operation. She thought they were nuts, and she was right. Knowing my grandma, she would have stuffed them with baked goods.
I didn’t inherit the green-thumb gene. At least not the passion for it. The less garden space I have, the more I like plants. Pots lined the windowsills of my old apartments. I even planted flowers and herbs outside one apartment building, to the delight of my landlord. But now that I have a yard, it’s too much. It’s like a dessert buffet and I don’t have appetite for any more and in fact am getting woozy from a sugar buzz. Going outside, I don’t the little palm trees that are now big, the oleander that forms a wall of green and that now is covered with pale and dark pink flowers. All I see are weeds. More work to be done. No matter how much you weed, you still need to weed. You also still need to clean the house, which gets dirty again before you’ve even finished. Where is the time for meditation and contemplation and introspection? I don’t mind work, in fact I enjoy work. But the Sisyphean nature of gardening (and housework) drains my soul. And we opted for low-maintenance annuals. My mom had one of those under-the-bed storage boxes full of clippings of garden ideas. Plus some other boxes and folders (Pinterest would have been a godsend for her). She would show me some of them and I’d tell her they were beautiful, but they were 40-hour-a-week gardens and was she ready to spend all her time doing just that when she had so many other interests? She would buy seedlings but then would be occupied by something else and wouldn’t plant them, and they’d shrivel up. I like going to public gardens, especially ones like Fontfroide. I don’t need my own–a little patio or balcony would be quite enough. A place for a cup of coffee or a home-cooked meal outside in summer. Lawns are environmental disasters. It seems like the trend is shifting, with talk about ending zoning for single-family housing. The hearts of villages and cities in Europe are dense, even though lots of buildings have inner courtyards, like at our apartments in Carcassonne. The density makes it easy to walk everywhere, which helps keep people in shape. It means there’s time for other things than keeping up with pulling weeds. There’s time to stop and smell the roses.Gardening: Love it or hate it?
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.
What do you do when your vacation in the south of France is hit by rain? We locals were happy for the rain a couple of weeks ago–it had been too long and our gardens were wilting from thirst. But for vacationers, so many of the attractions involve outdoor activities–wandering around old villages, hiking through the countryside, exploring châteaux ruins.
With some recent visitors, we went underground. The mountains, like Emmental cheese, are full of holes. These holes were carved by water, not bacteria (in case you wondered how those holes got into the cheese–they’re bubbles formed by gases emitted by bacteria).
The Grotte de Limousis, just north of Carcassonne, is particularly pretty, and easy to walk through, making it appropriate for most ages (but not those in strollers or wheelchairs–there are some narrow spots and some steps). The series of caves are big and well-lit, so you don’t feel claustrophobic.
The cave winds a kilometer underground through three “rooms.” The first is the Column Room, because of how many columns there are–columns where stalactites (the ones that hang down) and stalagmites (the ones that rise from the ground) grew together.
The ballroom got its name because the nearest village, Limousis, actually used it as a party room for the annual village dinner, held in October to close the grape harvest. The acoustics are amazing, and the floor is naturally flat, having formed when the room was half-filled by a lake. Limestone deposits crept across the lake’s surface like ice, then hardened. The water drained away, leaving the bottom hollow, hence the drum effect. The floor is as smooth as the surface of an icy lake–one unperturbed by wind or anything.
There are two “lakes.” In one, the level of the water rises and falls. It never rises above the tallest stalagmite, with the highest level in summer–after all the rains of winter and spring have had time to filter down. By November it’s dry–the effect of our typically rain-free summers. The other lake has a shower pouring into it. It’s green, which indicates it’s at least two meters (six feet) deep. Limpid water is the same temperature as the cave–14 Celsius, or 57 Fahrenheit–but the falling water is colder–8 Celsius or 46 Fahrenheit–too chilly to take a dip! The water is potable, but not too much–while it doesn’t contain bacteria or any living organisms due to the lack of light, it does contain lots of calcium, so you would get kidney stones.
The final room–spoiler alert–contains a huge crystal of aragonite, four meters tall and 10 meters wide (13 feet tall and 32 feet wide). It grew thanks to perfect conditions that were undisturbed for millennia. It’s unusual, not only for its size but for the variety of shapes, from snowflake-like crystals to round bulbs. I’ve been to the Grotte de Limousis five or six times and it still takes my breath away. I never would have put it on a top 10 list until I actually went. Also a great respite on a hot summer day!
What could be cuter than a French village? How about one with sumptuous roses climbing up its stone walls. Camon, in the southern French département of Ariège, is Rose Central. Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the “Plus Beaux Villages”–Most Beautiful Villages–of France, which is an official thing.In fact, last weekend Camon held a Rose Festival. Just before, I went with some visitors (which is why I didn’t post last Friday–stop the computer and smell the roses; I did however use my phone to take photos). It was funny to see folding tables set up in the little lanes, in preparation for the communal feast. Camon possibly has more blooms than humans (population 143). It’s called “Little Carcassonne.” It does indeed have lots of stone walls and a château, which is now a fancy hotel. It looks nice, but Camon is really, really quiet. I’d rather be in big Carcassonne, in our apartments to be precise, and take a daytrip down to Camon, which can easily be covered in meticulous detail in under an hour.
Camon is just 10-15 minutes’ drive from Mirepoix, so you get a two-fer. A new Mirepoix post is coming soon, surprise, surprise.
It was raining the day we visited, but the light drizzle didn’t deter us. It might have even added to the ambiance, making the roses even brighter.
Driving through the French countryside, castles are as common as cows or crows. Turrets and towers pierce the treeline, no longer needed for spotting marauders arriving from afar. Sometimes you can see the full edifice, always a conglomeration of additions and wings added over centuries, different generations leaving their marks.Back in December, I made a detour out of Carcassonne to Rustiques, a little village I’d driven through before and decided would be worth a second look on such a sparkling winter day. This explains the vegetation, which has changed drastically to lush, lush green of spring.
The château was closed, but it’s so big that you can still see a good deal of it. Here’s what I found out. Around the 5th century, barbarian invasions by the Visigoths, Sarrasins and Francs made the locals unite for safety on a high spot from which they could spot invaders. They went one better with a tower, the oldest part of the current château, which also served as a dungeon. The Rustiquois, as locals are called, corralled the seigneur’s house and other houses in a wall with just two entries and plenty of meurtrières, or those tall, skinny openings from which you shoot arrows. The wall didn’t last–the town grew and crime fell, so the wall came down.There’s a document from 1063 attesting to the existence of a castellum, or watch tower.
The leader of the Albigensian crusade, Simon de Montfort, granted the fiefdom of Rustiques to a family from the north, whose descendants still live in the château. That is quite a heritage!