Keys to the Castle

IMG_2265It 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.IMG_2246IMG_1463The 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.

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A Roman tower in front, with a medieval tower behind. The Romans used the strip of red bricks to make sure the walls were level. 

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.

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Barbicans, here and below, on the outer city wall.

IMG_2270 2So 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.IMG_2243If 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.

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A covered gallery for archers to aim at attackers, and, when not used for that, for members of the court to get around the castle.

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.

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Fascinating mix of materials in the Cour d’Honneur.
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Through the wavy glass.

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.IMG_2247IMG_1435

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Another inner courtyard.

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.

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The slate roofs were/are controversial–the roofs were gone when the restoration took place, and Viollet-le-Duc was criticized for using slate instead of terra-cotta tiles.

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.

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Fireplace mantels.

IMG_1460The 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.

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A knight’s sarcophagus, just the legs–can you make out the skirt top right? The detail carved into his shoes amazed me.
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They even carved the hinge on his armor.

The museum holds quite a few things from the cathedral, especially mascarons that were too fragile to leave in the elements.IMG_2253IMG_2251IMG_1450

IMG_1451IMG_1452Check out this pillar…hard to get good exposure on the two sides, so there are two shots of the same thing.

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Human face, with lion’s claws?
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The tail…

What people did with stone is so incredible. Sculptors’ names lost to time. IMG_2252IMG_1461IMG_1444IMG_2255The 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.

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Olive grove.

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The “new” town. Our AirBnBs are just beyond the funny tower with round windows in the center. About a 15-minute walk (10 minutes to go back because it’s downhill).
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The golden field is wheat.

IMG_1436IMG_1438 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.

For a small town, there’s never a dull moment.

 

1,000 Years Ago

IMG_2421OK, 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.

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The definition of n’importe quoi. But gorgeous anyway. Or maybe beautiful because it’s haphazard.

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?

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The refectory or dining hall. Silent except for one monk who would read scriptures. The fireplace was aded in the early 20th century and comes from the castle of the Dukes of Montmorency in Pézanas.

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.IMG_2478IMG_2479You 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. IMG_2423After 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. IMG_2474Things 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.

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The Court of Honor. Clearly Renaissance.

IMG_2437By 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.

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Fontfroide’s cloister.

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.IMG_2467IMG_2455Fontfroide 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.IMG_2458IMG_2453IMG_2452In 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!)IMG_2444IMG_2447

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The central courtyard. Be still, my heart!

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. IMG_2504IMG_2481IMG_2461So much to see. Big stuff and small details.IMG_2448IMG_2466IMG_2451IMG_2456IMG_2470IMG_2450IMG_2471IMG_2422Check out this drone video, which gives an idea of just how alone the abbey is in its setting.

 

Gardening for Introspection

IMG_2495In 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.IMG_2473I 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.IMG_2430IMG_2432We 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. IMG_2434IMG_2433 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.IMG_2420This 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.IMG_2496Each 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.

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In the foreground on the left is a basin.

IMG_2475The 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. IMG_2463IMG_2468The 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.IMG_2493IMG_2502IMG_2488I 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.IMG_2514IMG_2507IMG_2505IMG_2511Do 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.IMG_2498IMG_2499IMG_2497

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? IMG_2486IMG_2484IMG_2485I 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.IMG_2491IMG_2512 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.IMG_2489Gardening: Love it or hate it?

 

Abbey Secrets

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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French Underground Redux

IMG_1962What 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.

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A couple of columns.
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An impressive column, millennia in the making.

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). IMG_1954IMG_1957IMG_1929

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Reflections

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.IMG_1915

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A drapery or curtain formation.
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Bear scratches. In the first room. All the bones and bits of pottery were found in the first room–before torches nobody–not even bears–dared go farther.
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The ceiling looks like a Georgia O’Keefe painting, no?
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This also looks like abstract art.

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.

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A fine column.
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In another part of the cave, you can see the water lines, which is how the “ballroom” would have formed.

IMG_1941IMG_1940The 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.

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The water in this “lake” rises as high as that stalagmite in the center, and dries completely in November.

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.IMG_1934 IMG_1931IMG_1932The 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.

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A big puddle of water, perfectly clear, the bottom like an eerie moonscape.
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Another puddle. Can you make out where the reflection is?

IMG_1926The 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. IMG_1950IMG_1953I’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!IMG_1912

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What sculpture nature makes!

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Camon, Village of Roses

IMG_2044What 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.IMG_2055IMG_2047IMG_2041IMG_2036In 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. IMG_2043Camon 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.

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Undoubtedly where the “Little Carcassonne” moniker came from.

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Hmph! Not old at all, at least in these parts!

IMG_2037Camon is just 10-15 minutes’ drive from Mirepoix, so you get a two-fer. A new Mirepoix post is coming soon, surprise, surprise.IMG_2049

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All the roses are planted in the tiniest holes in the pavement. No mulch possible!
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Rose bushes at the end of vineyard rows. Roses attract the pests first, alerting the winegrower. Like a canary in a coal mine.

IMG_2051It 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.

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Églantine, or sweet briar, a kind of wild rose. I have a friend named Églantine; isn’t that a gorgeous name?
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Rose petals on the ground…and not a speck of trash anywhere.

 

 

 

Château de Rustiques

IMG_0514Driving 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.IMG_0503Back 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.

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The old tower is on the left.

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.IMG_0533There’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!IMG_0523

Notre Dame

DSC_0643Last night, a little before 7 p.m., my kid rushed in and turned on the TV. “Notre-Dame is on fire!”

Sadly, the kid doesn’t really remember having visited Notre-Dame. Paris is a faraway universe from here in la France profonde. When will it be possible to again enter that huge, dark space that was designed to invoke awe and make one keenly aware of one’s place in the the world, which is that we are very, very small and insignificant. Specks of dust.

Many, many years ago, I was wandering around Paris on Christmas Eve. I crossed Île de la Cité, the original Lutèce where Paris was founded, and thought, hey, why not see whether there’s midnight Mass at Notre-Dame?

Yes, there was. It is very interesting to attend a religious service in another language. I spoke French but not nearly as well as now. As an ex-Catholic, I have had the Mass drilled into my brain. And it’s exactly the same in French, the same rhythms, the same pauses, the same rises and falls and intonations. DSC_0667It also was a special way to appreciate Notre-Dame, serving its original purpose and not for tourism. There was no line to get in. It was before 9/11, so there was no security check. Nobody was taking photos. They were singing Christmas carols.

When I went to Africa for the Peace Corps, I took with me three posters of Paris that had hung in my Midwestern apartment. One was of the back side of Notre-Dame, with its curved wall that houses ambulatory chapels, the flying buttresses, the lacy stonework, the delicate spire that is no more. I hung the posters on the corrugated iron sheets that made up my house.

The Square Jean-XXIII, from where my poster photo was taken against a pink sky, is a surprisingly quiet haven. Most tourists don’t think to walk all the way around the place, I guess. DSC_0659Last night, the TV showed the familiar shot of the back of Notre-Dame, but the roof was red, the spire broken off.

The roof beams were made from single oak trees–1,300 of them. Hewn by hand. Hauled in by carriages. Raised by human force. Built to last. They survived 850 years. The first stone was laid in 1163 by Pope Alexandre III. Work continued into the 14th century.

The design was made to awe, but facts like those also are awe-inspiring. They put our lives into perspective. What will we contribute that will survive and be treasured 850 years from now?

To read about the history of Notre-Dame, check out the cathedral’s own website. And here is a video of the jaw-dropping light show. If you have time, this is a special Mass. Oh, the acoustics! And if, like somebody I know, you like Gregorian chant, here is an amateur snippet from inside Notre Dame with some shots of the stained glass windows.DSC_0678

Under Marble Cliffs

falaiseWhen my kid was little, I would always accompany class field trips. It was such a great way to learn about the region, often in ways I never would have sought out myself (spelunking). One such trip was with a bunch of second- and third-graders to go rock climbing, which led to my discovery of a hidden haven, Notre Dame du Cros (literally, Our Lady of the Hole, or, more poetically, Valley).

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Gulp.

falaise 3I have mentioned that the French have other ideas about safety, as in, if you get hurt, it’s your own fault. So somehow rock climbing is a good idea for kids whose permanent front teeth have only just grown in. falaise 2Even crazier, to me, was the fact that one of the guides had been our guide exploring caves. A man of many outdoor sports. How does one get a job leading children through caves and up cliffs? And how does he not go crazy? He had unlimited patience. I knew and loved these kids but any time I spent an entire day with all of them I had to take a nap as soon as I got home. Their overflowing energy sapped mine.

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Do you see the climbing lines?

Despite the buzzing swarm of children, the area of Notre Dame du Cros is utterly peaceful. It’s over the hill from the village of Caunes-Minervois, and so tucked into the hills that you don’t hear anything but birds and the rustle of leaves. And occasionally an explosion from the marble quarry–maybe once in a day.

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Marble just lying around.
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A spring.

Legend has it that, around the 6th century, a shepherdess gave water from the spring there to her sick child (although another says it was the shepherdess herself who was ill), who was immediately cured. It became a pilgrimage destination. That led to chapels being built, with the current one dating to the 12th century, and renovated in the 15th and 16th centuries. Mass is said every morning–the chapel is considered part of the Caunes abbey. Stations of the cross are spread around the hillside.

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The old entrance; now the entrance is on the side to the right.
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Do you see three little chapels for the stations of the cross?
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Le Souc

There’s a flat plain next to a stream, named Le Souc, with picnic tables shaded by century-old platane trees. It’s a very popular spot on summer weekends, but manages to stay calm and peaceful–it’s what people come for.

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The former rectory.

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Heretics and Crusaders

La Cite from old hospitalIt’s late July in 1209. You wake up to yet another cloudless day, the morning fresh but free of dew—it’s far too dry. In the afternoon, the blazing summer sun will turn the stone walls and cobbled lanes of your fortified town, Carcassonne, into an oven.

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The ensemble toward the right is the castle within the fortified city.

In the streets, people are worried. Reports have arrived of the massacre at Béziers. Pope Innocent III had called for a crusade against the Cathars, a dualist religion spreading in the south of France. About 10,000 crusaders arrived at Béziers on July 21, 1209, asking for the surrender of the city. When the locals refused, the crusaders the next day slaughtered the population, Cathars and Catholics alike. When asked how to distinguish the Catholics from the Cathars, the knight in charge, Arnaud-Amaury, supposedly said, “Kill them all; God will recognize his own.” Some 7,000 of the dead—the total is estimated around 20,000—had taken refuge in the Catholic Church of St. Madeleine, which the crusaders set on fire.

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La Basilique Saint-Nazaire et Saint-Celse.

Similarly, in Carcassonne, Cathars and Catholics lived side by side. If Carcassonne is in deepest France in the 21st century, it is even more the sticks in the 13th. It is on the border with Spain at the time—the border was moved south to the Pyrénées in 1659. It has its own language, occitan. Runners would have required quite some time to cover the 60 kilometers as the crow flies between Carcassonne and Béziers. The crusaders, laden with weapons and supplies, moved more slowly. It’s why fortresses were built on hills—the better to see the enemy approaching.P1080792Carcassonne is better fortified than Béziers, even though at the time, it has just one set of walls. Life isn’t too bad. It is a period of troubadours and minstrels singing about love and chivalry. Carcassonne is ruled by the Viscount Raymond-Roger Trencavel, who also ruled Béziers, as well as Razès and Albi, the epicenter of Catharism. Connecting bridge la citeArches in the licesThe region enjoys peace and prosperity despite the religious divide because the Cathars are a low-key bunch. They are Christians, insofar as they use the Lord’s Prayer and the Bible. But they are also dualists, an idea that predates Christianity, going back to the Persian prophet Zoroaster. Count Trencavel is sympathetic to the Cathars; whether he shares their beliefs himself isn’t known. What’s clear is that Catharism is very popular among his vassals and he goes with the flow. There are plenty of Catholics, too—the enormous church of Saint-Nazaire and Saint-Celse, started around 925, is declared a cathedral in 1096, though it isn’t completed until about 150 years later. Building, especially with elaborately carved stone gargoyles, is a slow process.

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La Basilique Saint-Nazaire et Saint-Celse.

The Cathars believe there are two creations, good and evil, with evil being the material world. So the Cathars try to have the least contact possible with the world. The name comes from the Greek word catharos, or pure. They don’t call themselves Cathars; they prefer bonshommes (good men). The Cathars keep their heads down and work. I haven’t found academic support for this but I suspect one reason the region of Languedoc (which means language of oc—the way locals said “yes,” vs. oil, which clearly turns into oui) was so prosperous is the Cathars. They reject the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, as well as its sacraments. The church otherwise has a vise-like grip on every aspect of people’s lives. In her book, “A Distant Mirror,” Barbara Tuchman writes in detail about how the church both brought order, charity and protection to the poor as well as corruption. Certainly it wasn’t the proudest period for the church.

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Built-in ladder?

It’s hard to know exactly what the Cathars believe because everything that’s available comes from the depositions in the Inquisition (the first Inquisition was in France, against the Cathars). The Cathars consider that since life on earth is living hell, they shouldn’t have children. They fast often, are vegetarians (almost vegans—no milk or eggs, but they do eat fish, which don’t count as animals because they live in water) and reject materialism. They are forbidden all forms of violence, including slaughtering animals. They reject hierarchy but have a loose one, with sympathizers, then believers, then parfaits—perfects—who are like priests. P1090919Pope Innocent III doesn’t like the holier-than-thou Cathars. The local lords, including Trencavel but also the King of Aragon, are showing too much tolerance toward the heretics. Raymond VI, the count of Toulouse (yes, there are many Raymonds and Raimonds and they all name their sons Raymond and Raimond as well), is especially egregious. The pope sends an emissary to knock some sense into Raymond, but one of Raymond’s aides kills the guy, and Raymond just shrugs. This is in January. The insult is too much for the pope, who calls for a crusade against the Cathars. By summer, Languedoc is under siege.

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A separate bridge, from a barbican, leads to the château comtal, or Raymond-Roger Trencavel’s digs. Note the wooden gallery for archers along the top of the wall. The moat never held water.

Raymond of Toulouse is quite a character. As the crusade mounts (it takes time to organize!), he tries diplomacy. Then he tries to link up with Trencavel, who turns him down, to fight the crusaders. Then he gives away seven fortresses to the pope, says he’ll fight the heretics, which he never quite gets around to, and swears he’s Catholic. But when the crusaders come for Raymond’s own land (plundering was one way to finance the crusades), he fights against them. In a sign of either how wily or how powerful he is, he manages to be excommunicated by the pope twice.

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La Cité looms over the Aude river, so close and yet so far.

On Aug. 1, 1209, the crusaders reach Carcassonne. Raymond-Roger Trencavel, the 24-year-old count, is in command of the city. It’s hot and dry and that gives the crusaders leverage over Carcassonne. La Cité is next to the Aude river, but above it, on a hill, and the crusaders cut off access, despite a stiff battle with Trencavel’s troops. There are some wells inside the fortress, but the city is crowded with refugees. Everybody knows what happened at Béziers.

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Le petit puit–the little well–inside la Cité. You can see the grooves worn by ropes on the lip of the well.

The siege is on. 

The crusaders offer a deal—everybody leaves, with nothing but the clothes they’re wearing—with the spoils for the crusaders, and nobody gets hurt. Promised safe passage, Trencavel leaves la Cité on Aug. 14 to negotiate surrender. It’s a trap. He’s immediately seized and thrown in a dungeon of his own castle.

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The trap door in the ceiling of la Cité’s main entrance, Porte de Narbonne. Gates could descend on either side, trapping the enemy, who would then get doused with rocks, boiling water or oil, or whatever. Did it even get used?

On Aug. 15, 1209—a Catholic holy day, the Feast of the Assumption, a national holiday even centuries later—Carcassonne falls without a fight.

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One of Carcassonne’s 52 towers. This is among those built by the Romans.

You pass through the gates of la Cité into the unknown. It’s an era of roving gangs of bandits, why the towns had walls. Maybe you’re a Cathar or maybe you’re Catholic; it doesn’t matter. Life is shattered, and it won’t stop for decades. 

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Puivert. Even today, in the middle of nowhere.

The crusaders move on, to Lastours, Minerve, Termes, Puivert. Toulouse and Castelnaudary are attacked. Albi, the hotbed of Catharism that gave the crusade its name (Albigensian Crusade), falls in 1215.

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You can see the layers of history.

 Raymond of Toulouse keeps fighting and gets back his land before dying. The crusaders abandon Carcassonne in 1224, then recapture it with no resistance in 1226. Can you imagine the mess? The commander of the crusaders, Simon de Montfort, is killed in Toulouse in 1218 by a bunch of women who drop a rock on him, shattering his skull, as he attends to his wounded brother. Are they Cathars or are they Catholics sick of the invasions?

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These narrow openings are called meurtriers–murderers–good for firing arrows out and not letting them in.

It gets worse. The new pope, Gregory IX, establishes the inquistiion in 1234. The Cathar parfaits are easy to find—while they abandon their black robes in favor of a simple string that can be hidden under their clothes, they refuse to take oaths. That is the first thing the inquisitors demand. To get lower-level Cathars (or just anybody), the inquisitors offer to split the possessions of any Cathars with informants.  

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A meurtrier from the inside. The walls are angled to give the archer room to aim.

Still the battles continue. Montségur burns in 1244, Quéribus falls in 1255. And the last parfait, a guy named Bélibaste, is burned at the stake at Villerouge-Termenès in 1321. 

What happens to the refugees of Carcassonne? Coming soon!P1090947