The ancient hearts of French towns hold surprises on their narrow, rarely straight streets. Among all these pretty, old towns, Pézenas, in the Hérault department in southern France, is exceptionally lovely.Read more
Driving around the French countryside, one often spots little signs pointing out local objects of pride. The ones for menhirs especially intrigued me, but I always was rushed, especially when passing a certain sign, and when I did have time, I wasn’t on that road–out of sight out of mind–I didn’t have a checklist of “when have 20 free minutes, go check out this stuff,” with menhir at the top of the list.Read more
We’re all naïve. All 7.8 billion of us. In more ways than one.
I saw the word used technically, to describe humans in the face of the new coronavirus. Because the virus is new, none of us had ever had it before, and so we are “naïve.” It’s the perfect word in other ways, too.
Like many people in February and early March, I thought it was a lot of hubbub about nothing. Cover your coughs, wash your hands, not that bad unless you’re old and sick with something else. Remembering SARS, which came with so many gloomy warnings, and which sounded so scary. It was deadlier than Covid-19. People caught it from the plumbing in their apartments. Way worse than being near somebody coughing–you can at least step away from such people, but to catch a deadly disease while sleeping in your own bed? SARS was under control fairly quickly, and no vaccine or treatment was ever found…. Thinking it would always be so efficient to control pandemics was naïve.A microscopic string of RNA has changed everybody’s lives. Not just today, under various lockdowns, confinements, remote learning/working, etc. It is going to haunt us for a long time. Perhaps forever.There will not be a switch that flips us back to Before, to some date in November 2019 or so (probably earlier), when the threat hadn’t yet crossed over into humans. When the world economy was humming. When the future looked, if not bright, then as a glass somewhat more full than empty.As far as the future goes, we are still naïve, in the other sense of the word, of lacking experience or understanding. We don’t know for sure whether people who were infected will be immune for life, or whether it will be like colds (also caused by coronaviruses, different ones) that we get over and over. We don’t know the long-term effects. We don’t have a cure or even a treatment besides oxygen. We don’t have a vaccine.I wondered about the 1918-1919 influenza. I have a set of Encyclopedia Britannica from 1929, which I figured was both close enough to the event for the pandemic to still be remembered as a big deal and distant enough to have some perspective. Indeed, the entry covers almost two full pages. It mentions the previous influenza outbreak of 1890–which was only 39 years earlier itself; of course there were still people around who had lived through that. Interestingly, a decade after the “Spanish flu” pandemic, the cause was still in dispute–was it bacterial or viral?
Now experts say that influenza not only was viral but that it was a kind of H1N1 virus, like the kind that broke out in 2009. It hit in three waves: the first was relatively mild, the second very deadly, and the third was similar to the first.
“Frequently the lungs became severaly affected and the patient passed into a state of anoxaemia recalling that due to exposure to the ‘pulmonary irritants’ of gas warfare.”The 1890 outbreak, which also actually had three waves between 1889-1892, is described in detail as well:
“The invasion is sudden; the patients can generally tell the time when they developed the disease; e.g., acute pains in the back and loins came on quite suddenly while they were at work or walking in the street, or in the case of a medical student, while playing cards, rendering him unable to continue the game. A workman wheeling a barrow had to put it down and leave it; and an omnibus driver was unable to pull up his horses. This sudden onset is often accompanied by vertigo and nausea, and sometimes actual vomiting of bilious matter. There are pains in the limbs and general sense of aching all over; frontal headache of special severity; pains in the eyeballs, increased by the slightest movement of the eyes; shivering; general feeling of misery and weakness, and great depression of spirits, many patients, both men and women, giving way to weeping; nervous restlessness; inability to sleep, and occasionally delirium. In some cases catarrhal symptoms develop, such as running at the eyes, which are sometimes infected on the second day; sneezing nd sore throat; and epistaxis, swelling of the parotid and submaxillary glands, tonsilitis and spitting of bright blood from the pharynx may occur. There is a hard, dry cough of a paroxysmal kind, worst at night. There is often tenderness of the spleen, which is almost always found enlarged, and this persists after the acute symptoms have passed. The temperature is high at the onset of the disease. In the first twenty-four hours its range is from 100 F in mild cases to 105 F in severe cases.”
It also said that, in the 1890 outbreak, stress around the pandemic caused a 25% increase in suicides in Paris.The Covid-19 virus’s complete genome was sequenced and put online in mid-January. And yet there’s much we don’t know. It might seem as if experts are changing their minds, or that they don’t know what they’re doing, but in fact they are honing and updating information as it becomes available.
France is supposed to gradually reopen as of May 11. It already is happening, though. I see more cars on the road. Businesses that had been closed have found an excuse to reopen. One change is that almost everybody is wearing a mask now, even while driving alone in their car. Maybe they don’t want to touch it?
I was going to our mairie, or town hall, to get recycling bags the other day, mask in hand, because usually I would see nobody out in the village. However, lots of people were out, going to the bakery, to the little grocery, for walks. I saw a friend sweeping the sidewalk in front of her house, and she was talking to a little old lady who was out for her constitutional. I’d met this lady many times, including on a run in winter where she responded to my bonjour with “bonjour, j’ai 89 ans” (hello, I’m 89 years old). My friend asked her whether she had a mask and she said no, she didn’t know where to get one in the village and had no way to go out of the village. How old are you, my friend asked. “Ninety,” she answered, adding, “in July,” which she pronounced as “juillette,” adding many rolls of the tongue in an especially heavy local accent. I handed her my homemade mask (I was still holding it–we were talking–shouting at top volume–from a distance of at least three meters from each other). She was thrilled. I can make more. My friend, a retired nurse, instructed her on cleaning of the mask. So I ran back home to get another mask and go back to the mairie. A sign on the door said it was closed and that if villagers needed anything they were to call. So I called. They told me to come and ring and they would hand the recycling bags through the window. “Oh, you’re outside now,” the secretary exclaimed. A window opened a crack and the roll of yellow bags emerged–not even a fingertip of the person inside was evident. I hollered merci as I grabbed the roll. The window shut the the instant the roll passed through.The Saturday market reopened. It is far superior to shopping at the supermarket, as always for quality and price but also for hygiene. The central square is barricaded, with a single entrance and exit, and a table with sanitizer at each. And police, who were neither wearing masks nor social distancing as they shot the breeze. There were just a few vendors, but they included the family of vegetable farmers, the goat cheese guy (who rocked a gorgeous tie-dye mask), and the local apple grower. A ribbon separated shoppers from the produce. We waited in line, spaced by tape on the marble, and the vendors served us, so there was nobody else handling the produce. Almost everybody had a mask except for the oldest shoppers. I was among the youngest, so that tells you how skewed the demographic is at the market.It was very sad, though, to see all the cafés closed, their terrace tables stacked up under tarps. I wondered whether this was what it was like during the war, when people ventured out to stand in line to buy food. It was sad, too, to see the other shops, mostly for clothes and jewelry and such, closed but in a way that felt like “Sleeping Beauty”–as if they were about to fling open their doors but were frozen in mid-step.
I wonder about life afterward. Will people be afraid to take the bus or métro, and flood the streets with individual cars? Or will they feel the same way and commute by bike? Will people be afraid of being cooped up in a small space and move to suburbs, eating up more and more of the precious farmland that needs to feed more and more people? Or cutting down the little wild nature that is left, so they can have their individual houses with yards that function like private parks, like buffers from neighbors, full of grass that needs watering and mowing and that they almost never spend time in? Or will people who are hearing birds for the first time realize that it’s important to preserve and even enlarge the space for nature?
How are you holding up?
Day Trip to Narbonne
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.
1,000 Years Ago
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.
Gardening for Introspection
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.
Last 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. It 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. Last 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.
Heretics and Crusaders
It’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.
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.
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.Carcassonne 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. The 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.
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.
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. Pope 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.
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.
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.
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.
On Aug. 15, 1209—a Catholic holy day, the Feast of the Assumption, a national holiday even centuries later—Carcassonne falls without a fight.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!