The Languedoc of France: a glorious area with a complicated, layered history of populations and politics: Romans, Visigoths, Occitanians and Catalans, Cathars, local Lords, Bishops of Rome and Kings of France. It’s situated to the west of the better-known Provence: less populated, less chi-chi, now almost completely wine-oriented with its many ‘working villages’ nestled amongst the vineyards.
I’ve rented a little house in Taurize, south of Carcassonne in the Corbières region for three weeks, followed by another in Cébazan in the Hérault, north of Béziers, for a month and a half. Both are small, renovated old village houses with one room stacked on top of the other, connected by a very steep little staircase plus a roof terrace. That’s all, and that’s all I need for a solo retreat. Unpacking feels great, after more than two months of life on the road, and having plenty of time to explore this region is a bonus because there’s so much to discover.
The view from the roof terrace of the house in Taurize/Corbières, and the house in Cébazan/l’Hérault.
The wild landscapes of Languedoc, with villages and castles ‘draped’ over the mountains.
The famous Canal du Midi runs through the heart of the province, 240 kilometres long, twenty metres wide and two deep, that astoundingly complicated 17th Century product of the human hand: to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean so merchants could more efficiently ply their trade, by boat. The idea was to avoid having to sail all around Spain and pay the heavy taxes levied there, but also to avoid the pirates still operating in that corner.
How to deal, then, with the rise and fall of the land, with a continental divide in the middle? How to manage the flow of incoming streams, meant to irrigate the canal to maintain a consistently reliable, navigable water level? By designing all manner of valves, chambers, ponds, aquaducts and, most of all, numerous locks was the answer. Altogether, it’s an engineering feat that amply upstaged the Dutch in their habit of tinkering with the landscape. The genius who designed this project was a native of Béziers, Pierre-Paul Riguet. Close to the city of Béziers where the Canal nears the Mediterranean, there’s a ‘staircase’ for boats: a run of nine consecutive locks called the Neuf Écluses de Fonseranes. How crazy, how completely incredible to stand there and witness this ancient system still in perfect working order, being used everyday by a constant supply of pleasure boats vacationing on the Canal, mainly for the thrill of ‘doing’ all these locks along the way!
Approaching a lock on the Canal du Midi close to Carcassonne, and the ‘staircase for boats’ at Béziers.
‘Garrigue’ is the term for the prominent wild scrubland in this dry, alkaline and calcarious Mediterranean region. It’s a landscape dominated by the evergreen kermes oak bush and it’s mainly the degraded result of forestry practices and centuries of over-grazing by sheep and goats. Its companion landscape consists of maquis, a denser forest of mainly holm oak growing where the soil is siliceous, more acid. Both names refer to plant communities and eco-systems rather than specific plants, and both contain mainly leathery, spikey bushes that are nasty to the touch, interspersed with a rich scala of scented wildflowers, heather and herbs. Pine trees and other evergreens as well as domestic chestnuts and decidious species of oaks were introduced later, by way of re-forestation. They thrive in the more protected locations such as leesides, gorges and river riparians. Unfortunately, the aggressively invasive kudzu vine thrives in too many places as well . .
Then there’s the case of the famous, majestic plane trees, planted all over France in the 19th Century, in ‘allées’ along the entrance roads into towns, in village squares and all along the Canal du Midi. They’re tragically infected nowadays with a fungus that’s gradually killing many of them. France’s cultural landscape may look substantially different in the next so many decades to come, and steps are already being taken to replace the sick plantings with more resilient tree types. Mature plane trees are a miracle with their enormous speckled white-and-jade trunks and fantastic branching forming cathedral-like naves to drive through – I can’t stop marveling at them.
A mature oak forest on the mountain slope, and a tunnel of magnificent plane trees.
You definitely need a car to get around here, because many small villages, like mine, don’t have any shops or services and you’ll have to go a short distance to the next larger town to stock up on groceries. In the case of Cébazan, that town is St-Chinian with its lovely Sunday market.
I’m into the ‘sport’ of driving in the mountains here. Especially during this grape-harvest time of September and October, you encounter large farm vehicles on the little one-and-a-half lane roads, but also delivery trucks and buses besides other passenger cars driven by locals who tend to be in a hurry. Passing one another calls for a quick-thinking moment of some very precise choreography: one of you must go back, one forward, one is to step into the narrow berm and make for a few inches of space between the vehicles while you pass (pull in your outside mirror if need be), or rather ‘fishtail’ around eachother. Always with a friendly acknowledgement of a ‘job well-done’ and a big smile from both drivers: the French know how to dance dangerously but gracefully. This kind of negotiation combined with constant curves, an awareness of ninety-degree drop-offs into river beds below, falling rocks from above, one-lane bridges and frequent ‘hairpins’ on these routes makes for a completely exhilarating drive and I love it: just the right amount of adrenalin, taking my little standard transmission Peugeot through its paces. Another benefit of traveling solo, because you want to do the driving yourself on these kinds of roads, not be the passenger and get ‘all-shook up’ . . . !
But better yet than driving is walking. Walking in the back country around here is very relaxed: you don’t feel that ever-present angst about bear encounters like you do while hiking in Western Canada’s mountains. The wildest animal here is the wild boar. Everywhere you go, you see patches of uprooted earth, evidence of their presence: they must find many more truffles, that precious local delicacy, than people do. But on my hikes I’ve never seen the actual animal that’s attached to this powerful snout – and a good thing too, they can be dangerous with their enormous tusks. They’re nocturnal animals for good reason, perhaps they know they’re hunted by the locals? During one of my local perambulations, just around the corner from one of the pre-historic dolmens in the area, I found myself in the middle of such a hunt about to take place, when I began to notice ever more cars and men with guns on my route. It’s a highly organized and strategized affair where dozens of village men position themselves around all sides of a designated area of say, one kilometre in circumference where they suspect there are between eleven and fifteen wild boars present. They’re clad in bright orange safety gear so you see them clearly from a distance, and they carry radiophones to keep in touch about proceedings. Two or three of them arrive with their hunting dogs, packed in cages in the back of their Citroën trucklets, salivating for action. Together with their owners, the dogs do the hard physical work in the dense and steep garrigue, ferreting the boars out of the bushes to be shot by one of the guys standing on guard on the peripheries. Quite the performance to watch, and a long-standing village tradition where every male appears to be conversant with a hunting rifle – and where the wild boar-meat patés in the market are an undisputed delicacy!
Prehistoric cultural remains: a dolmen in the Cébazan area, and Mariken’s ghost peeping into it.
Every day I roam around on foot. Most villages have a particular hiking route of interest staked out with blue or yellow stripes on trees and rocks, but it doesn’t matter much if you lose the way. The garrigue and forest landscapes beyond the vineyards at the higher elevations may look wild, but there are farmer’s trails everywhere that connect the various cultivated areas. Not an inch of this old country remains untouched by humans: the odd discarded bottle, piece of metal, fencing, roof tile or lost shoe sole attests to that but there’s also a good chance you’ll luck into the ruins of an ancient château in a formerly strategic location, its piles of stone walls overgrown in the bushes now.
Two ruins of castles in the middle of the wild landscape, very close to Cébazan.
This network of trails has served local residents and their farm animals for hundreds of years so it’s difficult to get lost on foot. And besides, the villages are usually at no more than five kilometres distance from eachother, visible from higher up in the hills in all their compact, pittoresque beauty. Even the wild boar and deer create ‘highways’ everywhere which makes ‘bushwacking’ easy to do. Other signs of historical human intervention are the extensive, now mostly dilapidated stone walls you find higher up: old grazing compounds for sheep and goats. They’re interspersed with ‘capitelles,’ the little shelters from the heat or rain that the herders built for themselves. Constructed in the round, like an igloo, by methodically stacking flattish stones to form a cupola topped with one large boulder in the middle, they’re held together by gravity without mortar. Voilà, a cool room for one!
The interior and ceiling of a ‘capitelle;’ and the rows of old stone walls in the garrigue landscape.
Rubble stone masonry, the perfect thing to occupy oneself with during the long, boring, silent days of herding in the mountains; also a good way to clean the ground of rocks for future vineyards. You don’t see herders of flocks freely roaming the land anymore, even though the markets offer plenty of delicious sheep and goat cheeses, so they’re living elsewhere . . on farms, presumably. You hardly see any animals at all in this region. There used to be a thriving wool and silk industry (around 1850, the town of St. Chinian used to have 1,660 mulberry trees (silkworms feed on this tree), now there are three and one is dead), but now it’s all about grapes. The stately 19th Century multi-storey houses in the villages with their grand entrances and highly decorated iron balustrades fronting the windows speak to the enormous wealth created with wine production. The village of Cruzy is a good example of this building typology’s prominence, other than a small remnant of a medieval castle in its historical centre. Many of these kinds of houses stand empty now, all shuttered and overgrown: too big, too cold, too expensive to maintain or retro-fit.
An example of a stately, but empty 19th Century house, right opposite my place in Cébazan; The huge cathedral in the small village of Cruzy – as good a place as any to dry your laundry, why not?
I think French families prefer to live in a modern house these days and yet, in the name of family tradition, they hang on to the old properties, a sign that families are still deeply embedded in their communities. It shows when you go the local boulangerie: you don’t just buy bread, you patiently wait in line until the conversation the boulanger is having with another person is finished. It’s the same in the markets where line-ups can be long because of the friendly banter all around. My French friends from Montpellier took me to the residence of a friend’s deceased mother and grandmother, unchanged, in a small village called Saint-Jean-de-Fos. The kitchen was complete with a wood-burning hearth and a ‘work-of-art’ of an elaborately decorated, tiled cast iron stove, with some more modern amenities casually installed beside it; the living rooms were warmly furnished in the original French country style full of family mementos, unchanged since the deaths of the matriarchs. The garden, slightly overgrown, featured the thickest, gnarliest trunk of a wysteria, trained over the terrace, that I’ve ever seen: a sublime work of nature’s art. Nobody was living in the house, but apparently, no family member would think of selling it, let alone renting it out. My friend Michèle and her husband Bernard live in the large home that belonged to her family, furnished eclectically with treasures from a life of world travels combined with her family’s antiques, but renovated into a most comfortable and beautiful residence. This big house forms a duplex with an equally large house that belongs to another family member, but again, this one stands empty, forlorn and overgrown. It’s been lovely to get a glimpse of the insides of some houses here. The towns are generally dead-quiet, the blinds are closed against the heat which makes you wonder sometimes where the people are and what goes on behind these inert facades. In my next life, how I’d love to get ahold of one of these stately houses with their big rooms, decorated plaster ceilings, intricate staircases, parquet floors and solid wooden beams – and restore it to its former glory!
I’m sketching here and there (certainly not everyday!), but for better or worse, don’t seem to be able to get away from my journalistic persuasion, always loving the multitude of interesting details. I’m incapable of abstraction: I’ll leave that up to painters who see the world completely differently – in colour blocks – from us who use line in drawing. So every sketch I do takes some time and the right circumstances, looking, seeing, understanding how the architecture works. What I especially love about these places is the jumble of styles, the alterations, adaptations and subsequent add-ons over the course of hundreds of years, without ever really demolishing anything altogether in the name of practicality. The essential compact, dense nature of the medieval villages is thus retained, impossibly narrow, steep streets and all. Cars will just have to be parked elsewhere and so be it. This ‘organic’ way of growing one’s urban environment is the antithesis of our North American cities, where zoning by-laws prevent this kind of intricate texture from developing and where demolishing is normal: a constant a-historical ‘fresh start’ is the way to go there. It’s also where the boring grid lay-out rules, in spite of the topography of the land or the run of the rivers: hills must be made into horizontal lots, rivers are to go into pipes underground. In old Europe, people utilized the best of nature, building with it, not against it and this area of France is full of creative and delightful examples of it. Yes, these historical layers make for a stylistic mess sometimes (but the more ‘purist’ restorations to some imagined, ‘fixed’ historical version of a town don’t seem to satisfy either, as in Carcassonne for instance). Definitely, in winter, these pretty villages will be cold and damp: broken pipes, drainage issues, cracks and black moisture spots in the walls are in plain sight, including the band-aid solutions to some of these problems. Yes, some modern modifications to arches, windows and doors are atrocious and don’t do much for the streetscape (simply filling them in with bricks? Putting a small, cheap door in the middle of a Renaissance entrance?), but I love the jigsaw puzzle of figuring out what I’m seeing. Being a restoration architect here must be a maddening job . . . Of course, many of the Gothic churches and abbeys show the same complicated architectural trajectory: for their foundation, they used the stones of the Roman structures that may have occupied the spot, or they were destroyed in religious wars or burnt down, but were resurrected through several stages of enlargements and improvements until their final restauration took place in the late 20th Century. My village of Cébazan consists of a cluster of three separate historical hamlets; my house is located in the one called Gaches. The spaces in between and around them are now completely in-filled with modern villas and future subdivisions are clearly staked out. Thus, the profile of the old settlement is about to disappear altogether, as is the inevitable case in many villages now; the history of ‘alteration to suit the times’ continues, except it goes faster than ever these days.
An old – very old – door, unchanged and impossible to open, and the windmill on the cliff overlooking the town of St. Chinian.
The weather has been quite warm still in the ‘after-season,’ perfect for walking. I visit the many different villages in the vicinity, each with their own distinctive ‘variation on a theme.’ I roam around, sticking my head into hidden courtyards and quirky corners out of curiosity, entering dead-end alleys that are called ‘impasses’ in French. I learn about the specific ‘terroirs’ surrounding the villages and their local wine production, because most of the wineries are open for tastings and direct sales.
North of Perpignan I visit the most interesting Refugee Museum at the Memorial du Camp de Rivesaltes. The exhibit includes a thorough and fair explanation of everything that happened at this spot, with the remaining barracks of the extensive camp still in place. From the Spanish anti-Franco-istes to the Jews and Romas trying to move into nearby Spain in an effort to escape the Vichy Nazi regime, to the Algerians during and after the independence war (first, the anti-French, anti-colonial Algerian partisans were imprisoned here, then the Algerian collaborators of the French regime during the war – the so-called Harkis – were taken to France to be safeguarded from their own people), successive groups occupied the site that served both as an escape or ‘holding tank’ and a prison, depending on the times. The camp was used well into the mid-sixties, when an immigrant wave arriving from Sudan needed to be housed. The exhibit also looks at the contemporary global refugee and civil war situation. It’s a newer museum of interesting design by architect Rudy Ricciotti to make the symbolic point, underground.
In the Corbières part of Languedoc I’m in the midst of an area where constant battles took place between local ‘Lords’ who adhered to the Cathar Christian way of seeing the world, and the various French Kings and their aristocratic vassals who were on the side of the Pope. The Languedoc was not yet part of the central French government, so defeating the local rulers, the Cathars, posed a handy alibi for the French King to incorporate the region. A mercenary knight from the north was hired, Simon de Montfort – you encounter his name everywhere – with orders to conquer the Cathars. Which he did: by 1250, his armies had destroyed all bastions, one by one, into which the leaders of these ‘heretics’ had withdrawn, despite their fortifications and seemingly insane locations on top of the most precarious but strategic rocky outcroppings in the mountains of Languedoc. I visited many of the remaining ruins of these dramatic Cathar sites. Most are museums now, and reaching most of these castles takes a good half-hour hike uphill on the edge of the precipice, on a trail just wide enough for a donkey loaded with freight. So you’re well-prepared to imagine what it must have been like to live here. Peyrepertuse and Queribus in the south, Lastours and Saissac to the north of Carcassonne are simply amazing. Talk about living in fear! Triple defensive walls and sheer rock faces were not enough to keep the Catholic oppressors out . . And the spectacular views down the surrounding valleys – not quite enjoyed by the castle’s residents in the same way we tourists do now, when you’re watching huge armies approaching, ready to kill you.
The impossible mountain cliff locations of some Cathar fortified castles: Lastours, Peyrepertuse and Qeuribus.
The town of Carcassonne served as strategic ‘military headquarters’ of, first, the Romans, then the Visigoths, the Cathars and by 1247, became the Kingdom of France’s bastion against the aggressive Kingdom of Aragon. It’s the largest and most intact medieval town in Languedoc. Its fortified palace and remparts were fully restored, some of it by the too-imaginative, romantic touch of the famous 19th-Century Viollet-le-Duc who was the architect/painter charged by the French government to rescue and restore the medieval patrimony all around the country (most famous restoration: the Notre Dame of Paris).
Carcassonne, then, is almost too perfect. It’s only natural that it served as the backdrop for many movies such as Robin Hood, Destiny, Lady Godiva and Overdose, and also that it has become a dense tourist Mecca during the summer months. Cars, buses, horse-drawn carriages and mini-trains ply the hill it’s built on; the narrow streets inside the remparts are filled with ‘medieval armory’ and other trinket shops, and there are icecream parlors and pizza places on every corner. It’s exasperating, actually. The newer town created on the other side of the river Aude is a charming respite.
The larger cities in the Languedoc, Béziers, Montpellier (my French friends guided me through the historical centre; it’s a beauty of a city), Narbonne and Perpignan are all interesting in their own way, but I’m always happy to return to my place in Taurize, in the quiet rural environment close to the very pretty, much smaller medieval town of Lagrasse. Besides its huge 13th Century Benedictine Abbey, now a museum, there are a few shops, restaurants and cafés here while various artisans display their wares in small boutiques. The original covered market hall is still there, and the Tourist Office occupying the old presbytery next to the church still has parts of its medieval coffered, painted wooden ceiling in place. Another town in the Languedoc, Capestang, has a larger, well-preserved ceiling like that in its abbey. Here, you get to enjoy an engaging digital explanation of the still-surviving paintings. For instance, the faces and gestures of a couple strolling and conversing with one another are lively and personalized: from one panel to another, they form some sort of medieval strip-cartoon as they move along. Most of all, I adore the category of ‘hybrids’ where the medieval imagination flies high with its bizarre depictions of half human, half animal creatures, but also of ordinary folk including the wonderfully vulgar ‘Breughelian’ illustrations of people farting and flirting, and of fools with donkey’s ears clowning around. These mostly secular paintings, situated in the monks’ communal meeting spaces are lively and joyful, so unlike the very serious and mostly depressing biblical iconography in the cathedrals themselves. It’s a nice surprise.
Four paintings on the medieval wooden ceiling panels, preserved in the abbey of Capestang.
What a blessing it is to have some time and not feel the need to see a large swath of a country in a couple of weeks, like many tourists must. How I’ll miss this place I’ve come to know in such detail and grew to love!
I’ll remember it well even though I didn’t take thousands of photos because I prefer the images to stay on my eyeballs and in my thoughts, not in my phone. My cute little centrally located house in Cébazan was the perfect retreat for delighting – in everything.
Lastly, it’s obvious that something important is missing from this story: the Wine . . . It simply envelops you when every available inch of land is planted with vines to produce the beloved Languedoc wines that were – naturellement! – a big part of this Dutch bon-vivant’s enjoyments, so there will be more about that specific topic in the next post. I’m drinking a Carthagène, an apéritif or ‘vin de liqueur’ from the Villemagne winery near Lagrasse right now. Santé à Vous!
Left: I think what France is doing here is commendable: many villages display this sign. Lights out by midnight, to save energy. Hello, bright moon and stars! Right: a comfortable seating arrangement on the land, with in the distance the iconic Caroux mountain called the ‘Sleeping Lady.’ She represents Cebenna, daughter of the Titans, sentenced by the Olympic Gods to be glued to the mountain in this way.