The Principality of Andorra

The Principality of Andorra – one of the oldest and smallest countries in Europe, squashed between Spain and France. It is an independent country whose heads of state are the President of France and the Bishop of Seo de Urgel, Spain. Probably, the country is best known for winter sports and its biggest “industry” duty free shopping.

It is a mountainous land tucked in the Pyrenees; small fields scraped out of the mountainsides support cattle or are used for tobacco growing; vertiginous roads and tracks twine through the landscape. It was, in early times, a smuggler’s paradise, often carried out under the cover of the transhumance – the movement of sheep and cattle up to the high pastures in spring and back to softer ground in autumn.

It was a pretty open trade which boosted the subsistence level of many families. One Andorran priest remarked:

“It is a hard country…The cattle begin to straggle down from the hills when the snow falls early in September. The winter is long and very cold and my people are so poor. But for the smuggling they would suffer. What would you?”

American author and traveller Herbert Corey visited Andorra and watched the trade openly carried out. In 1918, he wrote:

“the public square was filled with men putting impatient feet against the ribs of rebellious mules in the effort to pull tighter the ropes of the diamond hitch. Loads were going across the hills, fête day or no. Other tired men straggled in at the heels of tired mules, the pack-saddles empty, after a successful trip into France. Small boys were importantly aiding. Girls clung to the arms of the contrabandista, and old women waddled about with parcels that looked like provisions for the departing.”

Accounts of 19th century smuggling tell of houses set up as receiving points for goods inwards and outwards. Often there was a “master” who paid the smugglers about 7 francs a day. If the men were caught they went unpaid and, as there was no defence against smuggling, went straight to jail.

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The goods were transported as 25kg loads in a canvas bag reinforced by a wood frame. This made it easier for the smugglers  to dump the load and take to their heels if necessary, hiding out in the rocky mountainsides.

The men travelled over French or Spanish “ports” – these were the little-known, narrow and often dangerous tracks and pathways through and over the mountains which ultimately led into France or Spain. Sometimes mules were used to carry the contraband or the men hefted the packs themselves. The men wore rope soled shoes which were light and quiet and usually made their silent way through the “ports”  in small groups.

Tobacco and Spanish wine were popular contraband but market demands could change. During the First World War mules were an important cargo. Mules from Spain were in high demand by the Allied armies so much so that their exportation was frowned upon by the Spanish government. Although the smuggled mules were ultimately purchased  for use by the French army, there was French import duty upon live stock. This created a unique opportunity for Andorran smugglers who obtained mules from Spain by any means they could and led them over the mountain paths, at night into France. The French gendarmes  were persuaded to look the other way for a small percentage per mule.

The Spanish civil war brought a demand for smuggled foodstuffs, chemicals and pharmaceuticals and there was an inflow of refugees who crossed the border from Spain. Many children and wounded fighters died in makeshift camps set up just over the border.

Similarly during WWII smuggled goods entered Vichy France via the mountain passes and from 1942 onwards, cross-border networks, established along tracks not closely monitored, were set up so that smugglers could help families to escape from occupied France.

Nowadays, illicit free-trading has turned into duty-free shopping and the mountain passes are left to the hikers whilst those in search of cheap booze and fags take to the relative safety of tarmac roads.

The Siege of Montsegur

Chateau Montsegur

Chateau  Montsegur – its ruins perch precariously on a ‘pog’ (rock formation) 1200 metres above the eponymous village in southwest France. It looks out across the surrounding countryside for miles around. Even in summer lusty, gusty winds buffet the tumbled walls and sweep through open archways.  In winter, snow and ice make it inhospitable and almost impregnable.

The castle was destroyed by the royalist forces in the thirteenth century in the last major action against the Cathar sect – a group which rejected the corruption of the Catholic Church and many of its rites and rituals.

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It had been the centre of operations for the Cathars – the seat and head of the Cathar church and the last refuge for Cathars fleeing persecution from elsewhere in southern France. Even after other Cathar strongholds were destroyed and their adherents fled, it was the last bastion of resistance in the crusade against the sect.

From the base of the hill the castle looms, grey-black, unapproachable, secure and as you walk up through the thickly wooded mountainside the idea of besieging it seems unthinkable and yet to put an end to Cathar resistance once and for all, the royalist forces, with the blessing of Pope Innocent III, did just that.

In May 1243 ten thousand soldiers gathered at the foot of the steep rocky hillside leading up to the castle. How must they have felt when they squinted up at the dark mass looming above them? Apparently confidant that they could starve out the inhabitants. But they did not count on local knowledge and goodwill. The castle was well provisioned and under cover of darkness local people crept up through little known pathways to add to its supplies.

Several full-on assaults up the steep hillside inevitably failed. The hundred fighting men in the castle easily repulsed these attacks. You can imagine the frustration and fatigue of the soldiers as time after time they were beaten back to base camp only to hear the order to repeat the assault.

It took treachery (some call it) of several Basque mercenaries to find the solution by scaling one of the rocky walls to gain a foothold from where a giant catapult could hurl rocks at the castle. The Barbican breached , a day and night bombardment commenced; a relentless crump and thrump of massive stones; the crack of the castle walls as they shuddered and fell.

Many of the Cathar refugees who lived just outside the shelter of the walls fled into the castle itself; living conditions deteriorated quickly; sickness spread. The Cathar leaders decided to surrender. Conditions for the surrender were negotiated. All could leave who would renounce their faith and a two week truce was declared.  Many of Cathars took the ‘consolatum’ at this time – a ritual intended to purify them and prepare them for the end they knew must come.

Imagine those last days within the broken walls. After the thunderous noise of the stone barrage – silence.  Families and friends came together, comforted each other, fasted and prayed together. They made their choices – to die in the fire for their faith and beliefs or to live, renouncing all they believed and fought for.

In March 1244 around three hundred ragged souls came out from the ruins, of whom about two hundred chose death. The bonfire awaited them. It is said that there was no need for stakes to which to tie them; they walked, hand in hand, men, woman and children, nobles, soldiers, artisans, servants, into the searing flames. Their cries of agony flew up to the heavens as their ashes scattered on the four winds. What faith. What courage.

At the foot of the mountain in the ‘Prat dels Cremats’  (Field of the Burned) is a modern monument to commemorate their deaths. It bears the inscription “Als catars, als martirs del pur amor crestian. 16 de març 1244″ (The Cathars, martyrs of pure christian love. 16 March 1244).

monument on the Field of the Burned

 

Awesome Automatons

Of all the things I find  spooky  (and the list is long) there are a couple that really give me the willies – large dolls with eyes that roll around (think Tommyknockers) and automatons whose slightly jerky, twitchy movements seem a precursor to coming alive (think Blade Runner). So why on earth did I find myself in the distinctly spooky but nevertheless marvellous little Musée d’Automates in Limoux last week? Blame it on The Visitor.

The museum is housed in an unprepossessing ex-industrial type unit not far from the centre of town and run by an elderly lady (who might well have modelled for some of the characters found within) and her son and daughter.

Once inside the building, forget its origins – you enter a world of fantasy, magic and ghostly apparitions. The automatons range from small to massive and yet for me, each one has a spooky, sinister quality. There are times when the flesh of their faces seems to flush with warmth; expressions change; their eyes flash and, unnervingly, on occasions look straight at you. They are arranged in tableaux; some depict characters from fairy tales; some depict medieval French characters and yet others come straight from the imagination.

I know it is all done with lighting, mechanics, fantastic costumes and weird Bartok-esque music but it still gives me the shivers. I look at some of them; they seem almost human and I wonder if there isn’t some poor trapped soul within.

Enough of my shivers, have a look at these photos,  marvel at the detail of the costumes and let me know if any of them will keep you company in your dreams.

P.S. All photos taken by The Visitor aka June Berridge who is a far more accomplished photographer than I.

 

The Versailles of Languedoc

One of my favourite vide-greniers (car boot sales) of the season took place last weekend in the grounds of Chateau Lagarde not far from Mirepoix on the Aude/Ariege borders. As it happened I came away empty handed but not before soaking up the atmosphere. With all the stalls set out, colourful, gay; people and dogs milling around, chatting, buying, selling (the people no the dogs that is…then again?) I wondered if this was the modern equivalent of the medieval fair and market.

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In the 17th century, the chateau was known as the Versailles of Languedoc but it has its roots deeply in the Middle Ages and warfare. It perches, unmissable for miles around on the top of a hill just outside the village of Lagarde, on the left bank of the River Hers – a strategic placement since the river was the means of access to the Pyrenees and the plains below. The occupants could always see who and what was coming and going.

The Albigensian crusade against the so-called heretic Cathars brought a pack of land and booty hungry Northern French nobles into the area and after the defeat of the Cathars, Simon de Montfort, leader of this mob, confiscated the chateau and its lands and gave it over to Guy de Levis, a lesser lord keen to reap the rewards of his faithful service to Montfort.

At the beginning of the 14th century the castle underwent a complete makeover – an inscription found reads “Monsieur Francois de Levis, Seigneur of Montsegur and Madame Elix de Lautrec, his woman, built this castle in CCCXX.” Mmm, not sure about the ‘his woman’ bit, sounds a tad derogatory.

Francois had the choice of two castles, that of Montsegur and Lagarde. Since Montsegur is open to all the winds and snow that blow for most of the year and almost inaccessible to boot, the Seigneur (or perhaps ‘his woman’) decided to live at Lagarde.

The most eye-opening transformation of the castle took place in the 15th century when, discarding its defensive fortress role its owner and his heirs began another extensive makeover to take upgrade the old fortress to the level of a luxurious Renaissance castle. Three stories high; twenty bedrooms; any number of reception rooms including a drawing room, the Great Hall, a gallery, the Knights Hall and a games room; décor and furnishings of the most sumptuous.  Later still a terrace and formal gardens were added. It must have been a gorgeous bit of glam.

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By the end of the Ancien Regime (just before the French revolution) the castle was said to rival those of the Loire and indeed, Versailles itself. When taken to task by King Louis XVI for his poor attendance at court, the owner, Gaston de Levis-Leran replied “Sire, it is obvious that your Majesty has never been to Lagarde.” Risky thing to say to a King whose pride and joy was Versailles, oh and Marie-Antoinette of course.

During The French Revolution the castle was sold as a state possession and since it had once been a fortress it was doomed to demolition.  The new owner demolished all the residential buildings so that he could sell off the stone. The demolition ceased part way and some of the castle was reduced to serving as grain and fodder storage; one part became a forge and those parts that still remained became accommodation for the locals in need of a des. res. Over the years the stone continued to be robbed out. Eventually Lagarde was completely abandoned and classified as an historic monument. Today, the current owners are trying at least to stabilise the ruins and restore or preserve whatever is possible.

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The Future is Out There Somewhere

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I’m feeling a bit like a dried-up sandwich – all curled up at the edges – after a tumultuous few days. There is so much out there, good, bad and downright ugly, that I have no intention of adding to it all except to post this poem by W B Yeats – The Second Coming which an infinitely more accomplished author than I, Kate Mosse, posted on Twitter today. For me, it sums up an ever-shifting situation.

THE SECOND COMING

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

There are and will continue to be, winners and losers from events this week (including English football) – no-one ever promised that life would be fair but the potential lies within all of us to make it as humane, decent and caring as we are able. Winners take note; Losers take heart.

Will the Real Nicholas Flamel Please Stand

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Page from Flamel’s Notebook

Last week was the week of the “great sort out” since I was running out of storage space for files. I came across my old notes for the book “Close to the Edge” and amongst them were the notes I made for the story of the monk and alchemist George Ripley of Bridlington Priory. In the margin of these notes I had scrawled – ‘check out Nicolas Flamel’. I never did check him out…until now.

So who was Nicolas Flamel?

He was a Frenchman (c1330-1418), a scribe and seller of books and manuscripts who apparently discovered (according to 17th century accounts) the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone – although that rather depends on which texts you read.

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19th century image of the man himself

His life is well documented…by himself. He had two shops in Paris, married a well-endowed widow and in their later years together they were both wealthy and philanthropic. Like many educated men in Medieval days he dabbled in alchemy and knew of the existence of a book which, once deciphered would reveal the secrets of the universe, how to make gold from base metal and how to live forever as a bonus.

One day, as all good stories go, a man came into his bookshop wanting to sell a book. Flamel recognised it immediately  (because an angel told him about it in a dream the night before), handed over a couple of florins without a quibble and became the proud owner. The  book was that of Abraham the Jew, written part in arcane symbols and part in ancient Hebrew.

For more than twenty years Flamel worked diligently trying to translate the text before deciding that he needed a bit of help from learned men within the Jewish community. At that time Jews were persecuted in France and many had fled to Spain and so, to Spain our hero must go. He dressed as a pilgrim and on his journey met a merchant who, just by chance you understand, was able to introduce him to a venerable Jewish scholar. He recognised the book for what it was and agreed to go to Paris with Flamel to work on its translation.

Three years passed, the old scholar died, but Flamel managed finally to decode the book. He writes of his success in changing mercury into silver and then into gold. Apparently he put his new found skill to good and charitable uses, living quietly with his wife, working in his bookshops and dying at the age of 80. He was buried in the Church of St Jacques la Boucherie in Paris.

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Flamel’s tombstone

He was not allowed to rest in peace though. Treasure hunters from near and far came looking for the red powder that acted as the catalyst to the transmutation. His house was ransacked and many of the sculptures he had commissioned were damaged with inscriptions and symbols torn off and carted away.

And what happened to the book of Abraham the Jew?

Flamel bequeathed his papers and his library to his nephew and for 200 years these were passed down from father to son and nothing more is heard of the book. Then, in the 17th century we hear of an hapless heir of Flamel who was daft enough to demonstrate to King Louis XIII the transmutation process. Cardinal Richelieu, the King’s advisor, took a keen interest and soon after said heir was carted off to prison, tried and ultimately executed. This gave Richelieu the right to confiscate all the man’s property. It is alleged that Richelieu had possession of the book until his death and after that it vanished.

Perhaps one day, some book lover fossicking in the second-hand bookshops of Paris will stumble upon it…or perhaps not

The Pirate Queen

You can’t expect me to have a week in Ireland without coming back with some stories that intrigue me and although the tale of Grace O’Malley is not a spooky one, hers is a story that captured my imagination.

5th September 1593 a strange meeting was taking place between– Queen Elizabeth I and Grace O’Malley, the Irish Pirate Queen – both in their twilight years yet still fiery and not to be trifled with. Grace O’Malley had sailed from Ireland to England to plead her cause with the Queen directly.There must have been something about Grace that appealed to the Queen – perhaps because she was a bit of an adventurer at heart herself – but whatever the case she listened to Grace and granted all her requests much to the dismay of the Queen’s counsellors.

Grace O’Malley was born around 1530 to clan chieftain Owen O’Malley. The family was a seafaring one, trading from the west coast of Ireland to Spain, Portugal and Scotland. Legend has it that the young Grace was keen to sail with her father’s fleet but with true sailor’s superstition, it was held unlucky to sail with a woman on board, so her parents tried to keep her at home. In response, Grace is said to have cut off her long red hair, dressed as a boy and stolen on board one of the ships proving she could handle the life of a seafarer. From then on she was a regular member of the crew and became a skilled sailor and navigator.

When she was 16 she married Donal O’Flaherty, a good match strategically and politically. Donal was heir to the chieftain of the O’Flaherty clan and owned the castles of Bunowen and Ballinahinch. He appears to have been an angry and violent man with a quick and wicked temper. Throughout the 16th century Ireland was wrought by inter-tribal branglings, politics and power struggles – Grace’s marriage strengthened both family and tribal ties and protected their interests.

Grace bore three children by O’Flaherty but never settled for the life of a “good” wife. The following years saw her taking over the fleet and managing the business and political dealings of the clan. Her ships were banned from Galway, a major trading port at the time and Grace was forced to take her cargoes directly to Spain, Portugal, Scotland and Ulster. Not one to be coerced she developed what she called “maintenance by land and sea” – an early protection racket. In other words she would have her ships lie in wait off the coast and on the approach of the slower merchant ships, she would bear down on them to offer the captain safe passage with a pilot in return, of course, for a suitable wodge of cash. If her protection was refused then she simply denuded the ship of everything of value. The protests of the merchants of Galway went unheeded.

In 1560 her husband Donal was killed in yet another clan spat and Grace dealt with her husband’s killers … in a very permanent way. Under Irish law she was unable to inherit her husband’s goods and chattels which peeved her majorly, she returned to O’Malley land with her followers and established herself on Clare Island in Clew Bay. It was from there that she could extend her operations – the three P’s –pilots, protection and plunder. She and her followers became wealthy.

Clare Island

Clare Island

Before long before most of Clew Bay was in Grace’s hands. To secure a foothold in the remaining part she married Richard Burke of Rockfleet. The marriage was arranged on a trial basis – each party agreed to give it a go for a year after which either party could divorce (under Irish law at the time). Grace duly gave it a year, moved her fleet and her followers to the castle at Rockfleet and gave Richard his marching orders… although afterwards she did help him several times to get out of sticky situations of his own creation – he seems to have been a bit of a thickie – and to achieve his succession as clan chieftain.

Rockfleet Castle

Rockfleet Castle

Ireland was a hot brew of rebellion during the latter part of the century and was a cause of anxiety to the English especially as many of the Irish nobles had links with Scotland (also in ferment) and Spain. Clan chieftains swore allegiance to the English throne one day and then joined the rebels the next. The English were systematically trying to Anglocise (is there such a word?) Ireland by changing the laws and outlawing the age-old system that the clans used to elect their chieftains. Gradually though, more of the clan chieftains bowed to the inevitable and submitted to Elizabeth I and the English throne.

During this time Grace moved carefully, picking her way through the turmoil, joining the rebels then swearing loyalty to the English Crown when politic to do so. She survived the threat of the hangman’s noose after being arrested for piracy and insurrection. Why she was freed is a cause of speculation. Some sources suggest that Grace was actually in the pay of Francis Wolsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster and that her knowledge and insight about movements of ships particularly the Spanish fleet were too valuable to England to lose.

When Richard died Grace, remembering that she was robbed (as she saw it) of her inheritance from her first husband, took matters into her own hands and made off with around 1000 head of cattle and her followers to take possession of Rockfleet Castle.

The arrival of Sir Richard Bingham in Ireland as Governor of Connaught started a new chain of troubles for Grace and he became her chief enemy. Here was a man, ruthless, cruel and full of guile who was totally dedicated to wiping out the old Irish laws, customs and way of life. It was he who took Grace prisoner and appropriated all her cattle and lands leaving her destitute.

Her response was to muster new forces and join the rebellion that was now well and truly on the boil throughout the west of Ireland. She attacked Bingham’s army, carried soldiers to join the rebel forces, raided seaports and generally made a serious nuisance of herself. Bingham tried all he could to dislodge her from her power base by using a scorched earth policy – indiscriminate killing, destruction of land, livestock and shipping until Grace finally had enough and wrote to Elizabeth I about the injustices done in her name. In the letter she requested that the Queen give her freedom to attack all the Queen’s enemies. In return the Queen sent a number of questions to Grace regarding her life, politics and activities. Whereupon, perhaps fearing he was being outmanoeuvred by Grace, Bingham arrested Grace’s son and brother and accused them of treason. That was the final straw. Grace upped anchor and sailed to Greenwich to see the Queen in person. Furious, Bingham dashed off a letter denouncing her as a traitor…”the nurse of all rebellions.”

And so Grace, the Pirate Queen met Elizabeth I the English Queen and it appears that the two ladies got on well together. It must have been a strange meeting – the elderly regal Elizabeth and the weather-beaten Irish pirate, yet there were common strands in their lives; both knew power and how to use it; both had spent much of their days fighting for their rights and their lives. The outcome of the meeting was a letter from Elizabeth to Bingham ordering him to release Grace’s son and brother and restore all her property. Furthermore she informed Bingham that Grace had the Queen’s permission to “fight in our quarrel with all the world” without let or hindrance as it were.

With the security of the Queen’s letter behind her Grace resumed business as usual, eventually dying in (it is suggested) 1603…coincidentally the year of the death of Elizabeth.