Getting in to Hot Waters

There are a number of hot mineral springs around the area where I live. When in need of a bit of additional bien-etre (well-being) they are great places to relax and chill out. The two I have frequented are located at Ax-les-Thermes and Rennes les Bains.
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Bains de Couloubret – Ax les Thermes

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Rennes les Bains (new baths)

 

People have used the natural springs throughout the centuries but I suppose it is the Romans (who pinched the idea from the Greeks) who really established their use for both medicinal and relaxation purposes.

The Romans loved their baths. It was often the Roman military presence (for example during the conquest of Gaul) that prompted the development of spas, making use of the thermal and mineral springs. Spas served not only for the treatment and recuperation of wounded soldiers but also as leisure centres for healthy soldiers. Spa treatments included bathing the injured parts of the body with the water, total immersion and drinking very large quantities of the sulphurous stuff. The waters were apparently good for rheumatics, skin diseases and other unspecified ailments.

The spa town of Ax les Thermes has a number of springs the most well-known serving Les Bains de Couloubret – a spa complex built on the site of ancient Roman baths. In the middle ages the springs were further developed to treat soldiers returning from the Crusades who were afflicted with leprosy.

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Spring at Ax les Thermes

The waters at Rennes les Bains were another Roman discovery and led to the development of an important spa for the soldiers serving in Gallia Narbonensis (part of the Aude region of SW France.). The spa was built on two levels with four basins and two pools – one rectangular that had a black and white mosaic floor.

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The Old Roman Baths at Rennes les Bains

Over time the Roman attitude towards baths and bathing changed making them more a place for leisure and relaxation and, whisper it quietly, a places for some rather naughty practices.

With the rise of Christianity and the fall of the Roman Empire the church considered bathing  to be disreputable and eventually it was officially banned. Thus some people avoided bathing completely and sometimes for years.

This aversion began to change especially in southern europe where the Moors held sway. Public baths were rebuilt and opened again. The great unwashed flocked there sometimes for medicinal purposes but more often for leisure.

However, the renaissance was short-lived and in the 16th century many of the baths were closed as it was thought they gave rise to all sorts of horrible diseases. Only the rich continued the practice and, avoiding public baths, they took to the natural warm mineral waters.

Taking the waters as a cure became the new approach and spread primarily from Italy where doctors found previously lost treatises about the medicinal properties of the mineral waters. A new bathing culture developed which spread rapidly across Europe.

By the turn of the 17th century many spas were rediscovered particularly in France. These were of two kinds – hot springs for bathing and drinking and cold ones that were for drinking cures only. This was a serious activity focussed on medicinal treatments with purging, drinking, dieting and bathing in the mornings. The afternoons were dedicated to some indoor leisure activities and late afternoons entailed a quiet walk along promenades. Then it was early to bed.

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The fashion for taking the cure led to the growth of the spa towns across Europe. Hotels and guest houses sprang up; theatres, casinos and dance halls provided entertainment. The resorts became a rendezvous for the affluent and social elite. Of all of them probably Baden Baden in Germany was the best known – a place to see and be seen.

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Baden Baden Spa, 1910

 

 

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Aix les Bains, France (Attribution: Mathis Brancquart)

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Roman Baths, Bath, UK

Recently the value of the mineral spa waters has been more widely recognised particularly for the treatment of rheumatism and skin problems. However many of the spas are now dedicated towards leisure and relaxation – bien-etre as it is called here in France. I have sweated in the steam baths, bubbled in the whirlpools and been pummelled by water jets in the warm pool and felt all the better for it.

The Abbey of Alet-les-Bains

Often described as one of the most beautiful ruins in France (and that’s saying something as far as ruins go) the Abbey of Alet-les-Bains nestles in a sheltered spot in the High Valley of the Aude in the centre of the little town of Alet-les-Bains.

 

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It is generally thought to date from c813, founded by Béra, the Viscount of Razès for the Benedictine order.

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During its early years the Abbey flourished. In the 11th century it was endowed with a fragment of the True Cross of the Lord. The monks received a visit from Pope Urban himself in 1096 and the abbey’s possessions increased substantially. During the 12th century it became an influential and popular site for pilgrims.

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Just when everything was running smoothly, in 1197 the abbot, Pons Amiel died. As the abbey was founded by the Viscount de Razès it fell to him, according to custom, to appoint the new abbot. Unfortunately the Viscount was only nine years old. His guardian Bertrand de Saissac took on the responsibility on the young Viscount’s behalf.

However the monks elected their own candidate without reference to Bertrand and elected Bernard de Saint-Férréol. Bertrand was less than happy with the monks’ choice and threw Bernard out of the abbey.

And this is where the plot thickens because there are two slightly different versions as to what happened next and both are a bit grisly.

One version reveals that Bertrand appointed his own candidate, Boson who then had the body of poor old Pons Amiel exhumed, dressed him in all his abbatiale regalia, sat him in the abbot’s chair and tried the corpse under church law and condemned him. But for what? To what?

Apparently these trials, strange as they seem, were not uncommon. There is one documented case of a Pope suffering a post-mortem trial and condemned to suffer posthumous mutilation. Since he had been dead for quite a while one wonders how this was carried out!

The second version of this tale follows along similar lines. However in this version Bertrand dis-inters Pons Amiel, places him on the abbot’s throne and gathers together those monks who supported his choice of Boson. Under the eyes of the corpse these few monks elected Boson. After he was elected Boson sent a sweetener…er…important donation to the archbishop of Narbonne who confirmed his election.

But this story doesn’t quite end here.

In 1222 Conrad, the Pope’s legate condemned Bozon (again – for what?) and ordered that all the monks be chased from the abbey. The abbey was secularised and became a dependence of the church of Narbonne.

There was a happy ending for those monks who had not supported Boson. They appealed direct to the Pope who set up an enquiry and a year later in 1223 the abbey was restored to the monks.

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Le Jardin Ephemere

I’m back after a three month sabbatical from social media partly owing to preparation for a house sale and eventual move. It hasn’t all been clearing out, painting and scrubbing though. Last week I took time out with some friends to visit the Jardin Ephemere.

The JE is created each year in the little village of Lieurac by an association of artists and gardeners. As its name suggests, the garden lasts for just a few days and provides a feast for all the senses.

On arriving you are greeted by borders of mass planted cosmos interspersed with tall sunflowers and scrambling morning glory.

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The trail leads you into a garden, enclosed by a riot of colourful annuals. Within this enclosure are colour-co-ordinated beds bursting with yet more annuals

 

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From this slightly formal area the path leads you along a wooded trail by the river. Patterns of pebbles, flower heads and grasses are laid out in the river itself.

Created from mainly natural materials a number of sculptures – some abstract, some naturalistic and others rather whimsical – greet you on the route.

At the end of the riverside path you are led towards what I can only describe as the gourd garden. The plants (a form of ornamental squash) ramble up, over and along a steel framework. Gourds of weird and wonderful shapes, sizes and colours dangle from this – some giving rise to ribald comments and laughter.

The path gradually becomes steeper and sterner as it rises through woodland and up an escarpment. Fortunately earth steps have been cut into the hillside as well as thoughtfully provided resting places where you can admire the woodland art.

At the top of the escarpment is what I describe as lilliput village sculpted on to the rocks from clay.

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There’s time for a breather and to take in the stunning views across the valley before heading downhill all the way with a welcome drink at the cafe-bar to end off.

Weaving through a Salon du Livre

On Sunday I had my first experience of selling my book ‘The Weave’ direct to the public who came to our village’s first Salon du Livre. Just to explain – this is an event where authors have a table, load it with books and potential readers/buyers come and browse. Such events are held all over France particularly during summer.

I had no expectations of mega sales or indeed of any sale. The book is published in English only (at the moment), the English-speaking community in our small village and environs is tiny and I am a totally unknown. However I thought the experience would be invaluable.

So, there I was. 8.15 on a wet morning armed with copies of the book and some props just to attract interest. I had thought that each author was to have an individual table so it was a surprise to find long rows of tables and chairs with each author’s space meticulously marked out.

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Setting up the Salon

Quick review of the ‘montage’ I had planned and most of my props, all of which play a part in the book, went back in the car.

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Planned montage – dress rehearsal in big bro’s kitchen

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Actual display

Learning point 1 – find out in advance just how much space there will be for the display.

Around 9.30 the public started to drift in. At first it was more like a social gathering as neighbour chatted to neighbour yet eventually people began to browse what was on offer. Many of the authors offered books about local and regional events, places and people. These were clearly very popular and little groups clustered around their tables.

By 11.30 my own display was looking a bit lonely. Fellow author Robert Rigby with a selection of his books  was the only other Brit novelist present and, bless him, he took pity on me and bought the first copy of ‘The Weave.’ I wish I could say that act of kindness opened the buying floodgates but no!

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The Paul Hanson book duo by Robert Rigby

There was more interest in the spider artistically draped over some of the books than the book itself.

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Never mind the book-tell me about the spider

However things picked up and I had people stop to chat and look at the book. What was interesting for me though was that Robert apart, all these visitors were the female of the species. Many picked up a copy, leafed through it and asked me to translate the blurb and then, with a regretful gallic shrug and a ‘je lis pas en Anglais’ put the book back.

Learning point 2 – more like a question – why were the ladies present attracted to my table? Was it the cover of the book? Because the author was female? They felt sorry for me?

To follow up these thoughts I began to ask the question – what attracted you to the table? The majority of replies was ‘the cover’ thus reflecting the advice always doled out – the cover is the first selling point.

I made a handful of sales in the period just before lunch – all to Brit buyers bar two. thank you, thank you.

The afternoon was dead for me saleswise so I spent my time cruising the other tables and networking. I received an invite to an authors’ group in a neighbouring village and signed up for another salon in Quillan in August where I’m told there is an enthusiastic English-speaking book-buying community. We shall see.

I picked up a few tips about presentation and…

Learning point 3 – I must get some sort of ‘business’ card printed.

Some authors had give-aways like bookmarks and pens; some placed a purchase in dinky little carrier bags with the book cover printed on them. All good stuff to think about for the future and at least I can go to the other two salons that I’ve signed up for with a bit more confidence and understanding of how they work – valuable experience.

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Armchair Research

I’m just getting to the end of the first draft of (working title) The Soul Catcher. Set in early medieval Yorkshire (7th century) I’m finding I need to do much more research than for my previous novel The Weave. It’s not so much the big picture stuff I’m searching for but the little details that bring a touch of reality. Details about dress, weaponry and what it could/couldn’t do, pagan and christian rites and rituals.

I read and I trawl the internet but recently I remembered an old favourite programme of mine Time Team. For those of you who may not know it – the programmes were hosted by Tony Robinson and he and a team of archeology experts undertook a 3-day dig on a whole variety of sites from different periods in history.

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Time Team logo

I’ve been spending an hour most evenings indulging in armchair research going through any of the programmes relating to the Saxons. Apart from the enduring appeal of Tony Robinson and of the experts, the programmes are a treasure trove for an historical writer.

In The Soul Catcher, one of the characters has a brooch which has a significant part to play and there on a Time Team dig they found just what I needed. What it was made of, where it was worn and so on. More importantly after it was cleaned up I could really see how beautiful it was and could tailor my own description. Living in France on a writer’s income (Ha!) it’s not very easy for me just to pop over to the British Museum and take a gander at the goodies there so the programmes have become a valued resource for me.

I’ve learned about eel traps or hives (again a feature in the story) and about details of funeral rites and the making of swords at that time.

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Types of Eel Traps

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Early 7th century sword from the Sutton Hoo boat burial

Of course I’m not writing a factual history book so it’s important to be careful to get the balance right and not swamp the story and the characters with historical minutiae but because there is always a fantasy or supernatural element in what I write I hope I’m avoiding that trap.

So in a couple of weeks time, after I’ve finished the first draft I’ll be able to start the editing process armed with a little notebook with all sorts of eclectic snippets that I may want to introduce to bring my hot-headed hero Wulfric and his life alive for the reader.

Now back to Time Team!

Introduce Yourself: Introducing Guest Author Sheila Williams

Did another author interview. Hope you’re not getting tired of them they are such fun to do. My thanks to Yecheilyah for giving me the space.

The PBS Blog

Today, I’d like to extend a warm welcome to Sheila Williams. Sheila, welcome to the PBS blog!


What is your name and where are you from?

My name is Sheila Williams. I am English, born in Yorkshire in the North of England (known as God’s own county to those who were born there!) Until five years ago my feet were firmly planted in English soil. Then, I had one of those ‘where did that idea come from’ moments and moved across the channel to the south-west of France – a region known as Occitanie (previously the Languedoc). I now live in a small village near the Pyrenees mountains with my dog Zouzou, otherwise known as the Ayatollah for his insistence on regularity – regular walkies, regular mealtimes, regular cuddles and regular snoozes on the sofa.

Awwue lol. I bet he’s adorable. Any siblings?

I am the youngest of three. My…

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Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – The Sunday Interview – Getting to Know author Sheila Williams

Here’s the result of an interview I did with the very generous Sally Cronin who is a marvel at supporting indie authors. Thank you Sally.

Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

My guest today is author Sheila Williams who lives in France, but in the past has enjoyed several careers, including that of sheep farmer (more about that later!). Sheila shares a mortifying experience in a restaurant, her fashion sense, the contents of her handbag and a tussle with a persistent romeo ram (of the sheep variety!)

First the official word from the author.

About Sheila Williams

Sheila Williams, author, slipped into this world on Guy Fawkes night, under cover of fireworks and bonfires. Outraged to find other nurslings in the nest, she attempted to return to her own world but found the portal closed.

Adopting a ‘make the best of it’ attitude she endured a period of indoctrination to equip her for her place in society. This included learning a language that no-one ever speaks and making complex calculations of no perceivable value.

Freeing herself as soon as possible from…

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