L’Eglise Rupestre – the Church in the Rock

The little village of Vals lies just off the D119 between Mirepoix and Pamiers.  There is just a huddle of houses and above the village what, at first sight looks like a fortified house or small chateau. Take a few steps further and you discover your mistake… it is, in fact, a church- the church of Note Dame de Vals. It is part-built into a large outcrop of rock – an eglise rupestre as they say in this part of the world.

The Church at Vals

Enter the church through a stout oak door and you are faced with a spiral stone staircase winding up through the rock.  Daylight from natural fractures and fissures in the rock lights the way.

The entry through the rock

 

The stairs through the rock

The stairs lead to the first of three levels.  The first level is the oldest dating from the tenth century  and lies in the heart of the rock. This part is the lower nave or sometimes called the crypt.

The lower nave or crypt

It feels a little spooky to be so entombed but the effect wears off especially when you look up to the ceiling where beautiful frescoes depict aspects of Christ’s life. The colours are gentle – chalk white, pale red, ochre and black -and dissipate the spooky effect.

Ceiling Frescoes

From this level a second staircase takes you to the upper nave, rebuilt  and extended upwards in the sixteenth century after a fire. Two colourful stained glass windows, installed in the nineteenth century filter soft light into the gloom.

the second level or upper nave

 

St George slaying the dragon

Go  further and you enter the little twelfth century chapel of St. Michael below the church tower itself. The tower was transformed into a defensive refuge during the fourteenth century and the whole site surrounded by a ditch. This was the time of the Hundred Year’s War and the tower protected the locals from incursions by bandits and ne’er-do-wells during these troubled times.

The fortified bell tower

On a bright and sunny November day where nothing is to be heard except for the occasional cow bell it is hard to imagine the villagers of the fourteenth century scurrying, at the tolling of the church bell, for sanctuary clutching their most prized possessions.

 

Altogether though, there is something mysterious and magical about the place.

 

 

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#Ochre – The Colour Red

This is the last of my blogs from Provence where the orange and yellow cliffs around the pretty town of Roussillon captured my attention and induced me to go underground into the ochre mines – something of a feat since I am distinctly uncomfortable at having a zillion tons of earth and rock over my head. However the now defunct ochre mine at Bruoux, has a cathedral-like atmosphere with the vaulted chambers inside soaring up to fifteen metres. The visions I had of crawling on hands and knees were soon put to flight.

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Inside the gallery at Bruoux

Inside the gallery at Bruoux

The chambers and galeries stretch for about twenty five miles. At first farmers worked the mines but eventually experienced miners were required and it was they who carved out the vaulted chambers. They went through maybe half a dozen pickaxes every day doing so but they melted down the heads and recycled them. The heyday of the mine lasted almost a century from the mid nineteenth century. Eventually wars in Europe and the invention of synthetic pigments took over and the mine closed in the mid twentieth century.

So what is Ochre? Why was it mined? The simple answer is that it is a group of earth pigments – yellow, red, purple, sienna and umber – derived from iron oxide found in the sandy earth.

A French scientist Jean Etienne Astier developed a process for making the ochre pigment on a large scale in the late eighteenth century. The clay was taken from open pits or from mines and contained about 10-20 percent ochre. The rest was sand. The clay was washed to separate sand and ochre and the ochre dried, crushed and classified according to colour and quality. The very best was used for artists’ paints.

Ochre paintings have been around a very long time. At Pech Merle, a cave in the Lot department of France contains 29,000 year old cave paintings made using ochre as does the cave of Lascaux with its famous horse image coloured with yellow ochre.

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The Ochre Horse at Lascaux

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The Hand at Pech Merle

In more modern times its main use apart from artists’ paints, was, and still is, interior and exterior house paints and for colouring latex.

In the UK Ochre was mined at Brixham and was an important component of the fishing industry. The ochre was combined with tar, tallow and oak bark and painted on the sails of the fishing boats giving them a red-brown colour. This protected the sails from salt-water.

From underground to overground and the Ochre Trail around Roussillon where painting the town red takes on a whole new meaning. Just about every building is coloured one shade of red or another. However, take the Ochre Trail and you can see why. The trail winds through an old ochre quarry and the surrounding woods of pine, poplar and oak. The colours are breath-taking as are the steep bits of the trail but well worth the lack of puff to sit and watch the sun play hide and seek between the trees and the cliffs.ocre cliffs 2ocre cliffs 3ocre cliffs 4ocre cliffs1

 

The Village of Bories, Gordes, France

One of the most fascinating sights on my recent jaunt to Provence was les bories –  settlements built entirely of limestone and without using an iota of cement.

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In the 17th and 18th centuries Provence, like many French regions faced a huge population increase and the King decreed that more land should be taken into cultivation to avoid a dearth of corn and subsequent famine. The poorest people took on uncultivated land, often very difficult to work and developed it into small fields. Often this land was far away from any village so they built les bories using the stone they unearthed or found lying around as they started to work the land.

One such settlement ‘Les Cabanes’ is to be found about 4km from the lovely town of Gordes at an altitude of around 270 metres on an arrid limestone escarpment.

At ‘Les Cabanes’ the buildings themselves are a work of art. Built by a dry-stone method, layer after layer of limestone was tightly fitted together with a slight ‘batter’ to shed the rain. The settlement comprised houses, stables, pig sties, barns, bread ovens, a press and cellar for wine. The tracks around the settlement were enclosed by more stone walls to guard against brigands but, more importantly to protect against the wolves which ran wild in the Vaucluse Mountains at that time.

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Doorway into a house

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Inside a house

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Huge manger carved from one  piece of olive wood in the bergerie – sheep shed

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Bread Oven

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Inside the Bread Oven

The paysans grew mulberry and almond trees, cereals, hay for their sheep and goats and, above all, olive trees which are well suited to the dry stony ground. All around the Gordes area, olive presses could be found until le grand gel – the great freeze – of 1956 put an end to the harvest.

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In addition to their main crops the paysans also kept bees, had small potagers, collected the wild herbs, hunted for truffles and raised silkworms – all of which added to their back-breaking labours. Nevertheless the revenues obtained from all this activity gave them the means to avoid starvation.

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The Silkworm Shed

The site at ‘Les Cabanes’ was eventually abandoned and during more than a century it fell into ruin. In 1969 a restoration project started which lasted eight years and in 1977 the site was classified as an historic monument.

La Guerre des Demoiselles – The War of the Maidens

This is one war that you are unlikely to find in the history books. It took place in the Ariege Department of France in the 19th century but was at its height in 1829-32.

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In 1827 the government brought out a new forestry code to be applied by 1829. This code prohibited what local people regarded as their long-established traditional rights in respect of how they accessed and used the forests around them.  They used wood for building, collected firewood, hunted, fished and gathered food and used parts of the forest for pasturage for their small herds and flocks.

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The implementation of this code was a disaster for them and anyone caught breaking the new laws was subject to a heavy fine and/or imprisonment.

To make matters worse growing industrialisation also created a need for charcoal and deforestation started to take place on a grand scale. The charcoal burners, the forge masters and the forest wardens (known as ‘the salamanders’ because of their yellow and black uniforms) became the most hated classes of men amongst the mountain people.

Les Demoiselles (the Maidens) made their first appearance in Saint-Lary in May 1829. Twenty forest guards found six trespassing shepherds and their flocks and tried to seize them. They were quickly surrounded by around a hundred Demoiselles who hurled insults, threats and stones until the forest guards were forced to beat a hasty retreat. Other bands of Demoiselles began to form in many of the villages and from this point a type of guerrilla war broke out, confined at first to the Couserans and western parts of the Ariege but eventually spreading throughout the Department.

The name Demoiselles derived from the disguises the groups of men adopted – blackened or masked faces, a sheepskin or veil over their heads, long white shirts worn over their trousers like a dress. They commanded huge local support and the different village groups communicated either by horn toots or by smoke signals.

The king and his government marched in thirteen companies of infantry and eight brigades of gendarmes to quell the uprising but to little effect. The reason was simple. The Demoiselles knew the wild, mountainous terrain and the soldiers did not. Of those Demoiselles who were arrested most were quickly released as there were no witnesses to speak against them.

The ineffectiveness of these measures prompted the government to take more severe action. The fines for incursions in the forest were substantially increased and payable on the spot which for many was impossible. For good measure there was also a huge increase in taxes.

Nothing daunted the Demoiselles continued their resistance and from 1830 they marched and protested – these protests turning increasingly more violent. They targeted in particular the forge masters who took wood in great quantities to feed their forges and the ‘Salamanders’ who were supposed to protect them.

Finally a Commission was established to find a solution. In 1831 a ministerial decree restored the grazing rights to the people and a second decree cancelled the code of foresters which started the war in the first place. As an additional act of benevolence, the government gave a general amnesty to all imprisoned and called a halt to any further judicial proceedings.

Over the next thirty years the rebellion never quite died away; rather it smouldered sullenly, bursting into flames every now and again and the Demoiselles would rise again to harass charcoal burners and forge masters.  However the arrival of the railway and the discovery of iron ore in the area reduced the need for charcoal, put the brakes on deforestation and the Demoiselles disappeared quietly back into the forests.

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Long Time Passing

Something a bit different for this week. A very powerful and thoughtful blog from one of my favourite bloggers. Made more poignant I think when you consider what is happening in the world at the moment.

Half Baked In Paradise

Some time ago, when we were fledgling lovers, existing in the protective bubble reserved for the newly amorous, Two Brains brought me to a place called Vassieux-en-Vercors. The drive up from Grenoble is littered with sombre reminders of a time, only decades ago when the spectacular landscape played backdrop for the most merciless realities of a world at war – we stopped at various places, never idly. Here it is impossible to forget how cruel and cold humanity can be. Here no bubble is sufficient to protect you from nauseating emotions wrought from the darkest, starkest of realites.

Vassieux sits on the Drôme side of le Vercors. The Vercors is nicknamed ‘the flat iron’ for a reason … it is a high plateau with higher peaks frilling it, thrilling visitors and chilling those that know the secrets that it keeps. Mountains tend to do that. They look, are

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Spinning and Weaving

In the valleys of the Olmes Mountains – a range of peaks in the Ariège region of southern France – cloth manufacture was one of the prime industries. The pastures and hillsides favoured sheep farming and so provided the raw material and an abundant supply of water was available for the process of turning it into yarn and cloth.

From the Middle Ages onwards this was very much a cottage industry and the whole family was involved, spinning the wool from their sheep and then, if they did not have their own loom, handing it over to a neighbour who possessed one to weave into cloth.

In the eighteenth century, this industry reached a new level when the weavers in the lower regions of Languedoc decided to give up spinning and weaving in favour of growing vines. Instead, the wool they had used came to the Ariège and Aude regions. There were five main processes used to produce the cloth:

  1. Sorting, classifying the wool by its quality and washing the grease from it.
  2. Dying the wool
  3. Combing it out so that all the strands of wool ran parallel and then spinning it into yarn
  4. Weaving the yarn into cloth
  5. Finishing the cloth prior to taking it to the market in Lavelanet.

The colours used to dye the wool were nearly all of vegetable origin.

Woad gave a pretty shade of blue – mid to dark depending on how much dye was used. This gave rise to a whole new industry around the Toulouse area where many a woad merchant made a fortune from the plant. In the latter part of the eighteenth century, it was replaced by indigo.

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L’hôtel d’Assézat – Woad Merchant’s House in Toulouse

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Woad Plant (Isatis Tinctoria)

The roots of the madder plant produced red and shades of pink and purple together with a non-vegetal dye that came from a little red beetle collected from the green or holm oak. This produced a brilliant scarlet.

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Madder Plant (Rubia Tinctorum)

For yellow a number of plants were used including sunflowers, saffron and dyer’s rocket or weld.

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Dyer’s Rocket (Reseda Luteola)

Combing the wool was traditionally carried out by hand using slats of wood to which teasels were attached. Towards the end of the eighteenth century machines imported from Belgium and England took over the work. This sounded the death knell for this hand work and, just as with the Luddites in England in the early years of the nineteenth century, the introduction of the combing machines unleashed riots against the machines.

From then, whilst much the cottage industry still existed and work was done by hand, there also developed workshops and later factories where the cloth was produced.

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Wool Merchant’s House and Factory, Ste Colombe sur L’Hers

Spinning was very much a family affair, done at home using a distaff and spindle and later the wheel. At this stage of the process the spinner could vary the tension of the yarn leaving it fairly loose for knitting wool and tighter for cloth.

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The weavers worked not only for themselves but also for neighbours who had no loom and for masters in Lavelanet. These latter provided the yarn and paid the weavers by metre of cloth or by the piece.

Typically the weavers worked at their looms through winter until early spring. Then work on the land and with their sheep took over.  However they needed good light to work by and placed their looms by a window in full daylight. During the long winter nights they worked by the feeble light of an oil lamp, later replaced by a kerosene lamp with a reflector of polished glass. This they placed centrally on the loom, hopefully in a safe place.

The worst aspect for the weavers was the cold. Very often there was no fire or only a very small one in the room. They had to warm themselves through the work that they did. Sometimes it was so cold that the yarn stuck together, frozen. There was a common saying amongst the weavers:

“Les bobines gelaient, je devais les mettre dans ma poche”

(the bobbins froze, I had to put them in my pocket).

When the piece of cloth was finished it was taken usually by mule to Lavelanet to be sold. There still exist some of the ancient pathways that were used.

To become a weaver a boy of seventeen or eighteen years would take an apprenticeship in a village with a master. It was normally an informal agreement. The boy would work with the master for six months, earning nothing, not even his meals. After six months if the master considered him to be competent the boy could then set up on his own. If he was not adjudged competent he could continue to work for the master, on half-pay or look for another metier.

The cloth produced in the region was of different types. The cuir laine – a heavy fabric used for overcoats with high collars such as Napolean’s famous grey coat which was a mix of 90% white and 10% brown. Other versions of this cloth were made in different weights and widths.

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Napoléon’s famous greatcoat – Painting by John-Louis-Ernest Meissonier

Le bureil was a fabric of pure wool  either beige-brown or grey-blue in colour. Apart from weaving it into cloth, shepherds’ wives used it to knit the Neopolitan bonnet that they wore.

There are different accounts as to how the spinners and weavers of the Pays d’Olmes lived and worked. Some paint a picture of a hard life, working in difficult conditions for very little reward. In poorer households often the whole family lived, worked and slept in just one room.

Others accounts are not so charitable. I have translated the first lines of a song written about the weavers which aims to illustrate their weekly routine:

Weavers are worse than Bishops

Every Monday is a holiday for them

The Tuesday they have a hang-over

And Wednesday they can do nothing

Thursday they look at their work

Friday starts their week

Saturday the cloth is not finished

And yet Sunday, they say, ‘now you must pay us, Master’.