Autumn is here; Winter is Coming

Autumn is here.

The morning dog walks now take place in soft half-light.

Stormy wet and windy days now slip in between ridiculously warm and sunny ones when we try to make the most of the late afternoon sun on the balcony.

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Nights are chilly; time to light the log-burner and put the duvet back on the bed.

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Brilliant splashes of autumn colours shine through in the hedgerows and in the garden. The leaves on the trees are fading slowly from green to old gold; before tumbling and swirling to the ground.

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The house is up for sale and I shall be sorry to leave but I have many good memories to take with me. Although at the beginning I remember how bleak and cold the house was. I stood in what is now my kitchen and thought ‘what have I done?’

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How things have changed!
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It was an unexpected adventure coming to France so who knows what waits around the corner? However there is one thing I am sure of, autumn may be here but, to coin a phrase…’Winter is Coming’.

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A Journey Back in Time

The Ariege Departement in SW France possesses extensive cave systems within its limestone mountains some of which have prehistoric cave paintings. The Grotte de Niaux near Tarascon-sur-Ariege is one of the few caves that is still open to the public where you can view examples of these paintings.

There is a narrow, vertiginous road snaking up to what is now the cave entrance and visitor centre. The scenery is rugged; massive limestone cliffs lower over one side of the road and a steep wooded drop awaits the careless driver on the other.

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The Grotte de Niaux is part of a large cave system that delves deep into the mountain-side. The entire network has been explored, most of it remains closed to the public as too difficult and dangerous to access. 

Over time, the exploitation of the Niaux site has led to a deterioration of the paintings. So visits are limited to 20 people – by reservation. This allows the cave to maintain the temperature of 12° necessary for the preservation of the paintings. There is no lighting within the cave and no photographs are allowed.

We are issued with a square hand lamp that gives off a dull yellow light and we walk from the bright sunshine into the deep black of a gallery that winds deep into the heart of the cave. The journey back in time begins.

Everywhere the ground is uneven. Sometimes it is gently bumpy with the floor of washed sand, hardened over the centuries. Other times we stumble through round depressions in the rock where water lingers and a film of moisture makes it slippery underfoot. Our progression is, to put it mildy, somewhat tortuous.

We are just the latest in a long line of visitors as a rock, inscribed with graffiti testifies. The earliest scratching is dated 1602. There are few stalactites/stalagmites left in the cave since these were robbed out in Victorian times to make artificial grottos in gardens.

For the first 400 metres or so there are no paintings, nothing. We arrive at a point where the cave narrows. A long-ago rockfall of great boulders from the roof of the cave partially blocks the way and with warnings not to touch the sides of the cave to avoid contamination by us, we stoop and squeeze through a narrow passage. As we emerge we see the first signs of our prehistoric ancestors – the Magdelenians – late stone-age people from between 17000 and 10000 BC.

A series of symbols – dots, dashes, lines and bars in series. Some are red some are black. The red is haematite, the black manganese dioxide or charcoal. These were mixed with something to bind them – either water or fat. But what do they mean, these symbols? Current thinking is that they mark the entrance to what was, for our ancestors, a sacred place.

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We continue along the vast gallery and despite the unevenness of the ground and the winding route it does feel like we are treading in the footsteps of our ancestors. The trackway disappears ahead of us, swallowed up in the darkness.

Around the 800 metre mark the path narrows before opening into a wide area, rather like a cross-roads, with other tunnels leading off. Our main path climbs steeply and we find what we have stumbled, slipped and slid to see. We arrive at the magnificent round chamber of the Salon Noir – the Black Chamber.

We are told to shut off our lamps and put them to one side lest we are tempted to shine an unwelcome light on the paintings. The chamber, round and vaulted echoes with our murmurs. It is said to be the only place where the cave answers back.

There, in the pitch black, our guide uses her torch to show us the wall paintings.

They are grouped together in separate panels; composed of animals, mostly bison, ibex, horses and deer; represented in profile, as if suspended in air. They are both realistic and stylistic; mostly outlined in black with occasional use of red and the artists have cleverly used the undulating forms of the rock.

We stumble back towards the daylight, quieter now and I’m preoccupied…not so much with the paintings themselves whose age and condition alone make them something quite wondrous but more with the people who painted them. I imagine them making the journey we have taken; I see them crouched, uncomfortably against the rock creating their art by the light of a weak, flickering flame.

Why did our ancestors paint these? What meaning did they attach to the paintings?

One suggestion is that these people possessed a sense of a spiritual existence which is represented by the animals and symbols…a religion if you like. The paintings are deep inside a cave system which was not inhabited by them so they must have had a strong reason to penetrate so deep into the cave.

Perhaps in a world where they were surrounded by these animals they saw themselves as an integral part of this world, not above it? Something that perhaps we modern visitors should remember more often.

Perhaps they believed that the rock face represented a curtain between their world and the spirit world?

So many questions. No answers just theories. 

Medieval Mirepoix – You Can’t Keep A Good City Down

The medieval city of Mirepoix sits on the banks of the river Aude about halfway between Carcassonne and Foix. In the early 13th century many of the merchants and artisans of Mirepoix had converted to the Cathar religion, regarded as heretical by the Catholic church.

In 1206 rumours of a war against the Cathars brought together, in Mirepoix, around 600 people – lords, ladies, tradesmen, farmers – to discuss what they should do in the event of a war. They were right to do so for in 1209 the Pope declared a holy war against the Cathars – the Albigensian Crusade – a war that lasted twenty years. Simon de Montfort led the Pope’s army with his second in command Guy de Lévis. Carcassonne fell to them and they headed for Foix via Mirepoix.

It was a walk in the park for de Monfort. Mirepoix was neither garrisoned nor possessed of defences. A few were killed but it was a relatively bloodless occupation. De Monfort gave the town to his second in command together with all the surrounding region. Ultimately this proved no bad thing. Guy de Lévis, originally from Normandy, seems to have been a relatively cultured and rational man. He did not oppress the people of Mirepoix rather he helped them; he added the town’s name to his own – Guy de Lévis-Mirepoix and built the Church of St Maurice. The town prospered until disaster struck in June 1289.

It had been cold wet and snowy that year. The rivers were running high some of which flowed into a dam at Puivert some thirty kilometres away. The dam broke and in three days the town of Mirepoix was destroyed completely except some few ruins of the old feudal château.

John, the grandson of Guy de Lévis-Mirepoix was now the Seigneur and he gave the people of Mirepoix enough land to rebuild their city but this time on slightly higher ground on the other side of the river l’Hers. The new city was rebuilt as a Bastide – that is built on a grid system around a central market place. This was slightly unusual since such towns were normally built around the church.

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The big market square was surrounded by shops, half timbered and galleried and a new church of St Maurice was built by John and his wife Constance of Foix. It became a cathedral in 1317.

Under the watchful eye of their seigneur, the people of Mirepoix and their city prospered. All went well until the late 14th century.

Enter the Black Prince, Edward of Woodstock,eldest son of Edward III. During the Hundred Years war he sacked, looted and pillaged towns and cities in the region including Mirepoix, half of which he burned down

But you cannot keep a good city down. Nothing daunted the citizens built again and a new Mirepoix emerged from the ashes. This time they built surrounding walls and stone ramparts together with four stout gateways – the remains of one, La Porte d’Aval, can still be seen.

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La Porte d’Aval

The townspeople constructed more half timbered houses with colonnades wide enough for horses and carts to pass under thus keeping their occupants dry whilst shopping. The finest example of these houses is the Maison du Consuls with its array of fantastic carvings.

The cathedral was destroyed in the fire and so began major reconstruction and enlargement that did not finish until 1865. Models depicting the different stages of reconstruction are on display within the cathedral.

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Today Mirepoix is a bustling small city, popular with tourists. In particular the tradition of the market continues every Monday when the square is filled with colourful stalls selling everything from fruit and vegetables, clothes, bric a brac – you name it Mirepoix market sells it…probably!

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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.

#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