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.
DSC01199

Bains de Couloubret – Ax les Thermes

baths

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.

DSC01201

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.

Rennes-les-Bains,_les_thermes_romains

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.

V0011240 A man taking a shower as part of a hydrotherapeutic cure. Wo

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.

badenbaden1910

Baden Baden Spa, 1910

 

 

Centre_d'Aix-les-Bains_depuis_la_gare_SNCF

Aix les Bains, France (Attribution: Mathis Brancquart)

882px-Roman_Baths_in_Bath_Spa,_England_-_July_2006

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.

 

alet-abbey-2

 

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

alet-abbey-6alet-abbey-4alet-abbey-3

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.

alet-abbry-5

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.

alet-abbey-7

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.

border-3

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

 

flowergarden-3flowergarden-2

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.

lilliputvillage

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.

ocre mine

 

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.

Lascaux2

The Ochre Horse at Lascaux

Pech_Merle_main

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.

DSC00974DSC00982DSC00984

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.

DSC00987

Doorway into a house

DSC00988

Inside a house

DSC00991

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

DSC00998

Bread Oven

DSC00977

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.

olive trees

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.

DSC00993

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.

Cavorting in Calvados

Back from a break in Normandy where cold, windy weather and an excruciatingly painful knee somewhat curtailed activities. However a stop-off at a Calvados distillery refreshed the senses and taste buds, if not the knee.

My neighbour first introduced me to Calvados, surreptitiously adding it to my coffee one night after the village fete. I wasn’t looking and sipped the coffee quite happily. An hour later I had great difficulty finding my own front door despite the fact that I live opposite, just a mere handful of metres away. Since then, whenever he visits Normandy he has brought me a bottle back “straight off the farm”…er…that is to say… made privately for the makers own personal consumption.

Calvados is distilled from cider made from specially grown and selected apples. The fruit is harvested and pressed into a juice and then fermented into a dry cider. After that it is distilled into eau de vie. It can only be sold as Calvados after spending two years maturing in oak casks. The longer it is left, the smoother it becomes.

512px-Calvados_Apfel_0596

Apples for Calvados

Calva_still

A Calvados Still

It’s a versatile spirit – an aperitif, a digestif, useful in cooking (particularly to pep up pork) and in coffee.

There are a number of traditions that surround Calva. One I was told of was le trou Normand, or “the Norman hole”. This is a small drink of Calvados that you take between courses during a very long meal, supposedly to resuscitate the appetite.

But I really like the sound of an old ritual that the Norman farmers followed at the end of a meal. It is called the seven rounds of Calvados and it goes thus:

Round 1.          Le Café Calva (a tot poured into the coffee)

Round 2           La Rincette (a little nip)

Round 3           La Sur-rincette (another little nip)

Round 4           Le Gloria (yet another)

Round 5           L’Alléluia (and another)

Round 6           Le Coup de pied au cul (the kick up the backside)

Round 7           Le Coup de l’étrier (the kick in the stirrup – that is the kick out of the door and onto the horse)

It was a ritual for men only and said to leave the ladies free and happy for the evening. I can bear witness to that last point!

Couperne_Calvados

The End Product…Mmm!

Stormy Nights and Ladies in White

The church clock struck midnight. Outside the rain fell in torrents beating a tattoo on the porch roof. Wind moaned through a gap in the shutters. In my office the chandelier lights flickered and the computer gave an apologetic “huff” and died only to mysteriously self-resuscitate a few seconds later.

I was researching more ghosts, myths and legends for another set of spooky stories and had arrived at the legends of the Dames Blanches – White Ladies. They’re everywhere in France but especially in Normandy and the Pyrenees. There are two around me haunting Chateaux Puivert and Puylaurens. At Puylaurens, the great-niece of Phillipe le Bel, restlessly walks the battlements. At Puivert (click for the full story) their Dame Blanche appears on rainy nights at one of the tower windows and just over the border in Andorra there is one who defended the principality from a huge wolf which was really an angry bishop in disguise. Goodness knows how many more there are lurking in the shadows.

What’s with it with these ladies; flitting around in the most inclement of weather wearing little more than some flimsy draperies?

dameblanche2

 

Jesuit Martin Antonio Delrio writing in the sixteenth century reassures me. He writes that these ladies are generally benevolent towards we mere humans, they are merely feés appearing in the woods and on the plains. They appear to be kind to animals too as he asserts that often the ladies appeared, carrying a lighted candle, in stables. There, they would let a few drops of wax fall on the incumbents’ manes and tails and then proceed to tenderly and carefully comb and plait them.

Another writer, Thomas Keightley makes me nervous though. In his book “The Fairy Mythology” he recounts tales of the malevolent nature of the Dames Blanches where they lurk at cross-roads, narrow bridges and ravines and insist on forfeits. If you want to pass by you may have to dance with them, get on your knees to them or assist them in some way. Woe betide you if you refuse. You may end up in a patch of nettles and brambles. These unkind phantoms are said to be found mainly in the north of France, particularly Normandy. Did I tell you I’m going to Normandy at the end of April?  Me with my cronky knee. Just my luck.

 

Dame_blanche_opéra

PS Did I also tell you that my collection of spooky stories – “Spook Me Out” will be available from Amazon at the end of March?

cover-spook.jpg