This morning the rain finally stopped and the sun poked its nose out though it was quite chilly. To make the most of the daylight and the lack of rain, we set off early intending to visit the old town of Agde a little inland from the Cap D’Agde on the coast visited last week. Our intention was to follow the route from Agde for 20 Km along the spit of land separating the Bassin de Thau lagoon from the sea towards the port of Sète. In the event we got side-tracked at Agde and never got any further.
From our parking place beside the river Hérault the cathedral of Agde on the far bank was the most prominent feature of the town. There is nothing beautiful about the solid black crenelated walls of the huge building. Most of the town, including the Romanesque cathedral, is constructed in black basalt from the nearby Mont St Loupe. This actually is quite pleasant and reminded us in this respect of Volvic, another black volcanic stone town in the Auvergne. In fact, from the inside the cathedral is very pleasing, with an imposing vaulted roof but otherwise very stark and almost windowless. Many cathedrals in the region are fortified, supposedly to protect against attacks from the Barbary pirates, but more likely because of the constant internal conflicts between local feudal lords.
The town was founded as the Greek colony of Agatha in the 5th century BC and the street layout today is cramped within the former ramparts, with no pavements or gardens and few courtyards. The hard black basalt wears very well and the carvings on the doorways are very clear without the need for restoration.
Agde, carved doorway with Arab influence
Along the landward side of the ramparts we discovered a tree-lined promenade, complete with a statue of Marianne and at the end the Maison des Savoirs. Closer inspection showed this to be the trendy name for the public library and other linked organisations gathered together in a rebuilt school. This had formerly been made up of ranges of two storey buildings around a courtyard. The courtyard had been roofed over and the walls of the classrooms on the ground floor removed to provide glass fronted study areas. The names of the classes could be read in the black basalt above the doorways: dessin, mathématique, histoire etc. In the foyer was an exhibition on the theme of Captain Nemo and the Nautilus – of course it was the centenary of the death of Jules Verne. More important to us was the café, not haute cuisine but what can one expect when the dish of the day costs a mere three Euros! Although the library was closed for lunch when we arrived, it proved to be very busy in the afternoon with much demand for the computer terminals. As you can see we remain librarians at heart, who are pleased to see an active library in the centre of the community.
Adge, statue of Marianne
Adge, in the Maison des Savoirs
We wandered the streets of Agde longer than intended as we discovered a Citroën garage and took Modestine in to sort out a problem with her leisure battery. Two hours later and 150 Euros lighter in pocket we drove home through the dusk, getting lost yet again in the traffic turmoil that is Béziers.
Wednesday 16th November 2005, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
After a morning on the internet in the library at St Chinian we made our way through the vineyards, the last leaves glowing gold in the sun, across a countryside washed clean by the rains to the village of Colombiers, just west of Béziers. Attractively set by the Canal du Midi, it was the gateway to three different sites to fill a very pleasant afternoon.
The Canal du Midi is not only an engineering marvel but also a beautiful addition to the landscape with its stately avenues of pine or plane trees. In Agde yesterday we had admired the round lock, an ingenious way of catering for a junction in the canal where different levels met. Now our path under the trees led us to the Tunnel de Malpas, the first canal tunnel in the world and, although not a long tunnel, built on a generous scale to take sea-going craft. At the east end it is lined with finished stonework but at the other it is simply cut into the soft rock – apparently it was completed by Riquet in great haste before the arrival of the government fund-holders, who were certain that it was an impossible task. Riquet triumphantly proved them wrong.
Agde, round lock on Canal du Midi
Malpas Tunnel, Canal du Midi
From the canal the quiet road wound upward giving a panoramic view over the Etang de Montady, a round lake drained in the 13th century with radiating ditches still clearly marking the boundaries of the fields. With the storms and floods of recent days it had rapidly reverted to its original state! Across the plain on the far side of this remarkable field layout villages clustered on hilltops around their church or castle with Béziers and its cathedral in the distance.
Etang de Montady
Further on, on the top of the hill, with wonderful views in all directions across the flooded plains, the sheets of water shining in front of the distant hills, hazy under the low sun, was the Oppidum Ensérune, a Celtic settlement whose original name is not known, which was occupied from the sixth century BC until the first century AD. The Celts certainly knew how to pick a site, and the Centre des Monuments Nationaux had enhanced it by planting pines and scented shrubs. Historically and scenically the visit was a wonderful experience. There was clear evidence of close links with the Greek and Roman worlds from the many finds in the museum on the site, painted Greek vases, terra cotta oil lamps from factories in Italy and grave goods from the large necropolis including metal attachments to armour and even the shells of eggs that were buried with the warriors.
Oppidum d’Ensérune, some of the excavated remains on south side
There were town houses in the roman style, remains of workshops, cisterns for water and many large storage pits, amphorae and jars for wine, oil and grain.
Oppidum d’Ensérune, community grain store
Oppidum d’Ensérune, cross section of grain silo revealed by road cutting
Below, beyond the Canal du Midi, the line of the Via Domitia, the first Roman road in the region, could be seen cutting across the fields, and it was probably to these plains that the Celts moved when they tired of the views, leaving the hillside to become vineyards until it was rediscovered two thousand years later.
View south from Oppidum d’Ensérune showing Via Domitia and Canal du Midi
So our afternoon took in three sites from three periods, the classical world, medieval times and the dawn of the modern age. The region has so much of interest.
Thursday 17th November 2005, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
Time to venture a little further afield while the weather is reasonably dry. This morning we arrived in Carcassonne after a very pleasant drive along near deserted roads through small French towns and villages that cannot be as dead as they seem as we pass through.
Carcassonne was another of the strongholds where a couple of hundred Cathars were burned alive after the city surrendered following negotiation. Today though, it is quite possible to visit the town and remain unaware of this aspect of its past. It is an incredible fairy tale of a town, surrounded by castle battlements with round towers, pointed roofs, moats, bridges and gateways. It is the very epitome of a mediaeval town but is in fact largely due to the imaginative fancy of the nineteenth century Viollet-le-Duc who managed to convince the French authorities that the town should be restored as an example of a fortified mediaeval city. This he did with a great deal of imagination, the result in all probability being nothing like it had originally been – much as the reconstruction of Knossos in Crete has since proved to be the result of an over imaginative enthusiasm by the archaeologist Arthur Evans.
Walls of Carcassonne, impressive - whether or not authentic
Nevertheless, it is listed as a European World heritage site and there are many who find the Cité de Carcassonne a fascinating place, crowded with camera clicking crowds even this late in the year. It is certainly quite good fun, the central area occupied by a variety of restaurants, souvenir shops, museums of torture and the Inquisition and a haunted house. Here too is the former Cathedral, which le Duc mistakenly assumed was part of the castle battlements. An amusing touch, given the enthusiasm of Japanese tourist to visit sites of European history, was the young Japanese lady running the tourist information office!
Walls of Carcassonne with singularly unmediaeval sculpture of Dame Carcassa
Bridge to the Viscount’s castle, Carcassonne
A very chilly and windy walk around the battlements and les lices (joisting area between the inner and outer defensive walls of the Cité) gave us some excellent views of the surrounding countryside and, on the far side of the river Aude, the lower town – la Bastide de St. Louis – commissioned by the monarch St. Louis in 1260.
Les lices at Carcassonne
We made our way down to this with its chequerboard of narrow streets laid out in a grid pattern, an interesting example of early town planning.. A fourteenth century footbridge took us across the river with a delightful little chapel at the far end mentioned by the Devonian traveller Sabine Baring-Gould.
Porte d’Aude leading down to the lower town at Carcassonne
Looking back to the fortifications of Carcassonne
Mediaeval bridge, Carcassonne
The town contains a couple of parish churches built in the thirteenth century, one of which later became the cathedral. There is an eighteenth century covered market, an open square – Place Carnot, with an attractive fountain, used as a market square and surrounded by small shops and terraced restaurants – too cold today for many customers. Best of all though, is the Musée de Beaux Arts housed in a seventeenth century building, Le Présidial, a former court house. Here we discovered a special free exhibition – the Pig in Art!! Three galleries devoted entirely to the pig and covering some three thousand years of pig history. There are ceramic pigs, bronze caste pigs, wooden carved pigs, stuffed real pigs. Pigs in paintings, sketches and drawings, pigs in cookery, pigs as pets, toys, and in stories, pigs in books, on postcards, stamps and seals. Pigs in agriculture, the economics of pig husbandry, money box pigs, instruments for killing and dissecting pigs. There is no aspect of pig culture that has been neglected so it is not surprising that it took three years of planning and has brought together exhibits from collections throughout France. Ian was especially amused to discover an incunable with an illumination of a pig produced by the Parisian printer Philippe PIGouchet!
Running the pig exhibition a very close second, was our delight at discovering a bust in the museum courtyard of Eugene Poubelle, a nineteenth century Prefect of Carcassonne whose name is eponymous throughout France as the inventor of the rubbish bin! Certainly we noticed that the streets of the town are cleaner and better kept than elsewhere in southern French towns. We also noted, with unimaginable relief, that there is a definite absence of dogs’ mess. There are even little bags strategically placed around the town for dog owners to use before depositing in one of Monsieur Poubelle’s bins! Maybe another bust should be placed in the town to honour the twenty-first century invention of Monsieur Canisac (or perhaps his German and British namesakes Herr Hundekotentsorgungsbeutel and Mr. Poopascoop).
Monsieur Poubelle presides over his invention
Friday 18th November 2005, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
Last night was very cold and this morning Modestine had a film of frost across her windscreen. The sun though was beautiful and the sky a wonderful clear blue. Knowing just how difficult it can be driving back home into the sunset, we decided it was a day for visiting Castres to the west of us, which meant we had the sun behind us in both directions. Castres lies towards Toulouse, about an hour and a half’s drive from here, passing through some very lovely countryside. The route rises from the flat vine covered plains up the steep twisting route to St. Pons the rocky hillsides covered in sparse vegetation and dark green pines. Beyond St. Pons though, we were delighted to discover the scenery becomes more verdant. The valley becomes wider with green meadows in which cattle, sheep and horses graze. These are the very first we recall seeing since we arrived nearly three weeks ago. The Hérault really does have a monoculture of vines.
Further delights awaited us in Castres. It too had been a Cathar town but surrendered to Simon de Montfort in 1209. Today it is a lovely old town on the river Agout, spotlessly clean and with an obvious pride in itself. As we crossed the main town square the daily market was just closing. A fleet of vehicles and a team of yellow jacketed municipal employees were already clearing away the rubbish and hosing down the streets. Nearby were sunny cafes and a pleasant modern pedestrianised shopping precinct.
Cleaning up after the market at Castres
Tall old houses, originally built by textile merchants, line the riverside, reflected in its clear smoothly flowing water. There are pedestrianised streets of mainly sixteenth century half-timbered houses in the centre and several grand old properties of the 16th and 17th centuries. The Hôtel Jean Oulès is built in red brick with stone facings, in the style of Toulouse and Albi. The 17th-century Hôtel de Poncet provides an unusual Westcountry link. It belonged to the maternal grandfather of Marshall Jean-Louis de Ligonnier. Born in Castres in 1680 Ligonnier took refuge in England in 1697 after the repeal of the Edict of Nantes. After a career in the British Army he became MP for Bath and Governor of Guernsey, dying in London in 1770. Interesting to see the places where some of our Huguenot refugees originated. The Eglise Saint-Jacques de Villegoudou is one of the points on the route to Santiago de Compostella. The interior had just been washed when we arrived and smelt wonderful.
Houses reflected in the Agout at Castres
Hotel Jean Oulès, Castres
A superb ornate Art Nouveau theatre stands beside the Hotel de Ville, itself an impressive building of the 17th century which also houses the Goya museum. This is an excellent gallery of Spanish art with works by Murillo, Picasso, Velasquez, Ribiera, Cano and of course Goya. It seemed strange that, although not far from Spain, we are actually in France. However, the basis of the collection results from a bequest to the town of three paintings by Goya and a large collection of his disturbing prints, including the Capricchios, and the three series on proverbs, bullfighting and the horrors of war.
Municipal theatre in Castres
The Hotel de Ville stands in the beautifully tended Jardins de l’Archevéché, laid out to designs commissioned from Le Notre who was responsible for the gardens at Versailles. His strict symmetry had been rather spoiled as, at one time, each yew tree was made the responsibility of a different pensioner in a nearby hospital, each of whom who had his own ideas on the shape it should be. Whilst waiting for the museum to open after lunch we enjoyed a sunny rest amongst the manicured box hedges and clipped yew trees beside the fountain at the centre with its impressive jet of water.
Town Hall and Goya museum in Castres
View across part of the Jardins de l’Archevéché in Castres
On our way back to find Modestine we called in at the Cathédral Saint-Benoit with its single central nave and several side-altars. This is in keeping with the local style where side aisles seem uncommon. The vaulting is roman. There are several huge canvases above the different alters but the lighting was too poor to appreciate them.
Castres is a delightful town, clean and comfortable to stroll around in. It demonstrates perfectly that towns in the south of France do not need to be dirty and a constant obstacle race. Full marks to Castres on all fronts.