The round of Christmas markets has started and this past weekend I visited two: one in St Chinian and the other at the Chateau-Abbaye de Cassan near Roujan. Since I wrote about the St Chinian Christmas market last year, I’ll write about the at Cassan instead. The market at Cassan goes by various names – there is the Marche de Noel a l’Anglaise (Christmas market in the English fashion), La foire de Noel (Christmas Fair), and finally the Cassan Cracker Fair. This market was established eight years ago, and in the early days it was very much aimed at the British expat community in the area, who felt deprived of their Christmas crackers. If you don’t know what Christmas crackers are have a look here.
The Cassan Christmas market now attracts almost as many French visitors as British ones, and there is a great mix of nationalities among the 120+ exhibitors. To cope with the number of visitors, the market is being held on Saturday and Sunday. For me the attraction was two-fold: to visit the Chateau-Abbaye and the Christmas market. Granted, it’s not the best time to visit the buildings when hundreds and even thousands of other people are there too, but still. A reduced entrance fee of 2 EUR (the regular entrance fee to the Abbey is somewhere around 7 EUR) is charged during the two days the Christmas market takes place, so it’s worth the trip for that alone ;-).
The Abbaye de Cassan was first established in 1080 as an Augustinian priory, and in its heyday numbered 80 priors. The church was consecrated in 1115, and until the plague and 100 years war in the 14th century all was going swimmingly. Then the rot set in and decline continued until in 1605 there were only 7 or 8 priors left at the priory. And then, in the middle of the 18th century the abbey was completely re-built, except for the church, not all that long before the revolution chased the remaining priors from their new palatial quarters.
For palatial they certainly would have been. The facade on the garden side is worthy of any stately home, and the salons on the ground floor would have been very beautiful. Unfortunately the gardens are somewhat neglected, the parterres inexistent and the pond looks as if it has been dry for some time.
The facade onto the main courtyard is no less impressive than the garden side, and provided a good foil for the stalls which were set up outside.
I was hoping to indulge in my favourite fish-and-chips, but I was too late – there was no fish left. The chips were excellent though, and more than enough to keep me happy for the rest of the afternoon! The galleries inside the three wings which surround the main courtyard look as though they could have been serving as a cloister at one point, though if that were the case, the fourth wing is perhaps missing – or was never built?
The church is incredible – only slightly modified in the 18th century – and is one of the largest romanesque churches in the area. When I arrived a cellist was playing at one end, and the sound beautifully filled the whole building despite the ambient noise. A concert would probably sound fantastic here! The stalls in the church, and elsewhere, offered a wonderful selection of goods: some traditional British Christmas food such as mince pies, Christmas cake and plum pudding, a good amount of jewellery, textiles, gift items, gardening tools, glasses, wine and champagne, carpets, handicrafts, and there was a stall selling beautiful lampshades made with traditional Japanese and Nepalese paper, which was my favourite.
The cupola on top of the church is called “lantern of hope”. Legend has it that a fire was kept burning in the lantern each night to help guide the pilgrims on the way to Santiago de Compostela to the abbey, where they could spend the night before continuing on their pilgrimage to the Spanish sanctuary.
Plans are afoot to develop Cassan into a corporate retreat, so plan to visit as soon as you can, while you still can! For more reading on Cassan have a look at Wikipedia in French and English. A virtual tour is available on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyxJGy_K1iU and there is also the official website at http://www.chateau-cassan.com/