Heaps of sheeps

Transhumance n. the seasonal migration of livestock to suitable grazing grounds [C20: from French transhumer to change one’s pastures, from Spanish trashumar, from Latin TRANS- humus ground]

The above definition comes from the Collins English Dictionary.  Transhumance seems to have been around as long as animal husbandry.  It is practiced wherever the seasonal conditions mean that it’s better for livestock to move to a different place.  For example, think of the alpine pastures that are rich and lush in the summer, but are under a thick layer of snow during the winter.  Or think of the coastal plains of the Languedoc, which grow lush during the winter but dry out during the summer months.

The village of Vendres is situated close to the coast, just beside a lagoon, and there is a lot of grazing land around it – the ideal area for a flock of sheep!  Grazing plays an important part in maintaining the ecosystems of the somewhat marshy lands, and in reducing the fire hazard that un-grazed land would present during the hot summer months.

For the past twelve years, the village of Vendres has been celebrating the occasion of the transhumance of the sheep with a fete.  The neighbouring villages of Lespignan and Nissan have also joined in, and so the Fete de la Transhumance has evolved into a three-day event!  I went to Vendres last Saturday, to enjoy a day at the Fete de la Transhumance!

The highlight of the day was the procession of the flocks of sheep through the village, accompanied by riders on horseback.  First though came the marching band!Closely behind them were the horses…

…and then came the shepherds and the sheep!  I’ve seen sheep before, but seeing a huge flock of sheep arrive in a village is something I’d never experienced!

The sheep seemed to be going round in circles, pushed one against the other, with the whole flock moving very slowly towards where I was standing.

The man standing to the left in the above picture was holding a branch, with which he blessed the sheep by sprinkling holy water over them.
Finally, the sheep made off down the road, but there were sheep as far as I could see!!

More shepherds and a couple of sheepdogs brought up the rear, and everyone followed them down the road and into the village.

We took a shortcut to get to the Place du Lavoir where a small market and a communal meal had been set up.  To my surprise, the sheep came right past that square – once more it was wall-to-wall sheep!!

By the old lavoir, the open-air wash house, barbecues had been set up, and people were preparing salads on long trestle tables.  On the bouledrome next to the lavoir, tables and chairs had been prepared for 600 people – they were expecting a crowd!!

Come 12.30, the tables were pretty much filled up and people were queuing to get their lunches.  The atmosphere was great – lots of laughter, families meeting up, strangers making new friends, children running through the rows!  Some people had even brought table cloths for their tables, along with real wine glasses!

On my tray I had the following:  green salad with tomatoes, onions and olives, grilled lamb with boulangere potatoes, a slice of sheep’s cheese, a slice of apple tart, a piece of bread (very important, we are in France after all!!) and, also important, a quarter of wine (in a plastic beaker).  Everybody else’s trays were the same, by the way!!

The food was all very good, and there was plenty of it!  The lamb was locally raised and the cheese was produced with milk from the flocks we had just seen.  The apple tart was divine!

The market stalls next door to the bouledrome had a variety of items on offer: wine, honey, plants, cakes, hams and sausages, cheese, knick-knacks, etc. My favourite pretzel lady was there too!!

It’s definitely a fete I’ll be going to again – the meal alone is worth the trip!  Keep your eyes peeled for details of next year’s Fete de la Transhumance.  You’ll be able to find details on http://www.ladomitienne.com

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A monumental loss

The whole of France and people all over the word are grieving, following the fire that burnt down Notre Dame de Paris cathedral.  As I was reading the reports of the fire on Tuesday morning, tears started to well up in my eyes.  I was so fortunate to have been able to visit the cathedral on July 14, 2015, and to have been on the gallery linking the two towers during the fly past that celebrated the national holiday.  The internet is awash with pictures and videos of the fire and its aftermath, and there are many speculations as to how and why the fire started – I hope you won’t mind that I will not repeat any of that here.

One thing seems to be certain – Notre Dame will rise again!  In the process, some long forgotten skills will be learnt anew, and discoveries will be made about the building and the structure of the cathedral.  If it feels like doom and gloom now, think of the many churches and cathedrals that lay in ruins at the end of WWII.  Most of them rose from the ashes and are as beautiful today as they were before the war.

I have every hope that in years to come, Notre Dame de Paris will be once more the pride and joy of Paris and France!

I leave you with a picture from happier days, taken from one of the towers during my 2015 visit.

Easter traditions in Perpignan

The colourful town of Perpignan is worth a visit at any time of year, but if you are interested in real spectacle you have to visit just before Easter.

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Every year on Good Friday, a procession winds its way through the narrow streets of old Perpignan, to commemorate the passion of Christ.  The origins of the procession can be traced back to Saint Vincent Ferrier, a Dominican monk who lived between 1350 and 1419.  La Confrerie de la Sanch, the Fraternity of the Holy Blood, was founded in October 1416 at the Church of Saint-Jacques in Perpignan, with the aim of accompanying those condemned to death, as well as their families, before and after the execution, and at the same time commemorating the passion of Christ.

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Perpignan Cathedral

The participants of the procession are called penitents – the men wearing black robes with hats pointing to the sky, their faces completely masked, some of them barefoot or only wearing sandals.  The women wear black veils on their head and are dressed head to toe in black.  The procession is always led by the Regidor, a figure dressed in a red robe, carrying an iron bell, which is rung intermittently, followed by a group of drummers.  The solemnity of the procession as it approached sent shivers down my spine.

In 1777 the authorities decided to confine the procession to the church grounds of the Saint-Jacques church, as it was deemed too baroque and Spanish.  The tradition of taking the procession through the streets of the old town was revived in 1950 and it’s been taking place ever since.

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Baroque is certainly a good term to describe the procession today, and the tradition is typically Catalan.   Other processions exist in Arles-sur-Tech and Collioure, where they are still being held at night.

After the Regidor and the drummers comes a very large cross, carried upright by just one man, which is decorated with a great many symbols, which I imagine are instruments of the Passion of Christ, but I could not make sense of all of them.

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Reliquary of St Vincent Ferrier

The penitents carry the Misteri on their shoulders, which show scenes from the passion.  So there are all kinds of statues, which are brought from the churches and chapels of Perpignan and the surrounding villages, including one enormous cross, which had to be lowered every so often to pass below the power lines crossing the road.  The statues of the Virgin are dressed in black with mourning veils, some carrying the crown of thorns in outstretched hands, and all with strong expressions on their wooden faces.  The Misteri are heavy,  and the Penitents are doing this not for the spectators who line the streets, but for their faith.  At times I felt very much like an intruder taking photographs, and I did not shoot any videos (sorry!).

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The procession passes in silence; the penitents do not speak, and most of the bystanders watch in awed silence.  The only noise comes from a PA system, where someone is explaining the origins of the Sanch and reading what sounded to me to be sacred texts, some in Occitan. The PA system is also playing the Goigs, the traditional Catalan Easter songs.  I would have preferred for there not to been any of that.  For me it didn’t add to the atmosphere.

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The start is at 3pm in Rue de l’Eglise Saint-Jacques, and the procession returns there at 6pm.  In between there are four stops to give those carrying the Misteri a break.   When there is a break, even a short one during the walk, each one of the bearers has a stick on which to rest the handles of their heavy load.  Some of those sticks look as if they’ve been used for a very long time.

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So there I stood, awed by the whole thing, watching it go by, taking photographs of all the Misteri.  There had been a little wait before the procession arrived, and just across the street from where I stood was this rather fun sign, so here it is to lighten the mood 🙂

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There are many Misteri in the procession and many photographs I took, so I thought I would try and insert a slide show for you.

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So, if you ever are in the area around Easter, I would urge you to visit Perpignan on Good Friday, even if the weather does not look too good.  The procession will not leave you indifferent, and neither will the town of Perpignan!

For badge holders only – part 2

Welcome to Part Two of our guided walk around Montpellier – for those who missed Part One, you can find it here.

At the end of last week’s post, we were on the corner of Rue de la Coquille, where we were admiring the most amazing architectural feature!

Xavier Laurent, our guide, continued our walk towards Rue Foch and its focal point, Montpellier’s Arc de Triomphe.  On the way there, we passed in front of the Palais de Justice, the central court-house.

The Palais de Justice translates literally (as you may have guessed) as “Palace of Justice”.  It certainly is a palatial building and it is definitely designed to impress!  A long flight of stone steps leads up to a huge portico of Corinthian columns, surmounted by a very ornate pediment.  On either side of the portico, wings of the building project forward, creating a courtyard, which is closed to the street by iron railings.

In the days when Montpellier was a fortified city, there was a gate in the place where the Arc de Triomphe stands today.  The Arc stands at one of the highest points of Montpellier.  Naturally, it is not as big as the one in Paris, but it is impressive all the same!

If you look carefully at the picture above, you can just make out the heads of some people on the top of the Arc. Our group was larger than the maximum number allowed up there, so our guide split us into two groups.

The decorative reliefs are in homage of Louis XIV, glorifying his achievements during his long reign of 72 years!

To begin with, I thought the two faces of the Arc had identical reliefs, but on closer inspection they turned out to be different.  The reliefs in the pictures above are the ones celebrating the battle victories.  The two medallions in the pictures below celebrate the construction of the Canal du Midi, and the victory of Louis XIV over the French Protestants following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.  The central figure in the second medallion used to hold a cross in its raised hand, but that was knocked off some time ago!

The next medallion shows Louis XIV as Hercules, crowned by Victory, and the one below that remembers the capture of the town of Namur in Belgium by French troops.

After I took all those pictures, it was the turn of our part of the group to climb the 88 steps to the terrace atop the Arc!

Xavier, our guide, had told us that the views were worth the climb, and he had not promised too much – the views from the top were magnificent!!

The large open space on the other side of the Arc from Rue Foch is called the Promenade du Peyrou – a tree-lined public space with a statue of Louis XIV at the centre.  The statue which stands there today is a replica of the original, which (naturally) was melted down during the French revolution.  The original was monumental in size, and, according to our guide, no building in Montpellier could be taller than the tip of the fingers on the original statue’s raised arm!

The building behind the statue was the “Chateau d’Eau”, a water tower of sorts.  If you look carefully at the picture above, you can just make out the arcades of the aqueduct to the left of the building, which brought water to Montpellier and the “Chateau d’Eau” from 1768 until sometime in the 20th century – the aqueduct and the “Chateau d’Eau” are no longer in use today.

Once we had had our “fill” of the views from the top of the Arc de Triomphe it was time to descend the 88 steps of the spiral stone staircase.  The top of the  Arc de Triomphe can only be visited with a guide and I felt very privileged to have been there!

The next stop for our guided tour was a mysterious place – the medieval mikve.  A mikve “is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism” according to Wikipedia.  I found the Wikipedia article very interesting and instructive – do read it if you want to find out more.

The mikve is located in the cellar of a house in Rue de la Barralerie.  It was discovered by chance during renovation work:  the cellar had always been very damp, so it was decided to dig in attempt try and find the cause of the dampness.  In the process, the archaeologists were called in, and they discovered the remains of the medieval mikve.  If you’ve read the Wikipedia article, you’ll know that a mikve has to be filled with naturally occurring water, either rainwater or a spring or well.  In Montpellier, the mikve is filled by an underground water course.  No wonder that cellar was always damp!!  There is speculation that the synagogue was close by.  When the jews were chased from the French kingdom in the 13th century their places of worship would have been repurposed or destroyed.  It’s a miracle that the mikve survived!

The bath itself had been completely filled in with debris and covered over, but once it was all cleared out and restored, it filled up again with crystal clear water.  The water was so clear that it would have been easy to forget that it was there, had it not been for bits of leaves floating on top.

The picture above was taken from a small room above the bath, perhaps used for undressing / dressing oneself before and after immersion?

I felt quite awed when I climbed the stairs on my way out, thinking of the many centuries that this place had survived!

The mikve was the penultimate stop on our guided visit.  Xavier, our guide, walked us back to the Place de la Comedie – we stopped not all that far from where our visit had begun.  He gave us a little history of this magnificent square, which goes by the nickname of l’oeuf, the egg!  The Place de la Comedie is very much a 19th century creation, with its impressive buildings in the style of the Paris architect Haussmann surrounding it.  Originally there was an egg-shaped island on the square, with roads around it.  I’ve always known the Place de la Comedie in its present pedestrianised version, so that it’s difficult to imagine it with roads and cars.  Below is a picture from 1949, which shows a view of the square towards where the Polygone shopping centre is today.  You can see the egg shape quite clearly.  If you take a look at an aerial view of Place de la Comedie on g**gle maps, you can see that the egg shape is still there – for the moment, as plans are underway to resurface the entire square!

The square takes its name from the Opera Comedie, the 19th century opera house of Montpellier.  A succession of opera houses have stood on the self-same spot, all of them destroyed by fire, apart from the current one, which was built by a disciple of the architect Charles Garnier, of Paris opera fame!  I’ll leave you with a picture of the opera house at dusk, all lit up!  There’s much more to discover in Montpellier.  You’ll see for yourself when you next visit!

For badge holders only

Most of us have been there at some point:  you’re visiting a place and you come across something that looks really interesting.  You have lots of questions, but there’s nobody to answer them. Mobile internet has made things a lot easier – smartphones allow us to call up information so easily, yet the information is only as good as the search terms we enter.  You really want someone who can tell you all about it – a real person, A GUIDE!!

More and more towns in the Languedoc area now offer guided visits.  I recently went on a guided visit of the historic centre of Montpellier – I booked it via the tourist office in Montpellier. A good number of different themed visits are organised by the tourist office there – this link should take you to the full list of visits on offer.  I went on the “Centre Historique” visit, which started outside the tourist office on Place de la Comedie.

After handing a badge to each participant of the guided tour, our guide, Xavier Laurent, gave us an overview of the history of Montpellier.  I’m going to give you a very brief summary:  the city has no Roman past, it was founded around the 10th century by the Guilhelm dynasty.  In the Middle Ages, the settlement expanded and prospered and became a centre for trade across the Mediterranean.  Montpellier became famous for its University, especially the law and medicine faculties, and the city was a stopping place on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.  For more information, have a look at the Wikipedia entry for Montpellier.

Montpellier continued to prosper and grow – it later became the administrative seat of the Herault departement and the Languedoc Region, and today it is in 7th or 8th position in the ranking of France’s largest cities. The university culture, started in medieval times, is still thriving today!

Xavier walked with us to Rue de la Monnaie, where he showed us bronze markers which were set in the pavement, and told us why they were there.

Pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela usually wore a scallop shell on a string around their necks.  It was a symbol that was used along the pilgrimage routes – scallop shells would be affixed to buildings and doors, to denote shelter and welcome.  The real shells could be used by the pilgrims to scoop food and water, a bit like a spoon.  In Montpellier, the markers in the pavement denote the routes the pilgrims would have taken across the city.

From Rue de la Monnaie we went on to Rue de l’Aiguillerie and to the Hotel de Griffy.  The notables of Montpellier built their mansions in the centre of the town – many of them still exist but it’s unusual to be able to peek behind the doors!  Our guide had the keys to the enormous gates of the Hotel de Griffy, so we could have a look!!

In case you are wondering why I am only showing you some windows and not the whole facade, in the historic centre of Montpellier, most buildings are five times as high as the streets are wide, so it’s very difficult to get pictures of an entire house!

The Hotel de Griffy was divided into separate apartments at some point during its more recent history.  We were not able to visit the interior of the house, but we could see the courtyard and the staircase!

The four facades around the courtyard were identical, but above each of the central windows of the first floor was a different mask, sculpted in stone and representing the four seasons.  Lots of faces to watch all the comings and goings – if only they could tell us what they have seen…

The other windows were decorated with sculpted ornaments of various kinds, some of them probably heraldic.

The staircase took up one entire side of the courtyard – it was monumental!  The finely wrought iron balustrade dates from 1790, when the whole mansion was given a makeover.

From the Hotel de Griffy, our guide took us to the Montpellier equivalent of the Champs Elysees: the Rue Foch.

We were headed for the triumphal arch at the western end of Rue Foch, but first we admired the facade of the prefecture building.  The prefecture is the administrative headquarters of the Herault department.

A little detour around the back brought us to rue de la Canourge and this extraordinary street corner!!

This shell-shaped corner had been built in the days when the streets were frequented by horse and cart.  It  allowed the carts to turn the sharp corner without scraping the walls in the process!  On the wall of the building opposite are traces of tracery. 🙂

Join me next week for a view of Montpellier from the top of the triumphal arch and for a visit to the medieval mikve, and find out why the Place de la Comedie is called l’oeuf (the egg)!

Every face tells a story

Have you ever walked down an empty street and felt that you were being watched?  Even though there were no curtains twitching nor anyone at the windows?  Disconcerting, until you discover a face, somewhere high up on a building – a face that may have been gazing out for decades or centuries!  Take a walk around the small towns in Southern France, and you’ll be able to find those faces – sometimes well hidden, sometimes very obvious!

Below is a face above a door in Pezenas.

Faces and facades share the same etymological origin.  The facade being the ‘face’ of a building, it projects political, symbolic and social values, revealing all kinds of information about its owner.  A lot of the ornate facades in this post date from the 19th century, when you could flaunt it if you had it and more was definitely better!!

The pictures below are of a building in Castelnaudary – a former department store dating from the 1870s.  There are many faces on that facade!

The face below is high up on a wall in a narrow street in Beziers – it’s almost ghost like!

Atlantes always look somewhat weary and/or bored – I guess I would too, if I had to carry all that weight! 🙂

There are also plenty of animals to be found on facades.  Here is a pair of fearsome hounds guarding a gate:

A ram:

A lion:

More lions:

Here’s a pair of Caryatids, looking vaguely bored…

Someone’s looking out of a window of this tower in Narbonne.  I wonder what the story behind that window is!

Hermes or Mercury?

More caryatids – these adorn a renaissance mansion in Narbonne.

Two faces carved by the Beziers sculptor Injalbert

Green men also seem to figure in some places:

This finely sculpted face was actually on a door knocker and measured only about 3cm across!

I leave you with this beautiful art nouveau sculpture from a building in Beziers.  Raise your eyes next time you go for a walk – you’ll never know what you may find!!