Tucked away

A few weeks ago, a friend came to stay in Saint-Chinian, and together we went on an outing to Mirepoix one Monday morning.  Monday is one of the days that Mirepoix hosts an outdoor market, which is always worth a look!

Before visiting the market, we took a little detour to the tiny village of Vals, some 13km west of Mirepoix.  The reason for the detour was to visit the church of Notre Dame de Vals, parts of which date back to the 11th century.  This church is unlike any other – it is built into the rock, rather than on top of it, and because of the topography it is built on three levels.  Here’s a picture of the church as you approach from the village:

As I got to the door at the top of the steps, I was wondering if it would be locked.  My fears were unfounded – the door was unlocked!

Behind the door that you can see in the picture above were some more steps, and they were leading into the rock!

Another door awaited at the top of the steps!

I had to duck a little as I climbed the steps, so as not to bang my head on the rock!

Behind that door lay the oldest part of the church, the lower nave, which is pre-romanesque.  There are several side chapels and niches.

From the lower nave, steps led to the apse, which was built in the 11th century on existing foundations.  It is assumed that the vaulting was added to the apse at the beginning of the 12th century, and that the whole apse was decorated with frescoes at that time.  The frescoes were discovered by the parish priest, Father Julien Durand, in 1952.  They were consolidated and restored between September 2006 and January 2008.  Here are some photographs of what you can see today:

The frescoes illustrate three aspects of the life of Jesus:  his birth, his evangelising period and his second coming.  The paintings are much faded, with large parts missing, but what you can see today is still impressive!

From the apse, yet more steps led to the upper nave, which was remodelled several times, the last time during the second half of the 19th century, when stained glass windows were added.  Here’s the view from inside the apse, towards the lower and upper naves.

The upper nave had a white marble altar, typical of the period.

 More steps led from the upper nave to the third level of the church.  On the third level there is a balcony overlooking the upper nave – it gave a great view of most of the church.  You can see one of the stained glass windows on the left, another stained glass window is not in view, on the right hand side wall.

From the upper level, an archway gave access to the upper chapel, which was dedicated to Saint Michael, and which also dates from the 12th century.  Unfortunately, the chapel was too dark for me to take photographs, so you’ll have to imagine a small romanesque chapel with a rounded apse. A door led from this chapel to a terrace, from which there were spectacular views of the surrounding countryside!

Above the upper chapel, a look-out tower had been added during the course of the 14th century.  The rounded part of the tower corresponds to the rounded apse in the chapel

The discoid cross, which is fixed to one of the tower walls, came from the medieval cemetery next to the church.

On the top of the mound, next to the terrace, the remains of a fortified building, dating to the 14th century were visible.

Back inside the church, I had another good look at the frescoes.  Display panels gave a great amount of information about the frescoes.  They also showed plans of the church, giving an idea of how the various levels interconnect.

Another information panel, this one outside the church, showed a plan of the whole site, along with an aerial shot:

The church of Notre Dame de Vals is truly unique!  To my surprise, there were no other visitors during the whole of our visit – I suppose that during the summer months there will be more visitors.

Even though the church has been well maintained, a number of major renovation works are urgently needed:  the roof is at the point where further dilapidation would risk damage to the interior of the church; the electrical installation is completely outdated; and some of the masonry is in urgent need of repair.  An appeal has been launched to raise some of the badly needed funds – if you’d like to contribute, you can do so via this link.

I left the church the same way as had I entered: via the crack in the rock, watching my head as I descended the stairs!!

Afterwards, I walked a little around the village.  To look at the church from the top of the mound, you would be hard pressed to imagine the highly unusual interior!

Here’s a picture of a 19th century house, just below the church – it seemed to be the grandest house in the small village

After visiting Vals, we went to Mirepoix, for a visit to the market and a spot of lunch.  I’ll tell you all about that next week!










Bonne annee – and about time too!

It’s high time that I should write another post – but first I’d like to wish you all bonne année – happy new year!!  In France, we can wish one another a happy new year until the end of January, and there is much of that going on right now all over the country!

It is customary to exchange wishes whenever one first meets a relative, friend, neighbour or acquaintance in the new year.  Usually the meilleurs vœux (best wishes) are accompanied by bonne santé (good health), since good health is one of the most precious things in life.

Most of the time you’d kiss the person you are exchanging wishes with – even if you don’t usually kiss them during the rest of the year: one kiss on the right and another on the left cheek, to go with the wishes.

Daffodils flowering in January in Saint-Chinian – a welcome sight in the new year!

Then there are the official vœux – in a lot of villages there are ceremonies which are organised by the town councils, where the mayor and the councillors wish the inhabitants a happy new year, and talk about their plans and projects for the coming year.  And of course there will be drinks and nibbles after the official speeches!  In Saint-Chinian, this ceremony is on the day I am writing this post.

A new year offers all kinds of opportunities.  My resolution was to start up my daily yoga practice, and so far I’ve been able to stick with it.  It’s not always easy to find the time, but where there’s a will there’s a spare half hour or so!! 🙂  And the benefits are great!!

My main new year’s goal – and the reason for the slightly longer-than-planned break from blogging – was the re-design and re-launch of my German language website.  If you’re curious, you can find it here.  It’s been interesting work and I’ve had fun re-doing that website, but I’m glad that I’ve more or less completed it now!

I hope you’ve had a great start to the new year!!  Have you made any new year’s resolutions?  And if you did, have you managed to keep them??

I leave you with a picture of some mimosa blossoms.  The trees in and around Saint-Chinian have started to flower already – another beautiful welcome to the new year from mother nature!!

Mimosa blossoms in Saint-Chinian





Sailing again

If you have visited Saint-Chinian, you’ll probably know that there is a windmill standing on the hill above the village.  It was reconstructed as a fully functional windmill from a ruin a good many years ago.  During the summer months, volunteers from the association Richesses du St Chinianais used to offer guided visits and would make the windmill turn if there was enough wind.

Unfortunately, at some point the rot set in – in the main beam which held the sails and acted as the drive shaft.  One day, a couple of years ago, the beam just snapped off, and the four sails dropped to the ground.  It was a sad day for the village, but at least nobody was hurt.

The sails were put into storage, whilst experts looked at ways of repairing the windmill.  In the end, it was decided to re-make the sails and the external part of the drive shaft with steel rather than wood.  To my mind it’s been a surprisingly successful repair – you can’t really tell the difference even from just a few meters away.

With the sails replaced, the windmill was opened to visitors again last summer, and the volunteers from Les Richesses gave guided tours once more!  The day I visited, I arrived early enough to watch the sails being unfurled.  I shot a video, which gives you an idea of the tranquility of the spot, and what is required to get this windmill operational!

There was no wind on the day I visited, so unfortunately the sails would not turn.  But don’t be disappointed!  I did write about the windmill back in June 2013,  and I included videos of the windmill turning in that post – you can read the post here.

On your next visit to Saint-Chinian, don’t forget to have a look at the windmill – it’s worth the drive or walk for the views alone!!


The singing fool

Do you know which French singer was given the nickname Le Fou Chantant? I’ll give you a clue: one of his most famous songs is called La Mer. You’ve probably heard that song at least once, perhaps in its English version called Beyond the Sea, performed by Bobby Darin and others, and more recently by Robbie Williams for the film Finding Nemo.  No, it was not Debussy, he didn’t sing!

A mural in Narbonne

The singer’s name is Charles Trenet – had you guessed it!?  Charles Trenet was born in Narbonne on May 18, 1913, at a time when his father was notary public in Saint-Chinian, and where Charles spent much of his early years.  Charles’ mother had inherited her parents’ house in Narbonne, which is where Charles Trenet was born.  The house stayed in the Trenet family until Charles donated it to the town of Narbonne, on the proviso that it would be opened to the public as a museum.

I went to visit the Maison Natale de Charles Trenet, which is what the house is called today, during the last European heritage weekend.  A guided visit had been announced for 1:30 pm, and I thought that would be a perfect for my first visit.  When I got there, quite a few people were already waiting.  When the doors opened, a larger than usual number of people were admitted – lucky for me!!  🙂  We were ushered into what had been Charles Trenet’s living room on the ground floor of the house.

You can see that it was a little crowded!  The whole house is furnished as it was when Charles Trenet was still alive.  Here are some shots of the sitting room:

Our guide explained that Charles Trenet redecorated whenever he thought something looked a little shabby.  Consequently, there were four different kinds of wall coverings in the living room! 🙂

From the ground floor, a staircase swept up to the first floor (the second floor if you are in the US) – the mirrored wall in the entrance hall gave the impression of a double flight staircase!

The first floor of the house was the domain of Charles Trenet’s mother.  Here’s her little boudoir:

Next door was the bedroom where Charles was born:

The christening robe of little Charles has been framed and hung on the wall above the bed.

After his mother died, Charles Trenet had a sauna cabin installed In the room next to his mother’s bedroom – the only modification he made to the first floor following his mother’s death.  Apparently he spent half an hour in the sauna every morning – in his later years he attributed his good physical shape and the condition of his voice to that habit.

The bathroom next to the sauna is incredibly dated – I’m not sure which period it is from –  the 60’s or the 70’s?  The large fireclay bathtub in powder blue must weigh a ton, perhaps literally!

Across the hallway from the bathroom is the kitchen, with the same brown tiles as in the bathroom!

Amongst my pictures of the house, I cannot find one of the family dining room – this room was always very crowded during my visit, so perhaps that’s why.

There was another flight of stairs to climb to the second floor (third floor for readers in the US).  One of the walls surrounding the staircase was hung with red drapes.  On the narrow wall there was a picture of Christ on the cross, and the next wall up showed various record covers and publicity shots – a somewhat odd juxtaposition, but whatever…

The second floor was where Charles had his private rooms.  The large sitting room contained many personal mementoes and photographs.  The upright piano is where Charles would have worked on his songs.

His bedroom was next to the sitting room, and it was fairly spartan in its furnishings.

The bathroom next door was of a more recent vintage than his mother’s bathroom.  There were still some toiletries on the shelf above the sink.

Across the hallway from the bathroom was a guest bedroom.  I’m not sure that I could live with that colour scheme 🙂

The kitchen on this floor must have been state-of-the-art at one point!! The wall-mounted refrigerator on the left is from the 1960s.

Charles Trenet had a number of homes in France, but he frequently visited his birthplace and he was always very attached to Narbonne.  I leave you with a song (e-mail subscribers, please visit the website to view the video), and a picture of the bronze statue in the little front garden of the house.

The Maison Natale de Charles Trenet is located at 13 Avenue Charles Trenet in Narbonne, and open to the public every day except on Mondays.  You can find full details here.









Saint Aphrodise revisited

Two weeks ago, I hinted that I would write about my recent visit to the church of Saint Aphrodise in Beziers.  Back in 2013 I was lucky enough to be able to visit that church.  Work to save the building from falling down was scheduled to start shortly after my visit, and it was going to be closed to the public for some time.  You can read about my previous visit of the church in this article.

For the 2017 European Heritage days, the Friends of Saint Aphrodise were once more offering guided visits of the building.  This was the first time since the renovation work had started in 2013!  Work was completed earlier this year, and much was changed during the intervening years!

The facade of the nave has been restored and the little square in front of it has been made more accessible.  However, both of the doors were locked when I visited.

The gates on Rue du Puits de la Courte, by which I had previously entered the church, were also firmly locked!  I kept on walking and finally got to Place Saint Aphrodise, where I had tried in vain to enter the church so many times before my very first visit.  This time the gate was open – third time lucky!!

The gate allows access into a corridor which passes through a house, and the alleyway on the other side of the house leads to a door into the nave of the church.  The nave was the part of the church which was in danger of collapsing, and which has now been consolidated and reinforced.

According to our guide, the nave of the original building would have only had one central aisle.  The chapels, i.e. the parts outside the main aisle, were added later,  Trouble started when stone vaulting was added in the 18th century.  The weight of the stone was just too much for the building, which had been designed to support a simple wooden roof.  In the picture above, you can see the metal rods which were inserted to tie the columns together.  A lot more of this kind of ironwork is in the attic and not visible.

The nave had been completely closed off on my last visit – even the opening to the choir had been blocked – so it was wonderful to see this space at last.  The renovation works had concentrated on making the structure of the nave safe, without carrying out any renovations on the interior – there’s plenty left to be done!  If you look carefully at the picture above, you’ll see barriers closing the choir off – that is now out of bounds.  However, our guide led us in there for a good look.  🙂

The baldachin over the high altar is 18th century, the paintings on the walls are 19th century, as are the stained glass windows.  Wealthy donors sponsored the windows, and in return their names were added to the windows!

Antonin Injalbert, whose summer residence I wrote about last week, was commissioned to create a statue of Christ on the cross for the high altar.  When the sculpture was delivered, it was deemed far too modern by the parishioners, so it was hidden away in a corner of the church.  After the first world war, the parish wanted to create a memorial for the parishioners who had been killed in the war, and Injalbert’s statue was used as the centrepiece for the memorial.

The two reliquary busts seemed to be in the same spot where I had seen them four years previous!

I had my telephoto lens with me on the day of my visit, so I decided to try to capture the little putti, which seemed to be proliferating about the church:

Some of the carvings in the nave are very detailed – I can’t tell if they are stone or plaster.  I imagine that they are mostly 18th century.

Some of the altars in the nave are very baroque:

The organ looks impressive.  When the renovation work was finished,  someone decided to see if the organ was still working.  It was given a good clean (several days’ work with vacuum cleaners, removing decades of dust), and then someone flicked the switch.  Almost miraculously, the organ came to life and could be played!!  It still needs a thorough overhaul and tuning, but it is in relatively good shape.  There are plans for organ concerts next year!

Here are two close-up shots of the statues on the pillars of the organ loft:

The association Les Amis de Saint Aphrodise is very active in Beziers.  The members have been involved in organising some of the guided visits I have written about, such as Time with the Swiss and Heritage of Rememberance.

I’ll finish this post with a picture of the collection box.  The postcards were 30 cents in today’s money (bear in mind that the church was abandoned a long time ago!).  The sign reads:  “God says you must earn your bread by the sweat of your brow. Not by robbing the collection box”!  The exclamation mark is mine! 🙂











Apples aplenty

I would like to dedicate this blog to the memory of Nadine Holm, a dear friend who passed away on September 4, 2017.  She would have enjoyed our outing to this event tremendously!!

There are several villages by the name of Aigues Vives in France – I’ve counted eight of them on the ViaMichelin website!  So it’s important to pick the right village!  The one I visited recently is near Carcassonne, and the postcode is 11800, just so you know.  This village has been holding an apple, rice and wine fair for some time – this year was the 20th time!  Why I’ve never visited before is a mystery to me, but I’m glad I went this year!

Aigues Vives is located on the edge of the Etang Asseche de Marseillette, a drained marsh, where the apples, rice and wines for sale at the fair are grown.  More about the Etang a little later in this post.

The village was beautifully decorated for the occasion – the entrance arch to one of the streets was made from apples and rice straw.

In one of the squares, the iconic Citroen 2CV car had been recreated with apples:

Signs had been specially made to direct visitors:

The rock on which the church stands was decorated with strands of apples:

Near the entrance to the church stood a windmill decorated with apples – the thatch on top was made with rice straw, and the sails were turning!!

There was even a lady with an apple skirt:

Apples were for sale at almost every corner:

Other stalls sold a variety of delicious edible goodies:

In the village hall, a communal meal was served by a caterer – I didn’t go to that.  I did go to the village park, which had been set up as a “food village” with a number of food stalls and tables and chairs under the trees.  A group of musicians were providing entertainment!

Around the park, a number of signs had been put up.  The one below shows the names of all the apple growers in the Etang de Marseillette:

This sign gives the names of the wine, plum and rice growers:

A few sayings:

One grain of rice can tip the scale

Three apples a day – everlasting health

Wine gets better over time, and we get better with wine!

A cider press had been set up on a stage in the village.  The apples (granny smith, golden and gala) were first pulped:

The pulp was collected in buckets lined with large squares of fabric:

Once the buckets were full, the cloth was tied up and the bags were put into the press – soon the juice started to flow.

The apple juice was poured into plastic cups, and everyone could have as much as they wanted!  It was very delicious!!

In order for visitors to find out more about the Etang de Marseillette, a number of guided visits had been arranged.  Two “little trains” were taking groups of people on the guided visits.

The Etang de Marseillette is left over from the time when the Mediterranean sea covered large tracts of land about two million years ago.  When the water levels dropped and the sea receded, a number of lakes stayed behind, and one of them was at Marseillette.  In time this became a marshy salt lake, covering an area of around 2000 hectares (20 square kilometers or 7.2 square miles).  Three small streams fed the lake, and it was often deemed to be the reason for outbreaks of local epidemics.

In the Middle Ages, attempts were made to drain the lake, which were more or less successful, but the drains silted up and nature reclaimed the lake.  In 1804, Marie Anne Coppinger, the then owner of the Etang, carried out immense works and drained the lake, but the returns from the land were insufficient, and she bankrupted herself with the project.  The next owner carried on with improvements.  He built a tunnel to bring water for irrigation from the river Aude.  The tunnel is over 2 km long and in some places it is 60 metres below ground!  In 1852 the Etang was sold once more, and the new owners decided to divide the land and sell off smaller parcels.  With no overall owner, the maintenance of the irrigation and drainage canals was soon neglected again.

In 1901, Joseph Camman, an engineer, bought 800 hectares of land in the Etang and started a campaign to improve the irrigation.  One of the main problems is the fact that salt left in the soil will come to the surface if the land is not sufficiently irrigated.  Plants which grow there, produce only very shallow roots of about 35cm, partly because of the heavy clay soil and partly because of the salt.  Keeping the soil well hydrated is the key to successful cultivation!

Joseph Camman also built a hydroelectric power station, to harness the power of the water coming from the river Aude.  Unfortunately, the power station has long since been abandoned, and the building is in a very poor state of repair.

The pond on which the power station stands serves as a holding tank for the distribution of water to the three main irrigation channels.

In order to keep the canals from silting up, Joseph Camman designed “cleaning boats”, which increased the current in the canals as they travelled through and flushed the silt away.  These days, modern diggers are used.

As we travelled through the Etang, we saw orchards, vineyards and a rice field.  The rice had mostly been harvested, but a little bit had been left standing for us to see.  The apple trees were heavy with fruit, and of course all the fruit you saw earlier in this post was grown here.

There is only one grower of rice active in the Etang.  He produces a number of different kinds: red, long grain, short grain etc.  I bought several different kinds of rice, and I have already tried the mix of red and white rice which was delicious!  And of course I also bought some apples!!