Time with the Swiss

One grey Saturday morning this spring, I went to meet up with a group of like-minded people for a guided visit on Beziers’ architectural history.  The history of that town has fascinated me for a long time – it goes back so far, and there are so many different layers to discover.  The theme of the guided visit was Chez les Suisses, and very appropriately the visit started on a square just off Boulevard de Geneve.  The boulevard was given its name around 1904 after the town councillors of Beziers had had a particularly cordial welcome on a visit to Geneva.

During the later part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, there were strong commercial ties between Switzerland and Languedoc.  The Swiss would buy wines from the region, and in turn would sell grain.  Swiss merchants opened offices in Beziers, and built themselves sumptuous mansions with their profits.

On our visit we stopped at several of these mansions.  The first one we saw was built by Godefroid Meyer on Boulevard de la Liberte between 1926 and 1928 in a very pure art deco style.

We were fortunate in that the owner of this beautiful white house was one of the guides – there were several of them, each with a different field of expertise.  He had brought several photographs of the interior of the house to show to the group.  The interior looked as stunning as the outside. In fact, my pictures above do not do the building justice, it really has to be seen in person!

The next mansion we saw used to belong to the Bühler family.  Traugott Bühler bought an enormous plot of around 4500 square metres along Avenue Saint-Saëns, and proceeded to build not one but two mansions.  The one on the corner was used as offices, and is a relatively modest brick and stone confection with a mansard roof.

The initial of the family name still decorates the stonework at roof level, and the railings on the balcony just below hint at art nouveau.

The big mansion next door, completed in 1903, was designed by the architects Leopold and Louis Carlier, well-known architects from Montpellier.  The locals called it the Chateau Bühler, on account of its size and air of sumptuousness.

Both of the Bühler mansions have been split into apartments, and a large part of the park has been sold off and covered with very nondescript apartment buildings.  The facade of the chateau as well as the monumental wrought iron gates and railings have listed building status!  Here is one of our guides in front of the gates:

The last of the mansions we visited, was built for Otto Müller, another rich merchant of Swiss extraction, who, if I remember correctly, had married one of the Bühler daughters – or was she a Meyer?  The architect was Leopold Carlier.  He designed the mansion in the Flemish style, with gables and turrets.  The building was finished in 1870.  At the time there were few other buildings surrounding it.

You can still see Otto Müller’s initials on the monumental chimney:

In 1916, the mansion was bought by the brothers Guy.  In 1918, they engaged a renowned landscape architect to turn the land surrounding the house into a park.  They also commissioned original artwork from the local sculptors Antonin Injalbert and Jean Magrou for the park.  Once the Guy brothers bought the house, the locals started to call it Villa Guy.  It retains that name to this day.

We were fortunate in that the current owners of Villa Guy allowed our group to visit the grounds – we got a very close look at the building and the park.  Villa Guy is today an exclusive Bed and Breakfast and function venue.

Here is a selection of photographs of the building and of the sculptures in the park:

Farthest from the house is the Neo-Moorish garden, which was undergoing restoration when I visited.  At the time of writing this post, the fountains should be tinkling again!

And thus ended a fascinating visit into Beziers’ past!

 

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

On rocky ground

It’s amazing what you can discover on walks around the villages in Languedoc! (I know that the area has now been renamed Occitanie, but I refuse to call it that!!)  A village which is full of interesting things to discover is Montouliers.  It is perched on a hill in the hinterland, not far from Bize Minervois and Argeliers.  Walk the narrow streets of the old part of the village up towards the chateau, and with a little imagination you could picture yourself transported back in time.

The narrow streets are paved with stones, a surface which is called calade.  Calade is a word that you’ll not find in a French dictionary – it has its roots in the old Gaulish word cal, meaning stone and height.  Calades were built using the materials to hand – stones which had been cleared from the fields to make them arable.  Skill was required so sort the stones and to place them, so that they would form a durable surface.  Mortar was not often used as that would have raised the cost.

Steps were built to shore up the steeper slopes and to allow humans and animals (donkeys and horses in the main) to walk up and down more easily.

In most villages, the calades disappeared with the advent of tarmac in the early 20th century, the old making room for the new.  However, in some villages you can still find calades.  I know of two small patches in Saint-Chinian.

Here are a few more images from Montouliers – along with the Calades, the exteriors of the houses in the old part of the village have also been carefully renovated!

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Summer festivities in Saint-Chinian

For this post I have decided to concentrate on the many things that will be going on in Saint-Chinian this summer!

The very popular night markets will be starting on July 4, 2017 and will take place every Tuesday throughout July and August.

Every Saturday there will be a Vide Grenier, a flea market, in the shade of the plane trees on the market square.

On Thursday nights there will be open-air cinema in front of the town hall building – July 6th and 20th, August 3rd, 10th, 17th and 24th.  Free admission!

On July 9th, Chateau la Dournie will be holding an open day from 10am to 6pm.  Visits of the cellars, wine tasting, craft market, picnic in the park.

The Fete du Cru will be taking place on July 23, 2017 – a great day of wine tasting in the market square!  The Fete du Cru is organised by the winemakers of the Saint-Chinian area to showcase their wines and to allow the public to discover the great variety of wines on offer.

The music festival will take place from July 26 to 30 this year.  Five days of concerts in the historic surroundings of the former abbey church, the cloister, and the parish church of Saint-Chinian.  A variety of concerts with different styles of music which are sure to appeal: Classical, New Orleans jazz, Latin rhythms, world music, choral, etc…  Full details can be found on www.festivalmusisc.wordpress.com

On August 4, 2017 the Cave Cooperative winery will hold its open day.  Free guided visits of the cellars throughout the day.  Unveiling of a new mural in the cellars, followed by an open-air meal and concert.

On Mondays during July and August, a guided visit of the architectural heritage of Saint-Chinian takes place, starting at 9am from the entrance hall of the town hall building.  Reservations via the tourist office.

On Tuesdays during July and August, there is a free guided visit of the Chapel of Notre Dame de Nazareth at 9am.  Meeting point is at the start of the path up to the chapel, where the D177 forks to Assignan and Babeau Bouldoux.  Reservations via the tourist office.

On Wednesdays during July and August, you have the option of a guided visit of the Capitelles, the little huts built with just stones and no mortar.  The visit is free of charge, reservations at the tourist office.  The meeting point is at the windmill, and the walk starts at 9am.

Thursday mornings during July and August are dedicated to guided visits of the Cave Cooperative, the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian.  The free guided visit starts at 10:30am and the visit is followed by a wine tasting.  Reservations via the tourist office.

The Canal de l’Abbe is the theme for a guided visit on Fridays during July and August.  This canal was built during the Middle Ages, originally to power a number of mills along the way.  To this day supplies the vegetable gardens in Saint-Chinian with river water!  The free visit starts at 9am from the town hall in Saint-Chinian.  Reservations via the tourist office.

On Saturday mornings during July and August, a visit of the former Abbey is on the agenda, showing the evolution of the buildings between 1656 and 1950. The free visit starts at 9am in the town hall building.  Reservations via the tourist office.

The windmill, which sits on the rocky ledge above Saint-Chinian, can be visited on Sundays.  The free guided visit starts at 9am at the windmill.  Reservations via the tourist office.

There’s never been a better time to visit Saint-Chinian, so book your stay now!

 

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Down by the bay

The Mediterranean coastline has changed a good deal over the past few thousand years. A place where this can be seen rather well is Gruissan.  In Roman times, the topography would have been very different.  The Massif de la Clape nature reserve, and the Ile Saint Martin were islands, not at all connected to the mainland, but surrounded by the estuary of the Aude River.  The limestone rock, on which today stands the ruin of Gruissan castle, was probably just a bare rocky outcrop then.  Narbonne had a harbour, and the Roman ships would have sailed into the bay behind modern-day Gruissan.

All that changed, when the harbour gradually silted up, and the lagoons formed between Gruissan and Narbonne.  The Etang de Gruissan is on average 55 cm deep – great for the flamingos, which were notably absent the day I took the picture above! 🙂

In the Middle Ages, a fortified castle was built on the limestone outcrop, to provide shelter from marauding pirates!  Houses were built at the foot of the castle, with the streets surrounding the rock in a circular pattern, which can still be seen today.

The sleepy fishing village turned into a major seaside resort during the course of the 20th century. Two marinas were constructed in the 1970’s, with space for 1650 boats!  All around the marinas, developments were built, to cater for the increasing number of visitors.

Unlike many seaside resorts, Gruissan is very much “open all year”.  Many people live there year round, and a good number of restaurants do NOT close down for the winter.  One such restaurant is called La Cranquette.  It is located in the old town, and specialises in seafood.   You can tell I went there before the trees started to leaf out!

Inside, the decor is somewhat eclectic!

Whilst the decor is somewhat important in a restaurant, the food is the star of the show!!  And the food in this restaurant was very good!!

All the food was very delicious and beautifully presented!  A feast for the eyes and the palate!

Afterwards, a walk along the beach was a must – out of season the beaches are often empty!

If you fancy a stay at Gruissan, have a look here and here! 🙂

Backstreet discoveries

Writing this blog every week has allowed me to discover so much, and I am very pleased to be able to share these discoveries with you.  I’ve been to some wonderful restaurants, found hidden architectural gems, and visited incredible historical sites, to name just a few things.  I’ve also learnt to look at things a little differently, such as looking up when walking through a village or town.  And I’ve learnt never to leave the house without a camera! 🙂

Narbonne is a town which richly rewards a little exploring.  The town has a very long history, dating back to Roman times.  I’ve written about some of the Roman finds in Narbonne here, and there are still more Roman finds & monuments in Narbonne to be visited and written about!  Some traces of Narbonne’s history can be discovered by simply taking a stroll around the town – please join me for a little meander down the streets of Narbonne!

Le’s start in the main square of Narbonne, where the former archbishop’s palace used to face the castle or palace of the viscount of Narbonne.  The viscount’s castle has long disappeared, to be replaced in the 19th century by a palace of commerce, an early department store called Aux Dames de France.

The former archbishop’s palace in Narbonne

Aux Dames de France, 19th century department store building in Narbonne

The facade of Aux Dames de France is richly decorated with all kinds of sculpted motifs!

The archbishop’s palace became municipal property after the French revolution, and today it houses the town hall, as well as several municipal museums.  Just behind the archbishop’s palace is the impressive cathedral!

Narbonne cathedral

Building work on the cathedral started in the 13th century, and only the choir was ever finished!  What was built is very impressive, with a footprint that is 40 x 60 metres and vaulting that soars to a height of 41 metres!!  There are only three cathedrals in France which are higher: the cathedrals in Beauvais, Amiens and Metz.

Interior of Narbonne cathedral

Like most churches, the cathedral “decorations” were modified through the ages, to suit the prevailing tastes.  A “storybook” altar was found some years ago, walled up behind a Victorian era marble altar.  The carvings are remarkably detailed

On the west wall of the cathedral is an immense pipe organ – I always wonder how they managed to fix that to the wall!!

Leaving the church via the cloisters and the archbishop’s garden brings you to outside the western end of the church, where building work halted and re-started several times.

Continue walking randomly through the streets of Narbonne – there is so much to discover – such as the amazing decorations on this building – you can see the pain and boredom in the faces of the atlantes!!

There are faces in many unexpected places – sometimes high up on a wall!

Sometimes the effect is a little unnerving, such as when you look at the tower below, and realise that there is someone at the window.

Other faces are tiny, and you need to look closely:

Then there are doors – all shapes and sizes – where do they lead to??

Decorative stonework has always been a sign of wealth – the bigger your wallet, the more you could decorate the outside of your house!

The building below has recently been given a new lease of life – for many years before that it was shut up, with the oriel tower supported by props, looking as though it could collapse at any moment.

Some of the decorations on the roofs are very ornate – is that a dragon?  The whole thing sits a little askew, it’s not the angle of the camera, I promise!!

The walls in the pictures below are the remnants of a church – it was probably repurposed a long time ago!

As Narbonne expanded, more modern architecture styles made their presence felt.  This is a beautiful example of art deco architecture:

This is just a tiny selection of all there is to admire in Narbonne – you could spend days walking and exploring!!

P.S.  If you’re looking for somewhere to stay in Narbonne, have a look at Villa Java!

If I had a hammer …

For a long time, I have known that the area around Saint-Chinian is particularly rich in study material for geologists.  The rock formations are spectacular, even to the untrained eye, but to me geology has always been like a closed book.  Some time ago, one of my guests sent me a link to a website where he had discovered an article about a self-guided tour of sites of geological interest around Saint-Chinian – more specifically, the sites were of the lower Ordovician period. The website can be found via this link – in addition to the tour around the Saint-Chinian area, there are several others on this page, no doubt equally interesting!

According to Wikipedia, “the Ordovician spans 41.2 million years from the end of the Cambrian Period 485.4 million years ago (Mya) to the start of the Silurian Period 443.8 Mya.”  To give you a visual idea of the timescale, here is a picture of a geological clock, found on Wikipedia – humans arrived only at two seconds before noon!

The website itself can be translated via one of the translation engines on the web such as translate.google.com but I’ve not been able to translate the PDF files of the itineraries.

I had sent the itinerary to a friend who was very keen to follow it, and so one sunny day earlier this month we set off on our trip!  The first stop was near Berlou, at a site which illustrates the upper Cambrian and the start of the Ordovician.  On our way there, we walked past a flowering oak tree:

Stoechas lavender:

A cistus with tiny flowers:

And some wall pennywort, which the French name translates to Venus’s navel:

Unbeknown to me, my friend had done a course in geology at university in her younger years, and she’d found the hammer she used when at university!!  With erosion and exposure to the elements, the surface of rocks changes quite a bit, so splitting a rock with the help of a hammer will show its ‘true’ colours.  What fun we had with that hammer!!

Here are some bits of quartz, which we found at the same site.

And bands of quartz embedded in a rock.

 

On our way back to the car, we enjoyed looking at some very typical vegetation.  The heady smell of the garrigue was wonderful!

Our next stop was on the road to Berlou, at a place where a trench had been cut into the rock for the road.  The rocks on the left hand side of the cut were an outcrop of the Saint-Chinian formation, and on the right an outcrop of the La Maurerie formation was visible.  I’m not sure that I saw a lot of difference, but I’m no geologist 🙂  The view of the valley in the direction of Berlou was very beautiful though!

Onwards to the viewpoint, just outside Berlou, and another spectacular view of the mountain in the distance, Mont Caroux. The mountain is called ‘The Sleeping Lady’, and in the right light and with enough imagination, you might just about be able to imagine a reclining figure, with the head on the left hand side.

The road took us to the village of Berlou, and through beautiful countryside, past the villages of Escagnes and the hamlet of Mezeilles, before arriving at Vieussan.  We had planned to have lunch at Le Lezard Bleu in that village, but unfortunately the restaurant had to close on that day for maintenance.  We booked at table in Roquebrun instead, at Le Petit Nice. Just before we reached Roquebrun, we stopped once more – this time to observe a fold in the rock.

After a delicious lunch in Roquebrun, we continued towards the village of Saint-Nazaire-de-Ladarez.  On the way there, we stopped to admire the Landeyran valley with its sheer cliffs.  The cliffs are much used by rock climbers to test their skills on!

Our last stop of the day had nothing to do with the Ordovician, but was on the itinerary as a point of great geological interest, and because the road back was passing right by it!  The former Coumiac quarry has been designated a Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP).  Wikipedia defines the GSSP as follows: “A Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point, abbreviated GSSP, is an internationally agreed upon reference point on a stratigraphic section which defines the lower boundary of a stage on the geologic time scale. The effort to define GSSPs is conducted by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, a part of the International Union of Geological Sciences. Most, but not all, GSSPs are based on paleontological changes. Hence GSSPs are usually described in terms of transitions between different faunal stages, though far more faunal stages have been described than GSSPs. The GSSP definition effort commenced in 1977. As of 2012, 64 of the 101 stages that need a GSSP have been formally defined.”

At Coumiac we are in the upper Devonian, at the transition between the Frasnian and the Fammenian.  I can’t make a great deal of sense of the scientific explanation, but the rocks are spectacular to behold!  The quarry is only a short walk from the car park beside the road. Two viewing platforms have been created to allow visitors safe access to the site.

The first glimpse of the quarry is of the GSSP – a huge slab of rock, covered in thousands of fossilised goniatites (prehistoric snail-like creatures), killed during what is called the Kellwasser event.

The quarry was in operation until 1965, with a type of ‘griotte’ marble being extracted – a red marble with small inclusions of white.  An example of a fireplace made of griotte marble can be found at Acanthus in Saint-Chinian.

Here is a closer view of the GSSP slab:

All in all, this was a very interesting day, and I learnt a lot!!  Do let me know if I have mis-translated any of the geological jargon, I’ll be happy to correct it!