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! 🙂

 

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The sculptor’s garden

During this year’s European heritage weekend I went to visit a selection of different places – some I’d been to before, and others that I had never visited.  The garden of the Villa Antonine in Beziers was one of the latter.

I parked in the car park near the church of the Immaculate Conception (that’ll be in another blog post 🙂 ), and walked along Boulevard de Geneve to where it meets Rue Jean Valette.  Villa Antonine occupies the corner plot between these two streets.

The walk was lovely – there were so many interesting houses to be seen along the way!

Villa Antonine was built by the father of the sculptor Jean-Antoine Injalbert in 1884 as a summer residence.  At that time, it would have stood on its own, a little away from the city.  Today, the surrounding area is very much built up.  When you enter the garden, you leave all the hustle and bustle behind you, it is (normally) an oasis of calm.  Not surprisingly, on the day of my visit it was busier than usual.

Jean-Antoine Injalbert enlarged the property he inherited from his father, adding a couple of artists’ studios and installing some of his sculptures in the gardens.  The studios were open to visitors on the day I visited, with exhibitions by Christine Granier (sculptures), Loux (paintings), both of whose works can be seen in the photo below, and works by Geff Strik.

Many wonderful little details can be discovered on the buildings – most of them are Injalbert’s work!

There are two very different gardens – one which is entered from Boulevard de Geneve and which leads up to the original villa.  The layout of this garden is more formal, with flower beds edged with box-tree hedges, gravel paths, and lawns.

Against one wall is a pergola, where a wisteria shades a Neptune fountain, which is sadly not working any longer.

The other garden is behind a second building, which is at a right angle to the original villa.  This building has a slate-roofed tower by its side and a beautiful double staircase!

This garden is shaded by the fully grown trees – in Injalbert’s time it would have looked very different, with all the trees much smaller!

For the heritage weekend, two concerts had been organised in partnership with the Beziers academy of music.   I could hear the musicians rehearsing in the background while I was strolling through the garden, the music mixing with the sound of the splashing fountain.  It was too good a moment not to be captured:

The musicians were Fabio Galluci (mandolin) and Sabine Liguori-Delmas (piano).

Of course I stayed for the concert!  Before the concert started, I had time to take some more pictures.  Here’s another fountain with a very funny sculpture:

And this is a close-up of the Neptune fountain:

One of the beauties who hold up the pergola:

A lot of the sculptures in the garden were “sketches” – preparations for the final sculptures.  Injalbert’s works can be found all over the region, as well as in Paris and farther afield.  He was fairly famous in his own time, but his lasting fame has been completely overshadowed by Rodin.

Today, Villa Antonine belongs to the town of Beziers, and it is currently used by a charitable association called Les Ecluses de l’Art, whose aim is to promote contemporary art by making it accessible to a wider audience. Its purpose is to set up artistic events in order to support the creators of today and the creation of new works.  Workshops, artists-in-residence and courses all help towards that goal.

The gardens of Villa Antonine are open to the public every day – do take a stroll around the gardens and don’t forget to let me know your impressions!

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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!

 

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Heritage of rememberance

I recently participated in a guided visit of the Cimetiere Vieux, the old cemetery in Beziers.  I’ve always been fascinated by the cemeteries in France, they have a very different look to the cemeteries of other countries that I have visited.

The old cemetery in Beziers was established following an imperial decree of 1804, which stipulated that cemeteries must be located outside the walls of a town.  Before that, burial grounds were located next to the churches, and people would also have been buried inside the churches (in crypts or under the floor) – it probably all became a little too crowded!

The town planners of Beziers chose land north of the city walls, which formed part of the plateau on which the town was built.  The cemetery was built in two sections, the first opened in 1812, with an extension opening in 1863.  When finished, the Cimetiere Vieux covered 5 hectares – just over 12 acres.

Entrance to the Cimetiere Vieux, Beziers

Entrance to the Cimetiere Vieux, Beziers

The establishment of the cemetery coincided with a growing prosperity of the town and its citizens.  The same people who built elaborate town and country houses to display their new wealth also built elaborate tombs, often employing the same architects!    The nouveaux riches wanted to show off both in the here-and-now AND in the ever-after.  They went to great lengths to build beautiful monuments, which have been passed down the generations.

The guided visit was very interesting, although it felt a little haphazard at times.  There were nearly 100 visitors, so the crowd was split into four groups, who all started in different directions!  At the end of the visit, our guide handed out a plan of the cemetery, which showed the locations of over 130 tombs, remarkable in one way or another.

Detail of a tomb in the Cimetiere Vieux in Beziers

Shhh!  Detail from the tomb of the Guy-Lanneluc family in the Cimetiere Vieux in Beziers

There are over 3900 burial plots in the cemetery, and they were sold off as concessions en perpetuite, the burial plot being held in perpetuity.  Once a plot was bought, the owner could build the tomb to their taste and means, within certain limits.  Those who could afford to, would engage the services of fashionable architects and sculptors.

Beziers was birthplace and/or home to several well-known sculptors, whose work adorns many tombs.  Beziers’ most famous sculptor was Antonin Injalbert (1845 – 1933), whose work is exhibited at the Musee Fayet in Beziers (I’ll be writing about that museum at some point).  He was a prolific artist, and you can find a good many of his works in the cemetery:

The work of Jean Magrou (1869 – 1945), is also well represented:

Jacques Villeneuve (1865 – 1933) sculpted this reclining statue:

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The painter, sculptor and ceramicist Louis Paul (1854 – 1922) created several sepulchres.

The Cimetiere Vieux is famous for its pleureuses, its statues of weeping women:

 

Architectural styles were varied, and presumably followed the prevailing fashions of whenever they were built.

There are many more pictures I could add to this post, but I don’t want to bore you.  The best thing is for you to visit the Cimetiere Vieux and see for yourself!!  I’ll finish the post with one last picture of a statue which is my favourite out of all the ones I photographed – I think it has a wonderful style and elegance to it.  Somehow I was so taken with the statue that I failed to note who the sculptor was – that gives me a good excuse to go back to the Cimetiere Vieux, to find out!

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The Cimetiere Vieux is located on Avenue du Cimetiere Vieux, and is open daily from 8am to 6pm.  You may want to check with the tourist office in Beziers, to see if they offer any guided visits.

 

 

Celebrating cultural heritage – Hotel Berge

I started to write about this year’s outing during the European Heritage weekend some time ago, with the post about the wonderful meal at O Petits Bontemps in Beziers.  My intentions were good – I was going to write about the other amazing places we had visited as quickly as possible, lest I would forget all the interesting details we had seen and heard.  Alas, I got sidetracked and wrote other weekly stories for my blog, no less interesting, I hope, or perhaps more so?

I’ll try to pick up where we left off: after that wonderful meal at O Petits Bontemps we headed to the Rue des Docteurs Bourguet (don’t ask who and why, I’ve not been able to find out! 🙂 ), where the Hotel Berge was awaiting our visit.  The Hotel Berge is a typical example of why I love the European Heritage weekend – it is only open this one day each year to the general public!!

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In France, the word hotel can mean both a conventional hotel and a mansion – the Hotel Berge falls in the latter category.  The building was given to the town of Beziers in 1986 by Dr Lucien Berge, an eminent local citizen and dentist, on the understanding that it would provide a home for the Societe Archeologique, Scientifique et Litteraire and the Antico Confrarie de Sant Andiu de la Galineiro.  The first is a learned society, established in 1834, and behind the creation of several of the municipal museums in Beziers.  The latter is a brotherhood devoted to the promotion of wine and local products; its members organise the Fete de Saint Aphrodise and the Caritats.  Dr Berge also wanted his former home to house a museum for decorative arts, but that hasn’t happened yet.

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Apart from a monumental door, the outside of the building is rather unprepossessing.  Behind that door lies a courtyard, which is at the heart of the building.  Straight ahead is the main part of the house, where Dr Berge lived; the wing on the left housed his dental surgery on the first floor, and there were also stables on the ground floor of that wing. I never found out what happened in the other wings around the courtyard.

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The main facade had been given a makeover in the neo-renaissance style in the late 19th century.  The ornate door on the very left led into the kitchen!  The detail on the facade is quite amazing, and appears to be very much untouched, apart from the spikes to deter the pigeons.

We were welcomed by the president of the archaeological society, Mr Barthes, who started our guided visit of the ground floor.  Incidentally, Mr Barthes is also the church organist in Saint-Chinian!

Our first stop was in the former kitchen, to the left of the front door and the staircase.  This room is large and airy.  The old red terracotta tile floor and the original fireplace and potager are still in place.  A potager is a cooking range where charcoal was burnt and where dishes could be cooked more ‘daintily’ than in the big fireplace.  Above the potager hangs Dr Berge’s diploma from the Chicago School of Dentistry!  Leaving the kitchen we passed through a very small pantry with a sink made of the same red marble as the fireplace and the potager.

From the pantry we stepped out into the garden, where we could admire the elegant 18th century facade of the main building, as well as the view over the lower part of Beziers.

Mr Barthes led us back into the house, past this marble bust.  I don’t know whose likeness that is, does anyone know?

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We were now in the main salon on the ground floor, where the meetings of the archaeological society are held.

The decorative scheme of the room hasn’t changed since the good doctor moved out of the house.  The wallpaper is not pasted to the wall, but stretched onto wooden frames.  Not great if someone pokes a hole in it! 😦

The original cast-iron central heating radiators are still in place, but no longer used.

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From this salon we passed through a small room with green painted panelling, and out into the entrance hallway, which was guarded by the statue of an angel, and which was also painted green.

The staircase with neo-renaissance ceiling and marble mosaic floor led up to the first floor (note to my north American readers: in France the first floor is actually your second floor).

At the top of the stairs, a door on the right led into the dining room, which was a typical example of the kind of dining room any fashionable late 19th century mansion in Beziers would have had.  The whole room was panelled in dark wood and the windows were made of stained glass.  Very little daylight penetrated into the room and my camera struggled to get any decent pictures.  At least it did pretty well with the stained glass! 🙂

There were five more rooms to be visited on the this floor.  The first was a salon which overlooked the central courtyard.  The panelling was painted a putty colour, and the parquet floor was in a kind of checkerboard pattern, which looked almost three dimensional from some perspectives.

The next room was the start of a long enfilade of rooms, with one room opening onto the next, along the garden side of the main building.  It had a bit of a gloomy feel to it, but our guide cheered us up by pointing out a somewhat risqué painting near the fireplace!  Well, it was rather risque at the time it was painted!

The next room was a library, with some of the bookcases protected with pink-ish fabric.

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The following room was a monumental bedroom – almost as large as the main salon on the ground floor!  The room was also slightly creepy because of the wax dummy to one side.  Was that a likeness of Mme Berge, keeping an eye on her bedroom??

At the end of the enfilade was another, much smaller bedroom, with a distinctive masculine flair.  Had that been Dr Berge’s bedroom?

All the rooms had more or less hidden doors, which would have allowed the servants (and sometimes the occupants of the rooms?) to come and go unseen.  I’d love to explore those corridors some time.  One of the guides said that they were just very dusty and not very interesting, but I’m not so sure!?  We retraced our steps through the various rooms and down the stairs, to visit one last room.  This was the Hotel Berge’s answer to the souvenir shops which can always be found in museums and galleries.  A very large table in the centre of the room held the various booklets which had been published by the society, and which could be purchased.  Because of the stained glass, this room was also fairly dark, but at least I managed to get a good look at the valve of the antique radiator!! 🙂

I felt very privileged that I’d been able to visit this amazing building. If you want to see it for yourself, keep an eye on this website for dates of the 2017 edition of the European Heritage weekend.

Our next step that afternoon was the Hotel Fayet, but you’re probably exhausted from reading all this, so I’ll save that for a future post!

Changing places

Earlier this year, I wrote about a visit to Restaurant O’Bontemps in Magalas, and reported the sad fact that the restaurant was to close its doors.  Since then I’ve been keeping an eye out for where and when Olivier and Emmanuelle Bontemps might be opening their new venue.  I recently found on social media that they had taken a lease on a space next to the main library in Beziers, the Mediatheque, and that they had just recently opened their new restaurant O Petits Bontemps for business!!  I was planning a visit to a number of places in Beziers for the European Heritage Weekend, which took place on September 17th and 18th this year.  Florence Nash, who was staying at Acanthus, wanted to treat us, so after a quick phone call I had a reservation for lunch on the Saturday, and a whole lot of interesting places to visit – a perfect day out in the making!  The write-ups of the restaurant had been very good, so I was very much looking forward to it!

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The mediatheque opened in 2008 as part of the new university campus in Beziers, on what was once the site of army barracks.  Today, modern buildings with a fair bit of glass surround a large and empty space.

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The restaurant is at one end of the library, and its terrace overlooks the square.  The weather was unfortunately  a little too windy on the day we went for lunch, so we sat inside.

The restaurant interior has been given a complete makeover by BOH Décoration et Lifestyle, an interior design company from Bordeaux.

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The dominant colours are pink and grey, with a little nod to Alice in Wonderland here and there! 🙂

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The lunch menu changes on a regular basis.  These were the choices on the day we went:

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Here is the starter:

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An egg, which has been poached at low temperature, so that it is barely cooked, sits atop an interpretation of tabouleh: grains, croutons and razor clams in a most wonderful broth, the whole sprinkled with flower petals and the egg crowned with deep-fried crispy noodles.  A great start to the meal!!

The three of us chose two of the main courses on offer – before you ask, we had one main course each, but two of us had the same, the neck of lamb, which was prepared like a tagine:

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The curried mackerel was the other main course that we chose.  The fish was cooked just perfectly and only very lightly spiced.

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For dessert, all three of us opted for the chocolate and caramel dome.  The presentation was fabulous, and it tasted every bit as good as it looked!!

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The three course lunch is priced at €22.00, and the restaurant is open from 10am to 6pm on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.  On Friday the restaurant is open for lunch AND dinner.  Reservations are essential – telephone 04 67 36 20 82 to book.

Thank you for the treat, Florence!