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!

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Austerity and splendour

What do most people think of when they hear the word Albi? Perhaps that it was the birthplace of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec,  or the Albigensian crusade against the Cathars?  I think of a fortress-like church.  I recently went back to Albi for another visit.  Construction of the cathedral, for that is what the fortress-church actually is, started in 1282, at the end of the persecution of the Cathars.  The massive building was designed to intimidate and impress, to show the domination of the Catholic church over its surroundings.IMG_4705

It is very impressive, wouldn’t you agree?  The building is in a style called Meridional Gothic, distinctly different from the Northern Gothic style which gave us cathedrals such as the ones in Chartres, Rouen or Notre Dame de Paris.  The whole shell is built entirely of brick, and there are no flying buttresses – instead the semi-cylindrical abutments on the outer walls transfer the weight of the vaults to the massive foundations.

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It took over 100 years to build the shell of the building, and the massive belfry was only finished in 1480, almost 200 years after construction began!!  The belfry is 78 metres high!

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The cathedral is the largest brick-built cathedral in the world, an impressive 113 metres long, by 35 metres wide!  It totally dominates the old town, which of course was the aim.

The fortress aspect of the exterior includes details of military architecture, such as the observation tower below:

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There is hint of the more well known northern gothic style in the monumental porch on the southern entrance.  Unfortunately this was undergoing some restoration, so it isn’t all that visible.

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The interior of the cathedral is in stark contrast to the exterior.  Where the brick walls on outside carry no decoration, inside the church not a single square inch remains undecorated! (Or the inside of the church is decorated to within an inch of its life??)

The decorations on the vaults were painted by Italian artists between 1509 and 1512.  On a blue and gold background, the ceiling depicts the promise of salvation.  The west wall, below the organ loft, is taken up by a monumental depiction of the last judgement, painted by Flemish artists from 1495 to 1500.  Unfortunately, at one point a door was cut into this wall, which meant that the central portion of the painting was lost!  The paintings were a way of instructing a populace which was largely illiterate and/or did not know enough Latin to read the Bible.

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The painted walls have not been restored (read re-painted) since they were finished.  Some of the walls have been cleaned, removing centuries of dust and grime, and the difference is noticeable.  On the very right you see a wall which has not been cleaned – the colours are incredibly vibrant on the cleaned walls!

The rood screen and the choir enclosure are in the flamboyant gothic style and were carved by the best craftsmen of France during 1477 – 1484.  The detailing is incredibly fine and ornate!  The statuary on the exterior of the enclosure represents the Old Testament, whilst on the inside, characters from the New Testament are depicted.

The walls above the choir stalls are decorated with angels, and the fields between the angels are painted with mythical creatures.

A few of the angels have lost arms, but all of them have their heads.  And there seems to be something missing from the canopies which are in between the angels – but what?

And here is a statue of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of the cathedral:

I hope I’ve shown you enough of the interior of the cathedral to make you want to visit it for yourself!!  From Saint-Chinian, Albi can be reached by car in just under two hours – it makes for a good day trip.

The cathedral of Sainte-Cecile is an amazing work of art – do allow yourself enough time to explore it. An audio guide is available, which offers good explanations of the interior of the church.  From the tourist office, the Albi City Pass is available, which is a day pass for the Cathedral and the Toulouse-Lautrec museum, located in the former archbishop’s palace.  The pass also gives reduced entry to a number of other museums and attractions in Albi.

I’ll write about the palace and the Toulouse-Lautrec museum in due course – promise!!