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)!

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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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