A solitary place

Last week’s post was about the first half of a wonderful day out with friends in the hills near Lodeve.  I’m going to continue the story with this post.

Following our delicious lunch at La Petite Fringale in Saint Jean de la Blaquiere, we drove towards Lodeve, to visit the Priory of Saint Michel de Grandmont.  This monastery belonged to the little known order of Grandmont, an order founded at the end of the 11th or the beginning of the 12th century, according to which historian you believe.  The rules of the order were incredibly austere, even for mediaeval times: possessions were forbidden, heating was only for visitors, monks walked barefoot all year round and lived in strict silence.  Their lives were more like those of hermits, even though they lived in communities.  Lay brothers were an integral part of each monastery – they had to look after the day-to-day running of the monastery.

The set of buildings at Saint Michel de Grandmont is one of the few Grandmontine houses left more or less intact.

The entire order was dissolved in 1772 due to lack of monks, and the monastery was attached to the diocese of Lodeve.  The last monks left Saint Michel de Grandmont in 1785.

During the French revolution the buildings were sold, but lucky for us, they were not demolished, and not hugely altered either.  The picture above shows the buildings overlooking the courtyard – you can see part of the gable end of the church on the left.

The audio guide (available in several languages, including English) which was part of the entrance fee was very helpful!  The visit started in the visitors’ room, a sturdy vaulted room with an enormous fireplace, where visitors to the monastery were welcomed.  This fireplace was the only one in the monastery, as physical comforts were a no-no for the monks.

A wooden model showed the cloister, with the vaulted chapter house area on the ground floor and the monks’ dormitory above.

The double doors at the end of the visitors’ room led to a small, dark room, and from there a door led to the cloister.  The cloister is supposed to be the only one of all the Grandmontine cloisters to be remaining intact.  The architecture is very simple and austere!

A doorway led from the cloister to the church. In the time of the monks, there would have been some ecclesiastical furniture, but today the church’s walls are bare and the building is almost completely empty.  The proportions of the church were impressive – 28 metres long, 6.7metres wide and 11 metres high!  The acoustics were wonderful, and during the summer season concerts are being held in the church on a regular basis.

The chapter house was just off the cloister – a large vaulted room with arrow slit windows on one side.  The chapter house was the place where the monks gathered every day, to listen to the rules of the order being read, and to do penance.

From the chapter house, we stepped out into the sunshine.  The guided walk took us around the back of the chapter house and to the apse of the church.  I got the feeling that the mullioned windows above the arrow slits of the chapter house were a later addition.

By the apse of the church, excavations had revealed the remains of Visigothic tombs.

The audio guide took us back to where we had exited the chapter house – a terrace shaded by chestnut trees.  The facade of the building along the terrace had been remodelled in the 18th century and given a more classical look with a pedimented door and other architectural elements (not visible in the picture below).

Our walk continued to the park, across another terrace, this one planted with plane trees, which had not yet leafed out.

A little climb brought us to a rather surprising feature – an ornamental lake with an island in the middle! The plinth bore an inscription in Latin and a date of 1850.  At that time Etienne Vitalis was the owner of the property.  The audio guide explained that the lake was created where the stone for the monastic buildings had been quarried.  The lake is fed by a small stream and the water was no doubt used to irrigate fields and gardens.

On we went, through the woodland surrounding the lake, to the next point of interest: vestiges of pre-historic man’s occupation of the site!

The views from there were spectacular!

After a brief walk, we reached a dolmen, the final point of our guided visit.  It sits all by itself and the views from there were also spectacular!  Legend has it that the monks used to sit inside the dolmen to be healed when they were sick!

On our way back to the abbey, there was a lovely view of the buildings across a green field:

The priory of Saint Michel de Grandmont is open from February to the end of December, from 10am to 6pm.  It is closed on Mondays during the off-season.  Full details can be found on www.prieure-grandmont.fr

I leave you with a video of the fountain which plays on the courtyard wall.  It sums up the peace and serenity of Saint Michel de Grandmont on the day that I visited.

 

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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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A night at the theatre

Recently, friends invited me to join them for a visit to the theatre in Pezenas.  They had been telling me about this historical theatre for ages, and I had been longing to go – so this was it!  The theatre is tucked away in a narrow side street, and the facade of it is rather plain, save for a very ornate doorway.  If you look at the top half of the door casing there is nothing much to hint at what lies behind the entrance:

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There are no flashing signs, no names up in lights!  With the large wooden doors closed it would look like many other buildings in Pezenas.  BUT, the wooden doors were open and allowed a glimpse into the foyer:

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Very little is known of the early history of the theatre, but a description of it was made by the then town architect, Joseph Montgaillard, in 1855.  The town of Pezenas purchased the building in 1857, and in 1899 a series of renovation projects started, improving seating and stage machinery, as well as replacing the painted stage curtain.  In 1925 (!!) the theatre was electrified. I couldn’t find out whether it was lit with gas or candlelight before then. In 1947 the theatre closed down – I am assuming that it might have been due to the poor state of repair of the building.  You can find out a little more about the history of the theatre here.  There are also some pictures of it before the restoration began, on that website.

Work on the restoration didn’t start until 1998, after the theatre had been closed for more than 50 years!!  It finished with the re-opening of the theatre in 2012.  During those 14 years absolutely everything was worked on.  The building was made watertight, the interior restored and up-to-date technical services were installed.  Here is what it looks like today:

Door to the stalls

Door leading to the stalls

Former box office windows in the foyer

Former box office windows in the foyer

Detail of art deco decorations in the foyer

Detail of art deco decorations in the foyer

The foyer did not prepare me for the sumptuous interior of the auditorium

Auditorium of the historic theatre in Pezenas

Auditorium of the historic theatre in Pezenas

The photo above is of the view from the first floor balcony straight down to the stage.  The walls in the stalls and on the balcony are covered with striped wallpaper, faithfully reproduced after fragments of the original paper.

The ceiling was intricately painted and had been painstakingly restored:

The coat of arms of the town of Pezenas adorns the proscenium:

Coat of arms of the town of Pezenas

Coat of arms of the town of Pezenas

A new chandelier was created to light the auditorium:

the chandelier

The chandelier

Unfortunately the main stage curtain was not lowered during my visit, but apparently it is very much in keeping with the decorations you can see below:

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Top of the proscenium arch

Bit by bit the other patrons arrived, and the theatre filled up.  When it was time for the performance to begin the theatre was pretty full!

The auditorium filling up

The auditorium filling up

During the performance I took no pictures – I was too self-conscious of the loud click of the camera, and aware that the pictures might not be all that good with the low lighting conditions.  The piece we’d come to see was L’homme qui voulait voir les anges, The man who wanted to see the angels.  It was an amazing mix of storytelling and music, performed by Kamel Guennoun and the Trio Zephyr. I was totally mesmerized and carried along by the story and the music.  The simplicity of it was breathtaking – only the four chairs on the stage and the lights, which dimmed a little at times, but that was it!  A totally amazing evening all around!

What a cracker

The round of Christmas markets has started and this past weekend I visited two: one in St Chinian and the other at the Chateau-Abbaye de Cassan near Roujan.  Since I wrote about the St Chinian Christmas market last year, I’ll write about the at Cassan instead.  The market at Cassan goes by various names – there is the Marche de Noel a l’Anglaise (Christmas market in the English fashion), La foire de Noel (Christmas Fair), and finally the Cassan Cracker Fair.  This market was established eight years ago, and in the early days it was very much aimed at the British expat community in the area, who felt deprived of their Christmas crackers.  If you don’t know what Christmas crackers are have a look here.

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The Cassan Christmas market now attracts almost as many French visitors as British ones, and there is a great mix of nationalities among the 120+ exhibitors.  To cope with the number of visitors, the market is being held on Saturday and Sunday.  For me the attraction was two-fold: to visit the Chateau-Abbaye and the Christmas market.  Granted, it’s not the best time to visit the buildings when hundreds and even thousands of other people are there too, but still.  A reduced entrance fee of 2 EUR (the regular entrance fee to the Abbey is somewhere around 7 EUR) is charged during the two days the Christmas market takes place, so it’s worth the trip for that alone ;-).

The Abbaye de Cassan was first established in 1080 as an Augustinian priory, and in its heyday numbered 80 priors.  The church was consecrated in 1115, and until the plague and 100 years war in the 14th century all was going swimmingly.  Then the rot set in and decline continued until in 1605 there were only 7 or 8 priors left at the priory.  And then, in the middle of the 18th century the abbey was completely re-built, except for the church, not all that long before the revolution chased the remaining priors from their new palatial quarters.

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For palatial they certainly would have been.  The facade on the garden side is worthy of any stately home, and the salons on the ground floor would have been very beautiful.  Unfortunately the gardens are somewhat neglected, the parterres inexistent and the pond looks as if it has been dry for some time.

The facade onto the main courtyard is no less impressive than the garden side, and provided a good foil for the stalls which were set up outside.

I was hoping to indulge in my favourite fish-and-chips, but I was too late – there was no fish left.  The chips were excellent though, and more than enough to keep me happy for the rest of the afternoon!  The galleries inside the three wings which surround the main courtyard look as though they could have been serving as a cloister at one point, though if that were the case,  the fourth wing is perhaps missing – or was never built?

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The church is incredible – only slightly modified in the 18th century – and is one of the largest romanesque churches in the area.  When I arrived a cellist was playing at one end, and the sound beautifully filled the whole building despite the ambient noise.  A concert would probably sound fantastic here!  The stalls in the church, and elsewhere, offered a wonderful selection of goods:  some traditional British Christmas food such as mince pies, Christmas cake and plum pudding, a good amount of jewellery, textiles, gift items, gardening tools, glasses, wine and champagne, carpets, handicrafts, and there was a stall selling beautiful lampshades made with traditional Japanese and Nepalese paper, which was my favourite.

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The cupola on top of the church is called “lantern of hope”.  Legend has it that a fire was kept burning in the lantern each night to help guide the pilgrims on the way to Santiago de Compostela to the abbey, where they could spend the night before continuing on their pilgrimage to the Spanish sanctuary.

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Plans are afoot to develop Cassan into a corporate retreat, so plan to visit as soon as you can, while you still can!  For more reading on Cassan have a look at Wikipedia in French and English.  A virtual tour is available on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyxJGy_K1iU and there is also the official website at http://www.chateau-cassan.com/

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