On Rue de Montmorency

This post is a continuation of my visit to Beziers during the recent European heritage days.  After my wonderful lunch at the market halls in Beziers, I made my way towards Beziers’ main square, the Allees Paul Riquet.  Along the way, a small hand-written sign drew my attention.  It led me a few steps along the Rue de Montmorency, to the Hotel de Montmorency, a building which I had walked past many times before.

Rue de Montmorency is in the heart of the mediaeval part of Beziers, and the building dates back to at least 1605, when it was recorded in a census as belonging to Guilhaume de Castilhon.  Guilhaume de Castilhon was secretary to the King of France, ordinary commissioner of wars, and secretary to Henri II de Montmorency.

Rue de Montmorency is incredibly narrow, so getting a picture of the entire facade was more or less impossible.

The property never belonged to the Montmorency family, but the connection between Castilhon and Montmorency must have been strong enough for the house and street to be named after the latter!   Guilhaume de Castilhon added to his property by buying neighbouring houses in 1609 and 1616.  His son, Jean de Castilhon added another part in 1646 and the ensemble of the buildings is thought to date from around that time.  The house passed through several hands over the course of the centuries.  During the latter part of the 19th century it was bought by a Mr Cavallier, who in 1877 “homogenised” the appearance of the building in the then fashionable neo-gothic and neo-renaissance styles.  In 1908 the house was bought by Achille Gaillard, a rich factory owner, who left it to his daughter Yvonne.  It stayed in the same family until 2009, when it was sold to a real estate company.

The doorway on Rue de Montmorency is big enough for a horse and cart!

I did some searching on the internet about the history of the building, and found that parts of it had been added to the register of listed buildings back in 1952.  In 2011, the entire building was placed on the register, which means that any alterations have to be approved by the French heritage commission.  I also found that in 2009, Carlos Carillo Gomez, a student from Barcelona university, did a survey of the building as part of his final year project.  If you’re interested in old buildings, the paper about the Hotel de Montmorency is very interesting!  It’s written in Catalan, and you can find it here.  The plans and elevation drawings, which are annexes to the paper can all be found here.  I found it absolutely fascinating!

Another source of fascinating information is the cadastre, a land registry plan, which shows the exact shape and size of a property.  The Hotel de Montmorency is No 32 at the centre of the picture, and the cadastre relates that the plot which the house stands on is 441 square metres in size.  With the courtyard in the centre being approximately 73 square metres, that leaves 368 square metres of floor space on each of floor of the building!

The only access to the house is via the door on the street, which gives into a vaulted passage.  The passage leads into the courtyard at the centre of the house.

As I stood in the courtyard looking around, a window on the first floor opened, and a young man waved and told me to come into the house.  It turned out that he worked for the owner of the real estate company, and he was in charge of the house during the visits.  The building was exactly as it had been left by the previous owners, nothing had been altered.  Electricity and water had been disconnected 10 years ago, so in some places it was a little too dark for good pictures.

Behind the large glass windows on the ground floor was a hallway with three doors.  The door straight ahead was decorative only, the one on the right led into a large room, and the one on the left led to a monumental staircase!  The windows on the half landing of the monumental staircase overlooked the street, and the stained glass windows were probably from the 1877 renovation project.

The handrail on the staircase was supported by finely sculpted brackets:

The ceiling of the staircase was incredibly ornate, and seemed to pre-date the 1877 renovations.

I’m adding a picture of the layout plan of the house – the one below is for the first floor.  The numbering of the rooms works in an anti-clockwise direction, my tour of that floor was in a clockwise direction.

On the first floor landing, the door straight ahead of me led into a rather gothic looking room.  The windows overlooking the courtyard were also made of stained glass, which gave the room a chapel-like appearance:

The ornate door surround at the opposite end of the room led into an enormous room.  At 41 square metres it was the second largest in the house (the largest room was on the ground floor).  The walls were lined with linenfold paneling and tapestry like fabric, and the ceiling was ‘a la francaise’, with closely spaced beams, which were beautifully painted.  The curtains matching the wall coverings were still in place, and there were two pieces of furniture:  a monumental glazed bookcase, which might have been made for this room during the 1877 renovations, and a somewhat incongruous looking 1920’s buffet.

To the right of the monumental fireplace, a door had been set into the panelling. It led into a little pantry of sorts, which communicated with a similar sort of pantry/closet off the room next door.  If you look at Gomez’s floor plan, this is marked (in Catalan) as ‘sala 4’ on the first floor.

Next door was ‘sala 5’, which might have been a bedroom once. It had two walk-in closets, one of which connected with the closet in ‘sala 4’.  One closet had a toilet and basin, the other one had just a basin.  The doors to the closets were rounded and were in the corners of the room along the same wall, so the bed could have been in the centre for ‘his and hers’ private facilities!!  The room had very elegant panelled walls, which were painted a creamy colour.  A beautiful white marble fireplace was on one wall.

Fireplace in ‘sala 4’ on the first floor

From this room there were two doors more or less next to one another – it was a little strange.  The one on the left led into a second staircase hall, which the architecture student denoted as a service staircase.  The door on the right, a little smaller than the one on the left, led diagonally across into the next wing of the building.  I have a theory for that: in one of the comments about the history of the building, an exterior spiral staircase was mentioned.  Such staircases could often be found on mediaeval and renaissance buildings.  The mention said that it was taken down in the 1990’s but I have a feeling that it might have been the 1890’s.  The staircase could have been located in the corner between two wings of the building, giving access to either wing.

The so called service staircase was almost as big as the monumental staircase at the entrance, and to my mind far too luxurious to be used by the servants alone.  I have a feeling that it might have been added during the 19th century renovations.

Continuing on the first floor, now in the wing opposite to where I entered the house, there were two bedrooms, and a bathroom which could be accessed from either of the bedrooms.

At the end of the bathroom, beyond the bidet was a separate WC.

Some details from the windows, these are espagnolettes, handles which are used to close the windows.

I moved on into the fourth wing, which was the one alongside the road.  A long corridor led to two bedrooms (dormitori 1 and dormitori 2), as well as to a bathroom and a separate WC.  One of the bedrooms had a niche with a wash basin and bidet.

The bathroom was done in the same kind of green tiles as the previous one.

Next came Sala 1, another large salon with a beautiful fireplace and elegant panelling.  The ceiling height in the rooms on the first floor was around 3.6 metres.

I imagine that this might have been used as a dining room once, since there was a kitchen right next door to it.

On the second floor the rooms were much simpler in their decorations; the ceiling height was lower, and the layout somewhat different from the floor below:

These are some of the fireplaces on the second floor.

And this is a picture of one of the two kitchens on this floor (cuina 2):

The monumental staircase ended on the second floor, but there was a smaller spiral staircase which continued upwards.

On the third floor awaited a little surprise – a loggia (covered terrace) which overlooked the courtyard – the views over the rooftops of Beziers were very interesting!!  If you scroll back up towards the beginning of this article, you’ll be able to see the loggia from the outside at the top of the building.

There was a great view down into the courtyard!

Next to the loggia was a bedroom which overlooked the street, and included an en-suite bathroom.  This suite was right above the monumental staircase.  And then there was another tiny spiral staircase which led up again!

The monumental staircase was in a tower-like building, and at the very top of the building was a room with windows on two sides – the views from here were spectacular!  It was very exciting to be able to visit this room!!

After this exciting discovery I went all the way down to the ground floor.  A few details from along the way:

On the ground floor was another suite of impressive rooms!

The light was not as good as upstairs, so it was difficult to take pictures.  The following are pictures of Sala 2, a room with dark brown wooden panelling and deep red wallpaper!

The kitchen on the ground floor was much larger than the ones on the upper floors.  It also did not seem to have been modernised very much – there was still the old fireplace to cook in/on!

The tiles were very pretty, perhaps dating to the 19th century or even earlier?

The cupboard next to the sink was topped with marble.

Sala 3 was a very elegant salon with grey/beige panelling and gold accents.  The fireplace was made from pink marble, and the ceiling was decorated with plasterwork rosettes. This was the largest room in the house!

Sala 4 was a more sombre room, with a wooden ceiling a la francaise, a dark marble fireplace, and exuberantly patterned wallpaper!

From Sala 4 the door led back into the entrance hall, and from there out into the courtyard!  But before we leave, here is a detail from the iron grilles at the bottom of the monumental staircase.  The stairs led down to the cellars which are under the building along the street – I was very curious, but I did not dare to turn that large key!

What an amazing visit – and just by chance!!  The Hotel de Montmorency is supposed to be transformed into a luxury hotel, just as they are planning to do with the former prison in Beziers.  I’m sure the real estate company who owns the building has been looking at ways to make it happen, and I wish them every success!

After this wonderful discovery I resumed my walk to the Allees Paul Riquet and towards my next destination, the Theatre des Varietes.  To be continued…

From clink to dock

This week, I am continuing my series of articles about my visit to Beziers during the recent European heritage days.  After visiting the old prison and the cellars below the cloisters, I did not have far to go to my next port of call: the former archbishop’s palace, formerly the Palais de Justice, the court house, and now in a state of limbo.

As it was still drizzling with rain, I did not take any pictures of the outside – I did not have a rain cover for my camera. 😦 .  Instead, I’ve been looking at google, and have found some very interesting shots via the street-view and aerial view of google maps.

First, an aerial view of the area around the cathedral.  The old prison is to the left and the archbishop’s palace to the right of the cathedral. The little blue Palais de Justice marker indicates the main building and just below it are the gardens, arranged on two terraces and indicated by a green marker.

Construction of the present building started in the 13th century after the cathedral and palace were destroyed.  The palace was rebuilt again in the 17th century in the French manner: a main building flanked by two identical wings around a courtyard.  The picture below shows the entrance to the courtyard, which dates from the 18th century:

The archbishop’s palace became property of the state during the French Revolution.  I’ve not been able to find out what happened to the building from then until 1945, when it became a courthouse.  Here is an aerial view of the courtyard:

And this is what the building looks like from the opposite side:

Inside, the building has undergone many transformations over the centuries.  To enter the former palace/courthouse, I climbed a large stone staircase in the courtyard.  From a little hallway I went into a large room which took up the whole centre of the building.  The walls were decorated with beautiful plasterwork.  The ceiling was a la francaise, with large beams topped at a right angle with smaller beams that were placed closely together.

From this room, a door gave access to the courtroom.  The benches and desks were all still in place, and some people took selfies sitting in the judge’s chair!

Behind the courtroom was a room for the judges to retire to for their deliberations. Two of the walls were lined with very tall bookcases – now empty.  The ladder was still in place though and the parquet floor was beautiful.

In one corner of the room, a little door gave access to a tiny room, more of a short corridor really.  The building which that room was in protruded from the back of the main building, and from the window I managed to get a nice picture of the garden on the terrace below.

The door at the end of this ‘corridor’ room led to an even tinier room, with a window overlooking the river.  If you look closely at the aerial shot earlier in this article, you’ll be able to identify that window!

From the deliberating room, a door next to one of the bookcases led into a dark, bookcase lined passage, and from the passage I entered the courtroom once more.  The bookcase was still full of books!!   Perhaps they were no longer needed when the court transferred to the new courthouse?

This is all I was allowed to see of the former archbishop’s palace.  The building belongs to the town of Beziers, and plans are afoot to transform it into a museum, where all the collections will be on show together.  Currently, the collections are displayed at several different museums in the town.  When the new museum is finished, there will be approx. 3000 square metres of exhibition space – still not enough to display everything, apparently!

After that visit I was ready for a spot of lunch!!  To be continued…

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!








Making paper

I recently went on a day out with friends – it was a treat for us all!!  We went to the village of Brousses-et-Villaret, where there is a bit of living heritage: a paper mill. The mill in Brousses (Villaret is the other part of the commune, but really a separate village or hamlet) is one of only five in the whole of France where paper is still hand-crafted.  There are many other paper mills in France, but they all produce paper on an industrial scale.

To get to the paper mill in Brousses you have to drive down a narrow road which winds across the village green, past the church and some houses.


You park your car in a grove of green oaks and then you set off on foot along the narrow road.  You can hear the mill stream running in the valley below.  After about a hundred yards, you leave the road and follow a path which runs through the woodland.


At one point, a wooden bridge takes you across a small canal and it’s shortly after that you’ll have your first ‘mill’ experience. (Note to e-mail subscribers: there’s a video following the next picture, which you’ll be able to watch on the blog website.)


The little water wheel is a ‘paddle wheel’ – the water flowing below the wheel moves the paddles to turn the wheel.  These kinds of wheels were used along rivers and also on the plains, where the water flows more sedately.  When you’ve finished admiring the little paddle wheel, you round a corner, and there, in front of you, is the mill building!


It doesn’t look like much at first glance – not very large, and the right hand side is a bit squashed against the steep side of the valley.  But there is a lot more to it, as can be seen by crossing another bridge and looking at the building sideways.


The noise of rushing water is everywhere!  The river is called La Dure, and during the heyday of manufacturing in the area (mid 19th to mid 20th centuries), there were 67 waterwheels on the river.  In the village of Brousses alone there were 12 watermills, half of them being paper mills.  The other mills would have been producing textiles, and there might have been the odd flour mill too.

This mill has belonged to the Chaila family since 1877, and it was in operation until 1981, producing cardboard for the packaging industry.  After the last paper maker retired, his children decided to preserve the buildings, and in 1994 they took up the production of hand-crafted paper, using the abundantly available water.  The mill has been open to the public for guided visits for many years, and it was during one of those visits that I learnt about the paper making process.

Our guide started the tour by demonstrating the old bucket wheel – a bucket wheel has the water running over it from above, as opposed to the paddle wheel.  The mill had three bucket wheels at one point, one on each floor, to drive the machinery in various parts of the building.


In 1920, two of the bucket wheels were replaced by a turbine – a much more modern contraption!! The same turbine still turns today, now powering an electricity generator rather than mill machinery.

P1010844 P1010850

Our next stop on the visit was one of the old workshops, where our guide gave an explanation of the history of paper.  Before paper was used, written records were scratched into stone or clay tablets – rather heavy to carry and fragile if not handled correctly!  The Egyptians invented papyrus around 3500 B.C.  Parchment, made from animal skins, appeared in the second century B.C. in Pergamon, Asia minor.  At around the same time (very roughly), the Chinese invented paper, using plant fibres.  It wasn’t until around A.D. 751 that the secret got out, and eventually paper reached the Western world with the Arabic expansion.  The 14th century saw the first paper mill on French territory.

Next, our guide explained that paper is made from cellulose fibres, which are found in every plant. There are various processes to extract the fibres from plants – one of them involves boiling the plant parts in a solution of soda and water for an hour and a half.  Sounds as though that would have been very messy!

In 1841 a Mr Tripot found that non-ruminant herbivores (horses, donkeys, mules etc.) do not digest cellulose, and he invented a process of making paper from horse dung – then abundant and easy to come by!  At the paper Mill in Brousses some paper is made using elephant dung!!  No, I’m not joking!!

Another process uses old rags as the basis for making paper  – you’ve heard of the rag and bone merchants of days gone by??  Rag paper is still made today at Brousses!

In olden days, it could take six months from the delivery of rags to a mill, to the finished paper.  The rags would be picked over for buttons and fasteners, and any seams would be unpicked.  Then the rags would be cut into strips, moistened and thrown into tanks, to ferment for two to six weeks.  The fermented strips would then be cut into tiny pieces, which would then be beaten to a pulp in a stamp mill.  A ten kilo batch would have to be beaten a day each in three different stamp mills.  In the first the mallets beating the pulp had sharp nails on their ends to smash the fibres.  The mallets in the second mill would have flat-headed nails, and in the third mill the mallets were covered in leather, producing a very fine paper pulp.  A noisy, smelly and laborious process!!  I’m sure that paper was much more expensive and more highly respected then than it is today!

Here is a model of a stamp mill:


To speed up the production of paper pulp, the Dutch invented the Hollander Beater  around 1670.  At the Brousses paper mill, two hollander beaters were in operation between 1877 and 1981. They were driven by a pulley system, powered by the water wheels and later the turbine.

The hollander beater makes short work of the rags – where it took three days to produce 10 kilos of paper pulp, the hollander beater could produce 50 kilos in the space of about two and a half hours!

In the same workshop also stood a huge mill with two great big millstones – the whole assembly weighs over ten tonnes!!  This was mainly used to crush old paper and cardboard, 300 kilos in 90 minutes!  Recycling paper is nothing new!!


We went into another room, where our guide showed us the actual process of making a sheet of paper.  The paper pulp is diluted with lots of water, to the point where you think there are hardly any fibres in the tank.  A sieve is then dipped into the water, catching an amount of paper fibre and water.  The water drains away, leaving the cellulose fibres behind.  This very wet sheet of paper is then laid onto a piece of moist woollen felt, covered with another piece of felt and the whole process repeated, until there are 100 sheets!  This pile of paper is then pressed with a hydraulic press, to extract as much water as possible and thus solidify the cellulose fibres.

Once the excess water has been pressed out, the paper needs to be dried.  We climbed the stairs to the top floor of the mill, which was used for that purpose.  The small sheets of paper that our guide had produced during a previous tour were put up on lines – much like washing!!

Paper which is dried that way is not flat, and needs a fair amount more work to get it into “shape”.


To overcome the waviness of the paper, all of the regular production at the paper mill is now dried on large sheets of interlining, a material used in garment production, which keeps the paper flat.

A hydraulic press flattens the paper, with pressure applied for a few hours – in the old days paper would have to be pressed for several months!

The guided visit provided a very fascinating insight into a product which we take for granted today – so much paper is used every day, and whilst a lot of paper is recycled, most of us wouldn’t think twice about discarding a piece of paper.  Handmade paper is very different to the paper we use in our computer printers – it really bears no resemblance!  The shop at the mill in Brousses has a wonderful selection of all kinds of handmade paper.

I’m sure you’ll enjoy your visit as much as I did!