Fortified remains

A little while ago, I wrote about my visit to the local history museum in Puisserguier.  There’s a lot more to discover in this town, and today I’d like to take you on a visit of the castle, which is at the heart of the old village.

The origins of the chateau date back to the 11th century, when a fortified castle was built on a hillock.  At that time the people living on the plains were at the mercy of bands of marauders, and very soon a second fortification was built, encircling a small village.  Puisserguier became a circulade, a village built in the round.  Examples of such villages can still be seen in the area – Aigne is one such village which is in very good condition.

This link takes you to a map of Puisserguier.  The chateau is on Plan dals Cathars and the map gives you a good idea of how the village grew up around it.

Entrance to the chateau in Puisserguier

Entrance to the courtyard of the chateau in Puisserguier

The chateau became property of the French state during the French revolution, and was subsequently sold as several lots.  Doorways were created in the outside walls, and the inside was divided into a number of dwellings.

Outside wall of the chateau, with front doors to individual dwellings

When I first visited the chateau many years ago, the vagaries of time had not been kind to it!  Most of the courtyard inside the chateau was taken up by a block of garages, and the arches in the courtyard had been partly blocked up. It all looked in a pitiful state.  The fortunes of the chateau changed, when the municipality decided to claim back this part of local history, by buying up parts of the chateau as they came up for sale.

The garages in the courtyard were cleared away and the arches in the courtyard were opened up again.

Courtyard of the chateau, looking north

Chateau courtyard, looking south-west.

Some of the arrow slits are still visible on the inside the walls; the square holes in the wall would have been for wooden beams, and those beams would have supported walkways for the archers.

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If only some of those walls could tell their story!!  If you look carefully, you can decipher a little bit of the story:  the top of the wall was added later, probably in the 19th century.  As for the black patch at the bottom of the picture, your guess is as good as mine!

Old chateau wall, telling its story.

On the ground floor of the chateau, only one room is open to the public.  It is used for exhibitions, telling the history of the chateau.  This room was originally divided into two rooms, but the last owner decided to do some alterations!

Room on the ground floor of the chateau.

Room on the ground floor of the chateau.

Plans are afoot to restore parts of the chateau and to open more of it to the public.  As always, it will be a question of funding, but we live in hope!

On my way back to the car, I passed through another gateway, which was in the outer walls of the town.  Where once the walls might have been surrounded by a moat, today there is a car park.  Alongside the car park runs the D612 Beziers to Saint-Pons-de-Thomieres road, going straight through Saint-Chinian, to take me home!

Gateway in the old town walls

Remnants of town walls in Puisserguier

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!

Giving back

The town of Beziers holds a number of fetes and events throughout the year.  One such fete is called Les Caritats, and it takes place on May 5, Ascension day, which is a public holiday in France.  The history of Les Caritats dates back to mediaeval times.  One of the reasons behind the fete was apparently to raise money, which was then distributed among the poor.  Bread, which was blessed by the archbishop and the clergy of the town, was also distributed among the needy populace.

I went to this year’s edition of Les Caritats, to see what it was all about.  The day was sunny and warm, perfect for a fete!  A mediaeval ‘village’ had been set up on the Allees Paul Riquet, close to the municipal theatre.  The ‘camel, the totem animal of Beziers, was there too!

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When I arrived at the fete, the communal meal was already in full swing.  A lady in flowing robes was entertaining the diners with a parrot display.

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Farther down the square, a small farmyard had been set up, for the entertainment of old and young.  The animals didn’t seem to be in the slightest bothered about being on show.

The mediaeval kitchen, where children could learn to prepare dishes from the period:

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For the children, the biggest attractions were the games!  There was a great selection to choose from!

With such beautiful weather, a stroll around Beziers was a must.  I am always captivated by the wonderful facades which abound in this town!  It really must have been an amazing town to live in during its heyday in the 19th century!

If you visit Beziers, be sure to keep your eyes open for all the beauty – it can be found in unexpected places!

Now you see it, now you dont!

One recent sunny Sunday afternoon, I drove to the village of Aigues Vives for a guided visit around the river Cesse.  A fairly large group of people had gathered on the square in front of the town hall – perhaps because the weather was so beautifully sunny?

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Once the guides had settled who would do what, we started on our walk towards the riverbed.

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When you are in Aigues Vives, the river Cesse is nowhere in evidence.  But head north, along Avenue de la Cesse, and you’ll see signs that the river isn’t far away!

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As you leave the village, the road gently slopes down to the riverbed.  At the bottom of the hill we took a left, and soon we were standing on the banks of the Cesse.  It looks a bit dry, wouldn’t you agree?

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Here’s the guide who explained why there was no water in the river:IMG_4020

It was a rather fascinating explanation!  The Cesse can be divided into three distinct sections, the upper, middle and lower sections.  The upper section, from which the river springs, in Ferrals-les-Montagnes, resembles a mountain torrent which runs pretty much all year.  About 16 km downstream from the source, at a place called Moulin de Monsieur, the middle section starts, and the river appears to dry up.  The middle section is about 20 km long and ends at Moulin de Madame, where the river resurfaces again.  The lower river flows all year round from Moulin de Madame through Bize Minervois and on to join the Aude river at Salleles d’Aude.

We were looking at the middle section of the Cesse, and on average this part of the river is dry two-thirds of the year.  That’s not to say that there is no water at all.  The area is made up of limestone, and over millennia the water has carved away at the stone.  If you drive to Minerve, you’ll get a good idea of just how much has been cut away.  The theory is that the river runs underground in the middle section, and only surfaces when there is enough water to fill up the river bed.  That usually happens during winter when it has rained enough.

Just to give you an idea of what it can look like, here is a picture of La Caunette, taken a few years ago, at a time when there was plenty of water:

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And here are some pictures (also from a few years ago) when there was water flowing just outside Agel, downstream from Aigues Vives.  This was taken not far away from Moulin de Madame, and you can see the old dam and a sluice gate for the mill.

Let’s track back to our walk in Aigues Vives though.  The walk continued along the river, and we came to a place where you could see what looked like two big piles of stones, on either side of the river.  One of our guides explained that they were the remains of a footbridge, which had been built in the 17th century.  Wooden walkways rested on a central pillar in the riverbed, and allowed people to cross to the other side, even at times of high water.  Unfortunately, the central pillar was swept away by the floods during the winter of 1999, and with it the bridge.  The force of water is not to be underestimated!!

The path turned away from the river and we started to walk through the vineyards.  Even though the vines are dormant right now, the vineyards can look so pretty!!

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Where one vineyard ends another one starts, but sometimes they are interspersed with a few almond trees such as these:

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There’s nothing as beautiful as white blossoms against a bright blue sky on a spring day!

After our walk I had some time to wander around the back streets of Aigues Vives.  As in Puisserguier (see last week’s post), I had never really stopped to explore the village. It has an interesting mix of old and older buildings!

I wonder if the name of this road means that it can be windy here??

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These two beauties were enjoying a nap in the sunshine.

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They were very happy to pose for the camera!! 🙂

The bakery which this sign points to has long been closed, unfortunately.

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But I came across the restaurant below, the Auberge Minervoise, which is very much open for business.  I’ve put it on my list of restaurants to try!

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So there you have it – a wonderful afternoon walk, with plenty of interesting information!

 

 

History preserved

Just down the road from Saint-Chinian, on the way to Beziers, lies the village of Puisserguier.  Puisserguier is one of those villages which I have passed through countless times, always on the way to somewhere else. I’m sure you also know a few places like that?  BUT – Puisserguier has several attractions worth stopping for, and I am going to tell you about one of them in this post:  the Ecomusee de la vie d’autrefois.

An ecomuseum is the museographic name for a museum concept which deals with cultural heritage, both material, i.e. displays of objects, and immaterial, such as skills.

The ‘ecomuseum of life in bygone days’ is located in four rooms of an old schoolhouse and the adjacent school playground.  The subtitle of the ecomuseum in Puisserguier is Centre de Ressources des Memoires, the resource centre of memories.  The exhibition does exactly what the subtitle hints at, displaying over 300 objects which have been collected/donated by volunteers, and are arranged to give an idea of what life might have been like in a bygone age.

The displays are arranged by trades.  Here you have a selection of items which would have been sold and used in the epicerie, the grocery store:

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Every display has a “hook”, which provides a link to local history.  The photograph, which is tied into the grocery store display, shows a local shopkeeper in her shop.  Some of the exhibits have come from that very same shop!

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Here is the pharmacy:

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The mercerie has a great selection of items from a haberdasher’s shop:

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The coiffeur shows what a hairdressing salon would have looked like, along with the tools which were used to style and cut people’s hair.   Those wash basins don’t look too comfortable, do they??

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One of the rooms has been set up as a kind of reading room, where folders upon folders, containing all kinds of information, are waiting to be consulted.

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In the schoolroom next door, an exam, typical of those given autrefois was being administered – I was asked whether I wanted to give it a go, but I declined – I’m not sure that my French would have been up to it!

The displays continued outside, in what used to be the playground for the school.  A garage workshop had been set up under the cover of the old playground shelter:

With all the kids’ bikes lined up against the wall, it felt as though the schoolchildren might be sitting in their classrooms, ready to burst forth as soon as the bell was going to ring!

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A long, low building in the courtyard housed a great display of domestic paraphernalia.

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Inside, it was brimming over with “stuff” – there was so much to look at!!

Here is la toilette – from a time when most houses did not have bathrooms!  The bucket under the wash stand was for what used to be called “night soil”.  I leave you to work that one out! 🙂

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The kitchen corner had an amazing array of pots, pans, crocks and implements!


The fireplace, complete with family portraits and other everyday items, was the focus of the main room in every house, :

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Entertainment from a bygone era – definitely pre-digital!!

A well stocked linen closet, such as this one, would require a lot of work to keep everything looking good. The foot-powered sewing machine was a big improvement on hand-sewing, but laundry was usually done by hand!  How did they get the sheets to be so snowy-white??

The exhibition is completed by a large selection of tools used in the vineyards:

The ecomuseum in Puisserguier is open on Fridays from 10am to 12noon, and on Mondays from 3pm to 5.30pm, or by appointment.  Entry is free, so why not make a point of stopping in Puisserguier and see for yourself – I’m sure you’ll enjoy it too!

Happy Holidays!

For as long as I can remember, the festive season has been synonymous with light for me.  In Germany, the nights draw in very early around Christmas, and the festive illuminations make those dark nights brighter.  I grew up there, in the days before everybody had electric lights on their (sometimes artificial) Christmas trees – we had real candles on a real tree.  I would only lay eyes on the tree on Christmas eve, when the candles were lit as if by magic (my parents never appeared to have anything to do with that!!), and the whole tree was sparkling with glass ornaments, tinsel and sparklers.  At the time you read this, I will be decorating my own tree, with tinsel, glass ornaments AND electric lights!  As I am writing this post before that tree will be trimmed, I won’t be able to share any photographs with you, I’m sorry!

But I do have some other photographs to share with you – I visited Montpellier very recently.  On my meanderings through some of the narrow streets, I passed by the entrance to a church, which had in the past always been locked.  That day the doors were wide open, so I had to have a look in – and I’m very glad I did!  The church was the Chapelle des Penitents Blancs, the chapel of the white penitents. This lay brotherhood was founded in Montpellier in 1517.  In 2013 it had 49 members, aged 25 to 103 years!  The chapel, which dates from the 17th century and earlier, serves as their headquarters.

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The interior is richly decorated, with much gold leaf in evidence.  Parts of the decor have been restored, whilst other parts are still awaiting much needed work.

On the balcony at the rear of the chapel are two mannequins, dressed in the traditional white robes of the penitents.

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There was a reason why the chapel was open to the public that day:  the very large Provençal creche or nativity scene!

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The popular Provençal nativity scenes appeared during the French Revolution, when la Terreur had closed churches and forbidden worship.  In 1793, at Christmas, people in Marseille started to make small figures, which could easily be hidden in case of police checks.  They used clay, paper, the white of a loaf of bread – whatever was to hand.  The figures represented the faithful, who could not go to midnight mass.  They were given the names santouns, little saints in Provençal. Today they are usually called santons.

The tradition became very much part of Christmas in Provence, and spread to Languedoc too.  In 1803 a santons fair was held in Marseille.  The traditional costumes of today’s figures hark back to the days when the santons were first made.

Did you notice the chapel with the white penitents?  And did you notice that baby Jesus was missing?  He will be placed in his crib with great ceremony on Christmas eve!

After that wonderfully unexpected stop, I made my way to Place de la Comedie and the Christmas market.  The centre of Montpellier was beautifully decked out in lights.  Here are some pictures of the Opera Comedie, of the Place de la Comedie, and of the streets surrounding the Place de la Comedie:

This year, the Christmas market stretched from the Place de la Comedie all the way down the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle – there were over 100 stalls in all!

IMG_3724There was a nice assortment of edibles:

. . .  and gift ideas:

Note how I have far more pictures of food 🙂 – somehow I’m drawn to that!!

This will be my last post for 2015, and so I would like to wish all of you and yours a wonderful festive season!!  See you again in the New Year!