Time with the Swiss

One grey Saturday morning this spring, I went to meet up with a group of like-minded people for a guided visit on Beziers’ architectural history.  The history of that town has fascinated me for a long time – it goes back so far, and there are so many different layers to discover.  The theme of the guided visit was Chez les Suisses, and very appropriately the visit started on a square just off Boulevard de Geneve.  The boulevard was given its name around 1904 after the town councillors of Beziers had had a particularly cordial welcome on a visit to Geneva.

During the later part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, there were strong commercial ties between Switzerland and Languedoc.  The Swiss would buy wines from the region, and in turn would sell grain.  Swiss merchants opened offices in Beziers, and built themselves sumptuous mansions with their profits.

On our visit we stopped at several of these mansions.  The first one we saw was built by Godefroid Meyer on Boulevard de la Liberte between 1926 and 1928 in a very pure art deco style.

We were fortunate in that the owner of this beautiful white house was one of the guides – there were several of them, each with a different field of expertise.  He had brought several photographs of the interior of the house to show to the group.  The interior looked as stunning as the outside. In fact, my pictures above do not do the building justice, it really has to be seen in person!

The next mansion we saw used to belong to the Bühler family.  Traugott Bühler bought an enormous plot of around 4500 square metres along Avenue Saint-Saëns, and proceeded to build not one but two mansions.  The one on the corner was used as offices, and is a relatively modest brick and stone confection with a mansard roof.

The initial of the family name still decorates the stonework at roof level, and the railings on the balcony just below hint at art nouveau.

The big mansion next door, completed in 1903, was designed by the architects Leopold and Louis Carlier, well-known architects from Montpellier.  The locals called it the Chateau Bühler, on account of its size and air of sumptuousness.

Both of the Bühler mansions have been split into apartments, and a large part of the park has been sold off and covered with very nondescript apartment buildings.  The facade of the chateau as well as the monumental wrought iron gates and railings have listed building status!  Here is one of our guides in front of the gates:

The last of the mansions we visited, was built for Otto Müller, another rich merchant of Swiss extraction, who, if I remember correctly, had married one of the Bühler daughters – or was she a Meyer?  The architect was Leopold Carlier.  He designed the mansion in the Flemish style, with gables and turrets.  The building was finished in 1870.  At the time there were few other buildings surrounding it.

You can still see Otto Müller’s initials on the monumental chimney:

In 1916, the mansion was bought by the brothers Guy.  In 1918, they engaged a renowned landscape architect to turn the land surrounding the house into a park.  They also commissioned original artwork from the local sculptors Antonin Injalbert and Jean Magrou for the park.  Once the Guy brothers bought the house, the locals started to call it Villa Guy.  It retains that name to this day.

We were fortunate in that the current owners of Villa Guy allowed our group to visit the grounds – we got a very close look at the building and the park.  Villa Guy is today an exclusive Bed and Breakfast and function venue.

Here is a selection of photographs of the building and of the sculptures in the park:

Farthest from the house is the Neo-Moorish garden, which was undergoing restoration when I visited.  At the time of writing this post, the fountains should be tinkling again!

And thus ended a fascinating visit into Beziers’ past!

 

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On rocky ground

It’s amazing what you can discover on walks around the villages in Languedoc! (I know that the area has now been renamed Occitanie, but I refuse to call it that!!)  A village which is full of interesting things to discover is Montouliers.  It is perched on a hill in the hinterland, not far from Bize Minervois and Argeliers.  Walk the narrow streets of the old part of the village up towards the chateau, and with a little imagination you could picture yourself transported back in time.

The narrow streets are paved with stones, a surface which is called calade.  Calade is a word that you’ll not find in a French dictionary – it has its roots in the old Gaulish word cal, meaning stone and height.  Calades were built using the materials to hand – stones which had been cleared from the fields to make them arable.  Skill was required so sort the stones and to place them, so that they would form a durable surface.  Mortar was not often used as that would have raised the cost.

Steps were built to shore up the steeper slopes and to allow humans and animals (donkeys and horses in the main) to walk up and down more easily.

In most villages, the calades disappeared with the advent of tarmac in the early 20th century, the old making room for the new.  However, in some villages you can still find calades.  I know of two small patches in Saint-Chinian.

Here are a few more images from Montouliers – along with the Calades, the exteriors of the houses in the old part of the village have also been carefully renovated!

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Backstreet discoveries

Writing this blog every week has allowed me to discover so much, and I am very pleased to be able to share these discoveries with you.  I’ve been to some wonderful restaurants, found hidden architectural gems, and visited incredible historical sites, to name just a few things.  I’ve also learnt to look at things a little differently, such as looking up when walking through a village or town.  And I’ve learnt never to leave the house without a camera! 🙂

Narbonne is a town which richly rewards a little exploring.  The town has a very long history, dating back to Roman times.  I’ve written about some of the Roman finds in Narbonne here, and there are still more Roman finds & monuments in Narbonne to be visited and written about!  Some traces of Narbonne’s history can be discovered by simply taking a stroll around the town – please join me for a little meander down the streets of Narbonne!

Le’s start in the main square of Narbonne, where the former archbishop’s palace used to face the castle or palace of the viscount of Narbonne.  The viscount’s castle has long disappeared, to be replaced in the 19th century by a palace of commerce, an early department store called Aux Dames de France.

The former archbishop’s palace in Narbonne

Aux Dames de France, 19th century department store building in Narbonne

The facade of Aux Dames de France is richly decorated with all kinds of sculpted motifs!

The archbishop’s palace became municipal property after the French revolution, and today it houses the town hall, as well as several municipal museums.  Just behind the archbishop’s palace is the impressive cathedral!

Narbonne cathedral

Building work on the cathedral started in the 13th century, and only the choir was ever finished!  What was built is very impressive, with a footprint that is 40 x 60 metres and vaulting that soars to a height of 41 metres!!  There are only three cathedrals in France which are higher: the cathedrals in Beauvais, Amiens and Metz.

Interior of Narbonne cathedral

Like most churches, the cathedral “decorations” were modified through the ages, to suit the prevailing tastes.  A “storybook” altar was found some years ago, walled up behind a Victorian era marble altar.  The carvings are remarkably detailed

On the west wall of the cathedral is an immense pipe organ – I always wonder how they managed to fix that to the wall!!

Leaving the church via the cloisters and the archbishop’s garden brings you to outside the western end of the church, where building work halted and re-started several times.

Continue walking randomly through the streets of Narbonne – there is so much to discover – such as the amazing decorations on this building – you can see the pain and boredom in the faces of the atlantes!!

There are faces in many unexpected places – sometimes high up on a wall!

Sometimes the effect is a little unnerving, such as when you look at the tower below, and realise that there is someone at the window.

Other faces are tiny, and you need to look closely:

Then there are doors – all shapes and sizes – where do they lead to??

Decorative stonework has always been a sign of wealth – the bigger your wallet, the more you could decorate the outside of your house!

The building below has recently been given a new lease of life – for many years before that it was shut up, with the oriel tower supported by props, looking as though it could collapse at any moment.

Some of the decorations on the roofs are very ornate – is that a dragon?  The whole thing sits a little askew, it’s not the angle of the camera, I promise!!

The walls in the pictures below are the remnants of a church – it was probably repurposed a long time ago!

As Narbonne expanded, more modern architecture styles made their presence felt.  This is a beautiful example of art deco architecture:

This is just a tiny selection of all there is to admire in Narbonne – you could spend days walking and exploring!!

P.S.  If you’re looking for somewhere to stay in Narbonne, have a look at Villa Java!

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.

Wall showing arrow slit

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!