If I had a hammer …

For a long time, I have known that the area around Saint-Chinian is particularly rich in study material for geologists.  The rock formations are spectacular, even to the untrained eye, but to me geology has always been like a closed book.  Some time ago, one of my guests sent me a link to a website where he had discovered an article about a self-guided tour of sites of geological interest around Saint-Chinian – more specifically, the sites were of the lower Ordovician period. The website can be found via this link – in addition to the tour around the Saint-Chinian area, there are several others on this page, no doubt equally interesting!

According to Wikipedia, “the Ordovician spans 41.2 million years from the end of the Cambrian Period 485.4 million years ago (Mya) to the start of the Silurian Period 443.8 Mya.”  To give you a visual idea of the timescale, here is a picture of a geological clock, found on Wikipedia – humans arrived only at two seconds before noon!

The website itself can be translated via one of the translation engines on the web such as translate.google.com but I’ve not been able to translate the PDF files of the itineraries.

I had sent the itinerary to a friend who was very keen to follow it, and so one sunny day earlier this month we set off on our trip!  The first stop was near Berlou, at a site which illustrates the upper Cambrian and the start of the Ordovician.  On our way there, we walked past a flowering oak tree:

Stoechas lavender:

A cistus with tiny flowers:

And some wall pennywort, which the French name translates to Venus’s navel:

Unbeknown to me, my friend had done a course in geology at university in her younger years, and she’d found the hammer she used when at university!!  With erosion and exposure to the elements, the surface of rocks changes quite a bit, so splitting a rock with the help of a hammer will show its ‘true’ colours.  What fun we had with that hammer!!

Here are some bits of quartz, which we found at the same site.

And bands of quartz embedded in a rock.

 

On our way back to the car, we enjoyed looking at some very typical vegetation.  The heady smell of the garrigue was wonderful!

Our next stop was on the road to Berlou, at a place where a trench had been cut into the rock for the road.  The rocks on the left hand side of the cut were an outcrop of the Saint-Chinian formation, and on the right an outcrop of the La Maurerie formation was visible.  I’m not sure that I saw a lot of difference, but I’m no geologist 🙂  The view of the valley in the direction of Berlou was very beautiful though!

Onwards to the viewpoint, just outside Berlou, and another spectacular view of the mountain in the distance, Mont Caroux. The mountain is called ‘The Sleeping Lady’, and in the right light and with enough imagination, you might just about be able to imagine a reclining figure, with the head on the left hand side.

The road took us to the village of Berlou, and through beautiful countryside, past the villages of Escagnes and the hamlet of Mezeilles, before arriving at Vieussan.  We had planned to have lunch at Le Lezard Bleu in that village, but unfortunately the restaurant had to close on that day for maintenance.  We booked at table in Roquebrun instead, at Le Petit Nice. Just before we reached Roquebrun, we stopped once more – this time to observe a fold in the rock.

After a delicious lunch in Roquebrun, we continued towards the village of Saint-Nazaire-de-Ladarez.  On the way there, we stopped to admire the Landeyran valley with its sheer cliffs.  The cliffs are much used by rock climbers to test their skills on!

Our last stop of the day had nothing to do with the Ordovician, but was on the itinerary as a point of great geological interest, and because the road back was passing right by it!  The former Coumiac quarry has been designated a Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP).  Wikipedia defines the GSSP as follows: “A Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point, abbreviated GSSP, is an internationally agreed upon reference point on a stratigraphic section which defines the lower boundary of a stage on the geologic time scale. The effort to define GSSPs is conducted by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, a part of the International Union of Geological Sciences. Most, but not all, GSSPs are based on paleontological changes. Hence GSSPs are usually described in terms of transitions between different faunal stages, though far more faunal stages have been described than GSSPs. The GSSP definition effort commenced in 1977. As of 2012, 64 of the 101 stages that need a GSSP have been formally defined.”

At Coumiac we are in the upper Devonian, at the transition between the Frasnian and the Fammenian.  I can’t make a great deal of sense of the scientific explanation, but the rocks are spectacular to behold!  The quarry is only a short walk from the car park beside the road. Two viewing platforms have been created to allow visitors safe access to the site.

The first glimpse of the quarry is of the GSSP – a huge slab of rock, covered in thousands of fossilised goniatites (prehistoric snail-like creatures), killed during what is called the Kellwasser event.

The quarry was in operation until 1965, with a type of ‘griotte’ marble being extracted – a red marble with small inclusions of white.  An example of a fireplace made of griotte marble can be found at Acanthus in Saint-Chinian.

Here is a closer view of the GSSP slab:

All in all, this was a very interesting day, and I learnt a lot!!  Do let me know if I have mis-translated any of the geological jargon, I’ll be happy to correct it!

2 Beings or not 2 Beings

This week’s post has been contributed by Annie Parker, my friend and trusted proof-reader, without whom my texts would be full of grammatical errors and mistakes.  Thank you so much for sharing your Commedia dell’Arte impressions with all of us, Annie!

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Saint-Pons-de-Thomière is a lovely place to visit.  Thus, when we saw posters and flyers for this performance, it took very little persuasion to convince us to go:

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Before I go any further, let me forewarn you that the photos you will find here will not be in any way up to the quality that you have come to expect in this blog.  These were taken with my little, outdated cellphone, and the first several were taken through the windshield of our moving car.  (Don’t worry!  I wasn’t driving!)

The drive from Saint-Chinian to St Pons is especially beautiful, because most of it takes you through the Parc Naturel Régional du Haut-Languedoc.  These pictures in no way come close to showing you how truly beautiful it is, but at least they’ll give you some concept of it:

And then, almost without transition, there we were in St Pons!

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A major reason that St Pons fascinates and attracts us is that there are entire sections where the sidewalks are made of marble – not just scraps and pebbles of marble, but slabs of incredibly beautiful marble. We looked in awe at these beautiful sidewalks, wondering whether perhaps we should have removed our shoes before walking on them, but in St Pons they seem to take them thoroughly for granted.

They even have a couple of marble benches, one of which is made of the wonderful red marble that comes from this area:

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After hunting around for a bit, trying to figure out exactly where the performance was taking place, we finally saw chairs set up in a lovely courtyard behind the Mairie, complete with toilet facilities

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as well as a mini “bistrot”, serving drinks and small things to eat:

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As you can see from the photo above, we got there quite early – the seats were empty – but not for long:

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The audience was having a great time, chattering away, but some of us who were looking at the stage noticed a rather comic character sneakily attempting to get our attention:

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(Note how few people actually are focussing on him!)  But ultimately the total audience was brought to attention by a woman making announcements – and then the show started in earnest.  Almost immediately, the – well, he was something between a buffoon and a clown – captured everyone’s attention by clambering off the stage, into the audience:

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Oh!  The tension and attention that creates — the great fear (at least on my part):  will I be the next victim?!

In case you were wondering about the title, “Etre Ou Ne Pas Etre”, the show was centred around Shakespeare soliloquies:

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But it was also what my husband referred to as “a two-character show with one actor” – and thus another aspect of “to be or not to be” was created:  as the play progresses, we discover that the comic character we have gotten to know a bit is a character created by an actor who has a dream of putting on a one-man show of the most important Shakespearean soliloquies.

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He is, however, having great difficulty finding anyone to back him in this endeavour.  In an attempt to invigorate his performance, he brings his voice down to a low, hoarse, croaking quality and throws on an old hat that he has discovered – thereby becoming the comic character that we have already gotten to know.

As the show progresses, there are physical tussles between the two characters (behind the screen), each trying to take control of the other, complete with bangs and booms; curtains jostling around, ‘showing’ the struggle ensuing behind them; hands leaping up above the screen or being pulled submissively back from between the curtains; with one or another of the characters periodically appearing to the audience, only to be dragged back behind the screen by the ‘other’ character.  It was a wonderful piece of pantomime!

In the end, the comic character submits to the actor . . . or does he?

The enthusiasm of the audience, with vigorous applause, punctuated by cries of “Bravo!” brought Luca Franceschi, the actor, comic, and creator of the show back for repeated curtain calls, all immensely deserved, as far as we were concerned.

Strangely, the drive back home seemed even more beautiful, possibly because of the different perspective . . . possibly because of the evening shadows . . . possibly because we had been emotionally opened up by the performance.  Fortunately, it was still light enough outside to take a couple of additional pictures.

Good bye, St Pons!  Thank you for a wonderful afternoon!

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Where are my marbles?

Marble used to be a way of life in the village of Caunes-Minervois, until not that long ago.  The marble quarries at Caunes were first exploited in Roman times, and have been in use more or less ever since. Until the mechanisation of the extraction and finishing, many of the inhabitants of the village were involved with marble in one way or another, be it physically working in the quarries, producing or repairing tools, or laboriously polishing the marble by hand.  The polishing was usually done by women and children, whose lives were often cut short by the side effects of inhaling the marble dust.

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In the middle ages the quarries were owned by the powerful Benedictine abbey in Caunes.  After the French revolution, ownership of the quarries passed to the state.  Today the Terralbes quarry is exploited by one of the companies who exploit the quarries at Carrara in Italy, with most of the post-extraction processing carried out in Italy.  Over the centuries, the marble from Caunes-Minervois has been used to decorate such illustrious buildings as the Louvre in Paris, the Grand Trianon in Versailles, the Opera house in Paris and St Peter’s in Rome, to name but a few.  Its distinctive red colour can be found in many private houses in the village too!

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Caunes-Minervois celebrates its heritage each year with a Fete de la sculpture et du marbre, a two-day event in June.  The guided visits of the marble quarries are fascinating, for their historic and geological insights.

From Caunes, the little train took us up into the hills behind the village, and to the entrance of the quarries.  There our group split into two, with one half (including myself) going to visit the Terralbes quarry, and the other half going off to see the historic “Carriere du Roy”.

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The Terralbes quarry, which is still being exploited, is impressive – if only for the sheer size of it!  If you want to find out more about marble itself, have a look at this article about marble, on Wikipedia.

Modern extraction methods mean that very few workers are required to get the huge blocks of marble cut.  To start with, holes are drilled into the rock vertically, and then a steel cable, which is studded with diamond cutters at intervals, is used to cut around the blocks.

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Once all the cuts are made, the blocks are dropped; we didn’t see this done, but below you’ll find a video of it, which is pretty spectacular! (Note: e-mail subscribers please visit the website to watch the video)  The reason the blocks are dropped rather than lifted, is that any faults within the stone will make it crack and break, rather than appear later during the processing and finishing.  Generally only perfect blocks are sold, so there is a large amount of waste.

The broken marble is however not altogether wasted.  Twice a year a stone crushing machine is brought on-site, and the waste is transformed into marble chippings, which can be used as hardcore and building material.

The historic “Carriere du Roy” is on the other side of the hill from the Terralbes quarry, and I had some spectacular views of the valley of the Cros stream on the way there.

The sheer drops and steep sides make this valley an ideal spot for rock climbing, and I observed several climbers on the opposite side.

The “Carriere du Roy” was a quarry specially set aside by King Louis XIV in 1700 for his own use.  Exploitation at this quarry ceased some time ago, probably during the first half of the 20th century, and today the quarry is a protected heritage site.  Our guide explained how columns were quarried in the old days, with the stone masons cutting most of the column in situ, then lifting it from the stone by using wooden wedges, which would be soaked and by swelling would lift the stone clear of the support.  There was always a danger that the column might break during the process, and one such example is still there for us to see today.

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Where the marble is directly exposed to the elements, it will eventually change colour, and age to the point of not really being recognizable as marble to the untrained eye. The “Carriere du Roy” is on a marked walk which you can find on the IGN map at http://www.geoportail.gouv.fr/accueil.  If you find yourself in Caunes and have the time, I would suggest you try the walk, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!

Back in the village there were many distractions, including food and entertainment.

In the abbey church there are some beautiful examples of red marble and the Abbey itself is well worth a visit.

So, mark your diary, and look out for an update on http://www.lesmarbrieresdecaunes.fr/ for dates of any future events in Caunes-Minervois.

Travel back in time

Here’s where we left off last week, just outside the church of Saint Eulalie in Cruzy!

P1040677The guided visit inside was already underway, and when I joined the guide was explaining that the church had been built and added to over the centuries.  He explained that the difference in the stone work in the wall on the north side of the nave was due to the fact that the church roof had been raised at one time or another – the stone blocks are of a different colour and size.  Originally the church would have had no side chapels, and the roof would have been a good deal lower than it is today.  During the period called the “Wars of Religion” (1562-1598), Cruzy changed sides several times and was frequently besieged by the opposite side.  The church became a veritable fortress, either during that period or immediately before.  I haven’t seen many churches with machicolations and crenelated battlements – have you?  But that’s precisely what can be found in Cruzy.

P1040686There are machicolations on all the bays, where stones or other things could be dropped down from. The side chapels, of which you can see the windows above, were added much later, as the machicolations wouldn’t really make sense, one wouldn’t drop stones on one’s roof?  Our guide also dispelled the myth about boiling oil or water being poured from up high.  The only access to the roof was via a narrow stone staircase, and you wouldn’t want to have to carry boiling oil up that, or light a fire on the roof to heat it. So by the end of the Wars of Religion the outside of the church had been fortified as much as possible.  The inside would have had a different aspect to what it looks like today, with the nave being unbroken by the side chapels.  It would have been a very impressive space, 21 metres wide and 23 metres high (it might be higher, I didn’t write that measurement down, sorry!).

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One interesting fact about this church is that there is no wood used in its construction – absolutely everything, including the roof structure and covering is made of stone!  Either side of the apse are chapels.  The one on the right is done out with a baroque altar, full of gold leaf and carved detail.  The one on the left was re-done in the 19th century, in what the people of the time thought more in tune with the style of the church – lots of Carrara marble and some gothic ornaments, but to my mind very cold and not all that pretty.

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For the heritage weekend, some of the old vestments had been put on display.  I’m always fascinated by the embroidery.  It must have taken weeks if not months to stitch that beautiful ornament!

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One of the side chapels on the south side of the nave is dedicated to St Roch, the saint who is supposed to protect against the plague.  He always shows a bit of leg and is always accompanied by a dog!

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The chapel on the north side has a nice font made of marble from the quarries in Caunes Minervois.  The high altar is made with three types of marble: red from Caunes Minervois, white from Carrara, and grey/blue from Saint Pons (sorry, no picture of that altar, but if you look closely at the one of the apse further up you might just be able to make out the different colours?).

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Our guide next showed us the old sacristy, a room on the north side of the apse, which is no longer in use.  The lock on the door into the old sacristy was made of wood!  The escutcheon plate on the outside belonged to an older lock, which no longer existed.

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Here are a few more little details of the interior:

Our guide next took us round the outside of the church, to explain a few interesting details.  The west wall, closing off the nave, is not really attached to the church, and there are stones sticking out of the nave walls, as if the builders had intended to continue the building.

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The tower on the north side is almost entirely solid up to where the roof of the church starts.  Until to that point the only space inside is for the spiral staircase.  There are a few arrow-slits on the way up for light and defense but that’s it.  Farther up you have space where the bells live, and where the church clock ticks away.

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The main door into the church had probably been at the west end of the church originally, but was moved at a later date.  The door is ancient and the stonework around it very delicate.

The church of Saint Eulalie also holds a few mysteries!  There are two rooms on top of the old sacristy, which are not accessible from anywhere!  They were only discovered during repairs to the roof.  What were they used for and how?  And there is small tower, octagonal at the base and round on top, which appears buried in the masonry – what purpose did that serve?  In time (and given some money to carry out work) the local historians may get to the bottom of those mysteries…

A short walk brought our group to the entrance to the museum, and that’s where the next part of our guided visit started.  To give you an idea of the village, below is an aerial view of modern-day Cruzy (found at http://www.mappy.com).  I’ve drawn a (wobbly) line around the ancient core of the village, which would have been fortified by a thick and sturdy wall.

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First our guide showed us an ancient mediaeval part of the village.  Through a low archway, down a slope, we ended up in a blind alleyway.  This would have been the only access to several houses built against the defensive ramparts, which had no windows on, or access from (of course) the outside wall.  The tiny walled up window would have been one of the original windows. These houses would have been very dark indeed!  Have a look at the map above, you’ll find several of those alleyways still in existence!

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We then walked across Place Roger Salengro, past some beautiful mullioned windows…

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…and down Rue de la Place, past what was once the house of a noble family, dating from the 16th and 17th century.  Unfortunately, you can tell that it has seen better days!

Once we reached the Allee du Portanel, our guide showed us where the ramparts had been re-used.  Openings had been cut into thick stone walls, and on the side of the building you can still see the thickness of the defensive wall!

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Next to that building is what remains of a communal staircase, which would have served several buildings.   Unfortunately a big van was parked in front of it, so I could only get a shot of the window.

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The next picture shows an interesting building.  In olden days ownership of houses was not quite as clear-cut as today, so people might own a room in next door’s building.  The facade gives you a good idea of the complicated ownership on this building!

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We continued our walk, with lots of more interesting snippets of information along the way.  The buildings on the side of the road opposite to the ramparts are mostly 18th century, built when the village started to grow outside the ramparts.  I loved the decorations on this particular facade.  And the swallow’s nest is supposed to bring good luck!

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Back towards the church and past another beautiful Renaissance facade.

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And just two last little pictures, before we finish for today.  I’m sure that gargoyle is smiling at us!!