Tucked away

A few weeks ago, a friend came to stay in Saint-Chinian, and together we went on an outing to Mirepoix one Monday morning.  Monday is one of the days that Mirepoix hosts an outdoor market, which is always worth a look!

Before visiting the market, we took a little detour to the tiny village of Vals, some 13km west of Mirepoix.  The reason for the detour was to visit the church of Notre Dame de Vals, parts of which date back to the 11th century.  This church is unlike any other – it is built into the rock, rather than on top of it, and because of the topography it is built on three levels.  Here’s a picture of the church as you approach from the village:

As I got to the door at the top of the steps, I was wondering if it would be locked.  My fears were unfounded – the door was unlocked!

Behind the door that you can see in the picture above were some more steps, and they were leading into the rock!

Another door awaited at the top of the steps!

I had to duck a little as I climbed the steps, so as not to bang my head on the rock!

Behind that door lay the oldest part of the church, the lower nave, which is pre-romanesque.  There are several side chapels and niches.

From the lower nave, steps led to the apse, which was built in the 11th century on existing foundations.  It is assumed that the vaulting was added to the apse at the beginning of the 12th century, and that the whole apse was decorated with frescoes at that time.  The frescoes were discovered by the parish priest, Father Julien Durand, in 1952.  They were consolidated and restored between September 2006 and January 2008.  Here are some photographs of what you can see today:

The frescoes illustrate three aspects of the life of Jesus:  his birth, his evangelising period and his second coming.  The paintings are much faded, with large parts missing, but what you can see today is still impressive!

From the apse, yet more steps led to the upper nave, which was remodelled several times, the last time during the second half of the 19th century, when stained glass windows were added.  Here’s the view from inside the apse, towards the lower and upper naves.

The upper nave had a white marble altar, typical of the period.

 More steps led from the upper nave to the third level of the church.  On the third level there is a balcony overlooking the upper nave – it gave a great view of most of the church.  You can see one of the stained glass windows on the left, another stained glass window is not in view, on the right hand side wall.

From the upper level, an archway gave access to the upper chapel, which was dedicated to Saint Michael, and which also dates from the 12th century.  Unfortunately, the chapel was too dark for me to take photographs, so you’ll have to imagine a small romanesque chapel with a rounded apse. A door led from this chapel to a terrace, from which there were spectacular views of the surrounding countryside!

Above the upper chapel, a look-out tower had been added during the course of the 14th century.  The rounded part of the tower corresponds to the rounded apse in the chapel

The discoid cross, which is fixed to one of the tower walls, came from the medieval cemetery next to the church.

On the top of the mound, next to the terrace, the remains of a fortified building, dating to the 14th century were visible.

Back inside the church, I had another good look at the frescoes.  Display panels gave a great amount of information about the frescoes.  They also showed plans of the church, giving an idea of how the various levels interconnect.

Another information panel, this one outside the church, showed a plan of the whole site, along with an aerial shot:

The church of Notre Dame de Vals is truly unique!  To my surprise, there were no other visitors during the whole of our visit – I suppose that during the summer months there will be more visitors.

Even though the church has been well maintained, a number of major renovation works are urgently needed:  the roof is at the point where further dilapidation would risk damage to the interior of the church; the electrical installation is completely outdated; and some of the masonry is in urgent need of repair.  An appeal has been launched to raise some of the badly needed funds – if you’d like to contribute, you can do so via this link.

I left the church the same way as had I entered: via the crack in the rock, watching my head as I descended the stairs!!

Afterwards, I walked a little around the village.  To look at the church from the top of the mound, you would be hard pressed to imagine the highly unusual interior!

Here’s a picture of a 19th century house, just below the church – it seemed to be the grandest house in the small village

After visiting Vals, we went to Mirepoix, for a visit to the market and a spot of lunch.  I’ll tell you all about that next week!

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Music, music, music…

In 1982 the first Fete de la Musique took place in France, and it quickly turned into an institution which is still going strong 31 years later!  It takes place each year on June 21 –  the shortest night of the year is ideal for partying!  All over France there is music and more music, and people getting together to enjoy.  Pretty much every village or smaller town has at least one event to mark the Fete de la Musique;  I decided to visit Beziers with a few friends and together we enjoyed a totally musical evening.

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We started off at the Eglise St Jacques, just a few steps away from the Musee du Bitterois.  The church was hosting a number of events and we got there in time to listen to the guitar ensemble from the Beziers conservatoire.  They played very well and the music chosen was a delight.  The interior of the church was fascinating, and a little reading of the information panels at the back of the church gave some clues.  The Romanesque church had been much changed over the centuries to the point where it was hardly recognisable as Romanesque.  In 1960 a fire which started in a confessional (don’t ask!) meant that the interior of the church was totally destroyed.   During the work to safeguard and restore the building most of the later additions were stripped away, leaving a very stark but serene interior, which has nice acoustics.  The stained glass windows have just been installed, made by master craftsmen from Chartres.  Walk around the back of the church and you’ll find the small park which was closed on my last visit.  Definitely worth a walk – the views are amazing!

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From the St Jacques neighbourhood we went on a little walk via the remains of the amphitheatre (my friends had not seen that), and back into the centre of Beziers.  At the Hotel du Lac we came across the Symphony Orchestra of the Beziers Conservatoire, and then we went on to the Allees Paul Riquet, where we stopped for a bite to eat, just by the Theatre.  The couscous looked very good and it tasted delicious!

Just behind the theatre at the top end of the Allees Paul Riquet the drummers La Bande de Beziers gave it their all.  I taped the entire piece – be warned it’s 16 minutes long, so you may just want to listen to some of it.

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On we went to Place de la Madeleine to listen to the Jersey Julie Band.  They played a great mix of bluegrass, country, and folk music, heavily influenced by blues.  Julie is an amazing bundle of energy, who just draws the crowd along!

When Julie and her band finally took their leave, another group, Awek, started up right across from the stage, in the Blues Caravan.

After a bit of blues we went on to the Cathedrale Saint Nazaire and on the way came across a scene almost out of a Van Gogh painting, down the winding back streets with the twinkling lights overhead.  All the restaurants were busy and there was of course music here too.  On Place de la Révolution we listened to Cobla Tues Vents playing traditional Catalan music and watched a sardane being danced.

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On to the cathedral, where we were hoping to see someone jump across the Feu de St Jean (it’s a local tradition to jump across the fire).  Alas when we got there we were pretty much on our own, even though the fire was still burning in the cloisters.  It did look absolutely beautiful, and the atmosphere was gorgeous and serene.  

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We wended our way back to the Allees Paul Riquet and towards the car, and on the way caught some more music on the main stage in front of the theatre.  The whole square was buzzing and animated, and it was just wonderful to be immersed in that happy feeling.

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So mark your diary for next year – June 21 is definitely a great day to be in France – you’ll be bound to find some music to listen to!

A note to all of you who are subscribed to the blog by e-mail:  The youtube videos embedded in the post will unfortunately not show up in the e-mail version.  To watch and listen please go to the post at http://www.midihideaways.wordpress.com