Story by Barbara Angelakis
The Other Sud de France
We were invited to visit friends in the South of France (Sud de France) conjuring visions of trendy beach resorts, film festivals, and visiting celebrities chased by paparazzi seeking photo ops. But there is another Sud, one overshadowed by snow capped peaks of the towering Pyrénées - the mountain range shared by Spain and France - vistas of verdant fields and perfectly symmetrical vineyards for as far as the eye can see, often bordered by meandering canals carrying house boats, pleasure craft, and sightseeing vessels of varying configurations. This is the landscape that so captivated the artists of the 19th century that they created a whole new art form... Impressionism.
Periodically intersecting the fertile countryside are small villages whose narrow winding streets are lined with ancient stone houses adorned with wooden shutters of questionable color and age, red tiled roofs, hanging fragrant lilac colored wisteria blossoms and cars parked every which way wherever there is an inch of pavement not already occupied.
Our friends were encamped in the small village of Capendu just outside of Carcassonne in the Languedoc-Roussillon region. Our mission was to eat, drink and explore the history and culture of this region of Southern France with them.
In the 10th and 11th centuries, this was Cathar country, a Christian community that the Church of Rome considered heretical and in direct competition with its official teachings. Pope Innocent III launched a holy war in 1209 promising whoever responded to the call would be given the lands they subjugated and all the valuables they could “relieve” from the heretics. Many of the hills in the area have ruined fortifications dating back to that Albigensian Crusade and the following Holy Inquisition which effectively eliminated the Cathars and the noble houses that protected them and gave to the King of France, a major participant in the Cathar Crusades, his long coveted access to the Mediterranean Sea.
Our rail/drive trip began with the RailEurope TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse better known as the high speed train) directly from Charles de Gaulle airport to Carcassonne, with a train change in Lyon. We used a Eurail Flexi Pass and found the trains were clearly marked and easy to navigate. We had made 1st class reservations prior to leaving the States and we located our car and seats without difficulty. The seats were located on the upper level of the train with perfect views of the passing countryside providing a lovely alternative to local air travel. Tip: if you are traveling with heavy luggage select seats on the lower level. Once settled in our plush seats we relaxed and enjoyed the colors of early spring and the patchwork of plots being prepared for planting. Dark green cypress trees and lighter shades of birch, plane and umbrella trees lined the roads proving shade and separating fields and vineyards in different stages of maturity. Flowering red bud trees, knobby mulberry trees, wild flowers, lilac and wisteria, grew wild along the road providing color and fragrant scents for the hillsides of green legumes and the fields of bright yellow rapeseed (canola oil).
Our friends met us at the train station and after a wonderful dinner and a good nights rest we were eager to visit the walled city of Carcassonne,a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997. The site was inhabited as early as 2,500 years ago but traces of earlier civilizations have long since been erased by waves of conquering armies. By the 12th century a system of independent and powerful dynastic families held sway over the region. Carcassonne was developed by the Trencavel family - Viscounts of Carcassonne - who built the original Château in what could be considered a golden age of peace and religious freedom. It was destroyed during the Albigensian Crusade and rebuilt to support the restructured political order. After multiple transformations and still ongoing restorations, stands the Château and ramparts we see today. The day we visited was beautiful with a clear blue sky and high puffy cotton-candy clouds and we walked the ramparts, explored the archaeological collections and the Romanesque murals still visible on the walls of the “keep” room. Once we exited the “cultural” portion of our visit we strolled through the alleyways and streets surrounding the Château, shopping and tasting popular sweet treats of jellied fruit bars made from local produce.
The next day we headed out to visit Monségur, a citadel high on a rocky perch that was the scene of a major Cathar massacre in 1244. Tip: the climb starts with a steep dirt road leading to a man-made series of precarious steps. To ascend bring a walking stick for balance and wear climbing boots.
Unfortunately, the climb was a bit more than we bargained for and after a valiant effort we gave up and went to lunch in the village. Fortified with a good meal and local wine we continued on to Tarascon sur-Ariege to visit the Grotte de Niaux Cave with its prehistoric paintings. Sadly we were turned away by a kind but firm official because he did not consider our tennis shoes as substantial enough to attempt the difficult terrain - another reason to wear proper climbing footwear if you visit both sites.
Our visit to the Abbaye de Fontfroidethe following day proved to be much more satisfying. A few kilometers outside of the city of Narbonne stands the beautifully restored 12th century Cistercian Abbey with some of the most outstanding stained glass windows I have ever seen. Breathtakingly rich magentas, emerald greens, royal blues, burnt orange, sunflower yellow and sparkling cherry reds light-up the interior of the somber church. Cistercian architecture is simple, even austere, and initially the windows were grisaille (Fr. gris “gray”) monochromatic painted glass. But in the early 20th century the abandoned building was restored and the grisaille windows were replaced with dazzling colored glass by artist Richard Burgsthal. In the small adjoining “Chapel of the Dead” the stained glass windows created by Kim En Joong are abstract modern art in color and design and contrast sharply with the Burgsthal windows.
Another outstanding feature at Abbaye de Fontfroide is the formal French herb and rose terraced gardens that are entered through the rear of the courtyard. It was a little early in the year to see the roses in full bloom but there are purported to be 2,500 roses in 14 different varieties including the variety created for the Abbaye: la Rose de Fontfroide.
Next stop Albi via local train where we could still use our Eurail Pass. The train deposited us within a short walk of the charming old town and the Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile which can only be described as extraordinary. Originally built as a fortress by the Catholic Church to extol their power after the Albigensian Crusades, it is the largest brick cathedral in the world. Entering through the grandiose Gothic portico I was struck breathless by the ravishing scene inside. There is not one inch of the massive interior that is not decorated, including the vaulted ceiling, but it is the front of the church that pulls you in.
The mural of “The Last Judgment” that covers the rounded west wall of the nave can only be described as shocking. Painted by unknown Franco-Flemish artists between 1474-1484, (contemporaneous with Hieronymus Bosch and obviously influenced by him or visa-versa) the scenes of vicious, horrifying, demonic images confront the viewer. The blessed humans are on the left, dammed are on the right, Heaven is at the top and Hell is at the bottom of the grisly work.
After leaving the church we fortified ourselves with the fresh fruit sorbets so popular in the Sud and visited the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum and gardens just next to the Tourist Information Office and behind the Cathedral. The museum is housed in the Palais de la Berbie, a 13th century palace built by the Bishops of Albi which is being restored to its original grandeur. One example is the ceiling in the Salon d’honneur. In the hall just outside is a panel showing what the restorers had to work with and it’s truly amazing to see what they were able to accomplish so that we can enjoy the artistry of past generations. A modern reception area enters into the museum which holds a retrospective of Lautrec’s work from his fine art works to his promotional posters with variations on a theme of well-known performers such as Aristide Bruant. The gardens behind the museum overlooking the Tarn River are a masterwork of French formal topiary design and provide a spectacular photo op.
Leaving Cathar country behind we drove east towards the Mediterranean Sea and Saintes Marie de la Mer in Provence. Saintes Marie de la Mer is a resort town with a broad white sandy beach and streets leading away from the Sea filled with shopping, eating at all levels, and entertainment for all ages. Wandering the crowded winding streets is an entertainment all by itself with gift shops galore and dozens of fast food stalls offering all manner of enticing things to eat and mouth-watering gelato shops tempting with dozens of flavors to choose from. It was still too early in the season to attempt a beach visit so we drove to Aigues-Mortes to continue our investigation into the history and culture that has shaped the Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence regions of the Sud de France.
There are so many paths to follow in this rich area: historic, religious, artistic and gastronomic, that focusing on only one is daunting. The coveted territory was sought after by invasion from without and from within. The early religious diversity and peace was replaced by hideous exterminations of peoples leaving deep scars in the landscape. While generations later, the colors and vistas inspired the Impressionist art movement and the native terroire gave birth to a healthy and delicious cuisine and wonderful local wines.
Aigues-Mortes is a perfect example. It was dredged out of a swampland belonging to The Holy Roman Empire by Louis IX King of France to launch the Seventh Crusade to the Holy Land in 1246. The resulting walled medieval city has one of the best preserved fortifications with its towers and ramparts intact. Today it supports a thriving art community and the central square is filled with restaurants offering the finest of local fare. It is also a jumping off point for cruises on the Canal du Rhône à Sète (Vallée du Rhône delta) to the Camargue, well-known for its wild pure-white horses. The Camargue horse has no fear and is used by cattlemen to herd the bulls that are bred in the area.
After our boat ride we continued on to Saint-Maximin-La-Sainte-Baume arriving just in time for a medieval festival held in the central square outside the Basilica of St. Maximus and Mary Magdalene. By the looks of it, everyone in town participated in the dress-up, from serving wenches in the pubs and restaurants, to shopkeepers wearing medieval peasant garb, to children and high-born ladies and noble men. Some of the outfits looked as if they were original while others were clearly new and represented individual fashion statements. We saw stilt-walkers, jugglers, musicians, dancers, Knights and Knights Templar in full regalia, with everyone enjoying themselves and posing for pictures with the tourists. It was serendipitous and added to the authentic feeling of the town.
Aix-en-Provence was our next stop and we found a modern bustling city so different from the small ancient towns we had been touring through. We walked down Cours Mirabeau, one of the main boulevards and another surprise greeted us; this time an outdoor art show. We stopped for a petit déjeuner (breakfast) at a sidewalk café called Les Deux Garçons. It turned out to be a landmark since 1792, and had hosted dignitaries such as Churchill, Sartre, Picasso, Edith Piaf, Jean Cocteau, and for Paul Cezanne and Emile Zola, both sons of Aix, was a daily rendezvous point. Behind Cours Mirabeau you can stroll the winding cobblestone streets of the “old” 17th and 18th century town or take in the Paul Cezanne Museum, his workshops, or any number of other museums.
Tip: Bring your walking shoes and your patience; the streets go at odd angles and getting lost is inevitable but regardless of where your feet take you there is wonderful architecture to admire, interesting shops to loosen your wallet, and restaurants and cafés with remarkably good food.
After a way too short visit in Aix, we used our Eurail Pass to get to Marseille for our final destination in the Sud before returning to Paris. I had wanted to see Marseille and get a taste of their famous seafood but we ran into foul weather. We left the hotel during a lull in a rainstorm but had to run back when the skies opened and the wind kicked-up with a fury. Since we left the next morning for Paris we have no choice but to return another time.
The weather was still inclement during our final train ride from Marseille to Paris, with heavy fog laying on the ground making the scenery look like a Cezanne painting -- all soft with muted colors and shapes of trees and hills far away lost in a dream -- a perfect ending to a trip filled with charming towns, magical experiences, great art, delicious food and even better wine.
Our thanks to Rail Europe, Inc. www.raileurope.com
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