Friday, February 6, 2009

Toulouse: Augustinian Museum

A second trip to Toulouse took us to a museum of medieval art housed in a former Augustinian monastery dated from the early 1300s. The museum is especially noteworthy for its collection of medieval sculpture -- tomb covers, free-standing figures, and the carved capitals from 12th and 13th-century columns.

Vals: The Tabby Tour

Vals is a mere speck on the map, a cluster of a dozen farmhouses on a one-lane road about 10 km west of Mirepoix. It is the site of a very strange and incredibly ancient subterranean church. You enter the pre-Roman crypt through a spooky cave-like opening in the solid rock, then climb through an interior divided into separate chambers on three different ascending levels. There are even more surprises in the form of 11th and 12th-century frescos on the ceiling vaults.

We were privileged to take a special Tabby Tour of the premises. Susie befriended a lovely mottled cat in the churchyard. The cat proceeded to lead us through the passageway into the church and then gave us a tour of the entire structure. Our feline guide skipped from one dark room to the next, expertly taking us into every nook and cranny, before leading us back out into the warm sunshine.


The village of Mirepoix suffered a massacre of its Cathar residents at the hands of the Crusaders and was later ravaged by a flood. The exisiting village dates from its re-establishment as a "bastide" in the year 1290. It is famous for its town square which is surrounded by broad covered walkways in front of handome timber-frame houses. The ends of the beams supporting the 14th-century Council House feature 150 carved wooden heads, each one a work of art in its own right.

Narbonne, Lagrasse, and Carnival in Limoux

Jan, Susie, and Steve took a number of short day trips throughout Languedoc. One was to the small coastal town of Narbonne, once a Roman provincial capital and a medieval trade center. We loved strolling through the streets and visiting the unfinished Gothic cathedral and a fine archeological museum with exhibits dating from the Stone Age through the Gallo-Roman period. We also drove to the walled village of Lagrasse to visit the abbey and its small museum devoted to the works of the medieval sculptor known as the Master of Cabestany, whose masterpiece we had seen at the abbey of St-Hilaire.

A high point of our trip was the chance to experience a little bit of the pre-Lenten revelry during the annual Carnival celebrations at Limoux. In the weeks before Lent, the town square is the site of music, comedy, and dancing by various troupes of masked celebrants.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Two Romanesque Churches

A day trip due south of Carcassonne took Jan, Sue, and Steve to a pair of small Romanesque churches in lovely settings. The first was the abbey of St-Hilaire, where our guide Fabien gave us a tour of the church, cloister, refectory, abbot's lodgings, and the hand-dug cellar where sparkling "blanquette" white wine was first discovered in 1531. The church houses a 12th-century masterpiece, a marble "sarcophagus" carved by the Master of Cabestany.

Our second destination was the rural church of St-Polycarpe, dating from the 11th century. In addition to the beauty of the building itself, the small sanctuary also contains two ancient carved altars and some 12th-century frescoes.

Carcassonne: The Cite

Our snug, two-story flat is in a handsomely renovated medieval building in the narrow rue de Gaffe in the town of Carcassonne. It lies at the foot of the fortified cliff known as the "cite," a UNESCO world heritage site. Carcassonne was settled as early as the 6th century BCE, but entered its medieval Golden Age in the 12th century. The citadel was besieged and captured in the year 1209 by Simon de Montfort, leader of the brutal Crusade against the Cathars. It eventually passed into royal hands and was extended throughout the 13th and 14th centuries. After falling into disrepair, it was rescued and rebuilt by Violet-le-Duc over several decades in the 19th century. It is now an incredibly picturesque location, a kind of fairy-tale city in the sky.

In addition to many shops and cafes and the castle itself, the walled town is also the site of the church of St Nazaire, formerly the cathedral of Carcassonne. St Nazaire is a late 11th-century building that underwent considerable renovation in the 13th century, resulting in the combination of a Romanesque nave and a Gothic choir, but without the jarring asymmetry that we saw at the Cathedral of St Etienne in Toulouse.

Another day trip took Jan, Susie, and Steve north to Albi, where we strolled through the medieval quarter, toured a musuem devoted to the works of native son Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and visited the fortress-like red brick cathedral church of Ste-Cecile (late 13th-14th century).