Sunday, November 28, 2010

Six Monks, One Lighthouse, No Crackers

And so it came to pass, in the turning of the seasons, that the pre-Christmas celebrations would start. To wit, Robin Hicks, he of What's On Where Hérault, arranged the seventh annual Cassan Cracker Fair, where English-speakers and their French friends would gather for two days of a Christmas fair, where handcrafters would sell the kind of goods which inevitably show up when one is moving and provoke questions like "Where on earth did this come from?" and answers like "Oh, don't you remember Emily? She went back to England after Richard died, poor dear, but she lived just down the road when we first got here. She gave us that for Christmas one year. Heaven knows what she was thinking."

I was there because I'd been invited to a press lunch by the Béziers/Cap d'Agde Airport, and because Peter of The Languedoc Page was also going and agreed to pick me up in his car at a frigid 10am at the Odysseum. Oh, and "there" was the Château-Abbaye de Cassan, which is pretty much all there is to Cassan, which lies between Roujan and Gabian, if you have a map. More on it in a minute.

Cassan lies not far from Pézénas, one of the chief British colonies in Languedoc, a village where Molière used to hang out, but which was pretty much deserted by its young folks a couple of decades ago, when a smart real-estate agent there who spoke good English started selling properties to Brits in search of a second home or a retirement property. Pézénas has a connection with England going back to one Clive of India, who apparently spent time there in the 18th Century and introduced a nasty little pastry the town still sells, which seems to be ground lamb in a sweet crust. He didn't retire there, though; he mostly lived in England, where he smoked plenty of opium, and stabbed himself to death with his pen-knife, which must have hurt.

At any rate, a lot of the British people I've met around here have an interestingly bifurcated mindset, loving their new home unashamedly while pining away for a few things the French don't have, like Marmite, PG Tips tea, and the whole rigamarole of Christmas in England. (I have to agree: after 15 Christmases in Germany, the French really don't seem to do it up like the Americans, Brits, and Germans do). Thus the Cracker Fair. Now, for my American friends, I have to explain Christmas crackers, which are not a baked good, but, rather, a firecracker of modest payload. Very modest: it's shaped sort of like a Tootsie-Roll, but with tabs at either end which, when pulled, set off a bang. Then you strip the paper off and see what's inside the paper tube. There's a fortune, a silly trick you have to perform, and a gift of some sort. (The one time I did it, I got a rubber duck key ring, but depending on what you pay for the crackers, the gifts can be way more extravagant -- or way less).

But there's a big problem getting Christmas crackers to France. They are, after all, explosives. You can't take them on a plane. They have to be brought in a car, which raises the price considerably, and this has given rise to a class of entrepreneurs who smuggle them in and sell them to the nostalgic Brits. So on a very cold but sunny Saturday, people come to this event, drink mulled wine, hear recorded carols, and buy stuff.

Except this year, there were a few problems. First, the first word in the event's title: Christmas. As in tree. There wasn't one. Now, like I said, it was amazingly cold at 11, when we got there. We'd seen dustings of snow on the further-off peaks of the Cévennes, and Peter said Pic St. Loup had a bit on its top. Robin's tree supplier had called him earlier in the day and announced that there was no way he was driving down with the tree from Olargues (a bit to the east, mostly on highways) because he'd either never make it down or never make it back up. Given the way the weather turned out, warming up a bit in the afternoon as the sun made itself known, this and my recent experience with the plumber led me to conclude that the guy hadn't cut the tree at all.

Then there were the crackers. Last year, a bookshop had ordered them, and so had a couple of other stands at the fair. There were way too many, and everyone wound up taking a lot back with them. So they solved this this year by not buying any. Any of them. So there were no crackers. If there hadn't been so many vendors that the place was jammed, Robin probably would have been miserable.

Eventually, I drifted into the place, and walked around. It's been under renovation since 2002, and so little of it has been finished that you have to reflect what awful shape it was in when the current owners bought it. I wandered in and out of rooms (the old kitchen, which bore a sign informing us that "The food served in the Dining Room was cooked in the Kitchen," hosted an artisinal chocolate maker whose pots gave off a heavenly odor), and finally hit the old chapel.

The other end is even more spectacular, although I aimed the camera away from the tack:

Most of the adornment in the place is long gone, although I did find this fragment:

This got me wondering about just what this place was. A sign at the entrance says that it was founded by Charlemagne in 800 AD, but nothing I saw was that old. After lunch, I wandered around some. The façade was obviously 18th Century:


I wandered into the vineyard (the place is also a winery), to take a picture.

We'd seen this odd structure coming in, and wondered what it was: it made no sense from any sort of defensive angle. But while I was shooting the picture, I noticed a sign behind me and over a couple of rows. It turned out to be part of the guided tour the place offers during the season, and informed me that this tower was a 19th Century addition which was built over a spring. Kind of a pretentious spring house, but whatever. Of more interest was the square tower, which was on a round base from the 11th Century, to which a later finish had been added.

But the most fascinating structure was the one which unlocked the whole story of the place and itself was something I'd never before encountered:

It was a lighthouse.

Aha: it all came clear. Cassan is on the way to Santiago de Compostella, the number one pilgrimage site in medieval Europe. This is why Charlemagne built the place and why, in 1080, the church stuck an Abbot and six monks there: to man a hospital and rest stop for pilgrims. It proved to be a smart move, which is why the place kept expanding. The hospital building included this lighthouse on the top, where a fire burned night and day to signal the pilgrims to the priory, its hospitality and its hospital. The hospital turned out to be important even after the pilgrimages slacked off (although they still continue today: in back of St. Roch church here in Montpellier there's a sign on a door stating that Compostella pilgrims will be accommodated between 4 and 6 pm, and I saw an inn in Narbonne that caters to pilgrims), which explains the size of the place.

These photos show the older, smaller, hospital building and the larger, newer part of the place in context.

The Château-Abbaye was deconsecrated during the Revolution, and passed through a bunch of owners, but was mostly ruins until recently. It was a nice day out, and it even stayed somewhat warm until the sun went down. Thanks to all who helped get me there, and if you still need Christmas crackers, there will likely be some for sale at Le Bookshop here in Montpellier, as well as possibly at the English Corner Shop, which, I add as a public service, is seriously overstocked on mincemeat for your Christmas pies.


  1. Hi Ed,
    Love your "travelogues" and tales of your adventures! Glad your internet troubles are behind you, too...
    One question: does the English Corner Shop have Christmas puddings (preferably not too big)? My daughter - bizarrely - loves the stuff and we're going to be here over Christmas...
    Looking forward to hearing of your next adventure!
    By the way, I've ordered my own Christmas crackers via my beloved internet - they should be here any day now!

  2. Go down to the store and put some pressure on Judi and Chuck: they don't understand this cuisine they're selling, but I *think* they have some Christmas cakes on order. They always need advice from actual Britons.

  3. Hi
    Great to have your take on the weekend. Sad about the crackers, cake and pudding - but if people dont think they will sell them - what can you do?


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