Thursday, December 29, 2011

Religion, Wine and Smoke

I've still got second-hand smoke in the back of my nose, a smell I can just barely detect after 24 hours. Or maybe it's just the memory. But there's a lot of burning out there, which doubtless has something to do with the way the air is hazy even though the sun is shining brightly. And there's a good reason for this, as I found out yesterday.

E was rarin' to go on another drive, but I nixed Romans this time, even though he's found another good-looking oppidum. I wanted to move ahead in time and start unsnarling the church history here -- which is to say the Roman Catholic history -- so that I could start to make sense of the Catholic heretics and the Protestants, both of whom were big in these parts. The logical place to start was Maguelone.

If you look at a map, you won't find it; you'll find Villeneuve lès Maguelone instead. But just below that, you'll see a round landform in the Mediterranean with a skinny road going to it and the name Maguelone. It's just that nobody lives there. Not now, at least. But for a few centuries, it ran this whole part of France.

The only story I could find starts in the 700s, when the Crusader Charles Martel arrived and wiped out the town that was on this island, which was apparently called Maguelone, and was a "Saracen" (ie, probably North African Muslim) town. Before that, there had probably been a Christian church there. At any rate, Martel reported that the island was clear, and somewhere in the bowels of the Vatican, it was decided that the Diocese should switch from Narbonne (where Christianity had been introduced to the resident Romans by a guy who'd walked around with his severed head in his hands) to a new cathedral, dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, on this island. It went up in the 11th century, and it was where the church was run, along with all its other businesses, which eventually included Montpellier University, until 1563.

"I always wondered about that place!" E said, as we blasted off out of town. It sure wasn't far, although the road there is, basically, one lane, with sand dunes on one side and the Étang de l'Arnel, a small bay, through which the Sète-Rhône Canal goes. As you walk from the parking lot to the church (which is free to visit), you get a good sense of where you are.

It's a pretty extensive vineyard, and, apparently, it's where the cathedral's graveyard was.

Off in the distance, not visible above, are some of the permanent residents.

The flamingoes were everywhere yesterday, busily finding shrimp so they could get pinker.

The cathedral itself is both impressive and disappointing. I rented an audio guide, in hopes that I'd get some insight into the story of what went on there, but, while not quite a bust, it wasn't as helpful as it might be. The British bird who was chirping the narration had an annoying habit of mispronouncing everything, rendering façade as f'SAYD, and, most annoyingly, the adjective used to describe the buildings that weren't the cathedral, episcopal, as eppiSCOPPal. That's just gotta be wrong. Hell, she even misprounounced Montpellier.

But one bit of useful information came out of all of this: this building had been trashed during the Wars of Religion and the Revolution, and then, as a Treasure of France, had been sold by the revolutionaries to a guy with some money. in the early 19th century, a guy named Frédéric Fabrège bought it and began restoring it. Since the original entryway had been nuked by rampaging peasants, he bought bits and pieces of other Romanesque churches and framed the door with St Paul

and St. Peter

and then a lintel with a horrible inscription about how, as you enter, you should weep for all of the sins you've committed and bathe in your tears and I forget what else, and, on top of that, a pretty standard-issue Christ In Glory surrounded by the four evangelists. This particular Jesus has an odd look on his face, as if he's sat on a whoopie cushion.

Inside, unsurprisingly enough, the place is huge.

Upstairs is a dormitory where the monks who kept the place up lived, while the Bishop and his people had their own residences nearby. As with all these churches, people with power got buried near the altar, with some pretty impressive tombs.

The front of the church was once guarded by two defensive towers, only one of which is still standing. The stones of the other, as was the case with a lot of churches around here after the Revolution, were donated to help build the canal.

Today, most of the island which isn't vineyards is a huge park which was put together in the 1890s, and everything is gradually being restored, thanks to the fact that the property is now in the hands of a foundation with some money. It's a huge tourist attraction, particularly in the summer, and is close enough to Montpellier that we saw some folks who'd ridden down on the VeloMagg bikes you can rent from the city.

What happened to the cathedral of Maguelone? Well, as I said, the diocese controlled a lot of stuff in the area, and as Montpellier grew -- there was almost nothing here when the cathedral went up -- the people who'd normally spend most of their time at the cathedral were spending time in town. Eventually, with the University booming and the city growing like mad, and becoming a commercial center and an important center for politics, it just didn't make sense to sit out on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean and try to run things. There was probably a skeleton staff left when the peasants started going nuts and trashing the place. As to why they did this, we had to go to another huge church for the answer.

* * * 

On the way out of Maguelone, we stopped for a minute to look at the beach. Rounded stones gave testimony to rough waves out there, and from what I could see from the tiny ones rolling in, there appeared to be a hell of an undertow. 

We got back to the mainland and headed towards Sète, from where we'd head to Villeveyrac, our next destination. White smoke was everywhere: wine-growers were trimming last year's growth off of their vines so that next year's would eventually start up and bear the next crop of grapes. Somehow we got lost and missed Sète entirely, but as E noted as we rolled along, it hardly mattered: we were headed in the right direction and the scenery was soothing, the garrigue and its stubby bushes and small trees rolling on in every direction. 

"Now, it's really great you wanted to see this, because I've wondered about this place, too. I've driven by it but never stopped," E said as we went into the bus parking lot across the street from the Abbaye de Valmagne. I'd been curious about this place since before I moved here. In Berlin, Galleries Lafayette, the huge French department store, had opened its only non-French branch, and although the prices were punishing, I sometimes went there to shop for stuff I couldn't get anywhere else, and it had a nice selection of wines, of course. I'd look at the Languedoc section, and I realized I could afford the lower-end bottles, some of which were Abbaye de Valmagne. I'd gotten a story in my head that the Revolution had left the Cistercian monks there alone because the wine was so good, and that somehow their vines had escaped the phylloxera plague. 

Both parts of that turned out to be false. 

The abbey was founded by the Viscount of Béziers, and started out as a Benedictine community, but soon became a Cistercian one. Cistercians are noted for their hard work, excellent farming skills, and innovation with machinery. Nestled in prime wine country, in the grès de Montpellier terroir, with abundant game and farmland given to it by local landowners, it was one fat monastery. Its inhabitants might have been monks, but they lived well. 

You can imagine how the local peasants felt about that, especially considering a lot of them were "protestants," which, depending on when you find the term used, meant either Cathar (Albigensian Heresy) or actual Calvinists. To be Roman Catholic was to play along with the French king and the folks in Rome, and was roughly equivalent to being a Republican in America today, while you could say that the "protestants" were the 99%. At any rate, the bishop of the abbey became a Huguenot protestant in 1575 and organized a riot that destroyed all the stained glass and a lot of the other decoration. He was quickly hustled out and a declining number of monks started rebuilding. And I do mean declining: from around 300 in the abbey's heyday, there were only five left when the next bunch of raging peasants happened along with the Revolution. We're lucky that some of the highest-up decorations up front didn't get erased, because they're weird and charming. 

Once again, cash-strapped revolutionaries looked for a rich person to buy a national treasure, and found one in a guy named Granier-Joyeuse, who immediately recognized the value of an empty church stripped of all its art and decoration and installed the furnishings it has today. 

It's hard to explain just how weird it is to someone who, like me, has been in dozens of old churches of greater or lesser importance to see gigantic wine-barrels lining the sanctuary of a Gothic cathedral. 

Other evidence of the virulence of the reaction against the church is piled against the walls of a couple of the rooms off the cloister next door. 

They not only smashed the sculptures, but they sanded down the Bible stories and other narrative features on them. That said, the cloister itself is a very nice space, and is probably even nicer in summertime. 

Admission to the place is pretty steep: €7.50, but it gets you a dégustation, a wine-tasting, and that's worth it, since these folks make very nice rosés and some decent reds that need to be laid down a while. There are also some lesser wines (check the website) that are ready for drinking right now. 

They were burning the trimmings as we walked up to the place and they were still doing it as we left. I was lucky to get a shot of the abbey without smoke, and the smell is probably still in my jacket as well as, as I said, in the back of my nose. I know that in America, people like to grill over vine trimmings, and it's just a shame there isn't more outdoor cooking around here, because I can tell it'd be a great addition to just about anything cooked over it. 

As the sun was setting, we headed back to Montpellier, reflecting that if you were pressed for time, it'd be easy enough to drive out here and back in an hour or so. But E got a wild hair and decided he wanted to look at a wind farm that was up on a rise between the abbey and the road back home, so we drove up a dirt road to the summit -- or near enough -- and checked it out. 

It was cold, but it wasn't raining, at least. That's going to come to an end, I -- and countless farmers -- hope, so that the crops can get some water and, when the springtime starts to return in March, the cycle can start again. 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Tree Warning

I really don't have an opinion of whether Christianity was good or bad for the Romans, but I do know that if you don't take your Christmas tree down, you might wind up like the folks in this house.

Ho ho ho. Merry Christmas, folks!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Tunneling Monks, Iberian Celts, Greeks, Romans (Of Course), A Donkey and A Tower (and More)

This is a railroad tunnel. It runs through a hill somewhere west of Béziers. It was dug in 1854. Big deal.

But it is. It's not just any hill. It's a hill which helped shape the history of this entire region, which had an immense economic impact on this whole part of France. And all because some monks decided to drain a swamp in the 1250s. As they were doing it, they were looked over by the ghosts of villagers who had lived on the hill since Neolithic times, and who had already been gone for over 1200 years. It's a pretty wonderful story, albeit a kind of complicated one, so stick with me here as I try to explain it all.

Let's start with the hill, because that's been there longest. E has lately been obsessed with the Via Domitia, as we saw in my last post here, and recently, when a visitor from Switzerland was here, they searched for a piece of it which leads to the hill. We went looking for it again yesterday, because he'd missed it, and after getting off the A9 at the Béziers West exit, we took the road to St. Chinian, but exited it at a rather sleazy turnoff leading to Nissal-lez-Enserune. The road was lined with truckstops and the occasional prostitute, which is something you don't see during the day around here. There were a lot of trucks, too. At any rate, after Nissan, we took a tiny road and found this imposing structure.

Proof that some French farmers make money, but don't acquire taste along with it. But turning off to the right of the lane leading to this place was a road. E pulled out his extremely detailed map and grinned. "Yes! This is it! I missed it before!" Like the tunnel, the road looked like a road.

But the map left no doubt: this was a section of the Via Domitia. So we parked the car and began to walk. And it started looking more Roman after a while.

Then it got funkier...

And finally ended in a bunch of blackberry brambles. We wouldn't have been able to follow it much further anyway: those trees you see in the distance shade the Canal du Midi. And that's another part of the story.

The Canal du Midi was an amazing engineering project undertaken by a minor noble named Pierre-Paul Riquet beginning in 1667, to connect Toulouse with Agde and Sète, via Castelnaudary and Carcassonne. It took them 14 years, and it almost ended in tears at our hill. But they finished it, it brought a wave of economic prosperity to the southern part of France, and, eventually, it was replaced by more modern forms of transporting goods, like the railroad, and, later, trucks. It was kept up, though, and these days well-heeled tourists can take leisurely cruises down it, stopping overnight at houses transformed into hotels with high-quality food. Even in the middle of winter, it looks pretty nice.

It cut right through the Via Domitia at this spot, though, which was good news; I didn't want to walk much further, because there was still the hill to see.

We walked back to the car using access roads to the vineyard, whose owner was out busily trimming the old growth, and noticed that the vineyard bank facing one direction had a totally different set of wild plants than the one facing 90º in the other direction. I picked an herb that smelled familiar, but couldn't place it, and saw a whole bunch of wild strawberry plants. Moles had done extensive work on the soil, and there were holes where I bet there were snakes hibernating; there are vipers in this part of the world.

Back in the car, we backtracked some and followed signs to the Oppidum of Ensérune. Yup, another Roman Motel VI -- except it turned out to be more than that. We parked and paid the lady €7 each to get in, and sure enough, there were ruins.

In the center of the second picture there, you'll see several ceramic things set into the ground, with round holes. These are silos, used for storing grain, and stoppered with a tight-fitting rock. They kept food available for the villagers all year long. The condition of most of the excavations here only reflects the latest wave of inhabitants, though. It was first settled in an organized fashion  by Iberian Celts around 650 BC, although there had been Neolithic settlers before them, and quickly became a center of trade. Greeks started showing up about 200 years later, and a century after that, part of the town was taken over by the Romans as an oppidum for the Via Domitia, and nice sturdy walls were erected to protect it. Then, around 400 AD, the town was abandoned in favor of living at a lower elevation. Certainly it must have been hard to get water up there, although perhaps I missed evidence of a well, and all the farming would have to be done down the hill.

The site's real value, though, is that it has a graveyard which was in constant use for the town's entire existence, probably the best-preserved ancient graveyard in Europe.

Because of the lack of room, cremation was the only form of funeral service, but the ashes were buried with pottery (some of which was smashed in the funeral rites), weapons, and other goods which helped archaeologists, who've been whacking away at this hilltop since at least the start of the 20th century, trace the settlement patterns. The one thing they don't know -- and never will -- is what it was called.

The really big disappointment was the museum, given the excellent documentation of the site itself. One hopes that some of the money the government has used to set up the extremely informative signs around the hilltop will eventually find its way into what is almost a caricature of the lost-in-time archaeological museum. There's no interpretation, and some of the labels are handwritten and faded. The video, though, is pretty good. There's a huge gift-shop and the boss patrols the grounds outside.

But the other thing you can see from this village is one of the weirdest medieval relics in all of France, the Étang de Montady. I tried to shoot it, but it was the shortest day of the year, and the sun was being fickle, so I defer to the mighty BastienM of Wikipedia on this:

If you look closely, you'll see, in the center, a round green area, traversed by what appears to be a road. This depression used to be a swamp, and one day the Bishop of Narbonne decided it should be drained. Some local monks (I have no idea where they came from, except E has determined they were Cistercians) then set about digging a trench. The trench went to the hill, and the monks, not knowing that limestone, which the hill is made from, is a damn poor conduit for water and tunnels dug through it are liable to collapse, dug a tunnel through the hill.

They didn't know it, but they'd discovered that there are different kinds of limestone with different qualities. And, when Piquet found his plans dead-ending at the hill, he despaired: he was already in hot water with the King, who was bankrolling the Canal du Midi, and now he was up against a limestone hill. But some of the local farmers found out about his problem and told him that centuries ago, the monks had done it, so he probably could, too. And so he took a chance, blew a hole in the hill, and the canal's still running through it today.

It's apparently a great place to fish for perch, as two gentlemen were doing as we walked through. Inside, and unphotographable by me, is a little room in the ceiling, which possibly leads to a manhole for emergency evacuation. Or not.

You can see how close the monks' tunnel is to the railroad tunnel in this shot I took which shows their canal and the white pylons in the first picture in this post.

And, since that town on the hill in the distance is Montady, I decided that the monastery which did the work had to be there, and so we set off to check it out.

I was wrong. The closer we got to the town, the more obvious it was that this was just another defense tower like we'd seen in Olargues.

But there was no stopping E, nor did I want to. He snaked up the tiny streets of the village towards the tower, and we were rewarded with yet another astonishing view.

But not as good as these guys got.

The birds launched themselves from the windows in the tower and just hung there. The wind held them motionless for a while, but they inevitably had to regain their purchase on the air, wheel around for a while, and then go back and do it again.

Who knows where the monks who did this colossal feat in the Étang de Montady came from? Who knows what the name of the village which persisted for centuries on top of the limestone hill was? Who can imagine what the Languedoc would have been like if the Canal du Midi hadn't been built? And who knows what further amazing unknown bits of history lie out there for intrepid explorers, armed only with a German automobile, a very high-resolution map, and an intense curiosity to seek this stuff out? Stay tuned; we're already researching the next trip.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Roman Around

It's been a while, so I was happy to find an e-mail from E in my in-box the other day asking if I'd be interested in going to Ambrussum with him and J. J's had dental surgery, and hasn't been in much of a mood to go out, but her interest in Greco-Roman times around here finally got her out to look at the oppidum over in Murviel-lès-Montpellier the other day, and that coincided with E's interest in the Via Domitia, the Roman road which connected Nîmes with Cadiz starting around 120 BC. Wikipedia lists 11 oppida in France, but I'd always heard that Ambrussum was the good one. Boy, was it ever.

It didn't take long to get there. "Gee, this is hardly a trip," J said as she got out of the car. We'd headed down the A9 to Lunel, taken the exit, and followed the signs to the parking lot. (Hint: if you go, drive slowly once you're off the A9, because the signs come quickly and aren't obvious). The place was deserted, despite the fact, which E had discovered, that it was free until the end of the year. It was warmish, sunny, and a fine day to see what was going on here.

Oppida were rest stations for travellers, stationed about every 15 km along the Via Domitia. You could get a change of horses, a bath, blacksmith and wheelwright services, a meal, and a room. If you were a postal courier, you could pick up the mail for delivery down the line. Up the hill, there was a settlement with protective walls and shops where you could buy supplies. My guess is that Ambrussum was a pretty cushy place to be stationed. On the other hand, it was abandoned around 100 AD, possibly because of flooding from the river.

Of course, like all places that had to be dug out of the ground, it doesn't photograph all that well. Here, for instance, is the inn, and if you look hard, you can make out, over there on the left, the four guest rooms.

Just past this, a path heads uphill, and as you approach the gates of the settlement (or, rather, where they stood) it gets paved:

(Shoes included for scale. Yeah, right.)

Once up the hill, you're in the oppidum's community, and according to the archaeologists who are still working there, there are entryways to where shops and other services once stood. If the reconstructions are accurate, the houses up here were pretty nice, with the living quarters ringing a shaded courtyard.

The hilltop has ramparts facing away from the Via Domitia towards the Gallic settlements. The Gauls were at peace with the Romans during the time the oppidum at Ambrussum was occupied, but hey, they were French, so the Romans figured they had to keep an eye on them anyway.

And it's true that you're high enough up here: there's a real panorama visible from this part of the settlement, with a nice view of Pic St. Loup and other mountains, and one of the signs said that 180º from this view, you could sometimes see the snowcapped Mt. Ventoux over in Provence, but not yesterday. That's okay; the Languedoc mountainscape was real nice.

I think that's l'Hortus on the left close in, but I wonder what that sharp peak right-center is. Notice also that the A9 is right there, following the ancient route of the Via Domitia. Those Roman engineers knew the best way to get places, and there's no reason to change it now.

Down the hill lies the Vidourle River, with the famous Roman bridge providing access to the site from the Via Domitia. It started being knocked down by the locals in the 14th century, and the river has finished most of the job. If you wonder why, look at the size of that log hanging off the thing: that arrived just recently, and possibly with some force.

This Roman bridge is perhaps more famous than the other ones in the area because before the second arch fell apart in the 19th century, Courbet painted it.

Which puts Ambrussum on another Languedoc tourist route, the Courbet Trail.

As I said, this was free, but normal admission is only €4, and well worth it. There's a museum where you start your trip (and buy your ticket) and it's loaded with information both on the site in Roman times and its excavation and preservation, largely at the hand of the 19th century's platoon of gentleman archaeologists, many of them medical doctors who liked to go digging on weekends. In the museum, you learn that this site was occupied since Neolithic times, and even had some Greeks messing around it -- there's a shard of Attic pottery that was found on the grounds.

And J was, as she admitted, wrong: although it only took about 20 minutes to drive here from central Montpellier, the hike around the hill and the riverbank took a couple of hours. On a warm winter day with plenty of sunshine it was pretty easy going, but I'd say that if you're going in the summertime, you should bring some water along (and take it out: they're pretty militant about not littering this site, and I'm totally in agreement), because that hilltop's going to be nice and hot.

E's already talking about going to another oppidum down by Béziers, and that sounds good to me. And while this nice weather's not going to hold forever, there'll be enough of it to take advantage of it when it appears. Stay tuned.

(Oppidum d'Ambrussum, open daily except Monday, February-December, 2pm-5:30pm October-March, 2pm-5:30 Tues-Sat, 10am-12:30pm and 2:30-5:30 April-December, 9am-12pm and 3pm-7pm July and August.)

Out Of Bread!

No, not like that. I'm still broke, not poor, but I'm also a little bit poorer today, as is everyone in town. Here's what's happened.

One of the few nice things about living in The Slum here is that, dazed with sleep, I could still throw on some clothes, walk to the corner, and buy croissants and other pastries for breakfast. Very good croissants. Made by the people who also made very good bread, which I bought whenever soup or salad was going to be the main dish for dinner, or when I felt like a sandwich and would buy a loaf, halve it, and freeze the other half. Ortholan is a local chain, with a big store down south on the Avenue de Toulouse which fabricates and half-bakes the stuff, and two other stores, one of which is on my corner, and the other of which is across the Comédie, which finish the baking and perfume the air here between 2 and 3 in the afternoon. And here's what it's looked like for a week:

The only difference is, today, as I was out shooting pictures, the orange sign you can see there went up:

This is good news: evidently, once the "repairs" are finished, the bakery will re-open, being open on Sundays until Christmas, of which there's only one left. I was concerned for the neighbors: I only patronize the bread end of things, but the bakery's main source of income seems to be fancy stuff, and they have a loose-leaf book of seasonal things you can order -- and people do. There are a lot of traditional sweets at this time of year, just like everywhere, and Ortholan makes several levels of bûche de Noël, and king cakes of every diameter, among other things. People pre-pay for these, and having your bakery plotz right before Christmas is a nightmare.

But at least I'm getting my bakery back, or so it seems. There's other bad news for Montpellier bread-lovers, like this poor woman.

Le Vieux Four Sainte Anne was the first bakery I saw in Montpellier when I came here early in 2006 to look around. There was a plaque on the wall just to the left of the woman there which indicated that the baker had come in second in the nationwide baking contest in 2005. My lord, the second-best bakery in France? That had to be good. Unfortunately, every time I went there, there was a line out the door.

Eventually, I moved here, and was able to go there when I wanted. It isn't exactly in the back yard, but there were days I would be walking back from the market and I'd stop in for some sandwich-making material, which was often sold to me by an exuberant West Indian lady. Through the door to the left, one could see the baker going about his routine, with his wood-burning oven and wooden peels and cooling loaves stacked up. I once got a loaf fresh out of the oven, and it was so hot I had to keep switching it from hand to hand so as not to burn myself. (Unfortunately, it was summer; you kind of hope for things like that around this time of year.)

It was very, very good bread. I never tried any of their other things, the pizzas and tarts and so on, but I did manage several loaves of bread. I also love the Ste. Anne district, and hope to get an apartment there one of these days, and was fantasizing having this place as my local. But no: here's what that woman is looking at:

It's hard to read in that picture, I guess, but what it says is "Starting today, the Vieux Four Ste. Anne is closed. Thank you for your understanding." And yes, that's a real Michelin sticker there, from 2004. Bakeries almost never get them (the Petit Fute guide is a pay-to-play deal).

"It's a real loss," said The Other Ed when I mentioned it the other day, and I hope someone knows what happened here. And it's got me wondering, with all the bakeries here, how many really good ones are left. Bread is central to French life, there's no doubt about that, but as with everywhere else, the mass of people are content to buy so-so stuff. There's a big chain called Paul that's made a fortune by making bread that approximates traditional stuff, and to tell the truth, if you're in a railroad station or Charles de Gaulle Airport and you're hungry, their sandwiches hit the spot, but their baguettes are only slightly better than what you get in Mononprix.

Here's wishing Ste. Anne's baker a good retirement, if that's what it is, and here's hoping the spirit of what he accomplished settles on the shoulders of a young baker somewhere here in town and inspires him to open a worthy successor.
Site Meter