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.


  1. Great story and great photos! Thanks for the illustrated history lesson.

  2. I'll have to do some research to find the best link, but what I think you'll enjoy is the Carte Cassini. I've pulled up the section with Montady (not a good site) and it shows (when the maps were made (1749-1789) there was a St Genies to the northwest of Montady and a St Jean de Thessan Succ south of the Canal and west of the Etang. Niether of these show on a current google map...
    A google search does bring up some online books with (a little) info on St Jean de Thessan, but little on St Genies...which could point to a monastery abandonned.
    There is also a St Loup de Regimont but that has always been a small parish church.

    Off the topic but have you read Luminous Debris?

  3. Not off the topic at all, and no, I haven't read it, but I've put it in my Amazon wish list, because it looks very interesting. Thanks!

  4. Dear Ed,

    (1) It was good to hear you again on "Fresh air", just before we returned to France for christmas.

    (2) your commenty about certain French famrers who seem to have made a lot of money without acquiring much in the way of taste reminded me of my partner's inevitable (and dismayingly regular) comment, which he coughs up everytime we're out driving in the countryside and some nouveaux-riche, late 19th century, fake chateau suddenly pops into view. You know the sort...generally it's just a large farmhouse or (at best) manoir, which, during some period of prosperity, has obviously had a couple of false "medieval" turrets, some prominent stained glass windows, and a false mansard roof tacked onto it in some giddy effort at advertising the owner's obviously recent ascent into the haute-bourgeoisie.

    Herve always rolls his eyes and murmurs "All the Ugly that Money can buy.....". It's a phrase he picked up from my mother in Tennessee (where we have plenty of the southern USA version of that sort of thing....usually a plain-as-plain-gets victorian farmhouse that's had an enromous, David-O.-Selznick-imagines-Tara false portico slapped on the front).

    In any case, that's a useful phrase to remember.

    As for the Canal du Midi?....I was really disheartened to learn recently (via a long article in the London Financial times) that all of those beautiful sycamores along the canal du Midi are d-y-i-n-g....of a fungus introduced by wooden supply cases brought over by Americans during WWII. Apparently, there's nothing to be done about the matter, beyond burning the dead/dying trees and cutting down huge swaths of the still healthy trees. It's all as depressing to consider as the chestnut blight that hit my home region in the twenties.

    Well, enough of that. As always, it's a real pleasure to read your blog.

    Level Best as Ever,

    david Terry

  5. We went there today- thank you Ed


Site Meter