Thursday, June 6, 2013

As I Was Going To Saint-Gilles...

...I met a man with 40 eels. Wait, that's not right.

But I did go to Saint-Gilles yesterday, because Elijah Wald, a writer I very much respect, was in the neighborhood, and that's where he was headed. We'd been meaning to meet up while he was over here -- his wife, Sandrine, is French, and her mother, Martine, lives in Provence -- and this was when our schedules coincided. Martine was driving, and we agreed to meet at the train station in Tarascon, which I can get to on the TER, the local-train service in this region.

It all began very auspiciously: I went to the train station the day before to buy a ticket, because it was a very early (for me) train, only to discover that the ticket machines didn't take paper money and I didn't have a bunch of change. Okay, I'd get it in the morning. The line in the morning, however, wasn't moving, and I didn't want to miss the train, so I just went back downstairs to the track, figuring I'd pay on the train. The train came, we took off, and...nobody ever asked me for a ticket. Rather than feel guilty, I decided to treat this as partial payment for the €80 ticket I'd bought in March from Barcelona to Montpellier that the Spanish railroad refused to honor.

Tarascon is a place you can hardly miss if you're headed to Avignon: you cross the Rhone and see the huge castle on the river.

Tarascon Castle from Wikipedia

We found each other just fine, introductions were made, and we piled into the car and discovered that Tarascon is as hard to get out of as Montpellier is, but eventually we were on the road.

The day was supposed to involve visits to Saint-Gilles and Aigues-Mortes, and I was enthusiastic because the abbatial church in Saint-Gilles is supposed to be a UNESCO site, and I sort of collect those. I say "sort of" because I'm not like the obsessives in Japan who have books they fill with rubber-stamps they get at all the historical sites they visit, but I do realize that there's usually something of compelling interest at these places, and it's not always obvious. I enjoy figuring it out.

Saint-Gilles, however, is pretty obvious, since there's only one thing, really, in town: the church. We came at it from a funny angle, and Martine managed to puzzle a local by asking directions to it while standing with her back to it, more or less. One thing we found immediately was the choir. Or, rather, what's left of it.

The choir, sort of 

The Wars of Religion in the 1600s did lots of damage (hell, they pretty nearly destroyed Montpellier), and this remnant of the original church shows that clearly. My book here says it was a Huguenot attack in 1622 that blew this up. There are a few nice details on it, and that door leads to what's supposed to be a classic spiral staircase that architects still study. I walked around it and noted that there were some nice details.

But the real deal is the church itself. The 12th century sculptures on the entrance (which wasn't the main entrance back when it was first built) are an amusing hodge-podge of stuff -- Elijah and I spent some time trying to decode one sequence which had Jesus and the disciples coming into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Sts. Peter and Paul fishing (from an entirely earlier section of the story) and, um, some city, which may or may not have been falling apart. Medieval manga wasn't doing such a great job here.

Of course, after the Wars of Religion came the French Revolution, and what the hatred of the doomed Protestants hadn't achieved in the 17th century, the armed revolutionaries of the 18th century tried to finish off. This meant that all of the faces were shot off of Jesus and the saints, something it's unlikely the earlier crowd would have done.

If you click on that and enlarge it, you'll see that there's a Christ in Glory on the left and a Crucifixion on the right and on both of them, the faces have been terminated with extreme prejudice. Why so angry against someone you'd expect many of these people to believe is the son of God? Easy: he was the excuse for the Church, a horrendously corrupt organization that operated hand-in-hand with the French monarchy, which had basically conquered the piece of land that we see on the map of Europe today as part of the Wars of Religion. The dissidents, the Catholics who didn't totally by into the rules coming from Rome, the followers of the Swiss theologian John Calvin, all of them were keeping needed revenue from a spendthrift monarch and his BFF, the Pope. It's why Montpellier, a Protestant stronghold, was burned and a huge fort (now a high school, symbolically enough) got plopped down on what was then the city's outskirts and stocked with lots of soldiers. Then, when the Revolution came along to depose that monarchy, the outburst of violence was also aimed at the corrupt Church. Since Saint-Gilles was the fourth-largest center of pilgrimage in European Christendom, and, thus, did a thriving business in exploiting pilgrims who either came there directly or were on the Arles route to Santiago de Compostella, the Church was living large there, and the resentment was likely pretty large.

Enough of the carvings on the front of Saint-Gilles' church remain, though, that it's pretty wonderful to look at:

Inside, as you might expect, there's not much, although there's a nice, albeit undecorated, reliquary with a hunk of some saint in it. There's also a crypt, and if you buy a ticket to it, you can also go up the spiral staircase. Instead, we opted for a visits to the "Romanesque House" across the street, three! three! three! museums in one.

Which means, as you might expect, that there's not enough to actually fill a museum. There are, in one room, lots of bits of the exploded church.

Another floor celebrates the profusion of bird life in the nearby swamp, the Camargue, with a bunch of dusty taxidermy -- and a hippo skull, which means that if you're headed there, you should be very, very careful. (I'd suggest a rifle, but if there really is a European hippopotamus, it's very likely to be endangered). The top floor may have had a kitchen in it, and is dedicated to the slim possibility that Pope Clement IV (r 1265-1268), who is known to have been born in the town, may have been born in that very house! Then you go downstairs and there's another set of stairways which'll show you the equipment for winemaking, olive processing, sheep shearing and woolmaking, and other local industries.

We refreshed ourselves at a nearby café and, invigorated once again, set off for Aigues-Mortes. I was there a couple of years ago and blogged about it then, and was a bit apprehensive, because tourist season had just about begun, and it's heaving with them in the summertime. We took the scenic route, though, and went through a landscape of rice fields, still flooded, that reminded me of Louisiana but for the lack of crawfish traps. Once in Aigues-Mortes, we set about assembling a picnic lunch, which we then enjoyed in the Square St. Louis, gazing at the heroic statue of the guy who launched the First Crusade, one of European Christendom's most notable disasters. ("They did, however, discover cushions when they got to the Holy Land," Elijah reminde me). This was the only part of the trip I'd have changed: if I'd realized we were going to picnic, I would have suggested picking up the supplies in Saint-Gilles because it was less touristed, and more likely to have good cheese, sausage, and pâté. And bread: what we got was from the Baguépi chain, something to avoid if you're travelling around here, since it's one step up from Wonder Bread in baguette form. No biggie: if that's the biggest complaint, it's hardly worth mentioning.

After checking out Aigues-Mortes, we headed to Montpellier, through the Petite Camargue and its pink-water salt flats. The pink comes from billions of tiny shrimp, and finds its way into the wings of the local flamingoes, who were boycotting the place a few years back until the salt producers changed some of how they were doing business and they returned. They're not pink all over like their Florida (and front-lawn) cousins, but they're graceful and that flash of pink as they fly is pretty wonderful.

Back here, the group got my walking tour of the city (still a work in progress, but it's getting better), and then, exhausted, they piled into their car and headed back to Provence. They'd parked under the shopping mall near my house, and I went with them as far as the escalator, because I knew that I was just tired enough that if I came back here to The Slum and then tried to go shopping, I just wouldn't make it.

A great day, great folks, and I hear they'll be back. Also it appears that Elijah is working on a major book, about which, in true writerly style, he gave no clue. And now it looks like there's another Stateside visitor on the way next weekend. Guess the season has begun. Anyone else on the way?

Saint-Gilles out the window of the Romanesque House


  1. Love this article about your part of the world- very visual writing,Ed. And I did not know that Crusade fact about cushions!

  2. Serendipitous in several ways, is this fabulous post. I mean, yes, my chair has a cushion, but that's the least of it. I, too, really admire Elijah Wald's writing. In July, before our own trip to Barcelona & France, I'll be doing a guest lecture for Jason Mellard's American Studies course on Southern Music and Race, at UT. One of the main texts for the course is, of course, Wald's Escaping the Delta. The old depictions of exotic animals always crack me up. Those lions are not terribly fierce looking.

  3. Do you eat lentils?
    If you do, you may notice that prime lentils come from Puy-en-Velay.
    Puy-en-Velay is an important pilgrimage waypoint, and is linked directly to Saint Gilles by the Voie Régordane (or Chemin de Régordane depending on how you view this route).
    The Régordane functioned in the nature of the via Domitia, Chemin de Compostella and the A6, Autoroute du Soleil from the 7th to the 18th century.

    If you ever want to get a good feeling for the definition of "outpost" visit La Garde-Guérin in the winter and climb the tower.


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