Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Quillan Castle and the River Aude, Quillan

On Ascension (May, Thursday), we left Carcassonne for a day trip by an SNCF bus which arrived at its final destination perhaps an hour later--Quillan.  This town/village of 3,591 people does not get much space in English tour guides, but it is ideal for anyone interested in hiking on marked trails in the surrounding mountains (foothills to folks from British Columbia) or exploring crafts and local foods and wines, all of which are excellent.  We were there on a major holiday, which meant nearly everything was closed.   Although France is a post-Christian nation, its citizens take the traditional religious holidays very seriously indeed (as holidays from work).  The weather alternated between light rain and threats of rain, but this brought out the beauty of the fresh spring greens in trees and grasses.

Little remains of the 12th-c. Cathar castle perched on the hill overlooking the village and the brisk River Aude fed by mountain streams.  The disastrous Albigensian Crusade crushed the economic and cultural fiber of the Languedoc and other southern regions which had somewhat generously tolerated the 10% who were Cathars rather than Catholics.  This ultimately meant that the other 90% paid a heavy price indeed for extending religious tolerance. Modern French society still debates religious freedoms, but now while facing immigration of French colonials who take religion seriously.

The ruined castle still has a few lower walls, several openings where sturdy gates once swung, and offers a lovely view of the traffic and village life below.  This was possibly the primary gate into the 12th-c fortification, a thick wall, possibly with double gates.

The walls were constructed according to the fashion of the day, by using stone fill with cement for the inner part of the wall and then covering that rough masonry with cut stones, some of which were surely "quarried" from the destroyed edifice and used to construct parts of the town once the townspeople realized the government to the north would never allow the castle to be rebuilt.

Some openings serving as doorways and windows can still be seen, as well as outlines of inner walls for rooms, stables, etc.

Castles are most often situated on high, defensible outcroppings which overlook strategic trade routes and rivers, presumably to exact levies which help pay for the castle upkeep.  Ideally, the peasants living below the castles could seek safety and food within the castle during times of hostilities.  But water would invariably cause collapse, as would unexpected acts of betrayal, false promises believed, or paralyzing fear from the spectre of overwhelming military odds and certain death unless one surrendered when offered somewhat favourable terms.

The climb to Quillan Castle is not difficult these days, but the narrow road does keep ascending.

The Pont Vieux (Old Bridge) is also from the 12th century.  It once had a mill on one side for grinding various types of grain.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Contre-Courante, Le Portail des Terroirs, Quillan, Region Languedoc, Dept. Aude

Even though the small village of Quillan was essentially closed for Ascension Thursday on that cold gray day in mid-May, Janice discovered a truly delightful family-run restaurant that was open.  Contre-Courante, Le Portail des Terroirs is both a store for local products and a restaurant featuring only local foods, cheeses and wines.  What's more, they are very willing to tell you all about these local products.  Throughout rural France there is a very strong movement promoting local foods, much like the so-called Hundred Mile Diet in North America, only using a much smaller radius.  As Julia Child learned while in France decades ago, fresh local foods are by far the best.

As you approach the restaurant, you immediately sense its intimacy.  Through the front door you get a glimpse of the colours in the shop.

The inside seating has perhaps five or six tables, hardly more.  Local wines are proudly displayed on the fireplace mantle and the prices are given on the blackboard above cupboard for the wine glasses and plates.

Notice that the fireplace is working, in mid May at noon.  Our table was close to it, which was great.

We selected a wine recommended by the husband/waiter and then studied its labels for further information about grape types, exact location, terroir, etc.

They also bring cool water to the tables, using former wine bottles.

The day's specialty featured escargots (snails) grown locally.  Some Irish gentlemen at a nearby table feasted only on snails, bread and wine.  The snails are carefully cleaned, taken out of the shells, gently tossed in butter, wine and garlic, then returned individually to shells.  These little fellows can transform a gloomy cold Thursday noon into something absolutely exotic.

After our first appetizer (snails, but a smaller portion than Sean's), we ordered a selection of local cheeses.  Each was described, most were goat cheeses, and a small jar of raspberry jam was available to go with the bread and cheeses.

Our main course was pork roast (done to perfection in the home kitchen) served with grilled tomatoes and potatoes tossed in butter.


 At one point I caught a glimpse of some of the family seated in their kitchen just a few meters from the dining room. 

The mens restroom was decorated with progressive (usually leftist) cartoons from newspapers, all of which made delightful reading.

Perhaps two or three hours later, well-filled, we returned to the wet streets to see more of Quillan.  When I return, this restaurant will be absolutely tops on my list.  Its food surpassed anything else we enjoyed eating in the south of France this year.

Église Notre-Dame-de-Quillan, Quillan, Region Languedoc, Dept. Aude

In the centre of Quillan, a small town of 3,591 inhabitants, stands a modest 12th-century church, l'Église Notre-Dame-de-Quillan.  We visited very briefly on Ascension Thursday, arriving long after Mass had been celebrated.  The small church was open but quite dark, though the side chapels were each illuminated with a different colour.  Most tourists only get to wander through three or four of the most majestic cathedrals in France, but the small rural churches are also fascinating, reflecting the simple honesty of local life rather than the presumptuous grandeur of the nation's most wealthy and competitive aristocrats.

As I approached the front door, I stopped to see this little book on which villagers were writing condolences to a grieving family.  The funeral was to be held in the church the next day.  This suggests that many people in Quillan know each other and that the community is quite close.

The next thing that my Mennonite eye noticed was a sort of price list--suggested "offerings" for various services offered by the church.  Presumably this is to remind parishioners that it takes money to keep any church open and operating, that some services require considerably more time than others, and that private events in particular can take up quite a bit of the officiant's limited time, for these days a lone priest is too often responsible for multiple parishes.

Although the sanctuary itself was not lit, spotlights in the side chapels provided enough light for one to enter and pray--or possibly even take photographs under challenging lighting conditions.  In the following photos, we are looking from the front toward the back of the sanctuary.

Now we are looking directly across the altar rail and the steps leading up to the altar.  Across the way we see the small side chapel with its own altar, a single line of chairs, and a confessional.

The following black and white photo shows another small chapel with a statue of the Virgin Mary.  The marble tablets flanking the statue give the names of the men of the parish who were killed during the two European wars in the 20th century.  These lists are omnipresent throughout rural France, poignant testimony to the useless destruction and impossible costs of war everywhere.  Every time I see these lists, I wonder, "What might have become of these lads, had there been no war?"

The high altar at the front of the church is back lit by a skylight above the Baroque statue of the Virgin Mary.  This dramatic use of natural lighting was practical, requiring careful construction, but then no candles or artificial lighting would be needed for centuries to come. 

Another small source of natural light was the half circle above the main entrance door at the side of the sanctuary.  I am also intrigued by light entering from underneath church doors, particularly as many feet slowly wear down thresholds over the centuries. 

Chandeliers are always beautiful, even when not illuminated.  Natural light from a distant window lets us appreciate the central chandelier in a new way.  The "IHS" stands for Jesus (J did not appear in the Latin alphabet for a long time; the vowels are traditionally omitted in this type of art). 

Friday, November 26, 2010

Toulouse, Random Street Photography in May

Our brief day visit to Toulouse was packed with activities, but while walking from place to place, I managed to take a few informal shots on the streets.

First, I am continually reminded how few green spaces there are in the old Mediterranean cities other than trees which somehow manage to extract water that slips through paving stones.  Young children simply must be accompanied by an adult in major cities, which was certainly not the life I knew growing up in a small town in Ohio.  When I was their age, we thought nothing of my walking by myself through a large treed cemetery when going to school.

Carriage entries are still useful and often elegant passageways to inner courtyards.  Of course graffiti crops up everywhere.

Brick was important to the Romans and continues to be used throughout Toulouse.

Too many young people still take up smoking in France.  Fortunately, smoking is now absolutely banned inside all French restaurants and pubs.

Some of the ancient passageways seem even too narrow for a medieval horse-drawn cart, but they do provide shortcuts through some of the city's oldest sections.

Artists abound throughout France, though I had to wonder how this shop makes a living.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Toulouse, La Basilique Saint-Sernin

This gorgeous Romanesque basilica takes us back to May 24, 1096 when Pope Urban II was joined by other 14 bishops to consecrated its altar.  The Basilica Saint Sernin is named after Saint Saturnin (3rd century, now known as Sernin), the city's first bishop who was martyred by the governing Romans for refusing to offer sacrifices to their customary gods.  His feast day is celebrated each November 29th by the Bishop of Toulouse. The basilica is associated with Saint Sernin's relics and is now a very active parish church.

In the first two photos, we are approaching the basilica, looking at the exterior of the beautiful apse with its smaller protruding chapels.  The interplay of red brick and stone/cement is just wonderful, so unlike what one finds in most French cathedrals and basilicas, particularly those closer to Paris.  Of course the Empire's Roman engineers had introduced brick and mortar into the architecture of the occupied south of France many centuries earlier.

The care given to creating colourful designs makes the exterior truly attractive, especially now that it has been carefully cleaned.  Emphasis is placed on design, reminding me of Muslim interest in creating intricate patterns rather than human likenesses.  Typical for the Romanesque style of ecclesiastical architecture in this area, the windows are not all that large, so they do not require the external flying buttresses that will predominate church exteriors during the later Gothic style. Here (below) you can see the occasional oculus ("eye" or round window), an additional small piercing of the sturdy walls which does not weaken the integrity of the structure while admitting a bit more light.

The central tower climbs majestically, though it cannot be viewed from inside the basilica.

The brick masonry is continued inside the basilica.  This closeup shows how they draw trowel lines to help demarcate the rows of bricks or larger stones.

However, it seems likely that some of this beautiful work in brick was once covered with intricately painted plaster.  If you click on the following picture, you will see painting on the small arches in the upper archways on the right.

The nave, where the laity would gather to listen to the worship service (observing it from afar), is quite long.  In fact, its relatively narrow dimensions, combined with its pronounced height, accentuate this impression.  The ceiling of the nave, like that in each aisle, is essentially a barrel vault, forming the upper half of the 'barrel'.  This concept is derived from the old and well-tested Roman arch which still endures throughout Europe.  Each archway is also rounded in this old, or "Romanesque" style.

The following view is distorted by the 16mm lens.  If you click on it, you can see that there are essentially two outer aisles across the way, and the upper level walkway is above the inner of those two outer aisles.  This uppermost level also has openings to the central nave, using double arches in order to span the same distance as the lower, larger arch.  By using two outer aisles on each side, the height of the nave could be considerably increased.

In fact, the central supports for these higher arches are double columns in a style recalling Roman architecture.

The following photo gives us another view (with a corrected perspective) from one side of the basilica to the other (north to south as I recall), looking through the tall archway, across the nave and into the opposite aisle with its (hidden) vaults.  Although this is beautiful in its own right, the basilica is obviously oriented by the tremendous length of its nave (rather than across the nave).

Now we are looking down the length of a smaller (outermost) aisle, a view which shows the continual intersecting in the aisle's double-barrel vaulting.  It is as though we have one long archway (barrel) running the length of the aisle, which is then intersected by other barrel vaults which lead from each archway to the corresponding window. 

You can enlarge the following photo to see the informative overall plan which is displayed in the basilica.  The church is built in the shape of the cross, as was true for so many pilgrimage churches located along routes leading Santiago de Compostella in Spain, where St James is presumably buried.  Saint Sernin would eventually become wealthy from donations of pilgrims. 

 This statue honours Sanctus Silvius, the fourth bishop of Toulouse.  He is prominently honoured in this basilica in recognition of his constructing the first shrine over the burial site of St Sernin (also known as Saturnin).  This was to prove an initial step toward the eventual construction of this Romanesque basilica many centuries later.

I am always intrigued by cathedral lighting.  Originally only natural light and beeswax candles would have been used.  With the adoption of electricity, these church interiors are now freed from the stains of candle smoke.

The choir follows the monastic plan of the monks being divided to sit on the sides of the cantors and the deacons, facing each other.  The wooden choir stalls are beautifully and elaborately carved.

Finally, a photo of the pulpit, which is built some distance from the ancient altar.  It is placed at the side of the nave so that the laity could hear the sermons spoken in their dialect, not in liturgical Latin.  The acoustics of the hard surfaces would be challenging for audibility, but a good set of lungs, a few gestures, and communication would be possible.