Cavorting in Calvados

Back from a break in Normandy where cold, windy weather and an excruciatingly painful knee somewhat curtailed activities. However a stop-off at a Calvados distillery refreshed the senses and taste buds, if not the knee.

My neighbour first introduced me to Calvados, surreptitiously adding it to my coffee one night after the village fete. I wasn’t looking and sipped the coffee quite happily. An hour later I had great difficulty finding my own front door despite the fact that I live opposite, just a mere handful of metres away. Since then, whenever he visits Normandy he has brought me a bottle back “straight off the farm”…er…that is to say… made privately for the makers own personal consumption.

Calvados is distilled from cider made from specially grown and selected apples. The fruit is harvested and pressed into a juice and then fermented into a dry cider. After that it is distilled into eau de vie. It can only be sold as Calvados after spending two years maturing in oak casks. The longer it is left, the smoother it becomes.


It’s a versatile spirit – an aperitif, a digestif, useful in cooking (particularly to pep up pork) and in coffee.

There are a number of traditions that surround Calva. One I was told of was le trou Normand, or “the Norman hole”. This is a small drink of Calvados that you take between courses during a very long meal, supposedly to resuscitate the appetite.

But I really like the sound of an old ritual that the Norman farmers followed at the end of a meal. It is called the seven rounds of Calvados and it goes thus:

Round 1.Le Café Calva (a tot poured into the coffee)
Round 2 La Rincette (a little nip)
Round 3 La Sur-rincette (another little nip)
Round 4 Le Gloria (yet another)
Round 5 L’Alléluia (and another)
Round 6 Le Coup de pied au cul (the kick up the backside)
Round 7 Le Coup de l’étrier (the kick in the stirrup – that is the kick out of the door and onto the horse)

It was a ritual for men only and said to leave the ladies free and happy for the evening. I can bear witness to that last point!

Stormy Nights and Women in White

The church clock struck midnight. Outside the rain fell in torrents beating a tattoo on the porch roof. Wind moaned through a gap in the shutters. In my office the chandelier lights flickered and the computer gave an apologetic “huff” and died only to mysteriously self-resuscitate a few seconds later.

I was researching more ghosts, myths and legends for another set of spooky stories and had arrived at the legends of the Dames Blanches – White Ladies. They’re everywhere in France but especially in Normandy and the Pyrenees. There are two around me haunting Chateaux Puivert and Puylaurens. At Puylaurens, the great-niece of Phillipe le Bel, restlessly walks the battlements.

Chateau de Puylaurens

At Puivert their Dame Blanche appears on rainy nights at one of the tower windows and just over the border in Andorra there is one who defended the principality from a huge wolf which was really an angry bishop in disguise. Goodness knows how many more there are lurking in the shadows.

Chateau Puivert

What is it with these ladies; flitting around in the most inclement of weather wearing little more than some flimsy draperies?

Martin Antonio Delrio, a Jesuit writing in the sixteenth century reassures me. He writes that these ladies are generally benevolent towards we mere humans, they are merely feés appearing in the woods and on the plains. They appear to be kind to animals too as he asserts that often the ladies appeared, carrying a lighted candle, in stables. There, they would let a few drops of wax fall on the incumbents’ manes and tails and then proceed to tenderly and carefully comb and plait them.

Another writer, Thomas Keightley makes me nervous though. In his book “The Fairy Mythology” he recounts tales of the malevolent nature of the Dames Blanches where they lurk at cross-roads, narrow bridges and ravines and insist on forfeits. If you want to pass by you may have to dance with them, get on your knees to them or assist them in some way. Woe betide you if you refuse. You may end up in a patch of nettles and brambles. These unkind phantoms are said to be found mainly in the north of France, particularly Normandy. Did I tell you I’m going to Normandy at the end of April? Me with my cronky knee. Just my luck.

PS Did I also tell you that my collection of spooky stories – “Spook Me Out” will be available from Amazon at the end of March?

Three Years Later

Roll back three years, February 2014. There I was sitting like Dido in the ruins of Carthage amid cartons, packing cases and bubble wrap. The materials goods of my life packed and awaiting transport to France.

I remember the shivers of trepidation as I wondered what the hell I was doing yet a pleasurable anticipation that the move to France would kick-start my life which, truth to tell was a bit stagnant and aimless.

Today a neighbour asked me how it was all going, this adventure of mine and it set me thinking. I’m not going to make comparisons between France and the UK – comparisons are odious as John Lydgate said in a debate about the horse, goose and sheep. So, here are some thoughts.

Life here in my part of France is one of halves (nearly did a John Moxon there and wrote two halves). Spring through to autumn is a hive of activity with festivals, concerts, fêtes, vide greniers and a hundred and one places to visit most of which I’ve yet to see. It seems to be a law of the expat universe that you only get to see your surroundings when you have visitors.

I love the heat of these summer days on my ageing bones and, if the temperature soars over 35 degrees which it did last summer, there is always the cool, freshness of the house to revive me. This is the season when shutters stay resolutely closed during the day and opened at night. At the end of a long hot day I have the choice of two swimming lakes to wallow in followed by a glass of chilled white wine at the buvette.


In case you fear that I spend my life lollygagging around, take heart. I have my routines. Weekday mornings I write. I have my main meal at lunchtime now usually shared with a neighbour and we take turn and turn about for the cooking. Most days I have a siesta and then work in the house or garden until the sun goes down. It’s a routine… but not immutable! The weekends I cut loose a bit.

In contrast to these months winter begins with migration; the swallows that have amused me all summer disappear en masse, the cattle are brought bellowing in indignation off the summer pastures and the foreigners, mainly Brits in this village go back home. This exodus is shortly followed by the appearance of piles of logs tipped in front of the doors of the houses that line the two main streets. These will have to be carried through the houses to the little yards at the back.

The summer attractions are closed and the ski slopes are wakening. The shutter routine is reversed… open during the day and closed at night. But there is always a twilight zone when, if I happen to be walking down the street, I can sneak a surreptitious peep through the windows, lit from inside. Winter is the time when the village wakes late and goes to bed early. The only constant is Carmelite, a very old lady who, winter and summer alike, stands at her doorstep at twilight murmuring to Santa Maria and counting her blessings.

What else is new?

I like the greeting ritual, the “embrace”, a kiss on both cheeks. Once I realised that “baiser” meaning to kiss has an alternative meaning akin to a well-known Anglo-Saxon four letter word, I hurriedly dropped it from my growing vocab.

I have exchanged my smart Ford C-Max for a Nissan X-trail; old but serviceable and hopefully, like me has a few more miles left. It is far more practical for the sort of fetching and carrying I do such as taking home an eight foot solid oak cornice to make a canopy for a bed or using the brilliant search lights, whilst roaming off-piste at midnight, looking for a missing dog.

I can converse pretty well in French although telephone conversations stymie me now and again as do the very thick accents that some of the older villagers have.

I’ve become an adept at managing my shopping around the midi-break when many of the smaller shops are closed for a couple of hours. I fell foul of it so many times and made so many futile trips before I learned to organise supermarket shopping (because they remain open) at lunchtimes and all other shopping either before noon or after 2.00pm.

The famous or infamous French bureaucracy defeats me from time to time. I am still waiting for my Carte Vitale after twelve months. This is my passport into the French healthcare system. Fortunately I haven’t needed access except for the dentist and I guess “the system” is geared to the long wait since I have two years to reclaim the fees I have paid.

All in all I am content. I’ve completed a novel, currently out for editing and plan to publish a collection of short stories myself in March/April. The second novel is in planning stage too. Whilst there’s still a load to finish off in the house, ca marche as they say, it progresses.

I’ve been lucky. What started out as a spur-of-the-moment decision which could have gone seriously wrong has turned out to be probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. But if the gods are smiling on me at the moment I know, capricious beings that they are, that they might yet have a sneaky trick up their sleeves to play on me. So I tread cautiously.

PS: If anyone fancies sampling a bit of la vie francaise , my brother has a lovely self-continued apartment in the house available to let, so come on down for a taste.

https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/16714011

A SaltyTale – Part I

Vegetarians you might want to look away with this one.It gets bloody!

I live in France, the land of the foodie; furthermore I live in rural foodie land where fast food means it only takes a couple of hours and twenty different apero’s to down before the dish is cooked.Here, there is still a strong tradition of bottling, pickling (self and vegetables) salting and otherwise preserving the fat of this land.

Enter James – henceforth to be called Jams according to his French pronunciation. He is a guitar-playing friend of big bro’s and has a small-holding close by.

Seduced by the home-salted charcuterie that hangs from the ceiling in Jams’ pantry said big bro agreed to give it a go; placed an order for a ham and…er…well returned to England for Christmas.

As it happens I am not totally unfamiliar with salting a ham. I have an unwanted recollection of doing something like that when I had the farm. I remember also that a hard hat, hammer and chisel were required to prise open the too, too solid flesh that resembled nothing less than a gnarly piece of wood, bathed in sea water for twenty years and immune to all blandishments.

However, nothing ventured and all that.

The day arrived when the portly porker designated to have one of its hind legs preserved – if not for posterity at least until next Christmas – could be despatched to the celestial pig sty. It required a full moon and possibly other portents, I know not. A telephone call to let me know the deed was done and a master class in salting awaited.

In Jams’ kitchen I learned the art of squeezing the last drops of blood from the veins. This required a great deal of squeezing of the ham on Jams’ part and swabbing any remnants that exuded on my part – cue theme music for Dr Kildare. (Ok, so I’m showing my age – sue me!)

Next the skin was given a quick facial salt scrub to cleanse it and the two protruding bones got an extra dollop of salt to prevent “les microbes” gaining illicit access. That done, plus several coffees, home made choccies and introductions to neighbours who dropped by, the ham was lovingly wrapped in a clean white cloth and carried carefully to my car. An odd spot or two of blood besmirched the pristine cloth – a last reproach from the pig I fear.

Prize Jambon
jams-hens

Chez moi, apart from nearly slipping a disc whilst bearing the ham on its tray to the salting box all went smoothly.Ha!

I laid the ham tenderly on a white bed of salt – oh dear, not enough to meet Jams’ strict requirements of 5cm . Quick dash to Carrefour to purchase another 20 kilos. That’s better now it has its 5cm mattress on which to repose and do its thing.

Iambon entombed

Time to cover it up completely and make it snug. Oh-ho not enough salt left – one more bag should do it; back to Carrefour. Nope there’s still some pink bit showing.

What’s going on here? Then I heard a faint rustling, a whisper of sound. Was this amputated limb coming back to life? Am I about to be clobbered over the head by an angry ham on a quest to reunite with its missing bits? Ah no. I’m afraid big bro left just a wee bit too much of a gap between the boards he screwed together and, rather like the sands of time in an hour glass, the salts of time were creating little white pyramids on the floor beneath the salting box. Que faire? With some ingenuity and a lot of huffing and puffing I managed to insert a flat tray under the extremely weighty salting box and that appeared to put a stop to the exodus. Still a bit of pink shank was showing but a hasty call to Jams reassured me that it was not necessary to trek out at 8pm in search of more salt. Tomorrow will be soon enough. Leave it in peace.

So carefully noting all the details and calculating the date when the ham should be woken from its salt bed, anointed with herbs and what-not, then netted and hung I placed the lid on the box and now await the 14th of January to see its transformation.

I wonder if big bro will be going home Christmas 2017 – guess it depends how it turns out.

Have a very Happy Christmas/holidays/Scrooge time (whatever floats your boat) and if you’re very good Santa will give you an update in the New Year.

Spinning and Weaving

In the valleys of the Olmes Mountains – a range of peaks in the Ariège region of southern France – cloth manufacture was one of the prime industries. The pastures and hillsides favoured sheep farming and so provided the raw material and an abundant supply of water was available for the process of turning it into yarn and cloth.

From the Middle Ages onwards this was very much a cottage industry and the whole family was involved, spinning the wool from their sheep and then, if they did not have their own loom, handing it over to a neighbour who possessed one to weave into cloth.

In the eighteenth century, this industry reached a new level when the weavers in the lower regions of Languedoc decided to give up spinning and weaving in favour of growing vines. Instead, the wool they had used came to the Ariège and Aude regions. There were five main processes used to produce the cloth:

  1. Sorting, classifying the wool by its quality and washing the grease from it.
  2. Dying the wool
  3. Combing it out so that all the strands of wool ran parallel and then spinning it into yarn
  4. Weaving the yarn into cloth
  5. Finishing the cloth prior to taking it to the market in Lavelanet.

The colours used to dye the wool were nearly all of vegetable origin.

Woad gave a pretty shade of blue – mid to dark depending on how much dye was used. This gave rise to a whole new industry around the Toulouse area where many a woad merchant made a fortune from the plant. In the latter part of the eighteenth century, it was replaced by indigo.

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L’hôtel d’Assézat – Woad Merchant’s House in Toulouse

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Woad Plant (Isatis Tinctoria)

The roots of the madder plant produced red and shades of pink and purple together with a non-vegetal dye that came from a little red beetle collected from the green or holm oak. This produced a brilliant scarlet.

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Madder Plant (Rubia Tinctorum)

For yellow a number of plants were used including sunflowers, saffron and dyer’s rocket or weld.

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Dyer’s Rocket (Reseda Luteola)

Combing the wool was traditionally carried out by hand using slats of wood to which teasels were attached. Towards the end of the eighteenth century machines imported from Belgium and England took over the work. This sounded the death knell for this hand work and, just as with the Luddites in England in the early years of the nineteenth century, the introduction of the combing machines unleashed riots against the machines.

From then, whilst much the cottage industry still existed and work was done by hand, there also developed workshops and later factories where the cloth was produced.

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Wool Merchant’s House and Factory, Ste Colombe sur L’Hers

Spinning was very much a family affair, done at home using a distaff and spindle and later the wheel. At this stage of the process the spinner could vary the tension of the yarn leaving it fairly loose for knitting wool and tighter for cloth.

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The weavers worked not only for themselves but also for neighbours who had no loom and for masters in Lavelanet. These latter provided the yarn and paid the weavers by metre of cloth or by the piece.

Typically the weavers worked at their looms through winter until early spring. Then work on the land and with their sheep took over.  However they needed good light to work by and placed their looms by a window in full daylight. During the long winter nights they worked by the feeble light of an oil lamp, later replaced by a kerosene lamp with a reflector of polished glass. This they placed centrally on the loom, hopefully in a safe place.

The worst aspect for the weavers was the cold. Very often there was no fire or only a very small one in the room. They had to warm themselves through the work that they did. Sometimes it was so cold that the yarn stuck together, frozen. There was a common saying amongst the weavers:

“Les bobines gelaient, je devais les mettre dans ma poche”

(the bobbins froze, I had to put them in my pocket).

When the piece of cloth was finished it was taken usually by mule to Lavelanet to be sold. There still exist some of the ancient pathways that were used.

To become a weaver a boy of seventeen or eighteen years would take an apprenticeship in a village with a master. It was normally an informal agreement. The boy would work with the master for six months, earning nothing, not even his meals. After six months if the master considered him to be competent the boy could then set up on his own. If he was not adjudged competent he could continue to work for the master, on half-pay or look for another metier.

The cloth produced in the region was of different types. The cuir laine – a heavy fabric used for overcoats with high collars such as Napolean’s famous grey coat which was a mix of 90% white and 10% brown. Other versions of this cloth were made in different weights and widths.

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Napoléon’s famous greatcoat – Painting by John-Louis-Ernest Meissonier

Le bureil was a fabric of pure wool  either beige-brown or grey-blue in colour. Apart from weaving it into cloth, shepherds’ wives used it to knit the Neopolitan bonnet that they wore.

There are different accounts as to how the spinners and weavers of the Pays d’Olmes lived and worked. Some paint a picture of a hard life, working in difficult conditions for very little reward. In poorer households often the whole family lived, worked and slept in just one room.

Others accounts are not so charitable. I have translated the first lines of a song written about the weavers which aims to illustrate their weekly routine:

Weavers are worse than Bishops

Every Monday is a holiday for them

The Tuesday they have a hang-over

And Wednesday they can do nothing

Thursday they look at their work

Friday starts their week

Saturday the cloth is not finished

And yet Sunday, they say, ‘now you must pay us, Master’.

 

The Smugglers of Andorra

The Principality of Andorra – one of the oldest and smallest countries in Europe sits squashed between Spain and France. It is an independent country whose heads of state are the President of France and the Bishop of Seo de Urgel, Spain. Probably, the country is best known for winter sports and duty free shopping. At one time however, it was a smuggler’s paradise; dangerous work often carried out under the cover of the transhumance – the movement of sheep and cattle up to the high pastures in spring and back to softer ground in autumn.

It is a mountainous land tucked in the Pyrenees; small fields scraped out of the mountainsides; remote villages and vertiginous roads and secret tracks.

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Smuggling was a pretty open trade which boosted the subsistence level of many families. One Andorran priest remarked:

“It is a hard country…The cattle begin to straggle down from the hills when the snow falls early in September. The winter is long and very cold and my people are so poor. But for the smuggling they would suffer. What would you?”

American author and traveller Herbert Corey visited Andorra and watched the trade openly carried out. In 1918, he wrote:

“the public square was filled with men putting impatient feet against the ribs of rebellious mules in the effort to pull tighter the ropes of the diamond hitch. Loads were going across the hills, fête day or no. Other tired men straggled in at the heels of tired mules, the pack-saddles empty, after a successful trip into France. Small boys were importantly aiding. Girls clung to the arms of the contrabandista, and old women waddled about with parcels that looked like provisions for the departing.”

Accounts of 19th century smuggling tell of houses set up as receiving points for goods inwards and outwards. Often there was a “master” who paid the smugglers about 7 francs a day. It the men were caught they were not paid and, as there was no defence against smuggling, went straight to jail.

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The goods were transported as 25kg loads in a canvas bag reinforced by a wood frame. This made it easier for the smugglers to dump the load and take to their heels if necessary, hiding out in the rocky mountainsides to avoid capture.

The men travelled over French or Spanish “ports” – these were the little-known, narrow and often dangerous tracks and pathways through and over the mountains which ultimately led into France or Spain. Sometimes mules were used to carry the contraband or the men hefted the packs themselves. The men wore rope soled shoes which were light and quiet and usually made their silent way through the “ports” in small groups.

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Tobacco and Spanish wine were popular contraband but market demands could change. During the First World War mules were an important cargo. Mules from Spain were in high demand by the Allied armies so much so that their exportation was frowned upon by the Spanish government. Although the smuggled mules were ultimately purchased  for use by the French army, there was French import duty upon live stock. This created a unique opportunity for Andorran smugglers who obtained mules from Spain by any means they could and led them over the mountain paths, at night into France. The French gendarmes  were persuaded to look the other way for a small percentage per mule.

The Spanish civil war brought a demand for smuggled foodstuffs, chemicals and pharmaceuticals and there was an inflow of refugees who crossed the border from Spain. Many children and wounded fighters died in makeshift camps set up just over the border.

Similarly during WWII smuggled goods entered Vichy France via the mountain passes and from 1942 onwards, cross-border networks, established along tracks not closely monitored, were set up so that smugglers could help families to escape from occupied France.

Nowadays, illicit free-trading has turned into duty-free shopping and the mountain passes are left to the hikers whilst those in search of cheap booze and fags take to the relative safety of tarmac roads.

 

The Siege of Montsegur

Chateau Montsegur

Chateau  Montsegur – its ruins perch precariously on a ‘pog’ (rock formation) 1200 metres above the eponymous village in southwest France. It looks out across the surrounding countryside for miles around. Even in summer lusty, gusty winds buffet the tumbled walls and sweep through open archways.  In winter, snow and ice make it inhospitable and almost impregnable.

The castle was destroyed by the royalist forces in the thirteenth century in the last major action against the Cathar sect – a group which rejected the corruption of the Catholic Church and many of its rites and rituals.

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It had been the centre of operations for the Cathars – the seat and head of the Cathar church and the last refuge for Cathars fleeing persecution from elsewhere in southern France. Even after other Cathar strongholds were destroyed and their adherents fled, it was the last bastion of resistance in the crusade against the sect.

From the base of the hill the castle looms, grey-black, unapproachable, secure and as you walk up through the thickly wooded mountainside the idea of besieging it seems unthinkable and yet to put an end to Cathar resistance once and for all, the royalist forces, with the blessing of Pope Innocent III, did just that.

In May 1243 ten thousand soldiers gathered at the foot of the steep rocky hillside leading up to the castle. How must they have felt when they squinted up at the dark mass looming above them? Apparently confidant that they could starve out the inhabitants. But they did not count on local knowledge and goodwill. The castle was well provisioned and under cover of darkness local people crept up through little known pathways to add to its supplies.

Several full-on assaults up the steep hillside inevitably failed. The hundred fighting men in the castle easily repulsed these attacks. You can imagine the frustration and fatigue of the soldiers as time after time they were beaten back to base camp only to hear the order to repeat the assault.

It took treachery (some call it) of several Basque mercenaries to find the solution by scaling one of the rocky walls to gain a foothold from where a giant catapult could hurl rocks at the castle. The Barbican breached, a day and night bombardment commenced; a relentless crump and thrump of massive stones; the crack of the castle walls as they shuddered and fell.

Many of the Cathar refugees who lived just outside the shelter of the walls fled into the castle itself; living conditions deteriorated quickly; sickness spread. The Cathar leaders decided to surrender. Conditions for the surrender were negotiated. All could leave who would renounce their faith and a two week truce was declared.  Many of Cathars took the ‘consolatum’ at this time – a ritual intended to purify them and prepare them for the end they knew must come.

Imagine those last days within the broken walls. After the thunderous noise of the stone barrage – silence.  Families and friends came together, comforted each other, fasted and prayed together. They made their choices – to die in the fire for their faith and beliefs or to live, renouncing all they believed and fought for.

In March 1244 around three hundred ragged souls came out from the ruins, of whom about two hundred chose death. The bonfire awaited them. It is said that there was no need for stakes to which to tie them; they walked, hand in hand, men, woman and children, nobles, soldiers, artisans, servants, into the searing flames. Their cries of agony flew up to the heavens as their ashes scattered on the four winds. What faith. What courage.

At the foot of the mountain in the ‘Prat dels Cremats’  (Field of the Burned) is a modern monument to commemorate their deaths. It bears the inscription “Als catars, als martirs del pur amor crestian. 16 de març 1244″ (The Cathars, martyrs of pure christian love. 16 March 1244).

monument on the Field of the Burned

Awesome Automatons

Of all the things I find  spooky  (and the list is long) there are a couple that really give me the willies – large dolls with eyes that roll around (think Tommyknockers) and automatons whose slightly jerky, twitchy movements seem a precursor to coming alive (think Blade Runner). So why on earth did I find myself in the distinctly spooky but nevertheless marvellous little Musée d’Automates in Limoux last week? Blame it on The Visitor.

The museum is housed in an unprepossessing ex-industrial type unit not far from the centre of town and run by an elderly lady (who might well have modelled for some of the characters found within) and her son and daughter.

Once inside the building, forget its origins – you enter a world of fantasy, magic and ghostly apparitions. The automatons range from small to massive and yet for me, each one has a spooky, sinister quality. There are times when the flesh of their faces seems to flush with warmth; expressions change; their eyes flash and, unnervingly, on occasions look straight at you. They are arranged in tableaux; some depict characters from fairy tales; some depict medieval French characters and yet others come straight from the imagination.

I know it is all done with lighting, mechanics, fantastic costumes and weird Bartok-esque music but it still gives me the shivers. I look at some of them; they seem almost human and I wonder if there isn’t some poor trapped soul within.

Enough of my shivers, have a look at these photos,  marvel at the detail of the costumes and let me know if any of them will keep you company in your dreams.

P.S. All photos taken by The Visitor aka June Berridge who is a far more accomplished photographer than I.

Gentleman Puss-in-Boots
Gentleman Puss-in-Boots
Sinister Puss-in-Boots
Sinister Puss-in-Boots
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Something Wicked This Way Comes
In Silken Chains
In Silken Chains
Free Us
Free Us
The Wraiths
The Wraiths
Two Little Maids Are We
Two Little Maids Are We
Bug-Eyes
Bug-Eyes

 

The Corpse Awakens
The Corpse Awakens
Hoodoo-Voodoo
Hoodoo-Voodoo
The Ghostly Orchestra
The Ghostly Orchestra
Good Queen
Good Queen
Evil Queen
Evil Queen
Come Fly With Me
Come Fly With Me
Medieval Lady
Medieval Lady

The Versailles of Languedoc

One of my favourite vide-greniers (car boot sales) of the season took place last weekend in the grounds of Chateau Lagarde not far from Mirepoix on the Aude/Ariege borders. As it happened I came away empty handed but not before soaking up the atmosphere. With all the stalls set out, colourful, gay; people and dogs milling around, chatting, buying, selling I wondered if this was the modern equivalent of the medieval fair and market.

Chateau Lagarde and Vide Grenier
Chateau Lagarde and Vide Grenier

In the 17th century, the chateau was known as the Versailles of Languedoc but it has its roots deeply in the Middle Ages and warfare. It perches, unmissable for miles around on the top of a hill just outside the village of Lagarde, on the left bank of the River Hers – a strategic placement since the river was the means of access to the Pyrenees and the plains below. The occupants could always see who and what was coming and going.

The Albigensian crusade against the so-called heretic Cathars brought a pack of land and booty hungry Northern French nobles into the area and after the defeat of the Cathars, Simon de Montfort, leader of this mob, confiscated the chateau and its lands and gave it over to Guy de Levis, a lesser lord keen to reap the rewards of his faithful service to Montfort.

At the beginning of the 14th century the castle underwent a complete makeover – an inscription found reads “Monsieur Francois de Levis, Seigneur of Montsegur and Madame Elix de Lautrec, his woman, built this castle in CCCXX.” Mmm, not sure about the ‘his woman’ bit, sounds a tad derogatory.

Francois had the choice of two castles, that of Montsegur and Lagarde. Since Montsegur is open to all the winds and snow that blow for most of the year and almost inaccessible to boot, the Seigneur (or perhaps ‘his woman’) decided to live at Lagarde.

The most eye-opening transformation of the castle took place in the 15th century when, discarding its defensive fortress role its owner and his heirs began another extensive makeover to take on the appearance of a luxurious Renaissance castle. Three stories high with twenty bedrooms, any number of reception rooms including a drawing room, the Great hHall, a gallery, the Knights Hall and a games room. Décor and furnishings of the most sumptuous.  Later still a terrace and formal gardens were added.

Chateau Lagarde De-luxe
Chateau Lagarde De-luxe

By the end of the Ancien Regime (just before the French revolution) the castle was said to rival those of the Loire and indeed, Versailles itself. When taken to task by King Louis XVI for his poor attendance at court, the owner, Gaston de Levis-Leran replied “Sire, it is obvious that your Majesty has never been to Lagarde.” Risky thing to say to a King whose pride and joy was Versailles, oh and Marie-Antoinette of course.

During The French Revolution the castle was sold as a state possession and since it had once been a fortress it was doomed to demolition.  The new owner demolished all the residential buildings so that he could sell off the stone. The demolition ceased part way and some of the castle was reduced to serving as grain and fodder storage; one part became a forge and those parts that still remained became accommodation for the locals. Over the years the stone continued to be robbed out. Eventually Lagarde was completely abandoned and classified as an historic monument. Today, the current owners are trying at least to stabilise the ruins and restore or preserve as possible.

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Will the Real Nicholas Flamel Stand Up

Last week was the week of the “great sort out” since I was running out of storage space for files. I came across my old notes for the book Close to the Edge and among them were the notes I made for the story of the monk and alchemist George Ripley of Bridlington Priory. In the margin of these notes I had scrawled – ‘check out Nicolas Flamel’. I never did check him out. Since he makes an appearance in bestseller Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and is referenced in The Da Vinci Code I thought it was time to get in the know.

Page from Flamel's Notebook
Page from Flamel’s Notebook

So who was Nicolas Flamel?

19th Century Image of the Man Himself
19th Century Image of the Man Himself

He was a Frenchman (c1330-1418), a scribe and seller of books and manuscripts who apparently discovered (according to 17th century accounts) the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone – that’s the turning base metal into gold trick if you haven’t come across it before.

His life is well documented…by himself. He had two shops in Paris, married a well-endowed widow and in their later years together they were both wealthy and philanthropic. Like many educated men in Medieval days he dabbled in alchemy and knew of the existence of a book which, once deciphered would reveal the secrets of the universe, how to make gold from base metal and how to live forever as a bonus.

One day, as all good stories go, a man came into his bookshop wanting to sell a book. Flamel recognised it immediately  (because an angel told him about it in a dream the night before), handed over a couple of florins without a quibble and became the proud owner. The  book was that of Abraham the Jew, written part in arcane symbols and part in ancient Hebrew.

For more than twenty years Flamel worked diligently trying to translate the text before deciding that he needed a bit of help from learned men within the Jewish community. At that time Jews were persecuted in France and many had fled to Spain and so, to Spain our hero must go. He dressed as a pilgrim and on his journey met a merchant who, just by chance you understand, was able to introduce him to a venerable Jewish scholar. He recognised the book for what it was and agreed to go to Paris with Flamel to work on its translation.

Three years passed, the old scholar died on his way to Paris but Flamel managed finally to decode the book. He writes of his success in changing mercury into silver and then into gold. Apparently he put his new found skill to good and charitable uses, living quietly with his wife, working in his bookshops and dying at the age of 80. He was buried in the Church of St Jacques la Boucherie in Paris.

Flamel's tombstone
Flamel’s tombstone

He was not allowed to rest in peace though. Treasure hunters from near and far came looking for the red powder that acted as the catalyst o the transmutation. His house was torn apart and many of the sculptures he had commissioned were damaged with inscriptions and symbols torn off and carted away.

And what happened to the book of Abraham the Jew?

Flamel bequeathed his papers and his library to his nephew and for 200 years these were passed down from father to son and nothing more is heard of the book. Then, in the 17th century we hear of a hapless heir of Flamel who was daft enough to demonstrate to King Louis XIII the transmutation process. Cardinal Richelieu, the King’s advisor, took a keen interest and soon after said heir was carted off to prison, tried and ultimately executed. This gave Richelieu the right to confiscate all the man’s property. It is alleged that Richelieu had possession of the book until his death and after that it vanished.

Perhaps one day, some book lover fossicking in the second-hand bookshops of Paris will stumble upon it…or perhaps not