We have been in Paris for three days, and it’s time to start getting up to date with our travels up to Nimes.
3rd October 2012
The Cathars were a christian sect, with dualist beliefs and were the fundamentalists of their day. The name comes from the Greek word for perfect and some believed in re-incarnation, were strict vegetarians and refrained from sex. Flourishing in the 12th century, in the Languedoc, they were declared heretics by Pope Innocent III (nice touch, that name) and forced by the Albigensian crusade, into the mountainous regions of Roussillon and the former border fortresses on the Catalan frontier. Now known as Cather Castles these ruins are situated in spectacular high points and rocky ridges offering wide views of approaching enemies and being very difficult to attack. We drove to 3 of the many places so called, Queribus, Peyrepertuse and Puilaurens. Of the 3 Queribus has the most spectacular views, all the way to the peaks of the Pyrenees. Amongst these sites is the Gorges de Galamus. With a narrow one car road carved into the overhanging cliff, there are staggering views into the 800 metre drop from peak to river. After a hair-raising drive over Col d’Aussieres (1031m) we come to Prades where we are staying the night. Actually our hosts, Josef, Marie T and Anne Marie are at Nyer another 40k or so into the mountains, and as the road get narrower and steeper, we wonder if we will have to sleep tied to the side of a cliff. The mountains here though, like many NZ mountains are steep at the bottom and more gentle on the tops. There are lovely mountain meadows, forest, and our hosts, in a lovely converted barn have a huge vegetable garden and orchard, at least half an acre, with all kinds of fruit and vegetables. The season is nearly over, but there are still piles of sweet cherry tomatoes, which we help to pick. Josef, who describes himself as poet, philosopher and peasant, reads some of his poetry. Better than Vogon.
4th October 2012
Next morning we go for a hike higher up the mountain, following a rapidly flowing channel, with our hosts, and Milord, the dog, a very friendly and hairy beast. The air is so clear and pure, we can see for miles, up to the snow which is already covering the peaks. When we return, Josef has made an unbelievably good paella, the best we have ever tasted. Somewhat reluctantly, we leave for our next destination, Narbonne. This cold not be more of a contrast, as we are staying in the heart of the old city, third floor, and the street just wide enough to get the car down. From the window, there is a view of the cathedral towers and the former archbishop’s palace, now housing the Mairie, and a museum.
5th October 2012
Next day we walk around Narbonne, the cathedral has been under construction for over seven hundred years, it’s still not finished, the front part just a skeleton without a roof. We were advised to visit les Halles, a lively market wher we lunched at Chez Bebel, run by an ex rugby player, whose trick is to order meat from the nearby butcher over a megaphone, it is then passed rugby style, over the heads of the crowd, where he catches it, often one handed. The Musee Lapidiare, is a collection of Roman and Medieval stone, in a former church. The stones are all piled on top of each other in apparently arbitrary fashion, it is quite dark and the high vaulting of the church creates a bizarre atmosphere, almost like the set of a scifi movie.
There is an exhibition of watercolour paintings in various venues around the town, some are very innovative and good, while the rest confirm my prejudice against the medium.
6th October 2012
Carcassone is the next stop, it is the largest fortified city in Europe, and from afar looks like a farytale city. (Camelot! It’s only a model). Inside it is more like Disneyland, and everything is for tourists. Nevertheless, the bastion is interesting and shows evidence of its chequered past in the walls. A fireplace hanging halfway up one wall. After taking the definitive photo, I hope, of the city it’s on to Montpelier. Our hosts live in a two storey house, on the edge of Lattes, which is close to Montpellier. With only a bit of imagination, it could be a New Zealand house, so once again very different to the two previous stops.
7th October 2012
There is an exhibition of Caravaggio and other exponents of chiaroscuro in Montpelier which we want to see, it is coming to the end of its run and we expect it to be easy to visit. Big mistake. It seems half of Montpellier has the same idea. The queue is long and exquisitely slow moving, due to large numbers of pre-bookings and groups, which go to the top of the line. It rains off and on, but not too seriously. We talk to the family behind us who have left Lyon, 300 plus km, at 8 am, so we can’t complain too much. After nearly an hour and a half we get in the door, to buy tickets, where there is another queue, to actually get into the exhibition. I have never seen a Carravaggio in the flesh before and it is a great experience. He is able to express every human emotion and gesture so well, and the dark, almost featureless backgrounds, contrasted to the light highlights the figures even more. There are actually not a lot of Caravaggios, mostly works by his followers and sucessors. The best of Caravaggio are The Ecstasy of St Francis, Ecce Homo, Boy Bitten by a Lizard and The Renunciation of Peter. Best of all, is The Sacrifice of Isaac, which has a lot psychological acuity. Isaac, supposedly a willing sacrifice, looks absolutely terrified (C knew better), the ram is practically shoving its way into the scene and Abraham looks pissed off with the angel who interrupts his fantasy. Amongst the other painter are two of my hero/heroines Orazio and Artemsia Gentileschi, with two versions of Danae. Have to say Artemisia’s is better. Others are Rimaldi, Vouet, Sarazeni, Guido Reni, Leonello Spada (surprisingly good) and of much later period, Georges de la Tour; a Magdalene, The Card sharps and Old Man with a Hat. Generally, the later followers moved away from the idea of plain dark backgrounds which made the originals so dramatic and their depictions are more wooden. One painting by Louis Finson, of Mary Magdalene Contemplating the Risen Christ, has a look on her face that suggests Christ has risen in a completely different fashion.
Just around the corner from our hosts, literally only 100 metres, is the Museum of Antiquity. Lattes, Lattera in Latin, was an important Roman port at the mouth of the Rhone, and there is a good collection of amphorae, household goods, glass and pottery from the period. There is also an interesting display of pottery and pot making from the 17th century, discovered while building the excellent tramway to Montpellier.
As we head to Nimes our hosts come part way to show us the isolated cathedral of Morgulone, which we, of course had never heard of before. It is one of the oldest Roman churches, built originally in the second century, destroyed by Charles Martel and rebuilt 200 years later. Aigues Mortes, built by Louis IX, as an opening to the Mediterranean, once surrounded by sea is now tastefully surrounded by articulated trucks. In the main square was a band making dreadful amplified music. The rest was over priced cafes and tourist trinkets. We did not stay long, and after a futile search amongst the marinas for a beach, we moved along towards Nimes.