Slightly iffy weather on Saturday made us decide to take the car out (petrol’s back!) to explore with our guests the Montagne Noir area, north of Carcassonne. We’d decided to visit Villelongue, a Cistercian abbey there.
Back in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Cistercians spread wide over Europe. Following the simple life of hard work and austerity promoted by the Rule of Saint Benedict, their architecture was also simple and distinctive, avoiding superfluous ornamentation. We’ve got two Cistercian abbeys in Yorkshire, Fountains and Rievaulx, and what they have in common with Villelongue is their ruined condition. But the Yorkshire abbeys are National Treasures, and beautifully managed. Villelongue’s in private ownership, and more quirkily run. It has, for instance, an important collection of pumpkins, though we’d missed their big day of celebration last month. After enjoying the peaceful cloisters, the remnants of the abbey, we spent our time inspecting the slightly zany management of the monastic gardens, all ancient bicycles, parakeets, and blue chairs with pumpkins perched on them.
Then we went to Montolieu. That’s France’s answer to Hay-on-Wye. Both towns are in their own versions of the Black Mountains, and both have made their mark by appealing to book lovers. Books old and new, collections of magazines and dog-eared collectable posters appear in traditional shop fronts, down narrow side streets where bookshops have been made from tiny front rooms, and ancient staircases lead you to low-beamed attics stuffed with more books and papers. We had fun poking around, but didn’t buy.
We’ll be back to explore again, but half the party was nursing the first colds of the season, and anyway, there are only so many pumpkins and second-hand books you can take in one day.