We thought we knew Laroque. An afternoon’s walk round town with local historian Paul Garrigues as part of this weekend’s Journées du Patrimoine has convinced us otherwise.
The bridge near our house is modern and slightly re-sited. But we had no idea that the main road it’s on, leading to one the busiest roads in the Ariège, the D625 to Lavelanet, used not to exist. To go to Lavelanet, you used to go straight up the hill, and down back-street Rue des Pas Perdus.
And here you’d go through one of the town gates. Using this path day after day to reach our garden, we’d never noticed the buttressing that indicated the former presence of these gates. Nor did we suspect that the narrow road and path which is now a way-marked walker’s route which passes past our garden, down to the River Touyre was once a busy thoroughfare. You follow the river to the former railway line, where you turn right and take a shady tree-lined route barred to anything more technical than a bicycle through the next village, Dreuilhe, and on into Lavelanet. Quite different from the lorry-van-and-busy-commuter route now in operation.
We knew our town is an old one. It’s not uncommon to pass houses whose door lintels are inscribed with a date from the 17th century.
What we didn’t know was that in the old town itself, there are no buildings at all from before this time. This is because every single dwelling was destroyed during the French Wars of Religion (1562 – 1598). The crisis was so grave the King permitted the townspeople an amnesty from paying taxes for several years to give them a chance to rebuild.
But before all that was …. the Women’s Revolt. Back in the 16th century, the women of the town would bring their bread to be cooked at the Four Banal, the site of which lives on today as a street name.
They paid the local lord to manage this service and the lord paid a baker. Who decided to exact his own charges too – one loaf in every 20. When the women’s angry protests were ignored, some 80 women held a somewhat violent demonstration, and followed up by taking their bread to nearby Esclagne and La Bastide to be baked. It all ended up in an enquiry directed from Carcassonne. Result? It was the baker himself who was found to be at fault: his taxes were illegal, but it was the lord who had to reimburse the women. For their part the women were forbidden to have their bread baked elsewhere. The Four Banal itself is by yet another former town gate, and traces of the old town wall still exist.
It was during this period too that several streams ran through the town, forced into culverts between the houses, with little wooden bridges built over. They were useful to all the artisans involved in various aspects of the textile industry and other trades. Can you imagine the smells you’d have had to endure if you were unlucky enough to live in the same street as the tanner?
More recently, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Laroque was a prosperous commercial centre for its then more than 4000 inhabitants (2000 now) and the workers who flocked from a wide area to work in the textile mills. There were three cafés in the market square alone, as well as an hotel. Three abattoirs too, to serve the needs of all the butchers – one was in what’s now our garage. And shops of every description in what are now entirely residential streets. Then as now there was a huge social mix. One fine house, now down on its luck, was built for a successful surgeon and his banker son.
So now we’ll keep our eyes open, and perhaps notice those clues of former commercial activity: a ring set in a wall perhaps, for a trader delivering stock to tie up his horse or donkey, as well as the more obvious painted-over shop signs. I-Spy for residents.