Capital Capitelles

The first capitelle on our walk

We’ve been walking north of Carcassonne today, with our friends Barbara and Tim, holidaying in the Aude from North Yorkshire.  When we decided to go and explore the curious stone huts called capitelles in the scrubby garrigue near Conques sur Orbiel, we assumed they were something like the orris of the Ariège.  These too are small sturdy dry stone wall huts: but orris were used by upland shepherds.

The dry stone walls of the capitelles

Capitelles are quite different.  Following the formation of France’s Second Republic in 1848, everyone wanted something to call their own.  Here in Conques, the poorest members of society looked beyond the village where they lived for some way of acquiring a bit of land  and earning some extra money. They realised that the dry impoverished soils of the garrigue were good for only one crop: vines.  As the peasants started to work the land to plant their vines, they dug up stones – hundreds of stones.  And they used them in the first place to make low stone walls marking the limit of their territory.

That south-facing door’s not very big

After that they built small huts to shelter from bad weather.  These round or square huts are in the form of a dry stone wall rising to a semi-circular vaulted roof also in stone: no mortar, no foundations, a bare earthed-floor and a single small door, always facing south.  They were all built by1880 or so, and the peasants who built the huts and worked the land here would have done so in any spare time left from their ‘day jobs’ as farm labourers.  And this continued till the Fist World War.  Men left to become soldiers, and at much the same time phylloxera struck.  This double blow meant the area returned to uncultivated garrigue, and only recently have the capitelles been restored.  They add interest to a stony landscape characterised by scrubby vegetation, low trees and shrubs and bright ground-hugging summer flowers.  I’d have said distant views of the Pyrenees too, but today was misty and overcast, so Barbara and Tim had to take our word for it.

Close up of a carefully constructed roof

10 thoughts on “Capital Capitelles”

  1. Now they are lovely … I don’t know that area but I’d be fascinated to go and explore these! They look much grander than the orrys in some ways. And those roofs are amazing.

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    1. Yes, they are rather bigger, but you couldn’t lie down and sleep in one, don’t be deceived. The construction throughout is amazing. Gives ‘simple’ dry stone walls a run for their money.

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  2. What fantastic buildings. They take a skilled builder to construct I imagine. I would love to see inside one. Not many home comforts though, especially if you couldn’t have a sneaky lie down.

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  3. Two years ago we went to see the capitelles by a windy and rainy day so we couldn’t smell the heady scent of garrigue vegetation. Yesterday we climbed up to les étangs de Fage Belle 1750 m alt. above les Monts d’Olmes station.The water of this little lake is used to feed in winter the snow cannons lining the lower slopes. We admired yellow trolles and lotier, pink rhododendrons and many other lovely flowers we don’t know how to call them!

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    1. You’re right. The scents of the garrigue are wonderful. I don’t know Fage Belle though. It sounds good. Nor can I translate ‘trolles’or ‘lotier’, even with the big dictionary or looking on-line. A job for us to do together perhaps!

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  4. These types of stone constructions are found all over the world – wherever there are poor farmers and stones. But again another fascinating account Margaret. I’m thinking from reading your blog you’re either an historian or architect, but whatever I really enjoy your posts.

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    1. Oh thanks Sharon! No, I actually read art history, but barely used it after I graduated. I couldn’t possibly have been an architect: I believe it needs some vague understanding of maths, and I have none.

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