Here in Laroque , we have a Commission du Patrimoine, attached to the town council. It has many enthusiastic and knowledgeable members who seek to preserve, restore and celebrate certain historic buildings, who manage the municipal archives, who research (for instance) the history of the area’s farms and who organise exhibitions. It has other members who are like me, frankly, free-loaders. We trot along to meetings but have little expertise to offer. But we were all in favour of the day out organised last Saturday.
We started off in Caunes-Minervois, a small town in the Aude. Most of us associate the Minervois with wine production, and we’re not wrong. I didn’t know though that near Caunes Minervois there are important marble quarries, worked since Roman times. It seems half the important buildings in Paris sourced their marble there … the Louvre, les Invalides, l’Opéra…. and then there are Fontainebleu and Versailles too. It rivals Carrara in importance and marble is quarried here still: many colours, but mainly a rather plummy pink.
We came though to visit the Benedictine Abbey. There’s been an abbey here since 790, and though the Carolingian buildings have long gone, the crypt, with early sarcophagi, remains beneath the present church. It’s a rotten site for a church in many ways, prone to an excess of water immediately below ground, so the four Christian martyrs whose relics are venerated here are targets for prayer that drought should not strike. Have devotees been praying just a little too fervently this year?
The Abbey has had a long and complex religious and political history which you can read about here. We started by visiting the 17th century cloisters, austere and simple, as befits a building used by the Benedictine order. Then there’s another vaulted room in the complex with an interesting feature. Stand in a corner and whisper your confession, and the sound will travel up to the roof, over and down the other side into the ear of the listening priest. He will be able to offer you absolution by whispering from his corner, in the knowledge that if you are carrying the plague, or some other contagious disease he’s at a safe distance from you. We all tried it. It works – the whispering that is.
The abbey became simply a parish church at the time of the French Revolution. From outside, it’s a fine Romanesque and early Gothic building, in a spacious uncluttered setting – the buildings that used to huddle up to it have been removed. Within, it’s a temple to the local marble, and to that of Carrara: there are even Italian statues owing something to the school of Michelangelo. Much of the former monastery is now used as space for art exhibitions.
Then it was off to lunch. Another treat. Not far from the village is another small church, Notre Dame du Cros. It’s in a splendid setting, in a gorge surrounded by craggy rocks. Stone tables and benches were there beneath the shady plane trees and we had one of those shared picnics the French do so well: home made apéritifs, home cured sausage, home made pies and cakes, home grown fruit, wine…..
And then it was time for the look-alike church. Still in the Minervois, there’s another village, Puicheric. Its parish church bears a remarkable resemblance to ours here in Laroque. Hence our visit. Puicheric’s church, though, has a more intimate, homely feel. This turns out to be because during the 19th century, those responsible for the church at Laroque had delusions of grandeur, encouraged by the likes of Viollet-le-Duc who promoted Gothic architecture in buildings where such features had never previously existed. The roof height was raised, at vast expense, to create a more ‘Gothic’ feel to the building.
Nevertheless, Notre-Dame de Puicheric has a claim to fame as a place of pilgrimage. Back in 1700 a marble staue of the Madonna was being shipped from Italy along the Canal du Midi, past Puicheric, bound for some fine church in Aquitaine. Once in Puicheric, the barge could go no further, detained by some irresistible force. The statue was taken to the church, and there it remains to this day, an object of veneration.
And then there’s the château. Laroque had a castle once too, and we still have the odd remaining bit of wall. Simon de Montfort saw that off, as so many other things round here. Puicheric’s still looks very imposing – from round the back. From the other side, what you get is a rather splendid chambres d’hôtes. It had an aristocratic past, though much of the original site was destroyed by our very own Black Prince in 1355. It housed the nobility until the French Revolution and then passed into the hands of a family with whom it remained until 1990. Now it’s the home and business of Dominica and Phillippe Gouze, who aim to offer modern hospitality whilst retaining all those elements from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and long before that which inform its character. We were seduced by the garden, the views, the ancient tower with a faded fresco of someone doing something dreadful to a dragon, and by the story-telling powers of our host.
While we were there, we could have seen so much more, as clicking through the links would reveal. But that will have to be for another day …. or two ….. or three.
To view any of the pictures in a larger format, simply click on the image.