A man, a plan, a canal

Pierre-Paul Riquet.  Pierre-Paul Riquet?  Who’s he?  He’s not much known in the UK, and I’m not sure how much of a household name he is in France either.

Pierre-Paul Riquet.  Here he is, in the village of Bonrepos-Riquet.
Pierre-Paul Riquet. Here he is, in the village of Bonrepos-Riquet.

But he should be.  He’s the brains behind the wonderful UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Canal du Midi.  This lovely and elegant canal, opened in 1681, is 240 km. long, and runs from Toulouse to the Mediterranean.  It was built as a short cut from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, avoiding a long sea voyage round Spain.  The idea had been discussed on and off since Roman times, but the problem was always the same.  How to deal with such hilly terrain and how to supply those hilly sections with enough water.

The Canal du Midi: a typical view, courtesy of Wikipedia
The Canal du Midi: a typical view, courtesy of Wikipedia

Riquet thought he had the answer.  Born in 1604 or 1609, he was a salt-tax collector.  Tax collecting was a rich man’s job: at that time, it involved paying all the monies due to the king up-front, and worrying about collecting from the relevant subjects later. A rich man can have a fine home, so Riquet set out to buy the ideal spot, and in 1652, he found it: the ancient but run-down Château de Bonrepos, near Toulouse.  It was a medieval building originally, fortified in the 16th century.  It interested him because it was a fine site, with splendid views of the Pyrenees (Not today: the weather was awful. Never saw the mountains at all through the gloom).  More importantly for him, the surrounding terrain, resembling parts of the nearby Montagne Noire, enabled him to conduct hydraulic experiments round an ancient fishpond on site from which he developed reservoirs and water-filled trenches replicating sections of the future Canal du Midi.  Bonrepos, then, was where he worked up his case for showing that the canal could after centuries of simply talking about it, become a reality.

The remnants of the mediaeval building interested him not at all.  He had a fine classical building built – 100 rooms.  Stone isn’t available locally, so it was built of Toulouse brick, and faced with stucco to hide this embarrassing fact: bricks were elsewhere the material of the poor.  He had formal gardens built, orchards, an orangery.  Every winter, an iceberg’s worth of ice was wrapped in hessian and floated from the Pyrenees to be stored in an excavated ice-house deep in the woodlands for use throughout the summer.

These days, the château is in a bad way.  The stucco’s falling off, the windows are rotted, and the internal decorations are absent or shabby.  The inhabitants of the small village where the château stands, Bonrepos-Riquet, bought the property some years ago, and while appealing for and attracting public and private funds, it also relies on monthly working parties of volunteers, who work enthusiastically in the house and grounds to stem the damage caused by wind and weather and to bring about improvements.

We visited today on one of Elyse Rivin’s informative Toulouse Guided Walks , which always focus on those corners of Toulouse and the surrounding area which you never knew about: you leave after her tour feeling an enthusiastic expert.  With input from the château’s own volunteer guides, steeped in the story of the place, we formed a picture of Paul Riquet himself.  He persuaded Louis XIV of his ability to master-mind the canal, and in 1661, work began, though he didn’t live to see the waterway opened as he died in 1680, leaving enormous debt and financial problems for his children who nevertheless continued the project.  The labourers – men and women, up to 12,000 of them – who built the canal were among the best paid workers in Europe, to the disapproval of other less philanthropic employers.  He insisted on provision being made for all aspects of their lives, from shops and refreshment to education and worship.

Those plane trees that line the canal.  They offered shade, then as now, to those who travel along it.  Their root systems bind the soil and offer stability to the canal, and the leaves don’t rot, so as they fall into the canal, they help make a waterproof base.  Sadly, these days those trees are afflicted by a virus.  One theory is that the wooden boxes which packaged American munitions in the war and were discarded along the canal, carried the infected spores and lay dormant for many years.

And there’s so much else.  Follow the links to get a fuller picture of the story, or better still, visit the Canal du Midi and Château Bonrepos, where this wonderful waterway was conceived and planned.

Catalonia visits southern France, bearing calçots

My daughter Emily’s just visited from her home in Barcelona, bringing her Catalan boyfriend, and an enormous bundle of calçots sent by his mother.

Calçots! Think we have enough?
Calçots! Think we have enough?

Eating calçots is a century-old tradition in Catalonia at this time of year.  Garden onions are planted deep in the soil, and earthed up throughout their growing period, so they have long thick white stems, just like a leek’s.  Harvested between Christmas and Easter, they’re a much appreciated local delicacy.

Really, they should be grilled fiercely over an open fire or barbecue.  We lack a barbecue, and in any case, southern France has its own traditions: Holy week is cold, wet and miserable.  Without fail.

Preparing the calçots
Preparing the calçots

So we settled for baking them in a fiercely hot oven.  And then we got down to the cheerfully messy business of eating them.  You strip the hot slippery skin off each calçot, and then dunk it in a punchy romanesco sauce before tipping your head back to ingest the lot.  You need napkins, yards of kitchen roll – bibs would be good –  and good bread to mop up the juices and sauce.

Serving the calçots.  Another break with tradition.  They should be on a terracotta roof tile.
Serving the calçots. Another break with tradition. They should be on a terracotta roof tile.

We had fun, but probably not as much as if we’d visited one of the outdoor festivals dedicated to the eating of these alliums.  Watch the video from Valls.

Eating the calçots.  No red wine for us.  The calçot-bearers drove back to Barcelona straight after the meal
Eating the calçots. No red wine for us. The calçot-bearers drove back to Barcelona straight after the meal

Donkey Derby

We were walking yesterday in glorious spring weather near a little village called Unac, quite near the winter sports area of Ax-les-Thermes.  Just outside the village, we spotted donkeys: eight of them.  They spotted us too.  They came to say ‘hello’.  And then they followed us.

Every field for miles about was theirs by the looks of things, because every time we rounded a corner, or scrambled higher up the craggy path, thinking we’d at last said our ‘goodbyes’ to them, there they were again, peering over the fence and hoping for carrots, which we failed to offer.

Someone remembered that they must come from La ferme aux ânes, in which case their job is to carry the baggage of any hikers who care to hire them.  But they weren’t working then.  Like us, they were enjoying the first day of spring.  They cheered our afternoon along no end.

A morning with Saint Pierre: two versions

Once there was a fine Roman city, Tolosa, and just outside its walls was a temple to one of their gods.  Over the centuries, the city became Toulouse, and where there was once a temple, there’s now a concert hall.  The building that was once outside the city walls is now quite definitely part of central Toulouse.  What happened in all those years in between?

The first thing was that in the 4th century the Romans left Tolosa, pursued by the Visigoths.  And Visigoth Christians (who resembled Cathars more than they did the official Catholic variety) used the temple site to build a simple church.  You can still see and visit its foundations today, and its ancient sarcophagi holding the bones of the long-dead.

This church building served its purpose for many years, until the 10th century, when the count of Toulouse gave it over to the Benedictine order whose most important monastery in the area was at Moissac.  And they built and extended the church which was and is known as Saint Pierre des Cuisines.  Nothing to do with kitchens.  The word is a corruption of the word ‘coquinis’ – artisans, of whom there were many in the busy streets nearby.

Over the years, the church became more important as a parish church to the local population, rather than as a centre of worship for the Benedictines, so in the 16th century, the church became the property of the silent order of Cistercians.  18 monks had the use of the church and surrounding land and buildings.  Their simple uncluttered contemplative life was in stark contrast to that of the nearby citizens of Toulouse, crammed into the narrow overcrowded streets where they lived and worked.

The church continued to be used as a religious building until the Revolution.  Then, as for so many other churches, another secular use had to be found for it.  And one was.  The nearby arsenal was the local home of the army, and they took over the building to use it for … cannon ball manufacture.  When this slightly inglorious use for the building came to an end, it remained unused until the University of Toulouse took it over during the 20th century.  Eventually the funds were found to restore it, and the building is now a concert hall with magnificent acoustics.  So it’s now an established asset of the conservatoire, and part of that area of the university campus still known as the ‘arsenal’, in memory of its history.

It’s a beautiful and austerely simple building from the Romanesque and early Gothic periods, and a contrast with the other church we went to see just round the corner.  This church, Saint Pierre des Chartreux was begun in 1612 to meet the needs of the Cistercians who had moved to the site.  It has a very unusual feature.  The high altar is right in the middle of the nave.  Why?  So the parishioners could worship at one end of the church without being able to see the contemplative Cistercians at the other end of the building.  Much of the church is decorated in restrained grey and white stucco work, though there are stained glass windows by Louis-Victor Gesta, whose work is in several city churches, and ancient hammered ironwork.

Whilst in the area, walk round the corner and see the remains of the old Cistercian cloisters. Little is left, but there’s enough to show that a meditating monk would get a decent work-out by doing a single circuit.

And now it’s time to wander off and explore the little streets nearby: you’re never far from a lunch-spot in Toulouse.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We discovered these monuments and learnt their story courtesy of Elyse Rivin and one of her Toulouse Guided Walks.  

Laroque: a town tour

Laroque: a roofscape.
Laroque: a roofscape.

Here you are reading my blog: and the chances are that you’ve never visited Laroque.

Let’s go for a stroll then, and get to know the place a bit.  You may think, when you’ve seen the photos, that the town is quite shabby-chic.  It’s not.  For the most part, Laroque is just plain shabby.  It’s going through tough times, and it shows.  Underneath it all, though, are characterful buildings, streets with a story, and even places that are enjoying a prosperous renaissance.  Let’s set off from our house at the edge of the old town, and walk up Rue de la Joie……

Snowshoes III: The very last episode

I’m not doing raquettes (snowshoes) ever again.  Never.  If I ever show signs of changing my mind, lead me into a darkened room, talk kindly to me, and sit with me till the feeling passes.

I have no idea how I got through yesterday.  I must have done though, because every move I make causes some protesting and unhappy muscle to complain vigorously at the pain it endured on our expedition, and is still enduring now.  Five hours walking, with half an hour off for lunch.  Something over 600 metres up, 600 metres down – that’s nearly 1900 feet each way in old money.

I said last week’s sortie was tough.  Compared with yesterday’s, it was a stroll in the park.  I said last week’s was ‘an upward slog: unremitting, tough’.  Yesterday’s was a vertical slog: unending, unforgiving.  Last week, the snow had been deep and crisp and even, and easy to walk on.  We had crunched satisfyingly upwards through the forest, and our descent had been a brisk and easy downward march.

Yesterday, following a warm and sunny week, the snow was soft and our snowshoes sank deep.  Bad enough on the upward route march, but coming down, we all skidded, slipped and lost grip of our poles as they plunged into unseen cavities.  I made landing smack on my back and descending bumpily downwards, legs waving helplessly in the air my personal speciality.

Still, it was good to see Montségur, looming above us at our starting point, providing points of reference throughout the day.  Soon after we started, we were level with the castle at its summit, then it was below us, and disappeared for a while as we plodded upwards through a stretch of forest.  At lunchtime it was impossibly far below.  As we ate, we enjoyed plotting the landscape for other landmarks: Lavelanet and Laroque of course, the lac de Montbel, and far north of us, the Montagne Noire.

Best of all were the cloudscapes: massed plump white cushions of cumulus with wispy brushes of cirrus above, turning a more characterful and moody grey in the afternoon, foreshadowing the evening’s expected rain.  We were just back at the cars when the rain arrived a little ahead of schedule, with a brief hailstorm of pencil-point-sharp hailstones to encourage us on our way.  We didn’t need telling twice.  Home comforts have never seemed more inviting.

World Book Day…. UK version

Today’s World Book Day.  I couldn’t understand why there seemed to be no sight of it here in France.  It turns out we Brits are out of step.  Celebrations in the UK are over a month ahead of everyone else’s.  April 23rd may be World Book day for everyone else, but it’s also Saint George’s day, and he’s England’s patron saint.  Apparently he does dragons, not books.

It was the Spanish who first decided to celebrate books and reading on April 23rd, as a way of honouring Miguel de Cervantes, who died on that day.  UNESCO made the connection that Shakespeare, as well as other writers, died or were born on the same day as Cervantes, and a world-wide festival was born.

Children have the most fun on World Book Day, whenever it’s held. Here are my grandchildren off to school this morning.  They had to turn up as a character in a book….. so please meet Harry Potter, and Mr. Willy Wonka.

Ben and Alex in character for the day
Ben and Alex in character for the day

Books are often centre-stage in school all day and there are free books to be had for most lucky children

So many of my best memories of the children’s childhood centre round the books they enjoyed.  That first winter of my daughter Elinor’s life was one of those once-in-a decade toughies.  We were marooned in our house up an icy and snow-covered steep slope on one of Sheffield’s seven hills (‘just like Rome’). It was unthinkable to set foot outside with an unwieldy pram and a tottering toddler. But unable to do the daily round, or see friends, my then two year old son Thomas, my new baby and I simply cuddled up on the sofa. I read with him, and breast fed my daughter for hours at a time. I’d never have chosen such a harsh winter with all its limitations, but it remains one of the golden periods of my life.

Then, as now, the books we favoured had the rhythms and cadences, the witty and lively illustrations of authors like Quentin Blake.

Blake’s Mr Magnolia remained a family friend from the day his story was published in 1980 through the pre-school years of all three of my children.  Any of us will recite his story to you at the least provocation.

Meet Mr. Magnolia.  See?  He has only one boot.
Meet Mr. Magnolia. See? He has only one boot.

‘Mr. Magnolia has only one boot.

He has an old trumpet that goes rooty-toot

And two lovely sisters who play on the flute,

But Mr. Magnolia has only one boot.

In his pond live a frog and a toad and a newt……’

Young children now are privileged to have world-class illustrators and fine writers available to them for the price of a paperback, or the use of a library ticket.  I’ve just had a high old time remembering old favourites loved by the whole family– Shirley Hughes’ Alfie, Rosemary Wells’ Noisy Norah, Nita Sowter’s Maisie Middleton, Roald Dahl’s heroes (Charlie of Chocolate factory fame) and anti-heroes (The Enormous Crocodile and of course the Twits).  Make friends with any of these characters by the time you’re three years old, and with any luck, you’re hooked on reading for life.  That’s what World Book Day’s for.

Alfie, his friend Bernard and a good book
Alfie, his friend Bernard and a good book