Down among the dusty archives

Laroque d'Olmes' town insignia
Laroque d’Olmes’ town insignia

Like every commune in France – apart from those who’ve lost everything in flood, fire or time of war – Laroque has shelves, yards and yards of them, of municipal archives.   In the main these are bound volumes of directives from central government relating to the Ariège.  There are also endless files of copies of forms relating to hatches, matches and despatches, licenses for liquor, permission to drive carriages, horseless or otherwise, toll roads, road improvements, land sales, local disasters such as landslip and flooding, records of meetings, residency requests, paperwork relating to shops, artisans, workmen an apprentices, immigrants….  all human life is here.  That’s before you realise there are bundles of engravings, daguerreotypes, photographs…..

They aren’t indexed.

Laroque’s Commission du Patrimoine, of which I am an enthusiastic but fairly useless member (I have no Tales of the Oldest Inhabitant, no competence to research French documents, no skills in artefact restoration or in industrial archaeology) has realised this situation must change.

An early job is to trawl through the central government volumes, which date from the early 18th century, and extract any information relating to Laroque.  I can help here.  It’s a question of skimming these volumes for relevant entries.

A bobbin worker immortalised in Laroque's Council Chamber
A bobbin worker immortalised in Laroque’s Council Chamber

Three of us sat down on Friday morning in the old Council Chamber of the Mairie, with its wall decorations showing noted politicians and industrialists, as well as allusions to the all-important textile industry.  We had dusty piles of leather-bound volumes on the table in front of us.  We turned to. It was fairly dry repetitive work, so we kept each other amused by reading out things that caught our eye.  There were tales of Mayors drummed out of office (not from Laroque, no of course not) for inappropriate drunkenness.  There were the lists of clothes to be supplied to those children raised in institutions, and the money made available for the care of each child.

An infant from 1 day to 9 months old needs:3 blouses, 2 vests, 6 (6 only?) nappies, 3 swaddling blankets, 2 baby's bonnets, a woollen dress and 2 bootees.
An infant from 1 day to 9 months old needs:3 blouses, 2 vests, 6 (6 only?) nappies, 3 swaddling blankets, 2 baby’s bonnets, a woollen dress and 2 bootees.
11-12 year old girl: 3 cloth blouses, woollen coat, cotton coat, cotton apron, cap, 2 pocket handkerchiefs, 2 lined caps, 2 pairs stockings, 1 pair shoes. 11-12 year old boy: 3 cloth shirts, 1 pair trousers, 1 vest, 1 waistcoat, 2 ties, 2 pocket handkerchiefs, 2 pairs stockings, 1 pair lined shoes.  After 12, they made their own way in the world
11-12 year old girl: 3 cloth blouses, woollen coat, cotton coat, cotton apron, cap, 2 pocket handkerchiefs, 2 lined caps, 2 pairs stockings, 1 pair shoes. 11-12 year old boy: 3 cloth shirts, 1 pair trousers, 1 vest, 1 waistcoat, 2 ties, 2 pocket handkerchiefs, 2 pairs stockings, 1 pair lined shoes. After 12, they made their own way in the world

I was intrigued to learn that there was in the 19th century, a single training school  in the Pas-de-Calais in the north of France for would-be shepherds.  Why would you spare your 16-year-old son to go to the other end of France, at some expense, to acquire his training (though there were no fees), when he could be back at home learning on the job?  There was a similar mining school in the east of France.

A demanding clothing list for the shepherds' school: 8 new shirts, 8 pairs of stockings or socks, 2 cravats, 8 handkerchiefs, 5 blouses, 2 pairs winter trousers, 3 pairs summer trousers, 2 waistcoats, 3 woollen jumpers, 2 new pairs shoes, 2 pairs clogs and liners.  The shcool did the laundry though.
A demanding clothing list for the shepherds’ school: 8 new shirts, 8 pairs of stockings or socks, 2 cravats, 8 handkerchiefs, 5 blouses, 2 pairs winter trousers, 3 pairs summer trousers, 2 waistcoats, 3 woollen jumpers, 2 new pairs shoes, 2 pairs clogs and liners. The school did the laundry though.

We were good though.  We completed our self-appointed tasks.  We found Laroque mentioned throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, as all other communes, in connection with, for example:

  • understanding its precise obligations to maintain communal roads and paths.
  • submitting to standardised checks to ensure fair weights and measures were being applied locally.
  • submitting returns showing who had joined the army, and in what capacity.
  • We learned where the nearest doctors, midwives (‘sage-femmes‘) and pharmacists to Laroque were.

Despite moments of tedium, this was a fascinating morning.  I was privileged to inspect these old records, and to gain a little more understanding of life during this period, and an appreciation of just how far the long arm of the state, whether imperial or republican, extended.

Directives from the Empire in 1870 about fishing, recruitment to the national guard,, and billhooks
Directives from the Empire in 1870 about fishing, recruitment to the national guard, …er…mayflies, and billhooks
Imperial constitution and rights of succession
Imperial constitution and rights of succession

A Renaissance feast

Mirepoix: Wikipedia Commons
Mirepoix: Wikipedia Commons

Along the road from us is Mirepoix: the pretty town, the one with the half-timbered houses set  round a central square, where it’s good to sit outside with a nice cool beer of a summer evening surveying several centuries of history.  A bit of a contrast with shabby old Laroque.  It’s something of a Mecca for both locals and tourists, as it has a busy programme of festivals throughout the year, celebrating everything from Jazz and Swing to the apple harvest.

There was new one the other week, La Fête de la Gastronomie.  We missed most of the talks, walks, demonstrations and foodie events, what with being in Bilbao.  But we did get back just in time to catch the visit to a tiny church in the tiny nearby hamlet of Mazerettes.  This was no church guided tour however.  We’d come to hear Martine Rouche talk about the fresco there, depicting the feast of Herod during which the head of John the Baptist was dished up.  No, it wasn’t an art history lecture either, nor a biblical exposition. Martine Rouche has researched this fresco – one of several recently restored in the church –  to help us understand dining and feasting in this part of 16th century France.


The fresco is dated 1533, so Herod’s feast reflects the customs in use at that date.  At that time, there was no special room designated for dining.  The host had the table arranged wherever it suited him best, whether it was the main hall or a bed-chamber.  In contrast with the fine elaborate costumes worn by the guests, the table itself is quite simply and starkly dressed.  Not so many years before, food had been served on ‘tranchoirs‘, thick solid slices of bread.  Now, simple round plates were provided.

There weren’t many glasses on the table either.  P1080371These were expensive rare items still, so guests expected to share .  Servants would hover, ready to refill glasses as required, and everyone would drink from the glass nearest them.  Glasses didn’t come as a matching set: there were as many designs as there were drinking vessels.

Besides these, there were drageoires of crystal, designed to hold sugar and spices, which guests would nibble at throughout the meal.  This fashion for having these expensive and elegant tit-bits spread from Italy through southern France and Lyon , eventually reaching this area.

A drageoire
A drageoire

There were knives.  These were personal property.  You’d take your own with you and use it both to cut food, and as a means of conveying it to your mouth: no forks yet.  Then you’d take it home with you again.

And this curved implement is a furgeoir.  You may not want to have one at table yourself.  The pointed end is a toothpick, but you’d have used the spoon-like end to scoop out earwax when the fancy took you.

A furgeoir and a couple of plates
A furgeoir and a couple of plates

Under the table is a nef.  Though this one isn’t, such containers were often in the shape of a nautilus shell.  P1080367The principal guest at a banquet might have one as a sort of superior picnic hamper.  He’d use it to keep his knife, his napkin, maybe some spices, and some anti-poison specifics.  Later, the nef was replaced by the cadena, which might have several different compartments.

As to the food served, there are few clues here.  Apart from the head of John the Baptist, which was not intended to be eaten,  there were some sides of ham and other fairly unidentifiable items.  More information comes from contemporary receipt books.  Local  grandee Phillippe de Lévis, who was responsible for commissioning the frescos in the church, also hired patissiers, who of course submitted detailed bills .  These confirm what we already know: that the church calendar ruled.  Periods of plenty (‘régimes gras’) were interspersed with simpler and restricted ‘régimes maigres‘. Every Friday, Lent and Advent among others were ‘maigres‘ .  Meat and dairy products were  avoided in favour of simpler, less rich foods.  Fish was generally allowed, but for the wealthy, this was scarcely a privation.  The River Hers was rich in salmon, and would be prepared with fine and not-at-all-simple spices: cinnamon, ginger, pepper, cloves – and sugar.  Even certain water fowl, such as the moorhen –  ‘poule d’eau’ – were considered honorary fish.

But outside those periods of abstinence, what feasting took place!  A meal might begin with individual tarts, and go on to several courses of salads, fruits, boiled meats, roast meats, sauced meats.  From our point of view, the courses differed little from one another.  Our clear expectations of the kind of things that might appear as an entrée, a main course and a desert did not hold good back in the 16th century.

It all sounded pretty unappetising.  What with sharing glasses, enduring course after course of rich and highly spiced food, it would probably have been a relief to go home .  The men at least had opportunities with hunting and other manly pusuits to burn off a few calories.  Not quite so easy for the women, I think.

And thank you, Martine Rouche, for a fascinating and entertaining afternoon.

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……

Salvador Dali and a star-shaped fortress

These three figures look down on you as you wait to visit the Dali Museum.  And the loaves of bread?
These three figures look down on you as you wait to visit the Dali Museum. And the loaves of bread?

“Where, if not in my own town, should the most extravagant and solid of my work endure, where if not here? The Municipal Theatre, or what remained of it, struck me as very appropriate, and for three reasons: first, because I am an eminently theatrical painter; second, because the theatre stands right opposite the church where I was baptised; and third, because it was precisely in the hall of the vestibule of the theatre where I gave my first exhibition of painting.”

That’s Salvador Dali, speaking about his wish to create a museum to his own work in the shell of the theatre at Figueres, destroyed, like so many other buildings in Catalonia and throughout Spain, at the height of their Civil war.

The courtyard, the Cadillac, the tyres... and... and....
The courtyard, the Cadillac, the tyres… and… and….

It’s an astonishing place.  Start out in the central courtyard, and you’re confronted by a Cadillac – Al Capone’s allegedly – beside a tower of tyres topped off by a fishing boat.  Wander round – in any order, please: Dali insisted there was no timeline or other imperative to be followed.

Homage to Hieronymus Bosch?
Homage to Hieronymus Bosch?
Gold cross.
Gold cross.

You’ll discover rooms of paintings in which he worked in the style of other artists as diverse as Vermeer, Picasso, Goya, Velasquez, Millet, de Chirico: was he in search of a personal voice, or simply exploring and celebrating his knowledge of art history?  A room full of fantastically bizarre creatures shows an affinity with the work of Hieronymus Bosch, but only a few yards away is a room full of exceptionally fine gold and bronze jewellery, largely made from coins with the heads either of Dali or his beloved wife Gala on them.

Then there’s the Mae West room.  Walk in, and you’ll see some random objects: a couch, two wall paintings, a fireplace.  Climb the stairs at one side of the room however, and look though the lens, and there she is, Mae West herself, in all her ruby-lipped glory.

And here she is.
And here she is.

It goes on.  He’s copied Michelangelo’s Moses: but what’s an OT prophet doing with a giant squid?

Or go and get vertigo while standing four-square on the ground, viewing the dizzying perspectives of the ceiling in the Palau del Vent.

...and that's only a bit of the ceiling.
…and that’s only a bit of the ceiling.

The whole thing was by turns stimulating, exciting, puzzling and sometimes even annoying – bizarre for the sake of being bizarre.  We’re really glad we went, though once may be enough.  And if you want to know more, there’s an interesting account in the blog ‘Elsewhere’

The Civil War came up again when we visited the Castell de Sant Ferran, just outside Figueres.  It’s an enormous, star-shaped site, built in the 18th century to protect the Spanish from the French, but it saw almost no action.  But in the 1920’s, Salvador Dali did his military service there. It only came into its own during the Civil War.  Then it provided secure storage for masterpieces from the Prado in Madrid, and became a stronghold for international brigades and ammunition.

We spent so long tramping round the walls – it’s a 3 km walk to encircle the entire site – that we didn’t explore the interior, which may have been a pity: some other time.  But what a walk!  As we began we could clearly see the Mediterranean coast and towns such as Roses.  Then the Pyrenees, covered in snow over to the north, and the dusty more barren nearby hills.  Figueres itself doesn’t give a good account of itself from up here: modern concrete factories and lots of high-rise blocks.

A small stretch of castle wall, with the Pyrenees beyond
A small stretch of castle wall, with the Pyrenees beyond

And that was it.  Our brush with the law in Barcelona had left us feeling a bit sour, and we felt our holiday was at an end.  So off home for us, planning a return one day to explore that coast we’d caught distant glimpses off from the castle walls.

Our day out with John Rylands

Before we came back to France at the weekend, I wanted a day in Manchester, where I was at University more than 40 years ago.  It was a city people at that time seemed to love or hate.  I loved it then, and I still do.  It’s buzzy and busy, with galleries, music, shops, and a bravura display of civic Victorian architecture down every city centre street.

Outside John Rylands library

I had a particular memory I wanted to share with Malcolm.  The John Rylands Library.  I used to go there to write an essay or prepare for a seminar on those days when I wanted to pretend to some kind of scholarship that in truth was never part of my make-up.  The building was a celebration of Victorian Gothic architecture at its finest, with wonderful plaster tracery on the walls, splendid fan-vaulted ceilings, and shelf after shelf of ancient leather-bound books.  Seated in some darkened alcove, surrounded by the particular smell of the place – beeswax polish mixed with dusty books, I would work away for an hour or two, convincing myself, if nobody else, that I was getting down to the serious matter of studying in an industrious and creative manner.  Few other people would be there: there were no distractions other than the quiet beauty of the building itself.  The place was built for scholarship.

The reading room where I pretended to write essays.

It was built in the 1890’s by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her husband John.  Although his origins were humble, he became Manchester’s first multi-millionaire, making his fortune in the textile industry as a cotton manufacturer.  At first, the library collection was modest, but over the years, has come to hold works of world-class importance: everything from the earliest known New Testament text, on papyrus, to medieval illustrated manuscripts, a Gutenberg bible, and the personal papers of the likes of Elizabeth Gaskell.

One of dozens of different fantastical creatures forming the roof bosses

I’m not qualified to comment on the early air conditioning systems, or the electricity originally generated on site.  I simply enjoy the richly patterned stained glass, the sumptuous woodwork, the dragons encircling ceiling bosses, and the sandstones in which the building is constructed, which range from soft pink to a rich dull red.

An upward glance whilst on a staircase

Back in the ‘60’s, I’d work till I got hungry, thirsty, or both.  Last week, we discovered that these days I’d have no excuse to leave, because there’s a modern extension sensitively joined to the side of the building.  This houses Café Rylands, where we had our lunch, made from locally sourced produce; a bookshop which, though small, presented us with fascinating choices, from architecture and design books to children’s stories; and an almost irresistible gift-shop.  It has an energetic and exciting programme of educational events, and I wished we could have signed up for some of them.

Café Rylands and the book shop

When I was a student in Manchester, the library was little known outside academic circles.  Now it’s a different story.  John Rylands Library has been made  Manchester’s ‘Large Visitor Attraction of the Year’ at the city’s annual tourism awards.  You could spend happy hours here, exploring the building itself, the exhibits, and making frequent sorties to the coffee shop for a relaxing break and browse through the papers.  And apart from your spending money, it’s all free.

Drop a coin or two into the donation box, and the automaton will go through its paces

The tragic and savage history of l’étang d’Izourt

The drive to the start of the walk was dramatic enough.  Forested and craggy, our narrow road out of Auzat switch-backed steeply up the slopes in a seemingly endless series of hairpin bends.

And our walk began, an 1800 foot climb, upwards through forest then out onto the stony, rocky path towards the man-made étang d’Izourt, one of the many reservoirs in the area maintained by EDF to provide power. Once, a helicopter flew over.  Since there are no roads up there,  it was delivering either men or supplies to a team we could see labouring on a more distant slope.

The walk changed for me as I learnt the story of what had happened back in 1939 when the reservoir was being built.  Most of the members of the construction team at that time were economic migrants, Italians from the Veneto, and whilst working there, they lived in huts on site.

The weather conditions had already been atrocious for days when on March 24th 1939, a fierce blizzard struck.  There was no option for the workers but to hole up in their huts.  The storm was so fierce that huts B and C were destroyed from the weight of snow above, and the roof from hut A blew off.  The desperate men sought both to escape and to try to help their work mates, many of whom had died or been gravely injured by the tumbling buildings.  A nearby avalanche brought down the cable car linking the site with the works below.  The only way up was on foot, and rescue attempts were pretty much futile, though bodies and the injured were recovered as management attempted to evacuate the entire area.  On 28th March, a team of army skiers managed to get through and working into the night, brought down the remaining bodies and wounded.  31 men, 29 Italians and 2 French, were buried at the cemetery in Vicdessos on 31st March.  There they remain, as the families in Italy were too poor to manage the expense of repatriating the corpses.  The memorials at the lakeside are still the site of pilgrimage, thanks to the efforts of the ‘Ricordate-Izourt’ Association: locals and Italians who honour the memory of those lost workers.

We ourselves had started our walk in bright sunlight.   Spots of rain began.  Then the wind.  By the time we reached the lake, there were times when the gusts felt almost horizontal, and we struggled to find protection from the rocks to eat our lunch.  The more modern huts now on site have their roofs held on by strong metal cables, and we could understand why.

The sky turned the colour of lead, and we rejected the idea of exploring the lake in favour of hurrying down the way we had come.  We knew we’d be OK, but we also know to treat the mountains seriously and with respect – conditions can change very quickly.  We were fine of course, but that fierce wind on a warm October day gave us the smallest hint of what things could be like if you were trapped there in much nastier conditions.  Even now, the most efficient way of supporting the workers still on site from time to time is to get them and their supplies there by helicopter.  A noisy chopper whirled up and down the mountainside several times as we walked down, our journey cheered by a rainbow linking our mountain with the one next door.  Though we were sorry the weather had chased us home, we were grateful  not to have been exposed to  the dangers the mountains can offer from time to time.

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In search of a druid – or a trout

Mont d’Olmes: local playground for skiers.  You wouldn’t travel any great distance to spend a holiday here, but for locals, it’s the ideal winter sports spot.  It’s a wonderful area for walkers too.  We’ve only just begun to discover the wealth of footpaths, mainly across truly ‘sauvage’ slopes, with views downwards to Montségur, Roquefixade, and northwards almost, it seems, as far as Toulouse.

It’s alright waxing lyrical though.  For many people living in the area many years past, and until the early years of the 20th century, these slopes were the places where they came for long hours each day, working both on the surface and by crawling through narrow airless tunnels, mining talc.

Talc?  Yes, that stuff you sprinkle on babies’ bottoms.  That stuff those Olympic gymnasts plunge their hands into before taking to an overhead bar.  That stuff that apparently still has many industrial uses, notably in the ceramics industry and for plastics paints and coatings.  This soft soapstone was found here on Mont d’Olmes and is still mined in nearby Luzenac.  Here though, all that is left are the gashes in the mountainside where the workings once were, and a few ancient trucks once used to transport the material down to civilisation.

Come and take the path we took last Sunday.  We walked in more or less a straight line, up and down hill after hill, as the path became increasingly rocky and impassable.  Our reward was the occasional handful of raspberries or bilberries, then a lunchtime picnic by l’étang des Druides.  No, sorry, l’étang des Truites.  Whatever.  Nobody seems to know which name is correct.  Some say the person making the first map of the area misheard and wrote ‘truite’ – trout – instead of ‘druide’.  We saw no trout.  We definitely saw no druids.  But we had a jolly nice picnic.  And I paddled.  And then ruined a perfectly good day, in which morning chill and mist had given over to hot sunshine, by falling flat against the rocky path, cutting open my face and chipping three teeth.  I hope the druids weren’t lining me up for some kind of sacrifice.

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