Country mouse

We were Christmas shopping in Toulouse yesterday.  A day in this, the fourth largest city in France, is always a treat.  It’s affectionately known as ‘la ville rose’, because of the predominant building material, a deep pink brick.  Elegant long tall terraces of town houses, public buildings, hidden courtyards wait to be discovered and re-discovered on every visit.  We have so much more still to find and explore.  There are fabulous churches and museums, wonderful and often quirky independent shops, appetising restaurants and bars to suit every budget and taste.  The River Garonne and the Canal du Midi pass though the city offering a feeling of space and fresh air.

And yet…..

By about half past three, we’re footsore, weary and confused like Aesop’s poor dear Country Mouse who decided the simple, yet safe country life was preferable to the riches and dangers of life in the city.  We want to go home.

A couple of more recent Pearly Kings
A couple of more recent Pearly Kings

I was always a city girl.  Raised in London, I had a childhood enriched by Sunday afternoons at the Natural History Museum or frenetically pushing buttons at the Science Museum.  We’d go to watch the Changing of the Guard at Horseguards Parade, nose round hidden corners of the city, still scarred in those days by the aftermath of wartime bombing.  We’d go on our weekly shop to Sainsbury’s:  not a supermarket then but an old-fashioned grocery store, with young assistants bagging up sugar in thick blue – er – sugar paper, or expertly using wooden butter pats to carve up large yellow blocks of butter.  If we were lucky, there would be a Pearly King and Queen outside collecting for some charity.

It was Manchester for my university years.  I loved those proud dark red Victorian buildings celebrating the city’s 19th century status as Cottonopolis, as well as the more understated areas once populated by the workers and managers of those cotton mills, but developed during my time there as Student Central.  I loved the buzz of city life, the buzz of 60’s student life.

Then it was Portsmouth.  Then Wakefield, and Sheffield, and Leeds.  City life meant living with up to 750,00 neighbours.  And I thrived on it.  I never felt too far from wide open spaces, yet a short bus ride brought me theatres, cinemas, exhibitions, shops, choices of schools for my children.  When we moved in 1997 to Harrogate, with a mere 75, 000 inhabitants, it felt small.

This is the Valley Gardens in Harrogate.  I must say it doesn't look too crowded
This is the Valley Gardens in Harrogate. I must say it doesn’t look too crowded

Then we came to the Ariège, to Laroque, population just over 2,000.  The largest town in the whole area is Pamiers, with a mere 19,000 inhabitants.  How could we still think of Harrogate as really rather tiny?    So we needed to change the way we saw things.  We’re accustomed now to at least recognising most of the people whom we see round and about.  We enjoy the fact that we count many people in the community as friends, and that we all turn up to the same events.  We relish the space, the more relaxed pace of life, the sense of belonging that we have here.

These are the kind of traffic conditions we've got used to
These are the kind of traffic conditions we’ve got used to

Now, as we plan our return to England, the idea of the clogged roads of the Harrogate rush hour is unattractive, the busy streets unappealing. Ripon, where we more recently lived is much more like it: 14,000 people.  But we ask ourselves – is even a town this size too big and scary for Country Mice?  Should we continue as we’ve started?   Perhaps we should look at Galphay, Gargrave, Greenhow or Grewelthorpe, average populations about 400?  Or Masham, about 1,250? All of these are near our centre of gravity, Ripon.

So much to think about.  But wherever we end up,  we’ll still want the odd sortie to The Big City.  Toulouse hasn’t seen the back of us yet.

Photos 4, 5, 6 0f the Toulouse series; the Pearly Kings and Harrogate’s Valley Gardens courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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.

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.

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

Markets in Toulouse

We went to Toulouse yesterday, to visit the markets.  This wasn’t a trip to stock up the larder though.  This was a history lesson, as offered by Elyse Rivin, long term resident of Toulouse and great enthusiast for the city.  She is a full fledged official guide and art historian, and runs Toulouse Guided Walks.  We’d booked.

Minutes after we met, we found ourselves in front of Victor Hugo market.  You’ll go here for meat or fish, but also for all the other foodstuffs that markets do so well – fruit, vegetables, bread and patisseries, drinks.  At lunchtime you might pop up to the first floor to have a convivial meal at one of the several restaurants up there, all using fresh produce bought only an hour or two before from the stalls below.  This market, like every other in Toulouse bar one, is a concrete horror story.  Back in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, they demolished the elegant iron and glass Victorian structures: they needed car parking space of course, and somehow contrived to squeeze car-parks-with-added-market onto those old sites.

Toulouse has had markets since way before the 12th century, and most had a speciality.  Victor Hugo’s (I’m guessing it wasn’t called that then) was wood.

We wandered along to the Capitole, the splendid central square of Toulouse.  Usually it’s an an elegant place, airy and inviting.  On Wednesdays it’s inviting for a different reason:  There’s a market: a big one.  Teeming with second-hand books, brocante of every kind, traders from every corner of the world……  And on other days, there’ll be organic food stalls instead.

I remember learning in history lessons how the streets of London were often taken over by particular trades – leather sellers, poulterers, bakers and so on.  So it was in Toulouse.  Many of these trade names have been lost, but there are still streets with the old Occitan names: the cauldron makers for instance.  And some trades hang on, in an unbroken line from the 12th century.  Rue Sainte Ursule for example, then as now, housed textile merchants.  These days that means clothes shops, textile wholesalers, even small scale manufacture.  This area is still named Quartier Bourse after the Bourse des Marchands (a trade association, an antecedent of the Chamber of Commerce).  In the 19th century a fine new neo-Classical building was built, and this is the Tribunal de Commerce, where trading disputes are resolved.

On to Esquirol.  Flour was measured here in a stone basin, by volume not weight, to prevent honest shoppers being short changed.  A beady eye was kept on those who attempted to ‘cut’ their flour with chaff, dustings of rye flour and so on.  Back in the middle ages, as now, white bread was prized.  No market here now, because back in the 19th century, several long straight roads – in this case Rue de Metz – were sliced through the city, laying waste anything in their tracks.  The market hall that was here has been rebuilt piece by piece at Lourdes, so you could go and see it if you liked, unlike all those other lost structures.

Next stop: a walk down down Rue des Filatiers.  I love this narrow street with its tall, elegant houses, many dating from the 16th century.  Take a look at the pictures.  And then we were at Carmes, originally home of the Carmelites.  The order eventually won a long battle with the city to be allowed to have a monastery in Toulouse.  What clinched it was when they assured the pope that their long ministry in the area of Mount Carmel gave them a unique possibility of converting the area’s small Jewish population.  The city fathers had to give in.

Carmes, like the other markets, is now a concrete box, instead of a complement to the smart 19th century character of this historic area.  But we were here to sample cheeses, guided by a local affineur, at a shop called Sena.  What this means is that the shop buys cheeses direct from the maker, and matures and ripens them to what it considers perfection.  Our guide for the occasion wanted to share three fairly local cheeses with us.  We had a young soft goat’s cheese ‘Cathare’, fresh and light, dusted with ash: this was 10 days old.  Our cow’s cheese, yielding, tasty and with a volcanic looking grey crust was 5 weeks old.  Best known was the Ossau-Iraty cheese, made from sheep’s milk from the Basque country and the Béarn, which had the most pronounced taste of all.  He paired these with fruits: raisins, candied kiwi, and almonds.  For tasting purposes, he explained, these are better than bread. We had a glass of the most local wine to Toulouse as well, Fronton.  This was a Négrette, low in tannin and acidity.

I talked to him about English cheeses.  He sells Blue Stilton, but I was alarmed to see, among all his hand-picked artisanal cheeses, a block of shrink-wrapped orange cheddar.  He told me that people bought it for barbecues, to put on cheeseburgers.  He had, he said, little incentive to stock English cheeses, which he knew could be very good, because the French would not buy.  Presented with shrink-wrapped cheddar, are you surprised?

Still, by now it was long past midday.  Back to Carmes to hunt for a lunch-stop, where we could discuss the morning over a leisurely plat du jour.

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