Sep. 3rd, 2010

It is, perhaps, a common thing that places close by have less appeal than those far away.  Certainly, for example, it rarely occurs to me to enjoy London, except when showing off for visitors. So, it seems only right that France, the closest foreign country to home, is the one I have visited the least, even though it is the only country whose language I can speak.  There was the time my grandmother took my sister and I, when I was ten years old, on a day trip to Béthune. It seemed, at the time, a dreary and rain-sodden town in northern France whose sole reason for being a destination was that it was twinned with Gran’s home town of Hastings. I remember little of it aside from exercising my schoolboy French in pursuit of a box of matches for my Grandmother and one of those concertina booklets of postcards that she used to collect.  I remember being very proud of remembering the words for matches and traffic lights, but that was it.

Years later, after university, there was a week in Paris with my then fiancée, and years later still, a couple of short trips there via the Eurostar with my wife.  Aside from that I had seen nothing of the country.

Today I can say that I have seen a lot more, most of it relatively rural and covered in grapevines or sunflowers, most of it somewhat less than horizontal, and a lot of it medieval in nature.  From Toulouse to Carcassonne to Cucagnan and back via abbeys, châteaux and the legacy of a mindset that looks for the tallest lump of rock and builds a castle, or indeed, a city on it. I have learned about Cathars, eaten cassoulet, climbed on ramparts, slithered on pathways that might make a goat blink and dredged grammar and vocabulary from the deepest depths of my brain’s archives, occasionally succeeding in making myself understood.  It was a  journey of some 500km, with many bends along the way.  It was a journey that started in Toulouse...

(Actually it started even earlier than that, with a cunning plan on the part of my wife, [livejournal.com profile] silme, who decided to do something different for my 50th birthday)
...It was a journey that started in Toulouse...

Well, actually, it started at home, but there is not much that can be said about the motorways from home to Bristol airport, or the plane journey from there to Toulouse. The only excitement came at security, where my bag got pulled over for inspection. “Uh-oh!” I thought, “Here comes the wand of shame.” But wasn’t the case after all. They needed to inspect the bag because they had detected “something organic” in it. The security guy delved down into the bag and pulled out – a black pudding. They sell a rather nice black pudding in the shop at Dublin airport, and I frequently buy one on the way home. I had done so the previous weekend, but with all the excitement of my suitcase being lost in transit, I had quite forgotten to unpack it. Indeed, I had forgotten about it completely until the guard pulled it out. He was very nice about it, and even offered to let me keep it. I explained that it had been without refrigeration for over a week, so could he possibly dispose of it somewhere. At least he didn’t treat it as a hazardous substance.

Toulouse is much like any other regional airport, except for the presence of Airbus, which makes its presence felt as the plane taxis to the gate. On the way, we even got to see the Airbus-Beluga transport plane that they use for transporting the wings from the plant in England. With its bulbous body and projecting nose, it looked a little like a dolphin with wings. It certainly provided excitement for the young children in the rows behind us.

Since we had flown on a budget airline, we naturally pulled the most distant gate in the terminal, but at least that wasn’t as long a hike as it might have been at a larger airport. Before long, we were installed in our hire car and trying to work out where to go. Our first stop was Rabastens…
Our first stop was Rabastens…

Rabastens - a small commune in the Tarn Department in southern France - was on our list because of the church of Notre Dame du Bourg. [livejournal.com profile] silme came across the place in her researches for the holiday and put it on the possible itinerary just because of the wall paintings. When I finally let her tell me where we were headed in general, and showed me some of the possible places we could visit along the way, one look at some photos she had found of the interior was enough to convince me that this was a definite on our journey.

Rabastens itself was easy to find, just a short journey from the motorway, and the church itself was just as easy to find once we got there. We parked nearby in a narrow street (narrow streets came to feature a lot in our journey) and walked back. The exterior seemed a little plain, aside from the arch around the entrance. At first, the place looked deserted, but the door opened well enough...

... into almost total darkness. A sign on the door advised us to look to the right for the lights. Sure enough, there was a panel into which one could insert a Euro coin, and, as promised, this did activate the lights. It makes sense. In order to preserve the paintings, illumination should be kept to a minimum, and why not earn a little money towards the electric bill on the way?

Once the lights were on, you could truly see the place in all its glory. Most of the church, and the paintings, date from the 14th century. The paintings themselves had disappeared some time in the 16th century and had been hidden under multiple layers of paint until rediscovered during some restoration with in the mid 1800s, and restored by Joseph Engalière from 1860 to 1853.

Most of the wall paintings we have previously seen have been fragmentary - parts of walls, bits of pattern here and there etc. This was completely different. Every surface aside from the floor was a riot of colour and pattern. Scenes from the scriptures, local heraldry and lots of pure decoration cover every wall and the roof. It was enough to take your breath away, even in the relative gloom of the low-level lighting. It's in places like this that I wish we could splash out on a more professional camera. Particularly one that can deal with low light levels and operate at film speeds above 400. I did my best, with wide apertures, fiddling the camera settings every which way I could, bracing myself against the walls and furniture for the longer exposures, and letting the flash do what it could where it had a chance of illuminating everything. Out of some 120 pictures, around 40 came out as usable.

You can see them here...

There was so much to see, so much to try to photograph, that we stayed for several euro's worth of lighting. Eventually, though, we had to stagger out into the daylight again and continue our journey, onwards to Cordes sur Ciel...

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