Sep. 9th, 2010

The next morning, onward, via assorted castles and abbeys...

Wonder of wonders – a day that was planned. Maps were consulted, distances were estimated and an approximate timetable was achieved. Pausing only to acquire pastries for breakfast at the local patisserie, off we set, down the A61.

Once we were off the motorway, we began to really appreciate the countryside. The previous day, we had arrived in darkness, so didn’t really get the chance to see. The roads wound gently through the hills and along the sides of valleys. While the landscape was plentifully green, it was a dry green, the green of trees and shrubs and vines rather than the green of meadows. Fields of drooping sunflowers alternated with the regimented rows of grapevines. Around these, the beginnings of the Corbières mountains, and in the distance, the edges of the Pyrénées. When we stopped to admire the view, the air was soft and warm, scented occasionally with bay. Though quite warm, it was a comfortable, dry warmth, tempered by the breeze. With the motorway behind us, there was very little traffic on the road and the general feeling was that life round here took little notice of any time division below that of morning, afternoon, evening or night.

Our first stop was the village of Lagrasse, supposedly one of the prettiest villages in France, there to see the Abbey of St Mary of Lagrasse. It certainly looked pretty enough as we swung down the road into the valley, with the terracotta coloured roof tiles that seem so characteristic of the region. A sign pointed us to the visitors’ car park, which proved to be only a short walk from the main part of the village itself. All was quiet, though we noted that the patisserie and a retro shop were open. Our walk took us over the more modern bridge over the river Orbieu, which gave us good views of the more ancient town bridge and the houses adjoining the river. This view alone was worth a few minutes of contemplation. It was but a few minutes from there, past the older bridge and the cemetery, to the abbey itself.

The monastic community at the abbey dates back to the 7th century and was granted abbey status in 779. Part of the abbey is still occupied by a religious order, but the rest is open to the public. It is small and has a lovely atmosphere, particularly in the central courtyard. As an additional bonus, the chapel features several preserved wall-paintings. Sadly, these were only viewable through glass windows, as the chapel was closed to protect the tiled floor, but the windows were well-placed for seeing them. It would have been too easy to sit and fall under the spell of the place, but the morning was moving on. The abbey’s café turned out only to serve drinks, otherwise we would have had an early brunch there. Instead, we opted to see what the village had to offer.

I’ve not been to many villages in France, so it was hard to judge if the “prettiest village” claim was justified. It certainly had a quiet charm, with the narrow streets and the small covered market-place in the centre. It was very quiet, with hardly anybody around, and such shops as we could see were closed. One restaurant looked hopeful, but didn’t really have much in the way of lunches in our budget range. As we headed out to the village edge, we found ourselves by the patisserie again. It was still open. Sandwiches and pastries were soon acquired and we repaired to a nearby bench to eat our lunch and watch the world go by. Again, it would have been easy to sit there for ages, but we had several stops planned, and a very approximate deadline to get to the hotel to book in. First, Villerouge...

As ever, there was time for photographs...
First, Villerouge...

Well, Villerouge-Termenès to be more accurate. To avoid confusion with any other Villerouges there might be out there (at least one other, according to Google Maps). Our journey took us further south, further into the foothills, further into countryside that could have made our journey very long indeed had we stopped to appreciate it each time we saw something nice. It was evident we were in wine country, with every other side road promising a vineyard or winery at the end. With more time and more money, we could have had a very happy journey – well, at least, until the point at which I fell asleep from too much tasting (yes, I know you’re supposed to spit, but what a waste).

Villerouge-Termenès proved easy enough to find, and the castle therein was clearly signposted. They seemed to take it quite seriously, with each signpost drawing us further into the history of the castle, of the Cathars, and in particular, one Guilhem Belibaste - the last Cathar Perfectus.

This theme continued inside the castle, with the audio guide and assorted film segments telling us about the castle, related through the story of Belibaste and his persecution and eventual burning by one Bernard de Farges, Archbishop of Narbonne. It was an interesting story, and I would have liked to learn more, especially the section of film that showed Farges dictating his final memoires before his anticipated death. From my brief Googling, I think I may have to learn a lot more French before I can research it more. The audio guide was less annoying than most, since the appropriate segment was activated by walking into the room, rather than driving you around in lock-step, point by point, painting by painting etc. Once again, there was the bonus of some wall paintings, even if some were restorations/reproductions.

It was a smaller castle, so not so many photos - what I did take can be seen here...

There was a pleasant looking tavern/café across the tiny bridge from the castle. A cold beer was an awful temptation, but we had some more kilometres and at least one other castle to explore before we got to our hotel. So, farewell to Villerouge and onward to Aguilar…



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