For me it was a story about a man called Mr Flop who was a flower collector. Mr Flop gathered up faded and dying flowers and whisked them off on a flying apple-tree branch (sort of prototype of Harry Potter’s Nimbus 2000) to the Kingdom of Flowers where they ‘regained their lost beauty and perfume and became more beautiful than ever’.
I loved the idea, but even more appealing was that Mr Flop whisked off the young heroine for a magical visit to the Kingdom on his flying branch. And what was the young heroine’s name? Alice? Dorothy? Wendy? No, they’d already had their fun. It was Laurette.
A sad week here in the Tarn after saying a long-distance goodbye to Stuart III, last in a line of feline companions who brought joy to my mother’s final years. He picked Mum out of a line-up at the RSPCA, delicately extending a paw through the bars of his cage. What was his history? No-one ever knew, but he had suffered multiple fractures to one of his hind legs, resulting in a stiff, retired-Colonel-type gait which went well with his laid-back personality.
No unseemly galloping about or jumping on and off things for Stuart. He was a mindfulness practitioner, sitting for hours in a trance in front of the window weighing up the pros and cons of staying where he was or strolling outside for a quiet nap underneath his personal bush. Indoors, his favourite position was horizontal. Chairs, beds tables – all the furniture belonged to him – and particularly the patch of carpet in front of the central heating vent where he liked to indulge in his personal invention, a home spa treatment for feline arthritic joints. He would lie on one side, clamp all four paws against the burning metal grill, and roast himself to a turn, fur streaming out behind him in the hot air flow like a comet’s tail.
When Mum died, he was adopted by his wonderful Auntie Jo who took him from Yorkshire to begin a new life as a Cheshire cat. He loved being at his Auntie’s. In the evening they would cuddle together on the sofa watching nature documentaries. He also helped out on the days she worked from home, warming up the computer by draping himself across it and re-arranging piles of important documents into better positions. She took him for weekend breaks to visit his other Auntie and Uncle, who had a terrace looking out over treetops from which, in Attenborough mode, he could observe the habits of birds and squirrels. He got a bit grumpy when Auntie Jo abandoned him to go on holiday, but could be mollified by a stay in his favourite luxury senior citizen apartment at the Best Exotic Marigold Pet Hotel. Downstairs he was able to catch a few rays undisturbed on his private patio while from an upper mezzanine he could look down on the lesser fortunate guests in the communal dorm.
His health had been declining steadily for some time. I last saw him two months ago, at my birthday party in Yorkshire. His Furness processed from Cheshire in Auntie Jo’s car and took up his role as Guest of Honour with a modest miaow. On Monday this week he died peacefully in the arms of his beloved auntie. We shared tearful memories of his many sterling qualities in a lengthy phone call, at the end of which she pronounced a fitting epitaph:
Today I’m re-blogging an article by Tina Williams, one of the two co-founders of “areadersreviewblog”, a mine of treasure for those who love books. The other co-founder, Caroline Barker, gave me a wonderful leg-up with ‘Hot Basque’ (does that sound right??) in 2015. Anyway, today’s blog is under the heading ‘Author Spotlight’ and it spotlights…this author! The very same, herself.
How did I feel when I read it? About seven and a half feet tall.
Thank you so much, Tina. Your reviews are always such a pleasure to read, and I’ve discovered many new authors thanks to your enthusiasm.
I remember (how could I forget, I’m still having flashbacks) the night I uploaded ‘Biarritz Passion’, my first novel, to Amazon. It was March 2014, I had no idea what I was doing, and only got through the ordeal with the help of the Maître De Maison and a bottle of sauvignon blanc. Since then three other books have followed, but getting them on to the pages of Amazon’s catalogue is only the first step. They may be out there, but how do you get people to read them?
This is where a bunch of incredibly generous people come in. They are called reviewers and bloggers, and if you pluck up the courage to ask them nicely, they might – at no charge – read your book, review it and even invite you on to their blog to talk about it!
Why do they do it? Because they love reading. And never mind the fact they have jobs, families, and cleaning out the gerbil cage to keep them occupied, they still manage to find time to share their enjoyment of a new book with their fans.
May they continue to boldly go, and may their paths be strewn with stars!
Here’s the first paragraph, click on the link below to read the rest, then click the little button that allows you to follow a readersreviewblog, that way you won’t miss any goodies:
“We are THRILLED to be featuring Laurette Long’s latest release, The Passage of Desire. We have been a fan of Laurette’s work since Caroline, my co-blogger reviewed the sweet romance Hot Basque, book 2 in the French Summer Novels(click on the title for review). We also love reading Laurette’s entertaining and inspiring blog where she not only shares excerpts from her writing but also snippets from her life in the beautiful South of France, a place which has inspired her muse on many an ocassion. The Passage of Desire, a prequel to the French Summer Novels, is a family drama which I am looking forward to reviewing very soon. Tina 🙂”
On this gloomy November weekend when we remember those who died in the Great War, and when France gets ready to mourn the victims killed and injured in the terrorist attack on the Bataclan, November 13th 2015, I’ve chosen to write about a story of hope, of not giving up, a love story. A true one. One with a happy ending.
It starts in le Passage du Desir, in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, a street whose name inspired the title of my novella, ‘The Passage of Desire’. Part 1 ended with an invitation to step through the doors of the magical shop just round the corner, and to lose yourself in visions of the future arising from the dreams of past generations…
‘A La Source des Inventions’ was founded in 1904 by a certain Monsieur Michel, an inventor whose family continued to run the shop for almost a century until its closure in 1994. A well-known meeting place for early aviators and model enthusiasts from all over the world, ‘La Source’ lives on today in the memories of nostalgic fans sharing Internet stories of time spent in its hallowed halls, the thrill of discovering its myriad treasures, the hours spent poring over its famous catalogues, which were sent all over the world and have now become collectors’ items. How many noses pressed up against those window panes over the years? How many children grew up listening to their fathers and grandfathers telling the story of that wonderful shop on the boulevard de Strasbourg, whose potent magic could unleash a flood of memories worthy of Monsieur Proust’s famous madeleine?
Back in the 1950s, in le Passage du Desir just off the Boulevard, the children sat in Grand- Père’s apartment dreaming of ‘La Source’ and its amazing machines, dreaming of a future where men might even travel to the moon in rocket ships.
And the grownups – what were they thinking? Perhaps their minds were turned to the past, and the astonishing twists and turns of fate that had brought them all here: Grand- Père, from the Périgord, his son, Robert, ex-prisoner of war, and his daughter-in-law, Josefa, deported from a village in Poland.
Many years later Josefa would share her memories, shaking her head in wonder at the chain of events that had ended in a French country garden, opening out on to peaceful fields, where sweet summer breezes ruffled the long grass and in the sky above our heads giant aeroplanes floated down to the airport of Roissy Charles de Gaulle.
On September 1st, 1939 Nazi troops invaded Poland. On September 17th, Soviet forces marched in from the east, and one month later the country had been divided up between the two powers. Josefa was caught in that first advance; her village was raided and those who were able-bodied deported to do forced labour. She found herself a prisoner on a farm where the drudgery and inhuman conditions of her new and shocking existence became so unbearable that she decided it was better to risk death in an attempt to escape than continue as she was.
She put her plan into action one night, managing to slip away without waking anyone and raising the alarm. Her initial elation, however, quickly gave way to terror and despair. She was alone in a foreign land, in the pitch dark of unfamiliar countryside, with no idea of what to do or where to go, her sole possessions the clothes she stood up in. She stumbled on through the inky blackness, finally hearing the sound of a river. Instinct told her to follow it: rivers always led somewhere, and if the farmer discovered her escape and unleashed his dogs she could always take to the water to hide. Dawn began to break. She increased her pace, and saw, not far from the river, a railway line. In the distance, she made out a small station.
Now came another agonising decision. Two people waited on the deserted platform. With no other alternative, she approached. The couple turned round and addressed her in German.
Fifty years later she still recalled with amazement the kindness and courage of those strangers. Somehow, they managed to get her as far as Berlin, to a family with Polish connections who kept her hidden as long as they dared. But, as an escaped prisoner with a warrant out for her arrest, it soon became too dangerous for her to stay as she was. People were talked to, strings were pulled, arrangements were made. Josefa gave herself up; instead of being returned to the farm she had run away from, she was taken to a vast agricultural labour camp where the owner had a reputation for his relatively humane treatment of prisoners. There she was put to work in the fields, and there she stayed until the Liberation, when she would become part of the chaotic human tide flowing east and west as prisoners were repatriated. But by that time, her life had once again taken a dramatic turn.
Back in France, in 1940, Grand-Père’s only child, Robert, serving in an artillery division posted in Alsace, was taken prisoner at the fall of the Maginot line. He became a part of the estimated 1.8 million soldiers captured and taken to Germany. From the stalag where he was first held he was transferred to a Kommando, a work detail assigned to carry out agricultural labour. Like Josefa, he had one idea in his head: escape. After various unsuccessful attempts he was finally captured by the SS, saved only from the firing squad thanks to the intervention of a landowner where he worked.
Unknown to both of them, the trajectories of their lives were about to cross. One day Robert was sent to help with the harvest at a farm and it was there, working in the fields, that he and Josefa first set eyes on each other. And in the middle of devastation, death and hopelessness, a love story was born. At an age when young lovers are carried away by the thrill and promise of a budding relationship, the two faced a future that was at best uncertain. It would be years before they could truly be together; the complete story of their adventures, like so many others of that time, is the riveting stuff of novels (and long ones at that).
Josefa was a natural story-teller. Soft-spoken, with a gentle Polish accent, she recounted events which were still vivid in her mind, and which seemed scarcely believable in the context of her enclosed, sun-drenched garden where the distant ringing of church bells added the final touch to a scene of eternal tranquillity.
May 1945. The news arrived at the camp, a rumour at first, then growing louder and louder until the realisation hit everyone with the weight of a sledge-hammer. It was over. Was this the start of a new life for her and Robert? And, her deepest, most cherished prayer, could she now look forward to a future for the baby that was growing inside her, so big that she knew it was only a matter of weeks before it would be born into a world still reeling from the aftershocks of war?
Her hopes were dashed by a terrible decision. The camp was liberated by the Russians. Prisoners from the east would be returned to their country of origin; those from the west dispatched to join the Allies. In this long-awaited, bitter freedom, she and Robert were torn apart, neither of them knowing if they would ever manage to find each other again.
But the Robert whose one obsession whilst a prisoner was to escape now had another burning mission – to find Josefa, to get back to her and to their unborn child. How he would do it was not clear. But one thing was sure, he would move heaven and earth in the attempt.
He informed the authorities that a mistake had been made, that he was in fact of Polish nationality. In the prevailing chaos he was allowed to leave and set out in search of the convoy taking Josefa back to the east. And because, dear Reader, miracles do sometimes happen, he found her. Now all they had to do was hope for another miracle, where they would be travelling in the opposite direction, back to France…
Tensions between the Russians and the Allies were mounting: one final exchange of prisoners was agreed. Robert, switching nationalities yet again, persuaded the Russians he was really French and that he and Josefa were legally married. He found himself on his way back to the Allied zone, this time accompanied by a heavily pregnant Josefa, half-dead with exhaustion and terror, and ‘holding both arms over my stomach as tight as I could, and praying to the baby ‘not yet, not yet’.
It was in Prenzlau, 100 km north of Berlin, that on May 27th 1945, their first son was born. It was in Prenzlau that a shocked and dazed Josefa remembered being handed something by an American soldier: ‘C’étaitun chocolat chaud’. A steaming mug of hot chocolate. With tears in her eyes (and in mine), she re-lived the marvel of clasping her fingers round its warmth and breathing it in. ‘I can still remember it, everything, the heat of the tin mug, the smell of the chocolate, the first sip, the most wonderful thing I have ever tasted.’
Arriving in France, the couple went to live with Robert’s father. For more than two years, the small apartment in le Passage du Desir was home to Grand- Père, the young couple, and their first child. What must it have been like for a young woman exiled from her homeland, captive in a foreign country for six years, starting a new life where she knew no-one except the man she had fallen in love with, and with whom she could only communicate in the language of their captors?
Seeing her all those years later, surrounded by pictures of her children and grandchildren, in the village where she and Robert settled in 1948 and where they would live for the rest of their days, I was in no doubt that life had given her treasures she’d never imagined during those long years at the camp. The image she presented was of someone observant and curious by nature, keenly interested in the world around her, quick to laugh or cry, her generous and loving nature evident not only in her relations with family and friends but in the menagerie of stray cats living in her garden alongside the chickens and rabbits.
But I also wondered about her more ‘hidden’ side; the strength of character and resourcefulness of that person who, aged nineteen, was able not only to escape from the farmer and his dogs, but go on to survive, to endure day after endless day of backbreaking physical work, continuous hunger, and a monotonous, mind-numbing existence. A person intelligent enough to pick up three new languages with no formal instruction. A young woman who somehow managed to keep the stars in her eyes, and whose belief in the possibility of a future allowed her to find love and happiness in the arms of a French prisoner and to survive a first pregnancy in the most terrible of conditions. A young mother who, in the photographs from those days, is strikingly beautiful, with her wavy black hair, blue eyes and full lips. A fascinating woman, with a fascinating story, and probably much more complex than she appeared…
Looking at her, the picture of contentment amid the roses and hollyhocks of her wild and glorious garden, I once remarked that she must have been over-joyed to leave the cramped apartment in the 10th arrondissement to start a proper life with her husband and children in the peace of the countryside.
I was unprepared for her answer.
‘Ah, Paris…’ Her eyes lit up. ‘Vous savez, Paris, c’est autre chose…’
‘Paris is different,’ she told me. ‘In another life, I would have loved to live in Paris…’
Never under-estimate a woman. Never under-estimate Paris.
This blog is dedicated to the memory of Josefa and Robert.
“They had been on a school trip to Paris with the French Society, Mademoiselle Pinaud at the helm, chaperone and cultural guide. Paris, city of light, city of romance. All the girls had been so excited that they’d whispered and chatted the whole night long as the coach trundled through the darkness, its beams illuminating black roads and shadowy forests. The journey had seemed endless.
Then a new day was breaking, dingy suburbs appeared in the dawn; they had reached the outskirts and were soon travelling along tree-lined boulevards where water gushed from metal fire hydrants and shopkeepers rinsed down the pavements with old-fashioned brooms. As the sun rose, gilding domes and rooftops, they began the magnificent procession down the Champs-Elysées.
Those few days had been magical. The visit to the Louvre, the statue of Venus rising majestically at the top of a flight of marble stairs, the stunning rose windows of Notre Dame, Monet’s waterlilies, the huge canvases swimming in light and colour…”
In the September blog, “The Passage of Desire, behind every title a story, Part 1”, I talked about the book’s French connexion. While Part 2 is gently marinating, I’d like to share a bit of history about Halifax, the Yorkshire town where I was born, which lies 8 miles away from Haworth, the principal setting for the novella.
August 1st this year (Yorkshire Day) marked another Halifax ‘birth’, this one (unlike mine) accompanied by great fanfare and media attention: the newly-restored Piece Hall was at last revealed to the public. The Historic England website describes it as a Grade 1 listed building of ‘dramatic design’, a ‘rare surviving example’ of its kind, drawing particular attention to ‘the scale and architectural grandeur of this monumental cloth hall…’
We were on a visit to the UK, so went to see what all the fuss was about and found ourselves having a ‘back of the wardrobe’ experience. Stepping out of an ordinary street in a northern town, we emerged in Renaissance Italy. On the other side of the immense North Gate, a dramatic vista opened up, a 66, 000 square foot piazza, enclosed by two- and three- tier arcaded galleries in glowing honey-coloured sandstone. To the east, a perfectly Tuscan, curly-treed hill rose in the background, pierced by the dark Gothic spire of the Square Church. In the cafes spilling out on to the gleaming flagstones, shoppers and tourists sipped their coffee whilst admiring the play of light and shade.
The surrounding moorland is still dotted with sheep, those hardy creatures on whose fleecy back the wealth of the region reposed from medieval times to the Industrial Revolution. Wool became big business: today in the House of Lords, the Lord Speaker still sits on ‘the woolsack’, symbolising the importance of the commodity at that time. In the mid-18th century, cloth making was the biggest trade of three West Riding towns-Halifax, Huddersfield and Bradford. It was a cottage industry, with spinners and weavers working at home on handlooms, then taking the ‘pieces’ – 30 yards of woven cloth – across the moors, often by packhorse, to markets or cloth halls.
In 1774 a group of wealthy manufactures in Halifax met to discuss the creation of a new hall, a monument that would not only honour their flourishing commerce but also pay homage to Britain’s cultural and artistic heritage. They may have worn flat caps and talked with a funny accent, but those northerners appreciated a fine painting and could join in with the Hallelujah chorus with the best of them.
And so, on January 1st 1779, with much pomp, ceremony and a firework display engineered by the famous Signor Pietro and a clever pigeon*, the original Halifax Piece Hall opened its doors. Trading started the following day and, in the intimacy of its 315 small rooms, buyers and sellers could negotiate deals, inspired by the view through the elegant colonnades across the grand central court with its neoclassical architecture.
A century later, in 1871, the hall got a magnificent set of ornate iron doors, weighing 5 tonnes, which have also been restored. Their elaborately-worked panels show the town’s coat of arms, featuring the head of John the Baptist and the inscription ‘Halig Feax’, meaning Holy Hair, which gave the town its name. According to some historians, John’s head (which you will remember was removed on the orders of Salome, she of the 7 veils) somehow found its way to Halifax and is buried in the area. (We shall choose to ignore experts preferring a more prosaic explanation.) Above John’s head is the agnus dei, the lamb of God, tipping a wink at its brothers and sisters on the nearby hills, and among the different floral decorations are blooms which surely must depict the white roses of Yorkshire…
A final footnote: the hall had a long and varied history, finding itself about to hit the scrap heap in the early seventies. It was saved by one man, Councillor Keith Ambler, whose impassioned plea to preserve such an important piece of history finally carried the day. Chapeau, Mr Ambler. More fascinating details can be found on:
Today I’m very excited and honoured to be invited on that great blog for readers and writers, The Story Reading Ape. Chris Graham is Chief Ape, and here’s how he describes himself:
“My literature Hero is Terry Pratchett who, in one of his Science of Discworld books, postulated that Homo Sapiens Sapiens survived all the pitfalls that made other Homo Sapiens species become extinct, by being story telling apes.
If this is the case, then in order to be effective, for every story telling ape there had to be a story listening ape.
I am descended from them, except I read stories instead of listening to them; and authors are the tellers of the stories I read.
I don’t so much read books as devour them, (sometimes re-devouring them several times), so I’ve set myself a long term task, to list all the books I’ve ever read on Goodreads – trouble is I’ve got the memory of a sieve and I must have read thousands of them!”
Apart from his interviews with authors and links to free e-books, there’s so much more on Chris’s site, including dozens of posts about writing. I’d like to re-blog his article, but as followers of my blog will know only too well, I’m a non-techie, or a ‘TechnoKlutz’, in the words of blogger Loretta Livingstone. So as I can’t figure out how to re-blog the piece, here’s the introductory paragraph, plus a link to the full article.
Merci beaucoup Chris!
Meet Guest Author, Laurette Long…
Hello readers, I’m Laurette Long, author of The French Summer Novels and I’m writing this sitting in a garden full of rosemary and lavender, admiring the sun slipping behind the hilltop village across the valley and waiting for the nightingale to tune up. Before it gets dark I might stroll down the field to pick a handful of figs–making sure to stamp loudly to warn any sleeping snakes. Where am I? Sometimes I have to pinch myself. They say Life’s a journey. How did that journey take me from a council house in west Yorkshire to a hamlet in south-west France?
‘Alexandra had frozen. Juliet grabbed her friend and pulled her underneath a stone arch leading into a cobbled passageway.
Dusk was falling. They were both feeling panicky now, turning to glance behind them from time to time, their hurried footsteps echoing on the cobblestones. But no-one followed. The street had a deserted air, like an abandoned film set; the tall buildings that lined either side were dark and lifeless, no lights showing, the only illumination coming from old iron lamps hanging from brackets above closed doorways.
Somewhere a distant church clock chimed the hour. Cinq à sept. The expression sprang into Juliet’s mind. ‘Five-till-seven’, the name the French gave to that cloudy window in time between leaving work and returning to the conjugal home, those delicious, illicit hours when lovers slipped into nameless hotels and creaking beds, tasting together the forbidden fruit of adulterous passion
The end of the passage came in sight, opening on to another busy boulevard with flashing neon lights and lines of jammed cars. Increasing their pace, relieved now, they both glanced instinctively to the left where a light stood out, a solitary illuminated rectangle in the dark façade. To its right, a door stood half-open beneath a flickering sign. ‘Hôtel’. They stopped abruptly, unable to tear their eyes from the scene on the other side of the window.
Turning the corner, Alexandra exhaled, closed her eyes for a second then opened them. The glow of a streetlamp fell on the metal plaque affixed to the wall.
Passage du Désir.
The Passage of Desire.
(Extract from The Passage of Desire)
‘Passage du Désir’. What a perfect name for an imaginary street in Paris where two naïve young English girls glimpse an erotic scene through the half-shuttered window of a shady hotel…
Except that the street is real, and if you take a trip to Paris you can find it in the 10th arrondissement, not far from the Gare de l’Est Metro station, a narrow, ancient thoroughfare bisected by the bustling boulevard de Strasbourg.
Previously known as Allée du Puits/Impasse du Puits, (‘puits’ meaning a well), it acquired its current name in 1789. Why the change to a passage named Desire? A browse through the history books is an invitation to let your imagination wander. Was the passage, as some rumours have it, home to a ‘maison de passe’ (brothel) for officers in Napoleon’s army? A place where, for the space of a few hours, they could forget about the horrors of war in the soft embrace of a lady of the night?
A certain M. Lefeuve, in 1863, describes it as leading to a ‘place of pleasure’, referring to one or more of its small hotels in which ‘gallantry had set up shop’. Adding spice to the mix are the names of neighbouring streets: la rue de la Fidelité, la rue de Paradis – one the reward of the other? Or the two, alas, incompatible? And not far away lies the rue Saint-Denis, one of the oldest red-light districts in Paris.
But it was not while exploring the streets of Paris that I first came across the name. The Passage du Désir is part of the history of le Maître de Maison (MDM), whose role as Master of the House has been mentioned at various times on this blog (bat-catcher, dog-trainer, descendant of Périgord Man). It was in this cobbled passage that his grandfather (member of the Périgord branch) had found a place to live when he came to Paris from the country, in search of work.
Recalling visits to Grand-Père’s appartment in the late 1950s, the young MDM hardly gave a thought to the name of the street. Instead, these visits were marked by two vivid and unforgettable childhood memories: the Terrifying Ordeal of the Water Closet and the Unrivalled Pleasures of the Source.
The water closet ordeal was a trial that had to be endured when, after wriggling uncomfortably for ten minutes on a hard wooden chair in Grand-Pere’s gloomy kitchen you realised with a sinking heart that the inevitable could no longer be put off. You Just Had To Go. Along the narrow corridor, through the squeaking door, and into the dim recesses of the WC, in which was enthroned the ancestral toilet. But where was the cistern, with its handy little flush button you tugged on when you’d finished? This was a different set up altogether. A pipe ran upwards from the toilet bowl; at its top, amid the cobwebby rafters, lurked a menacing contraption to which was attached a rusty chain. The result, when you finally summoned the courage to stand on tiptoe and pull it, was a mini-explosion, a deafening roar signalling a torrent of foaming water surely unrivalled even by the mighty falls of Niagara (read about with interest in The National Geographic Magazine). Hearing the first distant rumble, you just had time to wrench open the door and run like the devil back to the kitchen, escaping yet again the perils of the whirlpool of Charybdis frothing up the sides of the bowl…
But the unpredictable hasards of bathroom trips were worth braving for the almost unbearable anticipation of what lay in store on the boulevard itself, before turning into the Passage.
Number 60, Boulevard de Strasbourg. Ali Baba’s cavern, an emporium of dreams for children big and small, packed with the most amazing, the most desirable, the most exciting objects imaginable. Flying machines, sailing ships, trains, steam engines, Dinky toys to drool over and yearn for, balsa wood models to build at home, spread out on a newspaper-covered table, pot of glue to hand…
You had arrived at The Source.
A La Source des Inventions.
To be continued….
I’d like to thank two very generous people I found on my Internet searches and contacted about re-using their photos. They both responded immediately, granting not only permission, but offering further help if needed:
-Patrice, who gave me all the photos from his Tripadvisor review of the Passage. Travellers, check out his reviews, plus his amazing collection of 25 000 photos, many of Paris, at
-Joël, who offered to re-scan the photos on his website to give me better quality images. Joël can be found at le Site des trains-jouets, a must for all classic model train enthusiasts (oh you Hornby fans), versions in English and other languages as well as French.
August means figs. Sunday means lunch. And lolling about doing nothing. The temperature’s a balmy 26° with a warm breeze, the terrace beckons…
The solution is an all-in-one Sunday lunch such as braised Guinea fowl with figs, sweet potatoes, shallots and garlic, put on to cook slowly while the chef enjoys a coffee or three with her feet up.
First, shoot your Guinea fowl (vegetarians stop reading HERE), or, like me, order one from the butcher, a free-range beauty with a red beak and black feet from the Gers, home of France’s finest poultry (OK, there’s those chickens from Bresse…).
Second, pick your figs, making sure to stamp feet loudly when approaching tree at bottom of field to warn sleeping snakes. Third, prepare the bird. In my case this means shouting ‘au secours’ to the Maître de Maison to come and remove head, feet and entrails. I have not yet got my Elizabeth David qualification in Close Encounters with Scaly Claws, Coxcombs and Gizzards, but in any case it’s the rational division of labour, the Maître de Maison having one branch of the family hailing directly from the Périgord and thus being genetically programmed to deal with the slaughter of woolly mammoths. A small bird poses no problem.
Today, though, he is grumpy as I have interrupted his artistic pursuits painting the shutters. So far he’s only done the undercoat; I’m half-expecting a frieze of leaping antelopes for the final version in sage green.
Once the bird is looking more presentable (your butcher will do this for you in advance if no Perigordians handy), salt and pepper the insides. Prepare the vegetables: peel sweet potatoes and chop into largish chunks, leave garlic and shallots in their ‘robe des champs’, their ‘field-dress’, i.e. with their skins on. For years I misheard this expression and imagined them cooking slowly in their dressing-gowns (robe de chambre). Throw giblets into saucepan to be eaten separately/used to supplement sauce and simmer till cooked.
Get your cast-iron casserole heating on stove with a small amount of olive oil and brown the bird on all sides. Ditto the veg, but hold the figs. Season with salt, pepper and sprig of thyme. Slosh in a dollop of something sweet, fruity and alcoholic and boil off alcohol over high heat for about two minutes. I used port this time, but have also tried with Madeira or sweet sherry. In French Country Cooking (1950) Elizabeth David* says ‘there is no French cooking without wine’ and her recipe for Duck with Figs begins: ‘Put 16 fresh figs to marinate in a half bottle of sauternes for 24 hours…’
After the alcohol has boiled off, stir in a cupful of water, put lid on casserole and place into a pre-heated 210° fan oven. After 10 minutes, take out, have a look, add a bit more water if necessary and put everything back again, this time at 180°. Cooking time will depend on the weight of the bird, use an oven-thermometer or, as a rough guess, 20 minutes to the pound and 20 minutes over. Mine weighed in at 2 kg and was ready in 2 ¼ hours. Check on progress every 30 minutes, turning the bird, adding water if necessary. Throw in figs for the last 30 minutes to allow to keep their shape and a bit of crunch.
Go and sit in garden and enjoy your coffee.
To serve: remove bird and veg onto warm serving platter, reduce sauce if necessary on top of stove, skimming off fat (these birds are quite fatty) and adding some of water from giblets. Serve sauce separately or ladle over meat. The sweet potatoes will have miraculously transformed themselves into a sort of chunky orange mash, flavoured with garlic, and the shallots will be deliciously tender inside their field-dress. Serve with a good red wine (we opened a Côte de Nuits).
NB: Before carving, you may want to fortify yourself with a Kir Royal.
Today’s post is a tribute to one of my heroines, Simone Veil. Since I started blogging in January 2015, it’s been a huge pleasure, an indulgence really, to write mostly in light-hearted vein about the things that interest me with no constraints of time or choice of subject. But occasionally topics would intrude that had to be treated more seriously, and today’s post has given me, to be frank, a major headache. How to reduce to 2000 (and a bit more) words a piece that conveys, in the best possible way, all the million things that needed saying about a woman who has been an inspiration for more than 50 years, not just to me, but to millions?
After 15 highly unsatisfactory drafts, here goes. Today would have been her 90th birthday. Tomorrow is le quatorze juillet, Bastille Day, the Fête Nationale here in France. As a very minor part of the celebrations, I’m happy to say you can download my book of blogs, A View From The Tarn, free from 14 to 16 July (details at the end of the post).
Bonne fête, bonne lecture and vive la France!
‘Nousvous aimons, Madame.’
With the three simple words ‘we love you’, Jean D’Ormesson, welcomed Simone Veil* to the ‘temple of the French language’, the French Academy, in March 2010.
On June 30th this year as news of her death broke in France, his sentiment was echoed in the tributes of an entire nation. In a world of political tarnish, Simone Veil gleamed gold. She was respected, adored, revered even. In the outpouring of emotion on June 30th, many said they were ‘in mourning’ for one who will remain ‘immortal’. Today, July 13th, would have been her 90th birthday.
Who was this extraordinary woman with an extraordinary destiny, a woman who, for the space of a few days, achieved the miracle of uniting a country renowned, particularly of late, for its bitter quarrels and divisions? The woman whose beauty left admirers lost for words, and who, with one look from her turquoise eyes could make grown men tremble and inspire adoration in those who had lost hope?
We all need role models, examples, people who set a standard, who inspire us to do our best. Heroes and heroines. Open any magazine and you’ll see the latest contenders. Personalities from the world of arts and culture, from popular entertainment. How many come from the world of politics? And how many will stand the test of time?
The Panthéon, in Paris, is the resting place for many who have left their imprint on French history: Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Jean Jaurès, Marie Curie, Jean Moulin…The latest to join them is Simone Veil, who, growing up as Simone Jacob, youngest of four children in a secular Jewish family living in Nice, could hardly have imagined that one day she would be laid to rest in their company, an inspiration for both men and women, a true French heroine.
Back to March, 2010. In the solemn ceremony marking the election of a new member to one of France’s most august institutions, Simone Veil, like those before her, wore the traditional costume of the Academy, ‘l’habit vert’, and carried the traditional sword. But her sword was engraved with a number: 78651. It was the same as that on her left arm, the tattoo she received on April 15th 1944, arriving at the extermination camp of Auschwitz Birkenau. She was 16. Although she would survive and go on to become a great stateswoman in the country from which she was deported, her mother Yvonne, her brother Jean, and father André would never return to their homeland. They were part of the six million murdered simply because they were Jews.
Two striking characteristics of Simone Veil were her humanity and her passion for justice. In her lucid and moving biography, Une Vie**, she says that her experience as a deportee gave her ‘an acute sensitivity to everything that, in our human relations with one another, leads to the humiliation and abasement of others.’ This awareness gave her a special perspective which rejected all extremes and aimed at reconciliation between often contradictory concepts. Nicolas Sarkozy, protégé and close friend, described her as ‘adhering to no ideology, having paid too high a price herself for the madness of ideologues.’ In a television interview she talked about ‘being on the left’ for some issues, ‘on the right’ for others. She was a traditionalist who believed in progress, a woman whose past was overshadowed by tragedy but who looked to the future with hope; in the words of D’Ormesson ‘la tradition même, et la modernité incarnée’ (the embodiment of tradition, and the incarnation of modernity).
Recalling that first terrible day at Auschwitz, she describes how she, her mother, and sister Milou, along with other women, were herded into the showers, then dumped onto benches, naked, while the ‘kapos’ paraded up and down in front of them, laughing, making humiliating comments about their appearance and prodding their bare flesh like housewives choosing meat at the butcher’s. ‘We were comic figures for a jeering audience,’ as another survivor put it. In an image which conveys the nightmare of those hours Simone Veil says it was like ‘the horror of suddenly finding yourself in a medieval painting, one of those where you are in the group of people who have fallen into hell.’
She never forgot the smell of Auschwitz–‘fetid, made up of rot and mud and the smell of the smoke from the crematorium…We lived enveloped in the permanent stench of burning’. (In a tragic parallel, my last post was about the Cathars who, 800 years previously, also paid the price of being different through relentless persecution and burnings.) What impression must all of this have made on a young girl who grew up ‘in a paradise’, breathing the perfumed air and sea breezes of Nice, that vibrant, beautiful city on the dazzling Riviera? As they were stripped of their possessions by the guards, one of her friends hung on to a small bottle of perfume. ‘They’re going to take it,’ she said. ‘But I’m not going to give it to them.’ And the young women splashed themselves from head to toe in Lanvin’s famous perfume, Arpège, a last gesture of defiant femininity before they would have to put on the rags of the dispossessed.
How did she, and others like her, manage not just to survive such a hell, but to find a way to go on afterwards, more victors than victims? This is a major theme of two outstanding novels written in 2016 by authors Paulette Mahurin and Anita Nasr***. It’s echoed in W. E. Henley’s poem of 1875, Invictus**** with its mantra ‘I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul’. Writing about the carefree ‘joie de vivre’ of her childhood, the warmth and unity of family life, her education in civic values, Simone Veil concludes ‘we received the best arms with which to face life.’ Elsewhere she talks about the human capacity to preserve the will to live, the strength to live. Her mother, who died of typhus on the death march from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen one month before the liberation of the camps, remained an eternal role model for her daughter. ‘She was,’ she says, ‘good and generous…’ Simone was younger, harder, more of a rebel. She defended her mother from those who tried to steal her food and, on the terrible march through the snow, from those who tried to hang on to her for support. She only remembers crying twice, once when she was reprimanded by Milou, the second time when she found out her other sister, Denise, was still alive*****. What we experienced she says, was ‘beyond tears’.
The flint and the fire. It was this toughness and this baptism of fire that reinforced the ideals that would guide her through life, a respect for others and their differences, and a desire to create a better world where what she and millions had suffered would never be repeated. She would demonstrate time after time in her future career that her aim was not to please, not to follow a party-political line, but to listen to her conscience. And in a life of battles, the year 1974 would stand out, as she prepared one of the most controversial laws in French history.
But that was still in the future. In 1945 Simone Jacob returned to France where she discovered with bewilderment that many simply did not want to talk about what had happened. Even worse was the reaction in some quarters that, because she and other had survived, this was obvious proof that ‘things weren’t as bad as all that.’ For months she experienced a feeling of unreality and disconnection. Fortunately she was soon to meet the man she married, and who would remain her rock and companion for 67 years, Antoine Veil. With him she founded a family, and after the birth of her third son, she made the decision to return to her studies and a future career. (This was against her husband’s wishes, but Simone had a way of persuading people round to her ideas…)
The Simone of legend was on the move. Her initial fight, after becoming a magistrate, was to obtain better conditions for prisoners. But as she rose through the ranks to the post of Minister of Health in the new government of Giscard D’Estaing, she approached the first of the truly important battles that would stand out as landmarks in her personal career and in the history of France.
The country was changing. It had gone through the social upheaval of May 1968; the woman’s movement was gaining momentum. In 1971, a shock manifesto hit the pages of Le Nouvel Observateur magazine. Written by Simone De Beauvoir, it was signed by 343 women who all admitted to having had abortions. Their aim was to pressurise the government into legalising a risky procedure undertaken every year by thousands of women, those who couldn’t afford the price of a legal abortion abroad. In 1972 events took an even more dramatic turn when human rights lawyer Gisèle Halimi defended a 16-year-old girl charged with having an illegal abortion after being raped by one of her schoolmates.
Something had to be done. Giscard, and his Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, knew the topic was highly controversial for the majority of their party members. Who to entrust with the unpopular job of trying to change the law?
‘We can no longer close our eyes to the 300, 000 abortions which, every year, mutilate the women of this country’. These were Simone Veil’s words to a packed National Assembly consisting of 481 male deputies and 9 females on November 26, 1974.
There followed a marathon debate of unprecedented violence lasting three days and two nights. Melodramatic speeches and demonstrations took place. A recording of the heartbeats of a foetus was passed round the chamber, with the prophecy that the law, if passed, would produce twice as many victims every year as the bomb on Hiroshima. Simone Veil herself was subjected to abuse and insults with references to embryos ‘thrown into ovens’, abattoirs piled with the corpses of ‘little men’, ‘Nazi barbarity’ and even ‘genocide’. She was insulted in the street, her children were threatened and her home and car daubed with swastikas.
Yet she continued to plead her case with unflagging courage and lucidity. ‘No woman undertakes an abortion lightly,’ she told the Assembly. Refusing to descend to the level of insults of her opponents, she reiterated her faith in the younger generation: ‘they are courageous, capable of enthusiasm and sacrifices like anyone else. Let us put our trust in them…’******
It’s tempting to imagine that, after facing humiliation from the female kapos at Auschwitz, the insults of a bunch of bigoted men didn’t count for much in the grander scheme of things. But the ordeal took its toll. In a 2004 interview she admits she never imagined being the object of such intense hatred, and one famous clip shows her with her head in her hands. For many, however, the enduring image of that time is of an erect, dignified figure in trademark Chanel and pearls, hair swept back in an impeccable chignon, looking for all the world like the person she was, a wife, a mother, a member of the middle classes, ‘la traditionmême’ yet, at the same time, ‘la modernité incarnée.’
On November 29th, 1974, the Loi Veil was adopted by 284 votes to 189. Bloody, but unbowed, Madame la Ministre could breathe for a while before getting caught up in the two other major tasks that awaited her: the vital preservation of the past, a memorial to the Holocaust, the Foundation for the Memory of Shoah, of which she would be president for five years, and the creation of the new: the re-unification of Europe, and Franco-German reconciliation.
In Une Vie she writes that she never really got over her mother’s death. ‘Every day she is with me, and what I have done is thanks to her.’ In 1945, as Yvonne lay dying, she said ‘Ne veuillez jamais de mal aux autres, noussavons trop ce que c’est’ (never wish harm to others, we know what that means only too well). When, in 1979, Simone Veil was elected first President of the brand new European Parliament, it was the memory of her mother that spurred her to battle for the dignity and freedom of future generations, and their right to a world of ‘never again’.
Her disappearance comes at a time when the European dream has dimmed for many initially carried along by the wave of optimism she symbolised in 1979. On the wider political scene, with its posturing narcissists and vulgar brawlers, it’s hard to think of anyone who comes near the standards set for more than half a century by this modest woman, number 78651, who once said ‘I have the feeling that, the day I die, my last thoughts will be of the Holocaust.’ In the moving eulogy given by her son, Pierre-François, he recounts that her last word to those gathered by her bedside was ‘Merci.’
Note: Minutes after posting this I learnt that Simone Veil died today. She’d been on my list of blog subjects for ages, such an amazing and inspirational person that I was lost for words to write about her. Today’s post about religious persecution is perhaps a fitting way to say ‘au revoir’ to this unforgettable lady, who survived Auschwitz and went on to become an icon for women everywhere. Simone Veil, 13 July 1927 – 30 June 2017.
I might have let slip that I’m a huge fan of Michel de Montaigne. How about this thought for the day from the great Renaissance humanist?
‘Si la vie n’est qu’un passage, sur ce passageau moins semons des fleurs.’ (If life is but a passage, then at least let us sow flowers along our way.)
The history of mankind, however, has shown that not everyone agrees with this way of seeing the world. A more appropriate quotation for this month’s blog comes from another favourite writer, Voltaire, in a letter to his old friend Lecornier de Cideville in 1754.
‘Ce monde-ci est un vaste naufrage; sauve qui peut; mais je suis bien loin du rivage!’ (This world of ours is a vast shipwreck; every man for himself; personally I’m a long way from the shore!’)
The April blog ended with the promise to resume, in May, with Part 2 of ‘L’Autoroute des Deux Mers’ as it entered les Corbières, a part of Cathar country which, eight centuries ago, was the theatre of one of the bloodiest struggles in the history of Occitania. The battles that were fought over two interpretations of one religion ended in a devastating trail of burnings and massacres, a lesson from those who considered themselves to have the right answer to those who disagreed. And the reason Part 2 is late is that during the past weeks I, like others, have been demoralised to the point of silence by acts committed in Manchester, London and elsewhere, as more recent pages of history have been branded with the mark of atrocities committed under the banner of another religious ideology.
In 1975 a relatively unknown French historian called Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, published a book about a small village in the high Pyrenees. Montaillou, village occitan de 1294 à 1324’ (Montaillou, an Occitanian village, 1294 to 1324) recounts the daily life of this medieval rural community of 200 people, farmers, shepherds and mountain men.
To everyone’s surprise (including the author and his publisher) the book became an international best seller. Interest in regional history, in particular the Cathars, was undergoing a revival, and Ladurie’s book, with its detailed picture of this peaceful, progressive, egalitarian community, its complex social organisation and fascinating local characters, brought a unique perspective to this mysterious ‘branch’ of Christianity. It was based on the records kept by Jacques Fournier, Bishop of Pamiers (later Pope Benoit XII), the zealous Inquisitor tasked by the Catholic church to root out the heretics in this ‘Cathar-infested’ community. But what happened in Montaillou was the end of the story. Fournier, like his fellow Inquisitors in the region, was busy hammering the final nails into the coffin of a ‘heresy’ which, until the end of the 12th century, had coexisted peacefully alongside traditional Catholicism in the Midi.
So how did it all start? Why did the Cathars suddenly come under the scrutiny of Rome? One reason was the movement`s success. Albi, Agen, Toulouse, Carcassonne Mirepoix, Limoux-large swathes of the Languedoc had been seduced by this interpretation of Christianity. It was a spreading ‘leprosy’ that had to be cut out before it went further. Looking at what happened from a 21st century perspective (and not a little influenced by George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones), I’m guessing that human nature hasn’t changed all that much, and that some aspects of Catharism more than others must have been particularly alarming to the established church. One was the idea that the relationship between believers and their God was personal, private and direct. It had no need of a hierarchy of self-appointed interpreters, particularly those who surrounded themselves with pomp and riches.
Along with this anti-clericalism was the practice of an ascetic, spiritual way of life as a way of transcending an earthly domain dominated by Satan. The ‘bons hommes’ and ‘bonnes femmes’ were tolerant and non-violent, but they firmly believed that their version of Christianity was the true one. (In one of those fascinating historical and literary loops, over in the east of France another ‘heretical’ movement was also growing. The Waldensians make an appearance in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, along with Inquisitor Bernard Gui, who happened to be the Inquisitor in Toulouse from 1307 to1323 and who, like Fournier, kept detailed records of his interrogations.)*
One can see how, at the time, all of this would have been a serious pain in the Papal derrière. If things carried on unchecked, a lot of people would be moving out of their sumptuous free housing, abandoning their well-stocked wine cellars and making their way to the medieval job centre. What was to be done about those rebellious Occitans, Cathar communities and the uppity, independent southern counts and viscounts who supported them, who didn’t speak ‘proper’ French, and who had somehow resisted all attempts to be brought back on the right path?
And therein lay another problem. Centuries later, Riquet, planning his Canal du Midi through the same territory, was flummoxed by a geographical handicap, the watershed at Naurouze. In medieval times, an equally vexatious watershed divided north from south, this one linguistic. The Northerners spoke the language of ‘oil’, while the southerners spoke the language of ‘oc’ (‘oil’ and ‘oc’ being the words for ‘yes’). The land of ‘oc’ (Languedoc) at that time extended roughly southwards from Bordeaux almost to Nice; and its lilting, musical language was that of the troubadours and their lyric poetry. In the Dictionnaire of 1762, the word ‘patois’, meaning non-standard French, is defined as ‘rustic, vulgar language as spoken by peasants or lower orders’ **.
History is full of examples of what happens when one lot of people start thinking things another lot don’t agree with. A frustrated Pope Innocent III, having in vain tried to get the Occitans to change their ways, decided enough was enough when one of his Papal legates, having failed to get the Count of Toulouse to toe the line, was mysteriously murdered on his way back to Rome. He appealed to the men in the north, the King of France and his vassals. The dogs of war were unleashed and a terrible revenge descended on the rich and fertile lands of the Midi. The days were numbered for this courtly society where religious tolerance was practised and the arts flourished.
In 1209 thousands of northerners donned the Crusader’s cross and marched south down the valley of the Rhone. We all know about the Crusades, right? All those books and films about the heroic time in the Middle Ages when brave and chivalrous knights set out for the Holy Land to fight against Saladin. Richard the Lionheart, Ivanhoe, Robin Hood…
But these French crusaders were not marching to defend the Holy Land. They were marching against their fellow countrymen. The Albigensian crusade was under way, flying the flag of the true faith against the Cathar heretics. Their noble mission was of course spurred on by the usual baser motives. Crusading may have been a way of getting to heaven but it was also a way of getting rich. Those nobles of the Midi, the Counts of Toulouse, the Trencavel family of Carcassonne, long engaged in their own political chess, were masters of rich territories that were not subject to the French crown.
The military struggle would last for decades until Toulouse, and the devastated and blackened countryside around, would finally belong to the King of France after the signing of the 1229 Treaty of Paris. After that would come the second, equally terrifying, prong of the attack, the Inquisition. By 1330, with the last turn of the Inquisitorial screw, the Cathars of Languedoc were finished.
We started our journey to the A61 north east of Toulouse in Lavaur, the peaceful market town which has been home for the past six years. Spring is a particularly beautiful season with gardens and hedgerows bursting with pink and white blossom. It`s hard to imagine what took place here in May 1211, two years after the Crusaders had first been let loose in the south. Lavaur was an important Cathar stronghold. In a terrible punishment for its intransigence the biggest bonfire of the whole campaign took place, with 400 heretics burned at the stake, 80 knights hanged in violation of the chivalric code, and the town’s Chatelaine, Dame Guiraude, handed over to the soldiers before being thrown down a well and stoned to death. The leader of the troops was a man called Simon De Montfort
But back to July 1209. The first city to feel the weight of the sword was Béziers, near the Mediterranean, where four centuries later Pierre-Paul Riquet would be born, and later build his incredible staircase of locks. The sack of Béziers was particularly horrifying. The town was heavily fortified and the local population had taken refuge inside the walls, refusing to hand over the Cathars. But there was a slip up; the defences were breached and the mob rushed inside the walls, killing and plundering indiscriminately. The leader of the troops, Papal Legate Arnaud Amaury, asked how to distinguish Cathars from Catholics, gave the infamous reply ‘Kill them all, God will know his own.’ In this first shock victory for the Crusaders, an estimated 20,000 people were massacred.
From Béziers the army wheeled into the Corbières, a great machine destroying everything in its path. The rugged, bleakly imposing landscape, parts of it unchanged over the last 800 years, is a fittingly dramatic backdrop to the atrocities carried out here. From the Autoroute des Deux Mers there are glimpses of ruined fortresses on hilltops, forlorn reminders of more doomed sieges. The Cathar way, running from Port-la-Nouvelle on the Mediterranean to Foix in the foothills of the Pyrenees, takes in the dramatic sites of Quéribus, Peyrepertuse and Montségur, medieval ‘villages in the sky’. Montségur, built on a rocky hilltop at 1207 metres, fell after a siege lasting 10 months. 225 ‘bonshommes’ were burned at the stake. Quéribus, defying gravity on a rocky ridge, was the last to secede, in 1255.
But the most coveted and perhaps the most spectacular of all Cathar strongholds in the Corbières was that of Carcassonne, the seat of Viscount Raymond-Roger de Trencavel. It appears on the left as you drive down the A 61, inevitably bringing a gasp of surprise from those who have never seen it before. Fallen into a sad pile of rubble, the fortified city was rebuilt in the 19th century by Violett-le-Duc in a 60-year long restauration project, and if you pull off the motorway and park at the viewpoint you’d think you were looking at a fairy-tale castle in a Disney film 😉 *** The air is full of the sound of cicadas and the smell of hot pine-needles, and in front of you, set against the shimmering blue of the distant mountains, a dreamlike vision rises from the vines, its slate turrets and stone ramparts transporting you back to the world of childhood, and stories of knights, castles, minstrels and troubadours.
In August 1209, de Trencavel and his knights watched and waited, stunned by the news from Béziers. The city had been expected to hold for forty days, the standard length of service for crusaders. De Trencavel’s hopes, that the army continuing on to Carcassonne would be much reduced in size, had been crushed. Now thousands of people had taken refuge inside the walls as a crushing heatwave descended on the region. On their arrival, the Crusaders occupied the bank of the River Aude, cutting off the water supply. Dysentery and typhoid broke out. With the situation worsening, deTrencavel offered himself as hostage in exchange for the free departure of those under his protection. Amaury allowed them to leave in what they were standing up in, then threw de Trencavel into the dungeons where he died three months later. The city and its fiefdoms were handed to a Catholic knight, Simon de Montfort.
Having completed their 40 days of service, many barons now went home. But De Montfort stayed on. He would become one of the richest of the conquerors, pursuing his campaigns with a zeal and a bitter relentlessness which made him the terror of Occitania. Ambitious, pitiless, he continued to burn and massacre until 1218, when he was killed during the siege of Toulouse, with some versions of the story recounting that the stone which fatally injured him was launched from the barricades by a woman…
With Carcassonne and the Corbières behind us, neat round silhouettes of pins parasols signal the approach to the Mediterranean. The Autoroute des Deux Mers is ending. Just north of Narbonne the road splits as we hit the A9, the motorway which runs along the coast between France’s natural barriers, the Pyrenees and the Alps.
We turn right, heading west, down through the vineyards of Fitou towards the snapping flags and screaming gulls of the Côte Vermeil. Canigou, Mountain of the Gods, dominates the horizon, its snow-capped peak dazzling against a cerulean sky. Signs announce we’re on La Catalane, the motorway through Catalonia, the province at the Mediterranean end of the Pyrenean range, with one foot in France and the other in Spain. It’s a province with its own language, Catalan, and its traditional dance, the sardana.
At the other end of the Pyrenees lies the Atlantic Ocean, where another region straddles the frontier between two countries, one with an even more mysterious culture and language, le pays basque.
On one side, the ghostly whalers of the Atlantic, on the other, the ships of Ulysses drifting across the wine dark sea.
But that’s another story, and another journey through history.
*An excellent, detailed account of Catharism can be found in Sean Martin’s book: The Cathars.
** Graham Robb, in his fascinating book The Discovery of France (thank you Margaret W. for this gift!) explains it all from a historical point of view. For a thrilling fictional account of 12th century political and religious intrigue, plus a great love story, read Jean’s Gill’s Song at Dawn, Book 1 of The Troubadour Quartet.
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour…
The Canterbury Tales: The Prologue, opening lines
Geoffrey Chaucer, genial English troubadour of the 14th century, tells us that burgeoning April is the time that ‘folk long to go on pilgrimages’. But for us lucky dwellers in the home of French troubadours, Occitania, March is the month to take to the road and head south, eager to enjoy the first greening of the branches and the spectacle of the almond blossom. The amandier is one of the earliest trees to flower, its shimmering bridal bouquets of pink and white heralding the approach of spring along with the sherbet fizz of mimosa in bloom.
Early March found us setting off down the southern section of the Autoroute des Deux Mers, the Motorway of the Two Seas (las doas mars in Occitan), the road link between Atlantic and Mediterranean. The A62 section goes from Bordeaux to Toulouse, the A61 from Toulouse to Narbonne. During my many years as an adoptive Toulousaine, the A61 was the weekend escape route to sea and sun. Throw a toothbrush and swimsuit into a bag, head off straight after work on a Friday evening, and you could be at the coast in time for an aperitif au bord de la mer in less than an hour and a half.
But the A61 is not just a fast way to get to the waters of la Grande Bleue. It is also a reminder of some of the most fascinating pages in the history of this part of Languedoc. Today’s blog covers the first part of our March journey, through the Lauragais, past Castelnaudary, into the Aude and the beginning of the Corbières.
In 1662, Pierre-Paul Riquet, a man with a head full of projects and dreams, wrote a famous letter to Colbert, Finance Minister for Louis XIV, outlining his idea for the construction of a ‘royal canal of Languedoc’, linking France’s two great ‘seas’.
At the time, he was living in a chateau near Toulouse, known today as the Château Bonrepos-Riquet. One hundred years earlier, another chateau dweller, Michel De Montaigne, had left us a vivid record of the kind of man he was through his writings. But Riquet The Man is harder to pin down. Historians have portrayed him variously as over-ambitious, a dreamer claiming to act through divine inspiration, a misunderstood genius, and a wily player who managed to overcome different obstacles thrown in his path, mostly from Colbert himself who initially approved Riquet’s plans, but who then kept sending inspectors from Paris to check up on him, even considering replacing him for the second phase of work. The exchange of letters between the two men show numerous disagreements, as well as Riquet’s temerity in frequently disobeying Colbert’s instructions.
My own picture of Riquet, the 17th century man of my imagination, has taken shape through what is known of his practical achievements, notably his wonderful legacy to inhabitants of successive centuries, the Canal du Midi.
First, there is Riquet the visionary and problem-solver, the man with the ambition, ingenuity and tenacity to bring to fruition a project that had long shimmered like an unattainable mirage in the minds of many before him. The Romans, Charlemagne, various French kings, had all dreamed of a waterway linking France’s west and southeastern coasts. If such a link could be built, as Riquet proposed, in the form of a canal, its economic and political significance would be enormous. Merchandise from the Mediterranean would no longer have to travel by ship on the long, hazardous voyage through the Spanish-controlled Straits of Gibraltar and round the Atlantic coast in order to reach Bordeaux and the west.
When he finally received official approval for work to begin, in 1666, Riquet had already started a series of experiments near his chateau in Bonrepos. He was in his sixties, rich, married with five children. He was at a time of life when most people, particularly in those days, would be thinking about putting their feet up and enjoying the fruits of a successful life and career. A spot of hunting, a nice glass of claret in the evening, banquets and balls at the weekend, leisurely strolls through the grounds to check on the progress of his park and formal gardens.
But instead he had been messing about in the 17th century equivalent of green wellies, testing his theories with a 300-metre model of his dream project, a prototype complete with reservoirs and channels. Why? Because the most difficult obstacle he would face, if ever work got started, would concern an unbudgeable geographical feature bang on the route of his projected canal.
In 1857, almost two hundred years after the opening of the Canal du Midi, bargemen were able to see trains speeding past on the new railway line from Toulouse to Sète. Today, tourists on barge holidays can also see cars, whizzing along the nearby motorway.
We join the A61 south of Toulouse, at Villefranche-de-Lauragais, and within minutes a sign announces we are crossing the Seuil de Naurouze. This is the symbolic moment the traveller leaves behind the rolling hills and wheat fields of ‘Atlantic’ France to join the cypresses, vines and olives of the Mediterranean. It is the highest point between Toulouse and the coast, the partage des eaux, where the water naturally divides, flowing on one side towards the western ocean and on the other towards the sea. It was this watershed that, in the 1660s, proved the biggest headache for Riquet. If we look to the left, beyond the canal, we see in the distance the looming mass of the Montagne Noire, the Black Mountains crucial to his success.
We know that Riquet was both a cultivated man and a man of the country. Born to an upper-class family in Béziers in 1609-ish (the date is disputed), he showed a keen interest in scientific studies. Through his career in the Languedoc salt trade, where he was responsible for transporting and storing the salt and collecting taxes due on it, he travelled widely in the area, settling, in 1648, in the town of Revel, in the Montagne Noire. It was here that he explored the countryside, observing the different mountain watercourses, noting their geographical and natural features and the possibilities of harnessing their power. Fortified by his subsequent experiments in Bonrepos, he became convinced that the water of the Montagne Noire could be used to feed into the canal at the Seuil de Naurouze and thus overcome the problem of the divided water flow.
We may also surmise that Riquet was an inspiring leader, one who was able to convince others of the feasibility of his theories, imbue them with enthusiasm for the project, while intelligent enough to realise his technical limitations and enlist the help of experts in the field, notably Pierre Campmas and François Andréossy. Once approval had been granted by a king who shared his ambition to leave a mark on history, Riquet threw himself into the project. From now on he would spend the rest of his days working to construct this marvel of engineering, ruining both his health and his finances along the way. In the Montagne Noire a channel system was devised to bring the water from the slopes and into the Lac de St-Férreol, where a huge dam was built, creating a reservoir whose waters were taken to Naurouze along a long supply channel, la Rigole de la Plaine. The first phase of the canal, from Toulouse to Trèbes, was completed in 1672.
The second phase got under way, with Riquet’s debts mounting. The whole project was gigantic, lasting for 15 years, encountering numerous practical and engineering challenges, and involving 12,000 workers, peasants, stonemasons, blacksmiths, as well as technical experts. As an employer, Riquet was in advance of his times, paying good wages, granting holidays and sick leave. Communication with such a large and diverse workforce was vital; Riquet was able to discuss with them in their own local language, Occitan. It’s interesting to note that among his army of workers were many women, some of whom came from the High Pyrenees and whose experience of managing the rivers and torrents in that area, constructing weirs, sluices and other ways of controlling the waterflow, was particularly valuable.
May 19th 1681. The great day of the inauguration of the Royal Canal of Languedoc had finally arrived. In Toulouse, a procession of boats set off, following a magnificent barge carrying various dignitaries including the Cardinal de Bonzi, who would perform the blessing, and Riquet’s two sons, Jean-Mathias and Pierre-Paul II. But sadly, Riquet himself was not with them, having died the previous year, on October 1st 1680, just months before the canal reached its final destination. His sons inherited the difficult task of its completion, along with huge debts.
A sad end to the story? The last major enterprise in which Riquet was involved was tunnelling through a mountain. This audacious project resulted in the 170-metre tunnel of Malpas. On the other side was Béziers, city of his birth, only a few kilometres from the coast. Did the visionary canal-builder have an inkling he would one day be revered as the architect of this wonderful 17th century monument, largest of all those commissioned by King Louis, and today, the oldest European canal still in use? The Canal du Midi is a UNESCO world heritage site and the many marvels on its 241-kilometre course from Toulouse to the Etang de Thau include Riquet’s last construction, the Malpas tunnel, and almost 100 locks, in particular the spectacular ‘staircase’ at Fonsérannes.
On the A61, we have passed the Seuil de Naurouze. The next motorway sign is for Castelnaudary, home to the major port on the canal. Most people, though, associate the town with its famous local speciality of beans, sausage and duck, le cassoulet. It’s tempting to think this peasant dish played an important culinary role in helping Riquet’s army of workers to keep digging. Mangez! Mangez! In the hands of a local grandmère it offers a marvellous blend of savours worthy of its standing as a classic of provincial cuisine. The three rivals for its invention are Toulouse, Carcassonne and Castelnaudary. In spite of my Toulouse connexions, I have to go along with Elizabeth David when the Queen of Cuisine plumps for the Castelnaudary version. Along with her delicious recipe, she also recounts an equally delicious anecdote by Anatole France, about the cassoulet served at small tavern in 19th century Paris, Chez Clémence.
‘We know,’ he writes ‘that in order to bring out all its qualities, cassoulet must be cooked slowly on a low light. Mother Clémence’s cassoulet has been cooking for twenty years. Occasionally she throws in goose or pork fat, sometimes a piece of sausage or a handful of haricot beans, but it’s always the same cassoulet.’
He goes on to explain that only in this way can the dish acquire its unique amber colour, similar to that found in the paintings of the great Venetian masters. One can only imagine what a European Union Health and Safety Inspector would have made of La Mère Clémence and her 20-year-old Venetian-hued cassoulet.
The kilometres pass, the scenery changes. In this increasingly stark landscape, fortified villages huddle on hilltops, church spires echoing the sombre lances of the cypresses below. Stunted bushes and leaning pines are whipped by ferocious, rampaging winds. In the distance, hills stand out in profile, impressive masses of stone and granite contouring the sky, the bleakness of their treeless slopes reminding us of much darker pages in the history of Languedoc, the bitter wars of religion and conquest that lasted for two centuries and would end, in 1229, with a re-drawing of frontiers in which the independent lords of the Midi would be brought to heel, replaced by conquerors from the north. Languedoc would henceforth be ‘royal’, a part of the kingdom of France.
Vous êtes en pays cathare...
To be continued…
On the link below you can find more information about the Canal du Midi plus a list of books written on the subject: