Soothing a Savage Breast or Two – La maîtrise de Toulouse comes to Lavaur

The Maîtrise de Toulouse in concert at the Cathédrale de Saint-Alain, Lavaur

As the festive seasons gears up, it’s time to think about reasons to feel good amid the global gloom…

Last weekend we were at the stunning medieval Cathédrale de St-Alain in Lavaur, to attend an equally stunning concert of Christmas music performed by the La Maîtrise de Toulouse.

Cathédrale de Sain-Alain Lavaur

The cathedral, a masterpiece of Southern French Gothic art, has recently undergone extensive renovation; as we sat in the vast nave (40 x13.8 metres) under its soaring 22-metre-high blue and gold painted roof, we experienced a moment of pure joy listening to these young choristers, transfixed by the beauty of the singing while simultaneous dying to leap to our feet and join in.

The Maîtrise, formed in 2006 by Mark Opstad under the auspices of the Conservatoire de Toulouse, is the first choir school of its kind in SW France. It has received a veritable cornucopia of glowing reviews (American Record Guide, Organists Review, Diapason Magazine, The Sunday Times…) and in 2017 was awarded the prestigious Prix Bettencourt for choral music. The choristers, aged 11 to 15, work under their talented director and founder, who himself began his career as a chorister at Bristol Cathedral. He continued his musical education at Oxford, then Cambridge, where he was assistant organist of Clare College before coming to France under the Entente Cordiale scholarship scheme. Happily for those of us in Occitania, he moved from Caen to Toulouse, where he is now professor of music at the Conservatoire.

Brochure Pastel en scène

The concert was introduced by Michel Guipouy, President of les Amis des Orgues de Lavaur. Since leaving Big City Toulouse to settle in our rural paradise in the Tarn, I have been moved and inspired by the passion for all things artistic that flourishes here in the countryside. Lavaur (pop: 11,000) has two associations, Pastel en scène and Les Amis des Orgues de Lavaur, comprising a group of volunteers who work tirelessly to bring a rich and varied programme of cultural events to the inhabitants of this town and the surrounding area.

This passion goes hand in hand with a pride in local history and tradition. Lavaur is first mentioned in the 11th century, but became famous during the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) as one of the places which paid most dearly for its tolerance of Catharism. In May 1211, after a siege lasting 37 days by the troops of Simon de Montfort, the castrum was taken. 80 knights were put to the sword, the Lady Guiraude, protector of the town, was thrown alive into a well and pelted with rocks, her brother Aymeric was hanged, and 400 citizens were burned at the stake in the biggest bonfire of the Crusade.

The Cavaillé-Coll organ

Building of the Cathedral started in 1255, after the ‘heresy’ had been stamped out. It predates by 30 years its cousin, the Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile in Albi, now a world heritage site and reputedly the largest brick building in the world. While Sainte-Cécile might be bigger and more famous, we prefer Saint Alain 😉. Many of its features are typical of the Southern French Gothic style of architecture–fortress-like walls and an octagonal tower (of which the most famous example can be seen in Toulouse at the Basilique de St-Sernin), but Saint-Alain boasts other features, including a magnificent Cavaillé-Coll organ (which we heard in a solo by young organist George Gillow) and the only jacquemart in the south west. This little wooden man with his metal hammer appears every hour on the hour to strike the time on the cathedral clock, a descendant of the jacquemart first entrusted with this important task in 1604.

Lavaur; by Paul Ruffié and Jean-Phillipe Arles,Edition Privat (see link below)


As we sat there listening to the music and admiring the restored murals and frescoes, I marvelled yet again at the power of the arts to bring people together and remind them of a shared heritage which transcends time and conflicts. The moment was both powerful and poignant: a British choirmaster conducting a French choir, young choristers singing in German, French, English and Latin, the music of Mendelssohn, Bach, Rachmaninov, the artistry of the two Italian brothers who painted the extraordinary grisaille murals. The 21st century audience–old and young, city folks and country folk, believers and at least one pagan (me)–had all come together in a small town marked by terrible religious and military persecution, to listen, to look, to reflect: taking time to remember what’s really important in life.

To all faithful blog readers, sincere wishes for a warm and jolly Christmas and a New Year bringing better prospects and hope to all, especially those in distress and those in need.

Joyeux Noel et Bonne Année from the Cowshed!

The Cowshed at Christmas

P.S. Six degrees of separation…on the cover of the summer programme of Pastel en scène is a photo of Poppy Beddoe, founder of The Temple Ensemble, who performed here in August at the Mediathèque Guiraude (named after the Lady). Poppy has a strong connexion with Cambridge, the city in which Mark Opstad was an organist and where, in another life, I used to walk down the hill to listen to another choir at Christmas, this one raising their voices to the stunning fan-vaulted ceiling of King’s College Chapel, built two hundred years after its French relative in Lavaur. King’s College Choir this year celebrates its 100th birthday. The centenary CD can be found here, the CDs of the Maîtrise–Slava and Noël Français are available from : The beautiful book “Lavaur: Une Nouvelle Capitale aux portes de Toulouse  was a gift from la Famille Bermond when we first arrived here in 2011. Merci!

Taking a medieval break in Saint Antonin Noble Val

Many heads featured in wall decorations

Last weekend, taking a break from romantic sagas and all things Basque, we headed off to the village of St Antonin Noble Val in the neighbouring department of the Tarn-et-Garonne. Though a mere hour’s drive away, the countryside soon began to change, the hilltop villages and high plateaux reminding us we were approaching the towering limestone cliffs of the gorges de l’Aveyron.

A quick read of the local history before setting off brought to mind Montaigne’s gloomy pronouncement that ‘of all the animals in the world, man is the most fearsome’. In the 13th century the village of Saint Antonin was a Cathar stronghold, earning the wrath of the Holy Roman Church and its crusading army (The Albigensian Crusade), including a sack of the town by the troops of the devil himself, Simon de Montfort. You can read more about him here including his well-deserved demise in 1218 at the hands, it is rumoured, of an early feminist from Toulouse who launched a rock at his head from the roof of Saint-Sernin.

la maison des consuls, oldest civic building in France

In the 14th century the village was fought over at length by the two opposing sides in the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453, House of Plantagenet v House of Valois), then, after a bit of a breather in the 15th century, things turned nasty once more when the Wars of Religion (1562-1598) broke out and the village became a bastion of Protestantism. A massacre of Protestants by Catholics in 1561 was followed by a massacre of Catholics by Protestants in 1568. (Everybody following? Good. Nearly finished.)

King Louis XIII intervened in 1621 (he had come to lay siege to the neighbouring town of Montauban) destroying the village walls and re-baptising the place Saint Antonin Noble Val.

There was a happy codicil to this page of horrors in 2014, when the village was chosen as the setting for a rom-com starring Helen Mirren and Om Puri The 100-Foot Journey.* ‘It behoveth man more to make love not war,’ as I’m sure the Mighty Michel would have written if he’d been around to comment.

A narrow street. Horses only.

The village layout has remained authentically medieval as we soon realised when stupidly following the satnav into the narrow streets leading to our chambre d’hôtes. We were forced to a halt three times, unsure whether it was possible to continue further without leaving a couple of Peugeot wing mirrors embedded in priceless ancient monuments, finally helped by a kind local who, we later discovered, was the baker, and who relayed to our hosts the news of our impending arrival long before we’d scraped through the labyrinth and managed to find a parking place safely outside the ancient centre.


Having abandoned the car, we found ourselves in Kodak heaven.

Au Lion d’Or

But before indulging in a point and click fest, we checked in at our lodgings, the Auberge Lion d’Or, an 18th century coaching inn whose sign advertises ‘Un bon logis à pied ou à cheval’–‘a good lodging whether on foot or on horseback’, words which held a particular resonance for us. (Next time, remember to bring Dobbin). Since January this year the establishment has been run by the felicitously named Mr and Mrs Shakeshaft (no I’m not making it up), more commonly known as Renée and Paul, whose hostly qualities have evidently contributed hugely to the establishment’s success.

The inside is as atmospheric as the outside, but though the beams may be black with age and the stones ancient, the beds are 21st century comfortable, the bathrooms are en suite, and on this wet and chilly November evening, a black stove resembling a lion couchant roared away in the comfortable salon topping up the blissfully warm under-floor heating.

Irouleguy, the wine of the pays basque

We decided to leave our explorations until the next day (hopefully sunny) and, on the recommendation of our hosts, sallied forth to dine at Le Carrée des Gourmets. The Muse, obviously miffed at being abandoned, decided to give a nudge: the restaurant was decorated with strings of Espelette peppers and the wine list featured Irouleguy, which naturally we sampled, saying ‘Vive le pays basque’ as we ate an excellent meal of chicken and gambas for me, and sweetbreads in a snail sauce for the Maître de Maison.

Saturday dawned damp and misty, giving us a moody view of the roc d’Anglars from the bedroom window and encouraging us to linger over the copious breakfast during which we discovered, thanks to our host, that some scenes from The 100-Foot Journey had actually been shot in the auberge.

The aptly named Rue Bombecul, turn right under the arch

As the weather cleared we set out with map and guide book, starting with the little alley next to the inn, curiously named Carriera Bombacuol, (rue Bombecul in modern French). ‘Stick out ze bottom??’ In spite of our limited knowledge of Occitan we got the message as we teetered down the treacherous slippery slope of Bum-in-the-air Street * in a hunched, waddling, semi-crouch. Later our hostess explained that this was where the horses were taken down to the stables underneath the auberge, the valets doubtless adopting the same inelegant posture as ourselves in order to avoid Bums-on the-cobbles.

From then on it was merveille after merveille in this village out of time where ancient archways invite the visitor to wander into the past through crooked twisting streets. Arriving at the Place de la Halle, the market square, there was a more open vista from which to admire one of the most impressive facades, that of the Maison des Consuls, the old town hall, built in 1125 and reputedly the oldest civic building in France. Restorations were carried out on the tower by Viollet-le-Duc, the man who restored the city of Carcassonne to its former glory and set off lots of architectural arguments.

Rue Guilhem Peyre where the English troops were barracked

In Rue Guilhem Peyre, the narrow street which winds down as you step under the tower archway, is the Caserne des Anglais. English troops occupied these barracks in the 13th and 14th centuries, during the Hundred Years’ War and judging by the amount of English we heard, several descendants have since returned, this time however in a spirit of entente cordiale. One of the places I’d hoped to drop in to was The English Bookshop, opened 20 years ago, which I was looking forward to raiding. But like many other commerces it was closed, one disadvantage of an off-season trip here, but offset by the fact that, away from the squares and cafés, we virtually had the town to ourselves.

What a treat. Drinking in the atmosphere of the silent streets with shuttered facades, lingering before buildings with fascinating histories: the Maison du Roy, a gift to King Louis IX, ‘Saint Louis’ as he became after his death, from Guy de Montfort, brother of the infamous Simon, in 1227 and whose first floor has 6 ornately decorated Gothic windows; the Maison de l’Amour (a former brothel?) whose 15th century arcade is surmounted by a carving of a couple exchanging a kiss, peculiar carvings and corbels such as the one showing a naked upside down woman held in the jaws of a lion-like monster.

Naked woman in jaws of monster
Embracing couple at the maison de l’Amour

Our wanderings were accompanied by the sound of underground streams rushing beneath grates; occasionally we crossed placid canals. Saint Antonin is a watery town, an important tanning industry flourished here in the 13th  century.




Sunday was our last day. We’d been eagerly anticipating exploring the famous weekly market which extends from one edge of the town to the other. But as the rain pelted down with a vengeance, shoes began to squelch and drops began to seep under collars, we finally abandoned the attempt and headed to the car. Hurrying over the cobbles we were halted in our tracks by mouth-watering smells coming from one stall. We ended up returning to The Cowshed with the spoils of our trip into the Middle Ages, half-a dozen freshly baked naan breads and a bag of onion bhajis.

More Om Puri than Simon de Montfort. But we’ll be back to try the saucissons…

Market day, Sunday


*In 2001 the village also featured in Charlotte Gray, the film adaptation of the book by Sebastian Faulks.

** In French bomber = to stick out  cul = arse

PS We ate lunch at a tiny café called Le Citron Bleu, highly recommended!


Bookworms! Hot from the press…Don’t miss Legacy, the latest  in the Project Renova series by Terry Tyler and Two Rivers, one Stream, Book 2 of Karma’s Children by John Dolan (more about these authors here)

Also, to make sure you have plenty of books to see you through the Turkey Season, Books 1 and 2 in the French Summer Novels are FREE to download this weekend.

Happy reading!