L’Autoroute des deux mers, a voyage through history. Part 1

 

engendred flours…

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.

La Grande Bleue
La Grande Bleue

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.

Photo by FRAMYJO: Riquet’s letter to Colbert 15 November 1662
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lettre_Riquet-Colbert_15-11-1662.jpg

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.

Pierre-Paul Riquet, French engineer, responsible for the construction of the Canal du Midi. Source: from http://www.canalmidi.com/anglais/paulrigb.htm

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.

Photo by Peter Guggerell, Vienna, Bridge over Canal du Midi
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bridge_over_Canal_du_Midi.jpg

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.

Photo by Dedounet of the Lock of Fonserannes (Ecluses de Fonseranes à Béziers)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beziers_Fonseranes.jpg

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.

Illustration from French Country Cooking by Elizabeth David
Illustration from French Country Cooking by Elizabeth David

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.’

Elizabeth David, French Country Cooking
Elizabeth David, French Country Cooking

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...

Carcassonne, evening
Carcassonne, evening

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:

http://www.riquetetsoncanal.fr/pages/biblio.html

 

The Music of the Spheres

Cité de l'Espace, Toulouse
Cité de l’Espace, Toulouse

Visitors arriving by car in the city of Toulouse in south west France may be disconcerted to see a rocket ready to blast off just next to the motorway.

This is a replica of Ariane 5, rising 53 metres into the sky. Next to it is the Mir space station and Soyuz capsule, capable of withstanding temperatures of 1800°C as it re-enters the earth’s atmosphere-remember the perils of Sandra in the last blog?

Toulouse, affectionately known as ‘the pink city’ and ‘the city of violets’ in homage to its brick architecture and floral emblem, acquired a third epithet in 1997 with the inauguration of its theme park: City of Space.

It all started at the end of World War 1.

As Toulousains sat on the place du Capitole, the main square of la ville rose, savouring the new peace and admiring the glowing geranium colours, something was happening at a small airfield just outside the city. Pierre-Georges Latécoère was dreaming: of a new airline, new pathways through the skies, and an air postal service which would link France to its colonies in Africa and South America. The authorities scoffed at the idea. Latécoère said: ‘I’ve done the calculations again, the experts are right, our idea won’t work. There’s only one thing left to do–make it work.’

In December 1918, in a plane that looked like a flying matchbox, he flew across the Pyrenees from Toulouse-Montaudran to Barcelona. In March 1919, he flew from Toulouse to Barcelona, then to Alicante and Malaga before arriving in Morocco, at the city of Rabat. He was welcomed by General Lyautey, to whom he presented a copy of the previous day’s newspaper, Le Temps, and to Madame Lyautey, a bunch of Toulouse violets.

The future of civil aviation had begun.

At the ‘Lignes Aériennes Latécoère‘, later known simply as ‘La Ligne’, then ‘l’Aéropostale’, the pilots became heroes, risking their lives on perilous missions transporting the mail to Dakkar and Casablanca, and finally to South America. One of the most well-known aviators was Jean Mermoz, ‘the Archangel’, whose pioneering flights in Africa and South America made him a legend. His wavy swept-back hairstyle, ‘la coupe Mermoz’, became the No 1 hit in barbershops the length and breadth of France.

Mermoz lodged at the hôtel du Grand Balcon near the place du Capitole. It was a small establishment, the unofficial boarding house for the Latécoère crews. Another regular, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, is probably better-known to English-speakers as the author of ‘The Little Prince’. In his novel ‘Night Flight’ (‘Vol de Nuit’, published in 1931 and dedicated to Didier Daurat who directed operations at Montaudran) Saint-Exupéry wrote unforgettably of those lonely flights through the dark skies of South America, where pilots braved the shadowy, unforgiving peaks of the Andes, racing to deliver the mail between Buenos Aires and Patagonia, Chile and Paraguay, yearning for the dawn ‘like a beach of golden sand’.

Back at the hotel in Toulouse, the three genteel Marquez sisters who ran the place tried their best to keep the returning young adventurers in check. Female visitors were strictly forbidden so the pilots would smuggle their girlfriends up the creaking stairs by the simple expedient of tossing them over their shoulders. The story also goes that the sisters had a soft spot for their penniless lodgers and often ‘forgot’ to charge them for their dinner.*

The hotel (http://www.grandbalconhotel.com/) has been carefully re-modernised in keeping with its historic past. You can spend the night in Room 20, former quarters of the Archangel, or, like Saint-Ex, lean on the balcony of Room 32 and look out towards the place du Capitole.

Mariage au Capitole
Mariage au Capitole

 

Artist Gordon Seward painted this view of the place du Capitole from inside Room 32, before the hotel was re-modernised. Long-time and future fans of Gordon have a chance to see his latest work at his annual exhibition in Toulouse (l’Espace Bouquières, 25 May-13 June). Less fortunate mortals will have to be content with feasting their eyes on his dazzling talent on line:

http://www.gordonseward.fr/

 

From those early beginnings at Montaudran, Toulouse developed into Europe’s foremost city of aviation and space. New and revolutionary planes were dreamed of and brought to life. The first European rocket launcher, Ariane, was developed. Streets in the city bear the names of the early aviators; road signs direct you to aviation giants such as the Airbus group and Europe’s largest space centre at the CNES.

On May 8th the Cité de l’Espace threw open its doors to celebrate ‘Le ciel en fête’. The festival opened with two special events, a show in the planetarium and a piano recital.

That’s how I found myself, along with a couple of hundred fellow passengers, setting off on a journey into space, and beyond. Semi-recumbent, transfixed, we gazed up at the planets as they sped across the giant 600-square-metre-dome above our heads. Saturn and its rings, Titan, the biggest of its myriad moons; Jupiter, largest of the planets, a Fabergé egg decorated with a Great Red Spot, Venus, swathed in clouds, Pluto, the to-be-or-not-to-be planet.

The wonder and magnificence of that ‘other’ above our heads was overwhelming. The earth wheeled, the music swelled, we shot to the southern hemisphere, became Australians looking up into their night sky at the fabled Southern Cross and the Magellanic clouds.

The show ended, the lights came on. We moved like sleepwalkers into the Imax cinema for the piano recital. In front of a very large screen was a very small stage with a piano. From the whirling immensity of space we descended to one person and eighty-eight keys.

Oliver Mazal was our pianist.** He came on stage, bowed and in a quiet voice announced the first piece, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14, ‘The Moonlight’.

The first solemn notes fell on the air with a weight and intensity that were a perfect counterpoint to the firework show that had just ended. The music guided our imaginations:  to Pascal’s ‘eternal silence of these infinites spaces’, to the mystery of our origins. On the giant screen the pianist’s hands appeared, gently and precisely touching the keys, drawing us back to the reality of a live performance in all its singular beauty.

But that was just the beginning of this second journey. As the audience called him back again and again, Olivier took us further, recreating through the genius of each composer-Beethoven, Brahms, Fauré-and the empathy of the interpretative artist, all of the passion, the drama and the joy that we had experienced in the planetarium.

Saint Exupéry said that it is only with the heart that one sees the truth of things. (‘On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.’) That evening our hearts saw many things, many connexions. What links us space, to the universe, to exploration and the quest to go further. What links us to artistic creation, music, literature and painting. How imagination fires both science and the arts. How the past is important for the future. How we are linked to each other, all ‘children of the stars’.

The last word goes to a poet, connecting with us from two thousand years ago:

 

‘………………………………………..Then Iopas,

The long-haired bard, took up his gilded lyre-

Mighty Atlas himself had been his master.

He sang of the wandering moon and the toils of the sun;

He sang of the making of man and of the creatures;

Of rain and fire; of Arcturus and the Hyades

That bring the rain; he sang of the Twin Bears.

He sang why the suns of winter make such haste

To dip in Ocean, and why the nights are long

And move so slowly.’

Virgil: The Aeneid (translated by Patric Dickinson, Mentor Books 1961)

 * The story of the early aviators and the hôtel du Grand Balcon was first told to me by Laurent De Caunes. When I checked with him about the veracity of the ‘free dinners’ bit before posting the blog, I got this reply: ‘si la légende est plus belle que la réalité, c’est la légende qu’il faut imprimer!’ In other words, if legends are more beautiful than reality, go for the legends! The maître’s knowledge of la ville rose is vast, and he knows absolutely everything about opera, as you can discover on this link:

http://blog.culture31.com/2015/03/24/plaidoyer-pour-la-critique/

** Olivier Mazal at the Cité de l’Espace:

https://www.facebook.com/events/942740232444750/

 

PS: Oh yes–‘Hot Basque’ is out! You can download it from Amazon at:

http://www.amazon.fr/Hot-Basque-French-Summer-English-ebook/dp/B00XK2II3G

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Hot-Basque-French-Summer-Novel-ebook/dp/B00XK2II3G

 

Ouf!