Tuesday, August 25, 2015

To Pechmerle, Albi, Najac and back

There's quite a lot of catching up to do.We are home from a vacation in the southwest and last month we went to England and before that I think I've already forgotten what we did. This and the following couple of posts are not in chronological order of events

When we go home, a bunch of high school friends, 16 counting spouses and accompanying friends, came to Paris for a mini-reunion. This is similar to what we did in the Catskills, except there were only 8 in the party. We did it at Barnegat Light five years ago and there were 16 of us. There was a major reunion in Philly three years ago and at that time, some said how much they'd like to come to Paris.So, they are coming! Not everyone who wanted to – it was impossible to fit everyone's scheduling needs or finances, but enough to call it a mini-reunion, of sorts. But, before we get to the reunion, we (Paul and I) had a week with Er... and Ga.. and Er's husband, Mor...

They arrived on Wednesday morning and Paul accompanied them to pick up the rental in the afternoon. It's a Nissan van. I've never seen such a poorly designed van. Supposedly, it corresponds to a « grand Espace », which is what was described on the rental site. I know that in a grand Espace, there are real seats in the back and room for baggage. This thing is a short van. The middle seat in the middle is a hump, for a kid.The seats in the back have no legroom – also for kids. We managed. Since we didn't need both back seats, we folded one to the side for baggage room and folded the short part of the middle seat forward to give the person in the back some legroom. We were traveling light, so we found room for the baggage.

We left on Thursday morning and spent all day on the road – a long drive down to La-Tour-De-Faure, across the river from Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, a "must see" village in the region. By the time we checked into the hotel, found a gas station and then headed into the village it had started to rain. By the time we found a parking spot in a lot at the high end of the village it was pouring. There was a mass exodus from the parking lot, which means we found a parking space easily and it also meant that, in this very touristy spot, we were able to walk easily in the streets. So, we walked. Like so many of these villages, there's a castle at the very top of a hill (in this case, it's just a ruin of a castle) and the town grew around the castle. St. Cirq has several streets, so it's not just along the crest, but they are all narrow, steep streets with 12th and 13th century half-timbered buildings and then later stone houses. You can see the shop window/workshop architecture of the period. As I said, it was pouring, so we did not do as much browsing as we might have done otherwise. We retreated into the first little restaurant that looked open at such an early hour (6 pm) and got ourselves a table. We had very low expectations; all we wanted to do was get out of the rain. Big surprise! The fish, the cassoulet, the confit de canard – everything was good, very good at Lou Faoure
The hotel in La-Tour-De-Faure, Hotel des Gabarres, was comfortable and I had chosen it because it is not far to Cabrerets, where the cro-magnon Pech Merle is. Paul and I had visited Pech Merle 14 years ago and I knew this was not to be missed. Our visit on Friday morning was reserved for 11:15, so we had plenty of time to spend in the museum. It's a tiny museum, but worth spending time in. It rained most of the morning, but that's not a problem when visiting a cave. Our tour was in English, very well done by a young man who took his time, kept making sure we all understood him and making sure that everyone got to see what he was highlighting with his laser pointer. This is the cave with handprints and spotted horses, lots of mammouth and bison. Geologically, it is a very big cave with high and wide chambers and narrow passages, but beautiful calcite « marbles » in one place, multicolored discs elsewhere, fountain-like stalagtites and stalagmites. It's got bear claw marks and human footprints that go back to the cave painting period from 20,000 to 40,000 years ago. Because there is so little charcoal used in these paintings, they can't date them precisely. All they can figure out is that there were several periods. Some paintings are superimposed on others – there's a fish, in red, that you can make out beneath one of the spotted horses. The panel of spotted horses was done in black with the spitting technique – the painter put the pigment in his or her mouth and spat the outline of the animals, the spots, the handprints. The pigments were manganese oxide for black and ferrous oxide for red. There's a tiny bit of charcoal filling in the mane of one of the horses, which is how they can date that, but was that added later or is it contemporary to the horses? I just love this stuff!

We had lunch – a good lunch – in Cabrerets and headed for Albi.The car's GPS does not let us see the itinerary or choose an itinerary, but I had the map in hand. On a Michelin map, red is a major road, a former national road; yellow is a bit less major, a departmental road; and white is a local road, often just an unmarked lane barely wide enough for two-way traffic. The shortest route took us on lots of white roads and that's what the GPS wanted us to follow, but they were bumpy and uncomfortable, so in spite of the temptation to go on the road past Emma's, we ignored the GPS and took the road via Villefranche-de-Rouergue. The GPS's pleas that we turn around got on our nerves, but we persevered and arrived at Albi at exactly the time it had originally said we would. We found our hotel and set out almost immediately to wander around the city. It was too late for the Toulouse-Lautrec museum and the cathedral was too dark to see anything really well, but we meandered and found ourselves at a very nice little restaurant for another excellent dinner.
The next morning, we opened the Toulouse-Lautrec museum and had the museum to ourselves for most of the visit. I like this museum; it is made up of work rejected by the Paris museums after his death in 1901. It's full of sketches and early renditions of paintings and posters we know well. There are plenty of drawings and watercolors from when he was only 11 years old. You can see how his art evolved. It's housed in the former bishop's quarters, next to the cathedral, so just the building merits a visit. You can see the medieval paving blocks that made the floors look like cartpets, the painted ceiling beams and painted ceilings. It was a palace. In the 16th century, the then bishop turned the farmyard into an elegant garden.
The cathedral has been restored inside and they are in the process of cleaning up the stonework on the outside at the entrance. We were too late to get tickets to see the most interesting section, the inner sanctum and we needed to leave before mass at 11. It was Assomption, a major holiday in France. That gave us time to finish up the visit at the museum and see more of the gardens.

Before leaving Albi we stopped at the market and got ourselves the wherewithal to make a nice picnic lunch, which we ate on the way to Cordes-sur-Ciel at a turn in the road with a wonderful view of Albi in the distance.
Cordes-sur-Ciel is a planned town. In the 12th century, during the Cathare heresy, the count of Toulouse was in a power struggle with the king of France. He created this town at the top of a hill, of course. There was no castle already there and he did not build one. Instead, he created a walled town and invited farmers and merchants to live in the town and farm the fields below – tax-free. In exchange, they were to protect the town, which was on the border of the king's territory. The center of the town at the very top of the hill was the market place not the church. The town was Cathare and resisted the inquisition and the imposed return to Catholicism (from Albi) until 1321. Once there was no religious or power struggle to worry about, the town florished and the early Renaissance homes along the main street are magnificent. The town has become a bit more touristy than it was 14 years ago, the last time we were there.

We allowed the GPS to direct us to Najac along the white roads that wind through the countryside – again a stone's throw from Emma's. Next installment.

1 comment:

Ellen said...

I can't seem to update the slideshow on the right. I'll keep trying.