A ‘French Poodle’ – (Part 3) La Histoire

Footprints in the sand

I am forever walking upon these shores, betwixt the sand and the foam. The high tide will erase my foot-prints, and the wind will blow away the foam, but the sea and the shore will remain, for ever. (Kahlil Gibran 1927)

A far away friend wrote recently of the elemental nature of the beach and the ocean, of how it is a real ‘touchstone’.  It’s true is it not, but why ?  Why is it we all seem to long for that ‘stroll’ along the beach, barefooted, paddling in the water at the very edge of the ocean ?  I spent long hours on that Mediterranean shore, watching people doing just that and doing it myself; one becomes lost.  For me, I gaze out to the horizon and wonder, how far, how near, how else, but mostly I muse that this, the edge of the ocean, maybe the edge of reason, is the only place on earth where, to go to any other land, there is no up or down;  and that friends on a beach far away, are just over the horizon.

That place, that small spot on the ‘sea in the middle of the land’ enchanted me for a while but soon my wander-lust and need for ‘antiquity’ came to the fore.  Close-by to Capestang lay an unusual and remarkable place.  It is called ‘The Malpas’, yes, a French place called the same as places in Wales and England, it means ‘awful land’ or ‘poor area’.  This Malpas was a combination of pre-history and medieval insanity, joined in marriage to post medieval excess and modern banality.

Iron Age dwellings, Oppidum Ensurine.

The remains of Iron Age dwellings and corn stores litter the summit of the little sandstone hill called Ensurine. The settlement is an 'Oppidum', and it has a commanding view of the surrounding pays.

The early settlement, or ‘oppidum’ pre-dates the Roman occupation of the area and dates to around 500 BC.  It is impressive, and then some !  Bathed in that mediterranean sun, the stone bleached from thousands of summers and oh so blissfully uncluttered with ‘NO’ this or ‘NO’ that signs as would be the case here.  The barest of information lets the imagination wander.  If you had to be Iron Age, choose here, not the wet and cold of Garn Goch !

But impressive as this is, to me at least, there is much more to this hill of Malpas.  Beneath the hill lie three over-lapping tunnels.  Quite incredibly the ages of man are represented here by tunnelling !  The most impressive and most viewed is the grand tunnel of the Canal du Midi, that outrageous piece of C17th engineering that puts our canals in the shade somewhat.  Engineered and built by the Baron of Bonrepos, one Pierre-Paul Riquet between 1667 and 1681 (i.e. a century before the English canal system !) the Canal du Midi extends over 240 Km from Toulouse in the west to Sete in the east – and links to Narbonne.  From Toulouse navigation to the west is via the Garonne, although by 1852 a side ‘canal’ was added to allow larger vessels to travel.  Thus the ‘route de deux mers’ links the French Atlantic coast at Bordeaux to the Med in and around the Narbonne / Bezier / Sete area.  To get over the problem of the Malpas, lying some 15 Km west of Bezier, Riquet, for reasons best known to himself, decided to go through it.  Now why on earth  didn’t he just go around…. being ‘flash’ is my guess.  It’s impressive and the Canal is a real tourist trap, unfortunately, for me anyway, it is also loved by mossies !

Beneath the canal tunnel, in 1854, a two year project saw the construction of a railway tunnel that carries the fastest of the French trains to the Spanish border and on to Barcelone as well as west to  Bordeaux.  At 504 mtrs in length this tunnel lies 16 m below the canal tunnel, it is quite astounding that, even in the middle of the C19th,  boats on the canal were not affected by the cutting of this tunnel.

However, the most startling of all the tunnels is one constructed in the C13th, between 1250 and 1270.  It is glibbly referred to as ‘an evacuation gallery’, but what does it evacuate ?

The field system at Montady-Colombier, Languedoc

The most bizarre, incredible and inspiring medieval field system I've seen.

A Charter of 1247 gives permission for 4 local farmers to drain the “repugnant stank of Montady”.  At that time this ‘basin’ was a lake providing fish and irrigation water for the local area but it was believed it was bringing illness and bad luck.  I guess it may have had something to do with the malaria carrying mosquitoes that must have infested it.  Interestingly, at this time, frog’s legs were becoming the ‘haute cuisine’ of the middle and upper classes, it strikes me that catching the frogs to pinch their back legs made them less than efficient at eating mossie larvae.  The same occurred in Bangladesh twenty five or so years ago, a huge export trade (guess to where !) in frog’s legs saw a dramatic increase in malaria carried by infestation of mosquitoes.  Does no-one ever remember the plagues of Egypt ?  The very first recorded case of man messing up the delicate natural balance.

Anyway, these four guys decided to drain the basin by digging a tunnel from the centre, through the Malpas hill and spreading the water on land to the south.  The diameter of the basin is 2.5 km and each strip is divided by a drainage channel that runs to a ‘plug hole’ in the centre.  Can you imagine such an undertaking in the middle of the C13th !  It took 20 years to complete and the 56 ‘spokes’ are the drainage ditches which flow to a circular drain around the circumference of the centre disc – called Maires – and one of the ditches extends from the maires into the ‘plug hole’ or, as it is technically known, the entrance to the underground aquaduct or ‘evacuation chamber’.

I had no idea that this even existed, hence my ‘jaw-dropping’ expression when I ‘happened’ upon it as I strolled around the oppidum, something noted by my daughters who, for a while, thought I was having a stroke !  Apparently it covers a cultivated area of some 422 hectares, that would be a ‘biggish’ farm hereabouts, and is presently split between 91 farmers growing a variety of crops from melons, sunflowers, corn (as in maize) durum wheat and, oh naturelle, vines.  Without a doubt the pond at Montady Colombier was the zenith of the holiday !

According to the French the basin was formed by ice-age action which pulverised the rock and then the wind , the ‘mistral’ petet ? came and blew the soil away.  I can’t buy that personally, how come such a basin was only formed in that spot ? An astronomer colleague immediately said ‘impact crater’ when I showed him, now that is so much more romantic don’t you think….

[Evenings often found me sitting at the cafe in the square having a meal or a beer, talking rugby or some such.  However this was always a little uncomfortable for me, to be enjoying myself and seeing others enjoying, children running and playing, English ‘ex-pats’- as they like to label themselves-  ‘shooting the crap’ (as my Stateside friends so abtly name it), for crap most of it was, the flickering Christmas type lighting and general ‘bon-homie’ abounded.  Yet, in a quiet corner, set by the wall of the church (even in this small village the church was the size of a cathedral !) stood a rose-marble stone on which was fixed a bronze plaque, a picture of an event 66 years ago.  Beneath lay an inscription in sombre black which outlined events that took place in that square, on that spot, in June 1944.  Two days after the allies had landed in Normandy the SS rounded up 179 local men and boys between the ages of 18 and 60, they were herded into the square in readiness for deportation to Germany. None returned.  This was in reprisal for an attack on the SS a few days earlier in which 9 ‘patriots’ were killed and, after torture, 18 others who had been captured, were taken to Bezier and shot in the square. The attack on the SS took place  on the very road from Capestang to Ensurine I travelled to view the oppidum.  The French resistance were engaging the German army in the south to disrupt their attempts to get north into the invasion area.  Some few days later and some hundreds of kilometers north west of here, the SS Das Reich division took similar reprisal on a  small Limousin village where all the inhabitants were killed.  The men lined up and shot, the women and children herded into the church which was then torched.  The whole village was then razed to the ground, and so it remains to this day, Oradur sur Glane stands as a reminder that even here, in the sunny south of France, atrocity is never very far away.]

Commemoration plague in the square of Carpestang

The years roll by, life goes on, those who were present disappear, but these stones of commemoration need to be read, we need to remember that, even here, in living memory, atrocity was once wreaked.

In this part of the world one of the musts to visit is the medieval Cite of Carcassone.  I had passed through it many times in the 1980s when I was engaged in escorting large – think big large ! – boats which were being lorried to the south of France or Spain for the enjoyment of the ‘noveau riche’.  This ‘Convoi Exceptionelle’ work was heavily directed by departmental rules, one of which was that in order to traverse Carcassonne – we were not allowed on motorways and low bridges limited the choice of other routes – it was necessary to do so before 7.00 am or after 11.00pm.  Invariably we were shooting through in the early morning, but even that was hairy, French drivers anxious to get to work and not at all happy about some Brits clogging up the City centre with bloody great boats got a trifle agitated !  Hence I never actually got to stop and the grandeur of the Cite Medievale was only viewed – at night when all lit up it is quite a sight from a distance – in those hectic headlong rushes through the modern city.  This time I was determined to go see for myself.

The gateway to the Cite, Carcassone.

Although something of a tourist 'honey trap', the Cite of Carcassonne is well worth a visit. Here the main gateway - and its free !

The fact that walled cities and castles seem to be in so much better repair than here is understandable.  For a start they didn’t have Mr Cromwell nor any Royalists to hide up in them causing them to be battered into submission – the French were more civilised, they just got rid of the nobility and Royalty in a far less destructive manner …  What’s more the south didn’t suffer the depradations of industrialisation and they didn’t have one  Henry VIII, so the Abbeys and associated lands stayed put.  Hence we are able to see walled cities and castles as they were when first built and occupied.  I well remember being astounded to find – whilst studying ‘A’ level architecture – that the nearby impressive castle at Raglan (the last to hold out against Cromwell as it happens) once had roofs on its towers !!  Carcassonne has all the little houses and shops, knooks and crannies one would expect but it also had, on the day I visited, a full blown Medieval Fair with renactors and traditional craft workers.  I was fascinated to see armourers working, fletchers, weavers and all manner of musicians, dressed in period clothing (including my trendy little hat which you saw earlier !).  They had set up traditonal type period tents in the struet area – that area outside the main walls but inside the curtain wall.  There were more modern attractions too, particularly on the ‘busker’ front and one particular individual caught my eye, he was playing a ‘hang drum’, a steel drum that is the dustbin lid ‘the right way up’.  My my, what a wonderful sound, I was absolutely besotted with it, so much so I have signed on to the manufacturers to get one ! (see http://www.pantheonsteel.com ).  Although temperatures were extreme, my hat kept me cool and wandering the small cobbled streets, in and out of the little shops, albeit they were touristic, was a great way to spend most of a day.

Medieval Fair in La Cite, Carcassonne

A real feel of an olde tyme fair, or should I say La fete ancienne !

Finally, and as you may recall, the ‘excuse’ for this self indulgence was to examine some of  the dry stone wall techniques that are to be found in ‘Gaul’.  As here, they are mainly in the uplands where poor soil and climate mitigate against hedgerow growth.  I was particularly interested in walls built in association with Cistercian monasteries to compare typology with similar monastic settlement here in Wales.  I won’t bore you with my findings except to say it was quite clear that an export from the Mother houses to the Welsh Cistercian complexes of wall building technique seems indisputable.

There were however some modern examples which also caught my eye, especially the strange little corbelled ‘pig sty’ type constructions which appeared in obscure places.

New build dry stone pig sty

I think this has been built at the oppidum to replicate a storehouse but it bears remarkable similarities to the corbelled pigsties to be found around the southern parts of Wales. I really want to do one !

The standard of craftsmanship was high, even on country walls and certainly anywhere near ‘Picturesque Sites’ as they are classified in France.

New dry stone wall

A high standard of craftsmanship here on a wall built on the periphery of the tourist / information centre at the Malpas.

The time in the south sadly ends and my journey north, up through the hills and plains begins.  I am heading towards the Dordogne again to meet up with some friends for one night and then through the open countryside of the Limousin area towards the Loire valley and, ultimately into Normandy.  En route there will be much to see and report and I am particularly excited to stumble on old farms and their machinery, my ‘lust for rust’  remains unabated, especially after two weeks of sun and food and all else I have ‘endured’ !!

So, stay tuned, the fourth and final part of the French Poodle will be posted in the next week or so and then its back to a wet and increasingly cool Wales to prepare for autumn, for anniversaries and for work ! I dread to think what my fitness levels have dropped to BUT, waistline still seems not to have increased – the beauty of elastic eh !!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: