June 29, 2013

Lovely Languedoc

"You can observe a lot just by watching."    Yogi Berra

 Carol writes:  After we left Provence, our ride through southern France took us to neighboring Languedoc.  The name “Languedoc” combines the French word for language (langue) with the ancient southern French dialect word for “yes”—oc.  Our visit to lovely Languedoc revolved around two cities—Albi and Carcassonne.  The low-mountain scenery on the route to Albi was a treat to the eyes, especially the clumps of yellow wildflowers in open spaces around the pine-forested areas.

We spent our first night in Languedoc in a rural municipal campground near the Gorges d’Heric, a lovely little gorge in the countryside.  Soon after we arrived, Al hiked the short trail up the gorge while I opted for some relaxation in our lovely back-to-nature campsite site under the trees.

ALBI:  In Albi, we found a tiny camping spot literally in the shadow of Ste. Cécile Cathedral, one of two city sights we wanted to visit.  Unlike most of the churches we had visited thus far, Ste. Cécile was a massive, toned-down, fortress-like structure constructed out of small red bricks. 

The original design was kept simple to appease the Cathars, a local, somewhat rebellious Christian sect that shunned flamboyance of any kind.  In the 13th century, the Catholic Pope and the French king decided that the Cathars were a little too heretical and launched a genocidal campaign to essentially wipe them out.  After the Cathars were exterminated during the Albigensian Crusades (1209-1240), two centuries later a full-blown Gothic-style entry porch was added to the original simple basic brick construction of Ste. Cécile.  For me, this obvious later addition created an eye-jarring discontinuity.

However, the inside of Ste. Cécile was amazing!  I know, you are thinking--how could one more cathedral be any more amazing than what we have already seen--but it was.  Toward the main altar, the incredible “Last Judgment” fresco from the Middle Ages, along with all the other medieval frescos that covered almost every available wall space, looked much as it did when it was created over 500 years ago. 

 The very rare, extremely ornate limestone choir screen was the second feature that distinguished this cathedral from all others.

The little side chapel that was dedicated to Ste. Cécile had the customary reliquary box situated above a lovely statue of a dying Ste. Cécile.

The second reason for our stop in Albi, birthplace of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, was for the opportunity to visit the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, which claims to possess the world’s largest collection of his artwork.  We both really enjoyed going through a museum totally devoted to one artist.  It was interesting to see how Toulouse-Lautrec’s style evolved over his short lifetime.  The oil paintings depicting Parisian bars, brothels and cabarets were especially delightful.  There was a large collection of advertising posters which Toulouse-Lautrec painted later in his career.  These were interesting in an historic sort of way but were not as eye-popping as the Paris works.  

The walk outside of the museum led to some marvelous sculptured gardens with a lovely city view over the Tarn River.

CARCASSONNE:  The next day we headed south to visit Carcassonne, more specifically La Cité, a medieval medieval 13th century fortress city that served as the setting for the movie “Robin Hood:  Prince of Thieves” starring Kevin Costner.  The old city was surrounded by a double ringed wall.  Indeed, as we entered the Narbonne entry gate,


and proceeded up the wide path between both walls,

we felt like we were in for a real treat.

We followed the path through the inner wall gate that led into La  Cité and made a short stop in St. Nazaire Church.  This relatively simple church was notable for the fact that the Romanesque arches in the nave survived destruction by the Albigensian crusaders, who set out to destroy all Romanesque churches and replace them with Gothic ones.  The section around the altar and transepts that was destroyed was rebuilt in Gothic style, resulting in a unique blend of both styles.

As we exited the church, we entered the heart of La Cité.  Then, for us, the excitement plummeted.  Today the ancient city within the magnificent medieval walls is packed with wall-to-wall hotels, restaurants, and tourist shops. 


It was very crowded and there was nothing particularly remarkable about such a scene, except for its historic location.  We had planned to camp for the night in a nearby large parking lot in an area set aside for RVs, so we could take in the much-touted lighted night walk along the walls.  However, within sight next to the parking lot, a temporary rock concert venue with very loud sounds of a rock band practicing for what was probably going to be a concert that night, convinced us to get out of town fast.

Before we left Carcassonne, we did some calendar and map checking and decided our schedule would allow us time to dip into the Pyrenees, the mountains between France and Spain.  We wanted to see this area in summertime because it would be impassable for us in winter.  While we were at it, we both agreed that a spin through the tiny country of Andorra would be fun.  So…from Languedoc we headed for a few days in Spain and Andorra.   

“A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.”  Moslih Eddin Saadi


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