Friday, August 29, 2014

Enlightenment at Lourdes

Trip to Aude/Midi-Pyrénées: Day 7

At last, about 2 PM, we rolled into Lourdes. We went in search of the hotel where Blandine had stayed every summer as a child, with her parents. Surprisingly, several decades later, it was still around. Or rather, its signboard was. But the hotel itself seemed to have gone bust. No matter. Lourdes was chock-full of hotels, most of them running empty. In fact, other than hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops, there isn't much else in Lourdes. Not counting the Basilica, of course.

We found ourselves a lovely old hotel with thick plush carpets, attractive reproductions of modern masters and a lovely old clanking lift enclosed in an open wrought-iron grill covered in filigree. It was beautiful to look at, but the thought of stepping into it turned the bowels into chilled water. Blandine took one look at it and refused to step in. I bravely took our luggage up to our floor in it. Once out, I swore never to step into it again. Next morning, I lugged our heavy suitcases down six flights of stairs.

We stepped out and headed straight for the central attraction of Lourdes: The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, or as it is called in French: Les Sanctuaires Notre-Dame de Lourdes.

Here are the pictures I took of the grounds of the Sanctuary, and the Upper Basilica (The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception).

Thursday, August 28, 2014

More places on the way to Lourdes

Trip to Aude/Midi-Pyrénées: Day 6 and 7
The entire route from Perpignan to Lourdes was crawling with mysterious chateaus, somber abbeys, sleepy churches and sun-kissed villages. If we'd stopped at every one of them, we'd never have gotten to Lourdes. So we had to pick and choose. In the last couple of posts, I covered the places where we spent a goodish amount of time. This post is a jumble bag of places where I hopped out, took a few shots, and hopped back in. Not enough material for a full post, but too good to throw away just the same. There were lots of other lovely places besides, where I did not even do that, for some reason. We simply zipped through. Something that I rather regret now. There was one particular town: the spa town of Bagnères-de-Bigorre. It was breathtakingly beautiful. But for some weird reason, I can't find a single photograph of it on the iPad. I can't believe I did not take a single shot there. Oh well. Some other time, perhaps. If I ever visit France again.
Tomorrow's post: we finally get to Lourdes.
Right, on to the pics. Here was our route again, to refresh your memory:

Bye-bye to Quéribus
A little after Perpignan, our path crossed castle Quéribus again -- from a distance. We caught a glimpse of Quéribus from the highway. We waved a teary goodbye to it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A church by the wayside

Trip to Midi-Pyrénées: Day 7

There we were, zipping down a lonely country road between Capvern and Pouzac, on our scenic route to Lourdes. The Pyrenees rolled in the clouds on one side, cows and sheep in new-mown meadows on the other. When all of a sudden, I grabbed Blandine by the arm and yelled 'Stop!' Or rather, 'Arêtte!'

Blandine thought I had a bathroom emergency. But as a matter of fact, I'd just seen this:
A lonely little church in the middle of nowhere. The Pyrenees brooded on dark secrets behind her. Waves of grass lapped at her feet. In hushed silence I approached.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014


Trip to Not Aude: Day 7
After Mirepoix, we skirted the lower slopes of the Pyrenees to land up at the town of St. Gaudens. We hadn't intended to go that far -- we'd been on the lookout for a charming B&B in some little village on the way. Unfortunately, that seemed to have been a big evening for charming B&Bs -- they were all full up. And so it was nearly dark when we landed up at this bland little town of St. Gaudens. And we did something we'd agreed never to do -- we rested the night at a bland Ibis budget hotel. These Ibis hotels pop up like rash or eczema on the French countryside. They are all exactly alike. They look like something produced on a conveyor belt. But on the plus side, they're cheap, and clean and you know exactly what you're getting. Anyhow, early the next day, a short drive took us to the next spot on our itinerary: the beau village of Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges.

Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges was founded by the Roman general Pompey in 72 BC as a colony to defend the Aran Valley. It was called Lugdunum Convenarum in those times. Later, in the 11th century, a cathedral was established there: Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges, which gave the village its present name. The cathedral is today a UNESCO World Heritage site.

This is what Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges looks like, perched on a hill, as you approach.

Monday, August 25, 2014


Trip to Not Aude: Day 6 (Afternoon)
We stopped for lunch at Mirepoix. Mirepoix is a fairly ordinary sort of town, but it has something special at its center: a town square dating back to the 13th and 14th century. You can take a walk around the Place de Couverts looking at these carefully restored 13th century town houses.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Camon, the village of roses

Trip to Not Aude:(Day 6)
So there we were, breakfasting at our hotel in Perpignan, all ready to convert our castle trail in Aude into a Spanish treasure hunt. When Blandine had another of her quicksilver mood changes. She did not want to go to Spain any more. But she was darned if she would set foot in another Cathar castle. That hadn't changed.
I gingerly put forward a suggestion, like a cat placing a dead rat at his mistress's feet, not sure what the reception would be.
Lourdes, I said.
Lourdes had been a long-running battle of will between us. It was the first place I had wanted to see in France. Blandine had vetoed it, time and again. Lourdes, as you might know, is the famous pilgrimage spot in France. Not that I'm terribly religious, but I had a specific reason for wanting to go there. I had based one of my novels in that holy town, without ever having seen it (Perl and the Psychotic Mutant Space Cattle - read about it here). Now that I was in France, I wanted to see the place in which I had lived, in my imagination, all that long year while writing the novel. But Blandine had her own reasons for not wanting to go there. She had been dragged there as a child virtually every year by her deeply religious Catholic parents. She was damned if she would go back, now that she was an adult and presumably in control of her own life.
So, as I said, I deposited Lourdes with the air of a tentative tomcat.
Surprisingly, Blandine agreed. Without a murmur. Possibly the fact that we had worked our way so far down south that we were just a hop away from Lourdes had something to do with it. Or possibly it was the fact that, despite everything, she loved me dearly. Anyhow, she agreed.
I worked out the route. As usual, we decided to take the scenic route, avoiding highways and taking in a few beaux villages along the way. Here is the route I made: the stars mark our original Aude route, and the blue strip the new route.

The first beau village on our route was Camon. You hit it the moment you cross the border of Aude and the region of Languedoc-Roussillon. We were now officially in the region of Midi-Pyrénées, the region of Lourdes. Camon is a 10th century village, centered around an abbey on the banks of the river Hers. It still has stone houses dating back to the 10th century. Today, it is most known for its roses. This is an ancient wine growing region, and like many older wine growing regions, they grew roses along with the grape wines. The theory was that the roses acted as a kind of health-indicator for the grape wines. Since roses are a lot more delicate, they succumb first to diseases thereby giving the winegrower advance warning. From growing roses in the vineyard to turning the village into a rose village was a small, logical step.
Here are some pics I took of Camon:  the arched gate of the village, the rose covered cottages, the 10th century abbey...

The arched gate of the village, as you enter

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Perpignan, gateway to Spain

Trip to Not Aude: Day5 (Evening)
Are you done with ruined Cathar castles? Blandine asked me wearily as we climbed down the hill from Château de Peyrepertuse.
Actually, I wasn't. I had another five on my list. But Blandine was showing all the signs of a girlfriend who has about had it up to the gizzard with ruined castles on hills. Another ruined castle, and something would break. It wouldn't be pretty being in the vicinity when that happened.
Why don't we hop over to Spain, I suggested? In the process of working our way from castle to Cathar castle, we were almost at the Spanish border. Blandine, I knew, had a thing for Spain.
I had said the magic words. Blandine brightened. We tacked our sails and nosed the prow of the Mini Cooper towards Perpignan.
Perpignan is, for the French, their Gateway to Spain. It straddles A9, the highway most often used by French vacationers, just on the border to Spain. It was the logical place to stay the night.
It is a city that dates back to the 10th century and has French, Spanish and Catalan influences. It was bounced like a rubber ball between France and Spain over the centuries, first one side and then the other claiming ownership. The architecture in the old city has a distinctly Spanish feel and you get the feeling you are almost in Spain. A feeling that is accentuated by the fact that many street signs are in French and Catalan, and the mishmash of French, Catalan and Spanish that one hears on the streets.
We found an inexpensive hotel and dumped our stuff. And then we trotted out to see as much of the old city as possible before it turned dark. In retrospect, we regretted treating Perpignan merely as a stepping stone into Spain. It is a lovely old city with a wonderful atmosphere that deserved a day to itself, at least. Anyhow, we were at that time of the year when the sun sets late, and we did manage to cover quite a bit in the short hours available to us. Here are some pics I took:-
Perpignan Cathedral

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Château de Peyrepertuse

Trip to Aude: Day 5 (Afternoon)
After Quéribus, we hopped over to it's sister castle, Château de Peyrepertuse on a neighboring hill. Quéribus and Peyrepertuse form a chain of five castles that are called the Sons of Carcassonne. All refurbished former Cathar castles, they formed a line of defense against Spain centered on the grand castle of Carcassonne.
Peyrepertuse is just a short drive away from Quéribus. You can actually see Peyrepertuse from the ramparts of Quéribus. If you remember, I had a photo of it in the previous post.
This is what Peyrepertuse  looks like, as you approach.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The best bread in France

Trip To Aude: Day 5 (Afternoon)
It was lunchtime. Scrambling all over Château de Quéribus had given us a rare appetite. There was really no debate as to where we were going to eat: The finest bakery in France.
Or at least, that is what he'd told us, the proprietor of Les Santolines, the B&B at village Cucugnan where we'd stayed the night. Roland Feuillas had personally presided over our princely breakfast. Bread, butter, conserve, coffee. The standard continental breakfast, you would say. We'd usually had more choice in most places we'd stayed. But choice is immaterial, when the bread is the best bread in France, hot from the oven, the butter fresh from the nearby bio farm, and the conserve hand made on mine host's farm.
M. Feuillas had handed out hunks of his bread like portions of gold bullion. No, I don't mean he was stingy about it. He gave large, generous chunks, and even pressed us to eat more. But he did it with the ceremony of a master jeweler at an up-market diamantaire. Roland Feuillas was clearly passionate about his bread.
While we ate, Roland Feuillas told us the story of his bakery.
The B&B was a side business. His first love was his bakery. He'd come to village Cucugnan several decades ago, and had noticed a 13th century windmill-driven flour mill and bakery, both in disrepair. He had the dream of restoring it to its former glory. That led to several years of research and hard work. Eventually, in 2003, it was ready. It began production in 2006. He bakes bread exactly as it was done in the 13th century. He even grows ancient strains of wheat and other cereals on his own bio farm. His breads are made exclusively from these ancient grains. The grains are hand picked, and ground on stone grinders run by a windmill, the historical Le Moulin d'Omer (Omer's Mill), that stands proudly on a hill overlooking Cucugnan. They are baked in wood-fired clay ovens, just as they were in those long gone days. And "The Best Bread in France"? Well, once he started production, accolades weren't long coming. He has received many awards. And his bakery was selected one of the five best boulangeries in France by a leading French periodical. Amongst the other five: the bakery inside Elysee Palace, where the French President lives, when he isn't sneaking out for midnight trysts with attractive journalists. (By the way, Ronald told us the name of the periodical, but it escaped my mind and I could not track it down on the internet. But anyway, it was one of the biggies, like Le Figero or Le Monde or something). So, the bread we were eating was arguably the best in France. Leading food critics have said so. And I don't dispute them. What we ate for breakfast was truly an exceptional bread.
It was now lunchtime, and we wanted more of that bread. Maybe even cart some along for dinner. We had our first look at the Omer's Mill on the way down from castle Quéribus. Here it, floating above the village... (click on the picture to enlarge. The windmill is right under that wispy cloud in the middle)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Château de Quéribus

Trip to Aude: Day5
Early next morning, we climbed the hill to Quéribus castle. Quéribus was the last Cathar stronghold to fall in the crusades against Cathars conducted by Pope Innocent III in the 13th century. It was where the last rebels had sheltered after the fall of Montségur in 1244. After the fall, it was turned into a royal château, protecting the French borders with Spain.
I'd seen ruined castles before, I would see others subsequently. But none affected me as strongly as Quéribus. I had a feeling this was 'my castle'. Perhaps I was, in a previous life, Chabert de Barbaria, the last Cathar seigneur of the château. Or perhaps I was, considering that I've turned into a humor novelist, a jester in his court.

On the way up the hill:

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Cucugnan - where I'll end my days

Trip to Aude: Day 4 (Evening)
After checking out Bugarach from all angles (except top and bottom), we headed for the last stop of the day, the finest Cathar Castle of them all, the exceedingly romantic Château de Quéribus. It was a longish drive, and by the time we got there it was dusk. Too late to mount the hill to the castle. So we looked around for a place to stay at the village of Cucugnan, at the foot of the castle. Cucugnan and Quéribus are bound in till-death-do-us-part ties. Most castles have a village in their shadow, and Cucugnan is in that of Quéribus. When Quéribus was a fine young castle, Cucugnan supplied it with men and material. Now that Quéribus is in its dotage, it supplies it with tourists.

It wasn't love at first sight. When I first saw village Cucugnan, I said to myself, What Ho! A village!

It looked the sort of village that exists for the sake of tourists. And partly, that is true. It is chock full from one end to the other with restaurants and B&Bs, all catering to tourists headed for Quéribus. But there are people who live there. And with good reason. As I was to find out later.

This is what Cucugnan looks like, at first glance.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Bugarach: The Mystic Mountain

Trip to Aude: Day4 (Afternoon)
After the muddled mysteries of Rennes-le-Château, we were a short hop away from the mystic mountain of Bugarach. We simply had to take the road back to our hotel, Laveldieu, and continue on to Bugarach. But Blandine discovered she was running short on cash. So we drove the other way, to the town of Couiza. No banks, no ATMs. Not a one. What a town. No matter, we took the road to Rennes-les-Bains. Rennes-les-Bains, as you can make out from the name, is a sort of sister-village to Rennes-le-Château. But instead of hot air, it sells hot water. It's a thermal spa. (You can be pretty sure that any place in France ending 'les-bains' is a thermal spa). They're close together on the map, but there is no direct road between them.We figured that thermal spas attract all sorts of filthy rich plutocrats with gout and weak liver, and if plutocrats are there, can banks and ATMs be far behind? We figured wrong. No ATMs. No Banks. Not a one. But it was full of plutocrats. We stopped a very expensive looking lady in some kind of rich robe and asked her. She confirmed our diagnosis. She said the nearest place to get money was Couiza. We thanked her and pressed on.
I noted on the map that we weren't far from Bugarach, although we had taken a more circuitous route to get there. I suggested we might suspend the money hunt for a bit and take a look at the heavenly hill. Blandine sighed and agreed. She took the road to Bugarach. I felt a twinge of regret at whizzing through Rennes-les-Bains. It seemed a rather pretty little village. Later, when I learned about it some more, I regretted it even more. But at the time I was obsessed with getting to Bugarach.

Anyhow, here we were at last, on the road to Bugarach:

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Rennes-le-Château: Church of Mary Magdalene

Trip to Aude: Day 4:
The third and final pilgrimage spot for the conspiracy tourist at Rennes-le-Château is the Church of Mary Magdalene. This was a ruined 8th century church which Father Saunière renovated with his secret funds around 1897. This church features prominently in the first few chapters of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, because it was while renovating the ancient alter of this church, and subsequent diggings around the church, that he was supposed to have discovered the awful secret at the heart of Holy Blood, Holy Grail and Da Vinci Code: the secret of how to write a bestseller that takes the world by storm. Too bad the good father was not much of a writer, and it had to wait for Dan Brown to do the needful a century later.

Mary Magdalene, as you may or may not know, depending on how much of the Bible or Da Vinci Code you have read, was the first among all of Jesus's disciples. He is said to have loved her above all others, and revealed teachings to her that he did not to the others. She stood by him in his darkest hours, when all the macho male disciples had fled in terror. After the death of Jesus, she was sidelined by the macho male MCP disciples, particularly St. Peter and St Paul, although ideally she should have been their leader. She was even vilified as a reformed prostitute by the later church, although this has since been overturned by the Vatican. All this is undisputed fact. But DVC and HBHG go even further by claiming that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had actually married and had a baby, and that she had escaped to the South of France after the Crucifixion, carrying the child in her womb. And that the child founded the Merovingian Dynasty. What Saunière was supposed to have found is proof that King Dagobert II of the Merovingian Dynasty claimed his ancestry to Jesus and Mary Magdalene. At least, that is how I remember the plot. I could have mixed it up somewhere. The plots were so convoluted and it's such a long time since I read those books.

Anyhow, here I was at that famous church, which is to one side of the museum.
The first thing that strikes you is this inscription above the church door:  Terribilis est locus iste  - "This is a place of awe"

Monday, August 11, 2014

Rennes-le-Château: Saunière's Home

Trip to Aude: Day4
After you've passed through Saunière Museum (see previous post), you enter the house that Father Saunière built. The one that started off the whole conspiracy theory business. It's a nice, attractive little bourgeois home with a modest garden and an orangery. The only 'extravagant' touch is the slightly fanciful 'Tour Magdala' (Magdalene Tower), a stubby tower and a walkway that he build on the side overlooking the cliff. But still, it is hardly a 19th century French Xanadu. It is the sort of home that a prosperous doctor or lawyer of that epoch might have built himself. But it was possibly a bit too much for the humble folk of this tiny hamlet circa 1905. They wondered where their impecunious padre got the money from. His pay from the church certainly wasn't enough to cover construction costs. It started tongues wagging. And they still haven't stopped wagging, nearly two centuries on. It has funded an enormous conspiracy theory business. Dan Brown has probably constructed several homes in Southern California a great deal more extravagant than this one, from the proceeds of Da Vinci Code, as have his publisher and the producers of the movie version. Heck, even the writers of Holy Blood, Holy Grail must have made a small fortune out of it, despite their small-minded and avaricious lawsuit against Dan Brown (As some sort of a novelist myself, I have strong feelings about it. In my view, Dan Brown went way beyond the demands of normal decency by mentioning HBHG right in the text of the novel, instead of just in the acknowledgements. Millions around the world bought HBHG just because of that. Why, even I bought my copy after reading of it in DVC. Instead of being satisfied with that, M/S  Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln decided they wanted a slice of the DVC millions too, and brought a copyright infringement lawsuit. Luckily, they lost. Otherwise novelists around the world would have been facing the consequences today.)
Besides these two, there have been at the last count over a thousand other conspiracy theory books in English and French, all centered on the little village of Rennes-le-Château and Father Saunière. This village too has done well out its notoriety. This otherwise insignificant village gets hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, all idiots like me, who give a bounce to the local economy.
Indeed, nearly everyone has done well out of this. All except poor old Father Saunière, who died in penury in 1917, harried by the church in ecclesiastical trials.

Anyhow, here are the pics of the infamous Saunière Home:
The first thing you see on leaving the museum is Father Saunière's grave, and the garden.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Rennes-le-Château: The Saunière Museum

Trip to Aude: Day4
We woke up the the sound of birdsong at the Lavaldieu. Blandine was most annoyed. She finds nothing romantic about birdsong. She also finds nothing romantic about waking up in terror, several times at night, to the sound of ivy scraping against the window pane in the wind. She also finds nothing romantic in me finding romantic the things that wake her up. Blandine likes her sleep.
But she did find romantic the leisurely breakfast on the lawns of the Lavaldieu, gazing up at Bugarach enveloped in the clouds, the birds hopping on the lawn, and me hopping in and out of the breakfast room to get her toasts and things from the 100% certified organic breakfast buffet. At least we were agreed on that.
After breakfast, we hopped back into the car to drive over to Rennes-le-Château, to explore it in greater depth than had been possible the previous evening.
What mysteries awaited us, in this most mysterious of places in France?
The very first conundrum hit us right in the car park of the Saunière  Museum. It was this dark, circular stone tower, with an arrow signboard planted in front of it. The signboard carried the enigmatic letters: W C

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Rennes le Château at dusk

Trip to Aude: Day 3 (Late Evening)

It was nearing 6 PM when we drove into the town of Couiza, at the foot of the bewitched hill. Fireworks were going off in my head and goosebumps were crawling up and down my skin. This was it, the highlight of the trip to Aude; probably the highlight of my trip to France. I'd been looking forward to this day ever since I read Holy Blood, Holy Grail, many years ago. We were just meters away from the mysterious village of Rennes le Château, and the mystic mountain of Bugarach.

If we turned left and drove up what a French writer has called la collien envoûtée (the bewitched hill), we would land up at the village of Rennes le Château with its dark secrets. If we instead took a fork and drove the other direction, we would land up at that hippy El Dorado, the upside-down mountain of Bugarach.

We did neither. The first thing we do is search for a B&B to stay the night, said Blandine caustically. She seemed distinctly unmoved by the surroundings. I dutifully complied. I popped into a tourist information booth and made inquiries for a suitable place in Couiza. Minutes later, I was running screaming back to the car. There was an amazingly pretty B&B not far off -- and guess what, it was not in Couiza, but in Rennes-la-Château itself. AND it had a magnificent view of Bugarach.

In the event, that proved to be only partly true. We took the winding road up the bewitched hill. Shortly before the village, we came to a fork, pointing left to Buarach. There was also signboard that said 'Lavaldieu'. That was the name of the B&B we were going to. I was a bit disappointed. It seemed it was not in the actual village of Rennes-la-Château, but in the postal district of the same name. But we took the road anyway.

We took a short drive through fairly spectacular countryside. Looking back, we could see the village of Rennes-la-Château perched on its dark hill. Looking ahead, we could see Bugarach gleaming in the sun. Scrubby pastures rolled off on all sides, populated with just the odd cudster.
Rennes-le-Château perched on the bewitched hill

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Château d'Arques

Trip to Aude: Day 3 (Evening)
It was getting on to dusk and we were hurrying off to our last stop for the day, the mysterious Rennes la Château, where we intended to stay the night. When, in the distance, this edifice arose before us.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Château de Termes

Trip to Aude: Day 2 (Evening)

Leaving behind the beau village of Lagrass, we truly entered 'Cathar Country'... narrow roads winding through craggy, scrubby hill; a landscape littered with ruined chateaus, crumbling fortifications and hidden menace. Of course, the only menace you'll face in modern France is a drunken driver coming the other way. But back in those old days, you could quickly find yourself kidnapped or killed riding through these hills. Some of that still lingers.
A chateau along the way - one of many. This is Château de Durfort, a privatly held chateau, not open to the public. There are any number of such small chateaus in these hills.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Lagrass: André's Cave

Trip to Aude: Day 3

While strolling around the beau village of Lagrasse (see previous post), we came across a signboard: Vin Bio. Another signboard said :

Domaine Henry Carbonnel

It was a garage-like chamber with creaking red doors. The walls were covered with ivy. Intoxicating smells came from within. It was cool and dark inside. Intriguing casks and barrels and vats lay about. A reedy, pleasant-faced man in fading denim pottered about inside. This, clearly, was a cave.

Friday, August 01, 2014


Trip to Aude: Day 3

We said bye-bye to Gruissan and made for the chateau of Termes. On the way, we passed the beau village of Lagrasse. Naturally we had to stop there. Here are some pics of the town, by the banks of the river Orbieu :-

 The town square, with structures dating back to the Middle Ages :-