Oooh it is great to have friends who live in France. It is even better when your other friends have the same thought, and you can all meet there together. Maybe ‘I am meeting a friend in France on Monday’ sounds a little… well. However, on a student budget, I can tell you this entails a 7am flight (alarm at 3:45am!) to Bordeaux, and then a separate flight back again, from Carcassonne. To visit said friend in Toulouse. We spent a fair amount of time (waiting) on trains. Honestly, I would still have gone if we had only sat on trains though. France friends are the best.
My friends do not even ask what I want to go see; they know.
First up was Bordeaux Cathedral (Saint-André), consecrated by the Pope in 1096. The original building was Romanesque, but this is all gone now. What’s still standing today is ca. 15th century. It is also the place where Eleanor of Aquitaine married the future Louis VII. If you do not know her, Eleanor was an extremely important woman in European history and well worth considering naming your children after.
Due to her marriage, Eleanor was queen of France for over a decade. However, she cleverly asked for the marriage to be annulled, and soon after married Henry, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou – who became King Henry II of England. Because being Queen of France was not enough, right. The Duchy of Aquitaine was the largest and richest province of France at the time – and combining this with Henry’s lands meant that Eleanor now possessed ten times as much of the country as the French kings themselves.
Henry and Eleanor did not exactly have a happy ending though and eventually he ended up imprisoning her – till he died, and she managed to get back on top again. While her son Richard I was off on the Third Crusade, Eleanor acted as regent of England. She somehow lived past age 80 (very rare in medieval Europe), staying active in matters of government, and can certainly be considered one of the most powerful women of her time.
One of the lesser known attractions of Bordeaux is its Roman amphitheatre. Or the remains thereof, anyway. The tourist-office-lady was slightly surprised when we asked for directions.
In Roman times, Bordeaux was known as Burdigala – the capital of the Roman province of Gallia Aquitaina, anexed by Emperor Augustus. The theatre itself is rather late, ca. 3rd century CE. The theatre is meant to have been able to seat at least 15 000 people (another website suggests 17 000 and a third 22 000). From the one wall left standing now, it is quite clear that these French Romans made use of wood as well as stone. The brick pattern also looked interesting to me, but I am not an expert on bricks. The reason not much is left of it is because it was destroyed during the Germanic invasions (I imagine it burnt quite well). Also, there’s a lot of houses on top of what are probably very interesting archaeological remains. The theatre is also known as ‘Palais Gallien’ … because people (later) thought it looked fancy and assumed it was probably a palace. It was declared a historical monument as early as 1911.
I should mention by the way, that we were in Bordeaux on a Monday, and that means the archaeological museum was closed.
The last thing I want to mention about Bordeaux are the four fantastic city gates. These are fairytale-castle type gates.
In particular, there are the Porte Cailhau and Porte Saint Eloi, both originally constructed in the 15th century. The fairytale style is technically called Gothic-Renaissance (battlements, very high roof, lanterns). The Porte Cailhau underwent some serious restoration in the 19th century, but Google will not tell me how much this changed the appearance of the gate. If anyone knows, let me know. The Porte Saint Eloi (or Grosse Cloche) has likewise undergone a lot of changes; the clock dates to the 17th or 18th century and the whole gate was last restored as recently as 2012. I did not have time to visit inside, but it has (unsurprisingly) an incredible clock mechanism as well as a small hidden dungeon system for the misbehaving youths of the past.
Both of the gates are on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela (the Camino de Santiago or Way of St. James). In fact, interesting side-note, Bordeaux can be connected to the Itinerarium Burdigalense (also see here), the earliest extant account of European Christian pilgrimage in Palestine, with manuscipts dating to the 8th and 10th centuries CE. It was written by the “Pilgrim of Bordeaux”, an anonymous pilgrim from Burdigala. This anonymous pilgrim was travelling at a time when the Roman Empire was on the edge between the ‘old’ religion and the ‘new’. This is when Roman travel writing transformed into Christian pilgrimage accounts.
Onwards to Toulouse : ) Ah to live in a country where you can go across the street and buy fresh croissants and baguettes in the morning. Or where you have to, because it is way, way too warm to stay indoors. I am not sure why, but 35 degrees in Jordan is not the same as 35 degrees in France. We had to walk to the bakery slowly.
First things first, the old town centre of Toulouse. The city is also known as ‘La Ville Rose’ because of the bricks most buildings were constructed with. Bordeaux is not the only city with a wealthy past; many of the grand 16th-17th century houses of Toulouse’s merchants and noblemen still stand. This golden age can be attributed to the construction of the Canal Royal en Languedoc or Canal du Midi in 1666 – connecting the Garonne River to the Étang de Thau on the Mediterranean (and along with the Canal de Garonne forms the Canal des Deux Mers joining the Atlantic to the Mediterranean).
In particular, I loved how the old buildings have been re-used for modern shops. Where else would you find a Jennyfer framed by medieval wood?
The most astonishing architecture in Toulouse has to be attributed to the Basilica of St. Sernin. Most of the current building was constructed in the Romanesque style between about 1080 and 1120, but other bits were added later – and the adjoining abbey is long gone. Ah the round arches; magnificent, tall, round arches. Personally, I am a big fan of surviving, original, Romanesque architecture. The architecture deviates from the standard early Christian in a few ways: there are a lot of additional radiating chapels (to display relics), ceilings are vaulted, and there is a walkway that goes around the nave. Like Bordeaux, this is an important stop for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. I am sure Michaela tried to explain the exact ritual to me (first go walking around via the right side, then go somewhere else; all before you are allowed to walk into the main bit…?). Architecture adapted to pilgrims, anyway. Incredible church and absolutely worth visiting, pilgrimage or not.
Another fantastic building is the Cathedral of Toulouse (Saint-Étienne). It actually consists of two separate churches mashed together, built about 50 years apart during the 13th century CE. The building is especially interesting, because this second church was built on a new plan and a different axis (I think they ran out of money on both projects?). A few other bits were changed and added for the next three centuries, and when I was there, they were still doing construction work. The entrance is through a nave in southern gothic style, which then runs into a massive choir in northern gothic style. It is a little bit difficult to explain how miss-matched this is; go see for yourself!
This next one is a little funny. We found a shop which sells maps and posters, called ‘la mucca’. I loved it; I would decorate my whole house and office with these products. The store does not have a website, but ‘lepetittou.com’ provides a great description (use Google translate if you do not read French):
Penétrons dans l’atelier de l’écriture ! On ne s’étonnera pas des étalages de carnets colorés, des parchemins délicats ou des cartes flamboyantes. Dans cette papeterie où la fortune, la culture et le raffinement se devinent, amants et poètes solitaires viennent se procurer de quoi écrire ébauches de récits, vers ou prose délicatement ouvragée. Quels mots exprimeraient avec assez d’émoi le charme et l’attractivité des lieux ? Comment décrire ce temple de la papeterie sans évoquer l’odeur simple du papier et de l’encre ainsi que la sublime devanture ? Que de fois je suis venue contempler inlassablement la vitrine regorgeant d’objets insolites, bariolés, décalés, attendrissants ou fleuris juste pour le plaisir des yeux !
The address is 23 Rue des Lois, 31000 Toulouse, France.
Also worth mentioning is the Jacobin Convent, which is coincidentally celebrating its 800th anniversary this year. Like the other churches, construction of the convent was begun in the 13th century and enlarged over the centuries. The interior is simple, light and spacious, and the building is best known for its “palm tree” columns and decorated ceiling. The convent is also home to the relics of St Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274), if that rings any bells. I know him as a very influential philosopher: he argued for natural theology, and was a big fan of Aristotle.
My last stop was Carcassonne airport – but not before having a look inside the medieval town centre of course. Carcassonne consists of two parts: the fortified city, and the ‘Ville Basse’. They had to expand across the river in the Middle Ages due to the quick growth of the settlement, and this area is where all the actual residents of Carcassonne live nowadays. I had no idea before visiting, but the fortified city is purely a tourist attraction now. No local shops or schools or anything like that; just sweet shops, restaurants, and hordes of tourists. It is a shame because it makes it impossible to allow yourself to get lost in the past, wandering through quiet little cobbled streets and appreciating the medieval architecture. It was not quiet.
Anyway. Carcassonne is famous for its fairytale-appearance (much like the gates in Bordeaux). French architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc did some serious reconstructing and restoring in the 19th century, perhaps making it look a bit more like he wanted, than the way it looked originally. For example, the pointed roofs are actually more typical of northern France. Hmm. Apologies for making use of Wikipedia, but I found a good explanation there:
There were two major intervention theories of historic preservation at the time: retention of the status quo versus a restoration that creates something that never actually existed in the past. John Ruskin was a strong proponent of the former, while Viollet-le-Duc advocated for the latter instance. Viollet-le-Duc wrote that restoration is a “means to reestablish [a building] to a finished state, which may in fact never have actually existed at any given time.” The type of restoration employed by Viollet-le-Duc, in its English form as Victorian restoration, was decried by Ruskin as “a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed.” Have a guess which of the two I would agree with…
Anyway, the Romans fortified the hilltop in the 1st century BCE, naming it Carcasum, after Caesar. They lost the settlement to the Visigothic king in the 5th century CE however. And from then on began changing hands between various French rulers. The way I know it, and what gets my sister very excited, is that this is the city which features in Kate Mosse’s ‘Labyrinth’. See here for a book review. Like the book or not (I can think of both pros and cons), what I remember, is that it highlights the people in this region spoke Occitan (rather than French).
Today, Occitan is an official language in Catalonia (and Occitan’s closest relative is Catalan). There is no single written standard language for Occitan, and it is not officially recognised in France. Four of the six major dialects of Occitan (Provençal, Auvergnat, Limousin and Languedocien) are considered severely endangered, while the remaining two (Gascon and Vivaro-Alpine) are considered definitely endangered. See this great paper on Occitan identity. And go here if you would like to learn some.
I wonder where we will meet next summer : )