Things to see and do - Languedoc Roussillon, Tarn Gorges
Languedoc Roussillon, Tarn Gorges :
Where to go?
- Prehistory & Antiquity
- Military architecture in the Middle Ages
- Religious Architecture
- Secular architecture
- Traditional rural architecture
Prehistory & Antiquity
The Causses and the Cévennes are rich in vestiges of Neolithic art.
These large (Greek: mega ) stone (Greek: lithas ) monuments comprise dolmens, menhirs, covered alleyways, alignments of menhirs and “cromlechs” (groups of menhirs serving as boundary markers). The Aveyron département has the greatest concentration of dolmens in France. Rare menhirs are found in the Gard and the Aveyron. Scientists believe the earliest megaliths are from just before the Bronze Age.
These colossal standing stones sunk into the earth surely had great significance to these early peoples. In the south of the Aveyron département, numerous statue-menhirs depict a human figure, perhaps a protective goddess. The figure has arms, hands, short lower limbs, a face tattooed in patterns, neck adorned with jewelry, eyes, nose, but strangely, no mouth.
These horizontal slabs supported by vertical stones are believed to be tombs. Some were originally buried beneath a tumulus, a mound of earth or stones. Erecting dolmens required teamwork and an inclined ramp, plumb line, rollers capable of transporting stones weighing up to 350t, and the construction of roads. And to think that the installation of the 220t Luxor obelisk on Place de la Concorde in Paris was regarded a phenomenal feat in the year 1836!
Bronze and Iron Ages
The elegantly shaped bowls and jewellery displayed in the Musée Ignon-Fabre in Mende date from these periods.
Ceramic ware from the Graufesenque pottery near Millau, was renowned throughout the entire Roman Empire. Banassac was highly reputed for its fine earthenware.
Military architecture in the Middle Ages
The intense military activity of the Middle Ages left many traces throughout the Languedoc. The Albigensian Crusade, the pillaging bands of outlaws during the Hundred Years War, and the proximity of Guyenne, under English rule until 1453, all prompted feudal lords to build strong defences. Castles were erected at the mouths of canyons and on rocky pinnacles. Now reduced to ruins, the numerous fortresses on the Montagne Noire lend a austere grandeur to the landscape.
In the 10C and 11C, the collapse of public power and the crumbling authority of the princes and counts led to a increased number of fortified strongholds. During the 12C and 13C, the castles were once again in the hands of the king and great feudal lords, and were a source of frequent rivalry in Languedoc, constantly seething with border disputes.
Cities could be defended by the Gallo-Roman city walls like those of Carcassonne. But outside the city limits, fortresses were always built on high ground. In the 10C, crude mounds, either natural or man-made hillocks large enough for a simple shelter, multiplied rapidly on flat land. Over the centuries they evolved into impregnable citadels, like Cathar castles.
The end of the 11C marked the advent of stone keeps or donjons, either rectangular (Peyrepertuse) or rounded (Catalonia) with thick walls and narrow window slits. The only means of access was on the first floor, via a ladder or a retractable gangway. The interior was divided into several storeys. The dark and vaulted ground floor was a store room; the upper floors could be used as reception or living rooms. As residences, most keeps had limited facilities. Many were merely defensive towers housing a garrison. The lords preferred to live in larger building in the lower courtyard , either adjacent to or detached from the keep. During the 13C and 14C, the main castle building was extended and made more comfortable as a residence. The keep then became incorporated with the other buildings and acquired one or several enclosing walls, interrupted at intervals by towers. Puilaurens Castle , with its fortified wall and four corner towers, is a fine example of this new trend, whereas the keep at Arques is a remarkable specimen of 13C military construction.
These are a common feature in the Corbières, Fenouillèdes, Vallespir and Albères. They transmitted signals using fire by night and smoke by day, and a specific code to convey the nature or gravity of the danger. These visual communications links in the Catalan mountains sent information from the far reaches to Castelnou Castle in Les Aspres during the Catalan earldoms of the early Middle Ages, and to Perpignan during the reign of the kings of Aragon.
Towards the end of the 10C, churches in southern France became fortified. The church’s robust architecture and bell-tower suited for keeping watch, gave the local inhabitants a refuge in times of warfare. The church was traditionally a place of asylum: the Truce of God defined the areas of immunity as extending as far as 30 paces all around the building.
Machicolations ,either mounted on corbels or supported on arches between buttresses, as in Beaumont-de-Lomagne, appeared in France at the end of the 12C on Languedoc churches. Also known as murder-holes, they allowed stones and lethally hot liquids to be dropped on attackers at the base of a defensive wall.
Strict regulations on the fortification of churches were prescribed at the time of the Albigensian Crusade. The count of Toulouse and his vassals were accused of abusing their privilege in this regard, so the bishops regained a monopoly which had long eluded them.
For Languedoc the 13C marked the union with the French crown and the triumph of orthodoxy over heresy. Large brick churches in the Gothic style of Toulouse were constructed, with a layout and height appropriate for fortifications.
The cathedral of Ste-Cécile, with its severe 40m/131ft high walls, looks like a massive fortress at the heart of the subjugated Cathar country. Bernard de Castanet, Bishop of Albi, laid its first stone in 1282. Fortified churches and villages still scatter the upper valleys of the Pyrenees. In Prats-de-Mollo, the church of Stes-Juste-et-Ruffine is a curious blend of roofs and fortifications. One of the finest sights is Villefranche-de-Conflent with its ramparts refurbished by Vauban. Languedoc abounds with fine examples of fortified churches – the cathedral at Maguelone, the church of St-Étienne in Agde, the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Rodez and the cathedral of St-Nazaire in Béziers, to name but a few.
In 1152, Eleanor of Aquitaine took as her second husband Henry Plantagenet, count of Anjou and lord of Maine, Touraine and Normandy. Their joint estates equalled those of the King of France. Two years later, Henry Plantagenet inherited the throne of England, ruling as Henry II. The Franco-English wars that followed lasted for over 300 years. In the 13C the kings of France and England built Bastides , or fortified “new” towns, to secure their territorial claims. The bastides had grid layouts with straight streets intersecting at right angles. At the town’s centre was a square surrounded by covered arcades, called couverts (Mirepoix). Carcassonne’s “Ville Basse,” Montauban and Villefranche-de-Rouergue are particularly fine examples of these “new towns” (13C and 14C).
When a castle couldn’t be taken by surprise attack, long sieges often ensued. Perched on rocky outcrops and surrounded by steep rock faces, Cathar fortresses confounded conventional techniques of siege warfare. In 1210, thirst and disease forced the fortress of Termes to succumb, and in 1255 the fall of Quéribus , last bastion of the Cathars, was achieved by treacherous means.
When laying a siege, the attackers surrounded the stronghold and built trenches, stockades, towers, blockhouses etc. to counter attacks by relief armies and to prevent those under seige from making a possible sortie. Lengthy sieges could go on for months if not years, so an entire fortified town would be built round the besieged fortress.
To break through the stronghold’s curtain wall, sappers dug tunnels into the foot of it, shoring up the cavity with wooden props. They set these props alight so the tunnel and part of the curtain wall above collapsed. They employed slings, mobile siege towers and battering rams. Military engineers supervised the construction of the various siege devices, about which they had learned much during the Crusades.
The age of the cannon
Methods of bombardment evolved over the centuries. Towards the mid-15C the inventions of two talented gunners, the Bureau brothers, placed the French royal artillery on top of the world. No feudal fortress could withstand French attacks and in one year, Charles VII recaptured 60 positions from the English. Military architecture was transformed. Low thick bastions replaced towers and curtain walls were built lower and up to 12m/40ft thick. In the 17C, these new defence systems were perfected by Vauban , resulting in defences like the Fort de Salses . It is half-buried and protected with curtain walls with rounded tops to shield it from bullets and attackers scaling the walls.
Languedoc, crossroads of many civilisations, has enjoyed various architectural influences: from Auvergne, the church of Ste-Foy in Conques; from Provence, the abbey of St-Victor in Marseille, from Aquitaine, the basilica of St-Sernin in Toulouse and the church of St-Pierre in Moissac. Red or grey sandstone was used in the Rouergue region and farther south, brick and stone were combined harmoniously .
Early Romanesque churches
At the beginning of the 11C, Church prosperity promoted an ecclesiastical construction boom. Austere rustic buildings were erected of rough-hewn stones mixed with mortar, having only a few narrow deeply splayed windows. The walls around the outside of the apse were often adorned with Lombard bands, vertical pilasters projecting only slightly from the apse wall and linked at the top by small arcades. Inside, naves were roofed with barrel vaulting and ended in an oven-vaulted apse (quarter sphere).
The heavy stone vaulting put a heavy a load on the supporting walls, so windows were reduced to a minimum, and side aisles were built to buttress the nave. The abbey church at St-Guilhem-le-Désert dates from this period.
The Romanesque churches of Gévaudan in Haut Languedoc
The churches in this area encompass a wide range of layouts, with the single nave predominating. At the end of the 11C, it became a feature of larger churches like Maguelone Cathedral, St-Étienne in Agde.
Massive exterior walls reinforced by arcades, and a sober architectural style reflect the Provençal influence. Inside, ambulatories and radiating chapels like those of great pilgrimage churches like Ste-Foy in Conques or St-Sernin in Toulouse, are unusual in the simple countryside. In Conques, Ste-Foy is a jewel of 12C Romanesque sculpture.
Towards the mid-10C an original architectural style combining Mozarabic and Carolingian influences appeared in the Catalan Pyrenees. The abbey church of St-Michel-de-Cuxa in Conflent is a good example, with its low, narrow transept, elongated chancel with an apse, side aisles, and barrel vaulting throughout, lending it an Early Romanesque complexity. The simpler style of St-Martin-du-Canigou, with vaulted nave supported by pillars, was widely copied during the 11C.
Following this, church construction evolved with barrel vaulting supported by transverse arches (Arles-sur-Tech, Elne ) and the use of richer decorative motifs. The introduction of domes on pendentives was one of the most remarkable achievements of Catalan architecture.
Crudely made from roughly hewn rock, remote mountain sanctuaries are notable for their fine square towers decorated with small arcades and their Lombard bands, constructed down to the 13C. The beautiful grey or pink marble from the Conflent and Roussillon quarries was used for sculptural elements, and Pyrenean craftsmen produced more and more altar tables. Serrabone priory’s 12C decoration of is one of Roussillon’s finest examples of Romanesque art. Painted murals are an important feature of the architecture of this period; apses were painted with the image of Christ in Majesty, or of the Apocalypse or the Last Judgement.
Moissac Abbey on the road to Santiago de Compostela, was important throughout Languedoc in the 11C and the 12C. Its doorway and cloisters are masterpieces of Romanesque art. The tympanum , a stone rendering of a book illumination, represents Christ in Majesty surrounded by the symbols of the four Evangelists. It suggests a latent Eastern influence via Spain. The trefoil and polylobed arcades are reminiscent of Mozarabic art. The decorative style at Moissac bears some relation to that of Toulouse, another cradle of medieval Romanesque sculpture.
Toulouse flourished as the centre of the Languedoc Romanesque School in the peak of its glory. The largest Romanesque basilica in western Europe, and a major pilgrimage church, the basilica of St-Sernin is grandiose.
This subtle blend of stone and brick is vaulted throughout, and features several typical Romanesque techniques: semicircular barrel vaulting on transverse arches in the main nave; half-barrel vaulting in the galleries; ribbed vaulting in the side aisles; and a dome over the transept crossing. Bernard Gilduin’s workshop completed the sculpted decoration in less than 40 years (1080-1118). The Porte Miègeville was completed in 1100 and reflects Spanish influences from the workshops of Jaca and Compostela. The shape of the capitals is influenced by the classical Corinthian order, to which decorative motifs of animals or narrative scenes have been added. The cloisters of St-Sernin Abbey, La Daurade Monastery and St-Étienne Cathedral were destroyed in the 19C, but architectural fragments are exhibited in the Musée des Augustins).
Southern French Gothic
The south of France did not adopt the principles of Gothic architecture used in the north, but developed its own style inspired by Romanesque. The chancel of Narbonne Cathedral is virtually the only French Gothic style construction.
In the 13C, a specifically southern Languedoc Gothic style developed, characterised by the use of brick, interior painted walls, and a belfry wall or a bell-tower decorated with mitre-shaped arched openings, (as in the church of Notre-Dame-du-Taur or the upper storeys of the bell-tower of the basilica of St-Sernin, both in Toulouse). Massive buttresses interspersed with chapels supported the roof vault.The light weight of brick made it possible to build vaulted roofs instead of the earlier timber roofing. Its vast size accommodated the large congregations desired by preachers in the wake of the Albigensian Crusade.
Albi’s Ste-Cécile Cathedral, begun in 1282 and completed two centuries later, demonstrates southern French Gothic at its best. The cathedral’s single nave, lit through very narrow window openings, is 100m/328ft long and 30m/98ft high and has 12 bays supported by massive buttresses. The absence of side aisles, transept or ambulatory results in a better structural balance. In 1500, the Flamboyant Gothic style expressed itself in the shape of the choir screen and rood screen , and in the last three storeys of the bell-tower. The ornate canopy porch was added in 1533.
The mendicant orders
The Dominican friars, known as “Jacobins” in France, built their first monastery in Toulouse in 1216, but sadly, it was destroyed by fire in 1871. In 1222, during the lifetime of their founder St Francis of Assisi, it was occupied by the Franciscan Order. The vaulting of the church of Les Jacobins, with its “palm-tree” ribbing and twin colonnettes of the cloisters, contribute to the grace of the structure.
The bastide churches
The bastides , or “new towns”, inspired the construction of churches accessible to the central market place. The southern French Gothic style was particularly suitable to the building of small churches in confined spaces, Although it has been modified over the centuries, Montauban’s church of St-Jacques is a good example of the Languedoc School, with its single nave and octagonal brick bell-tower.
Spanish in origin and inspiration, Catalan Baroque art developed when Catalonia was embroiled in a territorial dispute (1640-60) splitting it between Spain and France (Cerdanya, part of Catalonia, was annexed to Roussillon under the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659). Catalan Baroque art, primarily religious, came to represent the unity of a people.
The Catalan Baroque style altarpiece was so appreciated that from 1640, even the smallest parishes were commissioning their own with marble from Caune (Aude) and Villefranche-de-Conflent, pine from the forests of the Canigou, and Spanish gold from America. Built to increasingly huge dimensions, the Catalan Baroque altarpiece incorporated architectural elements such as the column, entablature, cornice, baldaquin or niche. In the early 17C, altarpieces were a sensible size with fairly restrained ornamentation. Between 1640 and 1675, gilded altarpieces covered in sculpture came into vogue, with two or three tiers embellished with pinnacle turrets, broken pediments and canopies, and geometric motifs, winged cherubs and fluted columns. From 1670 to 1730, the style became unabashedly Baroque. Decorative elements swamped the architectural order: pediments were invaded by crowds of angels; every inch was covered with floral motifs (bouquets, garlands, foliage); and the fluted column was replaced by the twisted one. A Catalan Baroque altarpiece at the height of the style’s excesses is that at Notre-Dame-des-Anges (1699) in Collioure.
Masters of Catalan Baroque
With the advent of Catalan Baroque, numerous workshops flourished throughout Roussillon. After 1640, schools sprang up around Lazare Tremullas , a Catalan sculptor who introduced the carved altarpiece to France. He carved the altarpiece in Notre-Dame-du-Rosaire, now displayed in the church of St-Jacques in Perpignan. Lluis Generès created the 17C high altar at Espira-de-Conflent (18km/11mi E of Prades) and altarpieces at Prats-de-Mollo and Baixas (13km/8mi NW of Perpignan) .
Jean-Pierre Geralt, known for more everyday figures, sculpted the high altars at Pallalda and Trouillas and Notre-Dame-du-Rosaire. But the master of late-17C and early-18C Catalan Baroque extravagance was Joseph Sunyer , who confected the high altar of St-Pierre in Prades (1695), that of Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption in Collioure, an altarpiece in Vinça,and decorations in the hermitage in Font-Romeu.
Catalan Baroque altarpieces rely heavily on sculpture. Lazare Tremullas’s sculptural innovations evolved until the 18C. The Rosary altarpiece in the church in Espira-de-Conflent is the 1702 masterpiece of the anonymous “Master of Espira.” Its low-relief sculptures show a profusion of animated figures, attention to detail, rounded forms and smooth-featured faces. This church also contains a theatrically Baroque, painted and gilded sculpture of the Entombment by Sunyer.
The “triangle” between Albi, Toulouse and Carcassonne is the centre of dyer’s woad production. During the textiles and dye economic boom of the mid-15C to the mid-16C, wealthy merchants built beautiful Renaissance mansions here. The 17C and 18C saw the building of private mansions – or hôtels particuliers – inspired by the Italian Renaissance. particularly in Montpellier and Pézenas. Their façades feature loggias and colonnades crowned with balusters or pediments. Interior decoration is lavish, and monumental staircases abound.
At the end of the 17C, the architect D’Aviler created a revolution by decorating the exteriors of such mansions. D’Aviler replaced lintels with heavily depressed “davilerte arches” over which was an triangular pediment. Magnificent staircases with balusters evoked the grandeur of the preceding period. As the century came to a close, façades were adorned with sculptures and wrought-iron balconies, but pilasters and orders of columns fell out of use. Montpellier’s architectural school is represented by D’Aviler, the Girals and Jacques Donnat, with master craftsmen working in wrought iron and carved wood. The school of painting includes such artists as: Antoine Ranc, Hyacinthe Rigaud, Jean de Troy (17C), Jean Raoux and Joseph-Marie Vien (18C). The Peyrou water tower (château d’eau) and aqueduct demonstrate the artistry of this period.
Traditional rural architecture
The design and construction of rural houses reveal much about the industry of the locality. In the stock raising regions of Causses, the Cévennes and the Aubrac,sheepfolds are a common architectural feature; in the plains of Bas Languedoc, it is the wine cellar (chai) .
Construction materials typically derive from local sources. In the Cévennes, roofs may be of volcanic lava, slate and schist slabs, and in the Causses, made of limestone slabs.
Today’s rural houses employ new construction methods, often because craftsmen skilled in traditional techniques are hard to find. Evolving agricultural practices have also changed the style of traditional rural cottages. Now that grain is stored in silos, houses do not require large lofts.
The buron is typical of this region. This solid one-room hut of lava and granite, used by cowherds as living quarters from May to October, is usually built in pastureland on sloping ground near a spring. The single room serves for accommodation and for cheesemaking, and the cellar for maturing the cheese.
On the causses , robust thick-walled houses covered in dry white limestone are built in hamlets on riverbanks or close to land suitable for cultivation. The ground floor comprises a cellar and tool room, and the first floor provides living quarters. An outside staircase leads to the upper floor, and a cistern near the kitchen collects rain water. In such regions where timber is scarce, roofs are replaced by a stone vault.
The sheepfold, usually a vast low-lying rectangular building of rough-hewn stone, may be quite distant from the house.
Solid mountain houses designed to withstand the rigorous climate are typical of this region. Walls and roofs are built of schist, and windows are small. Lintels, window frames and corner stones may be built of sand or limestone, and chestnut trees provide timber. If the house is built on sloping ground, the stone steps leading to the first floor living quarters sometimes look like a bridge. Stable and barn are on the ground floor. The second floor could be used for silkworm breeding. On the roofs covered with rough schist slabs (lauzes) , the only decorative features are the chimneys.
East of the Cévennes, towards the Vivarais mountains, houses are more Mediterranean in style, with pantile roofs and wavy edged cornices. On the Lozère and Sidobre slopes, granite is featured in walls and around window openings.
The Monts de l’Espinouse are cloaked in forests of beech, oak and chestnut, interspersed patches of pastureland and broom-covered heath. Farmhouses here feature large slate tiles on sides exposed to the rainladen north-westerly winds. The large two-storey barn of the Prat d’Alaric farmstead in Fraisse-sur-Agout has walls of granite and gneiss, and a roof thatched with broom. Local barns feature gable walls with stepped edges.
The gently sloping roofs of Languedoc houses are covered by curved brick pantiles. The houses of wine-growers in Bas Languedoc, usually plastered with a pink or ochre sand-based material, have tiny windows to keep out the strong Mediterranean sun. Houses in the cereal crop farming region of Haut Languedoc are usually made of brick.
The main façades of houses in this region often feature a triangular pediment. Living quarters are separated from the stable and barn. The rectangular wine cellar (chai) occupies the ground floor. There are two doors in the façade: a large round-arched doorway leading into the wine cellar, and a smaller entrance leading to the first-floor living quarters.
In the Castres region, as in the region around Albi, walls are built entirely of brick, whereas in the eastern parts of Haut Languedoc brick is used only for framing doors and windows, sometimes decoratively. Many farms in Haut Languedoc boast a dovecot , either attached to the main farmhouse, or close by.
In centuries past, pigeons were used to fertilise poor soils, and twere therefore a sign of wealth or privilege.
Small drystone huts, known as capitelles or cazelles , dot this region’s garrigue and vineyards. These served as shelters for shepherds or to store farming implements. The generally circular walls are built of schist or limestone, and the corbelled roof vault is formed by overlapping layers of lauzes like the scales of a fish. Small, square, drystone constructions known as mazets , dot wine-growing areas in the Hérault département . Those tending the vineyards use them for meal breaks and as shelters.
Walls are of schist or granite rubble masonry. On the roof, covered with schist or slate lauzes , are dormer windows which make the main façade look as if it has pediments. On the ground floor, are the wine cellar and tool room; on the first floor, the living quarters and the attic serves for drying chestnuts. The houses of well-to-do farmers comprise several buildings (living quarters, stable, barn and a turret serving as a dovecot) and a courtyard. In the fields, small, round conical-roofed drystone huts which resemble the bories of Haute Provence serve as shelters, barns or tool-sheds. Known by a wide variety of local names, drystone huts like these are a common architectural feature of Jurassic limestone regions.
In the Lot valley, some barn roofs are shaped like the keel of an upturned boat for extra storage space.