Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Mechoui Dinner

Mechoui...defined by Larousse as a whole roast sheep. I define it as a good reason to spend another evening having a darned good time! Sunday night...7pm...the village begins to gather once again. We stake out our places at the long tables, and everyone gets a cup of wine. The guy mic'd up with the guitar begins to sing and play. The sun slowly arcs its way west and as we wait for dinner, the lights come on...

Here's the thing about dining with the French. You can never be in a rush to eat. It's more about enjoying the company, sipping on a little wine or other aperitif, and listening to the music. When the meal did begin, we started with a country onion soup, followed by big chunks of meat and a simple lettuce salad. There was eventually a cheese course and some ice cream for dessert.And as always, bottomless wine bottles and overflowing baskets of sliced baguettes. And as we ate and then finished, the guy with the guitar sang and sang and sang...almost 4 straight hours without a break! He was fabulous! As the crowd loosened up and began singing along, he roamed through the tables, singing from both benches and table tops. Lots of French songs that everyone knew the words to and some covers of songs that even I knew and could sing along in English. The crowd sang and clapped and eventually danced. The little kids started it out...they simply could not sit still when there was music to dance to. Soon they were joined by their mamans and a few papas, then women dancing without partners, the guys at the bar dancing with themselves, and finally couples. I can't remember when I've had more fun! I've put together a brief video of our musician. It really doesn't do him justice; he was quite an entertainer. The young man who he is singing to in the first part is Jean's grand-nephew, Grant, who is English and didn't understand a word he was singing....
And I leave you with a lovely bit of Jean dancing with Alain...such a nice way to end the evening.
I think I can safely make the generalization after living here almost a year that the French rarely celebrate without music, singing and dancing. I LOVE this place!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Music at My Back Door

Cadrieu celebrations continued late Sunday morning when I was entertained by this group at my back door. Their arrival was heralded by toots on an air horn, then l' accordeoniste played some so French music. The girls gave me a little net sac of lavender; I gave them a donation, and made my reservation for the village-only dinner in the evening. Then off they went...to play at every door in the village! The donation goes to the commune treasury and is used to buy new tables, benches, lighting, etc. for the fetes. Hope you're not video'd out yet, because there are more to come!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Taste of Tradition

This is the weekend that Cadrieu celebrates! Saturday afternoon found several teams on the petanque field in serious competition. At 6pm the village gathered for an aperitif and music with a dance beginning at 10:30pm, Yes, that's correct...first you drink and nibble on frites and sausages for 4+ hours; then there's a dance! I didn't stay for that, but rumors are those that did arrived home at 3am. Actually, people began dancing when this group began playing early in the evening. I love this traditional Occitan music! There were many toes tapping.

Cadrieu cup sellers...
Toe tappers!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Exploring St-Pierre-Toirac

The day that Lucie and I explored the fortified church in St-Pierre-Toirac, we also wandered around the village a bit. Looking at the huge cracks in this pigeonnier, I wondered whether it was safe to go inside. But being an intrepid explorer, I couldn't resist. I was rewarded with lots of pigeon poop and this shot of a few nesting baskets hung high on the walls...

We found the village lavoir....
a pretty green gate....
and a pot of basil...
I think the most intriguing thing we found, though, was this very old road leading from the pigeonnier to a small meadow a few hundred meters up the causse....
What you can't see in the photo is that the road is lined on each side with a low, dry stone wall that is almost completely covered by dirt, vines and bushes. You can see that the road is only wide enough for a wagon pulled by one horse or ox. It would be fun to know the history...just how old is it and where did it go? Mysteries to solve another day!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

My Reward

Today I got to deal with French bureaucracy. There's always a certain 'dread' factor involved in this. You know what a 'dread' factor is...like going to the dentist has a dread factor of 10, while sitting through your child's parent-teacher conference is about a 2. Luckily, I've become more accustomed to working with the bureaucracy here, so what used to rate a 10 is now down to a 'dreading to parallel park' factor of around 4 or 5. Today I began the process of renewing my long-term stay visa which meant a trip to Cahors and the department Prefecture. Armed with copies of every piece of paperwork I even remotely thought they might require, I managed to negotiate not only finding a place to park, paying the fee, finding the Prefecture and asking for the correct office, I also managed to speak relatively okay French to the very nice lady who helped me. Of course, there's more to do...sigh! I knew it wouldn't be one-stop shopping.

But here is my reward! The sunflower fields along the Lot are in full bloom. They cheered me on the way to Cahors and were my reward for doing the dreaded deed on my way home. Couldn't resist stopping and taking a couple of photos. Let's hope their sunny faces also shine on my renewal papers!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Deux Chapeaux

I love hats! And aren't these two adorable? That's Greg and Therese at the village bar d'ete (summer bar) last Sunday. Unfortunately, I look awful in hats. I think my head is too big or something. But maybe I'll have to try one like Greg's, because I do love hats. And I also love a village that serves free hard liquor at noon on a Sunday! Only in France.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

I'll Be Back

As I left the castle, I stopped in the little ticket office/gift shop to buy a booklet about the castle and the history of Najac. I spent the evening reading about the things I had seen during the day. I was also dismayed to read about all the things that I missed! I didn't get inside the church, nor did I see the cemetery. I saw the 13th century fountain in the heart of the village, but didn't realize its significance. And the information on the castle was full of such intriguing teases as murder holes in doorways, brattices supporting external latrines, stone conduits to channel water into the cistern, hourds, curtain walls, posterns and cul-de-lampes. I learned that the vault support in the first guards' room in the keep is in the shape of a hollyhock...missed that completely! So, it's a good thing that Edith is coming for a visit next month. It's the perfect excuse to return to Najac and see all the things I missed the first time 'round!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Sheer Walls and Fortified Gates

Sitting on a promontory with sheer drops to the river 150 meters below, the castle and the rest of Najac were naturally positioned to be protected from attack. The village was also completely walled in and divided into several districts separated by fortified gates such as this one. These gates could be closed off under attack, effectively limiting fighting to smaller, more easily defended neighborhoods. By the end of the Middle Ages, 15 such gates were strategically located throughout the long village. This one, the Pique Gate, dates from the 13th century and was in the last line of defense before reaching the castle.

You can see remnants of other gates as you walk though the village.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Keep

The castle keep...symbol of power of the Count of Toulouse, showpiece and masterpiece of the fortress. Soaring 40 meters above the earth, its top is reached by 115 stairs that spiral up and up. The spiral turns tightly clockwise against a central stone pillar, making it difficult for invaders holding swords in their right hands to use their weapons. The narrow stairway is just large enough for one person. Access to the keep was by a gangway that could be removed. There are 4 levels to the keep. The first level is the guards' room; the second level holds the chapel; the third level is another guards' room that has a door to access a wall leading around the front of the fortress; the final level, the last refuge, is a living space.with a fireplace that was used to heat boiling oil to fling onto the heads of invaders.
The long, vertical lines you see here are actually narrow openings into the keep. Constructed to give archers many different angles of fire, they are also tall enough for three or four archers to shoot, one above the other. Each level of the keep can be sealed off from the lower level, thus enabling them to be defended separately

115 steps later: the opening at the top!
The bell was installed in 1596 and was used to sound the alarm in case of attack. Today it's connected to a clock mechanism and tolls the hour.
The village of Najac
Overlooking the village church and cemetery
Looking down on the Aveyron River far below
The crenelated top of the keep made a strategic command post with a 360 degree view of the village, the rest of the castle and the surrounding countryside. It could also be used in defense of the castle. Today, though, it's simply a place to take photos of the magnificent view!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Richard the Lionheart Slept Here

I was exploring a more interesting way to drive home from church and avoid downtown Villefranche-de-Rouergue when I came to to the D922. Turn right to head home; turn left to access Najac. Always up for more exploration, I turned left. I thought I'd at least have a peek at Najac to see if I wanted to return here with Edith next month. It was a brilliant decision! Najac is a beautiful medieval village dominated by the fortress castle you see in the photo. Village history is a bit hazy prior to 1100 when work on the original fortress was begun. There is some evidence that the Romans may have mined the mineral wealth of the area in gallo-roman times. The area was under the control of the Counts of Toulouse who built this fortress as a way to protect their interests in this wild, sparsely inhabited, but strategic area. Built along a long, finger-like promontory, the fortress and its village sit high above the Aveyron River. The massive fortification of the castle made it virtually invincible in the Middle Ages. In fact, it was considered so invincible that it never came under direct attack.
 I spent about 3 hours mostly wandering through the castle. The model you see here is located in the square tower on the left  It was here in 1185 that the future King of England, Richard the Lionheart signed a treaty of alliance with Alphonse of Aragon, strengthening his hold over all of Aquitaine. I hadn't realized until I began reading about the area that Richard spent most all his life here in France and actually couldn't speak English...he spoke the ancient langue d'oc and is reported to have disliked England as it was 'cold and rainy.'
This tall wooden chair sits in one corner of the room. Its back is carved with the lion of Richard's coat-of-arms. While nothing says this was his chair, I like to imagine that the royal derriere sat here!
This open area inside the thick walls was designed to hold up to 300 people in times of siege. Various partially restored rooms open into it. In one area the wall has been opened up to allow a view of a multiple story cylindrical room built inside the wall. At the bottom is the dungeon where prisoners including some Knights Templar were held.

The castle was sold as state property during the French Revolution and has been in private hands since that time. It has served as a prison, as well as a source of stone for building. In1906, it was bought by Alfred Cibiel and has remained in his family ever since. The family stopped the dismantling of the fortress and restored some of it before opening it to the public in the 1970's.

There's more to see, so come back!

Monday, July 16, 2012

A Tease for Tomorrow

It's been kind of a long day...much longer than I anticipated when I left my house at 9:30am! So, all you get today is a tease about what's to come tomorrow. Let me just give you a hint. See those flags waving high up on the tower in the distance? I was up there.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Walk Along the River

Beautiful reflections......
The last time I walked along the river in Cajarc, it was early spring. Not much was happening then. On Friday, I decided it was time for another stroll, so I packed up Lucie with her leash, and after I finished some grocery shopping, we walked the loop. Here are some highlights of our morning....
Pretty buoys...

Dazzling dahlias, leaves as big as dinner plates, a bamboo forest....
Neat & tidy rows, gardener's bike, a French scarecrow, an orange gardener....

Friday, July 13, 2012

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Church of Saint-Pierre-Toirac

As we begin to explore the interior of the fortified church in St.Pierre-Toirac, let me share that it is very dark inside. The high, narrow windows, while good for defending the church and villagers against marauding armies, are not so good for photographers. In the spirit of full disclosure, some of my photos of the interior details have been 'fixed' by Picasa using its auto-contrast option. I like this better than using my flash which always makes things a funny color and takes away most of the depth of the details.

According to information available as you enter the church, building began in the late 12th or early 13th century. Major alterations to the structure occurred between the 14th and 17th centuries. This is the period of fortification against armies engaged in the Hundred Year's War (between the French and English) and the Wars of Religion (between Catholic and Protestant factions). In style, the church is a unique blend of both the old Romanesque style and the emerging Gothic style of church architecture.
Gothic ribbed vault, a type of barrel vaulting
Romanesque columns and carved capitals.

Saint Roch is a popular saint in this part of France...probably because he was a 'local boy.'   Born c. 1348 in Montpellier, France, Saint Roch nursed victims of the plague in Italy before dying in prison, accused of being a spy. He is typically shown in pilgrim garb, displaying a plague lesion on his thigh. He is invoked to cure the plague,cholera and other epidemics, and to cure skin diseases. He's also the patron saint of dogs.

I've already shared the mystery of the tiny door outside the church which I can find no evidence of opening into the interior. The church body is in the shape of a very tall tower that appears to be open at the top. This was part of the addition to fortify the structure. In other fortified churches, this open area was large enough to hold the entire village if necessary. I can find no access to this tower. Has the opening been filled in? Is there a stairway hidden someplace? There also appears to be an addition on the south side of the church (see photo below) built in 1827. Why was this built when there was already an entrance to the church? I'd also like to find out if the church was ever used as a fort or safe haven for the villagers especially since my reading revealed that in the 1370's, major battles were fought in both Figeac, a few kms upriver, and also in Balaguier d'Olt, directly across the river from St. Pierre-Toirac. The invaders, called routiers, were supported by neither England nor France. A peace treaty signed in 1360 put hundreds of professional soldiers out of work. These soldiers banded together to form companies that pillaged, murdered and over-ran vulnerable towns and villages, setting up their own war garrisons in the process. Did they cross over into 'our' side of the Lot as they marauded? Lots of mysteries and questions to answer!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Our Local Fortified Church

My 'explore' adventure yesterday nearly turned into a mis-adventure! My goal was the fortified church at Saint-Pierre-Toirac, a little village 10 kms up the road towards Figeac. I'd driven past the sign to the village and its church many times and knew I wanted to have a peek. I drove through the village three times, looking for some indication of the church...a cross, a bell tower, a stained glass window sighting, anything to point me in a direction. "This is stupid," I muttered to myself. "This is a village of 120 souls, it's not that big! Why can't I find the church?" On my fourth drive-through (bet the locals were chuckling to themselves by then), I decided to stop and walk...maybe I'd see something that looked 'church-y.' I pulled over in front of the mairie, walked 10 feet and saw this archway with a little arrow inside pointing to "Eglise." Even as I walked through the arch and into a warren of ruelles and old stone houses, I still couldn't see anything resembling a church until I reached the very end of the rue.

This is it. No cross, no bell tower, very few windows. It sits in a tiny square, all the old stone houses surrounding it open into the square and face the church. It isn't hard to imagine how it looked in the late 1100's/early 1200's when it was built. This whole area was enclosed in a wall that opened at the arch I walked through. Close the gate there and this area was totally protected. The only real indicator I saw on the outside of the building that this might be a church was this stone carving of Samson slaying a lion with an angel looking on...
I walked around the church trying to find a good angle to photograph it in its entirety. There was no place to step back far enough to do so. This is the best I could do without trespassing in someone's garden, giving you an idea just how tightly the houses are clustered around the church, their safe-haven in times of war.
These sarcophagi, which date from the 12th century, lie in situ at the back of the church. They look really small to me. I suppose that's because people were smaller in stature then and really, comfort wasn't an issue!
I saw no indication of this hobbit-sized door in the church's interior, so I have no idea where it goes. A little mystery, eh? There are a few other mysteries as well. I'll share them and the interior of the church in my next blog post.