Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Legend of the Monastery

It was a day like any other in the year 1211. Jeanette with her baby, Tiennet, was on her way to the monastery perched on the hillside above the bottomless pond of turquoise water. She wasn't happy that she was the laundress for the order of strange nuns who lived in their secluded and remote monastery, but a job was a job. She needed the few coins they paid her. She wasn't happy that she had to bring Tiennet with her either, but there was no one to care for him while she washed and pounded and rinsed the nuns' heavy woolen habits. She crossed herself as she passed the unholy-looking water
and mumbled a quick prayer for protection. At the monastery gate, she handed her baby to the abbess, a stern and unpleasant woman, who would watch Tiennet while Jeanette performed her duties. The work was hard, the day was hot and Jeanette was happy to accept the nuns' offer of lunch. Her full stomach and strenuous morning lulled her into a long nap, and it was late afternoon when she went to fetch her baby. He lay there in the sun and a mother's love welled up in Jeanette. She reached out to stroke his sweet head. His forehead was icy cold! Concerned that he was ill, she threw back the blanket covering him and there to her horror, she saw only his severed head. His body had been cut away, sacrificed by the nuns for their Black Mass, and then eaten. Jeanette remembered her delicious lunch with a nauseating shudder.

In her anguish and horror she screamed curses on the nuns begging God to punish the wicked and evil women. "May the highest stone of this monastery become the lowest!" she cried. With that the walls of the monastery began to crumble and the bottom of the strange turquoise pond opened up to swallow the monastery...its highest stones sinking into the bottomless pit.

It's said that if you come to the Gouffre de Lantouy on the night of St Jean, you can hear the monastery bells ringing far below in the bowels of the earth. The sorrowful ghost of Jeanette roams the valley, wailing and searching for her son. And an odd black hare, thought to be the ghost of the wicked abbess, frightens dogs away from what is left of the ancient monastery walls.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Monastery Ruins

After walking for what seemed like miles above the Gouffre de Lantouy last week, I was just about to give up finding the ruins of an 8th century monastery said to have been founded there by St. Namphaise. Lucie and I were hot and sweaty and really thirsty. And I was a little annoyed with myself; I usually don't have any trouble finding things. I'd seen photos on the internet of this place...I knew it had to be around here somewhere! As we walked back through the long meadow to the Gouffre where we started our search, I happened to look up and there, peeking through the dense trees and undergrowth, I spotted a stone structure. Voila! I'd found it. Retracing our path to the Gouffre, we took a right hand turn instead of a left, found the goat path that led up, and eventually came across this....

the remains of the ancient monastery.
There's not much left....
a few arches...
a window....
some type of round room. Perhaps a tower? a cistern?
But this ancient ruin has a story to tell...a story of evil, a legend that will make you shiver.
I'll share it with you tomorrow!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Instructions for Living a Life

Bleeding Hearts
I love poetry. Mary Oliver is an especially favorite poet of mine. So I was surprised to find this quote yesterday from one of her poems that I'd never read before. It spoke to my soul and seems to be my raison d'etre. 

"Instructions for living a life
Pay attention
Be astonished
Tell about it"

 It's my new mantra 


Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sunday Color: Gouffre Turquoise

Isn't it beautiful? This is the Gouffre de Lantouy located about a 15 minute drive from my house. A gouffre is defined by my Larousse French dictionary as an abyss. There are several in this part of France. In a region of porous limestone ground permeated by underground watercourses and caves, some gouffres are formed when the thin layer of limestone over a cavern collapses and the resulting hole is filled with water bubbling up from deep under the ground. Other gouffres such as the Gouffre de Padriac simply become huge holes leading to underground caverns. The one in Padriac has a river running through the cavern at its bottom. The beautiful Gouffre de Lantouy, however, is simply filled with cold, clear turquoise water

As pretty as this shimmering turquoise water is, the place itself has a bit of a creepy aura to it. Perhaps it's because it sits in a very narrow, secluded valley and feels quite closed in and neglected.  Or perhaps it's because of something else? There is a feeling of malcontent lingering here. I'll tell you a story about it next week....

Friday, August 23, 2013

Two Hundred Years of Music

Last night's  final concert of the summer couldn't have found a more beautiful venue than the Gothic church in Marcilhac-sur-Cele. Organized by local musician, Michel Pons, it was entitled Anniversaires and celebrated two hundred years of lovely string music. 1813 was represented by two pieces from Guiseppe Verdi (1813-1901) and one by Richard Wagner (1813-1883)  Simple Symphony by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) closed the program. Mezzo-soprano, Sylvie Pons sang with several of the movements filling the church with her glorious voice. The church was packed attesting once again to the French people's love of music.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Travel France Online

Travel France Online logo from their website
You may have noticed that I've added a new category to my blog's sidebar: Websites with French Flair. These are websites that I follow on Facebook and read regularly. They each have a different flavor of French flair. I first became aware of Travel France Online when its editor commented on one of my blog posts asking me if I had any interest in writing for her website. Any of us who blog occasionally encounter a strange or inappropriate comment...I just delete them without publishing. Dee's comment, however, seemed authentic. I checked out the site and found it informative and very professionally done. The majority of its readers are from the US, UK, and France. Most are planning trips to France or have an interest in a specific topic about France. Articles focus on local culture and do not promote tourist businesses such as hotels or restaurants. The website is divided into specific regions of France and also has an excellent section on World War I.'s the rest of the story. Dee and I exchanged emails and after submitting a trial article for publication, I accepted her offer to be a contributor to the site. So far, I've had two articles published. I can't tell you what a thrill it is to see something I've written professionally published! She's even used a few of my photographs as illustrations. If you're interested, here are links to my articles about Caniac-du-Causse and World War I letters. Please do wander around the rest of Travel France Online. It's an excellent resource if you are interested in France.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Brilliant Brocante Buy

Since I had to make a quick trip into Cajarc Sunday morning anyway, I decided to stop at the big summer brocante/vide grenier sale down by the old train station. As I suspected, it was actually a bit more vide grenier (empty attic or garage sale) than brocante (second hand or antique) sale. I didn't find the snail plates I was looking for, but I did spy this covered pot just as I was ready to leave. Heavy enameled cast iron, it looked and felt a lot like a piece of Le Creuset cookware.

It's called a doufeu, which means 'slow heat' in French
You put ice cubes in the depression of the lid which cause steam released by cooking liquids  to collect on these tiny bumps on the underside of the lid. The steam condenses into droplets of water which then sprinkle the meat and/or veggies cooking below keeping them moist and succulent. You can also use the pot without ice in the lid as a regular braise pot.

 I asked the price and the vendor told me 40 euros adding...'it's a good price, Madame.' I told him I'd think about it. While the pot appeared to be of good quality, I didn't recognize the brand. Maybe 40 euros was too much?

You've probably already guessed that I went back. I tried to get the vendor to come down a bit, but he insisted that 40 euros was a good price. And in the end, I agreed with him and bought it.

When I returned home, I googled 'Cousances' and this is what I found. It's a very old French company founded in 1553. It was purchased by Le Creuset in 1957 and basically all they did was stamp the Le Creuset name on the bottom of Cousances pots! So, I do have a Le Creuset pot after all. I read a critique of both pots and learned that the enameling on the vintage Cousances pots is actually considered superior to Le Creuset as are the pot handles. Le Creuset scores higher on color choices, though. Most of the Cousances vintage cookware I can find for sale online is on eBay and only one piece was similar to mine. It was offered for $120 which is about double what I paid for my pot. I guess the seller was correct...40 euros was a good price!

Now I just have to learn how to use my doufeu!


Sunday, August 18, 2013

Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Surprise in St. Cernin

As I was wandering around St. Cernin taking photos of its flamboyant bouquets of plastic flowers, I noticed that the church was open. I almost didn't go looked like just another plain, musty and dusty, old village church. But I wondered if a village that decorated with kitschy flowers might have something a bit unique in its church, so I climbed the steps and went in. I think 'Wow' sums up my expression of surprise! The church was a riotous melange of color and styles.

Its stained glass windows were abstract modern...

while the walls and pillars of the sanctuary were done in a style and in colors that were almost Art Deco.

The nave and the side chapels were beautifully painted to showcase a colorful statue of Christ with blessing hands.

The vaulted ceiling over the nave was resplendent with the restored  fresco paintings of Henri Petit. Petit was a Lotois artist who painted during the late 1800s. You can see more of his work in the church by clicking here.

As I craned my neck to take it all in and snap some photos, I  noticed an older woman standing in the pews. We struck up a conversation, and I learned that she was a nun on vacation in the area. She proudly told me that she was baptized in this church and that all her ancestors worshiped here over the ages. She had returned in pilgrimage to her roots in faith. While she lamented how much the village had changed from her childhood, she was also optimistic about its future since many of the old houses had been purchased by the English and other foreigners who were restoring them and living here at least part of the year. She was also optimistic about the church. It had been restored just the year before, she told me. It was so sad that it was no longer filled with worshipers, but perhaps with the restoration people would return to worship or just sit in its beauty to reflect or listen to music. I thought to myself that even though the 'style police' might not appreciate this church's somewhat gaudy restoration, others might find it a beautiful refuge of peace and quiet. We said goodbye, and I left the elderly nun to continue her prayers.

You just never know what you might find when you climb those old stone steps and push open the ancient wooden door of a village church in France.

Friday, August 16, 2013

St. Cernin

St. Cernin was a surprise stop on my exploratory trip around the Gramat Causse last week. How could I not stop in a village all decked out in these whimsical and colorful bouquets of plastic flowers? Every lamp post and street sign boasted a bunch of blooms!..

Even the mairie was decorated...
The 'flowers' were actually plastic bottles cut and shaped into petals. Some were colored; some bottles were clear with colors and designs painted on them. Very clever!

I was surprised by something else in the village, though. That story is for tomorrow's blog post.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Feast of the Assumption

Today is the Feast of the Assumption, the day Mary was assumed into heaven at the end of her life. It's a public holiday in France, and I can tell by the traffic on the road outside that a lot of people are out enjoying it in the picture-perfect weather. I photographed this lovely Mary in the Loc-Dieu Abbey last week.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Magic at Beduer

The Chateau
(photo from Chateau de Beduer website)

It's been a summer filled with music and last night the tradition continued. We found seats in the courtyard of the Chateau de Beduer which is a few kilometers from home in the Cele Valley. A gleaming Steinway grand piano stood center stage. As the crowd gathered, though, so did threatening dark clouds. They made the sunset beautiful, but as Olivier Pons spoke his opening remarks, they began to spill a raindrop here and a raindrop there. The piano was quickly closed and covered; we waited ten minutes to see if Mother Nature was going to cooperate with this outdoor concert. She did...almost.  The pianist, Risto Lauriala with Pons on the violin swept us through Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, and Pagnini, but as we applauded their superb performance, we began to be peppered with raindrops. The piano was again covered, but this time the crowd was shepherded under cover while benches and chairs along with the blanketed Steinway were moved into the galleried Salles des Etats, the grand reception room of the Chateau...
Salles des Etats
(photo from the Chateau website)
The musicians were hastily staged in front of the huge wall-to-wall, two-story 15th century stone chimney and hearth while the crowd filed in.
The piano was quickly re-tuned.
 Both the room and its gallery were packed with people on benches, chairs or even sitting on the stone floor, surrounding the musicians for a cozy and intimate finale to the evening. Pons and  Lauriala were joined by violinists, Veronique Constant and Corinne Contardo, and cellist, Helen Linden. For the next 45 minutes we were lifted and lulled, inspired and intrigued by Dvorak's Quintella. Being so close to the performers, it became obvious just how physical a musical performance is. The cellist never sat still...she was leaning, swaying, and bouncing the entire time she was drawing her bow and plucking the strings of her instrument. Likewise, the violinists were tapping their feet and sometimes stomping them on a dramatic note, moving with the emotion of the music. It was midnight when the musicians took their final bow to the thunderous and appreciative applause of an enthralled audience. As we slowly made our way through the Chateau's high arched medieval gate into the warm night air, you could feel the crowd sigh with satisfaction. It was an evening of magnificent music wrapped in the magic of a majestic Chateau. Summertime in the Lot! Who would want to be anywhere else?

This concert was part of a two-week series of events in conjunction with the annual music festival in Figeac. Professional musicians gather here to play and teach master classes. The concerts are the culmination of their hard work and hours of practice and are performed in churches and chateaux in our local towns and villages.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Chateau St. Projet

The Chateau St. Projet is famous for having been a brief refuge for Queen Margot (Margaret of Valois or Marguerite) in September 1585. Margot's story, like many other royal princesses, is complicated and full of political intrigue. Her arranged marriage to the man who eventually became Henri IV of France was designed to bring harmony between the warring and politically powerful Catholic and Protestant Huguenot families of royal France. The St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, occurring at the time of their marriage, however, only further fanned the flames of France's religious wars. Neither Margot nor her husband were faithful spouses; both took numerous lovers which scandalized the reigning monarch, Margot's brother, Henri III. Separated from her husband, Henri, and banished from her brother's court because of her scandalous behavior, Margot took refuge in Agen where she staged a coup d'etat and established her own court. The citizens of Agen soon grew tired of her, though, and threw her out. Outraged, her brother, the king, pursued her as she fled from one safe haven to another. With Henri hot on her trail, she came here to St. Projet where a sympathetic lord agreed to shelter her and two of her lovers (that must have been a bit awkward!).
Sitting atop a high hill, the Chateau is built on the remains of a Gallo-Roman site and commands sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. The village of St. Projet spills down the hillside behind it.
After entering the ground floor Guard's Room (where I took yesterday's photo of Quentin by a full suit of armor) my young guide pointed out the toilet seen above. We then wandered through the kitchen, a reception room and into the library...
There is also a small chapel where Quentin took my picture with St. Projet, another one of those head-less saints. Being a devote Catholic, Queen Margot would have worshiped here
The door to Queen Margot's chambers is full of these iron spikes which Quentin told me were to make it impossible for intruders to lean against it to push it open.
It can be opened from the inside in order to see who is in the outer room...
This bedroom contains...
a rare inlaid writing desk...
a low, red velvet chair that will accommodate milady's voluminous skirts...
and a portrait of Queen Margot herself. She's been described as a great beauty and a stylish trendsetter. I don't see it myself.

But here's the real surprise. This room is not the Queen's bedroom. It's actually where her guards slept. Her small room lies beyond another door. While all the furniture in the Chateau is from the 16th and 17th centuries...
this is the actual bed that the Queen slept in here. After her departure, this room was sealed and its entrance hidden. It lay undisturbed for 400 years and was only discovered in 1990 during renovation of the Chateau...with all its contents intact.
My fashion and fabric-conscious friend, Quentin, was quick to point out the lovely valence above the bed with its beautiful and intricate handwork.
The view from Margot's window.
The back of the Chateau

Margot was eventually caught by her brother and imprisoned. She spent 18 years in captivity. Her husband ascended the throne in 1589. He soon began proceedings to have their marriage annulled. Just in time since he had a long-term mistress who had already borne him 4 children! The annulment was finalized in 1599, and Henri IV married Marie d'Medici. Margot was released and moved her household to Paris. According to Wikipedia. she was reconciled with her former husband and his second wife. She became a mentor of the arts and a benefactress of the poor. She often helped plan events at court and nurtured the children of Henri and Marie."

An unusual ending for a princess's story filled with infidelity, murder, political intrigue and religious turmoil!