On the road to France: Narbonne and around

In November 2019 we are on our way back from Spain (Hospitalet de l’Infant) to Switzerland with an overnight stop  in Narbonne. In late afternoon, we arrive in the friendly Hotel de France in a quiet side street just ten minutes away from the cathedral of Narbonne.

Source: Google maps.

 

First impressions from strolling through the city center adorned for Christmas

After having settled in our cosy hotel, we stroll through the city center. The Canal de la Robine has been adorned for Christmas. The Christmas market is ready to open along the shores of the channel.

Narbonne has its “Ponte Vecchio”, a bridge with houses and shops crossing the channel. The bridge of Narbonne is called “Le Pont des Marchands”.

Now we are on the bridge of the merchants (or Ponts des Marchands). I cannot believe that we are on a bridge.

The people from Narbonne do seem to love Christmas. The donjon of the Archbishop’s palace shines like a rectangular parcel with glowing red bows.

The Cathedral Saint-Just – in principle just an amazingly high choir – emerges from the narrow streets. Accompanied by sacral music, a roller-skater dances elegantly in front of the gothic arches. Very mystic and solemn atmosphere.

The backside of the choir looks like a cathedral in ruins. Well, this Cathedral of Saint Just consists just of the choir. In the 14th century, the city started to build the transepts, but had to stop, because of lack of money or because constructing the transept and the nave would have required to open the town wall which was not a good idea during the Hundred Years’ War (1347-1453). This is why, the cathedral of Narbonne ends with the “ruins” of the transept and two towers that were added here later.

A small bookshop is open on this Sunday evening. I find a pretty book about Narbonne and the area around it (“Narbonne et le Narbonnais” by Chantal Alibert and others). Then we have dinner in a brasserie and look forward to discovering Narbonne at daylight tomorrow.

 

Cathedral Saint-Just: Just an amazing choir

The Cathedral Saint-Just with its choir – 40m high- is also impressive at daylight. From outside the buttresses and pinnacles supporting the choir give the cathedral some airiness. Instead of the transepts (never accomplished), two towers of 71m have been added in the 15th century, at the place, where the transepts should be. They look a bit odd to me.

Inside, the elegance of the gothic vaults is just overwhelming.

I cannot stop looking.

The impressive organ has been built by Moucherel, in 1739.

The treasure of Narbonne’s Cathedral is on display in the “new” chapter room from the 15th century (well, the “new” chapter room is 500 years old and, nevertheless, it is called “new”). I am particularly impressed by the finely carved ivory plate with the crucifixion, completed in the entourage of Charlemagne at the School Palais d’Aix-la-Chapelle (before 815 AD).

The museum leaflet says that Narbonne’s treasure is one of the ten richest treasures of France, among the others being Conques, Troyes, Paris and Chartres.

 

Archbishop Palace and Via Domitia

In daylight, the donjon of the Archbishop Palace has become a more sober Christmas parcel with plain red bows.

In front of the Archbishop Palace (or town hall) part of the Roman Via Domitia has been dug out. Narbonne was the capital of the Roman province Septimania. This was the first Roman province outside Italy, installed in 118 BC. Narbonne was a port then and located at the intersection of the Via Domitia and the Via Aquitania. Roman Narbonne thrived, but only little of that is left today, such as these cobbles of the Via Domitia in front of the Archbishop Palace. In December it has become a convenient place for Christmas trees and more equipment.

It has recently rained at Narbonne. The Archbishop Palace reflects in the puddle…

… and so does the donjon with the red bow.

 

Lively city enter, friendly for pedestrians and their dogs

Narbonne’s Pont des Marchands reflects in the Canal de la Robine.

It is early morning. The streets – reserved for pedestrians – are still quiet.

At the Place des Quatre Fontaines (square of the four fountains), the fountain has four mouths or apertures for the water, as the name suggests. Now the four mouths are hidden behind the Christmas decoration.

This is, what the fountain of the four “mouths”  looks like without Christmas trees – we found the image in the mirror of the Brasserie des 4 Fontaines nearby.

Narbonne is a welcoming, friendly town and the large pedestrian area invites to stroll around discovering charming corners one of them being the “Chien-Chic”…,

… a dog trimmer that was champion in various years.

A pity that I do not own a dog – I would take it to “Chien-Chic” for toilettage.

 

Market from 1901 – les Halles

The covered market place, les Halles, is an Art Nouveau building inaugurated on 1st of January 1901. At that time, trade and wine made Narbonne thrive.

Inside local “flavors” (saveurs) are on sale.

Not all booths are open, as it is Monday morning. One stand offers tripe, just tripe. This is why it is called “triperie”.

Furthermore I discover that also the south of France has its black pigs (not just Spain).

In the 19th century, the chain of shops called “aux Dames de France” was opened in smaller cities of France. The label does no longer exist today. The buildings dating from that time are now protected monuments, as this one across the Archbishop’s Palace. “Aux Dames de France” (for the ladies of France) is engraved under the roof.

 

Around Narbonne – vineyards and endless beaches on the Mediterranean Sea

Next we set out to discover the area around Narbonne. It is called “the Narbonnais” and adds to the charm of the city.

We drive through the easternmost vineyards of the Languedoc AOC region “La Corbières“.

We reach the Mediterranean Sea near the fishing village Gruissan. Rows and rows of cottages with closed shutters (now, in November) and endless beaches facing the sea. The area must be very, very busy in summer.

We dream looking at the waves and say good-bye to the Mediterrannean Sea, as we will return to Switzerland, far from any sea.

The small fishing village of Gruissan…

… is located between two “ponds” called “étangs”, with flamingos…

… and a saline that offers salt tasting. Salt tasting – that sounds interesting to me; I am more used to wine tasting.

We cross the rough Massif de la Clape with a beautiful view of the sea and the Languedoc and the Pyrenees in the background. The Massif de la Clape belongs to the AOC Côteaux de Languedoc.

The domain “Château l’Hospitalet” is a busy place with guest rooms, a restaurant (now closed) and corners for wine tasting and buying. Also “my” Johnson-Robinson mentions this domain in their World Atlas of Wine. They say that the Massif de la Clape allows to grow wines that resemble more Bordeaux than Southern Rhone.

We now cross the impressive canyons of the Massif de la Clape to take the motorway heading north to Valence.

Looking back to our experience in Narbonne, I cannot agree with the snippy remarks of Ralf Nestmeyer in his Müller guidebook: “Too much you cannot expect: Narbonne is – despite its great name – a relatively limited provincial town…  Unfortunately the city fathers … carelessly dealt with the historical buildings. The wrecking ball raged without mercy… Apart from the area of the Cathedral and the Archbishop’s Palace, the city offers only few places of interest.”

I cannot agree, because we liked the manageability of the city center – it was pedestrian friendly and very welcoming. In addition we were fascinated by the surroundings of Narbonne, called the Narbonnais. We agree more with the book “Narbonne et le Narbonnais” that praises the area already with its subtitle “regards sur un patrimoine” (glances at a patrimony)… (qui) est donc bien une invite à admirer” (p. 10, which is an invite to admire). And on p.33 the authors continue “A la différence de Nîmes et Tarragone, “la première fille de Rome” a conservé peu d’élements spectaculaires d’architecture antique… mais le charme de Narbonne et de la région qui l’entoure est ailleurs… Il faut savoir passer d’un monde à l’autre… passer presque sans transition des cabanes de pêcheurs au Palais des Archevêques, des salins à l’abbaye de Fontfroide.” (Different from Nîmes and Tarragon, the “first daughter of Rome” has kept only few spectacular elements of the antique architecture… but the charm of Narbonne and the region around it is elsewhere… you have to be able to switch from one scenery to another… to switch almost without transition from the fishing huts to the Archbishops’ Palace and from the salines to the Abbey of Fontfroide).

Yes, the magnificent photos of “Narbonne and the Narbonnais” do look enticing. We think of accepting the invite to return and take more time to explore Narbonne and the Narbonnais, in particular the Abbey of Fontfroide to the west of the city and the wines of the Massif de la Clape.

 

Sources: Ralf Nestmeyer, “Südfrankreich”, Michael Müller Verlag – individuell reisen, Erlangen 2015; Chantal Alibert et al, “Narbonne et le Narbonnais – Regards sur un patrimoine”, Loubatières, Portet-sur-Garonne 2010; Leaflet handed out in the Archbishop’s Museum, Mairie de Narbonne, “The Treasure of Narbonne’s Cathedral”; Narbonne Tourisme, “Plan Monumental”, Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, The World Atlas of Wine”, 5th Edition, Octopus Publishing Group 2005.

On the road through the Pyrenees: Coll d’Ares and around

It is November 2019. After having spent two weeks in the appartment of our friends in L’Hospitalet de l’Infant, we now return to Switzerland. Our first overnight stop will be in Narbonne and we take the route along the river Ter to the Coll d’Ares. It is our third time here; we have crossed the Coll d’Ares in November before, in 2016 (fog on the pass) and in 2017 (Ripoll and Prats-de-Molló, view of the Pyrenees). In 2019 we see St. Joan de les Abadesses. And we know, there will be more to explore along this route.

Source: Googlemaps

 

Coll d’Ares – now our third time – we were here in the fog in 2016, in sunshine in 2017 and now, 2019, again

In November 2016 there was fog on the Coll d’Ares.

This viewpoint is recommended to photographers. In 2016, there was not much to see, let alone to take a picture of – except the sign in the fog.

End November 2017 we give the Coll d’Ares a second try. The viewpoint is no longer in the fog and we can see the pass height behind the hint to photographers.

From the hint for photographers, there is a great view of the Spanish-Catalan Pyrenees…

… with the great late autumn/early winter atmosphere.

Also on the French side, the trees shined yellow…

… and we could see THE mountain of the Catalans, the Canigou.

Now, end November 2019, on our third tour to the Coll d’Ares, we again have a good view of the Spanish Pyrenees south of us,…

… while clouds are coming in from the north, from the French-Catalan side.

Let me now tell you about Ripoll and St. Joan de les Abadesses south of the Coll d’Ares, in Spanish-Catalonia and then let us turn to the north, to the French side of Catalonia with Prats-de-Molló.

 

South of the Coll d’Ares: Ripoll with its gorgeous portal of the monastery church, explored in 2017

In 879 Duke William the Hairy (Guifré el Pelos) founded the Benedictine monastery Santa Maria de Ripoll, after having conquered the area from the Moors. William was then buried here. Soon a town emerged around the monastery. Around 1000 AD, it was an important intellectual centre of Catalonia, with the support of the famous abbot Oliba who took new ideas about the architecture of churches from Rome back to Catalonia. He had the church of Ripoll built by the model of early Christian Saint Peter of Rome. An earthquake in 1428 (terratrèmol de la candelera) destroyed the church and the monastery. In 1835 revolting people looted and burnt it.

Around 1895 the church was reconstructed in historicized style. I like the sober atmosphere of the Neo-romanesque nave.

Fortunately the magnificent Romanesque west portal from the 12th century has been preserved. It is now protected by a narthex. Bongässer (p.44) says that this bible in stone is unprecedented. Not only the portal, but also the flanks are covered with sculptures referring to the Old and the New Testament, with Christ as Pantokrator above the arch of the portal. As it was in the 12th century that the south of Catalonia had been reconquered, Bongösser thinks that this portal expresses the triumph of Christianity.

From the series of monthly pictures showing the cycle of the year I like the harvesting of corn…

… and from the bible scenes this striking Jonas being spat out by the whale.

In the cloister with the ground level dating from the 12th century, many of the capitals are well preserved and…

… from the animals found here, this dog is my favorite.

 

Also south of the Coll d’Ares: St. Joan de les Abadesses, Romanesque church and welcoming mountain village (2019)

In November 2019, we have a short break in the mountain village St. Joan de les Abadesses. We find the Romanesque church with the same name.

Some capitals around the choir are preserved. The Dumont says that they take up islamic patterns from southern Moorish Spain.

The Benedictine nun monastery Sant Joan de les Abadesses thrived from the 9th to the 11th century.  Like Ripoll it was founded by William the Hairy. His daughter was the first abbot. In the 12th century the Augustins took over the monastery. With them, the monastery thrived again and the church that we see today was constructed. The earthquake of 1428 also damaged this church (like Ripoll).  Around 1900, Josej Puigi Cadalfach restored the place (Cadalfach is an important Modernista architect of Catalonia; he documented and restored some of Catalonia’s cultural inheritance). Our art books praise the church because of the ambulatory around the choir, unusual for Catalonia, and because of the amazing deposition of the cross from the 12th/13th century. But everything is closed now, we will have to return to see the deposition.

We slender through the narrow streets and have a coffee.

It is about one o’clock, time to have the aperitif outside on this sunny and warm autumn Sunday.

The trees have kept some golden leaves around the old corn mill of the village.

We continue our way – Sant Joan de les Abadesses was a nice mountain village and its cultural treasures will make it worth to return.

 

North of the Coll d’Ares: Prats-de-Molló, pedestrian-friendly and well fortified French-Catalan town

When descending north from the Coll d’Ares to France, the Vauban fortification of Prats-de-Molló appears behind the trees.

Yes, Vauban carefully assured the frontiers here, as Louis XIV had gained the Roussillon (or French Catalonia) in the Treaty of the Pyrenees of 1659.

In November 2017, we stopped at Prats-de-Molló and entered the medieval small town through the main gate. Inside the wall only pedestrians are allowed.

The church Sainte-Juste-et-Sainte-Ruffine with a Romanesque tower marks the highest point above the roofs of the small town.

The river Tech is nascent. The town has about 1200 inhabitants.

The town wall surrounds the city and the gates are well-fortified.

We stop in a bookshop that has a nice selection of books for children and about cooking. We ask the owner, whether he is Catalan or French. “French”, he says immediately, “yes, primarily French, but then in addition Catalan”. We want to know, how he pronounces “Prats-de-Molló”, the French or the Catalan way. He says, “of course I say it the French way, I say “Prats-de-Molló””… and he pronounces each letter clearly and the “ll” not like l-l (as the French would say it), but softly as “ly” (or “lj”), as the Catalans (and the Spaniards) say it. We smile, because we like his French AND Catalan, attitude.

 

 

In 2019 we continue our way along the canyons of the river Tech to the Mediterranean coast and to Narbonne which I will talk about in my next blog.

Sources: Fritz René Allemann und Xenia v. Bahder, “Katalonien und Andorra”, DuMont Kunst-Reiseführer, Köln 1980; Thomas Schröder, “Katalonien”, Michael Müller Verlag – individuell reisen, Erlangen 2015; Barbara Bongässer, “Katalonien, Kunst, Landschaft, Architektur”, Könemann, Köln 2000; Ralf Nestmeyer, “Südfrankreich”, Michael Müller Verlag – individuell reisen, Erlangen 2015.

On the road to Spain – visiting Vilella Alta and Escala Dei in the Priorat

It is November 2019. We are spending two weeks in the appartment of our friends at L’Hospitalet del l’Infant. Some days ago we had already visited the Priorat to walk in the vineyards of Bellmunt. On a sunny day, we now return to the Priorat to visit another wine village, Vilella Alta, where we buy some wine in the bodega Vilella de la Cartoixa de Montsalvat. In addition, we look at the ruins of the former Carthusian Monastery Escala Dei.

Source: Googlmaps

 

Steep vineyards in the Priorat aound Gratallops

Just before arriving at Gratallops we stop to have a coffee in the restaurant La Cassola with the amazing view of the small town perched on a mountain edge…

… and with the view of these steep vineyards above the river Siurana.

This is an amazingly steep vineyard with very loosely planted vines that shine golden in the sun.

And here is the view of the Siurana valley with the table mountain Montsant in the background.

Gratallops is the wine village, where in the 1980’s the Priorat started to revive (Vinos de España, p. 171). Gratallops is pretty and worth a visit, but today, our target is Vilella Alta.

 

Vilella Alta, wine village perched on a rock, and the welcoming Cellers Vilella de la Cartoixa de Montsalvat

Vilella Alta is another pretty Priorat village perched on a steep hill. The streets are narrow. This is the Carrer Major with the view of the church.

Here we stand below the small village and look uphill.

In one of the small streets, we find this beautifully restored house. with the carefully arranged plants in front of the main entry.

I look for the Cellers Vilella de la Cartoixa de Monsalvat. I walk down this street, almost to the end of it. Ursula stops in front of the door arch of the small house on the right hand side. “Come back, the celler is here”, she says.

Yes, Ursula is right, here it is, the bodega Cellers de Vilella de la Cartoixa de Montsalvant that I have looked for, based on the hints found in “Vinos de España”, p. 172 and in “Més d’enlla del vi – DOQ Priorat”, p. 123. The Montsalvant is a small family owned bodega. This unpretentious entry in the narrow street reminds me again of how different the DOQ Priorat is from the second Spanish DOQ Rioja, where some bodegas have been constructed by star architects and are visited by hords of tourists. Here we are alone… almost…

According to “Més d’enlla del vi”, Francesc Sánchez-Bas, has founded the bodega de la Cartoixa with two friends in 1995, and he took it over ten years later, when one of his companions became president of the Conseil Regulador de la DOQ Priorat. 1995, this was almost 25 years ago. We count back – yes we were in our forties then, and hence Francesc Sánchez-Bas must be in his early sixties now. Is this him, rushing through the large door just below where we stand?

Yes, it is him. He is about to leave for Tarragona, but nevertheless finds time to prepare two bottles of his best red Montsalvat (2006, mainly Carignena, aged 18 months in barrels and made from old vines) and one bottle of white Montsalvat 2016 (made from Trepot Blanc, Macabeu and  Garnatxa Blanca, two months in barrel… I am particularly interested in the Trepot Blanc, an autochthonous Priorat grape that is new to me). Francesc gives us “identity cards” of his wines and apologizes that he does not have the time to show his bodega to us.

Well, we might return to this friendly place next year. We say good-bye and hope, the bodega helps to build a future for the children of Francesc, as he said in “Més enllà del vi”.

We take another photo of the surroundings of Vilella Alta…

… and admire some fragmented slate that is favorable for the wines of the Priorat. On his wine identity card, Francesc talks about “granite and quartzite shards”, which might be the better term coined by engineers in agronomy.

Next we continue to the monastery Escala Dei.

 

The Charterhouse Escala Dei – the nucleus of the Priorat, now a ruin

The ruins of the Carthusian monastery or charterhouse of Escala Dei are in a gorgeous location just below the table mountain Montsant. The monastery was the nucleus of the Priorat. It owned the nine villages that now form the DOQ wine region Priorat and – being a monastery – gave the area the Name: “Priorat”. The monastery was built, where a shepherd once saw a ladder with angels climbing to heaven. “Escala Dei” means “ladder  of God”. It was the first Carthusian monastery in Spain and for centuries it was an important cultural center. Now, it is even not mentioned in my art guide books, neither in Dumont’s “Katalonien und Andorra” nor in Barbara Bongässer’s “Katalonien – Kunst – Landschaft – Architektur”. The formerly wealthy monastery, reconstructed in baroque and neoclassical style from the 16th to the 18th century, has been destroyed effectively in the beginning of the 19th century. However, the monastery is well worth a visit, due to the amazing location and the restoration efforts that started in 1989 and illustrate life in the former monastery.

Entering Escala Dei is just stunning. The Montsant massif watches over the line of three gates and the alley of cypresses. This is the second gate…

… and the Santa Maria portal leading to the center of the monastery.

The style of the Santa Maria portal looks baroque to us, with Maria standing in a niche.

The small Romanesque cloister has been reconstructed with the elements excavated. A film in the former refectorium documents the process of reconstruction. The ladder to heaven or “Escala Dei” is engraved on the fountain.

The ladder of God is also on the tableware in the reconstructed living area of the monks. There is a room for study and praying, a second room for cutting wood, a third room for handcrafting and this is the room for eating and sleeping. All rooms are arranged around a small garden, it is just like a small “atrium house”. Through a small, “curved” window, the  monk received his meal from a laybrother that could not see the monk through the pass-thorugh.

Behind the “atrium house”, there is a double garden on two levels. This is the upper level. The monk planted his herbs and vegetables in these gardens.

A complex system provided water to the monastery. Above the monastery, spring water was captured in a cistern and distributed to the individual cells (or “atrium houses”). Each “atrium house” had its system of tubes and fountains. First the upper garden received water (top level in the scheme), second the water continued to the fountain in the lower garden (middle level in the scheme), and third the water arrived at the lowest level, the “atrium house”, where the monk lived (lowest level of the scheme). At this lowest level, an underground tube collected the water.

This is the fountain that carries water to the lower garden.

And this is the (reconstructed) lowest fountain that the monk used in his small “atrium house”, for his personal needs.

We look back to the refectory in front of the Montsant massif and say good-bye to the charterhouse Escala Dei.

We have lunch in the small restaurant near the monastery and then return to Hospitalet to enjoy our balcony with the view of the Mediterranean Sea.

Sources: Sebastiano Albo, “Més enllà del vi – DOQ Priorat”, Barcelona 2011; “Vinos de España”, Larousse, Barcelona 2008; Thomas Schröder: “Katalonien, Michael Müller Verlag, Erlangen 2015 (for the monastery Escala Dei) and explanatory plates in the monastery Escala Dei.