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: Roncesvalles, where Roland was ambushed

In November 2019 we drive from Moissac to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, then up to the pass Ibañeta and to Roncesvalles, where Roland was ambushed in 778 and where pilgrims stay overnight on the Way of St. James (Via Podiensis).



Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is a fortified small town on the river Nive de Béhérobie.

We stroll through the narrow streets, climb up to the town wall and look at the half-timbered houses from the backsides, with lush gardens.

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is the last larger stop on the French side of the Pyrenees, located at about 200m above sea level. From here our car climbs up into the Pyrenees.


Puerta de Ibañeta (1057m)

We reach the pass of Ibañeta on 1057m and look back north towards Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, where we came from (Valcarlos). Two young pilgrims from South Korea reach the pass at the same time. They look exhausted and thankfully accept the lift to Roncesvalles in our car.

A small and modern chapel greets the pilgrims on the pass. The legend goes that monks used to ring the bell of the chapel to make sure, they do not lose their way in the fog. The chapel is locked. We look through the tiny hole. It is full of atmosphere with the colored windows and the sober altar.

Above the chapel, the Roland monument reminds us that he has been ambushed somewhere here in 778, when returning with Charlemagne from their campaign to Spain. Charlemagne had been called by the governors of the northern Islamic principalities to support them against the Emir of Córdoba. When returning to France, Charlemagne had Pamplona destroyed, before leading his army up to the Puerta de Ibañueta. The Basques revenged the destruction of Pamplona by ambushing the Franconian rear guard led by Roland, governor of the Breton March. This is the monument – the rain has started again.

The hikers on the Way of St. James are directed to use this path down to Roncesvalles, which is at a 2kms’ foot walk from here.

Our exhausted pilgrims happily jump into our car and we drive to Roncesvalles. We settle in the Hotel Roncesvalles. They continue their way to another hostel.


Roncesvalles (Orreage in Basque)

We spend two nights in the cosy Hotel Roncesvalles. Roncesvalles means “valley of thorny bushes”.

The complex of the former Augustinian monastery from the 12th century is beautifully located below green hills and on green meadows.

The emblem of Roncesvalles is the green bishop’s crook. It is present all over here, in windows, on fountains, tombstones, doors, ground slabs etc.

The Collegiate Church Santa Maria is of Gothic style (the construction followed the model of Notre Dame in Paris).

The choir holds the much venerated Virgen de Roncesvalles from the 13th century. It is said that a shepherd found her.

The cloister has been rebuilt after heavy snow falls that made the old gothic cloister collapse.

Sanchez VII, king of Navarra (1194-1234) has been buried here. He is known for the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212) which was decisive for the further course of the Spanish Reconquista.

The window above his tomb tells about the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa.

The Chapel of St. James from the 12th century reflects in the ground slabs that are wet from all the rain of the last days.

In a guided tour, we visit the Museo-Tesorio. Amongst the treasures, we admire the so-called chessboard of Charlemagne. It is not a chessboard, because it has only 63 fields. Furthermore it is not from around 800 (when Charlemagne lived), but it is a beautiful work of email from gothic times (14/15th century). But – it is known as the chessboard of Charlemagne.

As I have just come back from Usbekistan, this map from the early 17th century fascinates me. It shows Central Asia with the country of the Tatars. In the very east, China is presented as a relatively small country, separated from the Tatars by their Chinese Wall.

The sheep of Navarra have black legs, black tails and black faces. There are many of them here. The cheese made from them is called Roncal.

We say good-bye to Roncesvalles and continue to Pamplona.

Marion Golder: “Nordspanien und der Jakonsweg”, Dumont Reisehandbuch, Ortsfildern 2018.

On the road to France: To Moissac with the Abbey Saint Pierre

On second of November 2019, we continue our way to Moissac.

Source: Google Maps.

We have booked a room in the centrally located Maison Lydia, where friendly Beatrice welcomes us with a refreshing drink.

Immediately we set out to explore the famous cloister of the Abbey Saint-Pierre.

88 columns dance around the meadow and the huge cedar, alternating between single and double columns. The capitals are richly decorated. This is the baptism of Christ…

… and this is the dinner of Herod, when John the Baptist was killed – here he is in prison about to be decapitated.

In the middle and at the egdes are larger columns, mostly with portraits of apostles or prophets such as this Petrus.


The capitals are damaged and difficult to see in the misty, rainy weather. See, how the rain is running down from the roof.

We escape to the side rooms, where we find a well curated museum with films that explain the works of art, in particular the beautiful porch. With what we learnt here, we look at the porch.

This is the tympanon with Christ in the middle above eight rosettes.

Around him are the twenty-four Elders of the Apocalypse, all turning their heads towards Christ, while playing an instrument.

The right hand side of the porch shows the life of Christ. The top relief has to be read from right to left: Simon holds Christ on his arms tenderly looking at the child. Then there is Joseph, who is told by an angel that he should take Maria and her son to escape to Egypt. They escape with Maria and her child on the donkey and reach Egypt, where the former gods fall down from the walls.

The left hand side is dedicated to a variation of the Last Judgement: In the top panel, a rich couple eat and drink eagerly. They live in luxury, while sick Lazarus is about to starve outside – a dog licks his wounds. But then, the rich man dies and falls into Hell, while an angel takes Lazarus to Paradise, where he sits in the Bosom of Abraham.

In the center of the porch (trumeau) there are statues of St. Peter, St.Paul and the Prophet Jeremy, the latter being Ursula’s favorite: Jeremy stands, his legs crossed and his head bent down to the side, with his eyes looking “inside”.

Animals creep up on the sides of the portal. My favorite is this dog.

Inside the church, we find more works of art from the 12th and the 15th century such as the Romanesque Christ or the Gothic Holy Family on the way to Egypt. A panel explains that Saint Cyprien, bishop in Carthago (Africa), was martyred in 258 and his relics were transfered to Moissac in 1122. This is, how he became the patron saint of Moissac.

Building the monastery has been completed in 1100. The golden times of this Benedictine monastery were in the 11th and 12th century. It was related with Cluny.

We return to our Maison Lydia to warm up  from the rain. Then we have a delicious dinner near the Abbey.

Tomorrow we will continue our way to Roncesvalles. We expect more rain. Though traveling in our car, we feel a  bit like pilgrims.


Sources: Presentation at the cloister of the Abbey Saint Pierre; Thorsten Droste: “Romanische Kunst in Frankreich”, DuMont Kunstreiseführer, Köln 1992; Chantal Fraïsse: “Die Abtei Saint-Pierre von Mossaic”, Yann Le Chevalier, 2019.

On the road to France: Conques in the mountains

First of November 2019, we drive through the mountains of the Auvergne to Conques. 

Source: Google Maps

The weather is misty and rainy. We drive through the Aubrac. Through chestnut trees, the road takes us down to the Lot valley.

We cross the river Lot, reach Conques and settle in the Auberge Saint Jacques.

Conques became an important pilgrim place, after the relics of Saint Foye had been moved here (the story goes that a monk from Conques had stolen the relics in the monastery of Agen, where they had been located before).

The Abbey Church of Sainte-Foye was built from the middle of the XIth to the early XIIth century.

The main portal is decorated with the beautiful tympanon showing the Last Judgment (late Romanesque style). About 120 figures populate the tympanon. It can still be recognized that the Last Judgment was originally painted in colors.

Christ sits in the middle. To his right is Paradise (his right hand up), to the left is Hell (his left hand down ).

Below Christ, Archangel Michael and the grinning devil are facing one another. Between them is a set of scales, and the devil is touching one of the pans. Farther below, Petrus welcomes those that enter Paradise and a devil throws the condemned subjects into the gorge of a wild animal – this is the entry to Hell.

In Paradise, all is fine and people are arranged around the Bosom of Abraham.

Above to the right of Christ (seen from his viewoint), there are the donator and the founder of the abbey with Charlemagne lead by the hand.

I feel overwhelmed, when entering the church. The nave is 22m high and seems to reach into heaven. The decoration is sober which adds to the solemnity.

A colored medaillon decorates the top of the crossing. To the sides of the naves are galleries with double openings.

Next to the church is the cemetery, for All Saints’ Day beautifully decorated with flowers.

Across the church is the exhibition of the rich treasure of the abbey with the statue of Sainte Foye (no fotos allowed).

The small Museum of Joseph Fau has been carefully arranged and shows tapestry from the early 17th century such as this representation of the three women at the empty sepulcher of Christ.

It is pouring with rain. We see some pilgrims with short trousers wrapped up in their rain capes. I shiver and admire them for undertaking this long, long walk along the Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostella. We imagine, how dangerous this was in medieval times, especially here in the rough mountains of the Auvergne. We return to our cosy hotel named after St. James and have dinner.

The next morning we return to the church and the cloister. I discover this fountain with the conch of St. James in the middle and with the reflection of the Abbey Church ornated with the coins thrown into the fountain.

We look back and say good-bye to Conques.

Our next target is Moissac.

Sources: Noël Graveline: “Die romanischen Schätze in der Auvergne”, Edition Debaisieux, 2006 und Thorsten Droste: “Romanische Bauten in Frankreich, DuMont Kunstreiseführer Köln 1992.


On the road to France: Issoire with its Paroisse

It is late autumn 2019. With Ursula, I travel to Spain with stop overs in France. The weather is rainy and chilly. Our first stop is in Issoire, where we spend one night in the convenient IBIS hotel.

Source: Google Maps

We visit the Paroisse St. Austremoine. Austremoine was a preacher that christianized Clermont around 250 and the church of Issoire is named after him.

The Paroisse is famous for the choir that has been freshly renovated. We admire the fine patterns created by black basalt, grey granite and yellow arkose. We are in the area of the volcanic Puys around Clermont-Ferrand.

We like the reliefs of the astrological signs. Here are Virgo and Libra.

This is Capricorn.

And this is my astrological sign, Gemini. It is the third relief, as the series start in March, with Aries.

In the 19th century, the church has been painted inside. This creates the solemn atmosphere that existed in Romanesque times, though the painting is not authentic. Ursula discovers maize plants on some columns… definitively not authentic for the XIth or XIIth century.

The choir is decorated with eight columns. The ambulatory allows to walk around the choir.

Here, the Last Supper circles around the capital. I have never seen this before.

We leave the Cathedral. We may have to return once more to see the parts that are now under renovation.

It is around six in the evening – already dark. We take a last foto of the Bell Tower near the Republic Square.

Then we return to our IBIS hotel and have a light dinner. Tomorrow we will continue our way to Conques.

Sources: Noël Graveline: “Die romanischen Schätze in der Auvergne”, Edition Debaisieux, 2006 und Thorsten Droste: “Romanische Bauten in Frankreich, DuMont Kunstreiseführer Köln 1992.

Via Portbou in Catalonia to Valence, another ancient Roman city in France

In November 2018 we spent three weeks near Tarragona. Now I tell you about the last stage on our way north and home, starting from Cadaqués to Valence in France, with a commemoration stop in Portbou (Catalonia).


Portbo, the small city next to the border with France, reminds of the drama of Walter Benjamin

Portbou was the scene of the dramatic death of the German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin in autumn 1940. We stopped in Portbou to commerate him. Walter Benjamin succeeded in crossing the border from France to Franconian Spain. He and a group of Jews intended to travel on to Lissabon and then to the US. But Franconian Spain had just changed the law and would not let the group continue to Lissabon without a valid confirmation that they were allowed to leave France. Which, of course, they did not have. Benjamin committed suicide, and the rest of the group could then travel on to Lissabon. This monument called Passatges reminds us of that drama: Stairs lead into the sea.

At the bottom there is this thought of Benjamin: “Schwerer ist es, das Gedächtnis des Namenlosen zu ehren als das der Berühmten. Dem Gedächtnis der Namenlosen ist die historische Konstruktion geweiht.”  This has been taken from Benjamin’s thoughts about the term “history”. This is the translation: “It is more difficult to honor the memory of the anonymous persons than that of the famous. To the memory of the anonymous the historical construction has been dedicated.” For me, these thoughts are difficult to understand. Yes, the flow of history is told to us as the series of deeds by famous actors, but in addition it is the result of many more actors that remained anonymous. Is it that, what Benjamin had in mind?

What touched me was to be again confronted with the sadest part of German history. I hope that nothing like that will happen again. The monument was erected with support of Germany in 1994.


Growing wine on steep slopes above the Mediterranean Sea

We cross the border to France and drive through the steep vineyards of Banyuls. It must be tough to grow wine here. Along the road, we come across a small wine shop, where I buy a bottle of Mourvèdre from Collioure.


Valence – an ancient city with some charming corners

After a quiet night in the sober, but practical IBIS hotel of Valencia, we park our car under the Champs de Mars or Mars Field.

Emerging from under the ground we find this heart of Valence.

It carries the hashtag #moncoeurvalence. Sorry, we are not selfie addicts (the hashtag suggests to make selfies here). We enter the old city center, as seen through the heart.

We slender through streets and enjoy the busy market – everything looks tempting here. Then we walk over to the cathedral behind the market.

The Romansque cathedral St. Apollinaire collapsed in the 17th century, but has been reconstructed true to the original. Inside are three naves of almost the same height…

… and the colours of the windows are reflecting mysteriously on the wall.

It was here that in the 12th century, Barbarossa married Beatrix, the heir of Burgundy.

The only construction left from the cloister behind the cathedral is the so-called “Le Pendentif”, erected in renaissance style in 1548. It is the tomb of a capitular.

We stroll through the narrow streets.

The House of Heads or La Maison de Têtes has been built by a university professor in 1530, as a plate explains. Its style is characteristic for the transition from late gotic to renaissance.

French style squares or plazas are always inviting with their trees and restaurants. It is just a bit cold now.

Valence strives to be clean, but how did we say forty years ago at university: “French planning is more French than planning”. I really could not find, where I could take the sack, in case I had  a dog, be it small or tall… but I love the humor that guided the author of this plate.

Never have I seen this street sign before – surfboards are forbidden here, only that! Bicycles, rollerblades, everything else is allowed – or am I mistaken?

We leave Valence and head north following the vineyards of the Côte du Rhone. In the Saint Joseph area, I take a foto of the vineyard of one of my favourite wine growers, Chapoutier.

In Serrières, we park our car to eat a a sandwich. When we come back, some Gilets Jaunes with their motor cycles have filled up the parking. They tell us that they like the Swiss and show to me, how to get out of my parking lot amidst their motor cycles without damaging one of them. Some four hours later we are back in Monthey in Switzerland to share a night with our friends that allowed us once more to stay in their apartment in Catalonia. We look back at another wonderful trip.



  • Thomas Schröder: “Katalonien”, Michael Müller Verlag, Erlangen 2015
  • Thorsten Droste: “Romanische Kunst in Frankreich”, DuMont Kunstreiseführer, Köln 1992
  • Thorsten Droste: “Provence”, Dumont Kunst-Reiseführer, Köln 2011

On the road at Pontgibaud near Clermont-Ferrand and the volcanos

End of October 2018 we are on the road again. Our target is Spain. Clermont-Ferrand is located at about half the distance between Basel and the Pyrenées. We selected Pontgibaud close to the motorway to stay overnight. We discovered a nice small hotel and a nice small town stretched along the Sioule river. It counts some 800 inhabitants.

The Hotel de la Poste has just opened, because the owner expects spontaneous guests that get stuck in the snow announced. It snowed slightly, when we arrived.

We have dinner – I eat braised calf cheek – a plain and excellent meal.

In the morning, we find the sky covered, but there is no snowfall. We walk around the small town built using the black volcanic stones of the area . The dormant volcanos called “Puy” are not far. This is the townhall or hotel de ville ornated with the black volcanic stone.

This house with its watch tower has been built in the 15th century. 

In pre-Roman, Roman and medieval times, lead was retrieved in the area. This might have been the reason for fortifying the town and buliding  the castle (Source: Städtische Wirtschaft im Mittelalter). The inhabitants of Pontgibaud are called Gibaldipontins.

From the town fortification, the city gate is left.

Across the gate starts the park of the Castle.

The Castle was built in the 12th and 15th century. 

The park – now slightly powdered with snow – overlooks the small town with the church Saint Benoît from the 13th century.

We say good-bye to this friendly small town and leave for the Val d’Aran in the Pyrenées. After having arrived in the Pyrenées in the evening, we hear that in Clermont-Ferrand traffic had been halted by a heavy blizzard. Good for the Hotel de la Poste at Pontgibaud that might now be full of guests that got stuck in the blizzard and decided to stop their journey.

On the way to Spain – second stop in charming Collioure

We are on our way to Spain again in October 2016. We first stopped in Le Puy en Velay, the gorgeous pilgrim town perched on basalt needles. We stopped a second time in charming Collioure near the French border with Spain, in the Languedoc-Roussillon.

We drive south through the hills of the Auvergne – huge bridges swing over the valleys – always a great scenery. Then the highway winds down. Cypresses and pine trees are welcoming us. The rain has stopped, the sun shines. The temperatures are warmer and my jeans are too hot. We arrive in the Mediterranean climate.


Our hotel of charm, Casa Païral, tucked away in a tiny dead street

In Collioure we now have selected a hotel of charm and “Relais de Silence”, the Casa Païral. Indeed, after several turns we find it tucked away in the tiny dead end street Rue du Pasteur. I enter with our car and stop in front of the gate. After having unloaded our luggage, I have to leave this narrow dead end street backwards – I had beads of perspiration on my forehead.


The hotel is quite a contrast to the sober IBIS hotel from last night. We immediately feel at home.



Charming Collioure at night

It is already late. We stroll along the harbour. The fortified church “Eglise Notre Dames des Anges” has been built by Vauban in the 17th century, when he planned to change Collioure into a garnison town (as this region has become part of the French empire in the 17th century). The clock tower looks like a light house.


There are quite a few restaurants at this central square. We have fish at Casa Leon. We love sea fish, when we are close to the sea.



Collioure inspired the fauvism artists in 1905

On an early morning walk we follow the tracks of Henri Matisse and André Derain. They came to Collioure in 1905 to paint fauvism art.


Fauvism art gives priority to the color that creates the visual impression of the painting.


We gather some memories in the narrow streets of Collioure. Colorfully painted houses,…


… flowers all over,…


… and a great view of the Mediterranean Sea with the small chapel on the small island St. Vicent.


Once again we look back to the harbour that the waves play with.



Farther south to Spain

We say good-bye to Collioure and drive south following the sinuous street along the Côte de Vermeille.


We enter Spain, follow the coast for some more time and then turn towards Barcelona and Hospitalet del’Infant.


From Carcassone through the Causses to Laguiole and back to Switzerland

We made three days to return from Spain to Switzerland. The first day has ended in Carcassone. The second day takes us to Albi, to Espalion and to Laguiole, where we spend another night. On the third day we just “eat up” kilometers on motorways and enter Switzerland on the Pas de Morgins.


Albi – town of the Cathars or Albigienses

In the pouring rain, we reach Albi located on the river Tarn. It was an important centre of the Cathars, also called Albigienses. The old city has mostly been built from red bricks and their cathedral Saint Cécile is made of the same material.

DSC_0849 small

Inside the cathedral is painted in blue which gives it a harmonious atmosphere.

DSC_0858 small

The choir and the stalls are a Unesco world heritage

DSC_0861 small

In the pouring rain we do not feel like more sightseeing in this charming town and continue north.


Espalion – small town with old bridge

We continue north through the Causses plateau mountains. It is a rough landscape that the pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela feared – for the wind, for the cold temperatures and also for the robbers.

DSC_0870 small

The cities lie in the valleys. Espalion is one of these. The gothic bridge crosses the river Lot.

DSC_0878 small

The shoreline of this small town is charming and so are the narrow streets, but the only one hotel in town is booked out. And – it is pouring with rain. We decide to continue to Laguiole.


Laguiole – the dynamic mountain village has a lot to offer – a discovery for me

Laguiole is a mountain village located in the Aubrac. The temperatures are now down to 9 degrees – it is chilly, rainy and misty. This is the impression from our evening walk.

DSC_0890 small

Laguiole is famous for its high quality knives. Their speciality are the foldable knives – this is one of them with a damascene blade.

DSC_0883 small

But they also have knives, forks and spoons for the table – beautifully designed by star designers. The village is full of knife  shops (called “Coutellerie”). Also tours to factories are on offer.

DSC_0895 small

In addition the Aubrac and Laguiole are famous for their regional “Aubrac” cattle, a robust species that is used for milk and meat production. The cattle is brown with a dark brown line decorating the border of the ears. This cattle enjoys an excellent diet of mountain herbs and delivers AOC cheese and savoury meat. The “Aubrac” cattle is so much valued that it has received a memorial in the village center.

DSC_0904 small

In addition to the products of the Aubrac cows, the butchers also sell white ham and other specialties from pigs.

DSC_0884 small

I bought some of their cooked white ham, and enjoyed it, when back home.

We find a room in the friendly Hotel de l’Aubrac. The house is also an excellent restaurant that serves tasty meals from regional products. We have a menu – this was my beef bourguignon made in wine and gentian liquor.

DSC_0898 small

The people here know, how to make use of their natural products. The meal was authentic and well prepared. The beef was served with Aligot which is potato purée mixed with local cheese which gives it a firm texture. A red wine from Marcillac (some 50km south from Laguiole) was a perfect match with my beef. Ursula liked her pot-au-feu. An excellent choice of local cheese followed as part of the menu: Ecir (cow milk), a regional goat cheese and Roquefort (which originates not far from here).  We top our meal with a sweet wine from Pellehaut (Gascogne, west of Toulouse, made out of Chardonnay and Petit Manseng; the latter can mature until December thanks to its hard skin; it is the basic ingredient of sweet wines in South West France and in North Spain).

The two star Hotel and Restaurant de l’Aubrac is a great place to stay – welcoming atmosphere, great dinner, good breakfast and quiet rooms.


Heading back to Switzerland and then to the Pas de Morgins

On the third day we head back to Switzerland – all on highways – and enter our country crossing the Pas de Morgins.

DSC_0915 small

We give back the the apartment keys and thank our friends for having let us stay in their beautiful apartment in L’Hospitalet de l’Infant with its gorgeous view of the pine trees and the sea.