Meanderings

Montmorillon, France

Montmorillon. (Pop: about 6000)

Vienne

France.

 

With our Burghausen (Bayern) experience behind us, we arrived in Montmorillon (France) in August. The plan being to relax at my sister Mary’s house and flush the 2 years of claustrophobic and rather tense apartment living out of our system.

 

My sister owns an ancient rambling town house which she’d once converted into an art gallery/tea room. But at the time we were there she had already closed the business and moved out. The house had been on the market for a long time but no one was buying. So me, Hil and Ronan moved in. We had the whole place to ourselves except when William (My nephew) and his friends occasionally popped in for a swim and a bbq.

At the back of the house was a beautiful old overgrown garden with a swimming pool tucked away in a sunny corner. Ronan spent most of his 3 weeks there.

 

Montmorillon is a pleasant little town. Nothing fancy. Not overly touristy. There is a church on a hill surrounded by quaint antique book stores. The River Gartempe flows slowly through the town’s heart. A pedestrian friendly medieval bridge traverses its clear shallow waters. The town square hosts a market on Wednesdays. The town’s lamp posts go off at 1 AM.

Montmorillon has a few bars. Most notably La Trappe at the top of the hill where we dropped in most nights for a few games of pool. The town square had a pizza window with some outdoor seating. I enjoyed the ambience more than the pizza, though in truth the pizza was alright. Just before the bridge was the local Anglais hang-out. We didn’t go in there much. I’m not an Ex-Pat community kind of person.

On the other side of the bridge was a creperie and to the right was a place which sometimes had live music in the garden. Straight up the hill was the afore mentioned La Trappe bar.

One more bar was the Commerce. Mary said they had music sessions in there quite often but we never got around to going in.

So as you can imagine, it didn’t take us too long to explore the town.

One day Mary said her band was having a practice at someone’s house out in the countryside. So for the sake of something to do, me, Hil and Ronan went along. While the band played, we walked to the nearby village of Bethines. The road was empty. Rolling farmland spread itself out below a naked blue sky. The walk was about 2 kilometres. It was pleasant though there wasn’t much to see. But we hadn’t signed up for a “spectac”; just an easy going stroll. Bethines had a church, a main street, a wee shop and a war memorial. We sat outside at an empty café and let life go by. Not that much went by. A tractor, a dog, and a Dutch licence plated Land Rover. Hil and Ronan played cribbage. I sketched and enjoyed the rural silence of the village.

We ambled back to the band practice then returned to Montmorillon.

 

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No there’s nothing conspicuously spectacular here-abouts, but Montmorillon does have charm and a measured pace and the people seem to fit that mold. Personally I wasn’t looking for much excitement but after a few days we were in need of a little more stimulation. The maps began to come out.

This whole area is off the beaten tourist track. In fact it’s off a lot of tracks. The region comprises of fairly flat farmland. Cows and Sunflowers feature prominently. I guess in many ways this is the real France: not the brochured and bottled France. Here is not the tourist catering France. It’s not Alpine or Grapevine. Not the Riviera or Paris Disneyland.

But oddly enough, we did discover a sort of Disneyland. This was a huge permanent expo called Futuroscope: an enormous science fair for kids and adults alike. Stimulation, here we come.

Located north of Poitiers about an hour from Montmorillon this place was big enough to spend the whole day at. But it was all a bit too expensive for us till we noticed that after 5pm it was half price and open till around 11pm. In the end we payed a total of 48 Euros. Once inside all rides and exhibits were free. Plus at dusk there was a free theatrical laser show. Still a bit pricey but not too shabby.

Well anyway, while waiting for 5pm to roll around, we lazed by the shade of the car in the parking and ate bread and cheese. An insignificant affair, but it seems to have stuck in my head for some reason.

So… 5pm… in we went. There really were too many distractions to describe. First thing we did was stand in front of a turbine that generated a 140km gale force wind. That was interesting. Then we saw some weird fountains. More like water spouts than fountains. They simply leapt like silver worms out of holes in the ground and arched through the air and down other holes. Hil and Ronan then took a little row boat trip. Each boat had a water cannon mounted on the bow. Ronan shot everybody whether they liked it or not. He enjoyed it: not sure about his fellow boaters.

We went to a Mira-Max theatre and watched a short movie about migrating birds. It was dizzying to watch because part of the enormous screen extended below our feet and we found ourselves soaring over sudden cliffs and mountains like we were flying in a glass helicopter.

Back outside we saw a building/structure that resembled the Seattle space needle. It turned out to be a bar. Riders were strapped into their seats at the bottom, and with drink in hand, their feet dangling in open air, they and the circular bar counter ascended into the heavens. A nice view I guess but too bad if anyone had to pee.

 

We saw a 15 minute dinosaur movie and then went on an unexpected ride through a 3 D movie. That was probably the most fun of our day. Possibly because it was so unanticipated. We had sort of taken a wrong turn in a hollow tree and come up an elevator to a dead end where warning signs everywhere informed us about the dangers we were about to experience. There was a list posted detailing info about all the people who should not take this ride: people with stomach problems or women who were pregnant or people who were epileptic. We were a bit apprehensive. But apprehension wasn’t on the list.

Then suddenly we were strapped into big airplane seats and taken on a virtual 3D ride on a flying ship piloted at high speed by elves through tunnels with giant bugs chasing us. It was very real in a cartoon way. There were even smells, bumps, and creeping sensations. I could see Ronan sitting beside me and I had to laugh. Even in the semi dark I could see his face glowed in wonder. I knew he was having the time of his life. So was I. Quite exhilarating.

Futuroscope had plenty of other stuff too. We saw a deck chair made of astro turf. There were bubble rides on a pond. There were video slot machines which Ronan enjoyed while we had a coffee break. I don’t think he even noticed we hadn’t put any money in. The night ended with the laser show in an amphitheatre.

We’d had a fun day and decided that the half day ticket was enough for our senses.

 

Chauvigny

 

Chauvigny was a half hour drive North West of Montmorillon. I’d guess it’s a bit bigger and more touristy than Montmorillon. Probably due to its big castle ruins that sit on the hill. Was it a castle? I just presumed it was.

These ruins have an odd profile. On one side all alone there is a tall column that was probably once a corner wall. Nowadays it stands like a precarious pillar that could topple in a strong wind. To its right is a large missing section of wall. Possibly the work of time or cannonballs. To the right of that is the main intact section of the structure.

We parked the car below the ruins at the edge of a well manicured town park. It had a pond and an aviary and lots of shady trees.

 

Next we strolled up to the ruin and found it was predictably fitted with cafes and arty shops set into the narrow winding streets. We visited the museum and the “Dongon” for 5 euros. The Dongon section seemed more modern and interesting. They had a Ceolocanth exhibit which was very unexpected. A ceolocanth is a fish that was believed to have been extinct for millions of years till one was caught off the South African coast around 1938. On being questioned, the Ceolocanth admitted there were others around too but they generally preferred deep water. It all caused quite a sensation. Apparently the local fishermen were fairly familiar with the species.

 

While we were in Chauvigny, the town was hosting a wild bird show. (The giants of the Sky) There was a fee to see it but we didn’t pay because we could see the birds and hear the running commentary from the opposite wall which conveniently overlooked the whole show. And also because I’m Scottish. Various wild birds were on display and every few minutes a flock would take to the air and circle the castle. We saw Eagles and storks, vultures, Macaws and cockatoos. I noticed the local pigeons keeping a wary eye on the proceedings from a discreet distance.

That was pretty much our trip to Chauvigny. On the way out of town we drove through what was probably the main street. It looked fairly busy with a church and shops and bustle. But we were in a leaving frame of mind and didn’t stop.

 

Carcassonne

Population 47,000

Region of Languedoc Roussillon

Carcassonne is a day’s drive (8 hours?) South of Montmorillon. Going there had been an ambition of Hil’s for a long time. So off we went. Mainly we drove on the Autoroute even though there were frequent tolls.

We arrived in the late afternoon and decided to do our tourism thing before going to our hotel. First thing we did was get lost in the old town. We entered at Jacobs Gate (?) and walked straight through. Then Hil said it was all wrong and we were getting lost. So we got on a wee city train that conveniently trundled us up to the castle.

It is a formidable fortress.

Here’s what I could glean about it

It first seems to be mentioned about 3500 BC. Then nothing happened for a long time. Somehow by 100 AD it had officially become a Roman outpost. Around the 6th century it has become a major trading town.

During all that time, Carcassonne had numerous rulers: Celts, Romans, Visigoths, Saracens, and of course French. For a while, each new steward added their own stamp to the castle’s architectural character. But sadly by 1849, the castle had fallen into such disrepair that the French Government decided to demolish it. Understandably there was immediate uproar and it was decided to commission a renovation. Eugene Viollet le Duc was the man put in charge. Work began in 1853 and though the finished article was not deemed authentic, it was acclaimed as a work of genius. Nowadays the castle has 53 towers, a double wall of ramparts and a zillion tourists.

 

Yes the place was jammed with tourists. And I mean jammed. Every corner was a restaurant/terrace or a trinket shop. The horde of tourists shuffled through the narrow streets like one vast organism sniffing everything. It’s hard to enjoy a city when it’s so overrun. There is no sense of its aura or its history and heritage. It is just a medival theme park. How is it possible to even enjoy a meal at one of those elbow to elbow terraces. I saw a woman on a wobbly chair, facing uphill trying to eat while the vast crowd shuffled past, bumping her table and eying her dinner as she tried to stop her plate sliding onto her lap.

And I bet that experience wasn’t cheap either.

Still, like I said, the castle itself was amazing. It is now a World Heritage site (UNESCO).A moniker I have mixed feelings about. Often it is an omen of boom town mania. It can be as good as a cultural kiss of death. I think the exploitation needs reined in a bit so that the sites can still breathe without being stampeded to death.

 

But regardless, thanks to Monseiur V le Duc, Carcassonne now has one of the most intact castles of its kind in Europe. Very different from humble chauvigny. Though at that point in time I’d have rather been back there.

Most important though was, Hil loved it. She had long been fascinated with the whole Cathir history and myth stuff. I’m sure she would have loved more time but after a few hours it was getting dark. We still had to get out of town and find our hotel.

An hour or so later we are booked in at the hotel in the small town of Limoux. The friendly owner told us that if we wanted to eat in town then we better hurry before everything closed. It must have been around 11PM when we arrived en ville. We were just in time for a pizza on a wee terrace just off the surprisingly busy town square.

 

Next day off we went on a tour of castles. Castle Arques was in a field. It had a nest of bats in one room.

Castle Rennes les Chateau is most famous for the renovation work done by a priest who seems to have had access to a mysterious wealth of funds.

His name was Father Berenger Sauniere. He arrived there in 1885. Rumour has it that underneath “The Knight’s Stone”, which he unearthed in 1887, he discovered a crock of gold coins and a skull with a hole in it. But this was all heresay. Father Sauniere died without disclosing his source of patronage. This has given rise to stories of a treasure trove buried somewhere nearby.

 

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Castle Monsegur was quite a different experience. My first glimpse of it was quite memorable. I guess we had entered the Pyrenees when Monsegur appeared in the high distance through the pines. It perched atop a monolithic mountain sized druid stone that rose up sheer out of the forest into the clouds. How anyone could decide to build anything up there seemed impossible.

Our road continued to wind through the mountain pass till we sloped up and found ourselves approaching Monsegur from behind. This side wasn’t so formidable a climb. There was parking there. We walked the last kilometer or so passing en route the site where at some point in Monsegur’s history a massacre had taken place and 200 survivors were burnt alive by Catholic soldiers for refusing to give up their Cathar religion. Hil knows more about this stuff. Unlike Carcassonne, Castle Monsegur had no shops or restaurants on site. It still retains its haunted past. The mountains are bleak. The castle’s a shell. The wind blows lonely and visitors feel less like tourists and more like pilgrims.

Having said that, the view at the top was incredible.

 

Grottes du Cougnac

 

We started for home late that afternoon and stayed in an anonymous truck stop of a hotel. Next morning, on a spur of the moment, we visited the Grottes du Cougnac to see some cave paintings.

If ever I’d had a dream to come true this was it. Many of the more famous sites like Lascaux are now closed to the public so this unscheduled stop was a big treat for me.

We were part of a tour group of about 20 people. The tour was in French but I caught the gist of it. The pictures needed no translation. This side trip was especially exciting for me because I was finally seeing pieces of ancient art that I’d read and written about and sang about without having experienced them first hand. I don’t know what I was expecting from them. I think I just wanted to feel their presence, their history and their significance. I would have loved to have sat down there alone with a flaming torch and just looked at them.

 

It’s incredible to think how these paintings lay undisturbed for thousands of years whilst up above on the earth’s surface, wars and massacres took place. Cathar castles rose and crumbled. Empires stretched and snapped. And all the time deep underground in the darkness, time passed too but little changed. Was it art while it lay unseen?

Humans have clocks that measure hours and minutes and milli-seconds. We seem obsessed by timing things. Are we scared we’ll miss something?

Mother Nature’s clocks tell time but I doubt she consciously measures it. Down in the painted caves, stalactites and stalagmites recorded the slow dripping passage of existence at their own pace. I guess there was no need for measurement. Maybe it’s not about time: it’s about rhythm. Perhaps the less that happens, the better.

The Grottes du Cougnac was a wonderful experience and definitely one of my cultural highlights of the last two years.

 

From the Grottes du Cougnac, we made a quick stop at the Lascaux 2 exhibit car park. I had no inclination to see this exhibit. Lascaux 2 was created not far from the original caves when Lascaux was closed to the public due to condensational damage to the site.

I am sure L2 is a great homage to the original site but I see no point in paying to see copies. I could draw them myself or see the real pictures in a book. Would I pay entry to an exhibition of Picasso copies? I think not. (Spot the Scotsman).

At that moment, all I wanted was a quick reconnaissance of the area in general: to have a sense of the environment where Cro-Magnon artists hung out thousands of years ago and gathered materials and inspiration and parked their deux cheveaux cars.

 

Also on our way back to Montmorillon, we stopped in at the town of Sarlat. Many years ago I had been on my way to Sarlat on the advice of a girl in Annecy. But I’d gotten side-tracked and ended up in Perpignon. So here we were about 28 years later entering Sarlat.(Full name: Sarlat la Caneda. Pop. 10,000 approx).

Well Sarlat reminded my somehow of a small Edinburgh with its narrow cobble stone streets and timbered houses and sandstone wall. The town was a fine example of 14th century medieval France. Apparently the Perigold Noir region was well known for growing tobacco back in the day.

It was market day when we were there. Ronan bought a tooth shaped amulet made of antler on a piece of leather string to wear round his neck. He was very happy with it. Sarlat apparently has the oldest running market in France (Europe?). Six hundred years.

Unfortunately, Sarlat was yet another town besieged by tourism. I’m sure it’s fantastic for the town’s economy but the town’s charm is buried under cheesy commercialism. I’m not sure if Sarlat is a World Heritage Centre yet. It has all the qualifications and symptoms of the land grabbing exploitation rights that move in faster than you can say “Locust” or “Irish Pub”.

Big question though. Was it buskable? I’d have to say yes but I have no idea about permits or restrictions. Evenings might be profitable. Daytime too hot and busy. Winter markets could be good too with less student competition. Having said all that, I didn’t see any buskers there.

 

Well we made it back to Montmorillon and I must say the little town was beginning to feel like home.

 

 

And of course over the 3 weeks we were in town, there was music.

First, I have to say, what a great feeling it was to give my guitar a good talking to. After 2 years in a Burghausen apartment with neighbours all around, it was great to play at any volume I wanted to. I’d spent my time in Burghausen playing my non amplified electric guitar and singing in whispers. Montmorillon was like sudden musical freedom. No more living in a box.

So I wandered round Mary’s premises like a singing spook. I haunted all the rooms at all hours, singing my head off. It was great. A bit croaky but good fun all the same.

Mary played her bouron one afternoon and I played guitar. We had quite a folky session for an hour or so. It’s really a shame how we so seldom played music together. We had our whole lives to do it but just never got around to it.

At some point early in our visit Mary and her band (Phoenix) gigged at the bar by the bridge. They played loads of old songs I hadn’t heard in years. Many I fondly remember from our eclectic family Neilston record collection. But there was other stuff in their set too. Some in French. Edith Paiffe comes to mind. I can’t spell it. Worry later. Anyway they sounded good and looked like they were having fun. They had a song for everyone.

We also saw them perform at a camp ground by a river. That was another fun night. Then one last gig at the beer garden by the Montmorillon bridge where we’d heard them the first time. This time me and Mary did a couple of songs together. It was sort of a now or never deal. My family members are so spread out and we never know when we will meet again.

For the sake of posterity let it be noted that we played the Star of the County Down and the Hens in the Henhouse.

A few days later we went out to Martin the keyboard player’s house in the countryside. There he had a little shed in his garden all set up for jamming. We spent a nice couple of hours there wwith the doors wide open, trying out a bunch of tunes. Time flew. I was suddenly late for a date with Hil. So I had to rush off.

That covers most of the music we played in and around Montmorillon.

…..Except for a convoluted story of me having played a song called Dead Skunk by Louden Wainright about 20 years earlier for some friends of Mary’s. They turned up for a BBQ while we were there and wanted to hear it again for old time’s sake. I happily obliged but in all honestly had no recollection of the original event though I thought I remembered them. But just to make the tale more complex, the people at our BBQ turned out to be different people than I thought. But I only discovered that fact later. So, in short, I was chatting away to the wrong people about an event I had no memory of while mistaking them for another couple who I had a different memory of. Does that make any sense? The old memory bank is fried.

 

Montmorillon held a huge flea market a few days before we left town. Hil spotted a hand drum made from a wooden barrel. She knew right away I’d need to have it. The guy wanted 35 Euros but quickly came down to 25. A deal was struck. He had a second smaller one too which I bought later. (I had to have the set.) He gave me that for 20. Two beautiful drums for a mere 45 Euros. I was feeling good. Now all I had to do was simply post them to the states. Not likely. The post office wanted 153 Euros for each drum. I couldn’t believe it. That was over 300 Euros for something that had only cost 45 Euros. In the end we posted only the larger Drum. The other still awaits shipment at Mary’s house as soon as I can scrounge up its fare.

 

So that was our time in France. It was exactly what we needed after Germany. I must say Germany was great too. My only real complaint was apartment living. For a musician with an 8 year old son it’s not the best environment. Our downstairs neighbor was constantly banging on the roof to tell us to stop walking about. It was exasperating but it did force us to get out and about. Luckily our next door neighbour was very friendly. She was retired and loved to invite us over for coffee and cake. As you can imagine, Ronan loved that.

 

I guess our time in France was like a mini trip through history. From the cave paintings of the Grottes du Cougnac to the founding of Carcassonne. Through the medieval architecture of Sarlat and the haunting ruins of Monsegur. Through the tangle of Mary’s backyard to the visions of Futuroscope, we loved it all.

Now…. to the new World.