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Montferrier and the Midi-Pyrenees


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We spent a cold and rather wet week based at Montferrier in May, covering parts of Aude, Ariège and as far west as Haute Garonne.

This trip report was originally published on Slow Travel. All the pictures can be found here.

Background Information
We have spent two holidays in France, sailing with Brittany Ferries and taking our car. We had enjoyed the Auvergne the previous year and fancied getting further west into the Dordogne and south into the Midi-Pyrenees. This made us start to think about Northern Spain, an area we’ve not been before. Michael has been wanting to get into the Basque country for many years. We could use Brittany ferries to Bilboa and spend a few days in Spain and then slowly work our way north and catch the ferry back from Caen.

We began with a few days in the mountains of the Picos de Europa, before moving east into Navarra After that, we decided to spend a week in the Midi-Pyrenees near Foix, followed by a week near Sarlat-le-Canada in the Dordogne before heading for home.

We chose May which avoided school holidays and we thought the weather would be warm, but not too hot. It had been a late spring and Navarra had been cold and damp. We left Navarra in torrential rain. As we climbed up over the Pyrenees, the cloud came down and so did the temperature, to 2˚. A snow plough and gritter passed us going the other way. By the time we reached St Girons, the rain was beginning to ease and the temperature had crept up a few degrees. This weather stayed with us all week. Instead of being too hot, we wished we had packed hat and gloves....

We were wanting a base in the foothills of the Pyrenees and the area around Foix seemed to be a good choice. Brittany Ferries had two properties in the area. We quickly dismissed one which would have involved a 15 minute drive along a narrow and winding road at both ends of the day. We chose Hameau de Barthale in Montferrier.

This proved to be a good choice. Barthale is a small hamlet, a continuation of the slightly larger Montferrier, signed south off the D117, Foix to Lavelanet road. Montferrier has two small shops selling basic groceries and bread. There is a small restaurant at the start of the village which had very limited opening hours in May. The larger settlement of Lavelanet, about five miles to the south west, has a range of supermarkets.

The ski resort of Les Monts d’Olmes is a short drive to the south. Château de Montsegur is an even shorter drive to the south east.

Montferrier is a workaday village set in a steep sided valley with mixed woodland.

The narrow main street is lined with plaster or stone houses with wooden shutter. Walls are painted in a rather drab shade of beige which can give the village a rather dour appearance.

It had been a fortified town with a castle but all that is left are some stones at the top of rue du Château. The square, lined with tall houses, contains the war memorial.

The church has clocher peigne with a 3-2-1 arrangement of bell holes with a double row of bells in the lowest row. There is a tall plastered nave with a buttressed apse and lower sacristy on the south wall. There is a large stone porch over the west door. The church always seemed to be locked and we never did manage to get in it.

The gîte was an attractive modern chalet style house with off road parking in front.

The ground floor was open plan and very comfortably furnished with a well equipped kitchen. A staircase lead up to a mezzanine with a sitting area and a door to the balcony with views across to Montsegur. On a warm summers day this would be a very pleasant place to relax.

Electric heaters provided background heat and there was a large open wood burning fire. We didn’t use this as we felt by the time we had got it lit and the place warm it would be time to go to bed!

We enjoyed the gîte and the area, and found Montferrier to be a good base. It was just a shame the weather let us down. Mornings often started bright and clear but we could see the cloud come down on the top of Montsegur as we ate our breakfast.

#2 Impressions of Montferrier and the surrounding area
#3 St Bertrand de Comminges
#4 Foix
#5 Forges de Pyrène, Montgailhard
#6 A day exploring the small villages to the north of Montferrier
#7 Vals
#8 To the east of Montferrier - Château de Puivert.
#9 To the north east of Montferrier - Alet-les-Bains
#10 To the north east of Montferrier - St Salvayre
# 11 To the north east of Montferrier - St Polycarpe
#12 To the north east of Montferrier - Abbaye de St Hilaire
#13 To the north east of Montferrier - Carcassonne, La Cité
#14 To the north east of Montferrier, Carcassonne - Basiica St-Nazaire
#15 To the north east of Montferrier, Carcassonne - Château Comtal
#16 To the north east of Montferrier - Abbaye de Villelongue
#17 To the north east of Montferrier - Abbaye de St Papoul
#18 To the west of Montferrier - St Lizier

#19 To the west of Montferrier - St Lizier, Cathedral of St Girons
#20 To the west of Montferrier - St Lizier, Prefectural Museum of Ariège and Notre-Dame de Sède
#21 To the west of Montferrier -Montjoie-en-Couserans
#22 To the west of Montferrier - Audressein
#23 To the north west of Montferrier - To the Haute Garonne
#24 To the north west of Montferrier - Lezat-sur-Lèze
#25 To the north west of Montferrier - Rieux Volvestre
#26 To the north west of Montferrier - Montesque-Volvestre
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1000+ Posts
Impressions of Montferrier and the surrounding area

On the whole, the week didn’t deliver and we didn’t see as much of the Pyrenees as we’d hoped.

Low cloud and early morning drizzle were often slow to clear. We found that going north or west gave better weather. Unclassified roads were very slow, often narrow with blind corners resulting in Michael not being able to enjoy the scenery. After one particularly bad road up to St Salvayre, we tended to avoid these. This meant that we missed many of the smaller and possibly more interesting villages.

The drive up the valley through the hay meadows to Audressein, surrounded by tall snow clad mountain peaks on the last day was a highlight. This is what we’d expected the scenery to be like.

The area around Montferrier is deep valleys with wooded hillsides. Peaks are not particularly high round here.

The black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) grows everywhere. In May it was covered with pendulous white flowers, making the hillsides look white. There were a lot of unimproved hay meadows, full of wild flowers; white with daisies or yellow with buttercups. There were spikes of purple orchids in wetter areas. There was little arable farming until we drove further west. We saw few cows grazing and assume they had been moved to the higher meadows. Local cheese (including ewe and goat) was sold in all the shops and we passed a couple of small cheese makers on the way on Audressein. This is not a wine growing area.

Many buildings in the area are covered with a plaster render. Left unpainted this gives the buildings a rather dour look.

Many of the smaller villages are unattractive. The villages are no longer working settlements and there is little life around them during the day, especially as many villages lack a shop. With the closed wooden shutters, it was difficult to tell whether the houses were just empty or derelict.

The tops of many of the mountains are grass covered. Others are peaks of bare rock. Each of these seems to be topped by the ruins of a Cathar castle.

Some like Montsegur and Roquefixade are dramatic ruins set against the skyline. It is often difficult to tell where the rock ends and the castle begins. These are reached by a very steep climb. We admired from the bottom. Château de Puivert is one of the easiest to visit as it is possible to drive nearly to the top.

Catharism thrived in the C12-14th and was seen as a direct challenge to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, which the Cathars regarded as the Church of Satan. They refuted certain core beliefs, especially baptism and communion and advocated a return to early Christian dogma. Unlike Rome, they also recognised the role of women as spiritual leaders. At the start of the C13th, Pope Innocent III launched the first Holy War in Europe, the Albigensian Crusade, against the Cathars. This led to 20 years of bitter battles and siege, lead by Simon de Montford (the father of ‘our’ Simon de Montford, Father of the English Parliament). Their first target was the powerful family of Trencavel based in Carcassonne. Simon de Montford was killed during the Siege of Toulouse in 1218 and his gravestone is in Basiica St-Nazaire in Carcassone. The Treaty of 1229 and the surrender of the Count of Toulouse led to an end of hostilities. The French King, Louis IX stamped his authority on the area by building new towns called bastides and creating new seigneurs. The Inquisition was established in 1234 to uproot and destroy the remaining Cathars. The last Cathar stronghold to fall was Montsegur in 1244 when over 200 Cathars were massacred.

There is a popular belief that a small number of Cathars escaped with ‘le trésor cathar’ which was either sacred Gnostic texts or their accumulated wealth. This has lead to stories of the Priory of Zion, Rennes-le-Château, Father Béranger Sauniére and links to Mary Magdalene....

The area was also ravaged by the Hundred Years War and the Wars of Religion. There are many fortified villages and towns. Some have a wall round them, like La Cité in Carcassone, Camon and St Lizier.

Others are what are described as an ecclesiastical fortified village. The houses form a ring around the church. Originally, the only entry and exit to the village was through a house. St Martin d’Oydes and St-Félix-de-Tournegat are good examples.

Churches like that at St Polycarpe were heavily fortified with massive naves and used by the villagers during times of trouble.

Churches in Montjoie and Lapenne have fortified towers.

It was frustrating as many of these smaller churches were kept locked.

Many churches have frescoes and we were amazed by the detail of the paintings. The Cathedral of St Gironsin St Lizier has C11th frescoes. Those in Notre-Dame de Sède, again in St Lizier, are completely different and date from C15/16th.

Some of the best must be those in the porch of the church in Audressein.

One of the most unusual churches is that at Vals, which is partially carved out of the rock and is built on three levels. The frescoes in the chancel are pretty good too.

The ruined abbey at Alet-les-Bain was well worth visiting with some amazing carving. We also enjoyed to unspoilt and sleepy Abbaye de Villelongue, still with its retaining wall.

The area can get busy. Even on a wet day in May when the car park was less than half full, La Cité of Carcassone was busy. We made the mistake of planning to visit Mirepoix on market day. We don’t know if there was anything special about the market that day, but parking was impossible with long queues of traffic, so we gave up.

The places we enjoyed most were those off the usual tourist beat and ignored by the guide books. Over to the west in Haute-Garonne, the towns of Lezat-sur-Lèze, Rieux Volvestre and Montesque-Volvestre all repaid visiting. Architecture is different with a lot more use of brick and the churches with their elaborate octagonal towers.

The area between Pamiers and Mirepoix also repaid exploring with several nice small villages. Apart from Vals, few are mentioned in the guide books and often there is little on the web. There is nothing to bring in the tourist, but like La Lordat de Bastide we enjoyed wandering round them.

The only place we were disappointed by was Forges de Pyrène, an open air museum of old crafts. We had been looking forward to this as we enjoy rural museums and the guides implied that it had a series of ‘animations’ during the day. We assumed these would be demonstrations, but urned out to be talks in rapid French.


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St Bertrand de Comminges

We made a detour to visit here on our way from Navarra to Midi Pyrenees. Research had indicated this would be an interesting place to explore.

St Bertrand de Comminges is a hill top village to the south of the A64 and dominated by its cathedral.

The town was built on the site of a Celtic Oppidium and later Roman settlement. The remains of this can be seen at the bottom of the village opposite the large car park. There is also the remains of a Roman funerary pyre on the way to Valcabrère

Being put off by the long walk from the car park to the cathedral, and with no tourist train in May, we decided to drive up the narrow winding one way road to the top of the settlement. We found a small car park a few minutes walk from the cathedral. In May, there was plenty of space in it.

St Bertrand de Comminges is a pleasant town of grey stone houses with quite a few tourist shops and restaurants. The CATHÉDRALE NOTRE-DAME is a massive pale grey stone building with a square tower with a later wooden top and roof. Flying buttresses support the west end of the nave.

The cathedral is unusual as it is one of only three ‘choir enclosures’ in the Midi-Pyrenees. The choir and sanctuary are wood and are enclosed and completely separate from the rest of the church. This allowed the clergy to celebrate mass undisturbed by pilgrims in the ambulatory, which runs round the outside of the choir.

The Romanesque nave is C12th. The Gothic east end with round apse with chapels off is C13th. The choir and sanctuary are C15th.

Entry to the cathedral is free, but there is a small charge for the cloister, choir, sanctuary and museum. This is the only way to see inside the choir and is well worth the money.

We paid the entrance fee and began in the cloisters, from where you get good views of the outside of the cathedral.

The Romanesque cloister was built above the ramparts of the town. The south side over looks the valley as the ground falls away from it. In the C19th it was opened up to give superb views across to the wooded hillside.

It is a small cloister with vaulted ceiling, double pillars with elaborately carved capitals and round arches above a pebbled walkway. One of the pillars has carvings of the four evangelists on it.

There are tombs along the north wall.

A door from the cloisters leads into the ambulatory and this is the only way to access the choir. Immediately facing you is the massive carved wooden outside of the CHOIR.

Inside there are two rows of choir stalls, all with misericords.

The back row has very high backs with carved figures. Above is a canopy with hanging bosses. Above this is a carved frieze with triangular open fretwork. In the centre of the west wall is an eagle reading desk. To say it is impressive is an understatement.

The arms of each stall are carved with human heads, animals, scrolls. The misericords each have a different carving with angel heads, male and female heads, animals, birds…

The bishop’s throne set under an elaborate three tiered canopy with a pinnacle, has a beautiful marquetry back with St Bertrand and St John set under archways of a building with a wheel with ostrich feathers and a Latin motto round the rim.

The balustraded altar rail has a carving of the Virgin and Child and also St Bertrand. There is a simple altar painted to resemble marble with a splendid carved reredos with columns, niches, statues, cherubs and pinnacles. This was covered in rather garish gilt paint in the C18th which is beginning to tone down now and looks rather dull. In the centre is a painted statue of the crowned Virgin and Child. On either side are St John and St Sebastian pierced by arrow heads. Outside them are two smaller figures of bishops. Below is a frieze of small paintings telling the life of the Virgin Mary and Christ. Above is the seated figure of God the Father with Moses and Elijah on one side and John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist on the other.

Round the walls of the sanctuary are tall panels with a marquetry design on their backs and benches along their base. On the south wall are three seats for the celebrant and servers.

Back outside in the ambulatory, steps lead up to the chapel of St Margaret which has open arches supported on pillars with carved bases and capitals. There are good views of the outside wall of the choir from here. No longer used, it has two tapestries on the walls. It leads to the TREASURY in the old chapter house. This has a collection of C14th vestments, copes, gloves, slipper, reliquary boxes, small statues, communion vessels and ostensoires.

Entry into the the rest of the cathedral is up a short flight of steps and in through the double west door. The lintel above the door is carved with the twelve apostles. The tympanum has the figure of Mary holding the Christ Child with the three magi. Above are angels. The large figure on the right is St Bertrand.

Steps lead down into the Romanesque nave with massive wall pillars leading to the ribs of the vaulted ceiling with shield bosses. At the back is a large triangular organ standing on wooden pillars with hanging bosses below. This was designed by the same architect as the choir. There are pinnacles and angels playing pipes. Attached to the base is a wooden pulpit on a stand.

The nave itself is very plain. On the south wall of the nave is the Parish Altar of the Blessed Sacrament, which juts out into the nave. This wasn’t part of the original plan and was added in 1621 so parishioners could participate in church services rather than being passive recipients outside the choir screen. The altar has an embroidered front. In the centre of the reredos is a large painting of the crucifixion. On the left is a Jewish menorah with seven candles and an Old Testament prophet. On the right is a bishop with a small carving of Christ on the cross and communion vessels.

On the north wall is the Chapel of Notre Dame which is used for private prayer. The reredos has a painting of Mary and Jesus in an elaborate red and grey frame. On the wall above are the remains of wall paintings. On the wall between the chapel and the nave is the superb marble tomb of Bishop Hughes de Chantillon with carvings of monks along the side. He has a lion at his feet and angels at his shoulders.

Across the end of the nave is the wooden screen cutting off the choir. This has a canopy supported by 4 pillars and hanging bosses. Above is a carved frieze with God the Father, Christ, the apostles and the Virgin Mary. On either side of the doorway are panels with three carved figures. These were once reredos with altars in front of them. On the south side (right) is the Virgin and Child with John the Baptist and St Genevieve who is carrying a candle. This is being lit by an angel, but extinguished by the devil. On the north side, St Bertrand is flanked by St Sebastian and St Roch. These are the only painted statues in the cathedral.

This continues round the outside of the choir with a massive carved wall which completely hides the choir.

At the east end is St Betrand’s mausoleum. The side facing the choir has steps up to it. There are three recesses set behind iron grilles. In the centre is the silver and ebony reliquary containing the body of St Bertrand. The recesses on either side have gilt and glass boxes containing small medallions with small gilt ostensoir with a medallion. Along the wall beneath is a long embroidered pane

On the outside facing the ambulatory is an altar with C17th painted panels showing miracles performed by St Bertrand. In the centre behind a metal grille, the head of St Bertrand is preserved inside a silver plated bust of the bishop’s head and his arm raised giving the two finger blessing.

Off the ambulatory are a series of smaller apses each with an altar, crucifix or painting. At the south east corner is the larger St Barthelemy chapel which is now the sacristy.

The way out is through the small north door which takes you past a small crypt where it is thought was the original tomb of St Bertrand. This is now a small chapel used for private prayer.

This is a superb church and quite unusual. The quality of the carving in the choir is amazing. It was a very well worth while stop.
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1000+ Posts

Foix is the main town of the area and Tourist Information produce an excellent guide in English. We visited on a Sunday morning when it was very quiet.

Streets are narrow in the old town and retain their medieval layout.

Pavements are narrow and, if very busy, could be unpleasant especially if shops spill out over them.

Streets are lined with tall three storey plaster covered houses painted in pastel shades. The ground floor is often a shop.

Guide books describe Foix as maintaining its character in the narrow streets of rue des Marchants and rue des Chapeliers with half timber frame houses. This is no longer the case. We only found four timber frame houses; two on rue de la Faure and two which have seen better days on rue du Mercadal. Timber frame has now been covered by plaster.

Foix became the capital of the region in the C11th and there has been a fortification here since C7th. The château towers above the town being built on a rocky outcrop to the west of the old town.

There are good views of it from the D17 driving east or from Pont de Vernajoul to the north. There are three towers linked by battlemented walls. The square Tour Arget is C12th and was strengthened in the C14th with the pointed roof added in the C15th. The central square tower is C15th. The round tower is late C15th and has the chapel at its base.

The château was a refuge for persecuted Cathars and resisted an attack by Simon de Montford in the C13th when the town was burnt. It was a Huguenot stronghold in the C16th and escaped being destroyed by Richelieu. In the C17th and C18th it was used as a state prison and military barracks. It now houses the Musée de l’Ariège, covering prehistory, Gallo-Roman and medieval history. There are exhibits on the history of the castle and life there as well as a display of armour and pageantry.

Access to the château is off the top of rue du Rocher and it is a steep climb along a path that zig zags up the rock. We looked at the steep climb and decided that as there was little information in English in the museum, this was probably another one of those castles which is more interesting from the outside…

ABBATIALE ST-VOLUSIEN is usually locked but is open for about 30 minutes after mass finishes on a Sunday morning. It is a large building surrounded by houses with red pantile roofs.

The original building dates from about 800AD and was a Benedictine Abbey built to house the tomb of St Volusien, a bishop of Tours, who died here in the C5th. The church was reconstructed in 1112 by Compte de Foix, Roger II. The south entrance and the crypt date from this time. The rest of the building was ruined during the Wars of Religion and rebuilt in the C17th.

The building is a mixture of pale stone, plaster and long narrow pink bricks. It is a big building with a massive nave and buttressed apses at the east end. The low square bell tower has bells in an open belfry on the south side with a clock beneath. The solid corner buttresses are topped with pinnacles. Along the north wall is the large pale coloured Prefecture building.

The south doorway is no longer used and is a typical rather plain Romanesque door with pillars with carved capitals supporting round arches.

Entry is through an even plainer door in the bell tower with a portico and cross above it. This leads into a vaulted area at the back of the church with multi-angular pillars with gilded capitals. Above is the gallery with a large organ with a carved wood case with pinnacles and spires.

The nave is very plain with a vaulted ceiling and large oil paintings on the walls and a carved pulpit.

The chancel area is on a large raised dais reached by steps. This has a modern stone table altar surrounded on three sides by choir stalls. These have carved figures on the arms and carved misericords.

Steps on the north side lead down to a tiny crypt below. There is no light and it is impossible to see any detail.

Round the back of the chancel are small apses containing alters and reredos set under pointed arches. The highlight is the mise en tombeau in the central apse. The blue and gilt altar has IHS and M monograms set in arches on the base. Above this is the entombment scene with Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus holding the shroud with the body of Christ. Above are the weeping figures of the four Marys (Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome and Mary the wife of Cloephas) with St John Evangelist. It is a touching and very moving scene.

The south transept altar has a carving of the Last Supper on the base. The reredos has a polychrome carving of St Volusien at the top set in a carved apse. On either side of him are carvings of the instruments of the Passion. Below, to the left of the host box is a carving of the angel is appearing to Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the right, Jesus is appearing to Mary Magdalene on Easter morning.

The north transept has an elaborately painted reredos
with the Virgin and Christ Child in the centre. There are carvings of the Annunciation, Presentation at the Temple and Mary weeping over the dead body of Christ.

Overall, we were disappointed by Foix and felt it didn’t really live up to expectation. Parts of the old town are quite scruffy with graffiti, litter and dog dirt.


1000+ Posts
Forges de Pyrène

Forges de Pyréne is made up of two museums. Musée des Metiers d’Autrefois is an open air museum tracing the history of over 120 different trades and crafts. It has a daily programme of activities. Musé de Fer covers the history of mining and steel working in the area and is the home of the last working tilt hammer.

That is what the internet said. The general information book about the area from tourist information gave the impression that there were demonstrations of different crafts. We were really looking forward to the visit.

The museum is on a large site in the centre of Montgaillard village, just south of Foix. It has a huge car park which was busy when we arrived. There was a large banner by the entrance proclaiming ‘Fete du Pain 19th Mai’ . This sounded interesting.

There was a long and very slow moving queue for tickets. We were given a plan of the site and a brief explanation in English about what was happening. We were warned there was no English information on the site and the activities were all in French.

There is a large exhibition hall with a series of displays about old trades and the tools connected to them.

These covered crafts from bee keeping to hat making with wheelwrights, blacksmiths, saddler, candle maker, glass manufacture, clay roof tiles, barrel making…. There was a dentist chair, cow bells, post boxes, fire engine.

Outside there is a large open barn containing carts and agricultural machinery, none labelled. There was a building containing a blacksmith’s forge, a bakers oven with a large demonstration area outside and a long building containing clog maker and comb maker.

Another building contained a band saw.

In the grounds was a small horse powered water pump.

There was a ‘traveil de marechal ferrant’, a wooden cow restraint with leather restraining straps used to hoof cows.

There was also a woman spinning.

There was a series of 30 minute ‘animations’ during the day. We started with the clog maker, hoping to watch a demonstration of clog making. In fact it was a 30 minute talk in very fast French. We managed to pick up the occasional sentence but it was a long half hour on a very hard bench seat.

The only actual demonstration bit was slicing a thin piece of wood off a wooden log. We were shown the machine used to shape clogs and the tools for hollowing out the centres and how they checked size. There was no chance or time to ask questions. We decided if the other ‘animations’ were similar, there wasn’t much point in us going to them.

The Fete du Pain consisted of a short talk about bread and the different sorts with a 30 minute slot to make your own bread. It was mainly children doing this and they were having a lovely time and getting very sticky hands. It was interesting to see the wood fired bread oven in use.

There was a sampling table with breads made from different sorts of flour including chestnut, maize and rye. We particularly liked the chestnut flour which made the bread light and gave it a lovely flavour. There were honeys, rhubarb jam, local cheese and pâté to taste.

The tilt hammer is in a separate building, La Forge à Martinet. This is a big, dirty building with forge and a waterwheel working the tilt hammer. This was a massive beam of wood with cogs. There was that typical and very evocative ingrained smell of coal and heat everywhere.

The ‘animation’ began and two pieces of metal were put in the fire to warm up. There were a couple of brief demonstrations showing how water flow to the waterwheel was controlled. After about 20 minutes, the iron was hot enough, the waterwheel started and the tilt hammer began to work. It was well worth the wait and was fascinating to watch how the metal was manipulated first to make the ‘handle’ of the blade and secondly the central ridge in the blade. The noise was deafening. This was sheer naked power at work.

We felt the museum was quite expensive at €8 entry and that it didn’t deliver good value for us. The tilt hammer was well worth seeing but we were very disappointed by the animations as we had expected demonstrations rather than a talk. Not speaking French fluently was a disadvantage. The shop was disappointing too.


1000+ Posts
A day exploring the small villages to the north of Montferrier

Reading up about the area before we left home identified a number of small villages which we felt would repay exploring.

LES PUJOLS is just south of the D115, the Pamiers to Mirepoix road. It is a pleasant village of well kept stone and plaster houses built round the fortified C14th church of St Blaise.

In the main square is a war memorial and a huge brick and plaster fountain.

The feudal château is now long gone. The church is a Romanesque building with a very tall flat bell cote at the west end. The top is crenellated with a small stone cross and there is a row of machicolations below the bells. The plaster rendered nave has stone buttresses and narrow lancet windows. A small hexagonal tower with no windows adjoins the south east corner. Like most of the other small churches, it was locked.

Four miles to the north is LA BASTIDE DE LORDAT, built at the top of the hill around a rather nice but plain church with a clocher peigne, long nave and lower east apse.

The houses are a mix of stone and plaster and some have attractive well kept gardens. It still has the feel of a working village.

There is a small gravel area with seats and an orientation table to the north with views across to the Pyrenees, hidden by low cloud today. A neat tree lined street leads to the marie at one end and a splendid fountain at the other, dated 1912 and providing water for the village.

To our surprise, the church was open. It has a large, light and airy nave with huge wall pillars forming five side chapels on each side. Round the top of the walls is a pink frieze with a paler Maltese cross on the pillars.

Most of the side chapels have white marble altars. One has a rather battered painted plaster carving on the base of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene on Easter morning. Above in a niche is a painted statue of the Virgin with cherubs at her feet.

There are a lot of statues around the church and we found St Antonine de Padua, Joan of Arc, St Catherine, St Etienne martyr. On the chancel arches are St Paul and St Loup (a bishop) both standing on a pedestal with cherub heads.

There is an elaborate marble high altar with a low retable with carved gilt panels on either side with scrolls of foliage and flowers. On the wall above is a carving of the Virgin Mary with the Christ child on her lap.

LAPENNE is another small rather workaday settlement built on top of a ridge around a massive fortified church. The settlement had close links with the Cathars in the C13th and there are records of it being a fortified town in 1680.

Église Saint Jean-Baptiste dates from C12-15th and has a clocher peigne steeple with four bells and buttressed sides at the west end. Steps lead up to the locked west doorway with pointed arches. Above the east end is a massive but low square tower with narrow lancet windows. The nave is very tall and is lit by three small square windows along the top. At the back of the north wall is a smaller chapel and at some time a barn has been built against the church. It was locked.

Our next stop was ST-FELIX-DE-TOURNEGAT which is a fascinating example of an ecclesiastical fortified village. At the centre is a massive late C12th fortified church with a very tall nave and battlemented clocher peigne at the west end with a later porch. The apse at the east end is slightly narrower than the nave and has a single round topped window. Again it was locked.

The church is surrounded by a narrow road with a drain in the centre and a ring of well cared for houses, each with a barn attached. There is a gap at the east with shallow steps leading up to the church. A larger gap was made later to the west to allow car access.

To the east of fortified settlement is a large square with the graveyard at the far end. There are two carefully renovated houses on one side and a working farm on the other. There is another large farm to the west of the fortified settlement.

TEILHET is a pleasant village on top of a hill still with working farms and some quite large carefully renovated houses.

Eglise St Jean l’Evangelist, in the centre of the village, is C14th and was built on the site of an earlier church. It has a fortified clocher peigne steeple over the west door with low round tower on either side. Steps lead up to the door which has pillars with foliage, grapes and animal heads. The outer round arch has two entwined dragons at the top. Above the arches is a row of carved corbels with heads and animals supporting a small porch over the door. A metal gate leads into a churchyard on the south side. On the north is a large barn. Again it was locked, but the west front is supposed to be the best bit.

After Teilhet we headed to VALS and its most unusual Église rupestre.


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Vals is a small village on the plains to the north of the foothills of the Pyrenees. A few miles east of Pamiers and the N20, this is an area usually ignored by the tourists. It is an area of fertile farmland and mixed deciduous woodland with small scattered villages.

It is a lovely village of honey coloured stone houses with low pitched pantile roofs. At the start of the village is a very large and splendid manor. There is a small square with well, marie and museum and a limited amount of parking.

The village is dominated by its church, Santa Maria, surrounded by a wall and standing high above the village. It looks more like a castle keep than a church with a massive nave and bell tower topped with a small bell cote.

The church isdescribed as an église rupestre, a semi rock church built on three levels, with the crypt, chancel and nave partially excavated out of the rock.

At the top of the square, steps lead up through the rock to a wooden door. Inside is a small piscina. The steps continue to climb up through a natural cleft in the rock to another wooden door.

This opens into the pre-Romanesque C10th church, which is often referred to as the ‘crypt’ which has modern wooden benches. It is carved out of the rock and has small ‘chapels’ carved out of the rock on either side. One contains a large round font.

Steps continue up into the narrow C11th Romanesque chancel. The only light is from the east window which has a half trefoil top. A light switch on the north wall floods the area with artificial light. The chancel has a simple stone slab altar on a central support. At the east end below the window is a gilded statue of The Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child. The floor is covered with terracotta tiles and the ceiling is ribbed.

The ceiling, window arches and the arches of the recesses on the walls are covered with C12th frescoes. These had been hidden by whitewash and only discovered 60 years ago. They are in predominant shades of dark blue, red and white with gold haloes. There is an image of Christ in Majesty with St Michael and St Matthew and archangels Gabriel and Raphael. To the left of the altar is a painting of the Annunciation. On the right is what is described as ‘bain de l’enfant Jesus’. This shows the figure of a child with arms outstretched with figures on either side. Above is a table set for a meal with a female figure to one side. In the centre of the chancel is a painting of the ‘college apostolique’ with four standing figures.

Two flights of stairs lead up to the C12th nave built over the crypt and again partially excavated out of the rock. This has a pointed arch through which you look down onto the chancel. Above are traces of an earlier roof line. The nave also has a terracotta tiled floor and wooden benches with backs.

At the back, wooden stairs lead up to a small gallery, the chapel of St Matthew, at the base of the bell tower. Round topped windows with modern stained glass give plenty of light. They have images of St Loup and St George killing the dragon.

There is a small stone carved altar in the nave to the south of the arch. On the floor in front of it are black, grey and white tiles forming a star pattern. Diagonal carved pillars frame what looks like a death bed scene Above is a small host box with a gilded door and cherub heads at the corners. Spirally carved pillars on either side support a carved arch with alpha and omega signs beneath.

This is a most unusual church and definitely worth a visit.


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To the east of Montferrier - Château de Puivert

Château de Puivert is one of the best preserved Cathar castles and is best seen from the D117 driving from the west, where the donjon can be seen standing on top of the ridge against the sky.

The present building is C13/14th and was built on the ruins of an C11/12th castle destroyed by Simon de Montford. In the early C14th the castle was granted the status of ‘privileged land’. It was exempt from royal taxes as long as it could provide a company of 50 fighting men. It retained this status until the Revolution.

Unlike Montsegur and Roqufixade, it is possible to drive almost to the top of the hill with the castle. We parked up and followed a rough track to the ticket office in front of the east wall with the remains of two old carts. Entry is through the big square tower in the east wall. This originally had a dry ditch in front of it with a drawbridge. This is now replaced by a bridge and there is the bottom of a modern mock portcullis at the top of the archway, which has heavy wooden doors. Above is a small crest with the de Bruyère coat of arms. To the north, the curtain wall leads to a round tower. The curtain wall to the south is in poor condition.

Inside the gateway, a wooden ladder leads to accommodation on the first floor.

There is a large bailey. This now has a fenced off area used for jousting with a ‘knight’ with a shield. Horses graze here.

The curtain wall on the north side is still reasonable preserved with narrow arrow slits and a round tower. On the south side is the square Tour Gaillarde. At the far end is the donjon, a massive square building 35m tall. An archway leads to the remains of domestic buildings to the west of the donjon. At the end of the site is the remains of Tour du Treseaux.

A metal bridge and rough stone steps with no safety rails, lead up to the first floor of the donjon.

From the doorway, a spiral staircase leads down to the strong room or up to the minstrels room and the roof. Steps are uneven and there is no light apart from a tube with small LED lights on the stair.

A second doorway leads into the chapel. This has two windows with stone bench seats. On the wall of one of these is a small exhibition of priest’s vestments, candlesticks and a page from a large hymnal. The tall vaulted ceiling has carved bases with heads holding their hands over their ears. The keystone represents the coronation of Our Lady with St Michael at her feet killing the dragon (Satan). There are two old and rather dusty tapestries on the walls. A stone table altar has been put in at the east end with an old wooden host box which has a tape recorder under it playing music. On the east wall is what is described as a ‘litergical font’ in a carved arch with pillars. This would flow during services.

The spiral staircase leads down to the strong room, where the archives and deeds would be kept safe. Documents were signed here and justice dispensed. It is furnished with a large wooden table and chairs. There are old chests and cupboards. On the walls are metal helmets and wooden shields with crests. There is a set of chain mail. There are two large topped windows. As the bottoms are below the level of the courtyard, benches are set along steps to give as much light as possible to anyone sitting there.

The Minstrel’s room is on the second floor. This is a huge room with three round topped windows set back in the thick walls with stone benches. It has a high vaulted ceiling with carvings of musicians playing different instruments on the base of the vault pillars.

There are small exhibition cases round the walls containing replicas of the medieval instruments. There are three small tapestries on the walls. One shows two women playing a keyboard with a lion and unicorn on either side holding a standard. Another shows a figure playing hand held bagpipes and looking after two sheep with the help of a dog. He is in a wooded setting with trees and wild flowers. The third has a coat of arms with a sheep hanging from the base and a flower background.

The spiral staircase continues up to the roof with a low parapet and good views across the countryside and down to the village of Puivert on the plain below.

It is rather a strange place and a bit ‘sad’. Someone is trying hard but somehow it doesn’t quite work. Like many ruins, it is better admired from a distance as the inside didn’t live up to the promise.


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To the north east of Montferrier - Alet-les-Bains

Alet-les-Bains is a delightful small town, everything we expected Foix to be but wasn’t. It is reached across a narrow stone bridge across the River Aude. It has attractive plaster and half timber frame buildings which haven’t been prettified. There are few shops or other services.

This was originally a walled town with a moat around the abbey. The remains of the C12th ramparts with gateways can still be seen on Promenade des Platanes. There are also some C12th merchants houses along here.

The ramparts are also visible just north of the Tourist Information Office.

There is a wide main street, rue Nicolas Pavillon, which is lined with tall three storey plaster buildings with wooden shutters. Narrow alleyways lead off to Place de la Republique with several arcaded buildings and some very attractive half timber frame ones.

The house where Nostradamus was believed to have lived is here. Ten of his predictions are about treasures to be found in the area. Next to it is the splendid House of the Consuls.

The town grew up round the abbey, founded in 813AD by the Count of Razes and became a cathedral in the C12th. It had a nave with side chapels and a small apse at the east end. The Chapter house and cloisters were to the north. It was a wealthy establishment and contained a fragment of the true cross. The wealth of the Abbey helped pay for the fortification of the town in the C12th.

In the C14th, the abbey was extended by building large ambulatory with five apses round the original apse.

During the Wars of Religion, the abbey and town were defeated by the Protestants in 1575 who destroyed the altars and statues. It was recaptured by the Catholics in 1588 but by then the abbey was partially ruined.

In 1776, the last bishop authorised the sale of land at the east end of the abbey to allow a new road, rue Nicolas, to be built. There was further destruction during the Revolution when the road was widened. Now all that is left is part of the nave and Romanesque apse, the two towers of Saint Michael and Notre Dame as well as the chapter house and part of the cloisters.

From the shop and ticket office, you enter the ambulatory and the first thing you see is the outside of the Romanesque apse with big step buttresses. Between them are small narrow Romanesque windows with round tops, set in panels with carved and arcaded tops.

The inside has a beautiful Romanesque apse with five smaller apses off it. The apse arches have a narrow carved frieze running round the walls above them.

Only the south apse is left from the larger C14th ambulatory. This had multangular wall pillars and a vaulted ceiling. The apse was arcaded with five small pointed arches with trefoil insets.

The walls of the nave stand two storeys in places. Side chapels on the north wall were separated by pillars and round arches. The remains of carved capitals can still be seen.

There are two large and empty archways at the west end, the remains of the doorway. Above these is a wall frieze and two small Romanesque windows with embossed carving on the sides.

A doorway in the north wall lead to a passage way with the chapter house on the right. This has a round doorway with two round pillars on either side with recently recarved capitals. On either side are round open arches with two round pillars on each side with carved capitals.

There is little left of the cloisters and the passageway leads to a locked metal gateway to the outside.

ÉGLISE ST-ANDRÉ is next to the graveyard and ruined abbey and is largely a reconstruction of the original church. It is worth visiting for its fascinating small treasury and remains of C14th frescoes.

It has a tall nave with lower side aisles with a buttressed apse at the east end. There is a tall narrow offset tower at the north east corner with a hexagonal, crocketed spire. At the corners of the tower are square pinnacles with triangular tops and a small cross on the top.

A square wooden doorway leads into a porch at the back of the church. Inside is a splendid doorway with pillars with carved capitals and a bendy ‘lintel’ above the door. Above is a pointed arch with crocketed border and an empty niche for a statue.

Inside it is a very elegant building with a long nave with a ribbed ceiling and side chapels on either side. These have metal rails across them and painted arches above.

The chancel has a vaulted ceiling, coming off narrow wall pillars which are painted with a geometric design in reds, greys and beige. On the walls of the chancel and either side of the chancel arch are bas relief plaster panels on a rust background set in grey frames.

There are two small chapels off the chancel, separated by a metal altar rail. These are all that is left of the original church. The south chapel is now a treasury and has a C12th gilded wood carving of the Virgin and Child, and gilded metal monstrances set with semi-precious stones which are reliquaries of saints.

The north chapel has the remains of C14th frescoes. The ceiling has a geometric design in blue, and red with gold stars.

The west wall has the figures of monks. On the east wall is a scene of the crucifixion.

The graveyard between the ruined abbey and the church is full of large family vaults. For those who don’t want to pay to go into the abbey ruins, there are good views of the outside of the abbey, with its elaborate carving around windows from here.


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To the north east of Montferrier - St Salvayre

This was probably not one of my better ideas.

I had seen fleeting mentions of the church at St Salvayre and been intrigued. Via Michelin said it was a 14 minute drive from Alet-le-Bains and the turning looked easy to find.

In fact the turning I was after was very narrow and unsigned. Michael was not convinced and started muttering about my ideas… A bit further on, by a nice wide road, there was a non-standard sign to Hameau de St Salvayre. “Oh ye of little faith, it is signed”. I set off with high hopes. The road soon turned into narrow road off the main street. This should have been a warning to us.

The road was very narrow and in poor condition. It climbed steeply up the side of the mountain with many blind bends and no space to pass. There was no settlement apart from one isolated farm. Michael kept muttering this wasn’t one of my better ideas. As there was nowhere to turn round, he had to go on. It seemed a long 6km. There were some splendid views back down into the valley but Michael was concentrating on the driving. There was nowhere to stop and enjoy them.

We eventually reached the small Romanesque church set in a tiny hamlet with one inhabited building surrounded by derelict buildings. The land is still farmed.

The church is a cruciform building with a tiny bell cote above the west door. At the corners of the building are carved heads and a row of circular studs under the eaves. Its date is uncertain and little is known about its history. It seems to have links to the Rennes-le-Château mystery.

There was a key in the door, so we went in. Inside there is a stone slab floor, with bare stone rubble walls and wooden benches. The nave, two transepts and chancel are all the same size. A single vaulted ceiling covers them, leading to a central point above the transept.

A semi circular apron with a step leads to the chancel with a small free standing altar covered by a cloth. The south transept has a cloth covered altar with a bust of the Virgin Mary on it.

Just inside the door is a dark stone pillar thought to date back to the C6th. When we visited, it was decorated with sprigs of broom and had a bunch of lilac on top. This is supposed to be an energy source, but we couldn’t feel anything.

Around the walls are framed religious prints. On the floor are small statues of the Virgin with candles and jars of flowers.

It is a strange building and left us with an uncomfortable feeling. I’m glad we made it but I’m not sure that it was worth the drive. Michael certainly didn’t think it was. A land rover from the farm set off down the road in front of us, so the drive back down didn’t seem as bad. Fortunately we didn’t meet anything.


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To the north east of Montferrier - St Polycarpe

St Polycarpe is a delightful small settlement between Alet-les-Bains and St Hilaire, built around a Benedictine Abbey. The large fortified church is the only part to have survived the Revolution and is now the parish church, surrounded by a graveyard with huge family vaults.

ÉGLISE DE NOTRE-DAME is a massive fortified church with a very tall nave and east apse. There is a low square tower at the west end with a series of decorative tiles under the roof. It has round topped Rokmanesque windows in the nave and apse with a row of tiny round windows just below the pantile roof of the nave. There are a lot of empty holes on the external walls of the nave and tower which were used for staging when the church was built.

Entry is through the west door. Inside the doorway is a porch and a new spiral staircase gives access to the tower.

Steps lead down into a delightful Romanesque building. There is a simple nave with plain glass windows.

Across the west end is a balcony.

On the north side is a massive round stone font. On the right is a red marble piscina.

On the south wall is a blue and gilt reredos with a picture of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple.

The transepts are small with round arches. They have small altars with a statue of the Virgin and Christ Child. On the north wall is a modern icon of St Polycarpe.

Wooden steps lead up to the high altar. The wooden base is painted to resemble red and white marble. In the centre is a glass panel. This protects a C14th gold and silver reliquary head of St Polycarpe and a silver reliquary head of St Benoit. Between them is a C14th monstrance reliquary.

Above are three modern stained glass windows, with St Polycarpe in the centre.

There are the remains of C14th frescoes on the five sided apse and round the north window arch. There are more frescoes on the nave ceiling, part of the north wall and the transept ceiling, predominantly in shades of blues and reds. The transept ceiling has a circular, abstract design. We could make out the figures of angels in the nave but it was difficult to make out details on the other frescoes as there was so little left.



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To the north east of Montferrier - Abbaye de St Hilaire

A narrow winding road climbs up to St Hilaire, which is a lot larger than it looks on the map, as there is a lot of new development round the old town. The old town clustered round the abbey, is an attractive place with plaster and half timber frame houses and tree lined streets.

The town is dominated by the mass of the abbey and the wall of the east side of the abbey runs along the side of the main street.

An early chapel was built here in the C6th by St. Hilary, the first bishop of Carcassonne, who was buried here. In the C8th this was replaced by a larger church and monastery dedicated to St Sernin, first bishop of Toulouse. In the C10th the relics of St Hilary were discovered and the church renamed. Most of the present building dates from C11-14th. It was badly damaged in the Albigensian Crusade 1209-29 and restored 1237-60. The cloister was built between 1323-40.

The abbey encountered major financial difficulties in the C14th as a result of the Black Death and Hundred Years War. In the C16th it was under the control of abbots appointed from the aristocracy who ignored their duties and there was further decline. The abbey closed in 1748, the building was sold and the abbey church became the parish church.

The abbey church was never completed and has a pebble wall across the west facade, making the nave look and feel very short compared with its height. There is a large and narrow offset tower with a machicolated top. At the east end is a lower and very large apse.

The ticket office is in the east wing of the cloisters, next to the Abbot’s apartment. We were greeted by a very helpful young man and directed to the ticket office. Here an equally helpful lady explained the layout of the abbey and gave us information in English. She was a bit too helpful as we found out later, as she kept following us round to give us more information.

We were told to begin our visit in the church with its C12th apse and C14th nave with Romanesque windows high on the walls. Chandeliers with electric ‘candles’ provide light. It has a vaulted ceiling with carved bosses. The ribs end in elaborately carved bases with heads, foliage and mythical beasts. The C17th carved wood pulpit has a sounding board with a crown above.

The chancel is separated from the nave by a metal altar rail which had been decorated with variegated ivy and pinks.

There is a splendid red and white marble altar. Above is a white marble host box with a gilded front and coloured marble panels. Above is a polychrome wooden crucifix. On either side are white marble praying angels on dark marble pillars. The three round topped windows contain modern stained glass.

The Chapel of the Virgin is in the north transept. This has a red and black marble altar with an elaborate C17th low gilt retable with barley corn twist pillars, host box and carved panels. In the centre, cherubs support a gilded crowned Virgin Mary holding the crowned Christ Child. There is a memorial to the dead of World War one and a large oil painting of ‘Our Lady of the Rosary’.

In the transept, to the right of the apse, is the sarcophagus of St Sernin. Above is a small pale stone retable with a statue of St Sernin in gilded bishop’s robes with mitre and crook.

Described as a sarcophagus, it was probably an altar as it would be too narrow inside for a body. It is C17th and beautifully carved from a single block of white marble which has developed a lovely waxy quality over the years.

On the right end panel there are three standing figures, representing St. Sernin (in the centre with his crozier) and two of his followers. On the right is St. Honest, Bishop of Pamplona and Sernin's successor in Toulouse. On his left is St. Papoul, who evangelised the Lauragais region between Toulouse and Carcassonne.

On the front panel, the right side depicts the arrest of St. Sernin as he preaches in Toulouse, holding a book. Animals representing paganism and barbarianism are shown under his feet. Onlookers watch from a building on the right, which may be the Capitol building in Toulouse. He is arrested by four Roman soldiers. On the left is the scene of his martyrdom. St. Sernin is tied to the hooves of a bull, who is goaded by persecutors using a stake to prick its hide. It drags St. Sernin through the streets behind him. The bishop accepts his fate calmly, even blessing two female saints as he passes them. Below are more animal heads.

The left end panel depicts the burial of St. Sernin. A woman tenderly caresses his head while his soul (represented as a small child) leaves his body to be received by an angel above. On the far left, St. Sernin's tomb and shrine are shown. Angels pour incense above, and female pilgrims sit below.

The cloisters to the south of the church are C14th and have a C16th fountain. They have an arcade of pointed arches on double round pillars with eroded carved capitals. On the west side are several old locked wooden doors into craft workshops and store rooms. Behind the cloister would have been the vegetable garden.

The Abbot’s apartments off the east wall of the cloister were being renovated in May 2013. A door leads into an C18th antechamber with panelled ceiling and walls. On the end wall is a white flecked red and back marble fountain. A door leads into the C15th chamber which has a painted ceiling.

At this time, the Abbot was appointed by the crown and was no longer a religious figurehead. The paintings were designed to entertain rather than have a religious content. There is what is described as the ‘erotic’ painting of a man kissing a nude female.

Along the base of the walls is a frieze of rust and beige triangles designed to give a 3D effect of a four pointed star. The walls above are painted deep rust and have paintings of shields in a diagonal framework. Round the top are more shields.

The sides of the ceiling beams are painted in a zig-zag pattern of red and white on black. The bottoms of the beams have animal mouths holding the end of chequered banners. On the ceiling between the beams are painted squares with a dark brown floral motif with a blue centre on a pale beige background.

The Abbot’s apartments were originally larger and extended the width of the building across what is now a corridor. Restoration work has revealed the original painted beams under a later ceiling.

The monks refectory on the south wall has been restored and is now used as an exhibition area. When we visited, there was a display of art on the walls and a selection of trendy lampshades on a table. It does, however, still have the steps to the C14th reading chair. This was carefully arranged so a monk could not be seen once seated. It allowed the monk to read at the same time to both the monks’ refectory and the pilgrims’ refectory, now in ruins, on the other side.

Steps from the south east corner of the cloisters lead to the cellars. These were carved out of the sandstone and puddlestone. There is a stone building over them and rough steps lead down to an uneven floor with a series of chambers carved out of the walls. A pillar helps to support the roof. Four trapdoors (round holes) in the roof were used by villagers to supply the community with food.


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To the north east of Montferrier - Carcassonne, La Cité

There is a good view of La Cité from the motorway with the walls and pointed towers. It is a popular tourist spot and even on a dull damp day in May, when the car parks weren’t busy, the streets were crowded with tourists. On a nice day in high summer it could become unbearably busy. We have a feeling La Cité may be better admired from a distance where it does look spectacular.

Carcassonne is divided into two main parts; La Cité, the medieval fortress on top of hill which has been settled for 2500+years and the Lower Town and Bastide St Louis.

The Gauls settled the area around C6th BC. Later, the Romans fortified the settlement and the lower courses of inner ramparts to north date from this time. The town fell to the Visigoths who settled here from the C5th to C8th and built the first Basilica.
It had a brief spell in Moorish hands before becoming a Frankish city. By the C11th, it passed to the Trencavel family, one of the most powerful families in the South of France. It was a Cathar stronghold in the C12th until it surrendered to Simon de Montfort and was handed to the French King. The walls were further strengthened and the outer ramparts built.

In the C13th, the French expelled the citizens from La Cité not trusting them to help defend the place against allies of the Trencavels. A new town, Bastide St Louis, was laid out in the latest grid pattern on the opposite bank of the River Aude and still retains the regular street plan. The Black Prince failed to take La Cité during the Hundred Years War, although his troops destroyed the Lower Town.

Carcassonne was important as it protected the border between France and Aragon until the Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed in 1659. The old town then lost its military significance and gradually inhabitants moved into the lower town. By the C19th many of fortifications of la Cité were in poor condition and stone had been robbed for building material. There was a major programme of restoration by Viollet-le-Duc, the state appointed architect, and much of what you see today is the result of his work, including the pointed roofs on the towers.

We just visited La Cité. Visitors cars are not allowed in La Cité and there are well signed car parks to the east. It is a short walk to La Cité and the tourist train was waiting for those who don’t want to walk.

La Cité was the largest fortress in Europe, built round the château on the west and the basilica to the south. The area is surrounded by a ditch and double curtain wall. The outer ramparts built between 1228-45 are lower and have 14 towers.

They are separated from the taller inner ramparts with 24 towers by the outer bailey (Lices). This area was used for weapon practice and jousting. In the summer months, the tourist train gives 20 minute rides along the Lices. Alternatively it is a nice walk for close up views of the ramparts.

The inner ramparts were reconstructed in the C13/14th on the line of the C3rd/4th wall. If need be, wooden hoardings could be fixed to the outside of the walls to improve defence. A short section of the original Roman ramparts with a tower can be seen to the north. Built from red bricks in a zigzag pattern, they were resistant to battering.

Three original gateways still exist, Porte Narbonnaise, the main gateway used by visitors, Porte d’Aude giving access to the bastide and Porte St Nazaire which controlled access from south.

Armed with a map from Tourist Information, we set off to explore.

Approaching Porte Narbonnaise, the first thing to catch the eye is the modern statue of Dame Carcas on column near the gate. This replaces an older, very eroded one now in the château museum. According to the story, a châtelaine of the city, named Carcas, foiled a attempted siege by the Franks or (in some versions) the Saracens. On the point of surrendering through starvation, Carcas found the last animal alive in the city - a pig - and fed it with all of the remaining vegetables and scraps that remained. She then threw the well fattened pig over the walls to the besiegers who assumed the city was well provisioned. With little prospect of the city's surrender, they upped camp and left.

There is a low archway through the outer ramparts. The C13th gateway has two massive towers with a C13th statue of the Virgin Mary between them. Arrow slit windows overlook the lices. The gateway was a statement of power as well as a line of defence with double portcullis and murder holes. It could maintain a garrison for an extensive period of time in case of attack.

Tourist Information is in one of the towers, and it is worth going in to see the vaulted ceiling and recessed arrow slits with stone benches. The other tower had a temporary exhibitions of modern art, which we gave a miss.

Rue Cros Mayrevieille leads from Porte Narbonnaise to the château, and is the main shopping street lined with tourist shops. La Cité still maintains its medieval street plan of irregular, narrow cobbled streets with even narrower alleyways off. There are still a few half timber frame houses, although many have been covered with plaster. Once off the main street side streets are quieter with fewer tourists. There are some interesting houses.

Porte d’Aude is a heavily fortified double gateway between the château and the basilica and is the main entrance to the bastide. It does a dog leg down between very high walls to the gateway through the outer rampart.

A word of warning….

Signing to car parks coming to Carcassonne is good. Signing on the way out is poor. We got comprehensibly lost several times as signing bore no relationship to where we wanted to be.


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To the north east of Montferrier, Carcassonne - Basiica St-Nazaire

Basiica St-Nazaire is on the west of La Cité. It is a large building and it is almost impossible to photograph the outside.

It is rather an over powering church. I still can’t make up my mind whether I liked it or not. But, if visiting La Cité, it has to be visited.

There has been a church here since the C6th. The nave is all that is left of the C11th Romanesque church. The rest was destroyed during the Cathar Wars and was rebuilt in Gothic style in the C13/14th with a lot of carving and decorative work. It was heavily restored by Violett-le-Duc in the C19thC.

There is a large flat bell tower at the west end with a stone arch across to a smaller square tower at the south west corner.

It is worth walking round the outside to the south transept to admire the exterior carvings with the huge gargoyles and an open carved stone frieze round the top of the walls with carved corbels beneath it.

The South door is late C12th and has narrow pillars with carved capitals and carved arches above it. Entry is through the plain wooden door to the right .

Inside it is a massive building.

On a dull day it was quite dark inside making photography difficult. The Romanesque windows at the back of the nave have plain glass. The rest of the windows are Gothic with mainly medieval stained glass, predominantly in shades of blues and reds. The transepts have beautiful rose windows.

Round and multi-angular pillars with carved capitals and round arches separate nave and side aisles. The pillars continue up to form the ribs of the nave. On one pillar is a pulpit which is painted to resemble marble with gilt decoration. The sounding board has a gilt dove on the underside and a gilded angel with trumpet above.

Towards the back of the nave is the C15th marble font. At the west end is a big wooden organ above a stone archway.

There are small chapels off the nave. At the back of the south wall St Antony of Padua is on the wall under a round apse with hanging bosses. This is all that remains of his chapel demolished by Violett-le-Duc. Next to it is St Peter’s Chapel with locked metal doors. Peering through them, it is just possible to see the C14th tomb of St-Pierre de Rochefort, Bishop from 1300-22 and responsible for most of the Gothic work in the Basilica. There are three gothic arches supported by columns. In the centre is a statue of the bishop with deacons on either side. The plinth depicts his funeral procession with priests, canons, and clerics.

Opposite is the Chapel of the Sacred Heart which contains the tombs of a C14th and C18th bishop. When we visited in 2013, these were under polythene awaiting restoration.

Red and white flecked marble steps lead up from the nave into the chancel and adjacent chapels. There is a huge east apse with big stained glass windows. Beneath the window is a Gothic arcade with blind arches. The ceiling is vaulted with carved stone bosses. On the pillars and side walls are a selection of unidentified stone statues.

The chapel to the south has a statue of the Virgin with the Christ Child on the wall. The middle chapel has a seated and painted Virgin with the boy Jesus above the altar. The end chapel has a pieta on the south wall of a distraught Mary holding the dead body of Christ.

The whole is set in a Gothic arch with the remains of paint on the carvings. Above is a trefoil set in a pointed arch. There is a lovely carving of a dog at the bottom of one end of the arch. There are another two recesses with ornate gothic carving above them.

On the north side of the chancel, the first chapel has a carving of the Trinity with God the Father holding the crucified Christ. In the middle chapel is an altar with a C17th carving of St Roch.

The end chapel was completely different with pampas grass heads in a vase on the altar. A wall recess in a Gothic arch contains a statue of the Virgin and Child.

On the west wall of the transept is a big stone slab with a carving of a knight in armour with a sword. His feet rest on a lion and his hands are held in prayer. This is thought to be Simon de Montford who led the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars and was killed in 1218 at the Siege of Toulouse.

Next to it is the highly carved C13th Siege Stone. It is possible to make out the ramparts of Toulouse. On the far side is a small square stone with two small carved shields at the bottom and a Latin inscription asking for masses for the soul of A de Tournus, Lord of Sevres 1477.

When we visited there was a male quartet singing in the nave. Their voices filled the cathedral with sound.


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To the north east of Montferrier, Carcassonne - Château Comtal

Château Comtal is an impressive site seen from Rue Cros Mayrevieille. Many people stop to take a photograph but don’t bother to go inside. This is a shame as it is a well worth while visit, especially the Musée Lapidaire. 

Backing onto the city walls, the château dates from the C12th
when the square keep, chapel (now demolished) and two towers were built in a U shape around a courtyard. The castle was extended in the C13th with the arrival of the Royal Garrison. A dry moat and semi-circular bastion topped with battlements and a fortified gate was added to improve its defences. The outer wall with crenelations and more towers was built. The bailey between the castle and barbican could be used to assemble troops in preparation for a siege. The gatehouse of the barbican could not be closed off on the inside. If taken it wouldn’t provide any protection or shelter for the attackers from cross bow fire from the castle.

The outer walls of the castle on the south side have been reconstructed with wooden walkways round the top. Hoarding beams slide into holes in the masonry left during construction. Small slits allowed arrows to be fired through the bottom of the walkway and stones to be dropped. These were very common before in C12/13th before stone machicolations were built.

The ticket office is in the outer barbican, A stone bridge crosses the moat to the main gateway guarded by two towers with pointed roofs. These were originally flat and the pointed roofs are a result of the C19th Violett-le-Duc restorations.

Inside is the main courtyard with two large plane trees in the centre. The square keep is opposite the gateway.

To the right is a long two storey C12th stone building.

At right angles to the left is a three storey C13th stone and half timber frame building with a diagonal brick infill.

Beyond this is the smaller midi courtyard which has a well in a corner. The kitchens were along the outside wall. 

The earliest building on the site dating from the early C12th, is in the north east corner. It is built against the Roman ramparts, and only accessible from them.

One of the original Roman towers exists on the north rampart wall and is recognisable by its semi-circular outside wall and flat wall facing the courtyard.

The chapel in front of this building was built on a Roman site and remains of mosaics were found when it was demolished in the C18th. All that remains is a raised stone dais in the courtyard.

Later in the C12th, the buildings were crenelated and the keep built, originally as a watch tower. The castle was annexed by the French King in 1226 after the Albigensian Crusade. Defences were reinforced on the town side when the bailey and barbican were built, mainly to protect the castle from rebellion by the local population who were loyal to the Trencavel family. The keep was increased in height and the castle became a feudal residence. The vaulted chamber in the keep was decorated by a vast mural with an animal frieze and a scene depicting a battle between Franks and Saracens.

The keep was in use until the C19th when Napoleon IV army had a presence here.

We were handed a short guide to the castle and allowed to wander at will. Steps lead up to the ceremonial hall which has a short video presentation. From here there is access to the walkways through the walls and the ramparts. Exit is by the shop which is disappointing and expensive.

The keep and C12th range to the right of it now house MUSÉE LAPIDAIRE. This is a fascinating Aladdin’s cave of secular and religious stonework.

There are some beautiful carved religious statues including a C14th Virgin holding the Christ Child with a dove, representing the Holy Spirit.

There are some amazing C15th polychrome alabaster reliefs with representations of the passion, entombment and resurrection of Christ. There are carved corbels and Gothic arches.

There is a C6th Meovingian sarcophagus and medieval gravestones, as well as a massive white marble C12th fountain.

The C15th calvary comes from a cemetery near Carcassonne. The twelve apostles are carved round the top of the pillar. On the front is a small scene of the crucifixion with Mary and St John on either side of Christ with Mary Magdalene at his feet. Above is an angel. At the base is a full size figure of Christ being presented to the people by (a now headless) Pontius Pilate On the far side are the executioners with grimacing faces and wearing medieval dress. On the reverse is small scene of the crowning of the Virgin. Mary holding the Christ Child is flanked St Michael and a bishop. Below are full size polychrome figures of the Virgin and the Angel Gabriel. 

The beautifully painted C12th frieze in pastel shades of blue, red, yellow and greens, runs round the top of the walls in the main hall of the keep. The Franks are wearing conical helmets and have elongated shields. The Saracans have turbans and round shields. Along the top is a narrow border with paintings of animals. Below there is a narrow border with what look like upside down hearts. The painting had been covered beneath several coats of whitewash and was only rediscovered in 1926.

Be warned, the château does get busy and walkways through the walls are narrow.


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To the north east of Montferrier - Abbaye de Villelongue

The Cistercians knew how to pick their sites. We got lost several times trying on the way here and I could hear Michael muttering under his breath, ‘I hope this is worth it…’ It was. It is a delightful setting in a wooded valley at the foot of the Montagne Noire and by a small river. There may not be a lot to see, but it is a lovely spot to drop out to enjoy the sunshine and surroundings.

The monastery was founded by twelve Cistercian monks in 1149. Enriched by donations of land by Simon de Montford after their stand against the Cathars, it became rich and powerful. It is a fine example of C13/14th Southern Gothic Languedoc architecture. The Abbey was weakened by plague and infighting in the C14 & C15th and declined until there were only three monks left at the time of Revolution. The abbey and lands were sold and became a farm. It is still privately owned and has a guest house.

The ruins include the refectory, cloister, chapter house and the abbey church.

Entry is through the shop and into the C12th refectory. This is a long, empty stone building lit with Romanesque windows, with a vaulted ceiling with ribs extending down the walls with carved bases. A door leads into the cloisters. Only the west wall survives. This has a row of double pillars with carefully carved C14th capitals with ivy leaves, foliage, flowers, animals and human figures, with round arches above.

The chapter house is on the south wall, with private accommodation above in what was the monks’ dormitory. It is a plain building with a round top doorway with round top windows on either side. Two pillars with ‘water flower’ capitals support the vaulted ceiling.

A square opening under a carved Romanesque archway leads into the remains of the church. This has a large square tower over the south transept. Only the chancel, two side chapels transepts and part of the nave survive.

The chancel was flat ended and has a pointed chancel arch with ‘water flower’ capitals. It was lit by three long round top windows with a round window above. The side chapels have lower round arches and a vaulted ceiling.

Stairs on the south transept wall led to the Monks’ Dormitory. The north transept had a rose window. There are the remains of three big pointed widows in the nave with three small trefoil windows at the top. There are faces carved on the capitals of the nave pillars, including what looks like a green man.

The building on the west wall of the cloister housed the lay brothers quarters. On the ground floor was a storeroom with an arched ceiling.

There is an attractive garden to the west of the abbey with roses, cherry and plum trees. A willow hedge separates the ‘blue garden’ which was bright with Californian poppies and borage, sunflowers, strawberries and chard. There is a duck pond, which may have been the fish pond, as well as a small aviary. The remains of one of the towers from the wall around the monastery still survives.

The Abbey is about 15 miles north east of Carcassonne the D64 between Montolieu and St Martin-le-Vieil.


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To the north east of Montferrier - Abbaye de St Papoul

In the foothills of Montagne Noire five miles east of Castlenaudry, Abbaye de St Papoul is an old fortified town, which has preserved its medieval character with narrow streets and half timber houses.

There has been an abbey here since the C8th, named after St Papulus, an early Christian bishop and martyr, who had the top of his skull cut off. According to the legend, he bent down to pick up his skull and a spring gushed out of that place.

The present church is C12th and is renowned for its carved capitals and corbels. There are also remains of frescoes on the walls. It became a cathedral in C13th. The cloister is C14th. There was a major restoration in C17th & C18th when the episcopal palace was rebuilt. The bishopric was abolished after the Revolution and it became the Parish Church.

The abbey is on the edge of the village and has a tall offset bell tower over the north transept with a pointed roof and three tiers of bell windows. The nave is very tall with Romanesque windows and big buttresses. The central apse has carved heads on the corbels beneath the roof. On either side are smaller apses.

Entry is through the shop into the large refectory building which now has an exhibition of bishops vestments, books and carvings.

We particularly liked the carving of Daniel, unharmed in the lion’s den while another showing the punishment of those who had accused him.

There is a Nativity scene with the Magi and a scene showing the flight into Egypt. There is a delightful carving of two midwives bathing the baby Jesus.

In a case is a most beautiful C18th Reliquary described as ‘un retable paperolle’ with quilling patterns made from tightly rolled paper. It contains the relics of Philippe Néri who was founder of l’Ordre de l’oratoire. In the centre is a bust of Philippe Néri with a gilded quilling pattern on the panel behind him. He is set under an arch with pillars which support arches of filigree leaves and flowers. The pillars are decorated with garlands of quilling flowers and leaves and there is another garland under the bust. The workmanship is amazing.

The refectory leads out into the cloisters. These are unusual as the pillars are made of brick with a render covering which is coming off in places. Many of the capitals are badly eroded. The Chapter House (locked)on the west wall has ‘water flower’ capitals and a plain arch above the door.

Wooden doors lead into the porch of the church with two red and grey flecked marble stoups and a memorial to the dead of World War One.

A second set of doors leads into the church. This wasn’t at all what we had expected and has a glorious Baroque chancel.

Pillars are painted to resemble marble and covered with gilt decoration. The chancel arch is painted and has gilt decorative carving and a gilt sunburst at the top. The walls facing the nave are painted. Around the bottom is a set of ornate wrought iron altar rails. There is a free standing mass altar with a painted baptism scene on the base of a bishop blessing people. Behind is a marble altar with tall silver candlesticks.

There is a gilded canopy with a crown over the bishop’s chair. The back of the chancel is lined with high backed choir stalls and there is a big green and gilt bookstand to hold the music books.

The ribbed ceiling has painted ribs and trompe d’oeil vaults between them with Gothic arches painted in shades of beige and brown with mock bosses. Marble painted wall pillars have carved capitals with a cherub’s head underneath.

The Romanesque windows have modern stained glass windows with images of saints. On the south wall is an elaborate Gothic arch which contains an engraved reliquary box of St Papoul.

A round stone arch leads into the south apse which has a small altar with a statue of the Virgin Mary surrounded by flowers and candles. This is set in a Gothic arch with pinnacles containing a smaller statue of the Virgin. The walls are painted pale beige with an outline square pattern with darker brown four petalled flowers. The arches of the vaulted ceiling are painted in geometric patterns of blues, reds, greys and yellows. The ceiling between the arches is pale grey with a blue motif. On the north wall is an elaborate Baroque tomb with a kneeling marble statue of a bishop set in a portico with pillars and a shield with cherubs on the top.

The north apse is a smaller, simpler Romanesque apse with a dome ceiling. A central rib has cherub heads at the corners and there is a narrow dog tooth frieze around the top of the walls. On the east wall is a crucifix.

The gilt host box on the north aisle altar has an image of Christ being scourged. On either side are scenes of the Annunciation and the Assumption of the Virgin. Above is a painted statue of a bishop.

There are a series of small chapels along the north wall. The first has a marble altar with a statue of Joseph and the boy Jesus above. Next is a chapel with marble altar with gilded Virgin and child on the wall above with the gilded head of a bishop on either side.

The next chapel has a massive grey and red flecked marble altar rail. Behind is a superb marble altar with the Lamb of God on the base and a marble host box in an elaborate stand. There is a gilded figure of St Peter on the left and St Paul on the right. Above is a large oil painting of the crucifixion.

On the wall above is the remains of a fresco with a monstrance surrounded by cherub heads and an angel on each side.

The back chapel has a gilded figure of Mary holding the dead body of Christ. On the wall above is a fresco of the three crosses.


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To the west of Montferrier - St Lizier

We had passed St Lizier on the way to Montferrier and had been attracted by the view of the town across the river from the D117, with the Cathedral and Bishop’s Palace set high above the town with the remains of town walls tumbling down below it.

St Lizier had been a Roman settlement and an episcopal see in the C5th. Bishop Glycerius died here in 540AD. He was reputed to have defended the city against the Visigoths and Vandals and was canonised as St Lizier.

In the C11th there were two separate cities, each with its own cathedral. Notre-Dame de Sède was in the old walled town at the top of the hill.

St Giron’s Cathedral was in the lower town.

The Bishopric combined in 1655 and St Giron’s lost its status. A new Bishop's Palace was built for Notre-Dame de Sède, which served as a cathedral until 1801, when the bishopric was abolished.

Built on a hill above the River Salat, this is one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France and an architectural high spot of the area. Cobbled streets lined with timber frame or render covered houses line the narrow and winding cobbled lanes which still follow the line of the walls.

Tourist information have a very good guided walk leaflet in English. We parked in the square below St Giron’s Cathedral, which had been the site of the bishop’s vineyard, and set off to explore the town.

The walk begins from the Cathedral of St Girons, and takes you up through rue des Nobles, lined with tall C18th plaster covered houses. Passage de l'Evêque is a narrow winding alleyway with cobbled steps which leads off rue des Nobles up to the Bishop's Palace.

Rue de l'Horloge with the former presbytery, leads to Tour de l'Horloge. This has a very tall clock tower and a narrow gateway through the Gallo-Roman ramparts into the upper city. Next to it is the house of Poulitou, the carillonier.

The ramparts circle the upper city and are best seen to the north east of ND de Sede where they stand to their full height and still have the remains of the wall towers.

Inside the ramparts are narrow cobbled streets lined with many timber frame houses. Carre de Bourasson with the half timber house of Jules the Tailor is a delight with some well tended flower gardens.

This leads into rue Maubec with some nice stone houses. This joins Carré d'Uhalf by a gateway through the Roman ramparts. The road continues round the outside of the ramparts to the upper car park for the Bishop's Palace. The easier and more sensible route to this car park is along the road from the Cathedral of St Girons.

Rue Notre Dame leads to the Palais des Evêques (Bishop's Palace) which is built along the line of the ramparts and is a massive four storey stone building with round corner towers and a red pantile roof. Part is now a restaurant, the rest is the Prefectural Museum of Ariège.

Adjacent to it is Notre-Dame de Sède, which can only be accessed by the museum. Although we were disappointed by the museum, it is worth coming up here for the good views of the lower town and across to the snow covered peaks of the Pyrenees to the south.


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To the west of Montferrier - St Lizier, Cathedral of St Girons

The Cathedral of St Girons with its hexagonal bell tower dominates the lower town of St Lizier.

The original building was C10th but was damaged during the C12th and had to be rebuilt. The octagonal brick bell tower dates from 1300 although the crenelations are modern. The doorway is C15th. Inside there are frescoes dating from C11th to C14th.

The buttressed nave is tall and windowless. The transepts are lower and the rose windows are blocked by the massive reredos inside. The apse at the east end is lower and has carved corbels with even lower apses on either side.

There are few windows so the inside of the church is quite dark. It is worth putting 50c in the coin operated light switch which provides light in the apse and on the south transept reredos.

The nave has a vaulted ceiling and two side altars.

At the west end is a balcony with a carved wooden organ.

Multi-angular wall pillars in the nave with a carved frieze at the top lead to the ribs of the vaulted ceiling. These are painted in bands of yellow and red or blue, red and yellow. The ceiling between the ribs is marked out in bricks with a red motif in the centre.

Pillars with 'water flower' capitals lead to the chancel arch which is painted in bands of red and blue. Don't miss the carved feet at the base of the pillars.

The huge rounded chancel has a free standing altar with two rows of choir stalls round the walls. These have carved arms and misericords. In the centre is the Bishop’s chair. There is an arcade of blind Romanesque arches above the choir stalls. The only light is from three small Romanesque windows Side pillars with carved 'water flower' leaf capitals partially obscure the arcading and continue to form a rib across the ceiling. This is painted in red and blue blocks.

Beyond is a C13/14th fresco of Christ in Majesty, surrounded by the symbols of the evangelists.

The two blind arches on either side of the central window have C11th frescoes. There are two images in each arcade which are separate by a narrow band with painted heads. At the top are images of the apostles. Below on the right, are scenes of the Annunciation and the Visitation with Mary and Elizabeth cheek to cheek with fused haloes. On the left at the bottom are the three Magi with Herod and also at the manger.

The small Romanesque south apse has big carved capitals under a round arch and has a statue of the Virgin and child. The north apse is used as a general storage area with big candle sticks, chairs, choir robes…

The chapel at the end of the north transept has a marble altar with a huge reredos which covers the whole wall, explaining why the rose window is blocked. Above the altar is an elaborate host box with cherub heads set in a gilded cupola with pillars and gilded flowers. This has an orb and cross on the top. On either side, set in grey and gilt frames, are painted panels with a gilded head of Mary and another of Jesus with a crown of thorns. Above is a huge oil painting of Mary with the Baby Jesus and surrounded by the women. On either side are paintings of bishops set in elaborate gilded frames. At the top is a huge gilded monstrance set in a portico with gilded arches and surrounds. The side walls of the transept are painted to resemble marble. There are two round topped windows with cherubs above them.

The south transept has a marble altar with a very elaborate gilt host box decorated with cherub heads and a some what wonky cross on the top. There is a massive reredos with dark marble pillars with elaborately carved white marble tops. In the centre is a C17th gilded pieta with a long swirling cloud above it. The pillars support a semi-circular portico with carved cherubs and more swirling clouds leading to the back wall and partially obscuring a marble sun burst. The walls are covered with panels painted to resemble marble and the ceiling is painted with outlines of bricks.

On the west wall under the balcony are two wall mounted fragments of frescoes.

The C12/13th cloisters are reached through a wooden door at the back of the south wall. These have an open arcade of double and single round pillars with carved capitals supporting round arches. Capitals include 'water flowers' scrolls, swirls and figures. There are wall niches with tombs round the walls of the cloister.

Above the cloister is another arcade added in the C16thC with rectangular openings. This is reached by a wooden stairway in the south west corner but the gate at the bottom was locked. We could see tantalising glimpses of frescoes on the walls of the upper arcade.

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To the west of Montferrier - St Lizier, Prefectural Museum of Ariège and Notre-Dame de Sède

The Prefectural Museum of Ariège is in part of the Bishop's Palace in the upper walled town of St Lizier. Entry to the museum also includes Notre-Dame de Séde, the cathedral until 1801. Built along the line of the ramparts the Bishop’s Palace is a massive four storey stone building with round towers at the corner with a red pantile roof.

The sumptuous palace was built in 1675 after the Bishopric was combined in 1655 and St Giron’s in the lower town, lost its status as a Cathedral. After the bishopric was abolished in 1801, the building served as town hall, prison, poorhouse and lunatic asylum. Part of it now houses a restaurant. The rest has been restored as a museum covering the history of the city since Roman times with a series of permanent and temporary exhibitions.

Entry is through an archway off rue Notre-Dame. The former stables is the ticket office and shop.

The museum is beautifully laid out on four floors but we were very disappointed by how little display material there was.

The first floor covers Roman history and includes artefacts from the local area. There are amphorae, funeral stones and the St Giron's treasure trove of coins, a huge lump of verdigris coins stuck together. There are a few cleaned up specimens of gold and silver coins.

The second floor covers the Gallo-Roman period and there are two C5th sarcophagi and examples of carved stone capitals.

The third floor covers the arrival of Christianity and has display board about St Jacques de Compostela. There is a display of pigments used in the murals and some history of the Bishop's Palace.

On the top floor there is some information about life in a Pyrenean village at the start of the C20th, with a display of costumes, wooden furniture including a wool winder, bed frame, crib, playpen and a wooden dresser. There is a shepherd's cloak made of thick rough wool and branding irons for sheep.

Notre-Dame de Sède is reached through the museum. It is a very tall building with buttressed nave and a large round tower with a small bell cote at the east end.

The building is C14th on the site of a C6th basilica which was built over the tomb of St Valier. It is regarded as one of the most beautiful buildings in the Midi-Pyrenees.

Entry is through a big doorway with pointed arches and pillars with very eroded capitals. Inside it is a very light and airy building. The vaulted ceiling with carved and painted bosses is covered with C15/16th frescoes of figures in red and yellow robes with scrolls with a Latin inscription. These are set in a network of grey branches.

According to the guide books, the frescoes represent the twelve patriarchs founding the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve sibyls heralding the coming of Christ. There are also scenes from the life of Saint Jacques de Compostela. There is no written information in the church although there is an interactive computer screen with a rather clunky program. This lets you move around the ceiling, select an image, enlarge it and get some information about it. This is all in French and there is no choice of language.

The nave windows are plain glass and set high on the walls and there are more frescoes around them.

The wall pillars are painted to ensemble grey marble flecked with red and lead to the ribs of the vaulted ceiling. These have a dark grey flower motif with red diamonds on a white background along the sides.

There is a dark wood altar set in an arch on the north wall of the nave. The host box has a pelican plucking her breast to feed her young. Wooden fluted pillars with gilt capitals support a portico with a cross at the top. In the centre is a painting of two angels with cherub heads around two sacre coeurs with blood dripping from them. One is pierced by a spear; the other has a cross on top. This is all set in an arch of rather garish blue and grey panels which does look rather incongruous against the delicate ceiling frescoes.

The chancel arch has carved panels on the underside with a red background and yellow flowers. On the front of the arch are roundels with blue or red designs on beige. At the centre is a M monogram on deep royal blue. The chancel ceiling is blue with angel heads in clouds. The round window has modern stained glass. Round the walls are tall carved wood panels with two rows of choir stalls with carved arms and misericords. At the centre is the Bishop's throne with a canopy above and a reading desk in front.


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