26th– 28th June 2015
It was a chaotic affair leaving Barcelona railway station and it was caused by the fact that it was swarming with post summer solstice tourists. Queues snaked across the main hall making it difficult to find the platform from which our train departed. Finally we found what we hoped was our queue and we inched ever so slowly through security and onto the platform from which our train was due to depart.
Bev and I have boarded many trains over the past three years but I have to say departing Barcelona was the most hectic, undoubtedly caused by the sheer numbers of people intent on getting out of the city. Eventually we found our carriage, which involved a certain amount of uncertainly as there were two carriages with the same number. Many people found themselves in the wrong carriage and had to push their way out against incoming passengers, a Herculean effort as many of them had unbelievably huge cases. Fortunately for us we boarded the right carriage in the first instance.
Barcelona station ticket office
The photograph above was taken the day prior to us leaving. A word of advice for travellers intending to take trains, especially on the high speed train network from major cities in Spain during summer, it’s a good idea to buy your ticket the day before departure then you can be sure of getting a ticket. Bev and I waited one and a half hours to buy our tickets.
Remarkably the train left on time and we were soon over the border into France. Once in France we breathed a sigh of relief as we felt we were on home ground. The actual border runs through the main street of the town of Le Perthus, so there is a Spanish Le Perthus and a French Le Perthus. We did consider spending a night there, mainly to learn more about its border history, but we decided against it after being advised that thousands of tourists visit there at this time of the year to buy duty free goods.
Due to its geographical location Le Perthus has seen much trouble and strife. During the Albigensian Crusades (1209-1229) tens of thousands of Cathers (heretics according to the Pope at the time) were slaughtered in the town and region and during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) thousands of Spanish Republican refugees crossed into France from Spain.
In 1937 writer Ernest Hemingway wrote in ‘Hemingway Finds France is Neutral’: ‘Yesterday I travelled…to the Spanish Mediterranean frontier to check the efficacy of French control. Since February 20 no one has been allowed to leave France for Spain without a passport….Twenty kilometres from the important frontier passage of Le Perthus we were stopped by two Mobile Guards with fixed bayonets who allowed us to proceed on the production of the proper credentials……We found no traveller had been through along this road, which formerly was the most important highway into Spain, except for a few diplomatic people. There is much espionage and counter-espionage along this border and people are very careful about choosing their seats in cafes, which are clearing houses for all information’.
It was mid afternoon when we arrived at Beziers and as soon as we stepped off the train we had a feeling that our time in Beziers was going to be rewarding. The reason behind our thinking was the relaxed air around the station, there were hardly any people around and the fact that as soon as we exited the station we were in the beautiful Plateau des Poetes (Park of the Poets). Getting up to the Beziers central area where our hotel was located involved going up a steep pathway through the park. Because it was too steep to ride, especially with a full load, a kind local pushed Bev’s bike all the way to the top, much to her pleasure.
The Beziers cathedral is Roman Catholic and dates from the 13th century. It was erected on the site of an earlier church destroyed during the Albigensian Crusade.
There were two reasons why we decided to visit Beziers: some quiet riding along the 19th century Canal-Du-Midi which passes by the town and the prospect of having a hassle-free traffic time in a place described on a number of web blogs as a place where nothing much goes on. This comment attracted us as after being in some rather hectic cities in Spain all we wanted was a little peace and quiet. There was plenty to entertain us: a Sound and Light show each night, a weekend flea market, some remarkable history and the meeting with some interesting fellow travellers and locals. Beziers had a rest and recreation air about it.
Our accommodation for the nights we were in Beziers was at Hotel Confort, owned and run by Marie who greeted us immediately we arrived with a much-appreciated cool drink. Marie gave us the option of two rooms and told us about her town.
The days in Beziers were leisurely and we took our time poking about its back streets and enjoying the lack of tourists. During our ride around the town we met Mikel, a retired Spanish school teacher who had a heart attack while on a cycling tour some years ago. Since this life-threatening event Mikel has been by slow degrees getting back into cycle touring. Of course we had a lot in common and he asked us to join him for lunch, which we did, and he insisted on paying for our meals. Strangers, buying us meals, during this odyssey has been a common occurrence, it must have something to do with our maturity or maybe it’s admiration for the way we are travelling.
During lunch I showed Mikel my concertina diary relating to our travels and as we talked a leaf from a plane tree fell onto the book. I traced around the leaf and later wrote a short encounter as to how we met Mikel. The following image shows my artistic endeavours.
Our meeting with Mikel bears testimony to the saying ‘the places one visits is not important, it’s the people you meet when you get there’. I sometimes wish I could gather up all the wonderful people we have met during our three year Encountering the Past adventures and bring them all together in Australia and show them our world and repay their hospitality.
The Canal du Midi and the Canal Lateral de la Garonne in the west joins the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea. Originally it was known as Canal Royal en Languedoc but French revolutionaries renamed it in 1789. At the time of its completion it was considered one of the greatest engineering works of the 17th century. The construction took from 1666 to 1681 and was the brainchild of Pierre-Paul Riquet.
Before undertaking the design and the supervision of the canal construction Riquet was a government salt tax collector and it was during that time he was able to consolidate considerable personal wealth. Unfortunately he died a few months before the canal was completed and as was the case with many wealthy Europeans with visions he died a pauper after sinking most of his money into the project.
At the time of the canal’s construction, engineers knew little about the moving of water so Riquet employed peasant women from the former Roman bath colonies in the Pyrenees where they had maintained Roman hydraulic systems associated with irrigation, water mills and domestic water supplies.
The canal was dug using pick and shovel and although the work was demanding the workers were relatively happy as Riquet paid them well and provided accommodation for them. Some historians suggest his attitudes to the workers set workers’ standards for the whole of Europe.
In reference to Jean Baptiste Colbert he was the king’s Intendant of Finance and he was commissioned by the king to assess the cost and feasibility of the project. Originally the canal was intended to accommodate naval vessels, which meant French warships in the defence of east and west coast ports could traverse the canal from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean Sea without passing by Gibraltar where pirates at the time were rife. The idea was abandoned, as the canal could not be made wide enough through the mountainous sections in the west.
After the defence aspect was abandoned it was the wheat trade that motivated its construction. Soon after its completion passenger boats began plying the canal as well. Commercial use of the canals went in to decline when the railway came into being in 1857. Today the canal is used by leisure craft, there are a number of boat hire companies and when we went riding the towpath from Beziers to the village of Colombier we passed both luxurious and small humble craft. If the weather was right it would be good to do a canoe trip along the canals stopping at towns along the way and wild camping each night.
Gangs of men initially pulled the barges along the canals but by the mid 18th century horse towing had come into being. In 1834 steam tugs began hauling barges along the canals and across open river portions in the west and lakes in the east.
Along the waterway from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean there is a total of 118 locks (53 along the Garonne and 65 along the Midi) and at some locations there are tunnels and small circular harbours. Near Beziers there is a series of eight locks.
The most enjoyable aspect of the Midi Canal for us was riding the towpaths along the side of the canal. We were able to absorb the activities at the locks and generally enjoy its tranquillity.
Our longest canal ride took us to Colombier, a small village to the west of Beziers and there we decided to take morning tea so we chose the local bakery.
French bread is real bread and not only does the village bakery provide bread but it is a place where the locals congregate each morning for a yarn. Some historians suggest that the storming of the Bastille was a call for bread, not to free enemies of the crown. The revolutionaries were starving whereas government officials had stockpiles of flour at their disposal.
One fascinating aspect about France, other than the wonderful artisan breads, is the great sense of history and tradition that the inhabitants have. It is not unusual to find historic information plaques in both English and French. In Beziers there is such a plaque and it relates to the massacre of between 15 and 20 000 residents during the time of the Albigensian Wars of 1209.
The Albigensian Wars, also known as the Crusades were under the direction of the Catholic Church of Rome and the aim was to convert or rid Southern France of the followers of Catherism. Cathers opposed the Catholic Church suggesting the church was morally, spiritually and politically corrupt. With such views the Catholic Church authorities, after unsuccessful attempts to gather the Cathers into the fold, sent in the troops.
There were many reasons for the Cather allegations and differences of opinion but two main ones were that Cathers refused the Catholic Sacrament of the Eucharist saying that it could not possibly be the body of Christ and they also refused to partake in the practice of baptism by water as they considered the water polluted with sin. With such views theologians considered them to be, in effect, Gnostics.
Gnostic: an ancient Greek word for ‘having knowledge’. Gnostics shunned the material world and embraced knowledge and oneness of God. They also encouraged philanthropy to the point of personal poverty, sexual abstinence (except for procreation). Sexual activities were reserved for the initiates, not for the hearers (a person who adheres to a doctrine and goes out and spreads the word).
The word Cather comes from the Greek katharoi, meaning the pure ones, so in effect the Cathers were saying they were pure and those of the Catholic faith were not. Thoughts such as this understandably brought the ire of Rome upon their heads.
This is not how the church looked in 1209, it was rebuilt in both the 14th and 20th centuries. The plaque adjacent to the church states: Kill them all! The Lord will recognise His own’.
The military leader of the Albigensian crusade was Arnold Amalric, a churchman who not only had a love of God but a love of terror and killing as well. An example of his love and killing was when knights under his command asked how they would distinguish the Catholics (their fellow kin) from the heretics inside the church. He replied with the now famous phrase ‘Kill them all: God will look after his own”. After the massacre he wrote to his master, Pope Innocent III, stating that ‘nearly 20 000 of the citizens were put to the sword…..the workings of the divine vengeance have been wondrous’.
It should be noted that some modern day Catholic apologists have voiced doubts whether the words ’Kill them all; the Lord will recognise His own’ was actually spoken by Arnold Amalric. Those opposing the apologists’ views are claiming the Catholic Church is attempting to sanitise history.
The slaying of hundreds of thousands of Cathers throughout France was not the end for the Cathers as echoes of their philosophy linger on in modern day popular culture. Today there are people who claim to be Cathers and in the Languedoc province (where Beziers is located) Cather tours are beginning to emerge.
Previously I mentioned that the French take their history seriously and to get the message across as to its glorious and tragic past in the Beziers region a fabulous Sound and Light show was staged on the facade of the Municipal Theatre and surrounding buildings. Bev and I had never experienced such an event before and we were astounded.
The first Sound and Light Show presented in France was by Paul Robert-Houdin in 1952. It was nowhere as technologically advanced as today of course but it started a trend that has continued.
The high profile WW2 resistance leader Jean Moulin (1899-1943) was born in Beziers so it stands to reason that the locals would commemorate his achievements. The Jean Moulin story is one of courage and resistance even when being tortured by the Gestapo. There is a controversy relating to his death, some believe he committed suicide, others believe he was beaten to death on a train bound for Germany.
The fleur-de-lys is a stylized lily. It can have religious, political, dynastic, artistic, emblematic and symbolic connotations.
During my school days there were standard stock phrases that bullies would use to tease other kids and one was ‘Red white and blue the girls love you’, indicating you were sissy. A sissy was a boy who wouldn’t join in rough and tumble boys’ games. The red white and blue of the French flag probably has nothing to do with the I love you phrase, it is more likely to be associated with ‘Red white and blue, I’m a patriot too’.
At the beginning of this post, I stated why we enjoyed Beziers: ‘a weekend flea market, some remarkable history and the meeting with some interesting fellow travellers and locals’ and to this point I have only covered the meeting with fellow travellers and the town’s history. Our flea market and the meeting with an interesting local now follow.
The flea market was a casual affair, no pushing and shoving like other markets we have attended and the goods were fair dinkum stuff, not made-in-China reproductions.
Bev and I have many friends who delight in collecting old wares like the bits and pieces for sale in the above stall. Paul and Brian collect old stuff for resale on eBay and Jen and Sue collect for the sake of collecting. I thought of you all when I took this photograph. Enlarge the image above and get a close look at the desirables here.
I took this photograph because as a child in Sydney back in the 1950s I well remember borer holes in my mother’s dressing table and how distraught she was that the borers were destroying her heirloom. I used to watch the borer holes hoping to see a borer emerged.
The life cycle of the common furniture beetle (probably Anobium punctatum) may not grip everyone but it does me. The female borer beetle lays her eggs into cracks in wood and the eggs hatch after about three weeks. The lava munch their way around for about four years then when the time comes to pupate they come near to the wood surface and wait for mature borers to return. The mature borer bores a hole and releases them. Is this not a wonder of nature?
We met with two local residents Timo at the bike shop and Michelle. Timo is an expat Dutchman who has chosen to live and set up shop in southern France. Beziers was his choice over the busier and more expensive areas around Montpelier to the east. Michelle was born in France but spent many years living in Florida USA but she and her husband returned to Beziers because in her senior years Florida was not the place she wanted to be. It was far too hectic. Over the last three years Bev and I have met a number of long time travellers and Michelle was one of them. She had many travel stories to tell and one that remains with me was when she and her husband were travelling in the 1970s on a bus in South America and bandits boarded the bus with guns. One gang member carrying a bucket with a million dollars in it offered Michelle’s husband the million for Michelle. After negotiations Michelle’s husband convinced the bandit he didn’t want to sell her. I suggested to Michelle that she should write about her travel experiences. If she does I will add them to this post at some future date.
After saying goodbye to Michelle we rode back down through the Park of the Poets to the station. As we rode through the park we came across a wedding party. The bride and groom were only too happy for us to take their photograph.
We have again reached the end of another post. We hope you have enjoyed the read and continue to travel with us. The next post will take us north to Tournemire about two hundred and eighty kilometres north where we will meet with our friend Larry and take rest and recreation for a week near the small village of Ouyres.
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Footnote relating to the French flag: The French flag appeared on the Sydney Opera House as a symbol of solidarity following November terrorist attacks in Paris killing one hundred and thirty people.