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Castles and Chateaux of Old Navarre and the Basque Provinces
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THE VALLEY OF THE ARIÉGE
THE entire valley of the Ariège, from the Val d'Andorre until it empties into the Garonne at Toulouse, contains as many historic and romantic reminders as that of any river of the same length in France.
Saverdun and Mazères, between Toulouse and Pamiers, and perhaps fifty kilometres north of Foix, must be omitted from no historical trip in these parts. Saverdun sits close beside one of the few remaining columns which formerly marked the boundary between Languedoc and Gascogne, a veritable historical guide-post. It was one of the former fortified towns of the Comté de Foix. It is an unimportant and unattractive enough place to-day, if a little country town of France can ever be called unattractive, but it is the head centre of innumerable châteaux and country houses of other days hidden away on the banks of the Ariège. Mostly they are without a traceable history, but everything points to the fact that they played an important part in the golden days of chivalry, and such names as l'Avocat-Vieux, Frayras, Larlenque, Madron, Pauliac and Le Vigne — the oldtime manor of the family of Mauvasin — will suggest much to any who know well their mediæval history.
A diligence runs to-day from Saverdun to Mazères, the birthplace of the gorgeous and gallant Gaston of Foix, the hero of Ravenna. Mazères is a most ancient little town, built on the banks of a small river, the Hers, and in the thirteenth century was surrounded by important fortifications, now mostly gone to build up modern garden walls. Around the old ramparts has been laid out a series of encircling boulevards, which, as an expression of civic improvement, is far and away ahead of the squares and circles of new western towns in America. The encircling boulevard is one, if not the chief, charm of very many French towns.
The ruins of the ancient château where was born the celebrated Gaston are still seen, but nothing habitable is left to suggest the luxury amid which the youth was brought up. Near by are the châteaux of Nogarède and Nassaure, each of them reminiscent of family names writ large in the history of Foix.
Another dozen kilometres southward towards Foix is Pamiers. It is extremely probable that provincial France has changed its manners considerably since the Revolution, but one can hardly believe of Pamiers, to-day a delightful little valley town, all green and red and brown, that a traveller with a jaundiced eye once called it "an ugly, stinking, ill-built hole with an inn — of sorts." This is not the aspect of the city, nor does it describe the Hôtel Catala.
Pamiers owes its origin to the erection of a feudal château by Comte Roger II on his return from the Holy Land, and which he called Apamea or Apamia, in memory of his visit to Apamée in Syria. Evolution has readily transformed the name into Pamiers. Virtually, so far as its lands went, the place belonged to a neighbouring abbey, but as the monks were forced to call upon the Comtes de Foix to aid them in protecting their property from the Comtes de Carcassonne, the title rights soon passed to the ruling house of Foix. In 1628 Condé pillaged and sacked the city, and not a vestige now remains of its once proud château, save such portions as may have been built into and hidden in other structures. The site of the old château is preserved in the memory only by the name of Castellat, which has been given to a singularly beautiful little park and promenade.
It was in the thirteenth century that a Bishop of Pamiers, the legate of Pope Boniface VIII, insulted Philippe-le-Bel in full audience of his parlément. The king, resentful, drove him from the council, and a Bull of Pope Boniface delivered the bishop to an ecclesiastical tribunal. So far, so good, but Boniface issued another Bull demanding that the king of France submit to papal power in matters temporal as well as in matters spiritual. Thus a pretty quarrel ensued, beginning with the famous letter from the king, which opened thus: "Philippe, by the grace of God, King of the French, to Boniface, the pretended Pope, has little or no reason for homage...."
Pamiers itself is a dull little provincial cathedral town, lying low in a circle of surrounding hills. Its churches are historically famous, and architecturally varied and beautiful, and the octagonal belfry of its cathedral (1512), in the style known as "Gothic-Toulousain," is particularly admirable.
Mirepoix, a dozen kilometres east of Pamiers, is interesting. The Seigneurie of Mirepoix became an appanage of Guy de Levis, maréchal in the army of Simon de Montfort in the thirteenth century, but the legislators of Revolutionary times, disregarding the usage of five centuries, coupled the control of the affairs of the region with those of Foix, from which it had indeed been separated long ages before.
Mirepoix has, nevertheless, an individuality and a history quite its own. In 1317 it was made a bishopric, and was under the immediate control of the Seneschalship of Carcassonne. It had, by parent right, a certain attachment for Foix, but by the popular consent of its people none at all; thus it lay practically under the sheltering wing of Languedoc.
The descendants of Guy de Levis were distinguished in the army, in diplomacy and held many public offices of trust at Paris. Under Louis XV the last representative of the family was made a "Duc, Maréchal de France et Gouverneur de Languedoc." It was his cousin, François de Levis-Ajac (from whom Levis opposite Quebec got its name), who became also Maréchal de France, and illustrious by reason of his defence of Canada.
The Château de Montségur, in the valley of the Hers, was the scene of the last stand of the Albigeois tracked to their death by the inquisitors.
Just westward of Foix is La Bastide-de-Serou, founded in 1254, another of those ancient bastides with which this part of the Midi was covered in mediæval times. To-day it is a mere nothing on the map, and not much more in reality, a dull, sad town, whose only liveliness comes from the exploitations of a company whose business it is to dig phosphate and bauxite from the hillsides round about.
Below La Bastide is the Château de Bourdette, charmingly set about with vines in a genuine pastoral fashion. For a neighbour, not far away, there is also the Château de Rodes, set in the midst of a forest of mountain ash and quite isolated. Either, if they are ever put on the market (for they are inhabitable to-day), would make a good retiring spot for one who wanted to escape the strenuous cares and hurly-burly of city life.
South of Foix is Tarascon-sur-Ariège, a name which has a familiar sound to lovers of fiction and readers of Daudet. It was not at Tarascon-sur-Ariège where lived Daudet's estimable bachelor, Tartarin, but Tarascon-sur-Rhône in Provence. Daudet pulled the latter smug little town from obscurity and oblivion — even though the inhabitants said that he had slandered them — but nothing has happened that gives distinction to the Tarascon of the Pyrenees since the days when its seigneurs inhabited its château.
Reminders of the town's mediæval importance are few indeed, and of its château only a lone round tower remains. There are two fortified gateways in the town still above ground, and two thirteenth-century church towers which take rank as admirable mediæval monuments.
Tarascon was one of the four principal fortified towns of the Comté de Foix, but suffered by fire, and for ever since has languished and dozed its days away, so that not even a passing automobile will wake its dwellers from their somnolence. Tarascon has a fine and picturesque bridge over the Ariège which intrudes itself in the foreground from almost every view-point. It is not old, however, but the work of the last century.
Here nearly everything is of the mouldy past and rusty with age and tradition, though there is a local iron industry something considerable in extent.
The highroad from Foix into Andorra cuts the town directly in halves, and on either side are narrow, climbing streets running up the hillside from the river bank, but architectural or topographical changes have been few since the olden times. Tarascon's population — though the place is the market town of the commune — has, in a hundred years, fallen from fifteen hundred to fourteen hundred and forty five, to give exact statistical figures, which are supposed not to lie. Such observations in France really prove nothing, not even that signs of progress are wanting, nor that folk are less prosperous; they simply suggest that its cities and towns are self-satisfied and content, and are not ambitious to outdistance their neighbours in alleged civic improvements of doubtful taste — always at the tax-payers' expense.
Tarascon of itself might well be omitted from a Pyrenean itinerary, but when one includes the neighbouring church of Notre Dame de Sabart — a place of pilgrimage for the faithful of the whole region of the Pyrenees on the eighth and fifteenth of September — the case were different. It is one of the sights and shrines of the region, as is that of Stes. Maries-de-la-Mer in Provence, or Notre Dame de La-ghat in the old Comté de Nice.
The old abbey-fortress built here by Charlemagne has disappeared, but the great Romanesque church, with its three great naves, is avowedly built up from the remains of the former edifice. Most of Charlemagne's handiwork has vanished throughout his kingdom, but the foundations remain, here and there, and upon them has been built all that is best and most enduring in Gaul.
In the environs it was planned to make a great centre of affairs, but destiny and the Comtes de Foix ruled otherwise, though, curiously enough, up to the Revolution the "Prétres de Sabart" ruled with an iron-bound supremacy many of the affairs of neighbouring parishes which were no business of theirs. It was church and state again in conflict, but the Revolution finished that for the time being.
Like many of the pardons of Brittany, or the fête of Les Saintes Maries in Provence, the fête of Notre Dame de Sabart commences as a religious function, but degenerates finally into a Fête Profane, with dancing, bull-baiting, and eating and drinking to the full. It is perhaps not a wholly immoral aspect that the fête takes on; certainly the participants do not act in any manner outrageous; but by contrast the thing is bound to be remarked by westerners, and probably misjudged and set down as something worse than it is. Bull-baiting, for instance, sounds bad, but when one learns that it consists only of trying to snatch a ribbon rosette from between the bull's horns — for a prize of three francs for a blue one, and five francs for a red one, the bull carrying the red rosette being, supposedly, more vicious and savage than the others — the whole thing resolves itself into a simple, harmless amusement, far more dangerous for the amateur rosette picker than the bull, who really seems to enjoy it.
Vic Dessos, just southwest of Tarascon, is a quaint little mountain town, with the ruins of the Château de Montréal and a twelfth-century church as attractions for the traveller. The savage surroundings of Vie, the denuded mountain peaks, and the deep valleys, bring tempests and thunderstorms in their train with astonishing violence and frequency. The clouds roll down like a pall, suddenly, at any time of the year, and as quickly pass away again. The phenomena have been remarked by many travellers in times past, and one need not fear missing it if he stays anything over three hours within a fifty-kilometre radius. If this offers anything of a sensation to one, Vic Dessos should be visited. You can arrive by diligence from Tarascon, and can get comfortably in out of the rain at the excellent Hôtel Benazet.
From Tarascon to Ax-les-Thermes, still in the valley of the Ariège, is twenty-five kilometres of superb roadway. All the way are strung out groups of dainty villages surrounded with cultivated country. Here and there is an isolated mass of rock, a round watch-tower, or a ruined fortress, still possessing its crenelated walls to give an attitude of picturesqueness. There are innumerable little villages, a whole battery of them, linked together. At the end of this long peopled highway is an unpretentious mediæval country house, of that class known as a gentilhommière, of fawn-coloured stone, and still possessing its two flanking sentinel towers preserved in all the romantic grimness of their youth.
At the junction of the Ariège with the Ascou, the Oriège, the Lauze and the Foins is Ax-les-Thermes — the ancient Aquæ of the Romans, and now a "thermal station" of the first rank. Primarily Ax is noted for its sulphurous waters, but for the lover of romantic days and ways its architectural and historical monuments are of the first consideration. The ruins of the Château des Maures, the ancient Castel Mail, are the chief of these monuments, while a neighbouring peak of rock bears aloft an enormous square tower surmounted by a statue of the Virgin.
There are sixty-one "sources" at Ax-les-Thermes giving a supply of medicinal waters. In part they were known to the Romans, and in 1260 Saint Louis founded a hospital here for sick soldiers returning from the Crusades.
Ax-les-Thermes is not a howlingly popular watering place, but it is far more delightful than Luchon, Cauterets or Bigorre, if quaintness of architecture, manners and customs, and modesty of hotel prices count for anything.
The Porte et Pont d'Espagne at Ax is one of the most interesting architectural reminders of the past that one will find throughout the Pyrenees. The bridge itself is but a diminutive span carrying a narrow roadway, which if not forbidden to automobile traffic should be, for the negotiating of this bridge and road, and the low, arched gateway at the end, will come very near to spelling disaster for any who undertakes it.
Throughout the neighbourhood one sees more than an occasional yawning pit's mouth. All through the Comté de Foix were exploited, and are yet to some extent, iron mines and forges, the latter known as Forges Catalans. Roger-Bernard, Comte de Foix, in 1293 gave the first charter to the mine-promotors of the neighbourhood, and the industry flourished in many parts of the Comté until within a few generations, when, apparently, the supply of mineral was becoming exhausted.
At Luzenac, on the line between Tarascon and Ax, one turns off the road and in a couple of hours, if he is a good brisk walker, makes the excursion to the château-à-pic of Lourdat. There is a little village of the same name at the base of the rocky peak which holds aloft the château, but that doesn't count.
Without question this Château de Lourdat ranks as one of the most spectacular of all the Pyrenean châteaux. Its rank in history, too, is quite in keeping with its extraordinary situation, though nothing very startling ever happened within its walls. It dates from the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, and outside that of the capital of Foix was the most efficient stronghold the counts possessed. Louis XIII demolished the edifice, in part, fearing its powers f resistance, and as a base from which some new project might be launched against him. Accordingly, it is a ruin to-day, but in spite of this there are still left four pronounced lines of fortifications before one comes to the inner precincts of the château. For this reason alone it ranks as one of the most strongly de- fended of all contemporary feudal works. Even the old Cité de Carcassonne has but two encircling walls.
The square donjon rising in the middle is in the best style of that magnificent royal builder, Gaston Phœbus, and is reminiscent of the works of Foulques Nerra in mid-France. There is also a great ogive-arched portal, or gateway, which made still another defence to be scaled before one finally entered within.
In situation and general spectacular effect the Château de Lourdat takes a very near rank to that rock-perched château at Le Puy — "the most picturesque spot in the world."
CHÂTEAU DE LOURDAT