Strains of “The House of the Rising Sun” reverberated through the massive edifice. This was not a rock concert. No one was singing.
The sounds came from a powerful organ played by a monk in the abbey church of Ste. Foy. The Animals 1964 hit about a brothel in New Orleans seemed a strange choice of music in this religious shrine.
Every evening from May through September at 9:30 p.m., visitors are permitted to wander freely around the upper galleries of the church, normally off limits, to look down at the vast nave, to study the unique windows, to look up at the sculpted capitals of columns, each a magnificent work of antique art. Spot lights grow dim and then brighter, highlighting architectural details. Shadows move. The music entrances. Even for the non-religious, this is a spiritual experience, a sound and light show like no other.
Conques was my favorite of the many places visited on a recent tour of the Midi-Pyrénées region in this corner of France. It’s easy to understand why it was named one of the “plus beaux villages de France,” (one of the most beautiful villages in France). The tiny burg of Romanesque fountains and half-timbered houses is nestled in a valley surrounded by green.
The abbey church’s roots go back to the eighth century when a Benedictine monastery was established at the site in the wilderness. Relics were needed to give the new monastery clout. In the ninth century a monk set off to Agen and came back with part of the skull of Saint Foy, a Christian who had been martyred in the town in 303 AD. Miracles were soon attributed to the relic, and Conques became a pilgrimage site, a holy place to visit on the road to Santiago de Compostela, the well-known pilgrimage destination in northwestern Spain.
Today about 13,000 pilgrims per year visit Conques, a town with just 90 year-round residents. Most visit the Treasury as well as the church. Lavish, bejeweled gold and silver reliquaries are displayed in glass enclosed cases. The most elaborate is said to contain the foreskin of Christ. “How do you know it’s the foreskin of Christ?” asked a doubting visitor. “I don’t know. I was not present at the Circumcision,” quipped the guide.
The Conques abbey Church has another attraction – windows designed by the French contemporary artist Pierre Soulages. These bear no resemblance to the usual church stained glass windows, but were designed to let light penetrate the grandiose yet somber structure. The Soulages windows, geometric shapes of glass of varying density, change color depending on the exterior light.
Soulages was born in 1919 in Rodez, a Midi- Pyrénées town now a must for contemporary art fans. In May, the Soulages Museum opened with some 500 works of the renowned abstract artist who is known for his devotion to the color black.
Another artist, born some 150 years ago, was the reason for a visit to Chateau du Bosc. As a young boy, the famous post-impressionist painter, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec who hails from nearby Albi, spent summers in the chateau. Today a distant relative gives fascinating tours of the grandiose medieval house which is her home. Nicole-Berangere Tapie de Celeyran, 89, tiny, frail, and slightly hunch backed, charges up the long staircases with the vitality of a teenager, visitors following behind. From the kitchen where she points out Lautrec’s sketches on the wall, she continues upstairs to a lavish salon and dining room, a bedroom, hallways, and then into the garden.
“I love to talk. I want to preserve this house, the spirit of the family,” she says. She also wants to show Lautrec mementoes and correct misconceptions about the legendary artist.
She embellishes the tour with stories passed on from her grandmother and other ancestors who knew the artist. Lautrec’s father and uncles often went hunting, I learned. They’d come back after an outing and relate tales of their adventures. Young Lautrec sat on the floor, using coal from the fireplace to make drawings of their exploits, she said. In his bedroom, the floor scattered with toys, she pointed out a boat Lautrec had made after his accident.
At ages 13 and 14, Lautrec had two bad falls resulting in broken legs which never healed properly. He stopped growing, reaching only 4 feet 9 inches. He developed an adult size torso, but child size legs and was unable to participate in sports. He immersed himself in art instead.
Lautrec’s cabaret posters have become synonymous with Paris and Montmartre, the area of Paris famous for its bohemian lifestyle and the haunt of artists, writers, and philosophers in the late 1800s. More than 1,000 of his works – paintings, lithographs, drawings, as well as the famous posters — are on display in the Albi museum which has the largest collection of his works in the world.
“What is important in a painting is the person. Landscape is secondary. That was his philosophy,” a museum guide said. He painted psychological portraits, and he understood advertising, hence the posters, she explained. Lautrec was an alcoholic and died at the age of 37 due to complications of alcoholism and syphilis.
Albi, a UNESCO World Heritage site, hugs the banks of the Tarn River where it is spanned by an ancient bridge. The spires of the city’s mighty cathedral dominate the skyline for a scene almost too picture-perfect. The cathedral, Sainte Cecile, is the only cathedral in France that is still completely painted with the original 15th century paint still intact. During the Middle Ages, church interiors were painted although the paint on most has long since vanished. It survived here because the cathedral is very dark.
Albi’s museum of miniatures is curious if not incredible. It houses 55 miniature rooms all made by a 79-year-old woman who started the project 40 years ago. As a child she wanted a dollhouse, but she never got one. So, at the age of 39 she set out to make her own, room by room. The museum curator told us that it takes her from six months to a year to make one room. She is now busy making a miniature church.
Toulouse, the capital of the Midi-Pyrénées and France’s fourth largest city, is also the European capital of aeronautics and the home of Airbus. The university city, often called the “ville rose” (pink city) due the bricks it produces which have been used in the construction of many of its buildings, is vibrant and attractive with magnificent churches, lively markets and excellent restaurants.
The heart of Toulouse is the Capitole, the city hall and its courtyard with a statue of Henry IV. The 18th century neo-classical façade of the elongated building dominates a large square that is always a hub of activity. Seats at one of its outdoor cafes are in demand.
The cuisine of southwestern France is legendary. For more about it, as well as well-known restaurants in the Midi-Pyrénées, see previous post, “Fabulous French Dining, a Post for Foodies.” I love to know what readers think about my posts, so please comment. See Leave a Reply below. And, don’t forget Today’s Taste, a recipe for Thai Green Beans, column at upper right. If you go…
Chateau du Bosc is located in Naucelle, 30 minutes by car from Albi. Madame Tapie de Celeyran gives guided tours only in French, but guided tours in English by other staff members who know all about Lautrec are offered year round from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. If you visit, you are sure to meet Madame who loves to welcome visitors. + 33 (0) 5 65 69 20 83
Museum Toulouse-Lautrec, Palais de la Berbie, Albi, +33 (0)5 63 49 48 70 www.musee-toulouse-lautrec.com
Museum of Miniatures, 16 Rue Rinaldi, Albi, +33 (0)5 63 79 00 98, www.academiedesminiatures.fr
Soulages Museum, Jardin du Foirail, Avenue Victor Hugo, Rodez, +33 (0)5 65 73 82 60, www.musee-soulages.grand-rodez.com
The Hotel Mercure Albi Bastides on the banks of the Tarn has the perfect location for admiring – and photographing – Albi. Moulins Albigeois, 41 rue Porta, 8100 Albi, + 33 (0) 5 63 47 66 66 www.mercure.com/Albi
The Hotel Restaurant Hervé Busset, in a wooded setting on the banks of the lively Dourdou River just outside Conques, is a true delight. An old mill was transformed into an inn with a lovely riverside terrace for relaxing and/or dining. And, the food – fabulous. Busset has earned one Michelin star with his cuisine which makes use of plants and flowers from his garden. Domaine de Cambelong, 12320 Conques, +33 (0)5 65 72 83 91 www.moulindecambelong.com
Location, Location, Location – Toulouse’s Grand Hotel de l’Opera can’t be beat. Facing the heart of town, the Place du Capitole, the charming boutique hotel is located in a former convent of the 17th century. Place du Capitole, 31000 Toulouse, +33 (0) 61 21 82 66 www.grand-hotel-opera.com/uk