Saturday, 6 December 2008

France: around Simorre

We only glimpsed the Pyrenees just as we were leaving our chambre d'hôte at the end of a two-night stay. Its address was a remote hamlet, Monferran-Plavès. But the house was further from there than we were led to believe: in the middle of nowhere actually. Not a place to find easily on a rainy, windblown evening after dark.

During most of our stay, the weather was misty - and very cold. We made sorties to various local villages, but all were as quiet as the grave. We spent a long time in the bleak but beautiful church at Simorre, but seeking out a cup of coffee (lukewarm) in the local bar, we found it populated just by the silent proprietor and two cats. Driving through the empty lanes of the Midi-Pyrénées in November, I thought what a desolate place to live! However attractive, you can't eat the scenery.

Simorre church is a huge, brick, fortified, 14th Century priory (restored by Viollet-le-Duc 600 years later), its main external feature an octagonal lantern, surrounded by pinacled turrets, a haven for the pigeons circling round. Inside, there is a set of 35 choir stalls (with misericords), the carving as fine as in Auch Cathedral, but more rustic, and the wood much lighter in colour. Through the grille on the sacristy door, you can see wall paintings, and a small, rather exquisite Deposition. No doubt it's not worth the risk of leaving it in an open, untenanted church, where there is a larger one - simple compared to Monastiès, but fine all the same. Some old glass too, but high up and difficult to see clearly. Altogether, a great building: like many others in sleepy corners of France, a delight to come across.

Encouraged, we also went into the church of Notre Dame de l'Assomption in nearby Boulogne sur Gesse: another large 14th Century building, but not so impressive apart from the pulpit - covered with stone carvings of animals (more or less fabulous): I particularly liked the lizard, about to devour a snail.

In that area, we liked too the Cistercian Abbey of Sainte Marie de Boulaur, with its 14th Century frescoes. Nuns returned after World War II, and it is very much a place of prayer today. But how do they maintain such a place? We were looking round the church when my mobile phone rang: the only time I heard it during our entire trip.

Gimont church (Notre Dame) also boasts an octagonal tower - very tall - but with its interior in a sad state. (To make up for it, our coffee in the market square bar was hot.)

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