Apr 292012
 

I have just been up to Cathar country in the foothills of the French Pyrenees. I was visiting this region of so many mysteries to research material for the novel I am currently working on which I think will be called The Treasure House of the Templars. And while I was there I stumbled on my own modern mystery.

It was a beautiful afternoon and, for no particular reason except that we were passing close to it, I decided to walk the dog up to the remote castle of le Bézu which is the setting for much of The Secret of the Cathars that I published last year. It was a couple of years since I had last visited the place. Le Bézu is well off the main tourist routes and is fairly difficult to find.

When you get up there you do not have a lot to see – just a few half-ruined walls and some beautiful views. The only thing of note is that the threshold to one of the rooms has a Templar Cross with the equal-length arms carved into it. (See upper photo) Imagine my surprise when I went to look at this particular stone and found that somebody had gone to the trouble of completely removing the symbol.

This was not some casual act of vandalism. The threshold is granite which cannot be easily hacked about. I don’t know how long ago the cross was deeply carved into the stone. However I would guess it had been there for at least several decades – perhaps for centuries – perhaps since the thirteenth century when the Templars were still a force to be reckoned with.

Whoever had removed the symbol must have carried a bag of tools up to the site – at the very least a lump hammer and cold chisels. And it must have taken them several hours of hard work. You can see that all traces of the cross have been removed and the remaining hollow in the stone deepened. (See lower photo)

The question is – who would bother to do it? The site, for all its remoteness, is a national monument and it is a criminal offence to deface it without a government licence. Who would want to carry out several hours’ hard work and risk prosecution to remove a minor, fairly meaningless symbol from an ancient piece of stone? And why would they choose to do it? Is it because it not so meaningless after all?

On the Carte de Randonée 2347 OT the site of le Bézu castle is described as the “Chateau des Templiers” and it is referred to as such in a number of books about the area. Merely obliterating the symbol from a piece of masonry won’t remove the castle’s past links with the Knights Templar.

Perhaps the act may have something to do with the enigmatic organisation in Paris which I refer to in The Secret of the Cathars. Unfortunately I have neither the contacts or the funds to investigate further. For now the matter will have to remain a mystery as far as I am concerned unless somebody else can help.

 

Next week I will tell you more about the things I looked at in Cathar country.

 

 

Apr 222012
 

To the north of Chinon is a broad swathe of forest, some of it dense and almost primeval. The D751 cuts a diagonal path through the centre of it – a straight undulating road with broad grass verges each side – one of the old roads engineered by Napoleon to enable him to march his armies rapidly round the country.

Chinon Forest wove its way into my imagination the first time I saw it. In places the vegetation is so thick that it is impossible to force a way through it. Many of the trees seem to have stood there for centuries, crammed in close together and grown tall so that they fight their way towards the sun.

The best trees haven’t been felled to build the wooden ships that dominated the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the way that English forests were destroyed. The trees in Chinon Forest have grown old and died, fallen against each other or collapsed on to the ground, become covered in creeper such as great clumps of mistletoe and have gently rotted back into the soil to provide the base for new lesser growth.

In my imagination the forest became the location where the duel with deadly cross-bows would take place between my hero and the villain in The Eighth Child. I suggest that, if you are in the area, you visit the place and see if its atmosphere seeps into your imagination as it did into mine.

 

This is the last blog that I shall do for now about the Chinon area. Next week I am going to pay another visit to Cathar country in the French Pyrenees to update my researches about the region in preparation for the current novel that I am writing and which I think I will call The Treasure House of the Templars. Future blogs will probably return to that mysterious region.

 

 

Apr 162012
 

When viewed from across the River Vienne at nine o’clock in the evening during the Medieval Marché the Old Town of Chinon appears to be heaving with activity. The noise of several bands drifts over the still waters. Floodlights light up the yellow cliffs and castle walls, forming a backdrop to the festivities. And through it all comes the cacophony of sounds made by a lot of people enjoying themselves.

There are no charges on the barriers across the streets into the Old Town this evening. People of all ages and in all forms of dress come and go as they wish. In each of the main squares a different band is playing – here a folk group, up the road a jazz band, in the main square a small orchestra rendering popular classics. And there are discos underground in the caves.

Around the squares people sit at tables in the warm night under the acacia trees. They get up to dance when they wish. In the main square it will be formal waltzes and tangos. In jazz square they are jiving. In the caves it’s all modern gyrations. Everyone can choose where they want to be. Old, black-shawled peasant women watch the dancers and youngsters are trying their skill at the quickstep. The whole town and its visitors have come together to celebrate.

In the warm night air there seems to be no desire to bring the festivities to an end. The music and the dancing and of, course (being France), the eating continue into the small hours. When you get back to your hotel you can fall asleep to the gentle wash of sound from alongside the river.

 

Next week I will tell you about the forest of Chinon where the duel in The Eighth Child takes place.

 

Apr 092012
 

When the parade has melted away (so to speak) it is pleasant to stroll the streets. This has the added benefit of aiding digestion and clearing the head. There is a variety of wares to inspect, many of them produced locally in private homes and workshops. There is also a number of performing players – jugglers, singers, comedians (if you can understand them), acrobats and fire-eaters.

In the narrow streets the midsummer temperatures climb and the atmosphere becomes unbreathable. You can sit in a shady square and listen to a medieval play if your understanding of the language is good enough to follow it. But the best relief is to follow one of the signs pointing to Les Caves. The whole of the great limestone hill beneath the castle is honeycombed with caverns and passageways cut out of the rock when the stone was quarried to build the town centuries ago.

If you follow the signs up one of the narrow lanes leading to the foot of the cliff you will come to an entrance, perhaps twelve feet wide and twenty feet high. Normally it will be shut off from the public by a pair of bolted gates but today the place is open and the lights fixed to the roof are turned on. At first it is a relief to enter into the blessed cool, but soon the sudden drop in temperature will induce shivering, so you will need to carry a light sweater.

The tunnel curves gently upwards for perhaps thirty metres until it enters a large cavern. Along one side is a bar with many barrels of wine behind it. Around the cave are a number of tables, most occupied by a shouting laughing throng. On each table is a dozen or more open bottles. Chinon’s speciality is a light red wine with a fragrant bouquet redolent of raspberries

Wine drunk by a hot body under these cool conditions in the middle of the day appears to be extremely refreshing. But beware! Leaving the cave an hour later, after sampling perhaps half a dozen of the wines on offer, and emerging into the heat of the late afternoon hits you like a sledge hammer. An irregular stagger back to the hotel is necessary to sleep it off and prepare for the evening’s entertainment.

 

Next week I will tell you about what happens during the evening.

 

Apr 012012
 

I first visited Chinon at the beginning of August when the Medieval Marché was taking place. For this event, barricades are erected across the streets leading into the old town and vehicles of any sort are banned after 10 a.m. Entry is normally a couple of euros for pedestrians but it is free for anyone dressed in medieval costume. Long banners are hung in the narrow streets and stalls are erected along the sides selling a wide variety of products – wines, cheeses. fruits, pâtés and other foods prominent among them. Local craftsmen (stone and wood-carvers, blacksmiths, weavers, potters and artists) set up mobile workshops and produce goods to order while the customer watches.

In the squares, stages have been erected where plays are performed, poetry read, classical and jazz music are played, choral and folk singing take place, and semi-sporting events of doubtful origin occur. Groups of people seem to have been invited from all over France to perform – from Brittany, the Pyrenees, Alsace and Provence. Notices are posted in the squares to tell you the timetable. However, being rural France, they are not always reliable.

At noon the Marché proper begins with a parade through the streets. But this is not a carnival of floats as we know them in England. This is France. So the parade consists entirely of groups of people (from three to as many as ten or twelve) wearing fancy dress and carrying great platters of prepared food – cooked poultry and game, pâtés and terrines, cheeses, truffles vegetables – all beautifully presented and decorated. They have been judged for appearance, selection of constituents and, of course, taste. The winners now proudly display their rosettes and awards. With every platter of food some of each group carry bottles of wine, selected by them to perfectly complement the food.

As they pass in procession they hand out samples and top up the glasses of anyone who can catch their eye. If you attend, make sure you are carrying your own glass. Looking round the crowd, we were struck by the many original ways people have discovered of carrying a half-full glass of wine and a plate of food yet at the same time manage to greet friends, shake hands, talk, gesticulate and pinch the plump bottom of a passing medieval wench.

The other thing to remember is to position yourself near the start of the parade because the food and wine levels decline very quickly as the participants progress through the town.

 

Next week I will tell you about what happens after the parade has ended.