Saturday, 17 September 2016

From Puilaurens to Amiens

It's the French trip again, from the Languedoc in the south, to Picardie in the north. June 2016

So it is in brilliant hot sunshine that we drive the next day to the castle of Puilaurens, which looks out over more magnificent mountains. The approach path, though steep in places, is shaded by trees and is much shorter than the one to Monségur. 

Puilaurens, like all the castles associated with the Cathars, has its own individual history.
It stood on one of those shifting borders, and at one point, before the 11th century, it was part of the territory of Aragon, only later becoming part of France. But during the Cathar crusade, although attacked by Simon de Montfort, it was not taken by him. Cathars, and others who had had their lands taken away from them during this crusade, took refuge there, but it is thought that the castle finally surrendered around the same time as Quéribus, about 1255. It later had to resist several Aragonese attacks and was the most southerly fortified castle in France. When the border of Aragon shifted further south, it lost its importance as a border garrison, and its maintenance and its military defense dwindled. 

So it's now a ruin though the outer walls are still intact and it's an imposing presence perched on the hilltop, with a clear view of villages in the valley, and of anything that might be moving through the valleys and approaching up the lower slopes towards it, and then there's those nearby mountains you can look across at, giving a sense of solidarity and companionship. 


Part of the castle that is still intact is the Tour de la Dame Blanche, which, the information board tells us, was named after Blanche of Bourbon who briefly graced the castle with her presence. It has a stone vaulted roof, and the guide (I've attached myself to a guided tour) points out a particular feature. A tiny slit in the walls, called a 'conduit porte-voix' which if you speak into it carries the sound down to the lower levels, even a whisper the guide says, so that there is quick and easy communication between the different levels of the castle. Or – I think – what is spoken, even whispered, on one level, can be overheard on another one.   

Vaulted roof of Le Tour de la Dame Blanche

The guided tour is a group of women, all with walking canes, peaked shade-giving caps, walking boots and backpacks. As they file down the steps from La Tour Blanche, a man sitting on a stone at the bottom asks 'Vous avez oublié les hommes?' And they all laugh. 

When we sit down in the shade of a solitary tree in the grassy central area open to the sky, I catch snatches of their conversation, which I love to listen to because of the southern accent, those long drawn out vowels and musical endings, sounding at least as close to Spanish as French and perhaps that's what the Occitan language sounds like.
Le jambon, c'est le jambon rouge?.... J'ai un peu du fromage....les gaans qui ne sont pas contaang.....c'est maintenaang je me dirai...


The next day we're up early, packing up our tents before beginning the long drive back through France. I'm going with the others as far as Amiens, where I can get a train to Rouen, to visit friends there. I've checked online to find the train times. We have lunch in the picturesque town of Mirepoix, 

then drive on to Limoges, where we spend the night. But we are leaving the hot sunny weather behind, heading back into grey skies, and mist. We are also heading into the areas which have been badly affected by the floods. Near Limoges, the motorway becomes almost empty, bereft of traffic, we're driving on the Ghost Autoroute, the fog turns to thin rain, and we become convinced, since there is no other traffic, that everyone else knows something that we don't. 

The river Vienne at Limoges

Leaving Limoges early in the morning, once again, it's a ghost highway, no other cars at all, the thick mist turning the roadside trees into vague and menacing shadows like some post-apocalyptic scene.

As we get closer to Paris, we are relieved to see a few cars looming out of the mist. And there is plenty of traffic on the périphérique, but there are signs saying that you could not leave it and go into Paris. The exit sliproads are clogged with stationary cars. This is because of the flooding. We catch a glimpse of the swollen Seine, and then we follow directions for Amiens. My friends drop me off at the train station, then continue on their way to Calais. 

I am in good time for the train and go to buy a ticket. I'm then told that the 14.50 train is not running. Neither is the 17.15. The first train I can get a ticket for is the 19.10. Clearly the information I got online was wrong. I ask the young woman at the ticket counter if it's because this is a Sunday. Non Madame she informs me, c'est à cause de la grève. Ah, the train strike! I'd forgotten about that.

Commemorating the battle of the Somme, 1916, outside Amiens train station