Limoux

Tucked out of the way on the edge of Limoux, the Basilique Notre-Dame de Marceille is a special place to me as it was here that we first met St Germaine (Cinderella) last Summer. The colour, light and quiet peace of this church makes it a lovely place to pause for thought regardless of beliefs.

While the ‘powers that be’ may be trying to whitewash certain iconography (such as badly painted dulux statues of female saints on the outside of the church) there is no doubt that, for many, this church is a special place. There is a museum full of works of art and notes of thanks from grateful people who have been healed as a result of prayers said here or time spent with the black madonna who is on display in one of the chapels.

I love the light and colour in this building – it’s glow is different to any other church we visited while in the region.

Beneath the church, at the bottom of the hill, is an ancient pagan healing well…another example of churches being built on top of sacred ancient sites!

 

 

The Torchbearer’s Calling:

The future is a formless void, a blank space waiting to be filled.
And then a Torchbearer envisions a new possibility.

That vision is your dream, your calling,
and it burns like a fire in your belly.
But you can’t create the future alone,
you need Travelers to come along.

Yet the path through the unknown is dark and unclear.
You have to illuminate the path for Travelers.
Torchbearers communicate in a way that conquers fear and inspires hope.

Some say being a Torchbearer is a burden.
Some say it’s a blessing.
Either way, those who light the path are the ones who change the world.”

–from “Illuminate” by Nancy Duarte

Minerve

We celebrated our 11th wedding anniversary at Minerve. We visited Minerve on the last day of our trip last year when I was exhausted and didn’t take it all in so we were glad to return again – this time with a little more energy!

Situated in the Languedoc-Roussillon, Minerve is sadly known as the location of one of the massacres of the Albigensian Crusade in 1210. In effect the Albigensian Crusade was genocide. Simon de Montfort (curiously a chateau is named after him nearby our home in the Dordogne – a chateau that he ordered destroyed during the crusade) was the leader of the Crusade and a ruthless soldier who would stop at nothing to wipe out not only Cathars but anyone who got in the way of his mission. Genocide is the systematic extermination of an ethnic group or nationality. Sadly genocide is still all too frequent. With the passage of time, it is easy to forget that genocide has been a form of power mongering for thousands of years. In the case of this region of France, when the Way of Love taught and handed down through generations by Cathars grew too big, the Vatican saw it as a threat and made out to systematically wipe out entire communities….often slaughtering not only their intended targets but also their very own Catholics who sought to defend their friends. For example,”Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.” was allegedly spoken by Papal legate and Cistercian abbot Arnaud Amalric prior to the massacre at Béziers on July 22nd 1209 – the first major military action of the Albigensian Crusade. A direct translation of the Latin phrase would be “Kill them. For the Lord knows those that are His own.” This is why I struggle with organized religion…all too often I see one group exerting dominance and pain over another. I just don’t get why we can’t all live in harmony!

A year later on 22nd July 2010, it is thought that 140 people were burned alive in the gorge at Minerve bringing to an end a 10 week siege. After visiting the Cathar memorial at the top of the town, we retraced the steps of those who were to be killed, and silently walked down the narrow cobbled streets into the deep gorge below. Minerve is a mixture of dark and light. It’s an utterly charming village but laced with the darkness of times past. After walking down the gorge the group paused to listen to Issy’s incredible voice ring out across the landscape as we remembered what took place here. Climbing the many iron steps back up to the top of the gorge it was as if we emerged into the light once again.

We had time to explore the village before enjoying a fabulous lunch at Relais Chantovent (well worth the visit!).

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Later in the afternoon we revisited the peaceful village of Aigne. Nestled among undulating hills packed with grape vines, the unusual design of the place offers natural protection to those in need of refuge. The village is often referred to as the snail village because it’s designed like the spiral of a snail-shell which is translated as ‘Cagarol’ in the local Occitan language. The small alleys and terraced cottages are now home to many artists and craftsmen. In the middle of the village is a little square with a church to one side and a gorgeous little art gallery. Honestly the peace and tranquility of this village is enticing and I can see why friends have fallen in love with its charm and it’s people.

Following a recent spate of thefts of relics and art in many local churches, most are now locked up but we were able to get the key to the little church here which was probably built on top of an ancient temple. Full of some unusual features I loved exploring this place. A river runs under the church bringing energy and unusual acoustics to the building and harks back to its ancient roots. Once again, Issy sang – just so beautiful – and we found images of the sacred feminine such as a small black madonna that was found hidden in the church wall during an excavation.

The church altar vaulted roof shows the symbols of attributes of the region: Love of God, Fidelity, Hope, Charity, Humility.

Elements of the church also show how historically – despite persecution – people were encouraged to continue practicing their faith by hiding things in plain site. For example, the image of St Anne teaching (book, scroll or both) refers to teachings being passed down from grandmothers to granddaughters (while mothers were busy working). Women were the teachers in Cathar society – which is another reason why the patriarchal structure of the Vatican wanted to stamp the group out .

The day concluded with wine tasting. The heat was up to near 40 degrees by this point and several of our group were suffering so we retreated to a shaded patio until making our way back to Alet. 

Return to Alet les Bains

IMG_7282I was first introduced to tranquil Alet Les Bains last year. It was the last stop on our tour and by far the most fun place we stayed. Once again this year we are staying at the charming, simple and yet beautiful Hotel L’Eveche nestled between the ruins of on the abbey and the banks of the river. Run by an incredible family who have owned the hotel for almost 100 years, they pride themselves on providing top notch hospitality. While the rooms are simple, the service is some of the best I’ve experienced anywhere in the world. Those of us from SF 2015 who returned again this year felt as if we were returning home to family.

We arrived a night before the rest of the group as we wanted some down time before the hoards arrived. Madame recognised us as soon as we arrived and made us feel so at home.

Madame Yolande and her family are amazing. Most of our group is made up of Americans and there are always some interesting dietary needs! We discovered that many places in France were unable to handle even a simple request for vegetarian food at times, but it was reassuring to be able to return to L’Eveche every evening and know that everyone had their needs taken care of without complaint. The food was fabulous and served with such great care. Most of all their cassoulet is phenomenal. If you ever get the chance to visit this little corner of the Aude, you won’t be disappointed.

The following day, we had planned to rest and relax before the rest of the group arrived. However, one of our friends had had a hellish start to her holiday when her tooth cracked and it desperately needed fixing. Matt and I drove off to Carcassone to rescue Elle and Jill, return their rental car, have lunch and get Elle’s tooth fixed. This time we saw a little of the main part of Carcassone away from the Medieval cite. It’s such a charming city with character, charm and great shopping of course!

That evening we returned to the hotel after the rest of the group had arrived and it was just fabulous to see friends old and new….the sparking and fun was just about to begin!

By the way, Alet has a rich history – more on this soon!

 

 

 

 

The Shepherdess of Pibrac

A year ago in a church in Limoux, some friends and I discovered St Germaine. We were struck by her small, simple statue and yet we knew there was a story behind her – as there always is. I felt so drawn to her knowing that I must already know her story….and sure enough I did…we all do. We were extremely grateful when Kathleen offered to meet us the day before the formal part of the tour began and take us to see St Germaine’s home.

St Germaine was thought to have been born around 1579 in Pibrac near Toulouse. She was a shepherdess and ministered not only to her flock but also the poor of Pibrac. Her step-mother and two step-sisters resented her beauty (inside and out) and banished her to live with the animals in the stables (can you see where I’m going here?!).

Despite living in awful circumstances she would loyally serve her step-mother by shepherding the sheep (you’ll usually find sheep at her feet in statues or beside her in paintings). Although she was never formally educated she believed in The Way of Love and was of Cathar heritage (from her late mother). She fed those who had nothing to eat by sneaking into the house after dark to get bread. One day her step-mother sent guards after her. When they asked her what was in her apron she opened it up and instead of bread, beautiful flowers fell to the ground – often referred to as the Miracle of the Flowers. So her step mother was unable to discredit her. Statues and pictures often show her with flowers falling from her apron. This is an allegorical story (interpreted to reveal hidden meaning).

Still jealous of her step-daughter, on the eve of Germaine’s 22nd birthday (which is usually when a girl becomes a woman and a priestess in Cathar culture), the step-mother poisoned her. She died under the stairs in the stables of the barn where she lived.

Nowadays her home is visited by many. There is a wax model of St Germaine under the stairs surrounded by baskets of flowers. Although Cathar, like so many figures throughout history, the Vatican PR machine stole her story and made her into a saint to cover up the truth.

There was such beauty in the simplicity of Germaine’s story and perhaps that is why I have felt so drawn to it. But I also realise that I grew up on a farm where my Mum always kept sheep so that she could use their wool for her weavings. When Mum moved to her home in Cladech many years ago, one of the most endearing things we loved was the daily visits of a neighbouring shepherdess with her flock of sheep. Today her daughter guides her flock across the meadow in front of our home every evening. I always find it an opportunity to pause to watch the sheep grazing on the hill below.

We then moved on to the middle of the village of Pibrac where there is a church containing what are believed to be the relics of St Germaine in a gold reliquary topped with small statues of her with her flock. Clearly St Germaine is held with high regard and great love in this community.

If you haven’t already guessed, the story of St Germaine inspired the story of Cinderella. Several centuries after her death seven sisters from the region were married into Huguenot families in Germany including the Grimm family. The sisters shared their local legends which the brothers who turned the stories into fairy tales. So many of the fairy tales we love are steeped in Cathar tradition…and then Huguenot legend as well as rooted in The Hero’s Journey.

One of our Sacred France friends – Sharon – was deeply moved by St Germaine’s story and was touched when a fellow friend bought her a simple statue of St Germaine for her to put in her garden back in New York. Unfortunately Sharon was unable to fit the statue in her luggage so she gifted it to us. So here is the statue in our garden….with the sheep in the meadow behind! Thank you Sharon!

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St Germaine….for Sharon! Note the sheep in the field behind her!

 

 

 

An unfortunate incident in Albi

Albi is a town located on the banks of the River Tarn about 45 minutes east of Toulouse. We stopped here for a night before joining up with our tour in Toulouse the next day. Don’t be fooled by the colourful photos. The Albi skyline is dominated by the cathedral – the largest brick built structure in Europe. Built in the 12th century it was created in direct response to the Cathar heresy by the Vatican to show that they – not the people – wield ultimate power.

There was nothing about this town that we particularly enjoyed except for our charming B&B which was located away from the town centre. We all felt out of sorts during the afternoon while visiting the Cathedral and Toulouse-Lautrec Museum. The famous Albi blue colour sold as scarves and table linen in town is muted and grey as if to show the depressive state of the place. The town centre felt devoid of colour. It was as if every bit of colour had been sucked from the town and put on the seemingly vibrant ceiling of the cathedral as if to say that the church is all-powerful and there is none else. Even the church tower looks like people are being given the middle finger.

Supposedly the shining glory of the cathedral is the altar painting – a grotesque painting of the Last Judgement. I felt sick. Starving for feminine imagery we looked in just about every nook and cranny of the church interior for some sort of sign – there was little. On the building map we spotted a chapel dedicated to Martha and Lazarus…but were told that it was off-limits and not open to the public…another sign of a lack of progress.

Walking to the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum next door, Matt was about ready to go to sleep. I’ve never seen him walking in such a groggy, seemingly drunk state. It was as if all energy had been zapped from him. He was about ready to go to sleep on one of the big red sofas in the museum. We were all tired, ansy and ready to flop.

It was only after we had shared our disappointing experience with a couple of friends that we were told the cathedral was built on the site of a Cathar prison and torture chamber where hundreds – maybe thousands – were tortured for their way of life. No wonder we felt depressed and out of sorts.

Fortunately equilibrium was restored once we reached our charming B&B on the outskirts of town. Only recently opened, Maison Julia was a beautiful, tranquil sanctuary for the night and highly recommended…breakfast was fabulous!

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