Thursday, January 15, 2009
Sunny and 10°!!
The best thing about starting off recent mornings at -13°, -11°, and -9°, is that the morning when it's +1°, it feels like a refreshing heatwave. Do I wear wool longjohns or silk or, dare I, none at all? What a tough decision. (These are all in Celsius, American friends, 10°C = 50°F). After the exceptional coldness of the last weeks, the relatively deep snow after Tours, and the fatiguing icy streets and paths, the weather through the countryside these past few days has been perfect for hiking.
I've been seeing new sections of France for me - interesting and quite different than other parts I've visited. Charlemagne's been everywhere it seems. In Tours, a tower named for him marks the grave of his wife, who died accompanying him on one of his journeys. Aw. In Aulnay, the silver mine discovered during his reign provided the substance for his coinage. The mine is closed to visitors in winter but would be interesting to see. Chuck's grandfather, Charles Martel, gets more signage time in the area around Poitiers - he led a charge against the invading Moors and forestalled the area's enemy occupation for a while.
I arrived in St Jean d'Angély today, where Chuck's grandson, Pepin, had a vision to stop the war his was in against the Normans and to go to the nearby coast to meet a monk named Felix, who had his own vision to bring the skull of John the Baptist from the Holy Land to Pepin on the coast of Aquitaine. Intermixed visions... who'd have thunk it? In gratitude, Pepin sponsored the Cluniacs in building a grand abbey here. Sadly, though, the area fared poorly during the 100-years war with the English and the subsequent War of Religion, which became a local civil war. The relic of the great Saint was desecrated and the abbey destroyed many times over. There was a late 18th-century attempt to rebuild, but the revolution put a halt to construction and the part that was completed is now a lovely European Cultural Center and pilgrim house. Nice digs.
Wandering through the villages provides interesting opportunities. In overgrown thickets, there are many uniquely ornate private graveyards of Protestant families. 'Temples' are identified, though with little information about them, as places of late 17th-century worship. Austere is the word. I asked around and it seems they're still used today, but because of the dearth of Protestant pastors, services are limited to once a month or so. These are contrasted by the abundance of spectacularly ornate Catholic churches, several of them designated as UNESCO cultural heritage sites. I've attached a few watercolors, though the colors look pretty funky...
This is historically interesting as being the place where St Hillaire did his thing in the mid 4th century... I saw his reliquary. The big thing about him, other than converting the populous during the Gallo-Roman era, was being the big influence to St Augustine, who studied his methods and commentaries. Augustine became a pretty influencial guy himself, what with the whole monastic-rule thing, but attributed much to St Hillaire. St Martin then came to town, leaving his life as a Roman soldier behind him, to study under St Hillaire. Martin founded a monastery in Ligugé. I stayed there the other night, with the 24 monks who chanted the psalms in the gregorian style in their modern chapel. I'm sure Martin assumed they'd modernize the place since he built it in the 4th century. It's all pretty cool stuff.