Saturday, 14 May - As if the excitement of last night wasn't enough, there was even more excitement when we went to St-Guilhem-le-Desert that had all the makings for a good scene in a murder-mystery!
Here's what happened - we left home shortly after 10. We had a few tasks to complete before leaving. Janis and Judy had gone to the pharmacy last night to try to find throat lozenges for Janis' sore throat. The pharmacy tech didn't speak English (or was afraid to try) and when they asked in English for throat lozenges, she told them they didn't have anything. Hmm.... So this morning I went back with Janis to speak French with the tech after we had talked to Marian. She explained that the pharmacy tech just said no because she didn't understand and of course they have throat lozenges. So off we go, Janis and I, armed with a packet of English cough drops and the French words to describe Janis' symptoms. (mal du gorge, glandes enflées - be careful about which glands you are talking about) Once in the store, there is a big sign "Mal du Gorge" over the section of the shelves for the sore throat medicines. Sheesh! We talk to the pharmacy tech who recommends something that will anesthesize the throat as well. We pay and leave. It should have been so easy.
Then before getting on the road to St Guilhem, we must move our car away from the burnt-out car. We inspect for damage, and find a small indentation where the bumper has overheated and indented a bit. Other than that, there seems to be no damage other than a greasy black oily residue over the back of the car. Duane and Clark take some evidentiary photos. Several neighbors, including the owner of the burnt-out car, are out, requiring several conversations about our car, the fire and the speculation as to cause. So it's about 10:30 when we finally pull away from the curb outside our house.
I am driving the rental car - a little SEAT diesel - grey, cute and pretty peppy. SEAT stands for Sociedad Española Automóviles de Turismo, a Spanish car company in business since 1950.
My car had been parked farther down the block, so there was no issue related to the fire for our car. We head off, girls in the Isuzu, boys in the Peugeot, with our lunch of sandwiches in the trunk. The day is grey and it's supposed to rain in the afternoon. We're hoping to see St Guilhem before the rain comes. We drive through hopeful skies with patches of blue, but as we turn north, the skies close in and it is grey again when we arrive an hour later. It's also very damp feeling - the first time there's been humidity hanging in the air since we arrived.
We park in the lot at the top of the hill by the abbey and decide to see the church first as it is 11:30 and we know it will close at noon. When we go inside, we are a bit timid as there is a baptismal ceremony going on at the front by the altar, a little halo of light in the midst of the dark Romanesque interior of the church.
I see another square of light on the right side of the aisle - daylight- that leads to the cloister. A man beckens us into the cloister.
I collect the others and walk into the grey light of the cloister to an open door where we find the "stone museum" - a collecton of artifacts from the abbey along with a film (subtitled in English) set up in the former refectory of the Benedictine monks. Museum Man (that's who he turns out to be) is at the door inviting us in. We pay our 2 Euros 50 and enter. Museum Man turns out to be a man who really likes his job (as Duane remarks). He went out of his way to make sure we had the information about this museum, hopping back and forth between us and other visitors, but always popping back within a couple minutes to give us the next information. He didn't speak English (or, more likely, was self-conscious of his ability), and as I spoke French to him, he was happy to have me translate what he was telling us. However, he clearly understood what I was saying in English, as he occasionally corrected my date (12th not 2nd century)or told me again something I had forgotten to say. He was very thorough and very interesting and clearly wanted us to understand and appreciate the history of the abbey.
In the museum, we saw the sarcophogas that once held the bones of Guilhem as well as that of his two sisters. Much research has been done in recent years to find what happened to the artifacts of the abbey (We learn that many of the pieces, such as the original arches from the photo below, are in the Cloisters Museum of New York City) and some efforts have been made to piece together the way the abbey looked in its days of power and economic influence.
This abbey was a pilgrimage point on the way to St Jacques de Compostelle as besides the remains of St Guilhem, there are pieces of the true cross (you can put that in quotes if you like, see cross picture below). The abbey was extremely influential and powerful in the middle ages.
By now it is 12:15 and Museum Man tells us he needs to close for an hour while the Carmelite nuns celebrate their noon services in the church. So we all leave and walk back to the church door, WHICH IS LOCKED! Even Museum Man is stuck here. He makes a phone call to try to find someone to come open the door. In the meantime, Museum Man tells us to come with him, he wants to show us something. (It's raining now, but protected by rain coats we follow him into the open side of the cloister.) Museum man tells us the story of the castle remains we can see on the cliffs above the town.
I translate as he tells us the story, but take a long time to understand the word "géant" which is crucial to the story. Duh, I finally get it. There is a legend that the valley was terrorized by a giant (géant) who had a magpie for a pet. St. Guilhem defeated the giant, threw him down into the valley and the magpie that had tried to warn the giant of St Guilhem's arrival, was banned from the valley. To this day, magpies don't survive in St Guilhem. (God's truth, he says.)
Finally, the Carmelite services are finished and the white-robed Carmelites come back through the cloister. We can now visit the church and continue our visit of the town. Whew! No one got murdered, but you could imagine secret comings and goings from the various doorways of the cloister. Even more serious, imagine if you were locked up in this cloister for all of your life!
We finish looking around the church, find the bones of St Guilhem and the silver cross that holds the pieces of the true cross (the little cross within the larger silver one). While added to in subsequent centuries, this church maintains its Romanesque barrel arches, small windows and narrow dark interior aisles.
By now it is drizzling and almost 1 PM. But we decide to walk through the town. Most shops are closed for lunch or just because there won't be much business because it is May, it's raining and there aren't many tourists around. We do stop in a shop selling plaster and stone Cardebelles (acanthus leaved thistles).
Janis, Judy and I all buy carvings. We meander down to the end of the street half looking for a sheltered space to eat lunch. But it is raining harder, so we give up looking, and walk back up the hill, snapping pictures along the way, rain or not.
We are reduced to eating lunch in the cars in the parking lot. Sheesh! Not even the excuse that we are behind schedule! After a bit of discussion, it is decided that it doesn't rain in caves, so the Grotte de Clamouse, 1 km down the road is chosen. No caves for me, but the rest go in for the 1.5 hour tour in French.
Color commentary from Janis and Dave about the cave I didn't see: This cave's stalagtites and stalagmites are generously dusted with crystals. Relatively flat at the beginning, there were lots of stairs at the end. They also did a son et lumière (sound and light) inside the cave.
No English whatsoever in the tour, except for a sign in 3 languages at the end (French, German, English) to not forget to tip your guide. The guide is standing at the door with his hand out at the end, and he was tipped what he was worth, nothing. The 5 American visiters were clueless about what they had seen.
While they are inside the cave and I am in the car stitching, the skies clear and the sun comes out. Go figure! We are home relatively early (6:30) and can sit outside for aperos while waiting for our dinner of roast pork, roast potatoes, carrots and asperagus to cook.
We finish with chocolate from the Carcassonne stash and ice cream and raspberry sherbet.