ABBEY OF SAINT-MARTIN-DU-CANIGOU (1)


Abbey of st-martin-du-canigou-a-9

The Pyrénées-Orientales department is rich in early medieval religious foundations. One of the most striking is the abbey of Saint-Martin-du-Canigou, a Benedictine monastery founded in 1009 on the flanks of The Canigou. This high mountain (2,784 m /9137 ft) – once thought to be the highest in the Pyrenees – is of particular symbolic significance in this Catalan region, one that has changed ownership and allegiances many times over the centuries. Even now the Catalan flag predominates in public places. 

Abbey of St Martin du Canigou

The Abbey is pleasingly inaccessible. Leaving aside a precipitous donkey track down a cliff, there is an easier track that leads up from the little village of Casteil. On certain days, at certain times, this can be negotiated by going in a small trailer drawn by a kind of skinny quadbike. Or else, it’s shanks’s pony. The steep walk is said to take 30 – 50 minutes. You’d have to be fit to reach the abbey in less than half an hour. We took 45 minutes, overtaken at intervals by serious walkers with kit to match. And gratifyingly, we overtook several puffing, wheezing and (frankly) sweaty pilgrims in our turn.

A view, as if from the upper slopes of Canigou (Google)St Martin du Canigou Map smdc-2-jpg

Much of the trek is through woodland, with encounters with red squirrels, nuthatches, black redstarts and a surprising variety of  butterfly species. The vertical rise from the village to the Abbey is well over 1000 feet, and the mountain air is sweet and clear. Apart from a small chapel on the way and the visitor centre, there are no buildings apart from the Abbey. Those with the energy left can climb  higher to a promontory overlooking the Abbey, from which the postcard and guidebook view can be replicated (header image). However there is the added advantage of being able to take zoom photos.

The gorge on the left side gives a good idea of how precariously the Abbey is perched on the cliff topst-martin-du-canigou-a-7-copyst-martin-du-canigou-a-5

Over the centuries, the Abbey has suffered earthquake damage, secularisation in the c18, and consequent abandonment by the monks. Thereafter, it fell into disrepair, then ruin. Most of the contents were dispersed. The buildings were then treated as a quarry. The wonderful and important capitals of the cloister were looted, as were the remaining sculptures. 
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And so the ruins were left for well over 100 years until, in 1902, a local Bishop of Catalan origin began the massive task of restoration. Thirty years later, the work was complete. The lower church – basically the crypt – was found to be largely undamaged, and is substantially as it was in the c11. Much of the upper church and the cloister was able to be reconstructed. The rest of the monastery buildings are early c20.

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The Abbey is currently occupied by the Catholic Community of the Beatitudes. This is a remarkable charismatic order, not least because both consecrated men and women can be members, as can priests. Furthermore, it is inclusive of unconsecrated people – even families – who share the broad beliefs and aims of the community and their missionary activities in parishes and hospitals. We were shown around by a remarkably spritely and down-to-earth young nun (at one stage she high-fived me!).

The cloister deserves separate consideration, not least because of the wonderful capitals, some of which were, amazingly, recovered as the result of a diligent search for dispersed original material during the restoration.

st-martin-du-canigou-a-8If you want to find out more about this remarkable place, it has its own website with plenty of information HERE

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A PUZZLING SUNDIAL IN THE PYRÉNÉES-ORIENTALES


VILLEFRANCHE-DE-CONFLENT is a small medieval walled town in Catalan country. It is watched over by Fort Liberia, one of VAUBAN‘s massive defensive constructions in this historically strategic area. The town is charming, and additionally famous for being the start of the ‘Train Jaune’, a picturesque narrow-gauge railway that climbs high into the Pyrénées. The amazing altitude rise is from 1250 ft at Villefranche to 5000 ft at the track’s summit just above the village of Mont Louis (which has its own Vauban fort) 

Double sundial, Villefranche-de-Conflent, Pyrénées-Orientales

The sundial above is high up on a house in the church square. It doesn’t exactly draw the eye, and would be very easy to miss. It’s on the house next to the Mairie (right, with the Catalan flag), below the small top windows.

Villefranche-de-Conflent - Sundial

Villefranche-de-Conflent - Sundial

TWO DIALS IN ONE

The main dial is etched and painted on cement, with roman numerals and showing hours, halves and quarters. The long gnomon is attached beneath a small sculpted head from which sun rays radiate – a simple representation of a solar deity. Above the head can be seen numbers, of which only 11 and 8 at the start, and 3 at the end can be made out with any certainty. Possibly, it is a date: the dial (which is not ancient) is otherwise undated and it is very hard to guess its age. I can find no explanation for the initials DS (top left, Gothic font) and ER (top right, normal font). 

The small dial-within-a-dial shows the hours only, with arabic numerals. The gnomon points straight down. I am unsure of its purpose as a supplementary dial on the same plane, but I hope to find out.

Villefranche-de-Conflent - Sundial

INSCRIPTION

The words “COM MES SOL FA MES BE ESCRIC” are Catalan and mean roughly “When it is sunny, I write (show the time) well”. This rather charming inscription was apparently added around 2000 by the village pastor.

Credit: for information, Michel Lalos, who has compiled a comprehensive illustrated record of the sundials of the Pyrénées-Orientales.

JERSEY TIGER MOTHS IN FRANCE & ENGLAND


Jersey Tiger Moths  Euplagia quadripunctaria, are widely distributed throughout Europe. Once rare in Britain, they are now increasingly found in the South of England. Recently we spotted one in the eastern Pyrenees one evening. It wasn’t very close and I had only a small camera with me so the results aren’t startling. However, the photos give a fair idea of this very pretty moth. 

Jersey Tiger Moth, Ceret, FranceJersey Tiger Moth, Ceret, France

I knew at once what sort of moth this was, because we had found one – the only one I’ve ever seen before – in our garden in Dorset last year, and I to go through the usual online process to ID it.

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A more professional photo… (Wiki)ecaille_chinee_-_euplagia_quadripunctaria_havre_begique_3

The Wrong Sort of Tiger Moth… “CHOCKS AWAY”tiger-moth-1-copy

TWO-TAILED PASHAS & FOXY EMPEROR BUTTERFLIES


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We were sitting having a picnic on the low wall surrounding a small hilltop church in the eastern Pyrenees, when I caught sight of this wonderful creature. A marital ‘no computer’ pact and limited wifi possibilities for a phone meant that ID was frustratingly delayed.

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This butterfly turns out to have the wonderful names Two-tailed Pasha or Foxy Emperor (Charaxes jasius).  Frankly either name is exotic enough to stick in the mind, but I think I prefer the Pasha. Because the creature was on a tree beyond the parapet, there was no chance I could get near enough for a close-up, so I had to resort to zooming in at various angles and magnifications, and hoping for the best.

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I kept hoping the butterfly would move without going to the extreme of flying away. An open wing shot would have been great to get, but it was not to be. Here’s what the upper wings look like. Having found the image, I realised at once that we saw one or two of the same species on the wing elsewhere, but they were too busy to pause for a photograph.

two-tailed-pasha-charaxes-jasius-genoa-hectonichus-wiki

These are butterflies of Africa, but they are also found on the southern fringes of mediterranean Europe. Apparently they like maquis-type scrub country or (clearly) the similar garrigue terrain where we were. They also like some height, although we were only about 1500 ft ASL.

two-tailed-pasha-ceret-pyrenees-2

A HANDSOME & COMPLEX SUNDIAL IN NORMANDY


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This sundial is something rather special. This decorative dial is both elegant and very complex. It must have taken a long time to devise and lay out accurately. It stands in the extensive grounds of the elegant Abbey Church of St Georges de Boscherville in Normandy. I managed to get hold of a small pamphlet in the Abbey bookshop – it wasn’t on display, and I had to go back to collect it once they found one. Even then I failed to understand the sundial properly, and not simply because of my rusty but workable French. I’m not even going to attempt to describe it, but it photographs well in its picturesque setting, and I have included a shot of the explanatory plaque at the end for the science-minded.

One fact I learnt is that until WWII, France was on Greenwich Meantime. During the occupation, the Germans changed the time zone to Central European time, a practice that has remained ever since.

St Martin de Boscherville Sundial 1.1 1St Georges de Boscherville Sundial 1St Georges de Boscherville Sundial 1.1. 1St Georges de Boscherville Sundial 1.1. 2

St Georges de Boscherville Sundial 1.1. 3St Martin de Boscherville Sundial 1. 1 St Georges de Boscherville Sundial 1.1. 4 St Georges de Boscherville Sundial 1.1. 5 St Georges de Boscherville Sundial 1.1. 6 St Georges de Boscherville Sundial 1.1. 7

Does this help?St Georges de Boscherville Sundial 1.1. 8

JUMIEGES ABBEY: AN ELABORATE EARLY SUNDIAL


Mass (Scratch) Sundial, Jumieges Abbey, France 1

A picnic lunch at the Abbey of Jumièges, Normandy, has much to commend it – not least tranquility and a stunning view. As we sat enjoying the sunshine on our white bench, we both noticed something unusual on the nearest tower, something not mentioned in anything we had read about the Abbey. On the south wall below the 4 levels of arcaded towers you’ll see in the header image a small red item pointing down at 45º. A gnomon – and where there’s a gnomon, there’s a sundial (although the reverse is often not the case). So we went to investigate.

Mass (Scratch) Sundial, Jumieges Abbey, France 3

The Abbaye de Jumièges was a Benedictine monastery founded in 654AD. In the c9, the original abbey was burned down by Vikings, then rebuilt. A new and larger Abbey was consecrated in 1067, and it was further enlarged in the c13. Restoration work was carried out in the late c16. Subsequently, a vast sundial dated 1660 was crudely carved in the south face of the tower.

Mass (Scratch) Sundial, Jumieges Abbey, France 4

The primitive design and execution of the sundial is rather at odds with the architectural precision of the stonework and the daring of the conceit of  building a hexagonal tower on two square ones, and topping it off with a circular tower… just because they could. The rustic sundial has more in common with the medieval Mass or Scratch sundials on churches, primitive devices that originally evolved simply to indicate the time of the next Mass, with the Priest moving a stick into the appropriate hole on the wall to mark the forthcoming canonical hour. From being an ‘event marker’, the addition of a gnomon and roughly scratched numerals placed higher on a church wall would later provide a community with a way to mark the hours – at least when the sun shone.

A rough medieval scratch dial above a church door near Epernay (sans gnomon)France sundial

Longburton Church, Dorset: a more sophisticated scratch dial high on the Ham stone south wall – ?c16Longburton Church, Dorset: scratch sundial

Returning to Jumièges, here is a closer look at the sundial, with embellishments that seem to have been carved freehand and endearingly ineptly for such a splendid and august building. Yet the time markers have clearly been carved with precision. My only negative comment on this exuberant and enjoyable timepiece is the modern gnomon that looks completely out of place to me. Maybe it’s the colour that’s the problem. Or the flat utilitarian blade of metal. Anyway, without glimpsing it from our picnic spot we would never have seen that side of the tower, and we would have missed an unusual treat.

Mass (Scratch) Dial, Jumieges Abbey, France 5Mass (Scratch) Dial, Jumieges Abbey, France 2Mass (Scratch) Dial, Jumieges Abbey, France 7

All images: RH

 

THE APIAN WAY IN NORMANDY: THE ULTIMATE BEEHIVE?


St Martin de Boscherville is a small town – more of a large village – quite near Rouen, but a world away from the bustle of the city. In many ways, it is much the same as any similar French rural community 30 or more years ago. Set in an agricultural landscape in a loop in the Seine, it has the familiar small shops for provisions, the cafe / bar, some old houses and barns, some neat modern houses and… a magnificent early Norman abbey, St Georges. It was largely spared from revolutionary destruction by being designated the parish church, as it remains today. There’s more to be written about the abbey, a favourite of artist John Sell Cotman during his Normandy tours.

The gardens are being – have been – restored, if not to their former glory at least to an impressive standard, with well-ordered flower beds, vines, herbs and fruit trees – staples of the medieval way of monastic life. And a hive. A truly splendid ‘Bee Pass’ chimney hive that stands impressively tall. Each facet has one or more doors for access to the innards. I have posted videos below that show the workings of this unusual hive rather better than I can describe them. These hives have been installed in a number of locations in France – not least the Chateau de Chenonceau – and Germany. I’ve no idea if there are any in the UK yet, but if not, there ought to be…

Beehive, St Martin de Boscherville, Normandy 7Beehive, St Martin de Boscherville, Normandy 9Beehive, St Martin de Boscherville, Normandy 2Beehive, St Martin de Boscherville, Normandy 3Beehive, St Martin de Boscherville, Normandy 6Beehive, St Martin de Boscherville, Normandy 5Beehive, St Martin de Boscherville, Normandy 4Beehive, St Martin de Boscherville, Normandy 1

Click HERE to go to the ‘Abeille Avenir’ website

Click HERE to reach the ‘Abeille Avenir’ Facebook page

All photos: RH