Archive for February 2008
These days France is enjoying two of its favourite pastimes – after food and wine – le rugby and la politique. This weekend at the little bergerie in the wilds, there was going to be a good deal of both – with three major matches, and the looming local elections. Our friends were in the thick of it – but there was just time enough for Ivan to recall the location of a menhir, not ten minutes walk from the house.
It’s on a scruffy non-descript hillock that runs down to the magnificent gorge du Sou – that’s the little river that runs through Sarah’s land – or the gorge du Caune Pont, as the IGN map has it.
Ivan was born in Termes, a pretty Cathar village sacked by Simon de Montfort in 13th. C. and has always known about the stone – but not if it had ever been upright. The garrigue is sparse on this hill-without-a-name, but still it took a while to find it. Time enough to see that it was the only rock on the entire ridge – though there were sufficient limestone slabs below in the gorge to fill Brittany. It is 2 m. long and 1m. wide, and stands knee-high. Its orientation is 320 NW/SE pretty much facing the gorge and Roc de Fenne Prenz. [See Page on La Fenne Prenz] And while this may be purely subjective – the shape is very symmetrical and . . . well . . . shapely. I can’t think of a big stone more like a flint spear-head than this.
In a landscape of stone like the Corbieres Hills, or the upland ‘causses’ of the Minervois there are a number of sites, half-remembered/half-lost – or grottes missing their corresponding dolmen, and dolmen standing whose grottes have got buried in garrigue. It’s been an idea for a while now – that a group of keen people might come and stay – and explore some of these possible vestiges.
Returning to this one: it is not marked or named, and it’s not standing up. So is it a menhir? I have posted it as a fallen one, on the Megalithic Portal site – and named it after the nearest thing: Moulintour. Its coordinates, using the excellent French GeoPortail site, are: 2.34’26” E, 42.59’07” N. Or in decimal degrees: 2.573888, 42.985277
With Ireland, Wales and England winning, and his political campaign faltering, it was not the best of weekends for Ivan. Fortunately Sarah roasted a huge leg of lamb and there was lots of wine.
We think we live in the country. That is until we leave our little village on the plain and venture 40 minutes south into Les Hautes Corbières, to stay with friends in a renovated bergerie in its own valley. Here wild boars outnumber humans ten-to-one, and eagles cruise the thermals.
I was expecting to make a 2 hour trek, following the excellent guide to ‘Dolmens et Menhirs en Languedoc et Roussillon’ by Bruno Marc. It turned out that the dolmen de la Porteille was just 45 minutes from the house – and though not fully signposted from our end, it was a glorious ramble on yet another sunlit day.
The bright light almost overwhelms the photos with contrast.
It’s orientation is 245. The coordinates given on the Megalithic Portal put it about 500 metres across the valley to the NE. Using the French GeoPortail.fr site, I make its coordinates 2.35’57” E, 42.59’48” N or in decimal degrees: 2.599166, 42.996666
This is peering down into what is quite a deep cavity. The stone on the left side seems less an orthostat than a natural flat slab, making this almost a fissure tomb. It measures 3 m. long outside [2 m. inside] and 60 cm. wide inside. It’s 1.5 m. deep.
The dense maquis conceals the fact that we are on the crest of a ridge with views of holm-oak covered hills all around. But it was no surprise to find that Pic du Canigou, the sacred mountain of the eastern Pyrenees, was also in sight. Developments in prehistoric funerary practice and ceramics came as much from the Iberian south, as from east across the Mediterranean [or from the Alps]. This region was and is a crossroads of cultures.
And it was no surprise either to discover there was a grotte de Matthias not many minutes further down the slope. The conjunction of cave and dolmen is repeated all over the region. A later post will examine this relationship.
We have walked around Nitable Roc many times with friends who live just below it. This time, armed with information from a local teacher and a big Maglite, I wanted to explore the tunnel beneath Roc de Fenne Prenz – the rock of the pregnant woman. It’s just visible as a thin column on the right flank of Nitable, lower down, below the last steep cliff.
The name is corrupt occitan: femna – woman feme – female
prenh – pregnant prensòia – with child
From certain angles the rock has that form. It lies close to the GR 36 at the most dramatic point where the path skirts the cliff-edge. A tunnel passes right through the cliff, under la Fenne-Prenz. The fertility cult that grew around the rock requires a woman to crawl on hands and knees the 20 metres from west to east, as a ritual of reenactment of the birth-journey, towards the rising sun.
For more photos of the tunnel, and the Gorge – go to the Fenne Prenz page.
Today I set out with this little shopping list :
Quarante (village in Minervois-Herault)
Vestiges préhistoriques et antiques
* Habitats chalcolithiques : Bel Air, Fontanche.
* Dolmen de Pech Ménel.
* Cromlech de Malviés.
* Cachette de fondeur (fin âge du Bronze) à Bellevue.
* 35 villas romaines principalement : Pech Ménel, La Massale, Saint-Fréchoux, Les Clapiers, Parazols, Les Sèmièges, La Condamine de Rivière, Les Commandeurs, La Barreire.
* Tombes wisigothiques : Souloumiac, Parazols, Grange Haute, Saint-Barthélemy, Saint-Martin, Saint-Fréchoux.
* Les Huyères : ancien fief seigneurial ; cimetière abandonné, 3 silos.
* Nécropole à incinération du type “Champ d’Urnes” du 1er âge du Fer au lieu dit Recobre (35 tombes, mobilier au musée de Narbonne).
But I have learnt to take all this with a large pinch of ‘hand-crafted’ salt from Gruissan.
I set out with high hopes – while fully concious that half of this guff has been cobbled together from old documents, and that in the land-rush of the 1970’s any old stone that happened to be sitting in a field growing lichen was bulldozered into the ditch to make way for the Great New Wines of Languedoc.
Now that the grants have dried up – and so have some of the French (they are no longer drinking three times their body-weight in wine per annum – man, woman and child) – it may be too late.
I only managed to find one of these sites.
The dig at Pech Ménel
And even if it was a dismal collection of stones, and even if I did have to cross vineyards to interview every person I saw on the landscape, only to hear that No: they had never heard of any neolithic site, or stone alignment, or dolmen, or prehistoric settlement, and that they had a) Lived here all their lives or b) Just moved to the area …. it didn’t matter. The day was sunny and calm and just about every heap of stones spoke volumes about mediaeval toil – and never mind the prehistory.
Three capitelles at Fontanche – field stones cleared and structured as shelters.
So: no cromlech at Malvies today – and there was no one in at the Chateau to ask. But a stone circle down here in the Midi – now that is worth going back for.
No visible neolithic habitat, either, at Bel-Air. As for Fontanche, this wine-domain seemed deserted – yet there, parked in a weedy courtyard was a beautifully restored 1960’s BMW 600 series . . . There wasn’t time to explore the Iron Age necropolis at “the place called ‘Recobre'” with its Urn-field vestiges. But now that I know the lie of the land I’ll be able to make more focussed enquiries.
While the under-30’s with paid jobs were stacked up over the thermal-ridges in their paragliders, and the retired over 60’s were reliving their cycling-club heydays, in packs of bulgey yellow lycra [this is France-Partout, au weekend] the poor vignerons are still hard at work, pruning the vines or cleaning vats – and answering idiot questions from foreigners about old stones. Yes – there was a dolmen. And a dig had started last summer and the man to ask was an historian I’d come across before – Jacques Gatorze, of Cessenon.
I had forgotten how awful a dig looks : the steel pegs, the string and the plastic. I rather wish I hadn’t come across it like this: a crime-scene in the undergrowth.
Perhaps I am a Romantic, and not the Classicist I pretend to be.
More on the Pech Ménel dolmen page >
There are few people to be seen out on the Causses of the Minervois or the hills of the Corbières, at this, or any other time of the year. In twelve months one might encounter a dozen other walkers. It’s a real and rare pleasure to be out in the wilds on my own. But I have to remind myself that I am not alone: there are others out there, and they are dangerous. Some may be five times my weight, and angry. Some may weigh less than me, but they are armed and stupid. Between the wild boars and the hunters, I’m at risk. The autumn/winter season is not over ’til the end of this month.
A hunter’s stand above Assignan
There are one and a half million chasseurs in France. In the 2006/2007 season they killed 466,352 sangliers out of a population of over a million. The mortality rate is decreasing (for humans, that is) – from 40 per year to 25 recently. All of them hunters. Of 142 people wounded – 12 were non-hunters. Two weeks ago, not far from here, a hunter panicked when a boar charged him. He killed his companion with an accidental blast. In 2005, Claude Rossetti of Montlaur three villages away, was killed while gathering mushrooms on Alaric mountain. He was shot accidentally by an ex-gendarme who was out hunting alone, illegally, on a day when boar-hunting is forbidden. One son, Sylvain, has started a national movement called Partageons La Nature – Share Nature, in an effort to bring an end to unnecessary death and injury.
cartridge cases below the shooting platform
His other son, Claude, wrote recently about the shooting in understandable – if barely intelligible – anger : – ‘ pour son acte heroique il a ete condamne a 6 mois de prison ferme amenageable ( autrement dit RIEN ) dans l’ aude il n y a pas de jour de non chasse quand ce n’est pas le petit c’est le gros gibier et en plus on chasse partout route chemin garrigue public prive et meme a n importe quelle heure du jour ou de la nuit dans l aude si lon n est pas chasseur on est rien . . . ‘
‘ there’s no day when there’s no hunting . . . ‘ – ‘ they’re hunting anywhere public land private land . . . at any time of the day or night . . . ‘ – ‘ if you’re not a hunter here – you’re nobody . . . ‘
The rules governing la chasse au sanglier have been tightened following this and other incidents – spot-checks for permits, and regulation orange vests and hats. But it is a macho culture where drinking plays a big role. I keep alert, fear the guns more than the tusks, and look forward to March.
Meanwhile there is the joy of being out in this landscape with such stones.
a borie or stone shelter in the causses of Minervois
This is all that remains of the Allée Couverte du Bois de Monsieur :-
Do you really want directions?
OK. Drive out of Agel on the D20, past Le Moulin de Madame. Somewhere along here the road turns into the D128. Fork L onto the D26 and go thru the hamlet of La Roueyre and on past La Grotte du Gourp des Boeufs, where the road morphs into the D177. You can do all this without knowing any of this – basically you’ve just gone from Agel to Assignan. The dolmen is in the far corner of the last vineyard on the left, down the track on the left after the pond above the village. It lies at 2.52’40” E , 43.23’50” N.
I came here armed with just one sentence gleaned from a 1962 ‘account of the activities of a member of the Societé d’ Etudes Scientifiques de l’Aude‘. In a paper he gave on the prehistoric relics of the region, he noted four sad, forgotten and neglected dolmens in the Minervois. One of them was the Allée Couverte du Bois de Monsieur, 500 metres off the Assignan to Coulouma road, on a ‘petit mamelon.’
Now, every maquis-covered bump in this landscape could be described as a ‘little breast’. So I assiduously fossicked over all the more likely ones – before doing the sensible thing : ask a local. The local turned out to be Monsieur Donnadieu, the mayor of Pardailhan (not of Donnadieu, which is a hameau nearby). And a font of information on all things historical in the neighbourhood. I managed to stem the flow with a promise to return soon – and got back up the road to a hill that resembled no breast I had ever known.
The dolmen is not marked on any map. The Bois de Monsieur is not mentioned on any plan cadastral. The breast at best is but a chest.
And the Allée Couverte – is just one last large orthostat surrounded by a heap of jumbled slabs. From the angle of the sun the dolmen is facing SW.
Move along now, folks. Nothing more to see.
Bois Bas is a farm at the end of a narrow winding road high up on the Causse above Minerve. It’s a maze – and an amazing place. Twelve dolmens and five diaclases, or fissure tombs on less than one acre. And all in a near-trackless jungle of maquis : holm-oak, box, spiney juniper and rock. Lots of rock. Terraces and pavements and slabs and piles of blinding-white limestone – any of which might be a tomb.
The farm was bought by a co-operative or commune of ten, a year ago – they are carrying on from where the old owners left off: a big herd of goats, a handful of sheep, and some cows. They are modernising the dairy, and extending the campsite, with earth-closets. There are ensuite rooms to rent, a restaurant, a pool, and a stage for the weekly music and drama gigs. It’s ecological and not political – and while they don’t mind the odd dolmaniac turning up, they are busy and likely to get busier with the season. Park carefully, and ask for permission & directions at the main house.
The maquis covers most of this headland that slopes south of the farm towards the cliffs of the Gorges de la Cesse. Skirt two meadows and go through a gate and the low-growing woodland begins. A cart-track runs south: pass the first junction, leading off left, and continue a couple of minutes ’til you see two small piles of stones on your left. You leave the track here to enter the maquis. The owners have no wish to tart the site up, so you’ll need to sharpen up your ‘trackers’ eyes to spot the unobtrusive signs they have placed by the side of the path, and in the crooks of branches – indicating where there are ‘interesting events’. Some are no more than a jumble of rocks half-buried in the undergrowth, where a half-visible orthostat and a compass-alignment are all you have to help identify it. Others are breath-taking in their massiveness. Most are within a few paces of the main path – others lie beyond. It is easy to become disorientated as you duck and weave between the dense dwarf-oaks. And it’s easy to find yourself deep in a thicket standing on a pile of rocks that lured you on, only to leave you disappointed, and lost.
Bruno Marc has written extensively about megaliths in Languedoc-Roussillon, and he has numbered twelve here, with a further three north of the farmhouse. I only found eight this time, and five diaclases – before stumbling suddenly out of the dense maquis onto the rock-ledge above the gorge. To go from ten-metre-visibility, to 500 metres of empty air, and a drop nearly as much – is stunning. The necropolis merits a good day – so pack lunch and sit out up high on warm rock- before plunging back in for more.
For more photos, descriptions and short video – go to Bois Bas page >>