Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Past Times

The long shadows cast in the late afternoon sun on the ancient stones of the medieval city of Alet Les Bains are nothing short of magical.  This is the town where Mr V spent many a summer holiday growing up and where we stayed over the long weekend.

Alet Les Bains started life as the seat of a Benedictine Abbey in 813 and has a source of natural spring water.  Nestled at the foot of the Pyrenees next to the River Aude, this tiny village of five hundred or so inhabitants was once a highly influential town in the history of the Catholic Church.  In the twelfth century it was where church meetings were conducted and the town attracted pilgrims.  Nostradamus is even rumoured to have either lived or at least regularly visited Alet.

During this time the Languedoc region was home to the Cathars, a religious sect who were persecuted and eventually wiped out by the Catholics.  Many legends and religious conspiracy theories about the area have sprouted up over the years on the basis of this dark history.  This is the area which features in the controversial book "The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail" whose authors tried to sue novelist Dan Brown for plagiarising their work in his novel The Da Vinci Code.

These days there are just whispers hinting at its immense history and the bloody religious wars it has endured in the architecture, the ruins and the layout of the town, as well as in the surrounding area which is peppered with the majestic ruins of Cathar castles.

Life is quiet in Alet now.  In fact the silence is almost deafening.

Alet used to be a walled city and above you can see the remains of the old city wall.  This is a place which is still steeped in the old ways of doing things.  Life is still in many ways carried out at a pace far from that of the modern world.

The newly paved road you see in the picture above and below was laid using manual labour.  We watched fascinated as one man hand sprayed sticky black tar onto the road flanked by two others wielding wooden boards to prevent the houses on either side being splashed.  They were followed down the road by another man tossing the gravel out over the freshly laid tar with a shovel in well practiced arcs.

Many of the original villagers are ageing and there are several foreigners who have chosen to retire here.  Whilst we were there we heard the cathedral bells tolling to mourn the passing away of a villager.  There is also an old tannoy system that announces when market sellers come through the village offering their wares.

Many of the locals take pride in keeping their neighbourhood looking pleasing to the eye from the street.

Up until recently this building below was a convent housing an order of elderly nuns.

If you stay in the town on the eve of the First of May as we did this year you could witness a very particular Alet tradition in the spirit of April Fool's Day.  On this night the local youth get up to mischief and collude to take any loose lying or detachable objects around the town and pile or hang them  up in the main town square as a bit of a joke.  In the morning the bewildered and disgruntled owners of the missing objects will make their way into the square to retrieve their belongings.  This year with all the roadworks going on they had a ball moving all the barriers and witch hats into incongruous locations in the square as well as peoples bins, pot plants, bicycles and even window shutters and gas meter lids.  However this time, the older locals were suitably scandalised, complaining angrily that they had taken things too far as some people's flowerpots had been damaged, bemoaning what had become of the youth of today and demanding that the Mayor intervene and put a stop to it all.

Mr V. happened to walk by the young scoundrels as they were moving things about in the late evening and they stopped to wish him "Bonsoir Monsieur!"

Shearling biker jacket: Oasis; Draped silk print minidress: Kaylee Tankus; Black Rat leggings: Sass and Bide; Biker boots: Gap; Bag: Marc by Marc Jacobs


  1. Oh SO beautiful. Thank you for the gorgeous pics. I could so happily live somewhere like this, like Vianne from Chocolat.

    Merci! Sarah xxx

  2. Hi my dear-what a lovely post and story, the youngsters only want a bit of fun, lol!! Stunning pictures and great outfit too xx

  3. That is the best tradition I have ever heard of! Do you think I can make it catch on in our Northern Irish town? The chavs would probably steal the things rather than put them in the square haha! :P

  4. How very beautiful. And what a fun tradition, including the standard grumpiness of the older generation. xx

  5. what a wonderful looking place! wish i was there now!

  6. What a great post. I feel like I just took a little trip. The pictures are gorgeous and thank you for putting in the history of Alet. I am going to add it to the list of places I want to visit one day.

  7. It really does look wonderful, your photographs and description will have me leafing through Living France in the dentists with renewed vigour. xxx

  8. I love small towns like this.
    That bicycle one is the best though.
    They actually stopped to wish him bonsoir.
    Great post.

  9. ohh....this looks so wonderful...thanks for sharing!

    i could see myself sitting in a quiet nook, reading and sipping something sweet...

    just perfect

  10. Gorgeous pictures and writing, my dear. You should get this published somewhere so more people can get to know Alet Les Bains, its deep mystical history, and its current sundrenched peace. The May 1 prank sounds comical, although I agree with those who were cross that things went too far and items got damaged.

    I wonder what the town will be like in twenty years or so, if most of the population is aging?

  11. I loved hearing about that tradition! I really need to see more of regional France! xx

  12. I LOVE this post, too. It's funny, it was another Jill (same spelling) who said what I was about to: it felt like taking a little trip. This was so beautifully worded - I'm going to show it to my husband, too. I'm glad you don't just post about fashion - altho you tie it in somehow.

    I'm fascinated with this deep mystical history, too. To think that the Cathars were wiped out by the Catholics, and that the people who have suffered from religious persecution for centuries have in their past caused the same pain. I could feel the quiet through these beautiful photographs.

    The least I can do is tweet this post. Have a lovely weekend V! (oh and I almost forgot why I stopped by: to thank you & to say yeah, I noticed her scarf first before the sequin booties, too) xx

  13. Thank you so much for taking and posting these pictures of an exquisite and tragic place....the matte black shutters with the the lace curtains is just beyond beyond.

    have you ever looked at the book "Italian Hilltowns" by Norman Carver? he's an architect and prof who started vacationing in rural italy, and saw this incredible indigenous architecture - and the same as in the Languedoc, it is slowly being drained of vitality due to modern economic priorities....he started taking these incredibly beautiful b/w photos documenting these villages which comprise the book. i imagine you would flip over this book (if you don't know it already!)

    for those interested in the 'conspiracy angle', "The Sion Revelation" and "The Templar Revelation", both by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, contain a lot of historical research on heresy in the Languedoc. both are full of footnotes and avenues for further research. Theodore Rozsack's novel "Flicker" is wrapped around many of these same ideas of conspiracy and heresy, and how they mite play out in modern media. very well written and just a great story.

    more than you ever wanted to know! thank you again for this beautiful post Veshoevius, steph

  14. It's funny to have a tradition that causes the older generation to moan and complain - but perhaps that's the intention. These little villages are so picturesque and to me also always slightly claustrophobic.

  15. I'll have to wholeheartedly agree with some of the other posters---these pictures are so wonderful and evocative that for a few minutes I was transported to Alet.


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