Montmartre Up :: Pigalle Down


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Throughout the Belle Epoque, Pigalle, the neighborhood at the foot of Montmarte hill,

Jane Avril lithograph by H. de Toulouse-Lautred, 1893. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

Jane Avril lithograph by H. de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1893. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

was the place to go for cheap nightlife. Pigalle and Montmartre still have a reputation for providing any kind of excitement for hire.

Back then the village was a mix of local folks and artists, writers and noisy upstarts who wrote poetry or music or manifestos.  The lot of them were anarchists to the bourgeois. Down on the streets of Pigalle or high up on Montmartre, the artists’ eccentric behavior, erratic hours and street parties were tolerated, even encouraged.  Who was to stop them, anyway?

Gaining definition after the Revolution, Montmartre was created a jurisdiction in 1790 with 400 residents. By 1857 there were 36,000 citizens in the village and it was annexed by Paris three years later, in 1860. Baron Haussmann’s grand boulevards opened the densely populated urban areas of the city below and made public transit feasible. But the steep hill of Montmartre  remained relatively untouched until construction on Sacre-Coeur Basilica began in 1875. The economic constraints and political disarray left after the Franco-Prussion War and the Paris Commune in 1871 played a role in slowing down the hell-bent passions of artists lured to Montmartre.  Later in the 20th century, after World War II, visitors to the massive Basilica with the striking mosque-like towers and bulbous white dome spilled into the artist’s quarter of Montmarte, bringing the by-products of tourism with them.

The streets were narrow and twisting, lined with worker’s houses and small shops. Even today, Montmarte’s alleys and streets defy a grid system, curving to fit topography or the clusters of former farm houses. The neighborhood was changed radically by the end of the first world war when the cathedral was completed.

Artists and budding photographers searched for village characters as subjects. Montmarte magnified the simple country life with the noble windmills and rustic villagers. Above the city, away from the bourgeoisie,  Montmarte also  embraced 19th century sexual libertine mores in the free-wheeling cabarets filled with comely jeune filles.

In Hippolyte Bayard’s photographs, the most extensive visual record of mid-19th century Montmarte available, the windmills dominate the horizon. Green patches are squeezed between rustic shuttered houses, shops and music halls. Laundry hangs out of upper windows. The white dust from the quarry covers the cobblestones.

To follow the footsteps of the 19th and early 20th century artists in Montmarte, start at the vineyard, rue des Saules and rue St. Vincent. The same vines were there when Vincent Van Gogh trudged up the hill to his favorite dance hall in the rue Rustique. And when the dwarf legged Toulouse-Lautrec stumbled along, tapping his cane on the paving stones, ears filled with brassy cabaret notes of the Moulin de la Galette or the Moulin Rouge, the scent of the sweating can-can girls in his nose.  A plaque in the vineyard honors Poulbot (1879-1946) who painted the children who tended the vines.

Paris Nightclub scene by H. de Toulouse-Lautrec

Push open the door at 22, rue de Saules. Imagine the racket at the Lapin Agile a hundred years ago! Glasses clink, palms slap wooden tables, hoots of laughter, songs born in a surfeit of drink and rebellion.  And what a mix of languages – French, Italian, English, German, Catalan, Dutch, Russian.

Inside, Andre Gill decorated the walls with paintings and posters about the crimes of Troppman, a Second Empire renegade, who became a popular hero.  Outside, the old sign of an amusing rabbit jumping into a cookpot and holding a bottle of wine has endured till this day. With so many writers and artists, some of whom called themselves the Apaches in sympathy with Native Americans, with brilliant wordsmiths like Verlaine and Rimbaud hanging out there, we can assume jokes and stories flew fast.  Huddled at a corner table, they might kid the barmaid: Was the owner Madame Adele,  Monsieur Gill’s agile rabbit, or he, her’s?

Aristide Bruant, the innovative singer, journalist, publisher and activist, bought the cabaret in 1903.  Not long afterwards, customers flocked to Lapin Agile from Cabaret Zut in neighboring Place Emile Goudeau, Bruant also persuaded the famous Frede away from Zut to work at the Lapin Agile.   The artists frequented places where they knew they could speak freely and run a line of credit.

The Bateau-Lavoir, which burned in 1970, but has been restored, contained several artists’ studios.  Picasso, Brraque, Gris and others worked there and the site is considered the birthplace of Cubism.  Picasso and his Spanish friends and anarchists carried on the boho tradition in Montmartre until WWI with a cast of characters that included the writers Max Jacob and Apollinaire.  Early in his career, Picasso painted on the walls of Lapin Agile; did he talk the owner into settling a bar bill with a mural?

Artists met their models through their friends and congregated in the guinguettes and cafes.  An enterprising young lady in need of employment might plant herself in a cafe and ‘interview’ prospective employers.

One such mademoiselle was Suzanne Valadon, a part time model beginning to try her hand at painting. Suzanne cut a unique path through the established method of learning to paint; she did not hunch over a palate in the Louvre copying the canvases of great painters past. Following her instincts, she developed a strong individual hand. Degas admired her early drawings and the two artists became life-long friends.

Valadon had been an acrobatic dancer, but a fall that injured her back cut short that career. Her first serious modeling assignment was for Puvis de Chavannes. Work with Renoir followed. Both met her at the Cabaret des Assassins (later, the Lapin Agile).

Maurice Utrillo Tomb, St. Vincent Cemetery, Montmartre

Maurice Utrillo Tomb, St. Vincent Cemetery, Montmartre

Valadon herself was a child of Montmartre and grew up on Blvd. Rochechouart. Crossing Montmartre to see friends, visit her studio, buy food and supplies, sometimes she took the quickest route and cut through the small Cemetery of St. Vincent where her artist son Maurice Utrillo would be buried in 1955.

Montmartre’s church of St. Peter, at Place du Tertre, founded as a monastery during the Middle Ages, has a cornerstone laid in 1133 by Dame Adelaide of Savoie, Queen of France and wife of King Louis VI. Over the centuries, the church has been a Benedictine Abbey and a parish church. Architectural enrichments include Roman columns, remnants from a temple that likely once graced the site, vaulting from the 1400’s and Romanesque walls with stained glass windows. St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, is believed to have vowed to create the order while in this church. A tile plaque near the entrance honors “Notre Dame de Montmartre, Notre Dame de Beaute, patronne des artistes.”

The church holds much of Suzanne Valadon’s history. Like many French women of her time and class, she was seriously devout and attended mass daily during the last decades of her life. Her funeral procession left from St. Peter’s.

Whatever her early indiscretions, Valadon drank deeply of life’s pleasures and used her talents wisely. Through the early years of the 20th century, mother and son lived in rue Tourlaque where Toulouse-Lautrec had a studio for some time.  Some say the Toulouse-Lautrec and Valadon were lovers, more likely they were devoted friends.

Antique postcard of 12 rue Cortot, Montmartre.

Antique postcard of 12 rue Cortot, Montmartre.

By the mid 1920’s, Utrillo, Suzanne Valadon, and the rest of their family lived at 12 rue Cortot, now the Museum of Montmartre.  Paintings and memorabilia in the museum show the life of an artist in the quarter and especially as it played out in cafes and cabarets.

Many artists lived or worked at 12 rue Cortot over the decades, including Renoir and Emile Bernard and later, the fauvist painter Raoul Dufy.  Emile Bernard never achieved the popularity or fame of his colleagues, though he started painting under Fernand Cormon’s direction and befriended Gauguin and Van Gogh. Emile Bernard painted with Gauguin during the summer of 1886 in Pont-Aven, Brittany and with Van Gogh the following year at Asnieres where Van Gogh took a studio.

Place du Tertre,

Place du Tertre, Montmartre

By the early decades of the 1900’s, the artists and writers had expanded their turf, and many shifted to Montparnasse. Bohemian Montmarte of the 1920’s continued the libertine tradition.  Artists still worked there because even into the 1960’s, Montmarte rooms were cheap, an artist’s urban paradise.  Radical innovators from all over the globe flocked to Paris, every artist’s hometown.

Behind this simacrulum of artists at work there are remnants of the history of artists who once lived in Montmarte.  The rents are far too steep for artists to live or work there now.  And the vendors at the easles in Place du Tetre are mostly just window-dressing to create an artistic atmosphere to please the tourists.

Walking Resources – Map of Montmartre


Toulouse-Lautrec in Montmartre


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Englishman at the Moulin Rouge by H. de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1892.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, along with Maurice Utrillo, is the epitome of a Montmartre artist. He is identified with the lifestyle and painted the scenes and people that are icons of  Montmartre. He drowned his health in the pleasurable toxins so readily available in Montmartre.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithograph posters, paintings, pastels and drawings depict the dance hall girls, the chanteuses, the whores and waiters and their customers, the haute bourgeois or visitors from more tightly laced societies like England and the United States.

Breaking away from his colleagues, Toulouse-Lautrec honed his drawing skills and pioneered innovative techniques using empty space, color and stark lines, as bold as the subjects he followed so closely.  He loved the performers, the dancers, prostitutes and pleasure prowlers of the belle epoque.

Paris Nightclub scene by H. de Toulouse-Lautrec

Early in his career he studied with other young artists with Fernand Cormon in the Cormon’s atelier-school at 10 rue Constance.  He met artist Louis Anquetin, who was interested in subjects that attracted Toulouse-Lautrec.

For a while, Toulouse-Lautrec lived at 19, bis rue Fontaine with Rene Grenier and Lily Grenier, a model for Edgar Degas who had a studio in the same building. The courtyard at 19 is still bathed in sunlight and there is a line of low studio rooms on the left. No official plaque reports that Toulouse‑ Lautrec and the Grenier couple lived there, however.

In 1887, Toulouse-Lautrec left Cormon’s instruction and took his own space at 27 rue Caulaincourt where Dr. Henri Bourges, a childhood friend, lived. Toulouse-Lautrec stayed with him until the doctor married in 1893.  A few years later, when Toulouse-Lautrec’s health was clearly declining, his mother rented an apartment in Rue de Douai to give him a proper home.

In the Studio. Academy Julian, Paris. by Marie Bashkirtseff, 1881.

In the Studio. Academy Julian, Paris. by Marie Bashkirtseff, 1881.

At number 30, rue Fontaine, not far from the Grenier residence, Toulouse-Lautrec rented a room in 1896 while he painted in a studio at rue Tourlaque shared with Suzanne Volquin. The crumbling facade at  number 30 would have been a bourgeoisie building at that time.   The Academy Julian was founded in 1868 by painter Rodolphe Julian, and the first to permit women as students. American impressionist Lilla Cabot Perry and Russian-born Marie Bashkirtseff were students.

Jane Avril lithograph by H. de Toulouse-Lautred, 1893. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

Jane Avril lithograph by H. de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1893. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

Toulouse-Lautrec shifted his attention to the Moulin Rouge, 82 Boulevard de Clichy, when the can‑can became all the rage in the 1890’s. Dozens of can-can dancers still kick up a storm on the Moulin Rouge stage, billed as the “greatest cabaret in the world.”

Le Grand Hotel :: Opera


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Le Grand Hotel
2 rue Scribe
75442 Paris Cedex 09

  • Location: Overlooking Paris Opera
  • Suites: 72
  • Standard and Deluxe Rooms: 470
  • Originally built 1862.

Le Grand Hotel. Here’s where the beautiful and the powerful have been living and loving it up for a hundred and fifty years. With the Paris Opera as next door neighbor, and Cafe de la Paix as the hotel’s “coffee shoppe” you know Le Grand is the center of a certain special universe. You could say it’s a symbol of French luxury dating back to the opulent Second Empire of Eugenie and Napoleon III.

Look up at Le Grand! You can muse with the clouds through the structural marvel of the glass pyramid that covers the central court. Skillful design by the renovation team that included architect-designer Pierre Yves Rochon transformed the 19th century court where carriages dropped off guests decades ago into a lounge/restaurant atrium.  Interior detailing and furnishings hint the Second Empire, but it’s all retro chic modern.  One expects Cary Grant to amble down the staircase to the sassy heroine waiting for cocktails below.

The dining rooms include the  La Verriere winter garden atrium open for breakfast and lunch, “Le Bar” and world-famous Cafe de la Paix.

Vintage beverage coaster from
Cafe de la Paix.

Cafe de la Paix has had some famous chefs work their magic in its kitchen, including the great Escoffier. Today, the cafe terrace and the restaurant at the back are the places to see and be scene while you nibble, sip and giggle. Because it is so very well known around the world, you never know who will drop by the great meeting place.


The concierge staff are deft at fielding odd questions or fulfilling travelers’ whims. Maids, room servers, porters and doormen were courteous and quick to complete their tasks.  The staff are professionals and the staff-guest ratio is high. Le Grand’s Spa with fitness facilities offers fine care from aromatherapy to floatation.

Jean-Pierre Redouté :: Artist at Chateau Malmaison



Chateau de Malmaison

For Joséphine de Beauharnais Bonaparte, the Chateau de Malmaison —  just outside Paris, with its abundant gardens and enveloping forests — was a cherished retreat, her respite from the demands of Paris and Napoleon’s court life. Today it is a delightful oasis and a museum dedicated to Joséphine and Napoleon.

The Chateau de Malmaison, or “bad house,” as it was called in the Middle Ages when the property was the site of a leper colony, is nestled in a small forest near the Parisian suburb Rueil-Malmaison. When Joséphine bought the house in 1799, it was the centerpiece of a 640-acre estate, which has shrunk to six hectares (14.8 acres). Today, residential apartment buildings sit on land that was once part of the empress’ great park.

The original Malmaison was built in 1622. After the imperial couple completed their renovations, the chateau incorporated elements of the neoclassical Empire style then flourishing. Malmaison is spare and compact, but the use of such details as wide window casements, decorative cornices and molding as well as neutral floor covering and mirrors gives the illusion of spaciousness.

Malmaison had several owners after Joséphine, including Napoleon III, who was Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew and step-grandchild, the son of Josephine’s daughter Hortense de Beauharnais and Napoleon’s brother Louis. The  philanthropist Daniel Osiris bought the house and grounds in 1896, financed restoration and presented Malmaison to France to be used for a Napoleonic museum. Further acquisitions and careful preservation have enhanced the property.

Osiris Pavillion

As one enters the grounds, the surprisingly compact white chateau comes into view, dwarfed by the surrounding woods. In summer the scent of the famous roses planted by the botanist and artist Jean-Pierre Redouté is a pleasant distraction along the gravel paths.


The tour begins with the salons, dining room and music room on the ground floor and proceeds at a leisurely pace. Braided satin cords bar traffic from certain precious carpets, but there is ample time to study the antique furniture and accessories.

Library at Malmaison.

Napoleon’s war campaign office is re-created in one ground-floor room. Walls and ceiling are covered with striped cloth; crossed spears are set in the corners of this simulated tent. The general’s portable desk dominates the room and, indeed, Napoleon seems almost present as one stands in the midst of the belongings that he took with him to battle.



The music room reveals Josephine’s gentler touch. Delicate paintings of flowers by Redouté decorate the corridor leading to the ornate salon where the empress’ harp is displayed.

Four faces of P-J Redouté

An elaborate round table covered with signs of the zodiac and mystical symbols reveals another aspect of Josephine. The guide comments that she regularly had her own and Napoleon’s horoscopes cast and that tarot card readings by fortunetellers were routine entertainments in the household.

Lily painted by P-J Redouté

On the second and third floors, the tour continues along some very narrow passageways and into the family bedrooms and a room filled with memorabilia dating from Napoleon’s exile on St. Helena. The tour group buzzed with whispered comments when we came to the Osiris Pavilion on the second floor to view the death mask molded by the Corsican doctor Francesco Antommarchi who attended Napoleon as he died in 1821 on the remote South Atlantic Island, St. Helena. Also on view are the camp bed on which he died and the cover for the catafalque that carried his remains to the tomb.

Josèphine’s bed.

Some of Josephine’s wardrobe spills out of one of the bedroom closets. Cluttering bedside tables and dresser tops are personal souvenirs and toilette items belonging to Joséphine and Hortense, her daughter.

An avid patron of horticulture, Joséphine also left her mark on the gardens of Malmaison, which she employed Redoute’ to lay out. In early summer they are at their most colorful, when rows upon rows of roses are in bloom.

Rose by J-P Redouté

In addition to his horticultural creativity (he developed many new rose varieties for Joséphine), Redouté was one of the world’s greatest botanical illustrators. His meticulous paintings of the roses at Malmaison are among the treasures of the New York Public Library, and his rose varieties grace gardens all over the world.

A few steps from the chateau, in the former stables, is a display of coaches and carriages, including the one Josephine rode in on the return to Malmaison after her humiliating divorce from Napoleon in 1809. Equally poignant is the carriage used by Princess Marie Antoinette of Austria when she came to France to marry Louis XVI.

Josèphine’s Tomb

Joséphine lived at Malmaison until her death in 1814. Not far from the gardens she presided over, in the church in the center of Rueil-Malmaison, is her white marble tomb.  With her daughter Hortense, the two women, an empress and a queen, mother and daughter, repose together in the silent church, their vivid lives now history.



Address Book:

Chateau de Malmaison (Avenue du Chateau, Rueil-Malmaison, France). Consult the website for current opening hours, tours and virtual tours.

The museum is open daily, except Tuesdays.  It is closed December 25 and January 1.  The last entry each day is 45 minutes before closing time.  Closing times change depending on the season and are open slightly later on weekends.  Call ahead or check the museum website for specifics.

The chateau is about 12 miles (45 minutes) from Paris by car. Take Rte. N13 west from Neuilly and follow the signs to Rueil-Malmaison and the chateau where there is a free parking lot.

From la Défense metro/RER station: take bus 258 to “Le Chateau” (25 minutes).  Cross the Route Nationale 13 and walk to the chateau about 300 meters.

From Rueil-Malmaison station: take the RER A line  to Rueil-Malmaison, then the “Bus Optile 27” and get off at “Le Château” (8 minutes)

Nearby Attractions of Interest:

On Avenue de l’Imperatrice Josephine, a few minutes’ walk from Malmaison, the Napoleonic pilgrimage continues at Chateau de Bois-Préau, bequeathed to France by Edward Tuck, an American diplomat-banker with a passion for collecting portraits and artifacts of the Napoleonic era. Part of Tuck’s collection is housed in the Petit Palais in Paris.

In nearby St. Germain-en-Laye (also on Rte. N13) is the small Debussy museum, where the composer was born.

A similar version of this article appeared in The Washington Post.

Louise Colet: Rage and Fire


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Rage and Fire: A Life of Louise Colet

Pioneer Feminist, Literary Star, Flaubert’s Muse.

Francine du Plessix Gray, Simon & Schuster,  1994.

Who was Louise Colet?  Close friend, muse and lover of one of France’s greatest novelists — Gustave Flaubert.  But  long before she met Flaubert, she was a highly productive poet and essayist, a feminist dedicated to fighting for equal rights for women and honored by the Académie Française.  She is usually described in the context of her friendship with  Gustave Flaubert and billed as his muse.  Yet, it is important to remember that when the writers met, she was the celebrated one, a 36-year-old self-supporting poet honored by the Académie,  while he was an unpublished 24-year-old aspiring novelist who lived with his mother in the country.

Gustave Flaubert

Louise Colet developed into a scathing political satirist, dedicated to supporting the mid – 19th century drive for liberty and justice.  Decades after the American and French Revolutions which certainly jolted the aristocratic land-owning class, representative governance and human legal equality were still a distant dream for most people.   The “trickle down” factors of economic equity, universal suffrage and political liberty  were  still being hammered out in North America and Europe.  The idea that human rights and political equality and legal independence applied to women was hardly a view shared by men of the era.  In this time period the people of many European countries pushed for democracy, labor and voting rights, legal equity and individual liberty.  And so were Americans seeking civil justice, an end to slavery, voting rights for women and poor people who were excluded from participating in elections.

To follow the footsteps of Louise Colet, go to Provence, to Mouriès, the village near Servanes.  The Hostellerie de Servanes is the ancestral estate where Louise Révoil grew up.  Born in Aix-en-Provence, east of Servanes, Louise’s maternal family were local gentry with generations serving in the Parliament of Provence.  Her father, from the merchant class, was head of the local postal system.  She learned quite naturally to align herself with the people’s causes and in strictly divided class-conscious Aix, Louise’s aristocrat mother  directed her family to walk on the side of the promenade for ordinary people rather than the elite side of the Cours Mirabeau, the “see and be scene” promenade in Aix, even though they were certainly entitled to walk with the local aristocracy.  The Fonds Louise Colet, her papers and other archival material from Louise Colet ‘s life and work,  is housed in the Médiathèque Ceccano section of the Bibliotheque Municipale d’Avignon.

The Musée Calvet in Avignon preserves Colet memorabilia, according to the acknowledgements in du Plessix Gray’s book, but I was not able to successfully search for items related  to Louise Colet using the search function on the museum website.  It’s likely material related to Louise Colet would be in a museum archive or library, rather than part of the collection on view digitally.

During her years in Paris, Colet lived in several different apartments,  as might be expected for a single mother supporting herself with free-lance writing and literary stipends from the government.  Louise Colet lived at 21 rue de Sèvres during the time she hosted her own literary salon, then very much in vogue.  This apartment was not far from  L’Abbaye aux Bois where Madame Récamier conducted her famous artistic and philosophical discussions until 1849.  Colet had a falling out with her friend over the usual miscommunications and misunderstandings. Colet also lived at 21 rue Neuve Fontaine Saint-Georges  (rue Fromentin).  It was in this lodging  in Montmartre where she decided to separate in 1842 after living briefly with her spouse, the musician Hippolyte Colet.

Louise Colet died March 8, 1876 in her daughter’s apartment, in the rue des Ecoles in Paris, although some books report that Colet died in a small hotel on that street.  During the previous summer in Paris, Colet’s letters of the period were written from the Hotel d’ Angleterre, Rue Jacob and the Hotel du Palais-Royal, Rue de Rivoli. Contrary to her wishes, she was buried with the Catholic Church’s ceremonial pomp that she despised, in daughter Henriette Colet Bissieu’s husband’s family plot in the municipal cemetery in Verneuil, Normandy.  The Bissieu family estate was named “Fryleuse” and is located in or near Verneuil. It is likely that  the town “Verneuil” refers to  Verneuil-sur-Avre which is in Normandy.

Beyond her writing, fired-up feminist rhetoric and long friendship with Gustave Flaubert, Louise Colet took on the Vatican and launched a public relations campaign on behalf of the mid-19th century freedom fighters Garibaldi and Cavour.

During her months in Italy, Louise Colet followed the footsteps of writers she admired, frequenting Caffe Florian in Piazza San Marco, Venice and searching for the exact rooms in the Hotel Nani (later, the Hotel Danieli) where writer George Sand and her lover Alfred Musset lived and worked decades earlier in 1833-1834.

But Colet’s main mission was to shine a light on the efforts of Cavour and Garibaldi to create a unified Italy.  Their efforts to unify the fiefdoms and city-states of the Italian peninsula challenged the temporal power of the Vatican. Papal States scattered throughout the peninsula we now call Italy were gradually being brought under the unifying rule of Victor Emanuel; democratic government would follow unification.  Colet  used her considerable literary fame to seek meetings with key members of the Vatican government.

Francine du Plessix Gray writes:

“In February of 1861, after visits to Sicily that inspired many more pages of art history, Louise Colet left Naples for Rome.  Victor Emmanuel had vastly diminished the Papal States the previous autumn when he occupied the Marches and Umbria, as Garibaldi had wished to do.  The papal territory was reduced to the city of Rome, where the entrenched conservative factions had grown more bitter.  The city was rife with secret police that kept watch on antipapist elements; one of its targets, in the first months of 1861, was Louise Colet.  As soon as she had settled at the Hôtel Inghilterra – a lovely hostelry still standing today on the Via Bocca del Leone, two blocks from the Spanish Steps – she was warned by one of her compatriots, a bookstore owner, that she was under police surveillance.

The warning left her undaunted  She was determined to remain in Rome = whose antiquities thrilled her as its religious artifacts horrified her = to continue her campaign against the Catholic clergy, which she considered to be the principal enemy of human progress.

Louise’s anticlericalism was fanned by a pope who was one of the more repressive Catholic leaders of the post-Reformation era and whose pontificate was the longest in the history of the papacy  (1846 – 1878).  Although he had begun as a fairly liberal reformist, Pius IX became an arch conservative in the 1850s, when Cavour attempted to limit his temporal power.  He militantly opposed every goal of the Risorgimento, and his reign was defined by two of the most regressive encyclicals of papal history, those that set forth the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the doctrine of Papal Infallibility.

When she arrived in Rome, Louise immediately set off to visit the Vatican, where she assisted at a Mass officiated by Pius IX in the Sistine Chapel.  She describes the obese little Pope, his thick head doddering over a swollen neck, his muddy eyes and weak lips, his blotched red face and powdered hair, the archaic pomp with which his chair is carried into the church by fourteen papal guards.  She considered the basilica of Saint Peter a site “of glacial pomp … totally devoid of any mysticism or mystery.”  With the exception of the Pietà of Michelangelo, who “would have been a far greater artist if he had fawned less upon illiterate pontiffs,” the basilica’s “overabundance of riches” was a “a monument to hypocrisy … catering to the taste of parvenus and bankers.”

Louise was particularly disgusted with the opulent tomb of Queen Christina of Sweden – “a ruler more pagan in her mores than those of pre-Christian times” – whose recently published letters had revealed her to be “a thief, a violent, insolent and debauched strumpet.”  In the middle of Saint Peter’s, Louise shouted, “I protest this sanctification of Christina of Sweden!  As a saint,as one of the truly just, I far prefer Garibaldi!”  Her outburst terrified a priest, who took to his heels and rushed back into the depths of the basilica.

Later that month, she wrote a burlesque of a Holy Week Mass at Saint Peter’s, which re-created the Last Supper:  The Holy Father himself served food to the thirteen beggars who were seated at the table as stand-ins for Christ and his apostles.  At the end of the liturgy, a few seconds after the Pope had left the church, a group of fat monks rushed to the altar, chased out the beggars, and stuffed the food and wine into large baskets for their own use (Louise’s description of Rome’s decadent religious mores occasionally strain the imagination).

Visiting the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Louise was prompted to make her own profession of faith, in which she revels a nonsectarian piety.  She was, in fact, a Diest:  She believed in a Supreme Being but maintained that the truths of this “Implacable Unknown” could not be incarnated in any temporal sect or power.  Her credo was a blend of the ideologies that had influenced her since youth – her maternal grandfather’s Voltarian skepticism, Victor Cousin’s eclectic mysticism, Alfred de Vigny’s Stoicism, Victor Hugo’s catchall pantheism.

“Although I long ago left the Catholic faith [she wrote in the fourth and final volume of L’Italie des Italiens’, I enjoy meditating whenever I can in a great empty basilica.  I do not feel as much communion with  infinity there as I do when gazing on a beautiful starry night or the immensity of the ocean; but I cannot enter into one of these temples which a succession of religious sects erected to their gods without feeling a sorrowful compassion concerning our finitude.

… In our time the human soul is stifled by Catholicism, an antihuman doctrine whose architects suppressed all air and light … Liberty, Justice, Charity, Science, and Chastity have been no more than ringing words in the mouthpiece of the Church. … and  at this very hour, the forces of liberty and justice shout out against the Church through all the voices of the Italian fatherland: “Why do you deny our liberation?” ”

These are the opinions with which Louise assaulted Cardinal Antonelli, Prime Minister of the Papal States, one of the Church’s highest-ranking prelates, when she cornered him at the Vatican in an attempt to obtain an audience with the Pope.  It was a few days before her return to France, and Louise had a grand purpose in desiring to talk with the Holy Father.  She wished to convert Pius IX to the cause of Italian liberation, to the side of Garibaldi and Cavour!

Sitting so close to her that his frock touched her dress, the cardinal, who wore immense rings of square-cut emeralds, addressed Louise as “cara mia” and heard her out but was not in the least swayed.  “The Church,” he told her, “cannot recognize the people’s novel claim to emancipation, which of course is no more than the right to rape and murder.  The meaningless concepts of ‘patriotism,’ ‘liberty,’ or ‘universal suffrage’ can only be brought about by violence.”  Nor did the prelate rush to get Louise an audience with Pius.  She had given him three days to arrange the meeting, and the cardinal explained that the Holy Father did not accept ultimatums.  Thus were we deprived of a colorful episode – Louise Colet preaching revolution to the most reactionary Pope of modern times.

Louise left Rome for Paris in the spring of 1861, after a year and eight months in Italy.  She would soon grieve over Camillo Cavour, who died suddenly, at fifty-one, a few weeks after she returned to France.  But the revolutionary goals Cavour pursued had been fulfilled.  All of the Italian peninsula, with the exclusion of Rome, had voted to be annexed to Victor Emmanuel’s kingdom.  In March, at a parliamentary session in Turin, Victor Emmanuel II proclaimed the birth of a united kingdom of Italy.  …

The venom in Louise’s pen, and the biting social satire that Flaubert considered to be her greatest literary talent, increased in her later years.  “Please accept the assurance of my most perfect disdain,” she signed letters to some of her antagonists.

Source:  Gray, Francine du Plessix. (1994) Rage & Fire : A Life of Louise Colet.  New York: Simon & Schuster, pp 307-310.

Footsteps of the Artists :: Kandinsky


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Vassily Kandinsky

Born in Moscow in 1866,  Vassilly Kandinsky  (also spelled Wassilly) was raised in comfort and educated to be a lawyer. After practicing law for a few years, Kandinsky started painting at age 30 and pursued art as his passion thereafter.

In Russia up until death of Lenin, artists enjoyed favored status. Creativity was encouraged. Artists produced and their ranks multiplied. Kandinsky’s wild images were strange and wondrous, pushing the use of color to expand consciousness. Much beloved by those who knew him during his lifetime, Kandinsky was a  visionary artist with a global audience for his paintings which are in museum and private collections around the world.

Kandinsky read the occult teachers popular in the early 20th century.  He synthesized evolving precepts of anti-materialism and creativity into his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art published in 1910.

Concerning the Spiritual in Art
by V. Kandinsky

Vassily Kandinsky and his wife Nina moved to Paris in 1933, he came as an exile who’d lost his professorship in Munich after the Nazis closed the school.  They also revoked his German citizenship acquired in 1927.




Vassilly and Nina Kandinsky settled in suburban Neuilly-sur-Seine on the sixth floor of a building overlooking the river.

Early 20th c. view of Paris
Neuilly-sur-Seine in distance

This was the era when Paris warmly welcomed refugees from other parts of Europe and beyond. Foreign artists included: Miro,  Mondrian, Max Ernst, Brancusi, Rivera and many others.



They lived near the Bois de Boulogne with a view of Mont Valerien. After Liberation Day in 1945, the Mont Valerien property became a monument to those who were executed for work in the French underground resistance to Nazi occupation.

– Bois de Boulogne, Paris 1925

The Russian-French designer Sonia Delaunay and her husband Charles Delaunay were friendly colleagues of the Kandinskys.  Fernand Leger and Jean Arp were also part of their circle, though Leger spent the World War II years teaching at Yale. Kandinsky liked to vacation at Cauterets in the Hautes-Pyrenees.

Kandinsky Color Study

For Kandinsky, the stateless citizen who fled to Paris, success and appreciation came during his lifetime.  There were exhibitions in 1936, 1939, and 1942 at the Gallery Jeanne Bucher.  Nina Kandinsky dubbed 1934-1944 “the years of synthesis”.

The artist became a French citizen in 1939 and died in 1944.  A school in Neuilly-sur-Seine bears his name.  Kandinsky is buried at New Communal Cemetery, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France.

Hilton Kramer on Kandinsky in Paris, The New Criterion, April 1985.

* Francois Le Targat,  Kandinsky, Rizzoli, 1987.

Flirting in the Literary Cafes of Paris


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The Literary Cafes of Paris Welcome You!

Once upon a nineteenth century, the urban cafe was the place to be. Business, love, the business of love, and affairs of commerce took place in cafes, in full view of the world,  steps from the street.  Many of the cafes are enclosed now with a sound-proof glass between the cafe sitter and the exhaust fumes and passers-by. But inside, with a strong dose of imagination and a sense of history, the Parisian literary cafe mood stews the same scene.

You can sit where the greats once sipped, but to find where tomorrow’s ecrivans are penning, you have to plunge deep into la vie Boheme. Sometimes you’ll find a grimey smoke filled cafe just around the corner from the preserved banquettes that held the shanks of Fitzgerald, Miller, Nin, Flanner, Liebling or Sartre. Sometimes you’ll see a tweedy type with Hemingway’s bulk is still there, as I saw upstairs at Cafe de Flore, editing galley proofs with a fountain pen and sipping whiskey.

Interior of Le Train Bleu Restaurant
at Gare de Lyon.

During the cocktail hour at Le Train Bleu a gloriously guilt-free gilded expanse in the Gare de Lyon (20 Blvd Diderot),  people pose for each other killing time before a train departs, while covertly eyeing who is coming and going. A Japanese man dressed in a cape and suede boots converses intensely with a companion, a trio of German women dieted to fit their thigh-hugging cigarette pants tea and compare the day’s shopping victories. A Marlboro man in leather studies stocks or sports on an iPad.

Brasserie Lipp 1930s

Across town on the Left Bank, the neon and colored tubular glass signs of Brasserie Lipp advertise with jittery color. Just opposite Lipp is the Cafe de Flor, a good place to watch the passing scene sitting behind the broad glass windows.

Upstairs at Cafe Flore, away from the cafe society, a writer in tweeds sits alone and

Cafe de Flore

makes notations on book galleys with a fountain pen. He’s a throwback to the time when political writers crafted manifestos and experimental litterateurs scribbled their thoughts. To the time when Picasso doodled on matchbooks and Sartre confided his quest for a new lover to the understanding ear of Simone de Beauvoir. Cafe Flore’s menu includes sandwiches, snacks, omelettes and salads, some breakfast items, pastries and ice cream, and of course a variety of beverages, from cafe creme to a bottle of Dom Perignon.

Down at Harry’s New York Bar, sank rue Daw-Noo, (5 rue Daunou) it dosen’t take too long a leap of imagination to transform the hunched hacks at the bar into latterday Hemingways, Janet Flanners or Ben Bradlees — journalists and editors serving time in the trenches of Paris.  Pity them not.

Harry’s Bar has been a hangout for Americans in Paris for nearly a century, a place where they could feel at home, stop for a moment and toss back a bourbon or a brew.

I got there around three in the afternoon, after lunch, before the commuter crowd. Inside the curtain that screens the street, a shade of gold suffuses the room, the gold of money and wood aged by many seasons of cigarette smoke and whiskey breath. Harry’s is a bar where men can be men and women can hunt them. A long legged habitue scans the want ads in the Herald Tribune.  She could read it digitally, but where’s the atmosphere and fun in that?

At the opposite end of the limites of the downtown core is picture-perfect Place des Vosges. Said to be the oldest square in Paris, it has been restored and claimed by upscale designers. The wind is cut by the well proportioned houses that line the sides of the square. A secondary line of tended trees muffles noise froum outside the compound. Inside the square the visual range spells sophisticated life, and the calm is all encompassing.

Dozens of famous and extraordinary people have lived here. Madame de Sevigne, a writer and literary figure, was born in one house on the square. The houses on the square perimeter were residences of famous moneyed Parisians of the last century.  Victor Hugo’s house is diagonally across from Ma Bourgogne restaurant where steak and fries are menu staples.  Open every day from 8 in the morning to 1 a.m. the next morning, this is a restaurant that aims to please local sensibilities and visitors from around the planet. By 2 p.m. on a Sunday, French couples are already into their second luncheon course. Writers and students sit outside nursing a pot of tea and reading in the pale winter light reflected in the bleached red brick.

Hotel Sully

Hotel Sully, a grand historic mansion, anchors one corner of Place de Vogues. Vaulted passages around the square shelter galleries, offices and ateliers of famous designers.

Le Procope Restaurant

The oldest surviving and active cafe in Paris is Le Procope (13 rue de l’Ancienne-Comédie).  The tracks of time and re-decoration may have made the restaurant-cafe more polished and slick than when Benjamin Franklin hung out there with his liberty-loving friends.

The cafe is still a place to pause and contemplate the world gone by, to write about it or just stare at the passing scene. People also pass time sitting in cafes to be seen, to feel part of the background life of a city, no longer a tourist or visitor.  The ticket for a seat at the edge of the world’s stage with a front row view costs only the price of a decently pulled espresso.

Address Book:

Le Train Bleu, inside Gare de Lyon, 20 Blvd. Diderot, Metro: Gare de Lyon.

Harry’s New York Bar, 5 rue Daunou, Metro: Opera.

Ma Bourgogne, 19 Place des Vosges, Metro: St. Paul.

Cafe de Flore, 172 Blvd. St. Germain, Metro: St. Germain-des-Pres.

Brasserie Lipp, 151 Blvd. St. Germain, Metro: St.Germain-des-Pres.

Le Procope, 13 rue de l’Ancienne-Comedie,  Metro: Odeon.

Literary Cafes :: Cafe de la Paix


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Cafe de la Paix, 5 Place de l’Opera.

Metro: Opera

Cafe de la Paix Coaster.

Well dressed, well preserved matrons meet each other for tea at tables facing the Paris Opera. Suave men of a certain age hide behind Le Monde or their iPads and eye the mirrored reflections of the sleek young genderless. The afternoon crowd at Cafe de la Paix is so discreet as it checks out who is sipping and sitting with or without whom.

If Booth Tarkington or Henry James edged through the palm trees, faux marble tables and rattan chairs today, hardly anyone would notice. Today, just as during the Belle Epoque a hundred years ago, the clientele is successful and civilized. But the beauty of a Paris cafe is that even shaggy-haired artistes can feel comfortable, as long as they can afford something from the menu.

The decore is muted gilt with pairs of cherubs at the corners so it looks like a Baroque church. And Cafe de la Paix is, in a way, an elegant temple to the gentele ways of time standing, or sitting, still. Near the staircase that leads to the W.C., there was once a small desk where a rubber stamp of the Cafe’s logo could be used to decorate postcards or a travel notebook. Tea and a waistline challenging pastry probably cost more than a sandwich and a beer. Service is included.

Footsteps of the Artists :: Auvers-sur-Oise


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Auvers-sur-Oise and region.


Auvers, a village north west of Paris on the Oise River, attracted numerous artists during the latter part of the 19th c.  The town is probably most famous as the site for Vincent Van Gogh’s final burst of creativity and death.

Vincent Van Gogh wasn’t the only painter who lived and worked in Auvers.  Situated just 30 kms.  from Paris, Auvers offered exceptional diversity of scenes, light and atmosphere.  What a surprise of real countryside with light playing on the fields and water, fog and movement on the river, thatch roof cottages, stone houses, fields, animals, and rutted roads.In 1849 the railroad came, making Auvers less than 1 hour travel time from Gare du Nord.  Sundays brought the great exodus — artists and writers scrammed out of town.  Plenty of other folks did too.

Paintings by artists who lived and worked in Auvers hang in museum collections around the world, from the Metropolitan in NYC and the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, to  Musee de la Chartreuse, Musee de Pontoise, the Basel Museum and National Gallery of Prague.  Paintings created in Auvers are also featured in private collections.

The influx of artists might have started during the summer of 1854 when Corot and Daubigny painted together at Auvers. Dabigny bought land there in 1860.

In 1873 Paul Cezanne and Hortense, his companion, moved into a house close to Dr. Gachet’s in Auvers.  Cezanne continue to live and work there in 1874.  A decade earlier, Daubigny had helped Pissarro enter the Salon of 1864.  His children Karl and Cecile were friends of the painters and became painters themselves.  Berthe Morisot admitted to the Salon the same year with “An Old Road at Auvers.”

Daubigny continued to help artists promote their work.  He championed Renoir who was denied admission to the Salon in 1866 and  Pissarro (denied in 1867), as well as other painters.  Monet, Pissaro and Daubigny were refuges together in London during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.  They were in contact with Durand Ruel Gallery who sold works by Corot and Daubigny.

Pissarro lived in Pontoise and was considered a God-father to Gaugin and Cezanne. The three artists are buried at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris:  J-B Corot in 1875, Daubigny in 1876 and Daumier in 1879.

April 1887 marked the first impressionist group show in Paris. Pissaro organized (along with Monet, Degas, Guillaumin, Morisot, Sisley and others) the “Society Anonyme des Artistes, Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs” for seven impressionist shows held during a span of 12 years.

Other Auvers painters whose names are not so current in the popular mind include: Charles Beauverie, Octave Linet lived in Eragny and painted in Auvers. Giran Max.

Van Gogh arrived in Auvers-sur-Oise on May 21, 1890 and worked with fury:  70 days and 70 paintings. Treasuring the self-portrait he’d one in St. Remy where he rested in a hospital, Van Gogh brought the portrait to Auvers and kept in his room at Auberge Ravoux.  Visitors can see Van Gogh’s garret and the Auberge serves perhaps the best lunch in town.
Wander around the town on foot to appreciate the intimacy of the neighborhood.  Stand in the same spots where Van Gogh studied the landscape and whipped paintings out of his soul Auvers.  Trek up to the church to pay homage at the small cemetery and leave a pebble on a tombstone.
A Japanese design influence on Van Gogh’s technique is suggested in the paintings of Dr. Gachet’s house.   Daubigny’s Garden, one of three versions of this garden painted by Van Gogh, hangs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

He wrote to his brother:  “There are many private homes and modern, middle-class dwellings which are very pleasant, sunny and filled with flowers. And this in a countryside that is almost plump.  Right at present the development of a new society amidst the old is not at all disagreeable.  There’s quite an aura of well-being.  Calm, just like at Puvis de Chavannes…no factories, only beautiful greenery, abundant and well-kept.” Letter to Theo and Jo, his brother and sister in law, late May, 1890.

The big change for Van Gogh was painting in open air.  Painting ordinary nature not idealized classically composed scenes.  He painted peasants doing vernacular chores.  The paintings described a moment of light with a  balance of mass and movement.

Van Gogh discovered emotion in human faces, cut through pretense to feeling.  He reveled in color and defined brushstrokes.

Vincent Van Gogh never left Auvers-sr-Oise.  He is buried alongside his brother Theo in the Auvers churchyard, a short walk from town.

Vincent Van Gogh’s tombstone.


Auvers or The Painter’s Eye

Maire-Paule Defossez

Translated: Patricia Wallace Costa

Paris: Editions der Valhermeil, 1986.

Footsteps of the Heretics :: Cathar Castles and Toulouse-Lautrec’s Birthplace


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Driving Through Cathar Country

Vineyard in Cathar Region.
© L Peat O’Neil

Rooting for the little guy, cheering the underdog and supporting the revolutionary ideal are well established American customs .  So it was natural for me to be attracted to the Cathars, who played David to the Goliaths who ran the Roman Catholic Church in the 13th century.

The Cathars were odd birds who denied themselves the pleasures of the flesh for a hypothetical promised land on the other side of the death rattle. So what if their belief system –that humans have a dual nature  encompassing good and evil– was about as murky as today’s psycho-babblers who chalk up adolescent murderers to eating too much sugar.

Mostly, I liked the Cathars because they questioned the authority of the corrupt, lavish empire ruled by the pope and his political supporters, the princes and kings of Europe. Some things never change.

Cathars were Christians, but non-conformists.  They believed in God, but not the doctrine and theology as taught by the Catholic Church during those pre-Reformation, pre-Protestant times.  Who wouldn’t be curious about their romantic, brutal end?

Vineyards unfurl as far as the eye can see. This is wine country, the hot dry rough soil produces a robust grape.  The hearty reds of Corbieres,  Cahors, the Roussillion and all of Languedoc are made to wash down trenchers of food, the kind working people eat. I noticed signs put up by wine makers offering degustation (tastings) along the route and promised myself a stop, but would have to pay attention to timing because many of these rustic cellars close for lunch from noon to 2 p.m. or later. Near Perpignan, the town Maury on the D117 route, is the jumping off place for a wine country tour.“You are in the country of the Cathars” proclaimed a hum-drum brown billboard alongside the autoroute about a half hour east of Toulouse. The sign was gone in a flash. I was speeding at more than 120 klicks per hour, somewhere in the middle of Southwest France, headed for Carcassone and points south, barely holding my own against swifter Citroens, Range Rovers and Mercedes.  The Peugeot “Kid” with blue jeans upholstery sure was cute, but the interior was too tight even for my petite 1.58 meters,  ( 5 foot 2 inches in American measure).  My left foot was jammed against a wheel wall and my right knee was nicked by the dangling keys.  The best feature of the “Kid” was its lack of appetite for that expensive French gas.

I was on my way to visit several Cathar castles, the last strongholds of the mysterious Medieval sect that the Pope and the King of France tried to stamp out in a decades long series of attacks which history calls the Albegenois Crusade. Throughout the region between Toulouse, Montpelier and the Mediterranean, the  Cathars occupied or rebuilt great chateau fortresses to guard neighboring villages and farmland.  It took several decades for the knights from the North to wipe out the Cathars, the last of whom were burned alive at the foot of Monsegur on a cool March night in 1244.

Before that sad ending, the Cathars had developed quite a following.  To gentry and gutter-folk alike, the religion promised an simpler, more meaningful alternative to the glitz, glam and outright corruption of Catholicism. There was also the issue of swearing allegiance — and paying taxes — to the King of France instead of the local Counts of Toulouse, an easy-going lot whose southern ways sprung from a live and let live philosophy. Cathar resistance to Papal law was not just about religious beliefs.  It was an effort to preserve liberty of conscience as well as territorial, political and financial independence.

Cathar country lies east and south of Toulouse, from Carcassone south to Foix in the Pyrenees and Perpignan on the Mediterranean coast. It includes the Roussillon, which  takes its name from the red soil that bakes in the sun and produces a hearty red wine that provides a blue collar alternative to chi-chi Bordeaux. Grapes are bursting on the vine; harvest season is neigh. Wind howls and gusts, fluttering the leaves of the plane trees along the road.

I had already visited  Montsegur, last stronghold of the Cathars. I had trekked upwards through the pine forests to the crumbling stone castle ruin imagining I heard the screams of the massacred heretics burned alive by soldiers of the Papal crusade at the base of the mountain. But no, the yells were French marine drill sergeants urging their recruits to the top.  Running up Montsegur, you see, is still fit work for a grunt in l’Armee du la Republic.

The deep background on the Cathars runs like this. When it became clear to the Pope that his religious emissaries couldn’t persuade the Cathar groups to abandon their simple lifestyle and open disdain for the authority of the Catholic Church,  then the only “Christian” option available to the Pope was to convince them by the sword.

So, in 1209  Innocent III — don’t you love the stage names those Popes cook up for themselves — launched an immense military crusade against the Cathars, calling upon the knights of Northern France to raise arms against those heretics in the south.  As an enticement, the crusaders could keep whatever land and goods they plundered, all in the name of promoting the Catholic Church’s authority, of course. The crusade marked the beginning of the Inquisition which, during  several centuries and through many countries, extinguished or drove underground all forms of healthy dissent.

Albi was the Cathar capital of the crusade against the Cathar sect, so the decades of pursuit and pillage is also called the Albigenois Crusade. Albi is also where centuries later the painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born and passed his childhood.   The Palais de la Berbie houses a museum honoring the artist in the center Albi.

In the 12th c. Catharism was sprouting all over France and indeed through much of Europe.  Remember, back then, Europe was a maze of small principalities, some aligned with the court at Paris or with the Pope, some not. The monopoly religion of Europe was dead against any alternative interpretation of Christianity to Roman Catholicism.

During the 1100’s and 1200’s, artisans and tradesmen were attracted to the religion which criticized the pomp and luxury of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and questioned the omniscient authority claimed by the pope. At first, Cathar leaders did not recruit the nobility to their religion.  But by the 13th c. some of the regional nobles had embraced the path. At the apex of the Cathar movement, it is estimated that half the population of southwest France had left the Catholic church to follow the new religion. No wonder the Pope was worried.

It’s important to remember that the Cathar story has a political root.  The  King of France joined forces with the Pope to crush the heretics. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see that France hoped to annex the independent principalities in the heart of rich Languedoc.  As the Crusade advanced, the southern nobles collapsed, though not without putting up a good fight. At Carcassonne, lack of food and water forced the Vicomte to surrender. One by one the regional Counts succumbed.  Their domains now fell directly under the French crown.

I could see the land hadn’t suffered for being French. The vineyards were thriving. Colors had changed and summer was on the run. The sunflowers that glow in the fields all summer had browned and hung their heads. The fields of rapeseed, used for oil, their flowers brilliant yellow under the early summer sun, were now a  mature green.  Wheat, grown and harvested the year around in this mild climate, drooped at the end of another cycle. I saw sweeping fields of ochre yellow, the stalks nearly bent over with the weight of the grain.  The wild flowers had changed too.  The white and yellow pacquerettes (daisy) which dotted the springtime fields gave way to hardier wildflowers in shades of gold and purple and brown.

The fields have changed from spring to late fall, the work has not.  The rows were neat, weedless,  furrowed by tractors that rake the empty fields.  This isn’t agribusiness; some cultivated patches are small enough for one family or cooperative to effectively manage.  While driving past, I saw an ancient rusty tractor, imbedded in the field over which it had surely toiled.  Now it serves as improvised sculpture,  honored for long service.   The wholesale neglect of machinery or the  casual dumping of broken implements is not practiced here.  Tools are used, cared for, exchanged, salvaged, reused, sold, but rarely dumped.  That is the supposed privilege of our North American society where refrigerators, lawn mowers, trucks or cars are junked without a thought.  Perhaps, as the Cathars thought, abundance corrupts.

The trouble with following in the footsteps of Cathars is most of their steps went up.  And up.  Hounded from their farms and villages, they sought refuge in mountain top castles, some owned by the nobles who professed allegiance to the Cathar faith, other loaned to groups of fleeing heretics by sympathetic barons in the region.

Queribus was one of these hilltop refuges, part of a line of defense on the Aragon frontier to the south.  Like most of the castles in this part of Europe, it had changed hands several times, passing through the control of  Barcelona, the Kingdom of Aragon and other local lords.  French King Louis got the fortress in 1258 after the massacre at Montsegur.  After Spain and France agreed on new borders in the mid 1600’s, Queribus was a long way from the frontier and of no strategic use.  It’s been baking in the  sun for centuries.

I forced the Kid upward past rocky violet toned hillsides, through boarded up villages.  No matter what time of day I drove through the villages, windows were shuttered, except after 6 p.m. when men lounged in the cafes and drank Pastis or the young blades roared through town on their motorbikes.

For a while, I followed a lumbering wine tanker towards Queribus castle.  The narrow road had no guard rails and I consoled myself that if the wine truck driver can negotiate the tight switchbacks, surely I can nudge the Kid through them too. Down below, I imagined rusted hulks of vehicles that didn’t make the sharp turns.  Along the way, I did see one recently smashed  guardrail, tree limbs broken, the token ribbons and flowers that have come to memorialize death at the wheel.

Finally, some 2200 feet up,  I parked on a gravel plot spread over a narrow ridge below the Castle of Queribus.  Time for the lunch  acquired earlier in a nameless village.  Ignoring the families piling out of camper vans from Belgium and the couples dressed with artsy attitude slithering out of fancy sedans with the black and yellow license plates of the Netherlands, I prowled out onto the windswept mountainside.  As my feet crushed the vegetation, the scent of anise, lavender and rosemary wafted up.  I strode on, until I could neither see nor hear the parking lot action.

I munched on cheese and bread, yogurt and nuts and stared at the castle perched at the pinnacle of the hill. A steep staircase cut in the rock leads to the entrance which leads to other guard points and even narrower staircases. What kind of people would sequester themselves at the top of nowhere?  The wind was just as vicious then, the lavender scent just as sweet. What did they eat, those Medieval refugees and travelers?  Probably sheep’s milk and cheese, bread and wine,  cured ham and the dry sausage –sauccisson– which is still a favorite in the region.

Instead of trudging up to the castle, I hoofed in high gear, determined to show the other visitors that my hiking boots were made for action not fashion. Wind shrieked through narrow windows where archers must have sighted their bows hundreds of years ago.  Queribus is positioned to defend against attack from all directions.  The Kingdom of Aragon, now a province of Spain, lay to the south.  Cathars were not treated so harshly there.

I wanted to believe that a few Cathars snuck across the border and survived.  But I don’t share the musings of collectors of Holy Grail legends who claim the Cathars secretly fled further into the  heart of the Pyrenees Mountains and buried the golden chalice imagined to have been used at the Last Supper.  I guess those Grail fantasizers overlooked the facts about that clutch of nomadic fisherman breaking their meager Passover bread. They weren’t into gold, any more than the Cathars were.  Over the centuries, Cathars have been on the receiving end of many projections — that they were devil possessed anti-Christs, that they were prototypes for the Troubadours, that they were out to overthrow the Church and the Crown, that they were direct descendants of those  Apostles whose clay dishes became gold over time.

Queribus is just an empty shell tidied up from centuries of decay. The stone blocks have been reset, the mortar restored.  Several dim rooms form the perimeter of the castle.  The focal point is the watch tower and an adjacent barrel vaulted room which opens into a two level room with an arched roof supported by pillars.  I tried to imagine life in these stone rooms–crowded, cold, smelly and smoky.  Where did people go for privacy?  Did they pray all the time?  Did lovers huddle under sheepskins whispering tender support? But the Cathar ideal excluded carnal relations, so the caresses were surely chaste.

On the way down from Queribus, I met  a couple of hard core cyclists pumping up the mountain  in the noonday sun.  I was driving slow enough to see their wild dehydrated stares.  Mad Dogs – must be British. Back and forth I nosed the Kid downward on narrow switch backs, then froze like a scared rabbit when a motor coach plowed by.

By this time,  I was seriously tempted to taste the wine as countless signs invited.  But quaffing the heavy local red at 2:30 in the afternoon would surely hamper my tour of Cathar country.   There was much to see yet- Peyrepertuse, Puylaurens  and  Carcassonne.  Anyway, I was drunk on the scenery, rough craggy terrain with high cliffs in the distance and vineyards on the rolling lowlands. This is Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name type turf, silent, tough enough to sit through a dust storm, soft enough to make gritted teeth pass for a smile.

Westward across the valley and upward again, I headed to Peyrepertuse.  The little Kid’s  engine started to smell angry, so I edged off the road into one of those pull out areas and used the point ‘n shoot.  On the road again,  I nervously followed flatland drivers from the Netherlands and Northern Germany.  What do they know of switchbacks  without guard rails?

I’ve been sweeping through Southwest France since the early 1980’s when I first came to Toulouse.  I love the rolling countryside, easy going people and splendid food.  And the wine.

Few people paid attention to the Cathar history back then, though the castles were open for visitors. Now, Cathar country is packaged for tourists. Road signs point the way to the next Cathar chateaux. Artistic enameled maps stuck on entry booth walls advise of related tourist spots, but oddly don’t refer to the Cathars. At Queribus, for example, the large painted wall map marked a car tour for the “Citadelles du Vertige” (castles perched on high ridges), and at Peyrepertuse a large panel noted the “Route du Cru Corbieres” (route of wild Corbieres) with dots indicating local chapels and ponds for fishing in the Marches de L’Alaric.  Was this an effort to promote non-Cathar points of interest in the region?

A tourist bureau office was set up in the snack bar at Queribus and a charming women of a certain age suggested hotels, restaurants and museums I might want to visit.  I learned there’s even a Cathar museum at Quillan with miniature models of the castles. Just in case hunting down and humping up to the real castles proved too tiring.

At Peyrepertuse, the path upward is shaded by tall bushes with intertwined branches that create  a tunnel up to the chateau. Standing on the narrow stone staircase cut in the rock,  I considered how castles are overlaid with romantic expectations. All those childhood fantasies — the romance of knights in armor, archers on the castle wall,  princesses who needed to be rescued.  The reality must have been a harsh lonely life on these red plateaus with the wind bolting down from the Massive Central clear across Languedoc to the Spanish coast and North Africa. After the northern troops plundered the land and ripped out the vineyards, there wouldn’t have been much wine to ease the loneliness either.  Across the valley, Queribus shimmered in the pitiless sun.  I was getting used to the whine of the wind, my hair whipping through my mouth.

Hiking near Chateau Peyrepertuse
© L Peat O’Neil

Peyrepertuse is larger than Queribus and there’s a green area between the two donjons (towers).  I lay in the sun and drifted between consciousness and the Middle Ages.  Peyrepertuse sheltered Cathars from Carcassonne.  In 1240, Trencavel, son of the ruler of Carcassonne, fled here after failing to retake his father’s city from the crusader forces.   Revolts and skirmishes continued for several decades, and some surely emanated from this castle.  Neighboring towns prepared to succeed from France, but the plots were found out and their founders executed.  In the end, the Cathar leaders died out, fled or went underground.

Friends had recommended the Gorges de Galamus.  The faint of heart better consider this excursion carefully  and those with fear of high narrow places should not proceed.  The Gorges lies generally north west of Perpignan, just a few miles west of Peyrepertuse, and north of the D117.   Essentially, you are driving on a wide bookshelf above a deep narrow gorge.  There’s one lane and it’s about wide enough for a motorcycle, as long as it isn’t a Harley Hog.

French people seem to enjoy driving this bookshelf. The rest of us pray the other drivers are slow and aware of what’s going on and coming on.  Find the horn, which on a Euro rental car might be on the turn indicator, or a button on the floor, for all I know.  I discovered this after slapping the rampant lion, Peugeot’s emblem in the center of the steering wheel, and getting silence.  I shouted at the oncoming driver, hoping to snap his attention, and he braked and inched his car past mine.  I could see his fillings when he grinned.  This is how the French play chicken with tourists.

So there you are nosing along this French built donkey track with hubcap high guard rails and you think:  What if the engineering team was having a bad day.  What if they mixed the cement while they killed a crate of wine.  What if another driver freezes in fear; I’ll have to back up on this curving bookshelf for miles.  I puttered along and tried to gaze with interest at the pink walls of the canyon and a gorgeous color display an hour or two shy of sunset.  Deep shadow alternated  with rose and gold patterns.  Then awareness of where I was intruded. I carried on, but what choice did I have.

Out of the Gorges de Galamus now, I really needed to rest.  At a wine tasting booth overlooking the Gorge, I couldn’t penetrate the proprietor’s comments –the local accent is beyond me –but I nodded gamely. I lived in the region several years ago and knew enough to shrug off what I didn’t understand.  He might have been telling his pals to watch the dumb American woman drink the harsh hooch.  Or maybe he was calling his friends to watch the sunburned British family drive off in a Volvo station wagon with the back door still wide open.  Tourists, after all, are the rolling sitcom for southern France.

Refreshed, I headed to Puilaurens fortress, further west along the D117.  The castle is folded between mountains, in a deep green forested corridor. Like Queribus, Puilaurens was a guard post along the Aragon frontier.  Cathars are said to have hid there.  We might suppose that every fortress within striking distance  of Toulouse, Albi or Carcassonne sheltered Cathars at one time or another during the decades of siege.  The citadel was ceded to France in 1256, or 1258, depending on which source you read.  Students of history recognize that this region lies far from the royal centers in Paris or Barcelona or Madrid, so the complete facts are smudged by time.  And true feelings about the northern crusade against the Cathars are likely still kept quiet.

The area is still separatist in spirit.  Catalan is spoken here and there.  Town signs are posted in French and Catalan.  The distinctive flag of Occitane flutters proudly.  I’m told there’s a resurgence of  Langue d’Oc in the classroom.  Apart from the occasional graffito suggesting the supremacy of Occitane, no violent outbursts and little overt political distention of the sort experienced in Corsica or Basque country mar the smoothness of daily life.   Men gather in village squares to play petanque, rolling the heavy metal balls against their mates’ metal balls.  Scores are kept seriously.

If you’re lucky, you’ll be in a village when the sardanne is danced– a folklore dance, roughly

like clogging combined with square dancing to a high pitched tune with dissonant tones that remind me of North African sheep herders songs. One time, as I passed hastily through the twirling dancers, I was reminded of Quebec country dancing with its intense individual social interactions overlaying the group effort. People talked as they clumped and swayed. They’re French people on the fringe of France, but still show their regional allegiance, even though the homelands of Catalan, Aragon, Occitane, are part of other larger countries– Spain, France, Canada–now.

At the end of the day, I studied Carcassonne’s crenelated towers against the reddish bloom of sunset.  Dinner beckoned, so I gave the Kid its rein and we landed in Villefranche-de-Lauragais for the night.  Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow would  bring other Cathar sites.   Lastours, where there are four Chateaus open for visitors.  Or Minerve where ruins of the ramparts and a hexagonal tower remain or Villerouge-Termenes or  Puivert or Arques.  Tracking the traces of the Cathars could be a lifetime pursuit.

Map of South West France, 17th c.
Languedoc is shaded green in lower left area.


Tourism – Albi     Tourism – Cathar Country

Pyrenees Pilgrimage by L Peat O’Neil, 2010.