The historic Château de Mayragues near Gaillac is an ideal place to learn about natural wines. Biodynamic since 1999, organic since 2004, the vineyards are now run by Duncan Geddes, a second-generation Scottish winemaker (his French mother may see things differently).
Marie-Christine Combes is the sixteenth generation of the same family to reside in the château, and this was one of many stories I had heard from her and her mother about the period when the Wehrmacht commandeered their home. I had often wondered about the identity of these soldiers, and no one seemed quite sure of their unit. Some sources said the troops occupying Garrevaques were from the eleventh panzer division, while others claimed they belonged to the infamous second panzer division, also known as Das Reich, and blamed for the atrocity at Oradour-sur-Glane. I had often speculated that this confusion was caused by the French way of abbreviating ordinal numbers: IIeme (deuxième - second) and 11eme (onzième - eleventh) are easy to confuse unless you spot that one uses Roman numerals and the other Arabic.
When I was researching the German Occupation for my book, I felt duty-bound to investigate more thoroughly. Garrevaques and my home lie in the Tarn, and the obvious place to start was in the departmental archives in Albi. But first, I went online to consult the list of dossiers which had not been digitised. From its title, 506 W 230 sounded promising: ‘German soldiers killed and buried in the department. Inquest: instructions and replies from the mayors (November-December 1944).’
TK de Dinatru 61, Sergeant Hilmar Büchner, born 18/2/1917, died 19/8/1944.
FEB 119, Lance-Corporal Alvis Gatuska, born 9/6/1913, died 19/8/1944.
This date of their deaths tied in with what I had read elsewhere. On 19 August, members of an unidentified Resistance group machine-gunned a German vehicle and killed two of its occupants on the road between Garrevaques and Revel. The wreck was towed back to the Château de Garrevaques, and the two casualties were buried in the park by their comrades.
If you want to know how they tried to blow up the château as they left, or read stories about their operations against the Corps Franc de la Montagne Noire, you will find them in ‘Lauragais: Steeped in History, Soaked in Blood’, or if you visit the château’s hotel-restaurant, you may be lucky enough to hear some of these tales from Marie-Christine herself.
Why do Sergeant Büchner and Lance-Corporal Gatuska no longer lie in the park? Between 1958 and 1961, nearly 20,000 German soldiers were disinterred all across southern France and reburied together in the cemetery at Dagneux near Lyon. Most of them were killed after the Allied landings of August 1944.
Monday morning at the office isn’t always so bad! My task today is to continue exploring the world of natural wines. What’s that? you may ask. I spent yesterday afternoon trying to find out at the Glouglou natural wine fair in Durban-Corbières. Most of the exhibitors were certified organic, but they have all gone much further in their quest to minimise the artificial techniques used in most modern wine production.
For others, such as Florian and Gaelle at the Domaine des Deux Clés, it means following the biodynamic principles of Rudolf Steiner. These include taking account of solar and lunar cycles, and using homeopathic preparations to improve the health of their soil and vines.
The Abbey of Sorèze may have been founded as long ago as 754 under King Pepin the Short. It was attacked and pillaged many times over the centuries by, among others, the Normans, bands of unemployed soldiers during the Hundred Years’ War, and both Catholics and Protestants during the Wars of Religion. Louis XVI made it a Royal Military School, and it remained an educational establishment until 1991.
Today, the abbey complex houses the Dom Robert tapestry museum and the school museum.
Last weekend I joined a group of eight other local authors to share a large stand at the Cracker Fair Christmas Market. Anglais et français, tous ensemble, and all talk of Brexit strictement interdit !
This annual event takes place in the historic Abbey of Valmagne near the town of Sète on the Mediterranean coast. Founded by the Benedictines in 1138, the abbey was taken over by the Cistercians twenty years later and remained in their hands until the Revolution.
If you missed this year’s event, make a note in your diary for mid-November 2020.
How many generals are buried in your local graveyard? I have found three in mine, all from the same family!
But back to the generals. Jean and Louis were brothers, both born in Puylaurens in the 1860s. Louis survived two world wars and died peacefully in 1960 at the age of 94. His brother was less fortunate. Throughout the Great War, Brigadier-General Jean Rey commanded the 5th brigade of dragoons. On the day of the armistice he was still alive, but he died five weeks later on 17 December 1918 from an illness he had contracted during the war.
During Napoleon’s exile to Elba, General Rey was given a knighthood by Louis XVIII and appointed military commander for the department of Basses-Pyrénées (now called Pyrénées-Atlantique). He remained in post during Napoleon’s Hundred Days, but after Waterloo he was placed on the reserve list. Under Louis-Philippe, he was appointed military commander of several other departments until his retirement in 1832.
I live close to one of Europe’s most-travelled pilgrimage routes – the road to Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle. This proximity has often made me toy with the idea of making a pilgrimage of my own, but frankly, it’s a long, long way to the wild western coast of Spain. Last weekend I had the opportunity of making a much shorter pilgrimage – less than three hundred metres from my front door. How could I resist such an easy alternative?
The hill above my village has been graced by a life-sized effigy of Christ on a seven-metre-high cross since 1943. Usually I can see if from my kitchen window, but for over a year, the skyline has been empty. In a winter storm, the cross fell, and Jesus broke his arm. The original cross was the initiative of a local priest, Julien Salles. He believed it would watch over Saint-Sernin-les-Lavaur during the German Occupation. Since then, it has often been the other way around, and the villagers have had to watch over the cross.
After a photocall, the assembly headed back down to the village. A pause at the church would perhaps have been in keeping with the spirit of a pilgrimage, but instead the mayor led us all to the Salle des Fêtes for a different kind of spirit: whiskey or pastis, accompanied by a celebratory buffet.
Over a glass I reflected that my short pilgrimage was a good illustration of the French concept of laïcité – the strict separation of civil society and religious society. The mairie can pay for the upkeep of the village church, repair fallen crosses, and provide a good buffet, but it must not involve itself in religious practices such as entering a place of worship.
If you like visiting ruined châteaux, then a real treat awaits you in the valley of the Orbiel. Drive twenty minutes north from Carcassonne and you will reach the village of Lastours. Red and gold Occitan flags flutter from lampposts alongside the river, and high on a ridge above the village, four separate châteaux stand in a line: Cabaret, Tour Régine, Surdespine and Quertinheux.
During the Albigensian Crusade, this part of Occitanie was the home of two Cathar lords: Pierre-Roger de Cabaret and his brother Jourdain. After the fall of Carcassonne in 1209, the brothers provided a safe haven for Cathars and dispossessed knights. Together they carried out numerous attacks on the crusaders and their supply trains.
By 1211, Pierre-Roger de Cabaret realised that he was too isolated to resist indefinitely and he negotiated surrender terms with Simon de Montfort: he would give up his possessions at Cabaret/Lastours in exchange for a quiet life on an estate near Béziers. Both sides respected the agreement until the death of Simon de Montfort in 1218 prompted the Cabaret brothers to return home. Before long, they were once again sheltering communities of heretics within their walls, including the Cathar bishop for the Carcassès. During the second, royal, phase of the Albigensian Crusade, the Cabarets found themselves besieged once again. They resisted for two years, but in 1229 they surrendered and the king’s seneschal, Humbert de Beaujeu, destroyed their châteaux and villages.
Like many visitors to Lastours, I was disappointed to learn that the four ruins I was visiting had nothing to do with the Cabarets or the Cathars. They were all built during the 1230s to create a royal fortress that was garrisoned up until the time of the Revolution. So where did Pierre-Roger and Jourdain de Cabaret live? Probably in a fifth, older château lower down on the north-western slope of the mountain.