A couple of months ago, I discovered a place which soothes the soul in these troubled times, a remote village where the church is unlocked and the bijou museum opens its doors at the touch of a button to reveal its treasures, a place with breathtaking views of Pyrenean peaks. This is the story of my visit.
I park by the church and smile at an elderly gentleman. He seems indignant that I have discovered his village. The interior of the church is more welcoming, its panelled ceiling brightened by blue frescoes. The building is dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul, but I have come here in search of older gods.
Attached to the east end of the church is a smaller structure. A wooden sign on the wall announces ‘Musée ouvert’. I press a button and a wooden door slides open. I step inside and press another button. Lights come on. The room is about the same size as my garden shed and glass cabinets display some of the treasures discovered on the hill to the south of this village by a local tax collector in 1839.
One of the most striking objects is a mask, hammered from a single sheet of bronze perhaps as long ago as the 4th century BCE. Votive altars dating from Roman times were far more numerous, and the tax collector unearthed a hundred of these lumps of stone engraved with a message of gratitude to a god for services rendered. When the taxman died, this collection of altars was sold at auction, some being acquired by museums, others disappearing into private collections. The one in the display cabinet before me is a replica. It offers thanks to a local god called Ergé whose name is mentioned nowhere outside this village.
I turn off the lights and step outside. I am about to press the button to close the door when I am startled by the silent arrival of two cyclists. We chat briefly, and then I depart, strangely unsettled by this trusting little museum and its bucolic setting. I drive a couple of kilometres out of the village to an unmanned hostel where pilgrims walking the Way of Saint James can stop for the night between Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges and Lourdes. No one is there, even though it is now late in the afternoon.
I forget Saint James and head up the hill to the site of a temple, presumably dedicated to Ergé or Mars, where all the votive altars were discovered. Their number suggests a sizeable community, and archaeologists are still burrowing around in the forest higher up the mount, discovering five Neolithic tombs and the foundations of village houses and defensive ramparts. If I had come a week earlier, they would have given me a guided tour, but fortunately they have left signs hanging from various mossy boughs.
On my way down, I am brought to a halt by a picture-perfect panorama of the Pyrenees (the first photo in this post). In the foreground, cows and sheep graze on grass that is longer and greener than anywhere in the parched lowlands. Behind them, curvaceous hills stretch away into the distance and grow into mountains. Through the clear evening air, I glimpse the observatory on top of the Pic du Midi.
I hesitate to publicise the location of this tranquil and timeless village, a mere six kilometres south of the A64 autoroute between Saint-Gaudens and Tarbes. But I guess that anyone who shares my love of the Pyrenees should be able to work it out, or anyone curious can always ask me nicely.
Wishing you a joyous festive season…