To Saint Bertrand

Saint Bertrand de Comminges Travel Blog

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The Nave of St. Bertrand
Tuesday, June 1, 2004
Stephen

We had a late lunch at a roadside rest on the highway. Very unusual for us, but we had a lot of food left over and we wanted to eat it. The place wasn't very charming, but served a purpose by bringing us back to twenty-first century France. We got some practice with our packs, not carrying them, but just packing them and then remembering where we put anything.

We saved ourselves a couple of bucks by getting off the autoroute a stop earlier and finding our way cross country to our destination. It was not so easy because the scale of our map was so large and the name so long that we couldn't figure out to what end of the name printed on the map we were going.
Carvings in the choir
We kept following signs that led us into the foothills of the Pyrénées, and soon we were there.

Dawn
St. Bertrand de Comminges

Jean and Isabelle have always sent us in the direction of beautiful old abbeys, Romanesque churches, and great little hill towns. St. Bertrand de Comminges was no exception. We approached it in the late afternoon and saw the imposing Cathédrale Ste-Marie-de-Comminges and its cloister on top of an isolated hill, with the smaller Basilique St. Just down below. The Hotel Comminges was right across the square from the church, and our room looked over the hilly terrain where goats and cows were grazing.

We had been forewarned that nothing would be open for dinner in the village that night because of the three-day weekend that had just ended.
St, Justine
The hotel patronne had directed us to Montréjeau, another town where a couple of places were sure to be open. This was not a tourist town. It wasn't particularly quaint. Regular working people, not in the tourist biz, lived there. It had a movie house that was closed until the next night (playing Harry Potter). Nevertheless, we found a very good Vietnamese restaurant and decided to have dinner there. So the first night on the road in France, after eating "chez nous" either at our place or with Isabelle and family, we find ourselves eating Vietnamese food. There was some irony about Americans in France, eating Vietnamese, given the history of these three countries. It was the first night in a week that we ate no cheese.

Wednesday, June 2

After breakfast at the hotel, and a couple of excellent, individually brewed and steamed cafés-au lait, we headed over to the abbey and church.
Fellow travelers
I think we were the first ones to arrive at the abbey. It was 9:00 a.m. and the mist was still rising off the hills. Being in the foothills of the Pyrénées, it really did get cool at night. What a magnificent setting! Through the repetitive pattern of the cloister columns and arches, we overlooked craggy, verdant hillsides. It was so quiet. I could imagine how the monks found the necessary peace and solitude here to meditate. The only sound was from the bell around the neck of the lead goat in the farmer's herd below. Plus there were roses. I am a sucker for climbing roses on old stone buildings. I have probably taken more pictures than we will ever need of flowers against stone walls, arches, churches, barns, and bridges. Not just in France, but everywhere I've been…bougainvillea against whitewashed clay in Costa Rica, yellow cactus flowers against adobe in New Mexico, Delphiniums against stone walls in Maine. Maybe it's the softness of the flowers against the hardness of stone. Maybe it's the tenacity of nature when vegetation actually roots in stone and manages to flourish in such an inhospitable spot.

In Turning the Mind into an Ally, Sakyong Mipham says, "There is an old saying that bringing Buddhism to a new culture is like bringing a flower and a rock together. The flower represents the potential for compassion and wisdom, clarity and joy to blossom in our life. The rock represents the solidity of a bewildered mind. If we want the flower to take root and grow, we have to work to create the right conditions. The way to do this �" both as individuals and as people in a culture in which the attainment of comfort sometimes seems to be the highest standard �" is to soften up our hearts, our minds, our lives." In the last few years I have been trying to soften up the rock of my own "bewildered mind," so perhaps this rock and flower imagery now captures my attention spiritually as well as aesthetically.

Back to Cathédrale Ste-Marie-de-Comminges. Like so many of France's churches, this one was built in stages, over many centuries. It was started in the 11th century, Romanesque style, then the nave and side chapels were added in the 14th c., Gothic style, while the extraordinary woodwork of the choir stalls is a Renaissance masterpiece. While marveling at the architectural and sculptural beauty inside the church, the most spiritual place for me was still the cloister. Its simplicity of design, with vegetation and animal motifs on the capitals, and its very openness to the environment blends the natural and spiritual worlds in a magical way. "Location, location, location," say the realtors. This place really has it.

Stephen

We spent some time in the choir, looking at the carvings. Many represent cardinal sins. Here are some photos, not for the faint hearted. Much of the imagery is non-Christian. We can probably look to the present day Catholic Church in South America to give us some idea of the nature of the church at that time and in that place.

This was the first church where I found out how useful binoculars could be to see art. The stained glass windows were very high and the binoculars made it possible to really see the details in the work. The capitals at the tops of the columns were equally interesting to see up close.

Lunch was the local creperie. It was still too cold to eat on their terrace so we downed a couple of crepes and headed for St. Just. It is a small Basilique out on a flat field in total contrast to to St. Bertrand. For the first time we got audio guides. We pushed the buttons, and the voice told us where to go and what to look at. But after a while we just turned them off and wandered around. So solidly built in a location so defenseless against an attack, I wondered whether the congregation was looking for some protection from God. What did these places sound like when they were first built? This was before Pope Gregory and his chants and certainly before Bach and all that great music of his era. A much more primitive religion in those days.

The organ was being dismantled, cleaned and repaired. Not the last time will see evidence of the importance the French ascribe to these beatiful churches.

We returned our guides, took some pictures, and headed east. We didn't know where we were going to end up for the night, but we knew that we should move in the direction of Avignon. We had three lines hastily scribbled in our notebook, the result of a hasty session with Isabelle. One said St. Bertrand Comminges, okay we had done that, the next said Chateaux Cathares and then listed four towns that we had never heard of, and the last said coast with another list of towns. From this our next few days would be formed. Today we decided to head toward Foix. We went south toward Spain, and then cut across country through some of the greenest and most hilly country I have ever seen.

We brake for old churches, so our afternoon stretch took the form a visit to a church that recently had its roof replaced. There was a bulletin board with pictures of the new roof trusses being put in place by helicopter. Sort of an alpine town, a stream rushing through the center, a fly-fisherman trying his luck, a couple of guys sitting on some benches, keeping a watchful eye on everything. The old painted frescos from the fifteenth century on the porch of the church are the attraction here. They were in pretty good shape, mostly because of the lack of air pollution out here. We spent some time wandering around, took a picture of a stone wall and continue on our way.

I wistfully noticed a man sitting on the terrace of a Gîte Rural, feet up, reading his book next to the gurgling brook. I thought this would be a really nice place to stay, but instead tried to get a photo of a stone arch framing the mountaintop behind the brook, visible through the arch. Onward! - Dawn

Coming around a corner we had to come to an abrupt stop because we were confront by a herd of goats coming down the street with their shepherd trailing behind. There didn't seem anything else for me to do except wait as the sheep passed us by on each side. Of course, Dawn is scrambling for the camera and by the time she got it out they were behind us. I said take it anyway so we have a shot of them turning the corner and heading out of view. You can't hear the wonderful sound of their bells nor smell the strength of their odor.

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The Nave of St. Bertrand
The Nave of St. Bertrand
Carvings in the choir
Carvings in the choir
St, Justine
St, Justine
Fellow travelers
Fellow travelers
Saint Bertrand de Comminges
photo by: jsbuck1