On a recent hot summer day, we visited the very old village of Lagrasse, which is about 30 minutes outside of Carcassonne.
A steep valley protects the village, and a cool stream refreshes it. The inspiration for our visit was tickets to attend the open-air Danse à Lagrasse performance; more about that later in the post!
Sometime in the last year, we had driven by the village, commenting, “Oh, another pretty stone village.” And we continued on our way. Little did we know how much history, architectural beauty, quaint streets, impressive abbey, pretty cafés, artisan shops, and even a swimmable river, grace Lagrasse.
Through the Danse à Lagrasse web site, we found an afternoon tour. Carlos of Entre les Vignes offered a 90-minute exploration of the village. Carlos is personable as well as knowledgeable. He knows how to share interesting stories, not just facts and figures. He helped us see little details in buildings and around the village that, although small, are full of meaning and history.
The village of Lagrasse exists because of the Abbey of St. Mary, which sits on the opposite side of the Orbieu river.
The abbey began where a few hermits had made their home, escaping from the turmoil of the 7th century and the time of Charlemagne and the Saracens (North African and Arab Muslims). It became a major element in a string of abbeys and monasteries in Languedoc, designed by the Church to defend against non-Christian forces. The abbey developed into a major religious and commercial center via tithes and land acquisition.
As the prominence of the abbey grew, so did a lay village across the river. Until the 14th century, the villagers crossed the river to the abbey for their religious life. But the village population and wealth grew, so much so that they petitioned the abbey to allow the construction of a church within the walls of the village for their daily religious life. Once the Church granted permission, they tore down some houses in the middle of the densely built village, and squeezed in the Church of Saint Michel. Here’s the tiny passage between the church and adjacent houses.
The various trade guilds contributed to the construction of the church, and in return, allocated themselves chapels for their own business. You can see the pair of fishes at the top of the vault; this is the fishmonger guild’s chapel.
The French Revolution left its heavy mark on the abbey. Starting in 1789, the revolutionaries aggressively destroyed everything linked to the Church and the nobility. They tore buildings apart; they ripped down religious art and burned archives. At Lagrasse, they stripped the abbey, claimed it for the people, divided it in two, and then sold the parts to the highest bidders. Today, the department of Aude (the local government) owns and hosts half of the building (which we could visit). The community of Canons Regular of the Mother of God moved have inhabited the other half since 2004. They are a very conservative order that even now conducts their services in Latin.
More evidence of revolutionary zeal hides in plain sight in the cemetery. Guillaume Alexandre Segur was born on 19 Thérmidoran IV and died on 23 November 1880. The revolutionaries wanted to eliminate every single connection to religious and royalist heritage, including the calendar and telling time. They zealously strove to base all of revolutionary life on decimal systems. For 12 years, the calendar in France had 12 months, each of which had 3 10-day weeks; they had to work hard to accommodate the remaining 5 days of the year. The Roman numerals designed the years since the revaluation. So, M Segur was born in Year IV of the revolution, but since the revolutionary system did not last long, he died back in the old calendar year of 1880.
Carlos wove together tales from Lagrasse’s early history and from the emergence of the medieval bourgeoisie that loved art and showing off. He showed us painted ceiling panels from the 14th and 15th centuries. Carlos likened these panels to Facebook posts! This was how the well-to-do announced their accomplishments, identity and sense of humor.
The market hall was the center of commercial life. To this day, it shelters the weekly local market of fresh produce, meats, honey and seafood.
You can see the “calling cards” of the fishmonger guild here as well. See again the pair of fishes at the top of the column; the fishmonger association’s headquarters was in this building.
The village streets and squares drip with charm! Many artisan shops, offering pottery, glass art, unique fashion, and books, animate the narrow streets.
OK, now about the dance performance!
Danse à Lagrasse exists because of Johanna Adams Farley, Senior Stage Manager at the Royal Ballet (UK), and many other local enthusiasts, who have homes in Lagrasse. In 2010 and now in 2018, the tour schedule of the Royal Ballet allowed a slight detour for these two performances in Lagrasse.
Stands and stage were erected on the village’s rugby field just for this weekend’s festivities.
While Carlos had kept us engaged with the history and attractiveness of Lagrasse, the summer afternoon had also scorched us. After the tour, in the late afternoon, we lingered over cold drinks, an ice cream, and then a few glasses of rosé in the village. We were waiting for the open-air pre-performance supper to start at 7 pm. At last the food tent welcomed us. We enjoyed a relaxed three-course supper under the trees.
The start of the performance needed to wait until after dusk. By 9:45, we, and about 600 other enthusiasts, were in our seats, savoring the summer sky and dark surrounding hills.
The lights dimmed. Two pianists appeared, bowed, and took their places at a pair of grand pianos at the corner of the stage.
Then we were treated to a very generous succession of solo dancers, duets, and ensemble pieces. There was a mixture of classical ballet and robust contemporary pieces. We generally prefer contemporary dance over classical, but the immediacy of this relatively small setting and the accomplishment of these dancers kept us rapt. The dynamic choreography and physicality of the contemporary pieces, vigorously embodied by beautiful young dancers, made me think over and over, “This is why I love dance!” Beautiful, moving, astonishing, passionate, transfixing.
This was the night of the celebrated lunar eclipse. While the surrounding hills concealed the blood moon from us, the waning eclipse rose later in the evening. The music and dance filled the night. The moon ascended. The air started to freshen. The performances followed one after the other until after midnight! A glorious evening — and day — in little Lagrasse!
PS: A little unexpected moment of beauty: At the abbey, I followed the signs for the restroom. Up some stairs, around a corner, and then into the restroom — with this open window straight ahead.