Dwight Peck's personal Web site

Ten wintry days in the South of France

Montpellier, Arles, the Camargue, and lots of et cetera



You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

Views of La Couvertoirade

It's New Year's Eve day and we're on our way into the causses region in the Massif Central for New Year's Eve dinner in Meyrueis. En route, we've stopped to visit the medieval village of La Couvertoirade, in the Averyron department of the Midi-Pyrénées region (scheduled to merge with the region of Languedoc-Rossillion in 2016).

There was a village here on the Causse (limestone plateau) du Larzac from the 11th century, but it was absorbed in the 12th century into the financial network of the Knights Templar (a.k.a. 'the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon'). The Templars were the Crusader military order of knight/monks that was papally endorsed in 1129, quickly became a popular charity for rich people wishing to help the Crusades (and get into Heaven) without having to leave home, and parlayed the massive donations of land and money all over western Europe into a vast network of real estate and financial services.

The main northern gate. Templar administrators constructed a castle here, drawn by the confluence of major roads down to the Mediterranean embarkation points and by the pattern of donations received, and banked the profits from the local economy. As a farming community, they supervised the peasants' cultivation of grain, raising horses (particularly destriers or warhorses), and grazing sheep. There were probably about 800 residents in the 14th century.

The main gate, the Portal d'Amoun, on the northern side. In 1307, however, the French king Philip IV 'the Fair', generally broke and deeply in debt to the Templar bankers, tried the order's leaders on charges of heresy, sodomy, blasphemy, indecent kissing, financial corruption, and secret handshakes, amongst others, tortured and obtained confessions from most of the top Templar knights, burnt a lot of them up and seized their assets throughout France.

The pope, Clement V, a Frenchman installed in Avignon, France, obligingly disbanded the Templars and in 1312 ordered them arrested in all countries. Different countries responded differently to that, and frequently, as here, their properties were transferred to the Order of the Knights of St John, or Knights Hospitaller, the other great military/religious machine of the Crusading era.

In the 14th century, western Europe was plagued by the "great companies", the bands of mercenary soldiers who joined up for the Hundred Years War and got left behind each time the kings and nobles signed another treaty and went home. Well-trained and already organized, they roamed about, mainly in France and northern Italy, hiring out their services when they could and looting towns and cities in the meantime.

And so it was that the Hospitaller administrators and local populace fortified the whole village, between 1439 and 1445, with walls all round and several gate towers. That's what's still here today, all round the Templar castle.

I should have been watching more closely where Kristin was supposedly leading us.

A resolutely Catholic town, an attack by the Protestant Huguenots in 1562, during the Wars of Religion, was stoutly repulsed, and the fortifications were kept in good nick especially during the War of the Cevennes of 1702 to 1715, fearing another attack by the Huguenot 'Camisards' following Louis XIV's revocation of the tolerationist Edict of Nantes in 1685. That attack never came; God didn't will it evidently.

That looks like Kristin there. And there's no one else in this town on New Year's Eve day. After many years of depopulation of the region (plagues, wars, etc.), La Couvertoirade peaked out at 1075 inhabitants in 1846, and then everyone moved to the city for jobs.

Presently there are 177 residents, according to the French Wikipédia. The English Wikipedia identifies them all as craftspeople in enamel, pottery, and weaving; the French Wikipédia inclines towards the sheep grazing theory, for Roquefort and Pérail cheeses, calves and lambs for tasty dining, and throws in beekeeping and fuelwood chopping, with tourism almost as an afterthought.

The Restaurant La Tour Valette. After having been thrown out of the Holy Land with the collapse of the Latin Kingdoms in 1291, the Knights Hospitaller grabbed the island of Rhodes and stayed on until the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent gave them the push in the 1520s, and happily the Spanish king gave them Malta. Once there, the 'Knights of Malta' gave the Ottomans and Barbary pirates fits, so in 1565 Suleiman took them on again. This time, the Knights led by their Grand Master Jean Parisot Le Valette withstood an horrific siege (a great account in Roger Crowley, Empires of the sea: the siege of Malta, the battle of Lepanto, and the contest for the center of the world (Random, 2008)), and Malta's capital is named after him.

Maybe that's the same Valette.

La Couvertoirade is not a large town, by any means, but I'm lost anyway.

People! All is not lost then.

I've caught up, bustling along faster than I should have. We're nearing the Auberge du Chat Perché, or Perched Cat.

Mom working the kids down the medieval stone staircases. (Perhaps she's an enamelist, potter, or weaver.)

The main street inside the southern walls

The southern gate, from the inside

The southern gate, or Portal d'Aval, from the countryside; identical to the northern gate, but its gatetower collapsed with a big thud in 1912.

The southern walls

A little carpark for the locals inside the southern gate

The northern gate (on the right) and another tower (on the left)

The Hospitaller church, and Kristin jogging up the steps. I'll never catch up now.

La Couvertoirade street scenes

The home of an enamelist, potter, or weaver; or sheep grazer. Or cheese maker.

The church

The Hospitaller church and cemetery, at the height of the village next to the Templar citadel

The church was locked up during our visit, no complaints, it was New Year's Eve. This borrowed photo of the beautiful interior is by "Ancalagon" on the Wikipédia Creative Commons.

An art exhibit

An artistic photograph

The eglise and one of the two gargoyles

A view along the northern wall over the rooftops

The 13th century Templar Castle, the original military establishment in the village; its precinct wall was presumably demolished during the 15th century Hospitaller refortification.

Templar decals

There's a little postern gate out this way

The Moulin du Redounel peeking over at us

Kristin pacing off the lengths of the pig sties

A walk in The Nature

La Couvertoirade from the hillside to the east, with the Templar castle in the centre

A very well-worn path

La Couvertoirade

-- Where's that pesky windmill?

Determination, if not enthusiasm

The windmill of the Redounel

Moulin du Redounel in some pretty scraggly landscape

Mind the step

A last look around

The Hospitaller church from below

Flowerpots patiently awaiting flowers

The church and the Templar castle

I'll need to scramble; Kristin's got the car keys.

Shale gas fracking -- NO THANKS!

Out the northern gate

Towers of La Couvertoirade

Back on the winding open road, over the causses to Meyrueis for New Year's Eve


Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 17 February 2015.


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SW France, November 2008