Unlike many local villages, which hold their fête in the summer, ours has it in May to coincide with la Pentecôte (Whitsun). It involves the usual stuff: concours de pétanque (boules tournament), go-kart racing, a bal/disco and other events. This year, more interest was added by introducing walks around the historical sights of the area.
The walks’ focus was on lavoirs, those pre-washing machine communal washing places, mills and pigeonniers (pigeon lofts). I have written about lavoirs before, so I won’t repeat it all here. However, we discovered some hidden away of whose existence we were unaware.
Lavoir in Need of TLC
The inspiration was the proposed restoration of the lavoir in the village. Most lavoirs were of ancient origins and located at the site of a spring or a stream. This one was built in 1922 in Caylus itself, which is on a hill. Although there are various springs in the village, they must have included some kind of pumping mechanism to bring the water to it.
Today, this lavoir is in a sorry state. The iron roof (apparently the only one of its kind in our département) is rusting and the roof tiles contain asbestos. And the pillars holding it up are none too secure. An association, Caylus Notre Village, is raising money with a view to update it.
Yesterday we duly turned up at 8.30 am at the Place du Lavoir, where we consumed coffee and cakes and were issued with instructions for the walks of varying lengths. We and a group of friends decided to do the 10.6 km version, which would get us back to the village in time for lunch under the halle.
Our walk took us along the upper Bonnette Valley, with its high concentration of mill-houses, and into the villages of Saint-Pierre de Livron and Lacapelle-Livron, perched high above it. The limestone causse above Caylus is riddled with underground springs and the lavoirs were generally sited where they emerge, like this one below Lacapelle-Livron.
The steep path beside it leads uphill to Lacapelle. The lavandières (washer-women) came down from the village to the lavoir with their laundry. Imagine carting that lot back up – wet.
We took a little detour into the village, which has a former Templar commandery, before continuing to the Chapelle de Notre-Dame des Graces that has a superb view over the Bonnette Valley. The story goes that the chapel was built by the widow of the seigneur of the Château de Mondésir, which it overlooks.
Fortunately, the walk organisers had placed signs at strategic places, including the unlikely-looking entrance to a path behind a barn. This led us steeply downhill to a lavoir built into the rocks. This is some distance from any habitation and, yet again, we marvelled at the stoicism of these women. We also decided that it was a disincentive to doing your washing very often.
The return leg took us up hill and down dale back to Caylus, where we assembled under the halle for the slap-up meal which we felt we had richly deserved. I have often mentioned that nothing around here starts on time. This event was no exception.
The meal was billed to start at noon. At 1 p.m. we were served the starter (various pâtés and charcuterie). The main course of porcelet farci (stuffed suckling pig) arrived at 2.45 p.m., just as we were wondering what the French equivalent of ‘Why are we waiting?’ is.
Cheese and dessert arrived somewhat faster. Despite the wait, the ambience was convivial. Around 300 people shared long trestle tables under the halle. One of the highpoints was a contest to guess the weight of a ham, which was ceremoniously brought round the tables. None of us won, but the SF wasn’t far off at 5.88 kg (the actual was around 5.75 kg, although I don’t remember exactly).
For me, the highlight of the day was retracing the footsteps of those doughty washer-women, who enjoyed none of our modern amenities.
You might also like:
Watery Walk – La Vallée de la Bonnette
Of Knights, Damsels and Dragons
A Traditional French Hamlet – Flouquet
Five Curiosities in Caylus
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All sound lovely and give me a longing to visit the village again and les lavoirs. I our own village of Montricoux we are close to a lavoir in need of repair but still beautiful.
They say the technology that finally freed women and allowed them to enter the workforce was the washing machine, and you can see how it might have done for these villagers.
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It’s interesting that you should say that about the washing machine. I daresay it was a factor in the liberation of women. Nonetheless, an elderly woman I spoke to here said that the biggest liberating factor for women was the car and being able to drive. We know a number of elderly women who can’t drive and their lives are strictly circumscribed. When their menfolk pass on, they are stuck in hamlets with no public transport. And they rely a great deal on others to take them around. These days, that may be a more defining factor than possessing a washing machine.
The lavandières reminds me of a story you might find interesting. I had an archaeo prof who worked for many seasons on a dig near an ancient hill top village above the Beqaa Valley, Lebanon. In the tiny village there was a large ancient stone basin that all the women used to wash their clothes in, but first they had to walk down hundreds of feet of ancient steps cut into the hillside, down to the Jordan River, fill up their water jugs and trudge back up the hill to fill the communal basin. This arduous and labour intensive process took all morning. So one day, my prof convince the woman to form “a bucket brigade” and each one passed a bucket from the river up to the next woman in the line with the last one dumping the water into the ancient basin. Of course the basin was filled within an hour, much, much shorter and with less effort and each woman carrying one bucket on her head up the narrow path. My prof thought he had shown them the way! But of course next morning the women were back do it the way they had done it literally for thousands of years. He assumed that perhaps the trips to the river where the womens few chances to be free of village and gossip…or maybe they just continued doing coz that they way it had always been done.
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Fascinating story. Thank you for sharing it with us. I wouldn’t like to draw any generalisations from this but I suspect that the traditional way of doing things may be a very powerful influence. I have spoken to women around here who experienced the ‘lavoir culture’ and to some extent they bemoan its loss, even though they have benefited in other ways. The lavoir played a very important role in the texture of local society – even if it was a strenuous activity and in some ways represented the strict division of labour between men and women. And it also shows that women carried out tasks that were equally arduous as those of the men. They were just different.
That looks like a beautiful walk. Especially the waterfall.
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We are lucky to live in an area of such outstanding natural beauty and historical interest. The waterfall is gushing away nicely just now. In the summer it’s often completely dry.
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