There are so many gems (hidden or otherwise) in our area that I was spoilt for choice last weekend, when many of them were open during les Journées du Patrimoine (heritage open days). These are just the kind of things I love to discover, often sensitively saved from oblivion by dedicated enthusiasts. By the end of the weekend, my head buzzed with all the things I’d seen.
La Salvetat-des-Carts is a tiny hamlet set below a ridge. From the ridge you get a panoramic view, including a view of Najac.
An association has restored the partly Romanesque église Saint-Laurent, dating from the 11th century, which is a delightful little church. We went to a concert there during our first Christmas in France in 1997.
Friends recently told us about a nearby walk, which the La Salvetat association had inaugurated in August. It’s not long, about 5-6 km, so a fortnight ago we decided to get back our walking legs, sadly unexercised after a summer when it was much too hot to walk.
Le Chemin du Puech d’Escarts starts on top of the ridge and descends via ancient tracks through former chestnut plantations. The acid soil favoured the cultivation of chestnut trees, which will not grow in our limestone soil, only 15 km or so away.
Growers cultivated several varieties of chestnut. They exported le Marron de Laguépie. Other varieties were for local consumption by people and animals. Chestnuts were grilled or eaten boiled. They were also dried in secadous and ground to make pig swill (or bread). In late autumn, pigs were let into the chestnut plantations to hoover up the surplus fallen chestnuts. Najac ham was noted for its succulence and flavour.
The young trees were used to make planks for wine barrels, until Phylloxera finished off the local vineyards. Chestnut leaves made good bedding for cows and sheep.
During our walk, we sadly saw much evidence of this summer’s scorching heat and drought. Some of the older, established chestnut trees had survived, but many of the saplings were brown and shrivelled. Even on those that had held out, the chestnut casings were small, lacking the necessary rain to plump them up.
Small compensation though it was for the parched landscape, we were treated to fabulous views of the surrounding countryside.
Because it has been so hot and dry, there was little birdsong, but we did hear woodpeckers uttering their alarm call and a lark soaring high above, and we saw kestrels hovering over their prey. We startled a dozing deer, and plenty of smaller wildlife rustled in the verges.
Fast forward to last Sunday, and I went to La Salvetat-des-Carts to take a guided tour of the church during the Journées du Patrimoine. I received a personal tour, although other people had visited earlier.
I thoroughly recommend taking the guided tours whenever you can, since you learn so much more about the sites than you do from a visite libre. The guides are knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Even if your French isn’t up to much, some of the guides speak English.
La Salvetat-des-Carps (sic*) started life as a sauveté. These were ecclesiastical enclaves with a church in the centre of a delimited area. Within these areas, secular laws had no authority. The first sauvetés appeared in the 11th century. Their main function was to colonise uninhabited areas peacefully and to transform tracts of scrub and woodland into cultivable land. They provided asylum and protection from feudal conflicts. How well this worked in practice isn’t clear, but those who breached the rules were subject to severe religious sanctions.
[*This was one of its former names in Occitan, or sometimes La Salvetat del Puech des Carps. ‘Puech’ means mountain or slope. ‘Carps‘ could mean well-ploughed. This might fit with the function of a sauveté to cultivate virgin territory. You also find ‘escarts’, from which the modern name has clearly derived, meaning land which has been cleared of woodland.]
This structure is in a field on the outskirts of the hamlet. It’s probably a well (I couldn’t see the other side), but I do wonder if it is one of the boundary markers of the original sauveté that has been restored. Its current form plainly doesn’t date back to the 11th century.
Each sauveté was under the control of an abbey or monastery. La Salvetat-des-Carts belonged to the Order of St John Hospitaller, which had a commandery in Espinas, a few kilometres from us. The arms of one of their commanders, Jean de Cayrolis, dating from 1528, are displayed in the nave. While excavating the floor of the apse, the association found a stone bearing the same arms, which now decorates the front of the altar. A replica is displayed in the nave.
Like many such buildings, La Salvetat’s church underwent several makeovers. Two side chapels were added to the original Romanesque building in the 16th century. The nave was extended, and the bell tower constructed in the 19th century. The Romanesque apse was badly restored at one point with incongruous elements added and original ones removed. The current association aimed to reverse the damage done.
The association had an amazing piece of good fortune while restoring the Romanesque apse. Not far beneath the surface, they found a vessel containing almost 2,500 silver coins dating back to the 13th century (1248-1260). “I found it,” the man giving the tours told me.
The identity of the person who hid it there is unknown, but they obviously never came back for the treasure nor told anyone else where it was. The mid-13th century was a period of great turbulence in the area following the death of Count Raymond VII of Toulouse. The coins’ owner no doubt thought they would be safe there, which of course they were for about 750 years. Well, you can’t take it with you…
In 2013, the association commissioned a sculpture from an Albi artist, Casimir Ferrer. The Christ in Majesty is the result. I understand this piece caused some controversy. You can see why. It wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. Equally, since people in previous eras wanted to leave their mark on the church, why shouldn’t people in our own do the same, provided it doesn’t damage or alter the original structure? To me, it looks like Darth Vader on speed, but I rather like it, except for the rather cumbersome organ pipes that the sculptor integrated behind the Christ figure.
Below are shots taken in and around the church.
The drinking fountain below is set into a blocked up doorway of the church, which formerly led into the graveyard (now located on the opposite side). The person from the association admitted that the scallop shell is a bit fanciful, since La Salvetat is not actually on a chemin de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle.
Do share with us your little gems in the region. I am always on the lookout for places to add to my already long bucket list.
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