Saint Bertrand de Comminges, a Day Trip from Toulouse, Episode 177

Saint Bertrand de Comminges


If you are staying in the Toulouse area long enough to look around at some of the other hidden gems of Occitanie, we recommend you consider a visit to St Bertrand de Comminges, a bucolic and inspiring village in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

In today’s episode, Elyse tells us how the gorgeous Cathedral came to be built and about other interesting sites nearby such as the Basilica of Saint Just Balcarère, the painted neolithic cave of  Gargas, the spa resort of Bagnères de Luchon and the Roman ruins at Montmaurin. 

Would you like to tour France with Annie and Elyse? Visit Addicted to France to choose an upcoming tour.

St Bertrand de Comminges Episode Highlights with time stamps

About Join Us in France

[00:00] This is Join Us in France Episode 177. Join Us in France is the podcast for where we talk about France, it’s many quirks, it’s history, it’s language, and of course, destinations in France you might want to visit since you’re probably someone who loves to travel. This episode is brought to you by Patreon supporters and Addicted to France, the Tour Company that specializes in small group and custom tours in France. And we’ve a great tour coming up in May, check it out here.

 

Saint Bertrand de Comminges city sign and illuminated Cathedral
Photo Annie Sargent

On Today’s Episode: Saint Bertrand de Comminges

[01:05] Bonjour Francophiles, I’m Annie, and on today’s show I chat with Elyse about a really small and charming village an hour south of Toulouse called Saint Bertrand de Comminges. Definitely out of the beaten path but at the same time a center of French history and culture. This episode goes entirely to the depth of knowledge we aim to bring to you about France because this is certainly not a place lots of people Google about! But we talk about it anyway because it’s interesting to people who love France and want to understand it better.

French History Brief: Richard Coeur de Lion

[01:44] The French History Brief at the end of the episode today is called Richard I of England aka Richard the Lionheart aka “Richard Coeur de Lion”. But did you know he also had a nickname? They called him “Oc e no” which spoke to me because that’s an Occitan expression, and as you know, that’s where I’m from too! More on that after the episode. Here’s the song I mention in the episode.

The Show Will Go Dark Between Dec 20th and Jan 10th

[02:14] The next episode coming out next week on Dec 20th is going to be the last of the year and then I’ll take a couple of weeks off and will come back with new episodes in the new year starting on January 10th. And now, on to my conversation with Elyse on Saint Bertrand de Comminges!

A Great Day Trip from Toulouse

[03:10] Why Saint Bertrand de Comminges makes for a great day-trip from Toulouse.

An Organ Festival at the Foothills of the Pyrenees

[04:35] The Saint Bertrand de Comminges organ sounds great and the concerts there are top quality.

St Bertrand de Comminges Historical Background

[06:10] St Bertrand used to be on a major trade route under the Romans

Roman Villas Established in the Area

[07:48] Roman traders established lavish villas in the area

Herod the Kind from the Bible in the Comminges

[09:00] Herod the King was kicked out of Palestine with his wife and he took his retirement in the Comminges.

From Roman Baths to Early Christianity

[10:00] St Bertrand de Comminges went from Roman settlement, to early Christianity settlement, to a County overseen by a Count

A Large Cathedral For Its Time

[12:24] The Cathedral at St Bertrand de Comminges is surprisingly large for the time

Geology and Archeology in the Area

[13:54] The area has interesting geology and several active archeology research sites

St Bertrand Is a Low Population Area Today

[14:57] The village has a lot of empty houses today because there are many home owners who only go on week-ends. We recommend you visit on a week-end or during the festival when it’ll be more lively.

Roman Ruins

[15:57] Besides the Cathedral, you also have a site of Roman Ruins to visit nearby with beautiful frescoes.

Saint Bertrand de Comminges in the year 1000

[20:00] Bertrand de l’Isle Jourdain was a bishop in the Gers, then went to Rome, built the Cathedral on top of the hill, then as made a Saint.

It’s Hilly!

[21:28] Watch out for narrow streets! Most of the houses look really nice.

Best Time to Visit Saint Bertrand de Comminges

[22:50] Go on a week-end or in the summer or on a day when the festival is on.

Saint Just de Valcabrère

[23:45] This is Saint Just de Valcabrère, a beautiful and World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, it was closed when Annie Arrived.

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Either Eat on French Time or Bring a Picnic!

[24:35] This is not the sort of place where you can grab a bite to eat any time of the day. Either eat on French restaurant time (arrive at 12:30 PM or 7:30 PM) or bring your own food! We’re not even sure there are any restaurants open year-round in St Bertrand

The Cathedral and Cloister

[27:17] The Cathedral and Cloister were commissioned by one of the French Popes in Avignon called Clement V. He had been bishop of the area and when he became pope, he built a large Cathedral there (large for the area, you’ll see bigger ones lots of places!). The Monastery has been gone for a long time. The organ and wooden choir is gorgeous.

The Summer Music Festival

[30:19] The Festival is over 40 years old, started out with Organ music, but now they also have chamber music and sacred music. It attracts music connoisseurs who are usually older and better off.

What to Do Nearby: Gargas Painted Cave

[32:04] You can visit the painted cave of Gargas where you get to see the actual ancient paintings, lots of hand prints. (http://www.grottesdegargas.fr/)

[34:19] You can also stop at Martre Tolosan where there are ceramics with nice designs.

[36:09] For an over-nighter you could go to Banières de Luchon where they have spas, thermal baths, go hike in the mountains. Luchon is a lot bigger than St Bertrand de Comminges and has a lot more happening.

Saint Bertrand de Comminges Cathedral at dusk
Photo Annie Sargent

 

 

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Mont Saint-Michel Trip Report, Episode 176

Mont Saint-Michel Trip Report


It’s a fact: the Mont Saint-Michel is a big rock with an abbey on top. It doesn’t sound that appealing when I put it like that, does it? But that abbey on top of that rock with the sea surrounding it at high tide and the vast expanse of sand at low tide; well, it works. It is one of the most spectacular vistas you will ever see.

The Mont Saint-Michel attracts lots of tourists every year, and the word “lots” doesn’t do it justice. There are so many, sometimes it’s unbearable. But like all “touristy” places, there are things you can do to maximize your chances of seeing it in peace, and that’s exactly what Phil Roberson explains to us on today’s episode.

 

Would you like to tour France with Annie and Elyse? Visit Addicted to France to choose an upcoming tour.

Mont-Saint Michel Trip Report

 

mont saint-michel at night
Photo Phil Roberson

Paris to Rennes on the TGV

[03:04] Phil arrived in Paris, spent one night, then took the TGV to Rennes where he picked up a rental car. That’s probably the most direct way to get to Mont Saint-Michel. When returning to Paris he decided to do it the other way, driving through Bayeux.

Quick Walk-Through of Rennes

[03:45] Quick two-hour visit of Rennes, a charming city with half-timbered buildings and pretty streets. It was a sunny day and lovely. Had a nice meal there.

Stop at the American Military Cemetery in Saint James

[04:43] As a WWII history enthusiast, Phil had to stop at the Brittany American Cemetery and Memorial. It is smaller than its Normandy counterpart, but just as sobering.

That First Glimpse of the Mont Saint-Michel Will Take Your Breath Away

[05:30] Even though he had been there before, Phil was surprised how when he caught his first glimpse of the Mont Saint-Michel through the winding roads, it took his breath away.

You Can’t Drive Right Up to the Island

[05:45] They will not let you drive right up to the Island, not even to drop somebody off. You will be required to park and either take a free shuttle or walk. The parking lots can be 3+ kilometers away from the island.

If You Reserved a Hotel You Can Park Closer and Free

[06:15] Hotel customers have a special parking lot, but you have to arrive with the reservation information ready or they will try to make you go with everyone else. You need the code for the hotel parking lot.

What Has Changed at the Mont Saint-Michel Since 2012?

[07:36] You can’t park at the foot of the ramparts any more. The bridge lets the tides do their job, and the sand doesn’t get stuck around the causeway any more. It’s a more natural, and more spectacular, look now.

You Have to Do a Lot of Walking on Mont Saint-Michel, Don’t Bring Too Much!

[09:00] Travel light because even the buses don’t drop you off right at the foot of the island. If you can, bring what you need in a backpack. Backpacks are ideal because you’ll have to deal with lots of cobblestone once you get to the island. Rolling suitcases do not work well on cobblestone! The walk to the island is great in good weather, not so fun in bad weather.

Timing is Everything at the Mont Saint-Michel

[09:45] Pay attention to the tide schedule so you can walk around the island on the sand. Bring another pair of shoes for that! Big tides are also a lot more spectacular than minor ones. Some days the water doesn’t move much, others it’s truly spectacular. It’s all known in advance, check the schedule.

Troubles Checking in at the Hotel on Mont Saint-Michel

[12:15] Phil had a reservation at the Mouton Blanc, but when he got there, he found a sign saying he had to check-in at a different hotel and go back down the hill. That wasn’t right!

Pack Light! Schlepping Your Luggage Up or Down the Island Is NOT Easy!

[13:40] Even young, fit people have a hard time with rolling suitcases at the Mont Saint-Michel

Hotels Just Outside of the Mont Saint-Michel

[15:30] There are hotels near the island where the bus drops you off at the hotel. That’s a viable option as well. You’ll have to walk the 3rd of a mile between the island and the bus-stop several times, but the buses run late.

How to Bypass the Crowded Road with All the Restaurants

[16:20] If you just want to get up to the Abbey quickly, you can take the ramparts path and avoid all the restaurants and shops. Phil tells us how to find it.

Find the Little Chapel to Get to Quiet Areas

[17:15] From the “Eglise Saint-Pierre” you can get access to paths where there are a lot fewer tourists because they’re not on the main drag. There’s a small cemetery there too.

The Poulard Story

[18:50] It’s everything Poulard on the Mont Saint-Michel, we don’t know if it’s a racket or a conglomerate or what, but it seems they have the corner on everything!

[Addendum: The original hotel and restaurant Mère Poulard developed was bought by the mayor of the island in 1986 and he turned it into what it is today. But “La Mère Poulard” had modest beginnings a housekeeper and a great cook. She was welcoming and motherly and attracted famous people to her hotel and restaurant. She also had great business sense even though she didn’t seem to care about money. She died in 1931 and is buried in the tiny cemetery of the island along with her husband.]

The Mont Saint-Michel Is Definitely a Touristy Place

[20:30] There are no businesses on the island that don’t have to do with tourism. But, despite that, it is still worth a visit because it is so beautiful.

Food Specialties of the Mont Saint-Michel

[21:47] Omelets, shortbread cookies and mussels with cream are the specialties nowadays. There were other local specialties before the Poulard empire, but you have to go elsewhere in Normandy to enjoy them.

It Stays Light Late in Normandy in September

[23:35] The sun doesn’t set until around 9 PM in France in September, this gives you time for great visits and photography.

Photography Talk

[24:42] Annie and Phil talk photography gear for a minute, specifically how to protect your camera gear from rain damage.

Le Mouton Blanc Hotel Review

[26:30] The hotel was OK, but nothing special. Phil didn’t spend much time there, so he didn’t care, it was adequate. Some rooms have an ocean view, his didn’t unless you craned your neck just right!

Is It Worth Staying on the Island?

[27:25] Yes. You have to pick your poison: you either deal with the luggage on the cobblestone and up-hill, or you deal with walking back to the bus. There are inconveniences to both. If you want to stay on the island, book far in advance if you’re going in high season (May thru August)

Is Mont Saint-Michel Doable for People with Limited Mobility?

[28:35] Not really. There are stairs everywhere, up-hill cobblestone, not possible for a wheelchair user. For people with other types of limited mobility, it depends. Plenty of people who suffer through it. Our frank discussion on this podcast can hopefully help you decide.

mont saint-michel bay with the island far in the background

Visiting the Abbey at the Mont Saint-Michel

[30:43] The Abbey opens at 9:30 and closes at 5 PM most of the year. Check on times. Phil was one of the first ones at the opening which was good because otherwise it’s mobbed.

No Signage in the Abbey, Take the Audio Guide!

[33:05] The audio guide will tell you a lot about the architecture and the history. You really need it because there are no signs explaining anything. Check out the models of the development of the Abbey over time at the entrance, it’s impressive. The views from the top are amazing, a must-see.

Some Things You Will See Inside the Abbey

[35:20] Large dining rooms, meeting rooms, tiny cells for the monks, the pillars that hold everything up. Massive fireplaces and the manual crane they used to bring goods up to the top of the Abbey.

Finishing Your Visit Just As the Massive Crowds Arrive

[38:27] You don’t want to start heading up the hill at 10 or 11 AM, that’s when it’s mobbed.

Never Travel with Just One Pair of Shoes

[39:39] Annie argues that point and Phil, being a polite gentleman, doesn’t dare contradict her too much!

Leaving the Mont Saint-Michel, Gorgeous Country Road!

[41:08] To get great views, don’t stay on the N road (route nationale) and go to the smaller roads. You want the D275 and the D75 (same road, changes names in the middle because of arcane French naming conventions).

A Stop at Avranches

[42:24] Avranches is great for a quick stop, could even be a good Plan B if other hotels are too full. It’s possible to get great views on to the Mont Saint-Michel from there when the weather is clear.

The Scriptorial in Avranches Is Worth a Visit

[44:34] As Elyse explained in Episode 175, Avranches is where the monks of Mont Saint-Michel were attached to. Their writings are kept at a museum in Avranches and it’s worth a visit.

How Much French Do You Have to Know in Get By in France?

[45:51] You have to know the niceties (bonjour, au revoir, merci) and it’s good if you can struggle through a sentence or two because it makes the person you’re talking to less worried about their English. But you can visit France with hardly any French at all.

Fans of WWII and D-Day Must Listen to Episode 116 with Phil!

[49:03] Episode 116 with Phil on WWII history and D-Day is a must-listen to for anyone preparing to visit Normandy. It is informative and super helpful.

[51:50] Show Updates

  • Thank you Patreon supporters!
  • What’s new with the show this week.
  • The answers to the question of the week and things that will chance in 2018.
  • Join Us in France is now on Spotify.
  • The show will soon be on the Amazon Dot or Amazon Echo.
  • You asked for it and it is here! You can get Join Us in France Merchandise on TeePublic.
  • Email: annie@joinusinfrance.com or leave a voice mail on 1-801-806-1015.

[60:00] French Tip of the Week: c’est bientôt Noël

[60:45] French History Brief: La Guillotine

Next week’s show is going to be on Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges.

Thank you for listening, if you heard something in today’s episode that someone you know would enjoy, find this episode on Join Us in France on Facebook and tag them!

Have a wonderful week, and I’ll talk to you next Wed!

mont saint-michel pillars that support the Abbey

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Mont Saint Michel History, Episode 175

Mont Saint Michel History


If you’re wondering some of the things you might need to know about Mont Saint Michel history before visiting Normandy, you’ve come to the right place!

Licensed Tour Guide Elyse shares with us some of the highlights that will help it all make sense. And they will also help you look around with a different eye. Did you know that the Monastery on top of Mont Saint Michel was a prison for 200 years? Did you know that the Mont wasn’t always an island? It’s all in today’s episode!

Would you like to tour France with Annie and Elyse? Visit Addicted to France to choose an upcoming tour.

Other Episodes About Mont Saint-Michel

Red half-timbered house on the Mont Saint-Michel; Mont Saint Michel History
Photo Phil Roberson

Episode Highlights with time stamps

[02:00] Phil Roberson visited the Mont Saint Michel in September 2017. He took the train between Paris and Rennes and then rented a car to get to the Mont Saint Michel.

The Mont Saint-Michel Gest 2.5 Million Visitors Per Year

[02:45] Elyse will be answering the question “Why go to the Mont Saint Michel?” One reason is that it is the 3rd most visited cultural site in France after the Eiffel Tower and Versailles. It is extremely popular. The first tourists started going there in the 19th century. It became a historical monument in 1874.

Where Is the Mont Saint-Michel?

[04:00] It is in the southern part of Normandy and right at the border between Normandy and Brittany. There has been a historical debate as to which region it belongs to. It’s about 1.5 hours from Bayeux.

The Mont Saint Michel Was Not Always an Island

[05:45] The top of the rock is 92 meters high. We think there used to be a pagan site on the Mont. They used holes in the rock to place religious artifacts. It used to be called Mont Tombe which means elevated mound (and not “grave” as one might think).

High Places Used as Religious Sanctuaries

[08:00] We know from several places in France that high places were often used as pre-Christians religious sanctuaries. When Normandy became Christianized they also setup the area as a religious sacred site. It is not a burial site because it is solid granite, but they placed objects there.

Hermits Lived on Mont Saint Michel Long Before the Monastery

[0940] Places like that were also used by hermits as a refuge from the world. One of these hermits created a shrine to Saint Etienne (Saint Stephen) half-way up the rock. And another one of these hermit shrines was placed at the base of the rock. The area was surrounded by forest at the time. By the 6th Century, Christianity and the Francs had taken over and that’s when it first became a monastery. Vikings were next, arriving from the Seine River.

Norsemen Became Normans

[14:10] In the 700s King Rollon promised to protect the rock which allowed the monks to start building the precursor to the Monastery. Saint Michael is a popular Saint at the time and Charlemagne wants to dedicate the rock to him. That’s when it becomes called Mont Saint-Michel. The early name was “Mont Saint-Michel in the Peril of the Sea”.

Legend About When Mont Saint Michel Became an Island in the Year 709

[18:30] Elyse tells the story of the natural disaster that turned Mont Saint Michel into an island supposedly over-night, but it most likely happened over a long time. It’s more likely that the land eroded slowly. They built the first church on the Mont late 8th century under the Bishop of Avranches. That is why Normandy has more of a claim on the Mont Saint-Michel than Brittany does.

The Mont Saint Michel as a Major Center of Learning

[22:15] The Monks at Mont Saint-Michel became the center of intellectual development in Western Europe and are the first to translate Aristotle from Greek into Latin. Between the 11th and 14th Century Mont Saint Michel is a major center of learning.

The Benedictines Take Over

[24:00] The Brothers fell away from austere religious life and Benedictines came to take over. On the site where the Monastery stands today there used to be a pre-Romanesque church. What we see today is late Romanesque / early Gothic.

Because of the work of the Benedictines, the Mont became an important pilgrimage site. When you visit you’ll see two Saint Michel statues, one from late 1500s and the other from the end of the 19th century when they did some renovations.

The Abbey Is Turned into a Prison

[27:40] By the 17th century, most of the brothers have left because of wars between England and France as well as the wars of religion. The brothers leave starting in the 16th century and eventually it gets turned into a prison. It was a Royal Prison.

Before the French Revolution it had turned into a prison for men, women and even children. They were turned into indentured servants. This lasted over 200 years. They called it “Bastille de la mer” because it was such a horrible prison.

[30:00] In 1810 there were over 1000 prisoners there. Victor Hugo wrote about it. Over time there were 14,000 prisoners at this jail.  The jail closed in 1863.

The Mont Saint Michel Becomes a Historical Monument in 1874

An elderly Violet-le-Duc starts the renovation of the Mont Saint Michel with the help of two students. What we see today is neo Romanesque because of the way Violet-le-Duc renovated things. He liked pointy roofs.

Modern Tourism Started at the Mont Saint Michel in 1880

[31:40] Mont Saint Michel was famous because of the pilgrimage and the outrage of the prison and 100,000 come see it that year. It was a great way to rebuild a fresh image for this ancient site. Pilgrims start coming back too at that time also. The big boom of tourism in the area started after WWII.

What Attracts the Pilgrims to the Mont Saint Michel

[32:30] What do pilgrims go to see there?  They have a relic of a rock that contains a footprint from Saint Michael and and some cloth. It’s hard to believe The Monks there now are from the Order of Jerusalem. But the biggest draw for people to this day is that it’s so spectacular. It is beautiful both from a distance and from inside.

To Be Continued in Episode 176 Next Week

[37:00] To prevent this episode from going too long, you’ll get the rest of our conversation next week!

Annie’s Personal Update

[38:15] Thank You Patreon supporters!

Questions for this week: what can I do to make the show better in 2018? What do you think about the video teasers?

French Tip of the Week

[44:50] Est-ce qu’il va pleuvoir demain ?

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Mont Saint Michel history, medieval door to enter the city
Photo Phil Roberson

Conclusion

Now that you know a few important things about Mont Saint Michel history you’ll probably get a lot more out of the time you spend there.  But no matter how much you learn about history, the real reason why people go is that it’s so beautiful both up-close and at a distance. It’s a photographer’s paradise!

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