As so often happens, delicious coincidences have again come along to enhance life for me. When a fine day suddenly burst through from the clouds of rain and snow, I decided to give myself a break from silverpoint drawing at my wonderful artist's retreat perch at Bordeneuve, in Betchat in the French Pyrenees. My hostess, Noelle, extremely knowledgeable and a lover of all things natural, historic and beautiful in Ariège, confirmed that my plans for the day were good.
Before I came to Bordeneuve, I had been learning much more than I had ever known about Romanesque architecture along the route to Santiago de Compostela. The art history classes that I love in Palma de Mallorca always stretch one's mind; the last ones could not have been more appropriate, I discovered.
Ariege is one of the "départements" that includes foothills and the peaks of the magnificent Pyrenees. Thus the valleys, which have the most wonderful music of tumbling water, are dotted with churches and chapels which were stopping places from Medieval times onwards for the pilgrims about to traverse the mountains en route to Santiago de Compostela in N.W. Spain. So, of course, this is heaven for anyone interested in Romanesque churches.
Bordeneuve is a perfect base from which to go exploring the different, and most beautiful, mountain valleys where the jewels of this Romanesque architecture grace the tiny mountain villages. The smaller the village, the less likely it is that the church has been hugely changed since the 11th-13th centuries, heyday of this simple, rounded-arch form of building that preceded Gothic architecture.
As I meandered up the valleys, over narrow arched stone bridges, the churches kept delighting. Some were high on the hills above the valley floors, mountain villages that cling to the north or west slopes to ensure warmth and sunlight to the maximum possible.
Most were closed the day I went exploring, but somehow it did not matter, for the facades and exteriors in general were beautiful in their golden-stone simplicity. I was delighted by small details: scallop shells carved into the base of columns flanking the entrance portal to the church.
It was a day of reminders that man has passed through these Pyrenees valleys for so many centuries, long before the early Christians arrived in the 4th century. After long years of upheavals and violence, the Middle Ages dawned and proved peaceful enough that populations increased, the economy stabilised and people had time and energy to build chapels and churches that welcomed the passing pilgrims and allowed inhabitants to celebrate their faith. What impressed me was the gentle sense of humour, devoutness and closeness to the natural world that seemed the hallmarks of these small, often very unpretentious places of worship. I remembered once again why I have always loved Romanesque churches.- it was a special day in the beauteous world of the mighty Pyrenees.