Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Tour de France 2014 Carcassonne to Bagnères-de-Luchon Approaching Fanjeaux


We had a lovely day out yesterday watching the Tour De France from our nearest point this year which was close to Fanjeaux. We chose a spot near the bottom of the hill where it was less steep but also less crowded.

We got there about 10.00 a.m. but soon realised we had already missed the sponsor cars, because we could see people were wearing Skoda hats, big hands and various other freebies that had been thrown to the crowds.

So the moral of the story is that an hour and a half before the Tour arrives isn't early enough if you want to see the whole show. You probably need to add at least another hour to that.

That said the main event was of course the Tour itself and this was Stage 16 on the 22nd July 2014  going from Carcassonne to Bagnères-de-Luchon and we had our cameras ready and waiting. The clue they were near of course is the circling helicopters you hear and see as they film the Tour de France from above.

Angela had the job of taking the still photographs and I decided that this year it would be a good idea to video the event as they all went by. Basically because we knew, from previous years, that even on an uphill section that they go by like a steam train and you have to be really quick to get your photographs.

I think all in all we did a pretty good job, we were certainly in the right place because they passed us with only inches to spare, as you will see in the video. But the stills that Angela managed to get were pretty good as I hope you agree.

Where we were

When we were there

Here they come
Check out this guy nonchalantly taking a drink!
Hardly breaking a sweat, uphill doing around 50-60 km h
The front runners

Couldn't be much closer without hitching a ride

A rare gap in the pack

So once proceedings were over we visited some friends in Fanjeaux and made an impromptu decision to see if we could get lunch at the Table de Cathare. A quick phone call and confirmation that they actually had a table, they did but only just, and we were sitting down to a lovely set meal of salad starter, duck main course and a desert. OK their normal 13 euro menu wasn't available and this menu was 20 euros. But it was Tour de France day and by the time we finished all I could do was waddle back to the car, thankful that I wasn't riding a bike to the Pyrenees that afternoon. A lovely finish to a great French event.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Embrasement de la Cité de Carcassonne 2014



Watch the video, that's all that needs to be said. Amazing!



Friday, 27 June 2014

Learning French - Not as Easy As You Might Think

Having moved to France a few years ago, you can imagine I have tried quite a few different way to try and learn French, these include the BBC languages course BBC French, Rocket French and the Rosetta Stone French DVD to name but a few. But I have to say of all the different ways of learning French that I have tried, the Michelle Thomas French DVD's have been the best from a beginners perspective.

The main reason is that you can listen to the Michelle Thomas French DVD's without having to refer to a separate booklet or manual. You basically just switch it on and listen. I would even say that just having it on in the background while you are still working on other things will help you at a sub-conscious level.

This is perfect for anyone who is busy and needs to get on with the daily job whilst trying to learn French at the same time. For example cutting the grass can take nearly 2 hours even using a sit on mower, so what a perfect time to make a slightly monotonous activity a time for learning.

I transferred the files from my CD sets to my IPod specifically for this purpose, only because using the IPod is a lot less intrusive than a CD player. Same applies cleaning the pool a bit of a boring job suddenly turns into my daily French lessons. Well as long as I remember to do it.

Now that said if you want to be a fluid French speaker you are probably not going to achieve it just listening to Michelle Thomas, he is great for a beginner because his method of teaching is very easy on the brain and introduces you very well to the way the French structure their sentences. Which is usually in a completely different order to the way English speakers do.

Where I am going with this is that if you want to learn French to any level of competence you are probably going to have to mix it up a bit. A great starting place is with the Michelle Thomas CD's as is some easy going revision when you are not feeling up to other more intensive courses, you will also find that you can get Michelle Thomas advanced French courses and yes he does go into things in more detail and to a more comprehensive level, but ultimately you will need to find additional and different ways to learn and continue your French education. Probably the most effective would be integrating and speaking with native French speakers.


This is the link for a copy of his foundation course available in the UK -Michel Thomas Foundation Course: French (Michel Thomas Series) This link will get you to his Advanced French Course in the UK - Michel Thomas Advanced Course: French (Michel Thomas Series) Although I would still consider this a beginner to intermediate conversational French course personally.

There is no doubt in my mind that starting your French language learning adventure should be with Michelle Thomas, you will get a great grounding and introduction to the French language this way and investing in both the introductory and advanced level courses will be worth every penny. This video gives you a flavor of how the courses work and Michelle’s unique approach to teaching French.


Learning French with Rosetta Stone

The whole principle behind the Rosetta Stone approach to learning a language is to teach French the way a child would learn French, primarily through observation and associating words with those observations.

There is no translation involved with the Rosetta Stone method, you simply see images and associate those images with the correct and most accurate description of what you are seeing given in an audible format (in French obviously).

There are various other options available with the Rosetta Stone course, you can for example listen to the French and see it written down at the same time, to help you make the right choice.

When you think this through however, where you really need to be with the French, for conversational purposes anyway, is at a place where you can hear and understand the words and what is being said in the French language in a way where you are not trying to translate to your native tongue. It is the translation where you will fall foul in a conversation, when you are translating you can easily stumble, miss the end of a sentence and lose the thread of the conversation.

Simply put you will struggle to keep pace with a conversation if you are trying to translate it as you hear it, you need to think and understand in French to be able to hold a conversation. That may sound a little daunting, but the principle behind Rosetta Stone is exactly that, you are not required to translate you are required to understand the French without translation.

So the sooner you move to level where you just listen to the words and not rely on a combination of words and written text to get the answer the better off you will be, remembering of course no one will be offering you a written dialogue of what they are saying during a conversation.

Other options from the Rosetta Stone DVD course are to repeat the French you hear and have your version compared against the original to allow you to check your pronunciation. Alternatively you can type in the French and see how accurate your written French is, so all in all a fairly comprehensive suite of training modules.

So what of the downside, well if I am honest the course is a bit repetitive and as a result a bit boring to boot. Also if you do make a mistake the software feeds the same question back to you several times to make sure that you have understood it. This sort of adds to the repetitive nature of the program, but I guess it can be argued that if you are making mistakes then you need to be further tested on that specific area. You can’t really argue with the principles of this learning method and you can move from basic to advanced levels of learning where comprehension is much more tricky and you really do have to concentrate.

I don’t think this course will suit everyone but if you think you can handle the repetition it might be just what you need to learn French as natives do. It’s also worth knowing that Rosetta Stone V4 TOTALe French offers new features including interactive software, live online sessions with native tutors, and online games. 

You can use this link to purchase a copy in the UK –Rosetta Stone Version 3: French Level 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5 with Audio Companion (Mac/PC)

BBC Languages and BBC French


The BBC French language course is another great tool in your quest to learn French. What the BBC languages courses do are to take every day situations and events and recreate them in a role playing format.

Basically each module addresses situations you may encounter in everyday life. So scenarios such as meeting someone for the first time, going to a swimming pool or the shops are simulated and a typical conversation you may encounter is replicated and used as a learning exercise.

 This technique is taken even further with the very good program called 15 minute French. Just about every scenario you could imagine in every day life is covered and this really is a useful way of taking on board expressions that you may not have considered you would need. 15 minute French covers topics such as work and study, health and the doctor, the home, leisure time (les loisirs) and much more.

Both programs require you to refer to an exercise book, but it is difficult to envisage any other way of doing this effectively. what this means is that you do have to put time aside purely for study and you can’t really combine it with other activities as you can Michelle Thomas.

But on the plus side you will explore a broader scope of conversations and expand your vocabulary more. Michelle Thomas for me is excellent at defining structure but is a little limited on content, that is why you really need to mix things up a bit. The BBC being a very nice British institution also offer a free online resource at BBC/Languages

Makes you proud to be British and of course a very bad salesman, but there you go, can’t win them all. If you want your own course and you live in the UK there is The BBC Talk French Series which you can choose from for the level you need available on this link and that will earn me a little bit of money, not a lot but every little helps.

Likewise for the 15-minute French ( 2 CDs + BOOK ): Learn French in Just 15 Minutes a Day series, which I would buy ahead of the BBC option if you need to choose one or the other.

Mainly because it covers more scenarios and remembering this is the UK version where the poor people live, have you seen all those cutbacks, shocking!

From Michelle Thomas French to Rosetta Stone French

MichelleThomas will get you started in understanding how the French structure their sentences and beginning to have conversations in French. The BBC French and 15 minute French will help expand your vocabulary and deal with common scenarios a little more easily and then you have Rosetta Stone French. Rosetta Stone is your opportunity to learn French like a native and makes you actually listen to and hear the words the way you would in conversation, a great way to practice and stop your ears panicking when you have to do it for real.

None of these methods are easy and some people will have a natural aptitude where others may not, but ultimately the only way to become a fluent French speaker is to walk the walk and then you will be able to talk the talk.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Simon De Montfort and the Persecution of the Cathars - The Albigensian Crusade

What was the Albigensian Crusade?

The Albigensian Crusade, also known as the 'Cathar Crusade', was a military campaign initiated by the Roman Catholic Church at the command of Pope Innocent III from a period starting in 1209 and ending in 1255. The objective was to eliminate Catharism throughout the Languedoc region of Occitania. The French crown saw it as an opportunity to bring Occitania back under French control and as such were more than happy to follow the dictate of the Roman Catholic church. The initial stages of the Albigensian Crusade were to be executed under the command of the Papal Legate Arnaud-Amaury, a Cistercian abbot and spiritual advisor who was giving orders on behalf of Pope Innocent III.

So on the 21st July 1209 in the blazing heat of a South of France summer the crusaders arrived at the city of Beziers. Participants in the crusade had entered into an initial contract stating that if they committed 40 days to the crusade all their sins would be forgiven. Effectively passage through the pearly gates for just under a six week commitment; guaranteed by the Pope himself.

Raymond of Toulouse had managed to pacify the Pope using some very skilful 'issue avoidance' tactics, which meant that Raymond-Roger of Trencavel was the initial focus of the crusade rather than Toulouse. But Raymond-Roger was convinced that, with only having to stand up to a 40 day engagement, the crusade was bound to fail. All Beziers needed to do was hunker down and resist the assault on the city for those 40 days, after which the crusaders would have no incentive to continue . He was so confident in fact, that he left Beziers to defend itself and withdrew to Carcassonne. Imagine the shock when he received the news that Beziers had fallen the first day and that the entire population had been put to death, an estimated 15 to 20 thousand people, and all in the name of the Roman Catholic church. Suddenly alarm signals went out around the region and several fortifications decided that they would rather not get into the fight.

Now with Raymond-Roger ensconced in Carcassonne, that was clearly the next big target for the crusade, but at least he was armed to the teeth and ready for them, so surely this huge fortification would not fall and certainly not in less than the 40 day milestone?

Unfortunately it was all over in around 6 days (from the 1st to the 7th of August), the city's water supply was cut and Raymond-Roger was taken prisoner when a so called truce was called and negotiations were meant to be taking place between the crusaders and the resistors. Raymond-Roger was taken prisoner, clearly demonstrating his lack of experience of military proceedings, and Carcassonne surrendered on August 15th.

It was after these initial successes that Simon of Montfort (Simon de Montfort) turned out to be the solution for a feudal law problem. According to feudal law, Raymond-Rogers son should inherit his land and the accompanying 48 fortresses, even though Raymond-Roger had been ex-communicated. The two main benefactors of the crusades i.e. the highest rankers in the feudal system, The Dukes of Burgandy and Nevers, didn't want to adopt the occupy and keep rule that the Pope had issued. As far as they were concerned they had already earned their way into heaven (40 days service to the crusade) and really didn't feel they could take the land. Or in fact did they want to, being so distant to their own etsates. 

Simon de Montfort on the other hand was well down the feudal scale, so when he was offered the lands he had no such scruples, he took them, the accompanying forty eight castles and the leadership of the Crusade. The Dukes left town to return to their own estates, taking most of the crusaders with them. This left Simon de Monfort in a particularly difficult situation, incarcerated in Carcassonne with a small body of men and only 30 knights he lost forty of his forty-eight castles over the winter period. His fortune started to change with the arrival of his wife Alix and some re-enforcements during the spring with more crusaders arriving in the summer. It was then that Simon made an attack on Bram, which fell in only three days. He elicited his revenge on a priest he felt had double crossed him and went on to mutilate one hundred prisoners in the same manner that two of his men had been mutilated in the previous autumn. Reference French History Books. This was to mark the beginning of the Simon de Monfort period of the crusade and was a particularly gruesome act that was only to be surpassed at the next major obstacle, Minerve, the capital of the Minervoise.

References also owed to Wikipedia for information and images

Why Did the Roman Catholic Church Have Such a Problem with Catharism?


Pope Innocent III Instigated the Cathar Crusade 


The Catholic church considered the adoption of the Cathar faith to be an act of heresy. The Cathars did not believe in a single all encompassing god, they considered that there were in fact two gods, equal in status. They believed the physical world in which we all live was evil and had been created by the ‘King of the World’. The ‘Rex Mundi’, to give it its Latin interpretation, encompassed everything that was of physical form or substance in a chaotic world of power driven individuals.

The second god was in principle completely removed from the material world and of pure spirit. This was the god that the Cathars worshipped, because this god was completely unsullied by the material world and was the god of order, love and peace.

So what did this mean in practice? Basically that the Cathars could have a very nice time in the physical world because civil authority, being of the material world, had no claim over them. Truly devoted Cathars would take the ‘consolamentum’ to become a perfect. Not quite so easy for women because procreation was considered evil, so unless a woman had remained single and not had children, she could not in theory take the ‘consolamentum’. That is of course unless you were an ‘A’ lister like Esclarmonde of Foix who received the ‘consolamentum’ in 1204 at an event held in Fanjeaux. She was a widow and would no doubt have had sex in the process of procreation, she did have eight children after all. But she was the daughter of a Count which presumably meant she didn’t have to adhere to the normal rules.

Becoming a ‘perfect’ meant that you were seeking spiritual enlightenment and that you were no longer concerned with the physical aspects of the material world and would abstain from eating meat or animal based products, avoid sexual contact and live a life of severe austerity.

Cathars believed in a process of reincarnation and that the soul was doomed to incarnate into this materialistic world time and again until through a process of spiritual enlightenment and purification it was able to return to God through Christ and the Holy Spirit. It was also thought that this process of death and rebirth towards final Perfection took place over seven lives.

In truth not many Cathars became perfects and the rank and file of the Cathar followers did not have to lead such a severe life of austerity and abstinence, they were viewed as ‘credente’ (ordinary believers). The Cathar sick or injured could be given the ‘consolamentum’ by a perfect and if they subsequenty died there was little opportunity to fall back into sin. So they entered and benefited from the status of becoming an ‘Elect’ which placed them on a par with the angels or holy spirits and allowed them to pass from the material world to the spiritual world.

If they lived on the other hand, they then had to adopt the rules and practices of the ‘perfects’ and go through the three years of preparation required to take the consolamentum’. A pretty tough option for anyone not really prepared to make the sacrifices needed to become an ‘Elect’ the objective of Cathars who became perfects.

A cynic might say that you could do whatever you wanted to do in the material world but then as long as you took the ‘consolamentum’ just prior to passing you could become an ‘Elect’ and instead of being re-incarnated back to the physical world you would be purified and pass to the spiritual world of the good god.

Unfortunately for the Cathars there were plenty of cynics observing that were prepared to pick up on every little inconsistency and when one of those was Pope Innocent III. Someone that had a serious issue with Catharism, a faith with spokesmen that had a habit of pointing out one or two of the Roman Catholic indiscretions such as the storming of ‘Christian Constantinople’ with fire, sword, rape and pillage for example.

The Cathars also had a leaning towards rubbishing the holy act of ‘baptism by water’ as being tainted by a component of the material world and highlighting the excesses of people in high places that adhered to the Roman Catholic faith.

You can see then, that the writing was on the wall as they say, especially when a few political considerations are taken into account and some greedy people in high places stood to benefit from the removal of the Cathars.

Albigensian Crusade Timeline 


Starting in 1209 and Finishing Finally in 1255 

1210 saw the crusade, now firmly under the leadership of Simon of Monfort, move onto Minerve. Exactly a year and a day after the slaughter at Beziers, Minerve surrendered to the crusaders. They had held out a lot longer than their counterparts at Beziers and Bram, but with the city’s well destroyed they finally succumbed to the crusaders. Given the opportunity to renounce their faith, most did, but there were 140 that refused and for their trouble they were burned at the stake. This was in a location thought to be below the town somewhere in the Gorge de Cesse.

This was to set the trend for the next 5 years and with many towns and cities yielding without a fight, the crusaders had the initiative and the upper hand. Raymond of Toulouse had fled to England, but in 1216 things began to change in the Lauragais.

The Return of Raymond 

Raymond returned in April of 1216 and raised a substantial force to take on Montfort , first he captured Beaucaire and managed to fight off de Montfort, there were a number of skirmishes in the region and then just after a year since his return, in September 1217, while Montfort was occupied in the Foix region, Raymond re-took Toulouse.

This was to be the turning point for Simon De Montfort, a year later whilst Toulouse was under siege by De Montfort he was struck by a rock, it was said that the rock ‘struck on his steel helmet, smashing into pieces his eyes, brain, teeth, and forehead; the count fell to the ground bloody and black’. The whisper went out that the ‘Wolf was dead’. It was the end of the part Simon de Montfort would play in the Albigensian Crusade.

With the death of Innocent III, King Peter and now Simon De Montfort the only surviving proponent of the Crusade was King Philip of France, so once more the Crusade lost momentum. Amaury de Montfort, Simon’s son abandoned Carcassonne and the son of Raymond-Roger de Trencavel returned from exile to reclaim the area. So Montfort offered his claim to the lands of Languedoc to Louis VIII, who accepted, now there was royal intervention and a new emphasis that was strong enough to ensure the continuation of the Crusade to its bitter end.

Even the death of Louis VIII did not prevent this happening. The Inquisition was established in Toulouse in November 1229, and the surviving elements of Catharism were eliminated from the region, largely thanks to the famous inquisitor Bernard Gui. Cathar strongholds fell one at a time. Montségur managed to withstand a nine-month siege before finally being taken in March 1244.

Many saw this as the end of the Albigensian Crusade but it managed to drag on for another eleven years. The final hold-out was a small, isolated, overlooked fort at Quéribus, which quickly fell in August 1255 to end the mopping up of the Cathars and marking the end of Catharism.

The burning of the Cathars that refused to give up their faith had become the norm, as grizzly a death as it was, and even as late as 1321 a Cathar that admitted his faith was burned as a result.

So was that the end of the Cathar faith? Very nearly but even to this day there is still a tiny group that exist at a location close to Rennes Le Chateau. Arques is where you will find that there are still a few Cathars and there is also an exhibition in the town centre about the Cathar history in the Roche house.

The History of France in the South 

The Part the Lauragais and Languedoc Played in the Making of France 

The Lauragais is one of the lesser known, but very beautiful, regions of France with some very important landmarks that should be considered part of the heritage there. You will find Toulouse, Carcassonne and the capital Castelnaudary all listed as being part of the Lauragais or as immediate neighbours. A lovely place to visit and to explore some French history.

You can find out a little more about the Cathar Fortresses and where they are here.


History of the Lauragais
If reading this article on the Albigensian Crusade and how the Cathars were persecuted at the instigation of the Roman Catholic faith has peaked your interest in the history of the Lauragais region.

Then you can purchase this book written by a local historian on the history of the Lauragais and the part it played in forming France as we know today.

It is on Amazon and available world wide, but for those of you based in the UK here is the link:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B007Z55F3U


Saturday, 5 April 2014

The Pays Cathare in the South of France

A map of the Pays Cathare with all the Fortresses and most of the towns involved or of interest to anyone who wants to find out about the Albigensian Crusade led in the early days by Simon de Monfort.

 

 You can find even more information on the Cathar Fortresses and a little bit of their history using the link I have popped in here. It is an article I wrote by invitation for Answers.com

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