The village of Saint-Bertrand-de-Commingues was a turning point as I made my way east along the Pyrenees. It was the first time I felt I was going towards the Mediterranean.
It was the first day of unblinking sunshine in a while, and I welcomed the dry heat, after the cool, damp high mountains. But the Mediterranean feel, it turned out, was deeper than the weather.
As I approached the village, the first I saw was its cathedral, a stark square block right at the top of a hill. It looked like a fortification, not a place of worship. In fact, it is the whole village that is fortified. With only three narrow gates in and out, it titters on top of a rocky outcrop, corseted by defensive walls.
Visitors can’t drive in, so I left my vehicle on the plain, right next to a huge Gallo-Roman site. The Gallo-Roman town, built from the first century BC, was a key trading point between the Pyrenees and the plains of Gascogne. Pax Romana meant building on the plain, where traders’ paths crossed, rather than up the hill. The town grew to become the most important civitas of Roman Aquitaine. Its temple – made of Pyrenees marble –, its forum and its amphitheatre are still obvious to see.
But this is not what Saint-Bertrand de Commingues is famous for. At the summit and the centre of the village is the Sainte-Marie cathedral. Its Romanesque, squat tower and thick walls confirmed my first impression. It is only inside the shelter of the building that I found beauty, in the graceful Renaissance organ and the delicate woodwork of the choir screen.
Bertrand de Commingues was from the family of the Counts of Toulouse; he was raised to be a knight. Instead, he became a priest, then a bishop. He reformed the Church; this was the time of the Gregorian reform. He also acted for peace, creating several “sauvetés”, places of refuge. Villages bearing the names of “Sauveterre” or “Salvetat” are common in the region. He performed miracles and started building the Romanesque cathedral. He was considered a saint in the region as soon as he died.
After the crusade against the Cathars, the French influence started to be felt on this territory. It was the first pope of Avignon, Clement V, ally to the French King Philippe le Bel, who had the cathedral finished, in gothic style. The works were an olive branch, an effort at reconciliation. Saint Bertrand would have been pleased.
In the village, there was a santon exhibition and market. Santons are traditional Provencal figurines for nativity scenes. You can buy them finished, or choose to paint them yourself. Apart from the traditional Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, donkey, ox and shepherds, santons also recreate village life in granular, quirky detail. There is the hunter and his dog, the gipsy and his guitar, the cheese seller, the milkmaid, the snail race.
But the best was yet to come. Three kilometres away from the village, is the delightful Italian roman style basilica of Saint-Just. Now I was transported to Italy; rounded terracotta tiles, cool but spacious Romanesque space, numerous Roman stones being reused in the walls, cypresses in the graveyard.
Suddenly, at Saint-Bertrand-de-Commingues, everything pointed towards Rome, its empire, its church, and the Mediterranean, its layers upon layers of history and civilisations.