My adventures in southern France travel blog

Casting of a grotesque playing a psaltery from Puivert Castle

My favorite instrument was this beautiful guiterne with a little carved dog...

A medieval cornemuse, a kind of bagpipe

Foix castle was once deemed impregnable and yes I did climb clear...

12th century battle helm

Armor used by the count of Foix


Today our plan was to drive up to Puivert, a little village of 500 people about 39 km from where we are staying near Carcasonne to visit their museum that is said to have an excellent exhibit of medieval musical instruments. Then we planned to drive on to the Grotte de Niaux, one of the last remaining limestone caves containing prehistoric art that is still open to the public. We planned to finish the day exploring the well preserved castle in Foix.

We found the Musee de Quercorb and its instrumentarium in Puivert to be really interesting and well organized. They had beautiful reproductions of a lute, a portable organ, a rebec - another stringed instrument played with a bow that was the precursor to the violin, a guiterne - the precursor to the guitar, a cornemuse - a kind of bagpipe, a psaltery - a lyre type instrument and drums. The local artists had also produced casts of musicians with their instruments depicted on the supports of the vaulted ceilings in the local 13th century castle whose remains still stand watch over the village.

Apparently Puivert was a center of musical activity in the Middle Ages, hosting a gathering of troubadors in 1170 CE.

The museum even had audio stations available where you could put on headphones and listen to local musicians play the medieval instruments and vocalists sing medieval music and reproduce the chants of Benedictine monks.

The museum curators had also reproduced a medieval kitchen, a carpenter's workshop and a blacksmith's shop with displays of all of the tools that were used then. The area was also known for its bell makers and there is an interesting display about the process. Most of the bells were used for livestock and I was surprised that the demand for cowbells would be so high that it essentially sustained the families of those involved in their production.

A wonderful model of the local castle (I learned that the French refer to all castles as chateaux which I always thought was just a very luxurious house) is on display as well as casts of other sculptural art that has been found there. Apparently, the local castle has been used in various film productions. I wish we had had the time to climb up to it as it was much more accessible than the Cathar strongholds perched high on rocky pinnacles in the surrounding area.

Leaving Puivert behind, we drove on towards the Grotte de Niaux. We found the Museum of Prehistoric Art first which looked fascinating but Richard didn't want to spend time there so regretfully I can't describe its exhibits. We checked the map then continued on to the road pointing to the cave. As we turned off, the road became narrower and narrower and climbed higher and higher until we were clinging to the sheer rock face of a cliff on one side with a drop off of several thousand feet on the other. The views were spectacular but really made your heart pound! We finally turned a sharp corner and found a huge parking area where a big tour bus sat parked. I couldn't believe that bus had actually traversed the road we had just climbed!

Unfortunately, we learned that entry to the cave was restricted to no more than 20 people at a time to minimize the damage to the paintings from human respiration and today all entries were booked up by school groups. What a disappointment! I had read in the guide book about the 20 person limit per group and the recommendation to obtain an entry ticket and time before going up there but we thought it was only a recommendation. Believe me, it is a requirement!! Furthermore, if you want a tour in English there is only one each day at 1 p.m.

Although I have seen beautiful reproductions of cave paintings at the Museum of Man in San Diego, I would have loved to have seen the actual paintings in situ. Niaux is said to have paintings of horses, bison and prehistoric ibex from the Magdalénien era.

So we left Niaux and continued on to Foix. The extant castle at Foix was built in 1000 CE atop the ruins of an earlier castle built during the Merovingian period. It was constructed at the confluence of the Ariège and Arget rivers to control access to the high Ariège river valley.

Presently, it has two square towers and a round tower that was built later in the 15th century. You access the fortress, once deemed impregnable, by a series of cobblestone ramps that switch back and forth up the huge rock on which the castle is built. Being somewhat advanced in years now, I had to stop periodically to catch my breath and was really breathing hard by the time I got up to the entrance office. The clerk eyed me when I asked for a ticket and cautioned me that there were many more steps. I just smiled and told her I knew that.

There are actually winding stairs in each of the three towers where exhibits about the fortress are located. Exhibits include some of the sculptural art from the fortress and a nice display of armor and medieval weapons, although the items, with the exception of one battered helm, were in pristine condition so they must have been either parade armor, reproductions or never used. There was also a mention of King Henry IV's bed allthough I somehow missed it. King Henry IV of France was a descendant of the formidable Counts of Foix.

Cathars sought refuge with the counts of Foix and the fortress successfully withstood sieges by Simon De Montfort in both 1211 and 1212 during the Albigensian Crusade. But later in history, the castle finally fell to French King Philippe the Bold in 1272.

Wandering around the castle we found ye olde latrine. It was a little structure built to protrude over the wall so when you used the little seat inside with the round hole, your deposit would rain down on the heads of any besiegers or hapless villagers that wandered by!

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