Close to the little village of Larcan where we’re housesitting until mid-November is the Roman and Gothic influenced French town of St Bertrand de Comminges. We jumped in our hire car at around 10am and made the short, 20 minute drive from home, early enough to get to the next destination following our visit, but late enough that there would be life on the streets. How wrong we were!
St Bertrand de Comminges is a member of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, ‘The Most Beautiful Villages in France’ association, and you can see why. Perched on top of a small hill, the Cathedral of Saint Marie is visible clearly as you drive through the countryside. It’s the focal point of the entire area, and it’s a little surreal to see a cathedral and tiny village sitting on top of this small hill.
Wake up St Bertrand de Comminges
We parked in the car park and walked into the tiny village, easily explored on foot in it’s entirety within 20-30 minutes. The 2,000 year old village really is beautiful and has been maintained magnificently, but what really struck us was the fact no-one was on the streets. In fact, none of the residents seemed to be awake! We strolled around and barely saw a soul during our entire visit. A tour group of elderly Italians eventually joined us to provide some sort of atmosphere, but by that stage we were looking for anything to give our experience a little oomph!
We dropped into the tourist office (in the square at the front of the cathedral), to get a map and some advice. He suggested we walk around the area, including nearby sites such as Saint-Just Basilica and the townships of Valcabrere and Saint Martin. With Jack he said it would take around an hour, but after checking them out in the car a little later, there’s no doubt it would have taken much longer than that. I’m not sure if he has children, but his time estimation was optimistic at best!
Cathedral of Saint Marie
The major attraction of the village on top of the hill is well worth a look. Even though it looks shut, just push on the doors at the front and head inside for a look. It’s quite beautiful with Romanesque-Gothic architecture, Renaissance windows and carved choir stalls, but it’s the 16 Century organ that will impress you most. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but doesn’t cost anything to go inside for a look. However, if you want to visit the cloister there is a small charge.
There are other attractions in the village such as the Theatre, the various gates of the fortified wall surrounding the town (Majou, Cabirole and Hyrisson) and half-timbered houses, but it won’t take long for you to swing by these, admire their charm and get a happy snap. We ended up walking around the perimeter of the village wall, through a couple of the entrance gates, down several of the village streets, and made our way back to the car to continue our exploration of the surrounding area.
A slice of history at the foot of the hill
Here you’ll find extensive ruins of the old ancient town of Lugdunum-Convenae, so if you’re a budding archaeologist or historian this will be very interesting to you. There’s remnants of a temple, forum, shops, baths and theatre to keep you occupied for a while, but as we’re not really into that sort of thing we drove past, nodded in acknowledgement of its existence, and carried on to the next site.
Saint-Just de Valcabrere Basilica
A short two-minute drive is the Saint-Just Basilica, which I think is arguably even more attractive than the larger Cathedral of Saint Marie. There’s what looks like a box office at the main gate with signage to suggest it costs something to get in, but when we were there no one was inside so I just wandered in. There’s a cute cemetery (is it right to say that) within the church grounds with some very old and fascinating headstones to check out. It’s literally in the middle of a beautiful field with no other buildings close by, so it’s quite the charming site. I didn’t go inside, over the years I’ve literally been churched out, but if I’m going to make a gross generalisation I’d say it’s probably like most other centuries old churches I’ve been in.
Valcabrere and Saint Martin
The small townships of Valcabrere near the Saint-Just Basilica, and Saint Martin just a minute or so further down, are two very small but charming old towns nearby. There’s really not that much to see in either, and they are very quiet and peaceful, but they are worth a drive or walk through given you’re already in the area.
If you’re in the southwest of France then St Bertrand de Comminges must be on your itinerary. It’s one of the great sites of the Midi-Pyrenees and you can find out more information by visiting the official tourist website of the area HERE. In it’s prime it was a thriving city of 30,000 people, but now there’s barely 300 residents in the area. With stories of Roman Generals, city sackings, destruction and resurrections, canonised Bishops, and executions, there’s plenty of history and culture to give you some education to take away with your photos.
Check out the photogallery below to see images of our visit to St Bertrand de Comminges…