September 14, 2011

Pyrenees Tour: Roman Ruins, a Cathedral and a Basilica

I got a decently early start today for what was planned to be a day of minimal cycling and maximum tourist-spot visiting. I had hoped that my first stop would be the Grotte de Gargas, famous for the prehistoric paintings, actually outlinings, of hands on the cave walls, many of which are missing fingers. Everyone I have met who has been there says it is very emotionally moving. Several people have warned me that it is closed often, even when the publicity says it will be open, and I've tried to call during the past two days but only received a recording. I arrived at 9:00 to learn that they don't open until 10:30, and decided not to wait, since I had little realistic hope of a spot on an early morning tour.

On to St. Bertrand de Comminges, with its famous cathedral, standing high on the hill above the plateau surrounding it. The Cathedral is a mix of styles, without feeling to me like a hodge-podge. It has Romanesque and Gothic elements together, and a cloister unusual in that one side is open to the hills on which it is built. Last night at dinner, my host said that he doesn't think the Cistercian Abbayes are beautiful. In  looking at this cathedral with that in mind, I have to agree in many ways. The Cistercians built powerful, simple, symmetrical structures, beautiful perhaps in their simple perfection, but there must be a better, more precise,  word. This cathedral, however, was simply beautiful. The Renaissance woodwork of the 60 stalls is extraordinarily detailed in its carving, said to be some of the most exquisite in France.These stalls createe an enclosed, private space for religious authorities to chant the canon, away from the hubbub of the congregation and many visiting pilgrims.

Neither of the two hotels in St. Bertrand de Comminges is really open. The restaurant in one is closed, I suppose for the season, so the sole, overworked, woman there won't rent a room to anyone without a car. The other hotel, which has a restaurant, is sometimes open, sometimes not, unpredictably and day by day. In any case, today although their door said open, they were closed. All this left me with no desire to stay in St. Bertrand de Comminges.

I rode down the hill to Valcabrere, with its Roman ruins and Basilica. The ruins were too ruined to be particularly compelling to me, but the basilica was fascinating.

The basilica was built in part using ... is the word recycled or looted ... stone from older, Roman buildings. The structure itself dates from the early 11th century. Its walls include items such as Roman masks and parts of sarcogaphi and Roman columns. The area apparently withstood the Celtic invasion without too much damage, and was an important commercial center starting in Roman times. It sits next to the Garonne River, which continues to Toulouse and now appears to have a mixed farming and tourist economy.

I decided to ride on, at least to nearby Barbazon. No one answered the phone at the two establishments there that I called, and I thought of continuing to St. Gaudens, a city, where there would surely be lodging and dinner, but where I will probably get lost if the tourist bureau isn't immediately visible. At 3:30, it's too early to stop and I feel like riding. But the sun is very, very hot now, in mid-afternoon, I suspect it is something over 90.  When I saw a Logis Hostellerie I decided to stop. It was closed until 4:30, but with a minimum of grumbling the proprietor offered me a room a bit before 4:00.

Tomorrow I head early to St. Lizier and hope to both get some miles in and get off the bike before it is too hot. Then back up into the Pyrenees for one more col and look-around, before heading for the Mediterranean coast.


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