My holiest place

A lifetime traveler finds solace in a renegade outpost in southern France.


Jan Morris
June 5, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Pottering the other day around the eastern Pyrenean foothills, I came across a very happy house. It was a simple wooden building in an orchard, with a hand-written notice offering apple juice for sale, but when I walked into its yard it seemed to me to be under some sort of kindly spell.

There was no sign of life whatever -- all was silent and deserted in the morning sunshine. The house was cheerfully cluttered around with crates and bottles; outside the door was a bowl of milk for a cat; two or three derelict cars were piled up any-old-how at the corner of the orchard. Clearly nobody was home, not even a dog -- not even a cat! -- but the back door was open and an assurance of trust and contentment pervaded the little estate.

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I very soon saw why. I peered through one of the downstairs windows, across the sitting-room and through a window on the other side of the house, and there perfectly framed between the open curtains, I saw the white summit of the mountain Le Canigou, which had clearly cast its blessing upon that lucky home -- and which has for 30 years and more been my personal holy of holies.

Canigou is the presiding mountain of the southern French region of Roussillon, which marches with Spain and is pervasively Catalan in history, in loyalty, in spirit and in language. It is an outrider of the Pyrenean range. The mountain is 9,174 feet high, is snowy for much of the year and had a peculiar effect upon me the moment I first set eyes on it. It seemed strangely but benignly familiar -- dij` vu in an oddly exact and comforting way.

Like most foreigners, I first glimpsed Canigou from the big coastal road that runs south from Narbonne valley through Perpignan to the Spanish frontier at Cerbere. On one side the coast of Roussillon is ravaged by all the usual tourist muck, high-rises and camping sites and a beached ship that serves as a casino. Inland on the other side, however, is a most glorious countryside, half fertile, half wild, rich in vineyards and olive trees, speckled with small towns. And rising calmly but excitingly in the middle of it, as thrilling to today's whizzing motorists as it once was to weary sailors of the Mediterranean, stands the mountain Canigou.

It has long been thought sacred, and it gives the impression of being essentially good. To the sweating seamen of antiquity its white crest there, cool and brilliant against the azure sea, must have seemed a promise of consolation. To Catalan patriots it has always been a symbol of national pride and loyalty. Christians long ago adopted it as a proper place for holy contemplation, and in its lee the Cathar heretics of the 13th century fought and died for their beliefs. For me the very name Canigou has a seduction of its own -- angular, bony, austere -- and the mountain's presence gives me sensations that start by being disturbing, but end with that same sense of arcane benediction that I experienced in the apple juice house.

All the fecund Roussillon plain looks allegorically toward Canigou, and pleasant small spa towns bask in its shade, but the mountain is guarded by ramparts and outposts that shield it from mundane reality.

First there are the stupendous castles of the Cathars, high on their own inaccessible crags, which always seem to me like watchtowers for the holy mountain beyond. The ascetic Cathars believed the God of spiritual matters to be in perpetually unfinished conflict with the Satan of materialism, and out of this uncomfortable conviction they evolved their own forms of Christian faith and hierarchy. Brought to Europe from the Middle East, such esoteric heresies so enraged more orthodox Christians that armed crusades were mounted to extinguish them, and it was in the country around Canigou that the last of the Cathars fought to the bitter end for their ideas, and were slaughtered almost to a soul.

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Dotted here and there on high fierce peaks, like outcrops themselves, are the strongholds they built as their last retreats -- dizzily precipitous constructions, reached only by narrow stony paths and staircases. Climbing up to them is like clambering out of this world into another, where all our accepted truths seem open to doubt, and every assumption is questionable. What queer debates they must have had up there! What terrible bloodshed resolved their theories! Sometimes, though, from one of those fateful refuges the old white mound of Canigou can be seen -- and if the Cathars were anything like me, those poor besieged heretics must surely have drawn some relief from the sight, some promise that the truth was not so uncertain after all and death need not be so terrifying.

Now the shattered wrecks of their fortresses stand, I like to think, in wry testimony to the mountain's simple and eternal truth -- the truth of natural goodness.

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In a closer ring around the peak, though, are the churches and chapels of orthodox Christianity that have been drawn there specifically by its holiness. All through the foothills they are scattered, and in the very flanks of the mountain, and even when they have fallen into ruin they are still instinct with reverence.

Some are up secret valleys, some are proud on hillocks, and they come in all sizes and pretensions. It is at the abbey of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, part of whose buildings formed the nucleus of the Cloisters Museum in New York, that they hold the celebrated Bach festival founded by the Catalan cellist Pablo Casals. At Saint-Martin-du-Canigou an endless stream of tourists and pilgrims labors up the winding wooded track to the monastic church on its hilltop. The remote Priory of Serrabone is classed as a French national monument, and has had most of the numen postcarded and officialized out of it.

I prefer, anyway, one of the modest small shrines of the Canigou country that are far from any highway, and seem to have sprouted spontaneously out of the mountain rock. The predominant style of these churches is the Romanesque, and to my mind its severe, balanced but witty serenity perfectly suits the flavor of the place. What could be more magical than to sit in the shade of an ancient crumbled cloister, the sweet flowers of Roussillon at your feet, Canigou beyond the trees, whispers of devotion all around, and to find yourself mischievously surveyed, out of a Romanesque pillar-head, by some quaint and comic figure of the medieval imagination -- an imp, a green man or a kind of camel -- just to remind you that sanctity need not be solemn, nor dedication without fun?

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For though Canigou has so long infatuated me, I have never found it overawing. When I first saw the mountain, it somehow felt like an old friend, and I knew it for a comforter. Since then I have realized that there was nothing remarkable in this response. We all have our own Canigous, mountains or men or just memories, and every now and then, driving down some foreign road, or straying into an empty house, we raise our eyes and recognize them.


Jan Morris

Salon Travel Contributing Editor Jan Morris has written more than 30 works of travel literature, including "Fifty Years of Europe," "The Matter of Wales," "Hong Kong," "Venice" and "Spain."

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