|Basilica in Place Urbain V|
...through the city of Mende. But, before we set off, I probably need to supply a few facts and a bit of history.
Sitting on the southern edge of the Massif Central, Mende is the préfecture – principal administrative city - for the département of Lozère in the recently-formed Occitanie region of France. With a population of around 12,000 and an area of 14 square miles, the town sits in the high valley of the Lot about 30k due west of Mont Goulet and the source of the river. At an altitude of 700m, living here is bit like living near the top of Cross Fell in the Pennines, but with better weather.
There has been habitation on this spot for over 2,000 years and the history is varied and complex. Raided and sacked on numerous occasions – not least during the Religious Wars - Mende has survived to be the prominent town that it is, centred around it’s old medieval foundations with the modern city surrounding it. In the middle ages, Mende became a centre of culture and civilisation, a focal point for trade, art and craftsmen with a notoriety that stretched as far north as the cities of Moulins and Vichy.
We begin our visit in Place Urbain V with a look at the cathedral. The Basilica of Notre-Dame-et-St-Privat is striking because of its mismatched towers. Begun in the 14th Century, under the auspices of the then Pope Urbain V, the cathedral was partially destroyed during the Religious Wars of the 16th Century – hence the odd towers. The original bell ‘Non Pareille’, then the largest bell ever to have been cast, was melted down for bullets so that Capitaine Mathieu Merle and his Huguenot soldiers could continue the fight. With more than 10 interior chapels, Aubusson tapestries in rainbow colours and the detailed vaulting, this is a truly magnificent example of the changing architecture over the centuries.
|Old streets of Mende|
Out in the sunshine again and we are going to take a right, past the préfecture building – more of that later – into the narrow streets of the old medieval town. With houses of three and four stories high, so close that neighbours could almost shake hands above the cobbles as they reach out of their open windows, the shade is welcome and necessary in the mid-day heat. This part of the city became the home to hundreds of Jewish traders and remained their domain right up until the 20th century. And it is one of these streets that I will be using as the location for a business for one of my characters in my next novel.
|Tour des Pénitents|
If you follow me into the bright white heat of Place au Blé you will see one of the vestiges of the old fortifications of the town – Tour des Pénitents. Originally constructed in the 12th century and then rebuilt after the Hundred Year’s War, it survived the deliberate destruction of all of the ramparts in 1768. In 1721, the plague moved rapidly north from Marseille to Mende and took the lives of over 1,000 people in little more than a year. The subsequent tearing down of the city walls was instituted as a health measure to enable fresh air to blow into the town.
From here it’s a short walk along rue de l’Abbaye to the préfecture building, which stands magnificently beside the cathedral. It was in this building, during the 1939/45 war that the Mayor at the time, Henri Bourrillon, defied the Vichy regime. Bourrillon objected to the internment camp that was built close to the town and, his words, actions and further objections caused him to be removed from his position of authority in 1941. Henri took this in his stride and joined the Resistance and Mende, and some of its bravest people, took on a new role in support of the Jewish community within the city.