Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Have you ever been to a door museum?

Have you ever been to door museum? No, neither had I – until last spring that is. Rooms filled with doors, corridors lined with doors, glass cases containing…yes, you’ve guessed it. The Door Museum, or to be more accurate La Musee de la Porte is situated in the historic part of the French town of Pezenas and it was only when I wandered around the ancient streets of this historic town that it occurred to me that this was an entirely appropriate location for a museum devoted to doors. The town of Pezenas is a warren of little streets and alleyways, many of them less than the width of a single car, radiating out from the hilltop site where Pezenas Castle once stood. The buildings enclosing these streets are 4 and 5 storey high and their solid stone walls only punctuated at ground level, and therefore eye level, by their doors. Very occasionally an open door will give a clue as to what lies behind these stone facades, here and there a glimpse of a cool dark courtyard, an oasis from the heat of the Mediterranean sun, or an ornate stone staircase winding its way upwards, or a room turned into a tiny shop or café.
Ornate staircase
cafe bar

In the main these doors were traditional solid wood panelled doors giving the impression of being as solid as the walls that they punctured and my limited understanding of the information boards in the museum which were all in French suggested that some of the examples on offer were very old indeed. Photographs on display in the museum gave a clue as to the lovingly restored examples available to view around the town as well as extolling the virtues of the traditional timber door versus its modern PVC counterpart – or at least that is what I understood by the large skull and cross bones symbol on the picture of the PVC door. The museum attendant was very enthusiastic and chattered away eagerly in French as I nodded vigorously at what I hoped were the correct parts of his narrative to show my appreciation of the topic.

Ornate stone masonry
The "Cathar cross" above the door.
This being Cathar country the "Cathar cross", the symbol of Montpelier, also makes a frequent appearance in Pezenas and throughout the Languedoc Region. This actually erroneously named the "Cathar cross". The Cathars despised the symbol of the cross viewing it as an instrument of torture. This cross is actually the cross of the Counts of Toulouse which was first adopted by Raymond IV in 1035 during the first crusade to the holy land. Nonetheless the tourist industry is more than happy to keep referring to it as the Cathar cross, i guess it keeps sales going as, needless to say, its possible to buy very many different versions of this cross. I succumbed to my very own purchase of a cross from a market stall, a rather fetching pottery one painted bright red which it has to be said looks a little out of place in the living room of the flat in Aberdeen.

Primarily this was a trip for Simon to deal with some family matters and this being the case I found that I had plenty of time on my hands so armed with a map I set off to explore the town of Pezenas and its many doors.

In addition to the doors the buildings of Pezenas are adorned with ornate ironmongery, stone bosses and carvings and the windows have ornate mullions and similar ironmongery, presumably as a deterrent to intruders. One particular wrought iron design occurs many times on many buildings in the town but I was unable to find out what the significance of it was.

Situated on the River Peyes and possibly named after it and on an obvious trading route from both North to South and East to West, Pezenas became an important trading post where goods such as spices, cloth and wool were traded and the “fairs” generated wealth for the crown in the from of taxes. The fairs were considered to be a good “barometer of the economy of the Languedoc area” and during the 17th and 18th century the prices of spirits were set at the “Trois-Six” market by the distillers of Pezenas and its surrounding area and these prices were transmitted to various trading places throughout Europe.
The canal which had recently flooded
The location of the "Tois-Six"
Pezenas had survived the wars of religion, the plague and various conflicts which all afflicted the region throughout the centuries. It was customary that the governors of the town were appointed by the king and for 100 years they came from the Montmorency family. However to fund the various conflicts that the king was fighting huge increases in taxes were imposed and the towns tax priviliges abolished which resulted in a rebellion lead by Henri ll de Montmerency. The rebellion was swiftly put down by Cardinal Richelieu (him of The Three Musketeers fame) Henri de Montmorency was beheaded and the castle sacked and razed to the ground. The best thing about self guided tours as opposed to traipsing round in a large group is not simply being able to avoid the obligatory stop in the only café that will sit a group of 30 or at the shop where the guide receives a commission for taking a group, it is the ability to take in everything at your own pace and see and learn as much or as little as you want and to let your mind and imagination wander. Sitting at the café in one of the squares in the weak spring sunshine, uncharacteristically chilly for this time of year, it was easy to imagine the evil Richelieu meeting his match in D’Artagnan and his comrades, the swash buckling musketeers of Dumas’s romantic novels, even down to the sounds of the horses hooves clattering past and the sound of steel meeting steel. I started to wonder if D’Artagnan really looked like Michael York…Hmmm…  
Less easier to imagine was the earlier period of the towns history, There had been a defensive strong hold on the site of the castle since Prehistoric times and it is mentioned on the signboard on the city wall that Julius Caeser had been there but the site of the castle is now behind walls and inaccessible to the public, this was one large timber door that was well and truly shut. As this area had been very much part of the Roman Empire we took a day out for a drive in the hills to go and look at the remains of a Roman aqueduct and other older structures.
The guide book said it was round here somewhere.....
There it is. Not quite on the scale of the Pont Du Gard but worth the visit
At the start of the French revolution in 1789 the town was still thriving until the second half of the 19thCentury when its inefficient transport links and what has been described as the “monoculture of the vine” stopped its progress with the fortunate, if unplanned, side effect that the towns’ architectural heritage remains in tact. It is a remarkable town to visit and undoubtedly tourism is an important industry as the narrow streets in the historic centre house a whole range of little shops, from jewellery and glassware, to clothing and leather from biscuits and sweets to toys and books ceramics, pottery and locally made soaps. It has to be said that many of these shops were a cut above your average tourist tat on offer in many similar tourist towns. Many of the sign boards above the little shops are designed to reflect the craft on offer in that shop such as a violin shaped sign over the music shop and a picture of a tankard over the little café bar.

Biscuit shop. Result!

Cafe Bar
Carpenters shop
Glassware shop
Leather shop

One of the most fascinating examples of the doors of Pezenas is the Port Biaise an incredible exercise in distortion and perspective not to mention in architecture and stone masonry. This is located alongside the area of the town described as the Jewish Ghetto which I believe would be more accurately described as a Jewish Quarter rather than the term “Ghetto” and alls its sinister implications from Europe in the 1930s and 40s. In the early middle ages the town practised an amazing tolerance for its time and Jews and Catholics and the Cathars lived side by side but this was wiped out in the 13th C by the French Army sent from the North who thought the Cathars were heretics and dealt with them as such. There were also sections of the town which were possessions of the Knights Templar until they too were outlawed by the King of France in 1307, their wealth and power seen to be a threat to that of the King.

Port Biaise
The old gates to the town are referred to as “doorways”. In Scotland they would be referred to as a “Port” eg West Port. While sections of the walls of Pezenas exist along with buildings which made up the outer defences of the town the ancient doors to the town do not.

These buildings formed part of the old walls. The two little turrets are watch towers for the prison
 The town is famous for two other things, wine and the actor, Moliere. Unfortunately circumstances dictated that I was not able to do justice to the most famous produce of the Languedoc region although our drive to the hills passed many inviting looking vineyards and “caverns”, the closest I got really was during my morning runs through the fields containing row upon row of vines. I was equally ashamed to admit that I also had not heard of the playwright and actor Jean Baptiste Poquelin, stage name Moliere.  Fortunately there was plenty of information available about him throughout the town including the impressive statue of Moliere and the exhibits in the town museum.

Training as a lawyer Poquelin left his studies and formed a theatre group, Illustre Theatre. In 1645 the troupe went bankrupt and Moliere was briefly imprisoned but after leaving prison he met Armand, Prince of Conti the governor of the Languedoc region who became his patron and consequently he remained in the Languedoc region for the next 10 years until the friendship ended and Moliere returned to Paris. Moliere’s plays were comedies and tragedies, attacks on social manners and on the hypocrisy of religion. Always controversial yet careful never to attack the King or Crown, Moliere became a royal favourite until his death from tuberculosis in 1673. For information two of his best known plays are Le Misanthrope and L’Ecole des Femmes but I am not sure how often these plays are presented in France and how well known they are.

The statue of Moliere. Dont get too excited by the "Distillerie" in the background. It was a health spa and nothing to do with distilling. I was gutted...
 I was pleased to discover that these two aspects of Pezenas were happily combined in the bottles of Moliere wine that could be purchased at the tourist information office (3 bottles to a charmingly designed gift box). Oh the unhappy limitations of travelling with hand luggage only!

Another interesting and tasty discovery that my exploration of Pezenas revealed was Le Petit Pate des Pezenas, a crispy pie with a “sweet meat” filling. These little treats were reputed to have been introduced by Clive of India when he stayed nearby in 1768. The India link maybe explains the presence of a large wooden statue of an elephant which stood near the door museum and I was unable to ascertain the reason for it being there mainly due to my limited French. Asking “Qu’est que c’est” (what is it?) whilst pointing to a life size model of an elephant is always going to result in some amusement on the part of those being asked the question. 

The toy museum is also worth a look, rooms with shelves stack with different types of toys and even items such as a prototype ancient tv sets. There were a lot of traditional type toys such as tin spinning tops and toy soldiers, cars such as the batmobile and dolls with moving limbs that at the press of the button could dance but so primitive was their design and mechanism that I suspect they were more likely to give a child nightmares

I stayed in a B&B in Conas, a tiny hamlet about 2 miles from Pezenas, with no shops or cafes and just a church on the top of the hill and the highlight being the wonderful warm walnut bread the owner served for breakfast along with seriously strong coffee. Whilst it was a bit of a trek to the town the area had some interesting things to see such as a muslim grave in its own fenced compound (complete with chickens pecking around it – im not sure that was part of the original plan) and a little chapel hidden in some trees. Apparently the chapel was shut for renovation or repairs but it was enough to trigger my over active imagination again. The appearance of it was just a bit too much like the title building in the Kate Mosse novel “Sepulchre” and its isolated situation did little to help matters. I crawled cautiously over the wall and through the shrubbery for a closer look and tried the door but when the door didn’t budge I gave up and scurried away instead of looking for another potential entrance. Brave I am not...  

The B&B was a very old building and the owner, Roland, had very artistic and eclectic tastes. The brand new shower tray looked incongruous against the dark heavy timber beams and oak furniture in the bathroom. Every ledge and table appeared to hold ornaments, some delicate some heavy, some charmingly painted, some gaudy with gilt and gold, oil paintings stood balanced on cast iron radiators, old books sat on the floors along next to sturdy wooden chests, heavy worn rugs sat on painted floor boards contrasting with delicate lace tablecloths on ledges.

 And then of course there were the windows and the doors.

Tapestry shutters
Through the round window
Through the hexagonal window

The statue of the virgin Mary in the photo above has its own little door!


  1. Wow! An amazing post which I'd like to share in my International Property Share newsletter and blog. Really- such a great job!

  2. Wow! An amazing post which I'd like to share in my International Property Share newsletter and blog. Really- such a great job!

  3. great post - thank you. We were in Pezenas earlier this year: loved it. Some years ago, I researched and wrote a website on Real Tennis (Jeu de Paume) and, in the section on Tennis and the Arts, wrote a piece on Moliere (see following). Whilst in Pezenas, we were intrigued to stumble across "Rue du Jeu de Paume" - and, on investigation, what was probably in days past, a court. Anyway, here's the piece on Moliere:

    In June 1643, aged 21, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (Molière) abandoned his family and social class to pursue a career on the stage, founding the Illustré Théâtre with actress Madeleine Béjart. Within two years, though, the troupe was bankrupt: among other debts, they owed a reported 5000livres back rent for the theatre venue: Jeu de Paume des Métayers in Paris’ Marais district.

    It was at this time that he began to use the pseudonym Molière: his father, Jean Poquelin, held the lucrative and respected sinecure of ‘King’s Upholsterer’ – and, in fact, had secured inheritance rights for his son. Although 1641 had seen the reinstatement of Royal recognition for the acting profession, polite society continued to look askance at actors. Jean-Baptiste sought to spare his family from public shame.

    From 1645 when the Illustré Théâtre took up residence at the Jeu de Paume de la Croix Noire, Paris, to 1658, when his troupe occupied Rouen’s Jeu de Paume des Braques, Moliere staged performances in Théâtres du Jeu de Paume across provincial France – including Toulouse; Montpellier; Poitiers; Narbonne, Age; Pézenas; Grenoble; Lyon; Vienne; Lyon; Avignon; Bordeaux.

    Recalling performances of Molière’s plays Voltaire reflected ruefully upon the limitations of their production

    ‘…there was no worthier accommodation than a tennis court: the audience standing in the pit – and the dandies sitting onstage, among the actors.’

    Moliere died in 1673. He wasn’t given the last rites: two priests refused to attend and a third arrived too late. The parish priest of Paris’ Saint-Eustache refused him a religious burial; only when Louis XIV personally interceded would one of the greatest, most famous actor-playwrights of the century finally be put to rest – albeit in an area of the cemetery reserved for unbaptised infants.