I've had a wonderful week in the south of France. I've rarely been in France – a couple of weekends in Paris, yes, but never further afield – so a trip to the renowned south of the country was an exciting prospect. My knowledge of the region I have gleaned mostly from the wonderful Herald columnist, Fidelma Cook, and that's about it.
Landing in Toulouse, my husband and I toured this exquisite city, often called the 'Pink City' due to the gorgeous terracotta bricks used in many of its buildings. We couldn't have chosen a better time to come here: the weather was perfect and Toulouse put on the most incredible street show: 'The Guardian of the Temple.' I have never seen anything like it. A monumental mechanised Minotaur dedicated to the city, alongside a giant spider, wound their way round the labyrinthine streets, to reinterpret the myth of Ariadne for contemporary times. It was astounding. The Minotaur was particularly impressive. His ribs bellowed to what sounded like the low E-flat in the opening scene of Wagner's 'Ring'. It was a truly awesome spectacle.
I love Greek myths. In the classic version of this myth, Ariadne helps Theseus overcome the Minotaur – half-man, half-bull – that had terrorised the Athenians for years. The Minotaur (Asterion) lived in a labyrinth, and whoever entered to try to kill him inevitably got lost, and then succumbed to the wrath of Asterion. Ariadne falls for Theseus, and helps him defeat Asterion by giving him a long string – a bit like 'Hansel and Gretel' – to trail behind him so he can find his way out. Ariadne can take the form of a spider, and hence has plenty of silk to spare.
In the new addition to the myth, thanks to Borges, Ariadne is the half-sister of Asterion. And the labyrinth is Toulouse itself. But rather than trying to help some dubious Greek do in the Minotaur, she is now trying to help Asterion find his way to the temple of which he is supposed to be the guardian. Much wonderful nonsense ensues, including Ariadne speaking to Asterion in his dreams. I suppose that may well happen if you're a spider and your brother is half-man, half-bull. I'll confess it has never made much sense to me as a narrative; but as a primal, visual spectacle, it was magnificent.
Our purpose for a wee sojourn to Toulouse, originally, was to visit and photograph for a project the tomb of St Thomas Aquinas, the mighty Catholic theologian and philosopher. Aquinas lies in Couvent des Jacobin. I've visited many churches and cathedrals, particularly in Italy, but the interior of this Dominican monastery, built in 1229, is up there with the best of them. It's southern gothic design, brick 'palm tree' architecture and stunning stained glass, is exceptionally beautiful. Thomas is from Aquino, Italy, but interred here, which came as a surprise when I first discovered it. How did his remains end up here in the south of France, close to the Spanish border?
The short answer is because he was a Dominican and the headquarters of the order is here in Toulouse. That raises the interesting question (for me, anyway), of why the Dominicans are based in Toulouse. The answer is one element of the dark side to Aquinas' story. A preaching and teaching order devoted to combating heresy, the Dominicans based the order in southern France because the city was a hotbed of the Cathar heresy. But eventually it was recognised that preaching and teaching weren't particularly effective, so the Inquisition was instituted, with the Dominicans taking a leading role.
Before jumping to the conclusion that the Dominicans were a cruel, repressive order, recall that Aquinas lies in the Covent des Jacobins. The Jacobins were the radical associates of Robespierre during the terror after the French Revolution who held their meetings in the Dominican centre in Paris. So interestingly, inquisitors originally, the Jacobins became the order devoted to bringing down the ancient regime. The Dominicans had always been against absolute monarchies, but it wasn't until the late 18th century that they were finally able to win this battle. The Jacobins were not much better behaved than the inquisitors, but on this occasion, at least they were on the right side of history.
Our final destination was the commune of Pézenas in the Hérault department of Occitnae in southern France, home town of the playwright Molière, and more recently, of Ronnie Smith, my friend and fellow writer for SR. He invited us to his 60th birthday, or I should say, a wonderful three-day extravaganza with a diverse group of French, Romanians, Scots, an Englishman and an American. We had a ball.
On Saturday, we were taken to an exhibition of wine production and wine tasting at Le Domaine les Baies Sauvage in Nizas. In fact, this whole region is one huge vineyard spotted with towns and villages relatively untouched for hundreds of years. The wine was superb, I seem to remember… That evening, we descended on the birthday boy's party in Pézenas with the theme 'passion for life' and wore something red for the luscious occasion. I have to say, the Romanians can't half out-do the Scots for stamina in drinking heartily and merriment.
Consumed with envy of the way of life there, I left full of admiration for Ronnie and Fidelma, whose passion for life has led them to this marvellous region of France. For me, this trip is likely the last to the continent before we depart the EU. Our Romanian and French compatriots think the UK is bonkers, and they're right. Xenophobic Brexit, be gone with you.
Driving to the railway station in Beziers on Monday morning, Ronnie and I heard the devastating news of the death of Kenneth Roy. Although expected, it felt like a hammer-blow. I loved that man. Not only was he an extraordinary Scottish journalist, but a kind, dear friend to me and the Reid family, especially to my dad, Jimmy. Godspeed, Kenneth. You are up there with the best of them.
Photograph at top of page of 'The Guardian of the Temple' street show in Toulouse