I keep getting my socks knocked off by the hilly backcountry north of Montpellier. On a tongue-in-cheek map of France I have, the regions have names like Cows and Tourists (Provence), Monarchists (near La Rochelle, who knew?), and Parisians on Holiday (Normandy). This region, part of a broad swath through the lower southwest, is called Cows and Cool Places no one Visits. Cool places indeed! We recently went to two Templar towns.
A refresher: the Knights Templar, founded in 1119, were the fighting monks of the Catholic church. They were under the protection of, and answered only to, the pope. Initially, their role was to protect pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem, later they became an elite military arm of the Crusades. Only about 10% of the knights fought however, the rest of them played supporting roles; managing the order’s towns, farms, and financial matters. They essentially became proto-bankers. If you were leaving on pilgrimage or on crusade, you could deposit a sum of money at one Templar “branch” and withdraw it at another. They became very, very wealthy and very powerful. King Philip IV was heavily indebted to them and rather than paying, accused them of heresy and other nasty crimes. Pope Clement V (he who moved the papal court to Avignon, but that’s another story) caved in to the king’s pressure and ended his support of the order. They were arrested (on a Friday the 13th, which may be the origin of the superstition), tortured, and officially disbanded in 1312. Their leaders were burned at the stake.
Our first stop of the day was La Couvertoirade. Its classification as one of the most beautiful villages of France alone would make it worth a detour, its Templar history notwithstanding. It has the distinction of being the only medieval village founded in France on a site without a source of water, be it a spring, river or lake. There was only a natural rocky hollow that held rainwater. The Templars were granted this land and built a castle here in the 12th century. After their fall from grace, the site was taken over by another order, the Hospitaliers, who expanded the town. Most of the buildings are from the 15th to 17th century.
La Couvertoirade is one of the best preserved and intact medieval villages in France, having somehow survived the various wars, insurrections, and revolution. Judging from the size of the parking lots, this town gets a lot of traffic. This is a cool place people actually go. In Covid winter however, we had the run of the place, which made it all the more evocative.
Everything in the town is focused on the collection and conservation of water. The region gets plenty of rain, but the soils are karst, which is so well-drained it leaves no surface water. The original rocky hollow allowing this site to be settled was enlarged into a cistern by the Templars. The houses were built free-standing, unlike most medieval villages, to allow for the run off to be channeled and saved in individual cisterns. Running water was brought to the town only in 1975!
If you were a traveling through this region back in the day, your only source of water for miles around was La Couvertoirade. You would approach this window in the wall and ask for water. If you passed muster, the water spout on the inside would be allowed to drip out the hole. If not, best of luck to you.
The center of town was paved, creating a pool inside the walls for the animals.
Our second stop, Sainte-Eulalie-de-Cernon, is only a half hour away. This was another Templar center taken over by the Hospitaliers. This town didn’t survive the War of Religion or the revolution intact as did La Couvertoirade. During the revolution much of it was stripped and sold at auction. The town is nevertheless as charming all get-out and a very pleasant visit.
We’ve just begun being able to investigate this region and it makes me sad to leave, but then I realize we’ve not had a chance to do this kind of extensive exploration elsewhere. There’s lots of places on the list! This is the new goal. We’ll be back in this area, but we’ll choose a different base. Covid, confinement, and curfew permitting of course.