North of Carcassonne, in the shadow of the Montagne Noir, is a group of towns, each hyphenated with “Minervois” and each with their own interesting sites.
I start in the east, at the town of Rieux-Minervois, which boasts a seven sided church. Inside are seven pillars holding up the domed roof. The capitals have been carefully carved by the Master Sculptor of Cabestany, who remains anonymous to this day, but whose work is easily recognised by unique features such as large hands with long fingers and elongated eyes. His work can be traced to Italy, Spain and even New York. I had already seen his work on a beautiful sarcophagus in the Abbey church of Saint Hilaire which lies between Limoux and Carcassonne. Like few other sites in the region, it was actually open and while I viewed it there were no other visitors. The cloister was incredibly tranquil, until a military fighter jet made a low pass overhead.
A few kilometres further west, I stop at Caunes-Minervois, which is famous for its marble quarries, producing a rich, red marble used in churches throughout the region. Just outside the town, in the foothills of the Montagne Noir, is the 12th century chapel of Notre Dame du Cros. The local marble features greatly in the interior decoration while, behind the chapel, is a large picnic area in the site of a former quarry.
The town itself celebrates the local product with a marble sculpture circuit featuring nineteen modern sculptures of animals, local produce and abstract figures. Caunes marble has been used to decorate buildings worldwide, including the Palace of Versailles, Paris Opera House and the Arch de Triomphe, having been transported there along the canal du midi. The red colour comes from the iron oxides in the limestone but I prefer the story of the Roman centurion whose red wine was stolen and then spilt on the limestone. There are certainly enough vineyards in the area producing the excellent Minervois red wine.
Finally, I arrive at Villeneuve-Minervois and at the local library I pick up a small leaflet detailing a guided walk around the village. Soon, I find myself in the tiny medieval backstreets searching for a magnificent stone staircase which is featured in a photo on the leaflet, but I’m not having much luck. I waylay a local lady and ask for directions. Instead she shouts across to a dishevelled man who is lurking under an archway cradling a ginger cat. He opens a modern glass and aluminium door and ushers me into what looks like a modern apartment building. But hiding behind this 20th century façade is the ancient stone staircase. From above, a little old lady wearing a dressing gown and holding a cigarette in her hand looks down at me, wondering what all the fuss is about. It’s just a hallway to her.