St Martin du Canigou: The Sound of Music in the Rain
Getting up before the crack of dawn for a pre-breakfast hike does not always end with a jazzy surprise in bleak weather, but last summer we lucked out.
In August 2021, my father and I set out to follow the footsteps of our ancestor George Daniel de Monfreid (1856 – 1929), who painted landscapes of his beloved Pyrenees at the turn of the 20th century. One of his paintings represents a view of the ruins of the abbey of St Martin du Canigou, from a promontory above the monastery in the Pyrenees. It shows the weathered walls exposed on a sunny day, with only the crenelated tower structurally intact, a few green patches of vegetation, painted from a higher elevation.
Pouring over a topographic map, we narrowed down the possible spots from which the painting was composed and how to reach them on foot, as our ancestor would have done in 1905. Back then, the abbey was still in ruins, a romantic if forlorn sight at the back of a steep mountain valley. Over a century later, what did it look like? Would we recognize it?
Spending a few days in the Pyrenees with my brother’s family and my parents, we carved out a few hours before breakfast to set out in the dark and attempt to find the same view in real life in August 2021.
Waking up at the ungodly hour of five, bleary eyed, my brother, my nephew, and my youngest daughter’s best friend all stepped out one by one of their hotel rooms in the sleepy spa town of Vernet-les-Bains. The rest of the day was packed with other activities so we got cracking pretty quickly. We thought we were setting off for a historical hike with a monastery highlight but much to our delight, found a musical genius en route.
The Call of the Wild: Wildlife in the Pyrenees, Canigou Mountain Range
Driving to the nearby village of Casteil, starting point of our adventure, only took less than 15 minutes. In the dark, we parked on a packed dirt area and as soon as we stepped outside, heard a faint and distant animal sound. Odd. We stopped chatting and stood still, inhaling the sweet smell of dew on wet grass, listening to the plaintive sounds coming from the valley, repeated over and over, picked up and amplified by other animals in the same pack.
Was that the sound of wolves howling in the distance?
Coincidentally we had attended a talk on Pyrenean wildlife the previous evening, and the expert had mentioned the presence of wolves in this part of the Pyrenees but these animals were still extremely rare. With just over 600 wolves in France, mostly in the French Alps, there couldn’t have been more than a handful of wolves in the entirety of the Pyrenees and here we were, listening to their wild call before dawn! They sounded far away below in the valley. The atmosphere was definitely eerie.
Casteil: A Sleepy Pyrenees Village in the Mist
Without headlamps and with only the torch of our iPhones to light the ground in the dark, we found the trail leading to the tiny village of Casteil after some confusion. Through the narrow streets, we walked in complete silence till we reached the fire road leading to the abbey. We didn’t want to wake the inhabitants still in bed and made ourselves discrete. According to my father, who had already hiked this trail a decade ago, it would take us roughly an hour to reach the monastery, maybe another half hour to find the painting spot, and a generous hour to come back. Add some extra time to enjoy the scenery and maybe the grounds of the monastery. If all went well, we’d be back at the hotel in Vernet-les-Bains for a late breakfast around 8.30am.
The only paternal advice was that we should pace ourselves; the going was going to be steep! Like us, most pilgrims walk up the mountain path to the monastery, taking in the scenery as they huff and puff. Only the less able, and monks bringing supplies to the monastery, drive up the mountain.
As predicted, the path rose quickly above the valley floor and its orchards, and in the faintest of lights, we could discern the back of the valley, with its sugarloaf mountains disappearing into the mist. We could only hope that the mist would clear before we reached the abbey, and carried on.
Imagining Medieval Life in the Pyrenees: St-Martin-le-Vieux
About half way up, we passed the sturdy and quaint chapel of St-Martin-le-Vieux, the first religious building mentioned in local ledgers in 996. It was first known as St Martin du Canigou until the monastery was built 15 years later, when it then became known as St-Martin-le-Vieux. A millennium ago, this was the parish church of Casteil, a simple church with a single nave, a place for the people to worship and to take spiritual comfort in the midst of a hard life.
One can’t help but imagine what the valley looked like before year 1000, with a mini Ice Age covering Europe. The year before, in 995, the summer had been cold throughout Europe, with severe frost and ice even in July, and three years later in 998, the winter was so severe that the river Thames was frozen for five weeks. It can’t have been very warm in these mountains at higher altitude and I pictured peasants in thick wool clothing fastened with rope, laced leather boots and rudimentary agricultural tools, toiling from morning til night while local knights protected them from criminals. The first crusades would not even depart to the Holy Land for another century. That was how old the chapel was. Old, small and at first glance, unremarkable except in age.
We moved on through a thick beech and pine forest brought to life by bird song as the day grew lighter and half an hour later, rounded a ridge, slightly out of breath, to reach the boundaries of the monastery.
St-Martin-du-Canigou: A Ruin Reborn From Its Ashes
The sun must have risen by now, but it was really obscured and we couldn’t see any shadows on the ground. If anything, the mist had gotten thicker and we were walking through a cloud that was extraordinarily wet. Maybe because we were the only ones on the path, we dared not speak at normal volume and treaded lightly on the path.
By the time we reached the outer walls of the monastery, we were drenched in a thousand droplets of water and almost bumped onto the monastery completely shrouded in mist. With mist this heavy at the monastery’s altitude, going any further was pointless. Today was not the day we would find where George Daniel de Monfreid had painted St Martin du Canigou.
The realization dealt a blow to our morale, as we had gotten up at such an ungodly hour precisely for that view, not imagining for a second that the weather would get in the way. How naive we had been! Did we really think that we would follow the same path to a rocky crag and look down on the monastery basking in warm sunlight just as in the oil painting? Why yes, to a certain degree we did, though we knew that the landscape had likely changed since 1905. Perhaps the vegetation was thicker, the trees taller, and possibly the village had expanded a little bit. Most importantly, the monastery and surrounding buildings had been reconstructed. That must have altered the view quite a lot.
As Heraclitus said, one can not step into the same river twice. However within minutes, our trip down memory lane took an unexpected musical turn, one which completely redeemed our trip.
Standing at the foot of the monastery by an ancient cedar tree, we were getting hungry and fantasizing on what morning viennoiseries the pâtisseries of Vernet-les-Bains sold. Apart from the usual pain au chocolat suspect, would they offer local delicacies–chestnut flour buns for example? Just then, we heard a series of loud reverberating sounds. The monastery’s bells rang seven o’clock, a beautiful harmony of five bells celebrating another day in Catalan country. We couldn’t have timed it better.
Knowing that the oldest bell was made in 1483 and had survived several revolutions and many wars made me appreciate even more the deep low notes that came out of the square bell tower. On a clear day, it might have echoed down the valley but wrapped in mist like cotton, the sound carried like straight lines across a glass sea.
Then there was the monastery itself, a gem of Romanesque architecture built in stone, with its tall square bell tower and, on the ground floor, windows of the refectory glowing with a golden light. The monk community was awake and probably praying. The monastery was a sight to behold, even as the weather was taking a turn for the worse.
What A Mountain Monastery Smells Like at 7am: Hot Coffee
Contemplating the square tower, my brother noticed the tantalizing smell of morning coffee emanating from the refectory. We could have knocked at the gate, asked to join the monks’ breakfast maybe, but it would have felt like intruding on a peaceful time of reflection. Craving a cup of hot coffee, my brother suggested that we walk over to the refuge. Surely, the guardians of the refuge would not refuse us a hot drink before our trek down the mountain? Hospitality near a monastery seemed a given upon which we could rely.
The timing was perfect, as the skies got darker, opened up and within seconds, we were under a heavy downpour. First, the fog. Now, heavy rain. What next?
Only a few minutes away, the refuge was sadly boarded up but we saw a ray of light through the windows of an adjoining building housing the gift shop. Could it be open so early in the morning? Even offer a cup of hot coffee? My brother really missed his caffeine fix.
Unfortunately, the gift shop seemed closed as well and only a monk was inside, rummaging through some books in his white robe. Lucky for us, the shop entrance was protected by an awning where we took cover, huddled on the benches of a picnic table. Listening to the sound of rain, we opened our bags and took out what snacks we had packed, cereal bars and dried fruit, washed down with a swish of cold mountain water.
That’s when magic happened.
True music magic, for there is no other way to describe it and I still remember this moment vividly.
The Sound Of Heavenly Music
We heard music coming out of the gift shop, harmonies that sounded like a melodic jazz riff, reminiscent of the 1940s or 1950s. Was the monk listening to a jazz music recording? Was he using Spotify? We chuckled at the thought and my brother, ever curious, got up from the bench to peek through the openings of the shop’s wooden shutters and spy on the monk.
Within seconds, he ran back to us. “Come. Quick! You have to see this.”
We all got up and rushed to the wooden shutters, peeking through a thin crack. Inside the shop, the monk was sitting on a chair, holding a trumpet in his hands, and playing jazz like a God. Louis Armstrong would have been proud.
Puzzled, we all looked at each other in silence, daring not disturb this magical moment when a lone monk was playing the trumpet just after sunrise in the monastery’s gift shop in the mountains.
Why was he playing here at 7 in the morning? Was it out of consideration for the other monks? Was he rehearsing for a concert? Was he playing in secret for fear of getting caught? The more we whispered, the more theories we had and the more excited we became. We could have stayed there for hours listening to this mesmerizing music but it was cold and miserable, and breakfast was waiting for us in the valley.
Reluctantly, we left our trumpet-playing monk behind and started the descent in the fog. As a silver lining, the fog gradually burned off as we went down the mountain, but at no moment did the rain show signs of abating.
Only by the village did the rain fizzle into a drizzle.
We did not get the view we were looking for, but we were lucky, very lucky, to go look for a view in the mist and find a fleeting moment of pure magic in the mountains.