Cabanes, Romans and the French Revolution
A Sunday Stroll through Vineyards and History
About 40 years ago, an eminent historian, whose name I have forgotten, was asked, “On the whole, do you think the French Revolution was a good or a bad thing?” Being an historian, he replied, “It’s too early to tell.”
Nicely played monsieur.
While walking on a sunny September morning, we saw one small but significant outcome of that seismic cultural shift.
By mid-afternoon it would be around 32°, so off we went mid-morning to walk the 'Path of the Cabanes': a loop encircling the vineyards between the small Occitan villages of Magrie and Cournanel, deep in the Valley of the Aude.
We are close to the Roman Via Domitia here.
Deciding that nothing useful would grow in the uncompromising soils of 'Occitania' except grape vines, the Romans went mightily into expanding what the Celts had started, engendering one of the greatest wine regions in the world.
The vineyards on this trail are mostly Mauzac and Chardonnay for Blanquette de Limoux, the local bubbly, plus Pinot Noir. The land is hawk territory… and the occasional sanglier. Cynthia wants to see one of these massively strong and very dangerous creatures. I’m okay with that if there’s about fifteen rows of Mauzac between me and wild boar tusks. The only other way I want to see one up close and personal is in Sanglier Stew... a great cold winter's day dinner.
In the parking area at the beginning of our vineyard walk, stands the first of the many beautifully illustrated signs telling of the flora and fauna, the viniculture, and the history of the Cabanes. In French of course, though with a smattering of ancient Occitan.
We have driven and walked past hundreds and hundreds of these mostly ruined stone ‘sheds’ wondering what they were for and how old they were.
One of the signs answered that question. Most were built immediately following the revolution of 1789, when the lands formerly owned by the now-guillotined lords were given to local vintners.
In the words of a local historian, “The land was covered in stone, which they had to clear. They had to walk some distance to their fields, and they stayed all day, so they wanted shelter from the rain, sun, and cold. They had plenty of stone, so they began to construct cabanes.”
Some have stone ovens and were big enough for an overnight stay. One of the larger Cabanes peeks through the trees. The substantial stone lintel over the entrance, plus an inset ‘Occitan Cross’...
...plus two rooms and a stone window hint at a better-off owner.
Oddly, the cabanes on this walk did not seem old at all, but they are... except they have been lovingly restored by local winemakers and about fifty volunteers using original ‘en pierre seche’ (dry stone) building techniques. Every year, on the last Sunday of June, the Chemin des Cabanes is 'en fête', becoming a gourmet hike marked by tastings in each of the cabanes, musical entertainment, food and workshops.
Beside the vineyards, the land morphs to ‘garrigue’: scrubland redolent with muted scents of herbs and wildflower. Bees thrive here creating ‘Miel de Garrigue’ our favourite honey.
Halfway through the hike, we cross the passarelle, a footbridge leading into Cournanel. Just another lovely French village.
At the centre is Cournanel’s version of a cenotaph: a simple niche with seats, a tiny parterre planted with aloe and lavender, traditional vineyard artifacts, two doves of peace etched into a wall above the plaque-- a simple, lovely, heartfelt memento of the village's fallen.
It’s hotter on the return trail; luckily trees shade this side.
Ahead, a gleamingly new mechanical harvester rumbles towards us. Its huge inverted ‘U’ straddles a row of vines, quickly sheep-shearing clusters of grapes and pulling the cut stems upwards into the hopper.
Standing atop is the father, watching as his son in the tractor-pod below guides the machine carefully, keeping the line of vines centred between the two revolving mussel-shaped rows of clippers.
Dad waves at us, stops, and we chat briefly. It’s the first time out with his giant new Tonka Toy and he’s very pleased with the result so far. A very large field will be done in a day.
A wave of farewell and off we go, heading towards home, salad, charcuterie and a Limoux Chardonnay.
Santé to all.