A Catalan Master for the Ages (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I love the Pyrénées mountains, and especially the eastern portion straddling France and Catalonia. While staying the town of Prades, we had an interesting experience. Despite having been there before, we found ourselves in a new place – Occitanie, or in Catalan Occitània. This is one of the new administrative regions in France since September 28, 2016 with a name derived from areas that showed a historic use of the Occitan language. We didn’t think too much about this until we went to a Catalan dance festival in town. During the introductions, the compère made a disparaging comment – “This is Catalonia,” he said, and followed that statement with a disdainful gesture behind him, “Occitània is somewhere back there!” all to great applause from the audience.

On this trip we visited the marvelous Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute in Les Cluse, a small early Catalan church perched on the Col du Perthus, the last Pyrénéean pass between France and Spain. In the distance, one can see Vauban’s Fort de Bellegarde that once guarded the frontier. The church, located in La Cluse-Haute, was probably constructed in the 10th century and remodeled in the 11th, 12th and 14th centuries. The exterior of the church is simple and unadorned, with a 14th century bell-tower. An interesting vestige of the porch still exists in the form of the stone arch standing separated from the church itself. The portal itself is of white Céret marble.

Western façade and clocher, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The small interior consists of a central nave and two side aisles. The relatively massive piers support the round arches from which springs the barrel vault across the nave. The side aisles have half-barrel vaults supporting the nave arches and relieving the lateral pressure of the barrel vault. There are no transepts or a crossing tower.

Nave, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The tiny oven-vaulted apse is flanked by two small echeloned chapels, communicated to by means of the narrow passages on the side of the apse. One can see in the photograph how the scale of the apse is so small and delicate compared to the sturdy piers and arches around it.

Apse from north side aisle, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

But small though it may be, the glory of the church is in that smal apse. There are some fragments of frescoes dating from the twelfth century which are in the same hand as those of famous frescoes of nearby San Martin de Fenollar.

Apse with frescoes, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

In the center of the apse we see a Christ in Majesty accompanied by the symbols of the alpha and the omega. The works of the Maitre de Fenollar must have been astonishing at the time of their creation, but they have continued to fascinate and have actually change the courses of modern art. In June 1906 Picasso stayed ten weeks in the small town of Gósol and had his first intensive exposure to Catalan art. In 1911 Picasso and Braque spent time in Fenollar and Les Cluses studying the works, transfixed by the expressive power and dynamic use of color. Later many other artists made their pilgrimage to this area – Miro, Gris, Derain, and Dufy – and all walked away genuflecting at the altar of the distant Catalan genius.

Christ Panocrator, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Just to the right of the Christ is a wonderful figure of an angel. I think that the way the wings and the cloak follow the curve of the vault is simply brilliant in inspiration and execution. I have the same dumbfounded reaction to this as I did when I saw the “Temptation” capital at Plaimpied.

Angel, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

If there is any doubt that the work of the Catalan artists had an effect on Pablo Picasso, we only have to look at his work from the periods of his stay in the area and how it differed from the Blue and Pink periods that preceded it. In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon see the same naive, schematic construction of the faces that we see in Les Cluses and Saint Martin de Fenollar, and even some of the same technical details, like the use of white accents around the eyes and other features. And it may just be my imagination, but the standing figure on the far right seems to be a mirror of the angel at Les Cluses.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Pablo Picasso (1907)

But we don’t need Picasso, Miro, Braque or Dufy to appreciate the Maitre de Fenollar. His work stands among the finest of medieval painting, hidden in the smallest church in the most remote of villages in the Pyrénées.

Location: 42.482277° 2.843190°

Two Churches in the Cliffs (Dennis Aubrey)


The last four churches we have chronicled – the cathedrals of Embrun, Sisteron, Digne-les-Bains and Senez – have all been isolated and somewhat forlorn. They are tucked away in the extreme north of the popular Provence but off the beaten path. The next churches, are quite different. The town of Moustiers-Saite-Marie is near the famous Gorges du Verdon, one of the deepest and most beautiful river canyons in Europe, popular with cyclists, serious kayak enthusiasts and hikers. Moustiers itself is a popular little medieval tourist town, built on the face of a limestone cliff, and filled with boutique shops and ateliers. Part of its picturesque nature is created by a spring-fed waterfall that flows through the center of town.

In the center of the village is the church Notre Dame-de-l’Asspomtion, surrounded by restaurants and shops filled with faïence and other pottery. Tourists wander in, walk down the eight steps into the nave, stand in the center of the church, take a quick look around, flash a photo with a smartphone and quickly leave. But the church is worth much more than just a cursory glance.

Originally founded as a monastery in the 5th century, the monks were driven away by the Saracens and did not return until the 11th century. The church was rebuilt in the 12th century, and in 1336 the commendatory prior, Cardinal Pierre de Pratis (also known as Pierre Desprès), began rebuilding yet again. He only completed the choir before he died, which explains the extreme angle of the axis of the choir to the nave, inclining to the south. His plan was to rebuild the entire church at a slightly different angle, but the project was never completed, leaving us with the result that we see today.

The nave is actually quite long, five bays topped with an ogive barrel vault. As we quite often see in this area, the engaged columns rise up to support the bands of the vault.

Nave, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Pierre Desprès’ Gothic apse has a very unusual feature – a flat chevet with an ambulatory. It is also covered with a rib vault instead of the barrel vault.

Apse, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

The altar is a re-purposed fourth-century white marble sarcophagus representing the passage of the Red Sea.

Altar, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The ambulatory is one of the most interesting features of the church, although these might be more accurately called extended side aisles since the two sides do not meet at the rear of the apse.

Ambulatory, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

The church is wedged in among the surrounding buildings, but the glorious Lombard-style clocher is still easily visible. The tower is constructed in five levels. The top three levels consist of twin bays adorned with Lombard bands, the fourth level is a blind enclosure and the fifth and bottom, added in the 17th century, is an imposing buttress. The buttressing was added as additional support because the oscillations caused by the ringing of the bells threatened the stability of the clocher.

South facade with clocher, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is a second Romanesque church in Moustiers, the Chapelle Notre Dame de Beauvoir, high up on the cliff that can be reached by a stone stairway of 262 steps (at one time this was 365 steps!). This chapel was built on the site of a 5th century Marian shrine, known prior to the 15th century as Notre-Dame de la Roche or Notre Dame d’Entre-Roches. There is a tradition that the first church was constructed by Charlemagne as fulfillment of a vow and then subsequently rebuilt in the 12th century. Notre Dame de Beauvoir was known for its suscitations – stillborn children were carried up and baptised there, at which time they would immediately come to life and would be granted a place in heaven. This was a well-known phenomenon in the region and also known at two neighboring churches.

Chapelle Notre Dame de Beauvoir, Moustiers-Sainte-Marie (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence ) Photo by ICE-Marseille, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

I must conclude this narrative with a paean to our luncheon at La Treille Muscat right on the square of the church. PJ and I both had a first course of Poulpes en salad, cebettes, tomates et un peu de gingembre pour corser, émulsion de Yusu, a salad with octopus flavored with ginger and Yuzu emulsion. PJ, who never ate octopus before this trip, said it was the best salad she has ever had in her life. I would list all of the other courses that we had, but would sound like we have been too powerfully influenced by our dear friend Covetotop who we met the week prior to this meal!

Location: 43.847250° 6.222402°

The Many-named Cathedral of Sisteron (Dennis Aubrey)


Sisteron is located on a deep defile, carved by the Durance as it rushes south out of the Alps. On one side is the town, clustering around the base of a commanding hill surmounted by a citadel. On the other side is the imperious Mont de la Baume, a precipitous rock casting its great shadow over the little town below. This strategic location controlled a major crossing of the Durance, described by Livy as “… of all the rivers of Gaul the most difficult to cross, and despite the volume of its waters, does not permit navigation.

Sisteron (Photo Mariano)

In this small provincial town stands one of the oldest cathedrals in France and a wonderful example of Provençal Romanesque, Notre Dame de Pomeriis, translated often to Notre Dame des Pommiers, Our Lady of the Apple Trees. Despite the fact that there are enormous apple and apricot orchards on the high plains just north of Sisteron, this is not the correct translation. Pomeriis refers to pomerium, the defensive space between the city and the ramparts where military regulations forbade construction. But the cathedral was built on the outskirts of town because there was no space within the walls and the topography left no choice for the builders – this was the only spot where the cathedral could see light between the two peaks. For this reason, the church is also known as Notre Dame hors-la-ville de Sisteron (“Notre Dame Outside-of-Town of Sisteron”)!

The official name of the church is the Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, but even this has changed over the years. The cathedral was built in the late 12th and early 13th century on the site of a chapel dedicated to the patron saint of the town, Saint Thyrse or, in the Latin form, Saint Thyrsius. Thyrsius was a Christian deacon of Smyrna, sent to Gaul in the second century with Andocheus to preach the Gospel in Gaul. They were both tortured and decapitated in Autun during the reign of Marcus Aurelius in 179. When the cathedral was built, it was renamed Notre Dame but preserved the name of the patron of Sisteron. We chose to label the cathedral “Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse” instead of “Notre Dame de Pomeriis”, “Notre Dame hors-la-ville de Sisteron” or even “Notre Dame des Pommiers” so as to not disparage on of the earliest Christian martyrs of Gaul.

Western façade, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

PJ and I know from personal experience that the cathedral is not in the center of town, although a neighborhood has certainly grown up around it. We passed by the cathedral without even seeing it and had to circle back. We found a parking place directly in front and had to go inside to make sure that it was the correct building. The front is simple but really gives no indication of the size of the cathedral within.

The plan of the cathedral shows a basilica form with a long nave and two side aisles terminating in a rounded apse. There are no transepts. On the outside of both side aisles are 1tth and 17th century chapels – five on the south and two on the north. On either side of the apse there is an echeloned chapel. The cathedral is 143 feet long, the nave is 25.5 feet wide and each side aisle is almost 14 feet wide. The height of the vault is meters long and 7.8 meters wide. The height of the vault is 52.5 feet.

Plan, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence)

In the shot of the nave, we can see the solid piers that support the banded barrel vault. Beyond the vault is the chancel crossing and finally the small, oven vaulted apse. There is very little natural light in the church – a small oculus in the crossing, a rose and two side aisle oculi in the western façade. For this reason it has been called a “beautiful, dark vessel”.

Nave, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The nave elevation shows how the barrel vault springs directly from the nave walls with only a thin cornice disguising the liason. The engaged columns rise up to support the bands of the vault. Most of the capitals are simple and unadorned with the exception of a pair of figurative capitals in the north side aisle.

Nave elevation, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

The north side aisle is dark and shadowed, like the rest of the church. But high up on the middle engaged column, we can see figurative capitals at the cornice level.

North side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

The first of these capitals is on the north wall of the north side aisle and shows a pair of figures with plants coming out of both sides of the mouths.

Capital, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The second is on the opposite side of the north side aisle and shows a mysterious composition of two faces, with a single elongated face on the edge. These figures are barely visible, situated high up in the darkness of the side aisles, visible only upon study. PJ pointed them out to me and I needed to photograph them and look at the results to know what was carved on those capitals. Even our small spotting scope could not reveal the details.

Capital, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Back in the nave, we come to the crossing. In the shot of the crossing dome, we can see the octagonal cupola high up in the tower, resting on four squinches in the shape of scallop shells. There is a Saint Michael’s chapel accessed by the clocher stairway that opens onto the cupola, but we didn’t know about it at the time.

Crossing dome, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is one more history of Sisteron that is quite famous (or infamous). The Marquise de Mirabeau, Louise de Cabris, was the sister of the great Mirabeau. As a young woman she was married to the Marquis de Cabris. While the young Marquis alternated his time spitting into basins of water to gauge the circumference of the aquatic movements and recovering from periodic bouts of insanity, his wife indulged in worldly extravagances, amorous adventures, even becoming her brother’s mistress!

Her father recognized the danger to the family and sent her to the convent in Sisteron “to repent of her sins at leisure in the Convent of the Ursalines.” But her brilliant wit and extravagant morals were not to be checked by these religious women. In the words of the witty Elise Whitlock Rose, “On pretense of business, all the lawyers flocked to see her; and with no pretense at all the garrison flocked to her train.” She shocked the good people of Sisteron so much that she was soon returned to the family estates in Grasse to continue her adventures and, in all likelihood, laugh at the good people of Sisteron.

Marquise de Mirabeau, by Vigee Le Brun. Oil on canvas. 1774

But perhaps the Sisteronais had the last laugh. Scandals, intrigues, lawsuits, defamations, and even incarcerations attended the comely Louise during the pre-revolutionary period. Fleeing prosecution, she emigrated to Genoa, where she became a laundress, nursing her poor fool of a husband who she had dragged into her exile.

Location: 44.195744° 5.943825°

Cagots; the Despised – Amuse Bouche #40 (Dennis Aubrey)


” … cannibal, heretic, and delivered unto all vices.”

The people thus described in the Middle Ages were of no specific ethnicity or religious affiliation. They spoke the same language as their neighbors and practiced the same religion. But they were treated as inferior, stigmatized, and segregated. They had their own doors to churches, their own fonts, and when receiving communion, the wafer was thrown to them, or, if the sacrament was being administered by a sympathetic priest, on a wooden spoon.

Cagot font, Église de Saint-Savin-en-Lavedan, Saint Savin (Hautes-Pyrénées) Photo by PJ McKey

Thee were the cagots, common throughout the Pyrénées, and they were despised. They lived in their own segregated communities, the cagoteries, were restricted to certain trades, were not allowed to marry non-cagots, enter taverns, hold cabarets, use public fountains, sell food or wine, touch food in the market, work with livestock, or enter a mill. They could only marry within the cagot community. Even to the 20th century they were required to wear a special badge featuring the foot of a goose or duck.

Mark of the cagot

These were “untouchables” in western culture and their segregation in a caste system persisted even into the 20th century. There are theories that the cagots were descended from lepers or cretins, that they were remnants of the Saracen armies that intermarried with locals in the 9th century, or even that they were members of a fallen medieval guild of carpenters.

But the truth is that the cagots – these “pestiferous people” – are a mystery, gone from history except for a few remaining descendants and the physical remnants in the local churches.

Postscript – PJ has made a very interesting observation in the figure on the font in Oloron-Sainte-Marie. It appears that his lips are disfigured, as in a herpes-type malady. There are two variants of the virus; one affects the genitals and the other the lips and is thought to be hereditary. Herpes is highly contagious in skin-to-skin contact, which might explain many of the prohibitions. Also, when the virus is contracted, that person is infected for life. Herpes was certainly known at the time; it appeared in Central and Eastern Europe in the 5th century.

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Detail of Cagot font, Église de Saint-Savin-en-Lavedan, Saint Savin (Hautes-Pyrénées) Photo by PJ McKey

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

Celebration in Chiomonte (Dennis Aubrey)


We are often traveling in Europe at the time of my birthday and every year that happens, PJ asks where I would like to celebrate. Usually it will be the Pont de l’Ouysse in the Dordogne or the Crispol in Vézelay, but this year I wanted to do something different. In 2015 when we went to Italy, we stopped halfway just on the Italian side of the Alps to stay at the Affittacamere Al Cantoun, a small hotel with a restaurant in the mountain town of Chiomonte, not far from Susa. We liked it so much that we stayed again on our return trip so that we could sample the wonderful cuisine of Paolo Aiello. So when PJ asked, this time I opted for a two-day stay in Chiomonte which we reached after a three hour run from Sisteron in the Provence through the Alpine passes. We stopped on the way to shoot the magnificent Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal in Embrun.

We arrived in Chiomonte and parked in a square across town after we determined that our car would not fit through the arch that led to the church parking lot we normally park in. As we hauled our baggage into the hotel courtyard we found Stefano, who runs the Afficamare, sitting at table with his parents Fernande and Gaspare.

Affittacamere Al Cantoun, Chiomonte

Stefano greeted us in English, which was a bonus. On our last visit, we spoke almost no Italian (and what I know comes from innumerable viewings of the Godfather trilogy) and what we did speak was cruelly corrupted with pidgin Spanish. The family spoke no English and we stumbled from one language to another trying to find a common tongue.

We had a lovely dinner that night, of course, with a bottle of the local Chiomonte wine to accompany. Paolo came out to talk and in the course of conversation I mentioned that we did not see his fabulous torre di polenta con funghi, a fabulous dish with alternating layers of polenta, wild mushrooms and a rich cream sauce. He apologised and said that was a spring dish when the mushrooms were readily available. He asked if we would like it for my birthday; he thought he could get fresh mushrooms the next day. I greedily replied to the affirmative.

The following day was my birthday and when we went down to breakfast, Stefano asked if we would like to shoot a church in a small village on the other side of the valley. PJ and I were eager to do so and we set a time. When we arrived at 2pm, Stefano, Paolo and their father were there to accompany us in the small car. We could see the church, just a few hundred yards away across the steep valley, but it took about 15 minutes to drive there. Stefano, used to driving in the area and knowing the secret protocols, drove much faster than I would have dared. It was possible he was trying to give me a thrill, because I have a fear of heights. We arrived in Ramats in good shape, though, and were met by a family friend, Giorgio, who opened the church for us. Giorgio made it easier to communicate because he spoke French (he has cousins on the “other side of the mountains”, meaning France).

Paolo, Giorgio, Gaspare, PJ, and Stefano

The church, the Chiesa Sant’ Andrea a Ramats, is mostly 15th century with a Romanesque apse. Unprepossessing on the exterior, it possesses vibrantly colored frescoes.

Nave, Cappella Sant’ Andrea a Ramats, Chiomonte (Piemonte) Photo by PJ McKey

There is some damage done to the 15th century frescoes, but for the most part they are in good condition, covering the vault, rear wall and sides of the apse.

Apse, Cappella Sant’ Andrea a Ramats, Chiomonte (Piemonte) Photo by PJ McKey

It astonished us to find frescoes like this in a tiny village perched on the side of a mountain in the Alps. This ensemble was created by an anonymous artist dubbed by art historians as the “Master of Cognet and Ramats”, referring to the frescoes at the nearby Cappella di Notre Dame del Coignet. The frescoes feature a fine annunciation on the apsidal arch and the life of Saint Anthony in the apse itself.

Apse frescoes, Cappella Sant’ Andrea a Ramats, Chiomonte (Piemonte) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We had a great time photographing the small church in Ramats, but then it was time to go home to get ready for my birthday dinner. And dinner did not disappoint! Not only did we have torre di polenta con funghi made with porcini mushrooms, but I had the boar stew, which was marvelous. After dinner, there was a fuss in the kitchen and then the entire family emerged with a birthday cake!

Birthday cake at Ristorante Al Cantoun, Chiomonte (Piedmont)

This cap to this perfect birthday was going to the town square to watch the final of the Champions League between Real Madrid and Juventus. We were torn in loyalties, because we are Real fans, but Juventus is in nearby Turin and we are big fans of their goalie, Gianluigi Buffon, and their now-departed midfield legend Andrea Pirlo. In the second half, Real scored three goals to take the match, but for me the amazing thing was watching PJ’s performance. Despite being happy for Real, she acted like it was a disaster of the first magnitude for the benefit of the Juventus fans surrounding us. Personally, I was in awe of the performance, worthy of Italian opera buffa or commedia dell’arte!

Watching Champions League Final in town square

The Aiello family made this day very special for me and we hold them dear in our hearts. The welcome, the cuisine, the fantastic alpine setting, all contributed to a most special celebration. All that is left is for us to learn to speak Italian so that we can do their welcome justice on our next visit!

The Monk in the Morvan Forest (Dennis Aubrey)


We are finally home again after two months photographing in France, Spain, and even a little bit of Italy. We drove 6,960 kilometers during that time at an arrive speed of 51 kilometers an hour, which translates to 4,344 miles and a dazzling 32 miles per hour. This demonstrates the narrowness of the country roads where we drive and the amount of time we spent in the Pyrénées and Alps. Until we hit the highway returning to Paris, the average speed was 48 kilometers per hour!

The trip ended in Vézelay at the Crispol hotel, which is almost like home to us. The Schori family is always so welcoming and the addition of the two children Max and Clémence makes it even brighter. It is always bittersweet leaving France. We love it there but we are always anxious to return home, this time to our new house amidst the Amish in Ohio. But this year was even harder because on our last full day, we went to visit Angelico Surchamp again at the monastery at La Pierre Qui Vire. Surchamp is our inspiration and our master, whose two hundred volumes of work documenting the Romanesque religious architecture of Europe is the bedrock on which we build. We arrived knowing that he resides in the infirmerie these days.

He was brought to the parloir in a wheelchair and we could see how feeble his 94 year-old frame is now, how much thinner. But when he recognized us, he lit up like a child and we had the most wonderful hour visit with him. Continually he would look out the window and smile at the blue sky with the great white clouds and remark at them, as if seeing them for the first time. C’est le don du Seigneur pour cette visite.

Teresa of Avila chapel, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

He tired easily but I thought he might want to go outside. He immediately agreed – to PJ’s horror. It was quite chilly outside and she was not sure that the nurse would appreciate us absconding with him. Surchamp rose as if to walk but agreed to let us wheel him out. We took the back way through the refectory and down the service elevator and out into the lower courtyard. We only stayed a few minutes because of the cold, but his eyes glowed brighter and he was transfixed by the site of the forest beyond.

When it was time for us to leave, we told him that we would see him next year. I asked if he would like us to take him to Vézelay to see the Basilique Sainte Madeleine, the church that started his great adventure almost seventy years ago, the first that he ever photographed. His eyes opened wide and he said almost rapturously, oh, oui, si Dieu le veut with a smile. And then he added that he would have to ask the abbot. I told him we would write the abbot about the plans and he repeated that he would have to get the permission of the abbot.

Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

And then he said, À mon âge, tout ce que je dois donner c’est ma mort – “At my age, all I have left to give is my death.” I told him that he had more to give than that, just the joy of our visit with him was a greater gift. He took my arm, looked at me with that old, wise look and said Nous sommes séparés par des milliers de kilomètres et un grand océan, mais nos coeurs sont proches.

Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vezelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I think he was saying goodbye. We return to France again next year and I can only hope that we see our master at that time. Until that time, we can rest content that he is at peace in the forests of the Morvan.

PJ with Dom Angelico Surchamp in Le Villars

All Hail Covetotop (Dennis Aubrey)


This year’s trip to Europe has been filled with visits to friends old and new. We saw Servane de Layre-Matheus in Chartres, our lifelong friends Therese Gayet and her son Francois in Vivonne, France. We saw Albert and Monique Pinto for lunch in the Provençal town of Saignan in a wonderful local restaurant Au comptoir de Balthazar. We will see Angelico Surchamp at the Abbey of La Pierre qui Vire later this week. But we had the immense pleasure to finally meet one of our favorite bloggers, Covetotop, whose eponymous blog chronicles his native Catalonia and the Costa Brava, in English no less!

Covetotop is famously reclusive and even gives no details of his private life, not his name, his profession, where he lives. His blog does give specific instructions on how to contact him – “Telepathically: close your eyes and think aloud: “I wish to contact the fabulous Covetotop’s author … I wish to contact the fabulous Covetotop’s author … I wish to contact the fabulous Covetotop’s author …”.”

PJ and I followed the instructions to the letter and were actually able to make contact and schedule a luncheon during our visit to his beloved Empordà region of Catalonia. The day arrived for the lunch we arrived early, anxious not to miss a moment with him. We went into the restaurant, were shown to our table and speculated on what he must be like. PJ asked if I had a mental picture of him and surprisingly I realized that I didn’t. I knew he was well educated, witty, well-travelled, a gourmet who favored the best small restaurants of Catalonia, but no physical image. As we were speculating, we heard a tumult outside. We went to the window and saw hordes of small children waving Catalan flags running alongside a 1924 Hispano-Suiza H6 roadster painted the same bright yellow as the Catalan flag itself. It pulled to a stop in front of the restaurant and out stepped an impossibly handsome man dressed in a white suit, greeting the children and the adults who crowded around noisily. He looked up and saw us and flashed a brilliant smile in the sun and we knew it was he – it was Covetotop.

Covetotop’s car

As we sat to lunch, his graciousness made us feel immediately at home. When he asked how we were enjoying Catalonia, we mentioned that many of the Catalan churches were closed and our disappointment in not being able to photograph. Covetotop merely smiled and suggested we visit a few churches that he mentioned by name. Of course, when we arrived at each on the following day, they were open and we received full cooperation from the local residents in our work, including the ever-present children waving Catalan flags. In the town of Beget, though, with its stunning site and the picturesque church perched at one end of the village, we arrived during the hours of the siesta. But when the church warden heard the delighted cries of the children and realized that we had arrived, he rushed out of his house, pulling up his yellow and red suspenders and tucking in his shirt as he rushed to open the church for us.

Exterior, Església de Sant Cristòfol, Beget (Girona) Photo by PJ McKey

Inside the Església de Sant Cristòfol in Beget, we were able to see on the ornate Baroque retable the “dressed Christ” that Covetotop told us about.

Nave and apse, Església de Sant Cristòfol, Beget (Girona) Photo by PJ McKey

When it came time to order our meal, rather than try to select individually among the many offerings, Covetop recommended that we eat Pica Pica style, featuring a “little bit of this, a little bit of that”. There was a truitas de patata, the Catalan omelet, the croquetes de pollastre, the canelones de Can Roca, gambas, honeyed botifarra, fried carxofa, and the Anxoves de l’Escala, among many other splendid dishes.

Side aisle to nave, Sant Feliu de Beuda, Beuda (Girona). Photo by PJ McKey

As we progressed through a wonderful lunch of Catalan specialties, Covetotop gradually revealed more of his intensely private life. We learned his real name, but promised on our very lives never to reveal it to anyone. We found that he was born in the little village of Beuda and was baptised with great celebration by the entire community in the font of the church of Sant Feliu, a font filled with the local Empordà wines.

Baptismal font, Sant Feliu de Beuda, Beuda (Girona). Photo by PJ McKey

We found that he spent time in a Benedictine monastery in Austria before moving back to his native Catalonia. After spending years as a calligrapher working in traditional materials using handmade inks and tools, he began his current career crafting wooden fishing boats in a small village on the Mediterranean coast.

Altar, Sant Sepulcre de Palera, Beuda (Girona) Photo by PJ McKey

Finally our lunch was finished and we faced the end to a fascinating visit with the enigma that is Covetotop. The empty plates that covered the table somehow reflected the physical and mental feast that we had shared together and we said our fond goodbyes. We will see the Empordà with new eyes now, and look forward to our next visit in the Costa Brava.

Side aisle, Sant Sepulcre de Palera, Beuda (Girona) Photo by PJ McKey

Our visit ended as it started, with the crowd waving their Catalan flags as the Hispano-Suiza disappeared down the road, like us, inspired by the visit from the great Covetotop.

This is clearly a fanciful post, not reflecting the exact nature of our encounter with Covetotop, but a fantasy based on how it should have gone if the universe were as fanciful and imaginative as Covetotop himself. While the details of Covetotop’s private life are obscured, there is one true personal fact included that we invite you to identify. Meanwhile, PJ and I continue to revel in our visit with our new friend.

In a further development, Covetotop has revealed fascinating private details of his life and our visit in his prequel to our visit. A must-read for Covetotop fans thirsty for knowledge!