On the Cover

Friday, October 26, 2012

"Everything is beautiful there, even regrets," Albert Camus said of the enchanting hilltop town known as Cordes sur Ciel. The walled city, chartered in the thirteenth century as simply Cordes, was given its expanded name of "in the sky" in the late twentieth century in reference to the clouds that envelop the lower slopes in fall and spring. Visible from miles away, Cordes sur Ciel seems to sail through a sea of clouds just as it has navigated hundreds of years of colorful history.

To many, Cordes is the most magnificent of the fortified towns—known as bastides—that pepper the Midi-Pyrénées. Visitors today follow in the footsteps of travelers from years past who responded to advertising posters such as this one produced by the Chemin de Fer de Paris à Orléans, the railroad whose Paris terminus became the modern Musée d’Orsay. This 1933 image by Pierre Commarmond (1897–1983), a renowned landscape painter, shows the Gothic façade of the fourteenth-century Maison du Grand Fauconnier, the House of the Master Falconer, today an art museum.

The town’s beauty made it a magnet for artists. Painter Yves Brayer (1907–1990) settled there in the 1940s with some comrades and was leading his Académie de Cordes around the time Camus proclaimed the town and its regrets beautiful. Cordes had been famous in the previous century as a center for embroidery, another art form represented by its own room in the central museum.

But not everything was beautiful in Cordes. Like much of this part of southwestern Europe, Cordes saw difficult and violent times, too. The years between the town’s golden era of trade and pilgrimage, memorialized in its Gothic-style houses and churches, and its gradual drift away from trade and relevance in modern Europe saw many episodes of strife and suffering.

In fact, the hilltop bastion was born amid what was later named the Albigensian Crusade. Raymond of Toulouse chartered the bastide in 1222 during the campaign by the Roman Catholic Church and the Kingdom of France to suppress a religious movement known as Catharism. The dualistic sect was strong in the Languedoc region of France, where the adherents were called Albigensians, and its teachings took on a political flavor that defied the authority of the church and the king. Cordes was a stronghold of this resistance.

In the end, the lands of southern France lost their autonomy and fell into royal hands. The Cathars were stamped out. Cordes, meanwhile, outgrew its walls several times and prospered from wool, cloth, and indigo. But its fortifications were called upon to stand guard during later periods of violence, including the Inquisition, the Hundred Years War between England and France, and the French Wars of Religion, in which Huguenots defied the Catholic authorities much as the Cathars had—but in this case the heretics were attacking Cordes, not defending it.

Plagues, poor harvests, and finally the opening of the Canal du Midi, which shifted trade to water by joining the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, had a more lasting impact on Cordes than political violence. By the time of the French Revolution, it was a picturesque backwater. It heartily embraced France’s revolution against the monarchy, but the Industrial Revolution passed it by. The boom in embroidery was a brief exception: Cordes flourished as a textile center until the looms shut down in the late 1930s, leaving the town to artists and tourists.

Cordes proudly points out that the first Lacoste crocodile-logo garments were made here in the dying days of its embroidery industry. So were thousands of embroidered postcards that women sent to their men fighting in the trenches of the First World War—objects of beauty and, for many, regret.

— Charles Lindsey