The troglodyte church of Vals
Vals sleeps on, as it has for centuries…
The passing traveller finds only the old ones and a handful of cats mounting guard in the shadows of passageways. Silence reigns here, an absolute master, conceding nothing to rumours of this century. The houses in yellow stone, bulbous and soft, are huddled close together to keep warm, seeking in their shared walls some support against the passage of time. Vals could be only a point on the map, a name unknown except to those born there.
But in the heart of the village stands the church…
The traveller, at first sight, could believe that this building, austere and solid, is only a citadel, a castle left by some local lords. However if he explores, looking for a hidden side to the edifice, and climbs towards the south-east on the turf the old ones call ‘the platform of Rahus’.
There, in the middle of the blocks of conglomerate, survive the remains of a medieval village, part cave dwellings, which stick together against the rock. On the sides of the hill a large notch, regularly shaped, draws the eye. Archaeologists are still of two minds about the age and use of this site; some see it as a part of the medieval habitat, others as a religious site from before Roman times… Whichever, it is additional proof of the antiquity of the place and one can feel that the evidence lies sleeping beneath our feet. But despite the charm of the place the footsteps of the traveller are always attracted to the door of oak that guards access to the church. Groaning, it turns on its hinges, allowing the first look into the half-shadow. Then, a shock…
Using a fault to the full, a stone staircase seems to disappear into the bowels of the earth. Ten steps lead to an old door, the entrance to the lower part of the church, improperly called the crypt. There, we are in the remains of a 10th century edifice built, with an evident sense of theatre, by the first Christians in the area.
For a thousand years time has slept, curled up in a dark corner, leaving the visiter to climb back up, in silence, the ladder of time. After a look at the massive baptistry in its notch of rock, emotion guides us to the light, which filters down from a window hewn in the wall of a rectangular apse. And there, emotion gives way to bedazzlement, through the vaulting of this part of the building appear wonderful romanesque frescos. Evoking the second coming and scenes from the childhood of Christ, these frescos still have the rigour and colours of the period. Here there are no perspective effects, no grand meticulous aesthetics: the pictures are to instruct and not to enchant. Saint Michael, Saint Mathew, Raphael and Gabriel surround Christ in Majesty and guard the site. But beyond the colours, the clothing and the posture of the figures, one detail strikes home: the eyes. Intent, huge, they weigh heavily on the visitor and the stare of the Saints never seems to let go of those who enter this place…
Several steps lead up to the main nave, in earlier times lower and more intimate, but transformed in the 19th century under the aegis of the Marquise de Portes. There again the rock comes to the surface and the pickaxes of the builders had to work to allow enough space for the faithful. At the end of this nave, a wooden staircase, creaking and dark, climbs steeply to the old chapel of St Michael. Probably built in the 12th century, indicated by the fine trappings, it hides an embryonic choir strangely oriented towards the south. The tower, which soars above, dates from the 14th century. From its heights the village was protected against the greed of the brigands in the 100 years war. Try to imagine this isolated chapel of the chapel of Saint Marie and the frescos as they were. It wasn’t until the 14th century that the eastern wall was opened, to build the nave that you have just crossed over.
Then, the terrace; from there, in the glimmer of morning, the eye dances along the ridges of the Pyrenees. From St Barthélémy to Crabère, the vastness of the mountains contrasts with these old stones introverted by history.
Discovering Vals is always a powerful experience when even the most atheistic becomes, to some small extent, a pilgrim.
--Original French by Olivier de Robert; translated by Tim Nash.
PHOTOS : K.CHEVALIER
From Pamiers or Mirepoix take the D119. A sign clearly indicates the turning for the "Eglise de Vals".