Life in Ruins part VII – Gimme Shelter

Published August 2, 2014 by pennyrandall

France’s Vezere Valley is world famous for the unique glimpse it gives us into the lives of our earliest ancestors. In a relatively tiny area, there are 147 prehistoric sites and 25 decorated caves, including the Sistine Chapel of cave art, Lascaux.

One of the most fascinating is the troglodyte fort and settlement at La Roque St-Christophe – at 1km long, the largest natural shelter in Europe. For me, the draw isn’t  so much for its early history – although it was first inhabited a staggering 55,000 years ago – but its more recent past.

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Fortified to provide shelter against Norman attacks in the 10th century, an entire village grew up, clinging to the 300ft high river cliff as if to life itself.

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This incredible settlement housed around a thousand people on five levels. Remains found on site show they were potters, weavers, carpenters, blacksmiths, bakers, shoesmiths and even silversmiths. A cowshed, slaughter house and smokehouse can still be clearly made out, as can a simple church and a bell tower, with crosses engraved on the cliff wall, a font, tombs, a sculpted vault and ceiling rings. Down by the river, a small port provided trading links.

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The village was accessed from a fortified entrance through a tunnel carved into the rock. Houses were connected by bridges, trapdoors and ladders. The logistics of building this settlement are jaw dropping – some 12,000 post holes were drilled into the back wall of the cliff – and a reconstructed medieval building site at the end of the terrace gives a good idea of the machinery and techniques involved.

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Staircases were carved into the cliff to connect the levels. The biggest led to the cliff top, where the settlement’s defences, a series of projectile engines were used to hurl rocks onto hostile boats approaching along the river.

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A look out system that covered the whole valley was developed. Across the river, a cave in the cliff housed a watchman, who could see or hear someone in a similar post further away. Recent experiments have shown a warning signal could be transmitted from a site 11 miles away in just six minutes.

What would life have been like here? As picturesque as the reconstruction is, it would have most certainly been far from pretty (though that could be said for almost anywhere during the Middle Ages). Cramped, probably unbearably tense in times of conflict, nevertheless, people here would have lived with some degree of security, knowing their homes were well defended and relatively inaccessible.

The village survived the Norman attacks and the ravages of the Hundred Years War, which, in this area, was especially hard fought. Although, during this time, it was besieged and captured by the English, who held it for about five years until it was retaken by the French. It’s from this period that the legend of the treasure of La Roque St-Christophe dates, supposedly a cache of ill-gotten gains hidden by the English as they fled the village. It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that the settlement was finally destroyed, when, during the bitter Wars of Religion, it became a haven for French Protestants and was obliterated on the orders of the Seneschal of Perigord.

What remains today is a fascinating reminder of human ingenuity in the face of adversity. If you’re ever planning a trip to the lovely Dordogne, I recommend a visit. It’s at Peyzac-le-Moustier, halfway between Les Eyzies and Montingac. To find out more, visit the excellent website http://www.roque-st-christophe.com.

 

 

 

Life in Ruins Part VI – A Rock and a Hard Place.

Published May 4, 2012 by pennyrandall

THE RUINED CAVE DWELLINGS OF THE GROTTES DE JONAS

France’s Auvergne region is a wondrous land of extinct volcanoes and geological curiosities. I was lucky enough to spend a while there a few years back researching the weird and wonderful sights the area has to offer and these incredible cave dwellings near St Pierre Colamine are one of them.

Carved into a cliff of soft volcanic tufa, these seventy  rooms on five levels were begun by the Celts, became a monastery in the 10th century and  later served as a feudal stronghold, when knights from a nearby castle moved in and added a stone facade and tower.  With  its network of corridors and staircases, ovens, latrines, living quarters, stables, armoury and even hospice,  this was medieval high rise living par excellence.

One of the most evocative rooms is the feudal chapel, where  a series of ancient frescoes is remarkably well preserved. There are five of them: the denial of Peter, Jesus receiving the crown of thorns, the body of Jesus lowered from the cross, the discovery of the empty tomb and the Virgin Mary enthroned with the child Jesus on her lap.

Legend has it that a group of Templars found refuge here after the suppression of 1309, whether this is true or not, it eventually passed into the hands of the Knights Hospitallers and was finally abandoned in the 17th century.

The caves fell into disrepair, their interior was plundered – even lime scraped off the walls and used as fertiliser – and the higher, more sheltered rooms were used to house pigeons.

Restoration work was carried out in the 1950s and today, the site is a fascinating place to visit, to imagine life as it was lived by the monks and knights who made it their home so long ago, and to savour the unique  atmosphere of  this troglodyte ruin.

Life in Ruins Part V – Lake Nemi and the Navi Romani

Published April 15, 2012 by pennyrandall

Not a ruined village this time, but in view of the 100th anniversary of the world’s most famous shipwreck, I thought I’d have a look at another one, or rather two to be precise, the navi Romani  of Lake Nemi.

First, a little about Lake Nemi itself. Set in the crater of an extinct volcano in the Alban hills just outside Rome, it was sacred even before Roman times. The goddess Diana was worshipped here, as Diana Nemorensis, or Diana of the Woods, and the lake was known as speculum Dianae  or Diana’s mirror, reflecting the moon (a major aspect of the goddess) in its oval waters.

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Diana’s festival, the Nemoralia was celebrated on August 13-15. Worshippers would converge on the site, many walking the 17 miles from the city to celebrate the goddess, surrounding the lake with shimmering torchlight.

Her huge temple on the northern shores is still visible, in part, today. Nearby was her sacred grove, even older than the temple, where one tree in particular was guarded by a priest, who kept a constant vigil, sword at the ready, for challengers to his position. The only way anyone could succeed him was to kill him and just as he had killed his predecessor, someone, some day, would spill his blood and take his place as Rex Nemorensis, or King of the Grove.

The  story of the priest-kings of Nemi and their succession by murder (and Turner’s painting The Golden Bough, below) inspired the anthropologist James Frazer to write his famous study of religion, magic, superstition and mythology, also titled The Golden Bough.

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According to Frazer, the priests represented Diana’s lover and founder of the grove, Virbius (an incarnation of her Greek counterpart Artemis’s lover Hippolytus) who was also worshipped here. In his incredible 12 volume analysis, Frazer concluded that early religions were fertility cults centred around the worship and sacrifice of a sacred king. This king was the incarnation of a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to an earth goddess, died in winter and was reincarnated in the spring.

Although modern anthropologists say he over-interpreted his evidence to fit his theory, Frazer’s book had a huge impact on modern literature; William Butler Yeats, Robert Graves, DH Lawrence, Ezra Pound, TS Eliot and James Joyce were all influenced by it, as well as countless fantasy authors.

The two huge Roman ceremonial boats retrieved from its waters last century underline further this place’s importance throughout the ages. Archaeologically significant as the largest Roman boats ever discovered,  like so much else about the lake, there is an edge to their story. Commissioned by Caligula, during his short but bloody reign (37AD – 41AD), one as a floating temple, probably to Isis who was also worshipped here and the other as a water-borne palace, they measured 70 metres by 20 metres and 74 metres by 24 metres. And with their marble floors and columns, mosaics, heating and plumbing, they were not only astounding in their opulence, but technological masterpieces.

image thanks to: Gelo4 at the Italian Language Wikipedia

Caligula was assassinated just a year after they were launched, and the ships were stripped and scuttled. Although their disposal may have been a symbolic dismissal of the excesses of his reign, the ships were never forgotten. Local fishermen knew they were there and would sell small artifacts they retrieved with grappling hooks to tourists. During the Renaissance, more serious efforts were made to salvage items from the wrecks, and in the centuries that followed, sporadic attempts to raise them to the surface caused significant damage.

In 1927, the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, in a characteristically grandiose gesture ordered the lake to be drained and the ships recovered. An ancient tunnel used to lower high water levels was cleared and the lakewater pumped out of the crater. The lake began to drop in October 1928;  six months later it was five metres lower and the first ship (prima nave) was breaking the surface. By June 1931, the water level had dropped 20 metres, the first ship had been recovered and the second, (seconda nave) lying some 200 metres away was exposed.

But the loss of 40 million cubic metres of water from the lake had unforseen consequences. On August 21 that year, there was an eruption of mud from the underlying strata and 30 hectares of lake bed subsided. The lake began to fill again and the seconda nave was badly damaged. The project was abandoned until 1932. The boat was finally recovered in October that year, and a museum, built on the lake shore to house the boats, was opened in 1936.

Had the story ended here, the boats would have been as well known today as the Vasa or Mary Rose, secure in their place amongst the world’s greatest archaeological treasures. But just eight years later, in 1944, disaster struck. In the chaos that followed the Allied invasion and Italian capitulation, the museum caught fire – torched, it’s widely believed, by retreating German troops, and the ships were burned to ashes.

The museum eventually reopened, though and can still be visited today. The huge spaces where the ill-fated ships once stood underline the otherworldly fascination of the whole site. Footsteps echo on  marble floors, displays are dwarfed by the emptiness in which they stand. The absence of the museum’s raison d’etre is poignant and thought-provoking, its ghostly atmosphere lingers in the psyche, resonating alongside the spiritual, cultural and physical elements of this astounding, unforgettable place.

An anchor in the space once occupied by a ship's hull. Picture thanks to Pippo-b at the German Language Wikipedia

Lo Nemi!navell’d in the woody hills

So far, that the uprooting wind which tears

The oak from his foundation, and which spills

The ocean o’er its boundary, and bears

Its foam against the skies, reluctant spares

The oval mirror of thy glassy lake;

And calm as cherish’d hate, its surface wears

A deep cold settled aspect nought can shake,

All coiled into itself and round, as sleeps the snake.

Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

Rebekah’s Magic Touch.

Published March 27, 2012 by pennyrandall

Rebekah L Purdy celebrated the launch of her latest book The Fairy Godmother Files: Cinderella Complex last week.

The book, published by Astrea Press, is the third in two years for this extraordinary mom of six from Greenville, Michigan.

The story of teen fairy godmother Maggie Winters follows My Dad’s a Paranormal Investigator: Seeking Shapeshifters (the follow up to which is her current project) and Staking Shadows, a darker tale of forbidden love in a post-apocalyptic setting.

Rebekah’s output is even more impressive when added to the fact that besides six children and a menagerie of pets, she commutes 120 miles every day to a fast-paced job in the court system.

“Some days are easier than others, “says Rebekah. “I really try to plan my scenes in my head while I’m working at the day job or during my commute. I also keep my notebook by me so if I have an idea for a plotline/dialogue I quickly jot it down. Knowing I’ve only got sixty-minutes to get words down is a great motivator.”

Keeping family time and writing time separate is important to Rebekah, although her husband and children understand if she needs to take time out to meet a deadline. Her own family background has played a huge part in her writing career.

“Writing was kind of an escape for me growing up. My family moved A LOT. And although I did cheerleading and made friends quickly, I liked having a place I could kind of lose myself. Creating characters and stories became my outlet. “

Rebekah’s stories focus on the paranormal, and with books about shapeshifters, fairy godmothers and soul-sucking monsters under her belt, it’s no surprise that she had some pretty spooky childhood experiences

“When I was in middle school my mom and dad bought this really old house,” she remembers. There was always crazy stuff happening. But two events in particular still stand out to me. One was when I was home babysitting my siblings (who were playing upstairs). I was just finishing up the dishes when I heard a knock on the door behind me. I went to answer the door, but no one was there. But in the window, I saw my reflection and the reflection of a man standing behind me. When I turned around, no one was there.

“Another thing in this house was when me, my mom, and sister were all home together. Me and my mom were downstairs. All of a sudden my sister screamed from upstairs then came running down. She told us someone had turned off her bedroom light and touched her leg. At first my mom didn’t believe her, then all of a sudden we heard giggling from upstairs and footsteps running across the floor. Totally freaked me out.”

Her latest project is a follow up to her 2011 success “My Dad’s a paranormal Investigator: Seeking Shapeshifters.” This new book sees Ima travel to Ireland, a country close to Rebekah’s heart.

Says  Rebekah: “Ireland is beautiful. The countryside is amazing and the people I met were so nice. It’s almost like time stands still. Driving in the morning, seeing the fog roll over the hills, breathtaking.

“My Dad’s a Paranormal Investigator 2 takes place there because I’ve always loved the folklore and myths. And I could see Ima, my main character, kind of losing herself in the history and beauty of Ireland. Not to mention, she can get into some real shenanigans.”

There’s no doubt we’ll all be sharing those adventures at some future date, but for now, Rebekah L Purdy fans have a new  heroine in Maggie Winters, the narrator of the Fairy Godmother Files. Maggie’s adventures, both funny and scary, her friendships, romances and heartache are a page-turning read. Rebekah’s trademark blend of humour, drama and romance has never been better and the good news is, there’s not one but two follow-ups on their way.

“They get a little darker as we go, although there’s still a lot of humour planned, “says Rebekah. “I’m hoping in the next six to eight months to start working on the next one — as time permits. Or maybe even sooner, depending on how quick I can get the current book I’m working on written.”

The Fairy Godmother Files: Cinderella Complex is available now at Amazon; http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Fairy-Godmother-Files-ebook/dp/B007MOM5H8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1332507766&sr=8-1

And here’s a little more about it…

Sixteen-year-old Maggie Winters can’t think of anything more exciting than junior year. There’s her first prom to look forward to, she can drive, and most important Connor Prince has finally noticed her. But unfortunately so has the school snob, Katrina Melville, who goes out of her way to make Maggie’s life a living hell. If that’s not enough, Maggie’s grandma has decided to retire, which doesn’t seem like such a big deal. That is until she finds out her grandma is a Fairy Godmother, and not just any Fairy Godmother. The Fairy Godmother, as in Cinderella, pumpkins, and mice. And she has informed Maggie that she’s next in line to become the new Fairy Godmother.

At first Maggie is excited, the whole getting wings, flying (or rather trying not to crash), and a wand that lets her grant wishes. It’s like being a superhero, without all the action, explosions, and spandex. Then she gets her first assignment, Katrina Melville, her nemesis. And if that doesn’t make her want to poof herself into oblivion, she finds out that part of Katrina’s happily-ever-after is Connor Prince. Life is so unfair. Even worse, she can’t tell her two best friends about any of it and they’re getting sick of her disappearing acts. Then there are the dangerous creatures, called Grimms who will stop at nothing to keep the happy endings from being fulfilled, even if it means destroying the Fairy Godmother responsible. With time running out, Maggie has to make this wish come true or it will ruin the fates of everyone involved, and open the world to darkness beyond imagination. Maggie will soon find out what it truly means to be a Fairy Godmother—and it isn’t all about princes, gowns, and wings, but something much more.

To celebrate the launch, Rebekah’s offering an ebook to one lucky commenter.  So drop me a line and you may be the one!

Lucky Seven Meme

Published March 21, 2012 by pennyrandall

Over the last couple of week I’ve been tagged by three people – Traci Kenworth,  Jennifer Fischetto and Vanessa Barger, so I thought it was about time I stopped fannying about and stepped up to the mark.

So, after a bit of  a false start earlier today, here are seven lines from the seventh line down on the 77th page of my wip.

 

Igor shifts in his seat. “A code?” He glances at me. I press my lips together, biting down on the compressed flesh. That’s not good news. A language can be translated. But a code must be cracked.

Father Conrad folds his arms. “Who are you? Really.”

I catch my breath. But Igor smiles. “What makes you think we are anything other than who we say we are?”

The old man fixes him with a steely glare.

 

I’m only just starting to make more writer friends outside my crit group, so apologies if you have already been tagged. In case you haven’t you have to:

1. Go to page 77 of your current MS/WIP
2. Go to line seven
3. Copy down the next seven lines, sentences, or paragraphs, and post them as they’re written.
4. Tag seven authors
5. Let them know

So the writers I’m tagging are:

Miranda Buchanan http://neverasthecrowflies.blogspot.co.uk/

Stephanie Sauvinet http://stephaniesauvinet.blogspot.co.uk/

Moira Keith http://Moirakeith.com

Traci Kenworth (because she has two wips lol): http://tracikenworth.wordpress.com/

Rebekah Purdy http://rebekahlpurdy.wordpress.com/

Kelbian Noel http://kelbian.com

Kit Forbes http://www.kitforbes.com/

Life in Ruins Part IV

Published March 14, 2012 by pennyrandall

Whereas last week’s village, Oradour-sur-Glane, was a stark reminder of the evil humankind is capable of in war, this one, Naours, shows us just how tenacious we can be when our world becomes a battleground.

Up to 2,000 people at a time found refuge in this underground complex while war ravaged the northern French countryside they lived in. It was used during dozens of conflicts over hundreds of years, from the Barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire in the third century right up until the French Revolution.

What’s left isn’t pretty. It’s grim and gritty and basic, exactly what you’d expect somewhere used as a place of safety in troubled times to look like.

The tunnels fell into disuse after the revolution until their rediscovery by a priest a century later. English troops used them during the First World War; during World War II, the Nazis used them as a munitions dump and Rommel’s staff headquarters.

Two kilometres of excavations on three levels contain 300 rooms, 28 galleries, 12 public rooms, a chapel, six chimneys, a jail and a law court.

Between five and eight people shared rooms, which were staggered on either side of passages to give some degree of privacy, which in these cramped and uncomfortable conditions, must have been essential.

Imagine the heat, the smell, the whispered conversations. The flow of human traffic through the chalky tunnels, animals tethered to the walls, possessions piled in corners.  Listless children playing in the shadows. Women crowded under the chimneys, cooking, knowing their smoke was routed up through a nearby miller’s cottage but worrying all the same their hiding place would be discovered.

In short, this must have been a very crowded and tense place to live. Yet at the same time, a very hopeful one, where that basic will to survive joined forces with human ingenuity, determination and endurance.

Like I said, not a pretty place.  But an evocative one. A fascinating one. And a powerful one.

Life in Ruins III

Published March 6, 2012 by pennyrandall

The ruined village of Oradour-sur-Glane is one of the most chilling places I’ve ever been.  Even on a warm summer afternoon, the knowledge of what happened here on a similar sunny day, June 10, 1944 brought a shiver to my skin and a sick twist to the pit of my stomach as I walked through its shattered streets.

It was a Saturday, just after lunch, when around 200 Nazi SS soldiers rolled into the sleepy village near Limoges in south west France. No-one knows exactly why;  it’s possible they confused it with somewhere with a similar name and links to the Resistance a few miles away.

They ordered every man, woman and child to the village green, claiming they wanted to check identity papers.

The men were separated from the women and children. They were taken in groups to barns and sheds like the one below, where they were first shot in the legs, then covered with fuel and set alight.

The women and children were marched to the church. The soldiers set off an incendiary device, locked them inside and machine gunned anyone who tried to escape through the windows.

Six hundred and forty two people, aged between one week and 90 years died: 190 men, 247 women, and 205 children. A handful survived to tell the world what they had seen.

The soldiers looted and burned the village that night. Its silent ruins now stand as a memorial for those who died here and a reminder of the horrors of war.  Burned out cars rust outside the shells of buildings.

Sewing machines, bicycles and other souvenirs of stolen lives lie amongst the rubble.

The buildings are marked with the names of the people who lived and worked in them; victims of a terrible atrocity that can never be forgotten.

Oradour-sur-Glane is worse than any imagined horror story. What happened here is real. To real people, with real lives, who lived and loved and laughed and had no idea when they woke up that morning they’d be dead by nightfall.

This martyred village is a place of remembrance and a reminder of the evil that human beings are capable of. I will never forget it.

Pictures copyright Penny Randall