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The Goddess at the Source of the Seine

Published March 9, 2017 by pennyrandall

DSCF0007The Source of the Seine was a sacred site in ancient times, and some would say it’s still sacred today, to the city of Paris, which owns and cares for it.

The springs the river flows from are found in a park-like valley, the main one issuing from a grotto, constructed by the Emperor Napoleon III. A statue of Sequana, goddess of healing and fertility watches over it. She was first worshipped here by the Celts, then Romanised and given a Latin backstory, which cast her as the daughter of Bacchus, turned into a river by her father to help her escape the unwanted attention of the god Neptune.

The site continued to be holy, even after the fall of Rome, and an Abbey, dedicated to St Seine, was established 10 km away. A new legend was told, about the spring issuing from a footprint of the saint’s donkey, and pilgrims visited it to attend mass right up until the 18th century.

The Musee Archeologique in Dijon houses ex voto statues found here, many of them pregnant women, couples, babies and body parts, as well as a foot high bronze statue of the goddess in a boat.

Access to the site, at Source-Seine in Burgundy, is free.



The Devil’s Hole

Published March 2, 2017 by pennyrandall

The Legend of the  Gouffre de Padirac, Lot, France.


Legend tells of how either St Martin or St Peter (it varies) was wandering over the Causses plateau looking rather unsuccessfully for souls to save when he came across the Devil himself with a huge sack of sinners. Lucifer loves to brag, and in mockery of the saint proposed a challenge. Striking the ground with his foot, he opened up a huge chasm, and told the holy man he could have all the sinners’ souls if he could jump over it. The saint made the sign of the cross, leapt on his ass and jumped across the hole. It’s said the ass sprang so high that when it landed, it left the marks of its hoofs on a large stone that can still be seen today. Furious, the devil gave the sack of souls to the saint and headed back to hell through the hole he had made.


In a limestone area more riddled with holes than a lorryload of Emmental, a cave has to be pretty special to stand out. And even though the prehistoric Picassos who left their mark in so many places round here left it well and truly alone, the Gouffre de Padirac still manages to draw thousands of people every year.

First and foremost, it’s big. Formed by the collapse of a great dome hollowed by an underground river, it’s 77 metres deep and 33 metres wide, and has to be one of the prime candidates for the World’s Largest Hole award. Standing at the bottom looking up is not unlike looking through the wrong end of a telescope, and standing at the top looking down will make you clutch the barrier until your knuckles turn white. The visit kicks off with either a trek down a tower of ten flights of steps or a couple of lift rides. Once you reach the bottom of the chasm, the visit is far from over: there’s a trek along a walkway over an underground river to a subterranean harbour where you’ll be taken half a kilometre by boat to a landing stage on the other side. (Be warned, this is a tremendously popular attraction and you may have to queue for the boats, as you may well also have to queue for entry at the start) Once here, a guide will take you to a fabulously turquoise subterranean lake with a series of winding natural dams, formed by calcite deposits. A staircase takes you up to another lake in the incredible “Great Dome Chamber,” large enough to fit two cathedrals the size of Notre Dame in Paris. The scale of the chamber is absolutely unbelievable; it rises 94 metres above the surface of the river and apparently there are only a few metres between its ceiling and the surface of the earth above it. Once through the chamber, it’s back to the river.

The visit lasts between 90 minutes and two hours and the temperature of the cave is 13 degrees so you may want to take a jumper. Padirac is only a few kilometres from the breathtaking sacred site of Rocamadour, and it’s easy to combine both in a day.

For more info about the Gouffre, visit the website at http://www.gouffre-de-padirac.com/

Bolted: So what’s it all about?

Published October 21, 2016 by pennyrandall

Coming this Halloween to a Kindle near you…

Austria,1816. Two prisoners seize their chance to escape when villagers storm a twisted scientist’s remote castle. But outrunning the mob and their bloodthirsty hounds is only the beginning.
For Elsa, the past is a puzzle with an answer her enemies will kill for. For Igor, it is a nightmare of knives and blood…and a terrible guilt he can never escape from. For both, the future is a journey fraught with danger, towards a destination where a quick death may be the best they can hope for.
How can you outrun your demons when you’re headed straight towards them?

“Penny Randall’s debut Bolted will leave you breathless! This twisty, atmospheric tale has a perfect mix of Gothic Horror, beautiful prose, high stakes tension, and intriguing backdrops that will stay with you long after the last page.”
Rebekah L. Purdy, Author of The Winter People

Coming to a Kindle near you. October 31 2016

Coming to a Kindle near you. October 31 2016

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.