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Between a rock and a hard place

Not one of the more light-hearted or joyful sights you might take in during your visit to France, but certainly interesting – and a little memento mori never hurt anyone -  is the fortified cemetery of the Eglise St-Cyr at the entrance to the tiny village of Fargues-sur-Ourbise, near Nérac in the Lot-et-Garonne. Primarily late Gothic in style, the church shows traces of a more ancient building – there are remains of Romanesque windows in the shape of a meurtrière (an embrasure, a hole for shooting through) in the nave finished in the16th century. Built with characteristic volcanic black rock which smells of sulphur when broken, the church also has remnants of a 14th-15th century star-shaped vault.

The impressive construction gives rise to many questions. The entrance to the cemetery is marked by a Gothic door supporting a balcony which had a machicolated loggia, and there is a meurtrière to the left and two to the right – a stout defensive position indeed. There are also traces of a previous porch behind the entrance. On the inside you can see many more meurtrières, notably four to the east and six to the north. They are very straight and seem to date back to the 13th century; they show that the cemetery was then defensible from all directions. However, they do seem very low which shows a change of level in the cemetery itself. It is not known if the defence was intended for the protection of tombs from degradation and profanation and also for the church where people may have sheltered for safety. Cemeteries in France are often enclosed by a wall but no other shows such a good example of fortification.

One wonders why the cemetery needed such robust defences. One lady who reposes here seems to have reached the ripe age of 100 years before passing away in 1951; apparently not only ladies from Provence lived very long lives. Perhaps it is the local asparagus; in competition with the larger Dordogne producers, the village of Fargues-sur-Ourbise is famous locally for its asparagus, which it celebrates annually at the Fête de l’Asperge.

A far more ancient form of funerary monument can be seen scattered around Fargues, and throughout the Albret, which has survived to this day in spite of numerous episodes of vandalism over the centuries. Dolmen (from the Breton for “stone table”) in this area date from the Neolithic period (around 3000 BC), and were primarily overground burial chambers built of several upright stones capped by a larger, flat stone. These would have been interred in a burial mound of earth and stones, traces of which are occasionally in evidence. The Paris-based expatriate Czech writer Milan Kundera, in one of his woolly philosophical ramblings, has expressed the view that tombstones are primarily meant to keep the deceased in their place. These imposing structures would have done the trick.


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Fargues 1
Fortified cemetary

Fargues 2
Main entrance from inside

Fargues 3
Church within cemetary

Fargues 5
Embrasure in church wall

Fargues 6
Asparagus, speciality of Ourbise

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