As the Eagle flies: Ancient and modern: Roman ruins in the Perigueux

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For a week this past June, my husband and I were invited to join two other couples in southwest France for a few days in a lovely house that they had rented. Another couple had dropped out unexpectedly and, well...We just had to say yes! The house they rented is in a tiny village, Pressignac-Vicq. It is basically abandoned; it was the week that I was there. The six of us wanted to visit quirky and more quiet monuments — places we had each uncovered from reading guide books and flyers. We had some experience having visited the region before; the consensus was to approach each day's activities on the spur-of the-moment.

Even without careful planning we had at least three outstanding experiences — visits that turned out far better than expected. They were trips to a 13th century abbey, a 3rd century Roman ruin, and a reinterpretation of an ancient cave art exhibit at the contemporary museum. All featured cutting edge audio visual interpretations with some sort of hand held device permitting independent exploration and minimal labels to distract the eye. Each had impeccably well maintained surroundings. Each became a way to drop into the time to review and relive history and admire the contemporary interpretation.

The Abbeye of Cadouin, built in 1214 in upper Dordogne Valley, is located in a quiet small town south of Beynac and Le Buisson, really off any main road. The stark Romanesque church is attached to a cloister. A perfectly preserved exterior open air market in the main square features original wooden beams. Cadouin was once a stop on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. For a long time the reason to come here was to touch a cloth believed to have been wrapped around Jesus' head after he died — the Shroud of Oviedo. Pilgrims flocked here for centuries until 1935. In that year, a thin part of the fabric was discovered to have Arabic text in the silk fibers. Oops! It turns out the cloth is 11th century — not 1st century.

Today, neither the town nor the reliquary are a destination for Christians. The church and abbey attract historians and tourists interested in the earliest of Medieval architecture. No more pilgrims.

I found the visit to the cloister as fascinating as any I've explored. The walls are either white or yellow stone — the use of various limestone makes a strong contrast when they meet at the corners. Small sculptures embellish the covered hallways of the cloister, in this case a perfectly square courtyard garden. Though many of the figures are damaged today, they offered visual relief and inspiration and solace to the holy man as he took his meditative walk.

A second surprise to me is in the city of Perigueux, the capital of the Perigord district. This city contains a Roman ruin that has been incorporated into a modern museum of steel and glass designed on site by Jean Nouvel, a recognized French architect.

Four of the six of us aimed for the Roman ruins of Vesunna (the other two say they have seen enough Roman ruins). Aqueducts, roadways and other constructs are abundant from Narbonne to Nice along France's southern coast on the Mediterranean Sea. Roman ruins, however, are unusual in southwest France.

We arrive by car and find a center city parking lot. We can walk right through the Cathedral of Perigueux on our way to the ruin. It stands obvious in the middle of town with five tall domes visible from all points around the city. Designed in the shape of a Greek cross, the massive stone columns support the rebuilt 1669 structure. We admire this World Heritage site still in use, which is still a pilgrim destination on the path to Santiago de Compostela.

We continue several blocks to the railroad bridge, and cross over to look through lots of overgrowth, the outline of the Vesunna tower is broken and crumbling. This early edifice is not unlike the domes of the cathedral — they mark the settlement for all to find. Gardeners are on site today furiously buzzing their weed whackers through the abundant vegetation to open the views to the ruin. The museum is almost invisible as the glass walls reflect the greenery and the stone tower. Nouvel's building pops into view as a surprise. The museum actually covers the floor plan of the entire Roman temple and all of its rooms.

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PROTECTS AND CELEBRATES

In this way, the museum protects and yet celebrates the ancient architecture, creating a space that is a perfect addition to understanding the Romans in this post-modern world. It is a possible to see the scale of the central building on the one hand and to focus in to examine the details of the early rooms, their uses and life style. We meander through, taking time to admire a real Corinthian column. We appreciate the carvings on tombs and admire the beautifully crafted sculpture of Vesunna, the Celtic goddess worshiped in all of Gaul. She was likely considered a giver of prosperity, abundance and good fortune.

To walk amidst the rooms of the temple, wooden decks have been constructed that seem to pave the way for the visitor. The paths are clearly marked to cross the floors and walkways are placed in between the actual ancient walls, some painted, some not. The rooms come alive with the brief descriptions on the audio guide. IPad style screens augment the bleak stones to show what it would they would look like if paint or tiled color was still there. In this way, the missing pieces are filled in. One room has low stacks of brick stones for heating rooms through funnels that act as air vents. Another room is for grooming the body. It includes an assortment of metal medical implements for skin scraping and washing and combing hair. There is an implement for rubbing the skin's pores with scents like lavender and rose. Numerous glass bottles held various perfumes and oils that were applied here. There is another area for the toilet used at alternate times by men and women. There is a place to cook and a place to dine. And there is a very large entrance place central to all the rooms meant for meeting people. Finally, there is a central fountain, a water garden.

The museum's expansive ceiling covering the temple has orange painted lines that, I realize along the way, mirror the original floor plan. To look up is to understand the scale of the original place. To make this place, the new building does not dig into but covers, protects and honors the geometrically precise space.

I find the mix of contemporary architecture and interpretation with the first century remnants is a brilliant blend. It takes a clear meditative mind to revisit these old stories. And this place, Vesunna is a very old story of a temple that was recognized by many others across Europe.

The entrance is also the exit: a significant part of the museum experience. As one enters to stop and be admitted, to purchase the ticket, to take the audio pass and to be invited in to such a space, I think the Roman woman or man of the house might have invited me in much the same sort of way.

I hope you can visit someday in person. If not, find a minute in your day when you are in the mood to "hit the road", then go online and see the view: Perigueux-vesunna.fr

Perhaps you will find as I did that your mind is refreshed with the reinterpretation of this centrally located historically significant center of life during the our first three centuries of Roman times.

As the Eagle Flies is Berkshire County's travelogue regularly featuring the knowledge and experience of RamellePulitzer, coowner of Lee-based New View Tours.

Ramelle Pulitzer can be reached at Ramelle@newviewtours.com


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