21 May 2018

A ‘snatch of heaven’ and
a taste of summer among
peacocks in the vineyard

A peacock shows his pride in the Domaine de Rombeau, near Rivesaltes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

My visit to the Perpignan area in the south of France last week seemed to begin and end in vineyards in Roussillon.

After arriving at Perpignan on Tuesday afternoon, three of us stopped on our way to the coast at Domaine Lafage, where Jean-Marc and Eliane Lafage farm 160 hectares of vines on their estate between Perpignan and the Mediterranean, where a significant proportion of their vines are well over 50 years old.

Their estate is farmed organically, and their wines range from refreshing whites to concentrated reds.

On Friday afternoon, after visiting the Forteresse de Salses, which once guarded the border between Spain and France, we stopped off at the Domaine de Rombeau, near Rivesaltes, where the estate has been in the hands of the de La Fabrègue family for centuries.

From their 120 hectares of vines and 23 grape varieties, Pierre-Henri de La Fabrègue and Philippe Raspaud de La Fabrègue produce different types of wine, including Muscats de Rivesaltes, Rivesaltes, Côtes du Roussillon, Côtes du Roussillon Villages and Côtes Catalanes, wines that combine elegance and intensity.

These wines are acclaimed by the French and international media, are mentioned by the main guides, and have regularly received numerous regional and national awards over the decades. Much of the wine produced here is sold directly at the wine cellar, and in the restaurant there attracts more than 10,000 customers a month.

Enjoying a taste of summer and a snatch of heaven in the Domaine de Rombeau at the end of last week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

It was one of those sun-kissed afternoons that seem like a snatch of heaven as three of us sat by the vines and the groves, sharing a bottle of Le Muscat de Rivesaltes that seemed to be a taste of summer sunshine.

A large number of peafowl – peacocks and peahens – walk around the domain freely. Peafowl are forest birds that nest on the ground, but roost in trees. They are terrestrial feeders, and domesticated peafowl enjoy protein rich food, including larvae that infest granaries, different kinds of meat and fruit, as well as vegetables, including dark leafy greens, broccoli, carrots, beans, beets, and peas. This makes them appropriate birds to keep in an organic vineyard, acting as a natural protection for the vines.

A peacock in the vineyard in the Domaine de Rombeau … soon they were eating from my hand (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

They are curious birds too, always ready to respond to the presence of people. Despite their innate independence, they can appear to be both disdainful and socially curious at one and the same time.

With this natural curiosity, sociability and their feeding habits, it was easy to entice the peacocks and peahens with the nuts and raisins that accompanied our wine. To the surprise of the other two in our group, I soon had peacocks and peahens eating from my hand as we sat at the table, and walking around us, like cats seeking to make sense of the afternoon visitors.

Similarly, I found it easy to attract the attention of peacocks when I visited the Monastery of Vlatadon in Thessaloniki at Easter last month.

A peacock in the Monastery of Vlatadon in Thessaloniki at Easter (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

I have long been fascinated by peacocks. When I was living in Wexford in the mid-1970s, I went on a long walk in the sunshine one Sunday afternoon and came across a farm near Piercestown, 7 km south of Wexford town, where there was a large number of peafowl in the farmyard.

I turned into work at the Wexford People the following morning, enthusiastic about offering a feature on what appeared to be an exotic peacock colony. But everyone else seemed to know about it and was dismissive, and no-one shared my enthusiasm.

The feature was never written – but then, it was in the days when newspapers were in black and white, and any photographs could never have done justice to the sight that delighted me that summer afternoon.

Perhaps my curiosity about peacocks dates back to an early stage in life, when I was first interested in the family tree and realised that peacocks decorate the crests in the coat-of-arms of both the Comerford and Comberford families: a peacock’s head in the case of two branches of the family, and a peacock in his pride in a third branch.

They are part of the heraldic symbolism of the families not because of some inflated sense of pride, but because the peacock is a symbol of the Resurrection.

In ancient Persia and Babylon, the peacock was associated with Paradise and the Tree of Life and was seen as a guardian to royalty, and was often engraved upon royal thrones.

These birds were not known to Greeks before the conquests of Alexander the Great. Aristotle, who was Alexander’s tutor, refers to the peacock as ‘the Persian bird.’ In classical Greece, it was believed that the flesh of peafowl did not decay after death, and so the peacock became a symbol of immortality.

This symbolism was adopted in early Christianity, and many early Christian paintings and mosaics show the peacock. The peacock is still used in the Easter season, especially in the east. The ‘eyes’ in the peacock’s tail feathers symbolise the all-seeing God and – in some interpretations – the Church.

Peacocks and peacock feathers as symbols of the Resurrection in mosaics in Ravenna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

A peacock drinking from a vase is used as a symbol of a Christian believer drinking from the waters of eternal life. The peacock can also symbolise the cosmos if one interprets his tail with his many ‘eyes’ as the vault of heaven dotted by the sun, moon, and stars. The peacock is associated with immortality, and in iconography the peacock is often depicted next to the Tree of Life.

Peacocks often appear in early Christian art as a symbol of the Resurrection and Eternal Life.

Some commentators have written that the reference in the Book of Revelation to four living creatures ‘full of eyes in front and behind’ before the throne is inspired by images of the tail of the peacock (see Revelation 4: 6). Other writers also say, ironically, that the peacock is a symbol of humility, since he has great beauty, yet hides it all behind himself.

The peacock has been a symbol of immortality from as early as the third century on the walls of the catacombs of Rome. Later, peacocks appear in mediaeval paintings and manuscripts and in decorative motifs on churches and buildings, and even among the animals in the stable at Christ’s nativity.

One of the best known examples is found in the Adoration of the Magi, a tondo or circular painting dating from 1440-1460 and ascribed to both Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi. It was recorded in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence in 1492, and is now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. In this work, a large peacock perches on the top of the stable, looking over his shoulder.

The peacock may have been given a prominent place in this work because Giovanni di Cosimo de Medici (1421-1463) had adopted a peacock as his heraldic symbol, along with the French motto Regarde-Moi (‘Watch me’). This may help to explain how the peacock was popularised as a symbol in late mediaeval heraldry, as seen in the coats-of arms of the Comberford and Comerford families, as well as the Arbuthnot family and the family of the Dukes of Rutland.

As we sat sipping the Domaine de Rombeau, enjoying that snatch of heaven on Friday afternoon, I realised that the Easter season was coming to an end, and that Ordinary Time would begin in the Church Calendar today [21 May 2018], the day after Pentecost. But I found myself thinking of how the English poet William Blake (1757-1827) had written in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793): ‘The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.’

The ‘Adoration of the Magi’ (ca 1440/1460) by Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi

The Forteresse de Salses:
a French chateau saved
after losing its military role

The Forteresse de Salses crouches like a wild beast beneath the Corbières Mountains (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

The Cathars left many castles throughout Rousillon and Laguedoc, the hills are dotted with Cathar castles, built on rocky outcrops in the 12th century and places of refuge in the 13th century for a persecuted sect that was finally wiped out in the Albigensian Crusades launched by Pope Innocent III.

I saw many of these strongholds in the hills and mountains around Perpignan. However, instead of visiting the Cathar castles on my last day in the south of France, my friend Cathy took three of us to visit the Fort de Salses, also known as the Forteresse de Salses, an impressive and massive Catalan fortress 25 minutes from where she lives in Sainte Marie la Mer and 20 minutes from Perpignan, off the road to Narbonne.

The Fort de Salses does not stand out in the same way as the hilltop Cathar castles. Instead, this fortress is almost in a hole instead of being on a hill.

When we arrived, the only tour was in French, with some snatches of English. But even with my paucity of French, I could understand much of what the guide was saying and her introduction to the history of this place.

This architecturally magnificent building is not a typical French chateau. It was built by the Spanish strictly for military purposes, there are no elegant rooms or beautiful works of art. The chapel is virtually bare, and there are no galleries, furniture or tapestries on display.

Instead, what we saw is a testament to the ingenuity of the people who built it. Everything is carefully thought-out and designed from the ventilation to the water supply, plumbing and ventilation.

The Fort de Salses was built at the end of the 15th century to guard what was then the frontier between Spain and France. Its layout and architecture were innovative at the time and today they are a rare example of the transition between mediaeval castles and the fortresses of a later period.

The costly building project consumed one-fifth of the Spanish crown’s annual budget (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The fortress was built between 1497 and 1504 by the Catholic monarchs of Spain, Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, with the purpose of defending the border with France, especially after the last French incursion had destroyed a nearby village.

Ferdinand and Isabella commissioned Francisco Rodriguez de Madrid, captain-general of the King’s Artillery, and the great Spanish architect and engineer, Francisco Ramiro Lopez, to design the fortress near the Castle of Leucate, built by the French almost a century earlier.

The fortress stood at a strategic defensive position between Catalonia and France, and on a site with a source of spring water, which was important in the event of a siege. But the building project was costly, and consumed one-fifth of the Spanish crown’s annual budget.

Ramiro designed an innovative fortress that looks like a hybrid between a castle and a fortress, linking mediaeval military architecture and the modern style of fortification. They were inspired by the traditions of military building in Spain, Italy and Burgundy.

This new design of fortress was capable of resisting modern artillery, and could house a garrison of 1,500. It was designed on a massive scale – 110 by 84 metres – to deter potential attackers.

The ditch is 12 to 15 metres deep (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The fortress came under siege throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, with the first siege in 1503, a year before the building work was completed. A peace agreement between Charles V and Francis I in 1544 gave the fortress some good decades of relief and peace.

The Thirty Years’ War brought a change of ownership. During the last siege in 1639, the French captured the fortress after 40 days of resistance by the Spanish. The Spanish recaptured the castle in 1640, but it was finally claimed for the French crown, along with neighbouring Perpignan in 1642 and has remained a French possession ever since.

Within less than 20 years, the two kingdoms signed a new peace agreement, and with the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659. Under the treaty, Rousillon became French and the Spanish border was pushed south to the Pyrenees. The castle was left in the middle of French territory, but without any military function or strategic role.

The chapel was dedicated to Saint Sebastian, and although it is bare today apart from the former altar and pulpit, the altar bears the emblem of the Louis XIV as the ‘Sun King.’

The bailey or central courtyard is laid out around the well (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on image for full-screen view)

The guided tour brought us through the parade ground, along the parapets and the towers, and into the governor’s chamber, the dining room, the inner courtyard, the stores and the stables.

After the end of the war, the local governments asked the French king for permission to demolish fortresses that were useless and costly to maintain. The French-built Castle of Leucate was demolished in 1664, but the higher cost of demolishing the Spanish-built Salses saved the structure from destruction and oblivion.

Louis XIV turned the castle into a prison in 1682-1683. His military engineer, Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707), had refortified the Palace of the Kings of Majorca in Perpginan. At first, Vauban proposed demolishing the fortress, but this proved to be too costly a project, and he began partially restoring it between 1691 and 1700.

After serving as a gunpowder magazine, a prison, and and infantry garrison in its post-war life, the Château de Salses was listed as a French historical monument in 1886 and decommissioned as a fort three years later, saving the fortress from destruction.

The Forteresse de Salses was handed over to the Department of Fine Arts in 1930, and then to the Ministry of Culture’s Heritage Department.

During the Spanish Civil War, the fort was used as a refuge. Since 2000, a number of well-known artists have created works for the fortress. Today, the Château de Salses house the Museum of History of Salses, and is visited by about 100,000 people each year.

The arcades around the bailey seen from the Chapel of Saint Sebastian (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)