STEVE AND CAROLE IN VENCE

Agel –
A Quiet Patch of Paradise in the Minervois

August 19, 2021

Nestled among groves of olive trees, grape vineyards and pine forests in the foothills of the Black Mountains less than an hour away from the Mediterranean Sea, the charming little village of Agel sits quietly at a small bend of the Cesse River. The name comes from the Latin “agellus,” meaning a small field or farm. With its medieval castle, Renaissance church, winding narrow streets and stone houses, Agel is one of the best preserved villages in the area. Located in the department of Hérault (just a few kilometers from the border of the neighboring department Aude), Agel lies in what is known today as the Minervois area. A short drive from larger cities such as Bézier, Narbonne and Carcassonne, Agel will make you feel as if you are traveling back in time to another era. It stands today much as it did hundreds of years ago with very few concessions made to the modern world.

Agel is a perfect place to spend a morning or afternoon exploring if you are just passing through the area. If you are looking for a tiny, peaceful village to spend a few days, a few weeks or maybe even longer, Agel might be just what you are looking for. If you want to get away from the hectic pace of the towns and cities, to walk quiet streets at any time of the day or night, to retreat from the maddening noise of civilization, Agel is waiting patiently for you to arrive. But be warned. An extended visit may not be for everyone. There is absolutely no commerce to speak of in the village. No restaurants. No shops. No grocery stores. No cafés. No bars. Nothing. The good news is that this also means there are very few tourists. If you’re just looking to relax and spend some time in the southwest of France lounging and exploring at your own pace this is certainly one spot to consider. The entire region is practically bursting with history, heritage and culture and there is something close by for almost everyone to do and see.

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A Little History

Like many other small villages in the region, Agel can trace its beginnings back to the Neolithic era some 12,000 years ago. Tools, tombs, megaliths and other items discovered along the Cesse River valley attest to this early occupation. Undoubtedly there were inhabitants there even before that time but all traces of those early settlers has now been lost to the ravages of time. There is quite a bit of evidence that Gallo-Roman villas and other structures existed just south of the current church and in the surrounding areas. In 782 an “agellus” villa was reportedly given by the great king Charlemagne to the Archbishop of Narbonne. In 1142 the possession of the “alleu d’Agel” (land which was fully owned as opposed to a fiefdom) was confirmed by Pope Innocent II to the Abbot of Saint-Pons.

The current village grew up around an old fort (located on what is now Place du Cers) of which almost nothing remains but one entrance gate. The current castle was constructed sometime in the 12th century, but today very little is known about its origins and early history. In the 13th century however the castle was to play a major part in the Albigensian Crusades. Catharism, a Christian dualist movement that challenged the teachings of the Catholic Church, flourished in south-western France during these years, particularly throughout Languedoc. Condemned by local church councils and declared heretics, the Cathars (also known as Albigensians because so many lived in and around Albi) constructed a series of forts and castles throughout the region to protect themselves from the Catholic Church. In 1208 Pierre de Castelnau, an emissary from Pope Innocent III, was murdered while trying to diplomatically put an end to Catharism. Pope Innocent III blamed Raymond VI (Count of Toulouse) and he declared a crusade against the Cathars which would last for almost twenty years. Land was offered to any French nobleman willing to take up arms against the Cathars and join the crusade.

On July 22, 1209 nearby Béziers was attacked and ransacked by Simon de Montfort (a prominent French nobleman and the leader of the Crusader army). Most of the population of Béziers, including the women and children, were massacred. Narbonne was spared, but several weeks later, on August 15th, a similar fate fell upon Carcassonne. The vassals of Raymond VI who were able to escape these attacks fled to their castles in the nearby countryside. The refused to submit to Simon de Montfort and a long “castle war” ensued. Guiraud de Pépieux, then lord of both Aigues-Vives and Agel was able to capture the castle at Puisserguier. He subsequently fled to Minerve and in retaliation Montfort burned his castle at Agel. It was in Minerve on June 24, 1210 that Simon de Montfort began a siege which lasted until July 22. The 180 Cathars who remained in the fortress are said to have thrown themselves into a large fire when defeat became imminent. For almost six years the Crusaders dominated the area winning battle after battle. The tide turned a bit in 1216 but it wasn’t until 1229, when the Treaty of Paris was signed, that these bloody wars finally came to an end. The treaty linked Languedoc to France and in the ensuing peace descendants of the Pépieux family began to restore the castle. In 1300 Guillaume de Pépieux is noted as the Lord of Aigues-Vives and Agel.

Agel was once again besieged and taken four times by the Huguenots between 1580 and 1591 during the Wars of Religion. This prolonged period of war and unrest between the Huguenots and the Catholics is estimated to have killed over three million people. It was not only violence that contributed to these deaths but also the famine and disease that came with war. Though the wars officially ended in 1598 unrest between Catholics and Protestants continued in the area well into the 1700s.

Over the centuries Agel has seen many changes. The various religious wars, crusades, famines and plagues all left their mark on the small village. In earlier years the inhabitants grew olives and cereal crops and tended to herds of sheep. The introduction of vineyards and the great expansion in wine production, as well as the modernization of industry, had a significant impact on the region. Today the wine industry is by far the biggest trade in the area though tourism now also plays a large part in the economy. In 2016 France combined the regions of Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées to create the new Occitanie region of which Agel and the Hérault department are a part of.

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A Walk Through The Village

A great place to begin a walk around Agel is at the church, l’Église d’Agel, which sits on the main road through town, (the D20), behind a row of large plane trees. Throughout the village there are several plaques with information and old photographs of the important sites, so keep your eyes out for those. The information they contain is written in French but if you don’t speak the language you can always take a photograph and translate them later.

l’Église d’Agel

As you come into the village of Agel from either direction along the D20 you will see the church, with its large, high rectangular bell tower. Dedicated to Saint Pierre and Saint Paul this current church most likely dates from the 16th and 17th centuries and it is built on the same spot where two older churches once existed. A Romanesque church was destroyed in 1363 during the Grandes Compagnies (a period rife with roaming mercenary armies) and a subsequent Gothic church was demolished in 1550 by the Huguenots. We know that the choir (with its five-sided ribs) dates from the 16th century because of the date carved on the keystone. The three chapels were most likely constructed around the same time. The nave, with four non-vaulted bays, was rebuilt in the 17th century, probably after suffering damage during the Wars of Religion. Because the church was located outside of the ramparts it was particularly vulnerable when the village was under attack.

The vaults of the choir are decorated with neo-Renaissance paintings representing large scrolled palms, branches with foliage, an ostensoir (a Catholic vessel) and an angel. The decor most likely dates back to the early 1800s and is identical to that found in another nearby church, l’Église Paroissiale Saint-Chinian. In addition to the date noted above, the choir keystone also features a monogram with the letters P, I and M, most likely referring to Peter, Paul, Jesus and Mary.

One of the chapels inside the church contains the burial place of the seigneurial family of Agel, the Beauxhostes. Known as the “chapel of the castle,” it contains a tombstone for the family, decorated with sculpted designs.

Behind the church is the town’s World War I memorial, something you will find in every French city, town and village. It’s located in a small garden with sculpted shrubbery and features several interesting statues alongside the names of those lost in the war.

The Fountain

Across the street from the church is an old fountain that is fed from a spring on the hillside next to the Cesse River. The water flows all year long and remains nice and cold. A long trough runs next to it, once used for the watering of horses and other animals. In the past the fountain provided a convenient meeting point for villagers who would fill up bottles and jugs while cooling fruits and vegetables in the water.

The Château d’Agel

Just next to the fountain and trough is the current entrance to the castle, Château d’Agel. (An earlier entrance can be found just a short ways down the road). It’s hard to see much of the castle from the road and it remains closed to visitors (see information below about renting a room or the entire castle). When I was there I got lucky and one of the entrances was open and I could see into the main courtyard where I took a few photos. If you walk up rue de la Fontaine (just next to the fountain) and then rue du Château, rue du Fort Vieux, rue Principale and finally rue des Remparts you will get a pretty good look at much of the rampart walls and several of the existing towers.

Little is known about the origins of this castle though certainly it was quite important during the time of the Albigensian Crusades when the vassal lords of the Count of Toulouse were fighting to remain in power. It was described then as “one of the last bastions of the lower country.” Successive layers of ramparts and the remains of an old drawbridge testify to the fact that security was of the utmost importance in the construction of this building. It occupied an important strategic position along the Cesse valley between Carcassonne and Minerve. Over the years and centuries the castle has undergone many changes and transformations due to wars, fires and general remodeling and restoration.

The castle consists of four towers, a main building and a dovecote. It features a wide variety of windows that reflect the changing styles and needs over the centuries. Small windows from the 12th century when defenses were paramount share the walls with elegant Renaissance windows from later years.

Even though some records and archives have survived the years in the castle’s library a lot is still unknown about the succession of the owners. We know that in 1100 the castle belonged to Bernarde, the lord of Agel, Minerve and Cazelles. Later Guiraud de Pépieux, lord of both Aigues-Vives and Agel, fought valiantly against Simon de Montfort during the Albigensian Crusades. The castle was burned during this time but Pépieux was able to restore it once the fighting finally ended. In 1300 Guillaume de Pépieux is listed as the Lord of Aigues-Vives and Agel. For the next two hundred and fifty years the castle changed hands many times, passing from one family to another. In 1543 Peter and Simon de Beauxhostes bought the fief of Agel and the castle along with it. The coat of arms for the Beauxhostes family features a crown above two intertwined hands. These hands have since appeared in the coat of arms for the castle and are engraved on the mantle of one of the large fireplaces in the dining room.

In 1764 the castle was sold to Jean d’Augier, Viguier de Narbonne and became the property of the Ecal family by inheritance in 1880. In the early 20th century the castle fell into disrepair and slowly began to decay and crumble. The north wing in particular was deteriorating at a rapid rate. A preservation effort, requiring a substantial amount of time, work and money, was undertaken in the 1960s by the Ecal family to restore the castle to something of its former glory and end the gradual destruction. Today Martine Ecal-Besse and her husband Jean-Marie have opened their family home as a bed and breakfast and event center. It’s possible to rent deluxe rooms and suites, organize seminars and conferences or book parties, weddings, concerts and more.

After seeing what you can of the castle make your way over to Place du Cers to see where an even older fort/castle once stood.

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Place du Cers

The word “cers” most likely originated in either the Greek or Latin languages. English words for clouds such as “cirrus,” “cirrostratus” and cumulus” most likely all come from this same root. It is the oldest name for wind in the French language and it characterizes the north-westerly wind that blows on the Languedoc near the coasts. Originating in the nearby plains this wind passes between the Massif Central and the Pyrenees towards Narbonne. Cold in the winter, and quite violent from time to time, it was well known to the Romans. What is now today a small parking lot was once home to a primitive Roman “castrum,” a small building used as a fortified military base.

In the 12th century a small fort was built here and the village grew around it. Known as Fort Vieux it featured three “portes” (doors or gates) which allowed access to the fortified complex. The main door to the village itself led to what is now rue de la Fontaine and was topped with a tower. If you look carefully you can see the remains on the right side of the street, just past the current school house. Of the three gates to the fort itself, only one remains intact today, located at the Place de la Vieille Porte, just a few steps from Place du Cers. Another gate, known as the “door of the bishopric” (so named because it was connected to a house belonging to the bishop of Saint-Pons), was located on what is now the small impasse de la Forge. Unfortunately, it was torn down in the middle of the 20th century when some homes were being remodeled. Another door, which is also completely gone at this point, was located at the entrance to Place du Cers on rue Principale.

The old fort was eventually torn down and at one time a blacksmith shop was located in one corner of the square and a large fig tree occupied the center. As motorized vehicles gradually replaced horses for both transportation and work the blacksmith became less needed and eventually closed down.

From Place du Cers head up rue Principale. You’ll pass an old building with the inscription “Agel. 1932.” on the right. If you want you can take this small road all the way to the neighboring hamlet of Cazelles. It’s a beautiful walk through open land and vineyards and the trip there and back is only about 6 kilometers. You’ll find two benches along the way where you can sit and admire the view out over the valley.

The Old Mill

Near the top of the village, on a side street from rue Principale, one can still see the remains of an old windmill where various grains were ground into flour. Before the introduction of vineyards cereal crops provided the main livelihood for most of the area. When wine production became more prominent there was less need for the mill and it was eventually closed around the turn of the 20th century. Today it is known as “Ahmet’s Mill” because in the 1960s, abandoned and unused, a local wine worker named Ahmet made it his home. Due to the frequent winds found in the region you can find several other windmills, some of which have been restored, scattered throughout the hills. Félines-Minervois and Saint-Chinian are both home to windmills worth visiting.

The Old Road to Bize

If you’d like to get a really great look at the village, the church and the castle cross over the Cesse River behind the church on the small bridge which is part of rue de la Cesse. Turn left immediately on Chemin de Bize and continue for a few hundred meters as the small road rises along the hillside. It shouldn’t take you more than five or ten minutes until you’ve reached a small clearing with a bench set out to relax on. From this vantage point you’ll be able to see the entire village.

There are two old chapels near Agel, both in ruins. The Chapel of Saint Symphorian is located about 1km from Agel on the bank of the Cesse. The Chapel of Saint Hippolyta is enclosed in houses 3km north of Agel.

Cazelles and Paguignan

If you’d like to see two neighboring “hamlets” (very small villages) you can take a short hike from Agel to nearby Cazelles and Paguignan. There’s no chance of getting lost, you’ll be on small paved (though mostly deserted) roads the entire time. It’s a nice loop of about 10km. Along the way you’ll pass through fields, vineyards and forests. There isn’t a lot to see in either village but it’s still worth the effort. There’s an old, abandoned church in Paguignan that is quite interesting.

More to See and Do Around Agel

Minerve

On of the official “Most Beautiful Villages of France,” Minerve is just a short drive from Agel (less than 20 minutes). Built where the Brian and Cesse rivers meet and create some beautiful gorges the village features the remains of an old castle, of which only one octagonal tower now remains. You’ll find two museums in the village, the Archeology and Paleonthology Musueum and the Musée Hurepel which tells the story of the Cathars and the Crusades.

Carcassonne

Carcassonne is one of the most popular villages in the southwest of France. Located in the plain of the Aude between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea it has long held a quite significant strategic role in the area. The Cité de Carcassonne, a medieval fortress dating back to the Gallo-Roman period was restored in 1853 and is now one of the World Heritage Sites listed with UNESCO. It is said that after a visit here in the 1950s Walt Disney used the unique architecture of the village as the inspiration for his castle of Sleeping Beauty. It’s about an hour drive from Agel but well worth the trip. Be warned however, during the summer months it can be very crowded. A better time to visit is in the spring or fall.

Lagrasse

Another one of the official “Most Beautiful Villages of France,” Lagrasse lies in the Corbière mountains and is home to the Benedictine Abbey. Founded in 800 on the left bank of the Orbieu River it is considered to be one of the oldest and richest Abbeys in all of France. Just under an hour drive from Agel the village will delight you with wonderful bridges, charming lanes and scenic terraces. There is a bustling market hall full of all types of craftspeople and artisans.

Canal du Midi

Originally named the Canal royal en Languedoc, the Canal du Midi is considered one of the greatest construction works of the 17th century. 240km long it connects the Garonne River to the Étang de Thau (a series of lagoons near the Mediterranean Sea). Along with the Canal de Garonne (which runs for 193km) the Canal du Midi forms the Canal des Deux Mers (Canal of two oceans) which joins the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. It is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Today you can take cruises along the canal and even rent your own boat to navigate the waterway.

Access

There’s really only one road passing through Agel, the D20. The village lies about 45 minutes from Béziers to the east, 35 minutes from Narbonne to the south and two hours from Toulouse to the west.

The best place to park is behind the church. There is a large, free parking lot here (next to the river) from which it is easy to access the village.

There is no Office de Toursime in Agel but if the town hall is open you can ask for information there.

Juste les Faits:
What: The village of Agel
Where: Agel (Hérault) (Google Maps)
When: All year
Phone: Mairie – 04 68 91 21 37
Website: agel34.fr
The Château: hateaudagel.fr/en/

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