Some things in France are well-kept secrets. Countless times, we have heard about something – a concert, fête or market – after it has taken place. These events are rarely well advertised; the organisers rely on le téléphone arabe (bush telegraph) to pass the message. So it is that we lived here for 12 years before we heard of the Christmas crèche at Loze.
The village of Loze
Loze is a tiny village perched on a rocky promontory above the Bonnette Valley, on the causse north of Caylus. It has changed name over the years. It’s marked as Lauze on the Cassini Map (see my post here). Lauzes are split stones that were formerly used as roofing materials instead of tiles.
With 129 inhabitants (2006 census), it is large enough to be a commune in its own right and has a conseil municipal (town council). Our friend Jacqueline is on the council and it was purely by chance that we heard about the crèche from her.
I decided to go and investigate today, leaving the Statistics Freak at home doing the vacuuming (he has his uses). I parked in the centre of Loze by the church. It’s a pretty village but I didn’t see a soul. Many of the houses were shuttered up – summer residences, presumably. One or two had hopeful ‘à vendre’ signs in the window.
Crèche in an unorthodox place
The Christmas crèche is a long tradition in France and is normally set up in the church. Loze is different. Bypassing the church, I walked down the icy hill towards the River Bonnette. I was glad that I hadn’t tried to negotiate it in the car – packed snow and black ice on a shaded corner almost got the better of me on foot.
There was no sign, nothing to indicate where to go. But after about 200m, I found what I was looking for. The limestone causse is riddled with caves and, at the side of the road, a large one led back into the hillside. This is the site of the crèche. The other difference from traditional crèches is that the figures, or santons, are about two-thirds lifesize. The Loze santons all look a bit miserable, but you would if you were consigned to a cave with moisture dripping from the roof. Also, Joseph looks like a Russian Orthodox priest, which is not how I have always imagined him.
A notice hanging from a stalactite* explained the origin of crèches in 15th-century Italy, but said nothing about why the denizens of Loze had chosen to put theirs in a cave instead of the church. Who knows, maybe the cave was the site of ancient religious rites performed in pre-Christian times? There is at least one example in the district of a Neolithic tomb with a cross stuck on top of it, showing that more modern residents of the region were content to appropriate their forebears’ holy places.
[*How do you tell the difference between a stalactite and a stalagmite? The mites grow up and the tites fall down. One of the few pearls of wisdom I have retained from my school geography lessons.]
While I was in the area I decided to visit a tiny chapel, Notre Dame des Grâces, stuck on its own at the top of a hill, also overlooking the rolling Bonnette Valley. Naturally, it was shut, so I couldn’t see inside. Even here, isolated chapels need to be locked up so they are not pillaged.
The chapel is described in the Guide Michelin as a pilgrimage chapel. However, I had heard that it was built by a local châtelain, following the death of his beloved wife. Whichever is correct, it is a peaceful place surrounded by heathland with one of the best views in the area.
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