Louis the Pious singled out the Abbey in the 9th century: he gave it a major role by providing the greatest protection from a Carolingian King. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Benedictine Abbey used its influence. In the 10th and 11th centuries, it became the cemetery for the counts of Carcassonne. One of the greatest artists of the 12th century created one of his masterpieces: a reliquary marble alter, (one of his masterpieces), in honour of Saint Saturnin, the Abbey's patron saint. The Abbey endured the Albigensian Crusade and the consequences of an attack by the Black Prince during the Hundred Years' War. The Abbey survived, reinforcing its defences and adding innovative embellishments from the Gothic period. The Abbey's living quarters are decorated with painted ceilings, which are outstanding examples of the problems at the end of the 15th century, which will soon see the Wars of Religion destroy the kingdom of France and the village of Saint-Hilaire...
The Master of Cabestany
The reliquary-alter of Saint Saturnin is one of the masterpieces of the Master of Cabestany. The dynamism of his art is very spectacular here, with a bull that springs with all its might out of the "frame". It is unusual to be able to enjoy a Roman masterpiece at eye-level. Why Saint Saturnin at Saint-Hilaire? Who are they? What story does this work tell? These are some of the many questions that make this visit even more exciting.
The Gothic cloister
The Gothic art in Saint-Hilaire is extremely elegant. The twin columns of the cloister, built in around 1340, are linked by capitals carved from a single block of stone, decorated with monsters or greenery. Colours subtly dance on the new refectory pulpit. During their reconstruction project, the abbots mobilised all the resources of the Abbey, which remained powerful despite the Crusade.
The painted ceilings
The painted ceilings of the Abbey's living quarters recall both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. You can see both Joan of Arc, and fantastic beasts. This is the medieval iconography of courtly scenes, which was a new trend in the depiction of daily life during the 15th - 16th centuries. The individual becomes self-aware, portraits develop, and the desire for comfort emerges.
In the Middle Ages, enormous grain silos were dug in the ground. A gallery was then dug to create a cellar, and destroyed the base of the silos. However, the upper parts remained. Look up when you visit the cellar, and you will see funny "alcoves": you are under the openings of the old silos!
Things to explore
As you walk
In the 'Fort' district next to the abbey, a few fortifications remain, as a reminder of the defensive role of the abbey during the One Hundred Year War. However, nowadays Saint Hilaire is a charming, peaceful village, with a small river, the Lauquet, running under a bridge, and vegetable gardens surrounded by enormous plane trees.
There are hiking trails through the Forest of Crausse, through the young oak trees and white or pink heather - a habitat for wild boar. Wander freely along the wine paths of La Blanquette and Limoux. As you leave, make a little detour (6km) to Saint Polycarpe, another 8th-century abbey tucked away on the other side of the mountain ridge, from which you can see the Pyrenees.
This joyful town is known for its Blanquette wine and Carnaval. It's also an inquisitive town, with various museums. The Petiet Museum, certified as a 'Museum of France', has a collection of paintings from the end of the 19th century. Amongst others, you can see 'Les Blanchisseuses' - the most famous work of Marie Petiet. Limoux is also a musical town: its Piano Museum has a collection that is unique in Europe, a Brass Festival and the 'Bulles Sonores' are held here, and every summer, it hosts the Radio France Festival. Finally, Limoux is a theatrical town: the Nava Theatre Festival takes place here every summer, in the cloister of Saint Hilaire.
A mud brick house
The village of Saint Hilaire still has well-hidden, precious marks of its Medieval past. These are the walls made of mud bricks - a technique that dates back to at least the 13th century. This is how they are made: Firstly, an initial layer is constructed from damp blocks, around 20cm thick, potentially mixed with stones. A layer of plant material (usually heather) is added on top - almost completely rot-resistant, it undoubtedly served to reinforce the wall and dry it out during construction. The house was then built by alternating layers of mud bricks and heather. It seems that this technique was used to build numerous houses in Saint Hilaire and the surrounding area, before stone became a popular building material.
Who created the Blanquette de Limoux wine? 'The monks of Saint Hilaire', local people will declare. And who created the legend of the monks? 'We did', whisper the La Blanquette wine producers. You can hear the story of this legend, as well as the true story of the development of this area, at the abbey.