Though normally not much more than one of the many stops of the 1€ Bus on our way to Perpignan, Elne is steeped in some amazing history.
Inhabited since the Neolithic Era, Elne has seen a fair share of history. Hannibal stopped by with his army and 27 elephants on his way to Italy in 218 BCE to negotiate safe passage through the area with the Gaul chiefs.
The city started life with the name of Illiberis, then around the 4th century became Castrum Helenae after Constantine’s mother, Helen. The modern name was derived through many years from Helenae to Elne. It’s a fortified city, and within the walls Constantine’s son, Constans, was assassinated sometime in 350 AD. The walls are still there, though many houses now have gardens and terraces along the perimeter which partially block the view.
The first churches were established around the 6th century and the first bishop of Elne, Dominus, is mentioned in a text from 571 AD. Today we visited the cathedral and cloister. The Romanesque Cathedral of Sainte Eulalie and Sainte Julie was built in the 11th century and the high altar was dedicated in 1069. The adjoining Romanesque cloister was built in stages between the 12th and 14th centuries when it was part of the kingdom of Aragon.
Originally the capital of the area, Elne lost it’s claim to Perpignan after the Roussillion counts won their independence from Spain. Over time, the city has been besieged and conquered many time, but it wasn’t until 1680 that mass destruction began. Acting on orders from King Louis XIV the ramparts were partially destroyed. Thankfully, the little city recovered and rebuilt. The walled city is actually quite tiny and you can walk the perimeter in under 30 minutes, but the homes and tiny streets are the most charming we’ve come across.
We planned today’s trip to coincide with Elne’s market day so that we could visit it as well. Entering from the bus stop to where the market starts, you pass through the Perpignan gate of the walled city. The market in Elne is quite large for such a small space, especially on a day that was raining! Lots of small shops with the standard fruits, vegetables and meat and cheese selections. Also a fair number of clothing vendors. My favorite, of course, was the yarn guy. He had a nice selection of yarns I haven’t seen elsewhere, so I’ll be going back in the future to load up for upcoming projects!
Part of today’s micro-adventure was to visit the 11th century church and 12th century cloister, which has been nominated for World Heritage status. They are definitely worth a look, the arched interior has interesting carved columns and capitals, each are unique and different. The columns and capitals were produced in Roussillon workshops. They are hand-carved and beautiful works of art in the Catalan Romanesque style — that was a new term for us budding art historians Catalan Romanesque! Though it was easy to see at first glance that there was something quite unique about the carvings, unlike any we’ve seen before in the Romanesque style. Seen up close, the designs are breathtaking, and in one case where a Star of David appears in a column, perhaps a bit heretical. The columns and capitals are all carved of the same light grey marble with thin blue veining and are quite lovely.
In the basement of the cloister was a tiny museum of archeology that held artifacts from Neolithic periods to more modern excavations in and around the cathedral. We saw a skeleton (date unknown), Roman vases and pottery, Neolithic bone needles and arrows, and more.
When we had first arrived, the lady at the ticket counter asked if we would also like to visit the painting museum. We didn’t realize there was a paining museum, so we said, “Yes, of course!” So after lunch at a local kebab place [yummy goodness to be had there] we headed to the Musée Terrus.
The permanent collection of the Musée Terrus is the work of one Etienne Terrus. Terrus was a 20th century painter who lived and worked in Elne. In addition to some great oils and watercolors, part of the collection includes postcards he had sent to friends, especially Henri Matisse. It was the Terrus studio which saw the birth of the Fauve movement, which included Terrus, Matisse and Andre Derain.
The current contemporary exhibit was the work of Petrossian, whose work was nearly 3D on the canvas, but which had a unique quality of looking very different through the lens of a camera. I spent all my time in this exhibit checking the difference between what my eye saw on the way and what it saw through the lens. A unique experience that I’ve never had before with another artist. The exhibit was entitled, L’espace en Vibration and will be showing through May 15, 2017. There are some great photos online at the artist’s website: petrossianart.com
Our tickets also included the Swiss Maternity hospital, a small castle built between 1901 and 1902, and the home of Elizabeth Eidenbenz during WWII. Eidenbenz rescued pregnant women from the internment camps between 1939 and 1945 and saved the lives of over 600 infants. Though we didn’t get there today, we plan to go back and visit the fully restored castle, which is listed as a historic building.
Currently the city is expanding, on the north side, to take advantage of the view of the cathedral on the hill. They plan to create a pedestrian boulevard through the city like that of Barcelona’s La Ramblas including a new square to be called Place Jordi. Just one more reason to visit again in the future!