Birds and architectural revelations

TWITCHERS search out rare birds, keeping a list of every one seen.

Obsessional behaviour, however, isn’t confined to birdwatchers — people keep lists of everything from locomotives to asteroids.

I don’t bother with lists but admit to having a mild form of the condition. Wildlife is the main obsession but I also “collect” iconic buildings.

The Cathedral of Notre Dame at Rodez, a country town of 24,000 in France’s Aveyron region, is the latest. This fortress-like structure of red sandstone, with arrow slits in its bare lower walls and massive buttresses, was an advance bastion from which to defend the medieval city. The crowning glory is a magnificent stand-alone belltower, decorated with turrets, pinnacles and statues. At 87m, it’s higher than the spire of St John’s Cathedral in Limerick, the tallest in Ireland. You need binoculars, an essential tool of the bird and cathedral watcher, to take in its intricate details.

But Rodez Cathedral has another attraction that only binoculars can disclose. Little swallow-like birds perch high in its nooks and crannies, flying in and out of the arcades. These are crag martins, southern European cliff-dwellers which have taken to nesting on buildings. We regard swallows as great migrants but the little brown martins, which look a bit overweight, buck the trend. They have a laid-back attitude to life; no crossing of the Sahara for them. Some traverse the Mediterranean to spend winter in North Africa but many French ones just move to Spain. I’m told that up to 3,000 of them roost in Gibraltar where they make spectacular morning and evening flights. Unless global warming really takes off, it’s unlikely we’ll see crag martins in Ireland anytime soon.

Rodez is on the borders of the Causses, arid limestone tablelands fractured by colossal river gorges, fissures, underground rivers and swallow-holes. This, the least populated region of France, is a naturalist’s paradise.

About 40km west of the town lies Conques, a village stunningly located on the slopes of the Ouche gorge. It has a beautiful 12th-century church, the Abbatiale Ste-Foy. St Faith was a 13-year-old Christian girl martyred in the year 303 at Agen. A devious monk stole her relics, spiriting them away to his native Conques. The saint must have approved of his Soprano-style ethics, because she performed twice as many miracles following the theft. Pilgrims called them the “japes and jests of St Faith”.

The tympanum above the church door is a revelation in every sense. Christ presides over a Last Judgment with 124 figures, most of them souls being despatched to heaven or hell. Angels open coffins, decadent monks are captured in a net, Slander has his tongue torn out by a devil while the rest of the damned are pushed into the gaping jaws of a monster hell. This horrific depiction of the religious nightmare has all the impact of Michelangelo’s famous fresco, created four centuries later.

Art and nature merge in Conque’s celebration of devils: reptiles, bats reptiles wolves and bears served as models. The smaller of these creatures can still be seen in the Causse du Quercy, west of Conques. The celebrity animal, nowadays, is the ocellated lizard, at 60cm the largest in Europe. It’s a secretive creature that’s hard to observe but the exotic Provencal organgetip butterfly, at the northern limit of its range here, is not so shy. The area also has orphean warblers, ortolans buntings and stone-curlews, but the outstanding feature of this national park is manmade; nature and art come together in the animal paintings of a cave discovered by two teenage boys in 1922, Pech Merle.

The anonymous sculptors and stained-glass artists of the great cathedrals never expected anyone to see their beautiful creations, so high up were they in buildings. These great craftsmen worked ad maiorem Dei gloriam, without prospect of fame or worldly reward. Nor could many have seen the paintings of bison and mammoths, created 17,000 to 20,000 years ago. The world’s first great artists worked underground on cave walls lit artificially. Why they did so is a mystery but Western art and wildlife watching spring from a common source in France and Spain, just below the ice of the last glaciation.

* Ryanair fly Dublin-Rodez.

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