Dunes

(published 2017)

Dunes is a 13th century bastide found in the hills of the valley of the Garonne, close to the Gers and what is Brulhois wine country.  Archaeological discoveries have found evidence of human occupation as far back as the 5th century during, what would then have been then, the Wisigothe period.

The beauty of the architecture of this small place is under-sold, it had a striking array of half-timbered and stone arcaded properties.  The design of the bastide layout is fairly typical with streets radiating out from a central square. 

The ruin of a tower built by the Knights of the Templar is approximately 5 km from the village and is easily found with the help of regular signs. It has been made into a pretty play/picnic area. Renovation work to the tower was carried out in 1998-9 and this revealed the site of a small castle and coins discovered show a range of dates from the 12th to the middle of the 14th century.   There is a well which, according to legend, the Knights Templars jumped into (or were pushed – depending on the legend teller). This well has a diameter of 2.5m and is 10m deep.

Lying half-way between Toulouse and Bordeaux the area surrounding Dunes is known as the Pays du Vin Noir (Land of Black Wine).  In common with most of the South West of France its vines were destroyed in the mid-19th century by phylloxera.  Wines from Côtes du Brulhois were originally used to strengthen Bordeaux wines.

There are about 690 acres of vineyards, and these are divided into about 6 private vineyards, but the vast majority of wine is produced by the Vignerons du Brulhois cooperative.  Here they produce more than 10,000 hectoliters of wine each year, representing a quarter of what was produced in the pre-phylloxera days.

It’s a quiet village, worthy of a visit and certainly worthy of consideration of all that had passed before.  A few simple notices are located around the square as a gentle reminder of a long and very interesting past.

For anyone interested in Occitan Folk ‘dance/music’ then the  ‘Journées Occitanes’ will take place in the village on Nov 10,11 and 12th – you can contact the Tourist Office via  www.tourisme-tarnetgaronne.fr

Dunes -The tragedy of June 23rd 1944

The extreme bravery of the French Resistance (Maquis) in this region is often over-looked.  Many of the woods and forests that we now pass on ‘tourist-trails’ were the work-places and grave-yards of these bravest of men and women.

On the 23rd of June 1944 a unit of approximately 200 German SS were searching in nearby Valence  d’Agen for members of the Resistance (13ème Compagnie, cantons de Valence d’Agen et Auvillar referred to also in text as 13e Cie).  Two local women denounced the villagers of Dunes as harbouring the Maquis.   The Germans entered the village, having caused death and destruction (and their own drunkenness on the way) and rounded up the villagers.  11 men were hanged from the post-office balcony, 2 shot and one killed with a sabre.  These executioners then, amidst their carnage, continued to drink, sing songs and loot the village and its people.  The arrival of a motorcycle messenger with orders requiring the SS back in Valence saved the lives of the people of the village of Sistels where the German Unit were heading next. They did manage, however, to take with them, from the village, all that they had plundered with the use of a truck stolen from M. Roubelet whom they had just hung.

Carmen Sopetti of Dunes and Marie Bodoira of Malause, the two women who had denounced the villager were arrested on the 20th of August that year.  They were tried by a ‘Conseil de Guerre’ held at Château de Piquecos, near Montauban.  Both women were condemned to death and the 13e Cie asked to carry out the sentence.  The women were transported back along the route taken by the SS arriving in Dunes and then hanged (not from the balcony as is sometimes reported) but from a plane-tree in the Place Roubelet in front of a large but dignified crowd. Dune’s main square is called the Place des Martyrs to remember this tragic event.

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Lords of Dunes (Balzac)

Dunes had its own ‘Nobility’ all with rather close and amorous ties to Royalty.  There’s a rather splendid half- timbered house in the square which was the house of the Lords of Dune.  There was Charles de Balzac who was the lover of Queen Margot, wife of Henri IV (see p.22).  In 1589 it’s thought that he was involved in the assassination of Henry III.  There are many different versions of the lives of these people – some slightly more believable than others.  On the whole though they involve plotting, poison, and the pursuit of power.

Charles’ niece (Catherine) Henriette de Balzac d'Entragues became, at an early age, a favourite mistress of Henri IV (as her mother Marie Touchet had been of Charles lX).  It’s not clear whether she induced the King to a proposal or whether her parents negotiated it.  Henri made her the Marquise of Verneuil and promised to marry her if she bore him a son within a year.  She quickly fell pregnant but unfortunately she gave birth to a still-born son (some say as a result of a lightning strike to her bedroom) and so the King married Marie de Medicis instead.

She continued as the King’s mistress and fell pregnant again at the same time as the Queens. The court, apparently, laid bets on who’d be first to bear a son. Both of them did but Marie’s son was born first. Henriette remained the King's favourite mistress and bore two further children. For some time her children were raised alongside the Queen’s.  Then Henriette’s father was found to have plotted to kill the King’s legitimate heir and her trust was lost.  After the discovery of this plot, the relationship between Henriette and the King was very troubled.   Ten years later when the King was assassinated she was a prime suspect.

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Léon Lemartin – extreme aviator and son of Dunes

Théodore Clovis Edmond Lemartin, known as Léon Lemartin was born in 1883 and died in 1911.  He was born and is buried in Dunes.  He was an air-craft engineer as well as being the world’s first test pilot after being hired by Louis Blériot. He led an extra-ordinary life both professionally and privately.  He was a pioneer of passenger carrying flights and tragically was killed in an air accident on the 18th June in front of a one million strong crowd just after take-off at the start of the Paris–London–Paris leg of Le Circuit Européen.  Three weeks before his death he had reportedly broken the speed record, flying at 128.418 km/h.  All this and a death at 27.   Léon Lemartin sounds like such an interesting man, well worth finding out more about.  Maybe we will return to his story in a future edition.