On the Camino de Compostela, in an area that saw alternating exploits of Cathars and Templars, dotted with monasteries, collegiate churches, cathedrals, in 1062 two German monks returning from a pilgrimage to Rome decided to devote the rest of their lives to prayer and founded the hermitage de la Romieu. We are in Gascony, in the Midi-Pyrénées region, the ancient land of legends and cadets, a few miles from the castle of Castelmore where several years after would have born D’Artagnan. In Gascon roumieu indicates just “the pilgrim of Rome”.
As a small hermitage, La Romieu over three centuries grows and becomes important so that, between 1312 and 1318, Cardinal Arnaud d’Aux, former bishop of Poitiers, makes build a church dedicated to St. Peter, a cloister and the palace of the Cardinal. Despite its medieval beauty, more captivates the curious traveler, other characters of which La Romieu is very proud, less historical and more fairy-tale. A cat woman and her stone cats. Everywhere you look, one comes out of a window, another dozes on a windowsill and another walks, one scratches his ear and another is ready to jump into a pigeon loft and another and another … until the gaze in wonder, lays on a figure with the face and torso of a woman and … cat ears! It is Angéline, the protagonist of the legend that the sculptor Maurice Serreau discovered by the story of a grandmother to her grandchild.
Legend has it that, back in 1338, was born a girl named Angéline. Soon orphaned, she was adopted by neighbors. Since her birth, Angéline’s best friends were cats, so much that the little girl had always two or three around while walking the streets of the village or the country roads. The story has it that in 1342 La Romieu was hit by a severe famine that were added to harsh winters and rainy springs that made the fields uncultivable. The provisions of the monastery were not enough, people began to die, and soon – in desperation – it was thought that to cope with hunger the only solution was to eat the many cats that lived in La Romieu.
Angéline’s family, knowing her great love for them, allowed her to keep hidden in a barn a male and a female cat. The months passed but poverty and famine did not. Angéline continued to keep her cats in the barn, which from two had become twenty. Meanwhile, the village remained without cats. Soon the village was besieged by rats, which ate the already poor crop and deaths from starvation resumed. Angéline then decided to confess to all of having saved the cats and then she gave one to each family. Mice soon disappeared. Angéline and the cats had saved the village.
It is said that cats then, grateful, made a gift to the girl, their protector: the more she grew and more time she spent with her cats and the more she looked like them, becoming over the years more and more like the creatures she loved. Her ears stretched up to become cat ears and her eyes took on a look more similar to feline expressions than a human look.
Thus is born the magic of cats in La Romieu: at the beginning of the nineties Serreau, in love with the beautiful Angéline and her story, decided to sculpt those cats who saved the country and that the legend handed down and that can be seen today throughout their beauty.