Monthly Archives: February 2015

Blois – A Majestic Menagerie

DSCF4123I have vague memories of visiting the Chateau of Blois many years ago and watching the Son-et-Lumiere show, where giant coloured pictures were projected onto the main facades of the chateau. Certainly, the interior courtyard with its ornate external staircases is very memorable. Looking up, there is so much detail to be found, from the crowned porcupine to the grotesque gargoyles and dragon-head drainpipes.

 

 

 

DSCF4179A self-guided tour takes me into the cavernous state room, built in 1214 and used as a courtroom by the Counts of Blois. Inside are interactive screens giving more detail about the history, the architecture, the former inhabitants and the special objects of the chateau. Downstairs in the basement I find a collection of stone statues and architectural embellishments which have been rescued during the many restoration projects of the chateau. I find several symbols of the people who lived here:

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The crowned porcupine – Chosen by Louis I, Duke of Orléans, probably to show the Duke of Burgundy (John the Fearless) that he would seek his revenge, as the porcupine points his quills, like arrows, towards its enemies.

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The salamander – A symbol of fire and cold, this was the choice of François I. It is believed that the salamander can live in fire without being consumed, and can also extinguish fire due to the coldness of its body. The salamander represents “the just, who never lose God’s confidence in the middle of tribulations.” François I adapted this motto for himself: “I live among it and extinguish it”.

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The swan pierced by an arrow – This is the “cygne transpercé”, an emblem used by Louise of Savoy. The symbolism includes references to the colour white, meaning purity. The meaning of the arrow is probably linked to love, like Cupid’s arrows. For Louise, it may refer to the loss of her husband. If this is the case then the white is also the colour of royal mourning.

DSCF4161On the first floor are the apartments of Francois I and Catherine de Medici. As well as the included handout with map and basic information about each room, there are panels with English language descriptions of each piece of furniture, painting, tapestry or ornamental feature. The detailed decoration is amazing: painted wooden ceilings, glistening ceramic floor tiles, wood panelled walls and huge open fireplaces. Apparently, Catherine de Medici hid bottles of poison behind the wood panels in her study.

 

 

DSCF4158On the second floor is Henry III’s bedchamber where the Duke de Guise was murdered. His death in 1588 has been depicted in many paintings and even a short film (1909) which can be seen in the nearby council chamber, I briefly wonder if his spirit haunts the chateau, but I’m quite sure that the cold spots in the room are due to a lack of 21st century heating rather than any ghostly presence.

DSCF4180In the brick stone ‘flamboyant’ style wing, above the main entrance, I find the Museum of Fine Arts. A series of rooms and a long gallery display numerous paintings and tapestries by well know local and other artists such as Rubens. Opposite, the ‘classic’ wing is empty at this time of the year, for the restaurant is closed and there are no temporary exhibitions housed there. However, I do venture inside to see the monumental staircase built by Francois Mansart, decorated with allegorical sculpture.

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Da Vinci in Retirement

Last year I visited the town of Vinci in Tuscany, where the famous artist and inventor was born. Now, I am in Amboise on the river Loire, and it is here where Leonardo Da Vinci spent the last three years of his life in Clos Luc, at the invitation of Francois I.

DSCF4023My visit to Clos Luc does not go well. First, I am left waiting outside in the cold damp air for quite some time while the lady in the ticket office takes a phone call. Then, when I try to enter via the first floor balcony, I discover that the door is still locked and on descending back to the ticket office I am told by the same lady that she doesn’t have the key! When I finally gain entrance, it soon becomes clear that, although decorated with period furniture, tapestries and paintings, none of them seem to be original pieces from the house. Also, several key exhibits are missing or misplaced. One of the key rooms, the Oratory, is closed for repair work, and the construction noise from within is a rather unpleasant distraction.

DSCF4048In the basement there are scale models of Da Vinci’s inventions with screens projecting working images. There are his military creations (tank, cannon and machine gun), engineering constructions (bridges and cranes), and transport (bicycle, motorcar, aircraft and submarine). But most intriguing is the tunnel in one corner, said to lead to the Chateau of Amboise and through which Francois I visited Leonardo.

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DSCF4090Before entering the gardens I think about warming up with a cup of coffee, but the prices are ridiculously expensive so I don’t bother. The gardens themselves are expansive and dotted with some working replicas of Da Vinci’s inventions. In the military area, children can climb inside the tank and work the machine gun until smoke appears. Unfortunately, the water based inventions don’t function due to a lack of water. The ponds and streams are just muddy pools and the gardens are covered with rotting fallen leaves and discarded sweet wrappers. All in all, I’m very disappointed and when I try to tell this to the lady at the ticket office, she doesn’t seem to care.

 

The Women of Chenonceau

DSCF3862The grand chateau of Chenonceau was built in the 16th century by Thomas Bonhier and his wife Katherine Briconnet on the foundations of a former fortified castle and mill. All that remains of the original buildings are the fairy-tale Marques Tower and the well beside it. For the next 500 years a series of rich and influential women improved, expanded and transformed the chateau and its estate into the masterpiece that it is today.

 

 

DSCF3833I’m at the entrance gate before it is even open, but there are already two coach parties ahead of me, one American and the other Japanese. Chenonceau is an extremely popular Loire Chateau, even out of season. So, rather than feel crowded by the groups who have limited time to visit, I decide to explore the gardens a little before I head to the chateau. In a small clearing in the woods, I locate the Italian maze, formed of 200 yew trees. It’s ridiculously easy to navigate to the centre and escape again to the Greek style Caryatides Monument on the far side.

DSCF3854I move on to the large manicured garden of Diane de Poitiers, the first influential lady to reside at Chenonceau. She was the favourite lady of King Henry II. Not only was she responsible for creating the beautiful gardens, she instructed that a bridge be built from the chateau across the river Cher, and then later added two long galleries upon it. Unfortunately, when Henry II died in 1559, his widow Catherine de Medici decided that she wanted Chenonceau for herself and claimed it back from his mistress, offering her Chaumont-sur-Loire instead.

DSCF3880Catherine de Medici was now the mother of the new French King (Henry III) but there is no doubt who really ran the country. From the Green Study, overlooking the river, she schemed and plotted. Some say her actions were responsible for the Civil War of Religion which lasted for 30 years.

 

 

 

DSCF3937When King Henry III was assassinated in 1589, his widow, Louise of Lorraine, went into mourning at Chateau Chenonceau. Her bedroom there is painted black and decorated with objects of mourning, such as white feathers, silver tears, crowns of thorns and grave-diggers’ shovels.

 

DSCF3908All the bedrooms in the chateau are sumptuously decorated with huge Flanders tapestries, period furniture and paintings by famous artists, such as Tintoretto, Van Dyck, Poussin and Rubens. Four poster beds draped in velvet and silk, and large open fireplaces dominate.

 

DSCF3901In contrast, the cold stone kitchens below are clean and functional with gleaming copper pans and cake moulds, a giant cooking range and access to the river where deliveries were made by boat.

 

 

In the 18th century, the chateau was owned by Louise Dupin, who was a representative of the Age of Enlightenment and who invited many writers, poets, scientists and philosophers to her home. Voltaire and Rousseau were among her many guests and it was thanks to her that Chenonceau was saved during the Revolution when so many other chateaux were pillaged and destroyed.

DSCF3956The present state of the chateau and its contents is mainly due to Marguerite Pelouze, who spent a fortune restoring the estate to its former glory in the 19th century. It was later bought by chocolate tycoon Menier who, during WWI, donated the main galleries as a hospital, equipping them at his own expense. His daughter, Simone, was matron and between 1914 and 1918 over 2000 wounded soldiers were treated there.

DSCF3989The chateau also played an important role during WWII as it was situated along the line of demarcation. Many members of the Resistance secretly passed through the galleries to reach the opposite bank of the river Cher. Today, visitors are not allowed to pass through the door which leads to the southern bank of the river, but after visiting Chenonceau, I take a self-guided walk along the river banks and see for myself the other side of the door. It leads into a heavily wooded area which, during WWII, would have meant safety for those brave Resistance fighters who were assisted by the equally brave Simone Menier.

 

Loches – Dark Dungeons and a Murder Mystery

DSCF3713I’d never heard of Loches before, but it’s on my route to the Loire River and has 4 parking areas for motorhomes so I feel extremely welcome. I park up in the new part of town, next to the local police station. The Agnes Sorel parking area is also very well lit and has surveillance cameras, so I feel that Trixie and I will both be very safe here. Following signs for the Medieval Cite, I manage to do a complete circuit outside of the high walls before actually locating the only entrance gate, just a few metres from where I started. It’s easy to see how the citadel was never breached.

DSCF3728Inside, I decide to first visit the Church of St Ours which houses the pure white alabaster tomb of Agnes Sorel, the mistress of the Dauphin Charles VII. Close by is the 14th century Logis Royal where the couple escaped the Royal Court and which was visited by Joan of Arc in 1429. It is hard to imagine it as a luxurious royal palace but this is probably due to the fact that it is stuffed to the gills with stone statues and sculptures which are temporarily exhibited there.

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DSCF3777At the other end of the citadel lies the Donjon where the main keep, built by the Black Falcon in the 11th century, is just a ruined shell. It is still possible to climb to the top via spiral, stone staircases and metal gangways. The views across the town are quite impressive but I’ve no desire to hang around with the crows. The Tour Ronde is more intact and served as a prison right up until 1926. The walls are covered with graffiti, some ancient and very intricate, such as the 13th century soldiers and calvary carved into the second floor chamber, while others are, sadly, more 21st century.

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In the bowels of the Martelet Tower there is more graffiti and tunnels of a tuffeau quarry where tools of the trade are displayed. Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan and patron of Da Vinci was imprisoned here between 1504 and 1508. He was treated relatively well as his chamber had furniture, heating and a toilet. He also spent his time decorating the walls and some of the designs can still be seen, despite fading over the years. I finally emerge from the depths of the dungeons into daylight once more and find myself in the middle of a medieval garden.

On the face of it, Loches has an impressive history but, if you look further than the writing on the walls, it also has a very dark past. The tomb of Agnes Sorel was moved into the Church of St Ours in 2004, from the Royal Logis where it had stood for many years. Recent scientific studies of the body inside have revealed that she was poisoned with mercury, probably murdered. This would explain her sudden death at the young age of 28. Portraits of her which hang in the Royal Logis do not portray her in a good light as in both paintings her left breast is exposed.

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Food, Glorious Food

Regular readers of my blog will know that my passion for travel is fuelled by my other passions. Tasting the local food and exploring cities, villages & countryside on foot. If I’m lucky, the two balance each other out from a health point of view. Unfortunately, many of the French delicacies are far from healthy.

First there was the cassoulet in Carcassonne. The beans may have been full of fibre but the Toulouse sausage, ham hock and confit de canard were not very healthy. In addition, it’s all cooked in goose fat which is sure to clog the arteries.

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Then, in the Dordogne, the typical restaurant menu would list duck, fois gras and small rounds of goat’s cheese from Rocamadour. When I previously passed through the region I visited a foie gras farm where the geese seemed perfectly happy. However, most people are appalled by the gavage (the force feeding of the geese to engorge their livers and produce the rich, creamy pate that top chefs serve in their restaurants). A trial is currently taking place in Western France where a foie gras producer has been accused of cruelty by an animal rights group. There are approximately 8000 fois gras producers in France but consumption is dropping and some places, such as India and California, have banned it altogether.

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Duck comes in many forms: confit de canard – duck leg salted then cooked in its own fat); magret de canard – duck breast; and gizzards (pieces of the neck) which are very tasty in a salad with local apples and walnuts from the many groves which line the Dordogne.

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As well as the truffle markets, which take place in certain regions from December to February, I have also enjoyed many local weekly markets. In Chauvigny, on a damp Saturday morning, the market was buzzing with life. I followed the flow of local customers, winding their way through the stalls of large shiny apples, jars of sweet honey, cured sausages of deer, wild boar and duck, pyramids of goat’s cheese and mushrooms cultivated in troglodyte caves.

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And then there’s the wine, best bought direct from the Domaine where it is grown and produced. Last year I stayed on a lot of vineyards and sampled a variety of red, white and rose wines. I tend to prefer the mono-cepage wine (wine produced from a single grape variety) such as chardonnay, muscat, syrah or merlot. I’m also rather partial to the sweet wines like sauternes or monbazillac. Wine shops are getting quite modern these days with electronic dispensers enabling easier sampling of many different wines.

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Oradour-sur-Glane – Remember

642 people died in one day in the once thriving village of Oradour-sur-Glane. Was this caused by a natural disaster or perhaps an industrial accident? No, this was a premeditated massacre during World War II.

oradourFour days after the Normandy Landings, on the 10th June 1944, 200 German soldiers surrounded the village. They were on their way north to support the troops on the front line and planned to clean up pockets of resistance fighters on their way. But the village they chose contained no known members of the resistance and was mostly made up of old men, women and children.

I’ve come to see for myself the result of this horrific historical act. The ruins of the 1944 village lie to the east of the new concrete creation which replaced it and entrance is gained via a tunnel from a Memorial Centre and Museum, completed in 1999 and carefully concealed beneath the local landscape.

DSCF3447I want to experience the village without being disturbed by the inevitable school groups who are on a history field trip and so I arrive just after it opens at 9am. It’s a chilly morning but the sight of all the burnt out houses is even more chilling. Along the main street, shops and business are marked by plaques but inside I only see piles of wall stones and roof tiles, plus the occasional rusting pot still hanging in a fireplace. There are buckled bedframes, fallen from the upstairs living quarters, tools of the trade, motor vehicles (some half-buried beneath collapsed walls) and sewing machines. Almost every building has a rusty old Singer sewing machine inside and soon they become a symbol for me of the number of families who lost their lives here over 70 years ago.

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DSCF3389Located in the far east of the village is the church. From the outside it looks intact but inside it is open to the sky. By the door lies a large, melted, iron bell, a reminder of the fact that the church was set on fire with 241 women and 204 children inside. To the north I find the cemetery, full of graves from the 18th century to the present day. At the back is a large pillar, a memorial to the martyrs, and below it are two graves containing the bones and ashes of some of those who died that day. DSCF3408But what I find more disturbing are the 9 huge plaques which are needed to list all the names of the dead and the smaller memorials featuring faded black and white photographs of the villagers. Seeing the faces of those who died somehow makes it seem so much more real. In the Memorial Centre they have a temporary exhibition called “Oradour, Visages” (Oradour, Faces), a video showing photos of the martyrs and complemented with a soundtrack listing their names and ages, although some still remain faceless to this day.

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Next to the cemetery, I find another memorial and a crypt displaying some of the items found in the village after the massacre which reminds us of the life that existed there before the soldiers arrived. Dirty spectacles, broken pocket watches, religious statues, singed bank notes, children’s toys, metal cutlery, warped glass bottles and dozens of white porcelain ink pots recovered from the school.

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So, how did I feel as I walked back along the tram tracks of the main street? Well, I felt sad for the past, concerned for the present but hopeful for the future. And could I feel the spirits of the departed souls? Well, perhaps they were calling to me through the melodic birdsong of the great tits, wrens, warblers and blackbirds which accompanied me on my visit. Although the cackling crow high in a pine tree made me think about the 200 soldiers who took part in the senseless slaughter. Finally, I doubt if I will ever be able to look at a Singer sewing machine again without thinking of the martyr village of Oradour-sur-Glane and the 642 villages who lost their lives on the 10th June 1944.

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Monks, Mysteries and Meteorites

My chosen route between Perigueux and Limoges is full of interesting towns and villages, each very beautiful and often very mysterious.

DSCF3219First stop is in the stunning town of Brantome, surrounded by the river Dronne which is traversed by several bridges, including one which is angled so as to cross the two branches of the river at the same time. The western side is dominated by the facade of the Abbey Saint Pierre and Saint Sicaire. What started out as a humble cave chapel has blossomed into a huge religious complex of varied architectural styles.

10 km further north, I park above a World War I memorial in the town of Nontron. It’s a well-known centre for knife making but I’m reliably informed that the church of Notre Dame de Ronces is well worth a visit. It’s some way from the town centre but the reason for this becomes clear when I discover the story behind its name.

DSCF3265In the 17th century some children were playing at a spring outside the town when they lost their ball in the brambles. As they searched for it they found a black stone statue of the Virgin. Having alerted the local priest of their find, the Virgin was taken to the main church for safekeeping, but the next day she had disappeared and was found once again at the spring. After this happened a second time, the people of Nontron decided that the Virgin wished to remain at the spring and so they constructed a chapel there for her. The present day church, completed in 1876, stands on the same spot and the spring still exists down below at the end of a flooded tunnel. The Virgin has her own chapel above the spring where she stands, crowned and wrapped in a blue and gold robe to hide her scars and the lack of a child that she once held in her arms.

DSCF3289Back in the centre of town I visit the Coutellerie Nontonnaise, where they have been making knives by hand since the 16th century. Allegedly, a Nontron knife was used to assassinate King Henry IV. Today, it’s more likely to be found in a kitchen, used for slicing cheese or local apples. A traditional knife has a boxwood handle which is hand carved and branded with a unique symbol whose origins are a mystery. However, in order to satisfy a more modern market, I can see knives being produced with colourful plastic handles and the boutique offers butter knives, corkscrews and cake slices as well as the traditional folding knives.

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DSCF3322Further north again, I arrive at the imposing chateau of Rochechouart. It’s late, but I take a stroll into town and locate the church of St Sauveur which has an unusual twisted spire and some modern, cartoon-like, 20th century frescoes decorating the interior by Nicolai Greschny. The church and the chateau attracted attention due to the stones that were used in their construction. Whilst first noted in 1808 and thought to be volcanic in origin, it was not until the 1960s that scientists finally recognised the rock as being the result of a meteorite event.

 

 

DSCF3318I visit the Espace Meteorite to find out more. It’s now known that 214 million years ago a meteorite of 1.5 kms in diameter struck 4kms west of present day Rochechouart. The impact created a crater of 25kms in diameter and changed the surrounding geology forever. Apparently, there are 174 such impact craters on earth, though they are not as easily recognisable as those on the moon due to millions of years of erosion. Such craters are technically known as astroblemes and can be up to 200kms in diameter. More recently, in 1908, a meteorite exploded above the Tougouska Forest in Siberia destroying an area of 2,000km2. Luckily Siberia is not heavily populated, but on 15th February 2013 in Russia, a meteor was caught on camera as it streaked across the sky. Approximately 1500 people suffered injuries due to blast effects of the meteor but luckily it exploded before hitting the ground and no one was killed.

I take a walk around the area below the chateau following a small stream through farmland and forest, part of a longer walk called the Sentier de Meteorite. It’s not hard to imagine how the area was formed all those years ago. Later, I have lunch in the appropriately named Meteorite Restaurant. The Menu de Jour is full of local fare including salad of duck gizzards, roast pork in mushroom sauce and fromage frais.

The main mystery for me is why more people don’t visit this little known region of France, though judging by the number of English speakers I encountered during the day and the English owned estate agents scattered amongst the towns, the expat community has already discovered it.