Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Last Ivory Carver of Dieppe

Tanzania - Big TuskerI’ve spent a lot of time in Africa and I have spent many hours watching and admiring elephants. They are such intelligent and gentle creatures. Yes, I did say gentle, though they do occasionally get upset when disturbed by humans, especially when a gun is pointed at them instead of a camera. Unfortunately, elephant poaching is still rampant in many African countries and the elephant population is still under threat due to the demand for their ivory tusks.

DSCF5044Whilst in Dieppe, waiting to catch the ferry back to the UK, I visit the Chateau-Museum which has the largest ivory collection in Europe with over 1000 pieces. Many are religious statues of the Virgin or Jesus on the cross, some are practical objects like fans and snuff boxes, while others are highly decorative and detailed. Each piece must have taken many hours of skilled crafting to produce and a great many originated in Dieppe. The work of one famous Dieppe ivory artist, Pierre-Adrien Graillon, is prominently featured in the museum.

DSCF5047It may seem strange that Dieppe became a centre for ivory carving but in the 16th century an explorer and privateer named Jehan Ango frequently arrived with items from the far off lands that he visited. Originally, the ivory from Africa was used to create religious objects but it soon became popular amongst the elite who saw the ownership ivory objects as being an important status symbol.




DSCF5076I am keen to find out more about the ivory carvers of Dieppe and how the ban on trading ivory has affected their livelihood. In the centre of town, on Rue Jehan Ango, two ivory shops still exist, owned by the last carvers of many generations. The first shop seems to be firmly closed, but in the second, I can see lights on in the window and someone moving inside. While I am studying a beautiful ivory model sailing ship, the door opens and I am greeted by an elderly, white haired gentleman who ushers me inside and asks me to leave my backpack in the hall. The interior is less like a shop and more like a museum storeroom with display cases and shelves crammed with unusual and intriguing objects. Classical music is playing from somewhere and a caged bird accompanies it with occasional squawks.

DSCF5042Philippe Ragault looks more like a mad scientist than an ivory carver and I find his demeanour a bit alarming. I was hoping to find someone who is proud of his profession and keen to demonstrate his unique talents. However, it soon becomes clear that he is bitter and resentful as he complains how the ecologists, while trying to prevent elephants from becoming extinct, have succeeded in causing the demise of the ivory traders instead. And it does seem a little unfair that even ivory taken from animals which die a natural death cannot be used to create such exquisite artwork. Perhaps his anger is misdirected as surely it is the Asian demand for a product which they believe can disperse misfortune and drive out evil spirits which has resulted in such tough restrictions regarding the sale of ivory. A report last year in the Telegraph newspaper seems to suggest that the Chinese market for ivory is thriving partly due to the fact that in 2008 Namibia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana –were allowed to sell their stockpiles of ivory to Japan and China in an attempt to control the elephant poaching.

DSCF5077Meanwhile, Mr Ragault is left to work with inferior materials such as hippopotamus teeth and walrus tusks. He uses both hand tools and more modern machines to create an assortment of art. Shadow and light are very important when working with ivory and he holds several pieces up to a spotlight in order for me to fully appreciate the luminescence. He also has a keen sense of humour which is carefully hidden in his art. By holding a piece at a different angle, an entirely new meaning can be found in the gestures of his subjects. He shows me one very old, phallic looking piece of a fat man in a pointed hat and tells me that it is magical and he means that quite literally.

DSCF5046Unfortunately, his own magical talent will soon be lost. At 76 years old, and with no children or apprentices to which he can pass down his trade, it is inevitable that the French ivory carvers will soon be extinct. Meanwhile, the poaching will continue, and the ivory tusks will still find their way to backstreet Asian carvers and into the display cases of wealthy, non-discerning people.


The Benedictine Palace and the Secret Elixir

DSCF4896500 years ago, an Italian monk named Dom Bernardo Vincelli arrived at the Benedictine Abbey of Fecamp. He bought with him some oriental spices from the port of Venice and soon discovered that the local cliffs around Fecamp produced several medicinal plants, such as angelica, hyssop and balm. Being a specialist in alchemy and in search of a panacea (a medicine which could prolong life indefinitely), it was not long before he created an elixir from these ingredients which the Abbey produced for three hundred years.

DSCF4934During the French revolution, the monks were forced to flee the Abbey, leaving their precious religious artefacts and books with Prosper Couillard for safekeeping. His grandson, Alexandre Le Grand inherited many of these and, while sorting through the papers and books in his library one day, he came across a grimoire (a book of magic spells) written by Dom Bernardo Vincelli in 1510. It contained a recipe for a mysterious elixir composed of 27 different plants and spices. After many attempts to try and recreate the elixir, he finally succeeded in 1863 and the liqueur of “Benedictine” soon went into production.


DSCF4867Le Grand was a very shrewd business man who marketed his product around the world, fiercely protecting it with patents and prosecuting those who tried to imitate it. In 1888 he built a large distillery in Fecamp, not far from the Abbey where the secret formula was closely guarded. Unfortunately, the factory was almost completely destroyed by a fire only 4 years later. Undeterred, Le Grand rebuilt it with the help of architects Camille Albert and Ferdinand Marrou creating and even bigger and better palace.



DSCF4901I take a guided tour of the Benedictine Palace to see what all the fuss is about and to possible decode the secret recipe of this popular liqueur. The rooms are very sumptuously decorated with stained glass windows depicting the history of Benedictine and displays of Le Grand’s religious art, reliquaries, and an unusual collection of iron locks and keys from the Chateaux of the Loire Valley. One small room contains several religious manuscripts, though I don’t see the grimoire on display.



DSCF4938In a plainer section of the Palace, there is an exhibition about the history of the liqueur production featuring advertising posters, examples of fraudulent imitations and photographs of the disastrous fire. Steps then take me down to a video room where I watch a short film about the modern production of Benedictine before being guided through the distillery and the cellars. There are clues as to the ingredients (cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, angelica, maidenhair, juniper, hyssop, lemon balm, myrrh, saffron, thyme, vanilla, lemon peel and honey) and the distillation process is explained in some detail. But the mixtures of the 4 separate preparations which are then combined during distillation are known only to three people at any one time.

DSCF4940The tour ends in the conservatory café where a complimentary tasting is offered. There are four versions available: The traditional Benedictine, B & B (a combination of Brandy and Benedictine popular with Americans), Benedictine Single Cask (only available from the Benedictine Palace) and Benedictine 1868 (a special blend for the Asian market with increased quantities of angelica). I decide to try the original version and expect it to taste like cough medicine, as most herbal liqueurs do. However, I am pleasantly surprised by the smooth, subtle taste. There’s no doubting the alcohol content though, as indicated by my warming stomach and the availability of a breathalyser in the café.

Although I wasn’t able to discover the secret recipe, I was able to leave with a bottle of the elixir and a cocktail card with plenty of ideas on how to make the most of my Benedictine and live out a happy life, if not a very long one.

DSCF4927Monk’s Sour

50 ml Benedictine

25 ml fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons honey syrup

1 dash orange bitters

15 ml egg white

Grated nutmeg

Add all the ingredients to a cocktail shaker. Then add ice and shake hard. Strain into a glass and garnish with grated nutmeg.


Resorts of the Cote Fleurie – Deauville, Trouville and Honfleur

I’ve come to realise that the quality of a town can be easily gauged by the quality of its Tourist Office.

DSCF4692In Deauville, I am brusquely dismissed within seconds with only a poor map of the town. It is not the warm welcome I was hoping for in one of the best known tourist resorts on the Cote Fleurie (Flowery Coast). Deauville has been frequented by chic Parisians since it was first developed by the Duc de Morny  in 1860 and for the last 40 years it has hosted the annual American Film Festival drawing high calibre movie stars and their fans to the town. Famous film makers are honoured along the beachfront by having beach cabins named after them, though I’m not sure how much of an honour this actually is. DSCF4699They probably prefer the Golden Globe or an Oscar adorning their mantelpiece. Leaving the seafront, I pass the large casino and wander into the town centre, where I find myself surrounded by designer labels lodged in old timber-frame buildings. Perhaps in my muddy trainers, waterproof jacket and fingerless gloves I am perceived as a homeless tramp rather than a passing tourist. But then, I am dressing for a blustery February day.

DSCF4713The next morning, I pop across the Touques River to Trouville where a busy market lines the quayside, selling everything from local food and cider to lacy bras and fluorescent underpants. The fish market is served by the fishermen, still dressed in their plastic overalls and smelling rather fishy. Mussels, crabs, spiny lobsters, clams and huge scallops in their shells are set out on ice.

DSCF4722The Trouville Tourist Office staff are very helpful, scouring their supplies for information in English and maps for towns further along that coast that I plan to visit. There is also free access to a temporary exhibition of art by Savignac who captured Trouville in his own special way as well as putting his stamp on various advertising and film posters.


DSCF4735However, top marks go to the Tourist Office in Honfleur with polite and helpful staff, modern facilities with PCs and wifi available, plus free, clean toilets. The town also lives up to its reputation with the old fishing quay full of yachts and lined with busy restaurants serving moules-frites and other local fare. The side streets contain interesting shops and art galleries and in St Catherine’s Square, not only do I find the beautiful wooden church (the best example of a wooden church in France), but also an antique market.

DSCF4759Rather than eat at one of the expensive quayside restaurants, I opt for a simple brasserie close to, and recommended by, the Tourist Office. L’Alcyone offers a good 3 course menu with plenty of choices. I order a goat’s cheese salad to start, followed by moules-frites  and finish with Normandy apple terrine with cream. It’s marvellous and an absolute bargain at only €13.90 including coffee.


DSCF4782After such a wonderful meal I feel that I need to balance it out with some exercise, so I decide to walk up Mount Joli to visit the small Chapel of Notre Dame de Grace and to admire the view across the estuary to Le Harve. I don’t recommend attempting this walk after a big lunch as it is a steep climb, but the chapel is delightful, with beautiful stained-glass windows and pictures of all kinds of sailing vessels hung up on its walls. Sailors still come here to pray for a successful voyage or to give thanks after returning safely.


Boudin Le Harve








Unfortunately, the view is disappointing as Le Harve has become a huge commercial port and natural gas plant. When I pass through it the next day, having crossed the very long, very high and very expensive Pont de Normandie toll bridge, the smell of the gas gives me quite a headache. It’s a shame that I couldn’t visit with the impressionists Monet, Boudin and Pissarro who got to see the area before industrialism and commercialism spoiled it.

Pegasus Bridge – D-Day and the 6th Airborne

DSCF4539I’m reliving yet another long-ago trip to France when I arrived on a school trip to the Normandy Beaches. I don’t remember much of that visit except for the long and boring Bayeux Tapestry, the strange meals (where the meat and vegetables were served as two separate courses) and Pegasus Bridge. The bridge that I visited over 30 years ago no longer straddles the Caen Canal, having been replaced in 1994 by an almost identical, but slightly larger version which I am lucky enough to see in action. The original is not far away though, relocated to the grounds of the Pegasus Memorial Museum.

DSCF4534Not only do I find the original bridge, but next to it is a full size replica of a Horsa glider. Once I’m inside the museum I soon realise why it is there. Prior to the main D-Day beach landings, 352 gliders were towed across the English Channel, transporting soldiers of the 6th Airborne Division who were tasked to carry out a daring night time raid on several key bridges across the Orne and Dives rivers. Three of those gliders landed within metres of the Benouville Bridge and it was swiftly taken by the allies. They renamed it Pegasus Bridge after the flying horse insignia of the Airborne Forces.

Operation Deadstick is immortalised in the film ”The Longest Day” (1961). Major John Howard, who led the mission, is played by Richard Todd, and amazingly, Todd was actually one of the members of the 7th Parachute Battalion reinforcements that arrived shortly after the landings to reinforce the position. General Richard Gale, who planned the mission and trained the men that piloted those gliders and made such precision landings, is also honoured at the museum.

DSCF4544The Museum contains so much detailed information that it takes me two hours to absorb it all. There are display cases of uniforms, equipment and medals and original silk parachutes hanging from the ceiling. Many information boards provide details of the men who took part in the raid explaining their experiences and feelings at the time and informing me about their life after the war. I think that by highlighting this human involvement it makes the war seem so much more real than just a list of events in a history book.

DSCF4530In the centre of the museum is a screening room where I watch a short video about the Pegasus Bridge mission, introduced by Prince Charles. There is also a model showing the region and the key points of attack. Even the tiny little model gliders have been inserted and I can appreciate better the skill it would have required for the pilots to land so many in such a small space. Being a glider pilot had its advantages, as they were issued travel papers enabling them to immediately return to the UK in order to be available for future missions. In that way, many avoided the intense hand to hand combat that took place on D-Day.

DSCF4578Not all were so lucky though. After leaving the museum, I drive into the nearby village of Ranville to visit the British War Cemetery located there. Over 2500 lost lives are represented by clean, white gravestones marked with their names and the insignia of their regiments: Paratroopers, pilots, navigators, infantry, engineers, explosive experts and even the catering corps. One large corner is given over to the German soldiers who also died during the battles in the area. 95 soldiers remain unidentified and their graves are simply marked as “Soldier of the War” or “Unknown Soldier” or “A German Soldier”. Close by, in the church graveyard, I locate a few graves of the glider pilots and one of their passengers, Lieutenant Den Brotheridge, who was the first soldier to die in action on D-Day as he crossed Benouville Bridge.

DSCF4616A few kilometres to the north, I stop by the Merville Battery which was one of the main German defences to be targeted by the D-Day raids. It’s not officially open but the caretaker sees my disappointment and lets me in anyway. Not all the soldiers made it to their destination and only 150 out of the intended 600 soldiers landed close to the Merville Battery. Despite their low numbers, they decided to attack anyway and succeeded in eliminating the threat.

DSCF4611I can’t get into the concrete bunkers but I am able to view the Douglas Dakota. It is an original from D-Day, though it took a roundabout route to get to its final resting place, having served as a civilian plane in Czechoslovakia and later in the Yugoslav Air Force. It was finally grounded in Sarajevo after being damaged by machine gun fire. Luckily, the plane was rescued in 2007 by UN troops and once back in France it was fully restored and now has pride of place at the Merville Battery. Some Dakota aircraft were used as tugs for the Horsa gliders on D-Day.

DSCF4655The next morning, as I’m walking through the dunes of Merville Plage, I find even more WWII concrete bunkers. The sand and the brambles are slowly covering them over and the exposed walls that remain have been used as canvases by the local graffiti artists. However, it does remind me that WWII only ended 70 years ago and so much remains of the military architecture, whether it has been converted into museums to teach us about the horrors of war, or whether it lays scattered along the coastline, gradually being reclaimed by the land where so much blood was spilt.

Tintin and Chateau Cheverny

DSCF4226When I was young, I remember that my brother had a big collection of Tintin books. He even had one in French as, due to racist content, “Tintin in the Congo” was not translated into English until 1991. It was so easy to become immersed in the adventures of Tintin, his dog Snowy and his long-term sidekick Captain Haddock.

DSCF4317 (2)

Now, I find myself in the Loire Valley about to visit Captain Haddock’s stately mansion Marlinspike, or at least the chateau which inspired Herge’s drawing of it. The chateau is cashing in on its Tintin connections with a special exhibition and a souvenir shop chocked with Tintin books and memorabilia.


The real chateau has a long and illustrious history and the estate has been in the same family for more than six centuries, though they were temporarily ousted when Diane de Poitiers moved in during the renovation of Chaumont-sur-Loire after she had been evicted from Chenonceau by Catherine de Medici.

DSCF4236Whilst the exterior can claim to have inspired the fictional Marlinspike, there is not much similarity with the interior, though I did find some Tintin pages which feature the ornately carved main staircase. In the 17th Century, a talented Blois architect, Jean Monier, was enlisted to create the chateau. He is responsible for the 34 wooden panels in the formal dining room which depict the exploits of Don Quixote by Cervantes.

DSCF4245tintin marlinspike 2






Upstairs I am able to visit the private apartments: A birth chamber, a nursery, a boudoir, a bridal chamber and another dining room adorned with a dinner service specifically designed for the family and fine crystal glasses.


Across the hall is an Arms Room featuring full suits of armour, lances, swords and a huge Gobelin tapestry representing the Abduction of Helen by Paris and the start of the Trojan War.


Back outside, I wander towards the main entrance gate, which takes me past the kennels. Hunting was, and still is, a big part of life at Cheverny. Many pictures inside the chateau show various scenes of hunting, and in the external Trophy Room there is a large stained glass window by Jaques Loire of Chartres showing the horses and hounds in front of Cheverny. The kennels house about 100 French hounds, each marked with a ‘V’, representing Vibraye.


The present owner, the latest Marquis of Vibraye, was married on the estate in 1994. It is one of the few days that the chateau has been closed to the public. I wonder if Tintin and Captain Haddock were invited.