My wonderful Michelin guide “The 100 Most Beautiful Detours of France” has led me to the town of Montargis, otherwise known as “The Venice of Gatinais”.This is confirmed by a tourist office leaflet which provides a guided tour of the town via 17 of the 131 bridges which span the canals flowing past, and in some cases under, the shops and houses.
The bridges vary from early 17th century to the modern day, with one elegant, arched, metal footbridge designed by the Eiffel Company in 1891. But it takes more than a few bridges to get me excited about a place.
As usual, I stop by the church and discover some of the most beautiful windows I have ever seen, depicting religious scenes, saints and local buildings. At the base of one window is a small panel showing a fight between a man and a dog. This, it seems, is based on a local legend. The story goes that Richard de Macaire, jealous of Aubry de Montdidier and his relationship with the king, killed Montdidier in the forest. The only witness to the crime was Montdidier’s dog, who later indicated Macaire as the murderer. The king suggested a fight between the dog and the accused and, when Macaire lost, he was condemned to death.
As I continue my wanderings, I find two large statues of the fight between man and beast. The first is outside the old town hall, now the museum Giradot, which is undergoing some renovation. The other I discover in the entrance to the Salle de Fetes where a honey festival is being held.
Surprisingly, the main hall of the Salle de Fetes is full of primary school groups being educated on bees and the many uses of their products. Stalls are filled with jars of sticky, sweet honey, soap, beeswax candles, cakes, sweets, beer and mead. Obviously the youngsters are not partaking in the alcohol but they are certainly enjoying the honey. I buy a small nonette (similar to a muffin) stuffed with myrtle jam, and enjoy it in the highly decorated bar where coffee is being served. The interior of the building is quite sumptuous, walls adorned with cherubs, parrots and garlands of flowers. Above the stalls is a 270 degree balcony and at the far end, a stage hidden behind a large, plush, red curtain.
Another window in the church depicted a religious man administering to Asian people and this prompted me to find out more about the town’s links with Asia.
Li Shizeng was the son of an advisor to the Emperor of China and, as such, part of the Chinese elite who believed in adopting western ideas. In 1903 he came to France to study and settled in the town of Montargis. Many more Chinese students followed and had their own influence on the French town, studying in schools and colleges, working in the factories, visiting the public baths and living with local families.
Most went back to their country inspired by their experiences, some rising to great political positions. For example, Deng Xiaoping became the First Leader of China in 1981. However, even today it is easy to see the legacy they have left with there being more than the usual number of Asian restaurants, giving me a good excuse to have a Chinese meal.