Category Archives: France

Marvejols and the Beast of Gévaudan

dscf6932My journey back through France takes me north on the A75 Mediterranean Motorway past many places that I have already visited: Roquefort, Brioude, Issoire and Vichy.

This year I stop at the town of Marvejols, once a Royal borough and the capital of the Gévaudan. The town was fortified during the Hundred Years War but later, during the 16th century, much of the town was destroyed when the Catholics, led by the Duke of Joyeuse, massacred the protestant population, burned their homes and destroyed the fortifications.

Henry of Navarre, who later became King Henry IV, stepped in to save Marvejols, rebuilding much of the town, including the three main gateways.

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dscf6948The former province of Gévaudan is synonymous with a terrible tale of the Beast of Gévaudan. Not some mysterious myth but a real story of terror which took place between 1764 and 1767. Research of historical records show that the ‘beast’ may have killed up to 100 people as it hunted throughout an area of about 80 square kilometres. Witnesses who survived attacks described it as being similar to a wolf, but as large as a calf and with red hair. Some people have speculated that it may have been an escaped exotic animal such as a lion or hyena and the attacks do seem similar to man-eating lion accounts from Africa.

beast-of-gevaudanThe first recorded attack was of a young woman tending cattle in the Mercoire forest in the summer of 1764 and the first fatal victim took place soon after when 14-year-old Janne Boulet was killed near the village of Les Hubacs. The attacks continued throughout the year, victims being mostly lone men, women and children tending livestock in the forests around Gévaudan.

beast-of-gevaudan-2On January 12, 1765, Jacques Portefaix and some friends were attacked by the Beast but managed to drive it away. Louis XV heard about this and compensated the men, declaring that the French state would help find and kill the beast. Two professional wolf-hunters, Jean Charles Marc Antoine Vaumesle d’Enneval and his son Jean-François, were sent to Gévaudan. They arrived on February 17, 1765, with bloodhounds trained in wolf-hunting. For four months they hunted Eurasian wolves believing them to be the beast but the attacks continued. In June 1765 they were replaced by François Antoine the king’s Lieutenant of the Hunt and on September 20 he killed a very large grey wolf, nicknamed Le Loup de Chazes after the nearby Abbaye des Chazes. The animal was stuffed and sent to Versailles where Antoine was received as a hero and well rewarded. However, the attacks continued.

When Jean Chastel shot a large wolf during a hunt on June 19, 1767, the attacks finally stopped. Some writers suggested that it was shot with a blessed silver bullet and when opened, human remains were found in the animal’s stomach.

wolfThere are no wild wolves in the region today but just north of Mavejols is the Parc Les Loups du Gévaudan, where some 100 wolves from Poland, Siberia, Mongolia, the Arctic and Canada can be visited. There are exhibitions about the Beast of Gévaudan as well as educational displays about wolves to dispel the myth that they are ferocious, deadly animals. Perhaps one day they will be reintroduced to the wild here, as has occurred in other places in Europe.

 

 

Wine and Choucroute of Alsace

dscf0421I climb over the Vosges Mountains and head out of the pine forests into the wine valleys. My destination is Mittelbergheim, a small village with a Germanic name and 20 wine producers hidden along its narrow medieval streets. After parking up at the edge of the village with views across the vineyards and to the Haut Andlau Castle which proudly overlooks them, I wander into the village in search of the wine for which the area is famous. They use several grapes here – sylvaner, gewurztraminer, muscat and pinot noir to name a few.

dscf0426The village is littered with ancient wooden wine presses, deep wells and dovecotes, and the entrances to the wine makers are adorned with stone arches bearing the crest of the family business. It seems as though everyone must be out in the fields harvesting the grapes, but eventually I find Caveau Gilg which is open for tastings and they are keen for me to try as many as possible.

dscf0431I first try the cheapest and the grapes which are growing next to my Motorhome, the sylvaner. It is light and very drinkable and well within my budget. Then I try the more expensive Grand Cru version, which is made with only the best quality grapes, grown on slopes with the best soil and sunlight. It’s better than the cheaper version but I’m not encouraged to buy it. Finally, I try the sweetest, the impossible-to-pronounce gewurztraminer. It has a wonderful, perfumed lychee smell which makes a big impact, and while the taste doesn’t live up to the promise, I decide it is still worth the €9.25 price tag.

dscf045010km north of Mittelbergheim is the fortified town of Obernai. Firmly on the tourist trail its street are overflowing with white-haired, wine-quaffing coach parties and families visiting for the day from Strasbourg. A tacky tourist train chugs through the backstreets and the shops are selling all manner of souvenirs stamped with “Obernai”.

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dscf0457I suspect it may be hard to find a good restaurant specialising in Alsace cuisine and Trip Advisor has already warned of the rip-off prices and poor standards. In the end, I opt to dine in Winstub la Dime, a traditional restaurant down a quiet side street which offers a lot of local specialities. There’s the flammekueche (a bit like a pizza), the baeckeoffe (pronounced ‘bake-off’ – a slow-cooked meat casserole), Fleischnacka (a savoury Swiss roll) and kougelhopf (a brioche loaf with raisins and almonds). I take the easy option and order the tourist menu which is not cheap at €19.90 but includes three courses. Before my food arrives, I am given a small dish of pretzels to nibble with my wine and some warm ciabatta bread rolls. The starter is a huge piece of onion tart with a side salad. It’s hot, fluffy, light and delicious and my sylvaner wine is the perfect accompaniment.

dscf0459When my main course of choucroute arrives I assume that they have made a mistake because the mountain of cabbage, sausages, gammon and potatoes that they place on the table couldn’t possibly be for only one person. I’m defeated before I even get half way through and have to ask for a doggy bag. My meal is rounded off with a home-made traditional French dessert of Ile flotant (a floating island of soft white meringue on a sea of cold custard).

After such a filling lunch, I feel compelled to take an afternoon stroll up to the peaceful surrounding vineyards. There’s a lovely view of the town from the War Memorial but unfortunately the tourist train arrives and my meditative state is broken by loud German voices and the click-clack of camera shutters.

 

 

 

 

We Will Remember Them – Le Struthof

Before WWII, Le Struthof was a popular ski resort in the Alsace Mountains. That was until a German geologist named Blumberg discovered a vein of red granite near the top of Mount Louise and suggested that it should be mined.

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dscf0415In May 1941 the Czech and German prisoners were transferred to a camp near the resort hotel to work on the construction of the new concentration camp. Most of the people sent to Le Struthof were political prisoners or resistance fighters but soon Jews and Gypsies were brought there to be used in scientific experiments. By April 1943 a small gas chamber has been built in the annex of the hotel and in August 86 Jews are gassed for experimental purposes.

dscf0400Not long after, a crematorium is built at the foot of the camp and in July 1944 four female Resistance members of the British SOE are executed and burned in the crematorium. Two months later a further 142 Resistance members are executed prior to the Nazis evacuating the camp. Altogether, it is estimated that there were 52,000 prisoners of the camp from 31 different nations and approximately 22,000 died.

The site of the concentration camp now serves as a museum and memorial centre, a reminder of the horrors of war.

dscf0393I begin my visit by walking down the 1km path to the site of the gas chamber. On the way, I pass a beautiful villa with an outdoor swimming pool. This was commandeered from a local family and used by the Camp Commandant as his private residence. How awful that the last thing those Jewish prisoners would have seen, walking to their deaths, was a crystal blue pool of fresh water. The exterior of the building which houses the gas chamber looks perfectly normal. It was previously a storehouse for the hotel. However, just inside the door is a white tiled room with a drain in the floor and a small channel through which the poisonous cocktail was poured. You can understand how the prisoners thought they might be taking a shower. Outside are two memorial stones with the names of those who died in the gas chamber inscribed on them.

dscf0409Back up at the main camp I enter through the large double gate, much like the prisoners did 75 years ago. Only four of the buildings remain but the terraced areas where the other 13 barracks would have been are still there. The first building is now a museum which provides detailed information about life in the camps, illustrated with faded black and white photographs, and modern works of art. I’m surprised to learn about the four female SOE resistance fighters who lost their lives here. Their deaths were only discovered through the tenacity of their female commanding officer who traced the records to discover their last movements. At the bottom of the site, beside the incinerator in the crematorium where their bodies were disposed of, they are remembered with a simple plaque and a wreath of red poppies.

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The crematorium building also features a tiled mortuary table, a stark reminder of the scientific experiments which were conducted by three doctors who were stationed at Le Struthof. Prisoners were used as human guinea pigs to advance the medical knowledge of the Nazis. Bizarrely, two of the doctors continued to practice medicine after only a few years in prison for their crimes. The other committed suicide.

Following a war crimes tribunal in 1945, the commandant of the camp, Joseph Kramer, was sentenced to death by hanging.

The red granite quarried by the prisoners of Le Struthof was used for several buildings in Nuremberg which was the unofficial capital of the Nazis and a favourite city of Adolf Hitler.

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Madeleines and Beer of Lorraine

dscf0310In 1755 a young cook in the court of Count Stanislav (Duke of Lorraine) created a small sponge cake which became popular in the court of Versailles and subsequently won a permanent place in French cupboards. In the town of Commercy I find the small artisanal bakery of Zins which still produces this light, shell-shaped cake by hand. The traditional sponge delight has a hint of lemon, but today they make a range of madeleines to cater for modern tastes, including an outer coating of chocolate or a filling of local mirabelle plum jam. They are best eaten warm with coffee and luckily the bakery has an adjoining café where I can do just that.

dscf035970 kms east of Commercy is the unassuming town of St Nicholas de Port but, even as far back as the 16th and 17th centuries, it was a centre for brewing beer. There is not much beer being made there now, but luckily a magnificent art-deco brewery was saved from demolition when the company closed in 1985 and turned into a museum.

 

 

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My visit is enhanced by a detailed audioguide which leads me first through the rooms of the main administration building where photos of the brewery students from 1893 to 1972 are displayed and beautiful stained-glass windows adorn a wood-panelled tasting room. There are also exhibitions of advertising information and the traditional process of beer making in Africa.

The second part of my tour takes me into the tower where the beer was made. All the machinery, tanks and shiny copper stills remain in place and I soon learn what a complicated process it is to produce beer.

At the end of my tour I am offered a sample of the local brew which the assistant informs me is light and drinkable, but at 6% alcohol and with a strong malty taste, I have to differ.

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We Will Remember Them – Part Deux

100 years ago, fierce battles were being fought on French soil to halt the invading German army. In the UK people are familiar with the Battle of the Somme where 420,000 British Commonwealth soldiers lost their lives. Four years ago, I visited the area with my father, who was researching our family history, and we located several graves of our ancestors who died there, as well as their names carved in the many war memorials in the region.

dscf0149However, I never realised that an equally devastating battle was being fought further south in the Marne and Meuse valleys where huge numbers of French and American soldiers lost their lives trying to stop the German advance towards Paris.

I begin my education of the region just outside the town of Fere-en-Tardenois where 6,012 American soldiers are remembered in the Oise-Aisne cemetery. A little further south I find an isolated memorial to the 42nd Rainbow Division of American troops, placed at the site of the Red Cross Farm where a bloody battle took place and where 162 soldiers were killed in July 1918. It’s a shocking reminder of the many fatally injured and dead the war left behind in the area.

optimized-dscf0196Continuing my journey, I stop in the small village of Vraux to see an Aviation Museum . On first inspection it looks like just a few exhibits in someone’s garden but I soon discover that there is a vast collection of aviation objects and memorabilia hidden away in the Tardis-like outbuildings at the back of the property.

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An enthusiastic volunteer explains that just north of the village was a WWII airfield, first used by the British, then the French and finally the Americans. As well as pieces of wartime aircraft, there are photos of the men who were stationed there and stories about the lives, including reconciliation between British and German soldiers and an American airman who was reunited with his long-lost French sweetheart after 43 years. They subsequently married.

Finally, I arrive at Verdun, where 300 days and nights of fighting in 1916 resulted in the deaths of more than 300,000 men. Whilst the town was badly damaged by shelling, it was in the surrounding hills that the main battle was fought. Surrounding the town were several forts and it is possible to visit some them.

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optimized-dscf0266At Fort Douaumont I learn how it was easily captured, without a shot being fired, by a small German patrol early in the Battle of Verdun but how they subsequently suffered great losses during the French attempts to recapture it. 679 German soldiers were killed when a fire broke out within the Fort and caused an explosion of the stored ammunitions. Their bodies were entombed in one of the tunnels below the Fort where they are remembered by a simple white cross.

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Close by is a huge cemetery, topped by a giant building shaped like the hilt of a sword driven into the ground. It is the Douaumont Ossary, where the bones of 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers are held. The sight of all the crosses reminds us of just how many died to ensure the freedom which we enjoy in the 21st century.

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dscf0241At Fort Vaux I learn about the last messenger pigeon which was sent out with a message requesting reinforcements and which died from poison gas shortly after delivering it. The pigeon in the cartoon series ‘Wacky Races’ and the one in the animated film ‘Valiant’ are loosely based on this story.

Although the Forts and the Memorials are the main focus of a visit to the Verdun Battlefields, sometimes it is the smaller things that remind us of the hardships of war. The remains of trenches, pockmarked ground from artillery shells, destroyed villages and isolated graves marking the discovery of long lost fighters. The town of Verdun today is a vibrant, bustling place with riverside cafes and designer boutiques but the memorials found there serve as daily reminders that 100 years ago life was not always so easy for the residents and the soldiers who defended them.

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We Will Remember Them.

Chateaux and Champagne

France is well known for its amazing chateaux and its expensive sparkling wine, and within my first week I have sampled them both.

dscf0087Chateau Pierrefonds sits high above the town like a fairy tale castle. Carefully restored in 1857 by Viollet-le-Duc on orders from Emperor Napoleon III and his wife Eugenie it seems so extraordinarily perfect that it could be a film set. Indeed it has been used for exactly that purpose during the Leonardo DiCaprio film ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ and the BBC TV series ‘Merlin’, where it represented Camelot.

dscf0064The extremely long Worthies room with its medieval decoration and Viollet-le-Duc’s fantastical gargoyles and statues are the highlights and a cellar full of funerary sculptures is rather spooky and disturbing (they were originally on display at Versailles). Special exhibitions give insight into the architectural restorations of Viollet-le-Duc, who also worked on the Cite of Carcassonne, as well as the world of magic lanterns, which were used to produce ghostly images in theatrical shows at the end of the 19th century.

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Further south, a few kilometres outside the town of Fere-en-Tardenois, I find the old castle which was badly damaged during the revolution and the first world war but is slowly being restored, or at least maintained in its current state. It has a fascinating access via a 16th century two-storey gallery, not unlike the one at Chenonceau but a lot shorter. A complimentary leaflet explains that the original castle was extended by Francois I to impress his guests. Nowadays guests stay at the neighbouring luxury hotel which overlooks the old castle moat.

dscf0156I’m not that fond of champagne and my budget can’t really stretch to a bottle but, as I’m passing through the region, I decide to stop and find out more about the bubbly stuff. My introduction begins at the Epernay Tourist Office at the start of the Avenue du Champagne where top producers, such as Moet and Chandon, have their factories and offer tours which cost as much as a bottle of the end product. Luckily for me, two lesser known producers are offering free tastings in the Tourist Office, and whilst I am not enamoured with the champagne, I do learn some basic facts. 320 champagne houses are allowed to produce over 300 million bottles each year from the grapes grown in the region. Champagne is actually a mix of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes, which surprised me as the latter two are both red grapes and champagne is normally very pale in colour.

dscf0183The next day I visit the Cite du Champagne, a new guided tour offered by the house of Collet. Kevin, a smartly dressed young man who looks more like a visiting banker than a tour guide, takes me down into the cool cellars below the vineyards to explain the process of making champagne. It actually involves three stages, including a double fermentation and an expulsion of the yeast sediment after it has been allowed to settle in the neck of the bottle. Upstairs, a museum houses all manner of traditional equipment used for making champagne and old photographs help to explain how the methods have evolved over the years. However, the grapes are still picked by hand, though these days by Eastern European labourers.

champagne-revolution-1911I also learnt why the Champagne region is strictly controlled and was surprised to learn that it was historical and not economical. In 1911 the local vine growers, already suffering from the devastating phylloxera disease which destroyed many vines in the late 19th century, became unhappy with the local champagne producers who began importing grapes from other regions to make their champagne. On the 11th April up to 6,000 people marched through the streets of Epernay and Ay, torching many of the warehouses, destroying equipment and the stored bottles of champagne. The Maison Gallois (the current site of the Cite du Champagne) was razed to the ground.

In 1927 and 1936 very strict regulations were introduced to restrict the production of champagne to the local region. Luckily there are still plenty of large and small producers to keep their clients happy.

 

Staying Dry in Rouen

DSCF2323It is a miserable February day, much like the painting of Rouen Cathedral by Monet, but I’m determined to stay dry while visiting the city. The only motorhome parking is on the opposite side of the Seine but it’s just a short walk over the Corneille Bridge to the city centre.

I had hoped to start my city tour with the Cathedral but a morning service means I have to change my plans and a quick visit to the Tourist Office in the 16th century House of the Exchequer opposite gives me plenty of ideas. What the staff of the Tourist Office fail to mention is that the mayor has decided that, from January 2016, nine of the principle museums in Rouen should be free (Rouen must be more prosperous than I thought, or perhaps there is a mayoral election coming up). I discover this fact from a notice on the closed gate of the Wrought Ironwork Museum. They also failed to mention that most of the museums are only open in the afternoon!

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DSCF2329Luckily, the Fine Arts Museum is open all day and inside it is warm and dry. They also have nice clean toilets and lockers for storing bulky bags so I am free to wander around with just my camera. They have some wonderful works of art, including some by Monet and Renoir. However, my favourite is a painting by Simon Saint Jean whose flowers are dotted with drops of water which look so real that I want to reach out and touch them. My favourite room is the huge, glass-covered atrium which features some of the largest paintings and sculptures and, during the summer, doubles as a restaurant.

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Monet

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Renoir

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Saint Jean

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DSCF2371I find a more morbid kind of art in the Saint Maclou courtyard, where the surrounding 16th century timber-framed houses are decorated with skulls and other symbols of death. The reason for this is that during the middle ages the area was a cemetery and many plague victims from 1348 were buried there.

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DSCF2411However, the most famous person to have died in Rouen has to be Joan of Arc and I find out more about this heroine of the Hundred Years War in the keep, the only remaining part of the 13th century castle. Known in France as La Pucelle (the maiden), she was an illiterate farm girl who was convinced that she would save France. She persuaded King Charles VII to let her fight against the English and, inspired by the voices of saints, she led 4000 troops to victory in Orleans.

DSCF2414She was eventually captured by the English and imprisoned in the castle at Rouen before being tried for witchcraft and heresy. Eventually she was convicted and executed by fire on 30th May 1431. Her heart was thrown into the River Seine to prevent people from venerating her relics.

20 years later her sentence was overturned by a papal commission and in 1920 she was canonized by the Vatican and accepted as a Saint.

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DSCF2450The site where Joan of Arc died is marked by a huge stone and iron cross in the former market square. Next to it, adjoining a more modern covered market, is an equally modern church. Built in 1979, the shape is supposed to evoke the image of the flames rising and the wooden roof has been constructed in the same way that boat’s hulls are made. Large 16th century stained-glass windows stretch along one side. These were rescued from the Church of St Vincent before it was damaged during the bombing in WWII and their installation helped the local people to accept the unusual modern design of the new church.

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DSCF2422I’m not a big fan of ceramics, but the museum is another place to stay dry and the interior architecture of the 17th century Hotel d’Hocqueville is worth the visit alone. There are lots of cabinets of the blue and white porcelain of Rouen, as well as some more unusual additions, such as the wood panelling from the St Ouen Abbey and the former pavilion of the Hotel.

DSCF2403The Secq de Tournelles Museum is a collection of historical metalwork from around the world. This may not sound very interesting, but inside an old church there are approximately 16,000 objects from keys and doorknockers to scissors, irons, baking utensils and armour. It really is an unusual and captivating display.

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Finally, I make it to the Notre Dame Cathedral. Twice destroyed by the Viking invasions in 841 and allied bombing during WWII, it is amazing that it still remains. There are three towers, each very different and boasts the highest spire in France, rising to 151m. Inside the mood is sombre with lines of life-sized statues of saints and apostles, as well as embellished tombs, including that of Richard the Lionheart.

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