Category Archives: France

Behind the Scenes at Fontainebleau

DSCF2033The town of Fontainebleau sits in the middle of a 25,000 hectare forest, former royal hunting ground and now a National Park accessible to all and a popular weekend spot for Parisians. But most people come here to visit the huge royal chateau. In fact, it receives 450,000 visitors each year which is why the car parks in town are extortionately expensive and the restaurants are overpriced.


DSCF2143Starting as a small hunting lodge in the 12th century, this residence of the royal family was transformed with each monarch putting his own mark on the place. A total of 34 sovereigns stayed at Fontainebleau, from Louis VI, (1081–1137) to Napoleon III (1808–1873). Treaties were signed there, kings were born and died there, popes and foreign dignities visited (though not always voluntarily) and there was even a murder in the chateau.

DSCF2061Napoleon abdicated in Fontainebleau on 4 April 1814, and two weeks later attempt to commit suicide before being exiled to Saint Helena. However, he still remembered his former home fondly, writing, “It was certainly the most comfortable and happily situated palace in Europe”.

During the Franco-Prussian War, the palace was occupied by the Prussians and following the First World War, it became home to schools of art and music. It was occupied by the Germans during World War II, and then part of the Chateau became a headquarters of the Allied Forces Central Europe until 1966.


Today it is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is run by the French government and most of the chateau and grounds are open to the public.

DSCF2051Despite it being a miserable week, weather wise, the sun is making a brief appearance and so it seems appropriate to start my tour of the chateau with a walk around the gardens. At this time of year they are not particularly colourful but what they lack in lustre, they make up for in sheer size. There is a huge lake, an ornamental area with criss-crossing paths and sculpted yew trees, and a tree-lined canal disappearing off into the distance. Many of the sculptures seem to have been wrapped up for the winter but two weather worn sphinxes guard the start of the canal and a bronze statue of the hunting goddess sits in the centre of the Garden of Diana.


On the first Sunday of each month, entrance to the chateau is free so I use the money that I have saved to rent an audio guide and also to book on a guided tour in order to see some of the areas of the chateau which are not open to the general public.

DSCF2098It takes me 1.5 hours to complete the circuit of the main apartments with my audio guide and that was just listening to the main details for each room. There’s plenty of additional information available if you wish to linger longer. The self-guided tour starts in the Napoleon I Museum which houses clothing (such as his iconic long coat and hat), dinner services, decorative swords and a beautiful cradle for his much-loved son. There is also a long corridor with large family portraits and pure white busts.


DSCF2199The papal apartments are so called because it was here that Pope Pius VII stayed in 1804 on his way to the coronation of Napoleon I. He returned in 1812 and stayed for 19 months as an unwilling guest of Napoleon while he unsuccessfully invaded Russia. The apartments are dimly lit to protect the Gobelins tapestries and paintings but they are also richly decorated in papal red and royal gold.


DSCF2111There are two chapels in the chateau; the Saint-Saturnin chapel is a dark, damp shell, with the side windows blocked by additional building of the chateau ballroom and Salle du Tibre wings. The Trinity chapel is much grander with a private balcony for the royal family and beautiful ceiling frescoes. In this chapel Louis XV was married in 1725 and Napoleon II was baptised in 1810.


DSCF2150The bedrooms and state rooms are lavishly decorated with patterned cloth and carpets. I particularly like the seat coverings which often depict scenes of wildlife and country living. The queen’s bedroom is so full of patterns that the huge four-poster bed seems almost camouflaged.


DSCF2156Unfortunately, the one area where I would have loved to have wandered freely is roped off. The Diana Gallery is an 80m long corridor was originally built be Henry IV as a place for the Queen to promenade. Its vaulted ceiling was decorated with scenes from the mythical story of Diana, the huntress. When Napoleon I moved in he turned it into a gallery dedicated to the achievements of the Empire but, when the monarchy was restored, Louis XVIII returned it to its former glory. Eventually, in 1853, Napoleon III turned it into a library and I am instinctively drawn to those old books, wanting to feel the leather bindings and discover the words within.

DSCF2077There are some areas of the chateau which are not included in the general admission but by taking a guided tour, I am able to enter these special places. It’s a nice small group of eleven and our guide is an enthusiastic lady who speaks quickly to cram in as much information as possible. Unfortunately, it is all in French but I’m lucky enough to understand most of what she is saying, even the little jokes.

DSCF2043We start in the Chinese Museum which can be visited with a histopad for an extra fee. Security is tight here as in March 2015, thieves broke into the museum and stole 15 of the most valuable pieces. The rooms were decorated by Empress Eugenie in 1867 in order to display her collection of Asian art. The collection includes gifts from the King of Siam, indeed the entrance is flanked by two Siamese palanquins (travelling chairs). Other Chinese items were looted by French soldiers following the destruction of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing 1860. The walls are decorated with black and gold lacquered panels, the ceilings with Buddhist silk screens and shelves hold many pieces of porcelain and jade figures.









Next on our private tour are the private apartments of Napoleon and Josephine which seem small and simple compared to the lavish state rooms of the royal family. I’m rather envious of Napoleon’s large, polished, wood writing desk.


WP_20160207_11_15_06_ProFinally, we arrive at theatre, recently restored to its former glory due to a €10 million donation from government of Abu Dhabi. There was originally a theatre in the Belle-Cheminée wing but it was destroyed by a fire in 1856. However, Napoleon III, decided to build a new theatre in the eastern end of the Louis XIV wing, the design of which was inspired by the theatres at Versailles and the Trianon Palace.

WP_20160207_11_46_24_ProI’m not the only one who draws a breath as we enter the golden glow of the room. I would love to be here for a concert or play to really experience the atmosphere. However, as the stage equipment was not included in the restoration project it is unlikely that any productions will ever be held here. What a shame.





Montargis – Bridges, Dogs, Bees and The Chinese

DSCF1979My 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.


DSCF2001As 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.









DSCF2012Surprisingly, 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.

DSCF1980Most 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.



The Mosaic Church of Briare-le-Canal

DSCF1926I previously stopped at Briare-le-Canal in February 2014 for some lunch and a stroll across the amazing canal bridge designed by the school of Eiffel. Returning this way, I felt the need to spend a bit more time exploring the town and I was not disappointed with what I found.

The River Loire and the Lateral Canal are the life blood of the town and naturally tourism has a big part to play in its economy, but back in the 19th century there was another big employer, the enamel factory owned by the Bapterosses family.

DSCF1900When the factory was founded in 1851, the population of the town was dramatically increased and Mr Bapterosses concluded that the small parish church would no longer be sufficient. So, he decided to fund the construction of a new church which was finally started in 1890 after 30 years of discussion. Using the skills of his employees, the church was richly decorated, both inside and out, with mosaic friezes and floors depicting flora and fauna, as well as symbols representing the ages of life, the 5 senses and the 4 elements. The floor medallions flow up the aisles like a river and in the altar and choir area is a red carpet design.


Unfortunately Mr Bapterosses died before the church was completed, so he never got to see and appreciate his accomplishment. Today, a bust of Mr Bapterosses sits in the square in front of the church, but it bizarrely faces away from the church.


The Painted Churches of Issoire and Brioude

Sometimes, it’s the places of which I have least expectations that surprise me the most. This is what happened when I visited the towns of Issoire and Brioude.

I had some inkling that they might be special as they are listed in a Michelin published, French guide book that I had acquired called, “The 100 Most Beautiful Detours of France”. Only 30 kilometres apart and easily accessible from the A75 Mediterranean Motorway, it certainly turned out to be a delightful detour.

DSCF1742Saint Austremoine D’Issoire is also listed as one of the Five Major Churches of Romanesque Art in the Diocese of Clermont, along with Saint Nectaire which I had the pleasure to visit two years ago. But what makes Saint Austremoine special is the beautifully painted columns, adorned with equally exquisite capitals which, although reminiscent of medieval decoration, were actually painted in the 19th century. Outside, the stonework is just as captivating, with black and white designs and sculpted reliefs depicting zodiac signs.


DSCF1635The Basilica of Saint Julien in Brioude also features colourful columns, but the faded frescoes indicate a much older origin. Superbly sculpted capitols depict soldiers fighting or mythical creatures, and the paved floor is like a stone carpet throughout the church. Even the choice of different coloured sandstones for the main construction adds to the beauty of the building. However, the finest religious art is accessed through a locked door and a spiral stone staircase which leads to the balcony chapel of St Michel. Here, the ceiling has been adorned with the most marvellous painting of Christ in Majesty, surrounded by adoring followers. The colours seem fresh and bright it seems as though it was painted yesterday rather than the 13th century.


Unfortunately, the original stained glass windows were destroyed during the French Revolution but, in 2008, contemporary designs by a Korean, Dominican monk were installed. They only serve to add more colour to this stunning religious place.



Vichy – Don’t Mention the War!

DSCF1814When you hear the name Vichy, you will probably think about plastic bottles of water, minty pastilles and beauty products, but you will probably be unaware that it was once an autonomous state within France during WWII. I decided to visit the large spa town to see if I could uncover its secret past.



I manage to park right next to the Celestins Source where the waters now flow through a modern tap rather than the ornate fountain of the 19th Century. Locals are queuing up to fill their plastic bottles with the slightly fizzy mineral water which supposedly helps with liver and kidney and stomach conditions. There are other municipal sources bordering the large Parc des Sources in the centre of town but these are empty and locked up for the winter.

DSCF1783The tourist office provide me with a map of a carefully created walking tour, highlighting Napoleonic villas, English style facades, the large Palais de Congress and Moorish Grand Thermal Establishment. What it doesn’t highlight is the War Memorial, which remembers the many who died in WWI and the few who died in WWII. A small memorial stone at one side does pay tribute to the men, women and children who were deported to the Nazi camps and died there, but the numbers given vary dramatically from those listed elsewhere. Even the current generation is embarrassed by their past collaboration with the Nazis and at the Tourist Office they are adamant that no information is available about that terrible time. Luckily, in today’s technological world, it is easy to find out more from the internet.


Vichy WW2-Cartoons-Punch-Magazine-During the early days of World War II, Nazi Germany occupied three fifths of France’s territory (Northern France and the entire French Atlantic Coast) and in order to try and maintain some control over the remaining southern part of the country, France surrendered, On July 10, 1940 established a new French government based in the town of Vichy.

Marshal Philippe Pétain, a respected fighter during World War One, became the new leader of the Vichy State following his appointment by the then president, Albert Lebrun. There is still some debate about how legal his appointment and the creation of the new state was.

DSCF1801In order to appease the Nazis, an agreement was made to provide French resources and labour for Germany. The collaboration of the Vichy state soon included the rounding up and deportation of foreign Jews and later included French Jews. It is estimated that a total of 76,000 Jews were deported and died in Nazi concentration camps, about a quarter of the total population of Jews living in France at the time.

PetinMeanwhile, Charles de Gaulle, supported by the British, led the Free French Forces, organising resistance groups within the occupied territories and the Vichy State. After the allied invasion in June 1944, the Vichy regime fled to Germany and in October 1944, the allies recognised De Gaulle as the leader of the new French Republic.

In July 1945, Petain was convicted of treason. At his trial Pétain proclaimed that while Charles de Gaulle had represented the “sword” of France, Pétain had been the “shield”. Some of Petain’s political colleagues had already been executed, but he was instead given a life sentence, possibly due to the historic ambiguity of the creation of the Vichy State. Other collaborators were not brought to trial or convicted until 1980s and 1990s.

DSCF1789But rather than dwell on the past, Vichy is forging ahead with its future. The beautiful old spa buildings which once provided health care paid for by the French government are gradually being replaced by more modern hotel spa facilities which are privately owned and able to charge for their luxury treatments. And, the curative spring waters are bottled and sold worldwide, but if you happen to visit the town then you can sample some for free.


For more about France in World War II see Oradour-Sur-Glane.


Roquefort – The Lacaune Ewe and the Fleurine Caves

I may have mentioned this before, but I am a cheese monster. I can never get enough of the stuff and there’s nothing better than a wedge of cheese, some slices of cured sausage and an apple for lunch. So, I am naturally drawn to the small village of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon where the creamy, blue-veined cheese is ripened in the damp, underground caves.

On my way there, I was surprised by the lack of Lacaune sheep in the fields. The ewes can produce up to 240 litres while lactating and it is this milk which forms the base of the creamy Roquefort cheese.

DSCF1484A large car park with Motorhome services is available at the entrance of the village, next to the tourist office which, as usual, is closed at the weekend. I’ve never understood why French tourist offices close at the weekend out of season, when this is the most likely time that they will receive visitors. Luckily, I already have a map of the village and so I take a path through the woods and up into the heart of the cheese-making caves. If you have ever bought Roquefort cheese in your local supermarket, then it is most likely to have been produced by the large commercial enterprise of Societe. I tend to avoid such places in favour of seeking out the smaller, less well known producers who offer a more personal touch. This is how I end up in the family owned cave of Gabriel Coulet.

DSCF1478I’m greeted with a smile as I enter the shop and shown to a door where my cave visit begins. A short video explains the method of manufacture of this rather pungent cheese whose scent permeates the whole village. First the sheep are milked and the curds are cultured with a natural penicillin which produces the blue veins. It is then packed into circular moulds and the resulting rounds are salted before the cheese is stored openly for several days in the underground caves where the limestone fissures, known as fleurines, provide a unique ventilation and ensure the cheese ripens.

The next part of the tour takes me down into the caves themselves where hundreds of rounds of cheese are stored on wooden racks. I’m surprised that health and safety regulations allow me to be so close to the cheese until I realise that it is not cheese at all, but polystyrene blocks for display purposes. The real cheese is stacked in plastic crates behind a glass partition where it meets EU regulations.

DSCF1483The cheese is eventually returned to the factory where it is covered in tin foil and further ripened. Three varieties are produced – 8 months, 10 months and 22 months – each colour coded by the packaging. The last part of the tour exhibits the traditional cheese-making equipment and some old photos showing the way the cheese was produced a hundred years ago. It has all changed now. The cheese is no longer milked by hand and no longer stored openly on wooden shelves, more machinery is involved and less manpower is required.


DSCF1486Back in the shop, I’m offered the chance to try the Roquefort, as well as some other local cheeses and cured sausage. My favourite is the 10 month old version and I am able to buy it in small individually wrapped pieces. I also receive some leaflets with recipes ranging from the bizarre prawns in coconut milk with Roqufort, chicken tajine with Roquefort and clementine cheesecake with Roquefort, to the more mainstream omelette, quiche and pasta.




In order to burn off the calories of my cheese tasting, I decide to seek out the Soulzon menhir by following a path down to the river. It’s muddy and littered with fallen brown leaves but I persevere and eventually find the large rock actually in the river. However, I’m unable to find the continuation of the path and end up backtracking up a steep slope back to the village. It’s a tough climb and by the time I reach the top I find I’m in need of an energy boost so I seek out another cheese producer with the beautiful name of Papillion (Butterfly). It takes a while to locate them as they have moved premises and when I enter the new shop, it is sterile and unwelcoming, as is the shop assistant. There is no cave visit and I am not offered and tasting samples. What a different experience, and one that does not encourage me to buy their product, but the beautiful butterfly themed packaging makes for a nice gift.

What to know more about French cheese?

St Nectaire


The Devil and the Desert

DSCF1340Aniane is a shitty little place, and I mean that quite literally. You have to really watch your step while walking around town due to all the doggy deposits!

I’m searching for the Abbey which was founded by St Benoit in 782. What remain at the site today are the large, cold, damp and dim church of Saint Sauveur and the badly neglected adjoining buildings. In 2011 money was provided for the restoration of the abbey but it looks as if little has been spent in the last 5 years.


DSCF1299Back in 804 St Benoit greatly influenced Guilhem, cousin of Charlemagne and military campaigner who fought, and defeated, the moors in Barcelona. Wanting to find some peace from the fighting and perhaps atone for his sinful killing, he headed up to the Herault Gorge, close to Aniane, and founded an abbey there in the seclusion of Gelonne. Its remote location is how the village earned its hyphenated name of St Guilhem-le-Desert. After his death and due to a gift of Charlemagne to the Abbey of a piece of the “true cross”, pilgrims began to visit the site and a village soon grew along the Verdus valley to house the pilgrims. It soon became an important stopping place on the route of St James.

Pilgrims and tourists are still welcomed today, but not if they are travelling in a motorhome. Despite there being an empty car park at the base of the village, there is a 2m height barrier and so I am forced to drive a further 2km along the river to a kayak hire spot and then return on foot.


It’s a Friday lunchtime in January and the village is living up to its name and is totally deserted. All the craft shops are closed and only 3 overpriced restaurants selling pancakes and pizzas offer sustenance to the hungry soul.


DSCF1287The abbey church of Gellone is cold and dark but that doesn’t stop a lone pilgrim from sitting on the floor, quietly meditating in front of the main altar. The cloister is disappointing, having been stripped of its architectural beauty during the French Revolution and they are now located in the Cloisters Museum in New York (part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Luckily, some religious gems, like the cloister of Fontfroide Abbey, remain in their original location.

Between Aniane and Guilhem is an 11th century stone bridge spanning the end of the Herault Gorge. Nearby is a huge car park (free and empty at this time of year) which offers a park and ride facility in the summer to St Guilhem and the caves along the gorge.

DSCF1312I take a peaceful walk down to the large, pebble beach to look at the bridge and then clamber up the cliff to walk across it. The story goes that when Guilhem was building the bridge (not actually possible given a difference of two centuries – but it’s a good story!) he sought the help of the Devil by offering him the soul of the first creature to walk across it. After 3 days work, the bridge was finished and Guilhem craftily sent across a dog. The Devil was angry at having been deceived and tried to destroy his work, throwing himself into the waters below, creating a black abyss.

DSCF1329Today the Devil still claims souls as a plaque in the centre of the bridge testifies. Between 2010 and 2013 one person died and four were paralyzed after foolishly jumping off the bridge into the river below. Perhaps the sign will dissuade others from the same fate, though I doubt it.