Exploring France

toutes directionsI’m closing an existing blog and, rather than lose the posts have put them on a page – ‘Exploring France’ -which you can find above the header photograph alongside ‘Home’ and ‘About’.

I’ve put two up here on the main blog previously…but I think they best belong in a category of their own, describing as they do some early visits to France…long before I ever came to live there.

It strikes me as being a rather clumsy process….one following on from the other…so if anyone has any idea as to how to better present them I’d be glad to hear!

But, for the monent, there they are…demerdez-vous!

Victor…A Word…

john-piper-mosnac-dordogne.jpgOn a wet afternoon in western France a gendarmerie van pulls into the farmyard…its sole occupant gets out shouting

Hoy, Victor! A word!

Hello Jean-Yves! What brings you here? I’m in the barn…just a minute while I shut the doors and we’ll have a drink…

No, don’t shut the doors, Victor….it’s about what you’ve got in that barn that I’ve come about.

On your own, I see.

Yes, I’m trying to do you a good turn….let me see what you’ve got there. Yes, just as I thought!
Victor, you’ll have to get rid of it…put it back where you found it…and quickly.
There’s all hell to pay.
Everyone’s out looking for it and they’ve even taken us off speed traps and breathalysers.

Must be serious then!

Yes, it is!
Apart from you having stolen property in your barn…what the blazes do you want with a bulldozer that size? You haven’t got enough land to make it worthwhile – and how did you get it here from the new bypass anyway?

Ah! Typical!
Us farmers are getting robbed all ways…..diesel syphoned off, animals killed in our own fields, tools stolen, irrigation pipes nicked – even whole crops gone!
Look at that poor guy who had his whole field of garlic nicked….and the forty hectares of grapes that went missing overnight….not to speak of combine harvesters vanishing into thin air!
And where are the Gendarmerie? Breathalysing some poor sod who’s been out drowning his sorrows!

Well it’s not my fault….only a few more years to the pension, thank goodness.
It’s not what I joined for I can tell you…

No, I know Jean-Yves.
When you started there were still bars in your stations – and you were a hell of a lot nicer for it! I reckon that the rot started when they closed down them down.
You turned nasty about then…applying the law to people you knew…
Still, what I mean is that us farmers can have our stuff nicked left, right and centre…but let some big roadworks contractor miss his bulldozer – you’d think he’d got enough, wouldn’t you? – you’re all on red alert!
No wonder we’ll all be voting Le Pen in the elections!

That’s as maybe…but I can tell you that a big firm like Crapule gets a lot more attention in high places than you lot. Might be different if you were cereal boys…in the big league…but you’re not!
The firm thought the ‘dozer had been whipped off to Germany….like a lot of other stuff. You boys are lucky you’re not nearer the frontier.

Clever buggers, the Germans.

What do you mean?

Well, they worked out they didn’t have to have a war to get what they wanted this time….they thought up the E.U.
See, in the war they had to go round requisitioning…this way government – our government – does it for them.
They get cheap veg and flog expensive cars.
Bit like Vichy, really, but more efficient. Very hot on efficiency the Germans…

Come off it Victor! You’re not telling me the Germans are using the E.U. to nick combine harvesters and fields of garlic…

No, but they run the show, don’t they! Remember when Hollande got in and what he was going to say to Merkel?
Turned out to be ‘Jawohl’, didn’t it…
No, the E.U. lets these crooks from Transylvania in and they nick the stuff, take it to Germany and the Germans get it on the cheap…
Clever buggers, like I said.

Never mind all that! You’ll have to get it back there…or dump it somewhere…and sharpish!

Well, we’ve finished with it now anyway, so I’ll get Laurent to run it into Ste. Conasse tonight, dump it round the back where it’s dark. Just make sure you’re not out breathalysing between here and there.

No, all right…but who is ‘we’? You and Laurent?

No! There’s me, of course, and Jean-Antoine and Popaul…here, you’re not taking notes!

No, just interested to know what’s going on. That’s what policing used to be about…
So what the blazes were you three geriatrics up to? Put together you don’t have enough land to make that ‘dozer worthwhile…

That’s where you’re wrong!
It’s the eco tax…you know, the one on lorries that comes in in January. Going to be taxed by the lorry…tollgates going up all over the main roads…
Gerard over at the roads department in Benitierville put us wise! There’s going to be one between us and the abattoir! It’s only down the road…but we’ll have to pay as if we’d been coming from Normandy!

Well you weren’t thinking of using the ‘dozer to knock the tollgate down, were you?

No! We might be old but we’re not stupid!
We had a word with Olivier down at the abattoir and he reckons that we can get in on the back road from St. Ragondin round by les Deux Biscouilles without any problem.

But how are you going to get to St. Ragondin? You’ve still got the main road to deal with.

Ah. that’s why we wanted the bulldozer.
We’ve made a road across our fields to link up with the footpath that brings us out just this side of the village….where the old railway line used to be. A bit of hardcore in bad weather and we’re sorted.
So they can stuff their tollgate…we won’t be paying!
Eco this, eco that….just another word for tax!
It’s bad enough with their blasted windmills…electricity bill up through the roof…but a tax on going a few kilometres is a step too far!

Well, just get rid of it Victor…tonight! You don’t want anyone else knowing you’ve got it…the adjutant is up the wall!

Hang on a minute, how did you know to come round here?

Well, it couldn’t have been the manouches….they were having a face off with our boys with chainsaws at the campsite that night…..so the only other alternative was a totally irresponsible idiot…and that’s when I thought of you!

That evening, at the gendarmerie station, the adjutant answers the ‘phone.

Here, says a voice, I reckon you should know….

Know what?

Well, that windfarm at the back of Ste. Conasse…someone’s driven a bulldozer in there and there’s a hell of a mess….metal all over the place and the gyppos are carting it off by the truckload…….

The illustration is ‘Mosnac, Dordogne’ by John Piper.

Off the tourist trail in France

It’s a day for trying new things…..thanks to Kerry Dywer who featured a WordPress challenge to embed and use a Google Maps image on the blog.

Those who know my lack of intuition, ability and patience with anything to do with computers – especially Ayak and Perpetua – prepare to sit down before you collapse….as I’ve actually managed to download a map!

To be fair, the instructions were very clear!

It’s nowhere near so elegant and professional as the map Kerry has on her blog post….but for me it’s a triumph and I can try to improve the technique for future posts.

What you have below…though I suggest that you click on the larger map facility as I made a horlicks of downloading a larger version….is a map of the country south of Saumur on the Loire and what I propose is to turn my back on the well trodden chateaux trail and wander upstream on the River Thouet, to look at what can be learned of French history in the hinterland.

The guidebooks are clear on what there is to see in Saumur….the chateau, of course, the town hall, the streets of the old town, the cavalry museum and the wonderful tank museum…..

The well known image of Saumur, from the Tourist Office site

I would add taking a tour on one of the traditional boats….a gabare or the smaller toue…

A meeting of traditional Loire boats, from the tourist office website

While for anyone keen on horses a trip to the stables of the Cadre Noir is a must…even if you’re not there at the right time for the performances.

A wonderful image from Wikipedia

You’ll find the Cadre Noir out in a suburb of Saumur…St. Hilaire St. Florent where on the marshy land of the then delta of the river Thouet where it joins the Loire, people were living before Saumur was founded.

So let’s follow the Thouet back into the quiet countryside of vines, woods and white villages which lie behind Saumur.

Leaving town on the straight road running through Bagneux – and visiting or not its well known dolmen in the grounds of a caff – at the top of the hill take a turning on the left which will turn into the D360 for Munet and…our target, Artannes sur Thouet which has one of the nicest videos of its commune that I have come across…do follow the link, it is a sheer joy.
This quiet little village bears signs of early human passage….

magalithic bridge at artannes

other bridge

pierre fiche

as witnessed by the neolithic standing stone and the two megalithic bridges tucked away in the quiet woods and streams around the village…..while its romanesque church dreams on among its trees.

All photographs from the website of the commune of Artannes sur Thouet
All photographs from the website of the commune of Artannes sur Thouet

You won’t find crowds of tourists at Artanne, just a living village in a beautiful setting.

As you leave it on the D360 you will see a turning to the right which would lead you to another world…to le Coudray Macouard perched on its hill….

le coudray macouard

The village, which grew within the fortifications of the old chateau, is a model of modern tourism….from it’s windvane exhibition

windvane coudray

to the silk exhibition…everything from worm to fabric.

silk works

It is so self consciously charming that you begin to wonder if its inhabitants are real…or whether they are as ephemeral as the actors in the historical sound and light shows given in the season.

Instead of taking the turning to the right, we are going straight over the crossroads…as I’m taking you somewhere else.

To Bron. To see this.

aerial view of the lock at Bron by Jacques Sigot
aerial view of the lock at Bron by Jacques Sigot

This aerial view shows best why this lock is important, marking progress in controlling the level of water needed by boats travelling up and down stream.
The earliest locks were gaps left in solid dams, blocked by a gate which had to be raised to allow boats to pass. As can be imagined, this process let water through in a great rush…the boats shot forward on a waterfall and having to have a line attached for safety, while upstream the millers cursed as the levels lowered dramatically, disabling their mills.

This dam is an oval enclosure, with gates at each end…..limiting the water loss upstream and making the passage safer for the boats and boatmen. A step towards the modern lock which revolutionised fluvial transport.
There are three on the Thouet, dating certainly from the early years of the seventeenth century and possibly earlier…and, according to the local expert, not many elsewhere.

Taking the country road through the fields we will pass the chateau of la Salle, where there is another such lock and the little river port of Ste. Catherine, marking the limit of navigation, crossing the bridge to enter Montreuil Bellay under the walls and towers of its fairytale castle.

wikipedia.fr
wikipedia.fr

This is tourist country….wine tasting in the chateau’s barn, restaurants by the river, a camp site….but we’re not staying in the centre.
We’re going out on the road to Loudon to see the remains of a camp.
Not a Roman camp…but an internment camp.
Not ancient, but modern.

Jacques Sigot, a school teacher and local historian, came upon the remains while fossil hunting and his researches showed them to be part of the biggest internment camp for gypsies in wartime France.

From Jacques sigot's own archives
From Jacques Sigot’s own archives

This camp had originally been designated to keep Spanish Republicans, fleeing the revenge of Franco, under surveillance and then, when the Germans invaded, to house French POWs before shipping them to Germany and also to house British civilians rounded up in France.
Before the invasion, the French government had forbidden gypsies to travel, regarding them as a security risk, and the German authorities in their turn introduced a policy of internment.

Little was left of the camp when Monsieur Sigot came across it…and most of the remaining walls were destroyed – needlessly, he felt – so that the place and its purpose was scarcely remembered….a part of France’s wartime underbelly that was not meant to see the light of day.

Single handedly he has changed that by his tireless research and quest for publicity.

Chapeau Monsieur Sigot

Leaving the fortifications of Montreuil Bellay behind we are going to visit Saint Martin de Sanzay.
Not for the church, not for the chateaux and the old commanderie, but for the old flooded quarry…La Ballastiere.

deux sevres tourism
deux sevres tourism

Here is where you will find real France enjoying itself….the salle de fetes houses dances nearly every week end; the huge marquee can hold weddings, reunions…you name it; car rallies meet there; you can picnic by the waterside; you can fish…..it’s a slice of French life, and not on the tourist track.

Away again on the D158 and the D37, to the wonderfully named Ste. Verge and its church with the rare inscription on its walls

fondation patrimoine
fondation patrimoine

Then turn right on the side road towards Pompois and the Reserve Toarcien, conserving two old quarries where in 1849, the paleontologist Alcide d’Orbigny defined the stratotype of a layer dating back to the Jurassic system, the “Toarcien”. This level materializes a time interval comprised between 183 and 176 million years ago…..and to me is always associated with the ammonite fossils found all over the area.

ammonites etab - ac. poitiers

Then you are in the sprawl of the suburbs of Thouars, a town which is a very hotch potch of history.
From changing hands between English and French in the Hundred Years War, to being taken by the Vendeens in the post revolutionary civil war, to becoming a railway town with a vast locomotive plant – and then losing heart and energy and declining into the stagnation in which it now finds itself it, the town could stand as an example of many in rural France….but it has so much to see, from the fortifications

communaute de communes thouarsais
communaute de communes thouarsais

to its churches

communaute de communes thouarsais
communaute de communes thouarsais

its chateau overlooking the river

communaute de communes thouarsais
communaute de communes thouarsais

not to speak of the railway buffs’ delight, the Eiffel viaduct

communaute de communes thouarsais
communaute de communes thouarsais

that this wander upstream on the river Thouet will end here…to encourage you to investigate Thouars over a glass of its very own aperitif…..Duhomard

barewalls
barewalls

Find out the story behind the name and I’ll stand you one in the Cafe des Arts. This could bankrupt me…