How Penguins Part from their Partners

Wikicommons Pere Igor
Wikicommons Pere Igor
Driving to and from the hospital at Poitiers I would be reminded that this was a landscape known to man for a long time, and that my preoccupations were nothing new under the sun.
Megaliths abounded in that area; menhirs and dolmens, bearing witness to the antiquity of the human presence – and how many more would there have been had they not been destroyed by forces of, successively, religion and agriculture.
In the commune where I first lived a dolmen had been blown up as late as 1912…..it was ‘in the way’.
North of Taize was a group of four…one clearly visible from the road, that Roman road from Poitiers to Nantes which was frequented by St. Hilaire of Poitiers, Apostle of Poitou and his follower, St. Martin of Tours in the fourth century A.D.
St. Martin les Baillargeaux, Noize
St. Martin les Baillargeaux, Noize
The church of Noize, now standing out in the fields far from the village, was named for St.Martin.
Its earlier parts date from the tenth century A.D, and it is supposed that, like many Christian sites, it took the place of a pagan temple…but I can’t imagine that either St.Hilaire or St. Martin would have left such a temple untouched.
baptisiere St. Jean, Poitiers l'internaute.com
baptisiere St. Jean, Poitiers
l’internaute.com
Normally I would have driven on..to the hospital outside Poitiers at La Miletrie, and with some time to spare would have visited the Baptistry of St. Jean, said to have been founded by St.Hilaire in the period when baptism by immersion was the rule…but today I will turn aside between Taize and Noize to go to Oiron, via Bilazais.

fontaine de bilazais site officiel de la commune de oiron
fontaine de bilazais
site officiel de la commune de oiron
Bilazais is today, as it always was, an undistinguished little village……but it could have made its fortune had an entrepreneur taken it in hand in the great days of the spa, at the end of the nineteenth century. Its waters were the equal of those at Bareges in the Pyrenees…but in the late nineteenth century it was easier to go from Paris to Bareges than to Bilazais…so the fountains of Bilazais slumbered on…the source no longer even used for the health of the old people in the almshouses in Oiron, just up the road.

Those almshouses had been founded by Madame de Montespan.….once the mistress of the Sun King Louis XIV…. when, retired from the court, she took up residence at the Chateau d’Oiron.

Chateau d'Oiron monuments. nationaux.fr
Chateau d’Oiron
monuments. nationaux.fr
An ambitious woman, she had succeeded in becoming the king’s mistress by pretending to befriend the then holder of the title, Louise de la Valliere, and – with or without the aid of black magic – had succeeded in supplanting her.
The relationship was so notorious that in 1675 the Church refused to allow the king to take communion at Easter unless he parted from his favourite…..and eventually the his Most Christian Majesty agreed to the separation….which lasted no time at all and once reunited added two more illegitimate children to the quiverful already produced between them.

In her turn she was to be supplanted…first by a silly girl who died in mysterious circumstances….then by the woman she had hired to bring up the brood of royal bastards, Mme. Scarron, whose aim was to draw the King back onto the path of virtue….and did it so well that after the death of the Queen Louis married her.

But the Sun King was courteous where women were concerned….he would raise his hat in their presence whether the woman be countess or chambermaid…..and Mme. de Montespan was not banished from Versailles.
She remained at court until her children, now legitimised to the fury of the aristocracy, made splendid marriages and only then did she retire from public life. Comforted by a generous pension she turned her attention to improving her chances in the afterlife by taking to religion and good works. Thus the almshouses at Oiron.

Louis XIV had a sense of his own worth which attached to anyone to whom he had given marks of favour: the glamour of his attachment extended to seeing that his favourites – and ex favourites – were respected.

Francois Hollande, President of the French Republic, has a well developed sense of his own worth too….at his recent meeting with the Pope in the Vatican he had his backside well anchored to a chair while the other Francis was still on his feet. Someone should tell him that one may be an atheist without being impolite.

But the signs were there….at the handover of power he turned on his heel to enter the Elysee Palace, leaving Sarkozy and his wife to find their own way to their car, which may have been the inspiration for Carla Bruni-Sarkozy’s song…Le Pingouin.
I don’t propose to inflict it on you….you can look it up for yourselves on Youtube….but the penguin of the title is popularly supposed to be Francois Hollande.

A clumsy gait, but a superior air; sure of himself; a sly narcissistic cheapskate; and cold hearted to those around him.

Judge for yourselves….

But he is scarcely the Sun King, our Hollandouille: where the former would have raised his hat to his former mistress the latter could only manage…..the finger.

Givingthefinger

How I came to France

I blame the nineteen thirties Popular Front government of France and the BBC.

In pursuance of that government’s efforts to rouse a nationalistic revival to counter the growing threat of Hitler’s Germany, Jean Renoir, son of the painter, made a patriotic film, ‘La Marseillaise’, following a group of ordinary men on their journey from Marseilles to Paris and their participation in the first bloody acts of what was to become the French Revolution.

I saw this film on the television when a schoolgirl and Baroness Orczy and the Scarlet Pimpernel went out of the window.Tout de suite.

I was enthused by the young nation of France….its battles against the armies of the monarchies of Prussia and Austria…its advances into the states of Italy….the brilliant soldiers it threw up from the mass armies invented and supported by the great Lazare Carnot, ‘organisateur de la victoire’ (organiser of victory).

Forgive me…..I was young.

A blue revolutionary coat had a similar effect on me as did a scarlet one on the younger daughters of Mr. Bennet….but without the risks brought about by physical proximity.

France took a hold…I read its history, fell on ‘Les Rois Maudits’ (the accursed kings), in which the end of the Capetian dynasty was recounted by Maurice Druon, at one end of the spectrum and the Paris Commune at the other…..but I did not go to France until I was a student, in command of my local authority grant.

The grant was not munificent…but it felt like it.

Carefully managed it would keep a roof (leaky) over my head, allow me to eat in Chinese and Indian restaurants, buy books without stinting and, finally, allow me to buy a fortnight on the trains of France.

In those pre internet days one booked a ticket by going to the offices of French railways in Piccadilly and handing over the ready, but before parting with the uckers forward planning was necessary.

I could not afford hotels as well as the train ticket, so with the aid of a copy of the Thomas Cook railway timetable for Europe I would plan out a series of journeys by overnight train, allowing me in those pre terrorist days to leave my luggage in a station locker for the day while I explored the area before taking another overnight train to a new destination.

I became an adept…crossed hammers and jours feries held no terrors for me as I plotted my way round the main lines of France!

Inevitably it was best to buy a separate ticket to Paris to get most value from the fortnight’s ticket….the first demonstration of how everything in France begins and ends in Paris…so with my rucksack charged with changes of clothing and a bag of sandwiches I would set off from London for the ferry to Calais, aiming to arrive in Paris in the evening, ready for the first train out after midnight for the first day of my adventure.

At that time you did not need daylight to know that you were arriving at Calais….day or night on the approaches to the dock you were overwhelmed by the smell of drains. The only smell to compare with it is the stench which hits you when you open the door of a French restaurant serving andouillette (cow gut sausage) as the dish of the day in mid August.

You know you are in France.

Calais docks always seemed pretty derelict as far as passenger infrastructure was concerned….one would leave the ferry via the gangplank and wander off along the cobbles to a sort of concrete wasteland inhabited by trains…..sleepers off to the Alps and everyday trains to Paris, stopping at every halt en route.

Of course, we had to climb up into these trains from a low level platform….no problem when young and agile, but advancing years present the traveller with the alternatives of mounting the steps and swinging the luggage forward or throwing the luggage first, caber tossing style, and following after.

Why do the French think the British have proper platforms if not to avoid lower back injuries and claims for tights ripped in the crotch.

The train itself at that period had compartments linked by a corridor, plastic seats and somewhere to hook your rifle should you be called to the front because the Germans had reverted to type and invaded in August.
It had conductors with hats resembling those of admirals and no toilets for the convenience of its passengers as it hauled its way to Boulogne via Wimille-Wimereux, then Etaples and Abbeville to Amiens before collecting itself for the last gallop over the chalk downs with their clumps and clouds of woodland to the valley of the Seine and Paris itself.

The Gare du Nord was shabby and grubby, with toilets guarded by dragons with saucers for the (obligatory) tips, but it marked the start of the adventure.

I would pick up my bags, walk down to the Algerian Stores on the corner to buy a bottle of wine with a plastic top and five stars on the neck, a chunk of sausage and a roll or two and then, turning my back resolutely to the glowing neon sign of the Hotel Kuntz, would head for whichever station held my midnight express.

Nothing New Under The Sun…

dicese-poitiers.com.fr

As the French economy turned down and the votes for the Front National turned up the Sarkozy government thought best to draw the fangs of the FN by starting a debate about what it was to be French, which roused a great deal of noise and fury but arrived at no conclusions.

Waste of time, of course: any reader of the Daily Mail has the answer on the tip of the tongue….
Eats snails, has unsavoury urinatory habits in the male (possible link?) and makes improper use of hand and head when playing football.

And there was even an answer in France among – the beaufs – not that they would be listened to as not having passed the portals of the Grandes Ecoles, except as labourers…..
Anyone born in France who is not a bougnoul.

A bougnoul?

Someone of North African descent, now extended to anyone darker skinned than the average non bougnoul Frenchman.

The word might be relatively modern….probably from the colonisation of Algeria….but the sentiment is not.

I would often be included in the boules party at Jules’ place when walking the dogs in the evening, followed by the glass or two at the kitchen table, mustard glasses on the oilcloth and a plate of biscuits put out but left untouched.
They were the sign that we were not alcoholics….just there for the booze…but they remained untouched.

Jules was recounting a run in he had had with a man who had bought one of his sheep and was reluctant to pay for it….a man from the next commune just over the departmental line.

His wife was not surprised. She certainly wouldn’t have dealt with the man.

Who is it, I asked, curiosity being my besetting sin.

That man out at Humeau….you know…does eau de vie and honey.

Yes, I did. Sold under cover eau de vie at higher prices to foreigners.

Not that you can trust any of that lot out there, she continued. They all have the ‘teint bazane’. (acute accent on the final e).

Teint bazane? Swarthy.
Not, in my view, noticably so compared with their neighbours on this side of the departmental line…but enlightenment was at hand.

Descended from the Saracens beaten by Charles Martel at Poitiers! They ran and hid in the forests and there they are today!

Given that this was in the 1980s and the battle of Poitiers was in 732 that seemed a mighty feat of folk memory. Clearly these early immigrants from North Africa had about the same level of appreciation as did the later wave of new arrivals.

Further to the south, a commune bears a name referring to a legend concerning the same flight of the defeated from the battlefield…..St. Sauveur de Givre en Mai – Holy Saviour of Frost in May.

Legend has it that a band of Saracens holed up in the local church in the month of May some six months after the battle, defying all efforts to dislodge them.
Eventually they made an agreement…if there was frost overnight, they would surrender.
Coming from southern climes, they could not imagine such a thing, but, lo and behold when they emerged the next morning, the ground was covered in frost and the trees were white.
They marched out with the honours of war…to leave the village in peace.

Ancestors of the honey man at Humeau? Who knows.

Ah! Say those who know their rural France…the Saracens had not reckoned with the Saints de Glace…the Ice Saints.
St. Mamert, feast day on May 11th; St. Pancrace, feast day on May 12th; St. Servais, feast day on May 13th.
One of the first things I was warned of by my neighbours when moving to France was not to let the sudden warmth of spring go to my head in the garden.
On top of not casting clouts I had to beware of the ‘lune rousse’ in April and May when the sudden chill risked burning the young shoots and the Ice Saints.

Only when their three feast days had passed should I even think of planting out the tomatoes….

As in the case of the sheep, a financial reversal can bring up all sorts of reactions, and racism is one of them.
Nothing new under the icy skies of the economic lune rousse.

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…