Friday 2nd May 2014, Caen.
During our second stay in Caen we visited a recently installed vélo-rail which runs along the valley of the Orne just south of Caen. We have come across these before. For 20 Euros it is possible to hire a four-seater pedal-powered railcar for two hours, cycle up the track in convoy where the vehicles are turned round, there is time for a coffee and then back the way you came. It sounds good fun for a group of reasonably fit people and there are over forty such routes across France, keeping more than 1,000 kilometres of track in use.
This length of track was maintained largely by volunteers and there was a very informative exhibition in the ticket office, which was an old mail waggon, the pigeon-holes for sorting mail being occupied by tourist leaflets.
We also experienced French bureaucracy when we used the cash machine near the market in Caen. It dispensed three 50 Euro notes and we went inside to try to change two of them into twenties. They asked whether we had an account with them and when we said no they refused. So we retrieved Geneviève, shopping basket under her arm, who confirmed that she had an account with them. We went back into the bank and she handed over the notes, and gave her account number. A form was filled out and the bank clerk disappeared for what seemed and eternity, eventually returning with five 20 Euro notes and a printed receipt, which was supposed to be signed by both parties:
Received: 2x50 Euros
Dispensed: 5x20 Euros
We were not the only ones waiting for this; perhaps it will make them realise that 50 Euro notes are not the most practical denomination to dispense from cash machines.
Sunday 4 May Châteaudun
We left Caen today, heading on a leisurely course for the Jura. As most of the routes out of Caen are all too familiar to us, we started by skirting the hilly area known (with just a touch of exaggeration) as the Suisse Normande, then past Flers, through Alençon and on into the interminable pains to the north of the Loire. We did not make as good progress as we had hoped and found a cheap but pleasant municipal campsite by the river at Châteaudun.
Monday 5 May Romorantin-Lanthenay
Châteaudun was a delight. Built high on a ridge above the river Loir (the smaller one without the final "e") it was spaciously laid out on a grid pattern largely as a result of rebuilding after a disastrous fire in the 1720s. Fortunately this spared the area where the magnificent castle was located. With its massive medieval tower and elegant Renaissance wing it must rank as one of the major chateaux of the region. A group of five-year olds was being shown round when we visited. They were told the boys were going to be knights and the girls would be ladies in flowing gowns and they were going into the big tower (gasps of expectation) and would end up at a banquet to be held by the noble lord. "And do knights and ladies run about and shout?" asked the guide. "Nooo!!!" came a chorus. It was delightful to watch. How do such enthusiastic young minds end up as uninterested teenagers ten years on?
The town received more destruction in October 1870 when, after a siege during which the defenders had erected 28 barricades Prussian cavalry advanced from the direction of Orleans. After hand-to-hand fighting against 12,000 troops armed with 24 canons the town was captured, despite the actions of sharp-shooters from behind the barricades. There was particularly hard fighting in the square in front of the town hall.
We decided to bypass Orléans, crossing the Loire at Beaugency and heading south through a region that our Michelin map claimed was sprinkled liberally with lakes. We craned our necks but didn't glimpse any of them. They were set back from the road behind waterlogged woodlands. Nevertheless it was worth driving through as it was really the depths of rural France with scarcely any sign of habitation but heathlands blazing yellow with broom bushes. Eventually we arrived at the campsite in Romorantin where we are spending the night.
Tuesday 6 May Saint Amand-Montrond
Romorantin was a pleasant enough town when we looked around it in the morning but had little to detain us. We noted as we passed the market hall that there was to be a festival of strawberries and asparagus during the coming week and as we drove on through the empty countryside we saw why. Either side of the road were neatly planted fields of asparagus meticulously earthed up in never-ending rows and in one field we saw workeers busily engaged in harvesting them. With the women in their headscarves and the men with their spades and hoes, it looked like an eastern European scene and we speculated that they may in fact employ Romanian workers as seasonal agricultural labourers.
We were making for Bourges, which is a large city isolated in the midst of a thinly populated region. From a distance we could see the ill-matched twin towers of the cathedral rising above the countryside. The cathedral itself proved to be a gem. Constructed in early gothic style over a relatively short period between 1195 and 1245, its lofty interior is very harmonious. It is unusual in having no transepts but five naves, each with its own entrance on the elaborately decorated west front. The different form of the two towers is explained by the north one having collapsed in 1506 and having been rebuilt with late gothic and some renaissance elements.
The glory of the cathedral is its stained glass windows, both the 13th century ones, many of them paid for by various guilds of the town, and the renaissance ones.
There was also an astronomical clock dating from the 1420s, one of the earliest in France, providing evidence that the mechanics who constructed it had a very accurate idea of the exact length of the year.
The town itself had medieval buildings in all shapes and sizes, It was the birthplace of Jacques Coeur, the silversmith and financier of Charles VII a wealthy man with property scattered across the kingdom. Among more modern buildings we were amused to see on the main street that competition must have existed between two department stores, Etablissements Aubrun and Nouvelles Galeries, who each built massive art deco buildings on adjoining street corners.
That was about 2000 years after Bourges had been established by the Romans, taking advantage of the high ground to build their fortress. Seeming to span the centuries was one establishment that intrigued us: the office of a public scribe. We had seen similar premises in Morocco and knew they existed in England and France in earlier centuries. This updated version could help with often complex administrative correspondence, letters of application, CVs or more informal life stories, proof-reading manuscripts or calligraphy.
Our onward journey took us through the village of Bruyère-Alichamps, proudly claiming to be the centre of France. There was an inscribed column in the middle of the street but we did not stop to ascertain that it did mark the precise spot. We passed it by, rather daunted that it had taken us several days just to get half way across this country.
Wednesday 7 May 2014, Louhans.
At about 10.30 Modestine shook beneath us for no obvious reason. There was no sound of passing traffic or of any explosion. The whole thing lasted only a few seconds and was very slight, so we wonder whether there was a minor earth tremor. A less minor tremor happened to Modestine when we left the campsite this morning as we managed to reverse her into the washing-up stand. Our reversing bleepers alert us to ground level obstructions but not roof level ones. No major damage; a slight dent to their roof and Modestine acquired a bruise of tar which we were unable to remove. She will have to carry her battle scars until we reach Roland who is the village handyman and will certainly have some white spirit or other solvent.
We looked briefly at Amand-Montrond before moving on – a pleasant enough little place but with nothing to detain us and drove on eastwards through pleasant rolling countryside until we stopped for a rest in the little village of Bourbon-Lancy. In the car park was a restored ice-making machine. By chance the person responsible for restoring it was explaining the workings to a friend and we were able to join in and learn how it had been working for three generations in a nearby chateau but had been abandoned in the 1920s. The Germans attempted to revive its activities but the retired engineer was less than co-operative, so it sank into abandoned oblivion until our friend discovered it in an overgrown ruin in the 1990s. We heard about the struggle with local authorities to find a place for it to be displayed and the task he had in finding how it worked, restoring missing pieces, carving pullies from wood and assembling the parts. The compressor pump for the refrigerating gases had been driven by a water-powered turbine and the ice was formed in massive hoppers to ensure their survival during transportation. It had not been possible to reassemble the entire machine and spare hoppers were used as flower container and metal pulleys served as bench ends. He was justifiably proud of what he had done and delighted that two English visitors had shown an interest. He and his friend felt that Britain led the way in conserving industrial heritage, which is not entirely true as there are many excellent industrial sites in France.
We hoped to spend the night at Châlon-sur-Saône which had struck us as an interesting town when we visited it briefly in 2012 for Jill to be diagnosed with ocular shingles. But this was not to be. All Chalons was making an early get-away for the Armistice Day public holiday and having missed a turning to the campsite at one particularly hair-raising roundabout we could not face trying to brave the traffic again.
So we drove on across the Plain of Bresse to arrive at Louhans and an excellent cheap municipal campsite.
Thursday 8 May (Armistice Day) Doucier
We almost left without giving a second look at Louhans, but are so pleased that we stayed on. It is a little town of about 7,000 inhabitants, the capital of the Plain of Bresse. It once had an encircling wall with gates and towers, but these were demolished in the 1780s and only one brick-built medieval tower remains. The town hall was built in the 18th century incorporating one of the town gates and the arch remains.
Half timbering with brick infill is the traditional building material in the Bresse, and the church was built in brick with gothic stonework finishing, and roofed with the polychrome tiles so popular in the Burgundian region.
As a regional capital Louhans had some importance in past centuries and a visible manifestation of this is the impressive 17th century Hôtel-Dieu or hospital with a pharmacy museum containing an excellent display of ceramic medicine containers.
The main street of the town, like several others in the region, is lined with arcades. These are less elegant than those in Lons-le-Saunier, being in all shapes and sizes, but providing shade on hot summers days and shelter from rain and snow.
Our inspection of the arcades was cut short by the emergence from a side street of the town band. We had seen them assembling by the band stand near the town hall and now we could hear them in all their raucous splendour. We have always been delighted at the ragged cacophony of French local bands but, seeing them from close up we can now appreciate that this is in large part due to their use of brass instruments without any valves. We followed them and the procession of volunteer firemen, police, banner carrying veterans and general public along the main street and across the bridge to the war memorial where they were joined by a rather more polished band with clarinets and other more hi-tech instruments who were the ones who played the Marseillaise after a touching little ceremony where wreaths were laid and banners dipped to honour the war dead on the anniversary of the end of World War 2.
We also came across a local celebrity Ferdinand Berthier (1803-1886), known as the Napoleon of the deaf and dumb who was the first deaf and dumb knight of the Legion d'Honneur, founder of the first Association for the deaf and dumb, teacher at the National Institute in Paris and a great campaigner for the use of sign language.
A roar of engines as we waited to cross the road to return to Modestine drew our attention to three English Triumph sports cars, presumably on their way to a rally somewhere.
Having heard the Marseillaise performed so rousingly we moved on to Lons-le-Saunier to pay our respects to its composer, Rouget de Lisle who was born there in 1760. He wrote the song in Strasbourg in 1792 and it became the marching song of the revolutionary armies.
We explored the arcades in the town and wandered round the open-air market but remembered the campsite there as being rather dire, so moved on to the little village of Doucier near Lac Chalain.
Friday 9th May Malbuisson, Franche-Comté
A calmer day today, driving along the winding roads through this beautiful region of France, along the edges of valleys with limestone rocks on one side and a drop through the trees to the river on the other, climbing up to the next level where the landscape opened out onto undulating meadows with cattle grazing and alpine style houses with large roofs and overhanging eaves under which wood was stored. At one point we stopped to look down onto the waterfall known as l'Eventail or the fan, the lowest of the cascades du Hérisson, as it emerged then vanished again behind the clouds that filled the valley.
Many of the buildings were faced with wooden shingles, others, even churches, were more prosaically faced with zinc sheeting.
After replenishing our food supplies in a dreary commercial area on the outskirts of Pontarlier we made our way up to the little border village of Les Fourgs, where the family of Françoise, one of Jill's colleagues at the convent school back in the 1960s, owned a large farm-house where the cattle shared the premises with the people and helped to keep the place warm. The place had changed beyond all recognition, being much smartened up, the wide bumpy road which used to run down the middle being newly metalled with neat kerbs, pavements and planted grass verges. Clearly winter sports visitors were being catered for but the most striking thing was the endless steam of cars crossing the border from Switzerland where French workers were attracted by the plentiful supply of jobs and low taxes.
The area is filled with lakes and this evening we are encamped beside one of them, the Lac St. Point, at the little village of Malbuisson, about 1,000 metres above sea level in the Haut Jura. We drank our wine on a little beach, watched by a swan, and we gazed up at the kites that wheeled high above us, mobbed by smaller birds.