Friday 22nd May 2015, Troyes
Knowing Ian as you do, you will appreciate that it was to his great joy to discover our visit to Troyes coincided with the final football match of the season and Troyes’ own team Estac was in an unassailable lead. Tonight it would be playing a home game. Even the buses flashed the slogan Bravo Estac and carried flags with the team's blue and white colours. And the recognition was well deserved, the club having lived up to its name: Espérance Sportive Troyes Aube Champagne. Since it dropped out of the first division in 2013 it has had a rough patch, but it certainly found its form this season, thanks in no small part to its African players. The forwards Babacar Guèye from Senegal and Henri Bienvenu from Cameroon played strong attacking football, only occasionally missing chances of scoring. The defence players, such as Mahamadou N'Diaye from Cameroon, and Franck Grandel from Guadeloupe played tightly as a team and countered attacks well, leaving little work for the goalkeeper Matthieu Dreyer. With a splendid run of seven victories in the last nine games they were in an unassailable position at the top of the division, having trounced Arles 4-0 at home and even beaten the redoubtable Nîmes 1-2 away. Only Brest and Nancy had broken their winning streak, both in away games. The final match against Châteauroux was only a matter of form and the reception dais was set up in front of the Hotel de Ville and the fireworks ready to be let off in the evening. It was their greatest day since they won the Intertoto Cup in 2001 after beating Newcastle United on the away goals rule after the score was 4–4 on aggregate.
Our walk down into Troyes this morning took us past street after street of mainly 16th century half timbered houses in various states of decay. Some had been restored with poor quality materials back in the 19th century which were now blackened and crumbling, others had modern plastic doors or worse. Many, thankfully, had been cared for and were wonderfully picturesque. Looking down cobbled side streets was like looking back at living history. Those buildings have been in continuous use for hundreds of years and the streets seemed unchanged – except for parked cars and modern drains.
Within the centre of the town the hundreds of such houses had their ground floors changed to accommodate shops and cafes. Usually this had been sympathetically done with efforts made not to destroy carved wooden beams and lintels where the remains of creatures, demons and foliage were frequently found. Turn down any side road though and the houses on either side leant forward alarmingly, their upper floors almost touching across the street while in the semi twilight at ground level, away from the glaring sunlight of the main street, the original cobbles made for uncomfortable walking. Seeing modern day people using their mobiles in such a setting seemed anachronistic.
The huge gothic cathedral of Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, dating from the 13th century, is awesome with its massive columns, its ribbed vaulting and stained glass windows - dating from the 13th to the 16th centuries. It is one of the major gothic churches of northern Europe. We spent a full hour exploring its treasures, some brought back from the crusades, its side chapels and its brightly coloured stained glass. The treasury holds some beautiful enamelled Limoges work as well as gold and silver plate. We were both particularly impressed by a small carved 10th century purpled ivory coffer from Byzantium, booty from the Crusades.
In the centre of the city we stopped to look at Les Halles. The inside was a cornucopia of foodstuffs artistically displayed and of the highest quality. Fish, freshly landed in Brittany, was laid out on ice while Breton lobsters, their pincers bound together, looked angrily at us through the side of the tank in which they waited for someone to plunge them into a cauldron of boiling water. Outside were boring clothes – sturdy undies, flowery pinnies and comfy slippers. Who wears such garments in modern cities? And despite its architectural charms from a time long past, Troyes is most definitely a modern city. It has several museum of merit including one of modern art and another for the fine arts. Ian though, was eager to see the public library with its amazing collection of early printed materials.
The Médiathèque du Grand Troyes is a modern building opened in 2002. It is fronted by a large square on the edge of the old city. Its dimensions are massive and it is home to one of the richest historical collections of any public library in France, although located in a town smaller than Exeter. When we arrived the square was being noisily used by crowds of children for a sports day, and the inside was by contrast vast and echoingly quiet.
Ian had hoped to see some of the chapbook collection – Troyes was the French centre of chapbook printing from the 17th to early 19th centuries as Epinal was for illustrated broadsheets in the later 19th century. Unlike in Sélestat, his wish was granted. In the modern library was a recreation of the Grande Salle of the old library, lined with 48,500 leather-bound volumes, mainly from former ecclesiastical libraries. The actual shelves and the arrangement are identical to the old library near the Musée Saint Loup.
Around the outside of the room was an exhibition celebrating the history of the library and its collections entitled "A thousand years of books in Troyes". There were illustrations of the library in the 19th and 20th centuries, even an example of an old card catalogue – remember those? Credit was given to major donors who included two former librarians, father and son, Louis and Alfred Morin. They gave the library their collection of chapbooks and a wide range of the 3,000 items in the library's collections of popular literature were on display. Their content was very varied, from traditional tales such as the Fours sons of Aymon, religious titles such as the Dance of death, items on the interpretation of dreams, humorous items on the relationship between the sexes, particularly scolded husbands.
During the French Revolution collections formed by religious foundations and the nobility were confiscated and placed in a repository in Troyes. Most of these became part of the public library although already in 1651 Jacques Hennequin, a canon of the Cathedral had bequeathed his collection of 4,600 books to the Franciscan convent to make it publicly available to the people of Troyes. The library also contains the collections of several humanist scholars, including Pontus de Tyard, one of the poets of the Pléiade and a friend of Ronsard and Du Bellay. A number of 16th century imprints were on display, including the first edition of the poems of Du Bellay.
For most people though the 1,700 illuminated manuscripts from such sources as the library of the Counts of Champagne and the library of Clairvaux Abbey must be the gems of the collection. Clairvaux was founded by St Bernard just 900 years ago in 1115 and it had an important scriptorium where books were copied and a distinctive monochrome style of illumination was developed. The collection includes a bible that was owned by St Bernard. The oldest manuscript in the collections is a Pastorale by Gregory the Great, written in about 600, one of very few complete manuscripts existing from this early period.
There was also a special exhibition on science and discovery during the Renaissance with early editions of Copernicus, the physician Ambroise Paré and others.
The main captions were in French with excellent English translations and they make an eloquent statement on the changing role of the public library in France:
"Libraries are now entering the era of digital images. Today multimedia and the internet are just as important as books as instruments of knowledge, culture and pleasure. Libraries however retain their importance as places for the transmission and the discovery of the written word. The heritage bequeathed by the men and women who preceded us forms the basis of our knowledge of the world. It is the story of this transmission, from generation to generation, which we invite you to follow here, through the example of the Municipal Library of Troyes. […] Had there not been monks to copy out manuscripts tirelessly in the gloomy and chilly abbeys of Europe in the Middle Ages, the Internet would certainly not exist today."
Stirring words and we felt ourselves punching the air and saying YES – feeling perhaps that libraries in Britain have been dumbing down and neglecting their role as information and knowledge gatekeepers, knowing little of the heritage of the items of which they are custodians. But as we looked round the rest of the library we became a little uneasy. Books there were a plenty, and also CDs, DVDs, computer terminals, bandes dessinées, a large children's section. The library also has a busy programme of events both in the central library and branches. But it was empty – scarcely a soul around over the Friday lunch period when we wandered in. We were the only people looking at the exhibitions and we were there for over an hour. There were ranks of tables for university students – none occupied.
There were more children playing games in the square than there were people in the library. Why was this? Was it an exceptional day – the Friday before a national holiday weekend and the day of the football final? Were they intimidated by the size of the building? Was its location inappropriate? Was the message it sent out too elitist – high culture thrust down the throats of the indifferent masses? We certainly envied Troyes its library, its building, its collections, the excellent on-line scholarly catalogue. But had it found its 21st century role any more than Exeter with its coffee shop, fab-lab and bounce and rhyme?
After a quick sandwich Ian agreed to indulge my whim to see the museum of the Champagne region with a special gallery on the history of bonnets. The regional museum had a number of paintings of local worthies and landscapes as well as salvaged carvings and interiors from demolished houses and some religious artefacts. The bonnet museum turned out to be something neither of us had dreamed of. We obviously still have a way to go before we’ve fully mastered the language. Le musée de bonneterie turned out to be entirely about hosiery! Instead of French bonnets through the ages we learned about the manufacture of socks and stockings. The nearest we got to a bonnet was discovering the same looms were used to knit night caps. I have to admit that it was all quite interesting but we got rather lost with the introduction of huge machines for circular knitting and shaping for hosiery. The manufacture of knitted footwear, and later knitted underwear, was once the leading industry of Troyes.
With so much learned and a new word added to our French vocabulary we made our way back home to Modestine. The day had been very hot and we were exhausted. We don’t have the staying power these days. After hot showers and cold drinks we began to recover. Around midnight the football celebrations started with fireworks, cheering and the shrieking sound of vevezuelas. Estac is home, victorious! Ian slept right through it all!
Saturday 23rd May 2015, Guise
This morning we were awake much earlier than usual. By 9am we’d left Troyes and were making our way northwards along peaceful roads and across the wide open countryside of arable crops. Around the area of Montmirail we discovered lots of symbols on our map which turned out to be oil-wells! There must be a huge underground reservoir of oil and/or gas beneath the town. So much for oil extraction ruining the countryside! Unlike fields of solar panels or huge wind turbines they are completely inconspicuous. We found a couple of small green nodding donkeys in a corner of one of the corn fields, regularly and silently pumping up the oil from deep underground. It is then presumably piped to a central location for treatment and distribution.
Passing through Montmirail we continued across the green plain passing a white column marking the spot where in 1814 Napoleon had successfully directed his heavily outnumbered troops fighting against a combined army of Russians and Prussians marching on Paris. Following his disastrous Russian campaign in 1812 Napoleon had suffered further defeats and his power and popularity at home were waning. Success at Montmirail was of vital importance to him as well as to the future of France. His troops defeated the invading army when outnumbered 6 to 1 and the battle is considered as one of Napoleon’s great battle achievements.
I was struck by the thought that beneath Napoleon’s feet, as he directed the battle in the fields around Montmirail, lay a large oil reserve that in a different and later age would be of more significance than the slaughtering of thousands of enemy Russians in the surrounding cornfields! Napoleon was completely unaware of the wealth beneath the surface and back then its significance would not have been understood. The technology to exploit it had not then been developed.
We stopped for a picnic at the ruined Château de Fère. It had once been an impressive motte and bailey castle but is now no more than a romantic ruin set on a small hill surrounded by woodland.
Our progress was slow and at Laon we considered stopping at the campsite we used on our last visit to the area in 2010. Above the town, high on the hilltop, stood the magnificent gothic cathedral with its fantasy creation of animal statues covering the west front. Sticking to our original plan we continued the extra 36 kilometres to Guise where we are happily settled on the municipal campsite with a cuckoo calling. It’s over two months since we first heard one on our way south towards the Italian lakes. That seems so long ago now!
Related Links: Laon See Sunday 27th June 2010