Jill says - Because of my stupid eye problems and driving during the heat of the day I was unable to write much during our travels last autumn and am only now able to start sorting through what notes I did keep. Ian kindly kept some notes for me covering the early days of our travels. Later I was able to continue for a while. I am determined to continue for as long as I am able. So here is Ian’s report, far more factually correct and professional than you would have received from me.
Friday 2 September 2016, Caen
Yesterday brought us once more to Caen on a post-Brexit exit to France. As Jill often finds it difficult to work with the computer and I still insist on taking photographs, I am putting together a few notes to accompany a selection of the images, in part to bolster my flagging memory of what we actually do on these trips. As we are going almost entirely over old ground and revisiting familiar and favourite places they should not be too lengthy.
Sunday 4 September 2016, Caen
At supper with library friends last night we learned of the problems over the building of the prestigious new public library in Caen. The director, who had set up the ambitious project and started to see it through, had clashed with the Council over successive cuts and an assistant director had been appointed by the Council to see the project through. Just before our arrival she had heard that her presence at the library was no longer required. As she is a conservateur and so employed by central government she apparently cannot be dismissed by the Council, so will probably either be put on indefinite gardening leave or be assigned special projects to keep her out of the way.
The cuts have brought further problems. The new site is out of the centre, separated from it by the canal basin and there is insufficient parking. Plans for a pedestrian footbridge have been dropped, so it could well become an expensive and remote white elephant, visited mainly by those who require to consult its magnificent historical collections.
Over supper we were also recommended a retrospective exhibition of the works of Frits Thaulow in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, open free on the first Sunday in the month. We had never heard of him but discovered that he was a Norwegian landscape painter who lived from 1847 to 1906. Caen seems to have close links with Scandinavian countries – in the autumn the Boréales takes place, a festival featuring a different Scandinavian (and more recently Baltic) state each year. Perhaps it is a folk memory of the origins of the Norman invaders back in the tenth century – or more likely the whim of certain academics at the University.
The exhibition brought together more than sixty works by Thaulow and we were bowled over. His handling of water and snow features was superb and there were several new themes that he introduced, for example sporting scenes in the snow.
He travelled widely, including to Normandy, and was in contact with many leading artists of the day, including Monet. He is grouped with the impressionists, but much of his work is carefully realistic, sometimes combining elements of realism and impressionism in one canvas. The exhibition was beautifully presented and hung, with contrasting dark and light galleries to highlight the snow scenes. At the end was a play section for children of all ages where visitors could become part of his paintings.
In the afternoon another wonderful experience when we set out into the depths of the Normandy countryside to visit Liz and her garden, anxious to see how she was coping after the recent death of her artist husband. The labyrinthine garden calls to mind the dreamlike lost domain in Alain Fournier's novel Le grand Meaulnes. This impression is enhanced by the presence around the garden of life-size companion figures, dressed in the style of the masques held in the court of Louis XIV and of terracotta satyrs and other decorative figures, the work of her husband. Liz showed us round, almost one of the impish statues come to life, explaining how she just about managed to keep the topiary under control with the part time help of a gardener. Inside the old house there was tea and cakes and interesting conversation about her researches to uncover the history of the estate. One of the barns incorporated a decorated Romanesque capital which had been identified as coming from a tenth century monastery in a neighbouring village. A magical afternoon.
Monday 5 September 2016, Gien
We moved on from Caen today, our route as far as the Loire following exactly the same as last year, except when road works caused a diversion which led us to rediscover the delightful Château de Frazy, which we had stumbled across on an earlier journey.
Tuesday 6 September 2016, Vermenton
After overnighting in Gien, a campsite we had used before but whose facilities were grossly inadequate, we continued a few miles upstream along the Loire to Briare, a most interesting little town with a marina near the point where the canal crosses the Loire. It was a centre for enamel work and mosaics and there were mosaic signs on buildings around the town. The church too had it share of mosaics including a war memorial with the names of each of the fallen painstakingly picked out in tessera.
But the most impressive site was the Canal Bridge, built between 1886 and 1897 and taking the canal high above the wide river Loire. The Briare Canal went into service in 1642, about the same time as the Canal du Midi was being constructed, and a century before the narrower canal network in England got under way. In 1722 a further canal, the Canal de Loing, connected the Loire and the Seine. As the passage across the river Loire was difficult in times of flood or drought, the canal bridge was proposed. Among the contractors was Eiffel, but for the masonry, not the ironwork. The whole was finished with elaborate monumental pillars at each end, proudly proclaiming the magnificence of the whole undertaking.
Our route took us through Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisay, the birthplace of the novelist Colette (1873-1954) whose four novels in the Claudine series were purloined by her first husband under his pen-name Willy. She soon got rid of him, and a second husband too, but entered on a third marriage, living happily in Paris with the cats she enjoyed writing about. Apart from her birthplace in the street named after her, there is a museum in part of the Château Saint Sauveur, nestling beneath the medieval Tour Sarassine.
Wednesday 7 September 2016, Pressy
We spent the night in Vermenton, a little town on the banks of the river Cure, just above the point where it joins the Yonne, itself a tributary of the Seine. It is a town that has seen better days, very quiet and a little run down. From the 16th century until the 1920s it was an important river port for the floating of logs. Timber was gathered along a series of half a dozen quays and waited for the arrival of the higher waters in the autumn. The time of waiting was filled with celebrations, banquets and water jousting, and photographs show crowds of people enjoying themselves. The timber was tied up in massive rafts up to 100 metres long and floated down the river system to Paris. Today the most attractive thing we found in the little town was not signposted at all – a lavoir, quite monumental in its way, and covered in flowers.
As we had seen the original Cistercian foundation at Cîteaux on a previous trip we decided to visit the daughter foundation of Fontenay as it was on our route. It was founded in a wooded valley near the town of Montbard by Bernard of Clairvaux in 1118, just twenty years after Citeaux. It was very wealthy in the Middle Ages but declined after the introduction of the order of commendation, by which the abbots were no longer chosen by the monks but at the whim of the monarch ("in commendam"). By the time of the Revolution it had barely a dozen monks and was sold off as property of the state in 1790.
In 1820 it was acquired by Elie de Montgolfier, a descendant of the inventors of the hot air balloon who converted the property into a paper-mill, the medieval forges becoming workrooms and bales of paper being stored in the church.
In 1906 Edouard Aynard, a banker and art collector, acquired the property from his father-in-law Raymond de Montgolfier and set out to "extract Fontenay from its industrial slime", demolishing the chimneys and other industrial disfigurements. The family still own the property which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The architecture is in an austere Romanesque style, with little decoration to distract monks from the contemplation of God. The church, started in 1139 and consecrated by pope Eugenius III in 1147 is plain but impressive. Among the monuments is one to Bishop Ebrard of Norwich who had fled persecution in England and was a major benefactor of the foundation in the 12th century.
From the south transept a staircase leads directly to the massive dormitory with a fine barrel vaulted timber roof, where up to 200 monks would sleep in their habits, ready to descend for night-time services.
By the foot of the stairs is a doorway leading to the cloisters with, by the entrance, a book cupboard for volumes required for services or readings in the adjacent chapter house.
Further along is the monks' work-room, a long vaulted hall almost certainly the site of the scriptorium.
Adjacent is the warming room, the only place, apart from the kitchens, where fire was allowed, but carefully located near the workroom and just below the dormitory.
Apart from the refectory the medieval layout survives intact and the grounds have been attractively landscaped but perhaps the most impressive part is the forge. Benedict said that the monks should be self-sufficient, living "ora et labore" by prayer and work. Besides cultivating their estates they also extracted iron-ore, and in the late 12th century built a forge beside a leat, massive enough to rival the abbey church in size, with two furnaces and a waterwheel which was used to drive trip-hammers to break down the ore at a much faster rate than was possible manually. It is one of the earliest surviving factories in Europe.
Thursday 8 September 2016, Dole
We had hoped to reach Auxonne but the journey in the heat proved exhausting so we settled for a grotty campsite in Pressy, just south of Nuits-Saint-Georges which we visited this morning. A clean, prosperous little town with its fair share of wine cellars displaying the products of the surrounding vineyards. Apparently a glass of Nuits-Saint-Georges was prescribed to Louis XIV for medicinal purposes by his doctor and the place never looked back.
We drove on to Auxonne on the river Saône, a place we had by-passed on our previous travels, and were impressed by the defensive works provided by Vauban. The town was a major military centre and it was here that little corporal Bonaparte undertook much of his military training at the artillery school, staying in 1788, 1789 and 1791. We parked near the arsenal, part of which now serves as a covered market, and explored the town. There is a statue of Napoléon on the Place d'Armes in front of the attractive 15th century brick built town hall, a former dwelling of the Dukes of Burgundy.
Friday 9 September 2016, Dole
We drove on to Dole last night, using it as a base to catch the train in to Dijon, a magnificent city, the proud capital of Burgundy, which we have described previously in more detail. Nevertheless we could not resist looking around the palace of the Dukes of Burgundy again.
The Musée des Beaux-Arts, housed in one of the courtyards, is home to a wonderful collection of works of art. As the museum is currently being restored only a part of the medieval collections is on display but we could see the tombs of the Dukes and many other treasures of incredible quality. Burgundy in the 14th and 15th centuries rivalled France in its wealth and power and acquired lands in the Netherlands under the rule of the "Great Dukes of Burgundy" between 1364 and 1477 when it finally returned to the French crown.
We also enjoyed examining the wide range of produce on sale in the market which spread out from the massive market hall into the streets around.
The little owl sculpture is worn smooth by the hands of visitors, who believed it brought good luck to stroke it with the left hand. It has become the symbol of Dijon, used on brass way-markers for the guided tour of the city.
Saturday 10 September 2016, Dole
We returned to the campsite in Dole in order to have a look at the town before moving on to our friends in Champagne. It really is one of the most attractive towns in France. Its golden age was the 16th and 17th centuries but it lost out to Besançon in 1678 when Franche-Comté was formally annexed to France. Unable to forgive the town for its resistance, Louis XIV made Besançon the capital of the province, removing the university and the parliament and dismantling most of its ramparts. Nevertheless it still has much to offer and we can never resist photographing the panorama of the houses climbing the hill up to the church of Notre-Dame which dominates the town.
Apparently in Favernay at Pentecost in 1608 the table bearing the consecrated wafer caught fire, but the monstrance containing the wafer remained suspended for 33 hours, being witnessed by thousands. One of the hosts was placed in the chapel at Dole where it was even venerated by Louis XIV.
Like Dijon the town has a guided tour marked by brass plaques on the pavements. In Dole it is the "Perched cat" who guides you around, inspired by Les contes du chat perché by Marcel Aymé (1902-1967) who spent his childhood in a house in the street which is now named after him. The tour, which has an immaculate English translation, takes in all the main sites, but the unremitting heat forced us to give in before we completed it.