Thursday, 30 November 2017

French rambles

In the final months of my séjour in France I took to walking in the countryside near my lodgings. It was a way to connect to my soul-country and a way to say goodbye but it also had health benefits. It gave me a gentle tone-up physically and allowed me to just 'be' by myself, grieving the loss of my dream to stay and of having a permanent relationship with Jean-Claude.

On a good day I would clock up 4kms through villages and farmers' fields, along country highways, often past hunters and their dogs, but mostly it was pretty sleepy. Each walk I'd notice something different in the progress of crops or house renovations, architecture of houses, plants and abandoned places, plots of land for sale... houses for sale... and wish things had been otherwise and that I would have found my niche and opportunity to stay.

The only disturbing aspect was the quantity of dogs ready to savagely launch themselves against me if they ever got over the fences, Every second house seemed to have an aggressor (or several) who very audibly announced my approach. Still, it was enjoyable being somewhere pretty and always interesting where most Kiwis never go.

 I was saddened to see many properties with some land which was totally neglected, often literally crumbling into obscurity, uncared-for orchards where the trees were weighed down with developing apples, pears and quinces; fruit left to spoil, trees unfed, land a decaying wilderness.

It wasn't rustic. To my gardener's eye it was a tragically missed opportunity; one I'd gladly have had for myself. Oh, the gardens I could have created in these bucolic spots.

Wandering along gently rolling landscapes with wheat, oats and barley pushing their way sunward beside me, the men on big modern tractors or harvestors turning and sowing was calming. Here I was in the cereal belt of France. Pink-stained grains left by departing farmers which the pigeons profited from were scattered down the middle of the roads.

Butterflies stopped to take a sip on wild weed flowers, some weeds I recognisd from my childhood when we all studied wild grasses and weeds at school on our uncomplicated field trips beyond the playing fields. Not many kiwi kids would recognise even four of these weeds nowdays, nor would their parents. Times have certainly changed and perhaps because of this I found much solace in walking alone and appreciating the simple things in nature.

Nosiness often prompted me to stop and look at other people's gardens or the tradesmen who seemed to make little progress during those long summer days repairing roofs or recladding in the trendy new style of fake stonework.

It's not surprising it's growing in popularity as it really tidies up old buildings, protecting them and giving homeowners an opportunity to customise the patterns and colours yet still keep the traditional feel.

Some of the things I will miss the most from my walks are the strong sense of history, secret stories expressed by buildings, the obligatory 'bonjour' exchanged everytime I met a total stranger, a buzzard hovering over a seemingly empty field, a hare lolloping out of harm's way over a ploughed field as I approached. I'm intensely grateful to have these experiences shared on this blog so as memories fade I can come back here and remember. It's been fun sharing my life in France with you all.

This blog continues, after all, To the Ends of the Earth  and Francesbigadventure works in both directions. What's it like to be a repatriate? How do you build a new life back in your birth country at the other end of the planet? Stick with me and discover. The journey continues...

Friday, 24 November 2017

Chateau d'Ecouen - Museum of the Renaissance

A jewel of French renaissance architecture, the chateau was begun in 1538 by Anne de Montmorency the head of the armies and first minister to Francois I and Henri II. Now specialising in artifacts from the Renaisssance it contains culture and art from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, inspired by roman antiquities as well as modern technological developments such as the printing press and explorations. Most of the inspiration and influence came from Italy but the museum also contains items from Germany, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, China, Japan, Mexico, Turkey.
There are many very beautiful things here, some of which I have never seen the like before. They include arms, earthenware and enamiled plates, precious metals, tapestries and paintings, carved wood and stone. artisans' tools, carved metal faceplates for keyholes,ancient time-pieces, globes, cutlery and furniture, metalwork and leatherwork. At the entrance is the chateau chapel, nicely restored with it's fine painted ceiling. It has, unfortuanately lost much of its decoration to the chateau de Chantilly. A copy of Leonardo da Vinci's La Cerne painted in Milan between 1506 and 1509 is a useful reminder of how badly the original has degraded over the years.  

The chateau is full of excellent examples of the best of European renaissance art but it also includes the unexpected; pieces from Mexico made during the same era, for example, and the Ottoman Empire as well as China. This chateau is the perfect setting for renaissance works as it's one itself.
Other interesting objects on view were illuminated manuscripts, some used by French royalty, ceramic flooring, exquisite painted chimneys. I was intrigued by the epinette, a forerunner to the spinet and piano. It was displayed in a glass case rather than on its usual wooden stand.

The range of objects is vaste so you get a good idea of life for nobles and royalty during this period on enlightenment.  
It's so impressive to see the workmanship of artists and artisans of this period. It would be a rae person in our times who could produce such exquisite detialing on wood, metal, ceramics, glass from Venice, textiles, weapons and a clock. But what a clock! It's built in the form of a golden galleon. The timepiece is activated by a plethora of minute animations sparking further movements, all quite charming and the detailing is, frankly, extraordinary. Soeone had to imagine all this and someone had to make it all by hand with very expensive materials, without making a costly mistake. 

Various forms of standardised measurements were on display as was a large tool used to make copper wire. Science and technology were evident in everything, including the paint pigments, painting on leather, sculpting iron and armour. The swords came in three categories: ceremonial, fighting and symbolic. The guns and crossbows were decidedly deadly, no two ways about that.
JC and I smirked at one set of armour. The codpiece was delusional. It was so 'out-there' it would have attractedd any enemy sward to 'have a go'. Totally impractical you could hang your laundry on it.
I'll leave you with images of some of the fine things you can see if you're willing to go a bit off the beaten tourist track to Ecouen, It's worth the effort. go to

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Saint Seurin d'Uzet - Chilly potterings in the SW of France

Saint-Serin d'Uzet (also called Chenac-Saint-Seurin-d'Uzet since a merger) is a small village on the right bank of the Gironde estuary, South West France with a tiny port, a church and a chateau. The day we visited it was offering howling wind and icy temperatures.

It is, however, caviar which is its greatest claim to fame. It was the most important producer of caviar from the female Sturgeon fish in France and possibly only one of two important suppliers in Europe in the past.

Around 1920 a white russian got the inhabitants to start producing caviar. Fifteen years later it was in full production and in the 50s the annual production reached 3-5 tonnes. The sturgeon became rare and fishing for it was outlawed from 1982. The museum was not open and functioning when we visited.

The village is in the heart of Pineau country meaning lots of a particular wine from the Charente region and the village is included in the area that produces cognac.

In this part of France's geography the estuary is near and so the river is very, very wide and it was difficult to see the other side of the river. We watched container ships moving up and down the river to Bordeaux while the weather made up its mind to rain or not.

We were surprised to see an ancient roman town being excavated. Originally it was by the sea but over 2000 years the sea has retreated leaving some cliffs so the old village is stranded a bit further inland though can be subject to flooding at times.

The old church is still functioning of sorts but I doubt there are many avid church-goers here. The population is small and sometimes seasonal.
The church is quite old with Roman style architecture. The sea comes up right alongside.

While in the area we visted Royan near the mouth of the Gironde. It's a beach resort sort of place but wet, windy and cold when we visited so we had to use our imagination as to how it might seem in Summer.
The houses have some interesting architecture.

 I finished off my visit to this area by sharing a little Kiwi culture; making a pavlova in the kitchen of a local couple - she French, he American.

We stayed a night with them before heading back home. The internet networks can certainly facilitate unexpected meetings and sharings.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Bordeaux - chic in its own right

I had been told that Bordeaux was a more chic version of Paris, the sort of Paris that Paris itself wanted to be. That piqued my curiosity.

As we arrived from driving through roads bordered by vinyards I really was impressed by the eighteenth century architecture along the Garonne river. The river travels over 600kms from Spain to empty into the Atlantic at Bordeaux.

Beside the river sits the city with it's Place de la Bourse water mirror. The day was hot and many families were making the most of the thin film of water supplied now and again by the municipality. Practical and aesthetic. Well laid out with generous spaces this city seemed cleaner than Paris. Trams help with getting around but it's easy to walk it. I toddled into a bookstore and came away with a travel guide on the area, in English. I tried on hats in a specialist hat shop and admired recent collections of Villeroy and Boch tableware. Shopping is varied but the usual big brands are everywhere.

Lunchtime dictated a meal in a specialist steak restaurant l’Entrecôte which operates on 4 levels so the staff get a daily workout negotiating the stairs with trays of steaks and fries. There is no menu here. The only thing you can order is a steak and fries and because they specialise they do it so well. Scrummy chips with an inhouse sauce for the steaks, cooked to whatever perfection you wish. I really did enjoy the meal. This restaurant is part of a well-known chain of restaurants all providing the same thing.

Another restaurant in the town at the other end of the scale is Gordon Ramsey's Le Bordeaux located across from the Grand Théâtre. Too expensive to even bother to cross the road to look at a menu..

The theatre is like an opera house but we were quite disappointed in it. There wasn't much to see. Yes, there's the grand staircase, yes there's a nice painted ceiling and the theatre has a big stage but when we visited the stage was in blackout. Trying to walk across it in almost pitch dark was unpleasant. There's a cute little souvenir shop but almost nothing of interest to see, wasted spaces other than a foam construction near the entranceway. The building façade dates from 1780 and the theatre hosts operas, dance & music performances.

The Place des Quinconces  is one of the largest public squares in Europe. It was laid out in 1820, two years after the trees nearby were planted. The fountain and column, created between 1894 and 1902, are a memorial to the Girondins, a group of moderate, bourgeois National Assembly deputies during the French Revolution, 22 of whom were executed in 1793 after being convicted of counter-revolutionary activities.
Much of this fountain statuary was removed during the German occupation, destined to be melted down by them to make canons but later found in Anger where it had been secreted. The bronzes were reinstalled in 1968 so what we see now is completely restored. I had the good fortune to come across a volonteer guide at the fountain and the old man enjoyed explaining to me the various parts of the design. They are allegorical symbolising vices, freedom and the triumph of the Republic. Bordeaux is easy to get to via the TGV train from Paris. We needed a lot more than 4 hours to explore this city so plan accordingly. I'd like to come back one day to to explore a lot more of this beautiful city.