30 April 2008

Mennetou on a Monday

A downspout ornament in Mennetou

Mondays are very quiet days in most French towns, and in small villages even more so. Everybody is resting up from the weekend, and a majority of the people who work in shops and markets on Saturdays and Sunday mornings take Monday off. Mennetou was like that — nearly deserted — on a recent Monday.

Along with the blue forget-me-nots, these yellow flowers
were growing all around the town in pavement cracks
and wall grates, and even up old stone walls in places

Chrissou was suprised there was no good place to get a café crème. Well, there were two places to have coffee in Mennetou, or three if you count a snack bar down near the river. The snack bar was closed (maybe for the season; I didn't look to see if its hours were posted). On the main street — the highway — a little café-tabac was open. I know because I saw people going in and coming out with their newspapers.

Typical shuttered window in Mennetou-sur-Cher

The café-tabac wasn't very appealing because its big plate-glass windows seemed to be completely pasted over with posters, and its front door is right on the curb of the highway (even though you couldn't call it a busy road). A third place, a salon de thé that is part of a hotel/restaurant next to the town gate where there's a plaque commemorating Joan of Arc's 1429 visit, seemed to be shut for the day, but I'm not sure. We didn't really check.

Vines growing up on an old half-timbered building
in Mennetou-sur-Cher

That's small-town France on Mondays for you. Most everything is closed up tight.

Looking down into the town's old well. You can just
see me and my camera in the little spot of
reflected light at the bottom of the picture.

Fewer than a thousand people live in Mennetou-sur-Cher. On a Monday, very few of them are out on the streets, that's for sure.

29 April 2008

Mennetou-sur-Cher: nearly forgotten

One of the places I keep returning to, along with Palluau-sur-Indre, is the medieval village of Mennetou-sur-Cher, up the river about 40 km/25 mi. from Saint-Aignan. What is it about the place that pulls me back?

An old neighborhood grocery store

One reason I keep driving American visitors over there, I think, is that the town seems to be so lost in time. Three of its old tower gates are still intact, along with some of the ancient ramparts. The narrow streets of the village are closed to car traffic, sauf riverains — local traffic only.

Nobody here but us...
Seen in a shop window in Mennetou

Like Palluau, the place hasn't been prettied up. If anything, Palluau is more alive and less touched by the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries than Mennetou is. Both, however, feel a little like ghost towns whenever I visit them. There is very little commerce in either — a café, a little restaurant, a boulangerie, a small grocery store, a maison de la presse for newspapers and magazine, and a couple of shops selling antiques, junk, or crafts and gifts. I never see very many people on the streets in Mennetou or Palluau.

Forget-me-nots in Mennetou-sur-Cher seem appropriate.
And the old town was full of them.

The thing about Mennetou that makes it seem to have been more badly manhandled than Palluau has been is the fact that it is squeezed in between a main road and a rail line. Of course, the village was there first. The Route Nationale 76, a two-lane highway that links the city of Tours to the big town of Vierzon, is the little town's main street, and it's a grimy one. Until recently, with the opening of the parallel A85 autoroute just north of town, big trucks rumbled through the narrow street one after another, all day long. The walls of the buildings and storefronts on main street are black with soot.

Out on the rail line
A sign pointing to the town's main commercial attraction

The railway line also runs parallel to the old route nationale and the new autoroute, between the two and just on Mennetou's northern edge. Several times a day, passenger as well as freight trains speed by the village's medieval Porte d'En-Haut, the big stone tower at the top of the old walled village. They don't stop, as far as I can tell — there's no sign of a train station.

Mennetou's Porte d'En-Bas, the lower gate
By which — who else? — Joan of Arc entered, in March 1429

The world speeds by, motorized, while Mennetou sits there immobile, feeling a little forgotten.

27 April 2008

Orchids! Rain!

Thanks to Susan and Simon's blog called Days on the Claise, I learned this morning that some of the flowers that are blooming out in the vineyard, and even in our back yard, actually are orchids. They are gorgeous.

Orchids in the Renaudière vineyard
Click the picture to enlarge it

A couple of years ago I went with our friend Gisèle to visit an orchid grower whose greenhouses are out of the road to Blois, near Contres. We talked to the man who was tending the place, and Gisèle mentioned that she had seen orchids growing in the fields near her house.

The man almost laughed and said, no, that wasn't possible. There are no wild orchids in France, he told us. This weekend I found this site, which says just the opposite. At any rate, the man was categorical and you would have thought he knew what he was talking about, given his job. What's the saying? Trust but verify.

Red maple trees in our front yard are
almost prettier than the flowers

We had a beautiful weekend and I wore myself out on Saturday. Yesterday I just took it easy and read the newspapers on the Internet. Oh, and walked the dog too. Overnight I woke up a couple of times and saw at least a half-dozen flashes of lightning. Storms were predicted, but the ones producing the lightning weren't very close to us because I never heard any thunder.

Deep dark shadows aren't something
we are very used to seeing these days

Today I got up early to cook lunch (bœuf aux carottes, a beef stew with carrots, onions, herbs, and white wine) and the sky seemed to be getting darker rather than lighter as the minutes went by. About 9:00 a hard shower of big raindrops fell and soon the clouds were giving us a fine, steady rain. The temperature has fallen by 20 degrees F since yesterday afternoon.

Little blue flowers out in the vineyard

The warm sunny weather was nice while it lasted. On this chilly gray day, the beef stew will be comforting. Here's one more sunny, colorful picture to help chase away the drear.

Tulips just outside the back door

What a difference a day makes

Yesterday was a day like none we've had in 6 or 8 months.

Walt was out mowing the back yard.

Bruno D. was out mulching the clippings from his vines.

Bruno L. was out plowing furrows between his rows of vines.

Bernard across the road was out on his riding mower obliterating daisies.

Et moi ? Besides taking pictures, in the morning I fired up
the rototiller and did my springtime tilling chore.

This was a first tilling. I'll till the plots again in about 3 weeks,
before we set out the eggplant and tomato plants
that we have growing in flats.

Yesterday, even the flowers were busy. Blooming.

26 April 2008

Romo, capital of the Sologne

Raked-up magnolia blossoms in Romo's river park

Soon after arriving in Saint-Aignan in 2003, we drove over to Romorantin and had in a restaurant there. With us were our good friend Ch. from California and the woman who sold us the house we now live in, J., who will soon celebrate her 81st birthday.

Vine-covered walls along the river walk in Romo

J., who was born and lived for many years in the big town of Châteauroux in the Berry province, south of the Sologne, pointed out to us some of the prosperous young (and not so young) farmers she noticed in the town and at the restaurant as we were having lunch. She talked about them in terms that made me think of the descriptions of small-town characters in an old novel by Balzac or Maupassant. You could tell theses guys had gotten dressed up to come into town for the afternoon — they had that "just spiffed-up" look.

Digging canals made for good drainage in
Sologne and improved the environment.

Romorantin is the unofficial capital of an extensive farming and hunting region, and the local cuisine is based on game animals and birds, fish, asparagus, and strawberries. It's a rural, old-fashioned kind of place. The land is flat, the local soil is sandy, the forests are thick with pine and birch trees, and there are hundreds of ponds and small lakes scattered over the wide, flat countryside. The Larousse Gastronomique food encyclopedia calls the Sologne "the country of all game animals," and says "its game birds are the finest in all of France. Also, its lakes are full of fish."

There isn't much local stone in the sandy, marshy
Sologne, so bricks are used in most construction.

But the Sologne wasn't always a healthy place for humans to live. The land had been cleared during the Middle Ages and then given over to sheep farming. The result was land stripped of vegetation and a lot of marshes, ponds, and lakes in which stagnant water supported an important populations of mosquitoes that carried "fevers" and other diseases. One that affected the local people until about 150 years ago was malaria.

Old-fashioned pastries alongside modern-style
cans of soft drinks in a boulangerie in Romorantin.

In the 19th century, Emperor Napoleon III sponsored a project to drain the marshes, dig canals and ponds, and plant forests that would create a healthier environment. The Sologne has changed greatly over the centuries, but the nature of the land has not. Reforestation brought the region back to life and made it into the attractive hunting, fishing, and vacation area it is today.

A house on a courtyard in Romo

The Sologne is a distinct region that contrasts with the river valleys and hillsides planted in rows of grapevines of the Touraine to the west and the wide rolling fields of grains planted over the Berry to the south. There's something dark and mysterious about the Sologne's forests and lakes that just feels old-fashioned.

P.S. Roselyne just delivered our daily bread. She had the local newspaper in the car, and I noticed the headline but didn't understand what it was about. Roselyne explained: there's been a plan to build a new shopping center in Romo to give the local economy a shot in the arm. Evidently, those plans need to be revised because of government objections. Ever since Romo's biggest employer, Matra, closed down its factory there, the economy has been suffering.

25 April 2008

Romorantin — "deepest" France

Welcome to la France profonde
on a Monday afternoon — main street in Romo

The Michelin green guide says that Romorantin is un peu, par sa position géographique, le nombril d'une certain France profonde, rurale et traditionnelle — Romorantin is, "in a certain sense, because of its geographical location, the bellybutton of a kind of 'deepest' France, rural and traditional." From my point of view, that is a very good thing.

Romo is central France — the region is called Le Centre, after all.

Romorantin sits on the banks of the Sauldre River, and there are several islands in the river at the center of town. Some of them are developed and at least one is a big park. The Sauldre is a tributary of the Cher River, which runs through Saint-Aignan, Chenonceaux, and the city of Tours.

Water levels in the Sauldre and the Cher are very high, after
all the rain we've had in France this year. Notice the modern
apartment building on the banks of the river.

Romo is a small town in the middle of a big forest full of lakes and fields. A lot of people from the Paris area come to the Sologne, which covers an area of 2,000 sq. mi., for vacations and to enjoy the feeling of country and "wilderness" here. Now there's an autoroute linking Paris to Romorantin, and the drive takes between 2½ and 3½ hours, depending on traffic. Orléans is about an hour north of Romo, and Bourges, another good-size city, is less than an hour southeast.

The main bridge and the waterworks in Romo

The Sauldre and the park at the center of Romo

Romo has a long history, of course. The Sologne was occupied by the Romans, as archeological digs have shown. It became Christian in the 4th century of our era. As the Roman Empire collapsed, there were "invasions" of "barbarians" from Eastern Europe. Later, the counts of Blois and Bourges, and the dukes of Orléans, controlled parts of the territory. The villages of Romorantin and Lanthenay existed as long as 1200 years ago.

One of Romo's favorite sons,
memorialized by a bust in the town's public gardens

Five hundred years ago, François Ier, the French king who built Chambord, expanded Fontainebleau, and brought the Italian Renaissance to France, spent his childhood and youth in Romo. His queen, Claude de France, was born in the town.

Raking up magnolia blossoms looks like a full-time job for this man

Young king François had great plans for Romorantin, for which he had great affection. He asked Leonardo da Vinci, who spent the last years of his life in nearby Amboise and Blois, to design a château and elaborate gardens for the queen mother, Louise.

The war memorial in Romo, on the banks of the river

Unfortunately, an outbreak of plague prevented the realization of the king's projects. Instead of redesigning Romorantin, the Renaissance king turned his attention to the big "hunting lodge" at Chambord. And Romorantin and the Sologne languished — isolated, rural, and undeveloped.

24 April 2008

Romorantin? Not sure I know it...

Romorantin is on the banks of the
Sauldre River in Sologne

Chris P. and I were driving up to Chambord Saturday when we realized we needed to consult the Michelin road atlas. Chris opened it up and found the right page. "Look, there's a big town I've never even heard of before — Romorantin," she said. I imagine a lot of people reading this have never heard of it before either.

A country lane near the Cher River
between Romo and Saint-Aignan

And that was as good a reason as any to go there a day or two later. Monday afternoon the weather was fairly clear, so we set out after lunch. Romorantin is about 35 km/22 mi. from Saint-Aignan. With 19,000 inhabitants, it's the third-largest town in our département, the Loir-et-Cher. The town's official name is a mouthful: Romorantin-Lanthenay.

Romo and Lanthenay merged in the early 1960s
to form a single administrative unit

The town's unofficial name, which everybody here around Saint-Aignan uses, is Romo. When you drive around the Sologne, you see many road signs directing you to the town of Romorantin. That's why I say that in the Sologne, "all roads lead to Romo." Ha ha ha.

A restaurant in Romo

More tomorrow...

23 April 2008

Second Chambord wedding

It was a really nice Saturday afternoon in Chambord. We saw one newly-wed couple walk by (pictures yesterday) and then we saw a big wedding party posing for a photographer.

Dites « ouistiti » !

Doesn't it look like this group was posing especially for me? I don't know if they all saw me and looked my way, or if they were in fact smiling for the professional photographer. If so, where was the photographer standing? I remember seeing him at one point, but you'd think he would have been in my picture.

These must be the mothers and mothers-in-law. Don't you wonder who the red-headed guy holding the little girl is and why he's in this picture?

I assume the happy couple had just been united in holy wedlock in the little church that is on the grounds at Chambord. They were having their pictures taken just outside its front door.

Guarding the entrance to the church

The woman in blue was standing at the church door and waving people away if they showed signs of wanting to go inside. Another service, maybe another wedding, was in progress.

The château de Chambord

Speaking of those pointy shoes, they must really be in style for men these days. Look at the ones on the groom and on the guy dressed in black in the picture below.

Shoes for stepping on cockroaches that have run into corners to hide

22 April 2008

Saturday afternoon at Chambord

The château de Chambord on an April weekend

When Chris P. and I got to Chambord Saturday afternoon, it wasn't nearly as crowded as I had thought it might be. There were plenty of people, but the stroll around the castle was very pleasant.

This group had a bird's-eye view of the other people visiting Chambord

We sat down on the terrace at the Hôtel St-Michel to enjoy the view of the château and watch the people walk by. We were about the only people seated on the terrace, and the service was quick and friendly. The sun kept peeking out from behind big clouds and there was little wind, so the weather felt almost warm. Chris had a small café-crème and I had a glass of white wine from the nearby Cour Cheverny appelation.

Getting married at Chambord

One of the people-watching experiences we enjoyed was seeing a bride a groom walk by, accompanied by their attendants. I suppose they were going out to a position where they could have their picture taken with the château de Chambord as the backdrop.

The bride and groom — la mariée et le marié

That was just the first wedding we saw Saturday afternoon. The second was a big family affair, with several generations in attendance. I think I'll save the pictures of that group for tomorrow...

These two didn't seem to be tying the knot

It's raining again this morning and the Indre (20 miles south of Saint-Aignan) and Vézère (in Dordogne) rivers are flooding today. The local Sauldre and Cher rivers are very full, and several small streams we crossed over on a drive yesterday afternoon were out of their banks.