Less than 10 miles south of places like Bruère-Allichamps, the Abbaye de Noirlac, and the Château de Meillant, you come to the town of Ainay-le-Vieil and the Château d'Ainay-le-Vieil. The Michelin guidebook says the château has been owned by the same family since the year 1467. Jacques Cœur, born in Bourges in 1400 or so, used to live here, the guidebook says. As for the cat, I think I took the photo in Bruère (le centre de la France).
This car, a vintage Citroën 2CV, was parked in front of the Château d'Ainay-le-Vieil the day CHM and I were there. I drive a Citroën now, but it's not a 2CV. The sentence on the red and black 2CV's rear window says: "This is more than a car, it's a thirst for adventure." I hope the adventures don't involve too many tow trucks.
These classic cars (and others) were on display at the Château de Meillant, which I blogged about a few weeks ago. The blue convertible is a Citroën.
Finally, here are a vintage Renault 4L (the gray car) and two shots of my Peugeot 206. I used to own a Renault 4L, back in 1981-'82 when Walt and I both lived in Paris. It was a great car, though far from luxurious. The light blue car in the other two photos is one I bought used in 2003, when we first came to live in Saint-Aignan. So I've been driving it for more than 18 years now, and the car itself will be 21 years old at Christmastime. The 206 deserves some recognition for riding me all around the Loire Valley, as well as on numerous trips to Paris, Normandy, Burgundy, the southwest of France, and even all the way to Madrid in Spain, for all these years. I hope to keep driving it for at least another five years. It runs great, but at its age and with 125K miles on its odometer, it doesn't go on long trips any more.
Here's one more slideshow and one last post about the Abbaye de Noirlac, near Bourges. The heart of the abbey is its cloister, which is surrounded by its church, the monks' quarters, the refectory, and abbey's lay brothers' quarters.
The Abbaye de Noirlac is located on
the territory of the little town of Bruère-Allichamps (pop. 567).
Somewhere north of the abbey
there's an overlook where you get views like this one.
The river that flows through
the town is the Cher, and Saint-Aignan is about 85 miles downriver.
Bruère-Allichamps has one
more claim to fame: it was designated in the 1850s by a geographer as the
centre géométrique de la France.
If you take a map of France and draw a rectangle around it so
that the whole of the country is within it (not counting Corsica), and then
draw straight diagonal lines from the upper left corner to the lower right and
from the upper right corner to the lower left, the point where those lines
cross is within the boundaries of Bruère-Allichamps. I know, because I've done
it on my computer in Photoshop.
CHM took this photo of me
taking one of the photos above when we went to Bruère-Allichamps in 2009.
Here's a slideshow of a walk through the abbey church at Noirlac, near Bourges, in central France. Built between 1150 and 1250 A.D., the abbey entered into decline during the 100 Years' War in the 1300s and early 1400s. At the time of the French Revolution in the late 1700s, the abbey was sold by the French government. It was used as a porcelain factory for a few decades, and then was sold back to the goverment in 1909.
Noirlac abbey was operated as a summer camp, an orphanage, and then as a hospital, and finally as a camp for refugees from the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. The French Wikipédia article about Noirlac says that paradoxically, because the abbey was used and occupied for so many decades and centuries, it wasn't left to fall into ruin. It was the object of major restoration work between 1950 and 1980.
Drive 25 miles (40 km) south out of Bourges toward the town of Saint-Amand-Montrond and you arrive not only at the Château de Meillant, but also at the Abbaye de Noirlac, a 12th-century Cistercian monastery. The Michelin Guide Vert calls Noirlac « l'un des ensembles monastiques les mieux conservés et les plus complets de France. » Noirlac abbey is nowadays used as a cultural and performing arts center.
CHM took this photo of the cloister at Noirlac when we went there 12 years ago.
A group of monks or friars (frères in French) arrived at the place now called Noirlac in 1130, 70 years before the construction of the cathedral in Bourges got fully under way. The Cistercians were builders and manual laborers who cleared and drained land to make it valuable for agriculture. The Noirlac monks lived through 20 or 30 very lean years of near starvation before people in the area came to their aid, according to the Michelin guide. The church and monastery the friars built between 1150 and 1200 are, typically, very plain, almost austere, in the Cistercian style. La simplicité des lignes and la blancheur de la pierre enhance the beauty of the architecture and give the place a serene feeling. The cloister is at the center of the complex.
The town of Bourges went into a steep decline in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 18th, the the weather was unrelentingly ugly, with big storms and frigid winters. For an agricultural economy, that was devastating. Bourges had no big river to link it to Paris or other big towns, so it was isolated. It took five days to get to Paris by horse-drawn coach. The population of Bourges in the year 1800 was about 16,000. For a century the town had depended totally on the king of France, who, for example, appointed its mayors and other regional officials. The well-being of Bourges and its people wasn't a priority for the royalty or the king's appointees.
In the 19th century, the canal de Berry was built and was opened to boat and barge traffic in 1843. It runs from Bourges to Saint-Aignan, where it dumps into the Cher river at the point where the river was deep enough to be navigable. The Cher in turn flows into the Loire just west of Tours.(By the way, the photo above is one that Cheryl took inside the cathedral at Bourges.)
And then came railroads, at about the same time. So Bourges was linked to Paris, Tours, and Nantes. The train station in Bourges opened in 1847 The canal and the trains brought the industrial revolution to Bourges. By the time Henry James visited in the 1880s, the population had more than doubled to about 40,000. There were several factories, and the priority of the town was to build affordable housing for factory workers. I think that's what Henry James saw, and why he was so negative about Bourges. That's all I can figure out.
(If you've been wondering what Jacques Cœur looked like, here's a photo.)
I've been looking into the possibility of renting a gîte in Bourges next spring. I'd like to go there and spend a few days to get a better feel for the place. Everything depends on the evolution of the Covid-19 disease, of course. Bourges is only 90 minutes from Saint-Aignan by car, and it would make a good first destination when we can finally start traveling around again, after about two years of confinement. Here's a gîte I'm considering. Four nights for 236 euros with free wifi, free parking, pets allowed, TV, all located a 10-minute walk from the middle of town. A steal.
The Cadogan Loire guidebook, written by Philippe Barbour says of Bourges: “sing out of the Berry plains like a great spiritual silo, the cathedral of Bourges rival that of Chartres in greatness. It dominates an exceptionally beautiful, compact, historic city...” Barbour describes “the spendours of the Berry's capital” in glowing terms. Below are more of our friend Cheryl's 2003 photos.
Le Michelin Guide Vert give the city of Bourges three stars, recommending it to tourists. It says: « [Bourges] recèle des trésors : promenez-vous près des remparts de la cité ancienne ; admirez la (grandiose) simplicité des ces édifices religieux comme de ses plus humbles demeures... Tout le centre de la ville a été sauvegardé et restauré avec goût. Les maison à colombages (beaucoup datent des 15e et 16e siècles sont bien mises en valeur et ont retrouvé leur éclat d’autrefois. [La promenade des remparts est] l’occasion de traverser un quartier insolite et tranquille de Bourges. Les remparts n’ont pas entièrement disparu : observez bien le soubassement des maisons sur votre gauche, et vous en découvrirez des vestiges [etc.]. »
I assume this panel of coquilles St-Jacques (scallop shells) and cœurs (hearts) is designed to honor Jacques Cœur.
So I wonder why Henry James, in his 1884 book A Little Tour in France, ends his chapter about Bourges with this: Many “curious old houses are supposed to exist at Bourges, and I wandered vaguely about in search of them. But I had little success, and I ended by becoming sceptical. Bourges is a ville de province in the full force of the term, especially as applied invidiously. The streets, narrow, tortuous, and dirty, have very wide cobble-stones; the houses for the most part are shabby, without local colour. The look of things is neither modern nor antique— a kind of mediocrity of middle age. There is an enormous number of blank walls — walls of gardens, of courts, of private houses — that avert themselves from the street as if in natural chagrin at there being so little to see. Round about is a dull, flat, featureless country, on which the magnificent cathedral looks down. There is a peculiar dulness and ugliness in a French town of this type, which, I must immediately add, is not the most frequent one. In Italy everything has a charm, a colour, a grace; even desolation and ennui. In England a cathedral city may be sleepy, but it is pretty sure to be mellow. In the course of six weeks spent en province, however, I saw few places that had not more expression than Bourges.”
Jacques Cœur was born into a wealthy family in Bourges toward the end of the 1300s. For a dozen years, he served as finance minister to the French king Charles VII (b. 1403), who reigned for nearly 40 years (1422-1461). At the age of 15, Charles had fled Paris and taken refuge in Bourges. His father, king Charles VI, had lost his mind, and Burgundian forces had invaded Paris. Both the English and the Burgundians contested the young prince's claim to the throne of France. The prince was finally coronated as king Charles VII in 1429, two years before Joan of Arc was burned at the stake by the English in Rouen (Normandy).
Ten years later the king appointed Jacques Cœur as the Grand Argentier (finance minister) of his realm. Cœur had raised a lot of money for the king, who was known as le petit roi de Bourges at the time. That money helped Charles re-take the territories in northern France, including Paris, that had been seized by English forces after the battle of Azincourt in 1415.
In 1443, Cœur started construction on a grand residence for himself in Bourges. By 1451, he was embroiled in controversy and accused of corruption by his rivals. The king put him in prison and then banished him from the kingdom. He died during a naval battle in the Greek Isles in 1456. His house in Bourges is described as "palatial" and "full of delights" in the Cadogan Loire guidebook. The Michelin Guide Vert says it is « l'un des plus beaux et des plus somptueux édifices civils de l'époque gothique. » The photos here show some details of the carved stone figures that adorn its exterior walls. All the photos can be enlarged...
My friend Cheryl took the photos in September 2003, which was the first time she visited us in Saint-Aignan. She lived in California and came to stay with us again in 2006, 2008, and 2011 before her health failed and she passed away in 2016.
When our friend Cheryl spent a day in Bourges in September 2003, she also went to the cathedral and took some pictures. The cathedral is incontournable, as we say; you can't avoid it.
In Bourges, Cheryl also went to see the Palais Jacques-Cœur, which the Cadogan Loire guidebook describes as "a palatial town house... full of delights." It was built starting in the year 1443 by a man named Jacques Cœur, who was the argentier ("money man" or minister of finance) of French king Charles VII. I'll post some of the photos she took there tomorrow. I haven't been there... yet.
Most of my recent posts about the city of Bourges have been about the cathedral there and the public gardens. Here are a few photos of the town beyond the cathedral. The first three of these photos are some that I found on my hard disk yesterday. They were taken in 2003 by our good friend Cheryl.
Cheryl was originally from Chicago. She and I worked together as teaching assistants in the French Department at the University of Illinois in the early 1970s. Both of us spent the 1974-75 school year in Paris, she as what they called une assistante d'anglais in a lycée (high school) in the south suburbs (Antony) of the city. I was working on the staff of the U. of Illinois year abroad program in the Latin Quarter. Those Champaign-Urbana and Paris experiences turned us into good friends.
Cheryl was one of the first people who visited us after we moved to Saint-Aignan in June 2003.These are from September that year. She stayed in Saint-Aignan for three weeks, if I remember correctly, and one day during that stay she said she wanted to go to Bourges, and she wanted to go by herself. She bought a train ticket for her day trip. I dropped her off at the Saint-Aignan train station in the morning and picked her up in the evening when she got back. She really enjoyed that day, and I'm so glad she let me copy her photos onto my hard disk for safe-keeping.
Walt and I became friends in Paris in 1981, partners in Washington DC in 1983, and spouses in 2012. Over that time, we spent a couple of nights in Bourges back in 1993 and 1995, when we were on our way to other places. We were very impressed with the cathedral there. I didn't do much photography back then. Only when digital cameras became a big thing in the late 1990s did I start to get interested in taking pictures. This one and the two below are photos that I took in June 2008 in Bourges.
In the early 1980s, CHM and I had worked together in Washington DC for a few years as editors and translators on the staff of a magazine published by the U.S. government and then for the agency's press service. Then I moved to California. CHM's partner Frank lived in southern California, and Frank's daughter lived in Silicon Valley. They visited her almost every summer back then, so we kept in touch with CHM, becoming better and better friends over the years through those visits. Then CHM moved to California in the mid-1990's. and we all spent time together in the southern California and in the SF Bay Area. The restaurant in this photo is where we had that memorable lunch of foie de veau.
After Walt and I moved to Saint-Aignan, CHM started coming to visit us here frequently. We've spent a lot of time exploring the Loire Valley and other parts of France, including Picardy and Burgundy... not to mention Paris. I have spent a lot of time with him at his apartment there. Probably a third or more of the material on this blog is about those visits and travels. I really miss the good times we had — Frank (who passed away in 2006), CHM, Walt, and I — over the past 30 years in France and in California. I've been posting about all our travels together for 18 months now, including the day in Bourges... since Covid-19 has made us into virtual shut-ins.