30 September 2021

Des villes, des villes, encore des villes...

I've been studying and learning French since 1963, when I was 14 years old. I've been spending time in France, either living  here or coming here for vacations, for nearly 52 years —  since 1969.

I've seen a lot of French towns, and I've spent significant amounts of time — about a third of my life altogether — in towns named Saint-Aignan (18 years), Paris (5 years), Rouen (1 year), Metz (9 months), Aix-en Provence (6 months), and Grenoble (6 weeks).

In my travels, as you can imagine, I've passed through or spent a few days in innumerable other French towns. Still, there are so many I've never seen, and so many I've so often heard of and would love to see but haven't yet had the occasion or the chance.

Do you know how many towns there are in France? I'll tell you; there are close to 35,000 of them — exactly 34,836 as of January 1, 2021. Many of them go by names that I've heard or read for years and years, and I love it when I can go to one of them and come away with an image of it imprinted on my mind and in my memory.

In this post, I give you one of those towns that I have actually seen, even though only one time for a few hours. It has a population of about 3,300 brave souls, and is not really close to any big cities. I'm sure nearly everybody in France knows its name, but I bet only a small percentage of the French population has ever actually been there.

I won't tell you its name right now. It has existed since pre-Roman times. Have you ever seen any place like it? If you've traveled around France, you probably have. It's not pictures like these that made me decide to go there one day. It was just a name I'd heard hundreds of times and I finally got to put a "face" on it.

29 September 2021

Last photos of Culan

The Château de Culan has two faces. One looks toward the town and is more polished-looking.
The other looks toward the "wilds" to the southeast, where attackers came from, and is much rougher-looking.

This bridge over the Arnon river near the château is known locally as le pont romain (the Roman bridge).
Over the course of the centuries, people forgot it was built in medieval times but in the Roman style.
This bridge and the nearby highway bridge were both dynamited by French resistance fighters
at the end of the Second World War to hinder retreating German troups from escaping
toward the north and Germany. Both were carefully restored after the war.

      Apparently there birds in cages at Culan as well. My memory of them is vague,
but the photos are colorful and detailed.

28 September 2021

Culan colors

I thought the colors in the stone with which the Château de Culan was built were stunning. I haven't been able to find any information about it. It must have been quarried locally back in the 1200s. I also haven't found any information about the tapestry that is pictured in the large image below. I know that there are Aubusson tapestries in the château, and I'm pretty sure  this one was made in Aubusson, a famous town just 40 miles south of Culan.

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27 September 2021

Le Château de Culan...

...is in the town of the same name, located in the old Berry province. Culan (pop. 732) had 1,820 inhabitants in the year 1881 but the population has been declining steadily ever since. There are over 500 logements (housing units) in the town, including 76 résidences secondaires that are occupied only occasionally or seasonally. There is a small grocery store in the town, but the closest supermarkets are in Châteaumeillant, eight miles west, or in Montluçon, a 30-minute drive south. Culan is a two-hour drive south of Blois and a one-hour drive south of Bourges.

The Château de Culan was built between the years 1200 and 1500, replacing an earlier château that was besieged
and ordered demolished by the French king Philippe Auguste in 1188. Notable people who have visited include
Joan of Arc in 1429, king Louis XI in 1465, and later Madame de Sévigné, George Sand, Chopin,
and General de Gaulle. That's according to Wikipédia. CHM and CKB visited in 2009,
but didn't get a mention in Wikipédia.


26 September 2021

The next château on the tour...

...is this one. It's located less than 30 minutes southwest of Ainay-le-Vieil and an hour from Bourges by car.
More tomorrow.

25 September 2021

A castle, a cat, and some cars

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.

24 September 2021

L'abbaye de Noirlac : le cloître

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.

I grabbed the aerial view of the abbey below off Google Maps.
You can read more about the history of Noirlac here.

23 September 2021

Le centre de la France

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.

22 September 2021

L'Abbaye de Noirlac, in central France

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.

21 September 2021

L'abbaye de Noirlac

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.

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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.

20 September 2021

Prosperity, decline, and prosperity again

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.

There's good information about the history of Bourges here.
Then follow the links at the bottom of this page about the town in the 18th century.

19 September 2021

Bourges : à ne pas manquer, ou à éviter ?

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.

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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.

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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.”