Have Bag, Will Travel
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“This enchanting landmark is an architectural blend of many European styles, from 13th Century French Fortress to late Renaissance Palace. Since it was inspired by no single structure, Cinderella Castle represents them all” – Disney Official Souvenir Book
Finding a castle to visit is not difficult in France because, according to the Official Tourist Board, there are almost five-thousand but it seems to me to includes a lot of questionable small Chateaux in that number. For comparison there are eight hundred in the United Kingdom and just about two thousand five hundred in Spain.
In the 1960s, so the story goes, Disney ‘imagineers’ travelled throughout Europe looking for the perfect castles on which to model Cinderella’s Castle in Walt Disney World.
The lead architect for the project was a man called Herbert Rymanand and what makes this story a bit of a mystery is that there is no documentary evidence to establish exactly which castles he visited and indeed which of them became the inspiration for the Disney Magic Kingdom centrepiece. Disney themselves do no more than confirm that Cinderella Castle was ‘inspired by the great castles of Europe’, but they never explicitly say which one.
I mention this because today I was planning a visit to the nearby town of Pierrefonds which is famous for its castle. Actually that is just about all that it is famous for and without the castle I doubt that very many people would take the detour to go there.
The castle itself is rather magnificent, statuesque and grand, stout walls and conical turrets and if the Disney architects had stopped by Pierrefonds on their fact finding tour of Europe then I suggest that they would have gone no further in their search for inspiration for Cinderella’s Castle.
After Pierrefonds we continued to nearby Compiègne which turned out to be another attractive but rather unremarkable town but my reason for visiting was to see just one thing. A statue of Joan of Arc. There are statues of the Maid of Orleans all over France but I especially wanted to see this one because it has some special significance.
A bit of background: Joan was born in about 1412 into a relatively well-off peasant family in Donrémy in northern France somewhere near the border of Lorraine. At this time English troops were running riot through France and at one point raided and plundered the village of Donrémy and the d’Arc family had to flee into exile. During this time Joan convinced herself that she had a visitation of saints and angels and heard patriotic voices that told her that she was chosen by God to save France. Joan kept hearing the voices for a further three years and when she was finally convinced she left home and presented herself to the authorities as the saviour of France with a mission to put the Dauphin on his rightful throne.
Word of Joan quickly spread and it was claimed that she was the embodiment of a prophecy made by a mystic called Marie d’Avignon, that a ‘virgin girl from the borders of Lorraine’ would come to save France. To test whether Joan was genuine the Dauphin had her questioned by a committee of clergymen and asked a group of respectable ladies to test her virginity.
She passed both tests and with religious sincerity and sexual inexperience being considered more suitable qualifications than an education at an appropriate military academy she was given a suit of made (maid?) to measure white armour and an army of forty thousand men and sent to fight the English at Orléans.
Joan rejected the cautious strategy that had characterized French leadership and attacked and captured the outlying fortress of Saint Loup, which she followed the next day with a march to a second fortress called Saint Jean le Blanc, which was found deserted. The next day with the aid of only one captain she rode out of the city and captured the fortress of Saint Augustins and two days later attacked the main English stronghold and secured a stunning victory that took everyone by surprise.
After that there was a seemingly endless run of French victories as the English and their Bugundian allies fled from the field of battle whenever challenged by the invincible Maid of Orléans fighting, it seemed, with God by her side.
From here however things started to go wrong for Joan and she was betrayed by the King, Charles VII, who was beginning to find here her to be a bit of a nuisance and to get her out of the way he dispatched her on a hopeless mission to fight a Burgundian army right here at (which brings me conveniently back to) Compiègne, where she was defeated by a much stronger army, captured and taken prisoner and so began her sad journey towards the bonfire.
I found the statue and with nothing else to detain me in Compiègne I headed back to the campsite at Vic-Sur-Aisne.
It was too early to book into our holiday accommodation which was only just a few miles away so after a surprisingly good IBIS Hotel breakfast we set out to explore the town of Soissons.
The place was unusually quiet for a Monday morning and many of the shops in the town centre were closed (maybe it was a public holiday or perhaps they just don’t open on a Monday) but we didn’t let that bother us, we hadn’t come for the shops but rather to do some sightseeing.
It is a peaceful town today but it has had rather a turbulent past and on account of its strategic location was once a much more important place than it is today.
I was amused by a passage in a guide book which read – “The election of Pepin the Short took place in Soissons in the 8th century and in 923, following a battle outside the town walls, Charles the Simple gave up his throne in favour of the House of France”
I mention this because if I had been a King at around this time I would have taken great offence to names like these and would have preferred something like Andrew the Brave or Andrew the Wise, something altogether a little more flattering.
This is Pepin the Short…
Although in fairness rather like the unfortunate Pepin I wouldn’t have been able to effectively dispute the title Andrew the Short.
A quick look at Royal history reveals that the French had a habit of giving their monarchs uncomplimentary appendages, Louis II was the Stammerer, Louis V was called the Do Nothing, and Louis VI was known as the Fat!
My research throws up what simply has to be my all-time favourite – sometime in the late thirteenth century, Ivailo of Bulgaria was called the Cabbage! Rather like the England Football Manager Graham Taylor (1990-93) who was unflatteringly branded Turnip Taylor after a run of disappointing results and failure to qualify for the Football World Cup Finals.
I couldn’t help wondering if they were aware of these nicknames or if they were like school teachers who were all given names behind their backs by the students. Come to think about it now however, although we always thought that they were secret I am inclined to believe that each and every one of them knew exactly what we called them.
We used to have a geography teacher called Nogger Hickinbotham, a woodwork teacher called Plod Barker, an art teacher called Tap Underwood and a French teacher called Pluto Thompson but I am afraid that I am completely unable to explain the origin of any of those ridiculous names.
In the first year at Dunsmore School for Boys in Rugby my younger brother Richard helpfully recorded all of these names for posterity in the 1969/70 school Year Book…
Back now to Soissons.
During the Hundred Years’ War, French forces committed a notorious massacre of English archers stationed at the town’s garrison in which many of the French townsfolk were themselves murdered. The massacre of French citizens by French soldiers shocked Europe and Henry V of England, noting that the town of Soissons was dedicated to the Saints Crispin and Crispinian, claimed to avenge the honour of the Saints when he met the French forces at the Battle of Agincourt on St Crispin’s Day 1415.
The last big upheaval in the town was during the First-World-War (1914-18). In the German Spring offensive of 1918 Soissons fell into enemy hands but after massive bombardment by the French in July the town was recaptured. When I say town what I really mean is what was left of it after repeated attacks the centre including the Cathedral was almost totally destroyed and had to be almost completely rebuilt in the post war years.
During the battle the Allies suffered 107,000 casualties (95,000 French and 12,000 American), the Germans suffered 168,000 casualties and the French High Command justified the deaths and the destruction on the basis that Soissons was an important strategic town that protected invasion and occupation of Paris. More about this later…
An interesting fact about the Battle of the Soissonnais and of the Ourcq is that during the campaign Adolf Hitler, the future Führer of Nazi Germany was awarded the Iron Cross First Class at Soissons on August 4th 1918. More about him later…
Anyway we spent an enjoyable morning exploring the streets of Soissons, the Town Hall, the Cathedral (every French Town has a mighty Cathedral) and finally the ruins of the Abbaye de St-Jean-Des-Vignes. The Abbaye is a magnificent place even today but could have been even more magnificent but for the fact that in 1805 the Bishop of Soissons approved its demolition to provide building materials to repair the nearby Cathedral – there was no UNESCO World Heritage Committee to prevent this sort of thing in 1805.
We completed our walk and finished the morning with an ice cream at a pavement bakery and with the clock ticking towards check-in time we left and made our way the La Croix du Vieux Pont Campsite where we still a little bit early so we waited patiently for our lodge to become available and while the children swam in the swimming pool I acquainted myself with the poolside bar facilities.
Does anyone have a favourite memorable nickname?
“The people of McDonald’s need guidance. They need to be told that Europe is not Disneyland…. It should look like a normal European bistro and nothing to tell you from the outside that this is a McDonald’s except for a discreet golden arches sticker on each window and a steady stream of people with enormous asses going in and out of the front door.” Bill Bryson – ‘Neither here Nor there’
Every year I make myself a promise and every year I break it.
Generally around about February/March my daughter gives me a call and tells me that her holiday plans are disrupted because someone has dropped out and she invites me along instead. This time I said that I would be strong and resist. These holidays require the sort of preparation and training exercises that are considered even too tough for the US Navy Seals or the British Army SAS.
When the inevitable phone call came I was ready and said no, I said no in a firm voice, I said absolutely no, I declined several times and then about an hour or so later I started making travel plans and ferry bookings because this year we were going to Picardy in Northern France.
Actually I booked some airline tickets to Paris with the intention of hiring a car to avoid the long journey but the costs started to mount alarmingly and eventually I had to abandon the flight idea and take a financial hit on the fares and accept that there was no real alternative but to drive which was something I wasn’t really looking forward to if I am honest.
We set off early on Sunday morning and made surprisingly swift progress along the UK’s congested motorways, caught the scheduled ferry and then made the two hundred mile journey from Calais to the town of Soisssons where we were spending the first night in a cheap IBIS Hotel.
We were staying at an IBIS hotel because my daughter Sally had got the booking dates wrong. We were due to stay at a nearby holiday park but the reservation didn’t begin until the next day so we had no alternative right now but to find a temporary stop over.
We didn’t stop driving until we reached the ubiquitous edge of town shopping mall which are a disagreeable feature of most French urbanisations as everywhere it is almost certain that the approach to any historic town or city must now pass through an aluminium clad collection of temporary industrial units, supermarkets and fast food restaurants.
And this is another curious feature of France because every town we drove through had countdown signposts and specific directions to the nearest McDonalds restaurant as though the French need the constant reassurance of the nearest set of Golden Arches.
The poor French. There they were, with their traditional bistros serving cassoulet, soupe a l’oignon and confit de canard and now all the people really want is rectangular food-like objects that taste vaguely of chicken, and a side of dipping sauce.
Well, actually it turns out to be not so curious at all because even though they maintain that they despise the concept of the fast food chain an awful lot of French people do eat there. Across France there are nearly twelve hundred restaurants (restaurants?) and in Paris alone there are almost seventy, with even more dotted around the outer suburbs. That’s much the same as London, but with only a third of the population.
McDonald’s, or “macdoh” as it is known is now so firmly a part of French culture that the menu includes McBaguette and Croque McDo and in 2009 McDonald’s reached a deal with the French museum, the Louvre, to open a McDonald’s restaurant and McCafé on its premises by their underground entrance. That could almost be considered as sacrilege.
A consequence of the French love of fast food is a growing obesity problem in a country that has always prided itself on being slim and healthy with a belief that there is something in the French lifestyle that protects them against obesity, heart disease and diabetes. This is called the ‘French Paradox’ and is now being exposed as a myth because they are straying from the very dietary habits that made them the envy of the world – eating small portions, eating lots of vegetables, drinking in moderation, and only limited snacking.
Overall six and a half million French, that’s 15% of the population, are now classified as obese.
When in a foreign country I like to savour the local culture so after we had settled in and the children had finished dismantling the rooms I drove to the nearby McDonalds to get something to eat.
This was a tricky experience. The place was heaving and the only way to order food was by using the interactive display boards which is relatively straightforward in England but a bit difficult in France where there is no English language option and my assistant was a four year old grandson with faster fingers than me and who was impatient for nuggets and fries.
It took a while and I thankfully avoided a massive order of about 5000€ and then we waited. And we waited. McDonalds is supposed to be fast food but the preparation process was slightly slower than glacial and it took over thirty minutes to be served our order.
Back at the IBIS Hotel it took about thirty seconds to eat it and when the children were all safely in bed I poured a gin and tonic and drank it and then a second stronger gin and tonic and drank that and started to worry about the next ten days and what I had let myself in for.
I love my blogging pals in the USA but every 4th July there is a emotional patriotic outpouring about American Independence that is like a lava flow of double sticky Maple Syrup. What is there to be that proud about? Three hundred years or so later the USA has Donald Trump as President!
In England we have to National Day, no Independence Day, in fact we tend to celebrate a day when we were invaded and lost our Independence.
1066 is probably the most memorable date in English history.
On October 14th (now officially Hastings Day) that year Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England and most of his army with him were cut down at the Battle of Hastings, and William, Duke of Normandy earned his nickname “William the Conqueror”. William, who was using Hastings as his base, then claimed the crown and changed the way England was governed forever.
Unlike the Scots who sing national anthems (unofficial) about fighting the English and the Welsh can’t get over the military campaigns and begrudge the castles of Edward I (even though they generate lots of tourist revenue) it is a curious fact that the English actually celebrate and embrace the 1066 Battle of Hastings. I suppose this says a lot about the nature of the English because instead of sulking behind a defensive nationalist barrier and bristling with rage and resentment we have actually hijacked the event and reorganised our subsequent history around it.
After the successful invasion William the Normans set about imposing their military domination and completely reforming the previous Anglo Saxon administrative and political regime and they were so successful that modern English history really starts from that date. The subjugation and the transformation was so completely successful because the English (except Hereward the Wake of course) recognised the benefits of this, allowed it to happen and simply got on with their lives. They didn’t sit in caves watching spiders or retreat to Anglesey to brood and get angry about it.
Today the French irreverently refer to the English as Anglo-Saxons (in the same way that we refer to them as Frogs) but their description is entirely incorrect because for a thousand years we have been Norman-English whereas the French do eat frogs!
In 1966, I was twelve years old and England went into a frenzy as the 900th anniversary was celebrated and it was such a success that Hastings Borough Council decided to mark the date every year as Hastings Day.
On the build up to the event there were commemorative stamps and gold coins, tea towels, pencil sets and mugs and everyone got in on the act: “Battle of Hastings 1066—Bottle of Guinness 1966” frothed a thousand billboards. ‘Whoosh! It’s another big breakaway conquest,’ proclaimed the makers of Bri-Nylon clothing in advertisements showing mounted Bri-Nyloned models setting out against the Saxons and another alternative version of the battle showed the Norman warriors armed with Desoutter Power Tools. Heinz offered a chance to enter an archery contest in which the first 1,066 winners would be rewarded with Kenwood Chef food mixers. Every English town that could claim the remotest connection with either Harold or William beckoned tourists with such attractions as Conquest puppet shows, town-crier contests and battle re-enactments by grown men who still liked dressing up and playing soldiers.
Naturally, in the forefront of all this was Hastings, which, as its local newspaper proudly pointed out, ‘is better known internationally than almost any other town.’ To give the anniversary its deserved importance and promote tourism, the Hastings Town Council spent a small fortune building a triple-domed exhibition hall called the Triodome. The principal exhibit was intended to be the great Bayeux Tapestry but the tapestry is the property of the town of Bayeux in Normandy, which, fearing damage to the precious artefact, refused to lend it for the occasion, and so, rather than sulk, like the Greeks and the Elgin Marbles, Hastings produced its own.
The Hastings Embroidery was made by the Royal School of Needlework in 1965. It took twenty-two embroiderers ten months to finish and it was intended to be a modern day equivalent of the Bayeux Tapestry. It consists of twenty-seven panels, each nine by three foot, and shows eighty-one great events in British history during the nine-hundred years from 1066 to 1966.
The Embroidery is worked in appliqué by hand, with the addition of couched threads and cords in the same way as the Bayeux Tapestry. It incorporates tweed from Scotland, fabrics from the Victoria and Albert Museum, and feathers from London Zoo. When completed it went on public display in Hastings, firstly in the Town Hall and then at the White Rock Pavilion. The Embroidery is currently in storage, and, despite local campaigns to have it brought out of the bottom drawer, apart from two panels on permanent display in the Town Hall, it is not on public display. The reason given is that to preserve the cloth and appliqué that special storage displays would have to made and the cost would be prohibitive. I can’t help thinking there may be another reason – perhaps it isn’t that good?
I began this article by trying to rise above patriotic smugness but I cannot finish without reminding the French that, in a delicious twist of fate, less than three months before the 900 year celebrations of a French victory over the Anglo Saxons, England beat France in the World Cup group stages by two goals to nil. France finished bottom in the group, England finished top and went on to win the Jules Rimet trophy!
It was a long tedious drive from Ephesus to Pamukkale and thinking about the Ephesus experience I thought it would be fun to recall all of the other ancient sites that I have visited and assemble a near perfect virtual ancient city.
Approaching the city the first thing to be seen would be the aqueduct bringing fresh water to the citizens. The finest aqueduct must surely be that in Segovia in central Spain. It was built at the end of first to early second century AD by the Romans to bring water from the Río Frío about eighteen kilometres away and requiring an elevated section in its final kilometre from the Sierra de Guadarrama to the walls of the old town.
This is supported by an engineering achievement of one hundred and sixty-six arches and one hundred and twenty pillars constructed on two levels. It is twenty eight metres high and constructed with over twenty thousand large granite blocks, which are joined without mortar or clamps and have remained in place for two thousand years.
After passing through the arches of the aqueduct the road would lead to a Palace – Diocletian’s Palace from Split in Croatia. The palace was built as a Roman military fortress with walls two hundred metres long and twenty metres high, enclosing an area of thirty-eight thousand square metres and it is one of the best preserved Roman palaces in existence because after the fall of the Romans within the defensive walls it effectively became the city of Spalatum which eventually evolved and became the modern city of Split.
Inside the city walls there would be the houses of the people who lived in the city, the houses of Herculaneum near Pompeii in Italy that was destroyed in the same Vesuvius eruption. But in a different way because where Pompeii was buried in ash, Herculaneum was destroyed by a pyroclastic flow which is a ground-hugging avalanche of hot ash, pumice, rock fragments, and volcanic gas that rushes down the side of a volcano. Although it killed all of the inhabitants this flow did little damage to the structures, instead slowly filling them from the bottom up and preserving them perfectly without destroying them altogether.
After passing through the residential area there would be a magnificent triumphal arch marking the entrance to the civic and public areas. I think it would be very much like the arch at Voloubilis in Morocco.
Volubilis was the Roman capital of the Province of Mauritania and was founded in the third century B.C., it became an important outpost of the Roman Empire and was graced with many fine buildings. Extensive remains of these survive in the archaeological site, located in the middle of this fertile agricultural area. The city continued to be occupied long after the Romans had gone and at some point converted to Islam and Volubilis was later briefly to become the capital of Idris I, founder of the Idrisid dynasty, who is buried at nearby Moulay Idris. It is now of course a UNESCO World Heritage Site, admitted to the list in 1997.
Once through the Arch into the Forum which for the Romans was the centre of political, commercial and judicial life. This has to be the Forum in Rome.
According to the playwright Plautus the area ‘teemed with lawyers and litigants, bankers and brokers, shopkeepers and strumpets’. As the city grew successive Emperors increasingly extended the Forum and in turn built bigger temples, larger basilicas, higher triumphal columns and more lavish commemorative arches. Here is the Temple of Romulus and the house of the Vestal Virgins and then the Temple of Julius Caesar erected on the very spot that he was cremated following his assassination in 44 BC.
Every ancient city needs a theatre and at the end of the forum in this virtual city is the theatre of Hierapolis at Pamukkale in Turkey, a restored ancient theatre that surely has to be amongst the best that I have ever seen and that includes Segesta in Sicily and Merida in Spain and also (again in my opinion) the ruins that we had visited yesterday at Ephesus.
Next to the Theatre is the Temple and I am happy to include in this virtual city the Temple of Apollo in Didyma just down the road from Ephesus. This place would have been huge, one hundred and twenty columns, fifteen metres high and each taking an estimated twenty thousand man days to cut and erect. It was never completely finished because during the construction process the money kept running out but if it had been then it is said that this would have been one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World in precedence over the Temple of Artemis at nearby Ephesus.
Finally there would be an Amphitheatre and whilst it may seem like madness not to include the Colosseum in Rome I am going to overlook it and include instead the Amphitheatre at Arles in Southern France. It could also have been the the Amphitheatre in Pula in Croatia or,Mérida in Spain but there is something majestic about about Arles which just fascinates me. No one can be absolutely sure about which was the largest in terms of capacity and it is generally agreed that this was the Colosseum but we can be more certain about physical size and there was a plaque nearby that claimed that this was the twelfth largest in the Roman Empire. Interestingly using this criteria the plaque only listed the Colosseum as second largest but it’s like I have always said size isn’t the most important thing!
So there it is, my virtual Ancient City, just my personal choices and I would be more than happy to consider any alternative suggestions for inclusion.
My blogging pal Wil sent me this in an email and I am delighted to add it to my city…
… thought I would share this picture of the colonnaded street and forum at Jerash. It would definitely be in my fantasy Roman city!
Check out Wil’s blog here … Wilbur’s Travels
The entrance ticket is just about as exciting as the attraction!
On a trip to Northern France we visited the delightful medieval town of Dinan and clutching a fist full of property details followed the road back to the coast and St Malo. We were behind schedule so the sensible thing to do now was to go directly to Mont St Michel but Kim was intrigued by a visitor attraction marked on the map called the sculptured rocks so sensing another unexpected delight we left the main highway and set out on the coast road.
Let me now give you a piece of advice – unless you are really determined to see rock carvings do not take an unnecessary detour to Les rochers sculptés! We were expecting a stack of rocks standing in the sea pounded by waves into interesting formations but the site is a small area of stonemason carvings in the side of the granite cliff.
These sculptures were carved just over a hundred years ago by a hermit priest, Abbé Fouré, who had suffered a stroke and lost his ability to hear and speak and the story goes that he began these sculptures as a means of alternative communication. I am not trying to underestimate the value of the work here you understand, what I am saying that it is a tedious detour and unless you want to go round twice which is highly unlikely I have to say the visit is going to be over in about twenty minutes or so.
If you do want to go and see them then I would do it soon because after one hundred years they are seriously eroded by the sea and the rain and it can’t help a great deal that visitors are allowed to climb all over them.
After the disappointing visit I was impatient to get to Mont St Michel but stuck on the coast road progress was infuriatingly slow as we passed through several towns and villages all with inconveniently snail like speed limits. Out in the Gulf of St Malo we could see the abbey on the island but it seemed to take a frustrating age to get there as the road snaked around the coast and every few miles or so we came across a tractor or a school bus which slowed us down even more.
Several times I cursed the decision to go and visit Les rochers sculptés.