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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.
“And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow.” – Prince Charles quoting lines by the Sligo poet W B Yeats:
On the final day our plan was to visit Southern Ireland’s most northerly county, Donegal, so far north in fact that at the most northerly point it is further north than Northern Ireland. It is also part of the province of Ulster, which we mistakenly tend to think of as Northern Ireland.
There is a phrase that the Irish frequently use themselves which is “Only in Ireland” which is used to justify the regularly encountered idiosyncrasies of the country without offering any sort of rational explanation.
The partition of Ireland into north and south is a good example…
… The Province of Ulster is nine counties in the north and to make things complicated three of these are in the Republic and the other six make up what we know as Northern Ireland.
Ulster has no political or administrative significance these days and exists only as a historical sub-division of Ireland and one of the four Rugby Union provinces. The others are Connacht, Munster and Leinster. The map above shows the geographical split. The reasons are many and complicated but in the simplest terms these six counties were partitioned from the Irish Free State when it was established in 1920 because these were areas where Protestants were in the majority and had campaigned vigorously to remain part of the Union.
Except that they weren’t because in Counties Fermanagh and Tyrone they were in the minority but were included anyway. County Donegal was catholic but was separated from the principal border city of Londonderry/Derry and County Londonderry now has a majority catholic population.
How complicated is all that? No wonder that the Irish issue has taken so long to try and resolve.
Anyway, we didn’t concern ourselves today with tangled issues of politics but in the sunshine drove out of Sligo and once again picked up the road which follows the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’.
Although I was uneasy about this (bearing in mind how Kim reacted so badly to a coastal detour just a couple of days previously and just how clear she had been on her thoughts about detours) we chanced a recommended diversion to a small coastal village of Mullaghmore which turned out to be absolutely delightful with a picturesque harbour and a string of bars and cafés so after a stroll we selected one and stopped for drinks.
Mullaghmore is a charming place but it has a grim place in UK/Ireland relations and it has the burden of a horrific legacy. Overlooking the village is Classiebawn Castle which was once the summer residence of Lord Louis Mountbatten of Burma, one of the great British heroes of the Second-World-War. On 27th August 1979, Mountbatten took to sea in his boat out of Mullaghmore harbour and was murdered by an IRA bomb that had been previously planted on board.
It was only a small boat and a 50lb (23 kilo) stash of radio controlled nitro-glycerine planted there the night before blew it completely apart.
An IRA statement boasted… “We claim responsibility for the execution of Lord Louis Mountbatten. This operation is one of the discriminate ways we can bring to the attention of the English people the continuing occupation of our country.”
The thoroughly despicable Gerry Adams, Irish politician and Leader of the political wing of the IRA Sinn Féin, justified the killing in this way…
… “The IRA gave clear reasons for the execution… What the IRA did to him is what Mountbatten had been doing all his life to other people; and with his war record I don’t think he could have objected to dying in what was clearly a war situation. He knew the danger involved in coming to this country.” Hmmm!
Hopefully that unpleasantness is all in the past now (although I do hope that nasty Gerry Adams has recurring nightmares about the time he will spend in the future in Hell) and on a perfect summer day we left a very peaceful Mullaghmore and continued our journey to the very agreeable town of Donegal.
Donegal was much smaller than I imagined it would be (my research was hopelessly inadequate on this point) and although it was vibrant and busy it didn’t take a great deal of our time to walk around the town centre and pay a visit to the splendidly restored castle, stop for lunch in a hotel bar and then make our way back to the car park to begin the journey back to Sligo for our final night in Ireland – for this year anyway.
After the first day which had been spoiled by rain our Irish good weather fortune had returned and we had three days in glorious sunshine enjoying Ireland’s north-west coast. On the way back we planned another recommended detour into the hills behind Sligo in the shadow of the most famous – Benbulbin, which stands out above the land like an enormous beached liner. We made the drive but the weather was changing again now and the blue skies were being rapidly replaced by ominous grey.
The rain held off for the final evening in Sligo but the following morning was wet and miserable and the drive back to Knock Airport for the midday flight was through a series of squally storms. We arrived and departed in the rain but in the middle we had enjoyed a fourth wonderful visit to magnificent Ireland.
But wait. There was a sting in the tail/tale because on the way out through Knock airport departures there was a development tax of 10 euros each to be paid before we could leave. It seems that the Good Lord doesn’t always provide after all, well not all of it anyway!