All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Gemme of all joy, jasper of jocunditie

The chateau of Saumur from the 'Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, showing the vendange

Lately, a chance reading brought me back to my first encounter with the Loire Valley at Blois,. which has always been my favourite town in France.

This week, while looking for something else entirely, I rediscovered the poems of William Dunbar, one of whch...his celebration of medieval London (1)...had made me think of Saumur as soon as I saw the place for the first time more than forty years' ago. 
Well, medieval Saumur was never London, but the images conjured up by Dunbar, a rich medieval city set above a fast flowing river, are the written equivalent of those white castles and green fields of a medieval book of hours, and the town still retains something of that distant past.

Saumur came to have a particular significance for me...when returning to my first house in France from  visits to the family in Brussels, driving through the night to avoid the lorries on the main roads, the sight of the floodlit chateau of Saumur, hovering high above the river, was the signal that I would be home in half an hour, leaving behind the slate roofs of the north for the roman tiles of the south.

Saumur is no longer on my way home, but it is a wonderful place to take visitors...plenty to see, but not just a tourist part of a trip along the Loire.

It has been a garrison town since the nineteenth century, first cavalry and then tanks, and there are visible reminders of both.

The tank museum is just outside the town, and is a perfect place to park the men...but I liked it when it was in the centre of the town and the exhibits used to rumble out into the arena for the annual military Carrousel - the tracks ripping up the asphalt surface of the roads, the exhaust fumes heavy in the still summer air.
Watching them crawl forward made me realise why my father said only an idiot would be a tankie...just fancy shutting yourself up in a metal box big enough to be a target!

Only one thing worse....trying to attack it!
My mother, in the Army in the second World War, was taught to ambush tanks. The idea was to put up roadblocks, then once the tank stopped, you were supposed to creep up on it and shove a molotov cocktail up its' exhaust.
This seemed to assume that the German Panzers had a truly British sense of obedience to road signs and would wait accordingly to discover that they didn' the immortal words of Corporal it up them rather than just driving round the obstacle while machine gunning all those in attendance.

The horse still has a strong presence in Saumur, despite being overtaken by technology. There are regular dressage and three day event competitions, carriage driving trials too, but the star turn is the existence of the Cadre Noir, France's equivalent of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. To see these wonderful horses performing their dressage routines whether ridden, or controlled by their rider from the ground, is a tremendous spectacle.
You can pay a packet and go to one of their Gala evenings, or you can see them for a lot less at the Carrousel, which these days has morphed into a civic fete rather than a military tattoo and occupies the whole town centre for days in July.

I think I preferred it when it was an all army affair....the band in their perch in the stands smoking while waiting to perform....the troops in the arena smoking while waiting to be inspected, then snapping to attention as the commanding general and his guests emerged, rosy, beaming and none too steady on their pins, from their lunch in the garrison...the horse versus motorbike event over the obstacles in the arena...the military ride...and all the corny clowning inseparable from any military entertainment. Not forgetting the tanks.
A period piece, and no longer considered appropriate in this era of political correctness.

I just wonder if it is politically correct to remember those cadets of the garrison who were charged with preventing the German army from crossing the Loire in 1940, some of whom are remembered in the quiet churchyard at Gennes, just downstream from Saumur.

Not content with tanks and horses as means of locomotion, you can even take a trip on the Loire, in the gabare which is moored in front of the stone lace of the Hotel de Ville.

These traditional boats had almost died out until some twenty years' ago when a few enthusiasts started to try to reconstruct them from old photographs and written records, and their enthusiasm has been rewarded. Today there are many gabares and their little sisters, the toues, navigating the Loire...built by individuals and riverside communes and celebrating their existence in 'meets' and festivals all summer long.

These square sailed boats with a rudder like a Chinese junk brought all sorts of products downstream all the way to Nantes...but depended on the west wind, the 'vent de galerne', to get back upstream against the current. So difficult was this that the practice arose of building them in green wood and, once at the destination, they would be dismantled and the wood used in house building.
Just one reason for their failure to survive.

Conditions are generally calm at Saumur, but if you ever have the chance to sail a gabare in the estuary, you may have the unforgettable experience of a few tons of wood planing, the nose up out of the water, if a heavy squall sets in.

It's not all action. You can sit in the place St.Pierre and listen to the organ music issuing from the church doors, or walk through the quiet streets of the old town, wondering if you might be passing the house of Balzac's 'Eugenie Grandet'.
You can even go to the market on Saturday morning.  If you insist.

I don't share the obsession with French food and restaurants that figures so largely in magazines and on the web, but there is a place I like in Saumur...where I have never been disappointed.
It is the only place in which I have ever been offered a glass of wine on the house while waiting for a seat to become free.
It is also the only place in which I've ever been involved in a discussion on the virtues of Daf cars.

Passing the cinema, on the river bank, there is a shabby building lying back behind dingy green railings. In summer, severely dilapidated umbrellas shade battered metal tables in the little winter you stay indoors, in the unchanged atmosphere of a 1930s bar...huge mirror behind the bar, smoke stained lincrusta and bentwood chairs.

The customers are local workmen and a surprising number of working girls, but tourists are treated with the same courtesy as the regulars whether the waitress is the nice young thing in exiguous clothing or the lady of a certain age. The resident dog will settle under your table expectantly and your order will be taken by the owner-cum-chef, who has been over seventy for the last twenty years, the only signs of advancing age being the exchange of carpet slippers for shoes a couple of years ago and the adoption of a woolly hat in winter. Indoors.

The menu may claim to offer pork chops, but what you get will be steak and chips..

The chef will ask you how you want your steak, but you'll get it the way he cooks it...

and while this would ordinarily drive me mad, I've always had a super, if simple meal there with a good cheap house wine.

There is only one problem...and this too was addressed in Dunbar's poem 'A Lament for the Makars'....
Timor mortis conturbat me......the thought of death disturbs me.

Yes, it does. Not mine...his.

What if he's died since I was last at Saumur?

We'd better take sandwiches.

LONDON, thou art of townes A per se.
 Soveraign of cities, seemliest in sight, 
 Of high renoun, riches and royaltie; 
 Of lordis, barons, and many a goodly knyght; 
 Of most delectable lusty ladies bright; 
 Of famous prelatis, in habitis clericall;
 Of merchauntis full of substaunce and of myght: 
 London, thou art the flour of Cities all. 

 Gladdith anon, thou lusty Troynovaunt, 
 Citie that some tyme cleped was New Troy; 
 In all the erth, imperiall as thou stant, 
 Pryncesse of townes, of pleasure and of joy, 
 A richer restith under no Christen roy; 
 For manly power, with craftis naturall, 
 Fourmeth none fairer sith the flode of Noy:
 London, thou art the flour of Cities all. 

 Gemme of all joy, jasper of jocunditie, 
 Most myghty carbuncle of vertue and valour;
 Strong Troy in vigour and in strenuytie; 
 Of royall cities rose and geraflour;
 Empress of townes, exalt in honour;
 In beawtie beryng the crone imperiall;
 Swete paradise precelling in pleasure; 
 London, thou art the flour of Cities all.

 Above all ryvers thy Ryver hath renowne,
 Whose beryall stremys, pleasaunt and preclare,
 Under thy lusty wallys renneth down, 
 Where many a swan doth swymme with wyngis fair; 
 Where many a barge doth saile and row with are; 
 Where many a ship doth rest with top-royall. 
 O, towne of townes! patrone and not compare, 
 London, thou art the flour of Cities all. 

 Upon thy lusty Brigge of pylers white 
 Been merchauntis full royall to behold;
 Upon thy stretis goeth many a semely knyght 
 In velvet gownes and in cheynes of gold.
 By Julyus Cesar thy Tour founded of old 
 May be the hous of Mars victoryall, 
 Whose artillary with tonge may not be told:
 London, thou art the flour of Cities all. 

 Strong be thy wallis that about thee standis; 
 Wise be the people that within thee dwellis; 
 Fresh is thy ryver with his lusty strandis; 
 Blith be thy chirches, wele sownyng be thy bellis; 
 Rich be thy merchauntis in substaunce that excellis; 
 Fair be their wives, right lovesom, white and small; 
 Clere be thy virgyns, lusty under kellis: 
 London, thou art the flour of Cities all. 

 Thy famous Maire, by pryncely governaunce, 
 With sword of justice thee ruleth prudently. 
 No Lord of Parys, Venyce, or Floraunce 
 In dignitye or honour goeth to hym nigh. 
 He is exampler, loode-ster, and guye; 
 Principall patrone and rose orygynalle,
 Above all Maires as maister most worthy:
 London, thou art the flour of Cities all.
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  1. Thank you! :) A lovely Sunday morning read.

  2. What a beautiful post Fly. Your blog is a real education for me...I learn so much from it.

    (I expect you've already done it but re your post not appearing on reading lists, go to Settings on your dashboard. Click. then on the bottom line of instructions at top of page, click on each one and check the settings to see if there's anything that looks unusual that might be preventing your blog showing up. Sounds a bit vague I know...because I don't know what to look for...but I often find errors this way)

  3. Cogitator, I've always liked Saumur...nice atmosphere.

    Ayak, glad you enjoyed it...those boats and the sheer enthusiasm of the people who started to bring them back to life have always given me pleasure.

    I'll try what you is a bit like 'press everything and see what happens'. What i don't see is why, when I don't press anything, things go pie eyed.

  4. Dear Fly, I loved this post - it SO reminded me of our "road trip" in the early 70's when we stayed at a little hotel in Blois (Le Gerbe D'Or, I think was the name) and had a marvelous meal and bed and breakfast and the whole of it cost less than it cost to garage the car overnight!

    The people we so friendly and nice (as I remember it) We went all the way up the Loire and found the BEST wine in Saumur. I remember we bought as many bottles as we could afford and mostly lived on that and fresh bread and cheese.

    Such lovely memories. When we arrived in Paris the first place I wanted to go was the Musee de Cluny to see the Book of Hours. To this day I think that was my favorite museum in Paris. (well OK. The Rodin Museum with the baby ducks in the garden cafe was pretty cool too...)

    Thanks for the post and the trip down memory lane!

  5. truestarr, I have been down memory lane a bit that we have decided to move all sorts of things come to mind about places we've enjoyed.
    I loved the Musee de Cluny too...

  6. I tried to leave a comment a couple of days ago but blogger was being temperamental.

    This post brought back memories of our visit to the Loire Valley a few years ago and also reminded me that we need to organise this years trip to France, so thank you.

  7. cheshire wife....mention of Blogger is becoming a bit like Fawlty Towers and Don't mention the War!

    Nothing but problems for about a fortnight...tried all I can think of and all Ayak can think of and I'm still having problems with it not accepting comments and not updating...

    There..I mentioned the War!

    I'm glad you too like the Loire seems to have slipped off the media radar over the last few years.

  8. I really like Saumur. It is a charming town. Your information was very interesting and I much enjoyed the poem.

  9. Dedene, yes, Saumur is a town I like very much.

    I'm glad you liked the poem...people seem to be put off medieval poetry, thinking the language is difficult,but, as with this, it's not necessarily so, and it gives a wonderful picture of a medieval city.