Sunday 26th June 2011, Lac d'Orient, near Troyes, France
We have been so fortunate to have enjoyed comfortable weather while we were exploring Nancy. It's now turned unpleasantly hot again and we've not got all we wished from today as everything we do is such an effort.
This morning we visited Bar-le-Duc which we've somehow always managed to miss when crossing this part of France. Along the way we called off for bread in the unremarkable town of Toul. So unremarkable is it that it's only claim to fame is a plaque stating that in 1428 a young man from Domrémy brought a suit against Jeanne d'Arc claiming she had promised to marry him and instead here she was gadding off at the head of the French army, sword in hand, to fight the English. Nowadays women would take it in their stride, effortlessly combining the two, and men would accept it without question, but not back then. It seems the ecclesiastical court in its wisdom decided the young man was better off without a vision-seeing saint in the kitchen and absolved Jeanne from any such commitment so that she could go on fighting for the glory of France. The only other things of note in the town were a rather splendid Hotel de Ville and the facade of the cathedral which was quite horrible, crowded with just about anything it was possible to cram onto a church including stone carved curtains above one of the windows.
By the time we reached Bar-le-Duc the sun was hot, the sky a relentless blue and we were hallucinating about jumping into the nearby river Marne. There was no shade in which to park in the lower town but high above we eventually found a space beneath a tree for Modestine where there was even a shady patch for us to set up our table and chairs and get ourselves some lunch. It was a rather protracted affair however. No sooner had we made a sandwich than a jolly Frenchman came to tell us he'd seen a Romahome like ours on the internet and he'd always wanted one. He then told us his life history but was so openly friendly and cheerful we willingly chatted with him. It's all good French practice.
Next came a young man who skidded his car to a halt and came running over to ask if he could look inside Mod'. He too was delighted with her and went on to tell us all sorts of things about the town, except why it was called Bar-le-Duc. He did though, suggest a walk around the renaissance quarter of the town saying it was the largest such area of renaissance buildings in France.
Lunch eventually finished and visitors politely entertained, we left Modestine snoozing in the shade and walked out into the searing heat to explore the town. There are indeed many interesting buildings but even Ian had little interest in such heat. Having found the castle and looked down on the lower town from the Belvedere we developed a sudden eagerness to look inside the icy cool church.
Here the main curiosity was discovering near the altar a very bizarre statue of a skeletal, decaying knight. Apparently a few years after his death his widow commissioned the statue and asked the sculptor to make him look as he might look at the time of the completion of the work. Maybe she expected a few more lines on his face, instead the artist took her literally and produced a skeleton with decaying flesh hanging from his bones! Wonder if he ever got paid for it! It is regarded as one of the masterpieces of renaissance art.
It was too hot to do justice to Bar-le-Duc so we returned to Modestine and drove out across the flat plains of Northern France where fields of grain and vegetables stretch to the far distance. At least there was a breeze when we were driving. One of our lunchtime visitors had recommended a lake we should visit. It sounded sensible on such a day so we headed for the Lac du Der-Chantecoq. It is a vast man-made lake produced by drowning a number of villages and it serves as the water supply for Paris. It is also very popular with the French on a hot summer Sunday. They were on the artificially created sandy beaches in their thousands, as well as crowding into the lake together to cool off and generally have fun. It looked very like Lake Fertö in Hungary, with people happily wallowing in shallow water or lying on the hot sand getting redder by the minute. Here in France though, the people were generally only half the size of the large Germans, Poles and Romanians we'd seen at Hajduszoboszlo just a few weeks ago and there was nowhere nearby to buy huge sustaining meals.
Even beside the lake we felt hot, there was no breeze and no shade near the water. Until now we'd not really worked out how we would get round Paris, which looms directly ahead of us. We could go north or south around the city. For tonight though, the most convenient campsite is this one at Lac d'Orient, slightly to the south, so the die has been cast and we will return to Caen passing below Paris, via Chartres and Argentan rather than to the north via Reims, Beauvais and Rouen, This campsite is also on a lake but we were too weary to investigate, grateful just to take cool showers and find a patch of shade to shelter from the heat.
Monday 27th June 2011, Lac d'Orient, near Troyes, France
We are still camping beside the lake. This morning the heat was as relentless as ever and with the promise of wifi to catch up on blogs and emails, as well as a washing machine for all the laundry we've been accumulating we decided to shelter here for the day. It's a bit frustrating though. We got the washing online okay but online wifi was a wash out! (Ian's joke.) We've been chasing the shade around our pitch all day. Outside temperatures reached 41C while inside our thermometer went into meltdown when temperatures exceeded 40.0C, reading HH.H (hot, hot, hot?). This afternoon I submerged in the lake to cool off. The lake looked wonderful but wasn't that nice really being tepid and full of oozing mud, fishes and snails as well as holiday makers. It was also full of weed – vegetal and human – but Parisians can be reassured that I at least have not sullied their drinking water supply!
This campsite is very nice indeed. It's spotlessly clean but the sanitaires lack toilets as we know them! There are just ceramic holes in the ground. The site is mainly used by English people. A couple of ladies asked me about the toilets, unsure if they were actually meant to be showers! They'd never seen the Turkish loos that are such a common feature of many French campsites.
Meanwhile, while the English enjoy this green and pleasant campsite with its flowers, trees and shady grass pitches, all the French camping cars are lined up on the tarmac parking area beside the lake in the full glare of the sun so they can camp for free. It's been so hot the tarmac is melting while running the air conditioning unit in their vehicles requires electricity, which they do not have, so they cannot be very comfortable. Surely in such weather it's worth 14 euros for some shade and cool showers!
That's about it for today. Sometimes it's good to do absolutely nothing but we do have a low boredom threshold so will probably move on tomorrow in search of adventures new. We just hope it will be cooler.
Tuesday 28th June 2011, Munnerville, near Etampes, France
It's been awful today. We really are not just making a fuss. When you are out on the flat plains, surrounded by hectares of golden wheat, linseed, barley and sunflowers, with no shade anywhere all day and nowhere to seek shelter, it is not at all funny! Our inside thermometer fell last night to 27C, but that was at 3am. By 7am it was up above 30 again and has been off the top of the scale all day. Outside it has been 41.5C for most of the day. Yet even in this merciless heat farmers have been busy in the massive fields, and escorted "convois agricoles" convey overloaded wagons of hay and other crops along the narrow country roads scattering clouds of chaff behind them. During my brief swim in the lake yesterday I managed to get burnt so my neck and shoulders are really sore. Even Ian has had no interest at all in visiting anywhere except the frozen food department of Carrefour supermarket and an air conditioned ladies fashion shop in Montargis where we stopped briefly for a chilled drink. Otherwise we've been driving pretty well all day simply for the breeze we create and because we have found nowhere to stop in the shade. We are becoming accustomed to not being able to sleep at night but this evening there is just the slightest of breezes and the sound of distant thunder, so perhaps it will be cooler tomorrow.
We've driven along minor routes, passing through some pretty villages of half-timbered houses but the towns have been fairly uninspiring, one much resembling the next – predominantly grey, a bit run down with a cafe and patisserie on the main square and a large church nearby with a cemetery with its high iron cross and religious statue on the edge of the town. The mairie is usually the only building of merit and this is generally a château or convent reclaimed for the République after the revolution. There is generally a large free car park somewhere in the centre with a public toilet that is either permanently locked or permanently filthy. The streets all have post war precast concrete pylons stuck into the middle of the degraded pavements, from which dangle in untidy loops, thick twisted strands of black electrical wiring. In this area too there is usually a huge and hideous concrete water tower somewhere on the edge of each little town. One such village might be mildly interesting but they are all rundown and so very similar.
We did pass through Joigny on the pretty river Yonne. Normally we would have explored but with the heat it was out of the question. Across the bridge we found a patch of shade beside the water which we shared with dozens of panting ducks. They though could slip into the river from time to time to cool off. There was a particularly pretty view of the town from where we were sitting. It's the best we could do on such a day.
That's about it. This campsite does not have wifi, it's too hot to sleep and we need the windows and doors wide open so cannot use the lights or we will be pestered by insects of the night. At this rate we won't be sorry to get home.
Wednesday 29th June 2011, Chartres, France
Things could only get better, and they did. Shortly after I'd written the above last night, Modestine was violently shaken by a blast of thunder immediately overhead accompanied by so many continuous flashes of lightening we didn't need to use the lights. Which was just as well as the electricity passing through Modestine's umbilical cord from the mains supply had been knocked out! Rain, thunder, winds and lightening continued for a while during which time temperatures plummeted. This morning was 26 degrees cooler than it had been when the storm broke! So we were not just making a fuss yesterday were we?!
After a wonderful night's sleep we felt fresh enough to face Chartres where we arrived around 10am after passing through miles of empty landscape that forms the bread basket of France. Nothing breaks the monotony of an endless landscape of waving wheat or neat rows of stubble, except for a few gigantic wind turbines and the pulsating sprays of water that are jetted out across the crops – hardly necessary today after last night's rain. Way in the distance we saw a patch of colour. Eventually we reached it to discover a crop of lupins and sweet peas. They were quite lovely but appeared to be grown purely to regenerate the soil rather than as a commercial crop.
There is so much to see in Chartres and it seems so large that it's hard to believe it has only 40,000 inhabitants, though with its agglomeration it is much the same size as Exeter.
Leaving Modestine beside the river we walked into the centre through a pretty riverside park and climbed up steep flights of steps to the Cathedral and its immediate surroundings. Here we made use of the facilities offered by the tourist information centre, housed in a lovely 16th century wooden framed building with carved gables including one with a huge salmon. Hence the building is known as "la Maison du Saumon". Not only did the office offer free wifi, a toilet, an art exhibition, free maps and a little guide book, it also provided touch screen electronic information about many different aspects of the town's culture, history, architecture and notable personages. It scored top marks as one of the very best tourist offices we've pestered during our travels.
The Musée de Beaux Arts on the other hand disappointed. Housed in the lovely former Bishop's Palace set in splendid gardens, we were told there were no discounts for seniors. As we'd received them in both Nancy and Strasbourg we'd assumed they were offered nationally but it seems it's up to the discretion of the municipality.
With so many other things of interest to see we gave the museum a miss and crossed to the cathedral built in the 12th and 13th centuries and on the Unesco World Heritage list. This should be a "must see" on every tourist's itinerary for the coloured stained glass alone. The interior of the building is very dark and gloomy but this means that the light passing through the 172 brightly coloured stained and painted glass windows can be seen to best advantage. They are recognised, in terms of age and beauty, as the best collection of stained glass anywhere in Europe. These are mainly religious images, illustrating scenes from the Bible, the lives of the saints, the crafts of various guilds and heraldic coats of arms. The predominant colour is blue and they date from the 12th and 13th centuries. Currently the cathedral is undergoing a transformation with the brickwork being cleaned, statues renovated and most of all, the accretions of grime and grease painstakingly removed from the glass. Where this has been done the cathedral looks as beautiful as when it was first built, the dark walls, blackened statues and duller glass windows still awaiting treatment showing just how the fabric has darkened over the centuries.
We were intrigued to discover a labyrinth dating from around 1200 laid out in the stone flooring of the cathedral. Once a week the nave is cleared for pilgrims and visitors to walk their way around its coils to the centre. It apparently represents a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Henry IV of France – Henry of Navarre – was the only French king to have been crowned in the cathedral of Chartres. His coronation took place in February 1594.
Amongst the relics of the cathedral is the robe said to have been worn by the Virgin Mary. Whatever its authenticity it dates back at least to the 5th century and originated from Constantinople.
Around lunchtime we bought a couple of mushroom quiches, light, creamy, hot and delicious, made as only the French know how, which we ate on shady benches on the Place A. Marceau. He was a 18th century soldier from Chartres who rose through the ranks to become a General by the age of 24 (just like Napoleon) but was killed in combat at the age of 27. There is a monument to him in the centre of the square. What intrigued us most was that all the dates on the monument were given according to the French revolutionary calendar which was adopted in 1791 after the Revolution and continued for some fifteen years before being abandoned and the Gregorian calendar reinstated.
The town of Chartres is lovely, with old winding streets, now pedestrianised and lined with shops and bistros. Various squares, shaded by plane trees, have tables set up in the shade where many people were enjoying delicious looking meals served with glasses of chilled rosé wine. There is far more to the town than the cathedral precinct and it has been good to have found the time to explore it in greater depth.
One gem we discovered on the Place Général de Gaulle was an impressive building in French renaissance style though, on closer inspection, obviously far more recent. Crossing to investigate we were intrigued to discover it had been built as the town's post office. Inside we had a further surprise. It was no longer a post office, having been taken over as the town's public library!
The concept of libraries as repositories for books has disappeared in France. Many have been rebranded as médiathèques and include large collections of media resources – films, videos, music, electronic resources and the internet. The library in Chartre is completely modern inside, bearing no resemblance to its château-like exterior. In the entrance we browsed an international exhibition of books about books and the delights of reading. The library is laid out on four floors and is a librarian's dream! In England libraries are currently being cut back right across the country while in Europe they seem to be going from strength to strength. Admittedly we found far more empty spaces on the shelves than we'd expect to see in England and the local history section looked rather weak. But there were plenty of staff, the books and shelves were clean and smart and the children's section in particular was bright, cheerful and very well used.
As usual we'd walked so much we were exhausted. Coffee and Far Breton in a patisserie helped to revive us. This cake is a delicious speciality of Brittany and thanks to my late friend Danielle I'm an expert at making it. Unfortunately it probably has more calories in than any other gateau that has ever been created so it's years since I've made one. Basically it's a sort of Yorkshire pudding batter with added sugar and eggs, full of fresh plums or prunes, baked in hot oil and served tepid sprinkled with icing sugar. For anyone unconcerned about their waist lines turning into waste lines, place your order before you visit us after we're home and we'll have one lined up for you to try.
Back on the cobbled streets of the city once more, we waddled down to the lower town to discover the area around the pretty river Eure, filled with fish and ducks, flowing briskly along, crossed by various little bridges and with the feet of some of the old buildings standing right in the water. There were rowing boats and pedal boats on the river, gliding beneath the green fronds of the weeping willows. Near the remains of the 13th century town gate of Porte Guillaume was a little area of old houses, each one a different example of mediaeval or renaissance architecture. The gate itself had been largely destroyed in 1944 by the retreating German army.
Along the river banks and within its immediate vicinity we passed several churches of great merit, in particular St. André Collegiate Church and St. Pierre Abbey Church.
After a stroll through the formal park with its rose beds and menagerie of small animals – goats, pigs, chickens and peacocks, we rejoined Modestine and set off in search of somewhere to camp for the night. We've ended up on the town's municipal campsite which is pleasant and shady. An agreeable end to a busy day. We'd never have been able to have done all this without the storm last night to cool the air.