La Dame aux Camelias

Thursday 30th June 2011, Argentan, France
This morning we made our way by cross-country routes, through little towns and villages lying out on the vast arable plain, towards Argentan. It's not far from Chartres but by the time we arrived it was getting on for 7pm. - such is our rate of progress when we keep discovering interesting things to distract us along the way and make a conscious point of travelling along rural byways that are not already marked in our master atlas of Europe as having been travelled by us.

It's been a lovely day though Ian insists it has been "ruined" twice - firstly at La Ferté-Vidame and later at Saint-Evroult-Notre-Dame-du-Bois.

La Ferté-Vidame was a really delightful find. Seeking somewhere to buy a baguette for lunch and a pleasant place for a picnic coffee we stopped on the village main street near the gates to the park and château. The entire village had been laid out to a special plan aligned with the castle gate. Properties were different but they balanced each other. They all had decorative brickwork facing around windows and doors. Each property was charming with geraniums and petunias in front of the windows and flowering hortensias in the gardens. In front of the picturesque arcaded town hall was a weekly market selling vegetables, meat, fish and cheeses. Across the road the post office doubled up as the public library. While Ian queued for a stamp I explored the stock. A lady was selecting her books for the weekend and sought my help explaining that it was just too difficult to choose! I thought I'd retired! The staff were really friendly, even when they told us we were not allowed to use the internet without registering but were free to use the books. It is the law in France it seems. When they saw we'd actually already been consulting a website on the history of the village they were rather embarrassed and decided the law could be ignored on this occasion. It would have taken us ages to find the information we were seeking in the books while it came up straight away on the internet.

Main street, Ferte-Vidame

Mairie, Ferte-Vidame

Saint-Simon monument, Ferte-Vidame

St. Nicholas Church, Ferte-Vidame

Brick framed houses, Ferté-Vidame

Having explored the pretty village side streets with their picturesque little cottages and discovered the parish church, we walked across to the entrance gates to the park. The gardens were idyllic, with a wide grassy lawn stretching down to the edge of a lake, mirrored beyond by a similar lake with huge carp, swans and young ducklings. Two of the swans had adopted a dozen of the ducklings – who knows what drama is hidden there – and were very protective towards them. As we sat by the lake with our flasks of tea and a pain-chocolat each the ducklings came up hopeful of crumbs. The huge white swans followed and hissed at us so fiercely we got up and went behind the seat for protection. Once the ducklings returned to the water the swans followed them and we returned to our seat once more. They kept between us and the ducklings the entire time however, ensuring we stayed Du côté de chez Swan as Marcel Proust would have said!

Stable block, Ferté-Vidame

Lake in the grounds of the Château de Ferté-Vidame

What really impressed though was the château – or rather the ruined remains. Amidst all the beauty of the deserted grounds, shining lakes, mature trees and ornate stone balustrades stood the bare, ruined shell of a once beautiful country house surrounded by a moat with formal gardens laid out in front. It seems it fell victim to the excesses of the French revolution being destroyed in 1793. Since then the upkeep of the grounds has been the responsibility of the local community. And for whose benefit? We had the place completely to ourselves. Such wanton destruction quite saddened us. This is something that happens to us fairly often in France. Signs of the revolution are everywhere when you start to look, with coats of arms on buildings effaced, buildings left derelict or totally destroyed as here, and works of religious art, such as we saw on the tombs in Chartres cathedral yesterday, hacked about and destroyed simply because the revolutionaries disapproved of religious beliefs. Were they so very different from the Taliban today? (Not that Britain is blameless of course. We had similar wanton destruction in England during Cromwell's protectorate.)

Ruined remains of the Château de Ferté-Vidame

Ruined remains of the Château de Ferté-Vidame

Ruined remains of the Château de Ferté-Vidame

Remains of the formal gardens, Château de Ferté-Vidame

We spent a good couple of hours exploring the village, its château and their surroundings and it's somewhere we'd willingly return to again. The beauty, peace and charm of the place and the friendliness of its inhabitants mark it as somewhere special.

Eventually we continued across the beautiful countryside of the Perche region still using the byways. The golden fields of arable crops had disappeared to be replaced by green meadows, woodland and fields of bright cornflowers and poppies. Flax, or linseed was widely grown. Cattle, the colour of corn, stood together amidst the stubble of corn the colour of cattle.

Flowering field, Perche region

Cornflowers and poppies, Perche region

We continued to L'Aigle where we picnicked on the banks of the little river while watching a water rat exploring the opposite bank before disappearing amongst the roots of an overhanging tree. The town though was rather a disappointment. The town hall was in an attractive castle and there were public parks but the museums were all closed and there was little else of interest that the town had to offer.

Town Hall, L'Aigle

Deliberately choosing roads we did not already know we continued towards Argentan and thus our day was "ruined" for the second time when we stopped at Saint Evroult for a walk around the lake and to discover the remains of an 11th century abbey. This looked as if it had probably just decayed with time and the ruins were romantically attractive, with the stark columns of the original nave standing amidst a green field while ivy fronds clung to fragments of the old walls. This too was a very pleasant village to explore with an old lavoir and a stone cross.

Abbey ruins, Saint-Evroult-Notre-Dame-du-Bois

Monument to Oderic Vital from England, a monk at the abbey and a historian of Normandy. Died 1143, Saint-Evroult-Notre-Dame-du-Bois

Soon we reached the pleasant little town of Gacé with its magnificent mediaeval red brick château.

Chateau at Gacé, Front

Chateau at Gacé, Rear

Here we discovered a museum about the life of La Dame aux Camelias (1824-1847) immortalised in the novel by Alexandre Dumas (fils). Years ago I read the book but had not realised quite how much it was based on fact or that the heroine Marie Duplessis originated from Normandy. Visits were by appointment only but we duly handed over our entrance fee to the lady in the tourist office who gave us a personal guided tour. Actually this consisted of little more than sitting us in front of a screen where we watched films in French about Marie Duplessis's history and tragic end. Basically, she was born locally and worked in Gacé as an umbrella seller until her alcoholic father took her off to Paris where he abandoned her at the age of fifteen to fend for herself. At first she worked as a blanchisseuse, which is a posh French way of saying she was a laundry scrubber. Soon she discovered she could earn far more, far more easily if she dropped the laundry bit and concentrated full-time on being a scrubber! By the time she was eighteen she'd become a beautiful courtesan and she'd been through so many counts, writers and composers that she had become the toast of Paris. Franz Liszt and Alexander Dumas were both wildly in love with her while rich dukes at different times brought her expensive jewels and housed her in luxury Parisian apartments. She had a passion for camellias, the only flower her poor health could tolerate. Soon she developed tuberculosis and died at the age of twenty-three. Her legend lives on, thanks to Dumas's novel and the opera La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi.

Brief summary of the life of Marie Duplessis, courtesan

The museum also contained pictures and documents relating to Marie Duplessis's life, including a copy the certificate for her marriage to Count Edward de Perregaur, which took place in England. She was interested in him only for the title he could give her and quickly left him to return to her old life as a courtesan in Paris. There were also dresses and props used in the making of various films based on her life story. Finally we were treated to a bit of French culture with a documentary fusing together various compilations from film and opera telling of her tragic story. It was an interesting hour though the link between Marie Duplessis and Gacé is rather weak and certainly the second, cultural film was a bit over the top for us.

Marriage certificate of Alphonsine Plessis (la Dame aux Camelias), to Count Edward de Perregaur, 1846

Dresses that featured in films and operas about the life of La Dame aux Camelias

Poster for the film of La Dame aux Cameliasstarring Greta Garbo

Camelia fountain in the town, Gacé

So by the time we reached Argentan it was time to find somewhere to stay for the night. When we discovered this campsite we realised we've passed the gates almost every time we drive off on our travels between Normandy and the Jura, but we'd never imagined we'd one day need to stay here. It's cheap and friendly for our last night on the road before returning to Geneviève in Caen tomorrow.

Sunday 24th July 2011, Exeter
This section is being written after our return to Exeter. It is a very brief resumé of our few days in Normandy before we moved on into Brittany.

Next morning we explored Argentan in the sunshine. It has a population of around 16,000. The town, like so many in Normandy, was very badly damaged in the Second World War during the battle of the Falaise Pocket in August 1944. During the 16th and 17th centuries, like nearby Alençon it was famed for its lace making industry. Both cities were severely affected by state monopolies established during the reign of Louis XIV.

Surviving buildings of merit in Argentan include the Château Ducal (now the Palais de Justice, burned in the 100 Years War and rebuilt as it was in the 14th century), the 14th century Chapelle St Nicolas housing a stunning 18th century oak altarpiece, the Eglise St Germain (15th to 17th centuries) with its strange mix of gothic and baroque architecture, and the Eglise St Martin (15th to 16th century), while the 15th century Tour Marguerite is the only mediaeval remnant of the old town walls and defences.

Château Ducal and the Chapelle St. Nicolas, Argentan

Altarpiece in the Chapelle St. Nicolas, Argentan

Eglise St. Germain, Argentan

Eglise St. Germain with its baroque tower, seen from the Tour Marguerite, Argentan

Eglise St Martin from Tour Marguerite, Argentan

Tour Marguerite, Argentan

It was market day and an agreeable opportunity to take a cultural break while enjoying a coffee and croissant on the sunny main square as we watched the weekly activities involved in buying and selling meat, fish, vegetables, charcuterie and cheeses.

Later we picnicked in Argentan's pretty riverside park before continuing our journey by a somewhat circuitous route towards Caen. This involved cross-country routes through the Normandy countryside that included a visit to the reservoir of Rabodanges.

This pretty beauty spot results from damming and flooding in 1960 a section of the river Orne lying in the Suisse Normande as it flows through a natural ravine to create a reservoir used by EDF (Eléctricité de France) to create hydro-electric power. The resulting lake is some 6 kilometres long and is used for recreational purposes. The barrage itself is an impressive, massive architectural feature.

Barrage on the River Orne at Rabodanges

The following days in Caen were devoted entirely to relaxing with friends and visiting the locality. They are briefly mentioned in the rest of the report, written at the time.