Seine and Provins

Wednesday 29th August 2012, Dourdan, Ile de France
Over the past few days Ian has been busy in the archives of the Cathedral in Bayeux gathering material to keep him out of mischief as we travel. Bayeux really is a charming town, mercifully unscathed during the assault by Allied troops in June 1944. It is one of the few major towns in Lower Normandy not to have been bombarded. We both felt nostalgic for the month we spent living in the town in 2010 during an earlier research foray.

Cathedral at Bayeux

Nearby live some English friends who provided us with a welcome diversion from dusty boxes of uncatalogued documents when they invited us to lunch last week. They live in a delightful 19th century stone mansion set in grounds that they have laid out themselves, very sympathetically, complete with hundreds of plants, shrubs and trees. There are even a couple of small lakes, one with an island and breeding ducks. The property dates back to mediaeval times, it is rural, rambling, and completely charming. Gordon is an artist and various sculptures by him appear in unexpected corners and niches around the gardens.

19th century château in deepest Normandy
Maze in the grounds of the château, Normandy
Garden “visitors”, Normandy

Now though, after a week spent in Caen with Geneviève, visiting our many French friends and being generally rather spoilt we are now adrift in France with Modestine once more.

We are running out of different routes to take across the country after so many years and miles of travelling. We are making our way to the Jura region to spend time with our friends Susanne and Roland in Champagne-sur-Loue, and hopefully help them with the grape harvest. Because of the weather though, they don’t yet know exactly when that will be. Usually it’s at the beginning of September but it’s something that cannot be hurried if the grapes are not exactly ready.

So today we set off across France heading generally east but making a wide sweep around Paris to the south. Progress has been slow and tonight we are camping a long way short of our target of Provins, near Fontainebleau. We’ve driven across country on departmental roads, passing through crumbling villages and out across open plains of stubble. Most of the grain at least has been harvested.

We stopped for a picnic lunch in Conches-sur-Ouche. Typical of most small French towns around lunch-time the main street was empty and the shops closed for two hours. It is though, a very pleasant town, bright with flowers and with a park, lake and fountain where we picnicked. It also has the remains of an impressive motte and bailey castle and, behind the mairie, a view steeply down across meadows and woodland.


Tonight’s campsite is on the edge of the old town of Dourdan which we will explore tomorrow. It is peaceful here and very pleasant to sit outside in the cool to work on the blog after a very hot and sticky day of driving.

Thursday 30th August 2012, Provins, Seine et Marne
This morning we walked in to Dourdan in search of bread, hopeful too that the little town would offer us a few delights. We were not disappointed on either front. This small, quiet, friendly town with its numerous mediaeval buildings had the most mouth-watering bakery - even its façade was charming, reflecting some of the Art Nouveau buildings that are also an attractive feature of the town.

Wonderful bakery, Dourdan
Artistic use of an English phone box, Dourdan

Our walk took us past the 12th century former Hotel Dieu or hospital originally run as a charity by nuns. It has a cobbled courtyard, a flower garden and to one side a chapel with interesting stained glass windows.

Hotel Dieu, Dourdan

Nearby stands the old, open-sided market with its heavy tiled roof supported on sturdy wooden columns. On market days the space is used for a typical French market selling vegetables, livestock and household necessities – ladders, saucepans, blankets and bath plugs for example.

Market hall, Dourdan

In the centre of the town is the château with its dry moat, heavy, mediaeval walls and fortified towers. It was constructed in 1222. Nearby is the large gothic church of St-Germain l’Auxerrois dating from the 12th century. Inside we discovered a shrine to Marie Poussepin born in the town in 1643. She worked to improve the economic and social welfare of the inhabitants of Dourdan, teaching then to knit and market woollen stockings. She later set up a community of women dedicated to helping the poor, the sick and orphans.

Castle, Dourdan
Castle and church of St-Germain l’Auxerrois, Dourdan
Marie Poussepin, Dourdan

We returned past the town hall and through the municipal gardens to the campsite to find Modestine standing alone. Last night almost every pitch was occupied by Dutch campers but they’d all moved on immediately after breakfast. A pity as they’d missed a very pleasant little town.

We continued our circumnavigation of Paris via the town of Fontainbleau to Milly-la-Forêt, both visited previously. Milly was the home of the artist, author and playwright Jean Cocteau until his death in 1963. Fellow artists, including Picasso were regular visitors. On our previous visit we had been enchanted with the little chapel for lepers, Saint Blaise des Simples, on the edge of the town set in gardens full of medicinal herbs grown specially to relieve the sufferings of visiting lepers. Cocteau was asked to decorate the interior of the chapel by the local council in 1959. We’d loved his work and wanted to see it again. Unfortunately the chapel and garden are no longer open without charge. Now someone must collect money and issue tickets so both the chapel and the gardens are closed for two hours over lunchtime every day. How very frustrating.

Market, Milly-la-Forêt
Seventeenth century home of Jean Cocteau, Milly-la-Forêt
Pretty lavoir, Milly-la-Forêt
Chateau, Milly-la-Forêt

We reached Provins around 2pm. This was our goal and the reason for taking a rather impractical route across France. We’d never heard of Provins but our friends in Caen all assured us we should visit. It is only about fifty miles south-east of Paris, easily accessible by train and has been listed by UNESCO. It is a typical mediaeval town built at the top of a very steep hill, dominated by its castle and its church. The walled city is surrounded by a deep dry moat and high ramparts, defended throughout their length by circular towers. It is claimed that it was once the fifth largest town in mediaeval France! We left Modestine parked down near the river in the heart of the present day town of Provins – very pleasant in its own right. Climbing the steep cobbled streets we passed the entrance to the caves formed below the houses when earth was excavated for use in degreasing wool during the mediaeval period of the town’s construction.

Half-timbering, Provins

We have spent a very agreeable afternoon climbing the ramparts and exploring the castle. We also discovered a French military cemetery from WW1 lying beyond the city walls. Returning to the town we stopped to watch a display of falconry from one of the towers. The larger birds were magnificent, gliding across the moat towards us before returning to land on the gloved hand of their handlers.

Castle, Provins
Town walls, Provins
Porte Saint Jean, Provins
Display of falconry from the ramparts, Provins
Display of falconry from the ramparts, Provins

At the tourist office we were told of a local campsite. It is very basic but friendly with just a few young French school children here. They have been chatting to us about their visit to Provins today and warned us that tonight they were going to have a boum or party. So far it has been very quiet.

One disaster has already affected us since we left home. A message today from our daughter Kate informed us that following torrential rain in Exeter, the drains in the street outside blocked causing a discharge of everybody’s sewage into the driveways on the lower side of our close, including us. It all drained down into the garage where she is storing much of her furniture and we have a deep freeze and a large and lovely carpet stored that Ian inherited from his uncle. The garage apparently stinks and is full of poo! (Thought you’d like to know that!)

Friday 31st August 2012, Saint Seine, Bourgogne
Last night we were comfortable sitting outside with our wine but overnight it turned really cold and we woke to a chilly world. In Britain in was apparently the coldest August night on record. Here it cannot have been much warmer. Today has been chilly and our fleecy jackets and trainers have replaced tee-shirts and sandals.

This morning we continued driving east, skirting Troyes which is picturesque and full of half-timbered buildings. We already explored it a few years ago. Having crossed the Seine yesterday and remarked on how lovely it looked flowing between forested banks with the sunlight reflecting off its green surface, today we decided, on a whim, to follow it to its source.

The Seine winds and twists its way through the countryside on its way to Paris but unlike the Loire, it is not really possible to follow along its banks. At lunchtime we stopped at Bar-sur-Seine, which like many similar little towns we passed through is constructed along the river bank and provides a bridge across the river. Bar is a pleasant little place but has nothing remarkable except for the main street of very uneven half-timbered houses, little cobbled courtyards and decayed stone façades. There are so many little towns in similar states of benign neglect across France. Elsewhere they would be restored and cherished but France has such an excess of them it would be impossible to conserve them all. Thankfully, that has been their salvation. Otherwise they would probably have been swept away and replaced by characterless blocks of flats such as those to be found in many of the towns of Normandy where urgent reconstruction was necessary after the war. 20th century French domestic architecture can be very tasteless and bland, if not downright ugly. Fortunately the charm of older French properties is at last being recognised and many of the smaller towns are gradually being sympathetically restored, stone walls repointed and roofs retiled. In Bar much remains to be done but the charm is certainly there. Down beside the Seine we could not but notice the huge skeletal wooden remains of what was once, back in the 19th century, a half-timbered factory using the waters of the river to drive machinery. Once it was surely the heart of the town but its purpose now finished it has decayed and nobody quite seems to know what to do with it!

Main street, Bar-sur-Seine
Renaissance half-timbered house, Bar-sur-Seine
Timber-framed disused factory with wattle and daub infill on the banks of the river, Bar-sur-Seine

Gradually we left the plains of Northern France with their wide, open fields of ploughed stubble behind. The landscape became more undulating and more wooded. We passed through green valleys and climbed steeply up to sudden vistas spread out below. Cattle and particularly horses appeared in small pastures and as we wound along the rural roads the ever slimmer and younger Seine crossed and re-crossed our route. Hard to believe this little stream would grow to flow majestically through the centre of Paris and on down to the huge commercial port at Le Havre!

Upper reaches of the river, Mussy-sur-Seine

We turned off onto smaller and smaller roads until we were winding through tiny hamlets of a couple of farms and at last, in beautiful woodland, here in Burgundy, we discovered La Seine herself, lounging elegantly in her grotto of crystal clear water that tricked slowly down to initially disappear into a tangle of undergrowth before emerging near her first tiny bridge a short distance downstream. Several other sources in the area later join together to increase the flow and send the timid little Seine off to her illustrious future! With time to spare the surrounding woods offered the prospect of several delightful walks.

The site has been visited since Roman times when it contained a sanctuary where pilgrims brought offerings to the goddess Sequana who gave her name to the river. The surrounding area was acquired by the city of Paris in 1864 and the grotto and statue unveiled a couple of years later.
Source of the Seine, Bourgogne
Proof at last that Ian is “in Seine”!
First bridge over the Seine

We though, needed to seek out somewhere to camp tonight. We also wanted to visit the nearby 12th century abbatiale of Saint Seine, down in the valley surrounded by its village of crumbling white stone houses, its tiny tree-lined square and ancient fountain on the main street. Within walking distance we discovered the small municipal campsite where we decided to spend the night along with a couple of Dutch camping cars. It’s very quiet and rural.

Village fountain, Saint Seine
Modestine finds new friends, Saint-Seine

Having settled Modestine we walked back into the heart of the village, dominated by the abbatiale. While the construction of the present abbey was begun in 1209, its foundation is claimed to go back to the 6th century when a certain Sigo, son of the Count of Mesmont is said to have performed miracles there and established a church on the site. He was renamed Saint Seine in reference to the river, and his life is depicted in murals dating from 1504 inside the abbey church. Perhaps the Christian church was counteracting the continuing superstitious adoration of the goddess Sequana by providing a convenient Christian saint to worship instead.

Abbatiale, Saint-Seine
Life of Saint Seine, Saint-Seine-l'Abbaye
Goddess Sequana, source of the Seine, Saint Seine

The Office de Tourisme is currently housing an exhibition of domestic bygones, all of which have been loaned for the season by villagers! It is awesome to see the ancestral relics people continue to harbour in their homes. From experience we know right across rural France there are treasures stored away in lofts and barns that have simply stayed there, generation after generation. Shaving brushes and cut-throat razors; waffle irons, fire irons, rusting cooking pots and smoothing irons; devices for warming beds; mangles and washboards for laundry; sieves, strainers, crushers and mincers for cooking; implements for wine making and preserving; top hats, christening robes, 19th century knickers and much more!

Exhibition of household bygones, Saint-Seine

Tomorrow is the final day of our meanders across France. We are due in our rural paradise of Champagne-sur-Loue tomorrow afternoon where Susanne and Roland are expecting us.

Related links
For earlier blogs see our general index under
France: Normandie for Caen, Bayeux and the surrounding area.
Fontainebleau and Milly-la-Foret 2008
Troyes, 2008