A quick trip to Versailles to see my friend PJ. To fly directly from the heat of Southern Sicily to cool, green France is to emerge from the caldarium and plunge straight into the frigidarium. Versailles has changed little in the two years since I was last here although I see less people that look as if they might be able to trace their blood-line back to Asterix, or Joan of Arc, or a sergeant in Napoleon’s Grande Armee. France, like England, is becoming more and more a multi-cultural society. Retail is changing too, moving to the Commercial Centre at Parly 2, and leaving the streets in Versailles to cafes, restaurants, hairdressers, Yoga Classes and real-estate agents. Some types of shop that were once present in every French high street have disappeared altogether; let us mourn the departure of la quincaillerie, la mercerie, le cordonier and la droguerie.
Much to PJ’s pleasure, a falcon has nested on the tower of the Cathedral and has been busy reducing the pigeon population, while four charming squares that once housed Louis XV’s extensive collection of courtesans, popularly known as Le Parc des Biches, are slowly being restored, making pleasant little apartments for young couples and offices for software designers. It was good to be the King!
There is one shop that has been around for a long time and still thrives in many French towns and that is Nicolas, the wine sellers, established in 1822. The shops are managed and staffed by wine experts and the wines are displayed by region, which makes sense when one considers there are over 50 wine producing grape varieties in France. Before the dubious gifts of the internet and the website, Nicolas published an annual price catalogue of its wines, collected now for their illustrations and for the frustrating knowledge that in 1963 I could have bought an 1868 Chateau Lafite for 70 Francs instead of wasting my money on cigarettes.
Nicolas 1963 Catalogue with illustrations by Dubuffet
We visit an exhibition of paintings by Impressionist painter, Gustave Caillebotte, at Monet’s house in Giverny. It’s an overcast Tuesday in mid-May and the place is swamped with tourists. The last time I came here thirty years ago I had to ask a museum official to turn the lights on. I’m told that the house and gardens receive over seven hundred thousand visitors annually; odd that they all turned up today. We decide that Caillebotte’s paintings are, at best, deuzieme rang impressionism and the painter only a talented amateur whose Paris city scenes work best. I’m not too upset at not being able to get into the house; I don’t have to queue to get into Gayle and Jim’s splendid replica of Monet’s yellow dining room in their house in New Hope, Pennsylvania. The gardens are in full swing, full of irises and azaleas, although it is too early in the year for the water lilies.
PJ and I are taking a three day excursion into the East to see how the cuisine of Alsace is standing up to the invasion of the pizza, which is spreading across Europe quicker than the cane toad. We shall also be checking on the wines, always at the mercy of the politically correct, the depressed and unhappy, watchful members of watch committees and the League Against Dancing on Tables. Alsace, as I remember it, is grande bouffe country, plates with small mountains of champagne-soaked choucroute studded with various parts of the pig, substantial cheeses, wedges of Black Forest cake with lashings of whipped cream and decorated beer mugs with little lids. If there’s a fruit or berry grown locally the Alsatians will turn them into pure alcohol – plums, cherries, bilberries, pears and even the fruit of the holly. Copper alembics bubble away in every village. White alcohol has been around for centuries; the French have been writing poems and singing songs about it since the Middle Ages; it’s a sacred part of their culture; it’s part of a happy life; that’s why it’s called Eau de Vie.
Our route takes us South East, through Troyes. We follow the Seine past Mussy (where they produce the very thin sheets of wood used for the round containers of REAL Camembert cheese), passing through endless green fields and forests as thick and lush and uniform as Axminster carpets, until we reach Chatillon sur Seine and its museum. The tourist hordes are still stuck in the car park in Giverny and we have the place to ourselves to inspect the extraordinary cache of Bronze Age and Classical Greek jewellery and artifacts found in a nearby Celtic settlement and necropolis at Vix. The prize piece is a 1.6 metre high bronze Krater, the largest known metal vessel from Classical Antiquity. It was found in the tomb of the so-called Lady of Vix, a Celtic Princess living around 500 BC. Kraters were used by the Greeks for mixing wine and water, as presumably the wine was undrinkable by itself. We must give the French the credit for changing all that.
From Chatillon we continue in a South Easterly direction. We pass Colombey Les Deux Eglises, once home to General de Gaulle, and the Abbey of Clairvaux. I read that its founder, Saint Bernard, would not sit in a chair if it had previously been occupied by a woman; no wonder he gave Peter Abelard such a hard time. North of Dijon we turn due East until, just South of Besancon, we reach Ornans, a postcard town astride the river Doubs, famous as the birthplace of Gustave Courbet.
In 1849 the painter, after attending the burial of his stepfather, produced the massive painting ‘Burial at Ornans’. In complete contrast to the artistic conventions of the day, Courbet paints the scene as it was, no heroic posing, no classical landscapes and allusions. The critics, accustomed to the great Romantic works of Gericault and Delacroix, were appalled. The painting, said Courbet, ‘was the burial of Romanticism’. I must say, I do prefer the exuberant romance of Delacroix’s ‘The Death of Sardanapulus’ to the grim realism of Courbet’s funeral of his stepfather. But never mind, the Impressionists will soon be along to cheer things up again.
From Ornans we drive due North, crossing the Combeaute river and passing through Fougerolles, famous for the quality of its Kirsch and griottines (cherries soaked in eau de vie), until we reach Val d’Ajol and La Residence, a 19th century mansion on the outskirts of town. I do enjoy these hotels, so particular to France, where the dining is more important than the accommodation. Cuisine regionale, genereuse et soignée, alternant simplicite gourmande et gastronomique… says the brochure and we are not disappointed. Not only are the products locally grown, the menu even supplies the name of the farmer, fisherman or cheesemaker responsible:
Asperges Blanches, oeuf fermier de Monsieur Mangel en caisson parfait;
Millefeuille au chevre de Madame Galmiche;
Filet de truite de Monsieur Parrain farci aux ecrivisses;
A Givry 1er Cru and a glass of kirsch to water the parched throats of the weary travelers….. and so to bed.
The next morning we set out across le Massif des Vosges the thickly wooded, elevated spine of the mountain range. In the foothills we make a brief stop in Plombieres Les Bains, where all is quiet. The sickly inhabitants of the hotels and boarding-houses are toying with their dietary lunches before soaking their gout in spa water. In a small, neglected courtyard we finally locate the plaque commemorating the meeting in1858 between Napoleon III and Cavour during which the French Government promised its support for Italian unification.
Near the summit we lunch in Gerardmer by the lake with tarte au myrtilles for dessert. The myrtilles (bilberries) are the small, wild type soon to be eclipsed, says our host, by the plumper variety from shrubs being imported from Canada. I’m not sure whether this is progress; I doubt, from a taste point of view, that fat is better than small and wild; are not fraises du bois so much tastier than their bigger, cultivated sisters? The pillagers in Thomas Love Peacock’s poem, ‘The War Song of Dinas Vawr’ disagree:
The mountain sheep are sweeter,
But the valley sheep are fatter;
We therefor deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter.
Down from the mountain and travelling East, the village names begin to sound more Teutonic. Every town and village has its own particular activity or product, meriting at least a week of annual celebration. We pass announcements for a Fete du Chevre, a Fete des Cerises, a Fete des Asperges. In Munster, which produces the world’s smelliest cheese, there is la fete du fromage. How bad does the cheese smell? Comme les pieds du facteur, says PJ.
At the entrance to Colmar, the birthplace of Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, stands the second replica of the sculptor’s ‘Liberty Enlightening the World’, aka the ‘Statue of Liberty’, the first being in mid-Seine on the Ile aux Cygnes. But we have come to visit ‘Unterlinden’, a former 13th century Dominican convent tastefully converted into one of the most amazing museums in the world. There are works by Picasso, Dubuffet and Manet, but most come to see the Isenheim Altarpiece that was installed in the early 16th century in the Monastery of Isenheim, located on the outskirts of Colmar. The altarpiece, which combines paintings by Matthias Grunewald and bronze sculptures by Niclaus of Haguenau leaves one breathless. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of Grunewald’s art to see; many of his works were lost in the Baltic Sea when they were being shipped to Sweden as booty, looted by the army of Gustavus Adolphus during the Thirty Years’ War.
In the little village of Osthouse, some 40 kms from Strasbourg and perhaps 20kms from the banks of the Rhine, we stop at the charming Hotel ‘A La Ferme’.
The hotel’s restaurant, L’Aigle D’Or, is a five minute walk away. It’s asparagus season, the fat, white variety with the purple tips that we eat plainly with melted butter. My entrée of cabillaud is superb, easily the best cod I’ve tasted since the beginning of the Cod Wars in 1958. We drink well; a glass of cremant to settle us in, then a chilled Pinot Noir from local producer Jean Sipp, a glass of late harvest Gewurztraminer with desert and, finally, a glass of Vieille Prune, a digestif of such transparent purity I’m almost reduced to tears. After dinner we walk back to the hotel through the dark, deserted streets singing, quietly, so as not to wake the good villagers.
‘Chevaliers de la Table Ronde goutons voir si le vin est bon…. ‘
Next morning we visit Haut Konigsberg, a pink, sandstone castle on top of a lonely spur of the Vosges Mountains. Interest in the castle, beautifully restored in the first decade of the 20th century, is eclipsed by the amazing view across the Upper Rhine plain to the dark band of the Black Forest on the horizon. Somehow the 700,000 visitors at Giverny have managed to follow us. Here they are in the gift shop, buying plastic helmets, daggers and crossbows, postcards, snow-globes and tea-towels with recipes for choucroute garni. And, of course, the ever popular fridge magnets. I buy one for my mother-in-law even though, combined, her present collection could lift a small, family saloon.
We descend the other side of the mountain to visit Kaysersberg, yet another pretty village of painted, timbered buildings and cobbled streets.
Rural Alsace has grown rich from its wines, its agriculture and the pretty villages and now from tourism. Imagine the economic benefit to a town from a 2 hour visit by a single coach load of tourists. The Alsatians are canny too. In an old folk-tale a stranger appears while a local innkeeper is cooking a chicken. The innkeeper insists the stranger pay him for taking pleasure from the smell of his roasting bird. The stranger agrees and tosses a coin in the air, letting it fall to earth. ‘There’, he says, ‘the sound of my coin hitting the ground is the correct fee for smelling your roast’. Touche!
Last stop, Franco-German Strasbourg, a most elegant town and astride yet another lovely river, the Ill, which flows into the nearby Rhine.
I think her rivers are one of the things I like most about France and we have crossed so many on this trip – the Seine, the Marne, the Doubs, the Meuse, the Saone, the Ognan, the Ill, the Rhine. There’s a long queue to get into the Cathedral so we hitch a ride back to the car.
We are on the autoroute now on the long sweep West towards Paris and home. Every sign we pass conjures visions of French history: Verdun, bloody fortress of WWI, Varennes, where Louis XVI’s flight ended and then Valmy, where a windmill marks the scene of Kellerman’s victory over the Prussians, France’s first victory in the Revolutionary Wars. On 21st September 1792, the day after the battle, the First Republic was born. The legacy of 1789 lives on. France’s present generation of sans culottes, the CGT, are forming up at the barricades again, closing the oil refineries, calling for airport and railway employees to strike. I slip out of the country, back to Sicily, before the final blockades are in place.
Why do we travel? To cross rivers and mountains, to feel the sense of adventure? To experience strange cultures, to lie in the sun? ‘We are all travellers’ says Robert Louis Stevenson in a foreword to ‘Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes’, ‘all too, travellers with a donkey: and the best that we find in our travels is an honest friend. He is a fortunate traveller who finds many. We travel, indeed, to find them. They are the end and the reward of life. They keep us worthy of ourselves; and when we are alone, we are only nearer to the absent. …Of what shall a man be proud if he is not proud of his friends’.