Friday, 14 August 2020

The Life of a Sinner


Foulques III d'Anjou, or Fulk Nerra ('The Black Chieftan')  as he is usually called, is our local medieval bad boy. He was one of the most active warlords of his day, and a great builder. His life was a hectic cycle of destructive wars, remarkable buildings, ferocious revenge and fervent repentance.

His feats of arms and acts of villany have come down to us through several medieval chronicles. Because the contemporary historians and later story tellers interwove fact with classical myth and legend, it can be difficult to unpick the truth of his eventful life.

Reconstruction of medieval scaffolding on Fulk's ruined tower at Langeais.
Reconstructed medieval scaffolding. Indre et Loire. France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

At seventeen years old Fulk inherited his father's territory of Anjou in 987. His mother, Adele of Vermandois, had died when he was five. His father Geoffroy, known as Grisegonelle ('Grey Mantle') was legendary for his bravery, and died on the battle field in the service of the King of France, Hugues Capet.

Although Fulk had a tutor to teach him grammar and the other arts considered essential, he had been a squire learning the art of fighting alongside his father since he was twelve. By seventeen he was an enormous young man, a veritable giant for those times, physically big and powerful. As his father's squire he would have looked after his weapons and horse, and accompanied him on long military campaigns. He was a tough lad, hardy and strong. He would have been well schooled in using the weapons of the day too. Like many warriors of his class, his favourite weapon was the lance, which he preferred to the sword, which was too heavy and too short unless you were in close combat. By the time he was seventeen he had also learnt the subtleties of military strategy and rudimentary diplomacy.

Beaulieu-lès-Loches.
Beaulieu-les-Loches. Indre et Loire. France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

Fulk inherited not just his father's traditional lands of Anjou and the Gatinais, but also some castles in the Touraine and Poitou that had been acquired by force. In order to keep these captured domaines he had to act quickly to reinforce the numbers of defenders in each of them. Land was wealth in those days so the favourite activity of men like Fulk was to sally forth and ravage the lands of their immediate neighbours. They destroyed vineyards, stole livestock, drained millstreams, massacred serfs, burned villages and claimed ransoms for any well known prisoners. In order to hold territory it was necessary to wage unrelenting war, and Fulk at this time was described by one of the chroniclers as a 'wild beast'. The other way of expanding territory was to seek a well endowed wife. Fulk set his sights on Elisabeth, daughter of the Count of Vendome, Bouchard the Venerable.

Initially Fulk was mostly interested in grabbing land from his neighbouring Counts of Brittany and Blois. But after a few years under his belt he made the City of Tours his ultimate target. In fact, he never managed to capture Tours in his lifetime. It was left to his son Geoffroy Martel to take that prize.

The Chateau of Montrichard.
Montrichard Castle. Loir et Cher. France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

Fulk was a clever strategist and organised his army into four legions of a thousand warriors which were sent to the four corners of his territories. He was a formidable warlord. He cut the army of Blois to pieces at Amboise. His sister's husband Conan of Brittany was given the same treatment when he tried to take Angers. Two of Conan's sons (Fulk's nephews) were killed and the Count of Brittany humiliated. Conan allied himself with the Normans and tried again. It was a fatal mistake and he died on the battlefield.

The contradictory nature of Fulk started to show itself with the first of his really shocking sins. A priest who called him a vile thug was pursued, on horseback, fully armed, into a church. After the red mist cleared Fulk realised that God would have seen and his mortal soul was in danger. He went barefoot, in a hair shirt, to do penance at Saint Martin's tomb.

 Outer defensive walls of the Chateau of Loches.
Outer defensive walls of the Chateau of Loches. Indre et Loire. France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

In order to give himself some respite from the constant campaigning he started constructing defenses. Massive fortified camps appeared, wooden towers, dungeons, fortified houses and castles, wherein he placed loyal men, in places such as Langeais and Montbazon, Montrésor and Loudun. Buildings popped up like mushrooms during the autumn construction period. They ranged from simple wooden forts on a mound of earth surrounded by a palisade, to massive fortified buildings protected by crenellated curtain walls and a deep moat. These defensive positions were no more than thirty kilometres apart ie a days march for a military squad.

 The ruin of Fulk's keep at Langeais.
Ruins of Fulk Nerra's 10C keep at Langeais. Indre et Loire. France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

But in 1000 he is distracted by another issue, closer to home. His wife of twelve years, Elisabeth, had only ever given him a single daughter, Adele, as offspring. He was desperate to have a son, but then he found out that Elisabeth was having an affair, taking advantage of his long absences. When she realised that he knew she barricaded herself inside the citadel of Angers. According to the chronicles he laid seige and finally captured her. She fell (or was thrown) from a tower, but did not die from the fall -- whereupon he killed her and burned her body. The chronicle also says the pyre caused the whole city of Angers to burn but this does not seem to be true.

For this sin he sought forgiveness, and went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1003, leaving his lands in the custodianship of his half-brother Maurice. It was almost a century before the first Crusade and the pilgrimage was simply to get to Jerusalem, not to fight. The journey was dangerous, through hostile territory.

Jerusalem, as depicted on a shield held by a sadly mutilated angel in the abbey church at Beaulieu.
Carving of Jerusalem in the abbey church at Beaulieu les Loches. Indre et Loire. France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

On his return to Anjou eighteen months later he was full of new resolutions to be a better person and began the construction of several new monasteries. Amongst them was the monastery at Beaulieu les Loches, not far from his fortress at Loches. Monks were hired to pray for his soul day and night at Beaulieu. He also built a monastery in Angers which was so well endowed it began to rival Fleury and Reims as a centre of learning.

At Christmas 1005 he decided it was time to remarry and chose Hildegard of Sundgau, a descendent of Charlemagne. In time she have him four children -- three girls (Adelaide, Blanche and Hermengarde), and the longed for son (Geoffroy, born in 1006).

 Fulk's keep at Loches.
Fulk Nerra's keep at Loches. Indre et Loire. France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

A few years later he arranged the assassination of Count Palatine Hugues de Beauvais, an ally of Count Eude of Blois. Unfortunately Hugues was also a trusted and close advisor to the King, Robert II. The act was considered high treason and he was threatened with ex-communication. Fulk had little choice but to hand over control of Anjou to Maurice again, and head off to Palestine.

This pilgrimage gives us the most famous story about Fulk. When he got to Jerusalem he found the gates of the city closed to Christians. He was forced to bribe his way in, and then was told that he could not visit the Holy Sepulchre unless he pissed on the tomb. His cunning solution was to strap a pig's (or ram's, depending on which version you read) bladder filled with fine Anjou white wine between his thighs and empty that on the Tomb of Christ. Then, leaning forward to kiss the tomb, he found that his lips had softened the stone and he was able to bite a piece off. Carefully secreted in his cheek, this became the most precious relic in the care of his monastery at Beaulieu.

19th century stained glass window in the abbey church at Beaulieu, 
depicting Fulk at the Holy Sepulchre.
19C stained glass window depicting Fulk Nerra at the Holy Sepulchre. Indre et Loire. France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

One year later he was back in France, totally absolved of the murder of Hugues de Beauvais. His half-brother hadn't been completely successful in his absence and Fulk found he had some territory to regain. In 1016 he defeated Eudes of Blois in the Battle of Pontlevoy. This was one of the bloodiest battles of the Middle Ages, with 6000 men left dead on the field. Fulk himself was not unscathed, having been thrown from his horse. He managed fight his way out with ferocious sword blade action.

In 1025 Fulk took the citadel of Saumur from Eudes of Blois. His army broke down the gates with a battering ram, only to come face to face with kneeling monks in prayer. The town had assumed this would stop the rampaging soldiers, but the monks were swept aside like dead leaves and the soldiers ransacked the castle and set fire to the church.

Later, in keeping with his usual pattern, he was wracked with guilt over this misdeed. He couldn't risk another trip to Jerusalem, so to show his repentence he had another abbey built -- this time a female establishment, with mills, fishponds and vineyards at Ronceray, on the hillsides of Layon (beginning what is now a famous tradition of sweet white wine from this area).

In 1032 the new young King Henri I asked Fulk to sort out the rebellious town of Sens, which had objected to their newly appointed Archbishop. Fulk being Fulk, he charged in with his army and rased the place to the ground.

But a few days later strange and troubling phenomena began occuring. A new and mysterious star appeared in the night sky. A terrible storm ravaged Angers and lightning struck the cathedral roof, setting fire to it. The fire spread and soon the whole town had burnt. Fulk didn't think it was a coincidence. He thought God was telling him to go to Jerusalem one more time.

This time he left his son in charge of the Angevin territories, but Geoffroy was young, arrogant, tempestous and lacked diplomacy. He mismanaged the territory and alienated a good part of the population. When Fulk returned a year later he was forced to punish and humiliate his son before forgiving him.

By 1039 Fulk was an old man, nearly seventy. He felt the end coming and as always, frightened of going to Hell, he decided to go on one last pilgrimage. He wore a hair shirt and took a few trusted knights with him. Once in Jerusalem he had himself subjected to mortifications by being dragged around the streets and beaten with rods.

Finally, near Metz on his way home in 1040, he developed a fever and died. His was a long reign of over 50 years and he served three Kings. He left one of the most powerful feudal domains in France to be inherited by his only son Geoffroy Martel ('The Hammer'), while his wife Hildegarde retired to the nunnery at Ronceray. His flourishing abbeys contributed to the great cultural influence of the Angevin province at this time. Poverty and ignorance were reduced and new towns thrived. His skill and daring brought prosperity to Anjou. His mortal remains were buried in the abbey at Beaulieu les Loches. We don't know where his soul ended up.


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For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, gardens, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

We are also on Instagram, so check us out to see a regularly updated selection of our very best photos. 

Thursday, 13 August 2020

Vale Jean-Pierre


That's Jean-Pierre, with blue satchel and toolbox, towards the left of the photo, 
waiting to head off with a group of fungi foragers in the Forest of Preuilly.
Fungi foray about to depart in the Forest of Preuilly. Indre et Loire. France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

A few days ago I got an email to say that my friend Jean-Pierre had died. He was 79 and lived in Tours. I sent a condolence message and his widow emailed me a brief note of thanks. The funeral was a private family affair.

The Masters at work.
Paul, Jean-Pierre and Jean identifying fungi at the end of an afternoon of foraging.
Fungi experts identifying species found on a mycology outing. Indre et Loire. France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

I would only ever see Jean-Pierre in the autumn, on fungi forays. He was one of the people I most enjoyed being out in the forest with. He was gentle and softly spoken, and generous with his knowledge. We never went very far, because there was always some minute fungi to look at and learn about from him. He specialised in the really tricky tiny species, and had published scientific papers on the subject.

Jean-Pierre talks to a little group about a Clouded Funnel Clitocybe nebularis (Clitocybe nébuleux in French). He said that technically they are edible, but they have such an after-aroma of cat's piss that you probably wouldn't want to.
Fungi expert teaching about Clitocybe nebularis. Indre et Loire. France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

The fungi fraternity will miss him and it is sad to think that he will not be joining us when fungi forays start up again (Covid19 allowing) in September.


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For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, gardens, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

We are also on Instagram, so check us out to see a regularly updated selection of our very best photos. 

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

How Much Risk of Snake Bite is There in the Loire Valley?


A young Western Whip Snake in the streets of Preuilly sur Claise.
Young Western Whip Snake Hierophis viridiflavus in the street.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

Most people don't like snakes, but whilst the risk of being bitten is never completely nil, it is very rare. In 2016, there were 369 cases of snake bite referred to the antipoison centres throughout the whole of France. Nobody died. The Pays de Loire, to our west, is the area where the most bites by venomous snakes occur, with about 70 people presenting every year at the antipoison centre in Angers. Snakes in the Loire Valley will be out and about from April to October. In the colder months they hibernate.

Adult Western Whip Snake in our orchard.
Western Whip Snake Hierophis viridiflavus.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

The local herpetelogical society note that many people believe they've seen a viper (venomous) when in fact it will have been a (harmless) grass snake (Fr. couleuvre). They point out that recognising a viper is easy -- they are the ones with the zigzag down the back.

 An Asp Viper Viperus aspis (Fr. Vipère aspic) under a friend's car in his driveway in Chateauroux.
Asp Viper Viperus aspis under a car in a driveway.  Indre, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

All reptiles are very sensitive to vibrations, and generally flee when someone comes near. But after summer storms they can emerge to warm up, and be slower to escape if disturbed. You need to be more vigilant at these times, both in terms of where you put your feet, and if you have a curious dog, because the reptile may defend itself more ferociously.

An Asp Viper on a chalk cliff at a winery at Panzoult.

To reduce the risks, you can take a stick when you go for a walk, put on long trousers and closed shoes. If, by any chance, you were bitten by a snake, the steps to take are simple. First aiders recommend lying the victim down and applying a compression bandage to the bite to slow the spread of venom. If bitten on the arm or hand, remove rings, because the fingers will swell alarmingly. If possible, identify the type of snake that made the bite, before calling for help by dialing 18 or 112. But suction techniques should never be used, even with the help of devices that can be found in pharmacies.

Mature Western Whip Snake, coming to drink at a roadside ditch in a hamlet in the Charente.
Western Whip Snake Hierophis viridiflavus.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

During summer, you might find that young vipers come to sunbathe on your terrace or enter your home through an open door. If this happens, you can cover the snake's head, and once it's in the dark, it will not move. With a broom and shovel, you can gently escort it to the exit.

Young Western Whip Snake with its head trapped in some fluff in our sitting room.
 It was very annoyed but Simon removed using the broom and shovel technique.
Young Western Whip Snake that has trapped itself in some fluff inside a house being renovated.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

However, prevention is better than cure. The local herpetological society  recommends clearing along walls and the backs of flower beds so the snakes have nowhere to hide. That way you won't see hide nor hair of a viper in your house. 

Young Western Whip Snake Hierophis viridiflavus (Fr. Couleuvre verte et jaune).
Young Western Whip Snake Hierophis viridiflavus.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

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For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, gardens, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

We are also on Instagram, so check us out to see a regularly updated selection of our very best photos. 

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Swimming at Preuilly


After a troubled beginning to the season, the municipal swimming pool in Preuilly sur Claise is now open and running smoothly. Many thanks are due to the willingness of the new municipal team to tackle the expense of changing the filters, plugging the major leak, as well as monitoring the water quality on a daily basis now and fixing the showers. It is such a nice pool and we are very lucky.

André, Paris Bruno and Paola swimming.
Municipal swimming pool, Preuilly sur Claise. Indre et Loire. France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

We swim most mornings, with friends, and it is never crowded. Covid19 means that we have to arrive and leave in our bathers because the changing rooms are not open, but apart from that there is now not much difference between this year and last. A couple of faces are missing, due to personal choice, and that's a shame, but the rest of us are getting on with setting goals and working towards achieving them.

Simon swimming. The swimmer cruising along in backstroke on the left is Paris Bruno, 
a qualified lifeguard and champion swimmer.


Me swimming. The swimmer following me, in the white cap, is Paola.

According to Philippe, the new maïtre-nageur (life guard/pool manager), my style is 'décontracté'. It means 'laid-back' and it is a compliment. Several times I've overheard him telling other swimmers to watch how I do it. There are actually many things I could improve in my swimming, but what he's really trying to get through to other swimmers is that they shouldn't windmill, flail or thrash, and they should not be afraid to put their head under water and keep it there as much as possible. Relax, slow down, breath out underwater, lift your head just enough to take a breath every now and then, rhythmically.


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For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, gardens, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

We are also on Instagram, so check us out to see a regularly updated selection of our very best photos. 

Monday, 10 August 2020

Local Melon at the Market


Charentais melon from Haut-Poitou.
Charentais melon from Haut-Poitou. Indre et Loire. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

After the rains of May and June the IGP melons of Haut-Poitou (certified geographical protected) were attacked by bacteria. The few melons that survived to be worth eating were expensive, around €3.50 each. But now the weather has improved the producers say we will enjoy exceptional melons in August. 

 My friend Christiane buys garlic from our local melon and onion producer.
Buying garlic at the market. Indre et Loire. France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

Haut-Poitou, between Chatellerault and Limoges, with its cool nights and sunny days is the ideal place to grow the cantaloupe type melons (rockmelons) known as Charentais. The particular cultivars are carefully chosen for salmon orange colour, juicy firmness and melon aromas. It takes 90 days from planting to harvest and the fruit must have reached a minimum level of sugar (12 grams per 100 grams). Just twelve producers are allowed to call themselves 'Melon Masters' and can label their melons as certified from the Haut Poitou. The certification requires that the melon producers adhere to a strict set of criteria in their farming practices, in order to ensure the quality of the product sent to market. The twelve farms cultivate 1180 hectares with melons and employ 1200 workers, most of them seasonal.

 Locally grown small Charentais melons at the market in Preuilly.
Charentais melons at the market. Indre et Loire. France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

The price goes up and down depending on the quality and quantity of melons. The demand is always there but some years the weather doesn't cooperate, making good melons a rarity on the market. These specialist melon growers take the view that it is better to maintain quality and not try to sell inferior melons, so the price will go up when the melons are in short supply.  When there are shortages, it is always as a result of unfavourable weather. The producers aim for about two and a half tonnes of melon each per year. 

 The melon producer's stall at the market in Preuilly.
Melon producer's stall at the market. Indre et Loire. france. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

Planting is done directly into the chalky clay soil, under polytunnels, and can be done at regular scheduled intervals from April to June. The soil absorbs a lot of water in the winter and releases it slowly to the melon plants and fruit during the summer. But after planting the progress of the melons is entirely weather dependent. This year started well, but in May and June there was steady light rain and the polytunnels were kept closed to protect the melon plants from excess humidity. Unfortunately the side effect of this was excessive lush leafy growth. A bacterial blight appeared, leaving small spots on the melons. Once the polytunnels were opened up and the plants exposed to the sun the disease accelerated and pollination was disrupted. Producers lost 60 - 80% of the early crop, but the remaining melons were good quality.

 The best known of the local melon producers selling direct to the public in Séligny,
 late July last year.
Melon producer selling at the market. Indre et Loire. France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

Now the season has settled down to steady sun the late harvest should be both plentiful and perfect. Peak melon season for Haut Poitou is the beginning of July to the end of September. 

 I'm sure this roundabout on the outskirts of Richelieu is referencing melons.
Melon slices sculpture on a roundabout, Richelieu. Indre et Loire. France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

All the producers must grow other crops because one of the rules of the IGP certification is that melons may not be grown on the same soil more frequently than every six years, to prevent disease build up. The fruit is harvested early in the morning, kept cool and are with the consumer within 48 hours.

Melons marked for me by the producer to indicate ripeness 
and the order in which we should eat them.
Melons marked to indicate ripeness. Indre et Loire. France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

One of the producers, from near Richelieu, comes to the markets in Preuilly and Loches during the season. He hasn't been for the last couple of weeks and I was disappointed. But last Thursday he reappeared and explained he just didn't have any melons the previous two weeks. This time he had small but really good melons -- Simon thinks they might be the best melon he's ever had. I like them because they are a nice two person size. They are priced at €5 for three melons. I just cut them in half, scoop out the seeds and serve in a bowl with a spoon. No additions necessary. He also grows excellent onions and garlic, and says it has been a very good trouble free year for them. 


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For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, gardens, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

We are also on Instagram, so check us out to see a regularly updated selection of our very best photos. 

Sunday, 9 August 2020

A Typical Aussie House


Old house in Bowning, New South Wales, Australia. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

This is a fairly typical Australian house that you could find in any rural town. It dates from the early 20th century I would guess and is made of painted wood in a style referred to as weatherboard. It has a verandah, single glazed sash windows and a corrugated iron roof (which might be insulated these days). It is free standing and single storey, with no basement or attic. As an older house it is on a half acre block of land so there is plenty of scope for creating a garden, although water restrictions will be an issue. Twenty years ago this would have been a highly desirable property. These days it is probably way too small and the garden considered way too much work. 


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For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, gardens, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

We are also on Instagram, so check us out to see a regularly updated selection of our very best photos.