Friday 30 November 2012

The Michelin Factory

The Michelin factory in Joué-les-Tours employs hundreds of people and stretches as far as the eye can see in this photo. Sadly it is struggling financially. Several times this year there have been compulsory temporary lay-offs of a couple of hundred staff for a day or two. This arrangement is called chomage technique in French and is a means for the company to stand staff down and have the state benefits system pay them temporarily. After the lay-off ends the staff go back to work as normal. It is not just used in times of financial trouble, but can be used for any temporary difficulty the company finds itself in (for example, an accident such as a chemical leak which forces the closure of a plant because it is temporarily too dangerous to work).


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

Thursday 29 November 2012

Can you see what it is yet?

One of the many difficulties of presenting a historic building to the public is how to deal with the accessories and installations of modern heating, lighting, safety and security devices. These are invariably white and made from some clearly modern material -- not the easiest objects to blend in sympathetically with even a 19th century interior, much less a Renaissance one.

Central heating radiator painted to blend into oak panelling in the Chateau des Bretonnieres, Joué-les-Tours.

The usual curatorial device is to camouflage light switches, power points, smoke detectors and radiators with a trompe l'oeil paint job. It's fairly tacky if you look closely, but, especially for really anachronous things like smoke detectors, high up on the ceiling and painted to blend in with the surrounding decor, it works well enough. Of course, the bigger the object and the closer it is to eye level, the less pleasing the result.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Water not Wine

This tap disguised as a locally themed sculpture sits in the square at Mesland. I would guess that it is the work of sculptor Patrick Meriguet, who works in stainless steel and lives in nearby Onzain. I would further guess that its purpose is to provide tap water on market days for hand washing and filling buckets for washing down stands and suchlike. Maybe people fill up water bottles from it and thirsty dogs lap from bowls placed under it.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Mesland Mystery

 Perhaps the insignia of a master butcher?

In September we stayed overnight in the rosé producing village of Mesland, above the Loire opposite Chaumont. It is a very attractive little place, with many interesting and picturesque buildings.

The master winemaker's sign?

These two dormer windows on a building in the centre of town feature some mystery carvings. Possibly they are symbols pertaining to the Compagnons du Tour de France, the lodges or guilds that date back to medieval times and whose purpose is to train and support master craftsmen. However, our voluble history geek of a host (link removed), who alerted us to their presence, was unable to tell us anything with certainty.

Monday 26 November 2012

Bike Racks at Cheverny

Cycling in the Loire Valley is greatly encouraged. If you haven't brought your own, you can hire bikes in several of the main tourist towns and there is an extensive network of bike paths, many of them dedicated and separate to the roads. A lot of people bring a bike with them on the plane or on the back of the car. Cycling is safe here and it's flat, travelling along the bucolic river valleys. Where the cycle path and the road share space, there are regular signs to remind roadusers that voitures, vélos, partageons la route.

 In the village of Cour-Cheverny, as in most places, they have installed some robust and practical looking bike racks and we nearly always see cyclists on the routes between the major chateaux.

The Loire à Vélo website should give you much of the information you need to plan a cycling holiday here.

Sunday 25 November 2012

Be Still

Driving through Manthelan.

We followed this mobile still on our way home after dropping clients off on one of the Journées du Patrimoine in September. I don't know if it been somewhere demonstrating the heritage of small scale distilling in France, or whether it was a licenced mobile distiller heading home after a session in someone's orchard -- I'm inclined to think the former.

La Chapelle-Blanche-Saint-Martin.

Bertrand, over on Wine Terroirs has written a long post about a day spent at the mobile distillery if you are interested in knowing more about this tradition.

Between La Chapelle-Blanche and Ligueil.
Up until 1959 mobile stills were passed down family lines, but with the change in the law that meant that you could not inherit the right to distill, the tradition of the private mobile distillery is dying out. These small scale family distillers were allowed to produce 20 litres of eau de vie per year, tax free. From next year, the few that are left will not even be allowed to do that, and all mobile distilleries must be licenced professionals and anyone using them pays a duty of  €7.50/litre.

The roundabout for the Ligueil bypass.

Saturday 24 November 2012

The Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower is a profoundly disappointing structure if you see it close up and in daylight (unless you are an engineering history geek or similar). It looks nothing like all those nickel coated tourist souvenirs you've seen just bigger and better ie it is not an intricate and lovely bronze sculpture.

It's painted a particularly uninspiring matt brown, and it is set in a sand pit.

The Eiffel Tower from the Trocadero Gardens at about 8pm in September.

Doing its Cartier impression.

My advice is to view it in the evening from the square above the Trocadero Gardens. You look out across the Seine, over the Trocadero's fountains and it is there directly in front of you. As night falls the crowd gathers and once the required level of darkness is upon the city, the lights on the Tower spring into life. There is a bit of fancy flashing with coloured lights and pretty patterns, then it settles down to glitter like a piece of jewellry set with white diamonds.

Afterwards you can go off to dinner at Le Wilson -- touristy, cheap and friendly.

Friday 23 November 2012

The Renaissance Supermen

This portrait of Francois I at Chambord makes it clear to those of us who concentrated on English history at school and barely skimmed over the French that he is an exact contemporary of Henry VIII of England. (It helps of course to have done some costume or art history in the meantime too.) The two men were born within a few years of one another and died the same year. Neither were the expected heir to the throne when they were born. Both were very big men, physically, for their time, being 6' or more. Very sporty and active, both were handsome charmers in their youth, although increasingly crotchety with age and accumulated medical problems. They famously met on the Field of the Cloth of Gold* to cook up an alliance to keep their other great contemporary, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Spain, at bay.


*I have heard a story that the Cloth of Gold itself was woven in Tours, but I cannot find a reliable source for that information.

Thursday 22 November 2012

Through a Glass

A view through one of the oldified windows in the Chateau of Chambord.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

The Connection Between Cold and Gigantism

This huge Polish ceramic stove is one of three installed at Chambord by the Marechal de Saxe. He was appointed Superintendent of the Chambord Hunt in 1745 by King Louis XV and then obliged to live in the by this time run down royal chateau. He spent his personal fortune on renovations, purchasing the stoves in a vain attempt to keep at least some of the rooms warm.


There is an outing to learn about lichens at the Etangs de Narbonne on Sunday 25 November. Meet at 14.00 in the carpark of the Maison-pour-tous at Joué-les-Tours (from Boulevard Jean-Jaures, turn at MacDonalds in rue de la Douzillere. The Maison-pour-tous is at the base of the water tower.) The lichens collected will be identified at the end of the afternoon by experts from the Association de botanique et mycologie de Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine. €3 per person.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Arc de Triomphe

 The Arc de Triomphe is fantastic entertainment value. We can spend at least an hour standing on the side of the road watching the traffic negotiate the Etoile. Traffic from 12 major avenues feed into the roundabout, which is 10 lanes wide. The Magic Roundabout in Swindon eat your heart out!

Tourists gather at the edge of the Etoile ('Star') as the junction is known.

Contrary to normal roundabout rules, at the Arc de Triomphe traffic entering the system has priority, which means that traffic on the roundabout must give way to cars moving in from their right. French car insurance policies come in two types -- those that specifically exclude the Arc de Triomphe roundabout and those that include it. The latter are all on the basis of no blame equal share payouts.

Dignitaries being whisked to lunch in big luxury Citroens with a Republican Guard motorcycle escort through the roundabout. We encountered them a bit later at a fancy hotel restaurant, but we chose to have lunch around the corner in rue Miromesnil.

In addition to exclaiming at the courage of cyclists serenely pedalling through the chaos, gasping at the foolhardiness of ducking and diving scooter riders and being thankful that it isn't you out there, you can watch the gypsy woman working the gold ring scam or the young Australian musicians in crazy costumes making a video for their latest single.

Monday 19 November 2012

High-End Shopping

Peugeot 402 convertible from the inter-war period.

Each of the big three French car manufacturers has a showroom on the Champs-Elysées. You never know what they will be displaying -- it can range from the very latest concept cars to rare and fabulous classics.

Sunday 18 November 2012

Pimp My Roof

You would think that the major attraction of Chambord was the fiendishly clever double helix staircase, but in fact, since it is impossible to a proper idea of how the famous staircase works without looking at a diagram rather than the real thing, the true glory for the visitor is being able to wander about on the spendiferous roof looking up at the many turrets, domes and chimneys, and out over the equally splendiferous views of the hunting park.

Saturday 17 November 2012

Friday 16 November 2012

Chateau de Marmande, Vienne

Driving around one day we came across this impressive medieval structure. It can be seen for quite a distance and is clearly something a bit special and unusual. On returning home we discovered that our friends at Braye-sous-Faye had beaten us to it and written about their visit quite a while ago.

The buildings turn out to be the Chateau de Marmande. The place is near the village of Velleches in the Vienne, so not to be confused with the Cathar fortress of the same name in Lot et Garonne.

According to French Wikipedia, it is an exceptional collection of fortifications from the 12th and 17th centuries, adorning the plateau of an escarpment. The castle keep and the 40m high staircase tower were constructed to a very high quality. In addition, the chateau has a significant underground network of galleries, restored, but not open to the public.

Thursday 15 November 2012

Burping Batraciens

It seems a little odd for a king to choose a small, slimy, rarely seen amphibian (sometimes referred to as les batraciens in French) as an emblem*. Even stranger for them to be depicted throughout Chambord as belching out a stream of bubbles. In other chateaux they are shown breathing fire, like a dragon, but here at Chambord, they are burping. Too rich a diet in those heady Renaissance days?

This one is on some old decorative stone carving from the roof which has been brought in from the weather and is now housed under the coach house.

 This one is on a fine old panelled door in the Francois I section of the chateau.


*The salamander in legend is said to be somewhat like the phoenix, able to survive unscathed or rise up out of the fire. The modern theory for the reason behind this reputation is that salamanders, which are native to the Loire area, like to live in dark, damp places, such as the firewood pile. When the log sheltering a salamander is placed on the fire the salamander scurries out - surviving the fire unscathed...thus making it a fine emblem for a powerful monarch such as Francois I.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Grapey Goodness

Finally, last Friday, I managed to get my act together sufficiently to strip the grapevine of its fruit. There was 5 - 6 kg of dark purple grapes. Thanks to the loan of a juicer from Tim and Pauline I made half into about a litre of tangy ruby coloured fresh juice. Simon made the other half into 5 jars of wine dark jelly.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Célestine at Chanceaux

Célestine parked by the chapel at Chanceaux-pres-Loches.


There is a fungi foray to the Etangs de Narbonne on Saturday 17 November. Meet at 14.00 in the carpark at the Maison-pour-tous at Joué-les-Tours (from Boulevard Jean-Jaures turn at MacDonalds in rue de la Douzillere. The Maison-pour-tous is at the base of the water tower.) The fungi gathered will be identified by experts from the Association de botanique et mycologie de Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine at the end of the afternoon. €3 per person.


Tomorrow is Orange for Orangutan day. Please support the conservation groups and individuals raising money to save this gravely endangered and thoroughly endearing species. Wear orange, do something creative in the kitchen with orange ingredients and give generously if anyone near you is staging an event. You can also give directly by going online to Just Giving.

A French senator is (somewhat inadvertently) doing his bit by proprosing a 300% increase on the tax for palm oil. If it goes through it will be a nice little earner for the central coffers, specifically the state health insurance pot, and the aim is also to reduce the quantity of this widely used saturated fat consumed. The tax has been dubbed the Nutella Tax, as this popular spread is eaten in vast quantities here and contains about 20% palm oil. A by-product of this tax will hopefully be some respite for the rainforest habitat of the orangutans, currently being clearfelled to make way for vast palm oil monocultures in Borneo, Sumatra and Indonesia.

The new tax would apply equally to other imported fats, such as coconut oil, and bring them up to the level of locally produced olive oil. With any luck it will therefore result in traditional products such as savon de Marseille being made once again from locally produced fats. Savon de Marseille (an old fashioned, but extremely popular, soap) has no geographic protection or manufacturing specifications because with such an extremely old and traditional product that has become so widespread it is no longer practical to legislate.

Sadly, the Health Minister, Marisol Touraine (previously the leader of our local Conseil Général for Indre et Loire) is not enthusiastic, and although it will be debated in the Senate it is unlikely to be passed.

Monday 12 November 2012

Saint Martin's Donkey

The big saint here is Saint Martin, a 4th century, Hungarian born, Roman soldier who legend says cut his cloak in two and gave half to a beggar. In his dream that night the beggar was revealed to be Christ and Martin realised he had to quit the Roman army and serve God. He became a famous hermit and then, by popular acclaim, Bishop of Tours. Marmoutier, the monastery he built on the banks of the Loire just outside Tours is still there, albeit with buildings renewed and now a school.

A donkey - probably not Saint Martin's.
He was a thoroughly peregrinatious type, constantly travelling throughout his diocese on his donkey and this aspect of his life is remembered in the Chemins de Saint Martin pilgrim trails. He is credited with bringing from Hungary the Chenin Blanc grape used in Vouvray and Montlouis, either side of the Loire near Marmoutier. Consequently, he is not only the patron saint of beggars, soldiers, tailors and equestrians, but also vintners, innkeepers, alcoholics and ... geese.

Heading for the vines?
His donkey gets its own 15 minutes of fame though. The story goes that it was partial to eating the grape vines that Saint Martin had brought back from Hungary. Saint Martin noticed that the grapes these vines produced made better wine that those from the vines the the donkey couldn't reach, and the vines were more robust and healthier. Thus the practice of pruning vines was invented and has been practiced ever since.

(Yesterday was Saint Martin's Day, the anniversary of his burial in Tours in 397.)

Sunday 11 November 2012

A War Memorial in the Paris Metro

The plaque says:

War Memorial

Sculptor: Carlo Sarrabezolles 1931

Created in 1931 in memory of the Metropolitan Railway employees who died for France, this monument is adorned with a caryatid in black marble at the heart of a semi-circle on which is inscribed the names of the employees who died during the First World War.

The base carries the names of the battlefields from 1914-1918.

After the Second World War the word 'Liberation' was added, to underline the participation of the employees in the Resistance network.
The memorial is in Richelieu-Drouot station.


Saturday 10 November 2012

The Cavalry's on its Way

While we were in Paris in September we happened to be walking past the Elysée Palace (the official residence of the French President) just before the arrival of the President of Azerbaijan for a meeting with Francois Hollande. A troop of the Republican Guard cavalry were forming up. They are the only horse mounted troops remaining in the French armed forces according to my internet researches, but this day they were sans les chevaux, malheureusement.

They lined up, got their rhythm and then quick marched in through the gate. Their officers ambled in after them. Cavalrymen always look ever so slightly ridiculous and self-conscious when unmounted.

I love the luxuriant ponytails on their helmets -- very swords and sorcery warrior class. These flowing locks are apparently exactly what they look like -- horse tails. The day we saw the Republican Guard they were wearing the version of the uniform that includes blue riding breeches. There seems to be very few photographs of them in this combination, so we are curious to know what the criteria for appearing in the various uniforms are. The three different units of the Republican Guard cavalry ride different coloured horses -- do they also wear different coloured breeches? Or is it the difference between summer and winter uniforms? Any militaria or costume buffs amongst our readers who can shed any light? The non-cavalry troops in the Republican Guard wear blue trousers and peaked caps, not riding breeches and shiny plumed helmets.


There is a fungi foray in the Foret de Chinon today. Meet at 14.00 at the Carrefour Charles VII (from the carrefour de La Pucelle, take the route forestiere towards Rivarennes, on your right if you are coming from Tours).  All the fungi will be identified at the end of the afternoon by mycology experts from the Association de botanique et mycologie de Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine. €3 per person.

Friday 9 November 2012

More Mushrooms

Here is a small selection of the fungi we saw in the Foret de Preuilly on 4 November. Colin and Elizabeth joined us and have already blogged about it (twice).

 In Jean Bouton's left hand, the highly regarded edible species Caesar's Mushroom Amanita caesarea. In his right hand, possibly the most iconic mushroom of them all, the Fly Agaric A. muscaria, only eaten by thrill seekers and the foolhardy. Don't get them mixed up!

 Leafy Brain Tremella foliacea -- just like silicone sealant.

 Orange Peel Fungus Aleuria arancea.

 Stocking Webcap Cortinarius torvus (Cortinaire à chaussette in French).

 Upright Coral Ramaria stricta (Clavaire droite in French).

Think this looks like a tasty Field Mushroom Agaricus campestris? Think again. This is a Yellow Stainer A. xanthodermus, clearly showing the strong yellow stain formed when the base of the stem is cut. This mushroom will not kill you, but your digestive system will not thank you for sending it through and will try to eject it as quickly and violently as possible.

Fraussie Grouet, a keen mushroom forager who writes the blog Aussie in France, asked me if I could find out from the experts what their opinion was on cutting or pulling as a method of gathering mushrooms, and so I put the question to Jean Bouton. He said he knew there was two schools of thought, but he would recommend taking the whole thing. His reasoning is that it does no significant harm to the fruiting bodies remaining and you are sure that you can make an identification if you have all of it. For ceps, he thought it was a reasonable compromise to cut them as low as possible, but it wasn't really best practice. Covering the remnants of the cut stem served no real purpose according to him.

Thursday 8 November 2012

Mincing Across the Road*

 Apparently Charles de Gaulle did not wish statues of himself erected, but in 2000 his family decided to relent, giving permission for this one and several now exist in other countries. This one is on the Champs-Elysées by le Grand Palais near Métro Clemenceau (totally overshadowing the nearby statue of Clemenceau himself, which is disreetly positioned on a rock under a tree on the side of the road near the Métro entrance).

There is an inscription which reads:

Paris outragé
Paris brisé
Paris martyrisé
Paris liberé
 Which I would translate as:

Paris violated**
Paris shattered
Paris martyred
Paris freed
They are the opening words of his speech to the crowd on the liberation of Paris, 26 August 1944.
 There is no question that de Gaulle was a great Frenchman, who played a vital role as such during the Second World War. I just wonder how much of his reluctance to have a statue is down to his unfortunate pear-shaped figure and how much is down to regrets about Algeria and other colonial wars. Quite likely it is neither of these things -- he was such a patriot that he may have genuinely believed that it was France herself that should be celebrated and honoured, not individuals such as himself.

Believe it or not, these photos were all taken on the same day, within minutes of one another, by Simon in mid-September.

*Thanks to Jonathan Meades this is how I will aways think of this statue. According to a fellow blogger friend, there are three people from French history that you cannot criticise -- Joan of Arc, Napoleon Bonaparte and le Grand Charles. What's the French for fatwah? I may have to go into hiding...

**Usually translated as 'Paris outraged', but I think 'violated' gives a better sense.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Le Tour Saint-Jacques, Paris

The Tour Saint-Jacques (Saint James' Tower) is the last remnant of a 16th century church built in central Paris (4eme arrondissement) in the reign of Francois I in the Flamboyant Gothic style. 

One of the statues on the side of the tower is Saint Roch. He is a saint much associated with pilgrim routes and the tower is one of the starting points for the pilgrim route first to Tours and then on to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. You can identify Saint Roch because he holds a staff and is accompanied by a dog. Usually he is displaying a wound on his leg too.

The Angel of Saint Matthew atop one corner of the tower.

The Lion of Saint Luke sits high up on another corner. I suspect the fetching cranial lightening rods are not original.

These lovely sinous gargoyles leer in gormless horror at you from a great height (c50 m).

The Wiki entry on the Tower is well written and informative if you want more details of its history.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

Les Invalides at Dusk

Taken from Place du Trocadéro at about 8pm in mid-September, l'Eglise du Dome (which houses the tomb of Napoléon I) with the dome of the Panthéon further over to the left. L'Eglise du Dome is part of l'Hotel des Invalides, the vast military hospital complex built by Louis XIV and now still a hospital and residence for wounded war veterans, but also housing the Musée de l'Armée (the Army Museum) and offices for the Armed Forces. The Panthéon is the final resting place of many great French men (and the occasional great French woman).

Monday 5 November 2012

A Classic Paris Scene

A classic view of central Paris, taken from the Tuileries gardens, looking past the Luxor obelisk (one of three known as Cleopatra's Needles, in Paris, London and New York) in Place de la Concorde, down the sweep of the Champs-Elysées and through the Arc de Triomphe to la Grande Arche in la Défense beyond.