Friday, June 29, 2012

A wander in medieval Vannes

adventures in medieval Vannes 

Vannes is one of those cities I think I could live in. It's big enough to be very vibrant ( plus, the university means there is a decent population of non-crusties) but small enough that you can wander it's medieval centre-ville on foot and not feel overwhelmed. The old city cascades down the hill to the river port in a tangle of cobbled streets and overhanging half-timbered buildings, many of them encroaching so far into the open space of the lanes that the upper stories appear to be on a most perilous lean. On the afternoon I visitied, the temperature had finally shot up into the high 20s after several cooler days, and old men in white singlets, cigarettes dangling, hung out of upper story windows and chatted to each other as the world went by beneath them. 

Vestiges of Vannes' medieval city walls still encircle the old town, and are studded with a couple of squat towers, arrow slits overlooking the river, and with two of the orignal massive gateways. Beneath what remains of the chateau, the moat has long been filled in but, as in many French towns like this (Hennebont in Morbihan and Angers in the Loire spring to mind), they have now been filled in with beautiful formal gardens, their geometry traced in pink roses and dense lines of dark green box. I spent several happy hours here, chasing one alleyway into another, and finally wound up down at the riverside,  so close to the sea that the smell of salt water and mudflats where equally mingled. 

From there, I found my way back to the station and jumped on train to Auray, with the intention of meeting friends for dinner at Auray's lovely little medieval port of Saint-Goustan. However, typically for me, I got just a leetle bit lost trying to walk from Auray to the port. (I don't know why, but I find I am congenitally unable to orient myself to a map!) Swallowing my pride, I finally asked a harmless-looking old chap coming out of the boulangerie clutching his baguette (for dinner, no doubt) for directions. After about 20 seconds and the first set of very complicated instructions, he asked me where I was from. When I told him New Zealand, his face lit up and he started talking about rugby and the All Blacks, which seems to be a universal icebreaker in this country. He then said he would have driven me to the port but his car was at home. No, no I said, 'c'est pas grave', I have loads of time, it's a lovely evening and I *want* to walk. 10 minutes down the road, what happens but the old boy comes driving up beside me in his equally-old and crusty car, and calls out the window, 'You are a New Zealander and a rugby fan! We can't have you getting lost!' (Presumably, the English are left to their own devices...) So, long story short, yes, I disregarded a lifetime of parental advice and accepted a ride from a stranger. A few minutes later, he dropped me off at the port of Saint-Goustan, another enclave of winding streets and pan-de-bois buildings hugging the bank of the river Loch. I met my friends for dinner and we enjoyed a veritable banquet of local seafood while sitting outside next to the water. The scallops (St Jaques) were a highlight as were the whole, very large grilled sardines (pilchard-sized) and the tiny, sweet and tender local mussels. Formidable!

Monday, June 25, 2012

In which I find a shrine to a headless hermit (and other local oddities)

When I'm travelling, I often get the most joy from those quirky little spots that are well off the mainstream tourist routes. Today, guided by a locally produced photocopied pamphlet (in French and complete with spelling mistakes and some very fuzzy photos), I set off on foot to explore the hidden charms of the village of Brandivy and environs. Like so many small villages in this region, it boasts more than its fair share of shrines, churches, and medieval ruins. Thanks to my trusty pamphlet, I was also apprised of some of the local legends relating to these spots. My favourite story concerns 'La Tombe des 7 trous' (tomb of seven holes), a shrine marked by an old stone cross on the side of the track in the local forest. According to the folktale, a holy hermit was travelling along this path when he was set upon by two bandits. He had just enough time to brandish the Host at them before they cut off his head, but the head refused to die. Instead, it bounced around seven times, making seven holes in the ground where nothing has grown since! This story has a bittersweet epilogue, as today the shrine is still occasionally visited by parents seeking a cure for children who have problems walking, and it is garnished with little baby shoes and booties. 

At the much less fantastic end of the scale, another large stone in the neighbourhood - the 'Stele des Martyrs' - commemorates seven 'young patriots' who were killed by the Germans in 1944. This area was a hotbed of  Maquis Resistance and when you see the countryside, its every lane lined with thick drystone walls and deep bramble-filled ditches, you can see why it offered great opportunities for guerrilla warfare against the German occuption. In this case, the bodies of three of the seven dead - sons of one of the nearby villages - were taken to the local chapel, but the night before their funerals the bodies were stolen by the Germans and never seen again.

There is even a little touch of the Da Vinci Code in the 'hood with the stories about La Motte Feodale de Lanvaux, the ruins of a medieval keep dating from the 11th and 12th centuries. Today, there is nothing left but some reasonably substantial outer walls built of stone, but local legend has it that this was one of the places where the Order of the Knights Templar stashed their treasure after they were attacked by Philippe le Bel. Some decades ago, the treasure-hunting became so intense here that much of the structure was seriously undermined by people digging holes in it. Because of this, sadly, you are no longer allowed to clamber amongst the ruins. But when I walked around them, all alone on a quiet rain-fogged afternoon, the overgrown, crumbling stone still created a powerful sense of gothic romance. (Seriously, I felt like Catherine Morland reading 'The Mysteries of Udolpho'!)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

In which I get Neolithic

As you all know by now, my first love is all things medieval (closely followed by the Renaissance). So I was quite surprised to be so taken with a place the history of which stretches back 6000 years to the Neolithic period. This was the Cairn du Petit Mont, a site comprising several enormous stone-built cairns containing what were probably burial sites. The first cairn was built around 4500 BC, and the others added to it over time to create a massive mound on a point commanding a view right around the Golfe du Morbihan (although apparently, back when the cairn was in use, large areas that are now under water were arable land cut through by a series of river channels). The chambers are incredible feats of architectural engineering, with massive stone slabs used as lintels, floors, walls and doorways, and even what looks like a processional stairway. In between, the walls are filled out with smaller stones that have been so beautifully cut and finely fitted together, no mortar is needed. It is just as impressive in its own way as a cathedral. In fact, with its solid grace and simplicity, it put me in mind a little of being in the nave of one of those wonderful early Romanesque churches you find in France. 

There are carvings on the slabs that form the walls and although the ones in the oldest chamber are very difficult to make out now, the ones in the other chamber (ca. 2700 BC) are much clearer, and include images such as a sun and snake-like forms. There is also an image that formerly was interpreted as a female fertility deity but which, 'after further recent study', is now thought to represent a phallus. I wonder if this is a reflection more of the image itself or of the people studying it! 

The place must have been perceived as having some serious sacred power, because it seems it was re-used in the Gallo-Roman period for a divinity cult. Sadly, the whole site suffered a dreadful insult during World War II, when the Germans decided the Mont made a perfect surveillance spot and whacked a bloody great bunker right through the middle of it. This obliterated one of the cairns, and cut into the walls of one of the others. It is very jarring to be peering at a 6000 year old rock carving and suddenly notice a big chunk of concrete next to it! 

After our visit to Petit Mont, we ducked down to nearby Port Navalo, a little fishing port lined with cafes and seafood restaurants. (I admit it! I had another galette buerre sale and more rose!) Port Navalo is on a thin spur of land so on one side is the port, surrounded by low rocky cliffs that are topped by a good walking track with views across to Quiberon and out into the Golfe du Morbihan. Around the point is a crescent of white sandy beach, sheltered from the prevailing wind and with incredibly clear bright aqua water. You can't move in this area during the high season of July and August, but at the moment it is not too bad and seems to be mostly locals rather than tourists from England and Paris. I would love to come back here in the winter and experience the Atlantic storms beating against this coast. The massive stone breakwaters in the ports and the stoutness of the fishing vessels tell the story that while it may seem very gentle now, it gets really elemental and wild when summer comes to an end.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

La vie est douce

Je m'appelle Amelie. J'aime voyager en train, les galettes avec caramel du buerre sucre, est les  hiboux. Je n'naime pas ... hmmm, I can't think of anything at the moment! That must be because I have arrived in France and am now staying in a beautiful (if slightly dilapidated) 17th century stone farmhouse in the countryside of the Golfe du Morbihan, on a nameless lane between the hamlets of Brindivy and Kerdavid Duchantil. Every time I come to France, I'm reminded of why this country seduces me. It's something about the softness of the evening air and the gentle heat of the sun (so much less harsh than our southern hemisphere orb), and the lush countryside that, even though it is well-farmed, still has many stands of old oak trees and little pockets of forest with mysterious fern-fringed tracks winding into the shadows. The area where I am staying (near Carnac) is well-known as a region covered with megaliths and dolmens that are athousands of years old. When I'm walking through a forest and suddenly come upon a circle of standing stones covered in moss and lichen, I get a certain eerie sense of very deep history that I have not really experienced before. 

We have a family of tawny owls nesting in the barn by the house, and I have been privileged to see them a few times, either hanging out on the roof getting the late sun or, last night, swooping down over the garden on a hunting trip. They are such beautiful animals. Somewhat awkward and comical while sitting on a perch, but majestic on the wing. It doesn't get dark here until 10:30 or so at night, so I go for a walk about 9pm and get to watch as all the little night creatures start stirring in the hedges and fields as the sun goes down. 

Our little local village of Brindivy is a place where not much ever seems to happen ( though it does have an impressive Calvary and some 12th century relics, which I plan to investigate soon). However, it is the home of a legendary creperie, the Creperie du Puits. On Sunday nights, the carpark of the tiny church is packed with locals who have come to eat there, and I can see why. Tonight, I had a galette with half a dozen enormous, fresh scallops in homemade sauce, a half bottle of good Provencal rose, and a salted caramel crepe (my new love), served up with charm by the son of the owner and all for the princely sum of 15€. We will be back!

Oh, I am also happy to report that my French this trip is so much better than the last time I visited. I can actually have normal conversations (in shops and so on) without having to carefully think everything out and translate it all in my head first. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A little touch of Harry in the night

Today, I fulfilled a long-held desire and went to a play at Shakespeare's Globe in Bankside. And what a play it was. Henry V, performed with such verve and wit that it was impossible not to be charmed. I had one of the 'noble' seats in the front row of the first floor gallery (looking down on the 'groundlings'), and it was a perfect perch, close enough to the stage to be fully absorbed into the world of the drama. The cast made great use of the theatre set-up, with lots of interacting with the crowd and comings and goings through the audience, and it was wonderful to have the music played live on authentic instruments. I'm not sure if it was the authenticity of the theatre (right down to the oak bench seats and open sky above), the quality of the performers, or the traditional interpretation (no WWI costumes or other unnecessary twists), but it seemed much more immediate and alive than any previous Shakespeare play I've seen performed live. Apart from the lack of rotten fruit being thrown and whores plying their trade in the darker corners of the pit (or if they were, I didn't see them), it was probably quite similar (if a lot less stinky) to seeing the play as  it was first staged in 1599.

There was an extra connection for me with the play's subject matter, as I'd spent that very morning at the British Library reading documents relating to Henry V's campaigns in France. One of the texts was a letter dated 1419 from the mayor of Bordeaux, pleading for the king to send more money to pay for defence in Guyenne, Henry's focus (and money) being at that time largely focused on Normandy and the north of France. The English letters regularly refer to the French Dauphin as the 'Dolphin', which always cracks me up. It seems that the history deliberate mispronunciation of French words and names is a long one!

After the performance, I went for a walk along Bankside and through Southwark, which is an interesting mix or somewhat-seedy 17th-19th century buildings that bear witness to the area's shipping and merchant past, and brash glassed monuments to the finance industry. There are some lovely old pubs in the area, like The Anchor (built in 1615), but unfortunately most of them seem to be run by the same big chain and offer exactly the same menu of 'classic' pub grub (i.e. fish and chips or pie and mash). Instead, I found a nice little restaurant right on the waterfront and dined on pissaldiere with reblochon cheese while looking out over London Bridge and the Tower (I'm batting 5 for 5 on choosing good restaurants completely at random). As the sun went down, I raised a glass to the ghost of Sir Simon Burley and all those many others like him, 'beheaded next the wall on Tower hill'.

Friday, June 15, 2012

In which I visit the British Library

So, today's adventures in archive-land involved my first visit to the British Library, which is much bigger and plusher than I was expecting. In my head, I'd imagined something along the lines of your basic university library writ large, and given the generally parlous state of funding for enterprises such as archives, museums and libraries, I also expected it would be a bit down-at-heel in the old design department. So I was pleasantly surprised at its 5 floors of glass and marble, recessed lighting, and finely curved staircases. In the reading rooms, the desks and chairs resemble something out of the business centre in an up-market hotel. The best bit, though, is the massive multistory atrium tower of bound manuscripts in a great cube of glass. (I'm not sure if these are purely for show or if this is part of the storage, but all the different coloured leather bindings and gold lettering make quite an impression. Talk about the bookcase of my dreams!)

Anyway, after jumping through the several hoops required to get a Reader's card, I repaired to the Manuscript room and spent the day with a couple of manuscripts from the 15thC (one of which was originally copied for Sir John Paston). They were written in a mixture of English and French /Anglo-Norman, so I was expecting to have to do some work deciphering them, but I had more trouble with the tiny script than with the actual language. Parts of one of them looked like some mad spiders had gotten loose in an inkpot. It took me a while to get my 'eye' in, and clearly, I need a lot more practice reading handwriting! It's odd, but I realised that I very rarely see handwritten text these days (even my own), because pretty much everything is done on computers. For about the first hour, I was freaking out a bit thinking I wouldn't be able to read a damned thing, even of the English texts, but it got better as I went along. And I do enjoy seeing all those marginal notations and doodles from various readers over the centuries ( if you did that now, I believe the BL staff would take you out and pillory you). There is also something very human and tangible about the way the handwriting goes in cycles, from being very neat at the start of a section to getting progressively rattier a few pages in. I can just imagine that the scribe getting a bit fed up towards the end of his working day and letting things go just a bit.

I'm writing this while I'm having dinner (at a classic pub called The Duke in the lovely old town of Richmond) and one of the many benefits of overseas travel just occurred to me as I was reading the menu. That is, at home we take great pride in 'our' wine industry, which is all well and good, but when you eat out, you rarely see many wines from other countries onthe winelist. And when you do, the most common import is Australian (and the odd Chilean wine, but usually of the cheap-and-cheerful rustic red variety). Tonight, my wine options included varieties from all over Europe, South Africa, South America, and even a cab sav from Lebanon (there was also the obligatory New Zealand sauvignon blanc, just to make me feel at home).

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Into the archives

Today, finally, I got my hands dirty* on some original documents and started to feel like a 'real' historian. It was my first day in the UK National Archives, and today's work involved looking at some miscellaneous 14th and early 15th century records from the Courts of Chivalry and Admiralty, and some other docs relating to treason cases under Richard II and Henry IV. I admit that as I was about to enter the 'holy of holies' (the second floor reading room, where they provide all the pre-17th century stuff), I got just a little bit emotional. I guess students of history in places like the UK and Europe probably get a bit blase about having easy access to all this material. (Case in point: I arrived this morning at the same time as a bus-load of school kids.) But for we antipodeans, who have no indigenous written records older than about 18-something, it is pretty special to see and touch something written by someone living 600-odd years ago. The problem is, much of the material I'm looking at exists in piecemeal form. That is, a 'file' may contain numerous separate papers and documents, some of them only tiny slips of parchment maybe two or three inches wide. There may be 20 or 30 such pieces in a file, of which only one little slip is of interest to me. But I cannot resist the temptation to look at all the others! Uh oh. I'm sitting in a pub looking out on Kew Green as I'm writing this, and some caravans have started parking up for a fair this coming weekend. One of them carries a large sign saying 'Victorian Fun Fair'. What does this mean? Clowns?! (nooooo! Clowns = creepy enough, but add Victorian underworld nastiness to the mix and I won't sleep for a week.) Or, could it be that great Victorian family entertainment, the freak show?  * My hands were not literally dirty. That would have invoked the ire of the blue-coats (security peeps. They have to wear these kind-of-naff bright blue blazers that make them all look like school prefects.)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Coming soon...traveller's tales

So, it's been a while since I wrote anything on here, completing my MA thesis last year having just about sucked all the writing will out of me by the end. But, as I'm staring down the barrel of a 6-week trip to France and England, it seems like this might be the easiest way to keep a bit of a travel and research journal (and, periodically, let my peeps know I'm still alive). The doctoral research is in its (very) early stages but it progresses. I've been working with printed and digital/online sources so far (chronicles, the digitised Parliament Rolls etc.), so I am very much looking forward to getting my hands on some genuine smelly old archival documents. Time will be spent at the National Archives in London and the British Library, though I will also be enjoying the summer weather (hopefully). I'm planning a day out to visit Hampton Court and, Shakespeare geek that I am, I've also got a ticket to a performance at the Globe. By eerie coincidence, they are doing 'Henry V' (very relevant for my research, which is, broadly speaking, on 14-15thC Anglo-French political culture). Then, I'll be off to stay with friends in a small village on the Breton coast for a couple of weeks (getting my fix of Frenchness) before a week in York and then on to the International Medieval Congress at Leeds. I'll be delivering a paper there and, no doubt, be totally overwhelmed by the size and scale of the thing (the conference, not my paper).

For friends and family, I'll be posting updates (and hopefully photos, if I can get my iPad to cooperate) as I travel, so don't be disappointed if you don't get any postcards! (They're in the post, I swear...)

A bientôt !