|The Independent Traveler's Newsletter PAGE THREE|
New Medieval Château . . .
near France's Loire Valley
by Arthur Gillette
heard of, or perhaps even visited, Amboise, Chambord, Chaumont,
Located about a two-hour drive southeast of Paris and much nearer such other monuments as those at Cosne-sur-Loire, Nevers and Bourges, is a work site that is a veritable beehive of activity: potters are potting, carpenters sawing and joining, stone masons shaping, rope makers winding long strands of hemp, basket makers weaving willow, and so on. And yet the site is surprisingly quiet ~ no buzz saws, no pneumatic hammers, no motorized cranes, no trucks. Why? Simply because a major scientific aim of the project is to build a 13th century fortified castle with the tools, materials and techniques of that time, thus solving some enigmas that still baffle scholars. "This is an open-air laboratory", claims a project document.
volunteers and workers use carefully researched and, thus, authentically
The plans for Guédelon were drawn up by no less an expert than Jacques Moulin, France's Chief Historical Monuments Architect, and the progress is closely monitored by archeologists, historians and other specialists.
The task is not easy ~ once hewn, huge beams are taken by horse cart to their assembly points, and to lift stones atop the slowly rising and massive walls and towers human-activated 'squirrel cage' treadmills are used. Yet none of the 50-some workers, including a number of women and complemented during summers by apprentice and journeymen volunteers, seem to complain. Quite the contrary, they are happy ~ indeed it's part of their task ~ to explain their work and methods to the many visitors that swarm over the site. At least some of the paid staff and volunteers occasionally break into Medieval song and strum or blow on period musical instruments. If anyone gets cranky, however, there is a pillory planted in mid-site ~ actually used by tourists to photograph each other.
But the project avoids 'Disneyfication'; "Nothing is virtual here," points out one participant, "everything is as period faithful as we can make it. Guédelon is a living history book." American visitors seem particularly enthusiastic about the 'reality' of the project and appreciate the fact that it is not a theatrical reconstitution.
The educational intent at Guédelon is crystal clear with detailed verbal and written explanations available. Open March through October, the site is visited each year by school groups totaling something like 60,000 pupils, not to forget the 250,000 other people including individuals, family visitors and tourist parties. These figures make Guédelon possibly the most visited historical site in Burgundy. Some 11% of visitors are foreign and 2.6% are English speakers (1.09% Americans and Canadians). They spend an average of three hours on site.
' Harebrained' ?
I said the walls are 'slowly rising'. In fact, the building project began in 1997 and the final stone probably won't be placed before 2022. Seem an over-long time? "Consider that Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris took over a century and a half to build," one volunteer told me, "and that some scholars deem that it isn't really finished yet!"
"How," you may be wondering, "did this project ~ really an adventure, and considered 'harebrained' by some observers at the outset ~ get launched?"
The answer, like the US purchase of Alaska, is one man's folly. The man in question is 60-year-old Michel Guyot, whose autobiography is suitably titled J'ai Rêvé d'un Château (I Dreamt Of A Castle). "As I child, I did dream of horses, castles, dungeons and towers," Guyot recalls. Unlike many children, however, he never abandoned those dreams, and a talent for making dreams come true unifies his multiple passions.
Horses? Guyot became a riding instructor, did his army service in a mounted brigade of hussars and then founded a riding school. Castles, dungeons, towers? Guédelon is at least Guyot's fourth incursion into ancient fortresses, a major one prior to it being the restoration of St. Fargeau Castle – not far away and well worth a visit.
The distinctive trait of Guédelon is that it is not a restoration job, but a castle built from scratch. Here, Guyot could have said "I dreamt up a castle."
Resources were, of course, a major problem at the outset. "Building a castle from nothing, okay, although you have to be a little crazy," he recalls, "but how do you finance such a project?" In 1996, soon after the idea for Guédelon dawned on him, the funding prospects were daunting indeed: ' financial suicide' and 'monstrous frustration' are how he now describes his situation and mood at the time.
That summer, he remembers, "I took my children to visit a shipyard that was building a replica of the 18th century frigate Hermione**, and half-way through the visit I let out a scream of joy, flabbergasting other visitors." The Hermione project was funded by visitors' entry fees, and Guyot decided to adopt the same formula, which turned out to be quite successful. Guédelon construction began the next year.
Another Guyot passion, not dreamt of as a child (probably because they were still in service half a century ago), is collecting steam locomotives.
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Petite Pleasures . . .
Paris by Heart
you enjoy Petite Pleasures ~ little snapshots of Paris
I love Paris with such a passion, it hurts. Last year I lived there for four months, but still I can never get enough. When I'm not in Paris, I ache for the city as if for a lost love.
If I could return once more, I'd jump feet first into all the wonderful places I still want to discover. And, I would also make a personal pilgrimage to my favorite places from chic to charming ~ all that hooked my heart.
First, I would revisit my favorite neighborhood, the Marais. Here the streets follow their ancient circuitous routes and hold a rich collection of museums, galleries, boutiques, bars, cafés and fountains, so that the illogical confusion of the streets makes it illogically joyful to get lost. The Marais is the 16th-century heart of Paris with its elegant hôtels particuliers (mansions). paving stone sidewalks, and, at its center, the rosy brick symmetry of that most elegant square, the Place des Vosges. Despite its noble history, the Marais is edgy, hip and diverse. It is traditional and trendy, gay and straight, old and new. The quarter houses buildings that have borne witness to some of the most important events in French history, yet walk along the rue des Rosiers and you will find not only the ateliers of hot new Japanese designers, you will find a Jewish quarter with Hebrew school, synagogue, kosher butchers and bakeries. One winter evening I was on the rue des Rosiers in a gentle swirl of snowflakes and had the curious feeling I was inside a pretty snow globe, not of Paris, but of Jerusalem.
The Marais holds today the highest concentration of artisans in Europe and so it's here where I meet truly creative people. I would return to Claire Orengo on Place de Thorigny who not only sells elegant velvet and silk fabric but makes all lampshades, diaries, tassels and lingerie bags with it. Claire will make whatever you like ~ she even wraps boxes of fireplace matches in thick plum and black velvet. On rue Ferdinand Duval I would seek out gentle Djossu from Togo who so slowly winds silver thread round and round and, as he says, 'soothes the jewelry' by weaving it with pearls and semi-precious stones and Swarovski crystal which he hand paints. I would return to Celis on rue Vielle du Temple whose proprietor can be seen on any day in the window knitting her finger puppets of more than 100 storybook characters!
Come evening, perhaps I'd walk down to Le Felteu. The word means 'leprechaun' and. like a leprechaun, it's small and quirky. The place is an anomaly in the trendy Marais because it has few tourists but a regular clientele of locals. The red and white check tablecloths, plates on the wall and gruff proprietor say 'rustic' and so do the prices. I'd order the dish I discovered there: endives baked with ham topped with a browned crust of melted cheese. I even like the smoke at Le Felteu, which would outrage me in California. The grey smoke lends a mystery to this tiny time warp and, along with the old Paris regulars, makes me feel I'm in a 1940s French film.
On another day, I'd stroll to the Café Ile des Fous on the Ile St-Louis. This is the friendly café where Patricia La Plante, an American and longtime island resident brings her dog, Evelyn. Bringing a dog to a café is not unusual in France but here the cute waiters babysit the mutt while she runs errands! They spoil Evelyn with bowls of party mix from the bar and table scraps. As for Patricia, she is a Paris institution. Every Sunday evening this Georgia native opens up her apartment to Parisians and visitors alike. For 25 dollars, she whips up a hearty buffet of Southern American and French cuisine and fortifies her guests with French wine. The real draw is each other. The guests are a potpourri of the most fascinating people you're likely to meet in any one place. One evening I chatted with a Brazilian film director, a curator of the Los Angeles County museum, a French novelist, an oil rig engineer from Greenland and a singer from Berkeley ~ all the while enjoying a plate of black eyed peas, fried chicken and salade niçoise.
Perhaps, I'd spend the afternoon in the Latin Quarter taking mint tea at the exuberant Moorish garden of the Grand Mosque, poking around in the used bookstores and saying hello to the delightful Sylvia Beach whom I had met at Shakespeare & Co. Then, just at that time of afternoon when Parisians are seen in the cafés as they say "taking a glass," and when the excitement of being in Paris has made me tired, I'd slip into the 15th-century Cluny Abbey whose thick stone walls house the National Museum of the Middle Ages. I have a friend who says that when she discovered the Middle Ages, she felt she had come home. I understand that, for when I'm at the Cluny I am serene. Medieval art is harmonious and sensuous yet there is a still quality to this art that makes you still before it. Whether it's a rosewood statue of a saint or the exquisite colors of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry, grace and passion are revealed so humble, so human, that it makes this museum for me the most peaceful place in Paris, like a spa for the spirit.
For the rest of my stay, I'd grab my companion, and we'd discover all the things I still want to see such as Bercy Village, St. Denis Cathedral and Les Buttes Chaumont. I would stretch out each sweet moment like taffy and record them all in a notebook to always remember. After all, as the French know and I have learned, the Latin origins of the word 'record' mean 'to take back through the heart'. And that is the only way to remember Paris.
Maxine's book, Places in Time, recounting a