Tuesday 31 January 2012

La Neige

view from A's study this morning
Right on cue, just as Météo on TF1 predicted, we got snow. It started yesterday afternoon and tailed off during the night. It's not a lot, but enough to make the landscape around us look suitably wintry.

looking towards the end of the barn and woodshed

In the half light early this morning we spied the deer from the bathroom window. Their tracks show that they've come pretty close to the terrace; probably because in places under the trees near the house there is little or no snow at all, which means they can get at the grass.

SE corner of Bruneau's field

The bird feeders are doing a roaring trade and we've had a laugh at Shadow tiptoe-ing along the drive this morning.  Monsieur does not like snow much. Mademoiselle on the other hand seems to love it. She charges along and plays with it in a rather dog-like fashion.

Tinka out taking photos

The last day of January and we've finally got some proper winter weather. In fact the forecast is for pretty cold temperatures all this week with, by the end, possibly even -10C. We might even get a photo of an icicle or two.

Blue tit in a Maple

In the meantime we thought, while the snow is still fresh and pristine, to go out with the camera. Katinka came along to give the benefit of her artistic input.

looking towards the NE

Sunday 29 January 2012


Marcé-sur-Esves church
The sun came out today! Granted it took a little while and today is pretty cold but by just after noon the clouds slowly started to break.

We've been planning to visit La Celle St Avant for while having heard that there were frescos in the 12th century church. However, we wanted a reasonable day, not one of those seemingly endless murky grey days we've been having.

So taking advantage of the emerging sun we sallied forth armed with the camera. Alas for the best laid plans. The church at La Celle St Avant was locked.


We saw a sign along a C road -- little roads always interest us -- to a village called Marcé-sur-Esves, which looked to be vaguely in the direction of home. Marcé turned out to have a lovely 11/12th century little church with a porch. We decided to see if it was open, which it was, and we were given a little treat. Inside instead of the usual, and to our eyes, often poorly executed 19th century stained glass we found very modern windows ablaze with colour from the sun shining in.

The beautiful stained glass windows were designed in 2003 by one Norbet Pagé, who was born in Marcé-sur-Esves but now lives/works in Azay-sur-Cher.

church at the end of the 19th C
The church has a porch, something not seen that often these days. Sadly not an original Gallilee one but a predominantly 17th century affair. It looks as if they rebuilt using mostly extant materials but without especially 'keeping' any Romanesque decoration; although there is the odd trace. According to what we could find out the proch was allegedly constructed to keep the prevailing westerly winds out.

Dedicated to St Martin -- he's everywhere in the Touraine -- the church sports one of the little pewter 'footprints' which shows it is on one of the St Martin trails; long distance walking routes which run from Poitiers to Tours which we've written about before here.

Thursday 26 January 2012

A tale of admin adventures

Moving to any new country brings with it an amount of administrative 'bumph' to get through. Sometimes this proceeds smoothly, sometimes not. Sometimes it can become positively farcical. In any event if you live in France you are well advised to always carry an up to date EDF bill with you -- and I aways do. You never know when it might come in useful to prove you live where you say you live.

Having said that, France isn't the only country obsessed with energy bills. When we moved back to the UK in 2005 we endured a complete and utter farce when trying to open a bank account.

We'd sold our house in Maastricht and agreed to move out at the end of September to dove-tail with our house purchase in the UK. We had had an offer accepted on a house in Suffolk. To speed things up we'd made sure we had a mortgage approved before we even started looking at houses.

I had already started my new job in the UK at the start of August, while Niall was still holding the fort in Maastricht. Needing an account to receive my first salary and having the mortgage already sorted at the Halifax, it seemed natural to turn to them for a current account.

Off I toddled during my lunch break to fill in the paperwork, armed with letter from employers as to salary and a sheaf of other paperwork I thought I might need. It should have been simple. It wasn't.

Do you have a gas or electriticy bill madam to prove where you are living? No I replied and explained that I was in London during the week but tried to get back to Maastricht at the weekends and so was mostly staying in one of those cheap and cheerful hotels as advertised by Lenny Henry.

Sorry madam, no can do came the reply. I was informed that I had to furnish the Halifax with a copy of a utilites bill to prove where I lived. In vain did I re-explain to yet another person who had joined the conversation that we were in the process of moving back and that this was the very reason I couldn't give them what they wanted.  I even flurished the paperwork which indicated that they, the Halifax, were giving us our mortgage! And pointed out to them it was in their own interest, as without a bank account on our part how were they going to receive their first repayment from us? Nothing helped.  The Halifax remained adamant: no bank account; even though they agreed it was a ludicrous situation.

A variety of banks later, who all took exactly the same attitude, I was getting very fed up and not a little desperate. It was a Catch 22 situation and the number of lunch breaks I was wasting was high. Another day, and I tried yet another bank; the list of options was shrinking fast.  This time I nearly fell off my chair when the new accounts person said they were happy to have me as a customer and no, thank you, they did not need a copy of a utility bill. Eureka... finally!

the old one
An early rash of encounters with French officialdom when we first moved here taught us the value of the EDF bill.  Mostly our encounters were smooth but there were some that were a little less so.

Up to this week our most recent brush with French official administration had been obtaining the 'Carte Grise' [French registration] for our car a little over a year ago. That process went well until we came to the point of needing to go to our Préfecture in Tours for the actual document.

Open only in the mornings, the day we went up it was a complete madhouse with zillions of people queuing. We checked later and there was no apparent reason for the hordes; it just 'was'. It took nearly 4 hrs of waiting before we were called to the guichet [counter]. All credit to the staff, they remained friendly and helpful throughout. Eventually, in the middle of the afternoon, we emerged like troglogytes blinking at the light, clutching the temporary registration in dazed triumph. It then took all of 10 mins to have the number plates made up.

However, ever since even the thought of having to brave the Préfecture as caused us both to have an urgent need to lie down in a darkened room.

and the new one
Earlier this month I collated all the paperwork I needed to swap my Dutch driving licence for a French one. Keen to avoid the trauma of going to Tours I went to the Sous-Préfecture in Loches to find out if they could do it. They were happy to submit my application for me but I would still need to go to Tours to pick up my new licence. Sigh...

On Monday I phoned up the Préfecture in Tours to make sure my application was indeed all correct and to confirm that a simple appearance at the guichet with my Dutch licence was now the only remaining thing that was required to exchange it for a French one.

Yesterday, we left at the crack of dawn armed with newspaper, books, water bottles and fruit. In fact everything, short of a comfy chair, you can think of to make a very long wait tolerable.

We got there at 9am. Not even the sniff of a horde!  We didn't even need to take a number and were greeted by a very friendly lady at the guichet. 20 mins later I was the proud owner of a French driving licence. Hurrah!

Sunday 22 January 2012

You're early!

Much has already been discussed this winter regarding the weather, and how last month was one of, if not the warmest, Decembers of all times. Most of the time we've been covered in a blanket of grey: misty grey, cloudy grey, rainy grey but most definitely grey! The season of grisaille ....


Every so often just to remind us of what we're not having, the weather gods have thrown in a day of glorious blue skies and sun. Earlier in the week we even had some frost; not much, just a day or two, but now it's back to grisaille and the warmer than average temperatures.

snowdrops and budding daffs

It has confused our plants. The snowdrops have been in flower for some time. Our daffodils and narcissi have large fat buds and the poor Japanese quince is partly in flower. Last year the daffodils were at this stage in late-ish February.

fat flower buds

It has also confused a very unwelcome visitor - the pine processionary catepillar. We really really do not like these! They can be dangerous for dogs and cats and humans too can be affected. They cause an allergic reaction and Antoinette reacts strongly, we wrote about them here. This year they too have come out too early and we have seen the occasional procession since December. On the plus side is the hope that the more that appear now, and --hopefully-- die, the less will appear when the weather improves and we begin to think about sitting outside.

Japanese quince

Weather wise we wonder what next? A freak snow storm? Or some nice sun? Or more grey...

Tuesday 17 January 2012

L'Abbaye de Fontevraud

The Abbey of Fontevraud was patronised by Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England and it is no coincidence that Plantagenet royals, including Eleanor and Henry were buried there. There was a family connection on both sides. 
nave with the 4 royal effigies
At the urging of his wife, William IX, Duke of Aquitaine, Eleanor's grandfather granted the land in 1100 to the founder, Robert of Abrissel. A reforming preacher, Robert created a new order, that of Fontevraud and founded a religious community dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
looking towards the chancel
It was a double house -- one of both monks and nuns on the same site. Unusually, the charter decreed that the major offices should be held by women. Henry II of England's aunt, Matilda of Anjou was the second abbess. It was a rich order with the royal house of Plantagenet [Angevin] and then later the French royal house of Bourbon being major benefactors.
gothic arched cloisters
The order was dissolved during the French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte turned the complex into a prison, which it remained until 1963. It was then given to the French Ministry of Culture and a long process of restoration began which finished in 2006. Now the complex hosts cultural events.
Renaissance door to chapterhouse
Much of what we see now would not be recognised by Eleanor; rebuilds, destruction during wars and now renovations have all taken their toll.
St Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata, chapterhouse
For a start the church; today an austere white space [and beautiful in its own way] would have been, in Eleanor's time, a riot of colour with painted decorations and frescos adorning the walls.
St Sebastian: 2nd right, 3rd row from top; chapterhouse
Today you can just see faint remnants in the transept. The Chapter house as we see it now is the result of a thorough Renaissance 'make over'. Eleanor might recognise the cookhouse and the chancel in the church but not much else.
mediaeval cookhouse
When we re-visited recently we had the complete complex to ourselves and made good use of the opportunity to take photographs of the art & architecture.

Monday 16 January 2012

Pass it on!

A bit of a kerfuffle here yesterday while we were catching up on blogs we follow. Dropping in on Costa Rica Calling we were touched and not a little surprised to find that Fly who writes it had awarded us the 'Liebster Blog'.

As the recipient of the award you then give it to five other blogs you'd like to highlight. The only restriction is that they should not have more than 200 followers...

Crikey!... When we started we thought we might gain five if we were lucky! We now have 34 followers [we think] and the idea that our blog would/could ever have 200 is slightly mind boggling.  Anyway, we are just pleased that people enjoy the mix of history and art history, as well as French daily life in our area. Katinka of course feels there should be more featuring her! For those of you who remember The Muppets she has distinct Miss Piggy characteristics!

Joining the blogsphere has been a relevation. We've met lovely people who have become friends -- both virtually and in the flesh, and look forward to hopefully meeting more.

It is a privilege to have a window into others' lives, interests and experiences. We are the richer for it!

So here are our five in no particular order:

Fire Byrd :for her superb photography as well as her thoughts

Poems from Cuby :the poetry provides a great frame for the local Cornish countryside and she has excellent taste in music

Days on the Claise :the writers are responsible for getting us into blogging in the first place and always have interesting posts about the Loire area; and good recipes [especially the mulled cider].

Another American in France : daily posts about life in the Cher/Loire valley area. Always great photos and often good foodie things too.

Wishing I were in France :posts from a linguist in Belgium who happens to adore France.

Frosty outside this morning; warm glow inside: Thanks Fly!

P.S. we've also noticed that we've passed 10,000 visits [9:15pm] :-)

Sunday 15 January 2012

The Lady Eleanor

Eleanor marrying the future Louis VII
Anyway you look at it Eleanor of Aquitaine was a pretty impressive lady! At a time when women were seen as chattels of men she trod her own path with determination.

Heiress to, and then ruler in her own right of Aquitaine & Poitou, she married twice -- firstly to the French King Louis VII and then to Henry II of England. She participated in the 2nd Crusade [1145 - 49]. Two of her sons became kings of England: Richard the Lionheart and John Lackland. She also acted as regent for Richard while he was on the 3rd Crusade [1187 -92]. Her husband, Henry II placed her under house arrest for about 15 years for participating in her sons' [failed] rebellion against him.

Chroniclers of the time, even those who disapproved highly of her behaviour, decribe her as a very beautiful woman: tall, fair and blue eyed. Even in old age she continues to be described as such. She certainly was far too assertive for the men of the church:- Bernard of Clairvaux scolded her for her interference in matters of state. Born in either 1122 or 1124 she outlived all but her youngest son John and a daughter, dying in 1204 at 82, a very great age for the time.

By modern standars she had an eventful life; by those of the medieval period it was extraordinary. By rights, at the time, all that a women possessed became the property of her husband upon marriage. Effectively this meant that in Eleanor's case her domains of Aquitaine and Poitou were her husband's to rule.  In practice, during her mariage to Henry II she ruled/administered her domains most of the time; although he did stick his oar in from time to time--mostly with infelicitous results. Aquitaine looked to Eleanor not Henry. These domains were vast and extremely attractive possessions. It is hardly surprizing therefore, that at 15 having recently inherited the Duchy of Aquitaine and become Countess of Poitou she was married to the future King Louis VII of France.

1154: grey= English, pink= Royal French
A quick glance at a map will show that the actual domains pertaining directly to the King of France were but a very small percentage of modern day France. Most of the land was held by others who acknowledged the King of France as their feudal overlord; but effectively these 'princes' ruled their own domains.

Eleanor had two daughters by Louis VII but the marriage wasn't a success. During the 2nd Crusade she very publicly disagreed with Louis regarding military strategy and sided with her uncle Raymond of Antioch who wanted to attack Aleppo. Louis imprisoned her for this opposition and headed off towards Jerusalem. She disagreed with Louis a second time about his intention to sack Damascus and was again imprisoned. The assault on Damascus was a failure and by the time the royal couple left Outremer to sail back to Rome and then travel on to Paris, Eleanor and her husband were on separate boats.

Eleanor and Henry side by side, Fontevraud
After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing to obtain the necessary papal dispensation, the marriage was annulled in 1152. Louis was given custody of their two daughters and Eleanor's lands were returned to her. She headed immediately to Poitiers foiling 2 attempts, one by the Count of Blois and the other by the Count of Nantes, to kidnap her so as to marry her and claim her lands.

Once in Poitiers she wrote to Henry, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy asking him to come and marry her. It certainly wasn't customary for a woman to summon a prospective husband! They were married 8 weeks after her annulment; he was about 9 years her junior.

In 1154 Henry of Anjou became Henry II, King of England and Eleanor a queen for the second time. The marriage was probably stormy; Eleanor was strong willed and Henry II had the notorious Agevin temper which could, in extreme fits, leave him rolling on the floor foaming at the mouth in rage. However she bore him 8 children; the last John, in 1166.

Abbey church at Fontevraud
By this time there were cracks in the relationship caused by Henry's infidelities and then Eleanor's support for her son Henry, the 'Young King' who, aggrieved by his lack of any power, rebelled against his father in March 1173. At the time Eleanor was in Poitiers ruling her domains but left them sometime that spring. She was arrested and taken to King Henry in Rouen. From then until Henry II's death at Chinon in 1189 she was kept in close house arrest in England. She was brought to court each Christmas as a gesture of seasonal goodwill by the King.

The 'Young King' had died of dysentry in 1183 during a second rebellion against his father. This left the second son, Richard to ascend the English throne on Henry II's death. He immediately gave orders for his mother's confinement to be lifted and Eleanor then went on to play a significant role during his reign, 1189 -1199.

tiny Isabelle next to brother-in-law Richard
When she died in 1204, Eleanor was buried at L'Abbeye de Fontevraud beside her husband, Henry II; her son, King Richard I, 'the Lionheart'; and her daughter-in-law Isabella d'Angouleme, wife of her son King John. Their effigies can still be seen, although there are no graves. These were probably despoiled during the French Revolution.

An eventful life by anyone's standards! Alison Wier's, Eleanor of Aquitaine, a Life (1999) is an excellent read if you wish to find out more.

Not far from Chinon Fontevraud, now restored and a cultural centre, is a wonderful place to visit. 

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Let me entertain you

Now that we are well into the bleak month of January and the house has returned to its normal self after Christmas it has occurred to Katinka that she needs to entertain us! 

close encounter with books on music

As regular readers of our blog will know she has always been a bit of a 'tinker' with a nose for anything naughty. Her latest 'thing' is a keen desire to improve her knowledge of things musical. Some of our books on music -- including amongst others, tomes on the likes of John Peel, U2, and Bob Dylan -- line the top of the bookshelves in our living room. It seems that Katinka's New Year's resolution is to become better acquainted with these hardbacks and the musical information contained therein! The fact that it is lovely and warm so close to the ceiling is, of course, of no significance whatsoever.

digesting the info in the Faber Book of Pop

Katinka has even roped Shadow in on this act. He has taken to sleeping on the piano in Niall's study; happily dreaming of bright lights and performing center stage. Sadly, he is not keen on having this registered on camera. She, of course, has no such inhibitions!!

enjoying U2 and Dylan...

Progress is being made, both can now do very creditable impersonations of Stockhausen if we leave the piano lid open. We are awaiting their first recital with interest!!

Friday 6 January 2012

12th Day after Christmas

Adoration of the Magi, folio 52r
Last night was 12th Night, the eve before Epiphany and so traditionally the last night of Christmas revels. A 'Lord of Misrule' would turn the mediaeval order of things upside down and "rule" as master of the revels. He would be of lower standing -- literally inverting the status quo.

In Scotland he was known as the 'Abbot of Unreason' and here in France as the 'Prince des Sots'. Whatever his name the revels were often pretty wild and would have resulted in many a bleary eye and pounding head at services on Epiphany as the cover of the Jethro Tull album 'Minstrel in the Gallery' does a fine job of illustrating! 

The same cannot be said about those who make up the retinues of the three Magi in the illumination from the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry on the left; although they do look to be indulging in quite a bit of chatter!
Minstrel in the Gallery, © Jethro Tull

We always keep our Christmas cards and decorations up until Epiphany so today we have been busy tidying up the house. As sorry as we are to once more pack the decorations away we do like the return to an 'emptier' house. It may feel odd for a day or so but then all 'feels' normal again. We always have a real tree so it has been dispatched to the pile of wood/branches we have designated to be chopped for kindling or chipped for mulch; it will be chipped.

One of the other little traditions we have is we leave our presents out as well -- books being the exception as they are often already being well perused!

Sarah brought us each a beautiful crotchetted scarf as a gift when she came and stayed. One has lovely sage green and beige stripes, the other is in pale blue and taupe. She made them herself. We had a job trying to keep Katinka from sleeping on them! They are made of deliciously soft wool and are nice and fluffy. Mademoiselle took one look and decided that they were obviously meant for her!

scarves from Sarah

Meteo says that it will turn colder so we are looking forward to putting them to good use.
Perhaps today is a taster: blue skies and bright sun, but colder than recently. There was even a slight touch of frost this morning.

Tuesday 3 January 2012

Azay's wild water

white water rafting anyone?
Just before Christmas we paid a visit to Azay-le-Rideau, one of the Loire chateaux, which we've written about before. 

The day we went the weather was pretty gloomy with patches of intermittent rain. I can't remember if it was also as windy as it is today:- although it's nothing like as forceful as when "tempete Joachim" roared through on December 16th. Joachim had also brought lots and lots of rain and even 6 or so days later when we visited Azay-le-Rideau the deluge of water was still clearly affecting the river.

river Indre in spate
We drove through the village down to the river Indre where you can park by the bridge and from the road get a view of the chateau floating in it's lake before heading for the entrance.

There was no 'tranquil lake with mirror like reflections' last month just before Christmas! We were treated to a vista of muddy brown flood water. The normally peaceful Indre, which is diverted to 'moat' the chateau; raged under the bridge in full spate and nearly threatened to swamp a Christmas tree someone had put up next to a sluice gate for the festive season. 

festive tree above the floods

We stood and watched for a few minutes and saw at least 2 small logs go whirling downstream. A far cry from the fluffy clouds reflected in the water round Azay's chateau last August.

All the rain, high water and wind we've had in the last month or so will, no doubt, be giving curators of chateaux like Azay an anxious time.

Sunday 1 January 2012