Apr 222012
 

To the north of Chinon is a broad swathe of forest, some of it dense and almost primeval. The D751 cuts a diagonal path through the centre of it – a straight undulating road with broad grass verges each side – one of the old roads engineered by Napoleon to enable him to march his armies rapidly round the country.

Chinon Forest wove its way into my imagination the first time I saw it. In places the vegetation is so thick that it is impossible to force a way through it. Many of the trees seem to have stood there for centuries, crammed in close together and grown tall so that they fight their way towards the sun.

The best trees haven’t been felled to build the wooden ships that dominated the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the way that English forests were destroyed. The trees in Chinon Forest have grown old and died, fallen against each other or collapsed on to the ground, become covered in creeper such as great clumps of mistletoe and have gently rotted back into the soil to provide the base for new lesser growth.

In my imagination the forest became the location where the duel with deadly cross-bows would take place between my hero and the villain in The Eighth Child. I suggest that, if you are in the area, you visit the place and see if its atmosphere seeps into your imagination as it did into mine.

 

This is the last blog that I shall do for now about the Chinon area. Next week I am going to pay another visit to Cathar country in the French Pyrenees to update my researches about the region in preparation for the current novel that I am writing and which I think I will call The Treasure House of the Templars. Future blogs will probably return to that mysterious region.

 

 

Apr 162012
 

When viewed from across the River Vienne at nine o’clock in the evening during the Medieval Marché the Old Town of Chinon appears to be heaving with activity. The noise of several bands drifts over the still waters. Floodlights light up the yellow cliffs and castle walls, forming a backdrop to the festivities. And through it all comes the cacophony of sounds made by a lot of people enjoying themselves.

There are no charges on the barriers across the streets into the Old Town this evening. People of all ages and in all forms of dress come and go as they wish. In each of the main squares a different band is playing – here a folk group, up the road a jazz band, in the main square a small orchestra rendering popular classics. And there are discos underground in the caves.

Around the squares people sit at tables in the warm night under the acacia trees. They get up to dance when they wish. In the main square it will be formal waltzes and tangos. In jazz square they are jiving. In the caves it’s all modern gyrations. Everyone can choose where they want to be. Old, black-shawled peasant women watch the dancers and youngsters are trying their skill at the quickstep. The whole town and its visitors have come together to celebrate.

In the warm night air there seems to be no desire to bring the festivities to an end. The music and the dancing and of, course (being France), the eating continue into the small hours. When you get back to your hotel you can fall asleep to the gentle wash of sound from alongside the river.

 

Next week I will tell you about the forest of Chinon where the duel in The Eighth Child takes place.

 

Apr 092012
 

When the parade has melted away (so to speak) it is pleasant to stroll the streets. This has the added benefit of aiding digestion and clearing the head. There is a variety of wares to inspect, many of them produced locally in private homes and workshops. There is also a number of performing players – jugglers, singers, comedians (if you can understand them), acrobats and fire-eaters.

In the narrow streets the midsummer temperatures climb and the atmosphere becomes unbreathable. You can sit in a shady square and listen to a medieval play if your understanding of the language is good enough to follow it. But the best relief is to follow one of the signs pointing to Les Caves. The whole of the great limestone hill beneath the castle is honeycombed with caverns and passageways cut out of the rock when the stone was quarried to build the town centuries ago.

If you follow the signs up one of the narrow lanes leading to the foot of the cliff you will come to an entrance, perhaps twelve feet wide and twenty feet high. Normally it will be shut off from the public by a pair of bolted gates but today the place is open and the lights fixed to the roof are turned on. At first it is a relief to enter into the blessed cool, but soon the sudden drop in temperature will induce shivering, so you will need to carry a light sweater.

The tunnel curves gently upwards for perhaps thirty metres until it enters a large cavern. Along one side is a bar with many barrels of wine behind it. Around the cave are a number of tables, most occupied by a shouting laughing throng. On each table is a dozen or more open bottles. Chinon’s speciality is a light red wine with a fragrant bouquet redolent of raspberries

Wine drunk by a hot body under these cool conditions in the middle of the day appears to be extremely refreshing. But beware! Leaving the cave an hour later, after sampling perhaps half a dozen of the wines on offer, and emerging into the heat of the late afternoon hits you like a sledge hammer. An irregular stagger back to the hotel is necessary to sleep it off and prepare for the evening’s entertainment.

 

Next week I will tell you about what happens during the evening.

 

Apr 012012
 

I first visited Chinon at the beginning of August when the Medieval Marché was taking place. For this event, barricades are erected across the streets leading into the old town and vehicles of any sort are banned after 10 a.m. Entry is normally a couple of euros for pedestrians but it is free for anyone dressed in medieval costume. Long banners are hung in the narrow streets and stalls are erected along the sides selling a wide variety of products – wines, cheeses. fruits, pâtés and other foods prominent among them. Local craftsmen (stone and wood-carvers, blacksmiths, weavers, potters and artists) set up mobile workshops and produce goods to order while the customer watches.

In the squares, stages have been erected where plays are performed, poetry read, classical and jazz music are played, choral and folk singing take place, and semi-sporting events of doubtful origin occur. Groups of people seem to have been invited from all over France to perform – from Brittany, the Pyrenees, Alsace and Provence. Notices are posted in the squares to tell you the timetable. However, being rural France, they are not always reliable.

At noon the Marché proper begins with a parade through the streets. But this is not a carnival of floats as we know them in England. This is France. So the parade consists entirely of groups of people (from three to as many as ten or twelve) wearing fancy dress and carrying great platters of prepared food – cooked poultry and game, pâtés and terrines, cheeses, truffles vegetables – all beautifully presented and decorated. They have been judged for appearance, selection of constituents and, of course, taste. The winners now proudly display their rosettes and awards. With every platter of food some of each group carry bottles of wine, selected by them to perfectly complement the food.

As they pass in procession they hand out samples and top up the glasses of anyone who can catch their eye. If you attend, make sure you are carrying your own glass. Looking round the crowd, we were struck by the many original ways people have discovered of carrying a half-full glass of wine and a plate of food yet at the same time manage to greet friends, shake hands, talk, gesticulate and pinch the plump bottom of a passing medieval wench.

The other thing to remember is to position yourself near the start of the parade because the food and wine levels decline very quickly as the participants progress through the town.

 

Next week I will tell you about what happens after the parade has ended.

 

Mar 042012
 

The Loire Valley is known as the garden of France. It is a green, smiling land of verdant pastures and orchards growing on the rich alluvial soils of the flood plains. On the limestone plateau large areas of vines struggle to obtain the moisture they need to produce their precious fruit. There are also great stretches of woodland, some of it suitable for hunting. In other places the forest is so dense that it is difficult to penetrate. It is in area like this that the duel takes place in The Eighth Child.

In the vineyards the vines have sometimes been found to have tap-roots more than 50 metres (165 feet) long as they fight through the fissured rock in search of water. The visitor to the caves will see roots trailing out of the ceilings even though they are 20/30 metres below the surface of the plateau. It is this battle for moisture which gives the wine its treasured flavour.

Several centuries ago the French royalty and nobility recognised the advantages of owning properties in this favoured area. The result was they acquired estates and built splendid country houses in the region. The high period for this development was the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries. As a result there are about twenty grand chateaux within a hundred kilometre (60 mile) radius of the city of Tours in addition to several dozen minor castles and fortified manor houses.

Many of these lovely buildings have been located on cliff edges above the rivers or in the middle of lakes. The most beautiful is claimed to be Chenonceau which bridges the River Cher on seven arches (see photo). Nearly as fine is Azay-le-Rideau which stands on an island in the River Indre, partly surrounded by a lake formed out of one of the side channels. Ussé chateau, as well as being the fabled setting of the tale of the Sleeping Beauty, has been used as the back-drop for many films and television series (the latest as Camelot in Merlin).

One of the oldest castles is perched above the town of Chinon. The remains which can still be seen were mainly built by Henry Plantagenet who became king of England in 1154. At that time a substantial part of modern France was in English hands. Much was lost by King John (nicknamed ‘lackland’). The Angevin lands, including Chinon, were taken from him in 1214. In 1420 the castle at Chinon was the setting for Joan of Arc’s meeting with the Dauphin Charles VII when the young shepherdess persuaded him to appoint her to lead an army which finally drove the English out of nearly all of France in 1453.

To walk round these ancient buildings is to rub shoulders with history.

 

Next week I will be telling you more about the layout of the medieval town of Chinon.

Feb 192012
 

My novel The Eighth Child is mainly set in the Loire Valley in France, in and around a mythical town called Chalons which is remarkably like the ancient town of Chinon that is actually on the River Vienne a few miles east of its confluence with the Loire. I will tell you more about Chinon in later blogs.

The reason for setting The Eighth Child in the Loire Valley is that parts of this area formed the frontier (if it can truly be called that) between semi-independent Vichy France to the south and Nazi German-occupied Northern and Western France during the years from 1940 to 1942. This is an important strand of the plot.

You will probably know that during the early summer of 1940 the German Panzer divisions swept aside the massive French army which everybody except Hitler had believed to be invincible, entrenched as they were along the Maginot line of fortifications just behind the border. The German army followed that up by driving the British Expeditionary Force back to Dunkirk. The story is well-known of how they escaped with a part of the French army in a near miraculous fashion aboard hundreds of fishing boats, pleasure craft and yachts to the safety of Southern England – a total of a third of a million men spirited from under the German noses.

With most of the remaining one and a half million French soldiers captured by the Germans, the majority of the government of France felt they had no alternative but to make peace with the invaders. The terms were humiliating. Less than half of France remained unoccupied (see map – the Vichy state is coloured blue) and even that was only permitted by the Nazis on condition that the Vichy government did as they were told. Nevertheless a number of nations around the world, including the USA and the USSR, recognised the new smaller state and continued to retain diplomatic relations with Vichy.

However within both halves of France there were many men and women who could not accept their government’s collaboration with the Nazi invaders and gradually they began to combine together to form groups which in time came to be known as the Résistance. These heroic people carried out various acts of sabotage and defiance which included sheltering Allied airmen who had been shot down over Northern France and the Benelux countries and helping them to escape.

Such actions earned them, their families and their fellow civilians savage reprisals from their Nazi overlords and many of these are still commemorated in various small French towns, including Chinon. It is one such event that is described in The Eighth Child.

 

Next week I will be telling you more about the Loire Valley.