Feb 282012

The river Loire is the longest river in France and the one that carries the greatest volume of water in the winter floods. It and its main tributaries rise in the central southern highlands known as the Massif Central.

France’s climate is affected by continental influences and it can be remarkably cold in winter, particularly in the Massif. Much of the precipitation carried in off the Bay of Biscay by the prevailing westerlies falls on this area in winter as snow. It can be several metres deep over an area of thousands of square kilometres. When the spring thaw comes the Loire often becomes a raging torrent more than a kilometre wide and several metres deep.

When the thaw has passed the river returns to its benign summer nature of meandering waterways flowing over sandbanks and split by small, low islands. Napolean attempted to tame and canalise this changeable river up to Orleans (the nearest city on the river to Paris) but even he was defeated by its extremes throughout the year.

Nowadays the river is kept in its place by substantial levées – broad  banks built up several metres above the winter flood levels. These substantial constructions carry major roads from which splendid views are obtained of the river and the surrounding countryside.

Over many past millennia the central Loire between Orleans and Angers cut its way down through a low limestone plateau and in many areas the traveller can see the cliffs remaining where the river cut into the soft stone. Here there are many natural and quarried caves. These form ideal storage places for the local wines resulting from the large areas of vines which grow on top of the limestone plateau.

These caves have been put to many other uses, including hiding allied airmen who had been shot down in the last war. The caves also feature in The Eighth Child as the location where the last battle takes place between the hero and the murderer.

The photo shows the remains of the ancient castle at Chinon which is built on an outcrop of the plateau.


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


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.


Feb 062012

About fifteen miles northwest of Dubrovnik is the island of Mljet where part of Dancing with Spies is set. Mljet is claimed to be the ancient island of Melita where St Paul was shipwrecked on his way to Rome to spread the Christian religion to the place which is now its centre. The tradition is that, while sheltering here from a storm, he was bitten by a viper. It is also believed that Odysseus encountered the nymph Callisto here on his travels.

Mljet is claimed to be one of the most beautiful islands in the Mediterranean – in a sea full of beautiful islands. It is a thickly forested island with three saltwater lakes at the northern end which were created when a huge limestone cavern collapsed. The sea has broken through a narrow tidal waterway and flooded the hollows created.

These lakes are surrounded by steep wooded hills which were originally the walls of the cavern. In the larger lake is an islet on which was built a Benedictine monastery, now converted into a hotel. It is here where the love scene and part of the action leading to the climax of Dancing with Spies takes place. It is hard to imagine a more delightful location.

Behind the hotel is a hill covered in small trees and scrub. A path circles the islet climbing to a high spot the other side of the hill. In this location there is a viewpoint on top of a small building which once served as an ossuary where the remains of the monks were secreted (burial was not practical in the rocky soil). It was here that Ralph hid until he was rescued by Caroline.

Mljet’s ancient history claims Odysseus encountered the Nymph Calypso here and St Paul is supposed to have visited the island (then called Melita) and rid the place of venomous creatures.

For modern travellers the romance and secret peace of the island is all that one can ask for.