Mar 262012
 

 Chinon stands on the banks of the River Vienne, the largest tributary of the Loire, about fifteen kilometres from its confluence with that great river. The medieval town is located on the north side of the river, squeezed into a narrow strip of land below the steep hillside on which the castle stands. Now it is bypassed by the D751 which strides across the river on a new bridge a couple of kilometres to the west. But in past times the road used to wind down the hill around the foot of the castle and along the river bank to a point where a small island in the river provided an easy crossing point onto the flat plains to the south.

On top of the hill are the remains of the ancient fortress, setting for a number of important events in France’s history. Now only the remains of the protecting fortified walls and a few other structures are left, the tallest of which is the clock tower above the main gate from which a bell strikes the time every hour of the day and night. There is also what is left of the Cowdray Keep where some of the Templars were lodged after their arrest by Phillipe the Fair on Friday 13th October 1308. They left behind some famous graffiti.

The old town below the castle contains many beautiful medieval houses, some of them half-timbered and some with magnificent circular outside staircases. It is a pleasure to walk round this area, along the narrow streets and passing through the little squares, with the castle looming overhead. This is the setting for the annual Medieval Market about which I shall tell you more in a later blog. It is also the setting for a large part of The Eighth Child.

The hill on which the castle stands is honeycombed with underground caves and passageways. These are now used for the storage of the full wine casks (Chinon produces a famous red wine) and other goods. In recent years the caverns have been put to many other uses including social and sports clubs. There is even a small theatre approached by a wide, sloping passageway from the town. In the last war they were used for hiding escaping allied airmen and various articles of war used by the Résistance. They form an important part of the setting for my novel.

It can be seen that the town and its environs are a romantic location where you can imagine all kinds of things happening, as well as a splendid base from which to plan a touring holiday in the area.

 

Next week I will tell you more about the annual Medieval Marché which takes place in the town every year on the first weekend in August.

 

 

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 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.

 

Jan 292012
 

The southern Yugoslav republic of Montenegro had claimed for some time that the Dubrovnik area should be a part of its territory despite the fact that the population was more than 80% Croatian. They saw the secession of Croatia from the Yugoslav Federation as the excuse to invade. In this they were supported by Serbia who had several brigades of the JNA (the Serbian dominated Yugoslav National Army) in their country.

On 1st October 1991 JNA forces from Montenegro invaded the area south of Dubrovnik as far as Cavtat which is only about six miles from the Old City. In doing so they over-ran the international airport at Cilipi and looted the navigational equipment. A Serbian frigate was patrolling the Kolocep Channel to the north and so Dubrovnik was effectively cut off from the outside world and the rest of Croatia.

In addition to the resident population of the city (approximately 50,000) there were a further 55,000 refugees from other parts of the country crowded into the city with no means of escape. To these could be added a small number ot tourists who had failed to leave before the attack got under way. All these people soon suffered further privations with the cutting off of the fresh food, water and electricity supplies by the invaders who now completely surrounded the landward side of the city.

By 5th October the JNA had occupied the high land around Dubrovnik. Instead of invading the city and engaging in direct combat with the pitifully small defence forces which manned the ancient walls, the army chose to start shelling the Old City. On the first day they succeeded in killing the local poet Milan Milosic.

Despite an international outcry, the attacks continued. The heaviest shelling took place on the 6th December – known as the St Nicholas Day Bombardment – which killed 13 civilians and injured more than 60. By the time the shelling ceased in early 1992 more than 500 buildings in the Old City had been damaged (about two thirds of the total number) and a dozen or so had been totally destroyed. Under the circumstances it was remarkable, and a tribute to the solidity of the ancient buildings, that the human toll of lives wasn’t very much higher.

Some relief was received in November when about 2000 refugees were rescued by sea and a partial ceasefire occurred at the end of December which relieved the city from the worst of the shelling. Croatian forces were able to enter the area in April and the outbreak of the much more serious war in neighbouring Bosnia Herzegovina removed the pressure on Dubrovnik. In July the warring forces agreed to withdraw and allow a United Nations supervisory commission to take over the area. But despite generous donations from around the world it took ten years and cost more than ten million dollars to restore the damage of those few months.

 

Next week I will tell you about the beautiful nearby Island of Mljet which features in Dancing with Spies.

 

Jan 222012
 

Modern Dubrovnik is a substantial city and port. But a lot of the action in Dancing with Spies takes place in the Old Town which is the World Heritage Site and the main place of interest for tourists.

The main entrance to the old part of the city is from the north through the Pile Gate. Emerging from this little fortress which forms part of the city walls into the old town, Onofrio’s Fountain (ancient source of water for the city) is to the right. However the visitor finds their gaze drawn down the length of one of the most remarkable pedestrian streets in the world. The Placa (see photo) is a broad concourse, paved in white marble, which leads right across the city almost to the old harbour. Down either side are grand three-storey buildings with small shop-fronts let into the ground floor. This is the gathering area in the evenings for the local population who stroll up and down, involved in serious discussions or friendly greetings.

To the left of the Placa narrow little streets of steps climb the steep hillside towards the city walls. To the right the streets are a little less narrow and not so steep. At the bottom end of the street it opens out into a square with the church of St Blaise (Dubrovnik’s patron saint) on one side, the Sponza Palace (now a museum) on the other, and the City Hall which contains the theatre in front. Through small gateways the harbour appears, crowded with little boats and the occasional larger tourist excursion vessel.

St John’s fortress dominates the harbour on the sea side and steps can be taken from here onto the city walls. Dubrovnik is one of the few old cities completely surrounded by walls round which the visitors can walk, enjoying the views to the west across the sea to the islands, east inland to the mountains and, as they slowly work their way round the circle of the city, private views down into gardens where children are playing or wives are hanging out washing or old men are sitting, dozing in the sun with their drinks on a small table in front of them. From time to time there are views through windows into the interior of houses, just as Caroline saw her first violence in Dancing with Spies.

The Old Town contains many places worth exploring. The market place is not far from the cathedral. There are cloisters and squares planted with trees where the tired tourist can sit and drink in the shade. Not far away is the forested island of Lokrum which is easily reached by water taxi if a refreshing swim is required. Day tours by water to places up the coast and to other islands can be organised and I will tell you about a very special island called Mljet in a future blog.

 

Next week I will tell you how this sunny paradise was temporarily destroyed in the Yugoslav Civil War.

 

Jan 152012
 

Dubrovnik is now a part of the independent nation of Croatia which is an unusually shaped country. The majority of its land mass consists of productive plains situated in the northern part of the former Yugoslavia and is sandwiched between Hungary and Slovenia to the north and Bosnia-Herzegovina to the south. In the east there is a fairly short border with Serbia.

However Croatia also includes the coastal strip of Dalmatia which takes up most of the coastline of Yugoslavia and includes about eight hundred islands which are the projecting tips of ancient flooded mountain ranges.

Towards the southern end of Dalmatia the city of Dubrovnik stands on a projecting headland (formerly an island linked to the mainland). This part of Croatia is cut off by land from the rest of the country by the short Bosnian coastline. To the south of the city is the only really productive area of coastal plain on this side of the Adriatic and that is also the location of the Dubrovnik international airport.

Its isolation from the rest of the country by the bare, rocky coastal mountain range caused Dubrovnik to be an independent maritime state for much of its history. Indeed there was a period in the middle ages when it competed strongly with Venice. However the city was devastated in 1667 by a serious earthquake and, although it continued to enjoy a type of independence, it never recovered its former importance. Napoleon finally annexed it to his province of Illyria and, at the Treaty of Vienna in 1815, it became a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1919 Croatia and Dalmatia were incorporated into the new nation which became Yugoslavia in 1929.

When Croatia declared independence and seceded from the Yugoslav federation early in 1991 nobody foresaw that any reprisals would be visited on the Dubrovnik area which was strategically unimportant and contained the beautiful ancient city which had been designated a World Heritage Site. The population was overwhelmingly Croatian with only about seven percent being Serbs. It had no effective defence, consisting of just over a thousand troops, police and volunteers armed with just two 3-inch guns supplied by Russia in 1942.

So, when a sudden unprovoked attack was launched on the city by 20,000 JNA forces from Montenegro in early October 1991, the population of Dubrovnik and any visitors left in the city found themselves in a desperate situation.

The photo shows the view from one of the mountain peaks above the city.

I will tell you more about what happened in Dubrovnik next week.

 

Jan 082012
 

My novel Dancing with Spies is set in and around the beautiful city of Dubrovnik (see photo) in 1991. At the start of the novel Dubrovnik is still nominally in Yugoslavia, but it is actually part of the breakaway state of Croatia

The country of Yugoslavia had only existed as an entity since 1919 when it was created by the victorious allies in the peace treaty of Versailles at the end of The Great War (or First World War).

It was cobbled together from the territories confiscated from the former Austro-Hungarian (or Holy Roman) Empire and Turkey and tagged on to Serbia which had been an independent nation since 1878. The new nation consisted of six different states with different ideologies, speaking three different languages, writing in two different alphabets and worshipping in three distinct religions. It didn’t really stand a chance.

It didn’t actually call itself Yugoslavia until 1929 and had hardly settled down to try to build its new identity when the Second World War burst upon it. The country was invaded by the Axis powers and the German Nazis particularly in the north set about exploiting the divisions and suspicions which existed between the different constituent states. They set up a puppet fascist regime in Croatia which was responsible for murdering large numbers of Serbs, Muslims and Jews and other ethnically different Yugoslavs. This greatly increased the tension between the rival groups in the country.

Marshal Josip Tito and his communist partisans, with Russian help, drove out the invaders by early 1945. Under his powerful leadership all opposition to his communist People’s Party was ruthlessly suppressed and for the next 25 years Yugoslavia had the outward appearance of a united federation of states.

However, when Tito died in 1980, no strong leader emerged to replace him. Yugoslavia entered a period of federal government where there was no uniting power. Gradually the constituent states began to take their own course towards independence. The northern states of Slovenia and Croatia developed stronger economies and resented propping up the remainder of the Yugoslav nation.

Meanwhile Slobodan Milosevic had emerged as leader of the Serbians who had the greatest population. His policy of repressing smaller dissident factions in the other states led to open rifts. In June 1991 Slovenia and Croatia declared their intention to secede from the Yugoslav Federation. The attempts of Milosevic to prevent this and to stop other states following their example led to a brutal civil war in which Dubrovnik was one of the first cities to suffer.

 

I will tell you about what happened to Dubrovnik next week.

 

Jan 012012
 

When Bérenger Saunière, parish priest of Rennes-le-Château discovered some ancient documents in a hollow pillar supporting the altar in the village church, one of the documents contained a mysterious reference to a famous artist – Nicolas Poussin.

Poussin lived mainly in France from 1594 to 1665 during the reign of Louis XIV, known as The Sun King. One of his most famous paintings which now hangs in the Louvre in Paris is called Les Bergers d’Arcadie (The Shepherds of Arcady). As you will see from the accompanying photograph it depicts four shepherds in classical dress surrounding a tomb.

Although Arcady is supposed to have been located in classical Greece, the actual setting for this painting is thought to have been close to Rennes-le-Château. In the centre background to the left of the trees behind the tomb is the chateau of Blanchefort, ancestral home of the Blanchefort family which counted prominent Cathars and Templars among its members. On the horizon just to the right of the trees is the village itself – Rennes-le-Château.

Until recently the actual tomb stood just to the north of D613 road leading from Couiza to the village of Arques and one could stand in front of this low stone structure and see the actual view which Poussin painted. Unfortunately the owner of the land has now destroyed the tomb because of the large number of people who invaded his domaine to photograph and even dig around the location. However it is still marked on the IGN map 2347OT as pierre dressée (shaped stone).

The other interesting thing about the painting is that two of the shepherds are indicating the enigmatic message Et in Arcadia Ego (Latin for “And in Arcady I…”) Nobody has been able to authoritatively decipher this incomplete message though there has been much correspondence about it.

However it is recorded that the painting was thought to have been sufficiently important at the time for the Sun King to have purchased it and kept it in his private apartments where nobody but a limited number of his personal staff and special visitors might have seen it.

Why was Poussin painting in the Rennes-le-Château area four hundred years ago? Did his painting have another purpose than to merely tell the story of four shepherds gathered round a tomb? Was he sending a secret message about something which had been found in the area? If so, what was it? So far nobody has unravelled that message.

 

I will continue to tell you about the mysteries of this area later in 2012 when my new novel The Templar Legacy is released. Next week I will start to tell you about Dubrovnik in the former Yugoslavia where Dancing with Spies is set.