Friday, September 09, 2011

Pierrefonds – 29 August 2011

BBC TV has had several series on Merlin and Prince Arthur as young men, set in a most stunning medieval castle, with amazing turrets etc. When we planned to take a week in France, we checked the Web to see where this castle might be, and discovered it was in Pierrifonds, just north-east of Paris. This seemed a good place for our last night.

We had hoped to pack up our tent after visiting the castle, which helpfully opened at 9.30am. But the grumpy 'dragon' in the camp office was adamant the the 'regulations' did not permit us leaving the tent beyond 10am. So although we would have liked a totally dry tent for our last morning, we had to make do with a nearly dry tent.

The castle is massive, originally built in the 14th century by Louis d'Orleans, it fell into disrepair until Napoleon I bought it and his nephew Napoleon III restored it in the 19th century. So a lot of flamboyant details were added, but the effect is still quite medieval. Somehow the filmmakers have avoided the more modern additions, to give a strictly medieval look.

We enjoyed our dinner beside a lake, overlooking the castle on Sunday night, so returned for a goats cheese salad for lunch, after the castle visit. Then we set of north for Calais, stopping off first at Compiegne. This town was where Joan of Arc was captured in 1430, it also has a palace designed as a summer holiday home for Louis XV and restored by Napoleon I. The town is really beautiful , full of substantial houses.

Close by is a very interesting historical spot, where the Armistice was signed, in a railway carriage on tracks running through a dense forest, at 11:00 on 11 November 1918 to end World War I. The carriage was preserved, with the table and the original chairs used by the various generals when signing the treaty. In 1940, Hitler staged a triumphant ceremony when the French surrendered to him, using the same railway carriage (at that stage a memorial in the forest clearing), sat in General Foch's seat, generally made the French eat humble-pie and took the railway carriage to Germany in triumph! Fortunately things changed five years later, but sadly, the original carriage was mostly destroyed in a fire.
The museum houses an identical carriage from the same railway company, and it is set out as it was when the WWI treaty was signed. The whole museum is very interesting, particularly the stereoscopic pictures they have, of all aspects of WWI. They must have about 50 of these, the quality off the pictures is incredible, and the photographers were not at all squeamish. To see pictures of the soldiers in trenches, medical operations, aeroplane accidents, and bombed villages made the war very real. We found the bombed village scenes very moving, as we had just driven through dozens of villages with their lovely old churches and cute houses; to be faced with such a massive rebuilding task and achieve it so successfully is amazing.

North-east of there is Noyon. This humble town boasts a huge cathedral. This one dates from 1150, but four previous cathedrals stood on this site, and this was where Charlemagne was crowned. The cathedral was a real contrast to our visit to Chartres yesterday. Not at all graceful, simple windows, in fact solid and ugly from the outside, and just plain massive inside.
There were two things of particular interest. A memorial for the allied soldiers in WWI, including a New Zealand Shield. The moving words 'To the memory of one million dead of the British Empire, of whom the greater part rest in France' really made it even more tragic. Behind the cathedral is a unique half timbered library.

From here it was north to Calais, passing by a series WWI War Cemeteries, and attractive villages. We wondered how many of these were in ruins after WWI, as we were driving right through the heart of the Somme battlefields.

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