Across North-East France

Sunday 15th June 2008, Troyes, Haute Marne
We woke to a grey wet world this morning. Since then we have done so many different things, each demanding a new learning curve, that this evening we are suffering cultural exhaustion.

We began with a look at Neufchâteau. Like the weather, the buildings and roof tops were grey and very wet. It is a town like so many others in the French provinces. Once it had wealthy residents and they built large elaborate town houses with ornately decorated facades and elaborate doors and shutters. Since the Revolution however, these beautiful buildings have generally suffered from neglect and look increasingly shabby with peeling paint, broken gutters, moss covered roofs and damaged rendering. France just has too many provincial towns with buildings of merit for the country to ever hope to maintain them all in good condition. At Neufchâteau several have been restored on the main square where there is a statue of Jeanne d'Arc, but the rest just look more dilapidated by contrast.

Wet day in the Place Jeanne d'Arc, Neufchâteau

House on the Place Jeanne d'Arc, Neufchâteau, visited by the Goncourt brothers

We did not linger long. We were heading towards Grand, a large village on the edge of the Lorraine region that had once formed the Roman town of Andesina, dedicated to Apollo Grannus, the god of healing, from whom the town derives its present name. On the way we turned off to drive the few kilometres to the Basilica of Jeanne d'Arc at Domrémy, simply to close the circle. We paused briefly on the very same spot where Modestine had stood last year. After so many miles of travelling since, there was a sense of satisfaction in finding ourselves on familiar ground. The weather last time was exactly the same. There was no need to get out in the rain. It was almost as if we had only just walked out from the basilica. We knew exactly what we would find. It was a most peculiar experience. The only thing that separated the two moments was time.

We drove on for twenty kilometres across a wide wet empty landscape of gently rolling hills with disconsolate white cattle browsing the saturated grass. At Grand we were the only people wanting to visit the Roman remains. These consist of a huge mosaic, probably the largest and most complete in Northern Europe. It is thought to have been constructed in the 3rd century AD. A protective building has been erected over the top with a walkway around so visitors can look down onto it. Around the gallery are finds from site excavations including domestic tools such as needles, spoons, writing implements and even a folding pen knife!

Small section of the mosaic floor, Grand

Folding Roman pocket knife, Grand

Nearby is a huge Roman amphitheatre with an elliptical arena. The ranked seats are all covered in wood for protection and there are stone enclosures along each side of the entrance corridor where the animals would have been held prior to being released into the arena. The rain was pouring continuously as Ian enthusiastically clambered up the various gangways or vomitaria to get photos from inaccessible corners.

Roman amphitheatre, Grand

Personally the town itself seemed more interesting. The Romans were drawn to Grand because of its geological peculiarity. The temple was dedicated to water and its healing powers and the Romans constructed more than eleven kilometres of tunnels to control the flow of the sacred waters. Beneath the town various water courses converge and rise to the surface at over 320 different points! The perpetual subterranean erosion by water has caused the limestone bedrock to subside and the church on the main square is now severely at risk, being shored up at several points. Nearby is one of the fountains where, according to legend, a local shepherdess named Libaire was decapitated by the Romans for refusing to accept their gods. Immediately afterwards she apparently picked up her head and walked across to the well to wash it! She has since become the present day town's patron saint.

We continued westwards across very rural France to Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. This village is famous as the home town of General de Gaulle, Leader of the Free French during the Second World War and later President of France. It is here he wrote several of his military histories and his personal biography and it is here that he was buried in the churchyard at the centre of the village in 1970. (We never did find the second church but presumably the village must have another one.) In accordance with his wishes, there is nothing very remarkable about his grave, but the wall of the cemetery is lined with marble plaques sent from every corner of France and from countless military organisations paying tribute to him as both a military and political figure. On the skyline above the village stands a gigantic cross of Lorraine, a symbol irrevocably linked with De Gaulle. Beside it is his home which is open to the public as a memorial. Around the village it was impossible not to know why it was famous. Plaques with his writings were displayed at strategic points. In shop windows there were facsimiles of his last testament and his call to the people of France to join him in the struggle to free France. Everywhere there were photos of him throughout his life and several souvenir shops patriotically festooned in French flags were selling mugs and plates with his face on them!

Church, with white cross on tomb of De Gaulle in foreground, Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises

Tributes to De Gaulle, Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises

Memorial cross of Lorraine, Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises

Souvenir shop, Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises

Gaullist souvenirs, Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises

We moved on towards Troyes. First though we needed to investigate the Parc Naturel de la Forêt d'Orient. This is a huge area of protected forest and a couple of lakes that have been formed as a flood prevention measure for the Seine. At the heart of the area is the Maison du Parc with displays and exhibitions about the park, the wildlife it supports and the management of the forests with their associated industries. With more time it would have been a fascinating and informative place to linger, particularly with such wet and messy weather outside. However, the French, like the English, make no linguistic concessions to overseas visitors and quite frankly, after struggling to understand the Romans, geology, Christian martyrs, French politics ranging from Pétain to Algeria, as well as driving for much of the day, it was just too much mental effort to concentrate, in French, on biodiversity and the ecological management of woodlands and water supplies.

Lac d'Orient, near Troyes

So here we are on a soggy, busy, expensive campsite with all the usual sanitary peculiarities we now take for granted, on the edge of the city of Troyes. There are now new things to learn about – Chrétien de Troyes and the Arthurian legends for starters. But tomorrow is another day.

Monday 16th June 2008, Sens, Bourgogne
Well you can count yourselves lucky that the museum of the history of Troyes is closed on Mondays. So you are saved us droning on about legends of Mediaeval chivalry and the search for the Holy Grail.

Travelling can be draining. We end the day exhausted and sleep like logs. Since we left Greece we have rarely spent more than a night in any one place and we never know until the evening where we are likely to be spending the night. Modestine is of course unchanging, it is just her surroundings that alter. We are beginning to look forward to a few days back home, simply to catch up on sleep and rest. It will also be good to use a proper bathroom again where the taps and drains work, the loo flushes properly and it is not necessary to share the same facilities with fellow Europeans of both sexes.

Even for us, today has been particularly exhausting. We have visited two historic French towns, both of them of Roman origin and located about fifty kilometres apart: Troyes and Sens. They are both crammed with wonderful buildings and there is a warm familiarity in seeing the mixture of half-timbering and grand Renaissance public buildings that characterise so many towns in northern France.

Today has been pleasantly sunny so we walked into Troyes, through streets lined on both sides with half-timbered mediaeval houses with overhanging upper floors. Our wonder increased as we found street after street of such houses, not as beautifully restored museum pieces, but simply the homes in which the citizens of Troyes are living.

Timber-framed houses, Troyes

Side street near the Cathedral, Troyes

Public well near the Cathedral, Troyes

Side street, Troyes

The cathedral of St Pierre et St Paul stood surrounded by these streets. It loomed above everything else around with its heavy square tower, huge rose window and flamboyant gothic tracery. Inside, the columns were like trunks in a gloomy forest, soaring upwards to form high gothic arches where the perspective of the building changed as you walked down the nave towards the beautiful choir with its original mediaeval stained glass windows. Troyes seems to have survived the bombings of WW2 better than many northern French cities and most of the churches and buildings appear to have remained intact. There was little ornamentation in the cathedral, its beauty coming entirely from its architecture and its mediaeval stained glass. Compared with the soaring magnificence of its gothic arches, the baroque churches of Austria and southern Germany seem round and squat, their beauty coming mainly from the lavish marble and gold decoration.

Cathedral, Troyes

Cathedral interior, Troyes

Cathedral interior, Troyes

14th century stained glass in the Cathedral choir, Troyes

Around the corner stands the Hotel Dieu, the religious hospital of the 16th century with its lavish wrought iron gates.

Hotel Dieu, Troyes

Next we visited the church of Saint Urbain, started by Pope Urban IV who was born in Troyes. The son of a shoemaker whose shop was located on the site of the present church, Jacques Pantaléon became pope in 1261 at the age of 76. In 1262 he began work on a collegiate church dedicated to the martyred pope Urban I but died two years later. The church was many years in construction but the completed building is a marvel of slender delicate Gothic tracery. Inside are several small sixteenth century polychrome statues of saints, but this church is best admired from outside.

Church of St. Urbain, Troyes

Church of St. Urbain, Troyes

On the main square, opposite the Hotel de Ville, we stopped for a coffee and croissant in the sunshine. No sooner were we settled than a police car drove through the square with its lights flashing, followed by motor cycle police and an almighty cacophony of horns as an entire cavalcade of French haulage drivers in their cabs descended on the mayor. They were protesting, in the noisiest possible manner, about the recent rapid increases in fuel costs. Imagine fifty trucks drawn up outside the town hall, each with an angry lorry driver's thumb pressed firmly on the horn! So much for our relaxing coffee! The French unions really do know how to get themselves organised. In England we whinge and moan but here they actually do something. Usually too, it works. It is difficult to know what the French government can do though. The world price of oil is rising and France is getting off lightly compared to other countries we have been passing through recently. Diesel is cheaper in France than anywhere else in Europe we have visited, almost certainly because of previous successes by the lorry drivers. It costs around 1.43 euros per litre in France compared to 1.56 euros in Germany. We will probably find it even dearer when we get back to England.

Hotel de Ville, Troyes

French lorry drivers protesting, Troyes

Increasingly rare post-war sign, seen on the wall of the Bourse, Troyes

As our stroll around Troyes continued we discovered our first ever half-timbered synagogue!

Synagogue, Troyes

We had not enjoyed last night's campsite, so rather than spend the entire day in Troyes and pass another night there, we drove on towards Sens, across an undulating landscape of mainly arable crops, passing through small, unremarkable villages spread along the roadside.

Sens lies at the confluence of the rivers Yonne and Vannes about seventy miles to the south east of Paris. Parking on the edge of the town we walked in, to discover it was market day and the streets were crowded with shoppers. Sens is less spectacular than Troyes but is also very pleasant with streets of timber-framed houses spreading out around the cathedral. Here, as in Troyes, the cathedral is a magnificent grey stone structure of soaring, flamboyant gothic. It has beautiful tracery in the stained-glass rose window. Much of the rest of the building was swathed in plastic as it undergoes cleaning and restoration.

Rose window of the Cathedral, Sens

In a very different style, but delightfully attractive, the Hotel de Ville, completed in 1906, is an excellent example of neo-renaissance pomp and circumstance. Around the town we also found examples of buildings in Art Nouveau style.

Hotel de Ville, Sens

Art Nouveau building, Sens

Doorway to a timber-framed house, Sens

On the river Yonne, Sens

At the tourist office we discovered there is a campsite just south of the city. As we have found nothing listed or shown on any of our maps, this came as a pleasant surprise. It turns out to be one of the nicest we have found as we travel home, peaceful, friendly, loads of space and shady trees, perpetual bird song, clean, fairly comfortable facilities (by French standards) and only 12 euros a night. As we've said before, price and quality do not go together when it comes to camping. Without wishing to be unkind, it is also nice to be with French people while in France, rather than permanently surrounded by Dutch and German campers with huge vehicles, who all want to see inside Modestine, unable to believe it is possible to live comfortably in anything so small.

On the edge of Sens we discovered a Lidl store and called in for Ian to refill his personal tin of peanuts. They had a Greek week promotion with various foods from Greece. It is rather disturbing to see that they are selling the identical tins of giant beans, aubergines and stuffed vine leaves that we have been buying down in the Peleponnese, but at a cheaper price! How can it be possible for products to be transported hundreds of miles and sold more cheaply than in the Greek supermarket round the corner from the factory? It doesn't seem right when salaries here are so much higher than the average salary in Greece, a country that is largely vegetarian by default as people are unable to afford to buy meat very frequently. We really do have cheap food in western Europe.