Published normalement (normally) bi-weekly on Sunday
A grimace of pain settled among the wrinkles on the elderly, white-haired lady’s face as she stooped to adjust the strap on her white sandals. She continued slowly, gripping a younger man’s arm. The open sandals were flat with no cushioning for her feet, and no protection for her toes from the stones on the pathways. What if a torrential rain appeared suddenly, and streams of water rush and gush on the narrow lanes? The sweet lady’s feet would be soaked, and she would need to grip the young man’s arm even closer, or possibly slip in her flimsy sandals. I thought that a good pair of sneakers, or boots, would be perfect for the occasion, but she probably wanted to look her loveliest with pretty, new shoes. Sophia Loren said it best in an old beauty book that I read years ago where she advised that painful shoes are not attractive enough to erase the excruciating look of hurt on the face. Another piece of Ms. Loren’s advice for elderly ladies is to keep covered, not exposing flabby arms and blue-veined legs. Well, she didn’t say the last part which I added for imagery. I will suggest that ladies of certain age keep their feet covered, knowing from personal experience that feet do not age well either. All of the years of wearing the latest toe-pinching fashion are revealed on the feet in ways that are only pretty to a podiatrist’s bank balance. Let’s walk, or hobble on from this subject in whatever state of dress, or shoes, that you prefer.
ABBEY OF FONTENAY
Entering the Abbey of Fontenay, wearing my black Sketchers, blue cotton pants, polka-dot long sleeve shirt and polka-dot hat, I was keeping under cover, following Sophia’s beauty counsel. The classification as a UNESCO World Heritage site was enough to draw us through the doors, but quite honestly I was there primarily for the photography of the ancient cloisters, archways and painted tiles. The play of light and darkness is a photographer’s dream – even for a non-professional. (The intro picture above is my favorite with the man and his dog in the ancient setting.)The Abbey of Fontenay was founded in 1118. The abbey was very wealthy from the twelfth century to the fifteenth century, but it went into decline in the sixteenth century. Sold as a state property in 1790, the abbey was bought in 1820 by Elie de Montgolfier, a descendant of the inventors of the hot-air balloon. In 1906, Edouard Aynard bought the abbey and undertook massive restoration works. The Abbey of Fontenay still belongs to the Aynard family. The first building we entered was the forge (53 meters long) which was built by the monks at the end of the twelfth century. Iron ore was mined on a hill that overlooks the abbey, and thanks to the water power generated by the stream of Fontenay that had been diverted by the monks, the hydraulic hammer activated by the water wheel could work and beat iron. The innovative industrial plant produced bars, tools and other implements that were sold in more or less nearby areas. The Insight Guide says: “The self-sufficient monks had vegetable gardens, a dovecote and trout-filled ponds. Curiously, most manual work seemed to fall to the frères convertis, the lay brethren… Fontenay has no belltower, tympanum or colored glass … The capitals are only decorated with natural foliage, acanthus leaves and aquatic symbols inspired by the marshy setting.”
I thought of tagging along with my daddy to Mr. Boles’ blacksmith shop where metal pieces were crafted for use at my daddy’s woodwork business. The smoky smell and black soot in the forge was the same as the blacksmith’s building which was like an old barn, nothing to compare to the elaborate stone building at the abbey. I liked standing by my daddy, listening to the men laugh at corny jokes and watching the sparks of fire fly into the air. I was allowed to run across the sandy road to see a red-haired friend, Lillian, where we played with hula-hoops and then I asked my daddy to give me money for ice cream at the small community grocery store. Those were good times!
The last scenes of the 1991 movie Cyrano de Bergerac were filmed by a fountain at the abbey. In the romantic twilight, Roxanne cries, “C’est vous …” to Cyrano.” Jim could have cried the same for me, but he knew I was in the gift shop. I found a heavy book that I wanted, but I knew it would tilt the scales on our baggage weight limit. I checked Amazon for “l’armoire de Mamie” when we were home in Alabama, but I didn’t find it. I decided to check again a few days ago, and I found it. I should have the heavy book, filled with wonderful photos of French ambiance within a few days!
Next on our agenda was a chateau which we found closed, but an interesting diversion was across from our parking space. An enterprising lady had antiques and junk, a brocante, in her stone out-buildings. I love these places crammed with fun stuff to rummage through. Jim talked with the lady while I examined everything from old linen to wooden clogs. I finally settled on an old thé (tea) container. The price shown by the canister set with four pieces was three euros per piece. When I didn’t want the whole set, she changed the price to five euros for the one item. Enterprising, indeed! She had two rusty sel (salt) containers, planted with flowering pansies on the barn door, but I forgot to ask about them after I encountered the inflated high price of tea containers. I would have loved the one with blue lettering to pair with the sel container on my kitchen wall. I’m only teasing about the high price, especially since we met in the middle at four euros.
Flavigny has been described as a fairytale setting with a sweet center. But there’s more to this village than a pretty face and a box of candy. Julius Caesar, so it is thought, set up one of his military camps on the hill before defeating the Gallic army at Alesia. In 1590, King Henri IV set up a parliament here to counter hostility in the assembly at Dijon. The guidebook spoke of a recent controversial right-wing order fighting for changes within the religious ranks, but I say: “Take me to the candy store!” The abbey at Flavigny is the only place where the famous Anis de Flavigny sweets are made, and it boasts the Site Remarquable du Goût status. The candies are available in many flavors including cassis and café! If you are there at the right time, which we were not, you can tour and see the process with a culinary tradition which dates back to the time of King Louis IX. (A school group was touring when we were there.) The recipe for this natural product has remained unchanged since the sixteenth century. I was drawn to the ice cream instead of candy, so we sat at a nice table by the window and rested under cover away from the sun.
While I was enjoying my citron sorbet, I noticed an absinthe dispenser with the perforated spoons atop the glasses. I’ve read that the glass is filled with about two fingers of the liquid, and a sugar cube is placed on the perforated spoon. Then water from the tap drips on the sugar cube through the spoon into the glass of absinthe. This concoction is a highly alcoholic (110 to 140 proof) drink which is distilled from wormwood, bitter anise and fennel. Legendary artists and writers believed absinthe induced creativity, leading to heavy consumption in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This explains why the drink was known as the “green fairy” and the “green muse.” Van Gogh was known to drink three liters a day. Advertising posters at the time showed women marveling at the wonders of absinthe saying it cured every problem from indigestion to menstrual cramps. The wormwood used in absinthe contained a substance known as thujone which was believed to have mind-altering properties. France outlawed absinthe in 1915. In 2011, the country lifted the ban, and distilleries have brought a modern day revival. They won’t have me as a customer. I will continue to use a strong glass of Luzianne iced tea to induce creativity. Although, the tag on my last tea bag said it was specially blended for putting your feet up. The charming narrow streets wind past shops and homes with beautiful roses and window boxes overflowing with colorful flowers. The house numbers are matching, designed in black in the same fashion for each home. While I was angling my camera for a shot down the street, I noticed a lady on the balcony on the opposite side of the street. Except, it wasn’t a real person, just a realistic painting of a lady! As we made our way around the village with only a handful of other visitors, we saw other paintings of people from the village on the stone walls.
What a clever idea! Did you know that Flavigny-sur-Ozerain and its vineyards were used as the location for the film “Le Chocolat” in 2000, starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp?
PINK HOUSESLike I said, I was not under the influence of absinthe. However, the owners of these two houses in the photos are apparently very creative. Would you like to live in a pink house covered in pink roses? I know that I would love it, especially if the rosy, dreamlike house is in France! I asked Jim if he would buy a pink house in France for me. He said, “Yes!! Sure, as long as I don’t have to wear matching pink pants and a pink hat.” Do you believe him?We didn’t meet Johnny Depp, but we walked the same streets in our own version of “Le Chocolat” allowing the lure of sweet flavors to have its way with us at our own pace and personality.
In the last blog story I said we would see another UNESCO site and find a village with anise candy. We found the candy and I surprised even Jim with the absinthe history.
Next time, we will travel through golden fields of grain to a beautiful house where we stayed in 2005. Thanks for coming around to travel with us.
You can read more about France, including my solo trip when I walked that steep hill in Vezelay without Jim. Just click over to purchase your copy of “A French Opportunity” in paperback or Kindle. If you prefer you can simply order the book directly from Amazon. Please feel free to share this website with others. Would you like to receive an e-mail notification when each story is posted? Look at the top of the page on the right-hand side for the area to enter your e-mail.
All photography is the property of Debbie Ambrous.