My Burgundy Your Burgundy

History, culture and nature

A short wander around Auxerre

And some random pictures – but this is a town with lots, and lots and lots of medieval houses … great atmosphere.

timber1 timber2

And a fine cathedral, with lots of carvings a little battered around, but still in pretty good condition….

cathedralIncluding a nice ark …

noah

And it lays claim to the fact that Joan of Arc passed through …

joanIt’s a town that likes to commemorate its famous characters, among whom perhaps the most sympathetic is Marie Noel.

marienoelSimilarly commemorated is Cadet Rousselle, a rather less sympathetic figure.

And it has a clocktower in the middle of town, as most cities and towns in this region seem to …

clocktowerThere’s also an excellent independent bookstore just down from the cathedral.

The Roman villa site of Escolives-Saint-Camille

It’s tucked unobtrusively off what’s now the road from Avallon to Auxerre, which was once the Via Agrippa, linking Rome and London (so our guide told us), and doesn’t look much from the outside, but the museum and open site at Escolives-Saint-Camille are well worth a visit (4 euros each – and our guide spoke quite a bit of English).

It was a Roman equivalent of a modern “MacMansion” 4,800 square metres of villa, with a huge (in the third century) private bath complex attached, used as a second home (no graveyard because of that, the guide said, though you have to wonder what happened to the agricultural slaves and the other staff, some of whom must have been permanent.

Most of the villa itself hasn’t been excavated, but the baths have – both the smaller 1st-century ones (which burnt down at the end of the century or so) and the much grander later ones, as well as the smaller women’s baths (where lots of items of jewellery were found) and the lavatory block – with flushing system, i.e. a slave tipping water in some time, with the sewer running off to the river, although at least downstream of the bath intake.

That intake was what no doubt made this a Roman estate agent’s dream – ideal location with its own spring (the source of the Creusot), which was dammed in Roman times for security of supply. The outflow was later used as a mill stream – that building is now the office where you buy your ticket.

The bath boasted all mod cons, including this surviving pane of glass (the like of which I’ve never seen before). It was made on a cylinder then rolled out flat.
glassMany of the discoveries here are arranged in a museum on site – just a tin shed, but with plenty of treasures and details, and quite well labelled … someone is always losing the keys …

keysThe damp nature of parts of the site meant some amazing survivals, including a 6-metre length of quite well-preserved wall painting – imitation marble. There’s also several leather shoes, displayed in the ticket hall.

mosaic

The site, or at least the site a little up the hill, was a Merovingian burial ground – there are half a dozen sarcophagi here (the label suggets it would take two skilled works two days to make one), and more modest burials, like this of an infant which reused Roman roof tiles.

merovigianbabyAmong the grand burials was found this Damascene belt buckle – this might have been only a farming village by this time, but still quite a bit of wealth around.

buckle

Also in the museum is evidence of the long-term occupation of the site – a Neolithic (and quite sophisticated) pot, associated with a burial.

neolithicBut dominating the museum is a huge collection of very fine, and well-preserved stone carvings, from a 6-metre-high collonade, on which there appears to be differing views – either that they are from a religious shrine, or from public baths. Either way, the structures were demolished by the time the large baths were being built, and used merely as scrap stone for the foundation of these private baths. The small guide says this kind of stone re-use was particularly common in the 3rd century, but usually public buildings would be reused for public purposes, not here for private.

The detail is brilliant – here’s a bird eating grapes:

birdeatinggrapesHere a sense of the fine detail…friezeThere are also a number of gods and goddesses in slightly more damaged condition – here’s Rosmerta, Gaullish goddess of fertility and abundance, with her cornucopia. She was often paired with Mercury.

rosmertaAlso here is a memorial to a woman. We don’t know here name, but quite a bit about her – the three layers of her skirt indicates that she was successively a maid, a mother and a grandmother, and the scarf over her shoulder indicates that she was a freed slave.

grandmother

The museum at Nuits-Saint-Georges, near Beaune

In the middle of the wine riches of the Cote d’Or, with fine dining and expensive vintages being pushed from every angle, and the beauties of the vineyards marching across the valleys and slopes, it’s perhaps not surprising that on an August afternoon my companion and I found ourselves the only people in the museum at Nuits-Saint-Georges.

But it is a bit of a pity, for while it isn’t huge, it has an interesting, nicely contained, story to tell about a significant settlement that grew up in the 1st century BC, and largely died at the end of the 4th century AD, although with a continuing smaller presence (known through the cemetery) in the Merovingian period. The collapse was so complete that its ancient name has been lost and the archaeological site, which first came into evidence in the 19th-century is known as Bolards, after the medieval landowner of the region.

It seems that this was very much a trading town, on the northern edge of the Eduen (Adui) territory, on the routes from Besancon to Lyon and Autun to Geneva.

The prosperity was probably modest, but very real, evidenced by the real quite decently carved gravestones that mark the centrepiece of the exhibition, in an historic cellar.

tomb

The gowns and tunics drape really very well, and symbols of their trades, for each figure carries one in each hand – speak of scribes (or perhaps lawyers?) and builders, traders and perhaps priests. There are around 100 recorded from the town’s two cemeteries –  small provincial elite.

besttomb

This is probably the grandest of them – the old man handing over a sack of coins to what may be his son, or might be his wife…

Two are far simpler – were these the poorer citizens with pretensions or those dying at the very start or end of the thriving of this mystery town, when standards were far lower?

simpletombstone

At the centre of the town – and no doubt important to its prosperity – was a giant temple, its precincts covering 3,600 square metres, which was no doubt a centre of pilgrimage. It seems to have hedged its bets – having served a number of deities, including these three Gaulish gods (the one on the right three-faced, wearing a head-dress of deer antlers). While just outside its walls were the first temple to Mithras found in France (they’ve since been many more of course), and another to Cybele.

gaulgods

 

Venus also must have been an object of worship – there’s a lovely collection of small votive statues to her, featuring many different hairstyles: possibly a carver with a sense of adventure, or who was just bored…

venus

The Merovingian section is small but illustrative. There are several burials, which give a very strong sense of the simplified life: one has the essentials, a sword, a beltbuckle (no doubt part of the burial costume), and a small clay offering vessel, like one of these …

merovingianpots

Although for the richer glass was still a possibility…

merovingianglass

Pottery technology had undoubtedly declined, although this article has an interesting discussion of the quality of metalwork in varying periods.

There’s one example here of what I think of a typical sign of the Merovingians – their sarcophagi: simple but impressive. (There are several in the church in Anost.)

merovingiansarcophagus

Two practical notes: the museum is near the pedestrianised centre of town, and not particularly well sign-posted. Probably easiest to park in the free parking in that area and head out on the Dijon road. Look for the signs to the Bibliotheque, which is beside it and rather better highlighted. If you want to see the archaeological site itself, there are guided tours doing the Jours de Patromoine in September.

A short and not entirely successful mushrooming expedition

I was pointed in the right direction – pine trees, not too big but established, on a reasonable slope, and sent to look for ceps.

I didn’t find any of those … but I did find some interesting mushrooms, which with the help of this key I identified with a fair degree of confidence.

The closest thing to an edible mushroom I found was the Peppery Milkcap – described as semi-edible, or otherwise as fairly horrible tasting but it won’t kill you….

peppery  The most interesting thing I found was this leathery-covered, remarkably heavy lump about 5cm in diameter.

truffleCut open, it revealed a very dense, dark, earthy-smelling interior – certainly a truffle, although no idea if an edible one…

trufflecut

Also located were another milkcap that I couldn’t confidently identify … but it turmed an orangey-red on the edges of the gills and the stem when first cut, then brown later.

pepperygills

Also saw what I think is one of the most common mushrooms around here, Lactarius hepaticus, which I don’t think anyone would think was edible, and lots of red, “bruise” blue-green and purple lactariuses – ditto.

Also found a number of eggshells – which looked like they’d hatched chicks – on the floors under the pines – good to know they aren’t an ecological desert!

egg

France’s “new” (really!) medieval castle at Guedelon

The idea of building a new medieval castle, using entirely medieval methods – it’s one of those strokes of initiative that either disappears into a mire of debt, cost-overruns and recriminations, or works out brilliantly.

At Guedelon, 27 years after the project commenced, it’s clear that the latter is the case.

There’s what looks very like a well-on-the-way-to-finished castle (scheduled completion date 2024) …

tower

whole

 

And here’s the final plan…

plan

We can thank, ultimately, King Philippe II of France for this: he standardised designs of castles along these lines around all of his kingdom – Ratilly and Druyes-les-Belles-Fontaines are two surviving examples in this region.

Some facts and figures: the great tower is 28.5 metres tall; the final construction will have 28,000 (all handmade) tiles, the total weight will be about 60,000 tonnes.

But work is still going on every day – here’s some water being hauled up to the masons …

wall

The whole thing feels impressive authentic. There are some modern concessions – everyone wears steel-capped boots (probably hard to justify crushed/amputated toes today) and there are some (cloth-covered) hard hats around, I guess for the stone-lifting, but otherwise the buckets are of wood, the lime is made on site (with the different mixes – for mortar and render) written on the walls to remind the masons.

Oh and there are safety googles – but all the labour is by hand … the rough shaping …

rough

And the final finishing …

smooth

Here’s what must have been some of the early work, above the kitchen door – not sure if the lintel and arch combined as a second thought or just for extra strength – there’s a great hall on top of this…

lintels

And here’s what the kitchen looks like inside: rather taken with the “shelves” slung with ropes, nifty design … and of course there’s a bread oven beside the fire, and a spit for roasting the venison …

kitchen

At the other side of the courtyard (lots of carrying!) is the well – essential in any siege-resistant castle. The chapel is on the floor above (not yet finished).

wellThe quality of the workmanship is quite something to behold – when you actually see these being made in the workshops of the masons you appreciate the skill involved. (And they’re also multilingual – had a good explanation from a mason as to why you use a totally rounded hammer rather than a square one: less energy to swing and less likely to bounce off if you strike slightly awry.)

windowAnd within the castle itself, it looks like there’s not been a nail used – all of the joints are secured with wooden pegs…

And the tools handmade too…

hammer

There are some nails used in the bridge across the moat, but certainly handmade…

nails

jointIncluding what I think is the hammerbeam roof in the great hall…

hammerbeam

And the shingles are handmade…

shingles

The small room off the wall is decorated in traditional style with natural ochres… and very attractive to0…

fresco

fresco2

There’s also the “village”, where traditionally dyeing is under way, chickens are being reared in heavenlike conditions for chickens, and of course the “horsepower” lives…

horse

And the veggies are grown behind a style of fence I’m thinking of trying to copy…

fence

 

In short, an excellent place to spend a day. It now gets 300,000 visitors a year, but they spread out nicely…

 

A walk around La Grande Verriere

A map of this walk

A good place to start this walk is the picnic spot beside the River Mechet, where there’s limited parking, picnic tables, and trout to watch in the river and (in summer) dragonflies and damselflies to watch on the banks. To reach it walk downhill from the Cecile’s (the cafe) with the baker on your right and the church on the left, then turn right past a magnificent kitchen garden, then left immediately after you go over the bridge and contine with the river on your left.

The walk proper starts from the picnic site, and the first part is very simple, just follow the river on the (unmade) road to Senavelle. (Do look out for the forest monsters – not dangerous – on your right.)

monster

After Senavelle, there’s a lovely rest spot with a great view back towards the village ….

rest

But if you can hold on a little further, it gets better. You’ll get to a ruined mill (only really the mill pond and mill race remaining)

oldmillracemillpond

 

In the trees before that I heard a racket in the trees beside the path, and sneaking up saw this red squirrel noisily barrelling around in the canopy. It didn’t really take to my presence – loudly yelling at me a call that sounded very like “go away!” (Taken with a cameraphone – a zoom would have been handy…)

squirrel2

Just beyond a path will take you beside the lovely Etang de Bouton (lake) – although you’re only allowed to go there if you’re a walker or a cyclist …

interdit

But swing instead right at the fork at the mill up the hill, then left at the next fork, which will take you around a large farm.

If you’re lucky, a local will be resident on your left … (definitely some draft horse blood there …)

horse

Continue right on a tarmaced road, and that will take you past the rather grand Chateau Bouton.

It has a lovely old spring below it …

source

The chateau itself…

chateauAnd some fancy outbuildings …

chateaubuildings

Continue straight along the tarmacked (which twists and turns), past Le Grand Verney (which is a few houses), then continue on past the path to Monthelon towards Vourain.

sign3

Just before Vourain, I met this friendly local …

bull

Watch out for some lovely flowers in the hedges along here …

flower

Just after him, if he’s home, there’s a clear if rough fenced dirt road leading off to your right (there’s a handy French “turn right” walkers’ mark on the tree before it). It starts to head uphill (there’s a lot of uphill after this)..

turn

…then there’s a confused four-way intersection at which you want to again follow the walkers’ mark, heading uphill to the right, not to Les Boulets (as the other uphill route is signposted).

You’ll know you’re going the right way when you get to this signpost …

signlast

You’re now going to climb, and climb and climb, frequently at 45 degrees or so, but there is an excuse for a breather about halfway up with a fascinating ruined farm on the left. There’s the farmhouse, now almost totally overgrown …

ruinedfarmAnd an old pear tree, still yielding magnificently …

ruinedfarmpear(There might have been a few less pears on it after I left had there not been a big clump of brambles between me and it …)

On the left as the track starts to level out the map says you’re at Le Cerisiers, and there’s a big grove of trees not seen elsewhere along the route that may well be cherry trees.

Finally you crest the hill and get to a plateau and a rather fascinating field, which looks like it’s been carved out of the pines – a sign perhaps that their march is finally on the turn?

Then you begin your descent into La Grande Verriere – pretty well as steep as the ascent. This is marked as a mountain bike route – I’d imagine Autun hospital is well acquainted with broken collar bones.

On the left are some unusually large, soaring pines, broader spaced than usual and unusually impressive, but also some lovely glades of scrub like this …

forest

Finally you’ll get back to the road, at which you turn left and La Grande Verriere is about 10 minutes away.

I’d recommend at this point an ice-cream at Cecile’s – you’ll have earned it! (The map from the mairie, which I was more or less following, Circuit No 3, says this is 9.5km. Seemed to me a bit longer, but that’s probably age… took me about four hours with lost of dawdling and picture taking, but you could certainly do it in three.)

Saut de Gouloux – history, calm and swimming

Saut de Gouloux in the Morvan National Park is a lovely spot where you could combine ice-cream, swimming, views and quite a bit of history. All in a lovely calm environment that just makes you want to sit with your feet in the water and chill.

What’s not to like?

You can follow the short walk from the carpark (300m, or 800m if you go via the viewpoint) to the “jump”, to go for the literal translation of “Saut” – a lovely, powerful waterfall of about 10m or so in height, formed during the Miocene, when the Alps were being pushed up, when the granite at the top and bottom of the wtaerfall slid against each other.

Below it is now an informal pool for swimming – not huge or deep, but enough to get thoroughly wet in, and to enjoy the “spa” effect of the force of all of that water.

To the side is a romantic-looking ruin, although actually it’s only one of two 19th-century mills that were built to take advantage of the water’s power). You can still see the remains of the mill race and the hole in the wall for the wheel’s axle. One specialised in “turnip oil” the signage said … (Google seems to suggest it still exists, though not very often…)

Just downstream on this Caillot River, it joins the Cure.

The bridge over the Cure River, quite spectacular, is 18th century, and its construction was key to opening up this part of the Morvan – before there was only a footbridge.

Then there’s the romantic story, which runs that in 1396 Lord Montenoison, taking advantage of the absence of the Count of Nevers, went to seek the attention of the beautiful Elvis. He failed, and on returning home found the bridge guarded by soldiers and the river swollen by autumn rains, so he rode upstream to the waterfall, where he set his steed to jump the gap. They made it, almost, but the earth beneath the horse’s gave way. The horse still eventually made it. He didn’t. (This Mr Google doesn’t seem to be able to confirm…)

It’s an ideal spot for a picnic – if you fancied getting away a bit you could follow the Caillot down through the pine forest (very springy underfoot), but there’s also a restaurant here built on stilts above the bridge that does a lovely line in ice-creams. Definitely recomment the “intense cassis sorbet!”

* A useful PDF leaflet in English and French.

An August walk in the Morvan forest

France has 15.5 million hectares of forest, the largest area in Europe. And while this is very much a human-shaped environment, it can be gloriously diverse. (And worth remembering that while the this is 80% forest now, early this century it was 50%, and in Roman times 30% …this has all been shaped and reshaped – and sometimes the traces are visible.

First on the road out of town, a dangerous resting point…

frog

(You do see a lot of squashed frogs on the road, but you never seem to hear them…)

More biodiversity – on this single plant, a dozen insects, several large bees, a couple of beetles, some hoverflies…

flowers

(Didn’t manage to catch them all in one shot, but there’s at least four insects there.)

Flowering in fields of mauve … this heath-like plant amidst recently planted pines.

heather

(There had been lots of blackberries here, but they’d been slashed down.)

And hard to photograph, but I’m pretty sure that at least one wild pig had visited the stream …

boar

The mud was deeply imprinted — something heavy came this way. (And no it wasn’t a cow – you’re a long way from a cow here.)

And a lovely stream, classic Morvan ripples over granite, although hard to photograph in the shade…

stream

The road turns sharply uphill here, through a very old section – stone piled along its side with beech trees growing on top of it. The road is also a stream, and around the spring that is its source there’s a wealth of moss, lichens and ferns – much faded now, but no doubt in winter they’ll be back to full glory….

fern

A bit of a steep climb, but a lovely view from the top – a range of forestry in action

view

Turning across the hill, you’re into fairly young deciduous forest, including this artistic beech…

Then there’s a sudden ecological shift to a mature pine forest – the ground underfoot is extremely springy, and the odd animal burrow seems like it could stay for a long time. In the middle is this nest of rocks – it feels very primeval, like some ancient beast should be sleeping within …

Perhaps it had been chewing at this pine – certainly something that taken out its base, and now it’s half-fallen, trapped in suspension by its still-living fellows…

Then I’m back into beech, and this small piece of human history. Anyone able to date this car? (Admit it’s in a pretty bad way.)

Although it should be possible to find out who once owned it…

This is now old, perhaps centuries-old beech forest, with the characteristically wizen, folded, curved trunks – nature as sculptor….

beech

Beech really is a tenacious tree – when it gets knocked down, it just keeps coming back…

Back across the stream – still trickling gaily, then into more deciduous forest, maybe a couple of decades old and including quite a lot of oak, which may explain the profusion of fungal life.

A very yellow toadstool, pushing up through the pretty tight-packed road surface…

And another large and evily slimy example…

More signs of wildlife – definitely a deer track…

And then to this curious patch of clover in the middle of a pine forest – clearly a spring is dampening the ground, but I’ve never seen anything like it…

Here’s a map tracing this walk.

Google reckons it is about a 6km walk – well-shaded for the most part for a hot day, and it took me about three hours with lots of dawdling to look at things, pick blackberries etc…

The European oppidum – new permanent exhibition at Bibracte Museum

The new top floor exhibition at the Bibracte Museum was installed last year, but I’ve only just caught up with it. It was pretty good before, so I wasn’t expecting a big change, but this truly is a revolutionary approach, a museum that has done the best job I’ve ever seen of trying to truly put the story it has to tell – about this spectacular Celtic and Roman site, which flourished really for little more than 100 years but still produced a big and ever-changing city – in context.

You begin with a fascinating corridor – a north-south (from Rome to Hadrian’s Wall) and east-west topographic section through the Roman empire – it gives a real sense of place, and makes La Manche (the English Channel) look remarkably small.

Then there’s an exploration of the basics of Celtic society – farming, and its associated technologies – particularly wood-working and metal-working. A real effort is make to explain the sophistication and complexity of these – a fascinating display of different woods and their uses. Also really putting things into context, on the wall panels are timelines looking at the very start of farming, what crops emerged where, and the principle advances around the globe (similar approaches are taken to metallurgy and other technologies). This really is history in the round. Included in the display are some wooden shingles from the ditch here at Bibracte – one technology that hasn’t changed much in millennia. Estimates suggest that in Iron Age Europe between 70 and 170 tonnes of gold were mined.

There’s also some curiously moving simple wooden sculptures – probably of ancestors, since the Celts didn’t produce statues of their gods. (As an earlier Bibracte exhibition explained.)

There’s a lot of effort made to correct the long-term impression of the Celts as barbarians roaming a forest dominated by wild beasts. Instead what we have is a picture of a domesticated, heavily farmed land, dotted with small farms – the “barbarism”, as the Romans saw it, came from the lack of cities and large towns, although it is suggested from the third century or so onwards there tended to be a concentration on bigger and bigger farms – the archaeology shows the small farms only last typically a generation or so, but the bigger ones went on for centuries, and tended to keep getting bigger.

There’s quite a detailed exploration of the crops, and the livestock. I was very taken by a diagram showing against each other everything from an aurochs, to a Gallic cow, to Roman cows, to medieval, to modern. Talk about circularity – the Gallic and medieval are much scaled down version, the Roman and modern pretty well back to auroch size.

There’s a clear stepping up of technology through the Iron Age period, probably for a variety of reasons, although all interlinked. Food storage technology improved, particularly with increased use of salt, so salt mining and production (usually along the coasts) advanced, and with it trading. Bad Nauheim in Germany is mentioned as a particularly large site, and described in some detail.

Which brings in another major element of this display – it very much seeks to put Bibracte, and Celtic culture, in a general European context, using examples and making comparisons across the continent. There’s a sense that perhaps this has something to do with the source of the money for much of this – but there also seems a sound foundation for claiming a continental culture that predates Roman conquest and the empire – although as the final section on this floor explains, we don’t, can’t really know much more about Celtic culture than what its physical remains can tell us – the lack of a written language and the loss of the spoken language means most of the meanings and understandings are lost forever (despite the claims of Stonehenge “Druids”.)

As the economy and “consumer society” developed, the exhibition says that gold became increasingly common, and sought-after. The captioning (largely in English as well as French) explains that from the third century gold coins appeared and armies were increasingly paid in gold, encouraging the improvement of mining technology – alluvial gold was panned but there was also serious and quite deep mining of ores.

One things this exhibition does is signpost the visitor to other fascinating sites around Europe – so I discovered Acy-Romance in the Ardennes (with this truly spectacular and actually really informative website). There’s also Zavist, near Prague, and Le Titleberg (PDF) in Luxembourg. The exhibition makes clear that these shared many factors in common, although were always shaped by their individual topography. (And east of the Rhine they tended to have even tougher walls than Bibracte’s impressive array – with a line of large vertical posts fronting the stone wall.)

But it’s real concern is the period of around 100 years when Celtic society made another leap in organisation, from these large “aristocratic” farms (the quote marks because no one knows whether these were indeed an aristocracy, or perhaps just a merchant class – it is noted that some places appeared to be able to collect tolls or taxes from traders, which may account for regular rich hoard finds), from around 100BC, with the sudden appearance, pretty well across Europe of Oppida – fortified hilltop towns of which Bibracte is one of the great examples. These were marked by clearly different areas – spaces for public buildings, areas for workshops and merchants (and its thought industrial production and trade were the raison d’etre of this sudden efflorescence), the rich “suburbs”. Each tribe typically had three or four of these.

An excellent film (with audioguide translation in English – and I’d imagine other languages) explains the lightning development of Bibracte, to be a big, rich urban centre, constantly being redeveloped even over its brief history. The amazing thing is how much it developed from the city of timber to a city of stone after Caesar’s Roman conquest – then how fast it all fell apart once it was decided to establish the new capital at what is now Autun. (Really cause of a “property prices crash” headline.)

The downstairs exhibition at Bibracte remains much as it was before – including the stunningly detailed reconstruction of the furnished interior of a Gaullish house – I see something new every time I look at it, with the addition of a gripping new clothing display, all of women, all from well-attested burials in which enough clothing survived for them to be reconstructed.

This is from Hunsruck in Germany in about 520BC. That we can reconstruct a woman’s clothing from that time is truly a little time machine.

If I’ve one regret about the new Bibracte museum it’s that there doesn’t appear to be a catalogue or book outlining the theories and broad-brush historical explanation that it sets out. If they published it, I’d buy it (in English or French)!

La Grande-Verriere – history and economics

After a guided walk on the weekend, organised by the local commune, and run by a local guide from St Prix who also works at Bibracte, Marie-Paul, I now have a much better idea of the history of La Grande Verriere.

Its Roman name referred to it as a centre of glassmaking. Finds of Celtic coins show there was probably a settlement here, and glassmaking was probably among its commercial activities. (My personal conclusion was that the centre is likely to have been near the ruined “white mill”, on the main, River Mechet, as I noticed when I was walking there how sanding the riverbanks and bed are, which in my experience is rare in the Morvan.)

There was almost certainly a Celtic oppodium on the hill above the village, above the Roches de Glenne, which then became the site of a large medieval chateau, with a commanding view for many miles around. That was destroyed in the 16th century and now only vestiges of the ditch around it survive. It was an important and rich feudal centre – one of its owners was at the head of a Crusade that left from Vezelay (just up the road). He would have taken half of everything the peasants produced – shades of a book I’ve just been reading.

This area was rich and important in Roman, Celtic and medieval times as a trade centre, being roughly equidistant from the Med, the Atlantic and the English Channel. But now, as Marie-Paul wryly noted, its been bypassed by road and rail links, so is very quiet. (Rather to the better for people seeking peace and quiet!)

The area was only about 30% forest in Caesar’s time – it was rich and developed – and probably 50% at the end of the Second World War, with large amounts of arable farming in the remainder. But depopulation, and the march of the pine forests, mean it is now 70-80% forest, with cattle grazing on most of the remainder.

Tha village now has a bar/paper shop, bakery and a cafe/restaurant with attached small shop, but there used to be a lot more. The butcher’s house is just down the “main road” from the hotel – with the workshop out the back where he used to killed and butcher cattle, and just across is the old blacksmith’s shop. It was apparently left with all tools and materials intact, and was completely transferred to the museum at Le Cresuot. There were also at least two hairdressers!

Many of the town houses have outside steps to the upper floor – that was where businesses such as clogmakers would have been based: a reverse of the tradition Asian shophouse.

The church is 19th century and not very exciting, but it stands where there was a 9th-century original.

we walked up to Le Crot-au-Meunier, the second-biggest settlement in the commune, about 3-4km up into the hills – though you can still hear the church bells most of the time. It’s a hamlet of perhaps 150 houses, a lot o fthem holiday homes, though once it had a school of its own. (Probably 100 years ago, certainly more than 80, since I know someone who went from here to La Grande Verriere for school in the 30s/40s.) Looking at plants along the way, including floxglove, which grows in poor soils.

I’d love to know more – if anyone can point me to print or online sources, in English or French, I’d much appreciate it! (There’s quite a lot of useful links here.)

And here’s what the local paper had to say about the day.

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