21 July 2008

Norman Conquests

At Gaillard, the French proved (yet again)
too clever for the silly English kniggets

As part of the ongoing celebration of my birthday, we took a road trip to Normandy this weekend. Though I think of Normandy as being coastal, northerly, and quite far from Beynes, the region occupies a good deal of the French map, and its southernmost bits are a short drive away, even when one’s vehicle is a sputtering Renault 4L.

We began with a picnic at the Château Gaillard, overlooking the winding Seine near the town of Les Andelys. The weather proved a bit chilly — and very windy — but it’s a fine thing to drink one’s cider in the shadow of a medieval fortress. Fans of The Lion in Winter will want to know that the château was built by Richard the Lion-hearted (Anthony Hopkins) shortly after he’d signed a treaty with the French king, Philip Augustus (Timothy Dalton), in which both agreed not to build any fortresses. Ooops. Richard died before the château was completed, so his brother John (Nigel Terry) was on duty when Philip besieged the place and conquered it.

Not appearing in this film, nor anywhere near Gaillard:
O’Toole as Henri II d’Angleterre, Hepburn as Aliénor d’Aquitaine

Several generations later, Louis XIV’s prime minister, Cardinal Mazarin, ordered the destruction of all the defensive châteaux, since these were proving too handy for French noblemen opposing the consolidation of power in the hands of the monarch. Gaillard, however, is almost laughably vulnerable, the trick being to use the back door. Perhaps that’s why Mazarin permitted the fortress to stand.

Price of admission to the keep is 3 Euros, and you can take a guided tour in French if you’re so inclined. (I did so three years ago.) For an extra Euro, you can buy a combination ticket that affords you access to the Nicolas Poussin museum in Les Andelys, outside which the great French painter was born. We decided to check out the place and were somewhat surprised to learn that the museum contains precisely one work by Poussin. One of his historical epics, Coriolanus Hears the Supplication of His Wife and His Mother depicts a scene known to students of Shakespeare and to those of Roman history, with a full display of Poussin’s muscular classicism and dramatic composition and gestures. Though it’s a very good painting, and there’s a very good Roman mosaic in an adjacent room, the rest of the collections look less like a museum than a thrift store, with bric-a-brac that the locals didn’t have any other use for. One might be disappointed if one had paid full admission — so you are warned.

Worth the trip, if not the admission: Poussin’s Coriolanus
Photograph from the mayor’s office of Les Andelys

As I say, this wasn’t my first trip through this part of the country, but on previous visits, my attempts to get into the Château de La Roche-Guyon failed miserably. I have lost count how many times I’ve arrived, only to find the place closing or closed. Now at last I have succeeded, and it’s quite a remarkable place, consisting of a medieval tower, and a manor house built on the foundations of the medieval keep and updated during the Renaissance and 18th century. The house is full of ghosts, including one scion of the 19th century, a notably handsome youth who watched in horror one night at a party, when his bride’s gown caught fire and she burned to death on the spot. He reacted by becoming a reactionary Catholic, eventually an archbishop, and among the first things he did was to burn all the “heretical” books in his ancestral library. (These likely included tomes belonging to François de la Rochefoucauld, known by legally mandated trademark as “the author of the celebrated Maxims,” in the 17th century.)

La Roche-Guyon: A house divided

Interesting as all the family psychodrama is, the architecture is the real source of fascination. The earliest known château was carved directly into the limestone face of the cliffs lining the Seine. According to Abbot Suger (who knew everything and who invented the cathedral), it was impossible to see the original château from its exterior, obscured by trees and shrubbery, though its interior, he wrote, was “an ample dwelling with a few wretched windows.” Few if any traces of that structure survive, but the tower is reached by a staircase that burrows ever upward. (Dug in 1190, that original staircase is in use again, and I climbed it.) The family burial chapel was likewise hollowed into the cliff, then lined with masonry. Under the Nazi occupation during World War II, Erwin Rommel dug storerooms into the base of the cliff, through the rear wall of the manor house. Modern neighbors of the château have carved their garden sheds and garages out of the limestone, too.

Stone-age gar-ages

Later generations remodeled and added onto the old château, and one gets the impression of something like a mosaic of French architecture, with bits of different epochs placed one next to another. Then there’s the garden, a vast plot that extends to the banks of the Seine.

Atop the tower, I met two older French couples, and we engaged in companionable banter about the steep climb until my accent betrayed me and I was forced to confess that I’m not French. We talked then about the election. All of them were excited about Barack Obama, and looking forward to his visit later this week. The rest of the American presidential campaign puzzled them. “Couldn’t the Republicans find anyone better than this McCain?” one of them asked, while another expressed regret that Hillary Clinton would not be the Democratic nominee. “It would have been historic to see a woman in charge of such an important country,” he said. I reminded him that the French had a similar chance, and squandered it, when Ségolène Royal ran for president last year. “Oh, yes,” he said, “but this is France!” Oddly, I think I know what he meant.

There are thousands of châteaux in France, and over the past several years I have visited scores of them. Bernard has come to despair of my inability to recall each of them in detail, to summon a mental picture whenever one is named, to remember what I wore when we visited. Now that I’ve got a blog, perhaps my memory will improve.