Dwight Peck's personal website

Kristin's visit: Southwest of France 2009

Maddening months at work, trying to migrate a very large Web site to a different technology, and no end in sight. It's time to take a break and, as luck would have it, Kristin's coming for a visit. We'll go to France for a while.

St Céré and the Château de Montal

You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

We've been all round the houses in the Lot district of the upper Dordogne region, searching out a suitable refuge for a few days, and now we've found it. St Céré is a lovely medieval town on the banks of the "babbling" Bave, which flows into the Dordogne not far from here. This is the Hôtel Victor Hugo on the riverside -- they were full up when we hit town and passed us off to the Hotel du Touring, a functional, clean place overlooking the Place de la République, for our first night there, but we got a running start in the Victor Hugo's restaurant right from the beginning.

An excellent menu, and we can't wait to get started on it. We'll have a walk around town first. Our host and head waiter has an excellent manner of satirical obsequiousness that's unnerving for a second until you catch the twinkling eye.

- I'm thinking of having the [A]. "That's an excellent choice, exactly the choice I would have recommended to you." - But I was also thinking of having the [B]. "An even more excellent choice. I tell you that because I don't want to lie to you."

- Is there parking here? "Yes, of course, a private garage completely at your disposal, only four euros." - Can't I just park on the street outside? "Yes, of course, that's exactly what I would recommend to you. I tell you that because I want to be completely honest with you."

Outside the Victor Hugo, the mighty 'Bave', which apparently refers to its babbling-brooky sort of sound. The Victor Hugo is on the avenue des Maquis -- St Céré was a major centre for the Resistance and proud of it.

The Château de St Laurent les Tours looming over the town, two keeps from the 12th and 14th/15th centuries, owned by the Turennes, the regional powerhouse for much of the medieval period. The artist Jean Lurçat fought with the Resistance here and operated a secret radio out of the fortress -- after the war, he bought the place and it now serves as a respected museum of his work.

Now for a walk around the old town. When you're passing through the Place de la République, don't fail to stop in at the Coeur de ferme -- a shop, and in summer a mini-restaurant out front, that specializes in the specialties. "Tous vos produits du terroir d'origine paysanne dont notre propre charcuterie, foie gras, confiture, miel, pain paysan, paniers pique-nique." Excellent people, food to die for. And perhaps to die from, if you overdo it.

There's an amazing collection of big half-timbered houses built by rich merchants in the 15th century . . .

. . . many with a fine view of the St Laurent towers up the hill. This is the Place du Mercadial, the old market square, one of the finest in the country.

Always with the towers looming.

The Maison des Consuls, evidently the old town hall

The Maison Arnaud, with its ground-floor only three metres wide

Also a decorative fountain. (Actually, I'm not sure that that's a fountain at all. I should have paid more attention.)

Back across the square, phony fountain included

Back streets. We got behind a tour group in wheelchairs and slipped off down the alley.

Jean Lurçat's tower watches over everything. I'd never heard of Lurçat (1892-1966), but he was evidently a well respected surrealist in many media, most especially in tapestries. He's credited with saving the tapestry industry of Aubusson and other traditions which had become shadows of their former innovative glories. His Song of the World tapestry, portraying "our inherent power for both good and evil", is 80 metres long.

Modern life sometimes intrudes. Like the need for sewage treatment.

Ste-Spérie's church. In its heyday, pilgrims came to St Céré to venerate the relics and what not -- she was allegedly the daughter of the 8th century lord of St Laurent des Tours, raised as a pious young thing, who (in 780, or in 794, never mind) refused to marry a local nobleman (who may or may not have been a "pagan") as ordered, and was beheaded by her brother and buried on the riverbank. Her brother presumably felt he'd done the right thing, they nearly always do. One story tells us that having been beheaded, she picked up her head and tidied it up a bit before expiring; don't say you saw that here. There's a Carolingian crypt in the church, and Spérie's said to be in it.

Once the miracles started coming in pretty regularly, a chapel was built on the spot and the town began to accumulate all round it. The rest is history. The church took a terrible beating during the Wars of Religion and doesn't seem particularly distinguished in itself.

The houses along the north side of the river, however, do look exceptional.

All right with the looming towers of St Laurent, give it a rest.

As the dinner gong rings out, we're striding briskly back upriver towards the Hotel Victor Hugo.

Back to the hotel, just in time for dinner. "The culinary delights prepared by the wonderfully moustachioed Jean-Luc will have you pleading for more." -- from the hotel's Web site. We didn't meet Jean-Luc himself, to compliment him on his moustaches, but the dinners were fine, especially on the shaded terrace off to the right.

Château de Montal

The Château de Montal, just a few kilometres down the road from St Céré. What a sad story! Jeanne de Balzac d'Entraygues was the daughter of the French governor of Pisa, vastly enamored of the Italian Renaissance, married to Amaury de Montal who, oops, died.

She decided to turn the venerable Montal family digs into a model of the Italian Renaissance residence, and in 1523 she set about a massive renovation, all to impress her eldest son, evidently, who was also serving in the Italian wars.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to intrude."

This nasty piece of work is adjacent to a window where, allegedly, Jeanne de Balzac sat long hours watching for her son's return. The decoration shows a knight holding up a scroll that reads "Plus d'espoir". No more hope.

The son was killed, too, and Mme Jeanne lost heart in the project. Nonetheless the house now stands as a wonderful model of the big Renaissance style house in France, and it stayed in the Montal family until the Revolution.

-- Knock it off. We're in public.

In the late 19th century, a Mr Macaire bought the place and, in the grand merger/acquisitions tradition, set about stripping off its assets for a quick return on his investment. Statues, furniture, art works, bricks, pots and pans -- all went under the gavel, somewhat like Mr Zell buying the Chicago Tribune and L.A. Times by using their own pension plans as future collateral and then paying off his debt by firing everybody to cut costs. Didn't work for Mr Zell, but seems to have worked for Mr Macaire. The place was a sorrowful wreck, until . . .

. . . in 1908 a very different sort of industrialist tycoon, Mr Maurice Fénaille, recoiled in horror at the despoilage, bought the place up, and using old household inventories and recent sales slips traveled the world trying to buy all the good stuff back. Pretty much successfully, too -- it's amazing what you can do when cost is no object. When he donated the whole thing to France in 1913, even the Louvre returned the pieces they'd acquired (the American museums refused, of course, so he had copies made). The wonderful dormers have sadly intertwined carvings of the initials of old Jeanne and her sons, and the courtyard is surmounted by seven realistic busts of Jeanne and her whole family.

St Céré's towers of St Laurent from a different angle for a change.

Gardens below. Just by the bye, the Mona Lisa was hidden here when the Louvre was emptied out in anticipation of the descent of Nazi art lovers into Paris.

We're following the guidebook fairly closely here, there's a lot to see.

Including the top of the staircase which seems to end nowhere. The staff, knowledgeable and helpful, seemed to have no idea why it continued half a story higher with nothing at the end of it. They thought it might have been for the view.

-- Excuse me, where is the ladies'?

-- Oh. Thanks. No, we'll just be on our way. (The Armored Loo.)

The dinner gong rings out again from St Céré, not far off, and we are heeding it.

1. Salers
2. Conques
3. Château d'Anjony
4. Bourdeilles
5. Brantôme & Castles
6. Oradour-sur-Glane
7. Périgueux
8. St Céré, Montal
9. Rocamadour
10. Château de Castelnau
11. Beaulieu
12. Puy-de-Dôme

Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 9 August 2009, 28 August 2013.

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