Monday 23 November 2015

Friendly concert

It's not uncommon for Harmonie wind bands in France to stage joint events, combining two or more Harmonies into a single, multiple-concert event.  They're always a bit competitive, in a friendly way, and our conductor at Ste Suzanne had been polishing us up for the joint event last Sunday with the Harmonie at Chateau Gontier.

The event was at the ex-convent Les Ursulines, a fine building, recently renovated, and featuring an excellent auditorium where we played.  First, Chateau Gontier, then us, then finally the two of us together.

Security was tight as you can imagine.  In fact the concert nearly didn't happen, since the town had decided that only one event per week could be held, and ours would have been the second in a week.   Our conductor persuaded them that Sunday is the first day of the next week, so we went ahead.

I suppose I shouldn't have, but curiosity drove me, before the concert started, to open an unmarked door at the edge of the stage.  I followed a narrow unlit spiral stair to the 1st floor balcony, where some of my colleagues were already installed waiting for Chateau Gontier to start the proceedings.  The door I came through was marked "Interdit au Publique", on the balcony side.

Since I had gone up that way, and it was much shorter, I ignored the sign and went down again when the time came to prepare for our part of the concert.  Missing the bottom two steps, I clattered against the wall at the bottom, then staggered out of the door.  The look of fear then relief on the face of the poor sound engineer was something to behold.

Friday 20 November 2015

Mill for sale near Mayenne

The place here at Le Domaine des Hallais is not small, and needs a fair amount of maintenance and attention.  The guests can also be quite tiring.   Given that we're not getting any younger, we're keeping an eye open for a smaller place to move to, this time for a real retirement.  I'd like to have a water mill, not least for its electricity-generating potential, and today we went to look at one not far from the town of Mayenne.  It's a lovely place, dating from the 15th century, but too big for us.

The mill complex has been split into two parts, and it was a friend of mine who told me that both are currently for sale.  The smaller part is on the market at about €130,000 euro, the bigger one that contains the water wheel, the big house and two large outbuildings, at about €540,000.

I liked the place a lot, and I think that if we had seen it at the time we were looking for Les Hallais, we might well have bought it.   As it is, I think it would suit a younger couple who want to run gîtes, chambres d'hôtes, or B&B, etc.  At current exchange rates, it's up for about £400,000 for the bit with the water wheel.

The buildings with the pink shutters are the outbuildings that were operated as gîtes in the past.  The mill building itself is the yellow one on the left of the right-hand photo.

Tuesday 17 November 2015


I met my friend Lucie at the Ste Suzanne harmonie, where she organised my reception into the group, and ensured I had the necessary support to properly integrate.   She left the band a couple of years after I joined, in a storm of personal and political upheaval.

I remain grateful for her help, and we're still in touch.  We plan to play some duets from time to time, as she settles into a new life, with promotion at work and new partner.  She alerted us to a free concert given by the Harmonie at Laval, and we went along to cop an earful, and to meet her and her new partner.

A good time was had by all, and perhaps she will join the Laval group, and integrate regular harmonie concerts and practices into her schedule.

Monday 16 November 2015

Sunday 15 November 2015


Red and white Fucshias  in full bloom in mid-November.  A bit late in the year for them, I think.  I have Delphiniums in full bloom too, for the second time this year.  Frosts expected the week after next, so it'll be all downhill from then on.

Sunday 8 November 2015

The Arboretum National des Barres

Our last stop on this holiday was Fontainbleau, to visit the chateau, of course, but between Sens and there is the Arboretum National des Barres.    It could even be considered to be on the way, if you don't mind driving two sides of a triangle.  ;)   So, we have an arboretum, they have Maple trees, and it's Autumn.  What's not to like?

There was also a temporary mushroom exhibition at the arboretum.  The thing I don't like about wild mushrooms is that at exhibitions like this one you get descriptive panels saying things like "This mushroom here is delicious, ideal for beef soups and stews.  Not to be confused with this identical-looking one over here, that if you as much as sniff it, will cause a lingering and painful death".  On average about 30 people die in France each year from eating poisonous mushrooms.  That's even more than die in France each year when hunters mistake people for deer or wild boar or some other thing with four legs.  Nah.

Saturday 7 November 2015

Sens cathedral

Moving on from Villeneuf l'Archeveque, we stopped for a flying visit to Sens.  The cathedral there is quite special, being essentially a model for many of the gothic style churches in France.  It's famous for, amongst other things, sheltering the turbulent priest Thomas à Becket for a time, when he had to distance himself from the English king Henry II.

The story of this visit, and of other scenes of religious importance are depicted in some of the fine stained glass windows around the building.  This site shows them better than my photographs, so I'll let you read about it there.

To bring us down to earth, a local brewery has capitalised on this piece of history, and is marketing Becket beer.  I took a photo from the car as we whizzed past.

Friday 6 November 2015

After Troyes

Our next stop after Troyes was Villeneuve l'Archeveque.  The Americans would call it a one-horse town, but I'm not sure I would rate it that highly.  Perhaps a pony, or maybe a badger.  As far as I could tell, nothing much has happened there, except, a bit less than 800 years ago, King Louis IX, known as the Saint Louis, recieved a crown of thorns there.  I'm sure there must be a perfectly sound explanation.

There is, however a rather good hotel/restautant, built into an old mill, and that's where we stayed.  The Auberge des Vieux Moulins Banaux is on the Vanne river, and used to be a mighty mill.  It had two huge independent water wheels, feeding power into two buildings, one each side of the river. The wheels are in ruin, and unlikely to be turning at any time in the near future, unfortunately, but they stand as an impressive statement of the energy to be had.

The descriptive banaux refers to the banalités, which were the laws under which the peasants were expected to get their grain milled at the lord's mill, (and to pay for it).

We tested the marketing of Champagne there, since you could get a glass of sparkling Burgundy white, and a glass of Champagne from the aperatif menu.  They were of similar quality and both refreshing, but the Champagne was twice the price of the Burgundy.

I like water features, so I was enchanted by the place, I took a long, quiet walk upstream as far as I could, disturbing a heron on the way, until a fence blocked my progress, .

The restaurant makes a feature of the mill mechanism, and you can get a feel for the power it handled, from the size of the cogs.  It drove up to 4 millwheels on this one side of the river, but the current owner didn't know if they would all go at once.

Thursday 5 November 2015

You can take the rat out of the mall...

Anita is of Californian extraction and when younger her idea of a way to pass a rainy Saturday was to hang out in the mall.  Outside of Troyes is a couple of big factory outlet shopping malls for clothes.  Difficult to get the scale of the one we visited in this photo, but it was very American in style.  Well, I did get a nice shirt, only 17 euros.  I could have paid a lot more if I had bought a designer one with a posh label.

Wednesday 4 November 2015


Our next two nights were in Troyes.  We arrived in the town towards the end of the day, to stay in a B&B.  The owner explained that he couldn't feed us dinner since the mayor wants all the visitors to eat in the town restaurants.  I noticed the Ferrari under covers in the car port; it belongs to the owner, but he doesn't take it out much because it doesn't negotiate speed bumps.

We dined in an ordinary créperie, where they managed to get two things wrong out of the items we ordered, which I guess is actually quite impressive in its own way.

It was also at Troyes that we had the best meal out of the holiday, in a restaurant called La Table de Francois.  We stumbled upon it while we were looking for a fish restaurant that we had seen the day before.  Good find.

The architecture in the town centre features much timber framing, a building technique that I thought was mostly confined to Normandy.

And the ring road features some strange 3D art.

And of course there is more, including a cinema where we saw "The Martian".  Fine film, and good take on the book, that we have also read.

Monday 2 November 2015

Hacking about

After our stay in Dolancourt we set off to explore the area a little.  We went first to the lakes "Les Grands Lacs de la Forêt d'Orient".  Huge great artificial lakes, used for watersports and to manage the water levels in the Seine that flows nearby.  After a hot, dry summer, they were nearly empty, so not much in the way of waterbourne entertainment.

We trolled on to Bayel where there is a museum of crystal glass blowing.  I discovered on the way out that I shouldn't have taken any photographs, so I'd better not share them with you here.  The crystal blowers were imported from Mourano, Italy, because it was less expensive than buying the crystal from the makers there.  And the Louvre used a lot of crystal.

We followed more of the Route de Champagne down to lunch at Essoyes, where we ignored the Renoir museum and went for the Champagne outlet.   We didn't like the Champagne there - too acid for our taste, although the lady in the shop tolds us that the problem was our lack of experience.

Then, on to the Champagne that we knew we liked, at René Jolly.  They grow their own grapes in a 14 hectare vineyard around Landreville.  After a brief tasting to confirm our opinions we bought some.  Dear reader, don't take my advice on buying Champagne, but on the other hand, do feel free to try this one to see if you like it.  I think the effort will be rewarded.  Don't be put off by their website.

Then we rolled on to Troyes.  "Troyes" is pronounced like the French "trois", so it gives the Google voice recognition software some problems.   At least, it does with my accent......

Sunday 1 November 2015

Moulin du Landion

After our stay in Epernay, we trolled down south to Dolancourt.   We drove there along parts of the Route du Champagne, a tourist route that takes you through pretty scenery and via lots of the smaller Champagne producers.  It's well signposted, and worth the detour if you're in a mood for exploring. As we moved south, it was clear that less and less land was devoted to Champagne grape culture, more towards vegetables and cattle feed.  The valleys sides are less steep and the expanse of clay at the bottom is wider.

We stayed in the Moulin du Landion.  The water wheel wasn't turning, due to a lack of water, and it can't be used for anything useful, but it was interesting to see the mechanism.

It was in the restaurant there that we had a bottle of Champagne from the René Jolly producer.  We had chosen quite disparate dishes, and the wine list identified the René Jolly blanc de noirs as "suitable for accompanying any dish", so we selected that one.  It has a hint of sweetness despite being described as brut, with enough of a fruit flavour to give it some force.  It did, indeed, go reasonably well with everything we chose.  It was more of a stretch for Anita's steak than my fish, but good none the less.  We resolved to visit the producer.

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