All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Special Delivery

A medieval stonemason at work as shown in a co...Image via Wikipedia

I saw a report which made me laugh...then sigh.

A stonemason in the Rhone Valley took out professional insurance to cover his fledgling business, which cost him an arm and a leg.
He then discovered that other companies charged about half what he was paying and asked his insurers for a reduction.
You can imagine the upshot of that little initiative.
They had his money and they were sticking to it.
In fact, they sent him a bill, just to rub his nose in it.

Somewhat indignant, he bethought himself of what to do about it and inspiration struck.
Taking a large block of stone and the tools of his trade he wrote...or chiselled...a cheque in stone.
Everything legally required was there...names, amounts, order to pay...and he even took a bailiff with him to witness that payment had duly been made.

It can't be often that a bailiff has been asked to accompany a massive block of stone in an ancient van on a journey through the Rhone Valley, but I suppose it made a change from banging on doors demanding to seize the television.

The stonemason, the stone and the bailiff duly arrived....only to find that the insurance company's office had closed one hour earlier than usual.
This being France, clearly someone had denounced him!
Probably the journalist from the local paper whom he had summoned to photograph his arrival.

Disappointed, he asked the bailiff to witness that he had done everything in his power to deliver the cheque...well, short of flinging it through the window which would have resulted in the unwelcome attentions of the police, taking his statement from his hospital bed while he recovered from the hernia operation....and returned home, announcing that if the insurance company wanted their cheque they could come and get it.

Why do I suspect the journalist of being less than sympathetic?
Because he ended his report with the lugubrious statement that the stonemason would probably find that his bank would close down his account...for chiselling their name on the stone without their permission.
I expect he was on the bank doorstep first thing the next morning with a photograph as evidence.

The stonemason appeared to be quite a young chap, or I would have suspected that he had been inspired by A.P. Herbert's tale of the negotiable cow, published in the 1930s....the reported attempt of one Albert Haddock to pay what he regarded as an unjustifiable tax demand by writing a cheque on the backside of a cow of malevolent aspect...not forgetting the then obligatory fiscal stamp attached to one of its' horns.....and delivering the animal to the offices of the Inland Revenue...or the Inland Revenge as a disgruntled friend used to call it.

It is rare for an individual to express indignation in France...they go in for collective action - the solidarity bit - to make it more difficult for the police to pick them off and their employers to discriminate against them, though this relative safety cannot be relied on by bands of youths from the urban high rise estates when the police manage to outnumber them.

Gypsies, 'gens de voyage', 'manouches', call them what you will, are good at collective action, thus proving that they are, as they proudly claim, French and not foreigners.
In the recent events at St. Aignan following the shooting of a manouche by the gendarmerie, a crowd wearing balaclavas managed to take over the town centre, cutting down trees with chainsaws which, as one of them claimed, were lying unattended on the ground and breaking into and robbing the baker's shop!
What happened?
Well, about three of them were taken to court and had their hands slapped. Thus the value of collective action.

I did see one incident of individual action when I had not long moved to France.

It was in the days when banks would have outposts in the villages....usually just a room...which would be open on one or two afternoons a week, as a service to local customers.
Given some of the customers I saw going in there I used to suspect that the banks had these little branches to prevent some of their less salubrious customers from lowering the tone of the branch in town, nattily attired as they tended to be in sagging trousers, vests bearing the signs of their last three meals and torn tartan caps.

Passing the village branch one afternoon on my way to see a friend I was astounded to see that a huge pile of manure had been deposited in the doorway....and that the bank clerk was waving frantically from behind the window.
Now, in a village where the eyes behind the shutters missed nothing, from the priest falling out of his car having drink taken to the unexpected sighting of Madame Machin wearing her Sunday best during the week, the arrival of such an unusual deposit could not have gone unnoticed....but nothing was stirring in the heat of the afternoon except the flies busy working the heap.

I now know that I should have ducked out of sight and continued to my friend's house by the back alley behind the church, but I was relatively new to France and did not know the form.
I approached the window.

'Can you 'phone the town branch for me?'
'Don't you have a 'phone in there?'
'No....the bank don't want the expense.'
'What shall I say?'..........Thinking that if I were the person at the other end of the line when some foreigner called to say that one of their clerks was imprisoned behind a pile of manure I would not tend to take it seriously, putting the whole thing down to a lack of familiarity with the language and an over familiarity with the bottle.
''Tell them Camille says to send Jean-Aymon and his tractor and trailer down here right away.'
'What about the gendarmerie?'
'They don't have a tractor and trailer.'

He gave me the number and I went to the call box by the mairie...shuttered and call his bank.
I told them what he had told me to tell them and there was a sharp intake of breath at the other end and then a pause while someone higher in grade was informed.
A man then came on the line, identified only as Claude, who instructed me to return to Camille with the news that Jean-Aymon had been contacted and would be on his way.

I returned to the window and gave the clerk the news.
Was there anything else I could do?
No, but I would be very welcome to open an account with his bank once he got the door open.

Awarding him full marks for a sang-froid almost British in its' nature, I went on my way to my friend, accompanied by a few hopeful flies keen for a change of diet.

She...and the gaggle drinking coffee and cognac in her kitchen...knew all about it, of course.
Apparently, there had been a falling out between the bank and Monsieur Lacroix, farmer and vigneron.
Unable to come to an agreement, Monsieur Lacroix had closed his bank account and then sent down his workman with a load of manure to close the bank door.
There was general agreement that this was not fair on Camille, who was not responsible for the actions of his superiors and who did not have access to a lavatory and that Monsieur Lacroix should have taken his manure to the town branch, except, of course, that even the local town police could not overlook a steaming heap of the best dumped in the main square,and there would have been unpleasantness.

There may be unpleasantness ahead for the stonemason, however.

Once you have signed a contract with a French insurance company, that contract is automatically renewed unless you cancel it...usually some three months before its' expiry date and by registered letter.
Not that they take much notice.
Eight years after cancelling with one company, their computer still churns out demands for payments and threats of bailiffs every year...that's how I can tell it's October.

I suspect the stonemason will find that he will be renewing the acquaintance of his companion, the bailiff.....when he arrives to bang on the door and seize the television for non-payment of his insurance policy.

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Thursday, 26 August 2010

Now I know why he got rid of the dog...

List of dog breedsImage via Wikipedia

Some time ago, it was reported...and commented upon....that ex-President Chirac was getting rid of his dog, a bichon given him by his grandson, which had apparently turned vicious when deprived of life in the Presidential palace and confined to a luxury apartment in Paris paid for by M. Chirac's foreign friends.
I wondered at the time whatever was going on in the Chirac household, and now we have the answer.

They could not afford to feed it.
No wonder it was taking a grab at the ex-Presidential was hoping for something to eat.

Before Monsieur Chirac became Monsieur le President, he was Monsieur le Maire....Mayor of Paris.
In those palmy days, the municipality of Paris awarded its' maire an allowance of some 3,000 francs - about 375 pounds - a day - to maintain himself and his family above the poverty line.
You can buy quite a bit of dog food with that.

Appreciative of being so well treated, Mr. Chirac spread the goodwill about.
As Mayor, he sought to improve local services by having the council 'employ' some 500 consultants....a number of whom, not unnaturally, belonged to the same political party as the Maire.
Unkind tongues suggested that some of these consultants did very little or nothing for their money.
Which was probably as well since few of them had any qualifications which would fit them for these posts.

If only Edith Cresson - other side of the political divide from Mr. Chirac - had had the sense just to pay her dentist instead of giving him a consultancy job when she was a European Commissioner.....and then getting the poor man to produce a report on something of which it was evident he knew nothing....she might not have had to resign.
Mr. Chirac was more intelligent. His - sorry, the city of Paris' - consultants stayed mum and Mr. Chirac stayed mayor.

Then Mr. Chirac became Monsieur le President and moved into the Elysee Palace, his official residence.
He and his family continued to be maintained above the poverty line, but this time the whole country paid, not just the Parisians.
He could afford to feed the dog his grandson gave him.

Unfortunately, his successor as Mayor of Paris, while being of the same political persuasion as President Chirac, followed the consultancy practices of Madame Cresson.
He asked his consultants...who included his produce something with which to justify their fees.
The results were as one might imagine.
People noticed.
Unkind tongues began to wag again, and investigative magistrates started poking their noses where no self respecting person would poke the end of their walking sticks...into the internal affairs of the city of Paris.
They came to the conclusion that not only had the then maire paid people who produced no benefit whatsoever to the city of Paris but that his predecessor, Mr. Chirac had done so too.

Fictitious employment was the term used.

The maire of Paris found himself in legal hot water.
But not Mr. Chirac.
He was by then, after all, President Chirac, and the President of France has immunity from being hauled before French courts.

Time passed...a young politician called Sarkozy started dating the President's daughter before dumping her for being too dumpy.
Relations became strained between Mr. Chirac and Mr. Sarkozy.

President Chirac finally called it a day and gave his backing to his unelected Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, as the candidate to succeed him in preference to Mr. Sarkozy.
Dirty tricks dogged the Sarkozy campaign, but he became the party's candidate and, in his turn, President.

President Sarkozy took great umbrage at the dirty tricks campaign, and was delighted when it was suggested to investigative magistrates  that Mr. de Villepin had been instrumental in organising some of them  as discussed here.
While it was suggested that Mr.Chirac might have information which would assist Mr. de Villepin, he was not called upon to testify, and did not volunteer any information either.
Mr. de Villepin was exonerated and the state is appealing the verdict.

Investigative magistrates have long memories.
Having patiently waited during the years of the immunity from prosecution of President Chirac, once he was again just Mr. Chirac they reopened the dossier and found that, in their view, public money had been improperly used in 21 cases of fictitious employment while Mr. Chirac had been M. le Maire.

Mr. Chirac denies all impropriety, and the state prosecutor appears to side with him, stating that he sees no case to answer, but the city of Paris, under new political management, launched a civil claim for 2.2 million euros which is what it reckons the fictitious employment cost the ratepayers of Paris.

President Sarkozy went to see Mr. Chirac recently, to discuss the problem and it appears that a solution has been found.

Mr. Chirac has announced that, while he did nothing wrong, he is willing to repay the money on condition that the city of Paris drops its' civil claim.
The City of Paris has been happy to do so.
That leaves just the prosecutor...who is convinced of Mr. Chirac's innocence.... to plead the case before the court, so there doesn't appear to be much risk from that quarter.

Questions remain, however.
Why, if innocent, would Mr. Chirac offer to pay up?
And how is Mr. Chirac, whose daily subsistence is no longer being paid by the taxpayer, to find such a huge sum?
He'd have to economise on an awful lot of dog biscuits.

It's not as if he can do much to reduce his expenses.

He is living on the charity of his friends as it is.
His friends pay for the frequent flights in first class to Japan for himself and his family, where he is rumoured to be very interested in the interior decor of a bank.....
They allow him to squat in a luxury apartment in Paris.....
So the only way in which he could possibly economise was to part with the dog.

Not that the dog was capable of eating 2.2 million euros worth of biscuits.
Ridiculous even to think so.
The little bichon could only consume 550,000 Euros' worth...the sum Mr. Chirac is proposing to pay from his own pocket.

The rest of the money?

Well, this is coming from the UMP, the party of both President Sarkozy and ex-President Chirac.
I am not convinced that the party faithful are too chuffed about money on this scale being handed over to the socialists who control Paris at the moment, any more than I am convinced that President Sarkozy would have willingly rescued his predecessor, but this is politics, after all.

Sarkozy is not too popular with his party after the regional election debacle, and needs to sooth the troubled breasts....thus his support for the idea of supporting Chirac, idol of the bottom patting classes.
Cows that is.
At agricultural shows.

What about the party faithful?
Well, they won't want an innocent man to be financially broken by the demands of his political opponents, but it must be a blow to the party finances.
Thanks to the revelations spilling over from internecine strife in the family of the Oreal heiress, it seems that folding money in brown envelopes was used to finance quite a bit of UMP activity.....even though all large donations are supposed to be declared and very large donations are banned, as tending to notions of corruption.
However, there are other ways.
Almost every French politician worth naming has his own political party, apart from the one he supports.
These micro parties campaign for donations, and then, quite legitimately, pass these on to the main party set this case, the UMP.

So the money necessary to rescue Mr. Chirac from the consequences of what he has not done will be forthcoming without too much pain, although the sale of brown envelopes will be on the rise as the well heeled await the visit of their local politician.

This case makes you count your blessings.

When you're sitting at home this winter, in the part of the house you can afford to heat contemplating the electricity bill with the cat on your knee, just imagine what it must be like to be an ex-President, dependent on others for the very roof over your head and forced to part with a beloved pet.

Your heart bleeds, doesn't it?

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Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Peek a boo, I can't see you, everything's looking grand....Book a pee, you can't see me...

Namaqualand OstrichImage by Martin_Heigan via Flickr
Apart from my Skype 'phone, firmly plugged into the computer, I have only a normal 'phone, firmly fixed by wires into the wall in the kitchen.
I do not have one of those cordless things.
I do not have a mobile 'phone.
Thanks to having a house in the Bermuda Triangle of France I do not have what is colourfully entitled TNT, the telephone, television and mobile 'phone triumvirate, the name of which alone would make me very wary of touching anything to do with it even if it was available, which it isn't.

In my view, if someone wants to contact me, their need to contact is usually greater than my need to be contacted so they can take a chance on my being within earshot when they ring.
If it's important, they can ring again.
If it's double glazing, central heating or an unbeatable offer to install a wind farm in the garden, I can bet my boots that they will ring again.
And again......until informed that they can stick their wind farm where the monkey stuck its' nuts, propeller end first.
Switched on.
I detest wind farms. Aesthetic pollution of the landscape and a financial con to boot.
I'm not too keen to hear about double glazing or central heating, either.

I have been reproached for being difficult to get hold of, which, having a somewhat literal mind, conjures up visions of Menelaos wrestling with the ever changing shapes of the Old Man of the Sea, rather than an irritated woman listening to the telephone ringing  in an empty kitchen while her prey is out weeding the garden, but I did not retire to the country in order to be subjected to a bombardment of sales pitches, gossip and organ recitals.

I grew up in a period when telephones were scarce. If you wanted to use one, there were kiosks with coin operated 'phones where you first pressed Button B to see if any coins fell out before parting with your own four pennies and pressing Button A....but who did you want to call? Nobody had a 'phone.

Later a telephone was installed at home, but only because father grew tired of telegrammes summoning him to his mother's death bed which inevitably meant that, having packed an overnight bag and taken the train north he would discover that she had made a miraculous recovery and was upbraiding him for the waste of money in buying the ticket.
Not that he rang the family home, as he would only land on the originator of the telegramme and be told to come at once.
He rang her doctor, who was always happy to provide his own less dramatic version of events, which saved my father a great deal of time, expense and worry.

Telegramme version.....agony.... stomach pains...not expected to last...
Doctor's version....cramming her wame with roast pork and crackling again...

The telephone had been installed in most of my friends' houses by then too....but they certainly weren't meant for our use.
There was a cry common to all our parents...
'You see each other all day at school, you can say what you want to then...the telephone is not a toy!'

Goodness knows what those parents would make of today's world, where the opening bars of the William Tell Overture burst from every handbag, heralding the urgent need of someone, somewhere, to talk to someone else.

Now it appears that the Commission nationale informatique et liberte...the Cnil...has worries that using mobile 'phones may lay people open to surveillance, since the companies operating them can see by some sort of satellite reference where the phone is when it is used....or even when not switched off.

I can't see why this should worry anyone...after all what is the first thing the user of a mobile 'phone does when the person they are ringing answers?

They tell you where they are.

'I'm on the train'
'I'm in the bar.'
'I'm in the ladies' loo at the office.'

They tell you what they're doing.

'I'm ringing you.'
'I'm still waiting for Arthur.'
'I'm checking the cubicles in case anyone else is in here...'

Why should the national security services be deprived of such scintillating nuggets of information?
And, after all, with or without such access to the comings and goings of your mobile 'phone, what is going to stop the said national security services from fitting you up if they feel like it?
Certainly not the Cnil.

The other worry seems to be that private agencies could use this information to track erring spouses.
Now, in a country where the 'cinq a sept'...the hours between five and seven in the recognised as the time when every French man of a certain status is busy visiting his mistress...what can a mobile 'phone add to the sum of knowledge on the whereabouts of these Lotharios?

The wife is probably going to be more upset if he isn't visiting his mistress, because then she won't be free to receive her own 'friend' in peace....and, moreover, mistressless, he will lose status in the eyes of his peers which means that she will lose status would be worse than not having attended the Ecole Nationale d'Administration.

The above, of course, does not apply in the countryside, where immorality has its' own rhythms...but who needs a check on someone's mobile 'phone when they have neighbours?

Nothing passes unobserved in the French countryside and the rural observer has plenty of leisure time in which to put together the results of his or her own observations, add to them those gleaned from other observers and build a whole picture of the life of the person observed.

If the British incomer who is playing away from home in his mistress's unoccupied holiday cottage thinks that the co incidence of his car being parked in the courtyard on Day 1 and her washing line being full of sheets and pillowcases on Day 2 is going to escape the notice of everyone within a five kilometre radius, he is living not in rural France but in cloud cuckoo land.

So perhaps the Cnil is getting worked up over something and nothing.

More worrying for the proud possessors of TNT is the current government proposal to raise value added tax on a greater proportion of the bill for TNT services...currently at 5.5 per cent on 50 per cent of the bill, the Finance Ministry proposes to reduce the level of exoneration to 40 or even 30 per cent of the bill...and is blaming this on the European Union.
A small pebble on a beach of problems, but it can be the small pebbles which irritate the most.

France is not in a good mood, this 'rentree', and people who find that the closing of fiscal loopholes principally affects the less well off are not going to be too pleased at yet another nibble at their dwindling resources.

Just don't let them ring me up to tell me about it.

I'm in the garden and, when it comes to 'phone calls, like Flanders and Swann's ostrich, celebrated in the title to this post,
'I just bury me 'ead.'

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Friday, 20 August 2010

Normal service will be resumed....

Men Working Tractor and Threshing MachineImage by Wisconsin Historical Images via Flickr
Summer is over, and life returns to normal.

Families are storming the aisles of the supermarkets in search of school notebooks with pages divided into little squares...which I feel somehow accounts for the way the French think...firmly within the box with the lid nailed down.

Having returned from their holidays, the railway workers are going on strike shortly, but this might be preferable to what happened recently while they were still at work when some bright spark managed to mix up the front and the back of the train at Lyon station so that those going to Milan ended up in Zurich and those going to Zurich ended up in Milan.
Fans of Fawlty Towers will not be surprised to hear that the train came from Barcelona and that the driver knows nothing.

A person somewhat detached from reality drove into the courtyard of the President's residence, the Elysee Palace, at four in the morning...only it wasn't the usual person somewhat detached from reality who is still on holiday in the south of France taking a break from presidential duties.
Let no one blame the gendarme responsible....considering what he must see passing him on a daily basis - ministers, politicians, foreign dignitaries - a car with a flashing light must have appeared quite innocuous.
Even at four in the morning.

Gypsies of Roumanian origin are being returned to Roumania, whence they will return to France in due course, thanks to the open borders of the European Union and the services of Eurolines.

Gypsies not of Roumanian origin are being moved from noticeable encampments to less noticeable encampments  so that they 'cannot be found' by tax inspectors reluctant to enter into dialogue with the owners of top of the range cars, caravans and chainsaws.
This must be part of the campaign to reduce government spending as I calculate that for every tax inspector entering a 'travelling people's' encampment - here - you would need to add the services of a platoon of riot police; the tear gas and rubber bullets associated with same; the services of ambulance, fire brigade and hospital personnel, the cost to the social security system of the resulting time off work of all those enumerated above and, last of all, the big expense - the fees of the spin doctors who will present the fiasco as a success for the law and order campaign.

Austerity is the watchword..not that any politician dares use it...but, as usual, it is more do as I say rather than do as I do.
Having announced big cuts in ministerial budgets and arranging to sell off quantities of government property to pre-selected bodies, the President still sees fit to maintain his official residence off the coast of the south of France even though he actually spends his summer hols with the in-laws at Cap Negre nearby.
However, he did use the fort to have a meeting with his Prime Minister and two other colleagues recently....either to justify hanging on to the place or because he was ashamed to have people visit a house with sewage disposal problems.

Out in the sticks, though, local government has been listening.
The big end of summer event locally is a fete with demonstrations of old farming machinery..... real 'Walter-Gabriel-falls-in-the-threshing-machine' stuff....and tractor agility competitions.
It attracts a lot of farmers, and anything that attracts a lot of farmers attracts a lot of local politicians, anxious to court their votes.

Wherever you have politicians you have speeches and this fete is no exception.
First up is the deputy....the member of parliament.
He belongs to the opposition so has no access to the gravy train. Thus his speech is full of promises about what he would do if he could.
Next up is the local member of the Conseil General...the county councillor.
He belongs to the majority political party, but the opposition controls the county council and the regional council, so his access to the gravy train is extremely limited too and his speech is thus a mirror image of that of the deputy.....just reverse everything.
Then we have the leader of the Pays.......a body which claims to represent the local communes. He wants to know what the first two speakers are going to do about all the things that they have carefully not mentioned in their speeches.
Finally we have the maire of the commune which houses the fete and we turn at last to serious matters.

'Who is going to pay for the vin d'honneur?'

Now, in rural France, people are willing to put up with the endless speeches. They are the tax you pay for access to the table full of glasses and the racks of bottles and casks behind......the vin d'honneur.

Normally, for this fete, the Conseil General provide the wherewithal, but, as the maire points out to the audience who are by now in a state between open revolt and cardiac arrest, this year, it has decided it cannot afford to do so.

After a great deal of extempore oratory from the floor the maire calls for order and announces that, exceptionally, the commune will pay.
Clearly he has prepared his coup well in advance as minions promptly appear with tables, paper covers and boxes of glasses while others push in trolleys with the casks and bottles and the usual rush of the gadarene swine begins, to the hum of approval for the maire's respect for rural tradition.

For once, the politicians do not circulate, but make a discreet departure, shaking hands with the beaming maire.

I am not so sure that the inhabitants of his commune will be so happy when they get their local tax demands next year, though.

The funding of local authorities has changed under the Sarkozy regime and the Taxe Professionelle - the tax on businesses - has been abolished. Unfortunately, this was one of the main resources of income for local government, so while business rejoices home owners tremble.
After all, when in search of revenue, the easiest thing is to go for assets which cannot be property.....and it has been estimated that the average homeowner will be paying about 200 euros extra on their property tax bill next year to compensate for the loss of the Taxe Professionelle.

Not content with that, the local land registries have been geed up to make a re-evaluation of property values with a view to raising the tax base and, accordingly, I have received a form H1 with an annexe to form H1 which requires me to enumerate the number of shower trays and washbasins I possess and to venture out with a tape measure to confirm the extent of my outbuildings.
Among other things.

I have a source at the local Land Registry.
Deep Thirst.

Deep Thirst tells me that the panic is on. Apparently, there hasn't been a re-evaluation for years with the result that old houses which had been given a minimum of wash basins and shower trays in the 1970s are taxed at a higher rate than houses which acquired their washbasins and shower trays later.
I know this to be true.

Despite reporting that I had converted a two bedroom house to a four bedroom house in the 1990s, I was still paying less property tax than did my neighbour with a two bedroom house which had been assessed in the 1970s. No one in that period was interested in the property tax...they had the Taxe Professionelle.

However, this being rural France, while the panic might be on, the panic is selective.

Deep Thirst informs me that while I have received an H1 and its' annexe, as have the Americans who bought the place at the other end of the commune, the notaire who managed to sell the Americans the house together with two fields which did not, as it happened, belong to it, and who is busy converting the stables and outbuildings of the chateau in the next commune, has not and will not be the happy recipient of an HI and annexe.
Neither will farmers.

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Saturday, 14 August 2010

Gemme of all joy, jasper of jocunditie

The chateau of Saumur from the 'Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, showing the vendange

Lately, a chance reading brought me back to my first encounter with the Loire Valley at Blois,. which has always been my favourite town in France.

This week, while looking for something else entirely, I rediscovered the poems of William Dunbar, one of whch...his celebration of medieval London (1)...had made me think of Saumur as soon as I saw the place for the first time more than forty years' ago. 
Well, medieval Saumur was never London, but the images conjured up by Dunbar, a rich medieval city set above a fast flowing river, are the written equivalent of those white castles and green fields of a medieval book of hours, and the town still retains something of that distant past.

Saumur came to have a particular significance for me...when returning to my first house in France from  visits to the family in Brussels, driving through the night to avoid the lorries on the main roads, the sight of the floodlit chateau of Saumur, hovering high above the river, was the signal that I would be home in half an hour, leaving behind the slate roofs of the north for the roman tiles of the south.

Saumur is no longer on my way home, but it is a wonderful place to take visitors...plenty to see, but not just a tourist part of a trip along the Loire.

It has been a garrison town since the nineteenth century, first cavalry and then tanks, and there are visible reminders of both.

The tank museum is just outside the town, and is a perfect place to park the men...but I liked it when it was in the centre of the town and the exhibits used to rumble out into the arena for the annual military Carrousel - the tracks ripping up the asphalt surface of the roads, the exhaust fumes heavy in the still summer air.
Watching them crawl forward made me realise why my father said only an idiot would be a tankie...just fancy shutting yourself up in a metal box big enough to be a target!

Only one thing worse....trying to attack it!
My mother, in the Army in the second World War, was taught to ambush tanks. The idea was to put up roadblocks, then once the tank stopped, you were supposed to creep up on it and shove a molotov cocktail up its' exhaust.
This seemed to assume that the German Panzers had a truly British sense of obedience to road signs and would wait accordingly to discover that they didn' the immortal words of Corporal it up them rather than just driving round the obstacle while machine gunning all those in attendance.

The horse still has a strong presence in Saumur, despite being overtaken by technology. There are regular dressage and three day event competitions, carriage driving trials too, but the star turn is the existence of the Cadre Noir, France's equivalent of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. To see these wonderful horses performing their dressage routines whether ridden, or controlled by their rider from the ground, is a tremendous spectacle.
You can pay a packet and go to one of their Gala evenings, or you can see them for a lot less at the Carrousel, which these days has morphed into a civic fete rather than a military tattoo and occupies the whole town centre for days in July.

I think I preferred it when it was an all army affair....the band in their perch in the stands smoking while waiting to perform....the troops in the arena smoking while waiting to be inspected, then snapping to attention as the commanding general and his guests emerged, rosy, beaming and none too steady on their pins, from their lunch in the garrison...the horse versus motorbike event over the obstacles in the arena...the military ride...and all the corny clowning inseparable from any military entertainment. Not forgetting the tanks.
A period piece, and no longer considered appropriate in this era of political correctness.

I just wonder if it is politically correct to remember those cadets of the garrison who were charged with preventing the German army from crossing the Loire in 1940, some of whom are remembered in the quiet churchyard at Gennes, just downstream from Saumur.

Not content with tanks and horses as means of locomotion, you can even take a trip on the Loire, in the gabare which is moored in front of the stone lace of the Hotel de Ville.

These traditional boats had almost died out until some twenty years' ago when a few enthusiasts started to try to reconstruct them from old photographs and written records, and their enthusiasm has been rewarded. Today there are many gabares and their little sisters, the toues, navigating the Loire...built by individuals and riverside communes and celebrating their existence in 'meets' and festivals all summer long.

These square sailed boats with a rudder like a Chinese junk brought all sorts of products downstream all the way to Nantes...but depended on the west wind, the 'vent de galerne', to get back upstream against the current. So difficult was this that the practice arose of building them in green wood and, once at the destination, they would be dismantled and the wood used in house building.
Just one reason for their failure to survive.

Conditions are generally calm at Saumur, but if you ever have the chance to sail a gabare in the estuary, you may have the unforgettable experience of a few tons of wood planing, the nose up out of the water, if a heavy squall sets in.

It's not all action. You can sit in the place St.Pierre and listen to the organ music issuing from the church doors, or walk through the quiet streets of the old town, wondering if you might be passing the house of Balzac's 'Eugenie Grandet'.
You can even go to the market on Saturday morning.  If you insist.

I don't share the obsession with French food and restaurants that figures so largely in magazines and on the web, but there is a place I like in Saumur...where I have never been disappointed.
It is the only place in which I have ever been offered a glass of wine on the house while waiting for a seat to become free.
It is also the only place in which I've ever been involved in a discussion on the virtues of Daf cars.

Passing the cinema, on the river bank, there is a shabby building lying back behind dingy green railings. In summer, severely dilapidated umbrellas shade battered metal tables in the little winter you stay indoors, in the unchanged atmosphere of a 1930s bar...huge mirror behind the bar, smoke stained lincrusta and bentwood chairs.

The customers are local workmen and a surprising number of working girls, but tourists are treated with the same courtesy as the regulars whether the waitress is the nice young thing in exiguous clothing or the lady of a certain age. The resident dog will settle under your table expectantly and your order will be taken by the owner-cum-chef, who has been over seventy for the last twenty years, the only signs of advancing age being the exchange of carpet slippers for shoes a couple of years ago and the adoption of a woolly hat in winter. Indoors.

The menu may claim to offer pork chops, but what you get will be steak and chips..

The chef will ask you how you want your steak, but you'll get it the way he cooks it...

and while this would ordinarily drive me mad, I've always had a super, if simple meal there with a good cheap house wine.

There is only one problem...and this too was addressed in Dunbar's poem 'A Lament for the Makars'....
Timor mortis conturbat me......the thought of death disturbs me.

Yes, it does. Not mine...his.

What if he's died since I was last at Saumur?

We'd better take sandwiches.

LONDON, thou art of townes A per se.
 Soveraign of cities, seemliest in sight, 
 Of high renoun, riches and royaltie; 
 Of lordis, barons, and many a goodly knyght; 
 Of most delectable lusty ladies bright; 
 Of famous prelatis, in habitis clericall;
 Of merchauntis full of substaunce and of myght: 
 London, thou art the flour of Cities all. 

 Gladdith anon, thou lusty Troynovaunt, 
 Citie that some tyme cleped was New Troy; 
 In all the erth, imperiall as thou stant, 
 Pryncesse of townes, of pleasure and of joy, 
 A richer restith under no Christen roy; 
 For manly power, with craftis naturall, 
 Fourmeth none fairer sith the flode of Noy:
 London, thou art the flour of Cities all. 

 Gemme of all joy, jasper of jocunditie, 
 Most myghty carbuncle of vertue and valour;
 Strong Troy in vigour and in strenuytie; 
 Of royall cities rose and geraflour;
 Empress of townes, exalt in honour;
 In beawtie beryng the crone imperiall;
 Swete paradise precelling in pleasure; 
 London, thou art the flour of Cities all.

 Above all ryvers thy Ryver hath renowne,
 Whose beryall stremys, pleasaunt and preclare,
 Under thy lusty wallys renneth down, 
 Where many a swan doth swymme with wyngis fair; 
 Where many a barge doth saile and row with are; 
 Where many a ship doth rest with top-royall. 
 O, towne of townes! patrone and not compare, 
 London, thou art the flour of Cities all. 

 Upon thy lusty Brigge of pylers white 
 Been merchauntis full royall to behold;
 Upon thy stretis goeth many a semely knyght 
 In velvet gownes and in cheynes of gold.
 By Julyus Cesar thy Tour founded of old 
 May be the hous of Mars victoryall, 
 Whose artillary with tonge may not be told:
 London, thou art the flour of Cities all. 

 Strong be thy wallis that about thee standis; 
 Wise be the people that within thee dwellis; 
 Fresh is thy ryver with his lusty strandis; 
 Blith be thy chirches, wele sownyng be thy bellis; 
 Rich be thy merchauntis in substaunce that excellis; 
 Fair be their wives, right lovesom, white and small; 
 Clere be thy virgyns, lusty under kellis: 
 London, thou art the flour of Cities all. 

 Thy famous Maire, by pryncely governaunce, 
 With sword of justice thee ruleth prudently. 
 No Lord of Parys, Venyce, or Floraunce 
 In dignitye or honour goeth to hym nigh. 
 He is exampler, loode-ster, and guye; 
 Principall patrone and rose orygynalle,
 Above all Maires as maister most worthy:
 London, thou art the flour of Cities all.
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