The first week end in August is dreaded by all French drivers who fear les “bouchons”, traffic jams, created by millions of vacationers, but if you decide to take small roads to go south, it’s a dream. I spent a week end between Provins, a medieval town 90 mins south east of Paris and was invited to lunch in Joigny, a rich commercial center since Roman times, which developed in the Middle Ages thanks to its bridge and its proximity to Champagne. It was on the trade road between the Flanders and Italy. It has a two star restaurant, La Côte Saint Jacques, and a more modest one, Le Rive Gauche, where we ate. It was delightful.
While her brother Jean Michel has the famous Relais et Chateau, Catherine Lorain started a more affordable hotel and restaurant where one eats by the river Yonne. We had a great carré d’agneau and a peach dessert with the local wine, a Pinot noir called Côte Saint Jacques by Alain et Julien Vignot. It was very pleasing to see the vineyards from the restaurant. This was the cherry on the cake after buying old cristal at the brocante in Joigny and before visiting the cathedral in Sens where Saint Louis married Marguerite de Provence in 1234 and where Louis XVIth’s parents were buried. I was staying in Saint Loup de Naud, a magical little village with a XII th century ornamented church. On September 15 th, journées du patrimoine, the whole village celebrates and Violet Trefusis‘s famous garden is open.
Visiting the walled town of Provins was a revelation as we had drinks at Alan Rubin’s, the foremost harpsichord collector who lives there all year round. Musicians visit him from all over Europe to play his historical instruments which were made for the Royal courts.
His sophisticated decors were a stark contrast from the Musée de la Vie d’Autrefois, a large workshop in Les Ormes sur Voulzie, fifteen minutes away. It features 3 500 square meters of galleries with staged life in the fields and in town between 1800 and 1950. From toys to agricultural tools, exceptional rural furniture and past lifestyles, we discover many instruments and customs that have disappeared.
This project conceived by Viviane de Witt a year ago, reminded me of many farms from my childhood in the Sarthe. There are hundreds of thousands of pieces, toys, bicycles, tools, ladders, collected by this former auctioneer better know as Viviane Juteau, and the ambiance has been meticulously recreated. I was especially struck by necklaces with pikes that dogs were wearing in order to fight the wolves in the mountains and by a very rare long table with wooden cavities where soup was served when there were no plates in the farm… Amazing.
Also the baby section was quite striking with prison like cots and sacks hanging on the wall with the baby in them! Life was rough whether in the Alps where a room shows old instruments for cheese manufacturing, or in the classrooms where children were ill treated. An interesting audioguide tells you about these customs. But if there was a criticism to be made, there are too many objects lying around and the different collections acquired by the de Witt, are a little overwhelming!
I ended my two day tour with the visit of Château de Champs sur Marne, near Paris where the Cahen d’Anvers used to lead a brilliant life at the turn of the century. I was happy to see -at last- the restored singeries by Huet, cousins of the magnificent ones in Chantilly, and to discover a contemporary artist in the Orangerie, Françoise Jolivet. This woman lives in Normandy where she grows pumpkins, sculpts them and dehydrates them, turning them not into carriages but in interesting sculptures or engraved skins.
The château has many more beautiful decors and 18 th century furniture but their present exhibition of “Vive la Mariée” with modern copies of old wedding dresses is a nuisance. Except for all the little girls from the nearby suburbs who get to dress up as princesses when they visit the castle.
A mother told me she had come three times ! It is spectacular to see how a beautiful castle can attract all publics if it offers popular entertainment.
Marquise de Pompadour lived there for two years in 1757. In the 20 th century the castle was used by the French president to host foreign heads of state. It is now a luxurious enclave of 85 hectares (200 acres), restored by Henri Duchêne in 1895, in the middle of Paris’s eastern suburbs.
This park of Champs sur Marne is well maintained and could be a nice escapade if you spend the month of August in the capital.
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