Sunday, January 17, 2010

Joust-o-rama! (Vannes)

Despite the title of this entry, I show you cheese (perhaps knights ate fine cheeses before (after?) their tournaments? yes, surely). Granted, I've only had one request to give cheese reports from market day, but that is enough! :-) I introduce you to this week's Fantastic Fromages (and honestly, I don't know what to admire more: the cheeses themselves or the depth-of-field of this new camera - look at those rinds!). Jutting out to you in the foreground (oh, for 3-D glasses and scratch-n-sniff computer screens!) is a hunk of Etivaz - one of the few cheeses of Switzerland to come out here, and one of the very few cheeses of Switzerland to enjoy an "appellation controllée" (like certain wines, you can only make it in that region; so, you can't use the same technique somewhere else: Etivaz cheese is made only in Etivaz, unlike, say, Cheddar which is made pretty much everywhere) - the taste is here nutty and pungent, smoky but with lots of hay; behind l'Etivaz to the left is a bleu cheese made from goat's milk - ! - a first for us: somehow simultaneously tangier and smoother than a cow's milk bleu; and finally, the lovely, velvety, incredibly stinky Livarot, also an appellation controlée cheese, this time from Normandy; makes the stinkiest Camembert you know tastes like cream cheese. Mmmmm.

Having sustained ourselves with a roasted chicken, vegetables, and bread and cheese, we took off for Vannes, a city that has one medieval twist after another. It's a metropolis of almost 52,000, so there's actually a huge extended city, but we spent our time in its many, meandering medieval streets, returning several times to......

La Place des Lices as in (I think I'm right here) The Lists - the open space where JOUSTING takes place! This was the very site where a huge tournament was held to celebrate Brittany's union to the French crown in 1532 (this process had begun with the marriage of Anne of Brittany to Charles VIII in 1491 and then, when he died, her marriage to Louis XII in 1499 - when the duchy went to her daughter Claude upon her death in 1514, and her daughter married François d'Angoulême, soon (very soon: January 1, 1515) to be king of France, then the deal started to be really sealed). I should probably say "celebrate" in scare quotes, since Brittany had fought for so long (as had Anne de Bretagne) to remain independent of France. But so history moved. François I moved the Parliament of Brittany to Vannes, so this city was a very big medieval/early modern deal. Today, it seemed, from our one afternoon there, a city well settled into itself, its pleasures, its history - an elegant, quiet and fun pride everywhere. Yes, the Lists have become a parking lot, but that didn't stop the kids from dreaming up some pretty fantastic jousts (Iris's Hazel Knight totally trounced Eleanor's Plaid Knight). Plus, you have to keep up with the times. How incredible, though, to walk the ground precisely where medieval knights jousted.

The incredible medieval houses add to the city's wonderful sense of possibility and wit.

Apologies for the bizarre lay-out here, but hey, look at how these houses have
remained standing! The one to the left wonders where all her friends have gone; the one in the middle has had a few too many glasses of cider; and the one to the right is a famous house with two carved figures (the ones Iris is pointing to, thereby having won that round of the scavenger hunt) named "Vannes and His Wife." The city is filled with these fantastic houses - 16th, 17th century, with 18th-21st century touch-ups. My favorites are the ones that are only one window wide - always room to squeeze in one more house! For me, this is the most medieval a city's every been. I'll confess, like too many medievalists, to making a beeline for the cathedral in town and not giving enough time to imagine the medieval lay-out or even medieval approach to the cathedral. Michael Camille had just started us all thinking about this much more when he died (yes, I thought of him a lot today, too). But here in Vannes, you make no effort; the secular medieval world is all around you: in carved wooden figures, in the churches, in the cobblestones, even peeking out from the cathedral:

This little guy (gal?) peeks out at you from a buttress on the southern side of the cathedral (the "people's" side!) - it's not a gargoyle; just a contorted little figure checking up on the hub-bub below. I'd love to think of it as a portrait of one of the builders, but I don't have it - he's fantastic just as he is! St. Pierre was begun in the 13th century, but has a Renaissance rotunda, 18th century vaulting, and lots and lots of work in between. It's one of the very few cathedrals I've ever seen that's still in its urban setting: La Cohue (literally, the bustling crowd) is directly across the street and used to house the market (on the ground floor) and the justice hall (on the upper floor). Talk about getting everything you need in one spot! La Cohue now houses what looked like a great museum of Vannes, but the kids were definitely not up for interior spaces. So out we headed to walk the ramparts. I was thinking a park dotted with ruins, but oh my goodness no.

When we rounded the corner of the city gate (and there are at least five in Vannes - we only walked through two), I literally gasped. Never before have I seen the city wall of a medieval city stretch out in all its glory to embrace the bustle within. The walls were first built by the Romans (oh, yes) when this was a military outpost (did I mention that Vannes is on the Atlantic? the Golfe du Morbihan, to be more precise - but there's a port and the ocean not far!). Then they were successively built up, finalized in the Middle Ages and shored up throughout the rest of history. I just love how the walls barely contain the city - buildings pressed up right close to it. I just stood there and marveled and gaped. The girls' ecstasy was inspired by a different joy - that of imagining themselves charging full speed ahead in a joust - chaaaarge!

We'd had plans to go to the wonderful aquarium here (apparently they have fish from Venezuela with four eyes - two for above the water, and two for below - now that's thinking ahead!), but the walk was far, the rain was coming down faster, and so we made our way back to the Lists and sat in a terrace able to imagine the jousting grounds - the girls inexplicably had ice cream, Oliver savored a glass of milk, and Mac and I had deux petits cafés (energy!). We talked of jousting so much that by the time we'd come home and had dinner really all there was to do was watch A Knight's Tale, a movie I would now call terrific (goodness knows Eleanor cheered when William Thatcher won his tournament!).

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ann, Mac, and kids ...we have certainly enjoyed your blog...sounds like fun at every turn....please keep sending these updates....

    We are celebrating 47 years today (1/17/63) and were lucky enough to have both kids and the Grandkids here with us... even got to church at Oak Grove this morning... Kay & Denard