Saturday, September 13, 2014

welcome to my humble chapeau

La Rochelle.  The very name evokes memories from an adolescent’s afternoon adventure readings.

The Three Musketeers.  Count Richelieu.  The great siege dike.  Regional Protestants fighting the centralized authority in Catholic Paris.  Nascent liberty struggling against authoritarianism.

The French wars of religious liberty during the 1600s in this part of western France show little signs of having ever occurred.  That is because when the Huguenots, whose faith was followed by 90% of the people of La Rochelle, fell to the forces of Louis XIII, they simply took up their possessions and headed to Protestant Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, England, and, most notably, the United States.  I am rumored to carry some of that blood in my veins.

Today, less than 2% of the population is Protestant.  An excellent lesson of opportunities lost when nations use religious tyranny as a filter to approve who gets to stay next door as your neighbor.  Paul Revere and the Roosevelts and Rockefellers may have made their names in France, rather than across the Atlantic.

If I had gone in search of Protestant La Rochelle yesterday, I would have come up empty handed.  Instead, we took a bus tour into the country.

First, let me get this out of the way.  Yes, it had all of the worst ingredients of a bad bus tour.  Too many people crammed onto the bus.  Too many people crammed into tiny rooms during the tour.  Too many people talking over the guide about their personal problems.  Too many people who had no interest in the history of the places we were visiting.  A guide who had to read her presentation from a folded piece of paper.

But I was not going to let all of that get in my way.  Here I was in western France with Ken, Patti, Marilyn, and John.  I was not going to let a group of surly Englishmen get in my way of enjoying the day.

Enjoyable it was.  Sunny.  Relatively cool.  A nice refreshing breeze.  And historical buildings to amuse us.  What could be better?

We started with a tour through the Castle of La Roche Corbone.  “Castle” must be a rather elastic term.  If you were looking for Ivanhoe, you would be in the wrong place.  I would have called it a fortified chateau.  At least, that seemed more accurate to me.

Like many ancient homes in England, this chateau was abandoned and then restored by an eccentric 19th century business baron.  It is still a home -- financed with the generous donations of tourists.

The interior, which was a camera-free zone, was rather ordinary.  But it gave a good idea what each of the rooms looked like, and how they functioned, during the various centuries the chateau was in operation.

What makes the place, though, is its garden.  Not surprisingly, set out in the formal French style with a prominent water feature.  Almost a pocket version of Versailles.  My suburban side kept nagging me that this would be quite a weekend project to keep in shape.

Tomorrow I will tell you about La Rochelle.  But I need to give you some background to discuss our next stop.

La Rochelle was a medieval city that had long protected this area of France from the English.  The royal government felt uncomfortable having the regional arsenal in La Rochelle because of the town's growing Protestant sympathies.  Instead, Louis XIII and his boys built a new town quite close to La Rochelle.  But free of its liberty sympathies.

The town was Rochefort.  A bit of it is still there.  With its almost germanic gridded streets.

Almost all of western France was severely damaged from Allied bombing in the Second World War.  Rochefort was no exception.  A 300 meter-long building designed for manufacturing 300 meter strands of rope has been restored.  This was, after all, a town designed to supply the military strength for the 17th century monarchy.

I know I should have been wandering through Alexander Dumas’s mind while walking these streets.  Instead, my head was filled with the images of the superb The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers movies from the 1970s.  The best versions I have seen of the Dumas classics.  I doubt there has been a better Count Richelieu than Charlton Heston.

Perhaps my favorite part of the tour was our guide's repeated reminders that the English were the traditional enemies of the French.  She had a subtle gallic way of twising the knife with each reference.  Rather brave for a woman relying on the kindness of tourists for her tips.  Or maybe her experience has been that certain nationalities simply do not tip -- no matter the barbs thrown their way.

Yesterday was a good reminder to me that France provided the United States with a wealth of talent due to its expulsion policy in the seventeenth century.  And it then went on to become the first (and longest) ally of the new nation.

Where could I have better reminded myself of that than on the streets where the three musketeers once carried out that bit of religious cleansing?  All for the better of my country.

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