Down the coast and back through time...
June 8, 2000

(The Vendéens in the heart of a prehistoric "cairn", June 8, 2000)

Today's excursions begin with a ride down the coast from Les Sables to Jard-sur-Mer, just a few kilometers away.  There we visit the home of Georges Clemenceau, perhaps most famous as the president of the nations that wrote the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which ended the first World War.  Clemenceau was also instrumental in the famous Dreyfus Affair where he and his friend Emile Zola championed the cause of a Jewish Army captain falsely accused in the 1890's of giving military secrets to the German Embassy.  In France, Clemenceau has the stature of men like Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt in the States.

Here Jennifer Martin and Jodi McKenzie stand before the gardens that were in part designed by Clemenceau's close friend, the painter Claude Monet.


Clemenceau was born in Vendée in a village not to far from here, and here is also where he spent is last years before being buried beside his father in his native soil.  Clemenceau's life lead him to the farthest corners of the world and to the highest corridors of power.  A visit to this home gives us a glimpse into many of these great adventures.

Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take pictures inside the house today, but we saw portraits of the President friends like Monet, gifts from early in the century from the Emperor of Japan, books written by Clemenceau, as well as elements from the intimate life of one of France's grandest and noblest statesmen.


After our visit with the President, we head inland just a couple of kilometers to the town of Talmond-Saint-Hilaire.  Our destination is one of the great fortresses of the middle ages, but first  we'll pause for lunch.


The midday meal in France is traditionally the most important of the day.  In order to allow all the privilege of enjoying this repast, many French stores, shops, and offices close for two or even three hours beginning around 12:00 or 12:30.  When on the road, we generally plan a meal in good French restaurant during what many French still consider an essential part of living.

Like many visitors here, our WVU-Vendéens are not unanimous in their appreciation of French cuisine.  Some enjoy it immediately and fully, while for others the great variety of dishes and their orientation toward minimal processing by heat or other artificial means makes the full appreciation of French food a bit more challenging.


After lunch, we step across the street and up the grade to the entrance of the Château de Talmont.  This castle began in the Dark Ages as a church built on a promontory overlooking the sea.  As the Viking invasions of the 8th and 9th centuries began, the site's strategic location soon attracted the attention of the Dukes of Aquitaine and their vassals.  William the 
Great of Aquitaine contributed much to the conversion of the church into a military strong place, or fortress.

Eventually the castle fell by heritage to Eleanor of Aquitaine and to her son Richard the Lion Hearted.  Strangely each year our visit has featured one of our Vendéens' special affection for the feline ambiance of this castle.  This year Jennifer Lawrence makes a new friend among the mini-lions that still inhabit the castle.


A new feature of this year's visit is a scale model of the castle with colored pieces representing it construction through the centuries.  Here Brian Hill and Ryan Schiffbauer following our guide's instructions as they build the elements erected by the Dukes of Aquitaine and the Princes of Talmont.  

Our guide today is Liliane Richard.  She notes that when her guests learn that her name is Richard, they think she is putting them on.  


One feature Richard the Lion Heart added to the castle was an exterior wall and a thickened face that could resist the strongest of catapults laid against the walls.  He also added an exterior wall that obliged invaders to run clockwise inside the wall before reaching the doors leading to the courtyard inside.  Since all medieval knight carried their swords on their right arm shields on the left, they thus ran this wall with their right and unshielded side exposed to the defenders.  When finally they reached the door with their battering rams, they found that it was built into a short, angled corridor which made it impossible to use the ram.  While trying to manage the ram, however, they found themselves rained upon by boiling sand and oil delivered from specially designed vats above the entry.  It is said that Richard brought these designs back from the Crusades where, accompanied by his mother Eleanor and by his friend and liege Philip Augustus of France, he had  tried to deliver Jerusalem from the superior forces of Islam.


Her Amanda Alderman and Brian Hill stand in a tower of the castle overlooking what was once the waters of the nearby Atlantic Ocean.  A mill attached to the castle and whose remains a still evident even used the power of the tides to grind flower for it inhabitants.


Next we stop by the Center of Prehistory, or CAIRN.  Our guide François introduces us to life in this part of the world 8,000 years ago.


The great house behind our Vendéens was built last year and is based on discoveries from a dig in nearby Britanny.  As we mentioned earlier in these pages, this winter was marked by storms of strength unrecorded in history.  Like at Versailles or in the swamps we visited this week, many trees here were uprooted.  The primitive building, however, was unharmed.  Since the dig gave our current builders precious insight into primitive wisdom, they were able to reproduce a house that surely saved many lives in days long past.


Here Johnny, our guide from years past, demonstrates the making of fire with simple but ingenious primitive tools.


François aids Dr. Valérie Lastinger as she deftly operates a drill that works largely in the centrifugal force of the polished white stone.

See also the web site of the CAIRN, a word that means in Celtic a "pile of stones" and which here represents the Centre Archéologique d'Initiation et de Recherche sur le Néolithique.


As the day draws to a close we go out into the fields to visit some of the actual sites prehistoric Vendée.  Here Amanda, Senan, and Brian sit atop an ancient "dolemen" which served originally as a ceremonial burial place.


The "menhir" here is one of the largest and oldest in the world.  It is far older than the pyramids of Egypt  and more massive than many of the stones used to build them.  We still do not know how such a monument was really used nor exactly how such a massive stone was raised to such a position.

We'll have time to discuss such questions tomorrow in class, as well as on Monday when we'll meet again in regular session (exceptionally since Monday is Pentecost, a national holiday in France)  

 Stay tuned to WVU-V!

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