West Virginia University in Vendée, France
The Longest Day...
June 18, 1999
Not only in hours, but also in years traversed in a single day is it appropriate call June 18 the longest day of WVU-V 1999. As I said in an earlier note, Le Puy du Fou is a living, working time table which takes the visitor from the early middle ages through to the nineteenth century -- all with authentic materials and artisans. Word is that the park will soon reach further back in time by adding a Gallo-Roman area.
Our trip to the heart of inland Vendée is set to begin today at 10:00. Below, Jodi Dowdell, Freddy Perkins have arrived a few minutes early and enjoy the morning breeze on the "Remblai" looking over beach of Les Sables.
The Vendée-mobile is set and ready.
On the road, all the Vendéens look forward to good weather and an exciting trip through time.
The road to Le Puy du Fou passes through the village of Vendrennes famous for its delicious "brioches vendéennes" (one letter difference between the adjective and the name of the town). Below, the baker slices a large brioche for us. Brioche is a kind of bread made with fine flour and which also contains milk, eggs and sugar. When we quote Marie-Antoinette as saying saying of the breadless peasants, "Let them eat cake," this is the "cake" she was referring to: "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche." Of course, this brioche is one member of our party that will not make it through this long day.
Our driver today is Jean-Paul and we thank him for suggesting we make a stop here in Vendreennes. From left to right below, Kimberly Dorman, Jean-Paul, Carolyn Graeber, Kathleen Schattenberg, Allison Lastinger, and Monsieur Antoine Crêtaux, who has helped plan today's trip.
We also make another stop at another scenic part of Vendée. Below, the WVU-Vendéens pose before a windmill atop the Mont des Alouettes. The chapel in the background is dedicated to Louis XVI, the king whose death was in part responsible for the Vendée wars of the 1790's. Though I'm not at all sure, it may be in honor of his queen, Marie Antoinette, that the brioche is a symbol of the region.
Inside le Puy du Fou, some of us begin our visit of the park with the "chemin creux de Vendée." It is a recreation of some key scenes from the Vendée wars. Below, a priest who has refused to pledge allegiance to the new Revolutionary constitution holds a secret nighttime mass in the woods of Vendée.
The "spectacle de chevalerie" recreates the jousts and other feats of horsemanship from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It was due to the horse and their mastery of the new tool we call the stirrup that the Franks were able to dismount their enemies and overtake much of Europe and even parts of Asia. In this country you'll seldom see a statue of Charlemagne on foot!
The park has many artisans who practice authentic skills from times gone by. Below in the eighteenth-century section, Amy Workman and Carolyn Graeber talk with an "ébéniste" who carves fine cabinetry. (Sorry, but he turned as I took the picture, thus the blur.)
The traditional footware of the Vendée peasant was the "sabot" or wooden shoe. We know the word from the expression derived from the practice of protesting the injustices of the industrial revolution by throwing these shoes into the equipment of large factories. Few modern machines could survive the practice of 'sabotage.'
Before the industrial revolution, of course, animals were a key partner in man's work on the earth. Below, Helena Racin feeds a long-haired Vendée donkey. This animal was used to breed with the horses of the region to provide a powerful mule for many kinds of work.
Here Helena, Carolyn, Amy and Brad prepare to enter into the medieval city.
Later, we see the reenactment of the Legend of Saint Philibert. As I mentioned earlier, this saint christianized this part of France and also directed the monks building salt marshes on the coast. We visited his first resting place in the crypt of his church on Noirmoutier. The play below tells the tale of how Saint Philibert's followers struggled to save his remains from the marauding Vikings of the nineth century. The "Northmen" would eventually settle up the coast from here and give their name to the place we call Normandy.
Before the invention of gunpowder and even long after, the most effective way of hunting small prey at a great distance was with a well trained bird. The art of falconery is still alive and well at Le Puy du Fou.
Seeing the falconers' skill with such birds was surely one of the most impressive parts of our day.
After a long day in the park, the WVU-Vendéens have planned to meet back at the bus at 8:00 pm. We will picnic here while awaiting the nighttime spectacle that first made this attraction famous.
The château across the way was partially destroyed during the Vendée wars and today is the backdrop to one of the most famous "sons et lumières" (sound and light shows) in Europe.
The show normally starts around 10:30 pm, but since we are approaching what is literally the longest day of the year, it will not be dark enough today until around 11:00. In the meantime, the vast crowd has decided to pass the time by doing "le hola," a practice we call "the wave." Below, Carolyn and Amy share in the fun.
Like the park, this spectacle actually is a trip through time which takes us back to the earliest Celtic settlement of this area through to the present day. A highlight of this trip is of course the recreation of the burning of the castle in the Vendée wars. Of course, my photography simply does not do this show justice.
Happy times are also a part of the spectacle. We see some of the over 400 actors in the show below.
Blue, white, red are the colors of the modern French republic. I think the word written beneath is in little need of translation.
A scene of celebration from near the end of the show.
The spectacle ends at around 1:00 am on Saturday morning and we return sleepily to Les Sables d'Olonne. It has indeed been a long day, and not one we'll soon forget.
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Go on to June 21, 1999
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