West Virginia University in Vendée, France


The Princesses of Poitou

16 juin 2011



Our first stop today is in the town of Luçon, as we drive to the south of Vendée.  Vendée was once part of Poitou, a region associated with several powerful women we will meet today.


In spite his dress, this gentleman is not a princess...  He is no less than the Cardinal of Richelieu, who, before he met with his famous Musketeers later in his career, first started as the Bishop of Luçon, seat of the Vendée diocese.



Now we have reached our first destination, the Royal Abbey of Saint Vincent in Nieul sur l'Autize.  It is said to be the birth place of the mother of one of the most famous women in European history, Aliénor d'Aquitaine.


The abbey was founded in 1068, and you can easily identify the Romanesque style that dominated this period.  Before the invention of flying buttresses, small rounded windows were the only possible  openings




Our group meets with our guide, Marie-Béatrice, who has worked with other groups of Vendéens.  It is still a bit chilly this morning, but not to worry...  all the note-taking will soon warm everyone up.


Dr Mike, with an evil smile on his face, is already thinking up challenging quiz-questions.  Either that, or he is acting out a  difficult vocabulary word...



Have your eyes ever rested on a more gracious bouquet?


I am not sure who this mystery woman behind the yellow glasses is...  Brittany is writing it all down though.




More seriously now.  Our guide explains the symbolism on the capitals of the columns at the entrance to the church.  Each represents one of the seven capital sins, and this one illustrates greed, the partly broken figure tightly holding a bag of silver in his right hand with a dog, a medieval symbol of thievery, at his feet.


This peacock, of course, symbolizes pride.  Look at the fine detail of the plumage on his neck and of his tail.



Inside the church, we all note the slanted pillars. There are several theories for this phenomenon.  The church, like all buildings in this region, was erected on dried up marshes, not the most solid ground.  It is also possible that the church, damaged during the wars during Protestants and Catholics in the XVIth century, or during the Revolution period in the XIXth century, was so damaged structurally that the pillars started to  cave in.


  With the students in the foreground, it is very easy to see how slanted the pillars are.


We now walk in another vital part of the abbey, the cloister.  There, monks would walk around the square, with their eyes raised to the heaven, the only sight the architecture allowed.




Another view of the cloister, contrasting the hot sun on the stone in the garden and the cool stony shade of the arcades.


Every cloister is centered on a simple garden with a well in the middle.




Marie-Béatrice takes us to the most important room  of every abbey, a space of capital importance in fact.  In this location, known as the chapter room, a chapter of the rule followed by the monks was read everyday.  As the order at Nieul was the Augustinians, the holy men followed the rule of Saint Augustine.


Group Aliénor feels right at home in the birth place of their namesake. 


The abbey also includes an interactive video map to discover the way the monastery would have been in the 12th century.  Kiley and Sam have fun trying to navigate their way through the various rooms of the abbey.


As you know by now, every activity is carefully planned to help our Vendéens discover a subtle tone of the cultural richness of the region.  Here, we stop at a ferme-auberge, a farm-restaurant.  Everything served at the table is grown on the farm, from the wheat used to make the bread, to the meats, vegetables and fruit.  In the door frame, you can notice that Dr. Mike has gone ahead to check that everything was okay in the kitchen before allowing us in.


A lovely table, in every sense of the word.


We start with a salad of several vegetables: lentils, cucumbers, corn, tomatoes, pickles, all harvested on the premises.


We also enjoy a delicious poultry terrine.


Our main course is a poulet à la poitevine with honey and spices and hay--notice the green herb on the side of the plate--the hay.  But what really takes the prize are the DE-LI-CIOUS potatoes.



Do I need to mention again that Dr. Orlikoff is truly an artist when it comes to her pictures?  By now, the students enjoy her compositions so much that they help her create the most appetizing setting for the cheese-tray.


We have a choice of desserts: a rhubarb tart or. . .



. . . a clafoutis, a traditional French dessert made with  crêpe batter and cherries (please remember never to pit the cherries for this recipe).


Our next excursion is still linked to the abbeys of the region, as the monks were instrumental in organizing the digging of the canals to isolate parcels of arable land.  We will have our farming lesson while lounging in slow boats.  Doesn't it sound better than a desk and a chair?

Boat number 1, led by Dr. Orlikoff, is ready to embark.



Boat number 2, led by Dr. Mike is also ready to learn.


Hi girls, are you learning yet?  Still, the mysterious woman with the yellow glasses...




Off we go!


The duckweed at the surface of the water is part of the normal ecosystem, though our boats temporarily disturb it.




On our way, we pass by the Abbey of Maillezais, another favorite WVU-V stop.  At one point, this church was larger--and richer--than Notre-Dame in Paris.  Alas, its riches were the cause of its downfall.  Few men are stronger than envy, another capital sin.


Though the design of this region seems simple enough, it is carefully constructed.  These ash-trees have been chosen to be planted here because of their root-system, which actually holds the banks of the canals in place, stopping the erosion process.  Their branches are regularly harvested and used for manufacturing, giving the trees a specific head-shape, hence their name, frênes têtards--head-ashes.




Make sure you ask the mysterious woman, Kiley and Jenney what their were observing...


Sam, for his part, is merely staring into Dr. Orlikoff's camera.




Again, I am speechless...


And again...




Well, our guide has a thing or to contribute.  He holds for us a nasse, a basket used to catch eels, a delicacy.  Eels were once abundant in this marsh, but because of the introduction of American crawfish, they have now almost disappeared.  Too bad, I'd love to be able to throw an eel on the barbie!Finger-licking good.


This is another shot of a Poitevine Princess, n'est-ce pas, Jana? 




It seems that there might be as many Princesses as Vendéennes this year.


Methane gas trapped beneath the rotting leaves can be stirred to the surface and lit for a magical display of pyrotechnics.




Last stop, last princess (not pictured
though).  We are now in front of the lovely church of Vouvant, a small town which claims the Mélusine tower.


This medieval town is still surrounded by beautiful ramparts.




Now, it is time for group Mélusine to pose in front of the tower where the princess-fairy is said to have locked herself every Saturday.  Mélusine, half woman, half fish, did not want to her husband to find out about her fishtail when she bathed.  Unfortunately, her husband, jealous that she might have a lover, broke down her door.  She had no choice but to fly out the window at the top of this tower.


Michelle, showing off her abs... 




One last picture before we ride to Les Sables.  Good night!


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