Vic-sur-Aisne – Compiègne
In the usual fine weather (although clouds set in later), we set off for the modest 26 km cruise to Compiègne. The river gradually widened and the previously rural riverbank with fisherman’s shacks
began to be interspersed with some quite sumptuous residences.
Just after midday, we joined the River Oise and were soon moored up against a long quayside in Compiègne with our ropes wrapped around some very substantial wooden beams that formed part of a fence at the edge of the river. There were a couple of other boats there, similarly attached – so this was clearly the technique. We slipped some heavy duty plastic tubing over the ropes to protect them from chaffing on the wooden beams as Catharina Elisabeth moved in response to the frequent, fast-moving commercials that were passing.
It proved to be a comfortable mooring, as the wide river lessened the wake from the commercials. There were no facilities although, directly across from us, was Guérin’s bunker boat and chandlery, both of which we planned to avail ourselves of at some point.
We decided to spend the afternoon doing a few more chores, with Lisette starting to oil the freshly-stripped pigeon hatch and Ian working on another section of the deck.
Later, we took a stroll through the town to see what it had to offer. Just up from the mooring was another ruined donjon dating from the 12th century.
A plaque nearby records some of its history
and notes that from the top of the tower, one Guillaume de Flavy, the Governor of Compiègne, watched as Joan of Arc was captured (on 23 May 1430) while she was fighting to protect the retreat of French forces during the Siege of Compiègne. Unable to enter the town as the gates were closed, she had to surrender to the Burgundians. She was later handed over to the English and eventually burned at the stake.
We spent a bit of time aboard the lovely luxemotor Carmen that was moored behind us and chatted and shared drinks with David who was ‘between crews’ having turfed off an unsatisfactory crew a few days earlier and was recruiting fresh people to help him cruise. There was also a very nice Dutch ex-tug with a friendly couple aboard with whom we exchanged pleasantries.
Château de Compiègne
There were a few major places we wanted to visit while we were here. One was the Château of Compiègne, one of three royal palaces frequented by Louis XV and Louis XVI (the other two being Versailles and Fontainbleu). This was literally a five-minute walk from Catharina, and we took advantage of an indoor activity as the overcast day turned cooler and windy.
A royal château was first established here in the 14th century and by the time of Louis XV it was a favourite residence. Largely gutted during the French Revolution, Napoleon I was impressed with the residence and had it refurbished to its current state starting from 1807. The residence was also a great favourite of Napoleon III who would host large parties (around 100 guests) for over a month of activities and entertainments. During WWI it was used as a hospital, caring for up to 340 patients.
The interior was, of course, sumptuous.
One interesting room was the Gallery of Natoire – where a collection of paintings by Charles-Joseph Natoire that depict various events drawn from the History of Don Quixote that were painted (and also made into tapestries) between 1735 and 1742.
Napoleon III created this area as a hall for small parties of guests and had the paintings moved there for decoration. It’s a shame we do not know the story well enough to fully appreciate all of the depictions of the events.
Le Musée national de la Voiture
Fascinating as was the interior of the palace, there was more. Another part of the building houses the National Vehicle Museum. The museum concentrates on the period of transition between horse-drawn vehicles and automobiles, having over 100 of the former and some 30 of the latter. Interestingly, the automobile section featured vehicles powered by petrol,
– they were still experimenting to find the best energy source in these early days.
Memorial de l’Armistice
Two other nearby attractions beckoned the next day – too far to walk, so we plugged the batteries into the bikes and set off in cool but sunny weather.
Our first stop was one of the key historical places of WW1, the site of the signing of the Armistice – the Armistice Wagon Museum. On November 11th, this ended WWI, and took place in a railway carriage in the Forest of Compiègne. This was about 9 km or so from where we were moored.
As many of you will know, the carriage was used for the signing of the armistice with the Germans – there having been several other armistices signed with other members of the Central Powers. This event signalled the end of the war on the Western Front.
The wagon was displayed around France for many years and then, with funding from a wealthy American, it was housed in a museum on the site where the Armistice was signed.
Hitler considered this armistice an affront to Germany and when the French surrendered in 1940 he returned the carriage to the same site and humiliated them by forcing them to conduct the ceremony in the same rail carriage. The carriage was then taken through Germany as a propaganda display and eventually left in storage. The museum site was destroyed.
The wagon accidentally caught fire and was largely destroyed in 1945 while still in Germany. Some fragments of the original carriage have been discovered and were on display in the current museum. The carriage that is used in the modern museum is the exact same type as the original and has been restored to the condition as it was at the time of the first Armistice Day.
What a shame we could not be there for the centennial commemoration later in the year – it would have been a fitting climax to the several years of exploring WWI sites that we have been undertaking.
The carriage itself is housed in a room with rather disconcerting lighting which changes colour continuously, why we can’t imagine.
Beyond that are a comprehensive, multilingual and fascinating set of displays, maps and interactive material covering WWI in general and the history of the carriage and the Armistice in particular. Given we had another visit to make on this day, we did not spend enough time here, about three hours in total. For those with an interest, you could easily double this.
We had decided we could continue on from here to the castle of Pierrefonds, which was situated another 10 km further on, (saving us a longer hike if we did it on another day) and supposedly accessible via a series of delightful forest tracks.
This proved to be another of our unexpected/not quite as first planned expeditions. We had decided to travel with both bike batteries and assumed Ian would use one less, as we expected one would not go the distance (it has previously let us down on rides of less than 10 km), so we had also cleverly decided to carry the battery charger in the pannier, planning to use it to set the bikes up for the return journey later in the day. Lisette does need to use a battery to help her arthritic joints cope with lengthy bike rides, and Ian will often swap bikes with Lisette when her battery dies, having chivalrously lugged the extra weight of the battery around with him, but not engaging it for his own use. Sorted.
All good in theory but the first hurdle was finding Pierrefonds. It’s not as though you can miss it – it literally appears above the trees as you get close, looking like something straight out of a fairy tale. But Google had its own ideas about the route we should take through the forest, and there were a few points at which we thought we might have to spend the night in the forest.
The route Google offered led us deeper and deeper into the forest, with the path becoming narrower and narrower until it was the width of one bicycle tyre, and only obvious by the slightly flattened undergrowth.
In the end, we abandoned Google’s route and simply used the roads, once we fought our way out of the woods.
Château de Pierrefonds
Complete with our scratches and nettle welts we eventually found ourselves at the foot of a very steep hill, with a lake below and the castle of Pierrefonds shining above in the afternoon sun.
We first made our way to the local tourist bureau and without any trouble at all, a very nice young man showed us a convenient spot to plug in our battery and charger so it would recharge while we visited the castle.
You may recall from an earlier blog that Napoleon III decided not to refurbish the château at Coucy but instead to concentrate on Pierrefonds which is why it is in such good condition today. A castle had been on the site from the 12th century but it eventually fell into ruin in the 17th century.
Restoration began in 1857 by the architect Violet-le-Duc and continued for nearly 30 years at considerable expense. Eventually, the money ran out and work stopped. Most of the exterior has been restored to mediaeval conditions and a large portion, but not all, of the interior, has been crafted in the way Violet-le-Duc felt a mediaeval château should look – rather than how they actually looked.
It is incredibly impressive both inside and out.
Lacking a drone, here is a video overview of the castle using a detailed maquette that was on display:
Here are some gallery photos of the outside:
Although not a realistic reconstruction of the interior, it was in a medieval style as envisioned by Violet-le-Duc. One particular piece he created was a replication of a feature from the Château de Coucy, a representation of ‘Les Neuf Preuses’ – the nine princesses or worthies.
In medieval times, there was, what modern folks would call, a ‘meme’ where nine men of history representing valued characteristics of valour were the subject of art and culture. Sometime after the male version, a female group was established, these were (and credit to the judith2you blog for the information):
- three pagans (Lucretia – wife of Brutus, Veturia – mother of Coriolanus, Verginia – whose death prompted the re-establishment of the Roman Republic)
- three Jewesses from the Old Testament (Esther, Judith and Jael)
- three Christians from the Middle Ages (St Helena – mother of Constantine the Great, St Brigita of Sweden, and St Elisabeth of Hungary)
Violet-le-Duc subsumed these classical women and replaced them with contemporaries (real and literary) of the Empress Eugénie (wife of Napoleon III).
As we looked out from the upper floors, we could see another striking château across the lake. Later we learnt that this had been decrepit until recently when it was bought by a Russian oligarch who had been spending vast amounts of money to restore it. Locals were very happy about this because of the infusion of money and the potential for even more tourist activity. By chance, the day after our lengthy bike explorations, two local women stopped beside Catharina to chat – and told us that they were both born in one of the houses that sits beside the lake below. They now live in America and were back visiting family.
Almost by chance, we hit upon the catacombs of the Pierrefonds. What a find!
As we descended into the cool depths we were confronted by an extensive series of rooms and halls filled with statues. These were almost all representations or accurate reproductions of dead French notables. Heroes, kings, artists, nobles, priests, revolutionaries and more.
The statues were mostly plaster casts of stone versions that had been commissioned by Louis Phillippe the last king of France who, in 1833 considered that the French people had lost touch with their notable ancestors. He wanted to exhibit a huge collection of notables so that it would remind the populace of their heritage. Originally housed at Versailles, some 96 plaster casts have were transferred to Pierrefonds in 1953 while the original stone sculptures are scattered through a number of religious buildings in France.
They are arranged in various poses and groups along hundreds of metres of boardwalk. As we strolled by, in almost complete darkness, voices would begin to talk softly in French, telling their sad tales, while holographic images appeared and disappeared on the stone walls of the vault. Very impressive.
We headed back to the village below to have a beer. This was served outdoors in a blizzard of wasps. We tried indoors to escape with not much luck so decided to cut our losses and head back. First, we collected the charged battery from the Tourist Bureau. Then we headed off looking at Google to determine what might be good cycle tracks for the 15 km return trip. This went pretty well until…
Lisette noticed Ian’s rear tyre looked a little flat, but once it was pumped up we set off again into the deepening dusk. Unfortunately, just a little further on, all was not well and we decided the tyre was plainly punctured. Spare inner tube? Tick. Tools to pry off the tyre? Tick. Experience with changing the tyre of an electric bike? No tick.
Networks make the world go around, so Ian was quickly on the phone to our South African mates on Elle who have the same bikes. We knew from reading their blog that they had experienced and repaired numerous punctures. Shaun paused from his afternoon apertifs somewhere down south to give some very helpful hints.
So, not long after, the tyre was repaired just before we lost the last of the light (although we did lose the tools in the darkness, or maybe the swarm of vicious mozzies that beset us while fiddling with the bike carried them off). We made it back to Catharina, in the dark, safely and without a battery change.
A very full but immensely satisfying and memorable day.