Aristocratic Enterprise – the de Moustier Grands Lacs Estate

I have commented several times that the French don’t really need to go outside their own territories, and that they can find a wide range of environments within France itself. Here’s an example.

If anyone mentioned to me the idea of a holiday in a cabin floating on a lake, I’d find that what they really meant was either a houseboat or something built on the end of a dock in the USA. Or perhaps a cabin on stilts, like the ones in parts of Asia, the Caribbean or Polynesia. I certainly didn’t expect to find them on a lake in the temperate climate of northeast France.

Northeast of Besançon is the 150-hectare wetland estate called la Domaine des Grands Lacs. Here, the company Les Cabanes des Grands Lacs lets out tree houses, and cabins that actually float on the water, like the pontoons in a marina. The small ones are only accessible by boat, but most of the family cabins are at the end of floating pontoon walkways. Life is basic – minimal water supply and dry  toilets, and candles for illumination – but you are surrounded by curious catfish and waterfowl, got to sleep soon after sunset, and rise to the dawn and the sound of birds. For anything fancier, you need to take yoursef off to the campsite and its ablution blocks.

The domaine has belonged to the de Moustier family for six centuries, but they decided fairly recently to open it to the public, in order to pay for the upkeep of their family seat, the Chateau de Bournel. For thirty-odd years, the marquis Léonel de Moustier has run a 4-star campsite within the domaine, and his younger brother Georges runs the five lakes and a large grass-bordered beach leisure centre. A couple of years ago the marquis’ 26-year old son Gaspard set up his own back-to-nature’ business on the section run by his uncle. He started with tree houses, and last summer he added the floating cabins. It’s popular, so book early.

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A Loire Troglodyte Farm – and Villandry Chateau

Vivienne Mackie’s account of her visit to troglodyte dwellings near Saumur is consistently popular with France for Freebooters visitors, so I hunted for troglodyte videos on Vimeo.com. Here’s an interesting one.

In Azay-le-rideau, in the département of Indre-et-Loire, the beautiful Chateau Villandry is built from the local creamy-yellow ‘tuffeau’ (tufa, a kind of calcareous limestone that is a softer version of travertine marble). In the Middle Ages, the poorer folk didn’t dig up blocks of it and build elegant homes, they left it in place and dug out caves to live in and keep livestock.

The Chardon family has lovingly reconstructed one of these farms and stocked it with goats, donkeys and rabbits. The grandchildren love it.

The France 3 video documentary below is in French, but you should be able to follow a lot of it, as M Chardon shows the camera team round his troglodyte farm, and as today’s owner Henri Carvallo shows them round nearby Chateau de Villandry.

La ferme troglodytique from Benoît Poisson on Vimeo.

A Azay-le-rideau, la famille Chardon a redonné vie à trois fermes troglodytiques du Moyen-Age. De ces cavités où vivaient les paysans, on extrayait le tuffeau : une pierre meuble avec laquelle les châteaux de la Loire ont été bâtis.

Take a look at the Chateau de Villandry website for information about visits.

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Mo’orea – a yellow lizard in French Polynesia

If I had been raised there, I might never have bothered to go outside France and its overseas territories – they include examples of most of the comfortably habitable climates. I was born in the Tropics, but I’ve never lived on a tropical island, so I was pleased when my friend and south Pacific travel expert David Stanley sent me a copy of his Moon Handbook for Tahiti. (He sent me the paperback, but you can also buy it as a eBook if you are a Kindle fan).

Reading the book, and cross-checking by searching several online photo and video sites, quickly convinced me that I’d want to get out of Papeete, capital city of Tahiti, as fast as I could, and relax on the nearby island of Mo’orea (whose name means ‘yellow lizard’ in the local language). In fact, after digging a bit deeper into David’s book, I found my ideal: Dream Island. I could lounge around wearing a ‘pareo’ (and plenty of sun cream), play with amazingly tame rays (check out the rather low-resolution video gallery on Dream Island’s site), and take lazy boat trips across to the Mo’orea if I felt like it. I wonder if they’d let me hire a canoe and putter around at my own pace?

I would love to have embedded one of the Dream Island videos, but they’re nit set up for that. Below is a video of one activity on Mo’orea – the first bit is what gets the visitors and brings in the money, but the second part shows a more serious activity – turtle rescue and study. But the ‘play with a dolphin’ bit is the best of its kind that I’ve ever seen.

Thank you, David, for introducing me to French Polynesia, and the Windward islands in particular.

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Rickety Gothic Architecture – the Cathedral of Beauvais

There are many reasons why you might like to do a day trip to Beauvais: the huge Gothic Cathedral St Pierre; the two museums with their focus on local history and culture; and the resto “Les Vents d’Anges” (Breaths of Angels). Also, it’s not one of the fancy, really popular or common day trips out of Paris, so crowds of tourists and big tour buses are less frequent. You get to see somewhere outside of Paris very easily, and it’s in Picardie, a region famous for the battles along the River Somme in World War 1.

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Internal trusses support the fragile structure of this Gothic cathedral

The well-known song, Roses of Picardy, is a war-time ballad written in 1916 by Frederick Weatherby, which became one of the most famous songs from WW1. Various singers sang and recorded it after WW1, including Frank Sinatra, Mario Lanza and Yves Montand.

Interestingly, a minority of people still speak the Picard language, one of the languages of France. It’s a Romance language related to French.
To get there, catch the train from Gare du Nord (one per hour, leaving one minute after the hour: ours was 11:01am from platform 20, 19.80 euro return pp, with senior reduction!). Get tickets from the SNCF ticket office in the main entrance lobby of the station. It’s best to buy a return ticket there and don’t forget to “composter” your ticket on the platform before getting on the train. We rushed onto the train, forgetting to “composter” at the yellow machine on the platform, and the conductor was a bit peeved! The trip takes about 75 minutes with 6-7 other stops, through some pretty countryside.

When you get out at Beauvais station, walk left along rue de la République, at the end of which you’ll find the massive Eglise St Etienne (Church of St Stephen). To the side, in an enclosed grassy square, is a wonderful café, Les Vents D’Anges, where we stopped for lunch (see below).

After lunch we wandered to the famous Cathedral St Pierre, past the Hotel de Ville and the big town square, which still had a carrousel and remnants of the earlier Saturday local market. The cathedral is enormous, with an interesting story and chequered history. Besides being the world’s highest Gothic structure, it is also incomplete. Construction started in 1225 and it was meant to be the greatest and tallest church in Christendom, but over the centuries the construction had many problems and structural collapses, starting in 1284 when part of the choir collapsed. From 1500-1548 the transept was constructed and a 153m spire was completed in 1569, but in 1573 the spire and 3 levels of the bell tower collapsed. The nave was started in 1600, but never finished and is the only cathedral without a nave today. Because there is no nave to help support the structure and because of its great height, the cathedral is very unstable and fragile, so trusses and beams are needed to help stabilize it. Today only the choir and the transept exist, both so impressive that we can hardly imagine what the dreamed-of finished product may have been.

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Saint Pierre Cathedral with external scaffolding

Right now, the front is dazzling white as it’s been cleaned, and scaffolding on the side shows that is being currently worked on. Inside it’s cool, as it’s stone, and towering tall, impressive and awe-inspiring. We see the many wooden beams at various angles shoring it up, to prevent any collapse (again), showing us just how fragile it must be. Of note are the astronomical clock (not in motion when we were there) and some very pretty stained glass windows.

Next door, in the former Bishops Palace, is the Regional Museum of Oise. It’s free and open year-round, with limited hours during the winter months. We just breezed through, to get a feel, and to see the architecture and the garden. You enter through a 16th century gateway, linked by an aile (wing) to the Renaissance Palace erected for Bishop Louis-Villiers de L’Isle-Adam (1497-1521) over the foundation of an earlier 12th century structure.

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Gaul Warrior of Saint-Maur

The good art collection spans a long period, from a Gaul warrior of Saint-Maur, through medieval stone and wood sculptures, French art of the 16th century, through 19th and 20th century collections. The museum also hosts special exhibitions, usually on the top floor of the main palace building. Another thing we learned is that this town and area is famous for ceramics, which must be why the train station is decorated with some stunning ceramic “picture plaques”.

On the other side of the cathedral, in a modern building that is built over, and incorporates, some Gallo-Roman ruins, is the Tapestry Museum, also free. We breezed through it too—interesting, but not quite what we expected as most/many of the pieces are modern and pretty abstract. One wall does have some old tapestries, as well as newer ones with political themes from Russia and China.
Over the road is a bar/resto/salon du the called Le Zinc Bleu, which seems popular with locals and was about to host a music festival of some sort. We had tea there, with a great view of the cathedral opposite. A fun day trip.

Les Vents d’Anges
This little restaurant is on the corner of a semi-enclosed grassy square next to Eglise St Etienne. In the warm weather, staff set some tables outside. It’s very pleasant with the daisy-studded grass and the huge grey stone structure almost within touch. As we peer up, and a slight breeze ruffles through the trees, it is possible to imagine that maybe some angels are somewhere close by. The restaurant only offers a set midi formule for 17 euros each, (fixed lunch-time menu) written on an ardoise (chalkboard). We took the entrée and plat (appetizer and main dish), which turned out to be terrine a la maison with salad and a plate of charcuterie; followed by lieu noir (a fish) with pasta and haricots verts (green beans), or faux fillet with mashed potatoes and haricots verts. All very nice with really attentive service.
It was doing very well that Saturday, obviously popular with the locals as many family groups came. When we walked past later, the outside tables had been moved and been set up inside a “tent” at the front, as it still gets a little cool at night in March. We would definitely return.

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Triassic Period Rubbish in Saint-Nicholas-de-Port

Here’s a tale from Trevor Dykes, retrieved from the archives of an earlier version of France for Freebooters.

Triassic Rubbish

Saint-Nicolas-de-Port in northeastern France is a small town with a remarkable rubbish tip. In general, rubbish tips get a poor press, but they do have their grateful fans. A large specimen in Bochum, Germany is frequented in the summer by a man dressed in rags adorned with litter. Sometimes, he buries himself in the garbage, leaps out and grabs startled passers-by. Everybody needs a hobby, and he works at various jobs during the rest of the year to pay for this pleasure. Before anybody phones the police, I should point out he’s an ornithologist and the surprised pedestrians are feathered. Although not everybody’s cup of tea, this activity has enabled him to amass an impressive database recording where these birds have flown in from. (They’re generally wearing rings and a surprising number pop down from Scandinavia.) As well as indulging his interest, this effort is scientific fieldwork.

Many archaeologists and historians have fed their knowledge from rubbish tips as well. If you want to find out about available foodstuffs on a Polynesian island a thousand years ago, then garbage is the stuff to look for. (Some journalists have developed a similar approach to investigating the private lives of rock stars.) Sometimes, a comparison of tips from different ages can provide evidence on changes in the flora and fauna. The remains of giant moas don’t turn up in Maori rubbish beyond about 600 years ago, whereas their bones suggest these three-and-a-half metre big birds kindly supplied a third of the nutritional requirements in earlier centuries. Their absence in later kitchen refuge reflects very bad news for giant moas. They’d gone extinct, as they weren’t terribly good at hiding.

Natural junk

Rubbish isn’t a human invention. The White Cliffs of Dover are mainly composed of countless mini shells, which are no longer required by their long dead manufacturers. As the area was then covered by a shallow, warm sea the deposits built up pretty much in situ. A similar deposition of chalk is presently underway in the Caribbean.

Blind librarians are at work archiving natural rubbish. Rivers carry large volumes of litter to the sea, while dropping off heavier material at convenient locations along the way. Tides may then take over responsibility for further sorting and distribution. Where the waste ends up is determined by size, density and prevailing currents. These utterly brainless forces can be very diligent archivists, and heaps of naturally sorted debris can also provide fascinating information.

This brings us back to Saint-Nicolas-de-Port. Although the modern rubbish tip in what used to be a quarry may have its admirers, my interest centres on the older trash below it. The rock contains a layer varying in thickness from a mere twenty centimetres to a modest metre. This was archived many years ago by natural blind librarians, and long thrown out junk provides an intriguing glimpse into the lives of dead residents from a neighbouring area. Some of the remains can’t have been originally discarded here, because the place was under water at the time. The same applied to much of Europe. In this case, ‘many years’ refers to about 215 million of them. This was towards the end of the Triassic. Europe was an archipelago of islands peering out of a shallow sea.

This thin layer is what’s technically known as a bonebed, although (certainly with regards to the remains of landlubbers), toothbed would be apter. It must’ve been close to land and may have been part of a river delta.

Of fossils and fossilers

When the mind turns to Mesozoic landlubbers, images of huge, terrifying dinosaurs tend to ring the bells and turn on the lights, and remains of relatively early representatives have been found here. Pterosaurs may be in flight in the background of the mind’s eye, and they’ve also been recovered. However, Mesozoic wildlife was much more varied than the narrow cast list of dino movies might suggest. Most terrestrial vertebrates (land animals with backbones) were tiddlers. As their fossils also turned up, this is a microvertebrate site.

According to Hollywood, fossiling is typically conducted by paleontologists of vigour and beauty, so the movies are partly accurate. They descend upon some God forsaken wilderness, and the air is electric with sex appeal and carnal longing. Again, this reflects reality. It’s during the scene in which the lead characters are finally overwhelmed by their primeval urges, that fantasy takes over. They tear off their clothes and begin making passionate love by a conveniently exposed, complete specimen of a twenty foot Tearyourheadoffsaurus. The presence of such a skeleton is highly unlikely. Saint-Nicolas-de-Port hasn’t provided any.

What it has yielded is an insight into an ancient, diverse ecosystem. The variety may have been enhanced somewhat by the presence of an archipelago, as even relatively close lying islands can provide homes for different species, as Darwin noticed in the Galapagos Islands. I’m most concerned with one particular group of vertebrates. For the moment all that’s relevant is their size; small or smaller. To emphasize this, I’m going to mention the extreme case; a fossil with a length of less than half-a-centimetre. It’s quite amazing that such a slither should attract anybody’s attention in a quarry. Of course, a better understanding is gained when the more typical size spectrum is introduced. It’s between one and two millimetres. To add to the fun, these miniscule fossils have been found only in isolation among sand and other sediment, and they’re rarities. To offer a comparison, I’ve just spilt some black peppercorns on the kitchen floor, and hope nobody goes in there before my wife gets home. They have a diameter of three to four millimetres, and are thus three times larger than most of those fossils. This raises a good question.

How on Earth does anyone find stuff that small in a quarry?

I maintain looking for a needle in a haystack (on a concrete floor) would be easier. Paleontologists are resourceful people, and habitually select efficient methods. Doing things the complicated way is evidence of stupidity. For the haystack challenge, a paleontologist might employ a supply of petrol bombs, a discrete distance and a metal detector. You’d probably be able to get on with your sewing within a few hours.

(I’ve had the pleasure to correspond with a paleontologist who has employed dynamite to find fossils; excavated below sea level in a cove; persuaded Cadburys to donate and deliver a cubic metre of chocolate by helicopter; and charmed an Australian airline into lending a passenger plane, so as to give his new friend, Quantassaurus, a joy ride around the continent. I’m confident he’d find the needle more quickly than most.)

In order to find really small and rare fossils, you must first discover where to look and then search very thoroughly indeed. Before the modern rubbish arrived, that’s what happened with that thin rock layer at Saint-Nicolas-de-Port. Several tons of sediment were laboriously excavated. They were then methodically sorted by whatever means were available, (sieves, lots of water and floatation in chemicals are among the usual techniques), in order to isolate material of the correct ranges of density and size. Anything which met those qualifications was then eye-strainingly examined. Finally, the fossils were safely catalogued, stored and, eventually, meticulously described. Work like this stretches out over decades.

So here’s a taste….

Taking a Triassic stroll

Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for your attention. As we’re now appropriately equipped with some background information, the time has come for us to leave the craft and commence our short ramble. I’m sorry the few hours available might not obviously be reflected in the prices we’re forced to charge for this tour, but travelling back to the Upper Triassic is ruinously expensive. You can all count yourselves lucky for being able to afford it. Please feel free to ignore any instructions I may give, but do so at your own risk. Should you happen to get lost, then you probably won’t have too many difficulties to face, as there’s little likelihood of you surviving for very long. This would be a good time to remove your shoes and socks and roll up your trousers. The water’s both shallow and reasonably warm.

A short paddle later

I’m pleased you mentioned those ‘crocodiles’ madam. They are quite small but thoroughly vicious. There are some larger, three metre ones around as well. Fortunately, these animals are far enough away, so there’s probably no reason for concern. Although, especially at this distance, they look more like crocodiles than anything else, they’re not actually even reptiles. These are amphibians called capitosaurs. They’re not fussy about what they eat and nor are the phytosaurs. I can see one of those heading in our direction. Phytosaurs are reptiles. They’re still more crocodile-like, but not closely related either.

There are a couple of obvious distinctions between phytosaurs and crocs. Perhaps the most significant is that these animals are due for extinction. Even at this distance, you’ll notice the phytosaur snout is narrower, as it cuts through the water. The bulk of the upper half is built from a different jaw bone. This is the premaxilla rather than the maxilla, should anybody have received an anatomy book for Christmas. As that specimen’s getting close enough for a further distinction to be visible, (the nostrils are towards the eyes rather than in proximity to the front of the mouth), I think we should wade towards the shore with more urgency. That one can’t even be a couple of metres in length and my stun gun would immobilize it instantly. At least, that’s what it says in the brochure.

Now look, sir, this isn’t a good time for a discussion on anatomy. You may have recently been on holiday in South Africa but I assure you, it isn’t a crocodile. This is the Triassic not the Transkei. It’s a phytosaur. Presently, most crocs are small things, and many run around on two legs. They’re typically found on land, and I think we should join them with haste. That thing’s catching us up. I hope there are batteries in this stun gun, because I didn’t actually check. Come along please.

All ashore

I’m sorry about any cuts and bruises, but we only had to scramble up a low cliff. If some know-all hadn’t started shouting about his holiday, we wouldn’t have needed to rush at all. As if a three-week bloody holiday makes him an expert! Anyway, somebody would’ve fared far worse in the water than a few cuts and bruises, and I have a personal preference as to whom. Pardon? Complain as loudly as you like. As I said: please feel free to ignore any instructions, but be it at your own risk. And if you’re going to walk off in a huff, sir, then that’s your privilege. However, you’re 215 million years from home, and you’ll find your golden credit cards don’t work here. Now please, either enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime view or at least stop moaning. You’re spoiling things for everybody else. Am I right, ladies and gentlemen? I thank you for the applause.

It’s a very warm day, but they generally are at this time of global history. As you can see, it’s a more arid landscape than the French Tourist Board would wish for. The plants are extremely un-Gallic. I can’t actually tell you what any of them are, because no fossils of terrestrial flora will be found in that bonebed. I can say what some aren’t. We’re far too early for most of our familiar vegetation. In our time, the majority of plants is provided by a group called angiosperms; flowering plants in the broadest sense. These include flowers, grasses, vegetables, fruit and many trees. It’s just as well we brought along a supply of coffee, wine and orange juice. None would otherwise have been available. I expect the landscape’s dominated by ferns, conifers, ginkgoes and other more exotic vegetation, but I’m not sure.

A sea view

Tropical storms can be very violent, but the surface of the sea is beautifully calm today. It’s a picture postcard view, with the gentle waves glistening in the sunlight. It’s perfect weather for fishing, and that’s what those pterosaurs are up to. These animals are some of the earliest representatives to have been spotted so far, and should the ornithologist in Bochum ever leap out at one, then his databank would require some drastic modifications, and his rubbish tip would be buried beneath a layer of baffled paleontologists. Hollywood would be disappointed at the size, but these pterosaurs are nevertheless attractive to watch as they swoop down to the water. There’s one trying its luck now. What a sight! Oh, it’s flown off empty handed. Never mind. There are plenty more fish in the sea, but there’s not a great variety of them. Although common, the vast majority of fish fossils represent the same species for some reason.

Only pterosaur teeth will be available here for researchers. As these are very similar to the contents of contemporary mouths found in Italy, they’ll be assigned to the same genus; Eudimorphodon. We know they enjoyed fishing because: a. the teeth have widely-spaced spikes which are excellent for keeping hold of slippery prey; b. we can see them at it.

If you’d care to look over towards those trees, there are smaller pterosaurs hunting on and just above the ground. They’re trying to eradicate the insects, although these animals aren’t particularly experienced operatives. Should any of your homes be blessed with infestations, then I’d ring the town hall rather than this lot. These are juvenile Eudimorphodon. The teeth differ in accordance with age, and that indicates differing diets for kids and adults. This is common enough in our own time. Young iguanas are insectivores, while mature animals are generally herbivores. Should you require more convincing, then gatecrash a five-year-old’s birthday party, but be prepared for the joys of jelly with ketchup.

As with the plants, I can’t tell you anything about the insects, as no remains of those will be known either. However, their presence is certain enough. There’s a large variety of insect eaters in the local fauna, and that points to a plentiful supply of food. Besides, you could have a picnic on the moon and wasps would still somehow track your jam sandwiches down. As it happens, evidence of wasps in the Triassic is debatable. You’d probably be better off eating here than lunar lunching, but the travelling costs are out of this world in comparison.

Local labourers

Madam, why are you taking snapshots in the wrong direction? The cute Eudimorphodon are towards the nondescript trees I took the trouble of mentioning. Yes, of course I can see those ‘huge monsters’. I’m not the one with defective eyesight and a diminished attention span. They’re only half-a-dozen of the local gardeners. There are thirty or forty baby pterosaurs, so it’d make more sense to watch them. Oh very well, but the things really aren’t of much interest. These are plant-eating dinosaurs called Plateosaurus. They aren’t even particularly big. The longest can’t quite manage seven metres. If you hang around for sixty million years, there’ll be sauropods four times that size.

Plateos are prosauropods, and they’ve spread all over the world. (Did I mention we’re still in the days of Pangaea? Most the landmasses on the planet happened to crash into each other about forty million years ago. What with that and the most catastrophic mass-extinction in history, it was a bad hair day for biodiversity. Still, Pangaea is fracturing, so things will become more varied as the Mesozoic progresses.)

Anyway, prosauropods provide the largest land animals on the planet, and they do some of the gardening. End of story. Oh, there are at least three more herbivorous dinos around who help out. And I suppose I might as well mention the dozen meat-eaters who try to be disruptive. These are dinosaurs and near-relatives. They’re generally a metre or two in length, although five metres has been reported from elsewhere in Europe. That’s not too surprising. Somebody has to keep Plateosaurus on its toes. If they were left totally unmolested, these prosauropods would get little exercise and their meat wouldn’t be worth eating. Actually, as it’ll be getting dark in an hour, I think we should head back to the craft. The caterers shoved one in the oven a few hours ago, so our Victorious Eucynodonts’Celebrationary Supper should nearly be ready by the time we arrive.

I said eucynodonts, sir. Is deafness also part of your impressively wide range of impairments? This is a Mesozoic Eucynodont Safari. It’s written on the cover of the tour guide. Perhaps somebody would help out by reading it to him, as I doubt he could manage something so onerous. It’d probably be best to read it very slowly though; Eu-cyn-o-don’t. Notice how ‘eu’ should be pronounced like ‘you’.

Of course I haven’t shown you any! They’re predominantly nocturnal. That means they come out when the sun has gone to bed. Given the rest of your defects, I doubt you’re fitted with infra-red vision. Now stop being disruptive or you can bloody well stay here. However, be it at your own risk. By the looks of you, there’s not enough meat for a decent meal, but some of the local wildlife are stupid enough to try anything, no matter how unappetising. This would be a very bad place to be stranded in.

That reminds me. I think this is a suitable time to pass round a hat. Should anybody wish to show their appreciation, then any loose change would be welcome. Of course, nobody should feel obliged to give anything, but we still have to wade back through water infested with big, ravenous amphibians and phytosaurs, and it pays to indulge me. There may be a connection between generosity and personal survival. Thank you, madam, but I think you accidentally left something in your purse, and that’s a very nice watch you’re wearing.

The Victorious Eucynodonts’ Celebrationary Supper

I must say, although Plateosaurusis a most uninteresting animal, the caterers know how to bring out the flavour. That was the most expensive meal you’re ever likely to have, and it didn’t taste too bad.

Right this moment, back on land, some truly fascinating animals are coming out to hunt. Their remains are the rare treasures in the Saint-Nicolas-de-Port trove. They will be known here only from tiny teeth. These animals are eucynodonts, ‘true dog teeth’, and so am I. Eucynodonts include mammals and their nearest non-mammalian relatives. Many of you may never have heard the word before today, but most should nonetheless be capable of appreciating it. For the sake of familiarity, let’s say it our loud together; Eu-cyn-o-donts. Well done.

Despite operating under the cloak of darkness and being very small, over twenty different species will be identified. Probably the majority are non-mammals, but it’s not entirely clear in all cases. Drawing a line between mammals and their most immediate relatives is literally a trivial pursuit. The demarcation is a faint shade of grey, and it actually gets placed in various positions.

One strict approach is to define Mammalia as being the most recent common ancestor of a duckbilled platypus, an echidna and myself, and all of its descendants. When so seen, then none of the animals scampering around nearby would qualify. I prefer to be more inclusive. According to my own unqualified, informal opinion, mammals began with the first critter who could suckle and replaced its teeth no more often than once. Of course, you can’t directly tell that from isolated molars, so it’s just as well fuller information is known from elsewhere. Slightly more generous definitions are also available. None of the local residents give a damn about whether they’re mammals or not, and I respect their views on this matter. It’s not important.

Bleak future

Nevertheless, according to any available definition, many of the eucynodonts here are small representatives of what used to be called ‘mammal-like reptiles’, and that phrase may sound familiar. But, as that lineage could actually have emerged before reptiles, (and the available evidence strongly suggests I had no reptilian ancestors), that name has been abandoned for synapsids. We eucynodonts are probably the only synapsids to have survived beyond about 225 million years before my birth. Previously, our relatives dominated the land. Here, at the end of the Triassic, we’re small creatures living in the shadows of dinosaur tyranny, and their dictatorship is growing ever more repressive. At least the diversity at Saint-Nicolas-de-Port indicates we have some kind of future, but it looks highly restricted and squeaky. We have to survive mainly on a diet of grubs, worms and insects. The richer pickings are reserved for the stomachs of our oppressors. Even should we eucynodonts unite and rise in rebellion, we wouldn’t stand a cat in hell’s chance. Of course, if we can hold out, things might somehow change in the future, but it’d probably require a miracle.

One miracle later

As we’ve just feasted our attentions on a Plateosaurus, the miraculous happened. At this point in time though, we’d have to wait 150 million years for it. However defined, at least two-thirds of mammalian history is Mesozoic. This is not widely appreciated.

Heroes of Saint-Nicolas-de-Port

I’m now going to give a brief introduction to the resident eucynodonts, starting with the non-mammals. Any suggestion of their body sizes will be wobbly guesses based on isolated teeth, and not necessarily appropriate comparisons with fuller material from elsewhere. Whether correct or not, if all you have are tiny molars, they definitely weren’t donated by something the size of a fox or a tiger.

Non-mammalian carnivores

The local fauna contains at least six genera (and eight species) of non-mammalian meat-eaters. One of them is the largest relevant resident. None of them are known to have survived beyond the Triassic. (A few non-mammalian insectivores will reach the Lower Jurassic, but they are members of a family not found here and quickly vanish from the fossil record.) A good explanation for these disappearances is provided by mammals. Their tastes must be very similar. A family of non-mammalian plant-eaters will fare better and make it to the Lower Cretaceous.

Our local giant is called Meurthodon. The molars have similarities with earlier fossils from South America. However, they’re a bit more mammal-like in that they have two roots. The division of those roots begins below the gum line. If it began at the gum line, the crown was somewhat more complex, and the uppers and lowers were properly aligned, then these teeth would be mammalian. (A bit of shelving at the sides for a few small cusps would’ve been beneficial, but Meurthodondoesn’t have that.) The size range of specimens is between 1.85 and 4.25 millimetres. Based on the largest, I’m prepared to guess the owner might grow to over 30 centimetres in length, and perhaps even 40. Meurthodon is possibly up to kitten-sized, and that’s our local giant. It’s the only eucynodont in the area which could have much of a chance, when it comes to making a meal of small vertebrates. I don’t know what prey it favours, but smaller nocturnal critters is a possibility that comes to mind.

The other non-mammalian meat-eaters can only be insectivores, and they presumably come in shrew to rat formats. The collection of molars includes specimens which are reminiscent of the basal mammal style, but they’re not quite near enough. The closest are three species of a genus called Tricuspes, and they’ve been referred to as mammals on some occasions. The distinctions are small but real. Tricuspescould be a very close relative of Mammalia. However, unless or until more substantial fossils are found, it wouldn’t be advisable to place large bets on that. What’s clear is these molars are broadly similar to the teeth I would expect to find in the mouths of my ancient ancestors. Expectations can’t always be relied upon.

Plant lovers

As well as the enthusiastic entomologists, our community also includes half-a-dozen botanists. Three of them are the most recent available evidence of animals called traversodonts. That family emerged by the start of the Middle Triassic and it prospered. The only continents where none have yet been found are Antarctica and Australasia. During the earliest part of the Upper Triassic, some traversodonts attained lengths of a couple of metres, and the family was a serious candidate for developing megaherbivores. As things turned out, they mostly disappeared in a wave of extinctions about 225 million years before I was born. The rise of herbivorous dinosaurs occurred at a similar time. These shrew-sized Europeans seem to be the last pipsqueaks of a once promising line. Even their closest friend call them dwarfs.

Among the more common of the local eucynodonts are three species of herbivores known as haramiyids. This group will reach the Jurassic, and their emergence could account for the extinction of the similarly sized dwarf traversodonts. The timing’s right. It’s uncertain as to quite what these animals are. Apart from some jaw and pieces of bone from Greenland, fossil evidence is restricted to teeth. These are so distinctive, that it’s not yet possible to pinpoint their wider relationships with certainty. It’s not even clear whether they can be fitted into Mammalia. Remains mostly come from Europe but some have turned up in Inner Mongolia. Haramiyid teeth will be fairly numerous in Lower Jurassic rock, but then become rarer. The line seems destined to run out in the Upper Jurassic of Tanzania. Haramiyid-like gnashers will be identified there in the late 20th century.

The star of the show

So far, ladies and gentlemen, the only eucynodonts we’ve actually seen have been derived forms known as humans. As this is a Mesozoic Eucynodont Safari that’s unfair but it’s not my fault. The animals here are small, nocturnal and only represented by isolated teeth. Given those factors, how could I show you a living specimen?

The answer’s obvious enough. I could cheat. While we were sinking our highly sophisticated choppers into that Plateosaurus, (traversodonts should’ve filled the ecological niche, so the usurper deserved to be eaten!), a couple of assistants dashed off to the Lower Jurassic of China. I’ve just had a signal that their mission was successful. I’m now going to walk over to that small curtain and show you what they brought back. Please, try not to cheer or clap too loudly. Our star isn’t used to the sounds of excited primates. I’m sweating and shaking with tension, and I’ve seen this before. I can well appreciate how the adrenalin must by racing in all of you. We’re all doubtlessly close to, if you’ll permit the comparison, orgasm. Yes madam, that’s the word I used. This sight promises to be as thrilling as the greatest sex you’ve ever had, but try not to shout out in joy and exaltation. Oh, you’ve never had… In your case, madam, that’s something which nobody would blame me for. We’ve spared no effort to provide you with this arousing climax, as you’ll surely appreciate from the details supplied with the supplementary bill.

Before I pull this drawstring, kindly shut up. This is a moment which demands the deepest reverence. I can’t introduce the earliest mammal. The diversity in the local fauna suggests it’s already been dead for a long time. However, I can show you a very close descendant. It has agreed to represent the first mammal. The teeth in this beauty match some from Saint-Nicholas-de-Port extremely closely. Ladies and gentlemen, I now present our stand in for the Big Mamma of all Mammalia!

Raising the curtain on Big Mamma

There she is! What d’you mean, where? She’s in the corner of the twilight simulating aquarium, hiding in that little tunnel. If you look very carefully, you can make out the tip of her tail. While we were ashore, I collected up a few grubs and insects in a matchbox. I’m going to let them run and wriggle around just by the entrance. That might entice her out.

It’s working. The tail’s been withdrawn, she’s turned around, and you can see her delightful little nose beginning to snuffle. She’s coming out to play. This is none other than Morganucodon. Look at that fine snout. The mighty skull reaches a length of 2.5 centimetres, and the beautiful body brings the count towards ten. Morganucodonis the size of a mouse. How lovely, she’s decided to attack one of the creepy crawlies. She’s swallowing it rapaciously. She may be hungry after the journey, but it’s mainly because she’s not all that good at chewing. Actually, she can chew food far more effectively than almost anything else that ever lived before, but there’s still plenty of scope for refinement.

Morganucodonmeans ‘Morgan’s tooth’, and the first fossils will be found in Lower Jurassic Glamorgan. These will be mostly jaws and teeth with other bits and pieces. Later, Triassic teeth will turn up in various European locations including here. I sent my assistants to China because a number of complete skulls will be recovered, and a further species will be identified in Arizona. As much of the landmass of the world is presently in one block, such a wide range isn’t too surprising. Indeed, close relatives will also reach South Africa and India.

Basal Mammalia

This animal has the most primitive molars in the mammalian repertoire. The lowers feature a straight line of three main cusps running along the centre from front to back, and the middle of them is by far the largest. It’s also got some neat shelving at the sides and extra small cusps. For the molars which have two roots (not all do) the separation begins at the gum line. The way the teeth are arranged is also important. Unlike in non-mammals, the uppers and lowers are directly aligned, (occlusion). That means they operate as a team rather than an assemblage of individuals. And that helps to explain why this animal can chew relatively effectively, (albeit not when compared to more derived mammals).

However, this also raises a couple of difficulties. If she kept replacing teeth, then the alignment would be severely disrupted. A tooth cannot usefully occlude with an empty gap. Plenty of jaws are available and none provide any evidence of multiple replacement. (Some signs would be expected from a reasonably wide sample.) Morganucodon has only two sets of dentition; milk and adult teeth. Furthermore, because the molars directly occlude, they bash against each other with regularity. This produces well-defined wear facets, which aren’t found on non-mammalian teeth. If it weren’t for strengthened enamel, the uppers and lowers would rapidly smash each other into ruins. As it happens, the enamel of Morganucodonis lousy. She deals with the problem by using a different strategy. She dies of starvation due to thoroughly wrecked molars. Actually, they usually get killed before that happens. If you’ve got a short life span, then the best enamel in the world would be of very limited help.

Another dental innovation is the specialisation of postcanine teeth into two distinct kinds. This animal has both
molars
and premolars, and
that’s a mammalian monopoly.

Take a look at those legs!

How dare you, sir? She doesn’t look weird. You’re just not used to it. Her legs are beautiful. They’re meant to stick out to the sides. That’s how they’re made. It might mean she runs in a jerky waddle, but she was far too fast for that worm, which is now being demolished and gulped down. At least, I think it was a worm. It’s beyond recognition. If we could just increase the size by about 50 times, Plateosauruswould be in severe trouble. In the modern world, should your tastes be for ferocity, than don’t waste time with lions and sharks. Go for small mammalian insectivores. They require plenty of fuel, have to kill frequently, and their victims can sometimes be bigger and heavily armoured. If a lone lion fails with 80% of its attacks, it’ll have more than enough to eat. A shrew can’t afford to be so unsuccessful. It needs three times its own bodyweight per day. James Dean was a slow coach when it came to living fast and dying young.

Jawing about ears

I’ve heard several people muttering about the ears. It’s true. She doesn’t appear to have any. The reality is that’s she’s got the bee’s knees when it comes to acoustics, but no sticky up ears. I’ve got three little bones for processing sound. Well, six to be accurate, as I’ve got a pair of ears. These bones are the
stapes,
malleus and
incus.

There will now be a few funny words, but there’s no requirement to remember them. If anybody so wishes, they can be referred to subsequently for finding more information. My entire lower jaw is a single bone called the dentary. She’s got a few other bones still attached to it, but they’re very small. I keep my jaw connected to the skull with the help of an upper bone called the squamosal. ‘Morgan’s tooth’ has the same arrangement. However, she retains a vestigial second joint as well; the
articular-quadrate
. Those two bones are also used for listening. Later in evolutionary history, they’ll be pushed a bit to the side and become completely incorporated into the ear. They’ll be the malleus and incus. Something very similar happened to me. As I was an embryo at the time, I can’t truthfully claim to remember the experience. Her hearing may not be as well-developed as mine, but it’s high-tech for the age, and a damned sight better than some of you lot can manage.

Watching this beautiful mammal scamper around really is giving me an incredible feeling of orgasm, madam. How was it for you? Oh, sorry, I forgot. Wow. I think I’m about ready for a cigarette.

Post natal

As I’m sure you’ve gathered, I could extol the virtues of ‘Morgan’s tooth’ for a great many hours. My spirit is willing me to continue, but my flesh is weak and time is drawing on. Saint-Nicolas-de-Port is clearly not the birth place of Mammalia. Somewhat older fossils have been reported from other locations. A few possibly mammalian fossils have ages of 225 million years. (Note: possibly implies possibly not.) Even if we rudely ignore the enigmatic, plant-munching haramiyids, that still leaves at least another six species of mammal in this assemblage. That alone shows the first mammal must have appeared earlier, but an Upper Triassic birth date is probable. (The available evidence now leaves no room for serious doubt that all mammals are literal descendants of a single common ancestor.)

The rest of the gang
Two of the other local mammals are close relatives of delicious Morganucodon. They’re variations on a similar theme. Another pair are harder to place. They could be forerunners of a group called docodonts. These animals will develop highly complex molars on very archaic jaws, and they’ll be most widespread during the Upper Jurassic.

The final couple are ferociously known as kuehneotherians, and are sometimes called symmetrodonts. According to one train of thought, Kuehneotherium (‘Kuehne’s beast’) and Co give rise to all living mammals with the exceptions of the platypus and echidnas. The evidence for this is less than overwhelming. There’s a significantly different arrangement of the three main cusps on the lower molars, and it enhanced the efficiency. However, as it’s a relatively simple adjustment, a similar change could happen on several occasions. Nevertheless, Kuehneotherium teeth are more similar to those of most later mammals, than is the case for Morganucodon.

I mentioned a central line of three main cusps, and it’s not difficult to illustrate; x X x. If the middle cusp was pushed towards the side of the molar, (up or down in that depiction), then the three would form a triangle. A triangulated blade happens to be a more effective cutter than a straight one. You get more cut per bite. Most subsequent mammals, (and virtually all our modern mammals), either have this triangulated pattern in one form or another, or are descended from animals who possessed it. As the apex of the triangle is always on the external side of the tooth, (as in Kuehneotherium), this characteristic must be present in their most recent common ancestor. It cannot have arisen independently in each lineage.

The final question

It’s amazing what can be found in or beneath a load of rubbish. If you’ve followed half of that, you’ve got the basis of a reasonable introduction to early Mesozoic mammalian evolution. Before we return to the future, one important question requires an answer. Which of you is going to do the washing up?

Back to the Introduction

The author, and a few links

Trevor Dykes (not a paleontologist)

January 2005.

Enquiries, death threats, lucrative suggestions? Mail to: ktdykes@arcor.de

Links

More information on Mesozoic mammals and their closest relatives can be found at: Mammal Shorts .

This page offers a few highly-accessible articled on mammals and relatives.

Further eucynodont fossil sites are explored at:


Mesozoic Eucynodonts, Location Summaries

These articles are written in various styles, and they include a less humorous summary of
Saint-Nicolas-de-Port with a listing of the eucynodont species.

Mesozoic Eucynodonts, an internet directory .

It’s an extensive project, and some parts are likely to be challenging for the uninitiated.
However, baffling words can be looked up or ignored. This has recently been recommended as suitable further reading for students in a standard university textbook, so it can’t be too bad.

Humorous assaults on sense and understanding can be experienced at:

Dykesian Humour

Some is slightly off track while most is in hitherto unexplored territory.

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An Unusual French Museum: St-Martin-des-Champs – aeroplanes in a church

Another gem from Vivienne Mackie

Man’s Dream of Flight and a Wish for Angels

entrancecourtyard 300x225 An Unusual French Museum: St Martin des Champs   aeroplanes in a church

Museum entrance courtyard

You’ll find these two juxtaposed at the Musee des Arts et Metiers in Paris. This wonderful museum is not obviously listed in most guidebooks (even Rick Steves). If it is, it might be listed as ‘Musee National des Techniques’ or ‘Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers’. This omission is a shame as it’s a really great museum housed in a former Priory, so the setting itself is worth a visit. We found out about it in the current Greater Paris magazine the last time we were in the city.

At the time of our visit there was a special exhibit on the Development of Radio in France, for which you pay extra, but we didn’t go to that, because we’ve never been to this museum before and wanted to see the regular permanent exhibits—-which takes time.

*Note: The special exhibit “Radio: Ouvrez Grand Vos Oreilles!” (Radio: Open your Ears Wide, or Radio: Listen Up!) is on from February 28-September 2, 2012.

The museum is in the former Priory of St.-Martin-des-Champs, originally founded in 1060 by Henri 1, and given to the Abbey of Cluny in 1079. After the French Revolution it was assigned to the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers and the collections of Vaucanson (1709-1782) and other scientists were gathered here. Jacques de Vaucanson was a French inventor who was responsible for innovative automata and machines, including the first totally automated loom. The first administrator of the Conservatoire was Joseph-Michel Montgolfier (1740-1810) who, with his brother Jacques-Etienne, was the inventor of the air-balloon in 1783. The museum was renovated in 2000 and now has 7 collections on 3 floors.

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Foucault pendulum in foreground

This is another fascinating museum that was a first for us. We’re not quite sure how it happened that we missed it all those other visits to Paris, but are very happy to have now rectified that. That day there were many groups of school kids, who obviously had projects and “treasure hunts” to complete, but it’s big enough to absorb large numbers of visitors mostly. This science and mechanical and technical engineering museum emphasizes industry, communication, transportation, and measurement, focusing on leading inventors and inventions in each area. There’s a fantastic collection of instruments—some originals and some models—and many interesting old planes and cars. After all, France was the leader in car manufacturing!

I didn’t study science much at school or university, but still it was a fascinating place for me—because what it focuses on are all basically practical, everyday concepts and objects that anyone can relate to, such as clocks, other ways of measuring, construction, transport, communication methods etc.

A good pamphlet guides you around the different floors and sections. The display has around 3,000 scientific and technological discoveries and inventions through the centuries, including Pascal’s 1642 calculator, Foucault’s 1855 pendulum, and two models (1878) of Bartholdi’s Liberty Enlightening the Worldfor the Statue of Liberty in New York City (one in the church, one in the entrance courtyard).

communicationhall 225x300 An Unusual French Museum: St Martin des Champs   aeroplanes in a church

Comunication hall

Each of the 7 collections is divided into 4 time periods, the earliest prior to 1750 and the newest after 1950, so the visitor can follow the development of each theme. Start on the second floor with Scientific Instruments, and Materials. In Scientific Instruments the highlight is probably a reconstruction of the lab of Antoine-Lourent de Lavoisier (1743-1794), who laid the theoretical groundwork for modern chemistry and the chemical industry. Also interesting is an early electron microscope by Siemens. On the First Floor are Energy (note Michael Faraday’s law of electromagnetic induction, which helped lead to electricity), Mechanics, Construction, and Communication—this was fascinating, covering printing, mass media, sound systems, telephones, cameras, and modern global communication. Some highlights are Telstar, the first TV satellite; Thomas Edison’s phonograph; Alexander Bell’s phone; Eastman’s roll-film camera, and daguerreotypes by Louis Daguerre (1787-1851), the father of photography. On the Ground Floor is Transportation, with a good collection of steam engines, early cars, and bicycles of all types, including the very modern Velib that is so popular as a short-term rental bike in the city (**remember that in France, Ground Floor = first floor in USA; First Floor= 2nd floor in USA and so on). Suspended from the ceiling of an ornate entrance hall with wide staircase, is a remarkable old plane, Clement Ader’s Avion 111. We nicknamed it the “batmobile” as it looks very bat-like. Even more amazing is that it was steam-powered!

At one end of the ground floor wing, a few steps go down to the former Abbey Church of St.-Martin-des-Champs. Although ‘restored’ in 1854-1880, the basic structure of the choir and its apse chapels is perhaps the earliest surviving Gothic vault in Paris (1130-1140). For us, this was probably the most interesting part of the museum as it’s here that lofty dreams and spiritual ideals come together. Nowadays, the church houses a collection of early planes, suspended from the ceiling, and early cars, on a series of glass ramps and platforms. We found it really interesting to see actual planes, cars, and pumps displayed in the soaring space of the former priory church—it seemed fitting and appropriate to us, to have the idea of flying linked to the vast spaces of a place devoted previously to worship. Among the highlights are Foucault’s pendulum; the plane of Esnault-Pelterie (1906) in which Bleriot made the first flight across the Channel in 1909; a Breguet plane of 1911; an early Panhard car (1896); and Peugeots of 1893 and 1909. There’s also an 1852 Tuxford steam tractor, the start of the mechanization of agriculture. This church section is like a small museum in itself!

Aderplaneinhall 300x225 An Unusual French Museum: St Martin des Champs   aeroplanes in a church

Clement Ader's Avion III

The only drawback is we wished that more of the information was in English: the titles all were, plus information about the main pieces, but not many of the details about the individual items. However, it’s still possible to take in a huge amount of new information.

So…well worth a visit and easy to get to.

 

The museum has a very pleasant café-restaurant called Des Techniques A Toutes Vapeurs (roughly “All kinds of techniques with steam”), with inside and outside seating, if the weather is good. The day we went it was warm and sunny so we sat outside in the courtyard of the old priory next to one of the large entrance halls. The food was good and it’s a lovely lunch place, especially if you use it to break up the museum visit. We splurged with a leisurely lunch of large plates of very nice salads served with slices of artisanal bread, rather than the usual baguette, and a whole bottle of wine (rather than a lunch pichet). Merveilleux!

 

Address: 60 rue Reaumur (3rd arrondissement).

Metro: Arts et Metiers or Reaumur-Sebastopol (Note, it’s not far from Les Halles and Pompidou Center).

Open Tues-Sun 10am-6pm, Thursday 10am-9:30pm

Entrance euro 6.50/adult. No senior reduction. Student and group rates. No security check.

www.arts-et-metiers.net (click on the British flag for English)

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Gold Mining in France

As we clear the ground in our southern Limousin property, we occasionally find quite large lumps of quartz, which we put to one side for use in rock gardens.

However, it looks as if we’d better take a closer look at it. We lie on the edge of a vein of gold-bearing quartz that passes through St Yrieix-la-Perche, famed for the clay that led to the start of the Limoges porcelain industry.

Today’s local newspaper reminds us that the Limousin has known two gold rushes. The first ended when the Romans took over from the Lemovices, a Gaulish tribe that used to make gold coins, and gave its name to Limoges.

The second covered the first half of the 20th century, and at its peak the mine at Chéni, near St Yrieix, employed 250 people. The biggest Limousin mine, at le Châtelet in the Creuse, employed 1,000! It closed in 1955, after producing 11 tonnes of gold.

More recently, a subsidiary of Areva produce 40 tonnes from a mine near St Yrieix between 1982 and 2002, when it closed because the gold price had dropped to €10,000 per kilo. Now it fetches four times as much, so people are getting interested again.

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Loire Caves – La Cave aux Sculptures

Vivienne Mackie pays a new visit to a Saumur troglodyte cave.

Mention the word “Troglodytes”, and pre-historic cavemen spring to mind, or we conjure up images of trolls and dwarves. I think of the folktale of “Three Billy Goats Gruff” and can imagine the trolls in the story retiring to caves such as these.

The area around Saumur is literally riddled with miles of caves, and the reality is just as fascinating as the images we conjure up. We discover that you don’t even need to have cliffs to have these caves, as many are underground.

Some 90 million years ago the sea, which covered part of France, gradually receded, and tufa (soft limestone) slowly formed from marine sediment. In medieval times, wine growers, artisans, quarrymen, bargemen of the Loire river, or people fleeing persecution dug the tufa to make underground caverns, shelters, or houses. Or they extracted the creamy stone to build churches, castles and houses above ground.

Today the caves, known as the “troglodytes” (“troglo” for short), are used in many ways—for wine caves, to cultivate mushrooms and snails, as museums, as dovecotes, as chapels, as restaurants and shops, and still as living areas.
The best way to get an idea of what these fascinating caves were, and are still, used for is to do a Troglo Tour. One of the highlights of a Troglo tour is an underground marvel, a mystery church, 22 km west of Saumur, in the village of Deneze-sous-Doue. Or was it a church? We actually don’t know enough about the history of the cave to make a final judgement.

On the surface the village of Deneze-sous-Doue is rather dull, but dig a bit deeper and a unique subterranean sculpted world lies below in the cool, damp caves. One brochure says it’s a controversial popular work of art. One guidebook calls it Pagan art. Another theory says that Protestant stonemasons during the 16th-century Wars of Religion chiseled more than 400 figures into the walls, floors and ceilings. Whoever those anonymous artists were, they carved hundreds of truculent sculptures, and caricature bodies in the tufa rock in these underground caves.

This is the Cave aux Sculptures, which is absolutely fascinating.

 Loire Caves   La Cave aux Sculptures

Loire cave sculptures 1

It’s not that easy to find, as the signs are small and faded.  Go down a narrow lane to a mini car park with a tiny kiosk at the side.  A small church is at one side of the car park (where we walked first, not realizing where the caves are). In this church Catholics and Protestants supposedly worshipped amicably on alternate days, so one wonders why the Protestants took to hiding in the caves. It’s all just part of the mystery.

At the kiosk a woman sits, selling tickets at the top of the stairs. The land around there is flat, so it’s a huge surprise to climb down underground and be in deep caves. She promises to come down and give us a tour, which she does. And that is how we meet Annie Brethon, the curator, who talks passionately (in French only on that day) about the carvings. She’s been involved in their care and upkeep since the caves were rediscovered and then made public many years ago.  We hear her romantic interpretations, which are often political and satirical, loaded with great symbolism, intertwined with history, guesswork and supposition.

The caves were hidden for hundreds of years and found by chance by school kids in 1956. There are probably more caves behind these caves that we see, as they had collapsed. But there’s no money for more excavation right now. At first, after the kids found them, the local villagers put a tin roof over the top, but it got too hot and the carvings started to crumble. Now they have a concrete roof, so it’s evenly cool. And damp. We can also imagine the high humidity slowly helping to dissolve the sculptures.

 Loire Caves   La Cave aux Sculptures

Loire cave sculptures 3

The carvings are all in relief, not free-standing, so were easier to sculpt. The art is a bit primitive, and rather crude, not fine stonework in the classic sense, so it could have been done by ordinary people, whom Annie speculates the stonemasons were.  She feels they were Protestant masons meeting underground, for safety.

We look in amazement, as the figures are clustered up and down the walls, along the ceilings, on the floors, executed with amazing detail. They are grinning, grimacing, smiling, smirking, writhing. The figures are big, small, separate, intertwined. She tells one story about a figure, who was an Indian from Brazil. Is it true, or far-fetched? Are some of these figures really Catherine de Medicis and various French kings, such as Francis 1? Did the stonemasons satirize Catherine, who was Catholic and supposedly notorious for over-indulgence and even crime?

Annie points out what she mockingly calls a “Pieta”, with an ax instead of a cross, and tells a complicated story of women’s underwear: how wearing long, pretty underwear allowed women to ride their horses more freely. Whatever the story behind these carvings, they are fascinating.

The series of carvings is a ruin really, so what we see is fragmented and the mystery remains as to when it was done and what it actually was. We also see the remains of an oven down there.  Built by whom? For what?
Local people who care have applied for historic monument status, but lots of paperwork and money is needed so the sculptures are still waiting to be saved. Annie is so enthusiastic and talks so passionately about the sculptures that we hope her arguments for their salvation will be heard.

Definitely worth making the effort to find this unusual sight. The day we were there no flash photography was permitted and the lighting underground was rather dim, so it was difficult to really capture visually what these sculptures are like.

La Cave aux Sculptures, 1 Rue Principal, 49700 Deneze-sous-Doue, Loire
Tel: 33 (0)2 41 59 15 40

Hours for 2012;
April 1-Oct 31, daily except Monday (but open If Monday is a public holiday) 10:30am-1pm and 2-6:30pm
Now, languages offered are French, English and Spanish
Tariffs for 2012:

Adults €4, children 6-13 €2.50, groups €3
Cash or credit card
Inhabitants of the Commune, free.

Read the account of Vivienne’s earlier trip to this region, which covers other subterranean wonders.

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Does Cold Weather Make You Sick?

Back in the middle of the 20th century, we still believed that some illnesses were triggered by letting ourselves get too cold. A lot of volunteers got free board for a couple of weeks at the Common Cold Research Centre in return for allowing themselves to get cold and wet a few times. That series of experiments proved that you don’t catch a cold by getting chilled. We now know that you get the shivers because you are already suffering from a virus infection.

Does cold weather make you sick in any other way? Well, yes, extreme cold can damage you body. Reduced blood supply to extremities can cause chilblains and frostbite. Under prolonged exposure to cold, under conditions where your body cannot maintain your blood temperature, you start by losing the ability to use your muscles, and later you suffer hypothermia. Your core temperature drops. Your get sleepy and lose the will to do anything. If you aren’t removed to a warmer environment, you eventually switch off and die.

Here in the middle of France, the temperature hasn’t reached freezing for ten days, and it’s been below -15°C several times. There is a chance that daytime temperatures will rise  to around +4°C next week, but it will probably snow when they do.

So far, I haven’t heard of many people dying because of the cold, but there are plenty of people working long hours in difficult conditions in order to keep everything working. Today’s local paper showed photographs of men using pneumatic drills to break up and remove ice that was forming continuously from water seepage through the walls of two railway tunnels about 150km north of here. They were doing this round the clock, in between the times when trains passed through. And they weren’t just chipping stalactites and stalagmites away from the sides  of the tunnel. The ice accumulating on the floor had risen so high that it threatened to derail the trains.

I used to love ski-ing, but I’m not flexible enough now, and my circulation isn’t as good as it was. Now cold weather makes me sick – at least when it goes on for weeks  and I’m not on a winter holiday.

does-cold-weather-make-you-sick  hypothermia extreme-cold

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Provins, a Medieval Fair Town

Vivienne Mackie visits Provins, which has been a World Heritage Site since December 13th, 2001.

This pretty medieval town is easily accessible from Paris (a 2-hour drive), so is perfect for an overnight stay.

skyline Provins, a Medieval Fair Town

Provins skyline

The initial approach to Provins doesn’t look that inspiring, although you can see the tower and the cathedral high on the hill, and doesn’t prepare for what you actually find: a wonderful, partly walled Medieval town. Follow the signs to Old Town, which take you first up the hill around the back past the Visitors Centre, a very friendly place where you can get a good map, lists of restaurants and hotels etc. We found a great “gite” that way. (www.provins.net ).

More than a mile of crenellated ramparts circles the haute ville (upper town), which we entered through the Jouy Gate. Restoration work is being done on one of the old 13th century entry gates—St-Jean’s Gate—plus on parts of the walls and ramparts but that doesn’t detract from how spectacular they are.

walls Provins, a Medieval Fair Town

Provins walls

Provins was famous in the 12th and 13th centuries for its huge trading fairs, or foires, after the Counts of Champagne introduced a passport of safe passage across their territory for merchants. Carts and wagons full of goods from all over Europe and further thronged the streets—cloth merchants from Flanders, Lombardy money-changers, spice merchants from the Orient, poets and intellectuals.

The center of the upper town is the Place du Châtel, a large square (with easy parking) surrounded by half-timbered buildings and several cafes, including some good creperies. In the center, the well and the Exchange Cross date from the 13th century. The cross was used as a public notice board for the edicts of the counts.

The upper town is crowned by the 12th-century Tour César (Caesar’s Tower), a turreted, fortified keep that overlooks the fertile countryside. We also visited the domed Saint-Quiriace Collegiate Church, erected in the 12th century, but never completed due to the French kingdom’s financial difficulties. The dome was built in the 17th century following a fire.

Of note is also the Grange aux Dîmes (Tithe Barn), a huge 13th-century building used by merchants during the fairs to sell their wares. If you have time (we didn’t) you can also visit the Underground Galleries.

A stroll the following day took us down to the ville basse (lower town).

rosedeP Provins, a Medieval Fair Town

Rose de Provins

Walking on the narrow cobble-stoned streets, lined with grey stone buildings, or lovely half-timbered houses painted in different colors, brings alive the atmosphere of long ago—it’s easy to imagine the folk in the previous centuries walking around and living here, as the atmosphere and surroundings are very evocative of the past. Peer up or down very narrow alleys, marvel at huge stone doorways.

The presence of history is very strong. But, it’s also a modern town, living in the present, and celebrating its past. Typical boulangeries, boucheries, charcuteries are busy and stand next to modern ATMs and banks, and a Monoprix store was bustling that Sunday morning. It’s interesting how a supermarket and all the small speciality shops seem to co-exist quite happily. The section of old town down the hill has a very pretty pedestrian street, both it and the Mairie (Town Hall) gorgeous with thousands of brightly colored chrysanthemums in the autumn. The Mairie is literally draped with chrysanthemums, all carefully tended and trained on wire frames.

The old Saint-Ayoul Church was busy that Sunday morning—families with small kids talking and romping, even a dog sitting patiently at the door. People are going about the business of daily living in this amazing historical town. The square in front of this church was one of the earliest commercial and trade fair areas and has been rebuilt many times since the 11th century. The portal is modern, by sculptor Georges Jeanclos.

One of the counts of Champagne—Count Thibaud IV— brought back the ‘Damascus rose’ from the crusades. This ancestor of present-day rose varieties was formerly known for its medicinal properties. The Damascus rose, which features in Provins as part of their heraldry, is sweet-scented and sweet-tasting and rose petals are used in wines, jams, honeys, ice cream etc.

You can also catch a train from Paris’s gare de l’Est (80 minutes each way). Make sure you get a map of how to get to the old town from the more modern train station at the bottom of the hill.

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