Monthly Archives: May 2013

Balleure Birthday

I was invited to the best birthday party in Balleure!  It was for a fellow named Robert, celebrating his 68th.  Robert is a very warm, fun, outgoing and generous guy whose career has been in fashion design.  He lives near Strasbourg, as does most of his family.  He’s the youngest of 8–a good Catholic family like my own, where I am the oldest of 8.  They have been coming to the family’s vacation home here in Balleure all their lives.  It’s about 4 hours’ drive from Strasbourg on the freeway (except it’s a pay-way). Their grandfather bought the house a very long time ago, and it was he who planted the towering tree just visible in the back yard. Robert’s sister Nanette told me that including the youngest generation, her grandchildren,  five generations of Pascals have enjoyed this cozy stone home in the country.   Here it is, below:  The house is on the left.  The auxiliary building, so common here, is probably an old barn.

French farmhouse

Pascal Family Country Home In Balleure for Five Generations

We arrived promptly at 7:00.  The French have a tradition when entertaining (it falls under the Rules of Politesse) of not offering anything to drink until everyone has arrived.  We chatted while awaiting the others, in the tiny living room of the ancient stone house with a cozy fire on the unscreened hearth.  The invitées  (guests) included two of Robert’s sisters, Nanette and Jacquotte, brother-in-law Marc (their sister’s widower, who is 92 years old, smart and funny), Dutch friends Marjo and Frank from nearby Étrigny, Nicole and Pierre and me, and Joseph.  Halfway through dinner, Nicole whispered that Joseph, who was sitting on my other side, is a priest.  Thankfully, I had not yet said anything unkind about the new pope!

When the last guest arrived, Marc poured a bottle of 1982 sauterne which he had been saving for a special occasion.  It was lovely, sweet but with depth, a wine which is typically served with fois gras. Once everyone’s glass was full, they began passing around plates of little toasts spread with fois gras, plus a plate with thin slices of delicious smoked wild boar sausage.  The tray with these goodies was balanced on top of an upended wooden wine box in the middle of everything, and every time Marc got up to pass the appetizers or refill wineglasses, he almost tripped between the box and the carpet, which was rolled back to avoid being set afire by sparks.  There was maybe 8 feet between the hearth and the wall opposite.  Against the wall was a couch, and In between was a very narrow table.  One had to be exceptionally adroit to thread one’s way around the room without falling into the fire.  Or knocking something over.  When the 1982 sauterne was finished, Marc broke out a bottle from 1986.  Also exceptional.

It was probably around 8:00 when we received the command “À table“, and so we sat down at  a large oval table in the dining room.  There was a big sleigh-bed in the corner (the living room had another such bed behind a partition), testimony to the needs of une famille nombreuse–a big family.  There was an upstairs, but the French don’t give house tours so I didn’t see it.  It was awhile before Robert and Joseph and Nanette were ready in the kitchen, which was not public display either.  They came in bearing a huge covered pottery pot of sauerkraut with sausages, an open casserole with a variety of smoked meats, and a bowl of boiled potatoes. Choucroute garnie (sauerkraut with sausages and cured meats) is the traditional dish of Alsace, where Strasbourg is located.  Alsace has alternated between belonging to France and Germany over the centuries.  It was German when my grandfather Reidell was born there around 1880.  Nanette told me that in her grandmother’s lifetime, Strasbourg changed nationalities five times!

I cannot begin to describe the conviviality, jokes, warmth, laughter and generally great time that was had around that table during the next three hours.  It was wonderful!  The food was delicious, and the wine flowed.  An Alsatian dry reisling was poured first; then a red with the cheese course. I don’t remember a separate wine with dessert, but Marc insisted on schnapps being served with coffee, because it’s traditional.  Robert the birthday boy was a riot, keeping us laughing throughout.  In short, the company was the best.  What good fortune that I happened to be here, and that Robert generously invited me to come along with Nicole and Pierre.  Visiting France, or anywhere for that matter, is so much better when you get a glimpse of the lives of local people, and especially when invited into their homes.  That was true in Lyon, where I was shown a wonderful weekend by the cousin (and her husband) of a friend.  I also had a serendipitous connection with the fascinating woman in whose beautiful apartment I stayed in Lyon.  It seems to be easier to make these connections outside of Paris, which I am well noting.

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A Stroll to Étrigny

Pastoral scene just outside the little town of Balleure.

Pastoral scene just outside of Balleure.

I have twice ventured out on a walk from Balleure to nearby Étrigny.  A small town in itself, it serves as the local administrative center for the commune, which includes four hameaus (hamlets) in the surrounding countryside. The total population of the commune of Étrigny is around 300.  The commune’s Mairie (City Hall) and post office, which is open parts of three days per week, are in Étrigny. The only commerce I have found there is a bakery which offers a variety excellent fresh breads each day, plus a limited selection of food and drink.   My reward for the walk despite threatening rain is a croissant.  I rarely eat croissants, but they are exceptional here, fresh and crusty, light and yeasty.

Charolais cattle

Curious cattle came to greet the Americain.

These beauties are pure Charolais cattle, a breed which originated near here.  Charolais are prized for meat all over Europe, and are also found in the United States, England, Australia, New Zealand and South America, often crossed with other breeds.  In Italy, they’re hard to find, because they are sequestered in barns for safety.  Do they have cattle rustlers in Italy??

Étrigny church and lavoir

You can see the old church at Étrigny from afar.  In front is a lavoir, a restored old community laundry where the town’s women used to gather to scrub their clothes and linens by hand and catch up on the doings of their neighbors.  This one has a raised rectangular pool of water edged with slanted stone rubbing surfaces.  The one I remember from my childhood in Verdun was a bit more primitive.  Located at the edge of a flowing stream, it was made of wood instead of stone, and the women worked on their knees scrubbing against sturdy wood boards which slanted into the stream.

Lavoir Exterior

Lavoir Exterior

Lavoir Interior

Lavoir Interior

A pipe supplies water from a stream to a trough outside, below the half-sun window. Another pipe punches through the wall to fill the pool inside.

Hours of operation.

Hours of operation.

In the center of Étrigny, I reach my goal, the Boulangerie-Épicerie.  Besides bread, it carries a few other essentials, which is where the Épicerie (small grocery) part comes in.  A boulangerie sells bread.  Unfortunately, I neglected to snap a photo of the exterior, except for the posted hours (for future reference!).  What’s up with the English on the sign?  This is not exactly American or English tourist country, and I never heard English spoken there at the shop.

Bread and pastries are the main event; the canned goods and a small case of dairy items are strictly for when you don’t have time to get to a marché (Farmers’ Market) or a super-marché (large grocery store) in one of the surrounding larger towns.

Ah, the bread!

Ah, the bread!

Notice how many different kinds of bread they offer.  I always stick to my favorite, a baguette called le tradition, made the slow traditional way and costing just a bit more than regular baguettes, which to me are not worth the carbs.  Les traditions are in the basket with the black sign next to the modern computer cash-register. Notice the large basket of luscious golden croissants front and center behind the glass screen.

They're all good!
They’re all good!

To the right of the cash register is the pastry case.  You need to get there early for a full selection.  They put their energy into the more important breads here, though the pastries are of excellent quality.  Bread is a daily essential in France.  If you are a purist, you stop by a boulangerie to get it fresh every day–sometimes twice a day.  Usually the places with the best bread don’t have the best pastries, and vice versa.  Fortunately, that is not true here.

A few conveniences.

A few conveniences.

The essentials include bread, wine and bottled water and juices.  No beer.  Canned goods are pretty much for when you don’t have shelves at home full of fruit and veggies you’ve canned —  “put up” as my grandmother used to say, and no time to drive to a supermarket.  There’s also a small refrigerated case of dairy items, including a couple of cheeses.  In a country which produces over 400 kinds of cheese, how do they choose which ones to carry??

Compare this, the only store in a very small town, with an American 7-11 convenience store. I don’t patronize convenience stores in the USA, but am grateful for the French version in Étrigny, and towns like it.  To be fair, I must admit I have seen plenty of actual 7-11s and their French cousins in all the larger cities.

Au revoir.  It’s time to walk back to Balleure, munching my croissant.  

À la prochaine!

Iz

Château de Balleure

Bourgogne région shown on map of France.

Bourgogne région shown on map of France.

Burgundy (Bourgogne) is a famous for its wines: reds made from the pinot noir grape, and white chablis wines made from the chardonnay grape. But that’s not why I came here this time.   I wanted to improve my French. On Lynne McBride’s lively blog “Southern Fried French”, I found what sounded like the ideal French-immersion experience.  I signed up to spend two weeks at Château de Balleure, located in the very southern tip of Burgundy.

On May 16, I took the train from Lyon to Tournus, about an hour and a quarter ride.  From there, it was about a twenty-minute drive through scenic countryside to Balleure. From the moment I arrived, we spoke only French — all day, every day.  The best part was being welcomed into the daily lives of my wonderful hosts, Nicole and Pierre Balvay, and into the village life of tiny Balleure (population 60).

View as you approach the château.

View as you approach the château.

Je vous présente (I present to you) Pierre and Nicole, my charming and generous hosts.

Pierre and Nicole

Pierre and Nicole

Château de Balleure has been in Pierre’s family since 1791. His ancestor bought it after the French Revolution took its toll on the sort of nobility who had formerly owned estates like this. It is an authentic medieval château, austere and not overly ornamented like the architectural styles that followed.  I was told that it’s the best-preserved medieval château in Burgundy, and the amazing thing is that it’s not a museum, it’s a comfortable welcoming home. The oldest part, a square tower, was built in the tenth century by the local Seigneur (Lord).  He and his friends gathered there when they were out hunting.  In that era, Gentlemen had two main pursuits: Hunting and War. The former was a sort of practice for the latter. The tenth-century square tower is the one with one window per floor, just beyond the parked cars, below.  The  third-floor window marks my bedroom.IMG_3523

After exiting the parked car, you walk past the square-trimmed tree and through the arch into the courtyard.  In the fourteenth century, with permission from the king, the Seigneur expanded the original square tower to create a château which could harbor the townspeople in times of attack.  What you see above the arch is the outline of the drawbridge.  There was a moat around the château, and entry was via that bridge at the second level.  Châteaux of the Middle Ages were quite plain and practical–nothing like the ornate and ostentatious ones of the 18th century, which were built for leisure living, and to impress others.
Traces of Medieval Drawbridge

Traces of Medieval Drawbridge

Below is another view, from the far side. The blue car is in the courtyard. At one time, you would not have been able to see this view, as the central courtyard was entirely enclosed by the château.  The history of France is that of wars and hard times.  This château didn’t escape them and in its long history, parts of it were destroyed.
IMG_3528
This picture was taken on one of only a couple of days during my stay which had blue skies.  The rest of the time, it was some of the worst spring weather since 1887–gray skies daily, with plenty of rain and cool-to-chilly temperatures.  After a long, cold, wet winter, everyone in France was ready to welcome le printemps (Spring).  It hadn’t arrived by the end of May.
The retaining walls in the picture below are what remains of the moat.
Evidence of the long-ago moat.

Evidence of the long-ago moat.

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A digression: At the right is a nearby restored 18th century château, which has a moat-for-show.  The nobility of those days, like many of the uber-rich and under-occupied in any era,  were all about appearances and superficial concerns. One thing hadn’t changed much from medieval times: the Lords were often off to war.  The one who had this built this was killed in battle four years after the family moved in.  His private living quarters were never finished in the manner of the highly ornate rest of the castle.  The young widow, married at 16 and widowed at 22, was left with four children–and an impressive but lonely home which, like today, would have been expensive to keep up.
Current Entrance into Château de Balleure.

Current Entrance into Château de Balleure.

Back to Balleure:  Shown here is the present entrance, off the courtyard, with an arched window above double doors.  The doors open onto a stone entry chamber, which was probably not always enclosed.  I suspect that the arched wood door to the left of the present entrance was once the main entrance. It opens directly to the stone stairway.
Previous entrance.

Previous entrance.

Once you pass through the modern entrance, you find a doorway on the left which accesses the 700-year-old spiral stone staircase winding sixty steps up to access the many living spaces.
The doorway to the stairs is framed by a graceful renaissance style arch, which is identified as fifteenth century in family archives.  It was a serendipitous find when Pierre and Nicole removed layers of plaster from the walls of the entry.  Medieval?  Renaissance?  What I figure is that while the château was built in the late Middle Ages and is essentially a medieval building, it was certainly not preserved in its original state for seven hundred years.  Remnants of the drawbridge and moat are testimony to that.  We can safely assume that its various owners tweaked it here and there over the centuries.  Remodeling is nothing new, though there are special challenges when you’re dealing with thick stone walls, minimal plumbing and no electricity. Pierre and Nicole labored nearly 30 years to bring the château to its present comfortable state, doing most of the work themselves on their “vacations”.
Renaissance entry to stone staircase.

Renaissance entry to stone staircase

Below:  In the stairs-tower, there are two windows with wide sills on both interior and exterior which give a hint of the thickness of the wall.  Antique carpenters’ tools and a collection of other utilitarian items from earlier eras are displayed on the ledges.
700-year-old stone staircase.

700-year-old stone staircase.

That’s all for now!  You are in the door of Château de Balleure, out of the rain.  Interior spaces will be revealed in good time.

À la prochaine,
Iz