Note from Wendy: Knowing I like all things French and am interested in his renovation of his French house Terry (my friend who also broadcasts on Bishop FM) sent me this lovely account of a day out in France. So I decided to make him my first guest writer. Whenever I talk to him I think of the Maison d’Estella although I do not own it - Thank you Terry
A Day Out
It was a Thursday and we had worked on and off for a fair amount of the week achieving a lot of home improvements in our French house and actually taught ourselves new French pointing skills. So and as the day was sunny, bright and cool, we decided we were in need of a break and a little bit of fun and some sightseeing.
To the east of us lies Aubusson, a beautiful medieval town steeped in antiquity, with narrow streets, ancient buildings, coffee shops, lots of round towers, the river Creuse and a huge cathedral which stands high above the town and has been designated a world heritage site because of its 600 year old unbroken tradition of tapestry weaving.
Into the car we clambered and headed off to Bourganeuf to fill up with petrol - a necessary evil if you want to get anywhere - and then we embarked upon the forty or so minute drive into the history of France.
From Bourganeuf we took the main road to Gueret and drove until we reached the lovely town of Pontarion. The drive into Pontarion town centre is a long downward gentle incline cluttered on either side by a mixture of old, ancient and occasional modern buildings. At the bottom you cross over the river Thauron via an old bridge and as we glance over the parapet to watch the water lazily bubble its way onward, we see the remains of the ford and in the calm still water we see the 16th century fortress Galliard reflected back at us.
Leaving Pontarion by the right fork in the road sign posted to Aubusson, we meander down through the forest road twisting and turning and passing through St, Hilaire le Chateau - another small village which holds good memories for us. On the right we passed the Auberge where we spent our very fist “house hunting” night in the Creuse. I remember the quaint cosy room, the way they had blended very modern glass architecture with the 16th century granite building, and served a sumptuous meal at a reasonable price.
The forty minutes drive passed quickly and very enjoyably, passing through many old hamlets and by verdant fields full of healthy Limousin beef cattle with their distinctive colouring. As we rounded a bend in the forest, there spread before us was the town of Aubusson. Parking was easy, as it is in all of the France that we have explored. You are encouraged to visit and spend money in the towns, and to help you do that, the town councils provides plenty of FREE and well maintained parking places.
Aubusson nestles at the bottom of a valley and straddles the majestic river Creuse. This town has been famous since the 16th century for weaving tapestries and carpets, throughout the centuries. Tapestries have adorned many of the rich and famous chateaus of nobility and - of course - the palaces of the French kings. The town is clearlymedieval in construction, with very narrow streets and tall buildings towering over the passers-by. There are the traditional round towers to be seen everywhere, with roofs of amazing steep pitch covered with tiny tiles and proudly boasting the very French style dormer windows.
Shops and houses are built of granite and many of them are adorned with wonderfully carved lintels and intricate iron balconies over carved doors. The traffic system is one way and works very well with the 20th century cars driving down the medieval narrow streets that have been recently cobbled to give the ancient feel to this modern town.
Aubusson is busy. The streets are hung about with multi coloured pennants and people throng through the narrow pathways and crowd the pavement cafes. There is a feeling of prosperity in the air, and everywhere there are signs of tapestry and antiques shops.
What dominates most is the 12th century Cathedral. Signs tell you there are 50 parking spaces available at the cathedral, so we weaved and threaded our way by car, through really narrow streets, and climbed forever upwards, eventually ending up in the free car park. The views were magnificent, giving us an almost 360 degree panorama of the city spread out far below us. We could see the River Creuse meandering between the buildings below and the narrow streets swarming with tiny people.The new tapestry museum shone like a beacon to our left inviting us to visit and the cathedral, in its entire magnificence, rose up behind us.
We left the blazing sunlight behind us as we entered through a huge oak studded door into the cathedral. At first it appeared to be black and shadowy, but as our eyes became accustomed to the light, we were astounded by the size of the inner space. The roof curved and towered above us and still bore the signs of the medieval artisan paintings of intricate design, although faded and damaged by the centuries of wear and tear. You could still see and imagine very clearly that the entire ceiling, columns and arches were at one time covered with dazzling colour in a huge celebration of the religious beliefs of the people.
The light shone into the huge space in vibrant shafts of colour through beautiful hand crafted stained glass windows, casting a sparkling array of blues, greens, reds, golds, depicting scenes from the bible with an exquisite detail unequalled in today’s craftsmanship[. The space was vast and looked empty, but as our eyes were now accustomed to the inner half-light, we could observed that opon tha walls in this open and unguarded space there hung paintings of great size and antiquity and original tapestries more than three hundred years old.
We looked and marvelled at the lectern which was an oak carving of a griffon from solid oak which held a huge bible. We admired the simplicity of the main altar, the complexity and colourful private chapels, and the sea of chairs arranged in perfect rows telling us that this cathedral was still in use and indeed very well attended.
Inspired by the wall hanging inside the awesome place of worship, we walked out into a wall of heat and sunshine, drove back down through the winding narrow busy streets of Aubusson, and headed directly for the Tapestry Museum/
A little bit of the history.
Tapestry or weavings as they were once called, were used to warm the bare stone walls of the palaces and castles, and were first mentioned in 1601 when King Henry IV banned the importation of all foreign tapestries, especially those from England. Royal manufacturing patents were issued for Aubusson in 1665. Its twin manufacturing city of Felletin received the same patents in 1689.
Even at the beginning of the 20th century some 2000 people were employed in the industry but since then the jobs have seriously dwindled to about 50 actual weavers. Shortly before the 2nd world war the French government realised the seriousness of the problem and issued new commissions to leading artists of the day, one of them being the famous Spanish artist, Picasso.
Once inside the modern air conditioned building and having paid the 4 euros entry fee, I was surprised to read the sign allowing photography, but without the aid of flash, no doubt to preserve the integrity of the many original hangings. The rooms were large and dimly lit, creating the atmosphere and an image in our minds of a modern day cathedral; the walls were as expected, spacious and hung with weavings dating back to the 1600’s. It also included some modern the day weavings. Artefacts both ancient modern were dotted about on tables throughout the rooms. In one corner glowing in the dimness were two very colourful shelving units housing a myriad of colourful wools.
What did draw the eye and immediately grab your attention was the oasis of bright light in the centre of the room. This it was a modern weaving loom and operating it was an artisan working on a small tapestry. For a fascinating and informative 15 minutes we watched and understood the intricacies of the weaving with a loom, we saw the need for patience, and we learned an appreciation of the skills of hand, foot, and eye co-ordination needed by the operator.
An hour passed as we wandered around mesmerised looking at original antique tapestries from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. We stared with astonishment at the details and shading created by genuine craftsmen with nothing more than a few coloured wools. Modern hangings were also displayed, and they ranged from traditional weaving, to paintings and stained glass. The trade had modernised and diversified and I suppose it had to stay alive, and grow.
The day at Aubusson was so interesting and informative. What was nice about it was the way it was easily available, almost hands-on. It was a welcomed relief from my own painting and decorating in my French House and well worth the visit.
On our way home we came across another hidden gem in the tiny but very pretty village of Moutier - d’Ahun and we were even more amazed at what we found there. But that’s another story.
October 1 2011