Compiègne and its fabulous Château de Compiègne

Compiègne, a town of some 40,000, sits on the Oise River. We moored just outside the town park where teen bands played to a largely teen audience. The bands need help, although the audience seems to not notice, or perhaps they are just too polite to boo. The grills fill the air with the aroma of sausage, and there’s cheap beer. Overall it’s better than a kick in the head.

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Main staircase

But the rest of the town! Architecturally and historically it’s well beyond what it should be given its size. First, the Chateau. Built for Louis XV, who reigned from 1715 (age 5) – 1774, it was renovated by Napoleon. It was one of three royal palaces, Versailles and Fontainbleu are the other two, which tells you a great deal about its magnificence, even if it is a level below Versailles, and perhaps Fontainbleu as well. It was the preferred summer residence nonetheless, known for its excellent hunting as it sits even still on the edge of the large Compiègne Forest.

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The Chateau is filled with furniture, but not from Louis XV. These were removed during the French Revolution. What we see now are from Napoleon. They are fine examples of the First French Empire style.

In this Chateau, Marie-Louise was greeted by Napoleon, Alexander of Russia visited, and Leopold I of Belgium married Marie-Louise of Orleans. Napoleon III resided during the entire hunting season. The National Car Museum is housed in the Chateau. There is an excellent and large collection of coaches, early bicycles and motorcycles.

The second very noteworthy structure is the Mairie (City Hall)

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Maire of Compiègne- just behind me there is also a monument to Joan D’Arc, commemorating her capture by Burgundians in 1430.

The town is of Roman origin. It was called Compendium. It was used for various governing activities by the Merovingian kings. Charles II 823-877 founded the Abbey of Saint-Corneille, now the library. There are several ancient churches. And just outside town is where the Armistice ending WWI was signed, as well as where Hitler humiliated the French in 1940. There is a replica of the train car used for these two events, and an excellent museum.

Amiens and its Soaring Cathedral

Amiens is a small city (pop 135,000) in the Picardie region, just 120km/75m north of Paris. It’s main claim to fame is its Cathedral, a large High Gothic structure overlooking the Somme River. There are extensive hortillonnages  (gardens) where people were resting and playing as we walked in the cool May evening. There’s a lovely row of restaurants in the Saint Leu district along the river featuring moules frites (mussels with fries), huitres (oysters), as well as “macrons d’Amiens (almond paste biscuits), tuiles amienoises”, (chocolate and orange biscuits), “pâté de canard d’Amiens” (duck pate in pastry), “la ficelle Picarde”, a baked crêpe with cheese; and flamiche aux poireaus, a puff pastry tart made with leeks and cream. Gone are the Belgian beers, it seems, so readily available elsewhere in the region, so you are mostly getting lighter blond brews.

The first settlement here was called Samarobriva , built by a Gaullic tribe called the Ambiani. The Romans renamed the town Ambianum, which morphed into Amiens. Those marauding Normans wreaked havoc in 859, returning for more in 882. In 1597 during the war with Spain, Spanish soldiers occupied the city for six months. In the 19th century the defensive walls were demolished to allow for larger streets in the center. Rail arrived in 1848.

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The 1918 Battle of Amiens led to the Armistice with Germany that ended the war. The town was fought over during both wars, suffering significant damage, including bombardment by the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. The downtown streets were widened. New buildings used brick, concrete and white stone with slate roofs.

The Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Amiens  was built between 1220 and c. 1270 CE, rapid for this type of structure. It’s style is High Gothic. This is a fine example of the stle, with it soaring ceilings and thin walls.  It also has some Rayonnant features, a movement that came about in the mid-13th to 14th centuries. This brought more spacial unity, refined decoration, more and larger windows.

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Christ Rendering Judgement, high relieve in the Cathedral

While we were waiting for the tour of the choir an English speaking volunteer appeared, so we joined in. The choir was built by highly skilled wood workers from 1809-1819. It portrays stories from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).

Jules Verne was born here, there is a museum in his name and the University carries it as well. The Musee de Picardie has a large collection of monumental paintings circa mid 1800’s, including a Lady Godiva. The large rooms with very tall ceilings make a good space for these. The archaeological section is in the basement. There are excellent examples of glass and pottery from the Roman era. In addition there

Samura Parc Nature is an open air museum exploring pre-historic times. We took the boat there, taking advantage of the mooring at the pedestrian entrance. Discoveries in this area include remnants of skin covered tepee-like structures, some with smoke exits, dating from paleolithic times. More sophisticated shelters appear, with thatched roofs with about 30 square meters ( about 400 square feet). Dwellings from the Gaulic era, 5000- 1st century when the Romans conquered Gaul, could be quite large and advanced. They show one example on the site.

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Skin huts

The site provides demonstrations of flint starting with a huge piece so you could see what flint looks like before it is worked, and other tool making, including a forge with basic bellows. They demonstrated spear hunting, showing how using a sling greatly increases velocity. They made bread using nettles, honey and water as a starter. Honey feeds the yeast that naturally occur in the environment. There is a display of human skulls starting with Lucy, including a Neanderthal and a modern human so you can readily compare them.

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Making flint tools

The demonstrations are entirely in French, with explanatory plaques also in English . You can buy honey products, including drinks, at the store you find at the usual places, at the exit.

The boat moorings are very convenient to town. However they are close to the English Pub. On a Thursday night we were kept awake until the wee hours.

Australia’s WWI Visitor Center- among the very best!

From our mooring on the Somme we biked to the ridge upon which stands Australia’s WWI Monument and the superb Sir John Monash Visitor Center. Given its height and the commanding view if offered, one can see why the German Army picked this spot. Facing away from the Somme it is less imposing and it is from this direction that the Australians came, and yet still struggled mightily. The tower at the center of the complex is about 8 stories high and from here the view over the now tranquil farmland and towns with their church spires is delightful. Corbie, where we are moored, shows us its lovely old church, closed for renovations (we got in by chance), a fine reference point.

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The superb audio visual presentation in the Sir John Monash Cernter gives a well defined account of the efforts of these volunteers. At the time the Australian constitution prohibited its standing army from participation abroad. 416,809 men enlisted, there were more than 60,000 were killed with 156,000 other casualties. Some 24,000 died just taking this ridge.

There are 20 audio-visual screens sensed by the device the Center provides. The narrative takes you through the battle and some of the life stories of those who survived intact, handicapped, maimed, suffering from PTSD, or died, and words from loved ones. For more information see https://www.dataton.com/showcases/sir-john-monash-centre-france

Here the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux April 24–27, 1918. The losses were losses were heavy, gains small. They later fought the Germans in August, as the former sought to maximize gains in advance of the arrival of significant numbers of American troops and equipment.

Monash created a battle plan that was widely hailed, coordinating the efforts of air, tanks and ground forces, greatly aiding the effort to take the ridge. The Center opened in 2018. It

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view of graves

Noyon: Charlemagne crowned, Joan of Arc fought

Noyon was founded as Noviomagus by the Galls (Celts), the name meaning “New Field” or “Market.” It was later changed to Noviomum under the Romans, morphing into Noyon. It has a fabulous 105 meter long early Gothic church (and former cathedral). In the Romanesque cathedral which once stood on the same site before it burned in 1131, Charlemagne was crowned as co-King of the Franks in 768. Hugh Capet was crowned here as well, as the first Capetian king, in 987. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noyon_Cathedral Joan of Arc fought the British here, at the Somme River. The Maire (City Hall) is a superbly restored Gothic structure, suffering significant WWI damage.

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Maire (City Hall), Noyon. Monument notes the crowning of Charlemagne
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Note of visits by Charlemagne and others
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Joan of Arc chapel
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12th century stained glass, Noyon Cathedral

The Treaty of Noyon (1516) ended the War of the League of Cambrai, part of the Italian wars. As part of the Italian war most of the town was burned in 1557 by Phillip II.

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Monument to British WWI dead

Into the tunnel and through the woods

The Riqueval Tunnel is a 5,670 metres (3.52 mi)-long tunnel on the St. Quentin Canal, near Bellicourt. Napoleon ordered the tunnel’s construction in 1801. It was completed in 1810 as part of the St Quentin Canal. An electric tug was added in 1984. The Riqueval tunnel is the second longest tunnel in the world, after the Biassa II tunnel in La Spezia, Italy.

https://youtube.com/shorts/1M-sa6xK5PE

Here a two videos showing us being towed.

https://youtube.com/shorts/SDql55j3svs

You have to steer the boat through the tunnel to remain in the center. I wrongly thought the chain would somehow center the boat. After we bumped on the side for a few minutes, I was reminded. I took the helm. It actually took quite a bit of minor course adjustment as the tow creates a bit of turbulence that bounces off the walls of the narrow canal.

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Leaving the tunnel

There is a second tunnel here,. It is one kilometer in length. You go under your own power. The Mauvages tunnel, on the Marne–Rhine Canal, also uses a chain towing method.

There were just a few air shafts. Overhead lights are evenly spaced and light the tunnel well. The chain is a bit noisy. The journey took us 1 hour and 50 minutes. We were the only boat. With additional boats it would take longer.

Surprise meeting in Honnecourt-sur-Escaut

After passing through two locks, one of which was followed by thick vegetation, we stopped in Honnecourt-sur-Escaut. We walked downtown where there are scarcely a few dozen buildings. We found the bakery we were looking for and then set out to find the small eatery we saw on the map. We had no internet once in town so we stopped to ask a woman for directions. She said there was no place to eat in town but given that this is VE (Victory Europe) Day, the mayor was hosting a gathering just ahead in the Maire. We went in, up the stairs and into the busy room with probably about 50 people there.

Immediately we were greeted by a friendly 85 year old man, who found the Mayor for us. The Mayor brought over some “amuse bouche,” small fancy snacks that amuse your mouth. Then he brought over some champagne. We explained that our fathers fought in France during the war.

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The Mayor in the center, an 85 year old local on the right.
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Maire (city Hall), Honnecourt-sur-Escaut

He asked how we came to be here. When he learned that we came by boat, he said he wanted to buy one he could live on with his girl friend, whom he invited to join us.

VE Day is a big deal in all of Europe. It’s a topic here complicated by the country’s capitulation to Germany and the Vichy regime, which some complain was more cooperative with the Nazis than necessary. Given the support that someone like LePen had in the just completed election, there is more cause to wonder if there was indeed more popular support for the Nazis than otherwise most of us thought.

Abbaye de Vaucelles, 12th century

May 7, 2022

The Abbaye de Vaucelles gives you the feeling of being a monk in medieval times, with its stone structures, vaulted ceilings and chilly cellars, the peaceful gardens (forget the work involved), which specifically includes herbs mentioned in the Bible. Perhaps it was those Biblical herbs that had me sneezing as soon as we came near the garden just past the statue of the monk.

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Statue of monk

The site sits deep in the countryside. It was dark that night at our mooring except for the safety light at the lock just ahead. There are cultivated fields all around, just a few houses in the village, whose bridge was built in the 12th century. Under that bridge flows the Escaut River, called the Schelde once you cross into Belgium. It flows all the way into the North Sea at Antwerp, where it is a wide river with a raging tide. Here the source is not far away from its origin in the hills, where in a few days we will take our boat through a tunnel that is five kilometers long.

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Bishop’s residence

The complex was founded in 1131 by Saint Bernard near Cambrai, in northern France. It was Bernard’s 13th monastery, and was to become the largest Cistern monastery. It retains some of its structures. Others were destroyed by the German Army in WWI to keep its food stores from the Allies. The Abbaye, then privately owned, sat on the Hindenburg Line. There was additional destruction during the French revolution, as a result of the Church’s support of the monarchy. It was used by local peasants after the French revolution. The Bishop’s palace was purchased by a woman who lived there with her daughter.

The Gothic church it once supported measured 137 meters in length x 64 meters at its widest. You can see its dimensions outlined where it stood.  Some books from the library, which had 20,000 to 40,000 volumes in 1257, are kept in Cambrai. The Lagoutte family bought it in 1971. They restored what they could and opened it for visitors. It was bought in 2017 by the regional government in 2017.

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When Bernard died in 1153, there were 103 monks and about 300 lay brothers who performed the tasks necessary for the running of the monastery and its substantial production. In the 13th century they built the large church, two cloisters and other buildings.


In 1254 King Louis donated a thorn from the Crown of Thorns. At the end of the 13th century , the abbey, placed under the protection of the popes and kings of France, built the aforementioned monumental church, two cloisters and numerous buildings. In the next century the monastery suffered during the Hundred Years War, a war of religion. It was attacked on several occasions, looted, sacked and rebuilt. It was plundered in 1482 and 1543. In 1555 the Truce of Vaucelles was signed here, leading to the end of war between France and Spain. For more information see their website https://abbayedevaucelles.fr/l-abbaye-et-son-histoire

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The brewery at the Abbye. They have 4 or 5 beers on tap, jars of pate, as well as smoked sausage for sale
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We sampled beers made at the Abbaye. There were 4 on tap.

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Sculpture made with shredded paper.

Arras, site of major WWI battle

The Battle of Arras was a major WWI battle. We toured the extensive caves created for the efforts of the British to surprise the Germans dug in the trenches.   It’s a guided tour, of course. You could easily get lost even with the wall markings still largely in place.   The English/French guide was very good, and there is an audio guide that kicks in with additional information while you walk to the next section.  

Before 1916 the French manned the Arras line, then the British moved in. They brought in coal miner volunteers from New Zealand, called sappers, to dig towards the German lines. Their efforts produces extensive tunnels, . The idea was to allow some 24,000 troops to exit the tunnels close to the German trenches, to gain the upper hand by surprise, in coordination with a French attack. Tunnel tactics date well back in time, to thousands of years before the common era.

The battle took place 9 April to 16 May 1917. It was part of the Nieville Offensive, conceived by the French general of that name. The British assaulted from Vimy to the north-west to Bullecourt to the south-east. The Canadians captured Vimy Ridge. The Third Army advanced along the Scarpe River, which we took to get here. Per the guide the French did not move for several days, contrary to plans, and the British troops paused the attack after its initial success, allowing the Germans to recover. Nonetheless the British advanced further than any previous effort in the trench warfare phase of the War. The blood bath continued until late in 1918 when the US entry in the war helped turn the tide. We visited one of the cemeteries on the edge of town, meticulously maintained to this day.

Arras was nearly flattened by German bombing. Most of the populace fled, leaving just 1200 behind when the battle began.

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Place des Heros, Arras
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Place des Heros today

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Hotel de Ville (City Hall)
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Hotel de Ville now- beneath are caves also used during WWI.
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In the chalk caves beneath the Hotel de Ville, Arras
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Photo of soldier projected onto the cave walls

On the Road Again

We departed our winter mooring of Valenciennes, near the Belgium border, heading south on the Schelde River, known as the Escarpe in France, then to the Canal du Nord. We are now on the seldom traveled Scarpe River, whose ancient locks are too small for modern barges and thus the lack of that sort of traffic. Even few pleasure boaters seek its pleasures, for in France canal boating is not terriblly popular among the French. It’s mostly us foreigners.

We spent the first night in Bassin Rond, near the town of Paillencourt. There’s room for three boats our size on a well maintained pontoon. We were welcomed by our winter neighbors, whom we’d just met in Valenciennes as they were readying their 15 meter barge for summer’s outing. They told us how pleasant a mooring this is so we followed them a day later.

We walked to town of Paillencourt the next morning, a Sunday. The bakery was open, with fresh bread, pain au chocolate, tartalettes and more wonderful treats awaiting. They even had a corn flour baguette-shaped bread. It’s just past the town’s WWI-WWII memorial. There the deaths were numerous during WWI. Several civilians murdered by the Nazis are listed. Down the road there is a plaque to a pilot who died when his plane crashed in May, 1944.

The locals, or at least some of them, were happy to say hello. One in particular wanted to try out his very limited English and even offered to buy us another coffee as we sat outside in the sun. He’s the one who told us about the plaque down the street. His wife joked with us about her husband’s gift of the gab and that he appeared to know everyone. This is not a surprise, I suppose, given that we are in a small pond after all. There are just some 1000 residents.

He tried to remember our names. Mine was the most difficult for some reason. After three efforts I gave him a hint. That did not work. Then I said, “Macron.” “Nooooo” he said. This is the second time I’ve had this reaction, the first in Valenciennes when I joked with the cashier, saying “Macron” as I signed the credit card receipt. I have read that there is a lot of support in northern France for Le Nazi. My take is that people in some areas are more worried about economic issues than being associated with a person with a racist past. They do not want to support any more immigrants- they have many indeed.

After two nights in the Bassin we continued on the Canal de la Sensee, passing large barges being loaded with grain. After a bit we radioed the next lock. He had told us to enter. He returned a bit later to explain that two barges were coming in behind us. Normally the large craft enter first while the smaller ones wait for the barges to completely stop. The two came in behind us very slowly, and given the size of the lock, there was no problem, even given that the one to our side just had the captain aboard. Behind us a woman with purple hair handled the huge lines, gave a big smile and waved hello. That made me feel warmed all over.

Lock on the Canal de la Sansee, northern France
Lock on the Canal du Nord, northern France
In the lock on the Canal de la Sansee

The friendly lock keeper gave us the remote control for the locks on the Scarpe River. He said there were additional instructions at the first lock. After we entered the Scarpe River, we came upon the lock and no instructions in sight, or we missed them. The lock did not operate. The phone number he gave us led only to a recording. After 30 minutes we were still waiting for a reply so I wrote to our winter neighbor. He gave us a number that worked. Soon we had a proper explanation. We thought we were supposed to touch “Avalant” not “Montant.” Montant means going upstream, that is going towards the source of the river, and that is what we are in fact doing. Our error. After it would not open I did try Montant but apparently once you make this mistake they have toreset the system. Finally we entered the lock to find the two rods that fill the lock and open the gates. I pulled down. Nothing. Another VNF truck had come by so I looked at the driver. He said you push up. We had not been told that. I supposed I would have tried that eventually.

We went through another lock without incident, but the third would not open at first. After about 30 minutes I tried again. The gates opened, it filled slowly and gently. We stopped for the night in Blache-Saint-Vaast.

Lock on the Scarpe River, northern France
Lock on the Scarpe River. It looks fierce but was quite gentle.

Istanbul, where the Middle East meets the West

April, 2022

As you may have noted from my previous post, I am in France not Turkey. However I have a special correspondent in Turkey at this very moment. I have adapted her notes and used her photos.

Istanbul was once called Constantinople for the Roman Emperor who did much to open the door to Christianity. His conversion came in 312 C.E. In 313 he helped create the Edict of Milan, which declared tolerance for all faiths. However it was Theodocius 379-95 who in effect made Christianity the official state religion, according to Professor Bart Ehrman https://ehrmanblog.org/constantine-and-the-christian-faith-my-fourth-smithsonian-lecture/

Yet today the city Constantinople, renamed Istanbul in the 1920’s, is swarming with Muslim tourists in a predominantly Muslim country. That change is the story of the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of the Byzantine Empire, the eastern part of the Roman Empire.

It’s Ramadan and everyone is on holiday. Working during Ramadan is difficult. Take restaurant workers. They are around food all day. In busy restaurants they are constantly on the move. One worker, when she heard the early evening call to prayer said, “Oh, thank goodness! Now I can eat.”

Although many do fast as required during Ramadan, it is pretty clear that the Turks are not generally fundamentalists. In Istanbul most of the fancier restaurants serve alcohol. In one restaurant a waiter said it was illegal to be seen serving alcohol. They moved us away from the window. He said the other diners would not appreciate anyone drinking wine until sundown, when at least they could eat. However they were already eating. Maybe they thought that if they could not see the sun from their seat it was the equivalent to the sun setting. Or maybe they were just ignoring the rules, not having to worry about enforcement. No Taliban here. You do see women in full burka, but it seems to be a very small number. Yet Turks treat Western women respectfully and kindly, and even will joke around. 

We visited the Tokapi Palace, one of the most sumptuous palaces on earth. You can visit many of the Sultan’s chambers, including the harem’s quarters. The kitchen, too, is now open for visits.

Coffee pot in the Topaki museum
Coffee pot

Coffee drinking was quite an important part of palace life. It was well established by the 17th century. It was served with sherbet and sweetmeats. There were numerous rooms dedicated to its consumption. Official visitors were served in special settings.

This coffee pot, you will notice, has a filter on it. It appears to work like a French press. You put the coffee in, add the hot water, allow the coffee to brew, and then slowing plunge the filter to remove the coffee grinds. This is notably not how coffee is served in Turkey, except in more Westernized cafes, where it can be much like anything you would get in, say, Europe. Turkish coffee is brewed in a special pot, frothed and then poured into the tiny cup in which it is served, transferring some of the grinds. The grinds settle to the bottom, so you don’t get too many of them in your mouth and none if you are careful. I dislike the flavor immensely as it is sometimes flavored with cardamom, mastic, salep or ambergris- I have no idea what the last three items are but maybe a reader will enlighten me. Per the exhibit, Turks have their own way of roasting the coffee, so perhaps this has something to do with its unique flavor.

Here are some items from the excavation of Troy, also in the Topaki Palace:

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From the excavations of Troy
Ottoman Helmut
Ottoman helmet, 1650

For much more on this fascinating city, see my posts here https://garyjkirkpatrick.com/category/blog/turkey-2015/