Sunday, November 4, 2012

4 Day Weekend

Four day weekend! Day one: Did nothing. No, wait, I did laundry. But besides that, nothing. It was awesome.

Here in France they don't celebrate Halloween, despite the very earnest efforts of the commercial world who would dearly love to cash in the way the candy and costume industries do in the US. To be honest, I understand. We have a holiday where everyone wears strange costumes, both scary and otherwise, and then you go around and demand candy from complete strangers. It's a little weird. Delicious and lots of fun, but not exactly abounding in sense. Anyway, the French do have a national holiday on November 1st, for All Saints' Day. No one does anything, but everyone has the day off. It being a thursday this year, of course no one is going to work on Friday either. This whole week has been a sort of Fall Break for the kids, so the Friday after a national holiday was just bound to be considered a holiday too. Now in the US, I think the general situation would be that the administration would sort of turn a blind eye to the complete lack of workers on such a Friday. Not here. The lab is having a power outage all day while they do repairs. They're basically telling you to take the day off. Thus a four day weekend for moi.

And, I reiterate, that on Day 1, I did nothing and had a fabulous time doing it.

Day 2: Chateau Falaise

A quick recap of my family history is in order here. If you go back far enough on my family tree on my mother's side (and you can go back pretty far) after about 20 generations or so you will eventually end up with some dudes from Normandy. Specifically one dude called Fulbert the Saxon de Pollock may in fact have been one of Charlemagne's buddies although there's a little confusion on this point. Spelling back in the day wasn't really standardized so there's some question about whether a Filbert mentioned in a document is actually our Fulbert or if there is in fact an entirely different person being described. Anyway, Fulbert the Saxon's grandfather was Fulbert de Falaise, whose daughter was the mother of William the Conqueror (Guillaume le Conquerant). So I am the descendent of William the Conqueror's cousin. Not a very direct connection, but I'll take it.

William did not live in the castle you are about to see; it was built in different stages by his son, grandson, and great-grandson. However, archaeologists have found remnants of an earlier castle underneath the current structure which definitely dates from William's lifetime. Whether there really was a castle there or just some other structure is debatable, and even if there was an earlier castle, we have no records supporting the idea that William ever lived there. However, he was definitely born in Falaise and although his mother was not noble (Fulbert of Falaise was a tanner), it's clear from legal documents that from a very early point his father the Duke considered him as his heir, despite his illegitimacy. Thus, there is a strong likelihood that William spent a good bit of time with his father in whatever structure was there at the time.

Practical information: Falaise is about an hour from Caen by bus, and frankly I don't think you could drive any faster than my bus driver did. It's not a big town; it really doesn't matter which bus stop you get off at in Falaise. Just walk up the hill and you'll be there. It was 7.70 euros for the round trip bus ticket, and then 6 euros for the guided tour. You could go with just a self-guided audiotour, but I personally feel you get more information out of a real person.

I encountered this statue outside of the castle. Apparently, statues of William the Conqueror are rare in France but plentiful in England, which I find hysterically funny. I suppose it's because he was Norman and not French, but still. I would have thought the French would enjoy taking credit for someone who conquered all of England. Anyway, the statue is huge, and although you can't see them in this picture, the base is surrounded by the 6 Dukes of Normandy.

This by the way is Normandy weather. Constant threat of thunderstorm.

A copy of a famous bust of William. I personally think he has sort of a weird expression on his face.

Cocky in Normandy!

Cocky in Normandy! Go Gamecocks! Cocky the Conqueror is standing in front of the keep and tower of the Chateau Falaise. William the Conqueror's youngest son Henri the First built the earliest surviving building, the square keep, in the early 1100s. He grew up in England which probably inspired this style. Remember, this was a military building. It's job was to intimidate the enemy and to look imposing and vaguely threatening. The walls in this part of the castle are a good 7 feet thick, fyi.

Ah the feeble attempts at restoration...Ok, see the nice white stone blocks on the far right? Those are original to the castle walls. It's a stone native to the region and highly prized. Many castles and palaces in France and elsewhere are built out of it. In fact, today it is only quarried for renovations to historic monuments. Well, even two hundred years ago it was too expensive. In the mid-1800s they first started doing work to actually protect historic buildings and monuments. Fortified castles very rarely made the list, but this castle was one of the earliest buildings to receive attention. At the time, the sole thought was to simply keep the building from completely falling apart. Since it had been abandoned for a couple centuries, it really was fairly close to doing just that. They wanted to save the castle, but they really didn't want to spend much money. Thus the two phases of 'restoration' to the left done with whatever stones they could find.

Once inside the castle, it's a weird hodgepodge of the very ancient castle and some very modern restoration work. The 'architect', for lack of a better word, who worked on the most recent renovations, had some very liberal interpretations. For example, in the oldest part of the castle, instead of putting a roof back in, he put up a tarp ceiling, to represent the mobile nomadic nature of the Dukes. It's not a furnished castle, but to be fair, there really isn't anything left from that time period to show anyway. First off they didn't have much in the way of furniture. They had a bed, a couple of planks they used for tables, maybe a few chairs and game tables. {Side note: medieval beds were super small because they slept sitting upright. They were superstitious that if they slept laying on their back, like a dead person, they would die.} Secondly, since they took their furniture with them when they switched between castles, which they did pretty frequently, their stuff didn't last long. So the 'architect' put in a bunch of theater lights and projected images of tapestries onto the walls. An interesting choice to say the least.

The main keep consists of a banquet and receiving hall, for both business and play, a bedroom for the Duke, a private chapel for the Duke, and a storeroom below. As a good medieval Christian, the Duke would need to attend mass several times a week and pray as many as seven times a day. To squeeze all that in, he really needed a private chapel so he wasn't constantly running out to the regular castle chapel in the courtyard all the time. The little keep was added on by Henri II in the mid 1100s. By that time, castle comforts had increased considerably and it was no longer acceptable to just have a room in the keep; if you were going to be King you needed your own apartments. You can see a lot of improvements in this part of the castle in that  there is a fireplace and more windows. {There's a fireplace in the main keep as well, but that one's not supposed to be there. The early restoration people did not do their homework and so just assumed there would have been a fireplace when in fact there was not.}

The tower was added in the early 1200s and is remarkable for some real innovations in castle building. Within the tower walls is a water well, completely undetectable from the outside. A common siege tactic was to poison the water supply with say a dead animal, so having a secret water source was important. They also built the foundation of the tower in the form of a cone, preventing would-be attackers from digging their way in. The floors of the tower have layers of stone as well as wood beams to prevent the spread of fire. Apparently no one had thought of this before because it was fairly common practice to start a fire in your opponent's tower and have everyone die because the floors burned up. And finally, although the walls are about 3 to 4 feet thick, they still put in archer's windows, so from the outside it looks like arrows could come raining down on you at any minute even though they're completely useless.

 If this doesn't scream medieval countryside, I don't know what would. What a view. Also, see that cliff on the right side? You would think that it being fairly close and at approximately the same height as the castle might be a problem. You would be wrong. Medieval weaponry couldn't even come close to killing someone from that distance.
This was just a park in town, but I thought it was pretty. I think it also gives you a good idea of Normandy weather. Cloudy on the verge of rainy, but sunny and pretty 100 feet to the right.

All in all I liked the castle, and I was glad I did the guided tour. I learned a whole bunch of stuff, even if it was in French. I understood the guide pretty well, but the other people in my group had really thick accents and I have no idea what they kept asking her about. She did say that they were going to do some pretty impressive sounding upgrades to the staging and scenery of the keeps this winter, so I think I'll go back in April and see it again.

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