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30 Jan 2009

God's Town of the Saucepans

Villedieu-les-Pôeles has a long history, and is famous for three reasons. Firstly, in the 12C it was where the Knights Hospitaller – the Order of St John Of Malta – was set up in Europe, and secondly since the middle ages it has been a centre for copper working.

The third reason for fame, or rather notoriety, is that for the second half of the twentieth century it was one of the grands bouchons – the great traffic bottlenecks – of the French holiday season. The only major road from Paris and the north to Brittany went through Villedieu; unfortunately, at the edge of the town there is a major junction controlled by traffic lights. On the major holiday weekends of the summer, in July and August, huge volumes of traffic pass across France. The result was that every year there were long tailbacks from Villedieu, in one or both directions, sometimes up to 30 kilometres. The opening of the A84 autoroute from Caen-Rennes has bypassed Villedieu and ended the problem. In fact the old road now is effectively deserted even in high summer

It is an unexplained aspect of the French personality that in circumstances where the entire population takes to the roads on the same weekends, and when they know there will always be major traffic problems, both from known bottle necks, and from roadworks, accidents and other temporary events, they still all insist on driving on the same major roads and motorways, and spending lots of time stationary. They just will not use the lesser roads. If you want to progress through France in July and August, stick to the slightly smaller roads – the Routes Nationales, the N roads, or the Routes Departmentals, the D roads: little traffic, much more interesting, and stress free. The Michelin maps are good, and the Michelin Green guides will enable you to discover all sorts of fascinating places.

But back to Villedieu-les-Pôeles. Originally, it was a small village called Saultchevreuil (Deer Leap) on the side of a hill overlooking the valley of the small River Sienne. There is an old church there still, with the occasional little concert, but the village has effectively gone. For the usual reasons of family connections, politics and obligations that governed England and France at the time, Henry I Beauclerc, who apart from being the son of William the Conqueror (Guillaume le Conquerant) was also Duke of Normandy, Anjou, Acquitaine and much else, gave the Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem, one of the two military religious orders of the Crusades (the other the Knights Templar) some land around the River Sienne, which became their Headquarters. That explains the very large church (for a town with a population even now of just over 4000), and the renaming of the place as Villedieu, Town of God. There is still a pardon, a religious parade and ceremony, every ten years (I think) where the remnants of the order reassert their rights etc.

It may be that the middle east connection with the Knights brought back metal working skills, but for whatever cause copper and pewter products became the main trade of the town from the early middle ages. The quality was famous, and the trade had three effects. One was the addition of les Pôeles – the Saucepans -to the name to distinguish it from the dozens of other Villedieus in France; such a godly lot before the revolution. The other was that the nickname for the population, who if not hammering away at metal themselves were surrounded by the noise, of les Sourdins – the Deaf ones.

The main street used to be nothing but copper shops, but many have now gone. There are still workshops, making things by hand, some of which are open to visits, and there is a market leading factory, Mauviel, operating since 1830, still producing excellent stuff. I have half a dozen Villedieu copper cooking pots, and they are extremely good. About a third of the price of the same items in UK cook shops.

Happily, Villedieu survived the second world war: the mayor was able to persuade the allies not to bombard it by driving safely through the centre. As a result, unlike Vire, Villers-Bocage, St Lo, Mortain and many others that were destroyed, the central late medieval part is still there. There are many ancient courts off the main street, a pedestrian street (Rue Dr Havard) runs parallel,and many very old homes with huge granite lintels over the doors, which are usually quite low.

I like Villedieu, it is still quiet, feels like a community, and even has its own group folklorique, Les Triolettes, who travel around fetes and celebrations with music and dance. Well worth stopping off on your way to Brittany or the South.

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