Searching for treasures amidst the junk
French people have plenty of ways to get rid of their old junk. Almost every little village organizes an annual vide grenier (“empty the attic”) sale, every town of any size has at least one brocante (second-hand) store, and flea markets (marchés aux puces) pop up somewhere every week of the year. And I, for one, am a happy consumer of what they have to sell. One of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon is combing through one of these sales, looking for an unusual wine carafe or an old print that could be salvaged from a broken frame.
But one of my favorite “finds” is a box of old postcards. For me, these images are a window into the past – usually from the time of my grandparents or great-grandparents. You can imagine how happy I was, then, on a recent visit to the vast flea markets at Saint-Ouen in Paris to find a little shop called Antika. Monsieur Vimont, the proprietor, was kind enough to let me camp out on one end of his counter for a couple of hours while I flipped through box after box of old postcards, arranged by region, department, and (sometimes) town or village.
[If you haven’t gone to the Marché aux Puces at Saint-Ouen, and you like this kind of thing, you should set aside a full day – maybe two! – and go there. There are 14 distinct markets of antique shops and brocante dealers selling every possible thing you can imagine – whole stores specializing in knives, in refrigerator magnets, or posters, alongside more “serious” stores specializing in doors, fireplace mantels, exotic lamps of the Belle Epoque, and on and on! It’s located at Paris’s Porte de Cligancourt, and billed as the 4th-most popular tourist attraction in France, so it’s not difficult to find.]
Today’s post, then, is a look at some of my favorite “finds” from this trip to Monsieur Vimont’s collection. I especially like finding cards of places I already know well so I can see how they’ve evolved over time, and I’ve included some of my own photos from the present day so you can share the experience.
The medieval village of Saint Flour
Here, for example, is how the little village of Saint Flour, 60 miles south of Clermont-Ferrand in the deep heart of France, looked in the early 1900s…
… and how it looks now. The “upper” town has changed very little; it’s a collection of fine medieval buildings and a cathedral reflecting its history as a religious center dating back to at least the 5th century A.D. The “lower” village, though, is another story – while it looks rural and calm in the postcard, today it’s a collection of the kind of zone commerciale and cookie-cutter business franchises you can see on the fringes of almost any town in France.
Chateau de Murol
Some of the most interesting sites in central France are the châteaux that survey many of the valleys in the Massif Central. One of my favorites is the castle at Murol, a 12th-century fortress that stood guard over the crossroads of three major medieval travel routes. Over the centuries it was ravaged by siege (in the Hundred Years’ War, for example) and the plagues that swept through the region. Here’s how it looked over 100 years ago…
… and here’s what you can see today as you drive down the little “D” road from Clermont-Ferrand. One of the instructive things you can learn from the postcards is how extensively these great castles have been restored. In the case of Murol, the château has become a major tourist business in itself, with tours, demonstrations of medieval cooking and blacksmithing, and animated spectacles with sword-wielding knights throughout the year. It’s a great day trip for a family!
The Chateau de Tournoel
Something similar is happening further north at the Château de Tournoel, near Volvic – but on a rather different scale. The home of one of the original Counts of Auvergne, it also began taking shape in the 12th century, but the most prominent features were added on centuries later during the Renaissance. Like many of these old castles, Tournoel had deteriorated significantly by the time this postcard image was captured in 1909. Abandoned in the 14th century, it had long been used as a convenient quarry for stones to be used in building local houses and barns, and a storm ripped off big chunks of the roof in 1840.
Restoration didn’t really start until the year 2000, almost a hundred years after this picture was taken, so this is a particularly good example of what can happen once new owners take over the site and start work. We’ve seen a huge evolution in Tournoel since the first time we went there in 1998. Then, it was a “wild” site, with plenty of rock piles and dangerous walkways (no guard rails anywhere!), and very little to give a sense of what it might have been like to live there.
The owners have since added a new roof, re-paved the courtyard and interior walkways, and even started installing a few pieces of furniture in some of the restored rooms. On their website, they list “things still to be done” – but there’s also a list of “things that represent a crazy amount of work, but we’d still like to try.” Sadly, the castle is only open for visits a few hours a day in July and August, although it’s possible to arrange a group tour (by appointment only) the rest of the year.
(That’s how I saw it most recently, as an outing for a Michelin management team. On the way back down the mountain in the dark, I came around the corner face-to-face with a wild boar that seemed at least as large as my Mini!)
Notre Dame du Port
You’ve read elsewhere how much I love the basilica of Notre Dame du Port in Clermont-Ferrand. It’s one of the greatest examples of Romanesque architecture in France, and a place of great calm that belies the incredibly rich history that unfolded in this church. In this case, the old postcard actually looks more like my original encounter with the building’s interior – dark, rough, looking authentically as though nothing much had changed in 700 years…
Now, though, this interior has been “restored”, painted with a yellow wash that gives it a distinctly more cheerful and modern appearance. It’s still very beautiful – and it’s still my favorite place in the whole world to escape for an hour on a hot summer’s afternoon – but I can’t help feeling that something was lost in the update!
The Puy de Dome
The Puy de Dome – the most iconic peak in France’s great chain of volcanoes that span the Auvergne – might seem an unlikely candidate for big change over the years. In fact, though, it’s the scene of a lot of activity – whether as the site of Blaise Pascal’s experiments on barometric pressure in the 17th century, or the landing point for Michelin’s competition for an airplane flight from Paris in 1911, or (today) as a sporting destination for hang-gliders and mountain hikers.
It’s always been a tourist destination, although (as you can tell from this postcard image) things were a little more … rustique … a hundred years ago.
These days, you can take a sleek crémaillère train from the base of the volcano to the peak, and there’s a whole complex with shops and restaurants.
Most interesting, though, is the evolution of the ancient Roman temple to Mercury. Almost 2,000 years old, the site was not much more than an indistinct pile of rocks when we first visited in 1997. Now, though, it’s the object of a major restoration project, and the original outlines of the temple are emerging in a spectacular way. They’ve also added a fine small museum tracing the history of the site – well worth a day-trip out of Clermont-Ferrand!
The Place de Jaude
And we’ll conclude our tour of past and present in another of my favorite places in the deep heart of France: the Place de Jaude in central Clermont. It’s always been the main gathering point for the city’s inhabitants, the site of major public events ranging from the Nazi occupation in 1940 to the celebration of the local rugby team’s victory in the championship of France earlier this year.
These postcards show a time when the great Place was ringed by plane trees and men and women all wore hats. Notice, too, that there was public transportation – a two-car trolley arcing through one end of the space.
That trolley has been replaced by a sleek contemporary tram – heavily used by les Clermontois! – and the row of buildings at the south end of the Place de Jaude has been replaced by a major complex of shopping centers, hotels, and theaters.
Still, the public function of this great square is pretty much what it has been for hundreds of years: a way to bring the citizens of Clermont-Ferrand together to share in the life of the city.