Sunday, July 22, 2007


Summer is supposed to be here and despite the rain, thoughts of lazy days by the pool are on my mind. By pool, of course, I mean lake - because my local “swimming baths” is just that. Set in an area of woodland called Le Bois Français, the shore of this lake has been turned into a sandy beach and when I finally get the chance to stretch out in the baking sun, I could almost be in St Tropez - if it weren’t for the surrounding snow-capped mountains and low-flying buzzards, that is.

There are thousands of lakes in France, both man-made and natural ones. Lake Geneva – called Lac Léman in French – is the second largest freshwater lake in central Europe. Sixty per cent of the lake is in Switzerland and the rest is in France, in the department of Haute-Savoie. Like many Alpine lakes, Lake Geneva was formed by a retreating glacier thousands of years ago. It was so polluted in the 1980s that swimming was forbidden, but pollution levels have dropped considerably since then and swimming is one of the main leisure activities along with sailing, wind surfing, boating and scuba diving. There are many anecdotes attached to Lake Geneva: Empress Elizabeth of Austria, known as Sissi, was fatally stabbed in the heart by an Italian anarchist while she waited to board a steamship on the lake; Mary and Percy Shelley and Lord Byron took their holidays there and wrote ghost stories; it is also said that the song Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple was written about a casino burning down on the shore of the lake just before one of their concerts.

Not counting Lake Geneva, the largest and the deepest Alpine lake in France is the Lac du Bourget in the Savoie department. The western shore of the Lac du Bourget, lying at the foothills of the Jura mountain range, is inaccessible by road and remains a haven for wildlife, including beavers and turtles. The eastern shore, on the other hand, is built up (the main town is the thermal resort of Aix-les-Bains) and is lined with restaurants and night clubs. Legend has it that the lake was formed by the tears of an angel whom God ordered to leave the Northern Alps although personally I can’t see why he had to make such a fuss…

A little further up the road is the lake of Annecy. This is the next largest lake after Bourget and is reputed to be the cleanest in the world. The same angel is supposed to have cried this lake too so he was obviously quite upset about leaving. Paul Cézanne, however, sneered at the picturesque views, calling it the type of landscape young lady travellers like to sketch in their albums. It didn’t stop him from painting Le Lac Bleu, though, during his stay in 1896.

The third largest Alpine lake in France is the lac d’Aiguebelette, also in the Savoie region. The tearful angel had probably cried himself dry by this time and instead, another legend explains its origins. There was once a village, the story goes, whose inhabitants were wealthy and pleasure-loving. One day, a poor beggar arrived looking for food and shelter. None of the villagers would help him except for an old mother and her daughter, who were themselves ostracized and poor. The beggar turned out to be Christ in disguise. In His wrath, He flooded the valley, drowning the selfish inhabitants of the village except for the two women, whose houses remained intact on two small islands in the middle of the lake. Hmm. I wonder how they got to the shops, though?

Further south, in the Mercantour National Park, lies the lac d’Allos. Situated at 7,316 feet, it is the largest natural lake in Europe at this altitude and in my opinion, one of the most beautiful. The air is clear and crisp and the surrounding scenery is majestic, with mountains rising to ten thousand feet towards a brilliant blue sky…

Near Chamonix, there is a lake known as the lac à l’anglais – the Englishman’s lake. This artificial lake was built in the early twentieth century by an eccentric Scotsman called Lord Sinclair (English, Scottish - we’re all the same to the French) and includes a “cave” built from reinforced concrete and a false “ruined” chapel. Today, it is used as an aquatic sports centre which is much more sensible.

Lacs artificiels, or reservoirs, were created to produce electricity. The first hydro-electric dam was built in 1868 by Aristide Bergès, a French engineer who settled in Grenoble and today, there are four hundred and fifty dams in France that belong to the electricity board (EDF). Most of the reservoirs were created at the expense of village communities and people have not forgotten. The Sautet dam, about forty miles from Grenoble, was one of the first hydro-electric dams to be built. In 1934, the dam was completed and the villagers stood on the top and watched as their village, with its twelfth century church, disappeared beneath the water. Ten years later, when the dam was emptied for maintenance, they came back out of curiosity and were shocked to see that their village was intact (if a little damp). EDF decided that in the future, it would be prudent to destroy the houses before flooding. The village of Les Salles-sur-Verdon, for example, was razed to the ground to make way for the lac Sainte Croix in 1974. A new village was built nearby and some monuments from the old one were incorporated, including the fountain and the bell from the church tower. But for many, the heart and soul of the village still lies beneath those deep waters.

I’m a little frightened of lakes myself – I don’t like to swim out of my depth and I don’t like the idea of swimming with fish. I can’t windsurf either – or water ski. No. I much prefer to lie down in the sun, close my eyes and think of St Tropez…

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Revolting French

Louis XVI was in for a run of bad luck when he ascended the throne in 1774. For a start, the country was heavily in debt after being involved in various wars, including the American War of Independence. Secondly, he married Marie-Antoinette, but didn’t get around to consummating the marriage for seven years as neither of them knew what they were supposed to do. Thirdly, of course, he got his head chopped off.

Louis was undeservedly considered weak and stupid (although his diary entry for July 14th 1789 did read Rien– that is, ‘Nothing happened’) yet he tried his best to sort out the country’s dire financial state. In the years leading up to the Revolution, the Royal coffers were filled from the taxes of the poor: they paid taxes to the king, to the church and to the lord of the manor, as well as taxes on wine, salt and bread. The nobility and the clergy were exempt and when Louis attempted to tax them, they refused. Understandably, the peasants were upset.

As if that wasn’t enough, the crops failed and there was a shortage of bread – the staple food. The inevitable revolt began - not in Paris but in Grenoble. When the king sent a garrison to deal with the disgruntled Grenoblois, the inhabitants climbed on to the roofs in the rue Voltaire and hurled tiles at the soldiers. The day was known uninspiringly as ‘The Day of the Tiles’ and immortalized by the painter Alexandre Debelle.

It was followed by an assembly of representatives of all but the poorest segment of French society, in a nearby castle at Vizille. They demanded that the king convene the Estates-General (representatives from the nobility, the clergy and the bourgeoisie) in order to vote on the matter of taxes. The bourgeoisie – who did pay taxes – felt they were being unfairly treated and when they realized the king had no intention of implementing fiscal reform, they broke away and formed their own National Assembly. Finding themselves locked out of the assembly rooms, they held their first meeting in an indoor tennis court in the Palace of Versailles. Here they swore an oath to remain together until a constitution for France had been drawn up. It became known as Le Serment du jeu de Paume or The Tennis Court Oath and it was truly a revolutionary act. The king no longer had absolute power.

The spirit of revolution spread through France. In the countryside, peasants and farmers revolted by attacking the manors and estates of their landlords. They became known as the sans-culottes. This did not mean that they walked around without any trousers on but rather that they wore long trousers and not knee-breeches, like the upper-classes. In Paris, on July the 14th 1789, citizens stormed the city’s largest prison, the Bastille, looking for munitions. Much has been made of this event - in fact, July the 14th is known, at least in Britain, as Bastille Day even though it commemorates la Fête de la Fédération which took place a year later. But the Bastille was a cushy prison and held principally aristocratic prisoners (Voltaire was sent there twice). They had comfortable cells and lacked for nothing. The dramatic-sounding Storming of the Bastille freed just seven inmates – two of whom were insane. It was purely a symbolic gesture albeit a bit of an anti-climax …

The nobles fled. In 1791, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette tried to escape but were caught. Some say it was because Louis tried to buy something in a shop and was recognised by the shopkeeper from his portrait on the coins; others say that Marie-Antoinette’s expensive scent gave them away. Whatever the reason, they were arrested and sent back, where Louis was forced to pledge his allegiance to the French Constitution. A year later, he was sent to the guillotine for treason.

Ironically, the guillotine was named after a humanitarian doctor, Joseph Guillotin. A member of the new national assembly, he recommended in a speech that executions be performed by a beheading device which he argued was quicker and less painful than the traditional methods of hanging or beheading by sword. Even though he did not invent the device, his name became linked with it. After his death in 1814, his children tried unsuccessfully to have the device's name changed. When their efforts failed, they were allowed to change their name instead.
The guillotine became the must-have accessory. Children were given toy guillotines with which to behead their revolutionary Barbies and women wore guillotine earrings. As a fashion victim, Marie-Antoinette would probably have worn them herself had she not had her own head sliced off. Her last poignant words were to her executioner: “Monsieur, I beg your pardon,” she said, having stepped on his foot, “I did not do it on purpose.”

In 1793, the Revolutionary Calendar was established, briefly replacing the Gregorian one. The year was divided into months consisting of three weeks of ten days which were named after various crops and flowers. Now, instead of getting one day off every seven to go to church, the people had to make do with one day in ten to attend a 'temple of reason', which is what the churches were rechristened, after the new ‘Cult of Reason’ which had replaced Christianity. Predictably, the English considered the new calendar highly amusing and gave their own names - reminiscent of Snow White’s vertically challenged companions - to the calendar months . They called them: Wheezy, Sneezy, Freezy, Slippy, Drippy, Nippy, Showery, Flowery, Bowery, Wheaty, Heaty and Sweety. Thankfully, the calendar was abandoned in 1805…

As for Grenoble – an attempt was made to change its name to Grelibre , thus replacing the ‘noble’ with ‘free’, rather like the American attempt to rechristen French Fries as ‘Freedom Fries’. This did not catch on, of course, because it just sounds silly.

As Sellars and Yeatman would say, the French Revolution was a Good Thing because without it, the French would not have wooden pencils, divorce, liberty, equality, fraternity or liquid bleach. Or fireworks. I rest my case.