Journalist Fran Stoddard is in France this week on a "Quadricentennial Journey" hosted by Burlington City Arts. Here's her latest report from across the pond. I'm told that her videos will be available soon...
Saturday, May 23
Today was a travel day. We are heading to the coast of Brittany, in the Northwest France to visit many places, including two important ports from which Samuel de Champlain sailed to the New World. So what have we discovered about this guy? He wrote much about the New World, but very little about himself, so there have been many varied assumptions about him over time.
We know he learned the sailing trade from his father, who was a sea captain. He grew up during a nasty religious civil war in a worldly, bustling, diverse port city. In Brouage, he heard of far off lands and very possibly dreamed of a place that was not troubled by the horrors he experienced during the bloody struggle between the Protestants and Catholics. (The photo shows a stained glass window in a Brouage church, a gift from Quebec).
As a young man, Champlain admired his king, Henri IV, who fought hard to bring peace to France, including the forging of the famous Treaty of Nantes, which, for the first time, allowed the people of France to worship as Protestant or as a Catholic. We drove past Nantes on our journey north today.
Brittany was a the region that was one of the last holdouts of the Spanish occupation that supported the Catholic cause. As part of the Treaty, Henri IV ousted the Spaniards and this is when Champlain pops up in accounts and in history as a young maritime supply clerk. He works his connections get a position aboard his uncle’s ship and his maritime career takes off. The connections he made at this time in the military and in service of the king last him a lifetime. More on that tomorrow…
We were treated to a few surprises today. One was the number of wind turbines early on in the drive cranking away in this pristine countryside. They spawn a number of conversations from their elegant look to their minimal output of power. We also pass the Rance River that houses the largest electricity plant in France, powered by significant tides which have always played a major role in this region. Open spaces and well preserved farmhouses and clustered, quaint villages are also noted by fellow Vermonters. France is a major agricultural country, supplying much of Europe with grains, produce and of course wine and cheeses.
Speaking of produce, our greatest surprise today was a stop at Marc vanderHeyden’s sister Treesje Stolkman's 1809 farmhouse in Sarzeau, Brittany, which she shares with her husband Fried. It’s a family reunion and also a time to fete fellow traveler, Nicole Carignan, CFO of Symquest, who turns 40 tomorrow. We had over a dozen types of hors d’oeuvres, including coquilles, oysters, shrimp and other shellfish — all in their native state — artichoke, ham rolls, caviar, deviled eggs, salmon, curried apple on endive, champagne… And then we had lunch (!), another remarkable spread with asparagus soup, a beautifully presented whole salmon and numerous delightful vegetable dishes, including a Belgian specialty, from Marc and Treesje's childhood home, a seafood stuffed tomato. Mascarpone with blue fruit compote and coffee finished us off.
After naps on the bus, we woke to the “City of Pirates,” St. Malo, another walled city that was almost entirely destroyed in WW2. The old city and the ramparts have been remarkably rebuilt. I’ll investigate further to see if I can recognise signs of the reconstruction on my way to supper at a creperie on the ramparts where I hear the sunsets are spectacular.