In July of 1609, French explorer Samuel de Champlain and his Native American guides traversed a lovely North American lake filled with islands and bordered by mountains. Champlain liked it so much that he named it after himself.
This summer, Vermonters are celebrating the quadricentennial of Champlain’s voyage with dozens of events, including a symposium on “New France,” a Franco-American heritage festival and a celebration of the Vermont Abenaki. The Burlington International Waterfront Festival, which runs July 2 through 14, is the Quad’s pièce de résistance. Tony Bennett, Steve Earle, Aimee Mann and Grace Potter are all performing, and hundreds of participants will take part in the “Champlain 400 Parade” down Main Street on July 11.
So who was this Champlain guy, anyway? A group of Vermonters embarked on a 10-day trip last Wednesday to find out for themselves. The delegation — including Burlington City Arts director Doreen Kraft, Marcelle Leahy, wife of Senator Patrick, and former St. Mike’s prez Marc vanderHeyden and his wife Dana — are visiting Champlain’s birthplace, Brouage, the port city of Honfleur, from which he left the country, and, of course, Paris.
Burlington City Arts organized the tour as a fundraiser in honor of the Quad. The group will be doing the tourist thing, but they’re also attending to “official business,” which includes presenting a plaque honoring Champlain to officials in Paris.
Journalist Fran Stoddard is embedded with the group. She’s been sending photos and updates on their progress, which we’ve been posting to our staff blog, Blurt. So far she’s succeeded in making everyone here at Seven Days jealous of all the good food and fun she’s having. The Vermonters return on May 31.
Here are some excerpts from her posts. To read them in their entirety, click here.
Thursday, May 21: Arrival
We flew into Bordeaux, where we climbed aboard the burgundy bus that will take us up the northwestern coast of France over the next few days, before dropping us off in Paris next Thursday.
The land is lush green, full of blossoming poppies, roses, shrubs and fruit trees. We stopped first at Saintes, a town begun 2000 years ago by the Romans. Puts 400 years in a different light.
Friday, May 22: Brouage
This morning, a fabulous market down the street in New Rochelle called to some of us, with its pig ears, rabbits ready to roast, dozens of varieties of sausage, cheese, wine, fish so fresh it didn’t smell, and colorful displays of fresh produce. The song of the fruit seller greeted us. It was hard to move on to a stunning cathedral...
And then we were back on the bus and off to Brouage, the birthplace of Champlain. The small, walled city was a thriving salt producer during Champlain’s lifetime. He grew up in a diverse town of sailors and merchants from around the world. He also witnessed the horrors of the religious wars in France, leading him to want a New France of peace and tolerance among people.
Brouage’s heyday was brief, from 1555 to the 1660s. The port got silted in with shifting oceans and shipwrecks from the wars. It was cut off from the ocean, but still surrounded by marsh. In its isolation, it became favored as a prison, until more recent times. It is now a historic site and tourist destination. We heard that it’s even popular as a place for second homes for those who want to spend time in a very small, quaint village. Fingernail-sized crabs in the mussels may have been the highlight for some, but the ruins and town were a fine way to spend an afternoon.
Saturday May 23: Brittany
Today was a travel day. We are heading to the coast of Brittany, in 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 him? 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.
As a young man, Champlain admired his king, Henri IV, who fought hard to bring peace to France and issued the famous Edict of Nantes, which, for the first time, allowed the people of France to worship as a Protestant or as a Catholic. We drove past Nantes on our journey north today.
Brittany was one of the last holdouts of the Spanish occupation that supported the Catholic cause. As part of the Edict, Henri IV ousted the Spaniards and this is when Champlain pops up in accounts and in history as a young maritime supply clerk. He worked his connections to get a position aboard his uncle’s ship and his maritime career took off. The connections he made at this time in the military and in service of the king would last him a lifetime.
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 spawned a number of conversations in the van — people commented on everything from their elegant look to their minimal output of power.
Our greatest surprise was a stop at Marc vanderHeyden’s sister Treesje Stolkman’s 1809 farmhouse in Sarzeau, Brittany, which she shares with her husband Fried. It was a family reunion and also a time to fête 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! It was another remarkable spread with asparagus soup, a beautifully presented whole salmon and numerous delightful vegetable dishes, including a seafood-stuffed tomato — a Belgian specialty from Marc and Treesje’s childhood home. 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 World War II. The old city and the ramparts have been remarkably rebuilt. I’ll investigate further to see if I can recognize signs of the reconstruction on my way to supper at a crêperie on the ramparts, where I hear the sunsets are spectacular.
Sunday, May 24: St. Malo
I want to add a bit more about Champlain’s life before he ventured to North America.
Champlain sailed with his uncle on a ship from St. Malo that was escorting the Spanish fleet back to Spain. There he got on a Spanish ship headed for the Caribbean, surreptitiously collecting information to report back to the king. He presumably did this bit of spying quite well, and gained favor with the king. Some even speculate that since Champlain was able to gain the audience of the king so easily, he may have been one of Henri’s many alleged illegitimate children.
Our trip historian, André Senécal, thinks that’s hogwash, but it does raise an eyebrow.
Historians Senécal and David Hackett Fischer — author of the recent biography Champlain’s Dream— also note that Champlain expressed his disgust of the poor treatment of the native population by the Spanish. The experience possibly formulated his quite different approach to natives in the St. Lawrence Valley.