In France - and elsewhere in Europe - every third weekend in September is designated les journées européennes du patrimoine, European Heritage Days. I think it's a great idea: historical monuments, museums, galleries, great houses and the like are open to the public for free. It's as though the National Trust in the UK opened all its properties on a set weekend once a year without charging for admission, and not unnaturally it's very popular.
Our village throws itself into the spirit of things with enormous energy, even though the three officially listed historical monuments in the village are free anyway: the 12th century Pont du Diable, the Devil's Bridge, which still carries a public road, the 13th century bell-tower, the only standing part of the ruined medieval château, which you can wander about in freely, and the church organ, one of only about 6 of its type in France, which rarely costs you anything to listen to anyway. So you can do the village historical sights and sounds without anyone asking you to put your hand in your pocket, which is pretty rare.
In the village the Saturday was classed as journée patrimoine, Heritage Day. As organiste titulaire, official organist, I threw in my two-penn'orth to the festivities demonstrating how the organ worked, and in the evening there was a free trumpet-and-organ concert for which the church was packed. The village museum, which from humble beginnings a few years ago has now become, thanks entirely to local volunteers, a widely admired and highly visitable museum of local crafts and traditions, was open all day. All this was a prelude to the Sunday, journée médiévale, Medieval Day, when the village went back several centuries in a determined way, to show how things were in the Middle Ages
First, everyone who wished to, villager and visitor alike, was encouraged to dress in medieval fashion, and the village seamstresses got together beforehand to produce some wonderful costumes. With a tabard here and a wimple there, doublets and hose, cloaks, habergeons and cotehardies, justeaucorps and cross-gartering, it all looked very picturesque. It produced an unexpected effect, too, because as soon as you met someone you knew well dressed up in a cone- or steeple-shaped hennin headdress or a simple leather cloche cap or hood, the face beneath immediately reminded you of the paintings of Breughel or Van Eyck: Western physiognomy hasn't changed much in 500 years, it seems.
Dame Pamela and Florence d'Araby in their pavilion
Then the organising committee, mostly based on the village Office de Tourisme, Tourist Office, engaged a band of medieval soldiers and their camp followers. Curiously, this turned out to be easier than it sounds. Readers in the UK will probably be familiar with The Sealed Knot, the association whose members dress in mid-17th century Roundhead and Cavalier fashion and re-enact battles from the Civil War. There's a similar movement in France, evoking the Hundred Years' War, the 14th and 15th century England v. France fixture which resulted in the English being finally driven out of their French possessions despite some spectacular early victories like Crécy and Agincourt. (Yes, I know they kept Calais until 1558.) So La Compagnie du Chêne Ardent, The Company of the Burning Oak, pitched camp overnight on the Plan du Verdier, one of village squares. The next day they marched about the village streets with their ferocious, many-oathed captain at their head hurling imprecations against the 'anglois' (medieval French for 'anglais'), bombarding children great and small with sweets from a replica siege-engine catapult, inviting onlookers to try their fencing and archery skills and giving demonstrations of medieval arms drill. All quite captivating.
Josephine and I took our places in the lusciously warm September sun with some friends and relations, a little corner of quite unintentional Englishry - we really don't care very much for the exclusive English ghetto effect some Brit expats wrap themselves up in - at the medieval meal the organisers had laid on under the lime trees of the Plan du Verdier. I have the menu in front of me:
*Pasté de Castagne: chestnut pâté, served with lettuce and sliced apple
*Estouffade de boeuf marjolaine et fabounade: Beef stewed in a rich broth of red wine, grapes, cinnamon, thyme and pork fat, with the medieval equivalent of baked beans
*Jonchée de fromage: a round of goat's milk cheese, beaded with honeydrops
*Crossade de Dame Guenièvre: a sort of pasty filled with stewed apple, plums and raisins.
No meal of this kind can be served in France without a) as much wine as you want and b) some kind of entertainment between the courses. The captain, a ringer for Ancient Pistol, Falstaff's fearsome, hard-swearing companion in various Shakespearean history plays, turned out to have a softer, musical side: he led us in several medieval songs of which some words from Le Prince d'Orange linger in the memory:
Je partis sain et sauf et j'en revins blessé
De trois grands coups de lance qu'un anglois m'a donné
Que maudit soit la guerre, qu'un anglois m'a donné.
(I left safe and sound and I returned wounded
From three great spear-blows that an Englishman gave me
A curse on war, that an Englishman gave me.)
After the meal the square was very efficiently cleared by the red-robed Consul, a sort of medieval mayor, inviting the company to join him down by the Pont du Diable to witness a representation of the village's most famous legend . . .
. . . the Devil's Bridge had to be completed by a certain deadline. For reasons best known to himself the Devil had no wish to see the bridge finished, and every night demolished what had been built during the day, hurling masonry down into the river Jaur below. At length a pact was made between the Consul and the Devil: the Devil would allow completion on condition that the first living creature to cross the bridge would be his throughout eternity.
The Consul, the Captain and camp followers
On completion day the villagers assembled behind the Consul at one end of the bridge, while the Devil stood in the middle awaiting his due. Suddenly a cat emerged from the ranks of villagers, ran across and leapt into the Devil's arms, fulfilling the pact, whereupon the Devil disappeared in a puff of green smoke, snarling with disappointed rage. We watched all this played out, hissed and booed at a magnificent red-horned Devil (played by our neighbour Claude), and when it was finished we walked home across the famous bridge, grateful not only to the Cat that Saved the Village Bridge, not only to the organising committee for laying on such an enthralling weekend, but grateful also to the French spirit and mindset that lays such a premium on bringing the past to life.