Showing posts with label French heritage. Show all posts
Showing posts with label French heritage. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

History, heritage and tourism

Last week, Natacha phoned to suggest that I might watch a TV evening on Corsica. Although she has always lived in her native Provence, Natacha is linked to this unique island through her maternal ancestors, and she has often looked for superlatives to tell me about the magnificent landscape and the spirit of Corsica.

"All they're ever asking of visitors, " explained Natacha, "is to respect scrupulously the Corsican people and their culture."

That sounded fair enough to me. In any case, although I've never set foot in Corsica, and have no current plans to go there as a tourist, I decided to drop in on the TV evening about the place that is often designated as "the island of beauty". Well, I ended up watching in amazement a splendid documentary (I said already, in my previous post, that French TV can be incredibly good) that obliged me to reflect upon the bundle of themes summed up in my title: history, heritage and tourism. And the outcome of my reflections was both novel (for me, that is) and positive.

To my mind, these three concepts are different but closely linked:

— In general, history should interest and concern anybody who agrees with the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana in The Life of Reason: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I realize, of course, that many people are totally uninterested in history. They would never go out of their way to visit a place solely because of its links with the past, nor would they lift a little finger to contribute to the conservation of historical edifices, artifacts and archives. They do not seek to understand, let alone appreciate, the past. In fact, they want to have nothing to do with it.

— What we refer to as heritage might be thought of as the particular subset of history that has unfolded, as it were, in your back yard. Not necessarily your geographical backyard (so-called local history), nor even your biological backyard (genealogy), but at least a backyard that you've personally "adopted", in the spirit of a foster parent who has decided to take care of, and bring up, a child.

— Finally, as far as tourism is concerned, most often it lies outside the domains of history and heritage. People don't visit Disneyland or Las Vegas, nor even the French Riviera, for reasons linked to history or heritage. But countless serious tourists (I prefer to refer to them by means of a lovely old-fashioned term: pilgrims) visit various precious spots on the planet in a quest for vestiges of past events, past constructions, past societies, past individuals...

The TV documentary that Natacha advised me to watch was entitled Gardiens des trésors de Corse (Guardians of the treasures of Corsica), and it concerned the guardianship of three different kinds of Corsican treasures: exotic specimens in the marine sanctuary of the Lavezzi Isles, ecclesiastic architecture and, last but not least, Corsican haute cuisine.

In the first domain, the guardian is, to a large extent, a maritime policeman, constantly on the lookout for tourists whose incursions into the protected site might harm the precious fauna and flora. In the third domain, cooking, I was struck above all by a variety of Corsican beef cattle with striped tiger-hued hides, which devour the foliage of wild olive trees. Apparently, the meat is pure nectar, but the proud grazier refuses to sell his beasts to mainland butchers unless they drop in personally at his property. Then there's a variety of fat little black pigs, who run around freely on the slopes. Transformed into smoked hams, their creamy fat is said to be even more succulent than the red meat. As I write, my mouth waters...

The part of the documentary that most impressed me concerned the restoration of ancient churches in the Castagniccia (chestnut) region, south-west of Bastia. This work is supervised and financed to a large extent by the republican authorities in charge of old buildings. But the profound sense of the word "heritage" is made manifest by the involvement of the local people, whose attitudes towards the restoration projects are expressed superbly in the documentary.

Many of these rural Corsicans are religious in an old-fashioned Mediterranean fashion, which involves the adoration of statues, the kissing of painted icons, and colorful processions through village streets. Needless to say, this kind of fervor leaves me cold personally, because I wasn't brought up in that kind of atmosphere and, even if I had been, I would have surely abandoned such practices as soon as I grew up. But the marvelous aspect of this relationship between the Corsican folk, their religious traditions and their ecclesiastic heritage is the fact that, in their minds, all this is strictly "for real". They're not putting on a show for tourists. They probably don't give a damn about outsiders, leaving that for hotel-keepers and restaurant-owners. And we hear constantly about the ways in which the local folk often react to new settlers from the mainland. To my mind, that's the right of these native Corsicans: their birthright. To a lesser extent, I've encountered the same kind of reactions since settling down here at Choranche.

Corsicans look upon the history and the heritage of their island and their culture as if they were taking care of a dearly-loved child, protecting him from harm and teaching him to grow up in the best imaginable circumstances. Admittedly, it's easier to appreciate history and heritage when your native cocoon happens to be a green island in the Mediterranean, rather than a sad wasteland. The TV documentary made it clear that there is much natural beauty in Corsica, but countless generations of Corsicans have no doubt enhanced that beauty through their works. Today, they are justly proud of their past. They have nothing to prove to anybody, no excuses to make, no lessons to receive. In a nutshell, they're authentic.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ancient house for sale

In the region where I live, one of the most interesting places is the charming medieval village of Saint-Antoine l'Abbaye.

In the Middle Ages, a knight returned here with a treasure from Constantinople: the relics of the 4th-century Egyptian hermit Saint Anthony, who is generally considered as the inventor of monasticism. The bones of a major saint, in those days, were immensely valuable, since their presence in a place could attract hordes of pilgrims: a permanent source of prosperity. In the village that now bears the saint's name, a great church was erected to house the relics.

Recently, I was contacted by a female friend of a friend who asked me whether I would be prepared to build a website aimed at selling her ancient house in this village, whose façade is seen here:

I believe that the kind of individuals interested in purchasing such an exceptional place (maybe from outside France) would necessarily be enthusiasts of history and ancient buildings. So, I put a certain accent on that aspect of the situation in the website that I've just completed... which you can visit by clicking on the above image.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Keepers of French treasures

Concerning state-owned buildings in which people either work or reside, or both [as in the case of a foreign embassy, for example], the French language draws a top-level distinction between assets of a mobile nature, such as the furniture, and the building itself, associated with the land on which it is located, which are obviously of an immobile nature. The former objects are referred to as mobilier (goods and chattels), whereas the latter are called immobilier (real estate).

On Wednesday evening, I was fascinated by a TV documentary concerning the mobilier national: that's to say, the vast state-owned stocks of splendid furniture and miscellaneous objects that are distributed out to all kinds of official buildings such as the Château de Fontainebleau or the palatial French embassy in Rome. The documentary revealed, above all, the extraordinary amount of skilled restoration work that is being carried out non-stop behind the scenes, by the nation's finest craftsmen and women, in order to maintain all these goods and chattels in a perfect state, capable of representing the prestigious and elegant image of France.

Every outstanding item of furniture is referenced in such a way that a researcher can go along to the National Archives in Paris [just down the street from where I lived for a quarter of a century] in order to obtain a detailed description of the nature and background of the object.

The anecdote that most impressed me involved crockery at the French embassy in a foreign city: Switzerland, if I remember correctly. The lady from the Quai d'Orsay [the famous Parisian address of France's ministry of Foreign Affairs] who's in charge of this aspect of embassy mobilier dragged out all the crockery for a global inspection, and she found that four dinner plates had tiny chips on the edge. The damaged items were wrapped up and taken back to the national porcelain factory at Sèvres, on the western edge of Paris. [Click here to see an English version of their website.] There, an amazing process was set in motion, with the final goal of replacing the four plates. First, the chipped crockery was soaked in an acidic mixture enabling the etched gold to be recuperated. Next, the unique mold of the Swiss embassy plates had to be located in their vast reserves.

A potter then used a traditional wheel to produce four roughly-shaped plates, and his colleagues referred to the mold to attain the exact form and dimensions of the original crockery. An expert then demonstrated his technique for whisking each new plate through a cold bath of enameling liquid. He's maybe one of the only fellows in France with this manual skill, which involves balancing an item of crockery on the tips of three fingers as it swirls through the bath.

The gold-etching technique involves placing a set of mysterious gluey black stencils on the middle and circumference of each plate and then sprinkling gold dust over it. Somewhere along the line, the new plates were baked in an oven. It goes without saying that all the techniques employed at Sèvres are ancient and secret, so the documentary was in no way a do-it-yourself introduction to the manufacture of fine personalized crockery. In any case, by the time the sparkling new hand-crafted plates reached the embassy, the replacement operation had no doubt cost a small fortune: the price of prestige.

Extrapolating from what the TV documentary seemed to say, I'm led to believe that, every time an embassy guest uses a knife on the food in such a plate, an infinitesimal quantity of gold is consumed along with the foodstuffs. I wondered: Would that be the secret of the legendary excellence of French diplomacy? Whenever a foreign diplomat leaves the ambassador's dining table, after an exquisite taste of France, he has a warm glowing feeling in his stomach...