With his knack for suspense and adventure, his good-natured personality, Alexandre Dumas would no doubt have been a fan of the Tour de France.
The 4th stage sets off from his hometown, the first time Villers-Cotterêts has welcomed the Tour de France, though it has a long-standing cycling tradition.
Long before Dumas was born, Villers-Cotterêts was famous for the ordinance Francis I promulgated there in 1539, without which the Tour de France’s official language might be Latin today. It established French as the only language in public documents so that the people could understand them. French thus became the official language of law and administration, replacing Latin and all the other tongues of the realm.
Thanks to Francis I, French already had a special place in literature on July 24, 1802, when Alexandre Dumas was born on the street now named after him. He spent his childhood in Villers-Cotterêts, moving to Paris only in 1823. The surroundings of his youth provided the inspiration for two of his novels set in Retz Forest, The Wolf Leader and Catherine Blum.
The town has a long experience in staging races, as each year are held here:
Situated 7.5 km from Villers-Cotterêts, La Ferté Milon also owes its fame to a great French writer, playwright Jean Racine who was born there in 1639 and baptised in Notre-Dame church.
Racine’s mother died when he was 13 months old and he lost his father three years later. His grandmother, Marie des Moulins, brought him up in the house that now houses a museum about him. His sister Marie’s house is now the town’s Youth and Culture Centre. Racine is omnipresent in his hometown: a statue of the child poet graces ruelle des Rats, a street where a museum, cinema and hotel have been named after him.
La Ferté Milon’s other monument is more discreet: a small metallic walkway crossing over the Ourcq canal, work of a young engineer promised to great fame: Gustave Eiffel.
The village of Domptin lies in a watery maze. Nearly 30 springs have been identified around town. Everything points to this fact: bridges, washhouses, fountains, and the “avale tout” (“swallow all”). At the so-called spot, water seeps in between the stones, into the earth, never resurfacing anywhere. This natural chasm has always existed. Thirty of 40 years ago, it could swallow up to 100 litters per minute.
Few people know that 10% of French champagne comes from 2,600 hectares in the Aisne. Or that Charly sur Marne, the department’s biggest wine-making town, has had the “champagne” appellation since 1908. The main grape here is the pinot meunier, one of the three varieties allowed in champagne, along with chardonnay and pinot noir.
The village is named after a certain Artaud, treasurer in the late 12th century of the Count of Champagne, who had a castle built and in 1287 founded the Poor Clares convent, which played an important part in local history.
An interesting vestige is the 13th-century tombstone of Artaud’s fifth son in the village church. The deceased is shown, his head tonsured, in his position as treasurer but with a broken nose: the village priest had the gisant laid face-down to stop the custom of young women kissing it on the day after their weddings.
Ile de France, which comprises eight departments – Essonne, Hauts-de-Seine, Paris, Seine-Saint-Denis, Seine-et-Marne, Val-de-Marne, Val-d’Oise and Yvelines – is by far France’s wealthiest and most populated region because it gravitates around the nation’s capital, Paris, where most of the area’s activities and population are concentrated.
Long called “the Paris region”, in 1976 it was renamed Île de France, a title dating from before the Revolution derived from the Frankish expression Liddle Franke, which means “Little France.”
With nearly 11.5 million inhabitants, the region has more people than Belgium, Sweden, Greece, Austria or Portugal and is Europe’s fourth-largest territorial subdivision after England and Germany’s two biggest Länder, North Rhineland-Westphalia and Bavaria.
Île de France is also an economic powerhouse, generating nearly one-third of France’s domestic economy – and nearly 84% in services. Its GDP is bigger than that of Brazil or Russia. Paris is the world’s 20th-biggest city in terms of population but tied with London in fifth place for its global economic importance, after Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles and Osaka.
Seine-et-Marne, the Île de France’s eastern part, is also the region’s biggest department, accounting for nearly half its land area. It is also the only one that remains truly agricultural, with grain and sugarbeet farms &"8211; not to mention the dairies that make two famous kinds of cheese, Brie and Coulommiers.
Seine-et-Marne is a department of tradition, with the lovely town of Melun, Fontainebleau Forest and Fontainebleau and Vaux-le-Vicomte chateaus. But the closer you get to Paris the more urbanised it is, with the new towns of Marne-la-Vallée and Sénart. Today the department’s most-visited site is Eurodisney Park, which attracts nearly 13 million people every year.
District capitals: Fontainebleau, Meaux, Provins, Torcy.
A major fortress in the Middle Ages, Sablonnières took its name from the sand quarries once exploited there. The town was part of “second Belgium under the Roman occupation; many Roman vestiges have been found here, proof of the town’s strategic importance, which played a role in the 14th-century wars with the English, when Sablonnières hillock was one of the only positions that always remained in French hands.
The region has given its prestigious, sparkling name to its most famous product: over 250 million bottles of champagne are made each year, accounting for 25% of its exports. Some 61% of the surface area is farmland. It is first in France for barley and alfalfa cultivation. Champagne–Céréales, Europe’s biggest grain cooperative, is located here.
Champagne-Ardennes boasts a rich history. In ancient times Reims was the most populated city north of Rome before becoming the place where every king of France from Clovis onward was crowned. In the Middle Ages fairs and commerce made the region wealthy, but both world wars wreaked devastation due to its location near the border. During World War I it was the theatre of fighting that has gone down in history: the battle of the Marne and the Chemin des Dames.
Aube has long been an agricultural department and France’s leading hemp producer. Relatively unpopulated (74th in France in terms of population), it can be divided into six main areas: Champagne in the northwest, Nogentais in the north, Othe southwest of Troyes, Chaourceois in the south, Barrois in the east and humid Champagne in the centre. After the Marne, Aube is France’s leading champagne producer but it is also famous for its cheese, Chaource, and its heritage: Clairvaux Abbey near Bar-sur-Aube, and Troyes, which is remarkable for its medieval architecture, factory outlets and textiles (Petit Bateau, Delanvay, Lacoste), proof that past and present can live side by side in harmony. The lakes in Orient Forest attract people interested in green tourism.
After Dumas, Racine and La Fontaine, we now come upon another great French writer, Gustave Flaubert, who set his novel A Sentimental Education partly in Nogent sur Seine. He used the town as a symbolic of the provinces in counterpoint to Paris, where most of the plot takes place. A “Flaubert trail” has been set up in tribute to the writer in the footsteps of Frédéric Moreau, the hero of A Sentimental Education, with approximately 20 tablets affixed to buildings that feature in the novel.
Another famous artist, Camille Claudel, made her first sculptures in Nogent, where her family lived from 1876 to 1879. She studied under Alfred Boucher, a sculptor who has been rehabilitated after having fallen into oblivion.
If Flaubert could come back to Nogent today he would hardly recognise the place. It has been a flour-milling centre since the Middle Ages, but the huge “Grands Moulins” date to the Industrial Revolution. The two cooling towers of the nuclear plant, the closest one to Paris, have become part of the townscape.
This village is famous for its menhir, the Cockerel Stone, said to rotate at cockcrow. Legend has it that Attila the Hun kissed the stone.
Burgundy is named after a people called the Burgonds, who created a kingdom that was split into two separate entities in the Middle Ages: the earldom, which owed allegiance to Holy Roman Empire, and the duchy of Burgundy, which depended on the crown of France, making Burgundy’s nobles the vassals to two powers that often clashed with one another.
Burgundy has long been an agricultural region known primarily for its wines, considered the best in France, but its four departments (Côte d’or, Nièvre, Saône et Loire, Yonne) also produce grain, oil seeds and renowned beef, especially in the Charolais and Morvan.
Industry, which developed in the 19th century (coal in Montceau-les-Mines, steel in Creusot, mining in La Machine), grew by leaps and bounds after 1945, especially in the Saône Valley (Mâcon, Chalon-sur-Saône), Dijon and Yonne, but many factories have since closed down. On the other hand, more diversified and less vulnerable light industries – parachemicals, pharmaceuticals, electronics, plastics, paper, food, mechanical and automotive – have moved into the region’s northern part, which has few big companies. Exports and tourism (gastronomy, history, culture, green tourism in Morvan Natural Park) provide the area with appreciable additional resources.
Everybody knows that this department in Burgundy is named not after the Seine that flows through Paris, but the Yonne. For sports fans, the Yonne is above all Auxerre, its football club and its coach, Guy Roux. But Auxerre is also a wine capital in the heart of a region whose vintages have been famous for centuries. A visit to the Chablis, Irancy and Auxerrois vineyards is a must, but tourists also enjoy nice walks along the Canal du Nivernais and in Vézelay, a masterpiece of Romanesque art.
District capitals: Avallon, Sens.
This village looks peaceful today, but the former castle’s park, designed by Le Nôtre, and Fleurigny chateau, a fortress that was transformed into a miraculously-preserved stately home, bear witness to a tumultuous past.
Nothing is left of Thorigny castle except the magnificent garden that Le Nôtre designed in 1680 for Nicolas Lambert, the royal treasurer. The present-day garden was laid out in the mid-19th century.
Fleurigny chateau, on the other hand, has stood the test of time. It was originally a medieval fortress that played a major part in the Hundred Years War, when it belonged to the Lejay family. The Renaissance structure stands on the old fortress’s foundations. Seen from the inner courtyard, the chateau does not at all look medieval. The only architectural feature dating from the Middle Ages is a tower at the end of the east wing, where Jean Cousin, a great artist from Sens, designed a chapel that was built in 1532.
Chateaubriand enjoyed staying in Villeneuve, the hometown of his friend, the moralist Joseph Joubert (1754-1824), whose works the author of Mémoires d’outre-tombe had published after his death. Joubert was posthumously successful; Paul Auster has translated his books into English.
Another famous writer, the Resistance fighter and former Spanish culture minister Jorge Semprun, is indirectly linked to Villeneuve-sur-Yonne: the forged identity papers he carried on him during the Second World War said that he was born there.
The Second World War is also when a former mayor of Villeneuve became tragically notorious. Dr. Marcel Petiot made an excellent reputation for himself by treating the poor for free and was elected mayor in 1927. Convicted of fraud, he moved to Paris and in 1941 set up his surgery and a gas chamber in a townhouse on rue Le Sueur. In March 1944, after neighbours filed a complaint, the remains of 26 people, whom he had robbed of all their possessions after telling them that he would help them flee to Argentina, were found there. Dr. Petiot confessed to 63 murders and was guillotined at the Santé prison on 25 May 1946.
Other figures connected to Villeneuve’s history were much more respectable. Philip Augustus held parliament in the town in 1204 and Saint Louis lived there before leaving on his last crusade.
Villeneuve has beautiful vestiges of its past, such as the Louis VI the Fat Tower, a former royal keep and one of the many medieval towers that can still be seen, the splendid Joigny and Sens Gates and the House of a Hundred Windows, the present-day town hall where local notables were locked up during the French Revolution.
The fourth stage is decidedly literary because it ends in Joigny, the birthplace of Marcel Aymé. Dumas, Racine, Lafontaine and Flaubert never saw the Tour or experienced the joys of cycling, but the author of La Jument verte did. In one of his short stories Aymé had a character who resembled him say, “He believed that God was interested in bicycle races and he was right.” Aymé grew up with the Tour because he was born in 1902, one year before the first race around France took place.
It is paradoxical that somebody with such a rebellious mind was born in a garrison town, but Aymé was fond of Joigny, where he returned only for holidays after being bounced around from one relative to another following his mother’s death in 1904. His literary career started in 1926 with a string of bestsellers: La Table aux crevés won the Renaudot Prize in 1929. Then came La Jument verte (1933), Contes du chat perché (1934) and several works that were turned into successful films, such as Passe muraille (1942) Traversée de Paris (1946) and Uranus (1948). Aymé had a considerable influence on the Tour’s most famous writer, Antoine Blondin.
Joigny has been a garrison town since Francis I. At first the soldiers were quartered in people’s houses but then they gradually occupied the huge barracks built around town. From 1530 to the present day, nearly 150 regiments have been stationed here for long periods. Joigny has been settled since time immemorial and grew thanks to its strategic location on a rocky spur, where a castle was built in the 10th century to keep on eye on the Duke of Burgundy and the Count of Champagne. Only a few traces of the medieval fortress are now left.
The vineyard had 574 hectares at its height in 1776, but phylloxera wiped most of the vines out in the 19th century and only 26 hectares are left today. The quality of Joigny’s wine is incontestable, as its presence on the tables of the kings of France attests. The vineyards are planted with pinot gris for the Côte Saint-Jacques grey wine, pinot noir for red Burgundy and chardonnay for white Burgundy.