The interval of silence that has passed between my last post and this was not caused by my retreat to a Carthusian convent, though the thought has often appealed to me.
No, we skipped out to Orleans — the old, not the new — for the Festival de Loire, a five-day traditional-boat festival on the cobblystoned banks of the river.
This is the waterfront before the arrival of all the boats. The water nearest the embankment is a sort of deviation of the Loire, which is flowing behind the line of trees and joins this offshoot where the trees end. This side of the trees the channel is always navigable; on the other side, the river is largely sandbank.
The Venetian fleet: From the shore outward, the “Diesona,” or ten-oar gondola; a gondola “da fresco,” a battella a coa de gambaro (shrimp-tail battella), and a gondolino. All but the battella belong to the Settemari rowing club.
Other boats begin to appear. I never saw them arrive. Maybe they rose from the deep.
Every two years, the City of Orleans puts on this fiesta, with stands and food and games for the children and demonstrations of crafts and lots of stuff for sale (like cases of the local wine, to pick an example at random). It is a massive undertaking, and what with logistics and cost I can see why they need a year to recover.
Here is what I can tell you about Orleans, from what I remember:
It’s the first city that Joan of Arc liberated from the English stranglehold, after a hideous siege, in 14something; it was the capital of France for a long time, before (fill in King Name here) decided he liked Paris better; the historic center is beautiful and extremely clean; the cathedral is really high, and I can say that because I stopped counting the stone steps on the way to the pinnacle after about 852; the local dish is andouillette (an-doo-ee-YET), an alarming sausage-like creation composed of the internal organs of either pig or calf.
If I’d ever gotten downwind of chitlings I might have been prepared for this, and I have to admit I’ve never tried haggis, which conceivably could be even more alarming. But as for andouillette, the odor alone is enough, as it approaches your face, for you to think again about biting into it. (Actually, you don’t have to think about it at all. The mouth shuts without any prompting.) It’s something like the aroma of a slaughterhouse in summer which has never been inspected or cleaned. Apologies to people who love andouillette or haggis.
I did in fact read up briefly on this extraordinary invention, just to see if I was being needlessly finicky. After all, I love tripe, and I have consumed brains and kidneys and pig’s feet, so how bad could this be? “It has a strong distinctive odor related to its intestinal origins and components” — my source tactfully puts it — “and is stronger in scent when the colon is used.” I rest my case.
These are andouillettes, hot off the grill. They look normal, it’s true, and they were selling like crazy.
I will admit that I could have been tempted to try something prepared by Cyrano de Bergerac. Just not that.
Cyrano’s son is studying at a university in Louisiana, hence the jambalaya recipe on the apron. I don’t know if he has ever made it in Orleans. They probably would think it’s uneatable. As they chomp into their fourth andouillette.
On other hand, I discovered real smoked herring (not the salty little pieces of herring-jerky known as kippered herrings in England), which is now my new favorite thing and which I don’t imagine ever eating again, short of a trip to the Netherlands or some Viking country. Lino says it used to be very common in Venice; small gobbets went very well with polenta.
The herring production system is simple, but time-consuming. One man has already beheaded, gutted and skewered the herring. The fish are then hung over a slow fire to dry. When the moment is right, they are muffled between the blankets on the iron drum at the left, in which burning sawdust is creating clouds of smoke. I can’t explain at what point, or by what alchemy, the fish come out of their swaddlings gleaming like copper, but it obviously works fine.
Ready to be eaten. Please notice that smoking is forbidden. They don’t want your smoke to clash with their smoke.
This is lunch, with its delicately smoldered flavor and its long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA and Vitamin D.
We went to Orleans to represent Venice, the guest of honor for the 2013 edition of this mega-fest, bringing four Venetian boats and 20+ Venetian rowers from the Settemari club and Arzana‘, a smaller organization dedicated to the conservation of old boats. We are members of the latter, though there are several people who belong to both.
Our duties consisted of rowing the boats up and down the stretch of river fronting the one-kilometer (half-mile) stretch of festival stands and hordes. We did this for a while in the morning, and another while in the afternoon. We were there to look beautiful and fascinating, and so that’s what we did. Between eating and drinking, that is. And climbing the cathedral.
Now we’re all back to the most beautiful city in the world, where our absence wasn’t noticed, and neither is our presence, usually. Still, if I had to choose between Venice and Orleans, my choice is clear. It’s true that Orleans has a phenomenally efficient and clean tram system. But we have the vaporettos, which are administered by highly-paid people who obey the instructions transmitted by alien beings through the fillings in their teeth.
So I’m sticking with Venice. What’s mere efficiency compared to that?
A few boats of various sizes were also brought from Cesenatico, down the Adriatic coast from Venice. The big bragozzo never left its moorings, but the smaller craft went up and down, sails spread, motors running, just like everybody else except us.
There were plenty of traditional Loire transport boats. I love their sails, they look like something off the Bayeux Tapestry.
Man did not live by boats alone. Two Ardennes draft horses were brought to recall the epoch (probably about 3,000 years long) in which such creatures were crucial in towing the boats against the considerable current when the wind dropped or the water rose, or when the cargo was especially ponderous, such as sand.
We took a few hours to visit the cathedral of the Holy Cross (photo: Andrew Lih, Wikipedia).
One of our group had discovered the priest responsible for the cathedral, Father Girault, who agreed to escort us up to the top. What was I thinking?
But we made it, some of us impelled by the desire to touch the angel’s feet, which the good padre told us was traditionally believed to bring good fortune. Me, I just wanted to see if I could get there. The fact that he was right there with us impressed me no end, as did his spontaneous blessing of us and the city of Venice from this vertigenous shelf.
Then he invited us to his residence nearby for snacks and drinks. He told us some very funny stories, even while deftly rolling one cigarette after another.
Back to the river. On Sunday morning, some good soul organized a trip four miles (7 km) up the river in four traditional boats.
We anchored by throwing the anchors ashore) at Combleux, a village at the entrance to a canal, now abandoned, which was the route to the Seine and eventually Paris for innumerable cargo boats in days of yore.
The Loire Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but they can’t fix everything up.
The masts can be extended horizontally, for obvious reasons.
The pennants are traditionally attached to the masthead with distinctive carved symbols representing the owner, the cargo, and other distinguishing characteristics.
We took a few musicians aboard for the return trip, and their songs of the rivermen of the Loire practically made me get up and dance.
Here are two clips Voce036Voce035recorded on my cell phone; remember we were all floating down the river, so this is not studio quality. It was sort of superlative-moment-in-ordinary-life quality.
It was one those interludes that you can’t resist, and Massimo Rigo (president of the Settemari rowing club) and his wife Barbara didn’t especially try.
We didn’t learn many details, but it’s clear that the owner of the chateau had no intention of letting the Loire in spate damage his property. The neighbors on either side are on their own.
And speaking of acqua alta, these marks on the walls show the height of several catastrophic inundations — strangely, we all observed, in years ending in “6.” This street, may I note, is very high and 150 feet (45 m) from the river.
Saturday night was the height of the festivities, complete with these strange floating drifting constructions which seemed oddly benign. The big moment, which drew something like 20,000 spectators, was the fireworks spectacular, choreographed with music. It was thrilling. No pictures — I was concentrating on being thrilled.
And colored lights played over the boats and river. It was magical. I’m going to end the story here. We all lived happily ever after.