French Cultural Vacations

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For some French families the price of summer is a forced march up the stairs of an historic château.

France is so rich in cultural history that a portion of many French family vacations is likely to include a visit to the patrimonial heritage of whatever region the family is visiting. And that means one of the many châteaux that reign over local landscapes.

Last week I took in the medieval Château de Castelnaud, in the Dordogne. I was among the thousands that day cramming the tiny rooms, ramming ourselves up the narrow, twisting stone stairways and pausing for a bit of air on the terraces that overlook the region of Castelnaud-la-Chappelle and the Dordogne valley (or more accurately, the valley of the river Céou, a branch of the winding Dordogne river). (Below is a very brief video of the valley, taken from the roof of the château).

My friend Raoul, who lives just outside of Toulouse, has, over the past few years, helped me discover the southwest of France, and he was showing me around Dordgone for a few days. Our visit included several châteaux, including this medieval fortress, which has a notable collection of arms, armor and armaments. Not that I could get a look at much of the collection. Châteaux weren’t meant to be museums, so what’s on display can be hard to see among the crowds of restless children and parents. The rooms weren’t made for display but for occupation. The staircases weren’t built for visitors. Visitors were unwelcome when the châteaux were built – and the visitors of today, while they may not be repelled by force, are certainly constrained by architecture.

That doesn’t stop vacationers, of course, since visiting historical sites is so important to a national French spirit that trusts in its long cultural heritage. The families who were crowding the Château de Castelnaud might have been tired and fidgety on this humid, overcast day, but they also probably felt they were doing their duty in visiting this château (or any château). I get the feeling that children in France are taught at an early age to appreciate the rich cultural customs they’re born into and, if they’re vacationing near to home, to savor the traditions and legacies of their particular region. Pride of place, of locality, exists in the U.S., but such pleasure in where you’re from feels different in France, which has a longer history and more distinct regional differences within a smaller geographic area than America.

A lot of very young children were at the château that day (I saw many young children at other châteaux during this visit). They would surely have been happier gamboling about the fields around the parking lots (or playing on the swing sets near the refreshment area) than traipsing up and down stone stairwells, but perhaps their parents wanted to instill in them that sense of responsibility for maintaining the centrality of culture in one’s life. They weren’t exactly force-feeding them their national culture, but they might have been, to some extent, building in a young generation the expectation of appreciating culture as an essential part of their leisure time.

The children might come away with nothing other than a vague memory of having visited a château with their parents, but they might also then later have a stronger memory of how important such a visit was for their parents, which might plant in them the idea that cultural memory is worthy, that time spent absorbing history or heritage (even in uncomfortable conditions) is something one should do.

IMG_7814.JPGWhat we remember isn’t often what we’re forced to see, or to take in. We remember the conditions of the past more most of its particulars. But we might revisit the places we’ve visited in order not only to recall what we’ve seen long ago, even in passing, but to build out of those fleeting encounters something  more substantial, that is, something built on actually engaging with a place or item in a place when we can better remember details. This might be a rewriting our own past, but we always do that. Who knows? Perhaps some of those twitchy children will actually remember having seen the displays of chain mail, trébuchets (catapults), crossbows and swords rather than the act of standing around in a crowded room in a sea of tired families.

Cultural history is both necessary and tiresome, both duty and pleasure, sufferance and surprise. Many of us delight in what we discover about our nation or region’s past, even if we have to suffer the heat, the torpor, the queues and the querulousness that, in their way, help us remember where we were. Perhaps we, at some point, will overlook the discomfort to recall the sensation of having learned something essential about who we were. Or perhaps parents hope that their children will do so, by having them share in that same experience. I remember less the arms and armor than the crowds and clamor, but I also remember the beauty of the region, and perhaps my discomfort helped remind me to appreciate being where I was.

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