FRANCE: Joan of Arc & Mary Magdalene’s Bones

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There is something about the story of Joan of Arc that ignites my soul.

As we follow in her footsteps I ponder the miracle that was Joan – a 16-year-old-peasant girl who convinced an army of hardened soldiers to follow her into battle. She was just 19 when she was burned at the stake.

It was on the second day of my journey through France that we visited Troyes – one of the towns in which Joan called on men to unite and join her in driving the English out of France. What strength of character and conviction she must have had. Now here I was on that same spot.

Troyes is the historic capital of the Champagne region. Yet it is the houses of Troyes that make it unique. They are made from painted plaster with exposed beams. The houses are close together in narrow alleyways.

It is a very pretty little place with buildings in all the colours of the rainbow. As I walked, still thinking about Joan, I stopped off at a little boulangerie and bought a crispy bread roll filled with camembert and rocket. The shopkeeper, a delightful man, warmed it for me so the creamy cheese would melt all over the bread. When he told me it was just two euros I thought I must have misunderstood. This led us into a conversation about how much more such a culinary delight would cost in Australia, before moving onto the cost of childcare and housing.

I left with more than a cheese sandwich in  a paper bag – I took with me a full heart and a head filled with meaningful conversation.

I bit into the sandwich as I made my way to Les Halles (the market) and stopped dead. It was so full of flavour – the crisp bread, the melted cheese, the peppery rocket. That simple sandwich summed up the care the French take with their food, regardless of whether they charge hundreds of euros – or two.

From there we moved on through the beautiful green countryside to Chablis – a name that will be familiar to lovers of fine wine the world over. We stopped off at a cave (cellar) to taste some different vintages. The cellar keeper was generous in her pouring and we left feeling cheerful despite the heavy rain.

We ended the day at the Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine de Vézelay. It was a long, steep climb in the rain and cold. As I wearily put one foot in front of the other I was reminded of the millions of people who have made that same pilgrimage since the basilica was built in 1104 to house the bones of one of history’s most fascinating figures Mary Magdalene. It was here that King Richard the Lionheart of England and King Philip of France met and merged their armies for The Crusades. And it was at Vezelay that Thomas Becket gave his Whitsunday sermon in 1166. It was astonishing to think I was walking those same worn cobblestones.

The basilica was stark and quite enormous. Its age alone making it very special. But it was when I climbed down into the crypt where the bones of Mary Magdelaine are believed to rest that time stood still for me. You see when my eyes had become accustomed to the darkness I saw a young nun in white kneeling on the hard stones in front of the relics. Seeing her so still, so reverant, was incredibly moving for me. Everything about her spoke of faith.

Regardless of whether this is the final resting place of Mary Magdalene or not, I would like to think that, just for a moment, I was in her presence, this woman who so terrified the patriarchal church that history remembers her as a prostitute,  rather than accept her for what she was – one of Christ’s most beloved disciples.

Afterwards we moved on to Dijon, home of the famous mustard. Our dinner in the basement of the Sofitel was magnificent. Poached eggs a la dijonaisse, beef bourgingon, and pear poached in burgundy with blackcurrent ice.

The next morning it was off to Beaune and The Hospice which once treated the poorest of the poor. It had remarkably modern ideas for a hospital of the 1500s. Nurses had to be well-trained and professional and in the Salle de Pauvre (room of the poor) the patients slept in separate velvet draped canopy beds. The roof, done in the Flemish style, was exquisite. I had a wonderful morning in Beaune because there was also an incredible market in the square outside the hospice. Cheeses, meats, fruit and veg, truffles, and olives. I tasted everything and then bought some olive tapenade.

I walked up the street in search of fresh bread, picking up a beautiful small loaf of crusty sour dough for just .90c. Then I called in to a chocolate shop Laura had recommended and bought a slab of salted caramel nougat. I initially bought a small bar and was halfway up the block when I took a bite. I immediately turned around and walked back and bought another lot. The nougat, which is full of nuts and, and in my case caramel,  is made into large mounds. Pieces are then sliced off. Some of the nougat mounds have chocolate in them, some cranberries, coffee, biscuit pieces. It is so light and fluffy and not at all sweet. One of our group bought tiny strawberries and passed them around to taste. They were so sweet and flavourful, and just the right size to pop into your mouth. I was so happy walking around the market in the sunshine.

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Then it was back to Dijon for a walk through of the city with Laura. With its churches and palaces, it certainly was beautiful. A lucky owl sits on the corner of one of the buildings. People rub him for luck. My fingers slid over the sculpted stone – he was so shiny from millions of hands smoothing out his rough edges. As if this weren’t enough, that evening we drove to a vineyard for a Burgundy wine tasting and a walk through a vineyard. The award winning wine maker was very secretive about his methods so, as Forest Gump puts it, ‘And that’s all I have to say about that’.

Another beautiful meal followed at a tiny restaurant called Clos Napoleon in Fixin. We were offered Kir, an aperitif of chilled white wine with blackcurrant liqueur, and a basket of gougeres – choux pastry flavoured with cheese.

For my entree I feasted on escargot (snails) cooked in garlic and parsley. They were plump and tender and deicious. They had been cooked in their shells so you had to wriggle them out with a pointy fork, while holding them with a specially designed pair of tongs. I was reminded of a scene in Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts tackles them in a snooty restaurant, sending snails flying everywhere in her efforts to hold them steady. “Slippery little suckers,” she mutters as one is deftly caught by a waiter. I could certainly relate.

The main dish was Coq au Vin – or rooster cooked for 12 hours in white wine. It was tender but not quite as spectacular as I had imagined, but who’s complaining.

We were then presented with a plate of specialty cheeses of the region. Desert was a gorgeous glazed strawberry tart. And all the time, the red and white burgundy flowed.

As we rolled on back to the hotel in our bus, we belted out songs from Hotel California and The Gambler through to Joplin’s Me and Bobby Magee.

What an incredible couple of days!

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