So now that the ‘Zoundsmobile has FINALLY arrived, we set off—running open headers, of course—rattling the milk out of every cow in the French countryside of Lorraine. On the road, we ran into a couple of AC Cobras and decided to show them what American Muscle is all about. Stand back, silly Brits with your Mustang engines! Wait.. why are they pulling away (without acknowledging our presence in the least)? Oh yeah. We’re still in that damn VW Golf. Top Down Time needs a hug. 😦
Three hours behind the wheel of a car with more buttons than the Apollo lunar module had us eschew the built-in GPS for the old-fashioned windshield-sticky type, but neither may have been necessary, as French signage is massively better than that on the Belgian side of the border. We assume it has something to do with the fact that France, unlike Belgium, had decided to settle on a single language. We’re no tourism experts (of course we are!) but that seemed like a bright idea.
Due to exceptional planning, we did not copy the exact address (or the inexact address, or the street name, or even the hotel name) of our destination, as we figured a watermill in a small town of 2,800 souls should be about as easy to find as a Mary Kay rep at a tailgating party. While crossing the bridge into town, our superior powers of deduction and years of experience getting lost led us to conclude that the mill, of the watery variety, was likely to be somewhere on a river (Holmes and Watson have nothing on us.) A pair of quick glances to the left and the right and Voila! There is was: Le Moulin Cygne (Swan Mill.) More accurately, it could have been called Le Moulin Canard (look it up, lazy), as the migratory habits of our avian friends conspired with the state of the seasons to mock us heartily.
Note: Water is a surprisingly LOUD beast! Fortunately, the mill had great windows, but the water running over the locks or dams or whatever you call them made a fantastic white noise which drowned out civilization—precisely why you’d come to a village like Stenay.
Now that we’re here
But hey… just because the mill was built in 1750 in the French countryside doesn’t mean we’re here to convalesce from consumption and write pastoral poetry lamenting the trappings of industrialized life. We’re here to party!!! Oh wait… wrong town. Again, our brilliant planning worked out well, as our three-day visit included Thursday night through Sunday morning. It’s not as if we could have put those nights to better use somewhere more populated and prone to debauchery of major and minor types, like Lille or Amsterdam. But still, let’s see what one can get up to for a few days.
You could literally walk from one end of town to the other in a few minutes. You would see the occasional car, and the more common pedestrian, who was always quick to offer a smiling “bonjour” your way. Smile back! Say it back! Don’t be rude. If you walk into a store, greet the proprietor. And if another customer walks in, expect to be greeted and greet back. Better yet, initiate the greeting. It’ll make you feel good to act civilized for a change. Trust us, it will have a wonderful effect on your disposition and make you wonder just why it is that pretentious big city folk act the way they do.
The folks in town are so nice, in fact, that you’ll quickly forget that almost nobody speaks English. This is a small town, after all. It’s not connected to the UK by a tunnel. But you can get by well enough with gestures and a bit of guessing. You could find English speakers if push comes to shove. You could even visit the small tourist office. But why?
A brilliant decision
Instead, go get yourself a haircut. Nidal should have gotten one two weeks ago from his usual barbers in NYC, but a better plan emerged: since Françe is on the itinerary, why not head to a fancy coiffure, explain what he’s looking for en français, and have one of The Most Fashionable People On Earth give him a proper coupe de cheveux? Sounds like an absolutely brilliant plan! Sadly, Nidal is not in Paris… he’s not even in Lille. He’s in Stenay, a sleepy village where English is not exactly a job requirement for scissor-wielding hair-butchers. For all we know, these fine folks could still be using leaches to relieve you of foul humors. Based on the appearance of the establishment, this seemed unlikely, so in we went. Of course, Nidal could talk to the barber in (somewhat broken) French, but that would either eliminate the resultant carnage or obstruct the greatest haircut ever. So he sauntered in there dumb (not the first or last time). Good move, or great move? Allons…
Business in the front, Jar Jar in the back.
Eh… you know the difference between an eight dollar haircut and an eighty dollar haircut? One week and seventy-two dollars. Moving on…
Missions, markets, and monuments
Old European towns are almost always built around their churches. After all, it’s where you went when you were born, where you went while you lived, and where you went when you died. Might as well cut the commuting time. The church of St. Gregoire, right off the main square (on Rue de L’Eglise, of course) was rebuilt nearly two centuries ago after being destroyed. (Haven’t they all?)
And don’t let the proportions of the front door fool you. Even this relatively simple church is quite large (notice the tiny TopDownTimer behind the bannister).
Grand gothic spires? Triptychs by Bouts? Statues by Michelangelo? No… but as Spartan as it was compared to the Cathedral of Lille and churches of Bruges, it fit the town well. Still, it had several brilliant stained glass windows as well as a few painting and sculptures and such. It’s certainly worth a bit of your time to visit and explore.
Right around the corner form the church, on Friday mornings, the town hosts a street market in the central square, where you can purchase anything from shoes to shallots. We picked up a bottle of mead (think plum wine with an extra pound of sugar per bottle), some delicious fresh produce, and a kilo of sizzling paella cooked in a giant wok. Needless to say, the cost was practically nothing for uppity city-slickers like us, and the taste was absolutely divine. For those of you used to getting your produce from a truck which drove up to New York from Argentina, we cry; produce should never ripen en route.
And now, a selection of food pR0n for those of you so inclined, all fetched from the Friday morning market, and all ridiculously flavorful. We apologize in advance for the poor plating of the Paella, but it smelled so good we just couldn’t waste time prettying it up lest it cool down before our diving in. You see, we, your humble correspondents, needed to insure that our reporting to you of how positively delectable it indeed tasted met the highest of journalistic standards. Bon appetite! (to us)
Now, if relaxing in a garden by the river with ducks and falls and boats and wine and food isn’t your idea of fun, there are a couple of attractions in the area which should peak your interest. A few miles worth of a beautiful drive south, through the village of Mont-devant-Sassey, one is presented with an insanely fairytale-esque sight.
This impressive structure, L’eglise de Mont-devant-Sassey, is an absolutely brilliant example of Romanesque architecture. Built in the 11th and 12th centuries, this remarkable structure has survived wars and plundering, maintaining its essence and architectural integrity. It’s 13th century portal is fantastically well preserved, and is the best example of a carved portal of that era in Lorraine. And unlike most town churches, this one is not set in the center of town, but up a hill, with a commanding view, making it a fantastic location to witness from afar. Make your way here, but do so before closing hours…
While L’eglise de Mont-devant-Sassey is quite an impressive church, we arrived rather late, and the Church had unfortunately closed for the day, but we did have a very spooky and very solitary walk around the ancient graveyard as the sun set beneath the mountains and darkness descended to envelope us. It was precisely the sort of situation which gets American teenagers eaten by zombies, werewolves, vampires, or all three. Fortunately, with Ella being Transylvanian, even the French ghouls showed respect and maintained their distance.
Mont-devant-Sassey (right) and Stenay (below) both had memorials dedicated to those who died in WWI. Verdun, where an 11 month battle claimed nearly a million casualties, is only a short distance away, as the entire area was ravaged by war. Now, we’re not talking about a drone dropping smartbombs which take you out while you’re thinking happy thoughts. We’re talking about war where they hadn’t quite figured out that running through yellow-brown clouds of mustard gas while holding your breath or mounting screaming cavalry charges against machine-gun positions aren’t the smartest of strategies.
The history of fun
If that’s not enough to sober you up, you’re probably well past drunk, in which case you should certainly visit the European Beer Museum. Conveniently for us, this fine educational establishment was located directly across the street from the mill, so we hopped in the car and drove right on over. The joint was completely devoid of anyone but a lonely ticket agent who was immensely happy to have us confirm that human life still existed in the universe. A few euros later (five per person) and we were on our way through every exhibit you could imagine on the history of beer-making. Frankly, it was a bit too intense for the two of us, a hard-liquorite and a wino; we were more interested in the 60-some varieties of beer you could try at the end of the exhibit. But the machines were indeed nifty! So much so, in fact, that we just took pic after pic and decided to mostly ignore the historically instructive text. The following are the fermented fruits of out labor. Enjoy, while we have a few for the road (kids, don’t drink and drive):
If you’re deathly allergic to bee stings, do yourself a favor and don’t skip the museum entirely, but at the very least, do bring your stabby pen. As you walk into the courtyard, you enter a garden displaying the various plants used to produce the grains, flavorings, and other herby bits used during production, which attract quite the swarm of our furry little six-legged friends. We will note that neither of us were stung, and we weren’t wearing bee suits, but your mileage may vary.
Producing the beer is pointless if you can’t get it to the masses. This fine Renault has retired after years of service bringing happiness to the French Republic. Nous vous remercions pour votre service.
The French were pioneers of harnessing nuclear energy as a means to imbue bubbles into liquid. This originally began in the well-known Champagne region of the country, but soon spread further abroad as monks borrowed the technique and later adapted it for beer-production.
The French were no slouches when it came to public displays of punishment. Sadly, this steam powered head-scraper lost out to the guillotine when it was presented to the masses. However, the design was later used as the basis for the wig-polishing machinery commonly used in post-revolutionary America.
The lesser known (and short reigning) French king Louis le Main’nifique is said to have commissioned this washbasin so he could spend less time washing his seven pairs of hands and more time practicing his juggling, a skill he picked up in the orient.
A different method had to be invented to extract flavor from light beer. This machine is rumored to have been designed by the same German engineers who devised a way to suck all the fun out of driving the Volkswagon Golf.
No Jesus triptychs in this town (well, there were, but we’re not going to show you), so you can enjoy a giant gear diptych instead. Don’t worry… we’re sure our next city, Amsterdam, will have plenty of Jesus art. Until then, au revior from TopDownTime!