Here are some pictures of the depths of the Belgian countryside, mainly in the South-West, fanning out from the Charleroi-Couvin train line. The Belgian countryside is gentle, a bit unspectacular, but I love it.
Last week we took a break in the Champagne region of France. We had travelled through numerous times on the way to and from Southern France and Italy, and it was time to take a closer look. Highlights:
Abbaye de Fontenay. Former Cistercian abbey, dissolved like all monasteries at the French Revolution, and which had the good fortune not to be knocked about too much after that. Around 1900 it was bought by a wealthy banker, whose family still run it, and, I suspect, live nicely off the tourism proceeds. Beautifully tended lawns and gardens, but curiously difficult to get a real smell of the spiritual purpose for which it was built. No altar in the bare Cistercian church, just piped plainsong (Rorate caeli desuper etc etc.) on a permanent loop, sung in that tedious sex-less counter-tenor voice frequently affected for medieval plainsong. Bookshop touristic and not religious. No picnic facilities.
Abbaye de Clairvaux. Visit not originally planned. Twenty years ago when I passed by, it was still all a prison, which it had been since the abbey was dissolved at the French Revolution. Our guesthouse keepers told us part had recently been reopened. Curiously impressive. Most of the 18th century monastic complex apart from the church – destroyed to provide building material to convert into a prison – is still standing, though just. The picture above, of the main prison entrance, belies what lies behind: acres of just-about standing and more or less still waterproof buildings, maintained for two centuries on an après-moi le déluge basis. Heaven knows how they will go on from here: the prison department is moving out and the place needs millions of euros to keep it standing. And for what use? Far too big for even the most flourishing and well-funded religious community. Guided tours only, no photos (part is still a prison). French prisons were clearly squalid places until well after World War II. Most visitors seemed to be interested more in the history of French prisons than that of monasticism. And indeed you can smell very little of the latter.
“Large religious building, mainly 14th century, in good shape after recent renovations, seats 1500, seeks new owner and new vocation.” I saw in my mind’s eye a real estate agent’s advertisement for the Cathedral at Châlons en Champagne. We twice hit locked doors. Finally, in the late afternoon, we found an open entrance. I sensed at once an unloved, un-needed building. No flowers, votive candles blown out, bookstand nearly empty. The reasons is simple to find in the church of Notre-Dame en Vaux, nearer to what is now the centre of town, which is where clearly the city’s Christian community is centred. The cathedral is a historical monument, so you can’t pull it down. But it remains an unneeded white elephant.
‘Dingy’ was the word that came onto my lips on entering Reims cathedral, with its façade a look-alike of Notre-Dame in Paris. The place that tourists will visit and mill round however badly lit and scruffy. Yes, they try to tell you its history and what Christianity is on scrolls on the walls, but like Notre-Dame in Paris, it is more a museum that a church. The dark glass and a huge organ covering most of a transept window make the altar end distinctly drear. Perhaps also, large Gothic churches no longer match our sense of the sacred, we prefer something less awesome and more intimate.
Regional art museums: Troyes, Châlons en Champagne and Reims. A genre in themselves. Mixtures of paintings seized during the French Revolution from disbanded religious communities and departed or guillotined nobility and of bequests by wealthy 19th century citizens, plus a few prehistoric remains, and in two cases, large collections of stuffed animals, one excellent, the other – mainly birds - excruciating. Inevitably unbalanced and disparate: at Châlons they had the good sense to group the large paintings by subject area – religious, landscape, etc. – without too much attention to dating. Essentially not quite class one artists, and quite a few possible fakes: rich merchants and industrialists would have been easy game for not-too-honest dealers. Housed in representative buildings, they speak as much the civic pride of earlier generations as of the history of art. Almost certainly heavily loss-making.
I remember back in 1980 reading the obsequious one-page adds in the good newspapers from one my country’s main colonial banks wishing newly independent Zimbabwe everything good. I had visited the country – a beautiful place – three years earlier, travelling everywhere by plane and with armed escorts because of the danger of rebel attack.
I commented then that independence would not work, that Mugabe would quickly, like his African neighbours, make a pig’s breakfast of the economy, though I was not prepared for the murder and savagery that ensued and was largely kept out of the newspapers. His obituary shows my judgement to have been totally right.
This was, of course, not what a ‘good Christian’ was/is supposed to say. Forty years on I am still doubtful of the ability of black Africans to run economies without massive graft and waste. South Africa is about the only country which has not fallen apart or had a civil war, and even there presidential power has teetered at times out of control. Nor am I ready to blacken the collective memory of British, French or Belgian colonists as seems to be politically correct in most quarters. True, it was not always done right, and there are some horror stories there as well, and the claims to ‘civilize’ do not always bear up. But what has followed them, as in Zimbabwe, or in Congo, can hardly be deemed any more ‘right’ in anyone’s eyes.