Sunday, 28 August 2016

Charleville Meziere - Poetry, Puppetry not Pottery

As the name suggests, Charleville Meziere is a composite place comprising of a number of communities merged together to found one city, a bit like Buda and Pest or the five towns that comprise Stoke on Trent. It is fair to to say though, that aside from questions nomenclature, Charleville and Stoke don't compare at all. In fact, if you were looking at spurious anglo-comparisons, then you might claim that Charleville was an early 16th century Milton Keynes as the entire place was a brand new city built from scratch by an Italian aristocrat, Charles de Conzacue. His plan was to counter the growing influence of Protestantism in the nearby city of Sedan, by filling his new town full of fervent Catholics.

The man who put Charles into Charleville
Places that are planned do tend to have a somewhat deadening uniformity about them. Charleville's main square is magnificent, but somewhat repetitive, and the streets that surround it follow a strict grid pattern which again creates a tedious effect. I am not a fan of France's stately cities built in the grand style, Bordeaux, Montpelier, Haussman's mid Nineteenth century remodelling of Paris's boulevards, all suffer from being magnificently dull. I don't think they appeal to English taste, we like the quirky and the idiosyncratic, revel in fortuitous juxtapositions, I think at heart we are drawn to the picturesque rather than the planned.

Big square
The Hotel de Ville has a certain Itanlianate look
An 'urban beach' had been set up for the summer
Charleville's two big claims to fame is that it is the birthplace of the poet Rimbaud and that it is the world centre for the art of puppetry. There is a museum for each. The Rimbaud museum is in an old mill by the river close to the camping municipal where we stayed. We did not visit it, I don't quite see the point of literary museums unless, like Wordsworth's Dove Cottage, the locale is an important influence on the writer's work.


In the case of Rimbaud, he hated the conservative atmosphere of Charleville, could not wait to escape the clutches of his controlling mother. He absconded in his teens to live a bohemian life. He became the lover of the poet Verlaine, and generally took to being an 'enfant terrible' producing pained and anguished poetry, well at least for five years up until the age of 21, after which he did not write another word. The last 16 years of his life up until his death at the age of 37 were spent as a merchant and traveller in Yemen and Ethiopia. Given this unconventional life, his work was much admired by later counter-culture figures such as William Burroughs Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan. Charleville appears to be attempting to capitalise on this connection, organising a festival of 'Literature Maudite'.

My failed attempt to look 'maudites' - instead I look slightly constipated....
The museum of the marionette is to be found in an old monastery tucked away behind the Place Ducale. The buildings also houses the Institut International de la Marionnette [which aims to celebrate and develop the art of puppet making and performance. We decided to give this a miss too, which may have been an error as it probably would have been interesting.

The Musee Marionette - and its famous clock.

Some of the puppets look positively horrific....

The museum features a famous animatronic clockwith a golden headed puppet which somewhat bizarrely has a puppet theatre where its midriff should be. During daylight hours when the clock strikes the hour the giant comes to life, the curtains open and clockwork puppets perform a little scene. Of course we arrived at ten past the hour so had just missed the 3pm. performance. We headed to a cafe in main square, had two small coffees and shared a large cream cake while we waited for the next show.

Coffee time!
View from the table..
View of the table...
the verdict..a religeuse experience.
We arrived back at the clock a few minutes before four, and were soon joined by about a dozen or so others eager to watch the show. As the hand notched towards the hour the giant golden head twitched a couple of times then the wooden shutters opened to reveal a small stage veiled behind a gauze curtain. Two recumbent figures seemingly piled one on top of the other could be seen faintly, they twitched suggestively for a few seconds then the shutters, well, did what shutters do. Whatever was meant to happen certainly was not this; after a moment of silent bemusement the crowd burst into laughter, sensing they had witnessed an minor epic of inadvertent failure, proving perhaps that in life shared moments of disappointment can be more memorable than collective delight.

The Four o'clock fail
Charleville is worth a visit I think, though a day is probably quite sufficient to enjoy what it has to offer. The camping municipal is in a pleasant park next to the river and only a ten minute walk to the Place Ducale. At €20 it is the most expensive place we stayed on our 'budget trip'. Annoyingly the hot water failed in the morning so we did not manage to get good showers, which was the main reason we decided to stay at the site, rather than in the free aire right outside the gates.

a nice traditional shopfront
Rimbaud pops-up everywhere, even at the bakers.
The camping municipal is modern and close to the town centre.
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