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Travel information Valley of Marne France


How delicious to escape from the fever heat and turmoil of Paris during the Exhibition to the green banks and sheltered ways of the gently undulating Marne! With what delight we wake up in the morning to the noise, if noise it can be called, of the mower's scythe, the rustle of acacia leaves, and the notes of the stock-dove, looking back as upon a nightmare to the horn of the tramway conductor, and the perpetual grind of the stone-mason's saw. Yes! to quit Paris at a time of tropic heat, and nestle down in some country resort is, indeed, like exchanging Dante's lower circle for Paradise. The heat has followed us here, but with a screen of luxuriant foliage ever between us and the burning blue sky, and with a breeze rippling the
leaves always, no one need complain.

With the cocks and the hens, and the birds and the bees, we are all up and stirring betimes; there are dozens of cool nooks and corners if we like to spend the morning out of doors, and do not feel enterprising enough to set out on an exploring expedition by diligence or rail. After the midday meal everyone takes a siesta, as a matter of course, waking up between 4 and 5 o'clock for a ramble; wherever we go we find lovely prospects. Quiet little rivers and canals winding in between lofty lines of poplars, undulating pastures and amber cornfields, picturesque villages crowned by a church spire here and there, wide sweeps of highly cultivated land interspersed with rich woods, vineyards, orchards and gardens - all these make up the scenery familiarized to us by some of the most characteristic of French painters.

Just such tranquil rural pictures have been portrayed over and over again by Millet, Corot, Daubigny, and in this very simplicity often lies their charm. No costume or grandiose outline is here as in Brittany, no picturesque poverty, no poetic archaisms; all is rustic and pastoral, but with the rusticity and pastoralness of every day.

We are in the midst of one of the wealthiest and best cultivated regions of France moreover, and, when we penetrate below the surface, we find that in manner and customs, as well as dress and outward appearance, the peasant and agricultural population, generally, differ no little from their remote country-people, the Bretons. In this famous cheese-making country, the "Fromage de Brie" being the speciality of these rich dairy farms, there is no superstition, hardly a trace of poverty, and little that can be called poetic. The people are wealthy, laborious, and progressive. The farmers' wives, however hard they may work at home, wear the smartest of Parisian bonnets and gowns when paying visits.

Travellers who visit France again and again, as much out of sympathy with its people's institutions as from a desire to see its monuments and outward features, will find ample to reward them in Seine et Marne. On every side we have evidence of the tremendous natural resources and indefatigable laboriousness of the people. There is one point here, as elsewhere in France, which strikes an agriculturist with astonishment, and that is the abundance of trees standing amid cornfields and miscellaneous crops, also the interminable plantation of poplars that can be seen on every side, apparently without any object.

As you stroll along, now climbing, now descending this pleasantly undulated country, you may see growing in less than an acre, a patch of potatoes here, a vineyard there, on one side a bit of wheat, oats, rye, and barley, with fruit-trees casting abundant shadow over all; on the other Indian corn, clover and mangel-wurzel in the green state, and near them many a lovely little glen, copse, and ravine, recalling Scotland and Wales, while the open hill-sides show broad belts of pasture, corn and vineyard. You may walk for miles through what seems one vast orchard, only, instead of turf, rich crops are growing under the trees. This is indeed the orchard of France, on which we English folk largely depend for our summer fruits.

We encounter on our walks carts laden with plums packed in baskets and barrels on their way to Covent Garden. Later on, it will be the peach and apricot crops that are gathered for exportation. Later still, apples, walnuts, and pears; the village not far from our own sends fruit to the Paris markets, and the entire valley of the Marne is unequalled throughout France for fruitfulness and abundance. But the traveller must settle down in some delicious retreat in the valley of the Marne to realize the interest and charm of such a country as this.

Seine et Marne, if not one of the most picturesque regions in France, abounds in those quiet charms that grow upon the sympathetic traveller. It is not a land of marvels and pictorial attractions like Brittany. There is no costume, no legendary romance, no stone array of Carnac to entice the stranger, but, on the other hand, the lover of nature, in her more subdued aspects, and the archaeologist also, will find ample to repay them. It is not my intention to give a history of the ancient cities and towns visited during my stay, or, indeed, to offer an itinerary, or any other kind of information so amply provided for us in English and foreign Handbooks. My object is merely to relate my own experiences in this and other Eastern regions of France, for, if these are not worth having, no rechauffe of facts, gleaned here and there, can be so; and I also intend only to quote other authors when they are inaccessible to the general reader.

With regard, therefore, to the history of the departement of Seine et Marne, constructed, in 1790, from the province of Brie, also from the Ile de France, and the so called Gatinois Francais, I will say a few words. Although it only boasts of two important historical monuments, namely, the Cathedral of Meaux and the Chateau of Fontainebleau; scattered about the country are noteworthy remains of different epochs, Celtic, Roman, Merovingian, mediaeval; none, perhaps, of paramount importance, but all interesting to the archaeologist and the artist.

Such remains as those of the Merovingian crypt at Jouarre, and the various monuments of Provins, well repay the traveller who visits these places on purpose, whilst, as he zig-zags here and there, he will find many a village church of quaint exterior and rich Gothic decoration within. Fontainebleau, being generally included in a visit to Paris, I do not attempt to describe, but prefer to lead the traveller a little off the ordinary track, on which, indeed, he wants no guide but Murray and Joanne.

My rallying point was a pleasant country-house at Couilly, offering easy opportunity of studying agriculture and rural life, as well as of making excursions by road and rail. Couilly itself is charming. The canal, winding its way between thick lines of poplar trees towards Meaux, you may follow in the hottest day of summer without fatigue. The river, narrow and sleepy, yet so picturesquely curling amid green slopes and tangled woods, is another delightful stroll; then there are broad, richly wooded hills rising above these, and shady side-paths leading from hill to valley, with alternating vineyards, orchards, pastures, and cornfields on either side. Couilly lies in the heart of the cheese-making country, part of the ancient province of Brie from which this famous cheese is named.

The Comté of Brie became part of the French kingdom on the occasion of the marriage of Jeanne of Navarre with Philip-le-Bel in 1361, and is as prosperous as it is picturesque. It also possesses historic interest. Within a stone's throw of our garden wall once stood a famous convent of Bernardines, called Pont-aux-Dames. Here Madame du Barry, the favourite of Louis XV., was exiled after his death; on the outbreak of the Revolution, she flew to England, having first concealed, somewhere in the Abbey grounds, a valuable case of diamonds.

The Revolution went on its way, and Madame du Barry might have ended her unworthy career in peace had not a sudden fit of cupidity induced her to return to Couilly when the Terror was at its acme, in quest of her diamonds. The Committee of Public Safety got hold of Madame du Barry, and she mounted the guillotine in company of her betters, showing a pusillanimity that befitted such a career. What became of the diamonds, history does not say. The Abbey of Pont-aux-Dames has long since been turned to other purposes, but the beautiful old-fashioned garden still remains as it was.