Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Battle of Poitiers

I awoke nice and early in the hostel and made my way downstairs.  I filched a cup of coffee (I had not purchased breakfast, but on principle reject that I should have to pay 4 euros for breakfast at a hostel as it should be included) and got myself going.  I got up and dressed and made my way out of the hostel.  I stopped at a lil bodega to grab a croissant and jus d’ananas (pineapple), and found a trail through the woods back to the city center. 

As I embarked on the trail an older gentleman who was working on his car bade me bonjour.  I wished him the same, then watched him toss a plastic bottle into the bushes.  I gave him a stern look, and said “Monsieur…” and gave him a tut-tut with my finger.  He laughed and sauntered after his littered bottle.

I walked through the forest path, listening to the Hounds of Heaven rise and wishing passers-by a good morning.  I wandered my way up into the city center, stopping in front of the Renaissance revival  Hotel de Ville in the middle of the city.  I sat out on a plastic art bench, staring up at the spires and cloudless sky. 

I made my way through the windy streets, past the courthouse dating back to the Middle Ages that was once-home to the counts of Poitou—the dukes of Aquitaine.  I was soaking in the tranquil air, marveling at how much I love being in places outside the capital. Always such a quieter vibe that is more reflective of life outside the metropolis.  I swam through memories of Tandil (Arg), Třeboň (CZ, pre-blog) and Tainan (TW). 

I was making my way to the tourist office to find out more about the Battle of Poitiers in the vicinity.  But I was lured into an open-air bakery by the smell of fresh croissants.  Hint to all bakers, always make your front an open wall-less entry and attract in your customers on the smell of breads and pastries on the wind.  I grabbed an incredible pain au chocolat et amandes- a flaky marzipan filled croissant with little bits of chocolate, covered in powdered sugar and almond slivers.  I think I had most of the powdered sugar off my sweatshirt and my mug by the time I made it into tourist office.  Maybe.

And interestingly, as I passed the  Romanesque church Notre Dame Le Grand Eglise with its sculpted façade.  Except I noticed that all the sculpted images had the faces chiseled off.  Puzzled, I was.  Such iconoclasm in France?  I made sure to ask in the tourist office. 
Once inside the tourist office, the woman explained to me that it had been common in France after the Revolution that people chiseled off the faces of kings and bishops across France and this was rather a widespread phenomenon. 

She also broke out a map and showed me where the battlefield for Poitiers was.  Not exactly in Poitiers, she said, it took its name from the closest town.  It was about 20km outside the city, and she pointed it out on the map.  She said I would probably need a car, or a bike.  But biking 40km (aller-retour) might be a lil tough.  I am no Charlie Walker.  But she pointed out a place renting electric bikes next to the church.

I stopped in the church and took in the impressive stained glasses.  More impressive, me thinks, than San Chappelle which I found rather disappointing.  I wandered through the grand church to Notre Dame, and watched the sun pour in through stained glass above.

I left the church and decided to investigate the electric bike situation.  The girl named Sabrina explained to me how it worked.  It was 8e for the day, and the place closed at 6:30pm.  It was about 11:30am, so it seemed doable.  But I could return in the morning if need be for no extra charge.  The electric powered bike was just that.  Not a motorcycle or moped, but running with a little battery powered motor and could reach upwards of 30km/h with a lot of cycling.  It had 7 gears, and three levels of motor to aid.  It seemed doable, so I rented it and headed off. 

It is still a bike and requires a bit of effort, but it greatly reduces the effort required.  So I cycled down and out of the city, along the D4 two lane road.  Soon I was out of the city and in the countryside.  After about 30 minutes, I stopped by the side of the road at a river to check the map.  I could hear a small waterfall but could only see the reflected glass water and lily pads.  Beautiful nonetheless.

I continued my trek through small towns and bucolic French countryside, past chateaus, baled buns of hay, fields of golden sunflower and wildflowers galore.  The journey was immaculate, under a cloudless azure. 

After a few hours, I stopped at the French equivalent of a Walmart to grab the trappings of lunch.  Poulet Basquaise- a Basque chicken stew in tomato sauce with peppers and onions, a baguette, a tomato and a lil hunk of rich Roquefort with blue dimples.  The cost of my picnic: less than 4 euros.

I biked on until I reach the next town, and stopped for a picnic outside the moat of a small castle.  I ate my basque chicken stew with the baguette with a little bite of the cheese for dessert as I stared at spires and gargoyles.  I sipped cognac from my flask and enjoyed the picnic under a banyan.

I headed back out on the long and winding road, meandering on the long path.  I don't think I am winning the Tour de France anytime soon.  I climbed the hills with a lil aid from the electric bike, and roared down winding passes-- flying so fast there were tears in my eyes.  I hit 45 km/h (28mph) in a down hill stretch.  Generally I was keeping a steady clip of 25 km/h (15 mph) with some heavy peddling.

I biked and biked, and biked some more.  I had a feeling that this was going to be one of those adventures in which the truth lies in the journey, not the poirt(iers).  But eventually I passed enough hills and found my way to the battle field of Poitiers at around 2:30pm. I locked up the bike, and slunk down in the shade to rest for a bit.  I sipped water and cognac to regain my strength.

I got up and headed over to the monument display for the battlefield.  It was surprisingly quite good and engaging.

Whoever you are, wherever you come from, young or old, casual visitor, or serious researcher, you are a friend. You will find some answers to your questions here. The land you are going to walk on is quiet, but the blows of adversaries of another century and another faith still resound....

Whoever you are, you are a friend. At this thresh hold you may lay down your convictions and your fears. Your feet and your eyes are sufficient for you to carry around, because no one will prevent you from leaving with your ideas, for the north, the south, the east and the west.

There were different sections on the respective generals and forces, and gave a very good historical overview of the context of the battle.  It detailed the Ummayyad invaders from Moorish Spain, and their leader Abdul Rahman.  It also discussed Charles Martel and the Gallo-Roman Eudo, Duke of Aquitaine.  As I was wandering around, suddenly I heard Carmina Burana start playing with a voice over discussing the battle that unfolded.  Close your eyes and listen: horses spring from behind you raising dust and grass.  

I listened as the voice described the battle and the panel that illustrated the battle field below.

The voice gave a great description of the events of the day.  It was a fascinating case of cavalry against a heavy Roman-esque phalanx- in part a strategy from the Gallo-Roman Eudes' tactics.  To make a long story short, the heavy armor and better positioning sealed the battle for the Frank army.  Meanwhile, the death of Abdul Rahman left the Moors leaderless and fragmented.  They withdrew, and history was made.  The Arabic invasion of Western Europe was checked, the rise of the Frankish kingdom sealed (and the end of Roman Gaul to that of the newly converted Franks and Germanic tribes).  In a generation, Charlemagne- the grandson of Charles Martel would unite Europe the likes of which unseen since Rome.  History would have been so utterly different if the Moors had swept through France and conquered a divided Europe that lay in their path.

I sat under a banyan, watching the nettles sway in the breeze as I tried to take in the landscape before me.

I had to make my way back before my bike turned back into a pumpkin, so I began the long journey back.  My thighs were burning, and my back hurt.  Not to mention that my tuchus was killing me from sitting on a bike seat all day.  I peddled and peddled back through the hills.

As I was peddling, I noted that the bike was running low on battery.  I kept it on low power, and switched it to neutral or off when on inclines to save battery.  I stopped at a fruit stand to refill my bottle of water to stave off the dehydration I was starting to feel.  And I had the most amazing nectarine of my life.  I took one bite and said mon dieu. It was the perfect texture of sweet and ripe, and its juices oozed all down my arm.  I have never had a better nectarine in my life.

I returned back through the fields of gold (we'll forget the sun/ in his jealous sky/ as we lie in fields of gold. -Sting).

And I noticed that the battery was dying faster than promised. I had about 11km left, and I had 11km worth of juice.  Than suddenly it dropped to 9km.  Hey!

I kept right on chugging, and watching the power, and turning it off on every chance I got at the slightest incline.  It kept at 9km for a nice stretch than suddenly dropped to 7km.  I had not gone an additional 2km.  This was looking to be a problem, but hey, it was still a bike right?

I was racing the battery and time as I wanted to get back to the shop before it died and did not want to have to lug around a dead bike all night.  I got over a pass, and back down to the Franco Walmart, where I stopped to fill my water bottle.  I still had 5km of juice left.

Then, suddenly, I had no more power.  It declared low battery, and went into neutral.  I still had about 5km left to go.  I kept fiddling with the buttons while I was biking, switching it from on to neutral to off.  Then I realized with the battery dead, the bike gears did not turn as well.  It wasn't a regular bike after all.  For starters, it was a heavy bike, weighing in at 28 kilos (61lbs).  Secondly, as I was about to find out, it did not work like a normal bike when the power was dead.  I was peddling and peddling but the friction got seriously heavier.  I simply was barely moving. I was on a massive button push of switching it on, into neutral and off to try to keep it moving.  I tried powering through with it off.  Nothing was really working well, and I was running out of time.

I decided to try hitchhiking, but all the cars that were passing were not big enough to fit the bike.  Besides, I looked like a total wuss trying to hitchhike with a bike.  And I couldn't explain well-enough in French that it was the bike's fault, and I wasn't lazy.

So I kept powering on, and getting closer inch by inch.  I pushed the sucker up a hill, and then rode down with the bike off.  I was getting close, and it was getting close to 6:30.  I saw the sign for Poitiers and got a jolt of energy.  I just might make it.  I got close enough to the city center, and hopped off to wheel it up the steep hill.  I just barely made it in time.

Sabrina felt awful that the battery had died on me.  She told me about how another fellow had also gone to Poitiers and had kept it in neutral the whole time and returned with the battery half full.  I sat exhausted in the chair trying to recover from my 40km long ride.  I had one thing in store for me that evening: steak frites.

As previously mentioned, I got my cut of meat bloody and still on the cutting board.  And I devoured it.  I trudged my way back in the dark to the hostel, exhausted as all get out.

I got back to my room, and exhaustedly exclaimed to James my long day.  Turns out, he was the other fellow who went to Poitiers, and did it all in neutral.  And he went an extra 10km to the other battle of Poitiers site.  I slumped down on the floor and declared myself a wuss.  He tried to cheer me up, explaining that he did a 10km bike ride to work everyday, and biked to cricket matches with all his gear on weekends.  I showered, crawled into bed and passed out.


John Brown said...

Paul -- A great piece, hope it gets published.

BTW, my Francophile father always made it a point to "get out of Paris." See his wonderful essay (did I already mention it to you)

Paul Rockower said...

"Conakry isn't really Guinea, you know"

Oui, your father's piece is excellent, and you kindly shared it with me prior. I am happy to receive it again :)

Paul Rockower said...

And PS, I am awarding your father a posthumous gastrodiplomacy croix de guerre for the coq gaulious incident.