Having arrived in Chalon-sur-Saône on Thursday and taken some downtime, we set out along the quiet river path on Friday morning and in the afternoon took our bikes to the nearest supermarket to do our big weekly shop. A task that would normally take 30 minutes in a familiar venue took an hour and a half as we located the essentials and did the necessary translations. Tadhg and Treasa our trusty pack mules were loaded to capacity for the return journey.
We’ve had beautiful sunny weather and warm temperatures this week, so on Saturday we decided to head into the town for a look around and maybe enjoy a coffee. Along the way we thought we’d do some geocaching it is a great way to explore a new place and get to grips with some of the history, today however we got a little more than we bargained for.
Our first stop was l’Île Saint-Laurent which sits in the middle of the Saône River between the south bank where we were staying and the town centre. This little gem is full of historic buildings, cobble streets, sidewalk cafes and restaurants and connected over the river by three impressive bridges.
On one corner of the island is the Tower of Doyenné and the Old hospital and chapel of Saint Laurent and on the south corner this rather old, grey imposing stone building which had once been a convent and served as a prison during the revolution, which turned out to be one of the stops on our geocaching tour. We were instructed to determine ‘the name of the flower on the crest’, so we parked our bikes and began the search for said crest. We inspected walls, manhole covers, doorways, anywhere there might be a crest. Then we turned our attention to the building itself with its high imposing wall and heavy iron gate. Eventually through the gate we spied a crest on the wall of an inside building, now if only we could make out the flower. With our noses pressed up against the gate we strained to see the crest. It was at this point I realised we were outside the Police Nationale building and our suspicious activities had drawn the attention of the occupants of the guard house who had been watching us via the overhead CCTV cameras.
A very tall, very imposing, smartly dressed young officer, with a large gun strapped to his hip approached, enquiring I assume, what in all that was holy were we doing. I say assume because my faltering, almost non existent French didn’t stretch that far. I smiled lamely and showed him my phone which had the puzzling question in French. He mumbled something and walked away, unsure if he was satisfied we weren’t a threat to national security and we were free to be on our way, I turned to walk away when I heard a ‘moment madam’, he had returned, this time placing his military cap to one side over his brow, apparently he wasn’t allowed to exit the gate without his cap. He opened a side gate and took the phone, then he addressed the open door of the gate house, ‘Hey Jacques, quelles fleurs sont sur l’écusson’….another officer joins us! Jacques who seems to know his flowers and his crests, promptly proclaims ‘fleurs-de-lys’, then ensued a discussion on the correct spelling. The first guy types into my phone, incorrect, we try a different spelling still incorrect. For the next several minutes we try different spellings but still no luck. At this point I am beyond mortified, I have two officers of the law helping me with such trivia, not to mention my suspicious behaviour, having drawn their attention in the first place. But there they were patient, courteous and helpful to a damsel in distress. We never did solve the puzzle but I eventually retrieved my phone with a ‘c’est okay, merci beaucoup’ and they retreated behind the gate with their apologies.
We continued with our explorations, over the bridge into the centre of town, through Place Saint-Vincent with its imposing cathedral of the same name at one end and the entirety of the small square filled with Saturday shoppers, and friends meeting at their favourite cafés and restaurants. For a small town Chalon-sur-Saône punches above its weight in history making figures. Dominique Vivant Denon was a French artist, writer, diplomat, author, and archaeologist but will be remembered as co-creator of the Louvre, the oldest museum in France. One of the Louvre wings is named after Denon. And as a keen amateur photographer, my favourite son of Chalon-sur-Saône, Nicéphore Niépce, an inventor and is credited with the invention of photography. There are free museums in both of their names in the town.
There is a lot to take away from a visit to Chalon-sur-Saône and there will be many stories from this trip but I suspect my brush with the law and the red-faced embarrassment I felt will live long in my memory.