On The Road Travel Essays

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(Approximately 150,000 inhabitants) Rennes is the cultural and administrative capital of Brittany.

You will not enter Rennes, but drive around it; in view of this there are no sights to be explained. You can, however, point out that Rennes is a comparatively modern town. Partly because of the fact that so many people here are leaving the rural areas and moving into town where they find industrial work. Rennes has quite a few industries, including a railway workshop, printing work, fertilizer factories, an oil refinery, etc. The Citroen automobile is manufactured here.

Also, Rennes burned down in the great fire of 1720 when a drunk carpenter set a pile of woodshavings on fire, his house immediately catching fire and spreading to the whole area.

Explain that towns were built entirely of wood or plaster, that there was also no running water. Due to the fact that so many towns burned down, buildings in Europe are practically all made of brick (or concrete). In the United States you hear everyday of some house having burned down in a city, which happens very seldom in Europe. It also explains the many fountains in the towns from where the people of former days had to collect all their water. Always point out that our history here in Europe is also the history of the Americans, because most families in the United States only date back about 100 years. Try to go into the old life a bit, after all, that is the way their ancestors were living too. And this is always of special interest to Americans!

Driving through this part of France, and if you have already given the French history, it is useful to think of some historical stories — true or legends. For example:

Rennes was the capital in former days of the large and very prosperous duchy of Brittany. In 1489 Francois II died, leaving all his fortune to his heiress, Anne of Brittany. She was only 12 at that time; skinny, pale and a little lame, which, however, did not stop many an important man in Europe to woo her. She accepted a man who has been given in later centuries the name "The last Knight of Europe." It was, of course, Maximilian of Austria (he became Emperor a few years after this event).

Of course, Anne of Brittany realized the fact that Maximilian would one day become Emperor, and in the case of her marriage to him, she would become Empress, the most desirable status in all Europe.

The religious marriage was carried out by proxy in 1490, as was usual in such cases, especially when the bride was not as yet sexually fully developed.

Maximilian sent one of his nobles, a man he could fully trust, to Rennes and there the marriage by proxy took place. It was also the proxy's obligation to sleep with the bride, which, it is said, was done with both fully dressed, the proxy in full armour, with an open sword between them, the sharp edge upwards (how could they have slept?).

However, here comes trouble; the then King of France, Charles VIII, could not accept that his rival Maximilian got this rich bride, which would have meant that Brittany, part of France, would become part of the Austrian Empire. He, Charles VIII, laid siege on Rennes when Anne did not want to accept him, the King of France, as her husband.

When the people of Rennes began to die of starvation, they implored their Duchess, Anne, to give in and marry the King of France. So, for her people, she gave in to him.

However, King Charles VIII was already married, but this marriage had not yet been consummated, just like the marriage of Anne and Maximilian. They applied for a papal dispense, which they received and married.

The marriage was, as to be expected, not happy. It was Anne who introduced a strictly moral life to the formerly so gay court of the Kings of France. She also started a new fashion which was hated at the court. It is during these times that women looked the least attractive, having to completely cover their hair, as some religious orders still required from their members. On their dresses, the collars had to be up to the chin, no decollates, and in their skirts they had hoops, to hide any female shapeliness. She also walked around in wooden shoes, which of course, for a queen was unthinkable. Still, nowadays, the children of France are singing "Anne in sabots."

In Italy, this was the time of the Renaissance, but Anne would not allow any part of that in France. Her husband, Charles VIII, who by the way, was ugly and who also was unhappily married to her, decided to go into war against Italy. But here, where there was no unified country, but consisted of little splinter states (Italy was only unified in 1860-70), it was realized that Charles was attacking Italy only, because he wanted to flee the boring court at home. Wherever he went he found no resistance, but parties and celebrations, and beautiful women, and Charles and his nobles and soldiers had a good time. They passed through all of Italy as far as Naples, and everywhere it was the same.

But when, after such a successful invasion, they turned back to make their way to France, they suddenly were not received anymore by the women, but by the men armed to the teeth. The Italian states had decided to unite for this purpose and fight it out.

Charles and his troops, worn out from all the fiesting, were terribly beaten, and he had to run back to France to his Anne, his army destroyed. He died very soon as a consequence of this untypical battle life, of a disease which he had picked up. And, Anne, now no longer queen, could not stop the advance of the Renaissance into France. She was soon to be followed by two queens from Florence, and in fact, from the family that fostered the Renaissance, the Medicis. Catherine and Mary of Medici became queens of France. Chenonceaux was built by Catherine's architects and it was also she who had the first staircases built as we know then today, i.e., broken up into lots of steps with a landing between and changing direction. Before her time, staircases would be running all through in one piece and in one direction.

By the way, Maximilian of course, was not happy about the fact that the King of France had stolen his bride. He declared war on France, but Charles VIII, in order to pacify him, simply gave him two other smaller duchies in France, which Maximilian accepted gratefully. He then married another important — even more important French duchess, Mary of Burgundy, and by this marriage, the Lowlands, Belgium and Holland nowadays, came to the Austrian Empire. He did not lose out, especially as he actually began to love Mary of Burgundy profoundly.

King Arthur (The outermost fringes of the old Broceliande forest appear here and there to the left of the road as you near Rennes.) Years of cutting and clearing have thinned it out — so use your imagination to visualize oak trees and the dense underbrush that stimulated folk tales and legends.

The legend of King Arthur is actually three: Arthur himself, his Knights of the Round Table, and the search for the Holy Grail. All three stem from the same series of events. The first is based on actual fact, the other two are embellishment.

Once the people in 6th-century Gaul had come to believe that the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper was somewhere in Brittany, a king named Arthur and 50 knights set out to find it. Part of their chivalric "code" stipulated that only a knight with a pure heart could find the Grail. So Arthur and his knights had to demonstrate their valor and purity by performing heroic deeds. The types of deeds performed — wild beasts killed, the security of young women provided for, evil, barbaric knights vanquished — tell the historian much about the social conditions of Brittany during the Dark Ages.

In spite of the violence of the times, the people retained their faith in "Camelot," as some do even today; and this belief in the superiority of chivalry to naked force did restrain the chaotic plunder of tribesmen. This made possible the flourishing of art and intellect during the "high" Middle Ages.

In this respect, you could say that Arthur and his knights won their victory. Perhaps in recognition of this, the French have established their 'West Point,"" the military academy of St. Cyr, on the fringes of the Broceliande Forest (now called Paimpont), where King Arthur's greatest triumphs were supposed to have occurred.


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