Wednesday, August 19, 2015


Holidays are for people who want to get away from where they are or from what they do when they're not on holiday. Since I don't usually want to get away or to stop whatever I'm doing, holidays are not really my thing. But this was a late celebration of my sister's significant birthday a couple of months ago so we met up in a place she knows and loves and where I've never been.

Vezelay, in Burgundy, a tiny village with a troubled medieval history, the whole of which was enacted by the townsfolk themselves, in period costume, in a full son et lumiere performance (visually impressive but verbally too long to endure). The village consists of one steep uphill street with a scattering of atmospheric shops and restaurants, a small but perfectly designed museum which houses the Zervos collection of modern art, and at the top of the slope, the legendary St. Marie Madeleine Romanesque abbey, unbelievably serene in spite of its violent buried past. The Vezelay hillside is planted with heavy dusty pink stone walls and ochre red roofs like some kind of indestructible vegetation.

 Wonky table for eating baguettes on the terrace outside our hotel room.

  Birdsong and the crunch of footsteps on a back road (all roads are back roads).

Medieval insects? Anyone know what species they are and what they are doing on that tree trunk?

 A victim of medieval torture, imprisoned in a tree?

 Ma boutique? Who knew

Enchanted Soul - wondrous bookshop and gallery. Looks kitschy outside but isn't inside. Brilliant exhibitions of calligraphic art from around the world.

Settings change, tourists stay the same.

Coffee break.

Doorway of Sylvie's house near Vezelay.

Lunch at Sylvie's table, Swiss (or Dutch) doll presiding.

Below, Sylvie von Segebade-Marty at her house near Vezelay. I met her at the Paris Salon du Livre last March, she came to my stand, bought the Trans-Siberian book and we spoke for about ten minutes, became friends for life. She is an extraordinary person. Thanks to Sylvie we met another extraordinary person: Pierre Etienne Breguet, and re-connected with yet another extraordinary person, Jean-Claude Bel, whom my sister had met on one of her previous visits. Vezelay is the kind of place where such connections happen. I trust we'll stay connected with them all.

Blinking in the birthday sun, reflected in the hotel room window, c'est moi on 7th August 2015, Vezelay.

One more thing to pack into this post: before I went on holiday I made a photobook from pics of some of my books and boxes, a partial catalogue. It arrived when I got back home and I am very pleased with it. Here you can flip through it online (best on full screen).


Roderick Robinson said...

Remarkable, a visit to Burgundy without the slightest tinkle from those sonorous bells: Vosne Romanée, Richebourg, Savenay, Meursault. Autre gens, autre priorités I suppose.

I am intrigued by the phrase "became friends for life". Such confidence. No possibility of your ever falling out; as if you had befriended yourself. But there I go, picking again. I am indeed tempted by permanence, seeing it as a scab.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Robbie, I know quite a lot about very few things and wine isn't one of them. There were indeed several local viniculture shops on that one very high street and had I but the cash (especially the cash) temerity, muscles and time, I might have wobbled downhill and onto Eurostar carrying a few of those sonorous labels to further my education with. But the abbey bells were pleasingly sonorous, if not so effective. Anyway I'm a very bad reporter but I did notice those medieval beetles.

As for instant lifelong friendship, of course it's an exaggeration and of course, at a distance, anything is possible. I was born an optimist and life hasn't convinced me that the (wine) glass is not just half full but empty.

Jean said...

I've been hearing about Vezelay for ever because it's one of the French starting points of the pilgrim road to Santiago, but never been there. It looks very beguiling.

Catalyst said...

It looks like a fine holiday, anyway, with discoveries of a fine bookstore and medieval beatles. What curious creatures they are. Some resemble headwaiters.

I also leafed through your book and found myself transfixed. As always by your creations, Natalie.

Tom said...

Ah Vezelay, and the crusades! So much of France seems to have emerged from the earth and is in the process of collapsing back into the ground. The French people do not seem to feel the same respect for their architecture as do others - like the Brits, for example. Yet that seems to give old French towns a certain charm that I like. However, I do seem to be aware of the sense of violence, the memories of which the earth cannot quite erase. A lovely journey through your recent holiday. Thank you and welcome home again.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Jean, the pilgrim connection is very much in evidence - groups of backpackers and scouts on their way to Santiago, and also lots of 'spiritual tourists' absorbed in legends of lost relics, secret codes (always secret) and ancient answers to eternal questions. The soulful bookshop overflows with them, accompanied by appropriate music and scents. All very pleasant and peaceful but not, to me, conducive to any form of "AHA!"

Bruce, those insects in their designer uniforms awed and astonished me. I'm still waiting for somebody to tell me about them.
I'm glad you were transfixed by my catalogue - transfixion is a great compliment!

Tom, it's true, violent history doesn't lie quietly under the earth, even when a beautiful landscape has grown over it. Disturbing to dwell on that thought. But the architecture in Vezelay is carefully preserved - even in surrounding villages, new owners of old houses are not allowed to change their character.
Thanks, I'm glad to be home.

Hattie said...

I love the looks of that place. What a gem.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Hattie, yes, and one of those little shopkeepers actually gave me a gem....well, a beautiful polished green stone from Brazil...just like that.

Lucy said...

Some kind of shield bugs, I think, beyond that not sure, I'll look them up. I remember wondering at them the first time I really went exploring in France when I was about 19, I've always peered at the small stuff.

A certain shabbiness of buildings works better in more southerly places, out here on the damp fringes it quickly becomes squalid. Must explore Burgundy.

Lucy said...

OK, turns out they're pyrrhocoris apterus, fire bugs, but also known as gendarmes in English and French, and soldats in French! The adults are the ones with the smart circles, the solid red ones are the nymphs - they don't come as larvae as such. They often congregate on lime tree trunks - where I most remember seeing them - on the sunny side (they're also called 'cherche-midi!), not sure why except they do eat lime tree seeds sometimes. They're very widespread, mostly continental Europe but no unknown in the UK and elsewhere.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Lucy, thank you! You're a mine of erudite information - I didn't even know how to look them up. I was fascinated by their stunning uniforms - never saw any gendarmes or soldiers dressed as gorgeously! It's surprising that some fasion designers haven't been inspired by these little beasts.