Dear fellow travellers
The first of the season's plums are ripening. Domestic fowl wander across country lanes and wild pigs lie in the shade of the forest. Not a lot of people are around on these hot summer days. So, if one sticks to the byways, one gets a sense of having the countryside to oneself. Many aspects of this deeply rural landscape have hardly changed in the 250 years since a Polish monarch presided over the affairs of this part of France.
Stanislaw Leszczynski, or King Stanislaw, lost the throne of Poland (twice as it happens), but was compensated by being awarded territory in eastern France. Thus it was that in 1735 the town of Bar-le-Duc found itself welcoming a Polish king who for 30 years was suzerain of the Duchy of Bar - a little state which rather jealously guarded its independence. The Duchy was part of the loose federation known as the Holy Roman Empire (an alliance which was hardly an empire and certainly neither holy nor Roman).
Bar-le-Duc hardly has the demeanour of a capital city. Yet it's a pretty enough place, certainly good for August where hot, humid days are often followed by evening thunder. The town has a pleasant esplanade and striking ramparts, the latter a reminder that Bar often had to defend itself against invasion by the French. The independence of Bar-le-Duc came to a sudden end in 1766 with the death of Stanislaw Leszczynski. The Duchy of Bar (and all of Lorraine) was then assimilated into France.
Nowadays Bar-le-Duc is most famous for its jam. Locals say it's a travesty to call it jam. This delicate jelly, made either from red currants or white currants, is often referred as caviar de Bar-le-Duc. The harvest season has just finished, so now there is the challenge of removing the seeds from the plump currants without mashing the ripe flesh. That is achieved, one currant at a time, using a goose quill. It's no surprise that the luscious jelly made from the currants is a real delicacy.
"That's the way we made caviar de Bar-le-Duc way back, and it's unchanged today," says our friend Sylvie, who is surprisingly adept at the goose quill trick. "Kings come and go, there are revolutions, but not much changes in Bar-le-Duc."
This is a part of France bypassed by modern highways. In the 19th century, entrepreneurs built a canal linking the River Marne with the River Rhine. It runs right past Bar-le-Duc. By the time the Canal de la Marne au Rhin was completed in 1853, railways were eclipsing canals in carrying cargo across Europe. So the canal traffic has never troubled Bar and nowadays the banks of the waterway are a good place to relax on a summer day.
Bar's notable oddity is a sculpture in St Étienne's Church, formally known as le transi de René de Chalon, but often referred to locally as le squelette - the French word for skeleton. René de Chalon was a Dutch-born noble who inherited the princedom of Orange. He spent the last years of his life in the Bar region, where he came to an unfortunate end at the age of just 25 during the Siege of Saint-Dizier (in 1544).
Here was a local hero in the making, a prince who would forever be remembered as a young man. But René de Chalon had other ideas. He left instructions that, in the event of an early death, he should be memorialised as he might look three years after his death. His body was returned to the Netherlands, but a cenotaph in the church at Bar bears a ghoulish sculpture, a strange artistic essay which depicts the decaying skeleton of the dead prince. That alone makes Bar-le-Duc well worth a detour.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)