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Posts tagged ‘Half-timbered houses’

No. 315-316: Cute Little French Towns and Half-Timbered Houses

France is sprinkled with cute little French towns. Well actually it is more than sprinkled, I think “slathered” might be a bit more accurate. It seems like once you leave Paris, the cuteness-factor goes up by about 100. The French do an outstanding job of flowering their hamlets, and as I have mentioned before, compete for the designation of les Villes et Villages Fleuris (Towns and Villages in Bloom) and the title of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (Most Beautiful Villages in France). They are also quite keen to preserve and present the history of their centres-villes anciens.

 

In 2013 the Huffington Post published their list of France’s 10 most charming towns. So far I have only visited two of their top-10, which thankfully gives me plenty of undiscovered villages to look forward to in the coming years. Les Plus Beaux Villages Association also provides their annual list, which you can find here—this year there are 157.

While I can’t say that I have been anywhere close to 150 French villages, I have been to my own fair share of small enchanting towns, and every time I turn a corner on my bike or by foot, I find myself smack dab in the middle of another one. And, it just tickles me pink.

Lately the half-timbered houses that add to the image of these fairytale towns have especially charmed my socks off. As these split-lumber dwellings seem to be everywhere I turn, I decided to do a little bit of research and find out how they are built.

It appears that French examples of these houses-of-charm dates all the way back to the twelfth century. Although the country was blessed with an abundant supply of oak, it was still an expensive building material, so most could only afford to use it for framing. According to medieval historians the term “half-timbering” refers to the fact that the logs were halved, or a least cut down to a square inner section. The fact that they used oak so long ago is an added bonus for us; its durability explains why so many medieval half-timbered houses are still standing.

While in modern framed buildings we installed the walls on the outside and inside of the frame, in the ancient half-timbered houses the walls were filled in between the structural timbers. What were they filled with? Why, wattle-and-daub, of course. In case this term is new to you, as it was to me, it was a mixture of different lengths of branches woven together and covered by muddy clay or bricks and sometimes plaster. (The best translation I could find for wattle-and-daub was clayonnage et torchis en français—ça marche? Native French speakers aidez-moi!)

 

These days most of the surviving structures are extremely narrow and surprisingly tall, and packed together like sardines. This has to do with the taxing structure of the time where buildings were taxes on the amount of street front they took up. As time went on and living conditions improved, faux half-timbers were added as decorations to improve the facades of newer houses. The wobbly and slanting timbers and windows we see nowadays on the ancient buildings are not due to shoddy workmanship of the time, but simply victims of the passage of time and the expected buckling of aged wood.

So there you have it, a brief history lesson on the half-timbering that makes these little towns so darn adorable. C’est très charmant, n’est-ce pas?

No. 295: Après-midi à Honfleur

Un après-midi à Honfleur as noted by Button and Maman…

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water, sun, and sails

kaleidoscopes of color glide by

pulsating

soaring skinny houses crisscrossed

and slanted

smashed together

on purpose

  

climb atop the steep knoll

view le vieux port

the English Channel and the Seine

all at one time

straddling it

the bridge to tomorrow

Normandie’s silver harp

 

fruits de mer

and black muscles

crack

balls of apple glace

swimming in Calvados

tarte tatin

turned upside down

  

seafaring chapels eager to float

anchors and flowering croix

glorious cows

startling tongues

longing to plant kisses

on their noses

beyond the fence

  

artists past and present

remember to paint

vibrant sizzles

hankering for shorts

as the bridge went up

and the sailboats

went under

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No. 289-290: Deauville and Trouville

deauville.jpgWe are wrapping up our quick getaway to the “Normandy Riviera”. It has been a lovely sojourn to celebrate Button turning 18 and the visit of a very dear friend and her 4-year-old fille. While the weather has been cool and grey, we have had a few hours of bright sun showers and sandy beach excursions followed by ominous, Armageddon skies, massive rain fall, and mad dashes across the notoriously wide strand in search of temporary shelter.

deauville_beach3.jpgdeauville_beach2.jpgdeauville_beach4.jpgStill it has been well worth taking the quick (and inexpensive) hop to the fashionable seaside town of Deauville and the funky and family friendly beach town of Trouville. Separated by a tiny inlet that depending upon the hour and the tide, can be traversed by a wooden footpath or accessed exclusively by a water taxi, these sister cities are a perfect pair.

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Deauville is the glamorous sister frequented by film stars, polo and horse-racing enthusiasts and high-stakes gamblers, while Trouville is the hip, but retro sister—a working fishing port, eulogized by artists and writers. Both towns offer the visitor a chance to lose themselves in the days of la Belle Époque. A Woody Allen movie in the making, the seaside towns are bursting with over 600 buildings protected as historical monuments. The lovely half-timbered houses so common in Normandy are complimented by the grand Art Nouveau casinos and Baroque-style buildings.

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It is easy to imagine the Paris smart set roaring into town in the 1920s and strolling Deauville’s famous boardwalk, disrobing in the individual beach cabanas and sunbathing in their scandalous swim costumes under the expanse of multi-colored parasols. How I would love to go back in time and walk the wooden-planked promenade or sit among the deck-chairs and umbrellas and admire the spectacle.

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Coco before she was Chanel (as you may remember from the movie) came to Deauville with her lover in 1913 and was so taken with the possibilities for dressing the beach, yachting, polo and racecourse crowd, that she was inspired to design a line of easygoing and wearable vêtements which she would eventually sell at her famous boutique in town. These days, Deauville is still considered a sophisticated shopping destination and continues to be a chic town packed with haute couture boutiques and stylish diversions.

Trouville, as I mentioned, is the more laid back sister, less expensive and super groovy, frequented by families and colorful bands of primary students exuberantly enjoying their first day ever on the long swaths of soft golden sand. The maritime town radiates the energy of the daily life of fishermen and sports one of the most interesting fish markets I have come across in France.

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The connection to Trouville’s past can be seen in the many en plein air Impressionists painting inspired by sunbathers, dinghies, sailing boats and seascapes. Impressionist artist such as Boudin, Monet, Sisley and Pissarro flocked to Trouville (and Deauville) to capture the holidaymaking, harbor and stormy skies and Proust, Flaubert and Marguerite Duras all found inspiration in this fisherman’s village.

There are still plenty of artistic offerings in each town and I loved them both. If you are planning a trip to Paris and are the nostalgic sort fascinated by the Golden Age in France, I would highly recommend taking a detour to these sister cities.

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