In the year of the 220th anniversary of the birth of Honoré de Balzac, the author of La Comédie humaine and La Rabouilleuse amongst others, I’m reminded of a truly amazing trip that we made to Issoudun in Autumn last year. The heat of the summer was still lingering in the air, though we had dressed for the season rather than the weather. On arriving in the main square in Issoudun, flanked on one side by the great White tower La tour Blanche, said to have been built at the behest of the Richard the Lionheart, on the other by the renaissance beauty of Le Beffroi and surrounded by restaurants and cafés, a stone’s throw from the world-renowned restaurant La Cognette Hôtel Restaurant, we were greeted with a “Bonjour, Humm, Hello” from an unknown voice, we spun round in its direction and were greeted by a man asking how we doing and whether we needed any directions. Having lived in the Berry for a while, it was no surprise that someone was volunteering their help, the people here a generally quite affable despite their tendency to self-critic. After a brief exchange, the man said that he had seen us arriving in the town and was intrigued to learn our story. He gestured to one of the cafés on the square and offered us a drink.
As we sat down, he told us that he was an artist, currently exhibited in Paris, naturally our big city lie-detectors were sounding and we shared a clandestine smile at his expense, but lo’ and behold, he took out his phone and started showing us his amazing artworks – a fusion of dream painting and Islamic tessellation. He ordered more coffee, and started to introduce us to the waiter and other people sitting out on the terrace.
After about quarter of an hour he stood up and said, “You must follow me, there is something you have to do while in my city, this is unmissable!” We had a few hours ahead of us so we thought what the heck and allowed him to take us on a tour. From the square we followed a winding pathway, past a house, said to have had the first swimming pool in the town, built in a style reminiscent of a Swiss mountain lodge. The pathway gradually turned to follow the course of a small stream of which in turn formed a network of the waterways. These mini-canals, he informed us, had been important to the development of the city. They were used for the treatment and production of leather, Issoudun is still a place of production for Louis Vuitton. Now the only use of these canals which continue to snake their way around Issoudun is for cooling the hot air during summer.
The river gradually got larger until it opened out into a pool, where we came across some friends of our impromptu guide. They had decided to spend the day fishing and enjoying some beers by the stream. Our guide talks to everyone he sees, even if only to say ‘hello’. In his opinion; nothing breaks down fear and hatred like and a smile and a salutation. People just want to be acknowledged; for someone to say: I know you exist.
Continuing along the pathway our view started to change, unkempt hedgerows gave way to well-maintained allotments, some with little picket fences. Still chatting about the history of the Issoudun, our guide told us about @Honoré de Balzac and his novel La Rabouilleuse. We asked what rabouille meant. He tried and failed to explain. He stopped, jumped across the stream and started to gesticulate; making raking actions and pointing at the water. After a brief discussion we decided that the story must be about the cleaning out of the waterways, although we were completely baffled by his continuous use of the word prawn. It didn’t seem to make sense and then it clicked. The story is about the collection of the crayfish, and cray-fisherwomen if you will.
He’s already changed the subject: This the longest avenue of poplar trees in France, he said, it was a very long avenue, over a kilometer. You see that house, that is where he stayed, that is where Balzac stayed, this is Le Château de Frapesle, the owner isn’t there at the moment, but the next time he is, we’ll go and visit the place, I know the family.
Walking on some more, he smiled and said “bonjour” to an old couple sitting in the sun, ‘I love old people, the grumpier the better, I walk up to them and say hi, how are you? nice weather today, I’m so polite that I put smile of their sad faces’. We were coming close to our destination, he informed us, you’ll like this… The tree lined avenue had been joined by our friend, little stream, although this time less like a working waterway but one created without the influence of man. That’s the source, our guide told us pointing a small bridge that led to a pool protected from view by weeping willows.
There was a young couple sitting of the opposite bank, chatting, he went to talk to them, on his way telling us to take off our shoes and sock and put of feet into the water. “What, why?” we asked. “You’ll see” he said then told us about the spring, it’s mystical qualities and how it can cure all ills if you place your bare feet in the water and rotate your ankles. The water was glacial but not unwelcome after a long walk in the sun. “Stay there for 5 minutes, I’ll tell you when”. We followed his orders, giggling as we wound our naked feet around in the crystal-clear water. ‘You’re sitting right on top of the source’, he said, ‘there’s a hole in the rock and the water comes from there, all year long’. Once our time was up, we dangled our feet just above the water to dry off. Our guide told us that people had been coming here for centuries, but that not many people knew about the place now. We put on our shoes and just before setting off on our journey back to the square he took and small branch from the willow and started to divine for water, not very difficult since we were next to the sources, but the branch really did move in our hands as we approached the waterside.
After returning to the square, he wished us good day and said that if we were in town again, we should look him up and get a coffee, he said it’ll be simple, I’ll be in the café, we thanked him and continued with our visit.
Issoudun, is a great little town that is full of surprises, with a history spanning right back to the Neolithic era. Its wealth of Roman treasure and unmissable medieval heritage make it a town the punches way beyond its weight. The musée de l’Hospice Saint-Roch, www.museeissoudun.tv easily within walking distance is situated in a converted monastery and hotel dieu and house the excellent collection of …. find the name… it is a one of the delights of the department and a must on any visit to the region.