Opening this blog just now, I realized that there’s a queue of five drafts waiting for my attention. I also noticed that I last posted back in May. It does appear I have seriously neglected you!
Earlier this week we drove into town to go to an artisanal frame shop to have some picture frames repaired. The shop is at the edge of Cognac’s pedestrian zone in the center of Old Town, where it is often a little difficult to find a parking space – particularly if one has mysteriously lost all previous possessed skills of parallel parking. This time, parking wasn’t a problem since the town was practically deserted. Cognac is currently snoozing through its August congés, the general summer break for pretty much every business in town.
These “congés payés” or paid vacations were first introduced in Germany in 1905 and over the next 30 years or so, the Scandinavian countries, then Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Luxemburg, and Rumania implemented similar laws, followed by France on the 20th of June 1936. Having been raised in Germany, you can imagine my surprise when I arrived in the United States of America in 1978 and discovered that my first job in the Department of Cellular Biology at the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, had virtually no fringe benefits. Worlds apart, then and still.
But let us return to Cognac! The atelier we had planned to visit, naturally, was also closed and realizing the futility of trying to do business in August, we just perambulated slowly through the very quiet Old Town, noticing this, seeing that. We discovered, for example, the Municipal Library which is hidden deep inside the Cloisters of the former Benedictine nunnery Notre-Dame-de-la-Grâce.
In the year 1016, the construction of a Benedictine priory was authorized by the lords of Cognac. The Prieuré Saint-Léger soon nestled alongside the even older parish church of the same name. Together, they formed the nucleus of the medieval town center.
The priory buildings sustained substantial damage through the violent actions of the 100-year war and the French wars of religion and the few remaining monks ultimately abandoned the priory. Around 1623, the bishop in Saintes named a contingent of Benedictine nuns from the convent of the Abbaye des Dames de Saintes the new owners of the priory in Cognac. These ladies rolled up their sleeves and restored the convent, which then operated under the name of Prieuré Notre-Dame-de-la-Grâce. During the French revolution, when all church-owned properties were confiscated, the convent became the property of the town and has housed the city archives and the municipal library ever since.
Continuing our walk past the cloisters and the neighboring church, we turned right into rue d’Angoulême. This is the main street within the pedestrian zone where shops and cafés provide plenty of entertainment. As we were window-shopping at a very leisurely pace, I noticed double doors on my right next to a bright yellow postal box. The doors were open, allowing me to see inside a wide corridor.
I saw a curious mixture of the old and the new in front of me. Ancient stone wall to the right, modern partitions on the left. The contemporary drop-ceiling with integrated pot lights hanging low over a cobbled ground, more typical for oldfashioned town streets. At the far end of this indoor-outdoor space, I noticed an ancient stone archway, partially obscured by the modern ceiling, offering a tantalizing glimpse of another, dimly lit space behind this entryway.
Tip-toeing ever closer, the murky space revealed itself as a tiny but extremely tall chamber with an additional door on the left through which organ music emanated. In this absurdly proportioned room lived a lonely sculpture, sadly engrossed in conversation with a folding stepladder. The arms of the Royal House of Valois decorating the monument’s base indicated some importance. Above the solitary figure, we saw two windows, some superimposed walls, and high arches framing a ceiling cupola.
Clearly, this was once a part of Saint-Léger church, now reduced to a side entrance to the main body of the parish church. I have to come back to take a closer look at the statue and try to identify it.
We continued our walk for a while along rue d’Angoulême before reversing our steps toward Place Beaulieu, where our car was parked.
On the way back to the car, this automated convenience store attracted my attention. Always open, so it promises, the store is equipped with eight tall wending machines loaded with single-serve microwave dinners, ready-to-eat soups, chips, nuts, crackers, candy bars, and cookies – including Oreos – ice-cream, sodas, water, coffees, popcorn, you name it, it’s here!
The details of the curtained window were inspiring.
Although the workshop to repair our paintings had been closed, we still encountered interesting works of art during our downtown stroll.