One of the best things for expats in France is the chance to explore their adopted country and find new places to love, festivals to enjoy and learn about the local traditions and heritage. Author and expat in Le Mans Susan Keefe goes wandering with her dog Toby and discovers a beautiful town and festival celebrating apple turnovers: The Fete du Chausson aux Pommes….
In the spring, the fields in my area are full of lambs and calves, the fruit trees are starting to bloom, the gardens are brilliant yellow with the forsythia and golden daffodils and primroses seem to line every bank. The perfect timing to take am impromptu day off and visit Saint Calais, which is famous for holding an annual medieval festival the ‘Fête du Chausson aux pommes’.
The town was a lot larger than I had imagined, and we headed for the ‘centre ville’, driving down narrow streets flanked by ancient buildings. Eventually, we emerged into bright sunshine and its reflection off of the limestone walls of the L’Eglise Notre Dame, only added to the impressiveness of this beautiful church.
Abandoning the car in one of the many car parking spaces, I just had to stop and take some pictures. L’Eglise Notre Dame (Church of Our Lady) is half Flamboyant Gothic and half Renaissance and has an incredibly ornate facade, with its roof edge and front decorated with many beautifully sculptured figures. The main doors, which were closed, have scenes from the life of the Virgin carved on them by Guillaume Le Houx.
As directed, I went around to the side door, however was disappointed to read a notice saying it was closed. Next to the door was a wall plaque which told me, both in French and English, that the bell tower is 58 metres high, the church was originally smaller, until the end of the fifteenth century (when three more bays were added), and it apparently has a magnificent organ. This whetted my appetite and I have resolved to return another day to look inside. Putting Toby’s lead on, I headed off down the road to see what other treasures Saint Calais had to offer.
We wandered down the road until we had crossed the road bridge over the River Anille, then we turned left onto the cobbled promenade which runs alongside. On the opposite bank are medicinal plant gardens and some beautifully restored Summer Houses, it was so tranquil that for a while, we just sat, listening to the birds, enjoying the sunshine and taking in the lovely view of L’Eglise Notre Dame.
At the next bridge, after looking at the war memorial, we turned back, and then wandered past terraces full of people relaxing and taking advantage of the wonderful weather. Next to the Marie, we came across the eye-catching La Halle aux Grains which was designed by Eugene Landron (1816-1895). It is built of limestone and brick and with its four turrets and red and white colouring is very impressive indeed.
So what is the ‘Fête du Chaussons aux pommes for which this town is so well-known?’ Well, Chansons aux Pommes are delicious, they are in fact apple turnovers (without cream inside) and they can be bought in nearly every supermarket or boulangerie.
Legend has it that the town of Saint-Calais was saved from a terrible epidemic in 1630 by the lady of Saint-Calais who distributed flour and apples to the poor. In celebration, the inhabitants hold a weekend of tradition and gastronomy in the form of a large medieval festival each year at the beginning of September. There’s a parade, craft market, street arts, medieval camp, theatre, feasting and exhibitions and the city centre is transformed into a medieval village. The Saint Calais bakers roll their ovens out to the front of their shops and bake apple turnovers for visitors. The festival takes place on the first weekend in September – guess who will be going this year!?
To find out more about this very interesting town and the Fete du Chausson aux Pommes, click on this link www.saint-calais.fr
Susan Keefe is an author and book reviewer