IT IS always fun to discover interesting places, and Louhans is like stepping into a time warp.
It is a bustling French town (population around 6,850 people) with a mediaeval character. Take away the cars and it could be used as a set for a historical film.
Louhans lies to the south-east of Dijon in the area called Bresse Bourguignonne, famous for its free-range chickens ‘Poulet de Bresse’, the only brand of chicken with an AOC label. Look it up Louhans on a map and you will see that it is at the centre of a starburst of roads, on the railway line from Dijon to Bourg en Bresse, and at the junction of the rivers La Seille and Le Solnan. La Seille is navigable as far as here and has a canal, which is not used these days.
This makes Louhans a centre of trade. It was formally established in 1269, when a start was made on building its arcades. There are 157 of them along the main street, which gives it a unique urban planning heritage. Each arcade has a shop – no closed shops or charity chops here – and in inclement weather the arcades provide perfect shelter for shoppers. Every Monday morning there is a market that brings folk from miles around, and the stalls are spread all over the town.
The compact town centre is hemmed in by the rivers, the railway and canal, an d the streets are uneven and oddly shaped. A bride in a full white dress appeared before me from a lane, with a gaggle of maids of honour fussing around and gathering up handfuls of skirt to keep it clear of the road. They crossed a small square and disappeared. Later, a black and yellow Citroen 2CV roared up and down the town with two mock gendarmes in the front seats blowing trumpets and horns, and the bride and groom standing through the rolled back roof.
They had been to the 18th century Mairie (town hall) for the civil ceremony and to the church of St Pierre. This odd-shaped church is in two parts, one 14th century and the other 18th century. The various roofs are covered in glazed, colourful tiles.
The town was walled and fortified at one time. Today, all that is left are two towers, incorporated into the street houses. One tower (St Pierre’s, 16th century) has recently been modernised, while St Paul’s (17th century) looks like it is crumbling away at a street corner. There are other interesting attractions, like the Hotel Dieu, a large 17th century hospital comprising two huge wards with alcove beds. It was in use until 1977. For 300 years, nuns of the order of St Martha tended the sick here.
Today it is a museum of medicine (www.apothicaireries.eu) and offers guided tours every day except Tuesdays. It is fascinating to see the wards, service rooms, and the big collection of 15th and 16th century hispano-moorish glazed pots.
Having see this, I suddenly found that everything was closing. Of course, this is rural France and everyone goes for lunch from 12 to 2pm. You can’t beat them so you join them. I wandered around looking at menus outside the great selection of cafes and restaurants. One was suspiciously cheap, another high quality and expensive. Then, as I was reading one menu, a passing Louhans lady stopped to chat and told me that this was the restaurant
(Le Saint Jean across the road from the tourist office at the end of the arcades) where she eat twice a week with her daughter, and it was good quality at a fair price. She assured me that she wasn’t a shareholder in the business, and went on her way.
I went in and took a seat at an outside table under an awning and ordered a salad, which turned out to be huge, with everything in it you can imagine, topped off by a fan of thin slices of a large pear – and loads of bread. The patron suggested wine, and I said just a small house red. “A half?”, he asked, which unknown to me meant half a litre. The wind was getting stronger and the rain started, so the patron kept tugging my table to the centre of the awning.
Things started blowing about so he and a waitress cleared all the other outside tables and left this mad Scot to keep ploughing through the huge salad, followed by apple pie, while keeping hold of the flapping tablecloth.
The patron even provided a pot of tea (rare in France). I recommend this establishment, but the toilet could be better. Public toilets in France are rare and dire, but in Louhans they make an effort and are acceptable. By now the two waitresses had gone past me in ‘civvies’ saying ‘au revoir, monsieur’ and I realised it was 2 o’clock and eating time was over. So, slightly light headed, I went to the museum of printing, wondering if everyone else in Louhans was feeling light headed.
The local newspaper is ‘L’Independant’, which started in August, 1878, and moved to the Rue des Dodanes in 1880, operating from these premises until 1984. This building now houses the museum of printing and the upper two floors is the town museum.
It was fascinating to see the old printing machines in small rooms with low ceilings where the newspaper had been produced for nearly 100 years. It must have been noisy, dirty and cramped, and damp as the building extends back over the canal. School groups get to operate a machine and actually set up and print something.
Up the narrow wooden staircase the town museum was holding an art exhibition. The frontage of the building is just another house in the street, and further down, past the tower St Pierre, is the town cinema. At the end of the street there is the open Place de la Liberation, which is usually full of parked cars, and this is where you can hire a boat to spend a day on the river.
Just across the river is the railway station, a solid, heavy building, very clean and tidy and staffed, although the clerkess seems to sell mostly bus tickets as most of the passenger trains on this route are now buses running to train schedules.
There is a camp site, sports facilities, an incongruous bandstand near the post office where the street happens to be wide, and a statue of Ferdinand Berthier (1803-1886), known as ‘the Napoleon of the deaf and dumb’ because he fought all his life for sign language and the rights of the deaf and dumb.
Where the main road crosses the river to enter the town there is a roundabout at the foot of the Grande Rue and its arcades. I sat at a table in an open fronted café (raining again) with a cup of coffee while I waited for my lift back to the B&B, and reflected on the friendly people here.
They have the time and interest to speak to you in shops and restaurants, but it is not a sleepy place, there is a bustle in and out of the arcades and along the other streets, giving a lively buzz to Louhans. If you are going to France, it is well worth a visit.