One summer, I was determined to get to Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy. My daughter and I were staying in Tours and I’m too chicken to drive while in France, so I was dependent upon the SNCF. The schedule showed that there was a train from Paris that stopped off in the tiny town of Villedieu-les-Poêles and then seemed to continue to the landmark site. Perfect. We booked a room at the hotel-restaurant Le Fruitier and a ticket to Villedieu-les-Poêles.
I have to say that this was one of the more surreal places I have ever visited in France. When we got off the train, there was music playing from loudspeakers all over town belting out “One Night in Bangkok” of all things. There was no festival, just music that persisted all weekend. The hotel was perfectly satisfactory and the restaurant was really excellent. The meals we ate there were quite delicious. Well-fed, I went out to explore, accompanied by a soundtrack.
Villedieu-les-Poêles (vildyuh-lay-pwal) is a fairly amusing name. It means “city of God the pots.” The name actually tells the town’s history. In the 12th century, Henry I, King of England and Duke of Normandy, gave the town to the Knights of Malta. That’s the “city of God” part. The Knights had learned metal-working techniques in the east on the Crusades and brought the know-how with them. Villedieu became a center for coppersmithing. That’s the “pots” part of the name. The metal crafting took a toll on the residents, however. The locals are known as Sourdins – sourd meaning deaf – from all the banging to shape the metal.
The people of Villedieu strongly supported the French Revolution because it eliminated tax duties that had made their copper pots more expensive than ones imported from outside of the country. In the late eighteenth century, the manufacture of large church bells added to the local metal-working economy. When there was an anti-Revolutionary revolt led by Royalists known as Chouans, the women of Villedieu helped chase them from town by bombarding the troops with stones, flowerpots, and chamber pots from windows above the street. Villedieu was one of just a few towns in the area that escaped major damage in World War II and the medieval courtyards are really charming. The other events in town are shopping for copper pots or watching demonstrations of how the church bells are made, which was rather cool.
As I mentioned, the whole purpose of our visit to Villedieu was to get to Mont Saint-Michel. So, well in advance of the scheduled arrival of the train from Paris, we went to the local SNCF station. When I tried to buy tickets for Mont Saint Michel, the clerk just laughed at me. “Ce n’est pas possible!” He explained that the last leg of the trip was made on a coach and that only the people on the train from Paris would be able to continue. After much mirth at my expense, he finally conceded that if there was enough room on the coach, he would condescend to sell us two tickets. We waited for the arrival of the train, wondering if our trip to “City of God the Pots” had been for naught.
When it arrived, a handful of Mont Saint-Michel-bound tourists descended, leaving about 40 empty places on board the coach. We left Villedieu and its soundtrack behind – at least for the time it would take for our excursion to Mont Saint Michel. But that’s a story for another day. My big learning of the weekend was that Ce n’est pas possible! simply means that a longer discussion will be required to get what I want.