Western Europe #05– Vesly, Bizy Chateau, Vernon, Beauvias
Western Europe #05– Vesly, Bizy Chateau, Vernon, Beauvias
This is part 5 of a trip we took through Northwestern Europe in August of 2018.
Full Trip Map
Map for this trip segment
Once we were done with Gisors we headed out again and stumbled through the tiny little town of Vesly. This is certainly not a town anyone would add to their must see itinerary list but it is typical of many such villages in and around northern France. Anyone who drives off the main 4 lane highways (motorways?) will pass through many such towns and villages which for the most part all look about the same.
In the case of Vesly, although it is obviously inhabited, there were no cars on the streets - parked or otherwise - on this weekday mid afternoon, no welcoming shops or stores and no people walking about. Almost gave the feeling of a ghost town. It was not full of litter or strewn with abandon tumble down buildings and had well kept road signs complete with modern new pedestrian cross walks and associated signs (but no pedestrians). I guess most of the residents were at various jobs in other towns during the day – perhaps even commuting all the way to Paris.
But, it was quite representative of many such small villages we had found ourselves driving through so we decided to stop and take some photos. My idea was to take some shots and then fill in some history or interesting facts back home by referencing Wikipedia and the Google. Well. My Google search found nothing other than a link to Wikipedia. And, other than stating it was there, operates as a commune, and has a population of about 600 Wikipedia had no more to say about it either. Now, you know you must live in a pretty boring community if that’s all anyone could think of to say about the place.
But, interesting it was in a Rural French Village sense and as it typified many such villages in the area, I figured I’d bore you with a photo of the place.
Sleepy little village of Vesly
Continuing our meander back to our B&B in Giverny we came to the Bizy Chateau. This part of France is chock full of old chateaus of the prior rich that have been saved from ruin by various “save the…..” groups and organizations who now run them as tourist attractions. Bizy Chateau, just outside the town of Vernon, though has a bit more of a pedigree. It actually has a bit of a Royal connection and in some accounts is called “The Versailles of Normandy” or “Little Versailles”.
From its beginnings in 1675 it passed through several hands as well as several reconstructions. The base of the current iteration was built for the Duke of Belle Isle around 1740. In 1821 Louis-Phillipe who later became king of France inherited the place from his mother and made extensive changes including two glass galleries on either side of the central building. In 1858, after a few more changes of ownership, Baron Schikler bought it at auction but as it had fallen into disrepair by then he had to restore all the canals and had the central block rebuilt but kept the King’s Galleries. Schikler’s descendants still own it and use a bit of it as their residence.
The estate sits in an English style “park” but the buildings are somewhat modest compared to some other palaces and of course pales in comparison to Versailles. In addition to the main house and courtyard with a fountain in the middle, there are formal gardens, sculpted fountains (Neptune Fountain, Water Staircase, Fountain Gribouille, Sea Horses Fountain, Dolphins Pond, Etc.), stables, and conservatories for the growing of tropical plants.
They run a very nice and informative tour of the place and the buildings are very well preserved. So, if you’re in the Giverny area with a few extra hours on your hands, it is worth a stop.
Central Block from courtyard
Square staircase inside main building
Intricate carving at bottom of staircase
Vernon is a very ancient town, not too far from Giverny which goes back to the prehistorical Celtic era. Like most such towns on the Seine River (about half way between Paris and the much larger Rouen) it owes its longevity to being an important military town for the Duchy of Normandy. As it turns out, it is located at the only viable crossing spot of the Seine between Paris and Rouen which could have something to do with it being placed where it is. Another interesting tidbit is that Vernon played a political and military part during the long rivalry between the Capetians and Plantagenets.
Like many such towns it changed hands several times throughout European history as the ownership of what is now Northern France changed back and forth between different aspiring empires through wars and treaties (mostly wars) including being partially destroyed in 1940.
As far as sizable French towns go, Vernon is quite typical with the obligatory central church, quaint old buildings in the traditional half timber style, and shops and restaurants. However, unlike many other such towns, we did not come across any remaining fort or castle or other significant “attraction” other than its proximity to Giverny. It is said that there is a Chateau in Vernon but it does not appear to be open to the public. So, it is not someplace one would designate as a must see stop in a guide book or website. But it was interesting to wander around for a few hours.
In our wandering we found what looked like one end of an old bridge with an interesting building at its end over part of the river. We thought it had been the old highway bridge across the river that was replaced with a newer bridge a few hundred feet away but we were incorrect. It turned out that it was always this way and the building was an old mill that used to have a water wheel turned by the flow of the river. I don’t know what the building is used for now, but it is obviously being cared for as it is in quite good shape and very picturesque with its half timber construction sitting over the water.
Old Mill building perched out over the Seine River
Nearby this old mill building we found a small strange looking castle with a turret tower in each corner but very little wall in between the turrets making for a very small castle. No windows or grand entry way or remnants of an old moat or outer wall either. So, we really weren’t quite sure just what to make of it. Well, conveniently enough, after a bit of inquiry we discovered that this was a grain storage facility for, guess what? The mill that is right next to it.
Grain storage building
Another nice thing we stumbled upon in Vernon was a quaint old street leading up to a church lined with traditional buildings. What made this street particularly interesting was that they had a photograph of what this street looked like in 1793
La rue Bourbon-Penthievre with sign showing same location in 1793
Beauvais serves as the capital of the Oise department (province) in the Hauts-de-France region and is located approximately 47 miles (75 kilometers) from Paris. The municipality has a population of 56,020 as of 2016 so is a sizeable town.
Back in the Gallo-Roman times the Romans called it Caesaromagus (magos is common Celtic for "field"). The post-Renaissance Latin rendering is Bellovacum from the Belgic tribe the Bellovaci, whose capital it was. In the ninth century it became a countship, which about 1013 passed to the bishops of Beauvais who became peers of France from the twelfth century. At the coronations of kings the Bishop of Beauvais wore the royal mantle and went with the Bishop of Langres to raise the king from his throne to present him to the people.
There are accounts that a town that may have been Beauvias surrendered to Julius Caesar as his army was approaching but still around 5 Roman miles away. Moving forward in time from there, in 1346 the town had to defend itself against the English, who again besieged it in 1433. Another siege in 1472 at the hands of the Duke of Burgundy was rendered famous by the heroism of the town's women under the leadership of Jeanne Hachette. They still celebrate this with a procession each June (the feast of Sainte Angadrême), during which women take precedence over men.
By far the most interesting thing to see in the town is the Saint Pierre Cathedral (finally one that is not called “Notre Dame of……”). After the third in a series of fires in the old wooden-roofed basilica in 1225 work began on the current structure. The choir was completed in 1272, over the course of two campaigns with an interval of 6 years (1232–1238) between. The 6 year construction gap was due to a lack of funding caused by a struggle with Louis IX. When building started up again in 1238 some changes were made in the architecture. First off there was a change in the stylistic writing used on the stone carvings. The major change though was that an extra 16 feet (4.9 m) was added to the height in order to make it the highest-vaulted cathedral in Europe at 157.48 feet (48m), far surpassing the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Amiens being built at the same time, with its 138 ft (42m) nave.
But, it seems that this change in design was a bit flawed as the work had to be interrupted again in 1284 when part of the nearly completed choir vaulting collapsed. This collapse was quite a disaster that produced a failure of nerve among the French masons working in Gothic style construction. The collapse also marked the beginning of an age of smaller structures generally. The downsizing of follow on construction was partly attributed to this collapse but also was associated with a population decline not to mention the Hundred Years' War. But in order to get the thing finished without it falling down again, they added more columns to the design. All was well after the reinforcement redesign and the transept was finally completed in 1548 with the Nave at its new record breaking phase II height.
But, the “all was well” part ended 25 years later when in 1573 the 402 foot (153m) central tower fell down making the Cathedral no longer the tallest structure in the world. With the passage of time other problems surfaced, some requiring more drastic remedies. And then of course being bombed during a couple of world wars didn’t help the shaky structure either.
Speaking of which, the town of Beauvais itself was extensively damaged during World War I and again in World War II, during German advances on Paris. In June 1940 much of the older part of the city was all but destroyed and the cathedral itself was badly damaged before being liberated by British forces in August 1944. Even though the church was repaired after the war, the design shortcomings from the past along with the bombings left much of the structure somewhat weakened and over time they’ve had to put wood and metal bracing inside to stabilize the structure. Give that a long think as you enter the structure to look around.
The north transept now has four large wood-and-steel lateral trusses at different heights, installed during the 1990s to keep the transept from collapsing. In addition, the main floor of the transept is interrupted by a much larger brace that rises out of the floor at a 45-degree angle. This brace was installed as an emergency measure to give additional support to the pillars that, until now, have held up the still tallest vault in the world. These temporary measures will remain in place until more permanent solutions can figured out. Various studies are under way to determine with more assurance what can be done to preserve the structure. Columbia University is performing a study on a three-dimensional model constructed using laser scans of the building in an attempt to determine the weaknesses in the building and hopefully the remedies. See what happens when you don’t have rigorous building codes?
Pipe organ at Saint Pierre Cathedral
Saint Pierre Cathedral – tallest vault in the world
Wood bracing needed to stabilize the building
Inside the cathedral is the elaborate and ornate Beauvais Astronomical Clock. This clock was built between 1865 and 1868 by Lucien Auguste Vérité and measures 40 feet tall (12 meters) and 20 feet wide (6 meters). It has 52 dials which display the times of the rising and setting sun and moon, the position of the planets, the current time in 18 cities around the world, and the tidal times. The clock also displays the “epact” (age of the moon in days on January 1) and the golden number used in calculating the date of Easter. The main dial shows hours and minutes in a large central face which depicts Jesus surrounded by the twelve apostles.
What’s quite remarkable is that even though this thing is over 150 years old it still works. For an entrance fee you can see a documentary film of the clock where spotlights illuminate different parts of the clock as a couple of TV screens off to the side talk about that feature. At the end of the documentary, which is timed to end on the hour, the thing comes to life with characters and figures coming out of doors, Jesus waving hello, angels raising their horns, roosters crowing, people in a window being devoured by a metal “flame” and other figures moving in and out of doors among other delights.
The sides of the clock have cutouts now covered with clear glass so that after the show you can go around and see the inner workings of the clock. This is not the only astronomical clock in the world, or even in Europe but it certainly is one of the most impressive and elaborate.
Beauvais Cathedral Astronomical Clock
Right next door to the Cathedral is the Museum de l’Oise which is housed in the former palace of the Bishop of Beauvais, who was also the Count of Beauvais and a peer of France. The original palace was built on a Roman wall below the Beauvais Cathedral by Henry of France, son of King Louis VI and Bishop of Beauvais from 1149 to 1161. The clock tower in the facade holds a stairway leading up to a belfry with three bells, one of them made in 1506.
After the French Revolution the palace was made the seat of the prefecture in 1800 but then returned to the church in 1822. In 1846 it became a courthouse till 1973 when the court moved out. Renovations were made between 1974 and 1981 when the museum opened. But much like the cathedral next door the building began to show structural problems and was closed to the public in 1997. Temporary exhibitions were presented in the structurally sound sections of the building. A renovation project was started in 2013 and the museum reopened in January 2015.
Ornate bell tower of the Museum de l’Oise
I hope you enjoyed reading about these 4 locations near Giverny as part of our NW Europe trip. Please check out other entries in this series as well as my other travel blogs under the “Blogs” menu item at www.DanHartfordPhoto.com .
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Thanks for reading – Dan
(All images by Dan Hartford. Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, and pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way.
Keywords: Beauvias, Beauvias Astronomical Clock, Bizy Chateau, Blog, Dan Hartford Photo, dantravelblog, dantravelblogNW-Europe, France, French Countryside, Museum de l'Oise (Beauvias, FR), Northern France, Saint Pierre Cathedral (Beauvias, FR), Vernon, Vesly, Western Europe, Western France
Hi Dan -
Thanks for the great photos and all the research. Beauvais was a real find - and that cathedral and astronomical clock are amazing! I looked on Youtube for a video of it doing its presentation, but nothing except one in French that talks about it. That little town certainly sounds like it is worth visiting!
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