Une nuit blanche is a French expression for having passed a night without sleep. This could have a good or bad connotation depending on what you were doing during the night!
This expression has been taken by the region of Grand Champagne (one of the most prestigious cognac producing regions) and for the past twenty years, every Friday night in July and August anyone can join in “Les Nuits Blanches” presented by the local people. Organised by the Office of Tourism you book your car and follow a mystery tour through the beautiful countryside. The event is well-organised with marshals holding back the traffic to allow the line of cars which passes in a follow-my-leader style from stop to stop.
The evening started in Malaville outside its 13th. Century church. My husband was quick to spot some honey bees that had built a hive with an opening just above the front door. They were still busy in the late evening sunshine and I chuckled at the thought of sneaking bees into this post.
For the previous two weeks the Nuits Blanches had been cancelled as the French weather forecast had declared an orange warning predicting thunderstorms. As this year the theme of the evening was – Auprès de mon arbre, it was not deemed wise to take people into the woods with violent thunderstorms predicted.
We made our way on foot to our first “saynète”, or little scene, which was waiting for us to arrive. There was a rumble and a crack and some rain, thankfully held back by the trees.
Someone rushed to cover the speakers with plastic. I think the Celtic priestess had words with the spirits of the forest because the rain soon stopped and the weather was fine for the rest of the evening.
Our Celtic priestess explained to us that they appreciated the forest and the trees but their customs and traditions are forgotten compared to those of the Romans and Greeks.
There is more to the Celts, she tells the children, than you read in Asterix and Obelix.
Now we are off in the car into the woods, listening to the CD which is provided, and starts with Georges Brassens singing the first few lines of his song ” Auprès De Mon Arbre”. The CD talks of trees, their origins, their importance and the first part finishes just as you reach the first stop.
This scene talks of the lives of the people who lived in the woods in communities or family groups, rarely going into towns but living in the woods which provide them with their livelihood chopping wood, gathering herbs or making charcoal.
We paused in the dark to listen to the trees talk of their different properties and uses and were warned that there used to be wolves in the woods.
When one little girl saw these fierce wolves creep from the edges of the clearing she quickly demanded to be taken off her father’s shoulders to take shelter in the safety of his arms!
Wolves were a threat to the villagers in France at one time but the fear of wolves and other mythical creatures of the woods was also played on by thieves and army deserters.
On the car again and off to the next stop.
This is the region famous for Cognac. Oak barrels play a pivotal role in the production of cognac and some are still made in the traditional way in this area. The oak used, however, is not local as it grows too quickly in the Charente and must be brought from cooler areas of France. It is fascinating watching a barrel being made from planks of oak by binding them with metal hoops and heating them from the inside so they seal together forming a water tight container.
The next stop was in the grounds of this beautiful house and it took a light-hearted look at the fairy book characters whose dramas took place in the woods.
We finished the evening being offered a glass of cognac and tonic or a non-alcoholic orange drink courtesy of the area’s cognac producers and admiring the distillation equipment of a local producer of cognac who welcomed us onto his property. He was the fifth generation of his family to be producing cognac on their lands.
I thoroughly enjoyed my Nuit Blanche and want to applaud again all the actors (who are unpaid volunteers) that told the story of their region so well. In fact, there are about 200 actors and technicians who give their time freely to show with pride the beauty and traditions of their countryside.