A weekend in the French Lorraine
13th to 16th May, 1999
Author: Keith Martin. Groenstraat 30/2, B-3001, Heverlee, Belgium.
The French Lorraine is vaguely centred on the city of Nancy, some 100km south of the Luxembourg border. It is a region of rolling hills, tidy orchards, green fields, reed fringed lakes and scattered oak woodlands, not to mention a maze of small villages, with their sandy walls, peeling plasterwork, collapsing barns, barking dogs, blind corners, dusty pavements and rusting Renault vans. These villages all seem devoid of human activity, with braying roosters and reeling swifts nesting in the eaves being the only indications of any form of life at all. Coming from high human density Flanders, all this space, quiet and greenness was well worth the slight discomfort of feeling like an advance scouting party from some distant colonising planet, checking out whether Frenelle-la-Petite (population 46, 17 dogs, 56 chickens and 3 goats) might not make a suitable base for an industrial silicon manufacturing plant, or whether Fraisnes-en-Saintois (population 30, 7 dogs, 18 cats, 5 horses, 2 peafowl, 7 pheasants, 116 chickens and 3 roosters) might not be a suitable satellite commuter town for housing workers for the new nuclear power plant to be built in the orchards surrounding Grimonviller (population 14, 314 sheep, 16 chickens and 18 Guinea Fowl). The countryside was not so different from Belgium - just bigger, more stretched, more spacious .. there was simply just more of it.
Thursday 13th May
Bonjour Nancy. Arrived in the middle of the afternoon and ran around trying to find useful things like maps, accommodation, money (unimportant things like that). It was a holiday in France and the streets were full of people wandering around the town gazing contentedly through the closed shop windows. I just didn't quite get it. There was a bit of an accommodation panic as the reluctance of bed and breakfast owners to answer their phones suggested a complacency that can only come with the satisfaction of a full house and an anticipated hubbub of conversation around the busy breakfast table. In the end a breakthrough was made for Thursday night at the metropolis of Virecourt (population etc etc) just south of Bayon (population only slightly more). The room at the rear of the substantial two storey house backed on to a small orchard and a series of allotments, attended lovingly by a choice selection of the local peasants and pleasingly occupied by a Serin. The local challenge however was finding something to eat in neighbouring Bayon, which had inconveniently closed almost all its potential sources of nourishment. Luckily the travelling wood-fired pizza man was in town on Thursdays, and so he saved the day with a Forestiere, eaten by the river next to some very frisky cows and a yabbering Nightingale. This was all washed down with a mysterious brown beer from the corner café, whose bar was barely being propped up by some rather inebriated local youths who could barely focus a suspicious glance in the direction of the strangers in town.
Friday 14th May
Survived the night, despite the screaming Barn Owl outside the window, and shared breakfast with a matriarchal Kiwi who related an interesting incident concerning her rental car and a flower pot in a car park. This story became a good deal more tangible on inspection of her car, which revealed an enormous dent, crushed front light, and panned in passenger door, suggesting that the flowerpot must have contained nothing short of a mature triffid. Giving her car a suitably wide berth, it was onwards to the north east, across a high plateau, to the Lake Lindre complex, 35 kms east of Nancy. Lake Lindre is a many fingered reservoir surrounded by reed beds in various states of health and various levels of accessibility. The first stop was Tarquimpol, situated at the bridge of a tiny peninsula jutting into the south of the lake. The village clearly only just stayed afloat when the lake was flooded. A rather off-putting first encounter at the lakeside was a young lad in camouflage with a rifle laid casually across his lap. I thought initially that he was there to pot a few storks, but it turned out that the army were on a training exercise and so the guns were hopefully for show only. Access to the lake at Tarquimpol is a bit limited, but Great Reed Warbler up and singing in the reeds and a Purple Heron flapping over the water made the stop more than worthwhile. Unfortunately the small observation post seemed to be only accessible from a visitors centre.. that was closed. As some compensation, a pair of White Storks were making good use of one of the local artificial nest poles to engage in a bill clacking ceremony. Edging anti-clockwise around the lake, a small road weaved and twisted through open farmland over which Common Buzzard, Honey Buzzard and Black Kite were very noticeable. The first Red-backed Shrike also made an appearance on a fence post. At Guermange another stork's nest was very close to the road, but the storks decided to lie low and refused to cooperate with my telephoto lens. Guermange also hosted a particularly disappointing hide, reached from the car park behind the church. This hide overlooked reeds and lush meadow (presumably once water) that proved to be a great site for observing House Sparrow and Pied Wagtail, but little else. Further north, the Foret de Romersberg protruded into the eastern shore of the lake. A secluded car park and picnic area lay at the start of a forest track that could be followed deep into the woods on foot. The oak trees were in full leaf, and the air filled with the sounds and smells of late spring. Eventually the road entered a large area of regenerating oak, at the edge of which was a grove of tall trees, under which the ground cover had been cleared. A sweet whistling call that I did not recognise was quickly traced to several dainty Collared Flycatchers hunting in the middle canopy. Two passing Belgian birders recommended a small path to the right, which passed through a shady patch of old forest before emerging at the lake side, and crossing a small dam. This was a delightfully tranquil spot, with Great Reed Warbler grating in the reeds and Great Crested Grebes fishing in the shallows. Returning back through the mature woodland a Middle-spotted Woodpecker danced several times across the track and could be glimpsed working in and out of the dense foliage. Having acquired the taste for cross country driving, it was time to take the back roads south once more. A quick stop was made at Parroy Lake, which looked like just the innocent haunt of a small sailing club, but turned out to also have a very fine hide on the north-western shore. A little track crept up to the hide through the reeds, and once again a Great Reed-Warbler grated from the upper branches of a young tree, and a flock of nine migrating Black Terns patrolled the water. Not much was seen from the hide, but it did overlook a substantial reed bed, and the log book revealed that some horrible French birders had seen a Common Bittern there earlier in the day. Of course, I never see bitterns so I didn't hold out any hope, very wisely as it turned out. Returning to the car, a peculiar wehk sound from the reeds could well have been a Little Bittern, which allegedly breed there, but then again might have been nothing more exciting than an overweight frog. Destination for the evening was La Colline de Sion, about 30km due south of Nancy and visible for some distance away, being the only protuberance of any note in the locality. The access road ascended steeply through rows of fruit trees and emerged rather unexpectedly at a sizeable complex featuring a large church, with a scaffold clad tower, a hotel, two cafes and several large buildings of unspecified purpose. Even more impressive was the gigantic religious carvings staring out from the ramparts over the distant plains below. Having checked into a fairly basic room at the rather dilapidated hotel, an overpriced meal, mostly memorable for the crusty red crustacean that was served up with my trout, was reluctantly consumed in the dining hall. The room was shared by several groups of geriatric diners and a waiter with a particularly sinister smile.
Saturday 15th May
First light at Sion Hill was accompanied by what presumably was more than the average amount of activity for such a delicate time in the morning at such a relatively remote topographical outpost. The first warning signs involved the repeated air braking of a large articulated truck, which made micro manoeuvres outside the bedroom window to the delight of a steadily growing crowd, which included a brigade of jolly looking gendarmes. The source of all this early amusement revealed itself most astonishingly to be a 20 metre tall silver painted statue, complete with sparkling halo, apparently ready to be hauled up the church tower and deposited ceremoniously onto a plinth. A conversation in stuttered franglais with one of the jolliest of the men in uniform revealed that this was all going to happen with even more ceremony than my imagination had anticipated, with an outdoor mass at 9.30 and the full ascension at 11.00 precisely. The trickle of cars started to become a steady flow, and all the available parking on the hilltop, and a good deal of less available parking, rapidly filled with Renaults and Citroens. Meanwhile groups of excited pilgrims with hampers and folding chairs filed past the hotel entrance in the direction of the base of the scaffold. And this was all avant le petit dejeuner. Exciting as statue installation procedures can be, the morning was really too glorious to spend in full participation, and so a walk around the edges of the hill and its fairly substantial summit plateau was embarked upon. Following the green dots (rather than the blue ones) led first through a makeshift campground where around 20 caravans full of nuns in camping gear were getting ready to fully bless the day while fellow sisters rather tunelessly serenaded them, assisted in amplification by a network of hastily erected loudspeakers hanging on metal poles. The day was clearly only going to get saner. The muddy path descended down the northern slopes of Sion Hill through some cool mature deciduous woodland, the upper canopy glowing spring green and the air resounding to common woodland bird song. At one stage a Black Woodpecker was disturbed and it retreated through the trees emitting a primeval burble. The path then steeply re-ascended and opened out onto the western summit plateau, where a tall monument looked out over clear and distant horizons of villages and orchards, and a Tree Pipit sang heartily from top of a young birch tree. This path then followed the edge of the hill for a few hundred metres, before crossing a small meadow where a Hoopoe magicked itself out of the short grass and fluttered a few yards before landing and implausibly vanishing on the wild lawn. It repeated this trick two or three times before tiring of the game, and circling into some tall pines. The path then meandered into the village of Vaudemont, crossing a police roadblock where yet more gendarmes casually deterred further traffic from accessing the frivolities at the other end of the hill. And what of these frivolities? It was possible to both see and hear most of the action, even at this point, some two kilometres distant. On the horizon, above the tree line, a tall crane was dangling next to the tower and a chorus of singing and preaching was wafting across the hilltop, varying in strength at the whimsy of the wind. It was only 10.15 though, and there was still plenty time to wander around the battlements of Vaudemont, where once a substantial fortress guarded the western flank of Sion Hill. Only a growling Turtle Dove stood guard now, and a troop of earnest students filed past clutching detailed archaeological maps of what had once been. The locals of Vaudemont has started to gather at their favourite lookout points and were patiently watching events across the hill through pairs of binoculars that probably had not insubstantial antique value. The track now started to return in the direction of Sion, and gently descended through some orchards and open scrub land. It was getting close to 11.00, and most conveniently a small pile of hay appeared next to the track, at a point which afforded a luxuriously comfortable view across the slope of the hill to the activities at the eastern summit. By now the crane had the dangling silver figure, suspended midair, and the singing was reaching some sort of crescendo. Slowly the grand lady was hoisted high above the plinth, and then gently inched onto the top of the tower, gently swinging precariously a few times before being tightly fastened by some tiny human shapes, just visible with optical assistance. By this point interest was waning, and attention shifted to the orchard next to the haystack, where a Hawfinch was flitting among the trees and a Red Fox was galloping through the dandelions. The day was now warming up and the chanting from the distant summit finally stopped, to be replaced by distant Yellowhammers and a churring Red-backed Shrike. The walk back to Sion was more open and less enchanting, partly through some minor navigational mistakes caused by the reckless abandonment of the green dot trail. At the village of Chaouilley a Hoopoe and a Golden Oriole were both calling from infuriatingly distant locations, and closer to Sion summit and tall poplar forest had yet another invisible Golden Oriole warbling from the upper branches. By the time the hotel was revisited, the pious crowds had retired to the lounge and the terrace, and a great deal of empty red wine bottles and half eaten baguettes were strewn across the table tops. To extend the local horizons an afternoon drive to the south of Sion proved very pleasant, all the more so for a little Woodchat Shrike perched on a fence post at the edge of a tiny orchard just south of the hill, and a Montague's Harrier and several Red Kites actively hunting over the fields in the vicinity of Monthureux. The rolling countryside was relaxing and the fields abounded with Stonechats and Corn Buntings. The day also had a few notable culinary events in the form of the meanest ice-cream scoopster in France (the delicatessen in Mirecourt) and an encounter with pizzas that had a cream (rather than tomato) base in Vittel. Eventually it was back to Sion, where the freshly installed statue was brightly illuminated and was being visited by some dignitaries who had braved the scaffold to climb up for the view and inspection of the morning's work. Yet more pilgrims were marching around the base of the tower, but there only is so much excitement that can be packed into a day however and it was definitely bed time.
Sunday 16th May
All good things do, unfortunately, and this was essentially "home" day. The Colline de Sion was relatively deserted on Sunday morning, and the small crowds only began to gather at a much more respectable hour, for morning mass. The morning croissant was accompanied by the dry silvery rattle of Serins in the pine outside the window. A gentle exploration of the orchards on the sunny southern slope and a walk through the brilliant white and yellow blooming scrub abutting the forest, revealed nothing notable except for another brace of Red-backed Shrikes before the Buzzards started to circle high over the hill. The drive to Nancy was pleasant, and the city was revisited for some culture in the form of an Art Nouvea floral exhibition at the Ecole de Nancy, where the museum attendants all looked like escapees from the local asylum in their ill-fitting uniforms and over keenness to use their two way radios. Au revoir Nancy. Back on the road it was a case of weaving around some very dangerous looking Sunday drivers in order to pick up the motorway and head north to Luxembourg and return to La Belgique.
Some notes on selected bird species
Purple Heron:One seen flying at Lake Lindre.
White Stork: Up to eight birds seen at Lake Lindre - I gather they have been reintroduced there. Two pairs observed nesting on artificial nest poles.
Black Kite: Locally common over open farmland, usually occurring in groups of up to eight birds. Quite visible from the motorway.
Red Kite: Not as common as the previous species, but around six birds seen over the weekend.
Montagues Harrier: Only the one bird seen, hunting methodically over pasture land in the region of Monthureux.
Marsh Harrier: Just one bird seen at Lake Parroy.
Honey Buzzard: Only one bird definitely seen at Lake Lindre, but others possibly overlooked.
Black Tern: Nine birds flying over Lake Parroy.
Cuckoo: Not uncommon, but a red morphed female was seen at Lake Parroy.
Hoopoe: One seen, another heard, on Sion Hill.
Black Woodpecker: One seen and another heard drumming, both on Sion Hill.
Middle-spotted Woodpecker: One seen well, and at least one other possibly heard in Romersberg Forest, on the eastern shore of Lake Lindre.
Great Reed Warbler: Surprisingly conspicuous at Lake Lindre (two seen, one heard) and at lake Parroy (one up and singing in the middle of the afternoon).
Collared Flycatcher: Around six heard and seen in the Romersberg Forest, all around the same area of regenerating forest.
Red-backed Shrike: A couple seen at Lake Lindre, but a common bird at Sion Hill.
Woodchat Shrike: Just the one bird seen twice on consecutive days… on the same post, at the same orchard, just south of Sion Hill.
Golden Oriole: A total of eight heard in various wooded locations, but only the one bird seen in flight at Lake Lindre. As usual, infuriatingly hard to locate.
Hawfinch: Seen and heard on several occasions in the orchards surrounding Sion Hill.
Serin: Seen in gardens at both overnight locations, and heard around the church at Sion Hill.
Corn Bunting: Very common in the fields around Sion.