There are places that I travel that feel like home to me and France is one of them. I have been visiting here since I was a child, and have seen so much of the country, but for such a small area, there are still so many places left to explore. I stayed with my godfather, Steenie, and his wife Marie France for six days; two days in their apartment in Paris, near the Trocadero and Eiffel Tower, and the rest of the time in Villemolin, a large chateau in the Bourgogne (Burgundy) region. The countryside of rolling hills filled with pastures of white, charolais cattle, puffy sheep, fallow fields waiting for Spring planting, and deep forests filled with deer, boar, rabbits and fox, is a place of peace and contentment for me.
On Friday, we drove to the chateau, about a three hour drive through a misty day in the countryside, to very nearly the center of France. Steenie is a Marquis, and Villemolin was built by his family in 1200 and has passed from generation to generation ever since. In this day and time, Steenie’s family is one of the few that have been able to keep their chateau in the immediate family, passed down through inheritance. Many other aristocratic families have had to sell to strangers or to the government, or bequeath property to more distant relatives. The land around Steenie’s house is reminiscent of Charlottesville and the Roanoke area of Virginia, minus the red clay. It also has the same genteel country feel, a slower pace, people in the villages staring at strangers but still nodding their heads in hello, the big truckloads of hay maneuvering the tiny roads, the tractors chug-chugging up the hills back and forth from field to farm.
On Saturday, Steenie took me to a hunt, called La Chasse `A Courre. There are groups throughout France, called Equipage, which organize hunts on horseback in their particular regions. La Chasse is centuries old, an ancient tradition, which centers around a pack of about 50 hounds which are managed by a hunt master, (maitre d’ equipage) and his hunt staff (piqueux). Each of the hunt staff carries a large horn, la trompe, and a blade, like a small sword. This Equipage hunts every Tuesday and Saturday, and they hunt only red deer stag, which is what these hounds are trained for. Some groups hunt for the smaller roe deer, boar or hare, and the hounds and piqueux (peek-oh) are responsible for finding, keeping track of and finally killing the animal. It is the responsibility of the Equipage to try to interpret and follow the sound and melody of the horns and anticipate the direction the prey might take. This day, one of the members who owned a large tract of forest not far from Villemolin, had asked the Equipage to hunt for the red deer stag in his woods. I know from my brother-in-law Richard, an avid hunter, that deer populations get too high too quickly, and they must be culled for the health of the herd and the lands they inhabit, so I was OK with watching the progression of the hunt but was planning on skipping the part when the stag was actually killed.
Steenie had been invited to watch La Chasse by a member of the group, Philippe, the owner of the forest in which the hunt was to begin. We arrived at the starting point at 10:30 and I watched in fascination as men in knee length navy blue, wool coats, with high stiff collars, fancy gold and silver buttons, white cravats, gold velvet vests, navy riding jodphurs and black leather riding boots, with small swords strapped to their sides, strode around greeting one another, preparing themselves and their horses for the day ahead.
Many of the riding outfits looked as though they had been passed from father to son, well-worn and comfortable. It was almost like watching a war re-enactment and the members of the club took the history and tradition of each hunt very seriously. Steenie explained that some of the members owned and took care of their own horses, some members paid to stable them, some had enough money to have a full time stable man to care for and transport the horses to and from each hunt. The group also had to pay the maître d’ equipage, the piqueux, and the kennel master, as well as paying a type of lease to hunt on the government land where they normally met. It was a very expensive hobby, as well as time consuming, but these men, and few women, obviously loved the whole process. Steenie and I wandered through the group of perhaps 35 riders and as many observers, Steenie greeting old friends and introducing me as his “Americain filleule”, his American goddaughter. Everyone came up to us eventually, introduced themselves and shook hands.
The observers had a type of uniform as well, which appeared to be forest green, knee length cordurouys, and a slightly lighter green jacket, either oilskin, like Steenie’s, heavy duty canvas, or wool tartan plaid, and green wellies. Steenie topped his ensemble off with a matching green Elmer Fudd hat, which looked silly yet warm. The only part of the outfit that I had correct was the wellies, which Steenie helped me pick out from the fifty pair he had in a room at Villemolin. Otherwise, while I did stay warm, I was hopelessly out of place with my knee length, battleship grey, puffy LL Bean down coat, and jeans.
The leader of this Equipage explained some of the rituals to me. The crew, created in 1919 by the Marquis of Roualle, has about sixty members. I’m pretty sure I heard him say his grandfather had started this group and the leadership had passed to his father and then to him. We were all waiting for the maitre d’ equipage, who is the hunt master and the leader of the hounds, to explain where the stag had been spotted and how the riders were to proceed to the woods. Everything is coordinated through the use of horns and nearly every rider had a horn of some sort. Most were large, French horn sized, with the circular part being big enough for the men to slip over their heads and under one arm, while others had smaller trumpet sized horns with braided straps they could slip over their heads to carry the horns more easily. Each melody played had a different meaning. The riders could tell from listening to the horn, the progression of events, such as when the hounds had found the stag, when the stag was separated from his female mate, whether or not the dogs had lost the scent, and when the stag was finally surrounded. The horns could be heard from long distances, so the hunters follow that sound. This method of hunting is as old as France, and some of the men looked like they could have hunted with Louis XIV, not that they looked that ancient, but they looked as if they had taken a time machine from the 1700’s to 2013. The uniforms they all wore added to the entire flavor and ambience of the day. It was incredibly fascinating and exciting to me, and I felt as if I had entered a time machine myself.
Finally the hunt master gave his speech and the group had their instructions and were ready to go. As the hounds ran by me, I was grateful that I had been warned about the smell of them, it was truly wretched, like a cross between really stinky cheese and rotten meat. Steenie said it was due to their high meat diet, but I really don’t think they are ever bathed either, and that certainly didn’t help. Steenie had met an old friend, Thierry, who belonged to this Equipage but could no longer ride for health reasons. He rode in the car with us throughout the entire day and thank goodness he did. He took us down tiny dirt roads, through muddy hunting roads in the woods; it was incredible how he knew exactly where to go to catch the riders as they followed the hunt and the horns. He knew where the stag would go, and we were often the first of the observers to be waiting as the horses and hounds passed by. On our own, Steenie and I would never have gotten to many of the places we ended up. We would stop periodically and cut off the engine so Thierry could hear the horns and the hounds barking, then say, “A droite,” or “A gauche,” “to the right, to the left” and we would hop back in the car and race whichever way Thierry said. We would pull over to the side of the road, wait a few minutes and then the hounds and riders would race by, and we would move again. The group on horseback could go across fields and through woods, while we had to find our way using roads, but Thierry knew this area like the back of his hand, and he could read the melody of the horns and the baying of the hounds.
After the first two hours, the hunt had moved out of Philippe’s woods and roamed for miles across the countryside, through the fields and woods owned by others. Once the hunt started, the Equipage was allowed to follow wherever the stag went, due to an ancient law called simply “la droite,” (the right) which gives these hunters the right to go anywhere the hunt leads. As we drove along, we would pass chateau’s and Steenie would say, “Oh, there is a chateau owned by my friend so and so.” One of the chateau’s, larger even than Steenie’s, was owned by an eighty year old bachelor, and I couldn’t imagine one person living alone in such a place. It made being alone in my little 2000 square foot house seem like a piece of cake. I saw more of the French countryside than I ever would have on my own, as we went through tiny hamlets, in and out of forests, by lakes and streams and farms. It was a gorgeous day, misty at first then just overcast but not rainy. It was cold but I had about 17 layers on and the only thing that I couldn’t keep warm were my toes, but it was worth it. Steenie had brought a picnic basket filled with saucisson, a baguette, and of course red wine. He popped the bottle within the second hour and as riders would come by, he would offer a plastic cup of wine. There was a lot of camaraderie, among the observers following by car, and shared food. Initially, there were about eight cars chasing the hunt, but as the day wore on, more and more people began to follow until by the end of the hunt, there were at least 25 cars present and maybe fifty observers.
It seemed like playing golf times one hundred, an excuse to gallop a horse across fields, through forests, down paved roads, and it all had a purpose. As it was nearing dusk, I was really rooting for the stag to get away. I kept saying in my mind, “Come on buddy, if you can just hang on another thirty, or forty minutes, the sun will go down and they’ll all give up and go home,” but then Thierry told us the horns were saying the stag had been surrounded and was in a small lake. When we arrived, some of the piqueux were putting an inflatable boat in the water, like a small Navy SEAL raft. While one man rowed, the other told him which direction to go and held the sword, ready to kill the stag. The poor thing swam in big circles, and was still very strong, even having run through the woods for the last five hours, and it took about 10 or 15 minutes for the boat to get close enough for the man to kill it. I couldn’t really see the actual end, which was good, but I could see them pull the body onto shore. After five hours of racing hither and yon, we had ended up back on Philippe’s land, in a different part of the woods than where we had begun, but only five minutes away from his small chateau. He invited Steenie and I to the curee, the final ceremony of the hunt, so we all went back to a series of buildings used by the Equipage whenever they hunted on Philippe’s land.
I watched as everyone loaded their horses back into the trailers, then we crowded into a long, low-ceilinged room, with stone walls and floors, dark wooden beams and a roaring wood stove. There were antlers and deer hooves hung from the walls, each one labeled from a different hunt, with the date and the time and place of death of the animal. Old hunting pictures hung beside the animal parts, and down the center of the room was a long table with about thirty chairs around it. Everyone brought their picnic baskets in and shared the wine and food with everyone else, like a big picnic buffet. At first I didn’t leave the woodstove but as I warmed up and the men started offering me some of their wine, I sat at one end of the table and talked with any of them that spoke English. I ate many of the local specialties, drank a little bit of several different types of wine and had a grand time with this friendly, lively group. They explained the history of this type of hunting and much of what I’ve written I learned around the table.
After about an hour, the curee was set to start so we all trudged back outside to watch the ceremony that ends each hunt. As a reward to the dogs, the deer is skinned and butchered and all the less appealing parts of the animal are placed in a pile, then covered with the hide. The members of the Equipage stand on one side of the carcass and mass of hounds, while the piqueux stands on the other. The hunter’s play a melody, which the piqueux then repeats. Each melody represents what happened throughout the day, and since this was a very long hunt, the playing seemed to go on forever. The dogs milled about, waiting for the skin to be lifted so they could eat, extremely well behaved for wild hounds. As soon as the last note fell away, the skin was lifted and the dogs fell to it, leaping on top of each other like a rugby scrum, but no fighting or even barking, just a mass of happy hounds. The final act of this day was to present one of the hooves of the deer to someone in order to honor them. Steenie later told me that Philippe had asked that the hoof be presented to me, I guess because I hung in the whole day and was one of the few American women that had probably ever attended one of these in this area. Steenie declined on my behalf, explaining to Philippe that I was living out of a backpack for a year and that it would be difficult for me to store a freshly dead deer hoof, and that it might also cause difficulties with customs trying to explain said hoof. Steenie is a very classy guy, and I appreciated his thoughtfulness.
This curee was very savage in a way but it seemed a fitting end to a day both savage and civilized, and also to a piece of French history treasured and kept alive by an elite group.