Title: The Valley Of Heaven And Hell - Cycling in the Shadow of Marie Antoinette
Author: Susie Kelly
Publisher: Blackbird Digital Books
What it is: Slices of French history served up with an account of a cycling holiday in the valley of the Marne
Strengths: The historical tidbits - ranging from Revolutionary France to the Great War and beyond - are tasty and well told
Weaknesses: The same problem most cycling holiday books suffer from - the simplest tasks get spun out into major dramas
"It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle."
~ Ernest Hemingway
Around about midnight on the night of June 20, 1791 (a Monday) Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette - the king and queen of France and Navarre - fled the Tuileries palace in Paris, bound for Belgium, and freedom. For the past 20 months they had, effectively, been under house arrest in the Tuileries, having been taken there from their palace in Versailles in October of 1789, three months after the fall of the Bastille. The path of their escape took them through the valley of the Marne river, heading eastwards through Bondy, Meaux, Étoges, Châlons-sur-Marne (now restored to its earlier Châlons-en-Champagne moniker), Saint-Ménehould and Varennes.
The escapees were due to head on to Montmédy, about 270 kilometres north east of the City of Lights, where supporters would meet them and escort them across the Belgian border, but their identities had been guessed at in Saint-Ménehould - possibly even as early as Châlons - and there was a welcoming committee awaiting their arrival in Varennes at 11 o'clock that night, 50 kilometres short of their destination. The royal family had been free of their captors for less than 24 hours.
Over the next four days they were returned to Paris - over-nighting in Châlons, Dormans and Meaux, not reaching Paris until the Saturday evening - and resumed their house arrest in the Tuileries. Nineteen months later Louis, stripped of his title and now just citizen Louis Capet, was executed. Nine months after that, at the height of the Terror, Marie Antoinette - now known as la veuve Capet, the widow Capet - was taken to the Place de la Révolution (today's Place de la Concorde) where she too was executed.
A century on from that failed flight and the route taken by the royal family had already become something of a pilgrimage, for some. In an 1892 book, The Flight to Varennes, the British historian Oscar Browning records that he covered a portion of the road aboard a tricycle. A century and more further forward and we come to The Valley of Heaven and Hell, Susie Kelly's account of her own attempt to cycle through the valley of the Marne, retracing as best she could the route travelled by the royals over the course of those five days in June 1791.
As a rule, I don't do travel books, as I think I've explained before, particularly those recounting journeys filled with woeful weather, stupid locals, catastrophic communications failures, and (especially) a basic inability on the author's part to ride a bike without having to tell everyone how their life and well being has been variously threatened by an uncomfortable saddle, other road users or a basic inability to avoid falling off (a tricky enough task, I know, as Sky's Gerraint Thomas demonstrates at virtually every race he rides). But The Valley of Heaven and Hell is more than just a journey through the valley of the Marne by a relatively inexperienced expat British cyclist and her American husband, with all the concomitant complaints about just how hard and dangerous riding a luggage-laden bike really is. It is also a journey through history. Through some really fascinating French history.
The royal flight makes up the backbone of Kelly's account of her cycling holiday, Kelly covering not just the flight itself but also serving up a potted history of the lives of Louis and his Austrian queen. Kelly has a lightness of touch in her telling this side of story, entertaining the reader, finding the interesting threads in history and not getting bogged down in dry detail. Here she is on the early years of l'Autrichienne:
"A high-spirited and poorly-educated tomboy, the young girl was a sacrificial offering made by her mother, Maria-Theresa, Archduchess, Queen of Austria and Holy Roman Empress, to preserve Franco-Austrian harmony. Despite maternal misgivings as to the future awaiting the girl, Maria-Theresa packed off her daughter to the French House of Bourbon, for what use were children if not to extend one's power base and protect one's borders? Anyway, she considered that her daughter should be more than satisfied to become a queen. Expecting happiness as well was just plain greedy."
But while the royal flight makes up the backbone of The Valley of Heaven and Hell the journey undertaken by Kelly and her husband travels through more than just the Revolutionary history of France. The valley of the Marne is rich in stories and Kelly's journey takes her through what was the frontline in the battles of the Marne during the First World War. In this year of centennial celebrations of the Great War the First Battle of the Marne in particular is one that more than merits memorialising, certainly in preference to all the usual same-old same-old you will hear about the deaths on the Somme and at Passchendaele. In a week of fighting right at the start of the war more than 80,000 soldiers died on the French side as the Germans closed on Paris. Among those who died was Émile Engel, who not two months earlier had been competing in the Tour de France, where he won a stage (before being turfed off the race after a bit of argy-bargy with a commissaire, for which his directeur sportive, the incomparable Alphonse Baugé, apologised profusely).
When the Marne is talked about, in cycling books, it is often with a brief mention of this battle and the day Paris's fleet of taxis ferried soldiers to the front line, with Lucien Petit-Breton having played an important role in an event that boosted French morale even if it served no real military purpose. In Meaux, Kelly has time to muse on this incident (minus the Tour references):
"Quenching their thirst with wine because water was in short supply, carrying five troops to a taxi, the Parisian taxi drivers drove the forty miles between the capital and Meaux, back and forwards through the night, their headlights turned off, delivering between 4,000 and 6,000 fresh men to the front line to support the beleaguered allies and give them the strength they needed to hold the line, and forcing the Germans to retreat in what was known as the first battle of the Marne.
"Paris was safe, for the time being, and so was Meaux."
A lot of these cycling-holiday books, the journey undertaken is monumentally stupid, thousands of kilometres in dozens of days. Kelly and her husband chose much more manageable fare, a round trip of 500 kilometres or so. This doesn't just mean that there's less reason to bleat about how hard a cycling holiday is - and, let's be fair, riding any distance with panniers is a pain, for panniers are the devil's own invention - but it also means that there's much more time to talk about the world travelled through, and gaze back at the past. And there is, of course, more to the Marne's past than royals and war (though much of the history does often come back to one or the other).
France's fifty-first départment is sited in the region of Champagne-Ardennes. It wasn't always bubbly in Champagne. When Thomas Carlyle visited he found it to be "a land flowing only with ditch-water." In fact, it still isn't very bubbly in Champagne: while the drink that bears its name brings riches to the vintners who sell it Champagne itself is "still one of France's poorer and less known regions" and "has about it an air of the land that time forgot." Curiously, Champagne does seem to have been somewhat at the forefront of breaking the glass ceiling, with several of the great champagne houses having been managed by women at some stage in their history (Laurent-Perrier, Bollinger, Clicquot, Roederer and Pommery, to name but five) and this in a country that didn't give women the vote until 1945.
Some of the most fascinating stories come from the small slices of history Kelly unearths as she passes through towns normally too small to merit even a mention. There's La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, which we learn is famous for the quarries which produced the stones that milled the wheat that made the flour that created the bread that - the absence of which - helped foment Revolution and the lopping off of heads. Or there's Montmirail, where Napoléon Bonaparte thrashed the Russians and the Prussians, despite they having the superior strength of arms, outnumbering his troops two to one. Two months later, though, Paris fell and Boney was bound for St Elba. There's Claye-Souly, once home to an American veterinary hospital during the Great War. And that is a veterinary hospital, not a veterans one ("Statistics showed that, during the four years of the war, on average each equine in the French army would have been ill or injured seven times, and the mortality rate was 80%."). Or there's Meaux, the home of Brie, which the Congress of Vienna declared to be "the cheese of kings and king of cheeses" (the Congress wasn't actually convened to adjudicate the issue of the cheese of cheeses, it was actually establishing borders, but "to enliven and lighten the proceedings the French foreign minister, Talleyrand, proposed a competition between participating nations to find the best cheese").
Given my own interest in the history of professional road racing, I naturally pay attention to the little gems of knowledge you unearth in unexpected places, one such here being Kelly's telling of a little of the story of the company that effectively created the Tour de France's caravanne publicitaire:
"At Noisiel we stopped to admire the glorious old building that was once the seat of a great chocolate dynasty. The Menier chocolate empire started life as a pharmaceutical company who used cocoa powder as a medicine and a coating for pills. In the mid-nineteenth century they discovered a technique for making bars of solid chocolate. These became so popular that the pharmaceutical side was closed down to concentrate entirely on producing chocolate bars, and Menier became a French household name. Two World Wars and growing foreign competition killed it in the end, and the company was sold off, finally finding its way into the clutches of Nestlé at the end of the 20th century. Much as we may not agree with many of Nestlé's practices, we did applaud them for preserving as their French headquarters this delicious confection of industrial architecture, a great chocolate box of ornate, polychrome ceramic bricks."
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Overall The Valley of Heaven and Hell finds an elegant balance between the author's own cycling journey and the history of the lands Kelly and her husband ride through. Yes, the cycling holiday part does get a little whiney and melodramatic at times but, after a rocky start, it soon settles down into a story in which you might even believe the author actually enjoyed her holiday (which is not often the case with these cycling holiday books). The little bites of history, though, are what I would recommend The Valley of Heaven and Hell for, particularly Kelly's stories about Marie Antoinette and her court, along with Kelly's stories about the Great War. Who knows, they might whet your appetite and encourage you to dig deeper into one of them for yourself.