We wandered into the attractive Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, one of two ancient squares in the old medieval heart of Chalon-sur-Saone, just as a small but vocal anti-vaccination, anti-face mask protest was gathered in front of the Hôtel de Ville. The, presumably vaccinated, citizens of Chalon seated at the many cafes and bars on the square studiously ignored the march as it passed by on its way to create traffic chaos around town.
It had been a long drive from Brussels and we just wanted to have lunch washed down with a glass of something delicious from a nearby Burgundian vineyard. This ruckus was not part of the plan but, while I may not agree with the marchers, I have to give them points for wordplay. At the front of the march was a banner that read ‘COVID 1984’. The conjuring of Big Brother made me smile.
We spent the rest of the day trying to be where the protest wasn’t, which amidst the narrow medieval street plan of the old town wasn’t too difficult. Next to the Hôtel de Ville sits the massive Church of Saint-Pierre, famed as the birthplace of a Catholic religious order, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny. Anne Marie Javouhey, the founder, was blessed by the Pope in this church in 1807, her ‘mission’ was later approved by Napoleon.
We made our way along pedestrianised streets to the Place Saint-Vincent. This medieval square lined with half-timbered houses is overshadowed by Saint Vincent’s Cathedral, a building dating back to the 8th century with a 19th century neo-Gothic facade. The square was full of people eating and drinking, we pulled up a chair and joined them just as a wedding party rolled into the cathedral.
After a long lunch under a warm late September sun, we walked along the banks of the River Saone. We didn’t quite make it as far as the point where the Canal du Centre meets the Saone just north of the town, and which connects the Rivers Saone and Loire together. We did though venture across the Saint-Laurent bridge to the island that sits in the middle of the river.
From the town side of the river, the island looks like it has interesting old buildings. On closer inspection, these were pretty disappointing. A medieval red brick tower on the waterside was closed to the public and the Ancien hôpital de Chalon-sur-Saône was abandoned. We walked around the island and down a street full of restaurants back to town.
Meandering through the pedestrianised streets of the historic centre doing some window shopping was a pleasure. Although, it didn’t take long. It may be a charming and historic place, but you could not accuse Chalon of being big. We made it back to our hotel just in time to miss a torrential downpour. The rain didn’t stop until the next day.
Chalon was a break on our journey to Provence. We were keen to get to Avignon, first though we made our way to the Musée Nicéphore Niépce. Home to 6,000 cameras and optical objects, as well as over 3 million images, the museum tells the fascinating story of serial failed entrepreneur, Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce – the man who mastered the heliograph and created the first photograph.
Making an heliographic image is not easy, and it beggars belief how anyone would invent it. First, coat a metal plate with Bitumen of Judea that has been dissolved in lavender essence to make it photosensitive. Once dried, place it in a camera obscura and expose it to the light for several hours. The bitumen exposed to light hardens. The soft bitumen that hasn’t been exposed to light can be dissolved to create an image.
The museum is small but fascinating. The first ever photograph taken by humanity in 1826, Le Point de vue du Gras, is of a landscape not far from Chalon. The original is in a museum in Texas, but a reproduction is on display. Nicéphore Niépce wasn’t very successful financially, and his achievements went unrecognised in his lifetime. This includes the Pyréolophore, one of the world’s first combustion engines.
Seriously, he invented photography and designed an early internal combustion engine, that’s got to be worth a stopover in Chalon.