Chalon-sur-Saone, the birthplace of photography

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.

Chalon-sur-Saone, France
Saint-Laurent Island, Chalon-sur-Saone, France
Saint Vincent’s Cathedral, Chalon-sur-Saone, France
Egyptologist, François Joseph Chabas, Chalon-sur-Saone, France
Saint-Laurent bridge, Chalon-sur-Saone, France
Saint Vincent’s Cathedral, Chalon-sur-Saone, France

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.

Nicéphore Niépce Museum, Chalon-sur-Saone, France
Nicéphore Niépce Museum, Chalon-sur-Saone, France
Statue of Nicéphore Niépce, Chalon-sur-Saone, France
Nicéphore Niépce Museum, Chalon-sur-Saone, France
Nicéphore Niépce Museum, Chalon-sur-Saone, France
Nicéphore Niépce Museum, Chalon-sur-Saone, France

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.

7 thoughts on “Chalon-sur-Saone, the birthplace of photography

  1. Châlon now? You seem to be avoiding Paris… 🤣
    It was a nice town I might have passed by once or twice.
    The Niepce museum must be a treat.
    All well I hope?

    1. I promise Brian, I’ll be going to Paris as soon as the weather/pandemic improve. Paris has a similar climate to Brussels it seems to me, and while we were in the sun in Chalon and Provence, it was pouring down in Brussels and Paris … and we really needed to see the sun.

      1. Sun is fine. What can I tell you? That’s one of the main reasons I went “South”. And yes, Paris and Brussels are on the same rain wave. Best times to go are in the Spring. April can be a bit chilly still, but May is splendid. All well?

  2. The Musée Nicéphore Niépce certainly sounds like my kind of museum, another reason for a return visit to Chalon-sur-Saône. (I went through there twice on bicycle trips in 1963, but don’t remember very much about it.)
    Do you know the Villa Lumière in Lyon? It’s where the motion picture was developed. https://operasandcycling.com/villa-lumiere-in-lyon/

    1. It must have been fantastic cycling the French countryside in 1963! Alas, Lyon is still on my list of places to visit. We almost stopped on this trip, but decided it deserved a few days. The Villa Lumière is just another reason.

  3. We did once stop in Chalon on the way back from Monaco back in the early 1990s. It was May, so not especially hot, but warm enough that we wanted to have one last lunch outside. We proceeded to baffle the waitress at the restaurant we picked by ordering one of each of three starters, and one of each of three mains, and eating a third each before swapping plates… We did not, sadly, have time to look around afterwards because we had a ferry to catch. Looks like we missed out on quite a lot.

    1. It’s the sort of town that flies under the radar but has plenty to recommend it for a day or two. I was glad we stopped over, if for no other reason than the Nicéphore Niépce museum. I knew nothing of that history until then.

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