Following in father’s footsteps: Vichy France

Friday 28 August: Pa and Frans had another border to cross – the demarcation line between Occupied and Vichy France, which ran along the river Cher. They went by train from Orléans, intending to cross at Vierzon, but were advised that it would be safer to do so at Méhun, a little further up the line. Over the next few days they followed a zigzag route through several small villages, walking or getting lifts.

The Demarcation Line between Occupied and Vichy France

The Demarcation Line between Occupied and Vichy France

We doubted that we would be able to reach all these places by public transport, especially at a weekend. Moreover, we could not find accommodation in the villages named, and so would have to go ‘off route’ at nights. The only solution was to hire a car, so we left the train at Vierzon (a bigger station) and drove to Méhun. There Pa was directed to a baker’s shop, whose owner was a member of the Resistance. He gave no address, but it was apparently close to the station, so we went to the nearest bakery and enquired. We were directed to the ‘old’ (no longer functioning) bakery nearby. It seemed a likely place, but we could not be sure.

The station at Mehun-sur-Yevre

The station at Mehun-sur-Yevre

Our first point of research - the local bar

Our first point of research – the local bar

The crossing into Vichy France was three miles away, at a bridge just before the village of Quincy. In 1943 there was a German soldier on duty there, but not all the time. Pa tells the story of how the baker’s daughter (aged 10-12, he thought) rode ahead on her bicycle and returned to give them the ‘all clear’ signal. We would love to meet that little girl (who must now be in her early 80s, if still alive) but without a name she was impossible to trace.

The baker's shop - possibly

The baker’s shop – possibly

We walked to Quincy (passing fields of sunflowers) and explored the village. Then we walked back, collected the car and drove through Quincy and on to Reuilly, the next village. After that we had to leave the route and find the B&B we’d booked for the night. We went into the nearest village for dinner, and saw a chateau in a public park, which was attractive by day and beautifully illuminated at night.

Walking to Quincy

Walking to Quincy

Quincy bridge - now

Quincy bridge – now

Quincy bridge - in the war

Quincy bridge – in the war

Wind turbines on the way back

Wind turbines on the way back

The chateau at St Florent

The chateau at St Florent

Illuminated windows at the chateau

Illuminated windows at the chateau

Saturday 29: We seemed to go round in circles, visiting several villages, some more than once. We were looking for two places in particular, and had one success and one failure.

We went first to the village of Massay. Pa and Frans had stayed nearby, on a farm called ‘De la Prée’ which was owned by a Swiss. The lady at the mairie in Massay had never heard of the farm, so we enquired at our alternative information office – the local bar. Two ladies there had never heard of the farm, but reasoned that (because of the name) it must be close to the village of S George sur la Prée, a few miles north. We were doubtful, but decided to try. Near S George we saw a postman, and asked if he knew the farm. He didn’t, which made us more doubtful, but we went to the mairie anyway. The lady there (Annie) thought it was an unoccupied farm, and made several phone calls to find someone who could confirm her theory. She then marked the location on our map.

While we looked at a marker board outside the mairie, Annie’s colleague came out to tell us that there was an elderly couple nearby who knew a lot more about the war period, and she took us across the road to meet them. We were invited into their house and given drinks. They confirmed the location of the farm, that it had been owned by a Swiss and used by the Resistance during the war. We found the road indicated without any trouble, but had to ask again before finding the farm itself, which was unsigned and well away from the road – ideal for a hiding place.

The farm 'De la Pree'

The farm ‘De la Pree’

Old well at the farm

Old well at the farm

The Mairie at Genouilly, where Pa and Frans were turned away

The Mairie at Genouilly, where Pa and Frans were turned away

Our total failure was finding a monastery, or seminary, called ‘Les Gaudirons’ which according to Pa was near the village of Graçay. He and Frans met three Dutch men studying there, then passed the seminary itself the next day. We had made enquiries (by Internet and by asking) before reaching Graçay, but no luck. In the village itself we had a drink in the bar, but our waitress was baffled. Perhaps thinking that it was a language failure, she asked a man sitting nearby – he was British, but had lived in the area for 20 years. He had not heard of Les Gaudirons, and neither had his wife. He consulted friends in the bar, and soon it seemed that everyone was debating where the monastery could be. But nobody had any idea.

Sculpture in Gracay

Sculpture in Gracay

The man we met in S George had told us that there was a Resistance Museum in Bourges, the nearest big town. That was our last hope, but even there we were unable to find any trace of the monastery. However, the curator was able to tell us the name of a baker in Méhun who was in the Resistance. At his suggestion, we returned to Méhun and went to the tourist information office. But even though we now had a name, we were unable to trace the little girl on the bicycle.

Issoudun, where we stayed the night

Issoudun, where we stayed the night

Sunday 30 August: We returned to Graçay to have another try at finding Les Gaudirons. We had come to the conclusion that it must have been a temporary facility, based in a building used for another purpose. There were a couple of places we thought possible, but neither entirely fitted the bill, and we had to admit defeat.

St Outrille - a possible venue for 'Les Gaudirons'?

St Outrille – a possible venue for ‘Les Gaudirons’?

The road out of Gracay to the south

The road out of Gracay to the south

The seminarians told Pa and Frans they might get help from a ‘Dutch office’ (formerly a consulate) in Montauban, a long way to the south. They planned to hitch-hike there, but some kind lorry drivers bought them tickets from the station in Chateauroux. We followed them south by train.

Changing trains at Chateauroux

Changing trains at Chateauroux

Arriving at Montauban in the evening

Arriving at Montauban in the evening

Montauban reflections

Montauban reflections

Monday 31 August: We found Montauban an attractive town, but could not trace the Dutch office. Pa and Frans found it easily, but could not get help there, so moved on to Toulouse. They went to see a M. Aarts, who worked in the ‘Banque Franco-Belge’ there, but whose unofficial ‘job’ was organising groups of Dutch escapers to cross into Spain. He told them that they would need to find somewhere in the countryside to live (and work) while he was assembling a group to cross the mountains.

Toulouse station

Toulouse station

Pa gives the exact address for M. Aarts, so we were able to find the place easily, although it is no longer a bank. Before that we visited the Museum of Resistance in Toulouse. They were unable to give information about individuals, but their exhibition was very interesting.

The door of M. Aarts' bank

The door of M. Aarts’ bank

The Resistance Museum in Toulouse

The Resistance Museum in Toulouse

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