Behind the blue door: adopting a detour state of mind #2
There’s something about the colour blue which grabs our attention. Whether it’s a bright blue window frame on a stone cottage, a pot of pale blue geraniums on a summer’s day, a glimpse of azure sky behind the grey, or the dappled turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, blue is the colour we most aspire to.
And so, as I rambled through the countryside one Sunday afternoon, taking a detour off the busy route nationale, the soaring voice of Edith Piaf on the car radio, it caught my eye – a crumbling stone tower and an intriguing blue door.
Did you know that the colour blue is most often associated with the Virgin Mary?
Traders brought precious lapis-lazuli stones to Europe in the middle ages which were used in artworks only for the most venerated, for kings, queens, and the mother of God. That and the fact that blue dye was notoriously difficult to come by. Over time, if something was blue, it was seen to be protected by Notre-Dame, Our Lady, herself.
But back to the blue door… and detours
I was in the rustic village of Prunay-en-Yvelines, whose name derives from Prunetum, land of plums. Unfortunately, there were no plum trees to be found. The scratched, painted pastel blue door was set into thick stone walls that date back one thousand years. Behind it, belying its religious roots, Benedictine monks built an abbey, ploughed the land, and grew grapevines along the nearby river; known as La Vigne aux Moines.
There’s nothing left of the abbey or the medieval vines, but you can take a peaceful walk in the Bois des Moines in the nearby forest. In the sixteenth century the villagers gave themselves to a new bell for the church:
Je fus fondue par les habitants de la paroisse de Prunay et fus nommée Pierre.
Who was Pierre, and why did his name grace the new bronze bell? This was a mystery but in fact, nothing to do with my blue door.
The tower itself, square but with rounded corners, is called by locals the Tour Sarrasine, or Saracen Tower. They are optimistic, though, as attacks from the sea by marauding Saracens was not something the village ever had to worry about.
Most people now believe the tower and walls were geographical markers, setting clearly the boundaries between villages. They sit low in a valley, and therefore no use as a lookout for invaders.
But I couldn’t shake the feeling there was more. That blue door with its faded paint, picturesque, yet incongruously modern at the same time. What secret was it hiding?
After some searching (who doesn’t love a good google), I had it.
War and massacre
In 1870, the French had attacked the Prussians, who soundly defeated them in a very short amount of time. Tenaciously, the French refused to stop fighting. Recruits from all over the centre of France banded together as the Armée de la Loire and continued to resist – so the Prussians pushed further into France. The Germans arrived in the area of Prunay-en-Yvelines, only 60 kilometres southwest of Paris, as did a team of francs-tireurs, or French snipers. Early in the morning of 9 October, as the Prussians snored in the gentle morning, the snipers attacked, killing several, wounding many, and capturing even more.
Unluckily for the brave Frenchmen, word rapidly reached the ears of the approaching Prussian army and they retaliated brutally. The nearby town of Ablis was burnt to the ground, and many men were shot or taken hostage. The angry Germans continued their quest, beating a path to the village of Prunay, and along the road where stands the Tower and blue door, five more men were shot and killed.
It was altogether one of the saddest days in the story of the village.
History is messy, violent, confusing. It’s not all glitz and glamour, not every story here starts and finishes with Louis XIV and his golden palace of Versailles. Nor can we gain a true understanding of history in places like the Louvre, in the sedate world of museums where we wander aimlessly and glance at artworks and artifacts behind glass walls.
Local histories, these are the important moments in history.
Often forgotten, they live in obscure books,
on a dusty plaque on a church wall,
or only in someone’s memory.
There was nothing to draw me to this site,
not even a memorial to indicate the place
where the blood of the fallen men flowed onto the road.
It was merely a split-second decision,
on a warm afternoon as the autumn leaves had begun to fall,
to make a detour off the main road,
that led me to this tragedy.
The village of Prunay-en-Yvelines is dedicated to Saint-Pierre (the mystery of the church bell is now solved), though the neighbouring hamlet of Craches has its own church of Notre-Dame. Perhaps it’s silly to imagine there’s any religious significance behind the blue door, it may have been the only paint to hand 20 years ago. But I like to imagine there’s more to it than what we can see.
The next time you travel, take a detour and find your own blue door to the past.
Do you ever peek behind hidden doors? In which places in France have you discovered secrets of history?
All images copyright Melissa Brandon—the author
Prunay-en-Yvelines is a commune in the Yvelines department in the Île-de-France in north-central France
Adopting a detour state of mind is a mini-series
Here you can read the other articles
#1—Napoleon in Bordeaux
#2—Behind the blue door (this one)