Visiting Saint-Amand-les-Eaux, France: with its long heritage of craftsmanship
Border subtleties, too
The French town of Saint-Amand-les-Eaux, in the Nord department, is known in different ways for traditions of fine craftsmanship.
Its architectural heritage demonstrates the painstaking work of 17th century stonemasons in creating remarkably ornate buildings. These include the Abbey Tower (la tour Abbatiale ); much of the former Abbey was destroyed at the French Revolution, but this tower has survived. When I visited the town, the sheer elaborateness of this tower's crafting was striking.
Other notable buildings in Saint-Amand-les-Eaux include an old windmill, and the old Courthouse, a former priory, called l'Echevinage .
Also, the town is known for its past ceramic industry. This industry was given an impetus by Pierre Joseph Fauquez , from Tournai (distance: 19 kilometres) in what is now Belgium. After restrictions on the movement of ceramics took effect in 1713 following the Treaty of Utrecht, some clandestine trade in ceramics took place, but in any case it became worthwhile for Fauquez to manufacture ceramics on the French side of the border, instead. (Does this sound familiar to Canadians, with their history of Reciprocity debates and cross-border inward investment?)
Thus it has come about that the tower of the Abbey Church (itself a work of ornate art) houses a ceramic and religious art museum.
The '-les-Eaux' part of the name
For centuries local springwater has been highly regarded and thermal baths still bring visitors to the town. The 17th century writer Jean Racine was on record as speaking highly of the waters.
Thus, these thermal baths are regarded as important enough to merit a reference in the name of the town.
The town used to be called Saint-Amand -en-Pévèle ; thus, with a reference to the surrounding Pévèle area.
The inclusion in the town's name of the phrase '-en-Pévèle ' distinguished it from a number of other localities, both in France and Belgium, which are also called Saint-Amand.
...and some words about Louise de Bettignies
From time immemorial in the history of warfare and statecraft, generals of armies in the field have wanted to know what was beyond the brow of the hill. With Belgium, the so-called 'cock-pit' of Europe a short distance from the border town of Saint-Amand-les-Eaux, opportunities for people with local knowledge to be useful to one or other opposing army would inevitably arise. Whether the topography is undulating or flat, can make all the difference between the definition of an army scout on the edge of the battle line, or a spy beyond those lines. So it came about that a young, multilingual woman from Saint-Amand-les-Eaux, Louise de Bettignies (1880-1918), made herself extremely useful to the British army after the German invasion of Belgium and northern France in World War One. Through a large network of informers, she is believed to have saved about one thousand lives, by reporting on German troop movements. She is celebrated by local French people today as a heroine.
But the circumstances of her arrest and possible betrayal remain to this day somewhat obscure. The problem arises not so much when local topographies prove tricky, but rather when the strategic nature of the conflict becomes global. In the case of Louise de Bettignies , it is regularly claimed that the strategic political aim of bringing the United States into the war made her value as a spy secondary to this strategic aim. Many French people believe that she was betrayed by her British handlers in order to give a double agent behind the German lines a semblance of credibility and feigned success, while seeking to deceive the German high command that they were not in possession of the cipher with which the crucial Zimmermann telegram, which decisively brought the United States into WW1. Be this as it may, the people of Saint-Amand-les-Eaux honour with a memorial their daughter Louise de Bettignies , who died in captivity in 1918. But the presence of 'bad blood' in the footfalls of historical memory, which interpretations of such incidents reveal, should come as no surprise to North American observers of relations between British and French war allies, as between those with islander and borderlander psychologies. This, despite whatever still classified records may one day reveal about the lamented Louise de Bettignies and her work in nearby Belgium and, with the wider horizon, about alleged, perennial British failures to empathize with the local toposemantics of transition.
Also worth seeing
Valenciennes (distance: 16 kilometres) has a city hall with a striking façade and a well-appointed Fine Arts museum (musée des Beaux-Arts ).
Tournai , Belgium (distance: 19 kilometres), has a large cathedral with magnificent 12th century towers, and much other church architecture of note.
Antoing , Belgium (distance: 17 kilometres) is situated on the Scheldt River (Escaut ) and possesses a fine castle, belonging to the de Ligne Princes.
How to get there: United Airlines flies from New York Newark to Paris (Aéroport Paris-Charles de Gaulle ), from where car rental is available (distance from Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport to Saint-Amand-les-Eaux: 209 kilometres). Brussels Airlines flies from New York to Brussels Airport (Brussel Nationaal / Bruxelles-National ), from where car rental is available. Brussels is the nearest large airport to Saint-Amand-les-Eaux (distance: 120 kilometres). Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.
MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada
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