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November 14, 2017

France: Tonnerre

Filed under: Europe, France, Photography, Travel, Travel, Writing — Tags: , , , , , , — anotherheader @ 11:59 am

Fosse Dionne

A couple of hundred kilometers to the southeast of Paris along the Canal de Bourgogne is the town of Tonnerre. The French word “tonnerre” translates as “thunder” in English, though rumblings from the sky do not appear to be the inspiration for the commune’s name. In truth the name alone might well have prompted us to visit. We have a low bar for such things. But there is more to recommend Tonnerre than its name. The commune has two star attractions, Fosse Dionne and the Hotel-Dieu de Tonnerre. Curious name or not, it is a worthy stop for those traveling in the area by boat, car, train, or bike.

In French-speaking countries an hôtel-Dieu or “hostel of God” refers to hospital for the poor and needy, run by the Catholic Church. These weren’t hospitals in the modern sense. Many patients did not check in to an hôtel-Dieu and expect to leave. An hôtel-Dieu was often about providing comfort and support to the sick and dying. They were hospices that prepared the souls of the sick for the afterlife. A visit to a historic hôtel-Dieu is a reminder of the suffering and pain of death and illness in the Middle Ages.

Narrow streets in Tonnerre

Some facts: According to Wikipedia, Tonnerre’s hôtel-Dieu is the longest medieval hospital in Europe. Though we did not pull out the tape measure and verify the record, we can confirm that the inside is indeed cavernous. Wikipedia also notes that the Hôtel-Dieu de Tonnerre is amongst the oldest hôtel-Dieu in Europe. It was founded in the late 13th Century. That being said, in Europe old is relative. The Hôtel-Dieu de Paris was founded in 651, over 600 years before the hôtel-Dieu in Tonnerre. As a comparison, Columbus sailed the ocean blue a mere 524 years ago.

Fosse Dionne is a secular and more unusual attraction. The ancient wellspring at the base of a hill in Tonnerre has provided water to humans for millenniums. It became the logical focal point around which a settlement formed. In Roman times the area was developed utilizing the spring as a source of clean water. This settlement ultimately became the commune of Tonnerre. .

Hotel-Dieu de Tonnerre

In 1758 Fosse Dionne was transformed into a lavoir, the form that can be seen by visitors today. A lavoir or washhouse is a place for the cleaning of clothes. Lavoirs are a common sight in this area of Burgundy. Many local communities have preserved and maintained their lavoirs, which typically date from the 18th and 19th Centuries. Along with being a place to wash clothes, lavoirs also played an important role as centers for the social life of the townswomen. As the clothes were being cleaned important news and gossip were exchanged.

What makes Fosse Dionne special is the amount of water that the spring produces. Over a 20-year observation period, the flow was found to vary from a peak average of 619 liters per second in January to a minimum of 87 liters per second in August. When we visited in July of 2016 the flow was likely near the lower end of the range. Still, 87 liters/sec converts to nearly two million gallons of water a day. It’s a lot of water. The volume of the flow undoubtedly contributes to the pool’s deep blue green color.

The covered arcade protected women while they did the washing.


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