With A Gourmet Gazette Slide Show at the End of the Article
Meaux, Paris — This is a journey through the history of France and beyond as seen from the small city of Meaux just a 30 minute train ride east of Paris but worlds away and a cradle of the art and history of France. Here for 40 years now, the people of Meaux have put their hearts and souls into a spectacular sound and light show held inside the vast courtyard of the city’s Gothic Saint-Etienne Cathedral. This year’s show is entitled Folles Epoques ! in reference to the Roaring 20s and the Jazz Age which resounded throughout the world after World War I, and to all of the roaring ages that Meaux has experienced in the past two millennia. Two thousand years of local, regional and world history within the context of Meaux unfolds in the shadow of the cathedral. For here the Vikings invaded, for here the famous Brie cheese of Meaux has been made since the time of Charlemagne, Meaux was a crossroads of the Middle Ages, a great market town and still a leading center of grain production, and here, too, in this region some of the most famous battles of World War I raged.
The 75-minute show brings 500 local residents, known as Meldois in honor of the Meldi the ancient Gaulish tribe that lived in the region, into the spotlight who volunteer their time with gusto and plenty of hard work and go through between three to six costume changes throughout the evening. Even the town’s children get into the act and for some families three generations have sung, danced, or acted in the show which also features state-of-the-art special effects and lighting and riders on horseback. There are some 900 projectors, 300 light displays, 2,500 costumes —they change costumes in the cathedral — made also by the local people, and myriad props and sets all worthy of a block buster production.
Valérie Pauly, known to all in the show as Valou, has been part of the show since its inception back in 1982 when she first participated with her parents and in turn her own son joined the show when he was three. She takes care of the wardrobe for the children — aged two and a half to 12 — and helps to get them off and on-stage. But that’s not all. She has the key to the cathedral keeping a watchful eye on the comings and goings there and locking the door once the show is over. And meanwhile she does three costume changes of her own. She appears during the harvest festival scene as a jester replete with a bell hat, she is one of the villagers picking up the pieces of the statues of the cathedral that were broken by Protestants during religious strife and does a bit of the Charleston with the children in the closing scene.
« I really enjoy it, it’s a great adventure, we meet plenty of different people during each show, everyone can participate, we aren’t actors but we do the show easily without any bother, » said Mrs. Pauly, who works as an assistant to three chefs at the Hotel New York at Disneyland Paris, « We are part of the history of Meaux, we show the history of Meaux, it is a fabulous human adventure. »
« I think it is a formidable human adventure that is lasting, » said co-producer Roger Méallier, the director of the OCAM, which co-produces the show and who also does a stand-in as Henry I on the tower, « We started in 1982 to celebrate the tricentenary of the installation of Bishop Bossuet in Meaux, and it has continued. The volunteers enjoy being together again on the stage, they are in front of 900 spectators, they take an interest in this project and they are happy to be in it. » He added that they organize dinners and get togethers throughout the year to all stay in touch.
Claude, a retired teacher, is Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, the great preacher, the emblematic and powerful 17th century bishop of Meaux, who was known as the Eagle of Meaux, because like the eagle he was able to look straight into the sun, in his case meaning the Sun King Louis XIV. But Claude is also a local peasant killed by a Viking in the first part of the show and a soldier returning from the World War I front in one of the closing scenes. It is a captivating concept with the viewing grandstands sheltered by the mighty cathedral which for the eight shows doubles as a changing room for the players. It looks like a flea market as the actors and actresses file in with their thick slipcovers holding their costumes that they picked up in « wardrobe » in an outer building of the cathedral across the courtyard. The air is clearly electric while the people of Meaux get ready for the evening’s performance.
Other historical characters putting in an appearance include the good king Henry IV for it was here that one of his favorite mistresses, Gabrielle d’Estrées, lived. Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette who stayed in Meaux after they were arrested and sent back to Paris, are also on hand as is Talleyrand who brought the Brie cheese of Meaux to the Congress of Vienna which makes for one of the highly amusing segments on stage. Since its inception the show has been played out in nine different versions that have been performed for a total of 540 shows by a total of 4,300 volunteers who have put in a collective 900,000 hours of their time, explained Mr. Méallier. The show is in French but there is plenty of action, song and dance and it is visually universal with its inspiring sets and special effects and it is thrilling to watch a show in the shadow of a major Gothic cathedral.
The show is on on June 4th, 10th, 11th, 17th and July 1st, 2nd, 8th and 9th. For reservations, tickets and additional information: https://spectacle-meaux.fr/
For additional information on Meaux: http://www.tourisme-paysdemeaux.com/en
You might also be interested in: https://thegourmetgazette.com/2022/05/23/the-tragedy-of-the-trenches/
©Trish Valicenti for The Gourmet Gazette