Tulle tales

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 May, 2012, 12:00am


Tulle? A frou-frou fabric beloved of ballerinas and brides, isn't it? A sort of fancy netting for ballroom dancers? Yes, but it's also a small town in the deep recesses of France, once famed for its fine-point lace, which has suddenly been thrust into the global limelight.

When Francois Hollande won the French presidential election on May 6, he was in Tulle. Standing on a stage beneath the towering walls of its medieval cathedral, captured by the cameras of the world's media, he bathed in the acclaim of thousands of joyous supporters for whom he had been an MP for more than two decades and the town's mayor from 2001 to 2008.

Everybody in Tulle knows Francois, they say, because he made a point of getting among his constituents, going to the Saturday market to buy fresh local produce, chatting in the time-honoured streets, walking the riverside as the narrow River Correze gurgled its way through town, overlooked by steep hillsides.

At La Caleche brasserie, near his office, Hollande has long been a popular regular, always sitting at the same leather banquette. Once a portly figure, partly due to local specialities such as potato pie and cherry tarts, his slimming regime was aided by forays up the steep steps leading from the cathedral square into the crooked alleys of the hillside medieval quarter.

Tulle is 'la France profonde', the archetypal France of small towns and villages nurtured by agriculture - cattle, geese and duck-rearing in the case of the Correze department, of which Tulle is the capital. Never mind that only 4 per cent of the French are farmers of any sort these days, 'deep France' still retains the far-from-the-city-and-glad-to-be feel that has always marked most of the country.

Yet Tulle, despite its splendid isolation in the western folds of the Massif Central, is much more than it seems. Its history is riddled with remarkable incidents, some of which have resonated throughout France. And the list of powerful personalities it has produced or propelled to prominence is astounding: this town provided three popes for the Avignon Papacy and has been the hothouse for two presidents of France's Fifth Republic, Jacques Chirac being the other.

More than that, in a strange paradox, this deeply rural spot, which has never had more than about 20,000 inhabitants, is famous for manufacturing three very different products: lace, armaments and accordions. How does it do it? Perhaps there's something in the water that flows down from the bleak heights of the Massif Central, a wilderness of volcanic origins.

Here the Romans built a temple to the goddess Tutela, from which comes the town's name. An abbey was founded in 1130, completed two centuries later as the cathedral of the Diocese of Tulle, which provided those popes. As the town began to prosper, rich merchants built fine sandstone houses in the cluster of streets around the cathedral, and many of these Renaissance gems still exist, many with splendid carved wooden doors, most notably the elegant Maison de Loyac and the austere Maison Lauthonie.

Many other houses with half-timbered upper floors and wooden balconies flaunt the preferred local style, built with the wealth created by the fine lace Tulle became famous for. In the 17th century, dentelle de Tulle gained favour in the royal court of Louis XIV and won the hearts of ladies such as Madame de Pompadour and Marie Antoinette, until the revolution savaged demand for such fripperies. The English then stole Tulle's lace markets by developing a mill-manufactured netting material called 'tulle' which flounced around the world, to feature in a billion weddings and waltzes.

But Tulle found consolation in another industry: arms manufacturing. Exploiting local water sources, wood and minerals, a state-owned gun factory boosted the town until the mid-20th century, commemorated today in the Museum of Arms, with its collection of flintlocks and muskets. Some of the arsenal's products were used by resistance fighters when they attacked the town's Nazi occupiers just after D-Day in 1944. The action proved premature and the Germans exacted savage retribution by hanging 99 citizens from Tulle's lamp posts and balconies, an atrocity indelibly written in the French memory.

Today, though, Tulle's biggest calling card, apart from the new president, is a musical weapon: the accordion. This is the Citadel of the Accordion, they'll tell you, and nowhere on the planet has more reason to lay claim to the title. Not one, but two museum collections of accordions are housed here.

In 1919, to feed the demand for France's most popular instrument, Maugein Freres set himself up in Tulle and became one of the great accordion names. 'We are the sole surviving accordion manufacturer in France,' says managing director Rene Lacheze. 'Many we custom make, just as the musician wants them,' he says, proud to serve a great French tradition. 'For the body, we mostly use walnut and apple tree woods, which grow all around here.'

The showroom is open to the public and visitors can see Maugein's collection of current models as well as vintage examples. Groups can arrange free factory tours. On the shelves is a kaleidoscope of instruments in gorgeous hues and outrageous glitter; the gamut of ornate decoration really has no musical rival - not even the electric guitar can match the medley of textures, forms and colours that the accordion can flaunt. Traditionally cased in sparkling mother-of-pearl, plastic is today's norm.

Once the soundtrack of France, the key instrument at every bal-musette dancehall and village fair, the accor-dion's popularity has been in decline since the 1950s, but it has lately made something of a comeback, turning up in every genre of music from rock to folk, from jazz to hip hop. The proof is here every September at the Nuits de Nacre ('pearly nights') festival, to which any kind of band gets invited as long as it includes an accordionist.

For four days and nights, the town's bars, cafes, streets and squares swing to accordion music, as musicians from all over the world strut their squeezebox stuff in myriad genres: cajun from Louisiana, fast-paced forro from Brazil, folk music from Russia and musette music from just about anywhere else, it's all here in one great party, access to which is free, except for a few top-billing events.

A regular at the Pearly Nights is the Manaswing quartet from northern France, with feisty Sonia Rekis on accordion, belting out a highly danceable melange of musette and gypsy jazz known as 'swing manouche'.

'This is the most beautiful and biggest accordion festival in France, so I keep coming back,' Rekis enthused last year, playing in the little tree-shaded Place des Freres Maugein, which honours the local accordion makers.

And she'll be back again in September (this year's festival takes place from the 13th to the 16th), as will thousands of accordion fans for whom Tulle is the holy grail.

Francois Hollande may be popular in this neck of the woods, but his stage act will never outshine the rollicking good times of the Pearly Nights.

Getting there: Air France (www.airfrance.com) flies daily from Hong Kong to Paris' Charles De Gaulle Airport. The airline flies three times daily from Paris-Orly Airport to Brive, 23 kilometres from Tulle. Trains for Tulle run from Paris Gare d'Austerlitz, with a change at Uzerche or Brive.