Autumn trees 2 (Châtelaillon-Plage, France) and a French game (Hoche et la lutte pour l’Alsace, 1793)

plane tree from train Chatel 1018.JPG

Last weekend we went to Châtelaillon-Plage, a seaside resort in western France. The sun shone.

sunset Chatel 1018.JPG

(I looked out over the Bay of Biscay at sunset, and imagined, as I always do, Christopher Priest’s protagonists in Inverted World coming to a dead end here.)

Châtelaillon was laid out at the beginning of the 20th century. It has plane trees in abundance, in avenues. Their leaves seemed tattier, further on, than those I saw by the Liffey in Dublin last week.

plane trees Chatel 1018 2.JPG

This region is known for hollyhocks. They are a symbol of the Ile de Ré, not far away. As in Brussels the previous week, some were still in flower. Others had been cut back for the winter.

hollyhockChatel 1018 2.JPG

I didn’t see any oaks, horse chestnuts or silver birches. I saw trees that you don’t see further north. This shapely one – whatever it is – is common:

tree Chatel 1018.JPG

I looked up in four languages the names of the five species I am looking out for. I supposed that trees get named early in the evolution of their language, and that as a result, their names differ a lot. It turned out not to be so.

 English French German Russian
plane platane Platane платан (platan)
oak chêne Eiche дуб (doub)
silver birch bouleau argenté Weißbirke белая береза (belaya bereza)
horse chestnut marronier Rosskastanie конский каштан (konsky kashtan)
hollyhock (rose) trémière Malve штокроза розовая (shtokrosa rozaya)

None of these plants has a distinctive name in each one of these languages.

“Plane” is recognisably the same in each.

“Oak”, “Eiche” and “chêne” sound like they have a common root – only Russian’s “doub” sounds different.

(Last month my Travelling companion and I visited the war memorials of Ypres, in Belgium. The unmajestic German cemetary is planted with oaks.)


The word for birch begins with “b” in each of the languages. In English and French they are  “silver”; in German and Russian, more logically to my eyes, they are “white”.

The “chestnut” part of “horse chestnut” is similar in English,  German (“kastanie”) and Russian (“kashtan”). In French a horse chestnut is something different, it is a “marronier”; but a non-horse chestnut tree is a “châtaigne”, though its fruits are “marrons”

As for the “horse” part, I have tended to think that this word  in English has two senses, the second of which (horse fly, horseradish, horse latitudes) means something like “special kind of” and has nothing to do with large, long-legged, domesticated animals. But if that is so, why is the first word in “horse chestnut” in Russian (конский ) clearly related to one of that language’s words for “horse” in first sense (конь)? And why does Google Translate tell us that Ross is also a word for horse, seemingly in that sense, in German?

By contrast, the different languages’ names for hollyhocks are rather diverse. There’s still one commonality: French sees something rose-like in hollyhocks, while Russian insists on it – штокроза розовая means “rosy stockrose”.

I didn’t just look at trees in Châtelaillon, though.

I ate moules marinières, fish soup, a “méli-mélo” of frogs’ legs and langoustines, and some crumbly Cantal cheese.  (Not all in one meal).

The méli-mélo was served on a terrace with a plane tree growing out of the decking:

plane tree decking terrace Chatel 1018.JPG

My game of the weekend was “Hoche et la lutte pour l’Alsace, 1793”. Lazare Hoche was a brilliant general in his twenties (like Napoleon a year or two later). In the campaign this game depicts, his army threw Austrian and Prussian armies out of Alsace.

PH game Hoche Chatel 1018.JPG

I’ve been to the land shown on the game’s map. A few years ago I walked with our old Jack Russell, Biscuit, from Bitche, across the Vosges, where every pub was called the White Horse, across the border into Germany at Wissembourg and down, dogged by a cold, to the Rhine at Wörth.

I think the game works well.

Each turn represents a day; the game lasts from 19 November to 31 December. I got one day done last weekend: it’s going to take a while to play.

On the way back from Châtelaillon we changed trains at La Rochelle. I went for a walk in the Parc de la Gare. There was an overcast breeziness. The big, tree-shaped plane trees in the park look good; but they were not even as leafy as their pollarded (is that the right word?) siblings in Châtelaillon.

On the train back it started to rain. On Niort station platform the rain splashed up like goose pimples. Later I saw some spindly silver birch by the side of the track. I was too slow to get them in a picture.

Published by

Paul Hodson

Head of Unit "EnergyEfficiency" at European Commission, Directorate-General for Energy

2 thoughts on “Autumn trees 2 (Châtelaillon-Plage, France) and a French game (Hoche et la lutte pour l’Alsace, 1793)”

  1. So to have the complete feedback on French version:
    Marronnier is effectively the word for the tree which produces non-edible fruits which we call marrons (non-edible but so shiny and pretty! I always pick a big nice one on the first day the fall down and keep it all winter in my bag!)
    The other one is called Chataigner and that’s where the subtlety is its fruits are called “marrons” when they are sold on the streets – in winter you can hear “maaarcho” (actually “marrons chauds”) yelled by the guys who sell them – when they are sweet – as in marrons glaces or crème de marrons- but if you order a dish of meet (not you, someone else) the thing will them probably be called “châtaignes” (which is a bit more posh). Don’t ask me the rule I have no clue, because you will say un gâteau aux châtaignes but un Mont-blanc aux marrons…
    Sorry for being so complicated and making life hard to non-French!!


  2. Great blog to enjoy my daily break.

    The unidentified shapely tree is a pine, I’d bet on a stone pine, very abundant on sandy soils (though reforested) near the National Park of Doñana in Western Andalusia.

    The “platan” source is, as far as I know, greek (as 25% of our western words). Plataniás and Plátanos are very normal eponyms in Crete and come from platýs (broad or flat, notice that “flat and “plat” are almost the same word, in Spanish “plano”).
    Also, linking to the “marrons” case, “plátano” is the name given by Spaniards both to the plant and fruit of the cavendish variety of the banana that grows in Canary islands, normally sweeter and smaller than the oversea fruit coming from America or Africa. This makes the greeks laugh at Spaniards, of course.


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