Vive la Contre-Revolution!
By ALICE FURLAUD;
ALICE FURLAUD, a writer and broadcaster who lives in Paris, is the author of ''Air Fair,'' a collection of radio dispatches to be published this fall by Peregrine Smith Books of Utah.
"MY grandmother was guillotined," is the startling statement often heard in the Department of the Vendee. This Vendean habit of leaving out the greats when speaking of murdered ancestors brings the dark side of the French Revolution constantly into the present. The Vendee, where a savage popular rebellion against the revolution resulted in the massacre of roughly half the population by the armies of the revolutionary government, is just the place for those who want to escape the brouhaha of the bicentennial celebrations elsewhere in France. Most people in the Vendee see no reason to celebrate.
The deputy from the Vendee, the highly visible French politician Philippe de Villiers, has just published a book called ''An Open Letter to the Beheaders and Liars of the Bicentennial,'' in which he accuses the government of hiding the ugly episodes in the revolution, especially those in the Vendee.
In St.-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, an Atlantic fishing port and summer resort, there is not a sign of the revolutionary colors blue, white and red in the waterfront shops; a contrast to Paris, where a wide range of blue, white and red souvenirs - including mens' striped shorts labeled Drawers for Sans-Culottes - are on sale at specially built tricolor kiosks all over the city.
''I'll be staying indoors on July 14th,'' said Marcelle Bridier, who retired to her native St.-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie after a long teaching career at colleges in Vietnam and Cambodia. Musing sadly on the Vendean Wars of the 1790's at a windy beachside creperie, Ms. Bridier said: ''The Declaration of Human Rights was a fine ideal. But in the bicentennial festivities no one mentions the massacres here. They were comparable to the genocides of Pol Pot.''
The Vendee is a 2,700-square-mile area south of the Loire, a proudly untouristy region of small roads, small towns, small farms and small nobility - petite noblesse. In pre-revolutionary days most of these nobles lived on their land all year round, being too poor to spend time at court in Versailles. ''They depended on the harvests, just like the peasants,'' said Count Joseph Morisson de la Bassetiere, who raises Holstein cattle and cereals around his pseudo-Renaissance-19th century chateau, La Bassetiere. The chateau, which replaced the 12th-century one burned down by the revolutionary, or Republican, army, stands in a flat, peaceful, pastoral landscape at St.-Julien-des-Landes, 19 miles inland from St.-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie.
Showing a visitor around, the Count spoke of the insurrection as if it were yesterday. ''My grandfather,'' he said, meaning his great-great-great-great-great grandfather, ''was one of two brothers who survived: five others were killed in the Vendean army.''
During the seven years it took the government to crush the counter-revolutionary peasant revolt, which began in 1793, at least 300,000 Vendeans died. The peasants furiously resented the persecution of their priests, and forced conscription into the Republican army. ''The peasants attacked and killed Republicans everywhere here,'' said Mr. de la Bassetiere, ''and they had no weapons except scythes and sometimes hunting guns. They knew nothing about war, so they came to the nobles or others with military experience, and they begged and insisted that they take charge.''
Those embattled peasants, in their extravagantly wide brown felt hats and sabots, are pictured everywhere in the Vendee, from church windows to comic books. So are their doomed, dashing leaders, the Vendean generals in their white royalist sashes. Their names - unknown to most French people - seem to filter into all Vendean conversations.
At a lunch party given by Viscount Alain de la Roche-St.-Andre at Pierre Levee, his chateau, a small jewel of Louis XVI architecture that survived the revolution, a tableful of Vendean aristocrats swapped anecdotes of atrocities committed by the colonnes infernales, the infernal columns of revolutionary troops. Over a lunch of langoustines, tiny, thin-shelled lobsters, lieu, a local ocean fish, and strawberries, there was talk of babies baked in ovens, and trousers (once displayed in a Nantes museum) tailored for Republican officers out of their Vendean victims' skin.
The host and his wife each had a ''grandmother'' shot to death in the same massacre in a field at Angers with a thousand others. Mr. de la Bassetiere told of an ''aunt,'' Mademoiselle de la Biliais, who with her sister looked so beautiful on the way to the guillotine that two Republican soldiers offered to marry them and save their lives. Both refused, Mademoiselle de la Biliais adding, ''I prefer to go to my God.'' A historian, Filbert Dore Graslin, brought out one of his books, with the facsimile of an order given by a Republican general: ''All villages, farms, woods, bushes and in general everything that can be burned will be given up to the flames.''
In the midst of all this Vendean bitterness, there are pockets of bicentennial fervor. One is the primary school in the village of Apremont, where the classrooms are a riot of blue-white-red. Since March, the school principal, Jean-Marie Bideaud, has had his 70 students, aged 2 to 11, dressing up in mob caps and drawing pictures of guillotines. In their school magazine one learns that Marie Antoinette had 170 dresses and that ''we owe to the revolution: wooden pencils, divorce, the franc, liberty, equality, fraternity and liquid bleach.''
At the local chateau they even danced and sang the revolutionary song ''La Carmagnole,'' with its savage verses about cutting throats and firing cannons, a ceremony that brought angry telephone calls from villagers, ''but not as many as we expected.'' Mr. Bideaud suspects that the large portrait of Robespierre the children painted on their playground wall is the only one on display in the Vendee. ''What we're celebrating is 1789, the year of human rights. I disapprove of the massacres as everyone does, but perhaps these are also necessary in a revolution.''
Sites of the carnage of the 1790's are rarely marked by sign posts. At Les-Lucs sur-Boulogne in the middle of the Vendee, the tiny 19th-century chapel replacing the church where 564 people, including 110 children under 8, were burned alive by the colonnes infernales, is almost hidden, out in the woods. Alfred Bonnet, organist of the present village church, points out at least 20 members of his wife's family, the Malidins, among the names of victims on the chapel walls. ''We didn't get much out of the revolution,'' he said.
Farther east in the village of St.-Aubin-de-Baubigne, a statue by Alexandre Falguiere of Henri de la Rochejacquelein, a beloved general who was killed at 21, stands in an out-of-the-way, leafy niche. Rochejacquelein's defiant pose and flowing sash recalls statues of American Civil War heroes. The vast courtyard of his ruined chateau, La Durbeliere, nearby, where 3,000 local people gathered to beg him to lead them to war, is a good place to imagine those dramatic days. Through the central arch there is a sweeping view of the blue hills and steep, wooded fields of the Haut Bocage (the high woodlands), where the peasants were most successful in their guerilla warfare.
Nowadays, small vans bump along the narrow, badly paved roads of the Haut Bocage with one cow staring mournfully out the back, past the remains of red-tile-roofed chateaus and little Romanesque churches with red-tiled towers. This is windy country, and in the distance can still be seen windmills that the peasants used as signals to indicate troop movements. The many wayside crosses are reminders that the Vendeans are still the most fervent Catholics in France.
In the red-roofed hill town of Pouzauges, the local patois is spoken around the cafe's antiquated pinball machine. Down steep alleys there are glimpses of the yellow and dark-green valley outside. Crows wheel and caw around the remains of the 12th-century chateau that dominates the town, and where yet another massacre took place. Only one train each weekday arrives in Pouzauges - none on weekends, and no buses. There is the sense, as everywhere in the Vendee, of a region cut off by its historic wounds from the rest of France.
This isolation seems especially strange because Pouzauges is the nearest town to the chateau of Puy-le-Fou, where on some summer weekends there is a son-et-lumiere performance that can be called, without exaggeration, the greatest show in France. This event was the creation of the deputy Philippe de Villiers, who wrote the narration, some of it in Alexandrine verse. The cast of 700, all local volunteers except for a few stunt men, oxen, goats and a bear, perform scenes from the chateau's history. At this year's opening, when Rochejacquelein, Charette and the other generals galloped wildly past the shaky grandstand that holds 12,000, the cheering nearly drowned out the cannons and fireworks. Mr. de Villiers confided, ''My dream is to transport the show to Florida.''
This may not be a bad idea. With the present state of transportation to and within the Vendee, it's easier for a Frenchman to get to the Epcot Center than Puy-le-Fou. A visitor's guide Getting There
To get to Nantes, either fly or take a train, and then rent a car there to drive to the Vendee. Nantes, now a large industrial city, is no longer in the Vendee. It suffered enormously in the revolution, and a museum of regional folk arts, the Musee d'Art Populaire Regional, is full of Vendean peasant lore. Hotels
Lion d'Or (Rue du Calvaire, 85800 St.-Gilles-Crox-de-Vie; telephone 55.50.39). A simple hotel with a simple restaurant five minutes inland from the harbor; a good place to explore the pretty old streets near the church. Double rooms $32; breakfast $4.
Les Embruns (16 Boulevard de Mer, St.-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie 85800; 55.11.40). In the Croix-de-Vie, or beach section of the town, this hotel has a brand-new chef much talked about in the region. Double rooms about $55; breakfast $3.25.
Auberge de la Bruyere (Route de la Pommeraie; 85700 Pouzauges; 91.93.46). A modern hotel with no atmosphere, but the best view in Pouzauges. The restaurant serves a delicious version of la mogette, a kind of cassoulet. Double about $45; breakfast $4.75.
La Chouannerie (Route de Bressuire, 85700 Pouzauges; 57.01.69). A turn-of-the-century mansion in a hilly garden, run by a friendly family with a taste for quaint decor. In the old barn is an excellent new restaurant. Double room about $34; breakfast $4.
La Belvedere (on the Lac du Ribou, near Cholet, about 20 miles north of Pouzauges; 62.14.02). A restaurant with rooms. A double room is about $42; breakfast $4. There are only eight rooms, so reserve early if you want to spend the night as well as try the fricassee de homard au Sauternes. Food and Wine
Vendean wines are never found in the United States, and rarely even in Paris. The Vendeans themselves do not think much of them. But Pissotte is a light and pleasant rose, and the red Mareuil, which also comes in rose and white, is used with good effect in cooking the region's excellent duck, the canard de Challans.
On the coast there is the usual dizzying variety of seafood, notably oysters, langoustines, mussels and many ocean fish. Best of all are sole meuniere and lieu. The rich and costly homard a l'americaine is a specialty in many restaurants. To be avoided: tourteaux, crabs with nearly impenetrable shells.
For breakfast, Vendeans have la brioche Vendeene, a long loaf with a braided pattern on top, served sliced. Everywhere in the inland part of the department they eat la mogette, consisting of white beans called mogettes cooked with garlic and the local ham, sliced as thin as bacon.
This dish was certainly eaten during the revolution; until recently many Vendeans had it three times a day.
In patisseries, cakes of various kinds tend to be heart-shaped: the Vandean symbol is two hearts, a cross and a crown. A. L.