"" Writer's Wanderings: November 2009

Monday, November 30, 2009

France - The French RIviera

The French Riviera, the area along the Mediterranean Sea, has always been romanticized as the place to be in Europe. While Nice is nice (taxi drivers groan when you say that) it wasn’t the kind of beach I would have chosen to spend time on. It was pebbled! Perhaps in season, the bathers bring air mattresses? The beach at Cannes was sandy however, and I believe the beaches around St. Tropez may have been as well but our side trip there left little time to explore any beaches in the rain.

Nice is a bustling city with a huge boardwalk that extends from the city harbor a far as you can see to the other end of town. I imagine during the summer it is packed with people. While the temperatures were only in the lower 50s F, there were still a couple of swimmers who seemed immune to the chilled winds when they toweled off after their swim.

Lots of restaurants and a couple of casinos line the waterfront as well as large old hotels and condominiums. The section of Old Town we explored had a large pedestrian area lined with outdoor cafes and restaurants that seemed to specialize in seafood. So many dishes to try—so little time.

On our side trip to St. Tropez (made famous by Bridget Bardot) we wandered through the old town area and then up to a fortress. It was an interesting medieval structure with a dry moat and all. The best part was the view looking down on St. Tropez and out at the sea. The drive to St. Tropez and back to Nice took us through some beautiful coastal area. Perhaps that is the Riviera everyone is so in love with.

Of course Cannes is famous for the yearly film festival and our mini bus stopped long enough there for us to wander down to the place where it happens and take a picture. On the return we stopped in a McDonald’s and took advantage of the free WiFi then paused to watch the groups gathered in the sandy area of the central park as they played boules, a French version of bocce ball played with metal balls. We never did figure out the rules.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

France - Avignon

Avignon was our last stop on the Rhone River. We moored near the medieval bridge called Pont Benezet, said to be built by Saint Benezet who was a local shepherd boy commanded by angels to build a bridge across the river. The bridge suffered much damage over the years from flooding and age and now is only a tourist attraction.

The old town of Avignon is walled and quite impressive although it is said that the wall was really not much of a fortification. Inside the wall however was another discovery that added to my history lessons of the trip—the Papal Palace. There were actually seven popes that reigned from Avignon before Rome and the Vatican became the center of the Catholic Church.

The palace was huge. We wandered through the courtyard and looked up at the window from which the pope would address the crowd. The courtyard was much smaller than the piazza that today holds 500,000 or more in Rome where crowds gather to be blessed by the pope.

Some of the rooms still have the original frescos that graced the palace. One was in a little chapel where I snapped a picture without flash, thinking that was okay but found out later that all pictures of frescos were prohibited. Ooops. Still there are always those who take pictures even with a flash. (The flash of the cameras add to the deterioration of artwork from light). While I suspect the chapel frescos had been restored, there were frescos in the papal chamber or study that were original to the 14th century.

This era of papal rule was a time when there was much controversy, whispers of corruption, feuding cardinals and mistresses. Truly a place where you wish the walls could “talk” and let you in on all the stories. In the large dining hall, I imagined the gathering of cardinals as they strove to elect a new pope. It was cold. The few fireplaces in the room would not have been sufficient should the gathering be in the winter.

In later years, the palace was used as a place for troops and some of the cavernous rooms were actually divided into three floors. You can still see some of the remnants of the supports they used for the flooring. It is amazing that so much of this place survived all the changes.

The kitchen just off the dining hall was literally an enormous fire pit. A fire was built in the middle of the room for roasting the meal and the smoke rose through a chimney that rose a hundred feet or more above our heads. It had to be one hot smokin’ place to cook!

After fully exploring the palace, we walked around old town a bit. Some of the other places of interest included the opera and a covered market that was a large building with a façade of live plants. Inside were booths with all sorts of fish, cheese, wine, candies and pastries.

Strolling back to the Viking Burgundy, I smelled a wood fire mixed with the sweet scent of roasted chestnuts. This second chance at sampling the wonderful treat was not going to pass me by. We stopped and since Bob doesn’t care for them, I got to enjoy the whole bag!

Friday, November 27, 2009

France - Arles

Arles is a town full of Van Gogh and ancient Rome. There are little brass markers embedded in the sidewalks that show places where Van Gogh painted. And around every corner it seems there is some remnant of the days of the Roman Empire from Romam columns embedded in the facade of a building to a full blown amphitheater that is still in use today.

On our walk we passed by a café frequented by Van Gogh and immortalized in one of his paintings. Often at a significant VG spot, there was a sign showing the painting he did from the angle he must have sat as he viewed and painted.

One of the more famous places in the town was the hospital where Van Gogh was admitted after the famous ear-cutting which, by the way, did not take off his ear entirely as most of the stories tell. It was another symptom of his mental illness diagnosed as several different things including depression, bipolar disorder, and not the least, too much absinthe. After his stay here, he committed himself to the mental hospital in St. Remy and later, when he was released from there returned to Paris where his depression deepened and he shot himself at age 37, dying relatively unknown.

The ruins of the Roman Empire were impressive, especially the amphitheater which is still in use today for a type of bull fighting that is done in France. In the Carmague bull fight, the bulls have a red cockade that hangs on a string stretched between their horns. Each horn also has a white tassel. The razetours clad in white try to remove these prizes from the bulls. No bulls are killed and they are returned to the fields to fight again another day.

The amphitheater is being restored and cleaned but not so for the theater that lies mostly in ruin nearby. But isn’t that the way it is in most places? Sports always seem to take priority over the arts.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

France - Vienne

A short two hour trip down the Rhone from Lyon, the Viking Burgundy stopped in Vienne for the afternoon. While not a little village it was much smaller than Lyon. Unfortunately we had the same guide as in Lyon—too much non-essential information given too fast to assimilate and no waiting for the last person off the bus. (Note: Good tour guides create an atmosphere in which the emphasis is on the sites not on themselves.)

The tour took us through the older parts of town where we visited the Cathedral of St Maurice. Notice in the picture of this ornate exterior that the figures are all missing their heads. During the French Revolution, the people were so upset with the royalty and the connection of the Catholic Church to them, that they beheaded the statues as well as the reigning royal families. Unfortunately it has left many of the large church buildings with irreparable damage.

As in Lyon, there was a vantage point high above the town where we could get a panoramic view. The weather cooperated a bit more for this one. In the picture you can see how large the cathedral is in comparison to the other buildings around.

Vienne has remnants of ruins from the Roman era when Rome was great and extended its control over much of southern France. One building in the center of town resembled the Parthenon in Rome. From a spot higher up, we were able to look down on a theater as well. Who knew we would come to France and view Rome??

Monday, November 23, 2009

France - Lyon

At the point where the Saone and Rhone rivers meet lies the city of Lyon. It is France’s second largest city with 1.2 million inhabitants. High upon Fourviere Hill sits the Fourviere Basilica, a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, patron saint of Lyon.

Throughout our travels, we have been shown churches, cathedrals and basilicas. It all became quite confusing since there didn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to what the distinctive difference was. Thank goodness for Internet search engines. Here’s what I found:

In the Roman Catholic Church, a basilica is a designation for an important church building that carries special spiritual, historical and architectural significance. The designation is assigned by the Pope. And once a basilica always a basilica. The word basilica comes from the old Roman basilicas which were houses of law.

A cathedral is a church that has a bishop’s throne called a cathedra and is the center of the diocese. A church is a building where public mass is held and an oratory is more like a chapel where private mass is said.

Arriving at the top of Fourviere, we opened umbrellas and tried to imagine what a wonderful view of the city we would have if it would only stop raining. Inside the basilica was rather dark since there was no sun streaming in the impressive stained glass windows. The place was huge though. Probably one of the largest houses of worship I’ve ever been in.

Downstairs, was the crypt where hundreds of military and other significant people are buried and memorialized. The crypt was every bit as big the sanctuary above.

On our trip to the old town, we passed by several multi-storied buildings with false fronts painted on them. These are called trompe l’oeil and often depict famous people. The people are painted life-sized on the facades and through a misty rain from a distance, look real.

A walk through old town might have been better had we had a better guide and it wasn’t in a miserable light rain. The streets there are very narrow, the buildings interesting and often little courtyards that were beyond large original doors led to the entrances to old apartment buildings that were just now beginning to have their own plumbing according to our guide.

We overnighted in Lyon so we took the opportunity to eat early for a change (on the riverboat dinner was usually at 7 or 7:30). The only place we found that looked good to us and was open early was a pizzeria that also had Italian food. It seems we ate Italian food more often in France than regular French fare.

The next morning we had some time to explore in a little better weather the city center of Lyon which has a huge pedestrian area with lots of shopping. Again, the prices of things were comparable to Paris and way more than I was willing to fork our. I’m just not a shopper.

We did find a wonderful fountain and a two-storied carousel! The two-storied carousels seem to be very popular in France.

While Lyon is probably a very nice city on a good weather day, we still agreed; we enjoy the little towns much more.

Friday, November 20, 2009

France - Beaune

In the Burgundy region of France known for its wines, is the city of Beaune. Dating back to before the Roman conquest in 59-51 BC, it was the seat of the dukes of Burgundy during the 14th and 15th centuries and still has many buildings from that period. The town is surrounded by a river and a wall that protected it.

The Hotel Dieu, a charitable hospital founded by Nicolas Rolin and his wife, Guigone de Salins, is one of the main attractions. From the outside, it is very plain but once you enter the courtyard, you are struck by the magnificent colors of the roof. Most all of the decoration inside and out must be viewed by looking up. It was to inspire the very ill who of course, could only look up from their pallets or beds.

The grand hall featured 28 small beds which accommodated three patients each—regardless of sex. To fit them into the beds, two were laid in one direction and one in the other. Pity the poor person who had to smell four feet. But these patients were the very ill and many did not survive. And for many, it was the first time they had ever laid in a bed. Further on just off the courtyard was another room, smaller, but for the wealthier patients who did not have to share a bed.

At the end of the grand hall is a chapel. All of the beds faced the chapel so the patients could contemplate their possible demise (wonder how the one laying in the opposite direction could). The beams above their heads appear to be the demons of hell spewing out the beams that support the ceiling—a reminder of where you would go if you did not repent.

The tiles in the middle of the grand hall were specially designed to reflect the great love between Nicholas and Guigone. Their initials are intertwined by a vine of oak around which is the word “Seule” and a star. Our guide told us that Nicholas would tell Guigone that she was the lone star in his life. When he died, she continued the work on the chapel but in the chapel, the tapestries on the wall have the word “Seulle” and a star signifying that she was now a lonely star.

The hospital was a model for its time where the patients were cared for by the Sisters of the Hospices de Beaune. A pharmacy was on site as well as a large kitchen for preparing meals. All of this was embellished with beautiful tapestries and works of art, one of which was originally in the chapel but now has its own room to preserve it. It is the Last Judgement by Flemish artist Roger Van der Weyden. The backside of the panels that closed over the main painting featured the Rolins in meditative prayer.
Later, as we explored the town on our own a bit, we came across this candy store that featured what I first thought was meringue. They called it nougat and it came in all sorts of flavors, was a bit chewy but oh, so good!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

France - Chalon sur Saone

After spending two nights in Paris at the end of our cruise down the Seine, we boarded a train for Chalon sur Saone where we were to board the Viking Burgundy for our trip down the Saone and Rhone rivers. Actually the train went to Lyon and there we switched to a smaller train that went on to Chalon.
The first train ride was exhilerating. Bob has an app on his phone that is a speedometer and we were able to estimate the speed of the train at about 160 mph. You didn't really notice it until trees and brush close to the track passed by in a blur.
Arriving in Chalon about 11 in the morning, we walked the short distance to the riverboat dragging our suitcases behind us. (It pays to pack light!) The rooms were not scheduled to be ready until 3 p.m. but we were able to check our luggage and head off to find a restaurant for lunch.
Just up the river from the boat was a bridge that led to an island where the hospital is located. Just next to it is a street filled with restaurants. However many were not open. We finally settled on one, La Normandie, and were seated in the tiny establishment. It didn't take long to realize there was either no English spoken or they were reluctant to try. The menus had no English subtitles as we'd found in many other restaurants. But Italian dishes are the same in any language and we settled on spaghetti.
There was definitely a disadvantage to not knowing much French this day. As we watched others get their meals, we discovered that their specialty was mussels in several different broths apparantly and not just a measly dozen as we'd see in the State. Oh no, these were large bowls heaped with 6 or 7 dozen mussels and accompanied by a plate of French fries. Our spaghetti dishes were wonderful but it left me craving mussels--a craving satisfied when we found a similar restaurant offering in Nice.
The central square in Chalon was alive with a farmers' market when we first arrived. Stalls of cheese, fresh vegetables and fruits, sausage, and of course breads were abundant.
To our surprise, the city boasts of a famous son, Joseph Nicephore Niepce, who they say invented photography. He succeeded in obtaining a negative image in 1816 and then went on to get a positive one in 1822.
Since we overnighted in Chalon, we had time the next day to explore a bit more and found a beautiful garden to stroll through while enjoying what would be some of the precious few hours of sun and good weather we would have for the next week.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

France - Tain l'Hermitage

Our stop in Touron found us deep in the wine country of Burgundy in southern France. While the weather may not cooperate fully in late fall, this time of the year the countryside is painted with vibrant colors of red, yellow, orange and brown mostly from the vast acres of vineyards.

Across the river from Touron is the town of Tain L’Hermitage where we spent our morning. It was quite a tour beginning with a trip to one of the wine producers in the area. The vineyards in this area sit mostly on the hills facing south and large signs exclaim the name of the owners. Wine is known by the name of the grower here not by the type of wine it is.

We were led through the area where the grapes are pressed and then stored in large fiberglass vats and in oak barrels. This was a family operation that dated back several generations. The wine aficionados in the group tossed questions out about the aging, the best years, etc. and our host graciously answered all of them. We moved into another room that was set up for wine tasting and, of course, the opportunity for purchase. The best part was the wonderful orange-flavored bread that was passed around between tastes.

From the winery we traveled back into town to a private residence that has been turned into an art gallery. The name of the artist was Pierre Paule (1920-2005). The house was purchased by his daughter who inherited a good portion of his work but, as it was my understanding, there is some restriction on her being able to sell it. So she has this wonderful old house that she has opened up into a gallery featuring her father’s work as well as some of his students (whose paintings are for sale).

The house had small rooms that we wandered through. The main room where Paule’s paintings were displayed had a huge fireplace that his daughter and our tour guide actually stood in. A winding staircase took you upstairs to several other rooms full of paintings.

Since moving in, Mary, his daughter, has found that there is a secret passageway at one end of the fireplace. She hopes to explore it further and plans to have a construction crew open it up. Sounds like the beginning of a novel plot, doesn’t it? Hmmm.

While the artwork was wonderful and exploring the old house exciting, the best was last—the chocolate store! A huge Valrhona store was in town and we were privileged to be able to wander through the store sampling all of the chocolates starting with a little sample of hot chocolate which was like drinking melted dark chocolate. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take pictures inside so I’m afraid you will just have to imagine a bit more sophisticated version of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Besides, I’d be afraid of causing you to drool on your computer screen.
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