Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “World Heritage sites”

Freeway-Free in France: Dallying in Domme

P1030157webDomme is a medieval island perched on top of a bluff, too remote from normal four-lane roads to have been changed much by the advent of the automobile.  As we trudged up the winding road, we were wishing for a donkey cart!

But when you get to Domme, it’s worth it.  It’s like a visit to Brigadoon, if Brigadoon had a three-star hotel  featuring  gourmet cuisine, 15th century ramparts on three sides , a view out over the whole of Scotland on the fourth side, and a comprehensive walking tour which included a famous author’s home,  a prison whose stone walls are covered with graffiti carved by imprisoned Knights Templar,  and a subterranean cavern where the peasants could hide in case anyone made it past the ramparts or scaled the bluff. Plus a very good ice cream shop.

P1030143doc

Above is the view from the bluff which protects the side of Domme which looks over the Dordogne River.

After doing the city walk, nothing could be better than returning to the Hotel Esplanade, which sits on the main square of Domme next to the promenade along the bluff. Not only did our room have a view to die for (see above) but the food was superb.  I don’t usually publish pictures of meals I have eaten, but I can’t resist showing you these beautifully presented dishes:

At breakfast, we found our buffet of lovely edibles presented in the sitting room above, with the early morning view of the valley just clearing from low-lying  fog. One almost did expect this fairy-tale place to vanish in a puff of vapor as the sun rose!

Freeway Free in France: Up and Down along the Dordogne

20160919_003919cropThis day was the scenic highlight of our walking – we stayed the previous night at Beynac, beneath the cliff topped by the medieval fortress which we had wandered through the afternoon before.  After our breakfast of croissants, cafe au lait, and local yogurt and strawberries, and after wrestling our luggage down three flights of narrow stairs, DM, DB, and I set out along the “grassy track” by the Dordogne River.  (W has developed a painful knee after too many ups and downs and decided to cop a ride in the van.). The path led along the river through woodsy patches – lots of bird calls, some families of ducks on the water, the occasional fisherman, the occasional egret.  We stayed mostly level through a series of acricultural meadows and fields (DM sampled the sunflower seeds, I sampled the fresh asparagus spears pushing up from the ground) and took turns pointing out the yellow sandstone castles on the successive cliffs – Beynac behind us, its hated rival Castelroud across the river on the English side.P1030117web

We continued past Montingnac and a couple of others unnamed in our guidebook, ending with Roque Gageac where we broke for lunch.  This is a point where the cliffs come almost to the water, and the oldest homes are carved into the Rock faces – “troglodytic  dwellings” per our guide.

 

P1030134web

DB stopped at a sandwich/boulangerie shop and ordered a panini with ham and cheese. I watched in horror as the young man took a perfectly lovely baguette and squished it flat in one of those icky panini presses. Yuck. We picnicked at a quiet park next to the little quay and watched the tourist boats plying the river.

Then began the up and down part which had intimidated W.  First we went up “Banana Alley” to admire the work of a gardener who had learned to grow exotic fruits and plants along the south facing sheltered cliff – very lush and lovely, then further up on narrow roads with improbable “parking privee ” signs posted on narrow ledges next to elegant and not so elegant sandstone homes, some of them evidently refurbished antique dwellings, others more modern knockoffs, but all of the same glowing yellow stone. P1030129web

We snaked up along the angles of the woodsy cliff side, mostly following an ancient stone wall held together by moss and ivy, and finally came to the top where we had our first view of Domme, perched on the top of a distant cliff on the other side of the river. Then down past more elegant farmhouses and homes, some with old ramparts and fortifications still, now on “Tarmac roads”, crossing the river on a narrow bridge with an even narrower sidewalk- only one km to go! P1030141web

But what a kilometer it was, up and up and up in almost the only full sunshine of the day, stopping at every patch of shade and every wayside bench, til we finally reached the medieval gateway with its arrow slits to use against invaders still intact.  The hiking guide led us straight up to the central square, a knockout view, and our elegant hotel right there on the edge of the bluff.  Our room has a view out over the valley, a fitting reward at the end of a day of wonders20160919_093221doc.

 

 

Freeway-free in France:Medieval Market and Marketing in Sarlat

 

Exploring the medieval village of Sarlat out-appealed  walking in the surrounding countryside,  and gave us each an opportunity to occupy our time without being one wheel of a four-wheel drive vehicle.  DM and I did shopping in the justly- famous Sarlat Saturday market, while DB walked the self-guided city tour and W did tai qi and sudoku in the park. We met for lunch at a quaint courtyard,  then DB went back to the hotel to relax while the other  three did the city tour. We all spent an hour or so doing email and post cards in the mid-afternoon and then the D’s invited us up to their roomier (set up for handicapped) suite for a pre-prandial cordial. So we are learning how to be apart as well as together –  A good travel skill. september-2016-410web

The Saturday market in Sarlat attracts vendors from all over the regions, with lots of opportunities to sampled the  key products: olives and their oil, walnuts and their oil, and (less lavishly set out for tasting) duck and goose foie gras.  The market fills several streets, the main public square, and the inside of an abandoned church whose entire back wall has been converted to a giant portal allowing free circulation of both air and people to the market stalls inside. 

 20160917_021452docHaving figured out the advantage of attracting tourists to their market on Saturday morning, the city fathers of Sarlat have lost no time in figuring out ways to keep those walking cash dispensers in town as long as possible.  On the Saturday of our stay we were tempted back onto the streets long after the market closed with an evening sound-and-light presentation called “Un Patrimoine sous les Etoiles” [A Patrimony under the Stars]  in the old city starting at 9pm.

 

 

 

W and DB begged off, but DM and I set out after dinner to find the streets and ramparts lined with votive candles , the public buildings and cathedral lit with patriotic blue, white, and red, an artist drawing calligraphy with a light torch in the public square, and a buxom artiste on a balcony reading patriotic excerpts from Sarlat’s leading literary light Etienne de La Boetie accompanied by a cello.  The ostensible theme of the evening was something to do with the responsibilities of citizenship, but the real point was to see how different and how cool the old city looked with candle-lit paths and colored light effects. 

 

Freeway-Free in France: Paleolithic Art and Mystery

20161222_175622cropThe Dordogne area of southwestern France is rife with sandstone caverns, many of which hold spectacular displays of calcite formations, and several of which hold samples of Paleolithic art, most preserved unseen for over 20,000 years because the entrances to the caves collapsed, cutting off access.

We first went to Peche-Merle, where the art and other man-made markings have been dated back to about 28,000 years.  Here one is allowed to descend into the actual cave, which has been artfully illuminated to simulate torchlight on the drawings.  The calcite formations are dramatic – curtains and columns and needles and disks and strange formations that look like children’s toys – a spinning top, a set of marbles.  All done by seepage of water through the calcite.

 Most of the drawings are linear evocations of mammoths, deer, and aurochs with one sweeping line outlining trunk, tusks, head, hump, and tail.  There is one very clear image of a cave bear scratched into a wall with some relief effect due to the bumps in the wall.  There are several partial hand prints.  There is one image of a man who appears to be pierced by spears (images of people, we learned, are very rare in Paleolithic art.). And at the end there was a spectacular image of two horses, both with small heads, black fore quarters, and black spots on the rest of the body for an Appaloosa effect, the most complete and vivid picture in the cave.  We tried to imagine how these pictures were created, by artists using pigment made from burnt clay, stamping or brushing or even blowing the colors painstakingly onto the wall.  The how of doing it is hard to imagine, the why is a complete mystery.

The next day we went to Lascaux II. Fifty years ago  my group of American students was among the last visitors to the original cave, as it was closed to the public in 1963, the year I was there.  The re-creation, however, does a much better job of recreating the sense of being in a cave, the mystery and unknowability of the purpose and practice of the artists, and the general overall experience than, say, the digital recreation of Alta Mira in Spain that  I saw two years ago (See my blog post from 2014). Again, one descends underground, into a cavern whose dimensions and irregularities are within one centimeter of the original cave.  The paintings have been recreated copying the original pigments and techniques.  And what paintings! Horses walk, trot, and gallop in a frieze, herded (maybe) or protected (maybe) or stampeded (maybe) by several gigantic bulls. There is a delicate drawing of a deer with intricate antlers alone on one wall.  There is a procession of ponies.  There are ibexes with sweeping horns.  There is one animal which seems to combine features of several others.  And many of these animals are carefully and realistically shaded and colored, unlike the outlined figures of Peche Merle.  They are beautiful.  No one knows, or can ever know, what they mean.

20161222_180230doc

Freeway Free in France: Awesome Albi

 

I had always wanted to go to Albi ever since in college I saw a poster a roommate had, which looked almost other worldly in its having no relation whatsoever to my ideas of Romanesque or Gothic cathedrals. Somehow I missed Albi when I was a student traveler, and when I saw that a small detour could take us there, all it took was to point out that Albi is also the home of the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum to convince my travel mates to make a stop.

20160912_024628docAlbi did not disappoint.  The cathedral of Ste Cecile is the largest brick building in the world.  Brick, not stone, not concrete. It rises from the central plaza in Albi at the side of the Rhone River like some kind of fantasy, all smooth curves and unbroken surfaces. Only slits for Windows.  Towers that just keep on going.  Our first glimpse had us tripping over our jaws. We walked around from the back of the church looking for the entrance, and found a welcoming Gothic/Baroque carnival of white stone at the top of marble steps leading into the brick fantasy. 20160912_030001doc

Our guidebooks told us that the original cathedral had been build with an uneasy eye to the local Albigensian sect, a group which had been declared heretic by the Pope, but was thriving in Albi.  The new bishop designed his cathedral as much as a defensible fortress as a place of worship, just in case the local heretics got rebellious.  Only a hundred years after the completion of the vertical cathedral had the welcoming entrance been added.

Once inside, our jaws dropped again. If Escher had combined with Joan Miro and Provençal fabric designers to color the interior of this building, they might have come up with something like this – a riot of pattern and geometry in bright reds, yellows, greens, and blues, ending in arched recesses painted in equally diverse designs, one a yellow sun on a blue field decked with stars, another twining with ivy, etc.  september-2016-239doc

Most cathedrals draw your eye to the front with a representation of Jesus triumphant at the right hand of God with Mary beaming proudly and all the apostles lined up.
  How sissified.  Ste Cecilia devotes the entire wall to a representation of the Last Judgement, with the apostles, yes, lined up, and then maybe 1/5th of the available space devoted to the saved, in order of rank, with the clergy first, Archbishops and bishops leading, followed by virtuous royalty, and then by the hoi polloi, many of whom have the list of their good and bad deeds hanging in book form around their necks.  Some of the dead are still rising from their graves, while the ones who are not saved are already beginning to writhe.  The bottom third of the space shows most graphically what kind of punishment awaits the greedy, the lustful, the proud, the gluttonous, the envious, and the slothful. But where is Anger?  And where is Christ sitting in judgment?  Oops – the Bishops wanted to expand the nave and create a special chapel for themselves, so Christ and the Angry sinners made way for a nicely arched door behind the altar.

september-2016-242doc

After touring the cathedral (a well arranged and narrated audio tour takes about an hour) we went for another outdoor lunch at the Clos de Ste. Cecile, in an former school behind the cathedral.  Excellent.  More Foie Gras, more goat cheese, more dried duck breast, more walnuts.  20160912_042141web

Then we started on the Toulouse Lautrec museum. This is the worlds largest collection of TL, but much of it is devoted to sketches and preliminary studies for the works we have seen in the Musee d’Orsay.  Still a lot of information.

We finished our trip with a short stroll around the Bishop’s Garden, a formal boxwood arrangement whose floral elements are changed regularly to reflect the theme of the season. Oddly, this season’s theme was a tribute to Joan Miro, so the floral elements reflected the colors of his painting in non-symmetrical arrangements. Quite interesting once you figured out what they were trying to do.

So far, no hassles, no arguments, no breakdowns, and nothing but sunny (though a bit over-warm) weather. Cross fingers.

Freeway Free in France: Golden Carcasonne

september-2016-233doc

The city of Carcasonne is a World Heritage site, a well preserved/restored medieval castle and keep perched above a river in southern Languedoc.  The castle was originally built to protect villagers, merchants and serfs from raiders who plagued the Mediterranean coast from Africa, but later the attackers included Charlemagne, who laid siege to the town for months, and after that crusaders led by (later St.) Louis IX of France against the Cathars  (AKA Albigensians), who had been labeled as heretics by the pope.  Tolerance has not been much of a feature of Christianity in historic times, it seems.20160911_075143web

Carcasonne was in ruins after centuries of decay, when an Victorian- era architect/achaeologist who had been involved in the restoration of Notre Dame in Paris took an interest in restoring the city.  His first proposal was modest, aiming to restore only a portion of the site, but public response was so positive that he aimed higher and took on the whole site.  The result is amazing. Two fortified walls circle the city, there is a tournament ground for jousting and swordplay, the old lord’s castle is almost intact, and at the same time there is a thriving village of 200 households living within the keep, mostly occupied in tending to the thousands of tourists who flock here in the summer.

We arrived noonish after a lovely drive through Languedoc’s vineyards.  After a quick lunch we started on the castle tour/ battlement walk.  There was fascinating history in every room and great views from every arrow slot and murder hole.  Then we ventured into the church, with its gothic rose window, and caught a concert of traditional Provençal ballads sung by two white- clad ethereal women accompanied by a harpist and base player.  The plaintive plainsong- style music echoed amazingly in the old church.

We dined in an open patio at a restaurant recommended by one of the travel writers admired by both Winifred and Dianne, the Auberge de Lice.  We agreed that we had each enjoyed the best meal ever for 80 euros – three delectable courses beautifully presented  divided among four people, and an excellent bottle of local red wine. After dinner we walked along the exterior battlements, lit at intervals by recessed lights with the effect of torches.  As we walked back to our hotel across the 13th century bridge, the castle shone golden behind us.  It was magical.20160911_121923web

Trivia note:  Carcasonne played a major supporting role in “Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves” appearing as the village of Nottingham and Prince John’s castle.

Freeway Free in France: Medieval Memories in Aigues Mortes

 

20160910_023539doc

We spent most of Day 5 in Aigues Mortes ( “Dead Waters” in Provençal), a town which was extensively fortified by Louis IX (later St Louis) back when he was extending his kingdom south and needed a Mediterranean port.  Unfortunately, the port location was badly chosen, the harbor kept silting up, and eventually Louis conquered enough of Provence to make Marseilles his lead port, leaving Aigues Mortes to molder neglected at the end of a rather barren peninsula.

 20160910_035659docNeglect means no development, so the medieval town, with its defensive wall, royal apartments, and battlements are all pretty much intact, despite some quarrying of the walls to build more modern edifices (pig sties, sheep pens, etc.). Later when the Huguenots were being suppressed by Henry II, a number of them were imprisoned here until they would renounce their heresy. Some stayed for 35 years until finally freed by Louis XV.  Still later, imported Italian workers being exploited in the nearby saltworks were cruelly suppressed by the French authorities – some striking artworks made of salt crystals commemorate the injustice.allyson-and-friends-070web

 

 

The day was quite warm, but a nice breeze off the sea and a number of displays, educational materials, and art projects located in cool interior rooms make our tour of the battlements very pleasant. We stopped for ice cream on the way out of town, and Chantal located a boulangerie which sold fougasse, a kind of Provencale specialty bread  made with olive oil, olives, and bacon bits, which I had heard about and wanted to try.  Yummy greasy flaky rich.

 20160910_131116web

That evening the five of us went out for a seafood dinner at a little harbor town near Lunel.  On a Saturday night the place was jumping, with each outdoor restaurant competing with the next in loudness and variety of bands (mariachi, hip hop, rock, all going noisily at each other across the canal.). It was not exactly the quiet atmospheric dinner we had expected, but it was certainly a change of pace. 

20160910_131748doc 

 

 

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: