Showing posts with label France. Show all posts
Showing posts with label France. Show all posts

Saturday 11 February 2017

Boulogne-sur-Mer in the moonlight ...

Do you ever go out for a moonlit stroll? Do you like to wander solitary beneath the stars?

It's one of those activities that you could be forgiven for opting out of. But for me, travelling as I do with the WonderDog, it's a bit of a necessity. When a dog's got to go, a dog's got to go ... if you get my drift.

Sometimes I negotiate r-e-a-l-l-y hard to see if someone else will step up to the plate and do the honours. On Thursday we pitched up in Boulogne-sur-Mer shortly before midnight. It was a cold, joyless night with a cruel wind whistling around the empty streets. After a late room service dinner the others pleaded various (lame) excuses for not venturing forth, and I had to take the WonderDog for his post-prandial ablutions. But here's the thing: the moment I stepped out into the moonlit streets I realised what a HUGE favour they'd done me. This little city by the sea is so atmospheric after dark.

La Porte Neuve, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France
La Porte Neuve, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France

Friday 4 September 2015

Great Motorway Drive-by sights ... Carcassonne

 Most of the motorway miles I notch up tend to be drab and boring. Motorways are all about getting there fast with little to see along the way, but every now and then they snake past something sensational that makes me want to exit at the next junction to go off and investigate. Of course, this motorway proximity probably doesn't help the ambience of the place in question. I mean three lanes of traffic battering along in either direction won't enhance the chorus of the wild birds or add a whole lot of sweetness to the air.

The other day I was bustling along down the A61 that runs from Toulouse to Narbonne when I saw this loom large on the near horizon:

It was Carcassonne, the beautiful walled city of the Cathars.

As luck would have it, I was in the passenger seat with my window down and my camera to hand. Normally all the wonderful things appear on Mr B's side of the car when my camera is in the boot and all the windows are hermetically sealed against the rain.

And so I was able to spend a happy 30 seconds snapping away as though my life depended on it.

I'm not sure what the other motorists thought, but who cares when you've got something so sensational passing you by on the near-side.

Usually we rely heavily on in-flight entertainment (my legendary lasts-from-Belfast-to-Barcelona playlist and the loop of endless Scooby Doo movies for the troops in the back) to make our motorway miles go quickly, but this was one occasion when we were happy to slow right down and enjoy the scenery.

All the best for now,

Bonny x

Friday 14 August 2015

Space City, Toulouse, France

Sometimes Mr B comes up with a good idea for somewhere interesting to visit. And Space City, or le Cité de l'Espace, was one such choice. Sitting in an unassuming suburb of Toulouse it's exactly what you wouldn't expect to find in such an old and historic city.

The first thing that catches your eye is the 53 metre high mock-up of an Ariane 5 rocket that's parked outside. In a low-build skyline you'd be really hard pressed to miss it.

Wednesday 12 August 2015

Irish Blessings and Summer Driving ...

We're off to the sun-kissed lands of the South. Catalonia here we come!

And because our party includes the Wonder Dog we're off on a road trip (the Wonder Dog doesn't do aeroplanes). I love these madcap jaunts through France. There's nothing to beat driving on the wonderful French roads on a sunny day with the windows down, the breeze blowing in and the music cranked up as loud as it'll go. I know I've hit the mark when  Emi complains bitterly from the back seat about not being able to hear the Scooby-Doo movie on his headset.

I've got a Spotify drive-time playlist that will take me from Belfast to Barcelona and back again. There's the odd objection to some of my choices here and there, but for the most part it's a happy experience as we boogie on down the road.

There's a lovely old Irish blessing for occasions like this:

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
And may the hand of a friend be ever near.

It's got many variations, but that one's my favourite.

All the best for now,

Bonny x

Sunday 24 May 2015

Chartres blue ...

We arrived in Chartres in the early hours of yesterday morning, exhausted by our mad dash out of London. Emi's exams over, we were hungry for the open road and the warmth of the Mediterranean sun. Spain was calling us home, but, en route, we decided to stop off to sample a bit of Chartres blue; a blue that was created in the 12th century using a secret formula, known only to a trusted few, and lost forever on the completion of the great cathedral. Truly, there is no other blue quite like Chartres blue ...

Friday 17 April 2015

Le Château de Cheverny ...

Would you like to have a look at the real Marlinspike Hall, country home of Captain Haddock and hangout of that great hero, Tintin?

Tuesday 7 April 2015

Fontevraud ... where medieval women called the shots ...

Now I have to confess to having been a fan of Eleanor of Aquitaine for a very long time, and it was this interest in Eleanor that drew me to the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud, where she lived out the final years of her long and eventful life, and where, after her death in 1204, she was buried.

Tuesday 31 March 2015

Le Château de Chambord ...

The other day, as we were bombing down the Loire Valley, we came upon a castle that blew us away.

Feast your eyes on the Renaissance splendour that is the Château de Chambord. 

Some say it was the brain child of no less a genius than Leonardo Da Vinci. Old Leo swung by the Loire before Francis I got to work on his great fantasy castle, and there's a complicated geometry to this place that has his fingerprints all over it. He also brought along a little portrait that he'd knocked off before he left home. It was something that he'd been obsessing over on and off, fiddling with and repainting from time to time as the whim took him. In the course of time Francis purchased the painting and it went to live with him in his castle at Fontainebleau. We know it today as the Mona Lisa.

Francis I was a bit of a boy-wonder King. He took the throne in 1515 at the tender age of twenty, and immediately set about reconquering the province of Milan, French territory that had been lost by his predecessor Louis XII. Buoyed up by victory, and heavily influenced by the wonders of the Italian Renaissance, Francis returned home and started work on his great castle at Chambord in 1519. In many ways it borrows heavily from the classical footprint of a medieval castle: there's a central keep flanked by four tall towers, two wings and a curtain wall, but none of them are designed for defensive strength. Perhaps, for the sake of tradition, they follow the outline of a great feudal stronghold, but they've been prettified and titivated for purely aesthetic reasons and then built to make a statement about the King's wealth and power.

Francis was passionate about hunting and architecture. Chambord, originally conceived as a royal hunting lodge, represented the union of his two great passions. As time went by, things got seriously out of hand, and it morphed into an extravagant château with 77 staircases, 282 fireplaces and 426 rooms. Not bad for a little place in the woods.

The salamander, personal emblem of Francis I
Francis was into one man upmanship in a big way. He'd wanted to be the Holy Roman Emperor, but his arch rival,  Charles V, beat him to it, and seized the prize. A fierce personal rivalry ensued, which was played out in their territorial campaigns as they battled over much of northern Italy. Francis sought to rope in Henry VIII of England as an ally. To which end the two kings met at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in June 1520, when they tried to out-shine one another in their splendour and refinement. And, whilst Henry was happy to strut his stuff in a field near Calais, he kept his armies safely back at home in England. 

Monogram of Francis I
Even on his quiet days, when he wasn't meeting rival monarchs, Francis was a bit blingtastic. And that's really what was behind the concept and design of Chambord. It was conceived to knock the socks off his old rival, Charles V, who was, of course, invited over to pop a few wild boar once it had advanced to a level at which Charles was guaranteed a right royal eyeful. History recalls that Charles had the good grace and the honesty of spirit to admit to his host that he was suitably impressed.

Anyway that's all by way of background. Back to the castle: it's one of the most amazing places I've ever visited. 

There's a whole complex geometry to the central design of the keep, all based around a Greek Cross. But for me it was a castle of staircases: great feats of masonry ascending and descending in all directions like a series of elaborate stage sets on which to see and to be seen.

The amazing central staircase of the keep is like a double helix. There are two flights of stairs unwinding in concentric circles from the same central newel, which is hollow with ornamental apertures. One person can ascend while another descends without their meeting, although they can see one another through the apertures. It's pure theatre.

I can so easily imagine Francis I leading a very envious Charles V up those grand stone stairs, gloating all the while over how well he'd out-shone anything his rival could call home. 

Even though the staircase is at the centre of a huge building it's illuminated by natural light from the glass lantern at the top.

And, of course, it's not the only stair case on which you can shake a tail feather. There are at least another 76 to run up and down if you've got the energy.

And they all lead up to the wonderful terraces on top.

There are so many towers, pillars, loggias, pilasters, carvings of salamanders, cherubs and fleurs-de-lys up there on the Renaissance Terraces. It's amazing how the master stonemasons were able to sculpt the tufa, the local sandstone, like icing on a cake. Francis I intended it to look like the skyline of Constantinople, and for my money it looks like something out of a fairytale.

It's an amazing cityscape sprouting out of the main roof to the Château, to leave you wondering whether you're in the tranquil idyll of the Loire Valley or some heavenly metropolis designed by angels.

Back in the day, when the Great Lords went hunting in the woods round about, the chatter and laughter of the ladies of the court rang out around these terraces. They'd come up here to entertain themselves watching the hunting parties return. And if you stand quietly in a shady corner you can still almost hear the distant echo of their dainty shoes dancing over the tiles, and the polite clink of their glassware as they took refreshments and waited for their menfolk to come home.

For me these terraces were the very best bit of the whole castle. On a sunny spring morning, framed by a brilliant blue sky, they were a surreal dreamscape.

In the great rooms downstairs they've got lots of furniture and paintings from other eras. But back in the days of Francis I the castle was mostly kept empty. When the King came to his hunting lodge a cavalcade of carts and carriages would roll in ahead of him, laden down with furniture and wall hangings to turn the cold, unadorned rooms of the castle into a residence fit for a great prince. Then, when he'd done with shooting his wild boar and hunting his stag, they'd pack everything up and move on.  And Chambord would go back to being a large, deserted folly sitting quietly and splendidly amidst the trees.

For me the magic of its spell was woven strongest when it was allied with the history of Francis I and the guiding genius of the great Da Vinci. Other princes and kings came afterwards but none surpassed the heady romance and exuberant vision of those early days.

All the best for now,

Bonny x

Monday 29 December 2014

Costa Brava Christmas ... rocking through to Epiphany

And so we've made our seasonal dash from my family to his  ...  from Ireland to the Costa Brava.

Road trip, anyone? Belfast to Barcelona ? What a journey!

And at this time of the year, with record snowfall in France, things got interesting up in the highlands of Haute Roussillon. Luckily Mr B is a man who understands snow chains, so we were just fine, although our progress was s-l-o-w. We listened to back episodes of the Friday Night News Quiz from Radio 4, which kept us laughing for most of the way. Everyone else was looking glum with the weather, but we were chuckling away with Sandi Toksvig.

So we went from Aughnacloy (my village in lovely County Tyrone), which looked like this on Christmas Day when we had our usual family stroll before Christmas lunch:

... through this:

... to finally arrive here last night: 

It's cold and the Tramuntana is blowing hard from the North, but the sun is shining and familiar, friendly faces greet us wherever we go.

At the risk of sounding like a misanthrope I love my village here on the Costa Brava when all the tourists go home. It's just us locals kicking our heels in the Ramblas and taking in the sea air, and that suits me just fine.

Maxi loves feeling the wind blow through his fur, and this beach ... well it's a dog's delight for digging in, and this hound likes nothing better than to dig himself a good big hole.

In an alcove in the front facade of our old monastery there's a life-size Belén, a manger scene. It's beautiful when they light it up at night. There's a rumour that this old place was founded by Charlemagne during his campaign against the Moors. Whatever the way of it, the building feels as old as time itself and I'd be hard pushed to think of a better place to act out the Nativity.

Christmas keeps on rocking here until the Feast of the Epiphany (6th January). On the eve of Epiphany (the night of 5th January) Spanish children believe that the Wise Kings travel through the land bearing gifts for each boy and girl who's been good during the past year, just like they did for the baby Jesus all those years' ago. The naughty niños only get a piece of coal.  These days the confectioners have got in on the act and most children get some joke carbón candy that looks just like a piece of the black stuff. 

On Sunday night we've got a special village parade when the Wise Kings show up to collect the children's letters, and then on Monday night there's another parade, the Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos. Sadly we're not going to be able to stick around for this one. It's the main event. Gaspar, the King of Sheba, bearing Frankinscence and dressed in green,  Melchior, the King of Arabia, bearing gold and dressed in white, and, finally, Balthazar, the King of Egypt, dressed in purple and bearing myrrh, will together lead the Epiphany parade. 

In our village it's a really big deal. The whole community turns out, and the Wise Kings process through the village on horseback. Tractors pull floats of various others in Biblical scenes and everyone who is part of the parade has a HUGE stash of bonbons, which they throw to the crowds of children, who come clutching plastic shopping bags to hoover them all up and carry them home.

It's all a bit mad, but totally brilliant: an affirmation and a celebration of life, regardless of which, if any, faith you follow. I can't see any theological basis for chucking bucketfuls of candies at the kids, but it's great fun and enthusiastically followed by everyone, including the Muslim children of the village's immigrant community from North Africa, who are out there with their plastic bags hoovering up sweets with the best of them. Over here Christmas is for everybody, which is just as it should be.

The other thing that totally blows me away at this time of the year is the citrus harvest. I know I ought not to be surprised, I've been enjoying Christmas clementines since November, but it's such a strange thing to find trees that produce fruit in the middle of the winter cold. And they're all over the village: oranges trees and lemon trees bearing the most most wonderful orange and yellow fruit in quiet corners of town gardens.

And then, at the end of the day, as the darkness falls and the Tramuntana blows more fiercely the best thing to do is curl up in front of a roaring fire with a nice bottle or Rioja and a good movie. Tonight we're watching Dead Poets Society, which is one of our favourites. 

All the best for now,

Bonny x

As shared on image-in-ing and Texture Tuesday

Monday 25 August 2014

Le Pont du Gard, Remoulins, France ... by daylight

So here it is: I give you the Pont du Gard in daylight. Isn't it a splendid sight? This is the highest aqueduct that those wily old Romans ever got around to building. It's part of a 50 kilometre water canal that took fresh water from a spring in Uzès to feed the fountains, baths and gardens of Nîmes, which was then a flourishing Roman city. The water ran in an aqueduct supported by the top row of arches. The people went down below on a passageway supported by the first level of arches.

Just think: this stone colossus was the greatest bridge ever constructed in the Classical Age. Built in 50 AD on 3 levels, it's 360 metres (393 yards) long and stands 50 metres (54 yards) high.

It was built in a breath-taking 5 years. And what is even more amazing is that they didn't use any cement. The bricks were cut with laser-precision to sit neatly on top of one another, locking at critical points, and they have stood the test of time for two millennia. 

Look very carefully at the bricks in the photo below. They're from one of the middle arches of the bridge. See how the original builders have numbered the stones - in Roman numerals, of course. The stones were cut to size in the quarry, so that they all fitted together to make the arch, and then carried to the site to be put together in a sort of flat-pack, pre-fab process. Happily for the oxen pulling the carts the Quarry of Estel, from which the blocks were cut, was a mere 400 metres away from the bridge. The quarry was lost to us for many years, having been buried in some 4 metres of mud from successive floods, but they rediscovered the cutting face during an archeological dig back in 1998.

Just look at how beautifully those old stones sit together so that it's impossible to push even a leaf of paper between them. And look at the texture of the stones that have been cut to shape by hand using nothing more sophisticated than a hammer and chisel. 

Normally the Gardon is a quiet, well-behaved river, but from time to time when the snow melts in springtime, or when there's torrential rain upriver, the water level rises dramatically and it turns into a violent, surging torrent. To survive the very worst of these Gardonades the pillars are solidly built on the rocks on the riverbed and shaped like the prows of ships to offer minimum resistance to the water flowing past. The rock from which the bridge is built is a highly resistant limestone with a high shell content. The Romans maximised its resistant properties by mining enormous blocks from the quarry weighing 6 or 7 tonnes each, which form an extremely resistant mass of rock when stacked together.

Given the scale of this bridge, and the large span of it arches, the Romans employed a technique not frequently used in the Classical World. Each separate arch is a composite of three independent arches, which have been assembled separately, and then joined using locking stones. You can see the three distinct arches in the span of the arch shown below.

I was really taken aback by all the graffiti that has been engraved into the stones over the years. 

Thankfully people have, for the most part, given up on the idea of scoring their initials and the date of their visit into the stones, but I was fascinated by the inscriptions made by the Compagnons du Tour de France. The Compagnons are still alive and flourishing in France, but their roots go back to medieval times. They are artisans and craftsmen who are apprenticed within the Compagnonnage, a kind of super trade guild with its own constitution and secret rites of initiation and codewords. As part of their apprenticeship they spend a year travelling around France to learn through visits to sites where great examples of their craft are to be found. Many of them came to see the bridge, which was recognised as a feat of stone architecture, and they left their initials with drawings of the tools of their trade as a salute to the brilliance of the Roman craftsmen responsible for building it. In the photos below there are a number of stone masons' axes proudly on display.

They tell me that more than 320 initials of Compagnons have been engraved on the bridge. The earliest dates from 1611, and the most recent from 1989. The earliest I found dated from 1767 (bottom right in the collection above). 

No one knows the name of the original Roman architect who designed the bridge, but there is an old Provençal legend that claims it was the Devil himself ... .

You see in the old days, before the bridge was built, it was mighty difficult to get across the river. In particular in the springtime, when the melt waters stormed down to the sea, the placid river became a raging torrent.

And crossing from the rive gauche to the rive droite became a death-defying mission. The people thereabouts were in the habit of wading across where the rocks rose higher and they could keep a steady footing. Few of them had ever learnt to swim. And even if they had, the strongest man would find himself overcome by the surge of the seething river when it was in flood.

Lives were lost, animals perished and the local people, who normally lived peacefully along the banks of the Gardon felt powerless in the face of nature.

Now as it happens a renowned stone mason lived in a little hamlet not far from where the Pont du Gard stands today. Every spring the people would come to him and say: Why don't you build us a bridge across the river, and put an end to all this death and destruction?

It seemed like an impossible task, given the steepness of the banks and the width of the gorge, but the stone mason was a very proud man. He'd spent many years apprenticed to a master mason after which he'd journeyed far and wide across the land perfecting his craft. Eventually his pride in his accomplishments got the better of him and he agreed to accept the commission. He reckoned he'd build a bridge and become the hero of the gorge by saving the people thereabouts from the ravages of the flood waters.

But sometimes what starts out as a straightforward plan has a way of getting painfully complicated. The local people worked hard to supply the stone mason with stones to build the bridge. They all ganged together and worked day and night to construct pillars of stone in the river, which they planned to span with a viaduct.

But before they could finish the work a terrible storm forced them to take shelter in their homes. For three days and three nights a tempest blew, the rain poured and thunder crashed along the valley of the Gardon. Inside their homes the people shivered, suspecting there were evil forces afoot. On the fourth morning, when the elements had calmed down sufficiently, they returned to the river only to find that the force of the water had washed away every last stone of the pillars they had built.

Disheartened, but not defeated, they began from scratch again. Take care, they said to the stone mason. Make sure that the foundations for the pillars are as strong as we can make them this time.

The stone mason felt chastened. Were they criticising his work? How dare they! He vowed that the next set of pillars would withstand the very worst the river could throw at them. He'd build them twice as big and twice as strong. Everyone went to work again, and slowly, slowly massive pillars of stone rose out of the river that were mightier than any that ever been built.

But, as before, a winter storm came and the people fled to their homes as the thunder crashed and the lightening flashed up and down the valley of the Gardon. And next morning, when the people braved the river banks they found that all their work had been washed away like matchsticks on a neap tide.

This time they turned on the stone mason and accused him of not having designed the pillars properly. You held yourself out as the greatest architect of stones, and look how all your fancy learning has been swept away as nothing by the river,  they said. We ought never to have been taken in by you and your false promises spoken with empty, silken words. 

Defeated and dejected in the face of all the criticism the stone mason sat alone by the bank of the river with his head in his hands regretting the day that he had ever boasted of his accomplishments, and thinking dark, suicidal thoughts.

Why, I would give my very soul to the Devil to be finished with this wretched bridge, he said aloud in his despair.

And then in a flash of sulphurous smoke a sinister-looking, horned creature, half man, half beast, stood before him. Its red eyes surveyed him knowingly as it impatiently pawed the earth with a cloven hoof.

For the price of a single soul I could build the bridge for you, if you wanted, the creature said, lisping as though its tongue were deformed. And what's more I could build it so that it would stand until the end of time and never be destroyed by the Gardon.

Really? the stone mason said, regretting for a moment that he'd wagered his soul for the bridge.

Yes, the creature replied knowingly, as though sensing his hesitation. But it need not be your soul. I could take the soul of the first to cross the bridge after it was completed.

Very well. It's a deal, the stone mason replied, feeling relief to have been reprieved his own soul, but also feeling a terrible sense of guilt that he might have paid with the soul of one of his neighbours instead.

You go home and leave me to it, the creature said. When you come back in the morning the greatest bridge the world has ever seen will span this gorge.

The stone mason went home with a heavy heart, and told his wife all that had taken place.

Well it need not cost as much as a human soul, the good woman replied. One of the hunting dogs came home with a hare in its mouth. Curiously it was still alive. Why don't we take the hare to the river at first light, and release it to cross the bridge before any of our neighbours go abroad?

The man agreed, and went to bed feeling relief that the bridge might be built without the forfeit of a human soul. All through the night the earth shook as the Devil carved out huge rocks of stone with his horns and his nails. The man trembled with fear at the ungodly power he had unleashed in the valley.

The next morning, as dawn broke, the stone mason and his wife hurried to the bank of the Gardon with the hare carefully wrapped in a knapsack. As the church bells rang out Lauds, summoning the faithful to morning prayers they released the hare to run across the bridge. The Devil stood at the other side ready to receive his payment, but when he saw that it was only a hare he swore a vile curse and hurled the animal at the wall of the bridge. As the sacred bells of the morning office were still ringing across the valley there was nothing that the evil one could do. The bargain had been made and fulfilled on both sides, and he was forced to flee the scene. But from time to time, however, his anger spills over in the wrath of a Gardonade, and the flood waters hurl his fury at the solid pillars of the bridge that was predestined by him to endure until the end of time.

It is said that you can still see the imprint of the hare beneath one of the upper arches of the bridge. Being very short-sighted I was unable to see it, even using the lens of my camera as a telescope.

Other people say that the supposed outline of a hare is, in fact, a Roman phallus, which the original bridge builders marked on their work to ward off the evil eye.

Whatever the way of it, the bridge is an amazing structure that must surely have inspired awe and led ordinary mortals to believe that it could only ever have been completed with some manner of supernatural intervention.

All the best,

Bonny x

As shared on Our World Tuesday and the Alphabet Project

And if you happen to pass this way by night check out its nocturnal light-show here: Pont du Gard at night.

Or not-very-far-away Perpignan