A “Cruise” on the Loing River

A great benefit of staying here for a longer time is that we can do things that we wouldn’t do if we were here for three or four weeks. Today is an example of that. In 2013 we stayed in the small town of Montigny-sur-Loing for five months; Montigny is about twenty-five minutes south of our current homebase in Samoise-sur-Seine. While there, we walked miles along the Loing Canal, which connects the Seine with another canal 45 miles south. Today, we got to float down it!

The Loing Canal is built to what are called the Freycinet specifications. These specifications, developed when Charles Louis de Freycinet was Minister of the Interior, were instituted in 1879. They called for the locks of a canal to be 40 meters long and 5.2 meters wide; as a result, boats were built to this standard and, as canals were converted to it, could travel through any Freycinet canal.

The problem now is that the Freycinet canals are too small for profitable commercial transport. A Freycinet péniche (barge) can be 39 meters long; we regularly see transports on the Seine that are double that and have seen a few that are 110 meters long (360 ft). Now the Freycinet canals, including the Loing, are used almost exclusively for pleasure boats.

Last Saturday we learned that there is a 90-minute boat ride on the Loing Canal, leaving not far from Montigny-sur-Loing, so today, we put on our nautical clothes and went along.

Our boat for the morning: the Zia.

Right off the dock: the Fromonville bridge. Originally it was a stone bridge (built around 1880) which was destroyed in 1940 in a futile attempt to slow the German army advance. The Eiffel Company designed and built this replacement post-war. Gotta say that I love iron bridges.

Can you see why we liked walking the canal in 2013? Calm, peaceful and beautiful. We walked probably 15 miles of this canal, a few miles at a time, repeating many sections.

A Freycinet lock. This is now unused, but you can see how narrow it is. Our boat was about 1.5 feet narrower than the lock. Going out, the captain skillfully guided the boat through the lock without touching either side. Coming back, he didn’t do quite so well…

When the Loing Canal was active, an important cargo was sand; but not just any sand. Sand from this area is said to be among the purest in the wold: 99.9% silica. It has been used by the Murano glassmakers (Venice) for hundreds of years, and is still in demand for telescope glass.

Some houses along the river as we approached Nemours. River life looks nice, doesn’t it, except that in 2016 the water level along here rose about 15 ft from what you see, in the worst flood since 1910 and the third-worst in history. All these houses would have had water four or five feet deep on their main floors. Not so good.

The river bank in Nemours. We walked along this beautiful promenade in 2013, so it was fun to see it from the river.

Another iron bridge, this time a pedestrian bridge.

On the way back, the City Hall at Fromonville. Once the local chateau, it was given to the town of Fromonville-Moncourt, which has a population of about 2,000. I think all of them could fit in the City Hall.

Back at the dock, our “shipmates” depart. You might notice a high proportion of gray-haired folks. It appeared that a local retirement home had an outing, as everyone knew everyone else, except us, the only non-French-speakers on board. However, we were given an excellent English (well, kind of English) written guide to the trip. We took the morning trip and early in the afternnon, we drove by the dock after visiting a local town and saw that, under a big tent, was another group of folks “of a certain age” as the French say (incudes us now), having lunch before boarding for the afternoon trip. Someone is doing a good job of marketing!

I gotta say, this was a totally fun thing to do. The Loing Canal was a big part of our stay here in 2013, and to float up and down it for 90 minutes was a great pleasure.

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The Loire Valley Ramble: Three Chateaux

Last week we went back to the Loire Valley, a two-and-a-half hour drive south of Samois-sur-Seine, our current homebase. The Loire is famous for its many chateaux – some estimates put the number at somewhere around 3,000, for the Loire Valley alone. We visited three quite different chateaux this week, and the three illustrate different types of chateaux, and the challenges that the privately owned chateaux face.

The first chateau we visited was Villesavin. Villesavin represents many chateaux and their challenges. Privately owned, without a glorious history of ownership or visits from kings and queens, it has little access to state funding to maintain and restore it. As a result, this beautiful renaissance chateau has to rely on the funds generated by visitors, with some small assistance from the state. But also because Villesavin hasn’t the illustrious history, it is not high on the visit list of tourists. But visit it we did and we loved it.

The second chateau has all the advantages Villesavin lacks: Chateau Amboise was originally a fortress, then modified heavily by Francois I, was the home of Henri II, Charles VIII, Henry III and Henri IV. It is spectacularly sited where tourists can easily reach it. As a result, it gets lots of funding from France and lots of income from tourists. Note we loved Chateau Amboise, too.

The third chateau, Azay-le-Rideau, falls into a different category: though it hasn’t a royal history, it is the most beautiful Renaissance chateau in the world (our humble opinion) and because it was given to France in 1905, it has been maintained and restored ever since, so its condition can only be described as near-perfect. Azay-le-Rideau is our favorite.

Villesavin

Villesavin was built in the 16th century by Jean le Breton who was, purely by coincidence, King François 1st’s Secretary of Finance. Le Breton was also in charge of obtaining material for the king’s over-the-top Chateau Chambord, which was nearby. Might one think that maybe some funding and some materials were diverted to Villesavin? Just wondering…

Built in the 16th century means built in Renaissance style. By this time, the king was firmly in charge and the aristocracy fairly stable, which meant there was no need for the chateau to have a defensive role.The pictures show the pure Renaissance style of Villesavin. A closer look shows that the chateau is just tired – there has not been the necessary funds over its 400-year life to maintain it. A large restoration project was carried out fifty years ago, but we can only guess how much it would cost to bring a place like this back to its original condition. Because Villesavin is still privately owned, there is just not enough money to restore it.

And yet, we loved it. Many chateaux have been restored to better condition than they were when people actually lived in them. At Villesavin I suspect we saw a more realistic view of life in a chateau.

The façade of Villesavin.

Villesavin’s courtyard, at the back of the chateau.

An inkpot, with several feather quill pens.

Now this is what I call a kitchen!

Amboise

Chateau Amboise suffers from none of the disadvantages of Villesavin. It was built by kings – mostly François I in the 16th century; his successor kings and families lived here for centuries; it is smack on the Loire River so every tourist sees it; and it has seen many historic events. In fact, in the 15th and 16th centuries, this was the home of the French court. So France, seeing this as a national treasure, has maintained it and restored it. And like Villesavin, we loved it.

Chateau Amboise was originally a fortress, from which the king’s army could control movement on the Loire River, but by the time François I and then Charles VIII added to it, they were in firm control of France and so the need for fortifications went away. As a result, these kings concentrated on creating Amboise as a symbol of their power, rather than a means to maintain that power.

Chateau Amboise from across the Loire River.

Closer. As with many of these chateaux, I wonder how opposing armies would have liked looking up at what they had to conquer.

A building of the Renaissance: beautiful, geometric and symetrical. Emphasis on beautiful.

Beautiful windows – everywhere.

My kind of chair! The back was high to prevent the king from stabbings!

Amboise also has the distinct honor of being the burial place of Leonardo DaVinci. Yes, that Leonardo! François I brought Leonardo to Amboise in 1516, three years before his death. Françoise gave Leonardo a manor (Clos Lucé, about which a bit more below) and when Leonardo died in 1519, he asked that he be buried in a church in Amboise, which was done. But later the chapel in which he was buried was destroyed, and Leonardo’s tomb disappeared. In 1863, bones and an inscription that seemed to indicate they were the remains of Leonardo were found and he was re-interred in the chapel of Chateau Amboise, with a note that the remains are “presumed” to be his.

We were mightily impressed with Chateau Amboise: history, beauty, royalty, intrigue, gardens – Chateau Amboise has it all. This is a place we’ll visit again.

Clos Lucé

Leonardo’s home, given to him by Françoise I, is now a museum, with his bedroom, studio and other rooms fitted out as they might have been when he lived and worked here. Maybe…but we were not terribly impressed. First of all, it was jammed, and seemed to have an inordinately large number of 4-8 year-old kids, who were not suitably impressed by what they saw. And really, who can blame them? Were we interested in 16th century furniture when we were that old? No, so like these kids, we would have fidgeted and whined and asked when we could get a treat. Second problem was that large tour groups were allowed in, so we were stuck between groups of 35-40 people, in rooms so small the whole group could not get into the room. Fortunately, the gardens were lovely. But as the most expensive museum we’ve visited, we were highly disappointed. We left after about 90 minutes.

Leonardo DaVinci’s home for the last three years of his life (1516-1519). Looks beautiful, but not our favorite place. Not even on the list of favorite places.

Azay-le-Rideau

This is our top-of-the-list favorite chateau and one of our favorite buildings in the world. Azay-le-Rideau followed a different path than the previous two chateaux. It doesn’t have the long history of Amboise, and though it shares its Renaissance architecture with Villesavin, money has been (almost) no object in its maintenance and restoration – it was recently closed for two years for an extensive overhaul. The difference has been that in 1905, the owner of Azay gave the chateau to the French government, and the government, understanding that Azay is a perfect example of a Renaissance chateau, has maintained it since. This was our third visit here, and we will surely be here again, even if it means a special trip. We can sit in the beautiful gardens and spend a long time just looking at this beautiful gem. Because Azay was owned by just a few people over its hundreds of years (including the ubiquitous François I for a while), the rooms have been restored and furnished to illustrate life in the chateau from the 16th centure to the 19th.

We could sit in the garden and just look at the chateau Azay-le-Rideau. Just beautiful.

If you could visit only one chateau in the Loire Valley, I would recommend Azay. But Amboise has much more history associated with it and so I could recommend it, too. But I might point out that we’ve seen only half-a-dozen chateaux here. If there really are 3,000 chateaux here, we’ve got some work to do…

Le Grenadier

No, not another chateau. We stayed at a B & B named Le Grenadier, our second stay here. It is a great B & B: rooms are comfortable (Laurie says Madame Butterworth, our gracious host, has thought of everything a woman could want; I don’t know what that means); excellent breakfasts; a beautiful yard to enjoy, and, most of all, a place to relax after a hard day of chateau viewing.

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Paris

We made a long sojourn into Paris last week – five days and nights. That’s the longest we’ve stayed there in years, and although it was the hottest stretch of the year – between 85 and 92! – we had a terrific time. We saw a jazz singer we love – twice, did some museum time, spent a wonderful day with friends, saw a parade, walked, just all kinds of good stuff. Here’s a recap:

Hetty Kate

In Seattle, we often attend house concerts of jazz singers (jazzvox.com, if you’re interested, and if you like jazz vocalists you should be interested). Last year we heard Hetty Kate sing and just loved her. Talking to Hetty after her performance then, she said she was moving to Paris. We’ve kept in touch with her and when we arrived, she told us that she was singing in a small club in Paris Saturday June 30. With Mary and Gilles, off we went to see Hetty.

I will leave until below our arrival in Paris. Hetty was just wonderful and the experience – seeing great jazz in a small Paris jazz club, well, pretty cool. Some pictures from that night:

Hetty Kate at work.
(Sorry for the not great photo; dim light and taken with my iPhone.)

Us and Hetty

Hetty told us that the following Tuesday she was singing in the bar at a (very nice) hotel, so off we went again – this time just Laurie and I. We met Hetty an hour before she started and shared a bottle of Sancerre wine with her, and heard her tales of performing and trying to get known in the Paris jazz scene. We stayed for her first set and were again blown away by how good she is. It was great fun to have a chance to get to know her better and hear her sing again.

Hetty again, in a different venue.

Though Hetty is based in Paris now, she sings all over the world. If she gets to your city, you really need to go see her. You will not regret it; she is just fabulous!

The Parade

Arriving at our Metro (subway) stop to see Hetty, we were astonished to hear music – lots of REALLY LOUD music from multiple bands – while we were still underground in the Metro station. We climbed the stairs and ascended into the mayhem of the Paris Gay Pride Parade! And mayhem it was: many tens of thousands of people; music trucks everywhere, in the parade and not; and because it was over 90 degrees, people in every state of dress and undress. I’m telling you, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a 6’5″ guy dressed as Roman woman, wearing 5″ heels!

Ah, a family portrait…

Don’t ask me; I don’t know.

Something I never thought I’d see: a drag belly-dancer.

Friends

For the second time this year, we were able to introduce Paris to friends who had never been there. Mark and Kathy, friends from Seattle, were in Paris for one day at the end of a sixteen day trip to Italy (for a wedding), Austria and Switzerland. We met them in the morning and just kind of toured around the parts of Paris we like best – mostly along the Seine. We also went to the Eiffel Tower, which is a mess, as there is a huge amount of construction work underway. At the end of their trip, and after a particularly stressful travel day the previous day coming from Geneva, Mark and Kathy were just happy to go where we wanted to go…slowly.

Mark and Kathy standing in front of some minor tourist attraction.

After dinner, we walked our favorite walk in Paris, around Ile Saint Louis. The evening weather was perfect: warm and comfortable, and we enjoyed what was – weatherwise – the nicest evening in Paris we can remember, and we’ve had a lot of evenings here. I told Mark and Kathy, “It’s an evening like this that will bring you back to Paris.” Actually, that evening will bring us back to Paris!
Proof:

Looking down the main street of Ile Saint-Louis at sunset.

Notre-Dame, sunset, the Seine on a beautiful night; hard to beat.

Institute du Monde Arab

The Institute du Monde Arab is a center for study of the world loosely designated as the “Arab World:” the Middle East mostly, but also including parts of North Africa and the now-extinct Ottoman Empire. This area was the birthplace of the three major Western religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. The museum that’s part of the Institute does a beautiful job of showing the birth, growth and connections of the three religions. We’ve visited it before and did again this trip, largely because of an exhibit on the construction and history of the Suez Canal, but also because we love the permanent exhibit of the art from this part of the world.

View from the terrace of the Institute du Monde Arab

This is one of hundreds of windows in the Institute du Monde Arab. The geometric shapes open and close according to the position of the sun and the temperature, to keep the interior as cool as possible.

Corot at the Museé Marmottan

Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875)) is known largely for his beautiful landscapes – he’s arguably the best and best-known landscape artist of the 19th century. During his career, though, he painted portraits of people he knew, though he exhibited only a few of them, and sold them only to friends for their private collection. The Marmottan presented the first exhibition dedicated to his portraits, and we like the Marmottan, so off we went. Corot probably could have made a living as a portraitist – his portraits are that good. This was an interesting look into an almost unknown side of this famous artist.

If you’re a fan of Impressionist art, the Marmottan is a must-visit. The son of Claude Monet donated his entire collection to the museum, which created a large space just for them. It’s pretty spectacular; though we’ve seen them three or four times before, we toured it again. Monet was nothing short of a genius, and that shows in this collection.

Promenade Plantée

From 1859 to 1969 a railroad ran on an elevated track from Bastille east to Vincennes. Abandoned in 1969, it sat unused until the late 1980s, when the city started to re-purpose it as a pedestrian walk. It was landscaped, water features added, stairs installed at intersections, and then the eastern end, where the path is not elevated (in fact, it runs through several tunnels) was made into a park. Not far from our Paris homebase, it’s a perfect walk for us.

When it gets too hot, take a book and read in the shade.

It seems that I’ve left out some things, but that covers the highlights. I could mention our train trip home where, among other things, the train broke down one station away from the one we needed to reach, but what the heck, this post is long enough. We were a little concerned at going into Paris on such a hot week, for that long (Paris is, no matter how beautiful, a big, noisy, crowded city and so can wear you out). But we had a great time, and are so glad we went. We’re already looking forward to getting back.

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An Event Worth Noting

A week ago, June 29, Laurie and I celebrated our 50th anniversaire de mariage. We were perfectly okay with that until I mentioned that we’ve been married half a century. That took away both our breaths!

Our French family gave a lovely party for us – fourteen people, on Jamie and Hervé’s beautiful new terrace, lots of champagne and lovely wine, excellent food and, best of all, wonderful conversations with great folks. Couldn’t have been better.

Fifty years! I say it’s been easy for me, but I don’t know how Laurie did it. Unfortunately, when I say that, she agrees! The fact is, it’s been a great half-century, and we are looking forward to the next 50 years.

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Sancerre, Guédelon and Briare

On our first long stay here (2013), we did a ramble to Bourges and some places around there, and we asked Mary and Gilles if we could go to Sancerre. Although we were not great white wine fans, we’d heard of the white wines of Sancerre. We went, we tried, we were hooked; the white wines of Sancerre are dry and flinty – they have a hint of minerality to them that we love. Fortunately, we can drive to Sancerre in about an hour and three-quarters, so Tuesday the four of us headed south, added a side trip to Guédelon, bought a little wine at a Sancerre winery, and stopped for a bit on the way back to see a favorite bridge.

Guédelon

Laurie and I saw a documentary about Guédelon a couple years ago and have wanted to visit since. Twenty years ago, someone thought it would be interesting and instructional to build a thirteenth-century chateaux, using thirteenth-century tools and techniques. Today Guédelon is maybe two-thirds complete, and has become quite the tourist attraction. Understandably so, as it’s very interesting and well done. There are workshops in which tiles and shingles and windows and furniture and everything else are made, stone for the building is carved and rock quarried, all as it was done 800 years ago. There is a working thirteenth-century mill on site, built only with techniques and tools that were available then.

The day we visited, hundreds of school kids were also there (it’s the end of the school year, a traditional time for school outings). We enjoyed watching the kids in  the workshops, carving stone and doing other educational stuff.

All the Guédelon workers are willing to talk about their work, showing how it’s done. There are something like 40 people working there, which explains why the chateaux rises slowly; in real life in the thirteenth century, there would have been hundreds of people working here.

An overview of Guédelon.

Building the walls, which are about ten feet thick.

The pieces of the arched window were cut and formed by hand on site.

We saw somewhere that they expect to complete Guédelon in twelve more years. But…I’ve been on a lot of projects and I know what happens to project completion dates. A better estimate is “TBD.”

Sancerre

Not much to say here: we bought a few bottles of great wine…

Madame prepares 24 bottles for us and a little less for Mary & Gilles  (who already had some in their cellar)

Gilles is going to need a trailer hitch on his car someday.

The 24 bottles doesn’t include the bottle Madame gave us as thanks for appreciating and buying their wine. Ever see anyone in Napa leave the winery with complimentary bottles? Nope.

Canal and Bridge

Y’all know that Laurie and I love visiting the canals of France, and that we also like bridges. So what could be better than a canal bridge? This canal carries the Canal Latéral à la Loire across the Loire River; a canal on a bridge. Pretty cool, we think.

The canal is a little over 2,000 ft long. While it appears to have nice sidewalks on each side, these were actually paths for the horses that pulled the barges.

Then, it was homeward bound. A nice ramble on a beautiful day.

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A Walk in Saint Mammès

Saint-Mammès is one of our favorite places to visit for a walk, so today off we went. As always we enjoyed our stroll, and the morning ended with a surprise – a good one, at that.

Saint-Mammès is at the confluence of the Loing River and the Seine. Just a half mile away the Canal du Loing joins the Loing River. The Canal du Loing is the main canal to mid-France, and from it a boat can reach the Mediterranean (via the Rhone River) or the Atlantic (via the Garrone River through Bordeaux). Once the Canal du Loing was busy with commercial péniches (barges) but today we see only pleasure boats and tour boats on it. However the location of Saint Mammès means that it became the home port for many pèniches, and remains that for the increasing number of huge barges we see on the Seine. As a result, Saint Mammès has many old, no-longer-in-operation pèniches and quite a few of the big new ones lining the quais. In fact, the school-age children of the pèniches go to school here, so there are always lots of boats.

We always walk along the Quai du Loing, which, amazingly enough, runs along the Loing River. There are lots of boats now used as houseboats along here, and also some activity in companies that repair boats of all types. And there are beautiful houses along the quai:

A house on the Quai du Loing

Houses along Quai du Loing

These houses have wonderful views onto the Loing River and are on quiet streets. They have one drawback: two of the last three years the Loing has flooded and the bottom floors of these houses were under water. That might make me think about living in one…

Some péniches, old and new, in Saint-Mammès:

A péniche at the Quai du Seine in Saint-Mammès.

We have seen these (huge) modern barges in Saint-Mammès before, flying hundreds of colorful pennants. We don’t know the occasion, but they are beautiful.

This new pedestrian bridge connects Saint-Mammès with the other bank of the Loing RIver.

Looking down the Loing River from the new bridge.

Another thing we love about Saint-Mammès is that our favorite Impressionist painter, Alfred Sisley, lived in a neighboring town – Moret-sur-Loing – and painted many pictures of Saint-Mammès. Like Moret-sur-Loing, Saint-Mammès has a number of places where Sisley painted and the city has erected a display showing the picture. Today, you can look at the Sisley picture on the display, then look up and see the exact scene. Not much has changed in the 130 years. I wrote about this a couple years ago: Some stuff about Saint-Mammès from 2013

And the surprise: as we walked Saint-Mammès, we noticed a small restaurant that was not there two years ago. We walked past it, greeted the woman cleaning it in preparation for lunch and looked at the menu for lunch: two courses (entreé and plat – first and second courses – or plat and dessert – second and third courses: 12€, about $14). After building an appetite with our walk, we decided to give it a try. It was excellent: the food was way above-average for a small-town, small restaurant, the woman serving was friendly (and pretended to understand my French; always a bonus), the carafe d’eau (the pitcher of tap water one can always get in a restaurant) was ice-cold – a rarity – and the whole meal, including two beers and two coffees, was about $40. A find!

The pleasant surprise…

That’s Saint-Mammès, one of our favorite day walks. This won’t be the last time we’re here.

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A Walk in La Rochette

As we have no rambles planned for the next two weeks, we’ll be doing lots of walks and day-trips from our home-base here in Bois-le-Roi. I’m working on a post for just Bois-le-Roi so you can see where we are spending June (I’ll do another for Samois-sur-Seine, to which we move next week). For now, though, a quick post about a walk.

Our route yesterday took us along the river in a neighboring town, La Rochette. There we saw a number of affolantes, houses that were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when this area – particularly on the Seine – became a preferred location for wealthy Parisians who could afford weekend/summer homes here. I’ve written about the affolantes before; here are pictures of some we saw yesterday.

Love the sun-room!

Now, here is a fencepost!

The Seine view from some of these houses. I could get used to it…

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With an Old Friend in Paris

We had the great pleasure to introduce an old friend to Paris a couple weeks ago. When Laurie and I were in Coronado, across the bay from San Diego (in my Navy days), we became closest of friends with Paul and Sue, who lived in the same apartments. We have stayed in touch with them ever since, though we moved to the Northwest and they stayed in the San Diego area. Before we left, we got an email from Paul, who was starting a tour in Paris and wondered if, should he arrive a couple days early, we could get together. Mais bien sûr! We think it’s been 12 years since we’ve seen them, so we were really looking forward to seeing him (Sue decided to stay home…the tour Paul was going on was a military history route; more on that in a bit).

Paul arrived June 1st and we toured him into the ground for two days. By the time we parted ways, all three of us were dragging! But still happy:

Paul and Laurie – worn out but still smiling – in front of a bistro where we had an excellent dinner in the small, beautiful square Place du Marché Saint-Catherine. A wonderful way to end a great visit with a long-time friend.

Paul’s tour sounds great for a fan of military history. In WW II, the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army was the first to go into combat at D-Day: they were parachuted behind German lines the night before the invasion. Despite huge obstacles, they accomplished their immediate mission and then went on to fight through the Ardennes Forest, Belgium, Luxembourg and into Germany. The tour Paul was on followed the path of the 101st Airborne – the Screaming Eagles – through the war, ending at Hitler’s lair in Austria. I’m an inveterate non-tour guy, but I would love to have been with Paul on this trip through WW2 history.

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Clermont-Ferrand and back to “home”

After Albi, we turned toward home (Bois-le-Roi home, that is), making two stops on the way. The first was near the town of Puy-en-Velay, and the second at Clermont-Ferrand.

Viaduc de Milliau

Both regular readers of this blog will know that we like bridges, so you’ll know that we really liked seeing this spectacular one:

The Viaduc de Milliau.

This bridge is 2,650 meters (1.64 miles) long and rises almost 800 feet above the valley floor. It is an amazing engineering feat and beautiful to boot!

Puy-en-Velay

Puy-en-Velay is a nice town with two churches worth visiting, one of which we decided probably wasn’t worth the effort…

A fascinating church, but after giving serious thought to visiting it, we decided to take a pass. Well, not that serious, actually; there are something like five thousand steps to it. Okay, 286 steps, but that was 285 too many for us.

Clermont-Ferrand

We’ve wanted to visit Clermont-Ferrand for a long time because a.) it’s a place we haven’t been; b.) it’s well-known for its cuisine and cheeses; and c.) it’s where our friend (and most-excellent driver on this trip) was raised. Mary and Gilles had some business to complete here, so we spent a night. It’s a good-sized city (about 140,000 people) and has an unusual style of architecture, due to the stone used to build many of the buildings in the downtown area. The quarries in the area produce a building stone that is almost black. Using this stone resulted in a different look.

This cathedral has some beautiful stained glass windows.

Stained glass in the Clermont-Ferrand cathedral.

Stained glass in the Clermont-Ferrand cathedral.

And a very old church…

A small – and very old – church in Clermont-Ferrand.

Carving in the old romanesque church in Clermont-Ferrand.

A sidelight: here are two pictures from churches in Clermont-Ferrand and Puy-en-Velay. These are “Black Madonnas,” small wooden Madonnas carved from dark wood and aged over centuries to almost pure black. They are actually found all over the world, but seem to be more prevalent on churches that were stops on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. There is some evidence that they all came from one workshop in Eastern Europe, but that evidence is sketchy. No one really knows where they came from nor why so many ended up on the pilgrimage. We’ve seen probably a dozen of them over the years and are, I admit, fascinating.

A Black Madonna in the Cathedral at Puy-en-Velay.

Black madonna in the old Romanesque church in Clermont-Ferrand. Yes, it’s that tiny thing in the middle. This one was in the crypt, below the current altar. Evidently, this was the original altar of the church.

With that, I’ll close up my posts on our first ramble (two weeks after we returned!) We had a great time, saw lots of new, interesting and beautiful things, and ate like monarchy. I have no doubt we will return to this area in southern France again; we barely scratched the surface of things we want to do and see here.

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Albi

After three days in Toulouse, we hit the road again. We spent a night in Albi, which has two really amazing sights: a museum and a cathedral. I know you’re saying, “Another cathedral!?!” Yep, and one different than any we’ve ever seen.

Musée Toulouse-Lautrec
This museum is worth a visit if for no other reason than to see the building. Toulouse-Lautrec, despite his name, was born in Albi in 1864. Once he’d made his way to Paris, he found his niche painting scenes from Paris night-life. From this background came the first posters advertising performers; Toulouse-Lautrec created this genre; his posters are still among the best, and certainly are the best from the belle-epoque of Paris. To honor him and his works, Albi created this museum, in the house of the Bishop of Albi.

A little background that explains why the Bishop’s palace…I mean, house, was a fortress: up to the 1200s, this whole area was Protestant. In 1209, Pope Innocent decreed that it would no longer be Protestant and sent an army to conquer it. In 1229, the Protestants were defeated, with help from the French king. Defeated or not, they remained Protestant, and they hated the Bishop. So he built this fortress-palace to protect himself from the Protestants. As you’ll see, the Cathedral of Albi also reflects the fortress mentality that the Catholic church had to adopt here.

Anyway, the Museé Toulouse-Lautrec:

Looks like a fortress, eh? The bishop was not a popular person in Albi, so his home was, indeed, a fortress.

The courtyard of the Bishop’s house, now the Museé Toulouse-Laurtrec.

Some beautiful wall decoration in the Museé.

The garden, the Tarn River and the town of Albi.

In the Museé’s garden.

For more on Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings and posters: https://www.google.fr/search?rlz=1C5CHFA_enUS750US750&q=toulouse+lautrec+oeuvres

La Cathedral Sainte-Cécile d’Albi
Following my story above, you’ll understand the appearance of this Cathedral. It’s a fortress, designed to show the power of the Catholic church to all the local folks who were still Protestants in secret. Another difference between this cathedral and so many others we’ve seen is that this is built in the local brick, and is of the “southern Gothic” architecture; that means thick walls.

But it’s the interior that knocks your socks off! There is not one square inch of wall that is undecorated.

Visitors agog!

The “new” altar, facing west, which is rare; almost all cathedrals have the altar facing east. The original altar did face east, and still exists. There’s a long story about why the new altar was built and the church turned about; , but I can’t remember the reason.

Every gallery above every chapel is decorated, as you can see here. The effect is jaw-dropping.

The jubé – in English, rood screen. Though once common, they’re rare now. They were meant to separate the hoi-polloi attending a Mass from the priests conducting it. Behind it is the choir and the original altar, facing east of course.

For Margaret: This is said to be one of the largest organs in Europe; this is just part of it. I’m not going to argue.

That was the extent of our visit to Albi. We saw the two necessary sights, but guidebooks relate that the town of Albi is also a beautiful and historic and interesting place to visit. Our schedule prevented that, but I suspect we’ll be back sometime in the future to explore Albi more.

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