From the Middle Ages to the Future – Toulouse, La Ville Rose

From the Middle Ages to the Future – Toulouse, La Ville Rose

Sometime in the 2nd century BCE, the Romans marched into Toulouse, or Tolosa as it was then called. Recognizing the strategic potential of the long-established trading hub between the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Pyrenees, they set out to turn it into a major military outpost. To compensate for the area’s shortage of building stone, they turned to the abundant iron-rich clay of the Garonne River basin, which they baked into red bricks. La Ville Rose (the pink city) was born.

A Medieval Building Boom

Toulouse - cloister.

Several Romanesque brick cloisters remain in the city center.

Since bricks are easily repurposed, little remains of the antique city. By the turn of the first millennium A.D., as the local population finally emerged from the centuries of Dark Ages that followed the fall of the Roman Empire, a second building boom ensued. Roman bricks found their way into the walls of Medieval monasteries, churches and mansions that still stand today along the tangle of streets of the historic city center.

Toulouse -St Sernin bell tower.

The bell tower of Saint Sernin is a famed city landmark.

The Basilique Saint Sernin is a magnificent illustration of this early architectural recycling. The only remainder of the once sprawling abbey of the same name, it is considered one of the largest and finest examples of early Romanesque churches in Europe. Consecrated in 1096, it became an important stopover for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostella in Northern Spain. Its elegant octagonal bell tower topped by a graceful spear remains a landmark of the city. The wide ambulatory (walkway) that encircles the nave and main altar is lined with chapels where white marble saints stare down from alcoves in the pink brick walls.

Toulouse - Jacobins palm tree.

The “palm tree” vault of the Couvent des Jacobins.

The nearby Couvent des Jacobins is another remarkable monastic building. Built in the 13th century, this former convent for Dominican friars (called Jacobins in France in reference to the location of their first convent, located Rue St. Jacques in Paris) is a jewel of Southern Gothic art. Its now deconsecrated church is unique for its “palm tree” ribbed vault soaring from a central colonnade, 28 meters (92 feet) above the ground. The adjoining cloister with its verdant central garden remains an island of tranquility in the heart of the city.

Toulouse - Augustins

The Musée des Augustins holds a rich collection of Romanesque capitals and Gothic sculptures.

No tour of the great religious complexes of Toulouse is complete without a visit to the Musée des Augustins. The expansive gothic monastery, built in 14th century for Augustine monks, became one of France’s oldest museums in 1975, when it was secularized during the French revolution. As well as an eclectic collection of paintings and sculptures ranging from the early Middle Ages to the start of the 20th century, it houses a wealth Romanesque capitals and Gothic sculptures stunningly displayed in a contemporary setting designed by American artist Jorge Pardo. A stop by its vast cloister and its astonishing colony of gargoyles is also a must.

The Hotel d’Assezat

Toulouse - Assezat

the Hotel d’Assézat remains the greatest Renaissance palace in the city,

The elaborate stonework of interior courtyards is a constant reminders of the city’s Renaissance grandor.

The religious communities were not the only architects of La Ville Rose. Although the fortunes of Toulouse ebbed and flowed through centuries of political and religious conflicts, the city managed to remain one the most important trading centers in France.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, its prosperous merchants commissioned stately residences. The most opulent of them is the Hotel d’Assézat, a grand Renaissance palace built in 1555 for its namesake Pierre d’Assézat. Like most of Toulouse’s private mansions, it features a tall brick tower jutting from the roof, apparently the ultimate status symbol at the time. Today, the fairytale pink palace houses the prestigious private art collection of the Bemberg Foundation. Five centuries of breathtaking paintings from Canaletto, Caravaggio, Brueghel and Bosch to Toulouse-Lautrec (a native son of nearby Albi), Cezanne, Monet, Matisse and Picasso are exhibited in its intimate salons. One room is dedicated to one of the finest selections anywhere of works by Pierre Bonnard.

Dozens of these grand homes survive throughout the old town, though few are open to the public. However, their ornate facades and interior courtyards decorated with elaborate stonework and sculptures remind the passer-by of the wealth that once flowed through the city.

Le Capitole

Toulouse-Capitole1.

The Place du Capitole is surrounded by renowned brasseries and cafés.

Nothing embodies the evolution of Toulouse better than the Capitole, the heart of the city since the 12th century. When its Capitouls (governing magistrates) embarked on the construction of the original building in 1190, their intention was to provide a seat of government for a province that was growing in prosperity and influence. Little did they know they were setting in motion a 500-year architectural evolution that would change the face of their city and ultimately establish its reputation as one of the most beautiful in France. The current building reflects its successive transformations. The oldest remaining parts are the 16th century Donjon (the Keep, also known as the Archives Tower), and the 117th century Henry IV cloistered courtyard. The dramatic 135 meter (440 foot) long façade of today’s Capitole is an 18th century Neoclassical masterpiece that dominates the entire east side of its eponymous square. In addition to its municipal functions, it houses the reputed Théâtre du Capitole Opera Company and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse.

In front of it, the sprawling Place du Capitole is now a pedestrian area surrounded by renowned brasseries and cafés, and a favorite meeting point for locals and visitors alike.

Toulouse-Capitole2

The 18th century Neoclassical facade of th Capitole dominates the square.

 

The Space City

Toulouse-Cite Espace

La Cité de l’Espace is located a short bus ride east of the city.

For all its glorious architectural past, Toulouse is resolutely turned to the future. It all began in 1917, when the French government located its first major aeronautic firm here. It subsequently developed into one of the main aerospace centers in Europe. Inaugurated in 1997, La Cité de l’Espace is an interactive center of scientific culture focused on spatial exploration and astronomy. Here you can see the famous Ariane 5 rocket, and take a tour of the original MIR space station used for training astronauts in the days of the Soviet Union. And for hands-on visitors, various virtual reality simulators offer the opportunity to experience what it might feel like to travel through space to Mars.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – By air – Located 8 kilometers (5 miles) west of the city centre, the Blagnac Airport has daily flights from Paris and other large French cities, as well as major European hubs. From the airport, the T2 Tramway line: Airport – Arènes – Palais de Justice, connects with the metro service at Arènes (line A) and Palais de Justice (line B) stations every 15 minutes.Additionally, a shuttle bus from the airport to several points in the center of the city operates every 20 minutes from 5:30 am to midnight. By train –There are multiple daily train connections between Paris (5 to 7 hours), Bordeaux (2 hours), Marseille (4 hours) and Barcelona, (7 hours) and Toulouse’s Matabiau central train station. By road – a network of major highways connects Toulouse with Paris, Bordeaux, Marseille and Barcelona.
  • Getting around – Although Toulouse is the fourth largest city in France, its historic center is relatively small and easily walkable. Should you get tired of walking, a free electric shuttle circles the city center every 10 minutes from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm everyday except Sunday. There are no designated stops. If you spot one of the small, white “tisséo” busses, just wave it down.
  • Visiting –Located in the Donjon, at the back of the Capitole, the Toulouse Tourist Office is open from 9:30 am to 6:00 pm Tuesday through Saturday and 10:00 am to 6:00 pm Sunday and Monday. The Couvent des Jacobins, 1 Place des Jacobins, 31000 Toulouse, is open 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, Tuesday through Sunday.  The  Musée des Augustins (or Musée des Beaux Arts), 21 rue de Metz, 31000 Toulouse, is open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, and closed on Tuesday. The Hôtel Hassezat, George Bemberg Foundation, Place d’Assezat, 31000 Toulouse, is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00 am to 12:30 pm and 13:30 to 6:00 pm, and closed on Monday. La Cité de l’Espace, Avenue Jean Gonord, 31506 Toulouse, is open daily at 10:00 am. Tel. +33 (0) 5 67 22 23 24.

Location, location, location!

Toulouse

Paris New Digital Museum of Fine Arts – L’Atelier des Lumieres

Paris New Digital Museum of Fine Arts – L’Atelier des Lumieres

The loudest buzz in Paris this spring is l’Atelier des Lumières, the Workshop of Lights that opened on April 13th in a 19th century iron foundry of the Chemin Vert, once an industrial neighborhood of the 11th arrondissement. The Plinchon Foundery was established in 1835 to supply the French navy and railroad companies with the high quality cast iron parts necessary to power the industrial revolution. Today, the cavernous space right in the heart of Paris’ Right Bank is reborn into a gigantic floor-to-ceiling canvas for digital art.

A Wonderland of Austrian Art

Paris-Klimt Golden Period.

The larger-than-life projection environment becomes a canvas for Gustav Klimt’s Golden Period masterpieces.

Paris-Klimt Neoclassical.

Gems of Vienna Neoclassical architecture are decorated with Klimt frescoes.

Preserving the concrete and steel industrial bones of the place as its screen, the Atelier uses cutting-edge laser multimedia technology to cast dynamic images on some 3,200 square meters (35,000 square feet) of projection surface, including 10-meter (32-foot) high walls as well as floors and chimneys, on a music background created especially for the exhibition. As visitors wander around the vast space, they enter the artwork and become part of it.

For its inaugural event, l’Atelier stages a dazzling immersive experience to honor a key figure of the Viennese art scene, Gustav Klimt, on the hundredth anniversary of his death. In late 19 thcentury imperial Vienna, Klimt was one of the foremost decorative painters of the magnificent public buildings that lined the new Ringstrasse. By the dawn of the new century, as a leader of the Vienna Secession, a movement that sought to escape the constraints of academic art, Klimt was paving the way to modern painting. The gold and decorative motifs that characterize his work had become a symbol of this artistic revolution.

Atelier-Egon Schiele

Works by Egon Schiele are included in the exhibition.

With his iconic “The Kiss” painting as the centerpiece, this homage to Klimt focuses on his Golden Period, bringing to life the sumptuous portraits, glimmering landscapes and opulent swirls that are characteristic of the artist. In addition to his best-known works on canvas, this immersive experience also features projections of his epic “Beethoven Frieze.” (n.b. the Frieze is a 7 foot high by 112 foot long fresco painted by Klimt in 1902 to decorate the Secession Building in Vienna, illustrating the human quest for happiness in a chaotic world). Also included in the projection are a number of works by Klimt’s disciple Egon Schiele (1890-1918).

In the Wake of the Vienna Secession

Atelier-Hundertwasser.

Friedensreich Hundertwasser ideal city emerges as a shape-shifting fresco.

A shorter, more contemporary program “Hundertwasser: in the Wake of the Vienna Secession” is dedicated to Austrian-born New Zealand artist, architect and environmentalist Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000), whose artistic development was much influenced by Klimt. His ideal city gradually emerges from the monumental surfaces of the Atelier, in a dynamic, shape-shifting fresco where vibrant colors become windows and lines morph into a utopian world to the rhythm of the music.

Culturespaces

Paris-Beethoven Frieze.

Children spontaneously interact with the shifting images.

L’Atelier des Lumières digital art center is the latest creation of Culturespaces, a leading private organization for the management of monuments, museums, temporary exhibitions and immersive digital exhibitions in France. It currently manages 13 historic sites and museums throughout the country, including the Hôtel de Caumont in Aix-en-Provence. Its philanthropic Culturespaces Foundation actively provides access to the arts for underprivileged and vulnerable children.

Good to Know

  • Visiting – L’atelier des Lumières, 38, Rue Saint Maur, 75011 Paris. Open everyday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Late night opening on Friday and Saturday until 10:00 pm. Due to the success of the exhibition, it is prudent to purchase advanced admission tickets through the Atelier’s website. Note – The current show is a temporary exhibit. It will be on view until November 11, 2018.
  • Getting there – Easy public transportation is available from anywhere in Paris to the Atelier: Metro stations Voltaire or Saint-Ambroise (line 9), Rue Saint-Maur (line 3) or Père Lachaise (line 2), or Bus stop Chemin Vert (lines 6, 38 and 44).

Location, location, location!

L'Atelier des Lumières

Musee du Quai Branly, Paris – Peru before the Incas

Musee du Quai Branly, Paris – Peru before the Incas

Of the dozens major national museums in Paris, one of my personal favorites is the Musée du Quai Branly. Located in a lush garden environment a mere five-minute walk from the Eiffel Tower, it is unique for its collection of over 350,000 works dedicated to the indigenous art and cultures from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, ranging from the Neolithic period to the 20th century.

Paris-Branly facade.

In addition to its lush gardens, the museum also features a luxuriant vegetal façade designed by botanist Patrick Blanc.

Since only one percent of the collection can be displayed at any given time in its permanent and thematic temporary exhibits, each visit is a journey of discovery to remote corners of the planet and the long ago cultures that thrived there.

On a recent late fall afternoon, after enjoying a peaceful stroll around the lush wilderness created by noted French botanist and landscape artist Gilles Clement, I made my way toward the enigmatic building rising bridge-like above the gilded autumn foliage of the tree tops. I was on my way to pre-Columbian Peru.

Peru before the Incas

Paris-Branly Moche bottles.

The Moche civilization flourished from 100 to 700 AD. Their fine ceramic bottles speak of the importance of water as well as the flora and fauna of their food supply.

Doubtless because they had the misfortune of playing hosts to their uninvited Spanish visitors in the mid-15th century, the Incas and their Cuzco Empire have long been held as the crucible of pre-Hispanic Andean culture. While there were traces of previous pre-Columbian cultures going back as far as 1500 BC, these had long been eclipsed in the collective imagination by the powerful Inca narrative. But over the past three decades, extensive archeological excavations on the northern coast of Peru, especially at the Huaca site near Trujillo and at the royal tombs of Sipán, have provided a new insight into these ancient cultures, revealing how they, and  most notably the Mochicas, first laid the foundations for pre-Hispanic civilization over 1500 years ago.

Moche bottles (circa 300 to 400 AD) depicting marine life.

These revelations are the basis for the current exhibition, curated by archeologist Santiago Uceda Castillo, who has been directing the site excavations since 1991. “Peru before the Incas” takes visitors on an archaeological investigation into the origins and evolution of power and political systems within these ancient societies. Who held power? The celestial gods, the kings, the urban elite, the warriors, the priests and priestesses? And how did it manifest itself?

A Journey of Discovery

The exhibition spans time from the 8th century BC to the conquests of the Chimú by the Incas in 1470 AD. During that time, in the absence of a written language, successive civilizations left us a rich heritage of remarkable potteries and sculptures, gold, copper and silver ornaments, and funeral furnishings that illustrate their way of life and evolution.

Paris-Branly totems.

Moche bottles representing mountains and totemized animals.

The journey begins with a focus on the natural environment and everyday life of the area. Wedged at the foot of the Andes, the northern coast of Peru is one of the most arid deserts in the world. Owing to the combined presence of the cold Humboldt Current and the mountains, it virtually never rains. For the populations that settled in this inhospitable land, water took a central part in their rites and beliefs, as is represented in a stunning collection of ornate ceramic bottles that document the flora and fauna of their food supply, and their divinities. Theses works speak of a strong connection between the animal and human worlds. As man seeks to acquire the strength, reflexes or speed of specific animals, he deifies them or turns them into the totems of his community.

Divine Power

Paris-Branly God of Mountain.

The God of the Mountain is an anthropomorphic figure.

As the community develops and organizes into a state, totemism evolves into a more formal concept of the existence of superior beings, endowed with powers over the human condition. Temples are created, where the presence of these divinities can materialize. The main god, which will endure under various forms until the Inca period, is the God of the Mountain. An anthropomorphic figure with feline fangs, clawed hands and feet, and carrying a double specter, it represents the sun, fire and water that come from the mountain. It requires human sacrifices to ensure bountiful harvests and the prosperity of the community.

Ancestral divinities are worshiped at the clan level

Much power is also attributed to ancestral divinities. These more personal gods worshiped at the family or clan level are the link between men and the gods. Especially at the time of funerals, they are recipients of food, drink and metal objects offerings.

 

 

 

Earthly Power

Paris-Branly huacos.

Ceramic portraits represent priests and shamans.

Earthly power is bestowed by the gods to the king, who controls the armies and the state.Through a rich array of Huacos (portraits realized in ceramic), statues, emblems of function or power and personal ornaments, the exhibition document the various powers that support this theocracy: the priests and priestesses, the warriors, the shamans and healers.

 

 

Paris-Branly ornaments

Personal ornaments reveal the power achieved by women.

And surprisingly, the final part of the exhibition reveals the power held by an elite of women. At the time of the conquest, Spaniards had documented coming across some villages (called Capullanas) that were under the authority of women. But recent excavations at major Andes sites show that, in the pre-Columbian past, some women achieved much greater power, as proven by the presence in their funeral monuments of the emblems of their functions (including crowns and specters) and iconographic representations.

Even for the most casual “archeophile,” Peru before the Incas is a fascinating exhibit. The almost 300 artifacts on display cast a new light on the development of the early Andean cultures and demonstrate that in South America, the Incas are only the end point of an elaborate social evolution of native culture before the Spanish conquest.

Paris-Branly huacos/

Ceramic portraits (or Huacos) represent high functionaries.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Musée du Quai Branly

A Corsican Road Trip – Corte to Bastia

A Corsican Road Trip – Corte to Bastia

After three days of white-knuckle driving through some of the most dramatic seascapes of the Mediterranean, the eastern coastal road that connects Corsica’s glitzy southern resort of Porto Vecchio to the major northern seaport of Bastia feels a bit humdrum. Granted, every break in the narrow band of foliage that outlines the coast reveals deserted sandy beaches and the occasional hamlet. The Tyrrhenian Sea shimmers under the pale autumn sun, and to our left, the jagged foothills are quick to morph into a serrated skyline of mountains. But that’s small stuff after the epic vistas of the Calanches of Piana.

The Spiritual Capital of Corsica

Corsica-Road to Corte.

The road to Corte snakes by ancient bridges and farmhouses

Fortunately, within little more than one hour, we zip past the unremarkable modern small town of Aliera and turn inland toward Corte. At once, the scenery becomes more spectacular, the history more obvious. The road snakes upwards through an ever-changing scenery of silvery streams, thick forests and occasional mountain peaks. We cross ancient bridges spanning deep gorges and catch glances of traditional granite farmhouses rising from the dense scrubland (or le maquis, as it is called here).

Corsica-Corte

Corte was shortly the capital of independent Corsica.

Eventually, we reach Corte, the brooding citadel city on its precipitous rocky spur dominating the confluence of the Tavignano and Restinica rivers. Its daunting 15th century fortress presides over a warren of cobbled alleys, with newer streets spreading down the face of the ravine below. This is the spiritual heart of Corsica, where its great hero Pascal Paoli established a democratic parliament during the island’s brief period of independence from 1755 to 1768. Today, it remains a mainstay of Corsican nationalism, as well as an administrative center and the seat of the University of Corsica.

Corsica-Corte Gaffory.

The façade of General Gaffory’s ancestral home still bears the mark of Genoese bullets.

We settle for a lunch of hearty local lamb stew at one of the sunny terraces on the Place Gaffory, at the edge of the medieval town. The square is named after General Jean Pierre Gaffory, one of the towering figures of the Corsican revolution, and Corte’s most revered native son. His statue dominates the space, resolutely standing in front of his ancestral home, where the stone façade still bears the scars inflicted in 1745 by dozens of Genoese bullets, lest anyone would doubt of the independent spirit and long memory of the people of Corte.

The Forests of Castasgniccia

Corsica-Ponte Leccia.

The village of Ponte Leccia sitls among the chestnut forests.

From there, we meander northeast toward Bastia, Corsica’s main commercial port, at the base of the Cap Corse Peninsula, through some of the largest chestnut forests in Europe, the Castagniccia region. The trees that gave the region its name were planted in the Middle Ages to ensure a reliable source of food. In addition to bread made with chestnut flour, the nuts find their way in many traditional dishes including the local version of polenta and even a type of Corsican beer.

Back in Bastia

Corsica-Bastia St Nic.

Ferries slide by the quay along the Place Saint Nicholas.

For our last night on the island we stay at the recently opened waterfront Hotel Port Toga, conveniently located just across the waterfront from the commercial port and the Toga marina. Its central location places it within an easy stroll of the Place Saint Nicholas, the broad 300-meter (1,000-foot) long, palm tree-lined waterfront avenue in the center of Bastia. Another 15-minute seaside walk takes us to the Vieux Port (Old Harbor).

Corsica-Bastia old port.

The old port of Bastia has become a trendy marina.

Founded by the Genoese in the late 14th century and protected by a mighty bastion, Bastia was capital of Corsica until 1811 when Napoleon demoted it in favor of his birthplace, Ajaccio. Tucked into a narrow cove, its old harbor has become a popular marina much thought after by pleasure and fishing boats, and the old docks are lined with cafés and trendy eateries. But the original fishing village, the Terra Vecchia (Old Land), remains a maze of narrow lanes and tightly packed tenement houses leading to the citadel (circa 1378).

Corsica-Bastia Terra Vecchia.

The Terra Vecchia fishing village remains a maze of colorful tenement houses.

After this last leisurely day of taking in the rich history of Corsica, we wander back to the commercial port for one final bit of daredevil driving: negotiating the process of wedging our car into one of the cavernous garage decks of the overnight ferry that will take us to mainland France. Then, our bags hastily dropped off in our cabin, we hurry to the upper deck lounge for one last look at the enigmatic mountain island fading to black in the Mediterranean night.

Corsica-Bastia Panorama.

The Old Port and Terra Vecchia of Bastia.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Corsica is a French island located some 200 kilometers (120 miles) off the French Riviera. By air: It is served by regular flights year-round from several French mainland airports to Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi and Figari. From May to September seasonal low-cost airlines also offer frequent flights to and from other European destinations. By sea: there are three major ferry lines serving the island’s six ferry ports (Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi, Île Rousse, Porto- Vecchio and Propriano) that can be reached from Marseille, Toulon and Nice. There are daily overnight and daytime crossings year round and more during the summer season. We sailed with Corsica Ferries between Toulon to Bastia.
  • Getting Around – There are limited train and bus connections between the main destinations around Corsica. However the majority of visitors travel by car to make the most of the stunning scenery.
  • Staying –For our stay in Bastia, we chose the newly opened Hotel Port Toga, Rond Point de Toga, 201200 Bastia, for its convenient central location across from the ferry terminal, its walking proximity to the historic Old Port, and its comfortable, well appointed rooms with sea view balconies. But what made our stay memorable was the attentive welcome of the staff, especially the desk manager Pauline Meignen, whose thoughtfulness made her a charming ambassadress for the property and the city in general. Contact: phone +33(0) 4 95 34 91 00, emailcontact@hotel-port-toga.com.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Corte

Bastia

A Corsican Road Trip – Piana to Bonifacio

A Corsican Road Trip – Piana to Bonifacio

This is Day Two of our Corsican road trip, and mid-morning by the time we leave the tiny seaside resort of Porto with its monumental Genoese watchtower. At its back, the jagged peaks of the Monte Cinco Mountains are just starting to emerge from the autumn mist.

The Calanches of Piana

Corsica-Calanches Piana.

The porphyry pinnacles of the Calanches of Piana.

The road immediately begins to snake up through a dazzling landscape of wind-carved porphyry cliffs dropping vertically into the dark aquamarine sea. Across a ravine, we catch a glimpse at the sleepy village of Piana, its faded pastel houses clinging halfway up the mountainside to better dominate the gulf in the distance. We are heading south on the coastal road through the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Calanches of Piana. The cliffs, eroded into precipitous pinnacles, tower some 300 meters (one thousand feet) above the sea. With each turn, the light changes and the rock formations go from honey to russet to red. This cliff-edge road is not for the faint of heart and I am once again grateful I am not driving! This barely 12 kilometer (7.5 miles) long stretch takes us a solid hour.

South to Sartène

Corsica-Sartène.

The mountaintop village of Sartène is a medieval labyrinth of granite alleyways.

We continue south between the mountain and the sea. The road becomes a bit tamer. The signs that have been warning of possible rock falls are replaced by reminders to beware of sheep crossings as we approach small farming villages. We give a passing look at the enigmatic village of Sartène with its tall houses of gray granite blending chameleon-like into the mountain scenery upon which they are anchored. Its labyrinth of ever-narrower passageways and stairs lend credibility to its long history rife with banditry and vendetta. After a roadside picnic lunch overlooking in the distance the 19th century port of Propriano, we loop toward the southeastern shore of the island and the glitzy resort town of Porto Vecchio.

Porto Vecchio

Corsica-Porto Vecchio Belvedere.

Our waterfront hotel, Le Belvédère, faces the old city of Porto Vecchio and the mountains across the gulf.

Like all self-respecting Corsican seashore cities, Porto Vecchio boasts a quaint old town of narrow cobbled streets, strategically perched on a knoll and encircled by imposing Genoese fortifications. For centuries, the city was surrounded by salt marches infested with malaria-bearing mosquitoes that prevented the development of the shore until well into the 20th century. In recent decades, with the marshes finally drained, Porto Vecchio has developed into a stylish seaside resort with a deep natural marina, trendy boutique hotels and lively harbor restaurants. To the south, the area is also blessed with some of the most famous white sand beaches on the island, most notably Palombaggia, lined with ancient umbrella pines, and the mile-long Santa Guilia. Both are big draws with summer tourists

For us, however, what makes Porto Vecchio an especially attractive  two-night stopover is its easy access to the legendary cliff-top city of Bonifacio.

A Medieval Marvel

Corsica-Bonifacio Madonetta

The Madonetta (little Madonna) lighthouse guards the entrance of the fjord-like Bonifacio harbor.

It’s a mere 27 kilometers (17 mile) from Porto Vecchio to Bonifacio, on the straightest, flattest road we have encountered so far anywhere since driving off the ferry in the northeastern port of Bastia. Within forty-five minutes, our car easily parked in the harborside lot, half-empty on this brilliant autumn morning, we board a departing boat for a tour of the coastline.

Corsica-Bonifacio.

The cliff-top city of Bonifacio is best viewed from the sea.

The oldest fortress city in Corsica, Bonifacio was founded in 828 A.D. by, and subsequently named after, Count Bonifacio II of Tuscany. Upon his return from a naval expedition against the Saracens in North Africa, he resolved to build an unassailable outpost at the farthest marine reaches of his domains. The resulting medieval city is a stretch of tightly packed, narrow houses teetering at the edge of a 70-meter (230 foot) high limestone cliffs riddled with sea caves. Rising straight from the turquoise sea, it offers one of the most dramatic seascape I’ve seen anywhere in the Mediterranean.

The cliffs are riddled with sea caves.

Back on firm ground, we take the arduous steps of the Montée Rastello (Rastello Climb) to the Genoa Gate. Until 1854, it was the only access into the citadel and its warren of narrow Romanesque alleys where little has changed in a millennium. Our random wanderings eventually end up on the ramparts. From there, the view of the cliffs extends all the way to Cap Pertusato, five kilometers (three miles)  to the southeast and the southernmost point of metropolitan France. A bit further south, across the 12 kilometer (7.5-mile) shimmering expanse of the Bonifacio Straight, the outline of the Italian Island of Sardinia undulates on the horizon.

Corsica-Cap Pertusato.

From the ramparts, the view extends to Cap Pertusato, the southernmost point of metropolitan France

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Corsica is an island located some 200 kilometers(120 miles) off the French Riviera. By air: It is served by regular flights year-round from several French mainland airports to Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi and Figari (north of Bonifacio). From May to September, seasonal low-cost airlines also offer frequent flights to and from other European destinations. By sea: there are three major ferry lines serving the island’s six ferry ports (Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi, Île Rousse, Porto-Vecchio and Propriano, that can be reached from Marseille, Toulon and Nice. There are daily overnight and daytime crossings year round and more during the summer season. We sailed with Corsica Ferries between Toulon to Bastia. However, if Bonifacio is your main destination, its easiest access is via the Italian island of Sardinia. Frequent ferries by Moby Lines and Blu Navy link the town with Santa Teresa Gallura, right across the Straight of Bonifacio.
  • Getting Around – There are limited train and bus connections between the main destinations around Corsica. However the majority of visitors travel by car to make the most of the stupendous scenery.
  • Staying – To explore the southern part of the island, we made our base in the Porto Vecchio, where a broad range of accommodation options can satisfy all preferences and budgets. We chose the four-star boutique Hotel Le Belvédère , Route de Palombaggia, 20137 Porto Vecchio, for its idyllic waterfront setting immediately across the gulf from the old town. Scattered within a well groomed park, under a canopy of mature umbrella pines and eucalyptus trees, the property consists of 19 bungalow-style rooms and suites with private terraces and garden views. The public areas included a gourmet restaurant, grill and bar. All open onto sprawling seaside terraces. Contact: e-mail info@hbcorsica.com, tel. +33 (0)4 95 70 54 13.
  • Visiting Bonifacio – There are several companies running boat excursions out of the harbor. All have ticket booths lined along the quay at the head of the harbor, and offer more or less the same routes at comparable prices. We took the “one hour trip” (actual sailing time about 45 minutes) with the  Société des Promenades de Bonifacio (SDPB).Their comprehensive itinerary took us along the cliffs below the old town, the sea caves and inside the one of the bigger ones, to a couple of secluded inlets.

Location, location, location!

Bonifacio

Piana, Corsica

Homage to a Couture Icon – The Yves Saint Laurent Paris Museum

Homage to a Couture Icon – The Yves Saint Laurent Paris Museum

It all begins with paper dolls, for which the adolescent Yves Saint Laurent creates entire couture collections to the delight of his two younger sisters. This early passion for fashion design leads him straight to Paris, where he enrolls at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (school of the official trade association of French high fashion). His designs quickly gain the notice of Michel de Brunhoff, the then editor of French Vogue, who introduces him to Christina Dior. Monsieur Dior hires the barely the 19-year-old on the spot.

Paris YSL-sketches

The process of creation begins with sketching and swatches

For the next two years the young prodigy works at the side the master. He learns every aspects of creating a collection of some 200 designs, from original sketches to final fittings. He earns his mentors’ trust to the point that when Christian Dior suddenly dies of a heart attack in October 1957, it is revealed that he has named the young man as his successor. Yves Saint Laurent, age 21, is now artistic director of the most prestigious couture house in France. His first collection, unveiled four month later, is an immediate success. Side-stepping the cinched waists and voluminous skirts of the past decade, he introduces his Trapeze line of fluid dresses that flare from fitted shoulders. Its easy elegance appeals to active women everywhere. In retrospect, It changes the course of fashion.

His tenure at the House of Dior is cut short when he is replaced upon being drafted for mandatory military service in 1960.

Saint Laurent Paris

Paris YSL-1962 collection

The Saint Laurent Couture 1962 inaugural collection.

Fast-forward two years, and Yves Saint Laurent decides to create his own couture house with his partner Pierre Bergé. Saint Laurent Paris opens its doors at 30 bis, rue Spontini, in the tony 16th Arrondissement. His first collection in January 1962 is an unmitigated success. For the next twelve years he will continue to create here, inventing the modern woman’s wardrobe. The pea coat and trench coat of his first collection are followed by the first women’s tuxedo in 1966, then the safari jacket and the first women’s pants suit in 1968.

Paris YSL-iconic pieces.

A display assembles the emblematic early pieces.

These female adaptations of mainstays of the male attire are enthusiastically adopted, not only by the wealthy clients of the couture brand, but by all women. Now they can express their confidence and boldness while maintaining their femininity. For them, he opens his Saint Laurent Rive Gauche boutique in 1966. This first ready-to-wear store to bear a couturier‘s name paves the way for ready-to-wear fashion as we now know it.

5 Avenue Marceau

Paris YSL-jeweled jacket 1990.

Jeweled jacket from the Spring-Summer 1990 collection

In 1974, the Yves Saint Laurent couture house moves to a mid-19th century mansion at 5, avenue Marceau, a stone throw away from the Pont de l’Alma. For the next three decades, it remains a symbol of fashion excellence. In his fourth floor studio he creates designs that are then brought to life by the nearly two hundred tailors and seamstresses of the in-house workrooms.

 

 

Jewelry is displayed in the Cabinet de Curiosités gallery.

After Saint Laurent announces his intention to end his career in 2002, the building undergoes extensive renovations before re-opening its doors two years later as the Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent Foundation for the preservation of the couturier’s body of work. After functioning for a decade as exhibit space dedicated to fashion and then further extensive renovations, the mansion re-opens in October 2017 as the Musée Yves Saint Laurent, a permanent temple dedicated the French haute couture icon.

 

The YSL Museum

Paris YSL-Salon.

The visit begins in the Salon.

Today, the museum offers a unique opportunity to experience the designer’s world. The visit starts on the first floor, in the salons where clients once sat for private showings of his work or were received by their personal saleswomen when they came for fittings. Then we experience YSL’s process of creation, thoroughly documented with sketches, drawing and swatches, before entering a display of his most emblematic designs.

 

Paris YSL-Picasso evening.

The Picasso evening dress from the autumn-winter 1979 collection.

In addition to the highlights of his 1962 debut collection, there are also nods to collections that pay homage to an era, intricately decorated jackets, theatrical designs and stunning custom jewelry. The last gallery includes his iconic Mondrian dress, other dresses inspired by great painters, including Picasso, Van Gogh and Matisse, and his Africa and Russia-inspired ensembles.

 

 

Paris YSL-Studio2.

The studio is recreated in minute details.

Then on the fourth floor, we reach the heart of the house, his exactingly reproduced studio, filled with drawings, scraps of fabric, boxes of buttons and finished designs, which offers a vivid picture of the life and practices of a haute couture atelier. His signature glasses are still on the desk near his sketch pads and freshly sharpened pencils. His portrait by his friend Bernard Buffet hangs over the worktable. We can still feel the creative energy of the place. It’s clear that everything happened here.

 

Paris YSL-Home.

The projection room shows images of Saint Laurent’s home.

The visit ends in the screening room, where a multi-image diaporama brings Yves Saint Laurent, the man and his career to life, narrated by Pierre Bergé, his partner in work and life. Bergé was the driving force in bringing the museum to completion, but sadly died just four weeks before the inauguration on September 28, 2017. A second YSL museum opened in Marrakech, Morocco on October14, 2017 near the former home of the two men.

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

YSL Museum

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