Touring the Archeological Sites of Burgundy – Les Hospices de Beaune

Touring the Archeological Sites of Burgundy – Les Hospices de Beaune

To oenophiles, Beaune is the uncontested wine capital of Burgundy. Inhabited by wine growers and merchants, it stands on cellars holding millions of gallons of its famous wines, surrounded by thousand acres of vineyards. Yet a majority of the wine tourists and buyers who descend on the prosperous historic town each year may not realize that it owes its wine fame and affluence to a medieval charity hospital.

A Palatial Lifeline for the Poor

Burgundy-Beaune courtyard.

Designed in Gothic Burgundian-Flemish style, the Hospices de Beaune roofs are covered with varnished tiles.

When in 1443, Nicholas Rolin, Chancelor to Duke of Burgundy Philip the Good, founded the Hospices de Beaune, the country was emerging from the Hundred Year War, a period of conflicts that had pitted against each other the crowns of France and England and their respective allies for over a century. Unrest, plague and famine had decimated the countryside. It was to attend to the most destitute population of the area that Rolin and his wife Guignone de Salins created a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, inspired by the most outstanding hôtels-Dieu (charity hospitals) of Flanders, a province that had recently been annexed to the Duchy of Burgundy. Rolin, who had extensively observed these hospitals, charged Flemish architect Jacques Wiscrère to create a “palace for the poor” in Beaune.

Burgundy-Beaune dormitory.

The hospital ward still displays 15th century canopied beds used by the patients of five centuries ago.

An unassuming gate in the somber stone façade topped by a Gothic high-pitched slate roof leads into the vast rectangular courtyard of a stunning Burgundian-Flemish architectural complex. There, the elegant roofline of steep dormers is covered by intricate lozenge patterns of varnished tiles in shades of yellow, red, green and black. Around the courtyard, the layout of the buildings is especially designed to efficiently support the life of the charitable institution. Inside, the most striking feature is the 50-meter (160-foot) long Grand’Salle.

Burgundy-Hospice de Beaune Chapel.

The small ward reserved to isolate patients “in danger of dying” had its own chapel.

This main hospital ward still displays 15th century furnishings, including the 28 red-canopied and curtained beds used by patients five centuries ago. The beds seem quite spacious for their time, until it is pointed out that they were expected to accommodate up to three patients each. At the far-end, the chapel is an integral part of the hall, so that patients could attend mass from their bed. A magnificent 15th century polyptych of The Last Judgment by famous Flemish master Roger Van de Weyden, which then hung over the altar can now be admired in all its glory in a dedicated room of the museum.

Burgundy-Beaune apothecary.

The apothecary.

There is also a separate, smaller ward with only 12 beds and its own chapel. It was an intensive care unit before its time, designed to separate patients “in danger of dying” from the merely sick. Other parts of the Hospices include an extensive apothecary with its beakers, mortars and earthenware jars, and a vast kitchen with an imposing gothic fireplace. Additional halls once dedicated to the care of orphans and the elderly as well as the refectory, library and other common areas are now an impressive museum that showcases treasures bequeathed to the Hospices over the centuries.

A Foundation for all Eternity

Burgundy-Beaune pharmacy.

The pharmacy’s laboratory.

A savvy businessman and diplomat, Nicholas Rolin used his vast knowledge of charitable hospitals to make his Hospices an institution capable of sustaining itself through the centuries. He established an unambiguous charter for the establishment: to care for the sick, elderly, orphans, women about to give birth and the destitute. He then set up endowments to support his foundation, and promptly placed it under the spiritual authority of the Holy See, thus freeing it for all times from the oversight of the local bishop and any other clerical coercion. His business model worked. The Hospices even managed to survive the French Revolution (1789) relatively unscathed. The institution continued providing services to the local population until 1971, at which point it became a museum and its medical functions were transferred to a modern facility.

Burgundy-Hospices kitchen.

The kitchen of the Hospices de Beaune.

And this is where we get to the wine. The Hospices received their first gift of a vineyard In 1457, a tradition that continued for five centuries and grew to include farms, woodland and works of art. Today, the vineyard estate is around 60 hectares (150 acres), entrusted to 22 vintners selected by its manager. It produces some of the most prized vintages of Burgundy. Since 1859, the town of Beaune has hosted an annual wine auction held at the Hospices on the third Sunday in November. Nowadays, this most famous wine charity auction in the world is organized by the renowned Christie’s auction house. All proceeds are used to support the new hospital facilities as well as the conservation of the historic Hospices.

Burgundy-Beaune polyptyc,

Polyptych of the Last Judgment by Flemish master Roger Van de Weyden (circa 15th century).

 

Good to Know 

  • Getting there – By car. Beaune is 310 kilometers from Paris via highway (A6) and 45 kilometers from Dijon (A31). By train. It’s a 20-minute non-stop connection from Dijon to Beaune with frequent departures throughout the day. From Paris, take one of the many for the high-speed train (TGV) from Paris-Gare de Lyon to Dijon and connect to Beaune.
  • Visiting – The Museum of the Hospices de Beaune,  Rue de l’Hôtel-Dieu, 21200 Beaune, France is open every day from 9:00 am to 6:30 pm. Contact:  tel. +33 (0)3 80 24 45 00, email hospices.beaune@ch-beaune.fr.

Location, location, location!

Hospices de Beaune

Touring the Archeological Sites of Burgundy – From Vix to Fontenay

Touring the Archeological Sites of Burgundy – From Vix to Fontenay

One of the joys of exploring the rich archeological heritage of Burgundy is the abundance and variety of its significant sites, sometimes millennia apart, but always within easy reach of each other. Today, I have the rare opportunity to view the Treasure of Vix, a unique find that has brought archeologists to reconsider the Celtic history of the area.

Vix-Iron Age household goods.

2,500 years ago, ,Celtic blacksmiths were producing sophisticated household items.

Mention Celts today, and most people will correctly think of the early inhabitants of the British Isles and their descendents. True, but only partially so. Long before the Romans set out to conquer the known world of their time, the Celts had been dominating Europe throughout the first millennium B.C. They were not a people per se, but rather a coalition of tribes reaching from the highlands of Anatolia (now Asian Turkey) to the British Isles, who came together in times of danger. At a major crossroad of their trade routes, Burgundy was ideally situated to become a center of Celtic civilization.

 

From Barbarians to Sophisticated Iron Age Merchants

Burgundy-VixKrater.

The largest known metal vessel from Western classical antiquity, the Krater of Vix stands 1.63 meter (65 inches) high and has a capacity of 1,100 liters (290 US gallons).

The Celts, however, left no written records, and in any case, it is a universal truth that history is written by the winners. So that when Julius Ceasar embarked on the conquest of Gaul (the Roman name for what is now France) and decimated the confederation of Gallic tribes after a protracted siege and fierce four-day battle at their stronghold of Alesia (some 60 kilometers, or 40 miles northwest of Dijon) in 52 B.C., the Celts were fated to go down in the collective memory as hordes of ferocious barbarians. Local populations settled in the new Gallo-Roman towns in the valleys while the proud hilltop cities of their ancestors were reclaimed by nature. It was not until the second half of the 19th century ushered an era of growing interest in archeology that searches began to reveal the sophistication of the tribes that had prospered here throughout the Metal Ages. Their blacksmiths had left us advanced tools and weaponry, their artisans a variety of household goods and ornaments.

Burgundy-Vix Krater handle.

The three handles, weigh about 46 kilos (100 pounds) each and are elaborately decorated with grimacing Gorgons.

Then, on a January morning in 1953, in a field near the village of Vix (pronounced Vii), an amateur archeologist scratched the mud at the foot of a tree recently uprooted by a storm, and found a Gorgon sticking its tongue at him from the handle of an immense bronze jar. He has just discovered the Krater of Vix, the largest known vessel of the ancient world. Decorated in the Spartan style with a frieze of warriors striding to battle, the gigantic krater, identified by experts as Athenian work made around 530 B.C. testifies to the trade links between the Celtic world and the Mediterranean.

Burgundy-Vix Lady torque.

The 24 carat gold Celtic torque is adorned with winged horses inspired by Middle Eastern bestiary.

Further excavations revealed it to be part of a treasure accumulated in the funeral chamber of a clearly high-ranking woman in Celtic society. Seated on a ceremonial chariot, the Lady of Vix was bedecked with jewelry from the farthest reaches of the known world. In addition to necklaces of amber from the Baltic shores and Etruscan rings, she was wearing a magnificent torque (diadem) of pure gold. Probably of Syrian origin, the thick curved headband ended in two globes that rested in front of her ears, each supported by a lion paw and decorated with tiny winged horse.

Burgundy-Vix Lady headband.

Close up of the delicate ornamentation of the Lady of Vix’s pure gold headband.

In the past decade, a fortress village has been discovered on the site. It shows all of the features of a high-status settlement: large fortifications, the presence of a citadel, dwellings for hundreds of people, grain warehouses and water cylinders, as well as five more burial mounds. Excavations are ongoing, but already there are strong indications that this settlement dating back 2,500 years could present the first signs of urbanization in Western Europe, and be the first town in France. The enormous variety of Mediterranean imports indicates wide-ranging connections, suggesting that the town was a thriving center for the exchange of raw materials from Northern Europe and Mediterranean goods. The exploration is not open to the public but all the original finds, along with a reconstruction of the Lady’s burial chamber, are on display in beautifully curated exhibits just a few miles away in the recently opened Musée du Pays Châtillonais (museum of local histor

The Abbey of Fontenay

It’s only a thirty-minute drive southwest on charming country roads from the Iron Age treasures of Vix to one of the most spectacular example of Romanesque monastic architecture remaining in Europe. Founded by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in 1118, the Abbey of Fontenay is a prime architectural example of the Cistercian order.

Burgundy-Fontenay Romanesque church.

Dedicated in 1147, is one of the oldest Cistercian churches in France.

Who were the Cistercians? They were a monastic order that felt the Benedictine monks were no longer true to the Rules of their 6th century founder, Saint Benedict of Nursia. The Rules specified that a monk should divide his day equally between prayer, study and manual labor, while living a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. Cistercian abbeys usually selected an inhospitable place such as the remote marshy site of Fontenay, and made it livable. One of the four founding houses of the order, its austere architecture is a remarkable illustration of the ideal of self-sufficiency practiced by the early Cistercian communities.

Burgundy-Fontenay iron works

Iron works were a major source of activity for the monks.

Within its enclosing wall, the abbey has retained all its original buildings: the church and cloister, the monks’ day room and dormitory, warming room, refectory, guest house, bakery and iron works. The later, with its staggering hydraulic hammer, recalls the part the Cistercians played in the technological progress of the Middle Ages, and is one of the oldest industrial buildings in France. At the height of its activity, the Abbey of Fontenay accommodated about 300 monks.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – The Treasure of Vix is located in Châtillion-sur-Seine, 90 kilometers (55 miles) northwest of Dijon via pleasant country roads, and 250 kilometers (155 miles) from Paris via highway (A5). The Abbey of Fontenay is located 80 kilometers from Dijon and 250 kilometers from Paris via highwy (A6). Or is is an easy 66 minute train ride via TGV (express train), from Paris-Gare de Lyon to Montbard, 5 kilometers away from the Abbey
  • Visiting –The Treasure of Vix can be seen at The Musée du Pays Châtillonais, 14 Rue de la Libération, 21400 Châtillion-sur-Seine, France, is open from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm., Wednesday through Monday from September 1 to June 30, and every day in July and August. Closed on national holidays. Contact : tel. +33 (0)3 80 91 24 67, email. accueil@musee-chatillonnais.fr . The Abbey of Fontenay, 21599 Montbard, France, is open daily year round. Hours vary with the seasons and are posted on the website. Contact: tel. +33 (0)3 80 92 16 88.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Musée du Pays Châtillonais

Abbey of Fontenay, France

Touring the Archeological Sites of Burgundy – Dijon, France

Touring the Archeological Sites of Burgundy – Dijon, France

Many a road trip starts in Dijon. Located at the northern tip of the legendary stretch of rolling hills dotted with small towns with names like Chablis, Beaune, Meursault, Nuit-Saint-George and Puligny-Montrachet, it is the ideal departure point for “La Route des Grand Crus” (The Great Burgundy Vintages Road). But with its rich history reaching back to pre-Roman times, Dijon is also the logical place to begin an exploration of the many archeological sites of the region.

Back in Time

Dijon-Darcy Fountain.

The fountain at the Garden Darcy.

My journey back in time begins in the Jardin Darcy, the lush 19th century one-hectare (2.5 acre) neo-Renaissance public garden in heart of town. After a quick pause to admire its fountain cascading into a vast oval basin at the entrance of the park, and the famous “Polar Bear in its Stride” sculpture by local artist Francois Pompon (circa 1922), I head down the a few steps to the Rue de la Liberté (Freedom Street).

 

Dijon-rue Liberté

Medieval houses on the Rue de la Liberté.

Known as the Rue de Condé until the Revolution (1789), and the town’s main artery since medieval times, it is lined with buildings dating mostly from the 15th century to the 18th century, many of them classified as historic monuments. A busy shopping street from the start, it features storefronts at street level, topped by residential floors. A leisurely walk down this historic pedestrian mall leads to the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy.

 

The Capital of Burgundy

Dijon-ducal place detail.

Facade detail of the Ducal Palace.

Already a crossroad of several Celtic trade routes long before Roman times, Dijon became the capital of the Kingdom of Burgundy in the 5th century. Annexed in 1004 to the crown of France as the Duchy of Burgundy, it grew in power and wealth through the ages. By the 14th century the Dukes of Burgundy were Peers of the Realm and a force to be reckoned with. They held their court in Dijon, making it one of the great provincial cities of country.

Dijon-John the Fearless monument.

The funerary monument of John the Fearless.

The Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy (or Ducal Palace) is the most important monument in Dijon. What had begun as a simple fortress in the 9th century was entirely rebuilt by Duke Philip the Bold (1342-1404), with his successors adding on to the palace for the next three centuries to create a sumptuous architectural ensemble going from the Gothic to Renaissance to Classic style. Today the left wing houses a number of city services including city hall, the city archives and the tourism office, while the vast right wing is holds the magnificent Musée des Beaux Arts  (Museum of Fine Arts). A major section is dedicated to the history of Burgundy and the Dukes, including the superb tombs of John the Fearless, his wife Margaret of Bavaria and Philip the Bold, and three remarkable altarpieces.

The Churches of Dijon

Dijon-Saint Michel portal.

The Gothic portal of the Saint Michel Church is heavily decorated  with a mix of religious and secular subjects.

Saint Michel, an imposing parish church located just a stone throw away from the Ducal Palace, is unique for its architectural split-personality. By the end of the 15th century its congregation, having outgrown its ancient Romanesque church, commissions a new  one in the flamboyant Gothic style of the time. It includes a deep, cathedral-worthy triple portal heavily carved with a startling mix of religious and secular subjects. David slaying Goliath, John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness and Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene co-exist with Leda and her swan, Cupid at the toilette of Venus and the labors of Hercules. Apparently fund-raising doesn’t keep up, construction is slow and the Renaissance takes over. The façade especially, with its towers of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns, is a perfect representation of the style, making Saint Michel a superb illustration of this major transition in European art.

Dijon-Notre Dame,

The roofline of Notre Dame of Dijon is a masterpiece of early Gothic architecture.

Dijon-Saint Benigne crypt.

Columns of the crypt of Saint Benigne are topped by pre-Roman capitals.

Within a five-minute walk of the Saint Michel and the Ducal Palace, the church of Notre Dame of Dijon is widely recognized as a masterpiece of early Gothic architecture, and well worth a visit. If you do go, take a walk along the north side of the church on the Rue de la Chouette (Owl Street). In one of the corner buttresses, a tiny niche holds a carving of an owl, worn smooth over the centuries because of the superstition that it brings luck to those who strokes the bird with their left hand while making a wish. Worth a try.

The Saint Benigne Cathedral is a former abbey church in the Burgundian Gothic style (circa 13th century). Its most impressive feature is its early Romanesque crypt, originally created in 511 to hold the sarcophagus of an early Christian martyr (Saint Benigne). Restored in the 11th century the large circular crypt consists of in inner ring of six columns surrounded by an outer ring of sixteen columns, some of them still topped by their pre-Roman capitals. This crypt is one of the oldest Christian sanctuaries still active in France.

Archeological Treasures

Dijon-Blanot treasure.

The Bronze Age Treasure of Blanot (10tth century B.C.) includes remarkable gold jewelry.

Dijon-Gallic offerings.

Votive offerings to the Gallic goddess of the Seine River.

Around the corner from Saint Benigne, what was once the cloister of the abbey is now home to the Dijon Archeological Museum with its exceptional collection of relics discovered within the region. Highlights include the Treasure of Blanot (a small village some 100 kilometer (65 miles) south of Dijon, a Bronze Age treasure of amazingly sophisticated gold necklaces, belts and leg ornaments, as well as bronze and pottery household items.

Another gallery is dedicated to votive offerings to Sequana, the Gallic goddess of the Seine River, worshiped for her healing powers. These artefacts were found in a 2nd century BC shrine by the spring that is the source of the river, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of Dijon. The museum also displays Gallo-Roman stone carvings and objects of every life, and early medieval weapons and jewels, all an irrefutable testimony of the presence of man in Burgundy from prehistoric times through the middle ages.

Dijon-Ducal Palace

The Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – By Train. Dijon is less than two hours from Paris-Gare de Lyon by high-speed train (TGV), with multiple departures throughout the day. There are also regular train services from a variety of destinations, including major cities in France as well as Italy, Switzerland, Luxemburg, Belgium and beyond. By car. The city is well connected to freeway and highway networks. However, traffic is limited within the centre of the city, and visitors are urged to park their vehicle for the duration of their visit.
  • Getting around – Most of the center of the city is closed to car traffic, well paved and a joy to wander around on foot. Complimentary maps and pamphlets for self-guided tours are available at the Dijon Tourist Office, 11 Rue des Forges, open daily from 9:30 am to 6:30 pm from April to September and 9:30 am to 1:00 pm – 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm from October to March. Sunday and national holidays: 10:00 am to 4:00.  Complimentary smart phone apps of guided tours around the city may also be downloaded – links are on the Tourist office website.
  • Staying – There is a wealth of short-term lodging options to suit all preferences and budgets in and around Dijon. On this recent two-night stay, I chose the historic four-star Grand Hôtel la Cloche, 14 Place Darcy, 21000, Dijon. Contact: Tel. +33 3 80 30 12 32, mail H1202@accor.com.
  • Visiting – The Musée des Beaux Arts, Palais des Ducs et des Etats de Bourgogne, Dijon, is open daily Wednesday to Monday, from 10:00 am to 6:30 pm. Closed on Tuesday and national holidays. The Musée Archéologique, 5 Rue Docteur Maret, is open daily Wednesday through Monday. Closed on Tuesday and national holidays. Opening hours vary with the season and are available on the website of the museum.

Location, location, location!

Dijon

The Capital of Art Nouveau – Riga, Latvia

The Capital of Art Nouveau – Riga, Latvia

Since its foundation in 1201, Riga, the capital of Latvia, has been shaped by the rise and fall of the surrounding foreign powers that successively held sway over country. First Germany, then Sweden and finally Russia, all left their mark on the architectural heritage of the historic Old Town. Yet it is Riga’s Art Nouveau District that is now the city’s main claim to fame.

What is Art Nouveau?

Riga-Art Nouveau window.

Fragment of facade at 4 Alberta Street (M. Eisenstein -1904).

Riga-Art Nouveau Greek.

The house at 4 Strelnieku Street (M. Eisenstein, 1905), embodies a variety of Art Nouveau elements.

Art Nouveau is an artistic rebellion that swept through Europe for two decades at the turn of the 20th century. Led by a generation of brilliant designers, it sought to liberate the visual arts from the rigid constrains of the past and develop a new style inspired by the natural world.

In residential architecture, Art Nouveau adopted a humanistic approach to the urban environment. It focused on combining utilitarian structural elements with the new artistic values, while enhancing the functionality of the buildings for the comfort of their inhabitants. In many European cities where the Industrial Revolution was generating a construction boom, architects became enthusiastic practitioners of the style, adorning their facades with flowing lines, undulating contours, mythical animals and geometric ornaments. Throughout Europe, Art Nouveau architecture became a statement of national modernity and aesthetic tastes.

 

Dragons guard the entrance at 8 Antonijas Lela Street (K. Pēkšēns – 1903).

By the time the style reached Riga, the city was experiencing an unprecedented, industry-fueled affluence and exponential population growth. Wealthy entrepreneurs eager to become landlords commissioned hundreds of multi-story buildings. By the onset of the First World War, forty percent of all buildings in central Riga were built in the Art Nouveau style.

 

 

Art Nouveau in the Old Town

Riga-Smilsu 2.

Peacocks are a popular motive in architectural friezes. Here at 2 Smilsu Street (K. Pēkšēns – 1903).

Riga-Smilsu 6

This Smilšu Street 6 banking institution is decorated with Neo-Classic-style mosaics. (V. L. Bokslafs – 1912)

Throughout its history, Riga had been contained within the fortifications of the Old Town, where the city’s prosperous merchants had built lofty houses embellished with elaborate portals and ornate façades. The entrances of their warehouses were similarly decorated with sculptural moldings as a sign of distinction. Over the centuries, as new constructions were added, the facades of existing homes were altered with at least some elements reflecting the latest trends.

By the turn of the 20th century, even as architects began, cautiously at first, to propose buildings in the new style, a number houses in the Old Town still showed Baroque facades, albeit with such Art Nouveau elements as colored mosaics, unusually shaped windows, or the occasional rooftop statues. However, by respecting the influence of preceding architectural styles, Art Nouveau architects ensured that all the elements of over half a millennium of architecture could coexist harmoniously in the Old Town.

 

 

The Art Nouveau District

No such restrains applied to the Art Nouveau District, where architects and their patrons had a blank slate.

Riga-10b Elizabetes Street .

One of the most striking examples of early Art Nouveau can be seen at 10b Elizabetes Street (M. Eisenstein – 1903).

Riga-Alberta Street 2a.

The building at 2a Alberta Street is a potpourri of Neo-Classic, Neo-Egyptian and Art Nouveau (M. Eisenstein – 1906).

After the ramparts were dismantled in 1865 and the moat transformed into a park, the Old Town was encircled by a wide boulevard. Beyond it, a new neighborhood was free to expand, laid out in a grid pattern; the only restriction being its height. No construction could exceed six stories or 21 meters (70 feet). Within this framework, a modern city, now paradoxically known at the Historic District (or more commonly the Art Nouveau District) became an architectural free-for-all. Although fine examples of Art Nouveau design can be found throughout the neighborhood, the highest density of creations, ranging from spectacular to mind-boggling, is concentrated along three intersecting streets: Elizabetes, Alberta and Strelnieku.

On Alberta alone, where the entire street was built over a period of seven years (from 1901 to 1908), eight buildings are now recognized as national architectural monuments (at numbers 2, 2a, 4, 6, 8, 11, 12 and 13). From these, a staggering five were designed by Russian architect Mikhail Eisenstein (numbers 2, 2A, 4, 6, 8). While not the most prolific on the Riga architectural scene of the time, Eisenstein left the most vivid imprint on the district.  Any one of his 19 buildings is instantly identifiable by the overwhelming potpourri of human and mythical elements, and the vivid ceramic tiles that adorns its façade.

Konstantins Pēkšēns’ residence at 12 Alberta Street now houses the Art Nouveau Museum ( K. Pēkšēns 1908).

Even more influential, however, was Konstantins Pēkšēns, who contributed well over 30 buildings to the Art Nouveau district alone, and is now widely regarded as one of the most prominent Latvian architects of all times. His creations are remarkable for the abundance and variety of their decorative elements. But more importantly, they strongly espouse the overarching Art Nouveau principle that the beauty of a building should not depend solely on exterior ornamentation, but also on enhancing its utilitarian function and layout. A visit to his 12 Alberta building, now home to the Art Nouveau Museum, offers a clear illustration of his vision.

 

Beyond Architecture

Riga-Art Nouveau Museum.

Ornate stained glass windows decorate the breakfast nook of K. Pēkšēns’ apartment.

Located in Pēkšēns’ own apartment, the museum is ideal opportunity to get an insider’s impression of life in the golden age of Art Nouveau. The building’s central staircase, a beautifully renovated six-story swirling work of art, is in itself worth a visit.

The apartment captures the essence of the style, in the layout of the rooms, original wall and ceiling paintings, stained-glass windows and objects of everyday life. In a corner of the oak-paneled dining room, the mahogany table of the breakfast nook is set with period silverware and china. Next to the bathroom, the water closet features one the newly introduced flush toilets. As you walk through the apartment, every detail is a reminder that Art Nouveau extended far beyond architecture to the design of furniture, and all manners of home goods and clothing, to become a way of life.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – By air. Riga International Airport, with direct flights from major cities in Europe, is located 10 kilometers southwest of the city. There is a minibus shuttle (Airport Express) every 30 minutes with fixed stops at several hotels in the old town (cost was €5 pp at the time of this writing). However, several taxi companies operate from the airport to the centre of the city for a fixed, pre-paid price of €15 if pre-booked online or via your hotel. Otherwise, metered rates apply if paid to the driver. A ride to the Old Town takes 20 minutes.
  • Getting around – A short walk across the park from the Old Town, the Art Nouveau District with its grid layout, wide sidewalks, and so much to see along the streets, is definitely best visited on foot.
  • Staying – There is an abundance of short-term lodging options throughout the Old Town and the Historic District, ranging from efficiency apartments to boutique hotels and international chains. On this recent stay, I chose the Konventa Sēta Hotel, Kalēju iela 9/11, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1050for its ideal location in a quiet enclave in the heart of the Old Town. Housed in a former convent now designated as a historic monument, the property consisted of seven buildings around an interior cobblestone courtyard. It had been fully renovated with all modern amenities, and decorated in the functional, minimalist décor that is typical of Northern European hotels. The very reasonable room-rate included a generous buffet breakfast and reliable Wi-Fi throughout the property. The front desk staff spoke proficient English and was unfailingly helpful and pleasant. Contact: tel.  +371 60008700, e-mail konventaseta@rixwell.com-mail.
  • Eating– For a relaxing lunch break in the Art Nouvau Distrist, I enjoyed the laid-back The Flying Frog (or Lidojošā varde in Latvian) at 31 Elizabetese Street, for its seasonal menu of freshly prepared cosmopolitan offerings, large covered terrace and efficient service. The Flying Frog is open daily from 10:00 am to midnight. Contact: tel. +371 67 321 184, email lidojosavarde@inbox.lv.
  • Visiting –  The Art Nouveau Museum 12 Alberta Street, LV1010 Riga, is open Tuesday through Sunday for 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed on Monday. Note – entrance is around the corner on Strēlnieku Street. Contact: tel.+371 67181465,  email jugendstils@riga.lv.
  • UNESCO Designation – The Historic Center of Riga was designated as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 1997.

Location, location, location!

Riga Art Nouveau District

A Living Illustration of Baltic History – Riga, Latvia

A Living Illustration of Baltic History – Riga, Latvia

Riga, the capital of Latvia, is a city few people outside of the Baltic States have heard of, in a country many can’t place on a map.

Riga-Daugava River.

The Old Town sits at the mouth of the Daugava River.

Yet the port city at the mouth of the Daugava River, half way down the Baltic coast, has been a critical center of trade between Northern and Eastern Europe since it was founded in 1201 by Albert, the bishop of Bremen, Germany, and his crusading knights. By the end of the 13th century, it had become a key port of the Hanseatic League, the German confederation of merchant guilds that grew to dominate Baltic maritime commerce for three centuries. Next came the Swedish kings, followed by Russian tsars. All left their imprint along the winding cobble streets of the Old Town.

The Hanseatic Heritage

The narrow streets and colorful squares of Riga’s Old Town are lined with architectural reminders of its Medieval-era Hanseatic prosperity.

Riga-Cathedral Baroque organ.

The pipe organ of the Riga cathedral retains its 16th century Baroque facade.

The Dome Cathedral – After its foundation stone was laid in 1211, it grew to become the central cathedral in the Baltic States. In addition to its religious functions, it also served as the main venue in the city for concerts, a dual function it retains to this day. Although some additional Gothic, Baroque and even Art Nouveau features were added over time, it is still considered the largest Medieval church in Baltic States.

Riga- St Peter nave.

The elegant Gothic nave features a soaring “palm tree”  vault.

Saint Peter’s Church– Only a few walls and pillars remain from its original 1209 construction. Rebuilt in the 15th century, the nave is a soaring Gothic masterpiece. But the most significant feature of St. Peter is its 123 meters (400 feet) octagonal spire, the tallest in the city and a prime example of 13th century Northern Gothic style. An elevator added during its latest renovation in 1967 takes visitors to the second gallery. At a height of 74 meters (240 feet) it offers a unique circular view over the entire city.

 

Riga-House of Blackheads

The House of the Blackheads.

The House of the Blackheads – It started as “the New House” in 1334, built as one of the elements of Riga’s Town Hall Square; hence its distinctive Dutch Renaissance stepped façade. It was intended as a gathering place for traders and shippers who oversaw the commerce links between the West and East that were the city’s economic lifeline. Soon, it also became a favorite meeting place for the young, unmarried traders (black heads), who turned it into the heart of the local social scene. Today’s visitors can experience the many faces of the House of the Blackheads, from its grand Assembly Hall, where the portraits of the Swedish and Russian royal families glare at each other across the floor, to its original 14th century basement storerooms.

From Romanesque to Art Nouveau

Riga-Old Town corner.

Centuries of architectural trends coexist in the Old Town.

By the 17th century, Riga has become the largest provincial town of Sweden. By the turn of the 20th century, it is an industrial powerhouse, the fourth city of the Russian Empire, topped only by Moscow, St. Petersburg and Warsaw. Throughout its development, it remains a modern city that keeps up with the trends in architecture and urban planning. From Romanesque to Gothic, Northern Baroque and Neoclassic to Art Nouveau, the city offers a unique legacy of the evolution of northern European architecture. Today, 800 years of successive styles harmoniously coexist in the Old Town.

Riga-Central Park.

The city’s old moat is now a park that separates the Old City from the Historic Center.

With the demolition of the medieval ramparts in 1865, the ancient moat becomes a picturesque canal snaking along a thin belt of parkland. Beyond it, Riga is free to expand, at a time when the Industrial Revolution is bringing unprecedented prosperity and a sudden population explosion to the city. Beyond the park, a new neighborhood comes to life, laid out in a modern grid pattern and subject only to a single restriction. No construction can exceed six stories or 21.3 meters (70 feet), thus ensuring a degree of urban homogeneity, even as streets quickly become lined with grand buildings in the exuberant new style that is turning heads throughout Europe.

 

The Art Nouveau Capital

Riga-Old Town Art Nouveau,

Old Town Art Nouveau building at 2 Smilsu Street (Architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns – 1902)

By the early 1900’s, with some 50 Art Nouveau buildings of note in its Old Town and more than 300 in the new neighborhood across the park, now the Historic Center, Riga boasts the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture in the world. Some of the most extravagant examples of the style can be found here, all the more stunning for their diversity.

Riga-Eisenstein 8 Alberta.

Art Nouveau District building at 8 Alberta Street (Architect Mikhail Eisenstein – 1903)

Alberta iela is the Art Nouveau epicenter of Riga, with every building along the 250-meter (850 foot) long residential street a unique representation of the style, created by the leading architects of the time (Mikhail Eisenstein, Konstantīns Pēkšēns and Eižens Laube). In a era when over-the-top design is just the beginning, Eisenstein, who has five buildings to his credit on Alberta alone, still manages to stand out with his monumental facades teaming with crowned godheads, Egyptian and Zoroastrian symbols, Greek goddesses, nests of slithering snakes and hybrid peacock-griffin creatures. The street, and indeed the entire neighborhood, is so rich in mythical and symbolic details that it deserves several visits to absorb.

Europe’s Largest Market

Riga-Central Market

Located in five former Zeppelin hangars, the Riga Central Market is considered the largest in Europe.

Just south of the city’s canal, wedged between the railroad tracks of the central train station and the Daugava River, five First World War German Zeppelin hangars were converted in the 1920’s into the city’s central market. The cavernous halls hold a sprawling complex of stalls overflowing with smoked fish, charcuteries, fresh vegetables, brightly decorated cakes and every imaginable foodstuff, as well as tiny makeshift bars and fried fish shacks. In one of the halls, clothing merchants hawk everything from local felt slippers and multicolored hand-knit sweaters to garish polyester fashion that looks like a throw back to 1960’s USSR and Russian heavy metal band T-shirts. The experience is as “traditional Riga” as you can get.

The Old Town stretches along the Daugava River.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – By air. Riga International Airport, with direct flights from most European capitals and major cities, is located 10 kilometers southwest of the city. There is a minibus shuttle (Airport Express) every 30 minutes with fixed stops at several hotels near the airport and in the old town (cost is €5 pp at the time of this writing). However, several taxi companies operate from the airport to the centre of the city for a fixed, pre-paid price of €15 if pre-booked online or via your hotel (otherwise, metered rates apply if paid to the driver.) Service to the Old Town takes 20 minutes. In general, regular taxi can be expensive if the meter is used and a fixed price is not negotiated. By Bus and train – There are international bus and train connections between Riga and most major cities in the other Baltic States (Estonia and Lithuania), as well as a few cities in Russia and Belarus.  Ferry – Tallink operates a daily ferry service between Stockholm and Riga. The journey takes 17 hours.
  • Getting around – The Old Town and Art Nouveau District are rather compact and best explored on foot. The Old Town is paved with rounded cobblestone streets that may be hard to walk on if you are not wearing appropriate shoes. Outside of the Old Town, most streets are paved with asphalt.
  • Staying – There is an abundance of short-term lodging options throughout the city center, ranging from efficiency apartments to boutique and international chains hotel. On this recent stay, I chose the Konventa Seta Hotel, Kalēju iela 9/11, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1050for its ideal location in a quiet enclave in the heart of the Old Town. Housed in a former convent that is designated as a historic monument, the property consists of seven buildings around interior courtyards. It has been fully renovated with  modern amenities, and decorated in the functional, minimalist décor that is typical of Northern European hotels. The very reasonable room-rate included a generous buffet breakfast and reliable Wi-Fi throughout the property. The front desk staff spoke proficient English and was unfailingly helpful and pleasant. Contact: tel. +371 60008700, e-mail: konventaseta@rixwell.com-mail
  • Visiting – The Dome Cathedral, Doma laukums 1, Riga, LV 1050, is open every day from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Contact: e-mail doms@doms.lv. St. Peter’s Church, Reformācijas laukums 1, Rīga, LV-1050 is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm and Sunday from 12:00 noon to 6:00 pm. Closed on Monday. Contact : email liena.bogatirevica@riga.lv. The House of the BlackheadsRātslaukums 7, Riga, VL 1050 is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Closed on Monday. The Central Market is open Monday through Saturday from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm and Sunday from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm.
  • Eating –The restaurant scene in Riga has come a long way since Latvia’s independence from the USSR in 1990. While you can still find plenty of eateries offering local dishes based on the traditional local staples: fish, pork, potatoes and cabbage, there is now a full range of new options available from international fast food to regional pubs and refined, chef-driven restaurants serving imaginative dishes using locally sourced seasonal products. The best one I came across during this recent stay was the Domini Canes, Skārņu iela 18/20, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1050, coincidentally located a two-minute walk from my hotel, on the small square facing the historic St. Peter’s church. It seems I am not the only one to delight in their succulent garlic butter sautéed sea scallops with mashed swedes (rutabaga) or their slow-roased lamb shank with red-wine poached beets and carrot-caraway purée. Reservations are a must every day for dinner. Open every day from 10:00 am to 11:00 pm. Contact: tel. +371 22 314 122. Another delightful place I stumbled onto is Parunasim kafe’teeka,  Mazā Pils iela 4, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1050. From this backstreet of the Old Town, let the blackboard arrow guide you to the courtyard entrance of this cozy coffee shop. The old-fashion pastry case is filled with home baked goodies that are a perfect foil for the best cappuccino and hot chocolate in town. There is also a courtyard terrace in the summer. Contact: tel.+371 25 663 533.
  • UNESCO designation – Riga’s Old Town, Art Nouveau District and Central Market were designated UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

Location, location, location!

Riga Old Town

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

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