From the Vineyards to the Sea – the Douro River

From the Vineyards to the Sea – the Douro River

A gauzy veil of early morning mist hovers over Porto’s Ribeira pier when we board the Tomaz de Douro for a daylong cruise to the birthplace of the celebrated Vinho do Porto. The prized liquid gold of Portugal may be coming of age right across the river, in the Gaia cellars of world-renowned Port producers, but it is some 60 kilometers (40 miles) upriver, in the famed vineyards of the Douro Valley that it all begins.

A Cruise Back in Time

Douro-Maria Pia Bridge.

Gustave Eiffel’s Maria Pia Bridge (circa 1877) straddles the Douro just upriver from the historic center of Porto

Leaving behind the bustle of the piers and the soaring bridges of Porto, we meander upstream between the cliff-like banks. Soon the dense mosaic of homes climbing the hills of historic Porto fades away, gradually replaced by stately haciendas surrounded by lush vegetation. Eventually, just as the sun begins to pierce through the mist, we enter a pristine nature preserve. Herons feed in the shallows and bright kayaks silently slide by on their way downstream.

Douro-pink hacienda.

Haciendas dot the banks of the Douro.

After days of roaming through the cobbled city streets, it is a treat to settle on the viewing deck and watch villages drift by. By late morning, we reach the first of the two locks on our itinerary, a reminder that the Douro was not always the serene river we enjoy today. Until it was tamed by a series of dams in the 20th century, it was a turbulent stream coming from the high sierras of northwestern Spain. Starting in the 1960’s, dams and locks were built to normalize traffic along the river.

Douro-Crestuma lock.

The lock of the Crestuma-Lever Dam.

Shortly after we enter the lock of the Crestuma-Lever Dam, lunch is announced in glassed-in dining room on the lower deck. It is a formally served meal of traditional local fare, preceded by an appetizer of assorted bacalhau (dry, salted cod), vegetable and cheese fritters paired with glass of lovely white Port aperitif. By the end of the meal, we pass through the lock of the Carrapatelo Dam and landscape changes. The wild slopes turn into socalcos, the terraced vineyards hewn into the riverbanks. They follow the sinuous contours of the valley to mold a unique landscape with its own microclimate. It is this product of two millennia of human labor that has earned the Douro vineyard their UNESCO World Heritage status in 2001.

Two Millenia of Human Labor

Douro-Terraced vineyards.

The terraced vineyards of the Douro.

Harvest time came early this year, and in the fading days of summer the sprawling whitewashed quintas (country estates) and the yellowing rows of gnarly vines that surround them are a surprisingly silent place. Suddenly, a familiar black silhouette materializes among the ripple of terraces. It’s the world famous Sandeman Don (or Sir) draped in his traditional Portuguese student’s cape and wide Spanish hat, growing to gigantesque proportions as we draw nearer. We definitely are in the heart of Port country.

Douro-Sandeman.

The familiar silhouette of the Sandeman Don overlooks the rippling vineyards.

The Tomaz de Douro pulls into the sleepy little town of Peso da Régua, where Pedro Batista, the friendly English-speaking guide who has been with us throughout the cruise, shepherds us to the tiny train station a short walk away from the dock for the two-hour ride back to Porto. “The best views are on the left side,” he hints as we board.

Whilst serious oenophiles may want to extend their time of the area with visits of some of the famous quintas, I find this daylong cruise to be a comprehensive introduction to the spectacular Douro Valley. And the slow, cliff-hugging ride back to Porto on a train of another century offered yet another perspective of the unique landscapes of the oldest wine-growing regions in Europe.

Douro-Panorama

Westward to the Sea

Although the city of Porto is located inland from the Atlantic, the Douro’s estuary is just an easy ninety-minute walk from the Ribeira waterfront, following the right bank of the river to the sea. Along the way, you pass through the colorful medieval neighborhood of Miragaia. Located outside of the old city walls, this arrabalde (suburb), it is where the Jews and Armenians of Porto used to live.

Douro-Foz Lighthouse.

The Felgueiras Lighthouse in Foz do Douro.

In Miragia, houses are constructed below the level of the Douro, on an ancient beach where the boats of the Discoveries Era were built, to carry explorers headed for the Cape of Good Hope and settlers bound for outposts of the empire. Nowadays the houses are protected by a wall, their upper floors built over arches that give that give the whole neighborhood a unique atmosphere. Keep going and you pass the small fishing village of Afurada before reaching the seaside resort town of Foz do Douro. Its lovely 19th century Passeio Alegre Garden with its grove of palm trees overlooking the ocean was designed by German landscape architect Emille David (of Crystal Palace Gardens fame).

Douro-Matosinhos Sardines.

Grilled Sardines and Vinho Verde are a Matosinhos tradition.

It’s another hour-long walk along the shore to Matosinhos. Today, the town’s long fishing tradition is most noticeable by the large charcoal grills in front of its many seafood restaurants. A variety of fish, from sardines and sea bass to cod and shad are roasting in the open air. The restaurants are packed with locals. Join them for a bountiful meal of fresh grilled fish and boiled potatoes drizzled with olive oil, washed down with a glass of refreshing Vinho Verde (green wine, which in this case refer to the young age of the wine rather than its color). It’s the perfect way to cap the long morning walk by the sea.

Douro-Atlantic Sails,

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – To the sea. If you prefer not to walk, or for the return trip to the city, the most scenic bus line route in Porto (bus 500), departs from the center of the city (at Aveniad dos Allados). It crosses the historic center and follows the coast to end at the Matosinhos central market. You can catch the bus at any stop along the way in either direction and purchase a ticket from the conductor (€1,70 at the time of my visit). To the Douro Vineyards. There are a number of companies with varied boat types offering cruises from Porto the Douro vineyards. At the recommendation of a local acquaintance, I opted for the Tomaz do Douro, with offices at Praça da Ribeira  5, 4050-513 Porto. Contact: tel. +351 222 081 935, e-mail. geral@tomazdodouro.com.
  • Best avoided unless you yearn for a bygone era transportation experience. A rickety tram (line 1) outfitted with old leather seats and wood paneling departs half-hourly (more or less) from Praca do Infante Square where tourists jostle for position in an unruly waiting line. It follows the river non-stop to Esplanada do Castelo on the Foz de Douro waterfront. The ride takes about 25 minutes and cost €2.50. The tram is usually packed, so chances are that you will be too busy trying to keep your balance as it rocks along to enjoy any of the scenery.

 

Location, location, location!

Douro River Valley.

Traditional Portugal At Its Finest – Porto

Traditional Portugal At Its Finest – Porto

Porto has the enduring charm of medieval cities that grew from their river. Today its Ribeira (literally riverbank”) waterfront is a picturesque promenade that welcomes throngs of visitors who, after a day of scaling the steep cobble streets of the city on a treasure hunt for its elaborately gilded churches and public buildings clad in blue ceramic Azulejos, enjoy relaxing at one of the many café terraces. Here they can sip a leisurely glass of Port, while gazing at the far bank of the Douro, Vila Nova de Gaia (or simply Gaia), where the word-famous nectar still ages. On the river, the traditional rabelos, the flat bottom boats that once ferried the wine from the vineyards some 100 kilometers (60 miles) upstream now offer popular tours under the six soaring bridges of the city while seagulls glide overhead on the Atlantic breeze.

Porto-Laundry_Flags.

The narrow balconies of aged appartment-houses are draped with fluttering laundry and the flags of local soccer supporters.

But step through one of the ancient arches that line this postcard-perfect riverfront, and you find the soul of Ribeira waiting for you up the winding streets. An unruly jumble of skinny houses clings like barnacles to the precipitous hills, their aged facades speaking of many generations of hard-working residents. The little wrought iron balconies are draped with fluttering laundry and flags that proudly announce support for the national football team (or soccer if you are in North America). Narrow storefronts display the stuff of everyday life, and the tantalizing scent of grilling sardines leads you to tiny family-run restaurants where you can feast on simple traditional fare, warm welcome included.

A Tale of Two Markets

Porto-Hard Club

Once an Art Nouveau covered market, Mercado Ferriera Borges is now an art exhibit and concert space.

Yet there are signs of evolution. A couple of blocks up from the waterfront, the renovated steel-and-glass structure of the Mercado Ferriera Borges, a grand Art Nouveau covered market built in 1885, was recently reborn as the Hard Club. Today, it houses art exhibit and concert spaces, a bookstore, a restaurant and bars. Events staged here can vary from photo exhibits to crafts fairs to indie rock concerts.

Porto-Mercado_Bolhao

A sizeable section of the Mercado do Bolhao is dedicated to fresh produce.

In stark contrast, a 20-minute walk away, little seems to have changed at the two-story Mercado do Bolhao since it opened in 1914. Dedicated mainly to fresh products, it is divided in specialized sections: fruit and vegetable, flowers, meat, fish (you can still hear fishwives hawking their catch), cheeses and deli products. In recent years, the inevitable souvenir shops have claimed a section as well. On the ground floor, there is also a sprinkle of stalls where you can eat fish so fresh it probably was still swimming in the Atlantic yesterday, and sample local cheeses and wines. Less than ten euros will get you lunch and a total immersion experience of the real Porto.

 

Art Nouveau Institutions

Porto-Livraria_Lello.

Behind its Neo-Gothic façade by architect Francisco Esteves, the Lello Bookstore has been a Porto institution since 1906.

From “one of the world’s most beautiful bookshops” to “an Art Nouveau masterpiece,” guidebooks rival in hyperboles to point you to Livraria Lello, a Porto landmark since the turn of the 19th century. Behind the Neo-Gothic façade, a curvaceous two-story staircase with ornate woodcarvings that match the intricate columns and wall panels dominate the illustrious literary emporium. Rumored to have inspired J.K. Rowling in her depictions of Hogwarts, the shop has become a pilgrimage site for Harry Potter fans from all over the world. Crowds are such that Lello now charges a €5.5 entrance fee (to be credited toward your potential purchase) and urges on its website to purchase tickets ahead for a specified day and time to avoid the long lines. What of the books? They are still there, some 60,000 volumes in Portuguese, Spanish, English and French, stacked high toward the stain glass ceiling. But they seem an afterthought to the visitors who jostle for selfie opportunities on the famous staircase.

Porto-Vida_Portuguesa.

All manners of traditional Portuguese products are available at A Vida Portuguesa.

For a more laidback shopping experience through a general store of a bygone era, step right around the corner to A Vida Portuguesa (Portuguese Life) on the second floor of the venerable Fernandes Mattos (circa 1866) store. Once dedicated to fabrics and sewing supplies, Fernandes Mattos morphed over time into a funky gift shop where you can browse through all manners of funky stuff from cotton handbags to fun kitchen gadget, as you head toward the elegant staircase with its back wall covered with A Vida Portuguesa’s trademark ceramic sparrows. On the light-filled second floor, displayed on original 19th century store fittings, you will find every imaginable type of traditional Portuguese products from notebooks, pencils and cans of sardines in their retro-style packaging to lettuce ware china. And from the balcony you can enjoy a unique close-up view of Porto’s iconic Clerigos Tower.

The Gardens of the Crystal Palace

Porto-View_Crystal_Palace.

View of the Gaia from the Gardens of the Crystal Palace.

Regrettably, all that remains of the 19th century Palacio de Cristal is the name, the original glass and steel structure having been replaced in the 1950’s by a huge UFO-like domed sports arena. However, the eight-hectare (20 acre) park landscaped to complement the original building has fared much better. Today, it is a mosaic of luxuriant terraced gardens dotted with fountains and sculptures that reveal themselves along with stunning views of the city and the Douro, as you wander down toward the river. Under a canopy of giant magnolias and cypress trees, the sun-dappled lawns are favorite picnic spots for local families, and students of the nearby university neighborhood of Massarelos.

Little Frenchie

Porto-Franscesinha.

This Franscesinha sandwich is drizzled with Port Wine for good measure.

It’s impossible to speak of Porto’s daily life without mentioning the Franscesinha. When this Little Frenchie got its name vary from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, depending on whom you ask. But its origin is usually attributed to some returned immigrant from France who tried to adapt the croque-monsieur to the Portuguese taste. One thing is certain, there is nothing little about this cholesterol bomb of a sandwich that has by now found its way onto the menu of every eatery in town, from humble diners to posh epicurean venues. Order this Portuense right of passage and in between two thick slabs of white bread, you get generous slices of steak, ham and two different kinds of sausage in a shroud of melted cheese, on a bed of thick, spicy tomato and beer sauce. For good measure it is traditionally topped with a fried egg, (although some trendier establishments will replace it with a drizzle of Port Wine) and a mound of French fried on the side. Bom Apetite!

Porto-Rabelos_Regatta.

Rabelos Regatta sails under the Arrabiata Bridge.

Good to Know

  • Getting there –The Porto International Airport, with direct flights from most major European cities, is located 17 kilometers (10 miles) north of the city, and easily accessible from the center of town via direct metro line. If you prefer door-to-door service, taxi fare is around €20 -25.
  • Getting around – The best way to get around the web of narrow cobble streets of the touristic center of Porto is on foot, with comfortable walking shoes a must. If walking is a challenge or to go farther afield, Porto offers an extensive public transportation system, mainly metro and buses, operated by the Sociedade de Transportes Colectivos do Porto to reach the top attractions in and around the city. Bus fare can be purchased on-board, metro cards at the station.
  • Visiting – The Central Tourist Information Office , 25, Rua Clube dos Fenianos, is open every day from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. Tel: +351 223 393472. Hard Club ( previously Mercado Ferriera Borges), l Rua do Infante D. Henrique, 4050 Porto, is open daily except Monday, from 11:00 am to midnight. Mercado do Bolhao, Rua Formosa, 4000-214 Porto, is open Monday through Friday from 7:00 am to 5:00 pm and Saturday from 7:00 am through 1:00 pm. Closed on Sunday. Livraria Lello, Rua das Carmelitas 144, 4050-161 Porto, is open daily from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm. Contact: Tel.+351 22 200 2037. A Vida Portuguesa, Rua Galeria de Paris 20 – 1º, 4050-162 Porto, is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm and Sunday and holidays from 11:00 am to 7 pm. Contact: Tel. +351 222 022. Jardim do Palácio de Cristal, Rua de Entre-Quintas 20, 4050-240 Porto, is open daily from 8:00 am to 9:00 pm

Location, location, location!

Gardens of the Crystal Palace

Days of Port and Churches – Porto, Portugal

Days of Port and Churches – Porto, Portugal

The history of Porto reaches back to the 1st century BC when, under Roman rule, the city on the banks of the Douro played an important role on the trade route between Lisbon and Braga. Little remains of Portus Cale, as it was then known, other than the origins of the name Portugal. And the foundations upon which the city anchored itself up the steep hills that border the river, creating the mosaic of medieval, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical architecture that captivates today’s visitor.

Porto-Ribeira waterfront.

The Ribeira neighborhood rises from the waterfront.

Behind the colorful waterfront of tall houses and medieval arcades of the Ribeira neighborhood, a maze of winding cobble streets climbs toward a skyline punctuated with the bell towers of dozen of churches. Meanwhile, on the Vila Nova de Gaia (or simply Gaia) side of the river, rows upon rows of sprawling warehouses (or cellars as they are called here) bear the names of the most famous Port Wine brands on the planet.

 

 

A Reclining Eiffel Tower

Porto-Ponte Dom Luis I.

The Dom Luis I Bridge connects Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia.

This is the moniker affectionately given by the Portuenses to the soaring bi-level Ponte Dom Luis I that arches over the Douro to link Ribeira to Gaia. Often mistakenly attributed to the famous French engineer, it was build from 1881 to 1886 by one of his disciples, Theophile Seyrig (Eiffel had previously designed the Maria Pia railway bridge a little farther upstream in 1877). More than a way to get across the river, the upper deck of the bridge offers a unique vantage point to soak in the history and vitality of the city, the jumble of terracotta roofs and the medieval Fernandina fortification wall of the Ribeira side, the steady boat traffic on the river and the aerobatics of the seagulls that flock here from the Atlantic shore just a few miles downstream. Meanwhile on the Gaia side, the signs emblazoned on the rooftops reads like the Social Register of Port Wines.

The Call of Port

There are almost fifty Port cellars in Gaia, although not all of them are open to visitors. But all the familiar names, Calem, Croft, Cockburn, Cruz, Ferreira, Taylor, Sandeman, et. al., have tasting rooms, and most of them offer guided visits.

Port-Gaia cellars.

The rooftops of Gaia read like the Social Register of Ports.

Calem is the first cellar along the Cais de Gaia, the avenue along the waterfront as your get off the bridge. One of the top cellars in town, and one of the largest, it offers scheduled 45-minute tours throughout the day in a variety of languages. They feature a walk through the fermentation cellar and barrel room before ending with a tasting of the three main types of Ports: the ubiquitous Tawny, the darker, more full-bodied Ruby and the sweet golden yellow White. In the late afternoon, there is an English tour that ends with an hour-long performance of (somewhat) traditional Fado music in the tasting room.

Porto-Colheita.

Barrels of the prized Colheita single vintage Port are aging in the Calem cellar.

My take on the experience? The visit raised my casual drinker’s appreciation of the Vinho do Porto. In a nutshell, the wine is produced exclusively in the demarcated Douro region, some 100 kilometers (65 miles) up-river from the city. It is fortified with an addition of neutral grape spirit that stops its fermentation, leaving residual sugar in the wine and boosting its alcohol content. It is then transported to the cellars in Gaia, stored in barrels and aged before being bottled and brought to market. It acquired its name in the 17th Century, from the seaport city of Porto where much of it was exported, mainly to Britain. In recent years a Rosé as been added has been added to the three traditional Port varieties. Fermented like any rosé wine with a limited exposure to the grape skins to obtain its pink color, this trendy tipple is finding its way into everything from cocktails to ice cream.

Porto-Tasting.

Port tasting is a major tourist attraction in Porto.

Another interesting visit is the Ferreira cellar, the only major brand that has remained in Portuguese hands since its foundation in 1751. Here, the focus is on one of the iconic figures of the Douro region, Dona Antónia Adelaide Ferreira. She took over the family in business in 1844 after being widowed at the young age of 33, and made a major lifelong contribution to the development of the brand and the evolution of the Douro wine industry. The tour includes a visit to the Old Bar, a 19th century tasting room, for some of the best Douro wines.

Rococo Bling

Porto-Se Rococo altar.

The main altar of the Se Cathedral glows with gilded Rococo woodcarvings

Porto may have gained its notoriety from wine, but it is religion that shaped its historic center. The skyline bristles with churches illustrating the evolution of architecture from Romanesque to Gothic to Baroque. Yet, from the 12th century cathedral (Se do Porto), which has retained its church-fortress Romanesque façade and towers, to the somewhat understated Gothic exteriors of Santa Clara and Sao Francisco, to the startling adjoining Carmelitas (Gothic) and Carmo (Baroque) churches, all display a similar interior style. Step inside, and prepare to be dazzled by the most extravagant Rococo interiors imaginable. Spurred on by the economic prosperity flowing into Portugal from its new world colonies in the 18th Century, especially the discovery of precious stones and gold mines in Brazil, the churches received lavish interior face lifts. The profusion of precious metals and gilded woodcarvings can feel overwhelming but is well worth a visit.

The Azulejo Trail

Porto-Azulejo facade.

Introduced in the 16th Century, azulero-tiled facades remain a common sight in Porto.

To me, however, what most symbolize the city are its azulejo murals. Azulejos (pronounced “azuleyo”), the mainly blue and white ceramic tiles that decorate the churches and public building as well as the façade of apartment buildings, have their origins in the Arabic al-zulaich (polished stones). Initially introduced in the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors in the 13th century, they gained popularity in Portugal following the visit to Seville by King Manuel I in 1501.

Porto-se cathedral azulejo.

In the cloisters of the Se Cathedral, ceramic murals illustrate the Song of Solomon.

First used in traditional geometric repetitive patterns on walls and facades, by the 17th century they had evolved into custom-designed figurative murals representing religious, mythological and satirical scenes, covering vast architectural surfaces of sacred or state buildings. The practice became so widespread that it is now difficult to find any relevant historic building that does not have a façade covered in azulejos.

Porto-Sao Bento.

The São Bento railway station murals represent major milestones of Portugal’s past.

Most notable is the 14th century cloister of the Se Cathedral, which acquired its ceramic frescos depicting the Song of Solomon and the life of the Virgin Marie in 1729, with the two gigantic panels on the upper terrace added even later in the 18th Century. Further up the hill, the Igreja do Carmo (Church of the Carmes) at the corner of the Praça de Carlos Alberto Square and Rua do Carmo, has an outstanding azulero-covered exterior added in 1912.

Another spectacular creation of 20th century azulero artwork is the hall of the French Beaux-Arts style São Bento railway station in the center of the city. Created by Jorge Colaço, it consist of 20,000 tiles that illustrate major milestones of Portugal’s past, its royalty, its historic battles and the history of transportation.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – The Porto International Airport, with direct flights from most major European cities, is located 17 kilometers (10miles) north of the city, and easily accessible from the center of town via direct metro line. If you prefer door-to-door service, taxi fare is around €20 -25.
  • Getting around – Keeping in mind that the touristic center of Porto is a web of narrow, cobbled and winding streets, the best way to get around is on foot, with comfortable walking shoes a must. If walking is a problem or to go farther afield, Porto offers an extensive public transportation system, mainly metro and buses, operated by the Sociedade de Transportes Colectivos do Porto to reach the top attractions in and around the city. Bus fare can be purchased on-board, metro cards at the station.
  • Visiting – The Central Tourist Information Office , 25, Rua Clube dos Fenianos, is open every day from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. Tel: +351 223 393472. Porto Calem, 344, Avenida. de Diogo Leite, 4400-111 Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal, is open daily from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm. Tel: +351 916 113 451. Ferriera, 70 Avenida Diogo Leite, 4440-452 Porto, Portugal, is open daily from 10:00 am to 12:00 pm and 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm. Tel: +351 22 374 6106.

Location, location, location!

Porto

Christian Dior – Designer of Dreams

Christian Dior – Designer of Dreams

The main event of this fall’s fashion season didn’t happen in the rarified runway atmosphere of the Paris Couture Week. It’s been going on through the summer and will continue until the end of the year in the Rohan and Marsan Wings of the Palais du Louvre, home to the prestigious Musée des Arts Décoratifs. And it is a stunner!

Paris-DC red

Some thematic layouts explore the many facettes of fashion.

Billed as the largest fashion exhibition ever staged by the museum, Christian Dior, Couturier du Rêve (Designer of Dreams), is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the creation of the House of Dior with a lavish retrospective featuring more than 300 couture gowns by Dior himself and the six designers who led his house after his death in 1957. All are represented in the show, in a layout that is both chronological and thematic, to weave the story of the man, the house, and couture within the broader concept of art and culture.

Christian Dior, The Man

Paris-CD art gallery

The exhibition begins with an evocation Christian Dior’s early years and his Avant Garde art gallery,

Step through the double doors of a glass interpretation of the façade of the townhouse at 30 Avenue Montaigne, the iconic home of the House of Dior, and the exhibition begins with the making of Christian Dior. Documentary photographs, video clips, sketches, letters and trinkets compile a visual digest of a young man who was born to a bourgeois family in Grandville, on the Normandy seashore and came of age in the Paris of the Roaring Twenties and the Avant Garde art world. Symbolically, the starting point of the exhibition is a bust by Salvador Dali and a photographic reproduction of the progressive art gallery Dior ran from 1928 to 1934, showcasing works by the likes of Calder, Giacometti, Cocteau and Max Jacob.

Paris-CD Margaret.

In a series of wall-size black-and-white photos of women, here a young Princess Margaret, wearing Dior. As the image dissolves, the original gown appears behind the picture.

In turn those artists attended Christian Dior’s fashion debut in 1947, eager to see what this man of eclectic artistic taste would do for a fashion industry devastated by the Second World War. The juxtaposition of Dali and Dior suggests that while they both pushed the boundaries in their respective fields, they also shared tastes for things as outmoded as Art Nouveau and the 18th century. Throughout the exhibition we are reminded that Dior thought of himself as a reactionary, rather than the revolutionary he is widely credited to be. His work as a fashion designer was guided by the romantic influences of his youth. The voluptuous femininity of his designs was his reaction to the drab frugality of the wartime years. In that, he was coincidentally innovative.

The Golden Age of Couture

Paris-Dior daytime debut.

A classic daytime dress from the 1947 Christian Dior debut collection.

The actual couture display begins with a classic daytime dress from 1947. Wasp-waisted, with soft shoulders over a fitted bodice and a full pleated skirt, in a brilliant crimson wool crepe, it stands like a beacon against the gallery’s black-lacquered walls. This is Dior’s “New Look,” the silhouette that brought him instant fame and spread throughout the world of fashion the new post-war ideal of hourglass femininity.

Paris-Dior Colorama.

The “Colorama” gallery is a rainbow of jewel-toned couture treasures.

The visual extravaganza begins with “Colorama,” a treasure-trove labyrinth of dresses, both in full size and miniature, hats, shoes, bags, jewelry and all manners of accessories arranged in a graduated rainbow of colors. It’s a jewel-tone representation of the fashion universe that Christian Dior set in motion with his agreements to start licensing the Dior name and image as early as 1947. Some of the windows are so overflowing with riches that it would take an hour to take in every detail.

Paris-Dior Versailles.

This 18th century Versailles-inspired exhibit illustrates how Dior’s designs chartered the course for his successors.

From there, a succession of thematic galleries are dedicated to the diverse periods and places that inspired the master and charted the course for the designers that came after him. From 18th century Versailles to ancient Egypt and from Masai Africa to Goya’s Spain, everything is anchored by related paintings and artifacts. By now, I have stopped glancing at the discrete captions explaining which dresses are by Dior himself or Gianfranco Ferré or John Galliano. Some are easily recognizable as they play off each other, like the extravagant ball gowns of Dior’s Trianon collection and Galliano’s surreal gold corset and bustle. I go in a dizzying state of sensory overload from gem-encrusted, silk velvet, Ballets Russes-inspired kimonos to the pure lines of a long, Palladian-style sheath of white pleated silk with an intricately embroidered bust, and a startling white taffeta coat gown as a canvas for Hokusai’s Great Wave.

A Dazzling Journey

The  Bar Suit, of the 1947 Sping-Summer collection became the embodiment of the New Look.

I reemerge into the central hall, feeling I’ve been wandering through a world where over-the-top is just the beginning, only to be confirmed that it is. The soaring space is dominated by one creation, sitting right in the center of it in a slick glass case: the seminal Bar Suit, the black and white ensemble with its soft shoulders, nipped-in waist and the undulating corolla skirt that came to embody the New Look. And beyond it, at the entrance of the second half of the exhibit (yes, all of the above is only half of it!), a towering three-tiered glass case displays various iterations of the look that triggered a golden age of fashion.

Paris-CD YSL trapeze.

The 1958 Spring-Summer Trapeze collection by Yves Saint Laurent. It was the 22-year old designer’s first collection for Dior.

The journey continue, chronologically this time, with a succession of six exhibit rooms, one for each of the designers who followed Monsieur Dior: Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons, and most recently Maria Grazia Chiuri. Here the focus is on analyzing how their designs contributed to the evolution of the house while staying faithful to Dior’s vision of haute couture.

Through the Looking Glass

Paris-CD toiles.

An entire hall is dedicated to the toiles of over 100 creations throughout the decades

The next space is a narrow, soaring hall with mirrored walls and ceiling, covered with a multi-level display of the original white toiles of over a hundred creations, their ghostly reflections fading into infinity.

Paris-CD finale.

Gowns are displayed under a rolling video stream of the celebrities that wore them.

As for the grand finale, it is staged in the ultimate ballroom, the cathedral-like nave of the palace with its arched 50-foot high ceiling, and an elaborate light projection that evokes the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. The sheer number of sumptuous gowns, some of which have been worn by famous customers, is surreal. At the far end of the gallery, video screens project a rolling stream of royalties from Princess Grace of Monaco to Princess Diana, and film stars from Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Taylor to Charleze Theron and Jennifer Lawrence, who wore these dream gowns.

 

Good to Know

  • Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams , is on view through January 7, 2018 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, 107, rue de Rivoli , 75001, Paris. Opening hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm and Thursday until 9:00 pm. Closed on Monday. Contact: +33 (0) 1 44 55 57 50. On-line ticket purchase (in French only)
  • The exposition is enormously successful. The queue for those without advance tickets can stretch into hours on some days. The line for those with advanced tickets is significantly shorter (about 20 minutes on the day of my visit).

Location, location, location!

Musée des Arts Decoratifs

An Idyllic Village in Provence – Lourmarin

An Idyllic Village in Provence – Lourmarin

There are two ways to visit the Lubéron, the spectacular corner of Provence in the southern foothills of the Alps. You can “do it” in one day. Drive along its shaded roller-coaster of country roads, following the well documented circuit of its most  breathtaking sites, Gordes, Senanque Abbey, Roussillon, et. al., and be back in time for dinner at a bistro terrace in Aix-en-Provence or Avignon. Or you can go one step better, wrap up your itinerary with an overnight stop in Lourmarin and bask in the laidback joie-de-vivre of this blessed little corner of the world.

A Picture-Perfect Provencal Destination

Luberon - Lourmarin terrace.

The colorful restaurant terraces are an invitation to linger.

Nestled in gently rolling hills covered with vineyards and orchards at the outlet of a small combe (i.e. dry valley between limestone cliffs) that bears its name, lovely Lourmarin is the southernmost village of the Lubéron. A peaceful gem that retains the unique charm of Provencal villages, its tall houses of pale limestone dating back to the Renaissance have long attracted artists and artisans. They have opened interesting boutiques and ateliers along the maze of ancient cadales (cobbled lanes) and handkerchief-size squares that wind up toward the eleventh-century Saint André church. Along the way, bistro terraces spill out of every corner, inviting visitors to linger. After the crush of the hilltop villages, where “most visited of the Lubéron” is often just another expression for trendy tourist attraction, Lourmarin is a charming contrast, a lived-in destination that welcomes its healthy influx of tourists without feeling overrun.

Luberon-Lourmarin.

The eleventh century steeple of Saint André church rises above the medieval skyline of Lourmarin. The more recent Reformed Protestant Church sits at the entrance of the village.

Lourmarin has a long history of making people feel at home. Once an important market center, it was like much of Western Europe, left semi-deserted by the black plague epidemic of 1348. And so it remained for a century, until the lord of the region, Foulques d’Agoult, brought it back to life. He invited the Vaudois (Waldesians), a minority of dissident Catholics that were then mercilessly persecuted in the southern Alps, to resettle in the village. Although the area was not left untouched by the wars of religion, the Waldesians prospered in Lourmarin, their descendants joining the Reformed Protestant movement in the sixteenth century. Their church (circa 1816) sits between the Château and the entrance of the village.

The First Renaissance Château

Luberon-Lourmarin loggia.

The three-tiered galleries of the Gothic loggia surround an enclosed courtyard.

Standing at the edge of a vast prairie, a five-minute walk from the village, the Château of Lourmarin is remarkable in that, while it was built in three stages across four centuries, each wing retained its own individuality. This allows today’s visitor to appreciate the evolution of architecture from medieval fortress to Renaissance castle.

Luberon-Lourmarin great hall.

Located in the Renaissance wing, the Great Hall is decorated with replicas and antiques of the period.

Little remains from the original fortress other than foundations and the north tower, to which is anchored the medieval Gothic “old Château,” built in the fifteenth century. Of this, only the superb loggia with its three tiers of galleries surrounding a spacious enclosed courtyard is opened to visitor. Entrance is through the octagonal tower that connects the Gothic and Renaissance parts of the castle, with a stunning staircase made of 93 stone slabs winding around a central spiral column. This Renaissance wing or “new Château,” with its airy façade and mullioned windows, is the first castle of this style to have been built in Provence. Fully restored and decorated with a mix of antiques and replicas of the furnishings of the era, it is opened to visitors. At entrance level, have a look at the kitchen and the concert room. Then let the staircase lead you up through the various aspects of the life daily life of Renaissance nobility. The Great Hall, a pair of intimate salons and the Ladies’ Chamber are on the second floor. Then on the third floor, see the Gentleman’s bedroom, office and music room. And enjoy the bonus of a bird’s eye view of the village.

L’Ancienne Maison des Gardes

Luberon-Lourmarin balcony.

The shaded balcony peers into the courtyard through a riot of trumpet vines.

But to me, the best part of Lourmarin is just being there, whiling away the evening, enjoying a leisurely dinner at the terrace of one of the several good restaurants and sipping the fruity local wine. Then under the starry velvet sky, return “home” to l’Ancienne Maison des Gardes (the Old Guard House). Little is known of this quintessential sixteenth century home in a quiet cul-de-sac alley at the edge of village, other than it was once part of its fortifications. But enter through the arched porte cochère (the heavy wooden double doors that once allow access to horse-drawn coaches) and you are in a place that dreams of Provence are made of.

Luberon-Lourmarin breakfast.

A sumptuous breakfast is served on the private balcony.

Centered on a sunny courtyard overrun by riotous trumpet vines in full vermillion bloom, the intimate guesthouse is the domain of Rose Robson, an English woman who came to Provence a dozen years ago looking for her place in the sun and never left. She promptly turned l’Ancienne Maison des Gardes (Chez Rose for short) into five cozy guest accommodations, each opening onto its own shaded terrace. My personal favorite is the Balcony Room. Accessed by an ancient stone stairway rising from a corner of the courtyard, this light- filled room has all the charm an old-fashion Provencal country bedroom (plus a great twenty-first century shower). And, as you’d expect, its own balcony. It is the loveliest perch one could imagine to enjoy in privacy the sumptuous breakfast dished out by Robin, Rose’s gregarious assistant.

With its secluded location within a five-minute walk of everything to see and do in lovely, laidback Lourmarin, and Rose’s delicious blend of English and Provencal hospitality, l’Ancienne Maison des Gardes is an ideal stop-over when touring the Lubéron.

Good to Know

  • Getting There Lourmarin is ideally located in the heart of Provence, at the southwestern edge of the Luberon Regional Park, within an hour’s drive of Avignon, Aix and Arles, and ninety minutes away from Marseille and the Mediterranean coast.
  • Staying There – L’Ancienne Maison des Gardes, Impasse des Gardes, 84160, Lourmarin, France. Contact: email roserobson@gmail.com. Tel: +33 (0) 4 90 07 53 16.
  • Visiting – Markets. The village has a large market every Friday morning, which takes over the tree-lined avenue in the centre of the village, as well as the square above it, and brings merchants and visitors from all around the area. It also has a small but lively farmers (and vintners) market on Tuesday evenings. This is a convivial event attended mostly by local year-round and summer residents. It includes cooking demonstrations by local chefs showcasing local products. The Château can be visited year round. It also stages a number of art exhibits and concerts during the summer. Visiting hours vary with the seasons and are posted on the official website, as is the program of events. The Cemetery – French philosopher and existentialist writer Albert Camus lived in Lourmarin in the 1950 and is buried there.

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Lourmarin

In the Land of Lavender – The Best of the Luberon

In the Land of Lavender – The Best of the Luberon

It was well into autumn when I visited the Lubéron for the first time. Tourists were thin on the ground in the medieval villages perched atop craggy limestone ledges rising from the rolling valleys of this idyllic corner of Provence in the southern foothills of the Alps. I was in a photographer’s paradise! Until I caught my first glance at the lavender fields that are the symbol of the region. By now they were just sad rows of neatly trimmed dull green pincushions ready for the onset of winter.

Lavender Season

Luberon-lavender tourist.

My friend Ligaya strikes the de-rigueur pose in a lavender field.

For lavender, the blooming season starts around the summer solstice, peeks in early July and culminates with the harvest by the end of the month. It took me almost a decade to manage a return visit within this propitious timeframe. But finally, on a recent July morning, I am heading north from Aix-en-Provence at the wheel of a tiny cherry red rental car, the kind that gets laughs in Hollywood comedies about Europe. My co-pilote is a friend, who with impeccable sense of timing, recently announced her visit for precisely this week. This is her first time in the Lubéron. I am delighted to share with her the most spectacular spots of the region.

Picture Perfect Gordes

Luberon-Gorde village.

Gordes is the most visited village of the Lubéron.

Even in an area famous for its abundance of picturesque villages perchés (hilltop villages), the first glance at Gordes is guaranteed to take your breath away. Coming from the south, the narrow road leading to the crest of a cliff suddenly reveals, on the opposite side of the chasm, one of the most spectacular villages ever. Its tall white limestone houses are anchored to the rock face along lanes that wind upward toward the castle and church at the very top of the promontory. Don’t be surprised if the site looks vaguely familiar. It has scored a supporting role in several movies over the time, most notably the BBC mini-series, “A Year in Provence”, and the popular 2006 Ridley Scott movie, “A Good Year”, starring Russell Crowe.

To be honest, the view is the most interesting part of Gordes. We soon leave behind its quaint cobbled streets lined with souvenir shops and continue on to the main event of our itinerary, the lavender fields of the Abbaye de Sénanque.

Sénanque Abbey

Luberon-Senanque vista.

A bend in the road reveals a bird’s eye view of Sénanque.

It’s a slow-going four kilometers (2.5 miles) north from the village, via a steep downhill road cut into the rock face, to Sénanque. Halfway down the cliff, a vantage point reveals a bird’s eye preview of the 850-year-old abbey wedged into the narrow valley floor below, surrounded by it famous purple fields of lavender in full bloom.

Luberon-Senanque church

Our Lady of Sénanque is one of the finest examples of medieval Cistercian architecture in Provence.

Built in the twelfth century by Cistercian monks, Sénanque is one of the finest and best-preserved examples of Romanesque monastic architecture in Provence. The stark beauty of its limestone façade, weathered by the centuries to a pale heather gray, provides a perfect backdrop for the dense rows of purple flowers undulating in the warm summer breeze. This time of year, hundreds of visitors from around the world make their way daily to the abbey, eager to experience first hand and get their own shots of this unique place.

Luberon-Senanque gift shop.

The gift shop is adjacent to the medieval dormitory.

In spite of this influx of tourists, who are welcomed by lay people, the abbey maintains its monastic life, following the medieval cycle of prayer, silence, study and work of the cloistered Cistercian order. In addition to the cultivation and processing of lavender, the monks also keep hives. A wide range of lavender and honey products is available in the gift shop.

The church, reputed for its harmonious Romanesque lines arching toward a gently pointed barrel vault, is open to visitors. Also notable is the absence of main a portal. In keeping with the Cistercian ideals of simplicity, the entrance consists of two modest doors that open onto the side aisle. A guided visit of the adjoining twelfth century cloister and monastic buildings is also possible.

A Blazing Palette

Luberon-Roussillon.

Roussillon owes its vibrant colors to the nearby ochre quarries.

Leaving behind the fragrant lavender fields buzzing with honeybees and tourists, we head eastward along a shady country road to Roussillon. Situated atop one of the richest ochre deposits in the world, this tiny hilltop village emerges from a forest of lush green pine trees like a life-size Post-Impressionist painting. The ochre-tinted facades of the houses lined along the maze of narrow cobbled lanes create an astonishing palette of flaming colors ranging from subtle yellows to dark reds, set off by the vivid blue Provencal sky. Other than this spectacular sight, the main attraction of Roussillon is the Sentier des Ocres (Ochre Trail), a relatively easy hiking trail through the former ochre quarries and surrounding woods, which starts just at edge of the village.

After a day of touring the roller-coaster back roads of the Lubéron and taking in its most iconic sites, we leave behind its rugged perched villages to head south into a lovely valley filled with vineyards and olive groves.Our final destination of the day, the charming village of Lourmarin.

Good to Know

  • Getting There – Gordes is located 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of Marseille, 75 kilometers (46 miles) north of Aix-en-Provence and 50 kilometers (31 miles) east of Avignon.. Because of the narrow country roads in the Lubéron and the large influx of visitors during the summer months, driving times can vary widely with the seasons.
  • Visiting – Comprehensive information for visitors to the entire area is available through the official tourism site: Lubéron Coeur de Provence.

Location, location, location!

Abbaye de Sénanque

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