The Sainte Chapelle — The Other Gothic Gem In The Heart of Paris.

The Sainte Chapelle — The Other Gothic Gem In The Heart of Paris.

The Ile de la Cité, the largest of the two islands in the middle of the Seine River is where Paris began. 

The Conciergerie — one of the oldest medieval remains of the Palais de la Cité — shields the Sainte Chapelle from the river.

In the early 6th  century, Clovis, the first Merovingian king of what would eventually become France, established his residence on the 22-hectare (55-acre) island, on the site of a Gallo-Roman fortress that had once been the residence of the Roman governors. Throughout the medieval times, the place grew into the sprawling Palais de la Cité, which remained the seat of the Kings of France and their government until the 14th century. It is to this day the beating heart of Paris and the home of its two most remarkable Gothic treasures.

Notre Dame de Paris

On April 15th, 2019, a catastrophic fire claimed the entire roof of Notre Dame.

On April 15th, 2019, a catastrophic fire claimed the entire roof of Notre Dame.

Notre Dame (Our Lady), the great Gothic cathedral built in the 12th  and 13th centuries on the eastern tip of the island, was to become over time the most visited monument in the city — Until the fateful April 2019 evening when the world watched in horror as a catastrophic fire claimed its entire roof. Fire-fighters ultimately succeeded in saving the main bell towers and outer walls from collapse. Now, after two years of intense efforts to secure the building, the work of restoring the legendary jewel of Gothic architecture to its original grandeur has finally begun.

Under the shelter of scaffolds and opaque netting, the reconstruction of Notre Dame is underway.

On a recent visit to Paris, shortly after the city finally reopened to visitors after the long Covid-induced travel hiatus, I couldn’t resist dropping by the Ile de la Cité to check how The Lady was faring. There wasn’t much to see, with most of the structure now protected by a giant set of scaffolds neatly wrapped in opaque netting. On the street bordering the construction site, optimistic signs updated passersby on the progress of the work going on inside, and that it would be completed by 2024. What to do in the meantime, to assuage my yearning for the magic of morning sunshine filtering through the jewel-like wonder of medieval stained glass? Head for the Sainte Chapelle.

La Sainte Chapelle

The Sainte Chapelle is concealed within the courtyard of the Palais de la Cité.

Built in the mid-13th century in the courtyard of the royal Palais de la Cité, the Sainte-Chapelle is considered one of the highest achievements of the Rayonnant period of Gothic architecture. It was commissioned by King Louis IX (later known as Saint Louis) to house his collection of Passion relics, including the Christ’s Crown of Thorns, one of the most important relics in medieval Christendom. While the exterior shows many of the typical characteristics of the Rayonnant Gothic style — deep buttresses surmounted by pinnacles, crocketed gables and soaring windows, the exterior gives few hints of the sumptuous interior.

The Sainte Chapelle holds one of the most extensive 13th century stained-glass collection in the world.

The Sainte Chapelle holds one of the most extensive 13th century stained-glass collection in the world.Now the earliest surviving building of the palace, the Sainte Chapelle holds one of the most extensive 13th century stained-glass collection anywhere in the world. A total of 15 windows surround the chapel, each soaring to an improbable height of 15 meters (49 feet) the stained-glass panes depict over one thousand scenes from the Old and New Testaments, illustrating the history of the world until the arrival of the relics in Paris.

The Lower Chapel

The lower chapel was reserved for the courtiers, servants and soldiers of the palace.

The sanctuary actually consists of two chapels, with the lower one originally dedicated to the Virgin Mary and reserved for the courtiers, servants and soldiers of the palace.  Here, under a low, vaulted ceiling supported by elegantly arched buttresses, the wide center aisle is flanked by two narrow side aisle. The columns are painted with alternating floral designs and the castle emblem of Castille – in honor of Blanche de Castille, King Louis IX’s mother. The  original stained glass of this lower chapel was destroyed by a flood in 1690. The present glass depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary was designed during the extensive restoration of the chapel in the 19th century.

The Upper Chapel

Installed in the 15th century, the rose window represents the Book of Revelation.

Narrow stairways fitted within the towers of the lower level lead to the upper chapel, where the sacred relics were kept. It was reserved exclusively for the royal family and guests. The structure is simple; a rectangle 33 meters by 10.7 meters (110 by 36 feet) with an apse at the east end. The most dazzling features are the walls, which appear to be almost entirely made of stained glass — a total of 670 square meters (7,200 square feet) of it, excluding the rose window at the west end, which was installed in the 15th century. The ensemble is considered among one of the finest of its type in the world. The supporting stone surface is reduced to little more than a delicate framework for the thousands pieces of jewel-tone glass that fill the space with great splashes of color gradually changing in intensity with the external light.

High in the apse, the elegant baldaquin once held the reliquary.

There are two small arched alcoves set into the walls of the chapel, topped with richly decorated painting and sculpture of angels. These were the places where the King and Queen worshipped during religious services: the King on the north side, the Queen on the south. Today, all that remains of the sacred relics is the elegant baldaquin placed high in the apse, where a long silver and gilded copper reliquary was displayed. The church was secularized during the French Revolution (1789-1794) and the relics transferred to the treasury of the Notre Dame Cathedral (n.b. the treasury was salvaged from the recent fire and is currently on view at the Musée du Louvre).

Good to Know

  • Getting there — the Sainte Chapelle is located on the Ile de la Cité at 10 Boulevard du Palais, 75001, Paris. The closest metro station is Cité (ligne 4) is a mere 5 minute-walk away.
  • Visiting — The Sainte Chapelle is open daily from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm from May 19 to September 30, and 9:00 am to 5:00 pm for the remainder of the year.  It is closed on  January 1, May 1 and December 25. Due to the current Covid situation, visiting conditions may vary – check the official website to prepare your visit.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

La Sainte Chapelle

Notre Dame de Paris

The Night Never Falls – Zao Wou-Ki in Aix-en-Provence

The Night Never Falls – Zao Wou-Ki in Aix-en-Provence

After the endless Covid “Winter of our Confinement”, spring has finally come to Europe. Everywhere, monuments, museums and galleries are reopening, and long-awaited temporary exhibits can finally be enjoyed, such as the brilliant, recently inaugurated exhibit at the Hotel de Caumont Art Center in Aix-en-Provence: Zao Wou-Ki – Night Never Falls.

Who is Zao Wou-Ki?

Hangzhou Landscape (1946). Oil on canvas, 38,2 x 46.3 cm. Private collection,

Sunken city (1955). Oil on canvas, 89 x 146 cm. Private collection.

Wou-Ki means “no limits” in Chinese – a prescient name for an artist who was to become a prominent figure of the mid-twentieth century European Lyrical Abstraction movement for his ability to unite multiple artistic traditions within a single abstract work. Born in Peking  (Beijing) in 1920 and raised in Shanghai where his father was a banker, he began learning calligraphy from his  grandfather at an early age. Then, at fifteen, his precaution talent earned him admission to the prestigious Hangzhou National College of Art (now the China Academy of Art). There, in addition to traditional Chinese drawing, painting and calligraphy, he discovered Western art and oil painting, and developed an enthusiastic interest in Post-Impressionism.

In 1946, the Cultural Attaché of the French Embassy in China and an early champion of Zao’s work, Vadime Elisseeff, arranged for twenty of Zao’s works to be shown at the Cernuschi Museum in Paris, in a major Exhibition of Contemporary Chinese paintings. He also  encouraged him to relocate in France. Zao subsequently obtained French citizenship in 1964.

A Master of Contrasts

Still Life with Apples (1935-1936). Oil on canvas, 46 x 61 cm,. Private collection.

The current exhibition at the Caumont Art Center highlights the various stages of his career and life, from his youthful, still figurative works, to the exceptional mastery of colors, dynamic lines and expressive freedom of his later works. Central to his artistic journey is his on-going quest for light, which is not only reflected in the construction of luminous spaces and the use of vibrant colors, but above all in his exploration of contrasts made visible by his study of light.

Night Never Falls – Diptych (2005). Oil on canvas, 195 x 260 cm. Private collection.

The scenography of the entrance to the exhibition is a striking metaphor for Zao’s artistic journey . The very Cézannian “Still Life with Apples” reflects the influence that the Master from Aix had on the fifteen-year-old Chinese painter. Seventy years of painting, relentless work, various influences and experimentation separate this work from the 2005 monumental diptych Il ne fait jamais nuit (Night never falls). Exhibited together, these two works show the evolution of the artist and the development of his work with light.

 

An Artist’s Journey

Sketchbook sheet painted at Saint-Jeoire-en-Faucigny (July–August 1950). Watercolor on paper, 23.5 x 31.3 cm. Private collection.

A Tribute to Cézanne – 06.11.2005 (2005). Oil on canvas, 162 x 260 cm. Private collection.

The contrasts between day and night are first evoked in his watercolors of the 1950’s. Inspired by the style of Paul Klee (himself influenced by Chinese landscape painting), Zao develops his unique style marked by contrasting colors, that views Chinese art through the lens of Western abstraction. Next come the contrast between empty and full spaces, which begins to gain dominance in this canvases and India ink works of the 1970’s.

Then there here are the contrasts between the happy and the difficult periods of this life, his travels, his experience of exile, romantic relationships, relation with his family, bereavement, all are represented on his canvasses through a complex relationship between light and shadow. Zao Wou Ki’s never-ending exploration of light thus enabled him to produce  throughout his long career remarkably harmonious works that straddled the line between figurative and abstract, and East and West, to bring forth his own complex inner world.

This exhibition, which can be seen until October 10, 2021, is organized in collaboration between the Caumont Center for the Arts and the Zao Wou-Ki Foundation. It regroups almost eighty works by Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013), dating from 1935 to 2009, a majority of them on loan from private collections and rarely shown in public. It spectacularly highlights the evolution of the artist’s major creative themes: the invention of new forms of spacial representation through his experimentation with color and the representation of light.

A Tribute to A Tribute to José Luís Sert – 14.07.88 (1988). Oil on canvas, 100 x 300 cm. Private collection.

Good to Know

  • Getting There By train: there are frequent TVG (high speed train) connections throughout the day from Paris (3 hours) and Lyon (1 hour) as well as Geneva (3 hours) and Brussels (5 hours) to Aix-en-Provence. The TGV station is located 15 kilometers (9.5 miles) southwest of town, with a shuttle running every 15 minutes between the station and the bus terminal in the center of town. By plane: MarseilleProvence airport is 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) southwest of Aix, with numerous flights from Paris, London and other major European cities. It is served by the same shuttle bus as the TGV station.
  • Visiting – Caumont Art Center, 3, rue Joseph Cabassol, 13100, Aix-en-Provence, France.Is open daily from May 1 to October 10 from 10:00 am to 7:30 pm. Contact: e-mail. Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 20 70 01.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Hotel de Caumont Art Center

Normandy’s Mystical Island – The Mont Saint-Michel

Normandy’s Mystical Island – The Mont Saint-Michel

Perched on a rocky tidal islet some one kilometer (0.6 mile) off the North Atlantic coast of France, in the vast bay that separates Normandy and Britany, the lofty Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel looms on the horizon like the mythical city of a Celtic legend.

The Saint-Michel abbey rises from the ocean mist like the mythical city of a Celtic legend.

The long history of the abbey and the village that developed within its mighty fortifications began in 708, when Aubert, bishop of the nearby town of Avranches, built the first sanctuary on the granite outcrop then known as Mont-Tombe. As legend has it, the archangel Saint Michael began appearing to Aubert, requesting that a sanctuary be built in his name atop the island. On his third visit, he drove the point home by poking a flaming finger into the Bishop’s head. N.B. Should you require evidence of the veracity of the event, the skull of the bishop, who subsequently became known as Saint Aubert, can still be seen at the Cathedral of Avranches, with the tell-tale hole burned right though the bone.

From Abbey to Bastion

Successive churches were built above the original sanctuary.

Nothing remains of Aubert’s original sanctuary, but early records suggest it to have been a circular structure built on a ledge close to the summit of the windswept mount. By the end if the millennium, with its popularity growing, the site was expanded with several new buildings to accommodate the increasing number of pilgrims. The Romanesque church of Notre-Dame-Sous-Terre (the Underground Church of our Lady) was build at that time on the site of the sanctuary. The small church, approximately 11 by 13 meters (36 by 42 feet) is divided into two naves by a central arcade. Conserved under the nave of the current church, it is now the oldest part of the monument, and may occasionally be visited as part of a guided tour.

A village developed beneath theh Abbley.

By then, the creation of the Duchy of Normandy in 911 was also conferring a strategic importance to the abbey. In 966, Duke Richard I established a community of Benedictine monks here. For the next eight centuries, the Dukes of Normandy and later the French Kings, after the duchy was integrated into the Kingdom of France in 1204, supported the development of a major Benedictine abbey on the mount. Magnificent monastic buildings were added throughout the Middle Ages. The abbey became a renowned center of learning, attracting some of the great scholars and manuscript illuminators of the time, and acquiring the moniker of La Cité des Livres (The City of Books).

The Evolution of a Medieval Masterpiece

The entire island became a fortress in the 14th century .

Constructed between the 11th and 16th centuries, the Mont Saint-Michel is one of the great achievement of medieval architecture, having had to adapt not only to the challenges posed by its unique natural site but also to the evolving  political demands.

The Fortifications — From the 14th century onwards, the successive conflicts of the Hundred Years War between France and England led to the transformation of the entire mount into a fortress. In addition to the existing inner wall and gatehouse that protected the abbey – a passageway that visitors still use today, the village that had sprouted below it was now surrounded by massive ramparts flanked by defensive towers. In spite of repeated assaults and sieges by the English armies, this strategic stronghold was never taken.

Rebuilt in the 15th century, the church of the abbey is a stunning example of Flamboyant Gothic.

The Church — Over the centuries that followed, collapses and fires resulted in a number of major reconstructions. In 1421, the Romanesque chancel of the church collapsed and was rebuilt in Flamboyant Gothic style. Sitting on the summit of the mount, on a platform resting on three crypts hewn into the granite islet, this new church, which mesmerizes us to this day, rises 80 meters (262 feet) above sea level. The site offers a dazzling harmony of its various periods and styles. But the ultimate technical and artistic feat of the Mont Saint-Michel remains La Merveille (The Marvel).

The grand dining hall was reserved for special guests.

The Marvel — Built on the northern side of the rock over a period of 17 years in the early 13th century, La Merveille is a breathtaking illustration of the Gothic architecture that flourished throughout Western Europe at the time. Its bold design consists of three layered levels, culminating at a height of 35 meters (115 feet), supported by 16 colossal buttresses.

 

 

The cloister sits at the top of The Marvel.

Each floor is organized according to intended functions, either public or monastic, with the chaplaincy for welcoming pilgrims and the food storage cellar on the bottom floor. The middle floor houses the dining hall with its two grand fireplaces, reserved for special guests, and the scriptorium, or “knights’ room” also used for reading and studying. The top level holds the monks’ refectory  and the magnificent double-columned cloister with northern views of the sea and the coast.

The Mont Saint-Michel Experience

Many guidebooks and tour operators promote a visit to Mont Saint-Michel as a day trip from Paris (which is a minimum of 4 hour ride). Logistically, it is doable – but it is a long and exhausting journey. I suggest it only if your objective is merely to tick it off your list of great sites to see in your lifetime.

The village is fully contained within its ancient fortified walls.

Walk across the new 750-meter (2500-foot) pedestrian and shuttle bridge leading from the coastline to the island and take in the awe-inspiring sight of the Mont rising against the sky. Inaugurated  in 2014 La Passerelle (the Gateway) replaces the causeway that first connected it to the mainland some 140 years ago – and caused a serious build-up of silt over time. It has now been demolished and the sea can once again flow freely across the estuary, returning the Mont back to its original island state.

The entrance to the island is protected by a drawbridge.

The entrance to the the island is protected by three successive gates and a drawbridge. You are now on the Grande Rue, the narrow cobbled main street of the village that meanders steeply up toward the Grand Degré, the grand staircase (some 350 steps of it) leading to the Abbey. The climb is steep but there are scenic lookouts along the way that provide rest stops with the most amazing views. The higher you go, the more spectacular the views get. Then you can wander the Abbey at your leisure and make your way back down along the ramparts. Mission accomplished.

The Magic of Tides and Light

Shimmering sandbanks surround the Mount at low tide.

But to truly appreciate the mystical atmosphere of this mesmerizing gothic masterpiece, consider at the very least an overnight stay in the area. The Mont Saint-Michel bay is reputed for experiencing some of the highest tides in continental Europe. There can be a variation of up to 15 meters (50 feet) between low and high tide, and both deliver their own unique experience. During high tide, the Mont appears surreal, as though it were hovering above the water, and in the right light, it can also creates a mirror reflection. Low tide is just as fascinating, with the site then surrounded by shimmering sandbanks to the horizon.

The Mount can take on a surreal glow at dusk.

And the ever-changing, unpredictable  coastal light makes for a kaleidoscope of experiences when approaching the Mont. My first  “Mont sighting” was at dusk, from a beach across the bay. It materialized as a mysterious black shape against an improbably red sky. Later that evening, when I finally approached it, it was glowing in the night light, its magical pull getting stronger with every step. The throngs of day-trippers were gone by then, and the medieval village was imbued with an eerie out-of-time feel.

The mount in the clear morning light.

When I returned early the next morning, the abbey was shrouded in fog, which slowly lifted during my visit, adding to the mystery of the experience. I stopped by the following morning, for one last look before continuing on along the coast of Britany, I was rewarded by a crystalline morning light that turned the entire site into a silvery Camelot.

 

 

The Bayeux Tapestry

An ancient Romanesque arch marks the entrance to the Bayeux Tapestry Museum.

My leisurely schedule on this trip allowed for a short detour  toward Normandy town of Bayeux and a visit to the Bayeux Tapestry. Estimated to have been made around 1070, the 50-centimeter high by 70-meter long ( 20 inches by 230 feet ) tapestry commemorates a struggle for the throne of England between Guillaume, the Duke of Normandy, and Harold, Earl of Wessex. The year was 1066, when Guillaume (or William in English) invaded and successfully conquered England, becoming its first Norman King (who became known as William the Conqueror).

The Bayeux Tapestry consists of 58 scenes with Latin inscriptions depicting the events leading up to the Norman conquest and culminating in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Two of the scenes -16 and 17 – place Guillaume and Harold at the Mont Saint-Michel with Harold rescuing knights from quicksand. N.B, Although it is called the Bayeux Tapestry, this important commemorative work is not a true tapestry as the images are not woven into the cloth; instead, the imagery and inscriptions are embroidered using wool yarn sewn onto linen cloth.

This segment of the Bayeux Tapestry places place Guillaume and Harold at Mont Saint-Michel (top centre). In scene 16 (left) Richard and his knights are advancing toward the English troops.  In scene 17 (right)  Harold attempts to rescue  knights from quicksands.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — By Road: It’s a 400 kilometer (250 mile), four-hour drive from Paris to the Mont Saint-Michel via highway A13, and a  65-kilometer (40 mile), one-hour drive via local road D175 from Rennes, the capital of Britany.  By train: Although it is possible to reach the area by train from Paris, there is no direct itinerary. Once on site, there is ample designated parking approximately 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) from the Mont. It’s either on foot or via shuttle from from there on – the shuttle runs every 10 minutes approximately from 7:30 am to midnight,
  • Getting around — The walk from the parking lot across the new footbridge is an easy 30 minutes, frequent photo stops included.  It’s the way to go for fabulous views. Once on the island, it’s a serious hike on steep narrow cobbled streets and stairways. Unfortunately, there is no possibility to accolade wheelchairs or strollers.
  • Visiting — Visit of the island is free, but there is a 10 euros charge (at the time of this writing) to visit the abbey, which is a must. To avoid the long line at the abbey, purchase tickets online in advance from the official website of the Mont Saint Michel. NOTE-After being closed for several months due to the Covid19 health emergency, all monuments and museums in France (Mont Saint-Michel included) are due to re-open gradually starting on May 19th (2021). Check the website for possible new visiting schedules and conditions.
  • Eating there — The island is a major tourist destination, so expect eateries to be crowded, mediocre and startlingly overpriced. If the weather looks promising, pick up provisions at an off-island supermarket and have a picnic on the ramparts, and enjoy stupendous views of the bay.
  • Bayeux Tapestry  The Tapestry Museum is located at 13 bis rue Nesmond, 14400 Bayeux. Tel: +33 (0)2 31 51 25 50.  Exit 36 from A13.

Location, location, location!

Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel

Albi — The City Shaped By The Cathar Saga

Albi — The City Shaped By The Cathar Saga

On the banks of the river Tarn, some 75 kilometers (47 miles) northeast of Toulouse, the ancient city of Albi still bears witness to the troubled history of religious conflicts of its medieval past. 

The city developed around its ancient bridge across the Tarn.

The “Albigensian Crusade” (1209-1229) is the only medieval crusade to have been conducted against Christians, more specifically against a Gnostic religious sect that flourished in Southern France in the 12th  century. The Cathars (from the ancient greek Katharoi or “pure ones”) were challenging the iron-fisted authority and extravagant worldliness of the medieval papacy and its Catholic clerics.

 

The Wrath of Popes and Kings

The fortress-like Saint Cecilia Cathedral dominates the city.

At the time, the Languedoc was  under the hereditary rule of the Counts of Toulouse, and most of the region was Cathar country, with Albi standing  at the geographical centre of it, When, in 1208, Pope Innocent III announced a crusade to eradicate the troublesome heretics, King Philippe II (a.k.a. Philippe Auguste) was only too glad to join forces. Combating Cathar heresy was an excellent pretext for Philippe, whose true objective was arguably more about bringing the southwest of France under the control of the French kings than it was about fighting heretics.

The Dominique de Florence Portal reinforces the fortress.

The repression was long and gruesome. But even after the victory of the King’s forces, the southwest of France remained volatile, and the Catholic powers wary of insurrection. The construction of the mighty Albi cathedral which started half a century after the end of the conflict, was thus built as a massive fortress, to stand as a symbol of episcopal power and in a pinch, serve as a defensive position in the event of attacks.

 

The Fortress Cathedral

The extravagant decor belies the austere exterior.

When the then Bishop of Albi, Bernard de Castanet, began the construction of the Saint Cecilia Cathedral in 1282, he intended it to stand as a symbol of Catholic domination and victory over the Cathars. And he succeeded in delivering an eloquent metaphor for the roots of the conflict: an ominous fortress on the outside, with a sumptuous interior decor.

A Flamboyant Gothic portal was added in the 16th century.

Built over two centuries (1282 to 1480) in the pink bricks of the region, the cathedral is a masterpiece of Southern Gothic style and one of the largest brick monuments in the world. The formidable structure (113 meters – 372 feet – long and 35 meters -115 feet wide) topped by a 78 meter (256 ft) dungeon-like bell tower dominates the entire city. The southern facade is marked by a somewhat incongruous but nonetheless spectacular Flamboyant Gothic canopied porch entrance. Added in 1510 by Bishop Charles de Robertet, it is the only hint of the extravagant art and craftsmanship within.

The Glory Within

The catheral’s choir is lavishly decorated.

The interior is all delicate gothic tracery in stone and wood. One of the most remarkable particularities of the gigantic space is that all the upper walls, including the soaring vaulted ceiling, are covered with intricate geometric paintings, mainly in silver and indigo blue. Another striking feature is the root screen, a delicately carved ornamental fence that surrounds the entire choir area reserved for the clergy, separating it from the nave and the aisles. The lacy stonework is richly decorated with polychrome sculptures depicting the life of Saint Cecilia on the parishioners’ side, and Christ and his apostles on choir side.

A monumental fresco of the last judgement occupies the entire rear wall of the cathedral.

A particularly significant element of the decor is the massive fresco of the Last Judgement that occupies the entire western wall of the cathedral. In the traditional tiered doomsday layout of such cautionary themes, layered rows of angels, apostles, saints, clerics and other blessed beings, clad in white to symbolize purity, look down to the lower levels. Here, crowds of naked sinners are writhing in the agony of hell in the company of monsters and demons. And to further drive the point across, a band of text reminds viewers that the judgement is irreversible.

The Berbie Palace

The Episcopal Berbie Palace is one of the oldest and best preserved medieveal fortified castle in France.

A Formal French Garden was later added to the fortress.

In 1228, half a century before Bishop Castanet was to break ground for his cathedral project, his predecessor, Bishop Durant de Baucaire (Bishop from 1228 to 1254), with the blood of the tens of thousand of massacred Cathars barely dry across the Languedoc, considered it prudent to built himself a small fortress. And thus the Berbie Castle began, taking its name from from “bisbia,” a local Occitan variation of the word Bishop. The next resident, Bishop Bernard de Combret, added a wall fortified with bastions, so that by the time Castanet took office, he already had the makings of his own mighty château, which he carried on while inaugurating the work on the cathedral.

Over time, successive Bishops softened the appearance of the palace by adding residential buildings, a chapel, a French-style garden, and decorating the interior with with mosaics and elaborate coffered ceilings.

 

 

 

The Toulouse-Lautrec Museum

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Autoportrait, 1880, Oil on cardboard.

The Cathedral and its properties were officially nationalized in 1905, and the Palace given to the city of Albi for use as a museum. In 1922, it received an important collection of works by native son Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, donated by his parents. Now  known as the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, it includes over 1000 of his works making it a unique single artist collection.

Toulouse-Lautrec was born in Albi in 1864 to a wealthy aristocratic family descended from the Counts of Toulouse. A childhood accident and possible genetic disability crippled him for life, stunted his growth, and likely propelled his immersion into art, alcoholism, and the gritty underbelly of fin de siècle Paris. Here, this Post-Impressionist’s works are organized chronologically, beautifully documenting the evolution of his art and life: works from his youth, works from his seedy stint in Montmartre, and works from his time as a poster designer. His 31 world famous posters are all gathered here.

The Iconographer of Montmartre

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. 1894. Au Salon de la rue des Moulins. Oil on canvas.

Toulouse-Lautrec came to fame while living in Montmartre, documenting the brothels and bohemian salons of his neighborhood, which were a magnet for struggling artists in late 19th century Paris. His work stood out for his expressive lines, intense use of color, and for the acuity and sensitivity with which he documented the bawdy personalities of the local nightlife. This is especially notable in the world-weary pathos of his female subjects.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. 1893. Cadieux. Essence oil on paper.

It becomes clear, walking through this chronological exhibition how his innovative style led him to become the first artist to elevate advertising posters to the status of fine art. Some of its most famous masterpieces are posters for nightclubs – to the point where Toulouse Lautrec can be identified with little else. One of the great pleasures of this retrospective of his life’s works is to discover the whole artist beyond the “poster man.” 

Saint Cecilia seen from the Berbie Castle.

After a couple of hours spent with Toulouse-Lautrec, it’s time to escape to the formal Renaissance Jardins à la Francaise of the Berbie Palace, and take a walk under the ancien grapevine along the ramparts. From there you get a great view of Le Pont Vieux, the medieval bridge. Built between 1035 and 1040, it is one of the oldest bridges in France, still open to pedestrian traffic. Then wander into the traffic-free maze of half-timbered houses and quaint crooked streets of the medieval center.

Good to Know

  • Getting there—By train: there are multiple train connections between Toulouse’s main train station (Toulouse Matabiau) and Albi. The trip takes one hour. From Albi’s central station (Albi Ville) it’s an easy 15 minutes walk to the cathedral and the Berbie Palace. By car:  It’s about one hour’s drive from the northeast outskirts of Toulouse (Via route A68) to Albi. There are a number of available parking options on the outskirts of the city
  • Getting around – Visiting Albi is a pedestrian experience. Plan comfortable shoes to explore for the cobblestone lanes of the old town.
  • Visiting—Cathédrale Sainte Cécile is open year-round, Monday through Friday from 2:00 pm to 5:15 pm, Saturday from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm and Sunday from 9:30 am to 5:45 pm, with the exception of the choir and the cathedral’s treasure, which are open daily from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm. Note: while the entrance of the cathedral is free, there is a  6€ entrance fee to visit the choir and the treasure. Musée Toulouse-Lautrec is open daily from June 1st  to September 30th from 10:30 am to 6:30 pm. From October 1st to May 31st, opening hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 12:30 pm and 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm, and closed on Tuesday. The museum is also closed on the following national holidays: January 1, May 1, November 1 and December 25. 

Location, location, location!

Albi

African Diaries — Selous.  The Gem of Tanzania’s Southern Circuit

African Diaries — Selous. The Gem of Tanzania’s Southern Circuit

The Safari Air Link Cessna is approaching the Mtemere airstrip. This is the last stop on my journey around the little visited wildlife sanctuaries of Tanzania’s Southern Circuit. After a lengthy flight from the remote Katavi National Park, in the furthest southwestern reaches of the country, I have now come all the way back east to the great Selous Game Reserve.

Selous is defined by its network of rivers and oxbow lakes,

First declared a protected area over a century ago, Selous expanded over time to become a boundless swathe of mostly unexplored bush teaming with wildlife. With almost no roads into its remote interior, it is one of the least visited major parks in Africa, and at 52,000 square kilometers (20,000 square miles), an area larger than Switzerland, it is the largest game reserve on the continent.

 

Life Along the Rufiji River

Elephants thrive along the Rufiji River.

A defining feature of Selous is the network of rivers that converge into it from the surrounding highlands to become the powerful Rufiji River. As it meanders through the northeastern part of the reserve on its way to the ocean, the river’s eco-system sustains an exceptional diversity of wildlife and exuberant vegetation

The Rufiji River Camp offers an exceptional view of the river.

A black heron attracts fish by forming a shady canopy over the water with its wings.

Stretched along a bluff overlooking the Rufiji River, at the especially scenic northeastern tip of the reserve, the Rufiji River Camp provides a variety of game viewing opportunities. Its privileged riverside location, which includes its own boat slip and flat-bottomed game-watching boats, makes for a rare chance to enjoy a floating safari. A leisurely day-long cruise allows me to explore the lush riverbanks, islands and oxbow lakes upriver from the camp, and to enjoy a lovely riverside picnic lunch.

Home to over 350 species of birds, Selous is a birdwatcher’s paradise, and birding from the water for a front seat view of birds nesting along the banks is a photographer’s dream. It allows me to capture such close-up gems as my only sighting ever of a black heron, the only heron to fish by forming a canopy over the water with its wings, thus reducing glare and attracting preys to the shade. I am also able to document the unique moment when a startled  Goliath heron realizes that the fish he had just caught for its breakfast proves to be larger than its gullet can ingurgitate.

The Best of the Bush

A herd of giraffes scampers at our approach.

A lion cub wanders away from its mother.

Game drives in the camp’s open-sided vehicles are equally amazing. Buffalos, zebras and all manners of antelopes are everywhere. Breeding herds of elephants nudging their calves along as they forage through the underbrush are also a frequent sight; as are families of giraffes swaying across our path, or pausing to prune the underside of thorn acacias into neat umbrellas while they wait for their wobbly calves to catch up. On one very special drive, I spend delightful moments watching a pair of lionesses patiently nursing their cubs, while trying with limited success to keep the most adventurous of the offsprings in check.

Back at the camp, my spacious side-entrance tent is especially light and welcoming. Nestled in a grove of mature trees and raised on a high deck under thatch, it features a wrap-around veranda with two separate lounging areas overlooking the river to give a whole new meaning to the concept of armchair safari. In addition to the large pods of hippos jostling for position in the water, I have a clear view of the far bank where rows of crocodiles laze in the sun and elephants come to drink. Meanwhile, every  rustle in the canopy is a bird sighting opportunity – or a hint that a hopeful vervet monkey is getting ready to pounce on any snack I may have left unguarded.

Pods of hippos were a constant sight in the river.

With its sprawling, open-sided central lounge and dinning area taking full advantage of its scenic setting in the heart of some of the best wildlife viewing in East Africa and its welcoming relaxed atmosphere, my stay at the Rufiji River Camp is a grand finale worthy of my memorable tour of the unfairly overlooked wilderness reserves of Tanzania’s Southern Circuit. 

Endangered Eden

The waterbuck is instantly identifiable by the distinctive white ring on its rear.

Tanzania has long been considered one of Africa’s prime hunting destination and remains to this day a major draw for safari hunters. More than sixty species can legally be hunted, including four of the famed “big fives” – buffalo, elephant, leopard and lion. Only the critically endangered, rhino escapes the list, but not the poachers. The country remains frequently mentioned in the international press for large scale poaching incidents, illegal ivory, rhino horn and bush meat traffic.

While still abundant in the “photographic tourism” part of the park, the elephant population is being decimated by poaching.

Crocodiles navigate the Rufiji River.

Since its inception over a century ago, Selous has been managed as a hunting reserve with only a small portion – approximately eight percent in the spectacular northeastern part of the reserve – eventually dedicated to photographic tourism. Vast areas south of the Rufiji River remain allocated to game hunting through a number of privately leased hunting concessions.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982 for ”its wildlife diversity and its natural immensity relatively undisturbed by human impact,” Selous is the only site in southern Tanzania to have ever been awarded this distinction. However, by 2014, the characteristics that had earned the site its prestigious status had deteriorated to the point that Selous was placed on the list of World Heritage in Danger. Rampant poaching had reduced the elephant population in the reserve from nearly 110,000 in the mid-1970 to less than 16,000 – a loss of ninety percent in four decades. And the rhino population had dwindled dangerously close to extinction within the Selous ecosystem.

Nyerere National Park

Siesta time in the Nyerere National Park.

In December 2019, it was officially announced by the government of Tanzania that to further develop tourism in Selous, the northern part of the reserve would be excised to form a new national park to be known as the Nyerere National Park in honor of the first president of Tanzania, Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere. The new park, the largest in Africa with a surface of 31,000 square kilometers (12,000 square miles) or two-thirds of the original reserve, now falls under the authority of the Tanzania National Parks Authority (TANAPA). This new status means that hunting is no longer permitted in the area that falls within the park, which doesn’t change anything for visitors to the previously designated  photographic area as no hunting was ever permitted there anyway.

However the residual one-third of the land is still managed as a hunting reserve. It remains to be seen whether this change in status can reverse the devastation that industrial-scale poaching has inflicted in recent decades on the elephant population and the ensuing damaging effect on the ecosystem of the overall Selous area.

The Rufiji River Camp stretches along a scenic bluff overlooking the river.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — Tanzania’s main airport is Julius Nyerere International Airport, located 13 kilometers (eight miles) southwest of Dar es Salaam, which is the entry-point for visitors to the southern parks. There are no direct flights from North America to Tanzania, and only one direct route from Europe: KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, which offers a daily flight from Amsterdam to Dar es Salaam. Another option is to fly to Nairobi, Kenya, where there are a number of daily connection possibilities to Dar es Salaam.  From there, the Selous Game Reserve Mtemere airstrip, the closest to the Rufiji River Camp, is a mere 45-minute flight.
  • Getting around — My entire itinerary from Dar es Salaam throughout the Southern Circuit, including all air transfers via Safari Air Link, was seamlessly managed by Foxes Safaris.
  • Environmental Red Flags — Unrestrained poaching is not the only threat to the survival of the overall Selous area as one of the greatest wildlife conservancies in Africa. 
    • Uranium mining. A boundary change was decreed in the past decade to excise some  400 square kilometers (155 square miles) from the southwestern border of the reserve, thus allowing the exploitation of uranium deposits. This would pose a serious environmental threat to the surrounding areas in the form of toxic emissions (most notably Radon and Carbon Monoxide), windblown dust dispersal and leaching of contaminant including heavy metals and arsenic into the water. While at the time of this writing, according to the State Party no active mining is taking place, the threat potential continues to exist.  
    • Hydropower dam. Although highly controversial, construction of a dam across the Rufiji River at the scenic Stiegler’s Gorge, in the northeastern confines of the park, received government approval in 2018. Construction began in 2019.  After completion, the power station and reservoir lake are projected to occupy approximately 1350 square kilometers (520 square miles) within the Nyerere National Park and cause serious environmental concerns. Firstly, the dam will flood over 2.2% of the parks total area, reducing its forest and riverine habitat. Additionally, the dam project will directly impact a main area of biodiversity in the reserve, a large area of wetland, marsh and savanna, and risk cutting off wildlife migratory routes. 
    • NGO reactions. UNESCO World Heritage Center, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) as well as other prominent international conservation NGO’s  have registered strong opposition to both projects and are calling for action to protest them.

Location, location, location!

Rufiji River Camp, Tanzania