In the Historic Center of Aix-en-Provence — A Gem of Contemporary Cuisine

In the Historic Center of Aix-en-Provence — A Gem of Contemporary Cuisine

The capital of the Duchy of Provence and a renowned cultural center throughout the Middle Ages, the city of Aix-en-Provence require no introduction. Its well preserved Medieval and Renaissance historic center, vibrant artistic life and colorful open-air markets draw visitors from the world over.

In the heart of the historic center – NIRO by Le Gambetta.

And where tourists abound, so do eateries of all stripes! Fast food counters line the cobbled alleys of the old town and bistro terraces invade its tiny squares. The food they dish out is mainly forgettable, the service often rushed. Their purpose is to provide sightseers with ready sustenance and the impression they are taking in a bit of the laid-back mediterranean vibe before they move on to their next selfie opportunity. To be fair, Aix is also home to a few restaurants where culinary excellence still flourishes, establishments where savvy patrons can enjoy leisurely three-course meals of the best contemporary fare France has to offer—places like NIRO by Le Gambetta.

Bistronomie at its Best

The inviting dining room is the perfect setting for a relaxed Bistronomie evening.

What’s Bistronomie? A culinary trend started some three decades ago by a handful of young, classically trained French chefs who saw the need to bring the traditional Haute Cuisine of the prestigious high-end restaurants — and stratospheric prices — down to earth. They focused their creative talents on simple, high quality products of the French heartland to take bistro fare to new heights. Bistronomie was born!. In the heart of the historic center of Aix en Provence, NIRO by Le Gambetta is the epitome of the Bistronomie vision.

A delicate Mousse of Shiitake Mushrooms Amuse Bouche.

In their elegantly casual restaurant, its owner Chef Damien Serre-Combe (in the kitchen) and his wife, the ever-charming Claire (in the dining room) deliver on the Bistronomie promise. The menu is modest in size only: four appetizers, five main courses and four desserts, with each category featuring a vegetarian option, plus a cheese board and a couple of weekly special  mains. It is enhanced by a short, well thought-out wine list, a number of choices offered also by the glass to facilitate pairings. But with every dish remarkably creative and flawlessly executed, choice is still a dilemma. This is why, over the two weeks of her recent visit, a long-time friend and fellow foodie and I determined to eat our way through the NIRO menu.

Cochon Confit with Black Garlic Cream.

Each meal began with a complimentary amuse-bouche, a few mouthfuls of a delicate treat to stimulate our taste buds while we perused the menu. One day, it was a generous dollop of shiitake mushroom mousse on a bed of creamy zucchini purée, enhanced with exotic spices and a drop of truffle oil. The next day, it was rave-worthy baby oyster mushrooms sautéed in a melange of fresh aromatic herbs. Then we got to the serious business of discovering our favorite dishes.

And The Winners Are…

Miso-glazed salmon with caramelized cumquats.

In the Main Course Category — I thought I had found it on the first day with the Cochon Confit:  succulent cubes of slow-cooked pork loin topped with a velvety cream of black garlic, garnished with a mousse of celeriac (a.k.a celery root) and hazelnuts. But the next day’s Saumon Laqué au Miso, a moist pan cooked slab of salmon, brushed with a Miso glaze and garnished with caramelized cumquats and a medley of crunchy seasonal vegetable, was pure bliss. Full disclosure: I ordered it a second time during our “challenge.”  Therefore I suppose it should be declared the winner?  But I’ll call it a draw.

The Foie Gras Maison appetizer.

Appetizers — The main course portions were so generous that wisdom dictated forgoing the starter – but my friend and I occasionally agreed on one to share, such as the intriguing Poulpe de Roche à la Galicienne: tender slices of Rock Octopus, simmered in Spanish spices, and served cold with a garlicky Aioli sauce. On an other visit I opted for the sumptuous Medaillons de Foie Gras Maison — three slices of home made Foie Gras served with toasted Ginger Bread and Mango relish. Generous enough to share or pass for a decadent main course. Definitely a winner either way!

Chocolate Millefeuille with caramelized Pineapple.

Desserts — Always the hardest of decisions, since I’ve seldom met a dessert I didn’t like, but the honor easily went to the exotic Millefeuille Chocolat-Ananas: two wafter-thin outer layers of nutty chocolate crunch holding caramelized fresh pineapple chunks and topped with coconut mousse. 

 

 

The Man Behind the Magic

Chef Damien Serre-Combe.

Born in Martiques, a picturesque little town just west of Marseille, Chef Damien spent his formative years in West Africa, where his businessman father had settled. There, he acquired his interest in exotic spices “while enjoying home-cooked meals at my local friends.” Back in Marseilles as a university student, he took a job as a dishwasher in a top local restaurant to help finance his medical studies—and discovered his passion. He started the long cooking apprenticeship process, working his way up in the kitchen and acquiring a degree in restaurant management along the way, ultimately opening his own restaurant in 2016.

Another heavenly Amuse-Bouche creation: oyster mushrooms sautéed in aromatic herbs.

It was simply Le Gambetta back then, a neighborhood hole-in-the-wall named for its street address, just outside the boundaries of the old town. Already the vision of Chef Damien stood out: imaginative combinations of unusual spices and seasonal products of the highest quality, prepared with flair and served with spot-on timing. Le Gambetta quickly became a bursting-at-the-seams neighborhood favorite. Then the pandemic shuttered the entire country.

The Pear Tart on a base of pecan nuts nougat was my dessert first runner up.

Chef Damien used the downtime well, scouting and ultimately acquiring his ideal location in the much thought-after picturesque historic center of town. Here, he designed his kitchen into a coherent work space, and the “front of the house” into an inviting dining room with a remarkably efficient open service area. And he found the time to finetune his seasonally-inspired menus. “I always start with spices,” he explained, “then focus on how they can enhance the flavor of the varied seasonal products.”  He also favors the fresh catch from  nearby small Mediterranean fishing ports and the abundance of heirloom vegetables from back-country farms.  It’s NIRO now (by Le Gambetta for your loyal fans of yore) and it’s better than ever. If your travel plans take you anywhere near Aix-en-Provence, make sure to call ahead for reservations. It’s well worth a detour!

Good to Know

  •  NIRO by Le Gambetta , 37 Place des Tanneurs 13100 Aix-en-Provence, is open Tuesday through Saturday from 12:00 noon to 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm to 9:45 pm. It is closed on Sunday and Monday. Tel.  +33 (0) 4 42 27 65 46.
  • Getting there—NIRO is located in the pedestrian historic center, a short 10-minute walk from the Cours Mirabeau and La Rotonde.
  • This cozy restaurant with its relaxing contemporary flair and off-street shaded terrace can accommodate a maximum of 50 guests. While it is still a word-of-mouth place at the time of this writing, the word is deservedly getting around fast. Reservations are strongly recommended any time and a must on weekends.

 

Location, location, location!

NIRO by Le Gambetta

A Canary Islands Winter Escape – Tenerife

A Canary Islands Winter Escape – Tenerife

Tenerife, the largest island of Spain’s Canary archipelago, boasts weather so fine that it was pronounced as one of the very best climates on the planet in a recent global survey by no less of an authority than NASA. Rising from the Atlantic Ocean some 300 kilometers (200 miles) off the coast  of North Africa, it enjoys year-round sunshine and temperatures that range between 22 and 28 degrees Celsius (71 to 83 Fahrenheit) depending on the season.

Tenerife welcome.

The promise of all that sunshine, along with the island’s dramatic volcanic scenery and the gorgeous sandy beaches of its south coast (albeit now lined with sprawling luxury resorts), is what makes Tenerife a favorite sub-tropical escape for winter-weary Europeans — and on a recent chilly February day, got me on a plane to the island.

 

Lunar Landscapes

Mount Teide is the highest point in Spain.

The first hint that we are approaching Tenerife is the imposing cone of a mountain emerging in the distance from the shimmering ocean. With an altitude of 3,715 meters (12,188 ft), Mount Teide has the distinction of being the highest point in Spain, as well as the highest point above sea level in the islands of the Atlantic. Created by successive volcanic activities going back three million years, Mount Teide as we see it today was formed a mere 170,000 ago, with its base emerging from the Las Cañadas crater (the remains of an older, eroded, extinct volcano) at a height of around 2,190 m (7,190 feet) above sea level. Teide and the surrounding 18,900 hectares (47,000 acres) form the Teide National Park, which we visit the following morning.

Las Cañadas is a forest of sculptural jagged rocks.

After a slow drive up through a forest of tall Canary Island pines still veiled in morning mist, we emerge into a striking lunar landscape. The road runs southwest to northeast across the caldera, with frequent parking areas in the most photogenic spots. The jagged rocks that fill the great amphitheater of the Las Cañadas escarpment rise like gigantic bronze sculptures against the crystalline blue sky. A dusting of fresh snow has fallen on the summits during the night, highlighting the top of the central volcano with a silvery sheen. Rough footpaths beckon the more adventurous visitors to take a closer look at the dramatic craters and lava formations. I prefer to stick with the panoramic views.

The Road to Masca

Masca is a cluster of houses tittering at the edge of a ravine,

Leaving the surreal rocky wasteland of Teide, we continue north, deeper into the steep volcanic world of the center of the island, toward Masca. This tiny mountainside village in the remote northwestern hinterlands is unanimously rated as one of the must-see spots on Tenerife. Reaching Masca is a tense experience, an endless succession of switchbacks on a narrow, cliff-hugging road weaving up the mountain and then down to the village. The journey is rendered all the more unnerving by the unexpected density of the traffic, including tourist busses that clog the way.  But the views that are revealed with every turn defy superlatives.

The view from Masca reaches all the way to La Gomera.

Masca itself is a cluster of simple stone houses balanced on the edge of one of the deepest ravines on the island, and linked by rough walkways dotted with prickly pears and palm trees. The uniqueness of this hamlet tucked in the fold of the ancient Teno Massif  is in its exceptionally scenic location framed by steep ravine walls, against  a soaring pinnacle backdrop that hints of Machu Picchu. Then, far to the west, the ravine opens onto the ocean to reveal a view of the island of La Gomera on the horizon. Past Masca, we continue our way north toward Santiago del Teide. At the Cherfe lookout point, we enjoy one last remarkable vista of the hamlet before heading toward the coast for a quick look at The Giants.

The Wall of Hell

The Cliffs of Giants.

Los Acantilados de Los Gigantes (Cliffs of the Giants) are gigantic basalt rock formations that rise vertically from the sea to heights of 500 to 800 meters (1,640 to 2,625 feet). They stretch  northward for 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the port of Los Gigantes to Punta de Teno, the westernmost point of the island. To the Guanches, the indigenous habitants of the Canaries, they were known as the “Wall of Hell.” Enough said.

 

A Morning with Whales

Pilot whales are year-round residents of Tenerife.

A pilot whale at rest drifs by.

Thanks to their year-long temperate climate, warm waters and deep seafloor protected against the strength of the Atlantic Ocean, the Canaries attract an abundance of marine mammals. Bottlenose dolphins and Pilot whales are year-round residents of the waters between La Gomera and Tenerife, making it highly favorable destination for whale watching. The sun is shining brightly over Puerto Colon, a busy marina in the southwester town of Costa Adeje, when we board the Monte Cristo, a spacious custom-built catamaran ideally configured to ensure spectacular viewing, for a morning excursion. As the coastline fades behind us, we are expectantly scanning the horizon. The crew soon announces a sighting at ten o’clock. The comma-shape dorsal fin of a Pilot whale is clearly visible in the distance. But as we head toward it, more pop up, tantalizingly closer, in pairs and trios. We slow down to a crawl  and the notion of time vanishes as we just enjoy the show. Some of the magnificent cetaceans are just resting before their next food dive, others already replete are now lazily drifting on the calm surface waters, dozing off we are told. Playful dolphins join in off and on.

The cruise ends along the scenic western coastline.

After an hour or so we head back, cruising along the spectacular coastline, with a stop in a particularly inviting  cove and an opportunity to jump off the boat’s diving platform for a swim – yes, even in February.

 

 

 

 

Thalasso in Tenerife

Arona Gran sunset.

Beyond its wealth of natural wonders, one of the main deciding factors in choosing Tenerife for this recent girlfriends’ winter escape was the lure of over-the-top pampering at the Arona Gran Hotel. Reopened in late September 2021 after extensive renovations, the Arona Gran is a large luxury adults-only hotel stretched along the seafront at the popular southwestern tip of Tenerife. In addition to its panoramic view of the old fishing port of Los Cristianos across the bay, it reliably delivered glorious blood-orange sunsets over the neighboring island of La Gomera.

The Thalasso pool includes a circuit of pressure jets and hydro-massage stations.

And it is home to an irresistible Thalasso Spa! Originally developed in France, the Thalasso treatment (from Thalassa, the Greek word for Sea) is defined by the therapeutic uses of seawater, its components and various sea-based products (such as seaweed, sea salt and mud). In addition to the different massage techniques, body and facial treatments, Thalassotherapy also includes a circuit made of a seawater swimming pool with a variety of pressure jets and hydro-massage stations, Roman thermal bath, sauna, Turkish bath and Thermal beds. We became frequent visitors of the spa though-out our stay.  Hint — the circuit and the treatments are very popular with the guests. Book ahead.

Teide National Park panorama.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Tenerife has two airports: the Tenerife North Airport (or Los Rodeos) and South Airport (also known as Tenerife South-Reina Sofia Airport in honor of the former Queen of Spain). South Airport is the busiest, with regularly scheduled flights from the Spanish mainland and most major West European cities, as well as between the main islands of the archipelago. 
  • Getting around – There is a good network of busses linking all the major towns on the island and reasonably priced taxis are available. Car rentals are readily available for those who prefer self-drive visiting. A highway circles the coast, and excellent, well marked roads linking the various points of interest. However, the topography of the center of the island makes for white-knuckle driving in some places.
  • Visiting — Teide National Park: The best options for visiting Teide National Park are with a rental car or on a guided tour. Public transportation to and from the park is quasi inexistant.  There are two visitor centers in Teide National Park: one at El Portillo and the other at Parador Nacional. Cable car to the top —The Mount Teide Cable Car lower station is easy to reach by road and stands at 2,356 m above sea level. It consists of two cabins that can hold a maximum of 44 passengers and travel to the top in under 8 minutes. (N.B. it was not functioning at the time of our visit due to high winds at the summit). The lower station offers spectacular views of the peaks surrounding Mount Teide. Hiking in the park — visit volcanoteide.com to get updates on trail closures, facilities, and weather. To hike Mount Teide Peak (Pico del Teide),  a free permit is required, which needs to be secured prior to your visit.  
  • Whale watching — although a large number of operators offer a variety of whale watching options on the island, we were especially impressed by Monte Cristo Catamaran Cruises for the immaculate condition of their ship, their small passenger  limits (maximum 24 passengers per cruise) and the professionalism and friendliness of the crew. Advanced reservation are required, and include hotel pick-up and return upon request.

Location, location, location!

Los Cristianos

Los Cristianos

Nancy — The Fountainhead of French Art Nouveau

Nancy — The Fountainhead of French Art Nouveau

Long before Nancy became famous for its spectacular Baroque architecture, it had been the seat of the Dukes of Lorraine for over 500 years. The wealth of historic landmarks in its medieval quarter, the Vieille Ville (Old Town), attest to the Duchy’s early prosperity. Then, by the 16th century, Duke Charles the Great turned the city’s landscape upside down. To accommodate the needs of a growing population, he developed an entire new town, the Ville Neuve, to the south of the medieval town, including a grand Renaissance-style Ducal Palace (now the Musée Lorrain).

The Fountain of Neptune is a Rococo-style masterpiece.

Yet it wasn’t until the mid 18th  century that the last of his successors, Duke Stanislas Leszczynski, father-in-law of the King of France, commissioned Nancy’s grand Baroque palaces and pavilions, including the City Hall, Opera House and Fine Arts Museum to surround one of the most renowned Baroque squares in Europe: the Place Stanislas. While these remarkable historic landmarks are well worth a visit, it is treasures of a more recent era that brought me here recently: the richest Art Nouveau heritage in France.

The Dazzling Daum Collection

The Musée des Beaux Arts holds the largest collection of Daum glassware in the world.

My exploration of Nancy’s artistic treasures predictably begins on the Place Stanislas, at the Musée des Beaux Arts where. on my way to the basement,  I browse through the exceptional collection of notable local artists such as  Le Lorrain, Emile Friant and Etienne Cournault, and  works by such  European greats as Caravaggio, Delacroix, Rubens Matisse, Modigliani and Picasso. Down there, within a setting of the city’s ancient fortifications, with over 600 pieces on display, more than any other museum in anywhere in the world, the Daum Collection dazzles.

Daum glassworks are famous for their use of pâte de verre.

Established in 1878 by Jean Daum (1825-1885), the Daum crystal studio flourished under his sons, August (1853-1909) and Antonin (1864-1931) to become one of the most prominent Art Nouveau decorative glass manufacturers in France. The Daum brothers soon became a major force in the Art Nouveau movement for their creative use of pâte de verre (glass paste), an ancient Egyptian method of glass casting, often combined with carving, enameling, engraving and acid etching. Several of these processes were often combined in a single piece to produce uniquely creative glass masterpieces. This permanent exhibit mainly showcases a sumptuous collection of pieces from the Art Nouveau period, but it also traces the story of the Daum glassworks from their early days to their clear crystal creations of the 1990’s.

The Ecole de Nancy

Eugene Majorelle’s famous La Mort du Cigne grand piano dominates the Corbin linving room.

Three of the biggest names in French Art Nouveau, Emile Gallé (1846-1904), the Daum brothers and Louis Majorelle (1859-1926) had their glassware and furniture manufacturing plants in Nancy. They were part of a dynamic artistic and business culture that had its origins in the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany after the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71) when artists, intellectuals and industrialists fled to Nancy, which had remained in French territory. In 1901, they founded a movement that became known as the Ecole de Nancy and was joined by other artists, notably Jacques Grüber, of stained glass installations fame.

The Veranda stained glass window by Jacques Grüber.

Today their pioneering creations are showcased in the Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy. Opened in 1964 in the former residence of Eugène Corbin, a major patron of the mouvement who donated to the city an exceptional collection of 700 pieces of great diversity. Designed by architect Lucien Weissenburger in a vast landscaped garden with an aquarium pavilion, the villa itself has retained its original Art Nouveau charm. It provides the perfect setting for its collections of outstanding furniture and decorative objects by all the artists of the School.

The Museum of the Ecole de Nancy

Vase aux Bleuets (Emile Gallé).

Coupe Rose fe France (Emile Gallé – 1901)

A visit to the Nancy School Museum is a journey back to the Belle Époque, where architecture, furniture, lighting and stained glass immerse us into the world of Art Nouveau. Each room – dining room, bedrooms, study, bathroom – is exquisitely furnished with the creations of the architects, craftsmen and decorators who came together as the Nancy School. Bed are adorned with butterflies, lights fixtures open into translucent corollas, mahogany sideboards charm with their slender curves, and brilliant stained glass windows sparkle in a thousand and one shades.  Each object is a wonder of refinement that reminds us of the ultimate ambition of these Art Nouveau masters: transforming the living environment down to the smallest detail by drawing inspiration from the splendors of nature. Not to be overlooked in the midsts of these treasures is the magnificent collection of Emile Gallé glass. A trained botanist, Gallé planted a garden under the windows of his glassworks, La Garenne, so that the workers could “check the accuracy of their lines”. 

The Villa Majorelle

Louis Majorelle’s studio and balcony overlooked the garden.

The Villa features several spectacular fireplaces.

A short 10-minute walk away, along streets still dotted with Belle Époque buildings, the recently restored Villa Majorelle is regarded as one of the first and finest examples of the Art Nouveau architectural style in France. The flowing forms, decorative motifs and the continuous interplay between the exterior and the interior offer a brilliant example of the artistic unity advocated by a large number of artists of the period. Built around 1902 for the furniture designer and industrialist Louis Majorelle (father of Jacques Majorelle of Marrakech Jardin Majorelle fame), it served as a showcase for his own designs, as well as the work of other noted decorative artists of the day, including ceramist Alexandre Bigot and stained glass artist Jacques Grüber. The facade is composed of distinct blocks of different sizes, their decoration expressing the function of the space within. Especially notable is the western side, crowned by Majorelle’s studio, with soaring windows overlooking what was then the garden and surrounding countryside.

This unique Majorelle creation is made of Japanese ash and alder woods.

Inside, the meticulous restitution of the original decor and the furnishing of the rooms illustrates the intimate connection between architecture and decorative arts. The fluidity of the forms, the decorations inspired by nature, the play of light in the stained glass windows, every detail contributes to transporting the visitor back in time as the rooms are revealed one by one. From the dining room with its imposing flamed sandstone fireplace to the bedroom, a unique Majorelle creation made of Japanese ash and alder woods encrusted with copper and mother of pearl, the Villa offers a rare opportunity to experience an intimate home setting of the Gilded Age of Art Nouveau.

Good to Know

  • Getting There — Nancy is located 350 kilometers (220 miles) east of Paris, and easy 4-hour drive via the A4 highway.  However, the most efficient way to travel between the two cities is by rail: an hourly TGV (express train) connect the Gare de l’Est in the center of Paris to the Gare Nancy-Ville in the center of Nancy in a mere 90 minutes throughout the day.There are equally fast and easy highway and train connections from Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Switzerland.
  • Getting Around — The center of Nancy is pedestrian-friendly, mainly flat, with good sidewalks, and most of the historic monuments are located in car-free areas, The city also has a very efficient tramway service running  from 4.30am to 1am during the week and 2.30am on weekends.
  • VisitingThe Musée des Beaux Arts, 3 Place Stanislas, Nancy is open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. It is closed on Tuesday and major national holidays. The Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy,  36-38 rue du Sergent Blandan, Nancy, and the Villa Majorelle, 1, rue Louis Majorelle, Nancy, are  open Wednesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. They are closed on Monday, Tuesday and major national holidays.   

Location, location, location!

Nancy - Place Stanislas

Place Stanislas

The Museum of Paris History— Musee Carnavalet

The Museum of Paris History— Musee Carnavalet

The Musée Carnavalet has long been one of Paris’ overlooked treasures. Dedicated to recording the city’s history, it opened in 1880 in a grand Renaissance mansion (Hôtel Carnavalet) of the history-steeped Marais district.

Fragment of an early plaque commemorating the medieval defensive wall of Paris.

For over 150 years, as its collections illustrating the development of the city were continuously enriched, the museum expanded with the haphazard addition of exhibit spaces and finally the annexation of the adjoining Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau mansion in 1989. By the time it finally closed for long overdue renovations in 2016, its collections had grown so large that curators struggled to display it all in a coherent fashion. Its confusing layout gave this most Parisian of museums the nostalgic feel  of a Cabinets of Curiosities of a bygone era.

 

An Elegant Metamorphosis

The visit begins with a collection of ancient shop signs.

The Musée Carnavalet – History of Paris reopened in May 2021 after a four-and-a-half-year, €56 million renovation. Major structural changes, some made imperative by modern accessibility requirements, created an easy-to-follow chronological itinerary. Beginning in the fully renovated vaulted basement with displays from the Mesolithic period (9600  to 6000 BCE) to the Middle Ages, visitors then pass through areas dedicated to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Revolution, and the 19th and 20th centuries, to end in today’s Paris.

The Bastille café sign (painted wood-1800)

In addition to adapting the building to current norms and redesigning the layout of the visit, the work has embellished the monument, highlighting its architecture and adding  soaring stairways for a contemporary flair. To the right of the entrance, a light-filled gallery welcomes visitors with an eclectic collection of old shop signs, from  the 17th to the early 20th centuries.

This head of Medusa decorated a door of the Hôtel de Ville.

Then the visit begins with two introductory rooms presenting the history of Paris, its symbols, key data on the history of the city, and the museum itself. They feature a number of scale models of the evolution of Paris and miscellaneous items ranging from a portrait of Madame de Sévigné, the famous aristocratic letter-writer who occupied the Palais Carnavalet in the 17th century to an early silver film photo of late 19th century rag-pickers and a massive oak door decorated with a head of a Medusa, saved from the destruction of the old Hôtel de Ville by fire in 1871 during the Commune.

 

A Walk Back in Time

A Neolithic oak wood canoe takes pride of place.

Now it’s down into the newly opened  basement. Here Mesolithic stone tools attest to the presence of a hunter-gatherers encampment around 9000 to 5000 BCE. Exceptional Neolithic remains (6500 to 4500 BCE ) follow. Found during excavations carried out in the nearby Bercy district, which uncovered a village on the edge of an old channel of the Seine, they include an oak canoe and a yew wood bow as well as numerous tools, weapons and utensils of domestic life.

Carved stone block from late Roman times city ramparts.

From there we fast-forward to approximately 250 BCE, when a Celtic tribe known as the Parisii settled in what is now the Ile de la Cité. The burgeoning city that grew from this early settlement would, after its conquest by the Romans in 52 BCE become the Gallo-Roman town of Lutetia, an evolution widely documented by imposing carved stone blocks and many decorative elements coming from different public spaces. The domestic sphere  is also well represented with a focus on tableware and everyday objects. Necropolises also contribute a remarkable insight into these times with jewels, weapons, and an exceptional set of surgical instruments dated from the 3rd century.

Into the Middle Ages

Stained glass works from medieval monasteries.

We now reach the medieval heart of Paris, where political and religious powers first came together: the Ile de la Cité. In the center of the room, a model of the island makes it possible to visualize the urban space and its density. A gargoyle from Notre-Dame cathedral dominates the room, and common objects from wooden crockery to leather shoes, all in a remarkable state of conservation, provide a striking testimony of the daily life of the period. Then we cross to the left bank of the Seine to discover the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and its royal necropolis, the Sorbonne (founded in 1257), and several prominent monasteries that attracted thousands of scholars and students, forming colleges that became the University of Paris.

Stele commemorating the death of Prince Louis of France, heir to the throne, in 1260.

Where were the dead buried in Paris during the Middle Ages? The question is answered with tombstones and steles from two major cemeteries: the Innocents, in the current district of Les Halles, which was used for nearly seven centuries, and the Jewish cemetery on the Left Bank, testimony of the large Jewish community established in Paris in the 12th and 13th centuries. And how were the living governed? Paris gradually becomes a municipality with powers distributed among many: the landlords, the king’s provost, the provost of bourgeois merchants, the aldermen… The section ends with King François I, who in 1533 orders the construction of a town hall, on its current location.

From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment

Guest Salon of the Hôtel d’Uzes (1768).

Salon Demarteau (1765 to1770) by François Boucher.

The overall narrative of the 16th to 18th centuries exhibits highlights the evolution of the intellectual influence of Paris and the main actors of the Age of Enlightenment. But for Decorative Arts lovers, that is eclipsed by the magnificent “period rooms”, some 20 of them, salvaged from mansions and shops that no longer exist. These are stately interiors, fully reconstructed and decorated with their original furnishings, such as the office of the Hôtel Colbert de Villacerf, the Guests Salon of the Hôtel d’Uzès, designed by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux in a grand neoclassical style, the exquisite Demarteau lobby designed by Boucher and decorated with animals and flowers by Fragonard and Huet, and the ceilings at the Hôtel de la Rivière painted by Charles Le Brun. All lead to the breathtaking flight of stairs of the Hotel de Luynes, with its upper landing gallery murals by Paolo Antonio Brunetti. Here, in a majestic colonnaded decor, figures in various poses seem to watch visitors climbing up the stairs.

 

Beyond the Revolution

Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789).

A painting of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the era’s key civil rights document, marks the entrance the next gallery. We are reaching the 19th century, an especially tormented period of Paris history, when the storming of La Bastille on July 14, 1789, ushered in successive revolutions leading to imperial regimes, attempts at democracy and even the brief, ill-fated utopian socialist government of the Paris Commune, some 150 years ago.  And I am reaching cultural overload.

The ballroom of the Hôtel de Wendel (1925).

This is clearly a two-visits museum. But for now, I hasten my pace, determined to give at least a passing glance to the 19th and 20th centuries. For my reward, I come across the exquisite de Wendel ballroom, commissioned in 1925 by the de Wendel couple for the ballroom of their Parisian mansion.This decorative composition representing the Queen of Sheba atop a white elephant, preparing to leave her kingdom to meet King Solomon, is the work of Catalan artist José Maria Sert, recognized as the greatest muralist his time.

Jewelry Fouquet (1901) by Art Nouveau icon Alfons Mucha.

The final highlight of my visit is the Bijouterie Fouquet, designed by Czech Art Nouveau icon Alfons Mucha for society jeweler Georges Fouquet, himself best known for his Art Nouveau creations. Mucha conceived every elements of the shop – both exterior and interior, including the furniture, light fittings and display cases, as a complete work of art, to provide a harmonious environment for Fouquet. Drawing inspiration from the natural world, he gave pride of place to two spectacular peacocks set against glowing designs in stained glass. In 1941 Fouquet donated all the pieces of Mucha’s revolutionary design to the Musée Carnavalet for safekeeping. In 1989 the museum completed the painstaking job of reconstructing the boutique, which remains one of the finest examples of Art Nouveau decorative design anywhere.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — The Musee Carnavalet, 16 rue des Francs-Bourgeois, Paris 75004, France, is a five-minute walk from the Saint Paul metro station.
  • Visiting — The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm. It is closed on Monday and public holidays. It is one of the 14 museums run by the City of Paris, and like all other city-run museums, entrance to the permanent collection is free of charge (Visitors are only charged for temporary exhibitions).  
  • Health Guidelines — Due to health restrictions in order at the time of this writing advanced reservation through the museum official site  for a specific day and time was necessary, as was presentation of a valid European Health Pass or the usual proof of negative RT-PCR or antigénic négatif test within the past 48 hours. Mask were mandatory throughout the museum.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Musée Carnavalet

Musee Carnavalet

In and around Palermo – The Great Byzantine Mosaics of Sicily

In and around Palermo – The Great Byzantine Mosaics of Sicily

Mosaics are one of the greatest bequests to western art to come out of the Byzantine Empire. Although mosaics made with cut cubes (tesserae) of stone, ceramic and glass had `evolved from earlier Greek and Roman practices dating back to the 3rd century BC, it was the craftspeople of the Byzantine Empire that developed it into a powerful religious expression.

Historical Context

Scenic wall mosaics began conveying the Christian message.

Constantine, Roman emperor from 306 to 337 AD, adopted Christianity early into his reign and subsequently moved his capital from Rome to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), at the eastern frontier of the Empire. Christianity flourished and gradually supplanted the Greco-Roman gods that had once defined Roman culture. This religious shift prompted the building of Christian basilicas, where in addition to the mosaic floors with typical Roman geometric designs, scenic wall and ceiling mosaics became a prime medium to convey the Christian message.

King Roger II of Sicily commissioned some of the greatest Byzantine mosaics ever.

By the 6th century, with the reign of Justinian I (527 to 565) the Byzantine Empire had flourished into its first golden age. In 537, Justinian completed the construction of what was to become the global center of the Orthodox Church and the epitome of Byzantine architecture: Constantinople’s  Hagia Sophia. While virtually all of the early Christian mosaics were subsequently lost to political and religious conflicts, the mastery of the craftsmen who had created them endured, as did the demand for their work throughout the Christian states around the Mediterranean. In the 10th and 11th centuries, even states actively hostile to Byzantium, such as  the Republic of Venice and the Norman King Roger II of Sicily, imported its craftspeople to create the greatest Byzantine mosaics the world has ever seen.

Sicily’s Norman Legacy

The Norman rulers integrated the best of Byzantine and Islamic elements in their architecture.

Following the decline of the Western Roman Empire in the 3rd and 4th centuries, Sicily endured a succession of invaders throughout the remainder of the first millennium. The Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs and Saracen all left their mark on the island. But it was the Norman conquest in the 11th century that transformed Palermo into one of the most brilliant and enlightened courts in Europe. As they established the seat of their power, the Norman rulers wisely integrated the best elements inherited from the Byzantine and Islamic cultures.

The Palatine Chapel

The Palatine Chapel features carved Arab wood ceiling.

The side walls of the center aisle depict scenes of the Old Testament.

The most spectacular example of this synthesis is La Capella Palatina, built in 1132 by King Roger II within the vast royal palace of Palermo. The chapel is an exuberant blend of artistic styles: an elaborate Norman basilica with a three-aisle nave topped by a Byzantine cupola. Pointed Arabic arches are set on 10 antique columns of Sicilian marbles and the interior is covered in glittering Byzantine mosaics, capped by an elaborately carved Arab wood ceiling. The dazzling, predominantly gold mosaics, enhanced with deep blues, greens and reds, and the figures outlined in black, cover the upper portions of the walls. There are three typically Byzantine representations of the Christ Pantocrator: in the apse of the right nave, in the central apse and in the dome of the cupola, where it is surrounded by a ring of angels attired in the sumptuous robes of Byzantine emperors. Meanwhile, the Old Testament cycle set along the side walls of the center aisle follows the Roman church tradition. Laid out on two levels (or registers) of multiple panels, its pictorial narrative runs chronologically from the Creation to scenes from the lives of the apostles Peter and Paul.

La Martorama

The traditional Byzantine interior decor of the Martomara was modified over the centuries.

Roger II in Byzantine dress is represented crowned by Christ.

A 10-minute walk from the Palatine Chapel, Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (the church of Saint Mary of the Admiral, a.k.a. La Martorama) was founded in 1143 by George of Antioch, the Syrian christian admiral (or ammiraglio) and principal minister of Roger II. Originally intended to serve the Italo-Albanian community, who although part of the Catholic Church followed the rituals and spiritual tradition associated the Byzantine rite of the Orthodox Church. In subsequent centuries, the church became absorbed by an adjoining convent of Benedictine nuns (originally established on the property of Eloisa Martorana, hence its moniker). While the nuns extensively modified the structure and interior decor in the 16th through 18th centuries, a series of significant 12th century Byzantine mosaics remain. On the south side of the aisle, King Roger II – George of Antioch’s lord, is depicted receiving the crown of Sicily from Jesus. This depiction of Roger is politically significant in terms of its iconography. In Western Christian tradition, kings were customarily crowned by the Pope or his representatives. Here, Roger is shown in Byzantine dress, being crowned by Jesus in the Byzantine fashion. Meanwhile, on the northern side, George himself sits at the feet of the Virgin.

The Cefalù Cathedral

A majestic bust of the Christ Pantocrator fills the dome.

Consecrated to the Savior and to Saints Peter and Paul in the coastal city of Cefalù, 70 kilometers (43 miles) east of Palermo, Il Duomo di Cefalù was started by Roger II in 1131, just a few month after his coronation. Here, the main decorations are the mosaics in the choir, which cover only the apse and the bay in front of it. A majestic bust of the Christ Pantocrator fills the dome. Beneath it, the mosaics are divided into three registers, with Mary occupying the centre of the top one, where she is pictured as an intercessor. In the two lower sets, the apostles are pictured on a smaller scale.

Mary occupies the center of the top register.

The pictorial cycle in the bay in front of the apse consists of single figures, with no scenic depictions. The side walls present figures from the Old Testament, depicting sainted deacons, warriors and Latin and Greek teachers of the church. Angels of various orders are distributed across the caps of the cross-ribbed vault.

 

 

 

The Cathedral of Monreale

One of the main motives of the apse is an enthroned Madonna and Child between archangels and apostles.

The nave sides recount episodes of the Old Testament.

The sumptuous Duomo di Monreale, consecrated to the Assumption of the Virgin, was erected by King William II (a successor of Roger II from 1166 to 1189). Built in a royal park on the site of an earlier Greek sanctuary some 10 kilometers (6 miles) above Palermo, its interior is impressive for its spaciousness and rich decor.  Not only are there mosaics throughout, but also large antique columns with decorative capitals, marble paneling on the lower wall surfaces, and an elaborate ornamental floor in the sanctuary. The mosaics cover all the upper portions of the walls of the sanctuary and the nave, in all a surface area of roughly 7.600 square meters (82.000 square feet). The Monreale Cathedral thus represents one the most extensive mosaic decors in Italy, on par only with Venice’s San Marco (about 8,000 square meters or 86.000 square feet). On the vault of the main apse, the central focus of the multi-figured design is the majestic bust of Christ Pantocrator. The main motif in the lower part of the apse is an enthroned Madonna and Child between archangels and apostles. The apse’s vaults hold large enthroned images of the apostles Peter and Paul, and the walls present scenes from their lives. An extensive cycle on the life of Christ unfolds on three registers across the walls of the crossing and the transepts. The mosaic decoration continues in the nave where forty-two scenes from the Genesis are depicted in two registers and  the side aisles depict Christ’s miracles.

Good to Know

  • Mosaic techniques — Like other mosaics, Byzantine mosaics were made of small pieces of glass, stone, ceramic, or other material, which are called tesserae. However, during the Byzantine period, craftsmen expanded the materials that could be turned into tesserae to include gold leaf, silver and precious stones.They also perfected the construction of their mosaics. Before the tesserae could be applied, multiple layers of foundation were laid, the last one made of a mix of finely crushed lime and brick powder. On this moist surface, artists drew images and used strings, compasses and calipers to outline geometric shapes before the tesserae were carefully cemented into position to create the final image.
  • Getting there — Palermo’s international Falcone-Borserlino Airport offers daily flights to and from most major European cities as well as the Italian mainland. It is located some 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the center of the city, with frequent train and bus connections between the city and the airport from 5:00 am to midnight. Monreale is served by Palermo’s urban bus service (AMAT). Bus 389 runs from Piazza Indipendenza, in Palermo to the cathedral in Monreale. Cefalù is easily accessible by train or car from Palermo. Trains to Cefalù run approximately every hour, and the journey is about 50 minutes.
  • Visiting — The Palatine Chapel, Piazza del Parlamento, 1, 90134 Palermo PA, is open year-round, Monday through Saturday from 9:00 am to 4:15 pm and Sunday and holidays from 8:30 to 9:40 am and 11:15 am to 1:00 pm. The Cathedral of Monreale, Piazza Guglielmo II 1, 90046, Monreale PA, is open daily from 8:30 am to 12:30 pm, and from 2:30 to 5:00 pm. The Cefalù Cathedral, Piazza del Duomo, 90015 Cefalù PA, is open daily from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm and 3:30 pm to 6:00 pm.

Location, location, location!

Palermo

Cefalu

Monreale

Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — Agrigento

Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — Agrigento

Day Four—It’s an easy 15-minute drive from the beachfront outskirts of the modern city of Agrigento, where we have spent the night, to the most impressive site of Hellenic architecture in Sicily.

The Valley of the Temples

The Valley of the Temples overlooks the Mediterranean shore.

Once known to the Greeks as Akragas, Agrigento was founded around 580 BC on a plateau overlooking the southwestern coast of Sicily by settlers from Rhodes and Crete. Surrounded by fertile land ideal for agriculture, the city soon prospered into one of the leading trade and cultural centers in the Hellenic world. Its importance is demonstrated to this day by the extensive remains of the grand 5th century temples that still dominate the site.

The ancient Greek city of Akragas stretches across a ledge.

Now one of the main archeological attractions in Sicily, Agrigento, in spite of its ridge-top location, has acquired the moniker of Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples). In addition to its seven honey-colored Doric temples in various stages of conservation, the complex also includes a necropolis and sanctuaries located outside the city walls. As is frequently the case on the island, it is not possible to establish to which god or goddess a given the temple was devoted, so that the attributions are merely a tradition established in Renaissance time.

Notable Temples

The Temple of Concordia is the largest Doric temple in Sicily.

The giant bronze of Fallen Icarus was donated in 2011 by Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj.

Named for a Latin inscription found nearby, the Temple of Concordia, the largest and best preserved Doric temple in Sicily, was completed around 430 BC. It owes its exceptional state of preservation to a 6th century AD bishop of Agrigento who converted the temple into a Christian basilica, thus protecting it from the destruction of pagan places of worship. Although the spaces between the columns had been walled at that time, and a series of arches added along the nave, the Christian alterations were removed and the temple returned to its Doric grandeur in 1785. Since 2011, an oversized bronze statue of a fallen Icarus lies on the ground nearby, giving the impression of having been abandoned ages ago near the front of the Temple of Concordia. Originally part of the temporary exhibit of 17 works by Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj, it was subsequently donated by the artist to remain permanently in place.

 

 

A total of 30 columns remain of the Temple of Hera Lacinia.

The nearby Temple of Hera Lacinia (or Temple D) on the southeastern corner of the Valley, 120 meters above sea level, didn’t fare so well, having been damaged by fire following the siege of Akragas by the Carthaginians in 406 BC. Dated around 450-440 BC, all that remains today is an impressive row of 30 columns, of which only 16 have retained their capital, and a long altar, originally used for sacrifices.

 

The Temple of Heracles is the most ancient in the Valley.

The Temple of Heracles, the divine hero, son of Zeus, was one of the most venerated deities in Akragas. Dated to the final years of the 6th century BC, it is the most ancient in the Valley. Destroyed by a long-ago earthquake, it consists today of only eight columns.

 

 

The Temple of Zeus was the largest Doric temple ever built.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus was the largest Doric temple ever constructed. Built around 480 BC, it is characterized by the use of large scale Telamons (or Atlases), sculpted figures in the form of a man, which could take the place of a column. This temple was never completed and now lies in a jumble of ruins.

 

 

The Temple of Castor and Pollux is a reconstruction.

The Temple of Castor and Pollux (or the Dioscuri), the legendary twins born from the union of Zeus and the Queen of Sparta, is reduced to a corner consisting of four columns. It is in fact an early 19th century reconstruction achieved by repurposing pieces from various ruined temples nearby.

An Early Christian Necropolis

The cliff’s edge is lined with early-Christian sepulchers

The cliff-line served as a natural defensive wall during the Greek period. Then during the late Roman and Byzantine times, the living rock was hewn to accommodate early-Christian sepulchers, known as arcolosia, characterized by their single arched recess. Today, this ancient necropolis also affords a lovely view of the Mediterranean below.

The Archeological Museum

The Ephebe of Agrigento, is dated about 470 BC.

Just outside the Agrigento city center, the Regional Archeological Museum illustrates the history of of the region from prehistory to the stage of hellenization. Its rich collection of local archeological finds notably includes the Telamon from the Temple of Olympian Zeus, an early sculpted column in the form of a man that stands over 7 meters  (23 feet) high. Another exceptional piece is the so called Ephebe of Agrigento, a 102 centimeter meter (3.2 foot) high white marble nude of an adolescent youth, represented in the severe style and dated about 470 BC.

The museum showcases a large collection of craters.

It also holds one of the most impressive collection of Greek pottery I have come across anywhere in the Mediterranean world, including a number of both red-figure and black figure vases and craters.

Good to Know

  • Getting there—Agrigento is 130 kilometer (80 mile), two-hour  drive south of Palermo via highway SS121 and SS189. Then a five-minute drive to the Valley of the Temples.
  • Visiting—The Valley of the Temples, is open daily, year-round from 08.30 am to 7:00 pm. The Archaeological Museum  (Museo Archeologico Regionale “Pietro Griffo”), Contrada San Nicola 12, Agrigento, is open daily, year-round from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm.

Location, location, location!

Valley of the Temples