A Pioneering City of Art – Lille

A Pioneering City of Art – Lille

Lille has long been a city of great art museums. Open in 1809, its world-famous Palais des Beaux-Arts (Palace of Fine Arts), one of the first museums to be established in the aftermath of the French revolution, holds the second largest collection in France after the Louvre. In recent decades, the greater Lille metropolitan area has upheld its pioneering history with the opening of two additional museums that are fast becoming landmarks of the international art scene as well as monuments of contemporary French architecture.

LAM – A Unique Cultural Space

France-Lille LAM

The Metropolitan Lille Museum of Modern Art, Contemporary Art and Art Brut) designed by French architect Roland Simounet .

The Lille Métropole Musée d’Art Moderne, d’Art Contemporain et d’Art Brut (Metropolitan Lille Museum of Modern Art, Contemporary Art and Oustider Art), LAM for short, has its genesis in the donation in 1979 by Jean Masurel, a local industrialist and life-long collector of Modern and Contemporary art, of its monumental (close to 4000 pieces) collection to the Lille urban community. A dedicated museum designed by prominent French architect Roland Simounet is inaugurated in 1983 in a suburban Lille parkland setting of Villeneuve d’Ascq.

 

France - Lille LAM Braque

Georges Braque, 1908, Maisons et arbre (Houses at l’Estaque),

Then in 1985, L’Aracine, an association of artists and collectors of Art Brut (Outsider Art) gives its collection to the museum. For this, the largest public collection of its type in France (over 3,000 works), a striking extension is designed by Manuelle Gaudrant. Five galleries faced in white precast perforated concrete now wrap around the eastern end of the original building. LAM reopens in 2010 after four years of construction and renovation work. Today, with over 4,000 square meters (43,000 square feet) of exhibit space and a permanent collection of over 7,000 works, LAM is a unique cultural space that brings together Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art. And offers over a quarter of a million yearly visitors the opportunity to appreciate a condensed history of art in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in one collection of international standing.

Modern Art

France - Lille LAM Calder.

The LAM Sculpture Garden is an ideal setting for the Calder mobile.

This is where the Masurel collection can be seen in all its jaw-dropping magnificence. Expressionists, Cubists, Fauvisists, Surrealists and all the other “…ists” that shaped twentieth century arts are represented here, in the works of their greatest painters, arranged by their particular style: Braque, Derain, Kansinsky, Klee, Miro, Picasso, Van Dongen. An entire room is dedicated to Fernand Leger, another to Modigliani. And best of all, although predictably popular, the galleries are never too crowded, allowing me to enjoy the moment in a serene atmosphere.

Contemporary Art

France - Lille LAM Modigliani 1

During a recent visit, Modigliani steals the limelight, as with his 1915 Portrait de Chaim Soutine, on loan from the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.

This section features, along with Bernard Buffet, Dodeigne and Eugène Leroy, some lesser known but just as influential French and foreign artists. Important abstract painters and sculptors from the second half of the twentieth century are also represented by the likes of Daniel Buren, Richard Deacon, Gérard Duchêne, Pierre Soulages and Jean Dubuffet. An artistic itinerary that illustrates the evolution of art, the major artistic movements, trends and current themes in the contemporary art scene.

Outsider Art

Defined by a regrouping of pieces created by non-professional artists, without artistic reference and working outside of the aesthetic norm, Outsider Art is exhibited at the museum via a prism of well-known artists, such as Aloïse Corbaz, Joseph Crépin, Henry Darger, Auguste Forestier and Carlo Zinelli.

Amedeo Modigliani Retrospective

France - Lille LAM Mod. Blue Dress

Amedeo Modigliani, 1918, Seated Woman in Blue Dress, on loan from the Moderna Museet, Stockholm

Beyond the treasures of the permanent collection, what brings me to LAM on this latest visit is an exceptional temporary retrospective of the work of Modigliani (on display until June 6, 2016). Although the museum holds one of the finest French public displays of his work in its Masurel collection: six paintings, eight drawings and a rare marble sculpture, this rich exhibit shows the artist in a totally different light (at least for me). Through 23 drawing, five sculptures and 49 paintings, I am introduced to his antique, African and other non-western influences, as well at works by his contemporaries, such Brancusi, Picasso, Chaïm Soutine, Moïse Kisling and Henri Laurens, that nourished his inspiration.

 

 

 

 

The Louvre-Lens

France - Louvre Lens

The Louvre-Lens building, by Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, is itself a work of art.

With the opening of its satellite in Lens in 2012, the Musée du Louvre is no longer confined to its palatial Parisian digs. The building, by Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, is itself a work of art. Located on a 20-hectare (50-acre) former coal-mining site reborn as parkland, it is an ethereal creation of glass and brushed aluminum that reflects the flat landscape and pale skies of northern France. The core of the 360-meter (1,200-foot) long structure is a transparent, oblong 3,600-square meter (39,000-square foot) hall that is the starting point of the various galleries.

The Gallery of Time

France - Louvre-Lens Ancient.

The Gallery of Time illustrates the development of contemporaneous ancient civilizations.

The museum’s semi-permanent exhibition is housed in the 120-meter (400-foot) long Galerie du Temps (Gallery of Time). It showcases 250 pieces representing five millennia of art history, from the origins of writing in various civilizations to the nineteenth century. The displays are freestanding, to be viewed from all angles as I wander through time. Although chronological, the artifacts are arranged by themes, to better illustrate the Egyptian influence on Greek sculpture for instance, or how civilizations evolved simultaneously (such as Egyptian Pyramid Period and Mediterranean Cycladic Culture).

France - Louvre-Lens Claude Lorrain.

Landscape with Paris and Oenone, 1648, Claude Lorrain (Gellee).

My stroll through the history of art goes by “St. Mathew and the Angel,” an awesome Rembrandt that already foretells of Impressionism, and an incandescent “Landscape with Paris and Oenone” by Claude Lorrain, a preview of the JMW Turner skies to come two centuries later, before ending with pieces from the Romantic period. Each year, one third of the collection is rotated back to the Paris mother ship and replaced by new pieces. Side galleries also hold two themed temporary exhibits per year.

La Piscine-Musée d’Art et d’Industrie

France-Roubaix Swimming Pool Museum

La Piscine is a unique Art Deco swimming pool reborn as a municipal museum.

Although not on the scale of its Lille, Lens and Villeneuve d’Ascq cousins, the charming Art Deco gem La Piscine-Musee d’Art et d’Industrie (The Swimming Pool-Museum of Art and Industry) in Roubaix is a not-to-be-missed side trip. Opened in 1932, this municipal swimming pool and bathhouse was much appreciated by the local community for over half a century until its closure in 1985. Mercifully it was reborn as a museum 16 years later after extensive renovations. Although its length was preserved, its Olympic-size pool is now a narrow central stream, its east-west direction facing the grand sunburst stain glass windows representing the rising and setting sun at both ends of the domed ceiling.

France - Roubaix Swimming Pool Museum Fountain

The Neptune’s head fountain is sourrounded by mosaics in a wave design.

A collection of sculptures that include four major works by Alfred Boucher (Hope, Faith, Charity and Tenderness) as well as pieces by Rodin and Camille Claudel line both sides of the pool. The original Art Deco mosaics in an ornate swirling wave pattern still outline the basin and the large Neptune head keeps spouting a graceful arch of water. At ground and second floor gallery levels, changing and shower stalls are now the setting for a comprehensive collection of textile industry related items from Roubaix’ heydays.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Lille is easily reached by train, with frequent TVG (high-speed train) direct connections throughout the day from Paris (1 hour), Brussels (35 minutes), London, (1:30 hour), Amsterdam (2:40 hours) and other main western European cities. There are two train stations. The new Lille-Europe serves the EuroStar, Thalys and most TGV high-speed lines. Lille Flandre, the original station, now serves a mix of local and high-speed trains. Both are located in the center of town, a 10-minute walk from each other. Lens is located 40 kilometers south of central Lille, an easy 35-minute local train ride to the Lens station. There are also a few daily direct high-speed trains from Paris (1:20 hour). From the station, a twice-hourly complimentary shuttle takes visitors to the museum site.
  • Getting Around –To get around the metropolitan area, Lille has a comprehensive public transport network (Transpole) with two automatic metro lines, two tramway lined and over 60 bus routes.
    From the center Lille to La Piscine – Metro Line # 2 to Gare Jean Lebras or Grand Place, or Bus # 32 to Jean Lebras.
    From the Center of Lille to LAM – Metro Line # 1 to Pont de Bois then Bus: Liane # 4, direction Halluin-Gounod to LAM.
  • Visiting
  • Lille Métropole Musée d’Art Moderne, d’Art Contemporain et d’Art Brut, (LAM), 1 Allée du Musée, Villeneuve-d’Ascq. www.Lille-Metropolitan-Museum-of-modern-art.com. Open Tuesdays to Sundays from 10:00 to 6:00 P.M. Closed Mondays and some public holidays. Contact: Tel +33 (0) 3 20 19 68 68.
    Musée Louvre-Lens, 99 Rue Paul Bert, Lens. www.louvre-lens/en. Open Wednesdays to Mondays from 10:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. Closed Tuesdays and some public holidays. Contact: Tel +33 (0) 3 21 18 62 62. Entrance to the Louvre-Lens is free of charge.
    La Piscine-Musée d’Art et d’Industrie André Diligent, 23 Rue de l’Espérance, Roubaix. www.La-Piscine-Andre-Diligent-Art-and-Industry-Museum.com. Open Tuesdays to Thursdays from 11:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M., 11:00 A.M. to 8:00 P.M. Fridays, 1:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M. Saturdays. Closed Mondays and some public holidays. Contact: Tel +33 (0) 3 20 60 23 60.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Lille, France

Recently Reopened Rodin Museum – Paris

Recently Reopened Rodin Museum – Paris

For the last nine years of his life, Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), the father of French modern sculpture lived and worked in the exquisite eighteenth-century Hôtel Biron. Located in an inviting three-hectare (eight-acre) Jardin à la Française, just a stone-throw away from Les Invalides in the heart of Paris’ Left Bank, it became the Rodin Museum in 1919. Now, after three years of extensive renovations, the museum recently re-opened its doors.

The Evolution of a Master

France - Paris Rodin Plaster

The exposition includes never before seen works in plaster.

The eighteen rooms of exhibit space trace the chronology of Rodin’s evolution as an artist, as well as offer a thematic exploration of his work, including some of his never before seen works in plaster. It also displays his own collection of works by his contemporaries, including a room dedicated to his student and lover, Camille Claudel, a superb sculptor in her own rights. Another room holds Rodin’s extensive collection of antiquities, displayed around his seminal Greek-influenced The Walking Man.

France - Paris Rodin Thinker.

The sculpture garden holds some of Rodin’s most famous monumental works.

The beautifully landscaped garden is an ideal backdrop for some of Rodin’s most famous monumental works, including the Gates of Hell, the Burghers of Calais and of course, The Thinker. The garden also includes an above average cafeteria restaurant tucked away in a shaded area at the rear of the property. In addition to its small dining room, it has a large outdoor seating space for a relaxing al fresco lunch in an art-filled setting in the heart of Paris.

Good to Know

  • Getting There – There is easy public transportation from anywhere in Paris to the museum: Métro stations Varenne (line 13) or Invalides (line 13, line 8), E.R station Invalides (line C) or Bus numbers 69, 82, 87 and 92.
  • Visiting – Musée Rodin, 77 Rue de Varenne, Paris. http://www.musee-rodin.fr/en. Tickets may be purchased ahead through the website. Open Tuesdays to Sundays from 10:00 A.M. to 5:45 P.M. Late night opening on Wednesday until 8:45 P.M. Closed Mondays and some public holidays. Contact: +33 (0)1 44 18 61 10.
  • Sculpture Garden – Although the sculpture garden is included in the Museum visit, it is possible to access it and restaurant only for a nominal fee (€4 at the time of my visit).

Location, location, location!

Rodin Museum

From Medieval Industry Center To Business and Art Powerhouse – Lille

From Medieval Industry Center To Business and Art Powerhouse – Lille

Once a thriving textile and coal industries center, Lille, France’s northernmost major city, became one of its most underrated in the aftermath of Word War II. To many foreign travelers it still tends to be merely the first continental stop of the Eurostar after it emerges from the 38-kilometer (23.5-mile) long Channel Tunnel (or Chunnel) under the English Channel, or the halfway point on the Thalys (also a high-speed train) route between Paris and Brussels. Yet those who take the time to get off and linger a few days are immediately charmed by the elegant Flemish Renaissance architecture of le Vieux Lille (Old Lille), its three internationally renowned art museums, a vibrant business center and the Lillois’ easy-going friendliness.

France - Lille Renaissance Architecture.

Lille offers fine examples of Flemish Renaissance architecture.

The history of Lille is a millennium-long tale of convoluted alliances and conflicts that saw what is now the French part of Flanders go from the quasi-independent French fiefdom of the Counts of Flanders to a province of the Duchy of Burgundy (1369), before passing under the rule of Austria (1477), then Spain (1556) before finally reverting to France in 1688. Through it all, Lille managed to flourish as a regional capital of industry and trade. And develop a cultural heritage well worth a visit.

The Grand’Place

France - Lille Old Stock Exchange.

The Old Stock Exchange courtyard is a hub of city life.

Surrounded by stately buildings that span four centuries of rich Flemish architecture, the 155-meter (510-foot) by 72-meter (245-foot) Grand’Place started out as a marketplace in the fourteenth century. Its oldest remaining building, la Vieille Bourse (the Old Stock Exchange) is a superb example of seventeenth century Flemish Renaissance style. It consists of 24 identical houses around a cloistered courtyard. To walk under the broad colonnade that runs around its perimeter is to experience a hub of city life where locals come to play chess or browse the stalls of secondhand booksellers and flower vendors.

France - Lille Chamber of Commerce.

The 1921 Chamber of Commerce and its iconic belfry

Also on the northeastern side of the square, separating the Grand’Place from the Place du Théâtre, the Grande Garde, built in 1717 as an army barrack to house the French royal guard, was converted after the First World War into the 444 seats Théâtre du Nord. Next door, La Voix du Nord (The Voice of the North, a newspaper) building with its traditional Flemish step-gabled façade is a 1930’s evocation of the ancient a architecture. In the center of the Grand’Place, the Column of the Goddess commemorates the successful resistance of Lille to the Austrian siege of 1792. In case you are wondering, the bronze goddess at the top is clutching a linstock (used to light the fuses on cannons) in her right hand.

L’Hospice Comtesse

France-Llle Hospice Comtesse Kitchen.

The kicthen of the Countess Hospital Museum.

From the Grand’Place, a ten-minute walk north through the meandering street of the old town, now lined with stylish boutiques, leads to the last significant vestige of the works of the Flemish Counts, the Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse (Countess Hospital Museum). Founded in 1237 by Countess Jeanne of Flandres within a wing of her own palace, the hospital was run by a religious community of the Saint Augustine order. Although the original building was destroyed by fire in 1468, it was immediately rebuilt, then expanded over the following centuries as a convent and the only major hospital in Lille until the end of the eighteenth century.

France-Lille Countess Hospital Ex Votoes

Ex voto portraits of children patients at the Countess Hospital.

Today, the ground floor of the convent contains a reconstitution of a Flemish home in the seventeenth centuries, including a kitchen with traditional Lille earthenware and Delft tiles. The refectory showcases carved furniture and fine tableware as well as exquisite paintings and art objects. The spiritual and hospital functions are highlighted in the chapel, dispensary and medicinal herb garden.

Le Palais des Beaux-Arts

France-Lille Palais des Beaux Arts.

The Palace of Fine Arts was one of the first museums in France

One of the first art museums established in France in the early nineteenth century under instructions of Napoleon I to popularize art, le Palais des Beaux-Arts (Palace of Fine Arts) holds the second largest art collections in France after the Louvre. Opened in 1809, it received a treasure-trove of works confiscated from churches and royal palaces. It was originally housed in a disused church until its permanent Belle Epoque-style home was inaugurated in 1898. The museum contains a first-rate collection of fifteenth to twentieth century paintings, including works by Raphael, Donatello, Rembrandt, Goya, El Greco, Rubens, David, Delacroix, Manet, Corot, and Monet as well as an extensive collection of classical archeology and medieval statuary. The basement features a department of unusual eighteenth century scale models of fortified cities in Northern France and Belgium that were used by the military of the time, and a 700-square meter (7,500-square foot) space dedicated to staging temporary exhibits.

Greater Lille Art Treasures

Beyond the city limit, the greater Lille metropolitan area is now graced with three notable art museums, each individually a worthwhile reason to visit the city.

France - Lille LAM

Metropolitan Lille Museum of Modern Art, Contemporary Art and Outsider Art.

Musée d’Art Moderne, Villeneuve d’Ascq – With a permanent collection of over 7,000 works and 4,000 square meters (43,000 square feet) of exhibit space, the Lille Métropole Musée d’Art Moderne, d’Art Contemporain et d’Art Brut (Metropolitan Lille Museum of Modern Art, Contemporary Art and Outsider Art), mercifully shortened LAM, opened in 1983. It is the only museum in France and northern Europe to feature all the main components of twentieth and twenty-first century art.

 

France - Lille La Piscine

The Swimming Pool – Museum of Art and Industry.

La Piscine-Musée d’Art et d’Industrie André Diligent, Roubaix. Once a spectacular Art Deco public baths facility inaugurated in 1932, the building has been brilliantly repurposed in 1985 into an art gallery that is home to the artistic and industrial heritage of the town. The Olympic-length central pool is lined with nineteenth and twentiest century sculptures and paintings, mainly by local artists, and the changing booths now hold an extensive collection of displays related to the textile industries.

France-Lens Louve Museum

The Louvre-Lens building is a minimalist creation of glass and brushed aluminum.

Musée Louvre-Lens – Inaugurated in December 2012, the Louvre-Lens is a major example of the success of recent joint efforts between the French Ministry of Culture, the great national museums and the regional governments to decentralize cultural institutions. The building is a minimalist creation of glass and brushed aluminum that blends into the horizon. At its core the 120-meter (400-foot) long Galerie du Temps (Gallery of Time) leads visitors through 5,000 years of Ancient and European art history.

Villa 30

France-Lille Villa 30

The breakfast room at Villa 30.

Although Lille is easily accessible for day trips from Paris, London, Brussels and other nearby European cities, I prefer to linger a day or two, especially now that I have had the good fortune to come across Villa 30. This 1930’s townhouse on a quiet street of the center of town, thoughtfully remodeled into an intimate bed-and-breakfast in 2010, is located within easy walking distance of all the city’s main attractions. The five comfortable rooms decorated in a smart contemporary style and attentive host Julien Desenclos make Villa 30 a welcoming home away from home. And the hearty breakfast served in the light-filled breakfast room with its stunning Art Deco stain glass bay window is a perfect start to any day.

Good to know

        • Getting there – Lille is easily reached by train, with frequent TVG (high-speed train) direct connections throughout the day from Paris (1 hour), Brussels (35 minutes), London, (1:30 hour), Amsterdam (2:40 hours) and other main western European cities. There are two train stations, the new Lille-Europe that serves the EuroStar, Thalys and most TGV high-speed lines, and Lille Flandre, the original station that now serves a mix of local and high-speed trains. Both are in the center of town, less than a 10-minute walk from each other.
        • Getting Around – To explore the old town and the city center, walking is the best option. To get around the greater metropolitan area, Lille has a comprehensive public transport network (Transpole) with two automatic metro lines (the world’s first automatic subway in the world when it went into service in 1983), two tramway lines and over 60 bus routes.
        • Where to StayVilla 30, 24 Rue du Plat, 59000, Lille. lavilla30.fr. Contact: email Julien@lavilla30.fr. Tel +33 (0) 3 66 73 61 30.
        • Visiting
          Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse, 32 Rue de la Monnaie, Lille. www.Hospice-Comtesse-Museum.com. Open Monday from 2:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M. and Wednesday through Sunday from 10:00 A.M. to 12:30 P.M. and 2:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M. Closed Monday morning, all day Tuesday and some public holidays. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 3 28 36 84 00.
          Palais des Beaux Arts, Place de la République, Lille. www.pba-lille.fr/en. Open Monday from 2:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M. and Wednesday through Sunday from 10:00 to 6:00 P.M. Closed Monday morning, all day Tuesday and some public holidays. Contact:: +33 (0) 3 20 06 78 00. 
          Lille Métropole Musée d’Art Moderne, d’Art Contemporain et d’Art Brut, (LAM), 1 Allée du Musée, Villeneuve-d’Ascq. www.-Lille-Metropolitan-Museum-of-modern-art.com. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 to 6:00 P.M. Closed Monday and some public holidays. Contact: Tel +33 (0) 3 20 19 68 68.
          La Piscine-Musée d’Art et d’Industrie André Diligent, 23 Rue de l’Espérance, Roubaix. www.La-Piscine-Art-and-Industry-Museum.com. Open Tuesday through Thursday from 11:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M., Friday from 11:00 A.M. to 8:00 P.M., and Saturday from 1:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M. Closed Monday and some public holidays. Contact: Tel +33 (0) 3 20 60 23 60.
          Musée Louvre-Lens, 99 Rue Paul Bert, Lens. http://www.louvre-lens/en/. Open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. Closed Tuesday and some public holidays. Contact: Tel +33 (0) 3 21 18 62 62.
          La Citadelle – For military architecture buffs, this massive star-shaped fortress located at the northwestern end of the Boulevard de la Liberté, was designed by renowned 17th-century French military architect Vauban after France captured Lille in 1667. It still functions as a French and NATO military base. Guided tours are available on Sundays in summer through the Tourism Information Center, Palais Rihour, 42 Place Rihour, Lille. http://en.lilletourism.com. Contact: Tel +33 (0) 3 20 21 94 21. This is the only way to see the inside of the Citadelle.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Lille, France

From Roman Spa to Contemporary Cultural Center – Aix-en-Provence

From Roman Spa to Contemporary Cultural Center – Aix-en-Provence

Aix-en-Provence is a remarkable center of European history that has managed to preserve the integrity of its rich architectural and cultural heritage while evolving into a thriving, highly livable contemporary city.

Always the Romans!

FR-Aix Fountains.

The many fountains of Aix are fed by thermal springs. The mineral content of the water spurs the growth moss and ferns.

When contemplating the development of the Mediterranean basin around the time the tide of history turns from B.C. to A.D., it’s usually the Romans that get the credit, or the blame depending how you look at it. And Aix-en-Provence is a vivid illustration of Julius Ceasar’s “veni, vidi, vici,” doctrine, although not quite in that order.

Roman Consul Sextius Calvinius comes in 122 B.C., promptly lays waste to Entremont, the iron-age capital of the Celtic-Ligurian Confederation (now an archeological site three kilometers north of the city), and decimates its population. Back on lower grounds, abundant thermal springs bubbling out of the earth catch his eye and Aquae Sextiae (Waters of Sextius) is born.

FR - Aix cathedral baptismal fond.

The baptismal fond is surrounded by Roman columns.

As the first Roman city founded in the newly conquered Roman colony of Provincia, it quickly grows as a thriving urban center and spa. Then, with the spread of Christianity after it is declared the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 A.D., Aix-en-Provence becomes the seat of the ecclesiastical province, making it the de facto capital of the region.

 

The Dark Ages

FR - Aix Saint Sauveur Cloister.

The early medieval cloister of the Saint Sauveur cathedral.

A cathedral rises from the Roman forum. Soaring columns that once graced a Roman temple now define the octagonal baptistery, and the baptismal pool is fed from the nearby baths. However, while full immersion is an accepted rite of early Christian baptism, the Catholic Church takes of a dim view of public baths. The vast pools and the sources that feed them all but disappear under new monasteries. Stripped of its antique luster, Aix morphs into a typical medieval city constrained within its protective fortifications.

Unfortunately, these are not sufficient to deter the successive waves of the invading Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Franks, Saracens and other “barbarians.” Provence remains a highly contested province through most of the medieval period, and Aix continues to deteriorate. It is not until the twelfth century that it begins to shine again.

The Reign of the Counts

FR - Aix Clock Tower.

A clock tower tops the medieval belfry of the town hall.

In 1182, the Counts of Provence who, through judicious moves in the great chess game of history, are by now issued from the Aragon (Spanish) and Anjou (French) royal houses, make Aix their permanent residence. An era of development ensues that will shape the future city, starting from three key areas that are now the core of the historic district: the Saint Sauveur Cathedral, the Counts’ Palace and the thriving artisans and merchants district. Soon Aix spills out of its ramparts with the southward construction of several large monastic institutions. The most important, the Prieuré des Chevaliers de Saint Jean de Malte (Priory of the Knights of Saint John of Malta) becomes the burying place of the Counts. New walls are erected to encompass the expanding city

The Age of Mansions

The Fountain of the Four Dolphins is a landmark of the Mazarin Quarter.

The Fountain of the Four Dolphins is the Mazarin Quarter.

The last phase of Aix’s growth comes in the seventeenth century, during the reign of Louis XIV (1638 – 1715, the Sun King of Versailles fame). By now, Provence has been annexed to the kingdom of France for over two centuries. Louis takes a shine to the judiciary and religious capital of Provence. He mandates Archbishop Michel Mazarin (who happens to be the brother of his prime minister) to oversee the further southward expansion of Aix.

The crumbling twelfth century ramparts are dismantled and replaced by the tree-shaded boulevard dotted with fountains that we enjoy today as the Cours Mirabeau.

FR=Aix Mansion.

Seventeenth century mansions are a common sight in Aix.

To the south and west of it, the Mazarin Quarter flourishes. The cream of local society vies for land along the neatly laid out grid pattern of streets to build their elegant mansions of ocher-colored stone. One last time, the ramparts are expanded to include the “new town,” only to be replaced in 1848 by the wide boulevard that now encircles the city.

 

A Tradition of Culture

FR-Aix Musee Granet.

The former priory of the Knights of Saint John of Malta is home to the prestigious Musée Granet.

Along with prosperity the Counts introduce culture and refinement to their court. In 1409 the founding the university opens the door to a Golden Age that firmly establishes Aix as a center of artistic and intellectual creativity that will flourish until the outbreak of the French Revolution (1789). In the aftermath of the political chaos it unleashes, Aix loses its administrative powers, and is mainly bypassed by the great nineteenth century industrial revolution. But it remains a center of learning, art and culture. In the latter part of the century, its native son the great post-impressionist artist Paul Cezanne elevates the city’s artistic prestige to new heights.

FR - Aix Warriors Heads.

Sculptures of severed heads from the Celtic-Ligurian settlement of Entremont  on display at the Musee Granet.

An earlier Aixois artist, Francois Marius Granet (1775-1849), has already made a significant contribution to the artistic standing of Aix-en-Provence. A pupil of David and friend of Ingres, Granet is himself a Neoclassical painter and water-colorist. However posterity remembers him best for the bequest of his fortune and art collection to the city of his birth. It forms the basis for the original permanent collection of the city’s art museum, housed since 1838 in the seventeenth century Priory of the Knight of Malta. It will eventually be renamed Musée Granet in honor of its benefactor.

Picasso works from the Planque Collection

Picasso works from the Planque Collection.

In 2010 the status of the Musée Granet rises further when it becomes the beneficiary of the long-term loan of some 300 paintings, drawing and sculptures from impressionists, post-impressionists and leading twentieth century artists, from Renoir, Monet and Van Gogh to Picasso, Braque, Duffy, Klee and Dubuffet from the Jean and Suzanne Planque Foundation (the estate of Swiss art dealer and collector Jean Planque). A new space is created to house the collection in a stunningly renovated seventeenth century chapel just minutes away from the main museum.

A City of Music

FR - Aix Archbishop Palace.

The International Festival of Vocal Arts holds performances at the Palace of the Archbishops.

But in Aix, visual arts are only half the story. Created in 1948, the Festival International d’Art Lyrique (International Festival of Vocal Arts), is now a mainstay of the annual international classical music calendar. Devoted mainly to opera and vocal music, this three-week July event also includes orchestral, chamber and solo instrumental concerts. Performances take place in several of the great classic mansions around the city, including the Archbishop’s Palace, the eighteenth century Italian-style Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, and the new Grand Theatre de Provence (built in 2007).

However, music in Aix is not limited to The Festival. It begins in early spring with the Easter Festival, and continues through August, first with the Nuits Pianistiqiues (Piano Nights) at the new music academy building of the Conservatoire Darius Milhaud (also a native son). Then, to close out the summer in style, the Conservatoire offers Musique dans la Rue (Music in the Street) in late August with dozens of free open-air concerts from Baroque to classical to Jazz, presented all around town in the early evening hours.

The Waters of Sextius

Fr - Aix Thermes of Sextius.

A vast modern spa facility now sits atop the baths dear to Sextius Calvinius.

After days filled with art and music and taking in the fascinating history written in the ocher stones of the great mansions that line the tree-shaded avenues and squares, it’s time to return where it all started. A vast modern spa facility now sits atop the old baths, still visible through the glassed walls of the lobby. But the hot mineral Waters of Sextius still gurgle from their underground springs to be used in treatments throughout the spa. And they seem to have maintained their restorative powers so prized by the Romans.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting There – Aix-en-Provence is easily reached by train, with several direct 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). The Aix TGV station is located 15 kilometers (9.5 miles) southwest of town, with a shuttle running every 15 minutes between the station and the central bus terminal. The 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 TVG station.
  • Getting Around – To explore the historic city, walking is definitely the way to go. Road signs at the approaches to Aix direct motorists to large facilities where they can park their vehicles for a nominal daily fee that also includes free round trip bus tickets to the center of town for all their passengers.
  • What to do – With so much to see and do in Aix, it is a good idea to start with a visit to the Office de Tourisme (Tourism Information Center), 300 Avenue Guiseppe Verdi. Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 16 11 61. Located just a few steps away from the Cours Mirabeau Rotonde (Rotary) , it is open daily from 8:30 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. The staff is knowledgeable and multilingual.
  • Visiting – Cezanne fans may want to plan a pilgrimage to the Lauves Studio, 9 Avenue Paul Cezanne, where he lived and worked for the past four years of his life. Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 21 06 53. It’s a 30-minute walk to the northern outskirts of town, or a short ride on Bus No. 5 (Cezanne stop). Opening days and times vary throughout the year. Check with their website or the Tourism Information Center.
  • Relaxing Thermes Sextius, 55 avenue des Thermes, is a vast state-of-the-art facility offering a full range of hydrotherapy and spa treatments. Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 23 81 82. Appointments a must.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Aix-en-Provence

The Gem of the Vermillion Coast – Collioure

The Gem of the Vermillion Coast – Collioure

The Côte Vermeille (Vermilion Coast) is the southernmost corner of France, its last stretch of Mediterranean coastline before the Spanish border. It’s where the rugged, vineyard-covered foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains tumble into the sea. And where Collioure, the sundrenched fishing village clustered around its massive medieval fortress rising from aquamarine waters, wears its history on its sleeve.

The Bay of Collioure has been attracting visitors since Antiquity.

The Bay of Collioure has been attracting visitors since antiquity.

It seems that since antiquity, every new wave of civilization to come upon its shores has wanted to settle there. This rich and often bellicose past has endowed Collioure with a spectacular architectural heritage and a unique culture that reflects the traditions of its successive invaders.

 

 

Ancient History

France - Collioure Foothills.

The Phoenicians introduced vineyards to the Vermillion Coast.

First came the Celts, in the sixth century B.C., who settled the area now known at the Roussillon, then the great ancient sea traders, the Phoenicians. They sailed into this quiet inlet and declared it ideal for a trading port. In return, they introduced wine-growing to its rocky hillsides, the ancestors of the strong sweet Vins de Collioure we enjoy today.

France - Collioure Château Royal.

The origins of the Château Royal reach back to the earliest medieval times.

The Romans came in 120 B.C., followed by the Visigoths some six centuries later, then the Moors, once they conquered the Iberian Peninsula. It was finally Charlemagne who decisively tossed the latter back behind the Pyrenees in 811. He asserted his authority over the Roussillon region, which he set up as a buffer territory against future Moorish ambitions. He also established the feudal system of government that would three centuries later deliver the area to Spain. And sow the seeds of the Catalan culture that flourishes to this day.

Medieval Times

France - Collioure Castle Fortifications.

Fortificaton details of the fortress.

Fast forward through three centuries of frequent border conflicts between Spain and France. By the twelfth century, Collioure has acquired a fortified enclave in the center of the harbor, to protect its small seaside castle and dungeon. When in 1172, the last Count of Roussillon bequeaths his domain to his ally Alfonso II, King of Aragon and Count of Barcelona, Collioure becomes a royal residence. The new ruler invites Knight Templars back from crusading in the Holly Land to build their own castle within the protective walls. This is the beginning of the mighty Château Royal.

France - Collioure Fortress Courtyards.

Interior courtyards of the fortress.

The tug-of-war for control the region continues with each successive dynasty. Collioure gains in strategic importance. The Kings of Majorca expend the castle. Then the Spanish Hapsburgs, Charles V and his son Philip II, turn it into a modern fortress capable to withstand sixteenth century advances in artillery. This doesn’t prevent the French to capture it one century later and hang on to it for good this time. Whereupon Vauban, the foremost French military architect of all times, reinforces the castle once more, into the colossal citadel rising from the sea that we now know.

Notre Dame des Anges

France - Collioure Church

The medieval beacon tower is repurposed as church steeple.

Another iconic landmark of the waterfront influenced by Vauban is the village church, Our Lady of the Angels. It is built in 1684 at the far end of the beach after the original one is torn down to accommodate the expansion of the fortress. It is located on a strip of land already occupied by a tall beacon tower that guides ships into the harbor with smoke by day and fire by night.

France - Collioure Altarpiece.

The main alterpiece is by seventeenth century Catalan artist Joseph Sunyer.

The interior of the church is in the Southern French Gothic design with a single nave surrounded by multiple altars of lavishly gold-leafed wood. The tower is now connected to the church and serves double duty as its steeple. By the nineteenth century, its services as a beacon non longer needed, the steeple is capped with a Tuscan-style dome (that has the unintended effect of giving it a rather phallic appearance).

The Birth of Fauvism

France - Collioure Matisse,

Seen through the lense of medieval glass from the fortress, the harbor takes on the appearance of a Matisse painting.

The summer of 1905 marks a turning point in the artistic life of Collioure. It is customary then, once the Paris spring exhibition season is over, for artists to work on the Côte d’Azure for the summer. That year, however, thirty-five-year-old father of three Henri Matisse, still an emerging artist full of creative uncertainties and short on cash, transports his family to the modest fishing village where his sister-in-law lives. Dazzled by the luminosity of the vivid Mediterranean scenery, Matisse summons his friend André Derain to join him. In one manic summer, they unleash the new, simplistic vision of a style based on the bold use of primary colors that earns them the moniker of Les Fauves (the Wild Beasts).

France-Collioure Alleyway.

The flower-filled alleyways that inspired Fauvism.

Others will follow, among them Braque, Chagall and Dufy, drawn by the now famous interplay of scorching sunlight on terra cotta roofs and aquamarine sea. But it’s the two pioneers that the city adopts as its own with the Chemin du Fauvisme (Fauvist Trail). The mapped walk through the old town is punctuated by 19 reproductions of their famous works, right on the spot where they were painted.

The Catalan Soul

France-Collioures Barques.

The Barques Catalanes are still moored along the quay.

The magic of Collioure goes far beyond its dramatic backdrop of medieval architecture and artistic landmarks. I find it in the maze of bougainvillea-filled alleyways lined with pastel-washed houses of the old town. It’s on the three small beaches right in the center of town, scalloped around the church and the castle. And in the brightly painted barques Catalanes moored at the quay. They may be museum pieces these days, their single triangular lateen sail raised only on holidays to give visitors a tour around the bay, but they are a reminder that for all its warring history the village is above all a Catalan fishing port.

France - Collioure Catalan.

The red and yellow Catalan flag flies next to the French atop the Chateau Royal.

This rich Catalan tradition permeates everyday life. It’s in the yellow and red flags that flap in the sea breeze. I taste it in the food, the sardines and squid grilled à la planxa and the generous assortments of tapas where the famed Collioure anchovies (still locally fished and hand-processed as they have been for centuries) always find a place of honor. I hear it under gnarled plane trees of the Place du General Leclerc, on market days in the lilting accent of the local farmers and artisans who sell their products there. And I feel it most of all when on summer Saturdays and holidays the music of the cobla (traditional Catalonian wind and brass music ensemble) fills the square and espadrille-footed dancers gather in circles for the Sardana.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – The closest TGV (Express train) station is in Perpignan, located 25 kilometers (16 miles) north of Collioure. There are several trains a day from Paris (5 hours’ ride) and Barcelona (90 minutes). From there a local train follows the coastline to the deliciously retro train station in the center of the village (30 minutes). There is also small airport in Perpignan that accommodates daily local flights from Paris, London, Brussels and Madrid.
  • Getting around – Within the historic village, walking is definitely the way to go. But for a tour of the vineyards, a close-up view of the mountain-top Fort St-Elme and a glorious bird-eye perspective of the bay, the Petit Train Touristique is the local version of an open-top tourist bus.
  • Where to Stay – With tourism now the main industry of Collioure, Bed and Breakfast have become a primary local activity, offering accommodations to suit all tastes and budgets. For a great view of the old town, there are also two hotels wedged into the hills on the south side of the bay, the four-star Hôtel Relais des Trois Mas. relaisdestroismas.com. Tel +33 (0) 4 68 82 05 07, is notable for its direct access to the farthest of the Collioure beaches and its own plunge pool with a view. A bit higher on the hill, the two-star Hôtel Les Caranques. www.les-caranques.com. Tel: +33 (0) 4 68 82 06 68, offers simpler accommodations, but equally spectacular views.
  • What to do – Head for the Collioure Tourist Office, 18 Place du 18 Juin. http://www.collioure.com/en/. Tel: +33 (4) 68 82 15 47. It’s a few steps away from the castle. They dole out all necessary maps and directions to all the points of interest, including the map of the Fauvist Trail, and the schedule for the Sardane dances.
  • Visiting – The Château Royal is open every day from 9:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. during July and August and 9:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. in June and September and 9:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. the remainder of the year. It is a fine exemple of medieval architecture and the dungeon and ramparts offer a spectacular view of the village and the coastline. It also hosts temporary art exhibits and occasional scheduled concerts in its courtyards . There are no provisions for mobility-impaired visitors. Notre Dame des Anges is open daily from 9:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. Drop one Euro in the box on the side of the altar to turn on the lights and appreciate its gilded altars in all their glory .
  • Touring Petit train touristique – petit-train-touristique.com. Tel: +33 (0) 4 68 98 02 06. The 45 minute round trip itinerary runs several times daily from April to November. Tickets may be purchased at the staring point, in front of the castle.
  • Wine Tasting Cellier des Dominicains, Place Orphila, dominicain.com. Tel: +33 (0) 4 68 82 05 63. Located in the church of a former fourteenth century Dominican monastery, the cellar is open for a visit, an introduction to local wine-making in Collioure and Banyuls, followed by a tasting, every Thursday at 4:00 P.M. from June to September. There is a nominal entry fee.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Collioures

Chinese New Year Celebrations – Paris-style

Chinese New Year Celebrations – Paris-style

While several European cities have been famous for centuries for livening up the dark winter months with grand Carnival parades (Venice, Cologne and Nice come to mind), Paris was never one of them. However, since the late 1970’s, the Chinese community has stepped into the breach with exuberant New Year celebrations.

The Largest Chinatown in Europe

France - Paris CNY Dragon Dance.

The Chinese New Year dragon dance.

 

Over the past century, Paris has gradually developed a thriving Franco-Chinese community whose cultural influence is centered on three areas of the city: the historic right bank Marais district, the northeast Belleville neighborhood, and on the southeast side of the left bank ‘s thirteenth arrondissement, the original Quartier Asiatique (Chinatown).

 

France - Paris CNY banners.

Ornate banners dominate the parade.

Although it didn’t acquire its current character until the 1970-1980’s, it is by now considered the largest Chinatown in Europe. And it has become home to a massive New Year’s parade that brings together  some 2,000 participants representing 40 social, artistic and business groups.

France - Paris CNY marchers.

Marchers follow the traditional furry dragons.

Over 200,000 onlookers line the broad streets of the neighborhood decorated with crimson banners and lantern, to cheer the procession of grinning dragon and lions, shimmering fish and endless serpents. Ornately attired dancing groups and martial arts teams march to the rhythm drums and cymbals. The omnipresent pop of small firecrackers leaves a faint scent of smoke in the air. This is Asian street exotism on a grand scale.

After three hours of elbowing to maintain a good viewing space in this boisterous and a tad chaotic affair, I am ready to work my way to the southern edge of the district to Tricotin for a dim sum fix.

A Rainy Day Alternative

France - Paris Guimet

The Musee Guimet and its nineteenth century cupola dominate the Place d’Iéna.

Alas not every parade day is blessed with propitious weather. This year not being one of them, an indoor alternative is in order. I head for one of my favorite Paris museum, Le Musée des Arts Asiatiques (Museum of Asian Arts). All the artistically rich cultures of Asia are represented here. Better known as Musée Guimet, after his nineteenth founder Emile Etienne Guimet, it is home to one of the largest collection of Asian art outside Asia.

 

France - Paris CNY Guimet

Traditional dragons welcome visitors during the Chinese New Year celebrations.

Its Chinese section alone includes some 20 000 objects spanning seven millennia, from the earliest times to the eighteenth century. Additionally today, in honor of Chinese New Year, the instructors and pupils of the local LWS Pak Mei Kung Fu School are performing traditional dragon dances and martial arts demonstrations.

 

 

 

The Treasures of the Musee Guimet

France - Paris Guimet Neolithic Unr.

This large Neolithic funeral urn is the oldest ceramic vessel in the collection.

In deference to the millennia of human evolution that brought us these mythical dancing beasts, I head for the Chinese archeology area. It begins with jades and ceramics from the Neolithic period before continuing on with bronze works for the Shang and Zhou dynasties (thirteenth to eighth centuries B.C.).

 

 

 

France - Paris Guimet Mingqi

Seventh century Tang Dynasty polychrome terra cotta mingqi.

In the statuary section, I lose myself in an extraordinarily varied collection of exquisite mingqi (tomb figures) from the Han (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.) and Tang (618 to 907 A.D.) dynasties. These are statuettes of fashionably dressed ladies, fine horses and camels that were buried with the defunct in the tombs of the highborn to ease their passage into the next world. Today, they bear witness to the luxury and sophistication of the lifestyle of their age.

 

France - Paris Guimet cloisonne.

Silver and gold-incrusted bronze vessel from the third century B.C.

There are also rich collections of harness equipment, bronze mirrors, coinage, and bronze vessels incrusted with gold and silver. The decorative arts section outlines a comprehensive history of Chinese ceramics covering the major centers of production and the evolution of taste. The furniture collection includes major lacquer works and rosewood pieces. Painting is represented by hundreds of works spanning well over a millennium from the Tang to Qing dynasties.

 

Like any major museum, the Guimet is best savored in measured bites. Mercifully, it is opened year-round and seldom crowded. It is always a wonderful place to revisit. Or for any tourist with a bit of time on their hands, it is a unique treasure trove to discover.

Good to Know

  • When? Unlike its Western counterpart which always falls on the same day, the Chinese New year changes each year, following the lunisolar calendar. The first day of the new year always falls on the new moon, between January 21 and February 20. The date of the Thirteenth Arrondissement parade varies accordingly. It is published several months ahead on the various Paris tourism information websites. It is usually held on a Sunday.
  • Where? The parade traditionally starts at 44 Avenue d’Ivry, at the métro station Les Gobelins (Line 7). From there it meanders along the Avenue de Choisy to Place d’Italie, Rue de Tolbiac and Boulevard Massena before returning to Avenue d’Ivry. One day earlier, on Saturday, the Marais and Belleville also hold their own neighborhood parades and celebrations.
  • Foodie Alert – After the parade or any time, my favorite drop-in for Dim Sum is Tricotin, 15 Avenue de Choisy, Paris 75013. Tel: 01-45-84-74-44. This is canteen-like, high decibel place but the service is quick, the prices friendly and the freshly made dim sum varied and delicious. Service is non-stop from 9:00 A.M. to 11:00 P.M. A few steps up the street the Impérial Choisy, 32, Avenue de Choisy. Tel: 01-45-86-42-40, is a local institution with an endless menu of traditional Cantonese dishes. It is open from 12:00 noon to 11:00 P.M. Make a reservation or expect to stand in line. For a bit more decorum and delectable offerings seldom found on  menus in western cities, head for the other end of Chinatown to La Mer de Chine, 159, Rue du Château-des-Rentiers. Tel: 01-45-84-22-49 between the métro stations Place d’Italie and Nationale (Line 4). Open every day for lunch from 12:00 noon to 2:30 P.M. and dinner from 7:00 to 11:00 P.M. Reservations recommended.
  • Meanwhile back the Guimet – Founded and constructed by nineteenth century industrialist Emile Etienne Guimet, the museum was inaugurated in 1889. Starting in 1996 it went through an extensive five-year renovation to reopen in 2001 with 5,500 square meters (60,000 square feet) of permanent exhibit space. The flow of the space now enables visitors to better appreciate the relationships and differences between the various artistic Asian traditions.
  • Getting there and getting in – The Musée Guimet is located at 6, Avenue d’Iéna, Paris 75016. http://www.guimet.fr/en/. Tel: +33 1 56 52 53 00. Metro station Iéna (Line 9). It is opened daily from 10:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. except Tuesday, May 1, December 25 and January 1.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Paris Chinatown