Days of Port and Churches – Porto, Portugal

Days of Port and Churches – Porto, Portugal

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

Porto-Ribeira waterfront.

The Ribeira neighborhood rises from the waterfront.

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

 

 

A Reclining Eiffel Tower

Porto-Ponte Dom Luis I.

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

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

The Call of Port

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

Port-Gaia cellars.

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

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

Porto-Colheita.

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

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

Porto-Tasting.

Port tasting is a major tourist attraction in Porto.

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

Rococo Bling

Porto-Se Rococo altar.

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

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

The Azulejo Trail

Porto-Azulejo facade.

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

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

Porto-se cathedral azulejo.

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

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

Porto-Sao Bento.

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

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

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

 

Good to Know

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

Location, location, location!

Porto

Christian Dior – Designer of Dreams

Christian Dior – Designer of Dreams

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

Paris-DC red

Some thematic layouts explore the many facettes of fashion.

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

Christian Dior, The Man

Paris-CD art gallery

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

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

Paris-CD Margaret.

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

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

The Golden Age of Couture

Paris-Dior daytime debut.

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

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

Paris-Dior Colorama.

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

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

Paris-Dior Versailles.

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

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

A Dazzling Journey

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

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

Paris-CD YSL trapeze.

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

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

Through the Looking Glass

Paris-CD toiles.

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

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

Paris-CD finale.

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Good to Know

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

Location, location, location!

Musée des Arts Decoratifs

An Idyllic Village in Provence – Lourmarin

An Idyllic Village in Provence – Lourmarin

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

A Picture-Perfect Provencal Destination

Luberon - Lourmarin terrace.

The colorful restaurant terraces are an invitation to linger.

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

Luberon-Lourmarin.

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

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

The First Renaissance Château

Luberon-Lourmarin loggia.

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

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

Luberon-Lourmarin great hall.

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

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

L’Ancienne Maison des Gardes

Luberon-Lourmarin balcony.

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

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

Luberon-Lourmarin breakfast.

A sumptuous breakfast is served on the private balcony.

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

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

Good to Know

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

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Lourmarin

In the Land of Lavender – The Best of the Luberon

In the Land of Lavender – The Best of the Luberon

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

Lavender Season

Luberon-lavender tourist.

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

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

Picture Perfect Gordes

Luberon-Gorde village.

Gordes is the most visited village of the Lubéron.

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

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

Sénanque Abbey

Luberon-Senanque vista.

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

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

Luberon-Senanque church

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

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

Luberon-Senanque gift shop.

The gift shop is adjacent to the medieval dormitory.

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

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

A Blazing Palette

Luberon-Roussillon.

Roussillon owes its vibrant colors to the nearby ochre quarries.

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

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

Good to Know

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

Location, location, location!

Abbaye de Sénanque

In the Land of the good life – Château La Fleunie, Perigord

In the Land of the good life – Château La Fleunie, Perigord

Périgord… A word that conjures up medieval castles, precipitous cliffs, intriguing archeological sites and extravagantly rich food. I suspect the good life was born here, as wave after wave of our prehistoric ancestors came to settle in the many shelters conveniently hollowed out of the limestone cliffs by the Vézère and Dordogne rivers. And then there was the all-you-can-eat barbecue potential of the herds of reindeers that roamed the narrow alluvial valleys.

Perigord-Chateau La Fleunie.

Château La Fleunie is a medical castle reborn as boutique hotel.

By the middle ages, our forbearers were building fortresses to keep at bay the hordes of invaders eager to appropriate their good life. And from the bounty of their fertile land, they were creating a gastronomy that evolved into the pride of the region. Truffles and duck confit are traditional fare here.

Many fortified castles still stand on the hilltops, facing each other across the now peaceful banks of the rivers. Others materialize along the back roads that curve up and down the steep hills, when an opening in the foliage reveals turrets and crenellated walls. Some have remained private properties that can only be admired from afar, or historic sites to be visited in passing. But for visitors who yearn for a more personal experience, a number of these beautifully restored châteaux now have a new life as boutique hotels.

Le Château La FLeunie

Perigord - La Fleunie rear wing.

The rear wing of the hotel once housed the stables of the castle.

Little is known of the history of La Fleunie, other than it was built in the twelfth century by the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, a community of monastic knights (later known as the Knight of Malta), on an estate given to them by the ruler of the area as reward for services rendered during the first crusades. The knights managed to hang on to their château for several centuries, and even enhance it in the fifteenth century (witness the Renaissance dormers). But eventually, local nobility moved in and the surrounding land became a part of their vast agricultural domain. Today, after a complete renovation in 1990 that mercifully preserved its original character, La Fleunie has become a charming 33-room, three-star hotel, secluded within its own 106-hectare (260-acre) estate.

Perigord-La Fleunie reception.

The public spaces have retained a medieval flair.

The first thing that attracts us to La Fleunie, other than the storybook looks of its pale U-shaped sandstone facades and four circular towers topped with sharply pointed slate roofs, is its location. The main purpose of our visit this weekend, Montignac, home to the world famous Paleolithic painted caves of Lascaux and the recently opened Centre International d’Art Parietal (International Center of Rock Wall Art), is only eight kilometers (five miles) away via a scenic back road. And all the other not-to-be-missed sites on our list (troglodyte villages of the Vézère Valley, and medieval gems along the Dordogne River) are all within a 45-minute drive. After a day spent roaming the countryside for prehistoric caves to Renaissance wonders, we enjoy returning to our very own château and relaxing on the lawn with a pre-dinner drink. Life is good at La Fleunie. And it’s about to get better.

La Table du Chevalier

Perigord-La Fleunie dining room.

The rustic dining room décor recalls its medieval history.

We are dining at La Table du Chevalier (the Knight’s Table) tonight, which the property’s website introduces as its restaurant gastronomique, the French code word for seriously upscale in both its cuisine and setting. No idle boast in a place where gastronomy has been a way of life ever since overweight ducks were first turned into foie gras.

Perigord-Table du Chevalier asparagus starter.

The cream of asparagus starter is garnished with foie gras.

 

The dining room is formal, decorated with a medieval flair that recalls the property’s history. The ancient beams that hold the soaring ceiling are adorned with brightly colored hand-painted garlands. The upholstery of the high back dining chairs recalls the faded tapestries hanging from on the rough limestone walls. The white linen-draped tables are set far apart to ensure the privacy and comfort of the guests. The stage is set for a memorable meal.

Memorable Meals

Perigord-La Fleunie spring lamb.

The filet of spring lamb is grilled to perfection.

After a lovely amuse-bouche of salmon tartare topped with a swirl of tangy, cloudlike lime mousse, I start with the chaud-froid d’asperges. The cool cream of fresh asparagus is garnished with paper-thin slices of smoked magret de canard (duck breast) and slivers of foie gras. It’s smooth, light and bursting with interesting flavors. I follow with a filet of spring lamb, grilled to medium-rare perfection, and served with alternating dollops of smoky purée of white beans and mousseline of potatoes enhanced with grainy old-style mustard. Brilliant in its apparent simplicity.

Perigord-Table du Chevalier confit.

The confit de canard is drizzled with nuggets of caramelized duck skin.

One of my dining companions, who can never pass up a duck confit, orders the innocuously listed “Confit de Canard with the chef’s potato purée”. It appears as a mysterious mound of smooth potatoes enhanced by chopped fresh vegetable and herbs, drizzled with bits of caramelized duck skin and topped with a crunchy ball of pastry filled with duck essence. A generous portion of boneless confit is concealed under the succulent potato puree. All it takes is a taste to convince all three of us accomplices on this girlfriends’ escapade to order it the following night.

Yes, we so thoroughly enjoy this first dinner that we reserve our table on the spot for the next evening.

The Knight behind the Table

Perigord -Chef Gregory Lafeuille

Chef Gregory Lafeuille.

There was never any question for Gregory Lafeuille, the inspired young chef of La Table du Chevalier, that he belonged in the kitchen. By the tender age of eight, he had declared himself in charge of preparing his family’s desserts, and had already compiled his own notebook of recipes. Fast forward a decade or so, and this Perigord native is pursuing advanced cooking and pastry studies at the Lycée Hôtelier in nearby Souillac. There, he earns himself internships in prestigious local restaurants, including Le Vieux Pont at Belcastel (one Michelin star) and Michel Bras in Laguiol (three Michelin stars), as well as further afield with the Spanish luxury hospitality chain Parador. Back in Perigord, within three year of starting at Le Château in St Geniès, he works his way up to sous-chef. Another brush with stars follows, in London this time, at Chef Marcus Wareing’s eponymous Marcus restaurant in Belgravia (two Michelin stars) before returning home to join La Table du Chevalier. Here, after two years as sous-chef he assumes the top role in 2016, and now dishes out his own style of masterfully prepared, elegantly presented creations rich with the earthy flavors of the Perigord heartland.

Chef Lafeuille’s imaginative cuisine is so popular with local gourmets at well as La Fleunie guests that reservations are a must, especially on weekends.

Good to Know

  • Getting in TouchChâteau La Fleunie, Rue d’Aubas, 24570 Condat-sur-Vézère, France. Contact: e-mail lafleunie@free.fr,Tel: +33 (0)5 53 51 32 74
  • Getting There – Condat-sur-Vézère is located four hours by car southwest of Paris and 2 hours northeast of Bordeaux (Highway A89, exit n°17 Montignac-Lascaux).

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Château La Fleurie

Troglodyte Living in the Valley of the Vézère

Troglodyte Living in the Valley of the Vézère

Since the dawn of time, humans have set up camp in the Valley of the Vézère, a verdant corner of southwestern France where the river meanders along the base of forested limestone cliffs. While the Vézère brought an ample supply of water, the galleries it hollowed into the soft stone offered secure shelter against predators and harsh weather conditions. They also provided the canvas upon which the first stone ages artists came to express themselves. Within a radius of 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the village of Les Eyzies de Tayac-Sireuil, there are 15 major archeological sites now rated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Half of them are painted caves, including the world-famous Lascaux.

Layers of Time

Vezere-Bison

Found in the Abri de la Madeleine, this bison is carved on an reindeer antler. Les Eyzies, National Prehistory Museum.

While the painted caves say much about the sophistication of the people who created them and the fauna of their time, the archeological sites are no less fascinating. The early inhabitants of what was to become the Perigord Noir (thus named for its dense forests of dark oaks) have left proofs of the existence and way of life of layers upon layers of civilizations that succeeded here. Artifacts uncovered in La Micoque indicate occupancy of the area by our Paleolithic predecessors over 400,000 years ago. Then the Neanderthals showed up around 150,000 B.C. and left abundant clues of their lifestyle in Le Moustier. And finally our direct ancestors, the Homo Sapiens settled in Cro-Magnon some 30,000 years ago. While these sites only have reference value today, as they have been thoroughly excavated since late nineteeth century and are currently closed to visitors, a number of other sites are inviting us to visit our history.

The Magdalenian Age

Vezere - Troglodyte Madeleine.

Tucked high into the cliff, the troglodyte medieval village of La Madeleine overhangs the river. Beneath it, the prehistoric site is concealed by vegetation.

La Madeleine is a 250-meter (820-foot) long rock shelter complex within a 45-meter (150-foot) high cliff on the right bank of the Vézère. Its southern orientation and easy access to the water made it especially desirable to inhabitants that occupied the site from prehistoric times to the nineteenth century. Tucked within the base of the overhanging cliff, the Abri de la Madeleine (Magdalene Shelter) sits just a few meters above today’s river bank. It is recognized as having been densely occupied from five millennia, starting in 17,000 B.C., by tribes of semi-nomadic hunter-gathers.

Vezere - Madeleine horse baton.

Perforated baton with low relief horse, from La Madeleine. London, British Museum.

Discovered in the mid-nineteenth century, it yielded a treasure trove of silex tools for domestic and hunting use, bone needles and jewelry, harpoons and spear tips made of antlers, many decorated with engravings of animals. So important was the find that archeologists officially named the Upper Paleolithic culture in Western Europe the  Magdalenian Period. In total, some 500 pieces were found, most are on display at the Musée National de la Préhistoire in nearby Les Eyzie, with the remainder shared with museums around the world.

A Troglodyte Village

Vezere - Madeleine troglodyte home

The settlers built individual dwellings within the cave.

The next major occupancy of La Madeleine began in the ninth century. The local population, long settled in villages along the river in spite of a millennium of successive invasions (Romans, Visigoths and assorted barbarians) were now having to face waves of Norman river-born pirates (a.k.a Vikings). Some wisely took to the hills. In this case a long horizontal shelter carved halfway up the cliff, just upstream from the Abri. It offered a natural stronghold and an unlimited supply of stone. Over the next centuries, they set out to make it the secure troglodyte community we can still see today.

Vezere-Village street.

The layout of the homes was dictated by the shape of the rock.

Beyond the fortified guard post at the top of a steep lane so narrow it can only be managed by one person at a time, the village stretched along a “street” protected from the abyss by a sturdy stone parapet. Already provided with a common floor and roof, the inhabitants fashioned their individual homes with external walls of rough hewn stone and internal adobe partitions. The layout of the dwellings varied, dictated by the shape of the rock, but all followed the same two level pattern. Pigs, sheep, goats and poultry were kept in the lower level “barn,” with the family living in the loft above. An area of the village was allocated to craftsmen, traces of their tools still visible.

Vezere-Madeleine Chapel.

The chapel boasts a Gothic nave and two Romanesque alters.

The supplies to sustain the village came mainly by barges, and were hoisted up by a system of pulleys. There was also a kitchen garden within this fortified enclave, to provide vegetables even in times of siege. The most spectacular feature of the village, other than its panoramic view of the valley, is its gothic chapel. Built in the fourteenth century at the edge of the precipice, on the foundations of a previous Romanesque chapel, it is dedicated to Sainte Madeleine. Walking along this stretch of cliff, it is easy to imagine the vibrant life of the medieval troglodyte community. The village flourished thought the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of Religion, then showed a marked decline in the seventeenth century. It did, however, remain inhabited until the nineteenth century.

The Cliff Manor of Reignac

Vezere - Reignac.

Reignac is the only fully preserved cliff manor in France.

A mere three kilometers (two miles) upriver from La Madeleine, La Maison Forte de Reignac offers an other important insight into the medieval life of the area. While the site is known to have been settled since Magdalenian times, and a number of its prehistoric artifacts are on display in the large underground antechamber of its original entrance, the uniqueness of the cliff manor is its medieval history.

 

 

Vezere-Reignac entrance.

Fortified entrance of the Reignac Cliff Manor.

This fourteenth century citadel emerges from the face of a sheer cliff. Built first as a stronghold for the ruler of the area, it evolved into a fortified cliff manor in the sixteenth century when windows replaced the arrow slits and a proper façade took shape. Little has changed since then, although Reignac was occupied until the nineteenth century. Today, it is the only remaining intact cliff mansion in France.

 

Vezere-Reignac dining room.

The interior of the manor is remarkably spacious.

Seen from the outside, it is impossible to evaluate how large the manor really is. The bland façade with its fortified gatehouse conceals a multi-level maze of spacious chambers, including a main hall, weapons room, kitchen, dining room, several bedrooms and a guards’ dormitory. And de rigueur accommodations in any self-respecting medieval castle, prison cells and a  dungeon. All the rooms are fully furnished with antiques of the period. The hour-long guided visit is well scripted and informative, well worth the steep climb from the valley-floor parking lot.

La Grotte du Grand Roc

Vezere-Grand Roc.

La Grotte du Grand Roc.

Another cave not to be missed while in the area has nothing to do with either our stone-age or medieval forbearers. Rather, it is a gift from nature. Just five kilometers (three miles) from Les Eyzies, and once again halfway up a cliff overlooking the Valley of the Vezere, La Grotte du Grand Roc is a narrow, winding fairy grotto filled with thousands of small stalactites hanging from its ceiling and stalagmites rising toward them, in the most improbable shapes. A few of them have connected to form columns, but mainly they display an amazing array of eccentric rock formations. In case you are wondering, eccentric rock formations have to do with the velocity of the dripping droplets of calcite-laden water and how they land on the floor, projecting sediments randomly in all directions. They must have done it just right in Grand Roc, because the cave is filled with star and spike-shaped concretions that defy gravity and strain the limit of imagination!

The guided visit is lead by a geologist and take about an hour, I think. Time seems to stand still in this surreal environment.

Good to Know

  • Getting There – Les Eyzies de Tayac-Sireuil is located 5.5 hours by car southwest of Paris, 2.5 hours northeast of Bordeaux and 2.5 hours north of Toulouse. Nearest commercial airports are Brive Vallee Dordogne Airport, 55 minutes northeast and Bergerac Dordogne Perigord Airport, one and a half hour west of Les Eyzies.
  • Getting Around – All these and several other remarkable sites are within a few kilometers of each other. Unless you are an avid hiker or cyclist, a car is necessary to get around.
  • Visiting Village de la Madeleine 20260 Tursac, Dordogne, France. Contact: e-mail lamadelainegrandsite@gmail.com. Tel. +33 (0) 5 53 46 36 88. Maison Forte de Reignac – 20360 Tursac, Dordogne, France. Contact: e-mail info@maison-forte-reignac.com. Tel. +33 (0) 5 53 50 67 28. Grotte du Grand Roc – 24620 Les Eyzies de Tayac, Dordogne, France. Contact: e-mail grandroc@perigord.com. Tel. +33 (0) 5 53 06 92 70. All three sites are open year-round. Opening hours vary with the seasons and can be found on their individual websites.
  • Staying There – There are lodging options to suit all tastes and budgets within easy access to all the main sites of the Vézère Valley. We opted for the Chateau la Fleunie, a fully restored medieval castle turned three star boutique hotel in for its bucolic setting and superb gourmet restaurant in Condat-sur-Vézère.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Les Eyzies de Tayac-Sireuil