The Maeght Foundation — An oasis of Modern Art in the Hills of Provence

The Maeght Foundation — An oasis of Modern Art in the Hills of Provence

Perched on a rocky outcrop some seven kilometers (4.5 miles) inland from the Mediterranean coast, Saint-Paul de Vence, the most charming of the hilltop villages of Provence, has long been a favorite day trip for visitors to the French Riviera.

Saint-Paul de Vence is the oldest of the medieval hilltops villages of Provence.

Any time of year, its winding cobbled alleyways, arch gateways and tiny shaded squares are teeming with tourists eager to experience this medieval wonder enclosed within its mighty 16th century fortifications. They browse the art galleries now housed behind the ancient stone facades that line its narrow central street, or settle at a cafe terrace at the edge of the ramparts to enjoy the exceptional views of the hillsides sloping down to the sea. But few realize that a mere 10 minutes away, secluded in a lush forest of umbrella pines, the Maeght Foundation Is home to one of the most important collections of modern and contemporary art in Europe.

The Maeght Foundation

The gardens feature several fountains.

Inaugurated in 1964, the Foundation is the brainchild of a visionary couple of publishers and art dealers, Aimé Maeght (1906-1981) and his wife Marguerite (1909-1977). They represented and were friends with some of the most prominent artists of the 20th century, including George Braque, Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, Alberto Giacometti, Wassily Kandinsky, Barbara Hepworth, Fernand Leger, Joan Mirò and Germaine Richier. The Foundation, entirely conceived and financed by the Maeght, was intended to create a space to present Modern and Contemporary Art in all its forms, and provide a retreat where artists could visit, exchange ideas and create, as well as exhibit their work.

The Foundation is a masterpiece of Modernist Architecture

The Catalan architect Josep Lluís Sert, who was charged with the project, designed a masterpiece of Modernist architecture where diverse forms of art harmoniously coexist within the natural landscape typical of Provence. He maximized the use of indirect, natural light for viewing artworks, and created a spacial layout conducive to contemplation. 

Joan Mirò ceramic mural.

Painters and sculptors collaborated closely with the architect by creating monumental works integrated into the building and gardens. With only 850 square meters (9,150 square feet) of enclosed spaces, the Foundation offers a unique, flexible arrangement of volumes and spaces, interiors and exteriors. The result is a spectacular environment that integrates natural light with archetypal forms, colors and geometries to create endless possibilities for visitors and artists alike to enjoy this unique oasis of creativity.

 

 

 

The Ultimate Sculpture Garden

The Giacometti Courtyard.

The sculpture garden was conceived to present modern and contemporary art in all its forms. Particularly striking is the Giacometti Court, the Foundation’s inner courtyard overlooking the French Riviera, which features an exceptional ensemble of works by the artist. A sculpted head and several walking figures, including L’Homme qui marche (Man walking -1960), project their silhouettes on the tiled ground, almost like sundials marking the passing of time in this Surrealist haven.

Les Renforts is a monumental free-standing sculpture by Alexander Calder.

The Catalan artist Miró created a playful labyrinth, where visitors can wander among the numerous sculptural pieces. Additionally, monumental mural mosaics by Chagall and Tal Coat can be found in the exteriors, together with a pool designed by Braque. The garden also features a rotating selection of works by Calder, Takis and Arp, which seamlessly interact with the surrounding environment. 

 

 

The Interior Exhibition Space

La Vie (Marc Chagall – 1964) is a centerpiece of the permanent exhibition.

With over 13,000 works in its catalog, the Foundation holds one of the largest collection of paintings, sculptures and works on paper of Modern and Contemporary Art in Europe. Other than a limited number of monumental pieces, such as La partie de campagne (The picnic – Fernand Leger – 1954. Oil on Canvas  254 cm x 301 cm), L’été (Summertime. Pierre Bonnard – 1917. Oil on Canvas 260 cm x 340 cm) and La Vie (Life. Marc Chagall – 1964. Oil on Canvas 296 x 406,) the curated selection of works exhibited in the indoor galleries show the collection in rotation. And it is enhanced by a rich program of temporary exhibitions.

Le Chien (Alberto Giacometti) takes pride of place in the Family of Creators exhibition.

At the time of my recent visit, “The Giacometti: a family of creators” held sway. The exhibition highlighted the famous dynasty of artists from the Swiss village of Stampa, starting with Alberto Giacometti, the most famous member of the family, known for his emblematic threadlike sculptures. But it also showcased the talent and originality of his father, Giovanni, and his cousin, Augusto, both painters, as well as his two brothers: Diego, the middle brother, sculptor and designer, and Bruno, the youngest, architect. 

Based on several dozens of major sculptures, drawings and paintings from the collection, rounded out by archived photographs and objects, this exhibit brought to light the unique story of five artists from the same family who left their mark on 20th century art. 

Good to Know

  • Getting there — Saint-Paul de Vence is located inland from the Mediterranean, approximately 20 kilometer from the coastal towns of Nice to the East and Antibes to the West respectively. By road: it is easily accessible via the coastal highway nº A8 to Cagnes-sur-Mer (Exit 48), then follow local road nº D436, direction La Colle-du-Loup/Vence Saint-Paul de Vence. Parking: Motor vehicles are not allowed in the village. Several metered  parking areas with are available for visitors before reaching the village. By public transportation: frequent regional express trains (TERs) offer fast services between all of the main towns along the French Riviera from Cannes to Ventimiglia. Stop: Cagnes-sur-Mer, then take Bus nº 400 in front of the train station (Direction Saint-Paul de Vence). Stop: Aix Village.  
  • Reaching The Maeght Foundation By Road: the well-indicated turn-off to the Foundation is located shortly before the entrance to the village. Parking is free, subject to availability. By bus: Bus nº 400. Stop Fondation Maeght, then a 10-minute uphill walk to the Foundation entrance gate.
  • Visiting — The Maeght Foundation , 623, Chemin des Gardettes, 06570 Saint-Paul de Vence, France, is open every day from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm in July and August and 10:00 am to 6:00 pm the remainder of the year. Contact; tel: +33 (0)4 93 32 81 63, email: info@fondation-maeght.com .   

Location, location, location!

Fondation Aimé et Marguerite Maeght

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

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

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

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

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

Notre Dame de Paris

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

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

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

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

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

La Sainte Chapelle

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

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

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

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

The Lower Chapel

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

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

The Upper Chapel

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

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

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

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

Good to Know

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

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

La Sainte Chapelle

Notre Dame de Paris

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

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

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

Who is Zao Wou-Ki?

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

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

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

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

A Master of Contrasts

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

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

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

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

 

An Artist’s Journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good to Know

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

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Hotel de Caumont Art Center

Normandy’s Mystical Island – The Mont Saint-Michel

Normandy’s Mystical Island – The Mont Saint-Michel

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

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

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

From Abbey to Bastion

Successive churches were built above the original sanctuary.

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

A village developed beneath theh Abbley.

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

The Evolution of a Medieval Masterpiece

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

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

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

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

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

The grand dining hall was reserved for special guests.

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

 

 

The cloister sits at the top of The Marvel.

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

The Mont Saint-Michel Experience

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

The village is fully contained within its ancient fortified walls.

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

The entrance to the island is protected by a drawbridge.

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

The Magic of Tides and Light

Shimmering sandbanks surround the Mount at low tide.

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

The Mount can take on a surreal glow at dusk.

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

The mount in the clear morning light.

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

 

 

The Bayeux Tapestry

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

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

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

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

Good to Know

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

Location, location, location!

Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel

Albi — The City Shaped By The Cathar Saga

Albi — The City Shaped By The Cathar Saga

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

The city developed around its ancient bridge across the Tarn.

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

 

The Wrath of Popes and Kings

The fortress-like Saint Cecilia Cathedral dominates the city.

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

The Dominique de Florence Portal reinforces the fortress.

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

 

The Fortress Cathedral

The extravagant decor belies the austere exterior.

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

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

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

The Glory Within

The catheral’s choir is lavishly decorated.

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

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

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

The Berbie Palace

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

A Formal French Garden was later added to the fortress.

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

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

 

 

 

The Toulouse-Lautrec Museum

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

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

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

The Iconographer of Montmartre

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

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

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

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

Saint Cecilia seen from the Berbie Castle.

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

Good to Know

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

Location, location, location!

Albi

From Military Stronghold to Literary Legend – the Chateau d’If

From Military Stronghold to Literary Legend – the Chateau d’If

In 600 B.C., three centuries before an obscure Iron-age Celtic tribe began scattering huts along the bank of the Seine near what would eventually become Paris, 750 kilometers (500 miles) to the south on the Mediterranean shore, the Phoenician shipping settlement of Massalia was already thriving.

The entrance to the Old Port is guarded by two medieval forts.

Fast forward a couple of millennia and it had become Marseille, one of France’s major trade centers, with two large forts guarding the entrance to the Old Port. However, to further protect this strategic port city, and the fleet of royal galleys that were anchored there, in 1529, King Francois I ordered a royal fortress to be constructed farther out in the Bay of Marseille, on the island of If. And set the stage for what would become the most famous legend in French literature.

A Notorious Penitentiary

The ramparts  are flanked by foreboding towers.

The entire 3-hectare  (7.5-acre) island, a rocky promontory rising from the ocean some 3.5 kilometers (2 miles) west of the Old Port of Marseille, was quickly fortified. High ramparts with canon platforms now surrounded a colossal square three-story fortress flanked by three foreboding towers. The castle was intended as a deterrent, a job it performed remarkably well since thought out its history, the Château d’If was never attacked. But with its isolated location and dangerous offshore currents, it also had all the makings of an escape-proof prison. It soon was turned into a dumping ground for political and religious prisoners that the authorities wanted consigned to oblivion. Over the next two centuries it became known as a destination from which there was no return, in the popular imagination as in reality.

The Road to International Fame

A single well provided water for the prison.

By the 19th century, the Château d’If was notorious for its sordid conditions of detention. But it didn’t reach international fame until Alexandre Dumas used it as a setting for The Count of Monte Cristo, published to widespread acclaim in 1844. Dumas, who had heard of it as a child, took the opportunity of a trip in to the Mediterranean coast to visit the fortress for the first time in 1834. An aspiring writer, he was still a few years away from asserting his voice in the historical novels would make him one of the most successful authors of his time. But he was already gathering inspiration from his many travels, actual events and the historical records of the Paris Police Archives. The latter being where he unearthed the plot for the Count of Monte Cristo.

Centuries of graffiti were left by prisoners.

In 1807 in Paris a shoemaker about to marry his beautiful fiancee had been wrongly reported to the authorities by a jealous rival for being a British informant. He was arrested and, without so much as an explanation, left to languish in prison for seven years. While incarcerated, he had befriended a fellow prisoner, a Milanese priest opposed to the Bonapartist cause, but nevertheless a wealthy heir. Before dying, the abbot had made a will in favor of the shoemaker, who had subsequently recovered the fortune of his benefactor upon his release in 1814. After returning to Paris under a false identity, he had set out to understand why he has been deprived of seven years of his life, and to concentrate on taking revanche. The most famous avenger in French literature was born.

The Birth of a Legend

The unescapable Château d’If rises out of the sea.

Under the pen of Alexandre Dumas, the wronged shoemaker became Edmond Dantès, a young Marseille seaman with a promising career ahead of him. On the day of his engagement to the lovely Mercedes, he was unjustly accused by his rivals in love and business ( Mondego and Danglars) of being a bonapartist and committing treason. Summarily arrested and imprisoned in the Château d’If, he survived several years of solitary confinement before coming in contact with the occupant of the neighboring cell (Abbé Faria), who had been tunneling for years between the two dungeons.

Entrance to the the dungeon attributed to Abbé Faria.

Over the next seven years, the wise old abbot befriended Dantès, revealed to him the location of an immense treasure he once hid on a tiny Mediterranean Island, and the two planned to escape together. However, when Faria died before the plan could come to fruition, Dantès contrived to substitute himself for the body in Faria’s canvas shroud, just before it was hurled into the sea, becoming the only prisoner ever to escape the Chateau d’If and survive. Dantès then retrieved Faria’s treasure from a remote island of the Tuscan archipelago (the Island of Montecristo). He now had the means to orchestrate his revenge.

When Legend Becomes Reality

The visit includes a look at the cell of the legendary Edmond Dantès.

Published in 1844, Le Comte de Monte Cristo was a resounding success. The novel was serialized in Le Journal des Débats, one of the earliest mass circulation newspapers, from August 1844 to January 1846. At a time when books were expensive and reserved to the affluent levels of society, the reading of novels was popularized through their publication in newspapers passed freely from one person to another. The novel was soon translated in multiple languages and the Chateau d’If became famous around the world, despite the fact that most readers were unaware of its exact location.

A plaque marks the entrance of Dantès’ dungeon for posterity.

When Alexandre Dumas revisited the fortress in 1858, he realized how famous he had made it when his guide, unaware of his visitor’s identity, told him of Dantès’ imprisonment without omitting a single detail, not the death of Faria, nor the prisoner’s escape, nor even the tunnel dug from between the two dungeons. An opening had even been created on the ground floor to lend a touch of reality to the tale. The legend prevailed over history and today’s visitors are treated to the very same sights and narrative as they explore the fortress from ramparts to dungeons and discover the cells of the imaginary prisoners – in addition to the superb views of the Marseille coastline,

The Château d’If offers and the Marseille coastline.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – The Chateau d’If is accessible via the Frioul-If Express Shuttle, a ferry departing hourly from the Old Port, the central waterfront of Marseille. It’s a 20-minute ride the from the port to the fortress.
  • Visiting – The Chateau d’If is open year-round (weather permitting) Tuesday through Sunday from 10:30 am to 5:15 pm. Closed on Monday. 
  • Catching up with The Count – There is much more to Dumas’ hero than his ordeals at the Chateau d’If. If you want to read, re-read or simply refer to the famous novel, it is available free of charge through the Gutenberg Project.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Château d'If