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

Along the Dordogne River Valley – Life in the Past Lane

Along the Dordogne River Valley – Life in the Past Lane

Helen of Troy may have been the cause of a decade-long war and the launch of a thousand ships, but Eleanor of Aquitaine did her one better. Her own complicated matrimonial saga started a 300-year conflict between France and England, triggered a boom in fortress building and culminated in the Hundred Years’ War. Actually the war in question lasted 116 years, from 1337 to 1453, but let’s not quibble.

The Most Desirable Heiress of her Time

Dordogne-Castle.

Medieval castles punctuate the landscape of the Dordogne.

The trouble started in April 1137, when William X, Duke of Aquitaine, died leaving his eldest daughter, 15 year old Eleanor the most eligible heiress in Europe. The new Duchess’s lands, all of southwestern France, represented the largest and richest province of the country (almost one third of today’s France). In days when kidnapping an heiress was considered a viable option to secure a title, her father had had the foresight to appoint none other than the King of France as her guardian until a suitable suitor came along. However, Louis VI, already with one foot in the grave himself, thought it far more expeditious to bring Aquitaine under the French crown by marrying off Eleanor to his 17-year old heir, Prince Louis. A tidy solution that greatly increased the power of France and its ruling family. The wedding took place in July, followed within two weeks by the death of the king.

Dordogne-Laussel

Although in disrepair, the Chateau de Laussel continues to cut an imposing figure.

By all accounts, the young Louis VII was smitten with is new bride. She apparently was less enthusiastic. It took her 15 years, but she ultimately managed to get her marriage annulled by the pope in March 1152. Within 10 weeks she was remarried to Henri II, the soon to be King of England, bringing Aquitaine to the English crown in the process. And that’s when the mayhem really began.

Memories of a Turbulent Past

Dordogne-Beynac-et-Cazenac.

Clustered under its twelfth century fortress, the village of Beynac-et-Cazenac still thrives.

The French side may have shrugged off losing the Duchess, but the duchy was another story. On its eastern side the Perigord Noir, an exceptionally scenic area of rocky cliffs covered with forests of dark oaks at confluence of the Dordogne and the Vézère rivers, was especially contested. The Dordogne river became the border between the two enemy lines, causing both sides to build countless fortified castles, monasteries and bastides (walled villages) facing each other on both banks of the river. Many of them are still standing today, and most are beautifully maintained, making for stunning vistas and lots of impromptu photo stops. So dense are the touristic riches of the area that it would take a lengthy stay to do more than scratch the surface. Here is just a sampling of my favorite “must-sees.”

A Bastide in the Sky

Dordogne-Domme

The bastide de Domme has retained all its medieval charm.

Founded in 1283 on a high rocky outcrop overlooking the Dordogne, Domme is a bastide remarkable not only for the breathtaking 180 degree view of the valley from its vast terraced belvedere, but also for its intact yellow sandstone fortifications. The only entrance into the village is through a large fortified gate flanked by two imposing towers at the bottom of the central street. In addition to their protective purpose, the towers once served as prisons, and you can still see the religious symbols scratched in the stone by the Templars that were incarcerated there during the fourteenth century. At the top of the village, near the original covered market hall with its impressive carpentry roof supported by stone pillars, a discrete entrance leads into a network of caves beneath the village. These have been used as hideouts throughout eight hundred years of conflicts, most recently during World War II.

A Gem on the River

Dordogne-Roque Gageac pano.

The remains of the original cave fortress overhang the village.

Wedged against a high cliff overhanging a sundrenched curve of the north bank of the Dordogne, La Roque-Gageac is a photographer’s delight. Although sitting on a site believed to have been occupied since prehistoric times, its documented existence traces back to the mid-ninth century, when Vikings were sailing their longboats up the river with raiding on their mind. For the first few centuries of its existence, La Roque-Gageac was a troglodyte fortress, set in caves some 40 meters (130 feet) above the river, the remains of which can still be seen above the village today. It was not until the end of the Hundred Years’ War that the “Laroquois,” as its residents are called, felt safe enough to move down to the lovely Renaissance homes that we see today, lining the riverbank and the narrow footpaths climbing to the base of the cliff.

Dordogne-Roque-Gageac River.

La Roque-Gageac is at its most striking viewed from the river.

By then the Dordogne was plied by gabarres, the traditional flat-bottom barges that transported cargo down the river to Bordeaux until the arrival of the railroad put them out of business at the end of the nineteenth century. Today, the gabarres sail once more, taking tourists on a relaxed one-hour, seven-kilometer (4.5 mile) cruise downriver to the Castelnaud Bridge, at the base of the eponymous twelfth century fortress. It is the best way to see the village (and the castle). If you prefer to do your own paddling, there are kayaks for rent on the riverbank.

A Medieval Showcase

Sarlat-Gisson Manoir

The Manoir de Gisson, built for a family merchants, dominates the market square.

The most famous town in Perigord Noir, Sarlat-la-Canéda, or just plain Sarlat, is recognized as one of the most attractive medieval towns in France. Its traceable past began in the ninth century with the creation of a Benedictine abbey. As the abbey grew, so did the town around it, to become a wealthy local center of commerce. Many of the grand medieval houses we see today were built by rich merchants of that time. Unfortunately, like most of the region, Sarlat was brought to its knees by the Hundred Years’ War, and didn’t begin to rise again until the beginning of the sixteenth century.

Sarlat-Boetie

The birthplace and residence of native son Étienne de La Boétie, a revered fifteenth century writer and philosopher.

Another period of prosperity ensued, to which we owe the Renaissance gems of the city. Then came the Wars of Religion, and another thirty years of chaos and ruin. However, firmly Catholic Sarlat ended up on the winning side. The city, now a bishopric, was once again firmly established. Until the Revolution reshuffled the cards once more. Stripped of its religious importance and far removed from the main centers of powers, the city withered away, a forgotten backwater town until the second half of the twentieth century. A lucky turn of fate, as its isolation protected its historic center from the desecrations inflicted in the name of modernization on more prosperous town in the decades immediately following World War II. More recently, the importance of Sarlat’s cultural heritage recognized, sufficient funding was allocated to undertake an extensive program of restoration. The town center is now also listed as a protected area to restrict future development.

Sarlat-Market.

To this day, Sarlat remains the market hub of the Perigord Noir.

Beyond its return to its Medieval and Renaissance glory, the greatest charm of Sarlat is that, far from becoming a “museum city,” it remains a vibrant, lived-in place, and the thriving market town of its distant past. In addition to the weekly all-products market that fills its city center every Saturday, there is the twice-weekly food market (Wednesday and Saturday) and the traditional truffles and foie gras markets throughout the winter months. Meanwhile, during the warmer months, after the busses of day-trippers have moved on, the city slows down and the terraces of the old town fill up with resident taking in the atmosphere of another era while enjoying the duck confits, truffled foie gras salads and other traditional culinary delights of the region. Although the city can be explored in a few hours, it is worth planning to stay a day or two just to enjoy a rare moment of life in the past lane.

From its vast terraced belvedere, Domme offers a breathtaking view of the Dordogne Valley.

Good to Know

  • Getting There – Sarlat 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, 1.30 hour west of Sarlat.
  • Getting AroundAll these and more remarkable sites are within a 10-kilometer radius of each other. Unless you are an avid hiker or cyclist, a car is necessary to get around.
  • Staying There – There are lodging options to suit all tastes and budgets within easy access to all the main sites of the Dordogne 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.

Location, location, location!

Sarlat

Scenes From The Stone Age – The Cave Paintings of Lascaux

Scenes From The Stone Age – The Cave Paintings of Lascaux

On a September afternoon of 1940 in a quiet corner of the Dordogne in southwestern France, four teenagers were walking into the forest above the village of Montignac when their dog vanished into a hole. They crawled in to the rescue and stumbled upon one of the richest Stone Age art galleries in the world.

FR-Lascaux Bull.

The iconic Lascaux bulls.

La Grotte de Lascaux, or simply Lascaux as it is commonly known, is a network of limestone caves located high above the Vézère River valley. Over 600 paintings decorate its interior walls and ceiling. The polychrome images in vivid black, brown, red, yellow and white, are estimated to date back between 17,000 and 20,000 years. They represent mainly large mammals known through fossil records to have been native to the area at the time. Beyond their numbers, scale and age, it is their exceptional quality and sophistication that make them one of the greatest treasure trove of Paleolithic art ever discovered.

Patrimony in Peril

FR-Lascaux Chinese Horse.

The “Chinese” horse.

Lascaux opened to the public in 1948 and soon more than 1,000 visitors a day came to see the Stone Age pictures that changed the way we think about our Cro-Magnon ancestors. Within a few years, the paintings, which had remained in pristine condition for millennia in a cave sealed by the formation of a protective layer of clay in the soil, began to deteriorate. To stop the damage from the carbon dioxide and the rise in humidity generated by the presence of visitors, the cave was permanently closed in 1963.

FR-Lascaux red-black horse

The great black and red horse.

Conscious of the significance of Lascaux, the French Ministry of Culture funded the creation of an exact replica of the main areas of the cave, the Hall of Bulls and the Axial Recess, which together contain a majority of the artwork at the site. This Lascaux II, built on the same hill and only 200 meters (650 feet) away from the original cave opened in 1983. Since then, it has received over 10 million visitors. But in time, there began to be signs that the traffic of too many visitors on top of the hill was affecting the original cave.

Meanwhile, a traveling exhibit dubbed Lascaux III, consisting of five life-size panels of images not included in Lascaux II as well as a virtual tour of the entire cave, has been seen in a number of European, North American and Asian destinations since 2012.

The Birth of Lascaux IV

It was in 2010, the 70th anniversary of the cave’s discovery, that the International Center of Rock Wall Art of Montignac-Lascaux project was announced. Its mission was to give better public access to the treasures of this unique UNESCO World Heritage site and foster a better understanding of the history and meaning of Paleolithic cave art. A design competition was launched in 2011 to create Lascaux IV. The proposal of Norwegian architect Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, a founding principal of Oslo-based Snøhetta design studio, was selected from a field of 80 entries from all over the world.

FR-Lascaux IV.

The International Center of Rock Wall Art, a.k.a Lascaux IV.  in Montignac, Dordogne.

His sprawling concrete and glass structure is unobtrusively wedged into the base of the forested hill that contains both the original cave and its Lascaux II replica. Its design evokes a futuristic version of the rock shelters found throughout the Dordogne region.

The Lascaux IV Experience

FR-Lascaux Hall of Bulls.

The Hall of the Bulls.

Beyond the vast central reception area, the guided visit follows a thoughtfully choreographed itinerary, starting with a glass elevator ride to the Belvedere rooftop. From there, the view of the Vézère River valley and the village of Montignac is what the four boys would have seen on that long ago September afternoon. And in case we fail to make the connection, a discrete sound track in the woods evokes their presence and that of their adventurous canine companion. Then it’s down the slight incline of a canyon-like corridor open to the sky, into a dark projection space where a short film takes us back to the Magdalenian period (17,000 to 12,000 years ago) with its tundra landscape, woolly rhinos, bison, lions and Cro-Magnon men. Another brief walk outside and we reenter the building. Suddenly, we are in the cave, right at the boulder where the original exploration began.

FR-Lascaux stags.

The stags sport spectacular antlers.

A moment later, we arrive at the Hall of the Bulls. Although I have seen many reproductions over the years, the in-situ sight of the massive beasts in motion leaves me breathless. The cool temperature, the subdued lighting that hints at the flicker of oil lamps, the faintly stale cave smell, the muffled sounds, everything “feels right.” To allow full focus on the experience, digital devices don’t work in the cave, and photography is strictly prohibited.

As I go further into the tunnels, more animal figures keep coming at me, beautifully detailed stags with their elaborate antlers, galloping horses, fighting ibex and bison shedding their winter coat. As the passage narrows and its ceiling lowers, I find myself closer to red and black cows and polychrome horses. Their proximity makes it easier to spot how the original artists incorporated the faintest relief in the rock into their work.

Stone Age Art in Today’s World

FR-Lascaux falling horse.

The falling horse.

The entire cave and its overwhelming paintings are reproduced down to millimeter accuracy. The latest advances in laser imaging technology, 3D digital scanning and printing enabled today’s artists to recreate every nook and cranny in minute detail. The use of polystyrene, resin and fiberglass “stone veil” coating recreated the walls and their covering, including the ubiquitous streaks of moonmilk and even the faint sparkle that still exist in places.

 

FR-Lascaux deers/

The herd of swimming deers

High definition images of the paintings were then projected onto this perfect Stone Age canvas and manually copied pixel by pixel. At the end of the passage known as the Axial Recess, I pass the famous painting of the falling horse, before looping back to a side passage with a herd of swimming deer on the right wall and two massive bison on the left. By the time I exit the cave, I am breathless with awe at the timeless power of the art within. Is this perfect duplicate any less powerful, less meaningful than the original? This is the source of much controversy, and ultimately a matter of personal opinion. For me, it evokes the same emotional reaction that expect I would I have experienced in the original.

FR-Lascaux Studio.

The cave’s major works are represented in life-size units hanging from the ceiling.

The guided tour ends as we exit the cave and enter the Lascaux Studio, a vast hall where all the  major works from the cave are represented in eight life-size units hanging from the ceiling. Some of the panels include ultraviolet demonstrations of prehistoric engraving and painting techniques. Here visitors are free to explore and snap pictures to their heart’s content. Guides remain on hand to answer any questions.

The Gallerly of Imagination

FR-Lascaux virtual reality.

Virtual reality stations are available to visitors.

Further along, virtual reality stations enable visitors to scan the surface of the model and view the works from various vantage points within the cave.

The last space is the Gallery of Imagination, a digital cave where 90 large floating touch-screens explore the connections between cave art and contemporary art.

 Good to Know

  • Getting There The Centre International d’Art Parietal (International Center of Rock Wall Art) in Montignac, Dordogne, France, which is home to Lascaux IV, is located four hours by car southwest of Paris and 2 hours northeast of Bordeaux, (Highway A89, exit n°17 Montignac-Lascaux).
  • VisitingLascaux IV is open daily throughout the year – Consult their website for opening hours, which vary with the seasons, and advanced tickets purchases (strongly recommended).
  • The entire Lascaux IV site is fully wheelchair accessible.
  • Lascaux was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 as part of the Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley.
  • In addition to Lascaux IV, Kjetil Trædal Thorsen credits include the Oslo Opera House, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt and the National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion in New York City.
  • Staying There – There are lodging options to suit all tastes and budgets within easy range of the Lascaux site. We opted for the Chateau la Fleunie, a fully restored medieval castle turned three star boutique hotel for its bucolic setting, superb gourmet restaurant and close proximity (eight kilometers, i.e. five miles) via a scenic back road from Lascaux.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Lascaux IV

Paris – Vermeer at the Louvre

Paris – Vermeer at the Louvre

The Louvre requires no introduction. With a world-famous collection ranging from Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century, the once royal palace on the right bank of the Seine turned public museum in 1793 is a central Paris landmark that attracts close to ten millions visitors annually. I resolved long ago to refrain when ever possible from being one of them.

A Rare Landmark Exhibition

Paris-Louvre, Vermeer Woman at Virginal.

Johannes Vermeer, A Young Woman Seated at the Virginal. Oil on canvas. 25.2 x 20 cm. (9 7/8 x 7 7/8 in…), New York The Leiden Collection.

But there are times when accommodations must be made, and crowds braved. The entrancing new temporary exhibit: “Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting “ is one such moment. This landmark event offers the largest and most dazzling selection of Vermeer works I could even hope to see in one place. Twelve in all are on display, or one third of Johannes Vermeer’s entire known output. Among them are The Milkmaid, on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and poster image for the exhibition, the elaborately composed Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, from the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, and the exquisite miniature-like Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, from a private collection in New York.

 

The Masters of Genre

Paris-Louvre, Metsu Woman Letter.

Gabriel Metsu, Young Woman Reading a Letter. Oil on wood panel 52,5 x 40,2 cm. (20.7 x 15.8 in.), Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland, (Beit Collection)

More than 70 works by Vermeer’s fellow “Masters of Genre Painting” of the Dutch Golden Age, including Gerard ter Borch, Gerrit Dou, Pieter de Hooch, Gabriel Metsu, Caspar Netscher, Samuel van Hoogstaten, Frans van Mieris and Jan Steen are also included. These “Genre” painters were a group of artists who rejected the grand classic subjects of epic kings, Olympian myths, bloody battles and gory martyrdoms of traditional art to take us instead into the homes and everyday life of Dutch merchants of the time. With women as their central characters, they immortalized with delicate precision the mundane moments of domestic life from the servants’ perspective as well as their mistresses’.

 

 

The Genius of Vermeer

Paris-Louvre, Vermeer Lady Writing.

Johannes Vermeer, A Lady Writing. Oil on canvas, 45 x 39.9 cm. (17 3/4 x 15 3/4 in.), Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art.

By juxtaposing works related in theme, composition and technique, this exhibition also demonstrates how these artists inspired and rivaled each other. And it provides a unique opportunity to understand what makes Vermeer stand out from his Golden Age peers. For me, the genius of Vermeer is in his unique use a sensuously cool palette, the lapis blues and pale golden yellows, and the silvery northern light that gives his subjects an enigmatic mood. The other painters in this magnificent display represent similar scenes with exquisite artistry: women writing letters, playing the harpsichord or the lute, and servants engaged in domestic chores. But to me, only Vermeer looks beyond the concrete world depicted by his contemporaries, to create a more insightful mood that hints at the inner life of his subject. Several of them seem to interrupt their writing or music-playing to engage me and make me part of the moment.

Paris-Louvre-Vermeer Pearl Necklace,

Johannes Vermeer, Woman with a Pearl Necklace. Oil on canvas. 55 x 45 cm. (21 5/8 x 17 3/4 in.), Berlin. Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz.

Others seem fully absorbed in their own world. I find myself wondering: what is she thinking, this young woman in her elegant chamber, holding up a pearl necklace as she looks intently at herself in the mirror? Is she putting it on or removing it? What does this necklace mean to her? Or even more poignantly, who is this young milkmaid in the austere kitchen? In the gray light of dawn, her downcast eyes and expressionless face suggests tired concentration as she cautiously pours milk from an earthenware jug to prepare breakfast before the rest of the household begins to stir. I see the story of a long-ago life behind every Vermeer painting, a life I want to know more about.

 

 

Good to Know

  • Visiting – The  Musée du Louvre, 75001, Paris, France, is open Wednesday through Monday from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm, with night openings until 9:45 pm on Wednesday and Friday. It is closed on Tuesday, and on January 1, May 1 and December 25. Contact: tel. +33 (0) 1 40 20 53 17, e-mail. info@louvre.fr.
  • Getting there –There is easy public transportation from anywhere in Paris to the museum: metro station Palais-Royal/Musée du Louvre (lines 1 and 7) or bus stop right in front of the Pyramid ( lines 21, 24, 27, 39, 48, 68, 69, 72, 81, 95, and the Paris Open Tour bus).
  • Admission to Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting – This temporary exhibition, which runs from February 22 to May 22, 2017, requires a special admission ticket for a specific date and time. It must be purchased in advance through the museum’s on-line ticket office: on-line ticket office
  • If you miss the Paris viewing – Don’t despair. After its Paris star debut, the exposition, which was realized in partnership with the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, will travel to the partner venues: National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, from June 17 to September 17, 2017, and National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. from October 22, 2017, to January 21, 2018.

Location, location, location!

Musée du Louvre

In Marseille, France – New Landmarks for an Ancient City

In Marseille, France – New Landmarks for an Ancient City

Founded by the Phoenicians some 2600 years ago, Marseille has been a crossroad of immigration ever since. Throughout its long history, the city has received successive waves of populations of many nationalities, cast adrift by political and economical chaos. Over time, these strata upon strata of immigrants seeking to find a balance between new lives and old traditions shaped the city into a colorful, multi-ethnic threshold between France and the Southern Mediterranean shores.

Marseille-Gare St Charles

The nineteenth century Gare Saint Charles has received a complete makeover.

For many decades, however, and especially since the Second World War, Marseille had suffered an enduring image issue. Although one of the most important Mediterranean ports, the city was dismissed for its seedy reputation, urban decay and high crime figures. Not exactly a compelling pitch for tourism-minded visitors. But with the new century, things are turning around.

 

 

From Regional Reprobate to European Capital of Culture

Marseille-Vieux Port.

The original old harbor is now the city’s largest marina.

As part of a concerted transformation effort, Marseille prepared for, and won in 2009, the designation of European Capital of Culture 2013. It now had four years to get its act together. The city famous for its lethargic pace shifted into high gear. It was scrubbed clean and refurbished. Its waterfront got a radical facelift.

The Vieux Port (Old Harbor), the one-kilometer (over half a mile) long natural harbor that was the center of all maritime activities since antiquity had begun to decline in the mid-nineteenth century when its shallow six-meter (20 foot) depth made it unsuitable for the new steamships. Today, it is a large, sundrenched marina where sail and fishing boats bob alongside glitzy yachts and the occasional tall ship.

Marseille-L'Ombriere.

L’Ombrière transforms the waterfront into an upsidown theatre.

The entrance to the waterfront has become a vast plaza where British architect Norman Foster’s L’Ombrière (the sunshade) stretches atop slender steel stilts, six meters above the newly repaved water’s edge. The thin canopy, 46 by 22 meter (151 by 72 feet) of highly polished stainless steel, transforms the square into an astonishing inverted theatre that reflects the ever-changing space below. In the morning the fishermen selling the catch of the night right off their boats along the quay become a lively part of the show.

The Icon of Contemporary Marseille

The broad new pedestrian concourse to the right of the plaza is lined with sprawling, shaded terraces of restaurants that entice patrons with their fresh-of-the-boat menus. From there, they also get spectacular view of the south side of the Vieux Port, with the grand nineteenth century Neo-Byzantine basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde (literally Our Lady of Protection) soaring into the vivid azure sky,  high above the forest of masts.

Marseille-MuCEM.

The ancient Fort Saint Jean is now an integral part of the MuCEM..

Then, at the mouth of the harbor, the latest icon of contemporary Marseille, the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM for short) has become one of the city’s most popular destination. Open in 2013, this new museum devoted to European and Mediterranean civilizations, was allocated a spectacular location, a former port pier with sweeping westward views of the sea and the setting sun. The daring contemporary building is adjacent to the historic Fort Saint Jean that has been guarding the entrance of the Vieux Port since the seventeenth century, and is now an integral part of museum complex.

Marseille-MuCEM Exterior.

The new MuCEM is wrapped in a veil of latticed concrete .

From the top of the Fort a daring 135-meter (450 foot) long footbridge flies across the water to the roof terrace of the museum. The new MuCEM structure, designed by local architect Rudy Ricciotti, is a 72 by 72 meter (235 by 235 foot) square box of glass and steel wrapped in a veil of latticed concrete that also partially extends over the roof terrace. The fort grounds and gardens are free to explore, as are the museum terrace and the walkways that twist between the glass walls of the new exhibit space and its outer lacey shell.

Marseille-MuCEM Interior.

Interior walkways run between the glass walls of the exhibit space and the lacey outer shell

A second high footbridge connects the top of the fort’s Royal Gate to the twelfth century Provencal Romanesque church of Saint Laurent, at the edge of the historic hillside neighborhood of Le Panier (the Basket). The bridge thus opens the new site to the city and contributes its own stupendous views of the Vieux Port and the waterfront.

 

 

 

What of the Actual Museum?

Marseilie-MuCEM Waterwheel.

Thir waterwheel have been used in Egypt since times immemorial to irrigate fields.

My visit of the exhibit space leaves me with a sense that the complex is less about content than adding a striking new architectural chapter to the three-millennia history of the city. There is a disconnect between the magnificent shell and the building it is meant to serve. The core of the MuCEM is a boxy 52 by 52 by 18 meter volume that contains a basement auditorium and two floors of cramped galleries.
 
 
 

Marseille-MuCEM Picasso,

Torero à la résille III, (bullfighter with lattice III). Picasso, 1970.

Its main attraction is a lackluster retrospective of the history, genealogy and culture of the Mediterannean. It is supplemented by temporary exhibits that vary widely in theme. At the time my visit, it features an exposition tracing the influence of popular arts and traditions in the works of Picasso. It also includes an overview of the life and works of Jean Genet, a twentieth century French social outcast turned writer and political activist who, as a dramatist, became a leading figure in the avant-garde theatre.

While the museum is not without interest, it the site, with its unique blend of historic military architecture, contemporary structural creativity, pleasant terrace restaurant and stupendous views that I found to be most worthy of a visit.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Marseille is easily reached by train, with multiple direct TGV (high speed train) connections throughout the day from Paris (3.5 hours) and Lyon (1.5 hour), as well as Geneva (3.5 hours), Brussels (5.5 hours) and Frankfurt (7 hours). The trains take travelers to the Saint Charles station, right in the center of the city. For air travelers, the Marseille-Provence International Airport is 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) northwest of the city has numerous flights throughout the day from Paris, London and other major European cities. A shuttle bus runs every 15 minutes between the airport and the central bus terminal behind the Saint Charles station.
  • Getting around – The greater Marseille area is served by a public transport system, known at RTM (Régie des Transports de Marseille), which includes two Metro lines, M1 (the blue line, runs east-west) and M2 (the red line, runs north-south), two Tram lines, T1 and T2, also running east-west and north-south respectively, and over 70 Bus lines. Note: most bus routes do not operate after 9:00 pm and metro and tram services stops at 0:30 am
  • Boats Excursions The Vieux Port is the starting point for a number of boat tours of the shoreline calanques (fjords) as well as excursions to the nearby Frioul island and the Château d’If (of Comte de Monte Cristo fame). Spur-of-the-moment tickets can be purchased at their berthing point. However, to find the tour best suited to your interests and budget, see the Marseille Office de Tourisme site for a comprehensive list of tour companies and their offerings.
  • Visiting – MuCEM. Promenade Robert Laffont, Marseille (official address). Its main entrance, the Fort Saint-Jean Lower Entrance is located at 201 Quai du Port. Open Wednesday through Monday. Closed on Tuesday and December 25, as well as May 1. Open at 11:00 am year-round. Closing time varies with the seasons from 6:00 pm in winter to 8:00 pm in summer. For exact opening information, check their website or contact: tel. +33 (0) 4 84 35 13 13.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

MuCEM

Notable Museums of Lyon

Notable Museums of Lyon

First a major Gallo-Roman center of trade, then a financial and industrial powerhouse of the Renaissance Lyon has long been a fertile ground for museums. From fine arts to the history of silk, and from Gallo-Roman civilization to the invention of the cinema, there are over 20 museums in Lyon to satisfy the most diverse interests.

Musée des Beaux Arts

France- Lyon Fine Arts Veronese.

Bathsheba at her Bath, by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588)

Created in 1803 in a magnificent seventeenth century abbey in the heart of the central Presqu’Ile neighborhood, it is one of the premier regional museums of fine arts in France. Think of it as a human-size version of the Louvre without the crowds. With 70 galleries of exhibit space, it woos visitors with rich collections that offer an outstanding view of the evolution of art, from ancient Egypt to contemporary times. The paintings section alone section occupies 35 galleries where all the great European Schools from the Renaissance to the twentieth century are represented.

 

France-Lyon Fine Arts Chavannes.

The Sacred Forest Beloved by the Arts and Muses by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898).

While the museum is justifiably proud of its masterpieces by the likes of Tintoretto, Veronese, Rembrandt, Rubens and Poussin, the stairway murals by Lyon native Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, a forbearer of the Symbolism movement, are also well worth a second look. His murals, by the way, also grace the grand staircase of the Boston Public Library as well as the main amphitheatre of the Sorbonne in Paris.

 

Democritus meditating on the seat of the soul by Léon-Alexandre Delhomme (1841-1895).

Democritus Meditating on the Seat of the Soul by Léon-Alexandre Delhomme (1841-1895).

At the heart of the abbey, the former cloister is now a public garden with a central fountain created from an antique sarcophagus. This serene space shaded by ancient trees also serves as a sculpture garden, with works by nineteenth century French masters Rodin, Bourdelle, Maillol and Delhomme.

 

 

Musées des Tissus

France-Lyon Textile Museum.

Housed in a gracious eighteenth century mansion, the Musée des Tissus holds one of the richest textile collection in the world.

This unique Museum of Textiles has its genesis in the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, the first in a series Universal Exhibitions of culture and industry that would become popular in the nineteenth century. It inspired the visiting Lyonnais manufacturers to create a museum to showcase the superior technical and artistic capabilities of the city’s silk industry. Opened in 1864, it originally offered an encyclopedic view of samples and drawings, until the 1890’s when its scope broadened to cover the history of textiles.

 

Lyon-Textile Museum Fashion.

Entire galleries illustrate the synergy between Lyon silk and Paris fashion.

Today, the museum holds one of the most important collections of textiles in the world, with close to two-and-a-half million pieces covering four millennia of production, housed in the lovely eighteenth century Hôtel de Villeroy, in the center the Presqu’Ile. From rare third century Coptic caftans to magnificent twelfth century Sicilian silk tapestries woven with gold threads made from intestine membranes coated with gold leaf, each unique item has its own fascinating story.

 

 

Lyon-Pompadour fashion.

Mid-eighteenth century court gown in the “à la Pompadour” style.

There is a doublet worn by famous historic figure Charles de Blois, Duke of Brittany (1318-1364). Made of rare Persian silk, this ceremonial quilted jacket was intended to fit under a suit of armor, so the Duke could just shed the metal garment and go straight from battle to festivities.  Stunning Lyon silks especially created for Marie Antoinette’s gowns are here, along with the rose and green tapestries she left behind in her bedroom during her ill-fated escape attempt from Versailles. Entire rooms of gowns and other ceremonial attire spanning several centuries illustrate the synergy between the development of the silk and French fashion. I could lose myself for days in here!

 

Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Lyon - Applied Arts Regny.

Original period rooms are preserved intact at the Museum of Applied Arts.

Originally part of the Museum of Textiles, this applied arts institution was spun off as a distinct collection in the adjoining Hôtel de Lacroix-Lavalle in 1925. In addition to its wealth of decorative objects from the late Middle Ages and Renaissance to contemporary times, the museum also offers the opportunity to walk through a number of period rooms, mainly from the eighteenth century, donated with their entire contents, including wall paneling, with the provision that they remain intact. Here, it is possible to appreciate in situ the artistry of furniture and textile craftsmen of the period.

Musée Lumière

Lyon-Lumière Archive.

Archive frame from the first film: “La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon” (Workers leaving the Lumiere Factory)

For movie buffs, this is where is all began, the birthplace of le cinématographe, the nineteenth century ancestor of the camcorder invented by two brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumière. Here, on March 19,1895, they recorded a 46 second film of employees leaving their family’s photo-plate business. Next door, the grand Art Nouveau mansion where the family lived is now a museum that features their famous cinématographe, along with a number of early film-making devices, including Edison’s boxy wooden kinetoscope. In the garden, a hangar is all that remains of the factory. It is now a movie theater with a dynamic program of international film classics.

Musée Gallo-Romain de Lyon-Fourvière

Lyon-Fourviere Gallo-Roman Mosaics.

The permanent collections feature fine Roman mosaics.

Partially buried into the Fourvière hillside next to the Roman Theatre archeological site, the museum offers a journey back into ancient history with its concrete spiral ramp descending and branching out into display galleries. The permanent collections feature Roman, Celtic and pre-Roman artifacts, including fine mosaics, sculptures, jewelry, ceramics and everyday objects as well as an enigmatic Celtic calendar. There is also a relief map of the ancient town as well as scale models of its major monuments, including the Theatre and the Odeon.

Musée des Confluences

Lyon-Confluences

The futuristic Musée des Confluences is Lyon’s latest.

Built at the very southern tip of the Presqu’Ile, on a peninsula that was artificially extended a century ago at the confluence of the Saône and the Rhône rivers, the sprawling glass and steel structure brings to mind a spaceship that has just gone through a hard landing. Opened in December 2014 with the ambitious mission to “tell the story of man from its origins to modern days,” this new anthropology and science museum left me a bit dazed. Going from the skeleton of a 155 million year old Camarasaurus from Wyoming to the smart phone, and from the vision of after-life in indigenous cultures around the world to the exploration of Antarctica in a couple of hours can feel a tad disorienting.

Good to Know

  • Musée des Beaux Arts20 Place des Terreaux, Lyon, 69001. Open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Open until 10:00 on the first Friday of the month except August. Closed on Tuesday and national holidays. Contact: Tel. + 33 (0) 4 72 10 17 40.
  • Musée des Tissus et des Arts Décoratifs 34 Rue de la Charité, Lyon, 69002. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm. Closed on Monday and national holidays. Contact: +33 (0) 4 78 38 42 02
  • Musee Lumière – 25 rue du Premier-Film, place Ambroise Courtois, Lyon, 69008. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:30 pm. Closed Monday. Open all holidays except January 1, May 1 and December 25. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 4 78 78 18 95.
  • Musée Gallo-Romain de Lyon-Fourvière17 Rue Cléberg, Lyon, 69005. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed Monday and national holidays. Contact: Tel. + 33(0) 4 72 38 49 30
  • Musée des Confluences – 86 quai Perrache 69002 Lyon, 60002. Open every day and most national holidays – schedule varies throughout the week. For exact opening hours, check their website or contact: Tel. +33 (0) 4 28 38 11 90.

Location, location, location!

Musée des Beaux Arts