Tahiti Diary – Cruising the Forgotten Tuamotu Archipelago

Tahiti Diary – Cruising the Forgotten Tuamotu Archipelago

Mention Tahiti and most people envision dreamy, secluded islands ringed with beaches of velvety white sand shaded by lush palm trees and thatched bungalows perched above crystalline blue lagoons. They are not entirely wrong. These iconic images are real, but they are just the beginning. The Islands of Tahiti (as French Polynesia is commonly called) are actually 118 islands and atolls clustered into five archipelagos: the Society, Tuamotus, Marquesas, Gambiers and Australs Islands, spread across more that five million kilometers (two million square miles) of the South Pacific.

The Island-Hopping Dilemma

Gauguin-Fakarava beach.

Rush hour at the beach in the Tuamotu archipelago.

Gauguin-Huva Oa

The soaring volcanic cliffs of the Marquesas islands.

While only half of these islands are inhabited and others mere specks of sand barely sticking out of the ocean, that still leaves an embarrassment of compelling destinations. Places far beyond the posh overwater bungalow resorts that festoon a handful of the now world-famous islands in the Society archipelago. They are the remote, unspoiled Tahiti Islands I have long been yearning for, and an island-hopping challenge

Over time, my list has grown to include mysterious sounding names like Hiva Oa and Taiohae. Now that time has come to check the travel possibilities, I give a passing glance to Air Tahiti, the domestic airline with small plane service to many of the islands. Understandably, it operates on the hub and spokes model, which unless I intent to stay put at one destination means a lot of back a forth between connection points. Besides, my dream is to sail on the South Seas, not fly over them. But boats aren’t much help either. Beyond the trendy Society Islands, ferry service is limited to cargo schooners that take passengers and sail every fortnight to the various Marquesas. From there local transfer can be arranged between nearby islands. Doable, but there has to be a better way.

There is: Paul Gauguin. No, not the late French Post Impressionist painter who put the islands on the art world’s map over one century ago, but its namesake, the M/S Paul Gauguin.

A Winning Proposition

Tahiti-Gauguin cruise.

The M/S Paul Gauguin proposed my ideal itinerary.

Launched in 1998 and fully refurbished in 2012, the 5-star Paul Gauguin is the longest and only continually operating, year round luxury cruise ship in French Polynesia. With a length of 504 feet (154 meters) and a draft of only 17.1 feet (5.2 meters) this lovely (relatively) small vessel is designed specifically to navigate the shallow waters of the remote islands, atolls and motus of the Islands of Tahiti. In case you are wondering, motus are reef islets of coral and sand that surround an atoll. In other words, micro-islands.

The Paul Gauguin offers a variety of weeklong and 10-night itineraries that include some of the lesser-known islands. By now, I am avidly scrolling through the various offerings, weighing trade-offs. Until I come across a winning proposition: a 14-night itinerary around the Tuamotus, Marquesas and Society Islands, all tied up in a gloriously easy, pre-planned package. Sign me up!

Five-Star Adventure

Gauguin-Fakarava anchorage.

The Paul Gauguin at anchor in the Fakarava lagoon.

Gauguin-etoile scallops.

Tonight’s menu at l’Etoile tonight features seared scallops on squid ink risotto.

And so it is that on a beautiful August afternoon in Papeete, we step aboard the Gauguin. My traveling companion is a dear, longtime friend who decided to share my South Seas fantasy. Our stateroom is a spacious 239-square-foot (22 square meter) Balcony Stateroom – Number 738, with twin beds, a floor-to-ceiling sliding glass outer wall opening onto a private veranda, and enough closet space to accommodate the vacation wardrobe of two women. The bathroom features double sinks, a full bath and plenty of cabinet space for all our toiletries. Settling in is a breeze.

Our luggage, collected earlier that morning from the Intercontinental Tahiti Resort and Spa where we’ve spent the past three days getting into the Islands’ spirit, has preceded us here, ready to be unpacked. We dine at l’Etoile that night, one of three restaurants on the ship and its main dining room. The setting is formal, the atmosphere pleasantly relaxed, the menu inviting and the service superb. With only 166 staterooms able to accommodate a maximum of 332 guests and an international crew of 127 (for a crew-to-guest ratio of 1/1.5, one of the highest of any luxury cruise ship), the level of attention is truly remarkable.

At Sea in the Tuamotus

Gauguin-Topaka lighthouse.

The old Topak lighthouse dominates Fakarava Island.

My fascination with the Tuamotus goes back decades, ever since I came across the travel diary of Norwegian scientist and explorer Thor Heyerdahl, “The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas.” Heyerdahl and a crew of six had sailed in 1947 from the western coast of South America to the Tuamotus on a primitive raft to demonstrate the possibility that ancient people from the Americas could have colonized Polynesia. His hypothesis was later scientifically disproved. But as we approach the string of sea-level reef and motus stretching for 40 kilometers (25 miles) on the eastern edge of the Fakarava lagoon, the only thing that emerges from the ruffled coconut trees tops is a steep Mayan-looking pyramid. Could Heyerdahl have been onto something after all?

Gauguin-Fakarava guest houses.

Small family-run guest houses line the lagoon.

The mystery pyramid turns out to be the 27 meter (90 foot) high Topaka lighthouse, an old stepped tower of coral stone with a flat top, where during times of emergencies a fire would be lit to alert signal neighboring atolls. The tidy little village of Rotoava, home to most of the 850 inhabitants of the island, is a good place to get a sense of atoll life. The village has all the necessities, basic public services, a couple of grocery shops, a handful of dive centers, and nestled in the palm trees along the beach, a string family-owned guest houses. In addition to the traditional activities of the island: copra production (the dried kernel of the coconut used to extract coconut oil), fishing and black pearl farming, dive tourism is now a growing industry here.

Gauguin-Fakarava school.

The lagoon is teeming with marine life.

There may not be much happening on Fakarava, but the real thrills lie on and beneath the water. This afternoon, I am headed for Garuae, the north pass into the lagoon, famous for its shallow coral garden and exceptionally rich marine life. From the Zodiac, the magic hits me full force. I have never seen anything quite so blue – startlingly, vibrantly, intoxicatingly blue – as the blue of the lagoon of Fakarava. Until I don my snorkeling gear and enter the water. I feel I am floating in molten crystal around the coral, in the company of multicolored parrotfish, groupers, snappers, stripped “convict fish” and more that I cannot identify.

I am happy that we will be at sea again tomorrow, on our way to the Marquesas Archipelago. I need that time to fully internalize the dazzling experience of my long anticipated encounter with the Tuamotus.

Gauguin-Fakarava lagoon 2.

The lagoon glistens like molten crystal in the afternoon sun.

Good to Know

  • The M/S Paul Gauguin is owned and operated by Pacific Beachcomber, S.C., based in Seattle, WA, U.S.A, and a specialist in French Polynesia tourism. The company is engaged in the ownership and management of quality hotels throughout the region and a pioneer of sustainable development and environmental protection in French Polynesia. All their properties are EarthCheck certified. They are also active participants in the international Reef Check program, a voluntary-based research and education organization monitoring coral growth, health and rehabilitation.
  • The Paul Gauguin is frequently recognized as a top awards winner by notable travel and lifestyle publications. For more information about Paul Gauguin Cruises, call 800-848-6172, or visit pgcruises.com.
  • Fakavara has been a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1977. The delicate ecosystem of this marine wonderland is uncompromisingly preserved by its government and local population (n.b. Overwater construction of any kind is banned here).

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Fakarava

Touring the Archeological Sites of Burgundy – Les Hospices de Beaune

Touring the Archeological Sites of Burgundy – Les Hospices de Beaune

To oenophiles, Beaune is the uncontested wine capital of Burgundy. Inhabited by wine growers and merchants, it stands on cellars holding millions of gallons of its famous wines, surrounded by thousand acres of vineyards. Yet a majority of the wine tourists and buyers who descend on the prosperous historic town each year may not realize that it owes its wine fame and affluence to a medieval charity hospital.

A Palatial Lifeline for the Poor

Burgundy-Beaune courtyard.

Designed in Gothic Burgundian-Flemish style, the Hospices de Beaune roofs are covered with varnished tiles.

When in 1443, Nicholas Rolin, Chancelor to Duke of Burgundy Philip the Good, founded the Hospices de Beaune, the country was emerging from the Hundred Year War, a period of conflicts that had pitted against each other the crowns of France and England and their respective allies for over a century. Unrest, plague and famine had decimated the countryside. It was to attend to the most destitute population of the area that Rolin and his wife Guignone de Salins created a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, inspired by the most outstanding hôtels-Dieu (charity hospitals) of Flanders, a province that had recently been annexed to the Duchy of Burgundy. Rolin, who had extensively observed these hospitals, charged Flemish architect Jacques Wiscrère to create a “palace for the poor” in Beaune.

Burgundy-Beaune dormitory.

The hospital ward still displays 15th century canopied beds used by the patients of five centuries ago.

An unassuming gate in the somber stone façade topped by a Gothic high-pitched slate roof leads into the vast rectangular courtyard of a stunning Burgundian-Flemish architectural complex. There, the elegant roofline of steep dormers is covered by intricate lozenge patterns of varnished tiles in shades of yellow, red, green and black. Around the courtyard, the layout of the buildings is especially designed to efficiently support the life of the charitable institution. Inside, the most striking feature is the 50-meter (160-foot) long Grand’Salle.

Burgundy-Hospice de Beaune Chapel.

The small ward reserved to isolate patients “in danger of dying” had its own chapel.

This main hospital ward still displays 15th century furnishings, including the 28 red-canopied and curtained beds used by patients five centuries ago. The beds seem quite spacious for their time, until it is pointed out that they were expected to accommodate up to three patients each. At the far-end, the chapel is an integral part of the hall, so that patients could attend mass from their bed. A magnificent 15th century polyptych of The Last Judgment by famous Flemish master Roger Van de Weyden, which then hung over the altar can now be admired in all its glory in a dedicated room of the museum.

Burgundy-Beaune apothecary.

The apothecary.

There is also a separate, smaller ward with only 12 beds and its own chapel. It was an intensive care unit before its time, designed to separate patients “in danger of dying” from the merely sick. Other parts of the Hospices include an extensive apothecary with its beakers, mortars and earthenware jars, and a vast kitchen with an imposing gothic fireplace. Additional halls once dedicated to the care of orphans and the elderly as well as the refectory, library and other common areas are now an impressive museum that showcases treasures bequeathed to the Hospices over the centuries.

A Foundation for all Eternity

Burgundy-Beaune pharmacy.

The pharmacy’s laboratory.

A savvy businessman and diplomat, Nicholas Rolin used his vast knowledge of charitable hospitals to make his Hospices an institution capable of sustaining itself through the centuries. He established an unambiguous charter for the establishment: to care for the sick, elderly, orphans, women about to give birth and the destitute. He then set up endowments to support his foundation, and promptly placed it under the spiritual authority of the Holy See, thus freeing it for all times from the oversight of the local bishop and any other clerical coercion. His business model worked. The Hospices even managed to survive the French Revolution (1789) relatively unscathed. The institution continued providing services to the local population until 1971, at which point it became a museum and its medical functions were transferred to a modern facility.

Burgundy-Hospices kitchen.

The kitchen of the Hospices de Beaune.

And this is where we get to the wine. The Hospices received their first gift of a vineyard In 1457, a tradition that continued for five centuries and grew to include farms, woodland and works of art. Today, the vineyard estate is around 60 hectares (150 acres), entrusted to 22 vintners selected by its manager. It produces some of the most prized vintages of Burgundy. Since 1859, the town of Beaune has hosted an annual wine auction held at the Hospices on the third Sunday in November. Nowadays, this most famous wine charity auction in the world is organized by the renowned Christie’s auction house. All proceeds are used to support the new hospital facilities as well as the conservation of the historic Hospices.

Burgundy-Beaune polyptyc,

Polyptych of the Last Judgment by Flemish master Roger Van de Weyden (circa 15th century).

 

Good to Know 

  • Getting there – By car. Beaune is 310 kilometers from Paris via highway (A6) and 45 kilometers from Dijon (A31). By train. It’s a 20-minute non-stop connection from Dijon to Beaune with frequent departures throughout the day. From Paris, take one of the many for the high-speed train (TGV) from Paris-Gare de Lyon to Dijon and connect to Beaune.
  • Visiting – The Museum of the Hospices de Beaune,  Rue de l’Hôtel-Dieu, 21200 Beaune, France is open every day from 9:00 am to 6:30 pm. Contact:  tel. +33 (0)3 80 24 45 00, email hospices.beaune@ch-beaune.fr.

Location, location, location!

Hospices de Beaune

Touring the Archeological Sites of Burgundy – From Vix to Fontenay

Touring the Archeological Sites of Burgundy – From Vix to Fontenay

One of the joys of exploring the rich archeological heritage of Burgundy is the abundance and variety of its significant sites, sometimes millennia apart, but always within easy reach of each other. Today, I have the rare opportunity to view the Treasure of Vix, a unique find that has brought archeologists to reconsider the Celtic history of the area.

Vix-Iron Age household goods.

2,500 years ago, ,Celtic blacksmiths were producing sophisticated household items.

Mention Celts today, and most people will correctly think of the early inhabitants of the British Isles and their descendents. True, but only partially so. Long before the Romans set out to conquer the known world of their time, the Celts had been dominating Europe throughout the first millennium B.C. They were not a people per se, but rather a coalition of tribes reaching from the highlands of Anatolia (now Asian Turkey) to the British Isles, who came together in times of danger. At a major crossroad of their trade routes, Burgundy was ideally situated to become a center of Celtic civilization.

 

From Barbarians to Sophisticated Iron Age Merchants

Burgundy-VixKrater.

The largest known metal vessel from Western classical antiquity, the Krater of Vix stands 1.63 meter (65 inches) high and has a capacity of 1,100 liters (290 US gallons).

The Celts, however, left no written records, and in any case, it is a universal truth that history is written by the winners. So that when Julius Ceasar embarked on the conquest of Gaul (the Roman name for what is now France) and decimated the confederation of Gallic tribes after a protracted siege and fierce four-day battle at their stronghold of Alesia (some 60 kilometers, or 40 miles northwest of Dijon) in 52 B.C., the Celts were fated to go down in the collective memory as hordes of ferocious barbarians. Local populations settled in the new Gallo-Roman towns in the valleys while the proud hilltop cities of their ancestors were reclaimed by nature. It was not until the second half of the 19th century ushered an era of growing interest in archeology that searches began to reveal the sophistication of the tribes that had prospered here throughout the Metal Ages. Their blacksmiths had left us advanced tools and weaponry, their artisans a variety of household goods and ornaments.

Burgundy-Vix Krater handle.

The three handles, weigh about 46 kilos (100 pounds) each and are elaborately decorated with grimacing Gorgons.

Then, on a January morning in 1953, in a field near the village of Vix (pronounced Vii), an amateur archeologist scratched the mud at the foot of a tree recently uprooted by a storm, and found a Gorgon sticking its tongue at him from the handle of an immense bronze jar. He has just discovered the Krater of Vix, the largest known vessel of the ancient world. Decorated in the Spartan style with a frieze of warriors striding to battle, the gigantic krater, identified by experts as Athenian work made around 530 B.C. testifies to the trade links between the Celtic world and the Mediterranean.

Burgundy-Vix Lady torque.

The 24 carat gold Celtic torque is adorned with winged horses inspired by Middle Eastern bestiary.

Further excavations revealed it to be part of a treasure accumulated in the funeral chamber of a clearly high-ranking woman in Celtic society. Seated on a ceremonial chariot, the Lady of Vix was bedecked with jewelry from the farthest reaches of the known world. In addition to necklaces of amber from the Baltic shores and Etruscan rings, she was wearing a magnificent torque (diadem) of pure gold. Probably of Syrian origin, the thick curved headband ended in two globes that rested in front of her ears, each supported by a lion paw and decorated with tiny winged horse.

Burgundy-Vix Lady headband.

Close up of the delicate ornamentation of the Lady of Vix’s pure gold headband.

In the past decade, a fortress village has been discovered on the site. It shows all of the features of a high-status settlement: large fortifications, the presence of a citadel, dwellings for hundreds of people, grain warehouses and water cylinders, as well as five more burial mounds. Excavations are ongoing, but already there are strong indications that this settlement dating back 2,500 years could present the first signs of urbanization in Western Europe, and be the first town in France. The enormous variety of Mediterranean imports indicates wide-ranging connections, suggesting that the town was a thriving center for the exchange of raw materials from Northern Europe and Mediterranean goods. The exploration is not open to the public but all the original finds, along with a reconstruction of the Lady’s burial chamber, are on display in beautifully curated exhibits just a few miles away in the recently opened Musée du Pays Châtillonais (museum of local histor

The Abbey of Fontenay

It’s only a thirty-minute drive southwest on charming country roads from the Iron Age treasures of Vix to one of the most spectacular example of Romanesque monastic architecture remaining in Europe. Founded by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in 1118, the Abbey of Fontenay is a prime architectural example of the Cistercian order.

Burgundy-Fontenay Romanesque church.

Dedicated in 1147, is one of the oldest Cistercian churches in France.

Who were the Cistercians? They were a monastic order that felt the Benedictine monks were no longer true to the Rules of their 6th century founder, Saint Benedict of Nursia. The Rules specified that a monk should divide his day equally between prayer, study and manual labor, while living a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. Cistercian abbeys usually selected an inhospitable place such as the remote marshy site of Fontenay, and made it livable. One of the four founding houses of the order, its austere architecture is a remarkable illustration of the ideal of self-sufficiency practiced by the early Cistercian communities.

Burgundy-Fontenay iron works

Iron works were a major source of activity for the monks.

Within its enclosing wall, the abbey has retained all its original buildings: the church and cloister, the monks’ day room and dormitory, warming room, refectory, guest house, bakery and iron works. The later, with its staggering hydraulic hammer, recalls the part the Cistercians played in the technological progress of the Middle Ages, and is one of the oldest industrial buildings in France. At the height of its activity, the Abbey of Fontenay accommodated about 300 monks.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – The Treasure of Vix is located in Châtillion-sur-Seine, 90 kilometers (55 miles) northwest of Dijon via pleasant country roads, and 250 kilometers (155 miles) from Paris via highway (A5). The Abbey of Fontenay is located 80 kilometers from Dijon and 250 kilometers from Paris via highway (A6). Or is is an easy 66 minute train ride via TGV (express train), from Paris-Gare de Lyon to Montbard, 5 kilometers away from the Abbey
  • Visiting –The Treasure of Vix can be seen at The Musée du Pays Châtillonais, 14 Rue de la Libération, 21400 Châtillion-sur-Seine, France, is open from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm., Wednesday through Monday from September 1 to June 30, and every day in July and August. Closed on national holidays. Contact : tel. +33 (0)3 80 91 24 67, email. accueil@musee-chatillonnais.fr. The Abbey of Fontenay, 21599 Montbard, France, is open daily year round. Hours vary with the seasons and are posted on the website. Contact: tel. +33 (0)3 80 92 16 88.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Musée du Pays Châtillonais

Abbey of Fontenay, France

Touring the Archeological Sites of Burgundy – Dijon, France

Touring the Archeological Sites of Burgundy – Dijon, France

Many a road trip starts in Dijon. Located at the northern tip of the legendary stretch of rolling hills dotted with small towns with names like Chablis, Beaune, Meursault, Nuit-Saint-George and Puligny-Montrachet, it is the ideal departure point for “La Route des Grand Crus” (The Great Burgundy Vintages Road). But with its rich history reaching back to pre-Roman times, Dijon is also the logical place to begin an exploration of the many archeological sites of the region.

Back in Time

Dijon-Darcy Fountain.

The fountain at the Garden Darcy.

My journey back in time begins in the Jardin Darcy, the lush 19th century one-hectare (2.5 acre) neo-Renaissance public garden in heart of town. After a quick pause to admire its fountain cascading into a vast oval basin at the entrance of the park, and the famous “Polar Bear in its Stride” sculpture by local artist Francois Pompon (circa 1922), I head down the a few steps to the Rue de la Liberté (Freedom Street).

 

Dijon-rue Liberté

Medieval houses on the Rue de la Liberté.

Known as the Rue de Condé until the Revolution (1789), and the town’s main artery since medieval times, it is lined with buildings dating mostly from the 15th century to the 18th century, many of them classified as historic monuments. A busy shopping street from the start, it features storefronts at street level, topped by residential floors. A leisurely walk down this historic pedestrian mall leads to the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy.

 

The Capital of Burgundy

Dijon-ducal place detail.

Facade detail of the Ducal Palace.

Already a crossroad of several Celtic trade routes long before Roman times, Dijon became the capital of the Kingdom of Burgundy in the 5th century. Annexed in 1004 to the crown of France as the Duchy of Burgundy, it grew in power and wealth through the ages. By the 14th century the Dukes of Burgundy were Peers of the Realm and a force to be reckoned with. They held their court in Dijon, making it one of the great provincial cities of country.

Dijon-John the Fearless monument.

The funerary monument of John the Fearless.

The Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy (or Ducal Palace) is the most important monument in Dijon. What had begun as a simple fortress in the 9th century was entirely rebuilt by Duke Philip the Bold (1342-1404), with his successors adding on to the palace for the next three centuries to create a sumptuous architectural ensemble going from the Gothic to Renaissance to Classic style. Today the left wing houses a number of city services including city hall, the city archives and the tourism office, while the vast right wing is holds the magnificent Musée des Beaux Arts  (Museum of Fine Arts). A major section is dedicated to the history of Burgundy and the Dukes, including the superb tombs of John the Fearless, his wife Margaret of Bavaria and Philip the Bold, and three remarkable altarpieces.

The Churches of Dijon

Dijon-Saint Michel portal.

The Gothic portal of the Saint Michel Church is heavily decorated  with a mix of religious and secular subjects.

Saint Michel, an imposing parish church located just a stone throw away from the Ducal Palace, is unique for its architectural split-personality. By the end of the 15th century its congregation, having outgrown its ancient Romanesque church, commissions a new  one in the flamboyant Gothic style of the time. It includes a deep, cathedral-worthy triple portal heavily carved with a startling mix of religious and secular subjects. David slaying Goliath, John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness and Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene co-exist with Leda and her swan, Cupid at the toilette of Venus and the labors of Hercules. Apparently fund-raising doesn’t keep up, construction is slow and the Renaissance takes over. The façade especially, with its towers of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns, is a perfect representation of the style, making Saint Michel a superb illustration of this major transition in European art.

Dijon-Notre Dame,

The roofline of Notre Dame of Dijon is a masterpiece of early Gothic architecture.

Dijon-Saint Benigne crypt.

Columns of the crypt of Saint Benigne are topped by pre-Roman capitals.

Within a five-minute walk of the Saint Michel and the Ducal Palace, the church of Notre Dame of Dijon is widely recognized as a masterpiece of early Gothic architecture, and well worth a visit. If you do go, take a walk along the north side of the church on the Rue de la Chouette (Owl Street). In one of the corner buttresses, a tiny niche holds a carving of an owl, worn smooth over the centuries because of the superstition that it brings luck to those who strokes the bird with their left hand while making a wish. Worth a try.

The Saint Benigne Cathedral is a former abbey church in the Burgundian Gothic style (circa 13th century). Its most impressive feature is its early Romanesque crypt, originally created in 511 to hold the sarcophagus of an early Christian martyr (Saint Benigne). Restored in the 11th century the large circular crypt consists of in inner ring of six columns surrounded by an outer ring of sixteen columns, some of them still topped by their pre-Roman capitals. This crypt is one of the oldest Christian sanctuaries still active in France.

Archeological Treasures

Dijon-Blanot treasure.

The Bronze Age Treasure of Blanot (10tth century B.C.) includes remarkable gold jewelry.

Dijon-Gallic offerings.

Votive offerings to the Gallic goddess of the Seine River.

Around the corner from Saint Benigne, what was once the cloister of the abbey is now home to the Dijon Archeological Museum with its exceptional collection of relics discovered within the region. Highlights include the Treasure of Blanot (a small village some 100 kilometer (65 miles) south of Dijon, a Bronze Age treasure of amazingly sophisticated gold necklaces, belts and leg ornaments, as well as bronze and pottery household items.

Another gallery is dedicated to votive offerings to Sequana, the Gallic goddess of the Seine River, worshiped for her healing powers. These artefacts were found in a 2nd century BC shrine by the spring that is the source of the river, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of Dijon. The museum also displays Gallo-Roman stone carvings and objects of every life, and early medieval weapons and jewels, all an irrefutable testimony of the presence of man in Burgundy from prehistoric times through the middle ages.

Dijon-Ducal Palace

The Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – By Train. Dijon is less than two hours from Paris-Gare de Lyon by high-speed train (TGV), with multiple departures throughout the day. There are also regular train services from a variety of destinations, including major cities in France as well as Italy, Switzerland, Luxemburg, Belgium and beyond. By car. The city is well connected to freeway and highway networks. However, traffic is limited within the centre of the city, and visitors are urged to park their vehicle for the duration of their visit.
  • Getting around – Most of the center of the city is closed to car traffic, well paved and a joy to wander around on foot. Complimentary maps and pamphlets for self-guided tours are available at the Dijon Tourist Office, 11 Rue des Forges, open daily from 9:30 am to 6:30 pm from April to September and 9:30 am to 1:00 pm – 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm from October to March. Sunday and national holidays: 10:00 am to 4:00.  Complimentary smart phone apps of guided tours around the city may also be downloaded – links are on the Tourist office website.
  • Staying – There is a wealth of short-term lodging options to suit all preferences and budgets in and around Dijon. On this recent two-night stay, I chose the historic four-star Grand Hôtel la Cloche, 14 Place Darcy, 21000, Dijon. Contact: Tel. +33 3 80 30 12 32, mail H1202@accor.com.
  • Visiting – The Musée des Beaux Arts, Palais des Ducs et des Etats de Bourgogne, Dijon, is open daily Wednesday to Monday, from 10:00 am to 6:30 pm. Closed on Tuesday and national holidays. The Musée Archéologique, 5 Rue Docteur Maret, is open daily Wednesday through Monday. Closed on Tuesday and national holidays. Opening hours vary with the season and are available on the website of the museum.

Location, location, location!

Dijon

From National Disgrace to International Hidden Treasure – Matera

From National Disgrace to International Hidden Treasure – Matera

Tucked into a deep ravine of the forgotten province of Basilicata, way down in the instep of Italy’s boot, the ancient city of Matera in not an easy place to get to.

Matera-Barisano night.

Sasso Barisano at night.

I leave the northern metropolis of Milan on an early morning high-speed train that propels me southward through Bologna, Florence, Rome and Naples before ending six hours and 800 kilometers (500 miles) later in Salerno, on shore of the Tyrrhenian Sea. From here, it’s a 200-kilometer (125-mile), three-hour bus ride back in time through the rugged rural landscape of the Basilicata province to one of the oldest living cities in the world, the Sassi (or stones) of Matera.

 

A Living Troglodyte City

Matera-Barisano Vertical City

By the Renaissance facades are added to the caves turning Sasso Barisano into a vertical city.

The bisque-colored honeycomb city is anchored to the face of two natural amphitheaters, Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso, within a towering ravine carved from the limestone plateau by the once powerful Gravina River. These Sassi have been inhabited since Palaeolitic times, but what makes Matera’s Città Sotterranea (Underground City) different from other cave settlements around the Mediterranean Basin is that the descendants of these early settlers never left. Rather, they dug in. By the Bronze Age (second millennium BCE), newly equipped with rudimentary metal tools, they began digging the myriad natural caves. And here they remained, a rural community gradually burrowing deeper. The Sassi developed in layers, through waves from Greek, Roman and Byzantine to Medieval and Renaissance invaders.

Roman High Grounds

Matera-Cathedral.

Buit in Apulian Romanesque style in the 13th century, the cathedral dominates the Matera skyline.

The Romans, as was their wont, constructed defensive walls around the original nucleus of la Civita (city) on the highest ground between the two Sassi. Theirs became the core of the institutional, religious and commercial district that expanded along the Piano (plateau) that had until then been used for agriculture and water collection. This modern city would be barely noticeable today, if not for its 13th century Romanesque cathedral towering over the skyline.

Matera-Sassi vista.

The Sassi and the Murgia plateau seen from the Piano.

By the 8th century, Matera began to overshoot its fortified boundaries and the occupation of the caverns intensified. Digging began in earnest. Over time the inhabitants began using the excavated material to build structures that jutted outward from the subterranean rooms with facades that looked much like that of traditional houses. Thus began the stacked cityscape we know today. Winding narrow lanes, alleys and stairways can be the roof of the houses below as well as the entryway of the one above. Seen from the outside, the homes seem small, until you step in. Then the space can vary from a simple room to a warren of vast spaces on multiple levels linked together by passageways.

Rupestrian Churches

Matera-Santa Maria de Idris.

Carved into a pinnacle overhanging the ravine, Santa Maria de Idris dominates Sasso Caveoso.

Since the entire face of the ravine is pitted with caves, neighborhoods  clustered around their own rock-hewn church. Some of these still dominate the Sassi. In Sasso Barisano, the bi-level complex of the Chiesa di Madonna Delle Virtù and San Nicola dei Greci is noted for its lovely 11th and 12th century frescoes. And Santa Maria de Idris, carved into a rock pinnacle overhanging the ravine, dominates Sasso Caveoso. Its few remaining frescoes are quite damaged, but a narrow passage to the left of the altar leads down to the crypt of San Giovanni in Monterone and its better-preserved artwork.

Matera-Murga plateau.

The ravine beneath the Murga plateau is pitted with caves.

By the 8th century, the barren western wall of the Murgia Plateau across the ravine, became a refuge for Basilian (Orthodox Christian) monks fleeing persecutions in Asia Minor. They excavated a number of rupestrian churches, and decorated them with frescoes. The most famous is the majestic cavern known as the Crypt of Original Sin, considered one of the finest examples of ruspestrian art in Italy for its 9th century cycle of Byzantine frescoes depicting the story of Creation and the veneration of the Virgin.

Into the Abyss

Matera-City on the Piano.

The city of Matera sits above the Sassi.

Little changes for centuries in the Sassi where people live in primordial simplicity, working the fields, raising livestock and seeing to domestic chores. Until one of the many reshufflings of history makes Matera a provincial capital (1663-1806). Increased prestige and activity cause a rise in population. The wealthier Materani move up, literally, to the newer town on the Piano, leaving subsistence farmers and artisans behind. By the early 20th century, the population of the caves is estimated at well over 15,000.

Matera-Ancient Sasso Ceveoso.

Large swaths of Sasso Ceveoso have yet to be rehabilitated.

Overcrowding in the Sassi and the ongoing development of the Piano cause the collapse of the ancient rain and spring water collection system that until now has brought water to the homes and small hanging gardens. With less farmland available, the lifestyle of the Sassi increasingly lags behind that of the rest of the world. Large families are living in squalid conditions alongside their livestock in crowded caves with no running water, sewage or electricity. Dysentery and malaria are rife. Infant mortality tops 50 percent.

Matera-Sasso Ceveoso cave.

Orignal cave dwelling in Sasso Ceveoso.

Yet the situation continues unheeded, until the 1945 release of Carlo Levi’s memoir “Christ stopped at Eboli” brings it to international attention. Levi is a physician, artist and writer from a wealthy northern family, exiled in Basilicata in 1935-1936 for his anti-fascist views. Eboli is a small town of Campania, near the Tyrrhenian coast. The title of the book comes from a local expression implying that the people of this remote corner of Basilica were bypassed by Christianity and by history itself. In the face of public outrage, the government begins to take notice. By 1950 the Sassi are pronounced a “national disgrace “ and a chain of drastic actions are set in motion that will have a swift and dramatic impact on the city and the peoples’ lives. From 1953 to 1968, all the residents of the Sassi are forcibly relocated into modern housing in new suburbs on top of the cliff.

From National Shame to International Fame

Matera-Sasso Barisano3.

The recently restored Sasso Barisano is now a prized residential neighborhood.

Barisano-Arches.

There are signs of intense rehabilitation activites throughout the Sassi.

The Sassi become state property, and within a couple of decades an archeological no-man’s-land. Some politicians view them as evidence of a shameful past to be erased, going as far as proposing their destruction to prevent them from being reoccupied. Meanwhile, the deteriorating landscape resulting from the collapse of abandoned homes and churches sparks a local grassroots movement to pressure the government to allow the rehabilitation of the caves, focusing on sanitation, urbanization and incentives to repopulate the site. Thanks to this decisive public action, and the recognition in 1993 of the Sassi as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, over 50 percent are now inhabited by over 3,000 residents. Matera is subsequently selected as European Capital of Culture for 2019, making it the host city for a number of cultural events that will raise its profile internationally, and kick further restoration into high gear.

Throughout the City of Stones, and especially in Sasso Barisano, Sassi boutique hotels, bed and breakfasts, restaurants, artisan shops and galleries now welcome visitors. Big swaths of Sasso Ceveoso, the oldest part of the city, are still untouched, but they afford a compelling insight into the past.

Matera-Sasso Barisano cart.

The Sassi are often used as a location for biblical-time movies.

It’s not only UNESCO that considers Matera “the most outstanding intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region.” The international movie industry has long found the Sassi an ideal stand-in for ancient Jerusalem in its biblical-time films. Christ has finally come to Matera, at least a half-dozen times by now, most famously in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” (1964), Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004), and the recently released Garth Davis’ “Mary Magdalene” (2018).

Matera-Panorama

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Matera is not the easiest place to reach (but well worth a bit of extra effort). By Plane – the nearest major airport is Naples, 300 kilometers (185 miles) to the northeast. Bari, with its small regional airport is 60 kilometers (25 miles) to the west. From there, bus is the best option. By train – Bari and Salerno are the two stations closest to Matera. There are two major rail service companies operating within Italy. Bari is served by Trenitalia, and Salerno by Italo. Note – from Salerno, Italo provides its dedicated Italobus service to connect the Salerno train station to Matera’s main bus station, on a schedule synchronized with train arrivals. By Bus – Several major bus lines link Matera to most major cities in Italy (and smaller ones in-between), with departures throughout the day. Check with the Matera Tourism office or your hotel reception for the one that best fits your schedule and destination.
  • Getting around – The only way to get around Matera is on foot. Non-resident cars are prohibited from the historic center, and aside from a couple of narrow roads at the periphery of the Sassi where cab can pick up or drop off, come prepared to walk up and down, wherever you are going.
  • Staying – Since most of the places of interest in Matera are within the relatively compact historic center, the best way to experience the city is to stay in a cave. Over the past decade, with Matera now an established tourist destination, a number of boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts at all price-points have opened throughout the Sassi. I stayed at the Hotel Residence San Giorgio Via Fiorentini 259, 75100 Matera, in the easily accessible lower part of Sasso Barisano. My spacious vaulted “cave” with its private entrance and small terrace, consisted of a living and dining area with a well-appointed kitchenette and a modern bedroom loft over the bathroom. The suite was serviced daily and all the complimentary breakfast staples, including a fresh fruit basket, replenished. There was reliable WiFi service throughout the cave. The reception office was located two minutes away, opened from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. The staff could not have been more helpful and gracious. Definitely a keeper! Contact: tel. +39 0835 33 45 83, email staff@sangiorgio.matera.it
  • Visiting – Wear comfortable shoes, open your eyes and keep walking. A tourist guidebook should be sufficient to help you get your bearings and point you in the general direction of the main attractions. Then it’s perfectly safe and easy to explore the city independently. Should you prefer a guided tour, there are various organizations and individuals on the Piano offering tours in English. On the western side of the ravine, the Crypt of the Original Sin is located in Contrada Perrapenta, 14 kilometers (8.5 miles) south of Matera. Visit is by advanced reservation only; guides and shuttle services are available from agencies on the Piano.

Location, location, location!

Matera

Giotto’s Padua Masterpiece – The Scrovegni Chapel

Giotto’s Padua Masterpiece – The Scrovegni Chapel

Venice offers such an embarrassment of riches that the thought of taking a daytrip away from the Serenissima had always struck me as absurd. And so, a mere 30-minute train ride westward in Padua (Padova in Italian), the Scrovegni Chapel remained high on my “someday” list. Until now.

The Chapel of Atonement

Padua-Scrovegni chapel.

The chapel was originally attached to the Scrovegni Palace.

The chapel, originally adjacent to a luxurious palace built by affluent Paduan banker Enrico Scrovegni, was to serve as the family’s private oratory and funeral monument. And, so historians assure us, it was intended to atone for the sins of his father (Reginaldo Scrovegni), a moneylender with practices so vile they had landed him a part in Dante’s Divine Comedy, as one of the souls consigned to the Seventh Circle of Hell.

While the building itself, all that remains of the original estate, is an unremarkable rectangular gothic structure, the younger Scrovegni commissioned the great Tuscan master Giotto di Bondone to decorate the interior. It is there that Giotto at the height of his career, from 1303 to 1305, created a cycle of frescoes that became widely recognized as one of the most important milestones in the evolution of Western art.

The Birth of Western Art

Padua-Giotto cycle.

Giotto’s cycle is divided into three tiers of frescoes.

Under the vault of an intense blue sky sprinkled with golden stars and medallion portraits of the Evangelists, the story of the redemption of man unfolds through the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ. The cycle is divided into 37 scenes, arranged in three tiers along the lateral walls.  The story of St. Joachim and St. Anne, the parents of the Virgin, is told on the upper right tier, Mary’s own early life is recorded on the upper left tier. The early life of Jesus and his miracles are depicted throughout the center tier, while the bottom one is dedicated to the Passions of Christ.

Padua-Giotto kiss

The kiss between St. Joachim and St. Anne is one the earliest represented in Western art

On the wall opposite the altar, the entire pictorial space is covered by the grandiose Universal Judgement. While these themes were pervasive in sacred art at the time, Giotto’s interpretation marks a radical departure from the stylized, elongated figures of the Byzantine tradition. Now the scene becomes three-dimensional, alive with the faces and gestures of living subjects. Gone are the formalized draperies; here the characters are clothed in garments that hang naturally and follow their movements. Some face inward, back turned to the viewer, creating a spatial illusion. For the first time, human emotions are shown in a realistic way, including one of the earliest representations of a kiss in Western art (The meeting of St Joachim and St. Anne at the Golden Gate).

Padua-Wedding Cana.

The Wedding at Cana is the first miracle attributed to Jesus.

This new style is so revolutionary that it is not fully understood until Masaccio’s paints the Brancacci Chapel in Florence a century later. And it is the Scrovegni Chapel that influences Michelangelo’s own Last Judgment at the Sistine Chapel (circa 1536). It is not known whether the chapel was able to make up for the sins of the father, but there can be no doubt that these dazzling frescoes paved the way for the great masters of the Renaissance.

 

 

The Monastery Next Door

Padua-Apulian Crater.

This spectacular Apulian crater is attributed the the great 4th century BCE “Truro Painter”.

The Scrovegni Chapel is now enclosed within the City Museums (Musei Civici) complex housed on the grounds of what was once a monastery for Ereminati (hermit) monks located nearby. Both are accessed through the serene gardens of the cloister, and admission to the museum is included with the chapel entrance fee.

 

Bellini’s portrait of a young senator.

Since I hadn’t given any thought to this side visit prior to the trip, the ground floor Archeological Museum is an unexpected treat. Its wealth of artifacts from local excavations and private collections provide an interesting illustration of the archeological and historical development the area, from the Paeloveneti who inhabited the area between the 10th to 4th century BCE to Roman times. There are also a number of bronze and ceramic funerary items from the Etruscan necropolis of Cerveteri, near Rome. But it is the collection donated to the museum in 1994 by Professor Calogero Casuccio that takes my breath away. Of the 170 items of Greek and Italot (Greek colony in ancient Italy, i.e. Apulia) in the Casuccio Collection, many are remarkable pieces both in terracotta and painted pottery. The most important are a group of Apulian “figured” vases, including a stunning phiale (drinking vessel) and a spectacular crater (wine urn), both attributed to eminent 4th century BCE painters.

Upstairs, the rambling Museum of Medieval and Modern Arts collection does include a few interesting works by the greats of Italian painters from the 1300s to 1800s, Bellini, Gorgione, Tiepolo, Tintoretto and Veronese among them. The highlight of the collection is the Crucifix by Giotto that was originally located on the altar of the Scrovegni Chapel.

Padua- Tanagra figurines.

Terracotta figurines from the Greek city of Tanagra (4th century BCE).

Good to Know

  • Getting There – The train ride from Venice Santa Lucia to Padua takes 30 to 45 minutes via regional train or 25 minutes with FrecciaRossa (High Speed Train). The difference between the two on the 40 kilometer (25 mile) route is not so much one of time than cost. One-way fare on the regional train is approximately €6 versus €16 with FrecciaRossa. Once in Padua, it’s a 10-minute walk straight down the Corso del Popolo, which about half-way becomes the Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi, to the Piazza Eremitani and the Scrovegni Chapel.
  • Visiting – The Scrovegni Chapel, Piazza Eremitani 6, Padua, is open all year from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm, except January 1, May 1 and December 25-26. The Musems of Archology and Medieval and Modern Art are also closed on Monday. Note – For reasons of preservation of the artwork, visit of the Scrovegni Chapel is strictly regulated and advanced booking is imperative. Booking is through the website. Visitors must collect their pre-booked tickets at the box office at least one hour before the visit. After checking their bags at the free cloakroom of the main museum building, they are expected to arrive for admission a few minutes before their allotted time. They then sit through a 15-minute audiovisual presentation in a climate-controlled air-locked chamber to allow their body humidity to be lowered and dust pollution filtered. This is to protect the frescoes from moisture and mold. Finally, the group (25 people maximum) is ushered into the chapel for 15 minutes to view the artwork.

Location, location, location!

Scrovegni Chapel