Andalusia Road Trip – White Villages and Vineyards

Andalusia Road Trip – White Villages and Vineyards

Stretched across the tip of the Iberian Peninsula, Andalusia, the southern-most region of continental Spain, is a land of fascinating contrasts. Here, ancient cities dominated by grand palaces still bear the memory of their glorious Moorish past. Dazzling whitewashed Pueblos Blancos (White Villages) cling to the rugged slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. From flamenco to bullfighting to gazpacho, many of the cultural references that permeate visitors’ image of Spain originated here and remain woven into the fabric of everyday life.

Moorish fortresses and While Villages are sprinkled troughout the Andalusia landscape.

I never pass an opportunity to revisit this compeling region. Therefore, I was thrilled recently when my son, Lee Fuller, who had yet to discover the area, suggested that we meet there. We live on different continents these days, but once a year we make it a point to visit – each other and a different destination. With only ten days to introduce the many faces of Andalusia to him, a road trip was the best option, and destinations had to be ruthlessly curated, lest our holiday turned into a marathon.

 

Let the Adventure Begin!

The village of Mijas clings to its mountainside.

We coordinate our flights to meet at the busy Malaga airport, where we pick up our car and immediately head for the hills. Although the city has retained several Roman and Moorish landmarks, it has grown exponentially since the 1970’s into the pulsating gateway to the Costa del Sol. Here, drawn by the sundrenched beaches of the Mediterranean coast, throngs of vacationers from Northern Europe have spurred the development of sprawling concrete seaside resorts. Once picturesque fishing villages are now considered historic centers, brimming with storefront eateries, souvenir shops and guest houses. Therefore, we opt to give the shoreline a miss.

Mijas dawn

We stay in Mijas Pueblo this first night, a short 30 minute-drive west from the airport. Once a typical whitewashed village tucked in the hills some 450 meters (1,500 feet) above sea level, it too is now a tourist haven, surrounded by gleaming white, gated resorts. But mindful of our jetlag and our newly rented vehicle, we stay in one of them, chosen mainly for the convenience of its underground garage. The next morning, however, we are rewarded with a lovely sunrise over the Mediterranean.

Dizzying Ronda

The Puente Nuevo soars high above the El Tajo Canyon.

It’s only 95 kilometers (60 miles) on a road that winds through spectacular mountain vistas between Mijas and Ronda, the largest– and most visited – of the famed White Villages of Andalusia. Dramatically perched at the edge of a sheer cliff, the town is split in half by the 150-meter (500-foot) deep El Tajo Canyon. The two sides were connected in 1793 by the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge), an engineering wonder soaring nearly 120 meters (400 feet) above the Guadalevin River.

Ronda titters on the edge of a deep chasm.

On one side, the old town (La Cuidad) is a maze of narrow lanes twisting between whitewashed buildings and palaces that reveal a rich Moorish history. The 14th century Casa del Rey Moro (House of the Moorish King) clings to the edge of the chasm. In addition to its lush gardens and spectacular views, it features a 236-step staircase cut into the rock, which goes down 60 meters (197 feet) to a platform that once held an ingenious pumping system. Today, its main attraction is its forbidding perspective of the ravine. As I start my way back up, I have a sympathetic thought for the Christian slaves who made the journey daily to fetch water.

The Birthplace of Bullfighting

The bullfighting arena features two levels of covered seating.

On the other side of the bridge, the new town (El Mercadillo) is home to the Plaza de Toro de Ronda, one of the oldest and most illustrious bullfighting arenas in Spain. Built in 1785 by the same architect who created the Puente Nuevo, it can host 5,000 spectators in its two layers of raised seating covered by a roof supported by 136 pillars. Ronda is known to be the birthplace of modern bullfighting. While historians speculate that the practice actually began in pre-Roman societies around the Mediterranean, it is Ronda native Pedro Romero (1754-1839) who perfected the craft and laid down the first rules of engagement, thus going down in history as the father of the Ronda style.

The arena includes a bullflighting museum.

Although we definitely are no supporters of bullfighting, we nonetheless appreciate our visit of the vast arena with its elaborate “backstage” passages leading to pens where bulls are housed on fight days, and tthe adjoining equestrian facility where the proud Andalusian horses are still stabled and trained. The complex also includes a small museum dedicated to the tradition.

 

 

The Plaza de Toro de Ronda can seat 5000 spectators.

Bodegas Garcia Hidalgo

Bodegas Garcia Hidalgo.

Wine has been made around Ronda since Roman times. This wine-making tradition endured through the end of the 19th century when the vineyard was devastated by the Phylloxera pest and never recovered. Until recently. The past couple of decades have seen a renewed interest in the powerful red wines of the Sierrania de Ronda, which now boasts over 20 boutique wineries. A number of them welcome visitors for tours and tastings, and traveling with the family oenophile means we must check things out.

The Bodegas Garcia Hidalgo vineyards.

A bit of research points us to Bodegas Garcia Hidalgo. Established in 2006 on a two-hectare (five-acre) plot of land of the picturesque Guadalcobacin River valley, a mere 20-minute drive north from the center of Ronda, it is a family owned and operated artisan winery. It was created and continues to be managed as a rigorously organic operation – an important point for us – by its founder Miguel Garcia Pereila, who also conducts pre-arranged personalized tours and tastings.

Miguel (right) and Lee (left) discuss wine aging in the cellar.

Since the property also features a couple of accommodation options, we have decided to stay the night. We arrive in the late afternoon to a warm welcome by Miguel and his wife Izabel and settle into our rooms before our tour of the vineyards and the wine-making operation – a visit said on the winery’s website to take approximately 45 minutes. Ours takes twice that long as we pepper Miguel with questions while he introduces us down to the smallest detail to the cultivation and care of his vines following timeless natural methods..

A Memorable Wine-tasting Experience

The patio is the heart of the Bodegas.

When we finally emerge from the aging cellar back onto the cloistered patio which is the heart of the property, the table is set for our three-course, four-wine tasting dinner. We sip on a glass of pale golden Moscatel with its citrus fruit scent and crisp, refreshing taste while Izabel brings forth the tapas. The white table cloth is soon covered with a generous spread of local Iberico ham, chorizo, coarse country paté, Manchego cheese, slices of succulent tomatoes just picked from her garden and a golden potatoe tortilla. With its basket of freshly baked earthy country bread, it looks like a meal onto itself. Miguel reappears to introduce hisf raspberry-colored Rosado. An equal blend of Syrah and Merlot, it has a lovely aroma of fresh flowers and cherries, and a definite fruity taste. Since I favor crisp, lighter wines, the Rosado turns out to be my favorite of this tasting.

The table is set for our wine-tasting.

Izabel’s paella is the best we’ve ever tasted.

As we finish polishing off the tapas, Izabel returns with her very own family-recipe paella, followed by Miguel with his Roble de Alcobazin, an intense red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot with a complex aroma of mature fruit, black currents and a hint of vanilla. We linger over our paella, sipping the rich, well rounded wine in the warm Spanish night, feeling the moment couldn’t get any better. Yet it does when Miguel returns one last time, bearing his prize-winning Zabel de Alcobazin vintage red. Yes, it is named in honor of his wife.

This blend in equal parts of select Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot grapes is a deep cherry red. Aged 12 months in French and American oak barrels, then a minimum of two years in the bottle, it is clearly too complex for me. I defer to Lee, the connoisseur of full-bodied reds, to parse the “nose” of mature fruits and dark berries with a hint of butterscotch. As for the “palate”? Rich, oaky and well structured, with a big volume in the mouth – a worthy grand finale to a memorable evening.

We take our leave of our gracious hosts the next morning and head for Seville, well aware that our time at Bodegas Garcia Hidalgo will remain one of our fondest memories of this trip.

 

The Puente Nuevo affords a dizzying panoramic view of the area.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Malaga-Costa Del Sol airport is the main international airport serving Andalusia. It accounts for 85 percent of the international traffic of the region. It is located eight kilometers (five miles) southwest of of the city.
  • Visiting Bodegas Garcia Hidalgo welcomes visitors year-round by appointment only. Consult their website for visiting, tasting, and hospitality options and reservations. Contact:  tel. (+34) 622 87 90 05. e-mail: info@bodegasgarciahidalgo.es.

Location, location, location!

Ronda

Bodegas Garcia Hidalgo

Museums in the 21st Century – Eight Must-Visits in France

Museums in the 21st Century – Eight Must-Visits in France

Throughout its history, France has been fertile ground for architectural innovation. Gothic, renaissance, baroque, neoclassical, art nouveau and art deco designers have enthusiastically put their ideas into practice – and made a lasting impression on the landscape and skyline of the country. The 21st century is no exception.

Detail of the roofline of the Pompidou Center.

Now France is seeing an explosion of dazzling contemporary architecture from some of the world’s greatest structural and landscape artists, both French and international, including Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Shigeru Ban, Elizabeth de Portzamparc and more. Among their creations of public buildings, they have conceived a new crop of outstanding museums that go beyond their historic role as custodian of the cultural and artistic heritage of the country to become works of arts onto themselves.

Quai Branly Museum – Paris

The exhibit galleries emerge from the treetops.

The façade of the administrative building is vertical garden.

Inaugurated in 2006 on the left bank of the Seine, just a five-minute walk from the Eiffel Tower, the Quai Branly Museum is dedicated to indigenous arts and cultures from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. Its collections include almost 370,000 works ranging from the Neolithic period to the 20th century, only a small percentage of which are on display at any given time.

Equally remarkable for its architecture and surroundings as for its collections, the museum sits behind a translucent glass enclosure that isolates its exuberant 18,000-square meter (4.5-acre) garden from the busy riverside drive. For the main building, which houses the exhibition galleries, world-renowned French architect Jean Nouvel created a 210-meter (690-foot) long bridge, anchored at both ends with concrete silos. Its center soars 10 meters (33 feet) above the garden, held by 26 columns concealed within the garden’s mature trees, giving the impression that the building is resting on the treetops. The entire 800-square meter (8,600-square foot) façade of the adjoining administrative building is entirely concealed by a lush vegetal wall of over 150 species of plants from all over the world.

Pompidou Center – Metz

A traditional Chinese hat inspired the roofline design.

This offshoot of the Pompidou Art Center in Paris, inaugurated in 2010, was especially designed to house semi-permanent and temporary exhibits of rarely seen large-scale modern works from its parent’s large collection – the largest in Europe – of 20th and 21st century arts.

In Metz, Japanese architect Shigeru Ban created a large hexagonal structure centered around a 77-meter (253-foot) central spire, with three rectangular galleries weaving through the building at different levels. Huge picture windows angled toward various historic landmarks around the city jut through the astonishing roof styled like a Chinese hat.

Louvre – Lens

The ethereal structure blends into the pale northern sky.

The choice of placing the Louvre-Lens on a 20-hectare (50-acre) wasteland that was once a major coal-mining site in northern France is a successful example of using the decentralization of major cultural institutions to breathe new life into areas decimated the industrial shifts of the 20th century.

 

 

The reception area exudes a welcoming serenity.

Inaugurated in 2012, this satellite of Paris’ Louvre Museum is as a low, ethereal creation of glass and brushed aluminum designed by Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa to blend seamlessly into the flat landscape and pale skies of northern France. At its core, the 120-meter (400-foot) long Galerie du Temps (Gallery of Time) showcases 250 pieces representing five millennia of ancient and European art history. The displays are free-standing to allow viewing from all angles. The artifacts are arranged chronologically by themes to better illustrate the influence of earlier civilizations upon succeeding ones. In addition to two temporary themed exhibits per year, one-third of the semi-permanent collection is rotated back to Paris each year and replaced by different pieces.

MuCEM – Marseille

The MuCEM is wrapped in a latticed veil of concrete.

The 17th century Saint Jean Fortress has been integrated to the complex.

Inaugurated in the 2014, the Musée des Civilizations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (or MuCEM for short) focuses on European and Mediterranean civilizations. Its permanent collection traces the historical and cultural cross-fertilization around the Mediterranean basin from antiquity to modern times.

The museum is built on reclaimed land at the entrance of the ancient port of Marseille, next to the 17th century Saint Jean Fortress, which has been integrated the project. Designed by local architect Rudy Ricciotti, the new structure is a three-story, 15,000 square meter (160,000 square foot) cube of glass and steel exhibit space wrapped in a latticed veil of fiber-reinforced concrete that also extends over the roof terrace. The grounds of the fortress, the gardens and terrace afford a panoramic view of the Bay de Marseille. From the top of the Fort, a flying footbridge leads to the edge of the historic popular hillside neighborhood of Le Panier (the basket) with and its own glorious views of the old port and waterfront.

Louis Vuitton Foundation – Paris

The glass sails give the structure its sense of movement

Designed by the famed American architect Frank Gehry and located at the edge of the Bois de Boulogne on the western side of Paris, the artistic seat of the Louis Vuitton Foundation was inaugurated in 2014. And was immediately recognized as an emblematic example of 21st century architecture.

 

The exterior stairways underneath the sails reveal views of Paris in the distance.

Constructed above a water garden created especially for the project, the building consists of an assemblage of white blocks  (“the icebergs”) clad in panels of fiber-reinforced concrete and surrounded by twelve immense inflated glass “sails” supported by wooden beams. The sails give the structure its transparency and sense of movement, as its reflection of the water and surrounding natural environment continually change with the light. As visitors move through the 11 galleries dedicated to temporary exhibitions and artisic events, they can climb exterior stairways underneath the glass sails to access the roof-top gardens, enjoying along the way stupendous views of Paris in the distance.

The City of Wine – Bordeaux

The bold golden swirl of a building evokes wine at first sight.

Visitors experience the various aromas associated with wine at the Buffet of Senses display.

More than a museum, the City of Wine is a dynamic playground for wine lovers. Open in 2016 on the west bank of the Garonne, in the old Chartrons neighborhood, the historic center of the wine trade, the bold golden swirl of a building doesn’t resemble any recognizable shape, but succeeds beautifully in suggesting wine at first sight.

Its designers, French architects Anouk Legendre and Nicholas Desmazière speak of finding inspiration in gnarled shapes of wine stock and the swirl of wine in a glass.  To me, the sensuously rounded shimmery structure clad with a mix of silkscreen-printed glass and iridescent perforated aluminum evokes the soft curves of a decanter. Inside, a self-guided tour through 20 themed spaces takes visitors on a journey of discovery of wine through time, its influence in shaping civilizations around the world, and cultures from ancient time to the present. The itinerary ends with the top floor Belvedere and an invitation to taste wines from around the world.

Lascaux IV – Montignac

The caves of Lascaux hold the most important known example of Paleolithic paintings in the world.

The cave paintings at Lascaux are twenty thousand years old. They are considered the most important known example of Paleolithic paintings in the world. Discovered in 1940 by four local boys and opened to visitors in 1948, the cave quickly became an international tourist attraction. But contact with the outside world soon began to degrade the paintings to the point where, in order to preserve it, the site had to be permanently closed to the public in 1963.

 

The unobtrusive concrete and glass structure seems little more than a natural cave in the landscape.

Now, with the opening of Lascaux IV in 2016, visitors can once again wonder at the legacy of our ancient ancestors. From a distance, the sprawling concrete and glass structure designed by Norwegian architectural studio Snøhetta seems little more that a natural cut in the landscape, unobtrusively wedged into the base of the densely forested hill containing the original cave. Once inside, using the latest advances in laser imaging and digital scanning technologies, the entire prehistoric cave and its overwhelming paintings have been cloned with perfect accuracy. Even the moist, chilly atmosphere, the muffled sounds and subdued lightings recreate the experience of the four teenagers who first stumbled upon the cave eight decades ago.

Museum of Roman Times – Nimes

The rear of the museum opens onto an archeological garden.

Facing the beautifully preserved, 2,000-year old Roman Amphitheater, the Museum of Roman Times opened in 2018 to bridge the past and the present with its ultra-modern design by Franco-Brazilian architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc. Within its rippling façade made of thousands of shimmering glass tiles intended to evoke the folds of a Roman toga, visitors are immersed into 25 centuries of history of the city and its rich collection of local artefacts. At the rear of the museum, the vast archeological garden is structured into three strata corresponding to the major periods of Nimes: Gallic, Roman and Medieval.

 

Good to Know

  • Quai Branly Museum, 37 Quai Branly, 75007 Paris. Contact: Tel. +33 (0)1 56 61 70 00. 
  • Pompidou Center – Metz,1 Parvis des Droits de l’Homme, 57020 Metz – Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 3 87 25 39 39
  • Louvre-Lens Museum, 99 Rue Paul Bert, 62300 Lens. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 21 18 62 62
  • MuCEMPromenade Robert Laffont, 13002 Marseille. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 4 84 35 13 13.
  • Louis Vuitton Foundation – Paris,  8 Avenue du Mahatma Gandhi, 75116 Paris. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 4 84 35 13 13
  • The City of Wine, Esplanade de Pontac, 134 quai de Bacalan, 33300 Bordeaux. Contact: Tel. +33 (0)5 56 16 20 20
  •  Lascaux IV,  Avenue de Lascaux, 24290 Montignac. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 5 53 50 99 10.
  • Museum of Roman Times, 16, boulevard des Arènes, 30900 Nîmes. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 4 48 21 02 10.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Musee du Quai Branly

Fondation Louis Vuitton

Centre Pompidou, Metz

Louvre, Lens

MuCEM

Cite du Vin

Lascaux IV

Musee de la Romanite

Two Centuries of Stage Magic – in Moulins, France

Two Centuries of Stage Magic – in Moulins, France

Moulins is a sleepy little town few have ever heard of, much less visited, in the sparsely populated rural Auvergne region of central France. It took its name a millennium ago from the watermills that lined banks of the unruly Allier river.

B-105 Moulin Medieval Center

Medieval buildings line the narrow lanes of the historic center.

While the watermills have long since vanished, the town, doubtless due to its remote location, has hung on to its medieval heydays. Remarkably well preserved half-timbered houses (circa 15th and 16th centuries) still line the narrow cobbled lanes of its compact historic center. A gothic cathedral of the same era has retained its original stained glass windows and a bell tower, all that remains of the ancient fortifications, is topped with automated characters that still ring the bell every hour. The town is well worth a stroll, if you happen to be in the area.

 

The Enduring Magic of the Stage

But why would you be in the area – unless you missed a turn somewhere between Paris and the vineyards of Burgundy or the vibrant, history-rich city of Lyon?

B-105 - Moulins CNCS

The home of the National Center for Stage Costume was once a military barrack.

B-105-Moulin-Nureyev Collection

A dedicated wing pays homage to ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev.

Because right across the river, an imposing 18th century limestone building is now home to the National Center for Stage Costume, the first institution in France, or arguably anywhere, to be entirely dedicated to the preservation, study and display of a unique collection of stage costumes and scenography spanning the past two centuries.

The building itself was originally constructed in 1767 as barracks to house a cavalry regiment and intended to reflect the magnificence of the monarchy and its army. Today, behind its stern military façade, it has been completely restored and repurposed to house the collection of some 10,000 theatre, opera and ballet costumes from productions staged since the second half of the 19th century, provided by its three founding institutions of the Center: the National Opera of Paris, the Comédie Française and the National Library of France.

Since its inauguration in 2006, the Center has also received donations from costume designers, theatres and acting companies, as well as prominent artists and their heirs. It has most notably been entrusted by the Nureyev Foundation with over three hundred costumes and personal objects from the legendary dancer’s estate, which are now the basis of a permanent exhibition.

Remembering Rudolf Nureyev

B-105 CNCS Nureyev doublets

Nureyev introduced the doublet for all his costumes.

B-105 SNSC Nureyev productions ballerina costumes

A line-up of ballerina costumes from Nureyev’s dance partners.

Considered one of the greatest male ballet dancer of his generation, Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993) changed the perception of the role of male dancers from merely supporting the ballerinas to taking center stage. An uncompromising perfectionist not only in his artistic performance but also in his costumes, he is credited with single-handedly changing the esthetics of the male dancer’s attire.

From his earliest years at Russia’s elite Kirov Ballet, he managed to impose changes and improvements for his own costumes, improvements which then became shared by the other dancers. He insisted on replacing the traditional breaches and “skirts” with tights that accentuated the musculature of his legs, and wearing a short doublet as the basis for all his costumes irrespective of the style of the production. Gradually the characteristics of his doublets evolved: low-cut necklines to show the neck, arm holes raised very high to free the arms. The waist appeared more tapered with the use of oblique darts at the front and the doublet often ended in a point.

 

B-105 CNCS Nureyev personal environment

The exhbition includes the artist’s favorite furnishings.

Staged in a dedicated wing, the exhibition pays homage to a life entirely devoted to dance. In addition to Nureyev’s own sumptuous doublets, it includes costumes from the ballets he choreographed and produced for the great companies of the world. A projection room features a documentary that follows him from his birth near Irkutsk, on a trans-Siberian train as his mother and three sisters were traveling to meet his Cossack father at Vladivostock, to his high profile defection to the West at the Le Bourget-Paris airport at the age of 23, through his legendary international career and his later years as the Director and Chief Choreographer of the Paris Opera Ballet.

Dressing the Opera

B-105 CNCS late 19th century opera

Early 20th century costumes for Oberon (Carl Maria von Weber).

B-105 CNCS Ballet costumes

The final gallery is dedicated to ballet costumes.

While the bulk of the Center’s collection of over 10,000 costumes and another 10,000 accessories and decor items remain mainly in the on-site reserves, choice pieces are brought out for thematic temporary exhibitions produced twice yearly. To mark the 350th anniversary of the Paris Opera, the current one “Dressing the Opera” traces the history of costume creation from the inauguration of the Palais Garnier opera house in 1875 to the present.

B-105 CNCS Palais Garnier entrance

Photographic panels and mirrors re-create the gilded atmosphere of the Palais Garnier.

Revolving around the major aesthetic trends from the late 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, it creates a grand theatrical fresco of over 150 costumes, along with stage backdrops from the Opera Garnier and the more recently opened Opera Bastille (1989). It draws from the great opera and ballet successes of the repertoire to pays tribute to the creativity of the costume designers, the expertise of the sewing workshops and the various directors who selected the artistic themes, to embody the ever-involving story of the legendary “House” as its denizen reverently call it.  

 

 

The scenography of the exhibition is worthy of its topic, recreating with wall-size photographic panels and mirrors a trompe l’oeil version of the elegant grand foyer, formal staircase and gilded atmosphere of the Palais Garnier throughout the first galleries. It then transitions to the pared down décor of the Opera Bastille, before merging the spirit of both Houses in the final gallery to showcase ballet costumes by some of the great couture designers, most notably Christian Lacroix and Karl Lagerfeld.

B-105 CNCS Contemporary opera costumes

A line-up of contemporary costumes from the Opera Bastille.

 

Good to Know

  •  Getting there – By train: there are several direct train connections between Moulins-sur-Allier and Paris (2 ½ hours) and Lyon (2 hours). From the Moulins train station, it is a pleasant 20-minute walk across town to the National Center for Stage Costume. By car: Moulins is connected to the French highway system via the A6. There is ample free parking at the museum.
  •  The National Center for Stage Costume, Quartier Villard, Route de Montilly, 03000 Moulins, is open daily. Closed December 25, January 1 and May 1. Summer opening hours are 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Hours vary with the seasons, and are posted on the official website. Contact: tel. +33 (0) 4 70 20 76 20.

  • The exhibition “Dressing the Opera” is on display until November 3rd, 2019.

Location, location, location!

National Center for Stage Costumes

A Languedoc Road Trip – Béziers to Adge

A Languedoc Road Trip – Béziers to Adge

A majestic Romanesque cathedral perched on a bluff, high above the long stretch of arches of a medieval bridge spanning a tranquil river – this is what most visitors to southwestern France are likely to remember of Beziers. This low-keyed town of 75,000, located just a few kilometers inland from the Mediterranean shore rarely rates more than a passing glance from tourists. Yet, founded in 36 BC as a Roman colony, Beziers quickly developed into an important staging post and trading center along the Via Domitia, the major trade route which traversed the coastal plain of Languedoc on its way from Rome to southern Spain.

From Roman Colony to Cathar Stronghold

Little remains of the original Roman amphitheater.

Unfortunately, with most of the stones from its early amphitheater repurposed as early as the 3rd century AD to construct the city walls, architectural remains of the Roman era are scarce. Nonetheless, an extensive collection of Roman artefacts discovered locally, including statuary, inscribed stones, glassware and amphorae can be seen at the Musée du Bitterois. The museum also traces the history of the city from the middle ages to contemporary times. However, the best way to explore the history of Beziers is to take a couple of hours to wander the cobbled streets of the old town.

The St. Nazaire Cathedral has retained its Romanesque facade.

Perched high above the river Orb in the heart of the medieval town, the St. Nazaire Cathedral is the foremost site of Beziers, both for its panoramic view of the plain below and for the tragic history steeped within its ancient stones. The grand Romanesque cathedral built in the 10th century was badly damaged and its interior completely destroyed in 1209 during the infamous seizure of the city by Catholic crusaders at the behest of Pope Innocent III.

Bezier-Cathedral St Nazaire

The cathedral’s interior was rebuilt iin Gothic style.

At that time, Béziers was a major stronghold of Catharism, a breakaway movement that opposed the entire structure of the Roman Catholic Church and the corruption of the clergy. This alternative, more ascetic Christian religion had become widespread in southwestern France, then under the control of local princes. Unsurprisingly, the Pope called for a crusade to eliminate the Cathars – with the tacit understanding of the French King Phillipe II. On July 21, 1209, an army consisting of knights (mainly from northern France) with their retinue and mercenaries overran the fortified city where some twenty thousand men, women and children, local Catholics and Cathars alike, had taken refuge. The Crusaders indiscriminately slaughtered the population and ransacked the city before setting the cathedral set ablaze.

A Gothic rose window was added at the far end of the nave.

Although most of the exterior walls remained, the interior was entirely destroyed except for the chancel with its Romanesque carved capitals. Repairs began on the remains of the building in 1215 and continued until the 15th century, giving the interior a Gothic appearance, including a 10-meter (33 foot) rose window at the far end of the nave. A few notable frescoes of the same period remain, protected for posterity by having been whitewashed after the Wars of Religion in the late 16th century.

A Mural Chronicle

A mural memorializes the Vintners Revolt of 1907.

More recently, following the lead of Lyon and other French cities, Beziers has turned 14 of its blank walls into building-size murals that chronicle major milestones of its history. Most notable is the Vintners Revolt of 1907, ignited when government regulators allowed the import of low quality (and low-priced) wines from North Africa, driving local growers into penury. The National Assembly sent a military force to suppress the rebellion. But confronted by over 160 000 protesters, this time the solders refused to draw their weapons on the crowd. Thus prompting law-makers to reverse their import decision.  Another mural memorializes a local engineer, Jean Marie Cordier, who in 1827 developed a steam device to pump water from the River Orb to supply the residents of the old town.

A Masterpiece of 17th Century Engineering

The terraced concourse offers panoramic views of the countryside and the Fonseranes Locks.

At the side of the cathedral, a terraced concourse offers magnificent views that include the 13th century Pont-Vieux (Old Bridge), and the amazing 17th century engineering masterpiece of the Écluses de Fonseranes (Fonseranes Locks), a flight of 9 staircase locks marking the eastern end of the Canal du Midi. The 240 kilometer (150 mile) long canal connects the Garonne to the West – and from there city of Bordeaux and the Atlantic Ocean – to the Etang de Thau on the Mediterranean. Although many elements have since been updated, the canal as a whole is considered one of the greatest construction works of its era, and is still in use today.

Underwater Treasures

The late Hellenistic bronze Ephèbe is believe to be Alexander the Great.

It’s midday by the time we leave Beziers and its tumultuous past for Cap d’Adge, some 25 kilometers (15 miles) east on the Mediterranean shore.  Once a settlement at the mouth of the river Hérault, originally founded by the Phoenicians in the 6th century BC, the area is little more than an over-built resort destination today, with one striking exception: it is home to the only underwater archeological museum in France. Open in 1987, the museum consists of a series of modern galleries surrounding a traditional farm house overlooking the harbor. Its collection is a treasure-trove of pieces recovered from the millennia of shipwrecks that clutter the seabed, including a number of important antique bronzes statues.

Ultimately, the museum owes it very existence to one single piece now known as l’Ephèbe d’Adge, a late Hellenistic period bronze of a young man, believed to be Alexander the Great. Recovered in 1964 from in the alluvial sands at the mouth of the Herault, it is the only work of its kind ever found in French waters. It was joined in 2001 by two Early Imperial Roman bronzes, of a royal child and of Eros. From the details of his attire – royal mantle, scepter and jewelry, the child is thought to be one of Cleopatra’s sons, either Caesarion (son of Julius Ceasar) or Ptolemy (son of Mark Anthony).

The collection includes a number of remarkable bronze household objects, from the 1st and 2nd centuries BC.

In addition to other remarkable Hellenic and Roman bronzes objects, the museum also hosts antique marine transport amphorae and household goods, as well a number to cannons and other weapons of the French Royal Navy spanning several centuries. Overall, the rich underwater discoveries of the past 50 years reflect the commercial history of the area through the centuries, and make the Ephèbe Museum well worth a stop in Adge.

From here we continue 150 kilometers (90 miles)  down  the coastal branch of the Via Domitia to Collioure, another Phoenician settlement turned fishing village and 17th century military fortress. The town, however owes its contemporary fame to Fauvist painters Henri Matisse and André Derain. Although the small historic town and waterfront make are exceptionally picturesque, we found the mapped walk through the old town, punctuated by reproductions of the famous Fauvist works, right on the spot where they were painted to be a highpoint of our visit.

The museum hosts a large collection of marine transport amphorae recovered from ancient shipwrecks.

 

Good to Know

Visiting –Musee du Bitterois, Caserne Saint-Jacques – Rampe du 96° Régiment d’Infanterie, 34500 Béziers. Opening hours vary throughout the week/year. For latest informations, contact: e-mail, or tel: +33 (0) 4 67 36 81 61. Musée de l’Ephèbe, Mas de la Clape, 34300 Le Cap d’Adge. Open from January through June, Monday through Friday from 10:00 am to 12:00 noon and 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm and weekends from 9:00 am to 12:00 noon and 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm. July and August, open every day from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Contact:  e-mail, tel: +33 (0)4 67 94 69 60.

 

Location, location, location!

Beziers

Adge

A Languedoc road trip – Hidden Treasures Along the Via Domitia

A Languedoc road trip – Hidden Treasures Along the Via Domitia

Leaving behind the monumental Roman vestiges of the southern French city of Nîmes, we head down the coastal plain of the western Mediterranean. Here, with the coastline a string of lagoons and saltmarshes, the main road is some 25 kilometers (15 miles) inland, following the route of the ancient Via Domitia, the first Roman road built in Gaul, to link Rome to its province of Hispania.

The Villa was a large viticuture facility for over six centuries.

Although a modern roadway now covers the original works in many places, sections of the original paved roadbed, mileposts and bridges have survived. They can occasionally be spotted close to the highway as we drive through a verdant landscape of agricultural land and vineyards. But more than these passing landmarks, the Via Domitia also left us the remains of Roman Villas. These were both rural residences and large-scale farming domains that benefited from the proximity to the road to export their products. One of them, a mere one-hour drive away from Nîmes, is our first destination of the day.

The Roman Villa of Loupian

Over the past five decades, a three-hectare (eight-acre) excavation site south of the village of Loupian has revealed the ruins of one such villas and told the story of an estate that was active for more than 600 years.

The entire ground floor of the excavated villa is covered with intricately decorated mosaics.

Originally a hillside farmstead overlooking the Bassin de Thau, the largest of the area’s lagoons, a short distance south of the Via Domitia, the Villa of Loupian rapidly prospered. By the time of the High Empire (1st and 2nd centuries A.D.) it had become a large patrician residence with its own thermal springs and an abundance of Gallo-Roman mosaics. Its main agricultural activity was viticulture, for which a vast storage facility capable of holding 1500 hectoliters (40, 000 U.S. gallons) of wine was constructed. This period also marked the development of pottery workshops producing amphorae for the transportation of wine, and the creation of a small shipping port on the north side of the Bassin de Thau.

Pottery workshops produced amphorae used to transport wine,

In the 5th century, the villa was completely rebuilt. The owner’s home became a small mansion, the floor of the thirteen ground floor rooms covered with highly decorated mosaics. Relatively well preserved, these are particularly intriguing in that they show influences of two geographically separated and culturally diverse countries as Gaul and Syria. There is no other known villa anywhere in which the such remarkable combination of styles has been found.

The Abbey of Valmagne

The chapter house opens onto a cloister with a tall fountain nestled within a domed pergola.

It’s a mere ten-minute drive through a countryside streaked with vineyards from Loupian to the Abbey of Valmagne. Founded in the 12th century, and built of peach-colored local limestone, this grand Cistercian abbey is one of the loveliest in the country, as well as one of the oldest vineyards in Languedoc. The church, begun in 1257 and inspired by the great gothic cathedrals of northern France, is an imposing 83-meter (272-foot) long and 24-meter (79-foot) high. Its adjoining chapter house opens onto a vast square cloister surrounding a light-filled garden and a remarkable octagonal fountain enclosed within a domed pergola.

The abbey has retained its medieval atmosphere.

In its heydays, it was one of the richest abbeys in southern France, before it suffered the effects of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), followed by the Religious Wars (1559-1598). But it was the French Revolution (1789) that finally sealed its demise as a religious institution. Rebellious peasants ransacked the abbey and destroyed all its stain-glass windows.

 

 

 

The Cathedral of the Vineyards

The nave became a wine cellar during the French Revolution.

It did escape further destruction, however, by being confiscated as a national property and subsequently sold to a local vintner in 1791. The new owner converted the magnificent gothic church into a wine cellar. He installed the huge storage casks that still sit in the apse and side chapels, earning the church its moniker of “Cathedral of the Vineyards.” Upon this original owner’s death in 1838, Valmagne and its vineyards were acquired by Count Henri-Amédée-Mercure de Turenne. It has remained in possession of his descendants ever since, each generation consistently working to restore the abbey to its original splendor.

 

The Vigneron Restaurant

The restaurant sits at the edge of the vineyards.

One of the old farm buildings adjoining the abbey is also getting a new life as an attractive rustic restaurant offering authentic local cuisine based on the vegetables and aromatic plants from the abbey’s organic kitchen gardens, complemented by meats and cheeses from nearby producers.

Our meal is paired with some of the elegant wines of the estate (also certified as organic since 1999). These can likewise be sampled and purchased in the stately tasting room with its soaring vaulted ceiling and grand medieval fireplace. The modern estate consists of 70 hectares of vineyard, more than half of it was classified since 1985 with the coveted “Appellation d’Origine Controlée” (a.k.a, AOC). With one more destination on our itinerary for the day, we regretfully forgo  the wine tasting.

A Medieval Gem – Pezenas

Pézénas is an exceptionally well preserved medieval town.

Twenty minutes later, we reach Pézénas, a lively small town of about 9,000 that was the seat of of the Governors of Languedoc in the 16th and 17th centuries. Here, visitors have a rare opportunity to experience a complete city as it was in the middles ages. Many of the Renaissance buildings along its narrow alleys remain intact, as does its ancient ghetto complete with walls and gates. This small medieval gem is one of the first cities in France to have been declared a secteur sauvegardé (protected area) in 1965 by the Ministry of Culture, with more than 30 of its buildings classified as historical monuments.

The Hôtel de Lacoste has maintained its superb Gothic galleries.

A number of artists and craftsmen have made it their home, often with a workshop or gallery open to the street, adding a creative flair to the rough cobbled streets lined with notable mansions. Among those, the Hôtel de Lacoste, built in the early 16th century, stand out for its central courtyard surrounded by a grand square staircase and exceptional second floor Gothic arched galleries. Another magnificent 17th century residence is the Hôtel d’Alfonce. Over time, it was home to a succession of town notables who contributed their own additions to the property. Behind an unassuming façade, four wings are distributed around two courtyards and a garden. In the covered loggia gallery of the entrance courtyard, five monolithic twisted columns support the sloping roof. The rear wing features three levels of arched galleries opening onto the second courtyard and the garden.

The rear courtyard of the Hôtel d’Alfonce opens onto a garden.

We end up on the town square dominated by the consular house where the States of Languedoc held their meetings.  Behind an 18th century façade enhanced with remarkable ironworks, the body of the building dates back to the mid-16th century. Today it houses the House of Crafts, a venue for temporary exhibitions by local artists.

While there are a number of welcoming boutique hotels and guest houses in Pézénas, we opt to continue on to the nearby city Beziers for the night, to be on site for the next morning ‘s visit on our itinerary.

 

In the Villa of Loupian, some of the mosaics designs show intriguing Syrian influences,

Good to Know

  • VisitingThe Loupian Roman Villa is open daily from 10:am to 12 noon and 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm, with variable extended closing time during the summer season. It is closed through December and January, on May 1st, May 8th  and November 1st. The site is enclosed into a 1,000 square meter (10,750 square foot) building that protects the remains of the villa and its mosaics. It includes a small museum that shows artifacts found by the excavations and traces the history of the site. Contact:  tel.  +33 4 67 18 68 18. The Valmagne Abbey, Route de Montagnac, 34560 Villeveyrac, is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm, from April 15th to September 30th , and 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm for the remainder of the year. It is closed on Monday, except July through September. The restaurant is open daily for lunch April 15th through September 30th and weekends only for the remainder of the year. Contact: tel. +33 (0) 4 67 78 06 09. The Pézénas Tourist Office, Place des Etats du Languedoc, 34120, Pézénas, offers a complimentary map for a walking tour of the most notable sites of the city. Contact:  tel.  +33 (0) 4 67 98 36 40.

Location, location, location!

Loupian Roman Villa

Abbey of Valmagne

Pézénas

A Languedoc Road Trip – Nîmes, France

A Languedoc Road Trip – Nîmes, France

To most would-be travelers, the mere mention of “the South of France” conjures up images of Provence with its much photographed back-country hilltop villages, lavender fields and colorful weekly markets. Then there are the sundrenched beaches of the Côte d’Azur (a.k.a. French Riviera) that reach all the way to the Italian border. But this wildly popular, traffic-clogged southeastern corner the country is only half of the South of France story. West of the Rhone Valley, from Nîmes to the Spanish border, the ancient province of  Languedoc  with its rugged landscapes dotted with prehistoric sites, Romanesque abbeys and medieval villages beckons to an exciting road trip back in time.

Follow the Via Domitia

The Roman Tour Magne (Great Tower) is built on the site of an earlier Celtic lookout.

Some 25 kilometers (15 miles) inland from the western Mediterranean coast, the modern A-9 highway follows the route the ancient Via Domitia, the first Roman road built in Gaul, to link Rome to Hispania. Actually, by the time proconsul Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus came around to pave it and give it his name, the road was already ancient. Old enough that it may have been followed by Hannibal and his famous elephants on their way to the Alps in 218 B.C..

The Amphitheater in now a venue for bullfights.

While the legendary Carthaginian conqueror left no concrete signs of his passage, the Roman left us spectacular proofs of theirs. Starting with Nîmes, often hailed as the most Roman city outside of Italy for its spectacular and remarkably well preserved monuments dating back to the Roman Empire. Although the hill that overlooks the city had been the site of the Celtic settlement of Nemausus since the 2nd or 3rd century B.C., it didn’t develop into Nîmes until it became a Roman colony sometimes around 28 B.C., and Augustus made it a regional capital. Before long the city was home to some 50,000 people and the usual Roman construction boom was underway.

The Amphitheater

The vast interior passages of the Amphitheater are designed to accommodate crowds of spectators.

Built in the latter part of the 1st century A.D. the Nîmes Amphitheater is a remarkable example of the level of sophistication achieved by Roman engineers in the design and construction of this type of complex monumental buildings. Started shortly after the colossal Rome Coliseum, the Amphitheater is a perfectly symmetrical oval with a footprint of 133 meters (436 feet) by 101 meters (331 feet) and an exterior height of 21 meters (69 feet). The façade consists of two levels of 60 superimposed arches topped by a cornice. In Roman times, it could hold 24,000 spectators spread over 34 rows of terraces divided into four separate areas. Each was accessed via a web of short stairwells and passages designed leading to a main gallery. This alleviated the risk of bottlenecks as the crowds flowed in and out. While massive, this amphitheater is far from the largest of the ones that remain of the Roman world, but it is the best preserved of them all.

For several decades now, following extensive restorations, the venue is once again used for musical events as well as bullfights.

La Maison Carrée

The colonnade of La Maison Carrée borders the vestibule.

A few minutes’ walk from the Amphitheater, the Maison Carrée (Square House) was built between 20 and 12 B.C. Dedicated to Caius and Lucius Caesar, the heirs of Emperor Augustus, its architecture and decoration were inspired by the temple of Apollo and Mars Ultor in Rome. At the time, it dominated the Forum (the administrative and economic heart of the city). The facade is surrounded by Corinthian columns, six in the front and eleven on each side. Inside, the sanctuary would have housed the divinities – in this case Augustus and heirs.

Over the centuries, the building remained in use, serving successively as consular house, ecclesiastic residence, stable, seat of the departmental statehouse and finally the local archive before it was painstakingly restored in 2006-2008. Today its small interior includes a projection room continuously showing a film tracing the evolution of Nîmes from Celtic settlement to Roman city.

Le Jardin de la Fontaine

A formal 18th century French garden sits on the site of an ancient sacred spring.

The Temple of Diana is believed  to have once been a library.

One of the first public parks in Europe, the Jardin de la Fontaine was created in the mid-18th century in the classical French style of the time, at the site of an ancient sacred spring honoring Nimes the Celtic goddess Nemausus. The work carried out to dig the vast pond and construct the monumental stairway uncovered vestiges of a Roman temple devoted to Augustus, with a whole ensemble including baths and a theatre.

Set in the far left corner against a densely wooded backdrop, the garden also holds the remains of a gracefully vaulted Roman edifice known as the Temple of Diana, although nothing indicates that it was ever a temple, nor that it was dedicated to Diana. Rather, while its purpose remains unclear, it is supposed it may have been a library.

The upper part of the garden is dominated by the Tour Magne (or Great Tower). Standing at the highest point in the city, it is the only remnant of the ancient Augustan fortifications. It is a steep climb up the hill, but the reward is a superb view over the city and surrounding countryside.

 

Le Musée de la Romanité

After holding  pride of place in the city for two millennia, the Amphitheater must now share the limelight with its new neighbor, the spectacular recentely opened Musée de la Romanité

The rear of the Musée de la Romanité opens onto a vast  archeological garden.

Designed by Franco-Brazilian architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc and inaugurated in June 2018, this new Museum of Roman Times bridges the past and the present with its ultra modern design and expansive green spaces. Within its rippling façade made of nearly 7000 shimmering glass tiles intended to evoke the folds of a Roman toga, visitors are immersed into the 25 centuries of history of the city. Of the museum’s rich archeological collection of some 25,000 artefacts, the curators have selected 5,000 pieces to be displayed in their own context for the current “permanent” exhibit, which includes a domus (Roman home), and two exceptionally well preserved room-size mosaics, known as Achilles and Penthus, They were discovered during nearby excavations in 2006-2007, their discovery becoming a major motivating factor in the creation of the museum.

The archeological garden at the rear of the museum is structured in three strata corresponding to the major periods of Nimes: Gallic, Roman and Medieval.

The Roman home features a display of household pottery unhearthed during local excavations.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Nîmes is located approximately 725 kilometers (450 miles) south of Paris, and 125 kilometers (78 miles) north of Marseille. By train:there are multiple TGV (high speed train) daily connections between Paris and Nîmes (3 hours travel time), and regular intercity links with Marseille and most main cities in southern France. By car: Nîmes is easily accessible through the French highway system, via Autoroutes A9 or A54.
  • Staying –For this first stop of our Languedoc road trip, we stayed at Antichambre 11 Rue Bigot, 30900 Nîmes, a lovely three-bedrooms boutique guesthouse ideally located within easy walking distance for all the sites of interest. The ultra-comfortable, well appointed rooms open onto a private courtyard. Free Wifi and a gargantuan breakfast are included. Caution – do book well ahead as this tiny charmer fills fast. Contact : Tel.+33 (0) 4 66 64 13 43, e-mail.
  • Visiting –  The Amphitheatre, Maison Carrée and Tour Magne are open daily. However, opening hours vary with the seasons. Details can be found on their website.The Jardin de la Fontaine, Avenue Jean Jaures, Nîmes, is open daily from 7:30 am to 10:00 pm from April through August and 7:30 am to 6:30 pm for the remainder of the year. The Musée de la Romanité 16, boulevard des Arènes, Nîmes, is open Wednesday through Monday, 10:00 am to 7:00 pm from April through August and 10:00 am to 6:00 pm for the remainder of the year. Closed Tuesday, December 25th and January 1st.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Nimes