In the Historic Center of Aix-en-Provence — A Gem of Contemporary Cuisine

In the Historic Center of Aix-en-Provence — A Gem of Contemporary Cuisine

The capital of the Duchy of Provence and a renowned cultural center throughout the Middle Ages, the city of Aix-en-Provence require no introduction. Its well preserved Medieval and Renaissance historic center, vibrant artistic life and colorful open-air markets draw visitors from the world over.

In the heart of the historic center – NIRO by Le Gambetta.

And where tourists abound, so do eateries of all stripes! Fast food counters line the cobbled alleys of the old town and bistro terraces invade its tiny squares. The food they dish out is mainly forgettable, the service often rushed. Their purpose is to provide sightseers with ready sustenance and the impression they are taking in a bit of the laid-back mediterranean vibe before they move on to their next selfie opportunity. To be fair, Aix is also home to a few restaurants where culinary excellence still flourishes, establishments where savvy patrons can enjoy leisurely three-course meals of the best contemporary fare France has to offer—places like NIRO by Le Gambetta.

Bistronomie at its Best

The inviting dining room is the perfect setting for a relaxed Bistronomie evening.

What’s Bistronomie? A culinary trend started some three decades ago by a handful of young, classically trained French chefs who saw the need to bring the traditional Haute Cuisine of the prestigious high-end restaurants — and stratospheric prices — down to earth. They focused their creative talents on simple, high quality products of the French heartland to take bistro fare to new heights. Bistronomie was born!. In the heart of the historic center of Aix en Provence, NIRO by Le Gambetta is the epitome of the Bistronomie vision.

A delicate Mousse of Shiitake Mushrooms Amuse Bouche.

In their elegantly casual restaurant, its owner Chef Damien Serre-Combe (in the kitchen) and his wife, the ever-charming Claire (in the dining room) deliver on the Bistronomie promise. The menu is modest in size only: four appetizers, five main courses and four desserts, with each category featuring a vegetarian option, plus a cheese board and a couple of weekly special  mains. It is enhanced by a short, well thought-out wine list, a number of choices offered also by the glass to facilitate pairings. But with every dish remarkably creative and flawlessly executed, choice is still a dilemma. This is why, over the two weeks of her recent visit, a long-time friend and fellow foodie and I determined to eat our way through the NIRO menu.

Cochon Confit with Black Garlic Cream.

Each meal began with a complimentary amuse-bouche, a few mouthfuls of a delicate treat to stimulate our taste buds while we perused the menu. One day, it was a generous dollop of shiitake mushroom mousse on a bed of creamy zucchini purée, enhanced with exotic spices and a drop of truffle oil. The next day, it was rave-worthy baby oyster mushrooms sautéed in a melange of fresh aromatic herbs. Then we got to the serious business of discovering our favorite dishes.

And The Winners Are…

Miso-glazed salmon with caramelized cumquats.

In the Main Course Category — I thought I had found it on the first day with the Cochon Confit:  succulent cubes of slow-cooked pork loin topped with a velvety cream of black garlic, garnished with a mousse of celeriac (a.k.a celery root) and hazelnuts. But the next day’s Saumon Laqué au Miso, a moist pan cooked slab of salmon, brushed with a Miso glaze and garnished with caramelized cumquats and a medley of crunchy seasonal vegetable, was pure bliss. Full disclosure: I ordered it a second time during our “challenge.”  Therefore I suppose it should be declared the winner?  But I’ll call it a draw.

The Foie Gras Maison appetizer.

Appetizers — The main course portions were so generous that wisdom dictated forgoing the starter – but my friend and I occasionally agreed on one to share, such as the intriguing Poulpe de Roche à la Galicienne: tender slices of Rock Octopus, simmered in Spanish spices, and served cold with a garlicky Aioli sauce. On an other visit I opted for the sumptuous Medaillons de Foie Gras Maison — three slices of home made Foie Gras served with toasted Ginger Bread and Mango relish. Generous enough to share or pass for a decadent main course. Definitely a winner either way!

Chocolate Millefeuille with caramelized Pineapple.

Desserts — Always the hardest of decisions, since I’ve seldom met a dessert I didn’t like, but the honor easily went to the exotic Millefeuille Chocolat-Ananas: two wafter-thin outer layers of nutty chocolate crunch holding caramelized fresh pineapple chunks and topped with coconut mousse. 

 

 

The Man Behind the Magic

Chef Damien Serre-Combe.

Born in Martiques, a picturesque little town just west of Marseille, Chef Damien spent his formative years in West Africa, where his businessman father had settled. There, he acquired his interest in exotic spices “while enjoying home-cooked meals at my local friends.” Back in Marseilles as a university student, he took a job as a dishwasher in a top local restaurant to help finance his medical studies—and discovered his passion. He started the long cooking apprenticeship process, working his way up in the kitchen and acquiring a degree in restaurant management along the way, ultimately opening his own restaurant in 2016.

Another heavenly Amuse-Bouche creation: oyster mushrooms sautéed in aromatic herbs.

It was simply Le Gambetta back then, a neighborhood hole-in-the-wall named for its street address, just outside the boundaries of the old town. Already the vision of Chef Damien stood out: imaginative combinations of unusual spices and seasonal products of the highest quality, prepared with flair and served with spot-on timing. Le Gambetta quickly became a bursting-at-the-seams neighborhood favorite. Then the pandemic shuttered the entire country.

The Pear Tart on a base of pecan nuts nougat was my dessert first runner up.

Chef Damien used the downtime well, scouting and ultimately acquiring his ideal location in the much thought-after picturesque historic center of town. Here, he designed his kitchen into a coherent work space, and the “front of the house” into an inviting dining room with a remarkably efficient open service area. And he found the time to finetune his seasonally-inspired menus. “I always start with spices,” he explained, “then focus on how they can enhance the flavor of the varied seasonal products.”  He also favors the fresh catch from  nearby small Mediterranean fishing ports and the abundance of heirloom vegetables from back-country farms.  It’s NIRO now (by Le Gambetta for your loyal fans of yore) and it’s better than ever. If your travel plans take you anywhere near Aix-en-Provence, make sure to call ahead for reservations. It’s well worth a detour!

Good to Know

  •  NIRO by Le Gambetta , 37 Place des Tanneurs 13100 Aix-en-Provence, is open Tuesday through Saturday from 12:00 noon to 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm to 9:45 pm. It is closed on Sunday and Monday. Tel.  +33 (0) 4 42 27 65 46.
  • Getting there—NIRO is located in the pedestrian historic center, a short 10-minute walk from the Cours Mirabeau and La Rotonde.
  • This cozy restaurant with its relaxing contemporary flair and off-street shaded terrace can accommodate a maximum of 50 guests. While it is still a word-of-mouth place at the time of this writing, the word is deservedly getting around fast. Reservations are strongly recommended any time and a must on weekends.

 

Location, location, location!

NIRO by Le Gambetta

Nancy — The Fountainhead of French Art Nouveau

Nancy — The Fountainhead of French Art Nouveau

Long before Nancy became famous for its spectacular Baroque architecture, it had been the seat of the Dukes of Lorraine for over 500 years. The wealth of historic landmarks in its medieval quarter, the Vieille Ville (Old Town), attest to the Duchy’s early prosperity. Then, by the 16th century, Duke Charles the Great turned the city’s landscape upside down. To accommodate the needs of a growing population, he developed an entire new town, the Ville Neuve, to the south of the medieval town, including a grand Renaissance-style Ducal Palace (now the Musée Lorrain).

The Fountain of Neptune is a Rococo-style masterpiece.

Yet it wasn’t until the mid 18th  century that the last of his successors, Duke Stanislas Leszczynski, father-in-law of the King of France, commissioned Nancy’s grand Baroque palaces and pavilions, including the City Hall, Opera House and Fine Arts Museum to surround one of the most renowned Baroque squares in Europe: the Place Stanislas. While these remarkable historic landmarks are well worth a visit, it is treasures of a more recent era that brought me here recently: the richest Art Nouveau heritage in France.

The Dazzling Daum Collection

The Musée des Beaux Arts holds the largest collection of Daum glassware in the world.

My exploration of Nancy’s artistic treasures predictably begins on the Place Stanislas, at the Musée des Beaux Arts where. on my way to the basement,  I browse through the exceptional collection of notable local artists such as  Le Lorrain, Emile Friant and Etienne Cournault, and  works by such  European greats as Caravaggio, Delacroix, Rubens Matisse, Modigliani and Picasso. Down there, within a setting of the city’s ancient fortifications, with over 600 pieces on display, more than any other museum in anywhere in the world, the Daum Collection dazzles.

Daum glassworks are famous for their use of pâte de verre.

Established in 1878 by Jean Daum (1825-1885), the Daum crystal studio flourished under his sons, August (1853-1909) and Antonin (1864-1931) to become one of the most prominent Art Nouveau decorative glass manufacturers in France. The Daum brothers soon became a major force in the Art Nouveau movement for their creative use of pâte de verre (glass paste), an ancient Egyptian method of glass casting, often combined with carving, enameling, engraving and acid etching. Several of these processes were often combined in a single piece to produce uniquely creative glass masterpieces. This permanent exhibit mainly showcases a sumptuous collection of pieces from the Art Nouveau period, but it also traces the story of the Daum glassworks from their early days to their clear crystal creations of the 1990’s.

The Ecole de Nancy

Eugene Majorelle’s famous La Mort du Cigne grand piano dominates the Corbin linving room.

Three of the biggest names in French Art Nouveau, Emile Gallé (1846-1904), the Daum brothers and Louis Majorelle (1859-1926) had their glassware and furniture manufacturing plants in Nancy. They were part of a dynamic artistic and business culture that had its origins in the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany after the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71) when artists, intellectuals and industrialists fled to Nancy, which had remained in French territory. In 1901, they founded a movement that became known as the Ecole de Nancy and was joined by other artists, notably Jacques Grüber, of stained glass installations fame.

The Veranda stained glass window by Jacques Grüber.

Today their pioneering creations are showcased in the Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy. Opened in 1964 in the former residence of Eugène Corbin, a major patron of the mouvement who donated to the city an exceptional collection of 700 pieces of great diversity. Designed by architect Lucien Weissenburger in a vast landscaped garden with an aquarium pavilion, the villa itself has retained its original Art Nouveau charm. It provides the perfect setting for its collections of outstanding furniture and decorative objects by all the artists of the School.

The Museum of the Ecole de Nancy

Vase aux Bleuets (Emile Gallé).

Coupe Rose fe France (Emile Gallé – 1901)

A visit to the Nancy School Museum is a journey back to the Belle Époque, where architecture, furniture, lighting and stained glass immerse us into the world of Art Nouveau. Each room – dining room, bedrooms, study, bathroom – is exquisitely furnished with the creations of the architects, craftsmen and decorators who came together as the Nancy School. Bed are adorned with butterflies, lights fixtures open into translucent corollas, mahogany sideboards charm with their slender curves, and brilliant stained glass windows sparkle in a thousand and one shades.  Each object is a wonder of refinement that reminds us of the ultimate ambition of these Art Nouveau masters: transforming the living environment down to the smallest detail by drawing inspiration from the splendors of nature. Not to be overlooked in the midsts of these treasures is the magnificent collection of Emile Gallé glass. A trained botanist, Gallé planted a garden under the windows of his glassworks, La Garenne, so that the workers could “check the accuracy of their lines”. 

The Villa Majorelle

Louis Majorelle’s studio and balcony overlooked the garden.

The Villa features several spectacular fireplaces.

A short 10-minute walk away, along streets still dotted with Belle Époque buildings, the recently restored Villa Majorelle is regarded as one of the first and finest examples of the Art Nouveau architectural style in France. The flowing forms, decorative motifs and the continuous interplay between the exterior and the interior offer a brilliant example of the artistic unity advocated by a large number of artists of the period. Built around 1902 for the furniture designer and industrialist Louis Majorelle (father of Jacques Majorelle of Marrakech Jardin Majorelle fame), it served as a showcase for his own designs, as well as the work of other noted decorative artists of the day, including ceramist Alexandre Bigot and stained glass artist Jacques Grüber. The facade is composed of distinct blocks of different sizes, their decoration expressing the function of the space within. Especially notable is the western side, crowned by Majorelle’s studio, with soaring windows overlooking what was then the garden and surrounding countryside.

This unique Majorelle creation is made of Japanese ash and alder woods.

Inside, the meticulous restitution of the original decor and the furnishing of the rooms illustrates the intimate connection between architecture and decorative arts. The fluidity of the forms, the decorations inspired by nature, the play of light in the stained glass windows, every detail contributes to transporting the visitor back in time as the rooms are revealed one by one. From the dining room with its imposing flamed sandstone fireplace to the bedroom, a unique Majorelle creation made of Japanese ash and alder woods encrusted with copper and mother of pearl, the Villa offers a rare opportunity to experience an intimate home setting of the Gilded Age of Art Nouveau.

Good to Know

  • Getting There — Nancy is located 350 kilometers (220 miles) east of Paris, and easy 4-hour drive via the A4 highway.  However, the most efficient way to travel between the two cities is by rail: an hourly TGV (express train) connect the Gare de l’Est in the center of Paris to the Gare Nancy-Ville in the center of Nancy in a mere 90 minutes throughout the day.There are equally fast and easy highway and train connections from Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Switzerland.
  • Getting Around — The center of Nancy is pedestrian-friendly, mainly flat, with good sidewalks, and most of the historic monuments are located in car-free areas, The city also has a very efficient tramway service running  from 4.30am to 1am during the week and 2.30am on weekends.
  • VisitingThe Musée des Beaux Arts, 3 Place Stanislas, Nancy is open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. It is closed on Tuesday and major national holidays. The Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy,  36-38 rue du Sergent Blandan, Nancy, and the Villa Majorelle, 1, rue Louis Majorelle, Nancy, are  open Wednesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. They are closed on Monday, Tuesday and major national holidays.   

Location, location, location!

Nancy - Place Stanislas

Place Stanislas

The Museum of Paris History— Musee Carnavalet

The Museum of Paris History— Musee Carnavalet

The Musée Carnavalet has long been one of Paris’ overlooked treasures. Dedicated to recording the city’s history, it opened in 1880 in a grand Renaissance mansion (Hôtel Carnavalet) of the history-steeped Marais district.

Fragment of an early plaque commemorating the medieval defensive wall of Paris.

For over 150 years, as its collections illustrating the development of the city were continuously enriched, the museum expanded with the haphazard addition of exhibit spaces and finally the annexation of the adjoining Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau mansion in 1989. By the time it finally closed for long overdue renovations in 2016, its collections had grown so large that curators struggled to display it all in a coherent fashion. Its confusing layout gave this most Parisian of museums the nostalgic feel  of a Cabinets of Curiosities of a bygone era.

 

An Elegant Metamorphosis

The visit begins with a collection of ancient shop signs.

The Musée Carnavalet – History of Paris reopened in May 2021 after a four-and-a-half-year, €56 million renovation. Major structural changes, some made imperative by modern accessibility requirements, created an easy-to-follow chronological itinerary. Beginning in the fully renovated vaulted basement with displays from the Mesolithic period (9600  to 6000 BCE) to the Middle Ages, visitors then pass through areas dedicated to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Revolution, and the 19th and 20th centuries, to end in today’s Paris.

The Bastille café sign (painted wood-1800)

In addition to adapting the building to current norms and redesigning the layout of the visit, the work has embellished the monument, highlighting its architecture and adding  soaring stairways for a contemporary flair. To the right of the entrance, a light-filled gallery welcomes visitors with an eclectic collection of old shop signs, from  the 17th to the early 20th centuries.

This head of Medusa decorated a door of the Hôtel de Ville.

Then the visit begins with two introductory rooms presenting the history of Paris, its symbols, key data on the history of the city, and the museum itself. They feature a number of scale models of the evolution of Paris and miscellaneous items ranging from a portrait of Madame de Sévigné, the famous aristocratic letter-writer who occupied the Palais Carnavalet in the 17th century to an early silver film photo of late 19th century rag-pickers and a massive oak door decorated with a head of a Medusa, saved from the destruction of the old Hôtel de Ville by fire in 1871 during the Commune.

 

A Walk Back in Time

A Neolithic oak wood canoe takes pride of place.

Now it’s down into the newly opened  basement. Here Mesolithic stone tools attest to the presence of a hunter-gatherers encampment around 9000 to 5000 BCE. Exceptional Neolithic remains (6500 to 4500 BCE ) follow. Found during excavations carried out in the nearby Bercy district, which uncovered a village on the edge of an old channel of the Seine, they include an oak canoe and a yew wood bow as well as numerous tools, weapons and utensils of domestic life.

Carved stone block from late Roman times city ramparts.

From there we fast-forward to approximately 250 BCE, when a Celtic tribe known as the Parisii settled in what is now the Ile de la Cité. The burgeoning city that grew from this early settlement would, after its conquest by the Romans in 52 BCE become the Gallo-Roman town of Lutetia, an evolution widely documented by imposing carved stone blocks and many decorative elements coming from different public spaces. The domestic sphere  is also well represented with a focus on tableware and everyday objects. Necropolises also contribute a remarkable insight into these times with jewels, weapons, and an exceptional set of surgical instruments dated from the 3rd century.

Into the Middle Ages

Stained glass works from medieval monasteries.

We now reach the medieval heart of Paris, where political and religious powers first came together: the Ile de la Cité. In the center of the room, a model of the island makes it possible to visualize the urban space and its density. A gargoyle from Notre-Dame cathedral dominates the room, and common objects from wooden crockery to leather shoes, all in a remarkable state of conservation, provide a striking testimony of the daily life of the period. Then we cross to the left bank of the Seine to discover the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and its royal necropolis, the Sorbonne (founded in 1257), and several prominent monasteries that attracted thousands of scholars and students, forming colleges that became the University of Paris.

Stele commemorating the death of Prince Louis of France, heir to the throne, in 1260.

Where were the dead buried in Paris during the Middle Ages? The question is answered with tombstones and steles from two major cemeteries: the Innocents, in the current district of Les Halles, which was used for nearly seven centuries, and the Jewish cemetery on the Left Bank, testimony of the large Jewish community established in Paris in the 12th and 13th centuries. And how were the living governed? Paris gradually becomes a municipality with powers distributed among many: the landlords, the king’s provost, the provost of bourgeois merchants, the aldermen… The section ends with King François I, who in 1533 orders the construction of a town hall, on its current location.

From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment

Guest Salon of the Hôtel d’Uzes (1768).

Salon Demarteau (1765 to1770) by François Boucher.

The overall narrative of the 16th to 18th centuries exhibits highlights the evolution of the intellectual influence of Paris and the main actors of the Age of Enlightenment. But for Decorative Arts lovers, that is eclipsed by the magnificent “period rooms”, some 20 of them, salvaged from mansions and shops that no longer exist. These are stately interiors, fully reconstructed and decorated with their original furnishings, such as the office of the Hôtel Colbert de Villacerf, the Guests Salon of the Hôtel d’Uzès, designed by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux in a grand neoclassical style, the exquisite Demarteau lobby designed by Boucher and decorated with animals and flowers by Fragonard and Huet, and the ceilings at the Hôtel de la Rivière painted by Charles Le Brun. All lead to the breathtaking flight of stairs of the Hotel de Luynes, with its upper landing gallery murals by Paolo Antonio Brunetti. Here, in a majestic colonnaded decor, figures in various poses seem to watch visitors climbing up the stairs.

 

Beyond the Revolution

Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789).

A painting of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the era’s key civil rights document, marks the entrance the next gallery. We are reaching the 19th century, an especially tormented period of Paris history, when the storming of La Bastille on July 14, 1789, ushered in successive revolutions leading to imperial regimes, attempts at democracy and even the brief, ill-fated utopian socialist government of the Paris Commune, some 150 years ago.  And I am reaching cultural overload.

The ballroom of the Hôtel de Wendel (1925).

This is clearly a two-visits museum. But for now, I hasten my pace, determined to give at least a passing glance to the 19th and 20th centuries. For my reward, I come across the exquisite de Wendel ballroom, commissioned in 1925 by the de Wendel couple for the ballroom of their Parisian mansion.This decorative composition representing the Queen of Sheba atop a white elephant, preparing to leave her kingdom to meet King Solomon, is the work of Catalan artist José Maria Sert, recognized as the greatest muralist his time.

Jewelry Fouquet (1901) by Art Nouveau icon Alfons Mucha.

The final highlight of my visit is the Bijouterie Fouquet, designed by Czech Art Nouveau icon Alfons Mucha for society jeweler Georges Fouquet, himself best known for his Art Nouveau creations. Mucha conceived every elements of the shop – both exterior and interior, including the furniture, light fittings and display cases, as a complete work of art, to provide a harmonious environment for Fouquet. Drawing inspiration from the natural world, he gave pride of place to two spectacular peacocks set against glowing designs in stained glass. In 1941 Fouquet donated all the pieces of Mucha’s revolutionary design to the Musée Carnavalet for safekeeping. In 1989 the museum completed the painstaking job of reconstructing the boutique, which remains one of the finest examples of Art Nouveau decorative design anywhere.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — The Musee Carnavalet, 16 rue des Francs-Bourgeois, Paris 75004, France, is a five-minute walk from the Saint Paul metro station.
  • Visiting — The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm. It is closed on Monday and public holidays. It is one of the 14 museums run by the City of Paris, and like all other city-run museums, entrance to the permanent collection is free of charge (Visitors are only charged for temporary exhibitions).  
  • Health Guidelines — Due to health restrictions in order at the time of this writing advanced reservation through the museum official site  for a specific day and time was necessary, as was presentation of a valid European Health Pass or the usual proof of negative RT-PCR or antigénic négatif test within the past 48 hours. Mask were mandatory throughout the museum.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Musée Carnavalet

Musee Carnavalet

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

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

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

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

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

Notre Dame de Paris

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

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

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

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

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

La Sainte Chapelle

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

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

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

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

The Lower Chapel

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

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

The Upper Chapel

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

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

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

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

Good to Know

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

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

La Sainte Chapelle

Notre Dame de Paris

Normandy’s Mystical Island – The Mont Saint-Michel

Normandy’s Mystical Island – The Mont Saint-Michel

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

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

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

From Abbey to Bastion

Successive churches were built above the original sanctuary.

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

A village developed beneath theh Abbley.

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

The Evolution of a Medieval Masterpiece

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

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

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

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

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

The grand dining hall was reserved for special guests.

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

 

 

The cloister sits at the top of The Marvel.

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

The Mont Saint-Michel Experience

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

The village is fully contained within its ancient fortified walls.

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

The entrance to the island is protected by a drawbridge.

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

The Magic of Tides and Light

Shimmering sandbanks surround the Mount at low tide.

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

The Mount can take on a surreal glow at dusk.

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

The mount in the clear morning light.

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

 

 

The Bayeux Tapestry

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

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

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

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

Good to Know

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

Location, location, location!

Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel