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

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

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

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

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

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

A Notorious Penitentiary

The ramparts  are flanked by foreboding towers.

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

The Road to International Fame

A single well provided water for the prison.

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

Centuries of graffiti were left by prisoners.

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

The Birth of a Legend

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

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

Entrance to the the dungeon attributed to Abbé Faria.

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

When Legend Becomes Reality

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

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

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

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

The Château d’If offers and the Marseille coastline.

Good to Know

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

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Château d'If

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

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