Belém — The Other Face of Lisbon

Belém — The Other Face of Lisbon

At the point where the estuary of the Tagus River meets  the Atlantic Ocean, Belém, the western-most district of Lisbon, tells the epic story of Portugal’s maritime past.

It is from there that navigator Vasco da Gama (1460-1524) set out in 1497, on the voyage that opened the sea route from western Europe to India by way of the Cape of Good Hope. And it is there that three years later, his triumphant return set the stage for the development of the lucrative spice trade, with Portugal establishing control over key trading ports and routes.

The Manueline Era

The Jerónimos Monastery is a fine example of extravagant Manueline architecture.

For the next century, this monopoly on trade in the East became the source of inordinate wealth for the Portuguese crown, which in addition to further voyages of exploration, financed grandiose architectural projects back home. King Manuel I, whose reign (1495–1521) coincided with this windfall, engaged in a construction spree of monasteries and palaces fitting for Portugal’s status as an emerging European powerhouse. 

The iconic webbed vault of Santa Maria de Belém.

A lavish architectural style emerged, a uniquely Portuguese late Gothic style with elaborate stonework featuring motives inspired by both maritime and Christian themes, which would become known as Manueline style. Although it actually continued for some time after the death of the monarch, it is the prosperity of his reign that the style celebrates. The Tower of Belem and nearby Jerónimos Monastery are two of the most iconic monuments of the era.

 

 

The Tower of Belém

The Tower of Belém was a defensive bastion.

In the early 16th century, with the discovery of Brazil (by Pedro Álvares Cabral – 1500) immediately following the successful voyage of Vasco da Gama, Lisbon was fast becoming a worldwide center of commerce, and a wealthy city in need of protection. While previous monarchs had addressed this issue by building a defensive tower at the tip of the southern peninsula of the Tagus estuary, King Manuel I undertook the construction of the Tower of Belém on the northern bank, thus creating a crossfire between the two banks to prevent enemy ships from entering the estuary.

The lower part of the bastion features 17 openings for canons.

Built in 1515-1521 on a small outcrop at the edge of the Tagus River, it is divided into two parts. Its bastion is an  irregular hexagon jutting toward the river, with watchtowers at each of the corners of its open terrace. Then on its north face, a 30-meter (100-foot) rectangular tower comprises five levels, including its terraced rooftop. The lower level of the bastion features a large fan vault and 17 openings for canons. 

The decorative elements blend stylized templar crosses and ornate Moorish turrets.

The Tower of Belém is a foremost example of Manueline style. The elaborately ornate complex is a blend of decorative elements: stylized templar crosses emphasize Manuel’s role as Grand Master of the Order of Christ while maritime motifs, twisted ropes friezes and armillary spheres, mark the building’s association the great navigators, and the distinctive turrets evoke the Moorish era. Although it was originally intended as a defensive bastion, the tower soon became the point of embarkation and disembarkation for Portuguese explorers, as well as the ceremonial gateway to Lisbon. Today, the Tower of Belém is considered one of the most remarkable monuments in Lisbon and a landmark of Portuguese identity.

The Jerónimos Monastery

The Jerónimos Monastery’s ornate roofline.

South Portal entrance of the Jerónimos Monastery .

Founded by Manual I in 1499 in honor of Vasco da Gama’s discovery of a sea route to India, the Jerónimos Monastery is recognized as the finest example of monastic Manueline architecture and one of the premiere landmark in Portugal. Construction began in 1501. Built entirely in pale local limestone, the sprawling masterpiece took one hundred years to complete, under the successive direction of some of best architects and master builders, both national and foreign, of their time. Behind the endless facade (300-meter, or 990-foot) long punctuated by the extravagantly ornate 32-meter (105-foot) high south portal, the cloisters and refectory are a dazzling world of stone decoration.

 

 

 

The Cloister

Stunning lacy stone architecture of the cloister.

The vast two-storied square cloister mesmerizes for its lacy architecture and the wealth of its ornamentation. There is barely a surface that is not adorned with some sort of Manueline sculpture. Coats of arms and the cross from the Military Order of Christ assert the growing world power of Portugal, while nautical elements such as sea creatures and coils of rope and knots pay homage to the Navigators.

 

The Refectory

 

Azulejo wall frescoes decorate the refectory/

The refectory is another of the monastery’s highlights, with its low, multi-ribbed vaulted ceiling, azulejo wall panels and, outside its entrance door, the Lion Fountain where the monks washed their hand before meals.

 

 

 

 

The Church of Santa Maria de Belém

Slender columns support the soaring webbed vault.

Adjacent to the monastery, the Church of Santa Maria de Belém is a startling contrast, sublime in the simplicity of its hall-style layout, with the soaring nave and side aisles of equal height. Its unadorned floors and walls are a perfect setting for the six slender, intricately carved columns that lead the eye to the improbably high web of its spreading ribbed vault.

Sarcophagus of Vasco da Gama.

It was always the intention of  Manuel I, that in addition to being the physical embodiment of the Age of Discoveries, the grand monastery would be a pantheon for himself and his line. The royal tombs rest in side chapels, on marble elephants. The tombs on the left side of the choir belong to King Manuel I and his wife Maria of Aragon, while those  on the right side belong to his son King João III and his wife Catherine of Austria. However, pride of place goes to Vasco da Gama, whose sarcophagus is positioned just inside the main portal.

 

The Monument of the Discoveries

The Monument to the Discoveries represents an idealization of the Portuguese explorations.

A 10-minute walk east from the Tower of Belem, the 52 meter (170 foot) vertical slab of white concrete of the Monument of the Discoveries rises ostentatiously from the bank of the Tagus. Built in 1960, iit is intended to evoke the prow of a caravel (the ship used in the early Portuguese explorations). Its design features ramps on either side, each holding 16 statues that amount to a veritable 16th and 17th century Who is Who in the discovery and appropriation of the “new worlds”. The ramps joint at the river’s edge, with Henry the Navigator standing at the tip of the prow.

Southern facade of the Jerónimos Monastery and Vasco da Gama Square.

Good to Know

  • Getting there —The easiest way to get to Belém from Lisbon’s city center (approximately a 30 minute drive) is to take the tram nº 15 at the Cais do Sodré station, in the Praça do Comércio (Commerce Square). Note — Be especially aware when riding this tram. It is popular with pickpockets as it is always packed with tourists.
  • Visiting —  Jerónimos Monastery and the Tower of Belém are open October through April from 10:00 am to 5.:30 pm and May through September from 10:00 am to 6:30 pm. Closed on Mondays, January 1, Easter Sunday, May 1, and December 25. Advance entry tickets may be purchased through their respective websites and strongly recommended.  Monument of the Discoveries is open daily, October through February from10:00 am to 6:00 pm and March through September from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm. Closed on January 1, May 1, December 24, 25  and 31.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Belém

Italy — The Porticoes of Bologna

Italy — The Porticoes of Bologna

The Etruscans called it Felsina, then it became Bona under the Celts and later Bononia under the Romans. By the middles ages, it had become Bologna. An important urban center of Northern Italy since ancient times, it experienced its golden age from the 11th  to the 16th  centuries.

Shaped by its Porticoes

A network of porticoes developed throughout the medieval city.

The center of Bologna owes its grid pattern layout to its Roman past, but it is its sprawling network of porticoes, some 38 kilometers (24 miles) of them in the city’s historic centre alone, that shaped its unique personality. The first ones date back to the 11th century when they were originally conceived to extend the surface area of the upper floors of private buildings over public land. 

The 19th century portico of the Banca d’Italia is decorated by ornamental painter Gaetano Lodi.

Over time, what had started as modest wooden projections gradually increased in size to the point of requiring support columns below to prevent them from collapsing. The practice grew  to meet the expanding need of commercial and artisanal activities generated by the influx of scholars and students at the prestigious University of Bologna. Thus creating the world-famous arcades that remain to this day favorite shopping and socializing spaces for locals and visitors, and an ideal pedestrian environment to explore the rich history of the city.

 

La Strada Maggiore

The Casa Isolani portico is considered the oldest in Europe.

Bologna’s growth began along the Strada Maggiore, a major axis of the city since Roman times. It is where the development of porticoes from the Middle Ages to the modern era can be best appreciated.  Among them the 13th  century portico of Casa Isolani, with oak beams nine meters (30 feet) in height buttressing the building’s third floor, is considered the most ancient existing medieval portico in Europe.

A wide arcade surrounds the Basilica of Santa Maria del Servi.

A mere five minute walk away, the Basilica of Santa Maria del Servi, a remarkable 14th century Italian Gothic masterpiece, opens onto a small piazza entirely surrounded by a rectangular portico. The arcade is closed on one side by the conventual buildings, but on two sides it is open to the street, and extends along the entire left side of the building. Where the arcade meets the facade, it forms a wide portico of five arches stretching across the front of the church.

A City of Towers

On the Piazza Maggiore, the clock tower of Palazzo d’Accursio.

In the 11th to 13th centuries, as the city was spreading along its porticoes, it was also bristling with towers, as rich families demonstrated their power by constructing their own defensive stone towers, all striving to be the tallest and most grand. Of the more than one hundred that shaped Bologna’s skyline at the time, only twenty two survive today. Located where Via Rizzoli reaches Strada Maggiore, two of them, the Asinelli and Garisenda towers, have become a striking symbol of the city.

The Asinelli and Garisenda Towers.

Dating back to the second half of the 11th century, the Asinelli Tower, the highest ever built in Bologna, still soars to its original 97 meters (318 feet). Next to it, the Garisenda is Bologna’s own leaning tower. Originally about 60 meters (196 feet) high, it started leaning almost upon completion in the early 12th century. It was subsequently cut down to its current 48 meters (158 feet) in 1358. Today the Garisenda, actually leans at a slightly steeper incline than the Tower of Pisa. For obvious reason, it cannot be visited, but the Asinelli can. The panoramic view from the top is said to be breathtaking.

San Petronio Basilica

The lower part of the facade of the San Petronio Basilica.

Another few minutes’ walk, and the shady arcade open onto the vast Piazza Maggiore, dominated by the San Petronio Basilica, dedicated to the patron saint of the city, Saint Petronius, who was Bishop of Bologna in the 5th century. Construction began in 1390 and continued for centuries, a source of ongoing disagreement between the local powers who wanted to make it bigger than Rome’s Saint Peter, and the Catholic Church that wouldn’t have it. In the end, at 132 meters (433 feet) long, 66 meters (216 feet) wide and with a vault reaching 45 meters (147 feet), it is the largest (Gothic or otherwise) church built of bricks of the world. 

The 16th century main altar baldacchino of San Petronio.

Its facade was never completed. The stately lower part is all rose and white marble, with steeples and ornate decorations over the gates by sculptor Jacopo della Quercia of Siena. Then, right above it, it’s just plain brown brick. The interior, however, is a soaring Gothic extravaganza. The main altar baldacchino is by the great 16th century architect Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola, and twenty-two side chapels line the central nave. Over the centuries, the prominent families of Bologna rivaled to lavishly decorate theirs with masterpieces by the most thought-after artists of their time, from Gothic to Baroque to Rococo.

Archiginnasio of Bologna

The atrium of the Archiginnasio.

Just around the corner from the San Petronio Basilica, the Archiginnasio (University) Palace was built in 1562 at the behest of Pope Pius IV. Its purpose was to concentrate in a single space its various schools which, until that time, had been dispersed around the city since the university’s inception in 1088. Along the Via della Archiginnasio, the facade of the two-story palace consists of a thirty-arches portico, its main entrance leading to a central atrium surrounded by two levels of loggias. Two large staircases lead to the upper floor. Throughout the building, the history of the Archiginnasio is told by more than 7,000 coats of arms of former students and professors lining the staircases and hallways, making it the largest heraldic collection in the world.

The Anatomical Theatre

The Anatomical Theater at the Archiginnasio.

On the second floor, the Anatomical Theatre, built in 1637, is the amphitheater where medical school students learned human anatomy. The centre of the theatre features the white table upon which the dissection of human or animal bodies took place. The walls are decorated with statues of famous physician of ancient times. At the head of the room, two male figures, the “Spellati” (skinned) naked and skinless in order to show their muscles, flank the teacher’s chair.

The coffered ceiling of the Anatomical Theater.

Apollo and the signs of the Zodiac are represented in the coffered ceiling — According to contemporary astrological beliefs these symbols were considered connected with the rhythms of the human body.

 

 

 

 

The Archiginnasio Municipal Library

Rare books collection at the Archiginnasio Municipal Library

The building ended its university function in 1803. Starting in 1838, a major part of it was dedicated to housing the books collected after the closure of the religious orders. Today, the Archiginnasio library boasts some 850,000 volumes and pamphlets, 2,500 incunabula, 15,000 16th century editions, 8,500 manuscripts plus letters, collections of autographs, prints, drawings and archives. All of this important material, handwritten and printed trace the civil, cultural, religious and social history of Bologna  from the Middle Ages to the present.

Good to Know

 

  • Getting there — By Air: Bologna international airport supports scheduled flights from most major European cities. By train or road: Bologna is easily accessible from all other Italian major cities. High speed trains connect the center of the city to Rome, Florence, Milan or Venice in approximately two hours. There are also direct high speed train connections between Bologna and Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris and Vienna. The A1 highway efficiently connect the city with Florence and Milan.
  • Getting Around — The center of Bologna is best explored on foot, following its amazing network of porticoes.  To visit further afield, the city’s bus network is extensive and efficient.
  • Visiting —  The Asinelli Tower, Piazza di Porta, Ravegnana, Bologna, is open daily.  Closed on December 25th. Opening hours vary with the seasons. Consult their  Official Website  for exact times and advanced bookings (required). The Palazzo della Archiginnasio,  Piazza Galvani 1, Bologna, is open year-round, Monday to Saturday from 9.00 am to 7.00 pm, Sunday and holidays from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm. The Anatomical Theatre is open year-round, Monday to Friday from 10.00 am to 6:00 pm, Saturday from 10.00  to 7:00 pm, and Sunday and holidays from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm.

 

Location, location, location!

Bologna

Avignon, France — The Other Papal City

Avignon, France — The Other Papal City

The skyline of Avignon is a mighty fortress that spreads its majestic walls across the sunbaked landscape of Provence. Everlasting witness to the power of the papacy over the Middle Ages, the Palace of the Popes remains the greatest gothic palace in the world. Although the historic town draws well over half a million visitors a year, many of them, other that papal history buffs and French school children, may not be aware how for most of the 14th century this small, heavily fortified southern French city on the bank of the Rhône river came to be the capital of Christendom.

It Began with Charlemagne

The Palais des Papes is the largest Gothic palace ever built.

Like most of the major events that shaped modern Europe, it began with Charlemagne, King of the Franks (771-814), a powerful Germanic tribe whose territories covered present-day western Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. A determined expansionist and skilled military strategist, he had by the end of his reign extended his reach across western and central Europe.

A staunch defender of Christianity, he supported the church with funds and land, and extended his protection to the Pope. To acknowledge the power of his benefactor and reinforce the relationship with the papacy, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans on December 25, 800, at St. Peter Basilica in Rome. In the process, in addition to its spiritual leadership role, he asserted the papacy as a major authority in geopolitical matters. The consequences of this quid pro quo would reverberate throughout Europe for centuries.

The Passion of Christ sculpture- housed in the Consistory – is a remarkable exemple of Medieval art.

Charlemagne’s descendants proved incapable of keeping his vast empire together. By 888, France, Germany and Italy had become separate states. Who then was to be emperor? The nominee of the pope, himself a puppet of Italian aristocratic factions? Charlemagne’s rightful heir, whoever he might be? Or the strongest king in Europe? Centuries of political intrigue and ever-shifting alliances ensued, throughout which the imperial crown was habitually set on a succession of Germanic heads. And disputes between the Popes and the Emperors continued, over which of them was the secular leader of Christendom, with the Pope’s side most often bolstered by the French kings.

The Road to Avignon

The main entrance of the papal palace.

By the early 14th century, however,  Pope Boniface VIII and the French monarch, the autocratic Philippe IV, were feuding over Philippe’s decision to tax the considerable wealth of the Church in France to finance his war with the English. The feud turned violent, with Italian allies of the King of France breaking into the papal residence and assaulting Boniface VIII, who died shortly thereafter. A successor who would not be hostile toward Philippe was promptly elected. However, after a pontificate that lasted a mere eight months, Benedict XI died suddenly — poisoning was suspected although never proven. 

Cloister of the Old Palace

His successor Clement V, a Frenchman and personal friend of King Philippe, was in France when elected and thought it prudent to never travel to Rome. In 1309, he decided to establish his Papal Court in Avignon, where it was to remain for the next seven decades.

 

 

The Builder Popes

Scaled model of the completed palace.

Clement V (1305-1314) lived simply as a guest in the Dominican monastery of Avignon. Then his successor John XXII (1316-1334) started the process of rebuilding and enlarging the old episcopal palace, which sat on a natural rocky outcrop overlooking the river at the northern edge of Avignon, and convert it into a fortified palace. However, it was John’s two successors who became the main builders of the impregnable fortress that stands to this day.

Cour d’Honneur (Ceremonial Courtyard) of the New Palace.

Benedict XII (1334-1342) built the first pontifical palace, an austere stronghold set around a vast cloister (now referred to as the Palais Vieux, or Old Palace). Then Clement VI (1342-1352) expanded Benedict’s palace with more lavish constructions around a grand internal courtyard. Now known as the Palais Neuf, or New Palace, it became the biggest Gothic palace in all of Europe, with 15,000 square meters (160,000 square feet) of floor space.The immense size of the palace facilitated the integration of the Curia (church administration) into the truly central administration of the Church that suited the needs of the papacy.

Life at the Pontifical Court

The Great Clementine Chapel held liturgical events.

More than 20 rooms are open to visitors, including several ceremonial halls of majestic proportions, such as the Consistory, the  Grand Audience Hall with its remarkable ceiling frescoes of the prophets, the 52 meters (170 feet) long  Great Clementine Chapel, which held official events and liturgical services, and the soaring Grand Tinel. The latter was primarily a reception and banquet room, but during conclaves, it was the room where the cardinals assembled to elect the new pope. For the occasion, the room was temporarily walled, with only a small aperture  left open to provide the necessary food. 

Detail of the chambre du cerf (room of the deer) fresco

The visit also includes the private apartments of Clement VI: the papal chamber and private study, commonly called the chambre du cerf (room of the deer), for the remarkable hunting scene frescoes that decorate the walls. The subject matter, while common in secular art at the time, is as unexpected in a room supposedly dedicated to study as it is for a room in a papal apartment.

 

St John Chapel frescoes by Matteo Giovanetti.

Other highlights include the Saint Martial and Saint John chapels, decorated with sumptuous frescoes by the Italian master Matteo Giovanetti, who had been charged by Clement VI to lead the decoration of the Palace. While a large proportion of these creations were lost in the course of time, several have survived to bear witness to the innovative artistic work created by the French and Italian schools of paintings in the 14th century – and the lavish ceremonial lifestyle of the pontifical court that supported it.

More on Papal Politics

Portraits of the Popes of Avignon – imagined by 19th century artist Henri Serrur.

Three more popes would keep their seat of power in the French city until the last of them, Gregory XI (1370–1378) brought the Avignon papacy to an end in 1377 when he returned the papal court to Rome. However, this departure was not the end of  the Avignon popes. The following year, the Roman Catholic Church split apart when a faction of cardinals refused to recognizes Gregory’s successor, the newly appointed Pope Urban VI. Instead, they elected a rival Pope, and returned to Avignon. Thus from 1378 to 1403, during a period known as the Western Schism, Avignon was the seat of a rival papacy, its popes referred to by the official church in Rome as “Antipopes.”

Avignon – the Palace of the Popes.

Good to Know

  • Getting there —  By Train: Avignon is located in southeastern France, 700 kilometers south of Paris. It is easily accessible in less than three hours by non-stop TVG (high-speed train) throughout the day from Paris – Gare de Lyon to the Avignon TGV station.  The TGV station lies  slightly outside of town, and is connected via regular shuttle trains to the Avignon Central Station (Gare d’Avignon Centre just outside the fortification walls on the southern edge of the old town. The city is also well connected other main cities in France and surrounding countries via regional regional and intercity trains.  These arrive at the Avignon Centre station.
  • Visiting —  The Popes’ Palace, Place du Palais, 84000 Avignon, France, is open every day, all year round from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm.  Check the website for extended visiting hours during the summer season.  Contact: tel. +33 (0) 4 32 74 32 74. Accessibility: due to its multiple stone stairways, the palace is regrettably not accessible to persons with reduced mobility.

 

Location, location, location!

Palais des Papes

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