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

Albi — The City Shaped By The Cathar Saga

Albi — The City Shaped By The Cathar Saga

On the banks of the river Tarn, some 75 kilometers (47 miles) northeast of Toulouse, the ancient city of Albi still bears witness to the troubled history of religious conflicts of its medieval past. 

The city developed around its ancient bridge across the Tarn.

The “Albigensian Crusade” (1209-1229) is the only medieval crusade to have been conducted against Christians, more specifically against a Gnostic religious sect that flourished in Southern France in the 12th  century. The Cathars (from the ancient greek Katharoi or “pure ones”) were challenging the iron-fisted authority and extravagant worldliness of the medieval papacy and its Catholic clerics.

 

The Wrath of Popes and Kings

The fortress-like Saint Cecilia Cathedral dominates the city.

At the time, the Languedoc was  under the hereditary rule of the Counts of Toulouse, and most of the region was Cathar country, with Albi standing  at the geographical centre of it, When, in 1208, Pope Innocent III announced a crusade to eradicate the troublesome heretics, King Philippe II (a.k.a. Philippe Auguste) was only too glad to join forces. Combating Cathar heresy was an excellent pretext for Philippe, whose true objective was arguably more about bringing the southwest of France under the control of the French kings than it was about fighting heretics.

The Dominique de Florence Portal reinforces the fortress.

The repression was long and gruesome. But even after the victory of the King’s forces, the southwest of France remained volatile, and the Catholic powers wary of insurrection. The construction of the mighty Albi cathedral which started half a century after the end of the conflict, was thus built as a massive fortress, to stand as a symbol of episcopal power and in a pinch, serve as a defensive position in the event of attacks.

 

The Fortress Cathedral

The extravagant decor belies the austere exterior.

When the then Bishop of Albi, Bernard de Castanet, began the construction of the Saint Cecilia Cathedral in 1282, he intended it to stand as a symbol of Catholic domination and victory over the Cathars. And he succeeded in delivering an eloquent metaphor for the roots of the conflict: an ominous fortress on the outside, with a sumptuous interior decor.

A Flamboyant Gothic portal was added in the 16th century.

Built over two centuries (1282 to 1480) in the pink bricks of the region, the cathedral is a masterpiece of Southern Gothic style and one of the largest brick monuments in the world. The formidable structure (113 meters – 372 feet – long and 35 meters -115 feet wide) topped by a 78 meter (256 ft) dungeon-like bell tower dominates the entire city. The southern facade is marked by a somewhat incongruous but nonetheless spectacular Flamboyant Gothic canopied porch entrance. Added in 1510 by Bishop Charles de Robertet, it is the only hint of the extravagant art and craftsmanship within.

The Glory Within

The catheral’s choir is lavishly decorated.

The interior is all delicate gothic tracery in stone and wood. One of the most remarkable particularities of the gigantic space is that all the upper walls, including the soaring vaulted ceiling, are covered with intricate geometric paintings, mainly in silver and indigo blue. Another striking feature is the root screen, a delicately carved ornamental fence that surrounds the entire choir area reserved for the clergy, separating it from the nave and the aisles. The lacy stonework is richly decorated with polychrome sculptures depicting the life of Saint Cecilia on the parishioners’ side, and Christ and his apostles on choir side.

A monumental fresco of the last judgement occupies the entire rear wall of the cathedral.

A particularly significant element of the decor is the massive fresco of the Last Judgement that occupies the entire western wall of the cathedral. In the traditional tiered doomsday layout of such cautionary themes, layered rows of angels, apostles, saints, clerics and other blessed beings, clad in white to symbolize purity, look down to the lower levels. Here, crowds of naked sinners are writhing in the agony of hell in the company of monsters and demons. And to further drive the point across, a band of text reminds viewers that the judgement is irreversible.

The Berbie Palace

The Episcopal Berbie Palace is one of the oldest and best preserved medieveal fortified castle in France.

A Formal French Garden was later added to the fortress.

In 1228, half a century before Bishop Castanet was to break ground for his cathedral project, his predecessor, Bishop Durant de Baucaire (Bishop from 1228 to 1254), with the blood of the tens of thousand of massacred Cathars barely dry across the Languedoc, considered it prudent to built himself a small fortress. And thus the Berbie Castle began, taking its name from from “bisbia,” a local Occitan variation of the word Bishop. The next resident, Bishop Bernard de Combret, added a wall fortified with bastions, so that by the time Castanet took office, he already had the makings of his own mighty château, which he carried on while inaugurating the work on the cathedral.

Over time, successive Bishops softened the appearance of the palace by adding residential buildings, a chapel, a French-style garden, and decorating the interior with with mosaics and elaborate coffered ceilings.

 

 

 

The Toulouse-Lautrec Museum

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Autoportrait, 1880, Oil on cardboard.

The Cathedral and its properties were officially nationalized in 1905, and the Palace given to the city of Albi for use as a museum. In 1922, it received an important collection of works by native son Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, donated by his parents. Now  known as the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, it includes over 1000 of his works making it a unique single artist collection.

Toulouse-Lautrec was born in Albi in 1864 to a wealthy aristocratic family descended from the Counts of Toulouse. A childhood accident and possible genetic disability crippled him for life, stunted his growth, and likely propelled his immersion into art, alcoholism, and the gritty underbelly of fin de siècle Paris. Here, this Post-Impressionist’s works are organized chronologically, beautifully documenting the evolution of his art and life: works from his youth, works from his seedy stint in Montmartre, and works from his time as a poster designer. His 31 world famous posters are all gathered here.

The Iconographer of Montmartre

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. 1894. Au Salon de la rue des Moulins. Oil on canvas.

Toulouse-Lautrec came to fame while living in Montmartre, documenting the brothels and bohemian salons of his neighborhood, which were a magnet for struggling artists in late 19th century Paris. His work stood out for his expressive lines, intense use of color, and for the acuity and sensitivity with which he documented the bawdy personalities of the local nightlife. This is especially notable in the world-weary pathos of his female subjects.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. 1893. Cadieux. Essence oil on paper.

It becomes clear, walking through this chronological exhibition how his innovative style led him to become the first artist to elevate advertising posters to the status of fine art. Some of its most famous masterpieces are posters for nightclubs – to the point where Toulouse Lautrec can be identified with little else. One of the great pleasures of this retrospective of his life’s works is to discover the whole artist beyond the “poster man.” 

Saint Cecilia seen from the Berbie Castle.

After a couple of hours spent with Toulouse-Lautrec, it’s time to escape to the formal Renaissance Jardins à la Francaise of the Berbie Palace, and take a walk under the ancien grapevine along the ramparts. From there you get a great view of Le Pont Vieux, the medieval bridge. Built between 1035 and 1040, it is one of the oldest bridges in France, still open to pedestrian traffic. Then wander into the traffic-free maze of half-timbered houses and quaint crooked streets of the medieval center.

Good to Know

  • Getting there—By train: there are multiple train connections between Toulouse’s main train station (Toulouse Matabiau) and Albi. The trip takes one hour. From Albi’s central station (Albi Ville) it’s an easy 15 minutes walk to the cathedral and the Berbie Palace. By car:  It’s about one hour’s drive from the northeast outskirts of Toulouse (Via route A68) to Albi. There are a number of available parking options on the outskirts of the city
  • Getting around – Visiting Albi is a pedestrian experience. Plan comfortable shoes to explore for the cobblestone lanes of the old town.
  • Visiting—Cathédrale Sainte Cécile is open year-round, Monday through Friday from 2:00 pm to 5:15 pm, Saturday from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm and Sunday from 9:30 am to 5:45 pm, with the exception of the choir and the cathedral’s treasure, which are open daily from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm. Note: while the entrance of the cathedral is free, there is a  6€ entrance fee to visit the choir and the treasure. Musée Toulouse-Lautrec is open daily from June 1st  to September 30th from 10:30 am to 6:30 pm. From October 1st to May 31st, opening hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 12:30 pm and 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm, and closed on Tuesday. The museum is also closed on the following national holidays: January 1, May 1, November 1 and December 25. 

Location, location, location!

Albi

Andalusia Road Trip – Seville – A tale of two cultures

Andalusia Road Trip – Seville – A tale of two cultures

This is Day Two of our Andalusian adventure. We leave the peaceful vineyards of the Sierrania de Ronda at mid-morning for the two-hour drive to Seville, the vibrant capital and cultural center of Andalusia.

The Seville Cathedral seens through the Door of Forgiveness from the original Almohad mosque.

Throughout the region, displays of Catholic dominance compete for attention with the memories of several centuries of Moorish rule. This is especially apparent in Seville, where the largest Gothic cathedral in the world sits on the site of the great Aljiama mosque built in the 12th  century by the ruling Moorish Almohad dynasty, a few minutes’ walk from the Christian Kings’ magnificent Mudéjar-style Alcazàr palace.

 

The Seville Cathedral

Detail of a side chapel.

When Ferdinand III conquered Seville from the Moors in 1248, the mosque was immediately christianazied. But it was not until 1401 that the decision was made to build a proper Christian church on the site. Construction of the sprawling Catholic complex, which boasts 80 chapels and the longest central nave in Spain (135 meters or 443 feet) soaring to a breathtaking height of 42 meters (138 feet), lasted over a century.

The Christopher Columbus mausoleum sits in the nave.

Although still an active Catholic sanctuary, the cavernous cathedral is now overrun by visitors following a loosely arranged itinerary of its main attractions, starting with the mausoleum of Christopher Columbus. His coffin is held aloft by four figures representing the four kingdoms of Spain at the time of Columbus’ life: Aragon, Castille, Leon and Navarra. The massive late 19th  century monument by local sculptor Arturo Melida was originally installed in Havana, Cuba, before being moved to Seville in 1899 after Spain lost control of Cuba. (n.b. Havana and Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic also claim to hold his remains, but recent DNA tests confirmed that this tomb does hold Columbus – or one of his close relatives).

A Surfeit of Riches

The Gothic main altar is one of the most important polychrome wood structures of its time.

A few steps away, the Capilla Mayor (Main Chapel, or central nave) is dominated by its overwhelming gold-leafed Retablo of 45 carved scenes from the life of Christ. This huge Gothic main altar, regarded as the largest in Christendom, is one of the most spectacular polychrome wood structures of its time.Tourists of all nations stop to gape while their guides provide staggering statistics on the amount of gold involved.

The treasury holds an incredible wealth of silver reliquaries.

We follow the flow around the edge of the nave, checking out various chapels until we reach the Sala Capitular (Chapter House) with its magnificent domed ceiling mirrored in the marble design of the floor and its walls covered with fine Murillo paintings. Beyond it, the grandiose Sacrista Mayor (Great Sacristy) houses the treasury with its profusion of silver reliquaries, as well as the keys presented by the Moorish and Jewish communities to Ferdinand III upon the surrender of the city.

The minaret of the original mosque is now the bell tower.

However ambitious their Christian purpose, the new Castilian rulers did preserve a few elements from the Aljiama mosque. Most notably the minaret with its intricate brick pattern fashioned after Marrakech’s famous Koutoubia mosque now serve as the bell tower. This original Muslim bottom section is 51 meters (168 feet) high. Form the bell tower up, a seamless 16th century Renaissance addition raises the tower to 99 meters (325 feet). Topped with a distinctive bronze weather vane (giralda in Spanish), it has become the iconic symbol of Seville.

Citrus trees still gow in the courtyard where ritural ablutions once took place prior to Muslim worship.

The other remaining part of the former mosque is the vast Patio de los Naranjos, named for the orange trees that shaded the entrance courtyard where ritual ablutions took place prior to worship. In the center of the patio, a Moorish fountain incorporates a sixth century carved marble font, a surviving remnant of an earlier Visigoth church, which itself was leveled to make room for the mosque. On the north side of the patio, the Puerta del Perdón (Door of Forgiveness) is a stucco engraved horseshoe-shaped masterpiece also dating from the original Almohad mosque.

The Real Alcázar

The Alcázar retains elements of the original Almohad palace.

A few minutes’ walk from the cathedral, the Real Alcàzar (Royal Palace) is a unique complex of fortresses, palaces and gardens that has evolved over eleven centuries. It remains the official Seville residence of the Spanish royal family, making it the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe.

 

 

The Alcázar is built in the Mudéjar style.

The construction of the fortress began in the 10th century, during the reign of Caliph Abd al-Rahman (912-961). The complex was then enlarged and renovated throughout the city’s rich history. Beyond the fortification walls and the remains of a 12th century Almohad palace, all later work was carried out by Christian kings in the Mudéjar style – a post-Islamic style that remained strongly influenced by Moorish taste and workmanship.

 

The Palacio de Don Pedro

The cupola of the Salon of the Ambassadors.

Also known as the Mudéjar Palace, the architectural masterpiece built by Pedro I (1334-1369) with its stunningly beautiful ceilings and elaborate plaster- and tile-work is the most spectacular of the entire complex. The Prince’s suite has a breathtaking gold ceiling intended to recreate a starlit night sky. The various apartments open through scalloped Moorish arches onto the exquisite Patio of the Maidens with its long central reflecting pool outlined by two sunken garden. The most famous of the public spaces is the Salon of the Ambassadors, a vast hall with a jaw-dropping Islamic-style cupola ceiling intended to represent the universe.

Magical Gardens

Almohad-style patios are arranged around bubbling fountains.

The Mercury Pond is inspired by the Italian Mannerist style.

The gardens are a major element of the Alcàzar. Spread across 6 hectares (15 acres) they have evolved through the centuries into three distinct areas that reflect the style of gardening of their respective eras while remaining the oasis of tranquility intended by the early occupants.

Closest to the palace, the ancient Almohad-style gardens are an inviting maze of tiled patios, bubbling fountains and secret corners, all connected by stairs and verdant arches. Then come the central Renaissance gardens, designed in the 16th century in the Italian Mannerist style. Their most famous elements are the Mercury Pond (named for the statue of the Roman god standing in the middle of it) and adjoining Grotto Gallery, which transformed a part of the Moorish fortifications into an upper loggia from which to admire the vast expanse of the gardens and the Charles V pavilion. The third area, created at the start of the 20th century on the former site of the property’s old orchard, is known as the English garden, and includes resident peacocks.

After a couple of hours spent making our way through the countless, extravagantly ornate rooms of the sumptuous palace, we especially enjoy exploring the fabulous gardens, spotting their countless fountains and generally relaxing in their relative peace.

Flamenco

El Arenal is one of Sevilles’ prestigious Flamenco venues.

Beyond its architectural masterpieces, an other multi-cultural artistic treasure of Andalusia is Flamenco – the complex fusion of song, dance and guitar music that tells the story of the Andalusian soul. The origins of Flamenco are much debated as this art form has been documented only for the past two centuries. Most of what we know has been transmitted in music and folklore. What is obvious it that it did originate in Andalusia when the area was under Moorish domination. The music and instruments were adapted over time by Christians, Jews and later Gypsies to become a hybrid form of expression to communicate their pain, oppression and passion.

El Arenal presents two nightly performances

Since the late 1960’s Flamenco has gradually evolved from local folklore to international celebrity, and Seville abounds with flamenco from bars, where the Flamenco “jam session” can be great – or not, to Tablaos.  There, nationally and internationally known artists perform professionally choreographed shows. With only one night to experience Flamenco on this trip, we go for the sure thing and book a table at Tablao el Arenal. Founded some 40 years ago by international flamenco star and Seville native Curro Veléz, it is located in a typical 17th century building that still channels the spirit of old Andalusian cafés. It has garnered a long-standing reputation for the quality of its performers, and also offers a dinner option with a fixed price, four-course, à la carte menu of Andalusian specialties prior to the 75-minute performance.

Our dinner and show advanced reservation scores us an amazing center front row table where we don’t miss a single step of the virtuoso footwork of the dancers. The show features 15 performers (guitarists, singers and dancers) and all are superb (sorry no photos allowed!). And yes, the meal is very nice too. Overall, the perfect evening to close our short visit to Seville, before leaving for Cordoba in the morning.

Good to Know

  • Getting around – The center of Seville is definitely a pedestrian experience. If like us you plan to arrive by car, jettison your vehicle in one of the underground garages at the edge of the historic center. Check  ahead with you hotel or short-term apartment management for recommendation of which parking to use.
  • Visiting –The Seville Cathedral is open for cultural visits on Monday from 11:00 am to 3:30 pm, Tuesday through Saturday from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm and Sunday from 2:30 pm to 6:00 pm. Tickets are available at the door usually with a relatively short wait.  If you also wish to visit the La Girlada (bell tower) and/or the roof of the cathedral, advanced tickets are imperative. Make sure to purchase them from the Seville Cathedral official website to avoid surcharges.
  • The Real Alcázar is open daily, October through March from 9:30 am to 6:00 pm and April through September from 9:30 through 8:00 pm. Unless you plan to visit late in the day (after all the busloads of tourists have departed) it is imperative to purchase advanced tickets – again directly from the Alcazar’s official website. A regular ticket will give you a line-free entrance to the palaces and the gardens any time during your chosen day.
  • The Royal Apartments (Cuarto Real Alto), should you decide to visit them, require that you purchase a separate ticket with a strict time-slot reservation. And be prepared to leave all your belongings, including cameras and cell phones – unless you are prepared to leave the latter turned off in you pocket – in lockers at by the entrance. Photos are strictly prohibited. The audio-guided tour takes 30 minutes, with security guards moving visitors along. Only 15 public rooms are opened to the public and although these have historic names referring to long-ago monarchs (i.e. Isabella of Castilla and Pedro I), most of the furniture and décor are from the 19th In my opinion, the visit is of little interest and not worth the constraint of adhering to the strict schedule.
  • Tablao El Arenal 7 calle Rodo, 41001, Sevilla. Contact: tel. +34 954 316 492 – open every night for from 6:00 pm to 11:30 pm with performances at 7:15 pm and 10:00 pm.  We found their dinner and show formula to be excellent value (75 Euros, or 84 U.S. Dollars per person at the time of this writing, beverages included).  Advanced reservations through their website strongly recommended.

 

Location, location, location!

Seville

Anchored to its Medieval Roots – Freiburg, Germany

Anchored to its Medieval Roots – Freiburg, Germany

Tucked into the southwestern corner of Germany at the crossroads of France and Switzerland, and with the Black Forest at the very gates of the city, Freiburg-im-Breisgau is the stuff medieval fairytales are made off.

From Market Town to Center of Learning

Franziskaner Street is lined with grand 16th century buildings.

In the late 11th century, the local ruler Berthold II von Zähringen, built a fortified castle on top of what is now known as Schlossberg (Castle Mountain) to control the local trade routes. Under his protection, the castle’s supporting cast of craftsmen and servants settled at the foot of the mountain in what is now the Altstadt (Old Town). Bolstered by the proximity of silver mines in the western Black Forest, the settlement quickly prospered. Declared a free market town  in 1120, Freiburg (or Free Town) developed into the area’s main center of trade. Then in 1457, with the founding of the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität, the city established itself as a learning center that remains prominent to this day.

Garlands of mature wistaria enhance the quaint atmosphere of the Old Town.

As is frequent with most European towns, its fortunes ebbed and flowed as it fell under the control of the Austrians, the French, the Spanish and several independent German states at various times throughout its long history. But in spite of it all, Freiburg managed to retain the unique atmosphere of an ancient Germanic town with its maze of narrow cobbled streets leading to its magnificent Gothic Minster (cathedral).

The city’s ancient architectural heritage was exactingly restored after World War Two.

Sadly, Freiburg did not escape the devastation of the Second World War. In a single bombing in November 1944, the majority of its historic center was reduced to ashes in twenty minutes, miraculously leaving the cathedral mostly untouched. But an exacting re-creation of its original plan and thoughtful reconstruction of its historic buildings have since restored the charm of the medieval market town.

 

The Iconic Symbol of the City

The delicate spire of the Minster dominates the skyline.

The main focal point of the city is its majestic cathedral, considered one of the great masterpieces of Gothic art in Germany. Although construction began around 1200, so that the transept and the towers that surmount it are actually Romanesque, the Minster or Münster, as it is known locally, evolved over three centuries as an exquisite Gothic gem. Its delicate spire of filigree stonework soaring 116 meters (318 feet) into the sky was built in the 14th and 15th centuries and has been the iconic symbol of the city ever since.

The high-altar triptych is by Hans Baldung Grien.

Inside, a number of remarkable sculptures such as an early 16th century adoration of the Christ Child by the Magi (in the transept) and a lovely 13th century Virgin flanked by two adoring angels (by the entrance to the tower) are eclipsed by the triptych altarpiece by Hans Baldung Grien, who is considered the most gifted student of Albrecht Dürer. The aisles are lined with vibrant 14th century stained-glass windows. Some panels, however, are reproductions. The originals  can be seen at eye level in the nearby Augustiner Museum.

Ever a Market Town

Only local growers can sell their products at the market.

Freiburg remains faithful to its market tradition. Every weekday morning, the square surrounding the cathedral, Minsterplatz, is still home to a popular outdoor market where local farmers and craftsmen sell their produce, flowers and handicrafts. On the side of the main portal, a set of medieval measurements remain engraved in the stone, a reminder of a time when they ensured that merchandises (e.g. lengths of cloth or loaves of bread) were of the required size. Along the north side of the church, the row of food trucks offering local sausages is one of the market’s most crowded area.

Coats of arms and statues decorate the façade of the Historisches Kaufhaus.

On the south side of the square, the 16th century gothic Historisches Kaufhaus (Historical Merchants’ Hall) is one of the most photogenic buildings in the city. Rising from its street-level arcade, its flamboyant red façade is embellished with polychrome tiled turrets. The coats of arms on the oriels and the four statues above the balcony symbolize Freiburg’s allegiance to the House of Habsburg.

From Monastery to Museum

The main hall displays a stunning collection of statues,

A short walk away from from the Minster, a former monastery of Augustinian monks has come back to life as the Augustiner Museum. A masterful redesign of the church has created a spectacular exhibit hall for the four-meter-high stone prophets from the Minster. They are one of the main attractions along with polychrome wood sculptures and panel paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Matthias Grünewald and Hans Baldun Grien among others. Upper galleries allow the works to be seen from various angles, and offer a close-up view of the gargoyles and stained-glass windows from the Minster.

A City Made for Wandering

The best way, the only way actually, to appreciate the unique charm of Freiburg is to wander its picturesque narrow streets.

St. George welcomes visitors at the entrance of Schwabentor.

One of the first things to catch the eye is bound to be one of the two gate towers that are all that remain from the city’s fortifications. Martinstor is the oldest, officially dating back to 1238, although research proved that the beams are even older (1202). Schwabentor is not far behind, having stood guard over the city since the year 1250. Both have had to adapt to modern times, however, and allow trams to now circulate under their arches. In case you are wondering which is which, Schwabentor is the tower with the painting of St George, the Patron Saint of Freiburg, on the side facing away from the city. Martinstor no longer features a painting but it does have an unfortunately unavoidable McDonald sign over its ancient archway.

Erasmus von Rotterdam lived here in the mid-16th century.

Haus zum Walfisch (House of the Whale) is the red mansion with the heavily decorated, late Gothic doorway on Franziskanergasse. The building’s best known resident is the humanist scholar Erasmus von Rotterdam, who lived there between 1529 and 1531 after fleeing the Reformation in Basel, Switzerland. The name of the building has no connection with its famous tenant, but it is believed to have a possible link with the biblical story of Jonah and the Whale (?).

A covered bridge connects the Old and New Town Halls,

Altes Rathaus and Neues Rathaus (Old and New Town Halls). The Freiburg Town Hall situation can be a bit confusing in that it consists of two elegant Renaissance buildings connected by a small covered bridge and facing a lovely tree-shaded square (predictably named Rathausplatz – or Town Hall Square). However, the ox-blood building on the right is the Old Town Hall. Completed in 1559, it has held the offices of the city government ever since, which by the way now include the Tourist Office. The white building on the left, completed in 1545, was used by the university for over three centuries before being purchased by the city for additional town hall space in 1891. And so it is that in Freiburg, the New Town Hall is older than the Old Town Hall.

Mind the Bächle

Sidewalk signage identifies the business conducted within.

Watch your step as you roam around the Old Town. Most of the lanes are lined with narrow, ankle deep ditches of running water known as Bächle. Dating back to the 13th century, they are filled with water diverted from the nearby Dreisam River. In the Middle Ages, they were used to provide drinking water for livestock and to battle fires. Today, in the summer, children run tiny boats in the Bächle, and local lore has it that anyone who accidentally steps in their water is destined to marry a local Freiburger.

Another thing that can’t be missed when walking around is the elaborate pavement design in front of most shops. Cut out of round stones this mosaic signage identifies the type of business to be found inside.

The Green City of the Future

The Heliothrope generates more energy than it uses.

Over the past few decades Freiburg has emerged as a European leader in sustainable urban development. One of the birthplaces of the German environmental movement, it is home to the Heliotrope, the very first “plus energy” house in the world. Designed as his own home in 1994 by Freiburg native architect, solar energy pioneer and environmental activist Rolf Disch, the Heliotrope generates more energy than it uses as it physically rotates with the sun to maximize its solar intake. It can be seen peering from a copse of trees, at the edge of the vineyards that reach the southern side of town.

The Holocaust Memorial reflecting pool and University Library.

The  nearby Quartier Vauban, also a plus energy district, is widely known to promote an environmentally conscious, family friendly life-style. In addition to the ubiquitous solar panels, it is notable for its variety of colorful paneled and vegetalized facades. Further eco-conscious developments can be seen throughout the city, including the new energy-efficient University Library building, which opened in 2015.

Note – Across the street from the library, the Holocaust Memorial black granite reflecting pool follows the outline of the foundations of the synagogue burned down during Kristallnacht, on November 9-10, 1938.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Conveniently located at the border triangle of Germany, France, and Switzerland, Freiburg is easily accessible by train though the excellent railroad system that connects it to the most major cities in Germany and neighboring European countries, making it an easy destination for a weekend side trip. By car, the city is connected to the German autobahn system via the A5, which runs along the Rhine Valley from north to south all the way to the Swiss border.
  • Visiting –The Minster is open to the public year round, Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm and Sunday from 1:00 pm to 7:00 pm. NB. The Organs:The Minster is famous for its rich musical history. Over the centuries it acquired four great pipe organs created by some of the most prestigious organ builders of their time. The four instruments are strategically placed throughout the church for optimum acoustic effect. They can be played together from the main console or as individual instruments. There are regular Tuesday night concerts throughout the summer season (tickets are sold at the door). But they can also be heard for free year-round at the Saturday morning “Orgelmusik zur Markzeit” (market time organ concert) from 11:30 am to 11:55 am. The Minster Market –The Market is open year-round, Monday through Saturday from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm. The Augustiner Museum, Augustinerplatz, 79098 Freiburg im Breusgau, is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm and closed Monday. Contact: tel. +49 (0) 761 201 2531.
  • Best Viewpoints – Although the iconic spire of the Minster is visible throughout the city, the best place to get a close-up eye-level snapshot is the terrace of the the cafeteria-restaurant at the top of the Kaufhtof  department store just around the corner from Münsterplatz. For a panoramic view over the rooftops of the city and the Black Forest hills to the horizon, take the footpath opposite Schwabentor, or hop on the cable car to the top of the Schlossberg.
  • Green City – Freiburg was the recipient of the German Sustainability award in 2012. 

Location, location, location!

Altstadt Freiburg