Archive for the ‘France Through the Ages’ Category

From Sarlat to Saumur

Saturday, June 15th, 2013

johnsweetsJohn Sweets is Professor Emeritus of History, specializing in the Vichy France era, the French Resistance, and occupied France. He has taught 19th and 20th century European history at the University of Kansas, University College, Dublin (Ireland), The School of International Studies (Fort Bragg, NC), and at the Université de Franche-Comté, Besançon (France).

John led a group of Smithsonian travelers on a journey of France Through the Ages.

***

Following three days of a fascinating visit in the French Perigord, the Smithsonian travelers enjoyed a final tasty breakfast buffet in the beautiful yellow-limestone city of Sarlat, before boarding the bus for a day-long trip through south-central France to the Loire Valley, where their destination would be Saumur, formerly a Protestant stronghold in the 17th century until Louis XIV’s revocation of Henri IV’s Edict of Nantes.  Along the way, in addition to viewing the beautiful scenery as the countryside changed from mountains to rolling hills to the vineyards and levees along the Loire, the trip was broken by one dramatic and moving visit, a surprising lunch break, and several history-laden photo stops.

The yellow limestone of Sarlat's Old Town. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

The yellow limestone of Sarlat’s Old Town. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

The Chateau of Saumur overlooks the Loire River. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.
The Chateau of Saumur overlooks the Loire River. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

The first stop was at the martyred town of Oradour-sur-Glane, where four days after the start of the D-Day Landings in Normandy, the German SS Division Das Reich sent elements of the Der Fuhrer regiment to destroy the little town of Oradour and murder 642 of its residents, approximately one-half of the pre-World War II population. Following the war, the residents of the town decided to keep the town just as it had been left by the Nazis as a memorial to commemorate the cost of the war and occupation to the country. The travelers were given a sense of what a French village of the late 1930s looked like, as tracks from the tramway to Limoges were preserved and the remains of houses were marked with the professions of their former owners, including some professions, such as sabotier (or wooden clog maker), that disappeared in the years following the war. The remains of the village church and the cemetery provided the most emotional memories of our visit. Family members of those killed on June 10, 1944 have left photographic images of their loved ones on top of family grave stones and below the memorial wall in the cemetery. The travelers left the martyred village after an emotional visit with a sensation of having walked on “sacred” ground.

Memorial plaque in tribute to four school girls massacred at Oradour-sur-Glane. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

Memorial plaque in tribute to four school girls massacred at Oradour-sur-Glane. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

Burned out car, left by Germans at Oradour-sur-Glane. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

Burned out car, left by Germans at Oradour-sur-Glane. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

Our next stop provided a much lighter moment and a very surprising discovery in the heart of France. Lunch was at La Petite Fountain, a buffet style salad bar, located in a former medieval structure for grain storage. The building has been converted into a restaurant by a charming young couple from Scotland, whose restaurant also serves as a cultural center for the fairly substantial British community who live in the area and come into town on weekends to hear Irish and Scottish music at the bar and restaurant. After lunch we continued to the north with a detour to drive through the 17th-century planned community of Richelieu, named for the famous Cardinal Richelieu, chief councilor to Louis XIII. Our bus driver, Laurent, miraculously steered the bus safely between the walls of the narrow, arched entry and exit to the town and received well-deserved applause from the travelers, who by that time had grown accustomed to his virtuosity behind the steering wheel.

Smithsonian travelers arrive at La Petite Fontaine in Le Dorat. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

Smithsonian travelers arrive at La Petite Fontaine in Le Dorat. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

Central square in Richelieu. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

Central square in Richelieu. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

Before reaching our destination at Saumur, we made one final photo stop at Chinon on the Vienne River, where Joan of Arc had her first meeting with the Dauphin, soon to become Charles VII, King of France, after she led the French Army that escorted him to Reims in July 1429 for his coronation. The travelers had a beautiful view of the restored castle from the banks of the Vienne. From there we made our way to the banks of the Loire, crossing the river on a bridge with a beautiful view of the Chateau of Saumur, which to our surprise we discovered rising above the city just behind the hotel Anne d’Anjou, which was to be our base of operations for the next few days.

The Chateau of Chinon overlooks the Vienne River. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

The Chateau of Chinon overlooks the Vienne River. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

***

Read more about upcoming departures of our France Through the Ages tour here.

From Sarlat to Rocamadour and back to the Dordogne Valley

Monday, December 31st, 2012

John Sweets is Professor Emeritus of History, specializing in the Vichy France era, the French Resistance, and occupied France. He has taught 19th and 20th century European history at the University of Kansas, University College, Dublin (Ireland), The School of International Studies (Fort Bragg, NC), and at the Université de Franche-Comté, Besançon (France).

John led a group of Smithsonian travelers this September on a journey of France Through the Ages.

***

This morning, after finishing a nice breakfast at our hotel, we walk to the center of the old city at Sarlat, a beehive of activity, enticing aromas, and the bright colors of the Saturday market. Since Sarlat offers a regional market for this part of the Perigord, scores of farmers display fruit, vegetables, wine, and local specialties such as foie gras, sausages, bread, baked goods, and cheese. Artists, flea market vendors and producers of handmade goods also come to the city to sell their products, attracting hundreds of customers from the surrounding area. Our travelers wander amongst the stalls, and many of them purchase the fixings for a nice picnic lunch to have at Rocamadour, the first destination for the day’s bus ride.

Rocamadour Chapel interior

The Rocamadour Chapel settled within the rock face. Photos courtesy of John Sweets

In route to Rocamadour the sky suddenly brightens and the temperature rises to provide perfect conditions for our visit of the spectacular medieval pilgrimage sight hewn out of the side of a cliff high above the Alzou, a small tributary of the Dordogne that through the ages has carved out a steep canyon whose walls rise more than 400 feet above the river. After a quick photo stop to allow the travelers an overview of the sight, the bus driver lets us out at the top of the canyon, from which we begin our descent, along a 19th century trail marking the fourteen stages of the cross for a visit of the Chapel of Notre Dame, built into the cliff at the sight of the discovery of Saint Amadour’s body in the 12th century. Francoise, our guide and tour leader, explains the significance of Rocamadour as an important pilgrimage sight and points out the wall paintings and the handle of the Sword of Roland which sticks out of the cliff above the entry to the Chapel. Then we are left on our own to discover the famous Black Virgin of Rocamadour and the beautiful stained glass windows of the Chapel. Some of the travelers who did not bring a picnic lunch from Sarlat enjoy a delicious omelet filled with morel mushrooms, served with French fries, a large green salad, and slices of bread from possibly the world’s largest loaf of bread (see photo).

Stained_glass_at_Chapel_at_Rocamadour

Beautiful stained glass at Chapel Rocamadour. Photo courtesy of John Sweets

Huge_loaf_of_bread_in_Rocamadour

An impressively large loaf of bread found around lunch time in the Rocamadour village. Photo courtesy of John Sweets

Driving back toward the Dordogne valley, we seek out the Dordogne River whose meanderings we follow to one of France’s most beautiful villages, La Rocque Gageac. This village was once home to cliff dwellers who built their homes high above the Dordogne, remains of which can still be seen. We have a wonderful view of the village that follows the curve of the Dordogne from the shallow-draft gabarre, the traditional boat of the region, which takes us on a lovely and restful river cruise, round-trip from La Rocque Gageac to the Chateau de Castelnaud. Returning to Sarlat by bus, we have time for another photo stop below the Chateau de Beynac, once ruled over by Eleanor of Aquitaine and her beloved son, Richard the Lionhearted.

Former_cliff_dwellings_of_troglodytes_in_dordogne

Former cliff dwellings of troglodytes embedded in the cliffs in Dordogne. Photo courtesy of John Sweets

View_of_Dordogne_River_Valley

A beautiful view of the Dordogne River Valley.  Photo courtesy of John Sweets

Chateau_de_ Beynac

Chateau de Beynac was owned by Eleanor of Aquitaine and her favorite son, Richard the Lionhearted.  Photo courtesy of John Sweets

It has been a full day already, and we return to Sarlat just in time for dinner at Le Regent, an excellent restaurant situated on the central square in front of the Hotel de Ville, where we sample foie gras and confit de canard, served with pommes a la sarladaise, the local potato specialty. Entering the restaurant, the travelers had been astonished by the large crowd gathering in the central square. However, they soon discover that this is one of the dates designated for celebration of the French patrimony- a day when many towns open historical landmarks, otherwise not open to the public. The town was beautifully decorated for the evening with candles everywhere, colorful light shows illuminating the walls, story-tellers and actors performed on stage in front of the Hotel de Ville and along narrow streets, women dressed in Renaissance clothing, leaned out their windows to shout insults to one another. The evening was concluded with a harp concert at the local Church.  With this wonderful, and completely unanticipated surprise, the travelers made their way back to the Hotel for sleep before an early morning start to their next day’s destination in the Loire Valley.

Sarlat_busy_market_place

The celebration of French Patrimony forms in a busy market place. Photo courtesy of John Sweets

Cathedral_of_St_Sacerdos_at_Sarlat

The Cathedral of St. Sacerdos in Sarlat from behind.  Photo courtesy of John Sweets

***

Read more about upcoming departures of our France Through the Ages tour here.

From Toulouse to Sarlat

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

John Sweets is Professor Emeritus of History, specializing in the Vichy France era, the French Resistance, and occupied France. He has taught 19th and 20th century European history at the University of Kansas, University College, Dublin (Ireland), The School of International Studies (Fort Bragg, NC), and at the Université de Franche-Comté, Besançon (France).

John recently led a group of Smithsonian travelers on a journey of France Through the Ages.

***

After a copious breakfast at our hotel in Toulouse early Sunday morning, we board the bus, leaving La Ville Rose, the “Pink City,” along almost deserted streets.  Our trip today will take us to Sarlat, one of the principal cities of the Perigord, but first we will share some unforgettable experiences in the “Red City” of Albi, from which the Medieval Albigensian Crusade took its name.

In Albi’s main square two imposing structures await, the Cathedral of Ste. Cecile, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Archbishop’s Palace, which has been transformed into the Toulouse- Lautrec museum.

Hotel d'Assezat, Toulouse

Hotel d’Assezat, Toulouse. (Photo by author.)

At first sight, the Cathedral, made entirely of brick and mortar, looks more like a fortress than a church, reminding us of its origin as a statement of the Catholic Church’s power, a symbol of overwhelming force in face of the Cathars who had challenged the legitimacy of the Roman Catholic Church and its clergy.  Then, upon entry to the cathedral, what a surprise awaits us: one of the most extraordinary churches that one could hope to see.  Not only is the nave divided by a beautifully sculpted Jube (rood screen), separating the lay people from the clergy in their chancel, as was common in the Medieval period, but the walls and ceilings are covered with remarkable paintings.  Below the organ, a fresco of the Last Judgment stretches behind the altar, painted by Flemish artists in 15th century Italian Renaissance style.

Painted ceiling of the Chancel, Cathedral of Ste. Cecile

Painted ceiling of the Chancel, Cathedral of Ste. Cecile. (Photo by author.)

The Toulouse-Lautrec museum has been renovated recently and provides a wonderful setting for the paintings of this outstanding French painter who was born in the town of Albi, and whose wealthy, aristocratic family had extensive holdings in the surrounding countryside.  The collection includes some of the painter’s earliest drawings and paintings and features his pioneering poster art, as well as lithographs, pastels and paintings from each stage of his development as an artist.  Particularly appealing are some of his finest portraits, his paintings of horses and other animals, and his especially sensitive treatment of the women of the “comfort houses” of Montmartre in Paris.

The building that houses the Toulouse-Lautrec collection, formerly the Archbishop’s Palace, is a work of art in its own right, and the palace gardens offer a backdrop for gorgeous views over the Tarn River.

View over the Tarn River from the Bishop’s Gardens, Albi. (Photo by author.)

As we leave Albi behind, we follow a small, picturesque road through the countryside of southwestern France, passing the beautiful hillside town of Cordes, perched high above the valley of the Tarn. We make our way toward the Perigord and an early evening arrival in Sarlat.

***

Read more about Smithsonian Journeys’ France Through the Ages tour here.

“Produits du Terroir”: In France, Both Food and Architecture Stem from the Soil

Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

Linda Seidel, Smithsonian Journeys Study LeaderLinda Seidel, Professor Emerita at the University of Chicago, is an art historian with special expertise in medieval architecture and its decoration, northern European Renaissance painting, and art historical methodology.

This summer, Linda led a group of Smithsonian travelers on a journey from Toulouse to Paris and through some of France’s most scenic countryside. See her post from the trip below:

***

French countryside

French countryside. (Photo by the author.)

I first went to France as a student long ago to study art at the Musée du Louvre. During that summer, I practiced my French, explored Paris as well as the adjacent countryside, and savored the freshness, flavor, and diversity of the food available in local markets. Subsequent visits took me to distant corners of this endlessly varied nation. When I return to France now, familiarity quickens my stride. Anticipation of the variety that awaits me, diverse treats for both sight and taste, precedes the pleasure of fulfillment.

On this trip, our Tour Director talked about the way in which the French express the significance of the local landscape wherever one might be. The word “terroir” conveys the notion that multiple aspects of a region’s identity are profoundly rooted in the nature of the local soil. Agricultural products in particular acquire their distinctive flavors from the mineral composition and drainage of the land in or on which they are grown. Animals grazing on grasses in one region produce milk or meat with different qualities from those that are raised elsewhere. Cheeses, butter, lamb and pork (not to mention wine) differ because of the environments in which they are cultivated. Their unique qualities allow them to be celebrated in markets and shops throughout the French countryside (and, for the benefit of tourists, at airports) as “produits du terroir”: foods that are inherently, implicitly, and incontrovertibly regional specialitiés and are incapable of imitation.

Geological features also engender the characteristics of buildings. In addition to the matter of topographical setting, the texture and color of material that is locally quarried determines critical aesthetic and structural issues. The relative softness of limestone elicits fine chiseling and enables subtle sculpting; the dark coarseness of volcanic tufa projects a rugged profile of defense; marble evokes lustrous magnificence. The materials used in the construction and embellishment of churches, walls, and castles identified for pilgrims long ago the distinctive qualities of patronage and protection that might be found in a particular Count or King’s domain. In times gone by, buildings bore witness to specific regional definition; like Camembert and paté, they were, in an equally profound sense, “produits du terroir.”

Architectural monuments continue to express the diversity of the ground from which they derive their distinctive features, even as the passage of time and efforts at preservation may have altered their appearance. This notion of the specificity of locale, which underpins my delight in the French countryside, repeatedly rewards my return to places I’ve visited and “feasted” on before. How perfect then to find on this recent trip, just around the bend from a tiny twelfth-century limestone church in the village of St-Léonard-sur-Vezère, a grocery van advertising local specialitiés of the table.

A depiction of one of Edouard Manet’s celebrated paintings in the Musée d’Orsay was painted on the vehicle’s side. In it, three figures relax in the woods next to the ingredients of an informal lunch that are arrayed on a cloth on the ground. The title of the painting, which translates as “Luncheon on the Grass,” was appropriated by the purveyor for the name of his concern; it was accompanied by the words “produits du terroir” – indication that the sausages, crudités, cheeses, and wines that it sold had been grown and made locally – and were suitable for a picnic!

In this tiny village in the Dordogne, art and food, my longtime, ever faithful companions of the road, were, in an instant, incongruously yet memorably conjoined.

A grocery van outside the village of St-Léonard-sur-Vezère

A grocery van outside the village of St-Léonard-sur-Vezère. (Photo by the author.)

***

Read more about Journeys’ upcoming “France Through the Ages” departures, and check out Linda’s upcoming trips.

A Day in Champagne Country

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

John Sweets, Smithsonian Journeys' Study LeaderProfessor John Sweets is Professor Emeritus of History, specializing in the Vichy France era, the French Resistance, and occupied France. He has taught 19th and 20th century European history at the University of Kansas, University College, Dublin (Ireland), The School of International Studies (Fort Bragg, NC), and at the Université de Franche-Comté, Besançon (France). This spring, he led a Smithsonian Journeys group on a tour of France through the ages. See his post below: The perfect day in Paris begins with a glass of champagne and ends with a sunset at the Eiffel Tower.

Our morning begins with an early breakfast before boarding the bus for a trip to the north and east of Paris. A beautiful orange sunrise greets us through the front and right side window of the tour bus as we leave the Circular Boulevard around central Paris and follow the autoroute for a couple of hours. Many of the travelers take advantage of the quiet hum of the motor to catch up on their sleep. Others remark on how quickly we have left the Parisian urban environment and are driving through a rich, green countryside. As we approach Epernay and champagne country, we begin to see the chalky hillsides covered with the three varieties of grapes, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay, used to produce the local champagne, which our guide Dominique reminds us is the only wine legally entitled to bear the name Champagne.

At the house of Moet & Chandon we are met by a lovely woman, stylishly attired in a Nina Ricci outfit, who takes us through all of the steps leading to the production of this bubbly gold. We are particularly impressed with how almost every stage of the process is still done by hand, especially for the vintage years which are treated with special care. Our guide tells us that the Imperial Champagne, a tribute to Napoleon Bonaparte, who was a good friend of the founder of the house, is the best champagne in the world. After she serves us a full glass of this elixir, no one is inclined to doubt her word, although we do ask each other: “Are we really drinking this fine champagne at 10:30 in the morning?”

Moet & Chandon

Geometry at Moet & Chandon. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Gin Fizz.)

From Epernay we make our way to Reims for a quick lunch and then a visit to the extraordinary cathedral in the center of the town. It is hard to choose which is the most striking, the exterior façade with incredible sculpture at the entry doors and all the way up the front of the cathedral, or the wonderful stained glass windows, seen in all their glory from the interior of the church, and including very old traditional windows, a beautiful Rose Window, and gorgeous modern stained glass by Marc Chagall, who attempted in his panels to recreate the blue color of Chartres Cathedral. We are also reminded by statues of Joan of Arc, both outside and inside the Cathedral, that Reims Cathedral is the place to which most of the French kings were brought for their coronation ceremonies. In July 1429, Joan of Arc led the initially reluctant Dauphin to Reims to be crowned as King Charles VII and stood in her armor at his side (not in a dress as she is now represented by the statue inside the Cathedral).

After a stop and guided tour at the Mumm champagne house in Reims, capped off by a second full glass of champagne, we board our bus for the return trip to Paris and promptly fall asleep under the warm afternoon sun. After leaving the autoroute we merge into the flood of late afternoon traffic in Paris. After a quick stop at our hotel, we proceed to the Eiffel Tower to finish our day with a spectacular view over Paris at sunset. We arrive to find that due to technical problems, only one of the tower’s four elevators is in operation. To our astonishment, our Tour Guide, Francoise, is able to charm one of the attendants at the entry into letting us move up close to the front of the line. We have only a relatively short wait before ascending the tower and ending our day perched above the city trying to locate, in the glow of an unforgettable sunset, various Parisian sights we had visited earlier in the week.

View from the Eiffel Tower.

Sunset seen from the Eiffel Tower. (Image courtesy of Flickr user Oh Paris.)

Click here to read more about Journeys’ upcoming “France Through the Ages” tour.