Posts Tagged ‘france’

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.

Following the River Seine to Paris

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

Our Study Leader John Sweets recently took a group of Smithsonian Travelers through the Normandy, Honfleur, and on to Paris during our acclaimed France Through the Ages tour. Here are his thoughts on the time they spent there…

After a delightful three-day stay in Normandy at our 13th century farm house inn, La Ranconniere, we have one last breakfast buffet with its irresistible chaussons aux pommes (apple turnovers), a delightful complement to our tea or café au lait, and we set out in our comfortable tour bus for the final leg of our trip, with an early evening arrival in Paris before us. As if on schedule, and despite predictions of rain, the overcast sky begins to give way to rays of sunlight as we pull into our parking place near the charming port of Honfleur, from which Jacques Cartier and Samuel Champlain had left France in the 16th and 17th Centuries to discover a French New World in Canada along the St. Lawrence River and into the upper American Midwest.

The lively port of Honfleur.

The lively port of Honfleur.

Still a fishing village today, but more attractive to many tourists because of its picturesque Vieux Bassin, lined with pleasure boats and cafes along the Quai Sainte-Catherine, Honfleur has become a prime weekend and holiday destination for Parisians who are just a few hours’ drive away on the AutoRoute, and who love to stroll around the narrow streets of the old town, patronizing its many chic art galleries and high-end shops. Our group of travelers joins the Parisians, at least in window shopping, but also takes time to visit the unusual, all wood, Sainte Catherine Church, with its very beautiful sculpted frieze of musicians, and a separate clock tower designed to limit damage should one part of the church catch on fire. While others take the opportunity to wander around the little town for photo opportunities that await around each corner, some of the travelers go with our guide, Francoise, to visit the Boudin Museum, home to the works of Eugene Boudin, who was one of the first landscape artists to paint out of doors, and who was an early teacher of Claude Monet.

After picking up sandwiches to eat on the bus, or having a quick crepe and coffee along the quays of the old harbor, we continue to follow the Seine River toward Vernon and Giverny, the home of that most famous of the Impressionist painters, who had sketched, under Boudin’s influence, as a young man in Honfleur. Upon our arrival at Giverny, we go first to discover the famous lily pad pond with its Japanese bridge, covered in wisteria, that appear in so many of Claude Monet’s paintings. In mid-June the lily pads are in full bloom and the surrounding gardens are spectacular in shades of pink, red, orange, blue, and every imaginable combination. Reflections of the different flowers in the pond offer dozens of views that might be mistaken for Impressionist paintings, taken directly from the very nature that Monet so loved. After leaving the lily pad pond, we follow an underpass below the road which was a train track in Monet’s day, and arrive at the fantastic gardens which extend below the dramatic, pink -colored house with dark green shutters, which for forty years in the late 19th and early 20th century was home to Claude Monet and his large family.

Monet’s gardens are resplendent with brightly colored flowers of every sort from roses and iris to purple garlic. Several pathways allow visitors to go up and down between the different beds to the delight of those horticulturalists along on the tour, as well as rank amateurs such as I am who can only repeat the word “gorgeous” at each newly discovered plant. Thanks to contemporary photographs from the period when Monet was at the height of his creative powers, his house has been restored with copies of all of his paintings hung in exactly the same location where he had placed them long ago. In addition to these copies of his own works, the originals of many of the now quite-valuable Japanese prints which he had collected are found on the second story along with Monet’s bedroom and that of his wife. Returning to the ground floor, we explore the dining room with its yellow ceiling and the spectacular kitchen, with copper pots hung on the blue walls, and featuring beautiful blue and white tiles above and around the large stove. Before exiting Monet’s property we browse through the gift shop, located in the studio especially built for his huge lily pad series of paintings that are now housed in the Orangerie in Paris. And just before leaving Giverny, we have time for a quick glance at the hill side behind and down the street from his house, where Monet created his famous series of haystacks, painted in all the different seasons. Today the field is covered with oats and poppies, and by closing one’s eyes, it is easy to imagine Monet sitting beside this field and painting one of his many works featuring bright red Coquelicots (poppies).

Boarding the bus one more time we take the AutoRoute that follows the path of the Seine River all the way to Paris. After about an hour and a half’s travel, near St. Cloud, a former royal palace, we emerge from an underground tunnel with a panoramic view of the Seine basin and catch our first view of the “old lady,” Paris’s Eiffel Tower, harbinger of still more exciting discoveries that await us tomorrow.

Packed yet? Click here to learn more about our France Through the Ages tour and here to learn more about Study Leader John Sweets.

Book – Black Diamond

Friday, November 4th, 2011

cover image - Black DiamondSet in France’s pictureque Dordogne region, Black Diamond is the third book in Martin Walker’s acclaimed series featuring Bruno, Chief of Police. Trouble is afoot in the normally sleepy village of St. Denis – attacks, arson, and smuggling begin to threaten the region’s truffle trade. Thankfully, Bruno is not only Chief of Police, he’s a master chef uniquely qualified to crack the case.

Would you like to experience the food, wine, and history of the Dordogne region for yourself? Join us for our Sojourn in Dordogne, with departures in April and September, 2012.