Sunday, August 25, 2013

Nimes, France: One stop shopping for Gladiators!

By Mary Harrsch

Note: The following travel narrative about my visit to Nimes, France is based on My Trip Journal entries recorded during a trip I made to England and France in May 2013 with my companions, Richard and Cecelia White from Chatham, England.

I got up this morning with the bright Mediterranean sun shining through the slits around the window shutters. When we first got here I was wondering how I could get dressed in the morning with no curtains on the windows but then Richard showed me how to use the window shutters instead. So opening and closing the window shutters has become part of my morning and evening routine.

I made scrambled eggs for breakfast then we went for a walk around the farm property where

A french milk goat enjoying a lush spring pasture near
Sauve, France. Photo by  © 2013.
our cottage is located. Our hosts have a couple of milking goats so I tried to get some good pictures of them then we walked down the lane to an old converted mill by the river and I took pictures of it. 

An old olive oil mill renovated into a
near Sauve, France.  Photo by
© 2013
Our accommodations includes use of a very large and very clean swimming pool that is built out in a nearby field complete with a statue of Venus but it has only been in the high 60s and low 70s here (my kind of weather) so I doubt if the pool water is very warm.

Olympic sized swimming pool
 at our gite
 near  Sauve, France.
Photo by © 2013
After lunch we took off for Nimes. Nimes became part of the Roman Empire sometime before 28 BCE.  By the reign of Augustus in the 1st century CE Nimes had reached a population of 60,000.  

We found a car park in the center of town right beside the Place d'Assas with a very interesting sculpture of an almost Olmec-looking head at one end.

This sculpture by Martial Raysse created in
is said to represent the "male force" of
the city of Nimes, France.  Photo by
. © 2013
Designed by Martial Raysse in 1989, this head named Nemausus represents the male force of the town according to a reference I found on the web.  The water flowing between this head and another monumental head at the far end of the plaza represents Nemausa, the spring that gave Nimes its name. 

After a bit of a mixup we finally found our way to the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple originally constructed in 16 BCE. The structure was rebuilt by the famous Roman admiral, Marcus Agrippa (victor of Actium), in approximately 2 - 4 CE.  The temple was dedicated to his two sons, Gaius and Lucius, who had been adopted by his best friend Augustus so they would rule Rome one day.  However, both died tragically young (poisoned by Augustus' vile wife Livia if we believe Robert Graves' interpretation of events in "I, Claudius!") 

The Maison Carree, an example of Vitruvian architecture built
in 16 BCE now houses an information center and theater
in Nimes, France.
Photo by . © 2013
The structure is an example of architecture popularized by the famous Roman architect, Vitruvius.  It's beautiful Corinthian columns are topped with ornately carved acanthus leaves.

A pidgeon nestles into the protective acanthus
leaves sculpted on the capital of a Corinithian
column of the Maison Carrée
in Nimes, France.
Photo by  © 2013
The temple survived the widespread destruction of pagan centers of worship after Rome adopted Christianity because it was converted to a church.  In the years that followed it was subsequently converted to a meeting hall for the city's consuls, a canon's house and even a stable for government-owned horses during the French Revolution.  It now houses an information center and theater.

Inside we bought a three day pass for all of the surrounding historical sites for only 11 Euros. It included admission to a short 3-D movie about the history of Nimes that was very well done even though Cecelia, a medieval reenactor, made fun of the less than authentic fencing in one of the segments.

I thought the segment on gladiatorial fights was quite authentic with a properly attired Roman referee and a retiarius (net man with trident) and a Secutor battling it out with little blood spilled. Each time one of the gladiators was in danger of a mortal wound the referee would step in and separate the combatants. 

Finally one of the men went down and the referee looked to the crowd for a verdict and declared the victor without any further harm coming to his opponent. In historical times that type of encounter was far more common than the blood bath seen on the Starz' Spartacus: Blood and Sand series. The only thing that was not quite authentic was that the men were relatively svelt. In Roman times gladiators ate an almost vegetarian diet of barley gruel to put on a protective layer of fat and often appeared rather barrel-chested.

This Roman relief  found along the Via Appia near the tomb of Cecilia Metella
illustrates the well fed contours of arena combatants in the 1st century BCE
Photogaphed at the Terme di Diocleziano, Rome, Italy by  © 2009
The movie was shown inside the temple so after it ended we climbed down the rather steep stairs (I had Cecelia walk next to me so if I bobbled she could keep me from falling since I promised you all I would not fall on this trip!) and walked several blocks to the Roman amphitheater. 

A Roman amphitheater now serves
as a venue for bullfights
in Nimes, France.
Photo by  © 2013
Although several tiers of the structure are now missing, what remains is in very good condition. It is significantly smaller than the Coliseum in Rome, though. 

Once fortified by the Visigoths, the Nimes amphitheater was a target of destruction
by Charles Martel in 737 CE so only the lower tiers of the structure remain.
Photographed in Nimes, France by  © 2013
With the upper tiers of the structure missing I could not see any remnants of the supports for the sun shades that were usually extended to shade the spectators on a hot day. I also did not see any numbers carved into the stone above the various entry doors that matched tokens given to attendees to tell them which door to use so ingress and egress could be accomplished in a relatively short time.

Thankfully, although the sand of the arena was carefully raked in preparation for a contest, there were no bull fights scheduled today. When we explored the interior access tunnels we came upon a small museum displaying several ornate matador costumes. But that is the closest to bull fighting I would like to get.

Closeup of an ornately beaded jacket of a matador at the
small bullfighting museum inside the amphitheater
Nimes, France.  Photo by  © 2013
In the gift shop I bought my first kitchen shrine of the trip - a small snow globe containing a pair of battling gladiators atop a replica of the amphitheater. Each time I go on a trip I try to find a small souvenir that I can place on my kitchen window sill at home so when I'm cooking or washing dishes I can look at the souvenir and recall pleasant memories of a particular trip, so the snow globe fit the bill.

We stopped by a boulangerie (French bakery) on the way back to our cottage and I bought a couple of sweet rolls for evening dessert. We weren't totally tired yet so we decided to drive on in to Sauve and explore the old part of the village that is built on a steep hillside adjacent to the river Vidourle. 

Two French girls enjoy the late afternoon sun
on the banks of the Vidourle River in Sauve, France.
Photo by  © 2013
It was built centuries ago and has a bridge dating back to the 11th century along with remnants of fortifications, an oil mill, an abbey and convent. 

An olive oil mill converted to a private residence
in Sauve, France.  Photo by  © 2013
After exploring Sauve's narrow alleyways we finally returned to our cottage where Cecelia made us a delicious dinner of lamp chops, new potatoes and fresh green beans.

Tomorrow we plan to drive about an hour away to Orange and use our historical site pass to see their Roman remains that includes an ancient theater (for plays) and that medieval fortress we saw high on a rocky cliff when we were driving down on the motorway.

To see more of my images of France, visit my Flickr account!
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Thursday, July 25, 2013

A quick tour of Troyes then on to Sauve in southern France

Note: The following narrative is based on My Trip Journal entries recorded during a trip I made to England and France in May 2013 with my companions, Richard and Cecelia White from Chatham, England.

We arrived in the city of Troyes yesterday evening and I was enthralled by all of the medieval buildings still in pretty good nick as my English friends always say. There were a number of impressive churches and a marvelous cathedral with flying buttresses and glowering gargoyles, too! The center of town was latticed with channels of water with the occasional sculpture that I found very pretty. 

Panoramic view of the French city of Troyes and its cathedral.  Photo by
Mary Harrsch.
So we got up early so we could spend a couple of hours walking around Troyes before heading south to our "gite" (a French guesthouse).  We went downstairs at the hotel and found a beautiful spread of fresh fruits, yogurts, a variety of rolls, flan and beverages. We watched the news laughing at our efforts to translate for the French announcers. 

The amazing breakfast buffet at our hotel in Troyes, France.
Photo by Mary Harrsch.
Then we repacked the car and headed off on foot to photograph what we could within walking distance. I tried to spot various gargoyles and get closeups of them and got a couple of nice panoramas of the town square and fountain area. 

Panoramic view of the historic town center of Troyes, France.  Photo by Mary Harrsch
Carousels seem to be very popular here and they are quite ornate. Troyes had one in the town center and yesterday I had photographed one across the street from the entrance to Fontainebleau. 

Carousel lends a festive air to the center of Troyes, France.  Photo by
Mary Harrsch.
As it turned out the cathedral was being rennovated so we couldn't go inside but I tried to get some nice shots of the exterior.

The tower and front rose window of the Cathedral
of Peter and Paul in Troyes, France.  Photo by
Mary Harrsch.
Mythological creatures sculpted on the ramparts of the Cathedral of Peter
and Paul in Troyes, France.  Photo by Mary Harrsch.
The streets of the historic district in Troyes are
lined with batted 16th century-era buildings.
Photo by Mary Harrsch.
As it was getting on towards mid-morning, we hustled back to the hotel and struck out for the southbound motorway. The countryside I had seen so far was a gently undulating patchwork of green pastures and bright yellow fields of flowering rapeseed sprinkled with wind turbines but as we neared the Burgundy region the land became much more hilly and the forests were punctuated by occasional patches of evergreen trees. Soon I began seeing fat cream-colored Charolais cattle grazing in the fields and the freeway was lined by wine bottling plants. 

Français : Vache de race charolaise avec son v...
A Charolais cow and calf. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
My friends told me that the evergreen trees were not native to that part of France but imported. Now they are viewed as an invasive species.  This, of course, sounded strange to me being from Oregon where Douglas fir are prized for their quality lumber.

The motorway rest areas here are very extensive with both DariMart-like convenience stores and full sit down restaurants. Some even have developed playgrounds for the children. The French must also enjoy camping as you see lots of signs depicting camp trailers and picnic tables for camping areas. I wished we would have had more time to explore some of the historical sites along the way as well. I eagerly looked for the iconic brown heritage signs as the French put pictures of the actual structures on the directional signs. There might be a castle, a chateau or even a Roman bridge depicted. But we were planning to explore Nimes tomorrow and were expected at our guesthouse tonight so we really couldn't stop as we had to drive over 400 miles today.

As we neared Orange we spotted a crenelated fortress high up on a rock formation. I think we must add it to our must visit list!

We finally turned off the motorway to head for our vacation cottage just outside of the village of Sauve. 

The village of Sauve on the banks of the Vidourle River in southern France.
Photo by Mary Harrsch

We stopped at a pretty good sized supermarket to buy some Toulouse sausages and couscous for dinner. It was my first visit to a French supermarket and it looked very similar to ours although they had some really delicious items that we don't ever see - at least not in Eugene/Springfield. Of course the French love breads and pastries so the bread section was quite extensive, many containing chocolate bits as the French are really fond of chocolate, and there were so many choices of cheese it was almost overwhelming. I was actually looking for east European-style farmer's cheese though and couldn't find any so I settled for a wedge of chaumes.

The terrain here in the south of France is much more Mediterranean looking with umbrella pines, junipers and yellowish rocky outcroppings. We found our "gite" down a narrow track that wound its way past an old mill that had been renovated into a residence then into an adjoining field.  Our cottage was a low-roofed adobe-style structure with a combination living room-kitchen space, two bedrooms, a bathroom and a separate shower room.  Actually this arrangement is quite convenient as it does not tie up the bathroom if someone is taking a long shower.  The pictures my companion had sent me showed a swimming pool and I didn't see one but a walk around the property revealed a full sized pool out in the middle of the field a short walk away.  

Our host greeted us and gave us a supply of clean towels and we found the buffet in the dining room stocked with dishware.  Cecelia had volunteered to do the cooking and soon had a delicious skillet full of Toulouse sausages cooked, sliced and added to a dish full of couscous along with some sauteed zucchini and fresh tomatoes.  It tasted so good after a long day of travel.

Tomorrow, after taking care of a few more housekeeping chores, we're off to explore the Roman amphitheater at Nimes. There is also a Roman temple and a museum of gladiator armor. I also saw an ad for a bullfighting museum with matador costumes that might be interesting but I have no plans to attend a real bull fight as this is one of the last places in France where the bull is tormented and killed for the crowd.

To see more of my images of France, visit my Flickr account!

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Monday, July 08, 2013

Fontainebleau: Napoleon's Marvelous Legacy

Note: The following narrative is based on My Trip Journal entries recorded during a trip I made to England and France in May 2013 with my companions, Richard and Cecelia White from Chatham, England.

We caught the P&O Ferry at Dover early this morning (May 10, 2013) and crossed the English Channel in about 1 1/2 hours landing at Calais in France. The ferry was huge, capable of carrying over 1000 cars as well as 2000 passengers.  When you check in at the gate, you are assigned a lane number so cars can be quickly boarded without any confusion.  You also need to remember your parking area's color as the stairs on the ferry direct you to the correct part of the ship by designating the color of the area they serve when it is time to disembark.

There were several shops selling duty free goods and souvenirs and Richard bought some special reflective stickers that he must place on his car's headlights to prevent them from shining in oncoming drivers' eyes when we're in France since his car has headlights adjusted to shine on the opposite side of the road than French cars.  (The French drive on the same side of the road that we do).

English breakfast minus a sausage and fried toast.  Photo
by Mary Harrsch.
We headed to the cafeteria where we ordered an English breakfast including eggs, baked beans (they are actually like pork and beans without the pork and with a little heavier tomato sauce - no brown sugar like America's version of baked beans), hash browns and bacon. This is the slightly abbreviated version as I was not that hungry and passed on the sausage and fried toast (plain bread - no cinnamon or egg batter). Then I spent the next hour and a half trying not to get sea sick as the Channel was rather choppy. I finally got to see the white cliffs of Dover I had heard about so much as a child as we pulled away from the dock.

The famous white cliffs of Dover in the early morning light.  Photo by
Mary Harrsch.
Upon landing in France, we took the freeway towards Paris.  I got really excited when I saw the sign pointing to the famous "Field of the Cloth of Gold" where King Henry VIII of England met with King Francis I of France in June 1520 to celebrate their friendship after the signing of the  Anglo-French treaty of 1514.  As portrayed in the Showtime miniseries "The Tudors", the two kings encamped in lavish accomodations accented with cloth of gold then engaged in days of wrestling, jousting, archery displays and general merrymaking.

Field of the cloth of gold as depicted in a 1774 engraving by James Basire
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Fueled by two lavish fountains of red wine, King Henry's entourage managed to devour over 2200 sheep in three weeks.  But, alas, Richard said there was really nothing left to look at there now except a plaque so we did not stop.

So, I spent the next couple of hours gazing at the patchwork of wheat and blooming rapeseed fields flowing past the window.  I was also surprised to see quite a few wind turbines.   The French have obviously fully embraced the development of alternative energy sources.

Panoramic view of Fontainebleau's central courtyard.  Photo by Mary Harrsch.
When we neared Pairs we took the ring road then the cutoff to Fontainebleau as it is about 55 km southeast of Paris.  Although many of us think of Fontainebleau in relation to Napoleon I, it was actually the result of additions to a building constructed by King Francis I several centuries before.  A later campaign of extensive construction was undertaken by King Henry II then Catherine de' Medici.  King Henry IV added the court that carries his name during his reign as well as a 1200-meter canal.  Philip the Fair (Philip IV), Henry III and Louis XIII were all born in the palace, and Philip died there. Christina of Sweden lived there for years as well, following her abdication in 1654.

Marble relief of King Henry II by Mathieu Jacquet in the
Saint Louis Salon at Fontainebleau.  Photo by Mary Harrsch.
But during the French Revolution, Fontainebleau was emptied of many of its treasures to raise money for the new government.  Within ten years, however, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte transformed Fontainebleau back into the lavish royal palace we see today.  Perhaps that is why I've always thought of it as Napoleon's palace rather than a luxurious secondary residence for Bourbon royalty.

The palace is actually in a small town that shares its name but it is surrounded by gardens and a large man-made lake that set the palace apart. The French, unlike the National Trust folks in England, allow photography so I set about trying to capture as much of the beauty of Fontainebleau and examples of 19th century decadence exhibited there as I could.

Panoramic view of Anne of Austria's bedchamber at Fontainebleau.  Photo by Mary Harrsch.
Surprisingly, there is far more period furnishings at Fontainebleau than I saw at the Palace of Versailles in 2008. Many of Versailles' rooms were practically empty except for walls full of portrait paintings.  Fontainebleau, however, was filled with spectacular brocade-draped beds, glittering chandeliers, intricate
Velvet and gold embroidered suit created for
Napoleon's second marriage in 1810.  Photo
by Mary Harrsch. 
tapestries, beautifully preserved clothing, colossal paintings with mythological themes, swords and dueling pistols, silvered toilet articles, lavishly carved and gilded woodwork and even Napoleon's original bathtub as well as a replica of his command tent from his military campaigns.

I smiled when I saw the command tent because it reminded me of one of the first major museum exhibitions I ever attended back in 1993.  My husband and I had helped my daughter move from Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina.  On our way to Charleston we passed through Memphis, Tennessee and from the freeway I saw a huge poster of Napoleon on the side of a building.  I craned my neck to see if I could find out what the poster was all about and saw that it advertised an exhibit of Napoleonic artifacts at Memphis' International Culture Center.
Gold Hilt of a Sword of Napoleon I  ornamented
 with coral cameo portraits from Naples, Italy
French 19th century CE.  Photo by Mary Harrsch

Of course, we didn't have time to stop then but I hoped after we delivered my daughter to her new husband we might have time to stop in Memphis on our way back.  As luck would have it we arrived back in Memphis on my birthday.  So my husband agreed to stop and I spent the next three hours wandering through galleries displaying many of the things that, all these years later, I now saw at Fontainebleau, including the richly embroidered suit Napoleon wore at his second wedding in 1810 and that replica of Napoleon's command tent.

Reproduction of Napoleon's canopied cot in his
military campaign tent.  Photo by Mary Harrsch.
There was the glint of gold everywhere at Fontainebleau although the empire style furnishings prevalent in most of the rooms were more elegant, in my opinion, than the over-the-top heavily gilded Baroque and Rococo furniture of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Empress' Gaming Room at Fontainebleau.  Photo by Mary Harrsch.
There were a few Baroque pieces left in the State Salon, though.

A few Baroque pieces of furniture remain in the State Salon at Fontainebleau.
Photo by Mary Harrsch.
Napoleon's throne room was an interesting blend of the more subdued empire style combined with  breathtaking carved and gilded ceilings.  This can be attributed to the fact that the throne room once served as the king's bedchamber in the Bourbon period.
Panoramic view of Napoleon's throne room at Fontainebleau.  Photo by
Mary Harrsch.

Napoleon's admiration for ancient Rome and his military achievements also appeared to influence his choice of decor here as his somewhat modest velvet-upholstered throne was flanked by two gold standards emblazoned with his iconic "N" topped with imperial eagles.

One of Napoleon's gold imperial eagle standards
in his throne room at Fontainebleau.  Photo by
Mary Harrsch.
When I viewed Napoleon's bath I read a placard that explained Napoleon was very meticulous in his grooming habits and enjoyed a bath every day.  I wondered if he adopted this custom after learning about it in his studies of the Romans?

Napoleon was meticulous in his grooming and
enjoyed a bath every day.  Surprisingly his bath
at Fontainebleau was relatively austere.  Photo
by Mary Harrsch.
My friends had to keep urging me to move along as I tried to not only photograph as much of Fontainebleau as I could but even capture some room panoramas with my new Sony NEX 6 camera.  This was particularly challenging as there were a number of tour groups crowding the galleries even though tourist season had not yet gotten totally underway.

A sitting room with the gold accented cradle of Napoleon's son, the "King of Rome".  Photo by Mary Harrsch.
My companions were getting anxious as we still had quite a few miles to go to reach the medieval town of Troyes where we will spend the night.  So, reluctantly, I walked out to the man-made lake that adjoins Fontainebleau and took a few last panoramic views of this incredible place then turned towards the car park.

The tranquil man-made lake adjoining Fontainebleau Royal Palace in France.  Photo by Mary Harrsch.
It was almost dark by the time we reached Troyes.  As we entered the city, I was enchanted by the medieval architecture.  It reminded me very much of York where the buildings are constructed with a second story that overhangs the first, creating a very narrow street.  I immediately spotted the spires of its Gothic cathedral and I thought the shallow canals coursing with water in the central town square were very picturesque.

Picturesque Troyes, France
We had booked a hotel in a renovated 16th century building in the city's historic district.  We found it down a narrow cobblestone street and took our bags up to our assigned rooms.  Then we headed down the street to find something to eat.

L'Hotel Les Comtes de Champagne, our hotel in Troyes, is a
combination of four renovated 16th century houses.
  Photo by Mary Harrsch.
Within a couple of blocks we found a restaurant and Cecelia spotted tartiflette, one of her favorites, on the menu.  She explained tartiflette is a French dish from the Haute Savoie region of France made with potatoes, reblochon cheese, lardons and onions.  I had to ask what lardons were and Cecelia explained they are like chopped bacon.  It sounded pretty good so I ordered it too.

Tartiflette, a potato casserole-type dish served with salad
and fresh bread.
The meal was preceded by a basket of bread.  I looked for a dish of butter or olive oil but apparently many French restaurants don't serve any kind of spread or oil with the bread course.  They did have my Coca Cola "Classique", though, and even served it with a few ice cubes.  I could hardly believe it as when I visited Paris in 2008 in the middle of July with the temperature at 107 degrees I couldn't get ice in my drink to save my life!  Things have obviously changed since then!

By the time we had finished eating it was getting really late and I wanted to post an entry to my travel journal and call my husband over Skype, so I left Richard and Cecelia enjoying a bottle of wine and after dinner brandy and walked back to the hotel.

Walking back to my hotel in the center of the historic district
of Troyes, France.  Photo by Mary Harrsch.

Troyes is so picturesque we plan to spend a few extra hours here in the morning so I can photograph their magnificent cathedral and the medieval architecture and canals they have near the town center. Then we'll be heading south in an effort to reach our bed and breakfast in southern France where we'll be staying for the next week before nightfall.

To see more of my images of France, visit my Flickr account!

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