Friday, June 23, 2017

A visit to Nîmes, the "Rome" of France

As I have shared before, we try to find opportunities to hook up with our cousins who live near Montpellier in someplace mutually convenient for them and us. So one Saturday, a few months back, neighbors Bob, Darlene, Ed and Gwen in tow, we headed to Nîmes to meet up with them for lunch.

Nîmes has a very long and rich history, dating back to the Roman Empire when the city was home to between 50-60,000 people. There are several famous monuments, such as the Nîmes Arena and the Maison Carrée and because of this, Nîmes is often referred to as the French Rome.

The town derives its name from a spring in the Roman village. The Nîmes coat of arms depicts a crocodile chained to a palm tree with the inscription COL NEM, for Colonia Nemausus, meaning the "colony" or "settlement" of Nemausus, the local Celtic god. Roman legion veterans who served under Julius Caesar on his Nile campaigns were given plots of land around Nîmes to cultivate after fifteen years of soldiering.

Saint Paul church seen below was built between 1835 and 1849 in Neo-Romanesque style by Charles Questel, and classified as a historical monument in 1909. The organ was built in 1848.

Saint Paul Church

The Maison Carrée (Square House) seen below, is the best preserved of the Roman temples still standing. It was built under Augustus' (late 1C BC) reign and inspired by the Temple of Apollo in Rome.

Maison Carrée

Consecrated to the imperial cult and dedicated to Augustus grandsons, the temple faced the forum and was surrounded by a portico of finely carved columns.

Maison Carrée

Maison Carrée sits on a 2.85 meter high podium, it forms a rectangle almost twice as long as it is wide, measuring 26.42 meters by 13.54 meters. A large door (6.87 meters high by 3.27 meters wide) leads to a surprisingly small and windowless interior, where the shrine originally was. This now houses a tourist oriented film on the Roman history of Nîmes.

Maison Carrée

The Maison Carrée inspired the neoclassical Église de la Madeleine in Paris, St. Marcellinus Church in Rogalin, Poland, and in the United States, the Virginia State Capitol, which was designed by Thomas Jefferson, who had a stucco model made of the Maison Carrée while he was minister to France in 1785.

Maison Carrée

Saint Paul Church

Nîmes street

The Arena of Nîmes is a twin to the arena in Arles, most likely from the same period (late 1c - early 2c), an excellent example of the perfection attained by Roman engineers in designing and constructing extremely complex building. It demonstrates perfect symmetry: oval-shaped, it measures 133 meters long and 101 meters wide, with an arena of 68 by 38 meters.

From the exterior, you see two floors, each with 60 arches, 21 meters in total height, topped with an attic. At the top, pre-drilled stones were positioned to overhang so that long poles could be hung over the arena. A huge canvas canopy was then attached to these poles, thereby providing protection for the spectators against the sun and bad weather.

Arena of Nîmes

In Roman times, the arena could hold 24,000 spectators spread over 34 rows of terraces divided into four separate areas or maeniana. Each was accessed via a gallery and hundred of stairwells and passages called vomitories. This clever arrangement meant that there was no risk of bottlenecks when the spectators flooded in.

The arena was designed so that everyone had an unrestricted view of the whole arena. Several galleries were located beneath the arena, and were accessed by trap doors and a hoist-lift system. As a result, the decorative effects, animals and gladiators could access the arena during the games.

Interior of Nîmes Arena

The arena was remodeled in 1863 to serve as a bullring. The arena of Nîmes is the site of bullfights during the Ferias de Nîmes, a popular festival centered on Spanish-style bullfighting held twice each year in Nîmes, the 1st Feria from Wednesday before Pentecost to Pentecost Monday and the 2nd Feria on the third Friday, Saturday and Sunday of September.

View from arena through an arch entryway

The exits from the arena were called vomitorias because they permitted the crowd to exit the arena in a speedy manner.

Arena Vomitory

Arena Vomitory

The Lycée (high school) Alphonse-Daudet seen below was constructed in the 16th century as a hospice

Lycée (high school) Alphonse-Daudet

View of Lycée Alphonse-Daudet from the arena

Construction for Sainte-Perpétue et Sainte-Félicité de Nîmes church (the tower can be seen in the distance below) began in 1852. The first stone was laid by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte. Construction was completed in 1854.

Interior of arena with view of Sainte-Perpétue et Sainte-Félicité de Nîmes church in the distance

The Nîmes Cathedral (Its formal French name is the "Cathédrale Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Castor de Nîmes") seen in the distance below is a Roman Catholic church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and to the local Saint Castor of Apt. The cathedral is the seat of the Bishops of Nîmes, Uzès and Alès.

The Nîmes Cathedral was built in 1096, suffered major damage during the Wars of Religion and was almost entirely rebuilt in the 19C. The cathedral is believed to stand on the site of the former temple of Augustus. It is partly Romanesque and partly Gothic in style.

View of the Nîmes Cathedral from the top row of the arena

The Tour Magne seen below in the distance sits on top of Mont Cavalier, the highest point in Nîmes. It is a vestige of the defenses built around the town. It is a 3-story polygonal tower 112 feet tall.

View of Tour Magne from the top of the arena

Interior walkway around the Nimes arena

Nîmes arena

Shirley with cousins Christine and Matthias and his friend Aurelie

Saint Paul Church

View of Sainte-Perpétue et Sainte-Félicité de Nîmes church in the distance

In case you are going to Nîmes and need a restaurant suggestion, we had an excellent lunch at Aux Plaisirs des Halles seen below, a restaurant designated as a Bib Gourmand by Michelin.

Aux Plaisirs des Halles

If you have time, besides the places I have highlighted in this post, you should plan to visit the Jardins de la Fontaine, 18th-century gardens in Nîmes, built in 1745 near the former western defensive ramparts of the city.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

An extraordinary program of art and music at Carrières de Lumières and a walk-around Les Baux de Provence

Les Baux de Provence is a picturesque village about 75 km southwest of Sablet. The village sits in a spectacular site on a rocky outcrop with ancient houses and a ruined castle perched on top of the village overlooking the plains to the south.

Within walking distance of Les Baux de Provence, is Val d’Enfer (Valley of Hell): the site of old quarries. There you will find an original permanent exhibition entitled "Carrières de Lumières" (formerly "Cathédrale d’Images"). Opened originally in 1977, the show is located in an abandoned limestone quarry.

To the right of the entrance, a large gallery leads you under the mountain, towards a gigantic hall divided by huge pillars left by the quarry-workers to hold up the “roof”. The 7000 square meters (75,000 square feet) of walls and ceilings are used as natural screens to project beautiful, 14 meter-high (45 feet) images.

Entrance to the Carrières de Lumières

Following a program of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael, "The Giants of the Renaissance" in 2015, Marc Chagall, "Midsummer Night's Dreams", in 2016, the Carrières de Lumières in 2017 is presenting a multimedia event devoted to Bosch, Brueghel and Arcimboldo, "The Fantastic and Wonderful world of Bosch, Brueghel, Arcimboldo". The program runs from March 4 until January 7, 2018.

Carrières de Lumières image

There are no seats, per se. Audience members walk around, viewing the changing images from different vantage points as their own shadows are eerily cast on the paintings. Sitting on a few concrete slabs around the perimeter, some people huddle together for warmth. Others sit atop a carpet of landscapes and seascapes projected on the ground, with their children dancing beside them.

The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1515 by Hieronymus Bosch

The Carrières de Lumières is open every day. January, March, November, December: 10 AM-6 PM. April, May, June, September, October: 9:30 AM-7 PM. July and August: 9:30 AM-7:30 PM. The last admission is 1 hour before the Carrières closes.

Carrières de Lumières image

Tickets can be purchased at the entrance to the Carrières de Lumières or on their website.

Carrières de Lumières image

The pictures that show the artwork which follow are photographs I took as the program ensued.

The Crucifixion of St Julia, 1497 by Hieronymus Bosch

I should mention that Giuseppe Arcimboldo was an Italian painter best known for creating imaginative portrait heads made entirely of objects such as fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish, and books.

Carrières de Lumières image

Hieronymus Bosch was a Dutch/Netherlandish draftsman and painter from Brabant. He is widely considered one of the most notable representatives of Early Netherlandish painting school. His work is known for its fantastic imagery, detailed landscapes, and illustrations of religious concepts and narratives.

The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1515 by Hieronymus Bosch

Pieter Brueghel was the most significant artist of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance paintings, a painter and printmaker from Brabant, known for his landscapes and peasant scenes.

Village festivals by Brueghel

Carrières de Lumières imaged

Carrières de Lumières image

Don't forget the show takes place inside a huge quarry, and even on the hottest day it is chilly inside, so bring a warm top.

Portrait of Adam, 1578 by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

After watching the program at Les Carrières de Lumières, we went to the village to take a walk around Les Baux.

You will have to pay to park your car near the village. If you don't mind walking, you can park for free along the road leading up to the village.

Near the entrance to Les Baux de Provence

The village is officially classified as one of the Les Plus Beaux Villages de France - one of the most beautiful villages of France. The beauty of the village and surrounding Alpilles, a small range of mountains, makes Les Baux de Provence a very popular place for visitors all year long.

A Les Baux de Provence cookie and candy shop

The name Les Baux refers to its site - in Provençal, a baou is a rocky spur. Aluminum ore bauxite was first discovered near Les Baux in 1822 and named after the village of Les Baux de Provence. Bauxite was mined extensively in the area but by the end of the 20th century, the bauxite had been completely removed.

The France tri-color flag flies at the entrance to Les Baux de Provence

Just inside the village, is the Maison du Roy (King's House), built in 1499. The King's House now houses the Office de Tourisme (Tourist Office).

Maison du Roy which houses the Tourist Office

A Les Baux de Provence pottery shop

The Musée des Santons (Santons Museum), santons are plaster-molded, kiln-fired nativity figurines dressed in traditional Provençal costumes, contains a large number of exhibits including some figurines made in Naples, scenes illustrating the traditions of Provence and Les Baux linked to the Nativity and a documentary film on the manufacture of these figurines.

Santons Museum

A courtyard with shops in Les Baux de Provence

Opposite the Manville residence, there was once a large mansion dating from 1571 (the "Brisson-Peyre" Residence). All that remains of it today is a mullioned window with an entablature bearing a Calvinist inscription, "Post Tenebras Lux 1571" (After the Darkness, Light). This declaration of Protestant faith suggests that there may have been a Reformed Religion house of worship here.

The Post Tenebras Lux Window

The 12th-century Saint Vincent Church is typical of the constructions in Les Baux with its southern section built half into the rock. The nave, which has ribbed barrel vaulting, was extended eastwards in 1609 without breaking the Romanesque harmony of the building as a whole. Inside are some modern stained-glass windows by Max Ingrand (1960), a gift from Prince Rainier III of Monaco. There is also the funeral chapel of the Manville family

Saint Vincent Church Belltower

St. Blaise's Chapel, once used by the wool combers and weavers guild as a meeting place, is now a theater where visitors can watch a free film entitled "A Bird's-Eye View of Provence" which runs non-stop.

The Saint-Blaise Chapel

The plateau on which the castle of Les Baux de Provence sits covers 17.3 acres. The castle contains an exhibition of siege machines including a trebuchet, a couillard (a form of trebuchet with split counterweights and a rotating beam), a bricole (a rotating-beam stone-throwing device), and a battering ram.

The machines are full-sized replicas and the catapults can fire to distances in excess of 200 meters or 650 feet. Firing demonstrations of the siege machines take place daily from April to September.

A Siege Weapon known as a Trebuchet

A windmill was a feudal privilege, built and maintained by the Lords of Les Baux, it was accessible to all. In return for a small payment, farmers would come with their donkeys loaded with wheat, chat with the local folks and leave with their freshly ground flour.

The present day windmill was built on this windy hillside after the Maréchal de Vitry pulled down every windmill in the castle and village in 1632 and faithfully mirrors the image of Provence in the writings of Frédéric Mistral and Alphonse Daudet.

The windmill on Les Baux de Provence plateau

Charloun Rieu was a farmer from Paradou, a Provençal poet nicknamed "Charloun dou Paradou". He is considered one of Provence's most authentic popular poetic voices, he did much to revive Provençal language and culture.

His best known collection is the Chants du Terroir - Songs of the Land, published in 1897.

This monument by the Marseillais sculptor Botinelly was erected in 1930 to commemorate the man who immortalized Les Baux de Provence in verse.

The Charloun Rieu monument on Les Baux de Provence plateau

The ballista seen below could have fired rocks, rotting carcasses or Greek fire. Greek fire was a mixture of saltpeter, sulfur, resin and other fusible materials that would stick to objects and burn them, and was much feared in the Middle Ages.

The Ballista

The battering ram was recently restored. 26 feet long, it was used to break down the gates of towns and fortresses, whilst protecting the assailants under its heavy wheeled framework from projectiles, even if they were on fire. Its framework was covered with flame-resistant materials: manure, earth, long grass, etc.

The Battering Ram

The first part of the ruined castle of Les Baux you come across coming from the desolate plateau is the Saracen Tower (Tour Sarrasine) with a battering ram at its foot. Its name derives from the threat faced by Les Baux from an invasion of the Saracens. The tower was then part of an ingenious system of defense conceived to mislead the invaders were they to enter the citadel.

The Saracen Tower

The first lower courtyard provided access to the feudal lord's dwellings. Here were people dressed in armor and fine dresses, and also the servants who brought the bread for baking in the Maison du Four (Oven House) and collected water from the cistern. The guards also lived in this part of the castle.

The atmosphere was completely different in the second lower courtyard, in which the artisans and peasants lived and worked. Separated from the first lower courtyard by a ditch, the houses formed a veritable village within the castle’s protective walls.

The Lower Courtyard

The Paravelle Tower is situated at the north-west corner of the outer walls. It was erected in a hewn rock and then built up to provide crenellations and arrow slits. This tower watched over the Fontaine valley, the Val d’Enfer (valley of hell) and in particular the Vayède pass, whose high elevation made it an especially suitable place from which to lay siege. From the pass, the entire Castle would have been within shot of siege engines.

The Paravelle Tower

Les Baux Chateau

Gwen was the only one who was adventuresome enough to climb to the top of Les Baux

The Paravelle Tower with the entrance to the former chapel in the chateau visible to the left

The Paravelle Tower to the left

Les Baux de Provence

Built at the same time as the keep, the dovecotes have been singularly carved on the rock wall. More than 2,000 pigeonholes were carved out and the birds’ eggs were collected using a ladder.

Castle of Les Baux

The best remnant of the military architecture of Les Baux Castle, the keep was built at the highest point of the plateau, overlooking the whole citadel.

The lower level houses one room while the second has three, all shaped out from the rock.

If you venture up to explore the castle, you will be able to see traces of structures that used to make it an impregnable fortress: arches, doors and windows, holes (where beams were previously fixed), sculpted corbels.
The keep is accessible by a giddy and difficult stairway and the view from its top is one of the most impressive in all of Provence.

The Baux de Provence Castle Keep

Les Baux de Provence Chateau

The town's finest Renaissance mansion was built in 1571 for a rich protestant family headed by Claude de Manville. The irregular frontage following the line of the main street contains many wide mullioned windows, ensuring plenty of light for the interior. The inner courtyard with its porticos repeats the same ordered layout as the Renaissance mullions. The mansion has been restored and is now the Town Hall.

Manville Mansion (Town Hall)

Stone seal

Les Baux de Provence house

The Carrières de Lumières program was an extraordinary experience for Shirley and I. For a few days in July, August and September, the Carrières de Lumières will reprise Klimt and Vienna, A Century of Gold and Color (2014), Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, the giants of the Renaissance (2015), and Chagall: Midsummer Nights’ Dreams (2016). Don't hesitate to go. The Carrières de Lumières shows are well worth the time and modest admission fee.

A bientot folks. I will be back with another post soon. As I mentioned previously, we still have May 27-June 24 and September 1-9 and September 23-30 available for rent of our home in Sablet France if you are still looking for a house for this summer. Please contact me for special rental rates.