Thursday, May 31, 2012

Road Trip: Mont Saint Michel

After leaving St. James, we continued to head toward Mont Saint-Michel, an island and monastery located in the western corner of Normandy, close to the country's northwestern coast. This was the view from the car window.

Yes, as you might expect, our arrival was a rainy one, although the rain stopped and started, leaving a gloomy gray during its brief reprieves.

We parked and walked up to the massive island, which is reached (currently) by a causeway. It is largely surrounded by bleak waters -- and one wouldn't want to be caught on the wrong side of the island when the tide is in.

 Some of the visitors were better prepared for the rain than I was!

Mont Saint-Michel served as a point for holding fortifications, but since the eighth century it has been the seat of the monastery and a pilgrimage destination.

Legend has it that the Archangel Michael appeared to the bishop of Avranches in the 700s and told him to build a church on the small island. It became a strategic point in wartime as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, which tells of the 1066 Norman conquest of England. It is also considered a fine example of military architecture.

Over centuries Mont Saint-Michel has served as village, monastery and prison. Notably, Victor Hugo was one launched a campaign to restore the structure to national architectural treasure, resulting in the close of the prison in 1863 and eventually declaring it as a national historic monument.

The architecture is like that of no other monastery. Because the island mount is a pyramid, the medieval builders wound the buildings around the granite rock, with the abbey church at the top.

The original abbey church is clearly Romanesque in design and was built in the 11th century. Because of the weight of the structure, many underground chapels and crypts were built to support the structure.

In 1204 a fire damaged many of the buildings and when the abbey was rebuilit, it was in the "new" Gothic style. The refectory and cloister reflect this style.

The 15th century ramparts and fortifications were built to defend the site from the cannon -- a new weapon.

Now, 41 residents live on the island in apartments above shops, hotels and restaurants that one passes leading up to the abbey. 

We walked (and walked) and walked, through pathways...

...and up the cobbled steps to what I call a terrace -- I'm sure it has another name.

And, by the time we got there, the sky was a mix of gray to the sea and blue above the spire.

You see? Sun! You can't get shadow without it!

The view was pretty amazing and quite formidable -- imagine being a soldier approaching it from the sea -- or anywhere, for that matter.

One can't help but admire the builders who hauled the stone and built this massive structure, but as churches go, it isn't exactly warm and inviting.The lighting and floor of this chapel was the sole exception.

I found it cold, damp (helped, no doubt, by the pouring rain) and not particularly pleasing -- more like well-designed rock masses with some pretty incredible architecture. I suspect a little sunshine coming through the windows (and about ten degrees of heat) would have helped warm things tremendously.

Obviously, others have a different point of view. It is, after all, a place of holiness, a place of faith. And I can imagine the pilgrims found it quite amazing -- I count in that number the modern-day pilgrims who come to visit simply because they are aware of its great structure and architecture.

The ossuary was interesting. The wheel was installed in 1820 to hoist provisions to the prisoners held in the abbey during its period as a prison. It is a replica of the pulleys used for hoisting building materials in the middle ages.

There was little art in entire abbey. Here is a lovely piece -- Adam and Eve.

 My favorite area was the cloisters, a bright spot of green and color amidst much stone.

These were simply lovely, in the Gothic style, and offered many lovely and graceful lines...

...handsome sculpture...

...and some good spots for clowning around!

Because of the dampness, there was lots of moss...

...and a small potager or kitchen garden.

And occasionally, bright flowers seemed to grow from out of the rocks.

No matter where one looked, the view was quite spectacular.

Mont Saint-Michel was certainly not my favorite spot in our travels, and frankly, I was relieved to leave this cold, bleak place, with few spots that generated emotional warmth. As I mentioned, I suspect that had to do most with the weather and still being more than a bit jet-lagged. By the time we left it was close to 11 p.m., "Jeanie Time" and we still hadn't had dinner.

But I did leave with admiration for the architectural skill and history, though. It is a massive and fascinating structure and certainly one I'll never forget.

NOTE: Next we'll be going through Brittany. Remember, comments on this post and all of this series of recent vacation posts and the post about Gypsy will be entered in my 800th post drawing!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Road Trip: An American Cemetery

It's Memorial Day here in the U.S., and this is just the post for it. So, rise and shine! It's a road trip!

On Friday morning, our host Jerry, Rick and I took off on a two-day road trip. We got a late start and the weather was terrible, but we were determined to head to Brittany, Mont Saint Michel and our first stop, the American Cemetery at St. James.

Jerry was looking for the graves of his uncles -- he'd been there once before, long ago. At first, we couldn't find the cemetery -- signage in the charming town of St. James left a bit to be desired. Eventually, we did find it and set about looking for Jerry's relatives.

The office was closed when we arrived, so for some time we searched among the rows and rows of white crosses.

Eventually, Walter, who was working there that day, came back from lunch and we were able to find the graves. He also gave us a bit of World War II history in the lovely chapel.

The chapel -- as you can see from this photo -- has large maps in the tile of the walls.

The flags displayed also featured those of the French and British.

Walter took us to the roof, where we could see an overview of the cemetery through the pouring rain. He explained how it was designed to match a specific plan based around the image of a sword (the center aisle) and the semi-circular borders.

He also explained there were a number of graves marked as men known only to God. These graves held a body part of an unknown soldier.

Another wall marked those who had been missing and "sleep in unknown graves."

We moved onto the graves. Walter took sand and rubbed it into the detailed etching of the name, wiping off the surface.

It allowed the name to stand out. We then took photos of Jerry to share with his family.

For Jerry, it was a day of personal significance. For Rick and me, a somber occasion and one that prompted many thoughts of the men who died in France fighting for the Allies in World War II.

We were off again, this time to Mont Saint-Michel. But the visit to the cemetery left us with much to ponder and much for which to be grateful. As we honor all who have served, and those who are no longer with us, sending Memorial Wishes.

Lessons from the Road:

The French are dutiful, perhaps even rigid about lunch at noon. If you will be requiring the services of someone like Walter to help you find someone specific at the cemetery, call ahead or arrive prior to or after lunch! 

NOTE: Two things -- first, coming up soon will be a drawing honoring my 800th post. This may be it, but I have unpublished drafts and those seem to count, so probably not! That said, comments on this post and all of this series of vacation posts, as well as the "Goodbye Mr. Gyps" post will be entered.

Second, thank you -- all -- for such kind words on that post about Gypsy. I think I've reached most of you in person but if not, please know how much your kind words, your support, your follow-up emails and cards have helped Rick and me through a most challenging and sad time.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Victor Hugo and a Walk on the Left Bank

Last winter, Rick and I went to the book store. I bought a cute little book on Paris, reviewed HERE on Chopsticks and String. Rick bought "Les Miserables." Theoretically, it was abridged, but at 900 pages, I question that! (Below, detail from "Gavroche at the Barricades" by Willmette.)

He became a passionate fan of Victor Hugo, not only for his amazing writing style, but also for his nuance,  his political beliefs and his passion.

  So, the big thing on Rick's "Must Do" list in Paris was visiting Victor Hugo's home in the Place des Vosges, located in the Marais area.

We set off on what started out to be a sunny day and walked to the Places des Vosges, which is a square with several fountains, statues and lots of benches and pigeons, all surrounded by brick buildings, some of which house trendy shops.

For once, the sky was blue, and the buildings were a beautiful contrast!

After munching on lunch from a nearby boulangerie, we went in, got the audio tour and started learning far more about the man whose words were so inspiring.

The museum covers several floors, beginning with portraits of those who were part of Hugo's life. Then you enter a room with more paintings -- some representing his work -- as well as a beautiful image of his daughter, Leopoldine, who drowned at the age of 19, pulled under water in a boating accident by the weight of her skirts.

There were numerous cases with his work and that of Charles Dickens. (Rick and I said Dickens got almost-equal billing in the museum!) This may be because Dickens greatly admired Hugo and both were notable for the writing about the poor.

As we went through, we learned about Hugo's mistress, Juliette Drouet, an actress who had nine lines in one of his plays and went on to become the love of his life. This area also included much about his passion for his children and his commitment to justice.(The audio tour also included bits from his writings and love letters bot Juliette as well as a few snarky notes from his wife!)

It was truly an illuminating and interesting little museum, and one I would recommend. (Rick recommends it, too!)

As we left, we encountered a sidewalk artist...

...and a splendid harpist, both working outside the museum. Of course we stopped to listen for a bit.

Then it was time to move on. On the way to Bastille, we found a music store, where Rick talked with the luthier and got recommendations on where to look for guitars in Paris (that's another post!).

 We learned that some things are the same, no matter where you are!

 We explored a bit, and then crossed over to the Left Bank. By this time it was raining, but it made the poppies in the Jardin des Plantes all the more lovely!

I'd never seen the yellow ones -- they were beautiful!

 The peonies were out, too, and lovely in so many colors!

  Umbrellas up, we kept walking, captivated by charcouteries...

I wish I'd bought these little sausages -- for the packaging if nothing else! markets...

 ...fromaggeries (I loved the cheese!)... shops...

...and florists!

We passed by the Sorbonne...

...and searched for a restaurant! I was determined to have crepes and we found a delightful spot!

Everything worked -- even the street, with its collection of cafes, was charming!

 The walk home was lovely, too. The rain had let up, and the Seine looked lovely.

We even stopped by Notre Dame again to see what it looked like when illuminated at night.

Yes, it was a wonderful first-full-day in Paris.

Lessons learned -- the little "Totes" umbrella sure doesn't hold up well in rain -- unless you want to carry it upside down, like a big cup!

(Coming up: A Road Trip!)

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