Saturday, November 29, 2014

Gettin' Gaudí with it in Barcelona

Ken and I recently took our first trip to Barcelona, and (spoiler alert) it will no way be our last. Barcelona is vibrant, delicious, gorgeous, and, at least in late November, comfortable in terms of climate and crowds. Over the next few weeks, I'll be sharing some highlights of our trip.

Gaudí is everywhere in Barcelona, from its lamposts to its skyline. I can think of no other city so influenced by one architect. This trip, we decide to visit just two Gaudí sites, Park Güell and La Pedrera, leaving more to savor next time.

Antoni Gaudí i Cornet (1852-1926) is the most renown and prolific architect of the Modernisme (Catalan Art Nouveau) style. His work was heavily inspired by nature. Unlike other architects, Gaudí would rarely draw his ideas on paper; instead he would build three-dimensional models.

Gaudi would construct forms of wire that
he would hang over a mirror ...
 ... and appear as the right-side-up
form in its reflection. 

Artist and benefactor met in 1878 when a window display that Gaudí had designed for a glove store at the Universal Exhibition in Paris caught the fancy of entrepreneur Eusebi Güell. Over the next quarter century, Güell would commission Gaudí to design a variety of projects including his home, immodestly named Palau Güell, and a church for his textile workers, unsurprisingly called Cólonia Güell.

In 1900, Gaudí began designing an estate for well-off families on a large Barcelona property belonging to Güell, known as Muntanya Pelada (bare mountain). Güell wanted the estate to be solely residential, and he directed the architect to restrict the heights of the houses, so as not to block views of the sea or sunlight.

The result, as seen today is Park Güell, a unique (and I very rarely use that word) celebration of Gaudí art and architecture.

Park Güell

Overlooking the main entrance to Park Güell
It's mild but overcast when we arrive at Park Güell, about a 15-minute walk from our hotel in the Graciá neighborhood. After exploring the Portico of the Washerwoman, a series of buttresses woven through the mountainside, we stop to rest in Nature Square, the esplanade once known as Teatre Grec. The square is partly dug into the mountain and is held up by 86 massive columns soaring up from the Hypostyle Room below. 

Ken stands in the Portico of the Washerwoman at Park Güell.

Domed ceiling of the Hypostyle Room at Park Güell

The undulating bench ringing the square was planned by Josep Maria Jupol and is made from concrete clad with tile-shard mossaic and pieces of pottery, the style called trencadís, much favored by Gaudí.

The undulating bench ringing Nature Square
at Park Güell is composed of mosaic tile shards
on a concrete form.
We take a break from people-watching to admire
a pair of Park Güell residents.

We make our way down the Monumental Flight of Steps, passing gargoyles, a snake-head fountain, and a brightly colored salamander. Ken people-watches outside while I visit the gift shop that is housed in the estate's Porter's Lodge.

Ken (center) enjoys the view from circular
bench at the top of the Monumental Flight of Steps. 

This colorful mosaic salamander greets visitors
at the main entrance to Park Güell.

Casa Milá

Chimneys atop La Pedrera

Standing on the roof terrace of  La Pedrera, the mansion commissioned by industrialist Pere Milá and his wife Roser Segimón, (the building is informally known as Casa Milá), we are clearly in the midst of a masterpiece. We wander among the undulating shapes, some are chimneys, others are arches framing sites off in the distance: Mount Tibadabo or La Sagrada Família, Gaudí's (still unfinished) masterpiece.

An arch frames MountsTibadabo on the roof
of La Perdrera. 

Shards of champagne bottles were used to
cap off this structure on the rooftop of La Perdrera.

Inside we explore some of the architect's models and display cases that contain Gaudí's inspirations from nature. We descend another floor and walk through rooms decorated much as they were in the early 1900s.

Model of La Sagrada Família

Gaudí was inspired by forms in nature, such as this
snake skeleton.

A reproduction of the kitchen dining area in La Perdrera

On our way down  stairs, we pass the doors of private apartments. How cool would it be to live at La Pedrera?

Although we decide to postpone visits to La Sagrada Família and Casa Batlló, two more of seven Gaudí works in and around Barcelona that are classified as UNESCO World Heritage sites, I include some exterior photos here.
Work continues on La Sagrada Família.

La Sagrada Família detail

La Sagrada Família detail

La Sagrada Família detail
Casa Batlló

Friday, November 28, 2014

Bonaguil: The last château

In the past two-and-a-half years since I have been in France, I have visited more than a dozen châteaux. I’m kind of a château fan. I like the ones that are filled with rooms with elegant furnishings. And I like the ones that are not much more than a pile of rocks. With my recent visit to Bonaguil, however, I may have found mon château préferé.

Château de Bonaguil

The beautiful weather may partially account for my “château crush.” The sky is a brilliant shade of blue and the autumn colors are just starting to make their appearance.

Another plus: This morning we are the only visitors, so we have the house to ourselves.

Bonaguil is called the last castle. I can’t find verification of this, but it certainly is one of the last of the great fortresses to be constructed in France.

Château de Bonaguil
Its name is derived from the words bonne aiguille (good needle), given to the fortress because of its location on a rocky cliff above the Thèze and the Lémance rivers. The rivers provided a true luxury to those living and working at the château: fresh water.

Château de Bonaguil

During the 100 Year War, Bonaguil was an English stronghold, during which it was severely damaged. In the late 15th/early 16th century, Berenger de Roquefeuil devoted three decades to fortifying and improving Bonaguil, equiping it with “a barbican, several towers, a chicane, seven drawbridges, a casemate, cannon ports, and a caponiere with loopholes which provided a more incisive defence than the moats,” according to the visitor’s guide. Roquefeuil’s timing was not good, as such fortresses had outlived their usefulness and many across the country were becoming places to live, rather than fight.

Château de Bonaguil

Château de Bonaguil

Château de Bonaguil

In the 18th century, Bonaguil underwent another transformation, this time by Marguerite de Fumel, who added an esplanade here, removed drawbridges there, and updated the “lord’s apartments.” Fumel died just before the French Revolution and alas, the château towers were leveled and the place was ransacked. 

The terrace at Château de Bonaguil

Entrance to one of the towers at Château de Bonaguil

A century later, in 1860, the town of Fumel acquired the castle and it became a national monument. Today, Fumel continues its responsibility and, according to the visitor’s guide, spares no effort or expense in keeping Bonaguil open to the public.

Château de Bonaguil
Château de Bonaguil

Bonaguil is open only during school holidays in November through February. Summertime visitors can enjoy fireworks display and theatrical presentations. For more information, visit Bonaguil’s website.

A Château de Bonaguil resident

Friday, November 21, 2014

Brief stops in two tiny towns: Douzains and Ségalas

Veering off the main roads and checking out tiny villages is a favorite pastime. Often these are places with no cafés, boulangeries or tobacs, much less tourist offices. My philosophy: take pictures now and seek information later. Here are some pretty pictures of two villages I often ride through sur mon vélo.


Tucked in the hills between Lauzun and Castillonnes, Douzains has a population of 288 (in the 2009 census). About a quarter of the village’s 168 homes are second vacation homes. It’s all uphill getting here, but oh my, what views!

Bienvenue à Douzains

Statue in Douzains

View from Douzains

View from Douzains

A pretty house on the outskirts of Douzains

Monument in Douzains

A large stone house in Douzains

L’église in Douzains

Douzains is on the Circuit Pruniers d’Ente.


Bienvenue à Ségalas

There were 164 residents of Ségalas in 2007 (down from 168 the prior year). Of the 112 homes here, 29 are second vacation homes. The village is part of the township of Lauzun and is another uphill ride. One notable feature is the sundial clock on the side of the church.

An ancient structure in Ségalas

An attractive new building in Ségalas

Église Saint-Vincent Ségalas

Sundial on the side of the church in Ségalas

Weather vane in Ségalas

Mairie in Ségalas

Charming house near Ségalas

Friday, November 14, 2014

Learn about life on the Garonne in Couthures

Kayaks are set to launch onto the river in Couthures-sur-Garonne.

A day trip to Couthures-sur-Garonne combines beauty, learning, and (in the summer) recreation. Located on France’s fifth longest river, the Garonne, this pretty village is worth a visit any time of year. In the high season, the river and hiking and biking paths through the Val de Garonne make this a popular, but not over-crowded destination. In cooler months the town retains its charms, and thanks to the interpretive center, Maison des Gens de Garonne.

La Corderie is open May through September for visitors
to learn about rope making, knots and fishing.

La Maison des Gens de Garonne offers two films, one in 3D, along with a terrace café and boutique. The films chronicle the history of life on the river. They’re in French, but headsets with English translation are offered. The day of our visit, it had been raining in the morning but the sun is shining brilliantly when we arrive in Couthures. We stop by the interpretive center, but decide to go on une promenade instead of sitting in a dark theater. We will leave that for another day, one in which we can bring along some jeunes amis who we think will enjoy the 3D film and interactive treasure hunt. If we return in the summer, we can visit L’ancienne Corderie and ride on a pirate ship.

We are provided with a map of a randonnée that starts in the village and continues on a 4.7 km loop through trees and fields.

Trees along the randonnée in Couthures-sur-Garonne
Un champ de maïs along the randonnée in

Barns along the randonnée in Couthures-sur-Garonne. I was startled by a
pheasant just as I snapped this picture.

A site in Couthures-sur-Garonne

Back in the village, the first order of business it to find something cold to drink (I had forgotten to bring water with us on the walk). Thankfully, a little bar is open and happy to sell us a beer and iced tea.

A cannon at the site of Couthures’s original suspension bridge.
Cannons were used from the late 19th century to warn of flooding.

Our thirsts quenched, we walk the streets of the village and admire the remains of Couthures’s original suspension bridge and a neo-Romanesque-style church built in 1848.

A site in Couthures-sur-Garonne

Un coq atop a monument in Couthures-sur-Garonne

Couthure’s church is the village’s third, as the first two were
destroyed. This one was designed by Gustav Allaux, a
disciple of the famous architect Viollet-le-Duc.

A portion of the old ramparts in Couthures-sur-Garonne

For more about Couthures-sur-Garonne, visit the Val de Garonne tourist office website. The Gens de Garonne website has details about hours and tariffs.

I include this picture of a sign in Couthures, only because it makes me giggle.