Friday, February 27, 2015

Château de Beynac is a lofty fortress

When the winter starts to feel endless, I remind myself of the extraordinary opportunity we have to visit amazing sites sans summer crowds. One recent rainy Sunday, we took a detour and stopped in Beynac-et-Cazenac in the Dordogne. While many châteaux are closed this time of year, an inquiry at the tourist office in Sarlat confirmed that Beynac was open on this particular day.

Château de Beynac

With the lower parking lots empty and waiving their normal fees, we are feeling lucky as we begin our trek to the top of this mountainside medieval village. However, as charming as the sites en route to the château are, we are cautious of the very slippery cobblestone walkway that leads upward. The morning rain has stopped, but it’s still very wet and the walk is longer than we had planned. Had the tourist office been open, we would have gotten a map that showed the parking lot near the château’s entrance.

But heck, we’re hardy, so on we go.

Une jolie maison in the village of Beynac-et- Cazenac

View en route to the Château de Beynac

Perhaps this dame was cheering us on as we made the
not-so-easy climb to Château de Beyac.

A bench invites us to stop and catch our breath en route to Château de Beynac.
Une femme trés sympa greets us when we finally arrive at the château, and we don’t at all blame her for the extra half-euro charged for a one-page castle guide. (I mean, come on! Couldn’t that cost be included in the 8-euro admission?)

Wall along the lower courtyard at Château de Beynac
Even before the fortress was built, Beynac’s location, at the top of a limestone cliff, made it a desireable stratetic destination. Prehistoric relics in the nearby caves suggest that reindeer hunters inhabited the area long ago. Barbarians and Normans tried their hand at domination. Eventually, in 1050, Hélie de Beynac, “the first known and recorded lord,” according to the Beynac-Cazenac website, began building what would eventually become a huge fortification.

Window seat in Château de Beynac
In 1189, Richard the Lionhearted of England captured the castle and it remained in English hands until Richard was killed during the siege of Chalus, near Limoges, in 1199. Afterward, the castle returned to the hands of the French for 161 years. The Treaty of Bretigny, signed in 1360 returned control to the English where it remained until France’s victory at Castillon-la-Bataille ended the 100-Years War.

Colorful frescos from the 14th or 15th century on the wall of the oratory at
Beynac are being restored by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication.

Interior room in Château de Beynac

Interior room in Château de Beynac

Jumping ahead a few centuries, the castle was purchased in 1962 by Lucien Grosso who began restoration work, which continues in several sections of the fortress.

Not surprising given its location, visitors to Beynac-et-Cazenac can enjoy sweeping views of the valleys on both sides of the Dordogne river. Looking across, we spot Beynac’s neighboring castle, Château de Castelnaud.

An impressive neighbor: Château de Castelnaud

According to Wikipedia, Château de Beynac, has served as a film location for several films including “Ever After” (1998) and Jeanne d’Arc (1999). The village was a location for Lasse Halleström’s “Chocolat” (2000).

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Marseille's churches hold some surprising touches

Notre-Dame de la Garde, la bonne mère
You wouldn't guess it by the number of photographs of churches I take, but I am rather ambivalent about houses of worship. The gawdier the church, the more I roll my eyes. However, I am inexplicably drawn to entering nearly every eglise I come across, and in France, nearly every village has a church with an unlocked door. The city of Marseille has lots of churches, and so on our recent visit there, my sister and I dutifully peeked inside nearly each one we passed. And we found some pleasant surprises.

Notre-Dame de la Garde

Walking up to Notre-Dame de la Garde
Probably the best known of Marseille's churches is Notre-Dame de la Garde. Perched high on a hill, it is the city's premiere landmark. We enjoyed the walk to this church and we admired the views from the terrace surrounding the cathedral.

The Neo-Byzantine was in built in the 1800s on the site of another church of the same name. The limestone from Florence, Italy, used in its construction is subject to atmospheric corrosion, and extensive work has been done to maintain the limestone, along with mosaics damaged by candle smoke and the bullets fired during the liberation of Marseille at the end of World War II.

Notre-Dame de la Garde is built on the foundations of a 16th-century fort.
A 27-foot statue of Madonna and Child, made of bronze
gilded with gold leaf, sits atop the square bell tower at
Notre-Dame de la Garde.
Colorful interior of Notre-Dame de la Garde
The boats and planes hanging from the ceiling in
Notre-Dame de la Garde are a refreshing touch.
Bullet holes on an exterior wall of Notre-Dame de la Garde, courtesy
of the liberation of Marseille.

Heavenly view of Marseille from Notre-Dame de la Garde

Sainte Marie Majeure

This enormous cathedral, also known as La Nouvelle Major (or just La Major) was conceived by Prince Louis Napoleon Bonapart in order to get on the good side of the Catholics. Its distinct green and white striped stones (one website calls them "snazzy") foreshadow its grandiose interior: a mix of Romanesque, Byzantine and Gothic styles.

Sainte Marie Majeure, "La Major," is a huge cathedral at the edge of
Marseille's Old Port

Interior of Sainte Marie Majeure

A replica of Sainte Marie Majeure is constructed of matchsticks

A portion of the large creche at Sainte Marie Majeure

Saint Ferréol les Augustins

This church, likened by some to a wedding cake, is built on marshy ground at the Old Port. The building dates back to the 15th century, but it has been mostly rebuilt. Its façade was built in the late 19th century.

Saint Ferréol les Augustins

Abbaye Saint-Victor

Legend says that Christain monk and theologian John Cassian founded two his-and-her abbeys back in 415. If true, Abbaye Saint-Victor would have been the men's church. Although Cassian probably didn't found the original Abbaye Saint-Victor, its roots date back to the fifth century. The original structure is long gone, destroyed by the Saracens in the 8th or 9th century. It was rebuilt a few centuries later and has a long history, which I won't attempt to tell here. (The churche's website has more details, if you're interested.) 

Its dark, heavy history is reflected in its interior, dank but refreshingly simple.

Abbaye Saint-Victor

Abbaye Saint-Victor

Église Saint-Vincent-de-Paul

Known as Les Réformés, architects of this Roman Catholic church took inspiration from the Reims and Amiens cathedrals.

Église Saint-Vincent-de-Paul

Église Saint-Vincent-de-Paul

Le Temple Protestant

I didn't go inside, but I appreciate the simplicity of Marseille's Protestant temple. It took just 14 months to build this austere church, located on rue Grignan. It was completed in 1824.

Unadorned pediment on Marseille's Protestant Temple on rue Grignan

Exterior detail of Le Temple Protestant

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Ambling around Marseille's Vieux Port

Sailboats in Marseille's Vieux Port

The old port, or vieux port, has been the heart of Marseille for 26 centuries. Through the ages, the city has had several names: Massalia (Greek), Massilia (Roman) and Masiho (Medieval). Since the port was essential to the city's economy and safety, two forts were built to keep watch: Fort Saint-Nicolas and Fort Saint-Jean.

Ferris Wheel at Marseille's Vieux Port

Fort Saint-Jean was built to guard Marseille's port

Ferry boats have been shuttling les Marseillais and visitors
across the port since 1880. Today's boats are eco-friendly and free. 

With our hotel perfectly positioned a five-minute walk from the port, my sister and I start our first day in Marseille eagerly exploring the blocks on the north side of the port.

We check our map to figure out what this magnificent building near the town hall could be. Turns out Hôtel Dieu is a former hospital. Now it's a five-star hotel.

Shapely shrubs in front of Hôtel Dieu in Marseille
Just around the corner is Place Daviel, named for Jacques Daviel, the oculist who performed the first cataract surgery in 1745. (But, of course, you probably already knew that.)

Des Accoules Church in Place Daviel

Cheerful building front in Marseille

Giggling students in Place des Augustines

A former poor house, la Vieille Charité is an imposing building that now houses a museum and cultural center. The idea for building a "workhouse for beggars" was conceived in 1622, but it took more than a century to complete. When imprisoning the poor fell out of favor, the building was turned first into an asylum, then later into barracks for the French Foreign Legion. After WWII, squatters and impoverished families moved in, but eventually were rehoused elsewhere. In the 1960s la Vieille Charité was pretty rundown, but the Minister of Culture stepped in and restored the building to its former ... well, I guess one could call it "glory,"

The Baroque-style arcade and chapel of La Vieille Charité were designed
by renown artist/architect/engineer Pierre Puget.

My sister suddenly remembers that she forgot to bring her umbrella,
near la Halle Puget in Marseille

View from the steps of Église Saint-Laurent in Marseille,
near the entrance to MuCEM

Our first day exploration of Marseille includes a visit to the city's newest museum, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations.

One of the galleries in Marseille's Musée des civilisations de l'Europe
 et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM)
Marseille is justifiably proud of MuCEM. According to the museum's website, "Never before has a museum been exclusively dedicated to the cultures of the Mediterranean, despite their richness and diversity in terms of history and civilisation."
An ornate wagon used to transport olive oil is on display at MuCEM.

One of the more whimsical displays in a special exhibition of food at MuCEM

More about Marseille will be coming soon on Away to Live. If you don't want to miss a thing, subscribe by putting your email address in the box to the right at the top of this post.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Learn of Gallo-Roman life at Villascopia

Along with the winter school holidays comes the reopening of Villascopia, a destination I recommend for the whole family.

Villascopia is a premier place to visit Gallo-Romaine ruins.

On the quiet afternoon of our visit, we are the first guests to arrive and are greeted by a very friendly Villascope staffer. She tells us the 3D film will begin shortly, and warns us that there are no English subtitles. Confident enough that we will get the gist, we enter the comfortable auditorium which can seat 100 or so. 

The film, set in the summer of 390, tells the story of Paulin de Pella and his discovery of the villa of Lamarque. Although the narration and dialog are over our heads, the film includes graphics that make de Pella’s story understandable. After the “Scenovision Spectacular,” we move into the museum where we see artifacts that were talked about in the film.

Artifact on display at Villascopia near Agen

Artifact on display at Villascopia near Agen

Artifacts on display at Villascopia near Agen

Gallo-Roman tiles on display at Villascopia near Agen

Our visit continues across the road where we spend a bit of time wandering among the ruins of the Gallo-Roman villa.

Gallo-Roman ruins at Villascopia near Agen

Gallo-Roman ruins at Villascopia near Agen

Gallo-Roman ruins at Villascopia near Agen

Gallo-Roman ruins at Villascopia near Agen

Renovation to the archaeological site began in 2012. A carefully designed route guides visitors along Lamarque’s walls, colonnades, and pools. The facility is available for private events, banquets, and birthday parties, where children can dress in togas.

Villascopia is located in Castelculier, about 7 km from Agen. For tarifs, hours, and more information, visit Villascopia’s website here.