Friday, March 27, 2015

A (plus) pretty detour to Brantôme

Benedictine Abbaye de Brantôme

A river runs through it — the river being the Dronne and “it” being the lovely village of Brantôme in the northern Dordogne. The oldest parts of the town were built on an island next to the Benedictine Abbey of Brantôme, founded by Charlemagne in 769. The abbey is said to have contained relics of Saint Sicarius. It was ravaged by Vikings and then again during the Hundred Years’ War. It was rebuilt several times and today boasts what may be the oldest (11th century) bell tower in France.

Pont Coudé in Brantôme

Pont Coudé on the river Dronne in Brantôme

Fountain at Abbaye de Brantôme

Visitors can tour the abbey and explore the ancient troglodyte caves nextdoor; nighttime tours are offered in the summer. Details can be found on the Périgord Drone Belle website.

Brantôme, France

Le Moulin de L’Abbaye is an upscale hotel/restaurant in Brantôme.

A delightful day in Brantôme can include a canoe ride, a picnic in Jardin des moines et Reposoirs, and visits to nearby châteaux Bourdeilles, Jumilhac and Puyguilhem, Grotte de Villars and Saint Jean de Côle.

Along the Dronne in Brantôme

Brantôme is located in the Périgord Vert. The area was given its name by Jules Verne, and the village is located on the Santiago de Compostella pilgrimage route, also known as Chemin de Vezalay.

Brantôme’s war memorial

In my research for this post on Brantôme, I came across another distinction to add to my catalog of French sites: Les Plus Beaux Détours. Other more familiar designations such as le plus beau village or plus beau jardin pretty much assure that I will see something pretty when I visit. The plus beaux détours website contains a wealth of information on these small towns that have received the designation due to their history, gastronomy, lodging options and overall appeal to tourists. It’s a guide to which I am sure to refer again and again, especially once they have the English language option working.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Oh so ochre — Saint Jean de Côle

Saint Jean de Côle

With its ochre-colored, colombage houses and (award-winning) tiled roofs, Saint Jean de Côle in the northern Dordogne, certainly deserves its les plus beaux villages de France designation. Even on the rainy day of our recent visit, its charms are apparent. Nothing is open and no one seems to be around, so I can imagine Saint Jean de Côle to be the setting of a fairy tale or roman du moyen-âge.

The Côle river is running fast this morning and we spend some time admiring the view from le petit pont bossu on the edge of the village.

Bridge in Saint Jean de Côle

Dating from the 12th century, Château de la Marthonie, dominates the village. According to the town’s tourism website, one of the château’s most famous residents was Mondot de la Marthonie, “first president of the Cour de Parliament de Bordeaux and then of Paris. He was also the queen mother’s councellor when the king went to Italy.” Château de la Marthonie can be visited during the summer.

The 15th-century part of Château de la Marthonie in Saint Jean de Côle
is on the right; the wing built in the 17th century with its series of arches
is to the left.

Église Saint Jean-Baptise was built in 1083 in an unusual semi-circle. Its dome was damaged in the Hundred Years War, was rebuilt twice, collapsed twice, and finally built again using modern construction techniques.

Église Saint Jean-Baptise and covered market in Saint Jean de Côle

Outside the church, the exposed beams in the ceiling of the covered market catch my eye.

If I happen to find myself in area the weekend of May 9-10, 2015, I’ll be among the expected 10,000 visitors for Saint Jean de Côle’s annual flower fair. I’m marking my calendar — are you?

Un joli passage in Saint Jean de Côle

Friday, March 13, 2015

Into the woods ... of Paris

Parc Floral de Paris in Bois de Vincennes

Any excuse to visit Paris and this time, my excuse is a chance to meet up with my sister before she heads back to snowy New England after a month studying French on the Côte d'Azur. I pounce on the great winter train fares and score cheap seats on the TGV. We're staying with friends on the eastern outskirts of Paris, which provides another good excuse: visits to Château de Vincennes and Bois de Vincennes.

Trees may not be the first thing that pops into one's head when thinking of Paris, but with more than 400 parks and gardens, the city is the most wooded capital in Europe. And Bois de Vincennes is the largest park in the city. Its 2,459 acres occupy 10 percent of the total area of Paris. 

Residents of Parc Floral de Paris

Once a royal hunting ground, the public park was established under Emperor Napoleon III in the mid-1800s. The park contains the Château de Vincennes, four man-made lakes, a zoo, an arboretum, horse- and bike-racing tracks, and a floral garden.

Signs of spring in Parc Floral de Paris

The sun is shining but la météo has predicted rain by noon, we decide to start our visit at Parc Floral. It's late winter, so there aren't many flowers, but we see some signs of spring as we walk along the paths. 

Parc Floral de Paris in Bois de Vincennes

A theater in Parc Floral de Paris

One of several educational venues
in Parc Floral de Paris in Bois

Hanging out in Parc Floral de Paris in Bois de Vincennes
The skies are threatening, so we head to the nearby castle. I had checked ahead of time to make sure the château doesn't close during lunchtime (always a possibility), but luckily we don't dally, because the royal chapel does take a lunch break (?) and we are able to slip in just before.

The moat at Château de Vincennes

Dating back to the Middle Ages, Château de Vincennes is the tallest medieval keep in Europe. The castle was originally a hunting lodge, with the surrounding forest providing the ideal location. A royal residence for kings from Phillip II to Louis XIV, even Charles de Gaulle considered the site for a possible seat of the French Presidency. After Louis XIV moved out to the suburbs of Versailles in 1862, the château lost its status as a royal home. Around this time, the keep served as a prison for "high-born prisoners," (according to France's official website).

Some of the more illustrious "guests" imprisoned at Vincennes include: Jean-François Paul de Gondi, cardinal of Retz; Nicolas Fouquet, Viscount of Vaux/Marquis of Belle-Isle; Louis II of Bourbon, Prince of Condé; Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade; Denis Diderot, writer/philosopher; and Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Count of Mirabeau.

Statue of Saint Louis, aka Louis IX,
onetime Vincennes resident

Sainte-Chapelle, the royal chapel built by Saint Louis
to house the relics of Christ's Passion (the Crown of Thorns,
a fragment of the Holly Cross, the sponge and the spear).*
*I obviously am quoting the visitor's guide.


On the day of our visit, the château grounds seem to be one large construction site. Much of this is routine restoration and gardening, but some is also likely to be part of vast archaeological digs. The visitor's guide tells of the discoveries at Vincennes since 1994: 
"The restoration of the keep has revealed the existence of its original décor and the systematic use of iron to consolidate its structure. Digs on the site have revealed an extensive hydraulic network and shown the various periods in the manor's construction. This extensive restoration work was vital if the Castle of Vincennes, a key stage in the history of art and one of Europe's greatest Medieval castles, was to go on standing the test of time."

Murals painted by prisoners at Vincennes

The Beck sisters at Château de Vincennes

Want to read more about Château de Vincennes? Visit

Duras: My maiden château

Château de Duras

I find myself returning again and again to Duras, the lively village that sits at the northern point of the Lot-et-Garonne department. The Château de Duras is one of the closest castles to where we live, and will always hold a special place in my heart since it’s the very first medieval château I visited.

Moss-covered stairs in Duras
On most any mild day, the outdoor tables in the Place du Marché are full of people relaxing and profiter du soleil et la vie. The village provides plenty of free parking, although spaces are in high demand on Thursdays during the summer, when Duras holds its evening markets. (The all-year-round morning market is held on Monday.) 

Duras offers several places to eat and drink al fresco.

Thirteenth-century gate at the bastide of Duras

Château de Duras is the village’s focal point. Visitors can explore, on their own or with a guide, more than 30 rooms, from the basement to the top of the tower. The visit begins with a short film describing the castle’s rich history.

The château was built in the 12th century, and evolved first into a fortress and then a luxurious home after it was purchased by American citizen Victor Hugo Duras in 1804. The town purchased the castle in 1969 and it became a historic monument the following year. In 2003, Château de Duras was designated a Major Historical Site of Aquitaine. The château is open nearly every day, all year round, except in January. Visit its website here for details.

Entrance to Château de Duras
Grounds of Château de Duras and the view beyond

My two handsome escorts atop the tower at Château de Duras. This
picture was taken three years ago on my maiden visit to a medieval château.

Duras also offers two small museums: Le Musée de la Monnaie du Moyen Age, also called Tresors en Aquitaine ( and Musée Ta’Nawa, Arts des Peuples d’Afrique Noire ( I haven’t visited either, but I did stop by the photo exhibition on the life of Marguerite Duras (née Donnadieu).

French writer and film director Marguerite Donnadieu (1914-1996) lived part of her life in the Lot-et-Garonne and took the name Duras as a tribute to the place where her father died. She may be most recognized for her book “The Lover” and film script “Hirochima, mon amour.” (At least these are the two of her many novels, plays and screenplays with which I am acquainted.) The photo exposition currently is open weekends 2:30-5:30 p.m. and will expand its hours during the summer. Check with the tourist office for details.

Behind this plain exterior, there’s an interesting photo
exhibition about writer/filmmaker Marguerite Duras.

Place Marguerite Duras in Duras

Musée Ta’Nawa in Duras

At the base of the hill as you enter or leave town, La Maison Duras offers visitors a chance to “see, smell and touch the vine” in its garden, as well as taste and buy some of the more than 100 wines from the Duras region. Nearby, Maison Guinguet offers tours and tastings of its chocolats, pruneaux, pralinés, et autres gourmandises. Check the website for hours.

La Maison des Vignerons de Duras

A few years ago, we visited the quiet and oh-so-quaint Jardin de Boissonna, located three km from Duras. It was a hot day, as I recall, and we had the garden to ourselves, except for the birds and bees. Whimsical touches abound throughout the collection of six small English-style gardens. Boissonna is open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays April 15 through August 31. Visits on other days can be arranged. See Boissonna’s website for more information, including the chance to have tea in the garden.

Treehouse in Le Jardin de Boissonna

Le Jardin de Boissonna

Flowers in Le Jardin de Boissonna

Friday, March 6, 2015

The passion of Armando Bergallo

Tucked away in the countryside of the Lot-et-Garonne, an internationally known artist is creating a vibrant, larger-than-life safari of paintings. Some of these paintings will be on display at La Coupole in Saint Loubès March 13-22.

Detail of painting by artist Armando Bergallo

Armando Bergallo, second from left, shows guests selections from his upcoming
‘Animaux’ exposition. Bergallo’s partner and creative consultant Frederik van
Kleij is at right.

Armando Bergallo was born in Montevideo, Uruguay. His early professional credits include co-founding the Taller de Montevideo in 1963 and Taller Amsterdam in 1977. Among the many museums in which his work has been displayed are the Centre George Pompidou, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, Het Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and CAPC musée d’art contemporain in Bordeaux.

Detail of a painting of the artist’s father as seen in a family photograph

In addition to his bold sculptures and paintings, Bergallo has designed and created visions for theater, opera and film.

I recently had the privilege of visiting Bergallo’s converted-barn atelier in Lalandusse and was given a tour by the artist and his partner, Frederik van Kleij. Several weeks later, I interviewed Bergallo via email.

How would you describe your art?
I see my art as an affirmation of passion, optimism and freedom.

Painting by artist Armando Bergallo

What can visitors expect to see at the exposition in March?

In the exposition in La Coupole, visitors will discover paintings and three monumental installations (‘Ville Polychrome’, ‘Orfeo’ and ‘Animaux’). The central installation ‘Ville Polychrome’ speaks about the interrelation between elements of different nature. A utopic call for a harmonic relation between human beings, in spite of their social, racial or religious differences.

Painting from Armando Bergallo’s upcoming ‘Animaux’ exposition

Do you have a favorite piece of art you have created?
I love the Crocodile as the most abstract, realistic and energetic work of my series ‘Animaux.’ A very intense red dominates all the space and I feel there is a good balance between the ‘painting work’ and the omni-presence of the huge animal.

‘Crocodile’ by Armando Bergallo

Which artists have inspired you the most?
My inspiration comes from Piero della Francesca, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Velazquez, Caravaggio, Lucien Freud, Joaquin Torres Garcia and my teacher José Gurvich. Recently my most happy spiritual ‘rencontre’ has been with the work of the writer, astrophysicien, Vietnamien Thuan Trinh Xuan. His book ‘Désir d’Infini’ has become the leading inspiration of my next project ‘Infinie.’

Painting by artist Armando Bergallo

Painting by artist Armando Bergallo

What attracted you to Lalandusse? What do you like about living here?
For me Lalandusse is an ideal place to live and work. The light is fantastic and it has changed my work in a very positive way. But the good energy of this ‘paysage vallonné’ goes further; I feel it in my body and in my spirit. Fortunately my partner Frederik van Kleij shares this feelings completely. With common enthusiasm we have created a living — and working — space, where our complementary activities function in an optimal way.

Frederik takes care of the organisation and the communication of my work, but his activity goes further than this. He participates in the process of creation and his opinion and ideas our fundamental for the development of the projects we create in Lalandusse since 2005.

Tabletop painted by Armando Bergallo in the artist’s
studio in Lalandusse

Sculpture by Armando Bergallo in a window of the artist’s studio
A reception at 7 p.m. on 13 March kicks off the exposition which runs through 22 March at La Coupole in Saint-Loubès, north of Bordeaux. The venue opens at 10 a.m. each day and the exposition is free. For more information, click here.

Readers who are unable to make it to La Coupole, may be able to catch a future exposition at the artist’s studio in Lalandusse. Send an email to to add your name to the list and to receive notices of future events.

For more information about Armando Bergallo, visit

The artist’s signature