Thursday, July 30, 2015

The house that Victor Louis Built: Bordeaux’s Grand-Théâtre

The Grand-Théâtre de Bordeaux

On a recent dames’ day out in Bordeaux we are looking forward to a tour of the opera house, le Grand-Théâtre de Bordeaux. We checked the National Opera website for tour days and hours but have discovered that the information is not correct. As we eventually figure out, tour tickets are now only available at the Bordeaux Office de Tourisme, a block down the street at 12 cours du XXX juillet. Options for visiting the Grand-Théâtre can be found at the end of the post.
Temple to the Arts

After several unfortunate catastrophies with Bordeaux’s early performance venues, including a fire in 1755, regional and city leaders selected architect Victor Louis to design a new theater. The ambitious project was aimed at maintaining Bordeaux’s place as France’s second-most opulent city after Paris.

Victor Louis, architect of the Grand-Théâtre de Bordeaux

Located at the Place de Comédie, the construction of the Neoclassical “temple to the arts” hit many bumps in the road before it finally was completed in 1780.

Not all the reviews were positive. The 19th-century French writer Stendhal described the Grand-Théâtre as “… worthless as architecture. Twelve Corinthian columns, all spindly and ill-arranged, bear the load of an enormous entablature weighed down with twelve ludicrous statues. As soon as one takes a step back, the eye is blighted by the sign of a cumbersome roof, as vast as it is ugly.”

But contrary to Stendhal’s rant, the Grand-Théâtre and Victor Louis’s reputation have withstood the test of time. Due to age, normal wear-and-tear, damage from lighting sources and a few redesign follies, the theater has undergone tremendous reconstruction and preservation work and has been brought back to its original glory. Today the Grand-Théâtre is considered the jewel in the architectural crown of Bordeaux — a World Heritage site and one of France’s most popular destinations.

Nine muses and three goddesses atop the Grand-Théâtre de Bordeaux

The main façade of the Grand-Théâtre is a portico of 12 Corinthian columns, above which are statues, conceived by sculptor Pierre Berruer, of the nine muses and three goddesses of Classical mythology: Venus (love), Juno (fertility) and Minerva (war). Can you name the muses? (Answers are at the end of this blog post.)

BONUS QUIZ: Match the Muses

1. Euterpe 
2. Urania 
3. Calliope 
4. Terpsichore 
5. Melpomene 
6. Thalia 
7. Polyhymnia 
8. Erato 
9. Clio 

a. comedy
b. epic poetry and eloquence
c. rhetoric
d. lyric poetry
e. tragedy
f. music
g. astronomy
h. history
i. dance

Upon entering the lobby, our first stop is the full-length marble statue of Victor Louis by Amédée Jouandot (1860). Next, we head to the Grand Staircase. The elegant steps and landing served as inspiration for Charles Garnier when he designed the Opéra de Paris less than a century later.

The Grand Staircase of the Grand-Théâtre de Bordeaux

The Classical attributes of Apollo are the lyre, sun and laurel.

Cloistered vault ceiling above the Grand Staircase of the Grand-Théâtre de Bordeaux

The main auditorium, or Grande Salle, originally was built to a capacity of 1,700; today it holds 1,114. The original blue, white and gold colors — a tribute to the monarchy — were restored in 1989. Late 18th-century painter Jean-Baptise Robin chose the theme of “Apollo and the muses accept the dedication of a temple erected by the City of Bordeaux” for the auditorium’s ceiling. The late-20th century restoration was completed by painter Jean Vidal.

Interior of the Grande Salle of the Grand-Théâtre de Bordeaux

The ceiling of the Grande Salle is both allegorical and realist — a tribute to the arts,
to the craftsmen who built the theater and to the City of Bordeaux itself.

The Grande Salle is just one of the impressive venues inside the theater. The concert hall, often used as a ballroom in the 19th century, was nearly ruinied by architect Richard-François Bonfin. In the 1850s-1860s, Charles Burguet carried out a major restoration of the hall. Formerly called the Grand Foyer, it was renamed Salon Gérard Boireau in 2005 ; Boireau was the theater’s director in the 1970s and 1980s.

Apollo and the Muses, painted by William Bouguereau, graces the ceiling
of the Salon Gérard Boireau at the Grand-Théâtre de Bordeaux.

Exposition de l’été

Each summer, the Grand-Théâtre hosts a special exhibition, and this year, fashion and accessories are in the spotlight. “Plus que parfaits ! Corps augmentés en scène” (“More than Perfect: Body Increased by Fashion Accessories”), designed by architects/designers Philippe Casaban and Eric Charbeau, is showing through Sept. 6, 2015.

Plus que parfaits! Corps augmentés en scène exhibition
at the Grand-Théâtre de Bordeaux

Plus que parfaits! Corps augmentés en scène exhibition
at the Grand-Théâtre de Bordeaux

Plus que parfaits! Corps augmentés en scène exhibition
at the Grand-Théâtre de Bordeaux

If you go

The Grand-Théâtre’s summer hours (through Sept. 6) are noon to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Visitors can purchase tickets to the theater’s summer exhibition in the theater gift shop or at the Office de Tourisme for €5. Guided theater tours (€9.50) are offered only in French (no English audio or written guides are provided) at noon and 5 p.m. and include admission to the exhibition. My recommendation: Buy tickets for the exhibition, then you can see the lobby and Grand Staircase as well as the auditorium if it isn’t being used for group tours or rehearsals.

One other tip: A guidebook, “The Grand-Théâtre de Bordeaux” is available in the gift shop for €12. It provides a wealth of information about the fascinating history of the theater. Much of the information contained in this post is attributed to this book. For more information, visit the Bordeaux’s Office de Tourisme website or call

Answers to Match the Muse: 1-f, 2-g, 3-b, 4-i, 5-e, 6-a, 7-c, 8-d, 9-h

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Festival offers tiny taste of American West

When we see a poster advertising Journée Américaine in a neighboring town, Ken and I can't pass up the chance to experience how the local French celebrate America.

Basically, the event turns out to be little more than burgers, beverages, bouncy houses and boot-clad dancers. The line dancers, as well as the band, were entertaining. Since C&W is not my thing, and the leftovers back home in the frig whet my appetite more than BBQ on offer, we stay for only an hour, just long enough to take some pictures and appreciate the small crowd's enthusiasm for the U.S.A.

A band performs at Journée Américaine at Lac du Saut du Loup
near Miramont-de-Guyenne, July 19, 2015.

Dancers at Journée Américaine 

Dancers at Journée Américaine

American-inspired duds at Journée Américaine

Wagon rides at Journée Américaine

Harleys at Journée Américaine

Elvis banner at Journée Américaine

Two lazy bastides: Lévignac and Lamontjoie

I habitually pick up tourist brochures and maps. I have boxes that are somewhat organized into départements and genres. ("Maybe we'll head east today. What do we want to see … château? grotte? musée?")

Awhile back I picked up a particularly well designed packet of flyers each featuring a bastide located in the Lot-et-Garonne. The marketing material includes Histoire, évolution, particularitiés, les temps forts de l'année and a walking-tour map of each bastide. Trés cool! I had already visited several, but decided to revisit a village I've been to many times, Lévignac-de-Guyenne, and another, Lamontjoie, that was along the route to another destination.

While both of these sleepy villages have all the usual charms, neither offered enough for a full blog post. So with the added inspiration that comes from alliteration, here's a double helping of petits places.


View from Lévignac-de-Gueynne

Located about 6 km from Duras, Lévignac (pop. 598 in 2012) dates back to 1305 when some subjects of Edward I, Guillaume Arnauld de Cogutsante, Gérard de Levynak and his brother Amenerus, desired a relay between Miramont and Monségur. The houses were built in the maisons-remparts style, tight against the village walls and accessible only from inside the city.

After the Hundred Year War, Lévignac's chemen de ronde was created and the village started to branch out beyond its original walls. Lévignac's château was destroyed in 1793 and replaced first by a boys' school and then by the mairie. The church that stands today was built in 1865 in a modern arched Gothic style. A covered market sits in the center of the village.

Lévignac-de-Gueynne's covered place de la Halle

Église in Lévignac-de-Gueynne

Each year the village hosts a springtime flower market on the first Sunday in May. Summer events include a tractor-pull championship, Fête de Sainte-Croix, Friday night markets and the Fête du Cheval on the second Sunday in September. 


Located about 20 km south of Agen, the village of Lamontjoie can boast of several famous former residents.
Stone plaque in Lamontjoie

La belle maison bourgeoise of industrialist Frédéric Fournet (1815-1895) stands at the edge of the small village (pop. 510 in 2012). Fournet was known for inventing la bouillie bordelaise (a pesticide) and as a village benefactor. The house, which was the birthplace of René Souèges (1876-1967), sits in the center of the village. This son of a baker, become a scientist and was president of both France's Botanical Society and l'Academie de pharmacie. Adémar Sentou (1861-1925), a stone mason and entrepreneur of Paris's first métro in 1900, also came from Lamontjoie and was the mayor from 1908 to 1925. His former residence is just off the town square.

Former residence of Adémar Sentou in Lamontjoie

Also of note is Lamontjoie's church, Église Saint-Louis, built in the Languedocien Classique style in the 16th century. The side walls may date back to the 13th century with Roman-carved windows. Inside, the church contains a magnificent altarpiece.

Église Saint-Louis in Lamontjoie

Each year Lamontjoie hosts "Petits pas au Clair de Lune" (small steps in the moonlight), an evening stroll followed by a meal, on the Saturday closest to the full moon in September.

Lamontjoie from outside the original walls

Even the most "ordinary-looking" bastide holds small gems of history. What village secrets have you discovered here in south west France?

Thursday, July 9, 2015

A taste of honey

Beekeeping (apiculture) is not just a job for Frédéric Brosson — it’s a passion.

Beekeeper Frédéric Brosson tends to his hives near Lauzun.

For the past five years, 48-year-old Brosson has been “growing honey” near the village of Lauzun in the Lot-et-Garonne. He moved to Lauzun, where most of his relatives lived, when he was 3 years old. His day job is in the field of logistics. After work and on weekends, he happily spends his time up to his elbows in miel.

Beekeeper Frédéric Brosson tends to his hives.

“I like checking on the bees,” Brosson says. “I enjoy being in the forest … in nature.”

Brosson has around 50 hives in four different locations. The nearby vegetation determines which flavor of honey the bees produce: miel d’acacia, de chataigner (chestnut), de miellat (honeydew), de foret(forest), de tournesol (sunflower), de fleurs (flower blossom).

On the afternoon of my visit, Brosson lends me gear to wear: rubber boots, a jacket with hood and face netting and rubber gloves. He lights la fumée that blows smokes on the hives. The bees scramble from the smoke, and I timidly approach the hives in order to get a good look.

“Don’t move too quickly and don’t be scared,” Brosson says. “You’re not allergic, are you?”

Frédéric Brosson prepares la fumée.

Blowing smoke on the hive causes the bees to retreat.

Les abeilles

The hives are wooden boxes containing vertical frames that contain the honeycombs, which Brosson pulls out to examine. Most of the hives are fine, but occasionally a second queen will tresspass, causing disorder in the colony: Une reine par ruche, SVP!

Frédéric Brosson tends to his hives.

“La ruche is a society,” Brosson says. “When I open the hives, I am checking if everything is running smoothly.”

After examining each hive, Brosson attaches trays to the bottom of some of the hives. Here, the bees will deposit pollen. Later, he will collect the pollen and sell it to those eager for its possible health benefits.

Frédéric Brosson attaches pollen collectors on one of his beehives.

Les ruches are just part of the process of making honey. On another day, I meet Brosson at his atelier, which he calls un dépôt, on the edge of the village. No honeybees are in sight, but there’s an occasional Asian giant hornet — a bee’s arch enemy for which la tapette à mouchede l’apiculteur (the beekeeper’s fly swatter) shows no mercy.

Scraping the wax from the honeycombs

Brosson shows me how to scrape the beeswax from the honeycombs with a saw-like knife. Lacking confidence with sharp objects, I prefer to watch and chew on the wax. He places the frames into an extractor. Somewhat like a washing machine, the frames spin inside the stainless steel drum and the honey is flung from the comb and eventually drips to the bottom of the extractor. Turn on the tap, and voila! The honey is transferred to large barrels where it will sit for several weeks before its put into jars.

Honey on tap
Frédéric Brosson prepares honey in his workshop near Lauzun.
I ask Brosson if there’s anything about beekeeping he doesn’t like. He says it can be difficult maintaining the equipment, and there is a lot of heavy lifting. A hive can weigh around 50 kg when ladened.

Some tools of the trade for un apiculteur
In an average year, Brosson’s bees will produce about 1,500 kilos of honey. He will add almonds or hazelnuts to some jars. Some honey will be used to make nougats and other sweets. He sells his products under the label Rucher de Lauzun at the local Saturday morning market, and it is also available online or at les Agriculteurs Réunis store in Bergerac.

A sampling of sweet stuff offered by Rucher de Lauzun

On our first trip back to the states after settling in Lauzun, we brought a suitcase full of honey for friends and family. Although honey is easily available there, I think our little gifts created some lifelong French honey fans. 

Me in my beekeeping outfit. Unfortunately I had to give it back.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Quelque chose cette semaine (Something this week) part 2

In which I share a short snippet each week throughout 2015

WEEK #26 (25 juin - 1 juillet)

It's been hot here in France. I won't call it "unseasonable," but it's much hotter than it was this time last year or the year before. Ken had the excellent idea of spending some time on the water, so joined by our friends, les canadiens, we canoed a few kilometers of the Dordogne. 

Ian and Susan, fellow North American expats

View from the bow

WEEK #25 (18-24 juin)

After last summer's trip to the Auvergne area of France's Massif Central region, I vowed to explore more of this beautiful area, full of breathtaking views of volcanic landscapes. First up: a hike in Gorges de la Jordanne in the Cantal department. 

Under a bridge in Gorges de la Jordanne

WEEK #24 (11-17 juin)

Last Friday we went to the end of the school year spectacular. Nos deux enfants préférés performed and were brilliant, bien sûr. I include this picture of the le petit roi who stood on his chair blocking my view. But he was cute, so all is forgiven.

WEEK #23 (4-10 juin)

Frederic Brosson, our local honeymaker, invited me to tag along to check his beehives. His website is

Me and les abeilles

WEEK #22 (28 mai - 3 juin)

The weather has been gorgeous with the temperatures reaching the 30s, we've been out and about exploring sites in the Lot-et-Garonne and Dordogne départements. This week I share an impulse item: an adorable colt spotted in a field near Villereal. Très mignon, non?

WEEK #21 (21-27 mai)

It's vide greniers season. One never knows what one will find at these village "old attic" sales.

Barbie bargains at the massive vide greniers in Eymet last weekend.

WEEK #20 (14-20 mai)

Spotted during my return to France, the plane wing offers some good advice: DO NOT WALK OUTSIDE THIS AREA. 

WEEK #19 (7-13 mai)

I celebrated Mother's Day a few days early at the Cheesecake Factory in Reno with Luke, Jake and Jen. Sweet!

WEEK #18 (30 avril - 6 mai)

Being stuck in Paris may sound kind of glamorous, but when my flight was cancelled because a food service truck ran into the plane's door and damaged it, I (and 300 nouveaux amis) were put up for the night at the Ibis near Charles DeGaulle airport. This was the view from my room. Nice, eh? And to top it off, my luggage would be stuck in Paris for another week. 

WEEK #17 (23-29 avril)

We enjoyed some farm visits with our friends les canadiens during this year's annual de Ferme en Ferme weekend.

Un épouvantail greets us at a nearby farm.

WEEK #16 (16-22 avril)

In Pamplona, of course ... Olé!

WEEK #15 (9-15 avril)

We're off to Spain for 11 days, and I'll be writing much more about it in separate posts. For now, here's a moment from our first stop: Burgos.

WEEK #14 (2-8 avril)

We enjoyed a performance by the Leeds University Big Band. It was great to hear some jazz and the vocalists were stand-outs. But alas, the band couldn't hold a candle to the Reno Youth Jazz Orchestra.

I've been publishing quelque chose chaque semaine (something each week). See Part 1 here.