On the road – visiting the gorgeous Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius in Sergiyev Posad

When spending a few nights with friends in Moscow in September 2019, we visit the magnificent Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius. From the Jaroslawl station in Moscow, we take the express suburban train (Elektritschka or электричка) to Sergiyev Possad (70km, takes about an hour).

 

The artist welcomes us in Sergiyev Posad

From the train station at Sergiyev Posad it is a short foot walk to the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius. On the way, we come across this artist who has painted the monastery, when there was some more blue sky. Now he has returned (though it is more cloudy) to complete his painting here and there. He tells us that he used to be a professional artist. He seems to be in his seventies. He loves his profession and his eyes express the wisdom and serenity of age.

We stop for a while chatting.

Then we take our own pictures – just photos: The golden cupola surrounded by the blue star dotted cupolas shines in the sun – this is the Maria Assumption/Dormition Cathedral.

To the left we see the Refectory with the rectangular “tower” that covers the refectory church. Behind the Refectory stands the Belfry – 88m high. The Holy Gate is the main entrance on the right hand side, under the green roof with the small golden cupola.

I remember, what Ernst said, when we had returned from Saint Petersburg to Moscow in 2002: “Now I do feel like some original Russian churches with cupolas, let us go and visit Sergiyev Posad.” I was happy, we took the suburban train and in the lavra, we hired a young lady as a tour guide. Now, 17 years later, Ernst accompanies me in my heart.

Alongside stands selling matryoshka dolls (матрёшки), we reach the Holy Gate and main entrance to the Sergius monastery, which is, my Dumont says, the most important monastery of Russia (p. 160).

 

Overview of the main sights in the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius

Let me first give an overview of the main sights of the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius (direction east to west).

The blue line shows the outline of the defensive wall surrounding the lavra, whereby the main gate is now at the bottom (on the photo above, it was on the right hand side). I have placed the main sights in the sequence they appear, but in reality, they do not fill the whole area surrounded by the wall, but only half of it.

The buildings we see in the lavra are mainly from the 15th to the 18th century. They range from the specific Russian church building style of the 15th and 16th century (based on Byzantium, later with elements from Italian Renaissance, numbers 3,4,7) to Russian baroque, first (after 1600) the Naryschkin baroque from Moscow (2,6,8) and, after 1700, the baroque from Petersburg (5,9,10). (See below “some background information”).

 

Entering through the Gate Church of Saint Baptist’s Nativity 

Right after the entry gate, we come across our first church, the Gate Church of Saint Baptist’s Nativity (2, 1692-99, Предтеченнский Храм, Naryschkin baroque of Moscow). Small golden cupolas dance on the rectangular building decorated with lively geometric patterns and slim columns.

Behind the Gate Church of Saint Baptist’s Nativity, the confusingly rich world of the lavra churches opens up.

 

Where the monastery began: Sergius and the Trinity Cathedral

The first church built from stone is the Trinity Cathedral (3, Троицкий Храм), erected in 1422 above the grave of Sergius, the founder of this lavra. White limestone and golden roofs – breathtaking elegance. There are three apsides. The facades are divided into three parts with swinging gables. Attached to the Cathedral is the small Nikon church, like a little brother (for more details about Sergius see below under “some more background information”).

The grave of Saint Sergius with his relics is where the pilgrims stand in line. The photo is from the book “siehe die Stadt, die leuchtet”, published in 1989. Inside, we encountered a line of pilgrims as well.

“Trinity” refers to the three angels visiting Abraham who serves them a meal (well, when they arrived, they looked like vagabonds. After Abraham had invited them, they turned out be angels). The trinity with Abraham and the three angels is a reoccurring representation in the Russian-Orthodox churches. The iconostasis of the Trinity Church holds the Trinity icon of Andrei Rublev – now as a copy. The original is in the Andrei Rublev museum of Moscow. I scanned Rublev’s Trinity from Hamel’s Dumont Kunstreiseführer about Russia (photos are not allowed inside the church).

 

The central complex around the Assumption/Dormition Cathedral with its blue cupolas

The Assumption/Dormition Cathedral (4) makes up the center of the lavra churches and it is surrounded by the Holy Font with chapel and cover (6 and 6a), the Church of Holy Spirit (7), the Belfry (5) and the Church of the Icon of the Godmother of Smolensk (10).

The Holy Font with the cross is covered by playful columns (Сень над чашей с крестом). This is the newest construction in the monastery, 1873, on this photo contrasting with the oldest from 1422, the grand Trinity Church.

The covered Holy Font with its cross stands very close to the Assumption/Dormition Cathedral and there is a reason for that. It stands where the Cathedral first had the narthex.  This was the place, where believers once bought candles and filled in the intercessions, before entering the Cathedral. However, the narthex was destroyed during the siege by the Poles (1608-10). A spring was then detected here. It was said that the water of this spring healed a blind monk. Also in 2002, our young tour guide asserted to us that the holy water has healed many people. In the late 17th century, the tiny red-white chapel was built above the spring, and later, in 1873, the Holy Font was covered with the columns.

The Maria Assumption/Dormition Cathedral was built in 1535. The Russian name “Успенский Собор” alludes to “Maria Dormition” or to her passing away, but the translators often talk about “Maria Assumption”, because this is, what we in the west celebrate on August 15th.

To the right, the slim Church of Holy Spirit with its one blue cupola has been constructed earlier than the Dormition Cathedral, in 1476 (церковь Сошествия Святого Духа).

Both white churches (made from lime stone obtained near Moscow) show the Russian style: The Dormition Cathedral has the typical round gables (sakomars) and the Church of Holy Spirit has the Kokoshniki reminding of the traditional Russian headdress of women (the swinging gables of the Trinity Cathedral are similar).

And yes, this cat lives in the lavra, too. May be it has heard a mouse under the ground.

The Tsar Boris Godunow (1598-1605) has been buried near the Dormition Cathedral. The family grave of the Godunows looks like a little house (to the left of the entry door).

The lavra is full of cupolas and you can play with them… these are the cupolas of the Dormition Cathedral and of the Church of Holy Spirit, seen from the Refectory; they appear behind the golden-brown cupola of the small Mikheyev Church.

Also near the covered Holy Font (and  hence close to the Dormition Cathedral) is the Belfry from 1770 (Колокольная). Its blue and white decoration reminds me of some baroque churches in Saint Petersburg.

Now, I zoom in the small and finely decorated сhapel above the holy spring (Успенский кладезь с часовней), just in front of the Dormition Cathedral. The chapel from the late 17th century shows the playful Naryschkin baroque of Moscow. The finely carved slim white columns on red ground give it some airiness. The tower is decorated with the geometric patterns that we have already found at the Gate Church of Saint Baptist’s Nativity.

I very much like the graceful white Church of the Holy Spirit, made by skillful masters from Pskow. Clustered pilasters divide the facades into three parts topped by the headdress like “Kokoshniki”. In 2002, the tour guide told us that the small tower with the blue cupola is a belfry that can only be reached from outside via a ladder; it is rare that Russian churches have an integrated belfry. Usually the belfry stands separate.

In the background appears the Refectory with the small Mikheyev Chapel attached.

The medaillon showing Christ decorates the facade above the entry door to the Church of Holy Spirit.

The Refectory (1686-92, Трапезная) shows beautiful Naryschkin baroque of Moscow.  Its geometrical pattern reminds us again of the Gate Church of Saint Baptist’s Nativity. The “tower” hides the Sergius cathedral (храм), which to me seems to be very, very luxurious.

Just close to the Refectory is the elegant small Mikheyev church (1734). Mikheyev was a former abbot.

Behind the Belfry is the red church of the Godmother of Smolensk (1745-48, baroque of Saint Petersburg). It looks like the hermitage of a landscape garden.

The white tower belongs to the hospital chuch of Saints Zosimas and Sawwitiya (1635-38).

The abundance of impressions makes us hungry. We eat in the small canteen next to the golden entry gate. We have fish soup (ukha, уха), Russian ravioli (Pelmeni, пельмени) and herring under the fur coat (yes – it is called like that: селёдка под шубой. This is herring “under” a cover of beetroot salad).

We say good-bye to this magnificent monastery ensemble. I am happy to have seen it a second time now, and, after having studied it at home using all my sources available, I would not mind seeing it a third time.

 

Some more background information about the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius in Sergiyev Posad (Свято-Троицкая Сергиева Лавра)

The Trinity lavra started off in 1340, when Saint Sergius of Radonesch (Сергий Радонежский) retreated to the forest north of his home town Radonesch to live as an ascetic hermit. More hermits joined him and Sergius built the first wooden church (according to the young tour guide that we had hired in 2002, he was a carpenter and hence built the church himself. He even knew the moment of his death six months ahead and timbered his own coffin, she said, and later pilgrims took splinters from the coffin such that it had to be protected under glass. Sergius is a much venerated person decorated with legends).

The support of Sergius was important for getting rid of the Tartar yoke. Sergius blessed Prince Dmitry Donskoj of Moscow before the battle against the Mongolian Golden Horde near the Don river in 1380. Donskoj defeated the Mongols, and this first victory counts as having set off the liberation of Russia.  As a matter of fact, the Mongolian Golden Horde was under pressure, challenged by Timur (1336-1405) , also with a Mongolian background (we will soon meet Timur in Usbekistan). Perhaps Sergius was a bit similar to Niklaus von der Flüe of the 15th century who also had political influence on the first cantons of early Switzerland.

The monastery flourished and became wealthy, as they were always on the winning side of politics.

  • This started in the 14th century, when Sergius supported the unification of the Russian principalities under the lead of Moscow and supported their fight against the Mongolian Golden Horde.
  • Then, in 1608-10, the monastery withstood the Polish besieging it for 16 months.  This supported Russia’s survival (in danger after the conquest of Moscow by Poland) and the subsequent rise of the Romanow dynasty.
  • And last they supported young Peter by allowing him to grow up here, protected from the revolts of the Streltsy. When Peter became Peter I the Great, he thanked the monastery later for that.

For my understanding I divide the main sights of the Trinity Lavra into three phases:

  1. Classical Russian style, influenced from Byzantium, from the wooden Russian churches and later by Italian renaissance architects: The first church was the Trinity Cathedral (1422) erected above the grave of the founder Sergius and containing the trinity Icon of Andrei Rublev.  Around 1450 pilgrimage to the grave of Sergius started. The Church of Holy Spirit (1476) and the Assumption/Dormition Cathedral (1585) followed, the latter being initiated and sponsored by Iwan the Terrible.
  2. Naryschkin baroque style of Moscow: In 1608-10 the monastery was besieged by the Poles for 16 months and could not be conquered. The monastery was admired for its boldness, and the first Romanow Tsars gave them donations in the 17th century. The Moscow/Naryschkin baroque buildings remind us of that: The Gate Church of Saint Baptist’s Nativity (1692-99), the Refectory with the included Church (1686-1692) and the Chapel above the Holy Spring (late 17th century).
  3. Baroque style of Saint Petersburg (founded in 1703): Peter I the Great, was a generous donator for the Sergius Lavra as well, as at the age of 10 (1682), he had fled here with his mother, after the revolt of the Streltsy. The buildings of Saint Petersburg baroque style commemorate that: The Belfry (1741-70), The Church of the icon of Godmother of Smolensk (1745-48) and the Mikheyev Church (1734, it has a Dutch roof, as Peter, after having studied ship building in the Netherlands had good relations with Dutch craftsmen and architects).

There are only two monasteries in Russia that are called Lavras. Empress Elizabeth (a successor of Peter I the Great) edited a decree to elevate the Sergius monastery to the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius. The second Lavra is dedicated to Alexander Newsky in Saint Petersburg.

Since the 15th century, the monastery with the grave of Sergius has been an important pilgrimage site. The pilgrims needed catering and wanted to buy souvenirs, such as icons and wooden toys. A small town emerged around the lavra. Today, Sergiyev Posad is THE Center for the production of matryoshka dolls – and, as a matter of fact, many of them are on sale on the street leading to the entry gate of the Trinity Lavra.

 

Sources: Christine Hamel: “Russland – von der Wolga bis zur Newa”, Dumont Kunstführer 1998. Hubert Faensen: “Siehe die Stadt, die leuchtet”, Koehler und Amelang, 1989; Eva Gerbeding: “Moskau”, Dumont Reisetaschenbuch 2018, various Wiki-entries and the excellent site Экскурсия по Троице-Сергиевой Лавре.

On the road back home – Romans-sur-Isère and Annecy

In November 2019 we travel in France and Spain. It is now beginning of December and we are on our way back home. On the way starting from Valence, we visit Roman-sur-Isère and stay overnight at Annecy.

Source: Googlemaps

 

Romans-sur-Isère – founded by Barnard de Romans who gave his name to the city. In the 19/20th century it was a center of shoe production

From Valence we drive north east and find signs pointing to Bourg-de-Péage and Romans-sur-Isère. No, no, we do not want to take the motorway, we do not intend to pay “péage” (toll) right now, we look for the “normal” road… but then we understand that Bourg-de-Péage is the sister city of Romans-sur-Isère, both bordering the Isère and connected by bridges such as this Pont Vieux or “Old Bridge”.

In the 9th century, Barnard de Romans founded his Benedictine abbey at the place, where the Collégiale Saint-Barnard (Collegiate Church)  is located today. Barnard de Romans gave his name to the city, Romans-sur-Isère. The Romans have never been here, only Barnard de Romans. The beautiful choir of the Collegiate Church contains gothic elements from the 13th century.

We find the tomb slab of Beatrix of Hungary. She was the mother of the last dauphin of his county Dauphiné, Humbert II. In Wikipedia I find, why the county is called Dauphiné and the count is called “dauphin”: In the 12th century their coat of arms showed a dolphin (dauphin in French). The count was nicknamed “dauphin” and changed the title “count” to “dauphin” or (in Latin) “delfinus”. The dauphin/count Humbert II had no successors. He decided to hand his county over to the heir of the throne of France, then Charles Valois. From now on, whenever a new heir to the throne of France was born, he received the county Dauphiné as a private property and was hence called “dauphin”. At the time of Humbert II, the Dauphiné was a fief of the Holy Roman Empire (how complicated, the son of the king of France reported into the German emperor). Only around 1500, the Dauphiné became French territory and the fleur de Lys was added to the dolphins on their coat of arms.

So – the mother of the last local dauphin, Beatrix de Hongrie (Hungary), died in 1354 and was buried in the Collegiate Church of Romans-sur-Isère and this is her tomb slab.

From around 1850 until in the late 1990’s, Roman-sur-Isère was an important center for design and production of shoes. The name of one of the famous designers is Charles Jourdan. The city cherishes the memory of their grand times by erecting giant shoes. This is a traditional model in red with a bow.

This is a more extravagant model with eyes and a mouth.

And this red-white shoe stands in front of the Tour Jacquemart.

There are shoe outlet shops in the city, now decorated for Christmas.

In addition, the people of Romans-sur-Isère are very proud of their three specialties: First Pogne de Romans are rolls made out of yeast paste with orange flavor. Second les lunettes de Romans are biscuits made from shortpastry (sablé, Mürbeteig), double layered, with marmalade in between, similar to the Swiss “Spitzbuebe” or to the Austrian “Linzer Augen“. Third Ravioles de Romans are tiny ravioli with a filling made from white cheese de Comté spiced with parsley. The “ravioles” have been probably imported by immigrants from the Piemont. We try them for lunch, and are disappointed that the grated cheese covers the fine taste of the white cheese filling.

After lunch we continue our way to Annecy.

 

Annecy – discovering the lovely old city on islands at night

My first impression of Annecy is “people try to help, but accessing our IBIS hotel is difficult by car”. The reason: In the city center, there is both a Christmas market and a “normal” market with products of Savoy, and around our centrally located hotel, the streets were closed. After our third round, Ursula leaves the car and explores the area on foot. She discovers that we are allowed to access the parking Sainte-Claire next to our hotel by driving into the one-way street in the “wrong direction”; for all signs, market stands and people we have not seen the relevant “exception signpost” that would have directed us to the parking garage. Finally we enjoy the view of the river Thiou from our hotel room …

… and set out to explore the old city entering it through the western gate.

We stroll through the narrow streets and cross the river Thiou using the Pont Morens with the view of the western side of the Palais de l’Isle.

Enticing shops sell sweets.

It is chilly cold and we decide to have a hot tea in the Péché Mignon with the inviting confectionery sign.

I wonder, why I find “Swiss flags” or “almost Swiss flags” – a white cross on red background – and I understand, the coat of arms of Savoy is very similar to that of Switzerland.

This shop sells products of the area, the cheese Reblochon being one of them. From Antony in Ferrette I had learned that Reblochon is a washed-rind cheese  (Rotschmierkäse) that is relatively mild. In the 13th century, the farmers who had to pay taxes on liters of milk obtained from cows stopped before having finished milking their cows. When the controllers and tax collectors had left, they clandestinely milked their cows a second time and obtained what they called “rebloche” in their local dialect. From the “rebloche”, they produced the Reblochon cheese. Only in 1860, when Savoy was integrated in France, the Reblochon left concealment and is now one of the registered regional trademarks, AOP (Antony, p. 47).

The market stands and the restaurants offer specialties of Savoy that often contain the Reblochon cheese. We decide to eat in the restaurant le Chalet near the Pont Morens. We have delicious perch filets (filets de perches) carefully fried in butter. They are the best filets de perches I have ever eaten. Around us, there is the smell of Fondue and Raclette which are not only Swiss, but also Savoy specialties. But there are some differences. For instance the Savoyards prepare a Fondue containing Reblochon. I will have to try that out, when back at home.

 

Annecy – also charming at daylight

In the morning we stroll along the river Thiou…

… and this related channel.

The city reminds me of Venice, and it is sometimes called “Venice of the Alps”.

In Annecy the dogs say: “here, I have to be taken on the leash” – will the dogs convince their masters?

The galleries remind me of our capital Berne – very convenient for shopping in the rain.

The narrow streets open to the place Notre Dame with…

… the Église Notre-Dame-De-Liesse, reconstructed in the 19th century after having been destroyed in the French revolution to install the square of freedom (place de la liberté). Only the original belfry from the 14th century remained.

The fountain with the four lions was erected in 1859  by a man called Aimé-Antoine Levet who took the inspiration from Florence, where turtles hold an obelisk on the Piazza Santa Maria Novella.

Outside the city center with the narrow streets, we find a modern shopping center. The Christmas tree – built out of skis – reflects in the window.

A kind of snowflakes decorate the shopping center inside – charming French phantasy.

The lake d’Annecy is not far from the shopping center. We find a mysterious atmosphere created by low hanging clouds. There must be mountains around this lake…

We turn back to the city center…

… and get to the island in the river Thiou, called Palais de l’Isle. The buildings on the island were formerly a prison and now they house museums. The building with the tower dates from around 1200 and the court of justice was on the first floor.

Across the Palais de l’Isle, men are working at the bridge “Rue Perrière”, perhaps something to repair or some more Christmas decoration to install. It must be wet for the brave man in high boots.

This is the northern side of the Palais de l’Isle with the former prison cells.

We look up to the castle…

… enjoy pretty houses with flowers (now in December)…

… turn to the city gate…

… and say good-bye to Annecy that is also called the “pearl of the French Alps“.

My “old” Lonely Planet of France praises Annecy on p. 490: “the Vieille Ville (Old Town) is a ludicrously pretty ensemble of pastel daubed, geranium strewn houses…” – yes, I agree. The Lonely Planet then continues: “… Just look around you: The mountains rise steep, wooded and snow-capped above. Lac d’Annecy, so startlingly turquoise it looks unreal…” Mountains, wooded and snow-capped above? Now, we have seen nothing but clouds around Annecy. To see more of the mountains, we might have to return next year.

We return home to Switzerland. Five wonderful weeks discovering more about France and Spain are now history for us. Until next year!

Source: Ralf Nestmeyer:, “Südfrankreich”, Michael Müller Verlag – Individuell reisen 2015; “Parcours Romans-sur-Isère, du moyen-âge au xxe siècle”, imprimérie Despesse 2019; Bernard Antony: “Fromage”, Edition Ducasse 2019; Nicola Williams et alii, “France”, Lonely Planet 2013.

On the road to France: Narbonne and around

In November 2019 we are on our way back from Spain (Hospitalet de l’Infant) to Switzerland with an overnight stop  in Narbonne. In late afternoon, we arrive in the friendly Hotel de France in a quiet side street just ten minutes away from the cathedral of Narbonne.

Source: Google maps.

 

First impressions from strolling through the city center adorned for Christmas

After having settled in our cosy hotel, we stroll through the city center. The Canal de la Robine has been adorned for Christmas. The Christmas market is ready to open along the shores of the channel.

Narbonne has its “Ponte Vecchio”, a bridge with houses and shops crossing the channel. The bridge of Narbonne is called “Le Pont des Marchands”.

Now we are on the bridge of the merchants (or Ponts des Marchands). I cannot believe that we are on a bridge.

The people from Narbonne do seem to love Christmas. The donjon of the Archbishop’s palace shines like a rectangular parcel with glowing red bows.

The Cathedral Saint-Just – in principle just an amazingly high choir – emerges from the narrow streets. Accompanied by sacral music, a roller-skater dances elegantly in front of the gothic arches. Very mystic and solemn atmosphere.

The backside of the choir looks like a cathedral in ruins. Well, this Cathedral of Saint Just consists just of the choir. In the 14th century, the city started to build the transepts, but had to stop, because of lack of money or because constructing the transept and the nave would have required to open the town wall which was not a good idea during the Hundred Years’ War (1347-1453). This is why, the cathedral of Narbonne ends with the “ruins” of the transept and two towers that were added here later.

A small bookshop is open on this Sunday evening. I find a pretty book about Narbonne and the area around it (“Narbonne et le Narbonnais” by Chantal Alibert and others). Then we have dinner in a brasserie and look forward to discovering Narbonne at daylight tomorrow.

 

Cathedral Saint-Just: Just an amazing choir

The Cathedral Saint-Just with its choir – 40m high- is also impressive at daylight. From outside the buttresses and pinnacles supporting the choir give the cathedral some airiness. Instead of the transepts (never accomplished), two towers of 71m have been added in the 15th century, at the place, where the transepts should be. They look a bit odd to me.

Inside, the elegance of the gothic vaults is just overwhelming.

I cannot stop looking.

The impressive organ has been built by Moucherel, in 1739.

The treasure of Narbonne’s Cathedral is on display in the “new” chapter room from the 15th century (well, the “new” chapter room is 500 years old and, nevertheless, it is called “new”). I am particularly impressed by the finely carved ivory plate with the crucifixion, completed in the entourage of Charlemagne at the School Palais d’Aix-la-Chapelle (before 815 AD).

The museum leaflet says that Narbonne’s treasure is one of the ten richest treasures of France, among the others being Conques, Troyes, Paris and Chartres.

 

Archbishop Palace and Via Domitia

In daylight, the donjon of the Archbishop Palace has become a more sober Christmas parcel with plain red bows.

In front of the Archbishop Palace (or town hall) part of the Roman Via Domitia has been dug out. Narbonne was the capital of the Roman province Septimania. This was the first Roman province outside Italy, installed in 118 BC. Narbonne was a port then and located at the intersection of the Via Domitia and the Via Aquitania. Roman Narbonne thrived, but only little of that is left today, such as these cobbles of the Via Domitia in front of the Archbishop Palace. In December it has become a convenient place for Christmas trees and more equipment.

It has recently rained at Narbonne. The Archbishop Palace reflects in the puddle…

… and so does the donjon with the red bow.

 

Lively city enter, friendly for pedestrians and their dogs

Narbonne’s Pont des Marchands reflects in the Canal de la Robine.

It is early morning. The streets – reserved for pedestrians – are still quiet.

At the Place des Quatre Fontaines (square of the four fountains), the fountain has four mouths or apertures for the water, as the name suggests. Now the four mouths are hidden behind the Christmas decoration.

This is, what the fountain of the four “mouths”  looks like without Christmas trees – we found the image in the mirror of the Brasserie des 4 Fontaines nearby.

Narbonne is a welcoming, friendly town and the large pedestrian area invites to stroll around discovering charming corners one of them being the “Chien-Chic”…,

… a dog trimmer that was champion in various years.

A pity that I do not own a dog – I would take it to “Chien-Chic” for toilettage.

 

Market from 1901 – les Halles

The covered market place, les Halles, is an Art Nouveau building inaugurated on 1st of January 1901. At that time, trade and wine made Narbonne thrive.

Inside local “flavors” (saveurs) are on sale.

Not all booths are open, as it is Monday morning. One stand offers tripe, just tripe. This is why it is called “triperie”.

Furthermore I discover that also the south of France has its black pigs (not just Spain).

In the 19th century, the chain of shops called “aux Dames de France” was opened in smaller cities of France. The label does no longer exist today. The buildings dating from that time are now protected monuments, as this one across the Archbishop’s Palace. “Aux Dames de France” (for the ladies of France) is engraved under the roof.

 

Around Narbonne – vineyards and endless beaches on the Mediterranean Sea

Next we set out to discover the area around Narbonne. It is called “the Narbonnais” and adds to the charm of the city.

We drive through the easternmost vineyards of the Languedoc AOC region “La Corbières“.

We reach the Mediterranean Sea near the fishing village Gruissan. Rows and rows of cottages with closed shutters (now, in November) and endless beaches facing the sea. The area must be very, very busy in summer.

We dream looking at the waves and say good-bye to the Mediterrannean Sea, as we will return to Switzerland, far from any sea.

The small fishing village of Gruissan…

… is located between two “ponds” called “étangs”, with flamingos…

… and a saline that offers salt tasting. Salt tasting – that sounds interesting to me; I am more used to wine tasting.

We cross the rough Massif de la Clape with a beautiful view of the sea and the Languedoc and the Pyrenees in the background. The Massif de la Clape belongs to the AOC Côteaux de Languedoc.

The domain “Château l’Hospitalet” is a busy place with guest rooms, a restaurant (now closed) and corners for wine tasting and buying. Also “my” Johnson-Robinson mentions this domain in their World Atlas of Wine. They say that the Massif de la Clape allows to grow wines that resemble more Bordeaux than Southern Rhone.

We now cross the impressive canyons of the Massif de la Clape to take the motorway heading north to Valence.

Looking back to our experience in Narbonne, I cannot agree with the snippy remarks of Ralf Nestmeyer in his Müller guidebook: “Too much you cannot expect: Narbonne is – despite its great name – a relatively limited provincial town…  Unfortunately the city fathers … carelessly dealt with the historical buildings. The wrecking ball raged without mercy… Apart from the area of the Cathedral and the Archbishop’s Palace, the city offers only few places of interest.”

I cannot agree, because we liked the manageability of the city center – it was pedestrian friendly and very welcoming. In addition we were fascinated by the surroundings of Narbonne, called the Narbonnais. We agree more with the book “Narbonne et le Narbonnais” that praises the area already with its subtitle “regards sur un patrimoine” (glances at a patrimony)… (qui) est donc bien une invite à admirer” (p. 10, which is an invite to admire). And on p.33 the authors continue “A la différence de Nîmes et Tarragone, “la première fille de Rome” a conservé peu d’élements spectaculaires d’architecture antique… mais le charme de Narbonne et de la région qui l’entoure est ailleurs… Il faut savoir passer d’un monde à l’autre… passer presque sans transition des cabanes de pêcheurs au Palais des Archevêques, des salins à l’abbaye de Fontfroide.” (Different from Nîmes and Tarragon, the “first daughter of Rome” has kept only few spectacular elements of the antique architecture… but the charm of Narbonne and the region around it is elsewhere… you have to be able to switch from one scenery to another… to switch almost without transition from the fishing huts to the Archbishops’ Palace and from the salines to the Abbey of Fontfroide).

Yes, the magnificent photos of “Narbonne and the Narbonnais” do look enticing. We think of accepting the invite to return and take more time to explore Narbonne and the Narbonnais, in particular the Abbey of Fontfroide to the west of the city and the wines of the Massif de la Clape.

 

Sources: Ralf Nestmeyer, “Südfrankreich”, Michael Müller Verlag – individuell reisen, Erlangen 2015; Chantal Alibert et al, “Narbonne et le Narbonnais – Regards sur un patrimoine”, Loubatières, Portet-sur-Garonne 2010; Leaflet handed out in the Archbishop’s Museum, Mairie de Narbonne, “The Treasure of Narbonne’s Cathedral”; Narbonne Tourisme, “Plan Monumental”, Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, The World Atlas of Wine”, 5th Edition, Octopus Publishing Group 2005.

On the road through the Pyrenees: Coll d’Ares and around

It is November 2019. After having spent two weeks in the appartment of our friends in L’Hospitalet de l’Infant, we now return to Switzerland. Our first overnight stop will be in Narbonne and we take the route along the river Ter to the Coll d’Ares. It is our third time here; we have crossed the Coll d’Ares in November before, in 2016 (fog on the pass) and in 2017 (Ripoll and Prats-de-Molló, view of the Pyrenees). In 2019 we see St. Joan de les Abadesses. And we know, there will be more to explore along this route.

Source: Googlemaps

 

Coll d’Ares – now our third time – we were here in the fog in 2016, in sunshine in 2017 and now, 2019, again

In November 2016 there was fog on the Coll d’Ares.

This viewpoint is recommended to photographers. In 2016, there was not much to see, let alone to take a picture of – except the sign in the fog.

End November 2017 we give the Coll d’Ares a second try. The viewpoint is no longer in the fog and we can see the pass height behind the hint to photographers.

From the hint for photographers, there is a great view of the Spanish-Catalan Pyrenees…

… with the great late autumn/early winter atmosphere.

Also on the French side, the trees shined yellow…

… and we could see THE mountain of the Catalans, the Canigou.

Now, end November 2019, on our third tour to the Coll d’Ares, we again have a good view of the Spanish Pyrenees south of us,…

… while clouds are coming in from the north, from the French-Catalan side.

Let me now tell you about Ripoll and St. Joan de les Abadesses south of the Coll d’Ares, in Spanish-Catalonia and then let us turn to the north, to the French side of Catalonia with Prats-de-Molló.

 

South of the Coll d’Ares: Ripoll with its gorgeous portal of the monastery church, explored in 2017

In 879 Duke William the Hairy (Guifré el Pelos) founded the Benedictine monastery Santa Maria de Ripoll, after having conquered the area from the Moors. William was then buried here. Soon a town emerged around the monastery. Around 1000 AD, it was an important intellectual centre of Catalonia, with the support of the famous abbot Oliba who took new ideas about the architecture of churches from Rome back to Catalonia. He had the church of Ripoll built by the model of early Christian Saint Peter of Rome. An earthquake in 1428 (terratrèmol de la candelera) destroyed the church and the monastery. In 1835 revolting people looted and burnt it.

Around 1895 the church was reconstructed in historicized style. I like the sober atmosphere of the Neo-romanesque nave.

Fortunately the magnificent Romanesque west portal from the 12th century has been preserved. It is now protected by a narthex. Bongässer (p.44) says that this bible in stone is unprecedented. Not only the portal, but also the flanks are covered with sculptures referring to the Old and the New Testament, with Christ as Pantokrator above the arch of the portal. As it was in the 12th century that the south of Catalonia had been reconquered, Bongösser thinks that this portal expresses the triumph of Christianity.

From the series of monthly pictures showing the cycle of the year I like the harvesting of corn…

… and from the bible scenes this striking Jonas being spat out by the whale.

In the cloister with the ground level dating from the 12th century, many of the capitals are well preserved and…

… from the animals found here, this dog is my favorite.

 

Also south of the Coll d’Ares: St. Joan de les Abadesses, Romanesque church and welcoming mountain village (2019)

In November 2019, we have a short break in the mountain village St. Joan de les Abadesses. We find the Romanesque church with the same name.

Some capitals around the choir are preserved. The Dumont says that they take up islamic patterns from southern Moorish Spain.

The Benedictine nun monastery Sant Joan de les Abadesses thrived from the 9th to the 11th century.  Like Ripoll it was founded by William the Hairy. His daughter was the first abbot. In the 12th century the Augustins took over the monastery. With them, the monastery thrived again and the church that we see today was constructed. The earthquake of 1428 also damaged this church (like Ripoll).  Around 1900, Josej Puigi Cadalfach restored the place (Cadalfach is an important Modernista architect of Catalonia; he documented and restored some of Catalonia’s cultural inheritance). Our art books praise the church because of the ambulatory around the choir, unusual for Catalonia, and because of the amazing deposition of the cross from the 12th/13th century. But everything is closed now, we will have to return to see the deposition.

We slender through the narrow streets and have a coffee.

It is about one o’clock, time to have the aperitif outside on this sunny and warm autumn Sunday.

The trees have kept some golden leaves around the old corn mill of the village.

We continue our way – Sant Joan de les Abadesses was a nice mountain village and its cultural treasures will make it worth to return.

 

North of the Coll d’Ares: Prats-de-Molló, pedestrian-friendly and well fortified French-Catalan town

When descending north from the Coll d’Ares to France, the Vauban fortification of Prats-de-Molló appears behind the trees.

Yes, Vauban carefully assured the frontiers here, as Louis XIV had gained the Roussillon (or French Catalonia) in the Treaty of the Pyrenees of 1659.

In November 2017, we stopped at Prats-de-Molló and entered the medieval small town through the main gate. Inside the wall only pedestrians are allowed.

The church Sainte-Juste-et-Sainte-Ruffine with a Romanesque tower marks the highest point above the roofs of the small town.

The river Tech is nascent. The town has about 1200 inhabitants.

The town wall surrounds the city and the gates are well-fortified.

We stop in a bookshop that has a nice selection of books for children and about cooking. We ask the owner, whether he is Catalan or French. “French”, he says immediately, “yes, primarily French, but then in addition Catalan”. We want to know, how he pronounces “Prats-de-Molló”, the French or the Catalan way. He says, “of course I say it the French way, I say “Prats-de-Molló””… and he pronounces each letter clearly and the “ll” not like l-l (as the French would say it), but softly as “ly” (or “lj”), as the Catalans (and the Spaniards) say it. We smile, because we like his French AND Catalan, attitude.

 

 

In 2019 we continue our way along the canyons of the river Tech to the Mediterranean coast and to Narbonne which I will talk about in my next blog.

Sources: Fritz René Allemann und Xenia v. Bahder, “Katalonien und Andorra”, DuMont Kunst-Reiseführer, Köln 1980; Thomas Schröder, “Katalonien”, Michael Müller Verlag – individuell reisen, Erlangen 2015; Barbara Bongässer, “Katalonien, Kunst, Landschaft, Architektur”, Könemann, Köln 2000; Ralf Nestmeyer, “Südfrankreich”, Michael Müller Verlag – individuell reisen, Erlangen 2015.

On the road to Spain – visiting Vilella Alta and Escala Dei in the Priorat

It is November 2019. We are spending two weeks in the appartment of our friends at L’Hospitalet del l’Infant. Some days ago we had already visited the Priorat to walk in the vineyards of Bellmunt. On a sunny day, we now return to the Priorat to visit another wine village, Vilella Alta, where we buy some wine in the bodega Vilella de la Cartoixa de Montsalvat. In addition, we look at the ruins of the former Carthusian Monastery Escala Dei.

Source: Googlmaps

 

Steep vineyards in the Priorat aound Gratallops

Just before arriving at Gratallops we stop to have a coffee in the restaurant La Cassola with the amazing view of the small town perched on a mountain edge…

… and with the view of these steep vineyards above the river Siurana.

This is an amazingly steep vineyard with very loosely planted vines that shine golden in the sun.

And here is the view of the Siurana valley with the table mountain Montsant in the background.

Gratallops is the wine village, where in the 1980’s the Priorat started to revive (Vinos de España, p. 171). Gratallops is pretty and worth a visit, but today, our target is Vilella Alta.

 

Vilella Alta, wine village perched on a rock, and the welcoming Cellers Vilella de la Cartoixa de Montsalvat

Vilella Alta is another pretty Priorat village perched on a steep hill. The streets are narrow. This is the Carrer Major with the view of the church.

Here we stand below the small village and look uphill.

In one of the small streets, we find this beautifully restored house. with the carefully arranged plants in front of the main entry.

I look for the Cellers Vilella de la Cartoixa de Monsalvat. I walk down this street, almost to the end of it. Ursula stops in front of the door arch of the small house on the right hand side. “Come back, the celler is here”, she says.

Yes, Ursula is right, here it is, the bodega Cellers de Vilella de la Cartoixa de Montsalvant that I have looked for, based on the hints found in “Vinos de España”, p. 172 and in “Més d’enlla del vi – DOQ Priorat”, p. 123. The Montsalvant is a small family owned bodega. This unpretentious entry in the narrow street reminds me again of how different the DOQ Priorat is from the second Spanish DOQ Rioja, where some bodegas have been constructed by star architects and are visited by hords of tourists. Here we are alone… almost…

According to “Més d’enlla del vi”, Francesc Sánchez-Bas, has founded the bodega de la Cartoixa with two friends in 1995, and he took it over ten years later, when one of his companions became president of the Conseil Regulador de la DOQ Priorat. 1995, this was almost 25 years ago. We count back – yes we were in our forties then, and hence Francesc Sánchez-Bas must be in his early sixties now. Is this him, rushing through the large door just below where we stand?

Yes, it is him. He is about to leave for Tarragona, but nevertheless finds time to prepare two bottles of his best red Montsalvat (2006, mainly Carignena, aged 18 months in barrels and made from old vines) and one bottle of white Montsalvat 2016 (made from Trepot Blanc, Macabeu and  Garnatxa Blanca, two months in barrel… I am particularly interested in the Trepot Blanc, an autochthonous Priorat grape that is new to me). Francesc gives us “identity cards” of his wines and apologizes that he does not have the time to show his bodega to us.

Well, we might return to this friendly place next year. We say good-bye and hope, the bodega helps to build a future for the children of Francesc, as he said in “Més enllà del vi”.

We take another photo of the surroundings of Vilella Alta…

… and admire some fragmented slate that is favorable for the wines of the Priorat. On his wine identity card, Francesc talks about “granite and quartzite shards”, which might be the better term coined by engineers in agronomy.

Next we continue to the monastery Escala Dei.

 

The Charterhouse Escala Dei – the nucleus of the Priorat, now a ruin

The ruins of the Carthusian monastery or charterhouse of Escala Dei are in a gorgeous location just below the table mountain Montsant. The monastery was the nucleus of the Priorat. It owned the nine villages that now form the DOQ wine region Priorat and – being a monastery – gave the area the Name: “Priorat”. The monastery was built, where a shepherd once saw a ladder with angels climbing to heaven. “Escala Dei” means “ladder  of God”. It was the first Carthusian monastery in Spain and for centuries it was an important cultural center. Now, it is even not mentioned in my art guide books, neither in Dumont’s “Katalonien und Andorra” nor in Barbara Bongässer’s “Katalonien – Kunst – Landschaft – Architektur”. The formerly wealthy monastery, reconstructed in baroque and neoclassical style from the 16th to the 18th century, has been destroyed effectively in the beginning of the 19th century. However, the monastery is well worth a visit, due to the amazing location and the restoration efforts that started in 1989 and illustrate life in the former monastery.

Entering Escala Dei is just stunning. The Montsant massif watches over the line of three gates and the alley of cypresses. This is the second gate…

… and the Santa Maria portal leading to the center of the monastery.

The style of the Santa Maria portal looks baroque to us, with Maria standing in a niche.

The small Romanesque cloister has been reconstructed with the elements excavated. A film in the former refectorium documents the process of reconstruction. The ladder to heaven or “Escala Dei” is engraved on the fountain.

The ladder of God is also on the tableware in the reconstructed living area of the monks. There is a room for study and praying, a second room for cutting wood, a third room for handcrafting and this is the room for eating and sleeping. All rooms are arranged around a small garden, it is just like a small “atrium house”. Through a small, “curved” window, the  monk received his meal from a laybrother that could not see the monk through the pass-thorugh.

Behind the “atrium house”, there is a double garden on two levels. This is the upper level. The monk planted his herbs and vegetables in these gardens.

A complex system provided water to the monastery. Above the monastery, spring water was captured in a cistern and distributed to the individual cells (or “atrium houses”). Each “atrium house” had its system of tubes and fountains. First the upper garden received water (top level in the scheme), second the water continued to the fountain in the lower garden (middle level in the scheme), and third the water arrived at the lowest level, the “atrium house”, where the monk lived (lowest level of the scheme). At this lowest level, an underground tube collected the water.

This is the fountain that carries water to the lower garden.

And this is the (reconstructed) lowest fountain that the monk used in his small “atrium house”, for his personal needs.

We look back to the refectory in front of the Montsant massif and say good-bye to the charterhouse Escala Dei.

We have lunch in the small restaurant near the monastery and then return to Hospitalet to enjoy our balcony with the view of the Mediterranean Sea.

Sources: Sebastiano Albo, “Més enllà del vi – DOQ Priorat”, Barcelona 2011; “Vinos de España”, Larousse, Barcelona 2008; Thomas Schröder: “Katalonien, Michael Müller Verlag, Erlangen 2015 (for the monastery Escala Dei) and explanatory plates in the monastery Escala Dei.

 

On the road to Spain – hiking to the Miranda in the Llaberia mountains

We spend November 2019 in Spain. We are now in the appartment of our friends at L’Hospitalet de l’Infant. One day, the weather forecast announces blue sky and we decide to drive to the village Llaberia in the Llaberia mountains and to walk to the La Miranda peak with its great view.

Source: Googlemaps

Llaberia is a small village, located in the middle of the Llaberia mountains on 700m. It is an almost perfectly restored village with narrow streets, but now, in late autumn, it is a ghost village. It is mainly inhabitated during summer, as the leaflet tells us that we have received at the tourism office in Pratdip (Consorci de la Serra de Llaberia, La Serra d’Almos). There is a museum, only open in summer, where visitors can learn more about traditional packsaddles and transportation methods in Catalonia (Museu del Bast). Interesting, I have never thought that such a museum would attract visitors, but considering the steep mountains of Catalonia, it may be well worth remembering traditional methods of transportation. Llaberia, this now empty village, used to live from farming and their cattle grazed in the hills around the village. Today, they have installed a photovoltaic power plant that can be visited on request, as our leaflet says.

The leaflet proposes a circular walk of 6km to the La Miranda and back to the Llaberia village. Near the Romanesque church Saint John the Baptist (12/13th century) the trail starts.

As we climb higher, the view to the west opens up. This is the  Ebro valley with Móra d’Ebre, still hidden in the fog.

The Llaberia mountains have been classified as an area of national interest with their Mediterranean vegetation such as holm oaks (quercus Ilex) and pine trees. In shady places, there is a Eurosiberian vegetaion with yew groves (Eibe in German).

Our target is the radar station of La Miranda on 918m.  The metallic “ball” appears between the trees above us…

… again and again.

Now we have reached the Miranda. A plate on the side wall of the meteorologic radar explains that it has been co-financed by the EU. La Miranda is one of four weather stations of the meteorologic service of Catalonia. and belongs to the community Tivissa-Llaberia. Our leaflet says that the station is useful to give insights into the storms from south and southwest that can cause abundant rain. And, with the twinkle of an eye, the leaflet adds weather singnals that we should not forget to take note of such as “when the aunt takes earth out of its nest, fix the leak and flee from the river” or “when you see a fish jump out of the water, hang out the laundry, good weather will come.”

We look south east against the eleven o’clock sun. The Mediterranean Sea shines under the blue sky with some dispersed clouds.

The panoramic view from the La Moranda is gorgeous. To the north east we can see the small village Colldejou and the Prades mountains in the direction of Tarragona.

To the southwest are the Tivissa-Vandellós mountains and, farther away, the Parc Natural del Ports and Terra Alta…

Now the mountains to the southwest are zoomed in; Ursula is fascinated by these rows of rugged mountains – one after the next. Cumbersome to cross, going up and down and up and down. Yes, that is, what the Museu of Bast of the Llaberia village could tell us more about – traditional methods of transportation in such ruggy mountains.

In the meantime, the fog in the Ebro valley near Móra d’Ebre has almost dissipated. Just in front of the light mist we identify the flat hill range, where the Iberian village near Tivissa is located, with its strategic view of the Ebro valley. (Two days later, we walk to the Iberian village and can identify the round ball of the Miranda metereologic station from there).

We walk back to the Llaberia village. The roundwalk ends at the Romanesque church of Saint John the Baptist.

The sun warms us up. We take off our jackets at the main square with the mulberry tree.

The tree invites us to play with the sun and the shade.

We say good-bye to the Llaberia village.

We stop for lunch in La Cuina d’en Carlos at the Ermitá Santa Marina, where we have been before. I love their salad with the goat cheese anf Ursula loves their cannelloni which are also a specialty of Catalonia (that once had possessions in what is Italy today).

Then we return to our cosy appartment in L’Hospitalet de l’Infant.

 

 

On the road to Spain – Ebrodelta and Amposta

It is November 2019. We are spending two weeks in the appartment of our friends, at L’Hospitalet del Infant.

Once more we visit the Ebrodelta. We have been in the delta before and it is always worth a visit. In addition we explore Amposta, a small town that we have passed by so far.

Source: Googlemaps

 

Ebrodelta: l´Encanyissada

After two very stormy days, the wind has stopped, but there are still clouds in the sky. We drive to the Ebrodelta and to the Casa de Fusta at the l’Encanyissada pond. From the Fusta viewpoint, we look at the Montsía mountains with the clouds above them.

This is the zoomed-in view of the Montsía mountains with San Carlo de la Rápida.

Igrets are all over… looking for a tasty fish meal.

We switch to another viewpoint at the l’Encanyissada pond. The clouds reflect in the channel.

Above the water of the l’Encanyissada pond, Ursula detects a kingfisher perched on to reed grass. It is the first time that we come across a kingfisher in the Ebrodelta.

More igrets – this one sits on the harvested rice field.

Swarms of glossy ibis are in the sky (called “Brauner Sichler” in German) and more of them sit in the harvested rice field – they look like black dots.

 

Ebrodelta: The Salines de la Tancada 

Where are the flamingos? In spring, half a year ago, we found them standing in the Salinas de la Tancada. We drive there, and indeed, here they are, a pink stripe at the horizon.

One individuum decided to look for food all alone and much closer to us.

In the background, we can again see the Montsía mountains, now with fluffy cirrus clouds above them.

After having bought some of our favourite “Bomba” rice and some bottles of olive oil in the Case de Fusta, we decide to have lunch at Amposta.

 

Lunch and stroll through Amposta, the capital of the Ebrodelta

Amposta is the capital of the Ebrodelta and of the Comarca Montsía which is the southern most Comarca of Catalonia. The small city with about 20’000 inhabitants is very proud of their Suspension bridge across the Ebro. It has been constructed from 1915-1921 to replace the former ferry. The engineer was inspired by the Brooklin Bridge of New York , and his bridge was the second suspension bridge built from armoured concrete worldwide. In 1938 (during the civil war) the bridge was destroyed, and one year later it was inaugurated again. The ropes hang on arches built in German historizing style, as I read on the Webpage.

We stroll through the pedestrian zone and find one square after the next – we suppose that on hot summer days all these squares are joyfully busy. We also find welcoming restaurants such as this one selling hot “small dogs” (perritos calientes) that the parents can eat calmly, while their children play on the motor cycle.

Not far from the townhall, we settle in the bar Il Viale and enjoy a well prepared meal  with stewed veal and crema Catalana.

Amposta is not a pretentious town with overly restored houses. It has an old history though. Historians suppose that Amposta was an important Celtiberian settlement. Then the Romans were here. The name “Amposta” is said to derive from Latin “amnis = river” and “imposita” seems to refer to a guesthouse that was located on the rocks above the river Ebro.

Around 1150, the king of Aragon reconquered Amposta from the Moors. He gave it to the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem. The flag of Amposta contains their cross. With the castle on the rock above the Ebro, Amposta thrived. In 1465 the castle was destroyed during the civil war in Catalonia. Not much is left of the castle today; this is the view from the suspension bridge.

Only in the 17th century, Amposta slowly recovered, when cultivation of the Ebrodelta started. Today, Amposta is the regional center that lives primarily from agriculture in the Ebrodelta, from the related mechanical industry and from tourism in the Ebrodelta and in the near mountains.

In the early 20th century, some modernist houses were constructed. A congestion of them is on the street to San Carlos de la Rapita, such as this house with elegant oriels…

… a second one with pretty balconies,…

… and a third one made from red bricks.

When walking through the small streets, we find more modernist houses,…

… and, sorely, some of them are at the brink of decay.

We say good-bye to Amposta, this small town located on the rocks above the Ebro and return to our appartment in Hospitalet to enjoy the balcony.