Listening to the stories that my home tells me: My dad’s book about Diesel’s car drive in Europe in 1950/51 / 2

In March/April/Mai 2020, the virus has stopped me travelling. Instead I listen to the stories that my home tells me.

In my former blog, I have started to talk about Eugen Diesel’s book “Philosophie am Steuer: Ein europäisches Reisbeuch” or “Philosophy at the Steering Wheel: A European Travelling Book”).

The book belonged to my dad and I have read it during the lockdown. In my former blog, I have talked about who Eugen Diesel was and how he drove to Auch in southern France. I now continue with his excursions around Auch and about his tour back to Germany, intertwining that with my own memories.

 

While staying with their friend in Auch, Eugen and his wife go for excursions in the south of France

In Auch, Eugen and his wife stay with their friend, and from here they go for various excursions, one of them being Pau.

In the Renaissance castle, Jeanne d’Albret gave birth to the later king of France, Henri IV (born in 1553).

We know Henri IV for the words “Paris vaut bien un messe”. He may never have spoken them out, though he adopted the catholic religion to take over the crown of France, and, luckily, he was tolerant towards other religions.

Henri IV had children from various loves, and he played with his children. When this ambassadors entered, Henri asked him: “What do you do with your children?”. I believe that Henri IV is one of the most fascinating personalities of the history of France.

In Pau, Eugen visited the castle and he was invited to the local exhibition of furnitures, cars and engines at Pau; some people believed that it was him, Eugen, that had invented the Diesel engine, though it was his father.

In 2017, my friend and I were in Pau. We visited the castle and the medieval city center.

From Pau, Eugen drove up to the Pyrenees, to the Col de Pourtalet (1795m).

(Pen drawing by Willy Widman, p. 123)

The roads are narrow, but I do not think, he had to cross many cars coming down, as the border to Spain was closed. The customs officer let Eugen take a few steps in Spain. The sky was inviting blue south of the Pyrenees (Spain), while the north (France) was covered with clouds. Eugen had to return to the clouds, to France.

The Col de Pourtalet is one of the few passes in the Pyrenees that we have not yet used to get from France to Spain. I would love to take it, once the border to Spain opens up again and the situation looks safer after the current pandemic. This is the view of the Pyrenees in the direction of the Col de Pourtalet, taken at Pau.

In Lourdes, Eugen did not dare take photos, because it is a sacred place. But then he noticed an elderly lady take photos using an expensive camera, before laying down to pray. Lourdes is an important pilgrimage site that bases on Mary having appeared to a young girl in 1858. We were in Lourdes in 2017 and visited the grotto and the Rosary Basilica from 1899. When leaving Lourdes, the boot of our car would no longer open. A miracle? No, it turned out that the strip of one of our backpacks got caught in the lock, a problem that was solved all by itself later on a bumpy road. Perhaps not a miracle, but a reminder?

In Moissac, Eugen and his wife watched a lady ring the abbey bells manually. We saw the Abbey Saint Pierre in 2017 and in 2019. It has one of the most beautiful Romanic portals that I know; here, the 24 wise men playing music are looking up to Jesus,…

… and in the the cloister we found this beautiful Petrus.

After having visited Bordeaux, Mimizan and Toulouse, Eugen and his wife left Auch to return to Germany performing a round tour to the Mediterranean Sea.

 

Eugen and his wife leave Auch and return to Germany via the Mediterranean Coast

Eugen drives along the Pyrenees and tries to enter Andorra. But the customs regulations (two large books in a drawer) did not say, how to handle Germans, and hence the couple was not allowed to cross the border to Andorra. Eugen and his wife continued their way in France crossing the Cerdagne, a high plateau shared by France and Spain, with one Spanish exclave called Livía. Eugen could not find the reason for Livía being a Spanish exclave surrounded by French territory. Today, we have the internet, “Dr. Google” and Wikpedia. They tell me that in 1659, Louis XIV did not know that Livía was a town. In the Treaty of the Pyrenees, he had agreed with the Spanish crown that France would integrate all the villages of the northern half of the Cerdagne/Cerdanya in France. Livía, once the capital of the Cerdagne and registered as a town, consequently stayed with Spain. If this is the reason, it could be an indication that, even as a powerful king, you may have to study the local details, before finalizing an agreement.

We were in the Cerdagne in May 2018, and we got caught in heavy snowfall, while on the way to Seu d’Urgell in Catalonia on the Spanish side.

Here we are on the road up to the Cerdagne. On the plateau, 1200-1600m, we will find some 10 to 20cm of fresh snow on the roads. We are in the mountains – “real” mountains – and even in May, the weather can be rough in the Pyrenees. My friend took the photo, while I was driving carefully; my car is a four-wheel drive.

Not far from here is the beautifully shaped sacred mountain of the Catalans, the Canigou (seen from Prades, where the road up to the Cerdagne plateau starts).

After having followed the river Têt down to the Mediterrenean Sea, Eugen stayed overnight at Collioure with the harbour and the lighthouse (“phare” in French)…

… that André Derain painted.

In the beginning of the XXth century Fauve artists around Braques, Matisse and Picasso used to meet here. Eugen enjoyed the atmosphere of this charming village with the castle and with the colorful narrow streets, and so did we in 2016.

Along the beautiful coastline, Eugen and his wife drove south from Collioure to the border between France and Spain, at the Col de Belitres.

The border to Spain was closed for Eugen and his wife, also here. The customs officer talked to Eugen’s wife, while Eugen was allowed to enter Spain, just for a few steps, to admire the landscape and the huge train station squeezed between the mountains and the sea. The small settlement, Portbou, has such a large train station, because the engineers in France and Spain had selected different gauges for their railways, as Eugen, son of an engineer, explained.  The enormous train station was required for the passengers to change trains and for the goods to be reloaded.

In 2018, we were at Portbou, and felt the tragedy of this border: Here, the philosopher Walter Benjamin escaped to Spain in 1940 with a transit visa in his pocket that should allow him to emigrate to the US, but Spain had just cancelled all transit visas. Walter Benjamin was about to be sent back to France. He committed suicide and since 1994, this haunting monument has reminded us of Walter Benjamin’s tragedy.

I found a beautiful blog “The Passage to Portbou, Seeking Walter Benjamin in Catalunya”, by Martin Kalfatovic. He translated the German words facing the sea like this: “It is more difficult to honor the memory of the anonymous than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the anonymous. Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History (1940)”. Yes, in the 1940-ies, many of the “renowned” wrote history in a way that I prefer would not have happened and that I hope will never happen again – however, sometimes I am worried about our “renowned” now. Then and now, there existed and exist courageous “anonymous” that deserve to be honored.

After having seen Portbou standing at the closed border, Eugen’s next stop is Carcassone, the fortified town…

… with the charming small streets inside.

We were here in 2016. In a welcoming restaurant, we watched some Asian tourists eat the “Cassoulet”, which is a local hotpot made with sausages. It is heavy stuff for people that work in the fields all day. I was not sure, whether the Asian tourists liked the dish or just found it interesting. I had a delicious lamb dish with fine herbs.

Eugen and his wife stopped in Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer at the Mediterranean Coast in the Camargue. Three Saint Maries landed here with her Egyptian servant Sarah. This is the church that commemorates the landing of the sacred boat.

(Pen drawing by Willy Widman, p. 155)

We visited the church in 2017, under dark blue sky.

The Romani  people venerate Saint Sarah, the Egyptian servant, in the crypt of this church.

In Arles, Eugen and his wife attended a bullfight. He described it in detail with the eyes of a German that did not really enjoy the elegance of the bullfighters and the killing of the bulls. The fight took place in the old Roman arena that we saw in 2017 (but without such action, fortunately, not something I would like to watch).

Still in the Camargue, Eugen and his wife stayed overnight in the small town called Les Baux which is the origin of “Bauxite” (a rock containing aluminium, needed to build cars).

The next day, they saw Nîmes with the arena and the Roman temple (called Maison Carrée). We stayed overnight at Nîmes in 2018 and admired the Roman arena with the statue of the bull fighter.

After having strolled through the city center with its narrow streets, we had a wonderful dinner (onglet steak) just across the arena, at Chez Hubert.

Not far from Nîmes is the Pont du Gard that, in Roman times, provided Nîmes (then called Nemasus) with water.

(Pen drawing by Willy Widman, p. 181)

In 2011, I was here with Ernst. This was our last sightseeing point on our last journey that we did together – we were on our way home from Morocco. I keep wonderful memories of all the travelling I have done with Ernst during our 18 years and now he travels with me in my heart.

In Avignon, Eugen and his wife visited the Palace of the Popes. With my friend, I was here in autumn 2016, when the cold mistral blew down from the mountains. This is the second courtyard of the Pope Palace built in the 14th century, when six popes resided here (and not in Rome).

Since kindergarten, I had known the Pont d’Avignon, as we had been taught the song “sur le pont d’Avignon, l’on y danse, l’on y danse… (on the bridge of Avignon, this is where you dance, this is where you dance).” Not yet understanding French, we created our own versions of the text; this was the version of the sister of my friend: “ooni Dasse, ooni Dasse”, which in Swiss German means “without cups, without cups”. The French word “danse” sounded like “Dasse” to her.

Now in my sixties, I saw this famous bridge for the first time, and I was so disappointed! Because it is not a bridge that crosses the river, as bridges ought to do, but it ends in the middle of the river Rhone.  In the attached museum, we learned that it was conceived as a toll point on the Rhone and not really as a bridge for people and carriages.

Eugen and his wife drove “up” the Rhone valley, with stops at Montélimar, the city of nougat, then at Vienne, another Roman city, and finally at Lyon and Bourg.

They crossed the border between France and Germany near Huningue (close to my home city Basel) using the ferry (the three countries bridge will be rebuilt 57 years later, in 2007). The French customs officer, Eugen remembers, was easy going, whereby the German customs officer was tense and eager to fulfill his duty according to the regulations. Eugen and his wife had left France with its somewhat light-footed atmosphere and are now back in “dutiful” Germany. From now on, he wrote about his tours in Germany and to Switzerland. In Switzerland, Eugen reflected about the fact that a German writer, Friedrich von Schiller, became – in a way – the national writer for Switzerland, as he wrote his play “Wilhelm Tell” about the Swiss legendary national hero of the 13th century.

 

Epilog: France… like Eugen I love the French atmosphere and I long for being there again, be it just across the border or be it travelling farther

While not being allowed to cross the border to France due to the pandemic until mid-June, I enjoyed to follow Eugen Diesel and his wife through France to places that I have been to as well. I like to be in France, in the rural towns, in the restaurants that serve soigné meals, soaking in the rich cultural heritage and enjoying the French atmosphere. I wish that France will recover well, having been hit seriously by the pandemic of spring 2020 and having been churned by turmoils recently. I look forward to returning to France.

Source: Eugen Diesel, “Philosophie am Steuer: Ein europäisches Reisbeuch”, Reclam Verlag Stuttgart 1952 and my own photos from travelling to the same places.

 

 

 

Listening to the stories that my home tells me: My dad’s book about Diesel’s car drive in Europe in 1950/51 / 1

In March/April/Mai 2020, the virus has stopped me travelling. Instead I listen to the stories that my home tells me.

This small Kazak carpet is a souvenir of my dad. He bought it, when being in the Caucasus region as a meteorologist in the 1940’s.

I love this small carpet. It is a symbol for the good memories I have of my father that we called “Vati”. He died much too early, on Saturday, 14th of March 1970. This was my last school day, just 50 years before the Corona virus lockdown was announced in Switzerland in 2020. What a breath taking coincidence that I felt intensely.

In addition to the carpet, I have some books of my father, one of them being “Philosophie am Steuer: Ein europäisches Reisbeuch” by Eugen Diesel (Reclam Verlag Stuttgart 1952; “Philosophy at the Steering Wheel: A European Travelling Book”).

I have kept this book for the signature of my dad. So far, the book has waited in my bookshelf.

Now, being confined at home, I took it out and read it. This was a fascinating experience for me.

  • At some of the places that Eugen Diesel talks about, I have been as well, but almost 70 years later.
  • Eugen Diesel reflected about what Europe – now resurrecting from the war – would be in 50 years. Some of it is interesting to read now, 70 years later.
  • Closed borders in Europe? In 1950, the borders, having been closed during the war, slowly opened up. Now, in June 2020 we expect the European borders to open, after having been closed for three months due to the pandemic.

Let us see who Eugen Diesel was, let us travel with him to places in France that I have been to later and hence have memories that I like to revive, while being at home.

 

Who was Eugen Diesel?

Eugen Diesel  (1889-1970) was the son of Rudolf Diesel who invented the Diesel engine in 1892. In the early 20th century, the Diesel engine replaced steam engines (such as for trains or ships), while passenger cars used gasoline only. With his father, Eugen travelled through Europe in 1905, in a red NAG car (p. 13, NAG = Nationale Auto Gesellschaft, 20-24 PS).

(Drawing made by Willy Wildmann, p. 13)

Instead of becoming an engineer, Eugen Diesel decided to become a writer. Eugen learnt French culture from his father Rudolf, who was bilingual French-German, as he had grown up in France until the age of twelve, when, in 1870/71, the war between France and Prussia/Germany forced the family to return to Germany.

 

Trains full of hoarders in 1947 – Eugen Diesel gets stuck in overloaded trains and decides to buy his own car

In 1947, Bayern had no apples and Württemberg had no potatoes… Hoarders from Bayern took the trains to Württemberg to buy apples and hoarders from Württemberg went by train to buy potatoes in Bayern, though hoarding was forbidden. The trains were full and the people carried large baskets that added to the mess. Eugen wanted to get from Stuttgart to Munich – and he got stuck in the overloaded trains.

Hoarding must be in the human genes: We have seen empty toilet paper shelves for weeks during the corona lockdown of spring 2020.

To travel more freely, Eugen acquired his own car in 1950. It was a Mercedes Diesel. Mercedes had just started to build passenger cars that run on Diesel.

(Drawing made by Willy Wildmann, p. 187)

Eugen had not driven a car four eleven years. Nevertheless, he left the factory at the steering wheel of his new Mercedes. He started to drive through churning and distressed Europe and enjoyed to be mobile again: “A city, 100km away, is now again becoming a neighbour”, he said (p.19). His book “Philosophy at the Steering Wheel” tells about driving 45’000km in Europe, above all in France, in 1950/51.

 

First excursions by car in Germany

With his new car, Eugen Diesel started to explore the area around Munich. Among his destinations was the Romanic St. James church in Urschalling with gothic frescoes (now on my agenda, when travelling to Munich again) or the Bosch Factory in Memmingen and the Daimler-Benz Factory in Sindelfingen (he had inherited the interest for engineering from his father). Then he went beyond Bayern to cities such as Augsburg or Stuttgart. He observed the ruins and how German cities strived to recover. In Mainz he attended the inauguration of the reconstructed bridge crossing the Rhine. President Heuss made a speech without mentioning the engineers, as Eugen, being the son of an engineer, noticed frowning. He visited friends again that he had been separated from for years. (I can understand the enjoyment – now, in June, I started to see more friends again, as the lockdown is opening up).

Inside Germany, Eugen encountered a new border. Signposts are pointing to Magdeburg or Halle, but these cities had become out of reach for him, as bars blocked the roads to the new Russian eastern zone of Germany and the bridges were closed. Eugen stood at the closed border for two hours and gazed on to the other side; he could not see anyone.

(Drawing made by Willy Wildmann, p. 49)

The walls built later will separate West and East Germany for 40 years, until 1989.

From March to June 2020, 70 years later, borders in Europe are closed again – for the pandemic. The Sundgau in France is out of reach for me now. I was sad, when seeing this bar on one of my bicycle rides.

Eugen Diesel observed that the traffic in the 1950-ies was growing rapidly. Also my dad was of the opinion that there was too much traffic then. He never sat at the steering wheel of a car again after having returned from the prison camps in France in 1949, though he had driven cars since the 1930-ies – his parents had an Adler. However, compared to the traffic today, this highway does not look very crowded to me.

(Pen drawing made by Willy Wildmann, p. 55)

Eugen reflected that on highways, one accident could cause serious traffic jams, which would ask for more and more roads to connect more and more factories and cope with the rising traffic. Today’s traffic density, the network of roads, the sprawling of cities as well as pollution and climate change exceed Eugen’s fears, I believe.

 

France opens up for Eugen Diesel and his wife – they drive to Auch near Toulouse to visit a friend of theirs

In 1938, Eugen Diesel had connected up with a French scientist and intended to visit him in France, but the war closed the borders. After the war, in 1950, Eugen decided to visit him with his wife, Anna Luise Gräfin von Waldersee. They planned a tour to Auch near Toulouse, where the former scientist now worked for the departmental government. Eugen went through much bureaucratic pain to be able to cross the border to France.

In September 1950, Eugen left Munich with his wife and drove to Altbreisach (still in Germany), where they saw the city in ruins. They crossed the river Rhine and immediately felt that they were in France: The atmosphere was different, somewhat more light-footed than in Germany. Yes, I admit that I also feel the different atmospheres between France and Germany, both bordering my home city Basel.

Eugen continued to Neuf-Brisach, Colmar, Belfort (with Bartholdi’s monumental lion) and Montbéliard (as Mömpelgard it had belonged to Württemberg from 1397-1793, he remembered). In Besançon they had their first lunch break in the restaurant Palais de la Bière (still exists today and looks enticing).

Burgundy was the next station. It was autumn and in Nuit-Saint-Georges north of Beaune, they saw many carts filled with Burgundy grapes.

Well, such carts are now in museums such as in the museum Clos Vougeot that I visited in November 2014.

Autumn in Burgundy can be very misty, as my photo from 2014 shows (taken near Clos Vougeot).

In Beaune, Eugen visited the Hôtel Dieu (Hospices de Beaune). At that time, it was still a hospital, as it had been for 500 years (since 1443). Except, the vaulted gothic room was no longer in use as a hospital in 1950. Eugen was impressed and so was I in 2014. Solemn atmosphere under the vaults…

… with the beds along the wall, covered with red blankets.

However in 2014, the Hôtel Dieu had stopped to be a hospital and had turned everything into a museum. In addition, the traditional wine auctions of November take place here.

Via Autun and Vichy, Eugen Diesel reached Clermont-Ferrand, the city of the Michelin tires (as the son of an engineer notes). I was here in autumn 2017 and Michelin still matters for Clermont-Ferrand. The Michelin tire men, called Bibendum, even decorate the breakfast room of our cosy hotel.

Eugen Diesel visited the old town of Clermont-Ferrand with the gothic cathedral (to the left). Then he drove up to the summit of the volcano Puy de Dome (in the background, 1465m).

I drove up to the top of the Puy de Dome in the 1980’s, but when returning in 2017, I found the road to the top closed. Instead, there is cockwheel train to get to the summit.

A few kilometers south of Clermont-Ferrand, Eugen Diesel and his wife stopped at Brioude and stayed overnight in the Hotel de La Poste. Eugen described, how clean and well renovated the hotel was. The couple enjoyed an excellent meal in the cosy restaurant on the first floor. One waiter served all guests – diligently and carefully. He had fair hair, his name was Erwin Voigt and he was from Pomeriana, formerly part of Germany. It was him that had renovated the Hotel de la Poste at that time; it was owned by an elderly couple.

In 2016, I was in the same hotel, with my friend. It was one of the best and cosiest hotels we have ever been at in France. We had an excellent dinner (in the restaurant on the first floor) and we slept across the street, where the hotel had built modern new rooms, even accessible by wheel chair.

Eugen Diesel did not talk about the beautiful Romanic Baslica Saint-Julien in Brioude… perhaps it had not been renovated then and not mentioned in his Baedecker.

Eugen and his wife continued to Le Puy-en-Velay and were impressed by the needles topped by the church Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe and by the Madonna statue.

(Pen drawing by Willy Widman, p. 99)

Perhaps the needles are a little inflated in the pen drawing. In 2016, we look back to Puy-en-Velay. The city has grown considerably since 1950.

We stayed in Le Puy-en-Velay for one night to visit the romanic Annunciation Cathedral built with the typical black volcanic stones that characterize the whole city center.

The small streets are inviting. This butcher’s window illustrates, what Eugen might have meant, when talking about the somewhat more light-footed atmosphere in France.

In Albi, Eugen and his wife admired the Cathedral Saint Cecilia with the red brick walls rising towards heaven. He thinks of the Albigenses or Cathars that were eradicated around 1200. We visited Albi in 2016 in the pouring rain…

… and like Eugen, we entered the church, with the one single nave all painted in blue and with the choir separated by a finely carved rood screen (Lettner) made from stone.

Via Toulouse, Eugen and his wife reach Auch, where they stay with their friend.

 

Let us travel with them around Auch and back to Germany in my next blog.

Source: Eugen Diesel, “Philopsophie am Steuer: Ein europäisches Reisbeuch”, Reclam Verlag Stuttgart 1952 and my own photos from travelling in France.

 

 

 

 

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: Roncesvalles, where Roland was ambushed

In November 2019 we drive from Moissac to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, then up to the pass Ibañeta and to Roncesvalles, where Roland was ambushed in 778 and where pilgrims stay overnight on the Way of St. James (Via Podiensis).

 

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is a fortified small town on the river Nive de Béhérobie.

We stroll thorugh the narrow streets, climb up to the town wall and look at the half-timbered houses from the backsides, with lush gardens.

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is the last larger stop on the French side of the Pyrenees, located at about 200m above sea level. From here our car climbs up into the Pyrenees.

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Puerta de Ibañeta (1057m)

We reach the pass of Ibañeta on 1057m and look back north towards Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, where we came from (Valcarlos). Two young pilgrims from South Korea reach the pass at the same time. They look exhausted and thankfully accept the lift to Roncesvalles in our car.

A small and modern chapel greets the pilgrims on the pass. The legend goes that monks used to ring the bell of the chapel to make sure, they do not lose their way in the fog. The chapel is locked. We look through the tiny hole. It is full of atmosphere with the colored windows and the sober altar.

Above the chapel, the Roland monument reminds us that he has been ambushed somewhere here in 778, when returning with Charlemagne from their campaign to Spain. Charlemagne had been called by the governors of the northern islamic principalities to support them against the Emir of Córdoba. When returning to France, Charlemagne had Pamplona destroyed, before leading his army up to the Puerta de Ibañueta. The Basques revenged the destruction of Pamplona by ambushing the Franconian reargard led by Roland, governor of the Breton March. This is the monument – the rain has started again.

The hikers on the Way of St. James are directed to use this path down to Roncesvalles which is at a 2kms’ footwalk from here.

Our exhausted pilgrims happily jump into our car and we drive to Roncesvalles. We settle in the Hotel Roncesvalles. They continue their way to another hostel.

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Roncesvalles (Orreage in Basque)

We spend two nights in the cosy Hotel Roncesvalles. Roncesvalles means “valley of thorny bushes”.

The complex of the former Augustinian monastery from the 12th century is beautifully located below green hills and on green meadows.

The emblem of Roncesvalles is the green bishop’s crook. It is present all over here, in windows, on fountains, tomb stones, doors, ground slabs etc.

The Collegiate Church Santa Maria is of Gothic style (the construction followed the model of Notre Dame in Paris).

The choir holds the much venerated Virgen de Roncesvalles from the 13th century. It is said that a shepherd found her.

The cloister has been rebuilt after heavy snow falls that made the old gothic cloister collapse.

Sanchez VII, king of Navarra (1194-1234) has been buried here. He is known for the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212) which was decisive for the further course of the Spanish Reconquista.

The window above his tomb tells about the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa.

The Chapel of St. James from the 12th century reflects in the ground slabs that are wet from all the rain of the last days.

In a guided tour we visit the Museo-Tesorio. Amongst the treasures, we admire the so-called chessboard of Charlemagne. It is not a chessboard, because it has only 63 fields. Furthermore it is not from around 800 (when Charlemagne lived), but it is a beautiful work of email from gothic times (14/15th century). But – it is known as the chessboard of Charlemagne.

As I have just come back from Usbekistan, this map from the early 17th century fascinates me. It shows Central Asia with the country of the Tatars. In the very east, China is presented as a relatively small country, separated from the Tatars by their Chinese Wall.

The sheep of Navarra have black legs, black tails and black faces. There are many of them here. The cheese made from them is called Roncal.

We say good-bye to Roncesvalles and continue to Pamplona.

Marion Golder: “Nordspanien und der Jakonsweg”, Dumont Reisehandbuch, Ortsfildern 2018.

On the road to France: To Moissac with the Abbey Saint Pierre

On second of November 2019, we continue our way to Moissac.

Source: Google Maps.

We have booked a room in the centrally located Maison Lydia, where friendly Beatrice welcomes us with a refreshing drink.

Immediately we set out to explore the famous cloister of the Abbey Saint-Pierre.

88 columns dance around the meadow and the huge cedar, alternating between single and double columns. The capitals are richly decorated. This is the baptism of Christ…

… and this is the dinner of Herod, when John the Baptist was killed – here he is in prison about to be decapitated.

In the middle and at the egdes are larger columns, mostly with portraits of apostles or prophets such as this Petrus.

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The capitals are damaged and difficult to see in the misty, rainy weather. See, how the rain is running down from the roof.

We escape to the side rooms, where we find a well curated museum with films that explain the works of art, in particular the beautiful porch. With what we learnt here, we look at the porch.

This is the tympanon with Christ in the middle above eight rosettes.

Around him are the twenty-four Elders of the Apocalypse, all turning their heads towards Christ, while playing an instrument.

The right hand side of the porch shows the life of Christ. The top relief has to be read from right to left: Simon holds Christ on his arms tenderly looking at the child. Then there is Joseph, who is told by an angel that he should take Maria and her son to escape to Egypt. They escape with Maria and her child on the donkey and reach Egypt, where the former gods fall down from the walls.

The left hand side is dedicated to a variation of the Last Judgement: In the top panel, a rich couple eat and drink eagerly. They live in luxury, while sick Lazarus is about to starve outside – a dog licks his wounds. But then, the rich man dies and falls into Hell, while an angel takes Lazarus to Paradise, where he sits in the Bosom of Abraham.

In the center of the porch (trumeau) there are statues of St. Peter, St.Paul and the Prophet Jeremy, the latter being Ursula’s favorite: Jeremy stands, his legs crossed and his head bent down to the side, with his eyes looking “inside”.

Animals creep up on the sides of the portal. My favorite is this dog.

Inside the church, we find more works of art from the 12th and the 15th century such as the Romanesque Christ or the Gothic Holy Family on the way to Egypt. A panel explains that Saint Cyprien, bishop in Carthago (Africa), was martyred in 258 and his relics were transfered to Moissac in 1122. This is, how he became the patron saint of Moissac.

Building the monastery has been completed in 1100. The golden times of this Benedictine monastery were in the 11th and 12th century. It was related with Cluny.

We return to our Maison Lydia to warm up  from the rain. Then we have a delicious dinner near the Abbey.

Tomorrow we will continue our way to Roncesvalles. We expect more rain. Though traveling in our car, we feel a  bit like pilgrims.

 

Sources: Presentation at the cloister of the Abbey Saint Pierre; Thorsten Droste: “Romanische Kunst in Frankreich”, DuMont Kunstreiseführer, Köln 1992; Chantal Fraïsse: “Die Abtei Saint-Pierre von Mossaic”, Yann Le Chevalier, 2019.

On the road to France: Conques in the mountains

First of November 2019, we drive through the mountains of the Auvergne to Conques. 

Source: Google Maps

The weather is misty and rainy. We drive through the Aubrac. Through chestnut trees, the road takes us down to the Lot valley.

We cross the river Lot, reach Conques and settle in the Auberge Saint Jacques.

Conques became an important pilgrim place, after the relics of Saint Foye had been moved here (the story goes that a monk from Conques had stolen the relics in the monastery of Agen, where they had been located before).

The Abbey Church of Sainte-Foye was built from the middle of the XIth to the early XIIth century.

The main portal is decorated with the beautiful tympanon showing the Last Judgment (late Romanesque style). About 120 figures populate the tympanon. It can still be recognized that the Last Judgment was originally painted in colors.

Christ sits in the middle. To his right is Paradise (his right hand up), to the left is Hell (his left hand down ).

Below Christ, Archangel Michael and the grinning devil are facing one another. Between them is a set of scales, and the devil is touching one of the pans. Farther below, Petrus welcomes those that enter Paradise and a devil throws the condemned subjects into the gorge of a wild animal – this is the entry to Hell.

In Paradise, all is fine and people are arranged around the Bosom of Abraham.

Above to the right of Christ (seen from his viewoint), there are the donator and the founder of the abbey with Charlemagne lead by the hand.

I feel overwhelmed, when entering the church. The nave is 22m high and seems to reach into heaven. The decoration is sober which adds to the solemnity.

A colored medaillon decorates the top of the crossing. To the sides of the naves are galleries with double openings.

Next to the church is the cemetery, for All Saints’ Day beautifully decorated with flowers.

Across the church is the exhibition of the rich treasure of the abbey with the statue of Sainte Foye (no fotos allowed).

The small Museum of Joseph Fau has been carefully arranged and shows tapestry from the early 17th century such as this representation of the three women at the empty sepulcher of Christ.

It is pouring with rain. We see some pilgrims with short trousers wrapped up in their rain capes. I shiver and admire them for undertaking this long, long walk along the Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostella. We imagine, how dangerous this was in medieval times, especially here in the rough mountains of the Auvergne. We return to our cosy hotel named after St. James and have dinner.

The next morning we return to the church and the cloister. I discover this fountain with the conch of St. James in the middle and with the reflection of the Abbey Church ornated with the coins thrown into the fountain.

We look back and say good-bye to Conques.

Our next target is Moissac.

Sources: Noël Graveline: “Die romanischen Schätze in der Auvergne”, Edition Debaisieux, 2006 und Thorsten Droste: “Romanische Bauten in Frankreich, DuMont Kunstreiseführer Köln 1992.

 

On the road to France: Issoire with its Paroisse

It is late autumn 2019. With Ursula, I travel to Spain with stop overs in France. The weather is rainy and chilly. Our first stop is in Issoire, where we spend one night in the convenient IBIS hotel.

Source: Google Maps

We visit the Paroisse St. Austremoine. Austremoine was a preacher that christianized Clermont around 250 and the church of Issoire is named after him.

The Paroisse is famous for the choir that has been freshly renovated. We admire the fine patterns created by black basalt, grey granite and yellow arkose. We are in the area of the volcanic Puys around Clermont-Ferrand.

We like the reliefs of the astrological signs. Here are Virgo and Libra.

This is Capricorn.

And this is my astrological sign, Gemini. It is the third relief, as the series start in March, with Aries.

In the 19th century, the church has been painted inside. This creates the solemn atmosphere that existed in Romanesque times, though the painting is not authentic. Ursula discovers maize plants on some columns… definitively not authentic for the XIth or XIIth century.

The choir is decorated with eight columns. The ambulatory allows to walk around the choir.

Here, the Last Supper circles around the capital. I have never seen this before.

We leave the Cathedral. We may have to return once more to see the parts that are now under renovation.

It is around six in the evening – already dark. We take a last foto of the Bell Tower near the Republic Square.

Then we return to our IBIS hotel and have a light dinner. Tomorrow we will continue our way to Conques.

Sources: Noël Graveline: “Die romanischen Schätze in der Auvergne”, Edition Debaisieux, 2006 und Thorsten Droste: “Romanische Bauten in Frankreich, DuMont Kunstreiseführer Köln 1992.

Léoncel near Valence – Romanesque church

On Wednesday, 5th of June 2019, we drive back to Switzerland, with a break in Léoncel in the Vercors mountains.

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Approaching the Vercors mountains

After an overnight stay in the practical IBIS hotel of Valencia, we cross the Rhone valley and the Vercors mountains are ahead of us.

The Vercors mountains belong to the Western Pre-Alps. Their highest peak reaches 2341m. The mountains consist of four districts that are separated by cliffs and canyons. These rough mountains were one of the strongholds of French resistance in the Second World War. Now it is a natural reserve that tourists come to for hiking, climbing, cross country skiing and skiing.

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Looking back into the Rhone valley around Valence

Our car climbs uphill, hairpin bend by hairpin bend. We look back down to the Rhone valley around Valence…

… hiding behind grass and blue flowers.

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Reaching the high lands of the Vercors

We definitively leave the Rhone valley at the Col des Limouches – at 1086m above sea level.

We are now in the Vercors. Meadows around us and in the background more steep mountains.

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Approaching Léoncel

In these secluded and rough mountains, the Cistercians founded a monastery in the 12th century.

Donkeys and horses welcome us on the meadow in front of the church.

The well-kept garden with yellow lilies leads to the entry gate.

We enter the church.

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Inside the church of Léoncel

As it is typical for the Cistercians, the church is sober inside. Five ribbed vaults in the nave. Some adornments on the chapters of the columns. The oculus above the choir symbolizes God. Or, as the panel in the church says, it is to remind us that we adore one single God. The arch that partially hides the oculus, remains from the former one nave church that ended there.

In front there is a modern ambo that has been selected with care. A panel explains that the stone comes from Tavel. Engraved is a curved cross, giving it a dynamic aspect.

An octagonal cupola covers the crossing.

We find some artefacts such as this icon of the Madonna and her Son.

In the church we had noticed the tomb slab of an abbot that froze in the cold winter of the Vercors. Indeed, the Cistercians have selected a rough place for their monastery.

Near the entry I find this religious panel written in French. It is difficult to translate the elegance of the French language.

Let me try nevertheless:

What did you come to see in Léoncel?
A lost place wiped by the wind?
Well, what did you come to see?
Stones placed harmoniously
on top of one another?
But much more than stones!
Will you be able to hear them breathe
conveying the singing and silence of a thousand years?
Will you be able to find the praying and the belief of the men
hidden in each of them?
Will you try to detect which Presence lives in them?
Will you not drink from the source of the Word of God?
If you would like to understand,
it is this Word that the stones testify.

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Leaving Léoncel

The sun enlightens the pentagonal central apsis, the two smaller apsides and the tower from the south east – it is still morning.

I walk around…

… and uphill.

I say good-bye to this church that has withstood the obstacles of the Vercors mountains for a thousand years.

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Driving home with one last lunch stop in Voiron

We continue driving north and have our last lunch stop in Voiron (Département Isère). The Rossignol skis are produced in Voiron, as I learn. We have a light meal – salad with fish – in the Café de l’Europe. The friendly servant says that the manager speaks German and does not like to write menu cards – that is why they do not have any… and indeed, the manager comes from the Black Forest and has lived here in France for many years.

We spend one last night with our friends in Monthey in the Valais – and then, after more than five weeks, we are back at home to unpack, to wash and to meet neighbours and friends.