Monday, February 28, 2011

The Winter Sun of Provence

Our second day of winter sun in Provence found us starting our morning in the Roman capital of Provence, the town of Arles. Situated at the crossroads of trade between Italy and Spain, as well as the Mediterranean and northern Gaul, it reached its pinnacle under the reigns of three great Emperors, Augustus, Antoninus, and Constantine. The amphitheater still stands today, as well as remnants of the theater, forum and an aqueduct, as a testimony to the glory it once earned.

Built around the end of the first century AD, the amphitheater would hold as many as 20,000 people, who would come for the chariot races and bloody hand-to-hand battles.

Today it showcases bullfights, as well as plays and concerts.

Arles is also known to be the home of Vincent Van Gogh during some of the last years of his troubled life when he was so prolific.  While living here, he painted over 300 pictures, some of them his most famous ones. He dreamed of starting an artists' colony in Arles, but most of his time here, he was struggling with his own demons. He often painted scenes of Arles such as the crowds at the bullfights at the amphitheater.

At the heart of the town, we found ourselves at the Place de la République, where stands an obelisk from the ancient forum, as well as the 
Eglise St.Trophime.

Built during the 11th-12th century, the portal with its classic Romanesque 
decoration really drew us in. Fascinating to imagine it lasting all this time.

And now for my favorite part--the cloisters of the church. This part of the church was built for the use of the canons, the priests who attended the bishop and watched over the property.

The canons lived the life of monks in a common dormitory, and behind a wall separating them from the city. Quiet and solitude.

We continued wandering through the streets of Arles,

where we found the very cafe that Van Gogh painted 

in The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum.

Gauguin came to see Van Gogh in Arles where the two painted side by side for a spell, before their relationship began to deteriorate. The two argued often and one day when Van Gogh was feeling particularly despondent, he confronted Gauguin with a razor blade, causing him to flee. At that point, Van Gogh retreated to a brothel where he cut off the bottom portion of his ear lobe, and handed it in tissue paper to a prostitute, asking her to keep it for him. Soon after he was hospitalized in the Hospital of 
Arles, seen above, where he continued suffering on and off with hallucinations. 

While there, he painted the courtyard and a few other paintings, before being committed to an insane asylum near St. Rémy de Provence, just across from the ruins of Glanum.

We carried on our trip that day to the Pont du Gard, a fascinating structure spanning the Gardon River.

It is part of a 50 kilmeter aqueduct which supplied the Roman town of Nimes with fresh water.

It is considered an architectural masterpiece, and to think it was built in the first century AD. I never cease to be amazed at the technological advance of the Romans. For those of you who have been there, you know how crowded the aqueduct typically is, but on that glorious sunny day, we were the only ones crossing the bridge.
One thing I was constantly reminded of during our trip was the attraction and draw that the light of this region had on artists, especially in the Impressionist era. As just an amateur photographer, I was intrigued by the beauty of the sunny January skies. Hope you enjoyed this little trip by photos, since I have a little more of Provence to share with you in the next blog post coming soon.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Provence in January

Who on earth goes to Provence in January you might ask? Well, if the girls are going, so am I, I always say, and this time it was 16 friends from the American Women's Club here in London. Was it sunny? Yes. Was it warm? Uh, no. Was it crowded like Provence can sometimes be? Not in the least!

After arriving in Marseilles, we headed straightaway to the deserted hillside-perched village of Les Baux de Provence. It was once a thriving stronghold in the 10th century for the feudal lords of Baux who claimed to be descended from Balthazar, one of the legendary Wise Men. With the star of Bethlehem on their tunics as inspiration,  they controlled 79 surrounding cities at their peak of glory.

From the view of their ruined castle, and with the chain of the Alpilles mountains in the background, 

 it's an amazing experience imagining what it must have been like

to live at such "altitudes" of power.

Moving on, we stopped at the Roman ruins of Glanum, a fortified town founded in the 6th century B.C.   The triumphal arch is considered to be one of the first of its kind in Provence and was situated just outside the northern gates of the ancient city.

Next to the arch is the 60 foot high Mausoleum of the Julii, which dates to about 30 B.C. and is thought to be the burial tomb of a mother and father, erected in their honor by their three sons, whose names are inscribed on the side, along with some beautiful bas-relief designs. It is generally considered to be one of the best preserved mausoleums in the whole Roman world.

Right there in the south of France!

Our resting place the first day was the nearby town of St.-Rémy-de-Provence, one of the typical Provence villages covered up with tourists in the summer. We found empty squares, welcoming restaurants, and quiet atmospheric streets, tempting us to come back and be a part of the action when the city wakes up for the summer season.

Another day of sun found us on our way to Avignon, where we spied its famous bridge, originally  22 arches across when it was built in the 12th century, but today standing short of that with only 4 arches. Immortalized in the children's folk song, Sur Le Pont d'Avignon, it had been ravished by the Rhone River on several occasions and the citizens opted not to rebuild it.

Perhaps Avignon is best known for the time it served as the seat of the papacy from 1309-1377 when popes fled the corruption of Rome.  Sometimes referred to the Babylonian Exile, seven popes lived there in the formidable Palais des Papes,

in what is recorded as a decadent, luxurious lifestyle. 
Strolling the city revealed hidden treasures and lovely squares, which were once again very quiet during the winter season.

I leave you for now with a favorite impression--the antique French carrousel in the Place de l'Horloge-- and with a promise of more Provence impressions in the days to come.

So with spring just peeking its head around the door and new beginnings at our reach, remember to Grab the Brass Ring and live life to the fullest!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Royal Wedding Invitations

Alas, it seems that the wedding invitations have been sent out and I think we have just missed the cut. I was just more than a little crushed to see that we don't neatly fit into any of the categories listed on the Prince of Wales website of groups who were invited. 

Perhaps some of you have received yours?

Wedding invitations - The wedding of HRH Prince William of Wales and Miss Catherine Middleton

19th February 2011
Invitations to the wedding of Prince William and Miss Middleton have been issued in the name of Her Majesty The Queen.
The following groups of people have been invited to the wedding:
• Members of The Royal Family and their friends
• Members of the Middleton Family and their friends
• Friends of Prince William and Miss Middleton
• Members of Foreign Royal Families
• Representatives from the Defence Services
• Representatives from Prince William’s patronages
• Representatives from the Church and other faiths
• Members of the Government, Parliament and Devolved Administrations
• Members of the Diplomatic Corps
• Governors-General and Prime Ministers from the Realms
• Members of the Royal Household
Around 1,900 people have been invited to the service at Westminster Abbey.
Around 600 people have been invited to the lunchtime reception at Buckingham Palace given by The Queen.
Around 300 people have been invited to the dinner at Buckingham Palace given by The Prince of Wales.
Notes to Editors 
Please note we are not releasing the names of individual invitees.
The invitations were posted on Wednesday and Thursday this week.
A rough breakdown of numbers of guests is as follows (this includes spouses):
• The vast majority of guests are drawn from Prince William and Miss Middleton’s Family and Friends – over 1,000
• Over 50 Members of The Royal Family
• Over 40 Members of Foreign Royal Families
• Over 200 Members of Government, Parliament and Diplomatic Corps
• Approximately 80 guests drawn from Prince William’s charities
• 60 Governors-General and Realm Prime Ministers
• 30 Members of the Defence Services
The EIIR on the invitation is die-stamped in gold and then burnished. The text on the invitation is also die-stamped. The edges of the invitation are bevelled then gilded. 

Friday, February 18, 2011


I mentioned the Chester Cathedral in my last post and promised I would return to it. Originally a Benedictine monastery established in 1093, it was later disbanded in 1538, only to become a cathedral of the Church of England under the authority of Henry VIII in 1541. As typical, many changes have been made though the years to its structure to give the town of Chester the lovely church they have today.

There are many beautiful features of the cathedral worth mentioning, including the organ,

the cloisters,

and the stunning Gothic Revival features of the choir stalls for which it is known world wide for the quality of its wood carving. It was absolutely stunning!

In medieval times the custom was for the monks and clergy to stand throughout entire services, often very lengthy, so very early on, consideration was made for the elderly and infirm to give them an option of standing upright the whole time.

Here my husband was demonstrating the benefits of a misericord. A misericord is a narrow ledge on the underside of a hinged seat which was designed to support a person standing at rest against the seat when it was turned up. This way, the monks were not actually standing, but more or less leaning on a tiny ledge.  The earliest misericords date from the middle of the 13th century and are found at the Exeter Cathedral. England has an impressive tradition of misericords scattered throughout the country.

When you flip up the seats, the fascinating thing about the underside of these seats is that they were decorated with some intriguing carvings, sometimes humorous, sometimes moral, and often secular or pagan in subject. The carvings at the Chester Cathedral are some of the best surviving examples. Forty-three of them still date from 1390.
Here you see a king's head crowned and supported on each side by medallion heads with collars.

This one had a monster with a lion's head and bat's wings supported on each side by a fleur de lis.

I learned while researching these carvings that a "wodehouse" is an aboriginal wild man of medieval lore in Britain, as seen here, all covered with shaggy hair. The center wodehouse is seated on a prostrate man, and two other wodehouses are on each side.

We kept lifting the seats that day looking for more craftsmanship. We found this monster with the head and forelegs of a lion and two dragons as its body. What are these creatures doing in church--I kept wondering!

Here is a woman whose husband is on his knees at her feet, and she is holding the tip of his hood with one hand and is chastening him with some tool in her other hand. I'd love to know the story behind that one.

Finally, one more to show you: two wrestlers with marshals on each side of them holding batons, and two demi-angels supporting them on each side.

Have you ever seen a misericord? I had seen them on other occasions and wondered about them, and now I think it will be fun as I visit churches around the continent to look for these touchstones of the past. If you know of others, let me know....

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Town of Chester

On our return home from Liverpool, we found another treasure--the town of Chester. Originally, a Roman fort and then a settlement, one of Chester's claims to fame is its town walls, the most complete city walls in Great Britain. Some sections date back to as early as 120, but most sections are medieval or Victorian. They form an almost continuous circle around the town 2 miles long.

We approached the city by the Eastgate, which gave us a preview of the picturesque town we were going to explore.

The Eastgate stands at the former entrance of the old Roman fort, and the current gateway supporting a walkway that is part of the City walls today, dates from 1768. The beautiful clock was built on the occasion of the Diamond Jubliee of Queen Victoria and put into place in 1899. It is considered the most photographed clock in England after Big Ben here in London.

As cold as it was on the January day we visited, the city was bustling with activity.

Many visitors come to see the black-and-white timbered buildings, some from the medieval era,

but many being Victorian restorations, as a result of the Black-and-white Revival architectural movement in the mid 19th century.

The Chester Rows are unique, in that above the street level shops you find covered walkways which front another level of shops. Often the bottom level shops are slightly below ground and have to be reached by a slight descent. Nothing exactly like this exists in the world.

A view from the Rows gives you a whole different perspective.

The Three Old Arches formed the facade of what is considered the first shop storefront, dating from the early 1200's. Even shop-a-holics need a history lesson every once in a while.

There was just time for lunch before heading back towards London, so we decided to grab some Sunday Roast at a pub we found called The Victoria. It wasn't until our roast beef and chicken dinners were ordered that I looked around and discovered its historical value.

It dates back to 1269, and still retains its low ceilings, antique settles and oak beams. Amazing!

One of the amazing structures in town is the Chester Cathedral, which deserves a blog post of its own. So come back for a visit soon and learn about the beautiful and interesting"misericords" we found inside this strikingly fascinating cathedral.