Le splendide voyage

Reflections on exploration & travel


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The Loire Valley: Spellbound by French History & its illustrious Châteaux

As in any city or country, the desire to discover a new region may surface enthusiastically if one is blessed with a long weekend. One such weekend, (from Dijon: going north and then west), to my surprise: I found the middle segment and valley of the river Loire. Visiting the Loire Valley it is easy to grow enamored with its flawless vineyards, traversing smaller rivers (Cher, L’Indre, and La Vienne), orchards, asparagus and artichoke cultivated farmsteads which garland the river’s banks. Further allure may surface while reading the following statement on a local brochure: “Numerous châteaux were built here for multifarious purposes using distinct architectural designs and sizes.”

Traditionally, the region was a magnet for decisive events that change the course of history at manifold periods in time.  Orléans, a celebrated city in the Loire Valley, became a pivotal location for major historical events. In 1429, the English laid siege and controlled Orléans. Later, on the 8th of May 1492, Joan d’Arc “la pucelle d’Orléans” (the maid of Orléans) followed by the French army liberated the city.  It was said that she even went to mass at the Orléans Cathedral (Basilique Cathédrale Sainte-Croix d’Orléans) while the city was occupied. Another historical personage walked through the streets of Orléans around 1525: John Calvin began his law studies at the University of Orléans, later he would become an influential reformer of the Christian protestant faith.

My journey began by visiting the city of Blois.  Passing the massive cedar trees at place Victor Hugo, I could at last catch my first glimpse of the Royal Château de Blois.  Yet, one cannot grasp the appeal of this remarkable building until reaching the main courtyard. The châteaux has 4 grand wings coordinated with harmony while representing different time periods, kings, and styles. A diagram at the entrance explains the evolution of this amazing structure: the Salle de États Généroux is built in gothic style; the flamboyant gothic Louis XII wing built the 15th century; the François I Italian Renaissance wing built in the 16th century and the Gaston d’Orléans wing built in the 17th century.  The Salle de États Généroux is one of the oldest parts of the château and where the earl of Blois receive its guests around 1214. The equestrian statue of King Louis XII is a prominent marker in the courtyard as well as his royal symbol, the Porcupine: a symbol of invincibility for throwing darts at enemies and its motto, “Cominus et eminus (from near and afar).”  Later in his wing, his wife and Queen Anne, duchess of Brittany, one of the riches woman in Europe at the time, had her own symbol carved and painted: the Ermine, a small animal with silky white fur used by nobility and symbolizing dignity.

King François I was Louis XII cousin who became heir presumptive as the king did not have any male heirs.  He married Louis XII’s daughter Claude heiress to the duchy of Brittany and upon Louis XII death he inherited the throne. King Francis I is a central French historical and royal figure. He initiated the Renaissance movement in France by becoming a generous patron of the arts attracting and bringing to France some of the best artist and architects of Italy, including the great Master Leonardo De Vinci.  In addition, he was also a great patron for the sciences and considered as le Père et Restaurateur des Lettres (the “Father and Restorer of Letters”) for his fervent endorsement of the standardization of the French language.  At the François I wing, his desire for innovation is established. François I assembled one of the finest library for the period (later transferred to Fontainebleau) and the building itself shows the remarkable Italian architectural influence.  During the building and renovation of this wing, his wife Claude was became involved in the decor and refurbishing, including motifs exhibiting François I symbol, the crowned Salamander among the flames with the motto, “Nutrisco et extinguo,”  meaning “I nourish the good and extinguish the bad,”  symbolizing bravery.

Gaston, duke d’Orléans had large aspirations for the building/remodeling of Blois castle and the celebrated architect François Mansart was hired.  Mansart had plans to create a classical structure with four wings around the courtyard.  The construction was never finished, yet one can visit the wing and review Mansart’s plans, the classical columns and staircases.  The entire châteaux de Blois became the stage for dramatic intrigue. Joan d’Arc stopped at Blois castle to receive a blessing from the Archbishop of Reims before going to battle at Orléans; here, King Henry III had his guards attacked and killed his main rival Henry I, duke of Guise, after inviting him for a meeting; Catherine de Medici presumably had within a small parlor her pharmacy of “medicines/poisons” which she dispensed toward her enemies and she also died here.

About 15 km from Blois, are the gaming estates and natural sanctuary of Chambord.  After parking, I strolled peacefully until the panoramic view of this incredible architectural landscape and beautifully kept grounds engrossed my senses.  Indeed, I stood quietly for a moment admiring this enormous structure which from a distance could pass as the skyline of a thriving metropolis. The writer Henry James declared “the towers, cupolas, the gables, the lanterns, the chimneys, look more like the spires of a city than the salient points of a single building.” Chambord is indeed a French and Italian style Renaissance masterpiece and King François I’s crown jewel.  Of noticeable sophisticated maneuver is the double-helix staircase credited to Leonardo de Vinci: someone going up the stairs will never meet another person going down.

As a Renaissance château, the major focus of Chambord was entertainment via hunting of wild games and elaborate festivities.  François I however, spent only a few short hunting trips in this castle before he died.  After François I death, a period of decline ensued.  About 80 years later Gaston d’Orléans directed a much needed facelift and renovation. Afterwards, Louis the XIV, the sun king, decorated the royal chambers.  Sadly, the château was neglected for long periods of time becoming a military lodge at one setting and then during WWII,  art collections belonging to the Louvre museum such as the Mona Lisa were hidden within its massive walls.  Today, this is one of the most visited sites on the Loire Valley.

After spending the night in Blois, I drove to my next destination: Chenonceau, the 15th century Renaissance castle inspired by feminine hands and design. Two of the most famous women dominating the course of its early survival were: Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse of Valentinois, King Henry’s II favorite mistress and Catherine de Medici, his wife and Queen.   Diane adjoined an impressive bridge over the river Cher which runs through the property. Diane also made the grounds of Chenonceau a haven for the cultivation of orchards, vegetables and flower gardens.  Upon Henry II’s death, Catherine maleficently banned Diane Poitiers from her beloved château Chenonceau.  Not to be outdone by her rival, Catherine built a three-story addition over Diane’s bridge and created extraordinary gardens to outshine her husband’s mistress.  Catherine also transformed the château into a center for cultural nobility and festive gatherings. One of the first exhibits of fireworks in France took place at Chenonceau thanks to Catherine.  Upon Catherine’s death in 1589, the chateau went to her daughter-in-law Louise of Lorraine married to Catherine’s son King Henry III.  Not long after, Henry was killed leaving Louise who adored her husband broken-hearted and inconsolable. Historical claims testify that she wondered the halls of Chenonceau dressed in white, the mourning colors of queens, and she became known as the “White Queen.”  Like the other châteaux in the area, Chenonceau suffered from periods of neglect, being a hospital during WWI and a prisoner exchange shelter in WWII.  Today, is well preserved and inside there are always grand bouquets of flowers from its illustrious mistresses’ gardens.

After the beauty of Chenonceau, my journey continued on to a delightful chateau on the Loire Valley: Villandry.  Initially, this was feudal fortress on the banks of the Loire where in the 12th century Henry II of England, upon his defeat, signed the treaty “La Paix de Colombiers” (The Peace of Colombiers) before King Phillip Augustus of France.  Fast forward to the 16th century: Jean Le Breton, the Minister of Finance for King François I acquired the property. Breton who had had extensive architectural and financial experience in building castles, including Chambord, planned a marvelous Renaissance château that remained in his family for two centuries. After, Villandry had different owners including emperor Napoleon who purchase it for his brother Jérôme.  Finally, in 1906, Joachim Carvallo, a Spaniard and his American wife Ann Coleman purchased this property pouring a substantial fortune into the renovation of the chateau and its glorious grounds.  The Carvallo family still owns Villandry and the beautiful building certainly exhibits their personal touch and dedication.  Nonetheless, it is the gardens that deeply fascinate me and make this estate a personal favorite!  It is simply delightful to walk throughout the property sensing assorted aromas while admiring the shrubberies shaped with geometrical precision and revealing accents such as a water garden, decorative mazes planted with arbors, colorful vegetables and flower gardens. Garden lovers as well as conventional visitors will completely appreciate the marvelous formal Renaissance gardens at Villandry.

On my last day I visited the city of Amboise. There, the Royal Château de Amboise proudly parades its façade above the city center.  This was one of François I most popular homes.  I did walk through the castles’ ground but my main focus was another residence: the Château du Clos Lucé.  This elegant manor house became the residence of Leonardo da Vinci for the last three years of his life.  King François I who brought Leonardo to France visited Leonardo often at this manor since he was captivated by his genius.  As a matter of fact, there is a secret passage between the Royal Château de Amboise and the manor. Here, Leonardo worked not only on his art but on his inventions and studies in engineering, physics, mechanics, cartography, botany, philosophy and so much more.  There are models of his inventions displayed in 3D format thanks to IBM: the airplane, helicopter, and automobile among others. The gardens are amazing with the two-level bridge created and designed by Leonardo.  There is so much to see at Château du Clos Lucé that I highly recommend spending time to encounter a glimpse into this man’s brilliant intellect and vision.

The Loire Valley definitely takes a visitor through a stimulating intellectual and farseeing journey. Each day, this region brings to life its illustrious past against the backdrop of history, culture, Renaissance and architectural splendor.

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Dijon: Coffee shops, Tea rooms and Shopping

Quotidian life in Dijon takes a visitor or an unfamiliar expatriate resident into a journey where there is a visible transformation of expectations and priorities.  Certain habits like a hurried lifestyle perhaps compulsory in greater metropolises are not fitting here.   Usually, each working day dedicates two hours for lunch to discuss varied topics with friends or colleagues at a favorite restaurant.  For the disciplined souls, this time may be used to read a favorite book or even write an animated short story.  Ultimately for the romantics: sitting at a local “café” or “salon de thé” is a time for practicing the sacred art of reflection as life unfolds before you.

Certainly “running errands” during lunch is not a worthwhile pursuit since the post office, the bank or any other significant places will also be closed as their employees  “in solidarity” will go to lunch at the same time everyday usually from 12h to 14h.  However, one can easily get accustomed to this new life style especially since some may even leave work early especially on Wednesday to enjoy the varied coffee shops in the city.

Dijon has an enjoyable collection of coffee shops and tearooms.  Even the newly remodeled Art Museum has a good coffee shop waiting to warm any patron after a gratifying tour of its elaborate halls. Native dijonnais usually become attached to particular venues because these places transform themselves into a “parlor” where individuals come together with the most valuable persons in their lives.  Nonetheless, I have embraced the habit of trying different places because it pleases me to discover new settings.

Some of my favorites ones are:  the “Comptoir (trading post) de Colonies” at 12 place Francois Rude.  This is a very popular venue with the native residents. The Comptoir has a flavorful collection of teas and coffees from about 15 different places around the world. My favorite flavors are: the Brazil/Santos a full body, aroma rich and yet less acidic type of coffee and the bold flavor of the Colombian Supreme coffee. The hot chocolates with cream on top are also a fare to behold and taste.  Almost in front of the Comptoir is the celebrated statue and fountain “Bareuzai,” representing the personage of a wine grower treading on local grapes. Also, next to the fountain is the iconic merry-go-round/carrousel that since the 1900s to this day delights young children’s disposition.

Following the streets of Dijon toward place Grangier and the main Post Office is the expresso-T” a coffee shop at 21 rue de la Poste.  Within their cozy ambiance, they make a delicious cappuccino plus they also offer other complementary treats like bagels, muffins, salads, crepes etc.  Yet, for a true “Salon de Thé” experience, “La Rose de Vergy” at 1 rue de la Chouette behind Notre Dame cathedral is one of my favorite places. Their convivial setting has a marvelous and varied assortment of teas, biscuits, and other gourmet treats.  I love going there at the end of a very busy day and drinking their Assam tea while looking outside to some of the oldest streets in Dijon, rue de la Chouette and rue Verrerie. 

There are other interesting places along rue Musette. A well-favored place in this street is the fine Italian market “La Dolce Vita.”  Here, all sorts of fantastic gourmet goods from Italy are available for purchase.  In addition, they have a wonderful restaurant above the market where the recipes are true Italian creations.   In the afternoon, La Dolce Vita becomes an ideal place for a coffee break because not only do they have fragrant Italian coffee that goes rather well with a hot slice of “Panettone (A traditional sweet bread loaf with dried fruits originally from Milan.  An Italian delicacy especially during Christmas and New Year)” but also an incredibly tasting Italian hot chocolate which is a ray of sunshine especially during the severe winter months. Another possible stop on this street is “Tartin’Art.”  Inside, an imaginative consumer can choose multiple toppings to decorate a toast/tartine: from salmon to fresh mozzarella on a bed of tomatoes or lettuce or avocados. Of course, such treat should always be accompanied by a hot cup of java.

After teatime, a visitor may choose to ride a bike through the streets of Dijon.  Bikes are easily accessible for rental throughout the city and bike lanes are available along the Tram trajectory such as riding and resting by the beautiful fountain at place de la Republic. Later, it is also a treat to stop and catch one of the latest movies at the theater at place Darcy. All movies are dubbed in French like most places in France and it is a good way to practice French comprehension skills. Another theater close to the University, the Eldorado, may show from time to time movies in their original language. 

One may decide instead to explore the city by strolling leisurely through its center. From place Darcy you can walk through the portal/door “La Porte Guillaume” an official monument edified in 1786 honoring the prince of Condé. It signals the entrance into the center of the city and the rue/street de la Liberté. The famous Galeries Lafayette always displaying the latest fashions and home furnishings. There are also elegant shops toward the end of rue Piron and inside the Passage Darcy. In addition, trendy shops can be found around place Grangier such as the Italian shoe store Brunate, Hugo Boss and a variety of kitchenware stores. Many hair salons grace this area yet, my favorite is “Carlo Bay” on 6 place Bousset.  The staff and owner are professionals who provide an array of excellent services leaving you completely gratified after each visit.

Should you need a new computer, a TV, but also books or any other electronic gadget FNAC on rue de Bourg is a wonderland offering great seasonal sales. Fine chocolates, one of the French most beloved traditions, can be found in elegant settings such as Fabrice Gillotte, “créateur chocolatier,” on rue de Bourg in front of FNAC. Another well-known chocolatier is Carbilet close to Place François Rude. As always, while walking on the streets of Dijon you will often hear different styles of music and street performances, so be ready to leave a few coins behind in gratitude.

A couple of years ago I visited the shopping center “La Toison d’Or,” located in the northern region of Dijon: I was not impress.  Now, my opinion has changed.  Recently, the place has been completely remodeled and new additions were incorporated. The grand opening was at the end of October of 2013 with great attendance and a fine piano player to inspire shoppers.  The transformation was comprehensive and astonishing.  The new mall or “centre commercial” is modern with stylish shops from the Apple Store to Desigual and a thriving food court and restaurants.  It is a straightforward drive from the city center or one can simply board Tram #2 and exit at the Toison d’Or exit.

 

 


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Trains, Snow and Dr. Zhivago

On March 2010, as I admired the Florida sun setting in the firmament, I received a phone call announcing that my next destination was Prague. I was not simply going for a visit; I was going to live in Prague for at least 8 months. My lips greeted the news with enthusiasm and soon I began to read all about the nation and its history. Two weeks latter my plane landed in a familiar territory: Milan, Italy.

Typically, if the opportunity is available, I prefer to use ground transportation. Thus, at “Milano Centrale” railroad station, I bought a one way ticket on a sleeper train to Prague. The convoy’s trajectory encompassed four countries: Italy, Germany, Austria and Czech Republic. At 15 minutes before departure, a melodic boarding call alerted everyone to take their places. The individual quarters were comfortable and I received a small “bon voyage” basket filled with fresh fruit and cheese. These little morceaus were welcomed since the journey was about 14 hours long. However, since I slept for the most of the trip, it was pleasant way to travel.

The trip began uneventful and I woke up early in the morning to change trains in Munich. Then, somewhere after the Austrian/Czech border the train came to a halt.  I communicated in German and a crew member answered me politely using an unusual blend of Czech and German languages. Thus, my hazy appraisal was: a rail malfunction had occurred, we were asked via gestures to come out of the train with our luggage and … wait. As we disembarked and unloaded our luggage, we identified that our minute train station was an open structure. A Swiss passenger looked at me with admiration and stated: “Such a little woman and such large suitcases…”  I replied with a mystified smile as our empty train moved gradually away from our view.

There are moments in life when after completing a task, you lift up your eyes and you finally take notice of your surroundings. At that instant, all I could think was: Doctor Zhivago! Do you remember when in the film doctor Zhivago the train halts in the middle of nowhere and all around are endless fields of snow?  There I was, consuming the same magnificent view, inhaling the crisp air and yet able to feel the frail warmth of the sun. Certainly, this interlude was lasting!

The passengers were a medley of British families on holidays, a group of Swiss backpackers, different groups of lively Italians, old, young and even a priest. Without much awareness, all passengers had stacked their luggage neatly on the edge of the field. Hence, as I sat quietly on my suitcase, I did not worry. I was well prepared! In Milan, I had bought a jar of olives, a Swiss chocolate bar, 2 Kiwis, a baguette, 2 bottles of water and a book on “The Comprehensive History of the Hapsburg Empire.”  Yet, my deep thoughts were interrupted when everyone started to share their commodities with glee and rich conversation began to thrive. Two young Italian minstrels seized their guitars and started to harmonize sounds of love and bliss.  As result, this meeting of nations together with the “breaking of bread” allowed two hours to elapse swiftly, and then modern Daimler buses arrived to our rescue. Once inside the bus, we were offered delicious hot chocolate, coffee and tea. Finally, we were on our way to Prague.