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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The Golden Age of Burgundy

My first impressions of Burgundy were as serene and uncomplicated as the surrounding landscape with golden vines basking in the sun. Certainly, I had visited Paris and the northern part of France before. However now, I was heading out by car towards my new home southeast of Paris in the east-central region of France. Drawing near my final destination, I found myself admiring with inquisitive satisfaction a completely different terrain with unexpected rolling hills graced with ripe vineyards, orchards, farmsteads, alluring medieval villages, châteaux and Roman fortresses garlanded by rivers, a few lakes and streams.

Historically, Burgundy fascinated me especially after reading an assortment of sources capturing the grandeur of ages past when the Valois dukes of Burgundy (fr. Ducs) ruled the region with rich and inexhaustible support for the arts, architecture, and music. Their intense interest in commerce also flourished especially in the Low Lands (Belgium and part of Netherlands). Unfortunately, there was a great contrast between their lavish lifestyle and the average man. Still, a budding bourgeois class of merchants embarked with verve on fruitful trade opportunities and Dijon became part of a strategic trade route. Before long, the dukes of Burgundy had perhaps more power than the king of France.

The most famous dukes of Burgundy ruled during the 14th and 15th centuries. The first Valois duke, Philip the Bold (reign 1364 – 1404)  strategically organized his domain by marrying the affluent Margaret of Flanders in order to increase his territorial power and sphere of influence. As such, he was able to organize a solid base for his state though he spent much of his wealth in the arts. During his reign the “Dijon School” flourished with artists from the Low Lands such as the sculptor Claus Sluter. After his death, his son John the Fearless (reign 1404-1419) became the next duke of Burgundy. Notorious for his calculating political savvy, he was also brutal in battle ordering the death of his opponents in particular his main rival, the duke of Orleans. His conquests and secret alliances allowed him to consolidate his power base as his support for Henry V, king of England intensified. He was assassinated in 1419 and his son John the Good, came to power.

John the Good (reign 1419 – 1467) was twice-widowed without any surviving issue. Due to his political alliance to England, he pursued a third marriage agreement with a noble-titled heiress who had also long-lasting ties with England. As result, he married Isabella, the infanta (princess) of the house of Aviz, Portugal and cousin to Henry V of England. Isabella was very well-educate, dutiful and upon her father’s instructions she received the same excellent cultural and educational upbringing as her brothers. She grew up in the court of Lisbon, well-versed in the affairs of state as well as being fluent in Latin, French, English and Italian. She was very religious and fond of the arts, hunting and riding. Philip the Good appreciated these attributes as complementary to his ambitions. Thus, he married Isabella and came to highly trust her with affairs of the state. When her husband went to battle or left the region she was the regent of Burgundy and the Low Countries. Likewise, her influence became a contending leverage in the midst of commerce and trade negotiations with the English in 1439. The duke and duchess had three male heirs including the future duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold. In due course, the court in Dijon began to soar while eclipsing the French Court culturally and economically.

Demand encouraged Philip the Bold to launch a productive shipyard in Bruges with the help of the skilled Portuguese shipbuilders. Moreover, he profited greatly from the sales of luxury goods and illuminated manuscripts in the Netherlands whilst maintaining palaces in Brussels, Lille and Bruges. Philip the Bold upheld the dynasty’s commitment to the arts and to the patronage of Flemish artists such as Jan van Eyck who painted portraits of the duke and Isabella of Portugal. He also commissioned a number of tapestries and fine jewelry. His consistent patronage empowered the Burgundy School of Music considerably. Hence, musicians and singers progressed to build a renowned music center with celebrated composers such as Gilles Binchois and Guillaume Dufay. Militarily,  Phillip the Bold and his aggressive army captured Joan of Arc at Compiègne in 1430. Afterward, they delivered her into the hands of the English to be burned at the stake. He was advanced in years when he died in Bruges and his son Charles the Bold ascended into power.

Burgundy at that time had become an extremely powerful duchy. Per contra, Charles the Bold (reign 1467 – 1477) had a tumultuous reign given that most of his energy was spent establishing Burgundy as an independent sovereignty. By contrast, since he played the harp and composed a number of musical pieces, he also encouraged lavish banquets and pageantry while endorsing the advancement of the Burgundy School of Music.

Still, his aspiration for an independent state grew each day and he came very close to fulfilling his ambition. Accordingly, wars, treaties and purchases extended and solidified his territory from Burgundy to the Low Lands (Netherlands and Belgium), the far-reaching duchy of Luxembourg, Picardy, Artois, Lorraine, S Baden, Alsace, the Franche-Comté, Nivernais, and Charolais. He activated negotiations for the marriage of his only daughter Mary to Maximiliam son of Emperor Frederick III, King of Germany, and head of the Hapsburg Empire. He thought that this would further assist him not only to enlarge his territories but also to assure that his quest for an independent kingdom would succeed. Tragically however, he was killed in battle at the siege of Nancy in 1477 by the Swiss. After his death, a spiraling decline of the state commenced. Since his daughter Mary married Maximilian part of the realm was absorbed into the Hapsburg Empire and the rest was granted to France. Unequivocally, the enthralling chapters of Burgundy’s history formulate a concoction of a splendid voyage and exploration!

Arriving in Dijon at dusk, I steered myself toward the most fitting hotel for the occasion, Hotel Philippe Le Bon (Philip the Good). This marvelous boutique hotel situated in a quiet street in Dijon’s centre ville was full of charm and it was the right choice for someone visiting Dijon for the first time. When I approached my room, I laughed softly with amusement as room number 40 was named: Isabelle de Portugal, my middle name! I decided to view this correlation as a herald of things to come together with a great sense of interest and enthusiasm for all the possibilities ahead.