Sunday, March 30, 2014

Face of Loc Dieu

As you walk through the park from the monastery church at Loc Dieu, you come to a place where the path forks in three directions. This scary looking fellow watches over the junction. He decorates an urn placed atop a pedestal. I definitely wouldn't want to meet up with him on a dark, moon-less night, would you?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Greetings

France has the ugliest greeting cards I've ever seen. Okay, that's just my opinion, but I've heard other ex-pats say the same thing. I'm a little surprised with all the beautiful art this country houses that no one seems to be able to design an attractive note card or birthday card.

I've solved this dilemma by making my own cards. The photo above is a sampling of a few I've made using my photographs. I utilize an online company called Zazzle which allows you to upload digital images and add text. They print and ship to you. Easy-peasy. I know there are other companies that offer the same service. While Zazzle isn't perfect (you can't select a matte finish, for example; all cards are done glossy), it works for me, and I prefer it to making my own cards and printing them on my printer.

I don't send a lot of cards. Seems like most 'greeting' these days is done via email and e-cards. But occasionally I like to send a real card. Last month, for instance, I mailed two sympathy cards. A more personal note seemed appropriate. Another benefit of my photo cards is I can use them as gifts. A packet of 4 or 6 in the note card size makes a nice gift that is easy to mail. And the best news is that the price per card, even with the shipping, is about the same as a store-bought one. It's a win-win!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Precise Warning

This is a height warning sign on one of the little overpass bridges in medieval Cajarc. It tickles me with its very precise warning...you can be no taller than exactly 2.45 meters to pass. Beware!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Paris Bridges

It's 'Paris Bridges' day over at The Good Life France. Check them out on FaceBook. I thought I'd post a couple of my own fav's....

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Roosters

Top of cross
Capdenac-le-haut
Ever wonder why you see so many roosters on French things? Weather vanes, dishes, paintings, ceramic figures, door bells, and even the tops of crosses frequently feature the rooster. This rooster is atop of the tall standing cross in the Capdenac-le-haut square. According to Wikipedia, the original connection between roosters and France began in ancient Rome. The Latin word for rooster, gallus, is a homonym for the name the Romans gave the inhabitants of their conquered lands, the Gauls. Thus linked, the rooster began to be seen throughout Gaul. In the Middle Ages, the rooster found its way inside the Church as a symbol of Christianity. It represented the cock that crowed three times as Peter denied Christ and was displayed as a reminder to all to be vigilant for Christ's return and the day of judgment. As France became solidified as a nation, the rooster morphed into a symbol of that solidarity and became a national icon. During the Third Republic, the rooster was featured on the backs of gold francs. It is also seen on many of the thousands of war memorials throughout the country.

And you thought the rooster was just an early morning annoyance!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Happy First Day of Spring!

Jean's Tree
Happy first day of spring from France! Jean's tree isn't quite in blossom yet, but it's close. Wishing you a day filled with sunshine.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Roc d'Anglards

Roc d'Anglards

I made one last stop before I left Belcastel's pretty valley....Roc d'Anglards. Perched on a rock cliff 50 meters above the Aveyron River, this stone fortification is thought to date from the 5th century. Its strategic position most probably makes it the first 'belcastel' or war castle. You can hike to it from the church in Belcastel...about a kilometer...or access it from the road by a footpath that traverses a meadow, crossing over the river on this wooden bridge...
Nestled against the cliff on the other side is the grotto,  Le Lourdou. It was created at the end of the 19th century by the Belcastel curé, Abbé Gély. There is an altar, a statue of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, and a place to light candles. The first Mass was celebrated here in 1889.
Entrance to the grotto
From here you begin a steep ascent to the fort passing along the way the 12 Stations of the Cross marked by tall wooden crosses.
The partially restored structure at the top measures about 20 meters in diameter and consists of several small rooms connected by curling passageways...
making it easy to defend if attacked. From the fort you can see the Chateau at Belcastel far in the distance. It's thought that the fort became the castle's outpost and first line of defense against intruders.
Now the intruders are tourists who are warned that climbing on the walls of the fort is forbidden. And, oh yes, to pay particular attention to their children!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Church of Sainte Mary Magdalene

I'm partial to churches dedicated to Mary Magdalene. I think she's been much-maligned by history. And what a treat to reach her simple 15th century church by walking over the medieval stone bridge spanning the Aveyron that connects her church to Belcastel.

The church houses a sequence of Stations of the Cross by contemporary artist Casimir Ferrer, some historic stone sculptures and the tomb of Alzias Saunhac, the 15th century Lord of Chateau Belcastel who built the church....
Tomb of Alzias Saunhac
This is the sculpture that most intrigued me, though.

 It's St. Christopher with the Christ Child on his shoulders. When I googled the story, I discovered this legend...one night a child appeared outside St. Christopher's hut and asked for his help in crossing the river. Having been told by a hermit that because of his great size and strength, he should assist people in making the crossing, Christopher agreed to help the child. Hoisting him up on his shoulders, he waded into the water. As he went, the river became more and more turbulent, and the child became heavier and heavier. Christopher struggled, but persisted, eventually gaining the opposite side. He told the child "I do not think the whole world could have been as heavy on my shoulders as you were." To which the child replied..."You had on your shoulders not only the whole world, but also him who made it. I am Christ, your King!"

This is what I love about exploring France...you never know what delightful story you'll find just around the corner, up the hill...or across the river!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Chateau de Belcastel

What began as a chapel in the 9th century grew into a fortified Chateau by the 13th century. At the close of the Wars of Religion, the Chateau was gifted to a loyal knight named Saunhac. Over the ensuing centuries, he and his family renovated and expanded the Chateau and built the bridge over the river to their church on the other side. The last of the Saunhac family abandoned the Chateau at the close of the 16th century. It continued its decline until it was bought by architect Fernand Pouillan in 1973. He spent 8 years completely restoring the Chateau employing 10 Algerian stone masons who quarried stone from the hillsides above the Chateau. Using these stones, they raised the walls of the Chateau and rebuilt its towers and turrets without the use of either cranes or other machinery.
View from the other side of the Chateau


After Pouillan's death, the Chateau was purchased by an American couple. It is now open to the public and houses a collection of 16th century armor, as well as several galleries of contemporary art..You can visit the gift shop, and there are occasional musical events on the grounds as well. If you're really into all things medieval, you can even rent a suite in one of the towers and stay the night! I think I have to add that to my bucket list, don't you?









The Church of Mary Magdalene from the Chateau
The Chateau doesn't open for the season until March 30th, so I wasn't able to access the grounds. I will definitely make a trip after the opening date to tour the Chateau. I'll share what I discover with you.
Next time we'll cross the bridge and visit the 15th century Mary Magdalene church.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Belcastel

Belcastel 
Belcastel is another of those 'most beautiful villages in France.' It's located less than an hour's drive southeast of me in the Aveyron department and was the perfect destination for my day of exploration yesterday. Contrary to what you may believe, the name Belcastel does not mean 'beautiful castle' in French. It actually means 'war castle' which is what this chateau was originally...a fortified structure perched high above the banks of the Aveyron River. The fortification was built in the 11th century using the ruins of a 9th century chapel as its foundation. Over the centuries, it has been expanded into a chateau with a medieval village spilling down the hill from it. It was abandoned in the 15th century, fell into ruin and out of historical notice until it was used as a hiding place during the French Revolution for Peter Firmin, an Aveyron nobleman being pursued by the new government.

Let's take a walk up to the Chateau, shall we? I parked in the small tourist parking lot on the edge of the village. Visiting off-season, I could have parked much closer to the village as there were only a handful of tourists, but I wanted to stroll along this pretty river. The weeping willows were just beginning to leaf out making a gauzy green contrast to the bright yellow forsythia and the church steeple peeking through bare tree branches. The church is on the opposite side of the Aveyron accessed by a lovely stone bridge. We'll cross it and visit the church in another blog post. Today our destination is the village.


The village revitalization began in 1983 with the election of Claude Cayla as the new mayor. Through much hard work, the village has been restored, its townhouses now inhabited by vacationers and second home owners. Besides the tourist office and municipal buildings, there are an art gallery, a small museum, gites, and restaurants. The Restaurant du Vieux Pont has received 1 Michelin star and is famous locally for its regional cuisine.






The museum, La Maison de la Forge, tells the story of three local craftsmen...the blacksmith, the fisherman, and the shoemaker. It's open April to October. As we begin our ascent to the Chateau, we pass the village bread oven recently restored...
 and also notice the cobbled streets called 'calades.' You can see the cobbles in front of the bread oven.

Here's where we're going...half-way there, but still a lot of uphill to go. I'll show you the view from the top in tomorrow's blog post!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Where Am I?

It's been a long day...my feet are tired, my knee is a little sore, and a second glass of pinot gris is calling my name. So, all you get is a tease. Where am I? I'll give you a hint; it's another one of France's most beautiful villages, but you'll have to wait until tomorrow for its story!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

An Unfriendly Welcome

This wagon that sits below the ramparts at the entrance to Capdenac-le-Haut doesn't look very friendly, does it? I'm not sure what those wicked spikes are all about. Any wagon experts out there who can enlighten me?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Capdenac-le-Haut

The donjon
Capdenac-le-haut
I had such a great idea for a winter photo/blog project! Alas, the miserable rainy weather put a damper on it. Since there has been a dramatic shift in the weather pattern, I think that idea has now become a spring project. Here's the first installment....

I've blogged before about the 'most beautiful villages in France.' If you click on the highlighted link, you'll find an explanation of the requirements a village must meet to attain this designation as well as a list of them. There are several within driving distance from where I live, and I thought it would be fun to visit and share them on my blog. I've already been to some...St. Cirq-Lapopie, Conques, Cardaillac, Najac. There are several more, though, so watch for them in upcoming blog posts.

Today we'll visit Capdenac-le-Haut in the Lot department. I have no excuse for not visiting this beautiful village sooner. I've passed the sign to it many times. This week I found out what I've missed.
Beautiful medieval village houses
The site of the village overlooking the Lot River far below has been inhabited since Neolithic times. In fact, the oldest stone figure in France was discovered here in 1973. It's the plump torso of a woman who has been named the Capdenac Goddess; she dates from 3200-3000 BCE. The Romans certainly settled here.  For many years, the village claimed to be the site of Uxellodunum...the last stand of the Gauls against the Roman invaders. At that battle in 51 BCE, the great Gaul hero, Vercingetorix, was defeated by Julius Caesar himself. Archaeologists have since disproved Capdenac's claim, but the village isn't buying it

The village square
The village played an important role in the Treaty of Nantes that ended the Wars of Religion. It was one of 40 places in France given to the Protestants and remained a Protestant stronghold and place of refuge and religious freedom.

Today Capdenac-le-Haut is a sleepy village eclipsed by Capdenac Gare at the bottom of the valley below it. The railroad station there linked this part of France with the rest of the Aveyron, the Lot and beyond and a bigger town has grown up around it. The ramparts and donjon of the old village offer stunning views of the valley and its well-preserved medieval houses are a delight. There is a garden of medieval herbs and plants next to the donjon/tourist office and a small museum that is open during the tourist season. Visiting the old village is like stepping back into time.
The Lot River and train station at Capdenac Gare

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Waiting...

Waiting for spring
Ah...a blue sky morning! Lucie and I took advantage of it with a walk along the waterfront in Cajarc. Not much happening in the gardens that line the river. Still too wet from all the rain, and it's a bit early to ignore the possibility of one last freeze before spring is officially here. There were a few crocus blooming and a flowering tree here and there just starting to bud and blossom, but mostly everything is waiting. Waiting for the air to dry the wet ground. Waiting for the sun to warm it up a bit. Waiting like this guy in his dog-house cazelle.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Walk in the Park

Lucie and I are suffering from cabin fever! It's been a very rainy, grey winter. So last Monday when I awoke to clear blue skies, I decided we needed to get out and explore a bit. I drove down to Loc Dieu keeping my fingers crossed that the Park would be open at the Abbey. The website says it's open year 'round, but the last time I tried to walk there, the gates were locked. Luck was with us this time! I paid the €2 entry fee, and the young woman who lives there showed me the map...
The Park that surrounds the Abbey consists of 50 hectares of the 100 hectare property. It was created by Jean Darcel, a roads and bridges engineer from Paris. He created such Parisian parks as Parc Montsouris, the Trocadero Gardens and the gardens of Buttes-Chaumont. Working with the existing forest, springs, ponds resurgences and mini-caves, he established various walkways that wind around the area and up the hill at the edge of the oak and pine forest. There's a tower on top that overlooks the surrounding countryside. Dogs are welcome on a leash and it's a perfect place to walk even in the winter.
The Tower
It took a bit of coaxing, but I managed to talk Lucie into climbing the skinny, winding stone staircase to the top of the tower. It offered a magnificent 360° view...
Looking north at the tiny village of Elbes
This was my favorite discovery of the day, though. It sits right outside the entrance to the house. I want one!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Abbey Loc Dieu

Loc Dieu  Abbey
Built in the 12th century by Cistercian monks, the Abbey at Loc Dieu has seen its fortunes ebb and flow over the years. Looking at it now, it's hard to believe that the church and the beautiful manor house adjoining it were actually built at the same time. While the church itself has never been damaged over the years, the original monks' quarters, cloister and workrooms have been heavily damaged and almost destroyed several times during the Hundred Years' War, the Wars of Religion and the French Revolution. Each rebuilding was done in the style of the period. When the state assumed control of the Abbey during the French Revolution, the monks were disbanded and the property sold. The Abbey and its grounds then became the estate of the Cibiel family which turned the buildings into the lovely manor house it is today.

The house and church are open during the summer for guided tours only. On the tour you hear the story about the Mona Lisa hiding here as well as other fascinating tales of the Abbey's history.
I took this photo inside the foyer of the house where the tour begins. I love the intricate glass work. You can see the vaulted corridor of the cloister beyond the glass.
The interior of the church is typically Cistercian...very simple and elegant. This is where Mona Lisa smiled during WWII. She and hundreds of other works of priceless art were cached here in the church. You might think our tour guide looks a bit out of place in the church wearing her tank top and rolled jeans! In her defense, it was a blistering hot August day. The interior of the stone church felt blissfully cool.
Cistercian churches do not have the colorful stained glass windows found in the later Gothic churches like Notre Dame. The Cistercian order followed the strict rule of St. Bernard who believed that churches should not have any superfluous ornamentation that might distract the monks from their religious life. The earliest monasteries like this one might only have a crucifix and single-color windows like these. I find them very beautiful and restful.
The altar flowers are a modern touch. In my next post, we'll stroll through the Park that surrounds the Abbey.