Wednesday, October 30, 2013

I'm a Believer!

I've never thought I needed a GPS system. Give me a map and the car keys and I'm a happy girl! Nothing I like better than a good road trip. I can always get from Point A to Point B. But I was a bit worried about my trip to the Riviera. It's one of those high density areas...lots of people, lots of buildings, and LOTS of cars. All crammed into the narrow streets of really old cities. I had borrowed a friend's TomTom for a trip to the Toulouse airport and found it very handy for navigating the back roads. So, I decided to purchase my own before my trip last week. Am I ever glad I made that decision!

I'm not sure I'd have even found my B&B without the TomTom. Even the lady in it had doubts...she kept asking me if I really wanted to be on an unpaved road. I wasn't, but told her to go for it. Nice was especially a nightmare. The Nice airport is the second busiest airport in France (only Charles DeGaulle is busier) Does that give you any idea how many people were driving around in town?? I've never circled so many round-abouts or merged onto so many tiny streets! I would have never been able to do it with Madame TomTom. She and I had a couple of hiccups, though. She sometimes counted round-about exits a little differently than I did, and I never could convince her that the unpaved road to my B&B was okay!

Using my GPS system on my Riviera vacation has definitely made a believer out of me! Don't drive in French cities without one.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Man Walking by Alberto Giacomettie
Ever since my first art history class in college, I've been a fan of Alberto Giacometti, Swiss-born sculptor, painter. and printmaker. While his almost-Surrealist style isn't for everyone, I find his gaunt and tortured figures compelling. I was thrilled to find an entire courtyard at the Fondation Maeght devoted to Giacometti's work. Further research revealed that Aime Maeght represented Giacometti throughout most of his career, both selling and collecting his work. Research also revealed that another Man Walking from a series of sculptures created by the artist sold at auction (Sotheby's London) in 2010 for a record breaking $104.3 million. That's serious money! Looks like I have good taste in artists.

Giacometti Woman

Monday, October 28, 2013

Greetings from the Green Man

The Green Man and his friends greet you as you enter the Fondation Maeght outside of St.Paul-de-Vence. I spent my last day on the Cote d'Azur exploring this fabulous collection of modern art and then wandering the rues of the medieval village of St.Paul-de-Vence. Fondation Maeght was established in 1964 by Marguerite and Aime Maeght, long time Cannes art dealers and collectors, in collaboration with Andre Malraux, France's Minister of Cultural Affairs. The Fondation and its stunning building hold a collection of modern and contemporary art by many of the most important artists of the 20th century.nSome of these artists actually shared in the planning of the building, creating pieces of art and sculpture to specifically fit into the space. The setting of the Fondation is amazing...high in the hills overlooking Nice, surrounded by natural Mediterranean flora and beautiful gardens. Much of the sculpture is outdoors with many pieces, like the Green Man, enhancing water features.
I especially liked the pieces playing in the water. Here are a few examples for you to enjoy:
by Joan Miro
Another by Miro
Underwater mosaic by Georges Braque
My favorite water sculpture...I love things that move!

Sunday, October 27, 2013


Thermes Western
(western baths)
Passing through the rear door of the Musee d'Archeologique, you are transported back over 2000 years to the ancient Roman city of Cemenelum. Founded in 14 BCE by Emperor Augustus, this place on the hill overlooking what is now Nice started out life as a military garrison. The Roman soldiers billeted here helped protect the Via Julia Augusta, the road that connected Rome with its province and linked it to other Roman roads in Arles. At one time the city had as many as 10,000 inhabitants, and it is thought that at least 3 cohorts (1000-1500 men) of Roman soldiers were garrisoned here. While ruins and artifacts are found all over the neighborhoods in Cimiez, the arena and the baths are what have been excavated and studied here.
Baths North
This site actually contains the remains of three separate sets of baths. Each bath was composed of 3-4 rooms of varying heat. The walls were made of stone with marble floors and seating areas. The bath buildings evidently held several windows as many fragments of glass have been found around the walls. Typically, a bather entered the warmer rooms first...the tepidarium (warm room). the laconicum (a round room of intense dry heat), the caldarium (hot room). The North Baths also had a pool of warm water for swimming (natatio), latrines and a garden.  The Western Baths also contained a swimming pool and garden. After swimming, the final bath was a cold one....frigidarium. Each bath also had an area for exercising.
With their genius for controlling and using water, the Romans built a series of aqueducts and drainage systems to bring water to the site of the baths, circulate it through the bathing pools,  flush the latrines, and then carry it all away. Not only was the water heated for each bath, but the floors and rooms themselves were heated as well by an underfloor system of ducts called the hypocaust. Heated air and smoke from wood fires in the furnace room circulated freely through these ducts warming the marble floors. The ducts also kept annoying smoke out of the rooms, funneling it up flues in the walls that warmed them before leaving the building via the roof. Warmest rooms were located closest to the furnace room; cold rooms further away.
Water drainage system

Bathing was an important part of daily Roman life. It was both a hygienic practice and a social one as bathers relaxed and visited together. Nothing I read explained whether the baths excavated here were for everyone or just the Roman elite. Myself...I like to imagine them full of naked, lusty Roman soldiers!

Friday, October 25, 2013

'Pottery Shards'

The archaeological museum of Nice definitely displayed a lot of pottery shards, but I found these beautiful amphorae more photo-worthy than the bits and pieces. Used since Neolithic times to transport a variety of liquid as well as dry commodities, these were probably used for wine. The oldest relics in the museum date from around 1100 BCE when this area (Cimiez-Nice) was inhabited by late Bronze Age peoples. The Greek and later, Roman settlers, however, left the most beautiful artifacts for us to discover...
Like this gorgeous bronze mask
and these tiny bronze figures.
My personal favorite....a larger-than-life marble sculpture of Antonia Augusta from the 1st century CE. She left quite a legacy...daughter of Mark Anthony, mother of Claudius, grandmother of Caligula, and great-grandmother of Nero!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Heaven is Old Rocks and Pottery Shards

I was in hog heaven when I visited the archaeological site next door to the Matisse museum. I love old rock and pottery shards just as much as I love old art. The museum and the site are free. And...they actually encourage you to take photos here. "You can use the flash if you wish" said the nice woman at the entry. So, I did!

You see the Roman arena before you even enter the museum. It's called the Cemelenum and like the Matisse museum, is actually located at the edge of Nice in Cimiez.
As Roman arenas go, this one was small only holding about 5,000 spectators. But it had all the same parts and the same functions....gladiator fights, wild animal hunts, tortures, executions, and games.
It's a lovely introduction to the museum and the rest of excavations. That's where we'll go next time.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Matisse Museum

While I spent two hours wandering through the Matisse museum in Nice, I have nary a photo to show you. I was pretty sure the 'photo police' would scold me if I tried to photograph any of the beautiful artwork and sculpture on display! I loved the museum with its representative pieces from all of Matisse's genius...small paintings, huge wall paintings, drawings, sculpture, cut paper designs, fabric stencil and silk screening designs, tile work, and stained glass. The man was amazing!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Picasso's Terrace

While not cold at all, it was a cloudy, gray day when I visited the Picasso museum in Antibes. Somehow these gaunt bronze sculptures looked at home in the gray weather silhouetted against the sea.

This piece definitely caught my eye

Yesterday I visited the Matisse museum in Nice; today I'm off to St.Paul-de-Vence and perhaps the hilltop village of Gourdon. I'll be sharing these adventures with you soon.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Hello from the Riviera!

Hello from the Riviera where life is an adventure of people, traffic and finding a parking place! Underneath that level of frustration, though, you can see the beauty that lures people to this area and keeps them coming back. I'm staying in Antibes  and spent yesterday afternoon wandering through old Antibes. It's a warren of charming old shops, restaurants and museums. I visited the Picasso Museum located in the old Grimaldi castle overlooking the old port. While there are very few works by Picasso on exhibit right now (all on loan to other museums) there are many other artists represented with striking paintings and sculpture.

There's a whole room devoted to Nicholas de Stael who died in Antibes in 1954. Shhh! this is an illegal photo taken before the 'guard' scolded me for using my camera. Hey...I didn't know...there weren't any signs anywhere and most places it's okay to photograph if you don't use a flash.

Next time I'll share some of the modern sculptures that enliven the terrace. It's okay to photograph outside!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Good Morning, World!

Nice sunrise out my bedroom window this morning.
Its reflection in the river was pretty too!

I'm off to explore another region of France tomorrow morning...the Cote d'Azur. I'll be spending a few days in Antibes and then St.-Remy-de-Provence. Hope to have some fun tales to tell.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Trompe l'Oeil

This charming house in Conques is an example of trompe l'oeil or 'fool the eye.' At first glance it appears there are two staircases going up the outside of the facade. Actually while the windows are all real, the vertical brown beams are painted on the house. The balusters and handrails are half-cut pieces of wood attached to the wall of the building. There are no stairs! Someone either had a quirky sense of humor or wanted his house to look much more elegant than it was.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Les Parapluies

Rainy and cold the last few days which makes me remember these colorful  umbrellas in Conques.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Some Final Thoughts

I've had a few days to process and absorb all the pageantry surrounding Sainte Foy and her feast day. I've seen her reliquary before, of course, in its normal place in the Tresor, but seeing her out amongst her people being sung to and venerated was a joyful experience. Even though she doesn't quite look how I'd picture a 12 year-old girl! Her gold and silver covered body is actually made of wood encrusted with precious and semi-precious stones. It dates from about 980 CE. There is a compartment in the back of the statue that holds the glass vessel containing her relics.Her head has puzzled experts for years. It dates from the 5th century and the most commonly accepted theory is that it was originally the head of a Roman statue and was simply attached to the seated body. Other experts have proposed that it is a copy of Charlemagne's death mask or that it may be the head of an ancient Egyptian statue. No one knows for sure. It's a priceless religious artifact as evidenced by the presence of three gendarmes the entire time she was out of her locked and secure Tresor!

After Mass, the crowd milled around the parvis watching the Occitan dancers perform and purchasing home-baked goodies being sold by the Conques primary school. All the presiding priests were working the crowd, doing a holy meet and greet. Everyone was smiling and happy. I approached the priest who gave the homily during Mass and thanked him for what was for me a very special weekend. And I added, "putting all this together must have been a lot of work."

To which he replied in lovely French-accented English "It was the work of joy, Madame. She is a very special girl, you know!"

Indeed, she is.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Solemn Mass of Sainte Foy

The child martyr, Sainte Foy

The homily from Romans 8:38-39
"...neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,"

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Sainte Foy in All Her Splendor

Sunday morning, 6 October, Conques...

The crowd gathered and jostled for position

Dignitaries began emerging from the church and finding their places in the courtyard.
I knew when the gendarmes came out of the cloister, though, we were getting close..
I'll let the video speak for itself.

I was not raised in a 'saint' tradition. Methodists barely acknowledge as saints the men (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) who wrote the Gospels, much less obscure 12 year-old martyrs. But seeing Sainte Foy in all her splendor being processed through the crowd and into the church gave me shivers of joy. She is so beloved here! And I caught that spirit as well.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Warm-Up Act

Sunday morning was overcast and fog lingered in the valley below Conques. By the time I finished breakfast at my hotel, however, the skies had cleared and promised a sunny blessing for Sainte Foy's feast day Mass. As I walked my bag  to the upper parking lot, I was amazed by the steady stream of people flowing into the village. So glad I decided to come on Saturday and stay the night. It looked like there would be quite a crowd! Things were scheduled to begin at 10h30, but I could see that people were already beginning to cluster outside the cloister and around the church by the Fountain of Plo. I found a place along the cloister arcade and people-watched. Priests and other dignitaries began to appear as did these Occitan dancers from the near-by village of Senergues. Soon the ancient sounds of bagpipes and accordion filled the air, and we were treated to a dance performance....a warm-up act for the procession to come. Enjoy the costumes and a bit of the toe-tapping music!
A lot of the men and a few of the women danced in these traditional wooden sabots. After Mass the group danced again in the parvis in front of the church. I held my breath that no one would slip! You can see how rough the cobblestone surface is...and the entire area slants downhill toward the church! I have a hard time just standing on the surface. I can't imagine how difficult it must be to dance on. You'll be happy to know that the performance was perfect...and accident-free!

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Celebration Begins...

The Abbey church at dusk
I arrived in Conques mid-afternoon on Saturday for the special activities celebrating the feast day of its venerated saint, Sainte Foy. After checking into my hotel, I had some time to wander through the church and around the village before Vespers began at 17h30. There's nothing I like better than wandering in Conques. While all of France feels like the home of my heart, Conques feels especially right to me. And this was a weekend of celebration...anticipation was palpable; everyone was smiling and eager to start the festivities! At Vespers, pilgrims walking the Way were awarded 'compostelles' for kilometers walked. The faithful were invited to approach the altar to kiss the relics of the honored saint. Vespers concluded, I had time to eat before the next event...a candle-lit walk through the village.
People began to gather in the parvis outside the great doors of the Abbey well before the walk's  20h30 start time. We were given candles and song sheets and watched as the priests began to emerge from the church...
We had an accordion playing priest...
a cross-bearing priest...
two Greek Orthodox priests...
and the priest whose special joy it was to carry the glass and silver vessel containing the relics of the little saint, Sainte Foy.
Our way through the village was lit by hundreds of flickering red and white votive candles. Many of the houses and businesses put out their own votives on windowsills, steps and garden walls.
We sang songs of Sainte Foy and of pilgrimage as we walked. Several times we stopped for readings and words of praise...
It was a joyous prelude for Sunday's solemn Mass in honor of Sainte Foy.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

A Celebration in Conques

Ste.Foy in the tympanum
There's a celebration going on this weekend in Conques, and I'm attending. It's the feast day of the Abbey's patron saint, Ste. Foy. I first 'met' Ste. Foy in 2009 and was immediately smitten with this 12-year old girl martyred for her faith in 303 CE. Her story and how she came to be in Conques is full of miracles, mystery and intrigue...with a bit of larceny thrown in for good measure! How can you not like a little saint who loves gold jewelry and playing tricks on people and whose favorite miracle to perform is releasing prisoners from their shackles and chains?

Look for the celebration of Ste. Foy in my upcoming blog posts.

Friday, October 4, 2013


A bell tower in Provence

If someone asked you to name the sound that immediately makes you think of France, what would you choose? Some people would choose the loud churring of Provencal cicadas or the reverberating klaxons of Parisian ambulances. Others would hear music of the can-can or Edith Piaf's trilling R's as she sings "Non, je ne regrette rein."  But to me, the sound that is quintessentially France is the tolling of church bells.

Saujac in the snow
Here at the Little Train House I can hear bells from two different villages...Saujac, across the river and Montbrun, a few kilometers upstream. First, Saujac chimes, then Montbrun, then Saujac again. (the hour is chimed twice in case you miss hearing it the first time.) I've lived here long enough that most of the time I really don't notice the bells. But at least once a day, even with the windows and shutters closed, I hear them.It's usually in the quiet of dawn as I sip my first cup of coffee. At 7 am and 7 pm, they toll not only the hour, but also the angelus...several rings to tell the village 'your day has started...come to Mass' and 'the day is done...come out of the fields to the shelter of home and hearth.' At those times, I love to let my imagination run wild and envision the villagers of old hurrying to the church for morning devotions or the men  turning their teams of oxen homeward for the slow walk to supper and the warmth of the kitchen fire.
Fall color behind the Cadrieu church

In my little village, the church bells only toll on the fourth Saturday of the month at 6 pm. This is when Mass is celebrated here by the priest from Cajarc. Unfortunately, I can't hear the bells from my own village church. I think this is because the Little Train House sits below the church which is up the hill from me. The sound must travel above me. The only other time this bell tolls (and all the other bells around me as well) is when someone dies. After the funeral service, the bell solemnly tolls, long and slow, as mourners walk behind the cortege to the cemetery for the burial.

In joy and sorrow, the bells mark the rhythm of life here for me. It's a sound that will always make me smile in remembrance of France no matter where I am in the world.