Saturday, June 26, 2010

Found Art: White-washed window (June 26, 2010)

Walking around the town of Pezenas today, I came across a small closed-up shop with an interesting iron grill over the windows. The windows had been white-washed to hide the emptiness inside. I liked the pattern of the swirled white against the dark iron rods. Found art.

On the road (Europe 2010): Pouzolles, Pezenas

Spent a leisurely day yesterday seeing the village of Pouzolles after picking up our rental car, in Beziers, which is about half an hour away and the biggest town in the area. So far Pouzolles continues to conform to my first impression. The village is picturesque, but sleepy. Sometimes the picturesque is better passed through than lived in, but there is a wealth of things to do within a short drive of the village, so this makes an excellent base.

Yesterday, for example, we visited the Barrage des Olivettes, which is a small dam with a local swimming hole behind it. The dam creates a small reservoir with picnicking areas. Families were swimming. Some people were fishing. Others were just lolling on the grass. I enjoyed seeing the wildflowers. I noticed scabiosa, echiums, and chamomile growing wild. I saw a pretty yellow bird singing noisily up in one of the trees, a bird I've never seen before. A look in the bird book allowed me to identify it as a Serin, a common songbird in this area. Pied Wagtails were skimming over the water. A Hoopoe landed on the antenna of the neighboring house here after we got home. It was my first view of this very impressive bird, but he was gone before I could get my camera. I hope to get a better look at a Hoopoe soon.

Today we spent the day in Pezenas, a town about 10 miles to the east of Pouzolles. Today, Saturday, was market day. Each of the towns has its own market--sometimes more than once a week. Food sellers were offering the usual fruits, vegetables, fish, meats, bread products, and specialties such as olives, soaps (pictured), and candies and confections, but I can see already that it's more economical to shop for most food at the big supermarkets. Cheese and wine are much cheaper here than at home. I saw a wheel of Époisses today at the big Intermarché for €6 (the one I bought in Paris was €9). At home, at Whole Foods, the same piece of cheese would cost around four times as much. Today I bought four bottles of Cinsault rosé from local producers, which I plan to compare tomorrow evening, to start to get a feel for the wines being made here. The four bottles together cost the equivalent of about $12, and these were by no means the cheapest wines available. Other products are somewhat cheaper as well. All in all, I suspect it will cost less to live here than at home.

Pezenas is known for its antique shops, its market, and because Molière made Pezenas his home for a period and his company performed in the town from time to time. Pezenas is unusual also for a well preserved Jewish ghetto that appears to have been established in the 13th century. By the middle of the 16th, the Jewish population had been ejected, but the section of the town they built is still there. All over Pezenas are old stone buildings with interesting carvings, imposing doorways, and whimsical knockers on the doors. Many buildings have ornate wrought iron balconies. It was interesting just to wander around the streets. I particularly liked the heart-shaped carving on the door pictured here.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

On the road (Europe 2010): Pouzolles--First Impressions

Pouzolles, halfway between Narbonne and Montpellier, and about 30 minutes from the Mediterranean Sea at Agde, is a little postcard of a town. The streets are narrow and hilly in places. The buildings are mostly built of stuccoed stone. There is a small 12th century church and a privately-owned 13th century chateau. There is not much here, really. There is not much to do. But that suits me fine. The plan is simply to live and work here over the summer and to travel a bit, as work permits.

There are three or four other villages in the immediate area accessible by bicycle or car that offer small shops, restaurants, and cafés (the photo shows the market at Servian this morning). There are stretches of neatly tended vineyard land between the villages. This area mostly produces the vin de pays Côtes de Thongue, which appears to allow a wide variety of grapes, including Grenache, Cinsault, Mourvedre, Viognier, and other varieties traditional in the Languedoc Rousillon area, as well as international varieties, such as Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay. They seem to make a great deal of rosé here, which is nice to see, as I like rosé. The wines range widely in price, but some of it is surprisingly inexpensive; twice a week (Tuesday and Friday mornings) the local rosé is available from tanks (you bring your own container) at 6 euros for five liters--which works out to $1.37 a bottle--and it's quite drinkable. Until a month ago, I'm told, it was only 5 euros for five liters--and it had been for 14 years (what an outrageous price increase). As I begin to explore some of the wines of good reputation in the area, I will report.

Swifts, house martins, and barn swallows are everywhere. The swifts hunt incessantly over the rooftops. They are like black sickles in the sky. They dive and turn, beating their wings as fast as a bat and then they suddenly hold them still to glide in tight arcs for a moment before shooting off in a new direction, wings beating furiously again. The swifts and martins are nesting. The martins appear to make mud "pots" under the eaves of the buildings, similar to those made by our Cliff Swallows. The swifts disappear into cracks in buildings and other crevices. Walking in the more wooded areas, I've heard warblers, but I have yet to see any. They like to hide and tease with their songs--but I have yet to do any real exploring. So far on this trip I have added 13 birds to my life list nevertheless (Rock Pipit, Linnet, Greater Black-backed Gull, European Goldfinch, Wood Pigeon, Chaffinch, Jackdaw, European Blackbird, Black-headed gull, Coal Tit, House Martin, Common Swift, and the European Roller). I hope to add many more.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

On the road (Europe 2010): Paris (continued)

On the 21st we visited La Sainte Chapelle, which is part of the complex of buildings remaining from the earliest development of Paris, on the Ile de la Cité. Sainte Chapelle, as the name suggests is a chapel, but it is perhaps unique in that it's two chapels built one on top of the other. The lower level was for parish services. The upper level was reserved for kings, queens, and other nobles and their guests. The construction dates to the 13th century, but there has been restoration, particularly in the 19th century. The upper level is considerably more sumptious than the lower, but even the lower level is ornate.

Both rooms are built to a simple plan—just a nave and apse. Although even the most delicate parts of the room on the lower level (the ribbed vaults and the pillars that support them) are made of stone, the entire interior is painted in blue, gold, green, and red, which creates a very different effect from a typical stone church interior. I have never seen anything quite like it. Are there other churches like this? I know that many old buildings we think of as being plain stone (such as the Acropolis at Athens) were once polychromed, but I don’t think I’ve ever read about a European Christian church decorated in this way. Come to think of it, some of the Greek churches of the Meteora are painted inside, but I don’t remember any of those being quite so sumptuous. Hmmmmm… A little research is in order.

I nearly missed it. There was a very long line. The delay to get in turned out to be almost entirely due to security—which was tighter than at any airport I’ve ever been to, with multiple bag checks as well as x-ray machines and armed guards. It was worth the wait, however. The upper chapel is entirely of stained glass from just above eye level to the top of the high walls that have very little apparent support. Exterior flying buttresses appear to hold it all up, but I’m no engineer.

There are at least 15 double stained glass panels around the chapel. Fourteen of these tell stories from the old and new testaments. The last one tells the story of the relics  that were originally enshrined here (now kept at Notre Dame)—supposedly a piece of the cross from the crucifixion and Christ's crown of thorns. Between each of the double panels is a statue of one of the 12 apostles. The altar and the back of the nave were obscured by scaffolding (more of those seemingly inescapable restoration works) but the room is magnificent nevertheless. Like the lower chapel, virtually every surface not glass is painted in blue and red and green or gilded. The floor is inlaid with greenery and animals in quadrefoil frames, although according to a friendly guard, the original chapel had a plain white marble floor. The floor now in place dates from restoration work done in the 19th century to repair destruction during the revolutionary period. The guard said that most of the decoration below the glass dates from this period, as does the bottom third of the glass panels. The remainder of the glass and several of the statues of the apostles date from the 13th century, making these the oldest stained glass windows in Paris.

Much as I enjoyed seeing La Sainte Chapelle, the long wait to get in cut into time allotted to seeing the Louvre again, which was a shame. Still, I got to see some of my favourite pieces in the place, particularly some of the collection of northern renaissance painting—the work of Holbein, Roger Van der Weyden, Memling and others—although some of these are a bit too early to be called Renaissance. Among the older French paintings (which on the whole bore me) I do like the Clouet portrait of Francois 1er and his queen, Élisabeth of Austria. I used to keep a postcard of her on my desk at work during my days as a securities analyst to remind me of things that seemed more substantial than facilitating the buying and selling of stocks. Among the Italian paintings, I concentrated on the Botticellis. There are a couple of wonderful Madonna and Child panels in the Louvre, among many other things. It’s funny that you can tell a Botticelli anywhere—always the same big eyes and pointed chin. Unlike the Orsay, the Louvre does allow photography (without flash), which makes it easy to remember interesting things by unfamiliar painters, such as this portrait of a woman by Jacob Claesz (known as Jacob of Utrecht).

The early evening was occupied with a walk through the streets around the church of St. Germain des Pres—the area I have always stayed in in Paris in the past. It hasn’t changed much. Streets like Rue de Buci, Rue Bonaparte, Rue de Seine, Rue Jacob, and others are still lined with art galleries, specialty shops, and a variety of fancy food shops. Like any big city, Paris has many faces, but this is Paris to me. I remembered the place in detail, down to the location of a plaque on Rue Jacob marking the spot where Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay signed the treaty with England that ended the Revolutionary War. I happened again across the little square where there is a museum in what was once a studio used by Delacroix. There was a music festival going on. Almost every corner had a group performing in the street. In the Church was an odd group made up of saxophone, flute, violin and several singers with ethereal voices.

Finally, had a very disappointing meal at Le Petit Zinc. This restaurant, with its beautiful art nouveau interior, used to be wonderful. It offered good food and excellent service, and it wasn’t especially expensive. We ate here often. This was meant to be our one night out in Paris at a good restaurant, having made our meals at home (lunch breakfast and dinner) at the apartment throughout the visit until this point, but, sadly, the food we made ourselves was better than the restaurant food.

The highlight was the wine, which, of course, would have been good at any restaurant—a Grand Cru Riesling from Alsace. The waiter originally brought a lesser wine by the same maker (the wine on the list was clearly marked Grand Cru). I suspect he thought I wouldn’t know the difference. When I pointed out that he had brought the wrong wine, he said “Oh, you want a Grand Cru?” as if he was surprised that I’d prefer the Grand Cru to the wine he had brought, as if I were somehow perverse for wanting the wine promised on the wine list. As for the food, it was served almost cold and it was indifferently prepared. The waitress was clumsy, and one of my oysters was spoiled. I spat it out (quietly, of course) but it left a bad taste in my mouth, as did the entire meal.

A real shame. I can no longer recommend Le Petit Zinc. Before leaving, I at least had the satisfaction of telling them what I thought. I hope it has some effect, for the sake of future diners—not that one comment is likely to make much of a difference. Well, another day, another dinner.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

On the road (Europe 2010): Paris (Catacombs, Clignancourt, St. Denis, Eiffel Tower)

On Sunday the 20th , we started the day with a visit to the catacombs, the underground cemetery of Paris. In the late 1700s, one of Paris’s biggest cemeteries, the Cimetiere des Innocents was closed down at the request of the people that lived around it because it was contaminating water and causing disease. The authorities eventually decided the best thing to do was to dig up the entire thing and move the bodies. Paris has miles and miles of underground tunnels resulting from the quarrying of limestone for buildings and gypsum for plaster. Disused quarries under the city were chosen as the place to start moving the disinterred bones from the cemetery (and, later, from cemeteries all over the city as Haussmann’s plans to widen the boulevards and make other changes necessitated the clearing of many areas). The first bones were deposited in the early 1780s, although the earliest markers I found in the catacombs were from 1786. At first the bones were unceremoniously dumped, but soon afterwards the workers began to deposit the bones in a more orderly fashion, using the long bones from the legs and skulls (which both stack well) to form walls behind which the other bones were piled up. Some 6 million people are said to be buried (if that’s the right word) in the catacombs, including a few famous people, such as Rameau, although no one knows where the luminaries are at this point. It wasn’t very creepy, despite the many skulls. The neatly stacked bones leave a fairly abstract impression. 

We next went to Clignancourt, to one of Paris’s major Sunday flea markets. There are many vendors set up in the streets selling mostly jeans, T-shirts, and sunglasses, and other tourist items, but there is also an indoor area with many, many stalls offering better items, mostly antiques and memorabilia. There were stores selling everything from theater fixtures to furniture to African art to Hollywood movie posters. Spent a pleasant few hours there.

Later we went to St. Denis, a northern suburb of Paris, not far from Clignancourt. We visited the Basilica of St. Denis and the royal tombs there. Nearly all of France’s kings and queens (not to mention many princes, princesses, and other nobles) were buried here, going back to people like Clovis, who reigned in the 600s. Apparently the bodies are mostly gone--having been dug up and dumped in mass graves during the Revolution--but the stone sarcophagi (nearly all with a recumbent figure of the occupant--Henry II in the photo here) are there in their original positions. The church itself is pretty--much more delicate and open than I was expecting, with fully developed flying buttresses. This is usually said to be the first Gothic-style cathedral. Nearly all of the original stained glass has been removed for restoration. It’s been replaced for the time being with photographic reproductions of the glass, which sounds horrible, but it’s actually very difficult to tell--which is remarkable in itself. Nowhere can you get close enough to examine the surfaces, but I doubt you’d  know if you didn’t already know.

After dinner, went to the highest level of the Eiffel Tower for the first time. When I’ve been there in the past, the upper deck has always been closed. The view from the lower deck is fairly impressive, but the top allows you to see virtually all of Paris. There were crowds even at midnight. The area around the tower is swarming with vendors, mostly Africans, all selling identical souvenirs. I wonder why no one tries anything original? In the photo here, the beam of the tower spotlights is passing by.

On the road (Europe 2010): Paris (Musée d'Orsay)

Spent most of the day at the Musée d’Orsay on the 18th. It was fun to see some old friends for the first time in many years (familiar paintings, that is) and to see some things I didn’t remember at all. There were a few new acquisitions as well, notably four large paintings by Bouguereau--of subjects rather more serious than the pretty young women he’s best known for.

Impressionism has become a cliché--if an entire art movement can become a cliché. But I suppose we can’t blame it for its own success, just as we can’t blame Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concertos for their popularity. What is best of Impressionism retains its interest. Having said that, I most enjoyed seeing work by Cezanne, Gauguin, and Degas (more post-impressionist), especially the good collection of Degas pastels.

There was an interesting special exhibit of work by Meijer de Haan, a dutch painter I’d never heard of. He started out in Amsterdam painting Jewish life in that city in a rather dark, traditional style. Like Van Gogh, his first trip to Paris, where he met many of the avant garde painters of the day through Theo Van Gogh, was a revelation. His style appears to have changed almost overnight. His later works suggest Gauguin, but have their own look, of course. He appears to have been a good friend of Gauguin and even considered accompanying him to Tahiti, but didn’t. The Orsay allows no photography, so I can’t show you any of his work, but I’ve reproduced the poster here.

Later in the day, we visited the Conciergerie, which is one of those buildings that has led so many lives that it’s hard to keep track of, but during The Terror, this was the place that held prisoners awaiting the guillotine. Marie Antionette spent her last days here, as did Robespierre himself--among a couple thousand others. The place was otherwise interesting for its ribbed vaults and large fireplaces. 

 Stopped by Notre Dame, but there was a very long line (which I’ve never seen before), so gave up on that idea, but did walk around the outside a bit. There were many catalpa trees blooming in the streets around the cathedral and in the area around the famous flower market, which were pretty. ­I captured a funny scene outside the cathedral, a father trying to take a picture of his little daughter. 
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