Saturday, December 29, 2012

Paris Day 2

{This group of posts pertains to my Christmas vacation in which my family came to visit me. The posts are based on notes I took during the trip and then wrote up after returning. They are post-dated to reflect the proper sequence of events. This is Part 11, the final installment in this series.}

The title of this post is a little misleading in that, technically speaking, it was our third day since coming to Paris. However I think of it as Paris Day 2 because it was the second day we actually spent in Paris. It was also the last full day of our trip.

We started once again with the Arc de Triomphe and luckily it was much sunnier.

Arc de Triomphe in the sun
The Arc was started by Napoleon but finished after his death by King Louis-Phillipe. Napoleon wanted to make Paris, his capitol, the most beautiful city in the world. I don't know if I'm in a position to judge, but I think he did a pretty nice job.

Eiffel tower as seen from the top of the Arc de Triomphe

Montmartre and the Basilique de Sacre-Coeur
 The views from the top are excellent. If you want great views in Paris, I recommend the Montparnasse, Montmartre, or the top of the Arc de Triomphe. Montparnasse is the one and only skyscraper within Paris proper. Why? Well, basically as the rest of the world was modernizing, someone said "Hey, let's build a skyscraper in Paris. It'll look more modern." And everybody was like "I don't really know...that sounds like a bad idea..." "No, come on, it'll be fun!" "Ok..." *builds montparnasse* "Oh no! No! No, that is awful! We must never do this again. Ban all skyscrapers in Paris!" And they did. Thus Montparnasse is the ugliest building in Paris, but they have a roof top terrace where you can go and take pictures. You may have noticed I didn't include the top of the Eiffel Tower. You have to wait forever, and then the Eiffel Tower isn't in any of your pictures. Speaking of which...

La Tour Eiffel
 Then we wandered over to Notre Dame, which is celebrating its 850th birthday. Happy Birthday Notre Dame!

Then we decided to go over to the Basilique de Sacre Coeur. Montmartre is the hill it is on, by the way. This was a mistake. When I went last time, it was morning and there was no one around. The place was really truly deserted. Not this time. So many people. You could barely get up to the basilica and then there were even more people there. It was so crowded. It's beautiful, and when there aren't so many people the views are great. Moral of the story: don't go to Montmartre on a Saturday afternoon.

We had a nice quiet dinner and then we settled in for the night, our last night in Paris. The next morning it would be back to Caen for me, and back to the states for them. All in all a great trip.

Friday, December 28, 2012


{This group of posts pertains to my Christmas vacation in which my family came to visit me. The posts are based on notes I took during the trip and then wrote up after returning. They are post-dated to reflect the proper sequence of events. This is Part 10. Almost done I swear.}

Versailles! What to say about Versailles...For me, this was a second go around, and so a second look at what was already familiar. You'll excuse me, but I'm going to assume you are faintly familiar with what Versailles is. If not, the short answer is that it is a giant ornate castle built by Louis XIV and later inhabited by  Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette who you may remember as being the ones who got their heads cut off during the French Revolution. I could go into details of how impressive the rooms are and how beautiful the furnishings are, but instead I think I'll give you a history lesson. You've been getting a lot of history lessons recently if you've been reading my posts, but you're not being forced.

Versailles, Palace of the Sun King

Let me give you a little background on Louis XIV. Before he was "Louis the Great" or "The Sun King", he was the miracle baby of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria. Anne had suffered not 1, not 2, not 3, but 4 count em 4 still born babies. You can imagine her joy when she finally had a healthy living child, but this would be nothing compared to the ecstasy of her husband who finally had an heir. They had already been married for 23 years at that point and he was old. She was nearly 37, but she actually had a second son as well. The King died in 1643 and the Queen became regent for her son Louis XIV, against the wishes of her husband's will. Louis XIII married a treacherous woman and he knew it; he never really trusted her and her continuous political intrigues didn't help.

 However, Anne then gave over the majority of the responsibility to Cardinal Mazarin, a protege of Cardinal Richelieu who had died not long before Louis XIII. Cardinal Mazarin basically followed all the same old policies: protect the state at all cost, enlarge the country's power and influence, and keep the nobles down. Well, a lot of the aristocracy was not pleased by this and started a civil war. Things got ugly, riots started all over Paris, and then suddenly mobs came to the palace demanding to see the king. They actually broke in, ran into his bedroom and calmed down after they saw he was asleep. He was only ten years old then!

For the next several years the aristocracy continued to fight, either through subtle intrigues or through actual spats of battle, claiming to act in the interests of the king, against his mother and the cardinal. To be fair, his mother and the cardinal exerted a lot of influence over him and were very controlling. Even after he officially came of age (at the wise old age of 13) they continued to dominate him and it wasn't until Mazarin died when  the king was 23 that Louis was finally able to rule on his own.

So this is the world this guy grew up in: lots of fighting among the nobles, political unrest, a mother and advisor who gave him absolutely no political power when he was raised to believe that he had a God-given right to absolute power. Confusing? Frustrating? Frightening? I would think so.

Thus, Versailles starts to make sense. He moved out of Paris to the countryside, because he felt trapped in Paris. In Paris, if the people got restless they could just shut the gates and the king would be their prisoner. He built a huge palace where he could have literally the entire court in one place (every single last noble and their family) where he could keep an eye on all of them. He got rid of many of the old corrupt courtiers and consolidated the government. He simplified the tax system and made it more efficient, so that more of his money actually came to him instead of disappearing into bureaucracy. He pulled in high quality manufacturers and artisans from all over Europe so that he/France wouldn't be dependent on foreign imports. He was a heavy patron of the arts too. He also reformed the French military and wrote a comprehensive legal code for the country to replace the old patchwork legal system. {Side note: Code Louis was basically the precursor to Code Napoleon on which many modern legal codes are based.} Looking at Versailles, it is easy to think that its creator was a vain, lazy, extravagant man, but looks can be deceiving. He was actually a good king, and remarkably popular.

The Beautiful Parks of Versailles 

However, he also created the world of the French royal court. His plan to keep the nobles under his thumb went beyond moving them all to Versailles. He created a world that revolved around him and French court etiquette became a maze of small maneuvers to gain favor with the king. He kept a very tight schedule and his whole life became a performance which allowed him to see and hear everything that went on in court. Every morning he would wake up for real, move into his grand bedroom, and then welcome in his doctor and his childhood nurse. After that, the members of his immediate family would come in to greet him (his mother by the way retired to convent). Next up, those highest in his favor followed by the rest of the court. Then he would go about his day, constantly watched, paying close attention to who was and wasn't sucking up enough. His life was a self-made trap, but it worked. He kept everyone right where they needed to be. He reigned for 72 years before dying of gangrene.

The Hall of Mirrors

Fast forward to Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette. They both lived in the crazy court life that his grandfather created, but neither of them had his intelligence or dominance of will. Louis XVI was weak and stupid, and his wife was a beautiful, but thoughtless, party girl. Neither had been educated on how to rule a country. They were taught what you needed to know to be a good socialite: etiquette, style, cards, dancing, hunting for him, music for her, and gossip. It's sort of sad really because Marie Antoinette's mother, Maria Theresa of the Habsburgs, was Empress of the Holy Roman Empire (think Austria and all the little countries next to it) and darn good at it. You would think she might have passed on some wisdom. At any rate, the two of them were very well trained in the art of the French court, not at all educated in the realm of politics or governing. They were also trapped in that life with no escape. Please remember that every second of their lives was on display. People watched them when they got up, when they went to bed, when they ate, when they played cards, when they attended balls. Everything. High members of the court even came to watch them bath, which is still a major invasion of privacy. {Side note: Louis XVI was known at the time as something of hygiene fanatic. He actually bathed regularly and brushed his teeth!} Worse, so many people came to watch Marie Antoinette give birth to her first child that they broke the barrister holding the crowd back. If she was crazy, and I kind of think she was, there was a reason.

Marie Antoinette's bedroom

Why do I think she was crazy? Lots of things, but the best example is this:

Marie Antoinette's Hamlet

Marie Antoinette and Louis often escaped the insanity of Versailles to the smaller estates of the Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon. She also had her own personal lands nearby where she had them build a country hamlet. It's like Disneyworld for her. We go to Disneyworld to make believe we're princesses and princes; she wanted to pretend she was a simple peasant girl. These aren't small play houses either. They are full-sized buildings, and include a house, a mill, a bakery, etc. She even had a little "farm" where she used cute little pink garden tools. The woman was bonkers. When the real world peasants saw this they must have really hated her guts because it is of course perfect. Perfect well manicured walkways, well maintained picturesque buildings and planned landscapes. However, in hindsight, I can kind of see why this was her fantasy. She lived her whole life surrounded by fake flattery and veiled jealousies, and was never allowed to actually do anything. The freedom from etiquette and schedules, and the realness of everyday life as a peasant would have seemed appealing. She didn't know their struggles or hardships, but she can't be blamed for that. No one ever told her anything about the real world. I for one pity her. She was stupid and thoughtless, but not evil. The French Revolutionaries were the rightfully angry, but she was the wrongly accused.

So moral of the story: Go easy on the French royalty; they had a lot more on their plates besides food.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Paris Day 1

{This group of posts pertains to my Christmas vacation in which my family came to visit me. The posts are based on notes I took during the trip and then wrote up after returning. They are post-dated to reflect the proper sequence of events. This is Part 9.}

So following our time in Tours, we spent the last three days of our trip in Paris. It was a quick train ride up, but when we got there it decided to by drizzly outside. Not cool, Paris, not cool. We walked from our hotel to the Arc de Triomphe, but we decided to hold out for a sunnier day to go to the top. Rain just does not make for a good view. So then we walked down the Champs Elysees (which was longer than I remembered) to Place de la Concorde. We also bought an umbrella on the way. It was flimsy and no help at all if there was even so much as a breeze, but merely having it helped improve the weather.

A Dreary Arc de Triomphe

Place de la Concorde, complete with real Egyptian obelisk

It was still fairly ucky so we opted for an indoor activity: the Palais Garnier. The Palais Garnier I think flies under the radar for a lot of people. I know my parents probably would not have gone if my sister and I hadn't insisted it was worth seeing. In fact, I wouldn't have gone the first time I was here if my Paris touring buddy hadn't been a huge Phantom of the Opera fan. I think even as we were standing in line (in the slight rain) my mother was wondering what we were doing here. From the outside, it's a nice building, but not really extraordinary by Parisian standards.

Palais Garnier

 However, as with people, it's what's on the inside that counts.

The main room

The grand chandelier in the actual theater

I'm going to label this a small ballroom

View from the front balcony

Part of the grand staircase

Gorgeous! I love the Palais Garnier. 'Modern' architecture just doesn't have this kind of charm and elegance.

After that we met one of my mom's old high school friends for a drink. It was one of those small-world things that you just can't resist. We went and grabbed dinner at a nearby cafe afterward and then on the way home we ran into one of my must-see sights: the Eiffel Tower at night.

The Eiffel Tower
And then it did something rather unexpected: it started sparkling!

The Sparkly Eiffel Tower
Ok, so not the world's greatest photograph, but you get the gist. Apparently they did it once for a special event, and it was so popular that now they do it every night on the hour. Sparkle!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


{This group of posts pertains to my Christmas vacation in which my family came to visit me. The posts are based on notes I took during the trip and then wrote up after returning. They are post-dated to reflect the proper sequence of events. This is Part 8.}

Following our visit at Chenonceau, we drove over to Amboise where we ate lunch. We didn't actually visit this one, which was fine for me because I've seen it before. Then we got a nice little drive along the Loire river and saw many beautiful villages, homes, and chateaux. The Loire valley is so picturesque.

Chambord was a new one for me. I'm not really sure what I was expecting, but it's HUGE. You can't even begin to understand how gigantic this place is. Granted, it's not as expansive as Versailles, but it's still way beyond the size of any normal castle, even the royal ones. Just incredible. It's this gorgeous ornate crazy fantastic monster in the middle of a swamp. Yes, that's right, a swamp. No, not like the Okefenokee, but a swamp all the same. They had to put in a huge foundation deep into the ground just to make sure the whole thing didn't sink and collapse. Why build there? Well, it was a favorite hunting spot, and why not. When you're king you do what you want.

Yours Truly at Chambord
It was started by Francis I on the grounds of an old hunting lodge and the original plan consisted of a square keep with a tower in each corner (like a medieval fortress) and a large central staircase (a design idea he picked from his escapades through Renaissance Italy). Each floor would be divided into four equal apartments by a cross shaped common space. The central staircase by the way is a giant double helix. Both stairways go to each floor but the stairways themselves never intersect. If you're having trouble picturing it, imagine you and a friend walking up different sides of a strand of DNA (come on, you remember science). Cool, right? However, those stairs actually make each floor double the normal ceiling height in order to allow for enough head space on the actual stairwell. So even though Chambord is only 3 stories and a roof terrace, it's the height of a 6 story building (not including its spires and chimneys).

French Renaissance architecture

See how little the people are?

Forest of chimneys

The central staircase

Well, France was ok with the stairs, but he was definitely not down with the equal apartments. That might be fine for his guests, but he was King. And gosh darn it he wanted to be Special. So the architects quickly drew up a wing just for him, connected to the main castle by a gallery. That made the king happy (always a good thing), but now it looked lopsided, so they added a matching gallery and wing on the other side in which they put the chapel and the apartments of the royal clergy. Everybody felt that was very fitting because of course the King of France ruled by Divine Providence, and as king you need to constantly remind the lesser mortals of your superior standing. Once they had added the galleries and the wings to the design, it was quick and easy step to complete the courtyard by adding extending the wings and connecting the ends. By the way, Francis was 25 when he started this building project in 1519. What have you accomplished?

Floor plan of Chambord, from Eugène Viollet-le-Duc's Dictionary of French Architecture from 11th to 16th Century (1856))

Anyway, poor Francis only ever spent about 2 to 3 months total at Chambord over his 32 year reign. He never even saw it completed. His son did a little more work on it, but he had a very short reign. He managed to get his daughter married to the King of Spain and got a peace treaty with the powerful Austrian royalty, and so through a tournament to celebrate. During the jousting, his opponent's lance broke and a large fragment went into his eye. Moral: Don't forget to lower your visor. His son was the sickly Francis II who reigned for only a year before dying (you may have heard of his wife, Mary Queen of Scots). His brother Charles was the one who killed all the Huguenots in the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre; he subsequently went mad with remorse and eventually died of health issues. Henry the III only ruled for 2 years before getting assassinated. Not a happy family. Then we Henry IV, who was actually a very popular king who cared about the welfare of his people. Chambord was at this point starting to fall into disrepair. Next up was Louis XIII who you may remember from The Three Musketeers. He was actually a pretty good king, and it was he who gave Chambord to his cousin Gaston d'Orleans who did a lot of restoration work, but who probably never actually lived there because he spent a lot of time in exile for conspiring to assassinate Cardinal Richelieu.

So then Chambord was back in the royal family, and Louis XIII's son Louis XIV came along. Louis XIV is the Sun King, the one who built Versailles, and it's easy to see that the guy who built Versailles would love Chambord. He may have spent some summers there as a kid, and as king he restored the main keep and furnished the apartments. However, he was not about to go live in some wing off to the side. He was the King, the most important person on earth, and he should be in the center of the building to reflect that he was the center of the world. However, like Francis I, he wasn't about to live in some cute little corner apartment. So he added a wall connecting two apartments on the back of the building and had the rooms decked out to match his own radiance. However, after Versailles was built, he basically abandoned Chambord.

Louis XIV

Why did everybody keep abandoning it? Simple. It's a logistical nightmare. First, it's in the middle of a swamp. It's not a pleasant place to be, and there's no town or village nearby to supply food, so you have to bring it with you or hunt it down. Plus, the size of the rooms and the windows make it impossible to heat. Despite the absurd number of fireplaces, it's just freezing inside. So it quickly became the white elephant of the family. Beautiful, but expensive. Louis XIV's son Louis XV (ok, so the French aren't very creative with their names) gave it to his father-in-law the King of Poland, hoping to get rid of him. It worked. Stanislas I lived at Chambord for about 8 years before going back to Poland. About fifteen years later, Louis XV needed gave Chambord to Maurice de Saxe, a German who worked his way up through the French military to become a Marshal of France and won several notable battles (well, notable at the time), for his lifetime. So Maurice came to Chambord and basically played king of the castle, living like Louis the XIV, for a couple years before dying of an illness. {No one really knows what exactly; all we know is he had a fever}. Frankly it sounds like fun.

After that, the poor castle was pretty much left alone. At one point, some crazy people bought it for the final living heir of the Bourbon line of French kings, Henri Dieudonne who called himself the Comte de Chambord, Count of Chambord. They bought him a bunch of toy cannons and a crown and stuff. Completely ridiculous. He spent his entire life in exile and died childless. The castle eventually made its way into government ownership, and it is constantly under renovation. I think they said next on the list is the main central staircase.

The crown never worn by Henri, Comte de Chambord

Fun fact: During WWII, most of the art from the Louvre was secretly moved to Chambord to protect them, because they knew the Germans wouldn't bother bombing an abandoned castle in a swamp.

Fun fact number 2: The Chateau de Chambord inspired the Beast's castle in Disney's Beauty and the Beast. You can read the whole interview here. Very interesting. I always wondered where they got it, and a part of me is really happy that they were inspired by a French castle for the animation of a French fairy tale. Oh, yes, Beauty and the Beast is French. Now there are fairy tales like Cinderella that basically have versions all over the world and go back before any real reckoning. There are also fairy tales like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast that have identifiable authors and while perhaps based on standard mythology, are uniquely their own story. The earliest version of La Belle et la Bete is by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve (1740) but the most famous is by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (1757). Now you know.


{This group of posts pertains to my Christmas vacation in which my family came to visit me. The posts are based on notes I took during the trip and then wrote up after returning. They are post-dated to reflect the proper sequence of events. This is Part 7.}

For this day, we once again had a guide to drive us around and give us tours, but today was all about castles. Castles come in variety of shapes and sizes in France. You have your fortress castles from the early middle ages, you have your palace castles of the fantastically rich and/or royal built during more peaceful eras, and you have Versailles. Yeah, Versailles is its own category. Don't worry, we'll get there.

As we drove along that morning, a new sight greeted me: cave homes. Caves were carved into the rock walls as the stone was quarried to build castles but also normal houses. Then people started integrating the caves into their homes, either living in them entirely or building a front part of the house that connected to the caves. You can see little windows in the rock wall, stable doors at the's really extraordinary.

Our morning was devoted to Chenonceau, a classic and a favorite. The last time I was here it was June and the place was swarming with people. This time we almost had the place to ourselves which made it much more enjoyable. The weather may be nicer in summer, but there are advantages to the off season.

Once a fortress to protect the river ford, it was later given to a merchant who after amassing wealth in trade became a money lender to the nobles. The king gave him the domaine to tax rather than paying off his debts. He wanted the land as visible "proof" of his noble status. Towards that end he tore down all but one tower of the old fortress castle. He left it as a reminder of his "ancient" right to nobility. Then he built a new renaissance-inspired chateau on the foundations of the old water mill. He however ran into accounting issues with the new king following the old king's death (apparently he'd taken more than was his due in taxes and the new king wanted his money back), and fled the country. His sons had to sell the castle and domaine to the king to get out of trouble.

The old castle tower and the 'new' castle

Henry II (the new king) ended up giving it as a gift to his mistress Diane de Poitiers. Diane de Poitiers was a beautiful woman, but she was also very clever and resourceful. She knew her situation was precarious and quickly filed legal work to assure her possession of Chenonceau in case of a falling out. Then Henry died and his jealous (and unfortunate-looking) widow Catherine de Medici took revenge. Fortunately, Diane's legal steps did their job and limited Catherine to trading for Chenonceau rather than simply confiscating it. Diane actually got a more lucrative property out of the deal. During Diane's time, she had built a bridge connecting the chateau to the other side of the river to have easier access to the hunting grounds. When Catherine took possession, as Queen Regent to her young sons, she needed more space for banquets and such so she had the halls built on top of the bridge.

The expansion over the water

It is still owned privately, which is very unusual these days. It's a beautiful location too, over the river and in the middle of very pretty woods. The inside are pretty nice too.

I'm a sucker for a cool bed

The grand hallway
Chenonceau is really a special chateau. Lots of places have expensive furnishings and all that, but as they say in real estate it's Location, Location, Location. 

The approach

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Two Days in Tours

{This group of posts pertains to my Christmas vacation in which my family came to visit me. The posts are based on notes I took during the trip and then wrote up after returning. They are post-dated to reflect the proper sequence of events. This is Part 6. Hang in there.}

On the 24th we left Caen and took the train to Tours. I had formerly spent 5 weeks in Tours doing a language intensive study abroad the summer after my first year of college, so it was interesting to come back to my old stomping grounds. We settled into the hotel, a quick two blocks from the train station. Knowing that our dining options were diminishing by the minute, we decided to have a nice big late lunch and then stock up on provisions for Christmas. Lunch was awesome: moules frites (mussels with french fries) for me, fish for the parents, and steak hache (basically a hamburger without the bun or topings) for the sister. Poor Mere had a bit of a tough time during the trip because more often than not the menu was full of seafood options, and she is not a seafood person. She got through it though, mostly by eating croque monsieurs. What's a croque monsieur? It's a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, and a standard menu item across France.  Say it with me: {Croc miss-yer}. If you pronounce that n, I will hunt you down and beat you with a stale baguette. (Only sort of kidding).

Croque monsieur

We grabbed sodas and snacks from a near by supermarket and some bread, pastries, and a sandwich from a bakery. After dropping them at the hotel, we started walking around a bit. They had a Christmas market up, a larger one than Caen's. We wandered over to where I used to go to school, and then one of the prominent squares. I could've walked much more, but my family does not have their Europe-legs yet so we went back to the hotel, where we hung out in the lobby and enjoyed a glass of wine.

Then we went back upstairs for some cards, accompanied by the usual amount of smack talk and complaining about bad hands. Our favorite games? Oh Hell (earn points by correctly guessing the amount of tricks you can take), Eucher (teams of 2 race to get 10 points), and Hearts (if we're bored with the first two). We've also been known to play some very intense games of Crazy Eights. We also ended up watching the French version of American Idol, Nouvelle Star. Interesting to say the least.

Then we settled into our super duper comfy beds for the night. Sigh, I miss that bed already. The hotel served a continental breakfast the next morning, and then we set out for more walking. We saw the old cathedral, which was undergoing renovations the last time I was here. They've finished the front and moved the scaffolding to one of the sides. We also walked over to the fine arts museum. The museum of course was closed, but the courtyard/park was open allowing us to take a look at the 200 year old Lebanon cedar and Fritz the elephant. Fritz died in 1903 as the Barnum circus was passing through town. They gave him to the town as a "gift". The town had him stuffed in Nantes, and then he was part of the Natural History museum until it burned down in the last war. He now lives in the former carriage house of the now fine art museum.

The old cathedral

Buildings in the old part of Tours

Town hall

We did some more walking but it was clear they were really pretty much done. I would've liked to go and see the park again but they were way too tired. So back to the hotel. We played a couple games of cards and then Mere and I ended up watching Gone with the Wind in French. It was one of those times when you're just flipping through the channels and you think, "Oh I'll just watch this for a few minutes", and then you watch the whole thing. In French as in English, Rhett deserves soooo much better. After munching on some of our provisions the parents settled into their books while Mere and I flipped through the TV. We got to see an episode of La Juste Prix (The Price is Right), a documentary on the making of Cirque du Soleil's "Kooza", and a Christmas concert TV special, which included an appearance by Garou. Garou played Quasimodo in the French musical "Notre Dame de Paris", which Mere and I both watched in high school for our French classes. Mere and I also played a couple hands of war in which we deemed tens to be "plucky". Quote of the day, Mere: "I feel sorry for tens because they're so close to being face cards but they're not."

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Tapestry of Bayeux

{This group of posts pertains to my Christmas vacation in which my family came to visit me. The posts are based on notes I took during the trip and then wrote up after returning. They are post-dated to reflect the proper sequence of events. This is Part 5.}

This was a new encounter for me. You'll notice that many of the things on this trip I had seen before, but this is on the list of "new" things. Our guide drove us to see it after Mont St. Michel. It's not something that requires a lot of time to visit, but definitely interesting. You could probably do the whole thing in under 30 minutes. Similarly not worth traveling a long way, but if you're in the area it's worth a stop.

So what is it? It's a UNESCO Memory of the World for starters. You've heard of UNESCO World Heritage Sites; the Memories of the World are similar, except they're documents/manuscripts instead of properties. France has 9 according to the website, out of about 280. The Tapestry is actually an embroidery, dyed wool on linen. It's 70 meters long (horizontally) but it's only about a foot, maybe a foot and a half wide (vertically). It's comprised of over 50 scenes which tell the story of the broken oath of Harold II and the rightful claiming of the throne by William the Conqueror with the Battle of Hastings. It was commissioned by Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, William's half-brother. He shows up in the tapestry a couple times, because after all, if you're going to thrown down that kind of money you should at least get to be in the darn thing. They're pretty sure the tapestry was made in England at about 1070 or so. On the one hand, that's pretty quickly after the events themselves took place, but on the other hand, it was commissioned by William's half-brother who almost certainly had a biased view of what happened.

Anyway, it's kind of a great story. I don't know about you, but my history classes didn't spend ages and ages on William the Conqueror. I'm sure it's a topic of great interest in a British History Course, but I'm pretty sure most Americans don't know the story of the Battle of Hastings.

King Edward the Confessor of England (of both Anglo and Norman descent fyi) was old and heirless. His closest blood relative was William Duke of Normandy, but you may recall that William was an illegitimate son of his father Robert the Magnificent. Edward's brother-in-law Harold Earl of Wessex also had his eye on the throne. Another point of contention between them: Harold was Anglo-Saxon, William was Norman. Edward sends Harold to Normandy to tell William that he will be his successor, or at least so the Normans say. When Harold gets to France he is captured by one of William's allies. Harold then ends up going on a campaign with William against the Duke of Brittany. Outside of Mont St Michel the army gets mired in quicksand and Harold saves two Norman soldiers. William knights Harold (at least that's what it looked like to me) and Harold swears a solemn oath on some sacred relics. This is one of the scenes that has a latin label so there are no doubts that Harold swore an oath to William. It doesn't say what was promised but it's implied that he swore loyalty to William. Well, old Edward died and Harold, now back in England, proclaimed himself King of England. At this point Haley's Comet appears. {Side note: Haley's Comet really did appear, albeit about 4 months after the coronation.} Comets were considered as being a really terrible horrible bad omen at the time, so you can imagine the doom people were expecting. Word gets back to William who gets a whole big fleet of boats and then he and his cavalry cross the Channel. He and Harold fight in the Battle of Hastings, and of course, Bishop Odo is on hand to rally the troops. The battle gets very bloody and Harold takes a flaming arrow through the eye and, well, that was that.

Moral of the story: Don't break your oaths or you will get a flaming arrow through the eye.

There's a surprising amount of gore in the tapestry. At one point there's a naked guy (who could really use a loincloth) and historians don't really know why he's there. During the battle you see a horse with an axe embedded in its head, decapitated bodies, and lots of blood. Afterward, the Normans stripped the corpses of their clothing.

It's amazing that it has survived this long. Part of that was due to the careful protection of the church. For the first several centuries of its existence it was kept in the cathedral and only brought up for viewing once a year. It began to suffer damage once it was confiscated from the church during the French Revolution. Politicians have no sense of preservation. It wasn't until 1945, following the liberation of France, that it was finally moved to its own special museum in Bayeux.

So if you're in the neighborhood go see it; it's really cool. If you want to play a fun game, try and count how many times Odo managed to get himself added into the story.

Mont St. Michel

{This group of posts pertains to my Christmas vacation in which my family came to visit me. The posts are based on notes I took during the trip and then wrote up after returning. They are post-dated to reflect the proper sequence of events. This is Part 4.}

Ok, I have to preface this by saying that I have been to Mont St. Michel before, so some of the wonder and awe of seeing it for the first time had already occurred for me. That said, it is still simply amazing. The other thing I will say is that this is going to be a really really long post. Yeah sorry about that. 

Mont St. Michel is one of 38 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in France. France has the fourth most properties on the list, behind Italy, China, and Spain. The 2 closest to me are Mont St. Michel and Le Havre. Apparently the whole town of Le Havre made the list, so it's now on my list of things to visit. Mont St. Michel is about an hour's drive from Caen. 

We had a much less rainy day, but it was still overcast and windy. Oh well, take what you can get. There have been some changes since my last visit as they build a new bridge, but I'm going to talk about that in a separate post. We had the guide again today, and it was interesting to have a different point of view. The first time I came with a group from my school in Tours led by the art history professor. Obviously, they both covered a lot of the same basic stuff, but my professor was much more focused on showing us the architectural styles of Mont St. Michel while our guide told us more of the history. Very interesting. 

According to legend, Saint Michael (or Michel in French) appeared to Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, (later sainted and given a feast day on September 10th) in a dream directing him to build a church in his honor. A couple things about Saint Michael. The Archangel Michael was known early on as a healer but in France in the Middle Ages his claim to fame was the slaying of a dragon. The idea spread that Michael could tell the difference between Good and Bad and could intervene on your behalf to help you into heaven, if you kept on his good side. So besides many portrayals of St. Michel with swords and standing on defeated dragons, you will also see plenty of statues of St. Michel holding scales or iconography portraying him overseeing the weighing of souls. Definitely an important guy in the heavily Catholic, Middle Ages France. 

Anyway, poor Aubert woke confused and decided it was just a weird dream and forgot all about it. The next night Saint Michel came back and tried again. Once again, Aubert shrugged it off as a weird dream. The third night, Saint Michel pointed directly at the rocky island and touched him on the forehead. Aubert got the message and within a year there was a little church dedicated to St. Michel on the island. That was 708 AD. 

The monastery was started sometime in the 1000s and was expanded during 12th and 13th centuries, thanks to the patronage of the Norman dukes and the King of France. It owes its fortress-like appearance to its strategic position and important role in the 100 Years War. No one was ever able to take the Mont, adding to the idea that it was protected by St. Michel and boosting later pilgrimage. Besides being an island, at low tide the Mont is surrounded by sandy planes riddled with quick sand. The tides at Mont St Michel are also a power to behold. The water level rises about 50 ft between low and high tide and the tides change swiftly. Anyone stranded on the flats would be in very serious danger. During this war, cannon fire caused part of the church to collapse. They rebuilt it the 1500s in the gothic style (think ornate) that was popular at the time, and reinforced the base with huge columns. Another portion of the church was lost due to a fire that caused one of the towers to come down and take out part of the sanctuary. This would have been about the time of the French revolution, and at that time the Church was heavily on the outs. Since the monastery at the time was too small and too poorly funded to properly rebuild, they just cleared away the damage and added a new wall to close off the church. During the days of Empire, it was a prison. Today it is government owned and one of only 6 sites that are profitable, out of about 100. Mont St Michel is able help fund the restoration and maintenance of many other historical sites. 

During the Middle Ages, Mont St. Michel was a very popular pilgrimage site, on the level of Rome. People wanted to garner favor with Saint Michael, and going there to pay your respects was a great way to do it. You could also get the monks to pray on your behalf or for a loved one, because after all their prayers must be more powerful. Of course that comes at a cost. The monks are busy people, copying Bibles and worshiping the Lord all day. You've got to give them something in return. The very wealthy like Kings and Dukes, sent money to the monastery, or donated land from which the monastery could receive taxes. Lesser nobles and wealthy merchants would send food or goods, like cloth. Most people though had barely enough to survive on, so they gave what they had: time and effort. Most of the monastery's expansions were carried out by laymen who would volunteer to do manual labor for, say, a week in exchange for the monks' prayers. I like to think it worked out for everybody. 

It's still amazing to me how old it is, and how well constructed given the tools available. I mean, come on, the most recent parts of it are still hundreds of years old, and the oldest are 1300 years old. It seems inconceivable to be able to walk across a stone floor put there by people who would not be able to conceive of the year 2013. Heck they probably would've been boggled by the idea of 1013. 

Despite it's huge size, at maximum it held about 60 monks, although at times it was as few as 6. Traditionally it was inhabited by Benedictine monks, they returned for a short time in 1966 to coincide with the 1000 year anniversary of the official start of the order there by Richard I Duke of Normandy. Today it houses about a dozen monks and nuns of the Monastic Fraternity of Jerusalem, a Catholic group that aims at promoting monastic desert in urban environments. 

The original chapel is no longer open to visitors but it formerly held a variety of relics including the alleged skull of St. Aubert with a hole in the forehead. It has since been determined to be a neolithic skull, far too old to be Aubert. But the poor Norman monks can hardly be blamed for the mistake since there's no way they could have known about the common practice of trepanning during neolithic times. Trepanning involves drilling or carving a hole into the skull. Based on cave paintings, it appears that neolithic people used trepanning as a cure for seizures and mental disorders. But there's no way the people in the Early Middle Ages could have known that. They found an old skull with a hole in the forehead. No wonder they believed it was Aubert; it fit with the story too well. 

 I've already mentioned the amazing tides of Mont St. Michel. They are the largest in Continental Europe and considered among the most impressive worldwide. The tide is even more extreme at the Spring Equinox. I personally plan on going back to see it. It's on a Friday so I could take the day off, get there super early in the morning and enjoy the view. 

Here are some of my pictures from Mont St. Michel. For me, it's an architectural wonder and I hope you get some sense of that from the pictures. 

As we approach, at fairly low tide

Through the mist

Mont St. Michel

Looking out over the bay

The old island cemetery

The twisting stairs around town

The fortress entrance to the monastery
Looking back through the archways to the island of Tombelaine, a couple km away

The main walkway up to the cathedral

The 'new' front of the church and the steeple

The three story gigantic monastic building

Beautiful archways in the cloister

The cloister

Looking up at the Abbey