Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Abbaye de Valsaintes, Provence, France

The Abbaye de Valsaintes was a Cistercian abbey, part of which dated from the 12th century. Cistercians were cloistered (remaining within the walls surrounding their property), and after being founded in 1098, the monastic order spread rapidly during the 1100s, partly under the influence and prestige of St Bernard of Clairvaux. The location selected for the Abbaye de Valsaintes was typically isolated in the mountains, offering inspiring views across valleys and mountains, an ideal location for men wanting to withdraw from politics and worldly influences for a very demanding life of prayer, meditation and unbelievably strict discipline.

The French Revolution essentially ended many centuries of monasticism throughout France. Monasteries and abbeys were forcefully emptied, lands confiscated by locals, buildings either fell into disuse or became barns for local farmers, most roofs disintegrated after decades of neglect, and even the once sturdy stone walls succumbed to disrepair as they endured several centuries of wear.

More recently, Serge Orlandi purchased these ruins, moved to the property with his family, living in trailors and slowly restoring the beautiful chapel and the grounds of the former abbey. He believed that this beautiful location had been important to pre-Christian religions and that markings on sandstone rocks and the positioning of cone-shaped rocks throughout the property indicated that drudic practionners had worshipped here centuries before monks arrived. He has therefore sought to establish a place for meditation (with no specific religious connections) and carefully constructed and reestablished terraced gardens for thousands of roses. Even though we visited toward the end of the season, many plants were still in their glory. This former ruin is definately worth a visit for gardening enthusiasts.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Simiane-la-rotonde, Provence, France

Following the recommendation of our friend Yves, we visited the beautiful little medieval/Renaissance hill village of Simiane-la-rotonde which is about 650 metres above sea level, at the south-western end of the Alpes de Haute Provence, close to Vaucluse. The village now has about 450 residents and is in the mountain region known for producing the type of lavender that is used in aromatherapy. The researchers at the aromatherapy laboratory at the site of the old castle emphasize that this is not the more prolific type Janice grows closer to sea level. Instead, this particular lavender must be cultivated in a more harsh climate at a higher altitude.
Views from the village were wonderful, overlooking the valley's farms and forests, neighbouring villages, winding roads, and the wide open sky.

Cucuron, Provence, France

We visited Provence for one week in spring of 2008, taking the TGV from Paris to Avignon, where we rented a car to drive to our B&B in Ansouis. Shortly after arriving our host asked whether we had enough petrol in our car, informing us that the long lineups at filling stations were the result of citizens' nervousness about the fishermens' blockading some ports and routes, prohibiting trucks from delivering petrol in parts of Provence. Our supply was fine but we decided to leave it that way for at least a day. So the next morning we walked about 5 kms along D56 from Ansouis to the nearby village of Cucuron.

Walking meant that Janice could examine each and every flower along the way, we could experience the changing smells of fields and meadows, take in scenery slowly, stop to admire hundreds of white snails clinging to posts and wire fencing, the fields of wild poppies, the Luberon's beautiful vineyards and rural homes, gingerly step into fields for a closer examination of foliage, and watch the climbing sun change the intensity of the colours all around us.

Walking also meant that I earned a hearty lunch. We were pleased to come upon an excellent small hotel restaurant, L'Arbre de Mai. The gracious host/owner gladly filled us in on local history and legends, and the meal prepared by his wife was some of the finest food I have had in France for a long time--simple but fresh ingredients, fresh bread, delightful local wine from the Cotes du Luberon, and the quiet street of the sleepy medieval village all to ourselves that warm day in late May. Afterwards, we strolled through the hill village's streets of stone houses, admiring lookout points from below the castle's dungeon and carefully tended pots of flowers.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Laon Cathedral, France (part 1)

The magnificent Laon cathedral sits authoritatively on a considerable hill which rises unexpectedly out of a plain about 130 kms northeast of Paris and about 45 kms northeast of Reims. The present structure was begun c. 1160 (after the fire of 1111, a disastrous consequence of an insurrection). The cathedral was finished in 1230, but like buildings the world over, required work throughout its history. World War I fortunately did not touch the edifice (the Cathedral of Reims, however, was devasted by bombardments).

On each of my three visits over the decades, I take a day train trip from Paris, enjoying the countryside coming and going. Arriving at the station, one immediately sees the high hill rising from the base of the town. You can ascend by car, tram, or (my preferred method) by climbing the hundreds of steps which lead directly to the medieval city's outer wall.

It is thought that six towers were planned but only four were completed, and they are indeed wonderful. I keep returning to this somewhat remote cathedral just to enjoy one more time those airy towers. I especially enjoy the whimiscle oxen high in the tower, taking in the constantly changing scenery of the stretching plains below.

The gothic structure receives its unusual interior lightness from its light stone. Even though I was visiting on an overcast day offering a uniformly bland sky, the cathedral's interior colours were invitingly warm.

These pictures focus on details more than on traditional shots depicting the sweep of the majestic architecture. I admire the large spaces enclosed by such exquisitely crafted masonry, but I also appreciate the intricacies of a finely crafted spiderweb--one transient web protected by a seemingly permanent web of limestone. There are well-worn pavement stones polished by the feet of worshippers and tourists over the centuries, the worn wooden choir stalls where monks once sat eight times daily for Offices and once more for Mass, candles lit by the faithful believers on that June 5th, and plaques of thanksgiving for prayers answered. [For more pictures, please visit: Laon Cathedral, France (part 2).]