Sunday, 29 September 2013

A Pagoda in the Loire - rich man's folly

Some people have way too much money and not enough sense. Meet the Duc de Choiseuil who bought the Chateau de Chanteloup in 1761. He enlarged it considerably and added what can only be described as a 'folly'...

As you approach by foot you are surprised that you have to walk 600m down a path lined by lime trees to get to the entrance of the monument known as the Pagoda.

What is something Asian doing in the heart of the Loire Valley? Answer, because a rich man wanted to impress. The Duc was Prime Minister to Louis XV but fell out of favour in 1770 so he took himself off to Chanteloup where he received friends and illustrious guests and died in 1785. Along the way he created an extravagant estate full of water features and gardens and a luxury residence but for all his wealth and effort almost nothing remains.

Before you arrive at the Pagoda you go through gates in the chinese garden. There's a small stone building where some information and a video is available. Next you go through some rusting iron gates and walk towards a pagoda in stone which gives the impression of being on a slight lean. This monument measures 44m high and is held up by a ring of 16 columns and 16 pillars. Each story is constructed as a dome.

 The staircase is very narrow and steep. I went up to the top twice because JC didn't take a photo the first time. There's a panoramic view of the countryside but no chateau to see as it was demolished years ago.

I suffered a clear case of vertigo because the balcony is so narrow your bum touches the builidng while the railing touches your thighs. It's rather disconcerting to inch your way around the building like this. No, I refused to do a Titanic on the top.

The staircase is made of mahogany with a cast iron banister decorated with interlocking Cs. There used to be a large park and grand canal reminiscent of Versailles here but there's no sign of it. The gardens were destroyed during the French Revolution.

In 1802 the chateau was bought by Chaptal, a minster of Napoleon 1st. He was a bit of a scientist and was interested in developing the process of obtaining sugar from sugarbeet. In 1823 he let Chanteloup go and it fell into the hands of property speculators. The goods were sold and the splendid chateau was destroyed and the gardens divided.

The grounds today have been maintained by the Andre family for a century. It needs some serious renovation but each window will cost 10,000 euros, even with the French Government chipping in to help.

This rather odd monument is worth a look if you are visiting Amboise. It doesn't take long - maybe an hour, which you can fit in between visiting the chateau/palace and Clos Luce - Leonardo da Vinci's last home. More on the latter in the next blogpost.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Amboise - a seat of royal power

Is it possible to run out of French chateaux to visit? I think I'm getting close. There are small and less significant chateaux scattered around but I've visited all the others within a one day trip of home. As JC tells it, I've explored more chateaux in my short time in France than French people do in their life-times.
Consequently I recognise a lot of emblems, kings, styles of furniture and architecture. It's enjoyable for me to wallow in the historical stories, the adventures famous people had, to walk where they walked, to touch the walls they touched hundreds of years ago. I'm starting to make mental connections between one set of stories and others; same characters with different situations for example the connections between Cesare Borgia and France, Napoleon and the infernal administration that is crippling this country.

Last weekend I visited the town of Amboise and here begins a series of three posts on this interesting place.
There have been inhabitants of this areas since neolithic times and constant grappling for power by nobles and kings but the focus comes on Charles VIII, a short and rather ugly man and his wife Anne of Brittany. At this time Brittany finally became part of 'France'. The queen lived at Amboise, in the chateau and had 3 boys and a girl but all died young. Improvements were made to this royal palace. When King ferrante I of Naples,  a cruel and rather deranged person, died Charles decided to take possession of that Kingdonm of Italy by force with 30,000 men. Victories never lasted long, strife continued for many years but it did introduce Italian renaissance artists to France.

In St Hubert's chapel on the grounds which was designed for the king's use is the final resting place of Leonardo da Vinci, who died at Amboise 2nd May 1519. I took a photo of his plaque in the flooring. He was originally buried at a church in Amboise but that was destroyed. His remains were later discovered and reburied on the chateau site in the chapel. he knew the palace/chateau well and created many spectacular events there.

The chapel's decoration is intricate and in good condition since its restoration.King Charles VIII was heading towards a gallery with his Queen to watch a game of tennis but, despite being short, he hit his head on thelintel. Within hours he was dead, aged just 28 and without a male heir. he was scceeded by Louis XII who was subsequently succeeded by the great François 1st.

Though not spectacular this chateau is worth a visit. Allow a day in Amboise to see everything. I explored the guards room where the guards who defended the noblemen's floors were present, as well as the king's bodyguards usually made up of Scottish and Swiss companies but were later French Musketeers during the reign of Louis XIV and captained by d'Artagnan. D'Artagnan stayed in the chateau 4-16 December 1661 while escorting that poor deposed minister Nicolas Fouquet to Paris for his trial (see a previous blogpost 2011 on Vaux le Vicomte).

The sentries walk is an open gallery which gives great views over the River Loire, the bridge and some of the nobles and bourgois homes in Amboise.
Of special note there are a mariner's chest and a set of armour with exquisite engraving all over it.

When Charles XII died his widow was obliged to marry his successor to keep the kingdom together. This was Louis XII, her husban's brother. During the renaissance, the king spread his power progressively through the provinces and travelled with the rest of his court from place to place. It wasn't until Louis XIV created Versailles that the royal court had a permanent home. Louis's successor was Francois d'Angouleme who arrived at Amboise aged 4 and acceded the throne in 1515. More construction and decoration of the property followed.

Henri II came next, married to Catherine de Medici of Florence. His bedroom is well appointed. The chateau has quite a bit of light in it and the beautiful windows display different details. It has gone through periods of neglect but this is an historically important monument so efforts have been spent in restoring it over the years. In 1763 the chateau was bought by the Duc de Choiseul from the King but he later abandoned it in favour of is bureoning estate of Chateau de Canteloup (See next blogpost) which no longer exists. After Choiseul's death it was sold to the Duc de Penthievre (legitimate  grandson of Louis XIV).

The chateau was confiscated during the revolution, suffered a fire and then some demolitions. The Orleans-Penthievre study and chamber are a bright fuchsia red with original furniture in the Louis Phillipe style. Louis Phillipe was the head of the younger branch of the Bourbons. He espoused revolutionary ideals and exiled himself in the US while Napoleon was in charge of France.

When Charles X abdicated due to insurrections Louis Philippe was a popular choice for the throne. he reigned for only 18 years, a time known as the July Monarchy.

 This is the man who signed off on a French settlement to be established in Akaroa, New Zealand. My ancestors set out in 1840, accompanied by a French frigate to fulfil Louis Philippe's wishes. The portrait is rather flattering. He was, in fact, quite portly. He was incapable of dealing with economic and social crises and was pushed to abdicate 24th February 1848. Louis-Phillipe died in exile in England in 1850.

The republic's provisional government confiscated the chateau as a suitable residence for a State political prisoner Emir Abd al-Kader of Algeria, along with his retinue, many of whom died at Amboise and are remembered there in a cemetery in the gardens. Prince President Louis Napoleon Bonaparte gave the Emir his freedom in 1852.

The gardens are a little bit of a disappointment, in my opinion. I like gardens with flowers though I realise they are more expensive to maintain. The Naples Terrace is bordered with lime trees and has three belvederes looking out over the Loire River.During the past few years oak, box, cyprus and muscat vines have been planted. Some flowers can be found and a bird feeder, well patronised.

I was intrigued to see an ancient wisteria against a wall with a label saying it was planted around 1840. That's the same year my ancestors set sail from Rochefort for New Zealand. I enjoy coming across these little connections which help make it all a bit more 'real' for me. Next blogpost - The Pagoda of Chantaloup.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Villandry - chateau bio gardening?

Villandry, built around 1536 was the last of the great chateaux to be built along the banks of the Loire River during the Renaissance. Owner Jean le Breton, Finance Minister under Francois I, razed an old 12th century fortress, of which nothing remains today except the foundations and the keep. The latter (the heavy tower) offers wonderful views over the gardens.

Jean Le Breton's coat of arms. Villandry was built by Jean Le Breton, Minister of Finance for François I. His coat of arms can be seen on one of the lucarnes of the main courtyardJean Le Breton’s coat of arms can be seen on one of the lucarnes of the main courtyard.

It was at this chateau that Henry II of England (Henry Plantagenet) admitted defeat before the King of France, Philippe Auguste. The chateau went through various owning families and went through architectural modifications. In 1906 Joachim Carvallo, born in Spain, and his wife Ann Coleman, heir to an American iron and steel empire bought it and decided to restore it.

Leaving behind the laboratories of the Paris Faculty of Medicine where, a favourite disciple of Charles Richet (winner of the Nobel Prize in 1913), he was conducting advanced research into the physiology of digestion, Carvallo put all his energies and fortune into restoring  Villandry to its former glory. With the help of a team of 100 stonemasons, he gave the chateau’s façades back their Renaissance beauty.

He consulted various texts on how the gardens had been originally designed. This chateau is a contemporary of the magnificent Azay-le-Rideau but Italian influences and medieval vestiges have disappeared leaving a simpler, more French style. It is built in harmony with nature and there are three levels in the gardens.. Each year two planting schemes are devised and forty species are used each year in the vege garden. Each winter the 1015 lime trees take four gardeners three months to prune. 115,000 flowers and vegetables are planted out each year with 50% being prepared in the chateau greenhouses

The dining room was redesigned in the 18th century style with Louis XV panelling replacing tapestries and parquet replacing marble flooring. In 1934 this room was listed as a historic monument.

The first floor bedrooms have been renovated. One bedroom was that of Prince Jerome, Napoleon's youngest brother who owned Villandry for several years during the Empire period. He didn't spend much time there and as he was more interested in other areas of Europe he sold it.

Carvallo and his wife were passionate collectors of old paintings and one of their reasons for buying the chateau was to have somewhere to display them. The collection was broken up by inheritance but there are still many fine paintings to look at. Most of them relate to the Spanish realist school and are religious works.

There are two children's bedrooms with great views over the gardens, light and airy with a few toys and books on display.

We were in for a surprise in one room. It was almost empty except for an amazing ceiling. It's a Moorish design and came from the Maqueda ducal palace, built in the 15th century in Toledo. When the palace was dismantled in 1905 Joachim Carvallo bought one of the ceilings. It took a full year to reassemble the 3,600 separate pieces.

The chateau itself is not that extraordinary, even allowing for the history and some furniture as you can find more impressive examples along the Loire, but Villandry is known for its gardens.

There are several styles of gardens, most of which are very formal. I especially enjoyed the beautifully laid out vegetable gardens. Somehow the gardeners manage to keep it active and interesting most of the year round. The little wooden alcoves covered in climbers are handy when the sun beats down. I spent a few moments in one just soaking in the coolness and the atmosphere of this place.

Four ornamental gardens display Tender Love (with its hearts), Passionate Love (hearts in a farandole), Fickle Love (four fans and horns of jilted love) and Tragic Love (blades of daggers and swords) picked out in buxus and seasonal flowers.  There's a canal, gardens in the shape of a Maltese Cross, fleurs de lys and even evocative of music notes.There's a maze though it's not the sort where you can get lost.

Other information on the gardens includes:
  • The water garden at the far south of the gardens is a classic creation based around a pool representing a Louis XV mirror and surrounded by a botanical cloister of linden trees.
  • The maze planted with arbours, where the goal is to find spiritual awakening as you make your way to the central platform.
  • The garden of simples, consisting of aromatic and medicinal plants, traditional in the Middle Ages.
  • The Renaissance vegetable garden. It is composed of nine equally-sized squares but inside of which the geometric patterns are all different.

We walked the length of the grape-covered walkway between the vegetable gardens and the herb/medicinal gardens. Its cool shade was just the thing on a hot day .

Since 2009 the gardeners have changed their modern growing methods for organic ones, digging and hoeing rather than using chemicals.Some of the weeding of paths is done by a special machine that burns the weeds, thus avoiding the use of herbicides.

Crops are rotated every three years to avoid impoverishing the soil. Partner insects have been introduced to control pests. There's even a chateau cat who seems to benefit from titbits from tourists and perhaps hunting pests. These new techniques are a little more expensive than the old non-bio ones but the results have been worth it as the heath of the gardens improves.


Thursday, 5 September 2013

Venice - a pearl

Venice is as lovely as most people imagine. It's like no other city for its layout, geography, monuments and the shopping is interesting. There's quality and cheap nonsense. We had one day's guided tour and half a day's independence there. It wasn't long enough. Of all the cities we visited, this would be my favourite, though Florence was also great to explore. I hope you'll enjoy reading this extended blogpost on this city.

The Republic of Venice was a major maritime power during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and a launching pad for the Crusades, as well as a very important centre of commerce and art in the 13th century until the end of the 17th century. This made Venice wealthy throughout most of its history. Venice is the birthplace of Antonio Vivaldi. It lost it's independence as a republic when Napoleon Bonaparte conquered it on 12 May 1797. While he was there he removed a lot of precious art and sent it back to France so in some buildings what you see are sometimes copies of originals.
 Venice had a governmental structure different to the other areas of Italy as it was similar to the republican system of ancient Rome, with an elected (for life) chief executive (the Doge), a senate-like assembly of nobles, and a mass of citizens with limited political power. Politics and Law were not separate entities but politics and the military were, except when the Doge personally headed the military. War was used effectively as a means of continuing commerce.

Its location meant that there were byzantine architectural influences and war with the ottoman empire was always on the cards. The main square is San Marco (St Mark's) and there you'll find the basilica and near that the Doge's palace.

Venice's geographical situation meant that it was relatively easy to defend due to the presence of the lagoon which only locals knew how to safely navigate. Safe lanes were usually marked out, as today, with posts and if under attack the locals would simply remove the posts and watch the enemy ground and sink itself. You can see that Venice is not an ancient fortified town, for this reason, since it's a collection of 118 connected islands.

The buildings of Venice are constructed on closely spaced wooden piles. Most of these piles are still intact after centuries of submersion. The foundations rest on the piles, and buildings of brick or stone sit above these footings. The piles penetrate a softer layer of sand and mud until they reach a very hard layer of compressed clay.

When submerged by water, in oxygen-poor conditions, wood does not rot as rapidly as on the surface. Most of these piles were made from trunks of alder trees, noted for water resistance.
During the 20th century, when many artesian wells were sunk into the periphery of the lagoon to draw water for local industry, Venice began to subside. It was realised that extraction of water from the acquifer was the cause. The sinking has slowed considerably since artesian wells were banned in the 1960s. However, the city is still threatened by more frequent low-level floods.

Some recent studies have suggested that the city is no longer sinking but this is not yet certain so in May 2003, the Italian Prime Minister inaugurated the MOSE project (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico), an experimental model for evaluating the performance of hollow floatable gates; the idea is to attach 78 hollow pontoons to the sea bed across the three entrances to the lagoon. When tides are predicted to rise above 110 centimetres, the pontoons will be filled with air, making them block incoming water from the Adriatic Sea. This engineering work is due for completion by 2014.

Venice has many iconic symbols which include the gondolas (mostly used for tourists), the Grand Canal, carnival masks and glassware. I love to just wander and potter and see what happens so I stumbled upon a workshop of one of the venetian mask-makers. He spoke little English so I couldn't get an explanation of the process. The best ones are made from paper mache and the tourist ones are plastic. The quality ones are super-expensive and probably not easy to take back in a suitcase. The cheap ones are everywhere. It's fun to look at the masks in the shops and high-end galleries.

Venice has no cars. This takes a while to sink in (so to speak) as there are no roads. Everything is ferried by boat. You travel via water taxi or Vaporetto- the scheduled water 'bus' on the Grand Canal. You can see an example in the accompanying photo of peak-hour traffic on one of the side canals. A few days before our arrival a German tourist was killed when he jumped into the water to rescue his young daughter but was crushed between a vaporetto and a gondola.

At a fork in one of the side canals I saw what is reputed to be the rose-coloured house of Casanova (see photo). We all know Casanova was a ladies man. He was thrown in prison beside the Doge's Palace and eventually escaped. He wrote about his escapades in a book but it's widely believed that his account of the escape was fiction and that it is more probable he bribed the guards to look the other way. Both Casanova and Marco Polo are two of the reknowned Venetian adventurers and writers.

The Doge's Palace is a must see. It contains exquisite rooms including the audience waiting rooms designed to impress and humble visitors. You can't take photos inside. There is a direct passageway to the old prisons on the other side of the side canal so justice could be quickly implemented. The prisons on the top floor 'cooked' prisoners and the prisons on the bottom were dank and created illnesses. We visited some of the cells.

Basilica di San Marco doesn't allow photos inside and queues are enormous if you haven't pre-booked. So get organised online and it should be worth a visit. The square is picturesque and full of pigeons and expensive shops. It's a key meeting point and point of reference for setting off to explore further afield, such as the main Rialto  bridge across the Grand Canal. Allow 20 minutes to find your way there through the crowds.

Gondolas are everywhere. They have velvet-covered seats and in some cases a trio of musicians may be on board to serenade you. I'd have loved to have had a gondola ride and mentioned this to JC but he just said they are  expensive (50-100 euros for 30 mins). That was the end of that because I couldn't afford to pay myself. I'd definitely do it if I came back to Venice but don't haggle too hard or you'll find  key sites missing off your itinerary.

 Murano and Burano (Glass and lace) are two islands off the coast of Venice proper. One of the most renowned types of Venetian glass is made Murano and has been for centuries. Located off the shore of Venice, Murano was a commercial port as far back as the 7th century. By the 10th century it had become a well-known city of trade. Today Murano remains a destination for tourists and art and jewellery lovers alike.

We visited a factory on Murano and watched a glass-blower demonstrating his trade. Prices were too high to buy here. It's better to buy items in Venice. Prices range to cover all budgets.
The other island we visited was Burano and its lace-making.  Lace was exported all over Europe but is in a serious decline as it's only old ladies who make it now and it's super expensive due to being so labour intensive. Some doilies would have been nice to buy but I let them stay there.

Burano is also known for its small, brightly painted houses, popular with artists. The colours of the houses follow a specific system; if someone wishes to paint their home, they must send a request to the government, who will respond by advising of the colours permitted for that sector. If you've got time and money visit these islands,otherwise save both and skip them, they are not essential.

With all the twists and turns it's easy to get lost in Venice. Get a decent map and ask shopkeepers at every second turn. Signposts are frequently confusing. It's generally a safe city but beware of pick pockets.

 I was very surprised to see a shop called Auckland New Zealand. I don't know if it had any products from NZ or not because it was closed for the evening but it was rather odd to see any reference to my former country in Venice. The fernleaf sign was not traditional so it may simply have been an exotic brand with no reference to NZ at all such as a shop in Nice called Maori. That sort of thing annoys me.

Access to Venice is expensive, whether its via water taxi etc from the Marco Polo airport on the mainland, or car parking on the mainland or a tour bus trying to park temporarily to let off its passengers, you'll pay an arm and a leg. There's a bridge for buses, no cars. Most visitors must ravel over water, obviously.

I loved this city and hope you enjoyed this lengthy post and photos.

This marks the end of my blogposts on my trip to Italy in August 2013. The blog continues with chronicles of my unpredictable daily life in France.