Thursday, 26 December 2019

The Gorges du Tarn - quirky

One way to head down to the South of France from the more North of France areas is to go the scenic route though the Gorges du Tarn. There are breath-taking cliffs with precariously perched houses, calm waters are ideal for discovering the joys of family canoeing, while the bubbling rapids are the source of a large number of activities: rafting, canyoning, kayaking,  to satisfy the adventurous. If you are more a heritage and culture lover like me you won’t be disappointed by the historic remains, châteaux, fortresses and churches which line the gorge.

Before we arrived there, we stopped off at the Garabit Viaduct (Viaduc de Garabit) which is a railway bridge spanning the Truvere River in the montainous and central Massif Central region. This outstanding bridge was constructed between 1882 and 1884 by Gustave Eiffel (yes, he of the Eiffel Tower fame). It was opened in 1885, and is 565 m (1,854 ft) in length and has a principal arch of 165 m (541 ft) span. It's worth a photo stop if travelling through the area.

The northern end of the classic "Gorges du Tarn" route is at the small town  of Sainte Enimie, from where it is either possible to continue up the Tarn valley as far as Florac, or turn north towards Mende, or south to the Causses and on down to the Mediterranean coast. We started at Florac. Our accommodation there was pretty awful but things improved as the trip progressed.

Canoes and kayaks can be hired at numerous points in the Tarn Gorge, especially at Sainte Enimie, La Malène, les Vignes and le Rozier. At la Malène, there are also boat trips on the Tarn river for groups of up to 8 people.

The town is very quaint. Some of it is on the flat but be prepared to walk on steep cobbles if you want to explore such small towns along the Tarn to discover their very real charm.

Cirque du Navacelles  is a geological oddity. A river eroded the bottom and left an oxbow lake which later dried up, leaving silt deposits and thus the only arable land for miles around.  It is set within a great canyon. There's a bit of a tourist centre above it.

Descend to the Cirque at your own risk. I found it really freaky and clutched the sides of the car seat the entire time we drove down and back up. This road leaves little room for error but most of the time Jean-Claude wasn't phased. Meeting a car coming the other way was, however, something that had him appreciating his own mortality.

 Roads in the area are very poorly maintained and are only wide enough for one vehicle. In order to pass the landform, a dangerous, but exhilarating, road which weaves down into the valley and clings to the sheer cliff face on the way back up must be braved.

This road is one of the most famous balcony roads in the country. A balcony road is a hair-raising lane cut into the sides of sheer cliffs. It’s a unique site in France, forming a natural amphitheatre with its tall limestone cliffs. There are residences at the bottom but they are in poor repair. The hair-raising trip down and up is NOT worth the trouble. Best viewed from way above.

So, take time to explore the central part of France on your way down to Millau or further South.

Sunday, 15 December 2019

Nîmes - a mixed bag

Nîmes is known as the French Rome and became a Roman colony sometime before 28 BC. It was a regional capital and numbered  some 50,000–60,000 inhabitants. The Visigoths finally captured the city from the Romans in 473 AD.

I've been keen to visit Nîmes for a long time but when I eventually got the opportunity I was, for the most part, disappointed. I was especially disappointed by the arena which dates from the end of the second century.

The arena is in reasonable condition but is extremely dirty on the outside, worse than the smaller arena at Arles. The thing that irked me the most was the galvanised fencing around the seating level. I found it ugly and totally detracting from the ancient monument though I realise it's for crowd control during events.

There are several levels to explore if you are moderately fit on stairs. Not quite as big as the Colosseum in Rome, it is still just as impressive with its elliptical shape and  21-metre high façade composed of two rows of 60 arches surmounted by an attic. By taking one of the five concentric, vaulted galleries and passing though a vomitorium, you can  sit in one of the 34 rows of seats that can accommodate up to 20,000 spectators.

Twice a year Nîmes hosts one of the main French bullfighting events. Not something I would want to encourage.

I thought the small exhibit on gladiators needed a lot of work and dusting for its own credibility. There's more to see at this arena than at Arles but the elegant Roman charm is missing, for me. Other sights in the city give a better indication of its classical past, before it was invaded by visigoths and muslims over the centuries.

The highlight of a visit to Nîmes is the Maison Carre, a small Roman temple dedicated to the sons of Agrippa and built around 19BC. It is certainly one of the best preserved Roman Temples. Its preservation is due to its conversion to a church in the 4th century which spared it from destruction when pagan temples were being felled elsewhere, during the early years of the Christian era.

The capitals show beautiful detailing and it's hard to appreciate they have stood for 2000 years and all the human history that has swirled around them.
Inside there is nothing to see. It is empty except for the opportunity to watch a short video about the history of Nîmes. It is worth watching it.
Les Quais de la Fontaine - the embankments of the spring that provided water for the city, the first civic gardens of France - were laid out in 1738–55. I enjoyed wandering around but seemed to have been bitten by insects which rather took the gloss off. At the end of the Quai there are the Jardins where you'll find regal balustrades, broad stairways, statues and marble vases.

When the Jardins de la Fontaine opened in 1745 it was one of Europe’s first public parks, and came about after attempts to channel the natural spring led to the discovery of a temple to Augustus and theatre.

The site is called the “Temple of Diana” although the exact purpose of the building is unknown – it was possibly a library instead. The temple suffered damage by fire in more modern times. In short, the city is worth a visit, cherry-pick the sites and move on to, perhaps, the Pont du Gard.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Chaumont sur Loire - odd mix

Chaumont has a particular place among the châteaux de la Loire. It has a long history through the centuries from around the year thousand until now. It's not one of the top 5 to be visited but should certainly be on the B list. These days it focusses on events such as outdoor art festivals to attract visitors but there's plenty to see. This year marked 500 years since the Renaissance and the Loire Châteaux were making the most of the marketing opportunities.

The château stayed in the Amboise family for 500 years. Then, in 1465, Louis  XI had it burned to the ground to punish Pierre d'Amboise who was embroiled in a revolt against the king.

Eventually Pierre got back in favour and had his land returned to him whereby he set about rebuilding. The North wing (now gone), the West wing and the tower and the first bay of the South wing were part of a defensive building campaign with rampart walks. In the next century more Italian influences were introduced with a woman's hand.

Catherine de Medici, who married King Henri II, bought the château in 1550. The estate was highly profitable at this time due to a toll on the Loire River and farming activities. Legend has it that it was at Chaumont that astrologer Ruggieri predicted the end of the Valois dynasty in France, in favour of the Bourbons, beginning with Henri IV.

Catherine demanded the return of the Château de Chenonceau (occupied by her late husband's mistress) and in return gave Diane de Poitiers Chaumont, Chaumont owes much of its current appearance to Diane though she rarely stayed there, having her own estate at Anet.

One can visit Diane's bedroom and small dressing area in a turret and they look much as they would have in her day. The travelling trunk was very detailed and the bed carvings first rate. Her initials are everywhere.

Other areas of note include the dining area with attractive tapestries and a really lovely tiled floor, original, still very much adding a quality touch; the crests included in the window panes; the stables which are still in good condition, and are probably still used; the carriage storage which was in a dreadful state of presentation (smothered in dust); and rather odd artworks scattered about the buildings and grounds.

I overheard a tour guide explaining to a group of visitors that the chateau contains a very good collection of furniture and furnishings from the 19th century, particularly the trio of armchairs designed to facilitate some very close tête-a-têtes. Apparently they are quite rare. Certainly these ground floor rooms have a very 'Victorian' feel even though this is France.

Chaumont's landscaped grounds are a fairly recent creation compared to the chateau itself. Work was carried out in 1880 in favour of vast 'English-style' leisure grounds. Owner, Prince Henri-Amedee de Broglie bought up all the village buildings located in front of the château and demolished them. He funded the rebuilding of a new village on the banks of the Loire, the church and presbytery were added. Even the cemetery was moved.

Grandiose ideas don't always come to fruition. In 1903 the Broglies had a blueprint for a model farm drawn up and work was begun which went on for 10 years but was never completed (reminds me of Louis XIV's unfinished aqueduc fiasco).

Marie-Charlotte-Constance Say was heir to the Say sugar refinieries and was the last private owner of the château from 1875-1938. She headed up one of the greatest fortunes in Europe, bought the château in 1875 and married Broglie when she was only 17 years old. The changes they made to the château welcomed Edward VII of England, Don Carlos of Portugal, various maharajas and artists/actrices including Sarah Bernhardt.

Bad speculations by a director of the sugar factories damaged the family fortune and after the death of Broglie, the princess was careless with finances, on top of the Wall Street Crash. The estate was subdivided down to only 21 hectares and in 1937 the French State took possession of Chaumont, its tapistries and historical furniture. The estate then changed from a national monument to a regional one in 2007.

There were rooms along one wing that struck me as rather odd. They were full of old 'junk' scattered about to look 'nostalgic'? It gave an ill-kempt and gloomy air. Again, dust everywhere. Further along in the wing were the institutional 19Century servants quarters, empty and totally run-down.

Visiting Chaumont gives a good view of some things and rather a jarring view of others. The upkeep must be horrendous but still... get rid of the dust. Get some local schoolkids in to help.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

27th November - the saddest of anniversaries

Most people live long enough to lose someone close. Many people lose the futures they had mapped out for themselves. You will probably relate to my struggles today.

The first time 27 November made itself particularly known to me was the day I gave birth to my first daughter, Aimée in 1989. A vigorous little girl inside me who may have been a lot like me but I will never know. She died as we were waiting in a lift to go up to the operating theatre for an emergency caesarian. I knew at that moment she was gone. It seemed a tenuous psychic link just faded away. No matter how frantically nursing staff hammered on the lift buttons or worked on her aggressively and almost heroically on the table, they had acted far too late. Too much complacency and incompetence at St George's Hospital was carefully hushed up.

We know the medical fraternity closes ranks in situations such as this, to support each other, but there was no support for Aimee and I was left with a lifetime of mourning which I push to the back of my mind most days but which I will never get over. The pain doesn't diminish with time when a child dies.

I so vividly remember being doped up on morphine and having my wheelchair wheeled into the chapel and then the burial site. I went back to that site today to pay respect to that litttle girl and I regret we never got to look into each other's eyes and really see each other, even for a moment.

The wind was very blustery, but as I left Memorial
Park the jam jar of lemon, scented Teasing Georgia roses nodded and stayed put til after I had gone.

Driving home in the car I reflected on a different 27th November. This time it was 2017.

That's the day I left France to return to New Zealand. My dream and seven years of effort up in smoke. It was another mourning where the pain also never diminishes. I had to come back principally because NZ won't let you have your superannuation retirement unless you destroy your new life and relationships to come back to be resident here - just so you then have the right to apply for retirement at age 65.

Having been a tax payer in NZ since the age of 15 I find that rule immoral but there is no getting around government rules, no matter how draconian. You can't stay overseas and apply for it, as you can in more enlightened countries.

Everyday I miss France, knowing I am not where I need to be but lacking the means to do anything about it. I thought I had been given a reprieve earlier this year, when I went back for three months, but it was smoke and mirrors and only deepened the distress I feel.

These key events in my life are the hardest deaths to manage because they aren't really manageable and it isn't helpful when folks say "Don't look back." The 27th of November is such an important part of my story and who I am that I will not be able to amputate it from my memories. Aimée and my sojourn in France remind me of who I am.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Royal Military College Thiron-Gardais - teaching the art of war.

At last, a historian who puts his money where his mouth is. One of the most popular (and my favourite) French history documentary presenters and authors is Stephane Bern. He has restored The Royal Military Collège at Thiron-Gardais, a commune in the Eure-et-Loir area.

This former 17th century collège had fallen into a bad state and the local municipality asked the State for help. The State approached Bern as he is well- known for promoting the saving of French heritage. He purchased this property in 2013 and set to work engaging artisans to restore  it with the intention of using the main building as his private property, and the military classrooms to be turned into a museum dedicated to the 11 royal and military collèges. It's a unique property which includes the gardens, the college, and Thiron Abbey which is 900 years old. Restoration took two years and considerable resources.

The aim of the collèges, founded by Louis XVI, was to educate the sons of poor noblemen, to prepare them for life and military service, so essentially they were preparatory schools before their graduates went to study further at Paris and later St Cyr. Napoléon Bonaparte went to one of the other military colleges after leaving Corsica but this one seems to have enjoyed success too, Located in the bucolic Perche countryside it was far enough away from civilised tempations to keep the students on site and focussed. Winter weather would have frozen any boy trying to opt out or have naughty trysts.

Parents had to supply quite a list of clothing and equipment for the boarders (see photo). The Revolution put an end to the college's activities. It was later sold to the State, saw several vicissitudes before being rescued by Bern. Happily, between him and the State and the commune, funds were enough to do a full restoration, including 600m2 of roof and 36,000 roof tiles aged to look, well, aged. The roof framing was done without nails or screws, using the old techniques,

The sequoia tree in the front of the property is older than 250 years. It lost 15 m height in the infamous tempest of 1999 but is still keeping on and is still impressive.

The residence is not open to the public but the museum has some interesting information and a reconstructed classroom.

I imagine Stéphane Bern would have created beautiful interiors in this residence, though it's probably not his principal one, He's certainly an expert on them. The extensive gardens are but a shadow of what they were in the middle ages but are still pleasant to stroll.

It's all a bit different to the usual tourist site and quite relaxed. There is an audioguide system but the batteries weren't reliable during our visit so we just amused ourselves as we explored the offerings.

The abbey next door is in a bad way and it's hard to see how enough money can be raised in order to save it. It has some rather interesting old wood mouldings and carvings but pretty much everything needs fixing/replacing.

As I walked over the entrance and through a very ancient door I could smell the centuries of decay. It was all rather sad and I was reminded that so many heritage sites are decaying and there's not enough money to save what is left. Many wonderful things were destroyed in the 17th and 18th centuries, while other were damaged or destroyed in world wars. This village is a wee bit off the beaten track but if you've got a car and love exploring things less touristy this could be an item to pop on your list. So bravo Monsieur Bern, for actually caring enough about the history you present to make a real, and hopefully lasting, difference.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Millau Viaduct - exceptional engineering

It is righly considered as an engineering marvel. To get the best out of this bridge you should pay a toll to cross and then take a guided tour of the bridge.

Before the bridge construction there was considerable traffic congestion and about a 2-hour drive to get from one side of the Tarn to the other by a rather circuitous route.

At a structural height of 343 m, Millau Viaduct is famous as the tallest bridge in the world. It is also renowned for its design, which was considered impossible to construct at its inception, and for being one of the greatest achievements in engineering.

Construction began in October of 2001 and took a little over 3 years - exceptionally efficient for such a large, complicated undertaking. The road deck was constructed on flat land on the north and south sides of the bridge in two large sections. Hydraulic jacks on the tops of the piers were then synchronized to move the entire deck out over the valley in small increments of about 600 mm. 

 Both sides met over the Tarn river. The only exception to this was for the two river spans where the masts and several of the stays were erected on land  before finally joining the completed bridge.

During the guided tour we saw the cable bundles and watched a demonstration of how the hydraulics worked to slide the spans into position. Very impressive, using cantilever principles. Aside from the fact it's a very necessary and practical solution to access to the area, especially Millau township, it's a beautiful construction which looks particularly ethereal when there is low cloud.

While waiting for the tour we watched some local folk dancers entertaining visitors. After the tour we spent one night in the town before heading south towards Carcassone.  You can access Millau from the Gorges du Tarn in the North or from Toulouse or Carcassone in the South.