Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Mont Saint Michel

Yes, another grey and drizzly day in the north of France. People always complain about the weather in London - but I don't think the weather in the north of France is much better! I was only ever once in London, and that was only for a day, and it happened to be a beautiful and sunny summer's day - that same year I was in Paris for four days and we only had one sunny day out of four. And then I spent two and a half months in Paris during January, February and March. A good three quarters of the days I spent there were overcast for at least part of the day, often accompanied with light drizzle, and on the rare occasion heavy rain or snow. No wonder Parisians constantly talk about summer holiday plans to l'Espagne or La Cote d'Azur - or even La Croatie. Whilst I was in Paris, there was even a huge marketing campaign run by the Croatian National Tourist Bord - metro stations were covered in images of Dubrovnik, Split, Hvar, Brac...urging people to visit the beautiful Dalmatian coast.

I had gone to Paris this year to study French at the Alliance Francaise on Le Boulevard Raspail, right near Le Jardin du Luxemburg (a beautiful garden to spend lunch with classmates). My French language skills amazingly improved during this stay, however much has been forgotten as chances to speak in Australia are unfortunately, extremely rare. Adjacent to the school was the Alliance Francaise travel agency. They offered great weekend and day trips to Alliance students at greatly discounted rates. So on a dark and freezing Saturday morning, I made my way to the Alliance for a 7am set off to Mont Saint Michel (unfortunately not Spain, the French Riviera or Croatia this time). With a coach load of people - I was surprised at the number of people the showed up for the trip - we started our 4 hour journey to the coast of Normandy.

The scenery through Normandy (a section of two departments (administrative districts in the north of France) known as Basse-Normandie and Haute-Normandie - Lower and Upper Normandy) was a sight in itself (once you got off the Motorway, that is) - all the green pastures, quaint little houses, farmers tending to their sheep and crops - it was like a scene out of a coffee table book. Perfect! A great time-out from Paris - as much as I love Paris, living in the heart of it does become tiring and claustrophobic after time.

Mont Saint Michel (the Mount of St. Michael the Archangel) is situated on an 'island', one kilometre from the coast of France, accessible only by a single narrow road in and out. The road connecting the island to the mainland has now been modernised, thus access is no longer affected by the tides. In the past however, Mont Saint Michel was inaccessible by land during high tide, which served to increase its isolation from the outside world.

The land mass on which Mont Saint Michel is build was originally a military stronghold in the 6th and 7th centuries. In the 8th century construction of the abbey began after St. Aubert's vision of St. Michael the Archangel. The site was fortified in latter centuries and when the site lost popularity as a pilgrimage site in after the Reformation and the French Revolution, the abbey was abandoned and it became a prison. Moves were made to preserve the site, so in 1874 it was declared a historic monument and in 1979 became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Above are models of the evolution of the site from the 10th century, 11th-12th century, 17th-18th century and then finally in its present 20th century state. I find it fascinating to see how Mont Saint Michel was transformed over the centuries to accommodate different purposes - from a reclusive monastery, to a military fortification, finally to a world heritage site, welcoming visitors from around the globe. [Images and historical information thanks to Wikipedia]

According to the 2006 census, Mont Saint Michel has 41 permanent residence. It's amazing to think that these people actually live on this tiny island, which cannot be more than one square kilometre in size (half a day walking around is more than long enough to see every nook and cranny of it), where time, it seems, has stood still. There are no supermarkets, no fashion stores, no cinemas, no cars, no hint of modern day civilization (even on the mainland, the nearest town is still a fair distance away) - just cobbled stone paths, a small graveyard, a church, quaint little stone houses and of course a handful of tourist-focused shops and eateries. How do the inhabitants of this little oasis live in their day-to-day lives? Mont-Saint-Michel is so isolated, highlighted by the great expanse of coastal flats which around it, no wonder it was once a monastery and a prison, as it seems to be the perfect site for either. But there is something magical, unusual and interesting about Mont Saint Michel.

Photos from my personal collection

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Le Centre Georges Pompidou

When people talk about art galleries in Paris, Le Louvre is always mentioned, followed closely by Le Musee d'Orsay. These two galleries attract millions of international tourists wanting to see Mona Lisa's smile, Gauguin's Tahitian Women, works by van Gogh, Degas, Caravaggio, Delacroix, Ingres, Renoir, Monet, Vermeer, just to name a few. However, where do you go to see celebrated modern art (art of the 20th century, post WWI) in Paris? Where can you see the works of Kandinsky, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, etc.? Hidden amoungst the Haussman-styled apartment buildings in the 4th arrondissement of Paris (Paris is broken up into 20 administrative districts know as arrondissements, each with their own mayor and council) is Le Centre Georges Pompidou. (The forecourt of the centre is also a fantastic place to see street performers of all shapes and sizes - musicians, actors, mimists, people trying to make a few extra euros by exhibiting some unusual talent of theirs). 

The exterior of the building appears to be somewhat of an eye-sore in contrast with the neighbourhood which surrounds it. In a very 'un-Parisian' manner, the original buildings on the site were demolished in the 1960s to make way for this 'hideous' structure (Paris usually has a great reputation for retaining and transforming existing structures, which as allowed to city to retain its old-world charm - the Louvre Museum was originally a royal palace and the Musee d'Orsay is a converted railway station. I also applaud the decision of the Parisian government to create a new suburb on the outskirts of Paris, known as Le Defense, to accommodate the Parisian business district, rather than demolishing existing buildings, as has occurred in many capitals around the world, to make way for corporate high-rises).  Steering away from tradition, is Le Centre Georges Pompidou. The steel frame, the glass facades, the coloured pipes and the tres moderne look of the site ensures that no passerby misses it (and has also become a topic of heated criticisms with many Parisians).

As you can see from the photos above, the view from the top floors of Le Centre Georges Pompidou is amazing. Seeing the rooftops of Paris is truly a unique experience. The colours, the textures, the design of the structures, just thinking about all those hundreds of thousands of people who inhabit this unique city. All those individuals who glance through those little windows to see life in Paris unfolding day by day.

Ok, so the main reason people go to the Centre Georges Pompidou isn't to criticised the bad town planning/architectural decisions of the then French President Georges Pompidou, nor to be bewildered by the beauty of the panoramic views, but rather to appreciate the amazing art which is on display in the light-filled, warehouse inspired, gallery spaces. The Centre hosts many temporary exhibitions throughout the year, but it's their permanent collect of Fauvist, Cubist, Expressionist, Surrealist (to name a few) works which I found absolutely amazing, especially in comparison to the collections of many of the large, state-run galleries in Sydney. Le Musee d'Arte Moderne in the 16 arrodissement - just up the road from where I was living and which I frequented regularly - also has a great collection of modern art, it is no where near as impressive, in quality and quantity, as the exhibits at the Pompidou Centre. All the big names of 20th century art are there - everywhere you turn you see art works you've read about and the closest you came to seeing them was on the pages of a poorly printed high school textbook (or a better printed and much more pricey university textbook).

As you gather, if you're an art-buff, an admirer of modern art, or a art history student seeking cultural gratification in such a culturally rich city as Paris (I put my hand up here), then Le Centre Georges Pompidou is a must on your next visit to Paris.

- The Centre is located on the opposite side of Les Halles to Le Louvre, and take one of the many metro lines which intersect at Les Halles/Chatelet and exit here.

Photographs from my personal collection

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Le cimetière du Père-Lachaise

I know this sounds macabre, but one of my favourite places in Paris is Pere-Lachaise Cemetery. The place is beautiful, in an unconventional way. The old moss covered headstones, the uneven cobbled stone paths, the life-like sculptures, the eerie has a bit of an other-worldly, magical atmosphere. I definitely recommend a visit to Pere-Lachaise - maybe after taking lunch in one of the alternative cafes in Montmartre, jump on the metro and spend an hour or two strolling though the grounds. Grap a map of the cemetery and play a game of treasure hunt - see how many of the famous tombs you can located before the autumn sun sets behind the buildings of Paris...

Le cimetière du Père-Lachaise is the resting place of a large number of French and world famous actors, politicians, artists, writers, musicians, including Balzac (one of the best loved French novelists and playwrights), Eugene Delacroix (world-renown French romantic painter, I'd say his most famous work would be La Liberté guidant le peuple), Georges Haussmann (the architect and town planner responsible for the 'modernisation' of Paris, making Paris the Paris we all know and love today), Yves Montard (the famous French actor, I especially loved him in the role of Papet in the film Jean de Florette), Jim Morrison (one of the main reasons why many visit this cemetery, to see the grave of this famous rock star and lead singer of The Doors), Nadar (one of the most talented French portrait photographers of the mid to late 19th century - many probably do not know him, but after writing an essay on French photography of the 19th century, I was eager to go and see his grave), Edith Piaf (just think La Vie en Rose), Camille Pissaro (a well-know Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist painter and advocate for the avant-garde pointillism method of representing colour), Marcel Proust (writer of the magnificent work A la recherche de temps perdu), and Oscar Wilde (author and playwright, know for the following famous works The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Windermere's Fan, etc).

Located in the 20th arrondissement, on one of the seven mounds/hills of Paris known as Champ-l'Eveque, which overlooks Paris towards the south-west (there are spectacular views of the roof-tops of Paris from the cemetery). It is located near three metro stations. Depending on where you would like to enter the cemetery - it's very large covering almost 120 acres - select your metro line and station accordingly - you can take line 2 and exit at Philippe Auguste or line 3 and exit at Pere Lachaise or at Gambetta. There is no entry fee to enter the cemetery, however if you would like a map, which is very helpful as it highlights the grave sites of about 100 famous people, you'll have to pay a few euros (even with a map it can be difficult to find certain graves as many graves almost topple over each other and although part of the cemetery is laid out in a grid formation, the remainder is a collection of interwoven paths and lanes).

The cemetery is named after Pere Francois de la Chaise, who was the confessor of King Louis XIV and who lived in the Jesuit house on the site of the cemetery chapel. The cemetery, and another two in what was then greater Paris, but now central Paris, were established by Napoleon in order to relieve the smaller cemeteries in the centre of the city. It was officially opened in 1804. Originally people considered the cemetery to be too far from the centre of Paris and thus inconvenient for funerals. In response, the state organised a marketing plan and with great pomp and ceremony transferred the remains of Moliere and La Fontaine to the cemetery, which was followed by that of other famous personalities. Since then, the people of Paris have wanted to be buried in the cemetery of Pere-Lachaise - if they were unable to be close to their idols in life, they were able to in death - and to date over 300,000 bodies have been interned on the grounds.

Photographs from my personal collection

Virtual Tour of the cemetery:

Monday, 13 June 2011


Although it may not be as grand and well-known as Le Chateau de Versailles (which I visited in 2005 and wasn't too keen to see on this trip, especially after writing a 10,000 word university essay on the chateau and its gardens - how Louis XIV, the sun king, commissioned sculptures and paintings for the chateau complex which presented him in the guise of Apollo - the Greek and Roman god of the Sun, etc, etc, - the essay 'did my head in', I over-analysed every piece of sculpture in the gardens, looking at them again, wasn't high on my agenda), Le Chateau de Fontainbleu has its own charm. And I think I like it more for its somewhat humble simplicity and elegance, as well as its lack of tourist hoards - which allows you to see the chateau without dodging people's cameras. It's proportions, its rooms and its ground are not as awe-inspiring and impressive as that of much more regal Versailles, but it is an impressive piece of architecture and example of interior and landscape design of the middle-ages, Renaissance and up until the 19th century all the same.

The town of Fontainbleu is located about 60km south-east of Paris. The easiest way to get there is by train - it's a directed 40 minute trip. Take the SNCF train from the Gare de Lyon to the Gare de Fontainbleu Avon. From the station at Fontainbleu, there are many signs directing you to the tourist office and the chateau, or simply take the bus.
Fontainbleu is a quaint little town of about 16,000 inhabitant surrounded by the forest of Fontainbleu. In contrast to the incessant noise of Paris - masses cars, buses, the metro, people, demonstrations, etc - the town of Fontainbleu is almost serene - I only saw a handful of people and a few cars & buses as I made my way from the station to the chateau - although, I think this was greatly due to the weather. It was a drizzly and overcast February day. But there was a charm to seeing the old stone buildings and cobbled paths under these weather conditions - it gave the place a somewhat interesting and perhaps even an eerie and foreboding atmosphere.

When you walk through the chateau and it's grounds, it's difficult to comprehend how much money was lavishly spent on the place, when the vast majority of the French population were either starving or dying from common illnesses and lack of sanitary living conditions. The chateau and it's decorative elements are excessive, to say the least - gold leaf detailing, fine embroidered tapestry, crystal chandeliers, velvet upholstery, parquetry, masses of french glass windows, paintings, sculptures - not to mention the shear size of the chateau - the myriad rooms and hallways never seem to end - and the entire chateau complex itself with all its courtyards and landscaped gardens.
The first reference of the chateau was made in 1137 and from that date it was the principle residence of a number of French monarchs and was visited by many foreign dignitaries. Like many other royal residences, the chateau was not originally built to completion of its present state - it is the result of a number of different building works, under a number of different patronages, with a number of different architects and artist being employed, working within a number of different aesthetic tastes.
Only a small section of the chateau complex is open to the public - including some of the royal apartments, the chapel of the Holy Trinity, the library, and the very impressive ballroom, who's proportions are overwhelming and walls are decorated with an impressive collection of paintings.

I visited Fontainbleu in the winter, so the gardens were bleak and lifeless - I can imaging that in the spring and summer they would be green, inviting and full of birds and flowers. However, there is also a beauty in seeing the bear trees, the still ponds and lush green lawns. There were a few people, who seemed to be Fontainbleu locals, all rugged-up in their jackets, beanies and boots, braving the cold and taking their dogs for a walk through the grounds, or leisurely pushing a pram along the lakes to get some fresh air from their stifling, centrally-heated homes.

Photographs from my personal collection

The French version of Wikipedia has a fantastic run-down of the history and design of the chateau, with accompanying images:âteau_de_Fontainebleau
Also, the official website of the chateau, in both French & English :