Category Archives: France

If It’s Friday, This Must be Fontainebleau

I’m continuing a brief rundown of my 9-day chateau blitz in France, with individual posts to come! Above is Chateau de Chambord, which I think of as The Really Big One With the Spiky Roof.

Francois I built Chambord starting in 1519 and naturally stuck his emblem, the flame-spouting salamander, all over the place. It’s a little short on charm but long on history and the Wow Factor.

Chateau de Langeais is a restored medieval chateau/fortress in a delightful town.

Langeais is most famous as the site of a secret wedding that changed French history: Anne of Brittany married King Charles III, uniting her coveted vast lands with the French crown. And she agreed in writing to marry his successor if Charles died (which he did). A dramatic tableau in the actual wedding hall (with narration every 15 minutes, in English once every hour) explains the characters and why this wedding was a very big deal.

Chateau de Villandry is most famous for its gardens, but the chateau has fine art, too. That’s a bust of Francois I in his armor above.

Chateau de Chaumont was the consolation prize given to Diane de Poitiers after Catherine de Medici kicked her out of the sublime Chenonceau. (See previous post, “Diane de Poitiers vs. Catherine de Medici). Diane hardly stayed at Chaumont, but shrewdly developed and farmed the estate to her great profit.

Later, Chaumont became a regular haunt of nobles and artists like Marcel Proust.

Today, Chaumont has fantastic gardens and art installations. When I visited, the chapel was filled with branches, flowers and beautiful found objects.

Chateau d’Amboise towers over the lively town of Amboise, right on the River Loire. Francois I brought Leonardo da Vinci here from Italy, to keep him company during the last 3 years of Leonardo’s life.

Leonardo died in 1519 at the mansion Francois I gave him, Clos Luce, just up the street from the chateau. He was buried on the chateau grounds.

Chateau de Gaillard, down a side street near Clos Luce, is really more of a mansion. But it was the home of the master gardener Charles III brought from Italy to do up his chateau grounds.

Dom Pacello was a monk with a serious green thumb. Among other great ideas, he brought orange trees to France. After Charles III died, Dom Pacello served his successors, Louis XII and Francois “The Builder” I. Today, the family renovating the estate is cultivating many of the 60 varieties of citruses grown by the gardener monk.

Vaux-le-Vicomte was the place that inspired Louis XIV, the Sun King, to go all out in building the Palace of Versailles.

Well, truth be told, it was more appropriation than inspiration. Louis was furious that his Lord High Treasurer, Nicolas Fouquet, had nicer digs than anything the King had at the time. So after a particularly grand blowout party in which Nicolas pulled out all the stops to amuse Louis, Louis turned around and had him arrested and imprisoned for life (overruling the court that failed to convict him). Then Louis made off with the great architect Louis le Vau, the painter and designer Charles le Brun, and the landscaper Andre le Notre, along with all the furniture. He even dug up the bushes.

Nearby Fontainebleau has been the home of French kings for centuries. There’s always renovation going on. But I really could not see the point of a short section of ugly fence right in front of the famous double staircase where Napoleon Bonaparte spoke to his troops after he was forced to abdicate. I think the fence was put there just to discourage selfies.

Napoleon especially liked Fontainebleau. There’s an absorbing series of rooms about him on display right now. Is that one of Napoleon’s outfits above? No. It’s just how he dressed one of his more important servants. The Emperor had style, for sure.

My very least favorite sight on this trip was the Fontevraud-l’Abbaye, where nobles and royalty once retreated to the monastic life. I saw it years ago, and expected it to be more developed for visitors now. It is, but not in a good way, at least for me.

The whole site was a fearsome prison for 150 years, only closed in 1963. The cavernous spaces were filled with prison cells for all that time.

Prisoners did forced labor in complete silence and were subject to terrible abuse. Life expectancy was 8 months. A series of exhibits in the cloister claims all kinds of similarities between prison life and monastic life. I don’t see it. Monastic life was usually (of course not always) a free choice of nuns and monks, and it was based on prayer and contemplation, not subjugation and punishment. I found the exhibit offensive and felt like the place was haunted by the thousands of prisoners who suffered and died there.

It’s true that Eleanor of Aquitaine spent her last days at Fontevraud-l’Abbaye, when it was a very pleasant place, and died there in 1204. Her effigy lies with those of her husband, King Henry II of England, her son, Richard the Lionheart, and Isabella of Angouleme, wife of King John of England. But the monastery was dismantled during the Revolution, and these may not be the actual resting places. Anyway, the space is cold, empty, and unconsecrated.

More serious fans of architecture could spend hours studying the Romanesque abbey, but I probably would not go back.

Kings, queens, nobles and assorted favorites acquired serious real estate over the centuries. Every chateau and abbey and church is one-of-a-kind, like the people who built and lived and worshipped in them. The ones I visited on this trip are just the most famous ones.

I’d like to take another whole trip going to lesser-known and farther-afield chateaux, and also to the churches I didn’t have time for. But I would always carve out a morning to gaze out the leaded-glass windows of beautiful, magical, sublime Chenonceau, draped like a necklace across the River Cher. The kitchens at Chenonceau are even beautiful, and they have that river view.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

If It’s Tuesday, That Must Be Talleyrand

Or, Why You Might Not Want to Travel With Me. I’m nearing the end of a 9-day trip to France, and for sure I know I married the right guy all those years ago. He cheerfully drives anywhere, this time from Charles de Gaulle Airport to the Loire Valley and back, with at least two or three stops at sights every day. If you don’t like a slightly hectic travel pace, you might not want to tag along with us.

We based ourselves in tiny Chenonceaux, pretty central for the Loire Valley. (The town’s name ends with an X but the chateau’s name is Chenonceau).

And Chenonceau has the most beautiful and fascinating chateau anywhere, if you ask me. Plus Chenonceau always smells wonderful. Every single room always has fresh flowers, as no doubt they did in the days that Diane de Poitiers and later Catherine de Medici gazed out the leaded-glass windows at the River Cher.

Thanks to the wonders of our Garmin GPS to find places, and my trusty iPhone cellular data to double-check opening times, we covered a lot of ground on this trip. Also, we were seeing some of these places for the second or even the third time. (For us, history never gets old. It just gets more interesting).

Here are a few of my other favorite things from this trip:

Claude Monet’s Gardens and Home in Giverny.

Chateau Azay-le-Rideau: a jewel of a Renaissance castle, recently renovated and sparkling on its own pretty little island.

Chateau de Cheverny: owned by the same family for hundreds of years, plus they have about one hundred happy hunting dogs.

Chartres Cathedral, one of the greatest medieval pilgrimage sites, always spectacular (even though I don’t understand why the interior was recently whitewashed. I have mixed feelings about the very controversial recent “renovation”). I really love the mismatched towers, pretty unique in cathedrals. What were the builders thinking, as the second tower went up? Who gave them permission? Well, it works for me.

Chateau de Blois, layers of history plus a generous serving of murder and mayhem.

Talleyrand? He was the right-hand diplomat of Napoleon Bonaparte, among many other things in his gleefully scandalous life. He pretty much did as he pleased and had a wonderful time. His Chateau de Valencay is lovely in a faded-elegance way, and very entertaining.

Just above, the fairy-tale towers and turrets of Chateau d’Usse.

I have lots more just to list, but I still have a couple of days to see as much as possible. Time to plan what else to see. I’ll finish my trip list later. Naturally, I took a ton of photos and picked up a ton of guidebooks. I’ll post much more about each of these sights and all the rest after I catch my breath. To be continued!

Monet’s Garden in Giverny

Claude Monet was not always the rich and famous inventor of “Impressionism.” In fact, “Impressionism” was not always a revered art movement, or a way to sell countless silk scarves and coffee mugs. In 1872, the 32-year-old artist exhibited a painting titled “Impression, soleil levant” (Impression, rising sun”) which was ridiculed for being a mere Impression, not a real painting. But he persevered.

In 1876 Monet’s young wife Camille became ill with tuberculosis, common in those days. She was weakened further after giving birth to two children. She died at age 32 in 1879, apparently from uterine cancer on top of everything else. She never saw the gardens at Giverny; they did not exist in her lifetime.

In 1876, Monet and Camille had been invited to the chateau of businessman/collector Ernest Hoschedé, where they met Edouard Manet and other artists. His wife, Alice, became a good friend to the young couple. Then disaster struck. Hoschedé went bankrupt, abandoned his family, and fled to Belgium in 1877. Alice began caring for Monet’s two children, along with her own six children. She and Claude decided to join forces and bring up their children together. Neither of them had much money, and there were years of hardship.

They were finally able to marry in 1892, once Alice’s estranged husband died.

After all their troubles, it seems they happily raised their large family and grew old together. In their house, I loved this photo of the two of them feeding pigeons in St. Mark’s Square in Venice.

But during their years of poverty and somewhat scandalous living arrangements, the couple lived in rented houses which Monet hated. In 1883, he caught a glimpse of Giverny from a train window. He rented the existing house and began cultivating a garden.

His painting career was taking off during these years. Soon he was able to buy the house. He and Alice entertained all the important artists and writers of their time. Today, reproductions of the paintings of Monet and his friends are informally displayed on shelves, as the originals were in his lifetime.

Monet added various rooms to the house. His own sunny corner bedroom featured some of his favorite paintings, now replaced by reproductions.

He especially liked Renoir’s serenely sunbathing lady. So do I.

I imagine there must have been a kitchen garden in Monet’s time. The blue-and-white-tiled kitchen was large and equipped to serve a big family and plenty of guests.

If I could choose one time and place to time-travel to dinner, it might be to the cheerful yellow dining room at Giverny.

As in Monet’s time, the house is full of the Japanese prints that he and so many other artists had begun to collect. Japanese art, which had only recently become widely available outside Japan, strongly influenced all the artists of the time.

As his garden grew and thrived, Monet always had something beautiful to paint close at hand.

Above is a detail from “The Garden at Giverny,” 1900, now in the Orsay Museum in Paris.

Eventually Monet was able to buy adjoining property with a stream. He created his famous lily pond with its Japanese bridge.

Alice died in 1911. Monet lived and painted his beloved garden right up until his death in 1926, at the age of 86.

Is Monet’s home crowded and touristy? Oh, yes. I’ve seen it several times over the years, and the crowds get worse every year. The gardens are large enough to absorb quite a few people, but the house must get unbearably packed. I think the house should have timed entries.

On a weekday morning in late April, I arrived early and there were plenty of people. By the time I left at noon, the line to get in stretched at least a full city block. If I encountered a line like this, I would leave for awhile and come back in late afternoon. The light would be better anyway, and the tour buses would have left.

Still, there’s magic to be found in Monet’s gardens, in any season. I’d cheerfully go again tomorrow–but I’d arrive even earlier.

Paris, November 13

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Watching the terrible events unfold in Paris, there are almost no words.

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When will people be able to walk those beautiful streets and cross those beautiful bridges again without fear of violence?

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There are just thoughts and prayers for the city and its people.

Gustave Caillebotte

Self Portrait, Gustave Caillebotte, circa 1892, Public Domain

Self Portrait, Gustave Caillebotte, circa 1892, Public Domain

Maybe it is really best for an artist to be poor, at least at the beginning of a promising career.  It seems to me that inherited riches stopped the artistic career of a potentially great French painter, Gustave Caillebotte.

Caillebotte, 1848-1894, was born to an upper-class Parisian family; most of their large fortune came from textiles used for military uniforms. I can almost hear the family arguments that resulted in Caillebotte going to law school.  He was licensed as a lawyer in 1870 and was also trained as an engineer. (“Painting will never get you anywhere, son. Besides, why don’t you just run the family business? We need you.” This is all speculation on my part, of course). Anyway, Caillebotte was drafted to fight in the Franco-Prussian War for almost a year, 1870-1871.

He returned home safely, but rather than working in the family business or practicing law, he began serious study of art at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts. I’d speculate that after seeing the horrors of war, he was determined to spend the rest of his life doing exactly what he wanted to do.  And being the heir to a very wealthy family gave him the means.

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Last year while in Paris I made a trek by train about 12 miles south of the city to the country mansion of the Caillebotte family in the posh suburb of Yerres. There was a special exhibit of the artist’s work.  The champions of his work billed Yerres as “Caillebotte’s Giverny”–the tourist magnet that is the beautiful home and garden of Claude Monet. That was wishful thinking, at least for now. I doubt that Yerres will ever have the hordes of tourists that descent daily on Giverny.  But that is not a bad thing. No photos were allowed inside the exhibit; that was just as well, because it was easy to give each wonderful painting the close attention it deserved.

Caillebotte painted in a much more realistic style than many of his Impressionist friends, and often from unusual perspectives.

The Yerres, Effect of Rain, Gustave Caillebotte, 1875, GNU Free Documentation License

The Yerres, Effect of Rain, Gustave Caillebotte, 1875, GNU Free Documentation License

The property was much larger when the family occupied it.  But the house and grounds are still beautiful, and beautifully placed on the banks of the River Yerre. I especially loved the virtuoso painting above, depicting a moment of time as rain falls on the still surface of the river.  I loved the play of light and shadow. It was on loan from the Indiana University Art Museum in Bloomington.

Les Perissoires, Gustave Caillebotte, 1878, Public Domain

Les Perissoires, Gustave Caillebotte, 1878, Public Domain

The exhibit had many other water scenes, like this one with its unusual vantage point just behind a pair of men paddling canoes on the river. It was on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts in Rennes.

Gustave Caillebotte,

Gustave Caillebotte, “A Boating Party,” 1877-78, private collection

I stood for a long time in front of this painting of a gentleman rowing in a top hat and bow tie, and bought a large postcard of it. If I could carve out the time, I would travel to Washington, D.C. just to see this one painting again. The image above is from the website article from the National Gallery exhibit, cited below. What if the moments of our lives could be captured in a few thoughtful paintings, rather than a never-ending stream of selfies and forgotten party snapshots?

Young Man at a Window, Gustave Caillebotte,1875, Public Domain

Young Man at a Window, Gustave Caillebotte,1875, Public Domain

From his family’s Paris city home, Caillebotte also found unusual perspectives. The painting above shows Caillebotte’s younger brother looking out over the street from the Paris family home. The painting is from a private collection.

The Floor Scrapers, Gustave Caillebotte, 1875, Public Domain, Musee d'Orsay

The Floor Scrapers, Gustave Caillebotte, 1875, Public Domain, Musee d’Orsay

Caillebotte’s most famous painting, The Floor Scrapers, was controversial in his day. This masterpiece was actually rejected by the Salon of 1875. But the Impressionists loved it, and it appeared in their second Impressionist exhibit, where people stood in front of it and argued. Why? There was already a time-honored tradition of painting peasants at work in the countryside, but almost no one had honored urban laborers by painting them. The scene is believed to show a moment of refurbishment of the artist’s own studio in Paris. I love the play of soft light from the open window, the delicate curls of the planed wood, and the sweating shirtless laborers.  Did Caillebotte gain an appreciation of the work of ordinary people during his wartime service?

Sadly, Caillebotte mostly stopped painting at age 34; he was more interested in photography.  The exhibit I saw had a number of his photos, but in my mind they paled beside his paintings.  I wish he had stayed with his brushes and canvases.

For many years, Caillebotte was neglected as an artist and more well known as a patron of other artists, notably his Impressionist friends Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet and Camille Pisarro.  He bought their canvases, funded and curated their exhibits, and sometimes paid their rent.

Did Caillebotte believe he had reached the limit of his abilities and it was better to be a patron of more talented artists? Or was painting just too much hard work? He had the means to do anything he wanted to do.  What he wanted was to hobnob with artists, grow orchids, build yachts, collect stamps, and generally enjoy himself.  Who can blame him? And yet I wish he’d had a bit more of a work ethic.

Caillebotte died while gardening in 1894, aged only 45. He owned a collection of over 70 mostly Impressionist paintings, which he bequeathed to the French state on his death.  They formed the core of the state’s Impressionist collection.  Modestly, he only included two of his own paintings in the bequest.  The rest remained mostly with his family, since he had no need for money and rarely sold a painting.

Gustave Caillebotte,

Gustave Caillebotte, “Paris Street, Rainy Day,” 1877, Public Domain, Art Institute of Chicago

Some of these paintings are part of an exhibit, Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye, running through October at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.  The website is at http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/exhibitions/2015/gustave-caillebotte.html

Affordable Europe: Hotel la Roseraie in Chenonceaux

 

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The town of Chenonceaux has, somewhat confusingly, a spectacular chateau called Chenonceau–without the X. Many people consider Chenonceau the most beautiful chateau in the Loire Valley.  It’s certainly the most unique:  it is actually built on a bridge that crosses the river.  It’s understandably popular. The thing to do is to stay in the little village of Chenonceaux so as to arrive early. The town makes a perfect base for driving around the Loire Valley.

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I generally avoid hotels recommended in Rick Steves guidebooks. They’re nice, but occupied by large numbers of Americans.  I would rather be rubbing elbows with Europeans when I travel to Europe, even if I can’t understand much of what they’re saying.  But Rick-recommended Hotel la Roseraie is a winner.  It’s a small hotel, with only 17 rooms.  It’s not the fanciest hotel in town, but it’s surely the friendliest.

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Rooms are warmly decorated. Ours had walls that had been laboriously covered with the very same sprigged fabric that made up the curtains. Dated? I prefer the term “faded elegance.”

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The bathroom was totally up-to-date, though; it would pass muster any day on HGTV.

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The owners, Sabine and Jerome, welcome returning guests as family.  Guests do return again and again to enjoy the leafy terrace and flower gardens.

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There’s a charming little restaurant which needs to be booked because it’s popular even with people not staying in the hotel.  I don’t like the feeling of being obligated to eat in a hotel’s restaurant, but this was a delightful experience.  It was traditional but not too formal, the food was fresh and delicious, and no one looked askance at my admittedly fussy vegetarian requirements.

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Just outside town, there are Roman ruins.  Julius Caesar is known to have actually slept there–or so the locals say. When I was there, the ruins were partially covered with plastic.  Maybe next time, there’ll be a little visitor center.

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The village, like all French villages, has a top-class bakery.  One of those strawberry tarts is waiting for me!

 

Diane de Poitiers vs. Catherine de Medici

Diane de Poitiers, unknown artist, Public Domain

Diane de Poitiers, unknown artist, Public Domain

When Diane de Poitiers arrived at Chenonceau in 1547, things were going her way. At around age 35, she was already a widow left wealthy when her much older husband conveniently died and left her a fortune. She moved easily in court circles and soon became the mistress of the 16-year-old King Henri II, who gave her Chenonceau as a residence.  Diane loved Chenonceau. She was the undisputed occupant, but it took her a number of years to persuade the King to give it to her outright. In the meantime, she called in the best architects and builders. Money was no problem. First off, she greatly expanded the beautiful pleasure gardens.

Photo by Luke van Grieben, 2006, Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0

Photo by Luke van Grieben, 2006, Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0

The gardens were just gardens like many others, but Diane had a truly brilliant idea: she expanded her living space by building an arched bridge, with rooms, that crossed the River Cher. Later additions, some by Diane and some by others, expanded on that idea and created the chateau we see today.

Henri II, after Francois Clouet, Public Domain

Henri II, after Francois Clouet, Public Domain

I think Henri looks very suave in this portrait. Where have I seen that sly, knowing look?  Of course!

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The very worldly James Bond, played by Sean Connery, had the same expression. Just saying. Anyway, Henri certainly knew what he liked, and as King he had the wherewithal to get it. Diane de Poitiers was famous as one of the most beautiful and accomplished women of her age, and the King depended on her advice throughout his life. She had rivals; naturally the King took other mistresses, but she was his closest and most trusted companion throughout his life.  She became the most powerful woman in France.

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This did not sit well with Catherine de Medici, Henri’s wife and the mother of his three sons who became subsequent kings. (She also had several daughters). The stern portrait above was painted when Catherine was still a comparatively young wife. Once she became a widow, she draped herself in black at all times and looked even more forbidding. I would not care to tangle with her.

Lady in Bath, Diane de Poitiers, Francois Clouet, c. 1555, Public Domain

Lady in Bath, Diane de Poitiers, Francois Clouet, c. 1555, Public Domain

Henri lavished favors and property on Diane de Poitiers.  She was clearly quite the babe, as well as being smart and witty. She retained her beauty all through her long life, too.

During his lifetime, Henri expected his dutiful wife Catherine to stay at home and keep quiet. She really had no choice while he was alive. But things changed suddenly.

Desmond Llewelyn as

Desmond Llewelyn as “Q,” 1983, Towpilot, Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike

Since I’ve brought up James Bond, I can’t resist:  what Henri needed was a guy like “Q,” who in the movies patiently explained weapons and prudent tactics to an impatient James Bond. Maybe nobody like “Q” had Henri’s back. In 1559, when he was just 40, poor Henri got knocked in the head in a jousting accident.  His wound became infected and he died 10 days later. His heir the Dauphin was a sickly young son, age 15. The Dauphin was already married to Mary Queen of Scots. But he died 18 months later and Mary Queen of Scots was sent back to Scotland, never becoming Mary Queen of France. The two remaining sons were not good King material, but they were all that Catherine as Regent had to work with. Of course she was not allowed to become Queen in her own right. It was quite an accomplishment to even keep her sons on the throne.

Things went from bad to worse. France was torn apart by civil and religious struggle all through Catherine’s life.  Although she made valiant efforts to govern the country, she made a lot of mistakes and her weak sons were not much help. The French Wars of Religion continued, causing massive carnage as Protestants and Catholics fought each other bitterly.

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Catherine’s life was not easy.  But there was great consolation in one thing: once Henri was in the ground, she lost no time in booting her chief rival, Diane de Poitiers, out of Chenonceau. Catherine took over the place, made extensive additions, threw spectacular parties, and relished her time there. Who wouldn’t?

Chaumont

Chaumont

As a consolation prize, Catherine grudgingly gave Diane another chateau, Chaumont. It’s a very nice place–I’d cheerfully live there. But it’s high above a river, not draped like an exquisite necklace right across a river. Diane had plenty of other properties, too.  She lived in comfort for the rest of her life. But she must have missed her glory days at Chenonceau.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!