Tag Archives: France

Open the floodgates! Rouen’s museums are open!

May 23, 2021

Natasha and I have lived in France for almost five full months, and yet today was our first chance to visit museums; they were only allowed to reopen on May 19th. We decided we would prioritize the Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Antiquities. The first was a logical choice because Rouen has a distinguished history for Impressionism, in particular. The latter relates to its standing as a city since Roman times!

All that remains of the Chateau de Rouen is the restored Grosse Tour (T1 in the schematic) and the foundations of T9. The maquette image is from the Jeanne d’Arc Museum in Rouen, and the schematic originally comes from a book by Pitte and Gauthiez.

Our first move, however, was to walk to the north of the museum area to see the “Donjon of Rouen,” a massive tower near what was once a massive wall surrounding the medieval city. We were grateful that the road rose gently to the top of a hill. The tower, sometimes tied to the Joan of Arc story, is all that remains of the massive Chateau de Rouen, constructed by King Philippe-Auguste in 1205. It might seem obvious to people today that Normandy is part of France, but this was actually quite controversial during medieval times. Here’s a brief timeline for the city:

A miniature of Rouen in 1525 from the south side of the Seine by Théodore de Jolimont
  • Before Common Era: The Veliocasses found this city near the mouth of the Seine.
  • 58-50 BCE: Julius Caesar wins Gallia Lugdunensis in battle, with Rotomagus (Rouen) being its second city.
  • 486 Common Era: Clovis I of the Franks destroys the “rump state” remaining from the Romans. Rouen becomes a major city of Merovingian Neustria.
  • 912 CE: The Franks cede Normandy to Viking leader Rollo for the promise he would keep other Vikings away, and he makes his capital at Rouen.
  • 1204 CE: King Philippe-Augustus of France reasserts his power over Normandy after the descendants of Rollo become preoccupied with ruling England instead.
  • 1419 CE: Henry V of England reclaims Normandy in the Hundred Years’ War.
  • 1449 CE: Charles VII of France regains Normandy.

In short, this is a popular city for invading armies. The stones that formed this mighty castle protecting the northern border of Rouen were re-used for other construction at the end of the sixteenth century. Ironically, it stands right next to a memorial to honor the victims of racism, antisemitism, and crimes against humanity during 1940-1944, another period during which Rouen was a contested piece of land.

Square Charles Verdrel

Natasha and I walked back down the hill and enjoyed a few moments in Square Charles Verdrel (named after the man who “Haussmanned” Rouen). The mature trees were lovely, and the waterfall played happily in the shade. Natasha and I disputed the type of animal that belonged in the little box on an island; she speculated an otter, but I was holding out hope that it was a beaver. I believe my cell phone read 10:03 AM when the main doors of the fine arts museum opened.

Rouen Musée des Beaux Arts

Jean Revel, the pen-name of a writer who lived 1848-1925, has a place of honor before the Rouen Fine Arts Museum.

Though Rouen was one of the largest cities in medieval France, today it barely cracks the top 40 cities in France by population. Why, then, does it have such an amazing art museum? It might be the result of the “First Mover” advantage! Even before the French Revolution, the arts community of Rouen had begun assembling a collection of art intended for public view. By the end of the nineteenth century, the collection had already outgrown the space it shared with two prior buildings, and it moved to its purpose-built gallery in 1888. Happily, seeing the permanent collection is absolutely free.

Figure allégorique, by Paulus Bor (Image courtesy of Ministry of Culture)

Natasha and I have different taste in art, so we sped up and slowed down for different sections. She loves a good portrait, and I enjoy landscapes, cityscapes, and above all, Impressionism! I think the first image that captured my attention was a 1621 Flemish painting of a young woman on her death bed, while Natasha’s gaze was drawn by an arresting image of Saint Catherine of Sienna from the late 15th century. I would also point to Paulus Bor’s “Figure allégorique,” featuring a woman with a very neutral expression bearing a snake wrapped around her arm. Natasha helped cushion the surprise for me when I walked into a gallery featuring a life-sized figure in a colorful plague-doctor mask. I worried that it was a performance artist who was going to FREAK ME OUT!

Happily, this figure was modern art rather than performance art.

I was very pleased to see Cardinal Richelieu by Philippe de Champaigne (17th century), and Natasha noted that we must be in Europe since she had spotted a larger-than-life work by Paul Rubens right next to one by Caravaggio! I goggled to see a full-size version of Jean-Antoine Houdon’s “Seated Voltaire,” executed in papier maché.

This image at the Rouen Fine Arts Museum comes from a considerable series of paintings by Claude Monet. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

For me, the highlight was always going to be the well-stocked section on Impressionism. The museum had a good explainer on why its relationship with François Depeaux had enriched its collection in this area so greatly. Since the hall on Impressionism came so late in our route through the museum, I was sad to have spent much of my energy already. I still enjoyed it thoroughly. I hoped that Natasha might take a photo of me next to Claude Monet’s painting of Rouen Cathedral portal in grey, misty conditions, but she takes museum restrictions on photography quite seriously.

I am grateful to the heritage architects who continually updated the Rouen Palais de Justice over the centuries! World War II was most unkind.

Soon thereafter, Natasha and I were back on the street. My belly was telling me it was time for a Burger King Whopper, but Natasha showed greater restraint and returned to our lodgings for something healthier. I did capture a nice image of the Palais de Justice (Law Courts) building, completed in 1509.

Rouen Musée des Antiquités

In sunlight, I promise that the Rouen Museum of Antiquities appears quite cheerful!

When a group of museums opened for the afternoon, we had a choice to make; would we visit the museum of iron work in a sixteenth century church, or would we explore the antiquities of this area instead? We opted to hike back to the north to see the Musée des Antiquités. Our route along Rue Beauvoisine showed us a hundred interesting shops as well as some half-timbered structures that clearly had a lot of years behind them. I only realized after we reached the museum that the same structure served for both Antiquities and Natural History museums. Again, the permanent exhibits were free, so we could explore just as soon as I locked away my backpack.

This glassware from the Romans has persisted for 2000 years.

While it is apparent that the museum of antiquities is not perhaps as well-funded as the fine art museum, its setting in the 1691 “Convent of the Visitation” gives both the building and its contents historic gravitas. The grounds of the convent are filled with stone elements from two thousand years of history. What blew my mind, however, was when Natasha pointed to a series of small glass vessels and explained that these were made by the Romans. I hadn’t realized that the technologies for making glass were so old! A macabre mannequin of a plague doctor was once again coolly regarding our progress through the museum.

These faces and animal figures were recovered in ruins from the first dynasty of Lagash.

I always enjoy a Mesopotamian archaeology display, and the museum’s collection had some lovely items. Some tiny clay faces that were molded circa 2500 BCE were really striking. As an inveterate cat person, I was astonished to see a pair of Egyptian sarcophagi for cats.

This praying woman, once part of a set of seven figures, adorned an underground tomb. First part of third century BCE, Canosa, Italy

The Grecian civilization was represented by a striking statue of a woman with upraised hands. At the time it was created, the Roman Republic was still actively aggregating the communities throughout the Italian Peninsula into itself; the bottom of the “boot” held several Greek communities. Natasha and I continued to the room from which we had entered, dominated by two massive Roman floor mosaics. During our honeymoon in Andalucia, Natasha and I saw some other astonishing floor mosaics created by the Romans, both in archaeology museums and at Italica.

These wall hangings are made from leather! 16th Century Belgium

Natasha spent some time looking at some glossy, highly decorated brown squares mounted on the wall in the other gallery of the Antiquities museum. I didn’t know the French word “cuir,” and Natasha was quicker than me to realize that these wall panels decorated with floral and vegetable images were embossed leather engraved with gold and black. They had been created in the sixteenth century, but they were still glorious today.

Patrons of religious institutions freqeuntly requested that they be remembered in the art for those institutions.

I am always going to collect photographs of stained glass, and the convent features some lovely “vitraux” dating as far back as the fifteenth century. For example, this pane featuring a family in prayer was created in 1440 for the church of the Augustins at Rouen.

These “fibules” were broaches intended to pin clothing in place, executed in gilded bronze. They were among the oldest post-Roman artifacts on display.

Natasha spent some time with a reconstruction of a tomb from the Merovingian period (sixth or seventh century). The artifacts such as a shield boss were familiar items for a ceremonial burial. Natasha looked over the skeleton for marks that could tell us about his life. She spotted some partially-healed broken ribs and a break in his temple. After looking at his legs, though, she proclaimed, “I can tell you one thing: this guy suffered from arthritic knees!”

St. Ouen and Rollo

The city hall and Saint-Ouen Abbey Church offer monumentality to their neighboring square.

Natasha and I descended from the museum on Rue Louis Richard, and it gave us a chance to see the northeastern part of the tourist district. I really liked Place General de Gaulle, facing city hall. It offered a cool side perspective on the Saint-Ouen Abbey Church. I think this is the third church I’ve highlighted for Rouen (the cathedral, Saint-Maclou, and Saint-Ouen).

This engraving of Saint-Ouen from 1822 doesn’t show the Abbey at its peak; the French Revolution had already repurposed its buildings to serve as the city hall (to name one example).

Saint-Ouen has been claimed as the masterpiece of Rayonant Gothic design. In other words, the reason the nave and choir are so high is to create lots of space for light to enter the church. The church was begun in a mad rush between 1318-1339, matching a new choir to the remains of a fire-damaged Romanesque nave. The fourteenth century was very unkind to France, though, and the Hundred Years War had particular resonance for Rouen, since it was a capital of sorts for the English invasion. The Rayonant nave was only completed in the early sixteenth century. The restoration of this church is currently underway (we didn’t get to see inside it), but it should be a considerable showpiece for the city in 2024!

Rollo, the invader-turned-duke of Normandy

Before we left Saint-Ouen, I made sure we stopped to say hello to Rollo. In American high school classes on world history, we sometimes learned of Viking invasions as occasional events of extreme destruction replaced by the slow recovery of the victims. Rollo is an excellent counter-example. His skill in terrorizing the people of Normandy led the king of France to name him as its duke! Charles the Simple decided that Rollo might be strong enough to defend Normandy from other Vikings, and so he gifted the massive territory to him in 911 CE, after the Siege of Chartres.

With so many activities on one day, Natasha and I were both ready for a nap!

Roaming in Rouen

May 22, 2021

A two kilometer walk past major sites in Rouen

The reopening of museums, combined with a three-day weekend, enabled Natasha’s and my visit to a new city. We decided on Rouen, a city that particularly thrived in medieval times, just a couple of hours away on the train. Unbeknownst to us, however, an upstairs neighbor had planned to host another noisy party until 2AM the night before our train ride. As a result, it was a very bleary-eyed Dave and Natasha that arrived at Gare Saint-Lazare on Saturday morning. Happily we had acquired tickets through the SNCF “Oui” service, and finding the right train platform for the “grand lignes” was not too challenging. A few minutes before departure, the gates opened, and our mob moved aboard the train cars. Natasha and I climbed to the upper level of a two-deck car so we could watch the world flashing by. We were not aboard a TGV, but our train was still able to maintain quite a good speed to the northwest, following the course of the Seine River. We departed Paris at 8:38 and arrived at Rouen Rive Droite just after 10 AM.

Gare de Rouen, Rive Droite

Trundling down Rue Jeanne d’Arc to our Air BNB was no problem; the road is a main artery of the historic city center. We liked the distinctive facade for the train station, and we had tantalizing hints of Rouen’s major tourist sites as we passed Square Charles Verdrel. We arrived at our housing at Rue Ganterie just in time to meet our host and her son, who familiarized us with the place we were staying.

These half-timbered houses on Rue Beauvoisine illustrate the variety and age of these buildings.

Natasha was ready to start our adventure once we unpacked a few items from the backpack. We headed west on Rue Ganterie in hopes of second breakfast at Hygge, a restaurant that offers quite a few gluten-free options. It didn’t take long before we discovered a recurring theme; the historic center of Rouen is filled to the brim with half-timbered buildings! After months of “Haussmann” structures in Paris, we were delighted to be surrounded by something very different. In the early nineteenth century, Paris would have looked quite a lot like Rouen, but in many respects the Second Empire replaced all those street fronts with new structures. To our dismay, Hygge had not reopened in time for this holiday weekend.

Old buildings can certainly be restored to beauty, as these buildings on the south side of the square illustrate! At right, La Couronne Restaurant occupies a building originally constructed in the 14th century.

Instead we continued south past the restaurant to the Place du Vieux-Marché (old market). This bustling square was thriving with people at the sidewalk cafés; I think all of France has been waiting for the opportunity to return to them as the COVID-19 pandemic has progressed.

Église Sainte-Jeanne-d’Arc contributes its distinctive form to the old market square.

The historic market square is really distinctive in appearance. Those half-timbered building fronts (some long-standing and other less so) really set Rouen apart from Paris. The center of the square is dominated by the Église Sainte-Jeanne-d’Arc, a church that opened its doors for the first time in 1979. Natasha and I were both charmed by it. After a steady diet of Gothic churches, I was delighted to see a truly original architecture, as though a medieval Norse carpenter had envisioned a whale beached in the square! The adjoining shopping area had been constructed to match, and we encountered a few folks handing out flyers along with the crowds of shoppers. We parked ourselves at a café to enjoy a coffee or a drinking chocolate and watched the world go by.

We passed southeast from the Place du Vieux-Marché to Place de la Pucelle. Natasha guided me to Hôtel de Bourgtheroulde after reading one of the information boards. The structure was initiated at the close of the 15th century (around the time Columbus sailed). In the early 16th century, its interior courtyard was sculpted with a bas-relief celebrating the diplomatic success of the “Camp du Drap d’or,” a 1520 meeting between Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England. It was nice to see a monument devoted to peace rather than to war. I also peeked around the corner to see the Protestant Temple Saint-Éloi, which could benefit from a powerwasher!

Yes, building each floor a little further over the pavement was a common strategy in the past!

As we continued northeast along the Rue de la Vicomte, we felt the walls closing in around us. It is not an optical illusion; the upper levels of the half-timbered facades are closer together than they are at street level. It does give one the sense that they’re toppling toward you.

Gros Horloge has held pride of place since the 14th century.

We turned right from there to join the busy foot traffic to the southeast on Rue du Gros Horloge. After we crossed Rue Jeanne d’Arc, we could see the Renaissance clock tower for ourselves (my first sighting of it was a photograph print on the wall of our Air BNB). Its clock movement dates from 1389, though it was electrified in the 1920s. Léon-Jules Lemaître painted some lovely Impressionist images of the Gros Horloge in the nineteenth century.

Rouen Cathedral is such a fascinating topic that I believe it will get a post of its own!

As we continued along the Rue du Gros Horloge, we heard church bells announcing noon, and their source was obvious. The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen was the tallest building in the world when its spire was completed in the late nineteenth century. It lost that title to Cologne Cathedral, which then lost the title to the Washington Monument, which then lost the title to the Eiffel Tower! I will have more to say about it in a later post, but for now I would just like to say that the massive facade of that church and of its towers are ornate. I can see why Impressionist painters would find themselves fascinated by the play of light across its surface.

The square before Saint-Maclou, Rouen

We passed around the north side of the church to do a little bit of gift shopping, passing by the Historial Jeanne d’Arc, which has not reopened along with other museums in the city. At Place Barthélémy we took in the fine view of Église Catholique Saint-Maclou, and then we passed north along Rue de la République to find a sushi place for lunch (quite near Royal Donuts, which is definitely on my itinerary!). We stood in the doorway of Moshi Moshi to protect us from a sudden rainstorm. When our food was ready, we walked west along Rue de la Chaine to reach our Air BNB in a lovely shopping district.

Time for a nap!

Chartres Cathedral: a paradise of stained glass

August 24, 2021

I have tried to avoid becoming one of “those tourists,” people who march directly from the train to a tourist site, snap lots of photos, and then step directly into traffic without looking. When my opportunity to visit Chartres arrived, I scheduled myself half a day in the town. Unfortunately, my cell phone decided that the morning of my trip was the right time to refuse connection to the mobile network. The “Oui” app from SNCF wouldn’t show my ticket QR code! As a consequence, I slipped back an hour in my departure for Chartres. The train, departing from Montparnasse, took a little more than an hour to cross the distance, but it feels like a bigger difference in environment, since one can live in Paris for months without seeing anything like agricultural land!

The Broken Sword monument of Jean Moulin, a hero of the French Resistance in WWII

I decided to follow Avenue Jehan de Beauce away from the train station rather than walking directly to the cathedral. I was pleased to see that it soon gained a pedestrian-friendly Esplanade de la Résistance on its east side. Its “chemin de memoire” explained several memorials along the path, with maps to attractions like the Fine Arts Museum. The Broken Sword monument was notable for celebrating the life of Jean Moulin (French Resistance) and remembering those lost in the concentration camps of World War II. It appears opposite the Médiathèque L’Apostrophe, housed in a beautiful Art Nouveau building from 1926 by Raoul Brandon.

Architecture like this can definitely sway me from a planned cathedral visit! Médiathèque L’Apostrophe of Chartres

A massive plaza right next to it had picked out “#Chartres” in 3D letters in front of an admirable vista of the city’s cathedral. I stopped instead to photograph Sainte-Foy, an old church of solid composition, even if it were much less impressive in size. During World War II, the crypt of this church was used to protect some of the materials from Chartres Cathedral from bomb strikes.

I wandered for a little while, both because the streets were far from a north-south / east-west grid and because I had some difficulty getting my internal north pointed in the right direction. The plazas and historic buildings seemed to stretch in every direction, and it appeared that business was booming despite the never-ending pandemic. Before too much time had passed, I had circled the cathedral to approach from the south. Given how much larger it is than most other buildings in Chartres, one can generally find it by entering a plaza and looking up.

Chartres has plenty of cafes in charming plazas for high-quality people-watching!

Encountering Chartres Cathedral

I first heard of Chartres when I was a little boy (and yes, I was small for quite a lot longer than my age-mates). My primary or middle-school teacher was trying to explain medieval times to the class. She showed us a videotape dramatizing the construction of a cathedral as a multi-generational task; almost no people alive to see the cornerstone placed would survive to see the nave completed, let alone the choir, the facade, or the never-ending towers. Chartres began construction in 1145 CE. It wasn’t the earliest of the Gothic churches; that honour usually goes to Basilica of Saint Denis, which completed its Gothic nave and choir during 1135-1144 CE, or the Cathedral of Sens, which broke ground in 1135 CE and had a completed nave in 1164 CE.

Chartres was distinctive in part because of a disaster; a fire in 1194 forced reconstruction of its nave and choir. The key elements of Gothic architecture (pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses) had been established long since through experimentation at places like Saint-Pierre de Montmartre and Saint-Martin-des-Champs. Chartres would integrate these elements for substantial elevation of the structure, integrating a trio of rose windows with enormous clerestory stained-glass and sculptures throughout the church. Chartres Cathedral inaugurated the “High Gothic,” and it has been honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The rose window at the north end of the transept dates from 1235 CE. The five lower images are Melchizedek, David, St. Anne, Solomon, and Aaron. The rose above celebrates the Virgin Mary.

I was quite surprised by the stark contrast between the inside and outside. At present, the exterior wears its 800 years with a combination of crumble and corrode. The inside, however, is light and airy throughout the nave (but again one sees a contrast between transept and nave since the side areas have not completed restoration).

The nave and choir interior view, Chartres Cathedral

The ongoing restoration has performed its everyday miracle on the wall of sculpture separating the choir from the ambulatory, with just the last scenes from the 17th century life of Jesus still dark while the rest gleams in white.

Did you ever wonder why heritage people argue for restoration work? Look no further. This massive statue wall separates the choir from the walk surrounding it. The part at the right awaits restoration.

My interest in Chartres stems from my interest in stained glass; unlike almost every other Catholic Cathedral in France, the original panes are still in place for the great majority of its fantastic collection, and almost all were created in the 12th and 13th centuries CE. One frequently hears that stained glass windows played a role in communicating stories from the Bible to a largely illiterate population. While that is true of Chartres, these beautiful “vitraux” also extend to the lives of saints and even to historical figures. I would not have expected to see Thomas à Becket and Charlemagne featured in their own windows, but there they were! I was also interested to see that the creatures of the zodiac made an appearance, plus four animal heads were grafted to the pulpit.

Cobblers practice their trade at the bottom left of the Life of St. Stephen (1220-25 CE)

I loved the little touches that showed that different sectors of the Chartres community had contributed to its construction. I snapped an image of cobblers making shoes in the corner of St. Stephen’s window.

Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verrière, the central panes of the Virgin Mary, is one of the oldest and most famous windows in the church (1180 CE). The colors of her cloak came to be known as “Chartres blue.”

The veneration of Mary is obviously going to feature in a church called Notre Dame, and I loved the famous window in “Chartres Blue” that celebrated her. The 15th century carving of her (see below) was much smaller than I had expected, but its magnificent frame was something special. I did not visit the extensive crypt; I am unsure whether the public is allowed to see the reliquary housing the veil of the virgin that made the site such a draw for pilgrims at the millenium before last. I found a couple treasures at the gift shop, one for me (a mousepad with the pattern of the famous labyrinth from the floor of the cathedral) and another present for my mother-in-law.

Our Lady of the Pillar was carved in pear wood during the 16th century. The neo-Gothic surround was created in 1830.
BONUS WINDOW! The lancets below the southeast rose show four prophets (Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel and Jeremiah) holding the four evangelists on their shoulders in a very literal “prophecy fulfilled” visualization.

Upon exiting the cathedral, I spent some moments at the south porch; I had already seen its interior, with an enchanting set of windows showing prophets perched on prophets’ shoulders. The exterior, however, features a beautifully sculpted depiction of the last judgment. I have decided I rather like this subject for art ever since I first used Hans Memling‘s depiction in a slide for my biomarkers class, using it to explain dichotomous classifiers. In any case, the side of the Chartres sculpture showing those judged unworthy of heaven is delightful, with very naughty-seeming demons dragging their charges to hell. One demon has clasped the ankle of a woman, and her hair trails behind them on their journey. I am convinced that the creativity and whimsy of artists is what sets apart one work of art among others of the same topic.

These naughty demons are just what this Last Judgment needed! (Southeast portico)

Why did Chartres manage to retain these priceless windows and sculptures when so many other churches were destroyed in the Revolution (Lady Chapel of St. Germain-des-Pres) or World War I (Rheims Cathedral) or World War II (Rouen Cathedral)? The Historic Monuments Commission / Fine Arts Commission agreed to remove the windows from Chartres Cathedral for remote storage during World War I and World War II (this story is told in more detail in Saving the Light, by Victor A. Pollak). The cathedral itself was greatly endangered in the course of World War II. The American Army resolved to destroy it, believing the cathedral was being used as an observation post by German forces (the town of Chartres had become a logistics center for the Germans occupying France). Colonel Welborn Griffin objected to this order, volunteering to determine whether or not the cathedral was playing a military role. He shines as the hero of Pollak’s book.

Centre International de Vitrail

The Centre de Vitrail in Chartres is exactly the right place to learn what each of those windows mean.

I decided to visit the Centre de Vitrail, just north of the cathedral, to learn more about the creation and restoration of these images. My attention was arrested at the entrance to the centre by an apparently well cared-for fluffy grey and white cat. I rested my hand nearby, and she stretched her paw out to touch my finger! I stroked her head for a few minutes, and all was right with the world.

Here it is! It’s an index to each pane of each window in the Cathedral!

Because the museum opened only at 14:00, I popped over to a restaurant for some lunc. While the Centre offers its flossy brochure only in French, the descriptions on the walls are offered in both English and French (just a few are French-only). I particularly appreciated their glossaries of uncommon terms, as they apply to stained glass:

  • Stop-gap
  • Grisaille
  • Foliation
  • Apse
  • Cartoon
  • Jewelling
  • Silver stain
  • Carnation
  • Coloured through the Mass
The downstairs of the Centre de Vitrail offers noteworthy architecture of its own.

After a while I became aware that the building I was visiting had many of its historical “bones” on display. I could see up into the rafters, and its modern art display in the cellar was staged in a decadent Gothic backdrop, with ribbed vaults throughout. The Centre provides maps for a great many of the Cathedral’s compound windows, so it is a great way to understand the details of a given story told in glass.

This majestic modern work by Pierre-Alain Parot shows that we have made great strides in glass since the 12th century!

Grande Galerie de l’Évolution and Masala Dosas

Even people who live in dramatic world cities have a sleepy Sunday now and then. Natasha, being mindful of my banged-up knee, suggested that we take on a mild walk in the Jardin des Plantes, a public garden we had first seen in the heaviest snow day that we’ve had in Paris! The natural history museum there was hosting a special exhibition of cut and uncut precious stones that had drawn her eye. She purchased tickets online, and soon we were on our way!

Our wander, segment 1

We rode line 8 to La Motte-Picquet Grenelle and then transfered to line 10, which passes through my favorite Saint-Germain-des-Prés district before reaching Gare d’Austerlitz. We were able to find the exit dropping us directly across the street from the Jardin des Plantes. I would give kudos to the McDonald’s site planner who realized that corner was a hot property.

The entrance to the Gallery of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy also featured a cool stegasaurus bronze, just around the corner.

We entered the park by its south-eastern corner. We first encountered the entrance to the Galerie de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie Comparée (Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy). We were interested in natural history, but this wasn’t the museum for which we’d bought tickets! We continued onwards and saw an amazing array of colored blossoms, spreading just as far as the eye could see. The Jardin des Plantes had been transformed since we first saw it in January!

What a nice place to meander on a sunny day! What a nice place to shelter when rain drops suddenly appear!

As I have mentioned before, the parks of Paris are designed for active use, not passive looking. The many parallel paths of the Jardin des Plantes had plenty of families in motion along with many joggers. The tree-lined paths bracketed a central green just packed with little patches of flowers, each with helpful labels.

The sunlight was answered in these tiny eyes, staring at the sky.

Natasha paused before a lovely space packed with warm colors. “Which of these flowers do we have planted at Turtle House?” she inquired. I picked at my collar nervously, having failed to study for the quiz. “Marigolds!” I suddenly ventured, pointing my finger. “Yes,” she replied, “and calendulas and zinnias, too!”

The massive Grande Galerie de l’Évolution is the centerpiece lying at one end of the extensive flowerbeds.

Moments later, a few sprinkles fell from the sky, and so we made a more concentrated effort to reach the museum entrance. I was distracted once again when I saw the Galerie de Géologie et de Minéralogie, but ironically that was not the location for the precious stones exhibit. We continued just a bit further to the entrance of the Grande Galerie de l’Évolution.

The Great Gallery of Evolution

We encountered a great disappointment when we entered the line for the precious stones special exhibition. Due to our misunderstanding the ticketing options, we had acquired tickets for the permanent exhibition of the museum but not for the precious stones. Compounding the problem, we learned that no more tickets were available for the special exhibition for today. It’s the sort of thing we would have caught if we had planned this visit earlier than this morning! We were crestfallen but continued into the exhibition space.

The Grand Gallery of Evolution lives up to its name!

If you have ever explored a natural history museum crammed with small glass boxes with dusty taxidermy animals inside, please push that thought out of your mind. The Grand Gallery of Evolution occupies a building of 97,000 cubic meters, similar to the volume of Notre Dame Cathedral. Its three upper floors cover land animals, while the ground floor features sea life (it is below the floor you see in the image above). The panels in the ceiling change color from moment to moment, sometimes emulating thundershowers to accompany a soundtrack. It’s a surprisingly open indoor space.

Can’t visit Africa? It will come to you!

Natasha and I felt right at home as we examined the beasts in the parade down the first floor, titled “the diversity of living things: terrestrial environments.” We were surprised to see just how many African beasts were represented in the parade. Since I am writing a manuscript on the spotted hyena right now, I was very happy to see that the taxidermy collection included both a striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) and spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), though I did not see a brown hyena or aardwolf.

At the left, we have the striped hyena. At the right, we have the spotted hyena. I would not wish to tangle with either.

I would draw special attention to a side gallery that appears on the second floor. “Menaced species, disappeared species” shows that man has become a factor in evolution, adding our unnatural selection to natural selection, both by hunting and by destruction of habitat.

It seems unlikely you will ever see any of these species in the wild.

This gallery of extinct and threatened animals is a hard one to visit, knowing that some of these species will soon fade from memory as no animals of those species remain in the wild. Since the logo used to mark each case was a dodo, I was disappointed that no dodo skeleton or taxidermy was on display; I believe that one was previously visible at the entrance to this hall, though it seems to be absent for now. The roll call is extensive, from California condors (fewer than 100 remaining) to Cape Lions (an example of which appears at the lower left in the image above). I particularly loved the Eurasian Lynx, a feline you would have to seek in Asia today.

The Eurasian Lynx can be found in some regions of Asia, but in France, it appears the last sighting was in the 1970s in the Pyrenees Mountains.

A surprising artifact in the extinction hall was a beautifully machined clockwork installed at the Versailles Petit Trianon chapel in 1785 for Marie-Antoinette. It didn’t stay there long, since the Revolutionary government decided to move the machine to the museum in 1794.

This is a gharial. Farewell, peaceful sleep!

I don’t think I would give you a complete account of the museum without mentioning some fresh material for my nightmares. The museum held two different stuffed gharials. That name didn’t mean very much to me, but these are crocodilians that grow up to six meters in length (just under 20 feet). The animals living in Southeast Asia have become critically endangered, with fewer than 1000 remaining in the wild. Some populations are being maintained in the upper reaches of the Ganges River, though. It is important to remember that non-cuddly animals deserve to live, too.

This is a Southern right whale. Does that mean she has a Confederate flag on her truck? No! It does mean, however, that those brown “strings” hanging from her skull are “baleen,” enabling her to filter krill from sea water for food.

…and some lovely extras

The Great Mosque, along with its 26-meter minaret, was inaugurated in 1926.

Ever since I saw that the Great Mosque of Paris was next door to this museum, I have wanted a proper photograph of its minaret. Today the sunlight was beautiful and the cloudy skies were dramatic. I finally had my image!

I rejoined Natasha in the garden, and we would have lingered there if another cloudburst hadn’t come on-scene. We paused at the garden exit (where we had entered earlier) when we realized that the French had erected a statue to the founder of the doctrine of evolution. You might have expected to see Charles Darwin up there, but no, it was a majestic statue of Lamarck! Well, he had the benefit of being fifty years earlier and of being French. We’ll let that one slide.

This image of Chennai Dosa next to Gare du Nord is from a user at Tripadvisor.

Even though Natasha and I had fortified ourselves with brunch before we started our adventure, we knew we would be ready for proper food when we finished our adventure. We boarded the metro again, but this time we used line 5 to move from Gare d’Austerlitz to Gare du Nord. Generally we crave masala dosa, and sometimes WE CRAVE MASALA DOSA! It was our second visit to Chennai Dosa, and we emerged with happy bellies.

A twenty-minute constitutional was just what we needed after a dose of dosa.

It’s not really straightforward to take the metro from Gare du Nord to our place, so we decided to walk off the dosas with a little constitutional down to the Bonne Nouvelle metro station on line 8. Our route was not very demanding since we we needed to toddle down Rue la Fayette, make a turn south on Rue d’Hauteville, and then stop when we ran out of road.

Saint-Vincent-de-Paul’s prominence benefits from being built on a small hill.

I had a bit of a problem when that turn to the south arrived, though. My attention was drawn by the lovely facade of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul. We had encountered the church only at a distance before; it’s a pretty prominent landmark to the left as one looks toward the city center from Sacré-Cœur atop Montmartre. I was fascinated to learn that this church was constructed on the site of the Saint-Lazare enclosure, which once served as a half-way house for wayward members of aristocratic families before it became a prison during the French Revolution. The current church only began construction in 1824.

I may be mistaken, but the Bonne Nouvelle metro station seems a little scruffier than others in the network.

Natasha and I ambled south, occasionally peeking back at the church as framed by the concrete canyon surrounding us. Rue d’Hauteville was a nice place to walk, since the cross streets were all minor and ground-floor businesses didn’t project into the road. When we reached its terminus at Boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle (my brain always translates this as “Good News”), we realized we were in proximity to three notable sites: La Esquinita Mexican Grocery, the Chocolate Museum, and our metro stop. Turning neither right nor left, we immediately descended for our ride home. Our nap awaited!

The Sumptuous Château and Jardins de Versailles

June 15, 2021

Despite living near the rail line to Versailles for six months, Natasha and I delayed our visit to its famous palace and gardens until my brother Tom came to visit. His enthusiasm for seeing the palace was infectious, though seeing even a small part of the site consumed all our energy for that day.

The path of our wandering at Versailles

Coming to Versailles by train was easy. We hopped onto the RER C rail line that follows the left bank of the Seine in our area, double-checking that the train was the one that terminated in Versailles (the RER C has multiple routes). The tickets cost 3.65€ each way for each of the three of us, so the travel costs for each direction were only about twice the price of a subway ticket within Paris. One of the aspects of the rail route that I found striking is that the RER C passes through a long tunnel under the Forest of Meudon. The total travel time was just a hair over twenty minutes.

The Javel RER train station was built for the 1900 Universal Exposition.

Emerging from the train station at Versailles, we were happy to find a well-marked route for tourists on foot. We followed the D10 toward the north and then turned left to follow the D186 to the west. Once we made that turn, it was obvious we were heading toward a massive palace complex, with gold light reflected from the outer fence and the roof line. We arrived almost exactly at 11:00, the start time on our tickets (in order to space tourists throughout the day, Paris museums are currently allocating only so many arrivals at a give time). Because we had not “hot-footed” it from the train station to admissions, we had many tourists in line before us, but the time passed quickly.

The Chateau

Voltaire lampooned the eastern facade of Versailles, though he appreciated its gardens somewhat more.

Natasha and I decided to download the official Versailles tour app on our phones, while Tom used a free audioguide device. I soon felt very frustrated by the app’s guidance because it couldn’t seem to discern where I was in the complex despite my having enabled Android location services, and whole sections of the palace were missing from mine that were present on Natasha’s install. Tom’s dedicated audio guide seemed to work much better.

The Royal Chapel was a relatively late addition to Versailles, having been constructed during 1687-1710 CE by Jules Hardouin-Mansart and Robert de Cotte. The left pane was a photo from the first floor (“upstairs”), while the right pane was taken from the ground floor.

A visit to the Château is likely to take in a mix of State Apartments, Private Apartments, and Historic Galleries. We found ourselves in a large herd of tourists as we passed the royal chapel on the ground floor, but once we had climbed the stairs, the press of people diminished somewhat. I had thought we had visited most areas of the Château, but looking back at the website I see we entirely missed the Royal Opera and the Congress Chamber, plus many formerly private spaces for the royal family. Natasha noted that many areas were closed to public view during our visit.

Louis XIV et la famille royale by Jean Nocret (1670), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Louis XIV, at right, gets pride of place over his brother “Monsieur” Philippe, Duc d’Orleans (left), reputed for naughty behavior and military valor.

I cannot be the only person who sees room after room filled with fanciful images of god-king Louis XIV with a sense of revulsion. I would like to think that Louis XIV himself felt a sense of scorn about the cult of personality that the art of the Château of Versailles represents, even if he personally cultivated it.

La Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) may be the most famous individual room of the palace. Visitors can walk through corrals at either end of the room, leaving the center clear for photographs.

Tom surprised me by echoing a refrain that I frequently say to myself on my travels: “I feel so frustrated when I imagine a substantial fraction of a nation’s resources being consumed to make a fabulous palace for the king.” Natasha was frustrated that the historical events that took place at the Château of Versailles were largely omitted by the information presented for each room. The 1871 Proclamation of the German Empire and the 1919 signing of the Treaty of Versailles both took place in the Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors), but the room was exhibited with no signboards to highlight these aspects of its history.

The Gallery of Great Battles was added by Louis-Philippe in 1833-1837 after the monarchy was restored in France. His additions abut those of Napoleon I, who also made use of the palace.

Having passed a couple of hours inside the Château, we were ready to see the gardens, grounds, and other buildings of the Versailles Estate. We started with the South Parterre, which was in bloom on our late spring day. We continued down to the Bosquet du Dauphin, which seemed more like a carefully partitioned area of small woods and undergrowth than a garden per se. The fountain in the Enceladus Grove was pretty interesting, but a barrier kept us from a better view. Natasha adored the gold lizards and turtles of Latona’s Fountain, and I loved the drama of Apollo’s Fountain.

Looking West from Latona’s Fountain gives a lovely perspective on the cross-shaped Grand-Eaux des Versailles in the distance.
Looking East from Apollo’s Fountain, Latona’s Fountain is the small mound at center just below the palace.

That said, we were all pretty hungry after our late-morning wander, so we stopped for lunch at La Flottille, a restaurant first opened in the late 19th century, located next door to the Grandes Eaux de Versailles (a long canal crossed at right angles by slightly shorter canal). We were grateful that the restaurant took reasonable precautions for folks with celiac disease. I ordered pizza and was very rapidly faced with a medium ham, mushroom and cheese I could have easily split with someone else, but Natasha and my brother both had plenty of food in front of them, too!

The rooms of the Grand Trianon have beautiful elements in considerably plainer walls than the main palace. They seemed like more comfortable places to live, though!

With full bellies, we decided to visit the Grand Trianon and Marie Antoinette’s Estate. We had a bit of a walk before us, though; the estate operates a little train of wagons to ship tourists from one site to another, but we were put off by its price (a bit less than five Euros per passenger).

The gardens lying west of the Grand Trianon were considerably plainer than those of the main chateau, but they were still beautiful.

We found Trianon without a lot of effort. Natasha and Tom agreed that the little palace seemed like a far more comfortable place to live than the Château proper. I was delighted that the substantial crowd we had encountered in the Château had not come to Trianon en masse; we encountered very few tourists at Trianon at all.

The Queen’s Hamlet was crafted in the 1780s, two generations after Louis XIV but just before the French Revolution. People were quite mad about Marie Antoinette’s rumored spending…

We continued past the Petit Trianon, enjoying the shaded walks and small canals with large-scale public art. I was feeling rather worn out from the high temperatures and bright sun of the day, so I asked that we limit to just one more site. Natasha placed a high priority on visiting the Queen’s Hamlet, so we continued to the northeast.

Does this look like the palace of a queen?

I didn’t know what to expect of the Queen’s Hamlet, but it surely wasn’t what we found. In 1783 Marie Antoinette (queen to Louis XVI, the grandson of Louis XIV) ordered the creation of a small village around a lake so that she would have a place to retreat from the pressures of court. The hamlet is perfectly charming, and we all enjoyed its peace and quiet.

I badly needed a beast of burden to haul me back out to the main gate!

When we walked up to the Queen’s Hamlet, we had thought we could exit the Versailles estates by the Saint-Antoine Porte, but a substantial ditch separates the Queen’s Hamlet from the exit road (the Grand Trianon seems to be the only port of entry allowing one to reach the Hamlet). We had a split vote on whether we were sufficiently tired and dehydrated to pay the cost of the little train back to the palace. Natasha has previously observed that once I start heading back home, it is an uphill battle to convince me to take an interest in anything other than plodding in that direction. For the next forty minutes or so, the three of us trudged and panted our way back to the main Château. Sadly the kiosk next to the Grandes Eaux where we planned to acquire more water was closed, so we just marched forward in the sun.

We were very happy to discover a cafe with refrigerated water bottles just before we reached the train station. Is it possible that too much sunlight would make us hesitate to revisit one of the greatest palaces on earth?

Avignon, refuge of Popes and anti-Popes

When our TGV to the south approached Avignon on June 12, my first sight of the Palace of the Popes caught my breath. I had last seen the structure in 1994 from a train in the middle of the night, but with my brother Tom in town, I would finally get my chance to see the Palace up close. He and I had already invested a morning wandering around the Roman theatre at Orange, so we paused for an ice cream lunch in the Place du Palais.

The Notre-Dame des Doms and Palais des Papes at Avignon

What an impression that square creates in a visitor’s mind! The builders of the fortress knew how to project power. If I could start the story at the end, though, I think it’s really interesting that the Place du Palais itself was created in 1398 by Rodrigo de Luna. He was no architect; he was the military commander under (and nephew of) anti-Pope Benedict XIII, and he destroyed the buildings before the Palace to make its entrance easier to defend from a siege of French mercenaries. The plaza is ground zero for tourists in Avignon, so I was grateful for some elbow room!

Dedication frontispiece with King Philippe IV the Fair and family from translation of “Kalila and Dimna” (1313 CE), Image from Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 8504

But I am getting ahead of myself. Why did the pope decide to move his court to Avignon from the Vatican? Several reasons seem to have been in play, many of which relate to French King Philippe IV “le Bel”. King Philippe levied a tax against French clergymen, and Pope Boniface VIII wrote a bull proclaiming that all kings were below the Pope’s authority and excommunicated King Philippe. French thugs conspired with northern Italians to capture Boniface VIII at Anagni in 1303, to treat him quite roughly, and to pillage his treasury; the Pope died a month later, making it clear that Italy was not a safe refuge. King Philippe needed money for his wars and decided to smear the Templars so he could appropriate their wealth; his desire for an accommodating Pope caused French cardinals to forestall any but a French candidate for the papacy.

Avignon Popes and Palaces

I rather like the caricature shorthand for the seven Avignon Popes that Edwin Mullins included in his book: “Puppet, Miser, Monk, Emperor, Bookkeeper, Saint, and Humanist.” I know that serious scholars of the medieval would scoff at its rigor, but the book is at least memorable!

Seven Popes spent much of their papacies in or near Avignon. ‘A’ represents a time that the pope moved to Avignon, and ‘R’ represents a time that the pope moved to Rome. The Western Schism, the period of the anti-Popes, falls after the range shown here.

Puppet” Clement V: The Archbishop of Bordeaux was chosen to become Pope Clement V even though he wasn’t a cardinal. As was characteristic of the Avignon Popes, he was trained in canon and civil law, heralding a period when the papacy would have more powerful administration than before. Immediately upon his election, however, Clement V must have realized that his independence as pope was pretty limited, since King Philippe compelled him to be coronated in 1305 on French soil at Lyon. After a stint at Poitiers, the papal court came to Avignon to take advantage of its being in papal lands of Provence, an area that was not integrated into France until the French Revolution. At the start of the 14th century, Avignon was essentially a village, certainly without grand housing for wealthy cardinals, but the court of Clement V “made do” without a palace; he frequently visited the countryside rather than creating a stately residence in Avignon itself.

So did Clement V manage to achieve any independence? He attempted to deflect King Philippe’s efforts to take Templar property and execute the knights (for example by making it a church trial rather than a royal one), but ultimately he could not stop the king from burning the Templar leaders at the stake. True, the Avignon Papacy was not in France proper, but the fact that the papal court was just across the river from France gave King Philippe greater international prestige. A great storm was building on the horizon, though. It was clear even before the reign of Edward III that England and France were on a collision course, so being closer to France gave the Pope more opportunity to intervene in the Hundred Years’ War.

This hypothesis attempts to reconstruct the center of papal authority under John XXII (originally created by Bernhard Schimmelpfennig in 1994 and reprinted by Vingtain and Sauvageot).

“Miser” John XXII: The second Avignon Pope put the church on a sound financial footing during a time of significant growth for Avignon. Cardinals built two early structures in the city during his reign: the “Petit Palace” (1318-1320) which now houses an art museum and the “Livrée Ceccano” (begun before 1331) which now houses the municipal city library. I wish I had known enough before our visit to see the two!

One of the factors I found most intriguing about John XXII was that he became something of a bête noire to William of Ockham (who popularized parsimony in his philosophical writings). John XXII is also notable for having canonized St. Thomas Aquinas.

The ground floor of the Benedict XII palace, in Vingtain and Sauvageot
In this photograph, I am looking toward the lower left of the diagram above within the Palais Vieux.

“Monk” Benedict XII: As a Cistercian monk, Jacques Fournier served as an Inquisitor who burned the last of the Cathars in southwestern France. It is this austere pope who first constructed a monumental palace at Avignon, today labeled the “Palais Vieux.” Mullins describes this structure as a “bastion” or “fortress,” but its purpose was to house church business, bringing the archives from Italy, treasury, and administrators under one roof. The old fortress receives considerably less attention than the new on the Palace tours, but my brother Tom and I did shoot a little video in its courtyard to explain the Popes’ move to Avignon for his students.

During the 13th and 14th centuries, the Cathars of Southern France were horribly persecuted and murdered by orthodox Catholics. Image from Wikipedia.

As we move forward with the most imperial of popes, I think it is worth saying that the most influential of writers from this period were mad as hell at what they saw the Papal Court becoming in Avignon. I would refer you to Petrarch and Dante

“Emperor” Clement VI: Ruling during 1342-1352 CE, Clement VI gets the lion’s share of the glory for the Avignon Popes. The monies that John XXII had brought to the treasury were spent heavily by Clement for his “Palais Neuf,” which transformed the structure from an forbidding keep to a resplendent mansion and a grand church in its own right. He also added substantial gardens to the back of the complex.

The coat of arms of Pope Paul V decorate the former Papal Mint in the Place du Palais, Avignon.

Clement VI brought parades to the streets of Avignon and majestic receptions for visiting royalty. Italian banks opened major centers in the city, today remembered by a bas relief on the opposite side of the Place du Palais. Clement also made a key appointment in launching a military effort under Cardinal Gil Alvarez Carrillo de Albornoz to repacify the Papal States of Italy.

A miniature by Gilles li Muisis at Saint-Martin à Tournai dating to 1349 – 1352. © KIK-IRPA, Brussels

Clement VI’s term as Pope would seem a great success except for a little public health problem called the “peste noire;” the Black Death had come to France. A Genoese ship sailing from the Crimea brought rats to Messina in 1347 CE. Those rats were infested with fleas, and the fleas were infected with Yersinia pestis. Two to eight days after an infected fleabite, a victim’s lymph nodes would swell to the size of chicken eggs before he or she died. This, the first appearance of this plague in Europe, killed an astonishing number of people throughout the continent, striking down as much as half the population of cities. Naturally, the people of Avignon wondered if the sumptuous living on display at the palace was being answered by a sign of disapproval from God…

This fishing scene is one of the most intact images of the Chambre du Cerf.

Walking around the Palais Neuf of Clement VI, the luxury of his life is apparent even if many of the hand-painted room interiors have been lost through aging, chipped away by soldiers who used the structure for a barracks, or otherwise defaced. The path through the palace is quite a maze, really. Rather than having a single linear progression through all the rooms, a tourist makes lots of choices along the way. Do you want to see the gardens? The treasury? The kitchens? All of these are spurs to the main tour.

The Pope’s bedroom has lovely colorful tiles, frescoed walls, and a painted ceiling. The man wanted a magical forest of birds, and he got it! Composite of photo from JM Rosier and “Ph.Bar.”

For me, the highlight is the Chambre du Pape, or the Pope’s bedroom. Vexingly, photographs are disallowed inside painted rooms (both walls and ceilings) such as this one. Yes, even if your camera doesn’t have a flash. Yes, even if it’s just your cell phone. Happily, I was able to find some archival images over at the French Ministry of Culture. I loved the theme of an indoor forest for the Pope’s bedroom, and the little birds that one can find in each curl of branches are charming. I had less love for the Chambre du Cerf, the Pope’s private study next to his bedroom. The hunting and fishing scenes tell us of the love for these sports among the nobility of the fourteenth century, but they have been marred by the ravages of time.

The martyrdom of John the Baptist from Chapelle Saint-Jean should be familiar material to many.

The palace has two small frescoed chapels and a gargantuan nave for large-scale masses. The smaller chapels are right on top of each other in the aptly named “Tour des Chapelles.” Chapelle Saint-Jean celebrates two eponymous saints (John the Baptist is a different person than John the Evangelist). The Chapelle Saint-Martial celebrates one of the first bishops in France, active around the year 250 CE. Matteo Giovannetti crafted lovely frescoes of his life for this chapel in 1344-1345, and he completed the set for Saint-Jean during 1346-1348. I didn’t really feel that we got a good look at these works during our tour, since one cannot really linger inside the chapel (and one of them was closed off from visits).

In some cases, the removal of frescoes have exposed the red tracing used to compose them.

The Grande Chapelle is on a completely different scale from the smaller chapels. Very few of its original frescoes remain in place, but its vaults are still beautiful. In the 19th century, the nave served as a storage depot for government archives. The stairway leading down from the chapel has a magnificent look onto the courtyard below, effectively the space enclosed between the old and new palaces. The area had temporary construction underway to erect banks of seats for a concert or recital. I wonder how echoey those walls will be!

What began as a space between old and new palaces is now a concert venue!

I really enjoyed our visit to the Palace, though I did feel that the building has a great emptiness to it. Relatively few spaces have exhibits in place, and there’s no period furniture to help us imagine how these rooms would function. The tablet audioguides that they issued us at the entrance, however, were pretty cool in that they could show us animations of some rooms superimposed over the walls and floors we were navigating. I liked their little historical vignettes, too.

“Bookkeeper” Innocent VI: As a former professor of law, Innocent VI was known for his prudence and sobriety. The ongoing party that Clement VI had started had come to an end, the papal coffers emptied of their gold. Despite the new austerity, Innocent kept the pressure on the Papal States of Italy by funding Cardinal Albornoz’s military campaign there. In some cases, it was possible to turn warlords’ loyalties by bribes more inexpensively than by military action.

A temporary lull in the Hundred Years’ War meant that many unemployed men were lingering with sharp weapons. A substantial army of these “routiers” came to Avignon under Arnaud de Cervole. Innocent paid the routier forces a substantial fee to abandon the castles they had occupied in papal lands. When the “Free Companies” came to Avignon under Albert Sterz, Innocent used a slightly different strategy, taking some of the forces in employ for winning back control of the Papal States in Italy. Naturally, establishing better walls around the city gained priority.

“Saint” Urban V: Under the penultimate Avignon Pope, the moribund effort to return to the Vatican seemed to have been underway once more. The former Benedictine abbott expanded the palace gardens further and continued the city wall project, but his heart was set on returning to Rome. Cardinal Albornoz’s efforts had finally stabilized Italy enough that the papal court could return.

Map of the ground-level for the Palace of the Popes at the end of Urban V pontificate. Adapted from S. Gagniere (1965) in Vingtain and Sauvageot.

On October 16, 1367 CE, the returned papal court was received rapturously by the city of Rome. A representative of the Eastern Orthodox faith was there to discuss a future where the two branches of Christianity could re-unify [If you are sensitive to naughty language, don’t click that link]. The problem, however, was that the Eastern church needed military forces to accomplish that. The two largest military powers in Western Europe, England and France, were not willing to send armies east while they were busy killing each other wholesale in France. On September 24, 1370, Urban re-entered Avignon with his court. The Hundred Years’ War was raging once again, and now the Papal Treasury was empty from the expensive moves between cities. Urban died on December 19, 1370, not even three months after returning to Avignon.

“Humanist” Gregory XI: It could not have hurt his prospects that Gregory XI was the nephew of “Good Times” Clement VI. As yet another civil and canon lawyer, he had familiar training to that of the previous Avignon Popes. Although he had inherited Urban’s sense that returning to Rome was the proper course, his French cardinals were much happier to have returned to their comfortable lands and palaces in Avignon and its environs, and King Charles V, one of the most capable of medieval French kings, continued his opposition to the papal court leaving Avignon. On the other hand, Saint Catherine of Siena rallied him: “Forward! Finish what you have begun!” In the end, the growing instability of the Papal States in Italy (1375) seems to have been the spur required to begin the move back to Rome. On January 17, 1377, the papal court once again took up its role in the Vatican, and the Avignon Papacy came to an end.

Most rooms of the Palace of the Popes have essentially no furnishings. This chamber outside the Chapelle Saint-Jean offered more exhibits than most.

… and the Anti-Popes

OR DID IT? Gregory XI’s death in the spring of 1378 brought about the election of Urban VI on April 8, 1378, the first Italian Pope since the unbroken string of Frenchmen that spanned the Avignon Papacy. Much as I enjoyed Mullin’s treatment of the Avignon popes, I feel he was off-base in his portrayal of Urban VI as essentially a paranoid tyrant. Wouldn’t you feel betrayed if the same French cardinals who had been part of the conclave that elected you then vanished to another city and named one of themselves as Pope? That said, even the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia says, “If the first days of Urban’s pontificate were unhappy, his whole reign was a series of misadventures.”

Anti-Pope “Clement VIII” naturally gravitated to the recently vacated papal palace at Avignon. He claimed that he was simply awaiting the death of “crazy” Urban VI to become the Pope for all Christendom, but when Urban VI died in 1389, it became clear that Clement VIII did not have legitimacy outside the parts of Europe that had already acknowledged him.

The Palace gardens lie on two levels, with a children’s park just on the other side of the far wall. The sunlight of Provence is magical!

Clement VIII’s successor, “Benedict XIII,” had suggested that if elected as (Anti-)Pope, he would resign if the other Pope would resign so that a single Pope could lead Christendom. When the French king tried to get him to honor that pledge, however, Benedict XIII gave him the cold shoulder. That explains why the French king sent an army of mercenaries to start a siege at Avignon (and that’s when the palace gardens demonstrated their worth)! The wily Benedict XIII snuck himself out of his own palace in 1403. In 1409, the Western Schism was brought to an end when both popes were deposed and Martin V began his rule.

Avignon is a beautiful city with lots of fun spaces to enjoy, and the Palace of the Popes brings together history and fascination in a really unique combination. I hope one day that I can return with my favorite historian!

An image of the Palace of the Popes complex, photographed from the Île de la Barthelasse, published in Vingtain and Sauvageot

Out and About in Avignon

It took me about five minutes to decide I loved Avignon. After a long day walking in Marseille, my brother Tom and I reached the TGV train station in the outskirts of the city. We were pretty sleepy, so the trippy white latticework of the station was a little dizzying for me.

I loved the ceiling of Avignon’s TGV station.

The shuttle train from the TGV to the city’s central train station took just five minutes. I thought I might need a moment to orient myself, but the city helped us. The preserved 14th century remparts (walls) still serve to separate the town’s historic center from the later developments, with the N570 beltway running just outside. Since we were staying in the historic city, it was plain that we should follow Cours Jean Jaurès through the gap in the walls.

The 14th century ramparts are a welcome rather than a barrier today.

Why Avignon needed walls has had a different answer depending on the century. From prehistoric times, Avignon has occupied the Rocher des Doms, an enviable high ground overlooking the Rhône River, quite close to where it merges with the Durance River (and then flows into the Mediterranean Sea). Just where the Roman walls bounded the city is only vaguely known today. In 500 CE, Clovis laid siege to the city, and in 581 CE, the city intentionally flooded its boundary to avoid capture. During the eighth century CE, Saracen occupation of Southern France (lasting 40 years in total) required Charles Martel to take the city twice! All of these sieges came long before the challenges imposed by the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453 CE) and the Wars of Religion (1562-1598 CE). The 14th century ramparts were not intended to be decorative.

Saint-Martial has seen better days, but it is still a romantic backdrop for the gardens.

Two squares of note

Within a few minutes of passing the wall, we saw a pretty church with an accompanying garden. Tom and I spent a half hour there while waiting for our train to Orange on our first full day in the area. The church is Saint-Martial, a Protestant church that started its life in the 14th century under the Benedictines of Cluny. It was only in 1881 that the city signed the church over to the Lutheran community; it had spent the time since the French Revolution in a variety of “odd jobs.” The Revolution also changed the neighboring Square Agricol Perdiguier to a botanical garden after having served as a cloister for the Benedictine Abbey. Remnants of its arches still stand as sentries in the beautiful grounds.

The gardens of Square Agricol Perdiguier contain a reminder of the cloister that once occupied this space. Did you spot the Missourian?

Before we leave that part of town, I would also like to give a shout out to the Crêp’ Café. My brother made it his goal to eat a French crêpe while in the country, and their prime location between the city walls and the gardens I’ve just described made it an ideal place for people watching. Eating there was nearly our last act in Avignon, but in retrospect we should have stopped on each pass!

Crêpes aux fraises were a special treat. I opted for Nutella.

I have more mixed feelings about the Place de l’Horloge (“Clock Square”). I am still shy of large crowds in this phase of the pandemic, and the area was pretty popular at some times of the day. Tom and I stopped there for a big dinner on the end of our full day in Avignon. We chose a less-crowded restaurant with a pretty wide menu. At my recommendation (!) Tom tried a duck cassoulet; duck is surprisingly inexpensive and popular in France. I believe I had a baked lasagne, because there are few baked pastas I don’t enjoy. We had the restaurant patio area largely to ourselves at first. As we finished our food, however, an overtly drunk person sat down for drinks and appetizers. His loud speech wasn’t such a big problem, but soon he pulled out a set of bluetooth speakers so that he could share his music with everybody. We finished up in a bit less leisurely manner than we might have.

The best dinners are those that come after being hungry all day!

Despite that experience, I think the Place de l’Horloge is pretty cool. Vendors sell knick-knacks at its northern end (which leads to the biggest tourism draw in Avignon), and the pedestrian mall is surrounded by lovely buildings including the 19th century town hall and theatre. It even offers a carousel!

I always appreciate a good label on a building. Town Hall, Avignon

The Rocher des Doms

“Magic Hour” is also good for plants.

I will have a lot more to say about the Place du Palais and the Palace of the Popes in the next blog, but for now I will skip past that to the northernmost (and oldest) part of the city, the Rocher des Doms. The high grounds are now home to a beautiful garden, offering views of two of the premier sites of the city. As we climbed the stairs to the high garden, we briefly shared a landing with a freestyle bicyclist who was recording a video of his stunts. The sun was angled close to the earth on our last night in the city, and I just loved the way it made the buildings “pop” against the earth.

Notre-Dame des Doms of Avignon. Because I stitched together a composite of three photos, I made “our lady” atop the tower seem thick.

I feel we overlooked Notre-Dame des Doms Cathedral. It is to the Avignon Papacy what St. Peter’s is to the Vatican. If one is accustomed to the Gothic churches of Paris, it might be confusing that the basilica of Avignon is built in the older Romanesque style, befitting its origins in the eleventh century (like Saint-Germain-des-Prés or Saint-Martin-des-Champs). I would have liked to have seen the tombs of the Avignon Popes or the precious items in the treasury.

The 12th century bridge across the Rhône at Avignon was such an accomplishment they named Bénézet a saint!

The St. Bénézet Bridge was a marvel of 12th century engineering, just as the Eiffel Tower was a marvel of the 19th century. It was such a landmark that it is the point of view for many maps of medieval Avignon. One of the reasons I find this bridge fascinating is that it was also a controlled border for much of Avignon’s existence. To the west of the Rhône was France, and to the east was the Holy Roman Empire or another political body. Sadly, the repeated flooding of the Rhône periodically swept away the bridge footings, so we have only the Avignon half today. I am glad Tom and I could see the bridge, even if we didn’t get the chance to walk on it or visit its chapel.

This 1609 drawing of Avignon by Étienne Martellange showcases its famous bridge.

All in all, Avignon is a city that rewards tourists handsomely. Yes, it’s a modern place, but its core is easily navigated on foot. From time to time, you will turn a corner as you wander and feel like you are in an altogether different era of the world. A person from four hundred years ago would still find familiar points in its streets.

All the locations described above appear on a simple South-to-North course.

Visiting ancient Rome at Orange

Visiting Southern France with my brother let us see some of the best-preserved structures from the early years of the Roman Empire. Setting up our base at Avignon gave us great flexibility; for long distances we could board the TGV at a station at the edge of the city, and for short distances we could hop a local train at the nearby Gare d’Avignon Centre. We purchased tickets through www.oui.sncf and were soon aboard a stopping train to the town of Orange, department of Vaucluse.

Saint-Eutrope Hill, as seen from the Roman theatre below

It might seem that a town of only 30,000 inhabitants is unlikely to have any depth to its history, but Orange has surprisingly long roots. The area first gained prominence from a clash in 105 BCE, part of the Cimbrian Wars. The Roman Republic was irritated by the migrations of the Cimbrians and Teutons, who kept trying to take up residence in areas occupied by allies of Rome. In 105 BCE, Rome raised an army of 120,000 and landed them in Southern Gaul to defeat these migrants, but the Senate made an important error in establishing two separate forces reporting to consul Mallius Maximus and to proconsul Servilius Caepio (one on each side of the Rhône River). After an initial conflict between the “barbarians” and the Roman vanguard eviscerated the Romans, each of the two Roman military leaders signaled the other to move his forces closer so that they couldn’t be individually defeated, and both refused. With the two Roman armies in conflict with each other, their forces were mauled, with just a few dozen survivors. The disaster was named for a sacred spring called Arausio on Saint-Eutrope Hill.

The Roman colony of Arausio, as reconstructed by J-C Golvin

When the Romans occupied southern Gaul, Arausio was colonized in 35 BCE to house veterans of the second legion of Gaul. The town gained substantial infrastructure, with a forum accompanied by a ampitheatre in the side of Saint-Eutrope Hill and a temple complex. A memorial arch was erected at the northern extremity of the town. One can find Roman amphitheatres all over Europe (even in Paris), but Orange is the only place I know where one can find a full-size theatre in this excellent condition. That’s why the town is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Throughout our visit, I was reminded of my visit to Italica with Natasha.

The way the Romans wrote “1099” seems unnecessarily convoluted. Raimbaud II, Count of Orange

Tom and I walked west from the small train station to the center of the modern town of Orange. We paused at a statue of Raimbaud II, the Count of Orange. The podium celebrated his taking part in the First Crusade victories at Antioch and Jerusalem in 1099 CE. I think Tom was a bit surprised to see that the Crusades had any impact on a small town in Southern France. If I could linger on Raimbaud II for just a moment, I would point out that his battles in 1099 CE are closer to the present (2021 CE) than to the time during which the theatre this post describes was built. We turned south for a block to reach the hulking wall of the Théâtre antique d’Orange. We spent a few minutes just walking the bounds, emitting the occasional unabashed “Wow!”

Our visit to the theatre of antiquity

My brother Tom pauses for a selfie with the Roman Temple porch ruins.

The theatre does not stand alone. The area west of the theatre on Rue Madeleine Roch has the remains of a temple porch and city center. I am glad that the modern city has not absorbed this area. Tom and I were able to enter the theatre for twelve Euros apiece, including audio guides coded to English. We didn’t opt for the special multimedia options.

The Roman town center mostly exists as wall footings today.

We climbed the stairs to enter from the middle ranks of the seating area. When we stepped into the bowl, with the theatre surrounding us, we felt something like awe. The theatre was constructed between 10 and 25 CE. If you happen to be Christian, that means that the stones on which we were standing were quarried and placed during the life of Jesus (often thought to have died in either 30 or 33 CE).

It’s pretty amazing we didn’t emerge from Orange with sunburns or sunstroke! These steps are obviously concrete, but there were plenty of original stones to touch.

Since Tom has spent much of his professional life teaching the next generation about history, he began talking about the “seven factors of civilization” that he saw in evidence around us. He paused to shoot a video on his phone for use in class.

Capturing the whole theatre wall stitched together three photos from my prime lens.

So… about that theatre stage. We often think about a modern stage having replaceable images that can be rolled up and down at will, but in Roman theatres the wall behind the stage (“scaenae frons“) was static, with shelves for a variety of statues. It was amazing that some of the original statues had been returned to their alcoves in this wall. The twin “parascaenia” towers that once supported the roof were also still standing, and a modern roof has been anchored to them to protect the stage below from the elements.

Preservation and restoration made these ancient ambulatories safe for use.

The sunlight in the bowl of the theatre had gotten pretty intense, and so we entered the chambers under the upper ranks of seats. Most were devoted to the modern uses of the theatre; it has an active schedule of events, from rock concerts to celebrations of the city’s Roman heritage. Tom and I both enjoyed the music, but I was taken aback when one of the presentations noted that these chambers had previously been used as prison cells.

This photogrpah from AKG Images shows the Théâtre antique in the 18th century being used to shelter village buildings. “Inside View of the Theater of ORANGE”. The copper engraving by Pierre Fourdrinier is displayed inside the museum at Orange.

The restoration of this theatre is all the more amazing because at some points in its history the village of Orange has used the theatre to shelter its housing! Fabienne Dugast‘s Ph.D. thesis incorporates a variety of engravings that have been produced for the theatre of antiquity over the most recent centuries. Some of the images are on display in the Art and History Museum of Orange. I really wish we could have spent more time in the town to visit it.

From town center to the Memorial Arch at its northern edge

This water fountain is west of the train station, but I decided he fits right here.

As Tom and I walked north to our next stop, we had a moment to enjoy the modern conveniences of Orange. Something kept nagging at the back of my mind about the town name, when I suddenly realized that the name “Orange” is often associated with Protestant communities (such as communities in Northern Ireland). In fact, William of Orange, the prince of the Dutch Republic who became the King of England in the “Glorious Revolution,” was named so because he was also the Prince of Orange, the area we were visiting. I was fascinated that the center of a Protestant Principality was a mere 13 miles from Avignon, which for many years was the home of the Pope.

Flowers on the Meyne River Bridge

Perhaps because Orange has not had as much economic growth as its neighbors, it has retained some of the small town atmosphere and walkable areas. Our path north took us to the Cathedral of Orange, which happened to be hosting a baptism that morning. I poked my head in to see another beautiful nave. As we got further north, we crossed a pretty bridge over the Meyne River, which empties into the Rhône River just west of town. It was all very peaceful.

The memorial arch of Orange forms the center of a traffic circle, much like l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris. This Roman arch is approximately 1800 years older, though…

National Route 7 runs north to the memorial arch at the (former) edge of town. In Roman days, the route was called “via Agrippa,” extending all the way north to Lyon. When we visited, the base was still surrounded by construction fences, since its restoration is an ongoing project. The arch has stood there for two millenia, but it doesn’t look a day over 1000 years old, if you ask me! The construction date is a little bit in doubt, since the colony was founded in 35 BCE but the arch carries an inscription honoring Tiberius in 27 CE. Was the original arch rebuilt? One cannot carbon date limestone. In any case, the arch has seen some interesting history. In the middle ages, stone masons incorporated the Roman arch into a defensive wall around the city.

What is the story behind this unusual home?

Our path back to the train station took us by a lovely mansion in the angle defined by Avenue Frederic Mistral and Avenue Henri Fabre. I don’t know quite how we missed seeing that on our walk in!

Provence, in southeastern France, has a lot to offer if you are really interested in the full Roman experience:

  • Nîmes “Maison Carrée” Corinthian Temple
  • Pont du Gard aqueduct
  • The Ampitheatre of Arles
  • Ouvèze River Bridge

If you have access to a car, you can visit Orange and all of these other sites with a total of just over two hours’ driving.

Marseille on the hoof

Our alarms erupted at 4:45 AM. My brother Tom and I had 45 minutes to reach the subway that would take us to the Gare de Lyon for our 6:14 AM train south! I admit this was fundamentally unfair to Tom; he had only arrived in France two days before, and jet lag hadn’t really unclenched its grip. He gamely pulled himself together, though, and soon we had reached the train station on the southeast part of central Paris.

My brother: master of planes, trains, and automobiles

Even if the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) is almost as old as I am, it’s still a thrill to ride. Paris and Marseille are 660 km apart (just over 400 miles), but the TGV can cover that distance in 3h20m. Tom and I didn’t have the direct route, though; instead, we were taking the train to Valence and then changing to a different route to reach Avignon, where we were staying for the next two nights. We would do day trips from there to reach Marseille and Orange.

Avignon (near the top) lies between Orange (top) and Marseille (bottom), making it our planned lodging to see all three.

The trouble was that I got clever on the way to Valence. Since the train we would take from Valence to Avignon continued on to Marseille, why not buy tickets that would allow us to stay on board all the way down? We had a 33-minute layover at Valence that should allow me enough time to make the purchase. Well, we got the tickets purchased, but the time required meant we reached the departure platform as the train for Marseille departed. I had a few moments of self-flagellation, but soon I got down to business. We could still take a direct train to Marseille, but we needed to wait for the 9:45 opening of the ticket office. Once it opened, we exchanged our tickets for the 11:20 train to Marseille instead. Tom used the time to sleep in a relaxation chair. All is well that ends well?

Tom didn’t need to understand the relaxing French phrases being directed at him from above to find sleep.

It can be a bit unfortunate that one makes a first impression of a city when traveling by train based upon the area around its train station. In my experience, that usually means more than a little rust, weeds, and graffiti; in this Marseille was no exception. Because we needed to board our train north to Avignon around dinner time, our exploration of Marseille would be squeezed to four or five hours.

Helpfully, I had learned that bus 82S would pick us up at the train station, wind through the old city on the north side of the port, and finally drop us at Plage des Catalans, a public beach on the Mediterranean Sea. Unfortunately, the first bus for that route was out with a mechanical problem. When the second bus pulled up, we started to board but then learned we needed to be able to pay the fare in coins (“monnaie”) rather than notes. I hustled into the train station to buy some M&Ms for change, and then we were onboard.

This 18th century map of Marseille by Joseph Razaud shows its concentration to the north side of the port

Despite living in Lyon for a couple months in 1994, I had never been to Marseille. I was surprised to learn that Marseille is built on the bones of Massalia, a Greek colony settled by people from Phocaea (in modern-day Turkey) around 600 BCE. The Romans liked the location, too, adapting the name to “Massilia” when Julius Caesar took the city in 49 BCE. During the middle ages, Marseille was France’s premier port on the Mediterranean, and today it is the second most populous metropolitan area in France (though it has less than half as many people as does Paris).

Brothers to the Beach

This 1914 photograph of the Marseille Cathedral comes from the National Library of France. My photograph was taken through a bus window!

The first part of our city tour on Bus 82S was a bit discouraging. The phrase “sun-blasted” lingered in my mind, and the neighborhoods seemed somewhat uninviting. When the bus emerged to follow Quai de la Joliette southward, though, we saw the sun, the water, and some beautiful architecture along the waterfront. The all-star was definitely the Marseille Cathedral. After a steady diet of Parisian Gothic, the seat of the archdiocese in Marseille was a welcome change for me. I was surprised to be reminded of Sacré-Coeur in its Byzantine-Revival style, and the striped layers of bricks made me think of Italy’s churches.

Plage des Catalans is a welcome way to cool down in sunny Marseille.

When the bus followed the outline of the rectangular port, Marseille really shone. The masts of the flotilla were just everywhere, and restraurants and other businesses were doing great business. We had a bit of a surprise at the east end of the port; a protest from labor unions seemed to be underway. Our bus managed to pass through without much difficulty, and we soon passed the south side of the port to climb a ridge that was surmounted by a fortress of some sort, and boom! We had arrived at the beach, just like that.

Les Îles at Marseille are just a ferry ride away…

Plage des Catalans was a popular destination on our day. Tom and I walked around the site a bit. A lookout point to the south side of the beach gave me the chance to photograph the Frioul Islands, one of which features a 16th century fortress that was the setting for Dumas’ novel, “The Count of Monte Cristo.” We came to the beach, though, so that Tom could indulge himself in a swim in the Mediterranean Sea. In just a few moments, he was ready for the water, while I guarded our backpacks. In no time at all, he was ready for his “James Bond” moment:

We are a long way from Missouri, Bro!

Honestly, after his wading time, we were a bit unclear on how we would spend the rest of our time. We had plenty of time before our train back to Avignon, and we could use the bus or the metro to return to the station. We were intrigued by the huge fortress on the hilltop to our east, so we started trudging eastward. Sadly, it seems that Fort St. Nicolas had not reopened to tourists, but it would be an amazing place to photograph the city. As is true with fortifications from throughout Europe, Louis XIV designed the 17th century fortress to protect the city and also to protect itself from the city (don’t forget that the revolutionary national anthem is named after the people of Marseille: the Marseillaise).

This image from the National Library of France shows the port of Marseille behind the massive early 20th century bridge.

What really blows my mind is that the French constructed a high bridge between this high point and Fort Saint Jean on the other side of the channel into the port. The “Pont transbordeur de Marseille” spanned 165 meters, 80 meters above sea level, and it was completed in 1905. Unhelpfully, the Nazis blew apart the northern support in 1944, and the bridge has not been replaced.

3km back to the station

Marseille says hello!

Once we descended from the fortress, we were in the popular port zone. I stopped to photograph the National Theatre of Marseille (featuring a big banner reading “OCCUPY”), and two young fellows wanted to be part of the image. I was a bit dumbfounded when we encountered the Musée du Savon; who knew we needed a Museum of Soap? I thought it might be fun, but Tom thought we should continue along the waterfront. I would not have imagined that we would soon be standing in front of a Steak ‘n Shake, but there it was before us.

This photograph of Saint-Ferréol comes from on-descend-la.com. The church currently on this site was consecrated in 1542, though it was reduced in size by 19th century roadworks.

Our walk along the port took us past a pile of busy restaurants, and other pedestrians were everywhere. We passed the triumvirate of KFC, McDonald’s, and Burger King to reach the northeast corner of the port. The facade of Église Saint-Ferréol les Augustins was a stately but brooding presence at this corner of the commercial district. The protest (“manifestation”) we had seen nearby earlier in the day left posts on a nearby wall that read “Patriarcat = Dicktature” (“patriarchy is dictatorship,” with an emphasis on male dictators). Apparently the church has recently been occupied as part of protests.

The Roman port is an excellent forecourt for the Marseille History Museum.

The historical site I most wanted to see lay behind the church. The Port Antique or Garden of Vestiges is surrounded on three sides by the Mediterranean Center for International Trade, the Marseille History Museum, and the Centre Bourse (hotel and business center). The ancient port, opened to the public in 1983, was re-discovered in the course of a large-scale construction project for the neighborhood. It represents three layers of construction: the Hellenistic (4th century – 1st century BCE), the Roman (1st century BCE – 3rd century CE), and the late (4th century – 8th century CE).

I like the Space Age aesthetic of the history museum.

It’s natural to ask where the water is, since we call this a “port!” Over the last two thousand years, the shoreline has descended by approximately 40 meters. Of course, if we look over a truly long period, we would find that during the Ice Age, so much water was frozen in the poles that water levels were far lower in the Mediterranean than they are today, unmasking the entrance to the Cosquer Caves, a premier site near Marseille for the cave paintings of early humans.

The arch at Porte d’Aix celebrates the Duke of Angoulême’s leadership of the French army.

If we had an extra two hours in town, I would have gladly visited the history museum, but we wanted to be sure we caught our train. Since we still had the time to enjoy the walk, Tom and I meandered up the hill along Rue Barbusse. We had a bit of a surprise when we suddenly encountered the triumphal arch at Porte d’Aix. The construction of the arch began in 1823 under Louis XVIII (whose reign as king was interrupted by not one but two periods of Napoleon as emperor) and completed in 1839 under the last king of France, Louis Philippe I. Today the area has become a popular lounge for young people.

Notre-Dame de la Garde, consecrated in 1864

From there, we followed Rue des Dominicaines and Rue des Petites Maries back to the train station. We were proud of our long walk, even though a bus or metro would have saved some time. I was happy to discover that the hilltop position of the train station gave a good view of Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde, a “Romano-Byzantine” church crowning the tallest hill in Marseille. I laughed to discover that its 23-year-old architect, Jacques Henri Espérandieu, was a Protestant! The church appears conspicuously in the opening scenes of the French Connection.

We boarded our train up to Avignon, and Tom was asleep in moments.

A Palace nearly lost to time: le Palais de la Cité

Just how many palaces does a king require? In the 14th century, the answer was four: the Palais de la Cité, the Louvre, the Hôtel Saint-Pol, and the Château de Vincennes. Of these, the Palais de la Cité was easily the oldest. Today, however, you might easily walk past its site without detecting a “castle.” In this post, I would like to bring the first royal palace in Paris to life again, highlighting elements that one can still see in today’s Paris.


This drawing by Jean-Claude Golvin consolidates what we know about Roman Lutetia, the predecessor of Paris.

In the period before the Romans extended their reach to Gaul, the Parisii lived along the Seine River. From time to time, these earliest Parisians needed a place to retreat in the event of an attack, and the Île de la Cité served as their “oppidum” (refuge). When Julius Caesar triumphed over Vercingetorix in 52 Before Common Era, the Romans created the city of Lutèce, and they constructed a substantial building to house the magistrate at the west end of the Île de la Cité. In the middle of the fourth century (Common Era), Julian created a powerful fortified residence for himself at this site. In 360, Julian was proclaimed emperor by his troops at Paris, a situation that might have led to a Roman Civil War if there hadn’t been plenty of other armies to fight at the time. We can probably put a date of 486 on the fall of Roman Gaul, when the rump state of “Soissons” lost a key battle to a Frankish army.

A look into the park at the extreme western end of l’île de la Cité.

The Merovingian kings (486-751) extended the Roman structure with walls and a royal workshop, and they used it as their palace, too. The Carolingian Dynasty (751-987), on the other hand, largely allowed the palace to fall by the wayside, though its fortifications were handy during the ninth-century Viking sieges of Paris (discussed in my post on Saint-Germain-des-Près). If this sort of “ancient” history appeals to you, I am happy to report that the Crypte archéologique de l’île de la Cité can easily be found in the square before Notre Dame Cathedral. You might also be interested in the Arènes de Lutèce, in the Latin Quarter.

The archaeology museum could hardly be easier to find!

Getting Medieval

Not all who dwelt in the Palais de la Cité were happy about it. Image courtesy of the National Library of France.

It was the House of Capet (987-1328) that transformed this structure into a royal palace. Robert II the Pious (r. 987-1031) transformed the law court of the Roman praetorium into a king’s room, where his court would meet. It is probabale that Louis VI le Gros (r. 1108-1137) raised the tall, round tower (or “donjon”) in the palace, a structure that would stand in the Petit Cour until the fire of 1776 (it also appears under the name Grosse Tour or Tour Mongoméry). It proved useful both to defend the palace and to imprison political enemies. During 1239-1248, King (and later Saint) Louis IX constructed the Sainte-Chapelle at the Palais de la Cité to house a relic he had acquired at great cost: Christ’s Crown of Thorns. (I have previously written of the Sainte-Chapelle at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which may be considered a prototype for the larger Saint-Chapelle at Paris.) With these constructions complete, the palace would have looked something like the following:

This image from Jean Guérout attempts to capture the state of the palace in 1292. The area between the western side of the Palace and the western point of the island is the “Verger du Roi” [Royal Orchard].

It is worth mentioning at this point that very, very few traces of this palace remain today. The most prominent is the Saint-Chapelle, which continues to ascend well above the other buildings in the area. The round tower of the Salle sur l’eau at the top left of the diagram is frequently titled the “Tour Bonbec,” or tower of the good beak; this is a bit of gallows humor to reflect that this tower was frequently used to torture suspects until they had confessed. The original tower was essentially rebuilt after a fire in 1871.

Let’s make it royal.

The palace complex after expansion by Philippe IV

Philippe IV le Bel (r. 1285-1314) had big dreams for his palace, but the king…

“considering the antiquity and age of his Parisian palace,” pulled [the Salle du Roi] down and “caused another new one, together with all the edifices appertaining thereunto, to be built, of admirable workmanship and by artisans and workmen of the greatest knowledge and experience that could be sought out, and caused his own image and those of all his predecessors to be affixed to the inside of the wall.”

Chronographia Regum Francorum, quoted in Royal Palaces of France by Ian Dunlop
The 13th century wall and towers (with substantial restoration and replacement)

Construction between 1293 and 1313 evicted many private homes and businesses from the palace precinct. A new wall extended from Tour Bonbec (the singleton at upper left in the 1292 diagram above) eastward along the Seine. Two new towers (Tournelle Criminelle and Tournelle Civile) incorporated new facilities for the courts; today they are frequently called Tour de César and Tour d’Argent. The Grand’Chambre adjoins both these towers and points south toward the heart of the palace; today it is called “la salle des Gardes.” You can learn a lot more about the new judicial roles of these additions on the Marie-Antoinette tour!

This 1855 engraving of the Grand’Salle is from the National Library of France.

Perhaps the most famous of Philippe IV’s revisions to the palace was the creation of the Grand’Salle in the first fifteen years of the 14th century (see engraving above). The massive double-nave structure (70m long and 23m wide) was the largest for its time. Critically, it had 24% more floor area than the Westminster Hall of England, constructed in 1097. The high table, crossing almost the entire width of the room, was constructed of nine well-fitted slabs of marble. The initial 42 statues of the Kings of France had grown to 58 in number by the time the first Grand’Salle burned in 1618. It was rebuilt, but it no longer served as a king’s great hall but rather as an annex to the judicial buildings.

The 2012 restoration did wonders for the Horloge!

We need just one more king of France to see the Palais de la Cité at its height. Jean II le Bon (r. 1350-1364) lived his entire life during the Hundred Years’ War. Nonetheless, he found the time and money to craft the Tour de l’Horloge at the northeast corner of the Palais de la Cité. It’s a charming structure, with a little steeple up high (apparently it housed a light at one point). In 1370, the tower housed the first public clock in France.

A medieval illumination from the early 15th century shows us the medieval Palais de la Cité.
Wikimedia Commons ©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. Ojéda

Our earliest exterior image of the palace complex comes from a book titled “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” that was created by Pol de Limbourg in 1412-1416. This image, probably based upon the view from the Tower of Nesle (now the site of the Institut de France). I was delighted to find a new rendering of the medieval Palace by artist-historian Jean-Claude Golvin (who also crafted the painting of Lutetia at the head of this post).

Medieval Palais de la Cité by Jean-Claude Golvin

I would point to two different actions that have substantially hidden this palace from Paris. The first of these relates to the royal orchard, extending up and to the right of the palace in the image above. In 1607, “Good” Henri IV decided to remake the royal orchard as an upscale planned neighborhood called “Place Dauphine.” The triangular development now opens at the point of the island to highlight an equestrian statue of Henri IV. When Natasha and I visited the Marais, we visited Place des Vosges, which was launched at roughly the same time. You might think that Place Dauphine would be a great place to view the Palais de la Cité, but I have some bad news for you.

Place Dauphine, facing to the east

Baron Haussmann strikes again

The Prefect of the Seine appointed by Napoleon III did far more than straighten a few streets and ask for consistent building frontages along avenues. Baron Haussmann had a peculiar void in his soul where the Île de la Cité was concerned. This, for example, is his tale of crossing the island during his school days (from his Memoires): “I crossed the old pont du Change . . . then I skirted the old Palais de Justice, with the shameful mass of low cabarets that used to dishonor the Cité on my left . . . continuing my way by the pont St. Michel, I had to cross the miserable little square where, like a sewer, the waters flowed out of the Rue de la Harpe…”

Haussmann’s fountain to clean up Place Saint-Michel was interpreted by the people who were evicted from their homes as showing the Empire as the angel Michael trampling their corpses.

Haussmann was going to “fix” the historic city center as soon as the opportunity presented itself. His “solution” was to substantially rebuild the palace complex as a Palais de Justice, and that’s exactly what he did. He felt that the old houses and shops crowding the front of Notre Dame should be stripped away so that all could see its magnificent facade, and that’s exactly what he did. Today, when you look east from Place Dauphine, you see what Google Maps labels “Palais de Justice de Paris: Massive home of French Legislative Power.” When you walk along Boulevard du Palais, you will probably see the Viollet-le-Duc spire atop the Sainte-Chapelle, but you will need to pay your fee to enter the courtyard to see it. The old Cour du Mai is now behind a tall gate, and because it is a court complex, you probably do not want to point your camera in that direction.

The Cour du Mai, separating the Grand-Salle from the Sainte-Chapelle (from National Library of France)

It was a royal palace for a millenium and a half, but today the Palais de la Cité seems enveloped by its new use as a courtroom.