Tag Archives: history

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!

“Older and Meaner:” the Missouri State Penitentiary

July 25, 2021

Missouri State Penitentiary presents a stern exterior on Lafayette Street in Jefferson City, MO.

Even though I grew up in Missouri, I feel I still have a lot to learn about the state. Visiting my brother in the summer of 2021 was joyful because it was my first time to return to Missouri since before the pandemic, but it was also a cool opportunity to learn more about the state capitol at Jefferson City. When Tom suggested we take the two-hour “history tour” at Missouri State Penitentiary, I jumped at the chance.

As we drove to the prison for our 3:30 PM visit, the clouds let loose with a sudden shower. I was grateful that we didn’t get drenched as we ran for the prison entrance, but the rain picked up considerably once we were inside. When the entrance doors were mechanically closed and bolted by the control office, they added a more substantial barrier to exit than the heavy rain. We were inside for the duration.

This control center for the main entrance was our backdrop for the early part of the tour since the rain impeded our wandering outside.

In the nineteenth century, penitentiaries represented a substantial change in how justice was pursued in the United States, built in the belief that prisoners could be isolated from negative influences and taught the habits of hard work. The facilities at Auburn, New York and Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, constructed in the first half of the nineteenth century, set the model for this reform of offenders. Missouri State Penitentiary was crafted to follow the “Industry, Obedience, and Silence” model of the Auburn System.

As powerful as these walls were, they were unable to withstand an EF-3 tornado.

Why is Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP) significant? As detailed in J.P. Rasmussen’s book, the decision to build the first penitentiary west of the Mississippi River at Jefferson City was a stake in the ground to anchor the capital to that site. The first state capitol building in Jefferson City had only been completed in 1826, and more established communities in the state had agitated to abandon the project of creating a new city for the capital. By keeping offenders at a new MSP, the state’s counties would not have the burden of holding them in lesser facilities. Critically, if the offenders were housed at a central facility, they could labor in secure workshops. In effect, Jefferson City would be built on the profits of industries that could harness poorly-paid offender labor. The initial MSP was created by an 1833 act of the Missouri legislature and was completed only two years later. After a series of expansions, the MSP drew offenders from several states, eventually housing 5200 offenders (roughly ten times as many as Alcatraz). After remaining in service for 168 years, the MSP closed its doors in 2004.

Our tour guide was concerned about the rain, since he wanted to show us the oldest building still standing at MSP. For thirty minutes, he extemporized on the history of the prison, keeping an eye on the rain outside. He discussed some of the most famous offenders held here, such as James Early Ray. He explained that the building we stood in (Housing Unit I) represented a real innovation, housing female offenders separately from male. I would have liked to have learned more about Kate Richards O’Hare and Emma Goldman, women who were imprisoned from 1917 to 1920 for blocking the draft of troops for World War I. As observed by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”

Housing Unit 4 (1868) has an impressive exterior, but we could not visit the inside due to storm damage.

It is worth mentioning that the oldest building still standing on the site was built in 1868, three decades after the prison came into existence. A hint of what existed before was discovered when an exercise yard was built for one of the other prison halls. Workers were able to uncover a line of prison cells dating from the 1840s; our tour, however, allowed us only to see them through a half-opened window a dozen meters away. Housing Unit 4 (1868), the oldest building still standing, is still pretty impressive, though we were not able to see the inside. A powerful EF-3 tornado ripped through Jefferson City in 2019, and it left gaps in the powerful walls surrounding the prison and removed the roof of Housing Unit 4. It is unclear when enough funds will be collected to repair the damages since the site is expected to cover its own maintenance expenses from tour ticket prices.

Long may your memory endure, Mike the Cat!

I am always a sucker for stories about cats, and I particularly liked the story our guide related about Mike, a feline who lived at the penitentiary from 1953 to 1974. Mike served as a “mule” for cigarettes, with a feeding schedule that took him to each hall of the penitentiary campus. His services were aided by a set of saddle bags crafted by prisoners to match his fur.

These large towers on Housing Unit 3 feed the ventilation system for the building. My brother appears in the red shirt at lower left.

Since Housing Unit 4 was unavailable, our tour emphasized Housing Unit 3 (1914). Just a few parts of the building had displays to help us understand the site. The prison cell of James Earl Ray was an early stop on our walk. A substantial display addressed the 1953 double execution for the kidnappers and murderers of six-year-old Bobby Greenlease. The guide played up the mystery of $300,000 ransom money that was given to the kidnappers but never recovered.

These ranks of cells seem more bleak now that they get less maintenance.

At several points in the tour, the guide made “spooky” allusions to ghost sightings in the facility, attesting that he had seen them himself. At one cell within Housing Unit 3, they had even posted three photographs purporting to be ghost sightings, though they looked like ordinary flash artifacts to me. The guide complained that the most compelling of the three photographs had been stolen by a guest. He also prevented the guests from walking down a corridor near which he had observed a ghostly man on a toilet. These comments seemed a bit upsetting to a child near me on the tour. I tried to keep my eye-rolls to myself. I have no idea how the people trailing behind us by ten meters were able to hear these ghost stories; the explanations could only have been audible to 25% of the group, at most.

The Missouri State Archives have plenty of photos to document this prison’s history.

September 22nd, 1954, was one of the darkest nights in the history of the MSP. A group of offenders sought to retaliate against an informer who was being protected by having been moved to the death row cells. After two guards were jumped and their keys stolen, a group of prisoners freed several more cells of offenders; at that time, the MSP held 2575 offenders in total. A major riot resulted in a fire that consumed the automobile license plate shop and damaged other buildings. One of the two informers sought by the rioters died under sledgehammers stolen from the shop, while the other survived. The overwhelmed prison guards were soon buttressed by 100 police from St. Louis and members of the 138th Infantry of the Missouri National Guard. In total, the riot lasted 14 hours. Four offenders were killed, and thirty-four were injured. Four officers of the law were injured. Seven offenders were given life sentences for their actions in the riot.

This area was once chocablock with industrial facilities powered by convict labor.

At the close of the tour, we returned to our cars and drove around to the state motor pool on the east side of the facility. We were allowed through a security fence there to see a large grassy field surrounded by the walls on the river and the eastern end. This pleasant meadow represents the former site of the factories that benefited from prisoner labor. The historic photograph on display documents a clothing factory, a tag plant, a furniture factory, a soap factory, a shoe factory, and the “I-Hall” industrial area. Let’s be completely clear: these factories gravitated to Jefferson City because free men and women required higher wages than the industrialists wanted to pay. The offenders were not paid free-market wages for their efforts, and their principal route for spending money was in the prison commissary. In effect, the prison got paid twice for this system; the first payment was the agreement by which the prison agreed to lease out its laborers, and the second payment came from their laborers spending the “wages” they received. I believe it is pertinent to remember that Missouri was a slave state at the time MSP was constructed, and the use of physical coercion to ensure every prisoner was working in the factories would not have raised an eyebrow. Jefferson City was established through the labor of incarcerated offenders.

My Aunt Joyce talks with my brother Tom in front of the gas chamber for Missouri State Penitentiary.

Of course, we were brought to that area not to see the former industrial site but rather the gas chamber. Missouri executed a total of 40 offenders at this location, with all but one dying by inhaling cyanide gas– the most recent died by lethal injection instead. I was a bit horrified that people wanted photographs of themselves sitting in the chairs of the gas chamber, but we all make our own decisions. I was surprised to learn that the bricks in the path leading to the chamber were manufactured by A.P. Green, the grandfather of former Senator “Kit” Bond. I thought the most poignant aspect of the gas chamber was a panel showing photographs of each person executed there.

When historian Mark Schrieber was asked in 2009 to compare the MSP to other prisons, he simply described it as “older and meaner.” This quote matches a concern I had with the banter on the tour. Our guide explained that the Auburn System would allow a corrections officer to beat a prisoner who looked him in the face or spoke out of turn; our guide’s companion, a current corrections officer, said it was “unfortunate” that this was no longer allowed. When a guest suggested that people would pay money to see a convict executed, the guide and his companion laughed. These are just two examples of ways that the tour script seemed to dehumanize the offenders who had been incarcerated at MSP.

Missouri State Penitentiary is an interesting tour, and it certainly gave me a lot to think about for America’s prison system in the present, not just the past. I hope that on my next visit to Jefferson City I can see the museum that is housed in the former Warden’s Residence!

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!

Lübeck: Queen City of the Hanseatic League

When Natasha and I learned we would be in Hamburg, we realized we would be close to a UNESCO World Heritage Site: the Hanseatic City of Lübeck! Since the train ride between the two was less than an hour, Natasha and I squeezed a day-trip into our time in North Germany. My most distinct memory of that morning was when I reached over to hug Natasha on the train platform, when a hidden wasp nailed me on my right wrist!

Walking from the Lübeck train station to the historic city center takes very little time, since the first bridge to the island is just a couple hundred meters from the train station. Immediately, we were treated to the classic view of a fifteenth centry gate to the city wall. The Holstentor has its own museum inside, but we had our minds on a different museum for our limited hours there. The former city gate is just as irregular as heck, with slumpy walls and asymmetries in the conical roofs. It’s full of personality, though, and I am delighted we could pass through to the city beyond.

The 1464 Holstentor was the western city gate of medieval Lübeck. The twin towers at the left are Marienkirche, and the tall steeple immediately to the right is St. Petri.

If you like classic horror movies, you might have encountered “Nosferatu.” The location scout had a stroke of luck in spotting the Salzspeicher, the warehouses that held salt for export to the Baltic region. We encountered the “Speicherstadt” in Hamburg, representing a “warehouse city,” so the same root term shows up here, too. There’s a lovely viewing platform across the Trave River for a good morning gaze.

The Salzspeicher (16th-18th c.) were warehouses for salt, a sought-after commodity in the Baltic.

The international trade network centered in Lübeck was at the heart of our interest in the city, so we made our way clockwise around the island to come to the European Hansemuseum. I hadn’t purchased tickets in advance, so we reserved a pair for the early afternoon. We left ourselves a couple hours to lunch and visit the city interior.

The Heiligen-Geist-Hospital (constructed 1276-1286) featured a church and dormitory for patients. It continued in use until after World War II!

Our feet first brought us to St.-Jakobi-Kirche. The stately church stands much taller than everything else in the neighborhood. It is worth mentioning that while in France it is natural to assume the largest church in town is Catholic, in northern Germany you might make the assumption that the biggest churches are Lutheran. Natasha’s attention, however, was drawn by a massive raised-bed flower garden on exhibition in the square. While she moved from planter to planter with a contented smile on her face, I snapped some photos of the Heiligen-Geist-Hospital, a building which first entered service as a hospital in 1286 CE. It’s the oldest elder care facility in all of Europe (thought Santo Spirito might contest that title).

Marienkirche (constructed 1250 and 1350) coexists with modern business blocks.

Natasha had read about a noodle restaurant with gluten-free options near the town hall of Lübeck, so we marched south in search of it. We found some really nice views of landmarks along the way. I particularly liked spying Marienkirche from the east, since it is very hard to photograph up close; I craned my head way back to see the tops of those towers when we were across the street from it. The Kleines Nudelhaus in Fleischhauerstraße was a revelation for Natasha. The way the manager presented her with the gluten-free noodles was like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat. I was really happy with a photo Natasha took of me eating noodles. I recently replaced my Twitter profile photo with it!

With a few minutes to spare, we made it back to the northern edge of the island for our scheduled visit to the museum.

Hanse Museum

The reason we prioritized visiting Lübeck relates is the same reason its historic core is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In many respects, Lübeck was the center of the medieval “Hanseatic League” trading network. One might think of it as the 12th-16th-century successor to the first-millenium Viking trade networks. It was dominant in the North Sea and Baltic Sea at roughly the same time as the Silk Road was resurgent under Mongol rulers. I mentioned that Lübeck and Hamburg were not far from each other, and the watercourses on which they are sited flow to different sides of the Jutland Peninsula (which houses all of Denmark), so a short land transit between the cities could substitute for a relatively long sea transit.

The cog was an ideal vessel to handle coastal trade in the northern waters of Europe, transporting up to 90 tons of cargo while retaining the ability to operate in shallow waters.

The five most-developed trade centers in the Hanseatic League were Novgorod, Lübeck, Bruges, Bergen, and London. These cities developed “kontors,” cities-within-cities specialized in trade, often with some degree of extraterritoriality; trade disputes might, for example, be governed by Lübeck law even if the contested events took place in Novgorod, Russia.

This depiction of a Russian fur trader from Lübeck Cathedral refers to the centuries-long contact between Lübeck and Novgorod.

I was really pleased to see how much Novgorod was emphasized at the museum, since I had the chance to visit that city back in 2017. Its kontor was located across the Volkhov River from Novgorod’s historic center, adding physical separation to legal separation. Novgorod was a supplier par excellence of furs to the Hanse, and its exports of wax were also notable. I liked the idea that Novgorod could export hunting birds via its connection to the Hanseatic Leage; just how do you convince a falcon to stay on a ship?

In Medieval times, tools like these enabled cities to construct massive churches and palaces!

For some reason, I was really struck by the display of medieval building construction equipment at the Hanseatic Museum. I don’t think anyone who reads this blog would be surprised that I marvel at the rude tools used to create massive structures like Notre Dame Cathedral. When human-power was the only force available for construction, it is not surprising that major projects could require decades for completion.

Amber results from the fossilization of tree resin. These fragments are 14th-15th century production waste.

When we hear the term “Crusade,” we often imagine armored knights en route to Jerusalem. If you have read more broadly, you might know that the Reconquista in Spain also pitted Christian armies against the Muslims of Al-Andalus; the Pope used the term “Crusade” there, too. I did not expect to learn about “Northern Crusades,” though. As trade developed with the areas now occupied by Baltic States Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, amber exports revealed considerable wealth in the region. The Northern Crusades sent Teutonic Knights to the Baltics to convert pagans at the edge of the sword; naturally, one could imagine that the real goal was to increase the area under control by Christian rulers.

Jürgen Wullenwever (1488-1537), Dr. Heinrich Sudermann (1520-1591), and David Gloxin (1597-1671) each presided over different aspects of administering the Hanse in the centuries of its waning power.

I hope it will be okay for me to offer a criticism of the Hanse Museum. The last parts of the tour might logically be assumed to cover the loss of dominance suffered by the Hanseatic League at the end of the 16th century. One of the rooms did discuss the on-and-off status of the Steelyard kontor at London as the kings and queens of England attempted to regain tax authority over trade (as early as the 14th century until expulsion of Hanse merchants by Queen Elizabeth I in 1598). As the museum is structured, we were sitting in a small mockup of the Lübeck Hanse meeting hall in one room and then stading next to a bunch of wax clergymen in the next. If one is sleepy from travel, one might get the mistaken impression that the church ended the trade dominance of the Hanse. The London story is actually the more correct explanation; other trade groups, tied to particular nations, became jealous of Hanse profits and found their own ways to muscle the Hanse aside.

A return to wandering the city

Having finished our circuit of the museum, Natasha and I spent a moment exploring the Maria Magdalene Monastery, also described as the “Castle Friary” on the museum website. The oldest part of the structure dates from 1229 CE (it replaced a ruined fortress at the point of the island that would be exposed to ships coming in from the Baltic). The beautiful vaulting of the chapterhouse was delightful. We could only see the sacristy through glass, but the fresco work was on point. I recall that the paint work was much more recent than the structure itself, but it complements it beautifully. I liked the pair of Dominican friars carved in stone that we saw in the long hall; they date from 1400 CE. Natasha captured a photo of me with two friars molded in wax that appears at the top of this post.

Sacristy of the Maria Magadelene Monastery

We continued back toward the center of the island, passing on the eastern road (Große Burgstraße) rather than the western one we had followed to find lunch. It seemed like every building had some sort of interesting gable or architectural history or some famous German (the town was home to three different Nobel Laureates).

The detail work on the Lubeck Rathaus is subtle and beautiful.

The rathaus complex at roughly the center of the island is really eye-catching, having almost 800 years of history behind it. Adjoining the massive 13th-century Marienkirche, the complex sprawls through a variety of galeries and courtyards. Just walking past it on Breite straße, I loved an ornate projection on the building and a delicately carved staircase climbing the exterior.

The Rathaus complex completely surrounds the plaza, so this is one corner of it!

As people who know me well will attest, I am a fiend for sugary treats. As a consequence, it was clear that I must visit the Niederegger Marzipan Museum! The ground floor shop had me drooling right away. We picked up a few presents for our loved ones, certainly (and my wife found some treats for her beloved husband), and then we passed upstairs to see the museum. The first floor above the salesfloor was a cafe, and we continued to the second floor where we found the museum. We were the only people upstairs during that visit, so perhaps not many tourists know about the site.

Marzipan started as a medicine of sorts, with early production largely sited in monasteries. By the 16th century, apothecaries began supplying the candy medicine. Only in 1714 did confectioners in Lübeck gain approval to produce it themselves. Marzipan could only become a widely-enjoyed treat after sugar beet factories were established in 1801. In the 19th century, Lübecker Carl Schröder gained renown as an artist with marzipan, crafting sulfur molds with rich detail for his creations. For me, the highlight of the museum was an amazing array of twelve life-size statues created by Johannes Kiefer. I do not think I could eat my own weight in marzipan, but at least I know what that would look like!

Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen is part of a table full of life-sized figures crafted from 500 kilograms of marzipan by Johannes Kiefer

Natasha and I were pretty tired after our romp through the historic island of Lübeck, and we made our way back to the train station. I paused as we passed a monument to Otto von Bismarck. A group of young people had gathered around the plinth on which his statue stood. It seemed like a good reminder that the past meets the present all around us!

Otto von Bismarck stands next to the walking path from the train station to the old town.

Hamburg: the Museum for Hamburg History and the Alter Elbtunnel

Our walking path

Natasha and I can never resist a history museum, and so we decided to spend our Saturday visiting the Museum for Hamburg History. We headed for an area on the border of St. Pauli and the Hamburg Neustadt along the Elbe River. Helpfully, our hotel near Berliner Tor positioned us well for a train running directly to the Landungsbrücken (“Landing stages”) stop.

The type of stone used to build the landing structures is called “volcanic tuff.”

We emerged from the train station to see the waterfront. We had arrived around 9:30, and relatively few people were out and about. The stone landing buildings (constructed 1907-1909) are really pretty, and a modern promenade extends in either direction along the shore for quite some distance. The landing is two-thirds of a kilometer of length. We “bookmarked” the site, knowing we would want to return later in the day. For now, though, we wanted to reach the museum early in case we were only able to schedule our visit at a later time; neither Natasha nor I could determine how to purchase tickets from the website.

The 35-meter Bismarck Monument stands atop a catacomb of World War II air raid shelters.

We should have realized that marching to the museum would require us to climb quite a height above sea level. We huffed and puffed up the stairs to the Hotel Hafen Hamburg, but soon we realized we were on the wrong side of the ravine centered on Helgoländer Allee. We walked across the bridge of Seewartenstrasse to the east side. We thought we would walk north through the park there, but a heavily graffitied wall around construction pushed us further east. We had a tantalizing glimpse of an imposing white stone statue of Otto von Bismarck. When we reached it, we were looking across an active basketball court at Otto’s back. We had just another block or so to the museum, and Natasha was happy to spot berries growing wild at the side of the road.

Museum for Hamburg History

The Museum entrance

It is no mistake that the Museum for Hamburg History appears just east of a ravine; it was constructed atop the 17th century Henricus Bastion, part of the western wall protecting Hamburg from attack. The museum is run by the city, rather than the nation, and that makes it quite similar in role and administration to the Carnavalet Museum in Paris. The current structure was purpose-built for the museum (founded 1908), with construction spanning 1914-1922. You might imagine that other challenges were besetting Germany during this period of construction. I particularly like that the building incorporates elements saved from much older buildings that were destroyed or replaced in the period before it existed, some remaining from homes that were built in the sixteenth century!

If you’ve ever been curious about the phrase “breaking on a wheel…”
Some “miniatures” were much taller than I am!

From looking at a map, it might not be obvious that Hamburg is a marine city, but the Elbe River widens to an estuary (mixing area for salt and fresh water) just west of the city. As a bit of shorthand, we can find the boundary where an estuary becomes a river by asking where it was possible to build a bridge with medieval technology. For the Elbe River, that boundary is Hamburg. We often think of pirates as being special to the Caribbean Sea, but Hamburg was apparently the haunt of a great many medieval and early modern pirates. The museum exhibits a few skulls from that period, because the penalty for being a pirate was to have your skull nailed to the pier! The original dock area of Hamburg was relatively compact, but a light-show connected with a model of the docks illustrates just how much this harbor has been expanded over time, particularly as Hamburg became a key shipbuilding area during the World Wars. If you are a fan of miniatures, I would definitely say do not miss this museum, because it features them everywhere, particularly on its top floor display of a massive model train network.

I think we would have to pay quite a premium today to acquire a hand-painted pianoforte or harpsichord. Hamburg has featured some very prominent musicians over time.

I think many contemporary visitors to the museum will be a bit confused by a prominent seventeenth-century model of the Solomon’s Temple; it essentially gets a room by itself due to its size! In 1604, Juan Bautista Villalpando wrote a commentary on Ezekiel’s vision, trying to develop a fully-realized schematic for the Temple. For some architects of the period, Solomon’s Temple was considered the apogee of earthly design and as the reflection of the celestial temple. In 1680-1692, Gerhard Schott commissioned a scale model to be constructed in wood, lead, silver, leather, and gilt. It fascinates me that so much effort went into the realization of this model starting from fewer than 100 verses drawn from a book of the Old Testament!

This downscaled image from Wikiwand is a much cleaner image of the room-sized Temple of Jerusalem model; have I mentioned I loathe shooting photos through glass? In this case, the second story has been removed from the foreground wings to allow a better view of the temple itself.
This Wikiwand photograph emphasizes the temple proper at the center of the model.

The city history museum is well worth the time for a visit. I found it a little hard to stitch all its material into a single timeline in my my mind. I would find it difficult, for example, to answer a question like, “what events marked the biggest turning points in Hamburger history?” A question that frequently bothers me is, “why did the principalities, baronies, and free cities of Germany coalesce into a single nation relatively slowly?” I am not sure how to answer that even now.

St. Nicholas, carved in the early 16th century, was regarded as the patron saint of seafarers.

It is worth noting that the marked pathways in the museum anticipate that each visitor will follow a single path through all the displays of the museum. Because Natasha and I were skipping past some sections, we frequently found ourselves having to pass through doors that had been marked with “do not enter” signs since the museum wanted us to follow their prescribed route.

The inner atrium has been covered by a glass roof to create a pretty cool event space!

I have frequently explored topics in Jewish history on the blog, and I would say that the exhibits on the Jewish community of Hamburg were worth a look. Natasha and I spent a while exploring that area when I came across this sentence in an area with a schoolroom exhibit: “On June 30th, 1942 all teaching of Jewish schoolchildren was prohibited and those few Jewish pupils and teachers still living in Hamburg were almost all deported and put to death.” I don’t know what about that matter-of-fact statement affected me so much, but I had to sit down for a while. We humans must learn some lessons from our past to avoid destroying ourselves.

The Anglican Church, consecrated in 1838, was a nod to the English-speaking members of the Guild of Merchant Adventurers

Our museum visit had come to an end, and it was time for lunch! Natasha is a friend of phở, and she realized we were only a couple of blocks from a Vietnamese fusion restaurant called “Nom.” We had almost reached it when we stumbled upon the Anglican Church of Thomas à Becket— just as the Museum had reported, the church had few external features that announced it as a church, though more recently a gold cross had been emblazoned on its facade. The Vietnamese food was excellent, by the way. I had the chicken coconut curry soup and a jasmine tea. They really hit the spot!

St. Michael’s Church

Hauptkirche St. Michaelis

Since we were just a couple of blocks away from it, we decided to visit St. Michael’s Church. We did not brave the line to enter, but we did pause for a photo or two. An epic statue of St. Michael braining a demon stands above the main portal; it’s a particularly lurid design. Much more modestly, Martin Luther stands around the corner, facing a parking lot. At least, I think of him as more modest; the statue had him looking rather pompous!

Saint Michael and Martin Luther

Natasha and I descended once more to the waterfront. We followed a shaded path through the Michelwiese. Halfway down, we had quite a surprise when we encountered a statuesque head carved from stone, dubbed “Angelito,” that was brought here from Easter Island in 1999 (the image appears at the top of this blog post).

The park at Michelwiese

Alter Elbtunnel

The Hambuger Elbphilharmonie was constructed during 2007-2017 atop a 1963 brick warehouse in the Elbe River.

With only a little more walking, we had returned to the Elbe Waterfront. I paused for a photograph of the symphony hall, built with many delays and added expense atop a building at the west end of an island in the river.

Natasha and I walked along the waterfront toward the west. The sidewalk had become far more crowded by the early afternoon. We tried to merge with the traffic, but we had plenty of stops and starts as people sped up, slowed down, ducked in and out, or pushed bikes and strollers into the mix.

Gustav Adolf Church of Sweden, Hamburg, Germany

Rather suddenly, a cacophony broke loose on the road running alongside the jetty. A parade of decorated cars, flanked by police cars, protested the infringements of basic rights, perhaps agitated by enforced mask wearing or vaccine pressures from the government. For my part, I would really like it if people would follow public health guidance so this plague can finally end.

Another few steps forward, we encountered another protest, this time by vegans. I felt at least a bit sympathetic to their cause. What drew my eye, though, was that a protester was dressed in a shark onesie. Where do I sign to get my shark onesie?

North entrance to the Alter Elbtunnel

At long last, our feet brought us to the grand, round entrance hallway of the Alter Elbtunnel. The Old Elbe Tunnel was constructed during 1907-1911 to connect the St. Pauli waterfront to the Steinwerder shipyards. Today Hamburgers can use it any time of day to traverse the Elbe by bicycle or foot. Natasha and I opted to descend to the level of the tunnel by the stairs since it seemed a great press of people were using the large and small elevators. I don’t think we realized just how far down those stairs ran…

Looking downward at the stairs leading to the Elbtunnel
Looking upward from the Elbtunnel at the elevators in motion

The tunnel itself was not so different than one might expect, with tiled walls, a bike pathway down the middle, and pedestrian sidewalks on either side. If motor-powered traffic had ever been used for moving cargo this way, there’s little sign of it today. The massive elevator that drew us back up to ground level, though, was rated to handle 10,000 kg / 130 people!

If you have claustrophobia, you might avoid the Elbtunnel.

Since the tunnel was a bit claustrophobic, we thought we might take a ferry back across. We found the ticket machine at the landing, but it insisted on our paying the 6.80 euro in coins rather than card or notes. We didn’t have enough change in hand, so we trudged back toward the tunnel. Our return walk was less enthusiastic than our first pass. With our feet sending messages of unhappiness, we returned to the Landungsbrucken station. The ticket machines, however, had become quite uncooperative, arguing against my using a French bank card and then refusing to recognize my euro notes. Natasha and I piled in all of our change to acquire our tickets, and in no time flat we were back at Berliner Tor.

This skyline of Hamburg from the south side of the Elbtunnel shows Bismarck right by the Landungsbrücken tower at the left. St. Michael’s tower appears near the center.

Hamburg: Altstadt and Speicherstadt

Natasha and I briefly visited the city of Hamburg, poised at the mouth of the Elbe River. With just two days in Hamburg and one day in Lübeck, we had an admirable taste of maritime Germany! Natasha picked the Park Hotel for our stay, located in the Berliner Tor neighborhood, which gave us good access to both the airport and the main train station of Hamburg.

Our wander in Altstadt

Our first brush with the old town or “Altstadt” came in the evening hours of Saturday, August 14th. We started in the Rathausmarkt, the marketplace adjacent to the town hall. We hopped the subway from Berliner Tor to Jungfernstieg, a lakefront walk where the wealthy daughters of Hamburg could promenade in public. We came aboveground to discover a busy shopping area, but we turned toward the Rathaus, the first stop on our tour. We had a lovely surprise waiting for us. The Philharmonia was playing an open-air concert!

The Hamburg Rathaus is a bit of a fairy tale! The blue arc at left is the bandshell for the symphony performance.

The Rathaus was a beautiful site, with its high spire visible throughout most of the Altstadt. My eye decoded the outside as “Victorian,” and Natasha called it nineteenth century. Maiken Umbach noted that the design competition for the town hall took place in 1885, with a “Neo-Renaissance” exterior that featured twenty statues of emperors from the Holy Roman Empire. That high spire I admired shows the imperial eagle above the coat of arms for the City of Hamburg.

The passage behind the Rathaus allowed for a much closer inspection.

We followed a passageway between the Rathaus and the Chamber of Commerce behind it to find an enclosed plaza with an impressive fountain. As we exited the plaza, we were surprised to find a little fuel station at the exit! The Chamber of Commerce is pretty impressive in its own right, though the view of its facade (marked as “Handelskamer Hamburg”) is somewhat obscured by the construction taking place on the next building.

Who doesn’t like a stately chamber of commerce building?

Natasha reminded me that it was time for dinner, and she had located a restaurant that seemed a good prospect for gluten-safe food. We moved a couple of blocks northwest to the Bok Imbiss Cafe, located in a food court behind the mall space along Bleichenbrüke. We crossed the former city wall and then two canals in two blocks to reach the restaurant. It’s a reminder that Hamburg’s wealth came from maritime trade, and these inlets and canals (“Venice of the North”) produce a lot of surface area for businesses to access the water. I was also reminded of the incredible water channels in St. Petersburg.

That tower to the left belongs to the Alte Post building (1847).

The Bok Imbiss Cafe was an excellent choice! I enjoyed a teriyaki tofu and Natasha relished a lovely red Thai curry salmon salad. We still had a bit of light in the sky, so we continued our tour to the southeast. We reached the Trostbrücke bridge, the original of which was constructed in 1300 C.E. The bridge has a really cool pair of statues, one of Archbishop Ansgar and one of Count Adolf III, two figures associated with the origins of Hamburg. The bridge also offers a stellar view of some astonishing brick buildings, one of which features copper models of sailing ships at its crest.

This stately building appears to be the home of the F. Laeisz group of shipping companies. At lower left, you can see the archbishop’s statue.

When we passed those two buildings, we found another surprise. St. Nikolai Church occupies a site that has been home to a church since the late twelfth century. The current structure was constructed in 1874, but in 1943, the Allied bombing of Hamburg obliterated the building. I liked that the stabilized ruins have been turned into an art gallery of sorts and as a monument against war. For a couple years after its construction, the tower was the tallest building on earth, so it’s cool that people can visit its top to see the city from above (during business hours).

As the daylight fled, I captured an image of St. Nikolai, now a memorial against war and art gallery.

We exited the park to the west where we marveled at a massive pedestrian overpass with its own escalators. We struck out toward the Rathaus again to finish our tour since the light was fading. When we reached the city hall, the music from the symphony was reflected between buildings, so I paused to shoot a video while panning across the Rathaus exterior. Natasha and I strolled hand-in-hand to the waterfront, looking at the Binnenalster with its central fountain. it was a lovely image to savor at the heart of Hamburg.

Looking across the Binnenalster toward the headquarters of Hapag-Lloyd

The Kontorhausviertel and Speicherstadt

Our walking course was only a mile, but it crossed water six times!

Natasha and I resolved to spend more time learning about Hamburg’s trade history. The following morning (Sunday), she and I set out for the Speicherstadt, the “warehouse city” of Hamburg. Starting from the Meßberg underground station, our first priority was finding a quality cup of coffee for Natasha. It seems a bit of an oversight now, but we turned our backs on the Chocoversum, the chocolate museum of Hamburg, in search of a cafe.

Much of the Hontorhausviertel is constructed in “clinker” bricks, but I think the building housing the chocolate museum is constructed of more conventional ones.

We were happy to find ourselves in the middle of an historic area, the Kontorhausviertel (office building quarter), where massive buildings to support Hamburg’s commerce were established in the early twentieth century. We particularly liked the Chilehaus, designed by architect Fritz Höger and constructed in 1922-1924. It’s a fine example of “Brick Expressionism” for that era, with an acute corner like the prow of a ship!

The Chilehaus was named for the trade that won Henry Brarens Sloman his fortune; he imported saltpeter from Chile.

Right next door in the Sprinkenhof (constructed between 1927 and 1943), we found our cafe. Natasha and I arrived in the middle of Sunday Brunch, which looked pretty tasty! Nonetheless, we limited ourself to coffee and tea, and we enjoyed the happy patter of relaxed munchers around us. I was pretty impressed by a copy of the “Kontorhaus Journal,” a glossy publication detailing the businesses in the area.

This photo of the Speicherstadt warehouses was taken from a bridge on Bei St. Annen since the sun was shining when I crossed that one!

Natasha and I crossed the Wandrahmsteg (bridge from 1962) to the Speicherstadt, getting a pretty good view of the trend-setting building for Der Spiegel. The Speicherstadt itself is an artificial island created by driving oak piles into the riverbed. The motivation was the occasion of Hamburg’s joining the German Empire in 1888. Since the free port would be excluded from import sales taxes and customs, Hamburg was very motivated to have its warehouses located in the free port. They responded by building a massive warehouse district between 1883 and 1927. World War II’s Operation Gomorrah destroyed the western section of the warehouse district in 1943 (along with much of the rest of the city). The operation was notable for its use of “chaff” to prevent radar detection of the bomber wings bringing incendiary and high explosive bombs to the city. To talk about the military technology or loss of buildings is beside the point, though. The 9000 tons of bombs dropped in this operation resulted in more than 37,000 fatalities, largely civilians.

The misty morning supplied some drama to the warehouse district.

I was taken by an interesting museum at the northeastern end of Alter Wandrahm. The “Dialog House” has exhibits dedicated to enabling participants with normal sight to experience the world from the perspective of guides who lack sight. If we had more time in Hamburg, I would have liked to have tried it. Instead, we crossed to Brooktorkai and walked southwest to the Fleetschlösschen restaurant. We might have continued down that route to reach Miniatur Wunderland, but we hadn’t reserved tickets weeks in advance as would be necessary! We might have taken in the Maritime Museum, but we had other plans. We turned back to the northwest to cross on Bei St. Annan, because we knew our next destination. It was time for the coffee museum!

I believe the building with the copper domes is the headquarters for HHLA Hamburger Hafen und Logistik. It is rather pretty.

Coffee Museum

Since the late nineteenth century Hamburg and its free port had become the main hub for importing green coffee to central Europe. In the huge warehouse district, around two hundred coffee merchants at a time occupied the Sandtorkai, their offices and the coffee exchange just a short walk away from the city center, the town hall, and the chamber of commerce.

German History as Global History: The Case of Coffee by Dorothee Wierling in German History in Global and Transnational Perspective, edited by David Lederer (2017)

The Burg coffee roastery has been based near its current address since 1923. It’s a lovely place to stop for coffee, and we saw lots of lovely gifts that family members might enjoy. I was tempted to try one of the coffees, but I am really a tea person at heart. Natasha lingered over a cup of Burundian roast, with a smile that would not leave her face. I munched my way through a lovely chocolate cake with mighty chunks of pear.

This portable coffee making kit includes a roaster and spice kit.

The outstanding aspect of the roastery, however, is that it sits above a museum of coffee history. Helpfully, the museum starts the story long before Hamburg was involved. It was my first time to learn of the “dancing goat” legend, of Ethiopian shepherds who saw strange behavior from goats eating from particular bushes. Gradually the coffee bean migrated outward from the sahel, particularly once Arabian trade began featuring the commodity. Portuguese and then Spanish traders moved cultivation much farther afield, to east Asia, Brazil, Guatemala, and many other places. We might today think of Central America as the natural home of coffee production, but cultivation on a large scale there only began in the 1840s.

Early espresso makers brought Italian style to Germany.

Hamburg’s connection with coffee is tied to the rapid industrialization that took place in Germany throughout the 19th century. Coffee was a means to an end by early capitallists: “Coffee turned out to be ideal because of the enormous advantages of its triple effect: it helped workers stay awake, it apparently muted hunger and it optimized the capitalist goal of raising profits by increasing worker output. On the downside, coffee masked medical problems and exhaustion, causing premature worker death.” (Justus Fenner 2013)

An early professional-grade high-pressure coffee maker of contemporary type

Hamburg’s enviable position in maritime trade had persisted for centuries, and by the 1860s, coffee had become the most valuable agricultural product imported into its harbor. “The strategy of the Hanseatic coffee firms to assure steady profits had three components. First, they would step up importation of low-quality coffee from Brazil. At the same time, they would make a direct incursion into high-quality coffee production in order to control that part of the coffee commodity chain. Third, they would create a bifurcated consumer market in Germany, where more profitable sales of high-quality coffee would compensate the lower prices and potential risks of importing lower grade coffee.” (Justus Fenner 2013)

Turn-of-the-century grinders or roasters

In many respects, Germany was a Johnny-come-lately to colonization. Its merchants, however, found ways to benefit from Guatemala’s openness to external investment. After Guatemalan coffee gained a reputation for high-end coffee exports, German firms gained control of existing plantations within the country and cultivated new ones. Hamburg had soon become the pre-eminent supplier of coffee to Central Europe.

Natasha and I wandered north to Hauptkirche Sankt Petri, close to the Rathaus. At last the sun had come out, and we were able to enjoy our wander from the harbor to the old town in style.

The Hauptkirche Sankt Petri is our beacon back to the old town.

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.