Montferrand du Perigord and its 12th Century stone church St. Christophe

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I love the Dordogne region for the exquisite beauty of its honey colored towns.  We spent a week in September 2016 in the Abbey village of Cadouin and wanted to explore some of the towns nearby.  Always on the lookout for ‘Easter eggs’, hidden treasures that distinguish a destination, I chose Montferrand du Perrigord because I had read about the tiny country church where frescoes painted over in the 15th century had been rediscovered.

The town itself is lovely.  We parked near the covered market at the bottom of the town and strolled up towards the castle.   At the top of  the picture below you can see a Renaissance house with a long covered loggia.

DSC_1663All little towns in the region have a covered marketplace where weekly markets are held; the one in Montferand near the Maire is distinguished by its stone pillars; usually these structures are entirely wood.

 

It is always easy to spot the Maire as it is one of the few locations where you will see the national flag flown as well in this case the EU flag.

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Another noteworthy building was this home with the stone pigeonaire  or dovecote topped with a half timbered loft.

DSC_1658All along the way are those little architectural details that make these small towns so charming.  Interesting windows, doors and towers.  Local preservation laws require homeowners to maintain and preserve these little touches.

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Here is a shot down the street back towards the market building as we are heading to the top of the town and the castle.  I love the golden glow of these towns.

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These were two homes on the path up to the castle Perhaps part of the castle complex or castrum.DSC_1686DSC_1661

And here is the chateau which was built in the 12th century and used by Aymerric de Biron in his conflicts with the lords of nearby towns. The keep here does not contain active defensive structures but protects by keeping out invaders.  Air BNB has a very nice apartment listed in one of the buildings of the castle complex.DSC_1674

The castle is at the top of the hill so there is a broad view out over the Couze valley.

DSC_1675And this building in the castle complex appears to be occupied as a home today.DSC_1688

After strolling up to the castle we wandered back down to the main road in search of the small church of St. Christoph.  We believe that this cow encountered along the way is of the blonde d’Aquitaine breed of beef cattle.

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We left the town limits and set out to find the church ‘nearby’; here is a view back down the road.

DSC_1743After a good bit of strolling we were beginning to lose our confidence in the directions, but luckily came upon a mail deliverer in her little truck who in spite of our dim French and her lack of English was able to with pointing and waving direct us to continue down the road and turn right at the sign.  We might have driven as it was a fair ways, but we were glad we hadn’t as it was a beautiful walk.

DSC_1691Once we had met the mail carrier, we continued with confidence enjoying the beautiful countryside lush with fruit, nuts and berries.

Finally we found the sign for our turn to the 12th Century little church of St. Christophe which had been largely abandoned for a newer church in town.

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Finally we spotted the church.DSC_1693DSC_1717Isolated as it was, we were not the only tourists. A French couple was there taking photos of the frescoes.DSC_1710These frescoes were whitewashed in the 15th century and had only been recently uncovered.  Most were fragmentary and dim but they were quite visible; a handful had been I would assume aggressively over restored.  DSC_1698

 

 

I was surprised to see these celestial signs worked into the small Christian chapel.

Beautiful old designs and drawings; this one felt over restored to me.

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One of the great pleasures of going off the beaten track like this is discovering little treasures like St. Christophe; often they come by surprise.  St. Christophe was well worth our somewhat clueless wandering to find it and a great memory of a day exploring small villages in the Dordogne.

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Perfect Place for Murder – Commarque Chateau

DSC_1836Martin Walker writes mystery books set in a fictional town in the Dordogne called St. Denis featuring local police chief Benoit ‘Bruno’ Courreges, perhaps modeled on Le Bugue  and its police chief.  I had read several of these books before a recent visit  to the Dordogne where we stayed with friends in a cottage in the abbey town of Cadouin.  Here they are in the upper window of our little cottage.

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It was fun to visit the market at St. Cyprien and buy the local Monbazillac wine and walnut liquor we had read about in the novels. (The wine is sweet and not something we will buy again, but the walnut liquor is distinctive and lovely.)  There is a great deal of marketing and cooking in the novels and we felt we were walking in Bruno’s foot steps as we stocked up the cottage.

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Although there were restaurants in Cadouin, it was such a pleasure to shop in the markets for the fabulous local cheeses, produce, foie gras,  and meats and to eat in our  own little garden.

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I had never heard of ‘night markets’ until I read Walker’s mysteries. In July and August, towns in the region set up tables in their town squares, invite vendors to sell a variety of local foods, and have a band for dancing.  It sound like great fun but everyone we asked including the local tourist office said, ‘oh they are great but they are over at the end of August.’  I dug around on the internet and managed to unearth one only a few kilometers from Cadouin; the last market of the season in Beaumont du Perigord was on Tuesday,   September 5.

DSC06500  People are expected to bring their own plates, glasses and silverware which we didn’t know, but the vendors were gracious and made sure we had plastic cups for the wine and paper plates and napkins for the food.  Many of the locals had elaborate picnic hampers with pottery plates and glasses for wine.DSC06504

 

 

The Dordogne is full of British expats, who sometimes refer to it as Dordogneshire,  and we were made welcome at one of their tables which made it easy on us as our French is not sufficient for social conversation.  Our group included British locals and visitors from Australia; I don’t think I have ever met an unpleasant Australian in our travels and this was no exception, they were delightful.  We finished the evening in Beaumont dancing under the stars.

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So we owe Martin Walker thanks for clueing us into some of the delights of the region.  His most recent  novel  ‘The Templar’s Last Secret’ is coincidentally set partly in the ruins of a chateau that we visited on this trip.  I had selected this chateau because it seemed interesting and was off the beaten tourist track and indeed there were only two or three other visitors there on the day we went.   It is now fun to read Walker’s tale because I have  such vivid memories of this dramatic setting including the murderous drop from the ramparts  that starts the novel and the pre-historic caves underneath that figure in the story.  Just a day after I posted this piece the NYT published a lovely article on Mr. Walker, Bruno and the foods of the Perigord in the Foods Section of the Wednesday paper.

The Chateau de Commarque is a half km  walk through pretty woods from a parking area.

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As we approached the  valley  of the Beaune where the chateau is situated, we could see the limestone  that was so inviting to our Cro -Magnon ancestors as they made their dwellings in shallow caves and natural abris prevalent in the region.

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The area where the chateau of Commarque was built is rich in archeological finds.  A number of carvings of fertility figures found in this valley are in local museums and there are many caves, some yet unexplored, in the hill under the castle.   There are also lots of accessible remnants of troglodyte (cave man) dwelling places.

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The floor of the valley is many meters higher than it was in Cro-Magnon times and so these little nooks would have been well above the fire pits and ground level caves and shelters of that day.  We are seeing the upper floors here.

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The chateau was first built in the 12th century as part of the holdings of the Abbey of Sarlat by a bishop of the Commarque family.   It was a military post or castrum first used to repel the Beynacs who controlled much of the area and then part of the Beynac holdings as they warred with the British during the 100 years war and later with the Catholics during subsquent religious wars. There are rumors of Templar use of the castle.   The last resident Beynac lord died in 1685 and the castle was eventually abandoned  and overgrown.   Hubert de Commarque a descendent of the founders bought the ruins in 1968 and has been restoring the site and sponsoring archeological digs in the Cro -Magnon dwellings under the castle.

It is an awesome sight now freed from centuries of dirt and vines.

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This wall is where the victim in The Templar’s Last Secret fell to her death when her terrorist companions cut her rope as she was trying to spray paint a political message on the wall.  As you can see this would get the job done.

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The castle above; the troglodyte caves and dwellings are below.

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Access to some of the old dwellings has been opened up and items that might have been used by later dwellers placed there to give an idea of these caves as homes.

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They seem surprisingly comfortable with carved benches where I assume mattresses of moss could be laid.  These Troglodyte dwellings were occupied for thousands of years, from prehistoric times through medieval times.

 

 

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Just outside is a seep well not unlike those we see in the US Southwest for cliff dwellings.   This is the valley of the Beaune river so there is also fresh water nearby and it was undoubtedly an area rich in fish, game, wild asparagus and nuts.  Our ancestors knew a good thing when they saw it.

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There is a life size carving of a horse and other carvings by ancient humans in a cave deep under the castle which is not available for touring.  On some of the more accessible walls there are animal carvings that have been enhanced with charcoal to make them easier to discern.  I don’t know if these are ancient carvings or more recent efforts. I could not find any documentation online of their authenticity.   There are ancient carved friezes in this area including the famous Cap Blanc carvings just across the valley from Commarque.  These are the animals in the accessible rock faces at Commarque.

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The chateau restoration has been primarily focused on stabilizing the site and making it accessible rather than reconstructing the buildings. The original chateau was wood and was replaced in the 14th century with stone.  Many chateaux of this era were remodeled in the 17th or 18th centuries to make them more livable but Commarque was not remodeled before being abandoned and so gives an idea of what an authentic fortress castle of this era was like.

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The chapel is fairly well conserved and easy to envision.  Here I am standing in the chapel, still roofed, looking out to the bell tower facade.

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Here is what the chapel interior looks like today.

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The castrum included a number of houses and outbuildings.  This is the remnant of one of these homes.

DSC_1879And here is what is left of the bakery.

DSC_1871This is the pathway to allow tourists to enter the great room and castle keep.

DSC_1883DSC_1884As in many castles of the era, seats are placed in the window well to allow a spot for reading or needlework with natural light.

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It is possible to climb to the top of the tower to get terrific views of the countryside.

 

 

I was nervous to climb the rickety stairs so sat it out; would that I had kept to this resolve as I managed to fall down the stairs of the next fortress ruin we visited  in Roquebrune Cap Martin and break my elbow for a detour through the excellent French medical system.

DSC_1896This is a view from the keep across the chapel and across the valley to the  Chateau Laussel now in private hands.   This is a valley  filled with archeological wonders and stunning views.  Now that Martin Walker has made it the centerpiece of his latest mystery, I suspect it will see more tourists.DSC_1880

Posted in Chateaux, South of France | 2 Comments

Garden of Fallen Leaders

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With the fall of the Soviet Union, citizens’ enthusiasm for statues of Communist leaders in every square and public space waned.   Many of these statues were vandalized or pulled down.   Many of those from Moscow ended up in Muzeon Park across from Gorky Park.  While this initially was a bit of a dumping ground, it has now become a park where the statues are not only displayed but where other sculpture is celebrated.

The park is adjacent to the New Tretyakov Gallery which houses modern Russian art.  We had been searching for a place to view socialist realist and other Soviet art and had found literally none in St. Petersburg so were excited to learn about the New Tretyakov from a poster on Trip Advisor.  And we were even more excited to learn that the Garden of Fallen Leaders was at the same site.  We took the metro from our hotel near Red Square to Oktyabrskaya station (we had spent the previous day visiting artistic metro stations so were comfortable finding our way through the rather complex metro system signed in Cyrillic letters) and then walked to the park.

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The weather was beautiful when we began the journey and we went to the art gallery first partly because there was a huge line and it was hard to get in.  Alas that meant when we finally got out to view the Garden of Fallen Leaders, storm clouds were gathering and so I didn’t have much time to get photos before we were in a downpour without an umbrella to protect the camera.

The park is quite close to central Moscow.  This is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in the background across the river; it is the tallest Russian Orthodox church in Russia.  The boat glimpsed to the right is a monument to Peter the Great at the confluence of the Moscow River and a canal.  Red Square is not far from here.dsc05623

While the park holds the unloved statues of unloved despots, it has since its founding in the early 90s become the site of other sculpture collections as well.  This plaza contains the works of local artists encouraged to create in limestone. The Peter the Great monument completed in 1997 can be seen in the background.

 

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But the reason we came was to see the discarded statues of Communist leaders.  There are a lot of Lenins.

 

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In the early years statues were often left toppled on the ground and vandalized; recently as the park has become a larger sculpture garden, a boardwalk has been installed so that people can view these historic monuments more easily.

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Here is a sculpture of Brezhnev.

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Another Stalin.  The Stalin at the head of this post has had its nose vandalized; this nose doesn’t seem to have fared well either.dsc05612

I believe this is a statue of Kalinin, the head of state during WWII.

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Behind the vandalized Stalin statue in the area of the park devoted to fallen leaders stands this monument to those who were victims of these despots.  It is a powerful work of art combining roughly featured stone heads behind a wall of barbed wire.

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By the time we were at the monument to victims of the despots it had begun to pour rain and we sought shelter in a bandstand, climbing a ladder under canvas flaps to get the stage.  We shared the space for about an hour and  a half with about a dozen Russians also escaping the downpour.

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While waiting for a break in the rain to make our break for the subway we struck up a conversation with a local architect and an art historian.  It was fascinating to be able to discuss the park, the art museum and Russian and American culture with these charming and engaging people.   He had lots of opinions or art and politics and she spoke good English and thus we passed the time.

We were disappointed not to have more time to explore the park and take pictures but meeting these interesting Russians made up for it.

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Posted in Russia, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Quick Stop in Arles

dsc06689We had a drive of 750 km from  Cadouin in the Dordogne where we had spent a week with friends to Roquebrune Cap Martin near Monaco where we planned to stay for another couple of weeks.  Arles seemed like a great place to break the drive for a night; we had never  been to Arles and  imagined a restful stroll of an evening and morning through its charming streets and viewing its Roman ruins.   So we booked the Best Western Hotel Atrium right in the center of Arles  months in advance.  What we didn’t do is check the calendar.   It turns out that Saturday evening September 10 was the Festival du Riz which celebrates the end of the bull fighting season and is the busiest day of the year drawing both tourists and locals to the festivities.

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We got into town at about 4 pm and cars were jammed helter skelter into  every bit of available pavement; they were straddling medians, parked on berms, tucked into cul de sacs.   The streets were filled with pedestrians walking into the center. Most central streets were blocked off by police and barricades so our GPS was guiding us where we could not go.  We had no idea how to find the hotel whether we would be able to park if we did.  Total chaos.  We finally pulled  into a little cul de sac and I left the car to seek help.  Two lovely young women one of whom spoke English offered to get in our car and guide us and did — taking us through a circuitous back route to our hotel.  Such a gracious generous lovely thing to do for a couple of total strangers in a panic.

The hotel clerk assured us that while their parking was full up, that she could suggest street parking that would be available, so we loaded our luggage (we had lots, it was a 10 week trip in several different climates) into our room and then set off with her map.  About a mile from the hotel across the river after winding through streets with cars parked everywhere, we happened upon someone pulling out of a space.  We grabbed the spot and with a sigh of relief walked back to the hotel and were set for the evening.

The hotel rooms were dinky and basic, but the location could not be better for a visit to Arles.   We set out to see the town and find dinner and literally a block away found ourselves at the street set up for the running of the bulls which was scheduled at the moment we arrived.

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We found spots on the fence and waited for the show to begin.  First there were riders on horseback who were designated escorts for the bulls.

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And after a few minutes of the riders parading back and forth the first of the bulls arrived.

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Accompanying and chasing the bulls were young men from Arles who ‘bravely’ tangled with the poor frightened creatures.  In addition to the horseback riders, the young people were protected by leather covers on the horns of the bulls.

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After the running of the bulls we continued into town to check out the colosseum and find dinner.   The streets were crowded with partiers.

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The great Arles Arena was beautiful in the moonlight.

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The restaurants were all offering special menus for the festival and we wandered around the beautiful streets of the town looking for a good place to eat.

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We finally settled on a restaurant that had  set up tables in an alley and was selling paella as well as a variety of other festival foods including bull from the fight the night before. (or so they said)

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We had the paella; our neighbors at the table were eating the bull.  The people at the table were welcoming, the food was really terrifically good and it was a really fun way to spend the evening.

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After dinner we wandered back through the town to the hotel stopping at the Hotel DeVille and Cathedral square where a huge rhythm band was performing.   The participants were obviously having a wonderful time and they were generously pulling kids who came to watch into the dancing.  The tents were for vendors of wines and foods of the region; we came back the next morning and bought a bottle of wine as a gift for the woman looking after the place in Roquebrune.

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The next morning after a leisurely breakfast at the hotel, we took a stroll through the town.  First we headed up to the Arena and on the way came across the ancient Roman amphitheater; it was blocked off so we didn’t spend time there.

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Lots of interesting detail on doors and windows and even modern graffiti along the way.

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There was a bullfight scheduled  in the Arena so we couldn’t go in; it was a beautiful day for wandering through the town.

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Here is a shot of the bleachers from outside the Arena.

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We then decided to look for the old Roman baths that were said to be down by the river and so headed that way.

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Here we are at the old town walls near the Rhone. dsc_2018

Here is a shot of the river with access for cars and boats for locals.  There is a walking path along the river and high walls to keep it out of the town.dsc_2022

We strolled along the river as these folks were doing.

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Here are the houses built facing the river.dsc_2026

Near the river are the old Roman bath ruins which are open for touring for a fee.

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This is one of the pools and the vaulted room that once covered it.

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Remnants of the heating system and plumbing remain.

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After the baths we headed back up to the town square with the Hotel DeVille

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and the Cathedral before heading back to get on the road to Roquebrune.

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In one of the side chapels of the Cathedral a family was preparing for a Baptism of their infant

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And in another dedicated to St. John Paul II there was a reliquary holding a drop of his blood.

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In spite of our initial horror at finding the town filled to the brim with cars and tourists, it ended up being the wonderful stop on the trip that we had hoped for.

As we headed back to fetch our car and get loaded up for the trip on to the Riviera we came across a carrousel that was adapted to celebrate the festival of the bulls in September in Arles.

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Posted in Medieval Towns, South of France, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Eiffel Tower in the Rain

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We last went to the top of the Eiffel Tower in 1993 with Kate who was then 14.  We decided during our fall 2015 trip that it was time to revisit it.  I booked tickets three months in advance when they become available and felt clever for having obtained two tickets to the top for October 5.  The tickets go within minutes of becoming available.  Of course, one of the  down sides of having advance tickets for an outdoor site is the weather.  October 5th was the only day in October that it poured all day and well into the night.  But we had the blasted tickets and we were going.

There were no lines for tickets; the only people going up that day were those hardy (stubborn) souls like us who had bought tickets ahead and were not to be thwarted.

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We took the elevator to the second floor bypassing the first level.

DSC02887The second floor has a number of amenities including rest rooms, the Jules Verne restaurant, snack bars and a souvenir shop.  The souvenir shop includes signs warning people not to buy the shoddy and inferior souvenirs being sold by hawkers in the square below.  Many immigrants make their living selling small blinking Eiffel Towers and key chains and such.  We bought a small tower from one of them for our granddaughter Vivian.

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DSC02944I stepped out onto the observation deck and quickly took a snapshot upward of the tower.  It is just beautiful up close and from everywhere in the city.

DSC02896Even with the rain the views of the city were terrific from the second level.  Here you can see the glass roof of the Grand Palais as well as Sacre Coeur on the hill of Montmartre.DSC02893

From another direction you can spot Notre Dame and the Pantheon.

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And here we have the Seine below and the Arc du Triomphe.DSC02946

For the trip to the top we lined up again; during crowded period this can take awhile but we only had to wait for one car load before us on this rainy day.  If you have only purchased tickets to the second level or have walked up, you can buy tickets to the top here before lining up.DSC02903

It is a bit of a thrill to climb up through the skinny top of the tower to the observation deck at the top.  Designing the elevators to move people from the ground to the top was complex and the process has changed several times over the decades.   Now the elevators to the top from the second floor involve one smooth voyage up; originally you had to disembark and cross over a narrow gangway to a second elevator before reaching the top.
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There is plenty of room to walk around the top and observe although the cloud bank we were in made it a bit eerie.

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Gustave Eiffel, the head of the company that built the tower in 1889, was allowed to keep a small apartment to entertain guests on the top level.  This apartment is glassed in so visitors can get a peek today.   When the Tour Eiffel was built there was considerable opposition by the artistic community that felt it would be a blot on the city and it was originally expected to be a temporary structure and demolished after 20 years; part of the design required that it be easy to disassemble.   By that time it had already become an icon of Paris.

DSC02924 (1)Here we are at the top of the Tower.  Over our shoulder you can see the warning signs; of course it would seem obvious that no one should be throwing things but the interesting sign is the one warning about putting padlocks on the fencing.  This is a blight all over Paris, but of course trying it here and accidentally dropping it from the Eiffel Tower could have terrible consequences.  The ridiculous ‘love locks’  have turned several Paris bridges into garbage dumps and actually damaged the railings on one bridge which had to be replaced.  There were none visible on the tower.

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The view from the top is spectacular even through the fog and rain;  this is similar to the view of the Pantheon and Notre Dame shown earlier from the second level.DSC02941

The Island below is the Ile aux Cygnes (Island of the Swans) shown in an earlier post of a walk from Parc Citroen to the Eiffel Tower; you can see the  quarter size model of the Statue of Liberty placed near the Pont de Grenelle in 1889 near the top center of this picture.

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There is a ‘champagne bar’ at the top of the tower, but don’t get your hopes up.  Basically it is a closet where a waiter will dispense   a plastic coupe de champagne for a stiff price.  You can stand around in the fog and rain sipping it.DSC02916

After heading down from the top we walked across the Seine to Trocadero which offers the best view of the Eiffel Tower; we wanted that great view for the top of the hour sparkling of the Tower.

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Although the rain had let up the fog amplified the search lights on the tower; it is an amazing sight.

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You can’t really capture the sparkle well with a still camera; my husband got a great short video on his phone, but here as you can see rather than a sparkle you capture the individual lights as they come on.

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This remains my favorite view of the Tower.  Years ago returning from a dinner party nearby we arrived here to take the Trocadero metro just as the tower sparkled at midnight.  So beautiful.  I always like to get a look at the tower at night from this vantage point when we are in town.  Going to the top twice in 30 years has been plenty, but seeing it from all over Paris is always a thrill.

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Posted in Paris, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Anniversary Lunch at La Tour d’Argent

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Our 43rd wedding anniversary was Oct 13 2015 while we were in Paris and our son’s inlaws were also in town on business.  We thought it would be a great opportunity to splurge on a Michelin star lunch and we had heard great things about La Tour d’Argent.  So I started trying to make reservations. Finally 90 days out the reservations opened for our date and I made a booking for 4 for lunch indicating it was an anniversary celebration.

I had assumed being nobody in particular that we would be seated somewhere between the restroom and the waiter station, so I was delighted when we were ushered to the best table in the house.  We sat  in the curved window with a view out onto the most beautiful side of Notre Dame.

As you can see from this snapshot further back in the house, all tables have a view of sorts, but that seat in the corner curved window was choice.

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This was the view from my seat.tourview

And this was my view to the side; I love the way the sun bounced off the windows and reflected off the Seine.

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To start there was a lovely little pate en croute with foie gras and we shared a champagne toast — to our anniversary and the soon to come 44th anniversary of Anne and Scott our son’s inlaws. (Note those glasses of champagne are pricey so don’t say yes when they ask if you want a glass of champagne unless you are prepared to fork out.)

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In addition to the pate we had a small amuse of tapenade.touramuse

Scott chose the wine with the usual elaborate ritual.

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And the sommelier then decanted it in front of a candle.

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For appetizers the men chose a fish soup; here is Ed with the pieces of fish arranged in his soup plate.

 

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And here is the soup with the hot broth poured over the fish.toursoupclose

I had quenelles which I ordered because I had never heard of them before. They are fluffy fish dumplings over a mushroom duxelle and then broiled in a mornay sauce.  Before food processors they involved grinding fish in a mortar and pestle.  This may be the best thing I have eaten in Paris; they were just spectacularly good.

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When I got back to Chicago I looked up recipes and then researched how they made them at La Tour d’Argent (the mushroom duxelle is their thing) and replicated them for an appetizer for Thanksgiving dinner.  Mine didn’t come out as beautiful or quite as tasty — but actually pretty close. I started with a Julia child recipe and pulverized a bunch of fish and folded it into a choux paste.  Next time  I’ll do a better job on the fish — this was frozen and it affected the texture. DSC04221

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I also made some mushroom duxelle based on other recipes found on line since that was the way La Tour d’Argent presented it. DSC04223

I then poached spoon fulls of the fish/choux paste in a seafood broth, placed them on the duxelles and covered them with mornay sauce made with emmentaler cheese.  Here they are ready to go under the broiler.que

While mine were not as pretty as those at La Tour, they were actually quite tasty and the left over poached quennelles were good the next day.  Mornay sauce is easy to whip up and I just made that and put them under the broiler to heat.

For main courses, two of our group chose a lamb dish and two of us duck breast.  There is a tradition at la Tour of numbering the ducks served; their piece de resistance is a pressed duck made with an ancient pressing devise at the table and served in a sauce of its own blood.  Ours were just a standard and very tasty duck maigret but we did get our duck number. This is my duck without the sauce because I have an onion sensitivity; they brought me the sauce on the side.  The veggies were a pleasant construction of squash and berries.tourduck

Anne and I shared duck # 1146167;  well maybe.tourduckcard2

The lamb was also scrumptious.

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The only other Michelin restaurant we have been to was the three star Alinea in Chicago which is a very expensive evening of cuisine as performance art.  Fun and tasty but more like going to a molecular gastronomy food concert than a meal.  La Tour d’Argent is classic French food preparation.

Scott and I had a chocolate brulee for dessert.tourchocolateEd and Anne had a pear cake.

tourpearBut French desserts never seem to stop with the dessert course; there is also the mignardises or petit four course and this one was enormous.  Although the portions of each course were modest, by the time we got to the mignardises we were too full to take full advantage of the tartlets, macarons, chocolates and caramels.    tour mign

Yes there is bacon on some of those little cakes.   And as we contemplated this largesse, a heavenly slab of chocolate mousse like substance arrived  complete with candle  for our anniversary.

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I was lamenting not having brought a large purse into which I could stuff all those lovely chocolates going to waste when the waiter brought Anne and me each a small bag of house made caramels and nougats to take along.  Hated to leave the chocolates, but the caramels were lovely and we served the nougats as part of our own mignardises at a dinner party later in the week.

This was a lovely lunch and the setting was perfect;  this has always been my favorite view of Notre dame.  After lunch we wandered over to the Cathedral.

tourndjetourjpIIAnd then we showed Anne and Scott the hidden garden near Notre Dame within the Hotel Diu (hospital).  They had a public piano and Scott serenaded us for the end of a perfect afternoon.

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Posted in Paris, Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Fountains of Versailles: A Little Chaos

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Not long ago we saw a little movie by Alan Rickman called ‘A Little Chaos’ which is the entirely fictional story of  a female garden designer who worked with Andre le Notre and designed the Ballroom Fountain.  And there was a little romance involved.  (In reality Le Notre would have been elderly during the time frame, not the dashing young misunderstood husband he is in the movie.)  Rickman played a delightful Louis XIV and Kate Winslet the fictitious female architect.  Seeing the fountain under construction in the movie made us want to see the real thing.  We had last been to Versailles nearly 30 years ago and while the fountains were running, I didn’t remember seeing the many and various fountains tucked away in little copses through the garden.

So one Sunday in late October we headed for Versailles to see the gardens.  It was lucky we didn’t plan on the chateau that day as we missed the train and so didn’t arrive till a bit after 10 by which time the lines snaked for many blocks for chateau entry.

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The lines for the garden were virtually non-existent and so we walked right in.  The tickets for entrance during fountain shows are 9 Euros and at least in late October the fountains run from 10 to 11 and then again from 4 to 5:30.  The Neptune Fountain goes off once at about 5:20.  With the garden entrance ticket you are free to leave the gardens and wander about the estate or go to the restaurants just outside the garden gates and then re-enter that day.

From the back of the chateau is a sweeping view of the gardens and the Grand Canal in the distance just outside the gardens and on the estate.  The Estate including the canal with its boat rentals is open without charge every day. This what the vista looked like to an artist in the early 18th century.  DSC03182  And here is what it looked like to us.  DSC03118

Here is a closer look at the Latona fountain at the end of the path down to the canal. DSC03119

Because  the Ballroom Fountain was our object, we first headed to the left in the direction of the trees enclosing the fountain.  On the way, it was hard to miss some modern installations by Kapoor.  With the exception of the whirlpool fountain, they are remarkably awkward and ugly.  This mirror/reflector mars the view from the Chateau. DSC03117

Kapoor’s enormous construction running down the center of the garden has been vandalized several times;  it is hard not to sympathize with the vandals.  The gold patches cover obscene graffiti suggesting  what this blot on the landscape looks like.DSC03246

Here is another shot of the hideous thing which consists of a pile of boulders surmounted by  a large metal horn like object and some phalic looking tubular structures.  Really ugly and out of place in this setting.

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The Ballroom Fountain, like many of the fountains,  is in a glade of trees and well screened from casual view until you actually find the pathway in to observe it.

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The garden once contained a marble island for dancing and the green banks are designed as seats for participants (woe betide any tourist who attempts to sit on them today however.)  This is a painting of the fountain that is hung in the Trianon elsewhere on the Versailles estate.

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There are lovely cascades, with large conch shells from Africa set in the stone steps through which the waterfalls run.  Originally a small orchestra was hidden by screens above the fountains; today music is piped in during the fountain shows.   A very pretty fountain.

There are so many fountains in the gardens that some of them are not even identified and named on the map you receive when you buy your tickets.  This is the Fontaine du Point du Jour which is a charming little fountain on the edge of the glade that contains the Ballroom Fountain.

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We didn’t visit every fountain because they only ran for an hour in the morning and an hour and a half in late afternoon and we arrived a bit late.  But we glimpsed many down tree lined paths as we looked for the route into see our favorites.  This fountain in the distance is the Saturn Fountain.

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Our goal at this point however was the Colonnade Grove which is shown here in another painting from the Trianon.  The design replaced an earlier grove designed by le Notre; this one was redesigned in the  late 1600s.

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The grove looks much as it did 300 years ago; it  is ringed by an arched colonnade and each arch contains a small fountain.

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The statue in the center was done in 1699 by  Girardon and shows Pluto ravishing Proserpine.
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This is a lovely grove and a good place to take a break and just enjoy the beauty of the place.  There are few spots to sit in the gardens but the stairs here do afford that opportunity.

foncoledWhen we left the Colonnade Grove we came to the last major traditional fountain in the garden, the stunning Fountain of Apollo’s Chariot.  Somewhere in cardboard box in our storage is a negative of a gorgeous photo I took of this fountain with the chateau looming in the background 30 years ago.  But for now here are two snapshots from this trip.

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DSC03143 (2).jpgIn the lawn between Apollo and the Grand Canal is another Kapoor installation and IMHO the only one in the gardens that really fits.  It is a mesmerizing whirlpool, a sort of reverse fountain.

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We crossed the Royal Walk, the pathway from the Chateau down to the Grand Canal, and started back up the other side.   One of the first fountains we sought out here was the Enceladus fountain; Enceladus, god of the giants, is erupting from the earth and throwing rocks.  Alas the water was not running here by the time we reached this fountain which like many others is hidden away in a grove with limited access and surrounded by trellised fencing.

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Nearby is the Flora Fountain sculpted by Truby and representing the first season, Spring.  She is surrounded by children and wears a crown of flowers.

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Our next stop was to be the Water Theater Grove which we anticipated looking like this. Designed by André Le Nôtre between 1671 and 1674, the grove  located in the gardens, between the Star grove and the Three Fountains grove, was originally one of the most elaborate and complex in the gardens.DSC03179

But here we found another modern installation that recently replaced the older fountains in the grove.   An international competition was held to restore the Water Theater Grove.  Louis Benech and Jean-Michel Othoniel were chosen and installed a contemporary design.  The winning project created a robust set of fountains less fragile than the original designs and quite odd in the context of these antique gardens.  The fountains  are beautiful when the sun shines through the beads.

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On our way to the Three Fountains we discovered the Dragon Fountain which represents a myth of Apollo killing a dragon/snake.  When it is working, it shoots a column 90 feet into the air but not for us this day.

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The Three Fountains complex was one of our favorites.  These fountains were designed by Le Notre with considerable input from Louis XIV himself.   This is the depiction of the Three Fountains shown in a painting at the Trianon.  We entered at the top of this picture and walked down towards the fountain seen in the foreground here.

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While it is called Three Fountains and there are three main fountain areas, there are really more like six separate water features involved.  It was a great way to end as it is interesting and elaborate.  The first fountains near the entry at the top looks like this.

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This leads to the middle section with elaborate sculpted waterfalls and then cascades.

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DSC03276These are followed by a square pool with tall jets and then additional waterfalls on either side of the path down.

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And finally there is a fountain shooting fine jets in many directions.

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We decided to end our day with the Three Fountains .  We had had a long day, had a long trip back to Paris and had spent a few hours traipsing around the rest of the estate between fountain shows.  We decided to forego waiting for the Neptune Fountain show at 5:20 and head back.

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Posted in Day trips from Paris, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Lafayette: We are Here.

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People often attribute the words ‘Layfayette, we are here’ to General Pershing on his arrival in France during WWI.  In fact, the words were spoken by General Stanton in 1917 at the grave of Lafayette during a ceremony honoring his contributions to the American revolution.  We had long wanted to visit the tomb of Lafayette and finally managed it this trip.  It is not an easy place to find and it has very limited hours, so visitors have to be motivated to manage it.  During winter it is usually open between 2 and 4 Tuesday through Sunday.  In summer the hours may extend from 2-6.   The door is at 35 Rue Picpus (not Picpus Boulevard) and is not entirely easy to spot and is not signed; you do have to know where you are going.

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The cemetery is located in a not particularly picturesque part of the 12th arrondissement near many hospitals.

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Once through the main gate, you enter a courtyard with a small church and buildings for staff.  To enter the cemetery and its park, you need access to the blue gate ahead and to the left; this is obtained from the caretaker who will pop out when you enter and offer you  admission and a flyer about the site in English for two Euro.  This is a private cemetery and thus not continuously open to the public as are most Parisian cemeteries.

 

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An ordinary church, Notre Dame de la Paix, it is made interesting with the lists of the 1306 people guillotined in the terror of June 1794 and their occupations.

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Entering one walks by buildings used by staff and an old house currently used as a parsonage.

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Once inside the outer gates  there is a large park.

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The park is pretty and there are benches where one could sit and read or eat lunch.  The stone gate pictured below is left from a chapel that existed here at the time of the revolution. Prayers were said here for those being delivered through the nearby gate to the mass graves.

On the far left wall of the park as you enter, there is an old wooden gate and a rutted track of cobblestone where the wagons brought corpses from the nearby guillotine  for burial in mass graves.

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Only people who are descendants of those executed in the terror after the French Revolution may be buried here and so while many of these graves date back to the post revolutionary period, there are some very recent burials as well.

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We visited in late October and yet the wall to the left as we entered was still covered in colorful vines and roses.  It is a pretty little cemetery filled with interesting tombs.

On the wall to the right as you enter the small enclosed cemetery, there are memorial plaques for those entitled to burial here here who were murdered in the holocaust.  I always have mixed feelings when I see ‘died for France’ on these memorials since they were delivered up by the French to die.

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Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette was a member of the nobility and married into the noble Noailles family.  Like most of the people buried here in 1794, the Noailles fell to the terror.   While Lafayettes own family avoided execution most of his inlaws went to the guillotine.  Lafayette and his wife were entitled to burial here because of her family’s deaths.

 

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The DAR of Paris maintains the tomb of Lafayette and an American flag is positioned over the gravesite making it easy to find.

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Lafayette’s tomb is at the back of the cemetery along the wall.  On the other side of this wall is the area where mass graves of those executed by the guillotine in 1794 are laid to rest.  On the wall to the left in this picture you can see a memorial to Andre Chenier the poet who was one of those guillotined during  June 1794 and who lies in one of the mass graves.lafayette

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In June of 1794, 16 Carmelite nuns were executed by the Revolution.  They were sent to the guillotine for refusing to renounce their vocation and sang Salve Regina as they marched one at a time up the stairs to their death.  Poulenc wrote an opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites, based on these events which are credited with causing such revulsion that the terror soon came to an end.  They along with the other victims of the terror are buried here in mass graves in a gated off area at the end of the cemetery.

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The graveled areas mark several mass graves for 1306 people slain in 42 days of terror in 1794.  This area is not open to the public and may be viewed through a gate in the wall next to Lafayette’s tomb..

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Picpus Cemetery is a set in a lovely park and makes for an interesting Paris excursion.  When we visited there was only one other visitor.  We definitely recommend it as an interesting way to see a less touristed neighborhood and to touch a little bit of our own history.

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An Easy Trip to the Catherine Palace

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St. Petersburg is not an easy place for an independent traveler who doesn’t read Cyrillic text or know more than a few words of Russian to manage.  Public transport is a tad arduous.  The  excellent subways are not designed for tourists and don’t serve the center well although they are excellent for suburban commuters.  The trolleys are jammed like sardine tins and walking is almost always easier and more pleasant.

We wanted to visit the summer palace of Catherine the Great, but we are  old and were tired after busy first visits to Vienna and Prague and negotiating apartment life in St. Petersburg, so we decided a tour was the right idea.  When I tried to find an English tour, perhaps catching onto one designed for cruise ships, the price quoted was $250 for the two of us and required us to make our way to a hotel and then be herded with a group.  So instead I contacted a group called ‘Tours by locals‘ and booked a private guide for this trip for $170.  It turned out to be a wonderful idea.  Nikolai, a graphic designer with excellent English skills who does this to supplement his income, arrived on the dot, and provided door to door service as well as expert guiding, total avoidance of a line at the Palace and found a good place for lunch after we toured the gardens.  Made it easy for us without the downside of being rushed along at the pace of those with the shortest attention span.  My husband really likes to look at things, so being able to go at our own pace is always important to us and why we do most things independently.

cpnicolaiThe Catherine Palace like so many pre-revolutionary Tsarist or religious sites is heavily restored.  Most of the statuary is reconstructed and left in  the natural beige of the casting material.

DSC02331The cost of regilding all of the previously  external details is prohibitive but they have provided some gold paint on some of the detail to give a sense of what it was like in its day.  Here is a section of the exterior contrasting a gilded/restored section with one left in natural color.

cpgolddomes2 Indoors there has been lavish restoration of the halls on the tour.  Because we were there in September, still the end of the tourist season, we could not visit the imperial apartments which are only opened off season when there are few visitors.  There were plenty of shiny gold rooms for us to see.

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We had a pleasant cool day and parked a couple of blocks from the palace.   The building is an imposing blue and white set in a pretty park which we planned to visit at the end of the tour.

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Once inside we were able to check our coats and go with our guide up the main staircase.  cpstairs2Like most old palaces the rooms are linear and you walk through one to get to the next.  The first major stop was the main reception hall known as the Gallery of Lights in its day.  It is jaw dropping.  It was finished in the mid 18th century and has a gorgeous parquet floor of 8800 square feet.  The mirrors, gilding and then at night hundreds of candles must have made it a sight to rival Versailles (Perhaps that should have been a message to the Tsars.)

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As with the art of most monarchies, the royals appear in the classic murals that adorn these great halls.  The paintings were destroyed in fires when the palace was torched by the Germans during the WWII — but not before they stole the Amber Room and anything else not nailed down.  They have been recreated from original sketches and copies as well as fragments that were saved after the fires.

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Near the Bright Gallery or Gallery of Lights the anteroom has been set for a banquet.cpchristmastable2

The ‘cake’ in fancy winding shapes is a facsimile of the kind of treat that was served and some of the china from the palace is displayed.
cpxmastableLovely porcelain china and objects d’art made in Russia are displayed throughout the palace.    In addition to several sets of porcelain china as well as ingenious butter dishes in the shape of fruits and vegetables were elegant display pieces like this.

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The Green Pilaster Room was used as a pantry during the time of Catherine the Great and partitioned.  When the restoration was done to repair the damage of the fire, it was restored to its original appearance as designed by palace architect Rastrelli.  The original 18th century ceiling painting by Torelli titled A Resting Military Commander Harkens to the Call of the Muses was lost in the fire and is replaced by a similarly themed painting by Lednev created based on pre-war photos.
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The Arabesque room created in the 18th century was used by Catherine for balls and for social evenings of cards and chess.  The ceiling medallions depict virtues such as generosity, compassion, friendship and peace  and they surround a ‘Judgment of Paris.’

cpcabroomThere is a corridor down the side of the main rooms to allow passage from one great room to another.   They rooms are joined by elaborate gilt doorways.
cphallcorridorThis is a photo posted at the site that shows what these doorways looked like after the destructive fires lit by the Nazis when they looted the palace.
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And this is the same stretch of doorways today after the extensive restorations.
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Much of the restoration work was possible because of fragments of paintings and wall decor that survived the fire and because there were photos taken of these rooms in the 1930s.  This is an old photo of the Green Dining Room which was part of the private apartments before the destruction.
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Here is part of the restored room today.  It was designed in the late 18th century and used as a private dining room by Grand Duchess Maria Fiodorovna,  the wife of Catherine’s son, the future Tzar Paul I.
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The Picture Room is a state room next to the famous Amber Room.  The large delft ceramic object here is one of many similar stoves throughout the house to provide heat to the palace.  The pictures include portraits and classic themes as well as military adventures.DSC02427

DSC02426The Amber Room is the most famous room in the Catherine Palace.  What exists now is a recreation of a room paneled in Amber Mosaics that was stolen by the Nazis.  The original room was a smaller study given to Peter the Great by Frederick Wilhelm I of Prussia at the start of their alliance.  It was apparently installed in several spots before being incorporated into the Catherine Palace by Rastrelli in 1755.  The room was larger than the study in its previous location and so originally the amber panels were eked out with mirrors and painted canvas.  Later new panels were created so that the walls were almost entirely made of amber mosaics.

Many of the art works were hidden prior to the invasion by Germany but it was felt the Amber Room was too fragile and so it was covered in canvas.  The Germans sent art experts into palaces and museums to identify the art worth stealing.  They crated up the Amber Room and sent it to Germany where it was displayed in Koenigsberg. It disappeared in the final days of WWII and its whereabouts it unknown.  There was recent speculation that it might be on the missing Nazi gold train that treasure hunters claimed to have found hidden in a tunnel in Poland, but apparently that claim was false as no train has been discovered.
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Prior to its loss, the Amber Room, amber panels backed by gilt and offset with mirrors, was considered the 8th wonder of the world.   Perhaps my expectations were too high as a result, but I was somewhat underwhelmed by the sight.  Although in retrospect, it makes no sense given the nature of amber, I had imagined the amber to be in larger more impressive slabs and the mosaics while interesting are far less beautiful than I anticipated. They sort of reminded me of the panels of mosaic wall treatment or inexpensive vinyl flooring one might find at Home Depot.   Judge for yourself.DSC02413

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This is a study used by the Tzar Alexander I as a working office and place to receive important visitors.  It is spartan compared to the opulence of the gilded state rooms although there are a number of fine antiques.
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This was a room also used by Alexander I with his camp bed and modest decor.
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While many of the state rooms have been fully restored, some of the palace is still in poor shape and those rooms are used to display objects from the time when the Tzars reigned.   One thing notable in the portraits of the Tzars and their children is that they are always shown in military garb even as small children; continuous warfare seems to have been the occupation of the noble classes. cpuniforms

Here is a portrait of Tzar Alexander II the tzar assassinated by revolutionaries although he had taken modernizing steps including freeing the serfs.  He is the tzar whose death is memorialized at the Church on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg. Here he is with the uniform he is seen wearing in the portrait.
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This dress of Catherine the Great is made of paper and illustrates the style of the time.DSC02466

And this sad horse belonged the the Tsesarevich Alexei who suffered from hemophilia and was murdered after the Revolution.cpalexeihorse

After walking through the palace we spent some time in the outbuildings and gardens which are extensive and include a nice lake.  This loggia provides nice views to the gardens.
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Here is the old bathhouse and series of pools in the gardens.cpgarden2

This picture is taken from the steps of the Grotto Pavilion on the lake with views across to the Turkish pavilion the other side.DSC02485

The Hermitage was used as a retreat from the public hustle and bustle of the palace; it was designed so that food was lifted by a movable table from the kitchen to the dining area without the need for servants to be present to serve.  This allowed the Tzar and his family an area of privacy.   We spotted a bride and groom leaving the Hermitage.  I don’t know if the wedding took place here or if this is just a photo shoot for the bride.  We find beautiful spots like this all over Europe busy with bridal photo shoots.DSC02488

This is the walk from the Hermitage up towards the main part of the palace.
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These girls were making Russian hats by stringing together fall leaves; I had never seen this done before and it was quite charming.  cpgirlsleaves

The Catherine Palace of Tsarskoe Selo in the little town of Pushkin is a wonderful day trip from St. Petersburg.  We didn’t get to the Peterhof Palace and gardens on this trip and so hope to do that on our next trip.  If you plan to make the trip we can recommend Nicolai from http://www.toursbylocals.com;  he made it a great day for us and an easy trip from Petersburg.

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Church on Spilled Blood — Dazzling Sight on the Griboyedov Canal

spblood1When we walked outside our apartment to the edge of the Griboyedov Canal in central St. Petersburg and saw the onion domes of the Church on Spilled Blood about a kilometer in the distance, we knew we were in Russia.   It is a stunning sight in a lovely old city.  We were about 2 blocks off Nevsky Prospect on the Griboyedov and the church is about 3 or 4 blocks on the opposite side of this main street.  Our visit was at the end of September and we had lovely cool but often sunny weather.

The church was built on the site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. Because of the need to preserve the precise spot where Alexander fell and situate the church exactly, the canal was narrowed at this point and the platform of the church extends over the canal which can be seen in the picture at the head of this post.

Americans know Alexander II as the Russian Tsar who sold Alaska to the US.  Alexander II was probably the most significant reformer of Russia during the period of the Tsars, his most notable accomplishment being the freeing of the serfs. He also created more democratic institutions, abolished capital punishment and reformed the judiciary.   Apparently too little too late however and throughout his reign he was threatened by assassins.   In 1881 they succeeded and he was assassinated with bombs on the streets of St. Petersburg.  This led to a backlash that may have aided the revolution that was to overthrow his grandson  and the imperial house a few decades later.

The church was built by Alexander III to memorialize his father.  The exterior is stunning with a variety of finishes, icons of saints and interesting crosses and domes.  The style is classic medieval Russian architecture; it harkens back to the image of St. Basils in Red Square in Moscow completed 300 years beforehand.

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The canal is on one side of the church and there is a large park next to it on the opposite side which is a good place in summer for a stroll and a picnic.  The wonderful Russian Museum is nearby so a nice day would combine a visit to the Church on Spilled Blood, with a stroll in the park and a visit to the museum.
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Near the door where we entered  the church, there  is a jeweled canopy that marks the exact spot where the Tsar fell; the canopy is covered in precious and semi-precious stones, but the floor below it is the original cobblestones on which Alexander fell mortally wounded.  The first bomb missed injuring him, but he got out of his carriage to confront the assailant allowing a second assailant to succeed with another bomb.
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The church has never been a regular parish church but was used for memorial services; after the revolution it was used for vegetable storage, as a morgue during the Siege of Leningrad and generally abused.  Over the last 30 years the mosaics have been restored and it now serves as a museum.  There are 7500 square meters of mosaics. When you walk through the doors you are stunned by the ornate grandeur.
spilmos2spilint2The mosaics cover nearly every inch of ceiling and walls.
spilchandThere are charming little ‘Easter Eggs’ everywhere you look, like the faces of Christ and of a saint looking down at us from side domes.
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The bejeweled holy gate which provides entrance to the altar beyond was heavily damaged during the Soviet period and all the enameled icons were lost; they have been recreated and replaced and were re-consecrated in 2012.
spilaltarscr2Here is a closer look at the gate set with jewels and carvings from semi-precious stones.
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This is the mosaic of Christ that rises above the altar at the front of the church.
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One of my favorite mosaics is this annunciation; here we see Mary receiving the news.
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On a pillar to the left of the altar and across from the Madonna is the angel delivering the news.
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The mosaics were heavily damaged after the revolution and up through the second world war; they have been beautifully restored.
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These screens to the left and right of the Holy Gate were also heavily damaged during the Soviet Period and the enameled saint portraits lost.  There are facsimiles as placeholders now while new panels are being created.
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There are a lot of churches in St. Petersburg, but if you have time for only one, this is it.  It is a stunning experience and perhaps the most impressive collection of mosaics anywhere.
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