Tag Archives: France

• Le Havre, the City Rebuilt by Auguste Perret

Visit: 2nd July 2017

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Le Havre is a city in Normandy that was heavily bombed during the Second World War and subsequently rebuilt in concrete in the 50s and 60s. It was the final stop on a cycling trip I took in early July with Ross (Chirag having organised the trip and then dropped out on the day of departure!).

 

We started by ferry from Portsmouth to Caen – a six hour voyage that gave time for a long lunch – before beginning our ride west along the coast toward Bayeux. The route took us along Sword beach, which was one of the sites taken by the Allies in the 1944 D-day landings. Sword was assigned to the British, whilst the Canadians had nearby Juno and the Americans Omaha and Utah.

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The ride was enjoyable as we turned inland, leaving behind coastal headwinds for the quiet country lanes of Normandy’s interior. After a while though we began to flag, resorting to my packet of prunes for a final burst of energy as we finally rode into Bayeux.

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The annual medieval fayre was taking place on the day we arrived, so we feasted on roasted meats and watched the townsfolk process by in a wide variety of strange costumes.

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Bayeux is best known as the home of the eponymous tapestry. This was the main reason for our detour to the city, though I was very impressed with the quality of its cathedral.

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We went to see the tapestry the next morning. It is 60 metres long and depicts the Norman version of events leading up to and during the 1066 Battle of Hastings – the last time anybody successfully invaded Great Britain. After Harold Godwinson reneged on a promise to let him take the throne of England, William of Normandy sailed across the channel and defeated Harold in battle. The Normans’ use of longbows is credited with giving them the edge, and Harold was supposedly killed when an arrow, fired high into the air, landed in his eye. Entrance to the museum comes with an audio guide that autoplays, keeping the flow of visitors moving along the tapestry as well as describing the events depicted in a way that really brings them to life. I would certainly recommend a visit to anybody visiting the area – it is one of the most interesting artefacts I have seen on my travels (and is not a World Heritage Site, by the way).

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Unfortunately the previous day’s cycling had taken its toll, and I was too saddle-sore to complete the planned 40 mile ride east to Deauville. So we took our bikes on the train, first travelling to Caen – where we ate lunch and looked around the castle – and then on to Deauville. A resort town on the coast, Deauville was our second night stop.

 

 

The next morning was the final day of our trip and I was ready to get back on the bike. We set off for Le Havre up an enormous hill, and stopped off in Honfleur for lunch (above). We then rode across the wide river Seine and past the large port of Le Havre before arriving into the rebuilt city mid-afternoon.

 

After being almost totally destroyed by bombardment in WWII the responsibility for its reconstruction was given to an architect by the name of Auguste Perret. Setting out his vision in the 1950s he was an early proponent of concrete. He designed a layout featuring wide streets and generally low-rise residential blocks, punctuated by a few taller towers. The tallest building is St Joseph’s Church, built as a memorial to the dead and designed to resemble a lighthouse.

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Unlike much British post-war development in concrete Le Havre is a pleasant place to be. It has not been allowed to slip into decrepitude through the familiar pattern of failed social policies and neglect, so still feels bright, open and forward-looking. There was very little left of the town following the war, but one building that did miraculously survive was Le Havre’s cathedral – a Baroque building from the 17th century. Like St Paul’s in London, with bombs falling all around it the cathedral somehow remained standing.

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We only had a couple of hours in Le Havre before our ferry was due to depart for Portsmouth. So, with that, we rode across to the terminal and boarded with the other cyclists and motorbikes and settled in for the longish journey home. I passed the time reading the Economist whilst Ross paid £6.50 to watch Baywatch II in the onboard cinema.

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• Amiens Cathedral

Visit: 16th April 2016

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Amiens is a city in the French region of Picardy with a history going back to Roman times. But it is the 13th century cathedral that makes it famous today.

Amiens was chosen as the destination for a “lad’s trip” featuring my pals Ross, Chig and Nowell. Ross had recently passed his driving test so was keen to make use of his new skills by driving us to the near Continent for a weekend.

The area close to the Eurotunnel’s southern end is rich in World Heritage Sites. Options included the city of Bruges in Belgium (destination of our first ever lad’s trip back in 2009, when I was driver). There are the 56 Belfries of of Belgium and France, or even the 108 component parts of the Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin.

Seeing mounds of slag or individual bell-towers wasn’t quite enough to excite us, though, so the city of Amiens was chosen as our primary port of call.

Nowell and I – who live in Bristol – took the train over to Ashford in Kent, where we linked up with Ross and Chig who had driven down the M20 from London. It was Friday night and the rush hour was over as we headed towards Folkestone to board the cross-Channel train.

We cracked open a celebratory beer as we passed beneath the chalk and marl of the seabed. It was a smooth exit from the tunnel, and, after one false start, we were hurtling down the A16 towards Amiens.

Ross had booked us a hotel rather farther from the city centre than was ideal, but we soon found our way in and spent the first night in the city’s historic centre, drinking by the attractive Somme riverside.

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The next day gave us a chance to do some sightseeing. The cathedral was built in the thirteenth century and is one of the best examples of the High Gothic style in existence.

There are quite a few Gothic cathedrals on the UNESCO list, which some people believe makes them overrepresented. I haven’t yet seen enough to have developed ‘Gothic fatigue’, so I was able to enjoy this one and compare it to Cologne Cathedral, which I had been to twice in 2015.

Amiens is cleaner, probably because it sits in a much smaller – and less polluted – city than Cologne. Its façade is its strongest point, being festooned with statuary.

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The façade is sometimes referred  to as “the stone encyclopaedia of the Bible” for its sheer number of figures from the holy book.

It was notable in its construction for its early use of ‘outsourcing’: instead of having all of the sculptors come to do their work at the cathedral itself, the authorities commissioned the statues to be made at workshops off-site and then brought over and affixed to the cathedral when ready.

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This made construction more efficient. The overall efficiency of its builders meant that it was put up in a remarkably short space of time: just 68 years.

In the timescales normally applicable to cathedrals built in the medieval era, this was extremely fast. It meant that the cathedral’s style is unusually consistent, since architectural tastes and techniques did not have much time  to evolve during the building of Amiens, so it represents its era especially well.

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Inside is apparently a relic that is said to be the head of John the Baptist. I did have a good look for it but was unable to find it.

The ceiling is 42 metres high, leaving a cavernous space into which sunlight streams.

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Having finished at the cathedral we exited through the gift shop and I caught the only glimpse of Amiens’ belfry that I was going to get, as the others insisted on going straight for lunch. The afternoon and the evening soon disappeared and before long it was Sunday morning and we were heading off in the car again, driving north toward Calais. We stopped for a while in the town of Arras, where we lunched by the inscribed belfry before having a brief look around one of the Fortifications of Vauban (Louis XIV’s military architect). Thereafter we continued on to Béthune, a small town with another belfry worth ticking off. By this time all of us but Nowell had, one by one, given up on the beers and were drinking sparkling water – but he managed to keep the flag flying to the bitter end.

• Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley

Visit: 16th June 2013

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By Tom

There were two reasons I flew down to France that weekend – one was to see the Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France, and the other was for these caves. The Vézère Valley, particularly around the town of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil, is home to dozens of ancient caves that have been found to contain prehistoric artwork etched into or painted onto the walls. Cave art was something none of us had seen before, so we decided in between Bergerac and Limoges to spend a day looking around the Vézère.

There are 16 caves recognised as part of this WHS, and we only went in one of them. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in the prehistoric caves, so I can only post other people’s pics. It’s a bit odd that you can’t take photos – the reason they gave is that the flash degrades the artwork, but our guide was using a torch the whole time, which I thought must do a lot more damage than a microsecond of camera flash.

Anyway, firstly we visited a different cave that is not a part of the WHS, called Les grottes du Roc de Cazelle. This is really more of a museum cave, and was created in the Middle Ages (only a pathetic 1,000 years ago!). Here you can see a lookout opening in the cave, and lots of holes in the rock. Wooden beams used to be (and in some parts still are) stuck into the holes, and a walkway laid across them. 

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The last people to dwell in these caves moved out in 1966!

You can just turn up and walk right into the museum caves here (for a fee of course). To visit an actual prehistoric cave is slightly more difficult. You can’t just wander around these caves on your own – you must book a guided tour. The French haven’t yet developed the concept of an advance booking system, so you must show up on the day and reserve a place on a tour. The most popular caves fill fill up fast, so you get people queuing up at 9am for the 60 or so places that are available on each day. If you are not at the front of the queue and thus able to bag an early tour, you must wait around for several hours until your time comes. This is not too much of an ordeal though, as the surrounding towns and villages are very charming, and indeed very filling (if you’re an animal hater who loves fois grax!).

We went to the cave at Les Combarelles, which is not the most competitive to get into – we only had to kick our heels for an hour or so. The weather was amazing on that day – hitting 31°C in the afternoon. To go into the cave was to experience a different climate, at once cool and damp.

The cave was long, narrow and winding. It did not open up into caverns at any point, but just kept snaking on into the rock. Along the way our guide would stop and shine a light on what looked like random etchings on the walls. To me at least, it often felt comparable to looking at constellations, where somebody tells you this is a bear and that is a wolf but really they could be just about anything! But others were very easy to make out, and there is no doubt that these 12-14,000 year old engravings were made by people with some artistic skill.

The picture below doesn’t really look anything like what those on the rock did, but they show what you could make out if you looked hard enough. I do remember seeing the horse.

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The tour is about an hour, and getting back out into the sunlight is a welcome change from the dank environment of a cave.

There are quite a few WHSs that are caves. The list contains:

Mogao Caves, China
Caves of Aggtelek Karst and Slovak Karst, Hungary/Slovakia
Ajanta Caves, India
Ellora Caves, India
Elephanta Caves, India
Sites of Human Evolution at Mount Carmel: The Nahal Me’arot / Wadi el-Mughara Caves, Israel
Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla in the Central Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico
Škocjan Caves, Slovenia
Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain
Mammoth Cave National Park, USA
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, USA

• Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France

Visit: 15th – 18th June 2013, 20th June 2017

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The Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France – or, as it is known in English, The Way of St James – is a vast WHS made up of 69 different individual sites scattered all the way across France. The Way of St James has actually been broken down into three different WHSs: in addition to this one, there is an equivalent route inscription in Spain as well as the city of Santiago de Compostela itself. The Way of St James was in medieval times one of the three major pilgrimage routes in Christianity, alongside the Via Francigena (from Canterbury to Rome) and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

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The sites inscribed in this WHS are generally churches and monasteries that were used as waypoints and stop-offs for pilgrims. It’s a bit unreasonable to have to visit all 69 in order to tick this WHS off, so I am writing this after having seen a representative few. Over time I am sure I will visit more and I will append descriptions to this post. There are 7 other WHSs that are inscribed in their own right, but are also components of this WHS – such as Amiens Cathedral and Mont St Michel.


15th-18th June 2013 – Dordogne

My parents were on a two week break in France, driving their new van – a converted VW T5 – and staying in campsites and Aires along the way. I found some Ryanair flights for about £50 return and got myself down to the Dordogne for 4 days. There isn’t room for three in the van, so here is my accommodation!

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I flew from Bristol to Bergerac on the Saturday, arriving to sunny weather in some contrast to the rain back home. We got straight on the road and headed to Saint-Avit-Sénieur – a tiny village that is home to an 11th Century church. Here is one of the outbuildings.

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This is a view inside the ruins of the abbey. It was still in use, with some locals playing boules and kids having a mini disco!

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That same evening we drove on to nearby Cadouin, where there is an abbey dating back to 1115.

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Here you can see the abbey through the one remaining original town gate.

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I bought an avocado and some tomatoes from the first of an almost infinite amount of shops that specialise in foix gras down there. Every restaurant we went to seemed to have its menu comprising of at least 2/3rds foix gras-related dishes. I didn’t eat any, but I did have duck meat for dinner on each of the three nights we ate out.

Sunday we went to see the cave art of the Vézère valley, which I’m going to cover in the next post. On Monday we drove an hour or so north to Périgueux – the capital of the Dordogne – to see the third church of the trip. Well, this one is actually a cathedral:

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The Cathédral St-Front, as it is known, is striking. But it is not to everyone’s taste, as our guidebook made clear:

Unfortunately, it’s no elegance, having suffered from the zealous attentions of the purist nineteenth-century restorer Abadie, well known for the white elephant of the Sacré-Cœur in Paris. The result is too white, too new, too regular, and the roof is spiked around with ill-proportioned nipple-like projections serving no distinct purpose; “a great example of how not to restore”, Freda White tartly featured in her classic travelogue, Three Rivers of France.

Nevertheless, it is a grand building, and ornately detailed inside. To be honest, a lot of the Christian imagery is wasted on me at the moment, but I’ve ordered a DVD “The History of Christianity” so I can better understand the meaning of the artifacts, paintings and architecture of the churches I visit.

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After Périgueux we headed northwards again, and happened upon a wonderful medieval town called Brantôme. It had been raining heavily, but when we arrived in Brantôme it had stopped and the moisture was heavy in the air. The town is surrounded by waterworks and cliffs abut the town’s old abbey (not a part of the WHS, but founded in 769 by Charlemagne himself according to legend).

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We had a delicious meal that evening in Brantôme, and my Dad shook the hand of the chef, such was his enjoyment of it.

On the final day of my trip we drove the two hours or so north-east toward Limoges. To the east of Limoges is a town on a hill called Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat, where the eponymous church is named for a 6th Century saint known for freeing prisoners.

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The Church is definitely the focal point of this town. Its architecture is described as ‘Romanesque’. You can see below the high roof and the light that comes pouring in.

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It was outside this church that we photographed the symbol you can see at the top of this post. This is the symbol that pilgrims used to recognise a place that would welcome them on their way to Spain. And here is a map of the four churches we visited on this WHS (I will update as I visit more).

Sites on SdC in France visited

And after this, it was time for me to head to the airport for my flight back from Limoges.

Maps generated by the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.


20th June 2017 – Paris

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Four years passed before I visited another point on this WHS. On a flying visit to Paris in June 2017 I walked from Châtelet – Les Halles to the Île de la Cité via the Saint-Jacques Tower in the 4th arrondissement. The tower is all that remains of a church that was destroyed in the French Revolution, and is in the Flamboyant Gothic style. Whilst I didn’t go inside (it was closed and I had little time) I enjoyed seeing this tower. I’ve seen a number of interesting French and Belgium belfries as part of the Belfry WHS, and I reckon this one ranks with the best of them. After seeing the tower I continued to the cathedral of Notre Dame, which is part of the Paris, Banks of the Seine WHS.