Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Arles, Provence

Initially when I arrived in Arles, it was simply to make a bus connection travelling further South to reach Saintes Maries de la Mer (see the post below), but due to train delays I missed my connection and had nearly a full day of adventure time on my hands. I'm glad things worked out the way they did because Arles is a lovely place and full of fascinating spots to visit.

With a free map courtesy of the Tourist Bureau, I set out on foot to explore the city that inspired Van Gogh's Starry Night. In fact, having been the setting for many of Van Gogh's paintings, you can imagine that Arles is rightfully proud of its importance in Van Gogh's personal history. There are markers noting where the painter created each work in the city so that you can see the same scenery as he once painted it. These plaques are also accompanied by a reproduction of the painting. I really enjoyed seeing Van Gogh's subjects (often the Rhône river) and then how they were tranformed via the artists' canvas.

Anyone who knows much about Van Gogh knows the tale of his ill-fated ear. He cut it off in Arles, and the mental hospital where he was sent after the incident is well preserved and open to visitors. Known as L'espace Van Gogh, the former sanitorium is actually quite pleasant, featuring a vibrant courtyard painted in bright Provencal yellow and blue with gardens maintained in their original 19th century design, just as Van Gogh painted them during his recovery period.

Arles' history goes much further back than Van Gogh, however. Constantine's Roman baths, a wonderfully preserved Roman arena (the largest in France), a smaller Roman theatre, a 12th century Romanesque church and cloisters, pices of the city's medieval wall and more can all be visited on foot in the old town.

The colors of Arles are great to behold, with bright colored shutters in hues of red, blue, pink, and green. Every window features a flower box heaped with generous floral plants and vines, giving even the oldest beaten down buildings an inviting, warm glow.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Saintes Maries de la Mer-Gypsy Pilgrimage

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Last week I spent several days in Provence attending the annual Gypsy pilgrimage that takes place along the Mediterranean Sea in a village appropriately named Saintes Maries de la Mer ( Saint Marys of the Sea). This small town, which receives its annual fifteen minutes of fame every May, is tucked into a marshland preserve known as the Camargue (famous for rice, flamingoes, and white horses). Every year between eight and ten thousand Gypsies from around the world come in their caravans, ( covered wagons or contemporary campers) to pay homage to their Patron Saint, Sara. She is not officially recognized by the Catholic church, but this is of little importance to the Gypsies.

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According to legend, Sara may have been a Gypsy herself, and served Mary Jacob and Mary Salome when they landed on the shores of Provence from Palestine. For centuries, May has been the month to celebrate their commemoration beginning with Sara on the 24th, followed by the two Marys on the 25th. On the first day, Sara's statue, that of a black madonna, is brought up from the crypt of the local 9th century church. A procession through town leads to the sea, where Sara enters the water, held high above the shoulders of her worshipful followers.

On the 24th I arrived a little late due to a delay in the train schedule that caused me to miss my bus connection from Arles. I had to wait for the later bus, but this gave me time to spend the day in Arles which is worth writing about in another blog. The atmosphere on the bus headed towards Saintes Maries de la Mer was a bit like being at a renaissance fair. There were backpackers, a few tourists, hippies and Gypsies. Everyone was friendly and jubilant in a chaotic sort of way, but this was only a preview of the bedlam that was in store at my beach-front destination. I arrived on the outskirts of town because the streets were so overloaded with Gypsies and other travelers that the bus driver couldn't go any further. "You'll just have to walk in" he announced. I didn't mind because were surrounded by ranches full of beautiful, white Camargue horses. The horses were quite friendly and I stopped to pet a few as I hiked into town.

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I arrived just in time to catch the procession of Saint Sara returning from the sea. After taking a few photographs, I jumped into the procession and walked alongside the other pilgrims back to the church, at which point Sara was dramatically swept back into the crypt.

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After the procession, I walked along the beach taking in the vast number of caravans and campers that were parked bumper to bumper (by nightfall, these camps were being set up just about anywhere there was space still available: in parking lots, on the street, outside hotels....). Even the dogs have their own caravans!

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Downtown, I continued walking, and stopped off to hear various musicians. Flamenco dance and music was well represented with a high number of Spanish Gypsies in attendance. Note the painting on the musician's guitar, it's a mix of Spanish and Rroma (Gypsy) language. The inscription reads Alma Gitano (Gypsy friendship). Alma being the word for "friendship" in Rroma, and Gitano being the Spanish name for Gypsies.

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There were also Eastern European musicians, accordion soloists, and Jazz Manouche (in the style of Django Reinhardt), among others.

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The high quality mix of music was intoxicating and I lingered a long time, watching and listening to each group. Being among musicians, gypsies, and spectators gave off a merry street-fair vibe but with a bit of a harder edge at times (though nothing dangerous mind you, just a bit of persistent begging that involved a little arm pulling).

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On the 25th, the Gypsies and the local people of Provence celebrate the arrival of the Mary Jacob and Mary Salome in a similar style procession and benediction at sea. Local guardians (ranchers, aka French cowboys) ride the well known White Camargue horses that are bred in the area. Alongside the statue of the two saints, a wooden painted trunk also rides to sea. Inside are said to be the saintly remains of the two Marys. Scientific examination of the bones has dated them first century and of "Oriental" origin. For this procession (my second), I headed straight to the beach to ensure a good vantage point.

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A group of traveling gypsies carried a cross that reads "Gens de Voyage" (traveling people) in solidarity with nomadic families. The illustration on the cross features a painting of the trunk of the Saint Marys' remains.

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As I walked to the outskirts of town to catch my bus ride back to Arles, I could still hear the music and merriment trailing behind me.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Chartres Cathedral

Having poured overs floor plans of Chartres Cathedral for nearly half a semester during my undergraduate medieval art history course, you can imagine how excited I was to finally see this monumental, patchwork beauty up close. As soon as I exited the train station, I recognized the two uneven towers of the West facade that guided my path.
This size discrepency comes from the two unique periods in which each tour was created. Pictured on the left, the Gothic tower was completed in the year 1513. The older octagonal tower on the right dates from the late twelfth century, and although a bit shorter than its Gothic counterpart, it is the tallest Romanesque tower still standing. This wall and tower are the only surviving external examples of the cathedral's Romaneque manifestation dating from 1020. The somewhat fateful history of Chartes Cathedral includes an early cathedral created in the fourth century, followed by a Merovingian sanctuary in 743 that was destroyed by Hunald, Duke of Aquitaine. A new cathedral was built, and then destroyed again in 858 by Vikings. A few years later, a Carolingian cathedral was built over the same site, only to be destroyed by fire in 1020, and as a result the Romanesque construction began. The present cathedral, so influencial during the days of French Gothic style, began in 1194 after yet another fire destroyed most of the Romanesaue cathedral.

Throughout the ages, Chartres remained an important center of religious pilgrimage due to its Mary relic known as the Sancta Camisia, or veil of the Virgin. In 876 a cloth believed to have been worn by the Virgin Mary was given to the cathedral by Charles the Bald (King of the Franks) to help finance construction efforts. Charles had inherited the cloth from his grandfather Charlemagne, who originally received it as a gift in 800 from the Empress Irene of Byzantium. In 1712 the reliquary housing the cloth was unsealed and a long piece of silk about ten feet in length was discovered (previously it was believed to be a garment). During the 20th century the fabric was examined and found to date from the first century via Syria or Palestine. Contemporary studies note that this same type of fabric is found in Palestine today, used by women to cover themselves and to wrap their babies.

Only two fragments survived the French Revolution and one is housed in the left-hand nave of the Cathedral. The other piece remains underground in the crypt. During my visit, I witnessed more than one pilgrimage in process. In fact, it was difficult to get a good look at the Mary relic because several nuns in reverant worship were crying and kissing the floor in front of it.

One of my personal favorites of the day was a visit to the black Virgin of the Pillar chapel.

Chartes is also known of course, for its magnificent stained glass that illustrates 150 biblical stories in what we might consider a multi-media teaching center of the Middle Ages. During both World Wars the windows were dismantled piece by piece for safety, and restoration has been ongoing since the 1970s. The Cathedral is also well known for its labyrinth, which is easy to miss if you're busy gazing upward like I was. A peek at your shoes is definitely worth it when you uncover the 13th century maze inlaid in the nave floor. Pilgrims used to follow this route on their knees, but I'm not too fond of penance, so I remained standing. There are eleven bands of concentric circles, that measure 851 feet (I'm told it takes an hour knee-bound to complete the full circuit).

Last but not least, I decided to take the daily tour of the crypt where some interesting finds continue to be unearthed in this century. Our group descended a flight of 18th century steps and into the crypt that was built in 858 after the Viking attack. Here we viewed the remains of a 6th century Gallo Roman column, and the floor paving of the 4th century cathedral. Several years ago, beyond the column mentioned above, an archaeologist uncovered the foundations of the Carolingian cathedral and its entry. Our next stop was a Gallic well, 34 meters deep with a square base (unique to the Gallic tradition). Known as the "Saint's Well" in memory of the martyr Saint Modest, it is also remembered for the victims of Viking attacks, supposedly thrown to their deaths at the bottom. Moving on, we saw the other piece of the Mary relic, an early frescoe of the Adoration of the Magi that was uncovered only thirty years ago, and finally the "Statue of Our Lady". This sculpture is unique for being one among only two others known to exist of Mary with her eyes closed. This is usually interpreted as a sign of reverence.

My apologies for the poor image quality of the Statue of Our Lady; I scanned a prayer card since I ran out of film by the time I reached her in the crypt at the end of the day. She is seated behind a traditional Aubusson tapestry, and is constructed of wood.

As Emile Male once said, "Nothing compares to Chartres. It is the thinking of the Middle Ages made visible".

Friday, May 19, 2006

Pique-Assiette Aspirations

Recently I made a pilgrimage to the city of Chartres, though it wasn't the religious journey you might imagine. Chartres Cathedral has been the object of spirtual adoration for centuries, but I'll address that in another post. For now, join me in a hike across town where I sought out the fabulous Maison Picassiette, also known as the Mosaic House, one of my principal interests in visiting Chartres.

My first objective upon leaving the the train station (one hour's ride from Paris) was to stop off at the Tourist Bureau to obtain a local map. That mission was easily accomplished, but not knowing the city, I underestimated the distance it would take to reach my desired destination. One hour and fifteen minutes later, sweaty but enthusiastic, I arrived in Saint Chéron, a residential neighborhood that looked like any other in France, and began searching for number 22 rue du Repos. From the street, the Mosaic House is hardly recognizable. The only tell-tale sign of its existence is the handy, dandy tourist marker. The house sits off the road, protected by a narrow garden alley, so none of its glorious colors are visible to the unenlightened passerby. I arrived at 2 p.m. just as the ticket seller was returning from lunch. It took us awhile to gain entry access as he accidently set off the alarm system (housed in a tiny ticket booth) and began cursing and dancing around wildly. The frenzied man then turned to me and launched into a sympathy-seeking diatribe about how good service is hard to find nowdays. I didn't mind, and while he was busy getting hysterical about the alarm, my eyes cast a fleeting glance at the "No Photographs Allowed" sign and quickly began to capture a few clandestine Kodak moments.

I've long been a fan of outsider art momuments, that is art and architectural sites created by people with no previous artistic training. Such individuals often devote their entire lives to producing a site-specific project (frequently their own homes) packed to the gills with creative offerings. The Mosaic House is one such place, with its creation spanning a period of thirty years. Construction on the small house began in 1930, undertaken by Raymond Isidore (b. 1900). What began as a means to provide shelter for his family evolved into a life-long passion for mosaic work. Isidore covered every aspect of the family home; its exterior, the flower pots, the furniture, even his radio didn't escape the shards of broken pottery that infused his creative hands. With his mosaic house complete, he continued along the garden walls, and created fountains, small pavillions, and outdoor furniture, including a mosaic throne for both his wife and himself.

Hours can be spent perusing the designs and messages encoded within Isidore's mosaics. The color scheme is full of Chartres blue, his said favorite color, and so named for the shade of blue found in the celebrated stained glass of the city's cathedral. Fervantly religious, Isidore was reportedly a big fan of France's famed cathedrals and pays just hommage by recreating them on his homestead. Notre Dame, Arles, and The Sacre Coeur were all easily recognizable, but it is Isidore's local cathedral that receives a place of honor nestled atop a multi-color pedestal in front of his home (pictured above).

As an intereseting side, Franck informed me that in French the word pique-assiette (pique being pronounced the same as pic) refers to someone who sponges off of others as a means to achieve their own goals. The dictionary explains it as making one's self invited to everyone else's house for dinner in order to scrounge. From this we can see how La Maison Picassiette is a play on words, utilizing the slang term above, and the fact that in order to create mosaics, one rearranges broken pieces of plate (assiette). Speaking of plates, Isidore is reported to have used over 4 million discarded dishes., and that doesn't take into account the funny figures, jars, and animals that one finds embedded in the walls. When it came time to leave, I found it hard to tear myself away from this little hidden treasure trove of one man's obsession with broken shards.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Varennois for a Week

Last week I was invited to the town of Sainte Pierre de Varennes to teach a Chinese calligraphy workshop for both schoolchildren and adults (Side note: for those of you who don't know, I took private calligraphy lessons for a year. Big shout out to my loashi, Haishan Lai!). The village center of learning is unique, with two classrooms housing the entire elementary school. This scenario has become very familiar to me over the last year as France is full of small towns whose populations cling to their village identity. While it might be more efficient and cost-effective for these towns to operate joint institutions, no town wants to be the one to give up their own school, no matter how small the student body. As a parent in Sainte Pierre de Varennes explained to me, "for us, the school represents the center of activity in our town". In this case, I'd have to agree. The school is housed within the local mairie (town hall). The two classrooms encompass the ground floor, while the library (run by volunteers and open three days a week) occupies one room on the second floor, followed by an office for the town hall, and a general meeting room. In a village where more than half the population is retired, the school represents both fresh energy and a nostalgic emblem of the past.

Each classroom is a mix of three grade levels. That's a total of six grades, thirty-two students, and two teachers. Not exactly overcrowded with a mere average of five students per grade level, but the principal (and upper level teacher) Catherine lamented the fact that so much time goes into lesson planning. When I first learned of this small school and their fierce struggle to maintain it, I wondered if the students wouldn't be better off in a neighboring district. There, I thought, they might have access to enriching programs and cultural activities that bypass a two-room school. I don't have a conclusive answer to give, but I did observe some nice aspects to their closely-knit school that I can share to counter balance the argument. Students are extremely well taken care of in Sainte Pierre de Varennes. With such a small student body, there is a lot of individual attention given, and no one seems to be left behind. The age rifts that one finds in a normal sized school are non-existent in Sainte Pierre, and the students mix very well with their older and younger peers. Bullying would be impossible in such close quarters.

I had been invited to Sainte Pierre de Varennes on behalf of the library, but as my sponsor Anne Brehier is also the mother of a young student, we developed my workshop in conjunction with the school. I spent two afternoons there. Tuesday was a general lecture day; I talked about Asian culture and my experiences in Japan. On Thursday I was greeted by a bowing chorus of "konnichiwa!!". The students were really geared up that day because the school had sponsored an Asian lunch, during which they each received a pair of chopsticks. One little girl told me, "it took a long time to eat with those!". Finally we got to try our hands at brushes and ink! I taught some simple nature words because the characters aren't that complicated, and kids usually like the theme. For several hours we practiced writing mountain, river, sun, moon, earth, forest, and the four seasons. In the evening I returned to do the same things with adults. This workshop was sponsored by the library and the Women's Craft Guild. It took place in the town hall's meeting room. The ladies got frustrated with the complexity of Chinese brush technique (it's pretty hard to pick up in one workshop!), but I think they had a good time.

Franck and I were enticed by the natural charm of Sainte Pierre de Varennes, a heavily agricultural area with rolling farm land and plenty of hiking trails. This weekend we returned to do some walking and take photos. Besides the mairie, the only other landmark of note is an old church with an interesting roof structure. Over the entrance there's also a carving I like that looks a bit naif (thus the reason I like it).

We spent the rest of the time talking to cows, goats, and horses. Thanks to Franck for letting me use his photo of this gorgeous goat.