Friday, December 07, 2012

Bergheim, France - June 14, 2012

Bergheim is a little town of 1800 souls in the Haut-Rhin department of the Alsace which, since the beginning of the 11th century, has been pretty much confined within a 330 yard by 550 yard walled area. The fortified walls comprise a double rampart, originally separated by a moat (now filled in and converted to gardens) and serviced via four gates. There were nine flanking towers all of which are still visible. Three of the four gates were demolished in the 19th century to make more room for carts.
Over the centuries, Bergheim has undergone several name changes since it was first built on a former Roman camp. In 465 CE it was known as Berchem, morphing to Bercheim in 1302, then Berckheim in 1510, Bercken in 1576 to eventually become Bergheim.
Ownership changes were even more frequent. In the 7th century Hagio donated the settlement to the Moyenmoutier Abbey in Lorraine. Later, Otto I gave the town to Hermann, Duke of Alsace. The Moyenmoutier Abbey regained possession in 964 aided by Gerhard, the bishop of Toul, until Duke Hermann seized it back in 978.
Under Emperor Henry II, Bergheim became the property of the bishops of Toul and, in 1132, this was confirmed by no one less than Pope Innocent II himself. In 1225, bishop Otto conferred all rights of Bergheim to Mathias, Duke of Lorraine and, in 1246, Mathias gave Bergheim to Philip Gilbeviller. On his death it passed to Hugh, Earl of Lützelstein.
By 1287, Bergheim had come into the hands of Rappolstein before falling to Albert I, King of the Romans in 1301. A few years later, Henri de Ribeaupierre gained control, surrounded the town with the fortifications (better late than never I suppose) and offered it to the Emperor Henry VII who gratefully received it in 1312.
Bergheim was finally elevated to a free city under the tutelage of Henri de Ribeaupierre . and in 1313 received the privilege to mint money and the right of levying of customs. Thirteen ownership changes in the space of 700 years - what confusion!
More pictures of this tidily organized town are here.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving 2012 - New Members Welcome ;o)

Today is Thanksgiving. We have fun on Thanksgiving. Here we are having fun.
Since last November, two additions have been made to the tribe, further outcome of a frighteningly fecund gene pool. The newbies appeared in the form of great grandchildren, each one the product of a different grandchild with of course, assistance from appropriate mates.
Amber, daughter of Martine, daughter of we dorks dropped Charlie back in May and Traci, wife of Matthew, son of Martine, still daughter of we dorks produced Alivia just a couple of weeks ago.
Click here for see more pictures including the new anklebiters.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Riquewihr, France - June 13, 2012

While we were holed up in Ribeauville we checked out some adjacent villages on the map that were close enough to cycle to and selected several of them to visit. South of where we were there are four villages all ending in wihr, Hunawihr, Riquewihr, Mittelwihr and Bennwihr. Thus, bicycles primed, we set off to see what these tiny towns had to offer.
Riquewihr was where we hit pay dirt. Another one street attraction but a street loaded with everything gawkers like - towers, arches, portes, fairy tale houses, eclectic retail, bustling restaurants and last but not least, thronging tourists! The other hamlets were pleasant enough but were slowing fading communities struggling to cope in a changing world.
On the other hand, Riquewihr had the critical mass and good fortune to have tapped into tourism and seemed to be surviving if not thriving. The town is also known for Riesling and other great wines produced in the village and, having escaped serious damage from WWII, claims to look more or less as it did in the 16th century. A bit of a stretch but still a very enjoyable excursion. More pictures here.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Ribeauville, France - June 10, 2012

Ribeauvillé is in the Haut-Rhin department of the Alsace region in north-eastern France. The picturesque town is located around 10 miles north of Colmar and 47 miles south of Strasbourg. The first known mention of the town was in 768 CE as Rathaldovilare, roughly translated as "Villa of Ratbold" where, in old German "Ratbold" signified "the boldest man of the counsel".
Over time, the town passed from the bishops of Basle to the lord of Rappoltstein the king, or protector, of the wandering minstrels who purchased his protection by payment of a tax.
The Rappoltstein family died out in 1673 and the Pfeiferkonig office (king of the pipers)  passed to the palatine counts of Zweibrücken-Birkenfeld. The minstrels had a pilgrimage chapel near Rappoltsweiler, dedicated to their patron saint, Maria von Dusenbach, and here they held an annual feast on 8 September. The Counts of Ribeaupierre were the last lords of the town before the Revolution.
Essentially a one street town, Ribeauvillé is still partly surrounded by defensive walls, contains many well maintained medieval houses and two excellent Gothic churches. On the hill to the west of the town stand the ruins of three famous castles, Saint-Ulrich, Girsberg and Haut-Ribeaupierre, which formerly belonged to the lords of Ribeaupierre.
Overall, a well managed and nicely presented tourist attraction in which to while away an interesting day or two. More pictures here.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Colmar, France - June 9, 2012

Colmar (Kolmar in German) is the capital of the Haut-Rhin department in the Alsace region of France. It is situated at the foot of the Massif des Vosges and, at 65,000 population is the third largest city in the region. Colmar is the driest city in France with average annual rainfall less than 21", a result of its location at the foot of the highest part of the Vosges. 
Originally an ancient free city of the Holy Roman Empire, Colmar became French in 1648 following the Treaty of Westphalia and, by 1789, boasted about 11,000 inhabitants. After forced annexation to the German Empire in 1871 it became the district capital of the Upper Alsace in the Reichsland of Alsace-Lorraine and remained so until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 that ended WWI. The city then remained French until February 1940 when it was again annexed by the Third Reich in WWII. In February 1945 the city was the last to be liberated from German occupation.
Colmar has many well preserved historical buildings and numerous pedestrian areas making a leisurely walk about especially enjoyable. Outside of tourism, the city has a burgeoning electronic and electro-mechanical components industry along with pharmaceutics production.
Lots more views of this photogenic city are here.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Goxwiller, France - June 8, 2012

After leaving Obernai we had a light driving day to our next port of call which was Colmar. Between the two, there were three small towns all ending in ...willer so we decided to investigate.
First up was Gertwiller. Probably something to see here but  almost every street was torn up (probably for cobbling) raising the expected parking difficulty from exasperating to impossible. We moved on.
Zelwiller was next. Less than a one-horse town, there appeared to be no compelling reason for anyone to stop here even had there been a convenient parking spot. So onto number three - Goxwiller.
First mentioned in 920 CE as Getenesvillare, then as Gokesvilre, Gotesviller and finally as Goxwiller it just about makes a one-horse town but is nicely maintained and we found convenient parking adjacent to the fire station.
With a population near 800 souls the town is known for its viticulture and for traditional artisan trades such as carpentry, clogs, leather tanning and book binding. In recent decades efforts have been made to renovate the village to encourage tourists
A relaxing place to spend an hour or so. More pictures here.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Obernai, France - July 7, 2012

Moving further east through France, we left the Champagne-Ardenne region, enjoyed a serene but spectacular drive over the Vosges mountains as we crossed the Lorraine region before finally entering the Bas-Rihn department of the Alsace region, bordering on Germany. Our target was Obernai, a vibrant city bucking the trend of small French cities in that it is growing and has almost doubled its population to around 12,000 inhabitants over the last forty years.
The area where Obernai developed was the property of the dukes of Alsace in the 7th century and where, legend has it, St. Odile, daughter of the Duke, was born subsequently to become the Patron Saint of Alsace. The name Obernai first appears in 1240, around the time that the village acquired the status of town and began to prosper. It reached its economic peak in the 15th and 16th centuries and in 1562 Emperor Ferdinand I saw fit to visit the town.
Obernai was significant;y damaged, both physically and economically, during the Thirty Years War in the 17th century. It fell under foreign occupation at least twice in this period and, after being ransomed, was ceded to France in 1679. Although its fortunes improved as a result of this it never fully regained its earlier luster. In 1871 the whole of Alsace, including Obernai, was summarily annexed by Germany and was not returned to France until the end of WWI, nearly forty years later.
In much earlier days, Obernai was a double-walled city with defensive ramparts separated by a roadway and both walls were replete with towers and gates. While there still is a "rampart walk" around the town, much of the structure was removed in the 19th century and the facilities put to other uses. Small sections of defensive walls have been retained however.
Obernai is a center of wine and beer production as well as a significant tourist destination second only to Strasbourg in the entire Bas-Rhin department. Just 25 miles from Strasbourg and 15 from the international airport, Obernai is well situated for easy access. For views of this picturesque town on Market Day, click here.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Langres, France - June 4, 2012

Langres, in north-eastern France, is in the Haute-Marne department of the Champagne-Ardenne region. The original settlement occupied a limestone promontory, a natural stronghold in turn occupied by the Celtic tribe known as the Lingones then the Gauls and later fortified by the Romans. The 1st century Triumphal Gate and other artifacts preserved in the museums bear testament to the Gallo-Roman town.
The city's most remarkable feature are 2.4 miles of ramparts that surround the town, including seven fortified towers and seven gateways, all of which has been kept in excellent repair. Parts of the ramparts date back 2000 years, most of the gates and towers stem from the 15th and 16th centuries while the more recent citadel dates from the 19th century.
The turbulent 14th and 15th centuries gave cause for the town to strengthen its fortifications which imbue the old part of the city with its fortified character today. The Renaissance, which returned prosperity to the town, saw the construction of many fine civil, religious and military buildings that today make this town of 8,500 souls a rich piece of French history.
For more pictures of this historical treasure trove, see here for a tour around the wonderfully intact ramparts and check this link out for a look around the town inside the walls.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Châtillon-sur-Seine, France - June 2, 2012

Châtillon-sur-Seine, with a declining population of about 5,500, is an unremarkable city in the Côte-d'Or department of the Bourgogne region. Around 150 miles from Paris, about 2-3/4 hours away by road or 1-3/4 hours by the TGV, Châtillon is favored by its proximity to the A6 motorway. The city is criss-crossed by the upper reaches of the Seine whose source is about 25 miles away.
Early in WWI Châtillon's Marmont Castle was the headquarters of General Joffre who launched the first battle of the Marne from there on September 5, 1914.
At the end of WWII Châtillon was liberated by a joint effort of the 1st Regiment of Marines and the 1st Regiment of Moroccan Spahis on September 12, 1944.
The local economy is predominantly agricultural although there is a small industrial base comprising a metal packaging company and a plywood manufacturer jointly employing a little over 300 people.
There are a number of sights around town, some of which can be seen here.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Auxerre, France - May 31, 2012

Auxerre is the capital of the Yonne department in the Bourgogne region of north-central France. With a population in the order of 45,000 it is a commercial and industrial center, with industries including food production, woodworking and batteries in addition to world-famous Burgundy wines including the renowned Chablis.
In the 1st and 2nd centuries CE the city was a vibrant Gallo-Roman center and by the 3rd century it had become the seat of a bishop and a provincial capital of the Roman Empire. In the 5th century it received a Cathedral and by the late 11th-early 12th century the area was included inside a new line of defensive walls built by the Counts of Auxerre.
The city actually became part of France under King Louis XI but went on to suffer significantly during the Hundred Years' War and the Wars of Religion. Today, Auxerre maintains a clearly delineated "old town" with all the juice in a compact area on a prominence on the right bank of the river Yonne while modern Auxerre is spread out all around and is relatively bustling.
More images here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Timber Framed Churches - May 28, 2012

After leaving Chalons we overnighted at a quaint little campsite in Arcis-sur-Aube that was run by Dutch folk. To attest to their Dutchness, there were several little windmills (run by electric motors) scattered around the grounds, some connected by cute little purposeless bridges. What it is to be Dutch!
Our destination from here was Troyes, a whopping 18 miles away, where we had a prearranged lunch appointment for the following day. We felt unhurried.
Somewhere along the way, Marian had picked up a little tourist booklet about the Aube department that we would be driving through, and had noticed a number of half-timbered churches being promoted. We decided, having never seen such an edifice, that we would wander off track and visit a couple of these on our way.
Check out what we found here.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Châlons-en-Champagne - May 27, 2012

Ninety miles due east of Paris is the modest town of Châlons-en-Champagne, population 47,000. Known as Châlons-sur-Marne until it seemingly suffered an identity crisis in 1998, Châlons-en-Champagne is not only the capital of the Marne department but also the entire Champagne-Ardenne region despite being far from the region's largest city.
The city is however, a significant transport hub being located close to the intersection of a major road link connecting Paris and Strasbourg and another joining Lille to Lyon. Châlons is also home to the third ranked international freight airport in France and is further served by the TGV - Train Grande Vitesse or high speed train - connecting it to Paris, Reims and Verdun among others.
Our leisurely walkabout in the genteel decay of Châlons filled a pleasant few hours on a sunny spring Sunday. See here for more pictures. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

Laon, France - May 24, 2012

Laon is the capital city of the Aisne department in the Picardy region of northern France. We had visited Laon a few years back on a cold gray day and caught a couple of pictures of the cathedral. This visit was to explore the city in more detail.
Topographically, Picardy is a fairly flat plain with few exceptions. Laon is built on one of these exceptions - a 330 foot flat topped prominence providing a natural command over the surrounding area.
The strategic importance of this was not lost on the Romans and Julius Ceaser fortified the existing Gallic village that existed when he arrived and successfully warded off invasions by the Franks, Burgundians, Vandals, Alans and Huns over the following years. 
Remegius, the archbishop of Reims, was born in Laon and instituted the bishopric of Laon at the end of the fifth century, elevating it to one of the principal towns of the kingdom of the Franks. During the Hundred Years' War Laon was attacked and taken by the Burgundians, who subsequently lost it to the English only to be retaken by the French after the consecration of Charles VII.
Following the Revolution in 1789, Laon permanently lost its rank as a bishopric as religion throughout the country was snuffed out. The city was next caught up in the Napoleonic Wars when, in 1814, Napoleon unsuccessfully laid siege to it. In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, the cathedral and the old episcopal palace were damaged before the city surrendered to the Germans in September 9. 
In 1914, during World War I, German forces captured the town again and held it until the Allied offensive in the summer of 1918. The city still contains a number of medieval buildings, some of which are detailed in the pictures here.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Cambrai, France - May 23, 2012

In the late middle ages and early rennaisance, Cambrai was a significant religious center and one of the significant and powerful cities of northern France. It is situated on the Escaut river in the Nord department of the Nord Pas de Calais region and was at one time a walled city with a typical complement of access gates or portes.
In 1543, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor of the time, conquered the city and added it to his already significant possessions. After having Saint Sépulchre, the medieval monastery, demolished he built a citadel in its place.
A century and a quarter later in 1677, with Louis XIV in control of the fortunes of France, he determined to "safeguard the tranquility of his borders for ever" part of which included the re-capture of Cambrai and restoring it to France. Louis supervised the siege personally and the city fell to him in April of that year.
One hundred and twelve years later, in 1789, came the end of the French Royals with the Revolution. The Revolution was not kind to Cambrai. The Comité de Salut Public sent Joseph Le Bon to the city in 1794 to begin the era of "terror" and he sent many citizens to the guillotine. Le Bon himself was tried in 1795 and promptly executed. Most of the religious buildings of the city were demolished following the revolution and the old cathedral, apparently an exquisite building, was sold to a merchant who operated it as a stone quarry. By 1809 everything was gone except the main tower which collapsed in a storm during that year.
More recently, Cambrai became the Duke of Wellington's headquarters for the British Army of Occupation, from 1815 to 1818 following the Napoleonic drama. From November 20 to December 7, 1917, the WWI Battle of Cambrai took place in the area. This battle is sometimes noted erroneously for the first mass use of tanks in a combined arms operation however there had been several earlier deployments April, May, June, July and October of that year. Mark IV tanks were used at Cambrai but were still found wanting and became mostly ineffective after the first day.
Today, with a decling population of 32,000, Cambrai is like many erstwhile northern French cities: unkempt, dirty, poorly laid out for use in the 21st century and burdened with a hodge-podge of architectural styles. Another example of the avid conservation relegating the city to a museum piece.
Click here for picture show.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Vimy Ridge, a Canadian Baptism by Fire - May 22, 2012

On a cold and extremely windy Tuesday, having stocked Penny Pilote for the road and completed our other chores, we visited the Canadian WWI Vimy Ridge Memorial, a few miles from Arras. The Battle of Vimy Ridge in fact, was part of the First World War Battle of Arras in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France. In essence it pitched four divisions of Canadian Corps against three divisions of the German Sixth Army and the engagement raged from April 9 to April 12 1917.
Supported by a creeping barrage, the Canadian Corps captured most of the ridge during the first day of the attack, the town of Thélus on the second day before the final objective, a fortified knoll located outside the town of Givenchy-en-Gohelle, fell to them on April 12. By nightfall the Canadian Corps was in firm control of the ridge which had fallen under German control in October 1914 during the "Race to the Sea" across northeastern France.
There were approximately 97,000 Canadians in the Corps which suffered 10,602 casualties during the battle: 3,598 deaths and 7,004 wounded. The German Sixth Army suffered an unknown number of casualties with approximately 4,000 men becoming prisoners of war. At the time, the Vimy Ridge force was the largest assembly of Canadian Corps to be engaged in a single action and is regarded by some as one of the defining events in the forging of the Canadian armed services.
In the weeks leading up to the battle, the British discovered that German tunneling companies had built an extensive network of tunnels and deep mines from which they would attack French positions, setting off explosive charges beneath their trenches. The Royal Engineers quickly deployed their own specialist tunneling companies to combat the German mining operations. The grounds of the memorial  site are still honeycombed with wartime tunnels, trenches, craters and unexploded munitions, and are largely closed off for public safety.
The Canadian National Vimy Memorial itself is Canada's largest and principal overseas war memorial. Located on the highest point of the Vimy Ridge, the memorial is dedicated to the commemoration of the battle and to Canadian Expeditionary Force members killed during the First World War. France granted Canada perpetual use of a section of land at Vimy Ridge in 1922 for the purpose of a battlefield park and memorial and the 250-acre portion of the former battlefield is preserved as part of the memorial park that surrounds the monument.
The memorial took eleven years to build and was finally unveiled on 26 July 1936 by King Edward VIII of England, in the presence of President Albert Lebrun of France and 50,000 plus Canadian and French veterans and their families. By this time of course, inept and crooked politicians on three continents were within three years of steering the world toward the disaster that was WWII. Sure makes one wish that politicians had to take their turn in being shot at. Pictures here.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Dover, England - May 19, 2012

We had visited Dover several times in the fifties - one of our cycling haunts. We have also visited from cruise ships and various RV vacations. We did need can English version of an English-French dictionary however and also a pot of beautifying potion for Marian that had been confiscated at Fort Wayne Airport a couple of weeks earlier. Thus we took a walk into town on a warm and sunny Saturday morning.
A visit to W H Smith and then to Boots drugstore met our shopping needs after which we sought out a Fish and Chip emporium. Found one - it was awful! Nothing much else to report so here, in case you ever find yourself in this town, is a note about Dover Castle.
Dover Castle is the largest castle in England and is a medieval castle founded in the 12th century. It is sometimes referred to as the "Key to England" due to its strategic defensive location atop the cliffs at the narrowest part of the English Channel.
Earlier, there might have been an earthworks fortification here and certainly, after the coming of the Romans in 43 CE the location was extensively developed. One of the 80 foot high Pharoses - Roman lighthouses - still stands at the site.
During the reign of Henry II the castle began to take on the shape seen today with Maurice the Engineer being responsible for building the keep, one of the last rectangular keeps ever built.
By the Tudor age, the original defences had been obsoleted by gunpowder and armaments development and they were substantially updated during the reign of Henry VIII. Further massive rebuilding took place at the end of the 18th century at the time of the Napoleonic Wars and it was during this period that the tunnel system was developed. By 1803 2,000 troops could be housed 40 or 50 feet below the cliff top.
At the beginning of the WWII in 1939 the tunnels were reopened following a century of abandonment and were used for a variety of purposes throughout the remainder of that conflict. A few images are here.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Lisbon, Portugal - May 15, 2012

Lisbon, Europe's westernmost major city, is the capital of Portugal and the greater Lisbon area is home to nearly 3 million people - more than 25% of the entire population of the country. It is one of the oldest cities in the world, predating other European capitals including London, Paris and Rome by hundreds of years. From the 5th century CE, after the Romans had faded away, the area was controlled by a series of Germanic tribes until it was captured by the Moors in the eighth century. In 1147, the Crusaders under Afonso Henriques reconquered the city since then it has been the de facto political, economic, and cultural centre of Portugal. Most of the important Portuguese expeditions during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries left from Lisbon. The 16th century was Lisbon's zenith, the European hub of commerce between Africa, India, the Far East and, later, Brazil, Lisbon acquired great riches exploiting the trade in spices, slaves, sugar and textiles and it was during this period that the two World Heritage Sites, the Belem Tower and the Jerónimos Monastery were built. Late in the 16th century, Portugal fell into the hands of the Spanish where it remained for sixty years until a coup restored its independence in 1640. Lisbon has been prone to earthquakes and suffered almost 20 significant temblors from the 14th to 17th centuries. The "Big One" in 1755 damaged 85% of the structures and killed 30 to 40,000 people - 15% to 20% of the city's population. Subsequent to this catastrophe the city was rebuilt slightly to the west on a flat area along the lines of modern urban design with rectangular street layout and two large open space squares. The old town did survive and today is known as Alfama.
We had visited Lisbon several years ago and took a brief tour of items that were in maintenance at that time and also reprised parts of Alfama, the most interesting part of the city. The visit around the town is detailed here and the journey up the river Targus on our arrival is here.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Ponta Delgado, Azores - May 13, 2012

The Azores, that exotic sounding faraway retreat, is, in reality, a little archipelago of volcanic islands sticking up in the Atlantic ocean about 930 miles west of portugal and 1200 miles southeast of Newfoundland. The island group is approximately 370 miles in length, comprises nine major islands and a bunch of smaller ones and is home to about one quarter million people. Not much else is around the neighborhood.
Ponta Delgada is on São Miguel, the largest of the islands, which with its population of around 45,000 has been the administrative capital of this autonomous region of Portugal since 1976. The area has been populated since its discovery in the 15th century and although agriculture has always been a source of income the benefits issuing from its obvious strategic value as a more or less self-supporting mid-atlantic outpost was took precedence. The region's heyday was in the 19th century as a supplier of citrus exports to United Kingdom and a burgeoning center for foreign-owned businesses. 
During this period, Ponta Delgada became the third largest town in Portugal both by economic measure and by number of residents. By the start of the 20th Century, with shifting trade patterns and advances in transportation, Ponta Delgada's rank had fallen to number eight and thereafter continued a slow decline until it was granted autonomy in 1976.
Today, with the value of a mid-Atlantic port much diminished the Azores, like the Madiera archipeligo, has become a commercial backwater. Both locations however, have found favor as cruise ship ports, providing a means of breaking the trans-Alantic journey for  passengers while providing a welcome source of income for the indiginants. The Azores' climate is influenced by the Gulf Stream with a modest year round temperature range of 57F to 77F, albeit with subtropical humidity levels.
After a few stormy days at sea we were fortunate to have Ponta Delgada turn on the sunshine and provide a  day of discovery on terra-firma. Pictures here.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

On the Boat to the Old Country - May 2012

To visit Europe it is first necessary to get there. This is one reason that cruise ships were invented. As a result of schedule conflicts, this year we ended up with our second choice itinerary on a cruise line we had not previously tried. The ship was the Constellation, one of the Celebrity Cruise Line fleet, and our journey took us from Fort Lauderdale in Florida to Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
For our needs and wants the Constellation is probably equal second in our personal ranking, alongside Norwegian Cruise Lines.
Check out the boat here.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Planes and Boats and Camping Cars

A clunky segue from previous European trips to our 2012 outing. The theme of the pictures is getting there or getting back while reconciling the constraints of airline regulations with the practicalities of life.
Making the transitiion from the European continent to England as a pedestrian, motorist, RV enthusiast or trucker is pretty straightfoward and not outrageously expensive. The shortest trip, just a couple of hours, is the ferry from Dover to Calais with other routes taking up to six hours or so. The routine is always the same. Ship docks; traffic jam is released from several decks and swarms into the general melee; new traffic jam is guided on board; drivers are herded up to the passenger decks for the duration of the trip; ship leaves.
The passenger decks are what one might imagine a Soviet bloc cruise ship to be - not a place in which one would choose to spend much time. They do get the job done however and have an excellent safety record.
A few pictures are here.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Getting home, July 27, 2011

After putting the gallant little Pilote back into storage it was off to Rotterdam where there is a small airport with a connection to London City Airport. London City is a recently added airport on the east side of London, handy for a tube ride into town.
We were greeted in London by Michelle and Nick and spent a couple of days in their new condominium in West London. At the appointed time they made sure that we got to Waterloo Station to catch the train to Southampton in southwest England where were embarked on the Queen Mary II.
Seven day later we were in New York at dawn and safely back home in Indiana by lunchtime. Priceless and painless! Pictures here as usual.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

A French Bicycle Race - July 10, 2011

On a quiet Sunday in July, we were motoring sedately through the winding lanes of the French countryside when suddenly we ran into flashing lights, folk running around in emergency coveralls and a policeman screaming "Depechez vous, depechez vous" at the top of his lungs ("Hurry up, hurry up" - from a policeman?) while indicating wildly that we should get out of here.
Turned out that we were about to be crushed by a hundred burly bicyclists who were threading through the lanes at what would be in-the-ditch speeds for poor old Penny. Without more ado, we pulled off into a side road and enjoyed the show. See here for more pictures.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Le Quesnoy, France - July 11, 2011

The people of Le Quesnoy have an enduring friendship with New Zealand...
A few days before the WWI Armistice, on 4 November 1918, a small town in the north of France, Le Quesnoy, was liberated from four years of German occupation by New Zealand forces. The town had been occupied by 1,500 Germans who refused to give themselves up. 400 soldiers from the New Zealand division were wounded, 93 of these soldiers died and were buried in Le Quesnoy’s local cemetery.
So goes the history of this fortified border city.
Founded about 1150 by Count Baldwin IV of Hainaut, the town went on to serve as a royal residence for 4 centuries. Charles V had the original fortifications modified in the 16th century and they were dismantled entirely under Louis XIV who commissined Vauban to overhaul the city during the years 1668 to 1673.
The Belfry and the Town Hall were built in 1583. In the center of the Belfry there was a room reserved for guards and the bells were rung for sunrise, the opening and closing of work, and for curfew. On the top floor of the Belfry was a watchman's lodge from where the approach of an enemy, or fire could be detected in a timely manner.
During WWII the town suffered several attacks and on May 19, 1940 the belfry was hit by an incendiary bomb. The top section containing the clock and the bells collapsed into the flames and the fire spread to the town hall. The belfry was restored after the war and today the carillon, with 48 bells, plays different tunes throughout the day. Pictures here.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Châtellerault, France - July 6, 2011

Châtellerault is larger town and is on the river Vienne in the Vienne department of the Poitou-Charentes region. The current population is about 33,000, down from the 1975 peak of 37,000 and it is one of the oldest populations in France with more than 28% over the age of 60.
Châtellerault was established by the Count of Poitiers in the early 10th century became an important stronghold. The title, Vicomte de Châtellerault, passed in turn to each of three great French noble families: La Rochefoucauld, Lusignan and, from the thirteenth century until the French Revolution, to the family of Harcourt.
Beginning in medieval times, Châtellerault became known for cutlery and sword manufacture, and in 1816 developed as a center for arms manufacture for the French government.The Manufacture d'armes de Châtellerault provided most of the infantry small arms used by the French Army and Navy. MAC, created in 1819, operated continuously until its closure in 1968. More picture around town are right here.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Villars les Bois, France - July 4, 2011

Villars-les-Bois, population 250, is in the Charente-Maritime department of the Poitou-Charentes region. The altitude of the Mayor official residence is about 240 feet above sea level.
The "feature" in town is the 12th century Romanesque church of Saint Victorinien. The church withstood many attacks over the centuries a castle existed to the north which communicated with its bell tower by a walkway. The church was rebuilt in the 15th century; the castle has disappeared without trace.
More pictures here.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Saint-Césaire, France - July 3, 2011

Located away from major roads, Saint-Césaire is at the crossing of two small county roads, the D131 and the the D134. Apart from that distinction, there is little to see or do in this village of around 900 people. The Romanesque church - another with the tower in the middle of the building length - is named for Saint Césaire and was classified as a historical monument back in 1913. At the time of the Revolution Saint-Césaire was referred to as "Cézaire, friend of the laws."
We visited simply because there is a small municipal Aire de Service near the crossroads and we spent a quiet night there although there were zero services, just a sloping parking lot.
The village is perhaps best known however, as a paleoanthropological site. In 1979 French archaeologist François Lévêque discovered a nearly complete Neanderthal skull along with a partial skeleton dated to 36,000 years ago. It is was a significant event because it was found in association with tools and other artifacts formerly associated only with early modern humans (Homo sapiens) and not Neanderthals.
Pictures of the church are here.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Saint Sauvant, France - July 3, 2011

Saint-Sauvant is a hilltop village of about 500 souls in the Charente-Maritime department of the Poitou-Charentes region, about halfway between Saintes and Cognac, on the right bank of the Charente. The name is probably a corruption of the name of Saint Sylvain, bishop of Gaza in the 3rd century.
Overlooking the village and the valley of the Koran is the Romanesque church of Saint-Sylvain dating from the twelfth century. Based on an outline of a Latin cross, the church has a nave of three single spans and a facade with a touch of military flavor. The interior is very sober and, contrary to tradition, the tower is built on the first bay of the choir.
There is a medieval rectangular tower that provided a defensive outpost overlooking the valley of the Koran and the Pidou, probably from the 14th century. It is thought to have belonged to a castle which was dismantled during the Hundred Years War.
The main historic houses are spread along a main axis formed by the streets of Market and Paradise, which lead to the church square at the top of the promontory. The village has a number of medieval houses of the fourteenth century  and fifteenth centuries. See here for more views.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

La Chapelle des Pots, France - July 3, 2011

La Chapelle des Pots was a potter's village for nearly eight centuries, with the first potters setting up there in 1250. Although the products were limited to modest kitchenware and cooking pottery this was the de facto standard in France and local potters produced decorative objects for the aristocracy and enjoyed robust exports to both Germany, England and elsewhere.
In the course of the 17th century however, Italian ceramics began to appear in France with exquisitely detailed decoration. Some regional manufacturers adopted this new technology, including a factory in La Rochelle in 1721 and gradually the traditional pottery was relegated to utility and cook ware again, as the wealthier buyers switched to the more refined ceramic products.
La Chapelle developed new mass markets for their goods, mainly in the colonies of Canada and Louisiana. In 1763 of course, France lost Canada to England and in 1803 Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States. These were seminal events for the potters of La Chappelle - their markets vanished and the last pottery in the village stopped all production and closed its doors in 1906.
Population peaked in La Chapelle in 1793 - yes, that's 1793 not 1973 - at 898 and today, some 220 years later, it is 890. From all that we could see, in a hundred years since the cessation of pottery manufacture nothing has been found to replace the lost revenue.
Pictures here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Saintes, France - July 2, 2011

To our delight, Saintes turned out to have much to gawk at including major artifacts going back 2000 years or more. Originally a small Celtic settlement of the Santon tribe it was taken over by the Romans in the 1st century BCE at which time they established their regional capital on the site of modern day Saintes. The location was propitious as the crossing point of the major Roman road from Lyons and the river Charentes. In Roman times, the city was known as Mediolanum Santonum.
A little west of downtown Saintes is the neighborhood of Saint Eutrope, that has developed over the centuries around a rocky elevation dominated by the basilica of Saint-Eutrope. This area also includes the remains of a Roman amphiteatre large enough to have seated the entire population of the town.
There is not a lot of industry in Saintes, a few manufacturers of electronics, railroad equipment and hoists, but the city performs considerable administrative functions for surrounding area - government jobs for the unemployed! Overall though, a very enjoyable visit to this unsung city.
More pictures here.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Cognac, France - July 1, 2011

The city of Cognac sits on the left bank of the river Charentes in the Charentes department of the Poitou-Charentes region in west central France. The town is on one of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostella and was first written about in the 9th century CE.
By the time of the Hundred Years War Cognac had been substantially fortified but even so changed sides several times as the result of fighting and treaties in the region, thus confirming an enduring French trait. Francis I granted the town the right to trade salt along the river and this was a license for growth and prosperity which eventually assisted the town's development as a center for wine and brandy.
The population of Cognac peaked in 1982 at 22,000 or so before settling back to  a fairly steady 19 to 20,000 currently. The world's best-known brandies start life in the peaceful countryside surrounding the Charente River, just a hundred miles north of Bordeaux. In a twenty-mile area called the 'golden circle" encompassing Cognac and Jarnac, all of the world's notable brandies are produced.
The largest church in Cognac is Saint-Leger. It was formerly the property of a former Benedictine priory and is now the main parish church of the city. Started in 1130, it was enlarged and renovated many times over the next three centuries resulting in a profusion of architectural styles. In 1598 and for twenty years thereafter, the church was converted to Protestantism as part of the religious wars upheaval.
For additional pictures, click here.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sainte Foy la Grande, France - June 29, 2011

Sainte-Foy-la-Grande is pretty much at the intersection of three departments in the Aquitaine region of southwestern France. It is actually in the Gironde department but is close to the borders of both the Dordogne and the Lot et Garonne departments.
With little in the way of industry in the area, no commerce on the river and declining agricultural employment as France slowly (and reluctantly it seems) catches up with modern farming methods, career opportunities in Sainte Foy are scarce. Population peaked in 1975 at around 3,350 but has fallen steadily for the last 30 years and by 2008 was down to 2,550 - a loss of almost one in four people.
So, this quiet backwater, founded in 1255 by Alphonse de Poitiers, has been reduced to a large degree to dependency on tourism to the town and the surrounding countryside. A major problem is that far too many impoverished towns in rural France have been backed into the same condition by economic circumstances and sadly only a small fraction of these have the wherewithal to develop a formula that works.
More pictures here.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Bergerac, France - June 28 2011

Bergerac, with a population of around 28,000, is in Dordogne department of the Aquitaine region of southwest France. The area offers some of the finest wines in the Bordeaux region and the town relies heavily on its tourist industry, one feature of which is a tobacco museum in which, unlike in all the other museums in town, no smoking is allowed.
Two statues of Cyrano de Bergerac, subject of a famous play of the same name by Edmond Rostand, can be found around town though the actual Cyrano never actually lived in Bergerac.
Hercule-Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, March 1619 to July 1655, was a French dramatist and duelist. He is best remembered however, through works of fiction loosely based on his life. The most notable of these is the 1897 play by Edmond Rostand. In all of these fictional works Cyrano is featured with a huge proboscis, for a glance of which, people would travel from miles around. Although portraits suggest that he did in fact have a supersized schnoz, it was not nearly as large as described in Rostand's and other's works. The model for the Roxane character of the Rostand play was Bergerac's cousin, who lived with his sister, Catherine de Cyrano, at the Convent of the Daughter of the Cross.
Cyrano de Bergerac's works The Other World: The States and Empires of the Moon and The States and Empires of the Sun are classics of early modern science fiction. His mixture of science and romance in these works likely influenced many subsequent writers such as Jonathan Swift, Edgar Alan Poe. Pictures of this dour town here.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Villefranche du Perigord, France - June 28, 2011

Villefranche du Perigord is, or was anyway, a walled bastide town that was founded by Alphonse de Poitiers and chartered in 1261. Parts of the wall still exist although it is not particularly evident that the entire town was once enclosed. Further, the original fortified church no longer exists having been replaced in the 18th century by the relatively lightweight Our Lady of the Assumption.
Originally the town was called Villefranche-de-Belvès and only adopted the du Perigord suffix in 1893. In 1960, the community of Saint-Etienne-des-Landes was merged into Villefranche du Perigord.
The town is largely comprised of four parallel streets, almost entirely residential, with a single large square near one end. Looking around the main square, there is the 17th century arcaded Hotel du Commerce with a restaurant and other minor retail outlets, the church and then, on the other side, an attractive open market hall on stone columns. Finally, there is the ubiquitous Presse-Tabac come pseudo convenience store.
The town is famed locally for its mushroom market and the House of Chestnuts to which a small museum is dedicated. A pleasant couple of hours - pictures here.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

La Roque Gageac, France - June 27, 2011

La Roque-Gageac is another defensively positioned village built onto the face of a limestone cliff on the bank of the Dordogne river. Today's population is a little over 400 people, way down from the 1,500 or so that thrived here on the river trade in the middle ages.
Threatened by Viking invasions among other hostiles, the defence of La Roque-Gageac relied on a then new development, that of being built into the side of a cliff to greatly reduce accessibility for would be invaders. The construction of the castle began in the 12th century and work continued on and off through to 17th century until, finally, it was abandoned in the 18th century.
In January 2010, a serious rockfall occurred and destroyed several sections of the fortress. This calamity followed earlier falls in 1920, 1957 (resulting in 3 deaths) and again in 1994. The site has been closed to the public and it is uncertain whether it will re-open.
Halfway up the cliff, next to the little church, is a garden of Mediterranean vegetation thriving in a micro-climate produced by the southern orientation and the absence of wind. See here for more views.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Saint Amand de Coly, France - June 25, 2011

Saint-Amand-de-Coly is the name of both the community and the church in this village of 380 people. The church is a 12th century fortified Romanesque design. Its defences include walls that are 4m thick, a ditch running around the perimeter, numerous positions for archers and assorted blind stairways to mislead attackers. The church was constructed on the site of an earlier abbey chapel and was largely reconstructed during the 19th-20th centuries to produce an unusual combination of gothic and roman styles.
The village is traditional Dordogne - houses with tiled roofs and yellow stone walls with a few still topped with traditional stone roofs. The village however, is dominated by its church.
The church was built next to the abbey which has long since been in ruins and the church itself was extensively damaged during the 100 years war. It was the French Revolution however that finally ended Saint Amand's role as a religious centre. More pictures of this unusual village here.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Beynac-et-Cazenac, France - June 26, 2011

Beynac-et-Cazenac, the result of merging Beynac with Cazenac in 1827, is a village of about 500 people built on the cliff face below the Château de Beynac which completely dominates the landscape. Situated in the Dordogne département the castle is one of the best-preserved and best known in France.
The river Dordogne flows by the foot of the limestone cliff and the castle was built in the 12th century by the barons of Beynac to control access to the valley. since the cliff face would discourage an assault from that side of the castle, the defences were built up behind the chateau with double crenellated walls and double moats.
At the time of the Hundred Years' War, the fortress at Beynac was in possession of the French and the river defined the border between France and England.
On the opposite bank of the river, the Château de Castelnaud was held by the English. Both changed hands several times over the centuries but usually through guile and treachery rather than direct military assault due to their extremely effective defences.
In 1962 Lucien Grosso, 1956 French Olympic Bobsleigh competitor, bought the castle and restored it and it has served as a location for several movies since that time including Les Visiteurs in 1993, La Fille de d'Artagnan in 1994, Ever After in 1998 and Jeanne d'Arc in 1999. The village itself was used as a location for the film Chocolat in 2000. Pictures of this extraordinary attraction here.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Sarlat-la-Canéda (again), France - June 25, 2011

We had visited Sarlat-la-Canéda a few years back and had been awestruck by the sheer size of its pseudo 14th century town center. Our route this year took us through town and we could not resist a reprise; we were not disappointed. With a slowly declining population of around 9,000 souls Sarlat is a major draw on market days and puts on a great show. As luck would have it, it was market day!
Sarlat developed around a large Benedictine abbey of Carolingian origin and the Cathedral is dedicated to Saint Sacerdos. Modern history seems to have overlooked this area, being as it is on the eastern boundary of the Dordogne department. The town benefitted hugely in the sixties from the energy and enthusiasm of writer, resistance fighter and politician André Malraux. As Minister of Culture from 1960 to 1969 he was responsible for the restoration of Sarlat along with many other sites of historic significance throughout France. The old town is about a third of a mile in length and consists entirely of impeccably restored stone buildings and is almost entirely pedestrianized.
Farming is the economic mainstay of the area with products including tobacco, corn, hay, walnuts, cheeses, foie gras, wine and truffles. Pictures here.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Thiviers, France - June 24, 2011

Thiviers is a small town in the Dordogne department of the Aquitaine region that prides itself on its foie gras (fatty liver), walnuts and truffles. Beyond these attributes it seems to major in hard luck stories.
In 1211, Jean Sans Terre took possession of the town only to have it taken back the following year by Guy, Viscount of Limoges. From 1374 to 1376, it was again occupied, this time by the English who were then driven out by Charles VI. In the meantime, as though not content with these inconveniences, the town fell prey to plague and famine. In 1365 there were 433 dwellings in town housing around 2,600 inhabitants; by 1503 the number of occupied homes had fallen to just 20 as a result of these ravages.
In 1575 along came the Calvinists, summarily slaughtering those who resisted the destruction of the city walls, the chateau and the church. A pretty sorry history that even today remains grim. The town is patently run down and, after its population peaked in 1975 at a little over 4,100 it has since fallen by 25%  to not much more than it was in the 14th century.
Dedicated to 'Notre-Dame', the big church in town dates from the 12th Century but has subsequently been altered many times, especially following the wars of religion during which it was partially destroyed. On two of the church columns are carvings of monstrous men. A little way to the south-east of the church is the renaissance style facade of the 16th century Chateau de Vaucocour, built on the site of a 12th century castle that was destroyed in the Wars of Religion.
Thiviers has a sigificant history of pottery production and there is a museum in town dedicated to this industry. There is a market every Saturday morning. Check here for more pictures.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Saint Jean de Côle, France - June 24, 2011

Today, Saint Jean de Côle is a tiny town of 340 inhabitants. Its history began in the 11th century when the Bishop of Perigueux began the construction of the “Château de la Marthonie” and the Priory. In addition to this castle, the town also boasts a large church, an unusually shaped stone bridge over the river Côle and lots of half-timbered houses.
The present Chateau de la Marthonie actually dates from a 15th century reconstruction following the 100 years war and has a wing that was added in the 17th century. One of the most famous residents of this castle was Mondot de la Marthonie, first president of Bordeaux's parliament court, adviser of the Queen Mother in Paris. Sacked by the protestants in 1569, la Marthonie fell into the hands of the Beaumont-Beynac family who are the current owners of record.
Across the square is the 11th century church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste, an interesting example of Roman-Byzantine architecture realized in gray and ocher sandstone in an unusual plan organized in a semicircle around the apse. In summer time, concerts are held each week in the church. Originally the church sported a 42 foot diameter masonry dome that collapsed under its own weight and was replaced by a lighter wooden structure.
At the north end of the village, the river Côle is spanned by a medieval hump-backed bridge with bull-nosed cutwaters projecting into the river. Every year during the weekend closest to the 8th of May, St Jean de Côle hosts a flower fair attended by more than a hundred exhibitors. More pictures of this delightful place here.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Brantome, France - June 23, 2011

The Aquitaine region comprises the most southwesterly part of France and among its departments is the Dordogne crossed by the river Dronne. Brantome, a village of 2,100, began its development on an island in the river that lay in front of a Benedictine Abbey founded by Charlemagne in 769 CE.
The abbey was trashed twice by Viking rovers, in 848 and again in 857, and was rebuilt towards the end of the tenth century. Further reconstruction occurred in the 15th century following the 100 years war and after the French Revolution the abbey was secularized. Today it houses the administrative office for the village among other activities.
Like many other villages in the area, Brantome is an enchanting place to stroll through. Pictures here.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Jarnac, France - June 21, 2011

Jarnac is in the Charente department of the Poitou-Charentes region in southwestern France on the right bank of the Charentes river. The city population peaked in 1975 at 5,000 and has declined about 10 percent since that time.
François Mitterrand, a former president of France, was born in the city in 1916 and there is a museum in town marking this fact. The region is renowned for the production of the Cognac variety of brandy and Jarnac is home to the Courvoisier cognac factory.

Although Felix Courvoisier didn't actually establish Courvoisier until 1835, fourteen years after the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, the company website claims that Courvoisier was Napoleon's favorite brandy and that he took several barrels of it with him in 1815 when he was confined to the island of St. Helena for the last six years of his life. History can be so confusing...
In 1964 Courvoisier was acquired by Hiram Walker which itself was acquired in 1986 by Allied Lyons. Later Courvoisier was divested to the holding company Fortune Brands, which spun off several spirit manufacturers in 2011 to form Beam Inc. Staggering!
More pictures here.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Arcais, France - June 20, 2011

Arçais is in the Deux-Sèvres department in the Poitou-Charentes region and is the only village actually in the Marais Mouillé, the "wet marsh", which forms the eastern half of the Poitou Marshes. It is a popular center for tourism, with several embarcaderos offering punts and other boats for hire on the network of canals that surrounds the village. There are also a few shops, cafes and bars in the village. It has a population of about 650 and is heavily dependent on tourism. Pictures here.