Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Mont Saint Michel's Restoration

The Mont St. Michel
 The Mont Saint Michel, France's treasured landmark is undergoing rehabilitation of its maritime landscape and ecosystem. In 1884, the great novelist and cultural preservationist, Victor Hugo said in his appeal for the protection of the Mont Saint Michel.  "Le Mont Saint Michel is to France what the great pyramid is to Egypt. It must be protected from any damage. The Mont St.  Michel must remain an island. This combined work of art and nature must be conserved at all costs."

The Benedictine abbey of the Mont St Michel  sits a top a rocky islet about 1 km from the north coast of France at the mouth of the Couesnon River in Normandy.  It  has been a revered pilgrimage site since the early Middle Ages. Listed as a Unesco World Heritage site since 1979, the Mont Saint Michel draws 2.5 million visitors each year who come to admire the unique beauty of the site --its architectural awesomeness and exceptional harmony with he bay. 

This unique environment has been under threat as little by little  the sea is receding and land and salt marshes are taking over rendering the rock abbey irremediably landlocked.   A program of restoration of the bay is underway and will be completed in 2015. Part of the rehabilitation program was the construction of a new dam at the mouth of the Couesnon river, two miles from the Mont Saint Michel that helps push sediments back out to sea and restore the maritime character of the abbey. Since the completion of the dam in 2009,  once or twice a day, through a series of "flushing" actions, the dam gradually sweeps away the silt and sand between the Mont and the "continent". 

 Additionally, in order to protect and enhance the natural setting, cars are no longer allowed to drive up and to park at the foot of the ramparts. Instead, a new car park located 2.5 km away from the Mont Saint Michel has opened on April 28, 2012 and visitors will now approach the island either on foot along a pleasant promenade or aboard shuttle busses called "passeurs"  or picturesque horse drawn carriages called "maringotes". 

 The third stage of the restoration started in 2011 involves the construction of a new and more discreet causeway built slightly offset to the east.  It will be extended by a pedestrian footbridge over the final part of the route before reaching the ramparts. The footbridge will allow the water to ciculate freely around the mount again. After the completion of the new causeway in 2014, the 19th century road will be destroyed and the Mont Saint Michel will recover its natural maritime environment to be once again an island. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Round One of the French Presidential Elections

Today I get to cast my vote for the French presidential elections. As an expatriate in the Americas I'll vote  the day before the mainland like those living in the overseas territories. This is an election in two stages. The first round held this weekend is to determine the top two candidates. There are 10 candidates to choose from ranging from the incumbent president Nicholas Sarkozy to the socialist candidate and strong contender Francois Hollande. Among the other eight presidential hopefuls are the centrist Francois Bayrou who calls for national unity as the key to get France back on track; the ecologist Eva Joly from the Green Party; Jean Luc Melenchon of the communist party and Marine le Pen leader of the far right Front National, the party known for its anti immigrant stand. Theoratically, a candidate can win at the first round provided he/she garners an absolute majority of the votes that is more than 50% . This has not happened since the inception of the 5th republic in 1958. More likely in two weeks on May 6 we will be back at the voting booth to decide who will be president . The polls predict that the choice will be between Sarkozy and Hollande. So for the next two weeks the debates between these two candidates will take place and hopefully they will argue over the real issues dear to the French electorate such as  high unemployment, education, health, the national debt and how to cut the deficit, the consumer's purchasing power, immigration, security--  more or less the same concerns that Americans voters will ponder at the November US presidential elections. Comme quoi le monde est petit et nous sommes tous dans le meme bain. Stay tune.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Birthday of a Genius- Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci
Five hundred sixty years ago (April 15, 1452) a genius was born and his name was Leonardo. He was born in the little Tuscan village of Vinci, the illegitimate son of a notary and a peasant girl. A painter, architect, inventor, engineer, mathematician and scientist his genius lives on undiminished today. He is believed to have conceived a flying machine, armored car, a calculator, the parachute . After a long career at the service of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan he went to serve the Republic of Venice as well as Cesare Borgia as a military engineer.

 Leonardo came to France in 1515 at the the invitation of king Francois I and settled at Manor of Clos Luce in Amboise where he lived for three years till his death in 1519. The Clos Luce is a museum today with 40 models of the various machines designed by Leonardo.  

Virgin and Child with St. Anne
Restoration of the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne 
When Leonardo da Vinci came to France he brought with him three of his most important works Mona Lisa, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, and the Saint John the Baptist. Thèse masterpieces are part of the Louvre's permanent collection. A special exhibit featuring the restoration of the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne highlights the painter' s mastery of light . The restoration took 18 months to complete and has brought back the intense luminosity and vibrant browns and lapis lazuli hues used by the master. Saint Anne, Leonardo da Vinci's Ultimate Masterpiece is on view from March 29 to June 25.

Also on display is a restored copy of the Mona Lisa on loan from the Prado Museum.  It is believed to have been executed simultaneously to the original Gioconda by a pupil of Leonardo in his workshop.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Paris Marathon- A Race to Remember

Paris Marathon
Every city worth its salt stages a marathon race. In fact there are some 800 official marathon organized worldwide. Boston is the oldest, New York City the largest and let me venture to say Paris has probably the most scenic urban course run. This Sunday April 15, the 36th edition of the modern version of the international Paris marathon will be run. Some 40,000 participants from 109 countries are expected to take part in the race. The 42 km ( 26 miles) route will take runners past some of of the City of Light most iconic landmarks. The race starts on the famous of the avenue of the Champs Elysées, cross the Place de la Concorde, along the Seine River, past the Louvre museum and City Hall, the shady lanes of Vincennes woods, past the Gare de Lyon and the Bastille column, majestic Notre Dame Cathedral , Orsay museum and of course the Eiffel tower.  Finally after crossing the large expanse of the Bois de Boulogne, the race ends on swanky Avenue Foch, a few steps from the Arc de Triomphe.  Along the route, racers will be cheered by hundred of thousands of spectators and various bands will provide entertainment at the different milestones of the run. To view the course of the race follow this link.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Titanic's French Connection

La Cite de La Mer -Titanic Exhibit
On April 10, 1912 the Titanic begun on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. At 6:35PM that evening it stopped briefly in Cherbourg, France the largest artificial harbour in the world. 
Here, 281 passengers embarked on board the liner.   Among them 151 were first class travelers including some of the world's wealthiest like American businessmen Benjamin Guggenheim,  John Jacob Astor and Isidor Straus of the famed Macy's department store. Passengers were of 26 different nationalities including eastern European, American, English, Belgian, Canadian, Croatian, Greek, Italian, Lebanese, Polish, Russian, Syrian, Uruguayan and 21 French passengers. While in Cherbourg, the ship also loaded with an impressive supply of cheese, Champagne, wines and other French luxury products to satisfy its first class passengers.  It resumed its voyage at 8:10 PM towards Queensland (now Cobh) Ireland, its last stop where some 120 mostly third class passengers embarked, for the most part Irish immigrants. In all Titanic carried 2224 people, of which 865 were crew members.  Tragically, 68% (1525) of those on board perished on that fateful night of April 15 when the Titanic hit a massive iceberg.

 Cherbourg is one of seven cities that are closely linked to the infamous liner. They include: Liverpool, location of the transatlantic company White star line headquarters, Belfast where she was built, Southampton, her port of departure, Cherbourg, her first stop-over (the only one on the continent), Cobh (Cork, Ireland), her second and last stop-over, Halifax (Novia Scotia, Canada), where most of the bodies found at sea were buried and New York, the ship's final destination which was never reached. 

These cities joined together to commemorate the centenary of the titanic voyage. To that effect, the Musee de la Mer in Cherbourg ( Museum of the Sea)  inaugurated a new permanent exhibition comprised of two parts. One section is dedicated to the Titanic: the ship’s construction, working on board, life on the ship and, of course, its journey, the collision and the sinking; showing things from the crew’s point of view as well as the passengers’.

 The other section of the exhibit installed in Cherbourg's passenger terminal’s impressive baggage rooms is dedicated to the immigrant experience. It depicts through slides, films and archive photos portraits of immigrant, the passengers’ journey, their arrival in Cherbourg, their hotels, life on board the liner and much more. Cherbourg was a major departure point for immigration from Europe between 1900 and 1914 and involved immigrants essentially from Eastern Europe. Their reasons for emigrating were mainly for economic reasons but also on political or religious grounds. Almost 70,000 transatlantic passengers travelled through Cherbourg-Octeville harbour in 1913. This exodus was interrupted at the start of the First World War, but resumed again from 1919 on with increased strength.  It dwindled in the 1920 s after the enactment of quotas laws by the US Government. Through the 1930's, and into the 50's many prestigious liners made Cherbourg their port of call including Queen Mary I and II and Queen Elizabeth.

Today immigrants are replaced by leisure cruisers who make Cherbourg a favorite port of call . To learn more about the Cherbourg's Museum of the Sea Titanic exhibit visit

Saturday, April 7, 2012

European Flower Shows

As the saying goes April showers brings May flowers. The beauty of spring is on full display in five European destinations to the delight of garden lovers who come for the enjoyment of the eye and to be inspired.

Holland- Kukenhof -March 22 to May 20
Located between Amsterdam and the Hague, this is one of the most popular destinations in the Netherlands for 60 years. The abundance of colors and fragrance is astounding more than 7 million flowers hyacinthus, crocus, daffodils and much more are on display. The park covers 32 hectares and 4.5 million tulips in 100 varieties making it the largest bulb flower park in the world.

Holland- Floriade -April 5 to October 7 
The World Horticultural Show takes place in Venlo, Holland. It is a once-a-decade festival not to be missed. This celebration of flowers and nature takes place in the midst of  163-acre park.  A profusion of flowers, trees, shrubs, fruits, and vegetables is on full display along with a program of  music and dance and the tasting of delicacies.

Chelsea Flower Show
Britain- Chelsea flower show May 24-28
Every year for five days the Royal Horticultural Society stages a well attended garden show at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, London. Landscape and world class horticulturists will showcase their designs. New plants are launched and old varieties are re-introduced.

Brussels Flower Carpet
Belgium Brussels Flower Carpet August 14-19 
For five days in August, a giant flower carpet will be on display in the landmark Grand Place in Brussels. Stretching out over 2,000 m2, this floral display made of million of begonias and dalhias will dazzle by its intricacy and brillant colors.  This event takes place every two years (on even years) and it takes a hundred expert craftsmen to design and assemble.

Festival of Gardens-
Chaumont sur Loire

France - Chaumont sur Loire -Festival of the Garden April 6 to November 7 
The Loire Valley has been appreciated by the kings of France for its temperate climate and gentle landscape. They built a multitude Renaissance castles along the Loire River and its tributary the Indre.  These castles are surrounded by park-like gardens.   For twenty years, the Castle of Chaumont sur Loire has staged a Festival of the Garden Festival.  This year's theme is Gardens of Delight, Gardens of Delirium.  In the sprawling parkland of the castle, thirty themed gardens are created by select landscape architects, designers and artists from different corners of the world who let loose their wild imagination and creativity. Included are contributions from the UK, Japan, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy.  Chateau and gardens of Chaumont also plays host to 'Centre d’Arts et de Nature' (Arts and Nature Centre), which welcomes ten artists to contribute visual and photographic exhibitions. The displays are also illuminated by the glow of 2000 candles  allowing  visitors the chance to explore the magic of the gardens by night.