Saturday, June 30, 2012

Bordeaux Fete le Vin

The Bordeaux Wine Festival takes place this weekend (June 28-August 1). It was created eight years ago and takes place every two years. Its popularity has been growing and in 2010 it attracted half a million visitors from France and around the world. Each year a city is honored and this year Hong Kong is the guest of honor. Thanks to a tasting pass, visitors can enjoy samples of a host of different wines at the festival. Some 80 regional appellations are represented giving an opportunity for both connoisseurs, amateurs and people just learning about wine to sample and discover. New in 2012 is the Grand Cru Passport, enabling pass holders to taste prestigious vintages selected by the Conseil des Grands Crus Class├ęs in 1855. 

With 113,000 hectares the Bordeaux wine producing area is the largest producer of fine wines in the world. It produces mainly red wine (80%) but also a fair amount  of dry white (17%) and "  sweet " desert  wines (3%) and even some sparkling. The Bordeaux wine region is traversed by the rivers  Garonne and Gironde . On the left bank of the Gironde the soil tends to be gravelly which is propice to growing Cabernet Sauvignon. Here you find the sub regions of the Medoc, Pessac Leognam, Graves, Barsac and Sauternes. The soil in the right right bank tend to be clay and favored by Merlot and Cabernet franc grape varieties. Here you find the sub regions of Bourg and Blaye, St. Emilion, Pomerol, Fronsac and Entre-Deux Mers.

In the center of this fertile wine growing region is Bordeaux, a city rich in history with an elegant 18th century  architectural ensemble that has been classified as Unesco World Heritage site. Three other sites in Bordeaux figure on the list of Unesco Cultural Heritage --St. Andre cathedral, St. Michel Basilica and St. Sernin Basilica - all three religious stops on the Pilgrimage road to St. James de Compotella.

Place des Quinconques (largest square in Europe), the newly renovated Promenade along the Garonne and the lovely Grand Theatre (Opera House) make Bordeaux a "must" destination complete with an array of restaurants, wine bars, and shopping galore with prices more advantageous than in Paris.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

In the Footsteps of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean Jacques Rousseau
June 28 marks the three hundred anniversary of the birth of Franco-Swiss  philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Born in Geneva in 1712, the son of a watchmaker, Rousseau escaped an abusive employer at age 15 to find refuge in Confignon where a priest placed  him  under the protection of Madame de Warens, a noble lady living in Annecy.  Rousseau spent at least sixteen years of his youth traveling around the region of Rhone Alps making stops notably in Lyon, Annecy and Chambery.   To commemorate the anniversary of this philosopher of the Enlightenment, Rhone-Alps is hosting a number of events from concerts, exhibitions, readings and theatrical performances. The Rhone Alps is a large region in  eastern France that borders Switzerland and Italy.  At the time of Rousseau, the region was partly held by the house of Savoy.

Following in the footsteps of Rousseau, our first stop is Annecy where in 1728 the future writer met Madame de Warens.  Her mission was to help protestants convert to Catholicism.  Upon meeting young Rousseau, Madame de Warens sent him to Turin where he abjured his protestant faith and was baptized on 24 of April 1728.  A year later, he will return to Annecy to enter the service of Madame de Warens, a 30-year-old noblewoman.  He found at first in Madame de Warens a substitute mother (he had lost his mother at birth) and called her "Maman".  She also encouraged him in pursuing his  readings, poetry writings and music compositions.  At 20 years of age, Rousseau entertained a "liaison amoureuse" with his protectress whom he considered the greatest love of his life.

When Madame de Warens moved to Chambery in 1731, then the capital of Savoy,  Rousseau followed her after a brief stay in Paris.  He pursued his passion for musical composition and gave music lessons to the young ladies of the Chambery gentry.  A statue of the philosopher stands in the garden "du clos des Savoiroux " attesting to the time he spent in the Savoyard city.

Les Charmettes 
Nearby, is the charming Maison des Charmettes, Madame de Warens' country house where Jean Jacques Rousseau stayed from 1736 to 1742.  This was an idyllic refuge for Rousseau and where he spent the happiest time of his life, a good deal alone in the middle of nature constructing his "storehouse of ideas" and where he took pleasure in studying botany. The Charmettes has been a pilgrimage site where  Stendhal, George Sand and other admirers of Rousseau have come to impregnate themselves of the "soul" of Rousseau. Today the house is the Museum devoted to Jean Jacques Rousseau. The French style garden has a large collection of medicinal and condimental herbs, vegetables and fruit trees commonly used in the 18th century.

In 1741, Jean-Jacques Rousseau leaves les Charmettes to take a a position in Lyon as a tutor to well-to-do young boys. It lasted six months but during this time he reflected on education and child rearing.  Later in the novel Emile he wrote : " The noblest work in education is to make a reasoning man, we expect to train a yound child by making him reason! This is beginning at the end; this making an instrument of a result. If children understood how to reason they would not need to be educations" he also said "What is the goal of education of a young man but to making him happy".  Concepts that resonates well today.

In July 1742 Rousseau moved to Paris to pursue a career in music and to present to the Academie des Sciences  a new system of numbered musical notation that he fought would make him rich.  His system, is based on a single line, displaying numbers representing intervals between notes and dots and commas indicating rhythmic values.  The Academy rejected it believing it was impractical.  

Rousseau travelled extensively throughout his life --including Paris, Venice, Geneva, Bienne, Basel and even London.  He wrote about politics, philosophy, education, botany, musical treatises and composed operas. His ideas were considered instrumental in the cause of the French Revolution.  He died in 1778 (two month after Voltaire!) and was interred 16 years later at the Pantheon in Paris as a National hero. In his Confessions (considered to be the first major modern autobiographical work), Jean Jacques Rousseau narrates  the events of his life and how his experiences shaped his philosophy. Happy Birthday Monsieur Rousseau!!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Happy Summer!!

It's the summer solstice and on June 21 for the past 30 years, Paris and other towns and villages of France  celebrate the arrival of summer with a Music Fest lasting on the longest day of the year till dawn.  Music is everywhere and is played in churches, on the streets, in cafes and restaurants, concert halls, public parks and even rail stations.  Amateurs and professionals will play all genres from jazz to pop, funk, rock, classical and ethnic. The program is extensive to please all age groups and all musical tastes. This year, Pop is honored celebrating the 50th. year anniversary of the Beatles' release of their  hit single " Love me do". This festival has been so popular that the concept has spread  to some 32 countries around the world. Happy Summer!!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Once Upon a Time in Versailles

Chateau de Versailles
The Chateau of Versailles has five hundred years of history which is now recounted in the new History Gallery that just opened June 14. This is long overdue and extremely welcomed addition to the Versailles' experience. Many visitors come knowing little or nothing about the castle except that it is a splendid royal palace, a "must see" in the bucket list of things to do on a trip to Europe. For first time visitors to Versailles, the chateau can be overwhelming and quite complex.  After all it is comprised of three chateaux -main castle, Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon;  two gardens- that of Versailles and Trianon, and a very large park of some 800 hectares and let's not forget Marie Antoinette's hamlet. In the new History Gallery, visitors can retrace the evolution of Versailles starting when it was a modest hunting lodge used by King Louis XIII to the grandiose palace built by Louis XIV to become the symbol of absolute monarchy.  It was expanded and remodeled many times during the reign of the Sun King and further embellished by his successors Louis XV and Louis XVI to reflect the gilded taste of the 18th century. Versailles ended being the permanent royal residence when in October 5 and 6, 1789 a mob of pick armed Parisians stormed the castle wanting to escort the king and his family back to Paris. During and after the French Revolution , except for a brief time when Napoleon used the castle, Versailles was neglected, abandoned and falling in disrepair. In the later part of the 19th century conservator Nolhar  dedicated 40 years of his professional life to rehabilitating Versailles and rendering it as a living museum that has attracted crowds ever since. Today Versailles attracts 6  million visitors each year from around the globe and thanks to this new History Gallery, Versailles's story will be made more accessible and comprehensible starting from its humble beginnings, to its many archictectural transformations, the major events that took place there, its famous residents and the major contributors who made Versailles, a world masterpiece -- architects and designers- Le Brun, Le Vau, le Notre,  Mansard, and Jacques Ange Gabriel.  This history is illustrated with scale models, 3 D- diplays  and priceless art work from the Versailles collection.

 Here are some critical dates marking the architectural evolution of the Palace of Versailles:

  • 1624-1630 -Versailles is used by Louis XIII as a hunting lodge.  The king who lives in Paris at the  Tuileries likes to escape the rigors of the court and comes hunting in the dense forests the hamlet of  Versailles.
  •  1664-1668 -Louis XIV, is a young men who visits often Versailles for the hunting and to conducts parties or "fetes". He asks, architect Louis Le Vau to build a castle to accommodate his many guests.
Vase du Soleil -Chateau de Versailles
  •  1669-1672-Louis XIV now married to Marie Therese of Spain asks the architect Le Vau to construct an extension at the northern end for the King and an extension at the southern end for the Queen the two sides being connected by a large terrace overlooking the gardens. Each semetrical extension was fitted with an enfilade of 7 rooms sumptuously appointed -- King and Queen Grand Apartments -
            •  1675- after the completion of the new facade, Louis XIV  called on the landscape architect Le Notre to design the gardens.  They consisted in a central parterre in front of the new facade, a  series of ornamental ponds surrounded by strip of lawn and  flower beds, intimate bosquets,  fanciful grottos and a variety of sculptures in groups and single figures which took all together 20 years to complete. 
            •  1682 - Louis XIV installs the royal permanent residence and seat of government in Versailles. More enlargement of the palace took place to house the growing royal family and  some 4000 courtiers. 
            • 1678-1684-the construction of the Hall of Mirrors by architect Hardouin Mansard takes place to replace the terrace that linked the Queen and King Grand apartments which was leaking. The Grand Gallery  as it was called in the 17th century, served daily as a passageway and a waiting and meeting place, frequented by courtiers and the visiting public. It measures 73 meters long and was outfitted with 357 mirrors. It also was used to receive diplomatic dignitaries, stage ceremonial balls and on the occasion of princely weddings like that of Marie Antoinette to the Dauphin, future Louis XVI in 1770. Later it was on 18 January of 1871 that the German Empire was created in the same Hall of Mirrors after the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and in 1919, the Hall of Mirrors was the setting for the signature of the Treaty of Versailles between Germany and the Allies that ended WWI.
            • 1687 -1688 Louis XIV commissioned Jules Hardouin-Mansard to build a castle for his own personal use at the northern end of grand canal--The Grand Trianon. 
            • 1710 saw the completion of the King's Chapel by  Hardouin-Mansart, the last grand project under Louis XIV.  The monarch died in Versailles in 1715.
Petit Trianon-Christian Millet
Chateau de Versailles
  • 1722 - Young Louis XV, successor of the Sun King,  and his court returned to Versailles after a seven year absence. Under his reign he commissioned the creation of small apartments for private use by the royal family that were sumptuously furnished and decorated.
  • 1760 -the Petit Trianon was built by architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel for the King as his pleasure retreat and where he installed his mistress Madame de Pompadour.  It was later favored by the Queen Marie Antoinette as her own personal refuge.
  • 1770 -Inauguration of the Royal Opera by  Ange-Jacques Gabriel to be the setting for theatrical performances.  It is here that was held the wedding of the Dauphin and Marie Antoinette in 1770. 
          • 1771-1775 saw the reconstruction of the Gabriel Wing intended to harmonize the facades of the Palace facing the town.  It was partially completed. 
For more information visit the website dedicated to the Versailles History Gallery

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

68th Anniversary of Normandy D- Day-We Remember Always

Sainte Mere l'Eglise
June 6th marks the 68th anniversary of D- day landings. After four long years of German occupation of France, the Allies launched operation Overlord, an air, land and amphibious attack designed to liberate Western Europe. More than 300,000 service personnel from USA, UK, Canada, Free France and Australia took part in this historic event at a cost of a great number of lives and for that the French people are forever thankful.

 It started at the wee hours of the morning of June 6 when the paratroopers units of the U.S. 82nd Airborne and U.S. 101st Airborne Divisions dropped in the little town of Sainte Mere l'Eglise under heavy German anti-aircraft fire. One brave  US soldier, John Steele found himself, stuck with his parachute dangling from the church steeple for hours faking death to save his life.

U.S. Coast Guard Collection in the
U.S. National Archives.
At 6:30AM the first and 29th American Divisions started their amphibian assault on the 6.5 km stretch of Omaha Beach under heavy German fire coming from blockhouses at the top of the cliffs that fringe the beach front.  Many casualties were  incurred as boats with troops were sunk before hitting the shore and soldiers who landed were hit from the lack of shelter cover on the beach.   Only after mid-day when General Omar Bradley was about to call a retreat, a company of Rangers managed to gain access to the cliffs, break through the sand dunes and finally pierce German defenses at great loss of lives.

Pointe du Hoc
At 7:10 AM , 225 rangers of American 2nd Ranger Battalion under the direction of Lt. Col James Rudder started their capture of  the Pointe du Hoc-- one of two prominent sets of vertical cliffs jutting out to sea halfway between Omaha and Utah Beach.   A six gun battery in a concrete bunker was at the ready guarding the coast against beaches invasion. Under Naval artillery cover, the Rangers using fire brigade ladders and grappling irons and ropes managed to scale the face of the 100 foot cliff to the summit for two days while withstanding German counter-attacks. For 36 hours, 155 able Rangers resisted the German counterattack.  Only 90 soldiers came out of this battle unharmed.  Today the 30-acre battle scarred area remains much as it was left on June 8 1944.  It is poked with bomb craters and you can explore the remains of German bunkers and fortifications.

American Cemetery
A tour of Normandy d-day sites will  take you to revisit these sites along with American Cemetery in St. Laurent sur Mer where looking out to the sea and to Omaha Beach, 9,387 Carrara marble crosses and Jewish Stars of David stand aligned like little soldiers. The Garden of the Missing  contains the names engraved on stone tables of the 1,557 missing in action for which no remains have been recovered.

Other D-Day memorial sites include Arromanches 's Mulberry Harbour –an artificial harbour—that was used to discharge on French soil massive number of materials, vehicles and troops necessary for the fighting and Gold and Juno Beach where British and Australian troops landed respectively on that June 6, 1944 to successfully liberate Arromanches on that day.