Archive for December, 2011

Journey through Time in Saintes

December 30, 2011 @ 10:22 am
posted by Sandra Sheridan

Saintes' large amphitheatre built under Claudius in 40 AD

For an incredible journey through history, head north from Bordeaux to enjoy a day in Gallo-Roman Saintes.  Steeped in ancient and medieval history, the charming ville lies along the Charente River in the Poitou-Charentes region.  Stop first at the Villa Musso, where the Office of Tourism offers complete information on cultural and leisure activities, restaurants, cycling trails and tours.

We always like to wander to get a sense of the town and to blend shopping and dining with museum and monument visits.  The historic center includes pedestrian walkways with prestigious limestone residences dating to the 17th and 18th centuries.  In particular, stop at the Hôtel Presidial, now a Musée des Beaux-Arts and the Hôtel de Monconseil – home to the Musée Dupuy-Mestreau, overlooking the river.

Next, explore Saintes’ amphitheatre – one of the largest, dating to about 40 AD during the Gallo-Roman period.  Built in a small valley, the arena could accommodate several thousand people to watch gladiators in their life and death contests.  Victorious gladiators entered through the Sanavivaria door, and the remains of gladiators and animals put to death exited through the door Libitinensis.

Overlooking the Charente River, the Arch of Germanicus with simple columns and fluted pilasters also is in remarkable condition; and there are fragments of several other monuments in the Archaeological Museum of Saintes.  As you explore, either keep an eye out for a café that “calls your name” or stop at a patisserie for quiche or sandwiches to take a picnic by the Charentes.  You also can rent a boat and have your picnic on the water, while you wander along the river banks.

In the early ninth century, Saintes became an essential stopover for huge crowds of devotees making their pilgrimage to the newly-discovered tomb of the Apostle Jacques the Major at Saint-Jacques-de-Compostela.  The Abbaye aux Dames housed and fed the travelers, who paid their respects to the relics of St. Eutropius, the first bishop and martyr of Saintes.  Now an important cultural center, the Abbaye’s 11th to 12th-century church includes exceptional features of Romanesque art.

Château de La Roche Corbon

One of Saintonge’s most beautiful castles, the Château de La Roche Corbon is a must for your discovery tour.  Overlooking the marshes and the Sparrow, the 15th-century fortress was converted into a “residence of approval” by Jean-Louis de Courbon in the 17th century, but fell into ruin for a hundred years.  Voila!  In 1920, Paul Chénereau bought and restored the castle.  Family members still own the Château, where impressive features include 17th-century panel paintings, Louis XV and Louis XVI furnishings, and a dazzling collection of brass.

Finally, let’s really step back to meet a young Neanderthal called Pierrette.  The 1979 excavation revealed the amazing collection of bones and gave birth to the Paléosite, the first interpretive center of Prehistory in Europe.  After all of your “time travel”, enjoy a leisurely drive back to Bordeaux with an arsenal of information and experiences to discuss over dinner.

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Selfless Action Saved Chartres

December 27, 2011 @ 1:01 am
posted by Sandra Sheridan


The Magnificent Chartres Cathedral

This is a most humbling story that weaves together a small town in Texas, the Chartres Cathedral and the western province of Brittany. Welborn Barton Griffith, Jr. was born in Quanah, Texas in 1910 in a town with a small population but a meaningful history. It was named for the last great Chief of the Comanches, Quanah Parker. Young Welborn would make his town and family proud, upon graduating from West Point in 1925.

An article originally featured on National Review Online’s “The Corner” by Jay Nordlinger traces Colonel Griffith’s meaningful service in the United States Army – service that had an enduring impact on one of France’s most treasured World Heritage Sites, the Chartres Cathedral.

As American troops closed in on Chartres, they were under heavy fire from the Germans. From his Distinguished Service Cross Citation, we learn:

“…Colonel Griffith entered the city of Chartres, France, to check the locations and dispositions of units of the Armored Division…. Upon observing fire being directed at the cathedral in the center of the city, with disregard for his own safety, Colonel Griffith, accompanied by an enlisted man, searched the cathedral and finding no enemy troops within, signaled for cessation of fire. Continuing his inspection of outlying positions north of the city, he suddenly encountered about fifteen of the enemy. He fired several shots at them, then proceeded to the nearest outpost of our forces at which point a tank was located. Arming himself with an  M-1 rifle and again with complete disregard for his own safety, Colonel Griffith climbed on the tank directing it to the enemy forces he had located. During the advance of the tank he was exposed to intense enemy machinegun, rifle, and rocket-launcher fire and it was during this action, in the vicinity of Lèves, France, that he was killed.”

Previous to Colonel Griffith’s reconnaissance, American troops had given orders to shell the cathedral, assuming Germans used the tall towers to locate Allied forces. In volunteering to go behind enemy lines, he discovered the towers unoccupied and reported the cathedral clear. The shelling order was cancelled, and the Allied forces took Chartres and nearby Lèves.

In a letter to the National Review Online, a relative recounts the interesting post-war story. Residents of Lèves commemorated Colonel Griffith’s heroism and sacrifice with a plaque on the sidewalk in their small town; but unfamiliar with reading American dog tags, they reversed his name. The plaque read “Griffith Welborn”.

Fifty years later, a town historian discovered the error and contacted the last remaining descendant, Colonel Griffith’s daughter. Shortly afterward, the cathedral held a ceremony to honor the man whose actions had saved the historic Gothic church. And in a touching tribute, the “The Star-Spangled Banner” echoed through the revered cathedral. I simply can’t imagine the feelings that would sweep over you, while hearing our anthem in this magnificent place.

Colonel Griffith’s resting place

A corrected plaque replaced the original, and a local park has been dedicated in honor of Colonel Griffith, who lies in rest at Brittany American Cemetery and Memorial in a country most grateful for his heroic actions.

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Celebrate with Laughter

December 25, 2011 @ 1:19 pm
posted by Sandra Sheridan

Starring Daniel Auteil, a delightful comedy

And speaking of great French movies, but on a far different note than Joyeux Noel, we love the farcical humor in Apres Vous with superb stars Daniel Auteuil, José Garcia and Sandrine Kiberlain.

That same delightful humor raises Le Dîner de cons (The Dinner Game), with Thierry Lhermitte and Jacques Villeret, to an incredible level of comedy.  Neither is new, but you can enjoy them for the first or fourth time to round out your holiday celebration with laughter.


Add laughter to your holiday!

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The Lure of Southwest France

December 20, 2011 @ 1:00 am
posted by Sandra Sheridan

The old Pont Vieux bridge over the Tarn and Sainte-Cécile Cathedral - © ATOUT FRANCE/Catherine Bibollet

Southwest France is an ideal choice for a holiday to enjoy a pleasant mix of scenic landscapes and outdoor activities, historic villages, beautiful rivers and soaring mountain vistas.  We thought the Tarn River valley would make a perfect central location in a peaceful area, where they say you’ll likely notice more sheep than tourists. Of course, that’s exactly what you would expect on the home ground of famous Roquefort cheese.

On a significantly loftier note, the spectacular Millau Viaduct, the world’s tallest bridge, spreads across the valley in a monumental bow to skillful engineering – simply a breathtaking sight!

In the heart of Southwest France, Toulouse anchors the region as the largest city.  The Mediterranean is just 2 hours away, and the Tarn region lies between the Pyrenees mountain range and the Massif Central.

For our weekend sojourn, we opted to stay at the Hostellerie les Magnolias.  Located in the ultra-charming village of Plaisance, just 20 miles from Albi, the inn has gorgeous terraces, authentic fireplaces, comfort and hospitality – a 3-star hotel with 22 unique rooms. Families might prefer one of the many vacation rentals available in the region to enjoy more space and the full conveniences of home.

We especially enjoyed the range of cultural, natural and historic discoveries. We visited Albi’s Toulous-Lautrec Museum, home to the largest single collection of his works. Henri was born in Albi and generously bequeathed his collection to the village.

The lush Tarn River Gorge – © ATOUT FRANCE/Catherine Bibollet

From a far different perspective, we were fascinated with the many prehistoric wall paintings in the Dordogne caves near Lascaux and Rouffignac.  Saint Cyprien drew us into its’ serene medieval commune.  Narrow, winding lanes climb the hill to the 12th century bell tower and the Saint Cyprien Abbey.  Cordes-sur-Ciel is an equally beautiful hilltop village, a bastide – fortified town – with some exceptional 12th and 13th century buildings. When Albert Camus visited the town, he was said to observe, “In Cordes, everything is beautiful, even regret”.

Like so many enchanted travelers before us, we let our spirit lead the way to one after another of beautiful scenes, lively markets, quiet riverside banks and quaint, friendly villages. It is pleasure to explore, and one we hope to revisit.

We’d love to hear from you!

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