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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Versailles, France

We arrived in Versailles on another rainy cloudy evening. We found our hotel in a small town near Versailles and then drove around to get a feel for the area. We found the main entrance to the Chateau Versailles but it was too late to visit so we found some food and went back to the hotel. The next morning we arrived at the gates of Versailles and made our way to the entrance for those who already had tickets. We had purchased our tickets in Paris so we did not have to wait in the long lines to buy tickets on the site.
When we first arrived the crowds were not too large but as time went by the number of tourists increased to such large a large amount that in many areas of the palace we walked shoulder to shoulder with tourists from evrywhere. And some of them had not bathed in some time. As we went along through the fabulous rooms we learned a little of the history of this amazing World Heritage Site.

Versailles was the royal residence of France for little more than a century (from 1682 until 1789) when the French Revolution began. Louis XIII built a hunting lodge at the village of Versailles outside of Paris in 1624. The small structure became the base on which was constructed one of the most costly and extravagant buildings in the world. It became the palace of Louis XIV, the "Sun King", who boasted of himself, "L'Etat c'est moi" or "I am the state." Louis XV and Louis XVI also called Versailles home.

About 37,000 acres of land were cleared to make room for tree-lined terraces, walkways, and thousands of flowering plants. There were 1,400 fountains and 400 pieces of sculpture. In 1676 a second story was added and the magnificent Hall of Mirrors and the north and south wings were built.

The construction of the Palace of Versailles was finally completed near the end of Louis XIV's life. The chapel was built last and was finished in 1708. In 1742 Louis XV supervised new additions to the Palace, including the Salon of Hercules, the Opera House and the Petit Trianon. In 1755 the King's Council Chamber was redecorated. This period of work signaled the break from heavy ornamented Rococo decoration to the lighter neoclassical style, with pilasters, columns and the use of symmetry throughout.

Construction of the palace went on through the next century. More than 36,000 workers were involved in the project, and when the building was completed it could accommodate up to 5,000 people, including servants. About 14,000 soldiers and servants were quartered in annexes and in the nearby town.

During the Seven Year's War France lost most of its overseas treasure and assets to Great Britain. The resulting economic damage almost destroyed the monarchy. Much of the damage was repaired by the 1760's by the policies of Finance Minister duc de Choiseul. However, Louis XV left his successor, his grandson Louis XVI, a debt of 4000 million livres when he died in 1774. The roots of the French Revolution can be traced back directly to this "gift".

Despite the kingdom's shaky finances, Louis XVI immediately had the gardens replanted at Versailles upon his succession and had a new library built in his private apartmentsl.

His wife, Marie Antoinette constantly had her private apartments changed and rearranged at Versailles. She also made use of the workshop of the Menus Plaisirs, the shops at Versailles that created special interiors, sets, and even funeral monuments. They were constantly creating new portable party pavilions that the young Queen could use to entertain her group of friends.

In 1788 the French government went bankrupt. On the morning of October 6, 1789 a mob of angry Parisians, mostly women, marched to the Palace demanding bread. They stormed the Palace, ran up the Queen's Staircase and broke into the Guard's Room, then into the Antechamber. Marie Antoinette ran from her bedchamber into her private apartments towards the King's Suite to find her husband and son. In an effort to quell public discontent the King moved his court to Paris. Today Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI's chambers remain as they were in the fall of 1789.

After the fall of the monarchy, the Palace of Versailles was put into the hands of the new government. In 1792 portions of the Royal furniture was sold and dispersed and many works of art from the Palace were taken to the Louvre in Paris. Napoleon Bonaparte later took an interest in the Palace and commissioned restoration work, which was later continued by the reinstated monarchy in 1814 by Louis XVI's brother, Louis XVIII. In the 1830's Louis-Phillippe decided to make the Palace into a museum of French history, which was inaugurated in 1837. The Palace continued to play an important role in European history: in 1871 the Hall of Mirrors was the setting for the Proclamation of the German Empire and in 1919 the Hall was the site where the Treaty of Versailles was signed which ended World War I.

In 1962, a decree was issued ordering all of the objects belonging to the Palace and preserved in French Collections throughout France to be brought back to Versailles
The enchanting Gardens of Versailles were founded by the French King Louis the 13th in year 1632. However, many say that the real founder was his son, Louis 14th, as he was the one who laid the real foundation for the grand garden that stands today.

In 1682, Louis 14th had his court moved from Paris to Versailles, making it the official royal palace of France. From this point on, Louis began an embellishment and expansion program at Versailles that would occupy his time and worries for the remainder of his reign. At this time, the expansion of the Gardens of Versailles followed the expansions of the château and each step was carefully managed under the directions of the king.

At some stages, Louis even put more focus on the Gardens of Versailles than on the château itself. Throughout the gardens, Louis had a clear theme with focus on the sun god, Apollo, and other solar imagery. This was due to the fact that Louis XIV related himself with the sun and was commonly known as the “Sun King”.

Following French Revolution, some of the trees in the gardens were felled on order from the reigning National Convention. Sensing the potential threat to Versailles, as it has strong links to the monarchy the revolution sought to destroy, some prominent people convinced the National Convention to open the gardens for the public instead of destroying it. The suggestion was accepted, which likely saved the Gardens of Versailles from destruction.

Today the royal Gardens of Versailles is considered one of the most famous gardens in the world. The gardens cover a nearly 2000 acres of land. The majority of the land is covered by finely landscaped woodland areas and several magnificent gardens with classic French Garden style.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


When I was growing up in the small village of Nelsonville, Ohio, I remember being given a crepe-paper  poppy to wear for Memorial Day.  My dad went to a lot of activities at the local VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) and he probably brought them home.  I do have a vague remembrance of my mom getting some from a lady on the Village Square while shopping.  I have since learned that poppies were distributed around "Poppy Day", which was usually the same as Memorial Day in May.  I am not sure if this tradition continues today, I don’t recall seeing poppies any other time since my youth.

Poppies in the fields of Vignes, France

When we traveled recently to Northern France and Southern Belgium I was surprised to find myself in the area known as Flanders.  As we drove about along the back roads we found the “Flanders’ Poppies” growing along the edges of the roads. 
The use of the poppy was inspired by the World War I poem In Flanders Fields. Its opening lines refer to the many poppies that were the first flowers to grow in the churned-up earth of soldiers' graves in FlandersCanadian physician and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae is popularly believed to have written it on 3 May 1915 after witnessing the death of his friend (a fellow soldier) the day before. 
The poem was first published on 8 December 1915 in the London-based magazine Punch

In Flanders Fields  written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
         In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.
Poppies in a field near Fromelles, France

In 1918, American YWCA worker Moina Michael, inspired by the poem, published a poem of her own called We Shall Keep the Faith.[2] In tribute to McCrae's poem, she vowed to always wear a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those who served in the war.[1] At a November 1918 YWCA Overseas War Secretaries' conference, she appeared with a silk poppy pinned to her coat and distributed 25 more to those attending.[1] She then campaigned to have the poppy adopted as a national symbol of remembrance.

"We Shall Keep the Faith"  written by Moina Michael
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet - to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We'll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
In Flanders Fields we fought
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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Claude Monet - Giverny, France

Claude Monet

We drove 4 hours just to see these beautiful gardens.

When Claude Monet and his family settled in Giverny, France in 1883, the land on the property consisted of an orchard that sloped gently down toward the road and was enclosed by high stone walls. 

Bill brought a piece home with him in his suitcase.

Those stone walls are still standing and have large chunks of flint embedded in the mortar.

Claude Monet did not like organized nor constrained gardens. He married flowers according to their colors and left them to grow rather freely.  Monet made a garden full of perspectives, symmetries and colors.   

Today the land is divided into flowerbeds where flower clumps of different heights create volume. Fruit trees or ornamental trees dominate the climbing roses, the long -stemmed hollyhocks and the colored banks of annuals. 
Monet mixed the simplest flowers (daisies and poppies) with the rarest varieties. 

Espalier Apple Trees

Apple trees only three feet tall are espaliered along the edge of the gardens while climbing roses arch high overhead.

In 1893, ten years after his arrival at Giverny, Monet bought the piece of land neighboring his property on the other side of the railway. 
It was crossed by a small brook, the Ru, which is a diversion of the Epte, a tributary of the Seine River. With the support of the prefecture, Monet had the first small pond dug; even though his peasant neighbors were opposed. They were afraid that his strange plants would poison the water. 
Michelle, taking pictures for her flower series.

Later on the pond would be enlarged to its present day size. The water garden is full of asymmetries and curves. It is inspired by the Japanese gardens that Monet knew from the prints he collected avidly.  

In this water garden you will find the famous Japanese bridge covered with wisterias, other smaller bridges, weeping willows, a bamboo wood and above all the famous nympheas which bloom all summer long. The pond and the surrounding vegetation form an enclosure separated from the surrounding countryside.

Never before had a painter so shaped his subjects in nature before painting them. And so he created his works twice. Monet would find his inspiration in this water garden for more than twenty years.

After the Japanese bridge series, he would devote himself to the giant decorations of the Orangery. 

Always looking for mist and transparencies, Monet would dedicate himself less to flowers than to reflections in water, a kind of inverted world transfigured by the liquid element.

After Claude Monet's death in 1926, his son Michel inherited the house and garden of Giverny. He did not live there and it was Monet's step-daughter Blanche who took care of the property. Unfortunately after the Second World War the house and garden were neglected. In 1966 Michel Monet made the Academie des Beaux-Arts his heir.

Almost ten years were necessary to restore the garden and the house to their former magnificence. Not much was left. The greenhouse panes and the windows in the house were reduced to shards after the bombings. Floors and ceiling beams had rotted away,  a staircase had collapsed. Three trees were even growing in the big studio.  The pond had to be dug again. Then the same flower species as those discovered by Monet in his time were planted.

Monet didn't like dark wood so he painted his dining room in yellow.

Thanks to generous donors, mostly from the USA , the house was given a facelift. The ancient furniture and the Japanese prints were restored.  Today 500 000 visitors discover Monet's gardens each year during the seven months that it is open.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Travels in Ghent, Belgium

Written by Bill Blimes:
Toward the end of our first week in Europe our hosts, Christophe and Houria Selosse, invited us to go to Ghent, Brussels with them.  We had been visiting places around Sailly sur la Lys and Lille but hadn’t yet gone too far afield.  We were excited and happy to have them take us on our first big trip. 
The history of Ghent began in 630 when St. Amandus chose the site to construct an Abby because it was located between two rivers, the Lys and the Sceidt.  Ghent is located in the Flemish region of Belgium and is the capital and largest city of the East Flanders province.  Until the 13th century, Ghent was the biggest city in Europe after Paris; it was bigger than London, Cologne and Moscow.  
The center of Ghent is a “no traffic zone” meaning that no motor vehicles are allowed.  This means you park where you can and then hike into the town center.  Many of the streets are cobblestone which can be a little treacherous to walk upon.  We found a free parking spot along a street and then began our trek.  If I had realized how far it was and what shape I was going to be in by the time we were done at the end of the day, I would have offered to pay to park in a car park near the town center.  But I didn’t and so off we went on our big adventure.  

As we got into the center of town, we found huge crowds which seemed to grow larger as the day went on.  We learned that Ghent’s annual cultural festival, was in full swing.  Every year this long-established, ten-day cultural event takes over Ghent’s historic city centre. There is free music on all the central squares and hundreds of other activities, plus three international-level festivals.  I read somewhere that it is “one of the craziest festivals in Europe."

We walked around through a market along one of the canals.

We visited a couple of churches, and then made our way to a small restaurant where we sat in a corner near the front door and enjoyed typical Ghent food.  We got to talking to the people at the table next to us and found out they were from New Orleans.  They were part of a crew shooting a movie in Brussels and as they had the day off they had come to Ghent to see the sights.  It was nice to run into some Americans.  

 After lunch we got in line to ride a canal boat through the city.  Because of the many canals twisting through the city you get a whole different view of the sights and you get to see them sitting down.  We had an excellent tour guide and as our boat had tourists from Belgium, Spain, England and America he repeated everything three times in three different languages.  It was all rather interesting.   

We went under an old bridge that was built in the thirteenth century.   (Yes, we ducked.)

We passed a line of buildings that were sitting next to each other but each from a different time period reflected in their architectural style.   

We passed houses that had docks right on the canal that were like a porch on their home.   

We went by the Gravensteen, or "Castle of the Count" in Dutch, which dates back to the Middle Ages. The present castle was built in 1180 by Count Philip of Alsace and was modeled after the crusaders' castles the count encountered when he participated in the second crusade.   

 We also saw the 91-meter-high Belfry of Gent that overlooks the old city center. Over the centuries, it has served not only as a bell tower to announce the time and various warnings, but also as a fortified watchtower and town treasury. Construction of the tower began in 1313, 

We passed by the oldest house in Ghent.  It is built of wood.  Early Ghent, even the city walls, at one time were all built of wood. 

At last our day in Ghent ended.  We began to make our way back to the car and I think Houria could tell I was done in.  She suggested we all wait at the edge of the square and Christophe would go and get the car.  I was so relieved.  I don’t think I could have made it back to the car.  I ached in every bone in my body.  With the company of such kind hosts it was a memorable trip - even though we didn’t get wet!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sculptures and Garden (Sculptures et Jardin)

Sculptures et Jardin
One sunny day this summer we decided to visit some gardens in the Nord-Pas de Calais, a northern region of France.  We located a brochure we had picked up at a tourist informaton center somewhere in our travels and decided to visit the Sculptures et Jardin in the village of Bergueneuse.  We entered the address in our trusty GPS and we took off on another adventure.  We traveled about an hour though the French countryside and soon came to Bergueneuse, a village of about 200 inhabitants.   

After driving around a little we found the gate into the garden but it said they were closed for lunch from 12:00 until 2:00pm.  Of course, it was noon when we arrived so we drove on past and came to a dead-end road.   
Along this dead-end road were some houses with beautiful flower beds and boxes.   

We took photos of them and then drove back to the garden.   We decided to ring the bell and pretend we had not read the sign since it was in French.   

Sylvia pulled the rope on the bell and an elderly man, holding onto a young boarder collie, came and opened the gate and made us welcome in his halting English. It turned out the gardens were the beautiful yard around his home.   

He made us understand that he was the sculptor and his wife was the gardener.  She then joined him and with many smiles, and no English, invited us to walk around the garden.  The gardens are located around Monsier et Madame Droulez’s home, a typical cottage dating from the late eighteenth century.  

 Among the trees, shrubs and flower beds stuck in places are funny characters of steel straight out of the imagination of the artist owner. The planting beds are laid out in such a way as to create rooms or spaces that flow one into another as you circle about through the yard. The plants included many familiar ones; roses, peonies, garden phlox, etc. and others that were not so familiar.  

 As we walked about taking photos and looking at all the sights we were joined by Madame Droulez and she began pointing out some of the rarities in her garden.  

 She spoke very little English but we were able to converse through the Latin or botanical names of many of the plants.  While we may not have been familiar with some of the varieties, we did recognize the family names of many.   

She also pointed out a trellis that was made from an elevator (she called it a lift) door from an old hotel in Paris.  She was also very proud of her planters of many kinds of small succulents and ground covers. After spending an enjoyable couple of hours with this lovely couple in their garden we said our goodbyes and went on to our next adventure…