Friday, June 8, 2012

Saint Saturnin

My cousin's daughter Lena and I on Market Square
This week, we are visiting family in Auvergne, my native region, located in central France. And today, we went to Saint Saturnin, a small town of about 1150 inhabitants, where my cousin and his family reside. St Saturnin was built on a lava flow high above the gorges of the river Monne and overlooking the Veyre valley, it is encircled on three sides by the hills of the regional nature park of the Volcanoes of Auvergne. Towering over the village, its church and castle with their volcanic stonework form a spectacular and remarkably homogeneous duo. The church, built in the 12th century, is the smallest of the five major Romanesque churches in Auvergne. Its pyramidal shape draws the eye heavenward and the arches, often in groups of three, probably symbolize the Trinity. Also, the Royal Castle built in the 13th century by the La Tour d’Auvergne family who established itself on this estate in 1281. A perfect example of a large medieval chateau carefully restored, it was continually enlarged and embellished up until the end of the 15th century.  While walking around Saint Saturnin, you’ll also discover dry stone walls and terraces, beautiful small squares and typical narrow streets, this is no surprise that it has been listed as one of the most quaint villages in France.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

La Rochelle

The harbor towers

Yesterday, my parents and I drove down to the west coast to spend the weekend in La Rochelle. My younger brother, Florian, was born there in 1977 and we lived there for 4 years.
La Rochelle is a city in western France and a seaport on the Bay of Biscay, a part of the Atlantic Ocean. It is the capital of the Charente-Maritime department, with about 76,000 inhabitants.  La Rochelle was founded during the 10th century and became an important harbor in the 12th century.  The main activities of the city were in the areas of maritime commerce and trade, especially with England, the Netherlands and Spain. In 1196, a wealthy bourgeois named Alexandre Auffredi sent a fleet of seven ships to Africa to tap the riches of the continent. He went bankrupt and went into poverty as he waited for the return of his ships, but they finally returned seven years later filled with riches.  Until the 15th century, La Rochelle was to be the largest French harbor on the Atlantic coast, dealing mainly in wine, salt and cheese. Today, the city has beautifully maintained its past architecture, making it one of the most picturesque and historically rich cities on the Atlantic coast. This helped develop a strong tourism industry. La Rochelle's main feature is the "Vieux Port" ("Old Harbor"), which is at the heart of the city, picturesque and lined with seafood restaurants. The city walls are open to an evening promenade. The old town has been well-preserved. From the harbor, boating trips can be taken to the Île d'Aix and Fort Boyard (an old prison, like Alcatraz Island).  A fun fact; the 2 american sister cities of La Rochelle are New Rochelle, New York (since 1910) and Newport, Rhode Island.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Saint Nectaire

Thursday, May 17 and Friday, May 18 being off in France, I took the train Wednesday evening to my native region of Auvergne, located exactly in the center of the country to visit my uncle and aunt Patrick and Sylviane. Yesterday was a beautiful sunny day, so we drove to Saint Nectaire, a small commune (about 800 inhabitants) in the Puy de Dôme department. Cheese has been made in Auvergne since at least the 17th century. The Saint Nectaire cheese's name comes from the Marshal of Senneterre (a linguistic corruption of "Saint Nectaire"), who served it at the table of Louis XIV. The Marshal of Senneterre is also responsible for the introduction of other cheeses.
Saint-Nectaire is a pressed, uncooked cheese made from cow's milk, made from either pasteurized or unpasteurized milk. It is circular in shape, around 21 cm in diameter and 5 cm in height, and weighing around 1.7 kg. Around 15 litres of milk are required to make one cheese, and the final product is at least 45% fat as a percentage of dry matter. It is the first "farmer" AOC cheese (controlled designation of origin) in France with 6.000 tons produced each year.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

France has a new President

Francois Hollande, 57 years old, is the 24th President of the French Republic. The first President was Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (the nephew of Napoleon III), in 1848. In 1958, Charles De Gaulle proclamed the 5th Republic being its first President. Since this date, French socialist Francois Hollande is the 7th one, defeating incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy after a hard fought campaign.
This evening, I went and helped the community I live in and voted, in the counting of the ballots. It was a close run with Francois Hollande being slightly ahead.

Camembert, France

The city entrance, one main road
Today Sunday, May 6th, my folks and I drove to the town of Camembert, France.  It is most famous as the place where the camembert cheese originated back in 1791 by Marie Harel. Camembert has been called "The largest small village in France." Not only does it only count 200 inhabitants, but this is because the area of the commune itself is out of proportion to the center of the village which consists of the Cheese Museum (in the shape of a Camembert cheese), the Town Hall, the Church of St Anne, the Ferme Président (a museum), Beamoncel (the house where Marie Harel, the creator of camembert cheese lived) and 3 other small houses. The rest of the commune is scattered over 2,500 acres. The entrance fee of the small museum also included a cheese tasting, 3 different camemberts.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Chateau du Champ de Bataille

Literally called the Castle of the Battle Field, Champs de Bataille is impressive in every way, with its classical French architecture and beautiful formal gardens. The name dates from the 10th Century, in 935 a large battle was fought in the vicinity of the present day chateau. Two local families contested the battle, one led by Guillaume Longue Epée (William Long Sword) the other by Robert le Danois (Robert the Dane). Guillaume won the day and gained Normandy its independence. Although there is not much archaeological evidence it is believed that there have been several castles built on the site. In 1651 Alexandre de Créqui rebelled against the young Louis XIV and was exiled from court by Mazarin who was Regent. Créqui decided to build a magnificent residence to remind him of the splendours of the Royal Court which he believed he would never see again. The castle remained unfinished at his death and passed to the Marquis de Mailloc who inherited both the property and its debts. It was not until the Duke of Beuvron, nephew to Mailloc and Governor of Normandy, inherited the property that it achieved its full splendor. The Duke made the Chateau his principle residence, but even he was unable to finish the work. The Revolution interrupted the mammoth task, with the castle being looted and quarried. In 1992 the castle was bought by its current owner Jacques Garcia who finally managed to complete the building and to restore the gardens to their planned splendor.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A day at the Chateau de Versailles

Today, I visited one of the most famous castles in Europe: the Chateau de Versailles. I had not been there in probably 20 some years. I’m not going to write its entire history, it would be too long and you can read about it on the internet. So I’ll just give you some tidbits.
The Palace of Versailles was the home of King Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette, who ruled France. King Louis XIV declared himself as the state and the Sun God (Roi Soleil). The entire Versailles site (the palace and the gardens) is set on 19,262 acres, which is larger than the island of Manhattan.
The Chapel took 28 years to complete (from 1682 to 1710) because Louis XIV demanded absolute perfection in design, construction and materials. Towering above the roofline of the palace, the Chapel is by far the most notable aspect of the palace architecturally. Louis viewed the Chapel as a statement of his devotion to the Catholic church, and a statement of the Church's supremacy in France. Thus, perfection was required. The entire complex was completed with the ultimate in opulence and luxury. The Queen's bedchamber was one of the largest rooms in the private apartments because protocol required her to give birth in public. During the birth of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette's first child, the doctor panicked when 200 courtiers pushed into the room.
One of the most important modern day event that took place at Versailles was the signing of the treaty to end WWI. The Treaty of Versailles, ending World War I, was signed in the Hall of Mirrors. This famous Hall contains 17 large chandeliers and 26 smaller ones each made of solid silver and a total of 1000 candles.