Coming this August

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Arles: Shadow and Stone Part 1

By all accounts, London, York, in fact any English city in the so called ‘Dark Ages’  would have been pretty grim places to inhabit – even taking into account a much warmer climate. I think, taking into account everything: Moorish and Viking incursions, the ambitions of Frankish kings, and the later Albigensian and Cathar crusades, Arles was the place to be. Its magic still holds today.

Who would not want to live in place where you might be christened Boso, the son of Biven of Gorze and Richildis of Arles; who would not like to be surrounded by people with names like Engeltrude or Teutberga, Lothair or Hucbert; or even the less flamboyantly named Charles the Bald?
Within the Roman empire it was one of the great centres, favoured by Constantine the Great, but it is in later years that it became much more interesting.

What struck me most, wandering its streets and great ruins, was the dazzling light and shadows on stones.

Side streets on your way to:

The Great Amphitheatre

It is hard to believe that in the early Middle Ages houses and two churches were built into what doubled up as a fort.

Wandering through its interior

Its upper tiers

A studious youth

At the top, but not yet the tower

A glimpse of Arles


Arles from the tower

And from higher still

Thursday, 4 September 2014

The Avignon Papacy, a church for sinners

Henry VIII gets a lot of stick over his quarrel with the church. He was as ruthless as Philip the Fair of France but lacked his style. When, in November 1302, Pope Boniface VIII claimed the papacy was superior to kings, and that for salvation, "every human creature be subject to the authority of the Roman pontiff," the French king gave a Gallic shrug and kidnapped him. Tortured, and released a broken man, Boniface died within weeks. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so did Philip the Fair. He installed a French Pope, Benedict XI and there followed seven other French popes, all of them residing in Avignon.

This is what you see as soon as you leave the station, the walls of Avignon. It was not always so.

We owe much to the 'builder Popes'

The great square outside the Palais de Papes

And the same scene from above. Taking pictures from the great tower was decidedly tricky. The infamous mistral waits until you're just about to 'shoot' and then boisterously jerks you about. Hats flew off in all directions.

Inside the courtyard of the Papal Palace

In the Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky has a story of the Grand Inquisitor in C16th Spain interrogating Christ, who has returned to Earth. He accuses Christ of a tactical error. In rejecting Satan’s offer of worldly power he forced the Church to assume the responsibility he had refused. To paraphrase the Inquisitor's argument, the basic nature of man does not allow him to reject food, security and happiness in exchange for something as intangible as Heaven. The challenge of freedom from worldly concerns means only fraction of mankind can ever hope to be saved. The Church is intrinsically good for stepping in and taking the burden on itself. Since the majority of mankind is damned anyway it may as well enjoy earthly security and happiness by accepting the false comfort of a worldly church. The alternative is to live guilt ridden lives and still be damned. The Church is a church of sinners in every sense of the word.

To my knowledge the Avignon Popes never read Dostoevsky but might perhaps have understood his message.

The picture above shows  the beautiful, twenty two year old Joanna, Queen of Naples and Countess of Provence. She was in trouble, accused of murdering her husband and fleeing from his vengeful brother King Lewis of Hungary. Clement VI was a sucker for a pretty face but knew how to strike a bargain. She needed protection and money. He gave her both in exchange for the city of Avignon and the surrounding area.

                                                                 Pope Clement VI

My daughter and I agreed that Clement was our favourite Pope. In his own words a self proclaimed: 'sinner amongst sinners.' On assuming the papacy he proclaimed: "My predecessors did not know how to be Pope."

He determined to show them.

Not to the approval of all:

Petrarch begins mildly:

Now I am living in France, in the Babylon of the West . . . Here reign the successors of the poor fishermen of Galilee; they have strangely forgotten their origin. I am astounded, as I recall their predecessors, to see these men loaded with gold and clad in purple, boasting of the spoils of princes and nations; to see luxurious palaces and heights crowned with fortifications, instead of a boat turned downward for shelter.
But he warms up to a right old froth:
 I will not speak of adultery, seduction, rape, incests; these are only the prelude to their orgies. I will not count the number of wives stolen or young girls deflowered. I will not tell of the means employed to force into silence the outraged husbands and fathers, nor of the dastardliness of those who sell their woman folk for gold…(prostitutes) swarmed on the papal beds

Mind you, this same Pope stayed in Avignon with the stricken when the Black Death struck. He organised the burials and, more importantly in such a devout and fearful age, gave absolution to all who confessed until the sickness had passed. He banned extremists like the flagellants on realising they were inadvertantly passing on the disease, and gave succour to the Jews when they were subsequently blamed for the pestilence. He condemned the massacres as a sin against God and did all in his power to stop them. He patronised art and was one of the great builder popes. In his view, the people liked a good show, and he died both respected and loved. A man of contradictions, a sinner amongst sinners.

The Palais des Papes is full of quiet corridors and rooms. One would find it easy to contemplate here.

  Or here

But less easy  in rooms such as these:

The picture above shows the room where all the food was prepared for presentation before being marched into the banquet hall. It might look over large for plating and decorating food - that is until you consider the scale of some of the banquets. Clement VI's coronation saw 3,000 guests who between them ate: 1,023 sheep, 118 head of cattle, 101 calves, 914 kids, 60 pigs, 10,471 hens, 1,440 geese, 300 pike, 46,856 cheeses, 50,000 tarts, and 200 casks of wine. To be honest I'd have imagined more wine would be needed with all that food. May be it was Lent.*

Behind this hall was the kitchen with a multi-storeyed chimney, within which spits continually turned:

It wasn't all feasting and drinking. Below is the chapel (hosting some weird exhibition)

And when the Pope wanted to get a little closer to God he could take to the roof and survey half of Provence

I imagine they occasionally stroked the sunbaked terracotta with a soft, proprietorial hand. It's what I did at least.

To the right can be glimpsed the Jardin des Doms

From where you can see the beauty of Provence

And the Rhone

Speaking of which there's a bridge

The famous Pont d'Avignon. It brought back good memories of introducing our toddlers to French. Not a bridge was safe in Wales as we circled and danced and sang:

You can get away with so much if you have children. Without them you'd be locked up as mad. I suspected we'd also arouse a few stares - not least from our grown-up children - if we suddenly  launched into dance and song. Instead we walked quietly and stared at the water.
Always worth checking. Assuming the casks in question were the larger ones, ie a Tun, it is safe to say there was more than enough wine. Tuns could hold 240 gallons of wine, so 200 tuns between 3000 guests would amount to 16 gallons a person.'An elegant sufficiency' you might say.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Last Tango in Nimes

Nimes is said to be named after Nemausus, a local Celtic deity and guardian of water and local springs, alternatively, Nemosius the son of Heracles. We shall never know so its probably best to stick with Nimes and history with a little more accuracy.  

 In 55 BC Julius Caesar asked the local Volcae to fight with him against the northern Gauls. After thirty years of fighting with Caesar and his successor Augustus the Volcae leader, Adgennix was given Roman citizenship and Nemausus was made an autonomous city within the Roman empire - but given a Roman name: Colonia Augusta Nemausus. But we’ll call it Nimes. I have enough trouble with French – and grief from my daughter for invariably pronouncing the silent ‘s’ in Nimes

And now that the history lesson is over (well not quite, there’s a bit more to come) I can show some holiday snaps with a tad less guilt

 The view from our bedroom window, the amphitheatre.  
It was built towards the end of the second century Ad. When the Roman empire fell and Nimes became part of a Visigoth kingdom local people sheltered there, using it as a kind of fortress. By 725 A D Nimes was briefly absorbed by the Umayyad Moslems until, in 737 AD Charles Martel and the Franks briefly siezed the city, destroying much of the amphitheatre and other great buildings. . What's interesting is that the local Gallo-Roman and Visigoth nobility sided with the Moslems and not the Franks. Muslim rule in the city didn't end until 754 when Pepin the Short drove them out.* The new Carolingian aristocracy installed themselves in the amphitheatre - and at night after sufficient wine you sense their presence still.
 And at night

 In fact at night it becomes  quite ghostly
 As does much of Nimes

Those Volcae soldiers who fought in Caeser's Nile campaigns were clearly impressed with the crocodile. Wherever you go in Nimes you see the emblem of a crocodile under a palm tree. This looks quite a friendly crocodile.
As well as building the Amphitheatre and littering the place with crocodiles and palm trees the Romans built a Forum, now one of the best preserved buildings in the former empire:
 Le Maison CarrĂ©e

The local Volcae had a small defensive tower on this hill. The Romans, on the basis of mine is bigger than yours built a defensive wall around the city culminating in the Tour Magne. You can access the top via an internal staircase and see half of Provence.

And lastly, to echo 'what did the Romans ever do for us?' from Life of Brian, they built the incredible Pont du Garde. The aquaduct carried water to Nimes from springs 31 miles away. Much of the structure is underground but, faced with hills and valleys, Roman engineers didn't flinch. The Pont du Garde is the highest of all Roman aquaducts and takes the breath away even today. It carried an estimated 44,000, 000 gallons of water a day to the fountains, baths and homes of the people of Nimes.

Now it just carries people.

We had everything on this holiday, good food, wine, and water. Wherever ever you went you saw or heard water.

Below was a water and fire spectacular orchestrated to stirring music. This park, le Jardin du Fontaine, leads up to the hill where the Tour Magne looks over the city

And lastly, what would life be without night time dancing outside your window? I believe a national tango competition was taking place, though this does not appear to be a tango.

If you can bear it there will be two more posts - on Avignon and Arles. It is a family record after all :)

*This stuff about the Moors threw me and reveals yet again how you keep on learning - even History teachers. I was brought up on the story of Roland and how the Moors had been stopped at the Pyrenees. I had no idea - until now - that they had ever established themselves in France