Collioure and the artist
May04

Collioure and the artist

Collioure has attracted artists since the beginning of the 20th century when it was “discovered” by a group known as the Fauve artists. They were attracted not only by the subject matter but by the quality of the light. Henri Matisse and Andre Derain established their base in Collioure and were soon followed by the likes of Dufy and Picasso. Until tourism had an impact, Collioure was a small fishing village on the Mediterranean coast close to the Spanish border. Like many quaint fishing villages, it grew once tourists began arriving in large numbers. Thankfully though it still retains much of its charm. Collioure was not always French but was ruled over by the Kings of Mallorca until it eventually became French in 1659. The quaint little harbour is dominated by the Chateau Royale de Collioure, built by Vauban as a defensive measure against Spanish expansionism. The artists, attracted by the clarity of the light and the ample subject matter, needed a place to stay. The Hotel des Templiers became their base and meeting place. A heady mix of fact and myth in local storytelling tells us that the poverty-stricken artists had little money to pay for their lodgings so they offered their paintings instead as a means of payment. Whatever the truth behind this story there are original paintings and sketches by artists well known and unheard of adorning the walls of the cafe and bar. Until they were stolen there were even original sketches by Picasso hanging on the wall, now only copies are there. According to the granddaughter of the owner at the time the paintings were gifts from the artists who became firm friends with the owner. Perhaps some were payment, but as she points out the business would not have survived if all the artists paid in paintings. Whatever the truth it is a wonderfully atmospheric place to enjoy a coffee. A wander around Collioure’s steep and narrow streets away from the tourist crowds reveals a plethora of artist studios. It seems Collioure still attracts artists. Many of these artists paint the same scenes the Fauve artists chose to put on canvas. The local tourist office has put up helpful signs at the locations where the artists set up their easels. These include a copy of the painting and a frame. The later is more for photographers wishing to convert the scene to several million pixels rather than brush strokes. Wandering the harbour front, the streets and the three small bays you can see why the artists loved Collioure. It is so picturesque with colourful lateen boats bobbing in the harbour, a lighthouse converted into a church,...

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Top 10 reasons for visiting Lyon
Jan02

Top 10 reasons for visiting Lyon

Flybe, Europe’s largest regional airline, fly daily from my home city of Southampton to Lyon in France. Lyon is a city I have come to love and the fact that it is now connected by air without having to go through London and Paris means I will probably visit more often. Eurostar now have a service to Lyon from London without the need to change trains thus making Lyon more convenient to get to. They say Paris is the heart of France and Lyon is the stomach. Lyon is awash with restaurants with many holding Michelin stars. Certainly Lyon is the gastro-capital of France. However, there is more to Lyon than food as you will see from the list below. They are not ranked but rather listed according to approximate geographical location. 1. The Fourviere Basilica The Fourviere Basilica, perched high above the city on Fourviere Hill is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the patron saint of Lyon. It is fortress on the outside and palatial place of worship on the inside. The large terraced area around it makes a great viewpoint for looking across the city of Lyon and getting your bearings. Directly below is Vieux Lyon with its narrow cobbled streets and old houses. Beyond and between the Rivers Saone and Rhone is Renaissance Lyon with long boulevards and large open squares. Beyond the two rivers is 19th and 20th century Lyon. 2. Gallo-Roman Archaeological Park To the south and out of sight from the Fourviere Basilica is theGallo-Roman Archaeological park. This contains a large Roman theatre built around 15 BC that seated 11,000 spectators and a smaller second century odeon which was used mainly for music and recitations. Between the two and above the theatre is a well preserved Roman road lined with the ruins of shops and other buildings. Today both amphitheatres are used for performances during “Les Nuits de Fourviere”, a summer festival. 3. The Traboules of Vieux Lyon In Vieux Lyon, which itself is worth exploring (see Five in the Fifth), are the traboules. Traboule comes from the latin words trans ambulare meaning “to cross”. The geography of the land meant the streets were constructed parallel to the river Saone. The traboules are passageways through houses connecting one street with another and were constructed intitially for people to fetch water and goods from the river. As the silk trade grew, the traboules were used to move goods around the city more easily. Traboules run through the houses which gives you the feeling of entering a private, almost secretive world. Not all are open to the public and even those that are are difficult to find. The best way to visit them is...

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Lyon between the Rivers Saone and Rhone
Jan21

Lyon between the Rivers Saone and Rhone

Lyon is a city I passed through several times either on the A6 Autoroute heading south or on a train heading towards the Mediterranean coast. I have used its airport as well when heading to other parts of Rhone-Alpes. Such contact with Lyon gave the false impression it was a city of dreariness and heavy industry. It was time therefore to have more than a fleeting glimpse of the city. I have already explored Vieux Lyon on the west bank of the Saone in a previous post on France Unpacked’s sister website Travel Unpacked. In this post I will explore that part of Lyon between it’s two great rivers the Saone and the Rhone; an area known as the Presqu’île. It is quite a compact area and is where the Lyonnais come to shop, eat and be entertained. Most of it can be explored on foot. However, all the city’s transport systems pass through or terminate in the Presqu’île so it is easy to get around. The Place des Terreaux is a good place to start as it is the de facto transport hub both above and below ground. The most striking feature of this square is, for me, the great fountain of a female charioteer and wildly straining horses. Rejected by Bordeaux this fountain was eagerly accepted by Lyon. Its creator, Batholdi, later went on to create the Statue of Liberty. The fountain faces the Museum of Fine Arts which is housed in the Palais St Pierre. The courtyard is a cool secluded place where sculptures are displayed, some of which are by the sculptor Rodin. The Hôtel de Ville with its elegant 17th century facade also overlooks the square and its many cafes. The Opera on Place de la Comédie behind Hôtel de Ville was built in 1826 but was completely redesigned in the 1990s. Externally the facades were left pretty much intact but a glass vaulted roof was added giving it, in my opinion, the appearance of a London mainline railway station. Contemporary sculptures and fountains fill the squares around it. Lyon is twinned with Birmingham and the two cities share a contemporary and controversially designed department store. In Birmingham the store is covered with silver discs and in Lyon it is reflective glass. Both modern structures are surrounded by older buildings but in Lyon at least these are reflected in the facade. Rue Mercière is the only significant Renaissance remains in the Presqu’île. There are a few traboules or secret passageways here connecting it to the bank of the River Saone. Restaurants, bistros and cafes line the street. Le Bistrot de Lyon serves great food and is...

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Beavers, bats and art
Apr21

Beavers, bats and art

The sun was heading towards the western horizon. It was late in the afternoon and shadows were lengthening and we were preparing for a canoe trip down the river. Being issued with head torches was a little unnerving as it meant we would be canoeing after dark; a completely new experience for most of the group. There would be rapids to negotiate and rocks and shallows to avoid; difficult enough in daylight. A group of us were heading out on a beaver safari along the River Tarn downstream from the village of St Enimie The beavers are most active when the sun is low enough for no direct sunlight to reach the foot of the gorge. That an early evening start. After a brief but comprehensive safety talk and some details about what to expect and how to best observe the beavers we launched the canoes. Before we saw any beavers we encountered our first rapids. The word rapids conjures up a maelstrom of water and foam but these “rapids” were little more than an increase in water flow as the current was forced through a narrow section of the gorge. Nevertheless care had to be taken to avoid the very real dangers of submerged rocks and no one wanted to capsize this early on. Although we spotted no beavers along this first part of the river as yet but we learned a great deal about them and how the European beaver (Castor fiber) differs from its North American cousin (Castor canadensis). They don’t build dams for a start. Along the banks there were plenty of signs of beaver activity. Stripped twigs and a few chewed branches showed where they had been eating. After paddling for a couple of kilometres and still no sign of the beavers we pulled onto a pebble beach. Grass grew from between rocks and the place was littered with the detritus of the seasonal floods. Beavers are shy creatures and will quickly disappear at the first sign of danger. Canoes and their occupants could conceivably be considered as danger so we spent a short while on the beach quietly watching the water down which we had just paddled. Our patience was rewarded as one and then another beaver put in an appearance along the distant bank. Armed with binoculars we could see two large rat like creatures in the water. I was, at this point, slightly disappointed as I had expected closer encounters than this. We were soon back in the canoes and negotiating a series of rapids. These were a little more exciting and required our full attention if we were not to end up...

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Pairing Food and Rhone-Alpes waters
Mar14

Pairing Food and Rhone-Alpes waters

“Water is the new wine” and the Rhone-Alpes region has plenty of it. Apart from snow and ice, numerous lakes and innumerable streams and rivers the region has over 30 sources of mineral water both still and sparkling. If you thought water had no taste then think again. I spent time discovering some of the sources and was introduced to the water tasting in St Galmier, home of Badoit mineral water. To read more about it visit France Unpacked’s sister website www.travelunpacked.co.uk I discovered that in Rhone-Alpes alone there is such a variety of tastes; from the salty, slightly bitter Badoit though the meadowy sweet Thonon to the almost neutral Evian. The following is a brief summary of the tastes and aromas of some of the better known and more readily available mineral waters of the Rhone-Alpes. The still waters: Thonon: Slightly lemony with a fresh meadowy scent; sweet taste Evian: Light marine aroma; a neutral balance between salty and acidic taste Aix: Dry earthy scent: no dominant taste, well balanced The sparkling waters: Badoit (verte): Little discernible aroma; salty, sweet and bitter, well balanced taste between the three Badoit (rouge); A hint of woodiness; taste is salty and slightly bitter Vals: Little discernible smell; salty and bitter in taste Saint Alban: Lightly metallic scent; sweet and salty, well balanced Cesar: aromatic notes of almonds and lemon; an acidic and bitter taste Vernet: Slightly metallic aroma with an earthy note; an acidic and salty taste Parot: Complex scent, flowery, vanilla with a note of leather; a dominant salty taste If you think it is beginning to sound a lot like the terminology used by wine tasters you would be right. Much of the vocabulary and the classification of taste and feel is borrowed from wine-tasting. Water, just like wine, can be paired with different foods. Of course it is all down to personal taste but the characteristics of the different mineral waters pair well with certain meals or courses. The light but aromatic Aix is ideal as an aperitif as its slightly woody scent would be lost during the meal. The more intense scent of wood and almonds and the slightly lemony bitter taste of Cesar would go well with a salad particularly one with a vinegar based dressing. Arcens has a lively effervescence with an acidic salty taste and pairs well with more exotic spicy dishes. However its high sodium content (290mg/l) makes it unsuitable for people on a salt-free diet. For any fish dish the slightly salty Parot with a nose reminiscent of the sea is ideal. It has a smooth silky texture and fine effervescence. This...

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Amiens unplanned
Feb24

Amiens unplanned

It had not been our intention to visit Amiens in Picardy but, due to a minor mix up with accommodation, we found ourselves with a hotel in the shadow of its impressive cathedral and several hours of exploring time. Not being the kind of people to sit and kill time we decided to explore as much as we could. You cannot visit Amiens without visiting the cathedral. Similar to Notre Dame in Paris it is almost twice the size and is the largest cathedral by volume in France. It is also considered to be the finest and purest example of Gothic architecture. There is certainly harmony in its architecture. The cathedral is renown for the quality of the sculptures and intricate tracery covering the west facade. Inside the nave reaches a height of 42m making it the highest complete cathedral in France. The incomplete Beauvais cathedral has a taller nave. A couple of gruesome statues commemorate the original reason for building the cathedral; to house the head of John the Baptist. This relic was part of the loot from the Fourth Crusade that ended up in Amiens. Such is the importance of Amiens cathedral architecturally that it has been placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. There are enough things to see and do to occupy at least two days but we only had a few hours. Should we visit the house of Jules Verne or the Picardy Museum? The floating gardens or “hortillonages” of the marshlands of the Somme were another option. In the end we decided to wander serendipitously through one of the several “quartiers” that make up Amiens. Medieval St-Leu has many older wooden and brick houses built along its many drainage canals. It is popular with Amien’s young population and is full of cafes and restaurants. Many of them are along Quai Belu and have great views of the cathedral but it is also worth wandering the other streets of the “quartier” seeking out the Puppet Theatre. We stopped for a lunch here of Picardy potatoes smothered in chicken, cheese and sauce looking over the canal towards the Cathedral. After lunch we wandered back through the town, discovering as we did that Amiens is also a town of flowers. There are colourful beds and baskets of blooms everywhere, even in September when we were there. We were reluctant to leave having discovered that Amiens is more than a few exits on the A16 autoroute from Paris to Calais and are already planning a longer stopover on our next visit to France. Have you been to Amiens? Is there anywhere I should see on my next visit? If there is I’d love to hear...

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