Showing posts with label FRANCE. Show all posts
Showing posts with label FRANCE. Show all posts

Europe by Car - Best Honeymoon Ever!

 Harley Street house                                              Port of Dover                               

It was a beautiful sunny day as we set off on our honeymoon from our house in Harley Street in Marylebone, London on Saturday September 13th, 1980. We made it to the English coastal town of Dover around dinner time. Luckily, we found a charming hotel called the Spinning Wheel and spent the night. We hadn't booked a single hotel in advance and took our chances each day. For most of the trip, we did pretty well and only once did we end up in less that ideal accommodations. Not bad for a three week road trip!

The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast at a picturesque cafe in Dover with a magnificent view of the ocean, we found ourselves in a long line of cars and trucks to catch the ferry that would land us in Belgium, where we began our sojourn across Europe. It was smooth sailing as we pulled away from the white cliffs of Dover on the car ferry, and studied the maps to determine the best route to our ultimate destination, Venice, Italy.  

Arriving in Brussels in the late afternoon, we drove around the city to see the sights and found the Hilton Hotel that overlooked the Parliament building. Although Belgium is beautiful, we had no time for sightseeing the next morning and pushed on to Baden Baden, Germany.  

Driving our new Volvo, we listened to music suitably romantic for honeymooners. Our favorite CD was that of Anne Murray, a Canadian singer, that included her song "SnowBird", which was our favorite.

Hotel Haus Reichert in Baden Baden, Germany

Thanks to the amazing highway system in Germany, where speeding along at 80 miles per hour is your only option if you want to survive, we made it to Baden Baden by dinner time. Not having booked ahead, we were fortunate to find a lovely place in the heart of town, the Hotel Haus Reichart. This quaint family owned establishment was the perfect place for us. The room was cozy and comfortable and the staff were friendly and very helpful in guiding us to the best nearby restaurant. 

Our next stop was the picturesque town of Oberammergau, Germany, a picturesque little village located in the Bavarian Alps in southern Germany, just to the north of the Austrian border. In 1632, the area was hit by an outbreak of bubonic plague, so the village promised that, every ten years, it would perform a play about Jesus if only God would protect them from the plague. It is recorded that the death rate then dropped dramatically. Oberammergau has since kept its promise. Its Passion Play was first performed in 1634 and it continues to be performed in every year with a zero at its end. In September 2020, it was performed for the 42nd time.

Photo is a picture of the cover of the book we bought about the Passion play

The play runs for seven hours and takes over 2000 people to put it on. In order to participate, one must be a resident of Oberammergau by birth. What is remarkable is that the entire population of the village is only 5,000, which means that every family is involved in the production while continuing its normal life. Yet, when we saw the young man playing the part of Jesus riding his bicycle down the main street of the village, it seemed almost blasphemous. 

The village is also famous for its woodcarvings and its painted houses. We bought a charming carved statue of the Blessed Mother Mary, which we still have (Photo on the left.) Every house has a religious painting on one wall. The paintings are beautiful as if done by a master painter. Combined with the overflowing flower baskets, the village is one of the most picturesque villages in Germany. 

Blessed Mother

The next day we set off for one of Bob's favorite places, a ski resort town in Saalbach, Austria. He had many fond memories of going there in his twenties with his skiing buddies and couldn't wait for me to see it. Again, thanks to the super highway system, we made it to the Hotel Saalbacher Hof in time for dinner. 

Hotel Saalbacher Hof Saalbach, Austria

The hotel offered a fun and entertaining meal which was highlighted by music and men in costume performing a dance called schuplattling. It is a type of Austrian folk dancing where the dancers stomp, clap and strike the soles of their shoes (Schuhe), thighs and knees with their hands held flat (platt). 

Schuheplatting performance

They picked Bob out from the crowd and tried to teach him how to do it. It was the funniest thing I had ever seen Bob do, especially since he had several beers with dinner, which helped to instill in him a false sense of confidence as a novice schuplattler. He gave it his best shot and the guys were all very nice to him. The crowd even gave him a round of applause for his efforts. After dinner and all the dancing, we made our way to the indoor spa and hot tub so Bob could rest his weary bones and get ready for trekking into the mountains the next day.

The town of Saalbach sits in the shadow of the Gross Glochner, the highest mountain in Austria and the highest in the Alps east of the Brenner Pass. Like most ski resort towns, the ski lift runs all year long, taking people up into the mountains with well marked walking trails leading down. We were not really prepared for hiking in the mountains and didn't have the proper gear, but we went anyway. 

Gross Glochner

Looking back on it, we must have looked quite out of place, with Pat in her chic French pantsuit and Bob wearing his favorite shirt and trousers. Making our way down the mountain, we were frequently winded and out of breath, taking frequent rests at many of the benches along the way. Perhaps the most vivid memory was watching all the senior citizens in their lederhosen, passing us by, like cars in the fast lane speeding past the slower cars. They were obviously in better physical condition than us. At that time, Pat was 30 and Bob was 43 and we certainly couldn't keep up with those spry people in their 70's and 80's.

Hotel Londra Palace

After spending two nights in Saalbach, we drove over the Alps and down onto the plains of northern Italy. We arrived in Venice at the Hotel Londra at 4:00pm, exactly as planned. We set out immediately to inspect the famous old city, travelling its canals being serenaded by singing gondoliers. 

Walking in St Marks Square, we admired The Doge's Palace and quenched our thirst in Harry's Bar. Yet we hated Venice. Grand as its buildings undoubtedly were, the place was crowded with too many tourists and very overpriced. Even the water in the canals looked dirty; not very romantic at all and certainly no place to spend one's honeymoon. Our solution to the problem was quickly to leave Venice and to drive all the way across northern Italy from east to west, finally arriving at the little Italian frontier town of Ventimiglia on the French border. 

Trailer for the film "The Day of the Jackal"

The town looked familiar because Bob had seen it depicted in "The Day of the Jackal", a recently released film based on the novel of the same name by Frederick Forsyth, one of Bob's favorite authors. It was the border point through which the Jackal smuggled into France the weapon with which he intended to assassinate President De Gaulle. Unarmed as we were, we passed smoothly through the border point and into France. We were finally on La Cote d'Azur.

We never planned to visit La Cote d'Azur during our honeymoon, as our original plan was to spend at least 5 days in Venice, Italy. The picturesque French coast is little more than 125 miles in length. It's beautiful and offers magnificent beaches, a deep blue sea, and plenty of sun. Many of the rich and famous already live there or visit frequently. 

Located in the southeastern corner of France, it's known by the locals as La Cote d'Azur, in recognition of the azure color of the adjacent Mediterranean Sea. The English call it either the French Riviera or simply the South of France. It was always included in the Grand Tour of Europe, undertaken by every young English aristocrat in the 19th century. 

Beginning at the French/Italian border, we drove westward into France, along fine boulevards with the sea on our left and some of the world's finest hotels and restaurants on the right. Drivers should guard against the distraction provided by the spectacle of many topless lady windsurfers and water skiers bobbing about on the water.

Carlton Hotel in Cannes

During the rest of our honeymoon, we based ourselves at the Carlton Hotel in the town of Cannes, world famous because of its annual film festival. The hotel faces the sea and guests can simply walk across a boulevard to access its private beach and be served magnificent food and drinks all day by  well groomed waiters.  Many years later, in 2013, the Carlton was the scene of the world's largest jewel heist. The lone robber, who was never caught, escaped with jewels worth $136 million.  

We hired a boat with a driver to take Pat water skiing. However, it had been 17 years since she last skied and she had difficulty getting up on the skis. Once that was finally accomplished, the driver of the boat kept shouting at her to "bend zee knees". Needless to say, the next day Pat was sore all over from her exertions but she had a great time skiing in the Mediterranean. 

Mixed flowers in the field in Grasse

Up in the hills, only ten miles behind Cannes, lies the town of Grasse, known as the center of the French perfume industry. As we drove through the hills with our car windows down, the scent of an immense variety of fragrances permeated the air from the many locally grown flowers. It was a truly remarkable experience.

Comte de Grasse
This area also produced the legendary Comte de Grasse. He was the French admiral who greatly aided George Washington in his victory over the British at Yorktown in 1781, which ended the American Revolutionary War. You can read more about this on our website under the title "Cape Henry, Virginia - The Battle of the Capes".

St. Tropez
Although Cannes was our base, there were many other places for us to visit on La Cote d'Azur, which ends in the west near the fishing village of St Tropez, hometown of Brigitte Bardot. 

Brigitte Bardot

In the 1950s, Bardot starred in a series of films which made her an international superstar. St Tropez used the publicity to promote the area, turning it into a fashionable tourist resort. Bardot has lived her whole life in St Tropez and is now in her mid-eighties. Meanwhile, St Tropez, in 2017, showed its gratitude by erecting a statue of her in front of the cinema. 

Brigitte Bardot bronze statue

Of all the other places we visited on La Cote d'Azur, by far the largest was the city of Nice.  Conspicuous on its seafront is the luxurious Hotel Negresco, whose great chandelier was originally intended for the Czar of Russia. Alas the Czar came to a sticky end in the 1917 Russian revolution and he was unable to take delivery of his chandelier, which has therefore spent the last century hanging in the Negresco. The famous hotel was also featured in the movie The Day of the Jackal.

Hotel Negresco in Nice

Czar of Russia Chandelier in Hotel Negresco

La Cote d'Azur is home to another country as well as France. Apart from the Vatican, it's the smallest country in the world with less than one square mile of land area and only a couple of miles of coastline. It lies between Cannes and the Italian border and is the Principality of Monaco, the capital of which is the town of Monte Carlo. 

Grimaldi Royal Palace in Monaco

The Royal palace of Monaco, perched high on a rocky promontory, began life as a fortress in 1191 to combat piracy. Granted the land by German Emperor Frederick I, Monaco has been ruled by the Grimaldi family since 1297. They were one of the aristocratic families of Genoa who were originally traders and suppliers of money, ships and soldiers to many European monarchies.   

Over the centuries, the Grimaldis have fought several wars to keep their land and sovereignty. In 1793, on the heals of the French Revolution, the Grimaldi royal family was driven from their home and the palace fell into disrepair, at one time being designated as a Poorhouse. 

In May of 1814, under the protection of France, the Grimaldi royal family once again ruled Monaco. Renowned as collectors of all things beautiful, which included 700 works of art by Old Masters such as Raphael, Titian, Michelangelo and others, they continued their centuries old tradition to fill the palace walls and galleries with all things beautiful. 

Monte Carlo Casino

In 1854, a plan was hatched to generate income and save the royal family from bankruptcy. Princess Caroline, the brilliant business-minded spouse of Prince Florestan, came up with the idea of creating a casino and turning the area into a highly desirable destination for the wealthy elites of Europe to spend their money. Under Princess Caroline's direction, the Monte Carlo Casino was created. Original investors included the Bishop of Monaco and the future Pope Leo XIII. With the Church's money and blessing, Monaco became the glamourous destination of the rich and famous. 

In the 1890s, a song very popular in London music halls (vaudeville theaters) was "The man who broke the Bank at Monte Carlo." The song was inspired by the success of a British gambler who won too much money at this casino. A film of the same name, which depicted the story of how he did it, was released in the 1930s. 

We did not enter the casino and try to emulate the formidable gambler. Instead, we dined in a restaurant atop a building that overlooked the harbor, with a bird's eye view of all the pricey yachts moored there. As we strolled along the harbor, we spotted a US Navy ship, the USS Discovery. It was a public relations type of vessel used to promote goodwill for the USA around the world. At the time, Pat was on active duty in the US Navy, and we stopped to see the ship. Sadly, it was getting late we didn't get to go onboard, but it was fun to see the ship up close and to chat briefly with some of the crew. 

In 1956, Prince Rainier III married the stunning American actress Grace Kelly. The fairytale wedding drew thousands of tourists to the tiny principality. Tourism is still a mainstay of the economy. Sadly, Princess Grace died in a road accident in September 1982 while being driven in a car by her daughter Stephanie. Prince Rainier III was still head of state at the time of our visit. He died in 2005 and was succeeded by his son, Albert II.

For most of his life, the great author Somerset Maugham lived on La Cote d'Azur. He called Monte Carlo "a sunny place for shady people". That's because so many of its very wealthy residents are there simply to avoid taxes in their own countries. There is no income tax in Monaco and low business taxes.

We arrived on La Cote d'Azur by accident and have never returned. Yet the memorable part that it played on our honeymoon is something that we have remembered all our lives.   

On our final leg of our trip, we drove to Paris from Cannes. Before we were married, we did a 9-week Novena of the Miraculous Medal. We each prayed for a specific miracle and both were granted by the time we got back home. 

Miraculous Medal

The Miraculous Medal is a fascinating story about a young French girl named Catherine Laboure. She became a nun and lived in a convent in Paris, where she experienced several apparitions of the Blessed Mother Mary. The young nun was told to get the Miraculous Medal made and gave specific instructions about how it should look. This is where the novena was created. 

Catherine Laboure's body in glass case

Catherine Laboure's body is lying in a glass coffin in the front of the chapel. Her body has never decomposed and lies "uncorrupted" and on display.

Click on video link below showing the Chapelle de la rue du bac.

Our goal was to go to mass at the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal (see video above) and to give thanks for our many blessings and the miracles granted to us. Before leaving our hotel, Pat had a premonition that they would lose the camera and not to take it. Bob insisted on taking it along. The camera was in a plastic bag with all the rolls of film from their entire 3-week honeymoon. Bob carried the bag and put it in the back window area behind the seats in the cab. They got out of the cab at the chapel and watched the cab pull away with the camera bag in the back window. It was lost forever and never recovered. We often wondered if someone ever found it and developed the film. At least we still have our memories of the best honeymoon ever!

Statues of Liberty

As a tribute to the French people in light of the terrorist attack in Paris on November 13th, 2015, we are re-posting the two pieces Bob wrote about our trips to Paris. Click here to read Bob's second post entitled, Trust in the Power of Prayer.

Statue of Liberty on Island of Swans in Paris France

Pat and I were travelling by boat through the middle of Paris along the River Seine in 1982. As our boat approached a bridge called Pont de Grenelle, a familiar figure came into view. We knew that woman well, even though we had never met her before. She stood on Ile aux Cygnes (Island of Swans), a man made island in mid river adjacent to the bridge. She is a bronze replica of the Statue of Liberty, which stands in New York Harbor. This lady in Paris is much smaller than the American original, given by France to the United States in 1880 to mark the centenary of US independence. She was given to France a few years later by Americans living in Paris in appreciation of France’s larger gift. Who is the lady in both statues? Apparently, she’s something of a mixture. The sculptor, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi (1834 – 1904), is said to have used the face of his mother and the body of his wife. He clearly was fearful of omitting either mother or wife from his creation. Until 1937, the smaller statue faced east. This avoided her offending the locals by turning her back on the President of France in the Elysee Palace. Yet she should really have been facing west and looking towards the new world. This she has been allowed to do for the past 75 years.

Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island - 2 minute HD tour

We did not meet the American original until another boat trip, which Pat and I were taking around New York Harbor in the summer of 2011. The lady there is made of copper and is 151 feet tall, if one measures to the top of the torch that she holds aloft in her right hand. She stands on a pedestal on what is now called Liberty Island and the top of that torch is over 300 feet above the waters in the harbor. She dwarfs the little lady that we met in Paris in 1982.

Our ferry circled Liberty Island letting us view the large lady from every angle. The ferry had sailed out of a terminal in Battery Park, which is on the very southern tip of Manhattan Island. It also sailed around a famous adjacent island – Ellis Island. Although we approached these islands from New York, whose pride in these matters extends even to displaying an image of the statue on its auto license plates, these islands are not even located in New York. They are located in the adjoining state of New Jersey, even though New York has sometimes disputed this. However, there’s not much doubt about the issue. The border between the two states runs down the middle of the Hudson River and the islands are clearly closer to the New Jersey shore.

Statue of Liberty faces burning World Trade Center on 9/11

Viewing the American original aroused in us all kinds of emotions that were absent during our peaceful cruise along the Seine nearly thirty years earlier. We gazed towards the solid phalanx of skyscrapers, rising behind the Battery Park terminal on the New York side of the river, as we reflected on how that vista was dramatically changed by the attacks on the twin towers of The World Trade Center on September 11 2001. We remembered the thousands of innocents who died on that day, sometimes sacrificing their own lives in circumstances of great bravery.

Ellis Island
We then turned and looked at Ellis Island, once the nation’s busiest immigrant inspection station. There’s a fine museum there now. Here began the American odyssey of millions of souls. Encouraged by the great statue on nearby Liberty Island, they entered the bare processing sheds on Ellis Island anxious not to be sent back across the ocean on health grounds or because of some other bureaucratic decision. Most carried their few possessions in one battered suitcase. Many did not speak English. The American dream for so many newcomers began on this tiny island. They went on from here to build the families and the careers that have helped to make the country great.

No immigrant to the United States (such as I) can fail to be moved by the story of Ellis Island, even if it was not one’s own point of entry. During the past year we have traveled widely, but Pat and I have based ourselves for part of that time on the border between Arizona and Mexico. We are therefore very much aware of the recent entry across that border of many millions of illegal Mexican immigrants. We understand the harm to society that arises from illegal entry on such a scale. What follows is in no way an attempt to excuse those who break into someone else’s country. Yet these Mexicans face huge dangers when attempting to cross the deserts and mountains at this point of entry. Many have died in the attempt. Entry through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954 may have been tough. Yet many would surely prefer an opportunity today to enter there, under the benevolent eye of that famous statue, instead of the possibility of death in the desert.

This story, written by Bob, was originally posted on our website March 6, 2012.

Paris France - Trust in the Power of Prayer

In 1980, when Pat and I entered a building in a back street near the center of Paris, we saw the corpse at once. Displayed in an illuminated glass coffin was the body of an elderly lady dressed in the black robes of a French nun. The body had not deteriorated in any way. Indeed, she was so lifelike that she could have been in the middle of a peaceful sleep. The building that we had entered was the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, which is located at 140 Rue du Bac in Paris, France.

Uncorrupted body of Catherine Laboure in glass coffin

In life, this elderly lady had been Catherine Laboure, who was born in the Burgundy region of France in 1806 and who died and was buried in 1876.  Many years later, the Roman Catholic Church was considering conferring sainthood upon her and, in 1933 in relation to that, her body was exhumed.  It was found to be what the Church calls “incorrupt”. In other words, the body was and still is in exactly the same state as at the time of death, despite the fact that no preservatives of any kind had been used. This was the body that we were looking at over a century after her death. The Church considers this to be a miracle. In 1947, it canonized her, not just because of the condition of her body but because of the events in her life that we describe below, and she is now Saint Catherine Laboure.

At the time, Pat and I had needs in our own lives that called for a couple of miracles. We were living in the Marylebone area of London and visited a local church on nine occasions to pray for these miracles to be granted to us. We were undertaking what is known in the Church as a “novena” and selected the Novena of the Miraculous Medal (see below), which brings us back to Saint Catherine Laboure. Her story is that, as a young woman, she became a member of a nursing order founded by St.Vincent de Paul. She was devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, particularly after the death of her own mother.  On a number of occasions in 1830, when she was 24 years of age, she believes that she was visited by the Blessed Virgin Mary who showed her certain images. Mary told her to take details of these images to her father confessor and to ask him to create medallions containing them. Mary then told her that all who wear the medallion will “receive great graces”.

Miraculous Medal front and back
The father confessor referred the situation to the church hierarchy. Within a few years, after due investigation of Catherine and her story, a Miraculous Medal containing those images was created by the Church and distributed. This was done without any mention of Catherine. Indeed it was not until after her death many years later that her part in the creation of the Miraculous Medal became known. Catherine lived out the rest of her seventy year life as an ordinary nursing sister, humble and well liked, with her peers unaware that they were in the presence of a saint.

Click on player below to see a video of the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal.

While Pat and I were undertaking our novena, we both wore the Miraculous Medal. Then, to give our nine prayer sessions a special emphasis, we visited the little chapel at 140 Rue du Bac and prayed again in front of Saint Catherine Laboure. Shortly afterwards, our prayers were answered and our miracles arrived. Precisely what we asked for is not relevant to this story. Suffice it is to say that what we were asking for certainly needed miracles. Our medallions were not some kind of good luck charm. Instead, they are a testimony to faith and to the power of trusting prayer.

I recall that, many years ago, my dear mother prayed as hard as any human being could for something that she particularly wanted. She was truly a most deserving person. Yet her prayers went unanswered, for the simple reason that she did not believe that they would be answered. So the moral of this story is to trust in the power of prayer !!!

This piece, written by Bob, originally appeared on our website on June 9, 2010.

A Novena is a series of prayers repeated 9 times. Each day for 9 consecutive days or, if you prefer on a specific day each week for 9 weeks, or once an hour for 9 hours. The prayers below were copied directly from the Novena of the Miraculous Medal prayer book.

Novena of the Miraculous Medal

Begin with the Sign of the Cross...

In the name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.


Come, O Holy Spirit,
fill the hearts of Your faithful,
and kindle in them the fire of Your love.
Send forth Your Spirit,
and they shall be created.
And You shall renew the face of the earth.

O God, who did instruct the hearts
of the faithful by the light of the Holy Spirit,
grant us in the same Spirit
to be truly wise
and ever to rejoice in His consolation,
through Jesus Christ Our Lord.


O Mary, conceived without sin,
pray for us who have recourse to you.

O Mary, conceived without sin,
pray for us who have recourse to you.

O Mary, conceived without sin,
pray for us who have recourse to you.

O Lord Jesus Christ,
who has vouchsafed to glorify
by numberless miracles the Blessed Virgin Mary,
immaculate from the first moment of her conception,
grant that all who
devoutly implore her protection on earth,
may eternally enjoy Your presence in heaven,
who, with the Father and Holy Spirit,
live and reign, God,
for ever and ever.


O Lord Jesus Christ,
who for the accomplishment of Your greatest works,
have chosen the weak things of the world,
that no flesh may glory in Your sight;
and who for a better
and more widely diffused belief
in the Immaculate Conception of Your Mother,
have wished that the Miraculous Medal
be manifested to Saint Catherine Labouré,
grant, we beseech You,
that filled with like humility,
we may glorify this mystery by word and work.



Remember, O most compassionate Virgin Mary,
that never was it known
that anyone who fled to your protection,
implored your assistance,
or sought your intercession was left unaided.
Inspired with this confidence,
we fly unto you,
O Virgin of Virgins, our Mother;
to you we come;
before you we kneel sinful and sorrowful.
O Mother of the Word Incarnate,
despise not our petitions,
but in your clemency hear and answer them.


Novena Prayer

O Immaculate Virgin Mary, 
Mother of Our Lord Jesus and our Mother, 
penetrated with the most lively confidence 
in your all-powerful and never-failing intercession, 
manifested so often through the Miraculous Medal, 
we your loving and trustful children 
implore you to obtain for us the graces 
and favors we ask during this novena, 
if they be beneficial to our immortal souls,
and the souls for whom we pray.

(State your intention here...)

You know, O Mary, 
how often our souls have been 
the sanctuaries of your Son who hates iniquity. 
Obtain for us then a deep hatred of sin 
and that purity of heart which will attach us to God alone 
so that our every thought, word and deed 
may tend to His greater glory.
Obtain for us also a spirit of prayer and self-denial 
that we may recover by penance 
what we have lost by sin 
and at length attain to that blessed abode 
where you are the Queen of angels and of men.


An Act of Consecration to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal

O Virgin Mother of God,
Mary Immaculate,
we dedicate and consecrate ourselves to you
under the title of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal.
May this Medal be for each one of us
a sure sign of your affection for us
and a constant reminder of our duties toward you.
Ever while wearing it,
may we be blessed by your loving protection
and preserved in the grace of your Son.
O most powerful Virgin,
Mother of our Saviour,
keep us close to you every moment of our lives.
Obtain for us, your children,
the grace of a happy death;
so that, in union with you,
we may enjoy the bliss of heaven forever.


O Mary, conceived without sin,
pray for us who have recourse to you.

O Mary, conceived without sin,
pray for us who have recourse to you.

O Mary, conceived without sin,
pray for us who have recourse to you.

Burgundry France - Following The Sun

Burgundy wine region of France
Charles the Bold

Louis XI King of France
1477 started badly for Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. On January 5th of that year, he was defeated at the battle of Nancy.  In that battle, Charles was confronted by an army from Switzerland and Lorraine, funded by King Louis XI of France, the sworn enemy of Charles the Bold. The King also objected to a strong independent Burgundy on his eastern border. Three days later, the mutilated body of Charles was found on the battlefield.  His duchy of Burgundy was at once annexed by France, of which it has been a part ever since.

US Army WWII driving the Germans out of France
The opposite of boldness is shyness.  Perhaps, if Burgundy had instead been ruled by Charles the Shy, it might still be independent to this day like the smaller duchy of Luxembourg nearby. There was another famous battle of Nancy in September 1944, when the US Army drove the Germans out of the city during World War Two.

Click on player below to see a video of our time in Vezelay.

Pat and I visited Burgundy in September 2010. We are not oenologists – the fancy name for students of wine.  Indeed, when a waiter asks me to taste a wine before he fills the glass of everyone at the table, I always feel a bit of a fraud when tasting it and then solemnly tell him to proceed.

Nevertheless, we do know the names of the most famous of French wines. When driving through that part of eastern France which contains the region of Burgundy, it was therefore fun to encounter such familiar place names as Chablis, Macon, Beaune and Nuit St George, and so on. The region is also known for the variety of its cheeses and for the making of mustards, as the city of Dijon proves. But, its vineyards are its principal claim to fame.  It was the Romans who first figured out that the climate and soil of Burgundy were perfect for the growing of the best grapes. However, after the departure of the Romans, it was the monks who maintained the region’s tradition of wine making.  Burgundy is still full of their monasteries and abbeys.

Village of Vezelay

Vezelay’s steep narrow streets

Basilica of Mary Magdalene
We drove to the Basilica  of St Mary Magdalene at Vezelay, which is the oldest Romanesque church in France.  It is almost as tall as Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and was consecrated in the year 879 AD.  It is built on a hilltop and we could see the basilica from the distance, long before we arrived in the little town of Vezelay.  The town has been built around the basilica and the buildings of the town spill down the sides of the hill.  Therefore, to reach the basilica on the summit, one must climb up through narrow, steep and picturesque streets.

Mary Magdalene reliquary
Sculptures damaged by Huguenots
It is claimed that the tomb of St Mary Magdalene in the south of France was opened and that her remains were removed to this basilica. This claim was later disputed, but it was largely accepted in medieval times.  As a result, the basilica became a major destination for medieval pilgrimages and was the starting point for crusades.
The basilica later became a target for enemies of the Catholic Church. It was seriously damaged by the Huguenots, as French Protestants were known.  The Huguenots are these days regarded as victims and refugees, having been kicked out of France and having subsequently settled all over the world.  The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572 resulted in the murder of tens of thousands of unarmed Huguenots attending a wedding in Paris.  However damage to this basilica by Huguenots suggests that this massacre may not have been entirely unprovoked.

The years following the French Revolution in 1789 saw further damage to the basilica. The revolution was in many ways anti-catholic, since the mob was very suspicious of the wealth of the Church.  Coincidentally, Pat and I expect to be visiting the site of another saint’s day massacre in the next few weeks.  We are planning to visit her aunt in Chicago, which was the site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929. That was a trivial affair compared to 1572, since it involved the death of only seven gangsters. The alleged instigator of that little massacre, Al Capone, was conveniently absent in Florida at the time. If only Charles the Bold had been so prudent!

Sunflower fields
Van Gogh’s Sunflowers
My other memory of Burgundy is of many fields full of tall yellow sunflowers.  This flower is native to the Americas and has presumably been imported from there into France.  This must have happened long ago, since sunflowers are prominent in the works of the 19th century French painter, Vincent Van Gogh. There is an increasing demand today for sunflower oil to use in the frying of food, cosmetics, and as a preservative of fish.  Apparently it’s very healthy.  The fields that I saw must have been a commercial operation.

Let me spring another fancy word on you – heliotropism, which means a propensity to follow the sun. A sunflower starts the day looking east and finishes the day looking west. The French, Italian and Spanish words for this flower are far better than the English word “sunflower”, which tells you nothing. The words are “tournesol”, “girasole” and “girasol”, which all literally mean “turn to the sun”.  Surely English speakers could have done better – “sunfollowers” perhaps? This behavior by sunflowers may explain the mental problems of poor Van Gogh and his eventual suicide. There he was trying to paint sunflowers and they just wouldn’t stay still. What painter can cope with a twitchy model?

This piece, written by Bob, was originally posted on our website on September 18, 2010.