Herzeele and Gueudecourt

If, like me, you love the nostalgic sound of mechanical pipe organs read on.  Not all that long ago I had discussed my projected itinerary through Belgium to a Parisian friend and wondered what I might  look for on my way back through Northern France, a part of the country not too often mentioned in tourism brochures.  ‘La Flandre française’, as I recalled from geography lessons as a boy was known for coal mining along with industrial development and ‘grey’ seemed the colour best associated with it.  To my knowledge there was nothing scenic worthy of note to be seen.  Still one has to drive through on the way back and I thought the fastest way south via the Autoroute du Nord the preferable choice. Knowing my propensity for nostalgia, he suggested a side trip promising it would be well worth the detour.  Go see ‘The café des Orgues’.  Where? Herzeele.  What? Never heard of that place. Just across the border and not to worry he assures me it’s one of those marvellous places that’s under the radar and better for that fact.  Now I’m curious and he tells me about it, rather smug with the knowledge he had a real winner to pass on.  As it turned out he was quite correct in the assumption I’d enjoy the sights and sounds to be found in the remote Café des Orgues.  In fact , let me be perfectly candid,  I was delighted, no, I was tickled pink, loved every moment.  

P1070697

P1040569

The café is frequented by a faitful local clientele, friends and neighbours from several nearby farming communities gather Sunday afternoons for a drink, a fine choice of beers in particular and to indulge a love of dancing.  The ambiance harkened back to when dancing was a popular pastime and let me tell you each and every one of these friendly people were excellent dancers.  Crackling with energy and good feelings the large room at the back holds up to three hundred avid dancers with a range of ages spanning 6 decades or more.  It brought me back to an era in my own life when I showed off nimble feet on the dance floor, an ability I learned soon was appreciated by the fair sex.  I owed this not small edge in the noble pursuit of skirt-chasing to my mother’s insistence that I should learn how to dance properly; she was Polish and of course showing off a good waltz and Polka was de rigueur and subsequently all the old standards, the fox-trot, rumba, tango, followed by my own discovery  of the fun of the cha-cha, jive and even the twist.  Unfortunately in present days ballroom dancing is basically moribund with the exception of a few die-hards found here and there as in Herzeele. 

P1040566

So what are you going to find in Herzeele, or more to the point at the Café des Orgues?  Théophile Mortier was an organ manufacturer who until 1944 created  dance organs along with required orchestrations.  Owned and amiably run by     the family Ameloot it’s an amazing fact that in a modest town of some 1200 inhabitants you’ll find three magnificent, perfectly preserved and functional mechanical organs, rare curiosities and in my opinion splendid mementos of past glories.  I’m a sucker for sentimentality of almost any shade or hue and this ranks right up with any of my favourite golden oldies. 

P1040517_2

These magnificent musical machines were manufactured by the TH Mortier Anvers company in Belgium; intricate mechanism hidden behind ornately decorated exteriors  replicate the sounds of a 25 musical instrument orchestra.  All three are fully functional and powered by air bellows crank out a great sound.  The oldest dates to 1912 followed by 1926 both in rococo style and the 1939 baby with a more muted Art deco facade.  Here’s a good idea, go to YouTube and type in Herzeele Pipe Organs and presto, you’ll discover the sound and feel of the place.

P1040520

P1070690To the left of the photo, without a partner, unperturbed she dances with her shadow.  Always gallant (I hope), I awaited for her to come by my table so I could partner her but the music ended just a beat too soon and off she went to rejoin her friends.  

P1040550

That lovely lady asked me to dance – how nice. Later I realized the locals made sure those they realized were new to the place would initiate the invitation to dance.  I was happy to oblige since it was a lively fox-trot and I remembered how – dancing I guess is like riding a bike, the feet never forget.  

P1070694

Then she showed me the back room and the fellow in charge of changing the music explained how cleverly it all worked.  There are only about 200 such organs still existing and here there were not one as elsewhere but three!  Indeed, I should have discovered more of how this happy happenstance came about but the owner was absent just then and time was growing short.  I’ll have to return to find out, and I plan on doing so for sure.  

P1040564He was proud to inform there were over five hundred dance pieces dating to back when, a priceless collection no doubt.   These cardboard accordions perforated with holes are fed through a mechanism that determines the notes to be played – come to think of it an early form of computer. 

P1040565

Before leaving Herzeele, although initially not  on my radar scope another fortuitous discovery when I came across a vaguely familiar name on my Michelin map – Vimy Ridge site of a famed Canadian victory during WWI.   In the distance the iconic memorial to the bravery of Canadian soldiers who won a pivotal battle at a bitter cost in blood.

P1040572Any Canadian student of my generation will recall memorizing the heartbreaking poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ by Lt. Col. John A. Macrae  and sure enough a field of poppies in full bloom made this day ever more evocative and frankly tugged a touch at my heartstrings.   I’ll risk breaking copyrights if such still apply and include the poem for you to appreciate its poignancy.  McCrae himself a few months after penning the powerful sentiments would give up his life and is buried in a not too distant Canadian military cemetery.  

P1040450

‘In Flanders Fields’
adfaldkjfalsdkjfadf
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
Scarcely heard amid the guns below.
asdlkjfa;lkdjfa;ldkjfadf
We are the dead.  Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunsets glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
in Flanders fields.
asdfal;djfasdfadf
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. 

P1040453

And then, driving along a regional road heading south I spot a modest plaque with an arrow indicating a memorial to the memory of the brave Newfoundlanders who shed blood and guts in a bold attack on a well-entranched German position.  I’d never heard of it but out of a vague sense of duty I turned off and went looking.

P1040589

Not more than a couple of kilometres along a rural road through peaceful farmland  there it was, just a small copse, a tiny bit of hallowed battlefield land and under a canopy of pine trees the wind whistled through the branches just enough to be heard, making a singular impression on my imagination.  Was I hearing voices?  I glanced up and there it was, a fine bronze caribou stag erected by the Newfoundland Government stands in a small battlefield park on a low rise. It marks the spot where, in October 1916, the Newfoundlanders (not yet part of Canada) played a decisive role in the capture of a German strong-point named Rainbow Trench.   

P1040588

P1040602

Beyond the lush green field the church spire of the farming village of Gueudecourt.  I drove there and spotted an older gent in a farm courtyard.  I asked what he knew about the memorial.  He looked up at me, “Vous êtes Canadien? My father spoke of how brave your soldiers were, unforgetable.  Our farm, right here was burned down but we’ve rebuilt and just like before it will last another hundred years or maybe two.”  I wished a long life to both.  

P1040599

I’ve often remarked the best part of travel is of course the scenery and discovery of culture and sites of historic importance.  However, what I remember best are the numerous really fine people with whom I exchanged perhaps not more than a few minutes of conversation.  Around the world I’ve had that experience and that what makes travel really satisfying, the discovery that indeed notwithstanding the constant bombardment of news depicting more examples of mankind’s folly and murderous rampages, for the most part given an opportunity to be kind that’s who you’ll meet from Japan to Portugal to Germany, by way of Singapore, Holland, Croatia and back through France.  

Here’s a case in point in the form of a thank you note to the comely, smiling Gendarme in the van below.  

P1040616

I was on my way to a hotel to spend my last night in France.  It was not unknown, in fact a well-known middle of the road chain (3*) apparently just about 20 minutes from Charles de Gaulle airport.   I was driving in from the north and in spite of checking the map time and again after I drove aimelessly for more than an hour then found myself back at the starting point off the main highway; I was more than just a little frazzled.   I pride myself on being good at finding my way, no matter where, and if I have a map too, well how can I miss?  But I kept wandering around in this area of hotels, warehouses  and semi-suburban area north of the airport.  Finally, I spotted a local Gendarmerie office and checking my pride in my hip pocket  I walked in and asked the policeman at the desk if he could direct me to my hotel.  There was a detailed wall map right there and he said, sure no problem, here let me point the way.   Oddly he soon lost his positive assurance, hmmm… well, now… hmmm…. here’s where your hotel is but how to get there? At that moment a young woman in uniform walks in.  He poses the question to her – do you know the hotel? Sure, it’s … blah blah … how do you get there from here?  Well, you go this way … no, wait… you should …  hmmm… come to think of it I’m not totally sure.  

I’m listening to this and wondering what the hey? But on the other hand somewhat relieved my pride isn’t all that much out of whack, if local cops can’t figure it out, why should I feel insecure about my inner directional radar?  After about five minutes of thinking it over she pipes up, “I know.  I don’t know how to explain but follow me and I’ll find it for you. It will be much simpler.”  Off we went and I was rather surprised it took at least 20 minutes to get there and sure enough the twists and turns we took would have made my finding it on my own a matter of luck and not due to good map reading.  And that’s how I found my hotel following my charming Gendarme.  

P1040615

I only wish I’d have been clever enough to get her name so I could send a note of appreciation once back in Canada, however, just in case, “Un grand et sincère merci du Canada.”  

And here’s to you until we meet in Belgium where the beer is really fine and (sacrilège) the french fries are more tasty than in France.   A bientôt!

P1070575

Bastogne and Waterloo

Some years ago I was heading for Amsterdam, that was the supposed plan but in my travels nothing is ever set in concrete – my journey started at scenic Aix-les-Bains, in the French Alps.  I’d been late getting started, exchanging long goodbyes with Danielle, my ‘cousine’, who while packing a gourmet lunch kept reminding me of this anecdote or that family event.  She’d been my childhood playmate and admittedly there was always something that would crop up, “Hey, Jeannôt do you remember … ???” It was pleasant reminiscing and yet I’m not much on farewells (they tend to depress me) so that I was trying to make my get-away without being overtly brusque.  Finally, some two hours late I was free to go and happily looking forward to the drive through unfamiliar territory.  The night before I’d looked over a good Michelin map (the very best in my opinion) of Western Europe and although a little over 1000 kliks I wasn’t daunted as in the past I’ve done that and even more in one day’s driving.  As well, I had decided, more or less, on a route that would take me through the rugged Ardennes Forest, a first for me, hence to Luxembourg.  Amsterdam was obviously now  out of the question.

Driving in Europe is a joy; the landscape at the very least scenic, often spectacular and its hard to avoid yet another historic site, a famous castle, a pivotal battlefield and such was the case when I pulled over to one of the convenient rest areas frequent along European roads (take note Canada!). Munching on a tasty ‘terrine de canard‘ sandwich, the roadmap spread out on the picnic table somewhere in the Ardennes Forest my eyes widened as I noticed Bastogne located not far ahead along my way.

P1090494

Any history buff, especially of WWII, will recognize Bastogne as the scene of a surprise attack when Hitler ordered one final and desperate advance with a powerful mechanized force to slice through the advancing Allied army, cut it in two and recapture the strategic port city of  Antwerp in Belgium.  The 1944 winter siege of Bastogne produced the celebrated response, “Nuts!” from General McCaullife when handed an offer to surrender.  Looking over the written answer the German commandant not understanding the colloquialism asked for a clarification: the emissary who delivered the note deemed it more apt to translate ‘nuts’ as “Go to hell!”  That aside proves yet again there’s always somebody who think they are more eloquent whereas in my opinion ‘nuts’ was crackling terse and to the point. Without further ado off I went to Bastogne and discovered much more than expected; an interesting museum, impressive monument to American casualties and a neat small town very much aware of its past importance.  

Below, the author of the celebrated quote, General McCaullife; incidentally he was in command only because the Commanding Office, General Middleton for that area happened to be elsewhere at a conference.  Such happenstance often leads to unexpected results, in this case fortuitous for the Allies.  

P1090562

P1090479

P1090501

Baptized by Winston Churchill as the Battle of the Bulge, it turned out to be the most costly in lives of any single battle fought by American troops during the entire war.  The fierce fighting took place during the week of Christmas, starting on the 20th and ending on the 27th with the collapse of the German offensive when their Panzer units ran out of fuel.  The outcome was disastrous to the Wehrmacht who not only lost men in their thousands, killed, wounded or taken prisoner, but a massive loss of vital equipment.  The victory certainly contributed to shorten the war as henceforth the Allied troops encountered a much weaker opposition than otherwise would have been the case.  So much for Hitler’s military genius, he’d have been better off heeding the advice of his professional army planning staff.  The man in charge of crafting the battle plans Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt never believed in its chances of success and stayed well clear behind the lines.  Clever? Or a chicken shit? 

Von_Rundstedt

The impressive and I must say inspired star-shaped design of the huge monument is yet today yearly visited by thousands of American veterans who often bring family members along.   The pride evidenced is well-justified as it was a crucial victory achieved at a bloody cost of limb and life. 

SONY DSC

P1090492

I spent a considerable time wandering around taking it all in and imagining how it was back then, the snow blowing, explosions, screams, soldiers on either side scared to hell but relentlessly attacking or desperately defending. 

P1090491

P1090489

I’m confident one could make a case for studying the effect on a soldier’s state of mind depending on the uniform he wears.  No doubt if I didn’t know which side was on the right side of history I would have opted without a second thought for the cool almost theatrical German uniforms.  Come to think of it Hitler understood the value of propaganda, of massive show pieces such as the Nuremberg rallies, pump and circumstances, multitudes of flags, precision marching and smart uniforms.   If one is curious check out ‘Triumph of the Will’  (on YouTube) the impressive recording of the 1934 rally filmed by Leni Riefenstahl.  To this day she’s considered by many critics as the finest ever woman film director; notwithstanding the subject matter, high praise indeed. 

The museum was well designed with an interesting display of scenes replicating battle photos taken on the spot during the devastating event.  Lending depth-of-field, the background scenes were painted in, whereas the immediate foreground was recreated with authentic equipment, guns, military gear and life-like mannequins closely resembling the photos.  Well-lit the overall effect was realistic and informative.

P1090485

P1090482

In contrast American Gi Joe garb was less than awe-inspiring.  Below a five star general, Dwight Eisenhower who payed a visit after the battle was won.  The displays were rather imaginatively set-up. 

P1090483

P1090484

P1090488

In the meantime the terrified populace huddled in their basements and prayed for an end to the mayhem.  War is hell!  I can’t think of three words that are more appropriate to describe any situation other than ‘I love you’. Now lolling about in the shade of one of the tanks that saved their present home, I wonder how much these young people knew about the town’s historic past.

P1090493_2

French fries are certainly well known but they don’t compare to Belgian ‘patates frites et merguez’.  If I say so, believe me, I’ve sampled them in every corner of France but in Belgium, straight from the frier, drenched in mayonnaise along with spicy merguez sausages it’s a treat.  As I was trying to avoid dribbling all over my  map to see where to next, another name jumped out – Waterloo! Certainly I couldn’t resist having a look at that battlefield, a pivotal result that surely changed European history for ever.  Imagine had Napoleon won? Well,  let me try. Today most of Western Europe would have been unified for two centuries instead of now slowly integrating into the European Union and the rest of the world would have been altered beyond imagination.  For one there surely not have been two world wars, at least not with the same participants on either side.  However, the Little Emperor lost and that was that, still it’s interesting to speculate, right?

73.  Napoleon at Battle of Waterloo 6-21-09

So off I went to see what there was to see and again so much more than I had expected.  The field of battle was much larger than I had imagined but on thinking back at what I’d learned in history class, the opposing armies were massive, even by modern standards.   I have throughout Western Europe stood on ancient battle fields, from Hannibal’s encounter with Roman legions, through several major wars, and yet I am always struck by how peaceful the countryside becomes after farmers reclaim their land and lovingly bring it back to its rightful purpose of growing life-giving food.  

P1090505

P1090507

A fine museum displayed on a clever electronic board the day’s momentous ebbs and flows of battle and the resulting carnage.  I took the time and made the arduous climb up the man-made hill (there’s an oxymoron as every square inch of the huge mound was built by women carrying the earth on hods strapped to their backs,) to where the imposing lion roars a challenge towards France as a reminder of who won.  As I took each of the 229 steps up I  imagined the backbreaking labour but when were women not abused physically and economically?  The hill and monument were ordered by the King of the Netherlands to honour his son for bravery and sustaining a wound.  Sheesh, it wasn’t even fatal, imagine if he’s actually died on the field of battle? A hill twice as big and an entire pride of lions? 

P1090510

P1090508The battle as I was taught in a Canadian high school text-book was a brilliant victory by Wellington.  Years later I learned that in actual fact he was conceding defeat and surrounded by his personal guard was preparing to leave the field when the German Army under Gen. Blucher showed up at the crucial moment and swung the tide of battle against Napoleon, who was waiting for his own reserve army under Marshall Grouchy.  French history books make much of the fact Grouchy was a Royalist and who betrayed his people by refusing to join the battle.  Napoleon is famously quoted as repeating over and over, “Ou est Grouchy?”  I’ve a suspicion there must have been a few choice epithets included.  As I’ve been fortunate enough to read history books in both languages as adjudged from the perspective of winner and loser, I can safely say that almost always ‘revisionism’ rules the day.  Historians tend to have their own national bias, they are almost always subsidized and research grants accepted from by interested parties, inevitably, even in good faith, they wind up shading the unappetizing truth when such appears.  The probable best chance to get near the actual truth is to read accounts from a third and neutral party and still it would only be an approximate guess at how it really was on the ground at the time, there and then.

The modest monument to the German army is hidden in a copse, miles away and if you didn’t know what and where to look, it would be invisible.  See what I mean? 

P1090511

So there you have it.  I apologize for the poor quality of some, well if I’m going to be candid, most of the pics, but they were all taken with my digital camera from printed pics taken with my long serving Nikon.  Next time, I’ll provide much better visuals of Bruges and Ghent, I promise.  
Continue reading

‘The Boy, the Bicycle and the Bone-Setter’

The Boy, the Bicycle and the Bone-Setter by Jean-Michel Papirchuk

There are events in one’s life that linger and live on long after they took place and what I’m about to recount is one such happening when just a young lad growing up in France.  I remember it in vivid detail as if it were yesterday not decades ago.  There are those who actively try to forget or are even encouraged, by those who would be wise, to seek the easier path of erasing a happening, a circumstance that may have been nefarious, perhaps traumatic but I disagree.  In my opinion remembering only the good, the happy, and the felicitous would result in a life that lacked salt and pepper, sinew and bone, with only an insipid taste of what’s left, meatloaf instead of filet mignon.  How does one learn and grow except through adversity and somehow discovering the wherewithal to overcome and prosper?  Oh, the anecdote that follows is neither pivotal nor significant of itself but in time it became the object lesson to understand that even subjected to dismal circumstances pointing the finger of blame resulted in neither joy nor satisfaction.  Live fearlessly, don’t duck the unpleasant, deal with it with a stout heart and move on, that’s why good or bad, all memories should be welcomed; they are the sturdy character building blocks that nourish and fortify our personality.  While not avoiding my own contribution to what originally was painful in equal measure physical and emotional, fortunately I’ve since discovered much more to celebrate rather than to assign blame.

Lovely Nancy, Regal Reims

Leaving splendid Strasbourg and meandering westward towards lovely Nancy I came across a hilltop sight now common across Europe, modern windmill farms creating clean electricity.

These modern mechanical structures aren’t ugly by any means but they don’t come close to matching the nostalgic sight I came across in central Spain where several ancient windmills astride a ridge evoked Don Quixote’s menacing giants.  

energy-frozen-fish-wind-farms-turbines_18081_600x450

P1100314

P1100318

Early two or three story high windmills captured nature’s prolific (and free) winds to power man-made machinery for the general good of mankind.

P1030128

Clustered in exposed areas known for frequent winds, today’s behemoths can number several hundred with state-of-the-art design and materials, turbines are powered by blades ranging from 40 to 50 metres, and typically rise 50 to 80 metres above ground.  One such behemoth in Germany is actually 100 metres high, think of it as a 33 floor high building.

giant.turbine_slide1
giant-1.turbine_slide2
How beneficial to wildlife is a question much debated;  renewable less polluting ‘green’ power weighed against the uncounted tens of thousand of migrating birds yearly chopped down by gigantic spinning arms.   Yet there is hope avian denizens will learn to avoid the giant turbines.  It’s a recorded fact that decades ago migrating northern European songbirds that for millennia had flown a path above Italy, on their way to North African wintering grounds, in time learned to modify their inbred path and veered off to fly above the Adriatic.  Although a perilous journey when confronted by storms with no place to find  shelter, it was nonetheless safer to avoid the deadly gauntlet above land.  Hunting had become a passionate past-time and songbirds were not spared in the least.  The carnage was such that even the birds figured it out and made the course change needed to survive, not bad thinking for ‘bird brains’, you’ll agree.  A long aside to express the hope that today’s winged creatures will figure it out too and learn to avoid the perils inherent in flying through the gauntlet of wind farms. 
As I mentioned I had the good fortune to come across these several ancient windmills astride a hillside above the town of Consuegra, a smallish but historic town some 60 kilometres north of Toledo.  The  unmistakable silhouette on the wall was an immediate reminder of hapless Don Quixote who according to Miguel de Cervantes’ account, mistaking these same  windmills for threatening giants mounted a valiant charge that met with predictably appalling results, sad to say. A direct reference to that absurd event, you’ll surely remember,  is the wise admonition to refrain from ’tilting at windmills’.
P1090349
I might also reveal here I read the book still in my teens and was utterly saddened by the story but more than that I hated each and every episode when the benighted “Knight of the Sad Countenance’ was not only defeated but humiliated over and over again.  The only reason I kept on reading was to at last discover a victory, no matter how small, just one,  but alas, not even that was to be found.  I came to hate Cervantes as a cruel writer with not a drop of the milk of human kindness to be squeezed from his implacable Spanish heart.  Yes, of course, it’s been hailed as a monumental novel of great literary significance but search me if I know why.  Then as now I didn’t see any rational for piling on when the victim was already down and out, even in fiction.   
The windmills have been restored and grace the hillside with dignity.  In the background the remnants of an ancient citadel.  

P1090344

Next time you have the opportunity to do so, spare a day  for Nancy, a lovely city on the main east-west axis from Paris to the German border with a long and illustrious history, yet  it isn’t often a foreign tourist will make a point to visit and that’s simply too bad.   The sprawling, pedestrian square ‘Place Stanislas’ has a well-earned reputation as a splendid example of ‘flamboyant architecture’ and sure enough it burnishes bright in the sunshine.  Since 1983 it has been added to UNESCO’s prestigious list of World Heritage Sites along with adjoining ‘Place de la Carrière and Place d’Alliance’. 

P1070460

P1040332

The statue honours Stanislaw Leszczynski, former king of Poland; the city was a gift from his son-in-law, King Louis XV of France as a consolation prize for having lost his Polish crown.  The new Duke de Lorraine et de Bar spent the next twenty years of his life in Nancy and almost immediately embarked on a major urban renewal project and the ‘place’  became its center piece.  Place Stan as it’s called familiarly honors his memory has long been used for public assemblies, festivities and a favourite venue for meeting friends.  

P1070473

The child isn’t born who doesn’t love the up and down ride on a carousel pony: I’ll admit to being sorely tempted to join her but didn’t want to give way to my youthful impulse – maybe I should have, no, not maybe, I should have.

P1070452

Where better to enjoy a ‘quiche lorraine‘ than in the capital of Lorraine? The local beer was the perfect accompaniment.  There’s not a city or town in Europe that doesn’t offer a choice of great bistros with outdoor patios to relax and gawk at passers-by.  Feeling rested and energetic, I headed 250 kliks north-east towards Reims, via the autoroute a little over 2 hours drive, admittedly at slightly faster than posted speed limits.  

P1070465

The city of Reims for it’s part posseses a glorious past dating to Roman days, St. Joan of Arc and of course famed as the home of several distinguished ‘Maison de  Champagne’.    Notre-Dame de Reims, is classified a UNESCO World Heritage Site celebrating new architectural techniques in the 13th century coupled with the harmonious marriage of sculptural decoration with architecture.  Considered one of the masterpieces of Gothic art the former abbey still has its beautiful 9th-century nave, in which lie the remains of Archbishop St Rémi (440–533), who instituted the Holy Anointing of the kings of France.  The cathedral has withstood the desecration of rampaging mobs during the French Revolution with the  profane vandalism to statues and severe bomb damage during WWI that destroyed priceless stained glass windows.   Like the mythical Phoenix the cathedral rises anew and since my first sight as a very young lad to this day it remains my personal favourite of all buildings around the world. Lucky me, I have admired close-up the incomparable Taj Mahal in Agra, graceful Golden Temple in Kyoto, the inspired restructuring and adaptation of a splendid Moorish mosque to Christian  cathedral in Cordoba, the triumphant Piazza de Miraculo in Pisa, to name more would be superfluous – to my eyes all equal in celebrating man’s artistic genius when creating rather than destroying, and yet La Cathedral de Reims dedicated to the Virgin Mary is closest to my heart.    Obviously I’m not alone as it attracts one million visitors each year.  

P1020023

P1040356

P1040357

P1040464

Continue reading

Paris Icons

Elsewhere I’ve posted ‘Paris – Ville Lumière‘ and the interest it garnered has resulted in a pointed prod to produce another photographic essay that concentrates on iconic images of that splendid city. If you have good walking shoes, the time and the stamina, Paris offers a plethora of grand architectural and historic buildings, around almost every corner a charming, oft unexpected site, whether a flowered garden, a statue and fountain or a mouth-watering food stall in a neighborhood street ‘marché’ that caters to the fastidious eating habits of Parisians.  I will not offend by identifying the obvious, such as the Tour Eiffel or Notre Dame, however, now and then I’ll add a dash of spices, tidbits of interesting information perhaps useful to make your future foray to ‘La ville lumière‘ more  pleasurable.  Bon voyage!

P1020576

Astride ‘La Butte Montmartre’, fabled domain of the artistic and bohemian, the Basilique du Sacré Coeur keeps a watchful eye over its people.

P1050831
P1020431
P1020239
Allow me to offer a useful bit of advice to the future visitor.  The scenic photos of the Sacré Coeur  above are taken from the rooftop patio at the shopping mecca known collectively as Printemps and Les Gallery Lafayette.  There’s no entry fee and it offers the best photographic vista, 360 degree around, of what’s interesting to be seen in Paris, as in the photos.  Furthermore any woman is delighted by the eclectic and fine quality shopping and a man can easily find that gift he needs bring back home.  A winning combo by any standard.
P1020276
P1020291
P1050861
The Centre Pompidou (center) the foremost tourist magnet in all of Paris; when you consider what it comes ahead, Notre Dame and the Tour Eiffel, just to name two, it’s quite a compliment to its successful incorporation of several cultural venues.  The new city library and the largest museum of modern art in Europe are but two of the attractions in this ‘high-tech’  design that ‘turned modern architecture on its head’.
P1020380
P1020504
Place Georges Pompidou’ in front of the museum is particularly noted for eclectic and often novel entertainment, mimes, jugglers, bands, street performers; offered for a small donation, freely given I might add, relaxed crowds gawk and applaud on any given day.
P1020540
In colorful Mongolian garb a trio set up in front of Le Centre Pompidou to offer authentic ‘throat’ singing accompanied by fine musicianship on traditional instruments.  If you’ve not heard this complex and unique form of singing go to Youtube and type in ‘Mongolian throat singing’.  You’ll find several choices – amazing control.
P1020536
This clever fellow created humongous soap balloons – imagine back to the time when you’d have given up all your precious toys for that kind of magical power. Check out the rapt expressions on the children, and the not so young.
P1020527
P1020538_2
For a brief moment the young lady fancies her chances of capturing a bit of bubble magic – not quite as it soon burst.  During the twinkling of an eye though she was a child again and that’s  priceless.
 
P1020524_2
Paris is a shopper’s delight - Dior luxury goods and of course world renowned brand names in fashion.
P1020826
P1020825
On the Champs Elysées, luxurious outlets co-exists now with the mundane, such as McDonalds and Burger King.  No photos of them in my camera, needless to point out.
P1050627
P1050624
P1020151
P1050630
Paris offers the best and most varied  entertainment one can imagine.  At almost every street corner or ‘place‘ you’ll discover  talented artists plying their trade in return for a voluntary donation on your part.  Below, this woman plays a manual organ, hand-cranked with vigor while singing with verve traditional songs associated with the incomparable Edit Piaf.
The lissome accordionist is found on the Place du Tertre a stone’s throw from the Sacré Coeur; if you want to hear a fine rendition of the  theme from ‘Emilie’ and other golden oldies, check her out.
P1020395
A jazz band up for the week-end from the south of France served up an upbeat and fun performance in front, appropriately enough, of the Académie Nationale de Musique.
P1020938
City Hall and the ubiquitous carousel, a children’s delight seen everywhere in France.
L’Arc de Triomphe du  Carrousel’ looking from the nearby Louvre up the Champs-Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe at the top, both built to commemorate Napoleon’s victories.   The obelisk (also due to Napoleon’s military excursion to Egypt) is visible about half-way.  A splendid stroll by any standard that can be named, anywhere.
P1050729
P1020240
P1050681
From atop  the ‘Arc de Triomphe’ a comely visitor captures a souvenir photo looking down Les Champs Elysées; at the top end of the photo, the Louvres museum.  The Eiffel Tower shows up from almost any angle anywhere within the city.
P1050721
P1020206
Photo editing magic! What is she pointing her camera at?
P1020200
The Champs-Elysées and the slightly insane traffic below.  The one thing that a driver must never do is stop for whatever reason.  I’ve even witnessed minor bumper to bumper hits but I’ve never seen even a driver  stop to check for damage – it’s part of the game.
P1050687
The crazy traffic below, drivers navigating their way to one of the 12 avenues that make up the spokes of the Etoile.  My first time I was forced to go around twice before I mustered the courage to just head for my exit and miraculously managed to do so without a scratch.  Hence, every time I’m in Paris whether I need to or not I force myeelf to drive around just to get my driving brain adapted to the helter-skelter traffic, and okay, I now consider it fun especially if I have a neophyte along for the ride so I can show off my ‘cool’.
P1050700
Note no lanes or any kind of traffic pattern indication – you just make up your own driving path as you go.  Democracy or is it anarchy?  Somehow it works.
P1050698
From the top of the Arc de Triumphe - the ever present Tour Effeil and below a panoramic view of Paris.P1020198
P1020204
The Louvre and it’s iconic pyramid entrance, once an object of controversy now a proud symbol of architectural imagination melded with practicality.
P1050859
P1020468
P1050842
From the concourse outside a peek at ancient sculptures cleverly displayed.
P1020460
This young couple in the ‘Jardin des Tuileries’ somehow couldn’t find enough free room on a bench; they opted to share the same space, vertically.  Nice!
P1050851
Historic, splendid, iconic Notre Dame Cathedral.   I believe it’s impossible to take a poor photo from any angle.
P1020603
P1050935
P1020573
P1020580
P1050928
P1050929
La Conciergerie, a historic building that includes the remains of the oldest royal palace in Paris, dating to the beginning of the 14th Century.  Later displaced in favour of  the Louvre as the royal residence, it’s located on the historic and charming Ile de la Cité, the island in the middle of the River Seine just up from Notre Dame.  Today it houses the Prefecture de Paris police and various legal offices and trial courts.
On the Pont Neuf, a glittering bridge spanning the Seine leading to the Left Bank and in the background the Invalides, a fine military museum displaying memorabilia of past wars and especially Napoleon’s impressive tomb.
P1020789
P1020758
When I checked out this photo the results were rather surprising – first of all I couldn’t quite fathom other than the Obelisk in the Place de La Concorde what were the other two buildings.  ‘Mon grand ami‘ set me straight; the second building with the columns was the ‘Palais de Bourbon’ where the French Assembly meet and in the background the Invalides.  What had thrown me was the fact the Seine River flows just in front of the Palais but it’s not visible and I wouldn’t have guessed except he lives permanently in Paris.  Lucky fellow!
In front of the imposing Pantheon where the ‘great and noble’ of France are honored in final homage.  Of great interest it’s where Foulcault set his famous instrument, a pendulum that proved the existence of the earth’s rotation – check it out it’s still doing its thing without a hick-cup.  It’s impressive and for me at least, a hint to understanding our home planet’s incredibly precise ride though the cosmos.
The Palais du Luxembourg is the seat of the French Senate.  However, it is best know for  a 25-hectare formal garden populated by statues, ‘parterres’ of green lawns and stately treed aisles for leisure strolls.  There are large basins of water where children (of all ages) sail model sailboats; there’s also an apple and pear orchard and an excellent ‘théatre des marionettes’.  For those with a nostalgic bent (mea culpa) I recommend finding a Joe Dassin rendition of a splendid “Le Jardin du Luxembourg‘ and if you’re like me listen and allow yourself a heartfelt sigh.  He was the much loved troubadour of an entire generation of the young and the young at heart.  RIP Joe.P1020921
P1060099
P1020935
Methinks I’ll now listen to Joe reminding me of a time when life was simpler and notions of friendship and love weren’t looked upon as the domain of romantic, emotional fools.   That’s it for now mes amis.  Next time I’ll take you along to Nancy and Reims.   A bientôt

‘Le Football’ By John-Michael Papirchuk

The value of my life, I always claim, depends on the memories accumulated to this very moment, as I breathe and write these words.   Someone perhaps wiser will tell you to forget the past and live in the present, and I’ll not argue, if you happen to be young, really young.  ‘Le Football’ is a personal story that reminds me of a pivotal time in my life, the early years in Canada and how poignantly the lesson was forcibly learned that not a single soul ought ever  be uprooted from place of birth, no matter what, not for political reasons (even if compelling at the time) and most certainly not for economic considerations.  Indeed one can grow a reasonable facsimile of a banana tree in an indoor pot and even produce fruit, but they’ll be puny and lackluster in taste in comparison to the tropical tree. Parents have a moral obligation to nurture and raise their children on their own native soil, period.   A harsh judgment but one I stand by.

‘Le Football’ by Jean-Michel Papirchuk

La Kermesse à Ay-Champagne

La Kermesse à Ay-Champagne

Cloud Catcher

CLOUD  CATCHER

Recently I was rummaging through stacks of long forgotten bits of prose, poems and notes to myself, fodder for future stories.  Some material puzzled me; one in particular entitled Pica Luna.  Just a few terse hand-written lines to describe a young, brave, female Antarctic penguin and what event she was central in its happening.  I became all excited remembering what I considered a great idea with a pulsating plot and exciting dénouement.  Trouble soon reared its ugly head – for the life of me I couldn’t remember exactly what it was all about, no matter how hard I prodded my brain.  Damn, why didn’t I set down more copious notes? When I first had the idea it was so vividly clear I imagined a few lines would be sufficient to awaken my memory when time came to set it all down.  Unfortunately one thing led to another, two or three trips abroad, a markedly changed set of life circumstances and a dozen years later it resurfaces as an idea without flesh and blood, much like a ghostly appearance without earthly essence.  Never again will I be so prodigal with a good story in its early stages; henceforth I’d nurture the seed to harvest the good fruit.

Similarly I discovered an essay written by one of my former students.  Attractive and bright, she had a pronounced artistic bend and ultra-sensitivity that was almost palpable.  I was totally taken in by her tale, enraptured is not too strong a word and it became the genesis for one of my own ‘fairy tales’ that I would entitle ‘Little Lost Cloud’.  (Dear reader, you can find it elsewhere in this blog, under the general heading of Fables from the Moonlight Garden)

Once again reading her story over reawakened the enchantment and powerful emotions I’d felt the first time around.  With a very few judicious edits I offer it very much as it was offered to me.  Nami, it’s my way to express my gratitude for a short and sweet but memorable episode in my life.

Clouds – ‘God’s Breath’

If you know anything about me you’ll know I was born in the scenic Champagne area of France, more particularly in a small town appropriately named Ay-Champagne.   Elsewhere I’ve detailed the  wonderful youthful memories  I cling to and hold close to my heart so that when I had recently decided to post a new photographic essay based on my favourite ‘cloud’ photos, an ancient memory resurfaced and I’ll confess it ran shivers down my spine.  I had decided on a title: Clouds – ‘Heavenly Drifters’ and was quite satisfied as I lifted it from a poem I’d  penned long, long ago.  And yet, late at night, unable to sleep, I was musing about which photos I might use when of a sudden my father’s clear and distinct voice whispered , “God’s breath.”  I sat up straight.  Yes, of course, how could I have forgotten?

In a small, agricultural community it’s a common occurrence to see children visit their fathers working in the fields, or in our case in the hilly vineyards that provided the backdrop (and prosperity) to our town.   Often after school, if I wasn’t kicking a football (soccer for you American readers) around, I might take it in my head to go see what my father was up to and if perhaps he’d found something of interest for me. Indeed, numerous times during a break from back-breakingt toil he’d taken the trouble to forage for fruit in season, cherries, pears, wild plums, even the elusive quince after the first frost.  Very occasionally there might be a couple of delicious Chardonnay grapes but only if they were what we called ‘fumée’ that is the skin took on a smoky hue and you’d be lucky to find three such grapes in an entire vineyard.  Failing that he’d always kept a little bit of his lunch carefully wrapped in his knapsack.  I’d rummage through wondering what I might discover then  I’d eagerly wolf down that tidbit as if it came from a royal table.  Once he’d brought home  four orphan leverets,  another time it was a duckling with broken wing and numerous birds in particular a splendid, much  loved magpie.  (Elsewhere in this blog you might read ‘Mack the Magpie’.)

What today I consider a wonderful ‘tournure de phrase’ came about in the following manner.  As long as I could remember every night for a few minutes I’d lay down next to my father who always went to bed soon after the evening meal and after having listened to the latest news on the radio.  He regularly got up at five a.m. a not unusual  hour for anyone who works in the vineyards or for that matter elsewhere in the outdoors.  I’d get cozy under his arm, quietly lay there and wait for him to tell me a story.  He was a consummate story teller, using different voices and either recounting events from his own youth (in Galicia, then a part of Poland), some true to life others wildly imaginary or inventing a new, fanciful tale just for me.   Sometimes when he was out of ideas and that was unusual he’d say, “Today I’m a bit tired.  So you tell me about your day, how was school? Did you have fun with your friends?”  And I’d eagerly try to emulate him, trying to entertain him for a change.

One day when I’d dashed, skipped and hopped my way up to the vineyard where I knew my father would be found, a strange cloud formation drifted into view rising above the green forest that protected from harsh northerly winds the precious ‘vignoble d’Ay’.   They were smallish, round, white clouds drifting into view in what seemed a perfectly aligned row.  Ten or twelve and then nothing but blue sky.  “Oh, look Papa, look at these funny clouds, they look like smoke puffs from the train locomotive.”   Dad adjusted the beret on his head, looked up, squinted for a moment seemingly weighing his answer, then he set me straight, “No son, that’s God’s breath.”  Well, that was new to me and just a tad dubious I enquired, “How do you know that?”

He took the time to hug me first and then explained.  “You see, it’s quite obvious God was out for a jog and now He’s puffing and that’s the result.  These clouds are a result of His breath.”  Dad offered a mischievous smile, “Hmmm… He must be a bit out of shape to huff and puff like that.”

Needless to say I took it for God’s truth, after all this information came from my personal God and I was perhaps not more than five years old, a time when the word of an adult, a parent no less, was unquestioned.

As the days and years passed by even when I’d grown old enough and learned at school about the different types of cloud formations and what one might expect in the way of weather for the next few hours, I’d still ask my father how God might be feeling that particular day.  On a day when we were just about caught by a violent rainstorm we were hurrying down the hillsides trying to beat the impeding drenching home.  “What’s God up to?”  I called out as we were jogging down.

“Oh boy, somebody’s going to catch hell.  He’s really miffed at somebody or at something.  I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near Him right now.”  As a punctuation, just then a fiery bolt of lighting streaked across the sky and a thunder clap that seemed so close I gave out with a puppy yelp.  Dad squeezed my hand hard but now I suppose it was to put my mind off the ominous rumblings of more to come that he actually stopped and cupping my chin in his hand earnestly asked.  “Say, have you been a good boy lately? He’s not mad at you, is He?”

Oh, no, did that have to do with me filching a few apricots on my way up?  Acting like an innocent lamb I answered as forthrightly as I knew how, “Ah, non, Papa, I’ve been good and you know I serve the six o’clock mass every morning without fail and always on time.”

“Whew! That’s a relief as that last bit of fireworks had me a little worried.  Too close for my liking.  Let’s get home to your mother or she’ll be sick with worry, you know her.”

Allow me an aside here, for your information Dad didn’t approve of my early morning dedication to serving as an altar boy but here’s  the proof positive that no one is more Catholic than a Polish mother – my own mother thought it wonderful that her darling might actually sprout angel’s wings.  In all other aspects she was more fiercely protective than a mother hen but when it came to serving God, nothing was off limits including me getting up at the crack of dawn since I was apparently of all the boys I knew the only one willing to do so.  And that too proves there’s no such thing as an ‘unwilling’ victim.

Mind you in my day at St. Brice parish altar boys were paid for serving at mass.  There was a going rate for a low mass, high mass was more remunerative so were weddings  and the most sought out gig was a christening, on top of a generous tip by proud parents, and not to be outdone in generosity the God-mother and God-father added to the bonanza. and that wasn’t all,  there were scads of delicious sugar-coated almonds stuffed in cornets of pink if it was a girl or blue for a boy.  Once I hit the absolute jackpot of all times by serving seven consecutive christenings on the same day.  I was seven years old then and lorded it over my school pals by dolling out ‘dragées‘ for the next couple of weeks.  A maharajah couldn’t have been more regal or blasé about his munificence.  Rampant popularity waned and petered out as the supply ran dry.  An early lesson in the old ‘what have you done for me lately?’

Incidentally, funerals were the most miserable of all to serve, muted sobs, the occasional bone-chilling wail, then with a heavy cross held aloft leading a dreary long procession to the cemetery a good kilometre away.  The gloomy affair paid not much more than for a morning mass and the bereaved were almost always too overwrought to remember to tip the altar boy, the sacristan and bell ringer. Oy!

Of course I eventually learned that Nimbus were at times an awesome treat promising displays of pyrotechnics in lighting bolts and cacophonous thunder claps sure to scare the ‘beejees’ out of my mother (much to my delight).  There were the lofty, thin as a gossamer veil Cirrus clouds that Dad would delightedly ascribe to, “God is having a pleasant nap.   See He’s breathing nice and calm as can be.”

My father was as close to nature as a man could ever be; it was a quasi-religious devotion for he loved every moment spent outdoors, observing and doing his bit to ‘assist Mother Nature in her life giving work’.  No one to my knowledge could eke out more veggies and fruit trees from a backyard garden.  When he had a couple of acre garden on his sister’s farm the variety of tomatoes alone prompted my uncle to invite other farmers to see what he’d grown. He’s now up there among the clouds and speculating how God might be feeling on a particular day.

And so, since ever I can remember and ‘remembrance’ is now wearing the mantle of a  longish, epic journey, I was fascinated by clouds.  “Boy, get your head out of the clouds,” was an admonishment I heard often enough much to my annoyance.  However, it’s true even as a young lad I disliked boring. clear blue days, but enjoyed the passing clouds and always looking up imagine what a particular cloud might be the mirror image of that which it overflew.  Oh, this one has the odd shape of England and that one a perfect copy of the Italian boot – by Jove! It’s aiming a swift kick at England, the cheeky beggars.

Of course some cloud types were much better for such speculation, for example Strato Cumulus were more artistically inclined than the lofty, airy Cirrus;  I was so infatuated with clouds I even penned a couple of poems.  Since poetry is the ultimate in subjective writing I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to their quality and thus they may perhaps best remain in the realm of ‘anonymous’.   Not so long ago I wrote a pseudo fairy tale entitled ‘Little Lost Cloud’.  You can find it elsewhere on this blog.

Over the years I have collected photos of my favourite cloud formations as I traveled here, there and elsewhere.  Allow me to share my affection for our heavenly companions.  The photographs I offer span several decades and in the skies above different countries.  When I remember the exact location I’ll indicate otherwise it will be an approximation.  In a poem I describe clouds as ‘heavenly drifters, rootless and country-less’ and it shouldn’t really matter where they were captured for a brief moment.  Oh, by the way, isn’t that where our personal Guardian Angel rests after a hard day’s work?

On my way to Paris, clouds that I imagined were hugging close for warmth, somewhere above the  North Atlantic Ocean.

P1010617

I like this photo for the clouds and the weathered  stone tile roof, near Bû, an oddly named  small town in France.

What would otherwise be a mundane photo of a chateau’s manicured lawn takes on a dramatic overtone provided by dark,  threatening clouds.
P1010796

In the same neighborhood – the background makes one forget  the ‘frontman’.

P1010807

Three photos taken in Italy.  Now you know why the colour ‘sienna’ is named after the terra cotta tiles in evidence as far as the eye can see in the city of, you guessed it, Sienna.  The venerable Ponte Veccio in Florence as well the unmistakeable Leaning Tower of Pisa.   A leisurely tour of  Tuscany should figure prominently on your list of must-do and see if you’ve not yet done so.  It’s a joyful adventure in scenery, culture, food and wine.  Bravo, bravissimo!

P1080989

P1080983

P1080981

In the Piedmont on my way back to France via the Valle d’Aosta.   I pulled over and the wind blew to my ears the sound of bells from the distant flock, a memorable moment. 

P1000173

Idyllic Holland, where else?

Somewhere in Belgium, on my way to Ghent, if I’m not mistaken.  It occurs to me I should take notes when it’s not an obvious well-known site.  Next time. 

P1080973

Paris – naturellement.  The cloud backdrop is perfectly suited to the statue.

P1020858

In Corsica.  Can’t see the clouds? Must be above as it’s still drizzling on the bucolic lane leading the flock home.  No technicalities, please, I just really like the photo a lot.

From my window – Lost Lagoon in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

English Bay, Vancouver.

North Vancouver across Burrard Inlet seen from Stanley Park’s seawall.

Somewhere in France

In Bavaria on my way to lovely Fussen and  fabled Neusweinstein Castle

 

The splendid castle built by the ‘inspired’ Ludwig II, a much more appropriate tag than the snotty ‘mad’ all too often attached to his name.  The French poet Paul Verlaine called him the “only true king of this century” . The shy dreamer bequeathed this airy fairy tale edifice for generations of visitors flocking from all corners of the world and via Walt Disney’s whimsical rendition to millions others.

 

P1000173

 

Sublime, spectacular, splendid Mont Saint Michel, in Normandy

Wild flowers growing in profusion in a Bretagne field.

Above Dinard and the ‘Promenade au Clair de Lune’ –  below the Flemish style roof of Beaune Hospice (first hospital in Europe) and Chateau Chambord final residence for exiled Leonardo da Vinci

Two of my favourite pics taken on the grounds of Chambord

At the behest of a dear friend I’ll  after all offer my poem.  As I’ve cautioned at the onset of this post I guarantee nothing; good, bad or indifferent it’s as I saw and felt it so many years ago.

Clouds

Clouds in procession, aloof and oblivious
exotic caravans plodding across the sky
ferrying the burden of memories
across the desert in my heart
blasted clouds, shattered dreams
rainy days, sad refrain.

But look!  A burst of sun
for one magic instant
transforms a lost wandered
to a star-bound palace
where in a secret place
my ancient joys are kept.

Too soon a wanton gust
scatters illusions of happy sails
homeward bound, homeward bound
brooding blood brothers to my soul
as a dreary mist drooping to earth
so too Melancholia, my confidante, my foe.

A palette worthy of Renoir colours the Kootenay Rockies in British Columbia – photos taken five kilometres from Montana border.

And there she is, My Little Lost Cloud.  Alive and doing well somewhere above  your head.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

At the behest of a dear friend I’ll  after all offer my poem.  As I’ve cautioned at the onset of this post I guarantee nothing; good, bad or indifferent it’s as I saw and felt it so many years ago.

Clouds

Clouds in procession, aloof and oblivious
exotic caravans plodding across the sky
ferrying the burden of memories
across the desert in my heart
blasted clouds, shattered dreams
rainy days, sad refrain.

But look!  A burst of sun
for one magic instant
transforms a lost wandered
to a star-bound palace
where in a secret place
my ancient joys are kept.

Too soon a wanton gust
scatters illusions of happy sails
homeward bound, homeward bound
brooding blood brothers to my soul
as a dreary mist drooping to earth
so too Melancholia, my confidante, my foe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright@Vancouver, October 27, 2012 John-Michael Papirchuk

Strasbourg

MAGNIFICENT, SPLENDID, UNIQUE, UNFORGETTABLE  STRASBOURG!

Strasbourg! One of my very favourite destinations any time in Europe.   Magnificent, prosperous Strasbourg, historically craved over  is located  at the far eastern reaches of France with Germany sitting across the mighty Rhine strategically astride a pathway for invading armies since recorded time.  The Strabourgois are hard-working, clever and adaptable to the vagaries of historic situations including decades under German rule.  In fact, the local dialect is very much a blend of German and is still often spoken by the older generation among themselves.  Strasbourg’s solid infrastructure and strategic location, a hub of transportation to and from the eastern countries of Europe,  has made it a logical choice to become the future capital of a united Europe, and it is already the seat of many international pan-European organizations.  Strasbourg’s future is as rosy as the superb stained glass rose (above) gracing their much beloved cathedral.

Construction on Our Lady of Strasbourg started in 1176 and continued for the next three centuries. The  magnificent Gothic cathedral boasts of the tallest spire in all of Europe,  in fact from 1647 to 1874 it was the tallest man-made structure in the world.

The cathedral described by Victor Hugo as “A gigantic and delicate marvel” is at the core of the pride of the Alsacian people.  Twin towers were planned but unfortunately the second spire was never started.  In moments of idle dreaming I have wondered why couldn’t it be constructed now? There are more than enough billionaires on this planet with more than enough loose change to gather together a ‘dream team’ of historians, architects, stone masons, artisans, sculptors, creators of stained glass windows and all of the educated ‘hands’ required to create a splendid monument to glorify the past and bring hope to the present.  I wonder why there isn’t a single one out there with the imagination to donate such a gift to the world? Forlorn hope, in a world where making and piling up  money is single-mindedly pursued such an inspired, noble mind doesn’t draw breath.  A sublime imagination or a philanthropic love of culture is a non-starter.  Quel domage – too bad!

Just imagine the second tower to celebrate the new millenia (a decade or so already down the road but still early in relative terms) when mankind starts to finally get it!  What’s ‘it’ you may rightfully wonder – ‘it’ in this case is respect of what’s best in mankind’s cultural and artistic creativity accompanied by human nobility of spirit.

A medieval building, an iconic landmark in great repair, a stone’s throw from the cathedral, also a good eatery where to sample the regional ‘choucroute garni’.  Yum!

When I was a child I’d been told about the ‘cigogne‘ (stork) that ferried new-born babies to their new homes; I’d even seen lots of illustrations so it had to be true, right? Imagine my excitement the first time I saw a couple of real honest to goodness ‘cigognes’ in a lush meadow spearing frogs for breakfast (no bad jokes, please) just a few kilometres from Strasbourg.  I spotted them from the corner of my eye and by the time I was able to make a u-turn a couple kliks down the road to take photos much to my chagrin they’d flown off.  Welcomed as harbingers of good fortune, the magnificent bird had traditionally nested atop chimneys throughout Alsace but they’d almost disappeared until dedicated hard work and loving care rescued them from the edge of extinction.  From a choice perch on the cathedral, here for centuries one is seen  dispensing good luck to  its citizenry.

It’s easy to get around Strasbourg as it’s an eminently walkable city but if you’re feeling lazy a modern transportation system will whisk you to destination.  Notice the bicycle paths along side the tram tracks.

Arriving in Strasbourg I was following the signs indicating the cathedral, thus the old town and as usual I had no idea where to spend the night.  Judging I was getting close I grabbed the first available parking spot and as luck would have it, the car stayed put for the next three days.  Better still a few steps away I notice a hotel and before you know it I’d also found fine lodgings at a reasonable price, a good view from the window and within walking distance of ‘La Petite France’ and the cathedral.  I’ll admit to almost never (except when traveling for working purposes) book accommodations ahead of time when I’m on the road.  Why is that? I trust on my good star to lead me to a great place within my budget and with some special amenity or perhaps great location to offer.  On occasion I’ve had to work hard to find just what would smile at me, but I have no problem checking out four, five or even more hotels before making a decision.  I also have no embarrassment about returning to one I passed on earlier.  I deem finding the right place is worth almost any effort, furthermore if I really am happy I can stay longer and that’s a bonus.  Okay, I’ll tell you there have been times when I couldn’t find anything at any price because there’s a convention going on or some other popular event and I’ve even had to move on to another town, but that’s not happened too often and in fact sometimes worked out even better by exploring an unforeseen town.

This method of finding a bed to lay your head on is not recommended for those who like to travel on a fixed schedule and agenda but that’s not for me as I have at times (often) found myself not only in a different town but also in a different country.  Oh, it’s not a big deal if you’re free and have the fanciful notion of going where the wind (figuratively) blows you and Europe is the place to do such for the distances are rather smallish if you come from Canada.  One particular time (I was younger and I love driving) I left San Marino early when the sun was peering over the horizon, drove through northern Italy, across a slice of Switzerland, through a bit of Germany, dashed through northwest France, sped across Luxembourg and found myself watching a great game of football (soccer) at my hotel’s lobby with friendly companions in Knokke in Belgium.  Let’s see that’s seven countries in one day, not bad!

The view from my bedroom, notice the cathedral’s spire about a pleasant 15 minute’s walk with interesting buildings and sights on the way.

A rather banal pic but notice the bidet, a fixture found in any half-decent hotel in Europe.  Have North America’s hoteliers heard of its convenient hygienic properties? I was introduced to the ‘bidet’ in an hilarious episode in Henry Miller’s ‘Tropic of Cancer’.  Already living in Canada I had to wait for my first trip to France to actually discover it in a modest one star hotel in Paris.  I was thrilled and sat there laughing my head off remembering the discomfiture of the man who mistook it for a proper toilet and found out it simply wouldn’t flush as he’d expected.  The entire novel is worth reading for that alone although it was the book that made me realize an extensive vocabulary as well as being an indispensable communication tool is a thing of beauty.

Another view from the hotel room – lucky me.

At night it was so beautifully illuminated as most architecturally important and striking buildings are throughout Europe.

To the right of my wide open window the view was also splendidly illuminated – a dream land that charmed my eyes while awaiting slumber after a long, happy day.

P1070448

One of the best activities a visitor can indulge in is to savour a fine Alsatian beer in one of the many outdoor cafes in  ‘La Petite France’, a beautiful slice of historic Strasbourg.  In the evening there are dozens of fine restaurants from which to choose,  I opted for one that featured sauerkraut, roast potatoes and smoked sausages nicely eased  down with a stein (maybe two) of  cold local blonde beer.

Strasbourg’s historic city centre, the ‘Grande Isle’ was classified a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988, the first time such an honour was placed on an entire city centre. Strasbourg is fused into the Franco-German culture and although violently disputed throughout history, has been a bridge of unity between France and Germany for centuries, especially through the ‘Université de Strasbourg‘ presently the largest in France, and the peaceful coexistence of Catholic and Protestant culture.

A boatman speeds home after a day ferrying tourists around the delightful waterways that crisscross the city.  It was time for me to reluctantly leave behind enchanting Strasbourg.  Until we meet again, aurevoir!