We watched Season 2 of Victoria on Amazon last week. One of the episodes was especially interesting to me: in it, Queen Victoria’s husband (Prince Albert) gets tremendously excited from meeting Charles Babbage, inventor of a great mechanical “difference engine” designed to perform complex calculations.
In any other year this would be the time when patriotic celebrations, grilling in the backyard, and summer vacations would top the American agenda. And in more ordinary times, this would be the perfect opportunity for those of us with an affinity for France and the French to remind ourselves that we likely would not have won our independence without the massive support of France in those earliest days of our Republic. This year, though, Americans can’t even (safely) get out of their backyards or to the beach, much less fly to France for a visit — so we’ll have to make do with a more “virtual” remembrance of the occasion. And while we’re at it, I’d argue that it’s […]
Editor’s note: This week the French press has been covering the 80th anniversary of the terrible events that led to the sudden “fall” of France as Hitler’s armies swept past the Maginot Line and into the heart of the country. We’re reminded again of how rapidly the social order tumbled into chaos with the great “Exodus” of refugees moving from north to south; we’re hearing again DeGaulle’s moving speeches on the BBC calling on French people to fight back against the Nazis. …and all of that set me wondering about the days, 80 years ago this week, when the war finally came to Clermont-Ferrand in the deep heart of France. How can we even imagine how it felt to stand […]
The debate started almost the same day the Notre Dame fire in Paris was brought under control: Should this great cathedral be rebuilt “as it has always been”? Or should the fallen spire and fire-ravaged roof be “updated” to integrate more modern elements? Ideas for the restoration have already started to proliferate — here’s an example of one firm’s vision, and you can see several more by following this link. Predictably, traditionalists push back hard on the idea of putting a greenhouse under a glass roof or creating a new crystal spire for Notre Dame de Paris. But predictably, too, they ignore some key points in the history of the ancient building: It has not, […]
The main reason to come to Hautefort in the Dordogne region of the deep heart of France is to tour the great Chateau at the top of the hill overlooking the town. It’s an hour-and-a-half southwest of Limoges, and an hour northwest of Brive-la-Gaillarde, but well worth the drive to see this gorgeous example of how a medieval fortress evolved into an elegant country mansion over the centuries. I’ll be doing a detailed report on my visit there in a future post – but for me the trip down the hill to the Musée d’Histoire de la Médicine was in many ways the most interesting part of my day in Hautefort.
I just came across a short piece from National Geographic summarizing the life and accomplishments of Julius Caesar. Before he made himself “dictator for life,” the magazine notes, he had to prove his worth as a powerful military commander — and he started that quest in the deep heart of France, trying to subdue the tribes of Gauls who controlled that part of Europe. Here’s how National Geographic summarized his campaign in France (and the phrase that caught my attention): Caesar’s seven-year Gaul campaign ended triumphantly in 51 B.C. The Gaul leader Vercingetorix was paraded in chains through Rome before being ritually strangled. In all, Caesar’s campaign killed or enslaved more than a million Gauls […]
Our guide at the Chateau de Cordès clearly loves his job. He’s also the “chief gardener” for the grounds around the castle (although he admits there’s only one other person on the staff), so for our tour he has scrubbed the dirt off his hands, tucked in his shirt, and opened the doors for the five of us at the height of tourist season in the Auvergne. It’s not really surprising to him (or to me) that the Chateau de Cordès is so lightly trafficked even at this peak time of the year. We are far removed from all the major tourist centers of France – distant even from most of the lesser known sites in the deep heart of […]
The Auvergne – that ancient volcanic region near the center of France – doesn’t seem at first glance like a place that would feature prominently on the stage of great world events. Even many French people don’t know what goes on there; they hold a number of odd stereotypes about the people who live there, many of which imagine Auvergnats as a species of rural rubes. And they’re always surprised when they actually visit the place to find how interesting, how beautiful, and how utterly civilized it is.
On this frigid, dark winter day, I’m thinking back to another time… It was summer, 86 degrees and humid in Clermont-Ferrand, headed to 90 later in the week… Most offices and houses here don’t have air conditioning, so any respite from this oppressive heat was welcome. For me, one of the best places to be on days like this is inside the ancient basilica of Notre Dame du Port. I leave my room, already hot as a car in a Texas parking lot by lunchtime, and labor up the sharp little street from Place des Carmes to spend an hour in the cool dark interior of this medieval wonder. Rebuilt in its current form beginning in 1185 C.E. — but […]
Note: some of the descriptions of true incidents in this post include images of graphic violence. Reader discretion is advised. To some it is […] an adaptable animal capable of living peaceably alongside humans. To others it is a demonic killing machine that ruins farmers – and whose presence is a symbol of the city’s contempt for rural life. “The Unesasy Return of Europe’s Wolves”, The Guardian, 26 January 2018
I’ve always loved the “living history” sites we’ve found in different places around the world. In the U.S., Colonial Williamsburg is perhaps the most famous, but my personal favorite is the Plimoth Plantation [sic], operating since 1947 near Plymouth, Massachusetts. It’s populated by people who have taken on the names and identities of the 17th-century colonists who came to this place on the Mayflower, and they’re happy to talk to you and answer questions, intelligently and at great length, about how they grow food, the hardships of their lives, their aspirations in coming to America, and their relationships with the Native American Wampanoags. (Just don’t ask them about anything that happened in the world after about 1622 CE. The actors […]
Even after more than 40 trips to Paris over the last three decades, Karen and I always find something new and wonderful to see there. On our most recent visit, the winner in this category is the restoration work going on at the abbey church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés on the Left Bank. It’s only half finished at this point, but the work already done has painted the church in rich colors and gold leaf showing how gloriously beautiful it was centuries ago. But we also found two other “new” sites (new to us, that is), both with a connection to one of my personal heroes from the deep heart of France – Blaise Pascal. The incredible thing about […]