Category Archives: Spain

France, Cinderella and Joan of Arc

Pierrefonds Castle Postcard

“This enchanting landmark is an architectural blend of many European styles, from 13th Century French Fortress to late Renaissance Palace.  Since it was inspired by no single structure, Cinderella Castle represents them all” – Disney Official Souvenir Book

Finding a castle to visit is not difficult in France because, according to the Official Tourist Board, there are almost five-thousand but it seems to me to includes a lot of questionable  small Chateaux in that number. For comparison there are eight hundred in the United Kingdom and just about two thousand five hundred in Spain.

In the 1960s, so the story goes, Disney ‘imagineers’ travelled throughout Europe looking for the perfect castles on which to model Cinderella’s Castle in Walt Disney World.

Cinderella's Castle Walt Disney World Florida

The lead architect for the project was a man called Herbert Rymanand and what makes this story a bit of a mystery is that there is no documentary evidence to establish exactly which castles he visited and indeed which of them became the inspiration for the Disney Magic Kingdom centrepiece.  Disney themselves do no more than confirm that Cinderella Castle was ‘inspired by the great castles of Europe’, but they never explicitly say which one.

Pierrefonds France Picardy

I mention this because today I was planning a visit to the nearby town of Pierrefonds which is famous for its castle.  Actually that is just about all that it is famous for and without the castle I doubt that very many people would take the detour to go there.

The castle itself is rather magnificent, statuesque and grand, stout walls and conical turrets and if the Disney architects had stopped by Pierrefonds on their fact finding tour of Europe then I suggest that they would have gone no further in their search for inspiration for Cinderella’s Castle.

Pierrefonds

After Pierrefonds we continued to nearby Compiègne which turned out to be another attractive but rather unremarkable town but my reason for visiting was to see just one thing.  A statue of Joan of Arc.  There are statues of the Maid of Orleans all over France but I especially wanted to see this one because it has some special significance.

A bit of background: Joan was born in about 1412 into a relatively well-off peasant family in Donrémy in northern France somewhere near the border of Lorraine.  At this time English troops were running riot through France and at one point raided and plundered the village of Donrémy and the d’Arc family had to flee into exile.  During this time Joan convinced herself that she had a visitation of saints and angels and heard patriotic voices that told her that she was chosen by God to save France.  Joan kept hearing the voices for a further three years and when she was finally convinced she left home and presented herself to the authorities as the saviour of France with a mission to put the Dauphin on his rightful throne.

L'hôtel de ville de Compiègne et la statue de Jeanne d'Arc (Oise, France).

Word of Joan quickly spread and it was claimed that she was the embodiment of a prophecy made by a mystic called Marie d’Avignon, that a ‘virgin girl from the borders of Lorraine’ would come to save France.  To test whether Joan was genuine the Dauphin had her questioned by a committee of clergymen and asked a group of respectable ladies to test her virginity.

She passed both tests and with religious sincerity and sexual inexperience being considered more suitable qualifications than an education at an appropriate military academy she was given a suit of made (maid?) to measure white armour and an army of forty thousand men and sent to fight the English at Orléans.

joan_arc-capture

Joan rejected the cautious strategy that had characterized French leadership and attacked and captured the outlying fortress of Saint Loup, which she followed the next day with a march to a second fortress called Saint Jean le Blanc, which was found deserted.  The next day with the aid of only one captain she rode out of the city and captured the fortress of Saint Augustins and two days later attacked the main English stronghold and secured a stunning victory that took everyone by surprise.

After that there was a seemingly endless run of French victories as the English and their Bugundian allies fled from the field of battle whenever challenged by the invincible Maid of Orléans fighting, it seemed, with God by her side.

From here however things started to go wrong for Joan and she was betrayed by the King, Charles VII, who was beginning to find here her to be a bit of a nuisance and to get her out of the way he dispatched her on a hopeless mission to fight a Burgundian army right here at (which brings me conveniently back to) Compiègne, where she was defeated by a much stronger army, captured and taken prisoner and so began her sad journey towards the bonfire.

You can read my story of Joan of Arc right here.

I found the statue and with nothing else to detain me in Compiègne I headed back to the campsite at Vic-Sur-Aisne.

Vic Sur Aisne Picardy France0

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A Virtual Ancient City

Aqueduct of Segovia

It was a long tedious drive from Ephesus to Pamukkale and thinking about the Ephesus experience I thought it would be fun to recall all of the other ancient sites that I have visited and assemble a near perfect virtual ancient city.

Approaching the city the first thing to be seen would be the aqueduct bringing fresh water to the citizens.  The finest aqueduct must surely be that in Segovia in central Spain.  It was built at the end of first to early second century AD by the Romans to bring water from the Río Frío about eighteen kilometres away and requiring an elevated section in its final kilometre from the Sierra de Guadarrama to the walls of the old town.

This is supported by an engineering achievement of one hundred and sixty-six arches and one hundred and twenty pillars constructed on two levels. It is twenty eight metres high and constructed with over twenty thousand large granite blocks, which are joined without mortar or clamps and have remained in place for two thousand years.

Split, Diocletian's Palace

After passing through the arches of the aqueduct the road would lead to a Palace – Diocletian’s Palace from Split in Croatia.  The palace was built as a Roman military fortress with walls two hundred metres long and twenty metres high, enclosing an area of thirty-eight thousand square metres and it is one of the best preserved Roman palaces in existence because after the fall of the Romans within the defensive walls it effectively became the city of Spalatum which eventually evolved and became the modern city of Split.

Herculaneum

Inside the city walls there would be the houses of the people who lived in the city, the houses of Herculaneum  near Pompeii in Italy that was destroyed in the same Vesuvius eruption.  But in a different way because where Pompeii was buried in ash, Herculaneum was destroyed by a pyroclastic flow which is  a ground-hugging avalanche of hot ash, pumice, rock fragments, and volcanic gas that rushes down the side of a volcano.  Although it killed all of the inhabitants this flow did little damage to the structures, instead slowly filling them from the bottom up and preserving them perfectly without destroying them altogether.

Volubilis Morocco

After passing through the residential area there would be a magnificent triumphal arch marking the entrance to the civic and public areas.  I think it would be very much like the arch at Voloubilis in Morocco.

Volubilis  was the Roman capital of the Province of Mauritania and was founded in the third century B.C., it became an important outpost of the Roman Empire and was graced with many fine buildings.  Extensive remains of these survive in the archaeological site, located in the middle of this fertile agricultural area.  The city continued to be occupied long after the Romans had gone and at some point converted to Islam and Volubilis was later briefly to become the capital of Idris I, founder of the Idrisid dynasty, who is buried at nearby Moulay Idris.   It is now of course a UNESCO World Heritage Site, admitted to the list in 1997.

Rome The Forum

Once through the Arch into the Forum which for the Romans was the centre of political, commercial and judicial life. This has to be the Forum in Rome.

According to the playwright Plautus the area ‘teemed with lawyers and litigants, bankers and brokers, shopkeepers and strumpets’.  As the city grew  successive Emperors increasingly extended the Forum and in turn built bigger temples, larger basilicas, higher triumphal columns and more lavish commemorative arches.  Here is the Temple of Romulus and the house of the Vestal Virgins and then the Temple of Julius Caesar erected on the very spot that he was cremated following his assassination in 44 BC.

Hierapolis Pamukkale Turkey

Every ancient city needs a theatre and at the end of the forum in this virtual city is the theatre of  Hierapolis at Pamukkale in Turkey, a restored ancient theatre that surely has to be amongst the best that I have ever seen and that includes Segesta in Sicily and Merida in Spain and also (again in my opinion) the ruins that we had visited yesterday at Ephesus.

Temple of Apollo Didyma

Next to the Theatre is the Temple and I am happy to include in this virtual city the Temple of Apollo in Didyma just down the road from Ephesus.  This place would have been huge, one hundred and twenty columns, fifteen metres high and each taking an estimated twenty thousand man days to cut and erect.  It was never completely finished because during the construction process the money kept running out but if it had been then it is said that this would have been one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World in precedence over the Temple of Artemis at nearby Ephesus.

Arles France Amphitheatre

Finally there would be an Amphitheatre and whilst it may seem like madness not to include the Colosseum in Rome I am going to overlook it and include instead the Amphitheatre at Arles in Southern France.  It could also have been the the Amphitheatre in  Pula in Croatia or,Mérida in Spain but there is something majestic about about Arles which just fascinates me.  No one can be absolutely sure about which was the largest in terms of capacity and it is generally agreed that this was the Colosseum but we can be more certain about physical size and there was a plaque nearby that claimed that this was the twelfth largest in the Roman Empire.  Interestingly using this criteria the plaque only listed the Colosseum as second largest but it’s like I have always said size isn’t the most important thing!

So there it is, my virtual Ancient City, just my personal choices and I would be more than happy to consider any alternative suggestions for inclusion.

Ancient Rome

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My blogging pal Wil sent me this in an email and I am delighted to add it to my city…

… thought I would share this picture of the colonnaded street and forum at Jerash. It would definitely be in my fantasy Roman city!

Jerash Jordon Picture_0438

Check out Wil’s blog here …  Wilbur’s Travels

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Related Posts:

Spartacus the Gladiator

Rome

The Roman City of Pompeii

The Roman City of Herculaneum

The Roman Amphitheatre at Pula

The Aqueduct of Segovia

The Roman Buildings at Mérida

The Roman Ruins at Segóbriga

Diocletian’s Palace at Split

The Roman Buildings at Arles

Verona

The Greek and Roman Ruins at Empuria, Catalonia

The Palace of Knossos in Crete

Athens and Ancient Greece

The Acropolis Museum in Athens

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European Capital of Culture 2002, Salamanca

Salamanca Province

“And nothing in Europe better expresses a kind of academic festiveness than the celebrated Plaza Mayor…. Its arcaded square is gracefully symmetrical, its manner is distinguished and among the medallions of famous Spaniards that decorate its façade there have been left spaces for heroes yet to come.”             Jan Morris – ‘Spain’

If the evening meal at the hotel Conventa Spa was exceptionally good then so too was the breakfast the following morning with a full spread presented with no expense spared for only a handful of guests.

Today we were making a second visit to the city of Salamanca to follow up our first in November 2009 when a misty overcast day had not presented the city in the best light.  We were hoping for blue skies today as we drove south along theruta de plata the old Roman road, the silver route, so named because this was how Rome moved its precious treasure north from the silver and tin mines further south.

Besalu Catalonia Spain

The road bypassed Zamora and then there was nothing of great interest to tell you about for sixty kilometres or so because the truth is that the landscape of this part of Castilla y León is rather tedious and quite forgettable with vast dry plains stretching away into infinity in all directions.

It seems that we are destined not to see Salamanca in fine weather because this morning it was grey and rather cool as we approached the city with its backdrop of snow capped mountains, the Sierra de Gredos and then made our final approach to the city and made our way to a car park close to the Plaza Mayor.

It was still misty even though the sun was struggling to break through as we walked through cobbled streets and buildings of rich caramel coloured Villamayor stone and directly to the centre of the city.  From there around the University buildings and through the public library and after that the centre of the city and the inevitable Plaza Mayor where, because it was too chilly to sit at a pavement café, groups of men were wandering around deep in conversation discussing the important matters of the day.  They were all elderly men of course because just as Gerald Brenan explained in ‘South from Granada’ “…almost every Spanish peasant becomes wise when he passes fifty.”

Salamanca Plaza Mayor

The Plaza is located in the very centre of Salamanca and was built in the traditional Spanish baroque style and is a popular gathering area. It is lined with bars, restaurants and tourist shops and in the centre stands the proud city hall. It is considered the heart of the city and is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful plazas in Spain.

Previously I had not really appreciated its grandness or beauty but now that I was made aware that it is one of the most important Baroque monuments in Spain and the city’s historical timeline I was able to reassess my previous judgement and it might now get into my top ten but I will come to that in a later post.

As we sat at a pavement café with a coffee the weather began to improve, the cloud lifted a little and some weak sunshine started to leak through the white shroud but we still did not consider it fine enough to climb the cathedral tower, as was our intention, so after we had finished we walked to the 1st Century Roman Bridge across the River Tormes, which was flowing north towards the Duero and from there back to the city centre stopping on the way at the site of the archives of the Spanish Civil War.

The original documents were assembled by the Francoist regime, selectively obtained from the administrative departments of various institutions and organizations during the Spanish Civil War as a repressive instrument used against opposition groups and where today there was a temporary poignant exhibition of children’s drawings depicting the conflict.

Salamanca Roman Bridge and Cathedrals

It was lunch time now so the next task was to find somewhere amongst the huge choice of bars and bodegas to find somewhere suitable but we didn’t have to concern ourselves too greatly with this because our minds were made up for us when a young student stopped us and forced a card into our hands and directed us to a bar down an old town side street.  There was something in her smile that said if you present this card I will be paid some commission and it was impossible to refuse.

After a pavement lunch of beer and complimentary tapas we were forced to concede that the weather was not going to improve any further so there was no putting off the visit to the cathedral any longer.  I should say cathedrals because Salamanca has two, an old one and a new one that are joined together into one massive structure.  We paid €3.50 each for tickets (no increase since 2009) to visit and then commenced a tour of the towers and the balconies that involved an awful lot of spiral staircases.  It was a spectacular building and well worth the money but it was a pity about the weather because the drab overcast sky and persistent patches of mist spoilt what would certainly have been spectacular views from the top.

Salamanca Cathedral SpacemanBack at street level we circumnavigated the Cathedral looking for one of its most famous stone carvings.  Built between 1513 and 1733, the Gothic Cathedral underwent restoration work in 1992 and it is a generally a tradition of cathedral builders and restorers to add details or new carvings to the façade  as a sort of signature. In this case the Cathedral authorities gave the go-ahead to add some more modern images  including an astronaut floating among some vines. Despite there being clear documentation of the astronaut being a recent addition, the spaceman has already fuelled wild ideas of ancient space travel, and medieval alien interventions.  We found the astronaut but not the other recently added images of a dragon eating ice cream, a lynx, a bull, and a crayfish.

It was now late afternoon and time to leave the ancient university city of Salamanca, the city that is regarded as the true home of the purest form of the Spanish language and we dawdled a while through the Plaza Mayor for a second time today before returning to the car and moving on.

Salamanca

A Competition, Compostela, Cahors and a Chateau

In the early summer of 1998 the Times Newspaper ran a daily competition one week to win a prize of an all expenses paid trip for two nights in an up market Relais and Chateau Hotel somewhere in Europe.  One day the competition required answers to three questions about Santiago de Compostela in Galicia and the Way of St James.  I was confident of the answers and telephoned them in several times over the course of the day.

Over the following couple of weeks I forgot all about the competition but one day was surprised to receive a letter from the Times telling me that I was the winner and that the prize was first class air travel to Toulouse in South West France, car hire and two nights all-inclusive at the Château de Mercuès just outside the provincial town of Cahors.

Chateau de Mercures Cahors

Early in the Autumn we flew with British Airways in a first class cabin that we shared with the actor Robin Ellis (Ross Poldark) and his wife (his real wife not Demelza)and enjoyed a silver service meal and complimentary champagne.  When we arrived at Toulouse in the early afternoon we picked up the Renault hire car and set off in a northerly direction on our way to the Chateau.

On the way we stopped at the town of Cahors and after we had walked around the centre, sitting within a protective loop of the River Lot, we found a traditional patisserie and sat and gloated about our unusual good fortune.

The village of Mercuès was just a few kilometres west of the town and eventually we set off again following the course of the river as it swept through the countryside and soon in front of us we saw a splendid castle with soaring towers and blue slate conical roofs and we imagined that it looked somewhere interesting to visit.

After only a short distance there was a sign to our hotel and we took a narrow road that climbed high away from the river and after one final turn we were confronted with the entrance to the very same magnificent building.  This was the Château de Mercuès and way beyond the standard of any hotel that we had ever stayed in before.

The car had hardly come to a halt before a porter rushed through the front doors and took our luggage from the car and indicated that we should follow him to the reception.  Inside there were wonderful furnishings and treasured artefacts and I worried that we were in the wrong place.  But no, it was true, this was prize for winning the competition.

After registration we were shown to our room at the very top of the tallest tower with stone walls, wooden beams and an external walkway on the outside with long distance views over the Lot valley, the Chateau gardens and the raging River Lot rushing by below swollen by days of heavy rain and carrying fallen trees and other debris hurriedly downstream.

Chateau de MERCURES

Our room at the top of the tower with personal balcony!

It took a while for all this to sink in but fortunately there was a complimentary bottle of Cahors wine to help us and when we had settled down we took some time to explore the castle and its gardens, its wine cellars and it public rooms.  Dinner off of an expensive menu was included and I remember that this was the first time that I ever tasted Foie Gras and feeling guilty about it because I was certain that my vegetarian teenage daughter would certainly not approve.

For our full day in France after breakfast we chose to drive the thirty-five kilometres north to the tourist town and Christian pilgrimage centre of Rocamadour.

At first the road was straight and driving was easy but the final few kilometres were on twisting bendy roads that swooped through gullies and over ravines as we got closer.  Rocamadour is one of the busiest tourist sites in France because the picturesque town is built almost vertically into the side of the mountain with its golden houses overhanging a rocky gorge and the River Alzou below.  The car park was at the bottom of the mountain and to get to the entrance gate of the town required an ascent up several flights of wooden steps that eventually brought us out at the main tourist street.

It was quiet today because this was October and outside the main tourist season but the summer months bring thousands of visitors to this place daily.  Years later I visited Carcassonne and Mont St Michel and found them rather similar in a touristy sort of way.

It didn’t help matters that the weather was rather poor and although it wasn’t raining it was misty and rather damp and the honey coloured stones looked disappointingly dull and lifeless today, the place was full of tourist shops that weren’t doing enough business to justify being open and we had the streets and medieval staircases almost to ourselves as we wandered past churches and chapels on ancient streets punctuated with shops and restaurants every few metres.  We stopped for lunch and then made our way back down the steps and drove back to the Chateau where we enjoyed a second gourmet meal in the expensive dining room.

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The next morning when it was time to check out I suddenly began to panic in case I had to pay for any of this unaccustomed extravagance and finery that we had enjoyed and the thoughts got stronger as I waited behind an American guest who settled his obscenely large bill and then made a dreadful fuss about being charged a couple of Francs for a postcard that he picked up while waiting.

My hands were sweating and I avoided the postcards but I needn’t have worried of course, the whole bill was taken care of by the Sunday Times and with the sun shining now we had one final walk around the delightful gardens before setting off for the return journey to Toulouse airport.

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