Castles and an abbey

Although I returned home from France a couple of weeks ago, and have been busy organizing my photos and research notes, there are still some things I wanted to share with you all. One of the wonderful things about France is that there are medieval castles, in various stages of intactness or ruin, everywhere you go. Two of my favorites were the castles at Les Baux and Tarascon.
Les Baux is on the top of a huge rock outcropping in a small group of low mountains in Provence known as Les Alpilles. The name comes from ‘baus’ in Provencal, which means a steep, sheer rock, and that it is. The location is ideal for a fortress, with a view for miles over the country to the south, the direction from which invading saracens usually came. Only the walls remain, but the interpretive signs are very informative about what it looked like and how it functioned. They even have full-size replica trebuchets, and during the summer fire them off as well as have archery demonstrations. (P.S. There were lots of great shops in the town of Les Baux, and we had a wonderful lunch at one of the many restaurants).  By the way, did you know that the mineral bauxite, from which aluminium is made, was discovered at Les Baux in the 19th century and named after the site?
The other castle I liked is at Tarascon and is still intact. You can explore all the rooms, going up and down the winding stone stairs, and they even let you go out on the roof for great views over the Rhone and surrounding countryside. It was built in the 15th century by the counts of Provence, before Provence became a part of France. A lot of the work was completed under King Rene, who was Count of Provence, but also king of Naples, Sicily and Jerusalem (it’s a long story). He was not just a warrior, but was also passionately interested in letters, arts and sciences, and even wrote several illuminated works himself. The rooms have the usual thick stone walls and small windows, but also colorful tile floors, and tapestries to help warm them up.
The abbey that I enjoyed visiting is the Abbey of Senanque near the town of Gordes in the Luberon area. It is in an isolated valley, reached by a single lane winding road, and Cistercian monks have re-established residence in the 12th century buildings (with some later, more comfortable additions for their residence and guesthouse). They grow lavender, which you can see in the foreground of the photo, and make lavender oil, soaps, honey, etc. to sell in their gift shop. Even if you are not Catholic, it’s a very spiritual, peaceful place, and I appreciated being able to see a medieval abbey still being used for its original function.
The nearby town of Gordes is interesting as well; it’s one of the marvelous hill towns built on the cliffs surrounding the beautiful Luberon valley (made famous by Peter Mayle).


Roman sites in Provence

Provence was one Rome’s earliest colonies outside of Italy and it is full of things that they built. Arles was a very important trading center and had a forum, baths, a theater, a circus (for chariot races), and an arena. Most of these are only ruins or have mostly disappeared under the later buildings, but the arena is still here and is still used for events. They have recently cleaned it and restored some of the stones that were crumbling badly, but it is still an amazing remnant of the Roman civilization. All sorts of Roman antiquities that have been dug up over the centuries, such as carved sarcophagi, amphorae, glass and pottery vessels, everyday objects like needles and game pieces, and complete tile floors, have been collected in the Musée Departemental d’Arles Antique, and there are models of what the city must have looked like in Roman times. Not far from Arles, near St. Remy, archaeologists in the 1920s discovered a complete Roman town, Glanum, which they were able to excavate completely because it had never been built over in later centuries. Although only the foundations of most of the buildings remain, you can see the layout of the whole town, the fact that they had drains under the stone-paved main street, and the huge size of the civic buildings and temples they built even in such a small town.

Another thing the Romans are famous for is their aqueducts, and Provence is full of them. They constructed aqueducts over miles and miles of terrain to bring fresh water to the cities such as Arles, Nimes and Avignon. Although technically not in Provence (it’s across the Rhone in Languedoc), the Pont du Gard is the most famous of the remains, and it truly is another site for the must-see list. The sheer size of it is astonishing, and you can wander around the limestone rocks by the river, climb the hills on both sides for great views of it and the surrounding country side, and even cross over on the bridge next to it that was added in the 18th century. In the last photo you can clearly see the original Roman stone on the left side of the support pillar and the later stone of the 18th century bridge on the right. It was awesome in the true sense of that word.


Ok, this has nothing to do with research or the Middle Ages, but if you are interested in gardens or art or both, Giverny has to be on your must-see list. Sometimes the well-known places don’t live up to your expectations, especially when they are crowded with fellow tourists; that is not the case here. Giverny exceeded my expectations! The gardens were much more extensive than I thought they would be and are kept up beautifully by a team of gardeners. Because it was late September when I was there, the roses were pretty much done, but to make up for it the dahlias were magnificent. And that’s just the formal garden. A tunnel under the road at the back leads to the ponds and waterlily garden that Monet created and then immortalized in his huge canvases. A path goes around it all and there are strategically placed benches where you can sit and contemplate the peace and beauty that he made out of living plants. The house was lovely too, not grand but comfortable, with a dining room painted buttercup yellow, a kitchen lined with blue and white tiles and copper pots, and his extensive collection of original Japanese prints on the walls throughout. His studio is in the house and has some of his studies and unfinished paintings. Photography wasn’t allowed inside, so you will just have to go see it for yourselves!
Giverny makes a great day-trip from Paris and you don’t need a car: just go the Gare St. Lazare train station, near the Opera Garnier, and find the ticket office for the commuter trains (not the inter-city trains) and get a ticket for Vernon. The trains run about every two hours from about 8:30 a.m. and it takes about 45 minutes to get there. Special buses for Giverny meet every train and take you to the house and garden. There are plenty of places to have a nice lunch and it’s worth taking your time and spending the whole day there. And, if you want to see some of Monet’s large water-lily paintings displayed in oval rooms the way he meant them to be seen, go to the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, it’s in the Tuileries Gardens near the obelisk.

More on libraries in France

Here are some photos of the library where I’m spending most of my time. The Espace VAn Gogh where it is located used to be a hospital and Van Gogh went there after the famous incident of cutting off his earlobe. The various wings of the building have been re-purposed on the inside, one of which is the library, but they have kept the outside appearance as it was, and plant flowers in the courtyard every season, so it still looks like it did when Van Gogh painted a picture of it. The second photo shows the inside of the modern library built within the original stone walls. The documents I’m working with are handwritten in ink on paper from the 18th century or earlier, so photocopying is not allowed. I can take digital photos of them, which I’ve done for a few, but for most I’m summarizing or copying verbatim because they are easier to see in person and I want the language of the whole. It’s a lot of transcribing, but I have found some interesting stories about the abbey, and in some cases more than one document about the same incident which is really useful.

I’ve also visited a couple of other libraries: the public library in Avignon also has a fonds patrimoniaux with a few documents of interest to my project, so I went there one day this week. Since many libraries either don’t open until 12:30 or 1:00, or open earlier but close for two hours at lunchtime, there is time to see some of the town. Avignon is still surrounded by its medieval wall and is dominated by the Palace of the Popes (more a fortress than a palace) from the time they lived here in the 14th and 15th centuries. There is a great view over the Rhone from the high point in the town, which is one reason the town was built there for defense. It was a bit foggy because we’ve had quite a bit of rain recently, but still beautiful.

I also went to the Bibliothèque Inguimbertine in Carpentras to see a few documents. This library is mostly the collection of 18th century bishop Inguimbert and they had a few documents relevant to my project. I was disappointed at first when the librarian brought out microfilm of the manuscripts and that it was negative (white writing on a black background) making it harder to read. But the upside is that they had a computer attached that would make a digital copy, black on white, that could then be saved to a flash drive, so I didn’t have to spend hours in cramped conditions next to the microfilm reader, but can load the images on my computer when I get home, magnify, print, etc. The library is of course closed stacks, and the reading room is modern, so before I left I asked the librarian, as a fellow librarian, if I could have a brief glimpse of the book stacks. She took me through six good sized rooms on two floors lined with bookshelves floor to very high ceilings, with movable ladders, filled with books almost entirely in leather bindings. Very cool!

Loire valley abbey and chateau

After Mont St. Michel, I drove back east and south to the Loire valley, home of the marvelous Renaissance chateaux you’ve all seen pictures of. I had another lovely chambre d’hote (B&B) reserved with home-cooked dinner every night. One day I went to Fontevraud, to see the women’s abbey that was the largest in France in the 16th and 17th centuries with over 50 dependent priories, and home to many women of the Bourbon royal family. The buildings are still there, but I was a little disappointed to find that because they belong to the state, they have been turned into a cultural center and have nothing left of the furniture or decoration of the time when it was an abbey. The church was bare and the floor had been replaced with new stones, and there were modern art installations in the cloister and dormitory. Worse, it had been used as a prison in the 20th century so there was an exhibit about those depressing days. Not what I had been hoping to see, but I understand that there are so many former churches and abbeys, they can’t all be restored to their medieval splendor. I then went to the nearby chateau of Villandry, which more than met my expectations. It was built in the 16th century, by the Minister of Finance for king Francis I, remodeled in the 18th century, and purchased and restored in the early 20th century by a Portuguese man and his American wife, and their great-grandson still owns it and lives in it.
Because it was not a royal chateau, the rooms are a more livable size, and comfortably furnished because people still live there. The photos are of the dining room and nursery. The glory of Villandry, however, are the gardens created by the couple who restored the house in the early 1900s, and maintained by the current owner. They have the basic 16th century layout of Renaissance French gardens, with square and rectangular beds surrounded by box hedge, but the plantings within them are changed every year, and a large part of the beds are filled with vegetables chosen and planted for their leaf forms and colors as well as their food value. Quite beautiful! On my way back from Villandry I had my second run-in with a French tollbooth. I decided to take the autoroute back to my B&B, since the scenic route had been a long drive that morning. I had seen previously that the toll machines took credit cards, so although I was completely out of cash after entry fees, lunch, etc., I wasn’t worried. However, when I got to the tollbooth at the exit for St. Aignan where I was staying, the machine rejected both my credit cards and my debit card. I tried pushing the call button but the lady just told me to try another card! I had visions of being stuck there overnight, and briefly considered crashing through the barrier à la James Bond, since there was no one around. But then I noticed a gendarmerie (police station) off to the left of the toll plaza, so I carefully backed up and drove over to it. The young gendarme kindly said I could park my car there and walk over to the toll offices (which were outside the barrier- not helpful!). The lady there got me through the gate by printing a receipt that I had to mail in with my payment within 15 days or else!  Since I didn’t want the rental car company coming after me, I dutifully went to the post office the next day and mailed off a money order (which cost more than the toll to buy!). Fortunately, I spoke French well enough to communicate my plight with the gendarme and the tollbooth lady, neither of whom spoke English, and understand their instructions about what to do. Moral of the story: always have cash – you never know when your credit cards won’t work. Apparently the tollbooth machines do not accept credit cards on foreign banks, but who would know that in advance? My B&B hosts commiserated with me about the stupidities of French bureaucracy.

Research in the “fonds patrimoniaux”

You’ve probably been wondering about the research part of “Researchinfrance.” I’ve been going into the library five days a week to look through and transcribe documents, but it doesn’t make for many great pictures. Here are some things I’ve learned, however, along the way.
The public library here in Arles, as in many French towns, is now called a médiathèque, rather than a bibliothèque, because it has other media besides books. This is useful to know if you are trying to do a Google search to see if there is a library in a town you are interested in, since if you type in bibliothèque you won’t find it. “Fonds patrimoniaux” is what they call the historical collections of books and manuscripts and roughly translates as “heritage collections.” A lot of the documents that were seized by the state during the Revolution were given to the towns and form the basis of the fonds patrimoniaux. In Arles, the documents are kept in climate-controlled conditions in the basement and are brought up on request by the archivist.

It goes without saying that in order to do historical research in French collections you need to be able to read French well, and Latin too if you are going back before the 15th century. The various kinds of handwriting can also be a challenge, though, and a guide like Lire le Français d’hier: Manuel de Paléographie Moderne XVe – XVIIIe Siècle by Gabriel Audisio and Isabelle Rambaud, 4e ed. Paris: Armand Colin, 2008, can be a great help in trying to decipher odd letter shapes and abbreviations.
The 18th century writing usually isn’t too bad, see the photo, as long as it was carefully written, but informal documents like receipts, written quickly can still be challenging.
But others, written in a fancy notarial style, can be very challenging; I’m going to have to spend some time on the second one.

Although centuries of documents in the archives of the Abbey of St. Caesarius that I am researching were scattered and destroyed during the Revolution, fortunately for historians one of the priests in the cathedral, Laurens Bonnemant, transcribed a large number of the documents into notebooks in tiny but clear writing. They represent his selection of what he thought was important, and he often adds a summary in French to the Latin documents. I’m finding descriptions of some very interesting events in the life of the abbey that were recorded in a legalistic record in those archives.

By the end of each afternoon my back and my writing hand ache and my eyes are tired, but finding out what happened, and what happened next, is completely absorbing!

Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, part 2

I spent a whole day in Chartres wandering in and around the cathedral, and even got to hear the organist let loose with an incredible volley of music after the evening mass; it filled that enormous space and reverberated for a few seconds after he finished. Marvelous!
The next day it was on to Mont St. Michel, with a stop in Bayeaux to see the famous tapestry of the Norman invasion of England in 1066, well worth a detour if you are in the area. I stayed at a bed and breakfast at a dairy farm and my room had a view of the abbey in the distance. It’ been a place of pilgrimage for centuries, and the one street that climbs up and up toward the abbey is lined with shops and thronged with visitors, just as it must have been in the Middle Ages, only the merchandise and foods have changed. Once you get to the top you can see for miles out over the mud flats that surround it; the tide was miles out and little groups of tourists were trekking with guides over the flats. It is amazing to contemplate how they could have constructed these large stone buildings on top of a rock, but they did! I was interested to discover that it is not just an empty monument to the past; a new monastic order called the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem established a community at Mont St. Michel in 2001. There are about 10 or 15 monks and nuns who live there and manage to find the solitude for prayer and meditation in the midst of the bustle of millions of visitors each year. One of the kinds of work they do to support themselves is transcribe books, not on parchment but into computers, continuing the monastic tradition of the past. There is more information and a video at if you are interested.
I really like staying at bed and breakfasts (called chambre d’hote in France); not only is it less expensive, but you get to see how people live and if you can speak some French (and many of them speak some English) you can talk with the hosts as well. I found the one in Mont St. Michel in a guide to B&Bs by Alastair Sawday who gives you a good sense of the ambience of each one, but there are other guides as well. These days they usually have an email address for contacting them and making a reservation, which I recommend: it’s no fun wandering the countryside looking for a place to stay and France doesn’t have the equivalent of Motel 6 if you can’t find a place. The dairy farm was in a tiny village and it was fun driving or walking the country lanes if you like being outdoors. Mont St. Michel is also near the Normandy beaches of WW II if you are into visiting them. I only spent two nights there, and wished I’d planned for longer; I would definitely go back to explore Normandy and Brittany another time.

Mont Saint Michel and Chartres

Before settling down in Arles, I spent a few days in northern France seeing some of the great medieval abbeys and churches and Renaissance chateaux. The two most iconic are the abbey on a rock in the bay at Mont Saint Michel and the great Gothic cathedral in Chartres. Henry Adams’ book, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (e-book available free from Amazon), written at the turn of the 20th century, gives some idea of what these great building achievements are meant to express.

I went first to Chartres because it’s not far from Paris for a first day’s drive in France. You see the spires from miles away and the cathedral is indeed enormous. It is famous for the stained glass windows and their glowing cobalt blues and ruby reds did not disappoint, but I found the interior sculpture that goes all around the outside of the choir area just as impressive. It depicts scenes from the life of Mary and Jesus with wonderful modeling of people and interiors of the 12th century when it was built; so different from the flat, stylized reliefs of the Romanesque period. Restoration experts have recently discovered evidence of paint on the stone walls and columns, so they are reproducing the colors and repainting the walls. We usually think of Gothic cathedrals as being dark gray stone, but that is not how the people who built them saw them. The section they have finished restoring is wonderfully light and reflects the colors of the stained glass as well.

On the practical side, I had my first run-in with a French tollbooth on my way to Chartres. I picked up my rental car at the airport and headed off for Chartres. It was a Mini-Cooper, small and peppy, just right for the narrow country roads and village streets, but the rental place was really busy so I didn’t get any kind of orientation to the car before I tackled the freeways around Paris. Think of the highways around New York City and you have an idea of how challenging it was. I knew that I needed to head in the direction of Versailles to find the road to Chartres and was just congratulating myself on having made it that far when I came to a tunnel that had a toll booth. I couldn’t find the buttons for the power windows! They weren’t on the door as in US cars, and all I saw was a rows of buttons under the radio with cryptic icons. Panic! I had to pay the toll or the gate wouldn’t open and there was a car behind me (fortunately not honking as they would in New York). So I pulled just past the slot for the money and opened the door as far as I could to squeeze my hand though and feed a bill into the machine. They do give change, but just as I was scooping the change out the car lurched forward a bit and I dropped the change on the ground and had to scrabble after it (didn’t want to leave 8 Euros in coins behind, that’s about $12!). But I managed to get most of it and continued on my way. So two tips: be sure you figure out how the windows open before taking your rental car on the road, and be sure you have some cash when you arrive. Because there are a lot of international students in our town, the local Wells Fargo bank has foreign currency, and big cities will have somewhere to get it, but if not get at least a little cash at the airport to tide you over until you can find an ATM.

Another benefit of renting a place

In addition to being less expensive per day than staying in a hotel and having more room, having a kitchen is great! Not only do you save money by not having to eat in restaurants for every meal, you can actually shop in the weekly open air market, instead of just taking pictures. The Saturday market in Arles is incredible; huge stalls with local produce of all kinds: fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, meats, cheeses, wine, all fresh from the farms. You can ask some of the friendlier vendors the name of something and get into a discussion of how to cook it and what it goes well with. It’s hard not to buy too much, it all looks so good!Arles marketProduce from the market