The Independent Traveler's Newsletter                            PAGE THREE
BEAUCAIRE:  an Historical / Monumental 'Doubleheader'

                                                                                                                                                                                          by Arthur Gillette

About a thirty-minute drive from Nîmes, capital of the département du Gard in France's southern Languedoc-Roussillon region, is Beaucaire. 
Its name means something like 'beautiful fortress', and despite its mere 14,000 inhabitants it does boast some exceptional historical vestiges 
that you can visit pretty much year 'round.  For FRANCE On Your Own Arthur Gillette reports on two of its most exceptional offerings, 
only recently opened to the public. (Many thanks to Didier Lutrot for the exclusive photographs.)

A Fifth Century Monastery

My first astonishment at Beaucaire came when approaching, map in hand, the rural Abbaye de Saint-Roman.  Located atop a steep hill, it  looks on first sight like a somewhat crumbling Medieval fortress. Aha! The fortress dates from about the 14th century, but isn't really the Abbey, which is located beneath it . . . underground! 

Entry to the Saint Roman underground archeological site.  Copyright 2012 Didier Lutrot.  All rights reserved.
Entering the underground Abbaye-Saint-Roman

This troglodyte monastery was created – in grottoes previously used as shelter by hunters - towards the end of the 5th century by hermit monks. They left about 1538, and the site was long abandoned.  During the 1960s, Beaucaire's History and Archeology Society researched and excavated the site, which was classified as an Historical Monument in 1991.  It has thus been open to the public for only a short time.  But, I found the visit well worth the wait!

Abbot's throne.  Copyright 2012 Didier Lutrot.  All rights reserved.

Very well signposted, the visit takes you strolling, for example, to a large chapel. In addition to a 'light well' opened up to ground level to let in some sun, there are oil lamp niches carved into the walls (including a group called 'the lanterns of the dead') and a rather elegant 'abbot's throne' dating to the 11th century and also sculpted into the vertical  limestone.  It is thought that this was painted and otherwise adorned with decorations that have disappeared over the centuries.  Overhead is ribbed vaulting which looks somewhat like Romanesque decoration, but which also served to prevent the stone 'ceiling' from caving in.  Visiting the chapel, you can't but wonder at the number of prayers prayed and masses sung there during almost a millennium.

On, now, to more than 150 tombs chiseled into the rock – some excavation! – for religious inhabitants but also local benefactors of the monastery.

Two tombs below ground. Copyright 2012 Didier Lutrot.  All rights reserved.Tombs above ground.  Copyright 2012 Didier Lutrot.  All rights reserved.Monk's cell. Copyright 2012 Didier Lutrot.  All rights reserved.

                                Two below-ground tombs                                                              Above-ground tombs                                                              One of the monk's cells

One can also visit many of the monks' cells, hacked into the limestone grotto walls. Cool in summer for sure, they must have been rather colder than cool in winter!  For further information, here is their web site in somewhat approximate English:  Abbaye-Saint-Roman.

Anyone For Some Roman Wine?

Vintage amphorae at Mas des Tourelles. Copyright 2012 Didier Lutrot.  All rights reserved.

Not far from Saint Roman are the remains of a Roman villa and winery. Also opened recently for  public visits, the Mas des Tourelles site and mini-museum shows how wine was made some two millennia ago.  Among many features displayed are receptacles for wine, including vintage amphorae, to the left in this photo. 

Perhaps most impressive among the artifacts on display is the reconstituted Roman wine press. Polite though my questions were, I couldn't find out from site staff exactly how such a huge and heavy tree trunk was raised and then lowered to squash the grapes. The wines were perfumed in a surprising variety of ways. Added, for example, were peach juice, spices (for the pre-meal gustatio, the equivalent of today's apéritifs), and even salty sea water. 

Roman wine press at Mas des Tourelles.  Copyright 2012 Didier Lutrot.  All rights reserved.

At the site's wine-tasting counter I took the plunge and tried the sea water variant.  Yuck?  Not at all!  Rather light and tasty, in fact.  The Mas des Tourelles also produces and sells different 'brews' of Roman-style wine on site. These include, for example:

  • Muslum: Grape juice mixed with honey and various spices. It was reputed to keep a man healthy for many years, and in Roman times women and servants were forbidden to consume it.
  • Carenum: Here, quinces and peach jam are added to sweeten the grape juice. Apparently it goes quite well with foie gras and different kinds of dessert.
  • Turriculae: This is the sea water concoction.
Milestones.  Copyright 2012 Didier Lutrot.  All rights reserved.

At the Mas des Tourelles, the second Sunday of September sees a public Roman-style grape harvest and vinification ceremony.  Visit their web site in French and some English.

A short distance from the Mas des Tourelles are other Roman vestiges, last but not least of Beaucaire's archeological attractions: three milestones, marking distances on the Via Domitia highway that spanned southern France from the Alps to the Pyrenees, linking Italy to Spain.

Why three? Simply because successive Roman emperors wanted each to leave a personal imprint on this major artery, an antique equivalent to today's turnpikes. 



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                                                                                          by Maxine Rose Schur

One must always maintain one's connection to the past yet ceaselessly pull away from it.
                                                                                             - French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard  (1884-1962)

In the Spring I made one of my spontaneous trips to Paris as the stress of my job sent a signal to body and mind that I needed a break; I needed my 'Paris fix' which had always consisted of museum exhibits, decadent meals, walking near to exhaustion and overspending on beautiful things.  A fun, if frenetic experience.

This time was different.

For the past few months I've been reading and re-reading Eckhart Tolle's remarkable book The Power of Now in which he states that only by staying in the present and disassociating from chronological time can one live fully.  I decided to follow his advice and told friends that the word I would carry close to my heart during my Paris week is the word 'slow'.  I would not dash from one delight to the next but rather I would savor Paris.  No, this time, I announced, I would luxuriate in whatever particular moment I was in.

I tried hard to do this and by my third day in Paris, I had a sudden insight that Paris, above all places, understand the power of now.  Paris is the place where the thread of the past and the thread of the future are knotted so visibly in the present.  The French honor the past for the grand feats of history as well as the lesser-known events that are deemed worthy of communal memory.  For example, if you find yourself on any street in Paris, no matter how humble, you are made aware for whom the street was named.  The past artists, social workers, politicians, scientists, and in fact, all those who did anything important, are celebrated.  The Merrau Report of 1862, which set down the laws of naming Paris streets, declared "The names of old streets keep the memory of an ancient population and those of new streets will help perpetuate the memory of great men, and of great actions that have made the nation proud."  This is why in Paris more than 100 streets alone are named for mathematicians.

The past in France is viewed not merely for nostalgia's or education's sake, but rather the past is an ever-present part of who the French are today - and that's why they have a word we really cannot translate:  patrimoine.  Yet, for all their respect for the past, the French honor the new, the novel, the now.  And what I saw this time is that this penchant for the avant-garde is so often rooted in what has gone before.  What made Paris for me so fascinating on this visit was to observe so often how the French create an original, psychological and aesthetic connection between the two.

The Louvre: Old and New.

On my first day, a glorious weekday afternoon, I walked as if in a dream through the Tuileries and toward the Louvre.  The vast public garden unrolled before me and above the sky was a Baroque ceiling - powder blue in which enormous puffs of clouds floated and from which it seemed  cherubs would emerge.  Though I was heading to the greatest museum in the world . . . I went slowly.

When I came to the courtyard of the Louvre, I got the same thrill I get every time I take in La Cour Carée.  I. M. Pei's 1989 glass Pyramid rises like a diamond among the grand Renaissance courtyard.  It's a dazzling modern element that joins in one glance the Egyptian obelisk at the Place de la Concorde and the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel celebrating Napoleon's Egyptian military victory.

Inside the Louvre, I made a pilgrimage to one of my favorite works:  the ceiling painting The Birds by Georges Braque (1953) in the room of the ancient Greek and Roman antiquities.  I discovered this terrific creation by chance.  After looking as some small bronze Greek statue, I looked up.  Surprise!  Gigantic black birds, outlined in white and as simple and clean as if just cut from construction paper, fly across a midnight blue sky, and the whole work is sent into the ornate gilded woodwork of this 16th century room.  Braque loved showing how objects look when viewed in different spaces and pictorial planes, and the wonder is how perfectly right and even more intriguing art can look when placed out of its own era.  After Braque's daring ceiling, the Louvre has since asked three other contemporary artists to adorn the building including, in 2010, the American artist, Cy Twombly.

Braque's Birds at the Louvre.  Copyright 2012 Maxine Rose Schur.  All rights reserved.

Twombly's work is painted on a ceiling in an adjoining room filled with classical bronzes - the Salle des Bronzes.  The painting covers the 400 square meters of ceiling (4,300 square feet) and stretches more than thirty-three meters - 108 feet!  Looking up, I was overwhelmed by an immense expanse of deep blue swimming with round shaped and captioned with the names of ancient Greek sculptors.  The round shapes could be interpreted as shields, planets, or coins, while the blue background evokes both sky and sea.  Cy Twombly's art is seen by critics as an attempt to create a continuity between past and present, and the Louvre ceiling achieves this perfectly as the immense Aegean blue space suggests the Mediterranean, and the writing references the very creators of the ancient bronzes below.

Hautes Herbes. Photo copyright 2012 by Anna Walter:

Exiting the Louvre, I walked aimlessly past the chic restaurant, Le Fumoir, and found myself in front of a huge 17th century church I had never noticed before: Saint Germain en Auxerrois.  The first church on this site was constructed in the early 12th century, but the bell tower is the only element that survives from that period as the church was destroyed and reconstructed several times since.  The church's glory is its stained glass windows from the 15th century.  Strangely, what made this ancient structure especially lovely for me was the 2003 sculpture, Hautes Herbes (High Grasses) in front of it.

Created by Béatrice Guichard, it is a simple steel sculpture showing grass that is strong yet bends gently in the wind.  One side of each grass blade is silver colored, the other gold.  Installed not on the sidewalk but on a patch of soil, the sculpture seems to rise naturally from the earth.  It's a thoroughly modern expression of inherent strength and spiritual grace, and its stark minimalism sets off the ornate church with its own skyward reach and legacy of survival against destruction.

In my rambles through Paris I seemed to find so frequently an example of the now and then.  I discovered Melanie Charlot, the jewelry designer who incorporates scraps of fabric from the old costumes of the Comédie Française into very chic bracelets, necklaces and earrings. "I want to connect the legendary French plays with their public," she said.  Then of course, there are the 260 black and white modernist columns by Daniel Buren in the courtyard of the 17th century Palais Royal. Highly controversial when they were installed more than twenty-five years ago, they now seem as cozy to children and grown ups as the neighborhood playground.  New and wonderfully surprising is the Phantom restaurant at the Opera Garnier (see photo).  Here architect Odile Decq floats a contemporary white and tomato red space within the grand 1875 building by use of an undulating glass curtain that protects the grand stone pillars and alters nothing of the old. His mission was simple: to connect with the spirit of the second Empire structure without mimicking it and to assert a unique contemporary spirit.  This timeless connecting could be why designers today so heartily embrace French style.  Interior designer, Carol Brademas of Interiors Etc. scours the Paris Flea Market annually to find those 'just right' objects for her clients.  As she says, "People like both the Paris apartment look and the country French look because it blends the old with the new."

So this is how I saw Paris afresh in May.  It stayed in the now, taking time to see how so many creations that excite are juxtaposed with, and connect to, what came before.  For me, Paris expresses better than any other city the innate human impulse to both remember and create anew.  As the French philosopher Blaise Pascal noted, "If we examine our thoughts, we shall find them always occupied with the past and the future."

Visit Maxine's web site at
where you will have access to information about her books for children
and on travel.  You can contact her by email at
We are grateful to her for this series, Petite Pleasures.

[Mouse over photos for descriptions and credits.]

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