The Grand Tour II: Hilltop Mystic Art

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CORDES-SUR-CIEL, France — In the medieval southern French village, which sits in the clouds above the valley, is a temple — of sorts — dedicated to the mystic Ma Ananda Moyi. Cordes-sur-Ciel is a quaint tourist town and it is odd to discover this strange creation. If one doesn’t know it is there, the house on the corner of La Halle, could easily be overlooked as just one of the many old stone buildings on the winding cobbled streets.

But step inside and one is treated to a hand-made labyrinthian creation — part shrine, part art project — that occupies every room.

The house belongs to Jean-Jacques Enjalbert, a rally car racing driver who, on a trip to Paris, discovered a book and had a revelation which led him to buy a plane ticket to India where he discovered the teachings of Ma Ananda Moyi (also known as Sri Anandamayi Ma).

ana02Born in Bengal, now Bangladesh, on April 30, 1896, she was an Indian spiritual leader. Anandamayi translates “joy-permeator,” a name given to her by her devotees in the 1920s to describe what they saw as her habitual state of divine joy and bliss.

The website of her teachings states, “The mysterious aloofness of her personality was totally beyond human understanding and yet it was so tempered by her compassionate love for all living creatures that she seemed closer than the most indulgent friend ever could be.”

As a child, religious chanting would cause Anandamayi to enter an ecstatic state, and she would claim to see figures leaving and reentering religious statues. At the age of 13 she married Ramani Mohan Cakravarti or Bholanath as he was known. It was a celibate marriage though not by her husband’s choice.

“When thoughts of sexuality occurred to Bholanath, Anandamayi’s body would take on the qualities of death and she would grow faint. He had to repeat mantras to bring her back to normal consciousness. Sometimes in such situations, her body would become distorted in various ways or it would stiffen. She later said that she had given her husband spontaneous electrical shocks when he touched her the wrong way. Bholanath thought the situation was temporary but it proved to be permanent. His relatives said he should remarry but he did not follow their advice. Later, Bholanath took initiation from her and accepted Anandamayi as his guru,” according to om.guru.com.

ana05Anandamayi was a holy woman without formal religious training who emphasized the importance of detachment from the world and religious devotion. She also encouraged her devotees to serve others.

After his experience, Enjalbert returned to Cordes-sur-Ciel where bought, renovated and sold properties. However, in the house on La Halle, his renovation took a very different shape. The house is full of cedar sculptures that reflect the open circle, a mystical symbol. The house has an organic feel with the sculptures merging with concrete and other structures as one goes into a darkened grotto-like basement, and climbs to the upper floors of the house. Visitors may interact with the sculptures — the egg in which one can curl up, an armchair, even a coffin. And all around are photographs, writings and teachings of Anandamayi

As I wandered through the house, trying to take in the massive amount of visual stimuli, I could not help thinking of local artists Charlie Stagg and Herman Hugg, both now dead, who would have found kinship in the artistic installation.

To discover this installation among the medieval streets is both fascinating and slightly confusing. It is as though one steps through a portal into a timeless space on a journey to who knows where.

In “Le Grande Vide” (“The Great Void”), Enjelbert writes, “The relationship is eternal between the divine and the man, but in its game sometimes it is obvious, sometimes it is broken or rather seems broken. In this eternal relationship you can enter at any time.”

To enter his exploration of the relationship, simply step from the cobbled street into a mystical world of wonder.

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All photos by Andy Coughlan

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The Grand Tour II: Medieval in a Modern World

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Cordes-sur-Ciel’s narrow streets are cobbled

CORDES-SUR-CIEL, France — High in the hills of the Midi-Pyrenees floats a medieval town that time has seemingly forgotten. Cordes-sur-Ciel (sur-ciel means in the heavens or sky, named for the clouds and mist that rise from the valley giving the town a magical quality. Until 1993, the town was simply Cordes, a word thought to come from the Indo-European root “corte” meaning “rocky heights.” That year, the sur-Ciel was added.

It was established in 1222 by Count Raymond VII of Toulouse after the wars against the  Cathars and the hill is riddled with caves that served as granaries during times of siege.

This well-preserved town is approximately 15 miles from Gaillac and its vineyards (The French are very possessive of their wines so ask for the local wine by name, just ask the waiter what he suggests and you will get the full focal experience). Cordes has a population of a little more than 1,000 and covers slightly more than three square miles. At its highest point the altitude is 320 meters. In 1222, Cordes received its charter from the Count of Toulouse and is generally considered to be the first of the bastides of Southwest France.

Since the late 20th century, the village has become a popular tourist destination featuring markets and the annual Fêtes Médiévales du Grand Fauconnier —a three-day event with with a fair and a costumed Bal Médiéval.

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The view from Cordes-sur-Ciel’s Market Square

Market square on the top of the hill, the Halle de Cordes-sur-Ciel provides a wonderful of valley below. The church, Eglise St-Michel, is is relatively plain on the outside but worth a quick look inside.

As the town retains its medieval architecture, there are no cars allowed, but visitors but can catch a trolley bus to the top of the hill and gently stroll back down. Even the walk up is so picturesque one hardly notices one hardly notices the workout.

The narrow roads weave in and out and visitors should take the time to go exploring. Around every corner one discovers different architectural ornamentation and shops, gothic facades and gates, ramparts and alleyways. Don’t miss the town’s well, which is nearly 985-feet deep and supplied the town during the Crusades.

This is no dead town, as people still live in Cordes-sur-Ciel proper, and it is as close as one can get to experiencing a bustling medieval town.

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The Grand Tour II: A Mountain Village and Cathars

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The central swuare in Sauveterre de Rouergue

SAUVETERRE DE ROUERGUE, France — Located in the Aveyron department of southern France, between the towns of Albi and Rodez in the Midi-Pyrenees, this small 13th-century village with a population of little more than 800 is an unlikely tourist spot, but in the past few years the village has sought to halt its decline by focusing on arts and crafts with 15 artists and craftsmen installed year-round.

Sauveterre de Rouerge was founded as a bastide, designating 300 to 500 hundred towns built mainly in southwest France between 1222 and 1373. Historian Felix de Verneilh writes that bastides are, “New cities built suddenly, all at once, under the empire of one will.” It was built around a central square, which is still intact today, with the side streets housing galleries and artist’s studios.

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The workshop where the Sauveterre knife is made and shipped worldwide.

In 1362, during the 100 Years War, the town was ceded to the English who operated a garrison there until 1369, following which the town was a hub of artisan including weavers, blacksmiths, hatters, drapers, tanners and parchment-makers, as well as workers in linenironleather and pastels. The village was hit hard by the plague of 1628, which ravaged the population. As well as the artists who work there, the village is home to the Sauveterre knife, made in a small workshop and sold around the world.

The region was a central hub for the Cathars, a heretical sect of Christians who lived in Southern France during the 11th and 12th centuries. One branch of the Cathars was known as the Albigenses because they took their name from the Albi  which is 30 km from Sauveterre.

The Cathars in France were based largely in the Languedoc region. Their popularity rose in part as a reaction to the over-excesses of the Roman Catholic church. The religion was supported by many in the region, both peasants and nobles alike, and an estimated 10 percent of the population were supporters.

The Toulouse Counts owned large parts of the south of France and rejected the feudal structures of northern France, allowing cities to elect their own representatives — that helped the religion to spread.

The Cathar religion had its roots in eastern religions of 2,500 years ago, with the ideas of Zoroastre that the world consisted of two opposing forces, representing good and evil. Cathars and believe that these are of equal importance, whereas Christians believe that the forces of good are superior. The Cathars were an extreme ascetic group, cutting themselves off to retain as much purity as possible. They believed that sins of the flesh were conducive to evil, so they eschewed marriage and sex, even practicing veganism so as not to ingest the product of sex.

But their belief is equality, and a belief that the Bible should be accessible and translated into the local language made it appealing to peasants. They were also pacifists.

“In modern times, Catharism might be seen as a quirky or even progressive religious group, but in medieval Europe the Cathars were considered radical and profoundly dangerous to the stability of a fragile society. Those who denied the authority of the government to wage war and who refused to procreate were seen as anarchists threatening the culture” (gotquestion.org).

Elaine Graham-Leigh, writes in the Socialist Worker, “Heresy develops as a form of protest. If you were a peasant and you wanted to find a way of complaining, one way of doing it was through heresy. The heretical movements of the Middle Ages were basically movements of social protest.

“People didn’t start off fighting for organized religious sects, but they ended up fighting for them. Peasants might have started fighting because of their poverty, but then come to affiliate with the Cathars. It was not really about theology at all, it was more a case of, ‘You have too much money and we don’t have enough.’”

As Catharism grew, the authorities, controlled by the church, decided to clamp down. The Albigensian crusade arrived at Beziers early in 1209. The city refused to hand over the heretics and more than 20,000 people were killed in the battle that followed. When asked how the soldiers would be able to differentiate betweem Cathars and Catholics, papel legate Arnaud Amalric, uttered the infamous phrase, “Kill them all — God will recognize his own.”

Today, Sauveterre de Rouerge is a quiet, beautiful village nestled 1,500-feet high in Ségala plateau, but its region’s fascinating and turbulent past adds to its interest.

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All photos by Andy Coughlan 2017

The Grand Tour II: ‘Remembrance of hotels past’

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PARIS — Part of the fun of traveling is the random discoveries, the things one doesn’t look for but just appear — what the painter Bob Ross calls “the happy accident.” That’s how we ended up in the Le Swann Hotel Littéraire.

Much of our European trip had been planned, but leaving room for some flexibility we had not booked a room for the last two days in Paris before flying back to the States. Most of the time we find an Air B&B, but a few good deals on hotels can be had and the Best Western Premier Le Swann had a good rate and was located in a good area.

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The lobby of Le Swann Hotel Littéraire in Paris. Photo by Andy Coughlan

When we arrived, we noticed the lobby was full of books and artifacts but, frankly, we had just traveled on the overnight train and were only mildly interested. However, after a good nap, we discovered that it was a literary hotel dedicated to the French existentialist philosopher Marcel Proust — not what one expected at a Best Western.

Each room is named for a character in Proust’s seven-volume magnum opus “Remembrance of Things Past” (or “In Search of Lost Time” according to the translation from the original “Á la recherché du temps perdu”), and contains an original watercolor of the character, or it is named for an artist or writer Proust admired. Our room was named for Docteur Cottard, a regular at the Verderins’ salon.The hotel is named for the first volume of the collection “Swann’s Way.”

In addition, each of the six floors is named for a place mentioned in his works, and a short descriptive passage is found on each floor (and yes, I am the geek who walked the stairs to each floor).

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The Swann Hotel Littéraire in Paris. Photo by Andy Coughlan

Jacques Letertre, the owner and driving force behind the hotel, says, “Because Marcel Proust’s work delights readers for its finesse and its humor, its tolerance and its humanity, I wanted to give our guests the desire to go further and enter into this universe that has captivated me for so many years.”

Located at 15 Rude de Constantinople in the Luthier district in the 8th arrondissement, only a short walk from the Gare Saint-Lazare, it was built in the period of the Universal Exposition of 1889. The French poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire lived at 9 Rue de Constantinople and was a frequent visitor at the hotel.

Aside from the collected writings and pictures that adorn the rooms and stairways, Le Swann also houses costumes designed by Jacques Doucet, a designer from la Belle Epoque. The Proustian details are even found in the handwriting that adorns the frosted glass bathroom walls.

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The stairwell of the Swann Hotel Littéraire in Paris features one of many photographs of Marcel Proust. Photo by Andy Coughlan

The architect responsible for the building’s renovations, Aude Bruguiére, writes, in the hotel’s booklet, which is full of information about the hotel itself and Proust’s world, “…the Swann is like a permeable and quivering film caught between present and past, inviting us to discover or explore through its prism the incredible labyrinth of the Proust’s master work.”

Guests are actively encouraged to borrow some of the 500 books around the hotel. Letertre has another literary hotel dedicated to Gustave Flaubert in Rouen, and has plans for one dedicated to Marcel Aymé in Montmartre and another for Violette Leduc in Clermont Ferrand.

The hotel is cool, and it is also modern and comfortable. For a literature lover, it is well worth a visit.

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A panoramic view of Rue de Constantinople from the Swann Hotel Littéraire by Andy Coughlan

The Grand Tour II: ‘Reeling’ in history

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A costume from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” on display at the Musée du Cinémathèque.

PARIS —I knew that Lamar University was running a study abroad trip to Paris, but running into my colleague Clinton Rawls was unexpected. Clinton teaches film studies and during our chat he suggested a visit to the Musée du Cinémathèque in the Bercy district. A short metro ride later we found ourselves surrounded by all we could ever want to know about the history of film.

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The Frank Gehry-designed Cinémathèque Francais

The museum, which is housed in the Frank Gehry-designed Cinémathèque Francais, contains an impressive array of moving picture artifacts — from old-school zoetropes to vintage cameras to posters and memorabilia. At first glance it does not seem to be very large, but an impressive amount of film history is packed into the facility.

The Cinémathèque Française’s mission is to preserve and film heritage, especially French cinema, and contains 18,000 posters, 10,500 costume and set drawings, 17,500 press reviews, 450,000 photos of shootings of more than 20,000 films and 6,000 directors, 18,700 books about movies, 467 periodic collections, 2,600 videos and 1,350 DVDs.

film01Visitors are led through the complete history of moving images with interactive vintage zoetropes that can actually be operated by the visitor. Zoetropes, which mean “wheel of life,” feature multiple images on a drum that turns, giving the impression of movement. After a while, a light and mirrors was incorporated to enable projection, moving the image from an individual experience to one that could be shared with an audience.

It is fascinating to think that despite advances in technology we are still following the same concept.

film09The French are rightly proud of the pioneering exploits of the Lumiére Brothers and Georges Méliès, and their contributions are well represented. The collections includes props, posters, costumes and scripts, as well as featuring filmmakers Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut (check out the HBO documentary of the Frenchman interviewing the master of suspense), Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Tati and Fritz Lang.

The biggest thrill, surely, has to be the costume for Lang’s robot Maria from “Metropolis.” Clinton’s students said they laughed as he bowed down before it but I almost followed his lead.

film13As one walks around the museum, scenes from classic movies play overhead, including “Metropolis” and F.W. Murnau’s silent classic “Nosferatu.”

The museum, and the Cinémathèque Francais, was created by Henri Langlois in 1972 and moved to its current location in 2005. The idea began in the 1930s out of Langlois’ desire to screen and preserve movies. During WWII, the Nazis tried to destroy all movies made before 1937 and the collection was almost eliminated except that Langlois’ and his friends smuggled large amounts out of occupied France.

film06The museum is fascinating and I recommend getting the English audio guide as it offers a wealth of information beyond what is on the signage (and which is exclusively in French). Anyone with any interest in celluloid history will be in heaven.

When your visit is over, plan to stroll along the nearby Promenade Plantée which was built on top of a defunct railway. It is a wonderful example of urban green space, and the Viaduc des Arts houses arts, crafts and shopping at the former railway station.

The Musée du Cinémathèque is open Monday through Saturday from noon to 7 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. It is closed on Tuesdays. Admission is free. For movie screenings, check the Cinémathèque Francais website.

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The Grand Tour II: ‘Masterpiece of bad taste and magnificence’

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PARIS — When one goes to Paris, one must visit the Palace of Versailles — I believe it is a condition of entry. Versailles is opulent, extravagant, luxurious and a little bit tacky all at the same time — to be fair, the same could be said for quite a few of the major palaces of Europe. It is an ostentatious display of wealth and power — and a prime spot for more than three million tourists each year.

V22Visitors in the summer can expect to wait in line for an hour or more, according to the time of the day, so plan to get up and going early. It is important to buy tickets ahead of time and remember that the line that snakes around the square in front of the gates is the line to get in, not the line to get tickets — that’s a whole separate line. More than one person wasted time in the line before finding out they had to get tickets first. There are lots of good deals online that include multi-museum passes that can save you money (we used Paris City Pass but there are many options to suit your schedule). Some careful research and planning will pay off.

Versailles is about an hour on the train from Gare Saint-Lazare, followed by a five-minute walk, so plan accordingly.

The site of the palace was originally an 11th-century village before becoming the seat of French power in 1682 when Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” shifted the court there from Paris, bringing 20,000 people with him. Housing the court meant that large sums went into designing, expanding and maintaining the palace, and it set the style for French taste throughout Europe. The last royal couple to live there were Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

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Galerie de Glaces (Hall of Mirrors). Photo by Andy Coughlan

The palace is vast, both inside and out. If Versailles is your plan for the day, know it is your plan for the whole day, but it is well worth it. Room after room of ornamentation (700 of them) can get a little overpowering (museum fatigue is real thing), but the gardens go on and on (2,000 acres) and a pleasant walk is great way to recharge the batteries.

The site of the palace was originally an 11th-century village before becoming the seat of French power in 1682 when Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” shifted the court there from Paris, bringing 20,000 people with him. Housing the court meant that large sums went into designing, expanding and maintaining the palace, and it set the style for French taste throughout Europe. The last royal couple to live there were Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

During the French Revolution in 1789, the royal family fled to Paris and the palace fell into disrepair and much of the furniture was sold off. A renovation began under the guidance of Louise Phillip I In the early 1830s and conservation has continued ever since, with the most recent plan initiated by prime minister Jacques Chirac the palace was used for official state events and the 1919 treaty to end WWI was signed in the 73-meter-long Galerie de Glaces (Hall of Mirrors).

V01In case anyone wonders, the palace and its grounds include 200,000 trees, 210,000 flowers planted every year, 50 fountains, 2,150 windows, 67 staircases, 6,000 paintings, 1,500 drawings, 2,100 sculptures and 5,000 pieces of furniture. Anyone care to count?

The philosopher/poet Voltaire described Versailles as “a masterpiece of bad taste and magnificence” and that perfectly sums it up. It is a wonderful way to spend a leisurely day and get a look at how the other half — or half of one half of one half percent — lived.

The palace is open every day except Mondays. Admission is 18 euros, which includes an audio guide (take advantage of it, there is lots to learn and the crowds make it difficult to read everything), and free to under-18s.

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