Tag Archives: France

Story Published! Jules Verne’s Nantes, France

Courtesy: Nantes Tourism

Courtesy: Nantes Tourism

Mechanical sea creatures and a lumbering larger-than-life elephant are just some of the rides in the progressive city of Nantes, France.  My story on the Jules Verne-inspired amusement park in Nantes was published in late December in the Dallas Morning News.

IMG_9690http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/travel/international/20131220-jules-verne-inspires-amusement-park-in-nantes-france.ece

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Normandy Highlights: Mont Saint Michel and D-Day Beaches

Mont Saint Michel.  Photo by Richard Varr

Mont Saint Michel. Photo by Richard Varr

By Richard Varr

It protrudes majestically above the sea; the spire of its abbey the pinnacle of this near perfectly-rounded island that has lured pilgrims since the Middle Ages.  I’m walking along a causeway leading to one of France’s most enchanting castles – Mont Saint Michel, its distant silhouette against a hazy sky seemingly more imposing with my every step.

Inside the abbey. Photo by Richard varr

Inside the abbey. Photo by Richard varr

My journey is only a few miles from the parking area.  But I am imagining how medieval worshippers would traverse dangerous mountainous terrain on pilgrimages covering hundreds of miles to come here for reassurance of going to heaven.  The Benedictine monastery is dedicated to the cult of St. Michael, the dragon-slaying archangel who fought for good over evil.  “St. Michael raises souls.  And if you committed a crime in medieval times, you would be scared of burning in hell,” says my tour guide.  “So people would go on a pilgrimage to renovate their souls.”

Overlooking the bay. Photo by Richard Varr

Overlooking the bay. Photo by Richard Varr

“They would be very lucky to arrive on the coast of Normandy on a day like today,” he continues, “where on the horizon they would see Mont St. Michel – celestial Jerusalem, paradise on Earth.”  But challenges remained to actually get to the island.  Pilgrims perished in bogs of quicksand at low tide, trying to cross the deceiving sandy landscape.  Others drowned as the tide rolled in at the rate of 200 feet per minute, or as legend has it, at the speed of a galloping horse.

Abbey entrance. Photo by Richard Varr

Abbey entrance. Photo by Richard Varr

As if I hadn’t walked enough already, I now start my ascent to the stone-walled abbey.  A spiraling narrow street through a crush of trinket shops and eateries leads me up to steps – 300 or so – to finally reach the abbey, the top level of the three-floored monastery.  Along the way, I walk through the vast monks’ refectory, a grassy cloister and a crypt of enormous pillars on the lower level supporting the medieval structure.

Richard at Mont Saint Michel.

Richard at Mont Saint Michel.

“Mont Saint Michel has always attracted people because of its spirituality and the beauty of the bay,” says my tour guide.  “It’s so beautiful, so empty and so alive at the same time.”

D-Day Beaches

Craters  and bombed out gun turret at Pointe du Hoc. Photo by Richard Varr

Craters and bombed out gun turret at Pointe du Hoc. Photo by Richard Varr

I walk within craters – nearly 70-year-old bomb holes now overgrown with grass – along the shores of Normandy.  I maneuver around cracked concrete slabs and rocky ledges, and step down into bunkers with rounded concrete gun turrets – some still intact – looking out over the beaches below.

Bombed gun turret. Photo by Richard Varr

Bombed gun turret. Photo by Richard Varr

“It was a key coastal battery because it was positioned between Utah and Omaha beaches,” explains my tour guide about Pointe du Hoc, a strategic German outpost atop a bluff.  “It could have created havoc against the fleets going to Utah and Omaha beaches, and so it was really important to the allies that this battery be silenced on the morning of D-Day.”

Omaha Beach. Photo by Richard Varr

Omaha Beach. Photo by Richard Varr

Omaha Beach is the next stop on my tour of France’s D-Day sights.  Now a peaceful and scenic stretch of sand with homes across the road, it’s hard to imagine that one of World War II’s most pivotal battles took place here when the Allies landed on June 6, 1944.  Back then, the Germans had planted 82 machine gun nests and 16 battery posts in the hills above the beach.

American Cemetery. Photo by Richard Varr

American Cemetery. Photo by Richard Varr

“What’s hardest to comprehend today is the noise and the smell of the battle – smoke, powder and blood,” says the guide.  “I think it’s impossible for us today to realize what it was like at the time.”

My half-day, D-Day beaches tour also includes a stop at the American Cemetery where 9,387 soldiers are buried beneath perfectly lined rows of white marble crosses and Stars of David.  We also visit the massive four-gun German battery at Longues-sur-Mer, now opposite a field of beautiful wild flowers.  Our last stop is where I see the remnants of an extended artificial harbor along the shoreline at Arromanches-les-Bains, where Allied forces could unload 6,000 tons of equipment and 1,200 vehicles daily.

Gun at Longues sur Mer. Photo by Richard Varr

Gun at Longues sur Mer. Photo by Richard Varr

Next year is the 70 anniversary of D-Day.  Another important stop should be at the Caen Memorial, a colossal museum in the nearby city of Caen focusing on D-Day and World War II.

RAIL EUROPE

Thought I would mention Rail Europe, which I used for part of my travel in France.  I must say it’s a gem when commuting between cities not only in France, but all over Europe!  According to the train service, “Rail Europe combines the maps, schedules and fares of over 50 different train companies across Europe, creating a one stop shop for the North American traveler to plan and book European rail travel.”   http://www.raileurope.com

Nantes, France: Great Elephant and the Inspiration of Jules Verne

Courtesy: Nantes Tourism

Courtesy: Nantes Tourism

By Richard Varr

It lumbers along with its piercing tusks, crunching gears and twisting trunk shooting streams of water.   The 40-foot-high “Great Elephant” in Nantes, France may just be the largest such likeness of a mighty pachyderm on Earth, and a thrill for visitors who climb atop the mechanical beast and catch a ride.

Great Elephant. Photo by Richard Varr

Photo by Richard Varr

It’s all part of a mechanized animal and sea creature wonderland, the “Machines de L’île,” inspired by the 19th century science fiction fantasies of Jules Verne, Nantes’ favorite son born here in 1828.

Photo by Richard Varr

Photo by Richard Varr

I visited the port city, once the capital of Brittany, in June and was also simply amazed by the massive likenesses of crustaceans of the deep – giant blue crabs and lobsters with their imposing pincers, elongated squid with stretching tentacles and sharp-toothed fish flashing eerie grins. There’s even a horned dragon – all part of the Machines de L’île’s three-tiered Sea Worlds merry-go-round, where children can ride either atop or on seats within the creatures. Under construction is a colossal 110-foot-high “Heron Tree” to be crowned with two mechanical herons that ride from branch to branch.

Photo by Richard Varr

Photo by Richard Varr

“We enjoy rediscovering the dreams of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” says Nantes tour guide Agnès Poras. “Every machine that you see is mechanical – you have to cycle to move the tail of one fish, you have to be very active. When you read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, it’s so easy to connect with this artwork.”

Photo by Richard Varr

The attraction fills the grounds of former shipyards – built on the Isle of Nantes within the Loire River – and is part of the city’s ambitious tourism drive within the last decade. One of the fastest growing cities in France, Nantes with its green space and aggressive eco-friendly policies has been recognized as the European Union’s Green Capital for 2013, beating out 17 European towns and cities.

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Central Square with Louis XVI statue. Photo by Richard Varr

During our tour, we walk through the city’s central square where a statue of Louis XVI sits atop a pillar. “This is one of only four statues of Louis XVI in France,” notes Agnès. “He’s dressed like an emperor.”

IMG_9462

Photo: Richard Varr

The adjacent Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, built between the 15th and 19th centuries, houses the Renaissance tomb of François II, the last duke of Brittany.  What catches my eye is a tomb statue with two faces – one side with a woman’s gentle countenance and the back of her head with the face of a bearded old man.

Richard Varr

Photo: Richard Varr

“When the kids see it they say, ‘just like Harry Potter,’” quips Agnès. “She’s using the mirror to see backwards into the past to see the wisdom, knowledge and experience represented by the old man made in the likeness of the sculptor,” she says of the tomb commissioned by Queen of France Anne de Bretagne in 1498.

Photo: Richard Varr

Castle of the Dukes of Brittany. Photo by Richard Varr

We also visit the impressive Castle of the Dukes of Brittany, now the city’s history museum showcasing the past five centuries. I was surprised to learn how Nantes was a key point along the slave trade to the New World. Rooms of the museum highlight how 550,000 slaves were traded in the port of Nantes with more than 1,800 boat trips.

Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery. Photo by Richard Varr

Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery. Photo by Richard Varr

For this reason, the city has erected the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery along the Loire, where slave ships once moored. Plaques along an adjacent river promenade note the names of the ships, and the memorial itself recognizes this turbulent period in the city’s history as Nantes wasn’t an abolitionist city. “Since the 1980s, Nantes has really reflected on its past,” explains Agnès. “We’ve established the history, we know this is a place of memory, but memory helps future generations think about what they do.”

IF YOU GO

http://www.nantes-tourisme.com

Radisson Blu. Photo by Richard Varr

If you visit, you might want to check out the new Radisson Blu Hotel Nantes opened in November 2012. It’s columned lobby and neoclassical architecture showcases how the hotel was built into an 1865 former judiciary complex once housing courts and jails. The hotel has 142 rooms, 20 suites, a spa wellness center, restaurants and more.   http://www.radissonblu.fr/hotel-nantes

IMG_0919For dinner, check out the impressive 1900 French brasserie La Cigale with its gilded art deco interior.   http://www.lacigale.com

Rennes’ Half-Timbered Homes a Throwback to Medieval France

Rennes' half-timbered homes.  Photos by Richard Varr

Rennes’ half-timbered homes. Photos by Richard Varr

Rennes, the scenic riverside capital of Brittany, is also a college town with 60,000 students.  What impresses me most about this city with its 2,000 year history, however, is its half-timbered medieval homes and its sprawling and bustling Lices market, the second largest food market in France.

Photo by Richard Varr

Photo by Richard Varr

Centered within Rennes’ cobbled medieval core, several hundred painted timber-framed houses remain – the highest number in Brittany.  Many of the homes from the 15th through 17th centuries survived the massive 1720 fire that blazed for six days, destroying 33 streets and more than 900 homes.  Today, the muted red, brown and yellow-streaked wooden facades of more than 280 homes are visible, as the others are still covered in plaster.

“After the fire of 1720, to protect the houses that escaped the fire, they covered them with plaster in the middle of the 18th century,” explains Rennes tour guide Sèverine Even as she leads us along the narrow streets.  “In the 1970s, they removed the plaster to expose their original facades.”

Photo by Richard Varr

Photo by Richard Varr

Craftsmen find part of the original color on the homes to restore the facades to the original look, where crisscrossed and straight-patterned wooded beams are often adorned with brightly-painted window trims and carvings, especially over doorways.  Carvings include motifs such as lions and stoic Roman soldiers.  Businesses, restaurants, bars and shops now occupy the restored medieval buildings.

“Nowadays, it’s a quiet area and you can walk here freely,” says Sèverine.  “It’s strange how Rennes still keep this medieval habit to have a lot of restaurants on one street and another street with bars – like in medieval times.”

Ti Koz. Photo by Richard Varr

Ti Koz. Photo by Richard Varr

We pass by one building dating back to 1505 named Ti Koz, swashed in earthen-red paint.  “It was a restaurant that burned down in the 1990s, but was rebuilt exactly the way it was,” says Sèverine.  “It was a house for priests, but now it’s a pub.  They saved whatever they could and rebuilt it.  You can easily see the old parts like the statues around the door.”

St-Pierre. Photo by Richard Varr

St-Pierre. Photo by Richard Varr

The towers of Rennes’ St-Pierre Cathedral soar 44 meters over the surviving 15th century city gate, the Portes Mordelaises, and the adjacent crumbling medieval ramparts.  The imposing cathedral we see today dates from the 16th to 19th centuries and includes a 5,000-pipe organ given by Napoleon III in 1857.  The ceiling is typical of the 17th century with paintings surrounded by gilded wood and with a Brittany coat of arms in the middle.  Another interesting church, the 15th century St-Yves Chapel with its Gothic architecture and original ceiling, is now home to Rennes’ Tourist Information Center.

Lices Market. Photo by Richard Varr

Lices Market. Photo by Richard Varr

Flower Market. Photo by Richard Varr

Flower Market. Photo by Richard Varr

I was lucky enough to be in Rennes on a Saturday – market day – to see a few hundred vendors and farmers from all over the region with cart after stall overflowing with produce, seafood and meats.  I walk along a colorful cacophony of displays with roasting chickens, ripening bananas and strawberries, glistening red peppers and blooming flowers.  With 120 kinds of apples in Brittany and Normandy, there’s also lots of cider, notes Sèverine.  “This used to be a jousting square, but now they have the market.  Everyone brings baskets to load up.”

City Gate. Photo by Richard Varr

City Gate. Photo by Richard Varr

Other sights to see include Rennes’s 18th century City Hall on Place de la Mairie with the Opera on the other side of the square.  Built a century after City Hall, the Opera’s rounded shape was designed to complement City Hall’s indented curved façade.  “It’s like two pieces of a puzzle where one piece could fit into the other,” says Sèverine.

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Parlement of Brittany Main Chamber detail. Photo by Richard Varr

The main chamber of the 17th century Parlement of Brittany building, restored after a 1994 fire, includes ornate and red-walled Parisian décor with French-style ceilings, chandeliers and gilded paneling.   The tapestry, with a Brittany knight as the centerpiece, took six years to make.  “We used to have tapestries on every single wall here,” says Sèverine.  “They were saved during the 1994 fire and sent to a Paris workshop.”

“But the workshop burned so the tapestries we saved here were lost in the second fire in Paris,” she adds.  “That was destiny.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION:  www.tourisme-rennes.com

Le Château d’Apigné

Le Château d’Apigné.  Photo by Richard Varr

Le Château d’Apigné. Photo by Richard Varr

This elegant hotel on the outskirts of Rennes is a 10-15 minute drive from the city center.  The chateau has spacious, well-adorned rooms that could give new meaning to the French countryside.  During our visit, we learned French table etiquette from an expert, Madame Joëlle Ruault.

IMG_9831From Atout France:  “Before working as the curator of a museum in Normandy, Joëlle Ruault taught visual arts in high schools in Rennes.  Following her retirement, she has delved into exploring her passion for French heritage.

Madame Joëlle Ruault.  Photo by Richard Varr

Madame Joëlle Ruault. Photo by Richard Varr

This passion, coupled with precision and diligence to her work, led her to propose this examination of the evolution from the Middle Ages to the modern era of l’art de vivre à la française, focusing on the culinary arts and table decoration.  She was even invited to the Élysée Palace a few years ago where she talked about the protocol and l’art de la table in an official setting.”

www.chateau-apigne.com

Le Château d’Apigné. Photo by Richard Varr

Le Château d’Apigné. Photo by Richard Varr

St. Martin’s Tijon Parfumerie: A Fragrance All Your Own

John Berglund of Tijon Parfumerie. Photo by Richard Varr

John Berglund of Tijon Parfumerie. Photo by Richard Varr

By Richard Varr

I always thought men’s cologne was something you simply purchased from a department store – maybe a nice birthday gift or a stocking stuffer at Christmas.  With my trip to St. Martin, however, I found a new respect for exactly what it takes to make a manly cologne or a sensual perfume.

Grand Case, St. Martin. Photo by Richard Varr

Grand Case, St. Martin. Photo by Richard Varr

On the French side of this Caribbean island, in the beachside town of Grand Case with its boutiques and restaurants, I found Tijon Parfumerie where you can actually make your own perfume or cologne.  Several years ago I visited a few of the parfumeries in Grasse, France, often referred to as the perfume capital of the world, but I never had the chance to actually smell some of the hundreds of scents used in creating the fragrances.

Cyndi Berglund with 300 bottles of fragrance oils. Photo by Richard Varr

Cyndi Berglund with 300 bottles of fragrance oils. Photo by Richard Varr

At Tijon, I did just that.  I was invited to join Tijon’s “Invent Your Scent Mix & Match Class” where you mix fragrance oils to make your very own perfume or cologne.  There are more than 300 oils to choose from – earthy and floral to citrus and spicy, with base fragrances ranging from dune grass, tobacco and leather to lemon grass, passion fruit and mango, to name just a few.

“With over 300 oils to choose from and the fact that you might use a couple drops of one oil or another, we think the possible combinations are almost infinite,” says John Berglund, an American who along with his wife Cyndi left the fast-paced corporate world to create this parfumerie in the Caribbean.  “That’s why every blend that’s been made here is always a blend I haven’t smelled before.”

Perfume-making station. Photo by Richard Varr

Perfume-making station. Photo by Richard Varr

The process involves combining three types of oils.  First there are what’s known as base “notes,” usually heavier oil fragrances such as amber, vanilla, myrrh and musk that last longer on your skin.  Middle notes are the heart of the perfume and are usually floral, woodsy, earthy or spicy.  Top notes, including citrus fragrances such as lemon and lime, evaporate in maybe 15 minutes or so.

“You basically have to go with what smells good to you,” says Cyndi Berglund.  “When you’re picking your oils, try to mix up categories.  Maybe use a floral, an earthy and a citrus for example, or a spicy, a citrus and a woodsy.  Try not to stay in one category, only to make your formula a little more complex.”

When I started sniffing some of the 300 oils, I was actually surprised of my keen sense of smell – that I could clearly differentiate the scents of dune grass, vanilla and Frasier Fir for example, or tobacco and eugenol, derived from clove oil and a familiar smell from the dentist’s office.

Richard mixing oils.

Richard mixing oils.

“Eugenol is popular in the dentist’s office as a numbing agent.  It has a nice spicy scent and a little touch of it in the right formulas can be very nice,” explains John.  “Tobacco is more of a masculine scent,” he adds.  “It has a bad connotation, but we’re talking about the tobacco leaf before it’s processed.”

After trying three combinations of different oils, I settled for one that included an earthy base of cedarwood and sage, an additional base of musk, a freshener of green aloe and clover, and a citrus note of bergamot, an inedible fruit that’s similar to a cross between an orange and lemon.  “It really balanced very well,” notes John.

To make the final perfume or cologne, the next step is adding distilled water and then 100 percent denatured alcohol to thin out the oils.  The concoction is placed in a small perfume bottle for Tijon’s customers.  And customers can name their creation – I named mine, “Nature’s Essence.”

John Berglund. Photo by Richard Varr

John Berglund. Photo by Richard Varr

What’s the overall difference between men’s cologne and women’s perfume?  “Before 1921, all the perfumes were unisex.  The difference is women’s perfumes are usually heavily floral while men’s colognes are woodsy or musky,” explains John.  “Now it’s more of a marketing term.  Men don’t want to buy perfumes so they call it cologne or eau de toilette.”

“People who have come here say never in their life would they ever make their own perfume or cologne,” notes John.  “I think the fun for the participant is they’re creating something they never thought they would.”

“For us, the fun is meeting people from all over the world who leave here with a big smile on their face.”

Photo by Richard Varr

Photo by Richard Varr

FOR MORE INFORMATION:    http://www.tijon.com

VIDEO:  John and Cyndi Berglund explain part of the perfume and cologne-making process.