Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Land of "Les Fêtes"

The French really do love their holidays! Almost every month in the year has some kind of a "jour férié"-- religious, cultural, remembrance -- that call for parades (Armistice Day), or bouquets of Lily of the Valley (May Day), or at the very least a day or two off work. In the month of May, there are so many holidays that most people manage to work only three days each week. For the past month, though, it's been all about la fête de Noël, and la fête de la Nouvelle Année.

La fête de Noël begins in earnest in early December when the big department stores on the Boulevard Haussmann transform their windows into glittery winterscapes, with lively marionette figures...

...or with electric trains running around a snowy landscape, dotted with dozens of expensive perfume bottles.

Outside the Galeries Lafayette, there's almost always a figure painted entirely in gold, standing on a box, gently shaking the hand of young children.

By the third week of December, every respectable patisserie has a massive display of "Bûches-de-Noël" (highly decorated chocolate log cakes) on display in their windows...

...and butcher shops are filled with hanging turkeys and capons, most of them still partially brightly feathered!

But one thing Paris did not have this year was the famous Champs Elysées Christmas markets, cancelled due to security fears. How sad is that! In fact, even our local Choiseul market, at the Metro Quatre Séptembre, did not appear. So we decided to seek Christmas markets elsewhere, and took the train from the Gare de l'Est to Strasbourg for a mid-December weekend visit to their world-renowned festivities.

Home to the European Parliament, and a centre of manufacturing and engineering, Strasbourg lies on the eastern-most side of France in the Alsace region, just a couple of miles from the German border.

Our destination, though, took us to La Grande Île, the historic centre of Strasbourg where, since 1570, there have been street markets around the cathedral to celebrate la Féte de Noël. It is by far the oldest Christmas market in France.

Today, centuries later, crowds in their thousands upon thousands--bundled up against the cold-- still flock to wander through the stalls. The hot wine "Vin Chaud" stalls are usually the first stop. You hear French, German, Italian, Spanish, English, Chinese, Japanese, Polish, and many other foreign tongues. For three weeks, this little historic island becomes a veritable United Nations.

With this iconic giant Nutcracker figure standing guard, we made our way through the crowds till we were right in front of the stalls, and could really see what was being offered.

Here we found row after row of locally made delicacies, like these jolly gingerbread men...

...very pretty, brightly painted, candle lamps that glowed ever brighter as the sun went down.

There were stalls that it seemed sold nothing but white angel ornaments for your Christmas tree...

...or jolly red Santas to add color to your tree!

Many of the stalls were run by pretty young Alsatian "maids", all decked out in their traditional dress, full of smiles and good humor, offering more gingerbread men, cookies, tortes, and -- most particularly...
...Kugelhopf, a favorite local delicacy! A sweetened bread, similar to brioche (although not as rich), it is flavored with raisins and almonds, baked in a ring-shaped earthenware mold, and usually dusted with powdered sugar before serving. It is a popular breakfast choice, or late afternoon "gouter" (snack). Germany and Austria offer a similar item, with names like "gugelhoupf" or "gouglof". In Austria, they were traditionally known as “turban cakes.”  The shape was apparently created after the Turks were defeated at the gates of Vienna in 1683, and Viennese bakers made a victory cake to resemble the sultan’s turban.  Or so the story goes…

No matter where you are on La Grande Île, you have only to look up to orient yourself to the predominant building for miles around: La Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, a 12th century eye-popping marvel, said to be among the finest examples of high, or late, Gothic architecture. For over 200 years, from 1647 to 1874, it was the tallest building in the world (142 metres!). Today it is the sixth-tallest church in the world and the highest surviving structure built entirely in the Middle Ages. During the French Revolution, however, it came close to perishing. In April 1794, the "Enragés" (a radical subset of the "Sans-Culottes" of the Revolution) who ruled the city, started planning to tear the spire down, on the grounds that it hurt the principle of equality. Luckily, a group of citizens came up with the smart idea of crowning the cathedral with a giant tin Phrygian cap of the kind the "Enragés" themselves wore, thus saving the Cathedral. Human ingenuity at its best!

We could have spent several hours just gawking at the facade, there was so much to examine and look at. Goethe described it as a "sublimely towering, wide-spreading tree of God". Its pink sandstone hue glowed in spite of the cloudy skies and rain showers. Visible across the plains of Alsace, it can be seen from as far off as the Vosges Mountains or the Black Forest on the other side of the Rhine.

The interior was equally as impressive, with its soaring vaulted ceiling and a spectacular display of tapestries telling the story of the Visitation of Mary by the Angel Gabriel, through the birth of the baby Jesus.

At the far end of a side aisle, this magnificent astronomical clock attracts a daily audience of people, waiting for it to chime the quarter, half, three-quarter, and hour. This particular clock dates from the 1830s replacing an earlier 16th century version.

I especially liked the "day" symbols, way up high, that are timed to appear and make their way around during their 24 hour "show time". Here we have "Saturne" or "Samedi" or Saturday. And it was indeed Saturday!

Stunning stained-glass windows line the aisles, a way for earlier (illiterate) congregations to follow the stories and the teachings of the Bible. During WWII, the windows were all removed and secreted away by the German Army, but happily discovered by the "Monuments Men" after the War, and re-installed in their rightful places.

An elaborate "crêche" took up most of another aisle, with all the familiar figures of La Fête de Noël.

As dusk falls, the stalls glow red and cosy, and the Vin Chaud sales grow. It's cold in Strasbourg!

At night, the streets in this historic old town are lit up with strings of lights, sparkling stars, and swooping angels to show us the way back to our hotel.There are many beautiful old buildings in Strasbourg that were hard to appreciate in the crowded streets on this visit. We'll just have to return in a different season!

But we still had the actual Fête de Noël to celebrate! Taking a deep breath, we rented a sturdy Clio car from the Avis office at the Gare de Lyon, carefully navigated our way out of Paris, and headed south to Burgundy to spend the holiday with our East Coast Robbins Family, some of whom live in France.

On the way down, we drove through many acres of vineyards, and in one spot, a handsome hawk made sure we noticed it, and posed politely for its snapshot.

Our destination was "Les Arcis" a country home in the hamlet of Hautrive, Yonne, that at one time was the hunting lodge of Monsieur Colbert, CFO to Louis XIV.

Here, we decorated a very pretty Christmas tree with bright colored ornaments and Christmas lights...

...we hung our stockings by the chimney, with care...

...we checked we had the annual Poinsettia and the box of Crackers...

...we feasted on our very own Bûche de Noël, made by a talented member of the family...

...we paired our delicious cheese plate with a very special wine...

...yes, these are 1997 Tertre Roteboeuf Saint Emilion Grand Cru Bordeaux, that a member of the family had the super smarts to buy many years ago, and brought out for this happy occasion. They did not disappoint!!

Santa also did not disappoint, with these "animal suit" PJs that became almost the most popular item under the tree for the five cousins (two cousins from Berlin, three from Paris).

But it wasn't all interior fun and games. We took a field trip to nearby Auxerre, once a flourishing Gallo-Roman centre, now one of the larger cities in Burgundy and a centre of wine cultivation in the Yonne River valley since the 12th century. And home to another impressive 12th century Gothic style cathedral: La Cathédrale de St.-Étienne.

Again, beautiful soaring ceilings, reaching almost to heaven...
...and curved stained glass windows that cast their lovely blue light, despite the heavy rain outside.

But the Cathedral was not heated, so for a while several of us stayed close to the lighted candles by a side chapel, dropping a euro into the box every now and then, and lighting another one, just to keep warm!

We all agreed that as far this Féte was concerned, a very good time was had by all, and as we head into the New Year's Eve Fiesta, we send warmest wishes to family and friends for a happy and healthy one.

But, never fear, it might be the end of the year, but it's not the end of the French Fétes. In just a few short days...'ll be time for La Féte de la Galette des Rois, on January 6th, the Day of the Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Night. Another big holiday here in France, it celebrates the arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem. This time, we'll be eating these flaky pastry cakes and whoever gets the slice with the hidden little porcelain lucky charm -- "la fève" -- is crowned King for the day.  Vive la France!

À bientôt!

Monday, December 4, 2017

This Old House

Along a quiet street in the Marais stands an imposing stone building, the Hôtel de Beauvais, glowing in spite of the rain and clouds.

Designed by Antoine le Pautre (architect to the king's buildings) in 1656, many of the details of his original plans have been lost over the centuries, leaving us today with a handsome, if slightly incomplete restoration that re-opened its doors in 2003. One of the important items that does remain, though, are the two store-fronts on the ground floor on either side of the door, a reminder that back in the 17th century this quiet street was the bustling rue St. Antoine, the main thoroughfare from the Louvre (at that time the King's palace) to the Bastille and the countryside beyond. If you were an enterprising property owner looking to augment your income, you would definitely want to take advantage of your location and include prime commercial space to rent out.

People say that behind every door there is always a story, and it is the original owner's story that makes this house so interesting. Baron Pierre de Beauvais, and his wife Catherine-Henriette Bellier, were granted the property and building materials to construct this handsome "hôtel particulier" in the mid-17th century.

Originally, a 13th century Cistercian abbey stood on the site, with its vaulted cellars. Antoine le Pautre used the sturdy vaults and their walls as the foundation to support the new Hôtel de Beauvais
Today, the beautifully restored cellars are rented out for special events. You can sip your "coupe de champagne" whilst leaning against the 13th century posts and walls, and dream of wimples and troubadors. And the heated floor panels ensure you won't be cold!

Coming through the big oak front door from the street, a triangular-shaped courtyard leads from the archway to the coach house and stables at the rear.

A 19th century engraving shows very much the same view, with the addition of a horse!

Looking down into the courtyard from the first floor gives a bird's-eye view of the small irregular shape of the building site. Somehow, though, le Pautre found a way to bring all parts of the building together, so that everything is balanced and in harmony. In the centre of the upper level a small cross on the dome roof indicates the chapel.

A beautiful winding staircase leads up from the ground level to the balcony that runs round the entire second floor, giving access to the chapel
Beneath this balcony, the initials of Pierre de Beauvais run next to the image of the ram, a family crest. But who exactly were Baron de Beauvais and his wife, Catherine Bellier, and what earned them this generous gift of land and building materials, some of which had been reserved for a planned extension to the Cour Carée at the Louvre Palace? There are no images or paintings of either one. He was an attorney and counsellor to the King, but her story is the one that history books love to dwell on.

Born in 1614 in Poitou, Catherine Bellier married Pierre de Beauvais in 1634, and became the leading lady-in-waiting to Anne of Austria, the Queen Dowager Regent to the young Louis XIV. Catherine was highly intelligent, lively, even slightly audacious according to some reports, who loved all the ins and outs of court intrigue. She was a close confidant of Anne. She is also described as being famously unattractive physically, and not only that, she was blind in one eye! Nonetheless, she apparently had many other appealing charms and took several lovers, including the Archbishop of Sens!

One has to presume that Anne of Austria was well aware of Catherine's "charms" because she persuaded her to take her 14-year-old son Louis XIV into her boudoir to be instructed on the responsibilities and joys of the marital bed. Catherine was 40 years old at the time. Louis was apparently entirely captivated by this seduction, and their relationship continued for two more years.  He went on to have love affairs with at least another dozen or more French ladies of the court, all of them earning the title "Maitresse-en-titre". This semi-official position came with gifts of apartments and properties -- which would explain how Pierre de Beauvais and his wife were granted the land and building materials for the construction of their Hôtel de Beauvais!

You could say that the height of Catherine de Beauvais' life, and probably that of her husband, and certainly that of their elegant French Baroque hôtel particulier, took place on August 26, 1660.  Louis XIV and his new wife, the Spanish-born Maria-Theresa, made a triumphal entry into Paris, coming along the rue St. Antoine on their way to the Louvre Palace. They made a stop, though, at the Hotel de Beauvais, so that Louis could salute Catherine, who stood on the balcony that overlooked the street, flanked by Mazarin, Anne of Austria and other members of the court.

Following the death of her husband in 1674, Catherine de Beauvais found herself left with large debts that forced her to leave Paris for Arrou, where she died in 1689, far from her glorious life at the French Court. In 1686 the house was sold to Pierre Savalete, a notary and counsellor to the King. In 1706 it was bought by Jean Orry, President of Metz, and in 1763 it became the home of the ambassador of the Elector of Bavaria, le Comte van Eyck.

That same year, Leopold Mozart, his wife and children -- including 7 year old Wolfgang -- arrived for a visit. A plaque in the courtyard records this event.

Seized by the State during the French Revolution, the building was then sold and renovated to create 40 individual apartments. It remained a commercial enterprise for the rest of the 19th and into the 20th century.

Many members of the Marais' Jewish population lived in these apartments, until the German occupation of 1940 took over the building, removing and deporting all the residents, an indelible stain on its history.

Following the liberation of France, and now owned by the city of Paris, the building continued to provide rental housing to local residents. Its condition, however, was deteriorating to the point where it was threatened with demolition. Happily, wiser heads prevailed and a massive renovation began in 1995.

Today, every corner gleams with new-found life. And who lives there now?  No one who could be said to be anywhere near as appealing as the original owner, but there is an "appeal" involved: today the Hôtel de Beauvais houses Paris' Court of Administrative Appeals, where you can go to appeal, for example, a conflict with your landlord, or a dispute with your neighbor.

As you sit in the reception area, waiting for your moment in court, cast a look out of the window up to the second floor where, surely, the ghost of Catherine Bellier still stands at her front balcony, waiting for the royal coach to stop, and for her young former lover to salute her.

À bientôt!