Do You Also Giggle When You Say Flying Buttresses?

DSC_0516_2Every time I say “flying buttress” he laughs.  For some people, Notre Dame is a religious experience.  Our promenade around the exterior was more like a giggly experience.  Each time someone said “buttress,”  it was pronounced “BUTT-ress.”  You can’t take us anywhere.  Nevertheless, I still think flying buttresses are cool and good for more than just a laugh.

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Gothic churches are tall, spacious and filled with light.  Why?  The magic of technology.  Buttresses support the walls outward force.  Pointed arches (instead of the round Romanesque arches) allowed the enormous weight of stone roofs transferring it out and not just to the walls.  Essentially, the buttresses support the weight of the roof. This made building thinner walls with windows possible.

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You can see the support inside with a network of columns that become pointed.  They intersect at the top of the roof.

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Nowhere can you see this more than in Paris’ Sainte-Chapelle.  Almost all the walls are windows and it is filled with light.

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Passage De Monetier, A Not So Secret Passage

Escalade

is an historical passage in Geneva’s old town.  You enter at the top of the Rue du Perron (by No. 19) and exit off the alley Monetier, at the base of the old ramparts.  The passage zig zags between medieval buildings for around 100 meters (328 feet), narrowing to 50 cm (20 inches)!

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Given layout between residential buildings, darkness and narrowness, it’s not surprising that this secret passage is open to the public only during the last two days of Geneva’s Escalade festivities.  The rest of the year, it is closed.  Get in on the action this weekend while you still can!

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Occupied since Roman times, Geneva is ancient.   Over time, Geneva grew and extended its fortifications.  The passage began as a simple path between early fortifications sometime during the 600-1100 A.D. that protected the hill of Saint-Pierre (on which Cathedral St. Pierre sits).

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In the Middle Ages buildings weren’t glued to each other.  As new fortifications and buildings were built, Passage Monetier became a passage or alley.  It took on its current route around 1300-1400 A.D. and allows access from one neighborhood to another without detours.  Without indoor plumbing alleys served as an open sewers and it probably didn’t smell great.

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The Savoyards came along the Aarve River, assembled at Plainpalais and attacked from the back of the city.

There’s an urban myth that says the passage had something to do with the surprise attack by Savoyard troops sent by Charles Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy during the night of 11–12 December 1602 to attack Geneva.  Alas, it is just that, a myth.  Neither attacks, nor the battle that night  took place near there.  Its opening merely serves as one of the festivities comprising L’Escalade festival which celebrates Geneva’s win and usually occurs in 12th of December.

L'Escalade à Genève, 1602. The Escalade in Gen...

L’Escalade à Genève, 1602. The Escalade in Geneva in 1602. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

St. Emilion, Where They Make The Nectar Of The Gods

 

I don’t want to bore you with stories of another medieval hill town or tales of wine, but on our ladies road trip, we fell in love with Saint-Emilion and I can’t help but wax rhapsodic about it.  It is a gorgeous medieval hill town made of limestone quarried locally.

Around 5,400 hectares of vineyards and many small châteaux surround it.   Saint-Emilion has all the accoutrements you expect in a cute french hill town, inviting squares, cute shops, cobblestones, music wafting through the air, flowers, fountains, light blue shutters that look great against the limestone…you get the idea.  If I haven’t already convinced you to endure one more hill town post, that it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site probably won’t sway you either.

Saint-Emilion  has been located on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela since the 11th century.  As a result, many churches, monasteries and hospices were built there.  We’d heard that the bell tower of the St. Emilion Monolithic Church had the best view of the city and it was worth making the climb up the ancient winding stairs to the top of the tower.  We paid a Euro or two each and grabbed the key from the Office of  Tourism across the way.

The bell tower was built between the 12th and 15th centuries.  Not long after that, people started carving their names and dates into it.  I’m a sucker for ancient graffiti.  I loved searching for it and reading it. The best part though was the view. Heaven.

Unfortunately our, ahem, transportation challenges (broken clutch) prevented us from having more time to tour Saint-Emilion.  I’d hoped to see the vast limestone catacombs located under the city that contain Europe’s largest underground church.  They are supposed to be amazing.

Fortunately, we still had time to check out the romanesque church and cloister, shop for antiques (you know I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to poke around this cute store), have a nice meal, listen to some street musicians, stroll the streets and catch one heck of a sunset.  Not too shabby.

 

Too Much Can Get You Alsauced, Alsace’s Wine Route (Route du Vin)

When we traveled to Burgundy, we learned that hundreds of thousands of years ago it  was seaside.  The limestone deposited during that time (and complex soil from subsequent fracturing from land shifts) make their wines unique.

Like Burgundy, Alsace sits on a geological fault line and its soil varies extensively.  Also like Burgundy, it is one of the most prominent wine regions of France.  The best vineyards of Alsace are along a geological fault zone that stretches from south to north along the Voges granitic mountain range.  It is 120 km (74.5 miles) long but only a few kilometres wide.  This is the Alsace Wine Route/Route du Vin, a scenic journey to enjoy the French wines, countryside, architecture and food.

The vineyards are located in the foothills of Les Voges mountain range around villages from the middle ages.  Ruined hilltop castles from the middle ages overlook the towns.  Many of the towns have fortified ramparts and cobblestoned streets.  They are postcard pretty with flower-decked streets, historic churches, timbered buildings and gurgling fountains.  In addition to the usual assortment of delightful shops, cafes, restaurants, wine tasting rooms (winstubs) which serve wine from many local vineyards fill the towns.  Ooh la la.

Turckheim, RibeauvilleRiquewihr and Kayersberg are the most popular towns on the Alsace Wine Road and are regularly visited by tour busses and the crowds they bring. Other nice towns include: ObernaiBarrMittelbergheinAndlauDambach-la-VilleSelestatBergheinHunawihr and Eguisheim (which we visited).   Alsace is a popular destination for vacations/holidays.  While we saw other tourists, we were lucky (and surprised) we didn’t see any crowds.

Alsace wine tasting at Paul Schneider

Alsace is well-known for its crisp white wines.  Alsation wines use seven varieties of grapes: Sylvaner, Pinot BlancPinot Noir, Riesling, MuscatPinot Gris and Gewürztraminer.  It has Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) designation.  There are countless opportunities to taste these in roadside wine cellars (caves in French).  Everyone recommends advance appointments (particularly during busy times like harvest).  Not all wines are created equal and not all wineries are created equal.  The quality can vary drastically from winery to winery.  As a result, if you want to taste the best, research them in advance.

Eichberg and Pfersigberg are two of the other well-respected Grand Crus

One of the best surprises was the Cremant D’ Alsace, a lively and delicate sparkling wine made by the traditional method of fermentation in the bottle.  It’s kind of like Champagne.  What’s not to love?

Although you can drive the Alsace Wine Route, there are many well-marked hiking trails (sentiers viticoles) and bike routes if you get Alsauced.

Getting Our History On At Fort L’Ecluse

On our first hike in the  Jura Mountains went through the Rhône Valley by Fort l’Écluse (or Fort de l’Écluse), near Leaz, France in the Pays de Gex.  The site has a view of the strategic route between the Jura Mountains and the Alps and has had fortifications since Roman times.

The Romans built defenses around 58 BC to protect them from the Helvetii (the nearby Swiss tribe). In the Middle Ages, the stronghold protected the Jura and was a center for goods (which the cyicist in me interprets to mean used to collect tolls or taxes).  Expanded, in the 17th century, the French used the fort to prevent French Protestants from fleeing France to Protestant Geneva after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (which permitted secularism and tolerance).

There are actually two forts on the site, the lower (inférieure in French) and upper (supérieure in French).  The Duke of Savoy and the Marquis de Vauban (during the reign of Louis XIV) built the lower fort.  When the Austrians destroyed the fort in 1815, the Savoy rebuilt it bigger and stronger.

The tower dovetails into the rock.

We got lucky, they were having a historical reenactment when we visited.  It got us admission and we saw solders living as they did in the 19th century.  Some of them were cooking.  I asked what they were making.  The “soldiers” jokingly said “nothing good.” They explained that soldier’s food wasn’t good and they were being historically accurate.  We spied a couple of bottles of wine tucked away behind some plants (also historically accurate?), so I think they had a good time anyway.

Built into the stone, the fort was surprisingly cool (which was good for them in their wool uniforms).  The reenactors were really nice and totally into it.  When I asked to take a picture with them they gladly agreed and, to my astonishment, passed me the musket.  It weighed 5 kilos (10.2 pounds)!

The upper fort (200 metres/660 feet above the lower one), was built in the 1830’s-40’s to protect the lower fort provide additional space and better views from which to control the valley.  It has a subterranean stairway with 1165 steps through the rock that connecting it to the lower fort.

Unfortunately, the upper fort is closed because it is unsafe for visitors.  They are doing restoration work on the lower fort.  We hope that when they finish, they start on the upper fort because it is an amazing site and filled with history.

We took a steep trail uphill for a half an hour to reach the upper fort.  I shouldn’t have bothered to ask the extremely portly gentleman we encountered in the lower parking lot for directions.  I’m pretty sure he hadn’t done much walking, let alone hiking, over the past 30 years.  The gentleman said the upper fort was closed, there was no reason to go up there and looked at me like I was crazy when I told him we were hiking.   We are glad we went anyway.  We were still able to see the ramparts.  Even better, they had exceptional views of  the Rhône, Saleve and the Alps, including Mont Blanc.

Fort l’Ecluse wasn’t just a customs station and border control in the 20th century.  It served as a military training center during World War I.   In the 1930’s, the fort was incorporated into French border fortifications (as part of the enormously inefficient Mangiot Line) that were intended to prevent a German invasion from Switzerland.  We all know how that worked out.

I was astounded to learn that it actually saw action during WWII.  It is so close to Geneva, I can only imagine the anxiety that Genevans must have felt.  The Defensive Sector of the Rhône, a French military organization controlled the French border with Switzerland around Geneva, controlled the fort.  In June 1940, German forces (the 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions and the 13th Motorized Infantry Division) advanced from the north along the Rhône valley.  From June 22nd to 25th, the French force held the back the German forces advancing toward Albertville.   When France surrendered on June 25, the fort didn’t.  It held tight until directly ordered to let the Germans advance and surrender by General Charles Huntziger of the Vichy Regime.

Wine Museum In Châteauneuf-du-Pape

When we visited the very rocky Châteauneuf-du-Pape, we stopped by the Brotte Wine Museum.  It was started in 1972 and updated in 2000.  It centers on the history of wine growing and AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée which guarantees the wines‘ origins).

The AOC designation is very important to them.  It makes their wines more recognizable and promotable (and more expensive) abroad.  For educated consumers, it makes it easier to understand what they are getting.  It also means that producers have tons of rules.  The museum had just about everything used it to work the vines or in wine making, except the AOC rule book.  I want to get my hands on a copy because I hear that they have some pretty stringent rules.  For example, the lengths of the vines are measured repeatedly during the year to ensure they don’t exceed particular lengths at different points in the year.  Some are easier to follow.  You aren’t allowed to land a flying saucer in your field…um, okay.  I think I could manage that one.

The museum displays of barrels from the Middle Ages, wine presses, old tools, baskets, equipment, old photos, plows, bottling apparatus and many other items.

People always note that they have a 4,000 litre chestnut wine barrel from the 14th century and a 16th century wine-press.  We liked some of the more us usual items, like a chain maille glove for removing insects.

We also snuck a peek through the window at their bottling operation.  It looks remarkably like a brewery’s bottling operation.

While the museum isn’t as much fun as a wine tour with Jean-Michel, it is free, informative (if you read the English pamphlets) and the old implements are pretty cool.  At the end, you are invited to taste Maison Brotte’s wines.  I think our visitors (Magglio, the Luger and Sneaky Pete) had fun and came away a bit wiser.