Guernica, One of the Greatest Works of Modern Art?

Pablo Picasso, 1937, Guernica, protest against...

Pablo Picasso, 1937, Guernica, protest against Fascism (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Guernica was a sleepy Basque village in northern Spain that was unknown to much of the wider world… until April 27, 1937 when it was the target of the world’s first saturation-bombing raid.  General Francisco Franco allowed his fascist ally Hitler to test his new air force’s prowess.   At the time, military aviation was in its infancy and the world hadn’t yet seen massive aerial bombings.  The raid destroyed the town, causing destruction that previously had been unimaginable.

Ruins of Guernica (1937). The Spanish civil wa...

Ruins of Guernica (1937). The Spanish civil war claimed the lives of over half-a-million people. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the time, Pablo Picasso was living in Paris.  When he read the news reports of Guernica, he quit working on other projects and set to work.   He worked on it feverishly and within a few weeks, he created a large mural measuring 87.17 meters (286 square feet).  When we were in Paris, we were surprised to walk out our door and see this plaque nearby.  It says “Pablo Picasso lived in this building from 1936 to 1955. It is in this workshop that he painted ‘Guernica’ in 1937.  It is here also that Balzac centered the action of his novel ‘Le Chef-d’œuvre Inconnu‘.”.

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Picasso exhibited it at the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. It turned out to be a masterpiece and is generally regarded as Picasso’s greatest work.   It combines various styles (Cubism, Surrealism and abstraction) to depict and comment on the horrors of war.  It wasn’t an immediate smash.  But over time, people gained an appreciation of its complex symbolism.  People reacted to the humanity depicted and the devastating effects of war on civilians.  It became a rallying-cry-in-paint to the anti-fascist cause.  When we were in Madrid, we made a special trip to the Reina Sofia Museum to see it.  It is incredibly moving and its use of symbolism is astonishing.  For a good analysis/explanation of the painting, click here or here.

Pablo Picasso pintando el Guernica (París, 1937)

Pablo Picasso pintando el Guernica (París, 1937) (Photo credit: Recuerdos de Pandora)

Happy Birthday Picasso!

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We Stormed The Kastell – Vaxholms Kastell Fortress

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For centuries, Vaxholm Fortress (Vaxholms Kastell) guarded a crucial entry route into Stockholm’s harbor.    King Gustav Vasa (yep, the same one who commissioned that famous ship) built a fortress here and filled in other waterways to ensure that this channel was the only way into and out of Stockholm.  He had good reason to strengthen his defenses.  In 1612, Christian IV of Denmark tried to invade.  Czar Peter the Great of Russia tried to invade in 1719.

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In the mid 19th century, they upgraded, well sort of.  Sweden tore down the old defenses and built a giant new granite fortress there.  Unfortunately for them, the technology of warfare advanced between the time the new fortress was designed and when it was completed some 30 years later.  In its first test, a shell (instead of the old technology of cannonballs) tore a hole in the wall.  The fortresses high guns couldn’t really reach the new style of lower design boats.  Oops.

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Since it couldn’t really serve as a bastion of defense, Vaxholm Fortress was used as a prison.  I don’t think I would have liked to be incarcerated here.  The citadel seemed a little cold and wet.  The uniform didn’t look particularly warm either.  Can you imagine spending a Swedish winter like that?

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In addition to covering pre-20th century history, the museum contains exhibits on its more recent uses.  During World War II, Sweden remained neutral but heightened its military preparedness by strengthening its defenses and drafting conscripts.  The Swedes placed mines in the nearby Sea of Åland.   Polish ORP RyśORP Żbik, and ORP Sęp submarine crews were detained in Vaxholm’s Citadel.

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The end of the Second World War in 1945 signaled the beginning of “Cold War.” Swedish military was  on high alert.  The USSR was as close as nearby Estonia and the Russians had come sniffing their way before.  The archipelago became important because it was a gateway into the country.   Vaxholm’s Kastell Fortress monitored the area.  The military stopped occupying it in 1993 and in 2000, the absence of an external enemy meant all stationary batteries were deactivated in Sweden.  Today, its museum has artifacts thoroughout its history, from royal times to the mines and radar.  The incredible setting makes it all the more interesting and it’s well worth a visit.

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One of the coolest things about it today is that in addition to functioning as a park, it contains a hotel.  The best part is that nothing is closed.  If you stay, you can wander around, picnic, sit on the ramparts with drink, enjoy the quiet and watch boats go by.  Since the rooms have no radio, TV, or internet, you might not have much else to do.

Worth Raising A Glass, I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid

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The Louvre is the world’s largest museum.  It is housed in an old fortress that became a palace and converted to a museum.  Buildings connect in a U-shape with a courtyard, Cour Napoleon, in the center.

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As the number of visitors grew, it became clear that the Louvre needed renovations to accommodate all the visitors.  In 1983, the Louvre developed and President François Mitterrand supported a renovation plan known as the Grand Louvre.  Among other things, it called for a new design for the main entrance that would be climate controlled, and provide space for a ticket office, security checkpoint, visitors center (for things like audio guides, toilets, sitting areas, information centers, cafes and shops).

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When Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei‘s modern glass pyramid structure in the courtyard was unveiled, most critics gave negative reviews.  They deemed it an unwelcome intrusion of modernism into  traditional architecture.  Still, it provided 650,000 additional square feet of much-needed support spaces for the Louvre.

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Inaugurated in 1988 and opened in 1993, his design of The Louvre pyramid, met the need and then some.   It appears strikingly modern and sophisticated against the baroque façade.  It guides  visitors’ movements between the three immense wings (Richelieu, the Sully, and the Denon) of the museum.  As a Louvre visitor, I find this as  genius as any part of the design.  The Louvre is immense and it is easy to get lost.  By following the signs to the exit, you can get to a guide who will point you in the right direction for your adventure in the next wing.  Plus, the glass provides wonderful light to the underground lobby.

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The complex inter-linked steel structure sheathed in clear, reflective glass.  This transparency allows an unobstructed view through it permitting vision across the pyramid to the palace on the opposite side. This allows it to float lightly in the space.

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While its style differs drastically from the original palace buildings, its transparency and simplicity allows it to sit among them without taking anything away from them.  It just becomes another interesting focal point.

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It didn’t take long for Pyramid to become integral part of Paris’ center and another one of its iconic buildings (Eiffel Tower, Pompidou Center, Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle, Les Invalides, Sacre Couer).  In the New York Times,  Paul Goldberg wrote: “…the design provoked international controversy and accusations that an American architect was destroying the very heart of Paris…the news from Paris is that the Louvre is still there, although it is now a dramatically different museum. The pyramid does not so much alter the Louvre as hover gently beside it, coexisting as if it came from another dimension.”

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The movie ‘Da Vinci Code‘, which had scenes set inside the Louvre included several minutes of dramatic video shots of the Pyramid. It’s also appeared in The Dreamers,  Prêt-à-PorterThe Rape of Europa and Fire, Plague, War and Treason.

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One of the cool things I noticed about it is that the pyramid is inverted below ground into the interior space below.  It comes to a point, immediately below that point is a sculpture, a pyramid.  Their apexes are only centimeters apart.  I’m not sure these pictures do it justice, but trust me when I tell you that it looks sweet.

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If all this isn’t enough, check it out lit up at night.  Definitely worthy of the City of Lights.

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Louvre (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Navigating Paris Museums in a Wheelchair

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My dad came to visit.  He traveled all the way to Europe and was bound and determined to see things.  Unfortunately, dad’s knee is bone on bone.  He can walk, but needs knee surgery soon and can’t spend much time on his feet or move too quickly.  The only way to get him around museums was renting a folding wheelchair (chaise roulette).  Museums often have ones you can borrow for free.    It was lightweight and made it possible for him to see a lot.  The highlight of being in a wheelchair was a front row seat to the Mona Lisa at Paris’ Louvre Museum.

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Unfortunately, the Louvre museum was once a palace and is not as handicapped friendly as we’d hoped.  Wheelchair ramps were sorely lacking.  It was pretty obvious that it is hard to retrofit museums with elevators/lifts at convenient spots.  The Musée d’Orsay (a bit of a nightmare) and the Hôtel National des Invalides Army Museum weren’t easy to navigate either.  Fortunately, they had some pretty cool stuff to make any the frustration well worth it.

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Check out all the in the stairs in these pictures.  While the retrofit of an old train station is pretty cool and well done, all the stairs make some corners virtually inaccessible.

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Even when they had a wheelchair lift, we had to go in search of personnel to operate the lift.  This often took 20 minutes or so.  While all of this was a bit of an inconvenience, it (more or less) worked and my dad was blown away by what he saw.  So were we.

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On another note, it made us appreciate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and how accessible things are in the US.

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The Giger Bar, One Cool (And Slightly Surreal) Joint

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Most people have seen Hans Rudolf “Ruedi” Giger‘s work, even if they don’t know who he is.  Giger is best known as the designer for Ridley Scott‘s Alien movies, for which he won an Oscar.   Incredibly creative, he paints and sculpts too.   Giger was way ahead of his time in foreseeing the increasingly close relationship between the human body and machines.

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The Château St. Germain in Gruyères (yep, like the cheese), Switzerland houses the H. R. Giger Museum, which is a permanent repository of his work.  The nearby Giger Bar is a stunning, slightly surreal bar designed by him.   Built in 2003, it was way ahead of its time, foreseeing the increasingly close relationship between the human body and machines.  There are two Giger Bars; the other is in his hometown of Chur in the  Graubünden Canton of Switzerland.

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Giger excels at represent human bodies and machines in a cold, but connected, intriguing way.  Sitting in the bar, you feel like you’re in the belly of the beast.  It is an incredibly imaginative and slightly surreal mixture of skeleton and fantasy.

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While it’s dark, structural and even biomechanical, it’s not cold.   We went early and at an off hour so that we could fully explore the place.   We oohed and aahed as we discovered details everywhere.  It definitely makes for an unforgettable drink.

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The ceiling has the skeletal structure of vertebrae, like a fantastic ossuary.

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Once upon a time (the 1980’s), there was another Giger Bar in Tokoyo.  Unfortunately Giger wasn’t as involved in that one.  Its design was constrained by earthquake codes.  Perhaps most damagingly, it became a hangout for the Yakuza.  Giger disowned it and never even entered.

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By the way, Giger is spelled with only one ‘e’.  Hans Geiger, known for his work on the radiation measuring known as the Geiger Counter, was German.

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Traveling Through History At Skansen, The World’s First Open-Air Museum

He’s been known to think of museums as a great place to nap, but enjoys the activity inherent in open-air museums.  Founded in 1891 by Artur Hazelius, Skansen was the world’s first open-air museum.  It is a great place to visit with kids, as big kids we enjoyed it too.  It was great to be out in the sun on a nice spring day and we saw tons of cool stuff.

The golden pretzel is the sign for bakeries.

How could he nap when there were fresh baked goods?

Skansen is a time machine.  It has 150 houses that were relocated from different parts of Sweden to form a medieval city.  Most of the houses have museum staff dressed in costume ready to answer questions, tell the stories of the buildings and giving demonstrations.  There are demonstrations on glass-blowing, netting, sheep-sheering, how to make bread, how to produce various handicrafts, etc.  We even bought coffee (coffee again, quelle surprise) from a costumed lady in a 19th century house.

The staff are one of the things that make Skansen so special They are everywhere and do a lot to enrich visitors.  In addition to the standard imparting knowledge, musicians perform folk melodies.  Dancers teach people folk dances.  Staff drive visitors around the complex in a horse and carriage.  People in traditional costumes walk along the streets and do traditional everyday tasks.

Skansen has a zoological part with domestic and wild local animals.  In addition to the normal farm animals, there are Scandinavian animals such as lynxes, wolves, bears, wolverines, reindeer and seals.  We happened upon them at feeding time  (around 2:00 p.m.).

Skansen is fun for kids, big ones, like us.

 

We Liked The Cut Of The Vasa Museum’s Jib

The Vasa Museum in Stockholm houses the Vasa, a sunken 17th century ship.  Finished in 1628, the Vasa was top-heavy and too narrow for her depth/weight (the king dictated the measurements and no one was about to correct him).  The Vasa sank in Stockholm’s harbor, not even a mile into her maiden voyage!   Giant oops.   333 years later, in 1961, she was salvaged almost fully intact.

How the Vasa looked when she set sail

King Gustav Adolf built the Vasa for a major role in the Swedish navy.   Sweden had been at war with Poland since 1625 and embroiled in the Thirty Years’ War.   To advance its interests, Sweden needed a strong navy.  Sweden had recently lost twelve boats.  They desperately needed some new, fancy ships.  Unfortunately, the Vasa’s designer died without leaving written records, the king changed some of the specifications and the completion date was looming.  It was a rush job.

Recreation of the interior

How the ship’s interior was organized

Fanfare surrounded the Vasa’s launch.  Hundreds watched from the shore.  Crew members’ wives and children were on board for the first leg of the journey to an island with barracks just outside the bay (where soldiers would board the ship).  Small boats towed the Vasa from the dock.  After firing a farewell salute, she tilted took in water and promptly sank.  Small boats in the harbor picked up most of the 150 people on board, but about a third went down with the ship.

This diving bell was used to salvage some of the cannons in the 1600’s!

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The captain was thrown in jail and an inquest to determine the cause of the sinking was immediately undertaken.  It wasn’t long before it became clear that the king himself did much of the decision-making.  King Gustav Adolf determined the measurements, added a second gun deck and larger cannons.  The inquest instantly dropped and crucial paperwork vanished.  Hmmmm.

Today, the Vasa is the centerpiece of a colossal museum.  The real star of the museum is the Vasa itself.   The enormous strategically lighted ship is the first thing you see when you enter the colossal, dimly lit main area.   Prepare to be awed.   It is enormous and it’s intricate timber carvings are impressive.   You can view it from every angle and it is extraordinary.  Sorry, the pictures don’t do it justice.

Normally, sitting around looking at boats is not my idea of a rockin’ good time and he gets seasick.  It doesn’t matter if boats or history is your thing; it is one of the coolest time capsules ever.  Thousands of artifacts and the remains of at least fifteen passengers were recovered.  Clothing, weapons, cannons, tools, coins, games, dishes, cutlery, food, drink and sails are all on display.  The museum does an excellent job of displaying these items and giving them context.   Without lecturing or boring visitors, the museum educates them about naval warfare, shipbuilding techniques and everyday life in 17th century Sweden.

95% of the original ship survives.  There are several reasons why the Vasa is in such good condition:

  • The ship was brand new when it sunk.
  • The Baltic Sea has a Saline level of 0.4%, which prevented many of the organisms that destroy wood from living in the water.
  • It sunk in an area where neither ice nor currents damaged it.
  • The water temperature remains relatively consistent (and cold) ranging from 1-5 degrees Celsius (33.8 – 41 degrees Fahrenheit).
  • The ship was built from oak with high iron content.
  • To prevent cracking when exposed to air and sunlight, the wood was wrapped in plastic sheets as soon as it was lifted from the water.
  • It was treated with polyethylene glycol.

We weren’t the only ones interested in the Vasa.  It is Scandinavia’s most visited museum.  While we were there, we saw the King and Queen of Sweden, Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles.  They actually got to go on the ship.  Lucky ducks.

 

Prague’s Jewish Quarter

Jews have lived in Prague since 965 In the 13th century, Prague’s Jews were banned from living outside a particular area of the city.  They had to leave their homes and settle in a prescribed area, the Jewish Quarter, also known as Josefov.  During the mid 1500’s, Prague’s Jewish population almost doubled as Jews were expelled from Moravia, Germany, Austria and Spain.
In 1708, Jews were 1/4 of Prague’s population and by the early 18th century, more Jews lived in Prague than anywhere else in the world. In the 19th century, Prague’s Jews gained freedoms and began integrating into society.  All that changed when the Nazis came in 1939.
Initially, the vast majority of Czech Jews were imprisoned in Terezin, a ghetto north of Prague.  Others were sent directly to concentration camps.  More than a quarter of a million Czechoslovak Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.  Today, there are estimated to be 10,000 to 15,000 Jews in the Czech Republic.
The synagogues no longer need to serve large populations.  Rather than let them fall into disrepair, have become different parts of the Jewish Museum in Prague and are best preserved complex of Jewish historical monuments in Europe.  Six synagogues remain and have been restored.  Together, they comprise the Jewish Museum.*  The sites include:

  • Jewish Town Hall (Židovská radnice) – This 18th century rococo town hall Jewish Town Hall has a clock tower whose hands run backwards as Hebrew reads from right to left.   Part of the building dates from 1586.

  • Klaus Synagogue (Klausova synagoga) – It is 16th century baroque synagogue that houses Hebrew prints, manuscripts and has a good exhibition explaining Jewish traditions and customs..
  • Maisel Synagogue (Maiselova synagog) – This 16th century synagogue was once destroyed by fire.  Now, it houses a collection of items brought to Prague by the Nazis with the intention of establishing a museum of vanished people.

  • Pinkas Synagogue (Pinkasova synagog) – This 16th century synagogue was rebuilt many times since it was founded in 1479.   After WWII it became a memorial to the 77,297 Jewish Czechoslovak victims of the Nazi Holocaust.  These numbers do not include Slovakian Jews, only Jews from current Czech territory.  Each of the victim’s names is written in alphabetical order on the walls with their date of birth and the date they were last seen alive.  The building is silent except for prayers and a reading the names of the dead, which alternate over the sound system.

  • Spanish Synagogue (Španělská synagog) – This 19th century synagogue is a stunning building named after its Moorish interior.  It contains an exhibition of the life of Jews in the Czech Republic.   Despite it’s appearance, it was never used by Sephardic Jews, but was an early Reform temple.

  • Old New Synagogue (Staronová synagog) – Dating from 1270, this Gothic synagogue is the oldest working in Prague.  It is legendary and reputed to be the home of the famous Golem of Prague.  It requires an additional ticket that can be purchased at the same time.

  • Old Jewish Cemetery (Starý židovský hřbitov) This 15th-18th century cemetery is  Europe’s oldest surviving Jewish cemetery and one of the most unusual sites. Founded in 1478, it is Europe’s oldest surviving Jewish cemetery.  As Jews were not permitted to bury their dead outside the Jewish Quarter and space was tight, there was a severe lack of space. 100,000 people are thought to be buried here.  To fit them all, people had to be buried on top of each other. There are about 12 layers and over 12,000 gravestones.   Since Jews do not believe in moving the dead, even when permitted to bury outside the quarter, they did not move the bodies to make more space.

It is customary for Jews to put small stones on a gravesite when visiting it.

Over the years, the bodies accumulated.  Now the cemetery is over a story above street level.

I found the concept of having a museum divided between several important buildings all within close walking distance to each other really interesting and easy to manage.  Each one has a different focus and so they compliment each other, rather than overlap. It was an incredibly interesting and moving morning.






Museum Day With Mom

My mom came for a visit.  She is a huge fan of Monet and the Foundation Pierre Gianadda in Martigny has a huge Monet show.   All of the waterlilies posters in college turned me off of Monet, but I wanted to make my mom happy and drove us there.  I was really glad I went.  They had tons of paintings.   A lot of them were on loan from private Swiss collectors and are not usually publicly viewed.   Posters just don’t capture his talent with a brush.   His paintings are at a wholly differently level when you see the brushstrokes on the canvas.  Wow!  I wish I could have taken pictures for you.

The museum also had a small, but nice, permanent collection of artworks.*  I was really surprised and impressed by its car museum.  Being from the Detroit area, I have seen my fair share of car shows, museums and exhibits.  I was impressed because I have never seen so many pre-WWI vehicles all in one place (and all in immaculate condition).   I’m not a car person, but I found myself oohing and aahing over them.

The best part of the museum was its sculpture garden.  I love a sculpture garden so I might be a bit biased.**  For me, it is refreshing to be able to be outside while enjoying and interacting with art.   Plus, their sculpture garden incorporated Roman ruins.

Next, we headed over to the St. Bernard Museum.  Being dog people, we had to.  The real highlight of the museum is the dogs.***  You get to see them do all their adorable doggie things (including “hiking footballs”).  We were able to pet them and it made my day.   

When we finally dragged ourselves away from the furballs to check out the rest of the museum, we were pleasantly surprised.  We learned a lot (as a former professor, my mom loves learning) about the history of the region.  I was slightly more lowbrow, oohing and aahing over pictures of dogs, watching a movie on dog search/rescue in the Alps and checking out the St. Bernard movie posters.  Yes, they had posters from Beethoven, Beethoven’s 2nd and Beethoven’s 3rd.  They even had Stephen King’s Cujo.

On the way back to the car, we passed a Roman road (The Poenine Way) to that led to Rome.  I’m not sure if all roads really still do lead to Rome, but this one definitely did.  Sorry,  I couldn’t help myself.

*The have an exhibit with Roman artifacts (Martigny was a Roman town) and other temporary exhibits.

**It combines my love of art with my love of gardening.  A perfect combo.

***Wanting to see more dogs, we left the museum and went to Foundation Barry to try to see their dogs.  They didn’t open for the season until the following week.  If you are wanting to see the dogs and want a cheaper option, they are less than half the price.

Les Incompetents Vol. 2 – Being Taken at the Museum of the Alpine Cow

Okay, I think it really translates as the Museum of the Alpine Pastures of Cows but that is beside the point. Since he is from a cattle farm, when we passed this museum we had to stop.  We were so excited that when we pulled up to the old barn containing it, I went straight inside and asked the old gentlemen sitting there (in my best French) what the price of admission was.  There was no sign for prices.  They said 12 Euros. I think it was free and should have kept my big mouth shut.

Enjoy the pictures of cow bells.  They had lots.  I wouldn’t necessarily have made the trip across the pond for it, but it was interesting. Nevertheless, I showed them. I took pictures before I realized you weren’t supposed to do so. Double oops.