Magnificent Mont St Michel

Friday 7th August

This morning we were awakened to the unaccustomed sound of sheep being herded by a lone sheepdog without shepherd through the narrow street below our room at Mont St Michaels. After spending many weeks in some of the world’s largest and most popular cities we felt deliciously rural breathing sea air and even sheep dung air which some  of our colleagues on trip advisor were critical of our hotel for.  We soaked it up, slept in and were amongst the last to get down for breakfast.

Getting on to the island however returned us to Tourist Central with amazing crowds gathering in the carpark to walk to crowded shuttle buses which take off every 3 minutes. For a minute or two we thought we were back in Rome as it was a pleasantly warm day but quite hot in a crowd. Crossing the causeway, no matter how often seen on travelogues is still an interesting experience reminding us in particular of the Holy Island monastery at Carnarvon in northern England only here the towering fortress monastery build over a complex protruding and uneven rock face makes its somewhat menacing presence felt more and more as you approach.

Off the shuttle bus and on the causeway, Monastery looming
Off the shuttle bus and on the causeway, Monastery looming

It was interesting that the vast majority of the tourists were French so it is clearly a much loved family summer adventure and they came in their thousands with, of course, their dogs in every shape and size even though theoretically their dogs were not wanted in the monastery.  Not sure how that worked. (tag team i suspect). Once into the base of the monastery visitors are assaulted with a bewildering mass of souvenir stores and restaurants.  Sort of San Gimiano in Tuscany on steroids but without the high end wonderful shopping in San Gimmies. We wound our way ever upwards resisting the tempting sideways offerings of historical knights of old in various sections of the monastery and eventually joined a 30 minute queue to enter the actual working monastery. (Richard has now experienced four queues in his life!).

Tourist crowds climbing towards the top
Tourist crowds climbing towards the top

The many stairs are worth the effort as the official “tour” takes you on a well organised path first directly to the top level with panoramic views over the low-tide tidal river and very quickly to romantic and dazzling views of the English Channel and the Atlantic reaching far into the misty distance from the immense height of the structure. it was an interesting experience to have started in Istanbul on the Bosporos, almost the sounthern most part of Europe and to have wended our way to the northern coastline (obviously not counting Britain or Scandinavia,) and the variety of languages, customs and cultures we experienced to get there.

View of causeway from the top ...the tide running out was quite strong and folk who tried to walk across the
View of causeway from the top …the tide running out was quite strong and folk who tried to walk across the “beach” had very sticky muddy feet.
View straight down from the top..Richard with vertigo
View straight down from the top..Richard with vertigo
View north towards English Channel and the Atlantic..vast and beautiful in late morning sun
View north towards English Channel and the Atlantic..vast and beautiful in late morning sun
Another view of the causeway from the top
Another view of the causeway from the top
View of steeple from the top visitor level
View of steeple from the top visitor level
In Kraal castle style there are scary models here and there including this giant eagle and also dragon claws elsewhere
In Kraal castle style there are scary models here and there including this giant eagle and also dragon claws elsewhere

I was not prepared for the very high Gothic chapel on top of the mountain and we there at midday Friday for a weekly sung service of deep beauty. It was like a transport to seriously heavenly heights although for me conflicted having recently read the history of these fortress monasteries being designed in particular to fight the “evils of the Protestant heresy”.  I know the world and the church has moved on but it has saddened me throughout Europe to see the remnants of Eastern vs Western Christianity, Protestant vs Catholic, all vs Islam, state and city vs state and city. Humanity’s inability to get on with fellow humanity is heart breaking!

exceedingly high and beautiful Gothic chapel ..unexpected in the midst of such a heavily fortified monastery
exceedingly high and beautiful Gothic chapel ..unexpected in the midst of such a heavily fortified monastery

We journeyed through the monastery from chapel to refectory hall (huge) to a beautiful cloister garden,

Beautiful cloister garden of peace high up above ground level
Beautiful cloister garden of peace high up above ground level

to a series of smaller simple chapels through to scary dungeons (during the French Revolution St Michael’s mont was a prison) and other large rooms and eventually down a steep back stairway back to civilization to the outside beautiful gardens.  In all a (literally) breath-taking experience. From Mont St Michel we journeyed south leaving behind the fertile fields of Bretagne and Normandy and avoiding Paris we drove through many beautiful French villages with houses and shops right on the road as in many English villages. Further south the fields are gofden with cut grass neatly machine rolled into stacks as we passed Laval and Le Mans and drove into the Loire Valley and our home for the next four nights, the ancient city of Blois.

Ambling in Amiens and running around in Rouen

Thursday 6 August Today we left Ghent and took a 3 train link through Brussels and Lille in France to arrive in Amiens only to find our car was at a second Amiens station 45 minutes away. on a TGV train line totally different to ours and in any case the office in Amiens was closed until 4.00pm! We were saved by a complete angel in the garb of a female railways officer who stayed with us, showed us a where a second Avis office in Amiens was located and pointed out how we could see the Amiens Gothic cathedral on the way which was only two blocks from the station. She was amazing and said we were the second Aussie tourists to be stranded without a car by the confusion between the two stations. We trundled our luggage through the streets of beautiful Amiens to the amazing Amiens Cathedral.

Amiens Cathedral front of houseAmiens Cathedral Second entrance side

iPhone photography again cannot deal with the complexity of these massive buildings. The detail, the tracery, complex carving even though much of it will never be seen is overwhelming.

This is an iconic Gothic cathedral, early, with substantial later additions but retaining a Gothic purity which in my view should not be too much interfered with. An example of such interference at Amiens is the C19th striking addition to the high altar.  Obviously some changes need to be made with technology e.g. stained glass and organ engineering. Ancient carving of Biblical and other themes is everywhere in this cathedral. I have long wanted to see this cathedral up front and personally and it was a privilege to be here and soak up the ambience of this historic site.

Rose window in the Crossing of Amiens Cathedral France
Rose window in the Crossing of Amiens Cathedral France
Extraordinary C19th addition to the high altar at Amiens Cathedral France. You either love it or hate it. I would give it a miss!
Extraordinary C19th addition to the high altar at Amiens Cathedral France. You either love it or hate it. I would give it a miss!
Part of the interior decoration above the high altar in Amiens Cathedral. It is always frustrating not to be able to relay the stained glass window impact
Part of the interior decoration above the high altar in Amiens Cathedral. It is always frustrating not to be able to relay the stained glass window impact
Tiny part of the many exceptional carvings found in many places in Amiens Cathedral. It would take a year of study to disentangle them all
Tiny part of the many exceptional carvings found in many places in Amiens Cathedral. It would take a year of study to disentangle them all
Interior nave of Amiens Cathedral from the rear of the nave. Gothic purity!
Interior nave of Amiens Cathedral from the rear of the nave. Gothic purity!

After viewing the cathedral, we then continued to the Avis office where we stonewalled long enough for them to come up with another vehicle even though initially we were told “we have NO cars…you’ve come to the wrong place!”  Finally they realised we were not going away and they came up with a beautiful tiny Fiat 500 which looked smaller than our pile of luggage but we and the luggage squeezed in.

Fiat 500; Fantastic little car to drive. I prefer it to the small Audi..easier to handle and very powerful. A dream to drive and amazing what you can fit in it.  e.g. All of our luggage and us! Here it is in Blois parked incorrectly in a one way street. Very European if I may say so!
Fiat 500; Fantastic little car to drive. I prefer it to the small Audi..easier to handle and very powerful. A dream to drive and amazing what you can fit in it. e.g. All of our luggage and us! Here it is in Blois parked incorrectly in a one way street. Very European if I may say so!

We took off for Rouen where we found an equally amazing and ancient Gothic cathedral right in the middle of town.The town had been flattened during the war but miraculously most of the cathedral survived. Rouen is even more purely Gothic than Amien. The nave is surrounded by ancient statues including Joan of Arc; there is some stained glass but it is a quiet and somehow personalised cathedral.  These ancient testimonies to Mediaeval faith and commitment are inspiring in the extreme although there are still questions about the impact of the church in France today.

Rouen Gothic cathedral right in the middle of a very modern town now, most of it having been flattened in WW11
Rouen Gothic cathedral right in the middle of a very modern town now, most of it having been flattened in WW11
another view of the cathedral exterior
another view of the cathedral exterior
Front of house Rouen cathedral
Front of house Rouen cathedral
Display showing the extent of WW11 damage in Rouen with the Cathedral relatively unscathed whilst all around is flattened.
Display showing the extent of WW11 damage in Rouen with the Cathedral relatively unscathed whilst all around is flattened.
Rouen high altar hidden behind forbidding steel gates. Very off-putting!
Rouen high altar hidden behind forbidding steel gates. Very off-putting!
Elegant stained glass in Rouen Cathedral behind the main sanctuary; Photography does not do it justice
Elegant stained glass in Rouen Cathedral behind the main sanctuary; Photography does not do it justice
Three of about 30 ancient and very weathered statues  lining the side aisles of Rouen cathedral
Three of about 30 ancient and very weathered statues lining the side aisles of Rouen cathedral
Joan of Arc statue ..a heroin of Rouen
Joan of Arc statue ..a heroin of Rouen
Memorial to Richard Coeur de Lion at Rouen Cathedral . His body is buried in the family vault in Aquitaine.
Memorial to Richard Coeur de Lion at Rouen Cathedral . His body is buried in the family vault in Aquitaine.
More amazing stained glass at Rouen cathedral
More amazing stained glass at Rouen cathedral

From Rouen we hit the highway again to Mont St Michel on the northern coastline. The countryside in Bretagne is green and cropped and not as heavily settled.  Mont St Michel is France’s most popular tourist destination outside of Paris so the highways were brilliant and the Fiat 500 kept up with the best except on the hills. Mont St Michel is a monastery perched on a tidal island off the coast and the sight of it emerging across the sheep paddocks in late afternoon is unforgettable. We were booked in an old farmhouse well and truly updated to become the Auberge de la Baie with an amazing cuisine  and wonderful hosts. The whole area is rural and peaceful, a massive change from the huge and busy cities we have been visiting. We enjoyed this stay very much and could have happily stayed for a week and walked and just soaked it all up. This has been an absolute highlight.

Mont St Michel sheep running past our room early next morning. This is a rural paradise
Mont St Michel sheep running past our room early next morning. This is a rural paradise
Mont St Michel monastery appearing over the horizon in early evening. An absolutely stunning sight.
Mont St Michel monastery appearing over the horizon in early evening. An absolutely stunning sight.

Getting around in Ghent again

Wednesday 5th August

Today we are having a lay day! We have been well aware what a cold and difficult winter it has been in Melbourne. As I write I see it is only 5 degrees in Melbourne and I am feeling guiIty for whingeing about the 40 degree days we had in Florence. I am grateful to the many patient  folk who faithfully wade through the waffle I send out over the airwaves. The truth is that if I didn’t write the blog every evening the whole exercise would become a blur and I would be struggling to remember where  we travelled and what we had seen and done or even who I am!

Today we slept in and provided our own breakfast as we have each day at the Ghent Marriot. It is a wonderful hotel but we have provided four breakfasts from the supermarket for less than the cost of one breakfast for us both in the hotel! It was good to answer emails at length, laze around and not feel any pressure to be anywhere in particular, face time family and eat chocolate!

We eventually emerged to wander the streets of old town Ghent again. It is full of winding lanes, substantial squares, exceptionally well preserved old homes, grand old churches, beautiful canals and not too many tourists.

View from the glass internal  lift well of the Hotel, the Ghent Marriot
View from the glass internal lift well of the Hotel, the Ghent Marriot
Someone has to eat this desert ...oh well...
Someone has to eat this desert …oh well…

Ghent 2 exciting architecture

This photo from the bridge over the canal highlights the carefully planned architectural relationships seen in Ghent old town.

Part of the ancient Castle of the Counts built in days gone by to protect Ghent
Part of the ancient Castle of the Counts built in days gone by to protect Ghent
Another view of the Castle of the Counts in Ghent
Another view of the Castle of the Counts in Ghent
Original winding streets and narrow lanes of genuine old time Ghent, called Patershol, now full of trendy restaurants!
Original winding streets and narrow lanes of genuine old time Ghent, called Patershol, now full of trendy restaurants!
More ancient homes and well tended gardens in old Ghent
More ancient homes and well tended gardens in old Ghent

In all of the European towns we have visited we have enjoyed wonderful  music from street musicians both solo and in groups including violinists on the Acropolis, male voice choirs in Venice,  funky folk groups in Strasbourg, exceptionally talented classical music water glass players, two classical clarinetists in Basel, a tuba ensemble in Florence and today a real first, a violumpet player  who played magnified classical music of a very high order.

Street musician playing the violumpet in the Markt square...a very clever guy!
Street musician playing the violumpet in the Markt square…a very clever guy!

Ghent not only has an impressive breifmarken shop but also as I found today, an exceptional vintage toy shop run by a young man selling his father’s collection! It contains the largest collection of vintage toys I have ever come across including a collection of over 800+ Dinky Toys, both English and French. I have been collecting these little cars/trucks/vans/buses all my life but I have never seen anything like this, not even in the substantial collection in the Camberwell Antique toy shop. Unlike Camberwell, the shop was somewhat chaotic but that made the treasure hunt even more exciting. It is probably a good thing we are leaving Ghent tomorrow.

Couldn't have a blog without one church. This is massive old Gothic St Michaels, in Ghent. A beautiful traditional Gothic church which we tried three times to get into but failed each time. Through the glass doors it looks like a very early, high and severely beautiful Gothic space
Couldn’t have a blog without one church. This is massive old Gothic St Michaels, in Ghent. A beautiful traditional Gothic church which we tried three times to get into but failed each time. Through the glass doors it looks like a very early, high and severely beautiful Gothic space alongside the canal

Beguiling Bruges

Tuesday 4th August

Today we took the local train from Ghent to the popular historic canal city of Bruges, just 20 minutes away on our coolest day in Europe so far, just 23 degrees!

Ann on the local train to Bruges first thing in the morning!
Ann on the local train to Bruges first thing in the morning!

Bruges has a remarkable history. in the C5th coastal region around Bruges was invaded by the flooding waters of the North Sea which took two centuries to recede, leaving behind it a fertile clay plain criss-crossed with estuaries and channels. Bruges came into being as a castle defence against the Vikings in the early C9th. It became a major trade centre and the capital of Flanders and like Ghent gained substantial power until its river access to the sea silted up and its importance decreased. Today it is a UNESCO world heritage site because of the remarkable antiquity and preservation of its guild houses and public buildings and is one of Europe’s most visited cities.

The huge Markt Square is dominated by three remarkable buildings,  the Palais Provincial, the Town Hall with an impressive Gothic interior, and, dwarfing both, the Market Halls and very tall belfry. All of these buildings are joined by a series of very well preserved guild halls, now houses and restaurants.  Bruges is a shopper’s paradise with some remarkable tapestry, porcelain, antique,  chocolate and waffle shops!  A Belgian waffle and cream is to die for!

Ann by one of the many very scenic canals in Bruges
Ann by one of the many very scenic canals in Bruges
Bruges very tall belfry, part of the mediaeval Market Halls building dominating Markt Square, the centre of the city
Bruges very tall belfry, part of the mediaeval Market Halls building dominating Markt Square, the centre of the city
Bruges Markt Square..a modern installation against ancient guild houses and many tourists!
Bruges Markt Square..a modern installation against ancient guild houses and many tourists!
A very early C15th house sitting beside one of Bruges' wonderful canals
A very early C15th house sitting beside one of Bruges’ wonderful canals
Bruges Grand Palace on the Markt Square
Bruges Grand Palace on the Markt Square

On the artistic front, the absolute highlight is Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child, one of the very few works of Michelangelo outside Italy. Like many European art icons it has had a chequered history. Originally purchased by a merchant in Bruges it was bequeathed to the Bruges Notre Dame Church  (Onze-Lievre-Vrouwkerk), then taken to Paris after French revolutionaries defeated Netherlands forces until returned in 1816. The sculpture was stolen again by Nazi Germans who hid it deep in salt mines in Austria. It was rescued in a race with Russia after intervention by American General Eisenhower in a story told in the recent film The Monuments Men. Like The Pieta in St Peter’s the sculpture makes a big impact on me..it speaks peacefulness, determination, assurance and hope. It was smaller than I expected, and like The Pieta, it is now protected by bullet proof glass.

Michelangelo's  "Madonna and Child" in Onze-Lievere Vrouwekerk in  Bruges
Michelangelo’s “Madonna and Child” in Onze-Lievere Vrouwekerk in Bruges

Close by is the former St John’s Hospital building which now houses an excellent museum of hospital instrumentation and medical work but also an impressive collection of Mediaeval Flemish art works amongst which the stand out is Memling’s Altarpiece of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist.

Memlings altar piece: St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist in the St John's Hospital art museum Bruges
Memlings altar piece: St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist in the St John’s Hospital art museum Bruges

Bruges is a brilliant city and a week spent in the city would not be wasted. We only gave it one day but we will remember it always.

Gigging in Ghent

Monday 3rd August

European trains in action including double decker trains
European trains in action including double decker trains
Impressive double decker train at Aachen station
Impressive double decker train at Aachen station
The Ghent Marriot ..our little pad in Ghent..not our normal gig on this trip but a welcome respite after five big weeks on the road.
The Ghent Marriot ..our little pad in Ghent..not our normal gig on this trip but a welcome respite after five big weeks on the road.

This morning we trained for an hour from Aachen to Brussels on the amazingly quiet Paris Nord super train and another 30 minutes in an extremely crowded local train on to the well preserved and war protected mediaeval city of Ghent, birthplace of the Emperor Charles V and until 1500 the largest city in Europe except for Paris. We are using Ghent as our Belgian base for three nights and have landed in the Mariott Hotel right on the canal. I have to say this hotel has not been typical of our pre-booked trip but (thanks again Moranda from Helloworld Belgrave), we are certainly enjoying the large room and high tech facilities.

Of particular interest to me, apart from the sensational and very large old town and the briefmarken shop is of course the mediaeval painting by Hubert and Jan Eyk entitled The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,  (1432) , a complex and very beautiful altar piece which is kept in the late Renaissance Gothic cathedral of St Bavo. Panels of the painting are currently being restored. The painting has attained iconic status because of its intrinsic beauty, especially the face of the Virgin Mary, its interesting theological centre painting Christ as an actual lamb, the diversity of the groups who come to worship the lamb and last but not least because it is just about the most stolen of all major art works. It survived Protestant iconoclasm, was taken to France by Napoleon and then returned, requisitioned by Hitler during WW11  but one section “the Just Judges” panel was stolen in 1934 before the war and has never been returned.  Photography was very difficult because of the crowd but the painting is readily found in books.

Hubert and Jan Eyck altar piece:
Hubert and Jan Eyck altar piece: “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, 1432

St Bavo’s Cathedral itself is, in my view, an impossibly tragic mix up.  A noble austere and plain Gothic church with a beautiful frescoed crypt  has been “baroqued”  or “rococoed” beyond belief. The extraordinary  white marble pulpit representing the triumph of truth over error (C18th) and the C18th high altar with candlesticks donated by Napoleon to me destroy the architectural unity of the interior. The exterior is swathed in scaffolding so no pics.

St Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent. Late Renaissance Gothic and in this photo looking quite traditional
St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent. Late Renaissance Gothic and in this photo looking quite traditional
Pulpit in white marble from Cararra and Danish oak by L Delvaux (1696-1778). It represents
Pulpit in white marble from Cararra and Danish oak by L Delvaux (1696-1778). It represents “Triumph of truth over error”.
High altar in St Bavo's Ghent by H F Verbruggen (C18th) about 59 feet high representing St Bavo's apotheosis.
High altar in St Bavo’s Ghent by H F Verbruggen (C18th) about 59 feet high representing St Bavo’s apotheosis.
Interesting ancient frescoes in the huge crypt of St Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent. The crypt includes a large and very peaceful worship area with its own separate entrance from the street.
Interesting ancient frescoes in the huge crypt of St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent. The crypt includes a large and very peaceful worship area with its own separate entrance from the street.
A very relaxed bishop in his tomb in the sanctuary of St Bavo's Cathedral Ghent.
A very relaxed bishop in his tomb in the sanctuary of St Bavo’s Cathedral Ghent.

St Nicholas’ church, not far from the Cathedral has been similarly “Baroqued” but in a bizarre twist, one half of the church has been left untouched Gothic and the other (in my view) ruined by Baroque.  Others will need to be the judge of the value of Baroque religious architecture.

St Nicholas' church in Ghent..the Gothic
St Nicholas’ church in Ghent..the Gothic “half” separated by a glass barrier from the Baroque half
St Nicholas's church in Ghent ...the Baroque half with its C18th altar
St Nicholas’s church in Ghent …the Baroque half with its C18th altar
St Nicholas' church in Ghent  exterior
St Nicholas’ church in Ghent exterior

Ghent is a friendly city where many people have English alongside their Flemish/German/Dutch/French whatever else. It is highly ordered, has lots of high tech and modern art, is  elegant, has loads of chocolate and other sweet things and the people who live and work here are, I think, very lucky to do so.

“The big toilet paper”! Only in Ghent!
Another view of
Another view of “the big toilet paper”!
Ghent old town on the canal and Richard holding his latest
Ghent old town on the canal and Richard holding his latest “briefmarken” find.
St Bavo's Square in Ghent old town
St Bavo’s Square in Ghent old town
Another view of old town Ghent
Another view of old town Ghent

Acting up in Aachen

Sunday 2 August

This morning we had an early start leaving Strasbourg in the Audi by 6.15am to reach Aachen, 400kms away only to get to Aachen and find that, contrary to all our advice from Europcar they had a 24hour service so we needn’t have got going quite so quickly. It was an excellent excuse nevertheless to put the foot down on some of the best engineered roads in Europe.  The autobahn from Strasbourg to Paris passes through beautiful Moselle and Saar cropping countryside and far vistas with wonderful little villages, each with their proud church. Half way along this highway we turned off back to Germany and enjoyed the Saarbruck countryside and green fir forests and felt the land becoming increasingly urbanised as we approached Aachen.

The German engineering keeping the autobahn relatively flat through some very deep valleys is exceptional and it is certainly the most pleasurable driving experience I have had matching exactly the Cote d’Azure freeway from Provence to Genoa with gorgeous green fields and mountain vistas matching the blue Mediterranean.  The Audi was a little slower with all our luggage on board but still sat comfortably on 150kms/hr which was standing still alongside the Maseratis and large Audis and Volvos that zipped past us.

Nevertheless driving at such pace with unfamiliar language and many freeway interchanges is tiring and we were grateful to our hotel Leonardo  in Aachen for allowing us early access after we dropped off our car with the usual “trouble finding the depot” routine.

After a good rest we taxied to the old centre of Aachen, once again a university city (popn 400 000 and 50000 of them students! )  and once again a world heritage cathedral site. Aachen is the ancient Aix -en-Chapelle and the seat of power for C9th Warrior king Charlemagne who in a way can be said to have created the first “court” of Europe and together with the scholar Alcuin created centres of learning and culture which set a pattern for future European leaders. The throne on which he was crowned king/emperor still exists on the second floor of Aachen Cathedral and was the humble place in which Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire were crowned for six centuries.

Statue of Charlemagne in the Rathaus square of Aachen
Statue of Charlemagne in the Rathaus square of Aachen
Aachen city hall (rathaus) itself laden with religious statues and carving
Aachen city hall (rathaus) itself laden with religious statues and carving

The Cathedral itself is a place I have longed to vist for many years but never achieved until now. It confronts the viewer, already amazed by the impressive mediaeval rathaus, itself carved with a great number of religious statues on the exterior.  The confrontation is about the sheer vertical height of the cathedral  structure.  Most Gothic cathedrals start wide at the base and eventually narrow towards the tower. The bulk of Aachen is vertically straight to a very significant height with complex sculptural decoration.  From the side view there is the triangular V shaped section, the amazing octagonal ‘dome’ and the inevitable Gothic tower.

Aachen Cathedral exterior view from the old town restaurant centre
Aachen Cathedral exterior view from the old town restaurant centre
the three
the three “sections” of the Aachen cathedral
Another view of the massive exterior complexity
Another view of the massive exterior complexity

The interior is literally breathtaking… I felt immediately at first that I was back in San Vitale Ravenna with the octagonal shape; then I felt I was in a Russian church with all the colour and the quite dark mosaics; this is a quite unique worship space after the four “traditional” massive Gothic churches we have seen in recent days.

Entry to the Aachen Cathedral,
Entry to the Aachen Cathedral, “the first post-classical cupola to be constructed north of the Alps” – part Orthodox, part San Vitale Ravenna, uniquely Aachen! and full of colour ..it was quite dark and the camera can’t do the colour!
Aachen cathedral interior showing part of the octagonal 'original core' from the C9th
Aachen cathedral interior showing part of the octagonal ‘original core’ from the C9th

The interior is full of colour, mosaic ceilings, a huge circular bronze chandelier (c.1165..a gift of Emperor Frederick 1 Barbarossa), the unique octagonal core (the most original ‘Charlemagnic’ remnant c800) and then the late Gothic choir ..very high with vertical stained glass reminiscent of San Chapelle in Paris. The windows were bombed out during WW11 so the glass is gleaming, relatively new and sensational.  I won’t comment on the presence of vast gold reliquaries front and centre between the two sections…except to say again it is a part of mediaeval church life I least understand. The Cathedral treasury contains many significant and spectacular artworks but we left them for another day? and simply wandered around the old town enjoying the relaxed student atmosphere, many musical entertainers and just a very laid back and pleasant place to be on lazy Summer Sunday afternoon.

Aachen cathedral interior showing the original stairway to the pulpit....the only part of the interior apart from the throne on level 2 which dates from Charlemagne's time
Aachen cathedral interior showing the original stairway to the pulpit….the only part of the interior apart from the throne on level 2 which dates from Charlemagne’s time
Aachen cathedral interior showing ancient tapestries behind the relatively simple altar in the choir
Aachen cathedral interior showing ancient tapestries behind the relatively simple altar in the choir
C15th Gothic choir with very high stained glass windows reminiscent of San Chapelle in Paris. The glass was bombed out in WW11 so the glass is relatively new and gleaming
C15th Gothic choir with very high stained glass windows reminiscent of San Chapelle in Paris. The glass was bombed out in WW11 so the glass is relatively new and gleaming
Aachen cathedral ceiling showing mosaics above the octagonal core of the worship space
Aachen cathedral ceiling showing mosaics above the octagonal core of the worship space
Another view of the octagonal core ceiling and wall
Another view of the octagonal core ceiling and wall

We had  a wonderful dinner in the square and went  home for an early night to get ready for the Belgian chocolatefest tomorrow!

Spectacular Speyer and High Heidelberg in ruins.

Saturday 1 August

This morning’s first activities could only happen in modern Europe. We had to return our much loved French Renault and take a taxi to Kehl in Germany to hire a German Audi because tomorrow we want to drive the car to Aachen in Germany and leave it there.  There is no agreement between France and Germany in relation to sharing hire car drop off destinations so that’s what we had to do!  I do recall in the past hiring a car in France and dropping it off at the Rome airport. Perhaps France and Italy have a deal or else it was a problem with Enterprise, our hire car company in Strasbourg France. Who knows?  It means at least that I could drive on the German autobahn in a German Audi and that was fun (mostly) since it was a five on the floor manual vehicle. We had some anxious moments trying to start in 3rd gear while my head got around a manual wrong side of the road driving experience in a large unfamiliar German town!

Our wonderful Renault Capture SUV deep in its underground commercial park where we kept it at night for a good deal of 10 euros.
Our wonderful Renault Capture SUV deep in its underground commercial park where we kept it at night for a good deal of 10 euros.
Our new diesel MANUAL Audi which will enable Richard to cause even more chaos on European roads.
Our new diesel MANUAL Audi which will enable Richard to cause even more chaos on European roads.

That solved we got away from the big city of Strasbourg/Kehl for a while and drove the autobahn to  the gorgeous university town of churches,  Speyer, again not far from the Rhine. In fact we crossed the Rhine at least three times in the course of today.  Speyer’s imperial cathedral is a world heritage site and was in some periods the central cathedral of the Holy Roman Emperor although today it does not have a Archbishop’s seat.  It is an unusual Romanesque style with however four towers and a central dome, not of course all built at once.  Inside it is remarkable for its austerity and size.  No stained glass at all and only a series of very well preserved frescoes from the C19th  high above the nave. The statuary is very minimalist and the vast area of the apse and sanctuary is divided into two modern communion tables with moveable chairs and much space. The ceilings and walls are otherwise unpainted and unadorned. The massive cathedral sits in the midst of a beautiful treed parkland.

Speer Cathedral, C11th Imperial Holy  Roman Empire mediaeval and current church
Speyer Cathedral, C11th Imperial Holy Roman Empire mediaeval and current church
another frontal view of Speyer cathedral
another frontal view of Speyer cathedral
Speyer Cathedral interior ..very plain, no stained glass, very little statuary, modern communion tables.
Speyer Cathedral interior ..very plain, no stained glass, very little statuary, modern communion tables.
Two of a large group of Speyer cathedral frescoes high above the nave.
Two of a large group of Speyer cathedral frescoes high above the nave which Ludwig 1 sponsored in the C19th
View of sanctuary with modern furniture in Speyer Cathedral
View of sanctuary with modern furniture in Speyer Cathedral

There are many other churches  in Speyer, each one quite historic and spectacular in their own way.  In addition the major part of the town has retained its “old town” feel with brightly painted wooden homes and some very impressive classical stone architecture. Speyer rightly attracts many tourists and getting a park was a challenge.

Typical old town houses and shops in Speyer's main street
Typical old town houses and shops in Speyer’s main street
Another view of Speyer's old town shops
Another view of Speyer’s old town shops
Speyer Protestant church currently being renovated but there are many other churches in Speyer
Speyer Protestant church currently being renovated but there are many other churches in Speyer

After lunch we completed the very short autobahn run to another University and huge industrial city of Heidelberg to see the impressive Renaissance ruined schloss or castle, resplendent in red stone and high on an unpronounceable hill above the beautiful bridge across the Neckar river and looking out over the beautiful houses of Heidelberg’s old town. The Castle has a complex history, belonging mostly to Hohenstauffen rulers including Frederick 11 and suffering from the same problem of often being in conflict with the Holy Roman Emperor and therefore having powerful enemies who kept attacking the castle and eventually disabling it. It sits in glorious and still formidable disarray and the height of its keep from wall to the bottom of the dungeon is dizzying and not for those with vertigo. The Schloss is a rich treasure and it is good to see it being well maintained. A funicular railway connects it to the town and is very popular.

Heidelberg castle, seat of the Hohenstaufen kings including Frederick 11, high above the city of Heidelberg, but now a fabulous ruin
Heidelberg castle, seat of the Hohenstaufen kings including Frederick 11, high above the city of Heidelberg, but now a fabulous ruin
Heidelberg Renaissance castle..another view
Heidelberg Renaissance castle..another view
Wall detail of Heidelberg Castle
Wall detail of Heidelberg Castle
yet another view (we really liked this place!)
yet another view (we really liked this place!)
Heidelberg old town including the bridge over the river from the castle wall
Heidelberg old town including the bridge over the Neckar river from the castle wall
Heidelberg church and homes from the castle wall
Heidelberg church and homes from the castle wall
Another view of old town and churches from the castle
Another view of old town and churches from the castle

The weather was again kind to us and we had another very happy day in the Rhineland.

Scintilating Strasbourg and its beautiful neighbours in the Rhineland

Strasbourg in Alsace, now in France..for many years in Germany, is a stately and gracious city with wide streets, effective trams and very polite drivers …even with those who drive the wrong way in one way streets and occasionally hesitate in the midst of quite heavy traffic!  Our “Couvent Franciscan” hotel is not, as we imagined an out of town quiet retreat but a mid-town hotel right in the thick of things. So this morning after brekky we were able to walk quite easily from our hotel room directly to the bridge over the river Ill (that’s capital I as in eye  and two “ls” as in lake), a tributary of the Rhine and directly three blocks further to the old town (where we found a wonderful Lalique shop)  and of course to Strasbourg Cathedral.

Ann on the bridge over the Ill River in Strasbourg. The Ill is a tributary of the Rhine and the flowers along the bridge were a sensation as is my amazing wife and travelling partner!
Ann on the bridge over the Ill River in Strasbourg. The Ill is a tributary of the Rhine and the flowers along the bridge were a sensation as is my amazing wife and travelling partner!
Just outside the Cathedral platz we found this wonderful Lalique crystal and jewellery shop. Many beautiful pieces of creative art here
Just outside the Cathedral platz we found this wonderful Lalique crystal and jewellery shop. Many beautiful pieces of creative art here

The Church of Notre Dame de Strasbourg is currently celebrating its millennial year, being created in 1015 with of course many additions since.  This is really one of the world’s “great” cathedrals. I hate to use that word ever since being told in year 7 that it is a pretty ordinary adjective and surely I could think of something more explicit! But “great” this Gothic cathedral is as well as monstrous in a photograph defying sense.  What ecclesiastical grandeur can compare with Strasbourg?…well certainly of course the other wonderful French Gothic cathedrals (Chartres, Amiens, Rouen, Rheims, Notre Dame de Paris; of course St Peter’s in Rome and St Paul’s in London, Lincoln? Seville?Cologne?.St Patricks New York?.not many more I think.

Strasbourg Gothic cathedral which celebrates its millennial year at present with a light show every night. It is a simply wonderful and spiritually overpowering place
Strasbourg Gothic cathedral which celebrates its millennial year at present with a light show every night. It is a simply wonderful and spiritually overpowering place
Strasbourg cathedral interior ..the stained glass cannot be photographed without back lighting. It is unique, high, everywhere and very fine; extraordinary rose window.
Strasbourg cathedral interior ..the stained glass cannot be photographed without back lighting. It is unique, high, everywhere and very fine; extraordinary rose window.
An organ with moving parts to its decoration..fit for a cathedral!
An organ with moving parts to its decoration..fit for a cathedral!

The stained glass is exquisite..high, everywhere, complete; the decoration and statuary subdued (during the Reformation a great many statues and other decoration was destroyed); It’s astronomical clock incomparable! The external bulk and complexity defies our little iPhone photographic skills. It was a  privilege to be quietly in this sacred space this morning.

This is certainly the largest clock I have ever seen; we saw it in action..it makes our cuckoo clock seem completely irrelevant
This is certainly the largest clock I have ever seen; we saw it in action..it makes our cuckoo clock seem completely irrelevant

We had a a wander in old town Strasbourg then came back to town and took off in the Renault Capture for the Rhineland towns of Colmar in France and Freiburg in Germany.  Colmar is to Strasbourg what Olinda is to Melbourne.  About 90kms by easy freeway to a picture perfect town with a wonderful market and lots of unusual shops as well as all the normal tourist stuff.

Colmar, 90kms south of Strasbourg on the French side of the Rhine. A fairytale town
Colmar, 90kms south of Strasbourg on the French side of the Rhine. A fairytale town
Colmar old town again!
Colmar old town again!

But art lovers come to Colmar for one reason only…the Isenheim altar piece in the Unterlinden Museum. Somehow this C16th masterpiece by an artist  known as Grunewald (actual name Mathis Gotthart Nithard and a sculptor named Nicolas de Hagenau. It is a complex work physically with three levels of openings.  Currently Underlinden Museum is closed for renovation so the Isenheim altarpiece is on display in the local ancient Dominican monastery church which has its own stained glass quiet beauty. I am sure greater art critics than I can explain the popularity of this altarpiece. To me the resurrection scene does not ring true and the connection made between St Anthony and St Paul and Christ  is not helpful. Nevertheless there is a richness in the colour  and drama of the whole display that is compelling and I saw people quite moved to sit and look at the crucifixion depiction in particular

"Grunewald's" C16th masterpiece ..part of the Isenheim altar piece from the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar. It is the town's greatest claim to fame
“Grunewald’s” C16th masterpiece ..part of the Isenheim altar piece from the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar. It is the town’s greatest claim to fame

After a simple lunch we drove the short distance from Colmar across the mighty Rhine with its cruiser boats busy,  into Germany to the Minster city of Freiburg.  Everything is an anticlimax after Strasbourg but Freiburg Minster has its own charm with its deep red stone, high towers, and again some impressive stained glass;  the flying buttresses with their fleeing “demons” are exciting and as in Strasbourg folk seem to love just sitting in these vast worship spaces, overwhelmed by the sense of ancient piety, scope and strength of architecture and exquisite beauty of the glasswork in the windows.

Freiburg Minster..another grand mediaeval Gothic cathedral..a place to sit and ponder and be quiet
Freiburg Minster..another grand mediaeval Gothic cathedral..a place to sit and ponder and be quiet
Interior of Freiburg Minster. A simpler and less adorned cathedral than Strasbourg but a place of quiet beauty
Interior of Freiburg Minster.
A simpler and less adorned cathedral than Strasbourg but a place of quiet beauty

The journey home to Strasbourg was even quicker owing to the superior German highway engineering on their side of the Rhine. It was a very quiet and happy day in beautiful sunshine.

Busy in Basel, Switzerland

Thursday 30th July

We had only a  morning to wander the relatively quiet and ordered streets of Basel in Switzerland after the tourist chaos, blistering sun and sheer noise of Florence.  The contrast was quite remarkable.  Virtually no tourists, a cool 23 degrees,  a much more homogeneous and “older” society, (vast numbers of European tourists are under 40) and the sort of architecture that makes you feel like you have landed in Disneyland with everything manicured, everything sweet, chocolate and cherries everywhere and everything carefully painted and finished.

Ann on a bridge over the Rhine river in Basel with the Cathedral in the distance
Ann on a bridge over the Rhine river in Basel with the Cathedral in the distance

Our soul goal was to visit the Basel Cathedral and honour Erasmus, whose tomb is found there. Erasmus has always been a hero of mine and his “In Praise of Folly” should be compulsory reading for all Christians. His achievement of editing and having published an accurate copy of the Greek New Testament kick started Luther and Tyndale and in a way made the Reformation possible by providing authority and trust in the text of God’s Word written. After the cathedral will visit we wandered the streets of Basel and had a carefully negotiated lunch,  as Switzerland will only deal in Swiss Francs or Euro notes, not coins so we had to judge our Euro costs to the closet Euro note!

We then travelled the short distance by train from Basel to Strasbourg through flat well cropped fields, picked up a hire car, a Renault Capture in Strasbourg and spent far too much time working out where to park it cheaply as our hotel has no serious car park.

early C16th Basel home -serious contrast to Florence
early C16th Basel home -serious contrast to Florence
Basel Cathedral. A C16th Gothic church now Reformed Oecolampard church
Basel Cathedral. A C16th Gothic church now Reformed Oecolampard church
Interior of Basel Cathedral
Interior of Basel Cathedral
Erasmus' tomb in Basel Cathedral. Erasmus effectively enabled the Reformation by carefully editing and having published an accurate edition of the New Testament in Greek
Erasmus’ tomb in Basel Cathedral. Erasmus effectively enabled the Reformation by carefully editing and having published an accurate edition of the New Testament in Greek
The West wall of Basel is, like all Gothic churches, huge, magnified in red stone.
The West wall of Basel is, like all Gothic churches, huge; this one magnified in red stone.
Basel old town and market
Basel old town and market
Basel primary teacher using a puppet to teach history and geography
Basel primary teacher using a puppet to teach history and geography
Death of the dragon on front wall of Basel Cathedral
Death of the dragon on front wall of Basel Cathedral

Fleeing from Florence heat to Swiss scenery

Richly inlaid stone walls of the Principal Medici chapel in San Lorenzo Florence
Richly inlaid stone walls of the Principal Medici chapel in San Lorenzo Florence
Painting by C20th artist Pietro Annigoni in San Lorenzo church Florence. A welcome modern touch in a quite traditional interior.
Painting by C20th artist Pietro Annigoni in San Lorenzo church Florence. A welcome modern touch in a quite traditional interior.
Ceiling of Principal Medici chapel in San Lorenzo Florence.  Vast and over the top is the only way to describe this chapel
Ceiling of Principal Medici chapel in San Lorenzo Florence. Vast and over the top is the only way to describe this chapel

Wednesday 28th July

Today, as a final attempt to see the Renaissance through Florentine eyes we ventured just down the street from our hotel to San Lorenzo church, the parish church of the Medici family which also contains as an ‘add on’ the extraordinary tombs of the Medici leaders.

The church itself is another huge classical Renaissance effort, Gothic in general style, with an unfinished front in spite of the Medici “wealth” (which like modern governments was often an illusion..artists were  often commissioned, delivered, and then not paid…princes often paid debts with borrowed money only to have to go into debt again when their own debts were required of them.  There is evidence that the Medicis were not so much patrons of Renassance art as encouragers and supporters but did not actually have the money to commission.

All this fits with the chapels which, although in part richly decorated, some would say garishly decorated, were never finished. In fact the beautifully inlaid polished stone floors were not completed until Medici descendants paid for them in the late C20th.  Whatever happened to the Medici wealth seems to be unknown but it disappeared as did most of the quite famous jewellery. In addition the exorbitant decoration of walls with inlaid polished stone and and oversized tombs themselves in the Capella dei Principe have all been stripped of their greater than life-size images except two of them.

Extraodinary size of Medici tombs in the Capella dei Principe ..the principal chapel of the Medici family
Extraodinary size of Medici tombs in the Capella dei Principe ..the principal chapel of the Medici family. As can be seen this one has “lost” its life size image which should be ins place above the wooden casket

The other sad part of these Medici chapels, and the museum set up to attract fee-paying tourists is the rather horrific cabinet after cabinet of expensive pure silver monstrances, pyxes and other reliquaries holding bits of mouldy bones and other doubtful historical oddities. They seem to reflect in my mind a complete rejection of the simple moral simplicities of the Gospel and an objective visitor in my view can only come away from these chapels with a sense, if not of horror,  at least a sense of the complete inappropriateness of the attempted elevation of Medici significance and power in some future arena when “first shall be last and the last shall be last”. There is more meaning to be found I think in the much smaller “New Sacristy” which contains Michelangelo sculptures in memory of the Duke of Urbino, grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and the simple tomb of Lorenzo the Magnificent himself.

As to the church of San Lorenzo it is one of the earliest and in a way, most straightforward of Florence’s Renaissance churches. The decoration is subdued, mainly massive early devotional works of art.  The side chapels are also subdued and the central altar is beautifully marbled but not excessive. Donatello’s bronze  pulpits in the nave are not excessive and the only major fresco is a large work by Bronzino depicting the martyrdom of St Lawrence. A striking painting by C20th Pietro Annigoni showing a young Jesus in his father’s workshop is certainly one of the best things I have seen in Florence.

Three sculptures by Michelangelo in the New Sacristy of the Medici Chapels in San Lorenzo Florence. This room was peaceful and quiet after the hectic triumphalism of the Principal chapel. In this quiet space are the relatively unadorned tombs of Lorenzo the Magnificent himself and his murdered brother Giuliano (C15th)
Three sculptures by Michelangelo in the New Sacristy of the Medici Chapels in San Lorenzo Florence. This room was peaceful and quiet after the hectic triumphalism of the Principal chapel. In this quiet space are the relatively unadorned tombs of Lorenzo the Magnificent himself and his murdered brother Giuliano (C15th)
Signed Michelangelo sculpture (middle statue) in the New Sacristy of the Medici Chapels in San Lorenzo Florence. Vasari put these statues over the very plain tomb of the Duke of Urbino (Lorenzo the Magnificent's grandson)
Signed Michelangelo sculpture (middle statue) in the New Sacristy of the Medici Chapels in San Lorenzo Florence. Vasari put these statues over the very plain tomb of the Duke of Urbino (Lorenzo the Magnificent’s grandson)
San Lorenzo Renaissance church Florence interior
San Lorenzo Renaissance church Florence interior

Florence 5 San Lorenz marbled altar

The marbled highly polished altar in San Lorenzo church.

We left Florence in mid-afternoon with the temperature again rising to 34 degrees and the unrelenting humidity and crowds still swelling.

Our journey took us by super-fast frecciarosso train from Florence through Bologna to Milan with a quick change of trains to an inter-city express through the tranquil lake district of Lakes Maggiore and Com0 into the still snow-clad alps and mountain towns of northern Italy through the Simplon Pass and down through  a very long tunnel into the wooden chalets and red shuttered dwellings of Switzerland. We travelled through Berne at 10.00pm and arrived at Basel at 1o.45pm and happy to see our hotel and be asleep by midnight after quite a long day!

Ann asleep on train to Basel after quite a long day! We arrived in Basel at 10.45pm and just as we walked out of the station a taxi pulled up..the only one around at that hour!
Ann asleep on train to Basel after quite a long day! We arrived in Basel at 10.45pm and just as we walked out of the station a taxi pulled up..the only one around at that hour!