Friday, June 19, 2009

A Castle, a Cathedral and Anjou.

We woke to the sound of rain this morning, however the clouds were breaking to the promise of a fine day. As we were not fixed to a greulling schedule, we were able to take our time to ready ourselves for breakfast. And just as we are about to leave the room, Antony is calling on Skype - with Mum on the standby! It was lovely to 'see' her and she was amazed at this new computer technology that allows her to see us - and for free! She has a hard time getting her head around that one! Bella is already in bed (it is 5:30 pm there) so we chat briefly to Mum and Antony (and Amanda out of the sight line).

On arriving in the breakfast room, we discover we are the last guests to arrive! This poses no concern to our hostess as most of the other guests were business people who needed to be up and moving . . . early, poor sods! She is happy to give us some of her time and gives us little hints on what to see. Turns out that what we thought last night was the Museum of Fine Arts is actually a former abbey tower, so we add that to our list of things to see and do today as well.

Anjou is built on the side of a hill that stretches up from the River Maine. Oh, joy of joys, another steep hill and steps, lots of steps! Never mind, there are lots of small cafes as well if we (read that as the royal 'we' and more likely as I) need a break!

It is now 6:20 pm and we are just back in to our room after almost seven hours of walking with the only breaks being for lunch and a 'little train' ride just a little while ago. Mind you, my hip is now complaining loud and clear and my feet after a day of cobblestones - I have feet? Gosh, can hardly feel them any longer! We began our day walking up the hill from the hotel before turning down lots of small back streets in an effort to keep walking on the level as much as possible. We come into the historic quarter near the Tower Saint-Aubin (which is the one we can see from our window). This is all that remains of a former abbey dating back to the 12th century that was destroyed - it now houses a gallery and was not open today. A little further on in the square we see this piece of sculpture keeping a watchful gaze across the square on the Museum of Fine Arts.

We turn another corner and come in to the square where we were last night in the rain. We had not realised it then, but we were standing right outside The Tree of Life House - one of Anger's finest examples of

The square backs on to the Cathedral of Angers (Cathédrale Saint-Maurice d'Angers), but we need to walk around to the front to gain access. Down a few more sloping narrow streets, past the Cathedral Library bookshop and up a steep cobbled slope. And all the while the Cathedral towers over us from its vantage high on a rocky outcrop. A tour guide is busily telling her charges that they must wait to go in because there is a special service happening. "Bugger that", I think, "I'm going in to the Mass!" There are preservation works happening to the front facade, so once you walk through a portico of plywood, you yank open the H U G E wooden door that we have no doubt dates back to the first construction of the Cathedral in the 12th Century.

I push the inner door in and enter into another world. The air is thick with incense, and filled with the deep reverberations of an organ being played mightily. Today is the Feast of the Sacred Heart and the mass is being celebrated by no less than one Archbishop, one Bishop and 28 priests and acolytes. Yes, for the second time on this trip, I have managed to go to a Mass that is a major celebration. (Remember, the first was at Arles). Once the mass has ended (sic) Michael comes in and we take a closer look at this amazing building. Where the altar was strongly lit from above for Mass, now most of the lights are off and the building presents a very sombre, almost gloomy face to visitors. The organist is still playing though and has now ventured into Igo Stravinsky's 'Spring' - a strong, loud and at time claxon-ish piece - but very fitting with the mood.

Quite a different church to the recent cathedrals, this is a shorter, squatter building, but one whose nave is wider than most as it does not have avenues down the sides. The stained glass is amazing and at one point, light streams through one of the windows, briefly illuminating the vacant chairs before again, it is darker.

From here we stroll down even older cobbled streets (well, lanes is probably a better descriptor as you can only fit one car width in the street - no parking here!) to the Angers Castle.

The sight of this castle (Château d'Angers) is amazing and no glossy photos or other media can prepare you. It stands on a rocky ridge overlooking the River Maine with 17 massive towers and walls encompassing an area of 2.5 hectares. Where the castle stands archaeology shows there had been a fortication here since Roman times, and by just absorbing the vista across the Maine from the massive walls, it's strategic defensive location is apparent.

Construction of the castle began in the 9th century, becoming part of the Angevin Emoire of the Plantagenet Kings of England during the 12th century. In 1204, when the region was conquered by Philip II an enormous chateau was built within the fortifications. 1230 saw the addition of the 17 towers and reconstruction of the walls under (Saint) Louis IX. The towers originally stood at 40 meters high, however sixteen of the towers were reduced in height for the use of artillery pieces and are now only 30 metres high! These are s
urrounded by a 'dry' moat with entry into the bastion through two gateways each protected by hoardings, and the following succession: portcullis/'murder hole'/ portcullis/'murder hole'. The main gateway had further protection by a circular barbican. Centuries after the castle had ceased being any form of military fortification, the dry moats were converted into 'moat gardens'.

Today the moats are a testimony to the French taste in sculptured gardens, and reminiscent of those required by the Sun-King, Louis XIV. Yes, King Louuuiiiiiiiiis! However, the moats haven't been altogether lost to horticulture. A section has been set aside to provide a living diorama of medieval life. We were fortunate to find a segment of humanity plucked from history's pages: knaves, squires, falconers, a blacksmith, ladies and knights. These characters were supported by a medieval village scene comprising of penants, pavilions, farm animals, camels and the appropriate aromas!

The gardens are just not restricted to the moats, for as you pass through the main gateway and pass on the ticket sales you enter, what can only be described as a garden from 'Alice In Wonderland'. All that is missing are the bumbling guards, the flumoxed rabbit and Her Majesty shrieking: "OFF THEIR HEADS"!

There is so much which can describe this amazing citadel, however, I recommend you follow the link. One of the main attractions here is another medieval tapestry - the Angers Apocolypse Tapestry, however before we go to view the Tapestry, we decide to have lunch as the 'worms' are biting. There is a restaurant within the confines of the castle so it is an easy choice!

We both had an interpretation of a medieval dish called Fouasse. This refers to small breads traditionally cooked in the fire ashes which you then fill with a variety of meat and / or bean dishes. Today we chose a cassolet of Haricot beans with ham and:
Magret du Canard (Smoked duck breast) Michael
Rillettes du Porc (a sort of shredded pork dish) Maria
Chocolate tart (Michael)
Chocolate Macroon (Maria)
They are both rich and luscious and not-too-sweet.

Then it is off to take a look at the fortified gateway (purely to indicate wealth and power as it is actually inside the castle fortifications) in to the royal residence and an amazing Chapel
just inside. But the afternoon is moving and the anticipation of the Apocalypse Tapestry is what is drawing us. This was definitely a O. My. God. moment. Seeing the Bayeux Tapestry and the Scriptorial yesterday was as through it was a preparation for viewing this wonder. Measuring 104 m x 6 m when all laid out (compared to the 70m of the Bayeux tapestry) this work is a traditional woven tapestry (where Bayeux is actually an embroidery style). And still, a third of it has been lost over the centuries.

The Tapestry is preserved in the dimly lit Revelation Gallery with its slate blue walls within Angers Castle. After entering the gallery, and your eyes adjust to the low lighting, your senses are immediately struck by a panoramic tapestry that goes on. And on. And on.

This work tells the story of the last book of the Gospel of St John, who features as a narrater in each of the scenes and at the head of each of the six chapters as a full length introduction. The work is amazing - so much so, that the reverse (whose original colours are wonderfully preserved) is as well executed as the front - no knots! In fact the only way to tell that it is the reverse is that the story reads backwards! There are scenes where St John steps out of his narrative box in each scene to play an active role in that story. Just amazing! And to think that at one point the Archbishop had tried to sell it as it was too cumbersome for easy display, but it remained unsold (even though he was asking a pittance) and it was sent to a dusty store where it was cut at times for cleaning cloths!

This one is going to be very hard to beat - definitely one the highlights of our trip - so, Ally and Leith - add it to your list!
After we leave the gallery, complete with the two humps where the wall follows the line of the towers, we come back out into the castle grounds and the bright sunshine. It is just shy of 5pm, and the sun is still high in the sky. There is a little tourist train that takes you on a circutious route through the centre and then across the river. We hurry to join the last tour of the day at 5 pm from the Visitor Information Centre down past the Castle. Our driver / guide is very solicitious and gives us a display book with the information on our route translated into English and printed together with some colour photos. It makes it easy to follow the French we you have the translation there in front of you! There is a chunk of the tour that they cannot do at the moment thanks to the roadworks for the installation of the new Tramway. (Works havejust started and won't be finished until 2011 - the poor locals). But we get a different perspective and see some of the areas we would not otherwise get to.

Back at the starting point just before 6 pm and it is time to call our sightseeing to an end for the day. It is only about 10 blocks back to the hotel. En-route we collect a Croque Monsieur to snack on as lunch is still with us! Then, a feel a massage and a bed calling. I lie down while Michael works wonders on my legs and feet and let him have the computer as I doze a little. We manage to finally get on to Michael's mum who is staying with Maria. Poor thing - she has a husband recuperating from major surgery and a daughter who is very ill. Mum had gone there to give her a hand. Michael decides to go and get some night photos (it is now midnight) and shortly after, Antony is calling with Amanda, Izabella and Mum all taking the chance to say gidday. LOVE the fact that we can so easily keep in touch with everyone!

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