The chateau that wasn’t & the wine that was

The vistas in St. Emilion are truly picture-postcard worthy. Narrow, cobbled streets run uphill and down and vineyards surround the town.

Did you hear the one about the independent travelers in France who made an unfortunate hotel choice, changed their itinerary, and discovered Bordeaux gold?

Before leaving for France this fall, my husband read somewhere that Paddy O’Flynn’s in Saint-Émilion is a must-see stop in Bordeaux for wine tasting and a cave tour, but with all the planning for our “great French road tip”, he forgot about it long before we left home. Then the fates intervened.

Wine tasting was always a part of our itinerary, so Steve made reservations for us to stay at a country chateau about 20 minutes from Saint-Émilion, and reserved tastings at two recommended wineries that were less than a stone’s throw from some Grand Cru Classé producers. We left our lovely hillside chateau in the Loire, stopped to learn about Cognac, and late in the day arrived at the country chateau. It was a spectacular flop, a one star disappointment rather than the three star country estate we had been expecting. So we kissed our euros goodbye (it was too late to cancel that reservation) and drove on.

(This was a first for us as independent travelers, and in retrospect, it had to happen sooner or later. Not every website review/picture/description lives up to its hype.)

This is a typical street view in Saint-Emilion.

Now, however, it was Friday night, getting dark, and we had no place to stay. Trustworthy hotels in Libourne and Saint-Émilion were full. It took a couple of hours, but we ended up with a room at a clean, comfortable, chain-style hotel about 40 km away in Bordeaux. We had some dinner and started over on Saturday morning. And we tweaked our itinerary over breakfast.

As a bit of background, Saint-Émilion is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with Romanesque churches and ruins along its steep and narrow streets. Vineyards were first planted there by the Romans in the second century. Eventually, monks who settled in the 8th century launched commercial wine production. Today it is one of the principal red wine areas of Bordeaux, producing primarily merlot and cabernet franc grapes.

Isn’t this charming? Saint-Emilion oozes charm at every turn of its narrow, cobbled streets.

Because our hotel was farther afield than planned and we were now traveling a slightly different route, we cancelled our tasting reservations. We would get to town too late for the first one, and would be moving on to Sarlat-en-Canada (where we had new hotel reservations)  mid-afternoon and miss the second one. But we would get to do some tasting in Saint-Emillion.

On our initial picture-taking walk through town and purely by accident, Steve saw a small building with some signage in English and walked up to read it. A man on the inside greeted him through the open window and invited Steve in to talk wine. And that was how we met Paddy O’Flynn. If you read about him, Paddy came to Bordeaux from Ireland many years ago to source wines to sell back home. His first store opened in 2000 in Limerick (Now he has several stores in Ireland. They’re on our list when we finally make it to Ireland), and in 2014 opened his store/tasting room in Saint-Émilion.

Paddy is friendly, funny and a wonderful story-teller. He also knows wine. Much more than a salesman with a storefront,  Paddy knows the vineyards and producers, does blending for some of them and himself, and reputedly has some of the best wine caves in Saint-Emilion.

Steve and I with Paddy O’Flynn and Pilar.

Given that Steve was just another guy who walked past the store, Paddy spent significant time with us talking about his love for wine, offering tastings on excellent wines from both Burgundy and Bordeaux. We also met Pilar, his partner/fiance. (Interestingly, they were leaving in a few weeks to get married in Pilar’s hometown in Spain. Timing is everything. If our trip had been a few weeks later, we would have missed a great wine experience.)

The wines were, as a reviewer put it, extraordinary at ordinary prices. After a couple of hours of visiting and tasting (and buying) we decided we’d taken up more than enough of Paddy and Pilar’s time. We went off to find lunch. (Where we ran into a delightful couple from Wales who also have a home in France.)

We still haven’t toured any of the caves in Saint-Émilion. Guess we’ll just have to go back again.

Thanks for stopping by. See you again next time?

 

 

 

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Stopping in Cognac for cognac

Like vineyards everywhere, these were really gorgeous, especially in the fall. We visited in mid-September and workers were picking and pressing grapes during our visit.

My husband, Steve, wrote this post. He discovered we’d be close to the town of Cognac and the opportunity for cognac tasting. It was a delightful detour, spent with a charming couple and offering insight into French culture. I hope you enjoy it!

Every once in a while, you get to do try unexpected and it’s totally fun. Okay, this wasn’t exactly unexpected since we had to plan cognac tasting several weeks in advance, but the decision to do it was not on our original “bucket list” for France.
Cognac grapes still on the vine. They taste really sweet!

After planning our itinerary, and rearranging, and re-planning, and re-rearranging some more, I noticed that the drive from the Loire (chateau country) to Saint-Émilion (for wine tasting) passes right by the town of Cognac, home of cognac, the drink. I have never thought much about cognac. I was vaguely aware that it is a type of brandy and we have recipe or two that call for flambé-ing a small amount of brandy. Since I am kind of a pyromaniac and enjoy flambé recipes (or torching creme brûlée, but that’s another story) we always have some brandy on hand. But we really just use it for cooking. That’s about all I knew about it.

We were planning on wine tasting in the Bordeaux region and I started thinking: Cognac is a spirit, Scotch is a spirit. If we were going to Scotland I would no doubt stop at a distillery for a single malt, so why not find out what cognac is all about. 

So I did a little more research. I thought we would prefer to visit a smaller producer instead of one of the cognac big boys (Courvisier, Hennessey, Martel and Remy-Martin). We enjoy doing the same in Napa for wine tasting. I found a half dozen small producers who had excellent reviews (both for visits and for product). I settled on Cognac Bertrand mostly for the product reviews.

Bertrand is out in the country about a half hour south of Cognac, surrounded by fields of grapevines. It was one of the few places that Google maps got us to on the first try. We were greeted by Thérèse Bertrand whose family has been running the distillery since at least 1731 (per the earliest records). She turned us over to her American husband, Seph, for the tour and then she took over again for the tasting. 

Since we had never really tried cognac as a standalone drink, we had no idea what to expect from the tasting. Janet and I agreed if we didn’t like it at all (and it would probably be bad form not to buy anything), the worst case scenario was that we would buy an inexpensive bottle for cooking. 

My worry was for naught. The distillery setting was very picturesque, Thérèse and Seph were friendly and gracious hosts, the tour was interesting and informative, and the Bertrand Cognacs were excellent, no make that spectacular. My only regret was that I couldn’t be sure the suitcase would hold more than one bottle.
This is the Charentais copper alembic still required by law to distill cognac. The French government is very protective of the traditional cognac process.

A little cognac background: Cognac is only made from a specific list of grape varieties. In order for it to be considered a true cru, the wine must be at least 90% Ugni blanc (known in Italy as Trebbiano), Folle blanche and Colombard. The remaining 10% of the grapes used come from a longer, specific list. Unlike wine grapes, Cognac grapes are harvested by machine, pressed and allowed to ferment for two or three weeks before being distilled to extract the water. Distillation takes place in traditionally shaped Charentais copper alembic stills, the design and dimensions of which are also legally controlled. Two distillations must be carried out; the resulting eau-de-vie is a colourless spirit of about 70% alcohol. It’s important to note that this entire process is shaped by french law, which therefore protects french culture.

These are some of the barrels in the early stages of aging,

After distillation comes aging. By French law VS is aged a minimum of 2 years on Limousin oak (I have no idea what Limousin oak is or what makes it the wood of choice for the barrels, but they were very specific about it) and VSOP for 4 years. Napoleon and XO used to have the same requirement of 6 years but that changed just this year and XO is now aged for at least 10 years. Those are minimum aging periods. Bertrand’s product is aged 5,10, and 20 years for the VS, VSOP, and Napoleon Cognacs, and 30 to 35 years for the XO. Interestingly, Bertrand sells roughly 90-percent of its product to one of the big cognac producers after the initial aging, keeping the remainder for its own label. Thérèse and Seph told us that most vineyards/distillers do the same thing.

Decades of barrels are stored in this building, one of the oldest on the property.

We tasted the VS, VSOP, XO, and a Pineau. We had never heard of Pineau before. It is a blend of grape juice and eau de vie (eau de vie is what the they call the result of the distillation, which means water of life). Pineau is served as an aperitif and was too sweet for our tastebuds. The VS, VSOP, and XO are a different story.  No two are the same, the aging definitely changes the taste. Each one in the progression was better, richer and more refined than the one before, the XO being my favorite. Thérèse explained their view of the best use for each cognac: VS for cooking, VSOP for cocktails, Napoleon and XO for more serious sipping (like in old movies, by the fire, in a balloon glass).

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit, the distillery, the cognacs, Thérèse and Seph, all of it. I can’t recommend this side trip enough. It’s one of those places you might never consider and drive right past, but it gave us a wonderful look at french life and culture. I guess the road less traveled comes to mind. It happened for us several times on this trip.

Happy travels!

Two from the road in France

Most days in France began in a local cafe. In some places, we had a favorites we went to daily, like this cafe in Beaune, where the waitress began to recognize us and our order!

If you follow me on Instagram, you know my husband and I are just back from a month in France. (I know, a long trip with the luxury of time, something one doesn’t often do. We are very lucky to have had this opportunity.)

Briefly, we flew into Paris, picked up a car, and headed to Giverney (Monet’s home and garden), the Normandy beaches (D-Day landings), Mont Sainte Michele (more history), Bordeaux (to taste wine), the Loire (for chateaus), Antibes (the Riviera, the Mediterranean and the art trail), Beaune (we love it) and finally Paris (always a good idea). In the weeks to come, I’m sure I’ll bore you with too many tales tales and too many pictures, but for now I want to share two “travel shorts” to give you a taste of our trip.

First, Normandy

If I had a bucket list, the D-Day beaches would be on it. This is a piece of the American experience that I wish everyone could share. We took a highly-recommended D-Day tour, which I’ll write more about later, but now I want to share just one stop. Angoville-au-Plain is one of the tiny towns beyond Utah beach where paratroopers landed during the night before the invasion. The military assignment was to control the nearby Cherbourg to Paris route important to German defenses. The terrible weather the night of the drop, however, meant hundreds of soldiers were dropped off course, totally missing their targets.

The church in Angoville-au-Plain, France, that housed a first aid station for Allied and German soldiers on D-Day. Some pews still bear the blood stains of injured soldiers. Two German soldiers hid in the bell tower for two days before surrendering to the medics.

Two of these paratroopers were young medics, 19 and 20 years old. Robert E. Wright and Kenneth J. Moore had been given two weeks of medical training. They jumped carrying packs of first aid supplies which they lost when they landed off course in swampy fields the Germans had flooded. Undeterred, they made their way to the 11th Century church at Angoville-au-Plain. Using medical supplies they had recovered along the way, they hung a Red Cross flag on the door and worked for 72 hours straight on 82 patients, Allied and German, and lost only two men. They had only one rule: weapons must be left outside the church.

We heard many amazing stories during that tour, but for whatever reason this one really touched me. I used to think of D-Day as a single, heroic, necessary event, but when you look closer (as so many professional and amateur historians do), it’s also thousands of acts of bravery, heroism, determination and ingenuity.

(Both Wright and Moore continued to serve throughout the war and have returned often to D-Day observances at Angoville-au-Plain, where the immediate community, and the wider D-Day community, has been generous in preserving and restoring the church.)

Behind the scenes at Versailles.

Versailles is the over-the-top palace used by a string of French kings who tired of life in Paris. It’s a 30-minute train ride from Paris, or you can take one of a variety of bus/van/private tours there. I visited 20-odd years before on my first trip to France with my teen-age son. We took a bus tour (which we both hated). It was a cold day, and Versailles was crowded. Frankly, it was nothing I wanted to repeat, so on subsequent trips, Steve and I always talked ourselves out of Versailles. However, we thought early October might be a better time and Steve found a “skip the line” tour of private rooms offered by the chateau for a mere 10 euros each.

This was the best investment we made on the trip!

What we thought would be a 45-minute tour of private rooms in the chateau was actually 2-1/2 hours with a Versailles curator. There were only about 15 of us in the group, making it easy to see the rooms and ask questions. The curator was a charming, knowledgeable historian committed to educating us about the fine points of 17th and 18th century court life. And we learned a lot!

The Versailles commode that found its way to a Rothschild collection, then to a German general, and now back to Versailles.

One of the private rooms we visited was the King’s library. It was, of course, grand and gold, but our guide brought it to life by pointing out this commode, made for the palace but sold off with all the other palace furnishings after the revolution (the new government was desperate for money). It was acquired by one of the Rothschilds. But then, during WWII when the Germans began confiscating the best of European art and antiques, it was acquired by Hermann Goring. It has only recently been returned to Versailles (“Thanks be to God,” as the curator said.)

Some of the King’s book collection is behind those glass doors next to the commode. Our guide pointed out that the volumes include Captain Cook’s diaries from his explorations of the new world. (I considered pressing my face closer to the glass to see better, but was afraid I would set off an alarm! On the other hand, Captain Cook!!!)

Can I just say that these are the travel moments I treasure, little vignettes that make history or culture come alive. Along with memories like the starchy French waiter who cracked a bawdy joke, the Brits we shared an al fresco lunch with in Ste. Emilion, and hands-on lessons in French cooking, they are the best souvenirs.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time?

A family footnote to history

This “avenue” of live oaks at Boone Hall was planted by the second generation of the original family. The plantation is privately owned and has been the setting for a number of movies, including “North and South.” The original house is long gone and the current house, though lovely, dates to the 1930’s.

Once in a while, if you are really lucky and paying attention, personal history meshes with the broader picture.

Our family recently spent our annual “beach week” at Kiawah Island, South Carolina. At the end of the week, when everyone else had left, Steve and I decided to linger a few more days in Charleston.

Charleston is great for history geeks like us. Although we have made annual trips there for decades, there’s always more to see. (Last year we went back to Fort Sumter, here.) This time around we decided to drive to Boone Hall Plantation, home of this legendary Avenue of the Oaks (Trust me, it’s this stunning, although the plantation was a bit of a let-down). Getting there took us past Fort Moultrie, on Sullivan’s Island, where we stopped to explore a family footnote to history.

A bit of background

Constructed to protect Charleston Harbor, Fort Moultrie was still unfinished when it was attacked by British forces in 1776. After a nine-hour battle Revolutionary forces led by William Moultrie turned back the British and Charleston was spared. The fort was seriously neglected in subsequent years, but when England and France went to war in 1793, the U.S. determined to tighten waterfront security and a second Fort Moultrie was one of 20 new fortifications. The second Fort Moultrie was destroyed by a hurricane in 1804. Congress next ordered a third Fort Moultrie, this time built of brick, completed in 1809. In 1860, Charleston Harbor was protected by Fort Moultrie, Fort Sumter, Battery Johnson and Castle Pinckney. In December the Federal Garrison abandoned Fort Moultrie for the newer Fort Sumter. A few months later, Confederate troops shelled and captured Sumter. The rest is Civil War history.

Getting personal

In 1936 Fort Moultrie was the first place my father-in-law, a newly-minted ROTC officer from the University of Georgia, was stationed. (By then the fort had been equipped with more modern weapons in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, then largely disarmed after WWI. It continued, however, to play a key role in coastal security.)

This was the office of the Quartermaster (note the sign).  We think that since my father-in-law’s duty was largely administrative, he could have worked here.
This was the Commissary, though it’s hard to see the sign over the door.

We shared this bit of personal history with the Park Rangers there, and they enthusiastically pulled out some photos of the facility in that era and directed us to the few remaining buildings, some still bearing their Army signage but now converted to high-end condos. My father-in-law would be so amused. In his day it was just a hot, humid post. I think of him walking the streets of what must have been a tiny town in a swampy backwater. Lou was from New York City. Even after those years at the university in Athens, Georgia, Sullivan’s Island must have seemed the ends of the earth.

It’s amazing to think that one army installation was repeatedly called into service for more than 175 years. At some point it changed from an Army fort to an Army/Navy reservation and encompassed most of Sullivan’s Island. Fort Moultrie was decommissioned in 1947 and turned over to the National Park Service in 1960.

We’ve spent so much time in South Carolina without really exploring this exact area. Our visit on this occasion as somewhere between accidental and spontaneous, but I’m so glad we got to look at this piece of the past.

Thanks for coming along. See you next time!

 

Cooking from the book

If you follow me on Instagram. you already know how excited I was when my copy of The Cook’s Atelier Cookbook arrived. The Cook’s Atelier is the cooking school I attended last spring in Beaune, France. I wrote about the one-day workshop, here, meeting Marjorie, her daughter Kendall and the rest of the class to shop the local market for ingredients, returning to their 15th Century atelier, and preparing and sharing a remarkable French lunch.

Like that day, this cookbook is much more than recipes. It’s a thoughtful treatise on French culture, particularly in the Burgundy wine country. Ex-pat authors and cooks Marjorie Taylor and Kendall Smith Franchini share their love and appreciation of all things French and the challenges of defining a business based on their passions for cooking and wine and then launching that business in their newly adopted country.

Not only is the food scrumptious, so are the full-page photos!

First, this is a lovely book, beautifully printed on heavy paper. (So French, I’m sure.) The photos are stunning, and document every aspect of their life, from the delicious food, to the countryside, the Beaune market, the local vendors they have come to appreciate and depend on, the elegant simplicity of their shop, kitchen and dining room, and, of course, the family at the center of it all. (If you have been to their shop, then you know the integral role played by Kendall’s husband Laurent and how sweetly their two young children occasionally appear in the shop or kitchen).

Butter. So quintessentially French on its own, but then there is clarified butter, compound butter, buerre noisette. So much to learn!

Lots of cooks, restaurants and foodies publish cookbooks. There seem to be at least one or two new ones each week. But few spend time on technique and ingredients (well, maybe the likes of Alice Waters and Julia Child). The Cook’s Atelier Cookbook stands far above these latest publications. Charming sections tackle the French larder, cooking tools, burgundy wine, the French cheese course, and traditional cooking techniques like frenching and tying a rib roast and trussing poultry. Recipes are grouped by season and compiled into menus, something I especially appreciate since I am notoriously uncertain about what really goes with what. In short, this is a cookbook you can truly learn from in addition to finding great recipes.

So, you may ask, what have I made? I’ve been making the French butter cake since I took the class. It’s simple and delicious, two prerequisites for French cooking. I’ve also prepared the grilled veal we made in class (and practiced the sauce technique with a few other cuts of meat).  Now I’m working on the green garlic souffle. (Mine tasted delicious, but the presentation needs work. See below!)

Tasted delicious, but the presentation needs work.
What we made in class, served in these wonderful, individual copper pots. I need more practice!

I have added pastry tips and disposable bags to my kitchen equipment and tested them last week on gougers and madeleines. Next up? Coq au Vin. Marjorie and Kendall use white burgundy instead of red, and I can’t wait to try that.

Gather ingredients first!
Gougeres, dainty pastry puffs flavored with gruyere and served warm with an apperitif. I’m practicing my pastry bag skills for these.
Madeleines, best served slightly warm after dinner.

What have I learned? Quite a lot. Fresh — which means seasonal — ingredients make a difference. Ask the butcher for help. Make sure you understand the recipe before starting. Gather all tools, prepare pans, and measure ingredients before cooking. Have fun. The story in my kitchen and yours is the same as the story in theirs — it’s about the family and friends around the table.

I couldn’t resist showing you a few more pages from the book. The photos are really beautiful. The first is their teaching kitchen and a corner of their shop where they sell their own lovely line of copper pots, along with kitchen tools and a carefully curated selection of wine. Below that is another shot of the book.

 

As I was writing this post I went back to the original from last June after my class there. In it I said I was smitten. Yikes! I am all over again. To learn more about The Cook’s Atelier, you can visit the website at www.thecooksatelier.com. The cookbook is available wherever books are sold, including Amazon.

Thank you so much for stopping by. I’ll see you again next time.

Hanging-out in Lucca

Looking through one of Lucca’s city gates. Can you see why we were charmed?

Have you missed me? We’ve had the flu!

Despite our best intentions, including excessive hand washing and flu shots, I picked up this year’s nasty bug and graciously passed it on to my husband. Fortunately we were both able to take the anti-viral medicine and that, along with our flu shots, seemed to lessen the worst of our symptoms. But the lethargy that follows is daunting. I hope you’ll hang in here with me!

Before the influenza assault, I was planning on sharing a side trip we made to Lucca during last fall’s trip to Italy. One of the benefits of traveling independently is the freedom to tinker a bit with the itinerary along the way. And the more we have traveled, the more comfortable we are tinkering.

We had planned to take a train from Florence to Lucca, spend a day, attend that evening’s Puccini concert, and then take three more trains the next morning to spend a day at the Cinque Terra (and then three more trains back to Lucca) to spend another night before moving on to Rome. Was this overly ambitious? Absolutely.

(In fact, seeing this plan in black and white, I have to ask what we were thinking.)

We arrived in Lucca by train, walked from the station and over Lucca’s legendary ramparts to our hotel and promptly fell in love with yet another Tuscan town. Lucca was blessedly quiet after the tourist bustle of Florence, and despite a light rain, the city is made for walking and wandering. We knew right away that this was the ideal place to catch our breath before going on to Rome. The Cinque Terra would have to wait for another trip.

A bit of background. Lucca was founded by the Etruscans and became a Roman colony in 180 BC.  One of its claims to historical fame is as the host to a secret conference in 56 BC, at which Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus reaffirmed their political alliance. Although it was conquered by Napoleon in 1805, it had been the second largest independent city state (after Venice) for centuries.

Today it offers stunning churches, cafes and piazzas perfect for people watching, and one winding street after another to explore.

 

Unlike many of its Tuscan counterparts, Lucca’s defensive ramparts have survived intact and today are a 2½-mile walking/running/cycling ribbon than encircles the city. We walked a significant portion of it the second morning we were there.

 

Locals clearly savor this space, including this group playing cards at one of the picnic areas along the former rampart. Several women were walking or running the path with strollers.  Can you imagine how wonderful living here would be?

 

San Giovanni Church hosts nightly concerts featuring the music of hometown opera composer Giacomo Puccini. Steve and I know absolutely nothing about opera, but thoroughly enjoyed a concert. Two opera singers, a man and a woman, alternately sang short selections from Puccini as well as a few other works.  Their pianist also played two wonderful solos. They also performed together, including a beautiful finale and encore. San Giovanni is a wonderfully intimate venue (below) and they were clearly having as much fun as the audience. I’m sure their energy and joy in the music, as well as our seats in the second row (!) added to our enjoyment. As it ended my husband said, “This is one of the highlights of our trip!”

 

 

We had lunch at one of the many cafes that circle the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro. In the second century, this was a Roman amphitheater. While we were there, a bride and groom arrived to take wedding photos. They were enthusiastically greeted and cheered by everyone and then serenaded by one group. How happy, I thought. This is Italy!

San Michele in Foro, dedicated to the Archangel Michael, is built over the ancient Roman Forum. This photo doesn’t begin to capture the beautiful detail on this church.

 

The Cathedral of Saint Martin, below, is the seat of Lucca’s Archbishop. Construction was begun here in 1063 and the apse with its columnar arcades and the companile are original.

 

 

The interior of this church is stunning, including a small octagonal temple or chapel shrine that contains the city’s most precious relic, cedar-wood crucifix and image of Christ or Sacred Countenance, reportedly carved by Nicodemis and remarkably transported to Lucca in 782. The chapel in which it rests was built in 1484 by Luccan sculptor Matteo Civitali.  (Can you tell I love relic stories?)

 

 

 

 

 

Most of all, Lucca is a series of charming, everyday scenes.

 

And a few more:

 

We learned a valuable travel lesson in Lucca: sometimes it’s more important to stop sightseeing and just enjoy the moment.

How about you? Have you come across a travel destination where you just had to sit back and savor the moment?

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

 

 

Uphill in Rome

The magic of Rome is that you can just round a corner and see the Coliseum or St. Peter’s or some other iconic image. I’m always amazed to fins myself in a situation like that.

Last fall as I was telling the multi-part story of our trip to Italy, life and “the holidays” got in the way, so here is my post about returning to Rome. I hope you enjoy it! (You can read about our earlier stops in Tuscany here and Florence here.)

Rome was our last stop in Italy. As with Florence, it was not our first visit. Last year we toured the Vatican Museums, the Borghese Gallery, and the Forum. It was fun going back with some of the tourist pressure off.

We took the highspeed  train from Florence to Rome and checked into the Residenza di Ripetta, where we stayed last year. We love this hotel; it’s elegant yet comfortable and ideally situated between Rome’s Piazza di Popolo and the Spanish Steps. It’s just a few short blocks from the Via Corso, perfect for enjoying the daily passeggiata before stopping for dinner in one of the small, local restaurants in the neighborhood.

Checking off another Papal Basilica

There are four Papal major basilicas in Rome: St. Peter’s in the Vatican; St. John Lateran, which predates St. Peter’s and which we visited last year; St. Paul Outside the Walls; and the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. We had seen St. Peter’s and St. John Lateran, so we decided to visit at least one more and Santa Maria Maggiore looked like it was within walking distance of our hotel.

In reality, the church was really only kind of in “walking distance.”

Rome is built on seven hills. What I have been trying to figure out, for two visits now, is why no matter where we are in Rome, we are always walking uphill. AND, if you are going downhill, you are probably navigating ancient, steep, stone stairs. It’s a puzzle.

 

We came upon Santa Maria di Maggiore from behind and there was no signage. We weren’t even sure we were in the right place. Then we walked around to the front and found the entrance and the requisite security screening.

Santa Maria Maggiore was built in the fifth century and served as the temporary Palace of the Popes after the the Avignon Papacy. Knowing this history I expected it to occupy a distinguished setting, but actually it just appears in an old Roman neighborhood, surrounded by cobblestones that set it apart from the surrounding street. Because Santa Maria Maggiore is a papal basilica, it is used by the Pope, especially on certain holy days.

Michelangelo’s Moses, intended to be part of a larger  monument to Pope Julius II, remains in this basilica as part of the Pope’s tomb.

From here we walked (mostly uphill and then up a remarkable set of stairs) to Saint Peter in Chains (San Pietro in Vincoli), built in the fifth century to house the relic of chains believed to have bound Saint Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem. This minor basilica is home to Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, a massive work.

Taking a museum break

Rome is a lot more than churches.

Capitoline Museums on Capitoline Hill (another hill!) house an amazing assortment of secular art and artifacts that reflect Rome’s history. Once two palaces facing a piazza, the site was redesigned by Michelangelo in 1536. We loved seeing this side of Rome, especially after our previous “day of churches.” But for me, the real star of the day was the view of the Forum and other ruins from Capitoline Hill as we walked out of the buildings.

 

Looking down on the Forum from the top of Capitoline Hill. We toured the Forum last year, but seeing it from above made me appreciate the extent and sophistication of the ancient site even more. It’s much more extensive than our tour. Perhaps a reason to go back.
These ruins across from the Capitoline Museums, including the Forum of Augustus and Trajan’s Market and Trajan’s Forum, are currently fenced off but appear to be even more sophisticated in design.

The Vatican’s Mosaic Workshop

On our last day in Rome we went to the Vatican for a tour of St. Peter’s and the mosaic studios. (And you thought we were done with churches!) We had toured the Vatican museums and the Sistine Chapel, ending with St. Peter’s, last year. But that tour happened to fall on a national holiday and coincided with a special Papal audience. We were shoulder-to-shoulder with other visitors the entire time.

This year we were hoping for a better experience and, boy, did we get it.

Steve found a tour that included the Vatican Mosaic Studio online with Viator. We joined just one other couple and our very knowlegeable guide early that morning. Contrary to the tour’s description, the guide started our tour in the Mosaic Studio so we would better appreciate the art we would see in the basilica. He knew what he was doing; the studio director took over and led the four of us into what I can only describe as a true atelier or studio, this one devoted to the preservation of the precious (and priceless) Vatican mosaics as well as the creation of newly commissioned pieces.

The studio is discretely located in one of the buildings in the Vatican complex. We began in a room that for all practical purposes was part conference room with a center table for display and part gallery, with a variety of mosaic pieces arrayed around the periphery. Sadly, photos were not allowed. The pieces are ancient and modern, sacred and secular. I assumed that the studio’s purpose was to maintain and/or repair the hundreds of square meters of mosaics in the Vatican. While this is true, the studio also produces new works that the Pope often presents as gifts to distinguished visitors and accepts private commissions from around the world. For example, once we stepped beyond this small gallery into the actual workspace, we saw one artist working on mosaic reproduction of a Monet painting.

In order to perfectly repair the Vatican mosaics the space also accommodates a mosaic library of the stones and colors used in all its artworks. These archives are stunning in both their simplicity and their extent. We were also allowed into another work space housing a small kiln where artists can fire the exact color necessary to complete a new work. There is no part of the mosaic process that is not painstakingly created and/or cared for. And of course, care is evident in every piece the studio creates. I’m not an artist, but I do like to understand the process behind art and this was a remarkable lesson.

The guide was, of course, so right to show us the studio first, because when he took us into St. Peter’s the stunning mosaic art there came alive. St. Peter’s Basilica is Christendom’s largest church; its size and decoration are breath-taking and, as our guide pointed out to us, purposely so. It would be impossible for even a “casual believer” to not be moved by St. Peter’s.

 

Michelangelo’s Pieta. It leaves me speechless.

One of the options on this tour was a climb to the top of St. Peter’s Dome. I’m sure the view is stunning, but that’s not my kind of climb (or Steve’s either). So, the other couple left with another guide for that tour and we had a private tour of St. Peter’s. One of life’s better travel surprises.

Sure there were hundreds of others in the the basilica (in fact a group of seminarians was being ordained at the very front), but it felt like it was just us and our guide. Our guide walked us through several pieces, explaining the meaning and symbolism in each mosaic. We also visited the crypt to see where previous popes are buried. I must admit that although we are not catholic, it was amazing to see names recent and historic on tomb after tomb. (Many of the earliest tombs were destroyed long ago.)

We both think our guide made all of this come alive for us. He was more than just knowledgeable, perhaps trained for a religious vocation in an earlier career?  As we were leaving St. Peter’s he pointed out one final mosaic in the portico which purports to tell visitors there is more work to do for God as they leave the physical confines of St. Peter’s.

One of the mosaics as visitors leaves St. Peter’s, illustrating the work to be done beyond the basilica on behalf of the church.

We took this tour on our last day in Rome (our last day in Italy in fact), and we were overwhelmed with all we had seen. We stopped for a coffee then walked through some markets and found our way to Piazza Navona where we had a late lunch, before winding our way to the Spanish Steps and eventually back to our hotel. Here are some photos from that day.

Near the Vatican, Castel Sant’Angelo was initially built as a tomb for the emperor. Since no one could be buried within the city walls, Emperor Hadrian used this commanding space just outside the walls. Later it was used as a prison and as a last refuge in times of danger.

 

The Four Rivers Fountain in the center of Piazza Navona by Bernini demonstrates the four corners of the world using four river gods gathered around an Egyptian obelisk, a symbol especially favored by the Romans. This square, really an oval that was once athletic grounds, has played a role in Roman life since ancient times.

After three weeks in Italy, we were ready to head for home. But now, three months later, I could easily go back. It seems as if there are always new layers of Italy to peel back and examine, new museums, churches, vineyards and towns. I’m not tired of it yet!

Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon!