Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Abbey of St. Michael de Cuxa

Unlike the Priory of Serrabone, which is perched high on a hillside, the Abbey of Saint Michel de Cuxa sits in a valley at the base of Mount Canigou, one of the highest peaks in the Pyrenees. Currently home to a small group of Benedictine monks, St Michael’s fist sheltered a monastic community in 879.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Knocking on Heaven’s Door

It's been so long since my last post that I bet you thought archi-trouve was gone for good. The truth is that we've been traveling almost non-stop this year and there hasn't been much time to write. But today, when I realized that it had been over two months since my last post, I decided that was long enough. Earlier this month we spent some time in the Pyrenees Mountains, so the next two or three blogs will be dedicated to some of the things we saw in southern France and northern Spain.

The Pyrenees is a wild region with small villages clinging precariously to mountain slopes and oppressive fortifications from the long struggle between France and Spain.  Despite the rocky, in places almost lunar, landscapes, the area has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Today, life in these remote mountain villages can be inconvenient, but in the Middle Ages it must have been unbearable: cold, barren and isolated.

So what better place to put a monastery? If your professed intention was to get away from it all, to remove yourself from worldly temptation and to work hard for the Lord, no place could have been more fitting than the Pyrenees. And sure enough, on our recent visit we found that everywhere we looked, on nearly every peak, no matter how isolated, there was a church, chapel, hermitage, monastery or abbey.  Of these, one of the most noteworthy is the Priory of Sainte Marie de Serrabone.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

An Oriental Palace

Because we talk about the Alhambra, in singular form, it sounds as if it’s one building. But the Alhambra was actually a royal city, a fortified complex of palaces, mosques, schools, workshops and farms capable of supporting 40,000 people. Not surprisingly, given its turbulent history, the fortress that we see today bears only a passing resemblance to the Nasrid’s medieval stronghold.

Like the Great Mosque of Cordoba, the Alhambra was significantly altered after Spanish troops conquered Granada in 1492, beginning with the Christian purification rites that stripped away the Islamic religious symbols. Thirty years later, several original buildings were demolished to make way for Charles V's enormous Renaissance palace, which now sits so ponderously amidst the remaining Moorish architecture. In subsequent centuries, earthquakes, neglect and occupying troops took an additional toll. Finally, in the mid-19th century, after the Alhambra's delights were once again brought  to the world’s attention, a number of imaginative “restorations” destroyed what several centuries of neglect hadn't. 
The Alhambra (on the left) with Granada visible in the distance.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Middle of Paradise

"Leave me in Granada in the middle of paradise where my soul wells with poetry:
Leave me until my time comes and I may intone a fitting song..."
José Zorrilla

For the next couple of weeks archi-trouve will be moving to Granada to report on the Alhambra - that masterpiece of Andalusian architecture.  But before jumping into architectural descriptions, I’d like to explain a little more about the Moors’ uneasy conquest of the Iberian Peninsula.  (And for those of you who have hated history since the 7th grade, I've included several pretty pictures of the Alhambra.)

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Grand Mosque of Cordoba

We recently spent two weeks exploring Andalusia, the area in the south of Spain that was occupied by Islamic Moors for about 800 years. Now, I went to Alhambra High School, and was a junior varsity cheerleader for the mighty Moors. And despite the soul-searing disappointment of never becoming a VARSITY cheerleader, I remained fascinated by the Moors and their conquest of Andalusia.  But it wasn't until I started reading up for our trip that I learned the full extent of their contributions to European civilization. (Goooooooo Moors!)

Many historians have argued that Spain reached its high point, both politically and culturally, under the Moors. During their occupation, which spanned from approximately 700 to 1500, dozens of important mosques and universities were constructed, along with schools and libraries that were open to the public. Music and poetry were highly regarded, and mathematics, medicine, astronomy and physics were studied.  Granada, Seville and Cordoba grew into large cities with diverse Muslim, Jewish and Christian populations who practiced their religions freely. In short, "while Europe was languishing in the depths of the Middle Ages, a far superior culture was thriving in Andalusia."*

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

La Maison d'Adam

Anyone who reads this blog regularly (Hi, Mom!) knows that I have a weakness for colombage buildings. I’ve already written a couple of posts on the subject, one explaining the different types of colombage construction and another on the hidden messages that can be read in the structure. For my third post on the subject I’d like to introduce you to La Maison d’Adam, one of my favorite colombage buildings.

Bruce and I first saw Adam’s house in about 2002 on our first trip to Angers, and it made a lasting impression on both of us. I remembered it because, despite the age of the house,  it retains dozens of beautiful carvings; Bruce remembered it because one of the carvings is quite risqué.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Rocks in My Head

We recently spent a long weekend in Angers, a lovely small city in the Loire Valley that we thought might be an interesting place to live*.  While planning for the trip I took a look at the Michelin map to figure out the most interesting route. Now, you have to understand that the Michelin maps are much more than simple road maps. In addition to showing all the highways and byways of France, they point out such interesting sites as silos, (Silos? Bruce and I are still discussing the reasoning behind this.) bridges, chateaux, factories, abbeys, war memorials, spas, ruins, picnic grounds and dolmens. You’ve got to love a map that includes dolmens.

What, you might be asking, are dolmens? Simply put, they're rooms or chambers made out of huge flat rocks. They’re found in nearly every European country and as far east as China and Korea. Built during the Neolithic period, the oldest dolmens in Western Europe are about 7000 years old. Archaeologists aren’t exactly sure who built them or why. Most are oriented on an east-west axis and therefore have some connection with the rising and setting sun. Human bones and artifacts such as pottery shards have been found inside some chambers, leading one school of scholars to believe that the dolmens served a funerary purpose. Others believe that this is not the case; the bones often date to  later periods, indicating that the chambers were re-used as tombs, long after their initial construction. In the case of the Loire Valley dolmens, no bones have been found at all. It’s these mysteries surrounding the dolmens that make them interesting to so many people, myself included.