Happy Birthday, Auguste Rodin

In honor of Auguste Rodin's birthday and the fact that I now have all the photos from our France trip, today is a great day for a little picture post from the Museé Rodin. I can't really say that the museum is a hidden gem. Everyone and their guidebook recommends coming here, but I think it often gets pushed aside in favor of some of the bigger, more grandiose sites.

The museum and its gardens, however, are gorgeous. They are worth a leisurely, relaxed visit and a perfect way to discover Rodin's works.

Rodin museum and roses
Rodin museum and roses
Rodin Museum Paris gardens
Rodin Museum Paris gardens
Rodin The Thinker
Rodin The Thinker
Rodin's The Thinker and Roses
Rodin's The Thinker and Roses
Rodin Museum The Thinker
Rodin Museum The Thinker
The Thinker Rodin Museum
The Thinker Rodin Museum
Rodin Museum Paris
Rodin Museum Paris
Rodin Museum Paris
Rodin Museum Paris
Rodin Museum painter
Rodin Museum painter
Rodin Museum gardens Paris
Rodin Museum gardens Paris
Rodin Museum gardens Paris
Rodin Museum gardens Paris
Rodin Museum Paris gardens
Rodin Museum Paris gardens
Rodin Museum Paris
Rodin Museum Paris

There's something magical about being so close to those massive sculptures that you can see every chisel mark and then walking through those gardens and stumbling upon something unexpected amidst the flowers, trees, and meandering paths. Pictures can't do it justice and without Rodin's work, this little oasis in the midst of an already overwhelmingly beautiful city wouldn't exist.

One Day In Normandy, Part 1: Bayeux

 It was a chilly early September morning in Paris, as if fall arrived overnight. It seemed fitting somehow since it was our last day in France and we had just been spoiled by ten days of Provençal heat. Nevertheless, we were going to make the best out of it because we were going on an adventure. My family, our guide—we’ll call him Henri—and I packed into a small, white Clio. Destination: Normandy.

But first, we would actually have to move. Because although it felt like most of the city was still asleep, we managed to get stuck behind a lone, lethargic garbage truck. With nowhere to go on our hotel's tiny, one-way street, we were at the mercy of the French bureaucracy.

Eventually, after mustering up some patience (because it's not like you're going to convince the garbage truck to move any faster) and inching our way down the street, we finally parted ways with the truck.

Henri was off like a shot. He sped through the streets of Paris, slowing down only to point out some significant sites and architecture while rattling off the everything he knew about them. This would become one of the themes of the day: Speeding to incredible sites and taking in mountains of information. It’s not my preferred slow-travel way of doing things, but I’ll tell you right now that it was a remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I am not much of a morning person, so I can’t really remember what he showed us in Paris. The next thing I do remember, however, is flying up the highway. At one point, my dad asked Henri to slow down. He scoffed and told my dad the it was safer to go faster so he could get away from the cars around and in front of us. Other drivers, you see, are the real dangers. And that was the end of that discussion.

After about 3 hours of driving and an obligatory coffee/croissant stop, we finally reached our first destination: Bayeux.

Bayeux is mainly known for its massive cathedral and the Bayeux Tapestry.

At first, we were reluctant to stop here because we wanted to make sure we would have plenty of time for the D-Day beaches. But Henri insisted and he was right. This would be another theme of the trip: Henri insisting (and being right).

The town was the first to be liberated.  Incredibly, despite being very close to the D-Day beaches, it escaped a lot of damage during the war and its medieval historic center is very well-preserved. It’s one of those places that feel a bit like a historical “Where’s Waldo” game with interesting details waiting to be discovered in plain sight.

The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux lies at the center of town. Since we had not expected to come here, none of us did any research or knew what to expect. I think we were all stunned by how beautiful and dominating the cathedral is in person.

Bishop Odo of Conteville consecrated the cathedral on the 14th of July in 1077.  The Bishop’s brother, William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy and King of England attended the consecration. Since additions and changes continued until 15th century, it is a mixture of Norman-Romanesque and Gothic architecture.

We did not have enough time to go inside, but the entrance is free. There is also an English guided tour 5 times each day for €4. It looks like this is currently only be available between July 1 and August 31 2011, so be sure to double-check the website if you are hoping to go.

As I was looking for more information about the interior, I found this beautiful story from a member of the British Royal Navy. If you have some time, give it a quick read. He describes a touching encounter with a young French boy in the cathedral just one week after the liberation.

The cathedral was also the original home of the Bayeux Tapestry, which was our main reason for coming to Bayeux and our next stop.

The Bayeux Tapestry is actually an embroidery of wool onto linen that depicts the Norman invasion of England and the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It is housed at the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux, which used to be the bishop’s palace.

There is some controversy over who actually commissioned and made it. People once believed it to be the work of William's wife, Queen Mathilde and her ladies-in-waiting, giving it the often-used name of La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde (Queen Mathilde's Tapestry). Historians also suggest, however, that Bishop Odo commissioned the work for his new cathedral in Bayeux and that artisans created it in England.

The tapestry itself measures 70 meters or 230 feet long and is in a dimly lit, elongated U-shaped room. You get an audio guide upon entering the room so you can follow the story around the U, panel by panel.

I was really surprised by how beautiful the workmanship is and how well it relays the story. It's kind of like a medieval comic book.

Before we got inside, Henri told us, “This is the story of how your modern language was born.”

It was an interesting concept to think about as we walked along slowly, seeing the characters and story unfold.

How languages develop is obviously an incredibly complex process, but the Norman conquest brought a new dialect, Anglo-Norman, to the ruling class of England. This new dialect spurred the language's evolution from Old to Middle English.

Here's an example of how remarkable the shift was. Listen to Lord's Prayer in Old English and, then, Middle English in the video below. Only a few words sound familiar in the Old English version, but it's pretty easy to follow the Middle English one.

The tapestry has another interesting language connection. As I mentioned before, it hung in Bayeux's cathedral where people from all walks of life could come and learn the story William the Conqueror's victory. Since not everyone could read the Latin captions, the embroidery served as an effective illustration of the events that led to the conquest. It was a great piece of propaganda that solidified William as a rightful ruler.

We did not get any pictures of the tapestry, but there are a ton of resources online. I would, however, highly recommend seeing it in person if you happen to be in the area at some point. In the meantime, however, here’s a great video:

I will also add some related links at the end of the post if you’re interested in getting lost in history for a while.

After seeing the tapestry we walked through the rest of the museum, which has a nice collection of artifacts and information that helps provide historical context for the tapestry.

We all enjoyed the museum and I think we would have liked to spend a little more time wandering Bayeux. Unfortunately, we were on a tight schedule. Next stop? Omaha Beach.

Further Reading:

A Love Affair with Firenze

  I distinctly remember getting off the plane and stepping into Rome's Fiumicino airport for the first time.

I was on a school trip in November 2001. Suddenly, we were surrounded by the sounds of the Italian language.

Someone could have been arguing or talking about the disgusting infection they once had, but it certainly sounded beautiful to me.

It took me off guard and didn't make any sense, but I felt like I was coming home.

Our trip started in Rome. I realized there that my love-at-first-sound impression at the airport was not wrong. Rome was more than I ever hoped it would be. It's ancient and yet still fully alive with the vibrant pulse of people and sounds.

But when we got to Florence something I have a hard time really explaining happened. I guess you could say I just fell in love. There are lots of places I've been now that I love and daydream about all the time.

Florence, though, was the first city that really captured my heart. It was the first time I went somewhere and wanted to live there. I wanted to experience the people, the seasons, and daily life. I still do.

So what is it about Florence? I'll do my best to explain.

It's magical to me. It's the architecture and the way the sun hits the warm colors of the buildings, making them glow. It's knowing that the it was the heart of the Renaissance and seeing the evidence of it everywhere, but still feeling the bustle of a city. Of course, during high season, a lot of that bustle comes from tourists but the city is more substantial than the sum of its tourists.

It's the quiet moments in the mornings watching deliveries or vendors put up their goods in the markets.

I stayed at a little hotel called Relais Cavalcanti twice, once in 2004 and once in 2007. It's run by two very nice sisters and is in a beautiful townhouse.

Right next to the door to the hotel is a small purse shop. The guys running it were always so happy and friendly. Whenever we passed by, we'd often hear something like "Hey! Our Canadian friends!" And then we'd get a nice smile and wave. It was such a warm way to start or end a day.

It's the way the morning quiet is so perfectly broken at a busy neighborhood café where regulars go to wake up with a pastry and a quick caffè or cappuccino.

It's also the art. Florence is home to the Uffizi, one of the oldest and greatest galleries in the world, which began housing the Medici family art in 1581.

And it's just wandering around outside, because the art goes beyond galleries.

I loved seeing David 's--ahem!--assets (I can hear you groaning, but I had to!) at the Accademia Gallery, but it's fantastic to be able to saunter by the copy in the Piazza della Signoria while soaking up the sun.

It's also the fact that there are still some artisans working in Florence who produce beautiful things.

The city is famous for leather, for example. It's pretty easy to stumble upon leather shops, factories, and market vendors, especially at the massive San Lorenzo market.

Or you can buy a bauble or two on the Ponte Vecchio.

But for me, it's paper.

Yes, paper.

I stumbled upon an Il Papiro shop on one trip. In the back, past the usual journals and cards, there were poster-sized sheets of paper that had been hand-stamped with patterns that were hand-carved from blocks of wood. Apparently it is a dying art and there are not many who make them this way anymore.

I bought two. So far, these two sheets of paper are my favorite souvenirs from all of my vacations.

It's also the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, also know as the Duomo, with Brunelleschi's Dome proudly sitting atop the cathedral, surveying the city.

The dome itself is a marvel of engineering. Brunelleschi devoted most of his adult life to it.  He died in 1446 when just a few decorations were being added to completely finish the dome.

No one matched his guts, passion, creativity, or know-how to make something to top the octagon of the basilica.

And that's another thing, the city feels almost optimistic because the influence of the Renaissance is still so visible. So much true genius that came from this Florence. Galileo, Michelangelo, Dante, da Vinci, Brunelleschi, Botticelli. . .it's almost as if you can feel the remnants of their creativity hum through the streets.

It's Piazza Santa Croce for a couple of reasons. The church itself is holds the tombs and monuments to many great and well-known Florentines like Dante, Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, and Enrico Fermi.

But I also love Piazza Santa Croce because I had one of my favorite meals there.

When I was on the school tour, it was with 3 other friends, a couple of parents, and our teacher. We were given a free afternoon in Florence.

Eventually my friend and I ended up in the piazza and noticed our other friend in the window of a restaurant called the Boccadama. It was the first time we had been able to choose a sit-down place to eat. Heaven! We feasted on pasta, shared a bottle of Chianti, and then ate the most incredibly decadent flourless chocolate cake I've ever had.

Maybe by now I've talked about that cake so much that it's become mythically good, but it was a day the deserves mythic status in my mind.

So, it's also the food. Simple, honest, fresh, delicious, soul-satisfying Tuscan food and wine.

One year, I overheard a woman talking about Brunello wine at a restaurant in Florence. Her take? "It's better than sex!" I think that's all I need to say about that.

And, finally, it's about strolling and discovery. I don't want to make this post about must-sees. It's about falling in love. And the best way to fall in love with a city is to relax and just walk around a bit.

I love seeing what the shops have to offer, especially the ones I can't possibly afford.

Crossing the Arno River and walking through the Boboli Gardens gave me a completely different perspective of Florence.

Most of all, however, I love when evening comes and the quiet of the morning begins to return little by little. There's nothing quite like the charm of Florence after a leisurely dinner.

Imagine walking the old cobblestone streets with a gelato in one hand, following the sights and the sounds of a street performer's music as the city continues to glow, just more softly now.

I think D.H. Lawrence said it best about falling for Italy:

For us to go to Italy and to penetrate into Italy is like a most fascinating act of self-discovery -- back, back down the old ways of time. Strange and wonderful chords awake in us, and vibrate again after many hundreds of years of complete forgetfulness.

So if you go to Florence and fall in love or feel awakened, remember to rub the snout of Il Porcellino in the Mercato Nuovo. He will ensure your return.

People seem to like to touch other parts of Il Porcellino too. Maybe this brings you extra special powers of return, I'll have to test the theory next time.