Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Somewhere in the middle of our trip, Fritz commented on what a windfall for tourism churches are. It’s true—all along our route, the most major and significant buildings to visit and analyze often were churches. I am blessed that my traveling companion in tourism, as in life, is a man who can get as enthusiastic about a strikingly original squinch in an 11th century Romanesque transcept as I can (yeah, I get excited by weird stuff—I had problems from other boys in school).

I’m a great architecture groupie. My colleagues in the design operation at MIT always used to gather with our students when I gave my talk on the great Hagia Sophia In Constantinople/Istanbul. I’m happily atheistic but in any new town we visit, I head for the old churches which are of interest, both culturally and as landmarks in the ancient quest to cover as much space as possible without introducing a large number of vertical supports. The struggle of span versus height.

All of which is prelude to saying that you’re going to see a fair number of churches as we go through these vacation pictures, although NOT, interestingly, today. Today’s pictures are from the towns of Viviers, Tournon-sur-Rh
Ône, and Tain-l’Hermitage.

Sailing upstream from Avignon past many castles and watch towers.

We visited the town of Viviers at night. The majority of Viviers isn't down there with the buildings and the cars, it's up on top of that rock, a vast mesa rising with sheer cliffs from the Rh
Ône valley. Upper Viviers is a completely medieval town. At night the streets are deserted with only a few lanterns on iron brackets providing any light. There was a spooky feeling of the 11th century, when the population barricaded itself in their homes and prayed they'd make it through the night without some disaster smiting them. It was 9:30 and there was NOBODY to be seen anywhere.

Our guide, aside from being extremely knowledgable, had a wonderful sense of humor. As we walked through the upwardly sloping streets, our only sense that the population actually existed was a stray glow of light from the edge of a shutter. "Don't worry," our guide said, "they KNOW you're here."

One citizen not only knew but made himself known to us. As we stopped in a small square, a pair of shutters flew open and a very good looking young man wearing only the briefest of briefs leaned out of a ground floor window, calling softly to his cat. When it didn't appear immediately, he left the shutters open, light from his apartment pouring in a dazzling flood into the square, as he went about his business in full view through the open window.

We walked higher and higher on the rock of Viviers until we reached the very top of the mesa, the Cathedral behind us, and looked back down onto the square where the young man had appeared so dramatically. The house on the right of the square, seeming very blue here is this one,

once the wealthiest and most powerful residence in town. Its owner had managed to corner the markets and eventually not only deposed the bishop but appropriated all of his and the church's wealth. When the political situation reversed and bishop was restored to both civil and religious control of Viviers, the owner of this splendid residence was tortured and publicly executed.

The night-time tour of Viviers was an unexpected delight. When we got back to the boat, it cast off and moved into the middle of the river to sail all night to the beginning of serious wine country. Our next stop was the twin towns of Tournon-sur-Rh
Ône (west bank) and Tain-l'Hermitage (right bank) of the river. We went out into the countryside where the grape harvest was just beginning, having been delayed by heavy summer rains.

The winery we visited occupied this old convent. There was a tour of the facility and a wine tasting. All the grapes in the Côtes du Rhône are shiraz and 90% of the wine produced is red.

Wine in the region is stored and aged in oak, both American and European, and also in fiberglas and, surprisingly, concrete. This winery turns out 70,000 bottles a year which classifies it as a small operation.

After lunch back at the boat, we visited the Musée de Tain-l'Hermitage, located in the oldest house in town. It was founded by the daughter of 20th century artist Pierre Palué, a member of the New Parisian school. She eventually made the house into a museum to showcase his work, the work of other New Parisian painters, and young artists of whatever style.

When we gathered in this room which had been the kitchen of the medieval house (the two women are standing in what had been the fireplace) I commented to Fritz that the woman on the left looked like she was portrayed in the portrait on the right and indeed it was she, Palué's daughter. She spoke of her father's career, exhibits worlwide, his early influences and final, mature style.

Madamoiselle Palué's portrait

and an excellent example of his late style, refined to an elegant simplicity with a superb depiction of light.

We ended the afternoon with a visit to a chocolatier, and a brief walk into Tournon before getting back on board for an early evening sailing upriver to Vienne.

In our own church, it's very true. It's an old, beautiful historic church in downtown that is booked for every weekend all summer long for weddings. All with the almighty $$$ attached to it.
The trip to Viviers sounds like it was magical. I would love a night time tour of a medieval town like that.
Sorry. I blacked out after the image of the young man in briefs calling softly for his kitty and only woke back up at the end looking at that spectacular last painting. It's really lovely.
I'm curious how happily atheistic and the sweat lodge are reconciled for you.
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