Sunday, April 30, 2017

Saturday, April 29 Au Contraire, Cointreau

Cointreau moved to the industrial park from central Angers in the 70s.
In our travels yesterday, we made a reservation to tour of the Cointreau factory in St. Barthélemy, a suburb of Angers. Cointreau is also a Triple-Sec liqueur and they claim to have invented Triple Sec. Hmm.....That's not what we heard at Combier.

We arrived 15 minutes early (10:45) for our English speaking tour as instructed, but someone forgot to tell the tour guide to unlock the doors early.
A fine art photo by Clark Hunsinger entitled "Four tourists waiting for a tour at a liquor factory".
So we entered at 11 and waited around another 15 minutes while our guide got things organized.

And at the last minute, two French couples entered, each pushing strollers with a 3 year-old in tow. They will join our tour, knowing it's in English. Right then and there, we know the tour will run long. In talking to one of the husbands, I learned that he works for Cointreau and his sister and brother-in-law are visiting. The 3-year-olds cousins, a boy and a girl, reminded me so much of Tristen and Evie. They were a joy to watch, even though they were driving their parents (and perhaps others on the tour) crazy.

We are taught about the making of Cointreau, an orange-flavored liqueur that we enjoy at home. In fact, the US is their biggest customer.
The distillery and our tour guide Anne
During the tour, we learn the history of Cointreau and are brought into a long hall of "communication", that is advertising. It seems that Cointreau spent half of its profits on advertising in the early days. And as far as their claim to have invented Triple Sec, they didn't. They began producing Cointreau in 1875 where Combier began producing Triple Sec in 1838. The difference might be that Combier did not patent their recipe, while Cointreau patented everything they could - the bottle shape, the logo, the ribbon on the bottle, the label. The recipe is a well-guarded secret known only to the woman who is the head distiller at Cointreau (and the guy at Combier, we think).

At the end of the hour and a half tour, we were brought to lovely tasting room to try a mixed drink with Cointreau, lime juice and carbonated water - a Cointreau Fizz. We preferred the Cointreau Noir and Blood Orange, both neat, to the Fizz.
Very modern tasting room at Cointreau. It was after noon when we started the cocktails

We purchased a bottle of Noir and a bottle of the regular Cointreau. We'll report on our comparison taste-test with Combier in a later post.

We next set our GPS for St. Rémy la Varenne, the church and priory we visited on Monday.
Driving through St. Mathurin to cross to the south bank of the Loire at the next bridge
There are picnic tables with a view of the church and the priory and church will both be open today. It's a lovely warm day for a picnic lunch with a view of the church.

The priory is much more interesting than we expected. Begun in the 10th century, it was attached to the Abbey St Aubin in Angers (of which nothing remains but a tower). A small group of Benedictine monks were dispatched to this priory to oversee its primarily agricultural mission.

Starting at the entry gate, we learned the meaning of the monkey carved into the arch. We had wondered about its significance on Monday. The chained monkey was a medieval symbol of slavery due to sin.
 And of the lion, the symbol of St. Mark, symbolized justice and victory.

These sculptures flank the entrance gate to the priory, just on top of the side walls.
The priory chapel, also used as the chapter room, had remains of 12th century frescoes. It was quite small suggesting the priory had only a handful of monks.
chapter room with frescoed wall
Fresco of Christ on the cross with Mary in red on the left 

fresco in archway below tympanum of Christ on the cross

We next explored a large room that had been used for multiple purposes over the years. It has had some restoration which uncovered a painted mantel that was rather amazing and confusing and entertaining all at the same time.

The fireplace takes up the entire west wall of this room. We had entered the room via the door on the left. This room had been divided into 3 living spaces for poor families into the 20th century. Luckily the walls were whitewashed which protected the painting, but medallions embedded in the walls were hammered flat.
A knight fighting a naked man with the salamander symbol of Francis I (Renaissance period) 

An inexplicable set of scenes included nymphs, jousting, a coat of arms surrounded by mermaids. Our information said no explanation has yet been uncovered

This bas-relief of a woman arguing with her husband  is one of my favorite panels.

There is a local society for the preservation of this monument and it has done much restoration on the buildings. They have also provided (in English, no less) booklets in great detail about the rooms and history of the priory. The commentaries help us imagine  how this priory was run. And we learned the difference between a priory and an abbey. Priories were satellites of an abbey, established as missionary "posts", or to manage agricultural properties of abbeys. An abbey could have many priories located near or far or even in foreign countries. This was especially true of Benedictine orders such as the Abbey St Aubin.
Looking to other end of fireplace room. This room had been divided into 3 dwellings for the poor before becoming a property of the city, a national monument, and a UNESCO world heritage site. 

The fireplace room led to other rooms likely added in the 15th century. The priory was  quite rich owing to its agricultural and pastoral success. The prior Mathurin Legay, who was of the nobility and not actually a monk, added these rooms to improve the comfort of the priory and make it more of a manor house than a monastery.
Modern stained glass with coat of arms for the Legay family. 

Coat of arms of another family influential in the priory's history
As a result, these rooms are at different levels and open off a circular staircase at odd places. But they were definitely "more modern" than the original rooms.

The staircase ends at the level of a long attic space, recently renovated. This space was always used for storage it seems. The room seems to have become a museum for gourds of all sorts. Or a workshop for gourd decoration making. We never found out the significance of having an attic full of gourds.
Down a circular staircase at the other end of this room, we again encountered small square rooms that were obviously used for living spaces.
15th century circular staircase also provides access to the former first floor, now basement
These rooms with fireplace and some furnishings are still whitewashed with multiple coats of paint but archaeologists have removed the whitewash in test areas which reveals that the walls were painted with many motifs. Restoration will be done in the future.

Once outside, we learned that the Loire River was once closer to the priory than it is now and that due to the building of a levee on the north side of the Loire across from St Rémy, the priory was frequently flooded.
From the north side of the building you can see that the priory has 3 floors. Only the top two floors were livable once the North side of the Loire built a levee causing frequent flooding on this, the south side of the Loire.
So what was originally built as the ground floor, became unusable and the area around it filled in with soil on the south side so that now the original first floor is only a basement and not usable living space.

What we were seeing as a second floor was actually added in the 15th century and you can see the difference in the building materials between the original stone of the 12th century and the carved limestone of the 15th century. Also, the second story windows are typically Renaissance and more ornate than the 12th century priory would have had.

We next wandered over to the church which IS open today (in fact a woman is cleaning the pews while we are there). As the priory increased in riches and importance, the church was enlarged.
1867 stained glass window in north end of church
This North side was probably the entrance to the original church. The long stained glass windows are a 19th century addition. (see above photo)
The oldest part of the church probably is 10th century with the chancel built in 12th century Gothic style. Many modifications have been made, including 19th century renovations. The stained glass looks more modern than even that, but dates were not given.
The side chapel dedicated to Mary has modern windows 
Joan of Arc window, 1943

"New" addition to church, 12th century

Friday, April 28, 2017

Tuesday April 25 - In search of Clark's 27th great grandmother

Clark's birthday breakfast - eggs, bacon, croissants, clementine juice, apricot jam and coffee - satisfying
Today is Clark's birthday and in honor of his day, we are off to visit Fontevraud Abbey where his 27th great grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, lived her last days.

The weather is not cooperating today as it's grey and rainy, but we're off anyway, with all our layers. Much of what we'll see is inside anyway and we have raincoats.

Getting to Fontevraud was a challenge as the road our GPS wanted us to take was closed for military exercises. Who knew that these last 8 km before Fontevraud travel through a military camp which was on maneuvers today. After wandering blindly for 15 minutes, and listening to a GPS that was determined to send us on the same road, we pulled over, studied a map and took a course that skirted the military area. End result, a one hour drive took one hour and 45 minutes. But we got a good look at the Chateau de Brézé from all sides and will have to come back one day to visit it.

Fontevraud Abbey was founded in 1101 by Robert Arbrissel an austere itinerant preacher. It soon attracted the patronage of both religious and royal leaders of the day. A new order based on Benedictine practice was established with several unusual twists. Both nuns and monks were housed, separately of course, in the Abbey and the order was ruled by an abbess. Eventually 4 separate communities were established to include virgin nuns, nuns who had been married or were not virgins but had repented and withdrawn from life, monks, and lepers. The leadership by an abbess was challenged several times by the monks, but was always suppressed, sometimes with help from the King.

The abbey is known as the necropolis of the Plantagenet family - kings and queens of both England and France. Of course, we now know that Clark is a long-lost Plantagenet descendant.
restaurant outside the gates of the abbey

Clark and his name-sake

The abbey was turned into a prison during Napoleonic times and remained so until the 1960s. It had the reputation of being the harshest prison in France. Quite a change from when it was an abbey. During that time, significant changes were made to the church and the grounds to house up to 750 prisoners at a time, but frequently housed double that number. The church in particular was reworked to house 5 floors of prisoner barracks.

The abbey itself was built under the patronage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II Plantagenet.
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Eleanor lived here after Henry's death in 1189 until her death in 1204.
effigies of Eleanor (reading her prayer book) and Henry
They were both buried here as was their son, Richard the Lionheart, and daughter-in-law, Isabelle of Angoulême, wife of their youngest son, John Lackland.
effigies of Isabelle and John
Their bones were likely dispersed during the French Revolution, but effigies of these four remain and are placed prominently near what may have been their burial places in the church.
The four effigies located in the center of the church. This is thought to possibly be near where they were buried, but there's no evidence one way or the other, thanks to the French Revolution.

The church is enormous and bare today, but would have been colorfully decorated as can be seen from several remaining paintings on the walls.

Until the revolution, it held beautiful furnishings including the altar and grills used to separate men from women during services. It's size is a testament to the thousands who lived and worked within their walls.
restoration work is on-going. Main entrance is closed and you enter on the side now

Side entrance 

vaults of the ceiling have been replaced
When Fontevraud was a prison, floors were added to the church and the arched ceiling of the abbey was mostly removed. Much work was required to restore the church to its former glory.

rounded absidials are called chevets - the definition says it's an apse with an ambulatory allowing one to walk behind the altar to access the small semi-circular chapels. The altar would be under the highest round tower, the ambulatory walkway would be the next level below and you can see 3 of the chapels at the lowest level. Very fancy.

From the rear of the church, we entered the Grand-Moûtier convent through the St. Benoit courtyard. This convent housed the virgin nuns who were the most prominent members of the Fontevrist order. This part of the convent was used as a hospital and to house invalid nuns.
St Benoît courtyard

the refectory where the nuns ate
The nuns cloister included the refectory, chapter room and the only heated room in the abbey, the moniales room. The chapter room was where the business of the abbey was conducted. The Moniales room was where the nuns did their embroidery here and needed heat to keep the hands warm.
Cloiser of the Grand-Moutier, the house for the virgin nuns

a peek into the chapter room

A carving in the chapter room

Gardens of every sort provided the means of feeding the order and a gigantic byzantine-styled building was the kitchen and smoke house.
This building confused archaeologists at first, but it has been decided it was the kitchen

central smoke hole in the kitchen - the side bays also had smoke holes
It's multiple chimney openings presumably lifted the smoke out of the kitchen, but I have my doubts.

Since the 60's the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud has become a Cultural Center of Western France. Work continues on restoring and maintaining this UNESCO world heritage site.

We plan to return on a day that is sunny and warmer to revisit the abbey and better appreciate its gardens and paths and to take better photos with less rain. Hopefully, next time, there won't be military maneuvers blocking our way.

Returning home, we warm up with aperos, then have a lovely grilled steak dinner using the tournedo steaks we bought from the local farmer at the Asseray vineyard. Dessert is a repeat of the chocolate cake from Janis' birthday. Clark has chosen our wines carefully for maximum enjoyment.
Bonne Anniversaire, Clark

Happy birthday, Clark. Many more to come.