July 5, 2012
The thing is, there’s just too much art in the Louvre Museum—35,000 pieces, and that’s just what’s on display. There are also too many people, some eight million a year tromping past the Mona Lisa and the Winged Victory.
Enter the Louvre-Lens, an outpost of the great Paris museum, scheduled to open in December. Other landmark museums have already opened satellites: the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain; the Pompidou Center in Metz, capital of the Lorraine; even a baby Hermitage in Amsterdam. But the rising Lens museum marks the Louvre’s first foray outside the City of Light.
Strictly speaking, overcrowding is not the reason why the Louvre is building a $200 million facility in the Pas-de-Calais region of France. It has more to do with the accessibility of the town of Lens—which can be reached by train in two to three hours from Paris, London and Brussels—and a deep need for urban renewal in an old coal industry center that lost its last mine in 1986, pushing unemployment to 15 percent.
Also driving the museum’s creation is an effort to attract French people to the Louvre; as it stands now, foreign tourists chiefly flow through the I. M. Pei Pyramid at the threshold of the Louvre in Paris, so it’s hoped to attract les Français at an offshoot outside the capital.
The infant Louvre in Lens was designed by the award-winning Japanese architectural firm SANAA with a long, low entrance building lined in glass, underground display areas where visitors can see behind-the-scenes conservation and storage, and a Gallerie du Temps housing a regularly changing collection of 250 masterworks ranging across 5,000 years of art history (including at the time of opening Eugène Delacroix’s La Liberté, a French national icon). The side by side arrangement is a vastly different approach from that at the Louvre Paris, where you’d have to walk six miles to visit every room. Having worked off several pounds in past visits to the Paris mother ship, I welcome a more compact experience in art appreciation at Lens. Don’t tell the curator, but I think of it as Louvre Lite.
May 23, 2012
Hold on. Before you buy a new Audi, Fiat or BMW, take a look at a Volvo. Never mind the style and engineering. They’re giving away vacations.
Sound like one of those annoying TV ads? Hyperbolic. Too good to be true. Appended by fine print that makes the deal a loser.
In this case the offer is as sound as a Volvo, made to safely handle the ice and snow of the homeland.
The carmaker’s Overseas Delivery Program is for people who buy Volvos directly from the factory in Gothenburg, Sweden, where Volvos have been produced since 1927. Along with free shipping of the vehicle to a U.S. dealer, purchasers get two round-trip plane tickets to Sweden on Scandinavian Airlines and a one-night stay at a hotel in Gothenburg, giving them time to tour the Volvo Museum, where visitors learn that the brand’s name means “I roll” in Latin and that since 2010 it’s been owned by Geely Automotive, headquartered—where else?—in China. Gothenburg also has a city museum with Sweden’s only surviving Viking ship and some of the freshest seafood in Europe.
Once you get your car, which comes with European vehicle registration and insurance, you’re free to hit the road along the west coast of Sweden with its fishing villages, traditional folkways and scattering of islands. There’s Marstrand, guarded by 17th-century Carlsten Fortress, black dolomite-fringed Gullholmen and wild Hallo, where people who can tolerate cold water swim and snorkel.
Or you can head south over the Oresund Bridge to Denmark, the gateway to mainland Europe, driving the autobahn to Berlin, back roads in France, even over the Alps to Italy. Great destinations, all of them, especially in a new car. If you return the vehicle when you’re done to the Volvo factory in Gothenburg, shipping back to the U.S. is free, though a fee is charged from Amsterdam, Paris, Madrid and other drop-off points across the continent.
When I heard about the plan, I couldn’t figure out why the company would make such a generous offer. But it turns out to be a good deal for Volvo, too. “Our Overseas Delivery customers are among the best ambassadors we have for the brand,” U.S. manager Anders Robertson told me. Moreover, it saves the company money by not tying up capital while a car sits on the lot waiting for purchasers.
Too bad I’m not in the market for a car. But I may go window-shopping at a Volvo dealership, where I’ll ask a few questions about standard features before taking a seat behind the wheel, not for a test drive, but to fantasize about a trip to Europe.
May 21, 2012
The construction of Guédelon about 100 miles southeast of Paris has already been underway for 15 years, yet workers are proud about how long it’s taking. That’s because you don’t build a medieval castle in a day using 13th-century techniques only.
The project, begun in 1997, is the brainchild—or, as it was said at the time, the idée folle—of Michel Guyot, an architectural historian who restored the nearby Château de St.-Fargeau. In the process he discovered the remains of a castle that predated the elegant 17th manor. Fascinated by the building they suggested, he decided to recreate it in the forest a dozen miles from St.-Fargeau, enlisting experts who studied illuminated manuscripts, stained-glass windows and extant medieval structures to devise a fully authentic design.
With Guédelon now on the rise, no one’s calling Guyot crazy and the point of the exercise grows ever more apparent. Like one of those illustrated children’s books by David Macaulay—”Cathedral,” “Castle,“ “City,“ “Pyramid”—it is aimed at answering a question everyone asks when visiting remarkable edifices from the Middle Ages: How did workers do it without trucks, bulldozers and power tools?
At Guédelon a team of three dozen workers has to quarry and shape stone, build pulley and treadmill-driven cranes, make rope, tile and mortar, chop wood for beams and move them by horse cart to raise the stronghold, explaining the snail’s pace of the project. Routinely visited by experts to make sure no corners are cut, Guédelon is an open-air laboratory for architectural historians. For adult visitors the pleasure and interest are in the process, while children encounter it as a dream come true, far more real than any Magic Kingdom castle.
I found Guédelon, nestled in the old oak woods of Burgundy, by chance a few years ago, pulled into the parking lot with lots of room for school buses and signed on for the tour. First off, we stopped in a clearing where models tell the story of the evolution of castle architecture from fortified farmhouses to stone strongholds with towers, moats, internal courtyards and curtain walls that grew up in the 13th century to protect the borders of the growing French kingdom. Guédelon was conceived as the dwelling of a middle-ranking feudal lord, modest in scale and embellishment.
In the medieval village around the perimeter we saw basket, dye and tile-makers, shingle-cutters, blacksmiths and stables for work animals. Nearby the forest gives way to an on-site quarry at the threshold of a hollowed-out dish of ground where stones mined with pickaxes and chisels are taking the shape of a castle. A fixed bridge crosses the dry moat to a courtyard ringed by buildings, including a vaulted great hall, kitchen, storerooms and chapel now more than half-finished. This year work is focusing on fireplaces in the lord’s chamber and the western retaining wall, along with the north antechamber’s paving stones and murals.
We climbed narrow staircases, crossed roofless rooms and stopped to chat with workers wearing safety glasses and hard hats, a few of the concessions mandated by construction work in modern times. All the while, I wondered whether Guédelon will be half as impressive when it is finished as it is now. No worry, it won’t be ready for the lord to move in until 2023.
April 19, 2012
In the run-up to the April 22 French presidential election Nicolas Sarkozy has been promising a referendum to loosen labor policies he blames for the high unemployment rate in France. The goal is to emulate Germany, an idea that once would have seemed incroyable in a country where worker protections are as sacred as wine with dinner.
But people who love all things French—including the millions of travelers who continue to make France the number one tourist destination in the world—might be interested to note this trio of developments suggesting that change is on the horizon:
A few months ago, on February 7 to be exact, the franc officially went out of circulation. Introduced by French monarch Jean le Bon (1319-1364), it remained the coin of the realm—with occasional modifications, like the addition of the Vichy seal during the World War II German occupation—until 2002 when France adopted the (now distressed) euro. At that time a ten-year grace period went into effect so that people who stashed old bills under the mattress could exchange them for euros at a locked-in value of 6.56 francs for 1 euro, the going rate when France joined the European Union in 1999. But now hoarders and travelers who accumulated francs left over from past trips are stuck with them. Remember Antoine de Saint Exupéry and “The Little Prince” on the old 50-franc bill? Think of it as a souvenir.
The French honorific mademoiselle went the way of the franc last month when government offices were instructed to remove it from official documents because of sexist overtones inherent in a form of address based on marital status. With the single female distinction excised, only two choices remain: monsieur and madame. Whether common parlance comes to reflect mademoiselle’s demise is another question, not least because it’s sometimes used as a form of flattery for older women.
Yves Jégo, the mayor of Montereau-Fault-Yonne, a small town about 50 miles southeast of Paris, is attempting to raise $255 million to construct a theme park based on the life and times of Napoleon. If his dream becomes a reality, Napoleonland will break ground in 2014 and go head-to-head with nearby Disneyland Paris, which opened in 1992 to cries of sacré bleu from cultural purists but has since become Europe‘s top tourist site, visited by 15.6 million people last year. Given “Boney’s” stature and the pressing need for jobs in France, Napoleonland may get a warmer welcome, though it’s hard to imagine the attractions. The 100 Days in miniature? A Battle of the Nile son et lumière? The Bonaparte family on parade?
Honestly, the more things change in France, the more they really change.
April 6, 2012
Procida is less well-known than Capri and other islands in the glorious Bay of Naples, chiefly favored by Italians, a scant 30-minute ferry ride from the mainland and barely a half square mile in size. On Easter weekend, though, the ferries are full because Procida’s Mysteries of the Dead Christ processional—begun in 1754 as a macabre march of flagellants—is one of the most colorful in Italy.
I was there to see it a few years ago and brought back pictures: