Noilly Prattle: August 2014

Friday, August 29, 2014

Lourdes. . .

. . . should be a bummer, but isn't!

Wheelchairs being pulled by assistants in a long procession - Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Lourdes
Candlelight Procession in Lourdes, France

     What can you say about a seemingly endless parade of wheelchairs? A sight that you might expect to be profoundly depressing is not so. That, at least, was my experience in visiting the town of Lourdes in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains of Southwestern France.

the Immaculate Conception
(as she is said to have appeared to Bernadette)

the grotto of St. Bernadette
     Lourdes was one of our stops on a driving tour of France. We arrived around 2 o'clock in the afternoon and checked into our hotel and decided to have some lunch and walk to town and the place that Lourdes is famous for—the grotto of Saint Bernadette.

people come by the thousands, many hoping
for a miraculous cure from devotion and the waters
         Bernadette Soubirous experienced mystical visions in a grotto near her home of a woman dressed in blue and white clothing typical of imagery of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the iconography of the Catholic Church. She experienced 18 of these visions over a five month period in 1858. The woman in the visions identified herself as the “Immaculate Conception”, identifying herself definitively as Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. Investigation by the Vatican concluded that a mystical experience had, in fact, taken place and Bernadette was eventually canonized as a Saint in the Catholic Church. The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is built over the grotto and attracts over 5,000,000 pilgrims a year, many of whom are crippled and come seeking respite from their afflictions. Miraculous cures are said to have occurred at the shrine, or, at least, cures that can not be explained medically by qualified physicians.

just one of the handicapped -
well, a little anyway
our own bottle of holy water
     People with handicaps can bathe in the spring waters during daylights hours. Any visitors can fill containers with water that is said to come from a spring near the grotto that is blessed because of Bernadette's encounter with the Virgin Mary. This hope of healing is one of the main attractions of a pilgrimage to the Grotto of St. Bernadette. We were happy to join the crowds and fill a PET bottle with the holy water. I couldn't resist a joke about “drinking the cool-aid”.

     We returned to out hotel to rest up and take a hot bath to relax before returning the Basilica for the evening candlelight procession.

a little fun and dance in the downtown area of Lourdes,
a very commercial district full of hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops


sunset at Lourdes - Basilica of the Immaculate Conception

leading the candlelight procession
     The atmosphere of the candlelight procession (see link above) has to be experienced and felt to be understood. It is hard to imagine not being moved by the sight of this candlelight vigil and procession of hundreds, if not thousands, of people walking and in wheelchairs, carrying candles protected from the wind by paper lanterns, praying and singing the various prayers and chants of Catholic liturgy. It reminded me of Hindu and Buddhist mantras. This candlelight procession is enacted night after night from April to October every year. Road buddy, who is not a Christian, but felt moved to tears by the experience, described it as a kind of rave, the ambience was that hypnotic. It sent shivers down your spine and made your eyes sting and blink a lot. And why not, the candlelight procession at Lourdes is a bonding experience of belonging to something larger than oneself. Like at a rave, you lose for a while your identity as a single being and become a part of a larger being, being-ness itself, perhaps.

vision of thousands of people chanting Ave Maria and holding candles

     What a pilgrimage to Lourdes, or any pilgrimage for that matter, be it Mecca, or Santiago de Compostella, or Woodstock, or Jerusalem, for example, offers is community. Something our world is sadly in need of in this topsy-turvy 21st Century.  

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

at a Chambres d'Hôtes in Le Bailleul, France

sunflowers - taken from car window

huge kitchen that was
once that of a priory
La Croix Verte, the B&B
      It's an overcast, occasional rain kind of day, perfect for sitting in the huge kitchen of our Chambres d'Hôtes (B&B) in Le Bailleul, France, absorbing the past couple of weeks, give or take, driving around the western half of France. It's nice to have some time to just sit and reflect instead of the seemingly constant motion of one night stands (constant motion except for several-mile long traffic jams—two of them).

flute player - left
tenor - holding flowers
soprano in red,
flute player on right
      We are stopping here for two nights to attend the Baroque music festival in Sablé-sur-Sarthe, France. Last night was a program of music and songs from the Baroque period (17th Century) music of Jean-Philippe Rameau, a French composer entitled Amour, a mort—a kind of reflection on love and death. We had a bit of a struggle fighting with one-way streets to find the venue, but all came out fine in the end. The period orchestra called Amaryllis was superb, especially the flute player. Between the soprano and the tenor, the tenor was the more outstanding--passionate with a beautiful lyrical quality to his voice. The soprano, alas, was a little weak in comparison and a little too haughty to be passionate. Still, she was more than adequate, just not as stunning as the tenor.

in the audience for Amour, a mort!
      Planning to do lunch at a highly touted restaurant nearby, then listen to some Gregorian chant doing Vespers at a nearby abbatial church. In the evening we return to the festival hall for a concert version of Elena (it's an opera about Helen of Troy, the famous ancient beauty whose face sank a thousand ships) by Italian composer Fracesco Cavalli.

      Tomorrow we drive to Orly Airport in Paris to fly to Venice, Italy the following day.  

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Chez Nous, Chez Marie

the little town of Grand Vabre, France
     What could be more heartwarming than feeling chez nous [at home] in a strange town? 

     Traveling by car here in rural France I get a feeling like coming home to the ancestral land. Before delving further in that topic, I would take a moment to sing the praises of GPS Navigation, those wonderful little gadgets that you put in your car, program the route you want to take and an almost human voice talks you through the trip. If you screw up it never looses patience with you or gets snippy and sarcastic, just reprograms and gets you out of the jam. It takes most of the headache out of driving on strange roads in an unfamiliar country. I simply love my "Navi".

     Now the heartwarming stuff. For those who don't know me, I am of French ancestry and although I don't hold a French passport, traveling here in central France and communicating with locals in my reasonably fluent French (although with a French-Canadian [Quebecois] accent, it feels a little like coming home after a long (five centuries) absence. 

Square and Abbatial church of St. Foy, Conques, France
golden reliquary of St. Foy
     That's the "Chez Nous" part. Now, what could be more prosaic than eating at a restaurant called "Mary's Restaurant"? That's exactly what happened by a happy accident tonight. We drove from a three-day visit to the Medieval town of Sarlat-la-Caneda to another, older, Medieval town called Conques. Conques is a way station on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain -- Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.  As a matter of fact we saw several pilgrims walking on our way to Conques this afternoon. It is also well known as a repository of several reliquaries in the treasury of the Abbatial Church of St. Foy. Of particular note is a reliquary in the shape of a golden statue of 4th Century martyr St. Foy, a female saint. Inside is said to be a finger of the saint. 

Medieval town of Conques,
St. Foy's church in the background

pilgrims walking to
Santiago de Compostela, Spain

insufficient outlets - had to use the computer on my lap--
well, it IS a laptop
     After spending some time exploring the beauty of this steeply sloping hillside town we drove a few miles to our hotel in a village called Grand Vabre, the Hotel Solomiac. When we arrived at the hotel there was a sign on the door informing me that the hotel was closed on Wednesday, but that our room was No. 2 and the key was in the door--easily the most casual hotel I ever stayed at. The hotel is very inexpensive and very basic but very clean and comfortable. It reminded me of cheap hotels I have seen in 1940s and 50s French films. But, imagine my surprise at finding an original George Braque print, signed and dated, in the room!

Hotel Solomiac, Grand Vabre, France
George Braque - 1953

colorful terrace of Chez Marie
    At any rate, the hotel restaurant was also, of course, closed, and the little village looked rather deserted. I saw three older people chatting in a doorway down the street and went over, excused myself very politely in my most formal French and asked them if there was a restaurant in the area. They assured me that there was, pointed out the direction and told me the name of the restaurant--Chez Marie [Mary's Restaurant]. We walked in the direction the old folks indicated and soon found the place. There were a few people sitting around in front of the bar, so I asked them if they were open. They replied that they would open for dinner at 7:00pm and did I want to make a reservation. The place looked pretty deserted so I wondered if we would be the only diners and asked if a reservation was necessary. The proprietor said that it would be wise to do so, so we did. 

Chez Marie
     Imagine our surprise to see the place fill up with people soon after we arrived. The atmosphere was warm and animated and the food was very good. 

    All in all, an unexpected adventure and pleasant surprise. In our family we're all French now!

at Chez Marie

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

too busy to blog. . .

     Driving around central France stopping here and there for a night two. Consolidating my thoughts and impressions for later blogs. Meanwhile . . ,

enthralled by the beauty of the Medieval town of Sarlat-la-Caneda

Sunday, August 10, 2014

You get what you pay for

     Watch out for those things that seem to be bargains, or getting something for nothing. There's no such thing as a free lunch, unless you make it yourself. But even then you have to pay for the ingredients.

Drottingholm Palace
Confidencen Palace Theater
        I recently experienced an interesting study in contrasts to illustrate the point. We were in Stockholm for a few days to attend a couple of operas of the summer stock variety. Both were staged in the concert halls of palaces—the Drottingholm Palace Theater and the Confidencen Palace Theater in Stockholm, Sweden.

        The illustration of the point, folks, is in a couple of boat rides—one paid for and one included in a 3-day transit pass. Both of the theaters are several kilometers from the center of Stockholm which is a city built on land surrounded by water. That being the case there is a considerable amount of water traffic as well as the usual metro, tram and buses of urban transportation.

boat to Drittingholm
on the boat to Drottingholm
         We opted for a boat to get to the Drottingholm Palace opera venue, a ride that takes about an hour. We bought two tickets and some sandwiches and nachos and an energy drink to have a picnic on the palace grounds while waiting for the curtain to go up. The ride was quite comfortable with pleasant weather for sitting out on the rear deck admiring the scenery. Many of our fellow passengers were also going to attend the opera; we recognized many of them strolling as we were having our picnic lunch. Before the show a lecture by a Harvard University professor informed us that Mozart was only 14-years old when he wrote the opera we were to attend called Mitridate, Re di Ponto. It was the breakthrough opera that got Mozart recognized as a serious opera composer—at only 14. We returned to downtown Stockholm in a chartered bus and got back to the hotel around midnight.

from the boat to Drottingholm
picnic lunch at the palace

Mitridate: Re di Ponto - cast curtain calls


boat to amusement park
Nobel Prize Museum on extreme right - Gamla Stan
        The following day we had most of the day to spend sightseeing around Stockholm, especially around the Old Town district known as Gamla Stan. It is similar to the old Town in Tallinn, though larger in scale and without evidence of an old wall. The tourist information agent we talked to told us that with could ride one of the boats from Gamla Stan to an island garden with our 3-day pass at no extra cost. Who can pass up a freebee? Nobody apparently, because when we got to the boat landing there was a large cr owd already queued up and we almost turned around and walked out, but thought better of it and waited in line. After all it was a freebee. After some push and shove and a little subtle elbowing, we finally arrived on the boat which was crowded enough to sink the ship. All well and good, but we appeared to be approaching a junk yard on the other shore not the promised "garden", but on closer inspection it turned out to be an amusement park. That, of course, explained why the boat was so full of people.

on the no-cost boat the the junk yard
boat landing at the amusement park

this horror show goes upside down
         Not being in the mood for either loosing my lunch on a roller coaster, or having a heart attack on a thingie that raises you up and drops you for a heart-stopping several seconds and suddenly jerks to a stop a few feet from the ground, we decided to move along and find the tram to take us back to the center and go to our hotel for a nap.

the lamp lighter -
lighting the candles
of the  footlights
conductor and harpsichord player
        In the evening, with a hankering for some junk food, we decided to dine at a Burger King before going on to the Confidencen Theater for another opera. This was also one by Mozart, his well-known The Marriage of Figaro. It was mostly interesting in that it was presented in the 18th Century style of the original production (conducted by Mozart himself) with a small Baroque orchestra and authentic period instruments, period costumes and sets with the stage dimly lit by candlelight. It gave an interesting impression of being in the theater back in the late 1700s.

cost of The Marriage of Figaro at the Confidencen Theater in Stockholm
        There was no public transportation available after the show, so we had to walk through the woods for about 15 to 20 minutes to get to the nearest metro stop. But all's well that ends well and we had a short but enjoyable learning experience in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Final days in Tallinn

Dockside Dance Rehearsal

Blue Grass Dance

Texas Honky Tonk and Cantina in Tallinn
sharing a Margarita
      We've come to the end of our short but enjoyable stay in Tallinn; wrapping up loose ends in our rental apartment and flying to Stockholm this afternoon.

      After just two weeks Tallinn has become almost as familiar as our own home in Japan. You could do a whirlwind tour in a day or two since Tallinn's Old Town area, which is the main tourist attraction, is quite small. We prefer to spend a little more time than that, however, and get to know the town and what it has to offer a little more intimately. Many of the small concerts we attended, for example, were mostly attended by locals. Most short-term visitors were probably not even aware of them.

      We also tend to avoid transportation for places that are more easily accessible on foot and reserve public transport for places that are more distant from the center. That can turn out to be a good idea or a fool's errand, both of which, I have to admit, we did.

once a prison, now a museum
      The fool's errand: One day we decided to take a walk outside the walls of the Old Town to an area on the coast where you could take a boat ride on a sailing ship. The walk on a particularly hot and humid day turned into a 6 or 7-km hike that left me, thankfully, not limping, but stumbling a bit. Since I'm road testing me bum leg on this trip I was both exhausted by the walk in the heat, but happy that my hip did not interfere—both legs were feeling the strain. Normal!

sign in front of the tugboat is
the sailboat landing
      There was no sailboat at the time we arrived at the port, but I happened to catch some kind of dance rehearsal nearby that I shot a bit of video on. I'm not quite sure what it was all about, maybe some Viking throwback or something. Anyway, here's a little sample above.

      The good idea: Another day we decided to venture farther out from the city center on a public route bus, much as we had done some days earlier to visit the Pirita Convent. After some confusion as to where the bus stop was located we found it and had to wait almost an hour for the next bus. There seemed to be a lot of people waiting for buses, but none came. Finally, our bus arrived and every body there waiting got on it. We were barely able to squeeze onto this overcrowded bus with no air conditioning—only a few inadequate vents open in the roof.

thatched roof and old stone walls
harmonize very well
the village well
     We were headed for an open air museum where they display buildings and the way of life in 19th Century rural Estonia. The park is pretty and well kept and easily and pleasantly walkable. As we were walking along a path I heard music that sounded like lively dance music so we decided to follow the sound until we reached the spot where the music was coming from. There was a small group of costumed professional dancers performing what looked a folk dance and sounded like Blue Grass or a Quadrille, or square dance. They were performing for a large crowd of locals dining in what looked like an outdoor barbecue cafeteria style. It was by reservation only and already closed to further guests. But, no matter, we weren't hungry anyway, but I did get another little video of the dancers linked above.

spinning wheels

  And, of course, a few odd photos here and there. 

even a little red schoolhouse