Thursday, 20 October 2016

A visit to Availles-Limouzine - Staying near to home before part 8 of our USA holiday!

Last Sunday, as the 22C weather forecast sounded  pretty good for autumn, we took a drive to Availles-Limouzine, a town in the Vienne department of  France (bordering on the Charente), home to about 1300 people and built on a bank of the beautiful Vienne river.

The spot was successively occupied from the earliest times by the Goths, Romans, Gauls and Francs, but at the beginning of the 11th century, the town was mentioned in  archives as Viconia Avalia, developing on a salt route which ran inland from the coast, and at what had become an important river crossing - perhaps a ford. Availles was a stop-over point on the route and markets were held here, but the originally beautiful, but dilapidated, covered market building in the town square was demolished in the 1920s.(see later!). The town was fortified during the Middle Ages and in the 12th century, a castle was built to protect the wooden bridge which had been built across the river.   At least two gates provided access  through the town walls; the restored Cavalry gate, on the side away from the river and the River gate, as you would imagine(!), being next to the river on the opposite side, still survive.

The Cavalry gate. One can still see grooves in the stonework where the portcullis slid up and down!

The River gateway gave access to the previously mentioned bridge, which was destroyed in 1350, along with a lot of the town, by fighting  during the 100 Years War (1337-1453).

Circular riverside tower on the outside wall of the fortifications.

Up until as recently as 1950, the banks of the Vienne were visited by a mixture of washerwomen and sand gatherers.  The first came to wash their linen, before carrying it home in barrows and the second came to dredge sand from the banks, for use later in construction of the buildings. But not at the same time, presumably!

During the long period when there was no bridge,  people used to cross the river by ferry.  It was first mentioned in 1657 and was still there in 1750, as a map confirms its existence. In 1839 a suspension bridge was opened, but this proved to be inadequate as it required too much maintenance! Thus, in 1892, a metal bridge supported on two stone pillars and designed by the famous Eiffel company, was constructed. The increases in traffic volumes  eventually spelt an end to what was called "a work of art", and in 1957 the present concrete bridge was built.

In the 17th century, the house on the left became known as 'the domain of the river'. I somehow missed taking a photo of it, as we spent time looking for the covered market, previously referred to.  This is a sketch of what it looked like, and certainly the character of the market square has been completely altered, for the worse, by its disappearance.

Right opposite where the covered market stood, is the Mairie.

This house now stands on the site of the castle, which fell into ruin, due to the effects of first, the Hundred Years' War and later, the Wars of Religion in the latter half of the 16th century.

A dear little door which is not high enough for either of us to have walked through without bending quite low, but obviously adequate for the people of those early times.

A typical street scene. Most of the houses have been well restored.

Water pumps seem to be a feature of the town.......

Walking up the quite steep hill to the Church of Saint Martin.

The church of Saint Martin first appeared in texts in 1090.   It belonged to the Abbey of St Cyprien in Poitiers and was largely reconstructed in the 15th century after almost total destruction in the 100 Years' War. The church has also received further, more recent restoration in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The stained glass windows were installed in 1867 and are signed by the Gueritault brothers from Poitiers, a large town not far to the north-west.

 The restful, tree lined sand square outside the church is much used by players of petanque/boules! This cast iron cross on one side of it dates from the 19th century. It is set on a stone base and depicts a snake encircling an amphora above a lower section showing a lacrimosa with two tears clearly visible.

Near the church at the top of the hill is another water pump, so water pressure is obviously sufficient somehow, even up here!

A close up of the ornate cast iron spout.

Yet another pump, this one  nearer the centre of town.

If you should be interested in buying property in this lovely town, there were quite a number of houses for sale, this one being the largest that we saw! The tourist office was unfortunately closed when we visited, but even without any background information, one could spend a very pleasant  hour or so looking around this well kept hidden gem of a town.

Also see my daily diary HERE

and My Life Before Charente (updated  25 September 2016)  

Friday, 14 October 2016

Mesquite, Valley of Fire and Hoover Dam (Part 7 of our holiday)

We flew from Dallas, across New Mexico and Arizona, to Las Vegas, where we were met by friends who live up the I-15 highway in  Mesquite, where the states of Nevada, Utah and Arizona meet.  After a day of relaxation, they took us out of their nice cool house into the heat (!), on a car trip to see the Valley of Fire State Park and the Hoover Dam.

The Valley of Fire State Park (spectacular desert scenery a mere 1 hour's drive from the concrete expanse of "the Strip" in Las Vegas!) is Nevada's oldest,  and derives its name from the red sandstone scenery, formed from great shifting sand dunes during the age of dinosaurs 150 million years ago.   Because of the high temperatures while we were there,  47C (116F), we took the Park rangers' advice and did not attempt any of the scenic hikes into the park; much too hot, so we therefore unfortunately missed the Fire Wave, which is about an hour's hike.  Worth looking up in the internet (here) though, if you are interested.
Entering the Valley of Fire!

Proof  from the car of just how blisteringly hot it was -  wobbly but all too true!! In the winter, temperatures range from zero to a balmy 22C (74F) and of rain, there is but 4" (10 cm) per year!

A natural rock arch, and an explanation below.......

A lizard, which I think could be a Chuckwalla, keeping to a small but welcome  piece of shade!

Amazing rock formations.

Atlatl Rock - An atlatl is a throwing device, usually consisting of a stick, fitted with a thong or socket, to hold the butt of a spear  and so project it further than by manual throwing. The Australian Aborigines had the woomera, but ancient American Indians also used these weapons.They are depicted in the petroglyphs (rock carvings) made by the local peoples located at Atlatl Rock.

Fine examples of petroglyphs. Ancient tribes occupied the Valley of Fire approximately between 300 BC and 1150 AD. These included the Anasazi, who were farmers from the nearby fertile Moapa Valley.The centre photo on the right above is of our friend Mary trying to work out some of the stories being told in these pictures. She's standing at the top of the metal staircase that you can see in the last picture.

Just a hop down the road by American standards, is the Hoover dam. After very lengthy discussions and agreements as to how the Colorado River water was to be managed and shared among the peoples living in its enormous basin, construction of the dam was begun in 1931. A fine infrastructure project for the country, and another triumph of its engineering, as the economy began  to recover from the Great Depression.

The wall, for which the last concrete (to total 3.25 million cu.yds or 2.6 million cu. metres) was poured in 1935. It was the greatest dam of its day and despite the remoteness and arduous working conditions, the contractor, Six Companies Inc  completed the project two years ahead of schedule and below budget! A lesson for these days!

A distant view of the "new" bridge spanning the gorge above the generating plants on each river bank. Today, as a result of the drought which the Colorado River basin has experienced for the past 15 years, Lake Mead has dropped to its lowest level since it was first filled in the 1930s!

The Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge is 1,905 feet long and carries road traffic over the gorge, nearly 900 feet above the Colorado River.  It is the longest single-span concrete arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere as well as being the second-highest bridge of any type in America. The gantry on the right is, I believe, the last surviving crane used for the construction of the dam wall 85 years ago.

Looking down at one set of 8 generating plants, which were completed in 1935-36. A 17th generator was added in 1961 to the 16 already in operation.

Inside the spotless generator hall. The absolutely huge numbers of people taking guided tours were most efficiently handled by teams of genial staff, skilfully shepherding them where required, seemingly without effort!

Diagrammatic layout of pipes and shafts.

The "Winged Figures of the Republic" are iconic sculptures on the Nevada side of the Hoover Dam. Sculptor Oskar Hansen made the figures in 1935 from more than four tons of bronze. They sit on bases of black diorite, either side of a 142 ft. high flagpole.
The figures have weathered to a green patina, but the toes are burnished to a soft gold by the touch of countless tourist hands. Rubbing the toes is supposed to bring good luck!
In an interesting astronomical touch, the monument is set onterrazzo celestial chart which shows the exact position of major stars on the day the Hoover Dam was dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt. The star map would supposedly assist a future civilization of giant flying humans or other aliens to pinpoint the date as 30 September 1935!!

This larger-than life sculpture of a man scaling a rock wall represents a "high scaler." In the early 1930s, fearless, eager-to-please-in-a-depressed-economy dam workers would dangle hundreds of feet in the air, armed with jackhammers to drill holes in the canyon walls for dynamite to blast away unwanted rock. The bronze figure was created in the 1990s by sculptor Steven Liguori. Onward and upward!

Also see my daily diary HERE

and My Life Before Charente (updated  25 September 2016)  

Monday, 10 October 2016

A post to keep up with my real Life in the Charente! (The USA trip posts will resume very soon)

          Visiting the Chateau of Cognac and the Baron Otard cognac house.          

The main entrance of  Chateau de Cognac, which is right in the centre of the old town. This access is not at first  imposing by French standards and the   property is perhaps best viewed from Saint Jacques, across the river. From there the full extent of the long facade built by the Cognacais, who later became King Francois I, can be appreciated.The hour-long guided tour  reinforces the belief that the chateau is well worthy of being so called!

Entering the chateau from the courtyard behind the main entrance. Like almost everywhere else in France, the buildings have a long, complicated and interesting history! Part of the original 12th century chateau still exists, built on the site of an earlier 10th century Benedictine abbey, and to this were added many later extensions and alterations! The "Black Prince" (Edward, Prince of Wales and the son of Edward III of England) lived here between 1366 and 1370. The years passed and for 200 years the buildings fell into disrepair. In this condition, they were seized by the state after the French Revolution and in 1796, Baron Jean-Baptiste Otard bought the estate by auction for 1620 livres (about the same amount of francs at that time). Otard was from a distinguished family, of Scottish and Norwegian descent, which had fled the Catholic power in England  to settle in France. The Baron's business was in eau-de-vie, and the chateau's cellars with their 6 feet thick walls, and being sited right next to the river, provided the constant temperature and humidity he needed to mature his product.

The salamander, considered in legend to be both fire resistant and invincible, was chosen by King Francois I as his emblem. Carved examples such as this appear all over the chateau!

Amazing brick vaulted ceilings. It is known that Leonardo da Vinci himself was consulted on architectural layouts for alterations to the chateau during his career and the design of the ceiling ribs is a characteristic hallmark of his work. To the right hand side, a window bay, one of several in this salon, with a view on to the river, can be seen. Measuring only about 6 feet by 3 feet, and closed off with a metal grille, each bay was used as a cell to confine about 15  English prisoners. They had been  captured by the French in America during the Seven Years' War (1756-63) and brought back to Europe. I'm afraid space doesn't allow a precis of the war, but it's easy to research if you want to know how all that came about!

Prisoners' graffiti carved into the stonework of the "cells". As these windows are about 30 feet above the outside ground level, jumping out of the window obviously wasn't an option!

A bas-relief carving (I think it's called) of the Battle of Marignan(o) which took place in Italy in 1515. The tour guide said it was the only battle ever won by Francois I and hence much celebrated!

The distillation equipment for producing eau-de-vie, to be turned into cognac later, by storage in oak barrels. Boiler on the left, heater in the middle and condenser on the right. This is a museum piece, but the principle still applies in modern production methods.

Our lovely guide explaining the procedure to us!

One of the cellars. 

Alcoholic spiders! The guide told us that the spiders become addicted to the alcohol vapour in the air and they cannot survive if they go outside!

A cellar called "Paradise" reminded of our visit to the Tesseron cognac house earlier this year. The cognac doesn't improve in an oak barrel after 80 years or so (really!) and is therefore stored in glass demi-johns.

Storage barrels are painted white to reduce the amount of oxygen filtering through the oak and affecting the maturation of the eau-de-vie. The structure in front is what appears to be a set of scales.

A display to allow visitors to appreciate the different perfumes which they might encounter when smelling cognac scents. Floral, vanilla and coconut are self-explanatory but the last "rancio" is a word meaning, in general terms, musty, aged or mellow.

Our guide explaining the finer points of barrel making. Here the barrel is being heated and wetted to allow the staves to be bent and iron hoops applied to secure  its lower end.

Wall art! Examples of advertising material produced by Otard over the preceding decades. Otard used to be sold in the muslim French colonies of North Africa as a "medicine," but when the content of the said medicine became known, the religious objections brought imports to a halt!

James Ottar/Otard de la Grange was the great grandfather of Jean-Baptiste, founder of the cognac house. James fought in battles for the "Sun King", King Louis XIV and in 1701 was awarded the title of Baron for his services. He is wearing the Cross of the Knight of Saint Louis on his tunic.

Examples of past Otard packaging

Wall painting of barges carrying cognac barrels between cellars, or to larger ships for export.

To end the tour - tasting a sip or two of VS and VSOP, the least matured, at 3 and 6 years respectively, and hence the cheapest! The best and oldest, matured 60 years, can run out at €3,000 a bottle or more! Otard isn't a very well known brand, but it has a very good reputation and the tour was better and more intimate than the biggest and best known cognac houses in town can offer.

Also see my daily diary HERE

and My Life Before Charente (updated  25 September 2016)