French Easter ~ Your French Easter Basket Saturday, Mar 26 2016 

This past week in France has been la Semaine Sainte (Holy Week) in the Christian tradition. The culmination of the period of Lent or le Carême, it started off last weekend with Palm Sunday, le dimanche des Rameaux, and has continued on to le Vendredi Saint. In France on Good Friday, faithful Catholics often attend Good Friday prayer services and participate in the “Way of the Cross” liturgy. Of course, Notre Dame in Paris is a majestic place to be part of French Holy Week and Easter.

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But further afield, one of my favorite places in all of France to experience le Chemin de la Croix is in the breathtaking cliffside town of Rocamadour in Southwest France. A major pilgrimage stop on a key pilgrim route leading down to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, Rocamadour is full of history and worth a visit at Easter or any other time of the year. And its stunning Way of the Cross path zigzags up the cliff to arrive at the 14th and final station hewn out of the rock, highlighting the spiritual culmination of Easter.

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On a more secular note, Easter in France also makes a splash at pastry and candy shops across the country. Colorful displays of chocolate eggs, chickens, chicks, rabbits, fish and more tempt shoppers of all ages. You’ll also see lots of chocolate bells both in chocolat noir and chocolat au lait. The presence of candy bells in France harkens back to the legend that on Maundy Thursday, all the cloches (bells) in French churches would fly away to Rome for the culmination of Holy Week. Then on Easter Sunday, they would fly back to France dropping chocolats and bonbons for the children on the way back. But whether you prefer the story of the Anglo-Saxon Easter bunny or the French cloches, they all make darling additions to Easter baskets. You can see the lovely array of French Easter treats below for just a sampling of items to add to your French Easter basket!

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French kids also love to go on Easter egg hunts to search for eggs and candy. In Paris, there are numerous options for the chasse aux oeufs across the city on Easter Sunday. This year, over 20,000 eggs will be hidden at the Champ de Mars park by the Eiffel Tower, an event sponsored by the French children’s charity Le Secours Populaire. In addition to the egg hunt, there will be lots of other activities including face painting, games, sports and dancing. The event lasts from 10am to 5pm, and the 5 euros per child supports a great cause.

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There are a couple of other important things to note about this Easter weekend this year. The French change their clocks for daylight savings time tonight – so everyone in France will be moving their clocks forward one hour. And Easter Monday is an official holiday so many businesses and official entities are closed on that day.

Wishing you a wonderful Easter – Joyeuses Pâques!

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Beyond Paris: A Day at Chartres Cathedral Thursday, Aug 28 2014 

This summer, I made a long overdue pilgrimage back to la Cathédrale de Chartres - Chartres Cathedral. It had been nearly 25 years since my last visit during my graduate school days in Paris. I wanted to refresh my memory of this crown jewel of gothic art and architecture and also to get in a tour with Malcolm Miller, the famous Englishman who has made Chartres his life’s work. I succeeded on both counts, although I must say I now regret not having been to this sacred gem more often over the years.

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Located about 50 miles southwest of Paris, the charming town of Chartres makes a great day trip from the French capital. Local trains run approximately every hour from the Gare Montparnasse in the 14th arrondissement. The easy journey takes about an hour and costs around 23 euros round trip. The church is a 5 to 10 minute walk from the station.

In a country that abounds with gorgeous gothic churches and cathedrals – Notre Dame de Paris, St. Denis, Reims, Amiens, Bourges, Rouen, to name a few – what is it that makes Chartres so special?

First, Chartres, a UNESCO world heritage monument since 1979, is the best-preserved of all of Europe’s Gothic cathedrals. Today, most of its stained glass and sculptures remain intact from when they were created in the 1200’s. Wonderfully enough, the cathedral’s sacred art survived the ravages of time, the mobs of the French Revolution and also the destruction of the two World Wars. Sometimes, the acts of preservation were deliberate. In 1939, for example, les vitraux (the stained glass windows) were removed prior to the invasion of the Germans. They were then restored and replaced after the war.

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Second, the architectural design of Chartres is amazingly unified. The fact that the church was built in the space of about 30 years – very quickly as far as cathedral-building goes – is a main contributor. A bit of history: There have been five churches on the site of Chartres, each previous one destroyed by fire or war. After the great fire of 1194, the cathedral as we know it today was rebuilt in the early 1200’s. To be fair, some details of the church have changed over time, like the north spire which was destroyed by lightning in 1506 and then rebuilt in the flamboyant gothic style. (This answers the question about why the two spires are different!) But it is important to remember that most medieval churches have undergone significant alterations since their construction. At Chartres, the architecture of this medieval church has remained remarkably consistent over the centuries.

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Finally, Chartres is also noteworthy for the matchless expertise and enthusiasm of British-born Malcolm Miller who began giving tours of the cathedral in 1958. Miller first came to Chartres from the U.K. when writing his thesis on the cathedral for his degree in French from Durham University. He then decided to make Chartres his life’s work and stayed on in France. He has written numerous books, appeared in documentaries and given lectures abroad. For his significant contributions, the French government has recognized Miller with the Chevalier of the Ordre National de Mérite and Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres awards.

However, Miller is at his best when leading English-speaking tours of the church and its iconongraphy which he does at 12noon and 2:45pm from Easter to the end of October (except Sundays or during religious ceremonies). The cost is 10 euros per person. Miller also offers private tours. For Miller, such are the riches of Chartres that no two tours of his are ever like.

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The Saturday I visited the cathedral, I made sure Miller was on tap for the noon tour. We started on the interior with a sweep through the nave, then sat in the pews as Miller deciphered a cycle of stained glass and the biblical symbolism within and finally went outside to unlock the stories of the exterior carvings. Most fascinating were the metaphors he used to speak about all the sacred art at Chartres. He likened the cathedral to a library yet the texts are not books; they are the narratives contained in the 12th and 13th century stained glass and sculptures. At the time the church was built, paper was nearly non-existent and printing had not been invented. Most people could not read or write but they could ‘read’ the sacred texts of the colorful windows. Miller added that there is so much material at Chartres that one can never take in all the ‘books.’ Hence, he is still learning himself. Alternatively, he said, Chartres cathedral is like a book with the church’s architecture as its spine. The text is the unfolding of time from Creation to the Last Judgment as seen in the medieval stained glass and sculpture.

As we took our tour, we could see that restoration of the church is ongoing. It is clear which parts have been newly cleaned and which still are dark with soot and pollution whether in stone or glass. A couple of weeks after our visit, a large section of the church was going to be closed off for some time as the painstaking work began. And plans were announced this summer that the American Friends of Chartres are raising funds to restore Bay 140 of stained glass. As part of the restoration effort, they are sponsoring the exhibition of the restored glass at a major museum in the U.S. next year. This would be the first time ever that Chartres stained glass would travel to the States. Wow. The institution to host the exhibit has not yet been announced – stay tuned for that one!

Meanwhile, here is a look at the newly restored Belle Verrière window with the Blue Halo Virgin which is perhaps the most famous stained glass at Chartres. The startlingly bright colors, including the famous Chartres blue, just pop out at you.

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To sum up, visiting Chartres is to be transported to the Middle Ages and its rich sacred art, a very meaningful experience whether one is religious or not. If you have the time and the inclination to go, here are a few thoughts for making the most of your journey: Go on a Saturday – the charming town is bustling with activity and the weekly outdoor market. When you first arrive, see the cathedral in the morning light. Then go back in the afternoon for a whole different view. Take a tour with Malcolm Miller before he retires! Take the time to decipher an entire cycle of stained glass – and notice the characters at the bottom who sponsored the piece whether bakers, carpenters or other medieval tradesmen. Have a nice lunch outdoors at one of the restaurants by the church – and enjoy the view of the cathedral nearby. Be sure and walk around the exterior perimeter of the church – the details and angles are fascinating. And last but not least, relish the less crowded church atmosphere when compared to Notre Dame in Paris. Bonne visite!

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Cathedral Notre-Dame of Chartres (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres)

Cloître Notre-Dame, 28000 Chartres

 Open: Daily 8:30am-7:30pm

 Entry: Free

NB: Located near the cathedral are the Centre International du Vitrail and the Ecole Internationale du Vitrail et du Patrimoine which are dedicated to the history and art of stained glass. Their superb cultural offerings include lectures, excursions, exhibitions and training in making ancient and contemporary stained glass.

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French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

For a little armchair travel to Chartres with Malcolm Miller, you might want to check out his book in English on the topic: Chartres Cathedral by Malcolm Miller (1997), ISBN 1878351540. For further reading, an array of other books is also available at the church’s lovely bookstore located just to the left as you enter the cathedral.

Small and Musical in Paris Sunday, Aug 5 2012 

One of my favorite pastimes in France is to wander into a church when music is playing. A few weeks ago, I got a two-for-one organ bonus at the lovely Abbaye Saint-Michel de Frigolet in the Provence countryside.

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The secluded monastery traces its origins to the tenth century and has two main churches, the romanesque Eglise Saint Michel, church of Saint Michael, and the basilica of Notre-Dame du bon remède. It must have been music practice day since the monastery organists were hard at work in both sacred spaces. The basilica’s organist in particular was quite good – I sat down for a while to hear him thundering out Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Hardly another soul was around – it was like having a real organ concert all to myself.

I started the habit of entering French churches in hopes of an impromptu concert when living in Paris. With beautiful églises (churches) located almost every other block in the city, I found that opportunities abounded for musical moments. And too, you can only do the cathedral of Notre Dame so many times before branching out to smaller places with spires.

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Church of Sainte-Clothilde on the Rue Las Cases in the 7th arrondissement

Right in my former Left Bank neighborhood is the picturesque basilica of Sainte-Clothilde. While not that old, the nineteenth century gothic edifice had already caught my interest for its architecture and also for the charming, small garden right in front. Over time, I came to realize that the church had a spectacular musical history. Its original organ was a Cavaillé-Coll, and there has been a succession of famous composers who have been Organiste Titulaire including César Franck (1859-1890), Charles Tournemire (1898-1939), and Jean Langlais (1945-1987). I have managed to catch a few organ moments at Sainte-Clothilde over the years – it is definitely on the top of my smaller Paris churches list.

Another Paris church that merits a musical visit is Saint Eustache in the Les Halles area of the city. The late gothic église was completed in the seventeenth century. A young Louis XIV even took communion here at that time.

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Church of Saint-Eustache located in Les Halles in the 1st arrondissement

The impressive Van den Heuvel organ competes with that of Notre Dame for the title of the largest in France with close to 8000 pipes. It is often possible to catch an organ concert on Sunday afternoons or during some of Saint-Eustache’s music festivals and events. There is even a organ keyboard in the nave of the church which allows concert-goers to see the organist play, a unique feature not often found in church settings.

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The last time I popped by Sainte-Eustache, alas no music was playing. However, it was winter, and La Soupe Saint-Eustache was in full swing. It turns out that the church sponsors a soup kitchen which serves over 250 needy visitors a hot French-style meal a day in the wintertime. It is a real community effort – volunteers staff the kitchen, others prepare food, local kitchens donate soup, and even neighborhood bakeries and pastry shops donate excess stock to help complete the three-course meal.

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There are numerous other churches in Paris worth a look as well as worth a listen. Saint Sulpice and Saint Louis en L’Ile are two others on my short list. But since Paris has been called by some ’la capitale mondiale de l’orgue,’ the world capital of organs, then just about any church in the City of Light is going to have something to offer music-wise.

If this has whet your appetite for something French and musical in a sacred space – and you don’t happen to be in Paris, then make a point to attend the final stop of the Louis Vierne 2012 concert series in the U.S. On August 18th, rising star organist Christopher Houlihan will finish his six-city tour in Dallas, Texas, playing Louis Vierne’s six symphonies for organ which represent the summit of French romantic symphonic organ composition. Louis Vierne was the titular organist at Notre Dame in Paris from 1900 until his death in 1937, when he expired at cathedral’s organ console itself.

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The final Vierne concerts will take place on Saturday, August 18th, at the Church of the Incarnation on McKinney Avenue in Dallas in two performances:

3:00pm: Symphonies I, III, V
7:30pm: Symphonies II, IV, VI

For more details, please visit the concert series web site at www.vierne2012.com . And on your next trip to Paris, be sure to stop in at a few non-Notre Dame churches for the sacred spaces, the services, the music, the soup kitchen, or something else unexpected and wonderful.