Sarah Harper Angers
France: Brittany, Normandy, and the Loire Valley
My name is Sarah Harper, and I am studying abroad in Angers France for the Fall semester of my junior year. I am working toward a supplementary major in French, so, of course, France is the perfect place to help me become fluent in French. My primary major is Art History, so I enjoy visiting the different cultural sites such as palaces and museums. I am living with a host family, so I am always surrounded by the French language. During the month of September every student takes an intensive French language course, so this month I have focused on honing my French language skills. I am studying at the Catholic University of the West and meeting people from all over the world.
Angers is a lovely historical city with its very own castle which has no less than seventeen towers! Angers also showcases an impressive art collection. The Castle safeguards “The Tapestry of the Apocalypse” which tells the story of the Book of Revelations in the Bible. The tapestries are very expansive and make quite an impression. Angers is also very proud of one of their most distinguished citizens, Pierre Jean David d’Angers. D’Angers was a sculptor during the early 19th century and he is most known for sculpting the pediment for the Panthéon in Paris. Angers has a museum dedicated to their local hero containing both originals and copies of his works including a mold of the Panthéon’s pediment and a mold of the Gutenberg Monument in Strasbourg. D’Angers also created many busts and medallions of the most famous people of his time, including Victor Hugo and the artists Eugene Delacroix and Theodore Gericault. The ceiling of the museum is mostly made of glass, so the space is bathed in light which creates a dramatic atmosphere for viewing his artwork. Angers also boasts an impressive collection inside of its Museum of Fine Arts. The small museum holds artwork by famous French artists such as Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, François Boucher, Theodore Gericault, Jean Honoré Fragonard, and Antoine Watteau. I enjoyed walking through this museum and soaking in all of the art within its walls.
During the weekends my program has hosted trips to different locations throughout France. The first weekend we ventured to Mont Saint Michel. Mont St. Michel is an old abbey that is located just off the coast of Normandy. It was created as a very secluded island reserved for prayer. Today it is a stunning historical monument and one of the most visited sites in France. We explored the abbey and saw the cathedral as well as the place where the monks used to work and pray. We also walked around the town. After Mont Saint Michel we traveled to the town of St. Malo in Brittany. There is a wall surrounding the town of St. Malo that people can walk on. It was really beautiful to see the town from above. Crepes and galettes (savory crepes) were invented in Brittany, so of course we enjoyed delicious galettes for lunch.
The next weekend we journeyed back to Brittany, but this time we went to the Golfe of Morbihan. We took a boat ride across the golfe and then picnicked on a beach. The beach was stunning. We had just enough time to take a short nature walk across the beach searching for shells and little critters that washed up on the shore. We also saw the prehistoric Carnac Megaliths. It was interesting to see all of the different sizes and the organization of the megaliths. We ended the visit by stopping by the town of Vannes where we ate crepes and walked around the beautiful gardens.
The third weekend we traveled around the Loire Valley. We visited the Chateaux of Chenonceau. Henri II gave Chenonceau to his mistress Diane de Poitiers, however, after Henri died, his wife, Catherine de Medici, kicked Diane out. Catherine is the one who decide to construct the iconic bridge gallery. Chenonceau is a gorgeous chateau as both its gardens and interior décor are stunning. We then journeyed to the town of Amboise where I was able to see Clos Lucé with a couple of friends. Clos Lucé is the house where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last two years of his life. We then traveled to the chateaux of Chambord. Chambord was built by François I as a hunting retreat. It is famous for its double helix stair case. It is a large chateau and has beautiful grounds as well as a very interesting interior.
So far, my stay in France has been truly amazing! I have seen a lot of incredible art and my French is improving daily. I plan to continue seeking out opportunities to study art and to explore France.
Before my classes began in October, I enjoyed a one-week vacation with friends where we visited Portugal and Spain. We did not spend a lot of time in any one place, but everything we saw was incredible. In Portugal we visited many beach towns including Lagos where we went sea kayaking around very beautiful rock formations. Our last stop in Portugal was Lisbon which is a colorful and historic place. From Lisbon we took a short trip to Sintra where we saw the Pena Palace! The palace was truly remarkable. It is located on top of a hill, so the views are fantastic. The palace is painted yellow and red making it instantly recognizable and it is very unique as it is one of the best examples of romantic architecture. We were lucky enough to catch the sunset while we explored the palace. We then returned to Lisbon and ate authentic Portuguese food.At the end of September, I finished the one month intensive course in Angers, so with the beginning of October came the beginning of a normal college schedule. All of my classes are in French, so I am challenged on an everyday basis. I am taking a few French courses in addition to art history, French history, and philosophy. Philosophy is definitely the most challenging course as the subject matter can be complicated for me even when it is in English. I have less time now that my regular classes have begun, but I still have plenty of time to explore France.
After Portugal we traveled to Madrid and Barcelona. In Madrid, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the amazing Prado Museum where I saw some of the most famous paintings in the world including Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez and The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. I had a wonderful time showing my friends around the museum and explaining the different time periods and artists. The last stop was Barcelona. In Barcelona we visited the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia which was designed by Antoni Gaudi. The Sagrada Familia is one of the most incredible pieces of artwork I have ever seen. Every detail is well thought out and beautifully executed. Especially for Christians the Sagrada Familia creates a truly amazing experience as it is impossible not to contemplate God’s majesty there. My fall break was filled with new adventures, many of which I never thought I would have the opportunity to experience in my lifetime.
After fall break, I have been able to explore more of France on the weekends. I took a day trip with friends to Chartres, France where there is a famous cathedral, Notre Dame de Chartres. Chartres is one of the best examples of gothic architecture in the world. Chartres also boasts an impressive collection of original stained glass. The cathedral is truly stunning especially because the restoration is almost complete. The contrast between the areas that have been restored and the areas that have not is startling. In the areas that are not restored, the dirt and grime bathes the walls creating an extremely dark and heavy atmosphere. In contrast, the restored walls are bright and welcoming. The stained glass is gorgeous and depicts many scenes from the Tree of Jesse to the Passion. I also saw the Tunic of the Blessed Virgin which is Chartres’ most famous saint relic. The tunic was worn by Mary when she gave birth to Jesus. I am very glad I was able to visit such an important cathedral. After we sufficiently explored the church, we explored the town. It is a very cute town with a beautiful stream and nice shops.
The next weekend I took a bus to Paris. Paris was stunning. The first Paris museum I visited was the Centre Pompidou because the friend I was travelling with had already been to the Louvre and the Musée D’Orsay. The building greatly stands out because it has a somewhat inside out construction. What I mean by that is that one can see the functional piping of the building from the outside. It is also interesting because the elevator and escalators are attached to the outside of the building but are under glass, so visitors can see the city all around them as they climb further up. The collection at this museum was incredible as well. That evening my friend and I stumbled into a light show that was being performed on the façade of the Notre Dame cathedral. It was a beautiful show and a memorable experience. The next day we visited the Saint Chapelle which is a chapel that was created by King Louis IX as a reliquary to house the crown of thorns. The walls of the chapel are almost entirely made of stained glass, so it is a truly marvelous building. We ended our trip by wandering the streets of Paris, which was perfect.
Throughout October I traveled throughout the Iberian Peninsula and was able to dive deeper into France. I saw many unforgettable things and had many unique experiences. I cannot wait to see what November has in store for me!
Spending part of the Christmas season in Europe was truly a blessing. I began the month of December strong by traveling to Strasbourg which is known as the “Capitol of Christmas.” Christmas in Strasbourg was stunning. The entire downtown area was closed off to vehicles, so we could roam freely through the Christmas markets. Lights were hung across every street, decorations covered every building, and, of course, there was the giant Christmas tree dominating le Place Kleber. One portion of the town center known as the “Carré d’Or” or “Square of Gold” is decorated with a different colored theme each year. This year the theme was white, so we saw all sorts of polar bears, icicles, and snow. The first time I saw the cathedral, Notre Dame de Strasbourg, I think I let out an audible gasp. The cathedral dominates over the square making it a very imposing structure, and it is simply stunning. The interior of the Cathedral is just as impressive as the outside, and I particularly enjoyed their nativity scenes. It was a beautiful set starting with the Annunciation and ending with the Epiphany.
Growing up in a suburb of Chicago, I always loved traveling downtown to visit Chicago’s Christkindl market. After knowing and loving the Chicago market, I knew I wanted to see some true European ones, and Strasbourg’s markets are certainly some of the best. The scent of “vin chaud” or mulled wine filled the air, and there were plenty of beautiful products on display. Strasbourg is located in the region of Alsace which is the region of France that shares a border with Germany. The region has also changed hands between Germany and France many times in the past. As a result, the culture, while still technically French, has a lot of German elements. The French accents resemble German accents, many of the signs and names of buildings use German, and their food often resembles German cuisine. One example of a specifically Alsatian food with German roots is the Bretzel. And, no, I did not just spell “pretzel” incorrectly. The Alsatian Bretzel is basically a pretzel but it is made using a different baking process which makes it unique and the Strasbourg markets were full of this special treat.
Strasbourg was truly amazing, and the next weekend I traveled to another amazing city, Lyon. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit Lyon during their Festival of Lights which coincides with December 8th, the day of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception. During the Middle Ages when the black plague ran rampant, the citizens of Lyon were understandably concerned. They prayed for intersession to the Blessed Virgin Mary to save them from the plague, and miraculously, they were indeed saved from the plague. As a result, from the Middle Ages to this very day, the Lyonnaise people have set out lights every year as a way of giving thanks to Mary. Today the tradition of displaying lights to honor Mary has become a full-blown festival of lights featuring shows and displays. It was amazing to see the city come to life at night as thousands of people roamed the streets enjoying the spectacular light displays. One of the displays even traversed the river and covered three different buildings across the river. It was a magical experience. By day, the city became much calmer. My favorite daytime activity was visiting the Museum of Fine Arts. It was a wonderful museum with a very impressive collection. One of the main reasons I wanted to venture to Lyon was to see a very specific painting located in this museum. The painting is “A Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy” and it is one of the five remaining paintings from the series “The Portraits of the Insane” by Theodore Gericault. Gericault was a Romantic artist from the early nineteenth century. He is most well-known for his painting “The Raft of the Medusa.” The “Portraits of the Insane” were some of the last paintings he completed before his untimely death at age 33. My favorite “Portrait of the Insane” is “Envy” because of the redness around the figure’s eyes and her slightly menacing expression. I was very happy to finally be able to see a painting in real life that I have admired for a long time.
Luckily, I remained safe traveling in France during the month of December. I did not run into any real problems, but unfortunately, there were many concerning situations that occurred in
December in France that effected travelers. The first problem was the protests by the “Gilet Jaune” or the Yellow Vests. The Yellow Vests consist of mostly lower-class workers. They were protesting a tax increase on gas implemented by President Macron. These tax increases while only slightly inconveniencing those from a higher economic class, were particularly difficult and ultimately the last straw for people with lower incomes. For example, the tax affects those living in the countryside more severely than those living in big cities because those living in the countryside must use vehicles to perform their farming jobs. The protests started out very calm. The Yellow Vests would only inconvenience drivers. However, after a week or two, the protests became more violent, but interestingly only in Paris. Unfortunately, the Paris protests got out of control. The protestors began burning cars, graffitied the Arc de Triumph and broke into shops and stole millions of dollars in merchandise from the designer stores on the Champs de l’Éylsées. It was unacceptable behavior and the Police were forced to take severe measures to counteract it like using tear gas. But what I would most like to focus on is how contained these protests were. Yes, the Champs de l’Éylsées was extremely dangerous during these protests, but the rest of Paris was doing just fine. I had a friend who was visiting Paris that weekend and she easily avoided dangerous situations simply by avoiding the contained violence in the center of the city. The media made it sound like all of France was in chaos, when it was only a small, albeit iconic, part of Paris that had descended into chaos. Throughout the rest of France the Yellow Vest protests continued just as they had before in a controlled manner. In fact, many French people will tell you that the people who destroyed the property in Paris that day were not even real Yellow Vest protestors and that they just used the Yellow Vests as an excuse to create chaos and cause destruction. It was very interesting to be in France during these protests to see how the French people deal with controversy. The experience helped me understand that the media does not always explain the entire truth of a situation.
The other major problem that occurred in France during December was the terrorist attack at the Strasbourg Christmas Market. I was shocked by the horrible news as I had just enjoyed wonderful trip to Strasbourg the week before the tragedy. It deeply saddened me that attacks such as this continue to happen. The problems in France, while horrific, have helped me learn even more about France including how well the French people deal with controversy and tragedy.