Eileen Barish

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Spend the night or a week at an ancient abbey considered one of the most beautiful Romanesque structures in France and bask in the beauty of the Midi Pyrenees and its lovely, inviting bastides.

Saturday, September 10th, 2011

The abbey-church was a popular stop for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela, in what is now Spain.

The abbey’s church is celebrated for its tympanum depicting the “Last Judgment.” It is embellished with 124 carved figures. There is also a gilded wood reliquary studded with precious stones that is one of the oldest statues of the Christian era.

Nearby Conques is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is among the very few sites in France that can boast such a grand heritage. Stroll through its city streets and take note of the fact that Conques is a place that seems to have traveled through time unchanged. A stop on the route to Santiago de Compostela, the allure of the village is highlighted by its Romanesque -style abbey church. The area encompassing the church is a picture postcard setting of slate-roofed, half-timbered houses.

Close to Conques, Rodez lies on a hill with wide horizons dominated by the late 13th century red sand stone Cathedrale Notre-Dame, an outstanding edifice of northern Gothic style crowned by a 240’ tower. The interior preserves a finely worked 15th century screen, a 16th century “Entombment” in polychrome stone and a double row of sculpted stalls. There is a sense of history in Rodez as seen in the town’s ancient quarter, now a pedestrian zone, retains its old world charm.

Among the main reasons to visit this part of France are the bastides. “new” towns built by feudal lords to attract settlers and soldiers in the 13th century. The bastides  are defined by a central marketplace bordered by arcaded houses, an adjacent church and checkerboard streets. More than three hundred bastides are strewn in an enchanting galaxy across the entire southwestern part of France.  Of special note, no two are alike, yet all share the same basic grid design; a central market and market square with a network of streets and lanes radiating out in perfect symmetry.

The bastide Villefrance-de-Rouergue is a landscape of architectural charm, old world sensibility and charm. A regimented alignment of roofs, narrow lanes, a central arcaded square and a church form the heart of the village. A fortified town, it was founded in 1252 by Alphonse de Poitiers, brother of King Louis IX. The ancient core is overshadowed by the stalwart bulk of Cathedrale Notre-Dame. Built in southern Gothic style, the church is marked by a massive 15th century belfry. The Penitents Noirs Chapel has a gilded wooded altarpiece and 15th century choir stalls.

Montauban is one of the finest and earliest bastides. Built of pink bricks by the Count of Toulouse, it traces its founding to 1144. Also a fortified village, excellent examples of the golden age of the 13th century are obvious in its place Nationale and bishop’s palace, now the Musee Ingres.

Fans of the Bronte sisters, poet Sylvia Plath and artist David Hockney can stay in a Georgian Retreat House and visit the nearby towns where these artisans are immortalized.

Friday, July 29th, 2011

Set in rural Warwickshire and standing beside a historic 14th century church, the Retreat House is embraced by its own gardens that overlook the verdant countryside. Close by, the village of Morley was formerly the site of quarries, now a wildlife reserve. The village’s main attraction is the Parish Church of St. Mathew  where some of the finest displays of medieval stained glass windows in the country can be admired. Much of the glass came from Dale Abbey at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The church boasts a Norman nave while the tower, chancel and north chapel date to the late 14th and early 15th century.

HE story of the Brontes is one of the saddest in the annals of literature. They were the children of a father who was both cold and violent, and of a gentle, sickly mother, early lost. They were reared amid surroundings the most gloomy and unhealthful, and cursed as they grew older with a brother who brought them shame and sorrow in return for the love they lavished upon him.

Bronte aficionados will want to visit nearby Haworth, famous for its connections with the famous sisters who lived at Haworth Parsonage and wrote some of their most famous novels including Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Now the Bronte Parsonage Museum, the rooms are meticulously furnished as they were in the Bronte era and include many personal treasures. Evoking the Bronte sisters’ novels are a number of local walks such as Bronte Falls and Bronte Bridge.

In early morning of 11 February 1963, Plath took her own life. She placed her head in a gas oven after completely sealing the rooms between herself and her children. She left a note for the man who lived downstairs, Trevor Thomas, to call her doctor. However, rather than rising, the gas seeped through the floor and knocked Mr Thomas out cold for several hours. An au pair girl was to arrive at nine o'clock that morning to help Plath with the care of her children. Arriving promptly at 9, the au pair could not get into the flat. It has been suggested that Plath's timing & planning of this suicide attempt was too precise, too coincidental, not to be "serious" or intended. She had previously asked Mr Thomas what time he would be leaving. Plath must have turned the gas on at a time when Mr Thomas should have been waking & beginning his day. A note was placed that read "Call Dr Horder" and left his phone number. These measures were too time-sensitive and could have saved Plath's life if events followed her suggested logic.

In the interesting mill town of Hebden Bridge, the houses hang precariously from the steep valley sides. An ancient town, it grew up close to the River Hebden at the point where a stone bridge was built as part of a packhorse route in the 16th century. Heptonstall, above the town shows its antiquity in narrow cobbled streets lined with 500-year old cottages and the ruins of a 13th century church. It is the churchyard though that attracts visitors and the place where the poet Sylvia Plath is buried.

At nearby Hebden Water is an area known as the “crags,” an arena of footpaths encompassing a medley of natural and archaeological history, passing through dense woodland alive with oak, ash, beech and pine trees. In springtime, these lofty trees spread their branches over a carpet of vibrant, gently nodding bluebells. Gibson Mill offers hands-on exhibits and provides insight into the lives of the people who toiled at the mill for up to 72 hours a week, often for very little reward.

Another interesting side trip can include Saltaire, a perfectly preserved village of honey-colored cottages that originated as an answer to Bradford’s “dark, satanic mills.” Now recognized as a World Heritage Site, the former Salt Mill has been transformed into an art gallery and houses works of the famous Bradford born artist David Hockney. The village is also home to a historic gem, the United Reform Church, a Victorian structure and an exquisite example of Italianate religious architecture.

For more information, visit: Monasteries of Britain

Experience the authentic character of the Ligurian Coast when you stay at this monastery in the Cinque Terre.

Sunday, January 9th, 2011

Vernazza, one of the towns, boasts a spectacular bay.

Built by locals seeking shelter on the mountains, far from the coast and the Lombard invasions, the monastery is enveloped by a Ligurian landscape of steep, wooded hills and archetypical lush hillside terraces.

The Cinque Terre (Five Lands) are extraordinarily scenic seaside villages which look today as they did thousands of years ago. Built into the mountainside, the fishing villages cling to a rocky coastline, on cliffs that drop precipitously into the sea. The Cinque Terre forms a natural park of sublime beauty (cars are banned from the towns). An ancient footpath known as the Sentiero Azzurro, offers breathtaking views. The trail traces the coast along a narrow, vertiginous path through vineyards and olive groves that link one village to another.

Vernazza, one of the towns, boasts a spectacular bay; its setting highlighted by a seaside promenade and piazza. Green-shuttered houses line the streets that are connected by steep stairways A walk down the hillside reveals quaint stone bridges, grape vines, sepia-toned houses with sloping slate roofs and terraced gardens filled with fragrant lemon trees.

Close by is the seaside town of Portovenere, at the end of the rocky slopes of the Gulf of Spezia. A romantic village of narrow streets and richly colored row houses, the marina bobs with toylike fishing boats, its church of black and white banded marble presenting a handsome contrast to the blue sea. The English poet Byron once lived in town and often spent time in a cave named Arpaia. Portovenere faces the island of Palmaria, an intriguing locale of grottoes and sea stacks.

For more information go to: MONASTERIESOFITALY.com