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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

A Medieval Village and the Altamira Caves are reason enough to visit this monastery

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

The monastery complex is composed of a Baroque 17th century church, cloister and convent (cells of the friars, refectory, chapter house and library).

In 1605, the Dominican friars of Santillana Del Mar were asked to settle in the hermitage. They accepted and became an independent monastery in 1611. The monastery complex is composed of a Baroque 17th century church, cloister and convent (cells of the friars, refectory, chapter house and library). The simple cloister is adorned with a fine collection of Baroque paintings, representing scenes from the life of Santa Domingo. Each of the six lateral chapels has a retablo dedicated to a saint.

Santillana del Mar is close to the monastery. Its inhabitants jokingly refer to it as the city of three lies: one, it isn’t saintly, two it isn’t flat (Llana means flat) and three, it isn’t by the sea. Despite its popularity and the fact that the city has become a tourist mecca, it is among the most perfectly preserved medieval villages in Spain. Santillana del Mar maintains an old-world atmosphere embodied by exquisite medieval buildings and cobbled streets. Its ensemble of 15th to 17th century golden stone mansions and palaces imbues the town with a distinctive character while offering a glimpse of the old country nobility of Spain. The houses are underscored by wooden galleries of iron balconies filled with flowers, their plain stone facades enlivened by coats of arms.

A short distance away are the Altamira Caves embellished with prehistoric rock paintings renowned for their beauty, vivid coloring and excellent state of preservation. Written application must be made months in advance to arrange a visit. The cave paintings were accidentally discovered by a hunter in 1869. Four years later, an archaeologist happened upon the underground chambers containing the paintings, most of which date to the late Magdalenian period, c. 15,000-10,000 BC. Often referred to as the Sistine Chapel of Cave Art, the ceiling of the chamber is emblazoned with animals. The caves’ most famous drawings are of bison. Predominantly painted in red, ocher, black and brown, the minerals used to create the paints were taken from the caves.

For more information go to: Monasteries of Spain