It was while staying in the village of Bize in southern France, that I came across the Abbaye Sainte-Marie de Fontfroide, a former Cistercian monastery that sits in the foothills of the Corbières, 15 kilometres south-west of Narbonne. There are many abbeys in France, but the Abbaye de Fontfroide at Bize is special, located as it is in the heart of the unspoiled Fontfroide Massif and nestled in the heart of a typically Mediterranean landscape.
This sumptuous 12th and 13th century Cistercian complex consists of large terraced gardens, a rose garden, a good restaurant and rooms to let. It also holds an annual orchid festival, and produces its own wine. What’s not to like about that?
Founded in 1093 by a few Benedictine monks, Fontfroide was linked in 1145 to the Cistercian order and quickly became one of the most powerful abbeys in Christianity, growing in status and power, due in no small part to having been gifted land by the Viscountess Ermengard of Narbonne. During the Crusade against the Albigensians, it asserted itself as a bastion of Catholic orthodoxy in the face of Catharism.
It seems it had a rocky history from then on under the ownership of three different families in the 14th and 15th centuries, with further depredations taking place in the 15th and 16th centuries when the commendatory abbots (ecclesiastics/laymen) took more and more of the income from the abbey to the point where it became increasingly poor. By the time of the French Revolution, it had to be abandoned.
Things seemed to be looking up when, in 1858, the monks from the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque in Gordes formed a new community at Fontfroide, but sadly, they were sent into exile in Spain in 1901 due to legal changes, and the monastery was once again abandoned.
But in 1908, fate stepped in again when French painter Gustave Fayet and his wife Madeleine Fayet purchased the abbey and began its restoration which is an on-going project. It is still privately owned and throughout each year there are festivals and artistic presentations, including the orchid festival already mentioned. The Abbey produces AOC Corbières wines and one can have lunch at their “La Table de Fonfroide” restaurant or café where the wines can be sampled and bought.
Truly, a place worth visiting.
Address: Route Départementale 613, 11100 Narbonne (in the Aude department)
I wondered whether to write about Bize or not because it is such a small village and not one that seems to attract many visitors. When I mention Bize, people usually say, ‘Do you mean Beziers’ (a town not very far away from Bize)?
With a population of approximately 1,000 it is well served by two bakers, two general stores, a post office, a hairdresser, a pharmacy, a wine cave, several restaurants and a couple of bars and a general market every Wednesday morning throughout the year. About a quarter of the houses are second homes, a fact I think that stands as a testament to its charms.
So why do I like it so much. I think it’s because despite being a village housing many second home owners, Bize-Minervois, to give it its full title, located on the banks of the Cesse in the middle of a mountain gorge surrounded by vineyards and olive trees, has retained its old world charm.
The old stone houses, some covered in ivy, their shutters brightly coloured and their decorative iron balconies draped with red and pink geraniums, green ferns and leafy plants, the old fashioned little shops and narrow cobbled alleys lends Bize a sleepy air. It should all feel a tad overdone, rusticity applied with a trowel, but somehow it doesn’t. It is also eerily quiet in the afternoon, which I love, and the street cats aren’t feral!
It doesn’t take long to walk through Bize but along the way you will be intrigued with the little jokes that the inhabitants have placed here and there. Sculptures of animals and some peculiar faces will peek out of walls and on corners but you’ll need to keep your eyes peeled to see them.
Apart from the hidden sculptures, things to look out for are Bize-Minervois’ ancient main gate, Porte Saint-Michel which dates from around the 8th century and which leads in turn to a small square where gardeners once sold their produce – the Place aux Herbes,
Two kilometres from Bize you will find L’Oubilo, my main reason for visiting when I’m in the area. For me this is olive heaven, a co-operative that sells the Rolls-Royce of table olives cultivated only in the Languedoc – the lucques. Lucques are not your usual olives, they are buttery, creamy, totally smooth and very moreish. I’ve never managed to find them in the UK.
L’Oubilo also does a good line in wines from their own vineyard. Tastings are always available and it will be hard to resist driving away without a couple of boxes of really great wines – and some olives of course and the by-products of the olive, tapenades and oils. If you are hiking or cycling you will just have to sample on the spot and maybe pack a bottle or two?
Cycling or driving, the most important sight-seeing spot in the area is the beautiful Abbaye Sainte-Marie de Fontfroidede which you can read about here. It is also a good spot for a midday snack, or a more substantial meal if needed, plus a glass or two of the wine produced by the Abbey.
For a day’s total relaxing, head for the wide, wide beach at Guissans, where the sand is soft, the swimming is good and there is a wonderful fresh seafood restaurant right on the beach.
And if it’s history you’re after then a visit to the Cathar village of Minerve, perched on a column of rock in the gorges of the river Cesse and one of the most beautiful villages in France, will deliver food for the mind and scenery to delight the eye.
Before you leave the area, be sure to drive or cycle down to La Somail on the Canal du Midi, relax by the waters while you watch the boats go by, nurse an aperitif while you peruse the menu before dining in the lovely L’O de la Bouche, a restaurant invariably full of locals.
One thing’s for sure, you won’t be short of options for spending time in this lovely area of France.
Excitement is high among fans of The Godfather trilogy, with the release of the newly re-mastered films, three movies that are Shakespearean in drama, operatic, and complex. As one of those fans I delved into my archives to search for photographs I took in Savoca, location of a few major scenes of The Godfather, and a reminder of one of those serendipitous moments that occur from time to time in one’s travels.
A shady spot at the Bar Vitelli
It was in Sicily, about 30 years ago, when we came across Savoca, a medieval village perched on a hill overlooking the Ionian coast. We had driven through the mountains from Taormina, stopping here and there to admire villages clinging to the sides of the mountains and blue seas far below on which floated toy boats. We pulled into Piazza Fossia, saw a parking place opposite a pleasant looking bar with terrace which meant we could sit outside rather than in the inky black interiors preferred by the Sicilians, and entered Bar Vitelli.
The Bar Vitelli
We ordered drinks, and the owner graciously waved me inside to see what else was available. What she really wanted me to see was her wall of photographs of the stars of The Godfather and various artifacts to do with the film. Most were of Marlon Brando – although he was never in Savoca for filming – Al Pacino, Simonetta Stefanelli, who played Apollonia in the film, and James Caan.
Then I made the connection. This was the small, cliff-side café where Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) sat with his two bodyguards (one of whom would later betray him) and drank wine. In fact, this small patio with the dappled sunlight playing on the tables, was the location of several scenes filmed over a six-week period during the shooting of the first Godfather movie.
Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) had fled New York City to escape both police and the Mafia and came to Sicily to take refuge. Out hunting one day, he saw a beautiful Sicilian girl and immediately fell in love with her.
Back room of Bar Vitelli with photographs and connections to The Godfather
The Bar Vitelli, as it is now, was actually the home of the beautiful young girl he’d seen, and it is here he asks the café owner for permission to court his daughter, the lovely Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli). A later scene, depicting a traditional Italian family Sunday dinner and a still later scene of the eventual outdoor wedding reception, was also staged on the terrace of the Bar Vitelli and in the tiny piazza in front.
La Signora watched me carefully and when she could see that I was suitably impressed with the display she sat me down and told me tales of what it was like when she had Pacino and Brando in her café. Of course, I knew that Brando had never been there but everyone’s allowed a little bit of licence and in that small village of less than 100 inhabitants, The Godfather had sprinkled a little bit of its magic on both the village and the Bar Vitelli.
La Signora sits outside Bar Vitelli.
Savoca owes it’s connection to Hollywood to the fact that Francis Ford Coppola thought that Corleone, a town near Palermo and the book’s setting for The Godfather, looked too modern for his vision of the Sicilian village from which the family came. After much searching throughout the island, he found two small villages untouched by modernisation for his locations, – Savoca and Forza d’Agro.
At the time we were there, few tourists visited this remote village so La Signora was happy to spend time talking to us and showing us some more pictures of the stars of The Godfather, plus some newspaper cuttings she’d collected.
Back room of Bar Vitelli
I never got back to Bar Vitelli but I saw a short film a while back that showed it looking exactly as it had been when I visited, and as it was in the film – right down to the bead curtain in the doorway. La Signora is no longer alive and the bar/restaurant is now successfully run by her descendants: Godfather tours (along with Montelbano tours) are now big business in Sicily, and Savoca is a port of call on the trail.
It was nice to know that it hadn’t been commercialised at all and that the stone-flagged walls covered in greenery and the terrace with vine covered pergolas, still offer shade to travellers, along with coffee granita, supposedly the favourite drink of both Pacino and Coppola when they were there.
When I watch the 3-hour long film again on March 26th, I will be carried back 30 years to when I sat on Al Pacino’s chair in Bar Vitelli and heard first-hand from la Signora that, although Pacino may have come from New York, he was molto Siciliano.
This was the prettiest house we saw in Savoca, and we were told it belonged to someone very important. I wonder who it belongs to today?
In Savoca, apart from Bar Vitelli, the nearby Church of San Nicola was used as a location for the wedding of Michael Corleone and Apollonia. The church is only a short walk from Bar Vitelli.
Bar Vitelli is housed in the 18th century Palazzo Trimarchi, located in the Piazza Fossia, the town’s main square, near the Town Hall.
The Godfatherrevolutionized film-making, saved Paramount Pictures from Bankruptcy, minted a new generation of movie stars, and made the author of the book, Mario Puzo, rich and famous. It is compelling, dramatic, and complex and it started a war between Hollywood and the high echelons of the Mob as the makers had to contend with the real-life members of the Mafia. Location permits were withdrawn without notice at inconvenient times, Al Ruddy’s car was found riddled with bullets, and ‘connected’ men insisted on being in the cast (some were given film roles, whether due to threats or talent nobody knows)!
This year Italy celebrates the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death, a genius born in Florence but whose remains now lie in Ravenna. The poet found Ravenna to be the ideal place to complete The Divine Comedy and as the home of his burial, the city has been preserving Dante’s memory for seven centuries since his death in 1321. How his bones came to be in that city of glorious mosaics is quite a story.
Although his name will be forever associated with Florence, the city of his birth, when he died in 1321 he had been an exile living outside that city for some 20 years. He had been exiled for life by the Florentines themselves after being on the losing side in a local fight for control of the city. Despite offers to return home, Dante defiantly refused to do so, regarding the terms as unjust.
Ravenna has the world’s most important Byzantine mosaics, a glittering jewel-box of 5th and 6th century art, described by Dante as being “of the sweet color of Oriental sapphires.”
He had been invited by Ravenna’s ruler to settle there and he had been a resident of the city for 3 years when he died, aged 56, already a major figure in the world of letters. He was buried outside the cloisters of the church of San Pier Maggiore (now the Basilica di San Francesco) in a Roman marble sarcophagus where it remained for the next 160 years as his reputation in Europe continued to grow.
It is said that it was the lectures in praise of Dante given by fellow poet Boccaccio (who followed Dante’s precedent and wrote in the vernacular instead of Latin) which caused the Florentines to re-think their loss, and seventy-five years after Dante’s death Florence made the first of many requests for the return of his body. Ravenna said no! In 1430 Florence tried again, and again in 1476, but got the same firm “No” as an answer. Meantime, the sarcophagus was moved to the other side of the cloister and a sculptor was commissioned to make a marble bas-relief of the poet at work.
Florence, now a very powerful city, took umbrage. It was 1513 and Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici had just became Pope Leo X giving the Medici family the ultimate authority in the Christian world. Using the most powerful weapon in his authority, he issued a Papal Decree and demanded the return of Dante’s remains. Ravenna ignored the Decree.
After this last attempt by Florence, Ravenna then moved the remains inside the cloisters for safe-keeping where they were guarded by the monks for another 150 years. We know from a note left by a friar named Antonio Santi that on October 18th, 1677, he put the remains into a wooden casket and it was recorded in 1692 that workers carrying out repairs on the sarcophagus were supervised by armed guards to make sure nothing was stolen.
Dante’s reputation continued to grow over the ensuing centuries and in the late 18th century Ravenna decided to give Dante a more imposing tomb, to which end they commissioned a local architect to erect a small neoclassical mausoleum. This was lined with marble and topped with a dome to house the original sarcophagus and 15th-century bas-relief: it was completed in 1781.
In 1805, a new threat appeared from France in the shape of Napoleon who had declared himself “Emperor of the French and King of Italy”. Ravenna fell under Napoleon’s rule and as his armies looted their way through religious orders up and down the region, the friars were forced to abandon their monastery. But first they made sure that the poet’s remains didn’t become war spoils. After less than 30 years in his new mausoleum Dante’s remains were gathered up and put back in the wooden chest in which they’d spent most of the 18th century and in 1810 they were hidden in a wall of the chapel. Then the friars fled, forgetting to tell anyone what they’d done or where to find the bones, so that right up to the middle of the 19th century, pilgrims continued to visit Ravenna to pay homage to the poet, not realizing that the mausoleum was empty.
There are many Via Dante Alighieri’s in Italy and many other countries too because, like Shakespeare, his work is universal. This street sign however, is in Ravenna, the city in which he choose to live.
The remains, hidden inside the wall, might have remained there had they not been discovered by a worker at the basilica in 1865. Of equal, if not more, importance, was the fact that someone spotted the note first put in the casket with the bones and labelled “Dantis ossa” (“Dante’s bones”). On examining the bones, doctors pronounced them to be the almost intact skeleton of an older man between 165-170 centimetres tall, and so they were accepted as the remains of one of the greatest writers of all time.
At last the bones, now in a heavy wooden casket lined with lead, could be placed in the mausoleum in Ravenna, the city that had opened its doors to the exile and where the poet wanted to be laid to rest.
But rest for Dante was still not possible because World War II was now raging over Europe. In 1944 Northern Italy was occupied by the Germans, and the Allies were bombing day and night. Once more the poet’s bones had to be moved: this time they were buried in the garden of the basilica, where they remained until hostilities ceased. Finally, on December 19th, 1945, Dante was taken back to his Ravenna mausoleum.
Florence has given up seeking the return of its famous son and in a gesture of friendship, the city sends local Tuscan olive oil each year to burn in the lamp that lights Dante’s mausoleum.
Although most scholars today regard the tales of King Arthur and his Round Table to be legendary more than historical, there are still locations that claim a link with Camelot, the place where Arthur held court and the supposed location of the famous Round Table.
Where was Camelot?
The top four claimants for this honour are Winchester with its round table dating from the 13th century, Tintagel Castle in Cornwall whose claim to the title rests on a 1,500-year-old piece of slate bearing two Latin inscriptions, Cadbury Castle in Somerset where the first reference to its connection was written down by John Leland in 1542 and Caerleon in Wales, one of three Roman legionary forts in Britain, chosen as Camelot by both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chretien de Troyes.
On purely subjective grounds I’m going for Caerleon. It’s a magical place and when I go there not only does the Arthurian legend seem less a fiction and more a fact of history, but the presence of the Roman Legion of 30,000 men that was stationed here in the 1st century BC is very palpable.
The top thing to do in Caerleon is to visit the Roman Baths, housed in an inconspicuous building that opens to reveal the remains of a Roman outdoor swimming pool and bath house. The ancient stone foundations that are on display give some idea of the original building but when you enter the enormous natatio (open air swimming pool), the basilica (indoor sports hall) and the frigidarium (cold baths) it all comes suddenly to life. Modern technology allows the projection of water onto the remains of the baths, complete with sounds and images of people swimming, and this is truly amazing: there is a short, informative, but humourous film to accompany this.
This was where the Roman Legionaries in first-century Wales would come to escape being shouted at by the Centurions or skirmishing with the local ancient Britons. Here, they could hang out with their friends in the immense open-air swimming pool that held more than 80,000 gallons of water, and after a swim they could play ball games, or gamble, have a massage and even buy fast-food snacks. The whole complex would have been much like a modern-day leisure centre/sauna, with a tepidarium (warm room) and caldarium (hot room).
Procedure before Swimming in Roman Baths
Before swimming the soldier would have had a bath in one of the lofty vaulted halls next to the swimming pool where he would strip, hand his clothes to one of the bathhouse slaves and enter the frigidarium (cold bath suite). After a cold dip he’d coat his body with perfumed oil and then visit the warm and hot suites in turn. In the last room, heated from wood-burning furnaces (you can look down and see the stacked pillars under the floor that allow heat to circulate) he’d scrape the oil and sweat from his body with a metal tool called a strigil, before finishing off with a final cold plunge.
Bathing was done naked but as mixed bathing was frowned on, women and children used the baths in the morning while the soldiers would use it in the afternoon. On some days though, prostitutes were allowed in and on these days mixed bathing took place.
Thanks to modern technology and film projection, you can see and hear the splash as a Roman soldier dives into the water, and you then see him swimming in the pool. Then watch as women enter the water and swim together.
Replica objects on display testify to the cleanliness of the Romans, tweezers, ear wax cleaner, toothpicks, nail files and body scrapers.
From baths to Amphitheatre
After the baths it’s outside to see the most complete Roman amphitheatre in Britain, built to entertain the legionnaires and keep them happy in their time off. Walk through the great north entrance to this huge arena build around AD 90 to seat up to 6,000 spectators, and imagine the din of those 6,000 people baying for blood.
This impressive amphitheatre was the Roman equivalent of today’s multiplex cinema or a massive sports stadium. Wooden benches with seating for up to 6,000, were provided for the spectators who would gather to watch bloodthirsty displays featuring gladiatorial combat and exotic wild animals.
Long after the Romans left the country, the amphitheatre took on a new life as the Camelot of Arthurian legend. Geoffrey of Monmouth, the 12th-century scholar, wrote in his History of the Kings of Britain that Arthur was crowned in Caerleon and that the amphitheatre was actually the remains of King Arthur’s Round Table.
I’m happy to go along with that because I think I saw Merlin flit across the grass one evening as dusk was descending. Of course it may have had something to do with the fact that I was listening to Richard Burton singing/speaking one of my favourite songs from the musical Camelot, Finale Ultimo. https://youtu.be/HmOhwkVFFQM
NB. The Caerleon Amphitheatre, which boasted eight vaulted entrances and a shrine to the goddess Nemesis, is the only fully excavated Roman amphitheatre in Great Britain. It was maintained until its abandonment in the 3rd century when the Second Augustan Roman Legion departed to protect what remained of the diminishing Roman Empire.
The Welsh Government is to be congratulated on this imaginative place and when I was there it was entirely FREE. I urge anyone who is in the area to visit it.
To read a full history of the place and to watch some excellent videos (including an aerial one of the amphitheatre) click on http://www.caerleon.net
And back in the 21st century, don’t miss the Sculpture Park in Caerleon town, a truly wondrous journey through myths and magic and the power of the artist.
I’m going with the very obvious here, orange is for oranges:
Moving on to Thailand and the orange-robed monks from that country. I have many Thai Buddhist friends and, when I’m there, they usually include me in any ceremonies that they are attending so I was highly honoured when I was allowed to serve the monks at one special occasion.
It’s been two years now and I can’t wait to return to the cities I love in Spain and Italy. Top of my list will be Seville from where it’s just a short trip by train to Cordoba. May 1922 free us from the fear of getting Covid and allow everyone to travel freely again.