So, my friends, raise your hands -- how many of you have ever heard of or ever been to Poitou-Charentes? Myself, I had never heard of this region, on the Atlantic coast of France. But, a couple months ago, the tourism bureau of Poitou-Charentes invited me to join a small group of American journalists to experience the region's glorious culture, food and history stretching all the way to the Roman Empire.
If you hear a hint of Gallic in my Russian accent today, it's because of the two weeks I traveled in France, having returned only 24 hours ago. If I simply read a list of all the cities, museums, churches and hotels I visited on this trip, it would take all the time allotted for Art Talk. That's why I want to mention just a few highlights -- and I hope that you will go to the KCRW website to see all the photos I snapped during the trip. We started in the medieval city of Angoulême, perched on a hill above the Charente River. The big surprise for me was to discover dozens of centuries-old buildings decorated with modern frescoes in comic strip style by various famous cartoonists. Also, it was great fun to find a number of rather informal exhibitions of contemporary photography (part of Emoi Photographique 2015) spread all over the city.
I am not a big drinker, but as they say -- "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." So, when we were invited to visit the Courvoisier Chateau museum in the city of Jarnac to learn about the meticulous process of creating their world-famous Cognac, I went along for the ride. Our hostess brought us to their historic dusty cellar, where we first smelled the aroma of this divine spirit. And then, of course, we were offered a taste of reserve Courvoisier. It's not something that I usually do in the middle of the afternoon, but this was a special occasion, so I allowed myself to break the rules.
When I learned that we were planning to spend a whole day on the tiny Island of Aix, which is only 3 kilometers long and 600 meters wide, and has only 200 inhabitants, I wondered, "What are we going to do there?" It turned out to be the biggest surprise of the whole trip. The island has three small, charming museums, one of them devoted to Napoleon, who spent his last days on French soil there before his final exile to St. Helena. The only way to travel on the island is by bicycle, and the views are simply breathtaking. We watched The Hermione, a perfect replica of the 18th century frigate that carried General Lafayette to America to help the American rebels in their fight for independence. The "new" Hermione is now on its journey to America, retracing its grand voyage in 1780.
Back on the mainland, in the city of Sainte, we stopped to marvel at the ancient ruins of the immense Gallo-Roman Amphitheatre, where gladiators fought to the death in front of 15,000 spectators. Of all the cities we visited, the fortified port city of La Rochelle struck me as the most picturesque. Its impressive medieval towers still stand guard as boats entering the city pass between them.
And at night, wandering through the heart of the city, I marveled at the particularly inventive and theatrical way many historical buildings were lit, using bold colors as a sort of dramatic, sexy makeup on their facades.
The last day of our tour of Poitou-Charentes brought us to the city of Poitiers, another treasure-trove of French culture and architecture. In its major museum, Musée Sainte-Croix, I found a small, extremely appealing collection of photographs and artworks telling the story of Camille Claudel, the famous student and mistress of Auguste Rodin. Strolling through this museum, I was surprised by the rather bold and adventurous presentation of its collections -- something many major museums could learn from.
Though I passed by many churches in Poitiers, my intuition told me to stop at the Church of St. Radegund, which dates back to the 11th century. Here, I found beautiful, well preserved medieval frescoes decorating the walls and ceiling, and also covering each and every column in the most ornate, festive patterns. This accidental discovery proved to me that in my six days in Poitou-Charentes, I hardly scratched the surface of what this region of France offers to adventurous travelers.
Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, click here.