Saturday, August 20, 2011

Fort Cindey, Switzerland

I'm at a narrow pass about 60 miles from Geneva, Switzerland, 30 miles from Italy and the formidable Alps. Through the centuries there have been fortifications on this site. The only direct route between France and Italy passes through this narrow pass. I snapped this photo from Saint-Maurice Castle which has been guarding this pass since 1476. Note the train tracks (which pass through a tunnel), the highway, then that's the Rhone River on the other side of the trees and finally there's another road in the far right of the photo.

In the right of this photo is Saint-Maurice Castle. Right above it you see a cone-shaped structure-part of fortifications built in 1830. Just on the other side of the car is the Rhone River. Now, you can't see it but way above the cone-shaped structure is the entrance to Fort Cindey as well as Grotte aux Fees ("Cave of the Fairies").

Believe it or not, this small natural opening behind my bike is the entrance to Fort Cindey (built between 1940-1946 and housing 173 soldiers) and Cave of the Fairies. This limestone cave was first explored in 1831 and it runs for several miles in various directions including the big attraction: a 253 foot high underground waterfall--purportedly the world's highest waterfall in a natural cave. To the right of my bike is an outdoor restaurant. It's a good hike to get to this point as there is no road. The switchback dirt trail leading up here is a pain as every six feet you have to step up over a log. I mention this because I didn't feel safe leaving my bike unattended at the closed castle and ended up lugging it all the way up.

I specifically waited until a hot day in August (expected to reach 90 degrees) to visit the fort because I knew it will be very cold inside the mountain. The Cave of the Fairies is the lure here with the fort not very well advertised. Fort Cindey was decommisioned in 1995 and have guided tours only in the summer.

The tour starts at 10:30 AM and lasts two and a half hours. The guide talks to me in French and from what I understand he's saying the tour will be done in French. "No problem", I reply. Wow, nobody else shows up and it looks like it's just the two of us. We enter the cave and follow the dimly lit and wet trail for about a 100 yards. The guide then hangs a left and up these stairs where he unlocks a thick steel door (no sign signaling this is the entrance to Fort Cindey). After entering, the guide locks the door, holds up the key and places it into a vest pocket. He tells me in English "in emergency here's the key". Whoa, I've taken several of these below ground and inside-the-mountain tours of former military installations and never had the guide say this. Jeez, is he thinking he might have a heart attack or something else and I'd be trapped inside this fortress?

So, it turns out my guide does speak some English and it works out well between us. After closing the initial steel door we pass through two more steel doors which serve a purpose. If we had been outside and there was a gas attack we would need to stay in the chamber between the two steel doors for hours while the air is filtered clean.

The Swiss are known for their feats of engineering whether it be tunneling through mountains or building bridges over seemingly impossible terrain.

My guide, who I guess to be in his early 70's, used to be the chaplain at this fort before it was deactived in 1995. The reason he's in great shape probably has to do with him walking up and down the slippery corridors plus, he must have unlatched, opened, closed and latched at least 30 of the steel doors like the ones seen in this photo. The door he is about to open used to be the munitions storage room.

The munitions room. It now displays bazookas, grenade launchers, uniforms and other items. It's amazing how they dug into the mountain and then built the various rooms. There's an industrial-size kitchen as well as a 20 bed hospital and a 23,000 gallon water reservoir (a three month supply of water). How difficult it must have been to get cement, bricks, drilling equipment and so forth up here. Horses, mules or sleds couldn't get up that dirt trail I came up on.

Officers barracks. Two to a room with a sink.

Soldiers barracks. Four to a room and no sink. Soldiers slept in shifts.

Washing up and shaving area. There are showers.

This is one of the big guns. The fort was equipped with two 105 mm guns in individual casemates (range up to 15 miles), four 90 mm anti-tank cannons and five heavy machine guns with telescopic scopes. It took a crew of nine to operate one of the big guns.

This is a view out from one of several observation posts. The mirror lets the observer see the anti-tank/artillery cannon sticking out of the cliff face. Why? The gun crews can not see outside. The observer notes tanks or infantry approaching, then relays this info (via phone) to the command center deep inside the fort, the command center does the calculations and then calls up the cannon crew with the coordinates on where to point the cannon.

It's at the end of the tour that I learn about the hidden aerial cableway. This is how supplies and equipment were brought up. The cab seats four and there's a weight limit of 1,000 pounds. Since this is the most vulnerable part of the fort a massive 15 inch steel door closes this off. The guide lets me shut the door and it has to weigh several thousand pounds.

While in the fort I looked through the telescopic scope on one of the machine guns and could clearly see this canal and tank barriers in the distance. In this photo look in the middle and to the barren white cliff face to the left of the forest of trees. That's where the cannons are facing out. From that distance the machine gun could easily mow me down, firing a thousand rounds a minute!

Here's another view of tank barriers lined-up in rows. Why are they still there? Hey, you think it would be easy removing 'em?

At the end of the tour I was absolutely freezing as it must have been forty-something degrees inside. Of course I was wearing a winter jacket but my hands had almost become numb. I was in such a hurry to get back outside into the hot air that I passed on making my way in the cave to see the waterfall.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Chartres, France & Dijon, France

My bike and I hopped on a train in Paris and took the hour journey to Chartres (population 40,000). Why? To see the famous Chartres Cathedral.
It was drizzling upon disembarking from the train and right after snapping this photo it started pouring rain. The Gothic-style Chartres Cathedral was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1979. Besides having an impressive collection of stained glass windows you can readily see what else is unique--the mismatched spires.

The streets of Dijon (population 150,000) contrary to what you might have heard are not mustard colored. This photo shows Ducal Palace, formally known as the Palace of the Dukes and Estates of Burgundy. Built in the 17th and 18th centuries it now houses Dijon's city hall and a fine arts museum.

Half-timbered buildings abound in the old town area of Dijon.

It's market day and Dijon has a permanent building for many of the vendors.

It's at one of these stalls though where I experience Dijon's fame for food. A long line formed at one of the vendors and I found out why. It was thick slices of pork roast with stuffing (how they stuffed it into the roast is a mystery to me) with green beans and meat juice poured over--absolutely fantastic!

This grandmotherly-type is wooing visitors into a restaurant.

I normally stop at the local tourist office and pick up a brochure on sights to see in town. Usually though I pretty much see all by just cruising up and down streets with my bike. Near the outskirts of Dijon I came upon a walled-in compound with extensive grounds and a mixture of buildings. This wasn't on the list of places to visit. It turns out this was a monastery back in the late 14th century and in 1833 a mental asylum. Now, it's a pyschiatric hospital.

So, I'm cycling around the place and I pass a large courtyard with the building pictured above in the middle. I look inside and see a large well but, above the well are life-size stone figurines.

I've come across the Well of Moses. This monumental stone sculpture dates back to 1399. It consisted of a large crucifixion scene surrounded by the figures of six prophets (Moses, David, Jeremiah, Zachariah, Daniel and Isaiah).

This sculpture sat uncovered out in the open from 1399 until the 17th century. Then, evidently someone said, "hey, this thing is cracking and peeling from the elements--I think we should enclose it in a building".

This is Moses.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Chateau de Versailles

Probably the most famous palace in the world, the Palace of Versailles created a quandry for me. Do I attempt to visit this magnificent place in the middle of summer with hordes and hordes of other like minded visitors or do I resign myself to an exterior look-see on a Monday, when the place is closed but the grounds are open? Well, if you know me it's a no-brainer. Only ten miles from Paris, I'm there when the grounds open at 9AM. It's fantastic as there's hardly anybody around!
This picture was taken from the outer main gate toward the entrance to the palace. The guard said bicycles weren't allowed on the property so I had to lock it up outside the outer main gate.

This is the backside of the building. How big is this place? Over 700 rooms and 520,000 square feet of space. By comparison, the square footage of the White House is a measly 55,000 square feet.

Standing on steps near backside of the palace looking out over the grounds. Originally a small hunting lodge, King Louis XIV had Versailles built starting in 1661. It required 40,000 workers, who first had to clear 37,000 acres of swampy land (an area bigger than Manhattan). Think about that. The White House sits on 18 acres.

One of the palace wings. King Louis XIV moved the royal court from Paris to Versailles. This was the center of power in France for a hundred years.

Over 1,400 fountains are scattered around the property. Versailles has bragging rights to having the largest palace grounds in Europe.

Formal gardens.

Having visited hundreds of castles and palaces I've always wondered how they trim the trees and bushes on the grounds evenly. See that board with the hole in it? They place a circular board around the base of the tree and then put that board on top with the hole in it. The board is slanted and while one guy trims the other moves the board around. But, what's the purpose of the hole in the board? The tree trimmer laughed and said he added that because when it's really windy it was difficult to hold the board and now, the guy can put his hand through to steady the board.

Chateau Fontainebleau

Head 40 miles southeast of Paris and you'll find Fontainebleau a quiet town of 30,000 inhabitants. Smack in the middle of town stands the magnificent royal Chateau de Fontainebleau. The place is massive (over 1,500 rooms).
Started out as a small royal hunting lodge in 1100 and over the next 600 years was added on to by generations of monarchs.

This is a view of just one of the many courtyards.

View of the backside. The grounds are extensive (over 130 acres) .

Tried to capture the complex of structures in one photo. This was shot from one of the gardens. To me, Fonatinebleau is a more impressive than Versailles.

Patisserie Frederic Cassel stands on the main street running through Fontainebleau.

Excellent macarons. I'd rate them just as good as any I had in Paris. Mr. Cassel also has shops in Tokyo & Kyoto, Japan, Berlin and even Casablanca (Morocco). Website:

While in Paris I developed a craving for whatever that is below the sign that reads "framboisine". It is hard to describe. Sort of like taking two toast-like pieces that are crispy yet chewy, a bit gooey and putting raspberry jam between them. Some places sprinkle powdered sugar on top.

So here's the problem. I had a few of these what-ever-you-call-them in Paris and when I was at Frederic Cassels's place in Fontainebleau I bought one and put it in one of my bicycle saddlebags to eat later. Later, I eat it and it is far and away the BEST! The problem was, I neglected to take a photo of this goodie at Frederic Cassel and furthermore I had no idea what they are called. Returning to Paris I went to a boulangerie and snapped the above photo of what I thought were called "framboisine". I later google "framboisine" thinking it would show pictures of this goodie but, all I get are references to raspberry desserts.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte

It's an overcast day when I visit Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte but, there's nothing dreary about this spectacular place. Located 30 miles from Paris and built between 1658-1661 by Nicolas Fouquet, finance minister to King Louis XIV, it's the largest privately-owned home in France. It also served as the inspiration for a much more famous chateau to be built later by King Louis XIV; Chateau de Versailles.

I'm sure you've heard the unwritten rule that it's not good to show up your boss? Well, Nicolas Fouquet didn't heed the rule and it cost him dearly. When his home was completed Fouquet invited King Louis XIV over for a small fest. Well, having 6,000 guests isn't exactly a small fest. So, was the King impressed? You bet, as this place overshadowed the King's own palaces. Two weeks later Louis XIV had Fouquet thrown in prison where he remained until his death 17 years later.

Close-up of the front.

Gotta have a moat.

This is the backside of the main building. When this place was being built there were 18,000 workers onsite.

The gardens and grounds seem to go on forever.

The grounds extend a mile and a half into the distance. In fact, you can rent golf carts to traverse the grounds.

This is a waiting room.

Main library.

That's a portrait of Nicolas Fouquet on the wall.

The ceilings in the various rooms are spectacular.

Another ceiling.

One of the outer buildings houses a spiffy collection of horse carriages.

Only a sampling.