When in the south of France, one of the things that I was told I “must-do” is to visit the Pyrénées, the 300-mile-long mountain range that separates France from Spain. Toulouse is a mere hour and a half by train from the mountains, making it even more of a crime that I lived there for five months before I finally made my way that far south.
The beautiful town of Ax-les-Thermes is nestled between Pyrénéen peaks and between the Ariège, the Oriège, and the Lauze rivers. Because of its optimal location next to the Ax 3 Domaines ski resort and its two-hour distance from Toulouse, this town is the perfect train destination for those looking for winter sports, especially if they don’t have cars!
I especially loved seeing the typically small, winding French streets and patisseries populated by people in ski boots and holding snowboards. Anybody not wearing snow pants (population: me) looked significantly out of place.
The Ax-3-domaines is accessed by télécabines (chairlifts with enclosed cabines, apparently called gondolas in English. I even learn English words while travelling in France!), since there was not yet snow down in Ax-les-Thermes. At the ski resort, I was able to rent skis and figure out how to put on ski boots, which I haven’t done in nearly a decade. Then, it was time to hit the ski slopes – at least for the first couple runs!
Heading off of the groomed trails (map of the trails here), we frequented the powder and forest trails, going where “no man had gone before” (at least that day) and seeing breathtaking views. As I alternated skiing and falling down the mountain (while I’m a fairly strong skier, I hadn’t skied for eight years. So, I went for the more cautious option of tumbling whenever I felt the pull of gravity…), I wanted to take pictures at every angle, but my stronger desire to keep skiing limited the number.
Ax-les-Thermes is so named for its hot springs and the architecture of the baths is loosely based on that of Romans. There are pools found outside all over the town at 77 – 102 °F (with warnings about risks of burning) but the Bains de Couloubret range in temperature from 90 – 101°F… the perfect temperature to soothe very sore muscles. Thankfully, I was warned to bring a swimsuit and could enjoy the final hour during which the baths were open, which is probably the only reason why I was able to walk the following day!
Dinner on the train was Moulis cheese and pain de campagne. A friend wisely notated that all the repas was missing was an excellent wine.
The next day, I landed in Boston for my first trip back the United States since August and I’m writing this post from southern Maine. I still can’t quite believe that, only 3 days ago, I was flying down the side of a mountain in the Pyrénées of beautiful southern France.
During the beginning of February, I visited and stayed in Paris for longer than I ever have before. This was due to a fortunate number of events that happened to coincide: Fulbright mid-year meeting (including a performance at the American Cathedral in Paris), lessons with Louis Robilliard and Thierry Escaich, and the inauguration weekend of the new organ at the Philharmonie de Paris. Since I was there…
The Fulbright mid-year meeting was full of presentations by scholars and students describing what they had learned and discovered by this point, halfway through their year abroad. Subjects ranged from nuclear fusion and alternative energy sources to linguistic study of Occitan and to teaching English to French students. While the two days were long, the extreme variety between topics of conversation, the friendliness of all participants, and the beauty of the venues made the time seem to fly.
For the first day of the mid-year meeting, our rendezvous took place at the George Marshall Center, which was built in the 18th century by architects of Louis XV and decorated accordingly. Owned by the Rothschild family through WWII, this headquarters for the Administration of the Marshall Plan for European Economic Recovery was purchased by the US State Department in 1950 and has been beautifully restored. Of course, part of the morning of this first day was taken up by tours with curators of the building.
The second day of meetings found us at the Hôtel de ville in the 4th arrondissement. Not to be confused with the English “hotel,” a French “hôtel de ville” takes care of municipal concerns and is the seat of Paris’ City Council. After the monarchical George Marshall Center, this post-revolution building proudly displays its “République française” heritage through the symbolism etched into its very walls.
R.F. = République française, in case you wondered who built the Hôtel!
Katie Minion and I presented a program of Bach, Dupré, Escaich, Langlais, Tournemire, and Widor on the organ at the American Cathedral in Paris for the Fulbright attendees and we were especially thrilled to be able to show them “backstage” and answer any questions about the organ that they might have. Even better – they had lots of questions and were extremely enthusiastic!
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I made a quick trip down to Lyon to meet the beautiful 1880 Cavaillé-Coll organ at St-François-des-Sales, have a lesson with Louis Robilliard, and to visit the beautiful sights. A mere seven hours were not nearly enough but I did manage to see Vieux Lyon, the cathedral, and the basilica! Perhaps the only disappointment was, although this is known as the gastronomic capital of France (which also is, arguably, known as the gastronomic capital of the world), my lesson finished too late for me to visit any restaurants and have local specialities… so, I had my first French burger! I also didn’t have a chance to photograph the organ. These are excellent excuses to go back…
The French have a love of Jules Verne, so much so that they have carousals on the theme of “Vingt mille lieues sous les mers” just about everywhere.
Farmers in support of free-range chicken were giving out free samples!
The organ in a side-aisle at the cathedral
Basilique de Fourvière: built in the late 19th century in a beautiful Romanesque/Gothic style with an extremely Byzantine accent.
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Of course, the Basilique is on the highest point of the hill!
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A small corner of Vieux Lyon
The weekend was full of events featuring the new Rieger organ of the Philharmonie de Paris. I’ve never seen so many Parisian organists in one place, especially since the Conservatoire de Paris decided to also hold a kind of alumni event celebrating the 20 years of Olivier Latry and Michel Bouvard’s “reign” over the organ program. I was lucky to have tickets to the inaugural concert, which featured Bernard Foucroulle, Philippe Lefebvre, Olivier Latry, and Wayne Marshall, but they were right below the pipes. Complementary earplugs were available at the entrance, and if that wouldn’t warn of what was in store, nothing would! The variety of performers showed much of the possibilities of this instrument, which was especially constructed to perform with orchestra. I wish I had had the opportunity to hear it do so, but I will have to wait for next time.
Thierry Escaich improvised accompaniment to the 1925 Rupert Julian film, Phantom of the Opera and displayed some of both his legendary rhythmic sense and motivic direction. Following the movie, Olivier Latry presented the organ to the many children in attendance. The audience was able to see the second console (mechanical) and follow Vicens Prats, one of the flutists of the Orchestre de Paris, into the organ case, where he and M. Latry explained and explored the instrument.
During the days in between these amazing events, I was able to be a bit of a tourist, finding the passages couverts, the oldest bakery in Paris (although the chocolate eclairs are quite overrated), some fantastic places for fresh oysters, the Sacre-Coeur Basilica, and simply wandering along the Seine. However, after these 12 days, I was ready for a vacation… although I arrived in Toulouse just in time for three lessons!
Back in September, I attended the American Guild of Organist’s European Chapter fall meeting in Ingelheim, Germany (this still feels ironic) and met one of two Skinner organs in Europe (the other resides in the Château de Candé, in France). Following the meeting, I was invited to return and give a recital on this instrument (1930, Op. 823) and on the 1853 Dreymann organ, both in the same Evangelische Saalkirche. Needless to say, I immediately accepted and had a wonderful time planning the program and, ultimately, returning to Ingelheim. I also took the opportunity to travel around southwest Germany, visiting a half dozen cities and about eleven organs, which I get to share with you in this post!
Besides the beautiful instruments and the generous German hospitality, what was most stunning about my experience in Ingelheim was the audience. Carsten and Iris Lenz, organists of the Saalkirche, have the publicity for their concert series down to a science. Even for their own concerts outside of their “home” church and “home” city (they are a wonderful organ duo!), they take it up on themselves to contact local newspapers to get the word out about the upcoming concert. Refusing to charge for tickets, which seems to frequently deter audience members, they take a freewill offering. Of course, this often makes far more money than ticket sales. Another excellent idea that they have, specifically at the Saalkirche, is to allow people to make “reservations,” which cost nothing but simply give Carston and Iris an idea of the number of attendees, and allow early reservers to select their seats. This seems to work quite well, as they had 160 registered and nearly 200 attended the concert, despite the weatherman predicting a terrible ice storm. There was also a “keg” made out of an ORGAN PIPE at the reception. Who wouldn’t want to come, with that as a draw?! (Click here to see the website for the concert series)
My program included a variety: Howells, Bridge, Bach, Schumann (the latter two on the Dreymann organ), Liszt, Langlais, and Ives. After playing mostly French and German mechanical organs for the last four months, it took a little time to re-acclimate myself to the curved pedalboard and the pistons, but the organ made it all seem easy and this first leg of my trip started all off extremely well.
Staying the night in Mainz, I travelled to Stuttgart the next day to see the near-legendary facilities and meet the professors. Little did I know, it was the Tag de Kirchemusik – essentially their “potential students” day! Not only was I able to see and play the instruments, I could sit in on lessons and some lectures and meet many of the excellent church musicians from Stuttgart and its environs.
Large organ in concert hall
Ahrend German baroque organ
French classical organ
Italian Baroque organ
I can affirm with pleasure that the facilities at Stuttgart are not exaggerated. Naturally, it’s not enough to simply have an “practice” organ here. It has to be in any of a dozen historical and national styles, so that the students can best acquaint themselves with how the play the repertoire. You can find information here, but I saw an Italian Baroque (Woehl), German Baroque (Ahrend), French Baroque (Elsässerin), a “Bach” organ (Silbermann- and Wender-inspired), French Symphonic (to mimic Cavaillé-Coll), and German Romantic (Walcker-inspired Schwäbin). One day wasn’t enough and I returned to Stuttgart a few days later to see the rest of the instruments and the two organs at the Domkirche St. Eberhard- a 1982 Albienz and a 2006 Winterhalter. Take a look at what the choir organ’s pipes are doing (upper right below) because Winterhalter put in the special “Mysterium Eberhardi” just for this church, giving choir members a laugh when the organist decides to pull out this stop!
The “big” organ
The choir organ’s “Mysterium Eberhardi”
I made a too-brief tourist visit of Mainz, where the windows of the Pfarrkirche Sankt Stephan are not to be missed. The beautiful space dates from the 13th century but the windows are only installed by Russian-Jewish artist Marc Chagall in the ’80s. The colors of the windows make the visitor feel as though they have gone underwater and one can do nothing but enjoy the quiet while contemplating the Old Testament scenes.
The Cathedral of Mainz is also a “must-see,” simply because of its size. Pictures simply can’t do it justice! Within the churches are fascinating descriptions of these spaces during and after the war, which are challenging to those not versed in German but give unique insights to reactions and aftermath of the turmoil of the last century, which so drastically shaped the Germany of today.
Walking along the Rhine, I was struck by the sheer beauty of this part of the country – even in the dead of January (and although it was over 40 degrees Fahrenheit). How amazing it is to visit these places I have only ever read out, to contemplate the river that played such large parts in Wagner operas, and to explore the streets, although much-changed, that Gutenberg walked.
The reconstructed “old-German” parts of Mainz
The reconstructed “old-German” parts of Mainz
The stunning Augustinerkirche organ
The stunning Augustinerkirche
Gutenburg’s church: St. Christoph. Completely destroyed in the war and now stands as a memorial.
For the final part of the trip, I headed out towards the Schwarzwald (the Black Forest), a mountain range covered with black-topped conifer trees an hour or so west of Stuttgart. While out “west,” I visited the organ of the Stadtkirche in Nagold, a new organ from 2012 which combines German and French pipes and styles into one instrument. The extensive computer system attached allows all sorts of exciting possibilities, like coupling not only at the octave, but at the fifth, 13th, or any pitch you can imagine!
Besides being able to practice here (the whole night), I was also able to attend the Stadtkirche’s Vesperkirche. What an experience! During the long, cold months of January and February, Germans have noticed how many families struggle to pay for heating. Churches take it upon themselves to, for two weeks each, offer coffee, warm meals, and cake to any who come – for just one euro or so, allowing families to use the money saved for their heating! This also gives everybody a few hours out of the cold and feeds not only the stomachs of the hungry by the spirits of those who are lonely. The more affluent visitors (from all walks of life) donate more (sometimes far more) than just one euro, in order to support the program. I can attest to how excellent the meal was but what was even more rewarding was the spirit in the room. Everybody was smiling, laughing, and enjoying meeting new people. Several hundred people come every day, from students between classes at school, to retirees and widows, and to people who are struggling to make ends meet. This is a huge community event, and everybody comes to support it. Find out more here!
Growing church: several years ago, the churches in the area created this church for summers, where baptisms, weddings, and services can be held. It is right next to a retirement home and brings joy to those residents while bringing all people together in an ecumenical service – outside!
As a few friends have mentioned that it seems like some of my trips seem larger-than-life, I have to share some travel stories. Neither air nor ground travel are without their challenges – during one trip from Stuttgart to Mainz (a 2-hour trek), the high-speed train suddenly stopped and stayed on random tracks in the German countryside for an hour and then proceeded to go fewer than 60km/h until we reached our next destination, which is quite slow when it normally was going about 260km/h! I arrived in Mainz around midnight, which was about 3 hours later than I should have. On the scale of travel malfunctions, this was quite minor, although it was a surprise considering the amount of pride Germans take in the timeliness of their trains!
Arriving in Toulouse I encountered another travel adventure. After landing at the Toulousain airport from Brussels at 23h20 and after going through passport control (since France’s borders are still closed), I discovered that the tram and the bus from the airport were both not working and all of the taxis were still on strike, as they had started the strike the day before. Being in Germany, I hadn’t know about the strike…
When I was told by the police that “there is no way into town” (as they stood by the four police vans), I began the 2-hour walk into town with my suitcase, planning to figure out how to bike with the suitcase bounding along behind me – once I reached the first city bike stand, a 45-minute walk way. I approached some Barcelonians who, upon learning of my plight, kindly drove me to the nearest metro, although it was very much out of their way, as they were staying in a hotel near the airport.
After realizing that the metro had closed for the night and there would be no train until 5h, I again began to walk, until I saw another car – this one with two people from the Basque region. While we joked about France’s penchant for strikes, they drove me all the way to my home in Toulouse. Shamelessly, I gave both good Samaritans my business card and invited them to either send me a bill for gas or come to a recital!
No trip is without its challenges and I was happy to be back in Toulouse – for a little over two days! I am sharing these stories with you from Paris, where I am having yet more adventures, which I can’t wait to tell you all about. However, with all of the travelling and visits, I think I may need a relaxing European vacation when all of this is over!