Europe

European Travel and Photography Ideas

Epiphany House Blessing – a Catholic Tradition

Austria Village Door with Epiphany House Blessing
Austria Village Door with Epiphany House Blessing

Austria Village Door with Epiphany House Blessing

While visiting Austria and Germany in August of 2014, I noticed curious chalk markings, seen in the photo above, on many buildings in the small villages we passed through.  Given the prominence of churches in these villages, I immediately assumed the writing had a religious significance, but knew little else.  As it turns out the practice is a Catholic tradition called an Epiphany house blessing, with the numbers and letters having a specific meaning centered around the current year.

20 + C + M + B +14

The 20 and 14 represent the year in which the blessing occurred, 2014, while CMB apparently has two different meanings. In one interpretation, they represent the names of the three magi (kings or wise men), in the Biblical Gospel of Matthew that visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. In the second interpretation they are an abbreviation of the Latin wordsChristus mansionem benedicat, “May Christ bless the house.”

Austria Village Door with Epiphany House Blessing

Austria Village Door with Epiphany House Blessing

The marking tradition generally happens during the Feast of the Epiphany holiday, which occurs on January 6th each year.

 

Best Preserved French Star Forts

Star Fort Illustration

The star fort was a type of military fortification that emerged in western Europe during the late Middle Ages.  It was the military engineers response to a century of improvements in cannon technology during the 13th and 14th centuries that rendered the medieval castle obsolete.  The star fort included lower, thicker sloping walls that limited the effectiveness of artillery. Also, the angular shape of the fort, the ravelins that surrounded it, and the deep trench-works in between made approaching the fortress, and using its walls as a shelter against defensive fire, difficult for attacking armies.

Many of the forts found in France today can trace their origins directly or indirectly from the work of Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban. During his career as an military engineer (1667-1707) Vauban was responsible for building or upgrading the defensive fortifications of nearly 300 cities and military installations. These upgrades played a crucial role in conflicts such as the Thirty Years’ War and the Franco-Spanish War, when France engaged the Spanish and Austrian Hapsburg Empire, Britain, Sweden and other smaller rivals in battle across Western Europe.

They were also a symbol of how the nature of warfare had rapidly changed between the medieval period, and the Renaissance.

Fort de Bellegarde

Bellegarde is one of several fortifications built over the centuries to control movement of people and goods through the Col du Perthus (Perthus Pass) in the Pyrennes Mountains between France and Spain. The first historical record of the region originate from the passage of the Carthaginian general Hannibal and his army through the eastern Pyrenees in 218 B.C. Since then the fortifications of Bellegarde have changed in a variety of ways, with the star fort visitors see today, commissioned in 1679 by Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, a military planner of King Louis XIV of France.

Google Maps: Find it
Youtube: History of Perthus Pass and Fort Bellegarde

Citadel of Besançon

The strategic value, location and natural defensive features of Besancon, close to the Swiss border, and at the base of the Alps, were first noted by Julius Cesar during hist conquest of Gaul in the 1st century. Since that time, fortifications of various kinds have been built on the site. Construction of the current fort began in 1668, under the direction of the Spanish crown, and over the course of its creation passed between the French and Spanish Kingdoms several times. The primary designer of what is seen today, was Vauban, who built over the course of his life time many France’s star forts. Given its prominence high above the town of Besancon, the elaborateness of its design, and its superb condition, the citadel is considered one of the finest surviving examples of a Renaissance Bastion Fort in France. Nearly a quarter of a million people visit annually.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Photo Tour

Fortress of Salses (Forteresse de Salses)

Like Bellegarde, the Fortress of Salses was built to control a strategic north-south passage and strategic choke point between modern France’s Mediterranean coastline and the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains. The original fort was built between 1497-1502 by the Spanish King Ferdinand II to defend against French invasions of Spain. It was the scene of three battles during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), the result of which was a triumphant French army. But the conflict to control Salses also served to blunt any further advances of France into Spanish territory in this region. By the signing of the Peace of the Pyrenees in 1659, the fort had lost much of its relevance, and the current border of Spain and France was largely settled.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour
Official Website: Forteressee de Salses

Fort Carré

Fort Carre, located on the Mediterranean coast in the south of France, dates back to as early as 1553, when a defensive tower was added to the site of an existing chapel. The building of the tower and the bastion fort that soon followed in 1565 were part of a larger project by King Francis I and his heir Henry II to improve Frances defenses in Provence, and monitor the Duchy of Savoy, its rival to east. It was after the improvements commissioned by Henry II that the fort took on the star-shape common to many forts and walled cities in the era. Future improvements were added by the military engineer Vauban, who would later build Neuf-Brisach.

The fort saw conflict twice in its long history. During 1591 it was taken briefly by the Duchy of Savoy, before the French reconquered Provence. And in 1746/47 it was attacked from the Mediterranean by British and Austrian warships, but never taken.

The fort is also notable for the temporary imprisonment of Napolean Bonparte within its walls, and as part of the James Bond movie – Never Say Never Again.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour

Fort de Joux

While not a star fort in the purest sense, Fort de Joux is like many other fortifications of the time, a combination of the old and the new. Its history begins in the 12th century when the lords of Joux transferred an existing wooden fortification into one of stone. From there, over the centuries improvements were added onto the central castle, including by the famed Renaissance military engineer Vauban. The changes reflected the changing role of the castle, from a stronghold of feudal lords, to a border fort to protect France from its neighbors. For a time it even served as part of the Maginot line, the protective line of fortifications the French in vainly developed after World War I (WWI) to defend against another German invasion.

Today the fort sits on the border between France and Switzerland above the town of La Cluse-et-Mijoux.

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Youtube: Aerial Flyby

Fort des Têtes

The site upon which Fort des Tetes sits was first surveyed for its strategic value,  by Vauban in 1700. It wasn’t until 1721 that construction of a permanent fort began, under the direction of two of Vauban’s successors. The fort overlooks the valley of the Durance river, and allowed the French to defend Briançon  and the high valleys of Fontenil and Fontchristiane that surrounded it. The fort was part of the Fortified Sector of Dauphiné, a section of the Maginot Line that bordered Italy after WWI.  The French were able to defend against a series of Italian attacks up until 1940, after which Italian forces occupied Southeastern France.

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Photo Gallery

Neuf-Brisach

Neuf-Brisach (New Brisach) was built after the loss of “old” Brisach to the Holy Roman Empire following the Treaty of Ryswick which ended the War of the League of Augsburg in 1697. Neuf-Brisach was envisioned by Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, a famous military engineer during the period as both the ideal French city as well as a ultimate defense against future attacks from German territory, which lay just a few miles away on the other side of the Rhine River. Neuf-Brisach offers a classic example of the star fort serving both a military and civilian purposes.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour

Villefranche-de-Conflent

Villefranche-de-Conflent was founded in 1096 by Guillaume-Raymond, Count of Cerdanya, in part for its strategic location in a narrow pass through the Pyrenees Mountains. Offering an impediment to invading Arab armies from Spain, the town was quickly fortified, and has remained that way ever since.  As its position between two of Europe’s two great powers might suggest, Villefranche-de-Conflent has seen its share of conflict and upheaval. Multiple times over the centuries France and Spain traded control over the Pyrennes, with the last instance occurring during the Franco-Spanish War of 1793, in which Spain occupied the town briefly.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour
Website of Interest: http://villefranchedeconflent-tourisme.blogspot.fr/

Further Reading Suggestions:

Most Beautiful Fortified Cities of Europe

Cittadella-Italy

Ávila, Spain

Avila Walled City - Spain

Avila Walled City – Spain / Pelayo

Known in pre-Roman times as Obila (“High Mountain”), this provincial capital in north-central Spain has been the site of numerous fortified settlements throughout history. Occupants have included the Vettones, Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, and ultimately the Spanish. The city is most famous for its imposing medieval city wall that is fully intact and includes 88 towers, and 9 gates spread around a parameter of 1 1/2 miles. While visitors can’t make a complete circuit of the wall, much of it is accessible.

The interior of the walled city is occupied by numerous palaces, monasteries and mansions dating from primarily the 15th and 16th centuries. Some of the most notable landmarks include the Plaza Mercado Chico, the Cathedral of Avila, and the Royal Palace of St. Tomas

Avila, is 1-2 hours from Madrid, depending on whether you are traveling by car or train.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour
Avila Tourism: Official Website

 

 

Carcassonne, France

Carcasssonne, France

Carcasssonne, France / Jplavoie

Like Avila, Carcassonne has a long history of settlement. The Romans saw early on, both its strategic and economic value. Perched on a hill, the location of the city offers a natural defense against approaching invaders, and given its location  at the base of the Pyrenees in southeast France, Carcassonne stood for centuries at the center of natural overland trade routes between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean, and the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe. Its current double-walled fortification with 52 towers, reflects the gradual buildup that took place over a millennia, as the Romans, Visigoths, Saracens, and Crusaders each repaired and added onto what came before.

Carcassone’s long and proud history is one well understood by its residents, who in 1849 strongly protested the French government’s plans to demolish its historic fortifications. The protest not only stopped the destruction, but also set in motion a series of repairs to the city’s historical architecture by the architects – Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, Paul Boeswillwald, and Nodet.

Notable buildings within Carcassone’s medieval walls include the Château Comta and Basilique Saint-Nazaire, a 12th century castle and Basilica built by Raimond-Bernard Trencavel, viscount of Albi and Nîmes, The castle has a notable history as a stronghold of the Occitan Cathars, and a focal point of the Albigensian Crusade called by Pope Innocent III to crush their religious movement.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour 

San Gimignano, Italy

Piazza Cisterna San Gimignano

Piazza Cisterna San Gimignano / Chris Wee

The tower house architecture that San Gimignano is famous for, offers a unique glimpse into a specific period of Italy’s past that has been lost in much of the rest of the country. During the 12th to 14th centuries, two rival factions the Guelphs and Ghibellines jockeyed for power, one group supporting the Holy Roman Emperor, the other the Pope.  While direct conflict between the Emperor and Pope ceased early on, the rivalry between the two groups continued for centuries. This is in part because they really represented two different power centers of Italian society, the Ghibellines were tied to the nobility that owned large tracts of agricultural land, while the Guelphs were wealthy merchants that dominated the larger cities.

The tower house represented both the paranoia and fear that existed during the era, as well as the prestige the population assigned to them. The larger the tower you constructed, the more prestige you were assigned. And so over the centuries the towers increased in height in a perpetual game of one-upmanship. In San Gimignano the highest known tower was more than 230 feet tall. Of the 70 towers that once graced San Gimignano’s skyline, 14 now remain. The tallest is 177 ft.

By the time the 15th century arrives, the political and social environment of Italy changed so radically that the lines of distinct between the two groups disappear, and their rivalry fades into history.

San Gimignano is situated between Milan and Rome in the province of Siena. Florence is a couple of hours by train to the north east.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour

Mont Saint Michel, France

Mont St Michel Brittany France

Mont St Michel, France / Diliff

While initially occupied by remnants of Romanized Gauls in the 6th century, Mont Saint Michel has been known for much of its history as a Roman Catholic commune. The first monastic community came to the island in the 8th century, with much of what visitors see today, in particular the Mont Saint Michel Abbey, constructed in the 11th and 12th centuries by William de Volpiano, and Robert de Thorigny.

After the 12th century, which many see as the height of the communes’ power and prosperity, there was a steady decline, particularly during the Reformation, to the point the very few monks remained on the island. By the time of the French Revolution (1789-1799), the island had been relegated to a prison. It wasn’t for nearly a hundred years after this, that the historical significance of the island was recognized and the prison closed. And the return of religious practices too the abbey has been slow. The first occurrences were in 1920’s, with some monks returning, starting in the 1960’s. Today monks in residence at the site remain sporadic at best.

With perhaps 40 full time residents, Mont Saint Michel is one of France’s most popular tourist destinations, with over 3 million visitors per year.

Situated off the shores of Normandy, travel time to Mont St. Michel from Paris is about 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 hours depending on your mode of transport.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Minceta Tower -Dubrovnik-Croatia

Minceta Tower – Dubrovnik-Croatia / Diego Delso

If there is a city that symbolizes the triumphant of the human spirit over adversity, Dubrovnik would be it. From its very founding, which many believe occurred as result of refugees fleeing the attack of Slavic barbarians on the nearby city of Epidaurus during the Roman era, Dubrovnik has had to deal with changing rulers and warfare, as well as natural and man-made calamities that leveled the city on more than one occasion. First came the Ostrogoths, then the Byzantines, the Crusaders, the Venetians, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Ottomans, Napolean, and the Hapsburgs. Then to cap it all off, came the upheaval that defined the Balkins before and after WWII, which only served to aggravate long standing ethnic conflicts that would boil over at the end of the 20th century.

The fortified wall that encircles Dubrovink’s historic center, and the varying ages of the buildings within it, give one a glimpse of its past fortunes and turmoil. Even today if one reaches a point high enough to overlook the city, one can see color variations in the city’s tiled rooftops that hint at the shelling the city underwent during the Bosnian War (1992-1995), and the repairs that have been made since.

Despite its tumultuous history, Dubrovink has managed to preserve its historic beauty, and is now a favorite stop of cruise ships in the Mediterranean.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour

Cittadella, Italy

Cittadella-Italy

Cittadella-Italy / Kromatika

Cittadella is a medieval walled city, in the Italian province of Padua that dates back to 1220. Its creation was largely the result of increasing conflicts with neighboring cities like Treviso and Vicenza. Ultimately, the city state of Venice grew to dominate and control much of the region during most of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This was followed briefly occupations by Napoleon, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the city became part of what is now modern Italy.

Today, much of Cittadella’s nearly one mile long defensive wall is intact. Only a portion destroyed in the 16th century Cambrai war remains to be restored. The standing wall includes 4 gates and 32 towers.

Significant buildings within the walls include the Casa del Capitano (Captain’s House), the Tower of Malta, Praetorian Palace and the Cittadella Cathedral.

Citadella is approximately one hour away from Venice, and 2 1/2 hours from Milan.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour

Neuf Brisach, France

Neuf-Brisach, France / Luftfahrer

Neuf-Brisach, France

Neuf-Brisach is an example of a new style of fortified town that grew in popularity in Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries. Known as star forts, or bastion forts, the new defensive fortifications they exhibit were developed to help defend against the emergence of the canon as a dominate feature of warfare. Instead of the high vertical walls and rounded towers of their predecessor, the medieval castle, star forts incorporated shortened, thicker sloping walls that could deflect canon fire. The star-shaped form the forts incorporated, along with the trench works that typically surrounded the outer wall, made it difficult for approaching armies to find shelter from defensive fire, or use the forts own walls as protective cover.

The first use of these defensive techniques in battle was at Pisa, Italy in 1500. As the defensive advantage of star forts proved themselves in subsequent battles, the concept spread throughout Western Europe, with their designs growing more elaborate over the centuries. Eventually star forts would appear in other parts of the world, including as far away as Goryōkaku, Japan.

Today a number of star fort remain in countries like Italy, France, Spain and Portugal. Some like Neuf-Brisach and Naarden (Netherlands) enclosed small towns, while others like Nossa Senhora da Graça Fort outside of Elvas, Portugal were purely military forts.

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Youtube: Walking Tour

Montagnana, Italy

Montagnana shares a common history with the neighboring city of Cittadella noted above. Its well-preserved fortified walls reflect the turbulence that was common in the Po Valley during the Middle Ages. Its two kilometer long wall, with 24 towers is considered the best preserved in the region. For much of its early history, it fell under the control of the lords of Padua.  By the 14th century the Republic of Venice grew to dominate the region, and controlled it through the rest of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. This was followed briefly by Napoleon and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, before the emergence of the modern state of Italy.

Buildings of interest within the walled city include the Castle of San Zeno, and Montagnana’s historic Cathedral

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour

Noerdlingen, Germany

Noerdlingen, Germany

Noerdlingen, Germany / Daniel

Archaeological evidence suggests that Noerdlingen was first inhabited in the late Paleolithic. Much of what visitors see today, including the city’s intact medieval fortifications, originated after the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II decreed the city imperial property under his exclusive control.  This protected status, along with Noerdlingen’s location at the center of major German trade routes allowed the city to prosper for a time. However in the late Middle Ages, Noerdlingen found itself at the center of one of the major battles of the Thirty Years’ War. The Battle of Noerdlingen (1634) as it was known, led to the defeat of the Swedish Protestants holding the city, and victory for the Imperial Hapsburg army. The battle and siege that proceeded it, not only led the French to enter the conflict, but also caused the death of nearly half the city’s population – primarily from disease and starvation.  It wouldn’t be until the 19th century that the city would again reach a population equal to what it had in the 16th century.

One of the other affects of the Thirty Years’ War was the shift of trade away from this part of Germany, and closer to the coast. This fall into obscurity and irrelevance, has been credited as a major reason Noerdlingen’s medieval infrastructure survived into the modern era.

Important buildings within the walled city include: St. George’s Church, the Lion and Powder Towers, Loepsinger Gate, and the Old Bastion

Another interesting characteristic of Noerdlingen, unknown to its early inhabitants, was its location at the bottom of a 15 million year old meteorite impact crater.

Today Noerdlingen lies almost equidistant from three major German cities (Stuttgart, Nuremberg, and Munich) in the province of Bavaria. A train ride from any of the three takes a little over 1 1/2 hours.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour

 

Further Reading Suggestions: