June 1, 2011

A Chance to Travel: European Coastal Civilizations

By Joseph A. Woods

The first offering of SLD’s Travel Program for 2012 is to be in April: “European Coastal Civilizations,” a cruise on M.V. Le Boréal beginning in Lisbon and ending in Normandy. A pre-boarding extension in Lisbon and a post-debarkation extension in France are available. Trip arrangements are by Thomas P. Gohagan & Company of Chicago. Personal arrangements for coordinated longer stops in Lisbon or Paris can be made through Gohagan. See page 14. 

It would be sad to be in a great city such as Lisbon and use it only as a port of departure. The pre-cruise election would give you a taste of Lisbon that could well lure you back someday for a longer stay.

In a field on a starry night centuries ago, a countryman found bones, destined to be proclaimed those of James, one of Jesus’s 12 disciples. Thus, Santiago de Compostela, which became the major objective of pilgrimages in Medieval Europe. You will follow the trail of embedded brass scallop shells, emblematic of St. James, to the majestic gothic cathedral in Plaza de Obradoiro. More than 500 years ago, other pilgrims to Santiago thought they should have proper quarters for their visit there. Just to your left as you face the cathedral, they established some fit for royalty, for that they were: Ferdinand and Isabella. Now, Hostel de los Reyes Católicos, your quarters for lunch the day you visit Santiago.

In Bilbao, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum rivals the opera house in Sydney as a soaring, thoroughly modern cathedral of another sort. Virginia and I were staying in Biarritz and drove to Bilbao for the day expressly to see Gehry’s building. A bonus was that some of the clay soldiers from the then recent excavations at Xian were on display. We spent most of our limited time marveling at Gehry’s masterpiece and the remainder viewing the works displayed there. So, we never actually visited the rest of Bilbao, as you will, but Gehry was more than enough to make the drive worthwhile.

Approaching St.-Malo, note the massive shoreline fortifications, designed (or, at least, reconfigured) by Vauban, the illustrious military engineer who served Louie XIV. Near St.-Malo, Mont-Ste.-Michel is an island rising some 250 feet from the sea, separated from the mainland by the sea and by salt marshes. (The marshes provide forage for sheep. If you are so fortunate as to encounter the resulting agneau pré salé on a menu, try it; you’ll like it.)

Historically, the island could be reached by land only at low tide. Now, you will approach the place on a causeway. Mont-Ste.-Michel soaring before you is an incomparable site. And beyond the seemingly inevitable gamut of imminently forgettable souvenir shops is the 11th-century abbey—austere, inspiring, and surely not forgettable.

The abbey’s design is Romanesque. William the Conqueror brought this style with him in 1066 to Britain, where it is known as Norman. If you have visited Durham Cathedral or the Chapel of St. John in the Tower of London, you know Norman; and if you know Norman, you’ll see at Mont-Ste.-Michel that you know Romanesque.

Honfleur is a picturesque Norman village on the River Seine, most noted as a venue for Impressionist painters such as Boudin, Monet, Sisley, Turner, and Whistler. Once, though, it was a major seaport, the harbor serving Paris, and in 1604 the departure point for Champlain on his voyage that took him up the St. Lawrence River to the founding of Quèbec. Now Le Havre, farther downstream, serves Paris, and Le Vieux Bassin at Honfleur is a marina for personal craft, surrounded by charming houses. You can form your own impressions of what so engaged the Impressionists.

Slightly removed from the harbor is Eglise de Ste.- Catherine, one of the world’s largest wooden buildings. When the carpenters of Honfleur set about building the church, they knew nothing of roofs of the size and complexity their church required. What they did understand was how to build ships. So they laid a keel, built a hull, and turned it upside down. You can see it now as the ceiling of Ste.-Catherine.

Debarkation from M.V. Le Boréal is to be at Honfleur. For those not electing the Paris extension, it is only a place to move from the ship to airport transportation and the flight home. The Paris extension includes a tour of Honfleur as well as a brief stay in Paris. 

Joseph A. Woods, of counsel to Donahue Gallagher Woods in Oakland, California, is a former chair of the Fellows of the American Bar Foundation.