Hikari33 Project


We have had our Via Lucis images used for many things in the past few years – we got a cover for a French magazine, a feature in a high-end fashion publication, academic books and journals, posters and exhibitions. We recently got a request from my long-time friend Harushi Tetsuka for something completely new – custom photo displays.

Harushi has developed a project called Hikari33, which features Limited Edition artworks by prominent artists printed on satin metal surface and mounted on weathered candle-lit display stands.

Harushi is an artist who I worked with for many years and he has always been the consummate craftsman. It is no wonder that his current project shows the hallmarks of his life’s work.

The Key Steps for crafting the HIKARI33 Candle Stands

Take a few minutes to look at the link provided and help out with his Kickstarter project. You can see a selection of five of our images that are available at this time.

A Catalan Master for the Ages (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I love the Pyrénées mountains, and especially the eastern portion straddling France and Catalonia. While staying the town of Prades, we had an interesting experience. Despite having been there before, we found ourselves in a new place – Occitanie, or in Catalan Occitània. This is one of the new administrative regions in France since September 28, 2016 with a name derived from areas that showed a historic use of the Occitan language. We didn’t think too much about this until we went to a Catalan dance festival in town. During the introductions, the compère made a disparaging comment – “This is Catalonia,” he said, and followed that statement with a disdainful gesture behind him, “Occitània is somewhere back there!” all to great applause from the audience.

On this trip we visited the marvelous Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute in Les Cluse, a small early Catalan church perched on the Col du Perthus, the last Pyrénéean pass between France and Spain. In the distance, one can see Vauban’s Fort de Bellegarde that once guarded the frontier. The church, located in La Cluse-Haute, was probably constructed in the 10th century and remodeled in the 11th, 12th and 14th centuries. The exterior of the church is simple and unadorned, with a 14th century bell-tower. An interesting vestige of the porch still exists in the form of the stone arch standing separated from the church itself. The portal itself is of white Céret marble.

Western façade and clocher, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The small interior consists of a central nave and two side aisles. The relatively massive piers support the round arches from which springs the barrel vault across the nave. The side aisles have half-barrel vaults supporting the nave arches and relieving the lateral pressure of the barrel vault. There are no transepts or a crossing tower.

Nave, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The tiny oven-vaulted apse is flanked by two small echeloned chapels, communicated to by means of the narrow passages on the side of the apse. One can see in the photograph how the scale of the apse is so small and delicate compared to the sturdy piers and arches around it.

Apse from north side aisle, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

But small though it may be, the glory of the church is in that smal apse. There are some fragments of frescoes dating from the twelfth century which are in the same hand as those of famous frescoes of nearby San Martin de Fenollar.

Apse with frescoes, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

In the center of the apse we see a Christ in Majesty accompanied by the symbols of the alpha and the omega. The works of the Maitre de Fenollar must have been astonishing at the time of their creation, but they have continued to fascinate and have actually change the courses of modern art. In June 1906 Picasso stayed ten weeks in the small town of Gósol and had his first intensive exposure to Catalan art. In 1911 Picasso and Braque spent time in Fenollar and Les Cluses studying the works, transfixed by the expressive power and dynamic use of color. Later many other artists made their pilgrimage to this area – Miro, Gris, Derain, and Dufy – and all walked away genuflecting at the altar of the distant Catalan genius.

Christ Panocrator, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Just to the right of the Christ is a wonderful figure of an angel. I think that the way the wings and the cloak follow the curve of the vault is simply brilliant in inspiration and execution. I have the same dumbfounded reaction to this as I did when I saw the “Temptation” capital at Plaimpied.

Angel, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

If there is any doubt that the work of the Catalan artists had an effect on Pablo Picasso, we only have to look at his work from the periods of his stay in the area and how it differed from the Blue and Pink periods that preceded it. In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon see the same naive, schematic construction of the faces that we see in Les Cluses and Saint Martin de Fenollar, and even some of the same technical details, like the use of white accents around the eyes and other features. And it may just be my imagination, but the standing figure on the far right seems to be a mirror of the angel at Les Cluses.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Pablo Picasso (1907)

But we don’t need Picasso, Miro, Braque or Dufy to appreciate the Maitre de Fenollar. His work stands among the finest of medieval painting, hidden in the smallest church in the most remote of villages in the Pyrénées.

Location: 42.482277° 2.843190°

Two Churches in the Cliffs (Dennis Aubrey)


The last four churches we have chronicled – the cathedrals of Embrun, Sisteron, Digne-les-Bains and Senez – have all been isolated and somewhat forlorn. They are tucked away in the extreme north of the popular Provence but off the beaten path. The next churches, are quite different. The town of Moustiers-Saite-Marie is near the famous Gorges du Verdon, one of the deepest and most beautiful river canyons in Europe, popular with cyclists, serious kayak enthusiasts and hikers. Moustiers itself is a popular little medieval tourist town, built on the face of a limestone cliff, and filled with boutique shops and ateliers. Part of its picturesque nature is created by a spring-fed waterfall that flows through the center of town.

In the center of the village is the church Notre Dame-de-l’Asspomtion, surrounded by restaurants and shops filled with faïence and other pottery. Tourists wander in, walk down the eight steps into the nave, stand in the center of the church, take a quick look around, flash a photo with a smartphone and quickly leave. But the church is worth much more than just a cursory glance.

Originally founded as a monastery in the 5th century, the monks were driven away by the Saracens and did not return until the 11th century. The church was rebuilt in the 12th century, and in 1336 the commendatory prior, Cardinal Pierre de Pratis (also known as Pierre Desprès), began rebuilding yet again. He only completed the choir before he died, which explains the extreme angle of the axis of the choir to the nave, inclining to the south. His plan was to rebuild the entire church at a slightly different angle, but the project was never completed, leaving us with the result that we see today.

The nave is actually quite long, five bays topped with an ogive barrel vault. As we quite often see in this area, the engaged columns rise up to support the bands of the vault.

Nave, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Pierre Desprès’ Gothic apse has a very unusual feature – a flat chevet with an ambulatory. It is also covered with a rib vault instead of the barrel vault.

Apse, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

The altar is a re-purposed fourth-century white marble sarcophagus representing the passage of the Red Sea.

Altar, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The ambulatory is one of the most interesting features of the church, although these might be more accurately called extended side aisles since the two sides do not meet at the rear of the apse.

Ambulatory, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

The church is wedged in among the surrounding buildings, but the glorious Lombard-style clocher is still easily visible. The tower is constructed in five levels. The top three levels consist of twin bays adorned with Lombard bands, the fourth level is a blind enclosure and the fifth and bottom, added in the 17th century, is an imposing buttress. The buttressing was added as additional support because the oscillations caused by the ringing of the bells threatened the stability of the clocher.

South facade with clocher, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is a second Romanesque church in Moustiers, the Chapelle Notre Dame de Beauvoir, high up on the cliff that can be reached by a stone stairway of 262 steps (at one time this was 365 steps!). This chapel was built on the site of a 5th century Marian shrine, known prior to the 15th century as Notre-Dame de la Roche or Notre Dame d’Entre-Roches. There is a tradition that the first church was constructed by Charlemagne as fulfillment of a vow and then subsequently rebuilt in the 12th century. Notre Dame de Beauvoir was known for its suscitations – stillborn children were carried up and baptised there, at which time they would immediately come to life and would be granted a place in heaven. This was a well-known phenomenon in the region and also known at two neighboring churches.

Chapelle Notre Dame de Beauvoir, Moustiers-Sainte-Marie (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence ) Photo by ICE-Marseille, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

I must conclude this narrative with a paean to our luncheon at La Treille Muscat right on the square of the church. PJ and I both had a first course of Poulpes en salad, cebettes, tomates et un peu de gingembre pour corser, émulsion de Yusu, a salad with octopus flavored with ginger and Yuzu emulsion. PJ, who never ate octopus before this trip, said it was the best salad she has ever had in her life. I would list all of the other courses that we had, but would sound like we have been too powerfully influenced by our dear friend Covetotop who we met the week prior to this meal!

Location: 43.847250° 6.222402°

Two Forgotten Cathedrals – Digne and Senez (Dennis Aubrey)


Today’s post is on two of the forgotten cathedrals of the Haute-Provence, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg in Digne-les-Bains and Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption in Senez. Both Digne and Senez lost their episcopal standing at the French Revolution, like so many other dioceses in the region. In fact, while we were shooting in this region of the Haute-Provence, we noted an abundance of former cathedrals. In what was known as the Province of Embrun (Alpes Maritimæ) there were cathedrals in Embrun, Digne, Glandèves, Grasse, Nice, Senez, and Vence. In the adjacent province of Aix (Narbonensis Secunda) there were cathedrals in Aix, Apt, Fréjus, Gap, Riez, and Sisteron.

They must all have administered to limited populations. Vence had a total of sixteen parishes, and when combined into one see with neighboring Grasse, they mustered only twenty-five together. Compare this to the diocese of Chartres which numbered 1,338 parishes. The reason for all these bishoprics in the area, so near each other, is because of a singularity – these correspond with the political divisions of the Romans, the civitates.

Digne’s Notre-Dame-du-Bourg suffered an earlier indignity. At the end of the 14th century, the population of Digne moved to higher ground to defend itself against attacks and they built a new church there, the Église Saint-Jérôme. In 1591, the Huguenot leader Lesdiguières (referred to in our article on Embrun) pillaged Notre-Dame-du-Bourg and the see was transferred to Saint-Jérôme in 1591. Now outside the walls, the Église Notre-Dame-du-Bourg was virtually abandoned and served as a necropolis. It was only in 1962 that she regained her status as co-cathedral with Saint-Jérôme.

Exterior from west, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

Of the two cathedrals, Notre-Dame-du-Bourg is by far more interesting to us. The first church was built in the 4th century around a baptistery, Notre-Dame de Consolation, and expanded a century later with a large church. The structure of the current church was built on this footprint in the 13th century and consecrated in 1330, and – except for a recent authentic restoration – has remained relatively unchanged.

When we arrived, the church was locked but the crypt, the former necropolis, was open as a museum for the archaeological digs that have been ongoing for a century. We talked to the two women who worked there and asked if there was a possibility of photographing inside the church. After some discussion, the senior staffer made a call and then told us to follow her. She unlocked the front door and let me in to the small vestry, which was separated from the church by a glass door. She said that I could photograph from that spot. She must have seen my disappointment because after about five minutes she opened the glass door from the inside and said that we could shoot inside “for a few minutes”. I told her that we would normally spend a minimum of two to three hours in a building like this, but she shook her head. She could only leave her colleague unsupervised for a few minutes.

Western portal, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

In the time allotted we took as many photos as we could manage. Notre-Dame-du-Bourg is basically a long hall church (164 feet) with a nave, no side aisles, and large blind arcades framing windows on the south. It is covered with a fine banded ogive barrel vault. There are two transepts with echeloned chapels in the east wall of each transept.

Nave, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The nave elevation shows the blind arcade leading to the cornice which hides the springing of the vault. Like her sister cathedral in Sisteron, Notre-Dame-du-Bourg has engaged columns topped by simple capitals that support the bands of the nave vault.

Nave from south transept, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

The apse has a flat chevet pierced with three windows and is covered with a barrel vault. Above the crossing on the apse wall is a small oculus. The three windows are by the Canadian artist David Rabinowitch and were part of a 1998 ensemble replacing all of the windows in the church.

Apse, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

In the crypt, there is a Merovingian autel-cippe (funerary altar) dating from the 5th or 6th century on a mosaic platform that was preserved from the first church.

Autel paléochrétien et mosaïque (Source: Routard.com)

The superb 15th century fresco on the south wall represents the Last Judgment. The representation is quite complex, beginning with the top left that shows Christ in mandorla passing judgment. The top row shows the Seven Virtues – Humility, Liberality, Chastity, Patience, Charity, Abstinance, and Diligence. The second row shows the corresponding Seven Deadly Sins – Pride, Avarice, Lust, Anger, Envy, Gluttony, and Sloth. The bottom row shows the punishments in hell for each of the deadly sins above.

On the north wall of the nave is another century fresco of the Annunciation that we unfortunately did not have time to photograph.

Nave frescoes, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In discussing these small, remote cathedral towns, some mention must be made of Senez. Elise Whitlock Rose, one of my favorite observers of medieval cathedrals, wrote about this small village. “The hot sun of Provence, which ‘drinks a river as man drinks a glass of wine,’ shone on the long white route nationale that stretched out in well-kept monotony through a valley which might well have been named ‘Desolation.’ On either hand rose mountains that were great masses of bare, seared rocks, showing the ravages of forgotten glaciers; the soil that once covered them lay at their feet. Scarcely a shrub pushed out from the crevices, and even along the road, the few thin poplars found the poorest of nourishment.

Crossing a small bridge, there came into view an ancient village, a mere handful of clustered wooden roofs, irregular, broken, and decayed.

‘It was a city in the days when we were Romans,’ said the Courier, ‘and they say that there are treasures underneath our soil.'”

Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Senez (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence), Photo by Vida Hunt Francis (1906)

PJ and I wended our way down the same route nationale (albeit paved) and through the same unchanged bare, seared rocks, and crossed the same little bridge into what was probably the same little village with possibly the same chickens poking about the square. A young boy went by kicking a soccer ball and scattering the chickens. I hailed him and asked if it were possible to visit the locked church. He took me to a notice posted on a side door and pointed to a name, saying that this woman had the key, but she was not available right now. We would have to come back another day. He went down the small street kicking his ball and we were left in the quiet square in front of the ancien cathédrale. We would not shoot there this year, but will have to come back to Senez some other time. I think the patient Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption – and the chickens – will wait for us.

Note about the windows: One of the reasons that the we regret not being allowed more time to photograph at Notre-Dame du Bourg is that we could not photograph the stained glass windows by David Rabinowitch. Here is a wonderful article (in French) on these windows. The photographs alone are worth a perusal

Location: Digne 44.097253° 6.242990°
Senez 43.913174° 6.406927°

The Mountain Cathedral of Embrun (Dennis Aubrey)


The cathedral town of Embrun has long been a strategic site. It marks the start of the ascent to the Alpine passes and runs along the swift rushing waters of the Durance River. This was likely the route that Hannibal took when he invaded Italy in 218 BC. After the Roman conquest of Gaul, Eburodunum was a strategic trans-Alpine link from Spain and Gaul to Rome, being the key stop on the road from Arles to Briançon.

Embrun was a very early Christian site as well. Marcellinus of Gaul was named the first bishop of Embrun in 354. He built the first cathedral there, but it was destroyed in the invasion of 575 by the Lombards who came through the Montgenèvre Pass and debouched into the Durance Valley (now filled with the Lac de Serre-Ponçon just below Embrun). A new cathedral was built from 810 to 826 with help from Charlemagne, but in 916 the Saracens ransacked and destroyed the city and cathedral, and killed both the archbishop of Embrun and the bishop of Maurienne. The ruined cathedral was restored in the early 11th century and was finally rebuilt in its current form between 1170 and 1251. The Notre Dame du Réal that we see today is a transitional church alternating between Romanesque and Gothic forms.

Transitional though it may be, the cathedral is magnificent. The high vaulting and arches are composed of alternating white limestone and black shale. The vaulting is Gothic, but the nave arches are pure ogive Romanesque. The nave is large, about 170 feet long and 75 feet wide including the two sizeable side aisles. The western wall has a large Gothic-style rose window illuminating this open space. On the left we can see the large organ built in 1464 by Pierre Marchand. This was likely the gift of the Dauphin, the future Louis XI, and is the oldest working organ in France.

Nave, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The superb open choir has a large iron grate protecting it, a gift from Louis XI, the “Universal Spider”. The name was derived from the words of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, who contended with Louis until his death at the Battle of Nancy. During that fatal battle he is reported to have cried out, “I struggle against a spider who is everywhere at once”. Louis was very devout, and on one occasion when he was very sick, he promised to gift a silver altar grate to the famous Virgin of Embrun. When he recovered, he changed it to an iron grate so that it would not tempt thieves to profane her altar with a mortal sin!

Apse from side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by PJ McKey

The south side aisle terminates in an ornate chapel. But of special interest are the four windows rising up toward the choir. These are stairs within the wall rising up to the stone choir loft visible behind the altar.

South side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The north side aisle columns show the remnants of 16th century frescoes on the massive nave piers.

North side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by PJ McKey

Of interest to antiquarians is the north portal, called the Réal. Until 1585 there was a 13th century fresco painted on the stone tympanum representing Notre Dame d’Embrun, also known as La Vierge des Trois Rois because Mary was receiving homage from the Magi. This black madonna was the object of a celebrated pilgrimage until it was destroyed by the Huguenots under Lesdiguières. It is said that Louis XI, who had been the Dauphin and ruler of the province, venerated the Madonna especially and wore a leaden image of her in his hat.

The north portal itself is the finest decoration of the cathedral. The fine columns supporting the archivolts are composed of marbles of different colors. The Lombardic porch features the same alternating limestone and shale stonework as the interior, while the rose and white columns of the porch are supported by a pair of stone lions. Years ago, there was a horseshoe nailed to this great wooden door, supposedly thrown by Lesdiguières’ horse as he was preparing to ride it into the church. The loss of this shoe is reputed by local legend to have saved the church from desecration, although it could not save the fresco of La Vierge des Trois Rois.

North porch, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Against the portal wall are a pair of interesting (and exhausted) atalantes supporting the rear porch columns.

Atlante on north portal, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by PJ McKey

In the south side aisle the Chapelle Notre Dame features a mosaic recalling this famous fresco, but the Virgin is no longer represented as black.

Chapelle Notre Dame, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The cathedral of Embrun was our last major shoot for the 2017 trip and it was worth every hour. Louis XI, who has dominated our short history of the cathedral, has the last word. On his deathbed, his final words were to the Virgin of Embrun, Nôtre Dame d’Embrun, ma bonne maîtress, ayez pitié de moi.

Location: 44.562322° 6.495066°

Cagots; the Despised – Amuse Bouche #40 (Dennis Aubrey)


” … cannibal, heretic, and delivered unto all vices.”

The people thus described in the Middle Ages were of no specific ethnicity or religious affiliation. They spoke the same language as their neighbors and practiced the same religion. But they were treated as inferior, stigmatized, and segregated. They had their own doors to churches, their own fonts, and when receiving communion, the wafer was thrown to them, or, if the sacrament was being administered by a sympathetic priest, on a wooden spoon.

Cagot font, Église de Saint-Savin-en-Lavedan, Saint Savin (Hautes-Pyrénées) Photo by PJ McKey

Thee were the cagots, common throughout the Pyrénées, and they were despised. They lived in their own segregated communities, the cagoteries, were restricted to certain trades, were not allowed to marry non-cagots, enter taverns, hold cabarets, use public fountains, sell food or wine, touch food in the market, work with livestock, or enter a mill. They could only marry within the cagot community. Even to the 20th century they were required to wear a special badge featuring the foot of a goose or duck.

Mark of the cagot

These were “untouchables” in western culture and their segregation in a caste system persisted even into the 20th century. There are theories that the cagots were descended from lepers or cretins, that they were remnants of the Saracen armies that intermarried with locals in the 9th century, or even that they were members of a fallen medieval guild of carpenters.

But the truth is that the cagots – these “pestiferous people” – are a mystery, gone from history except for a few remaining descendants and the physical remnants in the local churches.

Postscript – PJ has made a very interesting observation in the figure on the font in Oloron-Sainte-Marie. It appears that his lips are disfigured, as in a herpes-type malady. There are two variants of the virus; one affects the genitals and the other the lips and is thought to be hereditary. Herpes is highly contagious in skin-to-skin contact, which might explain many of the prohibitions. Also, when the virus is contracted, that person is infected for life. Herpes was certainly known at the time; it appeared in Central and Eastern Europe in the 5th century.

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Detail of Cagot font, Église de Saint-Savin-en-Lavedan, Saint Savin (Hautes-Pyrénées) Photo by PJ McKey

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

Celebration in Chiomonte (Dennis Aubrey)


We are often traveling in Europe at the time of my birthday and every year that happens, PJ asks where I would like to celebrate. Usually it will be the Pont de l’Ouysse in the Dordogne or the Crispol in Vézelay, but this year I wanted to do something different. In 2015 when we went to Italy, we stopped halfway just on the Italian side of the Alps to stay at the Affittacamere Al Cantoun, a small hotel with a restaurant in the mountain town of Chiomonte, not far from Susa. We liked it so much that we stayed again on our return trip so that we could sample the wonderful cuisine of Paolo Aiello. So when PJ asked, this time I opted for a two-day stay in Chiomonte which we reached after a three hour run from Sisteron in the Provence through the Alpine passes. We stopped on the way to shoot the magnificent Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal in Embrun.

We arrived in Chiomonte and parked in a square across town after we determined that our car would not fit through the arch that led to the church parking lot we normally park in. As we hauled our baggage into the hotel courtyard we found Stefano, who runs the Afficamare, sitting at table with his parents Fernande and Gaspare.

Affittacamere Al Cantoun, Chiomonte

Stefano greeted us in English, which was a bonus. On our last visit, we spoke almost no Italian (and what I know comes from innumerable viewings of the Godfather trilogy) and what we did speak was cruelly corrupted with pidgin Spanish. The family spoke no English and we stumbled from one language to another trying to find a common tongue.

We had a lovely dinner that night, of course, with a bottle of the local Chiomonte wine to accompany. Paolo came out to talk and in the course of conversation I mentioned that we did not see his fabulous torre di polenta con funghi, a fabulous dish with alternating layers of polenta, wild mushrooms and a rich cream sauce. He apologised and said that was a spring dish when the mushrooms were readily available. He asked if we would like it for my birthday; he thought he could get fresh mushrooms the next day. I greedily replied to the affirmative.

The following day was my birthday and when we went down to breakfast, Stefano asked if we would like to shoot a church in a small village on the other side of the valley. PJ and I were eager to do so and we set a time. When we arrived at 2pm, Stefano, Paolo and their father were there to accompany us in the small car. We could see the church, just a few hundred yards away across the steep valley, but it took about 15 minutes to drive there. Stefano, used to driving in the area and knowing the secret protocols, drove much faster than I would have dared. It was possible he was trying to give me a thrill, because I have a fear of heights. We arrived in Ramats in good shape, though, and were met by a family friend, Giorgio, who opened the church for us. Giorgio made it easier to communicate because he spoke French (he has cousins on the “other side of the mountains”, meaning France).

Paolo, Giorgio, Gaspare, PJ, and Stefano

The church, the Chiesa Sant’ Andrea a Ramats, is mostly 15th century with a Romanesque apse. Unprepossessing on the exterior, it possesses vibrantly colored frescoes.

Nave, Cappella Sant’ Andrea a Ramats, Chiomonte (Piemonte) Photo by PJ McKey

There is some damage done to the 15th century frescoes, but for the most part they are in good condition, covering the vault, rear wall and sides of the apse.

Apse, Cappella Sant’ Andrea a Ramats, Chiomonte (Piemonte) Photo by PJ McKey

It astonished us to find frescoes like this in a tiny village perched on the side of a mountain in the Alps. This ensemble was created by an anonymous artist dubbed by art historians as the “Master of Cognet and Ramats”, referring to the frescoes at the nearby Cappella di Notre Dame del Coignet. The frescoes feature a fine annunciation on the apsidal arch and the life of Saint Anthony in the apse itself.

Apse frescoes, Cappella Sant’ Andrea a Ramats, Chiomonte (Piemonte) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We had a great time photographing the small church in Ramats, but then it was time to go home to get ready for my birthday dinner. And dinner did not disappoint! Not only did we have torre di polenta con funghi made with porcini mushrooms, but I had the boar stew, which was marvelous. After dinner, there was a fuss in the kitchen and then the entire family emerged with a birthday cake!

Birthday cake at Ristorante Al Cantoun, Chiomonte (Piedmont)

This cap to this perfect birthday was going to the town square to watch the final of the Champions League between Real Madrid and Juventus. We were torn in loyalties, because we are Real fans, but Juventus is in nearby Turin and we are big fans of their goalie, Gianluigi Buffon, and their now-departed midfield legend Andrea Pirlo. In the second half, Real scored three goals to take the match, but for me the amazing thing was watching PJ’s performance. Despite being happy for Real, she acted like it was a disaster of the first magnitude for the benefit of the Juventus fans surrounding us. Personally, I was in awe of the performance, worthy of Italian opera buffa or commedia dell’arte!

Watching Champions League Final in town square

The Aiello family made this day very special for me and we hold them dear in our hearts. The welcome, the cuisine, the fantastic alpine setting, all contributed to a most special celebration. All that is left is for us to learn to speak Italian so that we can do their welcome justice on our next visit!