The window into Europe

France for many people is the very notion of history, full of legends and myths. My idea is to take a new look at the country, confronting past and present through visual investigation of cultural life, inter-ethnithity, social practices, et cetera.. One picture hasn’t changed throughout the centuries, though, that of multiculturalism and plurarility.

Avignon was the seat of Roman Catholic papacy during the period 1309-1377, when the popes took up residence at Avignon instead of Rome, primarily because of the political conditions. In the middle ages it was bought and remained papal property until the French Revolution. The city also harboured heretics and criminals, taverns and houses of pleasure making it a byword for debauch. The palace, a beautiful eight-towered fortress on a rock 58 m above the town, was used as a barracks from 1822 to 1906. After Gregory XI reestablished the papal capital in Rome, cardinals selected a second pope, who assumed the vacant Avignon seat. This marked the onset of the Great Schism. Such “anti-popes” were continuously selected until the Great Schism was resolved by 1417.

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Lyon  is set on a hilly site at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers. A Roman military colony called Lugdunum was founded as early as 43 BC. In 1032 it became incorporated into the Holy Roman Empire and later annexed to the kingdom of France in 1312. The Renaissance ushered in a period of economic prosperity and intellectual brilliance. Thus printing was introduced in 1473 and Lyon soon became one of the most active printing centres in Europe. The establishment of commercial fairs in 1464 and arrival of Italian merchant bankers enabled Lyon to develop further trade. Thus by the 17th century it became the silk-manufacturing capital of Europe. The French Revolution introduced some changes and the collapse of markets brought a slump in the silk industries. In the 19th century prosperity returned, bringing about considerable industrial expansion. Old Lyon remains one of the finest architectural complexes of the Renaissance era.

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Marseille was founded more than 2 500 years ago and since then has a history of vigorous independence sentiments against central authority of various forms. It retained its free city status even after falling to Julius Caesar’s troops in the 1st century BC. After Provence joined the Kingdom of France in the 15th century Marseille retained a separate administration and used to engage in revolts against the governments that threatened its liberties. Thus Marseille enthusiastically joined the French Revolution. Some 500 volunteers marching to Paris in 1792 sang “The War Song of the Rhine Army”, which was composed in Strasbourg in the 18th century. This song which thrilled the crowds was renamed into “La Marseillaise” and became the national anthem of France. “Mainland Frenchmen” long looked upon Marseille as a sort of special place with its own culture, history, mentality and dialect. But no matter how much is coloured with myth and legends Marseille undoubtedly forms a major element in the economic and social tissue of France. It is the second largest city and the largest commercial seaport in France.

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Montpellier is the chief administrative and commercial centre as well as an old university city. Montpellier acquired a charter in 1141 but already in the 10th century it became the trading station for spice imports. Montpellier’s school of law dates from 1160. Its school of medicine became important during the 12th century and the faculty of medicine was founded in 1221. The University itself was founded in 1220. Modern Montpellier is a tourist centre and the seat of the International Vine and Wine Fair.

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Nîmes submitted to Rome in 121 BC. The emperor Augustus gave it privileges that rapidly brought it prosperity. In the 5th century Nîmes was plundered by the Vandals and the Goths. It was later occupied by the Saracens (Arabs) who were driven out in 737. Nîmes is famous for its many Roman remains which are in an excellent state of preservation. The vast amphitheatre, built of large stones from a nearby quarry and put together without mortar in the 1st century AD, can host 24 000 spectators. Originally intended for gladiatorial shows it was used as a fortress in the 5th century. Many houses and even a church were built inside it in the Middle Ages. Cleared of buildings in 1809 it is now used for bullfights. Despite this checkered history it is one of the best preserved Roman amphitheatres in the world.

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The region of Médoc attracted settlement as early as the Bronze Age and since the Roman times Bordeaux has been a flourishing town and port with active connections to Spain and Britain. Under the Romans it was the capital of the province of Aquitania. In 1154 Bordeaux became English. Under the English, Bordeaux was given unusual freedom, as the mayors were elected from 1235 and a thriving trade developed with England’s ports. After the French victory over the English in 1453 the city was united with France.
In the 18th century Bordeaux again prospered from the triangular trade and “free movement of people, goods and services”: slaves from Africa to the West Indies, sugar and coffee back to Bordeaux, then arms and wines to Africa. In 1870 during the Franco-German War and in August 1914 the French governments were transferred to Bordeaux. In June 1940, during World War II, when a German advance became again a menace to Paris, the French government moved to Bordeaux again.

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