We now return to our regularly scheduled blog series…

For those just joining me, I am now halfway through an 11-day trip through France, part vacation, part business trip, and specifically, the very first Festival International de Harpe-Guitare, which, for the participants, officially starts tonight!

But first, an unexpected and inspiring tour through a bit of historical Le Mans…

Having satiated myself (for now) on Paris, on Friday morning I picked up my rental car and headed out of town (well, first around Paris) sometime after noon.  This was where neither the sun, the iPhone compass, nor the navigator agreed on where in the known universe I was located.  But throwing the dice at every turn, I miraculously found myself on schedule and approaching Le Mans.  I actually wasn’t sure if I was headed to Le Mans or Pontvallain (a pin prick on the map), where we were all supposed to meet for dinner. Getting a call from Ben (Brussels luthier Benoit Meulle-Stef), I realized I had plenty of time to hook up with him in Le Mans, where he was staying with his friend Blanche, who now lives there.

A few years back, Blanche (here in her backyard with Ben) was a wonderful personal tour guide for Jaci and I for an afternoon in Brussels, and she’d show the same generosity and expertise now, taking me for a quick driving, then walking, tour of the best historical parts of the city.

As she zipped around the narrow maze of streets, we suddenly turned a corner to reveal:

Flying buttresses!  This was Saint Julian’s Cathedral, where we were to begin our exploring.

It was a magnificent preserved edifice – a sort of slightly down-sized Notre-Dame (complete with rainspout gargoyles).

Even not running, I loved the fountain

The “porch” features multiple-centuries worth of work

These carvings are old

Beautiful, no?

But the stunning part was that we could just walk right in…and to a completely empty cathedral.  You remember the hordes of tourists I showed outside and inside Notre-Dame and the Montmartre basilica?  Well, although this was an equally worthy “destination spot,” there wasn’t a single tourist.  Not even a guard or a docent…just (for the most part) the three of us with this incredibly imposing landmark to ourselves.

I can’t describe the almost overwhelming feelings, thoughts and emotions of this experience…the three of us alone, but still speaking in hushed tones in this cavernous, revered place.  Even Ben was well-behaved.

I discovered that Blanche now works for a company that does stained glass restoration for much of Europe, including the very cathedral we were in.  She explained that this structure contained the oldest remaining in situ (original materials in original location) stained glass windows in France.  Others of these she had helped repair and replace (and I couldn’t tell the difference).

As expected, a monumental organ.

Blanche knew pretty much the whole history, construction, style and art of this place, pointing at stones, archways, wood or stained glass, and noting the style and age of each component (original parts date back to the 11th and 12th centuries!).

The “Virgin’s chapel” was beautifully preserved.  Again, it was very hard not to feel like a heathen trespasser, being alone in a place with this much artistic and historical value, let alone spiritual sacredness.

Clearly, all who enter here treat these priceless artifacts with respect

The 14th century ceiling is filled with musician angels; this beautiful work was later whitewashed and only much later rediscovered – finally restored just recently in 1995).  Simply stunning…all the more so due to our private audience.

Blanche pointed out that stone was not necessarily muted or unpainted – just look at the colors remaining in the dim light (without, then with flash) on the molding.

A series of carved wood panels in beautiful condition; in one is carved “1576” (!)

These lighted statues (and the keyboardist below) were preserved behind grated windows

This private and intimate tour with Blanche may have been the highlight of my trip – thank you!

The cathedral was surrounded by charming-to-incredible historical homes.  Now that would be a different vibe in your lifestyle!

Yes, the modern cars were a bit jarring, but people live normal lives here! (all these buildings surround the cathedral)

As we began to walk down other streets, ancient homes and apartments became impossibly creative and charming

An old door with the coolest lock & keyhole we had ever seen!

Blanche would have to explain this shot…I was just following (into “newer” neighborhoods).

She led us through many winding streets, pointing out what century certain homes – or their various upgrades – dated from.

This is real, albeit tiny, single-room dwelling, floating over a walkway (and occupied, as you can see)…charming, or what?!

I took many more photos of interesting homes, alleys, doors, yards…as we found the homes giving way to more commercial establishments.

When, suddenly…

…who should come out of one of the little shops but John and Deirdra Doan!  And no sooner had we exchanged greetings than Steve Sedgwick strolled up, just in from England.  Mind you, all this was completely impromptu and a total coincidence.

Being now several harp guitar players/builders strong, it was only fitting that after a short stroll I spied through a darkened window…a lyre mandolin(?!).  Actually, two, along with several other Neapolitan mandolins of various sizes.  We had stumbled upon a little museum/business office of a local mandolin orchestra.  If only we had known to call ahead!  (It gets worse…see my added Comment below)

Like cats outside a seafood store

I could’ve stayed and strolled through historic Le Mans until the wee hours…but it was time for Ben and I (and the Doans) to get going to meet our fellow harp guitar builders and players – and our hosts – in nearby Pontvallian.

 They arrived from all corners of France, England, train, plane, car, cab…

We discussed the weekend’s logistics while sharing a buffet dinner brought in by our gracious hosts.  For now, I’ll let you guess who’s who (I don’t see them all here) – we’ll meet them all during:

Next: The Festival International de Harpe-Guitare!