Friday, December 31, 2010

Château D'Écouen

When we were in France at New Year we visited this château which has become the National Museum of the Renaissance.

Its construction began in 1538 at the behest of Anne de Montmerency, High Constable of France and chief minister under Francis I(1515-1547) and Henry II (1547-1559). It became the the National Museum of the Renaissance in 1977. It provides the link between renaissance architecture and collections of decorative arts from the Musée de Cluny. Although some of the rooms were closed when we visited we did see many beautiful artefacts during our visit.
The Chateau showing the chapel at the left corner.
The inner courtyard where the visitors would dismount from their coaches or horses.
The ceiling of the chapel.
The organ.

And below are some pictures of the interior decoration. There were lots of faux painting escpecially around the fireplaces.

Among the artefacts on disply was this automaton called the nef of Charles V. Many of its parts move when the clockwork is wound up.
Other artefacts included a harpsicord and the celestial sphere

The ceilings were also decorated.

Sadly the rooms containing their collection of Iznic tiles from Turkey was not open when we visited. We shall just have to return.

Château d'Écouen

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Llama trekking

We had a full house over Christmas and we knew there would be some over-indulging on Christmas Day, so we needed some exercise on Boxing Day to counter all that. But we wanted to do something just a little out of the ordinary and with some internet research we came across the Surrey Hills Llamas and an opportunity to trek with them on Boxing Day.
Now, we have visited South America and come across the whole gang of South American camelids; vicuna, guanaco, alpaca and llama, so we were immediately grabbed by this idea as were the children. To explain a little about these animals, I found the following information on the Surrey Hills Llamas’ website:
“Llamas, members of the camelid family, are believed to have their origins in the central plains of North America around 40 million years ago. The dawn of the Ice-Age, saw a southerly migration into the South American Andes of the guanaco and vicuna, which adapted to the inhospitable climate, sporadic moisture, high altitude, vast daily temperature fluctuations and unpredictable food supply of the region. Domestication of the guanaco and vicuna is thought to have given rise to the llama and alpaca, with the llama originating from the guanaco and the alpaca from the vicuna.
The earliest domesticated animal, llamas were first trained by the Incas in the high Andes Mountains close to Lake Titicaca around 4,000 years ago. The Inca tribesmen used the intelligent highly trainable camelids for hauling and carrying, but llamas were much more than beasts of burden. The Incas called the llama "silent brother", they recognised the llamas importance as a source of meat, fibre for clothing and blankets, skins for shelter and as a sacrifice to the Inca gods. The Incas had a high dependence on these animals. Domestication of the llama allowed the additional use as a beast of burden as well as selective breeding for specific traits. The adaptability and efficiency of the llama as a pack animal made it possible to link the diverse altitude area of the mountainous Andes and to cover great distances of the region. Llamas and alpacas were so important to the Inca culture and economy that they were the property of the government. State herdsmen controlled the breeding and production of llamas and this was closely monitored.
The arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500's had a huge effect on the llamas and alpacas in the Andes. The Spanish destroyed almost all of the llamas and alpacas, putting in their place their own domestic animals, mainly sheep. The Incas and their animals were forced to move to higher altitudes over 4000 metres. Decimated in numbers, these hardy animals adapted to the harsh climate and terrain and developed the ability to live on low protein vegetation where only the strongest survived.
Llamas do not have hooves like horses or cattle. Their feet are designed to enable them to be sure-footed and cause minimal damage to the environment. Each foot is made up of 2 toes which have a toenail and a pad, the pad covers most of the bottom of the foot and is very sensitive giving the llama better contact with the ground than horses or cattle. Since the pad is softer than a hoof, llamas cause less damage to the environment. It will take a llama longer to wear a path than a horse or a cow.
Selectively bred for gentleness, for thousands of years, a well trained llama will eagerly follow adults and children alike, from groups of enthusiastic ramblers to self-proclaimed couch potatoes.”
I particularly liked the last bit and it made me wonder who would be joining a Boxing Day trek. We just had to book and find out.

We arrived around 9.30am to find a distinctly icy pub car park and we were quickly followed in by several other cars. Everyone was piling out of the cars and into warm clothing and decent walking shoes, when the pub door opened and Julie Stoneley welcomed us all inside for a glass of warming mulled wine and a mince pie while she and her husband Colin prepared the llamas for our trek. Amazingly Julie and her husband gave up their heady city jobs to take up a life with llamas and now own and run the Merry Harriers pub, Hambledon, from where they also run the llama trekking business. They have won awards as Guildford Visitor Attraction of the Year (2006), despite being severely affected by the foot and mouth outbreak. Camelids do not get the disease, but they were not allowed to move the animals with the countryside under what was effectively a curfew.
Soon all was ready for us to meet the llamas and after Julie briefed us on the correct way to walk with and behave around the llamas, we walked out the back of the pub and up the hill to the llama fields. They looked wonderful, if a little bizarre in the snowy Surrey landscape, but everyone – about sixteen of us – was very enthusiastic about the outing, even some teenage lads not known for their interest outside iPods and Wiis.
Our group of six shared two llamas, Pandu, who is the leader of the herd and Napoleon. Pandu has some beautiful markings, is about two metres tall, and carries the panniers containing the all important picnic. Napoleon has long white hair and looks very glamorous, though not very tall. Apparently he is the llama that was chosen to star on some of their gifts. When everyone was matched up with their llamas, Julie led us down the path, away from the pub and along the bridle path. The llamas were thrilled to be out and about, dipping into the hedgerows for any fresh greenery they could find. We had to be careful as it was quite icy underfoot, but the thaw had started to set in and we even saw a bit of sunshine. Pandu was as keen as the other llamas to forage, hurrying along to get to a juicy bit of hedgerow; only with the panniers on, he was quite a bit wider than the other llamas and was pretty good at pushing them out of his way. After about an hour and a half, we came to a bit of a clearing and here Julie proposed we took our picnic. She had packed home made soup and wonderful sandwiches made from locally made cheese and ham. Photos of the various groups were taken, the llamas were fed treats of carrots and sprouts and then it was time to walk back again.
The return walk went much more quickly and we were soon back at the Merry Harriers, now hopping with the lunchtime trade. We led the llamas round the back of the pub and up to their enclosure where Julie took off their reins and they were free again. It had been a lovely experience and we all agreed that it would be most enjoyable to trek with the llamas again in a different season.