Thann, Alsace and L’œil de la Sorcière (The Witch’s Eye)

The little town of Thann lies on the eastern slopes of the Vosges, in the département of Haut-Rhin (Alsace). A historic town which once belonged to the Habsburgs in the Middle-Ages, it is renown for its remarkable Gothic church and the Rangen vineyard and, in fact, it is also the southern gate to the Alsace Wine Route. According to the legend, the town originated from a miracle attributed to St. Theobald, the Bishop of Gubbio (Umbria, Italy). In 1160, Ubald (or Theobald) saw his death coming soon and promised his…

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La maison dans la Loire: the sunken structure that looks like the victim of a catastrophic flood.

Known simply as “La maison dans la Loire” (literally the House in the Loire), the three-storey building looks like the victim of a flood that once swept it away, but sometimes appearances can be deceiving…. If you walk along the river Loire, near the town of Lavau-sur-Loire, just a stone throw away from Nantes, are a rather unusual sight: a tilted building located right in the middle of the river. You’d think it was brutally swept away by some catastrophic flood, or something similar, but it was actually placed there…

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The tomb of Jules Verne: “Vers l’immortalité et l’éternelle Jeunesse”

The world-famous writer Jules Verne died of diabetes at the age of 77 on March 24, 1905, in Amiens, France, where he was buried in the Cimetière de la Madeleine. Two years after his death, a sculpture entitled “Vers l ‘Immortalité et l’ Eternelle Jeunesse” (Towards immortality and eternal youth) was named after him, positioned on top of his tomb. Designed and built by sculptor Albert Roze using the writer’s actual death mask, the statue shows the figure of Jules Verne breaking the tomb lid and gloriously emerging from his…

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Le Mort Homme: a memorial to the soldiers who died in the bloody battles to control Verdun in World War I

In World War I, the battle of Verdun was a really brutal battle that lasted from February 21 to December 18, 1916. Each meters around the French city was fought over by hundreds of thousands of French and German soldiers, and more from the farthest reaches of the European empires. There was 302 days of bloodshed, and historians still argue over how many actually died, with some estimates claimed near a million, from both sides. Even after the battle, technically won by the French, the story of Verdun wasn’t over:…

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Créac’h: the most powerful lighthouse in Europe

The Créac’h lighthouse, in Breton Tour-tan ar C’hreac’h (translated as Tour-tan: lighthouse and C’hreac’h: promontory) is a lighthouse in the island of Ouessant, in Brittany, France. It was built in 1863 and is 53 m high. It is located on the north western tip of the island and guides ships in the dangerous and busy stretch of the Atlantic which becomes, from that point, the English Channel. For this reason it is the most powerful in Europe and one of the most powerful in the world, visible up to a…

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Stiff lighthouse: the oldest lighthouse in Brittany that is still working

“Further west than the west”, Ouessant is the westernmost island in Finistère, a department of France in the extreme west of Brittany. The island is well known for its treacherous seafaring heritage and for its indigenous sheep. It’s also a land of many legends, including the story of Lampaul Bay and the clash between Saint Guénolé and Saint Gildas, which led to the creation of the great rock (or grande roche) right in the middle of the two coastal points. Ouessant is regarded as the entrance to the English Channel,…

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The bizarre fame of Victor Noir, the man who boasts the “Sexiest” tomb in Père-Lachaise cemetery

The Cemetery of Père-Lachaise is the largest cemetery in Paris. Many famous people are buried there and Jim Morrison, Molière, Frederic Chopin, Théodore Géricault are just a few names. The grave of Oscar Wilde is very popular and his female fans have smothered the tomb with kisses leaving red lipstick marks all over. Many female visitors, after assaulting the grave of the famous Irish writer, move over to the adjacent plot for their next target, the tomb that probably gained worldwide fame for the most unusual reasons. The one of…

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Saint-Louise – Sète’s historic Lighthouse

This lighthouse proudly stands at the end of Le Môle Saint-Louis, Sète’s pier. The jetty, 650 metres long, was the first structure to be built when the city was founded in 1666. Walking to the pier, you can still spot portraits of seafarers, painted by the German artist Klaus Dauven during the Escale à Sète in 2018. Eventually, these portraits will fade away and, interestingly, they are something like reverse graffiti. More clearly, instead of spray painting the portraits on the wall, the artist etched out murals on dirt-encrusted surfaces…

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From baker to millionaire: the story of a man with a remarkable sense of entrepreneurship buried in Wiener Zentralfriedhof

Located in the outer city district of Simmering, Wiener Zentralfriedhof, or Vienna Central Cemetery, is one of the largest cemeteries in the world by number of interred, and is the most popular among Vienna’s nearly 50 cemeteries. It was opened on All Saints’ Day in 1874, far outside city’s borders. The first burial was that of Jacob Zelzer, that still exists near the administration building at the cemetery wall, followed by 15 others that day. The cemetery spans 2.5 km2 with 330,000 interments and up to 25 burials daily. It…

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The fascinating story of Nocino, the witches’ liqueur.

Patron saints. Every Italian town has one and a local public holiday for celebrating their heavenly protector. In some italian regions, San Giovanni Battista or John the Baptist, is venerated with evening bonfires or fireworks and the night between 23 and 24 June, is also linked to the preparation of a culinary specialty handed down from ancient times: the harvesting of green walnuts to make the liqueur nocino. Many families still preserve the “secret family recipe” of nocino, a liqueur made from green walnuts, often enriched with those particular herbs…

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Saint Mathieu Lighthouse | France

Located on Pointe Saint-Mathieu in Plougonvelin, around Brest in Finistère, Saint-Mathieu lighthouse was built in 1835 among the ruins of the ancient Abbaye Saint-Mathieu de Fine-Terre. The Abbey gives the cape its name, and It was dedicated to Saint Matthew the Evangelist, whose skull it housed. It was a Benedictine abbey, but was revived and reformed by the Maurists in the mid-17th century. According to legend the first abbey here was founded in the 6th century by Saint Tanguy, chosen for its isolated location among the lands he had inherited.…

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“Without weapons, violence or hate”: France’s biggest-ever bank robbery

In Belgium exists an old saying that say people who are willing to get their hands dirty can often make money. It was certainly the case for Albert Spaggiari, the mastermind behind the biggest-ever bank robbery in France. He died on this day, June 8, 1989, leaving no clue as to the whereabouts of the stolen millions.Albert, born in 1932, was a recidivist, constantly in trouble for stealing. His father died when he was three and his mother, who ran a lingerie shop, quickly remarried with another man, but it…

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D-Day: the day that changed Europe’s history

The biggest land, air and seaborne invasion the world has ever known was launched on this day, June 6 1944. Codenamed Operation Overlord, everybody now knows it simply as D-Day. One hundred and fifty six thousand American, British and Canadian troops sailed to France from England and stormed the beaches of Normandy. They then began a relentless, dogged and bloody journey all the way to Berlin, pushing back the fearsome German military machine and, eventually, bringing an end to the Second World War. It was no a nice walk: the…

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Petit Minou Lighthouse – France

On the west coast of the European continent, at Brittany’s tip, Finistère’s string of lighthouses shine as unshakeable witnesses to the tides that sculpt the beautiful landscapes of the Iroise Sea. The port of Brest, in northwestern France, together with one of the two French naval bases, Brest Arsenal, located in the Finistère department, litterally “Department of the End of the World”, are linked to the Atlantic Ocean (called the Iroise Sea at this point) by the Goulet de Brest, a strait about 1.8 km wide. For a number of…

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#May 6, 1994: English Channel tunnel opens

The Channel Tunnel, or “Chunnel,” linking England and France,was officially opened on this day, in a ceremony presided over by England’s Queen Elizabeth II and French President Francois Mitterrand, nearly 200 years after the idea was first suggested. The channel connected Britain and the European mainland for the first time since the Ice Age, linking Folkestone, England, with Coquelles, France. There were many misgivings, and the sea having protected for centuries what Shakespeare described as “this precious stone set in the silver sea…this fortress built by Nature for herself against…

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#April 20, 1887: in Paris, world’s first motor race!

Historic records show that on this day, April 29, 1887, Georges Bouton “won the world’s first motor race”. But it was a hollow victory and there was no champagne celebration. The reason? Bouton and his co-driver were the only ones taking part. And, to be exact, it wasn’t even a car, but a steam-powered quadricycle. The curious event was a test organised by the newspaper “Le Velocipede” to see if Bouton’s machine, which had boasted speeds of 60kmph, could make the 29-kilometre distance between Neuilly Bridge in Paris and the…

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#March 30, 1282: when Sicilian’s bells rang out for freedom

On this day, March 30, 1282 Sicilians decided that they had had enough and in a brutal uprising known as the War of the Vespers turned on their oppressors: the result was a conflict lasting 20 years and a balance of power shift that went on for 400 years. French King Charles I invaded the Italian island of Sicily in 1266 and through conquest became the King of Sicily. As a result, the French imposed a rule of iron with high taxes and the Sicilian population were constantly insulted and…

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Ramesses II: the first (and probably the last) mummy to receive a passport!

Ramesses II is often considered the greatest pharaohs of ancient Egypt: he reigned for over 60 years and his achievements were not matched by the pharaohs who preceded or succeeded him. And, even after death, Ramesses II continued to be unique. How do you move a mummy over 3,000 years old from one country to another? In Ramesses’ case, in 1974, his remains were equipped with a valid passport of Egyptian nationality! It all began in 1974, when Egyptologists working for the Egyptian Museum in Cairo noticed that the pharaoh’s…

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Paris through a Nazi’s lens: Propaganda pictures of Occupied France in 1940’s

André Zucca (1897-1973) was a French photographer and Nazi collaborator, popular thanks to his work with the German propaganda magazine Signal. Born in 1897 in Paris, son of an Italian tailor, André spent part of his youth in the United States before returning to France in 1915. After the outbreak of World War I he enlisted in the French army, where he was wounded and decorated with the Croix de Guerre, and after the conflict he became a photographer. Much later, during the 1930s, he made several reports in countries…

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The splendid grave of the dancer Rudol’f Nureev covered by a rug like mosaic

A short distance from Paris is the Orthodox Cemetery Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, which houses many Orthodox Russians who died and were buried close to the French capital. Among these there is also Rudol’f Chametovič Nureev, one of the greatest dancers and choreographers of the 20th century, who rests in a decidedly particular grave. The sepulcher is in fact covered by a mosaic in the shape of a Kazakh kilim, a carpet of great value which is woven like a tapestry, because the dancer was an avid collector of beautiful carpets and antique…

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122 and not feeling it: the (unhealthy) Lifestyle of the longest-lived person in history!

Ms. Jeanne Louise Calment was born in Arles (France) on February 21, 1875, a year before the battle of Little Big Horn, and a year before Alexander Bell patented the phone. She died at the age of 122, 5 months and 14 days, and she still represents the person who has lived the longest life in history. At least, according to official records. But this is not the most relevant thing in the very long life of the French lady, much more amazing is how she got to that old…

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A splendid collection of rare color Photos of Paris taken about 100 Years Ago

For most of us are normal to see historical photographs in black and white, due to the diffusion of monochrome films during the early years of photographic technique. The color images, however, were almost contextual to the invention of photography itself, and it was only the difficulty of creating the supports capable of resuming the different colors that changed over the years, making the spread of colour photograph more and more common. Tired of the endless series of black and white photos that were popular in that days, French banker…

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The Snow Child: a black humor medieval folktale

In medieval France a few different type of story was told as an alternative to the fairy tales or the popular fables, know as “Fabliaux”, in French, with a simple and linear plot. Focusing mostly on tales of commoners, they often treated adulterous wives and husbands, and their purpose was to make the listeners laugh. Often anonymous, they were written by “jongleurs” (minstrels, medieval European entertainers in northeast France) between c. 1150 and 1400, and they are generally characterized by sexual and scatological obscenity, and by a set of contrary…

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A visit at the Cimetière des Chiens, the world’s oldest Pet Cemetery

The Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques, translated as the Cemetery of the Dogs and other Domestic Animals, in Asnières-sur-Seine, just outside of Paris, is the oldest pet cemetery in Europe, and perhaps in the world, depending on its definition of a “pet cemetery.” It claims to be the first pet cemetery in the world and even if there are some more ancient than it, it is the first to be basically a smaller version of our own modern cemeteries. Shrouded in decaying grandeur, it’s probably, according to a…

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Pheasant Island: the only territory in the world that changes sovereignty every six months

You are not allowed to visit Pheasant Island, which lies near the Atlantic Ocean terminus of the French-Spanish border. But “it can easily be seen from the Joncaux bank, on the Bay Path,” the Web site for the local tourist office suggests, without a hint of irony! About six kilometers before the Bidasoa River flows into the Atlantic Ocean, its waters, which in the last stretch mark the border between Spain and France, bathe the tiny Pheasant Island, almost a wooded rock in the middle of the river. It was…

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Goussainville-Vieux Pays: the post-apocalyptic remains of a bucolic town ruined by a plane crash.

Just to the north of Paris, under the flight path of the Charles de Gaulle airport, lies the remains of a little pretty French town. At least, until catastrophe struck. It is Goussainville-Vieux Pays (not to be confused with nearby, still-thriving Goussainville), that was once a postcard-like town, and for centuries, it functioned as a small, quaint farming village. The old town was once positively bucolic, surrounded mostly by green space. This was, ironically enough, what drew planners to select the area as the location for Charles de Gaulle airport.…

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The bizarre medieval trials against animals

Even if it might seem bizarre to modern observers, animal trials were commonplace public events in medieval and early modern Europe. Pigs, cows, goats, horses, and dogs that allegedly broke the law were routinely subjected to the same legal proceedings as humans, in a court of law, where they were treated as persons. The history of animal trials has its roots in the Low Middle Ages, and saw a series of “beasts” being judged, in some cases executed, according to the normal human laws. From the thirteenth century until the…

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Access forbidden for a century – the French “Red Zone”: a no-go area since WWI

If we think of France, we probably think of the magic of Paris, the Eiffel Tower, the scents of Provence, the lavender fields, the glamor of the Croisette during the Cannes Festival or the enchanting castles of the Loire. But France is not only art and beauty, and especially during the First World War, its landscape was much more macabre. Even today there is an area which was declared “red”, that is subject to high risk and in which access has been forbidden for over a century. More than a…

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The Annual world meeting of Gypsies in Camargue, France.

“Vive les Saintes Maries! Vive la Sainte Sara!” The celebrant on the altar, with the garment embroidered with the symbols of the Camargue, stylized profiles of bulls and horses on the cross created by the Marquis de Baroncelli in the early 1900s, calls with a loud voice to prayer, interspersed with songs, in the church-fortress, where the gypsy women are adorning glittering mantles and crowns the statue of Saint Sara, brought out of the crypt always lit by candles, to prepare her for the exit between the streets of Les…

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France: Les Grottes Pétrifiantes which turn everyday objects into stone.

These limestone grottoes, located in Savonnières, France, in the heart of Touraine, turns everyday objects into stone and were used as former quarries of limestone in the Middle Ages. Objects left for six months to a year under the mineral-rich springs of the petrifying grottoes emerge coated in a perfectly pure white layer of limestone. At Savonnières, the infiltration groundwater is highly charged with calcium carbonate and since the mid-nineteenth century have been “tamed” to develop the petrification. By an extraordinary alchemy, the water loaded with calcium carbonate drips slowly…

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