The History of Jewish Provence

France has the largest Jewish population in Europe and the third largest in the world after Israel and the United States. Half of French Jews live in and around Paris, in neighborhoods like the Marais, Belleville and Le Sentier. The city is home to more than a dozen synagogues, including the magnificent Grand Synagogue.

While Paris is the center of Jewish life in France today, this wasn’t always the case. For centuries, that center was Provence. And the Jews there had a surprising and powerful protector: the Pope.

Read all about the history of Jewish Provence in France Today!

10 Surprising French Inventions

France has a long history of innovation, in fields ranging from science to consumer goods to fashion. You might already know, for example, that the French invented photography, motion pictures, hot air balloons, and the hair dryer. But that’s not all!

How about the Etch a Sketch? Or margarine? Or the bicycle? Yes, they are French inventions all.

Read all about 10 surprising French Inventions in France Today!

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

I still remember walking into that cave.  There wasn’t much light and I could barely make out the stalactites, one of them twisting its way all the way down to the floor. As I walked further in, I could see bones scattered about—not human, I hoped. Then I saw bear skulls, arranged in a semi-circle. Spooky!

I kept going, stepping carefully, and suddenly there they were, straight ahead of me: paintings, beautiful paintings. I could see horses and buffalo and rhinos that almost seemed alive. It was mesmerizing.

I was in the Grotte Chauvet 2, a nearly-perfect recreation of a nearby cave. It’s like the famous cave at Lascaux, only the paintings are older–the oldest ever found. How old? Let’s just say Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals were still duking out for control of Europe (spoiler alert: we win.)

A trip to the Grotte is a must-do if you are in the area. Read more about this fascinating place in Frenchly!

 

The French Village That Saved Thousands of Jews

Many of us have heard of Oskar Schindler, of Schindler’s List fame. This German industrialist saved thousands of Jews during World War II, through a combination of bravery and guile. Less well-known, but equally remarkable, is the story of a small French village that saved thousands more.

Le Chambon-sur-Lignon sits in a remote part of south-central France, and was settled long ago by French Huguenots fleeing religious persecution.

This history of persecution and distrust of authority led the villagers to oppose the wartime Vichy government. They refused to cooperate with the regime, refused to take an oath of allegiance to leader Marshall Pétain, and refused to ring church bells in his honor. Villagers also opposed the government’s anti-Jewish policies, seeing the Jews as a fellow persecuted religious minority.

Led by a charismatic pastor, they banded to together to save thousands of Jews, despite the enormous risk. It is a remarkable tale of bravery.

Read all about it in France Today!

Cold Case Solved!

Jean-Paul Marat was a leader of the French Revolution, along with other famous names  like Danton and Robespierre. In 1793, he was assassinated while soaking in a bath—one of the most famous murders in French history. While there is no question about who killed him, the reason he was in the bath has confounded historians for centuries. And this mystery may have just been solved.

Marat started out as a scientist, but as France entered into political crisis in the 1780’s, he joined the radical forces calling for the downfall of the monarchy, and later emerged as one of the leaders of the revolution. But he was a divisive figure, who bitterly denounced his enemies and called for heads to roll. He battled the revolutionary group the Girondins, and it was the Girondin sympathizer Charlotte Corday who fatally stabbed him.

But what was he doing in a bath? It’s known that he frequently soaked because of a painful skin condition, but no one knew what it was…until now. French scientist-sleuths (CSI Paris?) think they have figured it out. It’s a fascinating tale.

Read all about it at The Good Life France!

The Popes of Provence

One of the highlights of a visit to Avignon is seeing the magnificent Papal Palace, once home to seven popes. But what were they were doing in Avignon instead of Rome? It’s an interesting tale.

For centuries, popes jockeyed with kings and emperors for worldly power. Things came to a head in the early 14th century when Pope Boniface VIII decided to excommunicate King Philip IV of France (this was not a good idea.) This enraged the king, and before long forces loyal to him attacked the pope, who died soon after. His successor was short-lived and King Philip forced the next papal conclave to elect his personal friend, Bertrand de Got, as Pope Clement V.

Pope Clement refused to go to Rome and set up shop in Avignon instead—the city and surrounding territories were then part of the Papal States. Thus began the Avignon Papacy, or as some in Rome snidely call it today, the Babylonian Captivity.

Learn more about this fascinating episode in church history in My French Life!

 

Who are the 10 Greatest French People of All Time?

Picking a list of “greatest French people” is impossible. How do you define greatness? How do you compare a king to a scientist to a philosopher?

This hasn’t stopped people from trying. In 2005, a French television survey asked viewers this question, with dubious results — Charlemagne was ranked behind a soccer player! A study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology identified the best known French people, but fame is not the same as greatness. And then there are the lists of top French monarchs, French inventors, French writers, etc.

I decided to create my own list, based on who has had the greatest influence on France—usually positive, but sometimes negative. I combined the resources above with an informal survey of French friends, including business people, professors, scientists, and artists.

Check out my Top 10 in France Today!

The Five Republics of France

You may have heard of the “Fifth Republic of France” and wondered what it meant. Hasn’t France been a republic since long ago, back when they stormed the Bastille and all? Well, yes and no.

After King Louis XVI lost his head, a republic was indeed proclaimed – a rather bloody one. It didn’t last long and today is referred to as the First Republic. It was followed by a series of governments – empires, monarchies, and more republics, all the way up to today’s Fifth Republic. There were plenty of crises along the way, a coup or two, and more prime ministers than you can shake a stick at.

There’s never a dull moment when it comes to French politics! Enjoy a fun little history lesson and learn about the five republics of France in The Good Life France.

Legends of Provence

The world is rich with legends. We still dream of Camelot and King Arthur’s court. We hope to one day find El Dorado and its streets paved with gold. And who wouldn’t love to take a dip in the Fountain of Youth?

Provence, too, has its legends.

Is it true that a terrible monster once lived in the depths of the Rhône River? Did a saint poke his finger in a rock and cause wine to pour forth? And what’s this about Mary Magdalene living out her days in Provence?

Read about these and other legends in My French Life!