When Biot meets Tacoma something beautiful happens

// Look for blog updates, photos at glasssisters.tumblr.com

  • SAY 'FROMAGE'. The American delegates and their French hosts posed for their official group shot in front of one of Fernand Leger's mosaics on the grounds of the museum built in his honor. (Photo by Nicolas Souquet)

  • PREPARING FOR THE FESTIVAL. Workers hang garlands and banners in Place des Arcades, preparing for the festival Biot et les Templiers. (Photo by Kathleen Merryman)

  • A GIFT FOR BIOT. Tacoma artists Ben Cobb and Sarah Gilbert create a piece of glass at Le Verrerie de Biot while owner Serge Lechaczynski explains the process to the crowd of French and American visitors. (Photo by Carol Baarsma)

  • (Photo by Nicolas Souquet)

I have never met so many people eager to come see all the delights that Tacoma has to offer as I did at the start of the month.

They live in Biot, the south of France, a few miles from Nice, with a view of the Mediterranean on the Riviera. And they want to come here.

Biot and Tacoma are embarking on a sister city relationship, and our new French sister city residents are eager to see our glass art scene, our museums, and sample our history and food.

Their delegates, who visited last October, went home with photos of a city sparkling with glass and public art, lovely homes, historic buildings and excellent hamburgers. They have told their friends how welcoming we were, how much fun we showed them, how comfortable they were in our town.

I know. I know. They’re way ahead of the people in Federal Way.

From April 3 through 7, it was their turn to show off their town to Tacoma’s leaders in arts and civic life. Deputy Mayor Lauren Walker led the delegation, on her own time and her own dime. Former Mayor Bill Baarsma and his wife, Carol, Catherine Sarnat, Agnes Jensen and Chris and Gwen Porter represented Tacoma’s interests in history, culture and language. Ben Cobb and Sarah Gilbert of Museum of Glass brought their glass-blowing skills.

Because Biot Mayor Jean-Pierre Dermit asked them to bring a journalist, the delegates invited me to join them. Before we left, we set up a blog, glasssisters.tumblr.com, to keep up with the adventure.

If we had known what Biot has to offer, we would never have attempted that goal.

We knew it was a walled Medieval town that has made an industry of pottery since Roman times. We knew it had made the switch to glass, and that we would meet some of the artists. We knew we would be there for Biot et les Templiers, its annual celebration of its history with the Knights Templar. We knew we have technology, mountains and salt water in common.

After we landed in Nice, we learned one more sisterly connection: The brassy cities nearby – Cannes and Nice – have superiority complexes.

Biot has the history, the art and the progress.

The walled hill town may have lost its castle to the centuries, but it retains streets built by people who never imagined cars. It is a warren of walkways between stone homes and shops. Nothing but the bell tower rises more than five or so stories. Residents have fun with plants, arching them over walkways, potting color on tint balconies. They built public art into the town from the ground, where they set the stones in patterns, up to statues.

They are a town of walkers, and one of their favorite stops is Hotels Les Arcades, the hotel, restaurant and café where we stayed. About 500 years old, it once housed livestock in the basement and a tobacconist’s shop at street level. Its owners, the Brothier family, are art collectors and enlisted artists and artisans to help them expand into a hotel where every room is different, and every space frames paintings, mosaics or sculptures. That basement now houses a gallery of modern art.

It was from here that we set out each morning on a schedule packed from 8 a.m. to past 10 p.m. And it was over breakfast the second day that we decided to put the blog on hold so we could savor the reality.

After World War II, Biot had everything weary artists craved. Fernand Leger came for the light, and his wife built a museum for his works after he died. Down the hill in Antibes, Pablo Picasso came for the light – and a woman, and the pottery and the free stay and support in the building that now houses his museum.

A decade later, the glassmakers came to Biot. They set up hotshops in town and around town and agreed on a specialty: bubble glass. They coated their cores of molten glass with baking soda, added another layer of glass, and blew it all into frisky glasses, plates and art. The craftsmen evolved into artists, then masters: Robert Pierini and his son, Antoine, Jean-Claude Novaro, Raphael Farinelli, Pascal Guyot, Didier, Daniel and Christophe Saba, Richard Ranise, Veroniqe Monod and Jean-Paul Van Lith.

Now their work draws some 700,000 visitors a year to La Verrerie de Biot owned by Serge Lechaczynski and his family. It’s a museum, a school, a hot shop and a gallery. It has had a Chihuly for years, and a Ben Cobb since April 4.

Huguette Marsicano, a marketing expert with a fondness for Biot and Tacoma saw glass as an opportunity for a natural pairing between the two cities. The French call it a “jumelage” or twinning. In it, each community maintains ties with the other; they promote one another’s work, attractions, festivals.

That brought us to the Knights Templar who, from the early 1100s, were the law and order to the routes to the Holy Land. In the 1200s, they settled into an old castle and developed Biot and the lands around it.

For five years, Biot has celebrated their history and legend with a three-day festival, Biot et les Templiers.

Residents dress in their finest Medieval garb – and, trust me, they have some pretty fine garb, right down to the chain mail, helmets and robes. The faux-lepers who visit every year are the hit of the show.

Even the town dresses up, with olive and laurel garlands overhead, straw bales in the streets and burlap over storefronts. They hold jousting tourneys, sword battles, a marketplace and torch light parades through town in the evening.

This year, their theme was food, and fine chefs prepared pork, salmon, lamb and beef to centuries-old recipes.

Admission is free, hotels are booked, restaurants are full, and sales of everything from biscuits to bows and arrows, sunglasses to bubble glass are brisk, and everyone profits.

It’s a success story, one that can instruct Tacomans.

That, after all, is part of the point of this jumelage. We each learn from the other.

Biot’s civic leaders learned how crucial our volunteers, including those with ties to churches, are to the health and life of the city.

They were surprised to hear about Tacoma’s mural project and community gardens, and delighted with the packets of seeds Ed Hume sent to them.

Catherine Sarnat, a volunteer with and donor to Tacoma’s Sister City program, “We took a positive step toward huge cultural and economic opportunities with the recent visit to Biot by our delegation from Tacoma,” she said. “Our French hosts received us most graciously, and we are deeply appreciative. The experience was unforgettable. Glass artists from both cities have started a dialogue about collaborating on art projects to sell. Mayor Dermit has a vision of establishing a gallery dedicated to these projects. A student from Whitman College got a summer internship in Biot to work with Pascale Nicol, who is in charge of Cultural affairs.”

There is more. The local middle school is working on setting up a student exchange program.

The people we met in Biot have asked that we add them as contributors to the Glass Sisters blog, and maintain it as an ongoing conversation.

And, of course, we have standing invitations to our new friends to become old friends, and visit us any time in a city that becomes more beautiful every year.


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