A Travellerspoint blog

Fifteen Days in My Favourite City Stretch Ahead of Us

We've Hit Paris!

It was back in January when I booked our October accom in Paris.

In case you haven't heard the back story to this trip, the plan was hatched after Phil's 60th birthday. He wanted a party and I delivered. But it was so stressful (because I stupidly did pretty much everything myself) that I ended up with Shingles afterwards. So after recovering from all that I started to think about my own 60th and declared that I (the Extravert Extraordinaire who loves a Party) didn't want a Party I'd rather spend my 60th in Paris. That was over 12 months ago.

We built the trip of a lifetime around that premise and 6 weeks ago we left Oz. The closer we have got to Paris the more my excitement and impatience has grown. And here we are it's October - birthday month - and we've arrived in Paris.

Our agent met us at the appointed time. The info we had been given was that we had to bring IN CASH the remaining payment for the rental which amounted to about E1200. So for 3 days in a row we had hunted down ATMs (Banque Automatique) and taken out the maximum daily amount in cash. We were also to bring a credit card so they could take a copy to cover the security deposit. Ah yes we wondered too! Why in cash, when we had made the first payment by credit card from Australia.

You guessed it, totally unnecessary. (Slight teeth grind as we smiled at the agent!)

So we start to settle in, and then it registers that this was not the apartment I had chosen when I spent WEEKS looking for the right apartment to fit needs and budget and location!!

Yes right location but a different apartment. The layout of this 45 sqm which was to be our home for 15 nights didn't maximise the minuscule space that is an apartment of 45sqm like the one I'd chosen and was sooooooooooo dark because its windows looked out on the narrowest lane in Paris - a mere 1.5 metre wide street. We could practically touch the building on the other side of the lane while hanging out the window! The light could never get in at that angle!

Yes it was the same price and same total space but I was pretty peeved.

It turns out that the person currently staying, in the apartment I'd booked 10 months before, had decided he wanted to extend his stay. So without any consultation with me, the agents agreed and moved us to another apartment and thought I should be mollified because it was the same size and would probably be quieter.

I was unspeakably angry at just being treated as superfluous to the decision. I kept saying why wasn't he moved or just told NO!!! But what could I do?

It wasn't a promising start. And the apartment was not in any way a place I found a comfort or a haven. It was so dark I found it oppressive and to make matters worse, three days after our arrival, the lift broke and is still to be fixed even today as we departed. So it was back to TFS. And what's more, with the bar that was on the ground floor under the apartments, the stairwell smelt like stale piss and smoke the whole time!!!!

Thanks heavens our friends the Vitales had a nice light apartment so we got some occasional inside light without the aid of orange covered lamps like those at our place!

And of course outside the door was Paris. So despite this big disappointment all was not totally lost.

Posted by OwenGadflies 22:51 Archived in France Tagged accommodation paris france Comments (0)

An Immersion in War:

A Pilgrimage to the Western Front

Having chateaued ourselves out, we moved on to Picardie which is an area north of Paris and south of Amiens. Our intention had been to stay in Reims (FYI pronounced in a most nasal and guttural tone as Runce - don't ask me I don't get it either!). But because we'd changed our plans I had terrible trouble getting accom in the area.

That was mainly because our stay included a weekend. With Reims, and Epernay to it's south, being the centre of the Champagne region and only about an hour by train from Paris, accom was extortionately expensive. Presumably it's a popular weekend getaway. So we ended up staying in this little Picardie village called Sery Magneval about 4kms outside another unknown town called Crepy en Valois, endlessly now known to us as CREEPY,

The town was a little south of, and about half way between the two areas we were interested in, Reims and Amiens.

The house was an old cottage probably a couple of hundred years old and partially renovated into the country holiday house for some Parisians who were in fact heading to Spain and arranged for a neighbour to let us in. Sadly, we hit another repetitive theme here, two staircases with more skinny French circular staircases that take up little real estate in the house because they are so narrow at one end and desperately steep.

Our bedroom and bathroom and toilet were two floors up. The only way I could feel safe moving up and down these stairs was to lean my back against the wall as I crept very carefully step by step down the widest part of the steps which was of course the furthest part from any balustrade or anything to hang onto.

So yes we are back to that defining theme of this trip TFS - Those Friggin' Steps.

The one great thing about this house was it had a really good kitchen. By this stage, we were hanging out for a home-cooked meal. Yes I know another first world problem!

So with not even any shops in Sery Magneval, and nothing enticing on the restaurant front in Creepy, we spent 4 nights cooking for ourselves which was fabulous. Still didn't make up for TFS though!

There were two main reasons for visiting the area, champagne and WW1.

We were astounded to discover that while the village of Villers Brettoneux and some of the surrounding famous towns of the "Western Front" on the Somme river are household names in Australia, most French have never heard of them!!!

With uncles who had fought on the Western Front, I was very keen to get some sense of the history of Aussie soldiers battling in the region during WW1. I wasn't in the least bit interested in the Normandy Beaches of WW2. It was time for this little Aussie to make the pilgrimage to that part of France. Of course, a pilgrimage to Gallipoli is also still on our wish list for a later trip. But what happened, 3 years after Gallipoli, in Picardie is just as important to Aussie history. So off we went to Villers Brettoneux.

Interestingly at Melbourne airport on our departure I picked up Tom Kenneally's book Daughters of Mars and have been engrossed. This was about Aussie nurses behind the front both in the Dardanelles and on the Western Front. It's been fascinating and I highly recommend it.

VIllers Brettoneux is absolutely Aussiefied. The museum is above the school. The school that was rebuilt after the war thanks to the donations of Victorian school children and everywhere is the message. Never forget the Australians. Even the very contemporary local creche was called Les Marsupiaux and everyone in town is welcoming of Aussies.

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More sombre however was the amazingly beautiful Australian National War Memorial. It was damaged during WW2 and the buildings still bear the bullet marks as do many buildings in the Picardie region. It was really eerie and evocative to be there alone on the hillside looking over land Australian soldiers fought to save, but standing among hundreds of war graves. Many of the graves have no names and bear only the words A Soldier of the Great War - Known Unto God. And above stands a wall with the names of 11,000 soldiers killed there.

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To see these graves was immeasurably moving. It is undoubtedly a sad place but I am so glad we went there. There was more we wanted to see but we ran out of time. What was striking though was that wherever we went in towns tiny and large were war cemeteries. French, British, Australian, Canadian and of course civilians as well. They were very stark reminders of what to us is unimaginable. And then we drove home to our holiday house and saw again that town's memorial.

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We wanted to go on to Amiems and see the Cathedral there, but we got stuck in a traffic jam! Turned out to be some massive train festival. We turned around and went home instead.

Having got so sick of TFS we hatched a plan to abandon one night of our booking and head into Reims and stay in a hotel for one night.

But our adventure in Picardie still had one last little battle for us.

We had risen early to pack up, tidy up the house and head to Reims. Having just ditched the leftover milk and wine and a little leftover jam down the sink, P suddenly noticed water (no actually curdled milk and lots of water) spreading out from under the kitchen bench. We found that the Dodgy Brothers plumbing under the sink had come apart and everything we had put down the sink had fallen into the back (walled off) section of the cupboard and was now leaking out across the floor and spreading at a furious pace.

After using all the paper towel, and tea towels, I made a trip up and down TFS for a towel for more mopping and P crawled under the sink to reconnect the pieces as best he could!

So onto showering packing stripping beds only to discover when we got downstairs, and had the car mostly packed, it had started leaking again but this time the hoses still seemed to be connected.

By this time the language was curdling the air!!!!

Over to the neighbour, who sent her husband over and made it very obvious that this was not her problem. Hubby insisted on finding the mains and switching off the supply (despite it being a drain problem). Wifey had a bitch about how she wasn't being paid for this and we all locked up the house having done all we could. I made contact with AirBnB who promised to contact the owner whom I hadn't been able to reach.

And then we couldn't even get the hell out of there, because the whole area and the whole drive to Reims, we were enveloped in thick fog!!!

After all of these sorry events, the hotel was heavenly! Our stay there also allowed us to go on a tour of the "caves" or lengthy passages of chalk-walled cellars in which French Champagne is traditionally prepared and stored. Oh the sight of all those MILLIONS of bottles, I was just dribbling. So it was lucky there was a tasting at the end. And then we want to a bar and tasted a couple more varieties.

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Plus of course we also explored the Reims Cathedral, site of numerous coronations of French Kings and with some stunning stained glass windows (including one by Chagall in the 60s).

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The next morning, I woke very excited, it was time to leave our car and head to Paris.

Posted by OwenGadflies 01:29 Archived in France Tagged france picardie villers_brettonneux Comments (4)

I Wouldn't Call It Excessive But...

No Wonder the Peasants Ended Up Revolting!

Yes I know I haven't written for a while but I have to have the experiences to be able to tell the stories. And now I'm on the plane home I've got the time to tell the stories.

So last time we talked it was Bordeaux and yummy wines. This time our adventures saw us in a little town called Mer between Blois and Orleans in the Loire valley. How you get a town called Mer in the middle of the country, nowhere near the sea which is what the word means in French, is beyond me. It was also beyond Google Maps, because every time I entered it in the search it put me on a seaboard somewhere in France nowhere near my destination.

The Loire is the valley of Middle Ages excess. It's the valley of Chateaux with a capital C. They're everywhere you drive, and the French seem very proud of them. That's understandable as a tourist offering, but a bit weird when you think about the French Revolution and modern France's fierce pride in that Revolution.

Frankly, by this stage, we were flagging after nearly 4 weeks of touristing, steeped in art and history. So, we decided it was a fair chance that seeing one chateau meant getting a pretty good idea of the whole Chateau-building obsession. (Yes it's definitely a first world problem to get chateau or history-fatigue.) But to do it justice, we went to two.

The first was Chambord which is arguably the biggest and most famous wedding cake you could see. This just happened to be so close to where we were staying that we had actually dined at a hotel in the grounds the night before. The immediate grounds were surprisingly plain and the castle itself was mainly empty when I expected it to be filled with recreations of the period.

However, it was amazing and from the top was a stunning view across the countryside. The most delightful, and totally unnecessary, feature was a set of massive dual spiral staircases weaving their way up through the entire centre of the building. We each walked one set of the stairs, and every metre or so was a window-sized opening into the central stairwell where we could see and talk to each other. My fevered brain instantly imagined ladies and gentlemen in sixteenth century dress flirtatiously running up and down stairs, playing tricks on each other. Maybe I should watch less period dramas!

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Of course, much to Phil's delight, there was an abundance of gargoyles to photograph so that was bit of entertainment for him. My recollection is that this was built as a hunting lodge for the king. Some bloody hunting lodge - is all I can say. But what that meant was that it was surrounded by miles of beautiful forest with stags and wild boar etc and that was all inside the chateau walls. On two nights, we used that road to get to local towns for dinner and each night we saw wild boar foraging on the roadside!

The other chateau we visited was Cheverny, where you only see parts of the building because some French aristocrat and his family still live there. It was a bit weird looking at family photos of them in some of the rooms we were ushered through. It did prove our theory though. Seen one ...

Though there were a couple of oddities I wanted to share, apart from the oddity of grooms and kennel men in eighteenth century breeches etc. Apparently the Marquise of Whatsisname is a keen hunter and horseman. So there were these massive concrete kennels enclosures with a 'house' in the middle of them for these ENORMOUS beagles which are the hunting dogs. We watched them being fed. Firstly, one man with a whip went into the enclosure of about 50 dogs and with a few shouts and flicks of the whip had them all retreating into the kennel baying at the door but too scared to come out of the still open door.

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After washing down the concrete he then returned with this massive wheelbarrow filled with about 40kg of dried dog food and at least as much again in huge poultry carcasses still with their combs etc on. This was dumped in the centre of the enclosure to increased baying and howling from the dogs now behind a closed door in the kennel.

He then returned with another group of about 50 more hounds who were let loose on this food while the others remained behind the door. Eventually the enclosed group were also allowed out and they were climbing all over each other to get to the food as well as fighting over carcasses. Clearly they were working dogs where a hierarchy is maintained, but I personally found it all somewhat cruel and a little sickening.

Here's a better link to those dogs.

The other intriguing element is that the chateau was the basis for Herge's drawings in Tintin, the children's stories. Having had a stage of obsession for Tintin within our household back in late primary school days, we decided to tour the Tintin gallery which was quite clever and interactive and would be heaven for any Young Tintin reader. In fact, I have a great-nephew who is probably heading into the right age group to be introduced to Tintin, especially given his obsession with France!

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While I stayed home writing for all of you, P went walking down by the River Loire and watched the locals kayaking and even better playing petanque in delightful parkland beside the river.

So he got some respite from his endless driving around. But secretly, I think he actually enjoyed hammering down the freeway at 130kph, even if it was on the "wrong" side of the road!

Posted by OwenGadflies 00:06 Archived in France Tagged france chambord loire_valley cheverny tintin Comments (3)

Just For A Change

We Change Our Mind

It was as I wrote an email to my sister, by this time herself travelling in Ireland, that I saw the light.

While not everything was booked, our plan was to spend mainly 1 or 2 nights (with the occasional 3 nights) for the NEXT TWO WEEKS!

Suddenly I thought of endless driving, endless unpacking and packing, and not much appreciation of anything. Nowhere had that been on our agenda. The light dawned. We (well maybe it was me) were trying to squeeze too many places across too much distance into too little time. So we went and bought a map and sat down and worked out what was on our itinerary and what was causing us most difficulty to squeeze in. As a result (and somewhat reluctantly for both of us) Mont St Michel and Bayeux and Giverny proved to be the most outlying and difficult to fit in.

Having booked Toulouse and Bordeaux so we could go up to Mont St Michel (MSM) right up on the north coast, we had gone a bit out of our way but we decided that we would just divide the 10 days before we were due to head to Paris into 2x5-day stops and take the stress off ourselves. Instead of visiting Chartres cathedral from Paris as originally planned, we will instead visit Giverny on a day trip from Paris because we could easily reach Chartres from the Loire valley where we were staying.

It was amazing how relieved we felt despite agreeing to leave MSM until a later trip.

Toulouse turned out to be a delightful and elegant place and our B and B hosts were so helpful and our room so comfy we were glad we weren't missing out on it. I had some shopping planned for a particular store in Toulouse where despite our limited French and English I made some happy purchases.

In the exploring I also found a store with some lovely glass jewellery. Proving our BnB host entirely correct, the French staff in this arty store were truly obnoxious. Our BnB host Bernard, clearly a well travelled and insightful man, says that in France the class system is well and truly alive and his fellow Frenchmen need to get over themselves. Even though I wanted to spend a considerable number of euros in their store I was shit and that's the way I would be treated. Despite my anger at their behaviour I wasn't going to cut off my nose to spite my face ( or a Frenchman) and I proceeded with my little purchases.

But the rest of Toulouse was delightful and we were reluctant to leave such a pretty place. Strikingly the middle of town shopping area was so classic Haussmann and therefore very reminiscent of Paris architecture.

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So the next day onto Bordeaux and another gorgeous little chambre d'hote (kind of like a BnB but in his case no breakfast but instead an arrangement at the cafe 5 doors down for a special breakfast for we guests). What's more again we were in the centre of the older part of town and a real village atmosphere in the streets around us. Plus we were on top of a very nice restaurant also owned by our host. After dining there the first night, I felt very French as I opened the windows the next day and chatted down to our previous night's waiter setting up down in the street!!!

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The next day was time to tour both a bit of Bordeaux and St Emilion the famous village of so many Bordeaux wineries.

Things got a bit compromised in town when I tripped over a 4cm step and landed on my replaced knee. Embarrassment reigned supreme but 10 mins later when a large egg was rapidly going blue on my knee I was not so quick to brush it all off. Now a week later the bruising has spread from the front of my knee all the way down to the top of my foot! Think I did a good job of it. Still very sore and plan to get it checked when I get back home to reassure myself I haven't done any great damage to my precious titanium and plastic knee.

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But after returning to our room and leaving P to capture Bordeaux in photos i started to feel a little better So we headed off to St Emilion. It's a gorgeous little town and worth it even if we didn't taste any wines. But we saw all those vines dragged down with clusters of grapes. Strangely unlike our vineyards, they only allow the vines to grow to about waist height and the fruit is only hanging in clusters from the bottom of the vine. Very voluptuous and exotic they looked. Ripe for the picking as they say. And seeing it's harvest time (vendange) that's not all that surprising!

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Further to my comments about the French and their renowned rudeness and arrogance I notice that younger French no matter their level of English skills are delightful, polite, and always helpful as was our young host in Bordeaux, Pierre Jean. LOVED Bordeaux, a real art town. Many contemporary art installations around and fantastic quality street art.

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Definitely recommend it.

So next we hit the Loire valley, home of chateaux and bygone wealth aplenty.

A bientôt.

Posted by OwenGadflies 12:05 Archived in France Tagged art france grapes wine street_art toulouse bordeaux Comments (6)

Soaking Up Landscapes:

OR NOT!

One of the places high on my wish list for Provence was the Camargue.

The Camargue National Park is flat marsh lands that lie south west of Marseille and Arles. They are famous for the small white horses that have roamed there for centuries and for the local cowboys who ride them. [[camargue]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camargue_horse]. They are also famous for pink flamingos that wade in these marshlands. See romantic heh?

Well...

We chose to drive down there on a Sunday. We went through Arles which is in theory famous as the location of some of Van Gogh's most famous pieces like [[this]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Langlois_Bridge_at_Arles_(Van_Gogh_series)]. Well Arles is so concerned about Van Gogh that they have none of his paintings in Arles and nowhere are there signposts to the bridge itself which has been picked up and moved by the powers that be so they can claim some tourist connections with Van Gogh. We looked and we looked and we looked and in the end we gave up!!

So on to the real purpose of the trip. Lucky there was another purpose or we'd have been sadly disapopointed in Arles! On to the road down into the Camargue. I was kind of disappointed to see endless ranches with these famous horses all saddled up waiting around for someone to be intrigued enough to purchase a ride on them. We probably saw a couple of hundred of them like that at sooooo many ranches. I must admit I did see a couple of them in the wild parts but not close enough to photograph. Clearly they are much more tamed than I had been led to believe.

Eventually we reached the farthest town in the park Saints Marie de la Mer. Well we got to the outskirts and with every metre we moved we found more parks filled with motor homes and motor homes crawling around the streets. People were everywhere and we couldn't even find anywhere to park anywhere near the water that is the Mediterranean. We got so frustrated we didn't even stop the car just turned around and drove out again. Sadly not a pink flamingo was to be seen either!!! Apparently they're are more an early morning phenomenon and with that many people around no one was going to see anything. So no romantic horses and no flamingos! Not happy Jan!!!

In hindsight our biggest mistake was doing this on a Sunday. But...

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We were so cheesed we ended up driving down to Sete which is a fishing town down further south west past Montpelier and on the way to Spain. Just so we could see the bloody Mediiterranean. Turned out to be a LONG drive back and we didn't return till about 8.30 that night. I was faintly mollified but you might have heard words pass my lips about motor homes at some point on the journey!!!!

Not to be quashed our next adventure was to the the Gorges de l'Ardeche. But on our way we first visited the amazing Pont du Gard an ancient roman aqueduct built in the 1st century AD!!!! Built ov the River Gadon it is a beautiful place and again another reminder of the amazing engineering skills the Romans were able to apply to solving ther problems. It was truly stunning, and the river below was beautiful. An entirely peaceful place. We both LOVED it.

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So then on to the canyons - the Gorges. They are most commonly and best seen by canoe/kayak and there are apparently some fantastic caving locations in the gorge as well because humans have lived in the caves and drawn on the walls there for thousands of years? But for wussy Owens there was no caving nor kayaking, just photo opps!!! Again stunningly beautiful but also again with the RAVINES on Chrissy's Side of the car on the way back!!! is this man trying to frighten me to death before my birthday or what????? Just not as bad as the ravines at Mt Ventoux. At least we saw something - unlike the Camargue!!

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In between we'd also explored Avignon, a delightful town with most of the ramparts from its fortress times still intact. And yes we went Sur la pont d'Avignon. Ho hum! We'd also dined well, after all we were in France, except for the night when the French and their animals went a bit tooooooo far. We kept looking gobsmacked as French people took their dogs on the train, into shops, into toilets, into restaurants, into museums, into hotels for accommomdation with their owners etc etc. But one night we discovered the restaurant cat! Sorry not a cat lover ( just for those who are wondering!). We were disgusted but the French among the diners kept feeding it tidbits so it was up on the arms of chairs etc. Needless to say there'll be no good review for that restaurant on TripAdvisor!!!

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Next we're off to Toulouse and Bordeaux and we make some changes to our itinerary.

See you on the next entry

Au revoir. A bientot.

Posted by OwenGadflies 10:06 Archived in France Tagged horses france dining mediterranean avignon sete pont_du_gard camargue gorges_de_l'ardeche Comments (4)

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