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Two People, Fourteen Months, One huge world!

France - Part 2 - June

FRANCE | Sunday, 23 October 2016 | Views [948] | Comments [3]

We swept into Paris on a tide of enthusiasm which was equally matched by a flood tide of river waters.  During the few days of our visit we watched with bated breath as the River Seine rose higher and higher from the ankles to the waist of the famed Zouave statue beneath the Alma Bridge which locals have always used to measure the severity of a flood.  Only twice before (1910 and 1955) have levels exceeded those that we experienced.

Tree Lined Avenues Everywhere - Love Them!

Tree Lined Avenues Everywhere - Love Them!

We were fortunate in our timing however as we visited the Louvre at our earliest opportunity to view such classics as the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo as well as the antiquities of the ancient world and the apartments of the Emperor Napoleon which were unexpectedly sumptuous.  The next day the museum was closed to the public to allow evacuation of the treasures in the basement to safeguard from the rising flood waters.  Our visit to the impressionist treasures of the Musée D’Orsay was even more finely timed as it closed later that same afternoon.  Interruptions are what the French are quite good at however and visiting Paris at a time of a national rail strike provided its challenges.  We were always able to find a workaround though and in addition to the world famous art and sculptures at the two aforementioned museums we managed to strut our stuff atop the Arc De Triomphe, along the Champs Elysées, and around Notre Dame as well as sampling the bohemian atmosphere of Montmartre, once home to famous artists such as Dalí, Monet and Picasso and home also to the infamous Moulin Rouge cabaret.   Nowadays the area is too expensive for genuine artists to afford but is still dominated by the imposing white Basilica of Sacre-Coeur. 

France was under a state of emergency for the whole time that we were there and there was security and bag searching at every shop that we went into along the Champs Elysées.  Despite that we braved entrance to the odd shop and had quite a surreal experience in the Citroën showroom where we were treated to several floors exploring the next generation of electric cars and a basement where we frolicked in a giant ball pit in search of a winning ball that would set us up for generations to come.  We did not find it but managed to persuade a number of equally bemused customers to slip their shoes off and plunge in before relaxing with a morsel from the vintage Citroën snack wagon!

Sainte Chapelle

Sainte Chapelle

A gem that is completely unmissable in Paris is Sainte Chapelle.  After a short time queueing we passed through an elegant under-croft, climbed a short staircase and stepped forth into a stained glass wonderland which is beautiful beyond belief.  The chapel is quite small and it is best to find a good vantage spot from which to survey the gothic interior which is lit with dappled light from the predominantly blue windows which progressively illustrate bible stories.  The 13th century building was built to house Louis IX's collection of relics and is designed to appear weightless with very slender yet richly coloured and decorated support pillars.

If I can take you back to our sojourn on the olive farm in Crete you may recall that we struck up an impromptu friendship there with a Parisian couple who promptly invited us to stay with them when we finally arrived in Paris.  We warned them then that we were the type of people who would take up that offer and gave them a chance to withdraw.  They were having none of that and so our three nights in Paris were spent in lively conversation topped off by us preparing a traditional NZ meal for them in gratitude.  A lovely Kiwi lamb roast was the result with all the trimmings and a bottle of finest sauvignon blanc.  Jean-Claude and Eliane were wonderful hosts and took great delight in offering us aperitifs before each meal, selected from a menu of more than 100 liqueurs, and offering us our choice of almost as many cheeses after we had supped.

Douaumont Ossuary

Douaumont Ossuary

Following our grand plan we continued east through the battlefields of Verdun towards Metz and Nancy.  While in the vicinity of Verdun we visited the frontline trenches in a number of places as well as an ossuary in Douaumont which was the final resting place of at least 130,000 unidentified combatants who took part in a year of hell exactly one hundred years before.  Over the course of that 300 day battle more than 700,000 people were casualties of which 230,000 died.  The reason that so many were identified was the nature of the battle which was essentially an artillery duel with the foot soldiers mere cannon fodder.  When one is killed in such a manner there is rarely a body to bury.

Place Stanislas - Nancy

Place Stanislas - Nancy

Metz and Nancy by contrast were very lively towns which each date back to medieval times.  While Metz may be the more interesting overall Nancy has a crowning delight being Place Stanislas which is considered the most beautiful of all the European royal squares and is a good example of French classicism. The elegant pavilions, majestic fountains and the wrought-iron railings finely decorated with gold leaves have made the city famous.  The square was commissioned by the former King of Poland in 1751 to unite the medieval old town with the new town.  Today it is home to the town hall, the National Opera and the fine arts museum.  We took an afternoon to enjoy the fine arts museum and I was particularly struck by an installation by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama - “Infinity Mirror Room: Fireflies On The Water”. Built inside a small dark room with mirrors on all sides, the exhibit consists of 150 small lights suspended over a small pool which leaves the viewer with a feeling of being suspended in space.

Infinity Mirror Room - Fireflies On The Water

Infinity Mirror Room - Fireflies On The Water

When travelling for so long basic functions such as haircuts cannot be put off forever and so Tamara had been keeping her eyes open for a suitable salon.  The university town of Metz provided the opportunity not just for a top haircut but also for a very entertaining conversation between client and coiffeur in which neither ever got to fully understand the other yet decided to press on anyway.  Despite the inherent risk the end result was wonderful and only cost around $20 on production of Tamara’s student identity card.  I contented myself with another self-inflicted buzz cut on my return to our accommodation.  This time around we were staying with another retired couple in their home in a tiny hamlet attached to a chateau.  The lord of the manor is rarely sighted and plays no part in the villagers’ lives now but the other neighbours were very friendly and were forever popping in and out to share drinks, stories and the odd very competitive game of scrabble.  I even managed to tell a joke in French which got a good laugh!

Astronomical Clock - Strasbourg

Astronomical Clock - Strasbourg

We were very fortunate to be able to track down another good friend from university days, Thomas who is still living in Stüttgart, Germany and so we headed via the canal city of Strasbourg to stay with him for a couple of nights.  In Strasbourg cathedral there is an astronomical clock which shows the positions of the sun, planets, stars and moon as well as a perpetual calendar.  The main attraction is the procession of the 18 inch high figures of Christ and the Apostles which occurs every day at half past midday while the life-size cock crows thrice.  We had timed our visit to coincide with this event including making use of the wonderful park and ride tram system to deliver us to the spot.  Unfortunately, when I popped into the tourist information office to secure some tickets Tamara misunderstood my intentions and had wandered off looking for the suddenly vanished me.  There followed 15 minutes of frantic searching before she emerged from a full circumnavigation of the huge cathedral.  Time waits for no man but by running we managed to be the last to squeeze through the door before the “show” commenced.

Road Trip!

Road Trip!

It was very special to be able to spend some time with Thomas and his two sons as they had recently lost their wife and mother Michaela to cancer.  I also knew Michaela from my time at uni. and it was very sad to hear of their loss.  Our small contribution to that family was to cook up a lovely home cooked meal which they have had few of in the months previous as they try to readjust to a very different life with a very busy working father.  Stüttgart is known for its manufacturing and is home to many famous brands not least Mercedes and Porsche.  We spent a day at the Mercedes museum which was very interesting covering the whole history of car manufacture from motorised carts to the sleek formula one racers of today.  We shelled out a bit more cash for a simulator ride which proved to be a bit of a damp squib really but the rest of the visit was great even if I did have to mop up some of Tamara’s drool from the floor as she surveyed some of her favourite SL models!

For once I had booked up a couple of week’s accommodation in advance but it was clear that Thomas was hoping that we could stay for one more night so we quickly reshuffled the calendar to allow the extension.  Our final night was spent at an old-school disco in a huge old warehouse.  It was hilarious but also quite comforting in a way.  It was as if we had stepped out of the nightclub when we were 20 and then stepped back in a quarter of a century later to find exactly the same people dancing in the same way to the same songs.  No wierdos; just kids who got older – just like us!

Natzweiler-Struthof Concentration Camp

Natzweiler-Struthof Concentration Camp

After Germany we crossed back to France and stayed in the Alsace Lorraine area which has some lovely hills and some even lovelier half-timbered medieval villages.  We were not staying in such a place; instead I had found an apartment in a dusty old mining town called Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines located high in the mountains.  Journeying up to this town we stopped firstly at Natzweiler-Struthof, the only WWII concentration camp to have been located in present day France.  I say present day as it is very obvious that the area has a very strong Germanic flavour to it and it has been occupied by one or other of the countries off and on over the centuries.  At the time of the war it was administered as a part of Germany rather than occupied France.  The concentration camp had a small gas chamber which was so amateurish that it seemed even sicker than the “commercial” one that I had previously seen in Auschwitz.  Here the commander shut them in, looked through the window then poured some chemicals in a drain outlet which mixed together to form a deadly gas.  He would watch until there was no further movement then disengage the chemicals.   Some 55,000 prisoners of the Nazis were held here, mostly from the resistance movements; 40% of these died from overwork and undernourishment while at the camp and these were cremated on-site so it was a very sombre visit.

Fête Des Remparts - Jousting

Fête Des Remparts - Jousting

While we were in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines it absolutely poured down for days which rather cast a dampener on our plans for walks with a view.  We had timed our visit to coincide with a mediaeval Fête Des Remparts in the nearby village of Châtenois however and we were very blessed that the rain stopped for a few hours to allow us to enjoy all that that had to offer.  This fête was set on and around the ramparts of a double walled medieval keep and a very substantial proportion of all attending were dressed in authentic clothing and were role playing very effectively.  At every step there was another encounter whether it be with a dance troupe, witch trial, burning at the stake, blacksmith with bellows and furnace, entertainer or food hawker.  The centrepiece was a display of jousting in front of the “King” and his family whereby the horses would thunder along in the grassy moat overlooked by the appreciative crowd all sitting carefully on the soggy ground.  There were over 500 costumed actors and as the town was so preserved, it was very much as if we had been transported back five centuries at times.

Chocolate Box Villages

Chocolate Box Villages

We now had a very long journey to get to the alps so decided to break it up with a couple of stops, first in Colmar, and then overnight in Besançon.  Colmar is a completely chocolate box town with brightly coloured half-timbered medieval buildings clustered around a rushing river and sedate canals.  I was tempted by a street vendor selling artisan sausages and bought a particularly nice mulberry sausage which had a very distinctive taste never before experienced.  Besançon by contrast is a much larger university town which has been continuously occupied since 1500BC when a group of wandering Gauls decided to set up camp in the oxbow of the river.  The town is very strategically located and has been fought over and conquered many times, it is now dominated by a giant citadel.  The lady we were staying with there was quite a character.  She hails originally from Brittany and learnt to sail at an early age before spending a large part of her life sailing the oceans professionally for people rich enough to own a yacht and smart enough to realise that they don’t know how to sail!  Now she is a teacher and rents a room to meet people.  The room is super cheap but really good and perfectly located to explore the town centre.  When asked why she doesn’t ask more she replies that if she charges more then people expect more and consequently complain more.  We were happy sitting watching the European cup with her smoking like a chimney beside us so I guess it works.  We walked up to the citadel which is now a rather original zoo with apes in the moat and all kinds of other animals tucked away in the oddest nooks and crannies.

Les Alpes - Domancy Panorama

Domancy Panorama

My tour of old Uni. friends was not yet complete.  We based ourselves in the French Alps close to Mont Blanc and were delighted to be able to catch up with another friend Yves and his girlfriend.  They drove up from Geneva to spend the day with us which included a wander around the emerald lake complete with petrified logs and a view over the valley which was to die for.  From this point we were able to watch paragliders enthusiastically hurl themselves toward the valley floor looking to take as long as possible to reach it.  Yves was not the only one to journey up from Geneva to link up with us; we were delighted that my parents were again able to join us on our adventure for a few days and we took the opportunity to ascend the Aguille de Midi cable car from Chamonix 3777m up the slopes of Mont Blanc.  It was fascinating to watch as climbers came and went, nonchalantly crossing the line between safety and adventure. 

Mum Ready For Adventure

Mum ready for adventure

Seizing the opportunity as one group passed we were able to get my mum fully equipped with climbing rope, helmet and gear ready for a photo call but it was not long before we four also set off into the icy wastes.  We had opted for a far more sensible mode of transport via the Vallée Blanche cable car which took 30minutes gliding over the glaciers to reach a peak in Italy.  (This is the same cable car in which 30 people were trapped overnight that same September – having experienced the cars and the fierce cold I do not envy those passengers their experience!).

Vallée Blanche Cable Car

Vallée Blanche cable car

At Aguile de Midi there is an opportunity for the intrepid traveller to step into a glass box suspended over a 1000m precipice.  We needed no second invitation and soon found ourselves floating in space held aloft only by a pair of magical felt slippers.

Step Into The Void

Step Into The Void

We couldn’t be so close to Switzerland and not partake in a fondue and La Crèmerie du Glacier offered us that opportunity.  A short but delightful walk through the forest brought us to this crèmerie which was just opening for the season.  As we have previously noted we had not had the best of luck with the weather but our days with my parents turned out absolutely gloriously and we were able to enjoy the mountains, rivers and forests in pure sunlight.

Caverne du Pont d'Arc

Caverne du Pont d'Arc 

When we had been planning our trip through France we had expected to be racing across the “boring” central portion down to the south west and Biarritz.  “Not so” our Metz hosts had told us, “that is one of our favourite parts of the country” and so we had hastily rearranged our thoughts, shortening our time in the Alps so as to allow for more leisure time while crossing the Ardèche region.  We are so glad that we did as this area is now one of our favourites too.  Exploring the Caverne du Pont d’Arc where the earliest cave paintings were discovered was a very surreal experience.  These paintings were not indistinguishable scribble but contained shading, toning and very realistic images of the animals that surrounded the artists 31,000 years ago.  A landslide that sealed the opening to the cave also had the effect of preserving the cave until its discovery in 1984.  The cave itself is once again hermetically sealed but has been recreated in stunningly realistic detail so that we are able to experience it.

Pont d'Arc

Pont d'Arc

From these caves it was only a very short trip to reach the Pont D’Arc itself.  We were not the only ones to have discovered this impressive natural stone arch and we joined the many kayakers and swimmers splashing about in the Ardèche River which flows gracefully through a gorge before passing under the spectacular arch.

Kayaking - Gorge du Tarn

Kayaking - Gorge du Tarn

We were staying first with a stonemason in the home that he had painstakingly renovated high in the hills.  This family were so welcoming and we quickly pooled our food resources to put together a sumptuous feast on our first night.  After a couple of nights with them we headed further west to a hotel in the Cevennes region located at the entrance to the magnificent Gorge du Tarn.  Determined to experience this gorge from the water itself we hired kayaks and propelled ourselves 20 odd kilometres from the Moulin de la Malène to Les Vignes thankfully hopping out just before the sign reading “Danger of Death”!  In this gorge beauty awaits around every bend and it was such a pleasant day working together to gauge each rapid and formulate a sensible plan to pass through in an upright position.

Millau Viaduct

Millau Viaduct

The aptly named Hotel Paradis where we were staying had a meal plan which was the highlight of every reviewer’s commentary.  Each night we were served a different four course meal with several alternative options and a lovely bottle of full bodied red wine for €15 each.  Our only problem seemed to be in finishing everything!  What with the kayaking and walking in the hills behind the hotel we did our best to exercise away the calories but it was a struggle that was being lost by the waistline.  Eventually we tore ourselves away and followed the flow of the Tarn River down past the Millau Viaduct, which soars effortlessly above on the tallest pylons in the world, to the pungent caves of Roquefort where we were able to sample some exquisite blue veined cheeses. 

Biarritz

Biarritz

From there we bed hopped across the country until we reached to the west coast once more where we explored the legendary surf capital of Biarritz.  Along the way we had followed an ant trail of caravans and motorhomes which made it clear that we were heading into the French holiday months. That didn’t matter – Spain was once again beckoning.

‘Till next time…………. 

Authors

Tags: alps, floods, friends, kayaking, mercedes, road trip

 

Comments

1

I just loved the Infinity Mirror Room and I am just wondering if your French friends laughed at your joke or the way you spoke their language?

  Frances Nov 21, 2016 9:12 AM

2

Definitely the joke itself. :-)

  Iain Nicholls Nov 22, 2016 5:27 AM

3

Cool, just checking! I still have enough trouble with English, never mind French!

  Frances Nov 22, 2016 11:18 AM

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