FRANCE & SPAIN
Thursday 4 June
Up at 4.45am, just as well, as reception failed their 5am call. Booked out, District from Bayswater to Edgeware Road, Circle to St Pancras, Eurostar to Lille. No dramas only lugging cases up and down stairs in the absence of lifts is not great on the knees and Lilly insists on doing her share.
We find the hotel, try some bumbling French on the very friendly and understanding receptionist (quickly realizing her English will get us all by) book in, get a map and spend most of the day walking around this intriguing and beautiful city.
Lille has a population of about 230,000, with a recorded history going back about a thousand years. The Grand Place and many of the squares are teeming with cafes and people drinking and eating. Are there any French left doing anything else?
The Column of the Goddess in the centre of Grand Place is the popular name given by the citizens to the Memorial of the Siege surrounded by a fountain since around 1990. It commemorates a siege by the Austrian army of 20,000 men in 1792. Apparently this was part of the French revolutionary wars and has no great significance.
We spend 2 or 3 hours in the Palais Beaux-Arts Lille which is ranked only behind the Louvre in France for its collection of art and compares favourably with the National Gallery in London. In the huge upstairs rooms, which are like caverns themselves we find paintings by Rubens, Chardin, David, Monet, Veronese, El Greco and Ribera. Lilly is taken with the home room of sculptures particularly the muscular nudes either on horseback or just posing.
Later I get confused with the map – am I disoriented by where the sun is? I google it:
“It is very commonplace for pilots, sailors and walkers on my courses to report an uneasy feeling on venturing from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern or vice versa. It is almost equally common for these same people to report that their other half does not experience this sensation. My informal analysis of this is that those who regularly navigate for any reason have a more active subconscious alignment system based on external clues, like the sun. Their system is imperfectly reset when they change hemisphere as the sun’s direction has ‘flipped’ during the middle of the day and since it was a subconscious process it causes unease (a sensation that borders on nausea in the worst cases). Where a wife or husband does not experience this, my guess is that wayfinding is less important to them, and their system is not significantly active and therefore little or no reset is necessary.”
That explains it perfectly. I am always switched on to navigating my way around. In London and now again in Lille I am having real problems with map interpretation. Map and reality are all about face. It’s where the sun is I am sure. Lilly, not usually switched on at all to geography, had to help this evening as we made our way to Vieux Lille. At least Lilly is at home in Lille.
Vieux Lille is an old part of the city with narrow cobbled alleys and bars and restaurants aplenty. It also contains the city’s museum, the Cathedrale Notre Dame de la Treille and the birthplace of Charles de Gaulle. We saw the cathedral at the end of the street but had run out of time for anything else.
A restaurant that I read about was fully booked so we trudged back to main part of the city for starters, a steak and a beer (me) and mixed grill and water (Lilly). No change from equivalent A$80. Lilly will not want to eat out again as it was pretty ordinary. I tell her only if we are prepared to pay double that, will we dine tres bon in France.
Friday 5 June
Big day today, re-learning to drive a manual, driving for the first time on the right hand side of the road in two different countries while grappling with incomprehensible road signs and learning how to use our new satnav. Really out of the comfort zone. Many of the city streets are narrow and one-way. Without the Garmin we would be hopelessly immobile. Lilly was a huge help, keeping me informed of the satnav instructions and constantly reminding me of intersection rules. We had two hair-raising moments earlier, both when I initially looked to the right at roundabouts. Both times I braked in time, once fairly hard. By the end of the day and about 130km I felt a bit more comfortable. Troubles me though a bit that if under pressure how will I react? Keep speed down for a start and travel the country roads where there is not so much traffic. Fortunately in this part of the world and in Belgium today the drivers are polite and patient. I stalled the car in 3rd at an intersection today and there was only one small reminder toot and then everyone waited patiently till the lights changed again.
The car is a diesel Renault equipped with a satnav that does not have maps of France! We made our way very tentatively out of Lille to Roubaix and probably spent an extra hour looking for La Piscine (museum of Fine Arts) in that town. The problem was not having a destination address and not responding quickly enough to the satnav instructions, both my shortcomings.
We eventually found La Piscine a converted swimming pool, originally built in 1932 and thought to be one of the best in France at that time. Lilly misses a step down from the pavement outside, stumbles and falls heavily on her left side chest and ribs. She is quite distressed, people have seen and gather to help but she quickly recovers. Later she is sore and for a couple of weeks she does not want to laugh or sneeze.
The pool looks to be about 50 metres long with little changing rooms on two levels alongside it and other rooms with private baths and tubs. About 20 years ago it was probably too expensive to maintain and was converted to house this collection of paintings and sculptures etc. A fine collection and worth seeing but having spent time in the National Gallery in London and then in the museum in Lille, we are spoilt for art.
We travel on to Passchendaele in Belgium, probably took us about half an hour, mainly motorways. No borders, quite seamless, just a roadside sign indicating we had crossed into another country. Passchendaele since 1917 has been synonymous with all the horrors of the 1st World War. Here thousands of young men faced the might of the German armies dug in and well-fortified.
We visit Tyne Cot Cemetery a huge area of graves of known and unknown soldiers. There are many visitors and tour groups. This was all that we were told about and read. Photos show shattered bodies and buildings, landscapes of mud, shell craters and barbed wire. Commanders sacrificed the lives of too many. Helpless soldiers were mown down by machine-guns and artillery including huge numbers of ANZACs. From what I read, for the NZ’ers the battle for Passchendaele reached a climax in early October when a successful assault on a spur into the town was followed by a devastating defeat at another spur. The ridge leading to the village was the site of the worst disaster, in terms of lives lost, in New Zealand’s post–1840 history. In this area the New Zealand Division suffered more than 18,000 casualties – including around 5000 deaths – and won three Victoria Crosses for bravery. In this area and around Ypres 250,000 allied troops and 215,000 Germans troops lost their lives. As we walk around the graves and read the names and ranks and many tombstones with “grave of an unknown soldier” or grave of an unknown New Zealand soldier” it is a time for reflection. We both struggle with our emotions at the realization that so many lives were so needlessly lost.
We drive on to Ypres (pronounced Epri – pri as in privy) a town called (Ieper) in Flanders which became a primary allied objective during the war. The troops called it Wipers because nobody could pronounce it. Around here and including Passchendaele three separate battles (1914, 1915 and 1917) were fought in the Great War. In the first, the British suffered terrible losses, the second involved the first use of poisonous gas as a weapon by the Germans, and the third resulted in the deaths of over half a million men of allied forces.
We visit the Menin Gate a huge memorial to allied forces which spans the main road into Ypres. Every night since 1928 the locals stop the traffic and for about an hour hold a ceremony here in honour of the forces that sacrificed their lives. It is apparently very moving and taken very seriously by the locals and the many visitors that attend. I had planned to attend but don’t want to drive back to Lille in the dark so after coffee and taking pictures of this historic town (every second shop seems to sell chocolate) we drive on.
The countryside is mainly flat to slightly rolling. It is all planted in crops, no fruit trees, some dairy herds, very few sheep, but in one area, hops. We take country roads on our way back to Lille. I had hoped to find a place called Messine on the way back and quite by accident see a sign pointed to Mesen. We take the road and in this little town find a tourist place which is deserted and is an hour beyond closing time. We go in and there we find more displays of the war and a map showing where New Zealand Street (can’t remember the name in Flemish) is. Not far away we find the memorial I was looking for. Here for the NZ Division, major operations began on 7 June 1917 with the capture of Messines (Mesen) ridge. The memorial is set in grounds overlooking the ridge. Two German bunkers from the time are at the lower end of about 2 acres of grounds, all very beautifully maintained. Even if many NZers are unaware of the sacrifices made by their country almost 98 years ago to the day, the locals in this small town have a constant reminder, not far from the middle of their town. And they look after it so well.
We drive back to Lille and put the car to bed down a floor in this small garage buried in a labyrinth of very narrow one-way streets not far from our apartment. The tension of a day of driving and the emotions of seeing so many graves, has taken its toll. I am knackered and collapse into bed about 9.
Saturday 6 June
Load our suitcases into the car while a bus waits patiently behind us in the narrow street and off we go to Vimy and the Canadian Memorial. A massive structure sitting on the very ridge the Canadians fought so hard to take from the Germans in the Great War. The four Canadian divisions were successful but suffered 10,602 casualties: 3,598 killed and 7,004 wounded.
We drive on through beautiful countryside, huge expanses of what looks like either wheat or barley, also spuds and other crops. No fences, very few animals, no grass, all under cultivation. We take the secondary highways and drive through little towns. Beautiful countryside, so glad we are travelling by car and not tearing down the motorways. Miss our way at one point and GPS takes us on sealed tracks that look like someone’s drive but we make it.
We arrive in Arras about mid-morning. The city center has adjacent squares called the Grand Place and La Place des Héros. Each is surrounded by “a unique architectural ensemble of 155 Flemish-Baroque-style townhouses”. Apparently they were originally constructed 2 or 300 years ago of timber but were so badly damaged in World War I, they were reconstructed of brick after the war.
The Roman Catholic cathedral 200 metres from Grand Place is worth seeing. We arrive within 10 minutes of closing! Originally constructed between 1030 and 1396, it is absolutely enormous. How did they possess the wherewithal to construct such a huge edifice and finish it off so grandly? Well hold on. It was re-built in the years from 1755 (rudely interrupted by the French Revolution) to 1834. In April 1917 it was destroyed by shelling and subsequently re-built in its previous form. So although the church is old, the building itself is not. Still grand but not old and grand.
We next visit Carriere Wellington, planned in particular because of the NZ involvement, but a highlight notwithstanding. I had never heard of the place. Since the middle-ages the chalk beds beneath Arras had been quarried for the buildings. The Brits decided to use them as shelters and as a way of getting the troops secretly up to the front line of the Germans who were dug in. (Could they have gone a bit further and come up behind the German lines?) They brought in 500 kiwis from mining areas in NZ and they dug about 20km of tunnels. It was dangerous work, 41 of them died and another 150 were injured. The tunnellers named some of the quarries with place names like Auckland, Wellington, Nelson and Blenheim etc and we could see these names on the walls with arrows pointing to the locations.
We travel on to Amiens arriving late in the day but with half an hour to spare before the Cathedral closes. This cathedral is another step up. Absolutely monstrous. It was built in 1152 in Romanesque style and was destroyed by fire in 1218. Reconstruction was started around 1220 and finally completed in 1288. The south tower was constructed about 1366 and the north tower about 1401. According to UNESCO “it is notable for the coherence of its plan, the beauty of its three-tier interior elevation and the particularly fine display of sculptures on the principal facade and in the south transept.” They have it listed as a World Heritage Site. To us its size was the most notable. Apparently around that time, cities competed to build the most magnificent religious buildings. This cathedral’s height of the ceiling is about 42.3 m (compared with c. 37 m at Chartres, c. 38 m at Reims and 2.4 m at home) and the width of the nave is about 14.6 m. It also has the greatest interior volume of any French cathedral, estimated at 200,000 cubic metres.
We spend the night in a traditional French home. Our hosts are Alain and Mirelle. He speaks reasonable English and gets us settled in. We are two floors up with our own bathroom. It is a charming home and so are our hosts. The room is cozy and the bed comfy and the continental breakfast delicious. The baguettes were freshly baked this morning and we will return again, if only for the breakfasts. 10 out of 10.
Sunday 7 June
We press on early morning. We have a lot to do today and quite a bit of travel.
We take the country road option. The country is flat to rolling and again the wheat or barley and various crops predominate. There are small towns frequently, all the homes are brick and very much in the same style with just the one gable. Stop briefly at the charming town of Mondidier to line up for pastries at a patisserie in the town centre. The queue stretched into the street. Not sure why I singled out Montdidier, it may have been because it suffered destruction in the Great War, or it featured in a novel.
We go across country to Compiegne a town of about 40,000 and most noted for its Château de Compiègne, a royal residence built for Louis XV and restored by Napoleon. This massive palace, castle, chateau, call it what you will, is another expression of how the French royalty lived even after the revolution and later Napoleon’s takeover. Even before the building of the chateau, Compiègne was the preferred summer residence for French monarchs, primarily for hunting given its proximity to Compiègne Forest. The first royal residence was built in 1374 for Charles V and a long procession of successors both visited it and modified it. But what we see today was not what it was back in the 14th century. It was renovated from 1750 to about 1790 and Napoleon had another go about 1807. The style is lavish, the rooms are huge and cavernous, the art works and paintings are amazing. Luxury to extreme is Lilly’s description.
Because we are in reasonably good time we go on to Pierrefonds Castle. Built in the 12th century, this castle was destroyed in the 17th century then completely restored by the architect Viollet-le-Duc under the direction of Napoleon III. The latter was nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. The reconstruction set out to preserve some elements of what it had been, making Pierrefonds a medieval as well as a modern 19th century castle. For this, Pierrefonds is known as “the romantic folly of the Emperor”. We struggle to find parking and walk a long way to get in and out. Having our lunch in the shade on the way out. July is apparently the busiest month, but half the rest of the world has got to be here already.
The main objective today is the Chateau de Chantilly. We struggle to get there by 2:30pm for the horse show. We make it for a show very well-done. No silly stuff but some amazing performances culminating in a performer doing a backward somersault of the back of one of the perhaps six horses cantering around the ring. Beautiful and highly-trained horses followed later by a dressage demonstration.
The site itself is immense and the gardens and ponds stretch out in front of the estate forever. There are two attached buildings: the Petit Château built around 1560 for Anne de Montmorency, and the Grand Château, which was destroyed during the French Revolution and rebuilt in the 1870s. Now owned by the country, the château houses one of the finest art galleries in France, probably second only to the Louvre.
We travel down to Paris late in the day. We are tired and the traffic once we hit the outskirts of the city is chaotic. We are both fully taken up with interpreting the GPS and watching out on all sides. Eventually we make it and park the car in a booked space made weeks previously. We drag our bags a few blocks and struggle to find the apartment and contact the owners. A young guy meets us and we get settled in. The accommodation is unique, up a narrow winding three floors. Lilly takes some bags and fits into the world’s smallest lift. Our legs and feet are sore and the knees are shaky.
Monday 8 June
Today the first thing we did was to take the car for a very “pleasant” outing through the streets of Paris to get some diesel before we returned it to Europcar. It is crazy driving here and I am glad to see the car safely returned to Europcar. We tracked off to the tourist bureau where we picked up our museum pass. Excuse me a second or three, my beloved is walking around in her undies and it is very distracting. We walk four blocks to the Louvre. I thought we had already seen all the art that France could possibly possess but this museum/art gallery/national treasure house/ must be number one in the world. I thought that we had seen some magnificent cathedrals and palaces and Château and collections of art, but today the Louvre topped the lot.
My beloved agrees that the others had a lot of merit, today at the Louvre we saw magnificence not only in terms of the structure of this former palace of kings but a collection of art that must be unparalleled anywhere in the world. We both enjoyed it immensely but it was a very tiring day particularly because the museum officialdom has failed to set this magnificent collection out in a logical manner. The result is a lot of backtracking and repetitive walking. Perhaps art is not logical and therefore why bother. Why also should the French recognize the hated English by seeking to describe anything in English. After all it must be the world’s first language. Or is that Spanish or Mandarin? Most reputable institutions present their finest in more than the native language and it is to the disgrace of the French that they have not. One other minor complaint I must make about the management of this fantastic resource is the audio equipment. It was unnecessarily complex and unnecessarily long winded.
While there is much to like about Paris it has a number of obvious deficiencies that I must write to the PM and the mayor of the city about. The first is that while the Seine runs through the middle of the city, traffic-wise the rest of the city is totally insane.
Tuesday 9 June
We started the day with a visit to FNAC under the Chatelat Les Halles station to find an adapter. We desperately need to charge up our range of electrical devices including computer and iPad and iPhone and icamera and iMe. I kid you not we all need to be electrified. Fortunately FNAC turned out to be very handy and huge and had a worldwide adapter. Only later did we realise it did not have a USB port and so we had to return it and after a lot of stuffing around got a replacement. This did not work and it was only Wednesday that I was able to get another adapter and tackle the backlog of emails.
We then tried to find the train to the Charles de Gaulle railway station, direction being Poissy. You cannot begin to imagine the two different directions we went in to find the platform. The Paris metro is a maze and there is nobody to respond to questions. One guy at an information desk was just plain rude and dismissive and would only talk to us in French. His right of course and I get the impression the French are big on human rights, perhaps out of fear of another revolution. Eventually we made it to Charles De Gaulle and alighted on the Champs D’Elysee under the nose of the Arc d’Triomphe.
The Arc of Napoleon’s triumph is located on the right bank of the Seine at the centre of a dodecagonal configuration of twelve radiating avenues. It was commissioned in 1806 after the victory at Austerlitz by Napoleon who was by then Emperor and at the peak of his powers. It was not completed until the reign of King Louis-Philippe, between 1833 and 1836.
On 15 December 1840, brought back to France from Saint Helena, Napoleon’s remains passed under it on their way to the Emperor’s final resting place at the Invalides (see later). So what. In 1919, Charles Godefroy successfully flew his biplane under the Arc. So what. Following its construction, the Arc de Triomphe became the rallying point of French troops parading after successful military campaigns and for the annual Bastille Day Military Parade. Now the route taken is up to the arch and then around its side, out of respect for the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and its symbolism. We climb to the top up a very winding staircase (more than 300 steps) and take photos of the city.
From there we caught the Metro to the Palais de Chaillot which is an emblem of the 1930s and now houses Architectural, naval & ethnographic museums. It overlooks the Trocadero fountains & gardens, the river and has Eiffel Tower views. We have lunch in the Trocadero gardens, cross the Seine and attempted to go up the Eiffel tower but our museum passes are not acceptable. The tower was built in 1889 and is 324 m tall, almost exactly the height of Mount Maunganui in the Bay of Plenty. The tower weighs 10,100 tons has 2,500,000 rivets and 1665 steps. There are too many people, the queues are too long and we are already leg weary. To go up in the lifts you have to book months in advance for this time of the year. Some other time. We will be back.
We walk all the way down the Champs de Mars a landscaped park with paths & trees, bird life and extensive lawns to the Ecole Militaire. Napoleon was originally trained here. We catch a bus to the Hotel National Les Invalides. Louis XIV initiated this place in 1670, as a home and hospital for aged and unwell soldiers. Today it houses three museums and the remains of many notables, in particular Napoleon.
We spend at least two hours wandering around the Musee d’Armie I think it’s called. It was set up about 110 years ago to house weapons, armour and anything associated with armies and war going back to the middle ages and eventually forward to the 2nd World War. It is fascinating to see some of the first rifles they used and the technology they employed several hundred years ago to kill each other. There is a lot of archival footage of battles, particularly of the brutal Great War. (Later we see at the Palace of Versailles a room called the Battle Room with huge paintings depicting 30 wars that France had been engaged in from between about 400 AD to about 1850.) You could spend a whole day here, as you could with many of the places we visit for a few hours.
We finish off again at FNAC exchanging one adapter for another and having a hassle with over whether we opened the first or not.
Wednesday 10 June
Train and then bus to the Sacre Coeur a Roman Catholic church situated on the highest point in Paris – which otherwise appears to be flat – called Montmatre. This basilica is the second most visited spot in Paris (probably after the Lourve) and was built from 1870 to 1914. It was built as a national penance for defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune (the latter was a rebellious segment that took over for two months during the siege of Paris and was brutally put down by regular troops). We climb the 330 steps to the top for a great view of Paris landmarks and many pics.
We traipse off to the centre of Montmatre to the Place du Tertre where all the artist are gathered selling their wares and doing portraits for the tourists. We are tempted to buy but not be sketched. Our luggage is already too heavy so we refrain, but one or two paintings, while expensive would feature nicely at Violet St post reconstruction. We walk even further down-hill through the Montmatre area to the Moulin Rouge where we stop for photos. Several weeks ago I tried to book tickets for the cabaret but it was fully booked. In a way I was glad because the prices are unbelievable and if I had booked and told Lilly she would not have enjoyed the show.
We then catch trains back to Notre Dame, a cathedral with a long history. It is thought “to be one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture, and it is among the largest and most well-known church buildings in the world”. The size and height and art work are the outstanding features. Construction of the church began in 1163 and was only completed around the mid-1240s. In the 1790s, Notre-Dame suffered desecration during the French Revolution when much of its religious imagery was damaged or destroyed. An extensive restoration began in 1845 and a project of further restoration and maintenance began in 1991. These massive cathedrals all look as if they will be around forever but the enormous weight exerts pressure, cracks develop and pillars have to be shored up.
Then train to the Museum d’orsay which holds mainly 19th century French art, including paintings, sculptures, furniture, and photography. Another huge place on five floors, better laid out than the Louvre. It is big on impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces by painters such as Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh. Always looks to me with the impressionist stuff that they either lacked the skill to make a good job of it or couldn’t be bothered to put in the effort, or both.
Tonight we are very leg weary and tired. On our feet most of the day and switching trains is often a long walk through the underground rabbit warrens. We argue about Lilly going out by herself to get another adapter. I insist she does not go out again. We can find another FNAC later. I have too much of a backlog. Lilly being herself cannot leave something alone. She has to fix it immediately but fortunately she desists this time.
Thursday 11 June
We cart all our stuff several blocks to take out a new rental car (a Renault) and straight away we are puzzled by the “Sorties”. We follow a car down a floor expecting an exit but find we are trapped and can’t even get back to our original floor. After a lot of mucking about a young man helps us by talking to the attendant by intercom and we are finally out.
First stop is the Palace of Versailles about 20 miles away. The French call it Chateau de Versailles. Even though we have tickets we have to join the queue which looks to be about 200 metres long, Takes about 40 minutes to get in. Another pointer for French authorities. I remember this place for the Treaty of Versailles which was the peace agreement (I think also called the armistice) signed between the allied powers on the one hand and Germany on the other. Later we find the protagonists sorted it all out in the Hall of Mirrors. If they had all taken a good long hard look at themselves in the first place they may have saved the world from losing some 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians.
History 101 – “The court of Versailles was the center of political power in France from 1682, when Louis XIV moved from Paris, until the royal family was forced to return to the capital in October 1789 after the beginning of the French Revolution. Versailles is therefore famous not only as a building, but as a symbol of the system of absolute monarchy.” Their site says “The Château de Versailles, which has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage List for 30 years, is one of the most beautiful achievements of 18th-century French art. The site began as Louis XIII’s hunting lodge before his son Louis XIV transformed and expanded it, moving the court and government of France to Versailles in 1682. Each of the three French kings who lived there until the French Revolution added improvements to make it more beautiful.” and “The château lost its standing as the official seat of power in 1789 but acquired a new role in the 19th century as the Museum of the History of France, which was founded at the behest of Louis-Philippe, who ascended to the throne in 1830. That is when many of the château’s rooms were taken over to house the new collections, which were added to until the early 20th century, tracing milestones in French history.”
We spend several hours at the palace and in the grounds. The art collection is amazing but after a while and the Louvre all the paintings run into each other and I can’t remember what we saw where. One huge room – the Gallery of Battles – contained 30 great battles of the history of France, from about 500 to about 1850.
We travel on to Chatres where we book into this 2nd floor room in an old converted home with uncovered beams right under the towering Cathedral of Chartres. We eat at a nearby restaurant and wander around the place but the cathedral is closed. Lilly’s right eye is filled with blood, we think she must have had a burst blood vessel. She has been taking the asprin a day and perhaps her blood is thin enough without it. (I remember the nose bleeds when she took that herb from Cecelia’s garden? It is not painful and will probably just take a few days for the blood to disperse.)
Friday 12 June
We are determined to see the cathedral while here so wait until it opens. The current cathedral, mostly constructed between 1194 and 1250, is the last of at least five which have occupied the site since the town became a bishopric in the 4th century. (Meaning the town qualified to have a bishop then.) Astonishingly the majority of the original stained glass windows survive intact, while the architecture has seen only minor changes since the early 13th century. It really is quite beautiful inside. Refurbishment is ongoing. It is also immense, one spire is 105 metres tall, the other 113 metres. It is 130 metres long and its ceiling is 37 metres high. This cathedral is considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture anywhere and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (by comparison NZ has three such sites, all of them geographic rather than man–made).
We travel south to Orleans where we also visit the cathedral & the Museum of Fine Arts. Having seen a number of outstanding cathedrals and many fine art collections there are no superlatives that remain to describe these two.
In the afternoon we start down the Loire Valley and make our way to Chateau de Chambord, the largest and possibly the most famous of the castles in the Loire valley. It was built from about 1520 to 1550 to serve as a hunting lodge for Francis I, who maintained his royal residences at the châteaux of Blois and Amboise. Apparently he spent barely seven weeks at Chambord in total, that time consisting of short hunting visits.
We miss the horse show (mornings only) but the château art and history consumes us. The castle was completely unfurnished during its so-called construction period. Evidently all furniture, wall coverings, eating implements and so forth were brought specifically for each hunting trip, a major logistical exercise. After Francis died of a heart attack in 1547, the château was not used for almost a century. French kings abandoned it, allowing it to fall into decay. Finally, in 1639 King Louis XIII gave it to his brother, Gaston d’Orléans, who saved the château from ruin by carrying out much restoration work. Today, Chambord is a major tourist attraction. In 2007 around 700,000 people visited the château, that’s an average of almost 2000 a day.
Saturday 13 June
We spent last night in Blois and then argue in the morning about giving reception a time of departure (sometimes they like to know so they can schedule cleaning resources). Lilly says I should not commit ourselves to a time because we limit our options and anyway we want to be flexible about when we leave. We walk and argue around the middle of the town and park taking pics and arguing and walking and as usual there is no conceding at the time and thus no immediate winner or loser but I suppose the points are made and next time we will be more considerate of each other. My beloved is dedicated and amazing with what she organizes, remembers, arranges and foresees. I am a mere mortal.
Today we visit two more chateau in the Loire Valley which really is a beautiful area and the Loire quite a large river. Chateau de Chaumont with gardens we did not see but overlooking the Loire.This castle was founded in the 10th century by Odo I, Count of Blois. After Pierre d’Amboise rebelled against Louis XI, the king ordered the castle’s destruction. Later in the 15th century the castle was rebuilt by Charles I d’Amboise. It is surrounded by beautiful gardens, part of which they charge to see.
Château de Chenonceau is next on our list. This is another garden chateau built over the River Cher. . Surrounded by beautiful gardens, including a maze and built over the river, this would be my favourite as a place to live. What would they take for it? Should wait until the Oz dollar regains its strength. Other than the Royal Palace of Versailles, this is the most visited château in France. The views from the ramparts are amazing and you could fish from virtually every window. The estate of Chenonceau is first mentioned in writing in the 11th century. The original château was torched in 1412 to punish owner Jean Marques for an act of sedition. He rebuilt a château and fortified mill on the site in the 1430s. The current château was built in 1514–1522 on the foundations of an old mill and was later extended to span the river.
We stop for groceries at Amboise and wander around this pretty town. Amboise was once the home of the French royal court and has a history going back 1500 years. I would like to stop longer to see some of the historic sites but we are tired after traipsing around Blois and two huge chateaux.
The city of Tours is our destination, no problem, but we struggle to find our apartment for the night. GPS has no such address. So we narrow it down from an inadequate map we have showing the approximate location. I must learn how to insert the co-ordinates.
Sunday 14 June
Today is small town day. it rains most of the day, for the first time. The weather has been good, mostly cool one or two hot days only. We visit a succession of very pretty small towns most of which I picked a while ago from the top 30 in France.
In succession they are:
La Chappell sur Loire right bang on the Loire. We stop at the cathedral and take pics of fishing boats and the cathedral.
Montsoreau is very small, notable for its castle which has an exceptional position at the confluence of two rivers, the Loire and the Vienne, and at the meeting point of three historic regions: Anjou, Poitou and Touraine.
Chinon is a larger town on the Vienne River, notable for its wines and its castle and its history. The regional area is called the Touraine, which is known as the “garden of France”.
We travel quite a long way across country to Angles-sur-l’Anglin, justifiably selected as one of the most beautiful villages of France.
From thence into the Naturale Park de la Brenne and the town of Le Blanc and then onto Journet and Montmorillon.
I am trying to write this several days later and just can’t remember the distinctiveness of some of these towns. They all had one thing in common, charm. Some historic, some strategically situated, some with royal connections, all very beautiful. Just love the countryside, glad we are not taking the motorways.
In the latter part of the day we start travelling into the north of the large region called the Limousin. The landscape changes from one of cropping to meadows and rough pasture, simple cottages, sheep and cows. This is very like New Zealand country. Up until now we have hardly seen a fence!
We arrive at Limoges at the Hotel de Paris for the night. The reception is manned by a very polite tall skinny Frenchmen. He recommends the sights and a restaurant, enquires after our trip, very attentive especially towards Lilly. Older style traditional hotel with quite a wide winding staircase covered in red carpet and no lift. We struggle up two long flights with heavy bags, we are collectors.
Late in the day we visit the Bénédictins Train Station. The domed Gare des Bénédictins with its 60 metre tall clock tower is a huge and intriguing train station. Even if you do not plan on travelling from it, this is a must-see.
We try driving the car a few blocks to the old part of the city without the GPS. Bad move. We don’t find it, get lost and only find our way back by taking our bearings from the station clock tower. We wander around the place on foot, check out the restaurant and settle for a burger, having already eaten too much throughout the day.
Monday 15 June
We use the GPS to drive to the old part of Limoges, the Place du Poids and wander about for half an hour. Homes and apartments with wooden beams, either flush or protruding, almost overhang the narrow cobbled streets.
We are now into the Dordogne region of France and stop at the city of Perigueux. We walk a long way to the Vesuma Gallo-Roman Museum only to find that it is closed Mondays. Bugger. We can see old stone foundations through the windows but I am disappointed given this place was recommended. The term Gallo-Roman describes the Romanized culture of Gaul under the rule of the Roman Empire. Lilly takes some pics of a museum that show at least the foundations of a luxurious Roman villa built round a garden courtyard dating back almost 2000 years. They have gone to extreme lengths to protect and conserve these relics of a bygone age as evidenced by the structure erected over them.
We drive by and then take the car up and down a goat track past what I think is the Maison Forte de Reignac a chateau and cottages built in underneath overhanging cliffs. GPS won’t find the place and we do not stop long enough to establish our whereabouts. At the small historic village of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil we do stop. This area contains several archaeological sites, including the Font-de-Gaume, Grotte du Grand-Roc and Lascaux cave prehistoric rock dwellings. Les Eyzies-de-Tayac was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. This is the site of the original Cro-Magnon find which was discovered in a rock shelter. Compared to Neanderthals, the skeletons apparently showed the same high forehead, upright posture and slender skeleton as modern humans and were dated about 28,000 years ago. Not being a believer in the evolution of mankind I accept the findings as fact but don’t give credence to the theory that we are descended from these animals. We stroll about, take plenty of pics of the little town, do not visit a relatively new Prehistoric Museum and have lunch at the Le Font de Gaume (think that is what it was). It is a beautiful village with or without the intervention of archaeologists.
We drive on to Sarlat where our objective is to see the old part of the town. GPS tells us to turn left into a very narrow street and we go as far as we can to a dead end. Whoops. Unfortunately there is no room to turn. There is barely room in one place for Lilly to get out of the car so she can help me reverse. The side mirrors have to be folded in and it is a long slow process to extricate ourselves. We are helped by several passers-by who have to wait to get by anyway. A French couple clap and congratulate us on our combined skills and with limited English help us to take the right street. We had turned one too soon.
We walk around the centre of Sarlat, a beautiful historical town said to have been inhabited since Gallo-Roman times. It became a prosperous city at the end of the VIII century under the reign of Pepin le Bref and Charlemagne when the benedictines established a monastery there. Many of the old “facades are now as they were under their magnificent stone roofs and the old quarters have been rescued” and are “just as the centuries have handed them down to us.” There are markets in the streets which are crowded with locals and the obvious tourists.
We are driving down the Dordogne River. France has some beautiful rivers, this is another. They appear clean and have a huge amount of water in them. Later after rain over a couple of days this river is obviously in flood as its colour changes dramatically. The whole area of the Dordogne is worthy of so much more time and exploration – but that’s for another time, hopefully.
We drive into a vineyard area. We stop at the vineyard Chateau de Monbazillac which is built on a hill. We not only get a magnificent view over the surrounding countryside but buy 2 bottles of red after some very limited tasting. They want to charge us to see the chateau but we have been spoilt for chateaux, palaces and cathedrals in particular and we desist.
Another big day today and when we get into Bergerac we again have a problem finding our hotel. GPS does not have the address, for the second time. Once more this is a prominent hotel! An elderly Frenchman on crutches – in a side street (where else would you need them) – very kindly and patiently explains au gauche and au droit and gradually we get the picture from his gestures and are able to find our hotel.
Tuesday 16 June
Today is Bergerac – Bordeaux – Barritz and given our target of travelling mainly country roads and avoiding tolls it turns out to be a long day, with some rain along the way. Before leaving Bergerac we drive through the heart of the old city which has a population of about 30,000 and overlooks the Dordogne River.
We drive on to Saint Emilion a beautiful old town. Saint-Émilion’s history goes back to prehistoric times. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with fascinating churches and ruins stretching all along steep and narrow streets. We wander through the old area of the city taking pics.
Bordeaux itself is the centre of six great wine-producing regions at least two of which we have driven through, Saint-Emilion and the Chateau Chateau de Monbazillac area. In Bordeaux we stop for an hour or so and wander around the centre of the city. We see the Memoriale Girondins in particular, which is a memorial to the Girondists a clique of the revolutionary mob who overthrew the monarchists. The Girondists opposed the spiraling down of the revolution into the Reign of Terror and for that they too were hunted down and most of them executed, 26 of their leaders in the space of 35 minutes one day.
We have trouble getting out of Bordeaux when I get confused over a second turn despite Lilly’s instructions. It all happens so quick, watching the traffic, reading the signs, looking out for the lights and pedestrians often means I can’t look at the GPS at the right moment. I feel that I am not as quick or as naturally alert as I used to be. We stop and have to regain our bearings a couple of times.
We get into Biarritz feeling a bit tired, first impressions of the place are good and our hotel is right on the coast with expansive and uninterrupted sea views out over the Atlantic.
Wednesday 17 June
Biarritz is a small city of 26,000 situated on the Atlantic coast in the extreme south west of France. It is apparently often patronised by royalty and is now described as a luxurious seaside resort town. The shops are up-market and when we walk into a residential area, so are the homes. They are large, three storey and with grounds. We see the traditional Fishermen’s Port with its “crampottes,” – small houses built into the rock- and their port, three areas surrounded by huge walls as protection from the Atlantic. The town has a casino and night life and is popular with tourists and surfers. We see many of both from our balcony.
Always intended as a rest day, that is what today has been. No car today, left it alone. A long slow walk through this beautiful city this morning, followed by a snooze, another walk to get groceries this afternoon and a swim in the heated (was it?) hotel pool. It is now 9 pm, the sun is pouring into our room from the west and we are both feeling human again. I have caught up with business and diary. We visited a pharmacist in the city who took Lilly’s blood pressure and said nothing really wrong with her eye. It is a burst blood vessel and the blood will disperse in a few days. We are all set now for a few days in the north of Spain.
Thursday 18th June
Today we head out of Biarritz and cross the border into Spain at some point, not even being aware of it. Within about an hour we reach San Sebastian. There is not much to distinguish between the southwest French countryside and the northcentral Spanish except that it is now more rolling and does not look quite as prosperous. Mind you anything is down market from Biarritz.
In San Sebastian a city of about 200,000 we park our car and walk around the city. To the French this is Saint Sebastian whereas to locals it is San Sebastian. Here the locals can be both Spanish and Basque. The city is named after Saint Sebastian who was an early Christian martyr, killed during the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians.
San Sebastian is one of the most famous tourist destinations in Spain, its main activities are commerce and tourism. It is certainly an attractive place with two main sheltered beaches (golden sand) and a river in between. Along with Biarritz this a place that you could live in if you wanted a congenial lifestyle with a difference. I wonder what it would cost to invest in a bit of real estate, but it is only a passing thought and the Aussie dollar is weak.
We travel on to Pamplona but have real problems on at least two occasions in following our GPS. It is occasionally almost too difficult to comprender the instructions which appear ambiguous and we have to backtrack because we miss a turn or turn too early. There are errors in the directions but fortunately very few and without GPS we would go round in circles. Gracias Garmin.
Eventually we make it, our receptionist is sweet and helpful and our apartment large and functional, if not central. (Under Pompey in the 1st century BC, the Romans were stationed in and founded Pamplona. Today the city of Pamplona is the historical capital of the region of Navarra.) Later we drive into the old part of this city of about 200,000 and spend several hours walking around. I was here about 40 years ago and ran in the “event” for which this city is world famous, the running of the bulls. Never ran so fast in my life and never within 50 metres of a bulls’ horn! Tonight we visit the cathedral de Santa Maria which is ornate and decorated in the Rococo style of the 17th century. This church was started in the 13th century but not finished until 1525. We look in on the Museum of Navarra (it is almost to close) and walk the narrow streets that will be taken by the bulls and the hordes next month. The centre of this old part teems with people, there is a tent city market with all manner of goodies. Entertainment par excellence has got to be just walking around and sampling the nuts, cheeses, cakes etc and eating/drinking at the ubiquitous restaurants. The streets are crowded mid-evening. Why would anyone be at home?
Tapas and Basques intrigue us both, my research tells me:
Tapas – In Spain dinner is usually served between 9 and 11pm leaving plenty of time between work and dinner. In that period Spaniards often go “bar hopping” and eat tapas in the time between finishing work and having dinner. Since lunch is usually served between 1 and 4pm, another common time for tapas is weekend days around noon as a means of socializing before proper lunch. According to the authority:
“they are often very strongly flavoured with garlic, chilies or paprika, cumin, salt, pepper, saffron and sometimes in plentiful amounts of olive oil. Often, one or more of the choices is seafood (mariscos), often including anchovies, sardines or mackerel in olive oil, squid or others in a tomato-based sauce, sometimes with the addition of red or green peppers or other seasonings. It is rare to see a tapas selection not include one or more types of olives, such as Manzanillo or Arbequina olives. One or more types of bread are usually available to eat with any of the sauce-based tapas.”
Basques – The Basques are an indigenous ethnic group mainly inhabiting adjacent areas of northcentral Spain and southwest France around the western end of the Pyrenees. An analysis of Basque genetic patterns has shown that its uniqueness predates the arrival of agriculture in the Iberian Peninsula, about 7,000 years ago. Basque tribes were already mentioned in Roman times. Their history is interconnected with Spanish and French history and also with the history of many other past and present countries, particularly in Europe and the Americas, where a large number of their descendants keep attached to their roots, clustering around Basque clubs.There are 2,123,000 people living in the Basque Autonomous Community (279,000 in Alava, 1,160,000 in Biscay and 684,000 in Gipuzkoa). The official languages are Basque and Spanish. Knowledge of Basque, after declining for many years during Franco’s dictatorship owing to official persecution, is again on the rise due to favourable official language policies and popular support. Currently about 33 percent of the population in the Basque Autonomous Community speaks Basque.Approximately a quarter of a million people live in the French Basque Country. Basque has been spoken continuously in and around its present territorial location, for longer than other modern European language. They notably regard themselves as culturally and especially linguistically distinct from their surrounding neighbours. Some Basques, especially in Spain, are strongly nationalist, identifying far more firmly as Basques than as citizens of any existing state. Others are not, feeling as much Spanish as Basque. Many Basques regard the designation “cultural minority” as unacceptable, favouring instead independence as a nation.
Friday 19th June
We head for Zaragoza along a mix of motorway (limit up to 120k) and secondary roads. Our GPS takes us too seriously at times that we wish to avoid tolls and I wonder at times if it is not a bit counter-productive. At least we see villages and country that we would otherwise miss. Along the way the countryside is mainly brown and dry and not lush like France. It is also not very tidy, few animals, some cropping, some grapes and lots of wind turbines and solar. Much of it looks as if it has just been cut for wheat or some such.
At Zaragoza we find our apartment at the second attempt and it is spacious, comfortable and has everything we need. Mid-afternoon we head into the old part of the city for a walk around. There are few people around and most of the shops are closed. Later we realise it is siesta time and the whole city goes to sleep so that they can live it up during the evening. By about 5pm the streets are starting to hum again and by 7pm the restaurants and bars are starting to get business. Breakfast for once is included in our room price – the breakfast hours are 8:30 am to 11:30am at least 2 hours behind OZ and NZ.
Zaragoza is a city of about 700,000 souls on the Erbo River in north central Spain. It is famous for its folklore, local gastronomy, and landmarks such as the Basílica del Pilar, La Seo Cathedral and the Aljafería Palace.
We visit the Basilica–Cathedral of Our Lady of the Pillar. Local traditions take the history of this basilica to the dawn of Christianity in Spain.Many of the kings of Spain and other foreign rulers and saints have paid their devotion before the statue of Mary in this Catholic Church. The present building was predominantly built between 1681 and 1872, but its history goes back centuries earlier, back to Saint James if tradition is anything to go by. It is another massive Cathedral very ornate in the Baroque style. (Baroque – begun in late 16th-century Italy, that took the Roman vocabulary of Renaissance architecture and used it in a new rhetorical and theatrical fashion, often to express the triumph of the Catholic Church and the absolutist state).
We then see La Seo Cathedral another huge structure begun during the 12th century and re-built between 1316 and 1319. It is even more ornate. How they could build such a structure 700 years ago is beyond me. It has stood the test of time. There is no comparison with many of the structures we see today that should have benefitted from experience and technology but instead have concrete cancer, leaking roofs etc. There is a tapestry collection included in three large adjoining rooms. These are 15th and 16th century tapestries considered to be gems of the Spanish historical heritage. Some of the 63 hanging tapestries are vast pieces of art that convey a story in themselves.
Finally we have delicious tapas and a beer before stopping at a supermarket and getting back to our apartment at about 8pm for a spa and recovery.
Saturday 20th June
First thing in the morning we visit the Aljaferia Palace in Zaragoza which is one of the most beautiful palaces in Spain from the 11th century. Part of the foundations go back to the ninth century. The Moorish governor of the Taifa kingdom of Sarakosta used it as a summer residence. It is a huge palace surrounded by a large moat. There is a beautiful patio built by the Moorish kings. What is impressive of the patio are the arches that surround the garden. There is a very high Moorish ceiling, also beautiful. This palace predates the Alhambra palace in Granada and its originality probably influenced the building of those other palaces. Today the palace is used as the seat of the Aragonese Parliament. I gotta refresh my memory about the Moors.
Moors were the medieval Muslim inhabitants of the Maghreb (North Africa), Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, and Malta. They overran the Iberian Peninsula (now Spain and Portugal) in 711 and stayed almost 800 years. The differences in religions and cultures led to a centuries-long conflict with the Christian kingdoms of Europe. By about 1200 the Moors had ceded the top northern half of the peninsula to various Christian powers and by 1250 remained only in the small Christian community of Granada. It was only the fall of Granada in 1492 that marked the end of Muslim rule in Iberia, although a Muslim minority persisted until their expulsion in 1609.
So how did they rule, how did they relate to the local population, did they intermarry and what vestiges (besides this palace) are there of the Moors in Spain? And can you pick out the descendants from the local population? Dunno yet.
We travel about 400km down the motorway to Barcelona at speeds between 120 and 140k. Some cars in the fast lane flash by at an estimated 200k. Much of it appears to be radar free and since leaving Lille we have only seen one lot of roadside cops and that was yesterday outside Pamplona. We pay a road toll of almost 30 Euro which to my mind is excessive.
Barcelona while technically in the nation of Spain, is Catalonian, not Spanish. The food, culture and language is very distinct from other parts of Spain.It is defined by quirky art and architecture, imaginative food and vibrant street life. It has medieval roots, seen in the mazelike Gothic Quarter, but a modernist personality represented by architect Antoni Gaudí’s fantastical Sagrada Família church. Its restaurant scene, anchored by the central Boqueria market, ranges from fine dining to tiny tapas bars. It is obvious from reading the promotional material on Catalonia that they would like to be completely independent (not just autonomous) of Spain, shades of the Basques.
We have fun finding a car park, finding the apartments (nobody was there) and then finding the supervising hotel. Eventually we get it all sorted and are pleasantly surprised with the size and comfort of our accommodation, if not the cleanliness. We will be here two days and it is right in the heart of the city, just on the edge of the old part, so we got lucky. The car is parked in a public car park, hopefully fees will not be too heavy. The centre of the city is the Place de Catalunya which can’t be more than about 200 metre away. This plaza links the old part of the city with the new.
In the early evening we wander out to Les Ramblas and ramble down this wide but packed street with a mall type arrangement in the middle between the one way streets on each side. Lilly, having spent 40 years of her life in China, says she has never seen so many people. On the right as we walk towards the sea we stroll through the Market de la Boquera. It is even more crowded with little bars and people eating, mainly seafood, at rows of high tables on stools. We resist for the moment and later further down Las Ramblas stop for tapas and seafood and chicken paellas and a huge Catalonian jug of beer. We spend quite a while eating and drinking – the food and beer are average at best and the beer expensive. It is part of our determination to absorb some local culture and atmosphere, but we will eat our own food in Spain for now.
Africans are peddling their wares on the streets – handbags, T shirts, sunglasses mainly and there are even more at the port/marina where we get to the end of Las Ramblas. They have their stuff laid out on rugs with cross ropes to the four corners that they hold so they can collect up and disappear quickly if the cops come. What we see of Barcelona (pop 1.6m) leaves us to believe nobody is at home tonight.
Sunday 21st June
Today, trains the way to go, otherwise on foot. We struggle a bit with the metro system of tickets at Catalunya, the main station and there is no one to help. Everyone is asking everyone else. Eventually we get our train to Santa Maria del Mar
This is an imposing Catholic church in the Ribera district of Barcelona, Spain, built between 1329 and 1383. It does not appear to be in great condition and I move quickly in the event a brick drops out of the ceiling which is a mile high. The church is apparently a good example of Catalan Gothic.
We then walk to the Museu Picasso, opened to the public in 1963. Picasso was born in Malaga, Spain in 1881 and died in 1973. He was a Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist, stage designer, poet and playwright who spent most of his adult life in France. The Museum houses about 4000 works of Picasso’s and he does seem to have been a very talented artist. Some of his earlier portraits were outstanding but much of the latter
stuff could have been painted by a very dull elephant, or an inebriated chimp.
Unfortunately it is the latter stuff that the aficianodos elevate to art of the highest quality. To me it appears Picasso was suffering from the early onset of Parkinson’s or was blind but persistent. Eyes appear in strange places as if he left off at lunch and could not remember or see where to re-start, so took a stab at it. Was he a twisted and tormented soul? I spent 10 minutes before one absolute jumble and still could not explain it. Perhaps my natural and basic way of thinking is just too profound for dear Pablo. His better works must surely hang elsewhere.
Back on the metro to Passeig de Gracia. Here we find Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Batilo built between 1904 and 1906. This building and a few others are part of a “block of discord”, so-called because of the diversity of styles, described as modernism. We take pics along this street but do not visit any of the buildings. Nothing exceptional in my opinion.
We lunch and then buy tickets to our number one objective for the day the Sagrada Familia. The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família was designed by Gaudi with construction starting in 1882. On the subject of the extremely long construction period, Gaudí is said to have remarked: “My client is not in a hurry.” When Gaudí died in 1926, the basilica was between 15 and 25 percent complete. It has never been completed and it is obvious from the on-site cranes that construction continues. Computer-aided design technology has been used to accelerate construction of the building, which had previously been expected to last for several hundred years. The current objective is to have it completed by 2026, the centenary of Gaudi’s death.
This is the first Catholic cathedral to charge admission and it is not cheap. There are huge numbers of people around and we queue for about half an hour and have to come back an hour later to get in. Inside it is really spectacular. It is 90 metres tall and 60 metres wide, there are 18 spires at least one of them will be 170 metres high. The height to the roof of the main nave is awesome. We ascend in a lift inside one of the spires and cross a little bridge to another. We get a good but limited view and take pics before descending and ascending and descending a total of 400 steps. Later we see where were and the spires go on and on upwards about twice the height.
Just a note on Gaudi. He was a Spanish Catalan architect and the best known practitioner of Catalan Modernism. His magnum opus, the Sagrada Família reflects his passions in life: architecture, nature, and religion. Gaudi used to say that there is no better structure than the trunk of a tree. His interior resembles a forest, with inclined columns like branching trees, simple but sturdy. Leave patterns at the top. It is truly magnificent.
Monday 22nd June
After paying astronomical parking fees of 98 euros (what a rip-off) we take our leave of Barcelona. I am convinced we are heading in the wrong direction. So much so that I have to pull off the highway to take a look at the route. There follows a lot of backtracking and U turns etc all a complete waste and more tension. I must re-check routes and destination at the point of entry. I wish I could re-calibrate the settings I have so fixed in my mind about direction. Everything is the exact opposite of the southern hemisphere, why can’t I adjust?
We head first to Montserrat and the monastery. It is only an hour’s drive from Barcelona but the last 10k is uphill and winding.Santa Maria de Montserrat is a Benedictine abbey located on the mountain of Montserrat. The monastery is self-described as being a mountain, a church and a sanctuary. Benedictine is a reference to the colour of its members’ habits; ie, the Black Monks. It is a Catholic religious order of independent monastic communities that observe the Rule of Saint Benedict. We managed to attend a service of the order as did hundreds of other genuine worshippers, mainly Spanish, probably the majority Catalan. Indeed this monastery has often been seen as a symbol of Catalan nationalism. The service was attended by about 50 of the monks (although conducted by perhaps 10) and was very formal, probably very similar to the liturgy of the normal RC service and of course being entirely in Catalan we couldn’t understand a word of it.
The monastery, in among the mountains and serrated peaks, has a history going back to the ninth century. It has seen wars, including civil wars, destruction, abandonment and finally restoration.
We make our way further north stopping for a snooze at Bellver de Cerdanya which is possibly about the start of the Pyrenees. As I wait for Lilly to wake up I read a large public notice about the Jews who were persecuted during the 2nd World War not just by the Nazis but also by collaborators within the Vichy regime. Many of the Jews tried, some succeeded by undertaking arduous journeys through the various passes of the Pyrenees. Many perished of injuries or the cold or were rounded up by the Spanish but many were also supported by sympathetic Spanish families.
I miss the last turn into our street at Andorra, get on a motorway and we have to go about 6 or 7 miles to get back to square one. Sometimes in the heat of the moment when we have to find the 4th or 5th exit from a roundabout, it is almost impossible for us to get it right with both of us focussed. The exit we missed turning into looked like an entrance to a home or a garage.
Andorra (the capital) turned out to be much better that I ever imagined. It is modern, tidy and spotless with a long street or two selling up-market wares of all descriptions. Being a tax haven there is also no tax on retail sales and people come from all over Europe to buy. The streets were crowded until it started to rain just a little. We were in no hurry because we could see blue sky and it being hot, we thought just a little afternoon thunderstorm. Then the heavens – which aren’t that far away – opened and it rained solidly for half an hour with hail as well. We had shelter but got impatient and eventually made a dash for it to the hotel and a hot shower.
Later when the rain had practically stopped we took an umbrella and had a somewhat tasteless but large meal out. The restaurant we had chosen was closed so we should have just settled for a hamburger.
Tuesday 23rd June
Dear Diary I wish you would give me a break. I have more than enough to do trying to keep the business stuff going. We are having a good year and besides TPG is up over the past 2 or 3 days by about 80c, more than enough for us to pay for three months in Europe. Go TPG.
Today we have another walk around Andorra. Its economy is based on sheep, tobacco and tourism, the latter especially during the winter with the snowfields. It is an impressive town, with modern looking homes stretching way up the mountainsides. Its lifestyle is obviously good for its citizens who have the highest lifestyle expectancy in the world (81). As we leave the place through the mountains we take pics of the scenery, the idle gondolas and in some cases the remnants of snow further up.
Early afternoon we travel through the beautiful French countryside (quite a contrast to Spain), mainly at 130k on a toll road, arrive in Toulouse and book into our hotel without too much fuss.
Toulouse, a city of about 450,000, home apparently to Airbus. Lilly adds there are several universities/colleges with aviation as a focus. We wander around the city for about three hours. We also see in sequence the Monument aux Morts, the city centre, Place Wilson, Capitole, Basilica St Sermin, Eglise St Pierre des Chartreux, La Garonne, Pont St Pierre, Pont Neuf, and Carrefour Express. The latter being the local supermarket and La Garrone being the substantial river through almost the middle of the city. At Capitole we see several exhibitions of fine arts.
At Basilica St Sermin we see another spectacular cathedral this time apparently noted for being the longest in France. The current church is located on the site of a previous basilica of the 4th century. This church was built between 1080 and 1120 with construction continuing after that.The stone that killed Simon de Montfort in 1218, while he was besieging Toulouse, was thrown from the roof of Saint-Sernin.
We get back to our hotel (called At Home) about 5:30 to catch up on diary, work, planning etc while Lilly never stops preparing dinner and lunches and breakfasts and lunches, organising everything and looking after me and us par excellence. She sends a daily update to her lad and is just a blessing to me and to everyone she comes in contact with.
Wednesday 24 June
We stop first after about an hour’s drive at the walled city on the hill overlooking Carcassonne. This is a medieval castle famous for its 53 watchtowers and double-walled fortifications. The first walls of the upper town were built in Gallo-Roman times with major additions made in the 13th and 14th centuries. We walk around inside the walls and the many streets of the city. It is huge. There is a basilica which is substantial enough and which could also have served as a sanctuary.
A precis: Since the pre-Roman period, a fortified settlement has existed on the hill where Carcassonne now stands. The earliest known occupation of the site dates from the 6th century BC, when a fort was built overlooking the valley and the ancient routes linking the Atlantic with the Mediterranean and the Iberian peninsula with the rest of Europe. According to the studies during the late 3rd and early 4th centuries, the settlement was protected by the construction of a defensive wall some 1,200 m long. The Roman walls were strengthened by horseshoe-shaped bastions at roughly regular intervals. The masonry is in characteristic late Roman style: rubble cores faced with courses of dressed ashlars intersected by courses of bricks and built on concrete foundations. You can still see some evidence of the Roman walls in places.
Across country to Beziers where we stop briefly for a walk through the old part of the town to the Tourism Centre, get a map and visit St Nazaires’s Cathedral an impressive cathedral that can be viewed on a hilltop from a long way out of Beziers. The structure dates from the thirteenth century and was erected on the site of an earlier building which was destroyed during the Massacre at Béziers in the Albigensian Crusade.
We travel on through Sete a seaside town of the beaten track and between Carcassonne and Arles. We stop for a snooze (me) and pics (Lilly) under the bows of an ocean liner. This place is crowded and has some beautiful beaches and marinas – mental note – look for real estate here if we ever want a northern summer home.
From Sete to Montpellier where we park and wander around the Place de la Comedie before taking a sightseeing train trip of about 40 minutes through the central city. The sights are too numerous to mention. We had a presentation in English to supplement.
We are trying to take a southern route to Marseille away from the motorways but we are starting to get goat tracks at the instigation of our GPS so at one point I stop and take executive control. It is already a long day so quickest route from here irrespective of tolls and flying along motorways.
We arrive in Marseille and have problems with the accommodation. It is not great and there is no fridge. We get shifted to one with a fridge. This is the first unpleasant place we have been in although the room itself and the facilities are ok if basic. Lifts don’t work, it is hard to find a staircase – how would we exit if there was a fire? – and they are filthy. We have trouble getting on the WIFI – only works by using IE as the browser. The whole place smells and the area is not all that great either.
Thursday 25 June
Up early attending to heaps of WS and emails, much the same every day. Without the business this part of our trip would have been a breeze but I knew it would be hectic so I can’t complain. Lilly is wonderfully supportive and looks after so much of the organising. When I was annoyed yesterday about the accommodation and wanted to go elsewhere, she kept a cool head and persisted in getting us set up here. In the end probably the sensible solution as were already parked, have no mobile and had no access to the internet at the time.
We walk down the La Canebiere, the main city street. It is not all that clean, there are beggars and people lying around, including sleeping dogs. First impressions are not good. At the port we talk to a French TV journalist at some length – her English is passable – about a demonstration of day care workers and French taxi drivers. They are just setting off in a noisy protest march. Later from press reports we understand the drivers burned tires and set up blockades in protest of the app-based car service Uber. The protests devolved into chaos with police firing tear gas and drivers blocking access to train stations in Marseille. Taxi drivers must pay steep fees to become licensed, and they say this gives unlicensed companies like Uber an unfair financial advantage.
We catch a boat/to the islands of Marseille and get off at Frioul for a look around and lunch of Calamari (her) and Salmon (him). Frioul Island is home to many rocky inlets, beaches and sandy creeks. Apparently when a king visited Marseille about 500 years ago he thought the area was strategically important and ordered the construction of a fortress. The fortress soon changed roles and became a prison. Many Protestants, the French Huguenots, were thrown into the dungeons from the 17th century. The fortress is on the island of If which we viewed without disembarking. The famous novel The Count of Monte-Cristo by Alexandre Dumas has the Count imprisoned here.
Later in the day we drive to Cassis a beautiful port setting about half an hour away. We park and take a boat trip to three of the Calanques or creeks. These are inlets (like small fjords) with limestone sides and cliffs that form valleys and that have been partially submerged by the sea. They are quite spectacular with the cliffs on each side being used as training for climbers.
In one calanque there must have been hundreds of launches and yachts side-by-side in a marina extending a long way up a calanque with just enough width between to travel in and out.
Friday 26 June
Today was French Rivera day and what a long, winding and beautiful day it was even for the driver, but particularly for the navigator/organiser/photographer/sightseer/companion extraordinaire and best buddy.
From Marseilles we travel directly to Toulon where we parked, took some photos of the huge square and surrounds and had an early lunch at McDonalds. We then manipulated GPS to take the coastal route. The Côte d’Azur (in English the French Riviera) is the coastline from about Toulon to Nice and including Monaco. We spend most of the day on this stretch following the lines of traffic on this winding road. Mostly it is built up with homes stretching up the hillsides overlooking the coast. The sights are amazing – the whole of Europe must be here as we drive past dozens (if not hundreds) of golden sand beaches interspersed with little towns and the ubiquitous marinas. Is Friday a holiday here or is this area just holiday time year round?
I can’t even remember the sequence exactly but we go through Saint Tropez, Frejus, Saint Raphael, Cannes, Antibes before finally hitting Nice. Along the way we stop at Saint Tropez and wander around the port where the rich and famous or just plain rich have their monstrous superyachts backed into the wharf. Everyone including us is perving at the excesses and hedonism. Anybody not perving is eating and drinking and probably still perving in the restaurants or perving at the art being displayed along the waterfront.
We also stop at Cannes, famed for hosting the annual Cannes Film Festival and also for its luxury hotels and association with the rich and famous. The poor and infamous who pass through from time to time do so quickly because real estate prices are horrendous. Being honourable members of the proletariat, we too stop only for a stroll and pics and a few fleeting moments of envy before moving on.
Any one of these places look as if they would make an ideal place for a home away from home in the Northern Hemisphere. I tease Lilly that this is where I want us to buy an apartment, learn French and have a yacht. She counters with Sydney advantages strongly and consistently.
Our GPS cannot find our street/hotel but by devious means and the kind assistance of three French blokes we eventually find it and park our car. Accommodation is better than at Marseilles, small but comfortable and fine for us. WIFI though is disappointing, the signal is weak and it often drops out. We fix a lot of year end transactions.
Saturday 27 June
Up and about in good time we eventually locate the tram to the sea and hop off not far from the Opera House. We pass through the market famed for its flowers in particular but selling cheeses, nuts and all manner of fruit and veg. We walk along the seaside, people are everywhere on the sidewalks and on the beach. Not so many in the water suggesting it is still chilly. Some of the women, young and older are topless and Lilly snaps a few from afar to enhance the variability of her portfolio. To me irrespective of size, shape/elongation, they are more alluring, at least partially covered.
Half way round the point in the direction of the port is a memorial built into the cliff, initially in honour of French soldiers who died in World War I. It’s a massive construction about 30 meters high, with columns. Later the names of victims of Nice of the 2nd world war and the decolonization wars in Indochina and Algeria were added. There is a ceremony in progress with perhaps a 100 soldiers, a band of 25 and 4 or 5 dignitaries present, watched around the perimeter by a growing crowd. We stay and watch as the French national anthem is played. Apparently medals had been presented.
We catch a bus from the port to Monaco. It is perhaps a half hour ride along the coast. Monaco has been independent for about 800 years and has been ruled over by the House of Grimaldi (currently Prince Albert II is head of state) for most of that time. It is the second smallest country in the world (I suppose Vatican City has the honour of being the smallest) and the most densely populated.
Monaco is a beautiful place with up-market shopping and huge blocks of luxurious looking apartments surrounding the harbour. The super yachts in the harbour are bigger and more numerous. We go into a shopping centre just reeking of wealth. We don’t even bother to price a coffee at the exquisite restaurants, probably half a million dollars. We go as far as the entrance foyer to the famous casino Monte Carlo, we don’t bother to ask if we could have a flutter on the tables or lose a miserly $20 in the slot machines. I imagine the well-dressed doorman would look straight past us. It costs us nothing to take pics though and while forbidden, Lilly snaps away merrily when security is preoccupied.
Sunday 28 June
We are in wind-down mode as this leg of our trip comes to an end. Tomorrow we say goodbye to France and return to London for rest, recuperation, catch-up on business stuff and hopefully Wimbledon.
We tram and bus to the Monastery, Musee de Matisse and archaeological exhibition. We stand at the back of the church which is crammed full and in the middle of the Sunday morning service.
At the exhibition of Henri Matisse’s and having seen so many great works of art over the past month, we debate whether to fork out Euro10 each to enter. We pay but the art is not to my liking and I wonder again why I am unable to appreciate such “fine work”. Mr Matisse was a French artist born in 1869, died in 1954. He is worshipped by many, but had his critics. We view three floors and many rooms filled with his art, paintings, sketches, sculptures and paper collages. A lot of it is accompanied by comments either by the reviewer or by Matisse himself. There is a fair amount of hubris in both. In reviewing a painting by another artist he remarked, “a man who makes pictures like the one we were looking at is an unhappy creature, tormented day and night. He relieves himself of his passion in his pictures, but also in spite of himself on the people round him. That is what normal people never understand.” No argument there, don’t mind being described as ordinary, but to be relieved upon by sketches or paintings that are just plain ugly and/or look as if they could have been created by a child, is hard to take. Particularly grating for me is the pompous way they read so much into so little. Yes, I am cynical. Most of his art is ordinary. The accompanying text is self-indulgent and the overall impression is that the artist was a bit pretentious.
We bus back to the port and retrace our steps of yesterday through the old part of the city and tram back early for an afternoon nap and packing for tomorrow.