Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Gardens and the Great War (Tuesday 30th July 2013)

We left Rouen for the short drive to Giverney about 70kms away. Our objective was to view he house and gardens of the famous Impressionist painter Claude Monet. We stopped in Vernon, just a few kms away, for breakfast where we indulged in some tasty pastries (glazed, dried apricot and custard for me, glazed apple and custard for Kerry. Delicious! Emily was being good again.

Across the river we went and shortly we were in Monet's home town. The whole village struck me as something out of a Monet painting. Tourists are encouraged to park outside the village which we dutifully did although GPS-girl later took us through the heart of town to reach our next destination. There was next to no queue (we met a few tour groups leaving as we arrived, thankfully) so in we went without much delay.

The gardens are a wonderland of plants, flowers, shrubs and trees. The whole site is not huge at about 2.5 acres. The main part of the garden near the house is formal in the sense that the gardens beds are laid out in a regular grid fashion, separated by narrow stone paths. But the plantings with in the beds is wild and irregular. Flowering plants and shrubs of many, many varieties are seemingly randomly planted throughout the beds. As we are halfway through summer there was plenty of growth on the shrubs which added to the “wildness” of the garden. There are numerous seats and benches where one can sit and just take in the view. Gardeners were busy lopping out weary looking flowers to keep the gardens looking its best. A sunny day in late Spring would be the best time appreciate the garden in full bloom. We had a dull, drizzly day in mid-summer but the gardens are still something to behold.

The second part of the garden holds the famous pond and steam and their respective arched bridges. One reaches at via an underpass as it is actually on the other side of a street. The small stream was almost in flood thanks to yesterday's heavy downpour which I think added to the scene. One is greeted by a large stand of bamboo as the paths winds it way by the stream to the lily pond. We sat for a while on a bench under a huge tree to take in the peacefulness of the setting. We took the obligatory photographs standing on one of the wisteria-covered bridges over the pond.

Monet's house is also open to visitors. A very nice two-storey stone building. There is hardly a square centimetre of wall space not taken up with paintings or photographs, the paintings being largely of Monet's work. The highlight was his studio faithfully recreated from a photograph taken in 1901. The gardens and the house are well worth the entrance price and a couple of hours of one's time. I can understand why Stephen and Christina went twice when they visited earlier this year.

Our next stop would be something quite different. We headed to the village of Villers-Bretonneux which was very much in the firing line on the Western Front during the Great War. The town is famous for the strong sense of thanks and gratitude it continues to show to Australia (particularly Victoria) whose diggers saved it during the War. The main street is called Rue de Melbourne, the school is called Victoria School and the bar in the main-street is Le Melbourne. Kangaroos and the Australian flag adorn the town hall alongside the French flag.

Adjacent to the school is the Franco-Australian museum. I think it is technically part of the school as it is largely part of the school hall building. Incidentally, this is the only school in France to have a school hall, a concept foreign to them. The hall has a stage and the walls are lined with timber panelling made of wood from Victorian forests. Through the hall's windows one can look into the quadrangle and see the children playing. On one facade above the quadrangle, in large lettering, are the words “DO NOT FORGET AUSTRALIA”. Apparently, the same words are permanently written on every class-room blackboard.

We drove out the road to towards the town of Corbie. On a hill in the slightly undulating open terrain stood the Australian War Memorial. This large place of green lawns and sandstone buildings is the final resting place of so many Australian, British, New Zealand and Canadian warriors who gave their live for the Empire. The lawn is filled largely with small, white head stones in neat rows, some with tiny, well kept plants and some with the Australian flag flying in the stiff breeze. The day was cold, overcast, windy and threatening to rain which added to the sombre mood. The semi-circular wall of remembrance held the names of over 10,000 men and women who died in the battles around this, the infamous area of the Somme. In the middle of the wall stood the huge, tall tower, a stone edifice which one could climb. It afforded a magnificent 360 degree view of the battlefields. It was not hard to imagine what the scene below might have been almost 100 years ago.

Back to Villers-Bretonneux for a cold one at le Melbourne before moving on to Lille. As we sped across the battlefields on a high-speed motorway I tried to imagine what the soldiers stuck in trenches, covered in mud and dirt and snow, cold, hungry and tired with the spectre of their last days always over their shoulder might have thought of the 2013 view of the Somme.

We arrived in Lille, an attractive town heavily influenced in architecture and culture by the Flemish,  having driven through some pretty wild weather, and found a place for dinner just off the large and charming Place. I ordered the huge serving of mussels (recommended by a lady I passed on the way in to the restaurant). Very nice indeed.

 We ate are headed to the Ibis Budget hotel a few kms away in the outlying village of Haubourdin. Finding the hotel was not easy. We had spied it from the motorway a couple of hours earlier so had an idea where it was, but getting there was a different proposition. Eventually we did and checked into our online-reserved room to find only one bed. Hmmmm! There was no one around to sort this out as the hotel is unmanned after 6pm. You get what you pay for! So we made do trying to sleep with three people in a double bed. Not the best night's sleep we've ever had. At least the mozzies provided some entertainment at 3:30am as we tried to end their miserable lives.

BTW, yesterday's stop in Rouen was the town where Pop did a runner from hospital in August 1918. He was apprehended two days later by the military police and only charged with being out of uniform and docked two day's pay. Good to see the authorities were able to show some consideration and compassion for man who had been fighting for 2 ½ years on the Western Front, nine months of that in the trenches without a break.

Monday, 29 July 2013

The Loire Valley (Monday 29th July 2013)

If you're ever in the area of the Loire Valley and you're looking for somewhere to stay, stop in Poitiers because.... because.... because... no, sorry, I can't think of a good reason to stay. Keep driving. The town is not bad, per se. It's nice and clean and uncrowded.... that's it! It's uncrowded, there was no one there. We stayed in a hotel in the centre of town next to a pedestrian only plaza. There were a small handful of restaurants open, none with any exciting menus to offer. Maybe it's because it was a Sunday night, in the summer holidays and every resident of the town was somewhere more interesting.

I could find nothing about Poitiers in any of the guide books. The meal we had was of average quality at an above average price. The worst combination. At least we had reason for an early night.

We ducked down to the plaza for breakfast the next morning and the town continued to not impress. At 10:00am the only place open was a place pretending to be an American coffee shop. If I'd wanted an American experience I'd have gone to McDonald's. The selection of things edible for breakfast was short and poor. The espresso I ordered was served as a long black and crap coffee at that. Did I say the coffee was served? Sorry, it was get up from your table and order at the counter! I've been in France for almost three weeks and had countless coffee's and not once has a smiling, elegant waiter not dashed out to take my order. When the order was ready the staff hollered from behind the counter for you to get up from your table again to get your coffee!! The final insult came when Emily pointed to the sign asking that customers clear there own table!! Kerry and I refused but Emily insisted, so she did. This is not a reflection of the way things are done and in no way reflects on France or the French people. End of rant.

We drove to the village of Chambord to have a look at the Château de Chombard. This is a very impressive building set on expansive grounds, with a canal and a moat. The private forests surrounding the Château are equally impressive. Built by Francois I in the 16th century to be the most impressive château in France, he ended up spending on 42 days there in total. Many other major figures in the French nobility have called it home over the centuries.

The architecture is stunning with the highlight being the central double-helix staircase which give access to all four floors – supposedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci. The rooftop views provide a sweeping panorama across the whole of the estate. I hall the chateau has 448 rooms, some very large and some large enough to make Harry Potter's room at Privet Drive look like a grand ballroom.

We go to see about 60-70 rooms in what is a labyrinth of halls, rooms, passageways and alcoves. The angles of the roof-lines and the towers provide so many interesting photographic aspects. It's lucky we have digital cameras these days!

After lunch Kerry took the keys to continue her growing relationship with the Clio and the French roads as we head towards Ruoen. We arrived at about 6:30pm with big black clouds hanging overhead and roadworks blocking off the main bridge across the River Seine into town. Needless to say GPS-girl couldn't handle it so we out her out of her misery, turned her off and did the best we could to reach our destination. We tried to find room at the central Ibis hotel but they didn't have any three person rooms. So we headed out to the area just outside the city centre. There we found a room which could accommodate us.

Ruoen is a very difficult town to negotiate by car. Many roads are one way, there are many “no left turns” when you want to turn left and just as many “no right turns” when you want to turn right. The road surface is poor coupled with very worn line markings on the road. The latter is pretty common all across France, actually.

We dropped our bags and headed into the old city for dinner. Like Poitiers, the city centre was mostly closed up at 8:30pm on a Monday night. I think we haven't seen the city at its best and, to be fair, maybe the same for Poitiers. We found something to eat near the hotel and headed home out of the rain.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

The back-roads of France (Sunday 29th July 2013)

We continued our drive along the country roads and lanes of Le Tarn and over in the adjacent region Le Lot. BTW, in each case the regions are named after the main rivers in the respective valleys.

A short drive from Caylus found us in the small village of Limogne-en-Quercy where it was market day. Many of the narrow streets around the town church were full of street stalls selling all sorts of fresh produce and a few other non-edible items. One such item was a hand-made carousel being driven by pedal-power! We hunted around the market stall for some items for lunch later in the day. We gathered a loaf of bread, olives, tomato, apricots, jambon (ham), dried pork sausage (like cabana), strawberries and Camembert. It was great fun to amongst the crowds of locals and tourists. But not so many of the latter as this village was way off the beaten track


We continued on our journey heading for Rocamadour, now in the Le Lot region. Once again the landscape changed dramatically. All of a sudden we found ourselves amongst tall, rocky gorges carved out by the Lot River. The cliff faces were incredibly high with there often being so more than a few road widths between the bottom of a rock-face and the river. At a number of places the road went partially under the over-hanging rock. Countless tunnels had been pushed through the rock when there was no other option. Despite the steep and seemingly inhospitable terrain little village continued to pop up on regular basis.

We spied one such village called Saint Cirq-Lapopie clinging to a rocky mountain-side. This was the place for lunch. We parked the car at the bottom of the village and commenced the walk up the very steep streets to find a place with a view to enjoy lunch. We headed for the church perched improbably at the top of the town. As we ascended, shops and restaurants appeared before us all doing a good trade. The view from the Church up the Lot river valley and across the village below was worth the strenuous climb.

Time was getting on so and our target city of Nantes in the Loire Valley was getting any closer. We drove for another 30 minutes up the valley and realised it was time to leave the back-road and hit the motorway. The last 24 hours spent in this splendid countryside was a really memorable time.

Nantes was still more than 350kms away when we pulled into a road-side stop for a rest and a coffee. Kerry has summoned up the courage to drive so I gladly handed over the keys and took the position in the back seat. She very quickly became familiar with the car as it's layout is largely the same as the Scenic, the Clio and the Koleos. Under Emily's expert navigational skills and timely advice about road and traffic conditions Kerry became more and more comfortable with driving.

It was getting late with a couple of hundred kms to go so we diverted to the town of Poitiers. I couldn't find anything much about this city in the guide books bit that didn't create a problem. We were only looking for a bed and dinner and a launch pad for tomorrow's journey to Rouen.

A morning in Lourdes (Saturday 27th July 2013)

We checked out of the hotel just before 10:00am and followed the signs to La Grotte, getting a park not too far away as luck would have it. The site of the religious artifacts lis ocated on the backs of the River Pau walking distance from the centre of town. The famous grotto where St Bernadette spoke to the Virgin Mary is easy to find – a) because there has been built a great big Cathedral on top of it and b) because there are thousands of people milling around the site. The church has a very large plaza in front of it. We crossed the small bridge over the river in search of the place to gather some holy water. In amongst a couple of thousand people Kerry found two lovely ladies from Liverpool and asked directions. They happily escorted us back across the bridge to the rock upon which the church has been built to a set of taps where the spring water was freely available. We filled up a few small bottles and one large one. It is believed that by drinking or bathing in the water one can be healed of sickness.

Is it true? Maybe. I was feeling tired and indeed of a stop later in the day, took a swig of the water in the big bottle and felt fresher immediately! But anyway, many, many people were at Lourdes in the hope that they might be cured or relieved of pain. The Church provides any number of wheelchairs and , indeed, wheeled beds so that the pilgrims can make it to the water, the church or receive at blessing in the grotto. The girls said they felt sad seeing all the sick people, perhaps desperate for a last chance. I saw all the young people who were there providing assistance to them and felt happy about that. During our time there, the sanctuaries were filled with happy, smiling young people from all parts of the Catholic world, both to complete there own pilgrimage to this holiest of places and to help elderly and infirm people from there own communities do the same. The ladies from Liverpool were two of a contingent of 1700 from the city making the pilgrimage. For each of us visiting Lourdes was an uplifting experience.

BTW, one useless piece of information I found interesting. It is a credit to the people of Lourdes that this town of 15,000 people can service the 5,000,000 pilgrims and tourists who visit each year. Lourdes has 278 hotels, second only to Paris on a per capita basis. Also, given the recent major flooding in October last year and June this year the town was in excellent shape.

Where to next? Stephen and Christina had loaned us a travel guide entitled “The Back-roads of France” - an excellent book to get if you ever plan the same sort of trip as this one. Kerry had done some research on yesterday's lazy afternoon and had reckoned the drive through Le Tarn and Le Lot might be nice. So we headed for Albi in Le Tarn about 230kms away.

Albi's claim to fame is an enormous Cathedral in the centre of town. Unlike every other one we had seen which were built with large stones, the Cathedral of St. Cecile is built of brick. It too, was stunning inside. I got an anti-Tardis sense about the building. It seemed to be smaller on the inside than the outside! Right next to the cathedral was Albi's other attraction – the museum of the work of the late 19th century/early 20th century artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was was born on the town. You would easily recognise his work as those quintessentially French drawings and “bill-board art” of the turn of the last century.

After a quick bite in the Place we headed off as per the guides directions. GPS-girl had different ideas. She hadn't read the guide and wouldn't accept Emily's instructions. So we concede to her wishes and let her guide us. We were at least in the right neighborhood, if not the exact roads. The country through Le Tarn is so different from Le Corbieres. Green, luscious, little stone villages every few kilometres, winding narrow roads just wide enough for 1.5 cars, small pockets of land under crop (mostly corn and some pasture), amongst dense oak forests in rolling hills. This is exactly the country we were looking for.

It was past 6:00pm so we started looking for somewhere to stay for the night. Emily and GPS-girl pointed us to a hotel in the village of Caylus. Unfortunately, the hotel was full bit the proprietor suggested we visit the Office de Tourisme around the corner. The lovely lady there found some accommodation in what I would describe as holiday apartments. Sitting on a large plot of open land on the hill across from the town were about two dozen individual three-level self-contained cottages. The chap who runs the place was very helpful.

We dropped our bags and headed into town. The sky was black and threatening to pour. Lightning was about. We parked the car to search for a place for a drink and dinner. Before we had found one the heavens opened up, we were stuck in the open and we we were quickly drenched to the bone. We found a bar with attached restaurant and had a drink while we drip dried. After the drink we made a booking for the restaurant, quickly dashed back for a change into dry clothes and went back to enjoy a real French restaurant. Our waitress was a double for Lisa and was very kind and considerate. I think she appreciated our feeble attempts to speak French, will Emily's coaching, of course. In fact, the local parish priest we had met earlier in the bar (where else would you find one!) and his drinking companion both thought Emily spoke French very well, but way too fast for them! The meal was fabulous, as was the bottle of local vin rouge. We headed home at about 10:30pm. The end of a great day. Well, not quite!

Emily I were downstairs sampling some Corbieres vin rouge when Kerry called out about two big moths that has come in the open upstairs window. We went to investigate. Big moths, they were not. Bats, they were!! Kerry cleared out down stairs and Emily and I tried to shepherd them back out the window. One managed to find his way out, then in again, then out again but the other didn't. After about 20 minutes of chaos I unhitched one of the window curtains and finally caught him in that. We let him go back to the darkness, closed the windows and went to bed. 

Friday, 26 July 2013

Adiós Espana (Friday 26th July 2013)

Today we end our short but very enjoyable visit to Spain. One thing I forgot to comment on since arriving in Spain was the strong identity of each of Spain's ethnic groups. There are 17 altogether known and autonomous communities being formed at various stages after the new Spanish Constitution was adopted in 1978. The boundaries of each region are based primarily on the language spoken and the ethnicity of a given geographic area. This was no more evident when we reached San Sebastian in the Basque Country. The Basque language is completely different to the language of Catalonia or the language known as Spanish. When I was chatting (and I use the term very loosely) with the owner the Pension I asked if he spoke Francaise (French). He understood enough to say, “basque”, which I interpreted as “I only speak Basque”. BTW, the comment yesterday On the advice of the owner” is actually the outcome of a 15 minute conversation between us and an interpreter he called over finally nail it. All he wanted to say was “Don't waste your time driving into San Sebastian tonight, catch the bus, it'll be cheaper, easier and quicker”. I was really touched by the continued efforts of the elderly gentleman to get the message across to me to make our holiday just that little bit better.

Anyway, back to today's adventures. We traveled about 20 minutes before we hit the French border and, as expected, just drove on through. Breakfast was yet to be eaten so we pulled of the Peage into the sea-side town of Bairritz, grabbed some croissants and parked down by the Atlantic Ocean where found a coffee to complement the pastry. There was a round of the Women's World Surfing Championship held at this beach recently. The water was full of swimmers and surfers so we just couldn't resist the temptation. Back to the underground car-park we went, got changed in the darkness behind the car, left all our important stuff locked in the car and headed back to the beach and the surf!

The water was perfect, the waves were plentiful and big enough for the board-riders to be out in force, the view back to the historic town was terrific, the sun was warm (~23 degrees) and the breeze was light. All in all, a great way to spend an hour in the morning.

On to our next destination, Lourdes. The journey started with a number of detours that GPS-girl didn't like as the city of Bayonne and the surrounding region are in the middle of five days of celebrations. This is still Basque country, even though we are in France. The ethnic group extend well into both countries. The streets were full of men, women and children dressed in white with a red sash tied around the waist and a red scarf over the shoulders. They were like a crowd heading to the MCG on the day of a big match, coming from all directions to the city's football stadium to watch the Basque Pelota matches being held there. Don't ask me what that is.

We made it out of Bayonne and onto the road to Lourdes arriving at about 3pm, booked into a hotel and chilled for the rest of the afternoon. We were all in need of an afternoon nap. We bought a bottle at one of the many tourist shops to gather some of the special Lourdes water tomorrow, then had dinner just up the road before heading home for an early night.  

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Across Spain in a day (Thursday 25th July 2013)

Before I start today's blog, I have put some pictures up for the previous few days.

This morning we packed up quickly, ducked down to the local coffee shop again for breakfast (this time it was breakfast, not lunch) and headed out of Barcelona just before 10am. We had the best part of 600kms to travel to make it to San Sebastian. Last night we booked a Pension in a suburb of Donostia-San Sebastian about 5kms inland. This was done through No probs. All researched, booked and confirmed in about 20 minutes. It's good to set off knowing exactly where we're going to finish up at the end of a very long drive.

The day was once again hot, in the low to mid 30's. We took the A2 passing by the major cities of Lleidla, Zaragoza and Pamplona and through the autonomous communities (sort of like States based on ethnic and language concentrations) of Catalonia, Aragon, Navarra and Basque Country. It's a very good motorway all the way. Top speed in Spain is 120kph. The countryside is dry, arid and rocky with very little natural vegetation other than scrubby, saltbush-like shrubs. One feels hot just looking at it. Many of the hills look almost dead flat on top, smooth evenly descending slopes. If you can imagine what 5 metres of soil looks like when the local nurseryman drops it on your driveway and then scrapes of the top as his tail-gate closes, then that's pretty close. All this makes it perfect for erecting wind turbines and this part of Spain has them in their thousands. That is no exaggeration! They are everywhere.
The main form of agriculture is corn. It uses up every bit of arable land. Today it was being watered which is something I have never seen.

We turned off the motorway into a little village called Gallur for lunch. What an experience that was! We found a little restaurant tucked away in a corner. I asked the proprietor for a menu and that's where the English stopped. It just so happens that “menu” is “menu” in Spanish so the English never actually started. The proprietor's son waited on and after 10 minutes of no progress in understanding what we might like the enterprising lad went to his computer and using Google translated and printed off the day's menu in English. 10/10 for initiative! Anyway, we soon understood that we were to order an entree, a main meal and a dessert even though we only wanted an quick bite. The meals soon arrived and were very generous in proportion. We felt we had better eat it all. It was all genuine Aragon fare and all very tasty. I called for the bill which came to the sum of only 32 euros including cokes and coffees. We left very full and happy.

An hour or two later we arrived near Pamplona. The landscape had changed dramatically and all of a sudden we were amongst towering, green mountains. It was a spectacular 60km drive through long tunnels, across high bridges and winding up through high valleys. As we approached the coast we started a steep descent over about 10kms, all done with the comfort and convenience of a high-speed motorway, arriving at our destination at about 6pm. We found our Pension after a diversion due to a local fete got GPS-girl all confused again.

The Pension is very clean and comfortable. On the advice of the owner we took the bus into San Sebastian – 20 minute ride for 1.60 euros. San Sebastian is a lovely town with twide, tree-lined typical of what we had seen so far. The main boulevard was alive with tourists, retailers and buskers. It was very exciting. We strolled down to the port for a sea breeze which was very welcome, then found a square for a drink and watch kids playing soccer in amongst all the people walking and dining in the cool evening air. It was now about 8:30pm and 23 degrees.

The last bus back to the Pension left at 10:00pm so we caught that one home. We were entertained while waiting for the bus by a young girl practicing violin on the apartment's balcony. For a late supper we dropped into the local fete, which was in the streets a couple of hundred metres from our accommodation. We enjoyed some fete food and waffles for dessert and headed home, exhausted.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

We Love Barcelona (Wednesday 24th July 2013)

We slept in until midday. The heat of yesterday took it right out if us. The girls were very tired and needed a long rest. So be the kind and generous chap that I am I didn't open the window curtains until then. By the time we got organised it was almost 1:00pm. We thought we had wasted the day. Wrong! We found a little store nearby for “breakfast” (croissants and coffee) and then walked up to La Sagrada Familia which just a couple of blocks away. There is much work on the exterior going on at the moment so the building well covered in scaffolding. Bad and good. Bad, because one can't get a good photograph from any angle. Good, because it means that a lot if work is being done and it might be finished by the next time we are in Barcelona. We lined up in the queue and heat to go in a view the basilica. This part wasn't open in 1987. The queue moved pretty quickly and we were inside in about 40 minutes.

Well, in a word word, we were gob-smacked. Spectacular, breath-taking, extraordinary, magnificent, cavernous, and above all, beautiful! Hands-down this is the most stunning cathedral and the most stunning work of art we have seen to date – and I doubt if it will be beaten. If any one wants to know how to smile while your mouth is agape, ask Emily. That's how she was most of the time while in the Basilica. We left after about an hour and and found it really hard to do. If you ever have the change to go to Barcelona do not miss the La Sagrada Familia – not matter how long the queue may be.

We popped down to the metro beneath the cathedral and popped up in the El Born district of the old quarter. Here we found the bicycle rental company we were looking for and picked up our bikes. Six euro for two hours or so per bike was a bargain. Kerry was very apprehensive but with Emily's help slowly gained in confidence. We rode off down the lanes in search of the port where we knew from yesterday there was a cycling path. We found the path and rode out to the beach. The beach was very well supported by locals and tourists alike. From one end of the beach it must be 5 or 6 kilometres with a wide promenade all the way. We rode from one end to the other and then back again.

The promenade was a busy place with many people out being active walking, roller-blading, running, strolling or cycling. People on the beach were sun-baking, swimming, paddling and playing beach volleyball. It was a truly splendid scene to be a part of. We made it back to Barcelona Rent-A-Bike about 40 minutes late but they didn't mind. No extra charge! Incidentally, this is the cheapest of many rental companies in Barcelona. They were very considerate of Kerry's lack of confidence and provided a bike that would best suit her.

After all that exercise we needed a rest so we found the nearest Metro and Emily directed us to a station close to one of the little beaches we had recently passed. The water was warm and clear, the sun was warm (not so hot anymore) and there was a slight swell in shoulder depth water at about 10 metres from the beach. Perfect swimming conditions! I stayed out there until I started to “prune-up”.

We showered of the salt in one of the many freshwater showers along the beach and dried off walking back along the promenade looking for dinner. Kerry was keen to choose a beach-side restaurant and I think she was right. But we chose a port-side restaurant instead and enjoyed a nice meal of paella and sangria. The underground was nearby so we caught that back to the hotel arriving home by about 10pm.

A great day. Tomorrow we head across the country to the Atlantic coast and San Sebastian but we could have stayed a day or two longer in Barcelona.......