Spring in France has been deceptive. April on the Atlantic coast was warm and sunny and we even packed away the Ugg boots and down jackets This proved to be a bit premature, as the weather has been incredibly variable ever since. You can change clothes four times a day. We’ve been known to start the day in raincoats and end in shorts!
After visiting the Medoc wine region near Bordeaux we dropped into Bordeaux quickly to pick up our friend Thomas Hardy and drive him back to Jarnac. Sunday is a fantastic day for driving in France because semis and trucks aren’t allowed on the road. It makes driving much less stressful and we have now turned into ‘Sunday drivers’ and plan our trips to have the longest drive on Sunday.
It turned into a very rainy day and our planned BBQ for Thomas with Michael’s new mini Webber wasn’t possible, so we shifted the venue to Thomas’s house and had a long indulgent lunch that went all afternoon. Thomas made Oysters Tsarina (natural oysters with onion, smoked salmon, finely chopped egg and caviar dressed with a drizzle of vodka) and we did steak, white asparagus, potatoes and salad greens. We tried two flavours of the local Pineau, an aperitif often made by cognac distillers.
On our journey north-east back to Paris (to attend to the motor home) we visited Ordura sur Glane, just out from Limoges. This village was the sight of a shocking atrocity during WW2 on June 10th 1944 when German SS soldiers surrounded the village and rounded up the men, women and children into several different locations. The women and children were taken to the church and gassed, shot and then set on fire. The men were kept in several locations and then shot. Only one woman and five men escaped and survived. The village was left as it was on the day, as a permanent memorial to the dead. It’s eerie to wander around and look at the hairdresser’s, the schools, the cars and the tram tracks. It surprised us, the archive footage of the event. The Germans recorded it all on film, in photos and in ledgers. How astonishing to think that they believed it was so OK to kill women and children in a church that they recorded it!!
Paris East (Lagny sur Marne and Jublines) on the outskirts of Paris is a very pretty area and is the location of Euro Disney. It was quite tricky to find a camping place that wasn’t targeted at children and Disney themed. We stayed in a campground in an enormous sports parkland. It had three lakes with all kinds of water sports, as well as horse riding, shooting, archery and boat-less water-skiing/wave-boarding which we hadn’t seen before. Going for a walk, we sheltered from the rain in the water-sports bar. Sue and Grubie took advantage of a slight break in the rain to bolt for home but Michael stayed to socialize and was driven home an hour later when the rain got too heavy. That was very kind of his new acquaintances.
We were impressed with ourselves for driving on the horrifically busy freeways around Paris in the rain and fog. The credit should go to Michael and to our GPS guide, Katy! To reward ourselves we stopped for several days in Fontainebleu. The gorgeous Chateau and gardens are even more impressive than Versailles, in our opinion and the town itself was pretty and bustling.
The Loire ‘castle country’
We have been overwhelmed with the sheer number of chateaux in the Loire Valley –every few miles! There are literally hundreds of them! We broke the Loire into two parts, doing the eastern part first. We went to Blois, Amboise, Chambord and Cheverny. All were gorgeous in their own way, some being more historically significant while others were significant in terms of architecture or art.
King Francois 1st was a great patron of the arts and invited Leonardo da Vinci to Amboise, among other ‘thinkers in residence’. Da Vinci died there and his tomb is in the Chateau.
After driving past Poitiers several times in our treks back and forth across France and saying “we must stop and look there” it was quite ironic that we were ‘summonsed’ there by the OFII (Office of Immigration and Inclusion) to verify our long stay visa and give us a ‘residency permit’. This involved attending a chest Xray and medical at the hospital in Angouleme, followed one week later with an ‘interview’ at Poitiers. This was reminiscent of our experience in Sydney. They give many directions about what you are required to bring and then ask for something more when you get there! We had to pay 250 EU each and it had to be in the form of tax stamps purchased from a ‘tabac’ or news agency. After having paid $AU 100 each in Sydney we were a little unsure of what we were actually paying for. Turns out, it is the first step in the (probably annual) renewal of the residency permit. Apparently from this point on the procedure is simple. Right!!
Anyway, it was worth it to discover Poitiers. What a rich medieval history this town has. Sue is a fan of historical novels and Poitiers often features in these tales, so it was fascinating to see the real setting of these events. Poitiers was where the Muslims were finally defeated in crusading times.
As a change from our focus on history, art and architecture we decided to spend a day visiting the Futuroscope theme park. Neither of us had ever been to a theme park before and this one was fabulous because it was aimed at adults. It had great ‘dynamic rides’, meaning those that simulated things so well you actually thought you were there. There was a terrific one that was actually very funny as well as being terrifying. It took you on the racetrack at le Mans and then flying along the Loire, among other things. There was another one that was a fly around the world. At various times we both had our eyes shut! We were really keen on something called ‘Dancing with Robots’ but chickened out when we saw what the robots did to you –tipping you upside down and whizzing you around the ceiling!
Amiens and the Somme
We spent a week based in Amiens, exploring the city and the valley of the Somme. We both cannot believe how green and lush the French countryside is. The grain crops are up to our thighs, with fat heads of grain already. And the miles of vegetable crops! Every bit of land is used. Some areas of the Somme valley have miles upon miles of fields and open, rolling hills without many trees and no fences.
The Cathedral Notre- Dame in Amiens is huge and can fit two of the Paris Notre Dame inside its nave. The (supposed) head of St John the Baptist is housed here, although it is only displayed twice a year. They also have the famous ‘crying angels’. They are doing great restoration work and the freshly painted frescos look incredible. It’s hard to think that all the millions of carvings on the exterior were once richly painted, too. Just doesn’t seem right. Another interesting point was the incredible work that went into preventing bombing damage during WW2. The place was covered in wooden scaffolding and sandbags to a height of about 4 meters, both inside and out.
Amiens is a relaxed and friendly place, with a lively ‘old quartier’ and lots of canals. It’s mostly post-war architecture and not very beautiful, as the place was bombed to smithereens. But it has lovely pedestrian shopping streets and a great vibe. The canals are lined with restaurants and we enjoyed a couple of leisurely lunches along their banks.
The camping ground where we stayed was about 4km from the city centre as the crow flies and it was apparently a 45 min walk. For us, this ended up being about 7km as we had to make detours along the canal due to river-works. By the time we got to town we were all tired and needed a long lunch to recover. Grubie loves a good lunch: pate and cheese if we’re self-catering or ‘plat du Woolly’ if we’re out. In Amiens she has enjoyed moules, salmon and prawns.
We also did a tour of the Hortillonages. This was a boat tour and Grubie was welcome to attend. It was her favourite tour so far. She got to eyeball ducks! Sue was entranced to finally see a crested grebe and we were all impressed with the richness of the gardens and the tranquility, when you consider it is right in the middle of town!
The battlefields of the Somme were high on our list of places we wanted to visit in France. Both our grandfathers fought in the Somme Valley in WW1 and both survived.
Robert Clarence Woollard: He arrived in France in July 1916. He was 28 and unmarried and was with the second division 27th infantry. This division fought around Poziers and the famous ‘windmill’ and would have seen fierce action.
Arthur Frances Merrett: enlisted on 26/1/1916, embarked from Australia on 25/11/1916 to arrive in France on 12/1/1917. Was 26 and unmarried when he enlisted and was a plumber. He was a sapper with the 11th Field engineers that were active along the Hindenburg Line.
The thing that shocked us both about the Somme valley is the number of cemeteries and memorials –every few miles! We went to the Australian war Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux. It was interesting to see in person the site of so many Anzac services we have seen on TV over the years. It was also a bit shocking to see so many Unknown Soldier graves. Sometimes they had the rank of the person and all had the inscription ‘Known Unto God’.
It was quite amazing to realise that from a total population of less than 5 million people Australia sent nearly 417,000 men. More than 60,000 died and 156,000 were wounded, gassed or taken prisoner. What a great cost to a fledgling nation.
We went to the underground Somme Museum in the town of Albert. It was housed in the underground tunnels also used as air raid shelters in WW2. It contained lots of memorabilia and scenes from the trenches. Albert was a beautiful little town and had a church that had been badly bombed to the extent that the Virgin & Child statue on top of the spire fell sideways. It has now been rebuilt.
On another day we went to the Memorial Terre-Neuvien or Newfoundland memorial. Created to remember the Canadians who fought in WW1 it has been planted with trees native to Canada in a parkland-like setting. The memorial is unique in having several kms of actual trenches and a section of No Man’s Land. We were surprised by the trenches, having always imagined them as straighter. In reality they are very sharply winding which gave much better protection. We were also not expecting the craters of bombs to be everywhere, just everywhere.
Peronne was another area that was right in the thick of the battle and now hosts the Museum of the Great War, and represents all the nations including Germany. There were uniforms from all the countries as well as lots of short film footage, enlistment posters and propaganda from all sides. There was also quite a lot about the civilians.
Those who have read the Clan of the Cave Bear novels of Jean Auel or are archeology buffs will know of the importance of the Samara area of the Somme, where amazing discoveries have been made. There is an archeological park there that we drove to visit. Lots about Neolithic tribes, crafts and life-skills such as flint-knapping etc. It was interesting but the guided tours were all in French so much was ‘lost in translation’.
Michael had visited Dieppe in early 2006 when he came to the UK for work and did a very brief weekend visit to France. He had fond memories of the very maritime vibe and the white cliffs. Just an easy 90-minute drive from Amiens, it is a very pretty port and was full of French and Belgian tourists.
We were a bit ‘toured out’ and were looking for a little down time. No castles or churches! A long lunch of moules in a restaurant on the seafront was a good start to our relaxation. There was also a huge and fabulous market on the Saturday we arrived – I love it when the sausage stall is right next door to the frock stall, which is next door to the cheese shop! It’s just as well we have a motor home and therefore cant carry anything much. The Woolly’s Bar and Grill would have become full of French and maritime memorabilia if we were just on holiday.
At lunch one day we met an English couple who were very helpful in sharing about how to be ‘motor-homers’. Everything from useful blogs and clubs to not to put mouthwash in the ‘grey-water’ (still not sure why). They told us about Aires that you pay for and the one in Dieppe. We gave it a try and will definitely use them once the camping ground season closes. In the meantime we think an extra few EU for showers, toilets, security and internet access etc is worthwhile.
Next, we are off to Giverny. The weather has been gorgeous and Sue just has to cross Monet’s Garden off her bucket list. We have been very busy little tourists during May, seeing lots before the hoards of tourists descend in summer. That’s when we’ll do like the French and escape on ‘holiday’.