A massive thank you to my folks for allowing me to tag along on their modest tour of France earlier in the month. The plan was to go out and stay with their old friends Janet and Mike who have just quit the UK in favour of the Loire and then move on to The City of Light and take in a few sights…
We flew out from East Midlands on a cold and dank morning at Stupid O’clock for our flight (the parental units need to arrive at last an hour early for everything these days or they start to resemble a junkie in need of a fix and become very agitated) and touched down in Dinard where we experineced considerably warmer climes. We then proceded to the fortified coastal town of St. Malo for a walkabout. The parents and Jan and Mike took off in search of ice cream and I set about searching for Rob who had hopped a ferry over from Jersey in order to meet me for a beer or four. I had decided not to take along my phone because I couldn’t be bothered with activating roaming. If I had known what a problem this was to cause I would have gladly done it. I was due to meet Rob between three and four so got on with trying to find a phone to call the guy. Firstly there was the problem of finding a pay phone in a labyrinthine medieval walled city. Someone seemed to have neglected to include them in any of the main streets. Tabacs did not feature phones and after a good half hour jogging about and cursing I eventually found a couple of booths. The first one was not about to work for anyone and seemed to have expired. The second had no facility for taking coins. I asked a woman who was waiting for me to finish berating the phone how it worked and was told that I needed a phone card which I could buy from a tabac. Fine. Now this time the same person who had hidden all the phones thought that they’d now conceal all of the tabacs. Hunting round I found a great deal more phone boxes but nowhere to buy a phone card. It’s at least half four by now. Randomly I bump into the same woman and plead for her to tell me where I find a tabac. She tells me that she’s actually from Paris and holidaying but agrees to help me hunt down the closeted tabacs. Conveniently they were to be found on the other side of the town, as far away from the phone booths as they could get (without being in the sea). So having thanked the kindly Parisian tourist and apologised profusely for tarnishing her peaceful afternoon I trek back across town armed with a phone card. I’m looking out for Rob all this time convinced that he’s either walking around cursing my name or he’s on a ferry returning back to Jersey. I get to the phone booth and after the recorded voice has repeated its instructions three times in French a different voice can be heard in English uttering the legend; “For Eng-lish, per-ess ther-ee…”. Fair enough. After activating the phone card and dialling Rob’s number the same patronising voice tells me that it’s not possible to connect me to that number. Why not? The same thing happens again. And again. On the verge of causing an immense amount of damage to the telephone booth I leave and go for a walk around the city walls where of course I meet my parents and Jan and Mike who helpfully tell me that they’ve seen Rob several times. This would have been upsetting had they not suggested that I might catch up with him if I leg it round the top of the walls. I did eventually meet up with Rob and had those several beers in a shady bar that Rob must have picked out hours earlier. Stella Artoir has never tasted so good.
After a pleasant late afternoon we said goodbye to Rob and made the ninety minute journey south east. Mike and Jan were very familiar with the area having been holidaying in the region for over ten years on cycling tours. They had moved themselves over earlier in the year and bought a simple and very comfortable house in the sleepy and picturesque village of Levare in the top corner of Pays de la Loire within easy reach of the borders of Brittany and Normandy. After a hearty meal and plenty of wine and good tunes we were ready for our first night’s rest.
Next morning we were whisked off for a leafy walk through woodland that followed a stream around an impressive chateau that was aging in a distinguished fashion. In the afternoon our guides moved us on to the charming town of Fougeres which was about 24k from Livare over in Brittany. According to Jan the place is Brittany’s answer to Chepstow and it certainly seemed so upon arrival. We strolled through the more modern part of the town pausing for a huge baguette and a creamy raspberry flan thing. We ambled through the gardens which are next to an impressive church atop a hill which leads you down towards the old town and the castle. Part of me really wanted to run around the battlements of the castle but the older, more exhausted part of me pointed out that I’d just had a big lunch and I wouldn’t actually achieve much running about so I saved my money and took a few pictures instead. Pix are starting to go up now at Flickr.
The following morning saw us trip to nearby St Fraimbault, which is a gorgeous flower-obsessed medieval village. A large field had been given over to all sorts of flora-associated exhibits that although just starting to go over were still lively enough and provided much amusement. We then visited Domfront, another medieval town on a hill with fabulous panoramic views and a host of quirky and charismatic buildings and then in the afternoon we stopped by the spa town of Bagnoles de L’orne to see the lake, the casino, the extravagant houses and the famed le Roc au Chien (Dog Rock – so called because in no way does it resemble any sort of canine). We had just time to journey to Lassay Les Chateaux for an eye full of the finest castle we had seen so far. Whilst walking around the Castle’s lake I spied a secluded alley that lay tucked away behind an outer brook. The brook had several large stepping stones and it was just a question of traversing them to gain access to this little forbidden passage that led to a network of back alleys and rat runs behind the old houses. The maze duly spat me out on to the high street and I was left to wander along trying to find my way back to my party feeling like a small child whose curiousity has gotten the better of him.
We were catching the TGV to Paris from nearby Leval and so we spent a few hours in the hill town the next morning with open mouths gazing at the mismatched houses and shops that adorned the slopes of the town and the series of ancient but sturdy bridges that spanned the river. We were also in search of a decent lunch before we would be shot out of Pays de la Loire like the contents of your nose into a handkerchief. The countryside between Pays de la Loire and Paris wasn’t the most memorable and so it was fortunate that the 250k journey only took us about ninety mins. Upon arrival into Paris we were deposited into Gare de Montparnasse, south of the Seine. Our apartment lay waiting for us in Montmartre in the north-east so all we needed to do was get there. Thankfully we’d done a bit of research and knew we needed Lamarck Caulaincourt on metro line number 12 (the metro divides all its colour coded lines into numbers which are a bit easier to remember than the London underground names) which incidentally is the station that Amelie leads the blind man to in the movie. The journey proved surprisingly easy (even with Dad getting pinned between a set of automatic gates and nearly toppling over when stepping onto the trundling wheels of a walk-on conveyer) and very speedy. After gaining entry to our apartment our thoughts turned to food and after consulting our Lonely Planet guide we found that the best place in our vicinity was a place called La Maison Rose which happened to take us up the hill behind us past the legendary Le Lapin Agile and past a fantastic vineyard towards the Sacré Cœur. And all this within just over an hour of having arrived!
The first day proper was spent doing the “unmissables” so we hauled ourselves up to the first level of the Eiffel Tower (I struggled to get that far, my fear of heights had well and truly kicked in) and I was just able to get a brace of pictures of the city and properly orientate myself before I had to come down (which was not easy as it was harder to avoid looking down). I moved us on to the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs Elysées, through the Tuileries gardens (complete with ridiculously white sand/grit that blinded you), and onto the Louvre Museum. We went inside but not into the actual galleries. Mum wasn’t interested and I knew I’d be coming back so I decided to save the Louvre for another occaision. Dad had a hankering to see Notre Dame so we wondered in the direction of the cathedral where I exploited all the gargoyle photograph opportunities that I could find. The splendour of the interior of the cathedral and the sense of wonder were slightly undermined by the disrespectful tourists babbling and snapping away but we had a good look round and then spent a very pleasant half hour sitting around in the park directly behind the cathedral.
Next day was the big expedition to Giverny to see Monet’s garden so we hopped a train from Gare St Lazare and sped east for the small town of Vernon where we could get a shuttle bus out to Giverny. The house and garden were really charming. I hadn’t realised that a rail track ran through the middle of the artist’s garden separating the beautiful and brilliant display of flowers and plants in the upper section nearest the house from the Japanese water garden with that lilly-pad filled pond. This has since been turned into a road and access between the two sections of the garden is only possible through a subway. The Japanese water garden is the more interesting section of the garden (though the displays of colours and shapes in the upper part of the garden is almost as spellbinding). The fact that this was mid September and it was trying hard to rain was keeping the crowds away and although we didn’t have the place to ourselves we were spared the anguish of too many tourists. The artist’s house was lovely too. Very airy and light and filled with masses of pictures by Japanese artists including Hiroshige and Hokusai. The whole experience was magical and Dad was so pleased to have made it there. The only trouble was that after we had been ferried back to Vernon for our train we realised that we had two hours to kill before our next connection. Vernon isn’t the most interesting of places and the weather had finally succeeded in raining by this time so we took ourselves off for a some refreshments while we did the whole postcard thing.
Saturday was a little vexing as we had planned to see the Conciergerie and St Chappelle but unfortunately owing to a combination of maintenance and a security alert they were both closed so on Marc’s recommendation we strolled through the Latin Quarter and the resplendent Luxembourg Gardens and back though Marais before our guide book suggested we visit a crowded restaurant/attic for dinner.
Sunday was spent bowling around Montmartre. We all went into the Sacré Cœur and Mum was able to light a candle for Grandma and Grandad. After battling with the throngs of tourists in and around the place du Tertre we left Dad painting while Mother and I hiked all over the hillside and did our best to cover the place. Such a beautiful area (if only you could get rid of the tourists!). Because we used a Lonely Planet guide it meant that for the most part we could avoid the masses, which is definitely a good thing at meal times when you want to eat authentic French food without paying the earth. On the way back to the apartment on the final evening we encountered a random piece of street theatre outside a fantastic little bar called Aux Rendez-vous Des Amis on Rue Gabrielle. It consisted of a workman in blue overalls having fallen asleep on a chair whilst a female sprite clad in bright white was dancing as if he was dreaming her. Music played from a stereo they’d brought along and everyone (who had spilled from the corner bar) was utterly transfixed. We had to stop for a drink. Then, unfortunately we had to climb back up the epic set of steps, we had tottered down earlier, to get back to our apartment on the other side of the hill to get to sleep so that we could catch an early flight out of Charles de Gaul at Stupid O’clock once again.