Week 23 The adventure comes to an end

Hi all

Well, this is the final post for our blog! We arrived back in Australia on Saturday morning so, sadly, our adventure in France is officially over. Our life in Alice Springs resumes on January 17th and it won’t be long before we’re back at work and in our usual routine. We’ve had such a fantastic 23 weeks it’s not going to be easy settling down again. We drove nearly 20,000km around France, visiting some amazing and beautiful places and, along with living at La Villatte du Bas, having Montlucon as our local town, going to watercolour painting lessons, French lessons and Country Dance classes, we have lots of great times to look back on and wonderful memories of things we’ve seen and done. It certainly has been an unforgettable, rewarding experience!

To finish off, we thought we’d share some useful information and a few tips for those intending to travel in France:

10 Quirky Things You Should Know About France (in no particular order),
1. If travelling on a Monday or between 12 and 2 on other days, take a cut lunch – you won’t find any shops open, not even the ones that cater for lunch!
2. If you see a decent toilet while out and about, use it even if you don’t need to – you can be assured that in your time of need, you won’t find one. Oh, and always BYO toilet paper!
3. Be prepared for anything and everything on French roads – cattle, hunting dogs, deer, rain, sleet, snow, snow ploughs, trucks, farmers in vans, farmers on tractors, farmers on the wrong side of the road, farmers with guns, Audi drivers…
4. Don’t ask a French person for directions if you don’t want to be led astray – use a GPS!
5. If you want coffee and cake, you’ll have to go to two different shops. France and the café culture have not yet met.
6. Following a deviation on the road means you may never reach your destination unless you have a sixth sense on where the next deviation sign should be.
7. You probably won’t see road signs leading to the town you’re heading for but if you follow the ‘Toutes Directions’ signs, you’ll end up somewhere.
8. Every French town has a Centre Ville – it might just take you a while to find it. If in doubt and in an emergency, go to McDonald’s.
9. ‘Exceptionellement fermé’ means we’re not open (no particular reason), we might be open tomorrow, or maybe next week.
10. The French are not rude, they just know the right way to do everything.

10 Excellent Things You Should Know About France (again, in no particular order)
1. Oh, the food! Try everything, particularly the regional specialities – it’s all delicious (well, maybe not the snails…)
2. Rural France is beautiful and well worth exploring. Get off the beaten track – you’ll certainly be rewarded if you take the road less travelled.
3. France has an amazing history so take time to visit its castles (not just those in the Loire), cathedrals and anything built by the Romans.
4. The sensational Strasbourg Christmas Markets are a must – the whole town is alive, decorated, lit up and smells of spicy mulled wine.
5. Paris is gorgeous day and night – put aside a week and walk.
6. If you have time and opportunity, try to meet some local French people – they really are hospitable, interesting and entertaining.
7. The French Alps in winter are stunning and a trip in the cable car 3500m up to Aiguille de Midi is an unforgettable experience.
8. Visit the Somme – Lest We Forget…
9. 45 minutes before the sun goes down, especially in autumn, the countryside is bathed in a soft orange light – great for lovely photos.
10. Country trains are clean, reliable, economical and relaxing – perfect for stress-free travel (and to avoid everything in point 3 ‘Ten Quirky Things…’)

A Few Tips
• If you’re going to be in France for a while and using the toll roads, get an electronic pass (available at most ‘Aires’/roadside shops). Makes for very easy access onto and off the toll roads – otherwise you need cash as only French credit cards are accepted
• If driving, buy fuel from supermarket outlets (eg. Carrefour) – it’s cheaper than elsewhere (especially the toll roads) and most have 24 hour access to fuel (and accept other countries’ credit cards)
• Leasing a car is far cheaper than hiring, if you’re going to be in Europe for the required minimum time
• Ibis Styles Hotels are good value, comfortable, have tea and coffee-making facilities (rare in French hotels) and breakfast is included
• Gluten-free products and Soy are pretty well impossible to find in restaurants/cafes etc. but can be bought in most supermarkets
• A cheap mobile phone and sim card from Leclerc (a supermarket chain) gives good coverage and rates for use in France
• Contrary to popular belief, apart from in Paris, French people don’t speak English so learning a few key words and phrases will make your visit easier and more enjoyable.
• Housecarers.com gives access to a wide range of house-sitting opportunities all over the world – we found our house-sit through this site and wouldn’t hesitate to use it again.

Our photos this week are of our last couple of days in London and some of our previously-posted favourites – the ones that, in our eyes, epitomise France.

We’ve really enjoyed writing the blog and say thank you to all who have followed it or read any part of it. We’ve had, to date, 4640 views, by people from 62 different countries! For us, it’ll be an invaluable record of our time in France.

Until our next adventure…

Chris & David

Week 22 London Calling

Hi all

Happy New Year! Hope 2013 has started well for you. Our year began in West Sussex, in the south of England. We had caught the Eurostar from Lille to London on Sunday 30th then took the train down to Pulborough where Tony and Dee (owners of La Villatte in France) picked us up. We stayed the next four days with them and their two dogs and spent some time, after the dogs’ morning walks, exploring the area. It was a lovely, relaxing few days and luckily, apart from one rainy day, the weather was fine and mild. We even saw the sun one day! However, it’s impossible to get used to the sun setting at 4pm – it makes for a very long evening!

We returned to London by train on Friday for four days with our niece, Hayley, who has lived in London for seven years. Saturday was spent walking, walking and walking – along the Thames and neighbouring streets. Hayley was our excellent walking tour guide! It was good being shown around by someone who knows the area so well. Sunday was another walking day, to Camden Market this time, with Hayley and her partner, James. The market is amazing – there are six different sections, all with their own focus, much of which appeals to ‘alternative sub-cultures’ ie goth,punk etc. One section occupies the historic horse stables and horse hospital, another rambles along under railway viaducts. It was all quite quirky and interesting. The market attracts around 100,000 visitors each weekend! From there we walked to Covent Garden which isn’t a garden but another market area. Its shops and eateries are a bit more ‘chic’ than Camden and it’s smaller and more manageable but doesn’t quite have the same vibe as the eclectic Camden Market. We made our way back to Hayley’s via Trafalgar Square. Walking around London is just like playing a real game of Monopoly as many places are familiar by name even though we’ve never been there before.

Well, that’s a summary of our week. We have two more days in London where we’ll do the tourist things like London Eye, Tower of London, open top bus etc, then we’ll catch the train back to Lille, drive to Paris and spend the night at Charles de Gaulle airport, bid a fond farewell to Paris and fly out on Thursday. Our adventure is almost over! We’re compiling a list of ‘Ten things you should know about France’ for the last post on our blog which we’ll write next Sunday from our daughter and son-in-law’s home in Warrnambool, Victoria.

Hope you have a great week

Chris & David

Week 21 Leaving La Villatte

Hi all

Hope you had a great Christmas! After a few last minute preparations on Christmas Eve and dinner with the couple who arrived at La Villatte last week to stay in the cottage, we had a lovely Christmas Day, enjoying warm hospitality and a delicious lunch with a French family down the road. It was a very different day for us this year, not having our own family around and feeling out of season. Although it was a cold, wet day, we didn’t get the white Christmas we were dreaming of!

Wednesday saw us saying a sad ‘au revoir’ to our cosy French farmhouse as we loaded our belongings into our car and headed north. Skirting round Paris, we had one last glimpse of the Eiffel Tower then made our way to the department of Somme, named after the river Somme which runs through it. The Battle of the Somme was one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the First World War. Villers-Bretonneux, a small town in the Somme, has strong ties with Australia, one being the Victoria School, built by money raised by Victorian families, many of whom had lost loved ones in the WWI battles that took place in this area. The Australian Memorial is on a hill just outside the town – in the cemetery lie around 2000 soldiers, 770 of them Australian, who died on the Western Front defending towns such as Amiens and Villers-Bretonneux. Many of the headstones are inscribed to an ‘Unknown Soldier.’ The walls of the Memorial name another 11,000 Australians who fought in northern France and have no known grave. The Somme is infamous for its mud, and even walking on the grass around the Memorial grounds, our shoes were soon caked in sticky, thick mud. We tried to imagine what it would have been like for the soldiers having to live in it for 4 years. Our visit was in wind-swept, cold and wet conditions – fitting for such a sombre place. Afterwards, I wrote a few words to try and capture the feeling the Memorial gave us, so here they are:

Mud sticks, thick, heavy
Weighing weary legs
Drag one leaden foot and the other
Through sludge and muck
Inching forward on the Western Front

Bullets fly, thick, heavy
Slaying weary men
Drag one leaden body and another
Through sludge and muck
Falling grimly on the Western Front

River floods, thick, heavy
Churning blood and mud
Drag one leaden life and another
Through sludge and luck
Fading slowly on the Western Front

Death crawls, thick, heavy
Stealing soldiers’ breath
Drag one leaden gasp and another
Through sludge and pluck
Lying still on the Western Front

From V-B, we went into Amiens, a very pretty place, where we wandered the streets, the Christmas markets and the town’s three large cathedrals.

On Thursday, we left Amiens just after 8am. Sunrise finally occurred at 8:50! We passed many war cemeteries – there’s 280 in the region, all the resting places of, or memorials to, WWI soldiers. We arrived in Bruges, in Belgium, around 11am and spent the rest of the day walking round the beautiful cobblestone streets and window-shopping. Of course we had to try some of the chocolate Bruges is famous for. It was cold and wet, and crowded! A cafe waiter told us this is now busiest time of year in Bruges! Although Belgium is only 30,500 sq m in area, it has three official languages and Bruges is in the Dutch-speaking region, so we felt a bit out of depth language-wise. At one of the restaurants the menu was in six languages so resembled a telephone book.

Friday we decided to head further north and drove into the Netherlands, which involved going through a 6.6 km long tunnel under an estuary coming off the North Sea. We visited Middelburg and Goes, both very attractive canal towns. Much of that area is below sea-level and the country is flat, protected by dykes and man-made, earth walls. The preferred mode of transport is the bicycle and they have right of way! We were very impressed with the dedicated cycle paths the criss-cross the Zeeland region. After a good look around, we drove back to Bruges for the night.

We left Bruges early on Saturday, stopping for a while in Gent, then Tournai. With Tournai being in the French-speaking region, we felt a bit more at home again! We arrived in Lille, quite a big town with some beautiful buildings. The streets are great for pedestrians, of which there are many! What hit us immediately, was the realisation that we hadn’t seen any beggars on the streets of Belgium or the Netherlands yet here on French streets, they’re everywhere. We wonder if the French government is more tolerant of them, or whether they’ve just lost control.

From Lille, on Sunday 30th, we catch the Eurostar train under the Channel to London to spend 10 days in England. That’s the subject of next week’s blog post! Hope you have an enjoyable New Year’s celebration, if you’re staying up to see it in!

Chris & David

Week 20 So this is Christmas…

Hi all

Hope you’re ready for Christmas! It does feel a bit strange here, having Christmas completely out of season. We’ve had another nice week at La Villatte – it was a week of finals: at the end of our art lesson someone produced a couple of bottles of Normandy Cider and we had a farewell drink, we had our last French lesson and our last country dance class with some Christmas drinks and nibbles after our hour of boot-scootin!

Today, Sunday, was a cracker of a day weather-wise – 16 degrees and sunny. With the new cottage-sitters, Ceri and Dave, who arrived during the week, we headed south down to Clermont-Ferrand and enjoyed an afternoon outdoors. A lot of people were out and about actually, doing their last-minute shopping.

Christmas is a big deal here – every town has its Christmas markets, special events, lights and decorations, with each shop having an ornament-covered tree on the pavement and elaborate displays in the windows (polar bears and snow are popular features) – and it feels a lot less commercial than it does in Australia. That could be because we haven’t been caught up in the Christmas shopping crowds but we get the idea that it’s a lot more about creating a festive atmosphere than it is about madly buying presents. Christmas songs are played in the streets – not carols so much but things like “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas’ and others, all in English! Any song to do with snow is popular! And there are songs about Santa Claus, even though in France, he’s called Père Noël. Of course there’s a huge emphasis on food and the shops are full of Christmas fare, especially hors-d’oeuvres which are all quite elaborate and delicious-looking. We’ll have to sample some! The traditional Christmas cake here is the Bûche de Noël which is a long rolled up cake (like a Swiss Roll but with cream instead of jam), decorated to look like a log. They come in all sorts of flavours and colours and look very rich and yummy. We had a Bûchette, a mini version made from sponge cake around an passionfruit cream filling covered with chocolate mousse with dark chocolate dusting to make it look like a small piece of wood. It was decorated with a white chocolate paint leaf. It was amazing so we’ll force ourselves to sample a full-size one as well! Our photos this week are all of Christmas France style – hope you like them.

Our Christmas celebration will include dinner on Christmas Eve with Ceri and Dave, breakfast with them on Christmas Day and lunch with a French family down the road (the family of the lady whose apartment we stayed in in Grenoble) which we’re looking forward to – it’ll be great to finish our stay here with a French Noël. We’ll tell you about it next week!

The week ahead should be interesting as we’ll leave La Villatte du Bas and Montluçon and drive north to Amiens for the night. Then we’ll spend two days in Belgium visiting Brugge. Everyone tells us Brugge is a beautiful place so we’re looking forward to visiting and buying some of the chocolate it’s famous for! We then return to Lille, on the French-Belgium border, overnight there then catch the train to London. While we were hoping for a white Christmas this may have been problematic for driving north on snowy roads.

We wish you all a lovely Christmas

Til next week

Chris & David

Week 19 France: Closed on Mondays but still spectacular!

Hi all

Hope you had a good week and your year’s winding down well! Our week began with a fantastic drive home from Albi, via some amazing cliff-side villages in the upper part of the Midi-Pyrenees region and the depths of the Dordogne. It’s incredible where some people make their home! First stop was Rocamadour, where, from the hill-top monastry and chateau, the town spills down the side of a gorge to meet a tributary of the Dordogne River. There are several churches and sanctuaries between the town (essentially one main street of medieval buildings) and the chateau, all built into the cliff. For 1000 years, Rocamadour has been an important pilgrimage destination.

La Roque-Gageac was next – another stunning town and member of the ‘The Most Beautiful Villages in France’ association. Built on the edge of the Dordogne River, and home to 400 people, many of its houses butt right up to the limestone cliff face, with some under precarious-looking overhangs. In January 1957, part of the cliff collapsed, crushing several houses and 4 people died. It’s a miracle this hasn’t happened more often. La Roque-Gageac is believed to have been inhabited since Pre-historic times and most of its buildings date back to the 12th century.

We continued on to Beynac-et-Cazenac, also built in the 12th century on the banks of the Dordogne and also one of ‘The Most Beautiful Villges in France.’ It’s imposing feudal castle, on the edge of a cliff, offered protection for the village behind and below it and was once beseiged by Richard the Lionheart. Some of the houses here are built right into the hill, with their rooves being the ground above them.

From there we wound our way through the area formerly called the Perigord province – now the Dordogne region – known as The Land of 1001 Castles. 42 of the 1000 castles are open to the public – the others are privately owned. This is rugged, beautiful, sparsely populated country with a castle or fortess on every hill, each positioned with incredible views down the valleys and gorges along the river. The whole area has a real medieval yet serene atmosphere, giving the feeling that it survived some terribly tough times and is now at peace and there’s a sense of permanence about it – history reaching into the present. We were lucky, I think, to see it all at this time of year, free of the summer crowds and traffic; however, most things were ‘closed for the season’ and, given it was Monday, closed anyway! Fortunately, although cold and overcast, the weather was much better than our snowy, slippery trip down last Friday!

Back at home for the rest of the week, we had one of the coldest days we’ve ever experienced (apart from our brief time spent in minus 17 at Mont Blanc!) when, on Wednesday, it was still minus 6 at 9am and peaked at 0 degrees! The pond next to the house had a 2cm layer of ice on it! However, it was clear and sunny, so from the warmth of our lounge, looked like a lovely day! We finished the week off with a 5 course dinner last night at our French teacher’s place! Just a typical French meal, beginning at 7pm and ending at midnight!!

The week ahead looks to be nice and relaxing. Sadly, it’ll be a week of au revoirs as we have our final art, French and dancing lessons. We hope to do a day trip or two if the weather’s OK, later in the week and we also need to plan the few days between leaving here and catching the train to London. Only 8 days left at La Villatte now!

Next week’s blog will give you an idea of what Christmas looks like in France!

Regards

Chris & David

Week 18 Toulouse le Trek

Hi all

Hope you had a good week. We spent the first few days of the week relaxing at home, catching up on washing and doing some watercolour painting. It was very cold and on Wednesday night we had a nice sprinkling of snow!

On Friday we took on the motto of the American mail deliverers – neither rain, sleet or snow would stop us from getting to our destination – Toulouse: it was raining as we left just on sunrise, sleeting as the freeway took us to higher altitudes and, before long, snowing as we continued to climb and it quickly deteriorated into blizzard conditions. It had obviously been snowing for a while but the snow ploughs were only just making an appearance. The roads were very icy and after seeing someone on the other side sliding and spinning out of control, we slowed right down and made sure there was a good deal of distance between us and the car in front. Finally a snow plough pulled onto the road and it was much better following in its tracks. We decided to turn back at the first opportunity and were glad to see the plough taking the exit road that we were going to take. We followed it around and back onto the freeway thinking we were heading home but a few kilometres down the road, there was a sign indicating we were in fact still heading to Toulouse! Not sure what happened there. Then to our dismay the plough turned off leaving us to negotiate the ice-covered road. It was still snowing heavily and this would have been exciting, had the road not been so scary! And, there were cars and trucks passing us in the left lane, which had a heavy layer of snow – the trucks threw up so much ice and water, it swamped our car each time.

We stopped at an ‘Aire’ (a roadside stop with fuel, food, toilets etc) for a break and some lunch then braved the elements and decided to keep going. Some time later, we caught up to another snow plough (they travel at about 40km/hour, we were doing about 50) so again, the road wasn’t as bad. Still a bit icy, but not fully covered in snow. About 3 hours later, the road started dropping in altitude, the fog rolled in for a while, then finally, the weather and road cleared and things were pretty much back to normal. What should have been a 4 hour trip to Toulouse took 7 hours! It was raining when we got out of the car in Toulouse so after a short walk around and a hot drink, we headed to our hotel.

To our relief, on Saturday, the weather was fine! We drove south a bit to Foix where there’s an impressive château built (of course) on a hill in the middle of the town. Foix is at the foot of the Pyrenees. After wandering round there, we drove to the Grotte de Mas d’Avil which turned out to be a large tunnel through the hill with a river running through it. Quite amazing actually. From there we meandered our way back through some very pretty country. The only frustration was that, once again, we couldn’t find anything open for lunch (this may sound unbelievable for France but, believe us, it’s a challenge!) and it wasn’t til 3:30pm (after not being able to find a parking spot back in Toulouse) that we came across a McDonald’s just out of town and had to get something there.

We decided then to visit the Airbus A380 assembly plant at the Toulouse airport – well, finding that was another major challenge. You’d think something of national and international interest would be well sign-posted but, this is France so…no. We did eventually find it and were able to join a guided tour. The hour and a half tour was interesting enough but the guide talked a lot and it was all in French so we didn’t take in much. The main final assembly building for the Airbus A380 is an impressive 490m long, 250m wide and 50m high and they build three planes side by side using enormous computer driven lifts to move the airplane sections together. The various parts of the planes are made all over Europe in France, Germany, Spain and England and the various bits all end up in Toulouse where the planes are assembled before flying to Hamburg in Germany for interior fitout and painting to each airlines specifications.

We left Toulouse early on Sunday and drove to Gaillac where we stopped and walked around the town. Then it was on to Cordes – the old city is crammed on top of a hill and gives fantastic 360 degree views of the country below. From there we drove to Albi via Castelnau de Levis – the remains of a 13th century castle with a very tall tower. We enjoyed lovely countryside all the way, dotted with small villages, each with its own church steeple or chateau rising above the town. Albi is a very beautiful place, built along the Tarn River. It’s one of the many Bastide towns in this area – towns built on and within walls which offered stability and protection. Wandering around Albi was lovely and we went to the Toulouse-Lautrec gallery and into the cathedral. The weather was spectacular, cold, but sunny all day. Our hotel for the night used to be a flour mill and is right on the river – our room has a great view down the Tarn.

We’ll head home on Monday, via some other little villages which we’ve been told are must-sees. We’ll tell you about that next week. The rest of the week will be spent at home; another couple arrive on Friday to stay in the cottage. We have 15 days left at La Villatte!

Hope you like the photos of our travels this week

Chris & David

 

 

Week 17 We (heart) Paris

Hi everyone

Hope you’ve had an enjoyable week! Ours began with a 7 hour drive back from Colmar. It wasn’t an easy drive as it rained all day, quite heavily at times, and was foggy in parts as well. The freeway is very unpleasant in these conditions – visibility is reduced further by a lot of wash coming up off the road from car and truck tyres – so it’s quite trying and tiring. To add to that, we took the wrong freeway at one point which took us about 1/2 an hour too far east – with nowhere to turn around or exit, we just had to stick it out until we could get off. After quite a bit of time on back roads we rejoined the right freeway and finally arrived home. It was nice to spend Tuesday and Wednesday at home.

On Thursday, we left our car at our French teacher’s place, she drove us to the station and we took the train to Paris – a pleasant, relaxing journey of 3 1/2 hours. After lunch and checking into our hotel near the Place de la Bastille, we walked up to Boulevard Haussmann to have a look at the big department store windows – like Myer in Melbourne, Galeries Lafayette and Printemps windows are decorated for Christmas, however, the displays, while interesting, weren’t very Christmasy at all! Paris is a great city for walking, there are many statues and monuments, the buildings are beautiful and as the majority of them are only 7 stories high, there’s plenty of sky and light, making it feel open and airy.

Friday we took an early train tothe Palace of Versailles. We visited it in 2010 but it was summer and there were so many people there it was shoulder-to-shoulder walking through the rooms and we didn’t stay long. This time, being just after opening time and cold, there were very few people and we often had rooms to ourselves so it was much more enjoyable. We hired a couple of push bikes for a bit (an electric one for me!) and rode around the gardens which was good fun. From there we got on the train to Trocadero from where you have a great view of the Eiffel Tower, walked to the Arc de Triomphe and down one side of the Champs Elysees – the Christmas markets were in full swing so it was nice strolling past them, although they were all similar to the ones we’d seen in Strasbourg. We went then to the Musee de l’Orangerie which is home to some big and lovely Monet landscapes as well as works by Picasso (his less abstract ones), Renoir and Matisse.

Saturday was another strolling around/sight-seeing day – took the metro to the Concorde, walked to Boulevard Haussmann again(had to do a spot of Christmas shopping), walked along the other side of the Champs Elysees to the Eiffel Tower – we’d hoped to take the lift to the top (it was closed when we were there 2 years ago) but the queue was huge and the top again closed due to congestion so we got on the Batobus (a shuttle boat on the Seine), got off at Notre Dame, had lunch on Ile de St Louis, got back on the Batobus to Eiffel Tower to catch an after dark ‘Paris Illuminations’ bus tour which wasn’t possible – the driver spun us some yarn about not being able to pay by credit card, it was a bit odd and confusing – so we jumped back on the Batobus to Notre Dame and walked back to our hotel. After dinner at a Chinese place opposite the hotel, we thought we’d go somewhere else for a bit of dessert so went to a chain restaurant ‘Hippopotamus’ – we’ve eaten there before, in Limoges and Grenoble and had had lunch there in Paris on Thursday. We were met in the foyer and were asked if we had come to eat, I replied yes, for dessert. Oh, no, the guy said, not possible, you have to want something to eat. I reiterated, we’re going to eat dessert. He shook his head and said there’s no places available. David looked around and said loudly there’s plenty of empty tables! The guy insisted, no, they’re only for people ordering a meal! We were gobsmacked and left in a huff. We couldn’t believe a restaurant, and not a classy one at that, would turn away paying customers. And it was 9pm – certainly time for dessert! So we went to a posh patisserie/chocolaterie and bought a luxury cake each.

Today, after a stroll along the canal near our hotel, we headed to the station for our return train – again a very relaxing 3 1/2 hours. We were met by our French teacher (also called Christine) and her partner (Hugo) and after a lovely afternoon tea with them, drove home to a freezing house! With the fire going and other heaters on, it’ll soon warm up again. We were very lucky with the weather while in Paris – while it was very cold each day (around 5 deg) and Friday was overcast, Saturday and today were sunny so that was nice.

We’ll be home this week til Friday when we’ll head off for one more short trip before Christmas – down to Toulouse and some small but apparently amazing villages in that area.

Have a great week

Chris and David