Janet Stevenson - France

We have a knack for visiting offbeat places and sometimes missing the more usual destinations.  After almost 6000 kilometres and 10000 digital photos, we recall six weeks in France and Italy. Although we almost lost Luca on a platform at Châtelet.

Les Halles on the first morning, we fell into a routine and enjoyed four high speed days criss-crossing Paris by metro and on foot.  On New Year’s Eve, we viewed the Eiffel Tower from the Trocadero before wandering along the Champs Elysées.  We climbed all the steps, including the 100 odd to exit the Abbesses Metro station and then more up to Montmartre. We realised, in hindsight, why the lift had been full and that the Funicular was included in free public transport on New Year’s morning!  Museums of note – Centre de Georges Pompidou and Musee d’Orsay – both gave wonderful views of Paris including a view through the clock, as in Hugo.  Although cold, the weather was quite moderate and we often ate lunches perched on benches or traffic stoppers at famous landmarks.  I loved the intimate atmosphere of L’Eglise de Saint Sulpice and the bohemian streets of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.   We stayed at Marcel Sembat which made collecting our Citroen Picasso C3 easier and exited Paris through the Bois de Boulogne and then north to Auvers-sur-Oise to amble around the streets where Vincent Van Gogh spent his last days. We passed an emotional day touring the back roads of the Somme, visiting Pozières where Colin’s grandfather had served and several war cemeteries, including the Australian Memorial at Villers-Brettoneux.

Our drive northwards along the Autoroute to Bruges required some knowledge of French. My first thought that some plugs might be on the road was surprisingly incorrect.  On checking, les bouchons warned of an impending traffic jam.  I was better informed with Vents violents- Soyez  prudents as the car was having some problem going straight.  Is there any wonder that wind turbines are prolific in this area?

Point du Hoc, the promontory between Omaha and Utah Beaches on the Normandy coast, was especially interesting.  It was as if we were in a fortified pillbox from The Longest Day.  Luca, as our private guide, could relate all the history of D-day which was handy as most of the tourist sites are either closed or under renovation in January!  We had to pass through as much security to enter the nearby American Memorial as airport security even though only a handful of people were there.  The stark yet serenebeauty of thousands of white crosses against an immaculate green backdrop is palpable.  The care the Normandy Coast from Point du Hoc RocamadourFrench people put into this and all the other memorials across northern France is obvious. Some places definitely look better online. I think the touristy atmosphere of Mont St Michel detracts from its historical significance.  Our advice is to avoid Carcassonne at all costs – unless you like sideshow alley. The Loire Valley is a French invention to get tourists in.

There was a road; there was a valley; there were probably even towns, but in winter, you can’t see a thing for the fog.  Luca did enjoy Le Château de Clos Luce in Amboise where Da Vinci spent his final years.  Here you can try out Château de Flaugergues, Montpelier replicas of machines he designed and you can even see the entrance of the tunnel (now defunct) by which he visited the royal Chateau d’Amboise to see King Francis I.  We can recommend spending a few days around the pilgrimage site of Rocamadour, the hill top bastide of Domme and the medieval village of Sarlat-le-Canada.

We enjoyed catching up with our exchange student and her family in Toulouse for an extraordinary home-cooked five course meal.  I suggest Le Château de Flaugergues in Montpelier which was the best restaurant dining of our trip.  We found driving in the Luberon area (think The Good Life) and Les Baux de Provence, a hilltop castle, very good but the traffic along the Cote d’Azur was difficult.  The hinterland towns of Vence and St Paul de Vence were pleasant respites.

These are a series of impressions from our journey to give a sense of the highs and lows.  We were to find out the middle of France is much bigger, the Gorge du Verdon is much higher and windier, the guard rails in France are much lower than Australia (even Italy’s were higher), the local roads through French towns are much slower and there is absolutely no verge on the roads in southern France, so watch out for those drainage ditches.  Colin did a wonderful job negotiating the autoroutes, autostradas, local roads and narrow alleys. There were no visible scraps but we did have quite a few close calls with usually stationary impediments.

Luca – Pizza – after the gorge!

After three weeks, often in rural areas where little French is spoken, I have gained some confidence with my French.  At least I could make myself understood. Gorge du Verdon