Honfleur, Beautiful Even in Winter

Frost=covered trees near Honfleur3
Frost Laden Trees Along the Seine

I’ve written before about Honfleur, my favourite French town, but before this year I’d only visited it in summer.  I arrived in France on New Year’s Eve this time, not by car as I had done before, but on a ship which sailed down the Seine from L’Havre to Rouen.

Frost-covered trees near Honfleur
So White it Looks Like Snow

On the journey we looked out on a wondrous scene of frost-covered trees on the banks of the river, trees which at first I took to be silver birch, so thickly covered in frost were they.

In-the-midst-of-the-frosty-trees,-a-lone-mansion.
In the Midst of the Frosted Trees Appears a Mansion

I had never seen anything like this before, and it was made more fascinating by the fact that there were also pockets of greenery where the frost had not reached.

Honfleur is not far from Rouen so it seemed a

The Great Clock, Rouen
Rouen, the Great Clock

good idea to take ourselves off there for the day, even though I had presumed the town would be mostly closed up for the winter.  But no, the town was as busy as ever with cafés, restaurants and bars open and packed with visitors.  As usual, the area around the marina, the Vieux Basin, was the most crowded and we had a problem finding a table at lunch time.

Honfleur, an essential stop on any Norman itinerary, is still a fishing port, and despite its sophisticated yacht harbour and fantastic high-rise houses surrounding it, the town has preserved its rich artistic and historic heritage in its traditional buildings and picturesque streets and squares.  It is unlike any other part of Normandy, seeming to bear no relation to industrial Le Havre just across the Seine estuary or the Pays dAuge to the south.

Honfleur--VBieux-Bassin-6
One Side of the Marina
Vieix Bassin, Honfleur
St. Catherine’s Quao

The oldest part of Honfleur lies in the area of the Vieux Bassin, a tangle of delightful cobbled streets and alleys known as L’Enclos, the original medieval town of Honfleur enclosed within the first town walls.

Honfleur staple
A Nomandy Staple

Here you will find the oldest church, the deconsecrated 14th and 15th century St. Etienne’s, a Gothic parish church constructed of chalk with flint and Caen stone.  The bell tower is covered with a façade of chestnut wood in the local tradition, as indeed, are many of the old houses behind it.

Honfleur 4
A Street in Honfleur

Behind this is the original 17th-century Greniers a Sel (salt warehouses) the royal salt stores that once contained 11,000 tonnes of salt for preserving the locally caught fish and the Atlantic cod and herring which the fleets landed.

Honfleur 3
Honfleur Street

The Bassin is surrounded by picturesque narrow houses, and without doubt this is what catches the eye of every visitor upon their first visit to Honfleur.  The real jewels (and looking like jewels too because each one is a different colour) are in the row along the Quai St. Catherine, some of the houses being 10-stories high, with slate roofs and half-timbered and slate façades looking as though they might topple over at any minute.

Vieix Bassin, Honfleur
The Beautiful Vieux Bassin, present-day yacht Marina, of Honfleur

An interesting fact about these narrow 16th and 18th century houses that are squeezed against one another on St Catherine’s quay is that not only are they all different in size, shape, and colour, but that they also have two ground floors: one opening on to the quay and another one, half way up opening behind on to either Dauphin Street or Logettes Street.  Because of this, each house is privately owned by two different householders.

Honfleur’s finest architectural prize is the old wooden Church of St. Catherine which was built by shipwrights in the 15th and 16th century just outside the walls of the medieval town, using wood from the nearby forest.

Honfleur Wooden Church
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This is the largest wooden church with a separate bell-tower in France.  The interior architecture of the church is quite remarkable, as the shipwrights used their naval construction skills in the building of it (stone was scarce but timber was plentiful in the neighbouring forests) and in shape inside it resembles an overturned double hull.  Look closely at the pillars and you will see many irregularities pointing to the crudeness of the tools used in the work.  The separate bell tower, opposite the church, is an oak construction built above the bell-ringer’s house and this serves as an annexe to the Eugène Boudin Museum – a must for art lovers.

Honfleur old Belfry Tower
Wooden Bell Tower

Honfleur has been attracting painters to the area for generations.  Boudin, known as the father of Impressionism, was born in Honfleur and painters such as Monet, Corot, Daubigny and Dufy were drawn to these parts by the beauty and quality of the light.  Their work is well represented in the many galleries in the area.  The painters usually stayed just outside the town at Ferme St. Simeon, then a rustic auberge, now a very grand and beautiful five-star hotel standing in magnificent grounds.

Carvings inside Wooden Church
Carvings in Wooden Church

 

Honfleur was also the birthplace in 1886 of the avant-garde musician, artist and writer, Erik Satie, and there is a Museum dedicated to the man where you can immerse yourself in his quirky world.  Unlike any other museum you’ve been to, this one takes you from room to room to the accompaniment of Satie’s music (via electronic headsets). stunning visual effects and extracts from his writing.  Even if Satie is not one of your favourites, this is a very special experience which I’d highly recommend.

Calvados House, Honfleur
Calvados House, Honfleur

It is very easy to walk around this small town and you won’t get lost.  However, like many towns, Honfleur has a Petit Train Touristique, a tractor-drawn ‘train’ that trundles around the main tourist spots, operating May-September.  If only there for a day, I’d recommend this.

Honfleur Tourist Board.

Winter scene in Vieux Bassin - Polar Bear on Ice
It Really is Winter – Polar Bear on Ice in Vieux Bassin – December 31st 2016!
Frosted trees above towpath houses on Seine
Town along the Seine with Frosted Trees above

Montpelier: Antigone Area

Montpelier had been experiencing rapid growth since the 1970s.  The city was on line to become the new regional technology centre and there was a need for expansion and for more public housing.  In 1979, the newly elected municipal council of Montpelier, with far-seeing vision, decided to develop a whole new district to provide for this expansion and link the centre to the River Lez.  The plan for the stunning development incorporated a west-east axis consisting of a landscaped boulevard and a series of squares enclosed by residential blocks each of seven-stories, to terminate in a new waterfront “port” along the Lez.

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Magnificent Buildings along the 1 Kl-length of Antigone – Mari Nicholson

Thus did Antigone, surely the most attractive of new developments in France, c0me into being.  The 1-Kilometre length of this development was built on the grounds of the former Joffre Barracks, located between the old centre of Montpelier and the River Lez which meanders along the eastern side of the city.  It is known as the Champs-Élysées of Montpelier and the master plan was designed by Spanish architect, Ricardo Bofill – who also designed the majority of the buildings – as a series of grand neo-classical structures with pediments, entablatures and pilasters on a gigantic scale.

greek-heroes

Neo-Greek Statues with Fountain – Mari Nicholson

The Antigone squares are idealised, perfectly proportioned Renaissance spaces with grand names like La Place du Nombre d’Or.  Neo-classical Greek statuary that harks back to another age is dotted about the boulevards and plazas in streets that were planned to allow a paved walkway from Place des Echelles de la Ville to the River Lez.  A continuous movement of wheeled devices and small battery-powered minibuses provide transportation within the mall.

Antigone is an enormous project in every respect.   It includes about 4,000 new dwellings and 20,000 sq. meters of commercial space, the Languedoc-Roussillon regional government headquarters, office space, various government offices, restaurants and cafes, schools with special housing for students and artists, sports facilities, and underground parking.  This new development is town planning n a grand scale.

among the water spouts with Greek statue centre – Mari Nicholson

The only other project of this size and scale designed by one architectural firm is the Karl Mark Hof in Vienna, but this has a mere 1500 dwellings as compared to the 4,000 at Antigone and almost no other services.

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On the River Lez there are various watersports for the public – Mari Nicholson

A visit to this remarkable area of Montpelier makes it easy to see why it continues to attract worldwide attention.

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Palavas les Flots – Montpelier’s Seaside

Just six kilometres south of Montpelier lies Palavas-les-Flots, a seaside town with some very fine seafood restaurants lining the canalised section of the River Lez  that runs through the centre of the town just before it enters the sea.    This has the effect of splitting the town into two sections, a Left Bank and a Right Bank, the names by which they are known.

Chair-Lift-Over-Palabas-Les-Flot

See Palavas by Chair Lift- Mari Nicholson

In the centre of the town is the distinctive ‘lighthouse of the Mediterranean’ with its popular revolving restaurant: next to this stands the church of Saint Pierre with its attractive garden.  There are few other sights to detain one in this seaside resort – it is a place for relaxation and enjoyment of the watersports and the facilities on hand.  What is a charming sight, though, is the canalised section of the town on which the fishing fleet makes a fine picture on a sunny day as they get ready to set sail.  And again, on their return, photographers line up to  photograph the fishermen who sell the fish directly from the decks of their boats to customers from the nearby flats and even from towns beyond.

Fishing-boats-ready-to-sail---Mari-Nicholson

The restaurants that line the canal are a magnet for visitors from Montpelier, especially at weekends, and you should be prepared to wait a while for a table and again for the meal to be served once you have chosen a restaurant.  The favourite meal is  mussels , served n every imaginable style, and always in the traditional big, blue enamel pots beloved of French restaurants.  They can be recommended.

Those who enjoy the fun of local markets should visit on the mornings of Monday, Wednesday and Friday when there is a market in the town.

The seafront is a short distance from the town centre and has a wide sandy beach, not what one would call a ‘golden beach’ but nevertheless, sandy and clean.  It is seven kilometres long and with this massive stretch of seaside comes all the water-related sports activities you could wish for  – kayaking, jet-skis, windsurfing, paragliding, swimming, snorkelling and diving.  Most of the equipment can be hired from concessions on and around the beach.

The sprawl of apartment buildings that is a backdrop to the beach either side of the centre is not especially handsome but the little harbour is attractive and from the small concrete pier are some good views of the town and across the bay to La Grande Motte.   And as I said, the good stretch of sandy beach is an ideal spot for families and couples to enjoy the facilities on offer.

Just outside Palavas, a short walk away, there are natural ponds that are home to an interesting selection of wildlife.   What attracts most people to the area, however, are the flocks of flamingoes that live here and that make a visit to the ponds something rather special.

How to Get to Palavas-les-Flots from Montpelier

By Tram or Bus, but the tram is so quick and fun to ride that I recommend them.  Purchase tickets before boarding, multi-lingual ticket machines at each tram stop. A day pass is recommended if you plan to use the tram much. Be sure to validate your ticket in the machines, being found without a valid ticket means an on-the-spot fine of around 30 euros. Not speaking French is not accepted as an excuse.

One-way tickets cost €1.40 round-trip €2.50. A 24-hour bus and tram ticket is €3.80.  Line 28 runs to the beach at Palavas les Flots.

The “Navette des Plages” bus runs non-stop to the “Face a la Plage” beach, between Palavas les Flots and La Grande Motte. Bus 131 runs to Palavas-les-Flots.

 

MONTPELIER, France

If there’s a city in France that can offer more in the way of enjoyment, relaxation, places to visit outside the area than Montpelier, then I have yet to find it.

Known as the sunshine capital of France because of its 300 sunny days per year, Montpelier lies just 11 km from the Mediterranean coast and has its own wide sandy beach within an easy tram ride.

Narrow-streets-of-the-Old-Town

Montpelier combines recent history and old-fashioned elegance with a youthful feel, mostly due to its large student population and its university.  It had the first medical school in France at which Nostradamus and Rabelais studied and is a delightful mix of old buildings in the centre, and  major new-age industries in modern buildings around the edge.  Lovely beaches are nearby at Palavas-les-Flots. What more could anyone want?

As easy town to get around, the places listed as ‘must-sees’ are more or less grouped together, the Place de la Comédie, the Peyrou garden, the Charles de Gaulle esplanade,  t the Arc de Triomphe,.and the Saint-Roch church, all on the well-trodden tourist route.   However, like European capital cities such as London, Madrid, or Paris, the city abounds with special neighbourhoods with individual identities, some specialising in artisan work, some in antiquities and others devoted to food and wine.  Their social mix gives them a fascination lacking in other towns in the region.

The centre of the action and the beating heart of the pedestrianised centre is the Place de la Comédie.  During the morning there is a market at one side of the Place where the local farmers set up stalls and sell fresh fruit and vegetables: off to one side of this is the flower market, a static garden of jewel-coloured blooms and plants.  During the season an old-fashioned carousel is stationed at the other end of the square near the Opera House (a useful place to arrange to meet someone as is the statue of the Three Graces).  In the middle of the square street artists demonstrate their talents as magicians, living statues, cycle gymnasts, mime artists and break dancers.  Passengers coming from the St. Roch railway station with their wheeled luggage skirt around them as they dodge the colourful trams that glide over the yellow paving while students watch from the nearby cafes, their books open before them.

Cae Riche, Montpelier, France

The large student population makes it a lively spot all year round and gives the city a buzz. The cafés, bars, and bistros in the pedestrianised city square which spill out onto the street are one of the attractions of Montpelier and it can be difficult to find a table at certain times.  One of the busiest cafés, the Café Riche, is also the most popular and dominates the square with a grand awning bearing the name and date of its foundation.

Famed for its produce, Couer de Bouef

Couer de Bouef Tomatoes – a Speciality of the Region

The Montpelier region is known for its local produce, its excellent wine, its fine dining and its farmers’ markets.  It has 3 Michelin-starred restaurants in addition to other excellent eating places and bistros.  Being right in the heart of the Languedoc, the opportunity to sample the luscious wines of the region as well as those of nearby Roussillon shouldn’t be missed, and tastings at nearby vineyards are easy to arrange.

Restaurant,-Montpelier
Restaurant in Montpelier

The old town with its medieval narrow streets is lined with upmarket boutiques and antique shops interspersed with restaurants and typical houses of the area fronted by private courtyards, a  world that sits quite comfortably with cutting-edge design and architecture in other parts of the city.  Check out the mock-Gothic Pavilion Populaire and compare it with the modern, glass-clad town hall.  Even transport gets into the act, with designer trams from the hand of no less than Christian Lacroix!

Montpelier, France
Montpelier

Wander along Rue Foch, a road carved through medieval Montpellier to the Arc-de-Triomphe, a glorious golden stone arch which could only be in France and which was built to honour Louis XIV.  Just beyond this point, you will come upon the king mounted on a horse on the magnificent Peyrou Promenade.

Antigone is Montpelier’s new modern part of the city, is located to the east of the historic centre and is the biggest single development to be built in France.  This extraordinary development which extends the city to the banks of the River Lez, has been designed by Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill and was completed in the 1980’s.

Antigone.-Montpelier
Antigone

As it’s name implies, the area is based loosely on the architecture of Ancient Greece and a further link is apparent in the boulevards with names like Rue de L’Acropole and Rue de Thebes that open out and lead you into large squares with names redolent of famous Greek events, like Place de Marathon and Place de Sparte.  The neoclassical design of the buildings, the sculptures, and the layout, are dramatically different to the architecture of the old town, and although on a larger than life scale, it is all well proportioned.

At the end of the Antigone district is the Place de Europe, a huge semi-circular area with a crescent of buildings. On the other side is the River Liz adding to the drama of the site and on the opposite bank the ‘Hotel de Region’ also built in the neo-classical style.

Palavas-les-Flots, Montpelier

Palavas-les-Flots, Montpelier

The fishing port of Palavas-les-Flots is worth a trip even if it’s only for a bowl of mussels served with chips (French fries to some) or garlic and herb breads in any one of the ways in which they are served here.  The port is making great efforts to turn itself into a seaside resort but despite the attempts of the many boat owners to entice you aboard for a sea trip, a fishing trip or a tour around the lagoons, it remains firmly a place to visit for its great food.  Bars, bistros, and ice-cream parlours line the central canal and you can walk a few miles along the spit of land to the medieval Maguelone cathedral which stands between sea and lagoon.

 

donna's book

 

Best Guide Book

Montpelier and Beyond Travel Guide is a pocket guide to the best of Montpellier, written by two award-winning travel experts Donna Dailey and Mike Gerard and published by the team behind the successful Beyond London Travel.   Available from Amazon as an e-book or a download for Kindle.

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Time

 

This is the AFTER photograph.  I wasn’t there to take the BEFORE shot, but most of us will have seen the terrible pictures of the 1944 D-Day Landings in Normandy, France, even seen the film The Longest Day, in which the graphic images of the horrors of that day and the terrible happenings on the beaches code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword are now part of history.   It was a Time of heroism on a grand scale and a Time of mistakes on an equally grand scale.  It heralded the end of the beginning of the war that tore Europe apart, the one we call The Second World War, but it also heralded a Time of hope when it seemed that Peace might finally descend on Europe.

To me, this Memorial to some of those who lost their lives on the beaches of Normandy signifies Time Past and Time Remembered.

 © Mari NicholsonD-Day Landings.  War Memorial on Normandy Beaches

Weekly Photo Challenge – TIME

Quite literally, this is about time: a clock, no less.

This is the Great Clock (Gros Horlogue) in Rouen, France, which dates from the 16th century and sits amoung the maze of narrow streets that make up the old part of town.  The half-timbered houses that line the streets seem to be always freshly painted and look smart.

Rouen is, of course, Joan of Arc’s town, and the church dedicated to her is truly wonderful.  It is set near the market square which has stalls selling the most amazing cheeses – always a reason for visiting this area.

Gros Horlogue (1527-15290 Rouen, France.

Gros Horlogue (Great clock)  1527-1529.JPG

Bayeux: D-Day Landings in Normandy

Although the UNESCO listed Bayeux Tapestry that depicts the 1066 invasion of England by William the Conqueror dominates Bayeux, this Normandy town has much more to offer than just the tapestry (actually an embroidery stitched on linen).

Section of the Bayeux Tapestry in Bayeux Image Copyright Ville de Bayeux
Section of the Bayeux Tapestry in Bayeux
Copyright Ville de Bayeux

The splendid and beautiful Norman-Romanesque-Gothic Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux, consecrated in 1077, in the centre of this very historic city is well worth a visit, as is the Bishop’s Palace which stands next to it and which is now a museum.

Les Amoureux de Bayeux Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Bayeux Tourist office
Les Amoureux de Bayeux Cathedral.
Photo courtesy of Bayeux Tourist office
Grand Hotel dArgouges
Grand Hotel dArgouges

Many of the buildings you will come across in the old town were former monasteries, as Bayeux was once an important religious centre, but in the streets adjoining, most of the historic houses have been converted into designer boutiques and fine restaurants.

Bayeux, The Cathedral. Copyright Mari Nicholson
Bayeux, The Cathedral. Copyright Mari Nicholson

Bayeux offers the tourist excellent sightseeing, from its War Museum, British and Commonwealth war cemetery, and the D-Day Landing beaches which lie close by, to the surrounding countryside with grand châteaux and abbeys and the lure of Calvados producing distilleries.

The Bayeux Tapestry

Section of the Bayeux Tapestry. Photo Copyright Ville de Bayeux
Section of the Bayeux Tapestry. Photo provided by Ville de Bayeux

Although the Bayeux tapestry has its home in France, it is believed that it was originally made in southern England.  The graphic tale of the invasion and the battles that took place are at the centre of the canvas that measures over 70 metres (230 feet) in length, in fifty-eight action-packed scenes of bloody battles.  Severed limbs and decapitated heads graphically explain the ongoing carnage, while religious allegories and illustrations of everyday life in the 11th century make up the borders.  The panel-by-panel audio guide which is included in the entry fee is a great asset as you view the tapestry

Bayeux Museum Ticket
Bayeux Museum Ticket

Bayeux in World War II

Bayeux, The River Aure
Bayeux, The River Aure. Copyright Mari Nicholson

Bayeux is the only town in Normandy to be left completely undamaged after World War II and had the great good fortune to be quickly liberated by the Allies after the D-Day landings.  For a brief period, it was the capital of Free France after General De Gaulle arrived hot on the heels of the Allied forces in 1944 and set up his government in the town.

The biggest British cemetery in Normandy is found in Bayeux with 4,648 graves. For those who have come to look at the D-Day landing beaches, a visit to this cemetery, Bayeux’s own War Museum, and the vast cemetery for over 10,000  US troops in Omaha, puts in focus the sacrifices made in these parts.

D-Day Landings at Arromanches

Bayeux is the perfect place to choose as the point from which to tour the beaches of the Normandy landings as they are all within easy reach of the town.  I wouldn’t advise doing them all on the same day, but a couple of beaches and a Museum are quite possible.   Before heading for what are actually quite beautiful beaches, a trip to Arromanches 360 is recommended. This is a circular cinema, unique in France, that immerses you in the Battle of Normandy, allowing you to see everything “in the round” over 360 degrees in a 35-minute session.  Original archived images from Canada, Germany, UK and French collections retracing the 100 days of the battle, are shown on nine screens to give the 360ᵒ effect.  This is a fine tribute to the allied soldiers and the more than 20,000 civilians who died to free Western Europe, and whose personal stories are told in interviews: a very special museum.   Prices are given below.

The Mulberry Harbour and beach at Arromanches:

Mulberry Harbour on Arromanches Beach
Mulberry Harbour on Arromanches Beach. Copyright Mari Nicholson

From the beach at Arromanches you can see the remains of several pontoons.  The artificial Mulberry Ports A and B were prefabricated in England and towed into place at Gold Beach at speeds of 5 m.p.h. from June 7th.  Seventeen ships were sunk at sea to form a breakwater called Gooseberry and a huge 10 miles of roadway was then created. Mulberries were, and still remain, a terrific technological feat.

By the end of the 100 days in which it was used, the completed harbour had become more efficient than either Cherbourg or Le Havre, and during this time it disembarked 2.3 million men, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tons of equipment and supplies.

Pillboxes on the cliffs of this small fishing port helped the Germans defend and control the town so the fighting to capture the cliffs and advance into France was fierce and bloody.

After a visit to Arromanches 360 and seeing the beaches and cliffs which the combatants had to scale after landing, one has a much better idea of the hell that is war.

Prices for Arromanches 360

Adults: 5 €   Students/Children/Seniors (over 60 years): 4,50 €    Children (under 10 years), veterans: free

Opening Times:    27TH Jan – 31st March  10.00 –17.00 (closed 2nd Feb): 1st Apl – 31st May  10.00-18.00: 1st June–31st August  09.40 – 18.40: 1st-30th Sept 10.00-18.10:  1st Oct – 11th Nov. 10.00-17.40:  12th Nov-31Dec 10.10-17.10 (Closed on Mondays except on 21st and 28 December.

Address:  Chemin du Calvaire – BP 9 – 14117 Arromanches-les-Bains.  Tel 02 31 06 06 45 resa@memorial-caen.fr       website: www.arromanches360.com

War Memorial, D=Day Landings in Normandy
War Memorial, D=Day Landings in Normandy. Copyright Mari Nicholson

D-Day Landings at Normandy

A Section of the over-10,000+ Graves at Omaha Beach Cemetery

Just back from Normandy where I’ve been touring the beaches and cliffs of the Normandy landing area where the invasion of France that led to the end of the 2nd World War took place.   It was an emotional trip even though no one close to me had died in the horror that was unleashed that day, but one cannot fail to be moved when confronted with a cemetery containing 10,500 white crosses each one guarding a fallen combatant.

It was June 6th, 1944, when the assault on the French coast took place.  Every type of transport at the Allies disposal was thrown into the battle and incredible ingenuity allowed Bailey bridges and the Mulberry pontoons to be shipped across the Channel without the Germans knowing. Horsa gliders towed by ‘planes carried the British 6th Airbourne Division across the channel to storm the bridges at Ranville-Bénouville (known today as Pegasus Bridge).  The most intensely fought over sands, the six-mile-wide Omaha beach, largest of all the five beaches on the coast (Gold, Juno, Sword, Omaha and Utah) was to be taken by the US 1st Army led by Omar Bradley. The plan was to land infantry troops alongside armoured amphibious Sherman tanks, but the Shermans never made it.  The tanks were released from their landing craft too far away from the beach as there was a much greater swell further out to sea than the Americans had bargained on and all but two of the tanks sank shortly after leaving their craft. Many units landed in the wrong place due to the strong tides and winds carrying the landing craft away from their positions.

Omaha is most remembered for the casualties the Americans took there as the German machine gun fire tore into the troops as they tried to sprint across the beach to the seawall.  It was a massacre, a terrible loss of life.

Although Hollywoodish, the film The Longest Day, gives a very good impression of what that day in June was like.  I watched it before I departed for France and again on my return a few days ago when I was able to recognise some of the places I’d visited.  The weather didn’t favour the invaders, nor did it favour me as I walked in their footsteps: Normandy is famous for its changeable climate.

There are many wonderful Museums, and I’ve appended photographs of their leaflets below, but if there is time for only one or two, make it (1) The Memorial of Caen in the town of the same name and 2) Pegasus Museum.  The Memorial of Caen, as well as artefacts, has lots of cinematic clips and chairs on which to rest while you watch – a boon for many people.  It also has a great restaurant and a good snack bar/cafe.  I was there for 4 hours but could have done with 6, and I didn’t have time to tour the bunker, nor to visit The Cold War Exhibition which I was told was excellent.  Pegasus Museum has the bridge, a replica of the glider that landed just a few yards from it, and another glider in the grounds into which you can climb for an exploration of the conditions in which the parachutists made that journey across the channel.  In the area also is the original cafe in which Major Howard set up his HQ shortly after he landed, and where the tea and coffee are pretty good.

Major John Howard's Headquarters immediately after landing at Pegasus Bridge.
Major John Howard’s Headquarters immediately after landing at Pegasus Bridge. Today known as The Pegasus Bridge Cafe it i still in the hands of the family who owned it in 1945.

I hope to blog about individual beaches in due course.

A Selection of Mueums along the Normandu Coast
A Selection of Museums along the Normandy Coast

Canal Cruising in France

“If I shout ‘Duck’! It doesn’t mean look out for wildlife: it means hit the deck – now”!   This was Captain Julian speaking, during instruction in safety etiquette on board the converted eight-passenger Dutch barge ANJODI, our home for the next six days as we cruised the tree-lined Canal du Midi in France.

The Anjodi Barge
The Anjodi Barge

The reference to ducks and wildlife was timely, for shortly after leaving our embarkation point of La Somail, a delightful little village just 45 minutes from Montpelier, our boat was surrounded by friendly ducks and drakes with their ducklings, as sleek coypus swam close to the willow-hung banks, and grey and white geese scolded us from the tow-path.

But a warning is a warning and we were careful to keep a look out for low bridges as we cruised along this, the oldest canal in France, designed by Pierre-Paul Riquet to link the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.  He spent much of his fortune on the project but sadly, he didn’t live to see this magnificent feat of engineering, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, completed in 1681.

Canal du Midi, France

Shop on the Canal du Midi
Shop on the Canal du Midi

The Canal du Midi is 240 Kilometres long and runs from the city of Toulouse to the Lagoon at Thau on the Mediterranean Sea.  On our six-day trip we covered only part of this fascinating waterway in which the landscape changes from pasture to vineyards and from grain crops to rice paddi as it nears the Camargue.

We soon found out what the captain meant by “duck” as we met bridges so low that even the tiller had to be removed at times – and we marvelled at the skill with which he and the crew took the barge through narrow locks just wide enough to accommodate it.   The ‘ladder-lock’ at Fonserannes, a staircase of seven locks took 45 minutes to negotiate and watching this was as engrossing an experience as I’ve ever had.

Stone-bridge-with-Almost-Bl

The plane trees that line the Canal du Midi giving shade to the boats and barges that use the waterways were just coming into leaf, their delicate pale green leaves a perfect contrast to the bright blue skies as we journeyed further south. The banks yielded up wild irises, white snowflake flowers, primroses and poppies, and the houses we passed were already displaying geraniums, crocus and, most surprisingly, peonies.  Relaxing on deck with a Kir Royale or a glass of something bubbly, watching the passing panorama and admiring the churches and chateaux silhouetted on the hillsides, was total bliss after days hunched over a computer in a stuffy office.  Often it was with great reluctance that we left the comfortable chairs on the deck for our meals as there was always a feeling that there might be something exciting just around the next bend.

Camargue Wild Life

Wild Horses of the Camargue
Wild Horses of the Camargue

And one day there was.  Standing on the bank contemplating us with curiosity were some of the wild horses of the Camargue.   Storks flew overhead and off in the distance we could just see a flock of flamingos.   Too excited to grab for the cameras we just revelled in the sight of the birds as they huddled together in the lagoon devouring the shellfish that gives them their pink colour.

There were major sight-seeing jaunts in the barge’s mini-bus each morning, leaving the afternoons free for relaxing, walking or cycling along the towpath on one of the onboard cycles, and exploring the pretty villages along the way.  We would catch up with the boat at the next mooring or lock – and as we always knew just how far the distance was between locks it made planning easy.

Cathar Country, Carcassonne, Minerve and Narbonne

Carcassonne, France
Carcassonne, France

Our barge sailed through Cathar country, a land where the memory of the massacres that occurred during the Albigensian wars is preserved like a fly in amber in the minds of the villagers.  The most famous massacre may have happened in 1210, but to the people of the Languedoc, it is as though it happened yesterday.  Visits to fortified hill towns like Carcassonne with its dungeons and fairy-tale like turrets that soars into the sky, to the UNESCO protected town of  Minerve,

Minerve, well fortified and perched high on a cliff.
Minerve, well fortified and perched high on a cliff.

perched on a limestone plateau between the gorges of the Briant and Cesse rivers,  and to Narbonne with its well-preserved Roman Road, were constant reminders of the bloody wars fought over this land.

Inside the protective battlements of these fortresses are winding alleyways and narrow streets with half-hidden shops selling distinctive local crafts and products.

Cloisters of Bishop's Palace at Narbonne
Cloisters of Bishop’s Palace at Narbonne

Visits to these and other towns, like Pézanas, the birthplace of Moliere, and Villeneuve-les-Beziers, alternated with wine tastings at prestigious chateaux and a very special wine-tasting at the home of one of France’s top female sommeliers, Mdme. Jackie Bonnet.

Moliere, Pezanas
Moliere, Pezanas

Food on Board the Barge

The Holy Trinity of the French table is wine, cheese and bread, and although our barge cruise was not solely about food and wine, it played a large part in our daily life.  I’d cruised with European Waterways before and knew that the chefs and captains of the barges were chosen as much for their knowledge of regional specialities and produce as for their professional skills.  Every day we sampled exquisite and unknown wines, often the product of a small single vineyard, alongside premium Crus of the great houses, and we ate the best locally sourced food available as Chef Lauren matched food to wine and cheeses to what had gone before with a skill that owed much to her knowledge of the countryside and its produce.

Chef Lauren and hostess Alex prepare pre-dinner drinks.
Chef Lauren and hostess Alex prepare pre-dinner drinks.

Leaving the barge at our last stop for the drive back to Montpelier, was a wrench.   The Anjodi offered peace and tranquillity and a stress-free environment with the ambience of an upmarket family hotel.  At the same time. we had been given the opportunity to make trips to the major cities along the route, we enjoyed wine tastings at famous vineyards and had even lunched out at a superb restaurant on one occasion.  And all this while sailing through some of France’s most quintessential countryside.  It can’t ever be better than that.

Fresh fruit always available.
Fresh fruit always available.

FACTFILE:

The cruise is fully inclusive of gourmet meals aboard and ashore, fine wines, champagne reception, all day open bar, all excursions and admission fees, use of cycles, spa pool, and transfers to and from embarkation point.  Crews are British or French but all speak perfect English and double as tour guides and drivers.  Because this is a converted Dutch barge, not all of the rooms are spacious but they are all very comfortable and have air-conditioning and central heating.  The lounge is elegant and comfortable, and the deck – on which meals can be taken – is equipped with deck-chairs, dining table and seating for eight.

http://www.gobarging.com   European Waterways, The Barn, Riding Court Road, Datchet, Berks, SL3 9JT.

Tel: 01753 598555:    Fax: 01753 598550

What is Serenity? It’s what Makes me Happy

In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Serenity.”

A Thai Sunset - Phuket
A Thai Sunset – Phuket

This is a different sort of Post – it is one in which I’m responding to the weekly photo challenge set up by WordPress.  This week the topic is Serenity so here are a few images that to me represent that scarce emotion in today’s world, serenity.

The first one, below, may not look like everyone’s idea of Serenity, but this Cretan man had an attitude to life that was calm and benign.  He was one of the happiest people I’d ever met: even his donkey seemed happy in the heat of the midday sun.  It was a harsh life up there in the mountains but Andreas told me he had everything in life he needed, his olive trees, a few animals, a family in good health and all living nearby, and most of all, he said, he lived on Crete.

What more can I say?

An old man on a road in Crete with whom I shared my lunch.
An old man on a road in Crete with whom I shared my lunch.

Next photograph is very different.  I did an Art Tour once in France where we stopped at various place where some of the painters known as The Impressionists had painted: their pictures were hung in nearby galleries or galleries of some note further away.  Rouen I remember very well, as it was one of the places where it rained incessantly during our visit, but luckily, Claude Monet had painted more than 30 pictures of the famous Notre Dame Cathedral (many in the rain) so we were able to see it just as the artist had seen it.

When the group of painters who came to be referred to as The Impressionists evolved their style of painting from chocolate-box interiors to naturalistic outdoor scenes, they were helped by two mid-19th century inventions.   One was pre-mixed paints in tubes (akin to today’s toothpaste tubes), and the other was the new vibrant hues like chromium yellow and French ultramarine that freed them from the chore of grinding up lapus lazuli and mixing dry pigment in linseed oil to make colour.

What it also gave them was a complete change of perspective.   With these inventions they could now paint “en plein air” (outdoors), capturing the momentary and transient aspects of light and the ever changing colours of the clouds and using ordinary subject matter.

Alfred Sisley (October 30, 1839 – January 29, 1899) was an English Impressionist landscape painter who was born and spent most of his life in France.  A very disciplined painter, Sisley is recognized as perhaps the most consistent of the Impressionists.  He never deviated into figure painting or thought of finding another form in which to express himself.  The Impressionist movement fulfilled his artistic needs.

Below is a photograph I took of a scene he painted (I think his painting hangs in the Gallery at Honfleur).  To me it is serenity itself.  I photographed it on a day when the Normandy sun was shining, dragonflies were chasing each other over the Seine, the village of Bouille was quiet as the people rested after lunch and I captured the scene on camera as I remembered it from the painting.

Serenity.

A quiet scene where the only movement was of butterflies and dragonflies.
A quiet scene where the only movement was of butterflies and dragonflies.