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Bon Voyage! Part 2

This is the 2nd instalment of my serialised novel from a disastrous holiday I took with my family back in about 2004.  The full ebook can be purchased in a range of formats at http://www.trevorwhitton.com/.  Enjoy!

 

  1. Towards Catastrophe

 

‘There’ll be another hotel just around the corner.’

Mum, three hours before we found a hotel.

 

(Excerpt from the James Whitton diaries).

 

 

Before we began our trip, Lindy’s sister had lent us her video camera to record our journey and, naturally, we all took our own cameras as well. The result was that every photo stop resembled the shooting of the latest epic from Steven Spielberg.   Birds couldn’t hear each other over the clicking. Night skies were lit by our flashes like London during the blitz. Japanese tourists would gape in awe and point.   Our coverage of the terrain of Europe was more complete and comprehensive than the most detailed aerial surveys. Google earth offered to sub-contract us. Stocks in Fuji and Kodak soared. When all flashes were in operation, the temperature of the immediate surroundings jumped by ten degrees (Celsius).

We took a lot of photos.

But – you’ll be astonished to know – not all of this exposed film was of high quality. Our first video experiments weren’t enhanced (or perhaps they were) by the fact that Lindy constantly forgot to stop the camera, replacing the lens cap and leaving the blessed thing running in the back of the car. But they say every cloud has a silver lining, and this error did provide us with another record of our trip – a darker, more sinister record. You see that camera – whilst you couldn’t actually see anything – did record our candid, unedited conversations.

Some of it wasn’t very pretty.

This document provides an opportunity to catch the Whittons-plus-one during unbuttoned, unguarded moments.   Confident in the knowledge that what we were saying couldn’t be heard by anyone else, it gives an insight into life’s uglier side. One such memorable moment was when Lindy was busy looking for a toilet.

‘Why didn’t you go before we left the Hotel?’ says the helpful husband.

‘Because I bloody-well didn’t need to go then!’ says the little woman through clenched teeth.

Definitely adults-only viewing.

 

The third morning of our holiday was one of those marvellous driving experiences. The roads were relatively empty, the countryside glorious (even though the weather wasn’t perfect), and the distance to be covered in the day modest. We left very early and had to wait an hour before the patisseries opened. We bagged our gross of fresh croissants and several baguettes in a pleasant, quiet little town, then – sated and happy – headed south.

Not far down the road, we came across a particularly bucolic scene, and the paparazzi began harassing the local livestock, each of the older contingent trying to capture that perfect, cow-in-foreground-rustic-farmhouse-in-middle-ground-and-forested-hill-in-background photograph. Satisfied with our efforts, we jumped smugly into our car and took off down the road.

Now, to effectively explain what happened next I’ll need to carefully put our situation into perspective for you.

We had a hatchback Renault, and, because of the large number of cameras being transported, had to store them in the back and retrieve them from the (very full) boot every time we stopped. So, on this occasion – as with hundreds of others – we stopped, took out our cameras, took our photographs, then placed the instruments back in the boot before climbing into our respective places.   The last one in closes the boot.

Okay, got the picture?

How was it that we travelled nearly a kilometre with the windows closed, yet no-one remarked on the fact that the wind was blowing through our hair? I don’t know – it’s a mystery. And who was the last in the car and therefore responsible for closing the boot?   Again, nobody can say for sure.   Some say this person, some say another.   If we’d felt particularly strongly about it, I suppose we could have referred it to forensic experts – but to date the matter remains unresolved.

The issue for me was – how could at least fifteen cars pass us in both directions, and not one thought to flash their lights or sound their horns to indicate that our boot was wide open? Coats, baggage and croissants were strewn behind us like confetti at a wedding. And yet, remarkably – even though they were sitting on top of the pile – not one camera was lost to the asphalt.

Don’t tell me there’s no such thing as the paranormal!

 

Toilets. Things have improved out of sight since my first trip to Europe, when public toilets were rare enough to be awarded stars in a modestly sized Michelin guide. But there are still isolated parts of the Continent where the old challenge awaits the tourist willing to put in the effort required to find them. Some local councils see it as a community service, I’m sure, to resist the corrupting change sweeping the rest of the country and maintain a standard that they see is a major contributor to the building of character.

The satisfaction felt in overcoming that challenge is impossible to put into words. Sure, for the male of the species it’s easy – many now just aim it out the window as they drive along (and I’m not just talking about the passengers!). Ever wondered why the wildflowers are so lush along the side of much of Europe’s roads? Well, regular watering and fertilising is the secret to any garden’s success. But, no – I’m not talking about satisfaction gained from simply peeing by the side of the road. To be honest, in many countries (France and Italy, for certain) I think it’s an actual offence not to have done so at least once a day. I’m talking about getting your actual bottom onto an actual toilet seat. With the added burden of catering for five, comes additional pleasure at overcoming almost insurmountable odds.

I can recall several occasions on this trip when I sidled into a restaurant/café/bar and respectfully asked if I could use their facilities. The waiter would shrug in a superior manner that bespoke of his pride in possessing such marvellous technology, and my spirits soared as I waved to the hordes waiting eagerly outside. His smug manner would disintegrate like ice from a heated windscreen.

Now that’s the kind of achievement even astronauts can only dream about.

 

I’ll never forget the moment in the Dordogne town of Argentat when I casually – almost indifferently – placed that first strawberry in my mouth. Yes, we’d enjoyed the strawberry flavoured ice cream in Orcival, but this was our first experience of the actual fruit – raw and unadorned.

How do I describe it to you? It sounds trite to say that it tasted like strawberry – but that’s exactly what it was like. Not the bland, tasteless fruit you get from supermarkets, but the real McCoy.   Sun-drenched sums it up for me – like the strawberry had absorbed the full blast of the sun as it grew, concentrating the flavour, only to be released at the first bight of the lucky consumer.

After the first effects of the shock wore off, I looked at Lindy and Enid, and saw that they, too, had tasted of the Fruits of Paradise. The sort of far away look in the eyes and reverent motion of the jaw is unmistakable, once experienced.   We thought we’d just been lucky, finding the one grower who’d just happened to stumble on perfection.   Well, it did turn out to be the best we tasted, but we were relentless in our efforts to deplete the Continent’s supplies of strawberries for the remainder of that Spring – and the others we sampled weren’t very far away from that first batch.

 

The French are a much maligned people. Many casual travellers – and those who’ve never been to France – maintain that they’re rude and arrogant. I’ve made it my Crusade to disabuse the world of this misapprehension.   The “Dordogne Picnic” event will help illustrate my point.

We were following the Dordogne south-west from Argentat – boxes of strawberries squeezed into every spare space in the car and occasionally tumbling from the inexpertly tied supplies on the roof – looking for a picnic spot. The weather had warmed, the sun was shining, and at last we came upon the perfect setting.   Located on a grassy lawn between the river and the road, surrounded by a shrubbery and devoid of other picnickers – it beckoned to us seductively. There was, however, a fly in the ointment. Or, to be entirely accurate, three flies.

It was lawn-cutting and hedge-trimming day in the municipality to which this slice of heaven belonged, and the workers were not those half-hearted fellows often associated the world over with such labours.   No, our men were getting stuck into their task with gusto – and they had the machinery to do it justice!   Drowning out all but the loudest lorry thundering past on the road, they were attacking the vegetation as if it were personal. Our spirits waned and we prepared to depart, when one of the workmen spotted us and signalled to his comrades. After a moment’s hesitation and a rueful sidelong glance at the temporarily reprieved grass, the mower grew silent.   Seconds later the hedge trimmer did the same. The three men packed up their tools, and stood by their truck, waving us towards the now vacant picnic area with a sad resignation. They stood watching, enjoying a leisurely lunch, and didn’t recommence the slaughter until we’d packed up and left, half an hour later. True gentlemen!

 

The market town of Sarlat is one of those peculiar towns that hides its attractions extremely well. Colmar in Alsace is the same – you wonder what on earth has brought you to such an uninteresting (nay, hideous) destination as you park the car.   It’s only when you’ve negotiated their forbidding exteriors and enter the old part of town that you look around and say to yourself, ‘Oh, so that’s what all the fuss is about.’ Sure, there are countless other places where you have to travel through ugly outskirts to get to the good bits, but the attractions are usually evident well before you dispense with the car.

We struggled through the traffic, followed the signs to the tourist parking, and finally found a small vacancy into which we could just about squeeze the beast. Lindy was just about to pull in when a little Citroen came from nowhere and beat her to it. As we stared out of the window in shock the driver turned his aged, beret-clad head towards us and – scowling furiously – waved his fist! We were all too stunned to respond, but I – for one – had learned a lesson which I was later to put to good stead.

As we finally disposed of the automobile, I could tell that Enid was wondering what we were doing in such a place.   Walking down the frenetic main street – dodging traffic from the six inch-wide pavement – I saw that, if anything, this pessimism was growing.

I suppose a lot of Sarlat’s attraction is that you turn directly from its traffic-congested, uninteresting main road, directly into the attractive, historic pedestrian-only zone. The difference is startling and impressive.   The sound of traffic abates, the pace becomes more relaxed (despite the hordes of tourists), and the old stone buildings, narrow alleyways and mysterious cul-de-sacs begin to weave their enchantment. The adults had a ball exploring these attractions, as well as the craft and art shops, and ended up feeling that the effort to visit the place was well and truly worth the effort.

James and Thomas – despite the usual ice cream bribes – just saw the town as a necessary evil that had to be endured before they got to the swimming pool at that evening’s accommodation!

 

Two years earlier – on our last trip with the boys – we’d chanced upon the chambre d’hote from heaven whilst touring through the Dordogne near le Bugue. We’d followed an insubstantial signpost through a remote, unsurfaced forest road to a farmhouse whose outbuildings had been converted into discrete, characterful and comfortable accommodation, run by an Englishwoman and her husband.   Naturally – for no self-respecting chambre d’hote from heaven would dare be without one – it possessed a swimming pool, as well as acres of meadows, forests, and even a small lake. We stayed there only two days, and it rained for most of the time, but we retained extremely fond memories of the place.

Les Sarazzines – the Saracens? The owners themselves weren’t quite sure where the name had come from, but it dated back many centuries to a time before the house was built. Intending to pass through the area again, we’d booked it for a couple of nights and hoped desperately that we’d be able to find it again. This was made all the more challenging by the fact that we were approaching from the opposite direction this time, and we knew there were no signposts at all on the road by which we intended to arrive.

We got very close at our first try, but – it must be admitted – did get a little lost. Lindy (with urging from the AR) insisted on stopping beside a couple of farmers and forcing me to ask directions. I mean – how? Even if you manage to ask the question, how on earth are you going to understand the bloody answer? Flushed with embarrassment, I wound down the window, smiled and offered them a hearty ‘bonjour’. Like all decent Frenchmen, they returned my greeting with a smile and waited. Broadening my smile, I asked:

‘Ou est les Sarazzines?’ which, I think (in retrospect) means ‘Where are the Saracens?’ Fortunately for me, they tactfully ignored the fact that I was obviously a congenital idiot, and pointed into the distance. This was followed by a string of words, which included a lot of ‘gauche’s’ (lefts), ‘adroit’s’ (rights) and ‘tout adroit’s’ (straight aheads). I continued smiling and nodded – always a sure sign that I haven’t understood a word – while Lindy thanked them and began backing up the car.

‘You understood them?’ I asked in awe.

‘Most of it,’ – was the not-altogether-reassuring reply. Nevertheless, I was impressed. I suppose we understood more French than the average tourist (and we’ve improved over the years since then), but this was scaling new heights. I may have whispered ‘my mate’ or ‘my hero’, but the boys were reserving judgement until we’d actually arrived at our destination.

 

I remember the first time I heard my wife speaking French. It was on our first trip together, and – after several days in France in which she’d given no hint that she possessed anything beyond ‘bonjour’, ‘merci’ and ‘au revoir’ – we stopped at a petrol station and I heard her string out a whole sentence – complex and word perfect (or so it seemed to me). As she got in the car I stammered ‘What did you say to him?’

‘I told him I couldn’t speak French.’

 

Les Sarazzines was under new management – but still British.   Lindy and Mike greeted us like long lost friends, and we basked in the luxury of being their only guests. We unpacked the car, settled ourselves in, and made the most of the fine evening by dining al fresco. Lindy (my wife, not the owner – I’ll call her Lindy One to save confusion) produced a veritable feast of fettucine alla carbonara, mixed green salad, baguettes, brie, camembert, strawberries and (luxury!) a bottle of red wine for the father. The children wolfed down their dinner with minimal ceremony, and ran off to play in the pool.

As the sun set and evening descended, not a sound could be heard but for a quiet, persistent ‘cuck-oo, cuck-oo, cuck-oo’ from the surrounding woods and the occasional splash and quiet, secret conversation of the boys – invisible behind the nearest wall of the swimming pool.

 

James and Thomas opted out of our excursion the next day, deciding instead to spend some time playing table tennis, swimming, and generally relaxing. The adults had a terrific time exploring castles, enjoying the forests, fields and isolated hamlets of the Dordogne countryside, and nearly buying a painting in the hilltop town of Domme. Unfortunately, the artist didn’t take traveller’s cheques or credit card, and none of the banks were open, so his masterpiece remained in France. Seeing our disappointment, he told us where the scene in the painting was located, presumably so we could go and paint it ourselves!

 

Our hosts had invited us for a drink that night.   Consequently, there was much discussion over what we should do during the course of the day – there being a little reluctance on the part of Lindy One and Enid because they were teetotallers.   I’m usually a bit of a social recluse myself, but I liked and felt comfortable with Lindy Two and Mike, so eventually I convinced Lindy One to be polite and join me in accepting their hospitality.

The amazing thing was that we were only staying two nights, yet they treated us like regular visitors who’d come to stay for weeks. There were about half a dozen bottles of wine lined up on the table when we arrived (not to mention the complimentary bottle presented to us upon our arrival the previous day) – and we were rude and ignorant enough to come without so much as a packet of peanuts!

Mike was the voluble one, and we chatted animatedly while I shamelessly swilled his alcohol. After much discussion and drinking, Mike decided to open his heart and admit his deepest secret – he was a Francophile! Lindy One and I, being very fond of the French ourselves, became interested.

‘That’s why you bought this place?’

‘Of course. And particularly because it was in the Dordogne – I just love the castles.’   He then went on to tell us about his adventures exploring the nooks and crannies of the area, and the obscure ruins he’d run to ground over the years.

‘We went to Bonaguil castle today – it was terrific!’ I replied, getting into the swing of things. Bonaguil is a very popular tourist destination, about eighty kilometres away (or one hundred in our case, due to the eighty kilometre rule).

‘Where?’ he replied, blank faced.

‘Bonaguil.’ I replied, spelling it in case my perfect French pronunciation had thrown him.

‘I don’t know that one.’ he admitted. Now it was my turn to look blank.

‘How do you get on with the language, living here?’ asked Lindy One, quickly changing the subject.

‘I don’t do too bad.’ admitted Lindy Two.   ‘But Mike doesn’t speak a word of French.’ I exchanged a nonplussed glance with my wife, our mouths hanging open in the vain hope that our minds would find appropriate words to fill them.

So – not really a Francophile, then, we thought.

 

When I look back on the following day, I’m reminded of butterflies flitting peacefully in the sunshine from fragrant flower to fragrant flower, oblivious to the napalm about to be unleashed from the low flying plane above them.

We spent the day travelling the gorgeous Aveyron valley. The sun was shining brightly, and the countryside alternated between forests, meadows, streams and isolated medieval, hump-backed bridges. And those beautiful, honey-stoned villages and their spectacular castles! Najac – strung out along a wooded ridge with its ruined castle sticking up like an exclamation mark; Saint Antonin with its spectacular backdrop of cliffs; Penne with its impossible finger of rock, which upon closer inspection turns out to be a castle; and Bruniquel, where the horror began to unfold.

Gradually, during the course of the day, the tourist numbers had steadily increased from virtually none, to hundreds. Still oblivious to what was to come, I entered the tourist office in Bruniquel and casually asked if they could find us a chambre d’hote in the area that could accommodate five. The woman behind the counter looked dismayed.

‘I’ll try,’ she promised – not very encouragingly.   ‘But it will be very difficult.’

It was a valiant effort. Despite her scepticism, she persevered for a good 40 minutes (calling everyone within a twenty kilometre radius) before surrendering to the inevitable.

‘Je suis desolee,’ she said (I’m sorry) – then those dreaded words: ‘C’est complet!’

‘Full? Everything?’ I asked, amazed.

Still we remained unaware of the true horror of our situation.

‘Not everyone will be listed with the tourist office,’ said Lindy confidently as we left. ‘If we just keep driving, we’ll come across something.’

Three hours and eighty kilometres later (there’s that distance again!) we arrived in Moissac – exhausted, desperate and beaten.   We’d stopped at every hotel, chambre d’hote, and bus shelter along the way – but always the same response:

‘C’est complet!’

But for some reason the tourist hordes had stayed away from Moissac. The place was a magnet for those travelling the popular pilgrimage route to Santiago in Spain, but they all seemed to be staying in the pilgrim’s hostel. I sighed audibly as the concierge of the hotel admitted that they had a vacancy. The price was affordable, and the rooms comfortable and clean. I left to break the glad news to the eagerly awaiting family (their expectant, anxious faces pressed up against the car window as I approached brought a lump to my throat), just as the heavens opened. To this day I believe it was an omen.

We rushed through the rain into the hotel, and I went to reception to sign the registration forms.

‘May I have your credit card number please, Monsieur?’

‘Of course. I’ll just……’ Ten minutes later I was standing in the hotel room with Lindy – all the colour drained from my face.

‘I’ve lost my credit card.’

 

 

 

  1. The Saga of the Lost Credit card

 

 

Prepare yourself for a story so tragic, so epic in its scale, that your view on life may very well change forever. Compared to us, Job (you know, from the bible) was a whinger who was prone to moaning over the slightest setback and Jean Valjean (the pessimist from Les Miserables) was a man blessed with indescribable good fortune, but tended to dwell too much on the few negatives in his life.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if we’d eventually found my credit card. And it wouldn’t have been so bad if it had been a simple matter to contact the Credit card people to organise a replacement. And it wouldn’t have been so bad if we’d been able to organise a replacement quickly and easily. And it wouldn’t have been so bad if the replacement itself hadn’t gone astray.   And it wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been pelting with rain that morning in Moissac when Lindy and I wandered the streets trying to find a telephone service that would allow us to call the free call numbers provided by our Bank for just such an occasion. But for all these circumstances to have occurred all at once betrays evidence of celestial planning on a massive scale.

Which was the worst bit? Getting soaked to the skin while we went from telephone to telephone? Enid and the boys waiting in the car in the pouring rain for two and a half hours not knowing what was going on? No, I think it was the endless phone calls on the mobile trying to get a number we could actually use.   You see, the mobile service was provided from Australia, so the dollar signs rolled around like tumblers in a poker machine for every frustrating minute spent battling the bureaucracy.   The trouble was that France didn’t allow you to access free call numbers through a public or mobile telephone.   Why? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s another one of those character-building things. Nor would the operator connect you – not for all the begging, pleading, bribing or threatening in the world. But could the Bank grasp this simple – though inexplicable – fact? No they could not. We’d call them up, explain our predicament, and they’d produce another, miraculous telephone number. We’d try it, only to hear yet another recorded message beginning with the dreaded ‘desolee’. So we’d call the Bank back, only to get a different person to whom you’d have to explain the whole situation all over again. After several minutes of explanation, they’d just try and give you the standard phone number again.

‘But we can’t get through on that one,’ Lindy explained. So she got another one.   That didn’t work, either. Back to the Bank and a different operator.   Explain it all over again. Get the same contact number. ‘No, that doesn’t work.’ Get the second number again. ‘No, that doesn’t work, either.’

‘Well, try this third number.’

To this day I’m convinced they had a jar of telephone numbers, into which they randomly dipped their hands every time they got a phone call. But we were desperate – we kept calling back. Eventually they promised to get the credit card company to call us on our mobile. Two hours later we rang them back.

‘The credit card company hasn’t called us.’

‘You’ve lost your credit card?’

‘Yes!!!’

‘Then call this toll-free number……………’

 

Earlier that morning I’d gone alone to visit the church of Saint Peter. Like I said, Moissac is an important stop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago, and has been for centuries. The tympanum of the church and the carvings in the adjoining cloisters are justifiably famous, but I found them difficult to appreciate.

I wandered the cloister with a definite air of distraction, before being stopped by a doe-eyed British pilgrim.

‘You’re from Australia?’ she ventured. I shook myself out of a dark reverie and looked at her quizzically.

‘How did you know?’

‘I heard you say so in the ticket office.’   (They ask where you’re from for their survey.) ‘Are you on a pilgrimage?’ she asked. She was pleasant enough, I suppose, but I’m afraid I was in no mood for her flakiness that morning.

‘No. Just on holiday,’ I replied somewhat curtly. She looked me up and down thoughtfully, then seemed to come to a decision.

‘You will – someday,’ she pronounced. A hundred replies clambered for life, and the one I chose was:

‘No I bloody won’t!’ and stormed off. Not something I’m very proud of, but at least I’m being honest. You get all the story, you see – warts and all.

 

The car games took on a sinister aspect during the course of that day. Each story beginning or movie title invariably ended up with a bank clerk being decapitated by a credit card. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can step back and see the silver lining in that dark, ominous cloud.

The fact was that our frustration with the telephones distracted the others from the real cause of our misery – me. For it was I, dear reader, who lost the damned thing in the first place, but we were all so preoccupied with trying to redress the situation that this simple fact had escaped our attention. Who knows what would have happened otherwise?   The newspaper headline ‘Father torn to shreds by maniacal family’ swims before my eyes each night before I go to sleep.

You’ll think I’m exaggerating, but I promise you it’s not the case. I’m giving you the abbreviated version. My therapist has succeeded in getting me to block the worst excesses of that day, but I can tell you that this fiasco lasted until we arrived at our destination in the Pyrenees later that evening. As we pulled up outside the hotel, our phone rang at last. It was the credit card company – they did exist!

‘I understand you’ve lost your credit card?’

‘Yes. Can you arrange a replacement?’

‘Nothing could be simpler. Just call this toll-free number…..’

 

We were a sorry bunch of campers as we tramped, sodden and miserable, into our hotel. The rain was still falling, but the one bright speck which had kept us going all day was the thought that at least we had our rooms booked and didn’t have to repeat the misery of finding accommodation.

The five of us filed up to the front desk nonchalantly – almost arrogant in the knowledge that we had a booking. In fact, I told the concierge as much:

‘I have a booking,’ I said.

‘What name?’ he replied.

‘Whitton,’ I said. He frowned. He scanned, then rescanned the page before him. ‘W-h-i-t-t-o-n.’ I repeated – spelling it out. I was growing agitated. The man shook his head.

‘No – no booking for Whitton.’ I swallowed hard.   I delved deep and somehow summoned the strength to ask:

‘Do you have accommodation for five people tonight, anyway?’

‘Desolee – c’est complet,’ he replied, shaking his head emphatically. I staggered, and my lips began to tremble. Let’s go back to the beginning, I thought.

‘But you must have a booking for me – Trevor Whitton.’ His eyes suddenly grew round with comprehension.

‘We have a booking for a Monsieur Trevor,’ he said, happy to throw me a lifeline. I threw my arms around the astonished man and sobbed uncontrollably.

 

Out of adversity comes a fuller appreciation of our blessings.

As we were settling into our room later that afternoon the mobile phone rang – it was the credit card company.

‘We have arranged for your card to be sent to Avignon in a week’s time, as you requested,’ said the delightful little soul.

‘That’s perfect,’ said Lindy, visibly relaxing (she may have even smiled a little).

‘Simply present yourself to the Banque National de Paris in the Rue de la Republique, and ask for Monsieur Masoni.’ This must be the real thing, we thought – they’d even given us a name! Well, I’ll leave that story untold for the moment – but remember that name – you’ll hear it many more times in the course of my narrative.

Lindy and I embraced with delight once she’d rung off, then we collected the others and headed downstairs to dinner.

 

You remember me telling you not to judge French restaurants by their appearance? Well the Hotel d’Ossau was a perfect illustration of what I meant. As we entered the smoke filled room it resembled something out of “The Den of the Secret Nine”. Not at all what we were hoping for that night! Men sat alone in corners, casting furtive glances in our direction while they waited for their drug dealers, arms shipments, biological weapons, or whatever. James turned to leave, muttering something like:

‘This never happens in McDonalds.’ Lindy caught him by the collar.

‘It’ll be fine,’ she said soothingly. But James wasn’t having a bar of it.

‘No it won’t – it’s horrible.’ he said – loudly.   As the sweat broke on my brow I was sure I could hear the subtle click of switchblades being opened surreptitiously beneath the tables around us. Then the waiter-cum-concierge arrived and showed us to our table – and the entire atmosphere changed.

He led us into the back of the restaurant, where there were no smugglers, drug addicts, assassins or serial killers.   But – more importantly – there was no cigarette smoke! Other families filled the premises and waved to us encouragingly, and the waiter smiled good-humouredly.

That meal was one of the most wondrous events of my life. From unpromising beginnings (to say the least), we soon relaxed and ended up thoroughly enjoying ourselves.   The food was quite good – trout a-la crème (again, fresh from local streams), fettucine in a salmon and cream sauce, the ubiquitous (but still outstanding) omelette, and chicken cordon bleu – just to give you a sample. Nothing particularly fancy, but just what was needed after the day we’d had.   Once again, even the boys found something they enjoyed, and I ingested the muscle relaxant (a large, cold glass of beer).

But the true accolades must be reserved for the waiter. He knew just when to bring each course, he was attentive and flattering to the ladies (Enid talked casually about the benefits of late-life marriages and toy-boys at one stage), and he treated our attempted French with the dignity it never deserved. Most of all, he was just good company! The relief we all felt after the day we’d endured was indescribable.

Viva la Hotel d’Ossau!

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Bon Voyage!

I’ve decided to serialise one of my books over the next few weeks, the following excerpt being the first installment.  Just keep in mind whilst reading it that the holiday to which it refers  was quite some time ago – before the days of the Euro and when online accommodation booking was pretty well in its infancy.  The full book is available as a PDF, Plain Text or Epub (ie, formatted ebook) file and can be purchased on my website at http://www.trevorwhitton.com/.  Enjoy!

Bon Voyage!

Copyright © Trevor Whitton 2009

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the author.

First published in paperback 2014 by Completely Novel.

 

To Lindy, James, Thomas and Enid –

quelles vacances, oui?

 

  1. The ‘Eighty Kilometre’ Rule and Other Abnormalities of Physics

 

‘Always ask about everything in your rented car.’

As soon as you’ve got your rented car, ask the nearest person what, and (more importantly) WHERE everything is. You may find that – for some weird reason – your CD player is in the boot, or that the seatbelts are in the pockets of the front chairs.

(Excerpt from the James Whitton diaries).

May 2003:

 

‘Where’s the car key?’

‘Locked in the house.’

‘Where’s the house key?’

‘With the car key!’

My wife Lindy and I looked at each other with a terrible sinking feeling. This was the unpromising beginning of our holiday as we prepared to leave for the airport.

It was a long way from being our first trip to Europe, and the third with our two children, James (14) and Thomas (12).   This time we had decided to take my wife’s 66-year-old mother Enid along with us as well. For her it was a dream come true, although she’d taken quite a bit of persuading. She couldn’t believe that she wouldn’t be a burden – bless her little floral apron – but she eventually gave in to our sustained pressure and was now eagerly (if a little anxiously) looking forward to sharing the adventure. Little did any of us realise what a roller coaster of an adventure it would turn out to be!

Locking the keys in the house before we’d even left must have made the Aged Relative wonder what she’d let herself in for!   But as far as we were concerned, she couldn’t have been in safer hands. We’d begun our preparations twelve months earlier, with hundreds (well, dozens – I’m a little prone to exaggeration, as you’ll see) of emails backwards and forwards to sundry hotels and prospective hosts. We had the logistics of managing the travel of five people driving around Europe for six weeks planned to within a centimetre of its life, and confidently dismissed any qualms with a nonchalant wave of our souvenir berets.

 

Looking back, we should have had an inkling of our fate a month earlier, when I opened a message from Lucia – the owner of our Tuscan villa.

‘Where is your deposit? I was expecting it several weeks ago. Are you no longer interested in staying with us?’ Gripped with panic, I replied urgently reassuring her that we were, and that I would look into the delayed remittance straight away. I spent a sleepless night constructing the conversation I intended having with my bank the next day – each moment bringing a new and better way of destroying some unsuspecting clerk’s life and self respect.

You know how it is. You run through the scenario a hundred times in your head, always concluding with an argument or sarcastic comment to devastate your foe and has them admitting defeat and tearfully promising to rectify your problem with minimal fuss and no cost (perhaps even offering to compensate you for your inconvenience?). In reality – and it seems as inevitable as poo – the problem stretches on for days and days, then weeks, and in the end you’ve reduced your life expectancy by at least a dozen years, and the problem is only marginally resolved (at best).

This lesson was to be repeated over and over again in the weeks to come.

I can’t recall the exact conversation with the bank clerk in this circumstance, of course – but it ran something like this:

(Me) ‘Where the bloody hell has my deposit gone?’

(Clerk) ‘Which deposit would that be, sir?’

(Me) ‘The one I asked you to send off to Italy two months ago!’

(Clerk)‘I’ll just check for you and call you back in five minutes.’

(Me – calling back two hours later) ‘Well?!’

(Clerk) ‘Well what?’

(Me) ‘Where’s that bloody deposit gone?’

(Clerk) ‘Which deposit would that be, sir?’

– you get my drift. Multiply the above by the number ten, then factor in the need to eventually follow this up with an Italian bank (no – whatever you’re imagining isn’t even close), and you can see that we were well up against it. But, in my innocent naivety, once this matter had been resolved I dismissed the whole episode with hardly a second thought.

‘You don’t think it’s some kind of omen, do you?’ asked Lindy apprehensively. It wasn’t just the children she was concerned for, remember – there was the fate of her mother to take into consideration, as well.

‘Don’t be so pessimistic!’ I replied confidently.   ‘This was our one piece of bad luck.   Now we can look forward to our holiday, confident in the knowledge that we’ve already dealt with our disasters.’

 

Anyway – back to that first day – after squashing young Thomas through the only window we’d left open, we retrieved the house and car keys and were eventually on our way.

There were no other incidents en route to warn of what was to come – in fact, the flight to Paris was relatively pleasant (as far as twenty-four hours of medieval torture can be). The movies on offer were particularly appealing – the only drawback being that I foolishly forced myself to stay awake in order to watch them all. As the other passengers dozed and snored all around me, I was using matchsticks to keep my eyelids open. Unfortunately, I was so exhausted by the experience that I couldn’t remember a single detail afterwards. Months later when we ended up borrowing the DVDs, it was like seeing them for the first time.

Nevertheless, the issue for me was – and shall always remain – to make the most of free offers. Especially from airlines.

When I did finally get to sleep, Enid (who’d drawn the short straw and was sitting next to me) was kept awake for the remainder of the journey by my gentle, fairy-like snores. Such sensitivity to tiny noises did not hold her in good stead throughout the trip, although it has been suggested that the experience was perhaps a little worse than I’ve described.

The highlight for Lindy was when the cabin crew distributed the mini-Magnums. Her face lit up like a startled rabbit before the headlights, and her smile nearly split her face in two. Fortunately for me, she’s always been impressed by the simple things in life.

James and Thomas watched a few movies, pushed every meal about their plates suspiciously without tasting a crumb, and were only truly happy when the plane touched down at Charles de Gaulle and we were on terra firma once more. The Aged Relative and Son-in-Law embraced excitedly, and within a reasonably short time we’d collected our bags (Burke and Wills set off with less luggage than us!) and car, and were on the road.

 

We now confronted our first real challenge of the trip. I suppose I should mention at this point that Lindy was to do all the driving – we had a manual car, and I can only drive the wind-up kind (i.e., automatics). It was therefore very important that our journey on that first morning be as short and stress-free as possible.   No one wants to drive much after a twenty-four hour plane trip (let’s face it, breathing in and out is almost too much to be bothered with), and we’d booked somewhere that was only about eighty kilometres from the airport.

Eighty kilometres.

This figure became a sort of numerical jinx throughout the trip. It’s probably some strange kind of dimension-warp thing, but every time we estimated that we were about eighty kilometres from somewhere, it ended up becoming a lot further – and I mean, a lot further!

On the morning in question it became two hundred kilometres.

I remember seeing the car’s mileage meter tick over the eighty kilometre mark, then looking out the window and feeling the tears stream down my face as I watched a plane landing at Charles de Gaulle airport, a couple of hundred metres away on our right.

Have you ever tried driving around Paris without using the ring-road (Peripherique)? That particular highway has a justifiably bad reputation, and I maintain to this day that it’s not a bad idea trying to avoid it when picking up an unfamiliar car after a twenty-four hour plane trip – especially if you’re still trying to get used to driving on the other side of the road!   But, let me tell you, it beats the hell out of trying to negotiate your way around the poorly signed country roads of the Ile de France. I expect wartime Britain was much the same after they took down all the signs to confuse the invading Germans. I, for one, can guarantee that it’s terrifically effective. An invading army wouldn’t have stood a chance, and the Whittons-plus-one were like lambs to the slaughter.

 

The trip was so long that we were forced to stop for some refreshment. Enid craved a hot chocolate, and I was looking forward to my first cup of French coffee. Lindy needed a break, and the boys were happy just to have something to stick in their mouths.

First, let me go back a little to explain that we’d gone to great lengths before setting off to tell the boys that this holiday was going to be different – we weren’t going to be constantly stopping at McDonalds like we had in previous trips. In fact, we probably wouldn’t even stop there at all! Not once! In the entire trip!

Half an hour after landing in Paris we pulled into McDonalds for coffee and hot chocolate.

The thing with McDonald’s in Europe is that the few advantages it usually offers – quick service and the opportunity for a cheap, hot meal – have been stripped away. It took a good twenty minutes for our humble order to arrive, and it cost a bomb! My first coffee of the trip wasn’t worthy of the name.

Many hours later, we finally arrived at our destination, (after stopping at the wrong town and conducting a – not surprisingly – fruitless search for our hotel). I was able, at last, to advise the concierge – in word-perfect French – that we had a reservation. Six months of rehearsal had prepared me for this moment, and imagine the disappointment I felt when my speech was met with indifference. I suspect Olivier would have felt the same after hearing crickets in response to a masterful performance of Hamlet. To add to my humiliation, he did something I had never expected – he replied in French! In a mad panic, I responded with ‘Comment?’ – which (for those of you who don’t know) is roughly the equivalent ‘Huh?’ in French. Unfortunately, this only encouraged the fool to spout more French.   The torrent of incomprehensibility gushed again from his mouth. Totally lost on me, of course. I tried smiling helplessly and – believe it or not – it worked. ‘Do you need help with your bags?’ he asked – in English.   I was shattered after only my first conversation. Well, I say conversation, but it was hardly that. A conversation requires a two-way dialogue. Once we’d switched to English, though, I was fine. Quite fluent, in fact. (Although Lindy would say that English is only my second language – drivel being my first). I could have chatted all afternoon if need be, but that wasn’t the point. After a brief shake of the head to indicate that I could carry the bags myself (the thought that he might say something else in French – a distinct possibility, given that he was French – filled me with terror), I was directed up fourteen levels of staircases and along twenty miles of corridors to our rooms.

This being our first night, we were forced to endure this monumental trek accompanied by our entire collection of baggage. By level twelve I was beginning to regret my pride. It was intriguing the way the hotel seemed to stretch on forever on the inside, but from the outside it looked quite small. Just like Doctor Who’s Tardis. Another one of those dimension-warp things, I guess.

Eventually, after ensuring the madams were comfortably secure in their own room, the boys and I collapsed on our beds and began to doze.   Just as blissful sleep descended upon us, we were awakened by the sound of foreign syllables (presumably French) being bellowed from a public address system outside our window. For a moment I had a vision of the Concierge standing below and attempting to carry on our earlier conversation, but soon realised it was coming from further away. The boys and I exchanged bewildered looks, and eventually summoned the strength to get out of bed and take a look.

At first I thought I must have been dreaming.   It seemed like the entire town had assembled on the banks across the river and were fighting each other with wooden swords, while the woman on the PA tried futilely to somehow choreograph the mayhem. We watched with a mixture of amazement and horror, until it suddenly dawned on me that they were rehearsing for one of those son-et-lumiere productions that every town in France seems to put on for visitors over summer. This particular entertainment seemed to be recreating some long forgotten battle. From what we saw that afternoon, the battle of Moret-sur-Loing was one of the silliest in history!

In fairness, I suppose the fiasco would have looked more impressive if they’d been decked out in their period costumes – but it was difficult to suspend my disbelief when they were dressed in jeans, t-shirts and runners. James and Thomas found the spectacle hysterical, and vowed never to attend a son-et-lumiere. A bit like having the magic trick revealed, I guess – all the mystery and romance had been destroyed.

Our journey had begun in earnest. We looked forward to it as an adventure and an opportunity to bond as a family. Well, looking back it certainly was an adventure, and every adventure shared is a bond strengthened, but the process was not quite what we had planned.

  1. Tips, Traps, and Words of Wisdom

 

How much should you plan a holiday, and how much should you leave to chance? I’ve always leant more towards the former, but I understand the attraction and benefits of the latter. In our circumstance – needing to find accommodation for five people every night – we had no choice. On our previous visits with the children we’d sometimes spent hours looking desperately for someone to take us in, usually ending up in the most miserable flea-pit and paying an exorbitant price for the privilege. Add an extra adult to that equation and it spelt potential misery – so this trip we opted for pre-booking as much as we could.

There are two risks involved with booking your accommodation. First, the gorgeous looking abode whose picture you had examined minutely on the Internet, nevertheless turns out to be a week short of being condemned.   Second, it leaves you with little flexibility in your itinerary. This means that the adventure is a little less adventurous, and that mishaps which cause delays in your schedule take on greater proportions – but more about that later.

 

The next couple of days were spent travelling south at a steady rate into the Dordogne area of central/southern France. That first morning we stopped down the road from Moret at the great Abbey church of Saint Benoit sur Loire. Being a Sunday, we got to witness a service (accompanied by the famous Gregorian Chant of the monks of Saint Benoit), followed by a short organ recital of Bach. Nice start, thought I. Afterwards, we picked up some provisions in the village shop and headed off into the temporary sunshine.

As we left the town, Enid asked when the church of Saint Benoit had been built.

‘Between the 12th and 13th centuries,’ I replied – happy to show off my knowledge.

‘Would that be the oldest church in France?’ she asked.

‘No.’

‘Where is the oldest church in France, then?’ she persisted. Just then, I looked up from my map at the sign on the village we were approaching.   It said ‘Germigny-des-Pres – Oratoire Carolingian: circa 806AD’.

‘Would you like to see it?’ I asked nonchalantly.

 

For Lindy and I, one of the delights of travelling in France is the pique-nique. Not only is there a wide variety of choice available (not the least of which is the humble but unsurpassed French baguette!), but the countryside is liberally strewn with meadows, forests, rivers, streams, lakes, and picnic tables to ensure that the whole eating experience is as pleasant as possible.

Unfortunately, whilst it looked nice from inside the car, for that first week (it was early May) the reality was near-hypothermia – particularly for the suffering Aged Relative. Enid braved the cold with fortitude – an invisible mouth devouring food as if by magic from under the deep, all-enveloping folds of her blanket.   The rest of us (the mother and father, anyway) pretended it was all jolly good fun, whilst sawing away at the frozen Brie with the carving knife.

 

Our second day was devoted to the more popular chateaux of the Loire. As we passed through the trees and Enid caught her first glimpse of Chambord – all bristling with towers and chimneys, and dripping white like a gigantic, renaissance wedding cake – there was an audible gasp from the back seat.

We lunched in the surrounding parklands (carefully choosing a spot that would best protect us from the arctic winds), dreaming of southern sunshine and balmy Tasmanian winters. Enid still resembled an overdressed Eskimo, but soldiered on despite the frostbite.

The icicles had melted and the sun made a brief appearance late that afternoon as we arrived at the romantic Chateau of Chenonceau. The gardens sprang to life in the sunshine – as if they’d been given a nudge and told to wake up and get their act together – and (some of us) began peeling off layers of protective clothing. The palace cast picturesque reflections in the river across which it was built, but the boys remained unimpressed. Thomas, in particular, was more intrigued by the water rats which populated the fetid waters of the nearby canals!

 

One of my great ideas (and I had more than a few) included the car games devised during quiet moments at home over the preceding year.   Infused with my inexhaustible-but-not-always-(well, never)-appreciated humour, they were intended to be the saviour of long hours on the road. Did they work? Well, yes and no. They certainly achieved their aim of occupying time, but also served to polarise personalities in the car.

For example, there were a number of progressive stories that required each person to add their own contributions to a set beginning. They’d start out with a rather bizarre or macabre situation, then Enid would invariably invent a beautiful princess who needed rescuing. Thomas would immediately have her devoured by a dragon, only to have the poor maiden resurrected (or worse – regurgitated) during Enid’s next turn. This created some friction – which was not helped by James’ insistence on introducing Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy to every story.   Then, as if to pour petrol onto the flames, we had the appalling idea of scoring the contest. I think we imagined at the time that it would introduce an element of healthy competition, and provide another dimension of interest.   What we failed to take into account was that Lindy had brought along her own, personal lobbyist. At first it was quaint as Enid awarded her daughter the highest points for each game – but over six weeks (and as she drew further and further ahead) it wore very thin indeed.

 

We spent our second night in a bed and breakfast (chambre d’hote in French). We had deliberately left this night unbooked because we wanted to stay in a French B&B again, and they were difficult (back in 2003) to reserve in advance.   When the time came to settle down for the night, it was simply a matter of following the signs.

Our hosts that evening turned out to be an elderly couple, the male of which was apparently hard of hearing. I make this presumption based on the fact that, when we first arrived, the television was turned up so loud that it could be heard by aircraft passing several kilometres above us. Their house was very comfortable, though, and they had a swimming pool!

It must have made a curious sight for our hosts with Lindy and Enid huddled beneath a blanket, whilst James and Thomas frolicked in the water. Tasmanian children are made of strong stuff, and, once a hole had been carved through the surface ice, there was no stopping the boys enjoying the luxury of a swim.   From their perspective, it might have been their last opportunity for the whole trip. Enid was heard to mumble something about it having to come from my side of the family.

 

The true benefit of staying in a chamber d’hote, however, was only truly appreciated the next morning. Upon entering the dining room, we were assailed by the delicious odour of freshly baked baguette, the most sublime, fresh coffee, and a plethora (is it plethora – or perhaps a gaggle? Or pride?) of home made jams. We gorged ourselves unashamedly, and utilised what little French we knew (or could invent) in chatting with the owners.

‘Bonjour madame, monsieur. Comment ca va?’ I said, to which our hosts replied in eloquent French. I understood the words ‘bon’ (good) and ‘café’ (coffee) only. Naturally, I smiled and nodded knowingly – looking askance at Lindy to indicate that I needed her assistance. Fortunately she’d understood enough to make some sort of reply, and our reputation was saved.

Eventually, the friendly couple went off to enjoy their own breakfast in private, whilst we finished at our leisure. As the last of us stumbled to their feet and waddled off towards the car, I went looking for madame in order to pay. I was devastated to find her seated with her husband at a tiny, plastic covered table before a humble bowl of corn flakes and – I shudder to write it – a cup of instant coffee. The spell was broken – the magic was gone – and the scales fell from my eyes. I realised in that one, horrendous moment, that many French people don’t sit down every morning to breakfast banquets, but have to slum it like the rest of us. It took days of grieving before I could come to terms with this revelation, and it is a scar I’ll carry with me forever. I can only be grateful that the others were spared this devastating spectacle.

 

The morning was spent in the city of Bourges. We headed straight for the medieval palace of Jacques Couer, and discovered that we were to be subjected to that terror of Europe – the guided tour not-in-English! For myself, I was happy to just look around and let the music of the words wash over me, but the children were counting the seconds like prisoners awaiting parole.   The guide rambled on and on, oblivious to their misery.

We also visited the great gothic cathedral of Saint Etienne with its huge, overwhelming nave and beautiful medieval stained glass.   But the highlight, for me, was when I bought the postage stamps for Enid. Call me shallow, but I strutted like a peacock after successfully negotiating the transaction without having to resort to English! The youthful, pleasant postal clerk looked impressed (or perhaps he was just relieved), and Trevor inched up a few notches in mother-in-law’s esteem.

 

When we hit the Auvergne later that day the countryside really became spectacular. The sun was shining (albeit weakly), the leaves were freshly open on the trees, and the green, grassy meadows swayed under a gentle breeze. I swear that even the cows were smiling as we sailed past, accompanied by theatrical oohs and ahhs from within the car.

Naturally, this trip was planned with the interests of the children in mind. On our previous visit they’d been impressed with ruined castles, and the Auvergne offered one with a bonus – live, period-dress entertainment. The guidebook said that it’s a “must” for the children. Well, perhaps for some – but our children certainly didn’t see it that way. For a start you have to climb a short rise (or, as James and Thomas described it, a high alpine pass) to get to it from the car park. That set them against the project from the outset.   Then came the entertainment.

Mother, father, and granny were enchanted by the mock King, Queen, Princess (no dragons for Tom to feed her to) and guards who greeted the new arrivals as they passed through the ancient gateway and approached the tumbling remains of the keep. We snapped away happily with our cameras – behaving as embarrassingly as only the parents and grandparents of teenage children can – whilst James and Thomas looked desperately for disguises.

The only spark of interest for the boys was kindled when Thomas went exploring behind one of the ruined walls on the hillside. His excited shouts brought us running, and he proudly showed us a small plot with five grave markers basking in the late afternoon sunlight.

‘Count them.’ He said. ‘Five. That’s the same number as us.’ (And they say our public school system isn’t effective!). With a shudder of disquiet, the grownups smiled indulgently and went back to the entertainment, leaving Thomas taking his first photographs of the trip and James rechecking his brother’s mathematics.

 

After a beautiful drive across the mountains of the Monts Dore – snow-capped on its peaks and flower-strewn in its meadows – we arrived in the tiny village of Orcival. Our hotel for the night was located right next to the glorious Romanesque church – Lindy and Enid’s room enjoying a first-class view of the belltower.

After mother- and son-in-law shared a short, pleasant walk along a remote, sun dappled lane above the town, we rejoined the rest of the family and entered the hotel restaurant with not a little trepidation. The only table available for five people was occupied by what appeared to be the village lout – a cigarette dangling from his lips and a cloud of foul smoke engulfing the room from his epicentre. We looked confused for a moment – not knowing where to sit – before he smiled and stood up to let us have the table to ourselves. We mumbled our thanks, then watched in horror as he donned his apron and went into the kitchen to begin cooking – the smoke following him like the wake of a funnel from an ocean liner.

Well, this was France and you should never dismiss a cook – or a restaurant, for that matter – by his, her, or its appearance.   No doubt you’ve heard claims in travel books before that start out saying ‘the food was simple, but delicious’ and then go on to describe something both exotic and complex – bison roasted in aardvark jelly with a truffle marinade, for example – but I won’t let you down. I’m talking omelettes (no, without the truffles), and trout (caught fresh that morning in the local stream) – pan fried in a simple cream and almond sauce.   The glory of this dinner was not just the quality of the cooking (how do you make a humble omelette taste so special?), but the fact that it satisfied everyone – including the two gastronomic philistines! Later, we washed it all down with lashings of home-made strawberry ice cream.

This was our first introduction to that astonishing product – the European strawberry. It was a revelation. Moses experienced the same sort of thing as he glanced over the Ten Commandments after descending from Mount Sinai and putting his feet up in his favourite chair next to the fire. ‘Mon Dieu!’ I expect was his reaction, as was ours.

Now, I’m afraid that this is the point in my story where I’m going to disappoint. I know it’s expected that I describe the wine we enjoyed during this meal, but I’ve got to break the news to you that I was the only member of the expedition that touched alcohol, so bottles of wine were rare and, when indulged, inexpensive. Sorry, I know I’m breaking a fundamental rule of travel books, but there you have it. Take your purchase back to the shop and see if you can get a refund if you feel strongly about it.

 

That night I was enchanted by the centuries-old bells ringing in the church outside our hotel window, and it was then that I discovered that not everybody found this experience as romantic as me. It was to be a constant source of irritation to the rest of the party for the remainder of the trip, and one of my most pleasurable memories. It was not to be the last time that my happy, early morning, smiling face was greeted by bleary-eyed scowls. To add insult to injury – or injury to injury – Lindy and Enid had found that their room was designed with Chinese water torture in mind. The shower dripped incessantly all night, and absolutely nothing they could do would stop it. On the positive side, they did discover that they’d have made lousy spies – having been willing to give up the most closely guarded secrets in a nanosecond in exchange for a peaceful night’s sleep!

Let’s go to…Paris!

I’ve been visiting Paris for over 30 years and, more than any other city (I couldn’t tell you why) it never fails to bring out the creative side of my photography.  It offers something of interest during each epoch of history over the past 800 years, be it medieval:

Notre Dame facade 5
Notre Dame

 

 

 

Musee Carnevalet b&w
Hotel de Carnavalet

 

 

…or renaissance:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…or baroque/neo-classical:

…or art nouveau

But it’s the lighting (particularly early morning) that seems to get my creative juices flowing:

Fountain silhouette

 

This was taken during my honeymoon back in the 1980’s.  I love the way the back lighting catches the drops of water in the middle of the photo and the perfect silhouette of the statue towards the top.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Invalides 3

 

The same trip early in the morning.  The shadow of the figure just about to enter the frame to the left creates the interest in this photo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Musee d'Orsay clock

A slightly more recent photo (1990’s) from the Musee d’Orsay.  I must admit it was a bit of a fluke.  I was waiting for someone to enter the frame before taking the shot, but I couldn’t have anticipated how they’d be leaning back at exactly the right angle to mirror the line on the clock behind them.

Street scene

This has to be my favourite, I think.  Again, I take credit for waiting for someone to enter the frame before taking the shot, but the halo around her head was accidental and – once again – makes the photo.

But first and foremost (in my eyes, anyway) Paris is a city of sensational museums.  There’s the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay with which everyone is familiar, but my favourite is the Cluny museum of medieval art.  There’s an immediacy and accessibility to its works which is appealing (and very tactile – you feel like reaching out and touching everything) and it is seldom very busy compared to its more famous counterparts.

Cluny museum 8

Rodin Museum Burghers of Calais

 

 

The Rodin museum is another gem not too far away from the Musee d’Orsay.  It’s housed in a lovely building and the gardens are a highlight.  The Burghers of Calais can be glimpsed from the street and gives a taste of what’s on offer.

 

For some reason I take more pictures of people in Paris than anywhere else.  The 2 below are from the Luxembourg gardens.  I like the angle created by the 2 figures (from bottom left to top right)…

Luxembourg gardens 2

Luxembourg gardens

and this photo of a nanny with a boy playing with his boat can only have been taken in one city in the world!

 

 

 

 

You can’t do a blog on Paris and not have some photos of the Eiffel tower.  The two below are my favourite.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my personal view of Paris.  As always, there’ll be a new destination with a slightly different focus next week.

Metro sign at night

 

Let’s go to…Tuscany!

Off for our annual holiday to Tuscany in a few weeks, so I felt inspired to share some of my favourite places.

Radicofani - Podera Pietrata window
Iconic Tuscany

 

This is the iconic view from the kitchen window of the villa where we stay near Radicofani.  Chianti classico, tomatoes and rolling countryside – you can’t get more typical of Tuscany!  Click here if you’re interested in finding out more about Podere Pietreta (site link is in english).

 

 

 

 

One of the joys of Italy is the sense of community – whether it’s in the small villages, towns or cities.  It provides images which are quintessentially Italian.  Younger people “passeggiata” around the squares of an evening and old people sit together and just watch.  The most appealing aspect is the almost total lack of public drunkenness.  I understand that it is quite a taboo (“brutta figura” in Italian – or bad look, which is taken very seriously), and there’s considerable community pressure that discourages it.  Bravo, I say!

Apart from the art (which I’ll explore in a later blog some day) the landscapes are the most memorable aspects of a visit to Tuscany.  Each season offers its own character.

Radicofani - Podera Pietrata view 2
Tuscan countryside

 

Spring has cool temperatures, occasional rain, and fog in the valleys.

 

 

 

 

 

Val d'Orcia countryside 16

Later in the season towards May you might also come across fields of poppies.  A nuisance (no doubt) for farmers, but a blessing for tourists!

 

 

 

Castiglione d'Orcia 2

 

Leading up to Corpus Domini (around late May) villages like Castiglione d’Orcia (photo right) begin preparing displays (called “infiorata”) made from thousands of petals from the local wildflowers (such as broom and poppies).  They’re stuck to the ground by wetting the pavement first – I’m not sure how effective it is during windy weather, but I guess weather forecasts play an important role.

 

 

 

 

 

As summer commences showers turn into the occasional storm…

Val d'Orcia countryside 31

Val d'Orcia countryside 48

 

Followed by a sparkling morning washed clean by the previous evening’s rain.

 

 

 

Radicofani view near Podere Pietrata

 

 

Sometimes red flowering clover carpets the fields…

 

 

 

Val d'Orcia countryside 10

 

 

 

…and great, billowing clouds dominate the skyline.

 

 

 

 

The villages have a charm all themselves, both for their dramatic location…

Pitigliano 10
Pitigliano
Soreano 2
Soreano

 

Capalbio 4
Capalbaio

 

 

…as well as their intimate corners.

 

 

 

 

 

Capella Vitaletta 4
Capella Vitaletta

 

 

Iconic images present themselves at almost every turn…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…and evenings are spectacular!

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I can’t write about Tuscany without talking about its wines – which are amongst my favourite in the world.

Montepulciano 25
Montepulciano

Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino are very well known, but less is known of Vino di Montepulciano.  One of the reasons for this is that it is usually confused with wine made from the montepulciano grape – a reasonable assumption.  Montepulciano wine is typically a rather rough and ready “drink-a-day” wine from the Abruzzo area, whilst the wine from around the town of Montepulciano is made from a relative of sangiovese (sangiovese grosso).  Long-lived (although not quite as age-worthy as Brunello) it’s a high quality but inexpensive wine that deserves to be more popular.

Medieval Tuscany is well served by plenty of monuments as well.  Siena is a gem, but most villages have interesting remnants and the tiny monastery of Sant’Antimo is charmingly nestled in a picturesque valley near Montalcino.  Visitors can attend services where a handful of monks sing plainchant – often accompanied by a tractor outside and the persistent coughing of one of the brothers!  Click here if you want to visit the website.

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little snapshot of Tuscany.  Please feel free to contact me if you’d like to get any further information about the places mentioned above.  Watch out for my next post the same time next week.

Poppies & wildflowers 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s go to:

CHARTRES!

Considered by most to be the perfect expression of Gothic architecture, this French treasure was reconstructed on the charred ruins of its predecessor in 1194.  Asymmetrical towers are typical of medieval Europe as pure symmetry was considered evil (that’s one theory, anyway).  I expect that the cost of the construction (most were built many decades – often centuries apart) also goes some way to explaining stylistic differences (yes, fashion changed even back then, albeit much more slowly than today).

Loir north - Chartres cathedral facade 6

The sculpture of the portals adhere to a strict iconography and was developed during the romanesque period.  The tympanum (located in the area above the door) typically depicted Christ in majesty – often with the damned being led to hell on his left and the blessed being admitted to heaven on his right.  Such symbolism was taken extremely seriously in the middle ages – to the extent that people considered left-handedness to be a sign of evil.  Not a period for your’s truly to have lived!  In this image we see Christ during the 2nd coming flanked by the four beasts of the apocalypse.

Loir north - Chartres cathedral facade sculpture 6  As a tourist (as opposed to an architectural purist) I must say that I found the light and sound display of an evening breathtaking.  Quite a surprise for me at the time (I never thought it would be as spectacular as it was) and the spontaneous and (largely) unanimous applause at the end was genuine.  Some of the other displays around town were more intimate and incredibly romantic (the black and white movie projected onto the tiny church just up the road from the Cathedral was particularly memorable).

Loir north - Chartres cathedral facade 12

A few years ago the French Government approved a cleaning/restoration project that raised plenty of eyebrows – particularly amongst purists in the USA.  The renovators claim that they are restoring the interior to its former glory, drawing on the remnants of paint and decoration found under centuries of grime.  The detractors say that the finished product bears no relation to the original intention of the builders and is an appalling travesty.  What do I think?  I’ll wait until the project is completed to form my judgement, but I have no objection to the initial results.  What’s your opinion?

Loir north - Chartres cathedral nave 7

But the glory of Chartres, of course, is the stupendous medieval stained glass.  Famed for its blues and reds, for a – mostly – illiterate congregation it was their only visual access to the stories of the bible.  An absolute feast for the eyes and a life-enhancing experience.

 

 

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