thank-you

The Oscar Speech

Yes, it’s that time at the end of the road where I need to thank a few people. I’ll try and keep it brief but there are so many people who helped to make this a successful trip that it may take a few pages.

Oscar

• Firstly, the staff at Countrywide Motorhomes in Poole who managed to match me with the perfect motorhome that met all my requirements and who ensured that it was fit and ready for the road.

• The staff at the Fiat garages in San Sebastian (Spain) and Dreux (France) who helped keep Trixie on the road. Special thanks to mechanic David and his Mum in Dreux for offering me a place to stay while Trixie was awaiting parts.

• The vineyard owners (members of France Passions) across France who allowed me to sleep amongst their vines and to sample their wines.

DSCF5212 - Chalonnes• The Italian Motorhome Association who allowed me to stay with them for free at Viareggio during the Carnevale.

• The staff at the various Tourist Information offices through France, Spain and Italy who provided me with useful information and advice.

• The guides at the various sites I have visited who enthusiastically gave me tours, even when I was the only visitor.

• My fellow motorhome travellers who have offered me friendship along the way.

• The followers of my blog who have supported my writing and corrected my errors.

• Last but by no means least, my family who have always accepted my adventures without question and have supported my explorations at home and away.

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Eiffel – More than just a Tower

The Eiffel Tower is a well-known symbol of Paris. I’m not visiting Paris on my European tour. Not least because driving through the streets there in a motorhome would be a nightmare and parking, next to impossible and incredibly expensive. However, I don’t have to visit Paris to see the creations of this remarkable architect and civil engineer.

eiffelGutsave Eiffel was born in 1832 towards the end of the industrial revolution when transport needs across France, and the world, were expanding. Originally influenced by his uncles Chemical business he specialised in Chemistry at university, but a family dispute resulted in his working at a foundry and then gaining an apprenticeship to the railway engineer Charles Nepveu.

Eiffel’s first major project in 1861 was the railway bridge over the river Garonne at Bordeaux, connecting the Paris-Bordeaux line to the lines running to Sète and Bayonne. Unfortunately, I bypassed the city of Bordeaux and so did not see this amazing feat of engineering which has recently been saved from the scrapyard by the public, the “Association of the Descendants of Gustave Eiffel” and the Association “Sauvons la Passerelle Eiffel”. It is now listed as a French Historical Monument.

eiffel bridge6 years later, Eiffel constructed a viaduct over the river Sioule at Rouzat and in 1884 his company was responsible for the Garabit viaduct. I am lucky enough to pass both on my return route north through France. The Rouzat viaduct is not very exciting to look at but considering it was constructed in 1869 and is still in use today, it is an interesting piece of architecture and engineering. 181m long and 59m high, the bases of the two supporting pillars are reminiscent of the curving base of the Eiffel Tower.

DSCF5890The Garabit viaduct opened in November 1885 with a single track. Costing 3,100,000 francs, it was 565m long, 120m high (at the time, the highest in the world) and weighed 3587 tons. The deflection, measured at 8 millimetres, was accurately anticipated by Eiffel’s careful calculations. Until September 2009, only one regular passenger train per day passed over the viaduct in each direction, but the viaduct was closed after cracks were discovered in one of the foundation piles. It reopened one month later after a safety inspection, but was closed again for 6 months in 2011 for extensive repair work. I manage to view it from a conveniently placed service stop on the A75 motorway.

DSCF6043Also on my route is the canal at Briare. I park up next to the canal boats and walk the 662.7 metre length of the Briare aqueduct to the opposite bank of the Loire. Although designed by Léonce-Abel Mazoyer and Charles Sigault, Gustave Eiffel completed the masonry abutments and piers of the Briare aqueduct. It was built between 1890 and 1896 to make a connection with the Canal latéral à la Loire. The fourteen piers support a single metal beam carrying a trough with more than 13,000 tonnes of water. All this water makes me feel very thirsty but luckily there is a chocolatier and café inhabiting the old conductors house.

DSCF6415Finally, at the end of my 5 month tour of Europe, I arrive in Dieppe, where Eiffel designed and constructed the Colbert swing bridge in 1870. I manage to walk across without a problem but am stopped instead by the raising of the adjacent lifting bridge which allows some fishing vessels out of the Bassin Duquesne, formerly the main harbour of Dieppe. I am here to catch the cross-channel ferry back to the UK. My European Tour finally over.

Did you know?
Eiffel assisted in the design of the Statue of Liberty and it was actually constructed in Paris before being shipped out to New York.

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The Haunted Abbey

DSCF6293Deep in the Lyons Forest sits the ancient Abbey du Mortemer and its ruined church. It was originally built in 1134 on swampland, which is how it earned the name “Mortum-mare” or “Dead sea”. The first Cistercian Abbey in Normandy, the monks lived well off the land. Pigeons were kept in a dovecote, eels and perch lived in the lakes and wine and honey was produced by the friars. The abbey was prosperous for many years and was even rebuilt in the 16th century. However, by 1790, only five friars remained and, during the French Revolution, the last four monks were hunted down and killed in the cellar.

When I arrive, I take a walk around the grounds. I am aware that the abbey has a reputation for being haunted and when I step into the old dovecote I jump as a voice leaps out of the darkness. This is no ghost though, just an audio description of the abbey history and some interesting information about how the doves were kept. It also mentions that the dovecote was used to house prisoners and I wonder if any died here and whether their spirits remain.

DSCF6280As I walk around the lakes a gaggle of geese and ducks follow me, hoping that I have something to feed them, but they are out of luck. The young men fishing at the far end have caught no fish, but they do have many baguettes so maybe the birds will fare better with them. Returning to the Abbey, I take the path through the trees which leads me past a series of wooden sculptures, representing the thirteen Normandy dukes and two duchesses who ruled the land. William the Conquerer, Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor of Aquitaine are all uniquely depicted in oak while small iron crosses are planted at their feet to represent their wives and children.

The abbey church is in ruins. Piles of stones mark the bases of the columns and a few remains of towering walls, one with a rose window, loom precariously. The 16th century renovation still stands strong and it is here that I meet the guide for an interior tour that includes the stories of several ghosts who reportedly haunt the abbey. Like the dovecote, each room is described by an audio tape. As there are a few other people, the DSCF6294tour commences in French but they don’t venture beyond the fountain of St Catherine and so I am able to continue the tour with the English language version which is hilariously stilted and mistranslated.

St Catherine’s fountain is actually a 12th century washbasin that the monks used. However, many women believe it has miraculous powers and they come to worship it and throw a coin or hairpin into the waters in the hope of finding a husband. Framed letters from women who found their true love hang on the walls surrounding the fountain, inspiring many others to follow the dream. But I am not that interesting in finding a husband. I’m more interested in seeing a ghost.

DSCF6296 (2)Several ghost stories are told in the Abbey. There are the four murdered monks who inhabit the cellars and the goblin cat which appears in the church ruins and guards the Abbey treasure. Mathilde, the daughter of Henry I of England, was imprisoned in the Abbey for 5 years. Although she died in Rouen, her ghost is said to haunt the halls and she is known locally as the “white lady”. Even though the Abbey was exorcised in 1921, the hauntings continue. Guides and visitors have heard phantom footsteps on the stairs, paintings have leapt off the walls and the phone lines are frequently crossed.

My personal favourite ghost story told at the Abbey did not actually take place there but at a nearby village. A young man would regularly meet a young woman near the church and they would dance all night. One day, he arrived in daylight and asked an elderly woman who the young woman was. She replied “The woman is my daughter and she is dead”. Was he dancing with a ghost?

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The Kindness of Strangers

DreuxAfter 11,500km of driving across Europe, the winding roads and footpaths are finally taking their toll on both myself and Trixie. My knees are suffering from climbing all the hilltop villages and the latest damp weather is causing my bones to ache. Meanwhile, as if in sympathy, Trixie is finding it increasingly difficult to engage the lower gears. With only 7 days left of my trip I decide she needs looking at and so I find myself at the local Fiat dealership in Dreux, a multicultural city 80 km from Paris with no particular points of interest but having 3 MacDonalds.

I arrive at the dealership just before lunch and after they agree to look at Trixie in the afternoon, I leave her in their care and wander into the adjacent commercial estate in search of some diversions and possibly lunch. The shops are also shutting for lunch so I end up in the Oriental Buffet with a few families and quite a few local staff on their break. The food is not fantastic but I make the most of the “all you can eat” buffet and stuff myself with sushi, sticky sweet pork, stir fried seafood and lychees.

Back at the garage, I take advantage of their free wifi while they assess Trixie. It turns out that she has a damaged clutch hydraulic cylinder and a replacement will set me back at least €400. This is actually good news as I was worried that it might be the gearbox which could have been more than €1500 to replace. They suggest I check into a hotel but Trixie is my home and I would rather stay with her just outside the garage compound. However, the young mechanic is having none of it and insists that I stay with him, or his mother.

It seems inappropriate to stay at David’s flat so I agree to stay with his mother Christine, at her house in the south of the city. When we arrive she is quite flustered and overly apologetic for the state of her house which is crammed with boxes and furniture such that the two spare rooms are inaccessible. She insists that I sleep in her bedroom while she shares the sofa with her Alsatian, Spike. I offer a bottle of wine which I have saved from the Loire Valley but sadly, Christine is fasting for a blood test and unable to drink it. It’s a pleasant evening and I enjoy talking to Christine and learning about her life (she was once married to an Englishman and lived in Croydon for several years). However, after 5 months it feels strange not to be sleeping in the motorhome.

Acts_of_Kindness_DThe next day David drives me back to the garage and I wait patiently while they fit the new parts. Just before I leave, Christine turns up with a bottle of red wine and two huge rounds of local cheese. She says that it’s a souvenir of my stay in Dreux and I am touched by her generosity. It is also refreshing that it was David, her 23 year old son, who instigated the overnight stay due to his concern for my safety at sleeping outside the garage. I will never forget their random act of kindness and the hospitality of this family in Dreux.

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Joan of Arc – Fighting for her Country and Equality in the 15th Century

How did a young peasant girl from a small village become a heroine of France and a Roman Catholic saint?

DSCF6142Joan of Arc was born in 1412 at Domremy, a small village in what is now Lorraine. Her father was a farmer, with land and a plough team. She was only 13 years old when she heard a voice from God advising her to be sensible and obedient. When the English laid siege to Orleans in October 1428, the voice told her to meet with Charles VII, to lift the siege of the city and to conduct the king to Reims for his coronation.

DSCF6095After a few failed attempts to meet Charles VII she was finally admitted to the royal court and was granted permission to go with the French Army to Orleans and attempt to break the siege. There, she persuaded the cousin of the king to take Orleans by force and, within 9 days, the English departed and the siege was lifted. During the fighting, Joan had clad herself in armour and boosted the moral of the soldiers with her spirit and determination.

The Army then opened a path to Reims where Charles VII was crowned King of France and Joan of Arc was present for the coronation. Unfortunately, less than a year later, she was captured by the Duke of Burgundy and sold to the King of England. Joan was transferred to Rouen where she was accused of heresy and tried by an ecclesiastical court. She was charged in particular with re-igniting the war and was also accused of wearing men’s clothing. DSCF6160Her voices were considered as being inspired by the devil. Her trial lasted several months and in the end she was burned alive in the market place of Rouen. Her sentence was later repealed by the Pope on the 7th of July 1456, following the urging of Charles VII.

In 1869, Mgr Dupanloup, Bishop of Orleans, started the process of canonization. Joan of Arc was finally canonized in 1920 and proclaimed the second patron saint of France in 1922.

Over the years, she has become a popular cult figure, immortalised in books, plays and films, and revered in churches across France. She is a symbol of courage and loyalty to one’s country but I also think that she is a symbol of female equality, long before such a concept was even remotely considered.

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Orleans versus Chartres

I am visiting the cities of Orleans and Chartres to see the Cathedrals and I wonder which will be the most spectacular.

DSCF6161I start in Orleans, on the north bank of the River Loire. It was a city that witnessed the turning point in the Hundred Years War when Joan of Arc assisted in the lifting of the siege of Orleans in 1429. She is an ever-present figure in the city, cast in bronze or featuring in the stained-glass windows of the cathedral.

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The present Sainte Croix Cathedral actually dates from well after the time of Joan. Rebuilding started in 1601 by Henry IV and the gothic stone structure that emerged is striking. Outside two delicately-carved towers rise above the city, restored after they were damaged during bombing in WWII. I take the time to look up at the gargoyles that adorn the higher reaches. Some are weather-worn while others are well preserved and uniquely interesting.

DSCF6111Inside there are many traditional stained-glass windows depicting the story of Joan of Arc, as well as some more modern designs. Carved stone friezes show the story of Christ and the feint hues of coloured paint still decorate the columns of the chapels. The woodwork of the choir stalls is detailed and aged a golden amber colour.

 
 
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Moving on to Chartres, I get a 360 deg view of the Notre Dame Cathedral as I circle the city looking for a place to park. It is an impressive site, sitting on the highest point and surrounded by narrow medieval streets. The tourist office is housed in an old wooden-framed building that looks as if it might fall over. However, the stone built cathedral looks strong and sturdy even at 800 years old. It was built very quickly which has ensured the harmonious nature of its features, though one striking abnormality is the difference between the two steeples. One ornate and the other quite plain.

DSCF6179Once through the beautiful portals, I find that the interior decorations are even more captivating than Sainte Croix in Orleans. The stone carvings are breath-taking and the windows more intricate and colourful in their design. Especially beautiful is the “Blue Virgin” window which utilises cobalt oxide, known as “Chartres Blue”. There are also the additional attractions of the “Virgin Mary’s veil” (though there is little evidence to support this as being a true relic), a restored Black Madonna (which is no longer black) and a labyrinth on the floor of the nave that is hidden by chairs.

 
 

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So which Cathedral is the best? They are both beautiful and have many interesting features but, for me, the location and sheer size of Notre Dame, plus the other unique (if not authentic) items, make it the winner.

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Back in Wine Country

As I travel to the north of France I find myself passing through wine country again and decide to visit the towns of Saint Pourcain and Sancerre to try some of their local white wine.

DSCF5991Saint-Pourcain-sur-Sioule is a pleasant town offering a wine co-operative, an interesting historic centre and a popular, well-located aire next to the river. With plenty of other motorhomes around I feel quite happy to set off and explore the town, and the tourist information have a walking trail featuring the most interesting heritage sites. There is some very interesting architecture on the main street in the form of the Caisse d’Epargne, a neoclassical bank, and a Napoleon III style bandstand. However, the oldest buildings are to be found around the 12th century Ste Croix church with its 15th century clock tower. Inside are some fabulous stained-glass windows and intricately-carved, wooden choir stalls.

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I’m always interested in the local food as well as the wine and, on the main street, I find a glamorous shop selling all kinds of produce, including cheese, chocolate, very expensive speciality nougat and pigeons cooked in prune sauce, as well as bottles of the local wine. At the wine co-operative, I am able to taste several different wines. The white Domaine de Chiniere is mostly made from the Chardonnay grape but also includes 30% of Tressallier, a local grape variety that gives the wine a sharp acidic taste. The red wines are made with Gamay and Pinot Noir giving aromas of blackcurrant and spices. Unfortunately I fail to find a wine to my taste and leave empty handed.

goat farm shop150kms further north, I stop at town of Sancerre, perched on a hill 150m above the River Loire which snakes along the valley below. It is surrounded by vineyards which thrive on the complex mineral soils offering a variety of interesting wines. Nearby are Pouilly and Menetou-Salon which also offer crisp, dry whites and the small village of Chavignol where local farms produce a tasty goat’s cheese. There are several places where I could stay the night and the first one I visit is La Ferme des Chapotons, a goat farm, goat farmwhere Emily offers me tastings of their crottin de Chavignol which comes in various stages of maturity giving different strengths of taste. There is the young creamy cheese which is good for cooking and the mould-coated, stronger tasting cheese which rather overpowers the glass of Sancerre that Emily has poured for me. Behind the farm shop, the goats are bleating contentedly while they queue to be milked.

SancerreI move on to Gaec de la Vauvise, a cattle farm and vineyard in a low valley outside the village of Menetou-Ratel. The owner’s wife is tending her beautiful garden and suggests I take a walk around the farm while I wait for her son to arrive and open up the wine shop so I can do some tasting. There are lots of caramel-brown cows in large stalls, some clearly pregnant and some with youngsters tugging at their udders. I also find a clutch of large white eggs under a bush that belong to the resident ducks, which don’t seem to be very interested in sitting on them. The wine shop turns out to resemble a bar and I am joined by a local bank manager and friend of the family, who has just popped in for a drink. Mathieu offers me all of the white Sancerre wines that are produced on the farm, explaining the difference in the soil structures that gives the subtle changes in taste. I prefer the younger wines which are also the cheaper ones. But even a cheap bottle of Sancerre sets me back €9.