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We Will Remember Them – Part Deux

100 years ago, fierce battles were being fought on French soil to halt the invading German army. In the UK people are familiar with the Battle of the Somme where 420,000 British Commonwealth soldiers lost their lives. Four years ago, I visited the area with my father, who was researching our family history, and we located several graves of our ancestors who died there, as well as their names carved in the many war memorials in the region.

dscf0149However, I never realised that an equally devastating battle was being fought further south in the Marne and Meuse valleys where huge numbers of French and American soldiers lost their lives trying to stop the German advance towards Paris.

I begin my education of the region just outside the town of Fere-en-Tardenois where 6,012 American soldiers are remembered in the Oise-Aisne cemetery. A little further south I find an isolated memorial to the 42nd Rainbow Division of American troops, placed at the site of the Red Cross Farm where a bloody battle took place and where 162 soldiers were killed in July 1918. It’s a shocking reminder of the many fatally injured and dead the war left behind in the area.

optimized-dscf0196Continuing my journey, I stop in the small village of Vraux to see an Aviation Museum . On first inspection it looks like just a few exhibits in someone’s garden but I soon discover that there is a vast collection of aviation objects and memorabilia hidden away in the Tardis-like outbuildings at the back of the property.

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An enthusiastic volunteer explains that just north of the village was a WWII airfield, first used by the British, then the French and finally the Americans. As well as pieces of wartime aircraft, there are photos of the men who were stationed there and stories about the lives, including reconciliation between British and German soldiers and an American airman who was reunited with his long-lost French sweetheart after 43 years. They subsequently married.

Finally, I arrive at Verdun, where 300 days and nights of fighting in 1916 resulted in the deaths of more than 300,000 men. Whilst the town was badly damaged by shelling, it was in the surrounding hills that the main battle was fought. Surrounding the town were several forts and it is possible to visit some them.

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optimized-dscf0266At Fort Douaumont I learn how it was easily captured, without a shot being fired, by a small German patrol early in the Battle of Verdun but how they subsequently suffered great losses during the French attempts to recapture it. 679 German soldiers were killed when a fire broke out within the Fort and caused an explosion of the stored ammunitions. Their bodies were entombed in one of the tunnels below the Fort where they are remembered by a simple white cross.

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Close by is a huge cemetery, topped by a giant building shaped like the hilt of a sword driven into the ground. It is the Douaumont Ossary, where the bones of 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers are held. The sight of all the crosses reminds us of just how many died to ensure the freedom which we enjoy in the 21st century.

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dscf0241At Fort Vaux I learn about the last messenger pigeon which was sent out with a message requesting reinforcements and which died from poison gas shortly after delivering it. The pigeon in the cartoon series ‘Wacky Races’ and the one in the animated film ‘Valiant’ are loosely based on this story.

Although the Forts and the Memorials are the main focus of a visit to the Verdun Battlefields, sometimes it is the smaller things that remind us of the hardships of war. The remains of trenches, pockmarked ground from artillery shells, destroyed villages and isolated graves marking the discovery of long lost fighters. The town of Verdun today is a vibrant, bustling place with riverside cafes and designer boutiques but the memorials found there serve as daily reminders that 100 years ago life was not always so easy for the residents and the soldiers who defended them.

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We Will Remember Them.

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Chateaux and Champagne

France is well known for its amazing chateaux and its expensive sparkling wine, and within my first week I have sampled them both.

dscf0087Chateau Pierrefonds sits high above the town like a fairy tale castle. Carefully restored in 1857 by Viollet-le-Duc on orders from Emperor Napoleon III and his wife Eugenie it seems so extraordinarily perfect that it could be a film set. Indeed it has been used for exactly that purpose during the Leonardo DiCaprio film ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ and the BBC TV series ‘Merlin’, where it represented Camelot.

dscf0064The extremely long Worthies room with its medieval decoration and Viollet-le-Duc’s fantastical gargoyles and statues are the highlights and a cellar full of funerary sculptures is rather spooky and disturbing (they were originally on display at Versailles). Special exhibitions give insight into the architectural restorations of Viollet-le-Duc, who also worked on the Cite of Carcassonne, as well as the world of magic lanterns, which were used to produce ghostly images in theatrical shows at the end of the 19th century.

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Further south, a few kilometres outside the town of Fere-en-Tardenois, I find the old castle which was badly damaged during the revolution and the first world war but is slowly being restored, or at least maintained in its current state. It has a fascinating access via a 16th century two-storey gallery, not unlike the one at Chenonceau but a lot shorter. A complimentary leaflet explains that the original castle was extended by Francois I to impress his guests. Nowadays guests stay at the neighbouring luxury hotel which overlooks the old castle moat.

dscf0156I’m not that fond of champagne and my budget can’t really stretch to a bottle but, as I’m passing through the region, I decide to stop and find out more about the bubbly stuff. My introduction begins at the Epernay Tourist Office at the start of the Avenue du Champagne where top producers, such as Moet and Chandon, have their factories and offer tours which cost as much as a bottle of the end product. Luckily for me, two lesser known producers are offering free tastings in the Tourist Office, and whilst I am not enamoured with the champagne, I do learn some basic facts. 320 champagne houses are allowed to produce over 300 million bottles each year from the grapes grown in the region. Champagne is actually a mix of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes, which surprised me as the latter two are both red grapes and champagne is normally very pale in colour.

dscf0183The next day I visit the Cite du Champagne, a new guided tour offered by the house of Collet. Kevin, a smartly dressed young man who looks more like a visiting banker than a tour guide, takes me down into the cool cellars below the vineyards to explain the process of making champagne. It actually involves three stages, including a double fermentation and an expulsion of the yeast sediment after it has been allowed to settle in the neck of the bottle. Upstairs, a museum houses all manner of traditional equipment used for making champagne and old photographs help to explain how the methods have evolved over the years. However, the grapes are still picked by hand, though these days by Eastern European labourers.

champagne-revolution-1911I also learnt why the Champagne region is strictly controlled and was surprised to learn that it was historical and not economical. In 1911 the local vine growers, already suffering from the devastating phylloxera disease which destroyed many vines in the late 19th century, became unhappy with the local champagne producers who began importing grapes from other regions to make their champagne. On the 11th April up to 6,000 people marched through the streets of Epernay and Ay, torching many of the warehouses, destroying equipment and the stored bottles of champagne. The Maison Gallois (the current site of the Cite du Champagne) was razed to the ground.

In 1927 and 1936 very strict regulations were introduced to restrict the production of champagne to the local region. Luckily there are still plenty of large and small producers to keep their clients happy.

 

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The Effects of the EU Referendum

I admit that I was totally shocked by the result of the EU referendum back in June. I really didn’t think that leaving the EU was a possibility. While my colleagues were sobbing in their morning cuppa, I was trying to assess exactly what the impact would be for my future European Tour.

france-spain-borderI am old enough to remember what it was like before we had freedom of movement around Europe, when there were still border posts between neighbouring countries with bureaucratic immigration and customs officials who had nothing better to do than make your life a misery, and when my parents would smuggle crates of cheap beer beneath sleeping children on the back seat. Nowadays the only time I have to show my passport is before and after the ferry crossing between England and France and I can bring back as much wine as my motorhome can carry while the officials spend their time looking for illegal immigrants in HGVs. Travellers can now breeze through the Pyrenees between France and Spain where the only sign of the previous border is a small abandoned kiosk in the middle of the road and taking a ferry between the islands of Sardinia (Italy) and Corsica (France) is as easy as going to the Isle of Wight.

Tuscany WineReports say that it will take some time to extricate ourselves from Europe and probably a lot of money, so I’m not worried about my current tour. Even in the future, I doubt that border formalities will change much from their current state. My bigger concern is that the duty free allowance will be severely reduced, in order that the British Government can claw back some of the cost of Brexit through import taxes.

The major impact for this year is the poor exchange rate between the pound and the euro and I know that my trip will be an expensive one. However, I plan to find as many free places to spend the night as possible and find some good cheap local food along the way.

The most interesting aspect of my journey will be to see the impact of the refugees, escaping from the war in Syria and other unstable nations. We are all too aware of the numbers which have made it to the Greek Islands, such as Lesbos, but I wonder how many I will encounter in mainland Greece or in Sicily. We will see.

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Staying Dry in Rouen

DSCF2323It is a miserable February day, much like the painting of Rouen Cathedral by Monet, but I’m determined to stay dry while visiting the city. The only motorhome parking is on the opposite side of the Seine but it’s just a short walk over the Corneille Bridge to the city centre.

I had hoped to start my city tour with the Cathedral but a morning service means I have to change my plans and a quick visit to the Tourist Office in the 16th century House of the Exchequer opposite gives me plenty of ideas. What the staff of the Tourist Office fail to mention is that the mayor has decided that, from January 2016, nine of the principle museums in Rouen should be free (Rouen must be more prosperous than I thought, or perhaps there is a mayoral election coming up). I discover this fact from a notice on the closed gate of the Wrought Ironwork Museum. They also failed to mention that most of the museums are only open in the afternoon!

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DSCF2329Luckily, the Fine Arts Museum is open all day and inside it is warm and dry. They also have nice clean toilets and lockers for storing bulky bags so I am free to wander around with just my camera. They have some wonderful works of art, including some by Monet and Renoir. However, my favourite is a painting by Simon Saint Jean whose flowers are dotted with drops of water which look so real that I want to reach out and touch them. My favourite room is the huge, glass-covered atrium which features some of the largest paintings and sculptures and, during the summer, doubles as a restaurant.

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Monet

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Renoir

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Saint Jean

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DSCF2371I find a more morbid kind of art in the Saint Maclou courtyard, where the surrounding 16th century timber-framed houses are decorated with skulls and other symbols of death. The reason for this is that during the middle ages the area was a cemetery and many plague victims from 1348 were buried there.

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DSCF2411However, the most famous person to have died in Rouen has to be Joan of Arc and I find out more about this heroine of the Hundred Years War in the keep, the only remaining part of the 13th century castle. Known in France as La Pucelle (the maiden), she was an illiterate farm girl who was convinced that she would save France. She persuaded King Charles VII to let her fight against the English and, inspired by the voices of saints, she led 4000 troops to victory in Orleans.

DSCF2414She was eventually captured by the English and imprisoned in the castle at Rouen before being tried for witchcraft and heresy. Eventually she was convicted and executed by fire on 30th May 1431. Her heart was thrown into the River Seine to prevent people from venerating her relics.

20 years later her sentence was overturned by a papal commission and in 1920 she was canonized by the Vatican and accepted as a Saint.

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DSCF2450The site where Joan of Arc died is marked by a huge stone and iron cross in the former market square. Next to it, adjoining a more modern covered market, is an equally modern church. Built in 1979, the shape is supposed to evoke the image of the flames rising and the wooden roof has been constructed in the same way that boat’s hulls are made. Large 16th century stained-glass windows stretch along one side. These were rescued from the Church of St Vincent before it was damaged during the bombing in WWII and their installation helped the local people to accept the unusual modern design of the new church.

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DSCF2422I’m not a big fan of ceramics, but the museum is another place to stay dry and the interior architecture of the 17th century Hotel d’Hocqueville is worth the visit alone. There are lots of cabinets of the blue and white porcelain of Rouen, as well as some more unusual additions, such as the wood panelling from the St Ouen Abbey and the former pavilion of the Hotel.

DSCF2403The Secq de Tournelles Museum is a collection of historical metalwork from around the world. This may not sound very interesting, but inside an old church there are approximately 16,000 objects from keys and doorknockers to scissors, irons, baking utensils and armour. It really is an unusual and captivating display.

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Finally, I make it to the Notre Dame Cathedral. Twice destroyed by the Viking invasions in 841 and allied bombing during WWII, it is amazing that it still remains. There are three towers, each very different and boasts the highest spire in France, rising to 151m. Inside the mood is sombre with lines of life-sized statues of saints and apostles, as well as embellished tombs, including that of Richard the Lionheart.

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Behind the Scenes at Fontainebleau

DSCF2033The town of Fontainebleau sits in the middle of a 25,000 hectare forest, former royal hunting ground and now a National Park accessible to all and a popular weekend spot for Parisians. But most people come here to visit the huge royal chateau. In fact, it receives 450,000 visitors each year which is why the car parks in town are extortionately expensive and the restaurants are overpriced.

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DSCF2143Starting as a small hunting lodge in the 12th century, this residence of the royal family was transformed with each monarch putting his own mark on the place. A total of 34 sovereigns stayed at Fontainebleau, from Louis VI, (1081–1137) to Napoleon III (1808–1873). Treaties were signed there, kings were born and died there, popes and foreign dignities visited (though not always voluntarily) and there was even a murder in the chateau.

DSCF2061Napoleon abdicated in Fontainebleau on 4 April 1814, and two weeks later attempt to commit suicide before being exiled to Saint Helena. However, he still remembered his former home fondly, writing, “It was certainly the most comfortable and happily situated palace in Europe”.

During the Franco-Prussian War, the palace was occupied by the Prussians and following the First World War, it became home to schools of art and music. It was occupied by the Germans during World War II, and then part of the Chateau became a headquarters of the Allied Forces Central Europe until 1966.

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Today it is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is run by the French government and most of the chateau and grounds are open to the public.

DSCF2051Despite it being a miserable week, weather wise, the sun is making a brief appearance and so it seems appropriate to start my tour of the chateau with a walk around the gardens. At this time of year they are not particularly colourful but what they lack in lustre, they make up for in sheer size. There is a huge lake, an ornamental area with criss-crossing paths and sculpted yew trees, and a tree-lined canal disappearing off into the distance. Many of the sculptures seem to have been wrapped up for the winter but two weather worn sphinxes guard the start of the canal and a bronze statue of the hunting goddess sits in the centre of the Garden of Diana.

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On the first Sunday of each month, entrance to the chateau is free so I use the money that I have saved to rent an audio guide and also to book on a guided tour in order to see some of the areas of the chateau which are not open to the general public.

DSCF2098It takes me 1.5 hours to complete the circuit of the main apartments with my audio guide and that was just listening to the main details for each room. There’s plenty of additional information available if you wish to linger longer. The self-guided tour starts in the Napoleon I Museum which houses clothing (such as his iconic long coat and hat), dinner services, decorative swords and a beautiful cradle for his much-loved son. There is also a long corridor with large family portraits and pure white busts.

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DSCF2199The papal apartments are so called because it was here that Pope Pius VII stayed in 1804 on his way to the coronation of Napoleon I. He returned in 1812 and stayed for 19 months as an unwilling guest of Napoleon while he unsuccessfully invaded Russia. The apartments are dimly lit to protect the Gobelins tapestries and paintings but they are also richly decorated in papal red and royal gold.

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DSCF2111There are two chapels in the chateau; the Saint-Saturnin chapel is a dark, damp shell, with the side windows blocked by additional building of the chateau ballroom and Salle du Tibre wings. The Trinity chapel is much grander with a private balcony for the royal family and beautiful ceiling frescoes. In this chapel Louis XV was married in 1725 and Napoleon II was baptised in 1810.

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DSCF2150The bedrooms and state rooms are lavishly decorated with patterned cloth and carpets. I particularly like the seat coverings which often depict scenes of wildlife and country living. The queen’s bedroom is so full of patterns that the huge four-poster bed seems almost camouflaged.

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DSCF2156Unfortunately, the one area where I would have loved to have wandered freely is roped off. The Diana Gallery is an 80m long corridor was originally built be Henry IV as a place for the Queen to promenade. Its vaulted ceiling was decorated with scenes from the mythical story of Diana, the huntress. When Napoleon I moved in he turned it into a gallery dedicated to the achievements of the Empire but, when the monarchy was restored, Louis XVIII returned it to its former glory. Eventually, in 1853, Napoleon III turned it into a library and I am instinctively drawn to those old books, wanting to feel the leather bindings and discover the words within.

DSCF2077There are some areas of the chateau which are not included in the general admission but by taking a guided tour, I am able to enter these special places. It’s a nice small group of eleven and our guide is an enthusiastic lady who speaks quickly to cram in as much information as possible. Unfortunately, it is all in French but I’m lucky enough to understand most of what she is saying, even the little jokes.

DSCF2043We start in the Chinese Museum which can be visited with a histopad for an extra fee. Security is tight here as in March 2015, thieves broke into the museum and stole 15 of the most valuable pieces. The rooms were decorated by Empress Eugenie in 1867 in order to display her collection of Asian art. The collection includes gifts from the King of Siam, indeed the entrance is flanked by two Siamese palanquins (travelling chairs). Other Chinese items were looted by French soldiers following the destruction of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing 1860. The walls are decorated with black and gold lacquered panels, the ceilings with Buddhist silk screens and shelves hold many pieces of porcelain and jade figures.

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Next on our private tour are the private apartments of Napoleon and Josephine which seem small and simple compared to the lavish state rooms of the royal family. I’m rather envious of Napoleon’s large, polished, wood writing desk.

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WP_20160207_11_15_06_ProFinally, we arrive at theatre, recently restored to its former glory due to a €10 million donation from government of Abu Dhabi. There was originally a theatre in the Belle-Cheminée wing but it was destroyed by a fire in 1856. However, Napoleon III, decided to build a new theatre in the eastern end of the Louis XIV wing, the design of which was inspired by the theatres at Versailles and the Trianon Palace.

WP_20160207_11_46_24_ProI’m not the only one who draws a breath as we enter the golden glow of the room. I would love to be here for a concert or play to really experience the atmosphere. However, as the stage equipment was not included in the restoration project it is unlikely that any productions will ever be held here. What a shame.

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Montargis – Bridges, Dogs, Bees and The Chinese

DSCF1979My wonderful Michelin guide “The 100 Most Beautiful Detours of France” has led me to the town of Montargis, otherwise known as “The Venice of Gatinais”.This is confirmed by a tourist office leaflet which provides a guided tour of the town via 17 of the 131 bridges which span the canals flowing past, and in some cases under, the shops and houses.

The bridges vary from early 17th century to the modern day, with one elegant, arched, metal footbridge designed by the Eiffel Company in 1891. But it takes more than a few bridges to get me excited about a place.

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DSCF2001As usual, I stop by the church and discover some of the most beautiful windows I have ever seen, depicting religious scenes, saints and local buildings. At the base of one window is a small panel showing a fight between a man and a dog. This, it seems, is based on a local legend. The story goes that Richard de Macaire, jealous of Aubry de Montdidier and his relationship with the king, killed Montdidier in the forest. The only witness to the crime was Montdidier’s dog, who later indicated Macaire as the murderer. The king suggested a fight between the dog and the accused and, when Macaire lost, he was condemned to death.

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As I continue my wanderings, I find two large statues of the fight between man and beast. The first is outside the old town hall, now the museum Giradot, which is undergoing some renovation. The other I discover in the entrance to the Salle de Fetes where a honey festival is being held.

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DSCF2012Surprisingly, the main hall of the Salle de Fetes is full of primary school groups being educated on bees and the many uses of their products. Stalls are filled with jars of sticky, sweet honey, soap, beeswax candles, cakes, sweets, beer and mead. Obviously the youngsters are not partaking in the alcohol but they are certainly enjoying the honey. I buy a small nonette (similar to a muffin) stuffed with myrtle jam, and enjoy it in the highly decorated bar where coffee is being served. The interior of the building is quite sumptuous, walls adorned with cherubs, parrots and garlands of flowers. Above the stalls is a 270 degree balcony and at the far end, a stage hidden behind a large, plush, red curtain.

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Another window in the church depicted a religious man administering to Asian people and this prompted me to find out more about the town’s links with Asia.

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Li Shizeng was the son of an advisor to the Emperor of China and, as such, part of the Chinese elite who believed in adopting western ideas. In 1903 he came to France to study and settled in the town of Montargis. Many more Chinese students followed and had their own influence on the French town, studying in schools and colleges, working in the factories, visiting the public baths and living with local families.

DSCF1980Most went back to their country inspired by their experiences, some rising to great political positions. For example, Deng Xiaoping became the First Leader of China in 1981. However, even today it is easy to see the legacy they have left with there being more than the usual number of Asian restaurants, giving me a good excuse to have a Chinese meal.

 

 

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The Mosaic Church of Briare-le-Canal

DSCF1926I previously stopped at Briare-le-Canal in February 2014 for some lunch and a stroll across the amazing canal bridge designed by the school of Eiffel. Returning this way, I felt the need to spend a bit more time exploring the town and I was not disappointed with what I found.

The River Loire and the Lateral Canal are the life blood of the town and naturally tourism has a big part to play in its economy, but back in the 19th century there was another big employer, the enamel factory owned by the Bapterosses family.

DSCF1900When the factory was founded in 1851, the population of the town was dramatically increased and Mr Bapterosses concluded that the small parish church would no longer be sufficient. So, he decided to fund the construction of a new church which was finally started in 1890 after 30 years of discussion. Using the skills of his employees, the church was richly decorated, both inside and out, with mosaic friezes and floors depicting flora and fauna, as well as symbols representing the ages of life, the 5 senses and the 4 elements. The floor medallions flow up the aisles like a river and in the altar and choir area is a red carpet design.

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Unfortunately Mr Bapterosses died before the church was completed, so he never got to see and appreciate his accomplishment. Today, a bust of Mr Bapterosses sits in the square in front of the church, but it bizarrely faces away from the church.