Just to the north east of Bordeaux is a small, World Heritage listed, vineyard town perched on the side of a steep hill. The history of the town dates back to before the second century, when the Romans planted vineyards on the site.
Sant Emilion is named after the monk who settled in a hermitage carved into the rock, in the 8th century. The monks that followed him established commercial wine production in the area and Sant Emilion is now one of the major red wine regions of Bordeaux.
We spent a full day in the town wandering around the delightful, cobblestone streets, narrow stairways and unique buildings that give the its character. Wherever you go in the town you can see and feel the history and importance of wine in the region.
We visited one of the many cellars in the town, Maison Galhaud, a family owned vineyard based in a 12th century home. The Galhaud caves (cellars), beneath the family home are in an 18th century quarry, part of which was once a 12th century well for the house. The third generation owner gave us a personal tour of the caves. After sampling some of the wine we came away with a couple of bottles of a very nice 2008 red to help us celebrate the upcoming festive season.
We had a very relaxed (and relatively inexpensive) lunch at La Bouchon, one of the many restaurants in the town – accompanied of course by a couple of glasses of the very good local wines.
The afternoon was spent making the most of the last of the late afternoon winter sunshine, wandering around and taking photos to try to capture the magic of the town.
In our travels we have seen many interesting churches (and other places of worship), both large and small. Of course, while in Paris we visited Notre Dame – a fairly unique church.
What hadn’t occurred to me was that Notre Dame is more generic than I had realised before I was hit with the reality as we toured around France. Naturally, if I had thought more about the translation (Our Lady) I would have realised that there were probably as many Notre Dames in France as there are Santa Marias in Italy (well maybe only as many as in Rome).
Every city or largish town in France seems to have a “Notre Dame”. There also seems to have been a competition going for several hundred years to see who could build the most imposing edifice. While Notre Dame Paris is certainly the most famous and the one that immediately comes to mind, it is not necessarily the largest or oldest of the Notre Dames.
Paris certainly holds the interest in terms of it’s gothic architecture and the romance of the building but we came across quite a few Notre Dames with larger naves, or taller bell-towers, more ornate interiors or, for us, more beauty. Surprisingly some of the larger churches (albeit not necessarily as attractive as others) have been in relatively small towns. and some of the more interesting have been smaller churches.
While it is not possible to visit every church in every town, the (relatively) few we have visited each hold their own interest in some way – and not just those named Notre Dame.
The city of Bordeaux is not just the capital of a major French wine region, it is a city of World Heritage areas and buildings and has an enormous character.
Bordeaux’s city architecture has been largely unchanged for some time and has recently undergone a restoration and refurbishment project, which provided a vibrant area along the quays of the Garonne River. A walk along the riverfront is not to be missed with the classical architecture shown to advantage by innovations such as a specially designed fountain adjacent to the Place de la Bourse, which provides photographers with a mirror reflection of the buildings in the resulting pool.
Along the river bank we also saw several Ragondins (a large water mammal related to the beaver) and some small water rats. The Ragondins in particular were unfazed by the proximity of the pedestrians and came quite close to the boardwalk for the scraps fed to them by the locals.
Like many French cities, Bordeaux has several very large churches all of which are interesting in their own way – although sometimes the smaller (non-heritage) churches prove to be the most interesting.
Bordeaux also has several areas of open markets and many kilometres of pedestrian only shopping areas. One of these streets, the Rue Saint-Catherine, which starts at the Place de la Victoire and ends near the Grand Theatre, is one of the longest shopping malls in Europe.
There are also numerous cafes, restaurants and squares to relax and enjoy the local produce. All in all the city that has a lot to offer.
A large expanse of the coast of Normandy not surprisingly mirrors the English White Cliffs to the north west and is known as Albatre Cote (Alabaster Coast).
We spent a few days in this area and visited a few of the small and larger towns between Dieppe and Le Havre. Dieppe’s port area is not very interesting but it has an ancient walled city at its centre which has a degree of interest including a very large church (Notre Dame) and a Chateau along the city walls.
Fecamp is a small coastal town with another large church and abbey and the remains of a castle with links to William the Conquerer. Also interesting was the Benedictine factory and museum, which is quite an amazing building constructed by the initial manufacturer of the liquor and dedicated to the Benedictine monk responsible for the recipe. A tour through the museum and manufacturing process ends with a tasting of the interesting liquor.
Etratat is an even smaller coastal town with an interesting town centre but whose main interest lies in the amazing white cliffs on either side of its beach area. The cliffs are easily accessible by walking along the formed paths or on one side by driving to the top and walking along. On both sides there are interesting formations and paths leading down to the beaches. There is a small church and a memorial to a couple of WWII aviators along the top of one cliff.
Of course, as in other towns along this stretch of the coast, you can also get very good fresh seafood including moules marinere or moules Normandie in the many small cafes along the beachfront (no sand here of course just large pebbles which the locals guard jealously).
I found Le Havre fairly disappointing – much more modern than I expected with nothing obvious of immediate interest. To the south of Le Havre though, on the other side of the Seine, is the town of Honfleur. This is a small port town with medieaval buildings surrounding the central port area. There are several cobbled streets winding up gentle inclines from the port area with some very attractive small boutique shops many of which sell local produce (ciders) and some very good local art.
The drive to Honfleur from Rouen winds through some interesting countryside and crosses a large cable stayed bridge, the Pont de Brotonne. On the (tollway) road from Honfleur to Le Havre you cross the Pont de Normandie, another large cable stayed bridge across the widest part of the Seine. When constructed it held the record for longest span between piers and longest cable stayed bridge in the world. It lost both these titles in 199 and 2004 respectively. Nevertheless it is an interesting drive (despite the 5 euro toll), being perched high above the very wide Seine and its plain.
This part of the country has attracted many artists including Monet, who was a regular visitor to several of the port towns. It is certainly worth spending more than a few days wandering along the coast in this part of the world.
On our way south we spent a few days in Ergny in north west France (Nord Pas de Calais). Our time in this part of France somewhat unintentionally focused on the battles of WWI and II.
We had seen quite a bit of this history in England through the museums in London (notably the Churchill War Rooms and Museum) and through visits to areas such as Dover Castle, from where the evacuation of Dunkirk was directed during WWI. However, the stark reality of the batlefields and the extent of the destruction was most forcibly brought home to us as we drove through numerous sleepy French villages each with their own story to tell.
In Arras, a lovely little town with a beautiful town square and Town Hall, we visited the Carriere Wellington museum where the tunnels dug by the New Zealand engineers can be toured. Here the story of the WWI Battle of Arras is told with some emotion as you walk in the tunnels where the troops were quartered and sent to battle.
Near Vimy we stopped at the memorial to the Canadians troops before wandering around part of the vast network of trenches on Vimy Ridge occupied by them during the Arras battle.
At Bullecourt, along the front line of the battle we visited the memorial to the Australian troops. Looking at the battle lines it was apparent that our troops occupied a fairly forward and isolated position. Not surprisingly their loss of life was exceptionally heavy.
A stop along the coast just south of Calais, with a view across to the White Cliffs brought home just how close the various battles came to British soil.
For me though, by far the biggest impact was the constant presence of large numbers of allied war graves littering every part of the countryside.
Having spent a bit of time wandering around art galleries in Australia (and other parts of the world), particularly when the masters come to town, it was nice to finally get into the galleries in Paris to see some of the artworks there. My emotions on seeing these various masterpieces was interesting but not entirely unexpected.
In the Louvre we headed first for the Mona Lisa (just because we were in early and wanted to avoid the crowds) and then the Venus de Milo. Most people have seen images of the Mona Lisa since early childhood and for me these have never seemed anything special. I have also been told that the painting itself is not big so I didn’t expect to see a large painting but did expect the reality would be different from the various images I had seen. I have to say though the reality didn’t startle me with any other emotions than “okay, so that’s the Mona Lisa”.
The Venus didn’t do much more for me – while it was a bit more interesting, as it is three dimensional and therefore had aspects to explore that are hard to reproduce in a flat image, I found it hard to differentiate it from many other very good sculptures. Like the Mona Lisa, I found it difficult to discern any qualities that make these artworks different from the many other very good paintings/sculptures on display in the various galleries of the world.
However, our visits to the Musee Rodin, the Musee de l’Orangerie and the Musee d’Orsay evoked quite different emotions. These museums are much smaller than a lot of the other museums that house some of the great artworks and as such are easy to manage in a single day. They also provide a much more personal viewing and appreciation of the artwork.
Rodin’s work is fascinating and the intimate environment just highlighted the talent behind the work. In the Musee de l’Orangerie we sat in large tranquil oval rooms surrounded by expansive panels of Monet’s waterlilies – quite special.
My special moment came in the Musee d’Orsay on our second visit when we wandered up to the second level to the impressionists. Here for the first time I came face to face with Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”. While, like the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, I have seen images of the art many times, in my mind the reproductions can’t do the reality any justice. Like most of Van Gogh’s work the textures and colours are hard to reproduce in a flat image and I found it hard to pull myself away.
For me the Mona Lisa is relatively flat and colourless – I much prefer the colour, texture and vibrancy of Starry Night but, to each their own.
Our anniversary this year (2012) was extra special as we spent it in Paris. We arrived early enough to also celebrate my birthday and on both days the hosts of the B&B we stayed in (B&B Bouchardon) greeted us at breakfast with champagne and flowers.
The morning of our anniversary, was fine if a little chilly. After our special breakfast we headed for Notre Dam to climb the bell tower. The climb to the top is done in a few stages and while it is narrow in parts it is fairly easy and well worth it when you get to the top.
The view down the Seine and across Paris in the morning light was amazing. While the towers are not tall, the skyline of Paris is fairly flat and you are well above most of the city at this height. Once on the ground again a hot chocolate was in order to ward off the chill before we wandered into the Saint Germain quarter.
At lunchtime we strolled down the Seine and tied ourselves to Paris by locking our names on the Passerella Solferino.
We ended the day with a trip up the Eiffel Tower at sunset (pre booked to avoid the enormous queues). It was magical time of the day watching the light fade from the sky as Paris lit up around us – made even more special by the Christmas lights everywhere. We spent over an hour wandering around the various levels of the tower soaking up the amazing view and feeling very privileged.
It was a magical day, made much more so by sharing the experience with the man I love.