We’re spending the holidays with family and friends in France. Talk about fairy-tale living!
DAY 1: Wednesday, December 17
Leaving Ipswich by train and subway, we arrived at St. Pancrass Station to await my sister Betsy’s arrival from Cincinnati. While there I headed off to wander around (lovely bustling station) and Max kept watch over our bags. When I returned a young woman had sat down next to him and begun chatting him up. When I plopped down next to him she immediately began apologizing for talking to my husband, which I thought was a bit strange. Well, it got even better for Max later told me she began a conversation by saying her ex-boyfriend had just texted her asking her to reimburse him for all the money he had spent on her…. then she related how he had just bought himself a camper van, and she wasn’t about to give him any money for he was just going to use that van to get whores. Whoa, now it was turning into an interesting conversation. She then told Max (and, my ear was tuned in but still had to have Max fill in the details) that her 14-year-old niece wouldn’t have to work… ever… because she just had a baby and would keep on having them. All of this while she evidently had poured herself a glass of wine and drank it down.
Betsy met us at the Eurostar terminal and off we squeezed into a tube hurdling through the chunnel towards France. We arrived in Paris, located our EuRopcar
and duly noted with the attendant all the itsy-bitsy scratches on the car. The kind attendant had the patience of that bible guy Job because we had already peppered him with questions about the extra insurance deposit; and, his sign of relief when we left must have turned to a groan when he saw us return asking where the garage elevator was. He must have promised himself a good bottle of wine when he finally saw us get in the car and actually leave as he waved us on. We quickly exited the train station and entered the sludge of rush-hour traffic as we centimetered our way out of the center and then suburbs of gay pariee.
We made it to Reims in 2.45 hours (yes, the last 15 minutes was due to my not seeing the blue moving dot creep to the correct turn in Reims so we had to retrace our steps just a wee bit), checked into our little but, to us, excellent rooms (remember, Max and I live on a boat where, to travel from the ‘bedroom’ to the ‘kitchen’ is a matter of 9 steps),and left to suss out a place for dinner. We found one just around the corner with a charming young waiter. The waiter became even more charming when he answered Max’s question about ‘what is this?’ on the menu with ‘father of Bambi’ :) I fell in love on the spot.
DAY 2: Thursday, December 18
We wake Betsy at 9:50 am (she was on Cincinnati time), and she was perky although a bit confused. After some strong cafe au lait,
we were off to Verdun,
the sight of WWI’s tragic battle akin to the US Civil War’s Gettysburg. A friend recently told Max and me that WWI was begun by Queen Vicky’s petulant grandchildren: someone snubbed someone at someone’s event causing everyone to begin maneuvering to hate anyone not on the side of someone. It’s confusing but considering all European heads were somehow related to England’s Victoria and, thus, to each other, it’s believable.
For those who were like me, the understanding of Verdun’s significance during WWI was it was bad. Scratch that, it was horrendous. Now, touring it I obviously learned just how terrible this 300-day battle turned out to be. As a symbol of French pride this town stood in Alcaise Lorraine, territory representing both German and French pride. The Germans decided to throw everything they had against this area counting on the French to then bleed to death defending and losing it (The Germans could have taken out the French supply line but wanted to keep that artery fully operational ensuring their enemy was pumping out life blood until it was depleted).
On February 21, 1916, the Germans began their bombardment and the Battle of Verdun began. Lasting 300 days (until December 18) it resulted in a French victory but not without horrific casualties (estimated just over 500,000 for the French and just under 500,000 for the Germans). There’s a reason this battle is also called The Mincing Machine of Verdun. The actual town of Verdun wasn’t captured but around it became a scorched earth. This engagement between two enemies ended with neither strategic or tactical advantage for either. It represents the senselessness of war, and seeing the scars and the memorials to the dead, we couldn’t have agreed more.
If anyone would like to see one, uplifting moment, check out Sainsbury’s youtube video of its 1914 Christmas ad. It’s based on a historical event that occurred during WWI. Max and I saw it played on the movie screen in Ipswich, and, although a bit saccharine, I still can appreciate its message.
Without too much trouble following the blue Google dot we located Verdun beautifully situated along the River Meuse. Our first Verdun stop was the town of Fleury. This is how it looked like after the German bombed the town.
It is now a wooded landscape with a chapel and a path taking one to markers noting previous occupants’ livelihood.
Haunting? Yes. Beautiful? Yes. Sad? Of course.
With sprinkles turning a bit into straight away rain Max, who’s generally always prepared, got out his protector pants while Betsy and I just figured our hair would get rinsed well.
The three of us took separate paths while each tried to envision what the scene would have been like in 1916 after the battle. I can honestly admit I couldn’t. It’s too overwhelming. I found it difficult enough trying to reconstruct towns and cities when ruined buildings and streets still stand. What was even more poignant to me was finding ourselves sloshing around in mud, mud that was so minor compared to what those in war were living in.
Back in the car we headed towards another battle and memorial site.
The Duoaumont Ossuary is a sacred memorial to those unknown soldiers who died in the Battle of Verdun. Correct outfits are requested to be worn and men to remain bare-headed. Furthermore, one is greeted with the a sign asking visitors to remember where they are.
The bones of 130,000 unknown fallen during the Battle of Verdun were dug up and re-interred under this building dedicated in 1932, seven years before the next war (and WWI was to end all wars? sure). Another tragic reminder of how most wars end–placeholders for the next.
Touring the long gallery, we lit a candle for our mom and our two dads.
We then went to listen to a 20-minute documentary that provided the overview of the battle and the creation of this site.
Back outside were 15,000 graves and their associated crosses standing to attention before the artillery-shaped memorial. Each cross has a rosebush, which means this site must be amazing beautiful during the spring and summer in spite of the deaths associated with it.
Suitable somber after this visit we head towards Fort Douaumont, built to defend France against future German aggression after the signing of the Treaty of Frankfurt ending the Franco-Prussian War (July 19 1870-May 10, 1871). That war resulted in the unification of Germany and France’s loss of the provinces of Alsace and part of Lorraine in addition to a heavy war indemnity and German occupation until it was paid. Not a good way to rebuild friendly borders.
On our way to the Fort there were remnants strewn along the road, such as this bunker that was connected to the Fort via its 3km of underground galleries or tunnels.
This fort had a skelton crew when it was taken by the Germans in four days on February 25th. Talk about demoralizing.
On the 24th of October the Moroccan Colonial Infantry Regiment retook this symbolic Fort, and a memorial was erected in thanks to those soldiers who fought for France.
Similar to our Fleury visit the wispy images of former embattled structures, craters and trenches created more ghostly imagery of battle scenes. What helped bring a sense of peace to this and other sites was the documentation was in French, English AND German. And, often we saw the German flag standing in brotherhood next to the French one.
We stopped at one of the most beautiful memorials for another ugly event: the Trench of Bayonets. On June 12 the 137th Regiment of French infantry were buried alive, and they were found three years later only because of their bayonets sticking out of the earth. When they dug down they discovered a soldier standing next to each bayonet.
This memorial is the trench where they were found.
From there we went to Citadelle Souterraine located under the citadel of Verdun where 7km of galleries housed 2,000 men, a bakery (reputed to have baked 28,000 loaves a day), mlll, armaments, telephone and telegraph exchange, and a water-pump station. It’s also where we decided to take a battery-operated cart running through some of the galleries (tunnels).
Final review: don’t do it. It was a bad Disneylandesque ride through what should have been held in a more sacred light.
After that, we decided it was too dark to visit the American cemetery (the Americans arrived June 26, 1917, but needing training before entering the trenches October 21 on the Western Front; the war ended on November 19, 1918, with the Treaty of Versailles signed on June 28, 1919. As many know, the terms of this treaty set the stage for the next world war thanks to the ostracizing of Germany and its war debts).
Second option was pick up wine and scotch and return to room for cocktails. Max was willing to drive the extra hour+ if anyone wanted to go there. We smartly and unanimously went with the second option.
… four hours later we’re back from eating street food (hamburgers and fries) amidst some locals who were serving champagne. Betsy caught their eye and started a conversation. Before we knew it Stephen was pouring us glasses from his family’s vineyard and Clemence was promising some from hers. We ate, drank, and spoke with them as well as some other locals. We also met Natayla. She’s from US via Columbia, South America, and is working at Clemence’s family’s vineyard, Lelarge-Pugeot as an intern from UC Davis. And, instead of one booked tour of Billecart-Salmon that B arranged last week we now have two… Billecart-Salmon AND Clemence’s.
Bubbles anyone? :)
DAY 3: Friday, December 19
The alarm dragged us out of sleep as we prepared for even more champagne. We stumbled out of our rooms and to the car thinking we’d grab coffee along the way.
Wrong. There was no coffee along the way (with the exception of a Micky D’s we passed at which both B and I turned our noses up; big mistake). Continuing to our destination in Mareuil-sur-Ay we scoured the ville centre for a coffee shop. Nope. But, there was a patisserie, so we ended up at least with some bread item in our stomachs prior to imbibing bubbly.
Pulling into the gorgeous French driveway of this champagne headquarters we met Sandie, our guide, and waited for two more to appear.
They turned out to be Stephanie and Sam from LA, two young engineers, he, working on digital phones, she, on environmental and sustainability consulting.
Through the back garden
we trundled off to the buildings where the champagne was squeezed from all the gathered grapes collected from the plots they own and from ones from which they purchase the harvest. Harvesting typically takes a week to ten days.
To prove I was listening I’ve noted some retelling of Sandie’s tour:
- They use three types of grapes in varying configurations to create their different champagnes and wines: pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot meunier. The first two are less hardy than the pinot meunier, but the climate change has made it easier to grown them.
- 4,000 liters of grapes convert to 2,000 of juice.Billecart-Salmon allows only thirty minutes from harvesting to pressing; they want minimal grape skin contact with the juice to keep the champagne from acquiring the color from the skin.
- This champagne house produces two million bottles a year with five million kept in the cellars (3km long running under the town).
- Their unique method is making it quite cold (although, you should drink it NOT cold but slightly chilled)If not a vintage year (year stipulated on the bottle), they can add up to one and two years’ previous wine to ensure a consistent taste.
- It’s been in the family since 1818, and the cellar master along with the current owner and his father (over 90) are the tasters.
One of the most startling bits of information was learning that people squeezed into each tank to wash it out once emptied. A wee bit claustrophobic for me (as well as requiring a fairly restrictive diet).
In the cellar we discovered another interesting tidbit: they don’t like to clean their cellars of mold, even stringy, disgusting furry stuff:
The reason being they fear destroying the existing mold and growth might ruin any natural benefit that occurs when keeping the wines in the cellar. Yuck, although I can’t argue with the end product.
While in this cavernous cellar we passed a gated and locked room where Sandie said the owner kept their vineyard library. They had wines going back to 1932, and she also duly noted no one had the key except the owner…
The last stop prior to tasting was where they aged the wine in casks. On a large blackboard in calligraphied handwriting (by a man as per Sandie), each village’s grape juice is duly noted to identify each cask.
Billecart-Salmon doesn’t replace the interior but will add new exteriors to ensure their image and brand keep up apperances. Plus, the angel hovering over the casks helps keep the spirits in heavenly order.
After three glasses of champagne (and that’s with limited food intake and NO coffee) we were buzzing a bit. Poor Stephanie and Sam didn’t even have coffee. But, we all enjoyed our tour, our guide, and the champagne.
We ended up at the only bistro in town and immediately wished we had bought sandwiches at the patisserie after seeing the buffet (items not recognizable floating in mayo and strange meat slices) and hearing plat du jour was either fish and potatoes or steak and frites. Thinking it’d be rude to leave we ordered one plate of each and coffee. Wasn’t bad but we wouldn’t be stopping there again if you know what I mean.
Off we go to our second tasting up to Vrigny to see Lelarge-Pugeot, Clemence’s family’s vineyard, which is organic and been in the family since the 18th century.
We parked and poked around and were finally spotted by Clemence’s mom and dad followed by Natayla. Natayla, whom we had met the previous night at the impromptu tasting that we managed to get invited to, showed us around their operation. Lelarge-Pugeot produces roughly 60,000 bottles a year, and one this year is named after Clemence (unfortunately, she was in Paris holding some tastings otherwise we’d have a photo of her, too).
Natalia showed us the turning racks, both modern and traditional. She said the owner liked the traditional method. The reason for this exercise is to get rid of the cloudiness in sparkling wine caused by sediment (turning loosens it and gravity pulls it to the neck when bottles are titled downward; it forms a plug when the neck is frozen so when the cork is popped, the trapped carbon dioxide disgorges the sediment out). For a much better and more complete lesson on how this starry drink is created, check this site out: http://www.wineperspective.com/making_champagne.htm :)
The tour was quick (which was fine by us) followed by some tastings and, of course, a purchase :)
We ended up leaving wishing we could spend more time with this young woman from UC Davis who’s adventurous and curious and gracious. As she said maybe our paths will cross again. A traveler’s motto for sure.
We hurried back to Reims so we could visit the Notre-Dame Cathedral before the light faded. It had really started to rain, which only added to the somberness of this church.
A statue of Jeanne d’arc (she’s linked to this city, specifically, this cathedral) greeted us as we scurried towards the entrance.
Once inside the chilly cavernous building we discovered we had to go to the Tourist Information Office to rent the audio guides. Back outside we ran to a neighboring building, procured the guides, and ran back through pouring rain to the now freezing interior of this historic building.
As we walked around trying to use the audio guides we didn’t do too well following the snippets of history. Because none of us knew our chuch architecture when the tape directed us to a certain location we didn’t know where the heck to go. After forty minutes of asking one another ‘what’s the [churcey term for a locale]? ‘ we decided to call it quits but not before we paid homage to the Maid of Orleans, Jeanne d’arc.
Her chapel and the alter were worth viewing, the latter because it’s where the Kings of France (last one in 1825) were crowned starting with the baptism of Clovis I, 498-499.
Being crowned in Reims provided the kings with a connection to God, imbuing their rule with a sacred flavor.
This particular church meant a lot to Max because it’s where Jeanne d’arc stood beside Charles VII as he was crowned; and, it’s because of her that Charles was able to hold his coronation in this place.
We turned in our guides, purchased take-away sandwiches, salads, and a turkish duram, and strolled back to our rooms taking in the Christmas spirit glittering all around us. A lovely way to end our stay in Reims.
DAY 3: Saturday, December 20
We packed our bags and set off for Amboise via Troyes, a stop roughly midway between Reims and a VRBO.com where we’d meet up with our friends the Sumners.
Troyes is described as a great way to experience medieval France because of its half-timbered houses. I particularly enjoyed the odd colors (not sure if the residents really painted their homes using these tints way back when?)
There’s even a street where the houses almost meet as demonstrated by Betsy and Max and looking skyward.
After a lunch of salads, including Max’s that must have had half a porker on it (more than he wanted),
we walked back to our car catching sight of even more half-timbered homes, many of which were looking like they were on their last legs.
One of the best sights was seeing the Cheshire Cat surveying his domain from the rooftop of a parked car…
and, a manhole cover with wooden inserts for Ellen :)
Our final destination, Amboise, loomed ahead of us. Three hours later AFTER a 32+ euro highway toll. (I think this is what they must mean by highway robbery. One even cost us over 8 euros for only twenty minutes of driving) we arrived at our VRBO.com, which Traci and Smokey found, unloaded a few essentials (cheese, ham, bread and wine) then waited form our friends’ arrival :)
DAY 4: Sunday, December 21
Up and out like a herd of turtles. We all wanted to experience the open-air Market held 8:30a-1:30p on Sundays.
We were going to pick up items for our dinners during the week, but it was a bit of a hodgepodge in a wonderful sense.
There were so many items from which to select it was difficult not getting side-tracked.
But, we managed to find plenty that would jumble together for dinners augmented by a stop at the local butcher’s.
Betsy and I went for a walk to Clos du Luce, Leo’s home for the last three years of his life thanks to his pal King Francis I (don’t know if you remember from when Max and I were here but the two buddies had an underground tunnel connecting the royal household with Leo’s house so they could enjoy one another’s company without a whole slew of folk hanging around). It was as lovely as the first time so I couldn’t resist snapping more shots of local color.
And, one of the best ones was the surprise Christmas concert we came upon just below the Royal Chateau, primarily due to the lively conductor.
Back home we enjoyed the company of our visiting Butterscotch Butterball so dubbed by Michelle and Danielle.
This kitty became our daily visitor and was hard to resist a cuddle whenever we spotted him.
Our first market dinner was chicken that goes round and round along with a ratouille dish Traci made after she learned to cook each vegetable separately and to add the tomatoes at the very end.
Boy, was it good, and it looked pretty fantastic as well.
The night ended with a photo of our leopardess followed by a night of charades.
DAY 5: Monday, December 22
A lazy day without any committed sites to see or meals to create, so we all ended up wandering around Amboise and soaking up the Christmas spirit in this lovely Loire River Valley town.
Everyone gathered around the kitchen and dining room connecting with friends and family while catching up on the news.
Meanwhile dinner was prepped
and a lovely dessert was presented by Smokey.
Yet, the girls, both runners, were visiting the chicken carcass an hour or so later prior to our nightly game of Charades, warmed up from the night before :)
DAY 6: Tuesday, December 23
A long drive to Oradour-sur-Glane (only 3+ hours one-way but, still, it felt long, especially since neither Betsy nor I had had any coffee to start. By the time we found a place almost an hour away we split five javas amongst the three of us. Along with some french goodies such as a croissant and french-bread sandwiches.
The site we were heading for was called the matyed village. The museum was closed but a statue is situated beside a street in the existing town prior to entering the original one across the street.
On June 10, 1955, Nazis surrounded the town with lorries. They then separated the men and the women and children. They machine-gunned and burned the men around the town (plaques note the locations), then herded the women and children into the church and set it afire. 642 people died that day.
No reasons are given except to say it might have been due to the Allied landing in Normandy four days earlier. Another atrocity occurred two days prior in a nearby town when the Nazis strung up 99 resistance fighters over that town’s balconies as a warning to the French residents. Maybe it was a reprisal for some French Resistance event? Whatever the reason, it wasn’t reason enough to inflict the horror to that one town.
France has left the town ‘as is’. And, a haunting ‘as is’ it truly is. We first saw some burned ruins over the low walls, then walked the entire village spotting every day relics amidst the charred walls and burned out homes.
Everyday items that could survive the fire were left in the village, adding personal reminders to this inhuman act of war.
One woman and five men escaped (the woman by jumping out of the church window where a plaque marks the spot).
I don’t know if you can really see it, but the melted item in front of the alter is actually a baby carriage, no doubt because a mother used it to bring her young chid when forced into the church by the Nazis.
The fortunate ones were those already in the cemetery, where now a memorial with remnants from the ashes stands to those martyred that day.
It was good to have seen and even better to have left.
DAY 7: Wednesday, December 24
The morning dawned relatively clear and chilly. Today was a day of last minute errands, which included picking up the roast beast (that Max would be cooking).
We caused quite a stir of raised eyebrows in the shop because the nice guy helping us didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak French, so when he began cutting up the beef, Max and I loudly said ‘non, s’il vous plait!’. Fortunately, the guy who did speak English came over and Max explained to him what he meant. No problem, said the guy, and the other one went to get another cut. And, boy, did he.
With other last minute errands (bread, lettuce, olive oil, and vino) I headed home as Betsy went up to Leo’s house.
Max had already begun the prep for our Christmas Eve dinner by the time I was back. We added some music to the ingredients and the evening was shaping up nicely.
Soon the Sumners were back from Chenonceaux (Smokey has charaded it out so now it’s easy for me to remember how to pronounce it), unloading another luscious gift box of sumptuous pastries,
and the festivities began with the uncorking of a magnum filled with liquid stars
and a game or two of charades split into family teams.
followed by an amazing meal with Max’s stellar roast beast, and
followed by more charades and tons of laughter… and some special liqueur brought out by Smokey.
DAY 8: Thursday, CHRISTMAS!
The morning arrived with us appearing for coffee in our pjs.
Santa came during the night and hung gifts on our white, frosted tree.
By 11:00 am we all were up and gift-giving was shared all around with some special ones from Michelle and Danielle, which, I have to admit, made me and some others a bit teary-eyed.
Butterball Butterscotch appeared to wish us a Merry Christmas, although I believe he was checking out any scraps from the Christmas Eve dinner.
Smokey had managed to get us in to a Christmas dinner that was like a fairytale, requiring some dressing up.
By 1:15 pm we piled into the DM2 (Dork Mobil 2, a Smokey and Traci rental van named after their first one) and went to Chateau duPrayer for a meal of a lifetime.
Being Americans (and off to ourselves in a corner table) we couldn’t resist some decorations…
Six courses later, we exited at 5:30 pm much fuller and richer for the experience. Never ever have I tasted and lived such an event. I believe, too, it will be a long, long, ever so long while before I do so again :)
(the dessert photo complements of Michelle :)
Back home we were able to connect with good friends Robbie Meredith in San Diego…
Leighton Meredith Reeve, Gwen Mac and Hugh Meredith in Virginia Beach…Cammy, Carmen, Iain and Sarah in Nags Head… Chris, Judy, Doug and Eileen in Brunswick. The only downside with hearing and/or seeing them is reminding us we miss them. I don’t know if this comes with being older but, I sure do miss being with people I know and love. Thankfully, Betsy and the Sumners are with us.
After a game of OH HELL with Max providing the initial tutoring, someone opened the fridge door. From then on it was leftover heaven and the seven of us are standing around the kitchen island finishing up leftovers from the day before and the day before that. But, the best part about all of this? The stories that we began telling. Danielle’s lifeguard experience her freshman year topped them all. I’d relate the story here but couldn’t do it justice. That tale will help me weather many stormy seas.