Category Archives: France

Jeanne, Van, Otto, Romans and Wine

Domremy

Saturday to Sunday   January 7-8

In November we had planned a trip south to Provence but ended up back in Maine. So, we decided to rebook in January, and thanks to our kind airbnb hosts we were able to reserve the same apartment in Avignon. With our rental car we headed out of the Netherlands, through Belgium and ended up in Domremy, France, halfway to our destination.

With Max being a huge fan of Jeanne d’Arc we had opted to tour the little village where she spent the early years of her life, actually most of her young life until she upped and left after following the voice in her head to help the French Dauphin obtain his rightful throne in 1422 .

Arriving a bit later than we had hoped due to a wintery mix of snow and ice, we did manage to find the chapel where she worshiped on Saturdays. Located just 1 mile km from her home in Domremy, the Chapelle de Bermont is now private property. The owners do offer access to the chapel when it’s opened for a few hours on Saturday; but, we had missed it.

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Plus, this was our discovery of touring during January when most signs greeted us with ‘ferme’ or “closed”.

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However, just knowing she had climbed the hill to enter this place of worship made our rushed trek here worth the effort.

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As the afternoon morphed into evening we hightailed it back to Domremy where we had booked a room at one of the few B&Bs still offering rooms during this season. We also happened to find the one restaurant opened down the road where we met the husband-and-wife team as well as a local with pup enjoying his nightly glass of the local liqueur.

Waking up to wispy flakes sifting from the sky we enjoyed our breakfast in our room under the watchful eye of Victor Hugo who, our host said, use to stay in this inn on route from Paris to see his family in the countryside. And, no, I won’t say we slept in his room or he slept in ours…

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Our host also told us Napoleon III had given this house to his mistress where she converted it into a bordello/inn due to being perfectly located right where the coach stopped to let out weary passengers.

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However, what was more interesting (I know, hard to beat knowing one slept where Hugo had) centered on our host’s vast research regarding Jeanne d’Arc.

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His alternative theories, such as she was the illegitimate child of the Queen Isabeau of Bavaria and Duke Louis of Orleans, intrigued us.

As a local historian he believes that the Domremy house below–not the one the tourist information promotes down the street–belonged to the d’Arcs, her family. It was located along the border stream between Champagne and the Germanic territory (hence d’Arc, or ‘bridge’). The story goes that her father was a wounded veteran and had been given the job of tax collector along the border.

Our host even escorted us to where the Arcs’ family home use to stand, another picture-worthy photo op.

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The stone slab was typical of a walking bridge over a small stream, with the two stone pillars marking the respective borders.

I had heard the idea of her being the illegitimate daughter of royalty but not anything else. If you’re as big of fan of this amazing young woman as Max is, check out our host’s website:    http://jeannedomremy.fr/indexhtm.

Needing to get on the road, we bade our host good-bye, scraped the car

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and drove the seven hours to Avignon.

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Orange

On the way we stopped at Orange where one of the best preserved theaters exists from the Roman days. It’s also where the Netherlands’ William I or William the Silent (1533-1584) became Prince of in 1544.

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Once again our timing was such that the little museum/gift shop was closing in 45 minutes, yet we had enough time to scramble up to the top of tier of stadium seats (yes, I was a bit wobbly on the ascent and descent).

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Gazing down onto the stage one can only imagine the thrill of attending a performance here, which they continue to do during summer months. The acoustics were excellent as was the viewing in spite of performers basically being ‘dots with limbs’ for those less wealthy patrons sitting in the higher tiers; and, for perspective, I’m the ‘dot’ standing next to the end of the stage.

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Avignon

Thirty minutes later we were greeted by our Airbnb hosts–Manuel waving at us from the rooftop and Pascal, his partner, knocking on our car window. For the next hour or so we were provided with all the information one needs to tour Avignon and the surrounding region while sharing a bottle of local wine. One couldn’t ask for more enthusiastic welcomers. And, they continued to send emails with excellent tips and ideas for traveling around Provence.

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Monday to Friday   January 9 – 13

Our days began with coffee followed by some road trips and ended back at our apartment to enjoy a bottle of wine and a simple dinner. As I’ve told several folk, we are probably the only people who toured Provence and didn’t go out for a single meal with the exception of our sandwiches at a boulangerie. At which my gallant husband turned the camera on me snapping a now familiar pose:  moi et ma cafe.

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Pont du Gard

One of the most impressive structures we saw was the Pont du Gard, approximately 40 minutes NW of Avignon, actually in Occitainie, the next province over. How the Romans constructed such a magnificent and exacting piece of infrastructure is mind-boggling to someone such as I who holds no knowledge of engineering except to admire a piece of art when I see one.

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Composed of three graduating arches with the tippy-top being the smallest, this Romans (well, their slaves) built this edifice around 20 B.C.E. You can see on some of the arched stones the numbering system used to ensure correct placement.

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We arrived just in time for the morning ‘walk’ across the top, which, thankfully was mainly through a covered ‘tunnel’, covered to keep the water pure as it flowed from the Eure spring near Uzes to the city of Nimes over a 50 km course.

Our guide indicated the water line etched into the stone near the top of the wall,

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and she pointed out the red substance that was the top layer of water-proofing under which the first layer, tiles, would be placed alongside the stone wall.

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Every five years or so they’d have to chop away at the heavy lime deposit caked on the interior channel, where it would take a drop of water 30 hours to travel the length of the aqueduct.

The aquaduct has been out of use since about the 6th ce.  Fortunately, renovations and maintenance (such as the guy who was removing any vegetation adhering to the stone)

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have resulted in a stunning historical monument where you can still imaging water flowing through this channel.

Palais des Papes

The main draw of Avignon for history buffs is the huge Palace of the popes, which was built in only 20 years between 1335 and 1355. Some say it is the largest Gothic palace in the world.

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Wondering how the supreme leader of the catholics left their Roman enclave and landed in southern France, I read that it began with the French King Philip IV’s (aka Philip the Fair)

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power struggle with Pope Boniface VIII.  When a Gascon-born pope, Clement V, decided to move the papacy out of Rome to a Avignon, this began the rule of the Avignonese popes, on that continued for the next 70+ years until 1377.

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You know how much I like connecting the dots, well I discovered Clement V and Philip IV had ties to Chinon, the place where Jeanne d’Arc first met the Dauphin in 1429. Subtract over 100 years and in Chinon key members of the Knights Templars, a Catholic military order, were accused of heresy, sexual misconduct, and blasphemy. They were arrested in 1307 and held in Chinon.

Enter the lovely Inquisition and seven years later five were burned at the stake on Paris’ Ile de la Cite (Island of the City) in the River Seine. The reason? Money. Philip IV owed a lot (the Templars also functioned as bankers); and, a way to rid himself of debt was to rid himself of the Templars. Clement V was forced to disband them but did absolve them of heresy. The trial of the Templars with Clement’s ruling is documented in the Chinon parchment, a record discovered in 2001 in the Vatican Secret Archives.

The above simplifies the complexities of how the king, the pope, and the templars became so entangled, and, it’s worth reading more for anyone interested in the details.

Back to the building whose immensity was difficult to capture as we looked back from the entrance steps to the plaza.

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It was old (notice the door)

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and cold and impressive.

In spite of the palace being bare it was easy to imagine the thrum of power that must have echoed around these cavernous rooms; and, audio guides provide the historical context as we wandered around.  At one point the palace became a prison and then barracks in 1810 with their reducing some of the huge, stone rooms to smaller ones with wooden floors and wall dividers. In the 1900s the palace was opened to the public and restored to its original interior architecture. Definitely worth a visit.

Las Baux

On Tuesday we decided to head south of Avignon where we found ourselves exploring the medieval hilltop village of Las Baux. The drive was one of the most beautiful during our entire trip as every few turns revealed our destination in the distance.

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Being a non-touristy month, the town was basically shuttered but didn’t preclude our strolling the narrow, cobblestone streets.

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Guide books as well as a Tourist Office we had visited on our way there suggested we park at the Carrieres de Lumieres, an innovative multimedia show using abandoned caves created by mining the limestone in  the 19th ce. Unfortunately this show had just closed with its 2017 opening slated for March; yet, it presented an empty parking lot and, more notably, a free one.

Yet, it also provided an opportunity for enterprising folk who were searching for treasures while we were walking through the village.

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The enterprising folk had spotted a backpack sitting in the back seat, which was empty by the way. Most likely the car alarm scared them off (I only knew it had an alarm when I made the mistake of trying to open the door.) Luckily nothing was stolen (unlike our time in Baden-Baden). We reported it to the local police (actually, it’s the National Guard in that area), arranged for a tourist-gouged-replacement window the next day in Arles, visited some olive oil mills (yum!),

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and, ended our day in another Provence village associated with the guy who hacked off part, or all, of one ear.

Saint Remy

One speaks of Provence, and Van Gogh’s life and art comes to mind; so, our destination was Saint Paul de Mausole, the monastery in Saint Remy. Here he voluntarily entered in May 1889 and subsequently produced a prodigious amount of art during his 12 months’ stay. A 1km walk from the Tourist Office to the monastery is lined with free-standing plaques matching one of of the artist’s works with excerpts from letters referring to that specific painting.

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Even though we couldn’t access Van Gogh’s recreated room, it was even more interesting to be in the surrounding grounds for you could stand in front of the painting then look out and actually see what Van Gogh saw (albeit the trees are now larger…).

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So, in spite of the broken window we managed to happily enjoy our day and see everything we had originally planned when we set out from Avignon that morning.

Camargue Natural Parc

Provence has a designated nature reserve along its southwest coast, part of which includes a UNESCO designated biosphere reserve. With a vast amount of wetlands, this nature area has established an ornithological park where traveling birds as well as stay-at-home ones enjoy this habitat just north of Saintes Marie de la Mer.

After stopping in Arles for the window repair,

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we leisurely drove another 40 minutes where we were stunned by a marvelous site of flocking feathered creatures justifiably called the pink flamingos.

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And, what a hoot those are.

Although they’re majestic in their stance and stilted, elegant stalking,

I still can’t help but think of how they’d look on someone’s lawn, something my dad and some friends managed to do to an unsuspecting friend’s yard.

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Walking along the trails surrounding the marsh we thought of our friends Helen and Gus who would be able to explain this marvel of the fowl world to us. Since we didn’t have their expertise we had to put up with simply looking and taking photos and videos as these boa-feathered creatures entertained us.

With our eyes seeing pink spots and picnicked stomachs full we managed to make our way back to the car and returned to Avignon. Another beautiful January day in Provence.

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Luberon

Pascal and Manuel echoed the quaint beauty of the Luberon, the area east of Avignon dotted with medieval villages, so our destination began in a clockwise direction as we stopped to ooh and aah.

Our five-hour adventure encompassed a mist-skimming river…

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a trodden church aisle…

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gum- drop trees…

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colors of Provence…

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red-cliff bluffs…

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and, finally some French food at, what else, a boulangerie.

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Carpentras

Friday to Sunday  January 13-15

Our last morning was spent hunting truffles as we left Avignon for a truffle market on our way north. Our attempt to join an actual truffle hunt didn’t occur due to not enough tourists signing up to make it worth the hunters while. So, the next best thing was attending Carpentras’ Friday morning market.

Having read the market spread itself over several blocks with the truffle hound folk in front of the old Hotel Dieu, we made a beeline for there only to be directed across the street where a few lonely tables stood with their vendors and an overpowering odor of fungi.

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Yet, we felt something was up at our original spot, not only because it had banners announcing the selling of truffles

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but also because there were a bunch of guys hovering around one another with bumpy, suspicious-looking sacs. With Max posed as a decoy, I was able to grab a shot of what, Max aptly noted, appeared to be drug deals.

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This was where the professionals came to purchase this black gold, and we followed one guy across the street who animatedly but surreptitiously showed his cache to several others waiting in a cafe. And, no, I didn’t pose Max again…

 

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Kaysersberg

After six hours of heading north we landed at our original destination just south of Strasbourg, at a small village outside of Colmar, only to find our hotel reserved via HOTELS.COM shuttered. Fortunately, there are quite a few towns around in this Alsace Lorraine wine country,

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and we landed at another lovely, middle-age village complete with a stork-nest-topped chimney

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and the requisite half-timbered homes.

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Our hotel was practically empty so no problem securing a room for two nights and we happily settled in then found one of the few restaurants opened for dinner. Oh, and it advertised itself in quite a unique way.

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Colmar

The next morning we struck up conversation with a couple breakfasting next to us who told us of an exhibit in Colmar’s Unterlinden Museum. Since we hadn’t planned any sight-seeing other than to visit that city, we purchased tickets and found ourselves immersed in artifacts from the area’s early beginnings…

such as a gold bracelet from the burial site of Celtic princes during the 8th and 5th centuries…

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to the famous, multi-panel altar piece painted by Matthias Gruenwald and carved by Niclaus of Haguenau 1512-1516 for Isenheim’s Monastery of St. Anthony (a model showed how it folded and unfolded while the life-size pieces were displayed in groupings)….

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which influenced the German artist Otto Dix (1891-1969), a painter and printmaker who saw the altarpiece when a POW at a camp near Colmar.

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Having fought during WWI Dix knew firsthand the horrors of human wars. When Hitler’s regime began promoting the honor and heroism of fighting he responded with art depicting the opposite. Consequently his art was banned but his work today yells of the tragedies of war.

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In addition to his ant-war art he also painted stark and, what some call, brutal portraits, such as this one of journalist Sylvia van Harden in 1926.

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A website devoted to Dix provides a wonderful anecdote regarding this painting (http://www.ottodix.org/catalog-paintings/page/4/), one that gives you a slight peek inside his mind. As I told an artist friend, I wouldn’t necessarily hang his art on my walls but I definitely love his approach.

L’alchemille (alchemy)

Our last night out we spent as foodies in Kaysersberg. And, for anyone ever in this area, please, make a reservation at L’alchemille (www.lalchemille.fr). Owned and operated by a chef and his wife, they reminded us of our  friend Kyle, an alumnus of the Culinary Institute of America. This chef focuses on using only local, in-season ingredients, and, man, does he whip up magic.

We arrived at 8:00p and proceeded to be wowed. As our waiter patiently and smilingly presented each dish, when we looked puzzled, he rushed to his phone to translate the ingredient into English. I felt as if we were eating in an enchanted forest with the tastes of pine and other fragrant seasonings.

As we sampled and oohed and ahhed over seven courses and a bottle of wine, I actually ate items I’d never tasted before (venison and pate).

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As we were leaving they came out to say good-bye,

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and, as we left the restaurant (three-and-a-half hours later!) we turned to one another in the gently falling snow and said, what an amazing way to end our road trip to France.

Fini!

 

Jingle Bells continued…

DAY 9:  Friday, Boxing Day Off to the largest castle in the Loire Valley, Chateau de Chambord, in DM2.

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Another cold day, which only made it seem more authentic considering the only heat in this 77-staircase, 426-room home were a couple of the 282 fireplaces with burning wood in them. That and tourists’ bodies, and there weren’t a ton of those on this chilly day.

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Set on a large estate with some areas opened to the public for walks, etc., while the remainder is kept for high-officials of the government (some things never change), it’s another fairytale estate, built by Francois I of Amboise (1494-1547).  [FYI:  His son was Henry II who married Catherine de Medici and whose mistress, Diane de Poitiers, created the other amazing chateau, Chenonceau. The mistress was booted out upon his death by his wife, Catherine. Francois I’s grandson, Francois II, was married briefly to Mary, Queen of Scots.]

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Unfortunately, he reputedly only spent 47 days here due supposedly to finding it too drafty. I couch this with reputedly and supposedly because no sooner do I read a fact about someone or something of history only to discover a conflicting story from another source (72 days vs. 47, 365 vs 282 staircases… you get the drift). So, who knows really what happened except that he had a lot of houses from which he could choose. We all set off only to start going in different directions once inside the courtyard. Max and I can’t resist a cut-out opportunity (ask Jane S. as we made her do one with us in Brighton), so we did the same here:

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The size of the interior keep was impressive, especially the double helix staircase, which supposedly (there’s that word again) Leo designed for his king pal.  This spiraling staircase connected the three main floors with apartments off of them.  From the bottom to the top (sixth floor) you can be on one staircase and someone on the other but not touch. A way to avoid brushing up against someone, or an attacker’s sword. However, as per the audio guide, this definitely wasn’t built as a fortress – too many easy-access doors and openings.

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Most of the rooms were unfurnished because the king carried his foldable stools, etc., with him to his various other homes, along with his retinue of 2,000+. However, we saw lots of salamanders, Francoise I’s personal emblem, like the green sign I saw walking with Betsy in Amboise. These creatures, which were thought to be able to survive fire and extinguish it with their cold little bodies (that’d be easy to test, I’d think), supported this king’s motto ‘I nourish [the good] and I extinguish [the bad]’. All over the place you see them… carved in stone

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and carved in wood (this, by the way, is the original wooden door accessing his personal chapel).

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We kept the audio guides glued to our ears as we also looked for any lit fireplaces.

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When we reached the terrace where we could promenade around the Harry Potter-esque chimneys and spires,

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we took the opportunity to take group portraits

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Exiting we spotted a shaggy donkey (Patricia, this is for you :),

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then we (Max, Betsy and I) stopped in Blois for a quick cafe lunch and a snapshot of the Loire and red-chimney dwellings prior to heading home to Amboise.

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Our farewell dinner was filled with leftovers, plenty of vino, and exotic veggies Danielle and Michelle found at the local market.

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DAY 10:  Saturday, December 27

I truly HATE goodbyes. We all knew it had to end, but that realization didn’t make it any easier. They’re off to Normandy to stay with friends until flying back to the States. We’re driving to Paris to return the car and stay in an airbnb.com rental. Being with this family was a treasure. Every day reminded us of just how much we love their company. And, having my sister here only made it even more wonderful. Thank gods and goddesses for such times.

With strong hugs we bade goodbye and set off for Paris with a brief stop in Malmaison, Josephine Bonaparte’s (1763-1814) home where she lived with her husband Napoleon (1769-1821) from 1799 to 1809, then as a divorcee (he needed a male heir and she was unable to give him one) until her death five years later on May 29.

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With 30 minutes before it opened after lunch break, we toured the gardens. Early on we found this fella. What did I say about photo ops?… :)

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Josephine purchased the house while Napoleon was on his Egyptian campaign. Evidently, she had a history of extravagance (bad) and graciousness (good except it fed into the extravagance), and Napoleon was furious at the price tag (300,000 francs, beaucoup bucks in today’s dollars). But, he soon got over it, and she began renovating it by hiring famous architects and landscape artists. She even imported exotic birds caged inside and animals to roam the grounds including never-before-seen black swans from Australia. (These weren’t there but thought I’d throw in a pic of them.)

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The house was lovely. Both Betsy and I said ‘I could live here’. Alas, not in the cards; yet, it didn’t keep us from drooling or thinking how we’d redo this and that room… :) No one really knows why Malmaison was so named but, as one site said, it could have been because of the occupants, not the house. Whatever the reason, the estate is beautiful. Napoleon held war councils here in a room framed out to resemble a battlefield HQ tent,

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and had his own library/office with a hidden staircase where he could escape to his apartment

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The rooms comprising Josephine’s apartment showed her bedroom where she died of a cold.

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She was truly Napoleon’s love of his life, and it’s where he returned after her death prior to being exiled. It’s recorded he spent some alone time in her boudoir reflecting on his love for her. In his memoirs he wrote her death was ‘one of the most acute griefs of that fatal year of 1814.’

Another reason this house was fascinating was because of the many family portraits we saw. There is a famous one of Napoleon crossing the alps by Jacque-Louis David, originally commissioned by the Spanish King who just happened to be Bonaparte’s elder brother, Joseph, who hung it in Madrid. A little interesting snippet:  David was on the Committee for Public Safety during the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, and he signed the death warrant for Josephine’s first husband. Small world, although not one I would have liked inhabiting.

Napoleon liked it so much he commissioned four others to hang elsewhere… one in Milan, two in Paris, and another kept with the artist until his death. There is a slight difference among all of them, with the original one now hanging in front of us at Mal Maison. Good PR for him as it shows him fitter than he was (the artist used his son as the model for the lower part) and he actually crossed the Alps on a mule (he wasn’t a good rider). The artist also threw in two other fearless leaders (Hannibal and Karolus Magnus or Charlemagne) carved in stone for good measure.

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Portraits of Josephine hang throughout as well. You don’t see her showing any teeth when smiling because she had horrible teeth. Betsy and I remembered this fact from a series of historical fiction books on Josephine that our mom gave us. In spite being fictional we still gleamed enough history to match the personality of the house to the owner, Empress Josephine.

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Josephine had two children (son and daughter) from her first marriage to Alexandre de Beauharnais, and after she died the house was taken over by her son, Prince Eugene de Beauharnais. The estate was later sold and then purchased by Napoleon III, Josephine’s grandson via her daughter Hortense and Napoleon’s brother Louis  (yes, her step-uncle), who bought it from the widow of the King of Spain, Ferdinand VII, in 1861. Eventually, the estate was purchased by a philanthropist, David Iffla who called himself Osiris (no idea why). He renovated the home and then turned it over to the state allowing common folk such as us to tour and sigh over the loveliness found in this home.

Back in the car… where we dished out another high toll…

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and to our airbnb.com home in Montparnasse SW of Paris Center.

Our arrival was timed perfectly to meet up with our young hosts Marco and Lisou, a couple expecting their first child. We found out we were their last renters for awhile due to a baby on the way, and they enthusiastically showed us how things worked and stressed to call them with any and all questions. They were delightful, and we were sorry they weren’t going to be around (they were heading back to Normandy to spend the holidays with her parents). She had even left us Christmas cookies (she explained her dad’s German, so Christmas is a big deal with her family).

The house is small and lovely and modern, and we settled in for another late and easy night. PJs de rigueur :)

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DAY 11:  Sunday, December 28

Pariee! And, GD was it blistering cold. I put on one shirt, two shirt, three shirt, and then a sweater followed by tights, pants, coat, neck warmer, and hat. Mittens were long sleeves pulled over fingers. With that I was sort of ready. Off we tramped to the Metro at Pleasance to Champs Elysee-Clemenceau stop to go to Louis Vuitton’s new Foundation, a modern art museum designed by the famous architect Frank Gehry (he did the Guggenheim in Bilboa, Spain, and that bank in Berlin we recently saw).

Reaching our stop, I blithely told Max and Betsy ‘follow me. I know where we’re going.’ Not quite. I got us to the s-t-o-r-e, which amazed Max to think that this guy made enough money to have his own museum. We educated him on the demand of women for certain pocket books. He was still shaking his head five hours later wondering what they looked like. I promised not to purchase one to show him.

At least I got us to the store where we were told how to really get to the new center, the Foundation Louis Vuitton, which the famous architect Frank Gehry designed, one that Betsy had mentioned she wanted to see. There was a special van running from the Arc d’Triumph (about two blocks further away) every 15 minutes. Luckily, I spotted one at the roundabout waiting. We scurried over and jumped in. Doors shut and off we trundled to the Bois de Boulogne (west of Paris center).

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Well, it was new (opened in October) and it was a Sunday and it was a holiday week and it was frigging cold. So, when we saw the hours-long line, we did an about-face and tried to scramble back on the warm bus. No luck. We only had to wait another 15 minutes and, at least, it wasn’t the same driver. We were batting one to zero. As we drove away in the van, Max looked back at the huge new museum and commented there must be a wicked mark-up on women’s handbags.

Next idea:  Musee d’Orangerie in Tullieres Gardens opposite end from the Lourve. We took the Metro and exited at the Gardens. Orienting ourselves we crossed to the Musee only to find, yep, you guessed it, an hour-long line… in the cold. Nope, Next.

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So, now we’re two to none. Time for lunch, a pee break, and getting out of the cold. An hour later we’re back on the streets.

What about Notre Dame? It’s free, huge, and not a museum, per se. We thought it wouldn’t be a long walk, so we headed for that part of gay Pariee noting that if we walked by the Seine we’d be in the sun. Twenty minutes later with legs like popsicle sticks we’re there and see the line and say ‘what else?’

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Three to zero and it’s getting close to when we could head over to check on our theater tickets. Max had seen on Tripadvisor some excellent reviews for ‘Hymne a Edith Piaf’ by Caroline Nin. A mix of English and French this chantreuse had performed to sold-out shows at the Sydney Opera House. Her Paris performance was in a 13th century building (underground) and catered to an intimate audience (40 at the most). He had reserved three tickets for the 6:00pm show, and we were looking forward to sitting down out of the cold. But, we still had two hours before we could do that.

We saw some exhibit banners at the Pompidou Center, one being for Frank Geary, so, we thought ‘what the hell? let’s check that out’. Hah! Hadn’t we learned? Sure enough, it was packed with a line out the door and bending around and around.

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Realizing we now were at four to zero, we headed for libations, starting with coffee and migrating to alcohol after walking around the Marais area (where Betsy said she’d visited our friend Robbie when he was living there for a summer).

A little before six we returned to the Theater for our show. And, Max hit it out of the ballpark. She put on a spectacular show. We even purchased three CDs and had her autograph them. If anyone enjoys Edith Piaf’s music and is intrigued by her history, give yourself a gift by hearing Caroline Nin (carolinenin.com).

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FYI:  Edith Piaf tried to get two of her regular composers to write her melody down for the lyrics she had written. They both said they wouldn’t put their name to this song. Fortunately, the third person she approached loved it. And, even more fortunately we can close our eyes and drift along with the music.

DAY 12:  Monday, December 29

Because there are a lot, and I mean A LOT, of folk trying to visit the same sites we are, Max had a brilliant idea of getting off the typical sight-seeing path. So, today we’re checking out some places researched the night before. Part of our tour including revisiting Rue Cler, a lovely pedestrian street located SW of the Eiffel Tower. We had stayed here a few years ago in February on a layover and, yes, it was freezing then, too, but not the inside shops and markets weren’t as crowded. We had found a little restaurant, Petit Cler, which served inexpensive meals amidst locals shoulder-to-shoulder, and we loved it. So, we thought it would be a wonderful way to remember our previous visit and to introduce Betsy to a favorite place of ours.

We stopped in at the hotel where we had stayed (unfortunately, the owners and their pup, Cannelle, weren’t there),

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But, the street hummed with the same energy as the last time,

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and we enjoyed the coziness and crowd at the tiny restaurant. Betsy, who had seen our water pitchers from here on Orr’s, ended up getting two herself :)

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Then, she headed back to the Foundation Louis Vuitton while we began our trek to more obscure sites, such as Victor Hugo’s Maison (closed on Mondays but beautiful to see the park on which he lived). We passed a restaurant named Cape Horn where Max went in to ask why the name, and discovered it was owned and managed by some Chileans; but, he didn’t meet any fellow Cape Horners.

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Another site on our list was the National Archives.

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Walking along the courtyard’s path to the front door we passed some historical markers commemorating WW II. What was interesting, though, were the pedestals featured black and white photographs of France’s collaboration with the Germans. They, like the Germans, are facing their past and using it as a teaching instrument to those for whom that period of time is only experienced via history books.

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The archives were open but only for another thirty minutes.  But, boy, did we see some amazing documents:

  • a document on papyrus from 625 from the king to the Abbey of Saint-Denis
  • Charlemagne’s diploma
  • a letter from Jeanne d’arc to the people of Reims (1429?) (she was illiterate so she must have had it penned for her)
  • a letter from Napoleon on National Letterhead to Josephine (1796)
  • one of Marie Antoinette’s coded letters to her very (very) good friend, the Swedish Count Axel von Fersen (June 29, 1791)

All in French and no photos allowed but I did ask the front desk for a translation of a Robespierre list of people’s names that had ‘la tete’ written on it. I thought it was a list of future losses, but the three women who followed me to the display case said it was about the courage and heart of the men. Actually, they rushed to where I had found the scrawled list under glass. They admitted they couldn’t easily translate a lot of the earlier documents because they were in old French so maybe they, too, thought it was a list of heads to roll…

Another display case explained that cursive writing came about due to folk wanting to write quickly, hence the linking of letters. However, writing deteriorated so badly in the 16th and 17th centuries King Louis XIV demanded that people must write legibly. He would have loved typewriters. Better yet, computers with auto-correct. Except that could be dicey if not checked carefully. Imagine someone typing a note to him like I did to a good friend only to have ‘dear ____’  auto-correct to ‘dead ____’.

Finally, this site displayed some parchment rolls explaining they were used for lengthy records, such as trials; and, they said the one covering the Trial of the Knight Templars (1308-09) was 174 feet long. That wasn’t shown but added weight to the rationale for rolling documents.

Wishing we had more time we still were glad we got a taste of this collection. As an out-of-the-way exhibit it was a great find, thanks to Max, and we headed home content knowing we had seen something so informative (it would have been more so if we spoke ancient French). We also agreed to find more, less touristy sites to visit during our stay.

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Picking up a chicken that goes round and round the three of us ended the night picking out our next day destinations while wishing we had Michelle and Danielle around who could finish off the carcass.

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DAY 13:  Tuesday, December 30

While Betsy went to the newly renovated  Picasso Museum, Max and I returned to Victor Hugo’s Maison on Place des Vosges, the oldest square in Paris and designed by king Henry IV (1553-1610).  [Interesting history:  Catherine De Medici destroyed the royal residence, Hotel des Tournelles, after her husband Henry II died there (July 10, 1559)  from wounds obtained from a tournament.] (When inside I looked out one of Hugo’s windows to see what he’d see, and this is of the square.)

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We barely had to wait in line (a limited number of people are allowed in to ensure no over-crowding), and we were soon climbing on wide stairs to No.6 on the second floor of the Hotel de Rohan-Guemenee where Victor Hugo (1802-1885) lived with his wife and their four children.

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He moved there at the age of thirty and began one of his best known works, Les Miserables. He finished this book when in political exile on Guernsey Island. The reason for this self-imposed exile began due to his lack of support for Napoleon III (called him a traitor to France… he’s probably lucky he kept his head). Hugo fled to Brussels in 1851 then the Channel Islands where he lived on Jersey until 1853. From there he moved to Guernsey living in Hauteville House until returning to Paris 1870.

One reason he selected the Channel Islands were their close affiliation with Normandy from when William I, Duke of Normandy, became King of England in 1066. These islands are self-governing but have been dependent territories of England since 1106 when Henry I, King of England and youngest son of William I, seized the Duchy of Normandy from his brother Robert. Hauteville House is the other Hugo home maintained as a museum.

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ouring the apartment composed of decor from different times of his life with the ever-present audio guides we both learned a lot more about this famous author.

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The anteroom has a portrait of his father, Leopold, the son of a carpenter who rose to social prominence as one of Napoleon’s generals. Due to his military career he travelled a lot. Eventually his mother, Sophie and a Catholic Royalist, got tired of the constant moving and just stayed in Paris. From then on Victor and his two siblings would split time between mother and father.

The red room decorated with heavy, red damask curtains and wallpaper, displayed more family portraits, including one of him,

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He was devoted to his four children, and you can get a sense of that caring in one of the pictures with his son.

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The Chinese room is overwhelming and was designed by Hugo himself for his mistress, Juliette Druett (1806-1883), an actress… soon former actress, who became his secretary and traveling companion. She moved with him to the Channel Islands (but lived in a different house… Adele was still with him. Go figure.

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He was a socially conscious activist and put his money where his mouth and pen were. At one point his wife Adele solicited writing inkwells from four famous authors:  Alphonse de Lamartine, considered to be the first French romantic poet; George Sand, the first modern liberated woman and lover of Chopin; Alexandre Dumas, historical novelist (ie., The Count of Monte Crisco); and Hugo. The purpose was to raise funds at an auction to feed the poor. The inkwells were affixed to a desktop with plaques and now stands in this red room. (It didn’t sell at the auction due to the high price so Hugo bought it.)

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The dining room reflects Hugo’s penchant for old chests, which he then had dismantled and reassembled to use as tabletops, doors, etc. This room, too, seems over the top, furnished with dark Gothic furniture and covered in brown wallpaper.

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His bedroom, next to the study, is from 130 Avenue d’Eylau where he lived from (1878-1885). His writing desk used when standing is placed against one wall, which allowed us to envision him doing just that. It also has his bed where he died (beds where famous people have died are quite popular).

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He was considered the ‘voice of the people.’  When he died over two million people (more than the population of Paris) came to the city for his funeral. No wonder. He spoke out for those who couldn’t, or, if they did, got kicked back down. He was and is (debate still goes on amidst radicals) a controversial figure due to his politics, which changed throughout his life ping-ponging from socialist to imperialist but always bourgeois. Yet, one can’t deny that his writings and many acts in life demonstrated his desire to help those who were often overlooked and scorned by those more fortunate.

You may remember from other comments in previous Blob Blogs that I really enjoy the overlapping and connectivity in history; and, a minor touch point here is Charles Dickens describing his meeting of Hugo in a letter to a good friend of his, Lady Blessingham, on January 27, 1849:  

“I was much struck by Hugo himself, who looks like a Genius, as he certainly is very interesting from head to foot. His wife is a handsome woman with flashing black eyes, who looks as if she might poison his breakfast any morning when the humor seized her. There is also a ditto daughter of fifteen or sixteen, with ditto eyes, and hardly any drapery above the waist, whom I should suspect of carrying a sharp poignard in her stays but for her not appearing to wear any. Sitting among old armour, and old tapestry, and old coffers, and grim old chairs and tables, and old Canopies of state from old places, and old golden lions going to play at skittles with ponderous old golden balls, they made a most romantic show, and looked like a chapter out of one of his own books.”  

Ouch.

A test for me of whether I’ve enjoyed a site or not is whether I want ‘more’… more information on a person, building, event. And, Victor Hugo’s apartment No.6 definitely left me with a hunger to learn more about this man’s life and times. Max left to explore more Joan of Arc historical places while I walked around the square waiting for Betsy. The Place des Vosges has plenty of art galleries, and I spotted a few that were just fun to look at.

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Betsy arrived saying she missed out on the Picasso Exhibit because it was a 1.5 hour wait in line (again). Nothing like a popular city during holiday season. Instead she had wandered into the Carnavalet Museum, one covering the History of Paris. In spite of the displays being all in French, she said she didn’t have to wait in line and it was free. Oh, and it was interesting. Free? No line? Interesting? That museum went on the list for a ‘to-do’ tour.

We decided to walk to St. Germain, an area familiar to her. We crossed the river and just window-shopped as we made our way to Le Petit Cler to meet Max. Along the way

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we saw Autolib, a pay-as-you-drive electric rental car, at one of the 1,200 recharging stations…

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the English book store where Jonathan R., the son/nephew/grandson of some great family friends of ours use to live and work (he slept on a cot on the second floor in return for working there). See if you can spot B (hint:  look for a furry hat).

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another sign that at a briefest of glances I thought ‘wow!’ until Betsy reminded me the McCarthy ending’s not ‘tney’ but ‘thy’…

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and, something for our friend Carol E. who’d appreciate this on the streets of Paris as much as I :)

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We made it to Rue Cler where we found Max enjoying a libation while he’d been waiting for us, holding our seats. We joined him and began an early, New Year’s celebratory dinner out, our best (and only one out) in Paris.

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We finished off the night with Max posing in the Metro and Betsy studiously ignoring him (wise choice).

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DAY 14:  Wednesday, December 31

After hearing Betsy’s description of the Carnavalet Museum (name comes from the original mansion converted to a museum in 1880 and enlarged in 1989 by annexing another mansion next door), we all decided to go. Betsy went with us to wait with a newspaper at a cafe for then all of us were heading to another not-so-busy (we hope) museum, Musee Jaquemart-Andre.

We planned only a brief (one hour) stop-in; yet, we discovered they offered audio-guides, which made us wish we had agreed to a longer time. But, even with the short time we were there it was easy to get a sense of whether it was worth returning (it is) at a later date.

One of the first rooms has iron signs dangling from the ceiling. Unbeknownst to me, street signs were the only way to identify addresses until 1805 when Paris made street numbering compulsory. Who would have thought it?

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One room had three bedrooms set-up where you could peer in, one belonging to Marcel Proust no less, with the iron bed he had owned since age 16.

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Another room was dedicated to two famous philosophers, Voltaire (1694-1778) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who detested one another.

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Their thoughts on mankind were exactly opposite:  Voltaire believed education and reason are the tickets to a better life while Rousseau felt nature is man’s salvation. This excerpt says it all from a letter Voltaire wrote to Rousseau after receiving a copy of Rousseau’s Social Contract:

“I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid…”

Double ouch.

After leaving the museum, Betsy and I got sidetracked while Max left for our next museum tour, the home of Edouard Andree (1833-94) and Nelie Jacquemart (1841-1912). He was the son of the wealthiest Protestant banker in town, she a well-known society painter.

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The house has both public and private rooms on tour, all filled with priceless art work. Built in 1869 and finished six years later, it was a home everyone wanted to see. (The walls of the grand salon could be lifted so three rooms became one, large enough to entertain 1,000 people. Not bad.) The party in 1875 celebrating its opening attracting the creme de la creme draped in jewels and fancy dress. [However, the audio guide said diamonds weren’t suppose to be worn;  they were considered crass and tacky, and they scratched the guests with their sharp points. Oh well. Let them wear pearls while eating cake]

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This husband-wife team met when she painted his portrait. Ten years later, they married in 1881. According to a guard we met (Froggy Francois, a name HE called himself, not us), it was a marriage of reason not of romance. Good thing as Edouard had syphilis and Nelie was just looking for a wealthy man (info from Francois).

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Paintings by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and Botticelli adorn the walls along with tapestries, frescoes, and sculpture such as the bust of Pope Gregory by Bernini.

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Considering Edouards’ wealth, it’s not too shocking the masterpieces he and Nelie acquired. What was shocking was hearing this couple described on the audio guide as upper ‘middle’ class. Yeah, right.

In one room Francois pointed out the differing perspective in a painting:  her knees face you either side you’re on….

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He also told us to go back into the previous room where a bunch of the Dutch paintings were exhibited and gave us an assignment:  how many people are in the Jesus-at-the-table painting by Rembrandt? We finally got it right, but it only proved how valuable and entertaining this guard was. Why he wasn’t teaching an art class I don’t know. Then again, he might be!

Just an example of how opulent this mansion was… off of the winter garden room (lots of window panes) was a staircase designed to be different (placed at the end of the house vs. center) and magnificent (marble spiral). The architect who lost the bid for the Paris Opera house wanted to create a showpiece, and he did, one that’s never been duplicated. The twin staircase climbed to the next floor

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where this was on the ceiling (which, by the way, was above the music room).

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And, this is only a small smattering of what we saw in this house of art. [I can’t do this place justice so here’s a link for anyone wanting to really see the place:  http://musee-jacquemart-andre.com/en/home.]

After his death, Nelie continued adding to their collection with both Egyptian artifacts and English paintings. When she died, she followed her husband’s wishes and bequeathed the house and its contents to a private instituion, Institut de France. Which is why Francois kept asking us if we knew Bill Gates for this private organization needs money for upkeep of this glorious house of art.

Max caught up with us when we were conversing with our new-found buddy, Francois, and commented that Bill Gates is off curing malaria at the moment.

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Max decided to head off to the see the Musee des Egouts , i.e., Paris’ sewers. I was contemplating going with him but, after reading comments about the smell with one visitor warning people not to visit during the hot summer months, I decided sipping wine with Betsy was much more preferable.

Our last night we brought out the bottle purchased at Lelarge-Pugeot Vineyard and named for their daughter Clemence whom we had met. It seemed a fitting end to 2014.

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DAY 15:  Thursday, January 1

We left for Gare du Nord and our morning trains back to London. Betsy was flying on to Cincinnati and we were training it to Ipswich.

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But, I had to have one shot of the Metro, the transport we relied on so heavily during our visit, and at least one more bread item at the station.

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Speaking of carbohydrates I read something on Eurostar’s napkin, which adds to my fondness for France… “Je ne regrette rien.  Calories don’t count when crossing time zones.” Now, that’s the type of philosophy I can easily adore.

What a trip, what a wonderful group of people with which to share it, and what beautiful memories.

Au revoir… nous allons revenir.

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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

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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,

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we were off to Verdun,

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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.

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It is now a wooded landscape with a chapel and a path taking one to markers noting previous occupants’ livelihood.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Touring the long gallery, we lit a candle for our mom and our two dads.

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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.

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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.

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This fort had a skelton crew when it was taken by the Germans in four days on February 25th. Talk about demoralizing.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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Final review:  don’t do it. It was a bad Disneylandesque ride through what should have been held in a more sacred light.

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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.

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… 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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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  • 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).

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In the cellar we discovered another interesting tidbit:  they don’t like to clean their cellars of mold, even stringy, disgusting furry stuff:

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Next, lunch.

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.

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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  :)

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The tour was quick (which was fine by us) followed by some tastings and, of course, a purchase :)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Being crowned in Reims provided the kings with a connection to God, imbuing their rule with a sacred flavor.

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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.

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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?)

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There’s even a street where the houses almost meet as demonstrated by Betsy and Max and looking skyward.

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After a lunch of salads, including Max’s that must have had half a porker on it (more than he wanted),

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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.

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One of the best sights was seeing the Cheshire Cat surveying his domain from the rooftop of a parked car…

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and, a manhole cover with wooden inserts for Ellen :)

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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 :)

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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.

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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.

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There were so many items from which to select it was difficult not getting side-tracked.

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But, we managed to find plenty that would jumble together for dinners augmented by a stop at the local butcher’s.

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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.

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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.

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Back home we enjoyed the company of our visiting Butterscotch Butterball so dubbed by Michelle and Danielle.

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This kitty became our daily visitor and was hard to resist a cuddle whenever we spotted him.

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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.

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The night ended with a photo of our leopardess followed by a night of charades.

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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.

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Meanwhile dinner was prepped

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and a lovely dessert was presented by Smokey.

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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 :)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Everyday items that could survive the fire were left in the village, adding personal reminders to this inhuman act of war.

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One woman and five men escaped (the woman by jumping out of the church window where a plaque marks the spot).

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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.

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The fortunate ones were those already in the cemetery, where now a memorial with remnants from the ashes stands to those martyred that day.

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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.

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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,

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and the festivities began with the uncorking of a magnum filled with liquid stars

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and a game or two of charades split into family teams.

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followed by an amazing meal with Max’s stellar roast beast, and

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followed by more charades and tons of laughter… and some special liqueur brought out by Smokey.

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DAY 8:  Thursday, CHRISTMAS!

The morning arrived with us appearing for coffee in our pjs.

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Santa came during the night and hung gifts on our white, frosted tree.

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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.

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Butterball Butterscotch appeared to wish us a Merry Christmas, although I believe he was checking out any scraps from the Christmas Eve dinner.

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Smokey had managed to get us in to a Christmas dinner that was like a fairytale, requiring some dressing up.

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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.

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Being Americans (and off to ourselves in a corner table) we couldn’t resist some decorations…

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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 :)

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(the dessert photo complements of Michelle :)

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Back home we were able to connect with good friends Robbie Meredith in San Diego…

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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.

Croissant Land: PART TWO

Saturday, September 13, we drove to Chinon, the fortress where Joan d’Arc first met the Dauphin in 1429. On the way we stopped at one of the most famous chateaus in the Loire Valley, Chenonceau. And, what a whopper of a home this was.

While stopping at the tourist office, this time in Chenonceau, we saw Susan from Denver and Hattie from Atlanta who had stayed in the same hotel we had in Amboise. We also seemed to be following the same tours as we had seen them the day before at both Chateau Royal and Chateau du Clos Luce. They were traveling with two other folk, and we offered to squeeze everyone into our car for the short ride to the chateau.

Spilling out of the tiny backseat (4 women),

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we all stretched

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and independently headed for this vision of grandeur.

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It’s known as the Ladies’ Chateau, beginning with the woman, Katherine Briconnet, who together with her husband created the vision of this house on the River Cher.

She and Thomas Bohier, the General Tax Collector, purchased the property in 1513 and over the next ten years demolished the existing fortress and mill built by the Marques family while keeping the ‘keep’, the Marques Tower. They proceeded to construct a major showpiece. Unfortunately, their son ran up huge debts enabling the Crown to take possession in 1535.

Gorgeous views looking up and down the river, as well as across to the gardens.

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Meanwhile the mistress of King Henri II (not to be confused with the 11th century King Henry II of England), Diane of Poitiers (1499-1566), lusted after this little place on the river.

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When the king confiscated it for debt repayment, Diane managed to get her boyfriend to kindly bestow it on her. She had first met the cute little princeling when he was eight and she, twenty-eight. Love flourished, perhaps more on his side than hers…, and she remained the love of his life for 25 years.

The illustrious history of the chateau continued to grow under Diane’s power and influence. Known for her beauty, intelligence and sense of business, she became one of the most influential women in France.

Not to be bounced aside that easily, Henri II’s wife, whom he married in 1533 was none other than Catherine de Medici (1519-1589).

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Ironically, their initials of “H” and “C” seen throughout the chateau,

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create very nicely a “D” when intertwined, something, I’m sure, pleased the ousted Diane.

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After Henri’s death in 1559 Catherine, now a Regent for her young son, Francis II (who, by the way, was the husband of Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots) pushed Diane out of the chateau, taking it for her own royal residence. To entertain more properly, Catherine added two long galleries above the bridge and Italian Renaissance decor.

More deaths, more marriages, and we get to the next lady, Louise of Lorraine (1553-1601).

When her husband, King Henri III, the fourth son of Henry II and Catherine, was assassinated in 1589,

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she stayed in the Chateau, painting her bedroom black and devoting herself to religion. Compared to the previous women of the house, she wasn’t much of a party gal, and, believe me, this home is made for parties.

The next illustrious lady was Louise Dupin (1706-1799).

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She brought the Age of Enlightenment to the Chateau, starting an outstanding salon attracting the elite among artistic, scientific and political figures, such as Rousseau, Montesquieu and Voltaire. With Rousseau she researched and wrote one of the earliest pieces of feminist philosophy, OUVRAGE SUR LES FEMMES. This brilliant lady also saved the Chateau during the revolution due to her popularity among the locals and using the chapel for wood storage, thus disguising its true purpose. Additionally, she happened to be the great-grandmother of another famous female, George Sand.

In mid-19th century Marguerite Pelouze (1836-no known date of death), descended from the industrial bourgeoisie, took possession of Chenonceau, which her husband had purchased from Dupin’s heirs. Not lacking for funds, she spent a fortune to restore the estate to when Diane de Poitiers ‘reigned’. Unfortunately, due to a political scandal, she was forced to sell (seems to be a theme among these chateaus…).

Skip forward to WWI, and the current owners (the Meniers of the Menier Chocolate Factory, my kind of tribe) at that time paid to convert the chateau to a hospital. Simone Menier (1881-1972) served as matron and cared for over 2,000 wounded soldiers.

During WWII, the chateau was a demarcation line between Nazi-occupied France and France under Vichy control. The door at the southern end of the gallery was used to smuggle jews and those escaping the German zone and as an access by the French Resistance. Simone (above) also participated in the resistance during this second world war.

All in all, this Chateau represents not only a bodacious abode but also important times throughout France’s history.

Again, too much detail to bore you with, so I’ll just mention a few highlights, beginning with:

In the chapel, Mary Stewart’s Scottish guards left some graffiti dated 1543 and 1546:

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They don’t do anything half measure… look at the flower arrangements that graced many of the rooms and halls. Talk about picking a few blooms for the house:

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Beautiful tapestries literally covered the walls, and the cost of just one of these functional decorations (great against cold stone walls) were typically only seen in the homes of the very rich:

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Just as I found the fact Leonardo da Vinci had lived and died in France, the fact that Catherine de Medici ruled France from this desk with views of River Cher, was remarkable to me. Unfortunately, she, too, created so much debt she had to beg money from her Italian connections… :

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We’re looking at the same view she would have five hundred years ago:

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Here’s her mark (on a ceiling):

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Here’s where she entered from her bedroom into the ground-floor gallery:

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The party rooms (galleries on two floors used for entertainment):

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To provide a sense of the lavishness with which these royals partied, here’s an excerpt form Cowichan Valley Citizen website:

It was there at Chenonceau in the late 1500s that Catherine de’ Medici hosted a party for the Duke of Aragon that hasn’t been equalled since. Her guests enjoyed mock naval battles and a grand regatta staged on the nearby river Cher, plus a bunch of satyrs chasing lightly clad nymphs in a colourful tableau.

But at the banquet, Catherine outdid herself. She had recruited the most beautiful noblewomen in all of France to serve at the long tables as waitresses…. and you’ve guessed it…they were all topless.

The extravagances she staged are the stuff of legend. In fact one for her son lasted four days and four nights.”

FYI: one source said that big gala for her son really drew down the coffers…

South door used to escape to the ‘free zone’:

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One of the two kitchens:

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With groceries being delivered via boat under the bridge and a rotisserie spit with a counterweight to turn it hanging outside (Hattie not quite sure of this contraption):

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Another shivery moment of history: a 16th century, Italian cabinet with mother-of-pearl and fountain-pen engraved ivory incrustations, a wedding gift to Francois II and Mary Stewart (!):

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Louis XIV portrait by Rigaud given by Louis to his uncle, Duke of Vendome, in honor of a previous visit. Now THIS is a frame (size is roughly 5 feet x 7 feet):

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(Can you imagine what you would do if one of your relatives gave you a portrait this size for you to hang on your wall?… of course, it helps if your home is a huge chateau, and the relative a king…)

One of the marble medallions brought back by Catherine and placed above doors on the second floor (what they call the first floor). It’s an emperor, but please let me know which one if you decide to research it, which I haven’t):

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Of course, you HAVE to have a wine cellar, which we visited but didn’t taste in spite of the way it looks…:

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The maze was the last bit of the estate we toured. Created by Catherine’s orders with 2,000 yews, it wasn’t that difficult to figure out, but you could imagine what went on behind these hedges back in the day:

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Hstorical pinpoints, such as Catherine de Medici’s room from which she ruled, bring life to figures found on the paper pages of history. This is one reason why I love history and am enthralled by the quirks and haphazardness of people moving in and out of each others’ lives. It was a small world, too, thanks to the practice of inbreeding among all the royal families of Europe.

Leaving the splendor of Chenonceau we picked up our trail of Joan d’Arc as we headed towards Chinon. Chinon is a beautiful little village on the Vienne River bordering the ancient counties Anjou and Poitou. Henri II, Count of Anjou and crowned King of England in 1154 (again, not to be confused with Henry II over in Dover land) developed this fortress on a site whose history dates back to the Iron Age.

The Hundred Years War brought the Royal Fortress of Chinon into prominence with Charles VII using it as a refuge in 1418. It was here Joan met the Dauphin for the first time in 1429. She traveled 11 days through enemy territory with a small ensemble, an amazing feat during those times.

After the 17th century, the fortress was neglected, which began its slow decline to basically a ruin. After seven years and over 17,000,000 euros later, this site opened in 2014 with audio-video displays as part of the tour. Unfortunately, neither of us felt the money had been well-spent but you didn’t need really anything other than knowing this young Maid slept and drilled her soldiers here prior to routing the English from their siege of Orleans, roughly 100 miles away.

Historians can’t say for sure which room the famous meeting took place, but they did say there are two possibilities, both of which we saw.

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I don’t know if you know the story but to test her (as if the poor girl didn’t have enough to prove) Charles disguised himself as a regular guy while one of his minions dressed as a royal prince. She did pick him out correctly in spite of this trick. From there, he sent her to be vetted by the Church. They approved of her (obviously retracted this later), the Dauphin gives her an army, and she rides into history.

Similar to visiting Normandy’s beaches, following in the footsteps of this charismatic young woman, you can’t help but breathe in the grief. Knowing how she died blankets every site with sadness.

The fortress also figured prominently in the history of the Templar Knights, an organization involved with the Crusades and one envied by both the Pope and kings due to their influence and accumulated wealth. This order began two hundred years earlier by nine Frankish knights wanting to protect the pilgrims making their way to and from Jerusalem.

In spite of their vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, they managed to accumulate a lot of wealth and proceeded to serve as a bank for many, including the ever, over-spending royals; and, it was this wealth that King Philip IV aimed to grab to fill his beleaguered coffers. This guy Jack (1243-1314) was the last Grand Master of the Knights Templars and he wanted to return the Templars to their original goal of soldier-monks. In short, Philip with the help of Clement V, the pope in his pocket, managed to have the Templars convicted of despicable acts (confessed under torture). Those who confessed to unbelievable lies were not burned; those who refused were burned. Amongst the latter were two: Jack and Geoffrey de Charney of Normandy.

Frankly, the Templar exhibit in the Fortress’ visitor center was one of the better displays.

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After seeing the fortress, we visited the Tourist Agency who located a wonderful inn for us: Hotel Diderot. We had one of the last rooms, which happened to be in a little garden cottage across from the main house in this little village.

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Breakfast the next morning featured many homemade jams and preserves as well as a traditional breakfast treat of cracked walnuts, local honey, and fresh goat cheese mixed together and eaten on toast or rolls. That, with cut fruit and aromatic coffee made us sorry we weren’t staying a second night. Plus, Calhoun, we discovered one of our hostesses had gone to UNH! Talk about a small world :)

With lingering glances at the jams and croissants, we left to head to Chartres. First stop, though, was the church of Saint Catherine of Fierbois.

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where Joan retrieved or had retrieved the sword of Charles Martell, Charlemagne’s grandson. Joan had dreamt the sword was buried inside this church, and there’s a plaque indicating where she found it.

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In her own words during her 1431 trial:

 

“When I was at Tours or at Chinon I sent to seek a sword which was in the church of Saint Catherine of Fierbois, behind the alter, and it was found at once all covered with rust.

Inquisitors: How did you know that this sword was there?

“This sword was in the earth, all rusty, and there were upon it five crosses, and I knew it by my voices…. I wrote to the prelates of the place that if they please I should have the sword and they sent it to me. It was not very deep under ground behind the alter, as it seems to me, but I do not know exactly whether it was before or behind the altar. After this sword was found, the prelates of the place had it rubbed, and at once the rust fell from it without difficulty. There was an arms merchant of Tours who went to seek it, and the prelates of that place gave me a sheath, and those of Tours also, with them, had two sheathes made for me: one of red velvet and the other of cloth-of-gold, and I myself had another made of right strong leather. But when I was captured, it was not that sword which I had. I always wore that sword until I had withdrawn from Saint-Denis after the assault against Paris.” Joan of Arc: By Herself and Her Witnesses, p. 61-62
She also stayed next door in the priest’s home while on her way to Chinon.

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Next was Orleans where Joan d’Arc fought her famous battle, forcing the English to give up their seige.

Along the way we had to investigate the dried-up sunflowers. Having seen fields and fields of them, we wanted to find out if the seeds were still in them (yes).

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We also some nuclear generators and silos, just one site of several we’d spotted during our drives.

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Unfortunately, the house in Orleans where Joan stayed had been destroyed by Allied bombs during WWII,

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but it was rebuilt and now houses the most extensive research library on the second floor (available by appointment) and a brief film of her life on the ground floor (not the best).

We felt we really didn’t need to stop here. The city wasn’t the prettiest and the Joan d’Arc information could have readily been found in books, but we did have an excellent gyro at a tiny, street side restaurant and bought a book on the Maid.

Back in the car to continue to our final and last night stop in France: Chartres. I had last been here in 1971 via an American Youth Hostel bike trip with my friend Annie Bommer. I told Max what I remembered from that trip was (1) the French had carefully removed all the stained glass so it wouldn’t be harmed by WWII fighting and (2) it was the first time I had ever seen a skinned rabbit (it was hanging in a butcher’s window).

Reaching Chartres, we located a hotel right in the center of town. It was a Best Western, but nothing like any I’d been in before. It was like a dream with some of the friendliest hosts and hostesses we had met during our trip.

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And, not only was the price right BUT, I got my TUBBY!! Talk about feeling like a princess…

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After unloading our one knapsack, we headed out to the cathedral. It’s the oldest medieval cathedral that has only been slightly modified (unlike others) since the early 1200’s.

While there, a service was occurring with a soloist contributing to the other-wordly feeling we got walking in this huge cathedral. It was breathtakingly lovely as we gazed literally in true awe of its size and history. Talk about if walls could talk.

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It’s also a pilgrimage site since the 12th century due to the Sancta Camisa, a faded tunic said to be what Virgin Mary worn at the birth of Christ. Riiiiggghhtt. Uh-huh.

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Walking out of the Cathedral I saw the Michelin Man

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and just had to take a photo for Colleen who, I’ll never forget, for the longest time had a keychain with his image. From the sublime (Cathedral) to the not so sublime :)

Furthermore, Chartres offers a light show starting at 10 p.m. running until 1 a.m.

Get a relaxing libation (tea or wine), lower the lights, sit down in front of a big screen if possible, and watch this, then tell me it hasn’t captured your soul.

We caught some, but not all, of the 29 sites. It was mesmerizing, and this is another city we’d love to revisit. It’d be worth it if only for the light show.

The next morning, Monday, September 15th, it was time to head back to Dover as winds looked favorable, along with the tide, for an early morning departure for Ramsgate. It would be our last stop on the south coast before crossing the Thames and heading up to our winter berth.

We encountered some rude ferry toll takers, which prompted us to snap an interesting sign that explained why they had this demeanor.

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Of course, taking a photo right in front of them (they sat behind the glass wall on which this message was posted) wasn’t the smartest idea, especially since we were asking her if we could get on the earlier ferry (fortunately, there were no-shows and we got on).

To say our trip was magical doesn’t do it justice. Just know that croissants never tasted so magnificent :)

Croissant Land: PART ONE

After touring Dover Castle Monday,September 8, we checked weather, winds and tides again. Our goal since we left Orr’s Island June 6th was to reach our winter berth before the end of September. So, every day was a potential passage day towards our chosen winter home, Ipswich on the east coast of England.

On Tuesday, September 9, winds were still on the nose for our NE sail up to the mouth and across the Thames to Orwell River. Worse, the tides were only running in a favorable direction during the night. And, the forecast was the same up to and through the weekend.

So, why not go to France? We’re in Dover. There are lots of ferries running to and fro Calais. And, I’d always wanted to see Normandy after Max’s and my Betsy’s descriptions of their visits. Plus, Max wanted to visit some landmarks of another soldier’s sacrifice, that of Joan d’Arc.

Ferry and car booked, knapsack packed, and off we went the next day, Wednesday, September 10th.

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We arrived 90 minutes later in Calais, picked up a rental car and exited the ferry terminal only to see immigrants trying to slip across the channel. Seeing these people wanting a better life but unable to reach it legally was a reminder of how fortunate many of us are just due to being where we were born.

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(Notice more immigrants in the side mirror)

Our itinerary was flexible with the Normandy D-Day beaches as our designation; and, since we would be driving through places associated with Joan d’Arc, we added those to our sight-seeing list. Rouen being the first.

It was in this city where she was brought for her trial, staying in this tower.

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This building is what remains from a castle constructed by King Philip II Augustus after his conquest of Normandy in 1204.

Rouen was where, after six months of questioning with a final verdict of heresy, she was burned. This young girl age 19 led a French army to victory over the English only to be used as a pawn in the political wars fought between France and England. She had been captured on May 23, 1430, by Jean of Luxembourg who was in cahoots with the Duke of Burgundy who was in bed with the English.

In late November, she was handed over to the English who desperately wanted to squelch any inspiration this young maiden engendered in fellow French citizens. To do so meant proving she wasn’t God’s messenger but the devil’s. By condemning her as a heretic, the English were also smearing any legitimacy King Charles VII of France had earned thanks to Joan’s valor and belief in his right to be King of France.

In spite of standing up to a learned panel this illiterate young Maid held her own; however, she couldn’t fight the twisting of words and meanings, and on May 23rd she was deemed guilty of crimes: her pride; her disobedience of the church; her indecency (dressing in men’s clothing); the audacity of believing God chose her; and, her stubborn persistence in believing her visions were true, something the Church didn’t validate.

On May 24th, she recanted when they began to read out her definitive sentence in front of the stake. She was given life in prison and agreed to wear women’s clothing. However, May 28th she renewed her faith in believing God did choose her. Joan was now seen as a relapsed heretic and, therefore, had to be put to death by burning.

On May 30, 1431, this young girl was led to the stake. The place is marked by a garden in one of Rouen’s Squares. Talk about sobering. Her history was a powerful lead-up to another place where young people sacrificed themselves, each devastating.

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From there we drove to Caen, still unsure of where we would be stopping for the night. We have found, however, at every Tourist Information Office in France, they couldn’t have been more helpful. In fact, it was because of the guy at the Caen office we decided to stay in Bayeux, just a little bit further towards D-Day memorials and beaches.

Not having reservations, we found a lot of hotels, inns, B&Bs were chock block full (September coupled with sun and warmth drew a lot of tourists to this part of the world, us being two of them). Fortunately, one hotelier called several places for us and, voila!, we had a room.

And, what a place THAT was.

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When we managed to drive through the gates we were greeted with ‘how did you find us?!’ for there wasn’t even a sign out front. The reason being, the Domaine de Bayeux had only been open since this summer, and it was still unfinished in certain rooms. But, who cared? It was simply gorgeous.

We had a room in the old carriage building and decided to stay two nights.

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We shared some drinks with fellow travelers in the garden,

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which led to a small orchard at the end of the property (and where I picked some apples for car food).

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The breakfast was to die for… the room as well as the fare.

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It was at breakfast that I decided a worthwhile investment would be in someone who could sew B&C (baguette and croissant) pants. It seemed no matter how hard I tried to keep crumbs from showering me, it never worked.

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So, why not a design that camouflages them? That, and an elastic waistband, and I’d be good to go :)

The next day, Thursday, September 11, we headed to the D-Day beaches.

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The Battle of Normandy began with planning back in 1943, code named Overlord. General Eisenhower was appointed Commander-in-Chief with General Montgomery in charge of the land-based troops and Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Naval Forces (Operation Neptune). You may remember that Ramsay was also the one in charge of Operation Dynamo, which rescued troops at Dunkirk.

June 5th was the selected date only to be moved to the 6th due to weather. On that day the sacrifice began with the landing of allied troops on beaches and behind enemy lines by parachutes.

There is so much literature about this 100-day engagement (from June 6 to August 21st, 1944) and written far better than I can even pretend to do so here, so I’ll just note the places we toured. Many more exist along the stretch of this coastline and inland, but we decided to hit some of the main ones, knowing we will return.

First stop: Arromanches where one can see the remains of the artificial port or Mulberry Harbor. This port was used to supply troops as they fought the Germans during Operation Overlord.

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Second stop: Longues-sur-Mer, the only coastal defense battery (German) retaining its original guns.

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Max doing his usual inquisitive touring…

Looking at the gun…

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Looking out through the bunker…

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and, my looking in.

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Third stop: Normandy American Cemetery, with its row upon row of white crosses and an excellent visitor center, if you only could see one site, this is it. Forgive the repetition of the crosses. It is just too hard to stop paying homage to those who will never leave these grounds.

The memorial featured an inspiring bronze statue, “The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.”

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The memorial had detailed graphic displays on the walls surrounding the statue explaining the strategy and tactics.

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From there, you walk into an expanse of startling white crosses, and the sadness takes over.

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Looking down to the beach.

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Looking up from the beach.

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Just thinking and realizing what occurred here.

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Fourth stop: La Pointe du Hoc, where the 2nd Battalion of Rangers lost 135 out 225 men, neutralizing the Germans’ ability to cover both the Omaha (to the west) and Utah (to the east) beaches.

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What had to be scaled:

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Once scaled, there were huge craters from allied bombing, which made fighting extremely difficult.

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Fifth stop: Sainte-Mere-Eglise where the iconic photo of the American paratrooper John Steeple caught on a church tower.

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The effigy is a little cheesy but tells one of the amazing stories from this Battle. He lived, hanging there for two hours only to be captured and then later escaping. He died in North Carolina 1969.

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We wished we had stopped at the German Cemetery. At breakfast some people told us there were statements by the local French who were alive during the German occupation. One person stated he/she would never, ever step into that cemetery but they did not blame the current generation. It would have been interesting to hear others’ thoughts concerning the German army.

The actual battlefield is only one tragic reminder of what war costs, specifically WWII. On April 28, 1944, American sailors and soldiers were practicing landing on Slapton Sands, England, a beach serving as a rehearsal for the Omaha Beach landing in June. While Exercise Tiger was occurring, nine German torpedo boats attacked alerted by heavy radio traffic in Lyme Bay. A total of 749 American troops were lost (killed or declared missing). This information was released 43 years after the event; however, the dead and missing were honored by some veterans of this tragic exercise, erecting a monument soon after the war on Omaha Beach.

Many other stories await anyone who wishes to step back in time to witness the horrors and valor often associated with war. We will return.

Leaving the next morning, prior to driving to the Loire Valley, we made sure to see the Bayeux Tapestry. This amazing piece of embroidery is over 130 feet long by 20 inches high and was commissioned in the 1070’s by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, half-brother of William the Conqueror (aka “The Bastard”, Duke of Normandy, then King of England), as propaganda for William’s claim to the English throne.

The original stretches behind glass in a half-lit room and relates the story of how William and Harold II met and fought for the right to rule England at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

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I could try to relate the set-up for this battle but I’d only confuse you along with myself. The names alone, such as AEthelred the Unready (Edward’s father), Cnut the Great, and Sweyn Forkbeard, perfectly convey the stormy, convoluted history of this region in the 10th and 11th centuries. (For instance, Harold had just finished two weeks prior fending off Hardrada King of Norway’s attempt to claim the English throne. When you think about it, what was it about this island that engendered so much envy? Beer? Tea? Scones?? or just because ‘it’s there’?)

Just to give you the reasons why each would think they should be England’s king: Edward the Confessor’s mother was a sister of William’s grandfather; Harold was Edward’s brother-in-law; and, Hardrada’s nephew had had a pact with the Danish King of England, Harthacut.

Edward promised the throne to William in 1064, but on his deathbed January 5, 1066, left it to Harold. Harold claimed the throne and was supported by the Witan, a council of English lords. Unfortunately, for Harold, William didn’t agree.

This tapestry represents Odo’s idea of ensuring his and his bro’s view of the Battle was the correct retelling of the Battle. The figures in the 32 scenes are detailed enough to see displeasure, fear, and happiness. The descriptions and sequence slant the story to William and Odo’s liking, no surprise considering who ordered it.

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Not only is this piece of art a beautiful piece of history, but also an example of effective medieval PR.

If we had stayed in Caen our first night versus continuing on to Bayeux, we would have visited William’s ducal home, his abbey (Abbaye-aux-Homees and Abbaye-aux-Dames) serving as his and his wife’s, Matilda of Flanders, burial sites respectively. There’s an entertaining site about William worth reading just for the fun of it: http://www.history.com/news/10-things-you-didnt-know-about-william-the-conqueror. But, for more clarity and detail on the who, what, when, where story of William, just surf the net. And, let me know how you get on with those early English, tongue-twisting names.

Following our view of the tapestry and a quick stroll through the requisite cathedral, another mine’s-bigger-than-yours building,

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we drove to Amboise in the Loire Valley nourished by our orchard-fresh apples from Domaine de Bayeux.

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Again, without any reservations, most places were booked but the convenient tourism office located a small hotel just around the corner. We grabbed it, definitely nothing like our first two nights, but clean, quiet, and welcoming.

In this beautiful town on the Loire, we toured two more sites. The first was Chateau Royal d’Amboise. Built on a fortified stronghold by Fulk, Count of Anjou, in the 11th century, this chateau was confiscated by Louis XI in 1431 in lieu of executing the traitorous owner, Louis d’Amboise. Nice exchange, for it became a favorite of the royal family with kings constantly remodeling both buildings and grounds, from Charles VIII (1470-1498) to Louis XII (1462-1515) to Francis I (1494-1547).

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The latter king’s time of residence encompasses one of the most interesting periods due to his friendship and patronage of Leo, as in Leonardo da Vinci. Francis I invited him to come and live in Amboise, and in 1515, this Renaissance inventor, artist, and scientist did just that. The story goes he rolled up three of his favorite canvases, Mona Lisa being one, stuffed them into the saddlebags, and headed for France with several of his disciples, including Francesco Melzi and Battista de Villanis, his faithful Milanese servant and vegetarian cook.

The king gave him Chateau du Clos Luce built in 1471;

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and, over the next three years, Leo enjoyed the remaining years of his life, painting in the garden,

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dreaming up more inventions, doing some urban planning, sitting by the fire waiting for Battista to serve him up some medieval veggie fare,

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and conversing with his king friend. A tunnel connected the two residences, allowing Frank and Leo to visit at will without the nuisance of guards and peepers.

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He died in May 2, 1519 at the age of 67.

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The brochure on Chateau du Clos Luce says “tourists are told” he’s buried at the Chateau Royal’s St. Hubert Chapel, and we did see his tomb.

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(I had to snap a pic of the flowers by Leo’s grave. These were some of mom’s favorites, and she would have loved the aroma.)

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Whether he’s really there or not, who knows, but it makes sense. After all, who wants to tote a body around in central France during the summer without A/C?

I must say both Max and I were astonished to learn of this relationship and to know we were walking in the rooms where one of the greatest renaissance thinkers lived. This nugget of history was definitely one of the most surprising during our recent travels.

Stopping for a libation on our walk back to our hotel we met a couple from California. We started sharing our adventures on the road, specifically France’s highway toll system.

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Max told them how we had entered a payment lane that required a special token card unbeknownst to us. How we discovered this riveting bit of information was twice putting our credit card in only to have it rejected. But, we’re not talking simply sliding back out. We’re talking having the card on the second attempt spat out and sliding under the car. It’s like having a robot stick its tongue out at you, and not nicely.

Fortunately, the card was retrievable but only after getting out of the car and crawling underneath.

Now we were stuck. We couldn’t go backward because of cars lining up behind us and we couldn’t go forward because we couldn’t pay. We couldn’t pay because we didn’t have that special card.

Pressing the button for help, a woman responds saying something about a green arrow. We looked around. No green arrow, only a bright, alarming red indicating the stupid tourists hadn’t paid yet. Asking her to raise the gate so we could drive over to pay at the side building, she refused and kept saying something about a green arrow.

By this time, Max, who’s much more patient than I, lost his temper and started saying very precisely and very loudly to the little box, WE CAN’T BACK UP AND WE CAN’T PAY HERE SO OPEN THE GATE.

Needless to say, she didn’t. So, finally, when enough cars behind us realized we weren’t going anywhere and, hence, they weren’t either, reversed and got in other lanes, we then were able to inch backwards and try another lane. By doing so we saw the infamous green arrow, which was flashing above the last lane to the right and which evidently took cash.

Well, the best part was this couple exclaimed ‘that happened to us! we, too, had our credit card spat out and had to crawl under the car!!’.

I must say it was nice to know someone else had experienced the exact same treatment, including the vomited card. All we could think was it created a constant source of entertainment for the tollbooth takers who probably manually controlled how and for whom the card spit-it-upeth and were roaring with laughter. With any luck they had it on tape until the next unsuspecting smuck rolled into that lane. Live and learn. Let’s just say all four of us are now much more cautious when approaching a French toll gate…

And, just so you know, my feet pay testimony to seeing four impressive sites in eight hours…

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On to the next adventure!