OK, so I’m somewhat behind with writing for the blog and I need to catch up as we’re on our next leg of our travels and are already racking up experiences to share. So with that in mind here is an abbreviated account of our 3 or so weeks in France in May/June 2018 as we worked our way up towards England.
As we entered the town, a big sign said in French – the ‘No. 1 Slimming Village’. I didn’t quite understand what this could mean at the time, but it turns out that the entire village is given over to health treatments and slimming. The village has a resort spa with thermal baths where the French go for ‘la curiste’. It is very upmarket, and very quaint but then surprises you with a landscaped park and modern sculptures and water features – right next to a bullring… yes a bullring. This being in the South of France, there is still bullfighting. It is a complete anathema in the centre of this refined little town.
Believe it or not, if you are a French citizen, your doctor can prescribe you a treatment which is a minimum of 10 days to a maximum 3 weeks, and the State will actually pay for it! I’m not sure if it also pays for your accommodation. We met a couple staying in their tiny camper van so maybe not, but they were very pleased with their treatment.
We had a somewhat disconcerting experience of sitting down at a bar table, only to look around and notice that everyone else was sipping water or tea, and that the atmosphere was a little lacking. We soon made a quick departure !
The Canal du Garonne
This links the Canal du Midi with the Garonne river and so was originally intended to provide a river route between Toulouse on the south coast and Bordeaux on the West cost. We camped next to this mighty canal for a couple of nights so we could do some cycling up and down it. I also cycled to the nearest supermarket and finally got up the courage to order something from the meat counter (actually, I had no choice, nothing was pre-wrapped) and we had beefburgers made from steak which they make for you there and then with a special machine. This is normal in France but these were the best I’ve ever eaten.
We also treated ourselves to some French cuisine at a riverside restaurant L’Ecluse 52 (Lock no. 52) where we experienced a totally heavenly pudding that had a pippete of Armagnac that you put on the whipped cream with figs and madeleines. I have to say it was like being on a little pillow of heaven – that is the only way I can describe it !
One of our favourite spots. This ancient town is incredibly picturesque and sits on a river with a wonderful 11th century belfry. The sound that the bells make are really something, and very atmospheric. We particularly liked it because there is a lovely aire that’s just a few minutes walk into the centre via a lovely park and some pretty bridges. This meant we could take the dogs with us and it wasn’t too far for Bodger and his arthritic paws. We could also get our awning out and sit on the mown grass lawn next to our van – more like camping in a proper campsite but at a fraction of the cost at 7.70 euros a night.
This has a sadly notorious place in WW2 history as the village where every single inhabitant was rounded up by the Nazis and killed. 642 men, women and children were massacred in 1944 with no reason or explanation given. The theory is that this act was led by a rogue Nazi officer who held a grudge against the French for wounds received a couple of years earlier and the fact that the resistance had abducted and killed a fellow officer and friend of his. In fact it seems that neither things had anything to do with this village and was likely a mix-up with another village. It is said that the officer’s superior was shocked, but the fact that the officer was not relieved from his post after this is a further shocking indictment of the Nazis.
After the massacre, the Nazis torched the entire village, and the place has not been touched since then, as a memorial and reminder. Tim wanted to go. I resisted because I have travelled to other sites where atrocities have taken place: Auschwitz in Poland, the Killing fields in Cambodia, the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, and each time it’s deeply upsetting. But Tim wanted to go so we went and it seemed stupid to sit in the van, so I joined him.
What struck me first was how large the village was, more of a town I had in my mind thought it would a small hamlet. But it had a high street with a tramline and every shop you can imagine – dressmakers, butchers, bakery, cafes, even a garage. The overhead electric tram wires where still in place – I had not expected such intactness.
The church is where the women and children were killed, and I was surprised to see that visitors today are allowed to walk around inside it. The remains of the church bell lie in a distorted heap on the floor after it melted in the fire. The most poignant item in there is the remains of a pram – the metal twisted and the wheels and struts still discernible.
All around the village are remains of everyday metal items like cars, sewing machines and cooking pots. The details we learned around the event that took place are too horrific to put here, but suffice to say it was a sobering visit.
Chateau de Chenonceaux
This is very beautiful chateau that is built over the river, and partly inspired by the Ponte Vecchio in Florence by it’s then owner – Catherine de Medici.
We went to several chateaux but this was by far the best. The quality and workmanship of the objects and interiors were stunning, the arrangement of the furniture reflected the period it was from and there were amazing arrangements of fresh flowers everywhere which sounds banal but it actually brought the place to life and enhanced the furniture and artworks.
The place also had a very interesting history and was owned and developed exclusively by a succession of women for it’s first few hundred years. One of them – Louise Dupin – presided over a celebrated literary salon in the Enlightenment and invited all the philosophers and writers of the day. She worked with Jean-Jacques Rousseau on a paper arguing that women should have equal rights to education and the right to work. She was a feminist ahead of her time. She also saved the chateau from being destroyed in the French revolution.
In WW2 the chateau was a means of escape for resistance fighters as it was a bridge over the river from the Nazi Occupied Zone to the ‘free’ zone.
Also, unlike many places we went to, dogs are allowed in the gardens. I genuinely believe this is a more enlightened and humane approach in this day and age. Not to mention it was a hot day and we couldn’t have left the dogs in the van for too long, even with all the skylights wide open.
Chateau de Chantilly
I wanted to go here primarily for the stables which appear in the Bond film View to a Kill. I will also never forget the scene where MayDay bumps off Sir Godfrey Tibbett in his Bentley while going through the car wash. To this day I can’t go through a car wash without thinking about that…
Back to the stables – they are grand on a different scale and there are horses, ponies and donkeys who live in them and we watched their feeding time, assisted by a Chihuahua in a yellow vest !
To my huge frustration, we missed the dressage show in the Grand Dome by 20 minutes. Instead we went round the Horse Museum, which was worthy but a little dull.
The chateau itself was ok, though by then we were a little blase about such grandeur. The unexpected highlight for Tim, being the art collection which had quite a few familiar works.
Disappointingly, and despite the vast acreage of the grounds – dogs are not allowed. This seems strange as the man that built the place clearly loved dogs and there are statues of them everywhere.
This also meant that we raced around as fast as we could and hot-footed it back to the van to get back for Bodger and Charlie. Luckily it was raining so there were no concerns about heat, but we still don’t like leaving them for too long.
I learned about Beauvais in my art history A-level and since then have always wanted to go there. It is renowned as being the tallest Gothic-era cathedral in the world. The best architects and masons of the time pushed technology to the brink, to the extent that bits of it fell down and had to be rebuilt, and it was never finished. Interestingly, part of it was found to be a little unstable in 2014 and now has a huge wooden buttress holding it up inside.
We were determined to go, and having searched out the nearest place to park the Elf, we made our way there. I was not disappointed, it was jaw-droppingly high inside and very elegant and beautiful. To know that this was achieved in the 13th Century – more than 700 years ago – is just mind-boggling.
Sadly today, it looks a little decaying around the edges and in need of some serious funding and restoration. I had no qualms about putting some coins into the voluntary donations box.
Next time I have promised myself we’ll visit Chartres, another Gothic masterpiece. We saw it like a beacon from 2 miles away as we went round the town on the bypass and it towered above everything else.
So these are the highlights of our France leg of our travels, I could go on but I’ve already written more than I intended and that’s probably enough for now 🙂