La Belle FranceFlying Flag of France







Boulogne - Andrew and Roy - 1986
Boulogne - Andrew and parents - 1994
Paris - Andrew - 1999
Picardy and Lille - Andrew - 2000
Cité Europe and Wimereux - Andrew (and work colleagues) - 2000
Paris - Andrew and Jacqui - 2002
Le Touquet - Andrew and Jacqui (and relatives) - 2002
Rodez - Andrew and Jacqui - 2003
Le Havre (Cruise 2008 pt 1) - Andrew, Jacqui, their Mums, her Aunt & Uncle - 2008
Ajaccio, Corsica (Cruise 2008 pt 5) - Andrew, Jacqui, their Mums, her Aunt & Uncle - 2008
Villefranche (Cruise 2008 pt 7) - Andrew, Jacqui, their Mums, her Aunt & Uncle - 2008
Marseille - Andrew, Jacqui and her Mum - 2008
Cherbourg - Andrew, Jacqui, their Mums, her Aunt and Uncle - 2009
Boulogne - Andrew, Jacqui, his Aunt and Uncle, his Nieces - 2010

Map of France showing places visited  Map of France with flag

Click here for a more detailed map

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The English and the French have had a love/hate relationship over the centuries. The neighbouring powers were at war throughout most of the medieval period, even as far as the 18th century England and Napoleon's France were at loggerheads.

These divisions only emphasise the similarity between the two peoples. France is still today the most popular holiday destination for British people.

It is also frequently the first foreign country Brits visit. Roy went on a Seine cruise with school, whilst Andrew visited in 1979 with his parents and sister.

The capital is, of course, Paris - the city of romance and one of Europe's great destinations.  France has an enviable variation of scenery from the rolling country of the north, through the Alps and Massif Central to the Mediterranean coast.

***

Boulogne - Andrew and Roy - 1986

Way back in 1986 when the Channel Tunnel was still a small ditch in Folkestone and a gleam in Napoleon's eye Ferries were the only viable way to get across to the Continent (Air Travel still being vastly expensive).

Each year Britain's tabloid newspapers would offer return trips for £1 and in 1986 Roy saved up the vouchers for himself and Andrew to take a daytrip to Boulogne.  The snag being you didn't get to choose when you travelled.  We got given a ferry at some obscene time in the morning from Dover on 1st February.

The day was, well let us say, not the most clement weather-wise.  In fact it was freezing cold. Not helped by Roy's idea (not quite sure where it came from) that we should go in suits; not renowned as the warmest of modes of dress.

Boulogne in February is not the most bustling place in the universe.  Add to that the fact we were both cold and uncomfortable.  We spent much of the day skulking around the Old Harbour wondering why they should have a statue of Edward Jenner standing in the town.

Andrew lurking in the harbour at Boulogne

Andrew lurking in the old harbour at Boulogne

Roy in Boulogne Basilica

We also explored the Old Town Walls, which were very windswept and bloody cold.  Because it was such a grey day the pictures we took have mostly come out as smudgy blobs so they aren't particularly good.  Although the one above of Andrew in the Old Harbour is quite atmospheric.

To warm ourselves up we went inside Boulogne's Basilica (see picture right).  Our memories of this are a little shaky, but we can remember standing gratefully by a big oil heater.

We then went back out and completely failed to find a decent cup of tea or anything recognisable to eat ... how "green" we were!

The trip back seems to have sunk into a miasma of fog in both our memories, so presumably it was uneventful.

Roy in Boulogne Cathedral

Boulogne - Andrew (with his parents) - 1994

Some years later Andrew returned to Boulogne with his parents - this time in November! The inention was to check out the market for fresh wild mushrooms.  We did find a few, but in general the market was pretty ropey.  So we spent the rest of the day looking around Boulogne's old town.

Boulogne Street

Boulogne Street leading up to Basilica

Andrew and friend in Nausica Centre, Boulogne

One of the chief attractions in Boulogne these days is the Nausica Centre - a Sealife Centre of huge proportions (the biggest in Europe apparently). It was very impressive and we certainly saw some of the biggest sharks we have ever seen!!!




One of the Gates to Boulogne's City Walls
Towards the end of the day we went to eat in the centre of town and then took a look around some of the old City Walls which were brightly floodlit by this point.

One of the Gates to Boulogne's City Walls

Then we took the very long ferry journey home in some very rough seas.  Andrew, never the world's greatest sailor just about made it off the boat at Folkestone before he was heartily sick!


Paris - Andrew - 1999

I had been to Paris with my parents and sister way back in 1979 when I was just 10 years old. My chief memories of that trip are the scorching heat, the lack of decent chips and of nearly passing out having climbed to the top of Notre Dame.

Louise Saunders, a former work colleague and excellent actress, was playing the Jardin Shakespeare in the Bois de Boulogne with her acting troop (the Tavistock Repertory Company) playing the part of Portia in The Merchant of Venice (with her Uncle playing Shylock).  So I decided I'd go over and see the play, spending a few days in Paris whilst I was at it.

View of Paris from the Sacre-Couer, Montmartre Paris from the Sacre Couer

I arrived on Friday 11th June and after checking in at my hotel made straight for Montmartre and the Sacre Couer.  When I went to Paris with my parents we didn't go inside the Sacre Couer for some reason.  This time I went inside it and up the dome from where there are some stunning views of Paris, although part of the climb up is actually outside(!) the dome and not for the faint-hearted.

After that it was down to the Place de Têtre to have a caricature drawn and a silhouette portrait cut out.  Briefly dropping my pictures back at my digs I then headed off for the show in the Bois. The Bois de Boulogne is absolutely massive and I got a little lost but still arrived at the Jardin Shakespeare long before the play began.

Louise Saunders as Portia plus others performing The Merchant of Venice in the Jardin Shakespeare, Bois de Boulogne, Paris

The play was masterful and in such a marvellous setting - all the plants in the open air arena are mentioned in Shakespeare somewhere!  Louise (pictured above seated) was controlled and elegant as Portia and her Uncle Guy was enthralling as Shylock.  After the show I joined up with some of the actors for a magnificent meal at a restaurant in Pigalle complete with irate Parisian waiters as floor show.

The next day, after petit dejeneur by the Seine, I headed out of Paris to Versailles - a place I had wanted to see for a long time.  It certainly didn't disappoint.  The place is absolutely HUGE. Best of all, if you don't want to pay a penny you don't have to, because the whole of the magnificent gardens are free to wander around - you only pay to go inside the Palace.

Andrew at Versailles

I took a horse drawn carriage down to the Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette's "hideaway" from the bustle of the main Palace.  From there I walked along to the Grand Canal (a big cross shaped The Hall of Mirrors, Versailleslake).  Walking from there back up to the distant main Palace was a long trek, but worth it for the stunning views to be had in all directions.  A brief stop at the restaurant by the Canal for a remarkably generous crêpe and then it was back up to the main Palace for the truly panoramic view back down the steps to the Grand Canal and beyond.

Entry to the Palace was remarkably cheap and certainly worth it - particularly for the awe-inspiring Hall of Mirrors - where surprisingly you were allowed to take photographs.



All in all I spent about 6 hours at Versailles - which isn't bad at all.



Crazy Horse - "Adaggio"Back in Paris I had decided to take in one of the Cabaret shows.  Initially, of course, I thought of the Moulin Rouge, but closer inspection seemed to make The Crazy Horse a slightly more attractive (and marginally cheaper) deal, although it wouldn't conclude with the Can-Can. Maybe Moulin next time?

The Crazy Horse is the "new kid on the block" of Paris Cabaret (only being set up in 1951). With 16 sections (with titles like "Vestal's Desire", "See-Thru Peek A Boo" and "God Save Our Bareskin") some of which might not appeal entirely to any feminists passing by, although there were also a couple of non-scantily clad female type acts.  One of which, a puppet show, was absolutely hilarious in any language!  Some of the scantily clad female type acts were actually very cleverly staged, with some stunning lighting effects which at times created a purely abstract act.  Of course, some of them were merely about parading naked flesh, but there was no "seediness" about the whole thing really...people were dressed up as if they were going to the Opera or some such.

After this somewhat surprising show I walked along the Seine (the East Bank) as the sun slowly set behind the Eiffel Tower.

Andrew on the Left Bank across from Notre Dame

My last day in Paris began with petit dejeneur next to Notre Dame.  I then wandered around the Ile de la Cité, across the little bridge onto the Ile St. Louis, one of the oldest parts of Paris with little windy streets filled with antique shops.  From here I crossed onto the Left Bank and browsed through the wonderful second hand book stalls of the bouquinistes; also stopping off in Shakespeare and Company - the only bookshop in the world offering accommodation(?!). I purchased a French language copy of Anne McCaffrey's "Le dragon blanc" and Shakespeare's "Le Marchand de Venise" to present to Louise when we next met up in London.

La Tour EiffelI then crossed the Seine once more to the Place de la Concorde and Champs-Elysées.  After climbing the Arc de Triomphe it was a brief stop for dinner in a restaurant on the Champs. This turned out to be the only down-point of the whole trip as the salmon was decidedly stringy and not pleasant at all.

I was, of course, saving the best until last - La Tour Eiffel.  I had decided to time my visit so I went up in daylight and came down at night.  Thus getting aerial views of Paris both during the day and twinkling with thousands of lights at night.  It is a terrible cliché to say that the Eiffel Tower is wonderful - but it truly is; I can't think of another European City which you can see from above in as many places as you can Paris; but the view from the top of the Tower crowns them all.  I walked down the last section in amongst the floodlit iron-work which was quite disorienting and a little surreal, but finished my trip to Paris in real style.


Andrew up the Eiffel Tower at Sunset

The following day I flew back home and was treated to an extra bonus - an aerial view of the River Thames from the Barrier right up to Hampton Court - WOW!

Picardy and Lille - Andrew - 2000

I had been planning a trip to France since early in the year - I wanted to see something other than Paris and Channel Ports, my chosen destination was Normandy.  I went to the French Tourist Board in London to pick up some information and whilst there entered a competition to win a night in Picardy.  I then went home and immediately forgot all about it.  Imagine my surprise when I actually won it!  The prize was a night in Péronne in the Somme valley, plus entrance to two museums.  I booked my night and then started to construct a holiday around it.

The Dover-Calais Hovercraft - alas now consigned to history

So on 2nd September at 7:30 in the morning I arrived at Dover to get onto one of the last Hovercraft to cross the Channel.  Sadly this unique and fascinating form of transport ceased to operate on 1st October 2000 - the end of an era.  Whilst never the most comfortable or quietest kind of craft, the Hovercraft was a magnificent machine and it's passing will be mourned by anyone who dislikes boats as much as myself (although I suspect the people of Dover will be quite pleased not to have their peace shattered every half an hour!).

Thirty-five short minutes after leaving Dover in a cloud of spray and noise the Hovercraft arrived (literally) on the beach at Calais.  At this point my troubles began.  I had planned to get a train from Calais to Amiens and a bus from there to Péronne.  I had reckoned without the appalling French public transport system.  At 1:15 in the afternoon I was sitting fuming at Boulogne station, facing not getting to Péronne and not getting my prize.  Eventually I arrived in Amiens, but it was nearly 3 by then and I knew there was no longer any point in trying to get to Péronne - I had lost my prize.  I was not happy.

Amiens Cathedral, the West Front

I had planned to spend the next two days in Amiens, but now had to find accommodation for this night also.  Fortunately I managed to do that in a not too expensive place right next to Amiens Cathedral.  Resigned to having my plans shattered I determined to make the most of it. Amiens is absolutely dominated by the Cathedral which is, apparently, the largest Gothic building in all of France - quite a boast! The Cathedral was begun in 1220 and all but the tops of the towers had been finished by 1269, remarkably quick and ensuring a uniformity not usually in evidence on Cathedrals.

Amiens Cathedral and the River Somme from the St. Leu DistrictThe west front is awe-inspiring in the intricacy of its sculpture, particularly in the afternoon when the sun falls on the statuary picking out the detail, for example the gargoyles and grotesques each individual and beautifully carved which support the Saints' pediments.  The interior is less unique, much like many other Cathedrals, although has one of those medieval tile-mazes on the floor (navigating the maze on your knees was the equivalent of a pilgrimage). For anyone fit a trip up the towers is recommended, if nothing else because you get to stand before the rose window and really appreciate it's size.

Amiens suffered quite badly in World War I and then even more so when World War II arrived, so the people of Amiens take care of their surviving ancient buildings, and for once reconstruction was done with some care, aside from the very ugly Tour Perret near the Station. One of the nicest parts of the City is the area of St. Leu, once a poor area of weavers and fishermen huddled around a series of canals off the River Somme. The area was left to rot when the weaving companies moved out to the outskirts of town and has recently been - very tastefully - rennovated.  The River front has a collection of excellent restaurants and of an evening is very much the beating heart of Amiens - I ate here on each of my three evenings in the City.

The St. Leu District and the River Somme, Amiens

That evening as I wandered back to my digs I noticed a crowd gathering outside the west front of the Cathedral.  Not sure what was happening I decided to hang around.  I was glad I did. When the Cathedral's front was cleaned traces were found of the paints used on the figures on the building (all Cathedral frontages were once painted brightly). To celebrate the Millennium a magnificent and tremendously accurate projection was being done onto the Cathedral recreating these colours.  The detail was astounding, hems on cloaks were projected with golden threads, beards matched exactly those on the carvings - you have to hand it to the French, no one can do things like this quite as well as they can.

Astounding Colour Projection onto Amiens Cathedral

The following day I had booked a Somme Battlefields Tour, this operates from Albert, a short way east of Amiens.  I arrived in Albert at around 11:30, just in time for the Museum of the Somme Battlefield to close for lunch, my tour was at 3:30, just after the Museum re-opened, so Albert - the Basilica and World War One Muralthere went the only part of my prize left to me (free entry to the Museum).  Albert is a not particularly attractive town, dominated by the tower of the Basilica of Notre Dame de Brebières, swathed in scaffolding on my visit.

Albert has a good excuse for being not hugely attractive - it was absolutely flattened in World War I after two years of almost continuous bombardment.  In 1914 the town had 7,343 inhabitants, in January 1919 only 120 remained. In 1915 the base of the "Golden Virgin" statue atop the Basilica was hit by a shell, the figure toppled over until it was horizontal and stayed that way until the end of the War.  It was said that if The Leaning Virgin fell the War would be over, which led to a number of disgruntled Tommys taking potshots at it!  Albert is one of the few towns in France where the British are truly welcome.

My tour, with Salient Tours, started at 3:30 and, as it was late in the season, I was the only person on the tour.  This meant that my tour guide, an Englishman called David, could give me all his attention - and also that we got around the tour slightly quicker than a group would, so I got to go to an extra cemetery.

Andrew in the Trenches at Beaumont-Hamel, the Somme

The first stop on the tour is Beaumont-Hamel where one of the first offensives of the Somme occurred, dominated by the caribou monument to the Newfoundlanders, the whole site was gifted to the Canadian people.  Some of the best preserved trenches in the area are here, demonstrating well the short distance between Allied and German lines, a solitary tree standing battered in the middle of No Man's Land is known as the 'Danger Tree'.  Standing here there is not a single building or tree older than 1916 for about a 9 mile radius aside from the 'Danger Tree'.

The Thiepval Monument to the Missing, the Somme

The sheer scale of the destruction is very difficult to grasp so long after the event, but the astonishing Monument to the Missing at Thiepval begins to bring across the monstrous events that happened here. The Monument, designed by Lutyens, is 45 metres high and carries the names of 73,357 troops whose bodies were never found.  It is a bold and breathtaking piece of work and without a doubt was the highlight (if you can use such a word) of the Tour.

The British Cemetery at Pozières, the Somme

From here we travelled to a large cemetery at Pozières, this was where the Australians fought, although the cemetery was a British one.  The sun was hanging low in a threatening sky giving the whole place a sombre feeling of menace which was entirely appropriate.  The last stop on the tour was Le Grande Mine, also known as Lochnagar Crater, a huge mine crater created by an explosion from underneath German lines.  This, and three other similar explosions, went off a few minutes before the first Allied assault - the plan was it would throw the Germans into confusion, in reality all it did was warn them of the coming attack making them ready for the slaughter which would follow.

Graves at Pozières, the Somme

All of this puts you in a slightly sombre mood as you head back for Albert and then (in my case) Amiens, but it does begin to fill you in on just how terrible World War I really was - a period of our past which is even now passing from memory into history as the last of the veterans die. More than anything else you are left with a wonder of how it could all have been allowed to happen again only 20 years later.

Detail of a World War I Grave at Pozières Cemetery, the SommeCross at the Mine Crater, the Somme

My constantly shifting plan for the next day, my last in Amiens, was to go to a nearby village called Boves in the morning (to look at the Castle there) and spend the afternoon in Amiens doing a boat trip on the Hortillonnages. Once again the poor public transport in the region defeated me, there was no bus to Boves that would allow me to get back in time to do the boat trip.  I was stuck in Amiens for the morning and had run out of things to look at (the Picardy Museum being shut, it was a Monday).  So I wandered back into the Cathedral, sat inside for a while listening to people's shoes squeaking across the floor, then went and sat by the Somme for a while reading, then I went to eat before finally going to the Hortillonnages for my boat trip.

St. Leu District, Amiens

The Hortillonnages are a series of canals and drainage channels leading off the Somme and creating an intricate web of waterways dissecting market gardens which once grew all the produce needed for the town, but today mostly serve as flower gardens.  The only way to access much of the area is on the peculiar high-prowed boats, the prows are raised so the boats can dock against the mud banks of the gardens without damaging the banks.  Every year the boats come out into the town and hold a floating market (this is in the summer though, not September).  Floating around the serene, willow-filled, banks was very relaxing, although the commentary from our Hortillon was only in French.

On the Boat in the Hortillonnages, Amiens

I returned to my digs and showered, for tomorrow I was travelling onwards, to Lille.

My initial impressions of Lille were good. The area around the Station was bustling and full of pavement cafés, and seemed quite promising.  I booked into my digs and went out to look around.  I soon discovered that the only parts of Lille that were particularly worthy of note were the main squares and the area immediately surrounding them.

The first of the three squares I hit was the least impressive, the Place Rihour, from there it is a short walk to the Place du General de Gaulle (or Grand Place) which is the most impressive of the three with the Ancienne Bourse building being a superb example of "Lille" architecture, a rather florid variation on the standard Flemish building style.  Also on this Place is the bookshop, Le Furet du Nord, apparently Europe's biggest bookshop although I think I would dispute that.

Place du General de Gaulle, Lille

Overlooking the Place du General de Gaulle is the Belfry which actually stands in the third of the squares, the Place du Theatre which not only had the rear of the Ancienne Bourse, but the Belfry and the Opera House making it achitecturally speaking the most attractive of the three squares.

I had read much about the Vieux Lille, the Old Quarter, before my arrival and was disappointed to find that, for the main part, it was a series of shabby and unexciting back streets with only a few streets of character filled to the brim with equally unexciting 'designer' shops.  Lille's oldest building, the Hospice Comtesse, was shut for the day and the modern Cathedral is a contender for ugliest modern Cathedral (giving even Coventry a run for its money!).

The "Boot", EuralilleSlightly disillusioned I headed for the Euralille quarter, hoping the supposedly shiny futuristic area would lift my spirits.  It didn't.  It is not so much futuristic as ugly, the Euralille shopping centre was a disappointment and I got told off for taking photos and almost slung out.  The boot-shaped building standing on the Lille-Europe Station is an abomination that Sir Norman Foster would be proud of, and I spent very little time in this soul-less area, heading back to the Place du General de Gaulle which was at least pleasant.  There was now nothing left to do, the Citadel (Vauban's masterpiece apparently) was too far away and not open today anyhow.  I had a meal and went back to my hotel, which was another mistake...

Although I appreciate this is not a fault of Lille as a place, my hotel room was horrible.  I spent most of the night swatting mosquitoes, my walls already looked like an insect Somme and it became increasingly difficult to tell the live ones from the dead, perhaps I should have listened to hear them laughing.  Obviously the mosquitoes were breeding in the damp patches in the bathroom walls, I swatted as many as I could with my rolled up copy of the Ghent Tourist Guide, before giving up and trying to hide myself under the sheet using it as an ad hoc mosquito net. The bed was so soft and uncomfortable that I expected to wake in the morning not only bitten to buggery but with my knees touching my forehead.

The Belfry in Lille, floodlit

As it was I woke up in a more or less horizontal position with surprisingly few bites.  I couldn't look out of the window (there wasn't one) but when I finally got outside I saw that the weather had changed, it was raining.

I then sat on a train at Lille-Flandres Station waiting for it to depart to Ghent and another country.

To read about the rest of my trip which I spent in Belgium, see Travel Pages: Belgium.

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2009


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