Archived entries for September Ad-French-ure

The lady of the lake

Here’s part 5, halfway through my “September ad-French-ure”. My real life has this nasty habit of happening at a rate that outpaces my ability to document it online, hence the tardiness of these posts. At this rate the write-up is taking longer than the trip itself – I hope you’re still with me!

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The Government House in Rome covered in scaffolding. Boo...

A recurring theme on our travels is that places are always being cleaned or restored when we visit them. This happened to us in Rome, with the glory of both the Piazza Navona and the Government House both obscured by scaffolding, as well as several of the temples in Japan.

In keeping with this tradition, the Chateau de Chenonceau was being restored when we visited.

I don't know why the buildings are always hiding behind masks

Not that we missed out on much, just a nice “front door” picture. Everything else was accessible, and just as amazing as the other chateaus. Chenonceau has one of the most unique profiles of the Loire chateaux because it’s built across a river.

This isn't one of our photos (yeah, right... I wish). I stoles it from Wikipedia

Let me make up for lost time by getting to the pictures without further ado. Enjoy:

A tree-lined path leading up to the chateau

I was trying to figure out why the pidgeons kept throwing themselves at the wall. Turns out they were looking for insects in the cracks

One of the external walls. You can see how it might need a bit of cleaning once in a while

The chateau had its own little chapel, big enough to sit about 10 people. This is one of the intricate stained glass windows therein

It was a bit disappointing to see some decorations being replaced by these horrible cardboard-looking things...

... then on the other hand, these frames probably cost as much as the paintings (which both probably cost some ridiculous amount)

High quality real paintings adorned the walls with jealousy-inducing regularity

A tidy little bouquet in one of the bedrooms

Yet another photo of an exquisite flower arrangement

Er...

As with all the other chateaus, they don't do things by half - all of the produce here is real

"Where's my dinner?"

We have heaps of photos like this, but I think it's best if I don't show too many lest you figure out what a silly couple we really are

Mmmm... imagine how delicious a roast would be cooked on that rotisserie!

A nice mother and daughter shot

Surprise! Another massive, immaculately kept garden

The chateau even has its own breed of rose

A crazy pumpkin patch

My parents would probably be thinking of all kinds of dishes and soups right about now

Yes, Villandry gave us a taste for a life of crime. (Almost) caught in the act again here...

Getting sick of chateaus? Yeah, so were we by this stage, but there’s just one more that you have to see…

Villains at Villandry

Here we are at the next stop on the itinerary of my blog tour of France, which I’ve named “September ad-French-ure”. For those of you who’ve joined us late, or if you just want to skip to a different part, you can use these links:

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After we left Mont Saint-Michel, the next part of our trip began: a tour of the Loire Valley region. La Loire is the longest river in France, and dotted along it are many magnificent castles – or chateaux as the French call them.

A roundabout in Angers

The first stop on our Loire itinerary was supposed to be Angers, it only got us angry (har har). Seriously, we were using an outdated camping site guide book and a GPS loaded with old maps, so we ended up driving around the city in circles trying to find this non-existent camp site on a non-existent street. What made it worse was the very narrow streets, and navigating through them in a huge mobiroom must have been a very taxing experience for Jozef (and quite stressful for us too).

Oh well, it just wasn't meant to be...

By the time we managed to figure it out, it was nearing 11pm, so we ended up staying the night in an empty carpark outside some random building (probably a conference centre or something).

The next day, we set off for our next destination. While looking for a place to rest, we came across another chateau. Because it wasn’t an official stop, only Jenny and I ventured from the mobiroom to check out a castle perched on a cliff above a medieval village. At this stage, not having actually been into any of the castles yet, we were a little bit put off by the admission fee and decided not to go inside.

The mystery chateau...

Now the funny thing is, none of us thought to make a note of where this was, and to this day, we still have no idea where it is! Our best guess, based on extensive Googling, is Saumur. It’s between Angers and Villandry and sits perched above a city, but none of the pictures look anything like ours so we’re not 100% certain. Were we ever going to see the inside of a chateau?

... and the nameless village that it overlooks

Finally, we arrived at Villandry. Our first “taste” of French castles certainly didn’t disappoint! The €9 per person entry fee seemed pretty steep, but apparently it goes into the maintenance and upkeep – and a LOT is required. I didn’t pay too much attention to the posters on one of the walls detailing the history of Villandry, although I did manage to catch something about how some rich, intelligent American professor woman married an intelligent, but destitute Spanish professor man, and they decided to go to France and create THE MOST FRICKIN’ AMAZING CASTLE AND GARDEN IN THE WORLD.

Here are a few pictures from inside:

The chateau courtyard

The sitting room. The tapestry in the background was what crazily rich people used for wallpaper back in those days

A very small table for a very big dining room

Close up of the table setting

The kitchen. That's real bread...

One of the bedrooms. I don't think we have a picture of the master bedroom, although I don't recall seeing any double beds

A whole other separate building. Oh I don't know. That's probably, like, the dunny or something

Impressive? You ain’t seen nothing yet. Check out the garden:

Imagine this was your back yard

A "wee" pond up the back of the garden (which also happens to feed the moat)

The garden of love. Four different patterns depict four different types of love: tender, fickle, passionate and tragic

This is "just" a vegie patch. I kid you not

Endless corridors of grape vines (more on this in a sec)

There’s also a bit of forest out back, but not much worth seeing or mentioning there…

But the garden… oh, the garden. See that grape vine? What do you do when you walk past all those sweet, juicy, nice looking grapes…

You eats them! Om nom nom...

We ate all kinds of grapes. Red grapes, white grapes, red-white grapes... we ate and ate and ate

… and then Jenny started to get greedy and stole apples that were within easy reach, which was supposed to be off limits (Jenny says: “‘The Caesar police’ was totally giving me grief about it. He said I was ‘purloining’ those apples, but didn’t object to helping me eat them!”). Oh man, there was so much food it was crazy. There was also a really nice herb garden too, with every kind of herb you could imagine. It’s the most comprehensive garden I’ve ever seen in my life! Apparently they have a big team of gardeners looking after the place.

I think I was really overwhelmed by the place, ‘coz I very nearly blew ~€375 (about AU$530) on a souvenir – a hand-crafted wall hanging depicted a miniature comic book store. Luckily I had a wee doubt as to whether Aussie customs would allow me to bring it into the country (being made of wood), which gave me the opportunity to sleep on it. Cool as it was, it probably wasn’t quite worth blowing a huge chunk of our budget on.

So with a stomach full of grapes and a handbag full of apples, we retired back to our campervan for a good night’s sleep (and the rain did its funky thing).

The next morning on our way out of Villandry, a stupid campervan driver coming in the opposite direction drove a little bit too close to the middle and swiped mirrors with us. The bastard didn’t even stop. Villains! Oh well, it just meant that there was no looking back* as we moved on to our next destination…

* No, I didn’t make that up for the sake of cracking a lame joke. We really did get swiped.

The abbey on the rock

Welcome to the third instalment of my September ad-French-ures. To recap:

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Saint Michael is watching you...

Mont Saint-Michel – or Saint Michael’s Mountain – is a medieval city built entirely on top of a tiny little rock island and one of those places that probably makes it onto every list of “places you absolutely must visit before you die”. It’s definitely the most unique place that I’ve ever been to.

Apparently the abbey came first, and the remainder of the city built around it. According to the audioguide for the abbey tour, the place was even used as a prison for a bit until people including Victor Hugo (author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame) pointed out that maybe it might have some historical significance and could probably be put to better use than as a lock-up.

The island is connected to the mainland by a causeway. Now there’s a carpark that’s off to one side where the cars, campervans (like us) and tour buses park. However during high tide, this goes underwater, so when we arrived the parking attendant duly informed us that we had to leave before 6pm the following day! We wanted to get a picture of MSM at high tide, but also wanted to get out before the last minute rush, so unfortunately we left earlier.

This is low tide. Our campervan is right at the back on the left, where it curves around a bit

MSM was also where we had the second-most expensive meal on our entire trip at €191 for four, at La Mère Poulard restaurant. Roughly translated, it means “The Chicken Mama” and their specialty was omelette:

Omlette at La Mère Poulard

The omlette was so light and fluffy, that outer part was practically egg foam

I’ve got a few photos of the cooks whisking the eggs in their giant bowls and then cooking it in the fireplace, but the video on their website is better so I’ll just refer you to that instead.

While we’re on the subject of food – the eating in France was uniformly excellent – even the €5 for 2-dozen croissants from the supermarket – everything was absolutely delicious and worth every (Euro) cent. I mean, it’s not a cheap eats destination like Asia where you get loads of variety at low prices (and service to match); I felt throughout the trip that French dining is not so much eating as having a culinary experience.

Here are some of the other dishes from that meal. Sorry to state the obvious, but I can’t remember the specifics of each dish. They were all yummy:

A mixed salad

Oysters

Smoked salmon

A chicken and potato stew, I think

Lamb cutlets and a stack of potatoes that had a fancy name but I forget what

One thing I regret not trying is the “special” lamb (unfortunately those cutlets weren’t it). Because the plains nearby are underwater at high tide, the grass that grows on there is naturally salty, meaning sheep that graze on it have naturally salty meat!

Yes, I took a picture of the garbage truck. So?

But Back to the city. The buildings themselves were largely unremarkable other than their age and precarious perch. It was interesting watching the “garbage truck” (a forklift of sorts) slowly reversing its way down the main street, forcing pedestrians up against the walls and into the tiny, tiny alleyways.

The buildings were largely taken up by souvenir stores, restaurants and bars. I don’t know what it was about them though, but they didn’t make the place feel like a tourist trap. Maybe because there were a variety of things beyond your usual useless trinkets – medieval swords and costumes, a shop containing a wide variety of books about the history of the Normandy region, etc. – instead of your usual gamut of keyrings, snowdomes, fridge magnets and so on (no offence to anybody that so happens to collect those kinds of things  *ahem*).

The inside of the abbey itself is mostly empty, and the thing to appreciate is the architecture. We hired the audioguides, and other than outlining the functions of the various rooms, it was all arches, pillars, cloisters, frescoes, and wotnot.

Here’s the “big photo section” for MSM:

Mont Saint-Michel from afar

... with some very attractive people standing in front of it

... and from not so far

... and at night. Don't mind the terrible picture, but don't you think it has a little bit of a Disney "magic castle" feel to it?

The street below, through a hole in the wall

The abbey spire

The outer ramparts

Random buildings

Inside the abbey

A ... um, thing. Fresco maybe?

The cloisters

The cloisters again, close-up detail

There were a lot of big, empty rooms like this

At the top of a lift device that they used to haul things up into the abbey

A sunset. See what I mean about the sky? (From part 1)

And that brings us to the end of this portion of the trip. A stroke of luck: as soon as we left MSM it started to BUCKET down, but we continued on to our next destination, Angers Saumur Villandry!

Show me the Monet!

Welcome to the second post in my “September ad-French-ure” series. To recap, here’s the plan (slightly tweaked from before – now with more posts!):

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Joby Gorillapod

A Joby Gorillapod. Ours is red.

The pictures are coming, but I just want to kick off these next few posts by mentioning that I’m not a photo person. I hate lugging a camera around, and taking pictures is a chore that I’d rather not do even though I know it’s important to have photos to remind me about things later, long after my memory fades. Jenny’s a lot better than me in that she likes to take photos, but they’re usually the kind where we’re standing together and one of us is holding the camera at arm’s length, and you wind up with a bunch of photos that look like this (from a previous trip to Japan):

Ultra close-up

"Am I in the shot?" "Of course!"

Now I don’t mean to make this sound like a sales pitch, but in a way these posts were made possible by the Joby Gorillapod. I managed to pick up one of these on the cheap just before our trip (you can get knockoff versions from Dealextreme or Paddy’s Markets, but I found that the joints are looser on the fakes). It also helped with one of my other major failings – shaky hands.

So with that out of the way, let’s go travelling!

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Giverny

Water Lily Pond, by Claude Monet

Water Lily Pond, by Claude Monet

As I mentioned at the end of the previous post, we arrived in Paris early in the morning, and left straight from the airport to our first destination. Giverny is the location for the house of Claude Monet, the father of French impressionist painting. I’m not much of an art buff but Jenny is, and having recently lined up for 3 hours in Canberra to see a few of his paintings might give some clue as to why this was an important stop on our itinerary.

We started with a light lunch (which also included our first drink – a light apple cider, strangely served in a cheap-looking plastic bag filled with ice (which you can see in the bottom-left of the first picture). Suitably fed, rested (hey, flying takes a lot out of you!), and with the thought that we were in France gradually sinking in, we were finally ready to start sightseeing!

Lunch at Giverny

If we look a bit ragged, it's because we practically just stepped off the plane

The attraction of Monet’s house is not the house itself (although you do get to go in and check it out, it’s not particularly exciting), but the garden. Strangely, the property is neatly bisected by a main road, and to get from one part to the other you have to go through an underpass.

Both side though, were spectacular. Although the garden was quite unruly and slightly overgrown, there were still an amazing number and variety of flowers, which is why the bulk of our photos feature them:

Monet's house

This is where Monet lived

Monet's driveway

Monet's driveway

Flowers from Monet's garden

Flowers from Monet's garden

Flowers from Monet's garden

Flowers from Monet's garden

Flowers from Monet's garden

Flowers from Monet's garden

Flowers from Monet's garden

A big, fat bee

Flowers from Monet's garden

Flowers from Monet's garden

Flowers from Monet's garden

Flowers from Monet's garden

… and so on and so forth. We have a LOT of pictures of flowers (and still more to come in subsequent stops). Here are some pictures from the other side, which displays more signs of the Japanese influence in Monet’s work:

Monet's garden

One of several bridges, but not -the- bridge

Monet's garden

A (blurry) bamboo grove. That's because there were ninjas running through it at the time

The bridge

This is the bridge. It looks a bit overgrown and it didn't have the canopy in the painting, but we were assured this is the one

Lily pond

The lily pond

On the bridge

This is about as empty as the bridge ever gets. What you can't see is the small riot of patient people behind the camera

So that’s Giverny. On to Mont Saint-Michel!

September ad-French-ure

Jenny and I spent almost the whole of September abroad, visiting France, Belgium and Hong Kong. It was one of the best and most memorable holidays that we’ve ever been on, so I figure it might be interesting to document it here on cyberseraphic – to help me reflect on it and collect my thoughts, and also to share with you some of the photos that we took.

I’m more of a words than a pictures kind of person so I’m not going to apologise that what follows is going to be very verbose. As a concession though, I’m breaking it down into several posts mainly to stop it from being of epic length, and so that you can jump straight to your favourite parts later on :-)

Here’s my plan for the remainder of the posts. The links will be added as I finish each one, and I promise that subsequent posts will have a lot more pictures and (maybe) fewer words!

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General impressions

A wall inside Mont St Michel

It's seriously hard to grok "old" without being able to see this kind of stuff first hand

I grew up in Australia, so besides a few vague memories of my early childhood and the cultural differences that sometimes gives me a niggle of a doubt, Australia’s all I really ever knew. With that said, I’d like to argue that going overseas to one of the “old world” countries is a must. It opens up ones eyes to the sheer weight of history that Australians seem to be ignorant of. Maybe it’s the almost complete domination and assimilation of the indigenous Australians, or the fact that Aborigines’ rich inner life isn’t (able to be) expressed in the physical world due to the harsh climate. Regardless, I think it’s fair to say that it’s impossible to truly appreciate humanity’s deep history while remaining on this continent.

It manifests itself not only in the sheer age of the cities and buildings in them, but also in the little things like: the markings on the road that show trucks how far apart they need to be in order to maintain a safe distance (if you can’t see 2 symbols between you and next truck you’re too close), which also reflects a very strong road culture – more on this in one of the later posts; how much more advanced they seem to be on issues of resources and waste management – their DVD sleeves are thinner, their bottles use thinner plastic, they use more cardboard than plastic, and every place is utterly dedicated to recycling; etc.

That’s not to say that I believe France is uniformly superior to Australia. It did occur to me that the weight of history bearing down on them does cause them to “think” slowly and sluggishly, and groupthink prevails in a lot of high level issues. Being unencumbered by history may be one of Australia’s assets when it comes to innovation. I’ll stop here, since I’m sure my little “taste” of France has hardly made me an expert in cross-cultural differences. But that’s how I felt while I was there.

France is a beautiful country. The French take great pride in the way that their country looks, and every street, building, and even the roundabouts are always decked out with fresh flowers. I’ve also never seen so much sky in my life. It felt so very huge – it’s the most beautiful sky, and the fluffiest looking clouds I recall ever seeing. I’ve done a lot of travelling outside of the capital cities in Australia, but I’ve never felt like I did in France.

Clouds in the French sky

This picture, taken through the windscreen, doesn't really do it justice. The sky is so blue, the clouds so white and fluffy...

We had awesome weather the whole time. It’s autumn there, but the temperature hovered mainly around 18 – 20 degrees Celsius, with intermittent bouts of rain that miraculously only seemed to occur during the night when we were asleep, or while we were in between stops on our itinerary. Somebody up there loves us!

The “mobiroom
Before we get into that, an interesting observation about our arrival in Europe: we came into Europe via London Heathrow* and transferred to another flight to Paris. The odd thing is that because of the EU arrangement, this means that we never had to clear customs, and came straight off the plane at Charles de Galle and straight out the door! We were a little taken aback by that.

The "mobiroom"

The "mobiroom" and us

Jenny’s parents, Jozef and Suzie, picked us up from CDG in their campervan, which I’ve become accustomed to calling it the “mobiroom” because that’s what they call it over there (note: you can’t just say “mobi-room” – you have to roll the ‘r’: mobirrrrroom). Jozef got into a wee disagreement with the airport lady about letting him stop in the bus zone, but as we were to discover through the course of our trip, the French were very relaxed and forgiving of our traffic indiscretions – we constantly managed to get away with behaviour (e.g. stopping in the middle of a roundabout trying to figure out which exit to take) that in Australia would have earned us many beeps, angry words, and rude gestures.

We decided not to stick around in Paris. We arrived on a Sunday when the shops are generally closed anyway, plus not long after we left there was apparently a bomb threat at the Eiffel Tower. We’d already seen and enjoyed a little bit of Paris life on our Honeymoon anyway, and were keen to explore a bit more of the French life away from the big city.

Next stop, Giverny…
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* Sorry we didn’t get to stay long enough to catch up with you poms! (A big hello to Kenny, Vija & Nick, Yong & family… who’ve I missed? Sorry if that’s you! Julian and Lingsi, you don’t count ‘coz you weren’t in the country yet.)



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