Monday, October 31, 2011

Sunday October 30th, Brittany Ferries’ Mont St Michel, Ouistreham to Portsmouth

And so the home straight – we’re on board the ferry, we’ve just left Ouistreham harbour near Caen in France, and in a few hours we’ll arrive in England, will drive once more on the left for the short journey from Portsmouth to Winchester and will, to all intents and purposes, be home. At least, for a night – tomorrow I set off again with the caravan to Lawn Cottage in preparation for Dad’s funeral on Thursday. Frances, George and Charlie will join me later in the week, so we’ll be together again in the caravan for a few nights before taking it back from whence we bought it, taking advantage of their buy back scheme. But more of all that later.

I last reported a week ago on a rainy morning in Challons-en-Champagne, eagerly awaiting the afternoon’s planned trip to the champagne houses of Epernay and Reims. We drove the twenty or so kilometres along the arrow-straight Roman roads of the otherwise pretty featureless landscape, denuded of hedgerows, only occasional copses to shorten the distant horizon. No sign of vineyards, no ripening sun, just hectare after euro-hectare of what appeared to be turnips, the harvest in full swing with giant mounds of recently unearthed produce by the roadside. A small rise on the horizon became the hills of Epernay as we drew close – and then we were driving through the town, markedly different to those of the previous day, with the ostentatiously affluent and revered champagne houses lining the principal road through the town. On advice from the tourist information office, we visited Mercier – not renowned as the best champagne, but as the best tour, particularly for families. After a warm reception in the impressive foyer, we descended by lift into les caves below for a guided ‘train’ ride through the 36 kms of tunnels through the chalk, all dug by hand in the late 19th century. It was fascinating, illuminating, and desperately tempting as we passed thousands upon thousands of bottles of champagne at various stages of maturation. Finally we were released to the tasting room above where we were able to sample some of the merchandise – most satisfactory!

Mission accomplished, we wandered a little way through the town before deciding that the weather and our enthusiasm weren’t up to visiting Reims, and so headed back to Challons. We had thought we might eat out, but a quick visit to Carrefour for supplies on the way home dissuaded us. In fact, it turned out to be a bit more of an epic, as we discovered visits to French supermarkets tend to be. If the Italians have brought art and passion to supermarkets, the Germans ruthless efficiency, the Scandinavians Ikea-like ‘customer journeys’ – well, the French have turned supermarket shopping into an extreme sport! So vast are the Carrefours that they have shop assistants on roller skates, whizzing along the aisles and past the checkouts with typical gallic style. And such is the range of food, fresh, packaged, preserved that just choosing becomes an ordeal (albeit a rather pleasant one). In the end, we couldn’t resist the temptation of the Boeuf Bourginnion gently simmering behind the display counter – and after a tediously long queue (this part they really haven’t cracked!) we headed back to the caravan, opened a bottle of red and settled down to a simply excellent dinner. Why can’t it always be that simple?

On Wednesday, with George, Charlie and me feeling a little under the weather with the onset of colds, we packed up and headed towards Paris, again foregoing the Autoroutes in favour of the more scenic N roads. Our target campsite was in Maisons Laffites, on the Seine in the west of Paris involved diving right into the afternoon melee of La Peripherique – no quarter asked, none given as the seemingly suicidal drivers and moto riders ducked, dived and squeezed past the lumbering Volvo and caravan. Still, as Dad had pointed out before we set off, one of the great advantages of being slow is that you always have clear road ahead – sage advice! We cruised through without getting too ruffled, and after a final few narrow lanes through the suburbs, emerged unscathed at our site. And what a site – literally on the banks of the Seine, with its vast cargo barges slipping uncannily-serenely by every few minutes. The site itself was ok – large enough grassy pitches with the now customary hedges and many large poplar trees looking beautiful in the autumn sun. Pity the ‘facilities’ didn’t quite meet the same standard – no lavatory paper is one thing – but no lavatory seats? We made camp, put the kid’s tent up to give us all a bit more space for a couple of nights, and had an early night (again thanks to Carrefore – this time their delicious and hot Tartiflette!)

We made an early start on Thursday and, along with the long-suffering Parisian commuters who looked on our travellers’ attire of walking boots, scruffy clothes and back-packs with some disdain, headed into Paris on the train and metro. We headed straight to Le Musee de Louvre to buy tickets and avoid later queues, then hopped back on the Metro to the Champs Elysee – it’s a magnificent boulevard with its crowning Arc de Triumph – more so now than when I visited thirteen years ago. Having received an impromptu warning of pick-pockets playing tricks on tourists from a passer-by who heard our English accents, we marched off down more Parisian boulevards towards the Eiffel Tower.  What an incredible spectacle it still remains – a testament to the engineering skills and the ambition of its time, as strong and imposing and yet graceful and elegant now as it must have been to its first visitors. We’d pre-booked tickets (well worthwhile to avoid what looked like a long queue) and so were able to head straight to the summit, the view from which is breath-taking – an uninterrupted view across the otherwise relatively low-rise and rather flat city, but with so much white marble and the occasional gilt statue and dome it all positively glistens far beneath one’s feat. Incredible that it was created for, and created a sensation at the world fair in the 1880s, and is still one of the world’s most impressive tourist attractions over 100 years later. George and Charlie were captivated, marvelling at the magnificent view, the ant-like cars and people below, morbidly discussing the perils of falling from such a great height, wondering what would happen to the hapless spectators below if Charlie dropped her tangerine on them – they were even excited by the scale of the engineering (such as the 2.5 million hot rivets used in its construction!). 

After the tower, we needed lunch and a bit of a rest, so headed to Les Jardins de Tuilierres. We sat in the comfortable looking chairs provided to eat, after which George and Charlie rented and played with model sailing yachts on the pond, while I pulled my hood up, my hat down, my sunglasses on, closed my eyes and had a well-earned snooze. The chair proved incompatible with a protracted nap (never judge a book by its cover!), so once the yachts had been returned to harbour we made our way into the adjacent Louvre for our long awaited visit to the Mona Lisa. The museum faces the same issue that we’d encountered at the Uffizi in Florence – it’s a victim of its own success. Such is its popularity and the fame of its collections that it is literally thronging with people, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of this amazing work of renaissance art or that piece of Greek or Roman sculpture. The net effect is that it’s a bit of an anti-climax, the headline act, Mona Lisa in particular. Standing to view the most famous of DaVinci’s work in crowds five or six deep and 10 or 20 across, it’s almost impossible to form an emotional attachment to it or to many of the other works we saw in the museum. Pity – because that smile really is enigmatic!

From the Louvre, we made a quick bolt across the river to Notre Dame, transformed through cleaning from the ominous, menacing black I remember from my last visit to a gleaming bright white. But time was tight and we were on a mission, so didn’t dwell or go into the cathedral, Instead, we retraced our steps to Hotel de Ville, and then on to the metro again to head over to Mont Martre and Sacrre Couer. We had planned to get a portrait drawn of George and Charlie by one of the street artists for which this district is famous, but it proved very expensive, and it was getting late. Much of the bohemian charm of the churchyard overlooking Paris and the adjacent streets and market seems to have evaporated, lost to the somewhat aggressive efforts of the many itinerant street traders, and the excessively commercial shops and restaurants – it’s a pity as this was the artistic soul of the city.

Wearily we headed back to the metro and on to Maisons Lafitte – we’d packed an enormous amount into a day. By the time we got back to the caravan, George was understandably complaining of shin splints, a very uncomfortable leg injury, and Charlie’s cold had deteriorated into a nasty chest infection (bad news as she’s asthmatic). Over dinner we discussed the options for the following day, Friday. For some time now we’d been planning to pay a surprise visit to Disneyland Paris – while it was far from in-keeping with the rest of our travels, we felt it would be a fun climax to an amazing adventure. As we revealed our plans, the injuries and ailments were forgotten and the children went to bed brimming with excitement.

So, another early start on Friday, and back on the trains, this time from one end of the line to the other as we headed out of Paris to Disneyland.  We arrived to the spectacle we’d been anticipating – all saccharin and tinsel, but nevertheless pretty and efficient. We paid the walloping entry fee, wolfed down some snacks under the warning signs that picnicking was prohibited within, and, girding our loins, headed into the throng. I don’t intend to give a detailed account of it here – those of you who are interested have no doubt already been, and those who aren’t, well, you aren’t interested are you? Suffice to say that this is the perfect day out if you enjoy standing in endless queues waiting to have the living daylights scared out of you! Or if you have so much money and such poor taste that you simply have to dress up in Mickey Mouse ears and an Alice in Wonderland dress while scoffing over-priced pizzas or burgers. Sadly, we weren’t really in either category – but compared to a day’s kayaking on a fjord with Asbjorn, or learning the complex history of Prague and its many defenestrations with Jacob, it was simply not a match. We had a couple of fantastic rides on rollercoasters and flumes brought to life with incredible theatre and effects. But we had a couple of frustrating hours waiting in line for rides that went out of action as we got close to the front of the queue – and once you lose time in this place, with average queues for rides over 45mins, you’ve really lost out on a big chunk of the day. George loved the rides that he did manage to get on, as did Frances and I – but we left feeling that it was a bit of an anti-climax, even a let-down.  Charlie, however, left feeling plain ill. We’d rented a child-sized stroller in the afternoon to push her around as she was visibly deteriorating. But by the time we got home, her cold had become a chest infection and her asthma was causing her real difficulties.

We had planned to have a leisurely morning and then visit Versailles in the afternoon – but when we woke and tested Charlie’s breathing peak flow, it had fallen well below 50% of her normal capacity. Frances made enquiries at the campsite reception about seeing a local GP, but after a few phone calls, it was decided that she’d need to visit a hospital – and that required an ambulance. As we prepared to settle down for our morning croissant we heard the sirens in the distance, and within a few minutes there were blue flashing lights right outside the caravan. By extraordinary fortune one of the three on-board paramedics was an English guy who’d grown up in Paris – the only bilingual on the force he told me. After a few questions and phone calls, Charlie was bundled into the ambulance with Frances by her side and whisked off to hospital for treatment. George and I settled in for a pleasantly quiet wait at the caravan, reading our books and watching the barges glide past on the Seine. A couple of hours later, we received the message to collect the girls. They’d had an efficient and comfortable experience, with the nebuliser and steroids  having the desired effect of freeing up Charlie’s airways and the prescription arming her to effect a speedy recovery. With the day a write-off, George and Charlie settled in to watch a film, while Frances and I wandered into the charming suburb of Maisons Lafitte for a mooch around and a quiet drink.

We packed up this morning in reasonable time, helped by the changing clocks, and left the campsite, one of the last to do so as it closes down for the winter this weekend. With slightly heavy hearts we made our way towards the coast, stopping at a supermarket to buy supplies, then driving through the beach resorts at Ouisterham, scene of the Normandy D-Day landings, before forming up in the queue to board the ferry. We’ll arrive late this evening in the UK, and will drive to Frances’ parents John and Susie for the night. We’ll unpack a bit in the morning, before I head off to Lawn Cottage. We now have about three weeks in the UK before we depart for Australia via Hong Kong, to begin the next exciting chapter in our lives.

There are so many thoughts about completion of the trip – things and places we’ve explored and learned about, people we’ve met and those who we haven’t but have observed, the wonderful things we’ve experienced. I think these will be worthy of a separate entry in due course.

Until then….bye for now.

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