01 April 2012

Tour de France (mini version)

You know, I have made the Channel crossing from Dover to Calais (and back) on many occasions and I always enjoy the sight of the white cliffs of Dover.  The green foliage goes right to the very edge of the cliffs, then there is the abrupt drop of white into the sea.  But on all of these occasions I have never seen blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover.  I think this must have been some type of war-time propaganda to drive the Nazis mad with jealousy – the Brits had blue birds and they didn’t.  Anthropologically speaking, as I have mentioned before, many cultures believe that blue birds signify health, happiness and prosperity.  But has anyone ever seen an actual blue bird?  Not in Dover, they haven’t.

As usual it was a smooth crossing, and we arrived into late afternoon sunshine.  As is my tradition, immediately upon arrival at the hotel I turned on the TV to see how long it would take to see French bosoms.  And sure enough, within less than 30 seconds there they were.  Technically they weren’t bare bosoms (which Doug insists is the actual criterion) but they were enormous and they were very nearly bare.  It was an advertisement for French undies and let me tell you, you don’t get much for your money.  But they do make you look very bouncy and fabulous.

And then a quick surf found Dr Who in French and with French subtitles.  Is it any wonder that I struggle with this language when what the actors were saying, pronunciation-wise, bore no semblance whatsoever to the spelling of the words on the screen.  It’s such a beautiful sounding language, but dang it’s hard to know how to pronounce the words when you see them written.

Off , then, to explore Calais.  Not much to report, unfortunately.  The Opera House/Theatre is a very beautiful building and the Town Hall is a gobsmacking confection of opulence (how unlike Councillors to spend humungous amounts of money on their own accommodation).  There are lots of very lovely smaller buildings too, but not much else to see and really nothing to do.  We visited a large supermarket, which is also a tradition on our first day in France, to stock up on goodies.  French supermarkets have fabulous goodies, so we’re all set for Le Picnic with plenty of pate and fromage and mousse chocolat. 

Then it was a play day at Chateau de Pierrefonds in Picardy.  This is the castle where they film the TV show Merlin, and my plan was to inveigle myself into being an extra so I could appear as Sorceress No. 3 in the closing credits.   But, double-spit, the filming schedule doesn’t start until June so that scuppered my plans to become a star of the screen.  But what a fabulous castle!  It was the best we’ve ever been through, and we’ve toured some excellent castles in our travels.  There were dragons and griffins and angels everywhere, the best gargoyles you’ve ever seen in your life, and even stencils of very cool looking hedgehogs on the wall of one reception room. 

It was very much Medieval meets the Arts and Crafts Era, which is the result of it being built in 1393, and then Louis XIII laid siege to it in 1616 and dismantled a lot of it (and you can still see his cannonballs embedded in the outer walls), and then it was restored in the mid 1800s.  Boy it was well done.  We toured it immediately after lunch – because of course it closed for lunch, all of France closes for lunch – and that meant we had the entire place to ourselves and it was a bit eerie but wonderful being alone there.  And no, we didn’t play up when no-one was looking.  Not much, anyway.  This is one stonking big castle – how many enormous reception rooms did you need back then?  Down in the crypts there is a large selection of marble figures over burial plots, and it’s very dark and mysterious and somewhat how I imagine the crypt at Winterfell, as described by George R.R. Martin in the Song of Ice & Fire series. 

We stopped for the night in Chartres, because that’s where we ended up at find-a-hotel time, and seeing how we were there we thought we’d better go and see the world-famous Cathedral.  The old part of Chartres is beautiful and affluent, with the centre-piece being the Cathedral.  It’s not for nothing this was the first of France’s UNESCO sites – it’s impressive everywhere you look.  It has the largest labyrinth in Europe, set into the floor right in the middle of the Cathedral, which is said to chart the progress of your soul through life.  Many people were walking the labyrinth, stopping at every turn to say a prayer, and some people were even crawling around it.  Every single one of the enormous stained glass windows is gorgeous, and many of the statues are said to be among the finest in Europe.  The ceiling is 37 metres high, which is dead impressive now but can you imagine how it looked to people back in the day?  Yep, the Church had loads of power and buckets of money, and it showed.  Restoration work is currently underway and wow how different it looked in the 12th century!  Light and colourful and even more beautiful.  It will be worth revisiting in about five years, to see how the how place looks once it’s been tarted back to its original state.

After Chartres it was a few hours’ drive to visit a dealer from whom we often buy lovely things, from cross-roads crosses to Deco glass to marble-topped bedside cabinets.  Serge is a good guy, but his place is largely a scrap metal yard so you’ve got to keep your eyes open to find all the little treasures he has just plopped into out of the way corners and in cupboards and behind lots of junk.  Nothing is beautifully displayed, and you really have to hunt to find things, but I enjoy a bit of a scrounge.  We always come away happy from Serge’s, and this time was no exception.  No cross-road crosses this time – he and other dealers report that they are getting almost impossible to find these days – but a few lovely small pieces of ecclesiastical metalware and some good enamel kitchenware in unusual colours like red, lavender and rich turquoise (I’ve never had lavender enamel and the turquoise piece is outstanding).  I also picked up some attractive Art Deco kerosene lamps and a small selection of very nice 1920s copper saucepans.  All good buying.  The more unusual colours in enamelware are more expensive because even the French actively hunt for them so there is a lot of competition for a limited amount of stock, but boy they are lovely and my enamelware shelf is going to be eye-popping when I get it all back to Australia.

Then it was battle on the Peripherique (one of the busiest roads in the world) to get to our hotel in Paris.  I’ve said it before, but I really do prefer the sound of French police sirens to the Australian ones.  And how amazing, when you’re in the middle of thousands of cars that are packed into tiny little lanes, when a police car needs access a path magically opens for them and they’re able to make pretty good speed.  I don’t know how we all get out of the way, but en masse everyone makes a jump to the left (or a step to the right).  Our Note to Self for next trip is bring a siren!

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