28 September 2012

French Opulence

The ceiling in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles
Side chandeliers along the walls
in the Hall of Mirrors

After lots of tres very good shopping in Paris, it was time for some Play Days.  Versailles was grand, very grand.  It certainly was grand.  But do you know, I didn’t much like it.  Sure there was beautiful marble everywhere, gorgeous parquetry floors, gold on everything, sumptuous fabrics, and the materials themselves were all top quality.  But together it was way OTT and on such a huge scale that you had to wonder how people actually lived there happily.  And I do hate the room off room off room look – no privacy anywhere.  The grounds were very beautiful, though, and I stole several ideas which I will implement as soon as I have a few thousand gardeners on staff.
A garden idea I might steal

Busker 1 - Quite Good

Busker 2 - Tried Hard
As an aside, we caught the train to Versailles from Paris, and it was a short but enjoyable journey, with buskers variously serenading us with violin and piano accordion.  Between the tunes I overheard an Australian tourist talking about an interview she recently had with the Bunnings Hardware chain, and one of their questions was If you were a Super Hero, which one would you be?  What a very strange interview question, but it did get me thinking about who I would be.  I do have a Super Power, which is the ability to walk into any shop anywhere and immediately identify the most expensive thing without looking at price tags.  I never hesitate, and I’m never wrong.  So naturally I am The Incredible Spendo-Woman.  Or maybe The Retail Flash.  

An exhibition of textile art was on show
throughout Versailles. This marble
lion is covered with crocheted doillies.
Yes this is Art, people.
Anyway, I digress.  We spent half a day at Versailles, and noted the benefit of getting there early.  When we arrived, about an hour after it opened, there were hundreds of people milling about but by the time we emerged from the Trianon (Marie-Antoinette’s play house, still with 20 feet ceilings but tiny compared to the main chateau) there were hundreds and hundreds of people walking the grounds.  The end of the garden is 3.5km from the chateau, but it was still easy to imagine how packed the place gets in summer.

A pink ostrich-plume covered
helicopter within the Chateau
at Versailles.  This is also Art.
We saw a bride and groom having their wedding photos in the gardens of the Trianon, and it reminded me of something an American we met told us about watching a wedding party in Paris.  He stood on the side of the stairs leading up into the Cathedral, along with many other tourists, and as the bride passed he said to his companion Wow, every one in the wedding party is gorgeous.  The bride turned to him and said We’re French, we don’t do ugly.  Of course they don’t.

Anyway, after the Play Day at Versailles we headed off to visit a usually good supplier several hours west of Paris, but on this occasion he had nothing I wanted.  So then on to St Malo, on the Atlantic coast, where we found a nice room in the old town with a view over the sea wall to a few small islands just offshore.  The causeway to the islands floods rapidly and with some force at high tide, and apparently it’s not uncommon for people to misjudge their walks and find themselves trapped there overnight, but we heard no plaintive squawking emanating from the islands on this occasion. 
View from our hotel room in St Malo overlooking
the causeway to the islands.

The bad news we received at St Malo was that Brittany Ferries, with whom we were due to return to the UK the next day, had cancelled all crossings between France and England indefinitely.  How lucky that I carry a travel laptop so we got the email about this in time to make other arrangements.   The only choice was to immediately rebook with P&O and travel up to Calais, which is over 500km from St Malo.  There are many thousands of people still trapped in France as I type, because not everyone can make the trip up to Calais, so we were among the “lucky” ones.
Le Mont St Michel
St Michel fighting a
Demon - my second
favourite stained
glass window

But before we bolted to Calais we wanted at least some of my Birthday Play Day at Le Mont St Michel.  We started the day with a champagne and pate breakfast, then off to the Mont.  It is an extraordinarily beautiful place, and building such a whacking great abbey over 1000 years ago on a small island that could only be reached at low tide showed real dedication.  But apart from being impressively huge, there are all sorts of smaller details that I really like.  For example, at the very top of the very highest spire is a golden angel, so high up that you can’t see it clearly but they still made the effort to put it there;  at the top of the abbey is an unexpected small walled garden surrounded by a very beautiful colonnade;  and at the tiny church at the bottom is my second most favourite stained glass window (my first favourite being in a tiny chapel in Prestbury in Cheshire). 

        Colonnade around the small
        walled garden at the top of
               Le Mont St Michel
If you want to visit the abbey you have to be prepared for stairs, a lot of stairs.  A lot, lot, LOT of stairs.  How I hate stairs.  And once you’re at the top and think that now you can tour the abbey on a level surface, oh contraire, there are still plenty of stairs to navigate.  What a higgledy-piggledy building, all up and down and labyrinthine, and if there weren’t signs to show us the way out we might still be there. 

We had time for morning tea of crepes and some local cider, and then we had to make the long trip up to Calais, where we arrived with 10 minutes to spare before they closed the gate for our ferry.  Phew.  So all in all, we had a 5 hour drive up to Calais, 2 hours over to Dover, and another 2.5 hours to get to our hotel in Portsmouth.  Not exactly how we had planned to spend my birthday afternoon and evening, but all part of the adventure I guess.
Our view as we enjoyed morning tea at the bottom of the Mont. 
See the golden angel right at the very top of the abbey?
So it was au revoir to France for this trip, and Allo, allo, allo to Old Blighty for the continuation of our Play Days before we start work again.  We left France having done some seriously good shopping and visiting two famous and beautiful National Treasures – we never run out of good things to do on our Play Days.  But we will start work again soon, I promise. 
In lieu of my usual moggie photo:  this carpet is in the Trianon at
Versailles, where Calypso & Caleb would feel right at home. 
Even Marie-Antoinette liked Bengals.


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