Strasbourg, Baccarat, Nancy, Lay St.Christopher, Bois, Sens, Loire Valley, Chartres
09.06.1999 - 15.06.1999
DAY 29 TUE Goodbye Switzerland! Margaret slipped out for the first time by herself to buy some flowers for Georgette. I became a bit worried when she didn’t return after half an hour, the streets of Basel being as confusing as they are. Nelly insisted that we go looking for her so we made our way to the nearest supermarket. I should have known that Marg would not have bought flowers there because they were pretty unimpressive. As we were walking back we spotted Margaret striding up the street clutching a huge bouquet. She informed us, in a rather offended tone, that she had never been in danger of becoming lost and had had no difficulty in walking to the city centre and finding a florist.
Bidding adieu to Georgette and Andrea we hopped into our car for the first time since our arrival and followed Nelly and Christian out of the city. Our new driving arrangement, adopted in Bellinzona, proved to be ideal. Margaret was a much more relaxed and confident driver than she was a passenger and I knew the wisdom of keeping my fear to myself. To be honest, Margaret quickly became proficient at driving on European roads and within a short time I came to share her confidence.
Christian had told us that we could reach Strasbourg in a mere two hours if we took the autobahn, but he personally favoured taking minor roads through the countryside which would extend the journey to seven hours. That was fine by us as we were anxious to avoid those Swiss hot rodders who brabhammed down the ‘bahn. Not far outside Basel we drove down a road which ran alongside the border with Austria. Whilst the Swiss-German border had been wide open, Switzerland and Austria were separated by a high wire fence.
Entering France was a bit of an anti-climax as the border post was deserted. So much for Swiss bureaucracy! The Alsatian countryside was stunning, each village more picturesque than the last. Nature became our toilet as water closets were few and far between. In the town of Eguisheim we explored the narrow streets and admired the large flower boxes in the middle of the street, especially the one with the realistic statue of a crouching black cat. Colmar, exactly half way between Basel and Strasbourg, is the capital of the wine growing area of Alsace. I whined and grovelled until Margaret allowed me to buy a beer glass advertising the local Alsatian beer, L’Alsacienne - Sans Culotte bearing a cartoon picture of a fraulein without knickers. Nelly scornfully expressed the opinion that all men are the same, which wasn’t entirely fair as I only wanted the glass for its novelty value. Honest!
We had made such poor time by the end of the day that we were forced start looking for accommodation well short of Strasbourg. In one town, the name of which I have forgotten, we found no room at the inn but imbibed alcoholic beverages in a small hotel alongside a group of old men who conversed loudly in a fascinating mixture of German and French. Eventually we found a small guest house, La Vignoble, down a side street in the tiny town of Dambach-la-Ville and parked in its courtyard. The manager made a great show of guiding Margaret into a rather tight parking spot. Margaret, a veteran of many trips to Westfield Parramatta, did not require the help of a French yokel to park and I was grateful that he couldn’t see the expression of ire on her face or hear her muttered curses.
Having deposited our baggage in our room we walked down the street in search of a restaurant. Outside the parish church we saw the youth of Dambach-la-Ville gathered around the town well. There were only about a dozen of them but they reminded us of their peers in Eastwood with their reversed baseball caps, loud chatter and the inevitable hotted up sedan. If being a youth in Eastwood was boring, being a youth in Dambach-la-Ville would be doubly so as there is nothing at all there for kids to do.
The restaurant we found was a very atmospheric establishment in the centre of town. Margaret and I told our companions that we weren’t at all hungry, so they suggested that we order a salad and the local speciality. The salad proved to be enormous and full of cheese, which made it very filling. The local speciality was a flambé of some sort which looked like a flat rectangular pancake. I had seen one on the table next to us and assumed that they had got a serving for four. I was wrong! The waitress came to our table carrying two enormous flambés, one for Margaret and one for me. I almost cried. Each wooden tray held a pancake big enough to feed a family of four (possibly twenty if the family was Biafran). We each ate about a quarter of the plate and when the girl returned her face contorted into that look of dismay and incredulity that only the French can produce. With an unusual presence of mind I exclaimed with great sincerity “C’est magnifique, mais beaucoup trop!” This seemed to satisfy her and we left the restaurant with honour maintained on both sides.
DAY 30 WED First thing in the morning, after coffee and another bloody croissant, it was time for us to part company with Nelly and Christian, who drove off after a touching goodbye scene involving much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth. We were on our own for the first time in what seemed like ages. Before resuming our journey we decided to check out the Wednesday morning market in the middle of the main street. Dresses, fruit, watches, totally uninteresting stuff of the type one used to find at the Eastwood market on Sundays before it closed through lack of interest. In Dambach-la-Ville this was the big event of the week. Poor sods!
Margaret resumed her driving duties and negotiated the unfamiliar country roads with both nonchalance and flair. Unfortunately the landscape beyond Alsace soon became rather uninteresting and the villages plain. We entered Strasbourg without any difficulty and parked in an enormous parking station just outside the old city. As we walked out of the station a lady told us that our parking ticket entitled us to a free bus ride into the city centre and directed us to the bus stop.
Strasbourg cathedral was quite beautiful on the outside with its detailed lace stonework and gruesome gargoyles. Later in the day we explored the inside but were less impressed than we had been with the exterior. Poor lighting tended to hide the beauty of most of the cathedrals we saw in Europe though I imagine that they were no less illuminated than they had been back in the dark ages.
After so many weeks exploring cities we had become a little jaded, so rather than walk the streets we boarded a boat for a sixty-minute cruise down the canal. By this point I had begun to feel a bit ill and the boat ride hastened the onset of nausea. Margaret had also developed a headache and felt no more inclined than I to loiter in Strasbourg.
We drove through many villages, some at the end of long country lanes, but could find no auberge or hôtel. I was feeling extremely unwell and poor Margaret became increasingly desperate. We stopped at Lunéville, a large and unattractive town, but could find nowhere to stay despite walking from one end of town to the other.
Eventually we reached Baccarat. We arrived at the tourist office only to discover that it had closed half an hour previously. I staggered into a bar across the road and was directed to a hotel not far away. Our room in the La Renaissance was on the small side but rarely had a bed seemed so inviting. I swallowed a handful of pills and collapsed on le lit, leaving Margaret to amuse herself as best she could. A little later I had recovered sufficiently for us to share a salad in the hotel restaurant. Rather foolishly I attempted to drink the free cocktail (a garishly scarlet, sickeningly sweet concoction) and a glass of beer at the same time and was forced to retire to our room where I lay in bed watching Zorro in French.
DAY 31 THU By the next morning we were both feeling fine, though increasingly homesick. A short drive of forty five kilometres took us to Nancy. I’m sure glad I didn’t wear my Oscar Wilde t-shirt as the whole town was crawling with Nancy boys . We parked the car a long way from the centre of town and walked the length of Ave Maréchal de Lattre de Tassigny, past the hospital (at whose information desk Margaret persuaded me not to ask for a city map), onto the Rue Stanislas, over the train line at Quai Caude La Lorrain, across the Parc de la Pépinière, down the Rue Saint Dizier and into the Place Stanislas .
Place Stanislas was named after Stanislaw Leszczynski, the dethroned king of Poland who ruled Lorraine between 1704 and 1709. By rights the magnificent square should have been named Place Leszczynski, but who could pronounce it? Guilded wrought-iron gateways and highly decorated buildings surround the square and enclosed a couple of eighteenth century fountains. We were on the lookout for a tourist office and found it in one of the handsome buildings on the eastern side of the square. Employing my accent-less high school French I spoke to the owner of a bed and breakfast some way out of town. Although she had no vacancies, the lady commended me on my Français. Her exact words were, if I remember correctly, “Monsieur, votre voix, c’est très cultivée et sexy. Je rêvais partager un lit avec vous .... et avec votre femme, naturellement” . Luckily for us we were able to arrange accommodation in a farmhouse in the village of Lay St Christoph, just to the north of Nancy.
Margaret now expressed a need to feed, so we entered a McDonalds ® (or “Maccas”, as I believe it is called by the class of people who regularly sup beneath its arches). While she lingered over a Royal Cheese I took advantage of the unisex toilets secreted in the bowels of the building. We had given up any hope of travelling to Spain and reluctantly converted our pesos to francs at a nearby Credit Lyon before walking back to the car and resuming our journey.
Lay St Christoph was a typical Lorraine town with very narrow streets laid out in random fashion. The buildings were rather unattractive, specially when compared to those of nearby Alsace, and there were very few shops. We found our farmhouse high on a hill overlooking the town (the area was signposted as Lay St Christoph Heights, believe it or not). We parked on the edge of a small square beside a statue of the BVM and hauled our luggage over to the farmhouse where we were met by Madame Seigneur, a small, rather aloof old lady who spoke not a word of English. She asked us whether we would be staying one or two nights and, when we said two, she made a great show of wringing her hands and making strange running motions. We took this to mean that she was going to have to run around town getting supplies. Too bad, femme ancienne! Our room on the first floor was very spacious and filled with antique, rustic furniture. The bathroom was similarly outsized and we gazed in rapture at the enormous old bathtub in anticipation of the hours of soapy relaxation which lay ahead.
As I write: It is 8.45pm and I am looking out the window at the green fields below and the bright blue sky above. We still haven’t got used to the fact that it is still broad daylight at 10pm.
Contrary to expectations we have found the people of France to be uniformly friendly and helpful (as they were in Italy, Switzerland and Germany). The people of Lay St Christoph are no exception. The young man behind the counter at the village’s only bar sold me a small bottle of beer on the proviso that I bring back the empty bottle, as it was not their practice to sell takeaway beer. He was very friendly and patient even though we had to communicate in sign language and pidgin French.
Back at the farmhouse Margaret and I sat in the backyard under a large tree and ate bread and cheese washed down with red wine and beer as we gazed, entranced, over the rolling fields beneath us. The bells of the village church tolled tunelessly every thirty minutes, twenty four hours a day, as they did in every town and village in Europe. We felt sorry for all those hundreds of bellringers who we could picture sitting by their bell ropes, rising from their newspapers every thirty minutes to perform their half-hourly duties.
DAY 32 FRI We had breakfast this morning in the very rustic kitchen of Madame Seigneur. As a result of our amicability she had become very friendly and anxious to talk. She spoke very little English at great length, which required us to nod and exclaim “oui” at what we hoped were appropriate moments. I interpreted one part of her discourse as a claim that her ancestors had invented pantyhose, an assertion which I discounted in the knowledge that that item of clothing had, in fact, been invented by Hans Fluri of Basel. Margaret interpreted the same passage as a claim that the Seigneur family had invented crystal making, which was a lot more believable.
I had, unbelievable as it may seem, misread my itinerary and assumed that we were a day ahead of where we actually were. It was quite possible that we could have reached Lourdes in the time available had I not made this terrible gaffe. It was too late to rectify my mistake and our revised plan, based on my misunderstanding, called for us to arrive in Paris a few days earlier. We both got rather excited about this but it came to nought when we learned that our hotel was booked out. As an alternative we decided to stay in Blois an extra night before driving to Chartres and then Paris.
A quiet drive this morning along almost deserted minor roads took us to Toul. Toul’s only claim to fame is a large cathedral which, to our disgust, was closed for renovation. We bought a single item in the local supermarket and found ourselves in the checkout queue behind two ladies with overflowing trolleys. Fuming and impatient we muttered to each other about the selfishness of the French who would not let a lightly laden person go through first. We were rather abashed when the ladies in front noticed us and insisted that we go to the front of the line.
Toul and all the other towns and villages through which we had passed since Alsace were predominantly bland and uninteresting. Even the countryside, flat and monochrome, was uninteresting except for a few patches of forest. Perhaps we had been spoiled by Alsace with its pretty scenery and Franco-German villages reminiscent of Switzerland.
Back in our house in Rue Patton I left Margaret reading in the garden while I walked down the street to buy some pain, vin and soft drink. The barman was thrilled to get his empty beer bottle back but I couldn’t be bothered going through another exhausting pantomime to procure another one. I returned to the house via a narrow lane bordered on one side by an eight-foot high stone fence and on the other by bramble bushes. We ate our bread and camembert on the balcony beneath our bedroom and sipped a very cheap but nice local wine. Madame Seigneur supplied us with a dish of large home grown strawberries and a plate of sugar. Magnifique!
DAY 33 SAT Breakfast once again with Madame Seigneur, who served us with marmalade and strawberry jam fresh from her garden which went down very well with our pain et café. In our fractured French we expressed great interest in the framed newspaper headlines on her walls, all of which related to pre-war French Indochina. We learned that her late husband, a military officer, had been captured and imprisoned by the Japanese at the beginning of the war whilst she had escaped back to France. At one point she produced one of the shackles which M Seigneur had worn on his ankle.
Margaret let me drive down the lane to the village before making me stop and resume my role as supportive passenger. We had decided to drive across the country to Blois, with an overnight stop at Sens. The tourist office in Sens was very helpful, not only finding us a hotel a block away from the centre of town but also giving us some tips on how to get to Charles de Gaulle Airport which spared us the fate of many other tourists whose skeletons we saw draped over their steering wheels on the neverending ringroad of death.
Leaving our luggage in a small but comfortable room in L’Esplanade we walked to the shops, most of which were closed for siesta. I’m sure the cathedral was beautiful, though I can’t even remember its name. A pleasant drive through the countryside took us through St Florian to Joigny via Looze, a village famous for its women. We walked all over Joigny in search of something interesting. In the fifteenth century church of St Thibault I spotted what appeared to be the miraculously preserved remains of a virgin saint (possibly those of the revered “Looze Woman”). Margaret insisted that it was only a marble statue dressed in the miraculously preserved clothes of a fifteenth century courtesan, however what she doesn’t know is that I have a finger from the “statue” in my souvenir box in the den.
In the evening we walked the length and breadth of the small town. All the shops had reopened and we were able to spend several fascinating hours looking at shoes and plates. After a beer at the “Cave of Beers” we strolled across the square to a restaurant where we ordered brichottes (toast with salmon, or in Margaret’s case, asparagus) and more beer. As we sat eating a convoy of wedding cars drove past. There was much tooting of horns from the cars and cries of merriment from pedestrians and diners. The youth sitting next to us made a pumping motion with his arm indicating, I think, his wish that the newlyweds would soon be blessed with les bébés.
My most pleasant duty of the day was to shave Margaret’s lower legs with my electric shaver. Hairy legs may have been fashionable in Italy (and Margaret was very fashionable in Sorrento) but they were less so in France.
DAY 34 SUN The drive from Sens to Blois was fairly long but the deserted country roads made driving a pleasure. We stopped at a convenient spot along the way to brew a cup of coffee in our little coffee-making jug. I decided to relieve myself at the side of the road in the European manner but lost my nerve each time a car appeared in the distance. It is sometimes a great handicap to be a naturally modest person.
We reached Blois in a much more relaxed state than usual and were lucky to find a parking space right outside the tourist office. For a small fee the young lady booked us a room in a bed and breakfast in Vineuil, a few kilometres out of town. Reaching the gite was not as easy as we expected as we had to drive through the centre of Blois, over a bridge and along a maze of roads before we stumbled upon the small town. From the front our temporary home was not the most attractive we had seen, though the vine-draped rear aspect more closely resembled the picture in the catalogue.
Madame X, the proprietor, greeted us in French and led us upstairs to our room. Small but comfortable and homey, our bedroom overlooked the backyard (and the backyard of the house in the next street). The bathroom and toilet were separated from the bedroom by a curtain, which did little to protect Margaret from the sounds of my ablutions and the accompanying loud crooning of bawdy footie songs.
After unpacking we somehow found our way back into Blois and parked near the post office. Blois is built on a hill and the steep, twisting medieval streets quickly exhausted us. Cathédrale Saint Louis, rebuilt in the Gothic style after a hurricane in 1678, was of interest mainly for its 10th century crypt. I took an atmospheric photograph of its claustrophobic confines which would have been very arty had it turned out. Margaret couldn’t stand the closeness of the room and fled to the surface almost immediately.
Immediately behind the cathedral we found the Hôtel de Ville. The Jardins de l’Évêcheé beside the town hall, perched as they are high on a hill, provided a panoramic view of Blois and of the Loire, which separates the old and new halves of the town. Margaret was particularly taken with a heroic statue of Jean d’Arc, her middlenamesake. The town itself was closed for the Sabbath, though we were able to find a restaurant in the plaza for our traditional afternoon beer.
We strolled across the bridge to the other half of Blois, the best feature of which was its view back across the Loire to the old city. On our way back to the car we noticed people entering the massive Château de Blois, which we had thought closed. Further investigation revealed that it was open, so we paid our 66 francs and explored the place from top to bottom. The château, oozing with bloodstained history, was well worth the money.
Exiting through a different door we found ourselves in a plaza in front of the Maison de la Magie (House of Magic). Although we had eaten earlier in the afternoon we indulged once again, this time in a little open air restaurant under the towering walls of the château. I was not terribly hungry but found myself unable to resist the scent of duck gizzards as they cooked in the kitchen . As we drank and ate the square gradually filled with people, mainly families. Without warning a cacophonous clanging of bells began to ring from the House of Magic and, to our further amazement, a giant golden dragon’s head emerged from one of its many windows. Everyone watching was spellbound as further dragons appeared from the other windows. We never discovered whether there was a story behind the spectacle, which finished as abruptly as it had begun.
My map reading skills let us down once again and we had a great deal of difficulty finding the car. Margaret sought advice from a lady in a souvenir shop and was delighted to be told that she spoke excellent French. We had both become convinced that we were fluent in both Italian and French and looked forward to the day when we would be able to impress the family with our knowledge of everyday conversation such as “l’addition, s’il vous plaît” and “il conto, per favore”.
DAY 35 MON For some reason inexplicable even to Margaret she had told the lady of the house that we would be down for breakfast at 8am. This meant that we had to get up at 7am which was not easy to do as our bed was particularly warm and comfortable. We shared breakfast with a Canadian family who were bicycling around the Loire Valley. The teenage daughter suffered from a very unpleasant condition which barred her from eating anything containing wheat and they had constant difficulty in finding safe food. The husband seemed to speak French quite fluently and had detailed conversations with Madame and Monsieur X. I apologised for my halting pidgin, explaining that I had last studied the language in 1964. The Canadian replied, without any hint of boasting, that he had also completed his French studies in 1964. I never quite recovered my self esteem after that.
Margaret drove us through twenty miles of very green and pleasant countryside to our first château of the day. Chambord , the largest and most spectacular château in the Loire Valley, was a fascinating building from the outside with myriad towers, turrets, copulas, chimneys and lightning rods. On the inside the rooms were almost bare, and judging by the state of the walls, I was not the first visitor to inscribe his initials in the soft white stone. Chambord is particularly famed for its staircase which consists of two spiral staircases which wind around the same axis without ever meeting.
At a quarter to twelve we watched an equestrian exhibition in which people dressed in flamboyant medieval costume performed marvellous tricks on their horses. It would probably be more accurate to say that the horses performed marvellous tricks with their riders on them, but one shouldn’t be pedantic. We had never seen such magnificent animals. One of the stallions (for a stallion he undeniably was) pranced around in front of us, his white coat and perfectly manicured grey mane almost reducing Margaret to tears. Margaret has always had a weakness for horses, especially stallions . From the rapt look on the faces of the audience we deduced that there was a story being enacted, though we couldn’t work out what on earth it was. A dramatic voice reminiscent of the late Leonard Teale thundered the tale while the accompanying music became ever more stirring. The display ended with the noble horse shaking hands/hooves with a throng of excited children, at which point we left to resume our journey.
From Chambord we drove through a particularly lush and restful forest to the nearby Château de Cheverny. The narrow streets of the small towns had Margaret driving on the footpath, however she still managed to get us to our second château without anything more serious than a few bruised ribs.
The approach to Cheverny was down a path bordered by tall poplars and it was here that we had one of our rare disagreements. Margaret took a picture of the path, then I did the same. Why did I have to take the same picture? Deep down I think that it was because I thought my photo would turn out to be better composed and artistic. Much to my chagrin it was Margaret’s picture that turned out to be the better of the two and which earned pride of place in the album.
Cheverny was a lot smaller and less impressive on the outside than Chambord but was much more impressive inside. Each room was filled with period furniture, canopied beds, tapestries and walls covered with embossed leather. We didn’t meet Viscount Arnaud de Sigalas, whose family has owned the place since it was built back in 1519 and assumed that he was out the back feeding his eighty fox terriers. His loss!
On the way back to the car I rang Alex and spoke to her for a full thirty seconds before accidentally leaning on the hook and disconnecting her. She must have thought me a real Griswold!
Château de Chenonceau was a lot more difficult to find. Road signs ceased to exist without warning and we found ourselves driving in the opposite direction for a while. The château stands astride the Cher River amidst gardens designed by Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henri II, and Henri’s wife, Catherine de Médici. The Galerie over the Cher served as a hospital during WWI and as the dividing line between Vichy-ruled France and the German-occupied zone. We were especially impressed by the kitchens in the bowels of the building, which may well serve as the model for our own refurbishment some time in the distant future.
On the way home we experienced ten minutes of heavy rain, the first since Nelly and Christian drove us to St Gallen. The sky brightened as abruptly as it had darkened and one might have suspected it to have been an illusion had the chairs back at the gite not been wet with raindrops.
My onion tart and Margaret’s giant omelette devoured at a small café outside Cheverny had erased our desire for a substantial dinner so we contented ourselves with a large packet of chips and a couple of pastries washed down with beer.
DAY 36 TUE We bade farewell to our hosts and the Canadians before setting off, with our room keys, for Chartres. The trip was fairly short and we soon found ourselves in the centre of the city. After posting the keys back to Vineuil we booked in at a nearby hotel and parked the car in an underground parking station down the road.
Map in hand we followed the official tourist trail around Chartres, only in reverse. Amongst the many items of interest which we probably saw were the stairs known as Tertre Saint Nicolas and the Rue Chantault with its quaint old houses. We crossed the Eure River via an ancient bridge before recrossing and making our weary way back into the heart of town. I left Margaret to explore the many jewellery shops along the Rue Noël while I searched, unsuccessfully, for music stores. A fiery tex-mex meal in one of the many outdoor restaurants, doused by a couple of Kronigsberg 1669s rejuvenated us for our next adventure, the critical examination of Chartres Cathedral.
Chartres Cathedral is France’s best preserved medieval cathedral, built in the fourteenth century in only twenty five years. The cavernous insides of the church were teeming with people, mainly in groups led by guides whose combined commentaries merged into a low pitched drone which made conversation difficult. This was perhaps the biggest church we had yet visited, over half a kilometre (half the distance between our house and West Ryde) long and with a ceiling so high we almost expected to see clouds floating above our heads.
Our guidebook suggested taking a tour led by a pukka sahib by the name of Malcolm Miller who had been leading tours of the cathedral nearly every day since 1958. What sort of person could lead three tours a day of the same building for forty one years? That works out at 44,895 tours (say 40,000 allowing for holidays and lecture tours). No wonder he seemed to know the history of each block of stone, the story behind each scratch on the wall. I had caught the end of his previous tour, a detailed description of each of the many panes on a large stained glass window, and resigned myself to a mind-numbingly boring few hours. We were both pleasantly surprised to find the experience extremely interesting and worthwhile. Were it not for his commentary I’m sure we would have left the cathedral thinking it just another dark, grim, not terribly interesting building notable mainly for its size and for Mary’s tattered and faded shawl occupying pride of place on one of the many altars along the walls.
Margaret decided to go to Mass in the evening, leaving me to tidy up the car in preparation for its dropping-off in Paris. The amount of foodstuffs (sugar, milk, etc.) I surreptitiously dropped in the bin in the underground carpark would have fed a family of four in Bangladesh for a month. I met Margaret some time later in the beer garden (The Dickens) next to our hotel after Mass for pre-dinner beer.
Our sleep that night was interrupted constantly by the noise of a faulty toilet on the floor below flushing automatically every couple of minutes. These were not just your garden variety conveniences but rather state-of-the-art, vacuum flush models which worked like those found on aeroplanes, with the added sophistication of an automatic toilet paper shredder. Two minutes of whoooooo followed by a loud phishhhh, and, finally a loud chuchuchu .