Archive for September, 2011

Europe Travel Log – Bordeaux to Barcelona

Tuesday 27 September

Another day, another country! We’re flying to Barcelona, Spain!

The travel agent had discovered that buying a return ticket from Bordeaux to Barcelona is cheaper than a one way ticket … Go figure … And cheaper than a train.

Just as well Peter checks the the reporting time at the airport. It’s an international flight so we need to be there two hours before the flight. We have become used to using trains for which we can arrive about thirty minutes before departure. (We always arrive an hour early so that we have plenty of time to find assistance with luggage. The porters appreciate this too and are very helpful.)

Riding on trains that cross national borders requires litle more than a glance at passport and ticket – no security, no formalities. We look after our own luggage. No weight or size restrictions.

Flying to Barcelona reminds us that we must be more careful about packing our luggage. One suitcase weighs 31kg, the other about 11kg. Peter collapses the wheelchair and puts it in it’s bag to go in the hold. Good job, Peter!

No extra charges … lufthansa may not be as generous.

We wait in the designated area for a porter to arrive with an airport chair. We are told he will arrive an hour before departure. Now the Comedie Francaise begins. There is an elderly couple also waiting. When the porter arrives an hour before our flight leaves they immediately stand and rush to the wheelchair. One has a crutch and sits in the chair. I get the porter’s attention “moi aussi – Barcelon”. He is concerned and says he will send another porter. There is an empty wheelchair beside a column near us. I suspect it is for me. A group of middle-aged men arrive and one hops in the wheelchair and they disappear. Uh oh … I ask Peter to go to the counter and remind the attendant that I need a wheelchair, that the flight leaves in an hour and that others have left in wheelchairs. She says she will call a porter. He arrives after about ten minutes but is angry that the wheelchair intended for me is gone. (the middle-aged men!) he tells the attendant she has done a bad job of looking after it. He must look for another wheelchair. Eventually he returns with an aisle chair. It’s very narrow and intended to transfer non-walkers from wheelchair to their airplane seats. Just as well I’m small! This has to take me a long way – without me falling off it! It works though, so no problem.

The small jet has no air bridge, but I am able to pull myself up onto the steps and into the plane. It’s very comfortable, with more leg room than our bigger prop engines, more powerful (though smaller) and much quieter.

Barcelona airport has been notified that I will require a wheelchair, but no one is there to meet me. The cleaners can’t come on board til I disembark and I can’t disembark until a wheelchair arrives. After about half an hour a wheelchair van arrives, with wheelchair, and I am unloaded. However, these guys can only take me off the Tarmac to the terminal. I have to wait for someone to push me through the terminal and collect our luggage. It’s a very long way to the luggage carousel … Barcelona is a big city with a big airport. Peter is concerned that our luggage may have been taken to the “baggage unclaimed” area, but no, our suitcases and the wheelchair are waiting for us.

It’s further again to the exit, but our porter stays with us, organizes a taxi for us, and helps load us in.

Hello, Barcelona!


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Sunday 25 September

Our hotel is fantastic! Limestone walls, wooden floors and our own balcony. Great location, near the vinotique (and also St Andre cathedral, the grand homme, and the river). It’s beside the Place Gambetta where numerous people were beheaded after the revolution. Now it’s mostly cafes gouging your pocket. It’s also near Cours de L’Intendance a wide pedestrian area with posh shops and beautiful old buildings.

It’s Sunday, so in some symbolic gesture we head to St Andre first. It’s facade is quite like that of Notre Dame, very gothic. It was built mostly in the thirteenth and fourteenth century. I am expecting a dark interior. Wow! Light is streaming in through the west windows onto the high, very high, vaulted ceilings, and shining on the most amazing organ that stretches across the entire width of the church. Some of the vaults have really complicated ribs, and some of the keystones are almost filigree, the most complicated I have seen. The rose windows and other stained glass are nice, what is remarkable is their age. There are no side chapels off the nave, but there are several off the high altar. The most rear chapel would originally have been the high altar where the priest said mass unseen. The choir stalls are beautiful. They are carved and each one sits in a stone arch. But it is the light that amazes me, and the light on the high vaults that I keep coming back to. They are magnificent. Some are made of a light colored stone, possibly limestone, some are of brown stone, and some are made of green and grey bricks.

Churches are supposed to be places of serenity and calm. But when I walk into this church I am excited. I love the structure and design. It may be a church, but it is also a very ancient building constructed by master craftsmen at a time when New Zealand was still unpopulated. Stirring stuff.

On the way down to the river we stop at a boulangerie. I spot a pastry basket with raspberries in it. It has my name on it – and Peter’s too, I can share! Delicious isn’t a strong enough word to describe this taste sensation of sweet and sharp. Yum.

The river is dirty, but even so, it is pleasant wheeling/walking along the wide boulevard next to it. We can see the Pont de Pierre, with its many arches, built in 1818 and still being used. There are gardens too. Everyone is out for a Sunday afternoon stroll. It’s hot. When we were in the taxi at 3.30pm the outside temperature was 31 degrees. At 6am it’s still hot, and kids are playing in some sort of water feature that extends alongside and above the boulevard. This is the Mirror D’eau.

We continue along the river until we arrive at the esplanade des quinconces and the monument aux Girondins. The top of this monument, a woman statue of gold, can be seen from all over the city. At the base on opposite sides are two bronze statues of women, horses and men from which water pours. These fountains represent Republic and Concordia. They are bizarre, but beautifully sculpted. On the third side is an elaborate white marble statue, and the fourth side has a white marble face. It seems to have something to do with freedom.

Back at the hotel we sit on our balcony in the sun eating dinner, Peter sipping a great Bordeaux merlot sauvignon (in Bordeaux). The sun is setting and everything glows. Our world is perfect!

Monday 26 September

We need another suitcase. Peter has already bought some wine and he plans buying more. There is a Gallerie Lafayette not far away so the first thing we do is buy something suitable. Done. Now we move quickly to the campanile at St Andre. We want to be there early. Yesterday the attendant told us to be there at 10am. He’s doubtful I can climb up … Huh!

Well, I knock that tower off! 231 steps. On the way up we see the large bell that is supposedly the largest in France. The sound must have been amazing because the conical spire soars above it. The first terrace is not far up, but the view is good, and I can see over the cathedral roof. The top terrace gives a fantastic view! I am leaning against the top spire, I can touch a gargoyle, and I am level with the minor spires. Bordeaux lies below, and I can see all the landmarks …

Ever since Amy told us about the vinotique, a wine shop with four floors, Peter has been looking forward to letting loose in it. There is one entire floor devoted to red Bordeaux wines! Rather than hold Peter back, I visit the tourism office, go sit by the Monument aux Girondins and look at what we might do in the afternoon. We’d already decided to visit the Musee Beaux Artes. It supposedly has works by Titian, Veronaze, Matisse and Picasso.

On the way we pass the Place de la Comedie, with its columns and on top the Romanesque statues standing in profile against the skyline.

At the musee Beaux Artes we almost immediately see the Titian and Veronaze, as well as a Caravagio, some Rubens and Delacroix. The Picasso isn’t there and the Matisse paintings are shown so you can’t really see them – they are lying flat on a table under glass, so you can’t get far enough away to see them properly. They are small and highly portable so this is probably the only secure way of showing them. It seems a shame though. I find an artist that is new to me, Redon, and I really like his impressionist painting. There’s always something magical about finding a new artist.

There are some nice paintings here, but after what we have seen in the last few weeks it’s hard to be impressed. The Titian and the Caravagio are fantastic though. The Titian is especially so given it’s recent history. The painting is “The Rape of Lucretia”. It’s not pleasant but it’s a brilliant painting. Until 1964, for thirty years, it hung in the Town Hall above where couples were married. Talk about inappropriate!

Peter needs something to read and we find a bookstore in the midle of Bordeaux that specializes in “livres Anglais”! Odd!

We walked/wheeled back to the river to see the Place de la Bourse. Originally it was Louis fifteenth’s royal palace. Three buildings in the seventeenth century classical French style face toward a fountain in the centre of the square. This style of building, with its sloping slate roof seems rare in Bordeaux. The buildings were not connected, the two outer ones curving away from the central triangular building. It’s quite attractive. (as you’d expect of a royal residence!)

Across the road is the Mirror D’eau that we had briefly seen yesterday. We take a closer look. What fun! It’s a long stretch of seemingly flat concrete slabs. The edges are only about one centimetre higher than what is a huge dish. First the dish seems just wet, then super fine sprays of water shoot out of discs all over it. The spray stops, then water bubbles up from cracks between the slabs, filling the dish. Then it drains away, to start all over again. When the water is still, it looks like a mirror. But mostly people, adults and kids are walking, running splashing and even aquaplaning on it. Peter takes off his shoes and stands in the fine spray. I take my shoes off and walk through the centimetre puddle, watching the ripples I make. Magic!

We continue walking along the river then turn toward the Jardin Public. It’s lovely. There’s a small lake in the middle with an island that has a merry go round in the middle. I wonder if this is where Amy had her photo taken when she was in Bordeaux! The trees are beautiful, especially as some are changing into their autumn colours. It’s peaceful and quiet, even the sound of children squealing us soaked up by the trees. There’s an archway through to an English garden. It’s so quiet, it’s hard to believe that this is a city of 750,000.

It’s still warm at 6.30pm and it would be easy to stay in the gardens longer but we head back to the hotel via Place de Tourny where there is a statue of Monsieur Tourny, a former Intendance, or governor (I finally know the meaning of Intendance) in front of a curved building in the style of French Classical.

Then its on to Marche des Grandes Hommes. This was originally a food market a century or more ago, but has been reborn, with the same name and shape, but all in glass. It is now a shopping centre but still has a food area in the basement. Fromage, tomatoes, grapes, poulet, jambon for dinner tonight. Oh, and Peter buys some more wine (for 4 euro). A stop at a boulangerie and dinner is complete – fresh, warm bread, and citrus tarts …

Tuesday 27 September

Breakfast on the hotel balcony! As the sun rises! I really like this hotel. In the evening we see the sunset, in the morning, the sunrise.

To get to the Notre Dame cathedral we walk again down the Cours L’Intendance, then pass through the Passage Sargent, a nineteenth century shopping arcade. It has a nice ambience with a carved cornices and a marble carving above the archway at the end of the arcade of expensive and specialist stores.

Notre Dame is far more interesting than I had expected. It is a small cathedral (as cathedrals go) but it has some beautiful features. To me it seems ironic that it is often the churches that offer the most interesting artistic, historic and design elements of the time. In France the chateaux were ransacked after the revolution so I suppose it is fortunate that the churches have been preserved and we have an opportunity to admire them. Also, the state and church have been intertwined, so the churches in Europe have not only been a means of worship, but have also demonstrated the power and wealth of the church, the state, or the patron. Advances in architecture and technology have occurred because of the need to solve design problems eg the duomo in Florence, and the Notre Dame in Paris.

Notre Dame in Bordeaux was built around 1700 and is renaissance style rather than gothic so no soaring spires. Instead the vaults are rounded. The church is made of white stone and the morning light streams in through the stained glass windows. The organ is the most ornate I have seen. It seems to be built within dark wood and has amazing wooden carvings on each layer of pipes, the edges, the centre and everywhere possible. It sounds tacky but I think it is wonderful. Looking down the nave I can see the arches, the vaults and the high altar. It is spectacular. There are side chapels off the nave and it is interesting to note that all the paintings were done by a Dominican ‘freer’ in the early 1700s. They may not be masters, but he obviously had talent. I think it is a nice touch to have been able to use the talent of a minor clergy.

We have an hour or so before we must leave for the airport to Barcelona so we take a tram to Place de Victoire, an area we have not explored. I see the sign “speed rabbit pizza” under which Amy had her photo taken. I think this is funny, because if I stand in the same place I can take a photo of the arch that frames the memorial to Victor Hugo!

Next we use the tram to get to Temple Ha. We had seen this from the top of the campanile and it looked interesting. It is one of the oldest structures in Bordeaux. We can’t get into the church but we can see the facade and the auxiliary buildings. The surrounding area is old and run down. There are ethic restaurants including Ethiopean and Lebanese. Yet only a block away is the back of Notre Dame, which is in a very upmarket area of posh shops.

We sit for a while in Place Gambetta where there is a pond surrounded by trees, shrubs and flowers. It’s lovely

There isn’t a lot to central Bordeaux. There’s plenty of opportunities to shop. There are many arcades, malls, galleries and street shops. There are also lots of statues, squares and parks to visit and relax in. St Andre and Notre Dame are gems. The mirror D’eau is brilliant. The best of Bordeaux is tasting the wine and perhaps seeing the chateaux where it is made.

I’m sure the highlights for Peter were being let loose in the vinotique, tasting great red wine, and finding good bordeaux wine in supermarkets for a fraction of the price he would pay in NZ! If we were to return to France, we would certainly tour the chateaux and their vineyards. It might be a toss up between a tour of the Loire Valley and the Bordeaux wine country. Bordeaux might just win.

Notes on Accessibilty

The trams are totally accessible by wheelchair, although there is no specific place to park when you’re on board.

Bordeaux is flat so it’s easy to wheel around. Most roads have kerb crossings that are easy to roll up or down, although sometimes they are too steep – just stay on the road it until you find a suitable crossing, it doesn’t seem to be a problem!

There are many pedestrian only malls that are easy to negotiate. Department stores have toilets for the disabled.

I noticed more people here in wheelchairs in one day than I have seen in the last five weeks.

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Europe Travel Log – La Rochelle to Bordeaux

Sunday 25 September
It takes only about fifteen minutes to walk from our hotel to the railway station. It’s a beautiful sunny day. La Rochelle is putting on a show for us as we leave!

We report to the information centre which is also where help is available for those with reduced mobility. There are five people in wheelchairs going to Bordeaux! Previously I have been the only person asking for assistance. The official seems shell shocked. Our train leaves at 12.10, and by 12.05 no porters have shown up to help anyone. Two others in wheelchairs move on to the platform. I suggest to Peter that we just get on the train and not rely on help. I don’t know what happens to the others, but we’re off. A young man offers to help me up the steps but I point to Peter and he gives him a hand with our luggage.

Finding our seats seems impossible. At the far end of the carriage I see our seat numbers, but they are being used. I look at the numbers … “onze, deuze” I say … The occupants stand up and leave. What the heck??? And for the first time Peter and I are not side by side, but one in front of the other. Huh … It’s about two hours to Bordeaux …

Our carriage is full of crazy people. Twenty minutes before we are due to arrive people start getting their luggage and moving to the exit. Our seats are near the exit. I suggest to Peter that he get our suitcase down while he can still get to it. Ten minutes before we are due to arrive there are about eight or ten people pushed up against the door. A woman suddenly surges forward to be a little closer. She sits on me … I wriggle away as far as I can. I don’t like being squashed in the corner so I push against her and she moves away a little then sits on the arm of my seat. People are crammed in around me. I lift the arm of my seat, the woman has no choice but to push against someone else to make room. I can’t see Peter. He tells me later of a woman standing in the way of an automatic door. It keeps closing on her. She complains (in French) to her husband that her hand is sore. What is wrong with these people?

When we eventually get off the train Peter asks the guard “sortie?” There are few signs and we follow a guy in a wheelchair who has a porter helping him with his luggage (sitting on a very cool backless wheelchair that can be easily pushed or pulled).

Where is the taxi stand? There’s no sign and no taxis. Eventually one pulls up outside the station near a small group of people. No sign, but we know where to queue … And wait, and wait …

But we are in Bordeaux – wine and food!

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La Rochelle

Wednesday 21 September

We take a taxi from the railway staion to our hotel. On the way we see that the markets are set up in Cour des Dames. By the time we get back, all but one artist has packed up. I like one painting but until we have spent some time here I’m reluctant to buy it. There’s always another time.

The hotel is quaint. There is a courtyard and garden outside our room. It’s lovely.

We follow Amy’s guide to walk around the historic centre of La Rochelle. I love it. Our hotel is around the corner from the towers and we can see remnants of the old fortifications. I’m so glad I have seen the chateaux in the Loire Valley and can recognise the walls. The old port is very picturesque.

It’s warm and sunny so we sit by the marina eating gelato. I see fish jumping. There are big fish swimming in schools! The water must be clean, although it looks quite muddy.

St Nicholas tower is the taller of the three, so we walk to it, then sit and watch the water and the boats. It’s relaxing. The towers don’t dominate the town but, St Nicholas in particular, look impressive against the skyline. They’re medieval and amazing! The old clock tower can also be seen easily. La Rochelle has a wonderful ambience, with the water, marina and towers. I suspect it is unique in France … Many towns probably have an historic centre but the old port with the sea wall and towers, the marina and the ocean seems special.

There are lots of bicycles coming and going across the foot bridge. I wonder if they are students …

Amy’s guide takes us easily to the mono prix, and we buy tonight’s dinner … Bread, cheese, tomatoes and grapes. We’re going to miss this simple, inexpensive and tasty meal.

We need more clothes. Peter easily finds a pair of long pants that fit him as well, if not better than his others. I find a cardigan. It’s practical, but a pretty colour, tailored and made of Marino. And it’s half price. The shops are open til 6.30pm so we stop at some boutiques so I can try on pants. Turns out I’m a French 36-38, and American 28. I’m a French 1. I don’t now what any of it means but it makes it easier to shop for clothes!

When I take my night time meds I can’t find a full bottle of Baclofen. Peter rings Southern Cross to let them know. Not many people in La Rochelle seem to speak English so it could be an interesting morning. Amy offers to translate if needed. She assures me that the GPs and pharmacies are very efficient.

Thursday 23 September

First stop is the pharmacy. It opens at 9.15, and I’m hoping the pharmacist can give me the name of a GP so I can get a prescription. I’m a little worried because in NZ Baclofen is a specialist only medicine.

Unbelievably, the pharmacist simply sells me the number of tablets I need! I show her the letter from my GP listing my meeds. It’s intended for customs. She says that it can substitute for a prescription. (I think that’s what she says, she speaks little English.) The most difficult task is to explain how many tablets I need …

We walk through the streets behind the marina. The old arches in front of the shops stretch away up the street. The path is flagstaffs. The ceilings of the arches have been lowered but in an odd way this adds to the authenticity. The original architecture remains and so does the historic flavour. The town hall is wonderful. One tower is being restored but it’s character is unmistakeable. The court was originally the stock exchange built in the late eighteenth century when La Rochelle was a major trading port. It has wonderful solid wooden doors, a courtyard and the town’s motif, a sailing ship.

Four out of five shops seem to be for women’s clothing! I go mad, and buy tops for spring and for summer.

It was forecast to be 22 degrees today. By noon it’s freezing so we go back to our hotel and change into warmer clothes, then head to a restaurant for something warm to eat. Fish broth and salmon … Yum.

We walk to St Nicholas, ready to climb to the top. Peter reads the guide as I climb. La Rochelle has a fascinating history. It has see sawed backward and forward under English and French control. It is the only Protestant town in France. But in a siege orderd by Louis thirteenth (determined to catholicise them) and undertaken by Cardinal de Richelieu, 15,000 of the 20,000 population starves. The tower itself is interesting – the captain’s room, the spaces for canon … And the double spiral staircase! It was built in the fourteenth century, well before the much admired one at Chambord, thought to have been inspired by da Vinci!

I race down the stairwell … It’s easy for me because at 80 degrees and spiraling down I can use one hand on the ceiling and one on the rail. Call me speedy! (I beat the mother and daughter who saw me begin down the steps and turned back in alarm, at either me being in front of them or at the steep decline)

The sun has come out and by 5pm it’s warm, even hot. Before coming down the stairs I spent time looking at the view. From there I could see the old port, the historic town, the tops of masts in the marina at Minimes, and the rest of the wider city. I finally see how 120,000 people can live here! I love looking over the old port, then toward the ocean. It’s beautiful. What a view!

We walk to the main beach. We pass more remnants of the old fortifications, and what was probably a moat. It’s so interesting!

The main beach is beautiful. White sand (rocks at low tide, I wonder if the sand is brought in … ) The sun is low in the sky and the last rays on the beach. It’s still warm. I love it.

Friday 23 September

We wake up to a lovely sunny day. It’s autumn so it’s still chilly, but hopefully it will soon warm up to the day’s predicted high of 24 degrees.

We’re going to go to Minimes, the largest Atlantic leisure port in France. It’s also near where Amy lived while she studied at the university. The towers are a wonderful part of La Rochelle and are the essence of the old port. I never tire of seeing them. I’ve seen a photo that Amy took of them from a different perspective. I’ve seen them from the old port, now I’ll see them from the Atlantic side.I can see from the seaward side much more easily what an effective fortress the tower must have been, and how well protected the port was … But not always enough. La Rochelle was the only Protestant town in France and when Louis the thirteenth decided it should be catholic, he sent Cardinal de Richilieu to sort things out. He effectively formed a sea blockade through which supplies could not pass. Under siege, 15000 of the 20000 population died of starvation before La Rochelle acceded.

I’m sitting writing this at a cafe halfway to Minimes, “La Pause Oceane” near buildings that must be part of a huge marine industry. It’s pleasant because it’s warm and I am next to the edge of the marina, a forest of masts. It’s also sheltered from the wind that’s coming from the north and has quite a bite to it.

By midday it’s warm enough to take off my scarf. We venture towards the township but the roads are busy and i’m reminded that La Rochelle has a population of 120,000. Staying in the old port is pleasantly deceiving because we see only a tiny portion of the city and it feels quite small. We picnic overlooking the boats then make our way to the pier where the bus de Mer leaves from. We wait over an hour for the water taxi, but it is so worth it!

The water taxi passes through the marina, and the masses of boats. As we approach the towers and fortifications they seem to have risen from the rock itself. It’s a heart stopping moment!

By 3pm it’s hot.

Spending the rest of the afternoon on the main beach seems like a great idea. People are swimming and lying on the sand. There’s a wide concrete boulevard with a curved seat. Just the hint of a breeze. Perfect.

At 5pm it’s still hot. We walk toward the water. It would be nice to cool off a little. Just as I am thinking the same thing, Peter says, “We can have our first paddle in the Atlantic!” Fantastic!

We are back sitting against the wall when a woman who has been sitting not far from us comes over and asks, in French, if we know what the time is. We start chatting in a mixture of French and English. She later admits that asking the time was a ploy to see what language we speak. She says that it is very scary to begin a conversation in English, but she wants to practise, because since leaving school she has had few opportunities to speak English and she forgets. I think that English must be taught very well in French schools because she, and others like her, are reasonably fluent. A young girl who served me in a shop said she wanted to practise her english with me when I said, “Je ne parle pas francaise.” The student who works part time at our hotel speaks English fluently yet he has only studied it at school. I am very happy for French people to practise their English on me!

We return to our hotel. We are sunburnt … 🙂

Saturday 24 September

At 10am Peter wanders of to Fitzpatricks, a bar on the waterfront. He’s wearing his All Blacks top. No prizes for guessing what he is doing!

I hope to go to the markets in Cour des Dames, expecting them to be set up at 10 today … But nothing. Oh well, there are always the women’s clothing stores!

When I meet up with Peter again, he is very happy, not just because the All Blacks have won, but because he has thoroughly enjoyed himself. He says:

“I walk into the bar and order a beer. Not sure if the barman said “merde” or “meutre” when he first sees me. It is strange watching the All Blacks to French commentators. It feels good to be surrounded by a crowd that appreciates their rugby. Thank goodness the French do not play well at times, the scores are not close or there are any controversial incidents. The French supporters are gracious in defeat. On the way back, many people smile and nod in my direction on seeing my All Blacks top.”

I know that Peter will remember this experience, and that he will enjoy talking about it.

It’s cold again this morning and I’m wrapped up in scarf and jacket, but by 2pm the sun is out and the jacket and scarf come off.

We’re going to climb the other two towers this afternoon. Everything (except the cafes) close from 1-2.15pm. We wait in the sun, it’s glorious.

The top of La Chaine tower was destroyed in the seventeenth century and it has been modified since then. Now it is a heritage museum. Migrants to the new France, that is Quebec, Montreal and New Orleans, left from La Rochele and their names are recorded here. I enjoy looking out over La Rochelle from the parapet.

We walk along the sea wall between the Chaine tower and the Lanterne tower. I notice that the stones on the path are shiny from centuries of foot traffic. There are iron railings interspersed along the sea wall. Every top bar is worn smooth from centuries of handling. At each end of the bar, and from the lower bars, I can see how rough the iron originally was. It is astonishing that iron can be worn so smooth by human hands.

We begin climbing the Lanterne tower. It has been used as a prison and as a lighthouse. The prisoners have carved graffiti (names, dates, pictures) into the soft stone, and some of it is remarkably artistic, especially considering that they had only scraps of metal to use as tools. Some stone has been set up so visitors can try carving in it using a tool that is similar to a small key. It’s not easy! And although it is a “soft” stone, this is relative.

The view over La Rochelle from the terrace is great, but even better when I reach the very top, thirty eight metres above the ground. Here is the signal room and the lantern turret. The acoustics in the signal room are amazing. The turret soars above the room and even the smallest sound echoes. The acoustics make my voice sound rich and full. I love it. This is fun – singing, trilling … I could stay here for a long time listening to the sound. It’s awesome. Peter takes a photo of the turret by placing the camera on the ground, facing up. He does the same inside the lantern turret. The photo of the stained glass windows rising up into the turret looks sensational.

I am reminded how extraordinarily lucky I am to be able to climb to these places.

Below the tower a busker is playing the guitar and singing. His voice is husky. I like the sound even if i cannot understand the words.

I have been walking all day, so Peter returns to the hotel to get my wheelchair. My gloves are not with it so Peter pushes me … I’m so tired I don’t care.

We sit above the main beach and eat gelatos in the sun. Yesterday there were people swimming and sunbathing. Today most people are wearing sweatshirts and long pants. It may be sunny, but there is a slight chill in the air. It is 6pm after all. I comment to Peter that you never see a French child sitting still, or eating junk food. The kids on the beach are playing with balls, chasing each other, rolling in the sand, never still. It’s fun watching them, especially one group of four who seem to be aged between eleven and four. The youngest is tough, but they all seem to have a sense of fairness. It’s nice to watch a family that plays together so well.

Sunday 25 September

We make our way toward the Lantern Tower. It’s a beautiful sunny day, not a cloud in the sky. We hope to find a market that we saw advertised on a piece of A4 paper stapled to a lamp post.

We turn the corner and along the entire length of the wall are artists setting up their work! Fantastic. There is a wide variety of styles and media. It is a group of amateur artists but most are very good. We hope to find a souvenir of La Rochelle. The last artist paints in watercolour and her work is very, very good. Even though there seems to be nothing of La Rochelle we look through her work, simply for the pleasure of seeing good art. I ask if she has painted anything of La Rochelle and she shows us a few beautiful pieces. None of these are really for tourists, but one is of the Lantern Tower and I like it very much. We buy it. We continue looking at her work and two paintings keep calling to me. One is of a nude, and the other a scene that could be anywhere but seems particularly Parisienne. We buy that one too. The artist has been painting for three years but this is her first exhibition. She is very nervous. I tell her that her work is very, very good and wish her “bonne chance”. She is the first to have sold something!

I look over the sea wall so I can take one last look toward the Atlantic ocean. As we walk/wheel to the railway station I feel sad as I see the towers. A fish jumps out of the water, a few minutes later a gannet has it. C’est la vie. And so it is that we leave “belle Rochelle”.

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Paris To La Rochelle

Wednesday 21 September

We’ve been told by the hotel to order actaxi when we check out, but there are no taxis available!

Rather than panic, we walk to the taxi stand at Comedie Francaise (how appropriate) and try to hail a cab. Third attempt works and we’re off to Gare Montpannasse. The driver has little English but after Peter praises his car he starts asking us how long we’ve been in Paris, where we are going, where we have been … In our broken French and his English we have a real conversation! Peter has a good ear for accent and can pick up quite a few words.

We find the information desk and the help desk for people with reduced mobility is there. It’s great, we report back thirty minutes before the Train leaves and a porter takes us to our seats!

While we are waiting we see armed soldiers walking carefully through the station, scanning it all the time. On Monday we had seen soldiers with machine guns at the Louvre, and Joanne and Barry had seen soldiers at Sacre Coeur on Montmartre. We wonde if a dignitary is in town, or if there has been a terrorist threat, or if they practice to keep sharp. We’ll never know.

It’s a high speed train and the ride to La Rochelle is uneventful.

We decide to take a taxi from the railway station to our hotel, even though it’s not far away. The driver takes a wrong turn, and we end up paying more to travel 800 metres in La Rochelle, than we would to travel eight kilometers in Paris. Not to worry, we’re here in La Rochelle!

At last!

Notes on Accessibility

Paris train stations have a help desk for people with reduced mobility. There is a hydraulic lift available if someone in a wheelchair needs help getting on the train. Porters are available. There is a disabled area available that can be accessed by wheelchairs.

Service is friendly and helpful. Turn up about an hour before your train is due to leave, early notice is appreciated.

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Europe Travel Log – Paris Part 2

Paris Part 2

Monday 19 September

We are in a new hotel, this time on the right bank of the River Seine, near the Louvre.

L’Orangerie was recommended to us by Joanne and Barry who we met on the tour of the Loire Valley. It is a museum designed by Monet to display art he completed shortly after WW1. The art is intended to provide an oasis of peace. It consists of eight panels in two rooms.

We are the first into a room empty of people. (Free and prioritised entry!) The art we see provides a jaw dropping moment. Four panels curve around a white oval room. A written description is inadequate, photos cannot do it justice.

Monet has painted waterlilies. The first panel is morning, the second cloudy, the third green reflections, the fourth setting sun. The work is supposed to be endless, without horizon. I am excited, exhilarated, uplifted … I love looking at it in fragments, framing segments with my hands and enjoying what I see. I can spend hours doing this.

I move into the next room where Monet has painted willows. Clear morning with willows, morning with willows, the two willows, and tree reflection. I do the same here and look at the painting in fragments. In this way there are hundreds of paintings to look at. The detail becomes clearer.

It is a moving experience.

Downstairs are paintings by other impressionists. There are some very good Renoir, especially his nudes, and some Picasso. I am sated on Monet.

We walk to the Louvre to see if we can find some of Ruben’s work, having seen some in Chenonceau. We are still bubbling from Monet.

Once again (and in the same day!) we have a jaw dropping moment. We walk into the Medici gallery of the Louvre and there are twenty four paintings by Rubens, all commissioned by Catherine de Medici to show her life as ruler of France. A retrospective of her life, that of a “great woman”. She must have been a megalomaniac but thank goodness she was. These are Ruben’s greatest work. They are allegorical, drawing on Roman and Greek mythology, a fusion of reality with the fantastic. They are brilliant paintings in every way. Peter and I stay in this room, looking at these huge paintings for hours. They combine the power of Titian, the whimsy of da Vinci, the talent of genius. Utterly magnificent.

Two OMG moments in one day!

I also want to find the self portrait done by Elizabeth Louise Vegee-Le Brun. She painted Marie Antoinette and I think that she is the only decent French artist to emerge before the impressionists. On the way we find two rooms of impressionist paintings, yet we had been told at the information desk there were none! There are paintings by Sisley, Monet, Toulouse-Letrec, Renoir, and Pissaro!

What a day!

Finally, an attendant takes us to the Vegee-Le Brun paintings. Not only is there a self portrait, but four other beautiful paintings. Her self portrait includes her child. The detail, light and luminosity is amazing. Something that artists strive for, but rarely achieve. She is a great artist!

We pass some shops near the Louvre and Peter persuades me to go in to one. It’s a jumble of clothing but I find an unbelievably chic jacket. I don’t want to take it off. I ask an assistant for help to find jeans. She brings me pair after pair, but it’s the first pair I try on that I want.

All this in one day … Unbelievable!

We meet Joanne and Barry for dinner at the Polidor in St Germaine. No reservations, we queue. It has been the Polidor since 1845 and it is a great experience. Not only is the company excellent, Joanne is a wise woman, but the ambience and food is wonderful. People are crammed in … Sharing tables … No spare space … The waiter is crazy busy but always cheerful. I love this place. I’m rarely impressed by restaurants, and even more rarely do I recommend one. This I recommend!

Tuesday 20 September

Joanne and Barry also recommended the Musee Marmottan Monet. I have never heard of it and it is some distance from our hotel. However, it has the world’s largest collection of Monet. It’s in what was probably once a gentrified area of Paris and was the residence of the man whose collection this was. The Monet collection has been added to, of course.

Before we even get to the Monet s, I have found two artists new to me whose work is fabulous. The first is that of Berthe Morisot, a friend of Manet and Degas and other painters. I love her self portrait and a painting of two small children. She is an impressionist and as good as any of her contemporaries.

The second artist is Jules Cheret whose painting is “la Parissienne”. Written on it is

“To my dear Claude Monet, your friend and admirer, Jules Cheret”. It’s a delightful, almost characature painting of what appears to be a rather pretentious modern (for the time) woman.

Another painting worth mentioning is hanging in the entry. I recognize the subject immediately … The schonbrunn palace! Painted in the early nineteenth century I can see where the road will be.

There rooms of Monet’s paintings. Some of the work is vibrant, painted as his eyesight was failing, some is quieter. Many were painted in and of Giverney, some from his travels. It is exhilarating at the time, but also exhausting for the mind to decipher so much colour.

A delight to see is a Rodin statue of a father with baby. This was owned by Monet, and kept in his room.

I go back to see my two new artists then it’s time to leave.

We walk most of the way to Musee D’Orsay for one last look at van Gogh’s work. It is clearly autumn. The leaves are beautiful shades of gold and orange. A few trees are bare already.

When we reach the D’Orsay we make straight for the van Gogh rooms. I could go back there a dozen times and be struck by something new in something familiar. I spend ages looking at “The Chimnies of Cordville” (peering in between tourists), it’s crowded.

We take a last look around – Rodin’s Gates of Hell in plaster (Rodin minimized this), and Toulouse Letrec. His big square canvasses of the cancan dancers are terrific. I see more each time I look. No print can capture the essence of these works.

Finally, we finish the day with a boat ride on the Seine! It’s Paris from only a slightly different perspective, but Paris is Paris, and the Seine is the Seine!

Bye bye, Paris. For now.

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The Loire Valley

Saturday 17 September
We are on our way to the Loire Valley! In a big yellow bus! With a lot of other tourists!

This is the first time we are part of a tour group. There are guides for English speakers, Spanish and Italian speakers, and for French speakers. Our guide, who speaks excellent English, begins her commentary by explaining why there are so many chateaux. Apparently Kings had hunting lodges there and during the hundred year war with England, the Loire Valley became the official residence of the king and the administrative centre of France moved there from the Louvre in Paris. The war explains why there is little art in France from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – all resources were directed to the war – and why the rennaisance style of art was absent. It was not until Frances the first visited Italy and brought back Italian sculptors and artists to the Loire Valley that the renaissance style was introduced to France. One of the artists who came was da Vinci (Michaelangelo was favoured in Italy). The Mona Lisa has been in the Louvre Palace, and now the Louvre museum, since then.

I love the way that art and history are intertwined. I knew nothing of the history of Italy and France, and now, through our interest in art and architecture we have learned so much. This holiday has been our “History Tour”!

We are to visit six chateaux over two days. Amboise, Close Luce, Villandry, Chenonceau, Cheverny and Chambord, all within close driving distance of Tours.

Halfway to Tours, we hear a big bang from under the bus. It is disconcerting. The driver slows down for a few km but does not stop. Soon after there is another sound from under the bus, a sort of ripping sound. The bus is shaking a little where we are in the front, but apparently at the back the vibrations are quite bad. The driver slows to a speed where the shaking is not too bad. We expect him to pull over and stop but the bus keeps going! Peter is convinced that one of the rear inner tyres has blown. When we stop at our destination he speaks to an American man on the bus with us. This man works with trucks and has spoken to the driver who confirms it is a burst tyre. Peter and I are to change buses but the American is on a tour that stays on the bus. He refuses to ride in it. The last we see of him, he is talking furiously to someone on the phone. Good luck!

First stop Amboise. I like this small chateau very much, with its simple white stone (limestone) walls, terra cotta floors, and ribbed vaults typical of gothic architecture. But the most interesting feature is the wide bricked spiral ramp with curved stone ceiling (inside the chateau) that the king used to ride up to the first floor, rather than walk!

We, on the other hand, enter by climbing up spiral steps, passing through the small guards’ room with flagstaff floors (and white bricked vault), and into the official’s room. This Iarge room has huge stone fireplaces at either end and white columns decorated with figures where they meet the ribbed vaults they support. This chateaux is apparently an example of early French renaissance. The king had visited Italy, liked their rrennaisance architecture and built the chateau combining the gothic features of medieval architecture with features of the Italian renaissance. There are Italian and French flags flying outside.

The other highlight for me are the tapestries from the early sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Not because I am a fan of tapestries, but because these genuine works of art are completely unprotected! I walk up to one and I touch it! I touch something beautiful that was made in the early 1500s!

From the roof we can look over the tiny town of Amboise which looks pretty much the way it did four centuries ago. We see the Loire River, unpolluted because it is very shallow at this point and can only be navigated by fishermen. We can also see close up the gargoyles on the roof, a remnant of the gothic style. We also see the verandah from which enemies of the king had been hanged then their bodies thrown in the Loire …

We descend via the tower which is made of limestone but this simplicity is wonderful. On the inside walls are windows through which we can see the central pole of the tower.

At this point our guide forgets about us, moves on quickly without us and when we emerge we are lost. This is not fun. We call, and call, and it is another group who point to where she is. She blames me for being slow. Thank god she is not our guide for the rest of the tour.

Our group is standing near the chapel which she tells us is da vinci’s tomb. Later our other guide tells us that da Vinci’s bones were scattered and mixed with those of many others. Some bones were picked at random and buried in the chapel. They are unlikely to be da Vinci’s bones!
After changing buses, our next stop is Close Luce, where da Vinci lived for the last three years of his life. Charles the first had lived here as a child, but it had originally been built as a fortress for a politician friend of Louis fourteenth.

The surrounding fortress had allowed the chateau to have windows facing into the courtyard, so is less austere looking than others. The highlight is easily the frieze that da Vinci painted in the chapel. It is amazing to think that he painted it, and that here it remains in good condition … Vibrant colours, beautiful faces and figures …

It is interesting to see the underground tunnel through which the king entered to visit da Vinci. Also of interest are the scale models that have been built based on da Vinci’s drawings. We see a gearing mechanism that he used to develop ideas such as a pump with an Archimedes screw, a car, a catapult, an armored tank … And more.

The best story involves that of his young lover, Franscesco, to whom he bequeathed the Mona Lisa. Franscesco promptly sold it to the king for lots of money. And that is how it ended up in the Louvre!

We’re back on the bus. Next chateau. I do not expect to enjoy Villandry and would not have chosen it as part of my itinerary. But, gosh, am I wrong! We are to see only the gardens, as an example of a Renaissance garden. Prior to this the French had only vegetable gardens to feed the household.

The primary function of a renaissance garden is to be beautiful. It is extremely geometric and very precise. But also whimsical. There is the Romance garden – tender love, tragic love, adulterous love, and a broken heart – using colours and shapes to develop a work of art. The vegetable garden is beautifully laid out using colours of vegetables to produce patterns. There is a herb garden, also laid out to please the eye. A maze and lawns are set against a backdrop of carefully maintained forest.

Once again, the Italian renaissance influenced France. Prior to this, Villandry had been a fortress with many towers. Now, only one tower remains, along with a moat full of carp.

We stop in the town of Tours before going to our hotel. Tours was built in the fifteenth century and some of the original houses remain despite many having been destroyed by bombing in WW2 . Some are made of slate, some of mud wood and look exactly like the English houses of Shakespeare’s time. The central square is full of tables, surrounded by cafes, and jam packed with tourists.

Over dinner we meet a delightful couple who live near Boston. Joanne suggests two museums to add to our list: L’Orangerie, and the Mamatot-Monet. We are to be extremely grateful!

Sunday 18 September
At 8.15am the temperature is 9 degrees!
I’m looking forward to seeing the Chateau de Chenonceau. I have seen many pictures of it, built on arched piers over the River Cher.

We approach by walking down along avenue of trees. It’s quiet, peaceful and how i imagine the road to a chateau should be. It’s easy to imagine carriages, men and women on horseback.

Chenonceau is built from the local limestone which lightens with age. The facade is absolutely beautiful. The arches over the river look exactly as I have seen them! So picturesque! The front entrance is topped by round balconies on either side. The door is sculpted wood, decoratively painted with golds and blues over green.

The chateau was built by the finance minister to Henri fourth who accused him of cheating the monarchy of taxes. Henri confiscated the chateau and put his own motto above the front door, something to do with him being king by god’s grace …

It is a mix of gothic and rennaissance design with ribbed vaults and arches. The huge fireplaces are decorative. There is a good art collection, thanks to Catherine de Medici, wife of Henri. Most has been removed to the Louvre, but a Rubens, Tintoretto, van Eyck, Veronaze, and a Mirillo remain, all originals. They are on the walls of Catherine’s study. There is also a marvellous florentine ebony and gold jewelry chest given to her by her home state, Florence, for her wedding.

There is a wonderful sculpted fireplace in Diane de Poitier’s room. It has the letters H, D and C intertwined in gold, placed regularly round the head. She was the king’s mistress and when Henri died as a result of an eye injury during a jousting match, she was bequeathed the chateau. The queen confiscated it! Surprise! Surprise!

The chateau is sometimes referred to as the three ladies because of their influence on it’s design. Unusually it has a central hall off which the rooms come. There is a long ball room with chandeliers and the original slate and stone floor. This had been a bridge, built by Diane to access the woods for hunting. Catherine walled it in and it became the venue for sumptuous parties about which much is known because of writers at the time recording the details. It is sobering to recall again that while the aristocracy lived lavishly it was at the expense of poor people who were taxed to pay for this lifestyle.

One tower remains from the original fortifications. There are colourful gardens with fountains. Beside is the River Cher. I could spend a day wandering through the chateau and gardens. If we ever return this chateau would be on my “must see” list.

Chiverny is completely different. It seems more of a stately home than a chateau. It is classical French seventeenth century architecture. The facade is made from long narrow limestone bricks-very regular and very precise. It is decorated with Roman style busts.
The roof is made of black slate and has the rounded domes and sloping gables with flat roof that I see everywhere in Paris. The buildings in Paris that I so admire are clearly classical French of the seventeenth century – it makes sense!

Chiverny is decorated in baroque style, very busy, flowing, and dynamic. It has a straight staircase rather than spiral, an Italian influence. The ceiling above the stairs retains the wonderful arching curve in limestone that is so beautiful.

Attention has been paid to letting light in, so it is south facing with many tall windows. The shutters are elaborately painted.

The king’s room is the largest. In every chateau, a room must be set aside in case the king visits. It must be appropriate for a king … This room has an Italian coffered ceiling, and tapestries completely cover the walls, floor to ceiling and around corners. I don’t really have an interest in tapestries, but these are remarkable and have retained their original vivid colours despite being four hundred years old.

A Sunday market has been going on just outside the chateau. Chiverny is known for it’s good wines. Perhaps we should have visited the market instead of the chateau …

Finally, the highlight of the tour – Chambord!

Built by Francis the first and his son Henri the fourth from 1519 to 1559, Chambord is the largest chateau in France. The wall around the chateau and grounds is 32 km, the wall around Paris is 35km! (the original wall around Paris is now the ring road.)

Chambord was never lived in … The rooms too high, too large to heat. The king built it to be the greatest hunting lodge ever. Unfortunately, the hunting season begins in November and the chateau was too cold!

From the road, having passed through the wall that encircles it, there are fabulous views of the chateau through the forest. Glimpses of medievil turrets and towers! Fairyland …

The chateau has a facade of limestone blocks, forming wide circular towers below, a terrace (Italiant Renaissance) and narrow pointed ones above (gothic).

Double spiral staircase, said to be inspired by da Vinci, beautiful in white stone and curving balustrades. I climb it to the Terrace! (quickly up, quickly down because I am with a group. Rush, rush. Without Peter I couldn’t do it!) I’m absolutely delighted to have climbed up one staircase and down the other. Especially under the pressure of not keeping the other members of the group waiting.

A room with panels from Versailles to show how the chateau would have looked when it was built. The chateau was stripped during the revolution.

Ceiling vaults stamped with Francis the first (F) combined with his emblem, the salamander.

The terrace from where the towers and turrets can be seen more closely, and a clear view of the canal that delivers water to the moats around the chateau. A fisherman can be seen in his boat.

I would love to spend more time at Chambord. I’d explore the chateau thoroughly and walk alongside the canal.

However, we are on a tight timetable. Our guide tells me that he would prefer to do ten day tours of the Loire Valley. He also says that he does tours of the Louvre – one and a half hours and two and a half hours. I tell him that that is madness. He agrees.

We are returning to Paris on Sunday evening and the guides expect there to be traffic delays as French families return home after a weekend away. They are right. The electronic warning system says a forty five minute delay. The driver gets off the motorway and drives through the back roads. It’s pretty, and we’re only thirty minutes late!

The Loire valley has three hundred chateau, makes wonderful wine and is the garden of France. A weekend scratches the surface of what can be seen and done. For me this tour has been a “Taste of the Loire”. Looked at this way it has been a wonderful few days, during which I have learnt a lot about French history, the scandals of its royalty, the beauty of it’s architecture, and a context for many other things I have seen.

If we return to France I would like to spend about four days in Tours, driving to the chateaux I want to see more of. I’d spend time walking in the gardens, enjoying the peace of the surrounding farmland and vineyards, tasting local food and exploring just a few chateaux.

A fabulous weekend nonetheless!

Notes on Accessibilty
The bus
Impossible to get a wheelchair on to the bus. High steps requiring strong upper body strength to climb.

The chateaux
Some have complete wheelchair access, some partial, and some none. Where ramps have been possible they have been incorporated.

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