Blue is in my top three albums of all time. It was not always that way, in fact it was a slow burner to say the least. I bought this album quite early on in my collection compiling. I gave that first copy away at the local record exchange. I just could not get into this at all. Joni helped me get my English Literature exam pass as I used ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ as inspiration for my essay. This was not accessible in the same way. I could not connect with it on the level I could with Tapestry or James Taylors music. They were all singer songwriters, but Blue was just too deep for me the first time around. My experience of life out in the big wide world was still pretty sheltered. The girls I had known were from school and they had tended to mother me, I seemed to inspire that reaction as a relatively naïve, innocent young man. I had not got the faintest idea what Joni was on about. Musically it was quite complex, the melodies ever changing and fighting to keep up with the words. This was an adventurous album, and I was not yet ready for it.
I clearly needed a reality check. That came soon enough and the emotions I needed to feel when understanding Joni Mitchell songs started to come, if not hitting me like a sledgehammer. So, I bought another copy.
There is no real argument about the status this album has in the history of contemporary music (Rolling Stone rates it No:3 of all time – but whose quibbling?), although some felt at the time and still do that she bared her soul too much. Some singer/songwriters felt she was wrong to pile so much pressure on them to also reveal what was in their hearts and minds. I love the way she wrote this album. We would not criticise romantic poets of old for putting their feelings raw on the paper so let us be thankful for Joni putting blood on the tracks.
The importance and influence of this album I feel is displayed by two songs that were it is argued written by others about Joni Mitchell (allegedly of course before you all write in). ‘Our House’ by Graham Nash was written pre the Blue album. It is a paean to domestic bliss. It has not stood the test of time and seems almost cringeworthy in its portrayal of an unrealistic scene that couldn’t possibly last. By contrast ‘Fountain of Sorrow’ by Jackson Browne was written post Blue and is deep and gets to the soul of a complicated but irresistible woman. Blue divides the two songs, and the effect of this album is clear. Singer songwriters had to up their game – some do, others are left sprawling in her wake.
This album isn’t just blood on the tracks, it is body and soul – she leaves nothing for herself, no secrets to treasure. It is all here. The relationships may in retrospect be guessed at. There has been endless speculation and research these last fifty years. Which song is James Taylor? Which is Graham Nash? Where does Leonard Cohen fit in? Carey the ‘redneck on a Grecian Isle’ is in the public domain and a fascinating interview with Cary Raditz shows the friendship was a complicated and long lasting one. Having said that, ‘Blue’ really is all about gaining an insight into the mind, loves and losses of Joni Mitchell and how they can move us with regard to our life experiences. Really, we do not need to know exactly who the songs relate to. An album cannot be considered one of the greatest works of all time just on that level. Blue is so powerful because it reveals so much about the listener also. That is why it did not work for me first time around – I had nothing to reveal. If you have, if you have found just a fraction of the emotions that Joni works her way through, then the album takes on another dimension – it is about the listener also.
Listening to it 50 years on it has lost nothing – it will endure as surely as Shakespeare’s finest will endure. This album in many ways makes you feel that youthful age again, a pleasant dream through a time of loves, life and a sure feeling that you are glad you can still feel these emotions through this most beautifully written album.
Some of the emotions here are hidden in plain sight. ‘Little Green’ comes across as lightweight filler at first and can be skipped past by some.
At the time not everyone was aware that Mitchell had put a child up for adoption. This is Little Green. Her sentiments in this seemingly innocent, gentle song are in fact heart wrenchingly powerful when you have the background. She reflects on the joys that her child will see and enjoy but reminds her out of reach child that there will be sorrow. She hopes her child has a happy ending. It is a contrasting emotion mixed in with her pouring out about her loves and where her life is now. She later returns to the now grown-up child in her song ‘Chinese Café’ which she pairs with the standard ‘Unchained Melody’. Her feelings of love for an ‘unknown’ child are still deep.
The album in the main deals with her romantic relationships. She commits fully and deeply and by her own admission a little too easily. Despite this theme there is also a thread, particularly in ‘All I Want’ and ‘Last Time I saw Richard’ where she also lets slip that maybe, just maybe, she really wants domestic stability. She wants to knit that sweater and maybe she is jealous of that bride of her former lover who has that dishwasher. It is extraordinary writing to convey a full range of emotions in so few words and do it so vividly. With ‘Last Time You saw Richard’ you are in a cinematic experience and fully absorbed.
These thoughts of potential long-term domestic love in ‘All I Want’ appear to be about her relationship with James Taylor. An unlikely possibility as Taylor was in the throes of a dangerous heroin addiction despite being in a most successful and creative high in his career. She was in deep though, her writing here is dreamy, unrealistic but it is how she is feeling, she cannot stop this pouring out. It was not to be but here she is writing more in the present or immediate future tense, love endures.
The same is true with ‘River’, one of her finest compositions. She wrenches all her emotions out in this one and you feel the pain, the loss, the regret, that she bleeds onto the vinyl. The simple, almost one finger piano inro leads to her spreading her heartbreak down this icy river. Her voice soars in that Joni way, conveying pain and a cry for help. What did she do to drive him away – why did he cry at her actions. Well, she was hard to deal with, selfish, moody. She tells us and she has lost her best man. She has got to Christmas but there is no one there. A great song but the vocal stretches the emotion further than mere words. A classic.
‘A Case of You’ may be about her relationship with Leonard Cohen. If it is then it was an impossible one, but she was going there even though the warning from his ‘female relative’ who had his features was to be prepared for the real dangers to her emotions. She would be hurt for sure but she was drawn and could not resist – trapped but happy to go there.
The song that stands out to many is ‘Carey’. Here as in the connected song ‘California’ there is pure joy about where she has been and loved. Gentle resentment also, she was not totally treated well, but she had found a contrast to her life in L.A. that appealed to her – she was herself here and not this emerging star in L.A.. The village of Matala, Crete, a chef in the local taverna, inspired this beautiful song. Again, it is cinematic, you can see it up there in the wide screen in your mind, the sun reflecting in the bay and Joni enjoying this fleeting release from her suffocating surroundings back home. Yes, he did have a cane, there was a Mermaid Café, he was a mean old daddy but he insists he was not a redneck. It is an experience that was unlikely and unexpected, she really should have been back in L.A. making music. Carey is an escape, maybe not a deep love, but he was an enduring part of her life, he came out of the cave and taverna and did not lose touch.
And then there is ‘California’. Perhaps my favourite on the album. Simply because she passes through Paris and sits in that park, a city I love so much. I can see her on that chair. It is a final resonating moment on an album that takes you into her world, letting you go along for the ride, keeping those emotions on hand for future reference.
The story goes that Monet in his search for a house to accommodate his growing family set out one day by train from Paris and spotted what was then the tiny hamlet of Giverny. Standing out amongst the cluster of properties along Giverny’s long main street he saw from his carriage a long but low house set in surrounding scrubland. The railway line is no longer there, although there was no halt in any case at Giverny, so Monet walked back through the fields from Vernon to find this property. What made this building stand out was that unusually it faced away from the road towards the river. For a modern-day visitor there is no inkling of the beauty behind the stark long wall on the main street. He found to his delight that this property was available for rent and the rest is history. Monet eventually purchased the house and garden. You could say it is bequeathed now to all the visitors that can experience this most magical of places.
Monet was at this time a widow after the death of his first wife and mother to his children – Camille Doncieux. Before her death however he had begun a relationship with a woman of a higher social standing than himself. Alice Hoschedé became his lady-friend as they would have been discretely known and with Camille and their children they lived as a menage for some time up until Camille’s death. At Giverny Monet and Alice set up home with his two sons and her six children although they could not marry until 1892 after the death of Alice’s husband Ernest. The house would be Monet’s delightful home for the rest of his life, and he was completely devoted to the property and gardens, all becoming synonymous with his name. In front of the house lies the Clos Normand, full of flowers. The other side of the road he developed into what we see today by having the waterlily pond constructed. To achieve his aim, he was decisive and didn’t hesitate to change the landscape by diverting a branch of the Epte River. We shall visit the house and gardens more than once on our stay but first we must find our accommodation for the final leg of this trip.
La Pluie de Roses is located some way past Monet’s house as you come towards the end of the village. We are welcomed after our rather fraught day collecting and driving our hire car by Philippe and Elisabeth. This couple have recently sold this gorgeous property, but the current owner appears from the excellent reviews to have more than maintained their high standards. Giverny is blessed with some fine Bed and Breakfast accommodation with this property exceeding our expectations. The rooms are beautifully decorated in a style that could only be encountered in France. There are some quirky touches especially in the downstairs bathroom that is adorned with theatre posters and related photos. It could be a place to linger and read the walls. Our bedroom is sumptuous and in sympathy with the period of the house. It also has a quirky feature in that the fabulous shower has to one side a full-length plain window. You get a great view out over the village and presumably someone in the right place at the right time will get more of a view than they bargained for. The odds are in your favour due to the position of the bathroom – but you just never know.
The house has a wraparound garden that is lovingly tended. The grand stone steps that lead to the French doors at the rear of the house are a very typical feature in a house of this style. It has an intimate grandeur.
The hosts do not provide an evening meal but there are some good options for dining in Giverny. We contented ourselves on this first evening with a light snack before sleeping very well, only waking with the birdsong, ready for the main event of our visit – Monet’s house and garden.
Our hosts at La Pluie de Roses have an especially useful scheme whereby they can sell you tickets to enter Monet’s house and gardens. It is only when you gain a sight off the house that you realize just how much of a life saver this is. Strolling to the front of a queue that stretches way back down the main street and gaining instant admission to the accompanying despair and groans of the waiting throngs was a great relief. Actually, we did not go straight into the gardens. Just by the entrance a young newly married couple were emerging after having had some wedding photographs taken in Monet’s Garden. It would be difficult to beat that for a location for your photographs. They kindly obliged while I took a couple of photographs of my own and they added a touch of glamour to the scene on this hot sunny morning.
As you pass through the entrance the gardens are on first impression slightly underwhelming. I think it is because you feel that an iconic Japanese bridge should be right there in front of you. There is no question that expectations are extremely high. Initially however, you must make your way around a grassy section complete with discarded garden tools and a wheelbarrow before you come round to your first view of the long low house that Monet so loved. Now you are completely engrossed and drawn into this magical place that Monet created and has been lovingly maintained as an incredibly special place in France. The house is gently shaded from view by the lush growth of the trees and plants as Monet skilfully teases you to explore and find the perfect view of his house. That perhaps is to be found when you reach the main pathway leading up to the house, a view that Monet captured so well. Today that pathway is flanked by a gorgeous array of flowers in the lush borders either side of the path. One of the tricks he used, one which shows his skill not just as a painter but as a gardener, is how he leads you around the pathways to continue giving you different glimpses of the house. It is stunningly beautiful. If you have done your homework and have a love of his Giverny paintings, you will also be able to imagine and indeed expect one of his children to stroll out from behind a tree or shrub or emerge from the house into the garden. The setting for painting his young ones would have been magical and inspiring for him and you can clearly understand why he painted so many canvases of a personal nature here at Giverny. Monet also liked to take himself away and be alone in the garden. He would not have lacked for any number of beautiful subjects in the garden in front of the house. Then he could go across the railway into the Japanese garden and be quite peacefully secluded to paint the images that he is most famous for. Today the Japanese garden is reached by a short subway that takes you under the road where you are transported back in time to an atmospheric setting that is beautifully tended and familiar to anyone with the slightest knowledge of Monet’s work.
The Japanese section of Monet’s Garden is a delight and very sympathetically maintained. Although the lily ponds and the ubiquitous bridges are of course the highlights you have come to see it is the secluded, tucked away parts of the garden that really delight. The area shaded by the trees with a small river of water, a rowing boat tied up by the bank waiting for Monet to step in with his easel and paints. These atmospheric tableaux really transport your imagination back in time, giving a genuine sense of how Monet must have delighted in the construction of this gorgeous garden and then to enjoy using it to paint some of his most enduring landscapes. They are also a welcome quiet section to enjoy before embarking on the path around the Japanese garden, a path that will need a little patience to negotiate. Being one of the world’s most famous gardens you will find it busy at most times. Waiting for a loving couple to finally finish their photography on one of the famous bridges does need some tolerance on your part but it is worth the wait. The views from the bridges over the lily ponds are spectacular and do not be put off or intimidated – take your time and get the shots you want. You will be glad you endured when you get home.
The lives of Claude Monet and Alice Hoschedé were complicated. They were a couple and their families were living together but Alice always had some dependence and contact with her husband Ernest. Alice tried to resolve the situation with her husband over the next ten years after moving in with Monet at Giverny but without success. The ambiguity of their relationship remained until Ernest Hoschedé died from a prolonged affliction with gout in 1891. Monet had bought the house and land in Giverny the year before, having rented the property until then. Alice and Monet finally regularised their relationship on 16th July 1892 when they married in Giverny. Four days later Alice’s daughter Suzanne married the American painter Theodore Butler.
With his marriage to Alice and the purchase of the house and land Monet could now settle into developing the house and gardens. He extended the gardens and embarked on creating the water gardens and the gorgeous expanse of lily ponds that people associate with Monet and Giverny. His collection of Japanese art was built up and the overall effect of his enthusiasm is the extravagant colour of the planting and the breath-taking beauty of the house and gardens that we see today. Much of the credit for the survival of the house and gardens to endure to the condition they are in today is down to the care that was given to them by Alice’s daughter Blanche. She married Monet’s son Jean Monet. Jean died in 1914 aged just 47 after a long illness. This was just three years after the death of Monet’s wife Alice and the two events consumed Monet with grief. Blanche returned to Giverny as a widow to care for Monet and help him through the remaining years of his life. Monet died in 1926 at Giverny. Blanche also was a painter and her haystack paintings clearly owe a debt to the tutelage of her Monet. Blanche took on the responsibility of the house and gardens and as she was so in tune with her father she enabled its survival to be as we see it today. It is quite a legacy. I can confidently state that if you have never been to Giverny then if you possibly can you must go – you will never forget it.
There is one final place to visit relating to Monet and his family – The village Church.
The Monet family have a plot in this church of Saint-Redegonde located about a kilometre along the one main road in Giverny from Monet’s house. The plot, although not extravagant, certainly conveys the status of the great painter and his family in the local community. You will no doubt want to stop by the graves and pay your respects and there is an exercise to be done in working out all the family relationships of the complex Monets. The church repays a visit inside, but you have to remember that Monet was no great supporter of the church during his lifetime. It is entertaining however to try to picture the scenes played out here by the family. This little church played its part in many important family events of the Monet – Hoschedé family.
The Monet connection is not the only fascination that comes from a visit to this church. It was only by accident on our visit here that we discovered the graves of a crew of airmen that crashed nearby shortly after D-Day. I have because of my interest in family history developed a passion for touring churchyards and could not resist a wander through this one after paying my respects at the Monet family tomb. You cannot miss the unusual sight of a propeller turned into a monument. The inscription indicates that the propeller is from the Lancaster that crashed but from most accounts it appears to be from another aircraft. Here in the churchyard are buried the crew of the Lancaster, a plane that crashed on an operation near to Giverny on the night of June 7/8, 1944, less than 48 hours after the D-Day landings.
The Lancaster plane was from 115 Squadron I LL864 piloted by Ronald Maude who was only 21 years of age. You cannot help but reflect what you personally may have been doing at that age. It most certainly would not have been flying such an iconic plane over dangerous enemy territory. Pilot Maude and his crew were based at RAF Witchford in Ely, Cambridgeshire. Early morning at around 2:20 am the plane was shot down by an enemy aircraft flying close to the Giverny – Vernon road. Incredibly they seem to know who the German pilot was that shot the plane down. He was a Major Walter Borchers who had a very successful strike rate as regards destroying RAF aircraft. He however also did not survive the war but continued in the air well into 1945 before being shot down.
The grave dramatically indicated by British flags stands out prominently in the churchyard.
The inscription on the memorial reads: “These seven air men fell and were buried together”.
Seven plaques with a personal dedication remembers each individual airman. There is also a poignant photo on the grave that was taken shortly before they died showing them as a happy close-knit crew. Soon tragedy would befall them. They are still remembered here by visitors who leave flowers and other tributes on this site.
I feel it is right that I list the names of these young men and please visit this grave when you have paused by the Monet grave.
P/O Ronald Maude
Sgt Alan Anderson
F/O Ronald Tovey
P/O Harold Forster
Sgt Jack Fyfe
Sgt Robert Sutherland
Sgt Kenneth Penton
Normandy has no shortage of sites such as this one in Giverny Churchyard. You cannot help but be transported back in time to those days of conflict but it is still extremely difficult to visualize such horrors in this beautiful and peaceful landscape that we travel in today. Even though we are over 70 years on from those dark days of World War II the landscape is still bearing the scars and reminders of that time. In many ways we tend to think purely of the allied landings as being the defining moment of the fighting in Normandy. However, when you travel through the countryside and towns it becomes apparent that the beach landings where only the beginning. The towns, villages and people of Normandy and of course the soldiers and airmen that headed inland towards Germany paid a terrible price for the liberation. Even in such a sleepy and peaceful place as Giverny the impact was felt and in many of the smallest remote villages you will find that is the case.
THIS EXCERPT IS FROM MY NEW BOOK – ‘Off the Autoroute’
This excerpt is taken from my French Travel Book THYME for PROVENCE
Our first stop on our travels by car into Provence from the north, our entrance to the sun, has nearly always been the town of Vaison la Romaine. It is for that reason a location that is important to us in telling our story of travels in Provence. It is simply the gateway to Provence. We have always found the restaurants of Vaison provide a perfect lunch stop after a journey that has usually resumed in Burgundy following an overnight stop at a hotel in the heart of French wine country. On top of the fact that Vaison does provide some excellent food for the weary traveller it is a spectacularly atmospheric, beautiful ancient Roman town to visit. The clue is very much in the name of course. The Romans loved it here too, but I suspect they had to cook their own food.
Vaison is one of the very best preserved of Roman built French towns. The town is a place where you can spend many hours and still not have scratched the surface of the interest it has to offer. I do love my history. Let me first of all tell a tale of one of our first visits, a lunch stop as we entered Provence at the beginning of our holiday: Despite a fairly torturous autoroute journey from Lyon, all stop start traffic on the way, it was still only around noon when we parked the car in the large square in the modern part of Vaison. I say modern because the ‘old town’ is across the river, but today’s more modern part is where most of the Roman ruins are to be found. We were more than happy to have made such good time on the journey to get down as far as Vaison considering that we were travelling at the height of the tourist season. This location was to be our refreshment stop and it was already extremely busy.
We walked down past the shops and restaurants towards the ancient Roman bridge that connects the two parts of the town over the Ouveze river. This bridge was built in the first century AD and it appears on first impressions to be a simple arch construction but that does not disguise that this bridge is a truly astonishing architectural achievement. It has stayed firm even though it is in constant use right down to our day despite weathering the many dramatic floods that have swept down this valley throughout the centuries. We crossed over the bridge and of course lingered to admire the view up and down the valley from the centre of the structure, waiting our turn as people moved slowly away. The finest view of this historic bridge and its situation spanning the river and joining both sides of Vaison is to drive or walk a few hundred yards north. From this point you can take in the scene looking back towards the town. It is a spectacular sight. As you cross to the other side it is worth stopping to look at the towering war memorial now in front of you. This is extremely impressive in that it almost appears to have been carved from the solid rock face.
Walking slowly up the ancient cobbled narrow streets of the old town we searched up and down the maze of narrow passageways for a small restaurant where we had previously enjoyed a fine lunch but found it shuttered up, unusually closed at this busy time of year. It was at this tiny unnamed restaurant serving diners at just three metal tables spread out across the stone cobbles of an opening in the passageway that we had a surreal encounter with a group of American tourists the previous year. On that occasion it was peaceful and cool in this lovely, shaded spot, quiet and secluded.
We were just starting to enjoy a simple lunch of Niçoise salad, and a dish of lamb cutlets placed in front of me. We tried to eat this very pleasant lunch and drink our carafe of chilled local rosé wine but the heavy conversation from our fellow diners was preventing any possible enjoyment. Despite all of them heartily tucking into their lunch, a couple of them ironically enjoying a very rare steak, one of the party of Californians was recounting at great length and in precise gory detail the full technicolour facets of her recent stomach operation. I assumed that as she had initially recalled to all in earshot that it extended to a 5-hour operation she would just give the edited highlights. I also assumed that she must have been asleep during the procedure – maybe she had it videoed. She did not leave out any detail. I also assumed that the others in the party gazing at their juicy red steak would eventually change the subject. They did not. I was under no illusions that if they continued this subject any farther then I would throw up. Niamh was going ever greener as our food seemed to be looking at us like an enemy taunting us rather than a plate of tempting beauty and pleasure.
Ultimately, we had had enough.
I asked very politely if they might just possibly, please, consider changing the subject until we had eaten. I explained that we English once anesthetised are more than happy not to be informed of what occurred. As long as all goes well on the surgeon’s table there is nothing more we need to know but I appreciated they had a different take on the fascinations of surgery. They kindly agreed but I had put them out of their or should I say her stride and they spoke not a further word until I paid the bill and wandered off down the lane.
So then, back to our visit a year later.
As we were not particularly pressed for time, we carried on strolling around the narrow streets threading through the old town. After a while we came to a large, terraced courtyard on the route back down to the ancient bridge and this turned out to be the Hostellerie Bellfroi. It gave the impression from the ambiance at the tables to be too good to walk past. We would in any case rather eat in the old town with its extra atmosphere and views. One snag today that countered this argument was that the mistral wind was blowing hard, very hard. It turned out to be a bracing lunch on the exposed terrace. Even the wine bottle had to be ‘grounded’ such was the strength of the wind. I selfishly kept it by my foot.
The food that the restaurant served was excellent and I enjoyed the plat du jour of roast chicken with Provencal courgettes accompanied by a side dish of boulangère potatoes. Niamh had a large salad of couscous, prawns, and raisins with plenty of ‘greens’. The splendid local Vaucluse rosé was the finest of accompaniments once I could steady it to pour. Clafoutis is always one of our favourite French desserts and we cook it often at home from a Normandy recipe. So, we both decided on the apricot version that was on offer to finish a very pleasant lunch. Niamh insisted that hers was strangely ‘chicken’ flavoured. Maybe they had carried ‘Plat du jour’ a little too far with that one. Mine was absolutely the finest example of apricot flavour so we swapped over, I had the full chicken lunch. Niamh was indeed correct, it did taste of chicken, presumably warmed up TOO close to the next main course to be served. The hotel restaurant waiting staff were quite young and seemed a little diffident. I observed that on a couple of occasions they lost lunchtime custom simply because of turning parties of six or so awa. This continued until one large party took it into their own hands and showed them how easy it was to put tables together. After that they seemed to warm to their task and were pleasant and friendly, if a little inattentive.
As with most restaurants in France and particularly ones with a large terrace there is always scope for some excellent people watching, a skill you start to perfect after a few visits. This place certainly does not disappoint on that score. At the next table under an old gnarled shady tree, I observe a scene that is replayed so many times as you eat your way around France. It is the ageing well preserved Frenchman, greying hair still luxurious, worn long and swept back. His skin textured by the sun and Gitanes over the years but still retaining a certain Gallic attractive elegance and dressed in the finest clothes, new ones of course, complemented by a large expensive watch on his bronzed wrist. At his side, the young, very attractive girl. From the interplay between them she is definitely not his daughter or granddaughter it must be said. She is hanging onto his every fascinating word and while he expounds his philosophy on life and love, he desires that his iPhone does not offer up a call from his wife.
Overall, it was a fine tasty lunch in a lovely courtyard with a great view from the terrace back over to the other side of the river. It is too early in our trip to make too many superlatives in our admiration regarding views. As the week progresses there will be some stunning ones to come that are truly breath-taking. We will find many of these away from the main tourist ‘must see’ sights. We will eat often over the coming years in Vaison on our driving tours around Provence.
So then, other than food what has Vaison to recommend it to the tourist? Let us see.
The old town offers the most delightful views either back across the river to the old town or looking in both directions up and down the valley. As you gain height in the old town to the very top the views increase in splendour. The actual top is quite rocky and a bit of a disappointment but at least it has not been turned into a tacky tourist place. As we near the top we hear the strains of an unusual stringed instrument. This zither like instrument is being played by the most bizarre musician, a middle-aged man who has the appearance of a Biblical shepherd, enhanced by his long hair that I cannot imagine is his own. It looks like it started life on the back of a wet sheep. This long-matted hair (wig) is extraordinary. We leave him to his small crowd of admirers and retrace our steps as the piercing high notes fade into the distance.
The buildings on this side of town are old and well maintained with many bed and breakfast establishments and gites. Other houses are still occupied by local people, and it is this mix that makes it such an interesting place to stroll. The unexpected is around every corner, an elegant hotel with diners on the terrace and then beyond that the washing line of the local lady resident. It is up in the more modern half of Vaison that you will find the Roman ruins. They are ruins of course but are so well preserved that you need to engage very little imagination to visualise the town as it would have been laid out in Roman times. There is an admission charge for entry into the two main sites. Although, particularly with the large section of the Roman town that is near the main square and leading over to the Cathedral, you can walk around the perimeter and get a great free view looking down over the grid of ancient streets.
Some buildings are visually so obvious in their reason for having been constructed, the most amusing one is the large square room with solid stone benches around all the walls. These have circular holes cut into them at regular intervals and it needs no imagination to grasp that these were the Roman equivalent of the toilet pods on today’s French streets. To be honest some of the toilets on the autoroute and in some rural cafes have not progressed very far in technological terms from these splendid practical examples from Roman times. The Romans clearly were a very convivial bunch of people, shame they did not have a newspaper or a book to read. I tend to believe that this was the point where they took conviviality a touch too far. I wonder if they tried this on the English when they crossed the channel – it is cold up north.
If you carry on walking around the perimeter of these remarkable ruins, you will come to the 11th Century Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth de Vaison. If you look closely at the visible foundations and lower walls of the cathedral you will see the reason as to why the Roman buildings are not as complete as they might have been. Very obviously when the Romans left Provence the local people used large quantities of pre-shaped Roman stone for the cathedral. Market day here in Vaison is on Tuesday morning as stipulated by order of Pope Clement VII in 1532. Vaison market is one of the largest in the region with over four hundred traders setting up stalls and providing the most heady and delightful aromas of Provence. A great market but be warned that it is always very busy, and you may have to abandon your vehicle some distance from the centre of town and walk in. Get there early.
Yes, initially for us Vaison was merely a lunch stop. Over the years we have come to visit the town for what it can offer the inquisitive visitor who likes his tourism supplied with a long lazy lunch coupled with great historical view.
Bistro St Andre on the left bank in Paris, France. The stroll from St Michel across towards St Germain takes you down Rue St Andre and it is an interesting quarter of Paris. Enjoy some narrow side streets and covered arcades before meandering back towards the Seine. For architecture lovers there is plenty of interest and don’t forget to look up. Of course you will never go hungry here with cafes, restaurants and wine bars spilling out onto the streets.
The photography on my website is all taken by me and mainly on Olympus cameras.
St Paul de Vence is felt by many to be the loveliest of the perched villages in the south of France. Perhaps, but I do love Bonnieux! St Paul de Vence, an attractive, compact village became a magnet for artists and art lovers in the 1920’s, when a group of impressionist painters rediscovered this sleeping neglected village. Still, today it is very much a place that thrives on its artistic connections. Please take care of your wallet, unpriced art is displayed that way for a reason, so if you afraid to ask don’t go in. Even if you are not prepared to buy there is some stunning art on display and the village itself could be considered one whole work of art.
The photo above was taken on our last visit to the village around 2014. Recently I was watching a BBC documentary about a painting by Sir Winston Churchill of this very scene. The object of the programme was to prove the authenticity of the painting and this they achieved to about 99% satisfaction of the experts. What was interesting was that it was established for certain that Churchill did paint from this very spot and was friends with the artist owner of the studio in this square. It was fascinating to lose yourself in the history of a place you knew well and will no doubt add to the enjoyment of our next visit.
Today the village is not only home to a large artist community but a favoured place of celebrities that have homes here. You may not see any but the locals will provide some names.
The village can be exceptionally busy but we have never found it overwhelmingly so. There are plenty of places to wander away from the main street and the views from the top of the village are spectacular.
Watch out for the locals though! We took a route down a narrow lane passing behind the church and away from any shops and in a quiet passageway we came across a small boy who was playing alone quite boisterously. As we got closer to him he made his move and strangely tried to take me prisoner in his weird game and was determined that he would not let me go. Eventually I wrestled my arms free from this crazy child and headed back up to the church very much to Niamh’s amusement. We carried on safely and went past many fine shops and artisans but once again they are exceptionally overpriced despite undoubted quality.
As in most villages in the South of France you can with care eat very well but also there are one or two tourist traps to avoid. On our last visit we had a lovely baguette and fruit tart for a light lunch by the village walls. Perfect.
St Paul de Vence is one of the Cote d’Azur’s most famous and beautiful treasures, and one you should definitely visit.
The small village of Uphill consists of the village itself around the marina and down to the beach. Also, it spreads along the Axe Estuary from the marina where the Nature Reserves are filled with birds, wildlife, and plenty of botanical interest. This area at the southern end of Weston Super Mare is a most delightful place and you can easily, with a picnic, spend a whole day here exploring with your camera or binoculars. It reminds me of parts of Suffolk, particularly around Snape, where the skies are big, the land filled with birdsong. It is generally much quieter than Weston Super Mare, day visitors there would never be aware that such a beautiful place was just a few hundred yards from hustle and bustle of a Bank Holiday weekend.
You can usually park easily in the village before taking a stroll to the beach along the Links Road past the golf club. The fifth hole is right by the wall along the road so you can stand right behind the players as they tee off – just stay still and quiet but I imagine it does put them off. There is a green to the left so you can follow the ball inward on that hole. Just keep your head down just in case.
A few yards farther on is the beach, reached as you past by an old WW2 pill box. In front of you is the attractive vista over to South Wales, with the outcrop of Brean Down just to the left. Ever changing light and the large sky make this an irresistible shot for a photographer. Even better is to be here at sunset. The sunsets I promise are as spectacular as anywhere, especially in late Summer through to winter. On most days there are windsurfers active to the right off this beach. Weston, it must be said can be rather bracing.
Although you are at sea level here the views are still extensive. Brean Down, famous recently for the filming location of Sanditon on TV, is just in front of you, a place of contrasting light. Beyond is Steep Holm Island. Beyond that to the right is Flat Holm Island. The clues are in the names and these islands have regular boat trips to them in summer to see the nature in these secluded spots. Beyond all these is Cardiff stretched out on the opposite shoreline. Cardiff can appear extremely clearly to enable you to pick out landmarks such as the Millennium Stadium with the naked eye.
Carrying on to the left, by the golf course you reach the Yacht Club and beyond the rather neglected jetty. It is atmospheric, however. Being here on a misty morning looking up the estuary can produce some wonderful photos. A view back towards the Bristol Channel on a sunny day will give what locals believe is just an illusion – a gorgeous blue sea. Colour is all about the light and reflections and despite the reputation for the water to be muddy, it can on the best of days be as beautiful as the Mediterranean.
At high tides of Spring and Autumn the water will flood the plain as far as Uphill boatyard and down to the far Nature Reserve at Bleadon Levels. The land that gets the tidal flow over it is rich in wildflowers in spring and summer, especially the sea lavender and teems with birds and wildlife. We have spotted over 50 different birds on the estuary and reserve. A very beautiful place.
Keeping by the estuary bank, as long as the tide or heavy rain is well past, you can follow the estuary around and back to Uphill village. It is not possible to cross the river so heading back to the village is the only route to the other side which can then allow a walk to the nature reserve a couple of miles downriver. Here there are some bird watching hides to allow views over the reed beds. Although you can hear many birds and see some of the more adventurous ones, I have to say that even with binoculars these reed birds do stay remarkably well hidden. The walk is a beautiful one however and well worth the effort.
Back in the village the path winds through the rather neglected part of the boatyard to the river that twice a day will be completely dry and silted with the outgoing tide. Following the path by the side of the lake and caravan site, which is beautifully situated, gives the option of following the riverside to the nature reserve or going left past the resident egret. Again, the trees and shrubbery around this path are an ideal spot for birdwatching.
Above on Uphill hill the Church of St Nicholas which is more medieval than Norman. The church dominates the scene around the caravan site and boatyard. It stands on top of the rockface of the old quarry of Uphill. Many days you will see climbers on the near vertical slope of the quarry. Occasionally some stray black sheep will be in almost as dangerous a position around the slopes of the quarry looking for a tasty piece of grass in an impossibly dangerous spot.
The path to the church is obvious, quite steep but it is a fascinating place to visit.
Once on the summit you can climb Uphill Tower, the remnants of an old windmill. The views from here are outstanding. From overlooking Weston Super Mare beach, you can look over to South Wales and round to the tip of the North Devon Coast. Back round you can follow the hills of Exmoor, the Blackdown Hills and all the way over to Glastonbury Tor and the Mendips. From what is a relatively small hill it affords the most remarkable panorama. The markers on the top of the tower give you the landmark locations.
The church opens rarely but it can be visited during the year. Look for the stone mounting steps for the horse rider attending the services in the times of Jane Austen. The graveyard is quite a place to stroll around. If you like looking at and imagining the lives of people in times past this churchyard is an interesting one. There are a few war graves in the churchyard maintained by the CWGC. There is a family one that has on it the name of a soldier killed at the Somme on July 22nd, 1916. The relevance for me is a personal one. On that same day on the Somme an ancestor of mine was also killed. Maybe they new each other, possibly engaged in the same action.
Two graves stand out. One is for two women of the same surname. The poignancy of this is that they perished in the Basle air disaster in 1973, an event I can recall. Over fifty local children of this area of Somerset were left motherless when the plane taking them on an exciting group trip crashed into the mountainside as it neared its destination. Quite a tragedy for a tight knit community, especially when most of the victims were part of similar interest groups.
The other grave is most unusual. Detective Inspector Frank Froest of Scotland Yard would seem an unusual candidate to be buried in Uphill. However, he did take up an occupation here after his service in London. What is noteworthy about him is that he was the supervising officer for the arrest aboard ship of the infamous Dr. Crippen and his mistress Ethel Le Neve when they were escaping to America. You come across some curious things pottering around these churchyards.
Uphill is a beautiful spot. Come by all means but please not all at once as I love it too.
Today, as I listen to the Bruce Springsteen ‘River’ album, I am wondering what it is that shapes our love of music and particularly a genre that we seem to stay with for life. To be fair I did come to Springsteen a little later in life although the seeds were already there for him to step into my collection. My reason for starting this journey through my past, to paraphrase Neil Young, was my father’s vinyl collection. My father died recently, and he left a vast collection of vinyl including 78’s which I suppose are technically shellac. His CD collection was even more extensive, but it was the vinyl that fascinated me.
As I looked through the records there was a familiarity about them. Growing up, I had of course heard nearly all this music many times. My father’s tastes did not greatly change from his first loves. These were mainly vocalists of the style of Sinatra, Billy Daniels, Al Martino, Nat King Cole, Frankie Laine, Alma Cogan, Kay Starr and many others of that 50’s and early 60’s generation. The CD collections showed little change in his tastes other than a large collection of Willie Nelson and a decent Classical music range.
These artists were special to my father. He saw the majority in concert, mainly in Manchester at the Palace Theatre or Blackpool in its heyday of attracting the big stars of the day. He loved to tell of seeing Sinatra in Manchester when the theatre was not even full. Yes, all special musical memories for my father.
I then realised that none of these great mid-20th century artists, massive stars in their day and all familiar to me, had not touched my musical consciousness one iota. A great collection of vinyl was just memories to me but musically I had no desire to hear them again. Why? At the time I heard them I certainly was not also listening to or even aware of the artists I would form a love of – a lifelong love. So why did I not share my father’s love of his artists before other influences kicked in? For me I would say that music did not take priority at that time. Sport did, especially cricket. However, when I look back, I can see that the seeds had been planted in my musically education. It did not come from my father’s collection.
The album, or should I say 10” vinyl album, a quirk of the day, was in fact among the records I found in my father’s collection. It was a great, pleasant surprise to find it as I thought it was long lost. It was the very first selection of music that started to form my musical DNA. It did not belong to my father but was a treasured possession of my grandmother. I spent a lot of time with my father’s mother and although her record collection was tiny compared to what was in our home it was more interesting to this young child. My grandmother delighted in playing this small group of records over and over again.
‘Satisfaction’ by the Rolling Stones was one of them. I didn’t mind it and it was certainly for an eight-year-old a great departure from the music on the stereogram back home. The other favourite of hers was ‘Green Green Grass of Home’ by Tom Jones. She loved that but I never pursued a Tom Jones collection of my own. There was a rare recording of the Beatles at the Royal Command Performance but again the Beatles did not stir any musical feelings. Wish I still had that single though. Did it really exist? Perhaps just in my memory. Maybe I just watched it with her.
It was this visually interesting 10” vinyl LP she had that I kept going back to. The green cover of the artist in the studio was intriguing. The PYE label on the vinyl was fascinating, it was the same logo as my father’s stereogram. This was her pride and joy, one I had to listen to – ‘it were great’ she said in her Lancastrian tones. This was Lonnie Donegan, and the album was called Showcase. Released the year after I was born it was already well used by the time my grandma introduced me to it. I loved it and insisted on hearing every time I visited. Only now, looking back and studying this well-worn copy re-discovered in my father’s collection do I understand that it formed the basis of my love of music and a musical genre. Musically Donegan was interesting, fresh and different for the time. It was lively and somewhat loose in style, sort of folky jazz. It stirred my musically feelings. I am ashamed to say that I never bought any of his recordings and music went on the back burner for about 10 years. I had other things to do. Lonnie Donegan though had introduced me to what I really love about music. As I look at that album now, I can see its influence very clearly. It is words. Words set to music are my great love. I want to be moved, I want to be sad, I want to be uplifted, I want a story and preferably a sad one. That 10” vinyl had those things. As a seven-year-old he formed my future love of a style of music and performing.
That album was full of stories and not all with happy endings. ‘Wreck of the Old 97’, ‘Frankie and Johnny’, ‘Wabash Cannonball’ and others were all stories, music with words. That would always be my love. I love sad music. My daughter says, ‘the sadder the better’. Artists such as Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson would certainly fill that need later, amongst others. On that Lonnie Donegan album is a song ‘Nobody’s Child. I defy you to find a sadder one.
Looking back, I find it fascinating that I could have had such a love of music formed so deeply at such a young age. So deeply that I never realised it until recently. Lyrically at the time they meant little, an eight-year-old could not relate to Frankie and Johnny that is for sure. But, they entered my make-up and the outcome would flourish later.
Lonnie Donegan was an extremely influential artist, and many artists of the calibre of Paul McCartney, Mark Knopfler and others testify to his influence on their music.
I can testify that he influenced my love of music and so having enjoyed looking at this old vinyl I will continue and explore my vinyl collection. I will try to express what these songs mean to me and add some context to the time and place they appeared to me. Maybe, that will resonate with you – I hope it will.
The reviews from 50 years or so on will be in no particular order, in fact I will probably just put my hand in there at times and see what comes out. I do have to begin somewhere so this choice selects itself as the beginning.
I will start with the first LP I ever bought – Carole King Tapestry.
This excerpt is from my French travel book – OFF THE AUTOROUTE, the fifth in my Series of French travel memoirs. Please enjoy on Amazon including Kindle Unlimited.
It will take you on a tour of France from Calais to the South and back through Brittany and Normandy.
It is time to move on, and this time to a new region for us – Lot et Garonne.
Our destination was the town of Cordes Cur Ciel, and our visit coincided with the nearing completion of the astonishing bridge, the Millau Viaduct. The earthworks and operational area for the bridge extended for miles around the site. It forced a slight detour as we came down from the height we had travelled on to wind our way carefully down into the valley below. This incredible feat of engineering, one of the most astonishing in the world, spans nearly 2500 metres above the valley below. As we travelled around the construction area, we felt exceedingly small indeed, sharing the area with some enormous construction vehicles. The road deck is suspended around 250 metres above the ground. I recall watching a documentary on the construction process, marvelling at how they actually pushed the road deck out from the end of the bridge into the void to traverse the viaduct piers. It is amazing engineering and a shared design of the English architect Norman Foster. It would be a few years before we had the opportunity to travel over the viaduct, which we did heading north up to the Loire valley. Niamh does not recall it at all – she had her eyes firmly closed as I drove across. I also barely recall the view as I just kept my eyes on the road, it is a long way down if you manage to crash over the side, but on reflection I think the safety features would have prevented that.
We eventually made our way to Rodez and on to Cordes as the rain started to pour down. Little did we know that it would not stop for the entire length of our three days stay. I was attracted to a beautiful property called Aurifat situated just outside the ancient walls, with a view overlooking the valley below. Standing at a viewpoint below the property you get a real understanding of the multi floored medieval property. It sits well with the old town architecture framing the backdrop behind the house. Cordes, with its ancient narrow streets, is a special challenge for a car driver. Eventually I threaded our way through to Aurifat and carefully took the car down to a parking space. The property has changed hands since our visit and now has Dutch owners who have maintained its fine reputation. Ian Wanklyn and his wife Penelope were the charming owners at the time we visited. They greeted us hospitably and urged us to get out from the driving rain and into our cosy room for the stay.
Ian and Penelope are comfortable hosts, not intrusive, but always available to ease your way into a new area of France. They show us the kitchen that is available for the use of guests. Hopefully we can use this later but just now the torrential rain is intruding into this summer kitchen and a stout pair of wellingtons may be needed to cook my fish supper. At least I can keep the wine above water.
Sadly, the rain will not stop at all for the three days we spend at Aurifat. Our visit to Albi, that beautiful, colourful cathedral town is curtailed by our being soaked, even under a substantial umbrella. Exploring Cordes is done by dashing from shop or restaurant doorways, but you could argue the rain adds to the atmosphere of this ancient town. We manage a couple of visits to wine makers, producers who are getting increasingly concerned with the potential damage being inflicted by this extraordinary, extended downpour. We find one activity that will give pleasure when we get back home. At the end of the drive to Aurifat there is a large, mature walnut tree. Under its spreading bows we can shelter, taking the opportunity to gather as many walnuts as we can. A large boxful is filled and as long as we can dry these, and keep them dry, they will be much appreciated back home in England.
As we peer through our steamed-up car windows the region does seem to be a very interesting area, one that is crying out to be explored. We do have accept defeat on this trip however, one day we will return, and explore this region when it is no longer under water.
On our final rain-soaked day we endeavour to make a final attempt to take in the fascinating architecture and character of Cordes. As the rain penetrates every part of our skin, through completely sodden clothes, it is obvious we must get inside. At least the rain is warm, hot almost and there is the possibility it will steam dry when indoors. Being after twelve noon it seems the sensible thing to find a place to eat and enjoy a fine bottle of local wine. There must be a final compensation to this somewhat ruined visit to this historical area. We shall not be beaten. Cordes sur Ciel is home to a fine gastronomic restaurant – Le Grand Ecuyer. This is the flagship restaurant of Yves Thuriès, a giant of French cuisine. This restaurant leads the way in the region and regularly entertains celebrities, prime ministers, and even English royalty. Sadly, I do not feel it will be serving us today. I am inclined not to make an inevitably large puddle in such an eminent establishment. Fortunately, Yves Thuriès also owns a bistro in Cordes. Hostellerie du Vieux Cordes – I do feel they may allow us to dry by the fire. The narrow streets, running freely with streams of water, eventually lead to this bistro. We crash through the door seeking shelter and feel very intrusive and inappropriately attired for what is, although a bistro, undoubtedly an upmarket one. Our cagoules do indeed with remarkable rapidity leave a shining expanse of water in the foyer.
‘Do you have a table for two?’ I ask, expecting to be shown the door rather than get an answer in the affirmative.
‘Of course, Monsieur’. Follow me.
For a bistro the establishment is very well presented. If this is his bistro, how fine is the main restaurant? Glad we did not risk desecrating that one. The maître d’ shows us to a large, very large, round table, sort of King Arthur style and size. Niamh I can see in the distance, opposite me on the other side of this vast structure. I cannot imagine what we look like, tiny dots at the vast table, still dripping water onto a beautiful carpet and now to cap it all a gathering cloud of steam above our heads. Oh, and my glasses are steamed up – where is the menu?
But, we are slowly starting to dry off. The food of course is cooked to order, giving us more time to disperse the water from our bodies. By the time it arrives we are almost comfortable. The food as you would expect is extraordinary, fine local produce cooked to perfection and presented with immaculate aplomb. At last, it has been worth the long journey and the endurance we have shown in the face if this almost Biblical storm of the last three days. The best though is yet to come – the dessert. Our charming waiter explains that the chocolate fondant with crème anglaise will take around thirty minutes to prepare and cook to a state of complete perfection. Although he didn’t add the last part it does apply to the dish presented to me half an hour later. We have eaten often and well of the produce found all around this wonderful country. Memorable as many dishes have been there is occasionally something that forces its way to the top of the charts as regards the best dishes you have ever eaten. This was one of those and so extraordinary fine was it that I feel on reflection it has never lost the top spot. As we all know chocolate fondant is the easiest way to crash and burn in the kitchen. It takes a special talent to get it to perfection. Now that I was almost dry, I was able to fully appreciate this moment. Cordes – we will come again even if you send another downpour on me.
During our meal the dining room had filled up with a large party of elderly diners. The ‘facilities’ here were down some steep winding stairs that we could see from our vast circular vantage point. They were well used. Still to this day Niamh and I are convinced and still smile about being convinced that we counted one less back up than went down. Will we ever stop people watching? Probably not.
There is a perverse curtain call to our stay in Cordes. As we left the town to journey on, there was an amazing sky stretching out in front of us. From the dry enclosure looking out at the torrential rain crashing onto our windscreen you could see the end of the pitch-black clouds. Beyond the cloud line was a bright blue ribbon of sky on the horizon. We reached the edge of the region and as we crossed into the Langudeoc before heading North the rain stopped. A few miles farther on and the straight edge of the cloud canopy was passed, the sun burst through, and we never saw another cloud for over a week. This bizarre few days display of natural forces gave way as if by magic to the most wonderful summer weather. Just what we expected in the Lot as well, but the visit was still memorable.
It always seems a shame to just head home, that mad dash to Calais and the ferry that so many English tourists seem to take to end their stay in France. Rather let us take our time as travel through Brittany and along the Normandy coast, reaching Calais refreshed and well satisfied with our grand tour of France. The drive up through France to Brittany is a pleasant one, taking in some high-level pasture and occasional signs of past volcanic activity. In fact, there is a grand stopping point on the Autoroute where you can have a panoramic view of the Auvergne volcanoes. You find this by pulling into the Aire des Volcans d’Auvergne on the A71 just noreth of Clemont-Ferrand. Beats Newport Pagnall anyday. It is an expansive landscape and one to put in the memory bank for a future visit. Driving north on the western side of France the roads are relatively quiet and delays virtually unheard of.
This is the FULL chapter from my book ‘A DREAM OF PARIS’
I know many of you have enjoyed the excerpt so here is the chapter in full
One of the most evocative books about Paris could be considered to be Ernest Hemingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast’. If ever I need inspiration to write about Paris or to make plans for another visit then that is the book that clinches my mood and motivation. It works every time for me even though you do have to take some of his Paris memoir writing with a reasonable sized pinch of salt. He paints such insightful but sometimes harshly unsympathetic portraits of the characters from the era, the writers and artists that dominated ‘20s Paris. Describing the life and ambiance of the city at that time period so well – he constructs a painting in words. His portrait of F Scott Fitzgerald made me laugh, cry and wince at the astonishingly eccentric tales he recalled. Yet it is a book that has such a depth of sadness too. Like my taste in music it appeals to my melancholic side – as my daughter says; ‘the sadder the better’. Certainly there is a sadness surrounding the future aftermath of Fitzgerald and Zelda’s tragically short lives spiralling downhill shortly after these events. It is though the final chapter of a book that was written just before Hemingway’s lonely death nearly forty years detached in time from the events in the book that conveys his deep regret. He threw away the happiness of his life in Paris with his first wife Hadley and their young son. There is not always something better around the corner, often what we already have is all we need for our contentment. It is a book that can be a Parisian guide but today we have something more visual based on his work. The Woody Allen film ‘Midnight in Paris’ is themed on Hemingway’s book as any cursory read of it will establish. Really though it is a film that does more for the Paris tourist board than any amount of advertising. It is a love letter to a great city. The film recreates the times of the 20’s that Hemingway so eloquently describes, an era that the film’s main character Gil adores as he is bewilderingly entranced to be transported back to that time. Adriana, his new muse, prefers La Belle Époque but he cannot understand wanting anything more than to be experiencing the lively writing and arts scene of Paris in the 20’s. I am with him on that, but really all the book and the movie do is to convince you that Paris is the finest city in the world. When I arrive at the Gard Du Nord on the Eurostar from London then my current era waiting outside the station is just fine by me. The filming locations for ‘Midnight in Paris’ are well documented and in fact Hemingway makes a fine job of that. So if you want to follow them all it is easy to do in our smartphone era. I will take you through on a mixed journey, some of the places in the film that I love. Also bring in some parts of Paris that historically are so very interesting and should be part of your visit. If your time in Paris is all fine dining then you are missing out on a broader experience. If you are going to start on a history and writing tour of Paris then I suggest it begins on the steps of the church of St Etienne du Mont, Place Sainte-Geneviève, 75005. The actual steps used in the film where Gil waits for the time travelling car and his famous hosts are just around to the side of the church. From here they look down Rue de la Montagne Sainte Geneviève, the road up which the car approaches. It is a supremely evocative location and it is worth taking the time to search out on the internet a photo taken on 22nd August 1944 of armed resistants just coming down from the area of the steps at the height of the struggle to liberate Paris from the German occupiers. Historical fact and fiction can be found being enacted side by side on the streets of Paris and in your imagination. If you go back around to the front of the church onto Rue Clovis and head towards the Latin Quarter by turning right onto Rue Descartes you will come to a small but perfectly formed restaurant – La Maison de Verlaine. The clue is in the title but it was not a happy place when Verlaine died there in a miserable state as a result of his alcoholism. It is also a building where Hemingway rented a small attic room and took himself off to write in peace and seclusion. There is a delightful story in his book about the goatherd taking his flock every day past Hemingway’s building and milking the goats to order as the locals emerged with their containers. It is certainly an evocative street. We have eaten on the terrace at this restaurant of an evening and the food is excellent. The location is pure Paris left bank so don’t let me stop you going. Just a little farther up is Place Contrescarpe which again features in Hemingway’s life and times in Paris. This is a place where he describes almost with affection the bar humming with the pungent smell of bodies and drunkenness. It is a vivid portrait you can almost sense the reality of from the page.
Today it is a lively square and to sit and eat at a table (we ate overly large portions of Greek food one night at L’Ile de Crete) gives you quite a show as life quite literally revolves around you. It is a place that is perfect for riding a motorbike around and around or posing in an open topped car. A ready supply of onlookers at the cafes and bars will either admire you or stare in total disdain.
Around the corner at 74 Rue Cardinal Lemoine is the building that houses the small apartment that the Hemingways lived in from 1922. He describes their lives here so affectionately despite the way Hemingway cultivates a lifestyle of relative poverty as a writer that seemingly is always relying on the odd cheque arriving for an article he had submitted. The area still retains a character today but back in the 20’s it was a place far removed from the modernity and chic of Paris today. They were clearly a very happy family unit in this lively area.
Retrace your steps back towards Place Contrescarpe and look out for Rue Rollin on your left, a street that leads through to Rue Monge. This route is worth the detour for a couple of reasons. Rue Rollin makes you feel as if you are in a provincial town rather than a city like Paris. To me it almost felt like a street in Burgundy, a town like Beaune. The real surprise of Rue Rollin comes at the end as you emerge onto Rue Monge. There is an extraordinary exit. It is a cul-de-sac for cars but there are two flights of steps either side of the street and these go down a beautiful frontispiece facing the street. This is bedecked with plants and flowers and if you are here at the right time of year with everything in full bloom it is a gorgeous photo opportunity.
Once you are onto Rue Monge and if you have an interest in architecture, particularly art deco then it is worth a short walk across the road. Start heading to the right, finding the Metro station Monge. Admire the front of the Metro with the beautiful ironwork on the entrance. A great photo shot in black and white. Go back the way you came and stay on that side of Rue Monge for a genuine unexpected surprise. It may be that you are completely unaware that Paris has its own Roman amphitheatre, a genuine one from the first century AD. Neither did I until some years ago when we stayed at a hotel on Rue Monge – Hotel des Nations St-Germain and very pleasant it was too. Across the street there was a sign above a passageway at No. 47 Rue Monge over which was a stone carving of a Roman soldier’s helmet. The sign said ‘Arenes de Lutece’ but there was certainly no great fanfare accompanying it. As you watched from the window of our hotel the daytime scene of people busying themselves with the business of getting to work and school, watching the tourists making their way down to the Seine and the Islands, you hardly ever saw anyone going through the gateway. If you go to the front of the entrance way there is a little more information (in French) as to what lies beyond. Looking down the short passageway it has to be admitted the prospects are a little unpromising. However it is definitely worth stepping inside. As you emerge into the light the area gives off the appearance of a small park, perhaps a children’s play area and here you may well encounter some youngsters playing soccer. Unmistakably though you are now in a very well preserved, compact Roman Arena. It is a pleasant space, away from the traffic noise of Rue Monge. It is a place where people may sit and read or just stroll through on their way to work. It will have very few tourists so please make a visit. When you return home you can amaze your friends with this discovery and your knowledge of hidden Paris.
Time to move on with a pleasant stroll down Rue Monge and then left onto Rue des Ecoles until you come to Rue Racine on your left. The goal of this walk is to reach Polidor restaurant, certainly a Hemingway destination and this historic building was heavily featured in ‘Midnight in Paris’. Even if you are not going to dine here (cash only – no cards) it is well worth a look and again bring your camera (or these days your phone).
Before we get to Polidor it repays a few moments pause outside the Restaurant Bouillon Racine previously known as a Chartier Restaurant. This is a building of Art Nouveau splendour both outside and in and is in fact listed as a historical monument of Paris. Apart from boasting a fine reputation for its food it has another much darker claim to fame. One of the most extraordinary verdicts in a French murder trial came after an event that took place in the street outside this restaurant. On May 25th 1926 the President in exile of the Ukrainian National Republic, Symon Petliura was assassinated by a man named Sholom Schwartzbard. He claimed to have lost all 15 members of his family in Jewish pogroms in the East. This was a horror that he held Petliura personally responsible for. Schwartzbard made no attempt to flee from the scene nor did he in any way claim that he was not responsible for the murder. Despite the cold hard facts of the evidence he was acquitted by the French jury basically on the grounds that his actions were justified. In effect such a man as Petliura had no right of protection because of his alleged crimes. It is not a verdict we would expect today but it is one that had been argued previously and it has a place in French history. It is still a verdict that resonates today with the animosity between Ukraine and Russia. The prosecution at the trial put forward that Schwartzband was in fact a Russian agent and that view holds good to many Ukrainians even now. There is plenty of interest on the streets of Paris and it always repays the effort of seeking it out. On the left hand side as you continue along Rue Racine you come to Rue Monsieur le Prince and there is the venerable Crémerie-Restaurant Polidor.
This eating place is a throwback to the times of Victor Hugo and of course Hemingway and the contemporary artists and writers. The interior is little changed from the days Hemingway would have patronised this restaurant. It plays a central role in ‘Midnight in Paris’ although it has to be said there is not a sign of the laundromat that Polidor transforms into. This is a restaurant to savour with a menu that is right out of the Belle Époque and they have no intention of changing any time soon thankfully. The exterior is a remarkable throwback to another age and one of the finest photo opportunities in Paris. You may have to be more sociable than usual and share a table.
From here it is a relatively short walk to the Boulevard St Germain and on to three café/restaurants that are synonymous with the writers of Paris. Brasserie Lipp is often referred to by Hemingway in ‘A Moveable Feast’ and it takes little imagination today to place this establishment in its historical context. It always feels very 20’s/30’s to me and certainly sets the mind racing as you contemplate the stories the tables could tell. Hemingway famously goaded the ‘friends’ he had cruelly portrayed in his novel to come at an arranged time and shoot him at a Brasserie Lipp table. Across the road are the two famous cafés that always seem to be in competition for clientele and of course they are. They have historically competed for the favour of writers and artists down the decades. Some preferred to sip a coffee for hours and write at a table at Café de Flore and some at Le Deux Magots. Some fell in and out of favour with their regular haunt and interchanged the two. Today it is a must see destination for many and plenty of visitors are happy to pay a coffee price that would have horrified Hemingway and others who were allowed to sit and write for a few centimes back in their day. It is undeniably an experience and just once maybe it is worth the cost to watch the world go by. You can have that world just wondering if you may be a ‘someone’ which of course you are to your family and friends. It is a little game to play for a pleasant moment in time.
I have only scratched the surface of artistic Paris and the historical gems that are to be found. I do encourage you to do more research and have a clear plan before you go. There is so much to see and experience beyond the obvious. You will take so much more away with you in memories and knowledge if you dig deeper than the ‘tourist’ sites. It also depends on how far you wish to walk and for that reason it seems the right time to bring this chapter to a close. Be assured however that there is far more than I have portrayed waiting to be discovered.
To finalise I will take you back to the river and the Pont Neuf at the very tip of the Île de la Cité. As you go over the bridge coming to around the midway point of the island you find a narrow street on the right. Going through this entrance way the narrow road opens up into a most beautiful space – Place Dauphine. For me this is a very favourite spot in Paris, a quiet place with many relaxing cafes and restaurants intertwined between the gorgeous apartments. It is leafy and tranquil yet but a stone’s throw from the noisy hordes congregating around Notre Dame. It is clear that few tourists even know this is here and selfishly long may that continue. It is a delightful space and to eat here or just enjoy a coffee is a joy. The pretty cobbled streets of Place Dauphine inevitably appeared in ‘Midnight in Paris’. If you go and sip a coffee at Restaurant Paul at number 15 Place Dauphine you can if you close your eyes just hear the gentle sound of the horses hooves drawing the approaching Belle Époque carriage along to the terrace. You can certainly imagine that scene. The ambiance of this square has retained its charm effortlessly down the decades – a place to savour and to relax.
Hemingway burned his bridges with his ‘friends’ in Paris, cruelly portraying many of them as characters in his novels, making no attempt to hide as to who he was basing his writing on. Most of all he discarded the woman he loved and lost the stability of the family he had around him. He has left a romantic portrait of Paris that is portrayed in ‘Midnight in Paris’ and like much of the best art and music this is a legacy based on the suffering of the tortured artist. His footsteps make for an interesting walk through this quarter of Paris. I could walk farther but I am as my friends have complained perhaps a little over active in that department. So I will consider a wider audience and end my tour sitting at the terrace of Restaurant Paul – but tomorrow is another day.
I hope to convey just what these people meant to us and how Paris bound all the best of memories together but it is a slower process. As I said Paris is throwing up too many ideas and I think it will produce two books rather than one. Just adding my love of its history to the book gave me a challenge to fit it all in. I have a passion for the time of the occupation, perhaps because I know that I would have been personally caught up in all its horror had I been living in Paris back then. I find it fascinating and hope to convey that a consideration of those events should not be overlooked by the visitor. No, Paris unlike Provence cannot be based around wonderful long lunches, it needs more effort for a visitor to get full value from a visit. I loved the writing and research for this book but despite Hemingway dwarfing me as a writer I do possess something he relinquished – I can write of Paris without any regrets.
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Our first trip to France coincided with a change to my company car, almost to the very day. It is a long story but for a time I had been using a spare company vehicle after having, shall we say, a few misfortunes with my own allotted vehicle. Anyway, it was time to choose a brand new one and having done so, checked the delivery schedule, we looked set to make our first visit abroad in a lovely shiny new car. That was the plan anyway.
Needless to say, my car was trapped in some endless production line somewhere in Europe and information was impossible to come by. In the week coming up to our trip, I resorted in desperation to calling the transportation company scheduled to bring the car from the port to the retail garage. Finally, I got somewhere, some information that my disinterested dealer could not find. Again, to cut a long story short, the car was to arrive at the main dealer in Leeds, Yorkshire on the afternoon before we were due to travel. We had used this dealer, which was inconveniently a difficult 70-mile drive from home, because they gave the best trade in value on the unloved staff car I had been using. Sometimes you get what you pay for and clearly customer service was one of the optional extras mentioned in the small print.
However, I finally arrived home the proud owner of a beautiful new car, a travelling companion that would eventually do more than 40,000 miles around the regions of France, with just one stutter along the way. That is a story for later in the book, but it was quite a stutter. So, arriving home around 8pm we were finally all packed and ready to go, but it had been a close-run thing, especially as we had to be on our way by 2 am to drive down to Portsmouth for the early morning ferry to Cherbourg. The delay with the car meant that we could not do the sensible thing of taking an overnight stay close to the ferry port. From a purely selfish point of view, it also meant I had to put my own diesel in the car as the company supply was closed when I got back home. You remember petty things like that, particularly when you know that expense would have been better spent on another long French lunch. Such ingratitude! I am a generous soul really.
The dawn chorus was just thinking about making an appearance when we started our approach to the ferry terminal at Portsmouth. It was then that I realized why my mouth had gone so dry and my hands were shaking. I had not got the faintest idea of how to proceed to the ferry and an embarrassed fear set in. Where on earth do I go – what lane do I take? So focused had I been on the car situation that I had not even looked properly at the tickets to ascertain which operator we were travelling with. Fortunately, at this early hour the port was almost deserted, so I had time to stop, blocking a lane, assess what I was doing, and where to go. I eventually arrived at what turned out to be the correct operator booth and handed my ticket to the pleasant but sleepy young lady who was looking down on me from high above.
I had though made the mistake of going to a booth that was really for coaches and lorries, but she humoured me, and obviously there was no way I could turn round or reverse around the pantechnicon hugging the paintwork at the rear of my car. Fortunately, I could not see the driver, but I assume there was some vigorous shaking of the head going on. She asked me for the registration number of my vehicle, but she might just as well have asked me to explain the theory of relativity. I said I had just picked up the car from the dealer and implied with Northern humour subtlety as to how on earth she would expect me to know. Only one thing for it – get out and have a look at the front of the car and trust I could remember it during the few yards back to the booth. I did not raise my head to look at the driver behind who no doubt was being frustratingly delayed in getting his full English breakfast. I suppose if I had time to think rationally, I could have looked at the paperwork in the glovebox, but you just don’t think do you? The young lady gave me this complicated thing to hang on my mirror so that we would be directed to the correct ship, but I was all fingers and thumbs and never was good at DIY, so I threw it at my wife Niamh to sort out, drove off, and the bottleneck of lorries was released. I learnt an exceptionally fine lesson that morning and one that I would always follow as our travels developed in their complexity.
From that first debacle at the ferry port, I now always do my research. In the future I would always know where I was going and what I had to do when travelling. I particularly enjoy researching our plans and it saves a lot of potential embarrassment – not all, but most. I got so proficient in knowing how things worked in France that I was happy to share that with others who were making similar trips. A good friend of mine asked about how to use the toll booths on the French autoroutes. I was happy to explain to him how to hand over his euros or use his credit card to be able to proceed. On his first, and as it turned out his only car journey to France, he got to his first Autoroute toll, then blanked out completely and ended up just parking the car in front of one of the large concrete buttresses at the tolls. A gendarme eventually came over and instead of arresting him took pity on him and showed the way forward. Maybe it was the way I explained it, but I do know he has never taken his car to France again but only returned there on the Eurostar.
Once at Cherbourg I then had the perils of driving on the ‘wrong side of the road.’ I have to say I was terrified as the massive ferry doors opened to disgorge us from this cavernous space. Now after many years it is such a familiar and routine thing for me to do, but the first time was to put it mildly – a bit of a worry. My sensible plan was just to follow someone else for as long as I could. In reality, driving in France was not something I needed to be overly concerned about. Once we had escaped the port area and easily picked up the route we required, it was comforting to find that the roads were impossibly quiet compared to the UK. You had time to think and driving actually became a pleasure. Driving in France over the years always has been fun and satisfying. There is time to take in the scenery, stopping when you wish, and generally park your car freely. Touring France became one of our great pleasures in life and still is.
Our first destination on the continent was to Saint Vaast la Hougue at its delightful hotel – Hotel de France Restaurant les Fuchsias. This hotel and restaurant had and still does have a fine reputation, particularly for the food on offer. We were destined to arrive early having made good time so far on the journey and so decided to call in at the little fishing port of Barfleur on the eastern side of the Cotentin Peninsula. From there it would be just a short journey on to Saint Vaast. The early April day was bitterly cold, in fact it was close to freezing with a raw wind coming into the harbour from the east. We had expected it to be just a little milder, we were not overly prepared for such low temperatures, but I managed to persuade Niamh that the little port village – our very first experience of one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France – was worth braving the Siberian cold. The hard granite buildings of the port made it feel and appear even colder than it was. The water in the harbour would not have sustained your life for long should you have fallen from the unprotected sea wall. Barfleur has a fascinating history. It was the starting port for the invasion of Britain and the subsequent battle of Hastings in 1066. It was also the scene of a great sea battle that finally destroyed the hopes of King James the II of England in his bid to regain his throne.
For a small settlement of this size Barfleur has played an astonishingly significant role in the history of England. Some fifty-four years after William the Conqueror set sail to claim the throne of England a great tragedy unfolded on the rocks around the port of Barfleur. It was a shipwreck – The White Ship. It was said of that devastating night that ‘No ship ever brought so much misery to England.’ The pristine new ship Blanche-Nef sank just beyond the harbour, impaled on the infamous Quillebeuf reef. It was not the loss of the ship that was so devastating to England, but the tragedy suffered by the human cargo on board, the flower of England’s up and coming youth, along with a vast array of the nobles of England. Worst of all, the heir to the throne of Henry I of England, his son Prince William, was lost in the wreck. The story is a fascinating one. It is redolent of images that could be imagined today, of youths on a rowdy night out, drinking more than is good for anyone, but stepping into a vehicle to inevitable doom. King Henry had been offered this ship for his own passage, all showroom new and modern, but he had already given his word to travel on another vessel. He left the harbour before the White Ship and arrived safely home. He allowed his excited, headstrong son to travel with his friends and entourage on this fabulous, sleek, pristine vessel, on its maiden voyage after being stunningly crafted for an owner who descended directly from the Conqueror. To have such Royal patronage was a prestigious bonus. For Prince William and his lively companions, a good night out was called for before attempting to catch up with his father travelling in his modest, slow but reliable craft. From all accounts all in the party were fully inebriated by the time they boarded the White Ship and the revelries continued on board. More importantly the crew had also been willing participants in the alcoholic generosity of Prince William. Some sober passengers wisely disembarked along with an extremely ill cousin of William, young Stephen of Blois who needed to be no more than a few paces from a bathroom, in no condition to sail. His good fortune in missing the boat comes back to haunt all England in years to come.
The riotous company on board are brought back to sobriety within minutes when the glorious White Ship is torn apart on the reef, travelling at tremendous speed on a wrong course set by the drunken captain. Prince William is initially saved on the only boat available, but, hearing the cries of his sister he orders the craft back to the sinking vessel. His small craft is overwhelmed by desperate, drowning passengers seeking safety and Prince William is swept away. His body is never found. There is only one survivor, a butcher named Bertold from Rouen. He had been pursuing debts owed to him by the nobles in Henry’s entourage, following them all the way from Rouen onto the boat before being stranded on it as it sailed out of port. The shipwreck ripped the heart out of the English nobility and caused a crisis regarding the heir to King Henry. Stephen of Blois, whose need of the toilet had saved him, ultimately takes the throne despite the rightful heir being nominated as Henry’s daughter. This sets off a vicious time of civil war in England and ferocious atrocities are carried out during this time of anarchy before Stephen finally dies. The uncertainty continued after his death and all this because of a drunken night out by headstrong youths.
Outside this infamous harbour there are still natural mussel banks in the waters off the coast, providing the bounty of the Moules de Barfleur. The mussels are harvested from small boats from the harbour at Barfleur. These particular seasonal mussels are known as ‘Barfleur blondes’ and have been allocated for some years now the quality charter ‘Moule de Barfleur Normandie Fraîcheur Mer.’ Just like French wine they have their own appellation, and this is something you will find distinguishes local produce all over France. From chickens to cheese and everything in between. The French will always put a label on quality and regional excellence. Sadly, this is not a time for contemplation of French produce or French regional architecture. It is mind numbingly cold here and made worse by the wind whipping across the undeniably attractive harbour at Barfleur.
Niamh has all the historical facts she needs from me and so we head to the sanctuary of the car. The heater and heated seats are immediately turned up to full volume. We just hope that the weather turns at least a few degrees warmer, allowing us to enjoy Normandy out in the open and not from inside the shelter of a warm car. Even in darkest Lancashire I would never expect to encounter such cold in April. We head to our hotel in Saint Vaast – Hotel de France Restaurant les Fuchsias. This is a lovely, very French hotel, not grand but homely and authentic – and yes there is an abundance of fuchsias around the building. We are shown to our room which is across a rear garden courtyard area that blooms with some hardy spring bluebells. The accommodation is quite separate from the main building which houses the restaurant, Les Fuchias. It has to be said the room is not really shabby chic, rather shabbier than chic. It is spotlessly clean though and has all we need but clearly getting to the point where a makeover is required. The view back over the garden from the first-floor room makes it feel as if you are surrounded by garden allotments. We look forward to enjoying some produce from this very local garden served in the restaurant in the evening. The view from the front of the room is onto the main street in Saint Vaast.
We will find the next morning it is a lively and popular street on a Saturday morning. Finding as many warm clothes as possible from our limited supply and despite the bitter cold, we head out into the town and port of Saint Vaast to explore our new unfamiliar surroundings. If you have read some of my other writings, you will know that I love to cook, and my favourite produce is fish and seafood. For that reason, we head to the harbour and port, an enterprise that is still commercially active. Possibly a lot of the fish is Cornish, but that is for others to argue the rights and wrongs over, as we know today that battle is still disputed over. I always find these quaysides fascinating and have great admiration for these hardy souls who risk their lives out on the ocean providing this wonderful fresh produce. It is a hard living, and the rewards are difficult and unpredictable to come by, but a port like Saint Vaast and others on the Normandy coast have a long and proud relationship with the sea. Alongside the fishing port there is a sizeable marina displaying that sailing is a serious activity here. The harbour of Saint Vaast is an extremely desirable and attractive location to moor a craft. The fishing boats docked on the quayside have their support trades including fishmongers occupying the buildings lining the quay.
Opposite these buildings, on staging pontoons stretching from the other side of the harbour, the yachts and pleasure craft are moored. Berthed on a stone jetty from the quayside, fishing boats are located, and this leads the eye to a small lighthouse at the harbour entrance. Beyond the harbour wall there is an island called Tatihou which sounds like it should be out in the Pacific Ocean. Our old friend from previous escorted travels, Vauban the architect of Louis XIV, created the Tour Vauban de la Hougue on the island. He was responsible, as he was throughout France, for strengthening port defences. At low tide you can reach the island on foot or by an amphibious vehicle. You will see the oyster beds of the prized local delicacy that grows slowly in these rich pure waters of the Contentin coast.
We extended our stroll in the numbing cold to an exposed area where there is a small chapel – La Chapelle des Marins or Chapel of the Sailors. This chapel is the choir of the old church of Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue originally built in the 11th Century. In the early 1700’s a square tower was added on the south side, embellished with a modest spire. In 1805, the parish priest added a side nave, also a chapel on the north side and had a sacristy built. Today, this chapel is dedicated to the sailors, the fishermen who are always in peril at sea. This is brought home to you by the many commemorative plaques dedicated to these men. It is a quiet reflective place that impels you to have a moment of meditation about how the produce you love can cost the ultimate price. As we make our way back to the hotel down the fishing quay we come to a small well equipped and modern fishing boat. The name seems quaint as we try to pronounce it – Cachalot (CASH – A – LOT). Oh, I get it now, CATCH – A – LOT. A little French joke on the Cornish perhaps. Mmm, very funny.
Feeling refreshed after a hot shower, but hungry, we make our way down to Les Fuchsias dining room. It is richly elegant, the tablecloths are crisp, the glasses and cutlery beautifully polished and of course some fresh flowers are on the tables. The welcome is a little stiff and formal but efficient. This is not a Michelin star restaurant, but you feel it has pretentions in that direction. Unusually at this early time of around 7pm the French clientele are already in their seats and the dining room is full. The atmosphere is still a little reserved and conversation is quiet and stilted but it does loosen up considerably as the meal progresses and the wine flows. I can only describe the clientele as a little bourgeoisie, it is a room composed of people who like fine dining, they dress appropriately. It is not that we feel underdressed as we have made quite an effort considering our poor Lancastrian peasant background but there are some expensive dresses and suits in here with a few dazzling embellishments on the ladies. This is our first taste of how the French really take going out for a meal extremely seriously. In England we tend to dress down for most things these days but that is not the case here. An evening meal in a restaurant for the French is to be savoured, you should look your best. They certainly do here.
The exquisitely dressed lady at the next table catches your eye with her beautifully tailored dress and exquisite pearl necklace. It is only after you have taken that in that you notice there is sitting on her lap the most perfectly presented small Pekinese dog. It is not the red bow in its hair that surprises you but the fact that it is there at all. This is something else we will have to get used to in France. The meal is a delight, and we accompany the beautiful fresh dish of John Dory with a fine bottle of Sancerre. The dessert course is a work of art, an unbelievably delicious one of millefeuille with the freshest of fruit accompaniment. With an Armagnac to finish, after a long day of travelling and seeing new sights we are happy to call it a day to now sleep soundly. Well, we slept soundly but only for a fixed amount of time.
My bleary-eyed look at my watch did indeed confirm that the tremendous clash of steel against steel has taken place at 5am. Hoping that it is safe to peer through the curtains I take a glance into the half-light outside. This is our first experience of a French market, and it will not be the last time we are roused from our beds when this sacred tradition of French life is enacted outside our bedroom window. I am not going to complain, and I never will as we will grow to love French markets, starting from today. The street is a hive of frantic activity and that in itself is quite unusual in France. A host of white vans are disgorging every conceivable type of fresh produce and household goods including of course that fixture on a French market – a mattress stall. There are no concessions to the sleeping inhabitants of the surrounding houses as the boisterous chatter from the stallholders combines with the noise from erecting the stalls. As early as 7am there are local customers, well-worn bag in hand, arriving at the market to be first to buy the prime produce on display. Immediately below our bedroom window is a large fruit and vegetable stall that takes up the entire width of the street.
It is a colourful display that looks like a breakfast buffet set up just for us. Looking over the rooftops down the main street of Saint Vaast you can see the full extent of this sprawling market. The air is damp and cold and rising from a section of stalls there is a blanket of steam that exaggerates just how cold the morning is. These stalls of course are hosted by the vendors of roast chicken and potatoes, a display that is an ever-present pleasure to behold and taste on a French market. We are a little behind the locals in getting to the market despite it starting just outside our hotel bedroom – I could almost have stepped out into the street. After a buffet breakfast of limited choice but constructed with quality ingredients we stroll out into the now bustling town. French markets are irresistible to us even in the intense cold of this early April morning. Sadly, we are not self-catering on this trip. Despite the superb range of produce on offer we must pass it all by and feel a little embarrassed in accepting regular samples from the enthusiastic vendors. The stalls are set up right outside the shops that permanently trade in the town and some of the stalls are selling exactly the same range of products as the shop they have built their stall in front of. Perhaps that is why this type of market is so uncommon in England. I doubt many shopkeepers back home would take a tolerant view of a competitor blocking their shop front and entrance for a few hours on a couple of days a week.
A cultural difference that we happily get used to. There is a store in Saint Vaast that certainly must be affected to a degree on market days as it sells such a wide range of goods. It is a remarkable shop to find in such a relatively small town. One of the finest stores you will find anywhere outside of Paris, La Maison Gosselin is reminiscent of Fortnum and Masons in London but not quite on such a grand scale. They are basically an épicerie selling fine foods and wine with an array packaged beautifully for a thoughtful gift for friends and family. The range of goods extends widely and eclectically into kitchenware, toys, and perfume but it is the superb range of quality edible produce that makes this such a gorgeous place to browse. It is very much like a provincial version of Harrod’s food hall. If you are lucky, you may catch sight of the vintage delivery van on the streets of Saint Vaast. It is a step back in time to see all these fine foods with the traditions of the past respected and brought right up to date. It is an unexpected find in this area of France, a store that could easily be placed centre stage on a boulevard in Paris.
Other shops on the main street of Saint Vaast also raise their game in the retail stakes, encouraged no doubt by the example of M. Gosselin. Close by is the most attractive of butchers called Villeneuve with its lovely period wooden store front. The displays are extensive with a vast range of prime cuts of meat, sourced of course as locally as possible. None of their produce is alive thankfully, although that extra fresh condition is available on the market stalls. The area is famed for the rich pastureland and the quality of the meat reflects that. Salt marsh lamb is a speciality and not to be missed if you are a meat lover when you encounter it on a restaurant menu here in Normandy. As is customary in such a boucherie as Villeneuve you will find a range of the finest charcuterie and dairy products. Another feature that every self-respecting establishment of this type would always have outside the store is a chicken rotisserie. The one here is going at full steam and packed with succulent roast chicken, the fragrant juices dripping slowly to be absorbed into the potatoes cooking below. The shop owner is determined to match the efforts of the interlopers on the market but as always on market days there are enough customers for everyone, not a single chicken will go unsold.
Normandy is famous for the bounty that it produces, the quality is as high as it has ever been. In the times of the occupation during WWII Normandy was still able to keep a supply of wonderful produce going into Paris, either by traditional methods or more commonly illegal, black-market ones. The city was thankful but reliant on the green pastures of this land for sustaining them through those appalling times. Everyone in Paris wanted to claim they had a relative in Normandy that would filter such produce into the capital and provide safe cover for illegal purchases. To balance all this fine meat-based produce available either fresh from the boucherie or pre-prepared, exquisitely packaged in M. Gosselin, there are displays of the finest fruit and vegetables to delight the most fastidious of vegetarians or vegans. I feel slightly overwhelmed to be in a small town away from any large conurbation offering a bewildering array of fine things out of all proportion to the apparent modest status of the place. The contrast with England could not be more striking. That contrast extends to the seafront where the boats have returned after a night spent on the freezing choppy waters of the channel.
We cannot resist paying another visit to the quayside to observe this scene of urgent activity. Here there is more furious work enacted to compete with the bustling town and market that we can still hear is in full flow behind the harbour. Fish of the highest and freshest of quality is being unloaded, energetically, and noisily, by these tired fishermen who are concerned with getting their catch ashore and on sale as soon as possible. All along the quay are lines of white vans ready to speed the produce away to market. No doubt some will be on a restaurant menu in Paris today, maybe even by lunchtime. One or two townsfolk have gathered to buy some fish straight off the boat from an obliging fisherman. Again, I am so jealous of their ability to be able to source such produce simply a stone’s throw from their home. I will always find a visit to a French market exhilarating and even more so if I can buy some fresh produce to cook later. Sadly, not today.
The main theme of our visit to this part of Normandy will be historical and I will come to the events of D-Day relating to the beaches in more detail when we head to the conclusion of our French tour. I love history and I am particularly intrigued by the times of the occupation of France and the events surrounding the liberation. So, with lovely markets and shops, great food and wine in the restaurants, plus all the history of this part of France, I am in my element. It is an ideal place to start our independent travels in France. Before I get too engrossed in the impact of D-Day there is one event that occurred around that day close to our base here in Saint Vaast that I must share before we move on. It took place at a small commune called Sainte-Mère-Église, located just down the coast from Saint Vaast, coming inland from Utah beach.
Sainte-Mère-Église was the first town liberated by the allies and is as good a place as any to start a tour of the places of historical D-Day significance. It also makes a valid claim to be a must visit town because of an extraordinary event that took place there during a massive allied drop of paratroopers in the early hours of that fateful day of June 6th. The brave operation was varied in its initial success, lacking coordination, with many men and units becoming widely separated. However, despite suffering significant losses the American troops finally succeeded in taking the town on the night of June 6th, 1944. The town itself though was in danger of being burnt to the ground when a dominant property in the town square caught fire. The townsfolk bravely formed a human chain to get buckets of water to the scene and eventually the fire was contained preventing much more acute damage to the town. All this was done despite the threatening gunfire from the German garrison who were ordering the people back to their homes.
Sainte-Mère-Église as you may be aware, especially if you are an American reader, owes its fame not for this dramatic battle for the town, or for being the first liberated place in France, nor indeed for the bravery of the townspeople. It owes its fame to one man, a paratrooper named John Steele who was an onlooker witnessing all the drama and firefight that took place in the town that night. In fact, he had the finest possible vantage point although he would not have seen it in that light on that night. Private John Steele, paratrooper in 82nd Airborne Division, was helplessly hanging by his parachute from the church tower high above the square. As the bullets were flying around below him and explosions from the artillery crashed all around, he could only helplessly dangle on his perch, exposed to not only the elements, but in mortal danger from any stray bullet or mortar. Like many of his comrades he had been dropped in error directly over the village. John Steele despite his incredibly dangerous position was one of the fortunate ones as the paratroopers were easy targets for the German ground troops. Many from his battalion did not survive the night.
John Steele, despite being wounded in the foot, played dead by staying as still as possible for over two hours before the Germans eventually took him down, thinking they were just retrieving a body. Had he shown signs of life during the battle he would have been shot. In fact, he owed his life to two of his comrades. One had also been left hanging by his parachute some metres below him. The other had landed in front of the church and was shot by a German immediately he descended to the street. Believing the young sergeant to be dead the German turned his gun up to the other two helpless Americans. The paratrooper he had shot was not dead and summoned enough strength to draw his gun and kill the German before he could fire at the two paratroopers. It was the young man’s last act as he fell to the ground and died, having undoubtedly saved his comrades. The other man managed to cut his strings and release himself to the ground and escape, believing the motionless John Steele to be dead. John Steele having been taken into captivity still managed to escape from the Germans that night and returned to his regiment. He continued his service throughout Normandy and on into Germany, surviving the war.
When you visit the town, you will be drawn to the most dominant feature in the square, an effigy of John Steele, complete with parachute, hanging from the church. Apparently, it is on the wrong side of the building, but its position is better placed for tourists. There is an Auberge in the town named after him and an entire industry of memorabilia keeps many a local in euros. It is an extraordinary story and the bravery and courage under fire of John Steele has become legendary through the book and film ‘The Longest Day. John Steele, although able to bask in the fame of these exploits, did not have a happy life afterwards and died quite young from cancer. He also never mentioned his other two colleagues which would have rounded out the story and there is some controversy that lingers to this day about why he took all the attention, including being feted at the release of the film. Ultimately, his was the more interesting story, he was the one left in position on the church. Nobody remembers who was second, but the full story including the bravery of his comrades is being told today and we can look at it in more accurate detail now, rather than relying on the Hollywood version of events.