Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Longest Day (Published Late)

(Our blog is longer and later today because of the events of the day.)

Today is the story of two epic battles, staged about twenty miles apart and separated by 878 years, each dividing history into before and after. The first is known today as the Battle of Hastings in October of 1066. This was the day that a native of France, known the day before as Guillaume de Normandy, became known the day after as William the Conqueror, King of England.

The city of Bayeux, situated in Upper Normandy, is known worldwide as the host city of the famous Bayeux Tapestry. This 70-meter long, 1-meter high piece of embroidery (not tapestry as we know it today), tells in 57 scenes the why and how of Williams establishing himself as King of England. I would share with you my own photos of this stunning piece of handiwork, but photography is forbidden (tell that to the guy who put his smartphone in video mode and walked the full 70 meters in record mode, but I digress). Instead of my own photos, I suggest you check this out for more details than I could provide here: Bayeux Tapestry

Beyond the tapestry, Bayeux is a lovely city to visit and – guess what? – they have a stunning cathedral.

 The cathedral itself provides an architectural segue into the main subject of the day: D-Day plus 70 years.  On this day seventy years ago the largest invasion in the history of warfare took place, this time in the opposite direction from that of William the Conqueror, and not for the purpose of seizing control, but of returning it to its rightful owner.  Make no mistake about this: Europe at large, and France in particular, have not forgotten, nor have they belittled, what happened on that day.  This documentary movie poster is evidence.  The French title is On a Tous 70 Ans, and in English We are All 70. The message is plain—the producer wants the French to feel as if their life began anew on D-Day. There is a certain hyperbole, to be sure, considering that a few hundred yards away is the Tapestry that tells a slightly different story. But there is room for multiple points of view.

Im afraid I almost started an international incident. I noticed, as we approached the building and I was grabbing a few external shots, that flying atop the main spire were the flags of France, Great Britain, and Australia. The US flag was conspicuous (to me) in its absence. I guessed (correctly, as it turned out) that this was probably because that part of the coastline was penetrated by primarily British and Australian troops, with the American troops landing farther west. But I made the mistake of picking the wrong person to ask. A sweet gift-shop lady took my question to mean doesnt France understand the USA was involved too? even though I was ably assisted by a bilingual gentleman who offered to help explain my question.  She insisted I pay attention to this window, which clearly includes the American flag in the upper right. The prayer inscribed in the white square at the bottom, which in English in the window itself, reads:

O Lord my God, when thou givest thy servants to endeavor any great matter, grant us also to know that it is not the beginning, but the continuing of the same until it be thoroughly finished which yieldeth the true glory.

We left Bayeux and moved west to Ste. Mere-Eglise. For you WW II and D-Day history buffs, thats the first village liberated on D-Day. The town was immortalized in the film The Longest Day, not only because it was the first, but also because of what transpired that day. In brief, the paratroopers missed their landing zone and instead of landing in a nearby field with time to regroup and attack the villages defenses, they floated down into the town square and were met by the German defenders who happened to be on alert due to a fire in the village.  One soldiers parachute caught the church bell tower and he hung suspended, unnoticed by the German defenders, watching in horror as his buddies were massacred before his eyes.  The event is immortalized today with a reproduction on the bell tower, with real parachute silk catching the breezes.

One thing we didnt expect was the popularity of WW II reenactments not so much by Americans, but by the French themselves, complete with authentic period uniforms, weapons, and vehicles of all types. There is a certain cognitive dissonance one experiences walking up to group of John Wayne-type soldiers speaking fluent French to one another!

Finally, just another wonderful surprise to relate.  The drive from Honfleur to Ste. Mere-Eglise was supposed to take about an hour and a half, not counting the time spent in Bayeux. But with all my years as a planner, and even including the fact that I spent a year and a half on the staff of the White House during my Army years, I failed to consider the effect on traffic of gathering four heads of state (USA, UK, France, Russia) on one beach north of Caen, halfway to my destination.  Consequently, instead of breezing along an interstate-quality highway, we had to navigate through the farmland and villages of Normandy, adding about an hour of drive time, and years of memories.  I may rethink my drive planning for the rest of our time here to include more farms and villages.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Festival of Music

First, an explanation of why there was no blog yesterday. We spent the evening with our friend Jean Marcel, beginning with aperitifs at his apartment and ending with dinner at a nice restaurant in Montmartre. Since France was playing Switzerland in the World Cup (5-2 France, thank-you-very-much), we had the place to ourselves. The service was great, including regular score updates. By the time we got back to our apartment, it was just about midnight, so I didn't attempt the blog. As a side note, getting to this apartment isn't trivial; the one-way-ness of the streets has recently been revised, and the cabbies' GPS systems not yet updated. Getting a cab pickup Monday may be interesting!

Today we went to a couple of places we somehow missed last year. Musèe Carnavale is a great museum of the history of Paris. We started our visit with a little rest stop in the lovely courtyard. The hedges you see here are tiny, about a foot high.

One room included scale models of Paris neighborhoods as they existed around 1900.  I recognized this one as being in the area we stayed in on the first part of our trip.

My favorite traveling companion amazes me. On her list of places to see were two "galleries", old enclosed pedestrian shopping arcades with a variety of shops.  And guess what? We just happened to come across them. She tells me it was quite random, but I think it's about as random as things just happening to fall in the same general direction when you let them go! These two are only a couple hundred years old.

Galerie Vivienne:

Grand Cerf:

One of our new targets today was the Palais Royal. It encloses a very popular garden area, with roses and trees offering a respite from the sun. That is, if you want to get out of the sun, as we did. Most of the locals were soaking up the rays, except for this guy:

We'll be up late tonight. Today is the World Music Day, celebrated on June 21 worldwide, and the French really get into it. Below our apartment is a street party with an unpredictable closing time:

All the events are free. We lucked out. About three blocks from our apartment is the St. Eustache Church, which really gets into this event. For nine years, they've had "36 Hours at St. Eustache". Starting at 10:00 yesterday morning and running continuously until 10:00 tonight they host a wide range of musical performances, culminating in about an hour and half of grand organ from this instrument:

And that's it for another of our shared trips. We hope you enjoyed following along. We've had a great trip and are now thinking about a Christmastime trip to Paris and Strasbourg in 2015. We'll let you know about that when it happens.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Back in Paris

I'm old enough to have started collecting a list of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, sort of a reverse bucket list. The first three are:
  • Having all four wisdom teeth removed.
  • Hiking Bright Angel Trail at the Grand Canyon and spending the night at the riverside ranch.
  • Driving in Paris
Yes, I've done it, and no, I don't need to do it again. Ever. The insane asylums here are overcrowded so the give the inmates motorcycles and turn them loose. I take great pride in the fact that when I returned the rental car after having put 2,609 miles on it in two weeks, the inspector recorded 0 damage to it. No applause necessary. (For comparison, the full length of I-40, from Wilmington NC to Barstow CA is only 2,479 miles.)

Today's drive, from Lyon to Paris, was about the same distance and duration as the Dallas-to-Houston trip that we took dozens of times during the twenty years we lived in the Dallas area. There was, however, a slight difference in the scenery, as the following snaps by Anita through the car window show.

As I suspected, the trip was longer than the four hours Google estimated, not so much because Google didn't know there was a train strike, but because getting the car turned in was more of a challenge than anticipated. But we made it, and are tucked in for the night in a lovely apartment, as suggested here; the host took the picture, and complimented me on having "two Marilyns" to keep me company.

We're in a neighborhood called "the Marais". We haven't had time yet for a full-on explore, but we do know that the next street over is a pedestrian center, frequented by young professionals, where we had a light dinner. Can you find Waldo (me) in there with all the young movers and shakers?

Tomorrow we have some sight-seeing to do, and will end the evening having dinner with Jean-Marcel, a friend we made during our visit last summer. Tonight we're looking forward to a good night's sleep as a fitting end to a fabulous road trip.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Old Lyon

Our final stop befoe returning to Paris is Lyon, second largest city in France. Before I tell you about Lyon, I have a bit of an itinerary update for you. We told a few that we would be taking a train from Lyon to Paris, to avoid the thrill of driving in Paris itself. If you've been following the news from France, you may be aware that there is a train strike. We decided that the risk of having our arrival in Paris delayed was too great, so we cancelled our train reservations and will be driving back tomorrow. Wish us luck.

Now for Lyon.

The area where we have our apartment is in the St. Jean neighorhood, which draws its name from this cathedral a couple of blocks away. The city planners have preserved the parvis in front so there is a nice unobstructed view of the façade.

But the dominant structure is the new Palace of Justice on the edge of the river. With its name and its twenty-four-columned front, it lends its name to many of the businesses in the area, including where we had our first meal here.

Last night we had dinner at Aux 24 Colonnes, a nearby bistro recommended by our apartment host. We had a lovely meal, and I was able to establish myself as an internationally known sit-down comic.

What follows may pique the curiosity of the French-speakers among you. If so, or if you want full details on the jokes involved, see the section entitled "Spoiler Alert" below.

On the left of the door as we entered was this:

I read it, translated it into English, and it was not funny. I know humor doesn't translate well, so I asked Eric, the owner, for an explanation, which made the joke a very funny play on words, pun, or groaner, depending on your own tag for such humor. While sitting at our table, I told him I had such a joke of my own, and he stepped back, folded his arms, and dared me. I recited the joke in French, and was delighted at his reaction. "I like it. I like it a lot. I'll put it on the board. <pause for thought> Tomorrow." I said "Tomorrow? May I come back and get a picture of it with you?" Of course, he was delighted, so here is my joke, posted as the "Phrase du Jour" at Aux 24 Colonnes in Lyon, France.

And to prove it's mine, a picture of Eric and me.

Our apartment has windows onto a little courtyard with a view of the Basilica of Notre Dame atop the nearby hill.

It's easily reached by a funicular, so we just had to check it out. It's recent, as basilicas in France, go, having been built as a result of the city's being spared in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.

The inside is spectacular. I haven't seen the numbers on the mosaic tiles used in the artwork, but the detail is stunning. This is one of the vaults over the nave. This basilica was one of those places where we could have just sat in awe for hours.

Tomorrow we head out for Paris. Google thinks it's a four-hour drive, but I don't think Google knows there's a train strike and we're probably not the only ones renting a car to get there. So we'll just see about that.

Spoiler Alert

Here's the first joke, first in French, then English, then the explanation.

"Bonjour" dit l'homme à l'âne. "Bonjour" dit l'âne à l'homme. "Comment t'appeles tu?" dit l'homme à l'âne. "Bob"dit l'âne.

"Hello" said the man to the donkey. "Hello" said the donkey to the man. "What is your name?" said the man to the donkey. "Bob" said the donkey.

Explanation: In French, the last sentence sounds like the name of the famous American folk singer "Bob Dylan".

My joke, the only French joke I knew before now, found on a website for learning French, and slightly adapted by Eric because he used a homophone for one of the words, but the idea is still the same.

Quelles differences y-at-il entre: un marteau? une poule? une semaine?
Le marteau a un manche, la poule a 2 et la semaine a dix manches!!!

What are the differences between a hammer, a chicken, and a week?
The hammer has one handle, the chicken has two legs, and the week has ten 'manches'!!!

Explanation: The word manche in French has two meanings when used by itself. One is "handle", so a hammer has only one. The second is "leg" in certain contexts, so to say that a chicken has two makes sense. The joke comes on the last word. In French, the word for Sunday is dimanche, which sounds like "ten manches". I told you humor doesn't translate well, but it's funny in French.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Avignon, City of Popes

I told you yesterday that today would be the day for us to see Avignon. And that we did. I just didn't expect to see it while searching out the police station and the right cigarette dealer. But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself.

We started the day by packing out our stuff from the apartment to the car, so we would be out of the apartment by checkout time, and then we'd be free to explore Avignon on foot, leaving the car in its free parking area. Upon reaching the car, I discovered under the wiper a formal notice that no, this wasn't free parking, and I could pay for that discovery at the municipal police department. Unfortunately, the address given wasn't on our GPS database, so some driving around asking for directions was required. Once inside the AMPD (Avignon Municipal Police Department), the very nice receptionist informed me that no, there were no English speakers around but my French sounded adequate to her. She explained that I had to go to the "Tabac" across the street to pay the fine, no big deal, and we could even leave our car in the AMPD visitor lot. So off we went. Sorry, this tobacconist said, we don't do that any more, try the one half a kilometre down the street. Sorry, this one also said, try the one in the main plaza, another half a klick farther on. Here we succeeded, paid the fine, and by this time it was lunchtime. After lunch, we were close enough to go ahead and visit the Palace of the Popes.

During the period 1309-1377 the popes of the Catholic church, all French, held court in Avignon, not Rome. To accommodate their needs, suitable housing was needed. This is a glimpse of what is left of it today.

We've seen a lot of indicators of ancient city walls in France, but we were surprised to see that Avignon's wall is still alive and well. It still encloses the old city and one has only a handful of gates to enter and leave by. Once again, the contrast between 13th century and 21st is vivid:

All over France, but apparently more so here in Avignon, there is a certain cleverness in dressing up a building's exterior when a full-on restoration isn't in the cards. Here, for instance is an example of what you can do with a window that's been filled in for some reason:

And sometimes the whole front of the building needs a little life. Look closely at the man sitting on the ledge.

So having had lunch, visited the Palace of the Popes, and captured some building art, we headed back to the AMPD where our car had been sitting in visitor parking for about four hours. It dawned on us that it just might be possible that not everyone there would recognize us or know why two tourists were ambling into the visitor lot. I desperately wanted to get a photo of the look on the officer who was wondering exactly that, but grabbing my camera somehow just didn't seem like the right thing to do. Fortunately, he (and his buddies) were not waiting for us on the way out, so off we headed to Lyon.

On the way, Anita received a nice gift. I said yesterday that we were too early for the lavender, but that seems to have been true only close to Avignon. About an hour's drive toward Lyon, suddenly Anita shouted and snapped up the camera and started firing away. This was her going-away present from Provence:

So we have arrived in Lyon, the second largest city in France, and allegedly the gastronomic capital of France, and therefore arguably, of the world. We'll have a look at Old Lyon and let you know what we find.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Marseille and Nice

Today was the only full day in Avignon, so we did the only natural thing--took a side trip. We had learned already that we were too early for a lavender tour, and Avignon itself looks like it will fit nicely into the morning tomorrow before we head off to Lyon, so this was the perfect day to see two Mediterranean cities.


From almost anywhere in Marseille, one need not walk very far to spy the church of Notre Dame perched on the hill overlooking the city. Here we see it supervising the defense of the city vested in the Fort St. Jean at the mouth of the bay giving access to the sea.

But Notre Dame is not nearly as imposing an edifice as "The New Major", the seat of the Archdiocese of Marseille. It's called "New" because it's only the latest of a series of cathedrals built on that site since the 5th century.  This one is only about 150 years old.

As all good port cities (remember Honfleur a week back?) Marseille has a fine marina.

Just a quick note here before leaving Marseille. I finally learned why they call that little thing a "Smart Car":


Pronounced "neese", it makes a great bit of tourism fun. It shows up in the movie French Kiss,  where if you look closely enough you see a guy leaving the hotel with a tee-shirt that says "Nice is Nice". And yes, it is. There's some classic French architecture in the apartments near the shore,

but let's face it--that's not why people go to Nice. The Promenade of the English, even in low tourist season, was crawling with people doing what you'd expect to do on a street with that name. And why not? Have a look at this water and see if you can guess why it's called Côte d'Azur. (Hint: rough translation--The Coast of Blue)

Much to my surprise, the beach was not sandy, but rocky. That didn't keep thousands of sunbathers from spreading a blanket and soaking up some rays. Before long, the French vacation season will start and there won't be enough space to throw a beach towel down without landing on someone.

Tomorrow, we'll actually have a look around Avignon before heading off to Lyon. Stay tuned!

Sunday, June 15, 2014


Today was a long-drive day. By the time we packed, checked out of our hotel, and wove our way through the rummage sale in the park in front of our hotel, then drove from Domme to Avignon, there wasn't much time for new pictures, so I've decided today's blog will be a collection of topics that didn't make the cut on the day I took the pictures.

First up is the "May Pole" tradition from the Perigord region that we just left.

Each village in the region erects such a pole, cut from deep in the forest, stripped of lower branches, decorated in the national colors, and placed in a position of promincnce to honor the village's elected officials. The ideas is that once the usually hard-fought elections are over, it's time to work together, and to show some respect for those who have dedicated themselves to public service. What a concept.

The next three pictures come from Blois, site of one of the castles we visited. The first is another reminder of historical perspective. This plaque was mounted almost 100 years ago and it celebrates the 500th anniversary of the visit by Joan of Arc to recruit for her army to save France from foreign oppression. Note that this was 63 years before "Columbus sailed the ocean blue".

When you visit the castle at Blois, you can buy a ticket to the magic show at The House of Magic, just across the street. We didn't want to hang around for that, but by dint of good timing, we caught a little teaser. On the left is the building as it normally looks. Below is what it looks like when the dragons inside wake up to stretch themselves!

I haven't written much about food yet; I don't want to sound like I'm bragging. One liberty I have allowed myself on this trip is more cheese. Here, for instance, is the cheese cart from our hotel in Domme. Unfortunately, I had already filled up on other delicacies and had to pass. Maybe next time.

We are spending two nights and about one and a half days in Avignon ("the" bridge is walking distance from our apartment). We'll spend most of that day driving again, through Marseilles, Aix-en-Provence, out to Nice, and back.