Thursday, 23 July 2015

Battlefields of the North

American cemetery at Omaha Beach
We have spent the last two weeks in Normandy and Picardy, two rural regions in the North of France known for their war history and natural beauty. Both have had turbulent pasts, being invaded by France's neighbouring countries numerous times.

Normandy's lush countryside and long stretches of coastline tell a chilling tale about the war days in France. The beaches of the North coast are where the D day surprise invasion by the Allied forces took place which marked the beginning of the end of World War Two. You can easily imagine how the countryside may have looked and felt during the German Occupation. There is a trail dedicated to D day directing tourists to the beach landing sites, cemeteries for the soldiers and bunkers. We visited Omaha Beach, where American troops landed on 5th June 1944. We went to the American cemetery and memorial which is pristinely kept and so surreal against the blue sky. It is one of those memorable moments when you see the rows of white crosses stretching infinitely into the distance in every direction. The burial sites for the German soldiers are much simpler in contrast.

Overlord D-day museum

The largest seaborne invasion in history, D-day was codenamed Operation Overlord. There were very specific conditions needed for the operation to take place; the moon had to be full for visibility and the weather had to be clear. The Allied army asked for postcards of Normandy to be sent for an exhibition in order to figure out the geography of the region. The German army had built up stronger fortifications near Nord Pas de Calais as that was where the Allieds were expected to strike. The Overlord Museum was an excellent place to visit, explaining the background to the invasion and why it was a successful surprise attack, with lots of diaramas and REAL TANKS. Master 7 was full of questions about World War Two. Why was the German army in France? Why did England help France? It has been a challenge to explain it to him.

We stayed in a beautiful part of Normandy called the Manche, full of ancient stone - walled farms. We had the run of an old manor house on what used to be a goat farm.  Fresh baguette and croissants were on the table each morning. Sheep wandered past our kitchen window. It really was what you would imagine the quintessential French country escape to be. It was fantastic to see the kids running around with the gang of children that lived there and climbing trees and just BEING KIDS. We visited a farm park (Parc Animalier) with animals from around the world, including camels, lemurs and strange humped cows. But I think the biggest hits were feeding the lemurs and the pony rides.

A field of poppies in the Somme

Caterpillar Valley Cemetery
 Next we stayed in the Baie de Somme, Picardy so it was World War One history time. The Somme area is part of the Western front where many battles took place between the German army and the French. The armies were stuck in deadlock, both in their trenches from 1914 to 1918. What a surreal feeling to stand in front of the New Zealand memorial in Longueval on an overcast day in France. The memorial displays the names of 1205 New Zealand men who died in the Battle of the Somme and whose bodies were never found.
NZ Memorial at Longueval
From miles away, you can see this crater in a hillside. It is really sobering to walk around the huge Lochnagar crater, which was formed by Allied engineers detonating 27 tons of explosives to tunnel under the Nazi defences. It happened on July 1st, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It is the largest man-made crater in the world at 91m across and 21 metres deep. Allied troops marched in a straight line towards the German defences and many thousands from both sides were killed on this site. The crater is now owned by an Englishman who saved it from being filled in and opened it to the public. 
Not far away, the underground museum at Albert has a fascinating collection of letters, relics and dummy soldiers. A medieval tunnel under the town was transformed into an air raid shelter during World War Two. It has since been made into a museum about the trenches in the First World War and the bombing of the area. There is a collection of art made from the shell covers by the soldiers. At the end of the visit, there is a dark tunnel with sound and lights to show what it was like in the trenches. Yip, pretty scary for the kids...

Albert underground museum

Some houses in Ault
The chalk cliffs above Ault
Picardy is dotted with towns full of brick buildings that have been rebuilt after the wars. It looks quite different to many other parts of France. It has been accused of lacking in culture but I think this area has paid a huge debt to the country. There are lovely beaches in this area (as in all regions we visited) such as Quend plage.
One morning, we woke up to find bugs crawling on our arms. Once we started looking, we noticed them all over us and the walls of the house. This wasn't just a few, they were literally covering everything. Of course, we thought there was some sort of flea infestation and went out to purchase the biggest baddest spray we could find. Later, I asked a guest at the accommodation about it and he said it was just 'mouches d'orage' and not to worry about it. These flies apparently turn up before a storm and disappear again after the rain. That is exactly what happened in the end - may be nothing to worry about but pretty annoying!
Our next step is to load our car onto the train under the Channel for a few weeks' sojourn in England. And so goodbye to France. I really should say au revoir as I'm sure I'll be back again.
I will leave you with some of France's bizarre old laws which are still in place today:
1. You cannot name a pig Napoleon in France
2. You must keep a bale of hay handy in case the king comes past (to feed his horse)
3. No alcohol is allowed in the work place, except wine, beer and cider
4. Ketchup is forbidden in school canteens (it is too American)
5. Men must wear speedos in French swimming pools

Friday, 10 July 2015

Sun, sea and subs in Brittany

Summer and for us, two months of travelling is under way. We have had a heat wave this week and the children have had trouble going to sleep before 9pm. That is pretty normal for French kids though. And not too big a deal as it is holidays now. The end of the school year is celebrated by a kermesse or school fete. At Master 7's school, each class performed a dance or play while parents sat in the sun with a cool wine or beer. Then the kids did archery, sack race or bet on which door a rabbit would run through. The start of two full months of summer holidays means one thing though: Tourist season is in full swing. Also, at this time of year, there are soldes, the government-mandated sales that only happen twice a year!

A house in the Gulf of Morbihan

One thing I love about travelling around France is the real differences between the regions. Brittany has some 2800 kilometres of coastline and some of the most beautiful beaches and quaint ports. It is also the only Celtic place on the European mainland. Brittany has historically been a rural area with farms, fairytale villages, medieval town centres and even standing stones. Now though, it is the 4th most popular area in France for tourists and also has positive migration with people from around France and England moving there in retirement, offsetting the younger ones moving to Paris for jobs.

It even has its own Celtic language, entirely different from French and thought to be derived from Brittonic langauges that were spoken in Great Britain before the invasion of the Roman Empire (like Welsh and Gaelic). It is an highly endangered language. In 100 years, from 1914 to 2015, the number of speakers of Breton is estimated to have quartered from 1 million to 250,000 people.

Brittany (Armorica) used to be independent but was annexed to France in 1532 and formally came under French governance in the Revolution, at which time a single French language for the nation was enforced. Breton children were only allowed to speak French in school. There was also a law until 1993 stating that all French babies born could only be named from a set list of saints and national heroes. So people in Brittany would have had an official French name and also a Breton name used in every day conversation. There is still a minority calling for independence for the region.

Some Breton proverbs:

Brizh diod hag a oar tewel, ouzh un den fur a so heñvel

Complete idiot who can keep silent is similar to a wise man

Ar ew vezw a zivezwo med ar re sod ne zi'sodont ket.
The drunk ones will sober up, but the mad ones will not clever up.

We went to visit the standing stones of Carnac. It is one of the most important sites of these stones in the world and thought to be 4000 years old. A lot have been stood up again after having fallen over. There are stone tables (dolmens) and huge rocks standing upright (menhirs). There are also some beautiful beaches in this area but they can be quite busy (by NZ standards).

Brittany's political history is mixed up with that of World War 2 as it was the last place in France to be overcome by the Allied forces along with Germany itself. Breton nationalists co-operated with the German army as they thought there would be a chance of independance for them. (Turns out...) We visited the submarine base at Lorient which has three massive submarine pens and a submarine you can walk through. Standing on the sea front, a chill ran up my spine seeing the ships intentionally wrecked in the harbour by the German army as a trap. There is a great museum explaining about daily life on a submarine and their place in the war.

Vannes is a beautiful city with medieval half-timbered buildings in the historic centre. It was also the backdrop to a scary tale involving me and a razor. We had been pretty happy with our hairdressers in Bordeaux and should have heeded the advice of others about French salons. (Hindsight is a beautiful thing) As soon as we walked in, the signs were there. Madame wasn't happy to be interrupted from her work, there was no smile for the kids and no small talk. I asked for a cut and thin out. She started in with the clippers, hacking off locks and buzzing through my long tresses. The whole thing took about five minutes. She never once used scissors. The final result was not good. No more French haircuts for me.

My Brown Paper Packages

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Secrets of Paris

In the past month, we have spent seven hectic, crazy, beautiful days in Paris. As you probably know, people either love or hate the French city of light. Taking a romantic stroll to see the Eiffel Tower lit up at night, the place was packed with tourists and hawkers crying out "selfie stick, Madame". Some of the best time I have spent in Paris is just walking around the suburbs, looking at the beautiful architecture and getting away from the crowds. With that in mind, we were on the lookout to find some lesser-known attractions.
"I am going to enjoy life in Paris I know... It is a real city, old and fine and life plays in it for everybody to see" - Katherine Mansfield
A highlight would have to be cruising Canal St Martin by boat. This is a tour through the very veins of Paris, the canals that were built in the early 1800's by order of Napoleon I. The canals are framed with delicate bridges that rotate or lift. We passed the site where a 25 metre high gallows stood until the revolution in 1789. We went through ancient locks, where the gates slowly close and the water pours out to lower the river level. What a feat of engineering. The tour ended with a spooky 2km tunnel under the city, the kids on the boat shrieking in delight and fear. The guide added casually that dead bodies are sometimes found in the canal. The kids enjoyed it, although it was slightly long for their attention spans at two hours.

View from the boat on the Canal St Martin

Market in the Bastille (12e arondissement)

I had my heart set on visiting the Palace of Versailles to see the splendour of the French royalty up close. It turns out so did everyone else. We drove from Paris and had trouble finding a park. We could see the hordes of people already in the queue so we went through the gardens first. The gardens are brilliant and massive - it took us half a day to wander around probably half of the grounds. Each part is themed and there are fountains and sculptures based around Greek and Roman mythology. The palace is a must for anyone who can appreciate the history of the ancient regime in France and the opulence that incited the spirit of revolution. It's easy to imagine the ladies of the court taking a 'promenade' stuffed into corseted panier skirts and with head-dresses piled high.

The golden gates

"Let them eat cake" - View from the Palace over the gardens

Enceladus fountain - giant buried under rocks on Mount Olympus

The Bois de Boulogne is a huge park in the inner west of the city which used to be a hunting ground for the French royals. I knew it as a haunt for the ladies of the night in the Da Vinci Code movie. But did you know it is also home to two racecourses, a roller skating rink, two lakes and a waterfall?

In one corner, we found the Jardin d'acclimatation, which is an amusement park, zoo and playgrounds all set in lovely gardens. Its bizarre past included a 'human zoo' showcasing the life and habits of the Kanaks (natives of New Caledonia) along with Siberians and many more, which was hugely popular from 1860 until the early 20th century. Thankfully, today the human exhibits are gone. The entry fee was 3 euros each but a lot of the attractions cost extra. Miss Two liked the Enchanted River boat ride, the aviary, farm animals and the petit train. Master 7 loved the bumper cars, rollercoaster and rope course. We ran out of time for the mini golf, archery and pony rides. If you visit, please plan for at least a day and take a picnic and togs for the kids.

Where to stay:

The suburbs of Paris are numbered in a spiral from the centre of the city, so the highest number arondissements are the furthest out. People often recommend to stay in the single digits so as to be closest to the tourist attractions (Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysee). However, the single digits can be very expensive (especially if you need a 3 bedroom place). I have now been to Paris three times and can recommend the 12e arondissement as safe and with loads of great places to eat. The 16e is also very safe and a little more upmarket. Everywhere in Paris has excellent transport links with the metro.

  • Letting off steam in French TWICE: 1. To the bus operators who ripped us off and 2. To the tourists who cut the line after we had been waiting an hour and a half outside Versailles
  • Being escorted through the Paris streets by half a dozen fast cars with darkened windows (or maybe we got caught in someone else's cavalcade)
There is a lot more to Paris than the Tour Eiffel and the Arc de Triomphe. Each time we visit, we stay in a different place to explore that area, it's boulevards, parks and squares. It is always an inspiring place.

Monday, 8 June 2015

The Bad Boy of France - Marseille

Pink Oleander in front of our holiday house - exquisite but highly poisonous

Every country has to have a 'bad boy' city and I think Marseille is that for France. You know the one - you may swoon over its beauty but clutch your bag a little tighter at the same time. You feign a bit of confidence and try not to look over your shoulder. Yet despite the rubbish in the streets and the warning cries about pickpockets ringing in my ears, I went back and would do so again in a heartbeat.

We spent three nights in Marseille as the start to a week-long Mediterranean cruise. My mum is in France visiting us so we thought it would be an easy way to see some beautiful places. The only problem is that 7 hour drive from Bordeaux right to the other side of France (toilet stop, food stop, toilet stop, toilet stop, no it's still four hours to go!).

Marseille is the oldest city in France and one of Europe's largest ports. It was settled in around 600 BC by the Greeks as a trading port, then captured by the Romans in 49 BC. It became a part of France in the 1480s but still retains its own identity. It is a sprawling metropolis of white buildings and set amongst the mountains. Everything seems to draw you toward the dazzling bright blue of the Mediterranean Sea.

The Old Port viewed from the harbour

Reminders of its turbulent past dot the city like scars. Fort St Jean was built in the 17th century and stands watch over the harbour gates with its forbidding presence. The German army used it to store ammunition during the Occupation. Just around the corner, you are surprised with beauty again with a modern slender pedestrian airbridge made of iron joins it to the next building.

Along with trade and people, ports bring disease. Marseille has had a history of epidemics and plague. Marseille was affected by fourteen epidemics in the 16th century alone. After World War Two, a sanitary station was built for efficient processing of migrant boat passengers into Marseille. We went to an interactive movie in the sanitary station about this prototype for stopping the spread of disease. The passengers were showered and disinfected, while their belongings were transported on hooks as they proceeded through the areas. It must have been a sobering experience for the passengers arriving after months at sea.

This visit we went on a boat trip of the islands and calanques around Marseille. These beautiful bays are hidden amongst limestone cliffs and and some are only accessible by boat or a long tramp in the hot sun. Some have no water or electricity supply. If I return, I would like to get a wee house in the bay of Sormiou (one with hot showers though please).

The smell of the sea pervades in Marseille, getting the saliva flowing for some seafood. We ate at a bustling restaurant on the seafront, where the waiter seemed to skate from table to table, barely pausing to take an order before floating back to the bar. The ingredients were fresh and the whole meal was designed to bring out the best flavours of the fish and shellfish. The heat was hot so we had no choice but to drink some wine.

The Island of the Chateau d'If

 I think Marseille is a city that belongs more to the Mediterranean than to France. The people even seem to be a little less reserved and refined but staunchly Marsellais. It is a beautiful, down-to-earth, intriguing, multi-cultural city with many traps for young tourists.

Also read about our last visit to Marseille and Provence in September here: Taking a drop of eau de vie.

Read more about Marseille's cultural melting pot in this article if you are interested.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Bordeaux with Kids - Like a Local

Photo by Juan Di Nella on Unsplash

The children are bored and hungry. Bordeaux beckons, but you need to feed the little mouths... and fast! Bordeaux is a beautiful city known for its' wine tours, art galleries, museums, shopping. But what about visiting Bordeaux with the kids? Where is the best place to eat dinner where the children can make a bit of noise?

Having lived in Bordeaux for the past twelve months, I feel almost qualified to share our best (cheap or free) finds for kids in this beautiful city.

What to do:

Cap Sciences - Science museum with hands-on stuff. During the school holidays, there are also shows and workshops. Currently, there is a Space exhibition on and in 2014, there was a dinosaur exhibition with huge animatronic dinosaurs that were a huge hit. Buy a year family pass for 50 euros and go to all the new exhibitions.

Parc de Majolan - This is a gorgeous park about ten minutes from the edge of town. There are two great play areas (and a flying fox) among the trees, a huge duck pond and peacocks as well as caves and bridges evocative of Middle Earth. Bring a picnic or have a coffee in the café. See my blog post from December here.

Miroir d'eau - The water mirror opposite the Place de la Bourse is the quintessential image of Bordeaux. Kids love kicking off socks and shoes and walking in the water, through the clouds of mist. It is a great spot for photos too, with the beautiful backdrop of Place de la Bourse.

Cruising on the Garonne - Included free with a tram pass, you can ride the Bat cub ferries as much as you want. These are an efficient way to see some different spots along the Garonne river. Both kids loved this.

Dune du Pilat - The biggest sand dune in Europe is about an hour's drive from Bordeaux. It is a must-see as the views at the top are amazing and the slide down is a lot of fun too. We visited the dune in spring.

Submarine base - This suggestion may be a little out of left field but our son loved exploring the haunting U-boat base left over from World War 2 (and it makes a good history lesson). The German army started building it in 1941, with the help of Spanish prisoners of war. The base itself is a vast concrete structure rising up above its surroundings. There are 11 berths and the roof is an indestructible 9.2m thick concrete. Parts of it now house art exhibitions and the occasional concert.

Plage du Lac - Guaranteed fun at this popular man-made beach, with a playground suitable for all ages, picnic area, ping pong tables and a forest walk.

Jardin Public - We lived five minutes from these beautiful gardens and the kids loved the massive playground with pirate ship, kicking a ball, statue -spotting, picnicking and feeding the geese and ducks.

Marche des Quais - Every Sunday morning, you can go and experience the feast for the senses that is this market. Walk along the quays lined with ripe produce of many colours and bakery stalls full of sweet cakes, pastries and giant loaves. Our noses were full of the smells of raw fish, hot chips, freshly squeezed orange juice, fresh bread. The vendors cry their wares and "sledge" each other in loud voices periodically.  A lunch of paella and chips (with sangria for the adults) to a background of live clarinet music was absolute bliss to top off the experience.

Where to eat:

It can be hard finding good places to eat in France with kids. It is harder when the children don't eat dairy. Our good-old backstops when we first arrived were (dare I say it) McDonalds or the Ikea café for consistency, price and allergen labels. But since branching out, we have discovered a few gems that I would like to share.

Les Potins de Coline More Info

This little creperie / café in the area of Chartrons is a great place to spend a bon moment with a coffee and the kids will be entertained with the playroom filled with toys and books. Oh, and did I mention the crepes and caramel sauce are to die for.

The Breakfast Club More info
Centre ville

This café is a little slice of Britain for when you have a hankering for a good old brunch. Our kids tuck into the baked beans and hash browns. The staff are friendly and speak perfect English. It can get quite packed in the weekends though, so get in early before some shopping on Rue Sainte Catherine.

5th Avenue 
Centre ville 
Modeled on a New York deli, this restaurant is great for families with a kids menu (kids served first) and continuous dining so no waiting til after 7pm. There are burgers of course, but also delicious Mexican dishes, like burritos and nachos.

Lac / Merignac / Quais

Yes, this is a chain seafood restaurant but we appreciated the service and they catered to kids with activity packs and children's menus (three courses and drink for €9). I ordered my son the salmon steak and fries. The food was great and a large range of seafood if you have a hankering for that.

Centre/ Bordeaux Lac

This is another chain restaurant which is a French steakhouse. What we appreciated most was that it opens a little earlier (Centre open from lunch, Lac open from 6) than most of the other nice restaurants, which can open at 7-7:30pm. Our 2-year old definitely appreciates the early dinner.

Rocher des pirates

We stumbled on this awesome pirate - themed restaurant by accident. All the staff are dressed in costume, there is a  a great playground and a fantastic show with sword-fighting, pyrotechnics and stunts. The price may be slightly more expensive than normal but it is worth it for the atmosphere. (68 euros for family of 4 with delish burgers, pizza and chips on offer). Miss Two was a little unsure of the pirate shanties and special effects but Master 7 was over the moon.

Or some other popular posts:

If you like my content, please catch up with me on Facebook at Writer Side of Life or on Twitter at My Twitter. I look forward to connecting with fellow Francophiles.

Any other good ones to add? Any that cater to allergies?