Goodness, it has been rather a long time since I have added a post – there has been so much to do and many things preventing time on the computer – work and family mostly, but such is life. I have missed posting material, but today I came across a podcast which made me realise it was time to return – plus it was so pertinent to my last post in 2014 that I had to share it. My previous post was on Monet’s magnificent garden at Giverny – so hard to describe, so easy to fall in love with – but today this great podcast by my old favourite Rick Steves helped to elucidate my feelings on how the Garden impacted me. He was in discussion with Elizabeth Murray, a gardener, writer and photographer, who had worked voluntarily in the garden for a year. The way she describes how the light and seasons change a person’s experience of the gardens is surely apt, and her conversation with a listener (Kristin), who had visited the gardens at the same time of year that we did, was amazing – she described so well what we had seen, confirming that each season is different but somehow obviously the same, year after year. Listening to Elizabeth Murray speaking about her own experience was fascinating and she has written a beautiful book called Monet’s Passion, which has excellent reviews, so it is looking like a must read for me and others fascinated by this iconic place…..
I had heard it said prior to seeing Monet’s Garden for myself, that some have found it a disappointment – that it looked uncared for and unloved. Well, I am not one of those who found it so. I loved it! In fact for all four of us, it was an absolute highlight. We left our Paris hotel early to avoid traffic, and within half an hour or so of picking up our car, we were there, ready for the opening at 9.30am. The tourist buses had already arrived, but we easily found shaded (and free) parking – a boon since it was a beautiful sunny day. We took a short stroll along the pristine lanes in the sun while we waited, but were soon able to enter.
Personally, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had wanted to see the Gardens for so long, that I wondered if I might be disappointed. I needn’t have worried. Finding words to adequately describe this historic place is difficult – idyllic, charming, spectacular, beautiful, magical – it is all those things and much more. It may be that we had perfect weather in mid-May, and that there were so many flowers in bloom, but I have seen photos of the place in winter, after snow has fallen – a different light, different colours, but it still looks amazing.
I have to say from the outset, that I am no gardener – I am completely ignorant when it comes to planting and nurturing flowers and plants (though strangely they do seem to grow for me), but one of my great joys in life is appreciating the great beauty inherent in flowers and beautiful gardens.
My mother was a wonderful gardener and I so admired her for it – her garden gave her the most immense pleasure especially as she aged, and I loved watching her tend it. I like to believe that her love of beautiful gardens rubbed off on me, and as I wandered through Monet’s, I knew how much she would have loved it – I think that it is one reason that it was so special to be there.
We started by walking down through the top beds near Monet’s house, stopping along our way to take in the profusion of colours, in bed after bed – irises, roses, pansies and the like. These are not your traditional well-manicured gardens such as you find elsewhere in France – say around the Loire chateaux – but I am sure there is an absolute art in making these truly abundant flower beds seem as if they began casually flourishing, completely unaided… the gardeners who tend them must truly be artists themselves.
As you continue the walk towards the water garden, you must negotiate a rather quaint tunnel and then you are there – and it is spectacular. Despite the numerous others taking in the pond, it didn’t bother me as I was so absorbed in the beauty of my surroundings – it even seemed tranquil. At this time of the year, the azaleas, rhododendrons and wisteria were in bloom and oh so pretty. Having been there now, it is very easy to see why Monet took such inspiration for his painting here.
After a very special time wandering around the pond, which has quite a Japanese influence throughout (maples and bamboo flourish there), we made our way up to Monet’s authentically restored home. The ‘no photography’ rule is very firmly policed, but I will always vividly remember the rooms, – especially Monet’s bedroom with its view out over the garden, the yellow dining room, and wonderful blue and white tiled kitchen with its collection of copper utensils. Being in the house was like going back in time, comparable for me with Clos-Luce, where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last years of his life, and also the stunning Rothschild villa.
Below I share some of the photos I took – one of the most appealing photos was the old boat under the trees – and the other favourite is of my friend Frances (for whom this visit was an absolute highlight), enjoying the peonies- two memorable moments from a special morning, shared with great friends, in a perfect garden.
As I write this, one of my close friends will be leaving Paris after her first ever visit. As a vicarious Parisienne, I think I probably banged on to her about it rather a lot, and I was desperately hoping she wouldn’t be disappointed – thankfully, yesterday I discovered she is not – a “Paris convert” is how she described herself, with her and her husband loving it. She found it beautiful and “drenched in history” – perfect descriptions I would say. Her being there has encouraged me to complete my reflections on our recent time there, and to include few suggestions for first time visitors – not that I am an expert of course, these are simply observations based on my own experience.
Paris – where do I start? It has heart, soul, culture and history – not to mention great cuisine and fabulous shopping…. What more could you want? I had a bucket list for Paris which I prioritised, and I ticked most items off. If you have seen my posts about our four full days in the City of Light you would know we crammed in an awful lot – fabulous Versailles, The Louvre, Shakespeare and Co. Bookshop, The Eiffel Tower, Napoleon’s Tomb at Les Invalides, Sacre Coeur, Sainte-Chapelle, historic Notre Dame, Ile Saint-Louis, The Pompidou Centre, The Conciergerie, Les Tuileries, Le Jardin de Luxembourg, Place des Vosges, and walking, walking, walking for miles, to simply absorb that infectious Parisian vibe.
There was no way to add anymore in our four days – it was just not realistic– so what did I miss? Cimitiere du Pere Lachaise, Rue des Abbesses, Clignancourt Flea Market, Galerie Vivienne, a visit to Laduree , Opera Garnier, and visits to the roof top of Printemps and La Tour Montparnasse to simply to see the view… these all seem like things that will be great to do at my leisure, in the future, rather than at the fairly hectic pace we took on this visit. I certainly am not disappointed that I still have a Paris “to do” list, because what we did was so fulfilling, so utterly intoxicating, that “je ne regrette rien” as they say – and besides, it is a good excuse to return in a couple of years.
If you are a first time visitor, I suggest leave being indoors for another visit (if the weather allows) – take a hop-on hop-off bus to orient yourself, and walk as much as you can. Perhaps choose one museum and check it out thoroughly – my pick would be the Musee D’Orsay. It was the only Museum we went to on our first visit, preferring as we did to walk and soak up the atmosphere – and it remains my favourite. However, this time round, we found that getting out early to tourist attractions like the Louvre, Versailles etc., allows you to join a shorter queue – but you have to be prepared to make the early start. It fits in with the French life style well to do this, as then you can take a long break in the middle of the day like the locals do. We loved getting out around 7am, and walking the almost empty streets looking for a nice café for coffee and croissant, omelette or pancake. It amazed us that the streets could be so empty at that time of day. Not only that, the early morning light is truly beautiful, and is the Parisian dusk. .
And my personal favourites from those iconic tourist attractions we visited this time? Napoleon’s Apartments in the Louvre (literally stunning!); climbing to the first level of the Eiffel Tower – that’s plenty high enough in my opinion to get your view and move on to another attraction if you are short of time, plus it is a great way to escape the long queue for lifts; picnicking in the beautiful Jardin Du Luxembourg (Theadora made me do it and she was right), and watching the stylish locals take their Sunday stroll in the park; viewing the exquisite stained glass windows in Sainte-Chapelle; taking in the magnificent Notre Dame ; strolling through Ile Saint Louis at dusk; watching the Parisian sunset from any of the bridges spanning the Seine; exploring the Latin Quarter and enjoying ethnic food choices.
It would be remiss of me not to mention how we got to Paris – we chose Eurostar and it is lovely way to travel and arrive – it feels much more relaxed to me – probably because I hate flying – and there is something special about train travel – we even got pensioner rates (60 years and over), so it was extremely affordable! What’s not to like?
My final reflections? Paris for me is an enchanting city – it is absolute magic. I feel so drawn to it – to the architecture, the history, the people, the vibe – to everything about it – it is hard to explain, but all I can say is that I will be back for more. There is so much to see and do, that short visits will probably never allow you to do everything you may want to do – but I figure this – do not lament what you did not see – simply remember and savour what you did see, and enjoy the precious memories you have will surely have etched in your heart and mind …
Here are some of my favourite places from our recent visit.
Charlotte Le Bon, Fashion, French film, Jeff Koons, Lucie Aubrac, movies, Oradour-sur-Glane, Pierre Bergé, Raf Simons, Saint Antonin-Noble-Val, Sterling Ruby, The Hundred Foot Journey, Yves Saint-Laurent
Lately I have been reviewing my blog and drafting reflective posts on what I can only describe as our recent great adventure. I took over 4000 photos which I have trawling been though, deleting the not so good, and enjoying those which remain to tell the story. I am compiling a photo book too, which is time-consuming (hence the lack of posts since our return), but the book will be a fabulous reminder of four very special weeks in France. I have also started creating an album on Pinterest celebrating the humble door – which I have found not to be so humble in France and Italy (and even the UK) – rather they tend to scream – “look at me” – and I did – I have the photos to prove it!
Meanwhile I continue to yearn for France as I endure our cold and wet winter (which is thankfully coming to an end), and have recently fed my longing by attending a couple of excellent French films showing at the Auckland Film Festival. It was wonderful to be listening to the language again, and to vicariously revisit places I had not long since seen – the bonus was that both were to do with fashion, which I love to follow.
Frédéric Tcheng’s Dior and I, is a fascinating glimpse at the birth of a collection (Raf Simons’ first at the House of Dior). The Sterling Ruby-inspired fabrics he had created for some of the garments in the collection were truly beautiful, and his use of exquisite flower installations (inspired by Jeff Koons’ Puppy) in the magnificent mansion where he presented his first collection, was inspired. Not only that, the opportunity to see an atelier at work, in the hands of the two premières, and the development of their relationship with the new creative director, was insightful. The film absolutely indulged my love of France, fashion and flowers – what more could I want. You can see comment regarding Simon’s first show here.
Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent film provides an illuminating view of the life and times of coutourier Yves Saint Laurent. Sanctioned by Saint Laurent’s long- time partner Pierre Bergé, the film felt very real – Pierre Niney is brilliant as the troubled designer, presenting the flawed genius of the man, quite authentically I believe. I certainly learned a lot more about Saint Laurent, and influential people in his life, Bergé, Loulou de la Falaiase and the stunning Betty Catroux. The authenticity is further supported by the use of actual YSL garments and 1976 Russian Ballet and Opera collection is exquisite. The film provided me with a much desired Parisian fix and I was delighted that I recognised streets and places we had wandered along just a few weeks ago.
The most recent French film I have seen is Claude Berri’s Lucie Aubrac. The film was in French and without subtitles, but I was able to understand the plot and even some of the conversation, thought the speech was very fast. The film was quite gripping and I asked my French tutor Marie, about the significance of Lucie Aubrac in French history. Lucie was a Resistance heroine and she is greatly revered. I have since discovered the film was based on her memoir Ils partiront dans L’ivresse: Lyon, Mai 43, Londres, Février 44. There is an English language edition available too with the title Outwitting the Gestapo, which is a must read for me now.
One of the things I noticed whilst in France, particularly in the South, was the extent to which those who fought in the wars are honoured and respected – every little town had a memorial to those who perished – it was very moving – as was the film itself. It brought back memories of our recent visit to Oradour-sur-Glane, the village which was decimated by the Nazis in 1944. The untouched ruins remain a chilling and poignant memorial to those who died, and I will carry the images of those ruins in my mind forever.
It is fairly obvious that France is in my blood, under my skin, in my mind – its pull is powerful, enticing, enchanting, and it is calling me back. This was made more obvious to me last weekend, as I watched the delightful movie The Hundred Foot Journey – set in southern France, and starring Helen Mirren, I was completely unprepared for the depth of emotion it evoked in me as I looked at the beautiful town of St Antonin-Noble-Val – the colourful market, the people, narrow streets lined with beautiful old buildings. Suddenly my eyes welled up with tears – confirming to me that I should just be there…. 2016 can’t come soon enough!
An aside – The delightful Canadian actress Charlotte Le Bon appears in both the Yves Saint Laurent movie and The Hundred Foot Journey – she beautiful and a delight to watch.
Meanwhile – pictorial evidence of those monuments to those who perished in in the first and second World Wars:
On Monday, we said a fond farewell to Brook Cottage and the Cotswolds, as we made the most of our last day in what must surely be one of the prettiest parts of England. After a bit of a sleep in, we breakfasted, packed up the car, and went for a walk around the top part of Blockley village which we hadn’t yet seen. It is truly an idyllic spot and as was the glorious little grade II listed cottage we stayed in.
Broadway was our first stop on the way back to Reading. Again, a pretty place with a very relaxed, almost sleepy feel to it, but I imagine on weekends and during the summer it would become very busy. It also had a surprisingly large number of hospice shops, but I have been told since that this is quite common in small English towns. Stanton had been recommended to us by the publican at The Redesdale Arms, so we passed through it on our way to Burford. It is a stunning little village, with what appeared to be a huge manor house, dominating the entry as we drove in. It had a similar feel to Blockley – an unspoiled hidden gem.
Our longest stop was Burford- like Broadway, it is bigger than Blockley and Stanton, and I warmed to it immediately. It has wonderful old buildings and a very large church which was open to view. We took lunch at a beautiful old C16th pub – The Bay Tree Hotel – it certainly had a great sense of history about it, and was quite elegant, with a more upmarket feel than others we had visited.
After a tasty lunch we continued our walked through the town, and in particular had a really good explore in the historic St John the Baptist Church, work on which began in the C12th century. It is a magnificent building, and one of the stained glass windows, while not being really ornate or deeply coloured, was rather beautiful.
Our weekend in the Cotswold was divine – being with such good friends in a pretty and relaxing environment was a perfect way to end our short UK stay. It was over far too soon, but like so many other places we saw on our fabulous trip, we would love to return….
Sunday’s effort at map-reading was a far cry from Saturday’s effort – it was quite a triumph in fact. After breakfast in front of a roaring fire in the cottage, we set off, keen to redeem ourselves.
In truth, we did choose a walk which looked straight forward, from Blockley to Moreton-In-Marsh, and no sooner had we set out, than we met a group of walkers coming the other way, who confirmed we were going in the right direction. Not only that, the path was very well signposted all the way, unlike the path we chose on Saturday, so we were confident we should continue.
We trudged through a field of cows and a bull, which was somewhat disconcerting, but the big beast was happily chomping away at the long grass, so we avoided eye contact and continued up to the top of the paddock, and turned in a woodland area. The path in the woods took us out into a field and onto a very muddy track beside a high dry stone wall, which was corralling black-faced sheep.
Soon we were back in woodland, resplendent with stands of tall trees which opened out onto rich farmland, where the farmer was busy baling huge barrels of hay. More woodland followed then we hit a series of fields, some with crops, others lying fallow, and another full of wildflowers. This lovely walk took us through quintessential English countryside, and even though it was overcast, it was really pretty.
We finally came to an allotment on the edge of the village, which lead us down a path to the high street. Hungry again, we chose a pleasant-looking pub, The Redesdale Arms for another excellent pub lunch, followed by hot scones at the award-winning tea rooms Marshmallow. Buoyed by our triumph in reaching our destination, we decided to walk back to Blockley taking the same path, making for around a 12 km walk and we did it!
Having decided to dine in, we settled down for a relaxed evening in front of the fire and the television, sipping champagne, and watching France beat Honduras at the soccer World Cup – bliss!
We set off on Saturday morning with high hopes for a lovely day, strolling through the countryside from . We stopped first at the local cafe/shop to buy a recent map of leisure walks in the area and set off, with some instructions from the owner on where to access the beginning of the walking path.
The walk we had planned offered much promise. We had chosen to go to the old market town of Chipping Campden walking through country lanes and fields, and that is how the walk began. We wandered through wheatfields, dotted which beautiful large red poppies, climbed over stiles, looked at the farmland vistas, stepping carefully over blackberry and nettle bushes – I felt like a character in a Famous Five adventure, minus the lashings of gingerbeer!
Then came our epic fail – between the four of us, we completely misinterpreted a turn on the map and we ended up on a quite busy road, which we discovered as we progressed further, was heading us in completely the wrong direction towards the A44. With Map Reading 101 clearly not our best subject, we retraced our steps back to the bridle path where we assumed we had made the wrong turn. We could see the path we wanted to take quite clearly on the map, but it simply wasn’t there, so we took to the busy road again and headed in the opposite direction. It was a long walk, and often times hazardous as there were no footpaths, only mown edges for us to leap onto when cars were approaching.
We managed to confirm with a passing cyclist that we were heading in the right direction, and soon we were walking into pretty Chipping Campden, two and a half hours late, and having walked about 10 kms further than we had planned – but it was worth the trek. It is a beautiful town – picturesque, pristine and pretty, with some spectacular thatched cottages and amazing gardens.
We headed straight for a pub for a much-needed meal – it was tasty and good value, and we followed it up with scones topped with clotted cream and jam – delicious! After a little exploration of the town, consensus was that we should not attempt a return to Blockley on foot, so we found a private taxi and were soon back at the cottage.
Dinner was at Lower Brook House in Blockley, a very ambient hotel and accommodation, where we had almost chosen to stay instead of the cottage. The dining experience was a step up from the previous evening’s meal. We received a warm welcome from the very efficient host and were offered a seat in the comfortable lounge for an apéritif. The dining room was elegant with quirky decor, the food was well presented, and all bar one dish (a lamb curry which was average), were high quality. It was a very satisfactory way to end a day, which had been much more of an adventure than we expected…
My own little escape to the country has come true – after a day back in Reading staying with close friends, we travelled with them to the pretty village of Blockley and it is absolutely charming.
Blockley seems hidden away, but in fact is quite close to Chipping Campden, Broadway, The Slaughters and other well-know Cotswold names. The road we took leading into this unspoiled village cut through fields on either side of the road, and when it came into view it proved to be real chocolate box stuff – pretty brownstone cottages swathed in flowers, each one as neat and tidy as the last. Many have name plates or words etched into the door lintels, which seem to describe their provenance.
With the car parked up on the little main road, we took our bags and provisions down to the cottage, passing by a ford and a real babbling brook – hence the name our our accommodation – Brook Cottage. It is absolutely delightful and looks exactly as it did in the advertising material we had seen – it is comfortably furnished, well-equipped and has a real character.
Once unpacked, we went off to one of the three local pubs, The Great Western Arms, where we had booked for dinner. I have been longing for a country pub meal and this one did not disappoint – the dining room is separate from the bar, and it was empty when we arrived, but as we enjoyed a pre-dinner drink, locals started arriving, chatting away to staff and giving the room a warm friendly feel. The bar next door to the dining room is festooned with English flags in support of England’s World Cup campaign, and it was buzzing as we left to walk back to the cottage.
The menu provided both traditional and modern fare, but we all chose traditional – haddock and chips for the girls, and sausages and gravy and potato for the boys – it sounds plain, but it the meals were well presented and delicious – as were the puddings!
Our night in the top floor room was punctuated by the sound of the real babbling brook, since we had flung the little window wide open due to the balmy evening air. As we settled for the night, we knew we had picked the right spot – both the village and the cottage exceed our expectations and the morning we had planned promised much …
Yesterday was a relaxed but rather sad day for me, as it was our last full day in France. It began with a walk to the port in the early morning sun, then we backtracked along the Promenade des Anglais and across to the Cours Saleya, in search of a light breakfast. We soon spied a busy café on a street corner and decided to give it a try. The interior reminded us somewhat of cafes at home – the breakfast fare was just what we needed and the coffee was excellent.
As we walked back up the Cours towards the Tour Bellanda beside our hotel, the flower market was getting into full swing, and fruit and vegetables sellers had set up their colourful stalls too. We were very tempted by the fresh fruit so ended up with a feast of fat, juicy apricots, plus melon and pineapple.
Soon we were ascending the many steps up to the Tour Bellanda, but we discovered there was so much more to it – the Colline du Chateau offers not only panoramic views, but as we climbed higher, we saw shady walking tracks, tranquil resting spots and the glorious hilltop park, which is obviously popular with fitness devotees. After our descent back down to the road and climb back up the four flights of stairs to our room, we devoured most of the fruit we had just bought – all those stairs had made hot and hungry again.
The sun was still blazing down, but there was more to see, so after a showering we set off again, using Rick Steves walking guide of the old town, much of which we found we had done already. I had decided to take in the shops on my own, so we split up then, with Phil returning to the hotel to escape the midday sun. I had a wonderful time, leisurely looking at all the colourful wares on display in the old town, and shopping in the modern area near Galeries Lafayette. I found a lovely gift too, as I retraced my way back through the bustling old town streets to the hotel room.
Next, it was time to address yet another thing on my bucket list – a swim in the Mediterranean, so on went the togs and jandals. Footwear is essential since the beach is not sandy – rather, it is covered in quite large stones. I can see why the locals wear Crocs to the beach now! After warming up on the hot stones amidst a bevy of topless bathers, I took the plunge! The water was so clear, so blue and so very warm – just lovely – tick!
After drinks in our room with Roger and Frances, we went off together in search of our last dinner on this brilliant French adventure. The Italian influence percolates through the city, not least of all, in the cuisine, but we thought French would be apt for our last night, and we found what we were looking for in the colourful Cours Saleya. The balmy Nice evening was over too soon – we had to return to the hotel to pack.
We have all adored Nice. It has such an infectious energy, vibrant colour and a tangible vibe – and glorious weather of course. Phil and I certainly intend to return a third time and we will head directly for Room 44, in Hotel Suisse…. our own personal Tour de France has come to an end and it has been one of the best months of my life. I will carry so many treasured memories of the country I would love to call my second home, but our heartstrings are telling us it is time to get moving, back to our gorgeous girls and their beautiful babies … But first, a few days in the Cotswolds and Los Angeles …