On the 8th September 1916, my great-uncle died from wounds sustained during the Battle of the Somme. Second Lieutenant Henry Byron, 1st/5th Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment, was twenty-two. His brother – my grandfather – enlisted at the age of fourteen, had a kidney shot out in Ypres, contracted TB while convalescing, and was shipped home with six months to live. Deciding escape was the only way to survive the miasmas of war-time Liverpool, he worked his way to Australia, jumped shipped in Perth, and died at the age of ninety two. He could never bring himself to return to France and visit his beloved brother’s grave – my daughter and I were the first in the family to do so.
I lay in bed, staring at the flood-lit towers of Notre Dame. The sky-light in my room looked straight onto the cathedral. Founded by Saint Landry in 651 AD, the Hôtel-Hopitel Dieu was the first hospital in Paris, and still cares for ill Parisians. The ghosts of some 1300 years of medical history glide along its marble corridors, whispering in consultation outside the wards, then pass into the old-fashioned lifts to visit the fourteen quiet hotel rooms hidden on the sixth floor.
Hotels can be seen as merely a place to sleep, or they can be another layer in all the experiences of travel. They don’t have to be expensive (fortunately!) but as I love pre-dawn and evening strolls, and watching a neighbourhood change by the hour, I try to pick a place to stay somewhere interesting for my walks. If the hotel comes with its own history, is in a old part of town and has a great cafe or restaurant nearby (hello, Paris!) it’s hard to resist. The Hôtel-Hopitel Dieu offered it all.
The train sped through the rainy afternoon, past green fields dotted with stone farmhouses and fat cows. As dusk gathered the train finally stopped in the deserted village of Pontorson. In the gloom it took me a while to find the exit from the station: a walk over the tracks then through a knee-high gate, to the patiently waiting bus.
After some twenty minutes the lights of the island suddenly appeared. Against the darkness Mont St Michel rose from the sea, unchanged from medieval times when the island became a mystical emblem of the heavenly Jerusalem, an earthly image of paradise.
In autumn, Le Grand Canyon du Verdon in Upper Provence becomes a place of colour and empty back roads, scented lavenders and spectacular scenery. A short drive from many a popular destination, it is often forgotten by the tourists buzzing along the more crowded coastline.
Trigance, a short drive from Castallane, makes an excellent base. The Knights Templar did just that, for Trigance lies on one of the old trade and pilgrim routes. Here the Knights built a fortified monastery, which then became Le Chateau de Trigance (now a hotel with a restaurant reputed to serve the best cuisine in the region.) From a distance, as the towering fortress rises out of the plain, a medieval hamlet at its feet, it seems little has changed since the Crusades. We parked our tiny Citroen 2CV – too large for all but the main street – and watched as our luggage was winched up to the castle by an intricate set of pulleys; we were left to negotiate the endless stairs.
Flying anywhere from Australia takes forever, arriving in another world before the break of dawn. It was still dark when the plane landed, and the train from the airport sped through unseen suburbs and endless tunnels. Even the Left Bank was still asleep when I emerged from the metro at St-Michel. Naturally, my hotel room was not ready. A light autumn rain fell, and cars splashed through puddles as street lights glowed in the mist. Tattered posters for jazz bands flapped in the breeze, and well-dressed Parisians hurried past on their way to work or else sat in cafes watching the rain.
For a little while I did the same, in the well placed Café St-Michel. Un cafe au lait, un croissant, and fresh butter to die for. I couldn’t believe the taste – such a rich, creamy fullness I needed only a little. So completely different to what passes for butter back home (although I do think my coffee is better). Continue Reading →
Where else to begin exploring Paris, but where the city began? Walking through the Île de la Cité covers some 4000 years of civilisation, from when the first Gauls settled here to those living statues who daily
pose outside Notre-Dame for tourists.
Paris began her life on a boat-shaped island in the middle of the Seine. The city’s coat of arms proudly displays a boat tossed by the waves, above the motto fluctuat nec mergitu: she is tossed by the waves but does not sink. By the 3rd century BCE, the Parisii tribe had established a fortified settlement on what was to become the Île de la Cité, although other Celtic tribes had lived here from at least 2000 BCE. (Canoes dating back to almost 4000 BCE have been found on the banks the Seine.)
The Parisii chose well: a temperate valley of fertile lands, with a river not only full of fish but perfect for trading from the Adriatic to the Mediterranean. Beneath the surrounding hills lay stores of lime and gypsum – now known as plaster of Paris – later used to build La Ville Lumière. So strategic a site, in fact, Julius Caesar invaded in 52 BCE, establishing a major Roman town – Lutetia (Lutèce) – which flourished until the Barbarian invasions. Continue Reading →