Exploring

For the wanderers

In honour…

Been thinking about what this day means for us all as we commemorate the fallen today, my mind drifting back to the time my travel buddy and I visited the war fields in France in 2013. I wrote about that day in honour of our ANZACs in 2015. The memory still tears at my heart. Here’s my story:

I hadn’t wanted to come. It was bone chillingly cold, drizzle fell from burgeoning grey skies and a biting wind whipped mercilessly at my inadequate jeans and jacket. Feet, wet and cold, were screaming chilblains, a dread I’d endured during long NZ winters, and I’d used my last tissue on a streaming red nose.

Bloody marvellous! A fine way to start a holiday in France I muttered as I wandered across the lush manicured lawns striated with row upon row of headstones.

Many of the headstones bore names, still more were marked ‘Unknown Soldier’. The 1918 battlefields at Villers-Bretonneux. An imposing Memorial commemorating nearly 11,000 Australians who died in France but have no known grave, formidable against bleak skies. I ran frozen fingers across the names etched into chilled marble. Andrew, Horatio, James, Clive, so many innocents.

Eric Hill from Boston, MA, USA - Poppies in the Sunset on Lake Geneva Uploaded by PDTillmanFrom there to Pozières, then the Thiepval ‘Memorial to the Missing’ honouring over 72,000 British and South African men, followed by Beaumont-Hamel and the Newfoundland Memorial Park where zig zag trenches can still be seen almost a century on. In the distance, the yellow rapeseed covered tracts of land soldiers had been fighting relentlessly to retain. A weak sun caressed my icy cheeks as I took stock of the surrounds. So peaceful. Once so bloodied.

Meandering through the trenches behind our guide as she described the unimaginable conditions the soldiers experienced there –  the stench of the dead atop, dysentery, lack of food, fresh water or shelter, month upon month exposed to extreme weather conditions, from searing sun to death rattle snow – I struggled to remain composed. Choking on a crust of humble pie will do that. Wet feet and a sniffle indeed.

Each site respectfully tended regardless of nationality interred, the Germans distinguished by grey crosses within a quiet field of their own. They too were just young men sent into the same bloody battles. All of them heartbreakingly young; seeing, experiencing and succumbing to horrors we can’t begin to imagine. But you probably know that anyway, a part of our ANZAC history…a raw, gut wrenching sacrifice of human life. Today, 100 years on, we honour that sacrifice.

(Image – Eric Hill from Boston, MA, USA – Poppies in the Sunset on Lake Geneva)

 

Off the beaten Parisian path…

Friends heading to Europe for Xmas recently asked, ‘Jane, how long should we spend in Paris and what’s to do?’ ‘Why at least two weeks, ideally six months, a year, forever; so much to see in this fine city!’ Pondering my frankly unhelpful Francophillian response, I actually gave the query serious thought:

Three days?

Big red bus city highlights recon to get the bearings. The Eiffel Tower’s pretty sparkles viewed from the Trocadero. The Arc de Triumph. The Champs Élysées for fabulous Xmas fairy lights, Laudree Macarons, Louis Vuitton Flagship store, Ferrari, Mont Blanc, Sephora. Oh! And the beautifully buffed semi naked eye candy guarding Abercrombie & Finch on the other side of those magnificent gold tipped black gates.

The Grand and the Petite Palais for palace awesomeness. Palace Opera’s ornate mirrored glitz and bodaciously luxe tassles. The Louvre – Mona’s wing. Notre Dame point zero and those pretty stained glass windows. Sacre Coeur up there on the hill. Galleries la Fayette for that stunning dome ceiling. Fueled with plenty of fortification while seated on those cute little red wicker chairs on the Bistro footpaths of course.

Five days?

Add a day trip to Chateau de Versailles for an even bigger palace fix. Napoleon’s Tomb, Place de Voges, the Musee de Orsay, L’Orangerie and Pompidou for extra hits of visual culture. A wander in the Jardins des Tuileries and Jardins des Luxembourg to park your green chair wherever takes your fancy amidst the lush gardens, ponds, statues and Sunday boules players. The Latin Quarter. Bon Marche for the pure pleasure of feeling your credit card’s sphincter muscle contract. Fueled by still more French fare and people watching over a wine or five.

 Already ticked these boxes? Time to dig a little deeper into the less touristy fare. My top 10 suggestions:

1) Rue de l’Abreuvoir –  it would be remiss to neglect this picturesque road as you wander around Montmartre, followed by Avenue Junot, very chic and along here you will find ‘Pass-muraille’ – the man who could walk through walls.

2) The Je t’aime wall – while still in the region, wander Place des Abbesses, find the small public garden (Square Johan Rictus) and admire ‘Le mur des Je t’aime’  where you’ll find ‘I love you’ written in 311 languages…tres romantic in the city of…well um…romance? For more detail: Jacques and Jane discover the Je T’aime wall

3) Le Moulin de la Gallete – while still in the Montmartre region you’ll find this elegant sister to the Moulin Rouge. One of only two other windmills left in Paris, this one houses a rather elegant restaurant.

4) Space invaders – always, always look up as you traverse the more densely populated Arrondissement for high on the walls you will find pixel art mosaic space invaders. Over 1,182 in Paris alone, brainchild of an anonymous French artist known only as Invader. A tiny buzz each time you find one and a lot less embarrassing than chasing Pokemon. A previous post: Who loves Space Invaders?

5) Porte Saint-Denis and Porte Saint-Martin. Aside from the well known arches on the ‘Triumphal Way’  (Arc de Triomphe Carrousel, Arc de Triomphe, La Defense), these lesser known arches are slap dab in the middle of densely populated streets and worth checking out just for their sheer audaciousness.


6) The Louis Vuitton Foundation – oh yes, architect Frank Gehry stretching our minds yet again with one of his most magnificent pieces to date. Right up there with the late great Zaha Hadid.

7) Rue des Rosiers for the Falafels – in Le Marais, my fave Arrondissement where the effortlessly minimalist chic Parisian hangs, particularly cool on a Sunday when the closed streets fill with said chic as they wander the many wine bars and boutiques.

8) Rue Montorgueil on a Friday eve – closed to cars, the street filled with French food open market specialties, from rare fromage to giant meringues, rare chocolate to escargot. Speaking of; check out L’Escargot Bistro for the delicious molluscs for which the restaurant is named.

9) The Passages – some quaint, many architecturally magnificent, a few in states of disrepair and all really quite special. Check out Passages du Grand Cerf, Galerie Vivienne, Passage Jouffroy and Passages des Panoramas for starters. See more here:   Coffee, cats and more Passages and Loving Parisian Passages


And for a very special kind of bliss:

10) A concert in Sainte-Chapelle – within the Palais de la Cite, on the Ill de la Cite and in the heart of Paris. Lazy afternoon light filtering through the most magnificent stained glass windows suffuses an atmosphere that, combined with the pure acoustics of the Chapel itself, may just bring a tear to your eyes. Pure joy.


Enjoy my friends, enjoy. And come back safe.xx

P.S. If you’d like to take in the most magnificent view that actually includes the Eiffel Tower, head to the Montparnasse Tower Panoramic Observation Deck, spectacular!

‘O Sole Mio’…or not?

Venice. How can one visit this mystical city without stepping into one of those sleek black Gondolas at least once? Quietly gliding beneath one or two of the 409 bridges that span the 150 plus channels, linking the 117 small islands that constitute Venice while enjoying the soothing baritone of your Gondolier’s narration. Admiring the softly decaying brick facades with petticoats of lush green moss while trailing fingers in the clear aqua marine waters as your Gondolier croons a sweet ballad. Sigh! While standing atop one of the bridges watching the many Gondolas gliding deftly beneath, I became a tad curious. Why are they all black? What does that pointy thing on the stern symbolize, and why are the Gondoliers male?

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A spot of sleuthing later and here’s the low down:

Although always black (six coats) – the result of a 17th century law a doge enacted to eliminate competition between nobles for the fanciest machine – each Gondola has unique upholstery, trim and detailing but with just three flourishes – a curly tail, a pair of seahorses and a multi pronged prow. The six horizontal lines and curved top of the prow represent Venice’s six districts and the doge’s funny cap. Each one weighs 700g, has 280 components and uses eight types of wood. Interestingly they are slightly lopsided and bow out on the left, this asymmetry causing the Gondola to resist the tendency to turn toward the left at the forward stroke and compensates for the weight of the gondolier who stands in the stern and rows only on the right side.

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Just as the Gondola is an iconic symbol of Venice, so too the Gondoliere, or the traditional oarsman, each one sporting a jaunty black and white striped shirt and straw boater. Whereas once a male dominated industry, in 2010, Venice finally appointed its first ever female gondolier Giorgia Boscolo. Go girl! Jostling amongst the chunky Vaporettos (water bus), sleek timber speed boats, produce movers, the odd cruise ship and 400 fellow Gondoliere is not for the faint of heart but the Gondoliers nail it. After all they’ve had extensive periods of training and apprenticeship, six months including 400 hours of instruction in using the distinctive single oar that is used to propel the gondola, to be exact, plus an exam which tests knowledge of Venetian history and landmarks, foreign language skills and the practicalities of manoeuvring the Gondola through narrow canals. Interestingly, when a Gondolier dies, the licence passes to his widow.

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Now that you’ve popped a Gondola ride on your Venetian agenda, here’s a few things to consider before you blindly take that Gondolier’s hand and settle into his sleek machine. Some might offer narration or conversation and if this is important to you, it pays to conduct a little interview with your potential Gondolier to see how you relate and whether you can understand him, at the same time reviewing the map to discuss the route for some are crowded and chaotic; the duration of the trip and the price. The latter is usually fixed however there’s room to haggle when it’s quiet or in off season.

Oh! And despite depictions in the movies, not all gondoliers sing. If you are hankering for a serenade, ask first. If you’ve had the good fortune to hire a musician and are yearning for a spot of ‘O Sole Mio’ (which comes from Naples), well that’s like asking a Jazz singer to sing Waltzing Matilda. Instead try requesting  ‘Un canto Veneziano? (sing a Venetian song?) – ‘Venezia La Luna e Tu?’ (a Venetian song), and you may just be rewarded. Enjoy!

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