Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Monet's Garden

I named my first cat Claude, in honour of Claude Monet, the French Impressionist painter. My second to last cat was named Monet, for the same reason. I've always loved the impressionist painters since I was introduced to them; it's just that I can't remember when or the situation. Maybe it was the art class at Teachers College, maybe it was high school- that's more like it. Renoir, Degas, Monet. The others too but Monet stood out because he painted his garden and his garden was created as an inspiration for his painting. I had cheapish prints in my home for years until they all turned blue from the light. I always wanted to see his famed garden.

Last Sunday I did just that. It was a bit of an expedition. The drive to Giverny required a lot of patience in the Easter traffic and there were the inevitable toll stops requiring payment. Travel sickness was an unwelcome companion too. We stopped off and munched some sandwiches we'd brought and then, somehow, managed to find the village of Giverny. It's small, above the Seine west of Paris.

I'm impressed with the river Seine. I'd thought it was all about Paris. In reality it defines much of the countryside in the Ile de France and Normandie. It's majestic, beautiful.

Parking was extremely frustrating. Although it's early in the tourist season the place was packed and Jean-Claude practically created a car-park in order for us so we could get out. Parking is free. The entrance fee gives access to the waterlily pond, the house and the various garden areas. You pay extra if you want to visit the Impressionist museum. We didn't do that because the crowds were getting to us.

The lily pond is beautiful but the trees and humanity have a way of depositing in it so a boatman was busy skimming. I suspect in Monet's time (the beginning of the twentieth century) there was more admiring and less skimming. At this stage of thge season there are no water lilies to admire but that didn't matter to me. The garden grows right to the edges of the pond and there's colour everywhere. The colour combinations throughout the complex are amazing, there's little room for weeds to grow, but the business of keeping it all looking tidy and colourful 364 days of the year requires 30 gardeners working at night.

There was the Japanese bridge smothered in tourists having their photos taken on it, the rododendrons and azaleas, tulips and forgetmenots, pansies, maples, peonies...

The main gardens near the house are rather too structured for our tastes. They are rectangular beds with everything in straight lines. There's no veggie garden these days- just espaliered apples and some chooks. It's all very organised and congested with people- you feel like you are on a production line being moved forward so it's difficult to stop and admire with the masses bumping and pressing but we tried. I took a few patient minutes out to photograph JC on the bridge which really was delightful with the wisteria cascading down.

Monet's house lacks some of the homey touches he would have had and is even more difficult to see full of people but the kitchen was very interesting with its blue and white theme, the dining room in lemon, his bedroom sporting a very small bed for two but typical of the times. Monet's workshop/display area for his waterlily series has been turned into a shop. There's a display of Japanese prints but they don't interest me.

I'm glad I went. I loved the flowers and I loved finally being on the same hallowed ground that the great painter once worked in. I hope you'll enjoy the photos as much as we did seeing the inspiration for them.

The photos are self-explanatory but note the keen budding artists drawing the famous bridge over the pond. It's a shame I can't fit more photos into this blog but a blog needs balance between photos and text.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Of sand and cliffs, artists and writers

The Normandy Beaches faded behind us and we found ourselves negotiating narrow streets and traffic hassles at Deauville. Any romantic notions I might have had about the place disappeared. I found the waterfront a complete disappointment. Replica rococo buildings that are hotels but not in a genuine sort of quality. Ugly and overpowered by a casino. I struggled to find a genuine house to photograph. Well there's the beach.

It's a very big and wide sandy beach with no distinguishing features other than the brollies and the old bathcabins. They had a celebration of the film industry there at some point and named all the little 'fences'. I couldn't decide if it was quaint or silly. I did love the very festive brollies available for hire. We strolled the length of the boardwalk but it was uneventful. Wealthy Parisians come there. I'm told it is popular with the Jewish sector. They must see something JC and I don't. Once again, coming from NZ, it would take a lot more than Deauville was offering to impress me with a beach. Still, it was good to see things for myself. We hit the road again.

Sunday night was spent at Honfleur, a picture-postcard medieval town across from the mouth of the Seine and the major port of Le Havre. It's history is spotted with artists and writers such as Baudelaire, Monet, William turner, Eugene Boudin. The majority of the quaint narrow houses were built between the 16-18th centuries.

We wandered around the streets looking at shops and gallery windows and then stopped to look over Sainte Catherine eglise. This church has the largest separate wooden belltower in France. It's beautifully decorated inside with a timber ceiling like a hull of a boat and panelled walls, tapestries and artworks and pennants. Even the book holder is magnificent.

Dining wasn't all that easy. Oh, plenty of restaurants but most of the seating was outdoors and it was just too cold. The restaurants, being on the coast, tended to have predominently seafood on their menus-impossible for me. We did manage to dine at a nice restaurant where there was lamb on the menu. Shredded inside filo pastry. OK but a bit bland.JC enjoyed his veloute. Our hotel room was comfy and all in all I liked the town and would have liked more time to explore but we needed to press on to Etretat the next day and then home.

Etretat, formerly a fishing village, was transformed into a resort in the 19th century and inspired artists and writers much as Honfleur did. We drove up to the top of one set of cliffs and hungrily devoured the spectacular views with our cameras. The cliffs are very high and dangerous. They are not roped off. France seems to be less concerned about people having accidents in dangerous places than NZ is. In fact, the management of danger appears to be the onus of the adventurer- sensible attitude. But it can be a bit scary when you are wearing boots with heels and a stiff cold wind is blowing way up there and you are only centimetres from the edge.

I didn't lean out too far and tried to sit down when I could so as not to encourage vertigo. Seabirds had mates and there were many soarings and wheelings but I didn't see any chicks- perhaps too soon in the season. The colours of the limestone cliffs and the sea are a beautiful contrast.

Too cold to stay longer and trek up the opposing cliffs in the distance, we set out on the trip back to Paris, Ile de France, loaded up with so many photos and lifetime memories.

Along the way we crossed the impressive Normandy Bridge over the Seine at Le Havre. It's a cable-stays design with a central span of 856m and a total length of 2,143.21 metres. We stayed on the autoroute until we got to Paris. If you are driving on autoroutes be warned that most of them are tolled. You will spend money regularly and you won't always have a choice but there don't seem to be too many queues.

I do hope I get to explore more regions in this beautiful country I want to call home. To feel at home here is to appreciate its history, culture, people and natural environment. A very special thankyou to Jean-Claude for making one of my dreams come true.

Photos are of Deauville beach and a rococo building, Honfleur and the church, Etretat and the Normandy bridge.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

It was D-Day!

We left Cherbourg on Sunday morning, determined to visit some but not all of the Normandy beaches and learn something about this historic area. Historic for its contribution to the end of World War II when the allies landed on the beaches and started mopping up the German occupiers. The main beaches are almost seamless and are quite similar, being a vaste stretch of sand so we concentrated on two of them. But first, a stop at where it all began. St Mere Eglise (Basse Normandie).

This was one of the first towns liberated on 6 June 1944 as part of Operation Overlord. American parachutists started landing (and being slaughtered) along with special gliders (many of which crashed). There's the famous story of soldier John Steele whose parachute caught on the clock tower and he had to hang wounded while all the action was going on. The town featured in the movie The Longest Day (1962), playing itself, and featuring John Wayne, Robert Ryan and Richard Burton and even Sean Connery amongst a star-studded cast.

After photographing the church and a borne that starts Liberty Road we visited the American Airborne museum. It was really impressive and interesting. We watched a short documentary which was very moving. I think the most impressive thing about this museum is the personal way it handles a terrible subject. Individuals involved in this event are profiled, their belongings are on display. The soldiers and the villagers went through a lot together and formed close bonds. Some soldiers came back to visit the town years later. This place is definitely recommended as a stop-off.

Cruising through the countryside trying to find our way in new territory we visited two of the main landing sites. I was surprised by the depth of the shell holes and the wildness of the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc. No wonder the soldiers had a tough time knocking out German batteries before the invasion got fully underway.

I loved the metal sculpture at Omaha Beach. It's beautiful from every direction whereas the other part of the monument in front of it is a ghastly and ugly thing. We had lunch at Omaha after visiting Pointe du Hoc. After that we felt we'd done all we needed to do concerning these sorts of visits. We didn't have time to visit any war cemeteries.

Even if you are anti-war like me, it's worth visiting these beaches and other war sites. They are important and they are surprisingly moving. Their stories are about real people (not just men, ladies); the soldiers and the french villagers. It's a section of the war NZ didn't play a part in- we were fighting elsewhere, and consequently we tend to know less about it.

Then it was time to move on to Deauville and Honfleur. We'll cover those in the next post.

Photos of St Mere-Eglise (look for the parachutist), a borne, displays at the museum, Omaha Beach with sculpture, and Pointe du Hoc Beach including shell holes with wild primulas flowering, the Coastline.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

View from the top

My birthday dawned cool but with the possibilty of sunshine. Here I was, in France (miracle #1), at Mont Saint Michel (miracle #2) with a lovely french man (miracle #3). What more could a woman want? After driving a short distance down the road (causeway), we parked the car, assembled our cameras and set off to explore this very historic national monument.

The first thing you notice is the canon on your right, so old and marking the fortified entrance. This monastry has survived so long despite wars, fires, natural disasters. I felt rather emotional being there. Yeah, the main street is touristy to the point of nausea but it's still a very special place. Stairs and more stairs it took us a couple of hours with our respective audioguides to have a good look around at the various terraces and churches, the cloisters with their disappointingly uncared-for garden, the refectory which is a real marvel, a guests hall, pillared crypt, an enormous wheel for hoisting provisions when the monastry was a prison - in what was once the monks' ossary, lots of halls. The outside of the building is supported by great buttresses.

What must it have been like in its heyday- tapestries, furniture, manuscripts, giant fireplaces in the kitchen, candles everywhere, monks chanting and praying and entertaining weathy patrons. Royals stopping off for a pilgrimage, being a prison during the french revolution.

It was established by Aubert bishop of Avranches who was visited by St Michael, telling him to build the sanctuary. The stages it has gone through over so many centuries are, to me, beyond a miracle. It survived the Hundred Years War, seemed to be constantly having bits destroyed by the Bretons, so many fires wiping out bits of it. It was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979 but this is threatened by companies wanting to establish wind turbines (eroliennes) along the Bay of Mont Saint Michel. If they were to be constructed the monument would lose its status.

The other thing about this site is that the topography has changed markedly in the past few years, mostly due to human activity. The bay has silted up and vegetation has appeared where it shouldn't. It's increasingly losing its magnificent isolation and becoming united with the mainland instead of being surrounded by sea. This is as a result of the construction of the causeway and parking areas as well as other human landuse.

The bay has the fourth largest tidal range in the world (14 metres). The tides carry in silt but would normally also flush it out. Instead there are salty paddocks with particular breeds of sheep capable of eating savoury grass.

However, a mammoth engineering feat has just completed which will enable nature to reverse the processes and bring the site eventually close to its orignal condition. It's a very interesting project costing close to 200m euros. It's expected the site will be back to its optimal condition within 15 years. Visit http://www.projetmontsaintmichel.fr/en/index-2.html and click on the British flag at the top of the page for details in English on this environmental project.

It's impressive, so as much as I like renewable energy I do hope they don't allow wind turbines around it. JC bought me the best possible book in the little bookshop-it's in english and in french so it couldn't be better and contains excellent photos-my birthday present from him and he didn't know it was my birthday until I announced it that morning.

Photos are inside the monument and from outside, inside looking out.

After our visit to the Mont my back and calves were complaining bitterly though it was no doubt a good cardiovascular workout to get to the top-no problem.

We then headed off to explore the coast all the way around to Normandy. That didn't quite work out as we got a bit lost and missed Avranches but we did wind through many of the little villages those names end in -ville, up to Carteret and then Flamanville. I'm sure it was comical for JC. He knows I'm vehemently anti-nuclear (except for medical purposes) and at Flamanville he told me there's a huge complex to process french and german radioactive waste, though that's actually not quite right. Checking out a website I discovered that...French utility EDF is building the world's largest European pressurised reactor in Flamanville, France. Supplying 1,750MW, Alstom's steam turbine is the largest ever for a reactor. The company is supplying the complete turbine island in an order worth more than €350m. Lastest reports say that construction on the third reactor has been halted.

The actual radioactive waste processing is done at Jobourg.It handles waste from several countries. We drove right past it on our way to visit the picturesque coastline at Nez de Jobourg. It's an enormous complex, looks nasty and I feel rather ill thinking about the horrendous toxicity sitting there, being transported to and fro from it. And then what?

Pressing on to Cherbourg we found a place to eat and kip down. After a couple of glasses of wine I was pretty relaxed. What a great day I'd had... laughs, serious debates, exploring, taking photos, smelling the sea and ancient history in the country I LOVE. MAGIC!

More photos above- the Normandy coastline (follow the Cap trail on the West coast) with a lighthouse.