Friday, June 8, 2012

A little champagne

Continuing from last time ...

At this point we experienced a few more typical and much less inspiring quirks of travelling - snagging the worst (i.e. slowest) check-in counter at the airport, throwing things into the rubbish bin out of my too-heavy suitcase, waiting throughout the dead wee hours at Charles de Gaulle airport along with a few homeless people, dazedly catching the right train(s - there were two, and then the tram) and finally ending up in Reims, Champagne. The breakfast croissants at the train-station cafe did help although subsequent experience has proven our initial impression that the French don't really have coffee down to a tee like NZ does (like rugby I suppose ... har har). 


In Reims' was our first friend from NZ. Going somewhere you know people is quite different from just plunging into an unknown city. Within a day or so one of his friends drove us all to a forest where we wandered among branches and bark and leaves and picked the last of the season's lily-of-the-valley. On our first night we went to watch another friend's band play at a bar and I ended up singing a sort of karaoke version of "Stand By Me" with a girl called Elodie and a band made up of short, potbellied, greying and very jolly men. 

We did also explore the city's main tourist attraction, its very own 800 year old Notre Dame. This is no copy-cat cathedral - Reims used to be the capital of France and many a French king was crowned here. The cathedral received more than its fair share of bombing during various wars, especially WWI and WWII, but is still standing and pretty magnificent, if a little battered. The other night there was a light-show projected onto it (as part of a festival in honour of Joan of Arc, who is much loved here) and it was spectacular. Accompanied by music, it depicted the cathedral being built, the men and the scaffolding, the wars, and the apparently original colours it was painted all those years ago (something I didn't know ... the architecture is always so impressive that I never imagined these massive works of art would actually have been painted, too). 


We spent a few days in Reims (where we began our ongoing discovery of the the delights of French supermarket and bakery shopping) and then hopped on a train again to get to a tiny French village that most French people haven't heard of, called Carignan. This is L's hometown and we loved it so much we stayed nearly two weeks instead of four days. L's parents welcomed us with absolute warmth and also with foie gras (chicken liver pate), escargot (snails) and plenty of champagne. 

During our time there we visited the neighbouring towns. Sedan, home to Europe's largest castle from the Middle Ages at 35,000 square metres.  Here we explored dark narrow passage ways and wandered rooms that housed kings and queens and soldiers. Charleville-Mézières, which hosted the Fete de la Biere (beer fest) that we attended. I'm sure you can all imagine what a beer fest involves so suffice to say I got to know Chimay beer quite intimately and that we made friends with some people from Reunion Island. Also that we saw a pretty amazing Victorian/zombie dance to Michael Jackson's Thriller, which was (I'm sorry, I just can't help it) thrilling. 


Bouillon, view from the castle
Carignan is actually closer to Belgium than it is to any decent sized town in France. M and I exhibited typical NZ delight when L said "let's go to Belgium to watch the football game tonight". Going to another country just to watch the game! Going to another country and coming back within just a few hours! As it turns out French people in the area go to Belgium regularly as many things are much cheaper there than in France. In fact most of the time it was quite unnoticeable that we had passed into another country (no border crossing as such). We ended up making a few trips to Florenville (to watch the game), Orval (to try Orval beer and glimpse the abbey whose monks came up with it) and Bouillon. Bouillon was very picturesque and also housed a huge castle, owned by Godfrey (or Godefroy) of Bouillon who later went on to lead the First Crusade and become the first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (or "defender of the Holy Sepulcher"). Of course he also ended up having a beer named after him, which we sampled in the hot sun at a cafe close to the river. 


One of the most memorable parts of our visit to Carignan was visiting a fort on the Maginot line. The first and only one to be captured in fighting with the Germans. The Maginot line runs from Dunkirk to Corsica across the entire length of the French - German border (and also the French - Italian one), was built over decades and considered genius. This fort was the only one in which all soldiers protecting it died, many from asphyxiation. 

By coincidence we visit on the 72nd anniversary of the day they died, 19 May 1940. On this day we are lead through the first weapon block by a young guy dressed in an old soldier's uniform, who is very passionate about the fort and its story. We see the weapons, the kitchen block, how eletricity was generated and the rows of bunk beds. We see the steel doors blown apart by the force of explosions and are told about all the different things that went wrong and why. Later we descend a square spiral of stairs until we are 25 metres underground. Then we walk a concrete tunnel not wider than a metre and a half and very long. The tunnel connects the two weapon blocks and it's where most of the soldiers ended up trapped. There are 107 dead and dying men around us, panicking and praying and remembering their families. I feel claustraphobic and profoundly sad and I can't wait to get out into the fresh air.

I guess that sounds like I hated it but actually I found it very interesting and very moving. 


On a less sombre note ... another highlight of our visit was the kindness of the people we met. L's father, P, was recovering from a foot operation and therefore at home during the day with us. He didn't speak a word of English, M's French was about the same (it's since improved) and mine was quite limited. Nonetheless we formed a good friendship that involved a lot of hand gestures and pointing. Watching P and M cook a barbecue or cheer on the same team together was both funny and really quite cool. It turns out you don't need to speak the same language to understand what the other is saying. L's mother turned out to have a level of English that surprised everyone including herself (her initial would also be M ... very confusing), but I still had plenty of chances to practice my high school French with her and others. 

Anyway, their kindness and openness was abundant. On our first evening we were taken down to one of the village's three or four bars, the Cafe de la Place, to share a drink with the locals (who we were to see more than once after that). I think it was from this point that we began to feel at home. We also loved getting into the practice of having "apero" (short for aperitif), i.e. a drink and nibbles before dinner, which really is already within both our natures. 

L's parents were good friends with their neighbours who owned the "Friterie" down the road. This means a caravan where burgers and all their ingredients in various different forms are served, as well as fries. When I pictured French food I did not envisage myself eating a long bun which is practically obscured due to all the fries in and around it, but admittedly this dish is called an "Amercain". At any rate Friteries seem to be quite common in the north-east of France but this one was special. Philippe and Sylvie (who, again, spoke no English whatsoever) were lively and warm with, from what I gathered, a slightly dirty sense of humour and raucous, contagious laughs that made regular appearances. On our last night we were invited into their home for farewell champagne and encouragement to come back any time and as soon as we liked - preferably in time for their son's wedding the following weekend.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A little of the south

Bonjour from France! We have been here three weeks in the company of friends met in NZ and have been loving the pain au chocolate, the little bits of home that pop up in conversation, and the accompanying feeling that the world is quite small.

A lot has happened in the four weeks since I last wrote, and also I recently raced through Emily Perkins' newest novel The Forrests (a surprise package that turned up in a small French village from my pretty amazing family), which really lived up to my expectations, as I so hoped it would (Perkins being one of my favourite authors). In it she successfully leads the reader through nearly the entire lives of the main characters in a very personal way with the use simply of one anecdote or life event full of beautifully described ordinary details per chapter. As with all good books, I found it very inspiring. Viola, some short snippets from the past little while ...


We managed to successfully navigate the adventure that is flying with a cheap European airline and then finding the bus station, purchasing tickets in a language you don't really speak and trundling along past olive groves for three hours to finally reach Granada. Like many things when travelling, this otherwise mundane experience brought with it a decent sense of achievement and some minor fascination. Dismay also threatened to make an appearance when we were staring out the bus' windows at the grey, industrial looking outskirts of Seville and Granada - where was the beautiful Andalusia that everyone had told us about? Soon enough though we were, indeed, among churches and plazas and road-side orange trees. 

The next morning we hauled ourselves out of bed when it was still dark in order to visit the most popular tourist attraction in Spain, the Alhambra (Andalusia's Gaudi). A very animated taxi driver took us through the winding streets and up the hill, turning tiny corners with precision - cheerful, laughing, hurrying to get us there on time, telling us all about Andalusia and how Granada is the fairest city of them all. At about 7.30am we were faced with the huge, sleepy cue for tickets, the sun not yet fully risen. Thanks to an insider tip from our hostel's owner we managed  to find the shortest line, tiny cups of dark coffee in hand, and be in the gates just after opening.

The day was spent wandering the extraordinary palaces, prison grounds and gardens of the Alhambra. Thanks to the way it is maintained, this felt like walking side by side with the "foppish ghosts" (a very apt phrase courtesy of the Lonely Planet guide) who inhabited its grounds, like stepping back in time and discovering that something so old it seems like fiction really is (/was) a reality.

On our last night we weaved through the white houses of the hilltop neighbourhood Albaicin to see the Alhambra lit up. We watched the moon rise as the sky became darker and the orange lights flicked on one by one. Afterwards we found a bar where free tapas were served with each 1.50 euro beer and, being in the South (where English is hardly spoken), we pulled out the phrasebook to try to decipher the menu (although we eventually went with our usual, "what the hell, let's get this strange-sounding one" strategy anyway). The owner took a liking to us and when we refused food with the last beer because we couldn't possibility eat any more, he (while at first appearing a little offended) decided to compensate by bringing out three shots of beer for us to share over some jumbled, hand-gesture laden conversation, followed by some chilled dessert wine. And so Granada welcomed us with open arms.


Rain slashed the bus' windows for three hours straight on our way to Sevilla but as we began walking the sun peeked out and decided to stick around for our whole stay. We were immediately enthralled by the city centre, the gorgeous buildings and tiny streets (with even tinier and thereby mostly ineffective footpaths). A few hours later we found ourselves sitting on a boat-bar on the river drinking (of course) Alhambra beer and feeling... well, pretty stoked. 


Our hostel was a 500 year old building with tiled walls inside and three rooftop terraces. One of them had a hammock which we made great use of, especially one morning after admittedly overindulging in the vino tinto at a few of Sevilla's side-street bars. Surrounded by hundreds of roofs and a few church steeples that seemed so close you could just about jump onto them, every square metre offering a quirky or beautiful detail - I felt days and days could be spent looking at the view. That night we were still up there (having returned from a brief foray into the city centre) which turned out to be the perfect spot to watch a huge Mothers' Day parade (held in Spain on the first Sunday of May, as it is in Hungary). Like Easter, this was a very religious event, a huge statute of the Virgin Mary being carried down the street surrounded by priests, marching bands and onlookers. 


One evening we went to a flamenco show at the world's only Flamenco Museum. Having avoided them  in Barcelona for fear of being ripped off, and because Andalusia is the home of flamenco (among most other things "Spanish"), we were lucky enough to attend one of the twice-daily shows that included the Museum's choreographer along with his partner, a guitarist and a singer (who all did individual performances as well as together). And we were suitably dazzled (inspired, awed, enlightened as to what all the fuss is about ...) by the emotion, energy and skill displayed. It just about made up for our collective disappointment in coming to Sevilla during one of the few weeks when there was no bull-fight to watch. Being illegal in Catalonia (and undoubtedly, soon everywhere), we (especially M) had been excited to watch this age-old Spanish tradition. However, loving Sevilla as much as we did made it easy for us to resolve to go back to remedy this. 

The following night we attended a paella class (not really necessary as M had already put his hand to it a few times during our weeks in Barcelona and has really mastered it) hosted by the hostel. We drank sangria and got chatting to some of the interesting (or kooky or completely normal depending on your point of view) people that one mets at a hostel - the Aussie guy who appears intent on visiting at least several dozen countries and is apparently making good progress; the Dutch guy with South-East Asian heritage who takes hundreds of photos, mostly of people he's just met and will probably never see again (except in the photos ...); the lovely, cheerful Spanish lady who runs the hostel and rather surprisingly throws a few swearwords into her English conversation. 


One more night in Barcelona before our Spanish adventures ends, or at least takes a pause. Of course we go to Les Tapes. We take wine and a card and stay till after closing talking with S and B. Email addresses and promises to keep in touch are eagerly exchanged but we can't help feeling a bit sad as we make the same walk home for the last time. I think this is what's called bittersweet, and it's also completely typical of travelling. So, as a first, it was perhaps a little shock to the system in preparation for all the goodbyes that meeting wonderful people necessitates. 


As always with love - France coming soon!