2019 RVing France
Oct 10, 2019. PONT-À-MOUSSON (sounds like POH AH moos saw). The day dawned with another drizzly rain shower. We wondered if the mighty Rhine would spill its banks and sweep us away.
Driving through the French portion of the Black Forest called Botesen, I immediately noticed how different it was from the German side. The land was still steep hills and forested, but the villages appeared poorer, less well maintained, and lacked the architectural uniqueness just west of the Rhine River. Heinrich explained that this wasn’t just a fluke in this area of France. France, in general, was more austere. Not only is the French economy more depressed vis-a-vis many other EU countries, but the French mindset is also different. According to Heinrich, the French value spending lavishly on good food and wine more than on maintenance. I can’t vouch for the interiors of these homes and buildings, but the exteriors haven’t been tended to in decades. This shocked me. Spanish homes, buildings, and infrastructure, in general, were pristinely maintained compared to these French homes. I always believed it would be the other way around. Honestly, I saw better maintained and colorful municipal buildings in Mexico.
Yet, there was a tremendous attraction to this roughness. It has a patina of old worldliness. As we passed village after village, it grew on me. These villages have been here for hundreds of years, and even if they are a bit weathered, they have staying power.
Once we passed the Botesen, the land flattened out, and the roads straightened. The goal was to reach an RV park in Pont-à-Mousson, a small city on the Moselle River. The Moselle River is about half the size of the Rhine, which it feeds into, but still a formidable river in its own right with plenty of barge traffic. Apparently, the barges are independently owned like some truckers own their own semi-trucks in the US. The wheelhouse and the cargo barge area are all one vessel. The wheelhouses have comfortable living quarters underneath and can even carry the owner’s car on the back deck.
The RV park in Pont-à-Mousson turned out to be very classy. It was part of a marina, and for the second day in a row, we parked right on the bank of a major picturesque river. The marina had the usual docks full of impressive boats. The marina facilities were first-rate. The showers were as clean and modern as anything we have seen in Holland - the land of exquisite public toilets and showers.
The downtown is dissected by the river, with the larger section on the opposite side of the marina. A short walk over the main bridge put us in the middle of a huge triangular plaza. There, we found several amazing pastry shops. Yes, French pastry is everything it's cracked up to be. Spanish pastry was amazing, but this really upped the ante - delicate, gooey, creamy, artistic, and heavenly delicious. It's not "in-your-face" sweet, but just enough sweetness to be pleasant without overwhelming the wonderful pallet of flavors. When we happened upon a Chocolatier shop, and this being a French river town, I fondly remembered the movie CHOCOLAT, starring Jonny Depp and Juliette Binoche. CHOCOLAT is a whimsical story about a young mother and her six-year-old daughter moving to a small repressed French Village and opens a chocolatier.
Our job on this day was to locate the train station. The plan was to take the train into the city of Nancy (pronounced: naw-say) first thing in the morning. The station was easy to find, but the train schedule was not easy to decipher. Diane had a printed schedule from the internet. At the station we found a schedule in a pamphlet, and a flat screen monitor displaying departures and arrivals. None of these sources coincided. Our plan morphed into just showing up in the morning and catching whatever train seems to be heading for Nancy.
Around 5 pm, the sky suddenly cleared and the sun came out in all its warming glory. Wanda and I went for another long walk to drink it all in, this time on the marina side of the Moselle River. It is amazing the power a little sunlight can bring after being gone for so long.
October 11, 2019. NANCY (sounds like Naw-Say). Another RV morning in another rainstorm. Come hell or high water; we are going to Nancy. We packed rain gear, umbrellas, and warm layers. So far this strategy worked for us as we enjoyed beautiful weather - sunny and warm. Had we not packed the rain layers, we would have been deluged.
We took the 9:53 am train out of the Pont-à-Mousson station and arrived, a mere 16 minutes later, in downtown Nancy. The train was typical EU quality: modern, fast, quiet, and comfortable. Nancy is a city with a population of approximately 100,000. Again, we notice the lack of color and the lack of maintenance. Just about every building utilized window shutters, but they all were in dire need of scraping and repainting. Like Pont-à-Mousson, that observation quickly seemed to dissolve as we noticed the "Frenchness" style of everything from the buildings, to the buses, to the pastry stops, to the coffee shops...
In the 8 1/2 miles of hiking, as per Wanda's Google Fit app, we were mesmerized by this city. France is different from the other countries of Europe that we have toured, including Spain, Portugal, Holland, Austria, and Germany. The French language is soft and lyrical. The people are remarkably diverse and fashionably attired. The streets are laid out in logical grids. The parks and plazas are green and inviting, replete with statues of historical heroes, and every other store is either a pastry shop, chocolatier, or espresso cafe.
Place Stanislas (Stanislas Plaza) is an excellent spot to start. It is a large square plaza ringed by magnificent stone buildings. All the access points to the square have gold leaf gates. Place Stanislas is a well deserved World Heritage site. The nearby Palace of the Dukes of Lorraines, with its long tree-lined approach, is an imposing stone monument to opulence.
The tourist office, located in one corner of the square, gave us a city map, with a nice walking tour circled and highlighted, hitting all the sites and interesting neighborhoods. Just about every turn offered something interesting, from gothic church spires, to rows of quaint outdoor restaurants, to roomy places (plazas), to a large indoor farmers' market.
We loved the city buses. One style was a super modern version of the double bus connected by an accordion bellows in the middle. Of course, many cities have these long buses, but I have never seen such futuristic models. Unique to Nancy were the bus-trams. These were trams that run on both tires and rails. The vehicle tracks via a single rail down the middle. It was driven by its rubber tires, and it is powered electrically through an overhead electric line like many trolleys.
We stopped at an espresso bar for a true French experience. The tiny cups of black tar needed a little sweetener for my taste, but we nursed that spot of liquid for a good 20 minutes just like a native. In Germany, of course, this ritual would have involved a stein of beer.
Next, we sampled some more heavenly pastries. The creamy chocolate ones are my favorite, but the raspberry tarts are a close second. These pastries are works of art. It's almost a shame to bite into them. Then again, there was always another shop with more delicate works of art just a couple of doors down. You are never far from a pastry in France.
The gigantic wooded park provided an ample green space near the city center. Kids were playing in the soccer fields, a jazz festival was setting up in the band shell area, a miniature golf course was collecting fall leaves and fallen chestnuts, and we came across a cafeteria that sold bottles of wine starting at $23.
As cheap as wine and beer are at the Aldi and Lidl grocery stores, the prices in bars and restaurants can be formidable. The going rate for a beer was $4 for a 1/4 liter (7 1/2 ounces) and $7 for a half-liter. Wanda spotted glasses of wine selling for $12. We aren't in Spain anymore, Dorothy.
Around 4 pm, we took the train back to Pont-à-Mousson and had an enjoyable evening with some Spanish (affordable) wine and French baguettes.
October 12, 2019. THE MOSELLE RIVER TRAIL. The weather report promised sun and warmth today — no need for rain gear or umbrellas. After enjoying a great shower in the ultra-modern marina shower house, we decided to stay in Pont-à-Mousson another day and check out the bike trail that runs 35 kilometers from Pont-à-Mousson to Metz, along the Moselle River. Diane felt she was catching a cold virus and declined to accompany us to convalesce. The three of us unloaded the two electric bikes, and the gas moped.
The bike trail just blew us away. The river and the countryside were so picturesque. The trail, paved the whole way, is spectacular. Vast stretches were under a thick tunnel of trees over a narrow strip of land sandwiched between the main river channel on the right side, and a shipping channel on the left. Then it snaked through tiny villages, over bridges, and passed through open river valley vistas.
Many seniors were biking the trail with electric-assist bikes (e-bikes). E-bikes are keeping us seniors active and outdoors. European seniors have really embraced e-bikes, however, I got lots of stares and head shakes for my gas moped.
The river banks sported a fair number of fishermen. - French are laid-back fishermen. They set up three or four poles in tubes stuck in the bank. Then they lay back and watch the bobbers. There don't cast or “working-an-area.” Although we saw several good-sized fish breaking the surface (including one fish that jumped between two bobbers), we didn’t see that anyone actually caught anything. In a few areas with back sloughs, we biked passed earthy fishing shacks that would have fit in rural Mississippi
Two-thirds of the way to Metz (sounds like MEZ), we passed a tiny village, Jouy-aux-Arches, with the remains of a 1900-year-old Roman aqueduct spanning high overhead. By the time we reached the outskirts of Metz, we noticed that the beautiful day had slipped into a dark overcast. We quickly checked the weather report, and sure enough, the rain was only an hour away and predicted to continue all afternoon. How did the weather report change so drastically from this morning? Oh, I get it, I didn’t bring the magic rain gear and umbrella.
Leisurely e-biking some 70 kilometers is fun. The biking itself is easy, but you need to take an ass-break every 10 kilometers or so. With the rain coming, however, we were facing a 35-kilometer race to get back. At 20 kph, the math suggested 1 hour and 45 minutes. The trail was mostly well marked, but there were a few confusing spots, so we had to factor in some extra time to correct our mistakes. Two hours of uninterrupted biking should do it.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have that first promised dry hour. It started raining within 20 minutes. It wasn’t too bad under the heavily canopied stretches of the bike path, but the open field areas got us a bit wet. We pushed on. We did get confused a few times and had to do some backtracking. We pushed on. The hard rain kept holding off, only misting now and then. We pushed on. About 3 kilometers from Pont-à-Mousson, the steady variety of rain returned. We pushed on. When we finally reached the RV, all our asses were raw and painful. Still, the trail was spectacular.
We celebrated with some beer and wine with fresh baguettes, and scrumptious German liverwurst that is so creamy, smooth, and flavorful compared to our stuff back home.
October 13, 2019. VERDUN. We left our swanky digs at the Pont-à-Mousson marina at 9:00 am. Our first goal was to reach Verdun, the site of history’s most bloodiest battle, resulting in 550,000 killed and 800,000 wounded in WWI. Just outside Verdun, we drove by a large cemetery with thousands of white crosses in neat rows. These were only a fraction of the “unknown soldiers” solemnly laid to rest around Verdun.
Verdun is also famous for inventing sugar-coated almond candies. We parked at the Dragees Braquier Factory, where hand-made, candy-covered almonds have been painstakingly produced since 1783. The factory allows RV Campers to park overnight for free along with other camping perks: free tours of the factory and a clean and modern restroom open 24 hours a day/7 days a week. We just missed the morning tour, but the day was beautiful, so we parked at the factory and walked into town.
Verdun is another river town, this time on time on the River Meuse. There are still small independent, family-owned barges docked along the river bank. The downtown was delightful. The buildings still have the French lack of maintenance, especially in regards to those pesky window shutters, but the French character and style continue to charm us.
We located the Cathedrale Notre Dame de Verdun. It is a large twin spire stone building that was started in the year 990. Of course, it took several centuries and many refurbishments along the way to reach the grandeur of the present building, but 990 is a long time ago. European cathedrals are all old and magnificent, but French cathedrals, so far, have a simplicity inside. We haven’t seen the big twin flying pipe organs, or ornate artwork, or bell towers that practically enter the clouds as we have seen elsewhere in Europe. They don’t even have fancy carved wooden pews, only individual chairs set up in rows. The simplicity works, giving these cathedrals an air of piety.
Next was the sobering Citadel of Verdun. The Citadel was the point where the Germans launched their massive attack on February 21, 1916, to slowly bleed the French. The Citadel became a gigantic subterranean city to support the troops of the Allies that were sent out to defend against the attack. The Citadel housed barracks, armament warehouses, bakeries and kitchens, communication centers, etc. The battle lasted 11 months. It did bleed the French, but it also bled the Germans: a total of 550,000 killed and 800,000 wounded. We took a tour of the underground bunker and it was, as I stated earlier, sobering.
By the time we returned to the RV parked at the Dragees store and factory, the tours were just starting. We were shown how intricate and time consuming each almond is hand-selected, massaged, caressed, fretted over, and fondled before being wrapped just for me. They claimed that it takes 8 years of training just to be able to hand-make these candy-covered almonds. I’d like to see how expensive M&Ms would be if they were hand-made like these treats were. And expensive they were. Tiny sample bags start at $10. A medium-sized box went for $54.
There was one specialty product that is worth the expense - exploding chocolate artillery shells. Large chocolate-shaped artillery casings are stuffed with anything you’d like, but usually stuffed with a variety of Dragees' candies. A small container with a bit of gun powder is added. When the fuse is lit, the chocolate shell explodes in a colorful shower of Dragee candies. The explosion in the video looks pretty cool. The tour ends in the gift shop - no surprise there. However, this turned out to be the best part of the tour. They had about 30 different sample dishes laid out, each with a different flavored treat. I figured I tried at least $50 worth of samples. Most were very good. Feeling a little guilty, I bought a $10 sample bag of chocolate covered. almonds.
Our second goal of the day was to drive to Chalons en Champagne and set up camp in the large RV park on the outskirts of town. The drive through the countryside was magnificent. The rolling farm hills were meticulously manicured. The tiny villages were neat and licked clean. Litter, junk, weedy fields, broken fencing - these things just do not exist in this part of France.
We even came across a couple of maintained houses, even freshly painted houses, shutters and all, but this was the exception, not the rule. Apparently, the French do not care for bold color. This gives France a soft, calm, impressionistic feel that we have learned to enjoy.
We did pass through one odd village about 20 kilometers from Chalons en Champagne. Most of the houses and buildings were well maintained with pastel red bricks used to make accent designs in the stone exteriors. And right in the middle of this quaint little village was a gigantic scary dark gothic cathedral, with narrow intricate twin spires and some of the most gloriously hideous gargoyles screaming down at you. We loved it.
The RV park turned out to be another winner. It was well laid out for a European RV park, with a fair amount of elbow room and lots of green space. The showers were ample and the shower house included a laundry facility. The toilets, however, had that curious thing that we have run across before in European public facilities - no toilet seat. I just can’t understand what gives with that. We hadn’t seen that in Northern Europe, but it was prevalent in southern Spain and Portugal. On the plus side, the urinal cakes in France are kind of interesting. This camp area utilizes wintergreen urinal cakes, while the marina in Pont-à-Mousson had grapefruit urinal cakes. OK, kind of gross but, still...
October 14, 2019. CHALONS EN CHAMPAGNE (Sounds like: saLow shome PON yay). What a spectacular day. It was a shorts and T-shirt day - sunny and mid-70s. We had ordered a baguette the night before at the camp office, and 9 am this morning, we picked up our freshly delivered baguette.
After we downed the baguettes with Gouda cheese, sausage, and liverwurst and emptied our coffee cups, we took the bus to the centre ville (downtown). The bus, an ultra-modern vehicle, stops at the campground every 20 minutes. It’s a quick four-kilometer ride to the main plaza (the French word for plaza is places - sounds like plos), which was a large traffic circle with a median filled with gorgeous flowers..
On the east side of the traffic-circle towered the Cathedrale Notre Dame of Chalons en Champagn. Just about every cathedral we have visited has been named Notre Dame of somewhere or another. I was beginning to think that Notre Dame was a French "franchise" until I saw the translation. It means “our lady” and is referring to Mary. French Catholicism is, apparently, very devoted to Mary. The cathedral was open and free to enter. It is starting to dawn on me that being open-and-free is different. In past visits to Europe, churches have either been closed or required an entry fee to view. So far in France, all the churches, while being impressive and cavernous, have been less opulent, but they have been accessible and free.
We quickly found the tourist office and we were given a map with all the best sites circled. Sadly, the boat ride through the back canals of the Marne River only operated on the weekends and this was Monday. But the walk that the tourist lady laid for us was excellent. Chalons en Champagne was a beautiful city with canals, all sorts of sloughs and channels of the Marne River, surprisingly well-maintained buildings, wonderful plazas, and large green spaces.
The second huge gothic cathedral that we toured, la Cathedrale Saint Etiennes, was even larger than Notre Dame. It too was open and free. We then followed an arm of the Marne River and found a small marina where old-style, long narrow houseboats were moored. Heinrich explained that France has an intricate system of waterways built centuries ago to aid in the transportation of goods, and that canal system remains operational today. These riverboats can sail from the English Channel to the Mediterranean Sea via these waterways. Life on these longboats looked inviting. I could see Diane and Heinrich, longtime boat enthusiasts, looking misty-eyed at them.
Along this slough of the Marne (sounds like Mahrn) River were two large green spaces labeled Grand Jard and Petit Jard (large garden and small garden). The Grand Jard was mainly an ample green space with tree-lined walkways. There was a very fancy skateboard area where kids of all skill levels were honing their tricks. The Petit Jard (small garden) was the real jewel. It followed one of the little canals, Le Nau canal, that the boat trip we missed would have followed. The canal bank was heavily wooded with beautiful but unfamiliar trees, both conifer, and evergreen.
These canals tended to go under buildings. At the end of the Petit Jard, the Le Nau Canal slipped under an ornate beige stone building with inlaid pastel red-brick trim patterns.
Next, we entered into a most beautiful neighborhood. The row houses sported a lot of colorful trim, granted it was pastel colors, but color nonetheless. We also started to see more of that twisted Swiss and German architectural design, with the half-timber exposed oak beam frames and white plaster filled inbetween the oak beams. The difference between the this French version and the German or Swiss version, is the French half-timber oak beams seem randomly and haphazardly laid out in a tangled mess. It made for interesting puzzle designs.
As we got closer to the centre ville (sounds like SAN trah veel and means city center), we came across more majestic gothic churches. This small city sure supports a lot of medieval churches. There were more plazas with outdoor bars and restaurants. The beer prices were holding at the $4 for a quarter-liter and $7 for a half-liter at these establishments. I do miss the tapas in Spain, but I didn’t miss were the siestas in Spain. I thought France would avoid siestas. However, as we were looking for a phone store to replenish Wanda’s phone data level, I noticed that most stores were shuttered. I checked the store hours at a couple ofn thease shops. Sure enough, they close for long lunch breaks. The break just wasn't called a siesta.
Around 3 pm, we returned to the camp by bus. School was just out, so the bus was packed with vivacious kids. A senior passenger offered to let us know when the camping stop came up - I guess we had “tourist” written all over.
Back at the camp, we unloaded the bikes. Wanda, Diane, and I biked to a sizeable American-style mall surrounded by big-box shopping stores. Inside the big mall anchor store was the largest Carrefour grocery store, the super Walmart of Europe, that we have seen. Diane decided it was going to be American Burger night at the RV and she needed some buns. She found her buns , plus some more wine, and sundry other articles.
Google Nav pointed out a phone store in the mall, and Wanda needed more cell data. We found the phone store, but they didn’t have data plans, just phone minutes and they were expensive. Through lots of broken English and hand gestures, the young gentleman was able to tell us about a tobacco shop in the mall that sells SIM cards with data plans.
We found the tobacco shop and, sure enough, they had a kiosk that dispensed 60 gigabytes of 4G SIM cards for $20. Of course, the whole process of inputting our information was in French. One of the very busy cashiers took pity on us and helped us out. Again, with broken English and hand gestures we got through the complicated instructions. At one point, our US address wasn’t excepted. No problem -- our talented young cashier made up a French address that was accepted. The machine spit-out my credit card along with the tiny SIM card. Wanda's current SIM card still had some data left, but we had our backup.
While we were gone, Heinrich met a couple of neighbors back at the RV Park. One Dutch neighbor turned out to be full-time world travelers. The couple has been to the US 8 or 9 times. They just got back from Viet Nam and have been to Thailand twice, India, Indonesia, the works. As a former carpenter, he built their camper. They bought a VW cargo van, much like the Ford cargo van we just purchased. He then installed a bed, a small toilet closet, a kitchen, and a dinette. The quality was top-notch, and the layout was magically roomy.
Diane’s burgers were also top-notch. She doesn’t make plain burgers. She stuffs them with mushrooms, cheese, jalapeños, and the kitchen sink. I don’t know what she jammed into these burgers. They tasted terrific, especially with the fresh baguettes we bought at Carrefour.
Sadly, this gloriously beautiful day and evening turned out be the last of the nice weather for a while. We were being promised a stretch of rain for a few days.
October 15, 2019. REIMS (sounds like RAW ns). For the most part, it was another dark and rainy day. We sluggishly packed up and left the beautiful Chalons en Champagne and drove an hour west to Reims. The cleanliness of the countryside and the neatness of the rolling farm fields continued to dazzle us.
In Reims, we parked at a sports complex and walked the 1.5 kilometers to the centre ville (city center) where the Notre Dame de Reims was located. Notre Dame de Reims is a particularly significant Cathedral in France. The original church on this site was built in 401 AD. That church was destroyed by fire in 1210. The present cathedral was started a year later. Many of France's monarchs were crowned at the Cathedral giving it a special place in French heritage. Shelling in WWI nearly demolished the building. Extensive restoration took place from 1919 to 1938; however, shrapnel damage is still clearly visible in the giant pillars.
It is actually more massive than the famous Notre Dame in Paris that recently burned. When RVing in Spain in 2018, we toured the largest Cathedral in Europe located in Seville - it was monolithic. But Notre Dame de Reims is pretty darn big in its own right. It certainly is the tallest church we’ve seen in France so far.
French churches have wholly embraced the gothic style. Along with the central spires, almost all the large churches we have seen had lots of intricate secondary spires with splendidly hideous gargoyles glaring down. The stain glass windows were notable as many were destroyed in the WWI shelling. They were replaced with a mix of traditional stain glass, impressionistic religious scenes, and abstract designs not usually found in a church. The Germans, of course, understood the significance of the Notre Dame Cathedral and purposely shelled it during WWI to break French morale.
For $8, we could have gotten a formal tour and be able to climb to the bell towers. We’ve done this at other Cathedrals as the bell towers make for great photos, but the weather was too lousy for photos.
When we left the Cathedral, it started to rain in earnest. Even armed with all our magic rain jackets and umbrellas, we couldn’t keep the rain from falling. We popped open the umbrellas and wandered around the streets reluctantly headed in the direction of the RV, wondering what discoveries we were skipping.
SOISSONS. The next destination was 60 kilometers to Soissons (sounds like SOYsaw), a quaint city with a population around 30,000. We parked in another delightful municipal camp, sandwiched between the Aisne River (sounds like EN Reev er) and a large park. The individual spaces were ample for European-style camping with each site separated by trees and hedges. The toilets and showers were clean, heated, and there was plenty of hot water for showers. I believe I heard Diane mention that this may be the last of the municipal RV parks.
Once we settled in, the rain quit si Wanda and I walked into town which was a pleasant kilometer walk along the river. At the edge of the city center was the police department and the library. Both were housed in grand centuries-old buildings. We zig-zagged up and down and around in our usual fashion. Sure enough, we came across another huge gothic cathedral guarded by a host of terrifying gargoyes. This church had very pronounced flying buttresses, which is a system of extra external bracing to hold up the tall sides.These extra structures also provided a handy platform to add some intricdate midieval spiny doo-dads and more gargoyes.
Surrounding the church were lots of evidence of WWI shrapnel pock-marks in stone walls and the sides of stone buildings. The Cathedral led to the central town plaza, where we stumbled onto a tourist information office. The lady behind the counter gave us the “my English is very little” line. However, she proceeded to provide us with a great booklet, in French, that turned out to be an excellent walking tour. She was able to tell us that there were information signs along the way written in both French and English.
The walking route mimicked our own patented zig-zag method plus it tied together all the cool attractions. One particularly quaint downtown neighborhood had another wonderful bakery and pastry shop. We bought $12 worth of samples to take back to the RV for a super dessert.
Next was a sizeable strange property that featured a tall twin-gothic spire structure that was the remnants of a bombed-out cathedral. The strange part was that there seemed to have been It seems several attempts at attaching buildings to the spires, but they were all oriented the wrong way and didn’t quite fit the style. It reminded me of the “evil toys” in the first Toy Story movie.
After visiting the well maintained and colorful Chalons en Champgne, we were back to the beiges and greys and flaking shutters in Reims and Soissons. The beauty of these cities doesn't slap you in the face. It is far more subtle. It's in the French style of roof tops and dormers, the old-world agelessness, and the uniqueness of the ornamental flairs that are everywhere. Even the shrapnel scars serves as an artistic reminder that civilization is a fragile thing and humanity needs to protect it. The glory of battle quickly evaporates after the first casualty.
Diane prepared a marvelous rice and vegetable casserole with fresh baguettes for our RV supper. We enjoyed livening it with spices and condiments discovered through earlier travels. Wanda’s favorite is a German condiment is called Maggi Hot. It looks like soy sauce but tastes so much spicier. Diane's grandaughter, Tanja, makes a special-secret-chili-seasoning that we sprinkle over many things. While in Morocco, we discovered a Turkish pepper “salsa” called Sambal Oelek pepper sauce and found that it is fantastic with all hot vegetables. Of course, I put Louisiana Tabasco sauce on everything. Thank you, Diane & Heinrich, for letting us play with our food. We topped it off with our treasure trove of French pastries.
October 16, 2019. FONTAINEBLEAU. Tough day. The next few days looked to be washouts. We talked over some options, including 1) Returning to Diane’s House in Langenreichen and getting ready for the India trip. 2) Go back to Germany and tour the world-renowned German spas. 3) Continue and gut out the weather. 4) Head for Paris and then figure out what to do.
The Paris option was my idea. I reasoned that we were so close, it would be a shame not to see Paris, even if it’s rainy. It is, after all, Paris. The Paris option carried the day.
So, we swung south to a camp place in a suburb about 30 miles south of downtown Paris with connections to a train to Paris. The town, St. Genevieve Des Bois, was located south of Paris. That put Fontainebleau on our route.
Fontainebleau is the site of the summer palace of the French royalty for centuries. Parking for the Fontainebleau palace was precarious. The street we drove down was the worst cobblestoned street we have experienced in Europe. It was much like what I call “cobble rock” in Mexico. The RV swayed and bucked until we found a friendly but muddy parking site - they were all muddy.
The Fontainebleau Palace was immense. There was a large pond with tons of big fish swimming around, and a big garden area that in the summer, I assumed, was delightful, but it was on the brown side in October.
Since much of France utilizes beige stone as a basic building block, that seems to turn dark grey with age, or more likely, from air polution, many of the buildings are in need of a good sandblasting. Fontainebleau was going through just such a restoration. Several sections were completed, and those sections sparkled. The parts awaiting cleaning looked forlorn and sad. It will take quite a while to complete, as the palace is insanely large. The grounds had to have been 80 acres. The buildings had to occupy half of that.
The entrance fee to the palace was $12, but Diane counseled us to hold off and pay the $20 to see Versailles, near Paris. She promised Versailles to be far more opulent and the history far more crucial.
The whole time that we were there, I kept thinking about the first day that my other sister, Donna, her two tiny daughters, and myself first spent in New Orleans when I was 15. Donna, a single mother at the time, had just accepted a teaching job at Fortier High School in New Orleans. She had just arrived in New Orleans in July, looking for an apartment to take up residence. The heat of the Deep South completely surprised us and sapped all our energy. So, we snuck into the Fontainebleau Hotel to use their swimming pool. Of course, this little memory had nothing to do with the grand expanse of Fontainebleau, France, but the memory flooded back anyway.
The tough part of the day involved driving. The closer we got to Paris, the narrower the roads and streets. Diane’s RV, although small by US standards, is a hefty size by European standards. These super tight streets and turns were taxing to drive, and Heinrich was visibly showing driver fatigue by the time we finally parked. But we were about 30 kilometers from downtown Paris and less than a kilometer from a train that goes to Paris every 15 minutes.
October 17, 2019. PARIS. Wow, what a day! Grand Paree is, well, grand, and added to our unique experiences, starting with the train ride into Paris. After fumbling like tourists with the ticket kiosk at the train station, it finally dispensed four all-day unlimited ridership tickets for $17.80 each. When the first train entered the small regional station, we hopped on even though we weren’t sure it was the right one.
Hopping on the train at this morning rush hour in Paris proved to be far more complicated than one would expect. Throngs of riders jammed onto a train that was already solidly packed. Somehow we squeezed in. At the very next stop, this chaotic scene repeated itself - throngs of riders jammed onto the train. After three or four stops, I could barely breathe. One poor 4’ 10” lady was completely swallowed up, and I feared for her life. It took about 14 such stops before we finally arrived at the first station in downtown Paris where more people got off the train than boarded. Does this happen every workday? Yikes! What a rat race that would be. Heinrich informed us that in Japan, they have professional “pushers” that stand behind these throngs and push until the bodies are sardine-packed inside and the doors close.
We got off at the Camp de Mars Tour Eiffel - the Eiffel Tower stop. The crappy weather worked in our favor. You can buy tickets on the Eiffel Tower website to go to the top without waiting in line. They are, however, very limited. When I checked for tickets for today, they were sold out. Otherwise, you have to stand in line for about 2 hours to get tickets. We were expecting to be satisfied with just taking pictures from the ground when we noticed a staircase that we can climb to the restaurant level with no line for that arduous adventure. That was an option.
However, with the intermittent light rain and grey skies, the line to the top of the tower was only about 20 minutes long. We immediately jumped in that line and bought two tickets for the top at $25.50. Expensive, but this is the Eiffel Tower.
Now, here is a little digression that I must take. In France, there aren’t any senior discounts for anything. Seniors pay full price. It’s the youth that gets the big breaks. I don’t just mean little tots; I mean youth through 26 years old. Time and again, from train fares to museum admissions, youth to 26 years get huge discounts and many times get free admissions. Talk about a youth worship society.
OK, back to the Eiffel Tower. The ride up is in two phases. The first elevator takes you to the restaurant level. It’s a great view, with lots of restaurants - but it’s not the top. We watched a bunch of school kids about six years old, led by their teacher, wind their way up the stairway to this level. With all that “young energy,” they made it look easy.
The second elevator starts at the restaurant level and takes you to the top of the tower. It’s a hoot. The elevator car is nearly all glass. As you rise through the Eiffel Tower’s girders, you see everything. You can’t help but get a touch of the heebie-jeebies from the sensation. The ride is fast. We arrived on a heated and glass-enclosed floor overlooking the city. One staircase up, and we emerged onto an open deck with even better views of Pairs.
The view was impressive, even with the poor weather. Actually, the sky was rather dramatic. With a 360º view, there were vistas with clear patches of sky and excellent visibility and vistas with small dark rain squalls quickly moving into and out of neighborhoods below.
We came across a tiny alcove where you could buy a glass of champagne. It was more of a plastic cone of champagne than a glass. It was ridiculously expensive, $10, but we were on top of the Eiffel Tower. For $13, we could have gotten the plastic cone with a blinking LED light on the bottom. We had to draw the line somewhere, so we passed on that trinket.
The city radiated out for as far as the eye could see. Most of the buildings were the old French style - beige stone with ornate rooflines and distinctive dormers. The Seine River makes a broad sweeping arc through the city, much like the Mississippi River does through New Orleans. You could see all the monuments; the Lourve, Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, Palau’s de Chaillot, Hotel des Invalides, etc. Way out in the distance was a small bundle of modern skyscrapers that looked a bit out of place.
Sadly, we headed down to the restaurant level on the glass elevator. Wanda got a coffee then noticed the line for the final elevator leg snaked nearly halfway around the tower. We decided to try the stairs. Even our “senior energy” could match the “youth energy” going down. It took a full ten minutes to go down, but it was worth it. The stairway wraps itself around and through the intricate girder-works.
Next, we walked along the Seine River to Notre Dame Cathedral. I expected the cathedral to be completely destroyed from the recent devastating fire, but the stone shell, including the iconic twin steeples, was intact and still looked majestic. You could see that the cathedral was being feverishly worked on. We couldn’t get inside, but we could get a front-row look at the billions of dollars rushing to the rescue.
On the way to the Notre Dame, we found a busy side street with rows of street restaurants selling all kinds of pastries, delicate baguette sandwiches, crepes, waffles, and kabobs. We settled on a tiny kabob restaurant. For $5 each, we enjoyed a giant kabob with a twist. Along with the usual shaved rotisserie meat, tomatoes, onions, cucumber sauce, and lettuce, the Kabob came stuffed with fries. Diane says to put fries in many different kinds of sandwiches is a French invention - ah, French fries on French sandwiches.
Next, the Louvre. I would have loved to have gone in, but we only had one day in Paris. Instead, we gawked at the beautiful buildings, took photos of the glass pyramid, pretended we were staring in a new “Da Vinci Code” movie and walked the expansive Jardin des Tuileries. The weather was slowly lifting. By this time, patches of blue were breaking out all over the sky.
We found the subway station for the train to take us to the Arc de Triomphe. The all-day unlimited ride tickets worked great for all the different systems. The subway spit us out next to the biggest, most chaotic, free-for-all roundabout I have ever witnessed. The giant circle was at least a dozen lanes wide, but since there weren’t any lane delineations painted, I could only guess. And the drivers could only guess. The circle was packed with cars zooming, screeching to a stop, then zooming again. It was like a colossal clock gear ticking around and around, or better yet, like a big bumper car palace. How anyone could navigate the roundabout and exit when needed without smacking a dozen cars along the way is beyond me.
The Massive 150’ high Arc de Triomphe occupied the center of the roundabout. It was impossible to cross through the traffic mess unless you wanted to try your luck as a real-life frog in the old “Frogger” arcade game (does anyone remember that?). Instead, we found an access tunnel. Getting to the roundabout island, or technically getting under it, was easy; however, the tube just funneled you to a ticket line at the base of the stairway leading to the monument. You can buy a ticket to go up the steps that include a pass to the top of the Arc. Instead, we followed a smattering of people that went up to the island via the exit stairs. That put us on the roundabout island, but we couldn’t sneak up to the top of the Arc without tickets. We did get to walk around the island and see all sides of the Arc.
Apparently, Napoleon came up with the idea for an Arc monument in 1806 to celebrate his victories. It finally came to fruition in 1836 during King Louis-Philippe’s reign, to celebrate France’s history of great military triumphs. It is an impressive monument located in a crazy spot, endlessly circled by hordes of cars, buses, and motorbikes driven by people intently concentrating on keeping their vehicles dent-free, affording them little chance to appreciate the monument.
We returned to the subway station to take a different train to the Sacre-Coeur, a beautiful Roman Catholic Church, built in the style of an Eastern Orthodox Church, perched high on a tall hill overlooking a neighborhood of artists and students. These subway pedestrian stations are a labyrinth of tunnels connecting various tracks carrying trains in all different directions. Fortunately, they are well signed and relatively easy to get around.
The walk up to the Sacre-Coeur was daunting. We would go up one flight of stairs, then up a steep winding path, then another stairway, only to look up to see that we had barely made a dent in the ascent.