Monday, 31 March 2014

Days 361 to 373: The north of France

The last 13 days have seen us arrive in France, and visit Versailles, Chartres, Mont Saint-Michel, and Amiens, staying three days in each (technically four for Amiens, but we only got there in the evening). In all, this has taken in five different candidate Wonders: the Palace of Versailles, Chartres Cathedral, the entirety of Mont Saint-Michel, Amiens Cathedral, and the Thiepval Memorial.

As you might imagine, the Wonders in each town kind of dominated our visits. Suits me just fine, although Danielle suggested a couple of times that she might prefer pottering round shops and having a coffee rather than hang around a gigantic stone edifice again. Women, eh? Obviously the Wonders dominated my attention, but let's see what else each of these towns had to offer.


The palace and the gardens of Versailles dominate the town, or small city technically. Take a look at this map:

The orange bits are Versailles the town, the green bits to the left are Versailles the garden - and they continue beyond the map - and the blue bits up top aren't huge lakes, they're just blanked out adjoining towns. It's no wonder that the town of Versailles, population around 90,000, is synonymous, and often mistaken for, its more famous palace.

Anyway, I'll cover that in my review. What else did we do except for visit the palace? Well, not much to be honest. We arrived on a Wednesday lunchtime, in the neighbouring "blued-out" town of Le Chesnay, named after Chesney Hawkes. For most, Versailles is a day-trip from Paris, being just 30 minutes out, and so there wasn't a great deal of affordable accommodation available. Therefore, we resorted to Airbnb in Le Chesnay. Airbnb, for those that may not have heard of it, is kind of a DIY Bed-and-Breakfast website, whereby anyone can put up a spare room or apartment for rent, usually for a few days to tourists. It's very useful in expensive cities or in towns with limited budget accommodation, but does have the drawback that you feel a little like you're staying in someone's spare room... because you are. Le Chesnay is effectively part of Versailles now, and the only indication that they are different places are the roadsigns - a big red X over Versailles told us we'd magically crossed the border to Le Chesnay. That, and the lovely church that greeted you soon after.

Incidentally, the footballer Nicolas Anelka is from Le Chesnay, although I didn't bump into him during our three days there. Years ago, I changed his Wikipedia page to give him the nickname "The Kingdom Of Ducks" and it stayed for weeks. I've been desperately trying to find that old version of the page to link to it, but unfortunately it seems to be lost.

Day 1 of our three-day Versailles extravaganza, upon checking in, consisted of no more than a wander around the small city. It's very pleasant. Around the palace are some souvenir shops and crap restaurants, but nothing too obvious or tacky, and the rest of the city was attractive, busy, and with an understated stately air (unlike the over-the-top pomposity of its palace). After an overnight flight, with a 7-hour time difference and arrival in Paris at 6am, by early evening we found ourselves exhausted and passed out comprehensively - in bed, not on the streets you'll be relieved to hear. We woke at 11pm, starving, and had just enough energy to cook a pizza, creeping about in a silent house, scared of waking the owner (who, I must say, was awfully pleasant, and probably awake anyway).

The next couple of days were mostly Wonder related, with a few drinks in the evening. Unfortunately, Le Chesnay appeared to be entirely bereft of bars or restaurants so we had to head into Versailles. At just half an hour's walk, this doesn't seem a big deal, but two trips in and out of Versailles each day tallies about two hours, which hopefully counts, in the absence of anything else, as a form of training for my half marathon in Millau in May. We found a lovely little bar not far from the palace, and had it not been for France's exorbitant bar prices, I would happily have got drunk there.


Chartes was cold. I'm sure it's not always so cold, but for our three days it was bitter, ranging from Arctic blue skies to good-old-fashioned Glasgow-style rain-and-misery. Fine for me - I just put on a couple of T-shirts and a jumper - but bad for Danielle, who even with two cardigans spent most of Chartres in a state of shivering horror. Thanks again Tigerair, you dicks, for losing Danielle's bags. Which is why, we spent a large amount of our time in McDonalds.

For the traveller, it is often a source of pride to never visit a McDonald's during travels. Naturally, visiting only local cafes and restaurants, eating local produce, mingling with the locals, and then telling everybody that you've had a truly local experience is an important part of world travel. After all, you can visit a McDonald's almost anywhere. It's cheating, isn't it? Well, myself and Danielle are not such proud travellers. We've visited McDonalds - and Starbucks even moreso - almost everywhere we've gone. Peru, check; Brazil, check; Australia, check; and Chartres, France, big check. Usually, it's just sheer convenience - we want a quick and easy bite to eat without being terribly adventurous. But in Chartes, it was about survival.

Our first impressions of Chartres weren't good. Apart from the bitter cold, we had opted for another Airbnb place, again about half-an-hour's walk from the centre (although a bus was available, except on Sundays), a an area called Montvilliers. The house was lovely, but the area didn't immediately splatter us with charm. Uninspiring sixties-style housing, a little run-down, an air of desolation, we joked that our world travels had taken us to Motherwell. But being in an Airbnb place, we didn't feel comfortable just hanging around in our upstairs attic room (Danielle said it made her feel like a teenager hiding from the adults) so we spent most of our days in the town centre. And what is there to do in Chartes town centre? On Sundays? McDonalds.

Well, ok, there's a lot more. There's a colossal Gothic cathedral for a start. But for all you may want to praise colossal Gothic cathedrals, they're not warm. In fact, Chartres Cathedral during these three days was probably the only place colder than the actual outside. We wandered about the centre a little, which grew on us day by day, but when the weather started blasting down hailstones and freezing winds that left us bereft of any hope in life whatsoever, a tactical retreat had to be made. And on Sunday, that tactical retreat was McDonald's. Warm, anonymous, open, with wifi and coffees priced at a Euro, did anywhere else in Chartres compete? Not even close.

But there's more to Chartres than just cathedrals and McDonald's. Look, here's Darth Vader in the tourist centre.

And here's the Street of Pies.

And there's a lovely walk by the river.

In fact, I'd go as far as to describe Chartres as potentially lovely. Especially if you have warm clothes or visit in warm weather. With a town centre of irregular streets and quirky lanes which opened out into small and large plazas, with plenty of local and larger stores, likewise for cafes, I can imagine it making a delightfully low-key mature holiday. Unfortunately, in the cold weather and certainly on a very subdued Sunday, it all seemed a little drab. 

In favour of Chartres, I should mention its excellent local beer, l'Eurelienne, coming in three different types, blonde, dark, and wheat. It's probably the best beer I've had on these travels. As a bonus, it fits into an exclusive category of beers to have Wonders on their label, with Chartres Cathedral depicted (Angkor Wat on Camdodia's Angkor Beer, and Machu Picchu on Peru's Cusquena spring to mind).

Mont Saint-Michel

Several trains, buses, and probably a taxi: getting from Chartres to Mont Saint-Michel is neither cheap or easy if you're using public transport, especially if you play to go via Charles de Gaulles. That was our plan, made in the hope that Danielle's bag would have finally arrived, as promised by Tigerair (have I mentioned that they're all dicks?). And so, on a whim, I looked into the prices of car hire. Turns out it was just £10 a day, for a week. Our plan changed - suddenly I was driving from Paris to the north-west of France, on the right-hand side of the road for the first ever time. I was a little trepidatious. Danielle was out-and-out terrified.

You'll be pleased to hear that we survived: myself, Danielle, car, and France intact, and I was only beeped at once (by a very impatient lorry driver who was beeping at everyone. Still, he spoiled my record).

Mont Saint-Michel, an ancient monastery once hoaching with devout monks, will of course be the subject of its own review. It's not a cheap place to stay on, so we stayed there for only one night, opting to stay in a small and very nearby village called Beauvoir on the nights either side. And let's be honest, not much happens in Beauvoir. The weather was cold and miserable, and there was nothing to do. So we ate pizza - two for one! - both nights, and popped into Carrefour to buy wine. Just like the ancient monks used to do, I'm sure. Yeah, it's not one for those seeking a nightlife.


"Amiens! Ah-miens!"
"Amiens! I'll spell it. A..."
"No, A. A for Apple."
"E for Echo."
"A for Apple! M for... mother. I for Indigo. E for Echo. N for...
"Oh, Amiens!"

It turns out that I can't pronounce Amiens.

That was the very frustrating phonecall with a girl from DHL, attempting to get Danielle's lost bag forwarded to Amiens. That never happened, but after some kerfuffle and driving to two different depots in Paris, we succeeded. It meant we only got to Amiens, or Amiens as I believe it's pronounced, late in the day. The next day was mostly spent on a tour of the Somme and the graves of World War I troops. Then, and only then, on our third day, did we get time to really have a look round Amiens. Turns out it's great.

I'd fully expected Amiens to be on the dull side. For no particular reason, but sometimes you just get a notion about a place. Happily, this time it was just a notion. With the many red-bricked buildings, the city of around 120,000 has a very English feel, with a small nod to Germany perhaps, and of course many big nods to France, just as you'd expect. As with Chartres, it was pretty quiet on Sunday, but a walkabout on a Monday afternoon revealed a vibrant cafe culture, the locals eking out every moment of the improving temperatures by sitting outdoors with petite coffees or little beers (why can't France serve proper measures?). There is a large student population which might explain the liveliness, although young people were far from the predominant socialising force. The city itself has a large pedestrianised centre, with a mix of old and new buildings side-by-side. Both World Wars, but especially the first, saw a lot of damage done to Amiens, so the rebuilding is understandable, just not as good. 

Fitting into this category is the monstrous Perret Tower, built in 1954 by a Soviet... sorry, Belgian architect called Auguste Perret. It's a beast, and looks like Soviet Russia built a lighthouse in the centre of Amiens to fill up a quota. 110 metres tall, it's vastly larger than everything else in the vicinity. Does it fit in? Not at all, although it's a handy marker if you're lost, and after my initial reaction of "what the hell is that?" I grew quite fond of it. It was refurbished in 2005 with fancy lights at night, and it looks ok now, it does the best with itself. Like a big ugly dog that's been washed and combed, with a bow on.

Fortunately, plenty of charming stuff that seemingly only builders of yesteryear were able to to create still exist, most notably in the area called St-Leu, very near our hotel, which features a series of colourful and rickety-but-restored cafes and restaurants running alongside a canal.

Amiens is the setting for one Wonder - Amiens Cathedral - and the nearest major city to another - the Thiepval Memorial, around 40 kilometres away. Both of these took up the lionshare of our time. In the end, despite having four nights in Amiens, we could easily have spent longer, and of Versailles, Chartres, and Mont Saint-Michel, that's probably the only place I can say such a thing. Although having warm weather and Danielle's bag back was probably a factor.

1 comment:

  1. Glad Danielle's bag has reappeared. I hope you get suitably compensated.

    Really looking forward to the reviews - particularly Mont St Michel.


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