Arras France June 2007

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January 21st 2009
Published: February 1st 2009
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Arras, France: June 2007

I’m not quite sure when the idea came to me, but I suddenly realised that, in our dash to see other parts of France, we drove straight through some to most historic parts of it, without even slowing down. I thought it was about time to put that right, so set about looking for a central town in which to stay. My eyes alighted on Arras. I’d seen it on signposts many times as we drove along the main road, heading toward, well who knows where; we always seemed to wind up on this road. A little research led me to think it might well be a good centre to explore the area. I was right, and it proved to be so much more than just a centre…

Sat 16th June

I’d better start at the beginning, with the interminable drive to Folkestone. It really is becoming more of an endurance test than anything else, with the M25 around London enough to test the patience of a saint, and I’m no saint. But we got there eventually and on a lovely evening went for a long walk along The Leas, a sort of
A Victorian Pile...A Victorian Pile...A Victorian Pile...

One of the huge victorian mansions along the Leas, Folkstone
cliff top promenade. It’s a really nice place and has lovely old time atmosphere with its bandstands and so on. It’s so obviously Victorian, and has some wonderful buildings, classics of their day I’m sure, and huge. They show the confidence of the Victorians, and how they thought there may be other countries, but only England really counted. How times change.

On a clear day you can see across the English Channel to the coast of France, and today was crystal clear. We could just make out the cliffs of Calais and Boulogne. It was hard to think of the tunnel going under all that water!

After our walk we had a rather nice meal at the Clifton Hotel, opposite our own hotel, then an early night to be ready to hit the train the following day.

Sun 17th June

A good nights sleep and a belting breakfast makes us ready for anything, and after both we set of for the tunnel terminal. Things have changed a bit since our last foray here and the automated check in proved to be a little trying. Touch screens never seem to work for me, and this one was no exception. I think it was the one second delay between hitting the key and the number appearing in the window that caused it. I found that I was inputting numbers twice, then running out of space to put the rest of the numbers. Eventually, swearing under my breath, I pressed “Help”. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the help desk had similar trouble and sniggered my way to the passport control.

Then we drove to the line waiting to board. Our first real snag was when a guy told us that “There is a problem with the track in the tunnel.” Apparently a line had broken and it had to be repaired. This meant the tunnel was only working at half speed and led to us having a one hour delay. It wasn’t too bad, especially when you consider some of the delays at airports that we have endured.

Finally we boarded, and waited for the departure. And waited, and waited, for over another hour. We finally got to France just after noon and set off for Arras.

French roads are much less crowded than ours and the speed limits are higher too, so it soon became apparent that we were going to arrive far too early at the hotel. I diverted into the small town of Arques, not knowing what to expect, but it being Sunday and France, not expecting much. I wasn’t disappointed. It was a sleepy little place and we drove along just idly looking at closed shops and bars. One thing we did notice was the lovely flowers that seemed to be all over, hung off lamp posts, in window boxes, in little troughs by the roadside, they seemed to be everywhere. Then we arrived in the main square. Every town in this part of France seems to have a central square. They are usually large, spacious and elegant. This was a superb example, and there at the back of the square overlooking the town stood the town hall, a magnificent Baroque type of building. It seemed that every possible excess had been used to make every detail as ornamental as possible. Disney couldn’t have done more, I’m sure.

We crossed the square to have a closer look and maybe go inside, but the place was closed (Sundays mean something in northern France) so we just walked around it. Marg
The Public Gardens, St OmerThe Public Gardens, St OmerThe Public Gardens, St Omer

looking down on the sunken garden
discovered a little passage way that appeared to lead to the back of it and we strolled along it to discover an attractive little park. The day was warm and sunny, so we strolled around it holding hands and just admiring the flowers, ducks and so on. We also saw a black swan. There are lots of pubs in England called the Black Swan, which of course the English irreverently nickname “The Mucky Duck”, but it’s many years since I saw a real one, and this one was jet black, and wonderfully tame, as the photos will show. For somewhere that is just a dot on the map, Arques seemed to have so much going for it.

Back in the car we headed back to the main road again. We were still early and decided to have a look at St Omer, again a place I’d only seen on signposts as we headed off elsewhere. It’s a lovely place, very French and again has an attractive square. This time though there was a little more going on. In fact it was quite hectic. I wasn’t too sure about where to park, so we left the car down a side
The public Gardens St. OmerThe public Gardens St. OmerThe public Gardens St. Omer

One of the mant lovely flower beds
street and hoped we didn’t get a ticket (we didn’t), then went back to the square. By now it was quite hot and we were both thirsty. We sat in a square side café and had a lager each, watching as the young men paraded themselves, their scooters, motor bikes and cars to the equally attentive young girls, smiling to ourselves, and for my part, enjoying memories of doing much the same. Of course my cars were generally heaps of scrap that even the least demanding girls turned their noses up at - except Marg of course - I hired one for her!

Finishing our drinks we headed toward the corner of the square, and to the “Jardins de Publique”. These were really lovely. As we entered we could see huge flower beds of brilliant colours, and to our left an enormous sunken garden. We ambled around the park admiring the flowers, and stopping now and then to smell one that really took our fancy, before making our way back to the car and heading once again for Arras.

One of the benefits of our car is that it has sat nav fitted as standard. There’s no need to fumble in the glove box or hide it in the boot, its there ready to use whenever you need it. It proved its worth in France. We just sort of dialled in our destination, then if we felt like wandering off somewhere else we just turned it off, knowing that where ever we wound up she would take us back. Long ago we christened the ladies voice “Ellen” after my late mother-in-law, who could never read a map, but could always keep me on the straight and narrow, a skill she passed on to her daughter. So I followed Ellens directions and she took us straight to the hotel, which was amazing really as it was down the narrowest alleyway and one that I would have certainly missed.

We checked in and went to our room. I was a bit on the small side, but the bed was comfy and the bathroom was pretty good actually, so the rest we could put up with, though for some reason Marg was a little dissatisfied with only having a cupboard for a wardrobe - but she was ok after she hung her clothes and dumped mine. We’d reserved
Place de la Heroes ArrasPlace de la Heroes ArrasPlace de la Heroes Arras

taken from near what was to become our favourite restaurant
a table for dinner, knowing it would be expensive but wanting to make a good start to the holiday, so we changed into our Sunday best and went down to the bar to check out the menu. I nonchalantly ordered two gin and tonics - then nearly fainted at the price. I made my way back to our table muttering under my breath that “these **** drinks are going to have to last all ***** week!”

Eventually we were shown to our table, which was laid out beautifully, with really shiny cutlery and flowers. The waiter had previously taken our order, so our starter was waiting for us. We tucked in with some urgency, as we’d not really eaten since that morning. We’d ordered steak for our main course, and sat back to wait for it while trying out the wine. It was delicious. Then the waiter came back with some little mussel shells full of some indeterminate substance. Now I’m not that keen on sea food, but I was too hungry to care, so I ate the lot - than asked what it was. The waiter, in stumbling English, told us that it was mussels and vegetables pureed together. In fact it wasn’t (too) bad, but something I would have turned my nose up at most times. I can only say that I was hungry, and little intrigued, never having seen anything like it before.

Then came the main course. We had both ordered the same meal and two lean and deliciously slightly undercooked steaks were brought to our table, along with a portable propane cooker. A sauce was made in front of our eyes that was a mixture of Congac, Bols and fresh cream. The whole lot was stirred until it was just the right consistency, then flambéed off. The waiter just tipped the pan slightly to one side allowing the contents to just touch the flame. A three foot tongue of flame shot up from the pan, and my cheek got distinctly warm. Of course I never moved a muscle, after all we can’t show the French types that we weren’t expecting anything quite so dramatic, can we? So he poured the sauce over our steaks and we ate a most wonderful meal full of everything that you shouldn’t eat, but who the hell cares. Life is for living, it’s not a rehearsal. An indulgent
The LookoutThe LookoutThe Lookout

Marg looking down on the Place de la heroes
sweet course followed which we staggered our way through, followed by some gorgeous coffee.

After that we just sort of looked at each other and as one decided that we needed to sleep it off. Both a little tipsy, we went off to bed and slept soundly for the rest of the night. As Marg remarked “That wasn’t so much a meal, as an event!”

Monday 18th June

We had a bit of a lie in this morning, rising about 8:00 and going down for breakfast some thirty minutes later. Breakfast done we decided to have a walk around the town, after all we’d been here since about 4:30pm the previous day and not seen anything other than the hotel. I love exploring new places, and we just strolled down the alley way and onto the main road. Marg said that we had come in from one direction and the hotel was pretty central, so we ought to walk in the opposite one. We did and turned left into a normal sort of shopping street. We carried on a little way before rounding a bend and seeing the most incredible bell tower. Again it was ornate, almost over ornate, but somehow it just carried it off, a bit like a woman who has too much make up on, but wears it as though it’s the norm.

As I’ve said, most towns in this area of France seem to have a central square. Arras is different, it has two. Both of them are beautiful, but in different ways. The Town Hall is in the first and smaller of them, La Place de Heros it’s still a large square and has some wonderful houses on every side, all apparently dating from around the late 16th century. Each gable end has a similar shape and when they are seen all together they just seem to fit somehow. Although the houses are by now nearly all shops, people do still live here and it must be quite something to open your window on such a scene.

The other square, which is just around the corner is called Grand Place, and is vast. Surrounded by similar buildings, it is easily twice the size of de Heros . Of the two de Heros is my favourite, it seems to be on a more human scale - and of course it has
The Memorial at Vimy RidgeThe Memorial at Vimy RidgeThe Memorial at Vimy Ridge

We spent an incredibly moving afternoon here
the Town Hall in it, which adds interest. We continued our walk around the centre of the town passing the Cathedral, which sadly has been allowed to run down. It seems strange that in a country which prides itself on being quite religious, this has happened, but there it is, quietly rotting in a quiet part of town. It’s sad really.

We decided to tour around the Town Hall I wanted to go up the bell tower and was delighted to find there was a lift inside it and only 46 steps to the viewing balcony which was immediately below the clock.

We bought our tickets and went through to the lift. When we got to the top we found we were the only people there and had the whole balcony to ourselves. The view is tremendous. You can see the entire town and out into the countryside beyond. The day was rather grey, but the visibility was pretty good.

A gang of school kids arrived, chattering and giggling. They were obviously having the time of their lives and the teacher looked a little harassed, to say the least, so we made our way back down. We
Vimy RidgeVimy RidgeVimy Ridge

The two men at the foot of the memorial were folding a Canadiamn flag in (probably) their own tribute.
continued down to the river and admired the fountain playing the middle of it, before crossing the road to look at the small lake on the other side. We were just stood looking at it, when a huge rat slipped out of the undergrowth, strolled across the path, looked rakishly up at Marg, and slipped over the edge toward the lake. I saw it too, but we were both too startled to react, except that Marg recovered first and said “T t t that wwwas a rrrat wasn’t it?” I tried to kid her that it was just a large mouse, but she was having none of it. Ironically we were just thinking of buying a sandwich from a sandwich bar nearby, but we both dropped that idea!

We made our way back to the centre of town and bought a sandwich from the Subway there, then made our way back to the hotel, sandwich in hand to pick up the car and go to Vimy and the memorial there. France has seen some terrible acts of warfare, especially during WW1, lots of trench warfare and fierce battles in a long war of attrition. Thousands of men of all
One of the warning signsOne of the warning signsOne of the warning signs

In French and English it warns of the dangers of leaving the path. We didn't
nationalities died in the most awful of conditions, simply being cannon fodder.

Vimy Ridge was a battle won by Canadian troops following British and French attempts that had failed. The Canadians method was simple, but incredibly dangerous. They dug tunnels from their own trench to under the German trenches. Then charges were planted under the German lines and, at the right moment, exploded. The Canadians then charged the German lines and fought hand to hand until they took the line. It was nothing short of heroic, charging uphill to engage a force that was larger and better armed.

After the war, France gave Canada the site of the battle in perpetuity and a competition was held to design a fitting memorial to the men who died here.

There is quite a history about the memorial, so I’m going to digress for a moment or two.

The competition for the design of the memorial was won by Walter Allward, against many others. His was thought to best illustrate the sense of loss and to be an inspiration to future generations. I think he won deservedly. The stone is found in only one quarry in the world and that is in the Balkans. Ironically the shot that started WW1 was fired in Sarajevo, not too far from the quarry I suppose. Allward built the memorial and it was officially opened in 1936. Unfortunately, a flawed building method meant that it was fairly soon showing signs of damage. In the new millennium the decision was made to completely restore the monument. To this end it was completely covered, so that men (and women) could work in all weathers to effect the repairs. The original quarry was re-opened and stone hauled to France for the work. It took several years, but in 2006 the site was re-opened. Today it looks magnificent.

So we walked right around the monument, looking at it from every angle and it just looks better and better. I have never seen shell craters before, but they are still here. Just beyond the boundary the ground is pitted and pock marked where the shells of nearly one hundred years ago exploded. Some are still here, waiting to do their deadly work and everywhere you look there are signs in French and English explaining about unexploded ordnance in this wasteland.

Only sheep graze in
Place de la Heroes Place de la Heroes Place de la Heroes

The way the square are lit is just fantastic - unfortunately night photography isn't, so some ot pics are a bit blurred
these areas, it makes you wonder how they don’t set things off, but they don’t seem to. Making our way back to the monument I paused to take a photo of one of the walls of it. The names of 11,285 men are on these walls, The names of men “Missing presumed dead but who have no known grave.”

We left this place feeling sad at such a waste of life. So many men, so many husbands, fathers, and more likely, sons. Both of us trying to imagine how we would feel if it was one of ours who was remembered here. This part of France has such a bloody recent history - in both wars.

Leaving the memorial we drove the short distance to the visitor centre and the trenches. These are not the actual trenches preserved, but a mock up of how they were. The sandbags along the sides are made of concrete, but they are quite realistic. You can walk along a typically winding path, below ground level, then step onto the firing step to see what it was like to look across the lines. Yes, it’s a bit sanitized, you don’t have the
The Town Hall at nightThe Town Hall at nightThe Town Hall at night

Aain, wonderful lighting and lousy photography
smells of the latrines and hundreds of men in close company with each other, but you can still step into plenty of mud if you so choose. The whole area is an amazing and humbling place, and I’m sure we could have spent much more time here, but our stomachs called us back to the town, so we departed, counting our blessings that we had never been called upon to make such sacrifices.

Then it was back to Arras and to one of the many restaurants that we had seen around the Grand Place. I can’t remember the name of it, but it’ll be a long time before I forget the meal I had. It was pork, but it was the most delicious pork ever. It was so tender you hardly needed a knife, and done in a wonderful light but creamy sauce. Coupled with a bottle of wine and good company it rounded off a memorable day perfectly.

Tuesday 19th June

Today we decided to go a little further afield. On one of our previous trips we had skirted Rouen in some absolutely appalling weather. We could barely see any of the town, but we
One of our favourite restaurantsOne of our favourite restaurantsOne of our favourite restaurants

This was the only time we saw it so quiet, normally it was buzzing!
could see enough to whet our appetite to pay it a proper visit at some time, this was the time. Rouen has quite a history behind it too. It’s the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake (by the English), and has a lovely cathedral too. Once again Ellen guided us unerringly to the very street we wanted. It was only when we got out of the car that we got lost!

It was a lovely sunny day, bordering on hot as we walked into the old town. The whole place was full of bunting, obviously some celebration was being planned, but we never found out what it was. Rouen old town’s building are nearly all wooden. I wouldn’t like to say how old they are, but it really is the most picturesque place. Some of the buildings reminded me of York, but they were different somehow. I can’t quite put my finger on what the difference was, maybe it was just the French design, but whatever they were certainly nice to look at.

We slowly wandered through the narrow streets, looking for all the world like the tourists we complain about in York.

One of the many old and narrow streets of a lovely city
We were heading all the while toward the Cathedral. It’s a lovely thing, but not a patch on the Minster. It seems to be neither one thing nor the other. There are three towers, none of which match, and while the entrance is impressive, it can’t hold a candle to Yorks. The town itself though is really interesting, with lots of alleyways leading to grand buildings, one of which is the Palace of Justice, a really lovely building that is in the process of being restored.

Marg saw a C&A. She couldn’t resist really and went into the shop. She really misses C&A since they closed in the UK as they sell her type of clothing. I’m glad to say she didn’t find anything this time and we came out with my wallet and credit card intact. By now it was really hot and we were both thirsty. We decided on a beer and a sandwich to put us on until our evening meal, so we found somewhere with shady seats and ordered. The beer came and really hit the spot. There is nothing like a cold beer on a hot day is there? Then the sandwiches arrived. I’m not sure what is happening in Europe, but the helpings seem to getting bigger - the sandwiches were enormous. We had ordered ham and cheese. There looked to be a small pigsworth of ham in each and at least half a pound of cheese. We sat and looked at each other for a moment, both thinking that we could have had one of these between us, before getting stuck in. Of course we ate them, every crumb, but we put off dinner for another hour.

Strolling back up through the town I bought us both an ice cream. I remember thinking that all we needed were a couple of Kiss-me-quick hats on, and we’d have looked complete pillocks! But so what? We were enjoying ourselves.

We never did find where Joan burned at the stake. I’m told that it was hard to miss, but miss it we did. By now it was late afternoon getting on toward early evening, and I wanted to get back to Arras before needing to use the lights on the car. Because we drive on the left and the French drive on the right our lights dip straight into their eyes. I’ve only once driven like this - and never again.

So we set off back to Arras, driving through some lovely rolling countryside and stopping briefly to pay our respects in the small British War Cemetery just outside Amiens. Its strange how you can get the wrong impression about somewhere isn’t it? I always thought of Amiens as a romantic little town, but in reality, it’s a bustling charmless industrial city.

We arrived back at the hotel, pretty tired, so took a little siesta, before going out into the square for our meal. We went cheap and cheerful, so had omelettes and chips. Delicious! As we sat under the huge umbrellas of our by now favourite pavement café, we noticed the clouds piling up and the darkness falling. I wanted to get some night time photos of the Place de Heros so we’d lingered over our meal and then had coffee, again making it last. The skies kept getting darker and still the lights didn’t come on. By 9:45 it was pitch black and I was wondering if they only lit the square on weekends or something, when the most tremendous flash of lightning rent the sky. It flickered just behind the clock tower of the town hall, if only I had the camera pointed there and the shutter open, it would have been the photo of a lifetime - but as ever I didn’t. The thunder came a few seconds later, and while we were discussing whether to wait any longer or go back to the hotel, on came the lights. They transform the whole square, picking out the best features of the buildings, the Town hall in particular, I don’t know who designed the lighting, but they were very clever. It must have cost a fortune. I got some photos of some of the buildings, but my hand isn’t really steady enough for night time photos. However, they’ll give you some idea of what I mean.

By now it was raining quite fast and we decided to make a run for it, back to the hotel. When I say “run for it” I mean a fairly brisk walk - at least on Margs part. I’m glad we went when we did, because as we got back to the hotel, the heavens opened and it rained heavily all night.

Wed 20th June

We decided to have a day without the car today, that way, if I wanted to have a drink, I could and it would give us both some exercise. It was also one of the market days, the other being Saturday. Saturdays is the biggest market when they use both squares and traders virtually take over the town, but we would be gone before that, so we made our way to the smaller one that takes place in de Heros. I’ve made this observation before, but the French eat the most remarkable things, some of which look quite repulsive in their raw state, but taste delicious when cooked. I’ve never even seen some of the stuff. The fish is equally strange looking, and everything gets poked and prodded to make sure it is just right before any money changes hands. They make us look very inhibited as we genteelly and gently ask if something’s fresh - as if the seller is going to say “No, it’s last weeks.” Food is not the only thing on sale in this market, I saw musical instruments, electrical goods, and of course trainers all for sale at knock down prices.

Having “done” the market we
"Our" TGV train"Our" TGV train"Our" TGV train

The magic carpet
decide to do a tour of the caves under the town. They are known as “Boves”. Once again we bought our ticket and waited a short time, until a charming bi-lingual lady came to show us around. We descended several steps and entered the passageway. The cave had originally been dug long ago, and the stones removed were used to build the Cathedral. During WW1 British troops were mustered in them for an assault on German lines. It must have been grim, but also blessedly peaceful too, as the Germans had no idea the caves were there. As we were shepherded around we could see the evidence of the soldiers occupation. There were electric power cables, and several personal objects had been found here too. I seem to be dwelling on WW1, but it’s presence is everywhere. Its pretty well impossible to not see something to remind you of it in any town you visit. Even the smallest village has a war memorial of some description.

Coming out of the caves and into bright sunlight we decided to walk to La Citadelle, a sort of army barracks. Both of us were under the impression that there was a sort of museum to visit there, but after walking for quite a while, stopping only for a small beer and a huge burger, we found our way there, only to be told that it was for military use only. Inside the Citadelle, preserved, is the wall against which resistance fighters were shot, bullet holes intact. A sobering sight, I’m sure.

Just along the street form the Citadelle is the British memorial. I promise I won’t mention the war again after this, but again it is the most moving place. As you enter the portico the sounds of the street fade away and you can hear birdsong. Every piece of flat stone is covered with the carved out names of young men. In one little corner was a red flower with a little note attached. Somehow it really got to me. Written in a childish hand, it was for a young man killed in 1916, from his great niece and his great, great niece. It was just a simple note, but I could feel the lump in my throat…

By now, we were pretty tired, so we slowly made our way back through the Park de Allees to the
The Glass PyramidThe Glass PyramidThe Glass Pyramid

Made even more famous by The Da Vinci Code
main road and town. I don’t really know how we’d done it, but we had walked miles out of our way on the way to the Citadelle and only a short distance took us back to the hotel. Marg had the map - I can only assume that she was exhibiting the same map reading skills as her mother.

Back at the hotel, we had a little siesta before going out for our evening meal at Café Leffe, again. Incidentally a question I asked of myself many times was how had Arras remained so undamaged through both World Wars, the answer is it wasn’t. It was completely flattened during WW1, then rebuilt to the same pattern and design. It was also severely damaged by bombing in WW11, and again rebuilt. It really is quite a place.

Thursday 21st June

Today we took the TGV to Paris. We had enquired last night about the train fare and times of trains there, but received only a Gallic shrug in reply. You have to be French to carry this off, it’s a bit like watching someone’s neck disappear momentarily, coupled with a raising of the eyes to Heaven and a
The Eiffel TowerThe Eiffel TowerThe Eiffel Tower

Which needs no introduction
twisting of the wrists to show the palms of your hands, all accomplished simultaneously. It’s not unlike watching an intensely localised earthquake confined to someone’s body. We got a perfect one delivered when we confessed to not speaking French. We decided to call back today and try again at the ticket office. This time we were a bit more awake and saw some machines. I hit the “English” button, and we were away!

The next available train was in about an hours time, so we just meandered for a little while, before going back to the station for it. We made our way the platform, tickets in our sweaty little hands and were about to get on the train when I saw a label on the carriage that said “Lille”. I stopped Marg and looked around for someone to ask, after all we didn’t want to get on the wrong train. A young man was nearby and I went up to him and asked as best I could if this train is going to Paris. He said yes, so I pointed out the Lille label. He smiled, shrugged (another exercise in muscle control exhibition) and simply said in a
The Eiffel TowerThe Eiffel TowerThe Eiffel Tower

It's difficult to show how large it is
delightful French accent “Ah, m’sieur - French trains..” We got on, found our seats and waited the few minutes for the departure time.

A quick word here about the TGV. They are almost time machines. They offer one of the fastest train services in the world, trains regularly hitting 200mph, especially on the long distance Paris - Marseilles route, which is accomplished in a shade over three hours. It takes at least eight hours by car, and usually involves an over night stop. They are the envy of most of Europe, especially England.

So 50 minutes after taking our seats we were walking down the platform at Paris Gere du Nord Station. Paris; is it the most romantic city in the world? Maybe, maybe not, but it has something very special. Not having more than a few hours here we wanted to try to get round the sights as much as we could, so we got on the good old tour bus. These are hop on and off buses that circle the city visiting various tourist land marks. The only problem with the idea is that they are so busy that if you’re fortunate enough to get on
The Eiffel TowerThe Eiffel TowerThe Eiffel Tower

Passing under the legs of the tower
one, then it’s best to stay on it. If you leave it at one of the “honeypot” sites like the Eiffel Tower, then you’ll never be able to get back on one, because they are so busy. So really we just took a bus ride round the sights, but what sights they are!

Moving on we passed through Place de la Concorde, and absolutely huge area where the guillotine had been set up and the mob took it’s revenge on the aristocrats. Most of the stonework of the place came from the walls of the Bastille, and the story is told of the place stinking of blood so much that the ox carts carrying the next victims to their deaths refused to cross it, terrified of the smell. Well, I don’t know about that, but it’s a factual record about the guillotine, and the crowds must have been enormous.

Next we started up the Champs Elysees, the most famous road in France. It’s a wide elegant six lane road that starts at the Place de la Concorde and goes on until you reach the Arc de Triomph where it changes into the Avenue Grande Armee. It’s a stunning
The Eiffel TowerThe Eiffel TowerThe Eiffel Tower

One more pic to try to convey the size of it
view as you approach the Arc, and the Arc itself is huge.

However, the real thrill is the traffic around the Arc. No less than twelve avenues converge on this place, and the word mayhem doesn’t even come near to describing it. Horns blast out constantly, and as traffic joining the system has right of way over traffic already on it, which can’t get off, it is a recipe for chaos. I didn’t have time on this trip, but on previous ones I’ve just stood and watched the traffic around here - it’s that much of a spectator sport!

The Arc itself is huge and magnificent. You can climb to the top, and Marg did when she was here earlier in the year, but again we simply daren’t leave the bus as we had to get our train back to Arras, and people were being left at stops wholesale.

Moving swiftly on, the next port of call was the Eiffel Tower. Built in 1895 for the Paris exhibition. Some facts about it:

• 300 steel workers, and 2 years (1887-1889) to construct it.
• 15,000 iron pieces (excluding rivets).
• 2.5 million rivets.
• 40
Herstmoceux CastleHerstmoceux CastleHerstmoceux Castle

A wonderfully imposing frontage
tons of paint.
• 1671 steps to the top.
• Maximum sway at top caused by wind: 12 cm (4.75 inches).
• Maximum sway at top caused by metal dilation: 18 cm (7 inches).
• Total height in 1889: 300.51 meters (985 feet, 11 inches).
• Total height with television antenna: 320.755 meters (1052 feet, 4 inches
To be honest I cheated a bit here and took these facts from the official site. It’s a hell of an impressive sight though, just standing there astride the road below it.

So finally we got back to the station and boarded our train. After the noise and hubbub of Paris we were both looking forward to a bit of peace and quiet in Arras. The train pulled in 50 minutes later and as we crossed the road we knew something was happening. Music; loud music was in the air. We could see a troop of people dancing, and as we turned the corner to walk back to the hotel there were lots of people about too. We had stumbled onto the Arras Music Festival. So much for the peace and quiet!

In fact it was great. On every corner there
Herstmonceux CastleHerstmonceux CastleHerstmonceux Castle

Normally open to the public, but as there was a wedding going on we couldn't go in.
were people playing their kind of music. There was everything represented, from drum and bass, to modern jazz, from a church choir to the hardest of hard rock, and all just playing on the streets. They were everywhere, but in the Place de Heros a stage had been erected and a group of dancers was going hell for leather. We watched for a little while and the energy that they put out would have lit the town up if it could have been harnessed! One group in particular took my fancy, a sort of French Queen tribute group. Now what the lead singer lacked in talent, he made up for in enthusiasm. He rocked his way through several Queen hits, including one of my favourites “Don’t stop me now”, and to be honest, I loved it, but the man who made it for me was the lead guitarist. He must have studied Brian Mays solos note for note, because he could just play them. He was brilliant and the guitar breaks were the highlights of their act - well those and the bass guitarists bum - she was rather nice…

So, pretty well exhausted, we dragged ourselves back to the hotel and bed.

Friday 22nd June

Our last day in France, but not the last of the holiday. We were scheduled to be on the 6:20pm train from Calais and had plenty of time for a leisurely drive to the channel. We chose to go by way of Lille because somewhere in the dim and distant past I seem to remember a family connection there. When I was a young kid one of my relatives said that my Grandmothers family had originally come from Lille, which was why her maiden name was Lill. It’s probably completely wrong, but the city was more or less on our way, so we called in.

Lille, is a lovely picture in a mucky frame. The outskirts are just appalling, drab and very run down. In fact I was on the point of turning round and going somewhere else - anywhere else, when we hit the city centre. What a change! There are some really wonderful buildings here. Unfortunately the weather was closing down a bit and rain was threatening, but we made the best of it and had a good look round. The Opera House is really spectacular…

Shortly after I took the photos the heavens opened and we decided that we should eat. We found another pavement café that looked frantically busy (always a good sign) and sat down. We settled for a chicken salad and when it arrived there must have been half a chicken on it. We had really only wanted something light, but I managed to eat most of it, as did Marg, in spite of her widened eyes and aghast expression.

Then it was back to the car and on to Calais, through violent thunderstorms and torrential rain. It must be something about me and Calais, it always rains on me here. Arriving in Calais a bit early we decided to have a look around the town. I suppose it’s a bit like Dover really, a town that everyone passes through, but no one stops at. In fact we didn’t see anything of any note, except yet another town hall. I have no idea who could design this, but I have never seen such a number of turrets, towers, spires and other ornamentations on one building. It is so over the top, that it’s coming down the other side!

Then it was back to the terminal and onto the train. Check in went smoothly this time and shortly afterwards we found ourselves back in England facing the short drive to Hastings, and our overnight stop. We had a lovely warm welcome at our hotel in Hastings, one of the ladies who runs it actually made us a cup of tea on our arrival. We unpacked then went exploring. I was hoping to visit Battle a small town where the Battle of Hastings, the most famous battle of British history took place in 1066, but to be honest, other things sort of took over. We went out for our evening meal to a little Thai restaurant and enjoyed every morsel of it, then hit the bed and slept.

Saturday 23rd June

Oh to be in England! We had an absolutely cracking breakfast that would make any dietician go grey overnight, then hit the road to Great Dixter House. Margaret had seen the gardens on TV and wanted to see them while we were in this part of the country. We found it and the gardens are truly beautiful. Flowers don’t seem to be in organised beds, but in a glorious jumble of colour. We wandered around for a couple of hours just looking and smelling the odd flower. It was really lovely.

The house itself if pretty impressive, dating from the 15th cent, it a delightful half timbered mansion. I think it is now owned by a charity, since the last owner died in 2006, but it’s really a lovely place.

Then it was on the our last stop. Herstmonceaux Castle. This must be one of the most beautiful brick built buildings in England, if not the world. It used to be the Greenwich Observatory until fairly recently, but now is used as a teaching centre for scientific subjects. In the grounds there are some superb gardens but also some of the old domes that housed the telescopes of the observatory. I was hoping we would be able to go in to the castle, but there was a wedding going on and the public area was closed for that. It was worth the trip just to see the place though.

It’s just magnificent. I suppose I could live there at a push, the only trouble is that it’s in the south, and I’m a northern lad - I don’t want ‘owt to do wit’ southern softies… (I'm kidding, southerners...)

As I said earlier, in the grounds there are the old domed observatories. These have now been turned into a children’s science park, and the kids have enormous fun playing with the exhibits. So did I (actually we both did, but Marg won’t admit to it) Among the fun exhibits though is a serious purpose, and we went to a children’s lecture on having fun in the kitchen. A tip here, don’t let your kids near this! We were given explicit instructions on how to make a cornflower explosion among many other things. I left thinking that I’d try that out at home, and I know the kids did too. I only hope their memories are as bad as mine, because I can’t remember how to do it. We then went to a more serious lecture on some of the amazing telescopes on show. All in all it was a brilliant place to visit and the enthusiasm of the young man who did both lectures was infectious. We had a great time

So, that’s another one done. It only remained to drive home again the following morning and somehow home is always welcome. I hope you enjoy our little sojourn into France, but that’s all for this one.

The End


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