Making 'beaucoup des nouvelles amies’ in my French travels

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Europe » France
August 31st 1974
Published: October 1st 2021
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The 11.30am ferry from Sassari in Sardinia to Bonifacio in Corsica took just on an hour, all of which we gained back by putting our watches back that same amount on arrival. I joined up on the trip with the German couple who had helped me with my currency problem pre-ferry, Michael and Heidrun, as well as their friends Norbert and Jutta, for a number of drinks (in both countries) and was fortunate to then get a lift for the 140kms into Ajaccio in their car. The crossing was calm, and Bonifacio was a magnificent sight - tall, stone terraced houses perched precariously on the brink of sheer cliffs of stratified limestone – surely another National Geographic specialty!

The road through Corsica was very mountainous and windy, with only a few villages scattered amongst the much greener scrub and trees. Once again, there were some really picturesque stone houses in some of the villages. The whole trip took around 5 hours, including a stop for a fish and wine lunch. Yet again, I had accommodation hassles in Ajaccio – the best available being a pretty crummy hotel for 30FF (over 6 bucks). Still, I figured that I might as well sit back and enjoy it because I found out that the next boat out of there was not scheduled to leave for three more days. I took a stroll around town, getting info on the Cote d’Azur from an English couple, but I was a bit concerned because costs weren’t encouraging. Later that evening, I witnessed a savage demonstration by a large group of farmers against some government tariff policy. The town centre became a mass of smoke bombs, and it took some 4 hours to be quelled by the riot squad in gas masks – it gave me some idea of the likely atmosphere in Northern Ireland at that time, with streets blocked, riot police etc. After the eyes had recovered from the smoke, I ate a good, but expensive meal with the others downtown.

I slept in late on the Sunday morning before going out for breakfast and acquiring a newspaper to read about the previous day’s ‘manifestations’. I went to the hotel to pick up the other four around 11am and we all made it down to la plage Tahiti, some 5kms away. It was a pleasant day, not too hot, with the water clean and warm. I was back about 6pm for a good clean up before wandering back into town to pick up some info on ferries. I took in a big meal of a brochette (grilled meat in a roll), a crepe sucre, and a pint of milk at the local stalls, but there was nothing doing on a Sunday night.

First stop next day was down to the bank underneath the Casino to pick up beaucoup de Francs, then down to the ferry office to book the ferry for Nice. I was really pissed off at the hour wait while they frigged around at the booking office. I returned the money lent to me by the Hotel Albion and at the same time checked out the Napoleon monument. After a drink at Chez Yvonne (and an unsuccessful wait for a French friend I had met briefly on the ferry), I made it back to the local beach for the afternoon. I ran into Heidrun on the way back around 4.30pm and we had a quick drink together before I returned to the hotel for a nap. Dinner was a great way to see out my time in Ajaccio. We dined at my German friends’ regular restaurant, having a 4-course meal (or for me, 7 courses, as they were not big eaters!) and wine for a very modest tariff. The festivities of the night were heightened by the appearance of owner Gilbert (of course, pronounced ‘jilbear’!), who appeared first with 5 Pastis and later with 5 Schnapps. Sleep was pretty easy that night!

Another fruit breakfast was on the menu next morning before checking out of the Modern Hotel at 10am and making it down to the wharf. Fourth class on a French ship turned out to be just that – we were packed in like sardines, with the situation not helped by the presence of a large group of French schoolkids. The boat sailed at midday in magnificent weather on a sea of glass. There was nothing special about the 8-hour trip, with conversation with a couple of girls from London helping to pass a bit of the time. Otherwise, it was sitting on a hard bench, reading, dozing or thinking. I had an interesting last half hour of the trip, chatting up an attractive young student from Rheims – my first attempt at a ‘chat up’ en francais! On arrival in Nice, I grabbed a steak dinner, with the company of an Americanised Frenchman, before taking a bus to the station and subsequently booking into the Station Hotel for the night.

Next morning, I left the hotel early and made in down to the Youth Hostel at Mt Boron, via a stop at the Place Massena. I checked into the hostel, left my gear there, then hitched down to the Tourist Info by the station. After that, it was down to the main beach in front of the Promenade des Anglais, where I met up with Brits Simon, Maggi and Mary, with whom I spent the rest of the day. After sitting on the pebbles from around 10am through to 6pm, I was quite burnt by the end of the day. The water was warm and pretty clean too. It was back to the hostel by 7pm, where the girls produced an ordinary rice dish for dinner, along with 2 litres of milk. I also ran into the sister of an old friend from Sydney, and chatted with her and the other three until we were kicked out of the room at 10.30pm.

I seemed to have been accepted as an honorary Brit, and I joined the other three to make it down to the beach even earlier than the previous day. We nestled in the pebbles for a couple of hours before deciding just before midday to make it down to Monte Carlo for the afternoon. The return trip was a very modest 7.5FF, so Simon, Maggi, Mary and me reached there before 2pm after just a 30 minute trip. We checked out the Royal Palace after a hot uphill walk, then took in a panorama of the harbour with all its posey yachts and larger vessels. We then walked around to the Casino where we had a dispute with the attendant about our clothing (or rather the lack of it) and were initially refused admission, but he finally relented so we took a quick look around and I even donated a whole franc to one of the pokies. All round, Monte Carlo was a bit of a let-down, but I guess it was another box that could be ticked. We made it back into Nice for a food 13.50FF all-in meal of 4 courses plus wine before returning to the Youth Hostel by 8pm.

Next morning, I made it into town by 9am with the two girls to hitchhike north, but we lost an hour after Maggi found Simon’s passport in her handbag. I eventually took a bus out and was on the motorway by 10.30am. I had to wait about an hour before I got three quick lifts that got me through to Grenoble, the latter and majority ride being with an affable but smart-arse French playboy type, who gave me plenty of French speaking practice by feigning that he didn’t speak a word of English. As I left his car at Grenoble, he told me in perfect English how much he had enjoyed my company and congratulated me on my efforts to revive my schoolboy French for the last couple of hours!

Following that was a most discouraging 90-minute wait before getting a lift late in the day to Lyon with lovely nurse Elaine. The scenery was fantastic around the Alpes region, with a very windy road but many stone houses, very reminiscent of Corsica. An overcast sky early became rain later in the day, but fortunately cleared late afternoon. We finally reached Lyon by 8pm and I was fortunate to be invited home by Elaine for dinner and drinks with her, husband Daniel, and brother Jean-Claude. Their English was worse than my French, so there was heaps of confusion and fun, but the hospitality was great as was the abundance of vino. Because of my planned early start for Paris in the morning, I hit the sack on a camp bed in their kitchen around 11pm.

We were up at the ungodly hour of 4.45am as Elaine started work early, but it was convenient for me as she dropped me on the Paris road by 5.30am. It was quite cold, with Lyon being covered by a blanket of fog, which didn’t assist the chances of hitching a lift. After an hour, I was picked up for an all-the-way lift to Paris with a very slow Citroen, but still beggars couldn’t be choosers, especially with so many other hitchhikers on the road. French actor Dominique turned out to be great company for the 8-hour trip along a very slow road. The land in this central region was much flatter, but still characterised by very attractive small villages with their cramped up stone houses. We also passed through many wine districts, with the weather changing from foggy to sunny to overcast and windy as the day progressed. The monotony of the long drive was broken late in the day when we had a minor prang with a motor cyclist.

We finally made it into Etoile around 2pm to sweep past the Arc de Triomphe before visiting the Tourist Info and Student Travel Office on St Michel to pick up a cheap train/boat/train ticket to London for 70FF. I had a rip-off snack at the Champs-Elysees before meeting up again with Maggi and Mary at Place de la Concorde at 6pm. There was no room available at their hotel, so we checked out some 20-30 hotels (all “complet”) before giving it away as a bad thing. We did the long touristy walk around Paris at night taking in the Eiffel Tour (not as prominent on the landscape as I had thought), Notre Dame, Hotel des Invalides, the Louvre, Pantheon, Opera House, Eglise de la Madeleine and all the other goodies around town. We took the metro up to Montmartre about 10pm and checked out the neon light scene, which was a bit of a hassle, the only real interest being the antics of all the various North African spruikers. Moulin Rouge was a bit of a disappointment as it was hardly lit up at all. Certainly no disappointment was Sacre Coeur on the hill, which gave us a great view of Paris by night, and also had plenty of interest with all the artists and other craftspeople selling their wares. It got really cold for our long walk home, which was made even longer when we initially couldn’t find their Hotel Tour d’Eiffel. However I did manage to sneak past their night concierge for a very comfortable “trois au lit” by 2.30am.

It was a bit like an Alfred Hitchcock suspense plot trying to slip out past the hotel manager next morning around 9am. I finally got away and after about another 30 minutes shopping around, I finally found a 2-star Hotel Champ de Mars with a single room for an incredible 13FF for the night. I accompanied the girls to Gare du Nord to see them off to the UK (with plans to catch up again back home), then strolled down to Notre Dame and the Luxembourg Gardens. I was so knackered that after a stroll around the Student quarter, I return to the hotel and crashed until late afternoon. Another stroll took me up to the Eiffel Tower again, and it was not as disappointing up close. I climbed to the first stage, which offered a good view of the River Seine but wasn’t high enough to offer a really good view of Paris itself. I then made it along to the Arc de Triomphe just in time to catch the 6pm ceremony and parade of French veteran soldiers, including a rousing rendition of ‘La Marseillaise’. After that was a stroll down Champs-Elysees and back to Ecole Militaire for a fixed price meal and a relatively early night.

The heavy thunderstorms overnight had converted to just a drizzle by early morning. I was out of the hotel and down to the metro at St Lazarre by 9am. I sat around the station for around an hour, waiting for some action and chatting to Christine, an arts student from Kent. The train finally got away just after 10am and reached the ship at Dieppe at 1pm. I was joined on the ship by 3 other English girls, so it was fun, flowing conversation. The 3.5-hour ferry trip to Newhaven was over remarkably calm seas for the English Channel. I bought a bottle of duty-free scotch on board for my cousin from Hatfield, with whom I was to visit soon after my arrival.

Additional photos below
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8th October 2021
'Venus de Milo' at the Louvre

The Louvre
We had a hard time viewing her due to crowds but finally was able to talk a look. A beauty.

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