Nom de Plumage

August 2, 2013

Reflections

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Today is a milestone, for it is six months since I have left home and it is also the day that I shall be leaving the European continent, bound for Britain. It is then only fitting, that I should reflect on my adventures and prepare myself for new ones.

My three-day visit with the French woman did not entirely play out as planned. Although, I did get to see spectacular scenery and fulfil my dream to see the Somme Valley and the war cemeteries, it was not without some dramas. I did something very out of the ordinary and excepted an invitation from a stranger to stay in their home. I have always felt uncomfortable about such things and hence the reason it took so long to confirm my visit. My hesitation was in tune with my intuition and I should have listened to it. Without going into too much detail, basically the woman suffers from severe depression and made me feel very uncomfortable and through her jealousy and insecurities, she judged me unfairly. It was hard to overcome such ill-treatment, but I am wiser for the experience and leave France sadly on a sour note.

I experienced something also that I believe many travellers, regardless of their sex or age must experience, and that is pursued by someone who is married.  It is while I was in Lucerne that I met a man who worked in a bar and throughout one evening he flirted. This time, I listened to my intuition and decided against returning any flirtation because of my imminent departure and eventual return to Australia. I ask advice from some friends and they all said that I should not have been so quick to fob him off and that I should go back and see where it will lead. It lead to my finding out from a third-party that the man is not only married, but has children. He did nothing to deny it and could only muster a sheepish smile. Thankfully, nothing happened and if not for the fact that I regretted wasting the money to return to Lucerne, it did save me embarrassment and eliminated the dreaded ‘what if’ ?

My three-month Eurail Pass has now officially expired and it is with a wonderful sense of achievement that I store the pass away as a reminder of my unbelievable destinations. Before departing on each train journey, I needed to fill out the form (to validate each journey) on the pass. I had used my pass extensively, that while in Berlin, I needed another form. The two attendants at the train station, were in shock that I requested another form, so much so, that they read the form to see what countries I have visited. Impressed, they laughed and handed me a new form and wished me well.

If you had asked me just one question before I even left Australia about what I fear most on my journey, you will be surprised to know that it is the fear of not being able to communicate with people. True! It is because I knew that I could not learn every language of the countries that I shall visit. I have read and heard countless stories of locals being rude to tourists who will not/cannot communicate in the language of the people, that I was very nervous. And for what? I will not lie that I did not meet a few rude people, but once I had made some attempt to communicate in their language, the language barrier dissipated and communication (either verbal or hand) is established. Funny, that even though I could not understand the actual language spoken, I somehow could understand the meaning behind the words. It is the unwritten law of communication and it surprised me that with some effort, we understood each other. Unfortunately, I missed not being able to read everything that surrounded me, or even have a meaningful conversation with the locals.

Of all the train stations in Europe that I travelled to/through, it is undoubtably Gare de Nord in Paris that was the station I visited the most. Not my most favourite of stations and yet it is fittingly the last station that I visit as I leave Paris bound for Britain on the Eurostar. I make my way up the stairs towards the UK customs and it is with relief when the customs officer speaks to me in perfect English. Ahhh! We spoke while he was processing my ticket and then he stopped and shook his head while he was flicking through my passport. The dreaded stamps from Berlin! I tried to make light note of it and although he laughed and informed me that many tourist also make the same mistake, he reiterated politely and strongly the foolishness of my actions. What now makes perfect sense, then seemed sensible. In fact, for a five euros and five stamps, each of countries that now do not exist, I had in fact committed an offence. He assured me that I will not have my passport confiscated because many other tourists fall into the same trap, but he warned me to think twice about my actions and that passports are legal documents that must not be tampered with. Point taken!

I believe that I may have had high expectations of the Eurostar train and it was only when I enter the train, reality hit. In fact, the train was very cramped, leg space minimal, luggage space minimal and the decor is a faded and worn grey colour. The journey itself was barely two hours long, but it was the experience of travelling under the channel that I was anticipating the most. Twenty minutes; that was all it took. Barely a blink and I was on British soil.  I exited the train at St Pancreas station, and became euphoric at the sound of the English language. My journey got that much easier simply because I could put the fear of not being able to communicate behind me, to a world where I could read and communicate perfectly. Bloody marvellous! My journey on the London metro was not so easy, especially when it is almost peek-hour. But it also does not help when I am carrying a very big back-pack and the metro train is very cramped and narrow. I was very taken back and had to contend with being jostled about.

At my destination, I had no idea where my hostel is. The hostel is operated by a private company and they do not provide directions. I tried looking for a taxi and could not find any or the taxi stand, so I went to ask someone at the station. The guard directed me to a place around the corner and still I could not find it. Went back to the station and he informed me again what I need to look for. It is in fact, a tiny shop (without a sign) and when I peered inside the large window, there was a large group of men of many different ethnicity playing cards. I hesitantly walk in to ask if this is where I can get a taxi. A quick discussion of whose turn it is next, a little Jamaican guy jumps up and takes me to his taxi. No sign and no meter. I am nervous and he senses my hesitation and assures me that it is a flat five-pound fee.

When I reach my hostel, I knock for about ten minutes before someone eventually hears me and opens the door. I had to telephone the office that I arrived and they inform me that they emailed me informing me that I have to go to another of their properties. Thankfully, the secretary comes to pick me up and it is only a short drive to the hostel. It is more like a huge house, clean and very comfortable and full of Aussies. I feel right at home and in good company.

 

July 25, 2013

On The Trail of My Heroes In The Somme

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How can anyone ever really be ready for the magnitude of war? Can anyone who has had the great privilege to visit war cemeteries, not be affected somehow by the masses of perfect white headstones; many unknown. I defy anyone who says they experience no emotion. I have dreamed of one day undertaking this pilgrimage and naïvely believed that I would comprehend the scale of the human cost. No way! There is nothing that can prepare me for what I am about to see.

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Amiens cannot be described as being picturesque or quaint, and yet it does possess some charm and beauty. It is the cities geographical position within the Somme and its gothic cathedral, where her claim to notoriety lays. I have no personal patriotism towards any city or cathedral, but my host does, and believes that Amiens cathedral is more superior to that of its famous sister in Paris. Admittedly, Amiens cathedral is larger and the intricate façade at the entrance is very beautiful. But within the stone walls, lays a cold and almost bare building, lacking any character. Notre Dame of Paris maybe smaller, but she packs a stunning impact and its fame is well deserved. Although something wonderful to ponder, is that the façade of the cathedral has only recently been discovered to have been constructed using colour. All the figures and scenes depicted on the stone walls, came to beautiful life as you would expect from a painting. Over the years, the colours faded and then disappeared, lost in knowledge and admiration for the skilled craftsmen who built such a place of worship.

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The gentle green hills of the Somme valley is dotted with war cemeteries. Gone is the mud and stench of death and in the spring, the fields come alive with poppies. But it is winter now and although there are no flowers in bloom, the sun is shinning, the sky is a radiant blue and the fields are lush. I am taken aback by the beautiful scenery and the serene atmosphere. If there is one cemetery within France that holds a special place within Australians heart, it is Villiers Bretonneux. Countless times I have seen it on TV, but nothing can prepare me for the real thing. Situated within the heart of the valley, the beautiful stone monument that reaches for the heavens, has the names of soldiers that perished in the Great War. I walk alone between the many rows of white headstones, reading and wondering who you are and did you know what horrors lay before you? There are many headstones without names and even though I know not their identity, I thank them all for their sacrifice.

I have never been to an ANZAC ceremony in Australia, nor can I see footage or photo’s of both wars without feeling great sadness and anger for the millions of lives lost. I am of a generation who can never understand or imagine the sacrifices  made or the horrors faced by the men and women. But as an Australian I write, my tears are late and decades have passed, but my heart is full of admiration and pride for the thousands of men who sacrificed their lives and future for the freedom of France and the world. What makes driving through this valley very special, is the proud display of the Australian flag in the window of homes, at schools and in the small villages.

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A few kilometres up the road, is Le Hamel; another war memorial dedicated to the Australians. On the site of the battlefield that our hero General Monash fought some of the bloodiest turning point battles of the war. The trenches are still visible but have long ago been reclaimed by mother earth. It was interesting to read detailed stories of the battles fought here and the courage and sacrifice of all involved.

We stopped at a lake nearby for a picnic lunch of sandwiches, foie gras, fruit and tea.

A short stop at Pozieres and another Aussie war memorial before we headed to the mother of all memorials at Thiepval.

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Nothing can prepare you for the magnificent stone structure that consists of sixteen four-sided pillars with the names of 76 000 men lost from France and Britain. This memorial also has white headstones and wooden crosses from both sides, identifying soldiers killed. But it is the names carved into the faces of the pillars, lost forever, that catches my breath. What is even more scary, that the figures are only a fraction of the true cost of the war. Of all the memorials, this is the most impressive and there is also a fantastic bookstore and museum on site.

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Our last great war memorial is Beaumont Hamel. This one is dedicated to the tens of thousands of Canadian and Scottish soldiers that perished. Unique, because this is not a memorial with headstones, rather an intricate trail of trenches that are now covered with a thick green carpet of grass. I walked through some of the trenches and failed to even imagine what life was like among the mud and stench of this place of refuge. Many trenches and parts of the battlefield are out-of-bounds, due to live shells and bombs that lay dormant among the trees and hills. The Canadians have dedicated an impressive bronze statue of a caribou that stands proud on a hill overlooking the trenches. The Scots have erected a beautiful bronze statue of a soldier in traditional costume (kilt), protected by lions as they also overlook the trenches.

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The sun was slowly setting and we both realised just how full our day has been. But it was not over yet. We have saved the biggest to the last. Unfortunately, I could take no photo’s of this site, but to do so, you would need a plane/helicopter to fly high above and get the full-scale of this thing. At La Boiselle is a gigantic hole called Lochnagar Crater. At an impressive one hundred metres across and thirty metres deep,  this awe-inspiring crater was created by the relentless bombing from the enemy. If the result is impressive, what was it like to actually witness this phenomenon first hand and survive to tell the tale.

We drove home exhausted and full of emotion. My host prepared our final dinner together and then afterwards, it was a leisurely evening of eating our dessert in front of the fire and watching Inspector Barnaby in French. A real hoot!

To end…..

I was honoured to have  the special privilege of walking through the valley and among the resting place of the thousands of ‘digger’s’ who have left an indelible mark in our history. The word ‘digger’ is a special name given to the men who have seen war and it gives them a very honoured place among the hearts of all Australians. Lest we forget…….

 

July 3, 2013

Chateau de Chenonceau

Filed under: Diary,Solo Travelling — nomdeplumage @ 4:04 pm
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Another confusing and time wasted day in France.

Because of the season, I missed the opportunity to visit some castles while in France, but I am surprised that the Chateau de Chenonceau is open to visitors. I need no encouraging. I get the 9:22 am train from Gare Austerlitz for a two-hour journey through the stunning Loire Valley to Tours. Not actually knowing how to get to the castle, I follow the signs from the train station to the tourist bureau and waste one hour walking in search of something that maybe existed and if it did, the street signs lead me nowhere. I find someone to help me and they direct to get the train that actually stops at the castle. Problem! I just missed one and have to wait an hour for the next one. Time for lunch.

I eventually arrive at the Chateau after a thirty minute journey and it is 2pm. Some days are just harder than others and I guess this is one of them.

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The train station is between the Chateau and a quaint little town. A short walk to the main entrance to the park where I buy a ticket and explore the little gift shop. Tempting as the gifts are, I am eager to move on. The walk to the castle is along a dirt track that is aligned with beautiful trees on either side. It is unfortunate that there is no foliage on the trees and yet there is something very mystic and beautiful to see the bare gnarly old trees. At the end of the path, the castle comes into view and it is as beautiful as I imagined it will be. Situated on a picturesque site of several acres, there is a little cottage that cannot be accessed by tourists, a maze, manicured gardens, a working vegetable garden, a farm still working and a forest on the other side of the river and a river that flows beautifully under the castle. For anyone who does not know, Chenonceau is the château famous for the spectacular long bridge that joins the castle to the forest on the other side.

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I have always envied stately homes owned and operated by societies élite, their beauty and elegance; but there is also something wrong about living in such large residence during winter. Forget central heating and our modern luxuries, heating in those days was very primitive and castles were always perpetually cold. One has to wonder about the wisdom and price for luxury. But what I cannot take away from this château, is the beautifully furnished rooms and the elegance in its simplicity. There are rooms were I found the room ‘over-the-top’ and none more so then the upstairs bedrooms and the rich red bed coverings and detailed wallpaper. Too much!

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But of all the many rooms within this grand home, it was the kitchen that awed me and made me dream of the possibilities that could be produced here. A large kitchen with stone walls, it is fabulously furnished with utensils and moulds. I envy the copper pots, something France is famous for; and dream of the different moulds that produce delicious desserts. The space is huge and it is also the comfortable. But it is the warm feeling that the heart of a home inspires within me, that really leaves an impression on me.

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I walk the endless acreage and although the season is of hibernation and the flora lays bare, there is something still very beautiful to see them bare and slightly covered in a winters mist. I walk through the bare forest and trample on the blanket of dead leaves. The trees lay bare but with a tinge of green moss that cover parts of the trunk; the only sign of life. Small surprises open up among the forest, hints of lover’s secret meeting haunts (a love chair), or a place for fun (a maze) and stone structures that add some depth amongst the vast expanse. Through it all, the mist hovers low and I smell the crisp air and breathe in the cold, undeterred because the beauty enchants me.

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I have some time to spare before my train back to Tours arrives and it gives me an opportunity to go and explore the little town on the other side of the train tracks. If you can imagine a town with narrow streets, stone buildings, peaceful and filled with shops that cater not only for the tourists, but the locals; then you can imagine a town that is uniquely French and very pretty.

 

 

 

March 16, 2013

Rendezvous in La Petite France

DSC00259Strasbourg is a city of contradictions. The people are unmistakably French and yet the architecture is as German as it comes. Centuries of conflict between Germany and France for ownership of Alsace, have left their imprints on the country with Strasbourg the ‘jewel in the crown’. This is a detour that I have made for a couple of days un-route to Spain to revisit a friend. Suzy and I met over a month ago in Italy and we spent several wonderful days touring the delightful city of Vincenza. After some discussion about each of our travel plans, a window of opportunity presented itself and I could not pass it up.

‘Il Grande’ in the 1980’s became World Heritage Listed, unique for part of a city to have been given the honours. It is only when you see this stunning gem, that one can appreciate and understand the value in preserving such a unique town. Regardless of who owns or controls Strasbourg, the city is richer for the culture, architecture and cuisine, and I am richer for the experience.

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One would think from my photo’s that I am in Venice or Amsterdam with the canal that weaves through the city. But observing the many towns/cities that I have visited so far, the predominate theme is to build near or on water. Times were very different back then, when the common mode of transport was on water. The canal, bridges, boats and cafe’s upon the water’s edge, all add charm and allure.

My day passes slowly and it is the evening that I am looking forward to most. Suzy and I have agreed to meet very late; due to her work commitments and I wonder through the Christmas market in search of a little treat to tide me over. It is a beautiful evening and just as the stall operators begin to close down for the night, Suzy arrives with her big beautiful smile shining. It has only be weeks since we last saw each other, but it has felt so much longer with all the travelling that I have done.

We are both hungry, but have no idea where we should eat. I suggest we go to ‘Petite France’ because we may have better luck and the fact that it is such a beautiful place. Our search is more difficult than we thought it would be and the evening is closing down on us. We back-track to a modern-looking restaurant that is still in full swing and decide to try our luck. The waiter is lovely and hands us the menu and the word that keeps making an appearance is – Flammee. Suzy and I both look at each other, questioning what a flammee is. But as the saying goes; “beggar’s cannot be chooser’s, we order. I order a duck, cherry and orange flammee and Suzy orders salmon and chives. Between catch-up and anticipation for our dinner, it eventually arrives. It is? A very thin pizza. Not exactly what we thought or wanted it, that is until we started eating. Delicious, light and certainly taking the edge off our hunger pains, we are both satisfied. Great service, delicious food and wonderful company.

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