Sur le Pont d’Avignon L’on y danse, l’on y danse Sur le Pont d’Avignon L’on y danse tous en rond
So, after a great time in Marseille, I was flagging. I had driven 1500 miles, spent most of 15 days by myself, and lugged my rucksack, cold box and backpack up more stairs than I care to remember… and I was remembering many things…
It was coming up to Mr T’s birthday. I was having a great time, but I knew that it was coming to an end. And the sorrow was beginning to increase. More and more, I was feeling the black cloud coming over, reminding me that, in a few days time, I should have been enjoying my husband’s retirement day and we should have been finalising our plans to move to Spain to begin a new life. Except that wasn’t going to happen. Instead I was alone, grieving again.
Avignon is the place where the Pope used to have his Palace, and what a palace. It’s also the place of the 15th century bridge or “pont”, on which traditional dances were held. But I was tired, listless and losing enthusiasm at a rate of knots. Where previously I would have eagerly bought my ticket, a guide book and enjoyed a selfish afternoon, immersed in culture, language and history, all I could do was stare at the beauty of the place…and feel nothing. I felt ashamed that I felt nothing. As though I was incapable of appreciating the fine architecture. I apologised to Avignon. It wasn’t its fault, it was mine.
My final meal in France was in a delightful restaurant where I ate all manner of fishy things and met a wonderful waitress called Adele (with an accent over the first e). She sensed my loneliness and pepped me up with funny stories, her own dreams of travelling to England and how she had had a row with her boyfriend the night before. My impending misery dissipated for a while… along with a few glasses of rose and a beer.
I sat and watched the world go by. I watched families, couples, children, all strolling in front of me, lost in their own worlds. I wondered what problems they were facing, what issues were going on in their lives. I spotted a little girl, engrossed in a cartoon artist’s work, innocent of the knowledge of future sadnesses that she was to face. I wanted to reach out to each and every one of them. To tell them that I was alone, and ask them if they would just hug me. And I’m sure if I had, I would have received what I was aching for… but we don’t do things like that, do we? I had skin hunger. An overwhelming need to communicate intimately with someone who knew me, loved me, cared about me…
I was beginning to use alcohol as an anti depressant – never a good sign, since I get high on life. And drinking is totally useless on a driving holiday. I awoke the next morning, with a headache and heartache. My next journey was to be onwards to Arles, where Van Gogh lived and stayed in the psychiatric hospital for a while. This was becoming a little too close for comfort.
I had 4 days of my journey left, and approximately 1000km. I sat in my hotel room and despaired at my inability to carry on. My weakness for letting the clouds build up and my overwhelming feelings of isolation. I rang my friend. He said “Come home”. It was all I needed to hear… Van who?
I had reservations about coming to Marseille to be honest. It seems to be a real mixed bag down here. There are some dodgy areas to be sure. I guess every large city has them whether they’re in the south of France or not. But I’d seen the French Connection, and heard about its ancient history and was curious.
By now I was on day 14 of my 21 day road tour around France, and fatigue was setting in. Because I’m only staying in a place for 2-3 nights maximum it can be difficult to make connections, and it’s also tiring. The same conversation about myself. People are very curious about this solo, female traveller with appalling French. But they are curious in a nice way and I have had the most wonderful reception from the people here. Do try to speak some French, it gets you a long way and then most people speak a little English so you can have a decent conversation.
Anyway, onwards 2.5 hours from Nice towards Marseille. I stayed at the Belle Vue Hotel which overlooks the old port and is a wonderful place to people watch. Don’t expect luxury but the rooms all have a wonderful view, which is what you pay for. Having said that, they are clean, the staff are very friendly and there is a wonderful bar where, if you’re lucky (and I have been, twice so far) you can get a balcony table and watch the world go by. Breakfast is E10 and a good, traditional, continental fayre. Definitely worth a look.
I love Marseille. It’s a place where you can see people from every corner of the globe. There were jazz musicians playing next to African musicians; the smell of all of the different types of food was mouth watering.
When I’m on the coast, I eat fish. What better food to eat than one which has made it from ocean to table within a few hours? Solo dining in France is easy peasy. It’s tourists that seem to have a problem with it. I enjoyed countless numbers of lunches and dinners with only my fellow waiters/waitresses for company. It’s a great opportunity to try out your French, (I speak French, they speak English, that way we both get to practice), and waiting staff are the perfect people from whom to extract local knowledge about where to go, where not to go, and where to get the best deals. Try it. They won’t bite. And you might even get an extra sneaky glass of wine if you smile sweetly enough… 🙂
On the subject of dining for one… some rules:
1. The view. Get a table with a view. Preferably in a piazza, plaza or somewhere where people and the world wander by. You’ll have no need to open that book that you’ve brought along with you.
2. Friendly waiting staff. They will entertain you, treat you and if you’re lucky, take a great photo of you with yet another glass of wine and cigarette…
3. Eat early. By early, I mean around 7 ish. The restaurant will be quite empty and you will have the pick of the tables. Also, you are unlikely to annoy the maitre d’ with your insistence on having the premier table in the restaurant…by yourself…for the whole evening.
4. Dress nicely. The maitre d’ is likely to enjoy having you sit in prime position in his restaurant as you make it look good. They don’t underestimate the value of having good looking customers sitting at their tables, so take advantage.
Marseille is a cosmopolitan melting pot. Economic conditions and political unrest in Europe and the rest of the world brought several waves of immigrants during the 20th century: Greeks and Italians started arriving at the end of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century, up to 40% of the city’s population was of Italian origin;Russians in 1917; Armenians in 1915 and 1923; Vietnamese in the 1920s, 1954 and after 1975; Corsicans during the 1920s and 1930s; Spanish after 1936; North Africans in the inter-war period ; Sub-saharan Africans after 1945; the pieds-noirs from the former French Algeria in 1962; and then from Comoros In 2006, it was reported that 70,000 city residents were considered to be of Maghrebian origin, mostly from Algeria. The second largest group in Marseille in terms of single nationalities were from the Comoros, amounting to some 45,000 people. Souks jostle for position next to huge Cathedrals topped with golden statues of the Virgin.
A wonderful place to sit and watch life go by. As in any place, just hang onto your wallet…
Today I took a boat to the Island where Chateau D’If is located. It was Marseille’s equivalent of Alcatraz and where the political prisoners were taken during the Napoleonic times. It’s also where they threw 3,500 Protestants (Huguenots) in gaol.
Chateau D’If is also the setting for the fictional novel by political writer Alexandre Dumas, “The Count of Monte Cristo”. Edmund Dantes is put in gaol for crimes he didn’t commit and spends many years at Chateau D’If. In the same way that people think that Sherlock Holmes existed, they generally believe that Dantes did actually become a prisoner here. It is also supposedly the place where the Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned. Both fictional characters however there were many political and religious people who were sentenced to stay here, and died before their release. It’s well worth the boat trip to visit and see the graffiti left by prisoners as well as the cells:
By the way…Did you know…. the French national anthem stems from a song that a group of Marseille revolutionaries, who walked to Paris, sang during the road. The song became know as the Marseillaise and became the anthem. There you go…. 🙂
I do like a bit of art. No, honest, I do. I don’t know why. My daughter is an Art/Art History student so I guess having all that arty farty stuff around has been rubbing off on me for the past couple of years.
Art was the raison d’etre of my first visit to Florence (not, I have to admit though, the subsequent ones…which were more about using my own imagination with a certain local chef…)
I thoroughly recommend using guided tours if: 1. You are a solo traveller ( a great way to meet like minded people in a safe and public environment) and 2. You have, like me, no idea what you are looking at.
Guided tours, such as those arranged by http://www.viator.com are the perfect way to really get to know about a specific type of art. The guides are experts in their own fields and have a passion for passing on this knowledge to others. I always try to use one when attending a gallery. However, none were available for the artists that I have seen in Nice (Matisse and Chagall) and Antibes (Picasso), so I had to rely on what I had learnt on previous tours, and the amazing information that I have gleaned from daughter no. 2 over the past couple of years.
It is said that artists come to the South of France for the light, and then stay. Well, I’m totally with them on that one. Today I understood why it’s called the Cote D’Azur. The brilliance of the colours is astonishing. It has to be seen to be believed, no photograph can do it justice. I’ve visited quite a few places over the years, on the Mediterranean but none have provided the startling clarity of light. It’s as though God’s passed a j cloth and some Windolene over the whole place so that it sparkles. The blues of the sea and the sky are enchanting. Do go. You’ll love it.
Anyhow, back to being arty farty. For an unquiet mind such as my own, art provides tranquility. Don’t ask me how it does this. It just works. When the mind is restless, as mine is quite often, spending time in a calm, quiet environment, staring at stuff, trying to understand what the stuff is trying to say (if anything), seems to provide a perfect distraction. Yes, I know psychiatric units provide calm, quiet environments too but I’m trying to keep out of those…
So I found the Museum of Matisse in a little town just outside of Nice called Cimiez. And I got him. I just totally understood why he was such a genius (no, stay with me on this one, I’m not about to dig out my wimple and turn all Sister Wendy). I loved the way that I could see a bunch of squiggly lines on a white canvas and interpret it as someone dancing or someone happy. I loved the paintings with the colours that depict emotion. I didn’t need a book to tell me this. I just saw it. Maybe it’s a benefit of lithium?
When you’re alone, your train of thought is just your own. No one is around to make suggestions to you about what you are looking at, it’s just your own interpretation. And the great thing about art is that there’s no right or wrong answer so your opinions are as valid as anyone else’s. And I always like to be right.
And before anyone says it, yes, Matisse could paint properly!!!!
For me, the picture above has more expression than the one below, yet is much simpler. I like this idea. Cut the crap and get to the point. Works for me.
So I really liked Matisse, and I went to find him in the Cimiez cemetery to tell him so…
Feeling inspired and full of arty fartiness, I made a move down the hill back into Nice, to the Marc Chagall museum. When I later asked my new French chums if they’d visited either museum, they just looked at me and said “Non. We live here”, which I guess is true. When you live somewhere, you tend to leave the touristy stuff to, well, tourists.
Marc Chagall was a Russian Jew who moved to France when young. He painted a lot of weird stuff, like people with their heads off, walking on their hands, that kind of thing. And whilst I liked his paintings, I couldn’t help but think of the children’s classic cartoon, Mr Benn:
Perhaps I’m not such a good art critic, after all…
This road trip around France began as an act of defiance I guess. Have ferry ticket, car and 3 weeks to spare, will travel. It was also something of a challenge. Could little old me, all by myself, drive around France, going for weeks without any meaningful conversation, relying just on my own intuition and judgement…?
This morning I have a hangover from last night’s shenanigans with a great group of locals. So, naturally, I’m feeling a little delicate this morning. And the first thing to be affected is my Achilles heel – my mood.
Listless. Pinpricks behind the eyes. Desire to crawl back under the duvet. Being on the French Riviera, under the gaze of a beautiful sun has done little to shift this so far this morning.
It’s easy to carry on when life feels good, the emotions are in balance and positivity rules. The flip side is trying to wade through the treacle of life when the inclination is to let go and just drown into peaceful oblivion. Writing it down and acknowledging the feelings is a start. I always feel so guilty. I remember what the guys of the First World War battlefields went through, and my visit to the Somme and I’m ashamed to have so little to worry about and yet feel so angry. And resentful. And full of self pity. Because, you see, some great friends of mine are celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary today.
I’m here, in beautiful Nice, about to visit Antibes, a Picasso exhibition and then drive down to Marseille. In the glorious sunshine. I’m young(ish), intelligent(ish), independent with beautiful children and all that life has to offer before me. I’m not a girl, born into poverty in some appalling country torn apart with by famine or war. I should be happy. But I’m not. Because I see what Mr T. cannot see. I do things that he would love to do. And I want to do them with him. I would just do anything for him to be here. I miss him.
I had to begin my post about Nice and the French Riviera with this delightful song, which always makes me think of the south of France…
Travelling solo can be tricky, especially when you only stay one or two nights in each place. It’s more difficult to form connections with people as it takes a while to get your bearings and confidence. That’s when organised outings can be useful.
So, I met JJ in Monaco, when I went for my little ride in the little red car. He actually lives in Nice which was my next port of call and so we arranged to meet up this morning, for coffee (cigarettes obligatory), at Wayne’s Bar (www.waynes.fr), his local and the place to go if you want to converse in English…
The great thing about meeting local people is that they can give you local knowledge. I expressed an interest in spending the day at the beach but wasn’t overly enamoured with Nice. It’s nice … if you like tourists, gift shops and souvenir shops. However the shops are open all day long , which can be a relief after my failing to remember on each occasion that France closes at 12pm for lunch…until 3 or 4pm…
So I was recommended a place called Juan Les Pines… a 20 or so minutes train ride between Nice and Cannes. I could have driven but was told the parking would be horrendous…which was absolutely right. So, in my bestest (which is diabolical) French, I found the tram to the train station and then the train to Juan Les Pines.
And I did it. I have to admit feeling a sense of pride when I actually found myself at the beach (sand, Nice is pebble), with a baguette and a coke, sunbathing with all of my clothes on. Because you see, my skin hates the sun. Thanks to my Irish heritage, I break out in hives and a curious lobster like complexion if I don’t apply Factor 500 and wear the equivalent of a bed sheet on the beach. Which generated more than a few curious stares from onlookers – all French – all gorgeous (not many chip butties are eaten in these parts) and all bronzed. Not to mention the fact that I was a female, alone
If you want to be a female solo traveller…get used to being looked at. Not out of any animosity, just total curiosity. But there’s no hiding the curiosity with French people. They will stand and gawp at you quite openly. I ‘m surprised I haven’t been carried off to the local zoo at an exhibit…
My last night in Nice was great fun. JJ introduced me to his wonderful daughter Leia and in turn, I was introduced to some great (if a little crazy!) guys at Wayne’s bar. Do go here for a drink. It’s good fun (can be loud after 10pm) and it’s an English speaking bar so you can seek out people to talk to when you have tired of conjugating the past tense in French. The beer gives you courage to have a joke but please be prepared to explain yourself – British humour is different and we tease an awful lot (well, I do anyway). People can take us literally. I tell people that if I am smiling when I say something then I am joking. Then they will do the same thing with you! Just don’t get too drunk otherwise you put yourself in a vulnerable situation, which is very easy to do…
Yesterday I can safely say I became well acquainted with the ups and downs, the highs and lows of the French Alps.
To begin with, I was embarking on a simple little cruise on down from Grenoble to Monaco’s Monte Carlo. Around 450km. Pas de problem pour moi. I even stopped off en route to take in a jolly jaunt up the side of a mountain at Le Funiculaire de Saint Helene-du-Touvet. More of that later.
The weather was hot and sunny and my little black cloud of grief was doing its best to dissipate. The butterfly which fleetingly greeted me on my journey back down the mountain in the carriage had tried her best to reassure me that everything was going to be ok. That I would be ok. That the sick, empty, useless feeling would soon be over.
So I set the Sat Nav to my hotel destination in Monte Carlo, whacked up Led Zeppelin to full volume, ensured I had enough cigarettes and full fat Coke for the 5 hour trip (the time needed for 450km should have been clue enough about the future drive) and remembered to drive off in the right hand lane.
Bugger I forgot the petrol. Must learn to get my priorities in order…
What I hadn’t taken into account was the Alps. Well, I knew they were there. I just expected to…well…I don’t know really. I suppose I thought they would part miraculously, or there would be a magic button that I could press, to make them sink into the ground, Tracey Island fashion. What I hadn’t anticipated were two things: 1. That one can either drive over mountains. Or through them. Either way is a right royal pain, and 2. They dramatically alter the local meteorological climate. In fact, one is perpetually driving in cloud. For 200km. And if God really does sit on a cloud, then He needs some bloody good wellies. And a mac…
I also hadn’t realised that, in order to tootle down to Monaco, I was going to have to go through Italy. Not that I have anything against the Italians. In fact if you read my previous posts on Florence, you’ll see that I have quite a fondness for them. But having to suddenly switch from speaking appalling French to speaking appalling Italian without as much as a sniff of barbed wire, passport control or scary looking Italian guards in rather too tight trousers was more than my wobbly head could cope with. I just stared in disbelief when a rather gorgeous looking ragazza (how do they manage to look so bloody stylish even when cooped up in a toll booth?) in a starched collared, nicely bust-darted blouse garbled something to me. Presumably it was “Good God woman, didn’t you bother to look at a topological map before you decided to embark on this crazy idea? Have you taken your meds today?” Yes I had, but it all seemed a very long time ago…
Anyhow, off I set. If you ever want to know how it feels to be a sewer rat, and I’m sure you do, on a regular basis, then go to Monaco via the French/Italian Alps. In, out, in, out, speed up, speed down (well, in the case of the Italian drivers, speed up, stay up…). Stop for the road toll on at least 10 occasions. Remember that you’re on the wrong bloody side of the car, so seat belt off, lean over, turn down Lenny Kravitz (Are you gonna go my way? Not if it involves mountains. Not even for you, Mr Sex God). Peer up at scary looking Italian man (I’m in a Mini, he’s seated at the right hand of the Lord on his throne in his toll booth. Well I guess they have to be able to gesticulate wildly to lorry drivers too). And it’s pissing it down. Correction. It is torrential.
After 6 hours, 279 miles, countless tunnels, umpteen hairpin bend roads, aqua planing twice (not on a hairpin bend though, thankfully), watching 2 poor buggers being carted off in an ambulance (yes I did feel sorry for them in their road accident, even though it delayed me), 50 Hail Mary’s, God knows how many Our Fathers and a promise that if I ever did make it to Monte Carlo, I would never do this crazy trip again, I arrived at a lovely little hotel. Then I had to carry my backpack up 3 flights of stairs, after which I was nearly sick when I actually got into the room, so knackered, tired and hungry was I. Then, finally, city hotels rarely have their own car parks, so I had to go off and find one for Mini. And then walk back. at 11pm. In the dark. In a strange city.
Life without Mr T consists of waves. They begin in a small way. The sorrows I mean. They trickle in and then fall away again with the minutae of life. The grief appears as pin pricks in the eyes and in the heart. Itslowly retreats again as daily tasks and busyness, and joy of life takes over.
Without warning, the grief spikes begin to gather momentum and to close in. It can be in the morning when first awakening, hopefully to be calmed with life’s daily grind. Or it can be an early evening feeling, when the day’s work is done and there’s nothing to fill the mind other than the past. This is when I try to focus on the future and make plans. Life must continue after all, in some form or other.
So I push onwards, onwards and onwards…
Then comes a day like today.The seventh wave. A day when no matter how much the sun is shining, how many birds in the park are entertaining me with their squabbles over left overs from yesterday’s picnics or how many children run around with joy in their hearts, glad to be free of the chains of the classroom.Or even the fact that I am travelling around this beautiful country (France), with all that it has to offer. This day belongs to my husband. I cannot “think of the good times” and “be glad that he didn’t suffer” – how does anyone know this anyway? What happens when the light goes out of someone’s eyes as they look at you? The seventh wave of sorrow will wash over me and there’s not a thing I can do about it. I have to succumb and go under. I have to take a deep breath and just hope that, as for the past 2.5 years, I will resurface. Again.
I’m feeling sorry for myself of course. I’m grieving for the loss of my own life. Of my own present and for our future lives in Spain, which would have begun in a month’s time.
For the loss of the one person in my life (ever, including the shrinks) that truly understood me. That never questioned my sometimes skewed view of the world – because he thought that way too. That shared my love for hardware shops,with all the paraphernalia and the smell of wood, varnish and the opportunities presented in the gadgets (I love gadgets). Stationery shops and the smell of new plastic pencil cases. The potential wrapped up in a brand new pen. For the absence of a love that understood howpeople can rage and shout and still be in love. For the loss of the recognition that sometimes I need to be alone, I cannot communicate and I cannot cooperatebut how, at other times,I cannot abide solitude and need to just cling to him, digging my nose into his womblike armpits; to feel safe.
So I try to be still. I try to let the wave wash over me and feel the emotions. To embrace them as signs of the love that we shared, of the love I still carry. And I weep. In a park. In Grenoble. Full of people eating their baguette luncheson the grass and enjoying the sun. For me, the sun will come out again and the wave will recede. Soon…
For the solo traveller, especially one on a road trip with hundreds of miles to cover, it can be useful to break up both the solitude and the driving fatigue with an organised tour. I chose to hop a ride with a jolly bunch of Aussies, most of whom were in the middle of wonderful travel trips themselves. They were travelling through Europe having stopped off at London and Paris, and were making their way down to either the south of France or on towards Switzerland and Italy.
I had the pleasure of their company for a whole day, lunch included. I also had the interesting addition of seeing the First World War from the Australian perspective. The tour was excellent, organised by Terres de memoire (www.terresdememoire.com). If you think that you know all there is to know about a part of history, try taking in a tour catering for visitors from a country other than your own.You will soon find that your view of history is very one dimensional. Where yesterday, I had visited the places that my great grandfather, Arthur Greenhill had fought alongside his British comrades, today I learnt about the vital roll played by the Anzacs in breaking through the German frontline. I also learnt about the appalling loss of life on behalf of a nation which volunteered to fight alongside its Motherland, and how it marked the transition from a nationbeing tethered to the British apron strings, to one creating its own history. They played their part in the theatre of war which occurred along a 30km line, for a gain of 12km of ground, killing around one million people.
1916 saw an impasse between Germany and Britain. Trench warfare had set in, with neither side being able to break through the other’s defences. Loss of life was high on both sides. Approximately 60,000 men died on the first day. The Australians came to relieve the beleaguered Brits whose numbers were dramatically depleted. Pozieres was the place that would see the Australians’ finest hour.
Attacking during the night, from the low land up to the German high land vantage point, the Anzacs succeeded in breaking through the defences. Here stands theAustralian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. From here it can be seen just what a magnificent tour de force the troops must have been.
The German army could see for miles across the French countryside, and as they were always in a defending position, and as they had prepared for months in advance, with carefully constructed trenches and defence mechanisms, the Australian victory cannot be underestimated. It also marked a psychological change in the German army. It demonstrated the fact that they could be beaten. In all, around 624,000 Allies and 500,000 German died at the Somme. The numbers are unimaginable. Environmental studies show that iron levels in the fields of the Somme and other battlefield areas continue to be significantly higher than average, due to the large number of casualties and the intensity of the shelling.
It was a joy to travel on a bus (luxury – being able to stare out across the countryside, and no trying to overtake tractors) in the company of those who shared my history but a different one. The French guide was friendly, informative and genuinely seemed to take delight in discussing all matters war. They were as curious about this solo female traveller as I was about them travelling halfway around the world. A wonderful lunch hour was spent in the company of people who thought I was a little bit crazy, but full of guts.
One of the highlights of the day was when a lady found her great uncle, buried in one of the many Commonwealth and German cemeteries that we visited (she had emailed the guide beforehand with details and they managed to find him), and share in her tears of sorrow and pride. This was a memorable day for us all…
A read of “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque will show just how horrific the war was for Germans as well as the Allies…
Mooching through oneof the farmer’s fields, I came across some shrapnel. The fields continue to give up First World War artefacts, with soldiers being found and sometimes identified, on a regular basis.
On the way to the largest British Memorial to the 70,000 British soldiers still unaccounted for, in the Somme alone, we met a lovely 82 year old lady called Madame Christine. Her late husband was a farmer and would regularly come home with empty shell cases that he had ploughed up:
She also had 2 live ones:
The Département du Déminage, an arm of the French government operates in as much secrecy (to allay citizen concern) as possible to eliminate the unexploded shells which litter Northeastern France. This department has, since 1946, collected eighteen million artillery shells, ten million grenades, six hundred thousand aerial bombs and six hundred thousand underwater mines (this figure does, of course, include ordnance from W.W.II) and cleared and reclaimed two million acres. The department also receives about two million calls for the pick up of unexploded devices per year; these include grenades, mines, shells and bombs.
Mme Christine spoke no English but seemed to be able to understand me when I asked if she would mind having her photo taken with me, and adored the fact that my name is Victoria. She lives alone, her only regular contact with the outside world being the occasional group of tourists that turn up to admire her collection of war memorabilia, courtesy of the lovely tour guide Sylvestre. I would have loved to have shared a French brandy with her and discussed past times (with the help of a translator…Sylvestre perhaps?)
Amiens is within an hour and a half reach of Paris by train, and about 2 hours by car from Dieppe, avoiding the toll roads (if you’re English, driving at a slower speed on the wrong side of the road etc). It has a beautiful olde world bohemian area behind the Cathedral, down by the river which is well worth a visit (or in my case, several). It is not overpriced and serves local delicacies as well as more traditional tourist fare. For a local lunchtime meal try http://www.restaurant-tantejeanne.com/. Very friendly (English speaking) staff who welcomed my request for a solo table by putting me in a wonderfully shady little nook where I had a fine view of everyone in the restaurant and could indulge my favourite pastime of people watching behind sunglasses. I wasn’t even seated near a toilet! Luxury indeed!
Locals and students alike gather down by the canal, where the old town of Amiens – Ste Leu is situated. The solo traveller will feel at home here, wandering through the old streets, listening to snatches of conversation as each open window is strolled past, and finding a quiet step to rest on whilst watching swallows diving in and out of the guttering in which their nests are carefully hidden. The solo traveller notices so many things that can be missed when in the company of others.
Amiens was all but destroyed during the Second World War. Luckily the Cathedral survived, and for me is more impressive than Notre Dame in Paris.
Maybe I feel this because I had the privilege of wandering around its glorious gothic interior more or less by myself. It was 35 degrees outside, and humid. The relief of finding sanctuary within its cool walls was palpable. Amiens Cathedral was built to house the supposed head of St John the Baptist (which was served up on a platter to the wife of King Solomon). The head that is in the church (which I didn’t photograph out of respect) was very small and withered (I guess it happens to us all) and there’s no documentary proof of it actually being that of St John, however it is someone’s head and for me, that fact alone meant that a candle should be lit. After all, presumably there’s a body lying around somewhere, wondering (if headless bodies can wonder…) where the rest of it is….
The first thing that struck me about Amiens (especially as it was the first stop on my tour de France) was its friendliness. The city has a large student and migratory population, and is very welcoming to those new in town. I was made to feel at home here and enjoyed 3 nights in the city’s company.
My first night was a fantastic introduction to Friday night entertainment, French style. A lively band playing electric and acoustic guitars, all 3 of them achingly beautiful, including the female singer/tambourinist. The songs were classic British and American (pleased to say most of them British – The Beatles, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Oasis). I indulged in a “Janvier” cocktail – my birth month and a nifty way to entice tourists to pay 6E for a cocktail that they wouldn’t ordinarily bother with. This was followed by several glasses of local beer and some delightful garlicky canapés which helped my stomach to cope with the rather large amount of cigarettes and alcohol that I was consuming, such was my enjoyment of the evening.
Cigarette intake for me is a kind of barometer of emotional bouyancy. No smoking whatsoever usually means either 1. I’m not at work or 2. I’m not drinking or 3. I’m not either high or low. Just mooching about in the middle. However, if I’m as high as a kite, or in the pits of despair, you’ll find me chuffing for England, on some seedy little menthol number. Or 20. Yes I know it’s bad for my health. But so is banging my head on the wall, which is the alternative if I don’t have a smoke when I’m on a downer…
So much did I enjoy the entertainment that I awoke at 9 the following morning with somewhat of a headache. Still, it was worth it to be a part of the “scene”. Everyone was friendly and warm – although in these parts, not a lot of English is spoken and I appear to have forgotten every French word that I ever learnt.
I imagine that the smell of the wild garlic would have got up my Great Grandfather’s nose long before the Hun did. For a man whose life before 1915 had been submersed in the iron foundries of the Black Country, central England, the sounds and smells must have been new and strange.
Driving through the fighting fields of the Somme, it seemed as though the whole area was asleep, but not a peaceful sleep. I switched my radio off. It seemed incongruous to witness acre after acre of battlefield whilst whistling along to “I get by with a little help from my friends” . The deaths of so many men in such a small area have rendered the whole of this part of France to be permanently shell shocked. A total of 1,304,000 men died here. The earth seems to scream silently at man’s inhumanity to man, yet only birdsong is audible. Whilst many soldiers were exhumed and reburied in war graves, the majority proved to be unidentifiable and indistinguishable from one another. This band of brothers lived together and died together. Nationality was no barrier to destruction. Everyone lost.
Farmers toil the land now, rich in the nitrogen left behind by the lifeblood of the fallen; providing nutrients for the crops. British ex-pats are busy converting barns into holiday homes. Local children go to school, and then move away with the need for employment and prospects. Life does carry on here, but a walk in the fields and through the woods surrounding the villages, and it’s easy to imagine the pounding of the machine guns, the screams of the men and horses and the groaning of the land, ripped apart and bleeding to death. I wandered how long it took for the birdsong to reappear…
There are few old buildings in the local villages. Everything is 20th century made. Each village has its own war cemetery, honouring both foreigners and locals alike. Monuments mark the sacrifice made by groups of British guys who marched off to war together, such as the Manchester and Liverpool Pals. The only time I can imagine that these two fiercely rival cities would be happy to have their names carved side by side.
My Great Grandfather fought to liberate Guillemont, an unassuming village but vital to breaking through the defences of the German line on the Western Front. Little remains of the Guillemont that he would have marched/crawled into; the village was virtually razed to the ground thanks to the monthly pounding of machine gun fire and the constant shelling from both sides. On the crossroads outside of the village sits a memorial stone to the Twentieth (Light) Division who played a key role in the liberation. It took 4 attempts from July 1916, and the use of the new tanks between 3rd-6th September 1916 (and massive loss of life) to finally capture Guillemont from the German army. By the end of August 1916, British casualties were 251,000 men. How my Great Grandfather survived, is a miracle. But with what consequences? The conditions were tough:
“Preparations for the attack were being pushed forward. Unfortunately just at this time, bad weather set in, and this, together with the continued and heavy hostile shelling in which gas shells were largely used, made the work extremely difficult. The trenches were deep in mud and water and were constantly being blown in…both No Man’s Land and the ground behind the trenches were covered with dead bodies which had been lying out for weeks, and the state of the whole line was foul.”
(Captain V E Inglefield “The History of the Twentieth (Light) Division”, 1921).