In France and wishing I could get that Bonnie Tyler song out of my head…

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Why a French road trip?

Well, first and foremost, I wasn’t planning on doing this road trip at all. I inadvertently ended up with a return ferry ticket for myself and my Mini, and had shelled out too much to cancel/change the details. So, Newhaven – Dieppe was my destination, whether I liked it or not.

I decided to take the opportunity to do another of many firsts since Mr T left me…take a ferry from my fair isle, cross the channel and drive around a country. Since I had some spare time, and a spare ticket for France, it seemed logical. 

Except… in theory, yes, why not? Just mosey on down to the south coast of England, starting at 3.30am in order to catch a boat (do we catch boats?) in some torrential rainstorms following a heatwave. (Ok, we’re talking the UK here, so in reality we had some heavy rain after two quite warm and sunny days). Drive through France from  Amiens in the north to  the French Riviera in the south, via the French Alps (no snow at this time of year but some dodgy hill starts might still be the order of the day at some point),  in a car whose steering wheel is on the wrong side, on the wrong side of the road. Without anyone being there to back seat drive for me (sometimes this can be useful), or see around lorries/tractors/blind bends when attempting to turn right. For 3 weeks. By myself. Using another language. Extremely badly. What could possibly go wrong?

 

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Sur le pont D’Avignon? Mais non…

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

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I wasn’t feeling in the mood for dancing, despite the beauty of le pont d’Avignon.

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.

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Palais des Papes… Where I realised I’d had enough

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.

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Something fishy going on… and lurking under the white fish were 3 snails… chewy but delicious
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Adele my delightful waitress…
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Feigning happiness but feeling weary…

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…

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I was unsure about his artwork, however this little French girl seemed impressed… or maybe she was pointing out some home truths…

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?

Marseille – The French Connection, The Count of Monte Cristo and “The meeting place of the entire world” (Alexandre Dumas)

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.

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Gene Hackman in French Connection II, and some cute french cars…

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.

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Not a bad view from my window…
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My hotel window, overlooking the old port and the Notre Dame de la Guarde – the Basilica of Marseille…
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contemplated getting one of these myself, to shelter from the blistering heat
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Off to Chateau D’If on the hourly boat, the sea breeze bringing welcome relief from the afternoon heat
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Fun to watch fellow solo travellers wandering around, taking selfies…and becoming a bit of an expert myself 🙂
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waiting for the boat to take me back to mainland Marseille… and joining in the fun of offering to take photos in return for ones of myself which include both hands…

             

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.

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Moules et frites… naturellement. Courtesy of Sarl Collins, 42 Quai du Port 13002 Marseille France A decent quay-side restaurant. Nothing fancy, just good food, decent wine, low prices and a fabulous view of the world going by…
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Yes I was at a table. For one. Eating. By myself. Get over it…
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The scary looking Maitre D’ seemed suitably impressed with my nonchalant table for one…and entertained me with a rendition of Nessun Dorma, accompanied by the obligatory accordionist

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.

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One end of the street…
15 august procession of the assumption marseille
…and the other end of the street.

A wonderful place to sit and watch life go by. As in any place, just hang onto your wallet…

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a city that definitely never sleeps…

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.

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France’s equivalent of Alcatraz in the USA
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I’m Catholic so they let me go…

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:

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Better than Banksy in my opinion
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Much smaller than it first appears…
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Too hot in the summer, freezing in the winter, many prisoners died from the conditions

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…. 🙂

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Marseille revolutionaries walked to Paris singing a particular song…which later became the French national anthem.

La mer….

 

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.

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Nice Ville train station, waiting for the train to Cannes which stops at Juan Les Pins

 

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

 

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topless sunbathing… it’s not for everyone…
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I did bare a shoulder… eventually!

 

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…

 

 

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Those storm clouds eventually scared everyone off the beach…

 

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Chilling in the afternoon sun…

 

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…

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Lovely French guys at Wayne’s Bar.

 

Va, va, voom… once I’ve got the washing done

After the hair raising trip from Grenoble the previous day, I was somewhat reluctant to bother with the Ferrari trip that I had arranged. I’d had enough of cars and being on roads for a while. I wanted to lie down in a dark room and sleep. For a few days.

It was to be at 12 noon. I could have done with a good lie in but, I’d booked and paid and by golly I was going to do it! I could sleep for the rest of the day afterwards.

Since I was travelling with one rucksack only, I had packed minimal clothing. Whilst in the glorious southern French heat, I determined to do as much washing as possible. The  morning was thus taken up with my showering/clothes washing combo, where I stamp on the clothes rather like someone treading grapes, whilst attending to my ablutions. I had deliberately packed easy to wash and wear, cotton, no need to iron, vests, long hippy skirts and dresses. All could be hung up on door knobs, coat hangers and -well- anything really, to dry in the heat and be ready to wear….

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a handy shutter serves as a great place to dry undies…overlooking the Med in Monte Carlo

So at 12 I went downstairs to be met by a gorgeous red Ferrari Spider and a rather cute looking French guy, dressed in a rather silly Formula One-esque outfit. Even he looked somewhat embarrassed to be in it! But still, it was cute…

JJ was a lovely guy. He instantly made me feel relaxed. The idea of a solo, female traveller, booting it around the notorious hairpin bends above Monaco with some flash guy who does this job because he has Ferrari envy, had crossed my mind. Was I being just a little bit sad?

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Trying the Ferrari for size..

Hell, no!! JJ took me around the Formula One racetrack (which can only be driven by Monaco and French residents), past the Opera House, the Monte Carlo Casino and seemed genuinely impressed with having a half decent looking bird alongside him. He told me that most of his customers are enormous, middle aged men, living out childhood fantasies. He spends most of his time ensuring that they drive safely and have control of the vehicle, than pointing out the highlights of the Principality.

His delight was to be able to show off his driving skills (excellent), the car (goes like shit off a shovel when out of town and on the narrow, bendy roads) and his knowledge of Monaco and the local area. Turns out he’s actually a Bio-Chemist and this is a job for the summer, for fun. Not a bad way to spend the summer…

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JJ the Bio-Chemist who drives Ferraris for fun…

We tootled off around the Formula 1 track on Monaco’s streets, being photographed by tourists, much to my amusement. It was a fancy way of doing a city tour and certainly a novelty. The trip up and around the mountains was more fun however, as we accelerated and the wind whipped my hair.  Every so often the foot hit the gas and I screamed with delight at the funny feeling in my tummy and just the thrill of it all. It was so much fun!!!!! At no point did I feel unsafe but at the same time there was just enough thrill to feel what a Ferrari can do (even when never getting out of 2nd gear!)

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Above the Principality of Monaco

 

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JJ and I got on really well (but not that well… we’re hiding cigarettes, not putting arms around each other

 

JJ had the rest of the day off and so we decided to have some lunch and mooch around. Monaco is a strange place. Established in the 13th Century, it feels…well… fake. The old buildings are kept assiduously bright and clean and so look new. The Palace, for example, has been renovated and extended to the extent that the original medieval building is no longer visible. It’s a little like a toy town.

 

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Toy Soldiers

 

The Changing of the Guard occurs outside the Palace, protecting the Monarchy. The soldiers however, wear soft leather shoes, not army boots. And the trousers are just a little too snug around the bottom. Even the march has its own quirky little movements as the Guard turns around to march back the other way – a little flick of the foot as he makes the turn… more of a dance move than a military stride.  In fact, Monaco’s military defence is the responsibility of France, so the whole thing is for show anyway. Everything looks fake. Too clean. Too shiny. As though it was bought in the 1990’s from “Principalities R Us”; everything you need to build your own country.

The Police officers look as though they were chosen from Models One Agency rather than the local populace. I’m not sure if they actually need to do any policing here, or if they are just glorified traffic wardens, making sure that you not only park in the correct places, but that you park TIDILY to avoid making the place look a mess.

So, all in all, Monaco is a fun place to visit, and it is possible to stay there for a reasonable price. I stayed at a hotel called Hotel de France (www.monte-carlo.mc/france). For a clean, modern, twin bed room with modern shower and sea view, the price was £297 which, for 3 nights in Monaco is quite remarkable. Breakfast is E10 per person, continental. This includes fresh juice, a pot of proper tea/coffee, bread, cheese, patisseries, jams, crackers, yogurt and certainly set me up for the morning. I tried buying breakfast at a local boulangerie or Patisserie but the price was similar and there was only one coffee, so I think this is better value. There is no lift and it can be a pain to lug your backpack up 3 flights of stairs, but hey ho, we could all do with the exercise. Parking is available in a local car park with discount rates for Hotel residents.

Monaco is a fantastic place to visit, but do it as part of a general tour along the French Riviera. Next stop for me… Nice.

Don’t mention the War…

 

For me, the First World War was something that happened to other people. There were no accounts of family members’ involvement in any battles; no Victory medals proudly on display, or ornaments made out of old shell cases, fashioned by a bored  Tommy. In fact, no one really seemed to speak of the Great War where I lived. My parents didn’t speak of Grandfathers who went off to war. I grew up thinking that you had to be special to have a family member in the war – maybe we were too common? Both of my grandfathers were dead and my grandmothers spoke little of their childhoods.

Paternal Grandma Kate was born in 1908 so was 8-10 years old when her father was apparently gassed at Ypres (all I’ve managed to glean so far – still conducting research). Maternal Grandma Beatrice was born in 1915 whilst her father was in France. Her middle name was Louvain, presumably after the  place in Belgium whose population was the victim of war atrocities and which was razed to the ground. One of the first casualties of the War to end all Wars. Louvain had been ransacked months before Beatrice’s father Arthur Greenhill went to France.

I have O levels and A levels in British and European History. I was taught not one single nugget of information about either the First or Second World Wars. For a post 60’s UK generation, the fight for freedom had been won long ago; we could vote for whoever, had a free health service, free education, a welfare state and an acute knowledge of our rights. We had scant little appreciation of what was sacrificed to live in our world. We made jokes about old people always going on about the war and couldn’t see the relevance of any of it to our lives.

 I remember an old man with one leg who used to wheel himself around my local shopping centre in the 70’s in one of those bath chairs with a steering wheel. He was always alone. I guess he was a war veteran. And I remember wandering whether the Haig of the annual poppy day was a distant relative of  one of my teachers – known as Mr Hague (the only Hague I was familiar with). 

So it was to my surprise when, 20 years later, courtesy of ancestry.co.uk, I discovered that my maternal great grandfather, Arthur Henry Greenhill fought in the Somme. To my great astonishment, and thanks to the British Army WW1 Service records,  I was able to discover which regiment he was in. He was in the Twentieth Light Division. At the beginning of the war, in 1915, he was in the Cyclist Division. This was later incorporated into the First Tank Division (I guess war machinery moved on very quickly from being blown up on a bicycle, to being incinerated in a tank). I was even more surprised to discover that he actually survived the war and came home, to live until he was 82. I never met him, he was never really spoken of and I guess there’s some family stuff going on there…

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Great Grand dad Arthur Henry Greenhill. Fought with the 20th (Light) Division at The Somme, 1915-1918. Survived.

The internet is a wonderful thing. Through the vast numbers of websites available, containing information regarding soldiers of the First World War, I was able to obtain a map (Mr and Mrs Holt’s Battle Map of the Somme). This, together with the publication of “The History of the Twentieth (Light) Division by Captain VE Inglefield (an intriguing compilation of official records and field notes) meant that I was able to follow the course of my Great Grandfather’s battle, as he and his companions dug in the mud, up to their waists in blood, sweat and tears as they fought to free French villages  such as Guillemont from the German army. Moreover, I was able to visit those villages. So today, 100 years later I found myself in Guillemont, north east of Amiens; a scene of heavy fighting and loss of life, in the middle of the Somme…

 

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Imagining the sound of boots marching on to Guillemont – my great grand dad amongst the men…

 

As far as I am aware, I am the first member of my family since Great Granddad Arthur, to visit the French fighting fields. I am surprised at how strongly I feel for these innocent young men of all nations, caught up in something of which they must have had such little understanding. Such sorrow. And such enormous pride. Thank you Great Granddad, for what you and your comrades did for me and my fellow citizens. I salute you xx

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Poppies still grow freely in the fields of the Somme…

 

 

Amiens 19/07/14. The friendly city…

 

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!

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Tante Jeanne – worth a visit
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Ficelle Picarde – pancakes stuffed with ham, cheese and mushrooms. Tres delicieux
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Enjoying lunch in a shady nook, overlooked by the impressive Amiens Cathedral

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.

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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.

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Amiens Cathedral

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. 

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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.

 

Hitching up with Aussies in the Somme… and trying not to get blown up…

 

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 nation  being 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 the  Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. From here it can be seen just what a magnificent tour de force the troops must have been.

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From the memorial, even on this misty morning it’s easy to see what a triumph the Australian breakthrough was…
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70,000 missing Australians have their names engraved on the walls of this memorial…
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Sylvestre showing us the headstones of 2 soldiers. One died on 11th November 1918 (Armistice Day), the other the day after. Many continued to fight after the end of the War, as communications were poor. Many continued to die of injuries or disease…

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…

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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…

 

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Many German soldiers were repatriated after the War. Those families who could not afford to pay for repatriation of the body had to leave them in France. There are 4 names on each cross. German cemeteries are not commemorated and are usually down side roads, away from the public gaze.
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German cemeteries have no flowers. They more closely resemble forest and woodland rather than gardens of the British/French custom… Here, a Jewish soldier is buried next to his Christian comrades. Anti Semitism had not yet reared its ugly head…

 

 

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The “Iron Harvest” continues to churn up WW1 relics on a daily basis.

Mooching through one  of 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:

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Thiepval Memorial
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Mme Christine’s (empty) shell cases…

 

 She also had 2 live ones:

 

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Mme Christine’s (not so empty) explosives… Sylvestre adopting the “So what?” pose of the French macho man…

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?)

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Ah, Victoria, your French is excellent! (At least, I think that’s what she was saying…)
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What a wonderful lady 🙂