We had thought we would spend some time exploring Châlons-en-Champagne this morning but we found parking completely impossible and the streets difficult to negotiate as went around in circles trying to find a way out.
Today though we feel we have achieved quite a lot. We have travelled through the Champagne region, along beside the river Marne where many of the villages had memorials and small war graves cemeteries, as the Marne saw much of the carnage of the First World War. The region is also famed for a happier reason. This is where they invented Champagne and the hillsides are completely covered in the vines that produce the perfect grapes. It is quite an experience to drive along the hillside above the river with the bright green of the vineyards stretching like a patchwork of green corduroy as far as the eye can see. Each vine is already heavy with the hard green grapes that will ripen in the warm sunshine over the coming months. Every grape must be gathered and before that everything must be lined up ready for processing so the fermentation can start immediately. Considering the work and the risks involved it's small wonder Champagne does not come cheap! The hillsides were a complete contrast to the scruffy, muddy, crumbling untidy little towns and villages we passed through where cellars offer tastings, the grapes are processed and the business side of the venture is accomplished.
Winding through the countryside at such a slow pace becomes quite tiring so we were happy to stop at a pleasant spot amidst the vines for a peaceful picnic lunch where the sun graced us with its presence.
Deciding that if we were to get anywhere today we'd best get a move on we transferred to the fast arterial route and made excellent progress until we saw a sign advertising the largest exhibition of camping cars in Europe. Confident that there would not be another Modestine, and in need of a replacement lock for one of her internal doors, we turned off to investigate. Sure enough, we'd been parked for all of 15 seconds before someone discovered her, delighted at her size and wanted all sorts of details. In the accessories shop we found exactly the closure we needed and repaired the door in no time. At last Jill can sleep soundly without the fear of the temporary rubber bands breaking and the door falling open on top of her!
Next we phoned Debbie, the daughter of our friends Martin and Penny. She and her French husband live near Beauvais and we would be passing almost through their village. We'd not seen them since their wedding a couple of years ago so it was a great pleasure to be welcomed to their home and to meet their baby son. It has been the happy highlight of our day. We did not stay long, they were off to Metz this evening, a journey they estimate will take them four hours. We've just spent best part of a week travelling from Metz, which shows how much we sometimes linger and wander in Modestine!
We found the municipal campsite in Beauvais situated on a hill within walking distance of the city centre so we will explore it tomorrow. Ian's first ever trip to France was to stay with a school exchange pen-friend in Beauvais. All he can remember is the family's shoe shop opposite the Cathedral so he wants to know if it is still there!
There is a label attached to the new trousers Ian is wearing. The brand name is Titanium and it claims they are "technical gear for people who push the limits and often break them". It even repeats it in French. He's being dying to find something more dynamic to do in them than trot off across the campsite to wash the supper dishes!
Friday 29th June 2007, Rouen
It has rained pretty well continuously all day. This morning we walked down into the town of Beauvais to seek out the Cathedral and anywhere that Ian might recognise from his childhood visit to the town. Beauvais Cathedral is enormous! It has the highest choir in Europe. It has been ill fated throughout its existence and was in fact never even completed. What you see today is the choir alone. The spire, which at the time made it the tallest building in the world, collapsed, bringing down the nave as well during the 16th century. Then in the 2nd World War the city was very badly bombed, taking out all the stained glass and rendering what remained of the Cathedral unsound. Ian recalls walking around at roof level where the finials were loose and could actually be wobbled on their supports. Fortunately access is no longer allowed but iron braces support the buttresses and inside the columns are shored up with wooden scaffolding. The whole place looks in a sorry state and one wonders whether the money will ever be found to restore it.
There was no sign of the shoe shop facing the cathedral where Ian once stayed, but the lady in the tourist office confirmed that it used to exist though now there is a café on the site. So for old time's sake we went to the café and drank a couple of coffees.
Because it was so badly damaged during the last war there is not a great deal to see in the town. There are pleasant pedestrianised areas of shops and cafés, a few surviving streets of older, half timbered houses – known as maisons en pain de bois, and a 1911 house originally owned by the potter Christoph Greber, who advertised his products by decorating the façade of his house with examples of his work. Thus it is covered in frogs and salamanders.
Collecting Modestine from the municipal campsite we drove through heavy rain towards Rouen. When we saw a road sign to Lyons-la-Forêt we turned off to investigate as Jill was sure she had heard about it somewhere. It turned out to be well worth the detour as it is listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France – there are about 150 on the list. Nestling in peaceful countryside in the depths of woodland the streets are lined with pain de bois houses and pretty gardens. There is a huge old covered market in the centre of the village and a plaque stating that Henry I of England and Duke of Normandy, the eldest son of William the Conqueror, died at his castle at Lyons-la-Forêt in 1135.
After a picnic lunch at the belvedere overlooking the village we continued, still through the rain, to the outskirts of Rouen. This is one of France's larger cities and we didn't fancy driving through it on a Friday afternoon. Our AA campsite book listed a site on the outskirts from where we thought it likely we could get a bus into the city. The site looked rather unprepossessing when we arrived but the owner assured us it was ideal for the city with regular buses. He also assured us he had proper toilets facilities, and, assuming the AA would not have listed it unless it reached a reasonable standard, we gave him our 12 euros, left Modestine and caught the bus into town. It was not until we returned we realised just how unpleasant the site is. Not to dwell too much on it, it is quite unsanitary with inadequate, dirty facilities and no hot water. There are no lights at night and broken steps and wet grass to negotiate to reach the only useable toilet which just now we discovered had been left unflushed. Having travelled all over Europe in recent months, we feel we are reasonably aware of the vagaries of campsites, and country for country the French ones are in general the most unsavoury we have found. In Rouen this afternoon we saw countless hairdressers and shops giving manicures and gluing on artificial nails. The French have a word-wide reputation for glamour, charm, sophistication and chic, yet nationally, standards of public sanitation and hygiene, where they can be found at all, have too frequently remained unchanged since the 19th century.
The bus into town dropped us beside the muddy waters of the Seine as it flows through the city. With dripping umbrellas we made our way to the old part of the city, now a pedestrianised shopping centre built into the pain de bois houses of the city. It is certainly picturesque with a wealth of such properties, the timbers frequently hung with decorative slates or painted in dark reds or blues. We visited the Cathedral with its famous façade, painted so many times by Monet in different colours to reflect its changing moods throughout the days and seasons. Inside it is quite austere, unadorned gothic, a contrast to the more elaborate exterior. We also visited St. Maclou, a very beautiful flamboyant gothic building with delicate tracery over the main door and a rose window. Inside an organ recital was filling every corner of the church with a vibrating cascade of sound.
There is much more to see in the centre but we were there for a specific reason. We had seen where Jeanne d'Arc came into the world in Domrémy, and Rouen was where she left it just twenty years later, burned at the stake in the centre of the town. There is a large cross to mark the spot and where the fire was built there is now a memorial flower bed.
Before returning to Modestine we explored some of the streets slightly off centre and chanced upon Aître St. Maclou, a collection of pain de bois buildings from the 15th century arranged around a courtyard. It had formerly been used as a burial ground for plague victims and the carvings on the wooden timbers reflected this with macabre skulls, bones and tools of the grave digger – shovels, picks and axes.
The bus journey home was a nightmare with everyone dripping wet and squashed into the bus so tightly a lady caught her hand in the automatic closing doors. By the time she was released her hand was badly bruised and she was in tears. Nobody offered her a seat however and she was lurched around the bus with the rest off us on the hilly, twisting, jolting ascent out of the town. It was interesting to see Rouen once, but it would be a very unpleasant town in which to live and we were glad to leave it behind. To cheer ourselves up back on the smelly wet campsite we finished our bottle of wine and watched a DVD on the computer. If the world outside changes and is temporarily unpleasant, at least Modestine stays the same inside and we can easily forget what it is like out there when we are snugly comfortable within.
Monday 2nd July, Caen
We have been back in Caen for a couple of days now but have been so busy we have not found time to continue the blog. The really good news is that our new bank cards were waiting for us when we arrived and the bank has replaced all the money that was taken from our account back in early June.
On Saturday morning we left Rouen as quickly as we could and made our way through the rainy countryside towards Honfleur and our first sight and smell of the sea since we left Dubrovnik several weeks ago. Our route took us through the pretty Normandy countryside where picturesque pan de bois cottages nestled amongst the orchards, their thatched roofs planted with irises along the ridge to help keep them dry.
Just outside of the small fishing town of Honfleur we glimpsed the Pont de Normandy that crosses the Seine just before it enters the sea. In the meadows were the white cattle that are so typical of the countryside of northern France. No wonder Normandy produces such wonderful cheeses and butter. Throughout our travels the sight of animals grazing is something we have greatly missed.
Honfleur is a tourist mecca but as it is so very pretty it is hardly surprising. It is within easy reach of England and has become a popular place for second homes. So there was almost as much English as French heard around the harbour where a street market was in progress and the terraces of the bars and bistros were crowded with visitors enjoying a break between the showers. Despite the tourists however, the town has remained a working community devoted to fishing and the main menus on offer reflected this with huge towers of fruits de mer on many of the tables, while other diners enjoyed moules et frîtes. Honfleur has long been famed for its mussel pickers, supplying Paris with most of its requirements. For our own lunch even we selected fish, enjoying sea salmon cooked in cream and onions served with rice and sprinkled with parsley. It looked and tasted wonderful even if we were still hungry afterwards.
The main church in Honfleur is built from wood. Even the tiles on the roof and spire are made from wood. Indeed so are those of many of the tile hung buildings of the town. Others are attractively covered in slates.
As we strolled around some of the quieter back streets away from the harbour we discovered the house where the composer Erik Satie lived and worked. By now though the rain had returned and it was time to press on for the final part of our return across Europe to Caen and the usual warm welcome that is the reason we are always drawn back here.