Thursday, December 31, 2009

Escapades through Northern France and Belgium

I had always wanted to go to France and just drive around, its a massive country, in European standards and takes a bit of time to do it justice and then some more. We had 11 days, which was just to enough to get down as far as Burgundy and a hint of Brittany if you cut it across the middle. Mark did most of the planning as I was away with Dad and as he had been avidly reading the France guidebook for months he was probably best placed to do it in the first instance.

Mark eating Tartifletter for lunch, a good start

So one fine Saturday morning we stocked up our Volkswagen Passat (never get one stupid handbrake button thingy is rubbish) and headed out of London bright and early, with a 7am sparrow fart start. We took the Euro tunnel across the English Channel, which is rather cool as you pull up at Dover Channel tunnel at your allotted time and line up to drive on the train, yep you pull up and there is a ramp off the side to drive in. There are people ensuring you are in the right spot with minimal gaps between cards, and not across carriages. Then 25 minutes later the train pulls up in Calais, you drive off and done - you are in France. We were pretty excited by that bit. Since Calais was along way from our allotted destination for the evening - 3 hours away - we had to get going. We headed down the coast on the autoroute through the region of Picardie towards Normandy.

We stopped for a late lunch in a tiny little village and just missed its markets for the day, but we did get to have a yummy lunch with wine and Mark got the tarteflette, which is a potato and bacon baked dish. Back on the road again our first stop along the way was across the Pont Normandie, one of the longest bridges in the world, before arriving for a later afternoon drink (and a bit of people watching) in the beautiful coastal town called Honfleur. Honfleur is famous for being picturesque particularly its little harbour with lots of old 7 storey wooden houses. A flower it indeed is.

HonFleur Harbour Buildings, some seven stories

From there we headed a bit further down, about an hour away to Bayeux via Caen, the town where the old Bayeux tapestries about the Norman invasion are kept. It’s quite a nice little town with a massive medieval church, wooden buildings and windy streets. We had a really nice French dinner and our hotel was just gorgeous, think French Château opulence but smaller and in the town itself. The tapestries were good to see and in very good condition considering their age and that they have been pulled from pillar to post through the years, and it’s thought they were actually completed by the English.

Bayeux Hotel...Chateau more like

It was Normandy so they day was a little gloomy, but perfect for visiting the Normandy beaches including the cliffs along Longues sur Mer where we got to see big German guns and lookout points. We drove along the coast and went to Omaha (US) beach, which was closest an easy to get to compared with Gold (UK) and Utah (US) even though one of them had the temporary docks, but we could see them from the Longues sur Mer look outs anyway. We also went to Arromanches where there were lots of bomb craters, I climbed in one and its about 2 stories higher than me. Our drive later that afternoon left us moving into Brittany and with that the clouds began to dissipate. Driving along the coastline was very pretty and we were heading to the coastal oyster town of Cancala.

Cancala Beach, or Oyster beds

Beach at St Malo, high tide though

Mont St Michel

The quaint tiny streets of Mont St Michel

We stayed in Cancala, which was amazing to arrive into as the tide was out and all you could see for miles was oyster beds embedded in the wide beaches. We had oysters and cider by the jetty, with the oyster really cheap at £3 a dozen. We had another really good meal with Mark eating moules and me lovely red bream. The next day we went visiting to St Malo on the coast of Brittany before driving back to St Michel's Mont (the abbey on the island and the big sister to St Michael's mount in England).

Apple Orchards on the Route de Cidre, near Buevron en Auge

Monets House in Giverny

We picked up the cider trail from Bueven en Auge (historic town with only one restaurant - the other one burned down the night before we arrived!!) after visiting the Bayeaux tapestries and purchased much French cider, from sweet little old ladies who only spoke French, then travelled onwards to the Loire valley staying in Vendome before visiting both Amboise and Chenonceaux chataux's. We went inside Chenonceaux and it was just stunning inside and out (apart from the scaffolding!!).

Chenonceau Portrait...

Chenonceau Forest Flowers

Avalon Sunset

Beaune Hospice

Avalon was our next stop before Beaune in Burgundy where we had lunch (beef bourguignon) in the quaint little town after visiting the Hospices de Beaune a 13th century hospital (but pleasant not gruesome - though am sure some of the medical procedures then would have been eek) and purchasing some...well Burgundy wine. So alas we left the Autoroute of the sun (towards the southern coast) and headed back up again towards Champagne, via Troyes.

Town hall at Troyes

In Champagne we stayed in Ay and Epernay (about 5 miles apart) so not much driving and plenty of time for tastings. After a swim in the pool (finally a hotel with a pool) we had an early night but not before a little dinner and you guessed it more Champagne. We had a full day of tastings ahead of us, but best of all we toured (thanks to a lovely couple from Melbourne) the next morning Billiecart Salmon champagne house. It was brilliant and the champagne fantastic, we got four full glasses and some vintage, also it was free.

Here lies Louis Roederer....

I had no idea there were 15,000 champagne houses and appallingly we only managed to get to 4 (William Santot, Henri Goutorbe, G Tribaut (amazing views) and Billiecart) to actually taste, it’s a bit more un-inviting to taste, but that is probably more the French attitude (upturned nose) than anything, though no one was unfriendly at all.

Epernay Champagne Shop...the choices

Vines at Tribaut Winery

We went past a few others including Louis Roederer, Laurent-Perrier, Moët & Chandon and Nicolas Feuillatte to name a few. So on from there a quick stop in Reims our final Champagne stop before the more sombre end of our tour.

Champagne view to Reims

We headed to the Somme for the Australian war memorials (including a small museum) and one of them was brilliant with a large tower to climb to view the whole of the Somme Valley, very beautiful and hard to picture what it was like back in the early 1900's during the war. The area is covered in various memorials, so many graves, and it’s the same in Belgium.

We were to stay in Gent (it’s like Bruges, my assuming you’ve been there – haven’t we all; but prettier again) and our hotel was amazing an old Flemish townhouse that was more like a French Châteaux, gorgeous.

Ieper...or Ypres...Last Post

Australian Memorial - Cobbers at Fromelles

Vimy Ridge Trenches

We looked around there in the morning including visiting the 11th century castle before heading back to France to go to Vimy Ridge (Canadian war memorial and WW1 trenches) then on the Ypres for the last post ceremony (its done every evening at 8pm and has done since the end of WW1).

Gent Buildings

Moules in Gent...yum yum

Our final day was spent wandering around the now cooler Gent (just a reminder that summer really had ended) before heading back across to Calais for our tunnel ride back to London.

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