It’s not quite a year since we packed up, rented the house and set off.
18,000 miles and 20 countries later we made it back to Cornwall for a brief stay. Now we’ve hit the road again.
Buzzing around England (and Wales) put 1200 miles on the clock before we left home shores.
I consider this, our second, trip to have started on Wednesday 10thApril, simply because that was the day ArchieVan was serviced, and its trip counter reset to zero.
Beautiful drive to the tunnel?
On Friday morning we took the best ever drive to the Channel Tunnel.
The road is usually the overcrowded M25 and the dreary M20. It’s fast, effective and utterly boring.
This time we wound down to the coast with Dungeness in the distance, passing the salt mashes of Romney and the sweet Sussex and Kent towns of Rye, Romney, Dymchurch and Hythe before heading inland a bit to the terminal.
Yet again we were amazed at the ease of catching the Tunnel crossing. At £150 it’s not the cheapest way over to France, but it’s certainly the most convenient.
Visit Lille – I insist!
Lille. It was initially planned as a first stop. A night in a car park. A wander around. Then on we’d go.
We got a lot more out of it than we expected.
Search For Sites now has an app as well as a web site, and it was there that Minty found the swimming pool car park, opposite the port.
Lille may be a long way inland, but it has a sizeable container port where the train swops cargo with the barges that ply the river Deûle.
It also has a fine fortified citadel and a beautiful town.
Topping all of the above as a reason to visit, it has merveilleux.
The merveilleux is possibly the best cake on the planet. Its immodest name (meaning marvellous) is entirely justified. We weren’t messing around, we went straight to the best, Meert, which has been serving kings and peasants since 1761. Carrying our little box with its precious cargo we couldn’t wait to get back to the van to brew its perfect accompaniment – a cup of tea. It didn’t let us down. Meringue sits on mousse, it’s encased by chocolate, studded with roasted hazelnuts, and dressed with shaved chocolate, and for good measure, dusted with glitter.
We popped into a rather special microbrewery, Celestin, too. 400 different beers was a calling too loud to ignore. We’ll try some of their wares, a stout and a triple, before heading back to town later.
Back to that citadel.
Commissioned by Louis XIV and completed in 1670, the complex fort comprises 60 million bricks, 3 million stone blocks and 70,000 pieces of dressed sandstone. The design looks more MC Escher than military architecture and has multiple foils, walls and moats, all set in what’s now a huge and beautiful park. It still has military function and is home to a NATO rapid reaction force.
We have seen some stunning cathedrals during our travels.
From the outside Lille Cathedral is not one of them!
The front was completed only a couple of decades ago and it was consecrated in 1999. Having seen the outside I was prepared to give it a miss, but fortunately Minty headed for the door.
Inside this place demonstrates the best in religious art across the period it took to build 1854 – 1999.
The stations of the cross are modern art oils, the choir is classical, and that facade? Well it’s as modern as it gets.
It comprises 110 sheets of 28mm thick white marble, grey on the outside, but glowing orangey pink on the inside on a sunny day.
I wouldn’t call it a triumph, but it is interesting. And that they were playing modern classical music inside helped the atmosphere too.
Walking man – Giacometti.
I love Giacometti and I was delighted that Minty expressed an interest in going to the exhibition at Lille Modern Art gallery.
The building is superb.
I have never enjoyed watching rain as much as I did from a Marcel Bruer chair in an otherwise empty space facing huge picture windows. A Miro and a Picaso took a soaking in the garden as I sat warm and culturally enriched within.
And the Giacomettis? Better than I ever imagined.
Having never seen an actual one I feared they may be smaller than I hoped. But no. Walking Man is taller than me. Le Nez is a good 75cm long. Yet others delight despite being much smaller.
In another room light cast from a piece by Annette Messenger created a Giacometti out of me, projecting a huge leggy creature up the wall, with a big fuzzy head.
Douai. Ring the bells, that still can ring, forget your perfect offering…
Mostly closed on Mondays.
Douai is best known for its carillon of 62 bells, 40 metres up in its belfry. The little chap from the tourist office enthusiastically led four of us up through the various levels of the C14th structure. At the top he sat at the keyboard (hammer board perhaps) and whacked out a tune on the city’s bells, just for us.
As we leave the other couple on the tour suggest we visit Arras.
There’s not that much more to see in Douai, but the town’s impressive avenues remind us again of what makes France feel so open. Not only do they have three times as much space as the UK for the same number of people, they also use that space so well. Most people live in flats. Most towns of note have wide boulevards, with inviting tables at which to eat or drink and be seen. And the parks are maintained as an integral part of the experience.
I have always loved this country and it’s good to be here again.
A Polly update – delays, but not concern.
Polly needs to return to her vet in Poprad, Slovakia, for an operation to fit a knee implant that should function as a replacement for her torn ligaments.
We had hoped the operation would be in early May, but unfortunately the vet can’t see her until the third week of June.
That has forced a re-route, but it’s not a worry.
We expected to spend May in Slovakia, followed by June and July slowly touring Romania and Bulgaria. Instead we’ll take advantage of the extra time and explore eastern France, an area neither of us know. Hopefully that’ll be followed by some of Germany’s wine regions before we head across the Czech Republic in early June.
It’s a testament to our better states of mind that neither of us were upset by the news. It merely meant a change of plan.
In the meantime Polly is coping so well that the whole escapade is often called into question. We know that she’s at risk of doing more damage, especially as her confidence returns. We must get the work done.
It’s only 30kms over to Arras from Douai and soon we’re parked up by the crazy piece of French architecture that’s the town swimming pool (our second swimming pool parking spot).
At night near naked people parade in front of the huge windows to the complex. These must act as mirrors on the inside. So interesting to watch them perform, when they think they have no audience.
The short walk along the river to town is a trip into nature’s springtime explosion of life. The banks are deep in buttercups, cow parsley and oxeye daisies, the water is punctuated by the little dots of duck, coot and moorhen chicks.
In town we think we have found the main square, but it transpires to be just a minor area leading onto the Place des Heroes where another belfry soars in gothic splendour. Along from that is the aptly named Grand Place, a massive square where grain from the surrounding areas made rich men of its traders.
Both were destroyed in WWI, but restored to their original design in the 1930s using modern techniques behind the seemingly original facades.
You cannot travel through the regions of Artois, Flanders and Somme without a strong awareness of the devastation caused by two world wars.
Les Carrieres Wellington are a network of 20kms of tunnels, in part dug by Kiwis to get 24,000 British and Commonwealth troops behind German lines to end the stalemate of the Hindenburg Front in 1917. The audacious engineering feat was dragged out rather too long in the guided tour, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
It’s an emotional journey, despite the hundred years that separate us from the thousands of men sent to their deaths in Artois and Flanders.
The Battle of Arras alone claimed 300,000 in the spring of 1917.
Simply reading the numbers killed doesn’t achieve its deserved impact in an age when we’re bombarded with statistics manipulated for maximum effect.
But to stand. To stand before 8,000 crosses at La Targette, 40,000 at Notre Dame de Lorette, 10,000 black German crosses, each bearing four names at La Maison Blanche. To stand before such a testament to slaughter brings home the numbers.
Even when the numbers mean something there is no way that we can begin to comprehend the horror.
Yet despite the horror there is beauty.
The immaculate sites deliver a sense of order rarely seen.
At Cabarnet Rouge, the British cemetery at Souchez, over 7,650 graves fan from a central memorial cross. Of the many sites we visited this was the most impressive, although the modest black German crosses have the greatest impact.
The French go for Labour Day in a big way.
Lilly of the Valley is given to friends and loved ones, little bunches are sold on every street corner.
And the drinking starts early.
The two beautiful squares of Arras are packed with smart jolly people.
The big one, La Grande Place, also hosts a book festival and a couple of stages with bands playing through the day.
Arras is a small city, but it packs a big bunch. Thank you, we enjoyed your town and would be happy to stay longer.
Doesn’t France do trees very well?
In the Scandi countries trees stretch for as far as the eye can see.
Germany has its great forests.
But when I think of trees as a thing of beauty I think of France.
Mile upon mile of avenue, often nowhere near towns.
On the agricultural planes crops spread across thousands of hectares, yet the dips are often dense woodland.
Wide canals with a belt of 20 metres of plane trees down either side.
Where I’m writing now, on the banks of the Somme, morning light is tinged green as it penetrates the canopy of perfect new beech leaves, and received by a carpet of lush grass.
And there’s so much birdlife.
My walk at dusk last night was accompanied by a soundtrack that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in an Attenborough documentary.
Next week we’ll travel south, slowly. Champagne and Alsace await.
ps: Try to watch One Planet. It’s shocking and beautiful in equal measure. Its delivery may help more people absorb the truth about life on earth, and its grim future.