A Travellerspoint blog

France

More Skiin' in Morzine

(If you say it right - Mor-Skeen in Mor-Zeen - it almost sounds the same)

sunny 11 °C
View Ski Trip March 2012 on GregW's travel map.

I seem to have an on and off relationship with skiing. I started skiing when I was in my pre or early teens (somewhere around 12, 13 or 14 I think). I skiied a lot when I was a teenager, mostly in eastern Canada and the eastern USA. Then when I started working after University, I gave it up due to lack of time and money.

After 7 years, I picked up skiing again when I worked on a project over the winter in Denver, Colorado, followed by a project in California that allowed me to try out some of the resorts there. My last ski trip was the trip to Heavenly, California. After that, I spent 13 months in Atlanta, which is not really a hot bed of snow skiing, and skiing left my life again.

So it had been over 9 years since I last skied when a friend from London suggested a ski trip to the Alps. I had never skied in Europe, so how could I pass that up.

We spent a week in Morzine, France, part of the Portes du Soleil ski area spanning the border between France and Switzerland.

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We arrived on Sunday, March 18th to a heavy snowfall. The week before the weather was bright, warm and sunny, and there was some concern that the snow would have melted off the hills. However, the snow continued through the next day, giving a hills an excellent coating of fresh snow and deep powder.

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The snow was thick on the slopes that first day, and despite forgetting my goggles at home, it was a good day skiing. I got back after the first day we burning thighs. I jumped into the shower to clean up and soak my aching muscles. In the shower, I saw proof I had pushed hard. Embedded in my shins were small blue balls of fuzz from my thermals, pushed into my shins as I pressed against the front of my boots.

We were staying at an amazing chalet called Alaska right in the centre of Morzine. The chalet included a cook, chalet host and the services of a ski guide to take you around the mountains. I have never stayed at a fancy chalet before, and the experience was amazing. Good food, great advice from our hosts and champagne and canapes as apres ski. If there is any problem with staying in the chalet, it was that it was easy to over do it on the food and have too much.

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Tuesday we woke to a sunny day on the slopes. I headed out with one of our ski guides on Tuesday and skied over towards the Swiss border.

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This being France, on hill dining is a little different than the burger and fries that seem to be de rigueur in North America last time I skied there. Restaurants dot the hills, offering sit down dining for hot meals. Lunches over the week included roast chicken, pizza, sausages and fresh salads.

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The week continued with sunny and warm weather. Beautiful spring skiing. One day I headed up to the top of Les Gets to check out Mont Blanc. There are views of Mont Blanc from all around Morzine and Les Gets.

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Sunny and warm, I decided to sit down and have a half pint (or demi, as the French call them) over looking Mont Blanc.

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Off the slopes, we also went and saw the Morzine Penguins ice hockey team play an exhibition match against a team from Megeve. The Megeve team plays in a lesser league, so it was a fairly one sided match, ending with the Penguins winning 15 goals to 3.

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By the end of the week the sun had taken its toll on the snow on the slopes, exposing a lot of grass. One of the lifts goes over a horse farm, and the horses were enjoying an early spring forage.

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It was definitely good to get out skiing again, and get my first taste of European skiing. Hopefully it won't be the last.

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Posted by GregW 03:50 Archived in France Tagged skiing Comments (1)

Glamour and Gasoline part IV: The Wrong Train

Heading home it all heads south.

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View Monaco Grand Prix 2009 on GregW's travel map.

I had gone to bed early on Sunday after the grand prix to make sure I wasn’t going to miss my early morning train. Unfortunately, it seems that Trenitalia and the SNCF (France’s train system) don’t do much to co-ordinate their schedules. I had a ticket on a TGV train from Nice to Paris at 10:41. To get to Nice, I would have to travel from San Remo to Ventimille, then to Nice from there.

I worked backwards to figure out the schedule. There was a train arriving in Nice from Ventimille at 10:42, a minute after my TGV train was scheduled to leave. The train before that arrived at 9:42, leaving Ventimille at 8:55. I’d have to wait 59 minutes in Nice to catch my train.

To get to Ventimille, there was a train arriving at 9:00, 5 minutes after the train to Nice had left. The next earliest train, according to the schedule in the San Remo train station was an 8:07, arriving in Ventimille at 8:23, giving me a wait of 32 minutes in Ventimille.

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I arrived at the San Remo train station just before eight with more than 10 minutes to spare. I looked up at the train schedule, and noticed that there was no 8:07. The next train was the 8:43. The knock on effects were that I would miss my train to Nice, and then my train to Paris.

I don’t know why, but the 8:07 train ONLY runs on Sundays and holidays. On weekdays, there is no train at that time. On weekdays, they have LESS train service than on Sundays. I have never heard of such a thing. I was flabbergasted.

I caught the 8:43, and by the time I got to Ventimille the 8:55 had already left. My only hope was that the 9:55 to Nice would show up a few minutes early, or perhaps the TGV would be a few minutes late.

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It was not to be, though. The 9:55 to Nice got delayed, and arrived a full 10 minutes after the TGV to Paris had already headed out.

At first I tried to rebook using one of the automated machines. Working the machine was amazingly easy, unfortunately the options it gave me weren’t great. The earliest departure was at 16:30 getting to Paris close to 10 at night! That would be well past the time when the last Eurostar would have run to London. If I got that train, I would have to spent the night in Paris.

Worst, there was a plan for a National Strike in France the next day, which means if I got stuck in Paris for the night, I might not be able to get out the next day if the metro or Eurostar weren’t running because of the strike.

I thought about ditching the trains and heading to the airport, but instead decided to give a human a try and see if I could get an earlier train. I pressed the CANCEL button, and the machine tells me to retrieve my ticket. The ticket, however, doesn’t come out of the machine.

I bend down and look into the ticket slot. I can see my ticket jammed and crinkled, stuck in the machine. I try and pry it out with the tip of my driver’s license, but it won’t come out.

After a minute, the machine’s screen goes bright blue and declares itself out of order. I spits out a little slip of paper and tells me to go and see a human. “Great, that was what I was planning to do anyway,” I think.

Luckily, the agent who served me was very nice and friendly, and was able to get me a much better train. She got me on a train from Nice to Marseille, and then from Marseille to Paris, arriving into 19:31, 50 minutes after my Eurostar train to London was scheduled to leave.

I went down to the internet cafe and rebooked my Eurostar for 20:41, one hour and ten minutes after arriving. All I would have to do is get from Gare de Lyon to Gare Du Nord in that time, a trip that shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes.

The train to Marseille was interesting. It was the first train I’d ever been on that had a children’s play area.

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Once in Marseille, though, things go wrong. The train to Paris leaves 40 minutes late, and I arrive in Paris with only 30 minutes to get to Gare du Nord. Eurostar tells you to show up 30 minutes early to check in and clear customs, so already I am late.

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I jump on the RER train, but it chooses to sit in the tunnel rather than transiting across Paris, so I wind up missing my second scheduled Eurostar departure of the day. Once I arrive at Gare du Nord, I get rescheduled and finally get home at 10:30 PM, 3 hours late and more than fourteen hours after first leaving San Remo.

So, should I have flown? It would have been quicker, for sure. But despite all the problems, I only wound up getting back 3 hours later than scheduled. I am not sure I could have said the same had I flown. The train, even though the overnighter was a bit like a dorm room, still had a certain touch of glamour that planes don’t have.

And because most of the trains in France run on nuclear power, I did end up saving a few gallons of fuel that didn’t have to be used on flying me around. As we all know, oil is a limited resource and is running out. By not using that fuel for the plane, perhaps they’ll be able to run a few more race cars around the track at Monaco, and keep alive the glamour.

The glamour and the gasoline.

Posted by GregW 13:29 Archived in France Tagged luxury_travel Comments (0)

Glamour and Gasonline part I: Nice is nice

The first part of my glamourama trip to the Mediterranean starts with an overnight luxury train (at least it used to be) and a wander around Nice.

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View Monaco Grand Prix 2009 on GregW's travel map.

I used to really like planning my trips. I used to buy and devour the guidebooks. I’d read travel advice, reviews and trip reports online. I’d pull up Google Maps and pour over the satellite images of the places. It was a way to extend the trip by making it start earlier. All that advanced planning was a way of vicariously going to some place, and because it actually all culminated with a trip, it results in the ultimate payoff of an actual experience.

Lately, though, I just don’t have the drive to do any advance planning. Booking travel I’ll do. I actually derive a strange pleasure from that part. I love pouring over time tables of trains, planes, buses and ferries to figure out how to get from point A to point B. I’ll read enough about a place to know where I want to stay, and then use some hotel booking sites mapping function to pick out a decent hotel, comparing the reviews across numerous sites to find a place that is good value for money.

Once the hotel and travel is booked, though, I lose all interest in researching further. I am not sure why I’ve made this shift, or if I can even pinpoint when it happened. Perhaps the novelty of being a “traveller,” something I came to late in life, is now wearing off. Perhaps I have just learned the lesson that the best experiences I have when travelling are those that I don’t plan, and thus subconsciously determine there is no point in planning. Perhaps I am just getting lazier. All are possible explanations, though the actual answer I don’t have the foggiest clue.

What all this lack of actually planning trips leads to, however, is the fact that the trip I took this past weekend ended up just sneaking up on me. I booked the travel and hotel two months ago, and then promptly ignored anything else related to the trip. That’s not to say that I had forgotten about it, just that it really had no emotional grip on me prior to leaving. Right up until I left, I felt neither joy nor anticipation at the prospect of going, and I really should have. After all, I was going to Monaco and that stretch of the Mediterranean known as the Riviera to see one of the most prestigious and glamourous sporting events on the face of the earth - Formula One’s Monaco Grand Prix.

Even the day I was scheduled to leave, I spent most of the morning playing on the internet and not packing. Only with 30 minutes to spare did I decide I should figure out what to take, and as always I ended up taking about 20 pieces of clothing that never saw anything other than the inside of the wardrobe at my hotel. With time ticking away, I finished packing and headed off to catch the Eurostar to Paris.

When I planned the trip a few months back, I debated how to get down to Monaco. Given its distance from London, flying would have probably been a reasonable option, and the one that most people would have taken, but I’ve done a lot of flying in my time and am kind of sick of it. On top of that, given the amount of oil burnt through and carbon deposited in the air from the running of an F1 race, I figured I would try and minimise the impact of my trip by taking the train.

The trip started out quite nicely. One of the benefits of having booked my train two months ago and forgotten about it is that it came as a pleasant surprise to arrive at the station and find that I had booked myself in Leisure Select, an upgraded fare that includes a nicer seat, free alcohol and a meal. I arrived in Paris already feeling that the trip was embracing the spirit of the glamour of Monaco and the Riviera.

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Paris to Nice also held the promise of glamour. I had booked myself a sleeper bunk on the overnight train. The overnight from Paris to Nice is known as Le Train Bleu, or maybe it isn’t anymore. Soon after it started running in the late 1920s, it became known as the Blue Train based on the dark blue carriages. Agatha Christie wrote a novel set on the train in 1928, and Russian Ballet based a ballet on it. The train featured such passengers Charlie Chaplin, Coco Chanel, Winston Churchill, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII).

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After reading that, I couldn’t help but feel that the trip held the promise of something grand and romantic. Perhaps I would become embroiled in an affair of international intrigue involving state secrets stolen and sold to shifty international criminals. Maybe I would stumble across the body of one of my fellow passengers, and have until the morning to solve the crime before the police in Nice retrieved the body. At the very least, there would be some dark and mysterious woman who I can’t help but feel an instant attraction to, and who of course feels the same. I’d grab her in my arms and say something romantic and manly like, “don’t worry sweetheart, I’ll do the thinking for both of us.”

Of course, I should have heeded my own advice from riding the rails from Paris to Hong Kong four years ago and not expected much from sleeper travel. It was comfortable enough, but instead of the glamour of a 1940s romance, it was in the end nothing more than a hostel dorm on wheels, making it feel like a hostel suffering through an 8 hour long earth tremor. You share a small cramped space with 5 people you don’t know, some of whom snore and have nocturnal gas problems.

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I know I’m not the greatest bunk mate either. I never knew this about myself, but when I turn over, I tend to fling my arm up in the air. Normally this isn’t a problem, as there is nothing above me but air. On the top bunk of the train car, however, there is a light fixture encased in plastic, and every time my arm hit the plastic, it made a loud “ZZZZZZIS-BANG” sound, as my arm dragged along the corrugated plastic lifting it slightly before letting it drop back down with a thud. It woke me up each time I did it, and I can only assume the rest of the carriage woke to the sound as well. As you can imagine, I didn’t get much rest.

In the morning the train does run along a line with some amazing scenery. The line winds its way along the coast of the Riviera, often seperated from the water by nothing more than a thin strip of rocky beach. It is amazing that on a coast with such high priced real estate that the train tracks often have the best views and best access to the water.

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The train arrived in Nice just before nine in the morning. I was actually staying over the border in Italy, as hotels anywhere on the French Riviera were outrageously priced due to both the Cannes Film Festival and the Monaco Grand Prix being on that weekend. I saw one hotel in Monaco that was charging £2000 for a single night. I couldn’t check into my hotel in Italy until after 3 PM, so I figured I would spend the morning wandering around and checking out Nice.

The town is quite pretty, and there is a very nice promenade that runs the length of the waterfront in the centre of town. The waterfront is all beach, though I was surprised to see it a rocky beach and not luxurious sand. Up from the waterfront is a nice little pedestrian area with shops, restaurants and bars.

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While in Nice, I missed an excellent opportunity for a photo that really captured the vibe of the place. I was walking along the street when a young woman on a scooter pulled up and stopped at the lights. She was wearing a red, calf-length dress with a slit up the side to the top of her thighs and a pair of red, three-inch high heels To top off her outfit, she had on a worn black leather coat and a black scooter helmet. She was stopped at the light, her left leg stuck out through the slit, out holding up the scooter. You could see all the way up her smooth looking legs.

There was something about the image that screamed to me, “this is Nice!” It was glamourous and sexy, and also practical and impractical at the same time, an impractical choice of clothing and footwear for riding a moto-scooter, though the scooter itself being such a practical choice for a warm-weather, crowded city with high gasoline prices. People here, not just in Nice but in Europe, live in tiny apartments and drive cars or scooters that would be laughably small in North America, but splash out on the clothes and vacations that North Americans are more reluctant to waste money on. The girl in the red dress and three inch high heels on the scooter. It is the image of Europe.

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I took this one two days later, which is kind of similar in feel

To soak in more of that glamour, I headed down to the marina and had lunch overlooking the million dollar yachts. With the gentle waft of a sea breeze cooling the patio on which I sat, I had a plate of the sea’s bounty and a nice glass of wine. When in Nice, do as the Niceans do... or is that Nicers? Nicites? Whatever, I ate a decadent lunch and then topped it off with a creamy ice cream cone.

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After lunch and a brief constitutional to work off the calories, I headed towards Italy.

Continue in Gasoline and Glamour part II: Living in a Dan Brown Novel

Posted by GregW 11:12 Archived in France Tagged luxury_travel Comments (1)

A Young Nation Mourns Her Dead

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial to those that died during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, part of the larger Battle of Arras in April, 1917

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View Lille and World War I Battlefields on GregW's travel map.

The second of three entries on my trip around the World War I battlefields of Flanders. The Brooding Soldier in Flanders' Fields looks at the start of the war and the Second Battle of Ypres. This entry entitled A Young Nation Mourns Her Dead, published on April 8th, 92 years less a day from the battle, looks at the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the Canadian National monument that stands on the battlefield today. I died in hell - They called in Passchendaele looks at the Battle of Passchendaele and the end of the war.

Following on from the second battle of Ypres, trench warfare continued for the next couple of years, with much death and destruction but only small movements in the lines. By 1917, while still at a stalemate, the British and French forces were winning a war of attrition. The German forces, fighting on two fronts, had inferior numbers. The British army sought to exploit this by advantage by breaking the German lines and moving the war from the Trenches and out into the open.

The Battle of Arras was a month and a half long offensive on a number of fronts. The first attacks occurred on April 9, 1917.

One of the fronts was at Vimy Ridge. Vimy Ridge is a gradually rising escarpment on the western edge of the Douai plain, strategically important because it allows those at the top of the ridge to have unobstructed view for kilometres. The ridge had fallen under German control in October 1914 and by April of 1917 no one had been able to dislodge their hold on the ridge.

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The 4 Canadian divisions that made up the Canadian Corps launched an attack on 5:30 am, Easter Monday, April 9th, using a combination of artillery, air attacks as support for the infantry charge up the hill. In preparation, the soft chalk ground had been lined with tunnels to connect the front lines with the reserves and supplies in the back.

Over the next four days the Canadians slowly made progress cutting into the German lines, and by nightfall on the 12th of April, the Canadians had captured the ridge. In the battle, Canada lost 3,598 men, and saw another 7,004 wounded.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge was the first time that the four divisions of the Canadian Army fought together as a single unit, and within Canada it is viewed as one of the primary events that gave Canada its identity as a nation separate and distinct from Great Britain.

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It is atop Vimy Ridge that the largest of Canada’s World War Monuments sits. It is dedicated to all those Canadians who died during the Great War.

To the valour of their countrymen in the Great War and in memory of their sixty thousand dead this monument is raised by the people of Canada.
- Inscription on Memorial

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The monument is also inscribed with the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who were killed in France but whose bodies were never found or graves were lost.

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A cloaked figure stands at the front, or east side, of the monument overlooking the Douai Plain. It was carved from a single, 30-tonne block and is the largest piece in the monument. This sorrowing fi gure of a woman represents Canada—a young nation mourning her dead. Below is a tomb, draped in laurel branches and bearing a helmet and sword.
- from Veteran Affairs Canada website

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Down the road from the memorial, through the pine forest, are a few different cemeteries with Canadian dead. As I walked between the cemeteries, the visitors centre and the memorial itself, the weather turned time and time again, going from sunny to cloudy to raining to hailing and back again in a matter of minutes, almost like 4 years worth of weather within a few hours.

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As I wandered the cemetery, it was raining. I huddled up against the cold rain and tried to keep my camera dry as I took pictures, but couldn’t help but think about what these fields must have been like for a infantry man back during the war, when a full winter’s blast and hard rain would pelt them for weeks on end.

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When the sun was out, though, I couldn’t help but be struck by the beauty of the place, with the green ridge sloping down away from you, allowing you to view miles of beautiful French countryside, the pine forests rising up behind you. I would sometimes find myself getting lost in the beauty of the place, only to suddenly remember where I was and feel guilty for thinking nice thoughts about the scene of so much death.

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Through the whole trip, I found myself alternating between a number of emotions: pride in my country; grief for those fallen; shame that I have never had to go through something like that, but also relief that I grew up in a place and time mostly featuring peace; wonder at the beautiful French and Belgian countryside; and even some sorrow that I never got to know my grandfather, who also fought in the war.

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As I left Vimy Ridge and drove south, I saw a farmer cutting through a field that was fenced off. Like much of area around the ridge, it was closed off to human traffic due to the large amount of unexploded artillery shells and mines that still are buried in the scarred and undulating land today. In the 1990s a mine removal engineer, after successful de-arming a mine just a few weeks before, was killed in a tunnel collapse. In 2001, the entire village was evacuated after 170 tons of explosives containing mustard gas were found to be improperly stored.

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The farmer, though, strode casually through a field which still might have had the fire power to kill him. He obviously was familiar with the land and knew where we could walk. It was his casual attitude that reminded me of what I had seen in Bolivia after rioting and fighting had brought the city to a standstill. As the rioting died down, the people of Bolivia got back out on the streets.

“Walking back to my hotel it was interesting to watch the people of La Paz on the streets. Some young boys were playing soccer on a street that was normally bustling with traffic, groups of people were having casual discussions on street corners, a young couple walked by my hand in hand. Less than 3 hours ago armed combatants had been running down these streets, and now people used them so casually.”

From ultimate horror, people just get on with life. To the farmer, this wasn’t the site of a horrific battle and proud Canadian achievement. This was a farm field, close to his own house and livestock, and the fastest path was through it.

After the dreadfulness, we pick ourselves up and move on. Life continues.

Posted by GregW 13:00 Archived in France Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Steeples rising above green fields and love of roundabouts

Driving with Henri through the French countryside.

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View Lille and World War I Battlefields on GregW's travel map.

We had just come over a small rise when we spotted another one. A small rise is really the only kind of rise that one can come over in this area, as the land is mostly flat and waterlogged, given how close it is to sea level. They don't call it the low countries for nothing, though technically this being France I am not sure they call it the low countries. Back in the day, though, when everyone here was chattering at each other in Dutch rather than French, before Louis the XIV brought the region once and for all under French rule, they called the whole area of Flanders the low countries, comprising parts of modern day Netherlands, Belgium and France. Besides, without border control anymore, it is sometimes hard to know what country you are even in. I know I am somewhere close to the France-Belgium border, but which side of it I am on is anyone's guess.

"If only you had a GPS, Henri," I said. He didn't respond, he just kept humming.

Anyway, we had come over the rise, and there it was sticking out above the green and brown farm fields, one of close to a million I had seen that day. Another church steeple.

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The whole area around Lille seems to be the same background over and over, kind of like I am driving with Fred and Barney through Bedrock, and they keep passing the same 5 cartoon houses. The view here is much prettier than stone-age Bedrock, though. A green field, a stand of trees, a brown field, a green field, a cemetery, a small town with a pub, a few houses and a church with a steeple. Pass and repeat.

The whole purpose of my trip to Lille was to leave it. I came down to this area of France to see a number of WWI memorials, battlefields and cemeteries, and so I spent two days criss-crossing the French and Belgian countryside, with Virgin Radio playing on the radio.

Virgin Radio – is there anywhere you can go in the world that Sir Richard hasn’t branded already? That weekend I got up early on Sunday to watch the opening race of the Formula One season, and there he was in Australia milling around the paddock at the F1 race this weekend. Somehow he ended up with his brand splashed on the winning car. Regardless of the incessant branding, though, the radio station played a decent selection of tunes, though I heard that James Morrison song Broken Strings featuring Nelly Furtado about 4 times an hour.

So, it was just me, Virgin Radio and Henri, dashing around the French countryside.

Oh, how rude. I haven't introduced you yet to Henri. Henri Renault, my readers. Readers, this is Henri.

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Henri is a Renault Twingo. I tell you it is a Twingo, because to my eye it looked like every other Renault on the road, all of which had different names. Henri was a very good companion and acquitted himself admirably all weekend long.

France is the 5th country I have ever driven in. Apparently France and I have something with multiples of 5, for France was also the 10th country that I had every visited back in 2005. It was also the 3rd country I worked in, but that isn't a multiple of 5, so we shall ignore it.

On the Saturday morning I was headed south towards Vimy along A1 when I saw a police car. A few seconds later, a white panel van shot past me. A few seconds after that, the police car whizzed past me with lights on. I caught up to the cop car and the panel van driving along the road, and realized that it wasn't a police car at all, but rather was a customs car. The car had a big lighted sign board on top that kept repeating "DOUANE SUIVEZ NOUS" - Customs Follow Us. At that point I realized that the panel van was from Belgium. I guess open borders don't necessarily mean free flow all the time.

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The morning was spent wandering around the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge. It was very moving, but I will speak about the experience there and at the other WWI sites I visited in my next entry, so for now let us pick up the story back on the road, this time as I pull into Thélus.

Thélus is a town just south Vimy, and it seemed to be mostly shut up and closed down for the day. I was starving, however, having not had breakfast and with the sun now past its apex and now on its way down towards the west, eventually to set. I found an open tabac. Cigarettes are only sold in small shops called tabacs in France, which also tend to have lottery tickets and a small bar with a small menu of food. The one I pulled into seemed to offer at least some food, as there was a big sign on the windows announcing "SANDWICHES."

I walked into a smoky bar area where a number of older French gentlemen were standing around laughing and swapping stories. I walked up to the bar and waited while the bartender finished off an especially amusing anecdote. Once the regulars had been suitably entertained, he wandered over to take my order.

"Avez-vous une carte?" I asked, requesting the menu.

The bartender looked shocked for a moment, before regaining his composure and shaking his head grimly. "No, ce n'est pas possible," he said, before launching into a flurry of French that I didn't understand.

I stood dazed for a moment, and then replied with the only thing I could think of to say. "No?"

"No," the bartender said, a shrug in his voice. He then returned to his regulars at the other end of the bar where another hilarious story was in full swing. I stood quietly for a moment, hoping for some reprieve from my hunger, but seeing none coming, ended up having to leave the store quietly, my head down.

I returned to Henri, who had been waiting patiently outside. "I bet you would have gotten served," I said. Henri offered me a quiet sympathy, before roaring to life to taking me away from the tabac.

I don't know why I couldn't get a sandwich as advertised. Perhaps the kitchen was closed, though it being around one o'clock in the afternoon, I would think it to be prime lunch hour. Perhaps it was just obvious that I was not from around those parts and had a silly accent and not much command of the language, and they just don't serve my kind around there. I don't know. I do hope, however, that at least I become the prime character in one of the hilarious stories that fly around the smoky bar area. I'd hate to be forgotten.

From Thélus, I headed east along the backroads, basically driving towards any steeples in the hope that the town would have something to eat. I didn't have much luck, but did get some nice pictures along the way.

In Saily-en-Ostrevent, there was some pretty little houses and businesses. Sadly the pub was closed.

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Up the road is Vitry-en-Artois, which had this abandoned looking train station. The train still stops here, but you have to buy your tickets using the automated machine. The station building is abandoned.

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There was a bunch of old guys in really big wellies (rubber boots) gathering outside of this (sadly shut) pub. I don't know if they were farmers, hikers, hunters or grave diggers, but they looked pretty scary. Like the kind of people who would think nothing of killing the foreigner in town and burying his body in a shallow, muddy grave. Needless to say, I didn't linger around too long.

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Just down the road, however, I came across my first chance of food in Douai. An Esso Gas station with an automated food machine. I bought a ham and cheese sandwich for €3.50, and immediately regretted it. I didn't open the sandwich, instead putting it on the seat beside me, and continuing my trip. 5 minutes down the road there was a McDonald's. Thank god for the unstoppable spread of American fast-food culture.

Douai is an absolutely stunning place with a beautiful medieval centre, including an imposing town hall that was glimmering in the sun. It also has a shockingly large amount of cars looking for a shocking small number of empty parking spaces, so all I could do was circle the town hall three times before heading back out of town. The image of the town hall's spire glistening in the sun is burned into my memory. You'll just have to imagine what it was like, though, because I need two hands to drive Henri and thus didn't have one free to snap a photo.

I did get a couple snaps from Douai, though, of this medieval gate. These were easier to get, as the gate was well outside the centre and thus parking was ample and free.

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From Douai I headed back to Lille, my first days adventure complete. I got back to find that Lille traffic on a 5:30 PM on a Saturday is horrendous. It took me a good 45 minutes to cover the 3 kilometres or so from the motorway back to my hotel. Perhaps, given the ladies of the early afternoon that I saw walking the streets in Lille previously, these were all potentially Johns. Who knows, but I was glad to get back to my hotel room and a nice hot shower.

After my shower, I sat down to organize my photos. Feeling a little peckish, I opened up that ham and cheese sandwich. It was like biting into a wet newspaper, though wet newspaper probably has less chance of giving you e-coli. I tossed the sandwich in the bin, and again thanked McDonald's for the Big Mac. I'd hate to think what would have happened if I hadn't found that McDs and would have had to actually eat that ham and cheese.

"IT Consultant and travel blogger Greg Wesson was found dead today in a small Renault automobile outside of Douai, France. Mr. Wesson was apparently killed when a ham and cheese sandwich he was eating evolved to the point of being intelligent life, and choked the surprised Canadian. The sandwich, which had spent the previous year and a half languishing in an Esso gas station's automated sandwich machine, stated he was angry about being left in the vending machine for so long. 'Have you ever tried talking to a mozzarella and tomato baguette?' the sandwich asked. 'I mean, sure it is more evolved than the Pringles, but their views on workers rights are, frankly, stone age.' Mr. Wesson's blog will be continued by the people at Renault, who aim to use it to explain to a bewildered public how a Twingo is different than a Clio is different than a Mégane."

===

Sunday, after watching the Australian Grand Prix, I headed out in Henri, thinking to myself that I, driving my Renault, must be much like Alsonso, though in reality probably being more like Piquet Jr. I headed to the North-East this time, following the signs that were taking me to Ypres (Ieper), in Belgium. Traffic signs are bilingual up here, in both French and Dutch, so I get to learn the name of towns in two languages. Ypres or Ieper, I am still not sure how to say it. I know that in the Great War, the British soldiers stationed there called it Wipers.

Along the way to Ypres, I went through about 1,000 roundabouts. I am now a huge fan of the roundabout. They are so much more efficient and quicker than stop signs or stop lights, at least at anything up to a moderately busy intersection. For a really busy intersection, traffic lights make the most sense, but below that, the roundabout rules. You pull up, slowing down to check for any cars in the circle. If there are none, you go. If there is one, you stop. Simple, quick, and (so they say) a lot safer than traditional four-way intersections. Less chance of fatal head-on or T-bone crashes. If you are going to hit something, it is probably going to be a glancing blow along the side of the car. The kind of thing that makes body-work guys happy, but won't kill you.

Ypres is an old town, and quite pretty. The site of intense fighting during WWI, there were a number of site around the area that I wanted to see, so I used the place as a base for my driving for the rest of the day. I did take some time to wander around the pretty town centre, which has been gloriously restored to its Medieval beauty.

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Much like the countryside in France, the country side in Belgium was made up of a lot of fields punctuated by the occasional small town with a tall steeple on their church.

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Henri and I did have some drama, as I got lost trying to find my way from Ypres towards St. Julien.

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Sadly, St. Julien wasn't on any of the maps I had, which is probably due to the fact that the only map I had was of Lille's city centre and thus was unlikely to have a small town in Belgium appear on it. St. Julien doesn't, unlike many towns, appear on the numerous road signs along the way.

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I did however, somehow find St. Julien eventually. Happiness abounded.

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From St. Julien, I was able to make my way back to France and Lille, thanks to the well marked road signs. If only St. Julien had been so well marked. The drive back to Lille gave me one last chance to listen to Virgin radio, drive a car on the right hand side of the road, feel the sun through the windows and keep an eye out for the towers as we crested the small rises.

"Look Henri, another steeple!"

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Posted by GregW 10:16 Archived in France Tagged transportation Comments (1)

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