You could say that accidentally being in Paris on the eve and dawn of Bastille Day is serendipitous or you could say it is downright stupid.
Bastille Day marks the start of the French annual holidays. This has been the case for many, many years. As an employee or associate of a French IT company for more than 30 years, I have always known that the start of the French holiday season has meant a total shut-down of head office support until the Feast of the Assumption on the 15th August, another public holiday in France. It is when all of France takes its annual holiday. But retirement must have affected the brain. The fact that we would be leaving Paris on Bastille Day along with half the population of the city, just passed me by. It’s true that I was a little curious when booking the train tickets for the 14th, very few seats were available and they were in 1st Class at inflated prices. But still the penny didn’t drop!!
So, early on the morning of Bastille Day, we checked out of the hotel, walked the 1/4 mile up the hill to the Gare Montparnasse and, at 7.30 am, entered a packed railway station. This is no easy station to negotiate at the best of times. It is massive and on two levels with suburban, short distance and long distance services. I had taken a recce the day before so knew where the TGV trains would be found. This was on the upper level served by escalators. Today everyone had large amounts of baggage so it was, to say the least, a bit of a squash.
Once on the TGV concourse we were able to observe the French en masse and in a holiday mood. As many were setting out for a one month holiday, the amount of baggage needed had to be seen to be believed. There were, as you might expect, many family groups with unwieldy bags and bundles and a plethora of buggies ranging from the neat, easily folded to the mini SUV’s that are so popular today. Another well defined group were the troops of young scouts, of both sexes. They had gigantic rucksacks with tents and sleeping bags strapped onto the outside plus loads of other camping paraphernalia. There didn’t seem to be any adults involved so the mind boggled at what might be going on over the coming weeks in the fields of the French countryside.
On the earlier visit to the station, I swear I saw Monsieur Hulot, the famous invention of the French film star Jacques Tati, who played that role in a number of hilarious films. He didn’t have the trademark coat but he did have the hat and an elegant light-weight suit and he loped along a platform stopping, M. Hulot style, to interrogate a train conductor. His leather case was small and he carried a delicate parasol. Definitely in character.
Our train was the 07.59 to Poitiers in, what the French call, La France Profonde, or “Deep France”. The term is used to describe the real France well separated from Paris and the Côte d’Azur where the French culture is practised every day. It is a term of true affection. The reason for going to Poitiers was to visit my brother who, with his wife, has retired to a farmhouse that they have lovingly restored over the past 15 years or so.
The route to Poitiers is serviced by the French high-speed train, the TGV (Trains à Grande Vitesse). In fact, this line is not built to carry the highest speed trains so the train only travels at about the same speed as Eurostar – not like a bullet. A number of years ago I travelled on a real high-speed TGV. There was a plaque announcing that this particular locomotive held the speed record of 517 km/hour (more than 320 mph). On that occasion I don’t think we reached that speed but the countryside certainly flew by.
The journey covered approximately 350 km (a little over 200 miles) and the time taken was scheduled at 1 hour 50 mins including two stops. We found our seats in a cubicle of four, two each side of a table. The other two seats were occupied by a youngish couple who weren’t interested in conversation with the only foreigners in our part of the train. The journey seemed to pass in a flash and it was time to disembark.
In Poitiers a hire car had been booked from an agency used on a previous visit. It was about 5 minutes walk from the station. We walked along the road towards the rental office and, almost casually, noticed that no businesses were open. Europcar was no exception!! Not a light on anywhere and the gates to the car compound were firmly locked. Of course, it was Bastille Day and no one works if they can help it. As we were beginning to wonder what to do, the main door to the office opened and a man looked out. It transpired that he had come in to work just to give us our car. He was, to say the least, surprised that a booking had been taken for this day of all days. We were mightily relieved at his conscientiousness. The paperwork was done and it was out onto the French roads in a brand new diesel Peugeot 208 – the latest model in the range.
Andrew & Pat’s house is near the small town of Usson du Poitou, a short hour’s drive south from Poitiers. We didn’t want to arrive empty handed so, in some trepidation given the public holiday, we went in search of a supermarket. Within minutes the giant Auchan store appeared at the roadside and, judging by the number of cars in the car-park, it was open for business. Relief all round.
La Genebrière is a small hamlet about 2km out of town and definitely in La France Profonde. It is home to a farming community and the only sounds are from tractors and chickens – very rural. The fields are quite small, rarely bigger than 10 hectares (25 acres), and there are lots of hedges and small woodlands. The crops vary from wheat and corn to sunflowers – very picturesque. There’s plenty of wildlife – at one point we disturbed a very handsome deer resting in a field of corn, it ran off at some speed. A major pastime here is “La Chasse” – game hunting – so the deer was no doubt trying to put a lot of distance between us and it.
The Poitou-Charentes region stretches from north of Poitiers to the Atlantic at La Rochelle and south to the La Garonne, the river that enters the Atlantic at Bordeaux. It has a maze of country roads criss-crossed by a few major roads including the autoroute A10 (l’Aquitaine) which runs from Paris to Bordeaux. Most of the towns of the region have historical centres complete with ancient churches and other buildings. There is also a good scattering of chateaux, some very grand.
On our first full day we set out to explore the area. The town of Confolens, as the name might imply, is situated at the confluence of two rivers, La Vienne and La Goire. Although it has a medieval past, the present day town was properly established in the 19th century as an agricultural centre for the surrounding area. As we discovered, Confolens is appropriately twinned with Pitlochry in Scotland also a town near a major confluence of rivers, namely the Tummel and the Tay. By coincidence, within a week we would be passing through Pitlochry on the train going north to Inverness.
The next port of call was La Château de La Rochefoucauld. This château dates back to the 10th century and is still home to the descendants of the original family that built it. It sits on a small hill with an outer wall and an inner ‘castle’ with four impressive towers flanking an inner courtyard. The courtyard is open on one side giving impressive views over the surrounding countryside. Amongst the most interesting features are a grand circular stone staircase, the kitchen and the library with its collection of 18,000 volumes mostly dating back to the 18th century. A great feature for children (of all ages) is a vast collection of replica costumes from many historical eras. Visitors are encouraged to try on the costumes and imagine themselves in times gone by. Margaret couldn’t resist joining in!!
The final stop was at Angoulème, a very old city and the ancient capital of the region. It sits on a plateau overlooking the Charente River. We read that survivors of that well-known WWII film “The Cockleshell Heroes”, escaped to a safe house near here after their devastating raids on the U-Boat base at Bordeaux. However that was not the purpose of the visit. We wandered the streets soaking up the atmosphere and looked over the famous city walls, known as the Remparts, to admire the distant views. There was also time to visit the Angoulème Cathedral which was built in the 11th century but which has undergone many periods of restoration. Even today the whole building, inside and out, is having a major clean. The outside of the building has two impressive towers flanking a façade decorated with statues above the main doorway. We finished the visit with a coffee in a café overlooking the town market hall, an imposing structure of steel and glass. Just one last bit of trivia, Angoulème has a significant paper industry and its most famous product is Rizla cigarette papers.
We sped back up the N10 trunk road keen to get back to La Genebrière and prepare for a two day trip to the French seaside.
The seaside in question was actually an Atlantic island, Ile de Ré, off the coast atLa Rochelle but part of the Poitou-Charentes region. The island is linked to the mainland by a 3 km modern toll bridge built in 1988 and high enough for the shipping that uses the port to pass underneath. The island is about 30 km long and about 5 km at its widest. The highest point is only 20 metres above sea level so the favourite method of transport on the island is the bicycle. There are more 100 kilometres of excellent, dedicated cycle paths. Sadly, with my recent mishap in Paris, cycling would not be on our agenda.
The island is much loved as a holiday destination by the French. Many have holiday homes here. It is within manageable weekend travelling distance of Paris by car or by train. Judging by the fashions being worn and the number of boats in the harbours and marinas, this is an island for the comfortably off. The houses are restricted to two stories in height, painted white and with wooden shutters painted in one of a few ‘approved’ pastel colours – green, blue or grey. It all looks very well manicured, no garish advertising and no unsightly overhead cables. Being the start of the national holidays, it was essentially wall-to-wall French tourists but we did see a few foreign tourist, including a family from the UK, and a few Germans.
The main industry on the island, apart from farming shell fish and tourism, is the extraction of salt from thousands of hectares of salt flats. As the island has slowly risen from the sea exposing the salt beds, some of the island’s ports have become isolated from the sea. These ports are now connected to the sea by long channels which must take a lot of maintenance to stop them from silting up.
Our destination for the night was the Hôtel le Chat Botté (http://www.hotelchatbotte.com) in Saint-Clément-des-Baleines near the western end of the island. The hotel was very comfortable and our first floor room had a great view over the large garden. One small niggle, the so called “free wifi” was not working so we could not use the internet as our guidebook to learn more about the island. A quiet evening was spent strolling down to the beach, very sandy, and eating at the restaurant next to the hotel. The next morning started with breakfast in the hotel garden in glorious sunshine – that augured well for some beach-time for us refugees from the awful summer that has beset northern and western Europe.
It was decided to go to the long, sandy beach at the extreme western end of the island. It is probably about 3 km long and 200 metres wide at low tide. Behind the beach on massive sand-dunes are the remains of the WWII big gun emplacements – the island has been the scene of many naval battles over the centuries. Although the beach was very crowded close to the car parks, a short walk took us to a quieter bit where we could settle down and soak up the sun.
Before going to the beach we had visited the town of Les Portes-en-Ré where there was a very well stocked farmers market. We were soon loaded up with cheese, salami, bread and fruit – all the ingredients for, as the French say, “le picnic”. The town looked like a good place to stay on a future visit but today it was off to the beach with our goodies.
There are a number of small town on the island, all very busy and with plenty of spending opportunities. Most of the shops were selling top-of-the-range beach wear or arts & crafts. Apart from Les Portes-en-Ré, we visited St Martin-de-Ré, the island’s capital where a very good seafood lunch was had on our first day at Le Serghi on the harbour-side. St Martin is also home to the island’s prison. Andrew, a regular visitor to the island, told us a wonderful anecdote describing an escaped prisoner who disguised himself as a tourist by the simple expedient of stripping and lying on a busy beach. This lasted for a few days but he knew he had to get off the island and using the bridge was not an option. He came up with the master plan of stealing a windsurfing board and crossing to the mainland. Unfortunately the eagle-eyed Gendarmes spotted him and, commandeering some boards, set off in pursuit, wearing full uniform including their distinctive hats, the kepis. This would make an show-stealing clip (if it exists) for the Police, Camera, Action type of programmes.
All too soon it was time to leave. A couple of hours by autoroute, trunk road and country lane took us the 150 km or so back to La Genebrière for a relaxing final evening. The next morning it was time for farewells as we headed to Poitiers to hand back the car before we incurred an extra day’s hire charge. This gave us a few hours to wander around the ancient City of Poitiers and time for a long lunch in an office workers café hidden away in a little courtyard near the central medieval church of Notre Dame de la Grande. Poitiers is steeped in history and dates back to Celtic times. The Palais de Justice, dating back to the Middle Ages, is well worth a visit. It was the scene of the trials of Jean d’Arc and of the Knights Templar – if only those stone walls could speak.
A walk down the steep streets from the ancient city took us to the station. As was to be expected with SNCF, the train arrived on time and we settled down, in 1st Class of course, at a two seater table. The journey back to Paris was completely without incident and, after a few stops on the metro, we were in the reception of the MyHotel in the Le Marais district of the city. Le Marais is largely a commercial area today and is well placed between the tourist areas of Le Louvre and Le Centre Pompidou, La Place de la République and Le Bastille. It is also quite close to the Gare du Nord which would be convenient for catching the Eurostar back to London later the next day.
The hotel reception staff were very professional and friendly and, rather spookily, we were directed to room 31, the same room number we had had in the TimHotel a few nights earlier. This room 31 turned out to be very small but adequately furnished and clean. It also had the essential window onto the street below so that we could observe Paris going about its everyday life.
In the evening we took a walk out to find a restaurant and found that we were in the middle of the rag-trade district. There was shop after shop stuffed full of shirts waiting for the buyers to come and make their selections. We’d left it a little late and all the good looking places were full. The place where we did find a table looked ok but we soon found out why there were free tables. For France, where people really appreciate their food, this was a massive disappointment. We ate what we could and left quickly to find a bar where coffee and brandy would help us get over this error of judgement.
Breakfast in MyHotel was a buffet with plenty of choice and no portion control. It set us up for the day. Even better, as we went to check out, the hotel offered us a complimentary packed lunch. Our plan was to visit the Centre Georges Pompidou, the home of modern art in Paris and the largest gallery of it’s type in Europe. To get there involved a stroll through mostly narrow streets passing offices, schools, colleges, hospitals and fire stations. There was not a tourist in sight until we came round a corner and there was the familiar metal and glass structure of the Pompidou. The main exhibition was of the works by the German artist Gerhard Richter. We knew nothing about him but if it was good enough for the Centre Pompidou, who were we to argue. We were in for a real treat.
Richter, who is still alive and in his 80’s, works with many materials often starting from photographs and finishing up with anything from a photo-realistic painting to a huge abstract work produced using sponges to spread layers and layers of paint over large areas. The effects need to be seen to be appreciated. There is write-up at this link which gives a professional’s view. It turned out that the exhibition, in slightly different form, had been at Tate Modern in 2011 and The Tate was credited with curating this event in Paris.
When hunger began to strike, we remembered our packed lunches. Coffee was bought from one of the cafeteria and a couple of seats found where we could settle down. The lunch was quite simple but nourishing and tasted even better when we recalled that it was ‘complimentary’. After lunch we left the building and were immediately accosted by a youngish woman who held out a small piece of printed paper and indicated that she deaf and dumb. We started to read the paper, which was clearly a begging letter in many languages, when suddenly we saw three gendarmes in military fatigues running towards us. It transpired that this was an attempt to get us to expose our wallets or purses whereupon we would have been comprehensively mugged. Many, many thanks to the French military and their powers of observation.
After this experience we needed a drink. A bar was quickly found and wine and beer ordered. The incident was soon a distant memory and after a couple of drinks Eurostar was calling.
And so ended our short visit to La France Profonde and its antithesis, Paris. La France Profonde is, as the French would claim with good reason, the real France. Although there are plenty of tourists, it was very easy even in the town and cities, to get away from the hubbub and soak up all things Gallic. A journey to be recommended to anyone with a love of things French or just a natural curiosity to see what France is really about. However for our money, being city people, there’s nothing to beat the variety of a big city and to wander the back streets where a whole world of surprises awaits.