I’m going to start this post off with a bunch of numbers.
Here’s one: 11.
Every year, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we remember.
Here’s another number: 3598.
That’s the number of Canadian soldiers who lost their lives at Vimy Ridge, a battle that was commemorated with 100th anniversary ceremonies last April. Another 7000 soldiers were wounded.
And here’s one more number: 1.
That’s the number of graves my nieces and I set out to look for last summer when we visited Canadian Cemetery No. 2 at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial. It’s a big cemetery, but we found the grave in minutes.
The grave we were looking for was this one.
This Cape Breton soldier was the great-grand-uncle of the wife of a friend of a friend of mine. How many degrees of separation between that soldier and me? I told my nieces it was five and they were all over the idea that they were the sixth degree. More numbers. Whatever the degree of separation, knowing that I knew someone who knew someone who was related to a Canadian soldier buried at Vimy Ridge gave all of us a personal connection to those horrific events of 100 years ago.
I have more numbers. The Vimy Monument stands at the highest point of Vimy Ridge — the piece of land that was fought over by 200,000 soldiers — and the 100 hectares surrounding the ridge were given to Canada by a grateful France in 1922 so that the monument could be built.
On the Vimy Monument are carved the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who died in France, but have no known grave.
Because many of the soldiers’ bodies at Vimy were never recovered (it was and still is too dangerous to walk over No Man’s Land because of the unexploded ordnance), the entire memorial site is considered a cemetery.
Here’s a surprising number: 25. That’s the number of metres between the Canadian and German lines — about the width of a NHL hockey rink. You can see for yourself how short that distance is when you stand in one of the reconstructed trenches.
The guides who take you into the underground tunnels at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial are all Canadian university students. Those tunnels served two purposes: they protected the Canadian soldiers as they moved ever closer to the German lines, and they allowed the soldiers to plant the underground mines that were set off just before the battle began.
Not all of the mines exploded, which is why there is so much unexploded ordnance. The grass is kept short by grazing sheep that are too lightweight to set off the mines.
It is believed there are 10 miles of tunnels at Vimy, dug by miners who had the necessary experience in tunneling underground. Although you can’t go into the tunnels without a guide, you are free to wander about the rest of the memorial site as you will.
The Vimy Monument itself is striking. Designed by Canadian sculptor Walter Seymour Allward, it took 11 years to build and was dedicated in 1936. Allward said the image of the twin pylons, which represent Canada and France, came to him in a dream.
On the monument itself are 20 allegorical sculptures so poignant and moving that I’m going to let the pictures speak for themselves.
And here is one final number: 2.
That’s the number of hours it takes to get from Paris to the Canadian National Vimy Memorial by car (about the same by train and taxi).
As to the value of a visit to Vimy Ridge, I have no more numbers.
That is immeasurable.
Every time I am in Paris, I make sure to stop by the Musée Rodin. It is, in my opinion, the most perfect of art museums.
I love the Musée Rodin because I love Rodin’s work, for one, but I also love it because it is located in such a beautiful setting and because it is the perfect size for an art gallery: it’s neither too big nor too small.
There are a number of similar, smaller museums in Paris — the Musée Picasso and the Musée Delacroix come to mind — and if you have a particular artist you want to explore in depth, you would do well to spend your time in one of these smaller museums and avoid the larger museums where the tourists tend to gravitate.
The Musée Rodin is housed in an eighteenth-century mansion known as the Hôtel Biron. At various points in its lifetime, the mansion was home to a Roman Catholic cardinal, the Russian ambassador to France, and three nuns who opened a boarding school for girls. In the twentieth century, the owners began to rent space in the building to artists, including Henri Matisse, and then, in 1908, Auguste Rodin. Rodin took over the entire building in 1911.
Also in 1911, the French government became the new owners of the Hôtel Biron, and after exacting a promise from the government that the building would be turned into a museum of his work, Rodin donated most of his sculptures. In 1919, two years after the death of Rodin, the Musée Rodin opened to the public.
In contrast to the Louvre, the Centre Pompidou is a much more manageable art museum. For one thing, its permanent collection is displayed on two levels that are easily covered in one visit. And for another, its emphasis is much more focused: modern and contemporary art from 1905 to present day.
There are a couple of bonuses to the Centre Pompidou as well: the splendid view from the fifth floor, and the incredibly fascinating architecture of the building, which opened in 1977.
If the crowds of the Louvre prove to be too much for you, I recommend a visit to the Pompidou as the perfect antidote.
When you spend a week in Paris with a couple of art students, it’s inevitable that you end up spending much of that week in the city’s art museums.
And when you choose to visit the world’s largest and most-visited art museum, it’s inevitable that you end up spending a considerable amount of time in line waiting your turn to enter.
That art museum would be the Musée du Louvre.
The line was long. Very long. And here’s a pro tip: if you neglect to ensure you’re in the correct line before you begin your wait, you may well end up having to go to the back of yet another line, thus doubling your wait time.
Which is what happened to us.
Here’s another pro tip: do not try to see the entire museum in one go. It is physically impossible. The Louvre used to be a royal palace, and the result is a confusing layout that is more maze than museum. If you were to walk through every one of its 403 galleries and down every one of its corridors, you’d cover 14.5 km and 15 acres containing more than 38,000 objects and pieces of art dating from ancient civilizations to the mid-nineteenth century.
I’m exhausted just from typing out that last sentence.
My nieces and I started in the sculpture galleries and the girls were both awestruck by what they saw and overwhelmed by the crowds around pieces such as the Venus de Milo. Because we knew we had to pace ourselves, we stopped to have a bite to eat in one of the Louvre’s many cafés, intending to tackle the Italian Renaissance paintings after our break.
But fate intervened, and an announcement over the PA system in French and English that the Louvre had to be evacuated due to a “security incident” thwarted our plans. We never did find out what the incident was — I suspect it may have been due to the record-breaking rain storm earlier that morning — but when I told the story to a friend who had been in Paris a year earlier, she recounted her experience of being evacuated from Versailles for what they eventually discovered was a thermos inadvertently left unattended.
We had waited more than two hours to spend scarcely an hour inside the Louvre. But we also wanted to be safe, and these days, in Paris, you cannot blame the museum or the police for being overanxious and overcautious.
We never did go back to the Louvre — we had other museums to visit and the girls decided they had seen as much of the Louvre as they needed to see. For myself, I’m glad we didn’t make it as far as da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. That gallery is a bit of a gong show and unless you’re small enough to squeeze to the front of the crowd or tall enough to see over the selfie sticks, you will walk away disappointed. At least my nieces were spared that.
So, the all-important question is: when you have less than a week in Paris to impress your nieces with all you know about the City of Light, where do you take them to eat?
In my case, I took them to Bouillon Chartier, which was recommended to me by my Parisian friend. He described it as “an authentic French brasserie” that offered cheap but tasty food and had servers that were rude as … well, I can’t repeat what he wrote on a family blog such as this, but when I read his text to my niece, she raised her eyebrows and said, “Um …”
Needless to say, by this point in her European travels, she was more than a little homesick for polite Canadians.
But we went to Bouillon Chartier anyways. And when we arrived, I recognized the entrance from a travel article I had read some time ago. Bouillon Chartier was a Parisian restaurant I had always wanted to try.
We walked in through the revolving doors and were quickly seated. The décor looked like something out of a Belle Époque movie set, with coat racks set high above a cavernous room lined with mirrored walls and filled with endless rows of tables lit by giant globe light fixtures.
Soon our black-vested, white-aproned waiter came to take our order, which he scribbled down on the paper tablecloth. He was polite, friendly, and extremely patient as I gave him our order in my poorly enunciated French. As soon as he walked away, my nieces turned to me in shock.
“He wasn’t rude!” they exclaimed.
So far, so good. I was hopeful.
But then our food arrived within minutes. “Uh oh,” I thought. “What’s going on here?” We wolfed down every bit of it, however — we were hungry — and some of it was very good, and some of it, well, was not so good.
The girls were keen to try the escargot — they were in France, after all — which were served à la Bourguignonne (in the Burgundy style) with heaps of parsley and garlic butter. They went fast, and we used the most excellent bread to mop up every last bit of butter that remained.
I had confit de canard (duck), which I have to say was a bit tough. My pasta-loving niece ordered spaghetti bolognaise, which she told me later had been cold, and my oldest niece ordered poulet fermier rôti avec frites (roasted chicken with fries), which apparently was unseasoned.
So much for impressing my nieces with excellent French cuisine. However, as I already said, we all of us cleaned our plates and you can never go wrong with French bread and wine. We decided not to have dessert as our next destination was a pâtisserie. Our waiter added up our bill on the paper tablecloth, and that was that.
Bouillon Chartier, I’ve learned, is indeed a Parisian institution, as my Parisian friend promised me it was. Parisians and tourists alike flock here, and when we left, there was a line leading out of the courtyard all the way to the boulevard. I’m told the line moves fast, and given how quickly we were served, I believe it.
Bouillon means “broth” and was first served in 1855 by a butcher who wanted to provide cheap food for the workers at Les Halles, the original French fresh food market that was moved to the suburbs in the 1970s. The word came to mean the establishment serving the broth, and by 1900, there were more than 250 of these types of restaurants. Only a handful remain today. One of those is Bouillon Chartier, which was opened in 1896 by two brothers named Frédéric and Camille Chartier. Over its lifetime, it has had only a handful of owners. The food hasn’t changed in a hundred years and it is still cheap — the three of us ate for much less than we would have at our neighbourhood brasserie.
I expect I will give Bouillon Chartier another try the next time I am in Paris. My nieces have a lifetime of travelling ahead of them, and I have no doubt one day they will taste French cuisine as only the French can prepare it.
But I also know they will never forget their lunch at Bouillon Chartier in Paris.
It’s been more than six years since I was in Paris and although it felt like I had never been away, one of the hardest things for me to get my head around this time was the weather.
On my last visit, I struggled to keep warm during a snowy winter that felt far too cold for my thin Vancouver blood.
This time, we were immersed in heat and humidity. Although we were spared the experience of one of Paris’s infamous heat waves, I did wonder which is worse when travelling: being too hot or too cold? I don’t know the answer, but the question is a reminder that weather always plays a factor when forming an impression of a place.
However, this I do know: a definite bonus about visiting Paris in the summertime is being able to see the gardens in full bloom. One of my favourites is the Jardin du Luxembourg, or Luxembourg Gardens. Located in the 6e arrondissement, they were built for Marie de’ Medici, widow of King Henry IV, to go with her new palace, called, appropriately, the Luxembourg Palace. That’s it in the photo. These days, it’s where the French Senate meets.
The problem with spending a week in Paris is this: how do you choose which photos to post to your blog?
I mean, seriously.
I’ve been in Europe for almost two weeks, and you can be sure I have a few photos to post. But until I get myself organized, this one will have to do.
A week ago today, I left Amsterdam with my two nieces by train and three hours later we were in Paris. But until they were standing next to the Eiffel Tower, they didn’t quite believe where they were.
I took this photo the night of our arrival.
It’s the last day of the most miserable month of the year! When I woke up this morning to yet another torrent of rain, all I could think was, “It’s the last day of November. Tomorrow, I will feel so much better.”
And so, to celebrate, here is one last photo from Provence. This is the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque. It’s a Cistercian abbey not far from Gordes and was founded in the twelfth century.
It’s quite possible you’ve seen a photo or two of this abbey before as it’s one of those scenes of Provence that is on all the postcards, except that the photos in the postcards are all taken when the lavender is in full bloom. (That’s what those long rows of plants are in front of the abbey.) The monks sell that lavender and raise honey bees to support themselves.
We didn’t get to see the inside of this abbey or its cloisters (and you all know how much I love cloisters) because it’s a working abbey. Admittance is only with a tour and we showed up at the wrong time. No matter, as I always like to leave something to do for a return visit. And so, this abbey will be top of my list on my return visit to Provence.
Which will be when the lavender is in full bloom.
To combat the rainy day blues I get every November, I’ve been basking in my sunny memories of a week in Provence and taking you all along for the ride. At the same time, I’ve been rereading Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, the book that put Provence on the map for most of us English-speaking tourists.
And I have a confession to make: this book almost stopped me from ever going to Provence.
It wasn’t the book itself. In fact, when I finally got around to reading it, I loved it. It’s a delightful read.
No, it was the hype around A Year in Provence that almost stopped me from going to Provence. The book got so much attention when it was published in 1989 that it put me off. I figured if the only travel book anyone was talking about was about Provence, Provence was going to be overrun with tourists and I didn’t want to go anywhere near the place.
Heh. So what changed my mind?
It was actually a travel blog by friends of a friend who spent six months in the Luberon (the area Peter Mayle wrote about). I followed that blog faithfully during this couple’s stay in France and was intrigued by their descriptions of the region. (It was also the first time that a seed was planted in my mind that, hey, maybe I could spend six months somewhere in Europe, since my work is “have laptop, will travel.”)
But what sold me on Provence, specifically, was a post this couple wrote about Collioure in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France, just next door to Provence, and which I had visited a few years prior to my decision to visit Provence. Collioure is a lovely little fishing village right on the coast of the Mediterranean, almost in Spain, and this couple described it as far too touristy for their taste. Too touristy? Collouire? If that was their assessment, then Provence must be far more devoid of tourists than I had been led to believe by the success of Peter Mayle’s books. Maybe I should check the place out after all.
I highly recommend A Year in Provence. As the title indicates, Mayle describes a year of living in Provence, month by month, as the seasons change, and as his visitors come and go. It’s truly a book about the people of Provence rather than a travelogue.
Apparently Peter Mayle was encouraged to write the book by his agent when he kept sending letters filled with excuses of why the novel he was suppose to be writing was going nowhere because of all the interruptions he was experiencing from his builders and his neighbours.
“Tell me more about those builders and neighbours,” his agent said.
And the rest, as they say, is l’histoire.