train

pluie à rotterdam

Sometimes you go on vacation for so long it becomes very regular, like home. You grocery shop at your regular store, you work, you go out sometimes with friends. So sometimes you need a vacation.. from your vacation. The nice thing about being in Europe is the ability to hop a train for a modest fare and end up two countries over, two hours later. So it is with the Netherlands, my most cherished vacation spot, a place a few years ago I thought I would never go and now have gone twice.

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Gare du Nord

It calls my name, equally nice in the fall as it is in early summer. The clean air North Sea air breezes through town as the easy going locals zip by on bicycles usually with a partner hitching a ride sidesaddle on the back. Many a kind and smiling face greeting me around town, the gentle tune of the melodic Hague church bells like a pleasant memory floating through the air to greet me through the patches of ever-drizzling rain. I don’t think it stopped raining the whole weekend, though my spirits couldn’t be dampened. We hopped over just for the weekend so say hello again, snack on street food and acquaint ourselves with the newly re-opened Mauritshuis museum in den Haag.

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Den Haag Centraal

I was tempted to see the collection last year as it toured while the museum was under renovation. The closest stop was New York and it was a very tempting 12 hours away, though I’m glad I didn’t because getting to see the works in the new space was a real treat. The Royal collection is small, compared to the massive retrospective department-stores-of-museums in Paris, and is housed in a 17th century residence, now owned by the government of the Netherlands. The museum houses a stellar collection of paintings, mostly Dutch Golden Age, including some very famous favourites such as Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson and Fabritius’ Goldfinch.

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Het meisje met de parel (Vermeer) 1665

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The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (Rembrandt) 1632

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The Goldfinch, aka “puttertje” (Fabritius) 1654

The museum was absolutely packed, especially with snooty art types like me who refrain from snapping selfies and linger in front of works contemplatively scratching their chins. They were also all above a certain age.. I won’t say which. The only way in which the flighty consumer types that normally frequent the said massive retrospective department-stores-of-museums in Paris are superior, is that you can bet that they won’t spend more than 2.6 seconds in front of a painting, so if you want a look, you just have to wait around for your turn. With snooty art types this could mean waiting for a very long time. That’s okay though because there were a number of truly excellent works that I could just stand in front of all day.. well at least until my legs fall asleep.

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Vanitas still life (Claesz) 1630

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Old Woman and Boy with candles (Rubens) 1617

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The Messenger, aka “Unwelcome News” (ter Borch) 1666

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Wooded landscape with cottages (Hobbema), 1665

There were a number of works which I have never seen before, and it’s always nice to make new friends and be surprised. I’m afraid my SO is rapidly becoming my artist’s assistant, helpfully scribbling down titles and observations for later digestion. My notebook came home full of Vermeer, Rembrandt, Claesz, Jordaens, Leyster, Rubens, Steen, Hals, as well as some new pals such as Beuckelaer, van der Weyden, van Aelst, ter Borch, de Vlieger, and Hobbema.

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Spruistraat

Retiring from the Museum we shopped around the slick cobbled pedestrian streets of den Haag, checking out the celebrations leading up to St. Nicholas’ day on Dec 5th, featuring Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) and his racially inappropriate sidekick Zwarte Piet. Zwarte Piet’s origins lie somewhere between a liberated Ethiopian slave to Moorish origins, to the more modern preference of his helpful little face blackened with soot from climbing down chimneys. Regardless local folks seem to like dressing up in Victorian garb and blackface playing carnival music and tossing candy out to the little kids.We followed this parade from a distance, trying to figure out what was going on until we stopped for nieuwe haring and the folks behind the counter explained the tradition to us.

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Similar to traditions back home, children leave shoes by the fireplace on St. Nicholas’ eve in hopes of waking in the morning to find a treat inside in exchange for good behaviour. Though if you’re naughty you don’t get a lump of coal you get beaten with a switch by Zwarte Piet. The children usually leave out a carrot or some hay with a thoughtful bowl of water for Sinterklaas’ horse, a cup of coffee for Sinterklaas and a beer for Zwarte Piet. Despite the fact that traditionally Sinterklaas was accompanied by just one Zwarte Piet we have Canadians to thank for throwing a Sinterklaas party after the liberation of the Netherlands, encouraging a whole slew of Pieten to roam the streets.

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Lola Bikes and Café

We departed our rented flat early on Sunday, forgoing a cold shower as the hot water heater was inoperable, and strolled up to the so called best coffee in the Netherlands. It also doubles as a serious bicycle store because, hey, you can pursue two passions at once. SO had a good time checking out all the bikes and gear, pointing out the superior composition of the metal in particular bike gears or somesuch. I decided I liked the pink one for.. reasons. The coffee was truly excellent and we happily lingered way longer than intended. Back on the train we traveled to nearby Rotterdam to check out the town and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.

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rotterdam at night

Rotterdam has a very different feel, the majority of the buildings very contemporary with lots of skyscrapers. A huge amount of old Rotterdam was destroyed by bombing and subsequently rebuilt in modern fashion. The city has much less warmth and character somehow, probably a figment of my imagination as I’m known to be very sensitive and have a tendency to personify and anthropomorphise.

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The “little” Tower of Babel” (Bruegel (the Elder)) 1563

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The Wayfarer (Bosch) 1500.. the only museum to house Bosch in all the Netherlands

Boijmans is a huge museum with a very diverse collection, ranging from medieval to contemporary and every facet in between. It has a lovely selection of Bosch and Bruegel, including the famous “little” tower of Babel and the Wayfarer who is said to be choosing between debauchery and virtue. Some other favourites of mine include van Dalem, Koninck, Havicksz, and Daubigny.

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 landscape with dawn of civilization (van Dalem) 1570

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An extensive landscape, with a river, (Koninck) 1664

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The cascade of Mahoura, Cauterets (Daubigny) 1873

The museum also houses a very nice selection of French Impressionist works including featuring a nice but unusual MonetMaison du Pêcheur” featuring a very nice seascape with cabin on a very uncomfortable angle lending the impression you are in some danger of leaning too far into it. The collection also houses some very nice works by Sisley, who is rapidly becoming a favourite of mine.

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la Maison du Pêcheur, Varengeville (Monet) 1882

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Le moulin à eau Provencher à Moret (Sisley) 1883

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Un verger au printemps (Sisley) 1881

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Moonlit city square in Cherbourg, (Sidaner) 1934

A bit father down in the collection there is a really nice Sidaner, an intimist painter whose “moonlit city square” is expertly illuminated, and its quiet volumes of night shades a rare achievement in my opinion. Apart from the very broad range of styles and endeavours there is also a lovey collection of very modest floral still lives which are uncomplicated, delicate, and very lovely.  

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Peonies (Fantin-Latour) 1882

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Polder with mills near Overschie (Gabriël) 1898

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Cineraria (van Gogh) 1885

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In the vegetable garden (Mauve) 1887

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Study of the Trunk of an Old Tree, (de Gheyn II) 1600-1610

If you decide to go museum hopping don’t forget that art feeds the brain and the heart, but not the stomach so around 3:00 we were losing steam and remembered that humans require nourishment to walk around for hours and hours and had to resort to overpriced museum café food. Oh well. After exhausting the collection, and the soles of our shoes, we wandered around Rotterdam taking in the weird architecture and public sculptures before picking a restaurant with maximum comfort and slow service for some r&r in the form of Phở

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glace aux pétals de rose

We are far enough in to our vacation that the ending is coming in sight and we’ve started counting down instead of up. Missing holidays and events back home, missing our family and friends, missing our pets, our language and our lifestyle, we’ve begun to respect the time we have left in France and look forward to home. We currently have a “to-do” list of things we want to see and do and considering SO works all week we only have a few weekends left to accomplish these. I have the unique opportunity to be able to come and go and check stuff out around town without obligations but it’s tricky to strike a balance between spending vacation blogging in your apartment and seeing all the sights without your partner. I’ve taken to checking out small or so-so things, (or places I would uniquely go nuts for) during the week and leaving the show stoppers for the weekend.

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This includes, of course, shopping. In the plethora of research I did before coming to France, I heard that the French dress very smart and jeans and sneakers are unheard of. This is not true. It’s probably an outdated statement because they fashion sense here is very similar to back home. This time of year people all around this latitude bust out their scarves for fall. As far as I can tell the French wear scarves all year. If it’s too hot they wear amazing Hermès silk scarves and if it gets cold you would be hard pressed to find someone without a pashmina, even the guys. The gentlemen here seem less concerned about preserving a “manly” attire opting for fashionable scarves, jewelry, shoes and purses. I don’t know what they’re called. Murses? Regardless they are very popular, especially the small, flat ones that go across the shoulder and sit against the body. These are super common due to the pickpocket problem.

Women’s style is almost indistinguishable from back home until you go shopping. The whole low waist thing never happened here and all the pants, skirts, panties and shorts all are what I would call “high waisted”. You will also find a greater amount of slacks to jean material here. I don’t think of myself of a “tall” lady, I’ve never shopped in a special section because I’m a pretty average 5′ 8”, but I have to buy special pants here or I end up with floods. I dunno if people are just shorter on average here or something but back home pants are always long enough. That’s ok I just have to shop in the “tall” section.

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There is also the stereotype of the French having an aversion to bathing. SO’s supervisor informs me that 20 years ago you would see people around town with really greasy hair but the whole shampoo trend seems to have caught on. Though, women seem less concerned with their coif then back home, and the men moreso. Recently a lot of men have adopted the super spicy pompadour-fade hairstyle, which you probably saw a lot of if you caught the world cup this year. You won’t find $50 blow dry bars here, just average small stylist shops and nice cuts without all the straightening and highlights you find back home. I’ve heard foiled hair referred to as bacon strips.

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Hnnnngg  Photo: AP

French ladies seem to go for a more au naturel hairdo, embracing their hair in all its frizzy curly wonderfulness. The most attractive thing is the confidence. Back home everyone is so worried about their appearance they go to such lengths to preserve a perfect look, so me being the schlub that I am I often feel embarrassed when I see gorgeous primped ladies walking around. The bad news is everybody feels that way, primped or not. I’ve ran across the street enough times to buy bread without a bra, no makeup and my crazy unbrushed hair thrown up in a bun.. and nobody batted an eye.

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Photo : damejuliette.com

Anyway, getting back to excursions, I took a trip out to Chantilly to see the Fra Angelico exhibition they have going on. Chantilly is about 45 minutes to the north. It’s a nice, small town with lots of forest to stroll through. Chantilly is famous for it’s horse racing and the Château de Chantilly which houses the Musée Condé (one of the oldest art collections in France). Of course you may also know Chantilly lace or Chantilly cream. The latter is not exactly ditinguishable from regular “whipped cream” though some think the addition of sugar and/or delicate flavours like orange flower water is the distinction. It’s very light, not like that waxy stuff that comes out of a can. Regardless, it is delicious. I went to Dame Juliette to snack on a crepe topped with raspberry-violet jam, rose-petal ice cream and chantilly cream. Omg the best thing I’ve eaten in I dunno how long. Seriously if your mother ever told you not to shove flowers in your mouth she’s wrong. Well, flowers that have been whipped and frozen with cream and sugar. Also, not poisonous flowers.

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“Saint Benoit en extase au désert” (Musée Condé),
“Saint Romuald interdit l’entrée du couvent des Camaldules a lEmpereur
Otton III, coupable d’adultère” (Koninkijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten),
“La conversion de saint Augustin” (Musée Thomas Henry),
“Scènes de la Thébaide” (Collection particulière), “Saint Grégoire le Grand
(ou Célestin V) refuse la tiare pontificale” (Philadelphia Museum of Art).

(Fra Angelico) 1395 – 1455

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“Cinq anges dansant devant le soleil” (Giovanni di Paolo) 1405-1480

The museum itself has a collection of Fra Angelico works as well as some contemporaries such as Botticelli and Raphaël. The highlight was the curator’s brilliant deduction of how a number of pieces from various different collections are actually fragments of a larger work, so they managed to get these works on loan and rearranged them. It’s really astonishing. They also had a number of works that formed the panels of a chest which for hundreds of years had been separated. Not only this but they had a number of works from the permanent collection of Musée Condé that were of the highest calibre from that era I’ve seen yet. Indeed, the Musée Condé itself has a great amount of very old and/or very famous works, which shown in an intimate interior setting is a refreshing change to the pristine and echoing halls of contemporary galleries. The Château’s interior is unsterilized with amazing patterned parquet floors, marble topped furniture, elegant wainscoting, high ceilings, gleaming objet d’art and shimmering chandeliers.

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In preparation of my return to Paris I had purchased a return RER ticket thinking that if the RER goes there it must go back the same way. I’m not sure if this is so because all the trains seemed to be TER or IC, which I’m not sure the ticket is no good for. The train station was under construction and consequently there was no one to ask for help. Afraid of becoming stranded but also not wanting to spend another ten euros on a duplicate ticket, I eventually decided to just get on a TER and hope that my ticket was valid, playing the ignorant tourist if I had to. Instead of delving into my notebook I spent my travel time nervously fiddling with the ticket in my pocket, my eyes darting around the train for ticket control. The fellow next to me asked me something in French that I didn’t understand but upon spotting the control officer at the back of the car he shiftily changed seats looking as guilty as I did. Relax, I thought. You paid a fare it’s not like you’re stealing. Even still I left the car for one not containing ticket control to join the group of shifty freighthoppers, getting off at Gare de Nord before anyone was wise.

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When you have to catch an early train, it’s only natural that bar next door gets rented for some crazy hootenanny and the dj pumps music all night. What’s worse is the French love for disco and trying to sleep while they’re belting out showtunes or somesuch. That being said, waking up early enough to catch our train was aided by my excitement, a feeling reserved for trips, birthdays, Christmas and the the last day of school. I have become quite blasé about the latter three so I hope travelling never gets old. The ride to Caen is about two hours. Having not seen my S.O. basically at all during the week, the train ride went by all too fast, talking and joking the whole way, laughing so hard I had tears welling up and all my strength employed to avoid orangina shooting out my nose.

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We are the Dead. Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow

Arriving at the station, we managed to figure out how to buy bus tickets to Courseulles-sur-mer despite the language barrier and not being able to find the station door. We had some time to kill after so we walked around downtown Caen, ending up at a église st-jean, complete with crazy modern stained glass and courtyard with late-blooming poppies. Back on the bus, which was more like a coach, we had a nice lolling sojourn through the northern countryside. It’s not uncommon to pass a world war cemetery in almost every town, neatly kept with straight rows of brilliant white crosses. The town themselves are pretty small and the houses almost exclusively stone with terracotta or slate roofing. The towns maintain a quiet old-world charm and of course, there is the perpetual church steeple poking out at rapid intervals.

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“here is the church, here is the steeple”

We slowly made our way into Courseulles-sur-mer, getting off at ‘Place de 6 juin’ the date, of course, of D-Day. The square is the very centre of town, where the pier, boardwalk, each access, carrousel and town monument meet. There is a croix de lorraine just across the quay to commemorate the return of Charles de Gaulle to France 14 June, 1944. We arrived at high tide, the brisk and salty sea air greeting us with pleasant acquaintance.

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At the centre of the square is a Canadian Sherman tank, pulled from the frigid waters of ‘Juno’ beach some 25 years after it sank during the commencement of operation Overlord. It was of course cleaned and restored, now adorned with the insignia of the troops that fought and died here including the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Regina Rifle Regiment, Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, and North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment. The tank itself is now enveloped in a pillow of flowers, often red and white organized into the Canadian flag. Also placed nearby is a German Kwk 39 anti-tank gun with obvious signs of battle damage, also restored.

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For it’s early in the morning and I’m far, far away.

Making our way to the Juno beach centre, we waited for the swing bridge to let some sailboats in and we checked out the catch of the day, at the plethora of stalls erected right beside the fishing boats docked in the river. Arriving at the centre you can hear the waves crashing along the shore, the gentle breeze rustling the long grasses. The landscape has long since returned to tranquility, though the centre acts as a reminder to us the events of the war.

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Juno Beach Centre

The tour begins with footage of the landing and an audio representation of that the soldiers would have heard preparing to land on the beach, the sound of the sea spraying over the boat, heavy artillery exploding and rumbling nearby.. the tour encourages you to also learn about Canada’s fragile military and economy predating the war to further appreciate the difficulty lying ahead.

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The centre of the tour had a trove of information about the different ships, tanks, aircraft, formations, payload, propaganda, home front and war effort from a Canadian perspective. It was absolutely fascinating to discover the attack and defence strategies, and certain difficulties unique to north america such as trans-atlantic transportation of supplies and how to diminish u-boat damage. Also, that Canada went from having basically no air force to the 4th largest during wartimes. We also attended an emotional video giving an in depth detailing of the Juno beach events.

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The final room was a relievingly lighthearted Canada factoids room for those not acquainted with our culture. There was a great amount of hockey gear and curling rocks, let me tell you. It was my great pleasure to encounter other Canadians accessing the tour. You can easily pick them out because if they want to get by you while you’re looking at something they linger first trying to wait for you to finish what you’re doing, then slip by you giving ample berth while saying “sorry”. There were also a lot of toques.

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the shepherd will tend his sheep, the valley will bloom again

We also attended a tour of two recently excavated German bunkers. The first was built early in the occupation so it was not built as a defensive post but to aid in the organization of potential invasion of England to the north. The structure was built using French labourers and whatever materials they had on hand, some parts brick, some concrete, even railway ties for beams. It is speculated that the French tried to sabotage the building by placing the cinder blocks on their sides so the walls would have hollow pockets. The walls also had wood interlaced for hanging up maps and fixtures.We also visited a bunker built much later in the war, at a time when German occupation of France was shakier and they were preparing heavy defensive fortifications.

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escape hatch

This bunker by contrast is solid cement, with two heavy metal doors that double as a gas proof chamber, a gun slit facing the only entrance and 365 degree parascope. Our guide told us that it was expected of soldiers to do 36 hour shifts in the bunker so there were also fold down beds and a small stove for comfort. The bunker walls are 3 metres solid concrete and the only emergency exit was a small tunnel filled in with sand, so if you were trapped at least you could start digging your way out. Apparently in allied training it was instilled that if you see a grate or opening into a building that you should throw in a grenade to clear the room before entering. Once the Germans caught on to this practice their bunkers, as this one did, had false grates installed that lobbed the grenade back out at the intruder. It was also equipped with a gun nest, each pointed on angles across to beach to create crossfire.

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In 1944 the bunker was right on the water and locals can remember as children jumping off the parascope into the sea, but nowadays the beach has shifted greatly and there is now a barrier of sand in front of the bunkers so you have to use your imagination a bit to picture how the beach looked way back then. We finished our tour on the shore where we got to see the buoy indicating the shoreline at low tide, which is much farther out. Upon deployment, the entire beach was riddled with anti tank and anti personnel mines some 5 ft apart, blockades, razor wire creating what was dubbed a “devil’s garden”.

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Just before deployment there was heavy bombardment to reduce the German numbers by an estimated 60% though in effect only reached 5-15 % depending on the area. Despite the odds, the fortifications on the beach were overcome and the troops moved inland to liberate Courseulles-sur-mer. The Canadian troops lost 356 men, 574 wounded and 47 taken prisoner, though the losses were lower than estimated from the devastation of its predecessor mission operation Jubilee in Dieppe. Despite the difficulties and objective failures Juno beach alongside Utah is considered to be the most strategically successful of the D-Day landings. Walking the sands where such a critical and painful battle was fought is truly a moving experience. The land is now so beautiful and the town so gentle and quiet it is hard to imagine what it was like, which is why I personally believe it’s important to keep listening to the stories and remember the sacrifices made.

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We made our way around town to to our rented room. We decided to try out airbnb for the first time. We got a private room with key in an old converted garage with facilities shared with the homeowner. Our host was very nice and accommodating. I did my best to speak French and we understood most of what the other was trying to say. Airbnb is of course much less expensive than a hotel which suits us just fine. That being said any money we saved on the room we probably promptly spent at the most hit-or-miss restaurant I believe I’ve ever been to.

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We decided since we were “on vacation” that weekend we would live a little, by which I mean order a drink with dinner. Big spenders! We both got the house cocktail which turned out to be cheap champagne spiked with curacao and a generous profit-margin of juice topped with a stale candy and sugar rim. It has got to be one of the worst drinks I’ve ever had. Next came the complimentary bread. It’s basically expected to get free bread with your meal here, and being France the bread is always fresh and delicious. So when I tell you that the bread was so stale that no pigeon would eat if you can see why we started to become suspicious of this place. Next came the complimentary appetisers brought out to us by the chef. Maybe the chef should spend more time cooking and less time schmoozing because the only thing the app was good for was a raised eyebrow and hearty laugh. I think they were supposed to be maki.. I think. Being by the sea didn’t help this dish any. I think it contained rice that was made three years ago that they found behind the radiator. Or it might have been tiny pebbles, I’m not sure. If you go to pick up your app and it crumbles into a pile of dust you know something is wrong.

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However, next came the oysters. Thankfully all they had to do was open them for me to enjoy a wonderfully delicious treat fresh from the sea. SO had some kindof yummy bouillabaisse. It was stewier than most but he seemed to like it. Our main was some kind of tiny braised fish on a bed of lentils, which were quite yummy. The fish was decent. For dessert? Bread pudding. Now I’ll give them a break because it’s not a french dish. That being said, they’re only a stone’s throw from England and also bread pudding is easy, who can’t make that? They took a slice of old bread, presumably the same stuff they served before dinner and instead of soaking it in cream to make it soppy and delicious they kindof.. toasted it? Then drizzled cream on top? I’m not quite sure what was happening there but the tiny after dinner mints were good. Here’s a tip to enjoying a shitty restaurant : a) don’t read the bill too closely cause you’ll just get mad b) make fun of everything relentlessly.

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croix de lorraine

Anyway, late in the day the tide was going out and the inlets had become rapids. We strolled along the now widened beach to tiptoe thru the seaweed and find cool shells. We wandered home and settled in for a good night’s sleep, lulled by the patter of rain that amazingly decided to be nice and hold off until we were tucked in.

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Our host was still asleep when we left early, trying to get a leg up on our journey back to Paris. The bus took us on the reversed journey, this time the cities quieter and more cars at the church parking lots. Arriving at Caen we stopped first for pain au raisin before heading up to the Chateau de Caen. The Chateau is an 11th century fortification buit by William the Conqueror. It saw several engagements during the Hundred Year’s war, and the keep pulled down during the French revolution. It was also used as a barracks during WWII and was heavily bombed at that time. It is one of the largest castles in western Europe.

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Caen

It now houses two museums and a church, and you can see the ruins of other structures such as the keep, William’s residence, ramparts and curtain walls, and the two fortified doors. There is still ongoing work to excavate the bottom of the walls and more ruins are still being uncovered. The walls are incredibly high and you can peer thru the bow slits into what would have been a moat, though these days just grass. The stone stairs heading up the ramparts and towers are so worn from literally a century of use they are very curved.

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super neat.

It’s a huge area which was great fun to explore. The art gallery at the top houses a nice collection from many eras in French history, which matches beautifully with the lineage of the castle. Afterwards, we strolled around town, the majority of stores being closed but lounging in parks and cafés is not a bad way to spend your afternoon. We finished off the day at a nice restaurant in an old area of town on rue du vaugueux ie) beggars row.

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It’s a small and narrow pedestrian street with old shifting houses, once known for squalor and crime. It also once housed a bar owned by Edith Piaf’s grandparents, and the woman who murdered Marat. It now houses a number of nice restaurants while maintaining the enclosed medieval structures. We had some nice wine, confit du canard, terrine de poissons, croustillants de chèvre chaud and ile flottante which is a whipped meringue cake soaked in thin caramel sauce. I really need to learn to make this back home! Before having to catch our train back we made sure to watch the sun set behind the glimmering houses from the parapet.

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le jardin de fleurs dans l’après-midi

If you can manage to find your way around Gare St. Lazare and actually manage to get some kind of ticket for Vernon then you must be some kind of wizard. Never underestimate the overwhelming confusion of foreign train stations. We ended up missing our train by about thirty seconds and had to wait around for two hours for the next one. Oops! That being said having to walk to the nearby Eglise de la Trinité courtyard and eat sandwiches while chatting on a lovely Saturday afternoon isn’t that bad at all. The train ride from Paris to Vernon is quite fast if you get a direct train (under an hour) and the trains themselves are pretty nice, which is definitely reflected in the price.

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We arrived in Vernon and, like everyone else on the train, headed for Monet’s estate in Giverny. There are a number of coaches and city buses that shuttle people to and from Giverny (just outside Vernon) but hoping to avoid some of the crowds we decided to walk. Through Vernon the streets are still very old and narrow, and despite heaving bombing during WWII many of the buildings have been maintained since medieval times.

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There are a number of memorials in Vernon commemorating the Second World War, the resistance movement and the liberation of Vernon. In correspondence with D-Day the Seine-Loire bridges were bombed so that German reinforcements and supplies would be impeded. The resistance movement in Vernon had succeed in driving the Germans out but were still under siege from across the Seine in Vernonnet. They held out until British troops arrived whose engineers hastily made a pontoon bridge allowing troops to cross and liberate Vernonnet. There were a number of bouquets laid on the memorials and the memory of the event is still honoured today.

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Crossing the Pont Clemenceau across the Seine, there are nice shaded footpaths and bike paths that go across and down the river, sandwiched between the sprawling banks and the parallel foothills. Finally arriving at Giverny, passing the ancient church and small houses, now converted B&B’s due to the influx of tourists, ducking between the tidy gated yards and wild french poppies, we waited patiently in the long entrance line.

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Monet’s house had fallen into a state of disrepair after his death in 1926. The estate had been left to Monet’s son Michel who then bequeathed the estate to the French Academy of Fine Arts in 1977. The estate and gardens were restored to their historical state and opened to the public. The house itself, that which you are allowed to visit, is set up in a way that is confusing and awkward and cannot handle the massive amounts of visitors. However, if you can stand to, linger around and check out the amazing collection of Japanese prints.

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‘In the West what we admired most of all was this bold way of cropping images; these people taught us to compose differently’, Monet told the Duc de Trévise. The Impressionists’ preference for a light tonality, for treating forms in bold masses, for abruptly juxtaposing patches of colour, and for suppressing unnecessary detail had an echo, or found its justification, in these Japanese prints. So did the screen-like, ‘open’ character of Monet’s compositions. In Japan, the genre of woodblock prints that so affected the Impressionists was called Ukiyo-e – ‘pictures of the floating world’. When Monet laid out his water garden at Giverny, his entire concept was Japanese-inspired – it too was a ‘floating world’. The green, humpbacked bridge over the waterlily pond (The waterlily pond  1900) seems to have had a Japanese prototype, possibly suggested by Utagawa Hiroshige’s woodblock print (Inside Kameido Tenjin shrine Japan, Edo period 1856). Hiroshige (1797–1858), an excellent landscapist, was also attracted to novel, fleeting effects” 1.

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I’m not sure the Monet Foundation has the rights to the prints and there is no photography allowed in the building. The collection was the most complete, stunning collection, particularly of Hiroshige Ando, as well as some Hokusai and other lesser known Ukio-e artists that I have seen!

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Outside the building there are amazingly large, full and sprawling gardens that Monet designed and subsequently hired seven gardeners to maintain. This time of year there are lots of late-bloomers showing off, especially the dahlias, of which there were dozens of varieties. There were lots of favourites that I got to enjoy, such as anemone, scabiosa, clematis, asclepia, celosia, soldiago, zinnias, fuschia, marigold, lady’s mantle, echinops, cosmos, gomphrena, saggitaria, papyrus, cosmos, hollyhocks, and snaps. The camellia bushes were extraordinarily large, though sadly the flowers weren’t open yet. There were also an amazing array of roses: tea roses, garden roses, climbing roses.. all to amazing heights and scents. Of course there were impressively huge and elegant japanese maples and weeping willows.

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The loveliest of all though are really they dahlias. There were so many varieties, with colours ranging from the palest blush to the most vibrant orange or deep blood-red.. and in every size imaginable. There were small almost spheres tightly packed with millions of petals, or enormous “dinner plate” dahlias whose amazing show of petals on such a fragile stem is really amazing. I really love these flowers and it was such a joy to be able to see them in such a lovely and plentiful array.

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There were a few other that are  more rare and I am not accustomed to seeing often, such as nerine, cuphea, oleander, campanula, genistra (what an amazing smell!), azalea, foxglove, nasturtium, and verbena bonariensis. There were also amazing late-blooming giant crosus dappled in the grass, the tallest grove of bamboo I have ever seen, and the lovely abyssinian gladiolus, which is often marketed back home as an orchid.. it’s not!

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Of course there were also  more common ones that are classics for a reason.. and these were surely fine specimens! Asiatic lilies, phlox, pampas grass (the most impressive!) begonia, geranium, heuchera, hyrangea, ipomoea, rudbeckia, aster, sedum, ruscus, salvia, lambs ear, and of course the coveted and jovial sunflower (tournesol).

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The majority of the tourists head straight for the water-lilies and japanese bridge, as these are some of the most famous aspects of Monet’s work. But if you take a stroll between the towering rudbeckia and butterfly-enticing asclepias, you will find many a gentle and nodding flower awaiting your happy gaze. You can also find buzzing bees, fancy chickens and if you’re quiet enough, fieldmice.

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Heading home from sleepy Giverny, we had to take a few transfers on the train but managed to make it back to the city without incident. From Gare St. Lazare we went to the west edge of town to meet some friends to watch the Grand Feu d’Artifice, or Big Fireworks! It’s supposedly the largest display in Europe. So, we stood on the Pont de Saint-Cloud and watched the brilliant display. All in all, a pretty good day for eye candy!

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1 http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/exhibitions/monet/monetslife.japaneseart.aspx