France

Why Visit Normandy?

the image shows a large old gothic style cathedral

So, now that we’ve arrived in Normandy, I guess the next important question is what we’re going to do while we’re there?

For my husband Craig, the obvious answer was to visit the sites of the WWII Normandy landings – not just the beaches themselves, although Omaha and Utah were easily within driving distance from where we were based. But the story of the allied landings encompasses far more than just the beach landings – the forces still had to move from the beaches and penetrate into the countryside to open the way to Paris. Normandy is an area that is rich in WWII history, as we discovered while were there, and we spent many fascinating hours tracing the history through several villages, museums, memorials and sites, accompanied by an informative audio tour of the area.

While I was also interested to visit the WWII sites, I’ll admit my main area of interest was in the earlier history of Normandy. I wanted to learn about the Normandy of William the Conqueror, who successfully invaded England in 1066. And the magnificent Bayeux tapestry that tells the story of that invasion.

And, of course, we both wanted to sample some of the local specialties that Normandy is known for – salted caramel, camembert cheese, and the delicious apple brandy known as Calvados.

In the coming articles I’ll be sharing some of those experiences with you. But first, I want to tell you about an inspiring gentleman I had the privilege to interview on my travel podcast, A Different Way of Travelling.

A Fear of Train Stations

Normandy map

After a week in Paris our next destination was a town called Bayeux, in Normandy. Before I tell you all about it, I’d like to tell you a little about how we got there.

By far the most logical way to make the journey was by train. Except, you see, I’m terrified of train travel. Well, that’s not quite true. I’m fine once I’m on the train. What I’m actually scared of is navigating through noisy, busy train stations.

Navigating through a train station with trains screaming past me as they fly in and out of platforms, with the noise masking the sounds I would normally use to help me find my way, makes me extremely anxious. Even when I’m accompanied by a sighted guide who will prevent me from doing something crazy like hopping onto the wrong train, or falling off the platform,

On this trip, my anxiety was worse because we had two suitcases with us. Which Craig had to manage as we navigated our way from our Paris apartment, through two metro stations, a shopping centre, a train station, another train station, and finally to our apartment in Bayeux. All the time having to keep an eye on his nerve-wracked, blind wife, to make sure she didn’t do something stupid.

There were two things that helped me keep the anxiety under control. The first was to focus on just the next step of the trip, rather than being overwhelmed by the entire journey. That helped a lot, since I only had to deal with what was happening in the immediate future and then catch my breath before tackling the next stage. The other factor that made it easier was that I was more confident in how to use my white cane to help me get around, thanks to the mobility lessons I’d taken earlier in the year. And that made Craig’s task a little easier, since I was able to move around a lot more independently.

I don’t know if I’ll ever become totally comfortable navigating noisy train stations. But at least I know in future I’ll be able to manage my anxiety with my increased cane skills and by taking it one step at a time.

What Didn’t We Do in Paris?

The image shows a line of stalls with books displayed for sale.

As I was packing my bags on our last morning in Paris, I thought back to the list we drew up before our trip. Surprisingly, we managed to do quite a few of them. Not all, but I think that’s often the case with travel, don’t you?

We’d been to Versailles, seen a number of historic sites like the Conciergerie and Sainte- Chapelle, walked along the left bank of the Seine, got stunning night shots of the Eifle Tower, done both a walking tour and a food tour, visited the Catacombs, and overindulged in the glorious food that Paris has to offer, including a yummy pistachio pastry somewhere in the depths of the Latin Quarter. And those are just the things that spring to mind – I’m sure I’ve left a few out!

In case you’re wondering what we didn’t manage to do, here’s the list:

  • A Boat ride on the Seine River
  • A hot-air balloon trip over Paris
  • Visit the Arc de Triumph
  • Return to the Louvre
  • Visit Les Invalides 

Which only means there’s some great reasons to go back to Paris. Which we’ll do at some stage, I’m sure.

So, that brings us to the end of my trip to Paris, and to the end of my final post for 2019. When I return in January 2020, we’ll be heading off to Normandy for more adventures.

Till then, have a fun and peaceful holiday season and thank you for sharing my journey with me over the past year. I wish you all the best for 2020!

See you next year!

Do the French Hate the English?

the image is of a French flag and a UK flag

There’s a commonly held opinion that the French people actively dislike the English, and that this often affects English-language speakers from other countries. This general dislike is said to be especially so of the Parisiennes.

At least, that’s what I’d been told.

Yet, in the three weeks I was in France, that simply wasn’t my experience.

You don’t believe me? Let me share a few examples with you.

When we arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport and were trying to find the commuter train to Paris, several people helped us, including a railway official. You might argue that, since he deals with lots of confused tourists, that his job requires him to be helpful. But a friend of mine had the opposite experience in the same environment.

Then, as we negotiated our way through a maze-like station to catch the Metro that would take us to the place we were staying, a young guy offered to carry our luggage so Craig could assist me. As South Africans we were naturally hesitant. So, with a typically Gallic shrug, he offered to assist me instead, leaving Craig to carry the bags. Which is what we did.

It seemed like there were always people willing to assist me off a train or a Metro. Serving staff in restaurants were hospitable and friendly. And the people we met as we visited the various tourist sites on our list were approachable and willing to assist. In fact, I can’t think of a single person on the trip who was less than friendly.

On one occasion we were helped by an elderly gentleman who couldn’t speak a word of English. He guided me through a Metro station onto a train, climbed on and travelled with us. He assisted me to the next train and again travelled with us for a few stops. Then he said goodbye in French, climbed off the train and headed back the way we’d come.

I don’t know whether it helped that Craig and I are able to say a few words in French – we try to do so for any country we visit. Or whether my blindness played a role in making people feel more welcoming and willing to assist.

But, whatever the reason, I certainly found the French people to be charming and hospitable – nothing like what we’d been led to believe. And I’ll be happy to say so anytime I hear someone mentioning how unfriendly the French people are.

Navigating Paris with a Disability

The image shows a diagram of the Paris Metro map.

Spending more than a week in Paris, travelling round extensively on the Metro and train service, I got the feeling that a traveller using a wheelchair might encounter some problems using the Metro. Luckily, I was travelling with my sighted husband, so didn’t have to find my way around unfamiliar Metro stations on my own, especially as not all trains had audio announcements to let me know which station we were approaching.

Physical access is seldom a problem for a traveller with a visual impairment, but I was very aware there appeared to be few elevators, that many of the trains had steps up from the station platform into the carriage and that there was often a gap between the platform and the carriage. The only Metro line that seemed to have a good level of wheelchair accessibility was the 14th, which is a newer line – it even has a barrier to stop people falling onto the tracks, either by accident or design.

When I got back to Cape Town I wanted to discover if my observations were true. And, if they were, I wanted to learn how those using wheelchairs are able to navigate their way around Paris. So, as almost anyone would do, I turned to Google.

In my exploration, I found this fantastic article on the accessibility of Paris, and not just the rail services. I think it’s a great article for someone with a disability to read before heading off to Paris for a visit.

https://www.tripsavvy.com/paris-accessibility-to-disabled-travelers-1618436

I know most of the Metro and rail infrastructure in Paris was built before the needs of persons with disabilities were really considered, but I was startled to find that so little accommodation has yet been done.

Still, it’s good to know that persons with disabilities who do visit Paris are able to get out and see this beautiful and historic city.

Paris – A Story of Love

Cds IMG 1238

Paris is said to be the city of love. And so it proved to be on the evening Craig and I went to photograph the Eiffel Tower in Paris. And what you’re thinking is probably wrong.

Taking photos of the Eiffel Tower at night was one of the items Craig and I had on our To-Do-List for our time in Paris. One evening, after supper we caught a metro to the tower so we could do just that.

While we were there we noticed a young American couple struggling in vain to take a selfie. They simply couldn’t figure out how to get the shot to include their smiling faces as well as their clasped hands – with a bright, shiny engagement ring prominently displayed on her finger.

Craig went over and offered to take the shot for them, which they eagerly accepted.

Bubbling with happiness, they told us their story. They had been in UK for a trip for her business and he had arranged a sneak weekend away in Paris. On their first night, he suggested they go to see the Eiffel Tower. Only it had been pouring with rain. Which didn’t deter him in the least – he got down on one knee in a patch of mud, and proposed. And, she, who had been totally unaware that this was the reason for the trip to Paris, accepted with alacrity.

Only problem was that the weather was so bad that they couldn’t take any photos to share the happy announcement with their families and friends. So they returned to the Eiffel Tower the following evening, which was their last night in France, in order to get some photos.

And that was where Craig and I met them.

Yes, it was a chilly evening. And yes, a soft rain was falling –a soft yet soaking rain. Nonetheless, the love and joy that flowed from Adam and Jenn as they celebrated their engagement lit up the space beneath the iconic tower that is such a symbol of Paris.

So yes, Paris indeed is the city of love. And even if we never connect with Adam and Jenn again, it was wonderful that we could play a small part in helping them celebrate their love.

The image is a night shot of the Eifel Tower dramatically lit up, which I took on that evening. I don’t think it would have been appropriate for me to share a photo of the blissfully happy couple, do you?

Paris: How a Croissant is Made and Other Cuisine Secrets.

4 people sitting at a table in a wine shop

Paris has a reputation of having great food and wine. And what better way to sample both than on a local walking food tour?

When Craig and I were in Kolkata, India, we went on a fabulous street food walking tour, which we found through Airbnb Experiences. I wrote about my impressions of the tour in my article Kolkata: The Road less Traveled, published on 24 May 2019.

So it wasn’t surprising that we decided to find a similar food tour in Paris. And there are lots, believe me!

We finally decided on a food tour of Belleville, run by Paris a Dream. And it was a great decision!

Belleville was originally a small town on the outskirts of Paris – a little like Montmartre in ambiance. Both were integrated into Paris proper as the city expanded. The host of the tour, Isabelle, told us a little of the history of Belleville as we sipped coffee at our first stop…. Along with a delicious pastry.

From there we moved onto what I would have thought was the high point of the tour – getting to see how baguette and croissants are made at a local boulangerie. Isabelle told us about the different grades of flour used in France, and we watched in awe as one of the bakers worked with the dough that would eventually become tomorrow’s croissants. Yes, making croissants really should take two days. No wonder they taste so good in France…. Well, and because of the oodles of butter in the dough.

We also got to taste a baguette that had just come out of the boulangerie’s ovens. And I can honestly say I’ve never tasted a better baguette – direct from the oven is definitely the way to do it, if you have the chance!

Our next stop was a local delicatessen, where we sampled various handmade dips and spreads. And had a chance to shop, as well. At one point I was a little worried that we might have to pay for the whole bottle of preserved garlic since Craig was clearly enjoying sampling it so often. But no, it was all part of the tour.

After walking off our initial tastings, which were surprisingly filling, by wandering through the streets of this fascinating and little-known historic suburb, we arrived at what I took to be our final stop – a wine and cheesery.

Well, actually, it was a wine-shop that offered wine and cheese tastings, which is what our group had. We continued to chat and share travel stories as we sampled 5 delicious French cheeses along with a glass of crisp white wine. Those of you who know me will be amazed to hear that I even tasted a blue cheese… and enjoyed it, much to my own amazement!

By now I’d have been quite satisfied to sit back and relax after a morning of wonderful tastings of food and drink. But it seemed we still had more to learn about the area, as well as a final local delicacy to try – a vegetable and apple digestive juice that rounded out the morning perfectly. Both Craig and I thought we could taste either paprika or chilli in the juice, but we could be wrong. Though we doubt it.

From there we took a slow walk back to our starting point at the local Metro station, said our final goodbyes to the American ladies who had joined us on the tour, and to our charming and vivacious host, Isabelle, and returned to our apartment, ready for our next fun Paris adventure.

But you’ll have to wait till next time to hear about that.

Paris – The World of the Dead

The image shows a dark-haired woman walking in a well-lit tunnel using a white cane.

It may sound macabre to willingly take time to wander through a subterranean mausoleum containing the bones of more than 6 million people. In some ways I guess it was. But that was what Craig and I did when we toured the Catacombs of Paris, France.

Here’s a brief historical note to give you a little context: Paris started as a Roman town – Lutetia for those who, like me, was an avid reader of the Asterix books written by Goscinny and Underzo. In time, as Paris continued to grow, the existing cemeteries became overcrowded. During the 1780’s it was decided to use part of the abandoned network of limestone mines beneath Paris to store the remains.

At first, the bones were simply dropped down a mineshaft and left. Until 1810, when the Minister of Mine Inspections, Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury began to organise the bones and create a more respectful resting place for the centuries of Paris’s dead. As an aside, the ossuary takes up only a small fraction of the network of mines under Paris.

Admittedly, I wasn’t really interested in the ossuary itself. I certainly had no wish to explore the collections of bones using the sense of touch which is how I’d have to have done it due to my blindness – if I’d been allowed to, which I most definitely wasn’t! Rather, what interested me was the history behind the creation of the limestone mines, and the process through which these old abandoned mines had been renovated and became the ossuary that is now a popular tourist site in Paris.

As the story unfolded on the audio guide that was provided as part of the tour, I was enthralled to learn of different events that had taken place in the ossuary and nearby network of mine tunnels. Once the ossuary was open to the public from 1874, it became a popular party and concert venue. The mines were used by the French Resistance during WWII to smuggle information and people, and as a meeting place. In turn, the Nazi’s located a subterranean bunker in the mines. They’ve been used for several movies across the years and Airbnb invited people to spend a night in the mines as part of a marketing campaign. But my favourite has to be the discovery of an illicit movie theatre, complete with large screen, seating, sound rig, a fully stocked bar and restaurant, that was discovered by police in 2004 – they even discovered film reels of recent movies and noir film classics!

It was that history that kept me enthralled during the 90-minute tour of the ossuary.

So, if you still think Craig and I were weird to spend 90 minutes in a subterranean mausoleum for 6 million people, just remember that the Catacombs were visited by 480 000 people during 2018 alone… which means we are by no means the only weird people in the world!

The photo shows me navigating my way through the Catacombs using my white cane.

The Chateau at Versailles – Such a Disappointment

The image shows a crowded roomWe didn’t get to go to the Palace of Versailles, the opulent chateau built by Louis XIV, on our last trip to Paris. I was determined not to miss it a second time.

It would be something of a nostalgic trip for me. I went there on a family trip when I was 14 years old and have clear memories of touring the Chateau with my mom in a wheelchair. Somewhere there is a photograph of us in the Hall of Mirrors in the palace. It would turn out to be my mom’s final overseas trip before her Multiple Sclerosis made it too hard for her to travel.

How bitterly disappointed I was when we retraced the footsteps of my younger self. There were so many sightseers that it was impossible to experience the grandeur of the palace. It was more like trying to make my way through a vast crowd at a rock concert – I was jostled from all sides and it was impossible for me to gain a sense of the rooms because I was powerless to stem the unstoppable horde of tourists pushing from the preceding rooms. That certainly wasn’t how I’d remembered it from my previous visit.

The photo was taken in the Hall of Mirrors, at a moment when the crowd around us thinned out a little – and I’m not kidding. I wish I could find the photo from my previous trip to illustrate the difference of my two visits, but sadly it’s long gone.

After about 45 minutes, we managed to escape the crowded palace and fled outside into the chateau gardens.

The image showa the Versailles gardens

I will say that the gardens were beautiful. And I’m not just saying that because so few people bothered to explore them once exiting the chateau. We spent a very pleasant hour wandering around the glades and arbors of the gardens past beautifully sculptured trees and classical statues, listening to the sound of bird song… and the inevitable squeals of young children playing happily on the grass.

Maybe my expectations of the palace were coloured by the nostalgic memories of my previous visit. And maybe the mists of time have left me with a kinder impression of what it was like when I was there before. Maybe the chateau wasn’t as quiet and as grand as I remembered. But I found myself climbing onto the train back to Paris with a heavy heart and a feeling of intense disappointment.

Oh well, at least the gardens were beautiful so it wasn’t a completely wasted trip.

What to Do in Paris?

Eiffel Tower, Paris, France

Having decided to travel to Paris and Normandy, we then settled down to research what we wanted to do in each destination. As you can imagine, we landed up with an impressive list of things to do and places to see.

Here’s a few of the items on our list for Paris:

• Visit the Chateau at Versailles,
• A boat ride on the River Seine
• Visit the Paris Catacombs
• Return to the Louvre
• Visit Les Invalides
• Explore the left bank of the Seine
• Visit the Conciergerie
• Get a night photo of the Eiffel Tower
• Visit Sainte- Chapelle
• Go on a street food tour of Belleville, a suburb of Paris
• Visit the Arc de Triumph
• Go on a Paris city walking tour

Over the next few weeks I’ll share a few of the highlights of our time in Paris and some of the places we got to visit. Then I’m going to move on to our time in Normandy.

Where will we be off to first?

You’ll have to wait till next week to find out!

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