What if I told you there was a champagne bar seven metres above the ground in the heart of the Regional Natural Park of the Montagne de Reims in Verzy? A bar that you could only reach by a series wooden walkways and suspension bridges?
Yep, I was too.
The place is the Perching Bar and your admission fee includes a glass of the bubbly stuff.
All around is the whoosh of zip-lines of varying heights for zip-liners of varying ability (and courage) but up here in the trees sipping on a glass of Bollinger (bolly… sweetie) all is grand with the world.
The view’s not bad either.
I love what they do with the corks and the top thingies.
Want more info?
The Perching Bar is open from April to mid-December and as only a certain number of people can be up here at any one time, reservations are recommended.
Imagine if you will, fields of golden canola glistening in the late afternoon light, a long table dressed for dinner in a sun-drenched courtyard, the buzzing of bees as they flit from blossom to blossom, aperitifs in amongst the birches. Now take that image and pop it into a quintessentially French village in Champagne on a sunny Saturday afternoon in spring and you have dinner at Aupres de L’Eglise.
But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Aupres de L’Eglise is in Oyes, Champagne. Oyes is a village – or commune – near Sezanne and about 29 kms from Epernay. It’s perfectly situated for all that Champagne has to offer. We stayed here for two very comfortable nights. Our hosts – Kiwi expats Glenis and Mike.
To get here we drove through acre after acre of sprawling canola fields – or colza as they call it in France. From a distance, it appears as though the yellow has been painted into the green. When we get out of the car to take a photo it’s almost as tall as me – which, admittedly, probably doesn’t mean a whole lot…
The property itself is full of surprises – a wall left unpainted except for the mason’s scribbles, a dividing wall comprised solely of bookcases, an arrangement of daffodils beside a publication from the late 1960’s titled “The New Zealand Gown of the Year.”
The four of us had the run of the big house – which was way larger than what we needed, but a treat indeed.
Downstairs is a large double room, a smaller room with two single beds, a bathroom and a large open plan kitchen, dining and living space. All of us said we’d have loved to be there when it was cool enough to have the log fires going. As it was the weather was so great we were in t-shirts and thongsjandalsflip-flops.
Hubby and I had the upstairs rooms.
A large space divided by a clever wall of bookcases, an alcove -for tea and coffee making, and a well-designed bathroom overlooking the church.
The church over the back fence only has services once a month, so the bells don’t chime – the only noise in the morning being cockerels in neighbouring yards.
The highlight of a stay at Aupres de l’Eglise – as an aside, the literal translation of the name is “near the church” – is the evening meal.
What we ate…
We started with an aperitif of local champagne drunk in the courtyard under the birches.
To go with this Glenis had made a “cake” of cheese, peppers, eggs and herbs. It was sort of like a cross between a frittata and a loaf cake. I’ve asked her for the recipe, so watch this space.
Also on offer were bowls of pink radishes and butter mixed with salt flakes. Radishes served with butter and salt is apparently a very French hors-d’oeuvre – and one that I’m borrowing for a scene in my current novel. It’s simple, but really tasty – and perfect with champagne…although isn’t anything?
We moved across to the table and then the food arrived. So much food – all of it home-cooked and from produce that’s as local as possible.
First out was a quiche made with local cheese, perfect pastry – I really must practice making pastry – served with sun-dried tomatoes and rocket.
Mike and Glenis joined us for our main course – served platter style. There was a Moroccan style lamb surrounded by broccoli and peppers spiced with chilli, bowls of oil-brushed potatoes roasted in their skins, carrots glazed in ginger and coriander, and a celery, walnut and cauliflower salad with pomegranate molasses dressing.
Cheese followed, and to finish was a baked cheesecake that Glenis had covered in cream and scattered with plump blueberries. Sadly I’d given up trying to fit anything else in my tummy after the cheese!
It was a fabulous dinner, with great food, great company and lots of conversation. Speaking of which, I need to email one of the other guests with the recipe for Annabel Langbein’s Strawberry Cloud Cake (if you’re interested you’ll find the recipe here). I also need to ask Mike for the details of Careme’s banquet that took place in one of the villages near to here. I think it was Montmort-Lucy…although I could be wrong.
Then there was the story about how thousands of taxis in Paris were commandeered to bring soldiers to reinforce the army facing the Germans in what became known later as the Battle of the Marne. France needed troops brought in – and they needed them fast. The trains were already full, but the taxis weren’t.
It’s a fabulous story that I really must research a tad more. Like most great stories, I suspect there’s a reasonable amount of myth interspersed with the facts, but isn’t that what makes a great story?
Anyways, where was I? About to tell you how you can find Glenis and Mike if ever you’re looking for great accommodation in Champagne.
We wandered around the village and through the canola fields before brekky – speaking of which, if it’s in season you must try the tomato and basil compote on a fresh baguette. The village is small but pretty, and worth the stroll.
A few kms out of town is Mondemont- Montgivroux and the monument to the Battle of the Marne. At over 35 m tall it can be seen for miles.
Ok, I get that this was a very important battle, but the best that can be said about this monument – locally referred to as La Carotte, on account of its colour and shape – is that it’s large and ummm more than a tad phallic.
It is, however in a gloriously photogenic spot, so all other visual offences are forgiven.
Next time – Another 24 hours in Champagne: Ruinart, Reims, and a treehouse bar.
Epernay, the capital of Champagne. As we drove through the streets we saw all the big names in the champagne world. I called them out one at a time. Names, darling, names.
This is a city that’s not only been made prosperous by champagne, it’s built on it. Literally. Under these streets, under the carparks, the buildings, the shops, is over 100kms of tunnels holding hundreds of millions of bottles of champagne – much of it the best champagne in the world.
Avenue de Champagne
They say that this is the most expensive real estate in the world – not just for what’s on top, but also for what’s held below.
This boulevarde positively fizzes – with both the bubbly stuff and with history. Napoleon walked these streets and he and his entourage stayed here as a stopover of sorts on their way to and from various battlefields.
I drink champagne when I win, to celebrate … and I drink champagne when I lose, to console myself.” – Napoleon.
Of course, that was back in the day when only royalty and generals could afford to drink champagne. Bottling hadn’t yet been invented, so only those who could spring for a whole barrel of the stuff could enjoy it.
Moet et Chandon
F, who has been here a number of times, told us that if we only do one caves tour this trip, it should be at Moet. She was right. It’s absolutely fascinating.
We learnt about the crus – or villages – and how the system of classifying grapes works.
Grapes from villages designated grand crus status fetch the highest prices. Next is premiere crus. As this designation determines both grape prices and land prices, it’s strictly controlled and managed. These are without a doubt the world’s most pampered grapes.
While most champagnes are a blend of grapes from different vineyards and villages, most prestige cuvees will only contain grand crus grapes. Moet’s Imperial non-vintage cuvee or blend contains grapes from both grand and premium crus.
While on the subject, most champagnes are non-vintage. Vintage champagnes, such as Dom Perignon, are produced only in exceptional years.
I won’t bore you with the process as such, but what really interested me is how Moet’s Imperial Cuvee tastes the same from year to year. You know when you pop that cork what you’ll be tasting. In a way, it’s a tad like the McDonalds of the champagne world.
This involves a practised blending of wines – including wine held out from the previous year. There can be grapes from 100 villages in each bottle. Remarkable.
Moet has 28kms of caves, with caverns within these caves holding thousands of bottles. We saw one that held 40,000 bottles.
Imperial wines are kept down here for 2-3 years, and vintage wines for 7 years before they are riddled, or “turned”…a quarter turn a day. Riddlers turn 35,000 – 50,000 bottles a day. Vintage wines are still turned by hand, although the process for non-vintage is mostly mechanised these days.
Following this, they are “disgorged”, have their final cork put in, are rested again for 3-6 months and then “dressed” for sale.
The sommelier serving us our tasting glass at the end of the tour said that there was a Moet cork popped somewhere in the world every second. Now, there’s an image.
Before I leave Moet, there’s another little reminder of Napoleon deep in the caves – a barrel that was a gift from the little general. It originally contained port.
Book ahead for tours which leave hourly. Moet et Chandon is, like most places in France, closed over lunch.
Come brothers, hurry, I am drinking stars! – Dom Perignon
Dom Perignon was a Benedictine monk attached to the abbey at Hautvillers, a village in the hills not far from Epernay. He was tasked with overseeing the vineyard at the abbey and is credited with perfecting the methode champenoise.
Much of this story is a myth. The first record of sparkling wine in France dates back at least a hundred years before old Dom was born. Even the quote above is said to have been created by advertisers in the late 19th century. Seriously though, it’s a good story, so I for one am happy not to let the facts get in the way of it.
All of this leads us to Hautvillers – where Perignon died and was buried. Moet et Chandon bought the land and, presumably, the story and now produce Dom Perignon, the vintage bubbles – still made largely by hand.
As for the man himself? He died in 1715 and his tomb is in front of the altar in Abbaye Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers.
Is this the prettiest village in all of Champagne? I’m not sure about that, but it must come close.
After walking up to the abbey and giving thanks to Dom, we sauntered back into town for lunch, stopping at Champagne Pierre Fedyk.
The board advertised La Planche Champenoise – a plank of nibbly bits that go with champagne – for 18 euros a head. The view was free.
We ended up sharing two boards between the three of us. On each board were a skewer of boudin blanc (white pudding), skewers of smoked salmon, another of zucchini and peppers, a slice of pate en croute – pate in a puff pastry crust – baguette and brie, and thin slices of a local raspberry sabayon cake.
All washed down with glasses of the house bubbles, it was supremely civilised.
Back in the car, we headed back down the hill, past vineyards planted for Moet et Chandon, towards Sezanne. Sezanne is at the southern end of the Champagne district and was close to our accommodation for the next 2 nights in Oyes.
Another medieval town, Sezanne is 40kms from Epernay and has been populated since Gallic days ie for a very long time. It has, as many of these towns do, a history that involves invasions, rebuilding, a massive fire that almost destroyed it, and some more rebuilding.
It’s full of quaint, crooked, half-timbered houses that we were to see more of in Troyes. Sezanne also has possibly the weirdest looking church that we’ve seen so far – and the most interesting.
The style is gothically flamboyant, yet also quite jumbled with the base of the church holding workshops that used to house boilermakers, tailors, shoemakers, notaries (lawyers) and is now home to the Tourist Office.
Inside was some fabulous art and the same serenity that we’ve found in other churches so far. This one was manned by two gorgeous old ladies who were proud to show their church off and would rush to wherever we were to try and explain what was important about that part.
Much of it is under restoration, but one piece stood out for me. Way up in the towers is a tiny priest walk – a semi-circle from one tower to the next. It’s impossibly narrow, exposed to the elements and way up high. If I closed my eyes I could picture someone making the dash across in a dark and stormy night.
Where we ate
G was driving down from Lille to join us this weekend, so we were back into Sezanne for dinner at Le Flow. A blackboard menu where 2 courses were 22 euros, and 3 courses 27E, the stand-outs were the asparagus flan I had as an entree, the pretty pea veloute with a bacon foam that hubby had, and the berry bavarois we shared to finish.
The capital O and E together is not a typo. In French, it looks as though the two letters are joined. I’m typing in English, though, so you’ll need to trust me on that.
This dinky little town might be difficult to pronounce (it’s something like wee-yee) but it’s seriously cute in a grey-stone quintessential French village sort of way. It’s one of those towns that make you want to see what’s behind the shutters, what’s on the kitchen tables, why there is fake grass used as fences. Yes, fake grass on fences. Bunnings is missing out on a whole market there.
There’s a well and a centre of town that I like to imagine was just like the tiled pictures in the photos below.
OEuilly has a 13th-century church that sits on the top of the hill and has views all down the valley. In the churchyard are five white marble gravestones – for RAF airmen who died on May 4, 1944. They must have been in the same plane or the same formation. There was the pilot, two gunners, the air bomber and the wireless operator. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
OEuilly is located on the Vallee de la Marne Champagne Route (you’ll have to imagine that the accents that should be over some of these letters are actually there) it’s about 13kms from Epernay and 27kms from Reims in the heart of Champagne.
The town also has plenty of champagne producers and a museum devoted to wine-growing – the Economusee d’OEuilly. Again, you can put the accent thingies over the “e” yourself. Early in the morning as we walked through town, these strange tractors moved from field to field. They looked like monster trucks but in an agricultural form – so designed to be able to drive through the vineyards without damaging the vines.
Although we came to the region for the champagne, it’s not why we were here in OEuilly. OEuilly was the first stop on our foodie road-trip and we were here for Jean-Eric’s cooking. Well, not just Jean-Eric’s cooking…but it’s as good a reason as any.
L’Oeuillade en Champagne
This charming little gite in the heart of Champagne was to be our home for the first night of our road-trip – and it didn’t disappoint.
Choosing accommodation for 3 people when 2 of them are a couple (me and hubby) can be a tad difficult – as well as we get on together, we do also need a certain amount of our own space.
L’Oeuillade had plenty of living space and 3 good sized bedrooms. If we’d been inclined to cook, we had all the facilities to do so. Cooking, though, was the last thing on our minds.
What would be on our mind? Champagne, of course…in the garden.
We’d dropped in for a sneaky bubbly tasting at Epernay on our way in – to pick up some supplies for the evening – and this is where we settled…pretty much for the night.
And why not? It was a glorious Spring evening and we had plenty of champagne, portable speakers, comfy chairs, and views like this.
Best of all, because we’d reserved dinner in-house, Jean-Eric, our host, and his lovely wife brought our meal to us. Bliss. Great food with no washing up. Their house was across the road, and that’s where they brought each course of our meal from.
We started with champagne which Jean-Eric had hubby open sabrage style – with a champagne sabre. The video was on Instagram, but essentially the sabre breaks the neck and the cork of the bottle away. It’s all very dramatic.
The meal that followed was one of the best we had in France. It was, without a doubt, the best value one we had too.
What did we eat?
Parmentier de Foie Gras sauce au vin – sliced potatoes with pate and a red wine sauce. I would never have thught of this combo in a million years but it worked.
Papillote de Rouget au Champagne – Red mullet with champagne sauce cooked “en papillote” ie in paper. THE best fish dish we had in France. I’ve found a recipe I’ll be experimenting with, but I doubt it will be as good as this one on a warm Spring evening in Champagne with champagne.
Sorbet au Marc de Champagne – the marc is a brandy made from the discarded skins and seeds in the process of making champagne. It was poured over the sorbet as a very tasty palate cleanser.
Joues de Porc à la Bière de Marne – pork cheeks cooked in local beer. Sorry, no pic…but very yummy.
Assiette des Trois Fromages – a selection of cheese. I especially loved the cream cheese which was similar to the cervelles de canuts that we would later taste in Lyon.
Sabayon de fruits et ratafia – a sabayon served with berries and a glass of the local ratafia, a spirit that is essentially a fortified grape brandy.
And all washed down with the “supplies” we’d purchased in Epernay. It was the type of meal that memories are made of. And all for 35 euros a head*
If you’re heading to Champagne and want to know more about L’Oeuillade en Champagne, you can find Jean-Eric’s website here. We, however, found him on Air BNB. Hde and his wife were brilliant hosts.
Just over 50 kms from Brugge (Bruges) and 40kms from Lille sits an area of farmland. There are blossoms and Cyprus trees and, at this time of the day, the birdsong is glorious.
This is Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing. A big title, yes, but a fitting one for the largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world – in any war.
The area around Ypres and Passendale (or Passchendaele) stood smack bang in the middle of Germany’s planned sweep through the rest of Belgium and into France in WW1. As such, it was considered strategically important by both German and Allied Forces. From late in 1914 (the first battle of Ypres) both sides dug in for the duration.
I won’t bore you with the war history – suffice to say countless lives were lost for very small gains. In the worst of the battles in 1917 – the Battle of Passchendaele – over half a million lives were lost.
If you look across the fields now you can see barely a rise in the ground, yet any tiny undulation was fought for and defended. Tyne Cot stands on one of these, with German bunkers or shelters still part of the cemetery.
Tyne Cot is the resting place of almost 12,000 Commonwealth servicemen – over 8,300 of whom remain unidentified – their graves are marked with the inscription “A soldier of the Great War…known unto God.”
Yes, those numbers are correct. These men all died in the fighting around Ypres (Ieper) between 1914 – 1918, but most fell during the Battle of Passchendaele, or Third Battle of Ypres, in 1917.
The Memorial Wall
The stone wall around the cemetery – the memorial wall – lists the names of almost 35,000 servicemen of the UK and New Zealand who died between August 1917 and November 1918 and who have no known grave.
The numbers are actually worse than this. The original intention was to list all the names of British servicemen who died in the Ypres area on the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres (see below) but they ran out of space to do so. An arbitrary cut-off date of 15 August 1917 was decided on, with the remainder of the names being listed at Tyne Cot.
Four graves here are for unnamed German soldiers treated here after the battle. Their inscriptions are in German.
Standing here in 2018 it’s hard to fathom the vast difference between the area as it is now – green, leafy and full of birdsong – to the chaos, filth and noise these men must have died in. The ground was virtually liquefied by shelling and the trees long turned to matchsticks.
It’s a fitting and respectful memorial – and one that you can help but be moved by.
It’s fair to say that Ypres (or Ieper) has been pretty unlucky over the years when it’s come to wars.
Even before it was literally flattened in World War 1, it was the scene of a number of battles and sieges – dating all the way back to the first century when the Romans took a liking to it. In the 13th century, a huge fire took most of the city out, in the 14th century it was besieged in the Norwich Crusades, and in 1678 it was captured (briefly) for France by Louis IV.
Ypres became part of the Hapsburg empire early in the 18th century, before being captured again by the French 80 years later. Then, of course, came the three battles of Ypres (deliberately mispronounced Wipers by English soldiers) in WW1 – which obliterated the town.
Ypres became a symbol of all the British were fighting for – and a place of pilgrimage after the war. Using money paid by Germany in reparation the town was rebuilt. Some buildings so closely resemble the original that it’s hard to believe that they haven’t been here all along.
The Cloth Hall (originally built in the 13th century) in particular is a very close replica. (Unfortunately, we were there as the sun was going down so my pics aren’t great.)
Ypres these days has the title of “city of peace” and is a sister city with Hiroshima – both cities sharing some devastating commonalities. Ypres is where chemical warfare was first used and Hiroshima…well, we know that story.
Aside from its importance as a place of memorial, Ypres is also popular with war and family historians.
The Menin Gate in Ypres is a memorial to the missing. The names of over 54,000 Commonwealth servicemen who died in the battles around Ypres up to August 15, 1917, and whose graves are unknown are listed here.
To honour the fallen, every evening at 8 pm sharp the Last Post is played under the Menin Gate Memorial. The ceremony has taken place every day since 1928. The night that we attended was the 31,012th ceremony.
The playing of the Last Post is generally followed by the laying of wreaths by families of the fallen or other associations. The ceremony is then concluded by the buglers playing the Reveille – to mark a return to daily life at the end of the homage.
According to the website, the Menin Gate was chosen as the location for the ceremony because of its special symbolic significance. It was from this spot that countless thousands of soldiers set off for the front, many of them destined never to return. If you want to know more about this incredibly emotional service, duck across to The Last Post website.
Check out my other posts from France at this link.
Once upon a time, way back in the 13thand14thcenturies, there existed a city that was so prosperous that the wealth of its citizens rivalled that of queens.
Its fortune was made on the back of textiles and trade, with international traders setting up here to do business with the ships laden with all sorts of exotic goods – wool, wine, silks, spices –that berthed here. The city was so important that stock exchanges today are still called bourses in many languages–after the trader’s house that many merchants met in during the 13thcentury right here.
It was here that English wool was converted into fabric, and here that Flemish artists painted works for such perfection.
As often happens in these situations, the craftsmen began to disagree and stand up to their overlords. Retributions followed – as retributions often do – and traders began looking for somewhere else to do business. Merchants followed the traders and the city began to fall into a decline.
Then disaster struck…
The long sea channel that connected the city with the sea – and the city’s economic lifeline – silted up. With access to the sea gone, houses were abandoned, and canals remained empty.
The city slumped into a slumber that would last around 400 years – which is, in a way, somewhat appropriate for a place that looked as though it had sprung straight from the pages of a fairy tale.
The city is Brugge (or Bruges), and it’s thanks (in part) to this extended slumber that it miraculously survived two world wars. Some tourists made their way through late in the 19thcentury on their way through to Waterloo (does anyone else want to burst into song at that name, or is that just me?) but it wasn’t until much later that Brugge was rediscovered.
Today it’s a picture postcard example of a perfectly preserved medieval city.
In the past Brugge’s trade was mercantile, today it’s about tourists with its prime assets being a massive market square, narrow cobbled streets, historic churches, perfectly preserved buildings and photogenic, willow-draped canals.
Textiles are still popular, with plenty of shops selling tapestries and lace – keep an eye out for the map of the city done in lace. The pic below doesn’t do it justice, but you get the idea.
Chocolate is king here. You can buy all chocolate here from commercial novelties (think phallic – this is a PG-rated site so I won’t post the pics) to artisan chocolatiers. The entire city is full of air-borne calories, so take care not to breathe too deeply.
We visited on a day-trip from Lille so sadly had just a short time to explore. Anyways, here’s some of what we did see…
And no, I haven’t spelt it incorrectly – there is no “e”. This open market square is the centre of town.
Basilica of the Holy Blood
Tucked into the square, beside a chocolate shop, is the Heilig- Bloedbasiliek or Basilica of the Holy Blood.
It takes its name from the phial that apparently holds a few drops of Christ’s blood. For the donation of a few euros, you can check it out. It doesn’t look anything like blood – not that I’d know what blood would look like after it’s been in a phial for over a thousand years.
Anyways, it was reportedly brought here in the 12th century after the Crusades. The Noble Brotherhood of the Holy Blood was formed soon after to protect and preserve and venerate it – which all sounds a little Dan Brown-ish. Each Ascension Day they do a procession through the city.
There’s even a legend that every hundred years the blood flows again. Given no one alive has actually seen this phenomenon I suspect it’s a little like the “back in 30 minutes” signs you see on shop doors – when you don’t know when the thirty minutes actually has started.
It does, however, make for a good story, and from a rather nondescript exterior, the stairs lead up and around into a lovely and intricately decorated chapel.
Half Moon Brewery
Brugge is very much a beer town, yet there’s only the one family-run brewery still actually operating in town- Half Moon Brewery…the perfect spot to stop for lunch after walking all morning. Although this brewery was founded in 1856, there has, in fact, been a brewery on this site since 1564.
The 2-course menu here was 22E, so we shared the shrimp croquettes and I had the Flemish Beefstew – which is, incidentally, called Carbonnade or Carbonade Flamande in Flemish France. (Keep an eye out for the recipe over the next few days).
Hubby and F chose the beer ham and cheese soup – also excellent – and thankfully helped me out with my fries.
On the subject of fries, or frites, it seems that the nationality of the cook who accidentally dropped a piece of potato into some hot oil and invented the chip is as hotly debated as the question of who made the first pavlova. The Belgians say it was them, and the French claim that it was in fact them. Whatever – these fries were flipping good.
The Beer Wall
On the subject of beer, we had to check out the 2 be Beer Wall. there are over 1800 beers – and their accompanying glasses (all Belgian beers have a branded glass that the beer should be served in) – in the wall. Wait, wasn’t there a song about that? 1800 beers on the wall…no?
The bar has only about ten beers on tap at any one time, but plenty more in bottles. Worth a look…and a drink.
Yep, it’s seriously touristy, but at 8E it’s worth it to get a different view of this gorgeous city.
A must do.
St-Salvatorskathedraal…Sweeping high ceilings and antique tapestries make this one interesting.
While we were wandering around there was a girl standing high up on some scaffolding do painstaking restoration work. Now, there’s an idea for a character…
There are the shops that sell tapestries and lace,
shops that are just about Christmas – all year round,
a market building where I can’t remember the name…Vismarkt?
and enough architecture, art, history, and dreamy canals to keep anyone interested.
The problem is, lots of other people know about Brugge’s beauty and the streets are mobbed in summer and on weekends. Come in the off-season, or midweek – as we did – and avoid the crowds.
Welcome to Lille – the base for Stage 1 of our La Grande Tour and home to the Aussie friends we’ll be spending the next couple of weeks road-tripping with.
Known also as Rijsel (in Flemish), Lille just happens to be (in my humble opinion) a very under-rated city.
What makes Lille different to many other French cities is that it wasn’t French until – in European terms – relatively recently. Louis XIV captured it in 1667 for the French. Before that, the city – along with much of Belgium and part of the Netherlands – belonged to Flanders. To this day it’s that Flemish influence that is responsible for much of Lille’s charm with the Flemish influence evident in its buildings, its food and its beers.
Vieux Lille by old car…
The best way to see the old town – or Vieux Lille – is on foot. The next best way to see Vieux Lille is the way we did, in a Citroen 2CV with a local to guide you.
These cute little cars are narrow enough to get into the narrowest of the cobbled streets – and Lille old town is full of narrow cobbled streets. Plus they’re super fun.
We were fortunate in that our guide/driver was a local, Louis, who happened to be studying architecture and was able to tell us – with passion – about all the different architectural styles: Flemish, Spanish and French.
Vieux Lille by foot…
I could have wandered these streets for hours – picture perfect cobbled streets with everything from High Street fashion brands to artisan chocolates to homewares to cheese and charcuterie to…you get the idea.
Lille Cathedral, the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Treille…
This is not your average cathedral.
For starters, it’s relatively new and a divisive mix of gothic and contemporary styles. As Louis told us, people either love or hate it.
Although building commenced in 1854, two world wars slowed progress substantially to the extent that the front was pretty much boarded up in 1947. This temporary wall was destroyed in the early 90’s and the new contemporary wall – very different from the remainder of the cathedral – was installed.
What’s really interesting about this wall is that it’s constructed of 110 sheets of thin marble that take on a glorious orange sheen when lit by the sun. Another cool thing about this front is that it’s not actually moulded to the rest of the structure.
The marble also apparently contains some symbols that you wouldn’t expect to see on a cathedral – symbols like the belfry of Lille, E=mc2, and even cosmonauts. I would have paid more attention had I done my research before-hand.
Inside, just like outside, is a mix of old and new. Contemporary abstract art is combined with more traditional French styles and is both surprising and refreshing.
Warning – airborne calories…
These cute little shops in Vieux Lille contain not so hidden dangers of the calorific sort. Oh. My.
One of these, Meert, has been serving exquisite chocolate and patisserie to those who could afford it since 1761 – which, back in those days were kings and generals and the like.
We bought a merveilleux from Aux Merveilleux de Fred – apparently the only place one should ever purchase merveilleux from. What is it? Light as air.
The merveilleaux is comprised of two feather-weight meringues sandwiched together, coated in whipped cream and rolled in chocolate shavings. Aside from a thin crispness to the bottom of the meringue, the rest of the merveilleaux dissolves in a puff of air. It’s like nothing I’ve ever tasted.
Where we ate…
Brasserie La Paix – a little bit of art deco glamour amongst the cobbles.
This was our first introduction to Prix-Fixe or a “formule” – fixed price menus.
These are great options. Originally designed to fit in with lunch hours, most restaurants offer 2 or 3 courses at a good price. In the case of Le Paix, it was 5-star French service for a 3-star price tag.
For 18 euros you got either an entree and plat (main) or plat and dessert. Not bad value.
I chose the salade aux trois fromages (three cheese salad) and Dos de lieu avec endives braisees et sauce maltoise – essentially fish with braised endives and an orange sauce to cut through the bitterness of the endive.
Where we stayed…
With our friends in a village about 10 minutes from Lille. There was a boulangerie about 10 minutes walk away that sold amazing croissants for less than a euro and farms and gorgeous gardens in the other direction.
In the North East of France near the Belgian border, Lille is just an hour on the TGV from Charles De Gaulle. We paid 45 euros for a first class seat – after spending the previous almost 24 hours in a cramped economy seat we were happy to pay for some comfort and a little extra luggage room. As an aside, Lille is also a short hop to London – 90 minutes by Eurostar…just saying.
After three fabulous weeks in France we arrived home last night – exhausted. We’ve crammed a lot into our time away and come back richer for the experience.
On the road-trip leg of our holiday, we travelled over 3000 kms – from Lille into Belgium, the Netherlands, down to Champagne, Burgundy, Lyon, the Loire Valley, and finally to Paris.
I put my Fitbit back on for the trip, and we racked up a massive 238,900 steps. Given that my 5km morning walks usually measure out at just under 5000 steps, that’s an awful lot of kilometres walked.
We consumed about the same number of litres of wine as kms that we walked…ok, a slight exaggeration…and almost as much again in baguettes and cheese.
We visited about a hundred churches (another slight exaggeration), took more photos than I have time to download at the moment, and bought a daggy tea-towel at every stage of the journey.
We also learnt a lot about France, it’s foods, it’s culture, and it’s quirks – and that is, I think, the best part about staying and travelling with friends and talking to a number of expats. Aside from the laughs and the company, you learn about a country from those who live there.
I’ll be posting more about each region over the next few weeks, but for now here are some of our observations. Settle in…this is a loooong post.
1. France is an absolute contradiction – on the one hand, there’s a formality and structure about things we’re quite laid back about, and on the other, there’s chaos and disregard for many things that we’d consider necessary here in Australia. I’d love a euro for the number of times I heard expats say something like ‘it makes no sense, but it’s how it is.’ It might be frustrating to live with, but I love it.
2. France is pretty much closed on a Monday – so check the opening hours of shops and museums. It’s a weird feeling hitting a village at 1 pm and finding the streets deserted.
3. France pretty much closes for lunch – between 12 – 2 pm. That includes banks, post offices and even police stations in regional areas.
5. You can often park for free between 12 and 2 pm – the parking inspectors are at lunch.
6. Meetings aren’t booked between 12 and 2 pm – business interferes with digestion.
7. French workers don’t tend to run errands at lunchtime – they sit down or go home to eat. Besides, most services are closed anyway.
8. Other than for essential deliveries, trucks are off the road on Sundays (and public holidays). Sunday is still considered the family day.
9. France, in general, is not really disability friendly. Many places – especially in regional France – are not wheelchair accessible.
10. There are also a lot of stairs and not many places with lifts – one of the reasons, I suspect, that French women don’t get fat.
11. Merely adding “le” to the start of a word doesn’t make it French.
12. You can make yourself understood with a few basic French words – the effort is usually appreciated.
13. There is history everywhere.
1. The French sit down to eat – or stand at a bar. You rarely see locals walking along drinking coffee and eating a croissant from a bag.
2. Lunch is lunch, dinner is dinner, and you don’t eat in between – unless you’re a child.
3. Nothing interferes with lunch – especially not work. Besides, some workers even have restaurant vouchers in their packages. Now that’s civilised.
4. The French really do buy their baguettes daily and really do offer bread at each meal. Weirdly, butter is only offered at breakfast or if you’ve ordered oysters. No, I haven’t figured that one out either.
5. Most supermarkets don’t have chocolates, cold drinks or other snacks at the check-out – if you want these products you need to get them from the aisle. This is not a bad thing.
6. France will never need to spend euros on a buy local program – why would you want to eat (or drink) from anywhere else?
7. Wine is sipped and savoured and often served in small glasses.
8. Cheese is sliced into small portions and often eaten with a knife and fork. It’s can be served with baguette, but not crackers – which are difficult to find in a supermarket. Also, it doesn’t get eaten before a meal, but after it – before dessert (if a dessert is being served) or instead of dessert.
9. Dips are not really a thing. You can usually get hummus, taramasalata and tzatziki from the deli in the supermarket – but see above comments re crackers.
10. The French drink very little fresh milk, and most take their coffee and tea black. They do, however, eat a lot of yoghurts – most of which comes in little portion controlled glass yoghurt pots.
11. Salads are not necessarily a light option and are always perfectly dressed.
12. The French like to talk about food all the time – but especially when they’re eating. My kind of people.
13. You can eat really well for not a lot of euros – even in Paris. Many places have a two or three-course special that is great value.
14. Unlike here, house wine is a good choice – and tends to showcase a region and the restaurant you’re eating in.
15. In many cases you can’t just rock on up to a cellar door for a tasting – many places require these to be booked and often involve a tour.
16. Done well, escargots (snails) are yummy. The garlic butter and parsley sauce with baguette is even yummier.
17. Each region has its specialities – and these are absolutely worth seeking out. Except for andouilettes in Burgundy and (especially) in Lyon. There is no excuse for these.
18. The cheeses are incredible.
19. Shop windows contain airborne calories – and the patisserie really is fabulous…even for this non-sweet lover. As for artisan chocolates – don’t get me started.
20. Especially in regional France, the food on offer is French or the cuisine of that particular region. There is an exception to this rule for Italian food – which seems to be the universal cuisine.
21. Spice is unheard of. We were craving a decent dose of chilli.
22. Some food hygiene things that we take for granted aren’t considered a problem. As an example, on more than one occasion we saw cooked cold meats and charcuterie displayed in the same space as raw meats – and served by the same gloves that had just finished cutting raw meat.
About art and cultural stuff
1. You don’t need to go to museums to see great art.
2. Churches are full of incredible art – and not just on the walls. The windows took my breath away. Reims Cathedral has a Chagall stained glass window that I could have stared at for hours.
3. There are a lot of churches and each of them is different and awe-inspiring in their own way.
4. Wineries often have great art.
5. The French nobility seemed to do little more than pose for paintings and sculptures.
6. The chateaus of the Loire really are that big – and that ostentatious. It’s no wonder they had a revolution.
7. There really is such a disorder as chateau fatigue.
8. The Spring flowers and blossoms need to be seen to be believed.
I’m writing this post outdoors. I’m at one of my favourite coffee spots in Buderim on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and my view (see the pic above) from where I sit goes across a lot of green to the coast. One of my other fave spots to write is at Mooloolaba Surf Club – with the ocean right there in front of me. I know how lucky I am.
Because I work from home for the day job I tend to do most of my creative work away from home – it helps my brain separate the two very different types of work so that I can jump straight from corporate into creating. That means I spend a lot of time in coffee shops and cafes.
There are, however, some unwritten rules around working in coffee shops that you should follow if you don’t want to wear out your welcome.
1.Don’t sit there and drink the free water. I have a general rule of a coffee (or whatever) at least every hour.
2. Try and avoid the rush times. I tend to avoid cafes that I know have the Mum rush straight after school drop-offs and usually also steer clear of the busy breakfast and lunch rushes. This is especially the case on weekends when many places here on the coast do brunch. And yes, most of my writing work happens on the weekend.
3. If you are there at mealtime, order something to eat – especially if it’s a popular café. Otherwise, you’re depriving the owner of being able to fill your seat with a paying customer.
4. Never spread out across a big table. If there is a counter, I tend to use that or will select a table for two. I also try and sit out of the way of general traffic.
5. I try not to take long phone calls when I’m working in someone else’s space. If you can’t avoid the call, keep your voice down. Oh, and pop your phone on silent – even if, like me, you’re secretly a tad proud of your personalised ringtones.
6. Don’t sing along to the music – even if you do so at home (although every so often I do find my shoulders bopping up and down). Also even if the music being played is not to your taste, resist the urge to ask the owner to change their playlist or station. If you don’t like it, then find somewhere else to work.
7. If you’re there to work, don’t take your kids – or your animals – as you won’t be able to focus on keeping a proper eye on them. There is, of course, an exception for those exceedingly good dogs that are content to lie still under your feet – but only in dog-friendly cafes…
8. Don’t complain or do the loud heavy sighing and tsk tsk thing if other people – who aren’t there to work – distract you. If you don’t like a busy cafe or loud voices or noisy children, find somewhere else that’s quieter. Or put your earbuds in and listen to music. Your choice.
9. Keep an eye on what can be seen on your screen – especially if there are children around. Also be careful of audio files on social media.
10. Don’t abuse the free wi-fi. Just don’t. And, if things get busy and you’ve been there for a while, it’s probably time for you to vacate your spot to allow someone else to enjoy it.
11. These days plenty of people find their favourite coffee shop via Instagram, so show a little social media love back to your coffee shop with a post or two.
I’ve taken on the challenge of an A-Z during April – one post each day on a chosen theme. My theme? Books and writing, of course…
Z is for Zen
If there was an opposite to zen it would be me. In fact, in the dictionary of opposites, beside zen, it would say Jo Tracey.
I’m on a quest to be more zen-like, less attached, less concerned about the opinions of others, less worried about things I can’t control, less likely to take on other people’s problems. I’d love to be serene and detached…but caring at the same time. I’d like to be that person who can shrug off a bad work day without needing wine. I want to sleep at night without a million what if’s running through my head.
The whole meditation thing was supposed to help with that, but I’ve fallen off the meditation wagon over the last couple of months. It’s also one of the reasons I know I need to do something about yoga.
In the meantime, I’ve started to read The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck. How’s that going for me? Well, it’s a good read. I’ve heard other people say it’s changed their life. I’ll let you know.