I’ve been leading hiking groups on the Tour du Mont Blanc for exactly twenty years, and it’s always been a spectacular trip, with a climb of up to 1000m every morning, followed by a similar descent, as we make our way around the whole Mont Blanc massif in (as a rule) an anti-clockwise direction. The first day out of Chamonix, from Bellevue to Les Contamines, has always been busy, with the front of one group getting tangled up in the rear of the one in front and the rear getting tangled up in another coming up behind (not to mention individual hikers and family groups) – but the rest of the circuit has got much, much busier recently.
In the last five years or so, the TMB, already well established as a good hike, has somehow made its way onto half the world’s bucket list, on a par with the Camino de Santiago and the Inca Trail. It’s become much more crowded, and, specifically, much more anglophone, with lots of Americans and Australians, as well as groups from Japan, South Korea and even Malaysia. Sometimes I hear a European language which I just can’t recognise, probably Basque as a rule, given their love of the mountains, though there must be a few hikers from the Baltic states too.
In addition, there’s a new breed of skinny people out and about in the Alps – once upon a time, people who went to the mountains were mostly like me, big and hairy (including the women) and able to carry heavy rucksacks up big hills – but now all these other people – who’ve been occupying themselves with 5Ks and marathons and their PBs for the last decade or two – have started running up and down the mountains with ridiculous ease, wearing skimpy lycra, compression socks and minimal shoes and carrying virtually nothing but water and energy gels. There are lots of so-called ‘trail’ races now, such as Sierre-Zinal, the Mont-Blanc Marathon, and above all the Ultratrail du Mont-Blanc, which pretty much follows the course of the TMB. There simply isn’t enough room for hikers and runners, and mountainbikers too – geography dictates that essentially everyone has to go over the same passes, so even where variants are available elsewhere, everyone is still funnelled together at the pinchpoints. Not surprisingly, there’s very little wildlife to be seen now.
Working for the excellent Wilderness Travel, we do of course have our own cunning ways of avoiding the crowds in a few places. We used the balcony route from La Peule to Ferret long before it was marked on maps or signs – happily, it remains little used and is still lovely. More variants are needed – but not the Fenêtre d’Arpette (between Champex and Trient), which is in very bad condition, and is always a much tougher option than the Bovine route, and, to be honest, less attractive, if more macho. In parts, the path has been widened to allow mule-trekking, which doesn’t seem that popular at the moment, but it also encourages mountain bikers, alas.
Thinking of trail maintenance, I’m not clear how the TMB is managed by the three countries it passes through, and which benefit from the money it brings (see my previous comments on the Cornish Coast Path). It seems that some municipalities send their general maintenance guys out with strimmers and so on, but some stretches are in terrible condition (notably from the Col de Balme to Trient, where poor drainage has left a gully down the middle of the trail). On the other hand, just on the other side of Trient there’s a splendid new footbridge over the main road to the Col de Forclaz, built purely for hikers.
And the Haute Route
I went on to lead a group on the Haute Route, from Chamonix to Zermatt (which shares its first two days with the TMB, although in reverse). It’s no more crowded than it used to be, largely because access to the central section is limited by the capacity of the Mont-Fort, Louvie and Prafleuri huts, but also because the Prafleuri hut is temporarily closed (just for a few weeks – due to bedbugs, rumour has it…). But it’s a harder trip, so not a like-for-like alternative to the TMB. Part of the section from Mont-Fort to Prafleuri is now marked in blue (rather than red), to indicate that it’s a difficult trail, although there is a longer alternative path available.
Having seen no large wildlife on the TMB, we saw ibex in the places we’d expect to see them on the Haute Route, but no chamois – but that’s been the story of the last two decades, as we’ve seen fewer and fewer chamois. Likewise, we found edelweiss, but you do need an experienced leader to point it out (on the Haute Route, but not on the TMB).
I was also ‘researching’ wheat beers and noticed a spectrum from west to east, from the French-style bière blanche, refreshing but not that interesting, to the proper Bavarian Weissbier to be had in German-speaking Switzerland, which is properly satisfying. To be fair, many French brewers (even 1664) are producing new wheat beers, but I’m just not convinced. On the wine front, I’ve bravely sampled the Valais (Rhône Valley) wines for many years, but have finally come to the conclusion that French grapes are best (we had lovely bottles of Merlot-Cabernet and Viognier this time) rather than hoping that the local Swiss grape varieties (Humagne, Cornalin, Chasselas) will produce something better than average. Though I will make an exception for Fendant, the quintessential wine to have with raclette or fondu.
Finally, I went up to the Charles Kuonen Suspension Bridge, also (wrongly) known as the Europabrücke because it’s on the Europaweg, the stunning two-day balcony route up the Mattertal towards Zermatt. Opened in 2017, this is the world’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge, at 494 metres. It’s a 610m climb from the village of Randa, and if you take the southern option (ie an anticlockwise loop) it’s a pretty easy climb of one to two hours. The usual way down, to the north, is a dreadful path, however – particularly slow today due to the large number of overloaded climbers struggling up to the Europahütte. Presumably they missed the sharp right turn as you come up out of the old village of Randa, which confirms my views about most climbers not being that bright – though some do write beautifully. In fact if I did it again, I’d go up and down on the southern path – although the best thing would be to continue (southwards, ideally, for Matterhorn views) on the Europaweg.
I visited Rouen as a teenager and hadn’t stopped there since (although I did change trains) – crazy, as it’s so close to England and is so attractive! And I do go to Caen and Bayeux in Lower Normandy most years. I remember it as very half-timbered, but really I had no idea, there are half-timbered buildings everywhere (not just in the centre but well into the suburbs, and in the heart of the modern hospital complex) – and not just black and white but a whole palette of colours. I also particularly remember the Danse Macabre, in the Aître Saint Maclou – which is just as well, as it’s being refurbished until 2020. It’s generally possible (Mon-Fri 09.00-17.00) to stand in the middle of the courtyard (yes, half-timbered), but there’s nothing to be seen as it’s all safely wrapped up. It was built in 1526-30 to expand the cemetery of the church of St Maclou, and was decorated with wooden sculptures of the dance of death, inspired by the plague epidemics that swept across Europe so often at the time; in turn they are said to inspired the rattling bones in Saint-Saëns’ tone poem Danse Macabre and also in the Fossils movement of his Carnival of the Animals.
Rouen has at least three fantastic churches, close together in the heart of the old town, but only the cathedral actually functions as a church, the others being decently maintained by the state and opened three to five days a week. In the case of St Maclou, open only Saturday to Monday, it’s not tragic, as the porch is a triumph of Flamboyant Gothic stonework, with carved wooden doors in Renaissance style, that can be enjoyed at any time. Just to the north, the Abbey of St-Ouen was founded in the eighth century, on the burial site of the saint, bishop of Rouen from 641 to 684, but most of it was demolished after the Revolution, except for the monks’ dormitory which was incorporated in the new Hôtel de Ville – there are now gardens to the east on the site of the abbey and a grand square to the west. The church (daily except Monday and Friday) was rebuilt in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries and is huge and bare, and houses the great organ-builder Cavaillé-Coll’s last masterpiece – it features in many recordings of organ music, but to be honest it didn’t exactly seem to fill the acoustic when I heard it. The seats in the nave are the wrong way round, facing the organ at the west end, although it makes no difference to the musical experience.
Finally, the cathedral is one of the great Gothic masterpieces, mostly built in the thirteenth century, although the great western façade dates from the twelfth century. The metal spire (which briefly made it the world’s tallest building) was added in 1876 – this is now rusty, and is being restored between 2016 and 2023 (it took a year just to install the scaffolding and workers’ facilities etc). The cathedral was badly damaged in Word War II and didn’t reopen until 1956 – during the rebuilding the remains of the earlier church, dating from c.1000, were found; this is where St Olaf was baptised in 1014, a year before returning to become king of Norway and effectively create a new nation. You won’t need reminding that Normandy was created by Norsemen, and you can still see the odd Viking on the streets of Rouen and Caen. Several Dukes of Normandy are buried in the cathedral, most notably the heart of Richard Coeur de Lion (see this post for the rest of him), the great crusader who moonlighted as King of England from 1189, as well as his older brother (and perpetual adversary) Henry the Young King, who was crowned King of England in 1170 and ruled on behalf of his father but died six months before him.
There’s also a chapel dedicated to Joan of Arc, who was burnt to death in Rouen by the English in 1431 – you’ll see other memories of here here, notably the Historial Jeanne d’Arc in the north side of the cathedral, where you can enjoy a multimedia ‘retrial’ of this supposed heretic. I also remember the striking modernist church of St Jeanne d’Arc in the Vieux Marché, which I saw as a teenager but didn’t get back to this time.
There’s a huge amount of urban renewal and beautification (€30 million’s worth) under way from 2016 to 2023, much of it linked to the construction of the new metro line T4 (due to open in 2019) and the refurbishment of the existing underground section of line T1 (1.7km long, opened in 1994, and totally closed for July and August of 2018). The metro connects with bus rapid transit lines which use tram-style articulated buses that have traffic-free routes through the centre marked with dotted white lines to allow the Optiguide system to bring them as close as possible to the platforms. Other projects, bringing greenery and pedestrianisation, are focussing on three areas, Seine-Cathédrale (south from the cathedral to the river), Quartier des Musées (towards the station, containing most of the city’s museums) and Vieux Marché (just west of the centre). Square Verdrel (laid out in 1862, with a cascade and statues), has already been refurbished, and there’s a huge Calder mobile presently sitting between it and the Musée des Beaux Arts, although I’m not sure if it’s a permanent fixture or not.
Fine Arts in Rouen
The Musée des Beaux Arts is very good, with a large and reasonably varied collection but minimal captions with no dates (but with a few errors, eg a painting of the first modern investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1911 is dated 1891/2) – there’s far more information on the frames than the art. It starts with some anonymous fourteenth-century Florentine paintings, as well as Giampetrino, Perugino and a terracotta by (Luca, presumably) Della Robbia. There’s a nice anonymous portrait of Henri III of France, looking just like an Elizabethan dandy, with designer stubble and a huge pearl in his ear, and a lovely Roman marble statue of Omphale, Then there’s plenty of Flemish art, including Jan Claesz, Jan Massys, Gerard David (a lovely The Virgin among the Virgins), Gerard Ter Borch, Thomas de Keyser, Jan Steen, van Dyck, Nicolas Berchem, and four pieces by Jan van Goyen. Later Italian art includes Palma Il Giovane and Lavinia Fontana, and then upstairs a couple by Guercino, Luca Giordano (a Good Samaritan with the victim of robbery looking like a dead Christ), Veronese’s Saint Barnabas and another by Veronese and his studio, and Caravaggio’s superb Flagellation of Christ flanked by a great Rubens (The Adoration of the Shepherds). From Spain there’s a de Ribera and Velasquez’s Democritus (a very Spanish-looking chap with a globe).
French art is dominated, naturally, by locally born painters, such as Jean Jouvenet (1644-1717), Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier (1743–1824), Jean Restout (1692-1768), Jacques-Antoine-Marie Lemoine (1751-1824), who all painted dull academic works, and Joseph-Desiré Court (1796-1865), a rather more interesting portrait painter. Every one of them was born here, moved to Paris and died there, but that’s normal in France. There are also three paintings by Nicolas Poussin (born in Les Andelys in 1594), but the greatest of the Rouen-born painters, without a doubt, is Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) – there’s a roomful of his paintings plus a sculpture of a nymph and a satyr with his hand where it definitely shouldn’t be. You’ll also see an Érard fortepiano and harp, commemorating François-Adrien Boieldieu, an opera composer known as ‘the French Mozart’, who was born in Rouen in 1775.
The impressionist galleries are what most people come for, with several paintings by Monet, including one of his famous thirty versions of the west façade of the cathedral (1892-3), two by Pissarro, nine by Sisley (always my mother’s favourite, and one of mine too), two by Renoir (probably my least favourite artist), and also Guillaumin, Jongkind, Caillebotte and Gustave Moreau. There were half a dozen decent Rouen-born Impressionists too, but oddly, later painters tended to be born in Le Havre, at the mouth of the Seine, rather than in Rouen – above all Raoul Dufy (born 1877), as well as Othon Friesz (1879) and Jean Dubuffet (1901).
Finally, back near the entrance hall, there are two fine paintings by Modigliani (not female nudes but portraits of men with their clothes on) plus various works by the Duchamp/Villon brothers, born nearby in Blainville-Crevon in the 1870s and 1880s – the oldest was the Cubist painter Jacques Villon, the next was Raymond Duchamp-Villon, a sculptor who was like a big clumsy version of Henri Gaudier-Brezska (whose work is well represented in Kettle’s Yard back home in Cambridge) and the third was Marcel Duchamp, founder of Dadaism. Why they used both surnames I don’t know; but they also had a younger sister, Suzanne Duchamp-Crotti, also a painter, about whom I know nothing.
More tramways and trains – Caen and Amiens
I came to Rouen from Caen where, oddly enough, the city centre is also in disarray due to construction of a modern rapid transit system (mentioned here). From Rouen I went to Amiens, which has one of the biggest and very best Gothic cathedrals – but of course you knew that already. But you probably didn’t know that the Musée de Picardie is closed for refurbishment until the autumn of 2019. Instead I was very happy to visit the house of Jules Verne. Some urban improvements are happening here too, with segregated bus-only routes being created.
I mentioned in my previous post on Normandy that the region was taking charge of its rail services and that there’s now a fairly intensive Paris-Caen intercity service with regional connections from Caen to Cherbourg, rather than regular Paris-Cherbourg trains; the Paris-Rouen-Le Havre service has evolved slightly differently, with semi-fast trains from Paris to Rouen, stopping at all kinds of places you’ve never heard of, and intercity trains that run non-stop to Rouen and then on to Yvetôt and Le Havre. I came from Caen to Rouen on a non-stop train – nice for me, but it seems bizarre not to stop at Lisieux at least.
Meanwhile, the SNCF has almost stopped printing timetable leaflets and there are no timetable posters in the stations – apparently everyone has to be digital now, which sounds much like the banks closing branches in Cornwall (see here) ‘due to changing public demand’. People seem to be coping, but I suspect it’s putting some occasional travellers off (or maybe they’re wasting their lives away holding on the phone).
In addition Rouen airport is expanding its activities (with new services to Lyon and Bastia), Flixbus coach services come here, and an increasing number of cruise ships are making their way up the Seine (not the huge ones, thankfully, but still bringing 20,000 passengers in 2017). There’s a cycle route from Rouen downstream to Le Havre and in 2020 this will be extended to Paris – I was already thinking of a trip linking the many Impressionist sights along the Seine (not just Monet’s garden at Giverny), so maybe I’ll wait till this is open.
It’s not easy to write about Paris, it’s just too big and too well known, but I think that – in the light of last year’s protests about overtourism in places such as Dubrovnik, Barcelona and Venice – it’s worth saying that tourism has improved Paris greatly. Some of us remember when Parisian waiters simply ignored tourists and anyone who didn’t speak French, and when most restaurants were in any case closed for the month of August while their owners relaxed on the beach. Nowadays Paris feels normally alive all through the summer, and its citizens have realised that tourism is their biggest industry and that they are perfectly capable of speaking a bit of English. It’s a huge improvement!
However the terrorist attacks of 2015, which killed over 200, did lead to a drop in tourist numbers – the Louvre saw a mere 5.3 million visitors in 2016 (down 20%) and the Musée d’Orsay saw 3 million visitors (down 13%). Hotel bookings overall were down 10% in 2016, but Paris remained the world’s third most visited city with just over 18 million arrivals (behind London with 19.8m and Bangkok with 21.5m). I assume the figures recovered a bit in 2017, but when one sees the serpentine hour-long queues to get into the Palace of Versailles or Notre-Dame cathedral it’s not hard to feel that Paris might benefit from less tourism. They could take the time to sort out their dreadful toilets, for one thing. And they could think how to make the odd sandwich (and quiche) without ham or chicken in it.
Anti-tourism protests may seem like a first-world problem (the third world being happy to take the money and the jobs) but it’s not really – Bali is now utterly unrecognisable from the island I saw in 1983, and the sex trade in Thailand and Cambodia is simply disgusting, just to pick a couple of random examples.
Anyway, I pass through Paris a lot but rarely stop overnight, and with baggage there’s a limit to what you can do. However I have managed a couple of stays recently and visited the Petit Palais for the first time – it’s a delightful space (built for the 1900 Paris Exhibition) with excellent mosaics in particular; the art exhibits seem very dull at first but then you come to the impressionists and post-impressionists and it’s suddenly worth the price of entry (which is in fact zero – it is a free gallery). Downstairs there are further galleries dedicated to Antiquity, the Eastern Christian World, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which I will have to come back to.
I also went to the Musée Rodin, or at least its lovely gardens (which cost €4, not €2 as our guidebook thought, but are still worth it). As well as lots of biographic information panels there are, as you’d hope, plenty of sculptures, many of them working models for the Burghers of Calais and others of Rodin’s great monumental ensembles.
And I revisited the lovely Musée de Cluny, which I hadn’t been to since my school days – the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are still wonderful (six of them, made in about 1500 in Paris or the north of France, allegorising the five senses and the mysterious Mon Seul Désir, presumably referring to love (the unicorn is a symbol of chastity, but there’s also something undeniably phallic about it). The museum also houses stained glass from the Sainte-Chapelle, pieces of Nottingham alabaster, and sculpture fragments from Notre-Dame, lost when it was vandalised in 1793 and found in 1977 shoring up the foundations of a mansion); and it also incorporated the Bains de Lutèce, the remains of a huge third-century complex of Roman baths, notably the huge vaulted frigidarium, now used to house large chunks of medieval stonework.
The Cluny is quiet and feels like a bit of a backwater – it was the last Paris museum not to have been renovated since the 1950s, it seems, and the Cluny4 project will open it up a bit by 2020, with disabled access to a new welcome building; the museum is currently closed from March to mid-July 2018. With luck they’ll also provide a bit more information in foreign languages (there are a few English and Spanish information sheets, but otherwise it’s all in French.
New for 2018
More art galleries! Why does Paris need more art galleries, I hear you say – but there really are some quite exciting developments coming to fruition this year. It seems to be a rule now that French billionaires have to establish a foundation for contemporary art (the Fondation Cartier, the Fondation Ricard, the Fondation Louis Vuitton), incidentally giving starchitects like Jean Nouvel and Frank Gehry the chance to further boost their profiles; now Rem Koolhas has remodelled a building in the über-cool Marais district to house Lafayette Anticipations, a performance/exhibition space and art incubator that’s a spin-off from the Galerie des Galeries, the exhibition space of the Galeries Lafayette department store. And early in 2019 the Fondation Pinault will be opening a gallery in the striking Bourse de Commerce (Commodities Exchange, near Les Halles).
Something slightly different is the Atelier des Lumières, a digital museum of fine art, opening in April 2018 – this will stage exhibitions on specific artists, the huge digital versions of their paintings supposedly bringing new insights.
And finally, talking of department stores, La Samaritaine reopens in 2018 after a 500 million Euro refurbishment – a harmonious blend of Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture, it was suddenly closed down in 2005 due to safety concerns, and it was assumed for a long time that this institution of bourgeois French life was gone for good. The glass ceiling and monumental staircase are as good as new, and there’ll also be a hotel, offices and some social housing.
The small town of Saumur, on the Loire between Tours and Angers, is just outside the area of the most famous and most visited French châteaux, but there are some attractive ones in the area, including the dramatic castle looming over the town itself. It also has other attractions, notably its wineries (this is apparently France’s third largest wine-making area, although obviously Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, the Côtes du Rhône and various other areas come to mind first) and its equestrian attractions.
The area is characterised by its light yellow limestone, known as tuffeau (this is not what we call tuff in English, let alone tufa), which was quarried out of the hillsides along the Loire; there are now over 1,000km of tunnels in these hills, many of which are used as wine cellars and also for growing mushrooms (nothing exotic, alas, just your standard champignons de Paris). There are also troglodytic dwellings in the cliff-faces along the river. This rock gives its unique taste to Saumur’s wines – its speciality is sparkling wines, mainly white but also rosé and even red (not recommended), but they also make a pleasant light still red, mainly from Cabernet Franc grapes. We went tasting at Veuve Amiot, in the suburb of St Hilaire-St Florent, walkable from Saumur or served by the local Agglobus service – they do free tours (including in English) and tastings, while others in the area all charge (though only about €2). I’m never going to greatly enjoy sparkling wines, but it was a good experience.
I last visited Saumur on a family holiday in the 1970s, and I vaguely remember seeing the Cadre Noir horse-riding display then. We went again, having acquired another horse-mad family member, and it’s still impressive – I mean, how on earth do the riders communicate to the horses which fancy piece of footwork they want next? Saumur’s equestrian culture (there are lots of other stables, riding schools and saddle-makers dotted around outside the town) derives from the army’s cavalry school being established here in 1766 – the army fights in tanks now, but they still have a lot of horses here. We also wandered into the army’s stables, on the west edge of the town – our host happened to be a fairly senior officer, but it’s definitely not a secure area in any case. You might be turned away, but you’re not going to be shot at. But in fact we were taken aback by the amount of gunfire we heard – military horses have to be accustomed to it, after all.
The two main churches of Saumur, St-Pierre and Notre-Dame de Nantilly, are largely Romanesque, and bare and cold, but in summer they have 15th- and 16th-century tapestries on their walls. I also looked in to the church of St Nicolas, which is Gothic, but with very kitschy twentieth-century mosaics, and the very Classical pilgrimage chapel of Notre-Dame des Ardilliers. It’s not far east to the abbey of Fontevraud, supposedly Europe’s largest monastic complex, and resting place of Henry II of England, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their son Richard Lionheart. It’s another cold bare Romanesque church, but it has been well restored in recent years and also houses some quite interesting temporary art displays, devised specifically for the setting by artists who’ve had a residency there. There are also displays on the period from 1804 to 1985 when the abbey served as a prison. I well remember visiting the spectacular kitchens, but these are closed for restoration – thoroughly recommended when they’re open again. A local bus from Saumur comes out here two or three times a day (Monday to Friday).
As for châteaux, we visited Brézé, which I’d never heard of – and it turns out it hasn’t been open long. In the 15th century Gilles de Maillé-Brézé was Grand Master of the Hunt to René, Duke of Anjou (later Count of Provence and King of Naples), and a successor married the sister of Louis XIII’s chief minister, the Cardinal de Richelieu; from 1701 to 1830 the Marquis de Dreux-Brézé were continuously Grand Masters of Ceremonies to the kings of France. Oddly, in 1959 the last of the family married a descendant of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who was Richelieu’s equivalent under Louis XIV, and it’s the Colbert family who opened the place to visitors in 1998. With that pedigree it’s actually a bit surprising that the place isn’t grander – rebuilt in the 16th century, it has an attractive Renaissance exterior, but the interior was decorated in a fairly tawdry NeoGothic style in the 1830s. The private apartments, still furnished in Renaissance style, are open only for guided tours.
The château itself was founded in 1063, but in fact there’s an even older underground complex, the Roche de Brézé, beneath it and on the far side of the 15m-deep douve or dry moat. There are several kilometres of defensive tunnels and stores, as well as a kitchen and even a silkworm farm; there’s a large winery and cellar down there as well now. Well worth poking around.
In the interests of fairness and balance, I also visited Tours, an historic city which was effectively capital of France from 1444 to 1527, after Louis XI established himself in a château in what are now the city’s western suburbs. Touraine is famed as ‘the Garden of France’ (and they apparently speak the purest French here), but compared to tranquil Saumur, Tours seems like a big city, with traffic and Asian tourists and far more obese people (there didn’t seem to be any in Saumur – it must be all that horse-riding). There’s one modern tram line (and a new one being planned); like the one in Nice it uses overhead wires only outside the historic centre. Tours has a château, of course, or at least two medieval towers with an 18th-century barracks building between them, which is used for temporary art exhibitions. On the far side of the cathedral (known for its wonderful 13th- to 15th-century stained glass) the former bishops’ palace houses the Musée des Beaux Arts, the city’s permanent art collection. It’s not great but has a few fine paintings among the acres of 18th-century blandness – there’s a lovely Virgin by the studio of Albrecht Bouts (a copy of a work by his father Dirk Bouts), a Rubens, a Rembrandt (very early and of dubious authenticity), a Corot, a Monet and an unusual charcoal by Vuillard, as well as early Greek ceramics, Roman busts, and 15th-century English alabaster carvings. There are a few impressive sculptures by Marcel Gaumont (born in Tours in 1880) and Jo Davidson, an American who died in Tours in 1952. There are also large abstracts by Olivier Debré (1920-99) – see below.
Finally you can descend to some newly restored ground-floor rooms where the Octave Linet collection of Italian primitives went on display in May 2017. There’s some genuinely good stuff here, by Lodovico Veneziano, Antonio Vivarini, Bicci di Lorenzo, Niccolo di Tommaso and Giovanni di Paulo, and then the Mantegna room, with two paintings from his altarpiece for the church of St Zeno in Verona and Degas’ study of Mantegna’s Crucifixion, as well as a Moroni portrait and Cardinal Richelieu’s copy (probably the first) of Caravaggio’s Holy Family with John the Baptist (the original is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York).
The old town of Tours is a short distance west of the château/cathedral area, with half-timbered squares and the remains of medieval churches (the basilica of St Martin, over his tomb, was built in 1878-1902, but the towers of the medieval complex are still standing). In the cloister of the church of St Julien the Musée du Compagnonnage displays thousands of masterpieces – literally – the works produced by members of guilds to be accepted as masters of their craft. Fascinating stuff. This area is being redeveloped, including the Centre de Création Contemporaine Olivier Debré, a new space opened in 2017 to display for contemporary art, including the work of Olivier Debré – a respected figurative painter, he switched to abstract art during World War II (when he also won the Croix de Guerre fighting with the Résistance) and became known for his large and very brightly coloured works, while his brother became prime minister. He was very much a Parisian, but the family had a country house in Touraine, where he loved to paint.
One might expect the Orléans-Tours-Angers-Nantes axis (ie following the lower Loire) to have an hourly service of express trains linking them (and Blois and Saumur) as well as local stopping trains – but no, there’s just a train every three or four hours. Saumur and points west are in the historic province of Anjou, now part of the Pays de la Loire region, while Touraine is part of the Centre-Val de Loire region. I’ve written before about the regionalisation of public transport in France, which is fine, but there really has to be a way to provide proper links between the regions. I can also report that the TER (Train Express Régional) systems are still a bit of a mess. Some surprisingly important stations don’t yet have ticket machines, for instance Chamonix, St Gervais, Sallanches and even Dieppe – you can collect internet tickets from the ticket offices, but only when they’re open. Arriving at Dieppe from an overnight ferry, I was a bit taken aback by this, but the office did open in plenty of time. Compostage, or time-stamping your ticket as you go onto the platform, is a French tradition, but it’s got slightly complicated of late – e-tickets don’t need to be stamped, but other tickets that are only valid for a specific train still do for some reason.
The tendency in France is always to provide fast links with Paris, and that’s the case here too – the high-speed line to Bordeaux passes close to Tours and some of the older TGV trains are now used to link the central station with Paris Montparnasse in just over an hour (without any food and drink service); older trains still come here from Paris Austerlitz via Orléans, but they take twice as long, despite running at 200km/h. Note that, in order to get to the Metro’s Line 4 to reach the Gare de Nord you literally have to walk 700 metres at Montparnasse (there’s a travelator, but it’s not working) – and from March 12 to June 12 (2018) Line 4 trains will not be stopping at the Gare du Nord anyway (and Châtelet is also closed). Ticketing is primitive too, as visitors still have to queue to buy paper tickets from machines – none of this contactless/smart card malarkey!
Saumur itself can be reached from Paris by taking a TGV to either Tours or Angers and changing there; the Pays de la Loire region does also operate some pretty nice buses from Le Mans via Saumur to La Roche sur Yon.
Public transport in France is supposedly set to be revolutionised by modern coach companies competing with the state railways now that they’ve lost the protection of their monopoly on long-distance travel. The truth is that OuiBus was set up by the state railway company to compete with… the state railways – and more importantly to block other potential competitors. Nevertheless the excellent FlixBus, already well established in Germany, and Isilines have appeared here (not to mention the BlaBlaCar car-sharing scheme). The TGV trains, a worldwide icon of Frenchness, are now for some reason being marketed as InOui, which means ‘unheard of’ but is dangerously close to ‘ennui’ or boredom. That may not work too well for them.
There are other oddities about the way they run the railways in France – it’s announced that a stop will be say four minutes long as the train approaches a station, and that timetabled four-minute stop will always be at least four minutes long even if the train is running late and ready to leave after two or three minutes. I put this down to the power of the unions to obstruct common sense, but this can also be helpful in the case of the all-too-common rail strikes. These are beautifully choreographed so that just a few trains a day run on major lines, notably the odd TGV to Paris – at least twice I’ve been caught by a strike on the far side of the country when I’ve needed to get home to Britain, but I’ve always found a way to get there.
Tim stopped in Nice for a night on his way to Corsica – see below. Oddly enough, Katy was there a week or two later (visiting the same friend) at the end of her trip along the Côte d’Azur.
We were very lucky to benefit from inside knowledge here! Our friend took us to an authentic local family-run restaurant right in the centre, which I would have passed by on the basis of its name – the Restaurant d’Angleterre (on account of its location at 25 Rue d’Angleterre). The food is decidedly traditionally French and there is a small outside terrace (though it’s wise to book ahead for that option: +33 4 93 88 64 49). It offers very reasonably priced two-course (16 euros) and three-course (21 euros) set menus as well as à la carte options.
Our friend also took us to a great traditional café in the Old Town, Les Distilleries Idéales at 24 Rue de la Préfecture. Great atmosphere and plenty of outside seating to watch the crowds.
Apart from these two ‘finds’, and Tim’s endorsement of Nice, the guide books will suffice. To state the obvious – Nice is, well – rather nice.
Tim’s take on Nice
In general I don’t much like the Côte d’Azur, that very congested and expensive strip of coast in southeastern France, populated by people with rather blingy tastes and leathery brown skin, but I will make an exception for Nice. Although it seems bizarre that it’s now France’s fifth largest city, given that nothing is actually made there, it is nevertheless a real city rather than a holiday resort, and there is enough to see and do all year round.
The modern city was built by aristocrats (and there are still lots of right-wingers living off unearned income here) – the British arrived soon after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, with the first Anglican church opening in 1821, and the Russians followed later in the century, Tsar Alexander II visited by train in 1864, as soon as the railway was opened. The Tsarevich Nicholas died here of cerebro-spinal meningitis in 1865 (aged just 21) and a chapel was built in 1867-8, on the exact spot where he died. By the 1890s this was Europe’s premier winter resort, with everyone from Queen Victoria to Nietzsche killing time in the very grand hotels then opening. A typically Russian orthodox cathedral, dedicated to St Nicholas (in memory of the Tsarevich, and funded by Tsar Nicholas II), was opened in 1912, to serve the large number of Russians now resident in Nice. Just five years later, the Russian Revolution meant that many of them were now penniless, counts and dukes driving taxis, for instance, to put food on the table; around the same time the post-Impressionist painters were discovering the light of the south, and Matisse moved to Nice in 1917.
At the airport, Easyjet put all the baggage from several arriving flights onto the same carousel, which is yet another cost-cutting idea from a no-frills airline that I would not have thought of. These flights arrive at Terminal 2, from where you can take a free shuttle to Terminal 1 and then walk a couple of hundred metres north to the main road to catch a city bus for €1.50 (including connections to anywhere in the city) – rather than paying €6 for the airport bus to the railway station. From the end of 2018 (although nobody believes this will happen on time) the second line of the city’s tramway will serve the airport, making the cheaper route to the city rather more visible. The first line used a novel battery system to cross the central Place Masséna without unsightly overhead power lines; the new line is actually going to be underground through the centre, which will make it massively more expensive and complicated. It’s great that the city is trying to move from a traffic-clogged nightmare (like Menton, where I’ll be later this summer) to somewhere with decent public transport (and trams = prestige for most French cities) – though most bus lines still seem to stop running around 9pm.
At the Libération stop on the first tram line, it’s worth mentioning the Gare du Sud, the former terminal of the the Chemin de Fer de Provence – a grand Neoclassical pile opened in 1892, with a train shed by the Eiffel company, this was replaced in 1991 by the drab little Nice CP station immediately to its west. It was intended for demolition, but protests eventually led to its being listed as a historic monument in 2002, and eventually refurbished and re-opened as a public library in 2014. Now an underground car park has been added and the train shed will open in mid-2018 as a shopping centre with cinemas and sports facilities.
The Musée des Beaux Arts is well worth a visit – the displays upstairs are far better than the dull ground floor – there’s a Rodin Kiss at the top of the stairs, a few Renaissance paintings by the likes of Paolo Veneziano, Martín de Soria and Cosimo Rosselli, as well as the 16th-century Anonyme Niçois, a rare sketch by Victor Hugo and Rodin’s bust of Hugo, some manga books by Hokusai and a 16m-long Chinese scroll of boats on the Yellow River (c.1756). The museum’s pride and joy, however, is its Post-Impressionist collection, notably Dufy and van Dongen, as well as Camoin, Kisling, Bonnard, Laurencin, Signac, Jongkind, Marquet and Guillaumin – there’s also the rather weird local symbolist Gustave-Adolphe Mossa (1883-1971), a bit like Ensor and Beardsley (and at times Klimt), but not as good.
The ticket, costing €10, actually gives 24 hours access to all 14 of the Musées de Nice, so I also swiftly visited the Musée Masséna (beautifully restored stately rooms with art and good exhibits on local history) and the Musée Matisse (in a 17th-century villa with a modern basement extension, and just enough art to give a perspective on his long career, though not much that’s really amazing). Up in Cimiez, this sits right between the Roman amphitheatre and the Roman baths, dating from the 3rd century AD when this was Cemenelum, capital of the province of Alpes Maritimae. There’s an archeological museum at the ruins, but I didn’t have time to visit. But if you can manage it you really should see the Tropaeum Alpium, a huge Roman monument that dwarfs the village of La Turbie, about 15km east of Nice; this was built c.6 BC to commemorate the emperor Augustus’s victory over the tribes of the Maritime Alps.
Food and drink
Apart from the Restaurant de l’Angleterre, recommended by Katy (above), it’s worth mentioning that the most traditional niçoise restaurants often have limited opening hours (often Monday-Friday only, some Monday-Friday lunchtimes only!) and don’t take bookings unless you call in when they’re open. Perhaps the best-known (positively boasting of its limitations) is La Merenda at 4 rue Raoul Bosio (Mon-Fri only, no phone, no credit cards) – but the food is superb, based on local dishes such as stockfish (dried cod simmered in tomatoes, onion & garlic), pasta with pistou (what Italians call pesto), ravioli stuffed with chard, tarte à la tomate, or beignets of courgette flowers.
Emilie et ses Cool Kids is a small chain of cafés with two branches in Nice, at 9 rue Alberti (city centre) and 1 rue de la Prefecture (old town) specialising in American-style muffins and bagels – they’re more or less the only places around where you’re welcome to linger for an hour over your laptop and one cup of coffee.
We also tracked down La Brasserie Artisanale de Nice at 14 Ave Villermont, where a very pleasant self-taught brewer from Alsace produces a range of just three standard beers (blonde, blanche, and ambrée) as well as seasonal specials – they’re all bright and clean-tasting, with some unusual notes. You can call in to taste and buy Tues-Fri 17.00-19.00, Sat 10.00-noon & 16.00-19.00. But beware of fake LBAN beer, especially up in Sospel, it seems.
Not a lot of people know that one can take a Eurostar all the way from London to the South of France without changing trains!! The 07.15 from St Pancras arrives at Marseille St. Charles at 14.47 local time. I booked this train six months ahead and paid only £57 one way.
The third largest town in France has lots to offer and it’s worth exploring on foot to take in not only the obvious tourist sites but also to see the seedier side which reflects the reality of a port city which is said to have the highest unemployment rate in France and whose youth demonstrates its frustrations virtually everywhere in the form of graffiti as political comment and protest. Street art is tolerated by the locals and some of the artists are well-known and use the wall spaces in rotation, thereby creating a running commentary of the tensions in the city.
We were lucky to arrive on the first Sunday of the month, the very day that all museums in the city are free of charge. So having dropped off our bags, we headed straight out and visited the well-signposted Le Panier (the old quarter) just north from the Old Port and up a steep hill criss-crossed by cobbled streets. Much of it is closed to road traffic from 11.30am onwards, with the exception of the Petit Train which can deliver you there from the Old Port and back for a couple of Euros. It stops at the Vieille Charitée, which was originally a poorhouse built between 1671 and 1749 and is made up of of a three-floored gallery looking over an inner courtyard with the centrepiece of an imposing domed chapel.
It now functions as a museum and cultural centre and I was particularly taken by a mummified cat on display along with its sarcophagus in the Musée d’Archéologie Méditerranéenne!
There’s a café inside the complex but many more on the square just opposite.
We also visited Notre Dame de la Garde. Built in the 19th century, this Romanesque-Byzantine style basilica is one of Marseille’s top tourist attractions, and it is worth the effort. On the day of our visit we were greeted by hundreds of motorcyclists who attended an outdoor service while we were able to go inside the building undisturbed. The views over the old port and city and beyond are simply wonderful.
After collecting our hire car at the station we drove the twenty miles or so to ‘Aix’, although it would have been entirely possible to travel easily by bus or train.
We stayed at the Hôtel des Augustins, a converted 12th-century convent, which is centrally placed and just off the famous Cours Mirabeau. It was worth paying a bit extra for the convenience, although we did take the cheapest option – a small room at the top of the building. We left our car in an all-night car-park five minutes walk away. Having managed to get there in time to enjoy the market which takes over the town every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday we bought some Provençal soaps smelling of Rosemary and Verveine, for just a euro each, though there was ‘un embarrass de choix’ of other aromas. Rather pleased as I saw the same soaps later on in the trip selling for two euros in Nice and four euros in Cassis. I dread to think what they would have cost in over-priced St Tropez.
With time at a premium, we visited the Musée Granet and the Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs, now housing the Jean Planque collection under the name ‘Granet XXe’, available under one ticket. Highlights include works by Cézanne, van Gogh, Giacometti, Rembrandt, Picasso and Bonnard, to name just a few.
We also saw the exceptionally beautiful Burning Bush Triptych of Nicolas Froment at the Saint Sauveur Cathedral. (I’m not showing my photo as it is so worth seeing fresh.)
Aix is great to stroll around – famed for its fountains and gastronomic delights including a huge range of nougat that can be purchased by the slab.
Next stop was 30 miles back to the coast. We left the car overnight in Des Gorguettes Park & Ride free of charge but had to pay 2.60 euros each for the bus (which runs between 9am and 8pm) into town. Cassis is charming and easily walkable.
It was a windy day so we were able to visit only three of the Calanques by boat due to the rough conditions at sea. These are fjord-like inlets carved into the white limestone which can be found along the ten-mile stretch of coast from Marseilles to Cassis. In 2012, most of them were declared a National Park. Many can be reached only by boat or by hiking in. Some have attractive beaches and are great sheltered swim-spots. (Note to self – a tempting future trip!).
I indulged myself in a genuine (and now quite rare) Bouillabaise at Chez Gilbert, which is a member of the ‘Charter of the Bouillabaisse Marseillaise’. On Quai des Baux, Chez Gilbert (+33 4 4201 7136) is one of only 11 restaurants in France that make their bouillabaisse according to the puritan Marseille charter. What you get in some places is fish added to fish soup which is still delicious but not authentic. The real thing includes rascasse, a bony rockfish which lives in the reefs close to shore. The broth is served first in a soup bowl with slices of bread and rouille (olive oil with garlic, saffron and cayenne pepper), then the fish is served separately on a large platter.
We were lucky that the road from Cassis to La Ciotat, known as the Routes des Crêtes et Cap Canaille, was open the next day as the wind had died down. Cap Canaille is the highest sea cliff in France and the route is a mere 9 circuitous miles with often 360-degree views. If it is is closed you can still drive up a mile or so to the telecommunications tower along a rough road which offers similarly stunning vistas. It’s well signposted from the town.
St Tropez was a swizz. None of the real glamour remains, just over-inflated prices. Worth an amble through the pretty village and port but I regretted paying roughly 10 Euros for an Orangina for the dubious privilege of watching other tourists watching me!
For a long time I’ve wanted to visit Corsica (and Sardinia), above all to hike in the rugged and remote mountains – and that desire remains. When I did finally get there recently, family constraints meant that we managed one half-hour hike and barely stepped upon the legendary GR20, the trail that runs the length of Corsica’s mountains. We were based half an hour inland from Ajaccio, on the west coast, so there’s a lot of the north (apart from Bastia), east and south I haven’t yet seen.
Bastia (in the north) and Corte (in the centre) are small but reasonably interesting towns, but Ajaccio (in the southwest) has less going for it – the tiny old town is surrounded by a wide belt of big-box shops that generate ridiculous amounts of traffic. A Californian lifestyle is all very well when it refers to climate and outdoor activities, less so when it means a car-dominated sprawl. The smog over the Ajaccio area is very obvious from the hills.
Apart from urban services in Bastia and Ajaccio, there seem to be virtually no buses in Corsica – trains (operated by the Chemin de Fer de la Corse) link Bastia, Calvi, Corte and Ajaccio with reasonable efficiency, but they’re pretty slow (100km/h maximum in theory, and 50 or less on the tight curves of the central mountains) and a bit bouncy too. In fact many visitors come by ferry with motorbikes – there are far fewer cyclists, perhaps because they have a choice of the busy coast road or the hilly interior road, neither with any cycle facilities. In addition to the various ferry routes from France and Italy, there are four airports – the Ajaccio and Bastia airports are about a mile and a half’s easy walk from the railway stations at Ricanto and Lucciana-Olivella respectively (these are request stops – don’t forget to press the button in good time) – there are also buses to both. The other airports are less well served – Calvi, 7km from the town, is only reached by taxi, and Figari, in the far south, has a roughly hourly bus (not Sundays) to Porto-Vecchio and nothing at all to Bonifacio, the port for Sardinia. There are two buses a day (not Sundays) from Ajaccio to Porto-Vecchio, with connections to Bonifacio.
Megalithism and more modern history
The most worthwhile sight, for us, was Filitosa, a couple of hours south of Ajaccio, one of Europe’s major megalithic sites – not as huge as Carnac, not as imposing as Stonehenge, not as haunting as some of the stone circles such as Castlerigg or those in Orkney and Shetland, but almost unique because of its sculpted megaliths, standing stones with weapons and human features carved on them. These 2 to 3-metre-tall statue-menhirs were erected around 1500 BC, but then largely overthrown by a mysterious people now known as the Torréens, after the Torre or towers that they built – these are better known as nuraghi in Sardinia (and talayots in the Balearic islands). These people may be the same as the Shardanes or ‘people of the sea’ who are recorded as attacking Pharaonic Egypt in the same period, and who may have given their name to Sardinia.
Whereas at Carnac archeologists were scrupulous in recording which stones have been re-erected, at Filitosa it’s not at all obvious, though it seems clear that the site has been considerably tidied up since it was identified by the landowner in 1946.
After the megalithic period, the Greeks established coastal trading settlements, surviving for five centuries, despite Etruscan and Carthaginian incursions, until the Romans arrived in 238 BC, when the defeat of the Carthaginians in the First Punic War led to Corsica and Sardinia becoming a Roman province. This also marked the start of Roman domination of the Western Mediterranean (although Corsica was not wholly subjugated until 162 BC). From AD 450 regular Vandal raids became an invasion, although the Byzantine Empire ejected the Vandals in 534; Christianity, which first appeared here in the third century, was established in the seventh, and from 758 Corsica was under the control of the Pope, who first entrusted it to the Bishop of Pisa to administer, and then shared its six dioceses between Pisa and Genoa. In 1297 the Pope gave the island to the King of Aragon, then from 1358 it put itself under Genoese protection; from 1530 the Genoese erected 90 towers, many of which still remain, along the coast as a defence against Barbary pirates.
1729 marked the start of 25 years of sporadic uprisings against Genoese rule, and a fascinating series of experiments in democracy, including electing the German adventurer Theodor Neuhoff King in 1736 (he lasted 7 months), an Anglo-Sardinian intervention in 1745-48 followed by French intervention (on behalf of Genoa) from 1748 to 1753, and from 1755 independence under Pasquale Paoli (1725-1807), who created Europe’s most democratic constitution, with a National Assembly, a ban on blood vendettas. In 1768 Genoa finally ceded the island to France, which had taken total control, closing down the Assembly and university and banning the Corsican language, by 1769 (also the year in which a certain Napoléon Bonaparte was born in Ajaccio, although he left Corsica when he was nine, and his last visit to Corsica was in 1799). They were briefly evicted in 1794 with the help of the British (mainly Nelson and his naval gunners – it was at Calvi that he lost his eye), and a peculiar Anglo-Corsican kingdom was established with Sir Gilbert Elliot, later (as Lord Minto) governor-general of India, as viceroy. An early Brexit in 1796 let the French take full control, and they’ve been in charge ever since, apart from the Italian/German occupation of 1942-43.
After the French surrender of 1940, Corsica was initially left under the control of Pétain’s Vichy regime, but after the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942 it was occupied by the Italian army, which failed to control the centre of the island, although there were soon almost 85,000 troops here, against a population of just 220,000. After the Italian surrender of September 1943, 12,000 German troops arrived, but many of the Italian forces sided with the local resistance, and Free French troops began to arrive to join the uprising. The situation was complicated by German and Italian forces retreating from Sardinia to Corsica, but the last German units left from Bastia on 4 October 1943, making Corsica the first part of France to be freed from Axis occupation.
Since the 1970s the generation that protested against the Vietnam war has also demanded independence for Corsica, and there were bombings and shootings for several decades. By the 1990s there was infighting between the various separatist factions, while the security forces had ever more efficient electronic surveillance, much as in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, the assassination of the préfet, effectively the French governor, in 1998 was a major shock, and the central government soon offered limited autonomy in return for a cease-fire. This was blocked by the courts as breaching the principle of national unity, although it was permitted to teach the Corsican language (closer to the Genoese dialect of Italian than to French) in schools. A referendum in 2003 rejected proposals for further autonomy, as Corsicans refused to support the separatist Front de Libération Nationale de la Corse (FLNC), increasingly entangled with organised crime – finally in June 2014 the FLNC called a ceasefire. Times have changed – on the one hand a tourism boom has shown the economic benefits of sticking with France, but the threat of violence has prevented over-development along the coast,pleasing the Corsicans who are very proud of their island and keen to preserve its beauty. Even if the younger generation is less interested in separatism, there’s still a lot of anti-French graffiti and road sides are pitted with shotgun pellets.
Bastia, Corte and Ajaccio
Bastia was founded as a strongpoint in about 1378 – its name comes from bastiglia (Genoese for fortress) and has the same derivation as the Bastille in Paris – and the citadel was rebuilt in 1519-21, with ramparts added around the Terra Nova or upper town in 1576-1626 – the lower town or Terra Alta clusters around the little port and is the most picturesque part of the city. The citadel is now home to one of Corsica’s better museums, which explains much of the city’s history, notably its development from the 1830s, fuelled by vast fortunes made in Venezuela and by the production of the quinine-based Cap Corse apéritif from 1894. However there’s nothing on the British siege and capture of Bastia in 1794. There’s also a room of second-rate Italian art donated by Napoléon’s uncle, Cardinal Fesch – the bulk of his collection, with some far more interesting works, is in Ajaccio (see below). Bastia is the best base for visiting Cap Corse, the island’s northern promontory, and the Désert des Agriates, but there’s little else of interest here – other than the conning tower of the submarine Casabianca, next to the tourist office – she carried out seven missions from Algeria, bringing agents and weapons in the run-up to the island’s liberation in October 1943 (see above).
The ferry port is immediately north of the centre, with Avis, Hertz and Europcar offices nearby as well as a fairly notional bus station outside the Hotel Riviera, a decent ‘budget’ place to stay (there is nowhere cheap to stay on the island – I’ve no idea why no-one has opened hostels in the major towns).
Corte, the main town in the interior of the island, was capital of Corsica from 1755 to 69. It’s dominated by a dramatic citadel, with the Anthropology Museum of Corsica (opened in 1997) alongside it in a former military hospital. My ancient 1999 Rough Guide does mention the new Museu di a Corsica, but laments that ‘the exhibits – largely run-of-the-mill geological and ethnographic material such as farming implements, traditional costumes and craft tools – fail to measure up to the state-of-the-art design and decor’. You’ll be glad to hear that all traditional costumes and the like have been swept away, and the museum now claims to be aware that laying anything down as a definitive account of ethnography and folklore is impossible, so it offers a more tangential approach. To be honest I’m not sure what’s really gained by this. The focus is on the collecting activities of Père Louis Doazan, from the 1950s on.
One display did catch my attention – Père Doazan visited Corsica’s last transhumant goatherds in the Niolo valley southwest of Corte in 1974, when there were still ten flocks making the two-day (60km) trek over some high passes to spend the summer in the high pastures. The transhumant herders were apparently key to the rural culture of Corsica in the same way as they still are in Romania, which I’m far more familiar with. And in fact I did find that the Col de Vizzavuna, between Corte and Ajaccio, reminded me of Romania, with its extensive beech forests and the rather scrappy parking and snack stalls at the pass. Anyway, I was pleased to see signs at the Col de Vergio (Corsica’s highest road pass at 1478m) for the Sentier de la Transhumance, a hiking trail created in 2007.
From the Col de Vergio we continued west down to the dramatic Gorges de Spelunca, which my geologist brother-in-law said were as good as anything he’s seen in the US, apart from the Grand Canyon (the name does come from the same root as spelunking, the American word for pot-holing – the Latin (from Greek) spelunca, meaning cave or cavern).
We did discover an excellent little restaurant in Corte – A Casa di l’Orsu, at 4 rue Monseigneur Sauveur Casanova (halfway down the steps between the two touristy squares), serves remarkably good authentic Corsican food, and is not expensive at all, with good service.
In Ajaccio the only new feature of interest is the remains of Napoleon’s port (1814), discovered under a car park (in the manner of Richard III) opposite the tourist office. Otherwise, the old town is small and unexciting, the cathedral is Baroque (like every church we saw in Corsica) and unexciting, and the citadel is still occupied by the army, and is small and unexciting. The town does have a proper art museum, however, with the bulk of Cardinal Fesch’s collection (see above) in the Musée Fesch. The highlights are on the top floor, mainly Italian Renaissance art, above all a Giovanni Bellini and a Botticelli, as well as paintings by Nicolo Pisano and Lorenzo di Credi. There’s a fairly standard painting by Cosimo Rosselli, but the portrait of a woman discovered on its rear is stunning for the sense that this is a REAL person. There are also some interesting portraits by Carlo Portelli. From a slightly later period there are two Titians, one by Veronese and his studio, a Lodovico Carracci, two Luca Giordanos, and a big hall of dull altarpieces. Corsican art is hidden in the basement, but the main names are Jean-Baptiste Bassoul (1875-1934) and Lucien Peri (1880-1948), both pretty good (although Peri had a much more modern style). On the ground floor there’s some Napoleoniana on show, including a Canova bust of Fesch. Also in Ajaccio there’s the Maison Bonaparte, a museum in Napoléon Bonaparte’s birthplace – we didn’t visit, partly because we were uncomfortable with the Napoleonic cult. Actually Corsicans aren’t that bothered about him, seeing he left the island as a child – Ajaccio’s Campo dell’Oro airport has now been named after him, but that was controversial.
We did drive out along the coast road to the Parata peninsula, where one of the Genoese watchtowers sits on a lump of gabbro opposite the Îles Sanguinaires, also studded with towers – we saw Corsican finches here, as well as huge piles of a rather odd seaweed (we think) washed up onto the beaches.
We ate in Ajaccio at A Casa Leca, a good little organic restaurant on Rue de l’Assomption, actually a flight of steps off the pedestrianised Rue Cardinal Fesch. They wish you bio appetitu! which is a nice little pun – enjoy your organic meal.
Just a few notes from my recent trip to western Normandy and eastern Brittany – a well-worn trail for me, with its highlights at Mont St Michel and Carnac. In particular, we were immensely privileged to be taken up through one of the flying buttresses to the roof level of the Abbey of Mont St Michel – something that’s only possible with a private guide that you’ve been working with for some years! So I’m afraid I can’t tell you who to contact.
The Mémorial de Caen now includes galleries on the weapons of the Cold War and Berlin in the Cold War – you might expect it just to deal with D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, but it now covers everything from the causes of Word War II in the Versailles Treaties of 1918-19 up to its consequences in the 1950s and 1960s. Also new in 2017 is a Résistance & Collaboration gallery and a new film on the Battle of Normandy (in French and English versions). There are lots of small private museums in the villages near in D-Day beaches, which have their own quirky individual charm, with lots of recovered artefacts, but none offers anything like the detail and context of the Mémorial de Caen. It’s not cheap though, at almost €20 (€51 for a family pass). Over to the west, the Utah Beach Museum reopened in 2011; originally in a German bunker, it now has a state-of-the-art building for its displays, including a B-26 Marauder bomber in a custom-built hangar. But the landings on Utah Beach (and Gold, Sword and Juno) were relatively straightforward – Omaha will always be the main focus of attention.
It’s worth mentioning that the city of Caen is planning to change from its unique and unreliable guided trolleybus system to a standard LRT tramway – the single central rail will be replaced by two running rails, so there will be construction chaos for quite a while once they get started.
It opened in 2006, but I hadn’t come across the Mémorial des Reporters in Bayeux before – in a lovely park-like setting near the British Cemetery (rue de Verdun, off Bd Fabien Ware), it remembers the more than 2000 journalists killed in the line of duty since 1944 with a gravestone for each year. It’s getting more dangerous to be a war reporter – in 2015 110 were killed, at least 67 of them deliberately targeted because of their work, according to Reporters sans Frontieres. Across the road from the British Cemetery is the Bayeux Memorial, a classical portico bearing the names of 1,808 men of the Commonwealth and Empire who died in the Battle of Normandy and who have no known grave. Above is a Latin inscription that translates as ‘We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s native land’.
Also in Bayeux, the new Villa Lara is a great hotel, with large stylish roosm and great service – although the first wi-fi log-in is unnecessarily complicated (and it’s not very fast); and every time you leave your bedroom it seems someone comes in and puts a sticker on the loose end of the loo roll – a bizarre obsession! But it’s great that they were able to get permission for a new building right in the centre of town (hidden away just off the main Rue St-Jean), and that they did such a good job. It’s not at all cheap, though. L’Angle St Laurent at 4 rue des Bouchers seems to still be the best restaurant in town – always fabulous. Down towards the Baie du Mont St Michel, the Auberge de Carolles is also much improved under its new management (though well out of the way for most tourists). I also have a new favourite crêperie in Dinan, Art-Bilig at 8 rue Ste-Claire – small, friendly and efficient, serving up excellent savoury brown galettes and white dessert crêpes, with local cider, of course.
Speaking of restaurants – I don’t know whether this was coincidence, but in many places where I’d asked for a set menu for our group I was given a choice of cabillaud ou canard (cod or duck) – last year (2016) every menu in Britain seemed to offer arancini as starters (or they appeared as amuses-bouches while we were studying the menus), this year wild mushroom is everywhere – but that’s the UK, and I don’t expect that kind of faddiness in France, where chefs have the confidence to just do what they feel they do best, and the public expect that. But I can’t help wondering just what ‘wild’ mushrooms really are – I’m sure they’re not all authentically foraged from the fields.
In Brittany, Léhon, 2km south of Dinan, reminded me a bit of Todmorden, with Incredible Edible-style plantings (which I also saw in Liège) – but rather than being a community-based free food scheme, these are educational (and very decorative) displays of the sorts of medicinal and edible plants that would have been grown by medieval monks. There’s always been a beautiful display in the cloister of the simple largely twelfth-century abbey, but now it’s expanded out onto the streets; the abbey garden is also open now, with newly planted apple trees (rare local varieties, I imagine) and bug hotels. It leads down to the river and the simple bridge, blown up by the Germans in 1944 (the blast also shattered the abbey’s stained glass) and rebuilt. Léhon is an older crossing point of the Rance, superseded by Dinan, just downstream, from the eleventh century, and now it’s just a quiet little village, overlooked by the remains of its castle – the towpath between Léhon and Dinan, closed by rockfall for at least half a dozen years, has now reopened and makes for a lovely walk or cycle ride.
This interest in recreating monastic herb gardens is not new in France, and in fact I saw similar gardens at Fort La Latte and Poul-Fétan (where the whole village has been restored to its pre-industrial form). A little further west near Planguenoual, Herbarius is a garden of medicinal and edible plants that runs educational activities and grows plants to sell, aiming to preserve the biodiversity of the medieval ecosystem.
Rennes and the railways
Rennes is a large, unattractive and basically un-Breton sort of city now – although there are some lovely half-timbered buildings, and the modern Musée de Bretagne is excellent. When the new high-speed line from La Mans to Rennes opens in July 2017, with 20 trains a day bringing passengers from Paris in as little as 1hr 25min, they will be greeted by a building site. Work began in 2015 to build a second metro line and to create the shiney new EuroRennes interchange – both the main Place de la Gare, to the north, and the Parvis Sud, the convenient and less well-known southern entry, will be a mess until 2020, and the redevelopment of the area won’t be fully completed until 2027. But more importantly (it seems) the new shops in the station will open in 2018.
In the west of Brittany, Brest and Quimper will each have 9 TGVs a day reaching Paris in 3hr 15min; Lorient has an entirely new station, which opened in May 2017 (also part of a local regeneration scheme). It’s all being promoted as Bretagne Grande-Vitesse, aiming to provide faster, more frequent and better integrated rail transport across the region. It’s worth mentioning that the Sud-Europe-Atlantique high-speed line from Tours to Bordeaux will also open on July 2, bringing Paris-Bordeaux journeys down by 75 minutes to just over two hours (London to Bordeaux will take under six hours, with a change of train in Lille or Paris). And France’s TGV services will all then be branded as inOui (a pun on inouï, meaning unheard of or amazing).
Meanwhile, in 2020 Normandy will introduce its fleet of new double-deck trains (les Trains Normands) – paid for by the central government as part of the process of transferring unprofitable long-distance services from the SNCF to the regions (which already run local train and bus services under the TER (Transport Express Régional) brand. Normandy will now take responsibility for services from Paris to Caen/Cherbourg, Rouen/Le Havre, Trouville-Deauville, Granville and Serquigny, and from Caen to Le Mans and Tours, with the usual objective of boosting frequencies, speeds and connections.
If that all sounds like good news, I found I was unable to collect my ticket (booked online) as usual from the ticket machines at Rennes station – I was told the system had changed and now I was expected to print it myself, or have it on a phone. Luckily I was able to find wifi (the usual SNCF station wifi was down, perhaps because of the construction works) and download the ticket. Still, this seems unnecessarily obstructive.
I took the Brittany Ferries ship from Portsmouth to Ouistreham (15km north of Caen) and back – an excellent service, and there’s usually a direct bus connection from the port to Caen station. However on Sundays the service is poor – arriving late in the evening there’s no connection (and the one taxi loaded up and left, so I hitched into town just as it got dark), and returning on a public holiday (ie the Sunday timetable) the last bus to Ouistreham (not to the ferry terminal, but near enough) is at 1814 – the ferry leaves at 2300, so there’s plenty of time for dinner, and plenty of decent places to eat just south of the ferry terminal.