|The Independent Traveler's Newsletter PAGE FOUR|
Write about France . . .
ago we asked readers to submit their own experiences of France to us in
the form of short articles
the first two of such vignettes sent to us by Cathy Russell from
It was nearly the end of our month in France – a week in each of four different locations. We had explored, delighted, shopped and eaten, surprised at how quickly the time had gone on our longest vacation ever. We'd tried to make time to savor experiences along the way, and we did, although there was always a little nagging thought of “we might miss something if we sit too long” that kept us from total focus on the moment. The last day in the tiny southern coastal village of St. Mandrier-sur-Mer we decided to do nothing. Nothing.
When we woke, we slipped downstairs to buy fresh chocolate croissants and a baguette for later and then relished them on our balcony overlooking the Mediterranean. We sat sipping coffee, gazing over the sunny scene of colorful provençal houses lined up around the small bay, white-sailed boats coming and going, the hills behind Toulon looking for all the world like another Diamond Head.
Occasionally we'd make a comment – about the speed and silence with which the ship from Corsica could come, dock and go, or to wonder about one activity or another. And from time to time we'd write a little, sketch, or move around to get a better look at something that piqued our interest. But mostly we just watched, taking in every nuance of scent and sight and sound as if to capture them like a souvenir.
We left our enchanted view only to prepare our lunch of baguette, cheese, and fruit, then later to purchase our dinner baguette. As the lights began to flicker on in various parts of Toulon, we speculated as to what they were and what interesting things were going on there. We traced the faint blue lamps of a road by following the headlights of trucks as they headed up the mountain to the circle of lights we had dubbed “the UFO” for its resemblance to one.
After nightfall, we spied a small boat circling a dark, partially rusted, seemingly abandoned gray navy vessel. The little boat would occasionally flash a light, then quickly extinguish it and return to its ‘stealth mode.’ We whispered and conjectured about all of the intriguing possibilities, as if we had happened onto some secret of international importance. It was only late into the night, when we had seen no signs of the little boat for more than 40 minutes, did we resign ourselves to relinquishing our window on paradise to sleep.
day is forever etched in both our minds as one of the most wonderful treasures
of France. And when things get hectic and stress levels rise, a better-than-medicine
relaxation technique is to ‘again come’ – ‘souvenir’ – to “ah, St. Mandrier…”
SAUF AUX RIVERAINS
We love to explore the small French villages for the charming medieval cobblestone streets and artistically displayed merchandise spilling out of tiny shops. In one of our journeys we came across one such village and were drawn to investigate. We drove to the entrance of the little street ~ paved in the middle, with 14-inch sidewalks on either side between creamy provençal stone buildings. We could see only about ten feet in, since the road led upwards steeply before curving dramatically out of sight. We were intrigued, but saw a sign, sauf aux riverains, at the entrance.
Now our French that was passable enough to get us our desired pastries and help us bargain at the marchés didn't go much beyond that. We usually carried a dictionary, but it was forgotten back at the apartment. We knew that sauf aux meant 'none except' but had no idea what riverains meant. We could see no river anywhere around, so our interest, coupled with experiences at having French drivers be exceptionally forgiving of our various faux pas, we decided that whatever riverains were, we were it.
We proceeded up the narrow street, passing a couple of vehicles pulled off onto the tiny sidewalk, and we wound around the twists and turns as they came. The street became narrower and narrower, and we began to regret our decision to become riverains. The mirrors of our little Renault Clio were in danger of being clipped by shutters as we passed by, so we pulled them in defensively. By this time, we knew we had made more than a faux pas and were desperate to just get out of what felt like a claustrophobic trap, but there was nowhere to turn around!
My normally quite conservative, law-abiding husband stopped, then inched forward towards one of the buildings on the left, turning the wheel as far as he could. Cranking the wheel right to left, the car moving no more than inches backwards and forwards, in twenty minutes or so we were finally free! Well, at least we were free to travel back down the way we came. Gingerly he drove us down, all the while praying we would not meet anyone coming up or someone so foolish as to open his door as we crept by. Incredibly, we saw no one, although I suspect we were seen and became part of someone's entertaining conversation at the next meal. We drove off, grateful to have avoided a major catastrophe. We're still curious about the town but didn't have the nerve to stay.
We now joke about being riverains (residents) and have another experience that demonstrates how tolerant and unruffled the French can be despite illiterate tourists with more curiosity than sense!
have fond memories of a French travel experience
FEATURING: CRUISING THE BEAUTIFUL CANAL LATÉRAL À LA LOIRE
It was planned to be a simple weekend break during our month-long visit to France ~ a time to park the rental car and not think about maps, highways or where to park. But, instead our weekend on the péniche (barge) Alphonsia Maria became a superb experience and a highlight of our time in France.
We had a rather long drive from eastern France's Franche-Comté region to the canal-side village of Marseilles-les-Aubigny in the Cher département just over the Burgundy border near Nevers. The day began with fine, crisp weather and a blue sky filled with beautiful cumulus clouds, a pleasant turn of events from the past few rainy days that literally put a damper on many of our plans. We had a deadline: to arrive at the péniche by 6 PM on Friday. Because of the enjoyment we derive from driving in France, we wanted to keep to the scenic routes, so whether or not we'd arrive on time was definitely in question. We also stopped for lunch in Beaurepaire-en-Bresse, enjoying a rather leisurely meal at the lovely La Croix Blanche...later realizing we had farther to drive than we thought. The prospect of a few days cruising a canal was becoming more and more appealing by the hour.
It was a surprise to us when we arrived at precisely 6:05 PM ~ nearly on time! We were warmly greeted by Carlo and shown to our cabin, the spaciousness of which was also a surprise. It had a king-sized bed (which really did occupy a great deal of the room) but there was also a table with a lamp, a small but efficient closet and one night stand. The en suite bathroom was very large with a shower, large sink, toilet and plenty of towels. Our cabin was far more cozy than cramped.
The history of the Alphonsia Maria is most interesting. It is an authentic Dutch Freese Aak of 110 feet, built in 1913 in Groningen, Netherlands and remained in service until 1998 at which time it transported cereals along the small canals all over Northern Europe. As technology evolved over the past 90 years, the péniche went through many transformations. First, Alphonsia Maria was built as a sailing boat. In 1926, the mast was taken down to be replaced by an engine. The boat was fully renovated in 2000 preserving its authenticity, while bringing comfort, modern luxury and the style of the Italian designers.
Another couple was on board when we arrived, which pleased us. It is nice to share experiences in France with others. We find that of all our memories, those of people we've met along the way are the best. Claude and Adrienne were an older couple, obviously very much in love with one another, and we learned later that they were a widower and widow who had spent the past two years together. Claude's daughter had given them one night on the péniche as a gift. Franck (the captain) and Carlo (the chef) joined the four of us in an apéritif and conversation. Our traveling companions did not speak any English, so we found ourselves getting a lot of practice speaking French with them. [Our hosts speak English and Italian as well as French.] It was at this time that we were given a gift by our hosts: a tourist folder welcoming us to the Cher département along with a DVD, Les Magies du Berry - Le Cher, that we would have as a souvenir to enjoy viewing at home. We shared the dinner table with Claude and Adrienne, enjoying a beautifully-prepared shrimp quiche entrée, a main course of salmon and vegetables and a lovely dessert. We ordered a bottle of wine that, despite his polite protests, we shared with Claude.
Breakfast aboard each morning is served at 8:30. There was a good variety of breakfast items from which to choose, and the coffee was exceptional. It was 9:30 AM when we finally left the port of Marseilles-les-Aubigny to begin our canal journey. We were feeling right at home on the Alphonsia Maria! Perhaps it is a good time to mention that the cruise is virtually motionless...the canal waters are still and moving along them is smooth and calm. The only time this changes ever so slightly is when another vessel is passing in the opposite direction or when the ship is moving through the locks.
What we anticipated the most was passing through the locks, especially the one at Le Guétin...we had been there in 1993 when we stopped at the restaurant, l'Auberge du Pont Canal, for lunch and at that time found ourselves watching with fascination as an Englishman brought his boat through the lock. The interesting thing about this particular lock is that it is actually a canal-bridge over the River Allier...the water of the lock is high above the river on a 'bridge'. The lock is in two phases in order to get from the lower canal up to the bridge from one side to the other.
When we arrived at Le Guétin where the canal crosses the River Allier, the Alphonsia Maria tied up, and the four of us walked along the canal, crossed onto the other side and enjoyed a lovely lunch at that very same restaurant, l'Auberge du Pont Canal. The décor was entirely different as we expected it would be after sixteen years, but the food and service were still excellent.
Immediately following lunch we decided to walk along the canal-bridge prior to going back to the péniche. There is a long walkway that allows pedestrians to stroll along the canal-bridge, look down upon the River Allier and get a true feel for the engineering feat that has allowed boat passage here for so many decades. We watched a solitary fisherman casting his line and saw him put a fish he had caught into his basket. This first day aboard the Alphonsia Maria was gray and a soft rain was falling occasionally, but we persevered as the events unfolding were all too interesting to miss!