Kris à Genève

A Canadian living in Switzerland

France with the Palmers

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Eileen’s parents are currently visiting us. After hearing about the trips we made with previous visitors – drive around Switzerland with my Mom, the Lubéron with Reid and Dani – they demanded an equally excellent trip. Their only condition was that it include Paris. Eileen and I have not visited Paris together since moving to Switzerland, so that suited us well.

I booked a two-bedroom apartment in the 6th arrondissement, across from my favourite spot in Paris: the Jardin de Luxembourg. Booking online from random website can be a gamble, but the Paris apartment, and indeed our later accommodation too, worked out well. Here is the nighttime view from our Paris flat:

Paris is my favourite city in the world. It’s architectural heritage is unmatched in the world and its iconic culture remains strong despite the hordes of tourists. For architecture, it was never destroyed by war, so it has a cohesive architectural flow between eras and monuments. Also it was an imperial capital, and as much as I do not support empire, you can only build grand, beautiful monuments and boulevards with stolen money and slave labour. Unpleasant to be sure, but Europe would not have its grand cities without the plunder of empire.

For culture, many people complain about snooty Parisians, but I suspect this is mainly non-French speakers feeling awkward interacting with the locals. I have always found that when addressed in French, Parisians are just as friendly and helpful as big city dwellers anywhere. And boy, do they love to live well. This involves not only the stereotypical French indulgences such as food, wine and fashion, but also more universal elements of a satisfying life: smooching with your lover, reading in the park, strolling with your family and, yes, the French in general are not very fond of work.

I assumed the role of tour guide for the Palmer group. Eileen had visited Paris on a high school trip and this was Mike and Erlinda’s first visit. We visited mostly the well-worn, famous sites, many of which I had seen before, but the difference for me this time was that my previous trips to Paris were all when I was a poor student, when I was often too cheap to pay for entrance fees, eat at quality restaurants or drink wine. At that time I contented myself with wandering around the outside of the big monuments, nibbling on bread and cheese. This time we bought the multi-day museum pass (highly recommended – includes fees and priority entrance into most of the main sites), ate well and ordered wine with every meal (except breakfast). One new sight for me was to ride to the top of the Tour de Montparnasse, Paris’s tall, black ugly duckling. At that height, the view of the city is unobstructed, and best of all the Tour de Montparnasse is not in your photos! Below are some photos from our stay in Paris.

Sunset from the Arc de Triomphe:

Dawn at Notre Dame de Paris:

While the others napped, I snuck away a couple of times to the Jardin de Luxembourg:

Mike is a Napoleon buff, so we visited his tomb in Les Invalides (my first time). Serendipitously, the crowds on that busy day disappeared for the few seconds in which I shot this photo:

We made one big miscalculation in Paris: travelling to Versailles on a Sunday. It was shoulder-to-shoulder nonsense, which I find exhausting, so I shot only a few photos.

We rented a van from Orly airport for the remainder of our trip. The first stop was the Loire Valley, where we planned to visit some châteaux and drink some white wine. After staying in hectic central Paris, I thought a change of pace might be appreciated, so I booked a wood chalet that sits on the grounds of a small château in a remote area. The closest town was Céré-la-Ronde, which did not appear on our map. This complicated finding the château, but meant complete peace and quiet. Unfortunately, the morning I had planned to shoot photos of our country estate getaway, the skies loosed a rainstorm that would have given Noah pause.

For wine, we stopped randomly at a vintner in Montlouis when we were semi-lost. What a stroke of luck! The man was retired, but still had some cases of the old stuff and was happy to chat and have us taste. The wines had expensive-sounding old vintages, but were so delicious we had to buy them. All of the wines were from Chenin grapes, but were astonishingly different from vintage to vintage. I cringed as I asked for the price of a 1975 dry, a 1990 off-dry and a 1996 moelleux. We were shocked to hear they ranged from five to 12.5 euros per bottle! We walked away with a case of wine for 100 euros, in a scene reminiscent of that Ikea commercial in which the woman is rushing to the car, convinced she is escaping with criminal savings: “Start the car! Start the car!”

I stayed in the city of Tours in the Loire Valley for a month in 1998 and visited a few of the most famous castles. This time, we revisited two of those castles – Chambord and Chenonceau – as well as stopping at Chinon. Mike wanted to see the tomb of Richard the Lion-Hearted, so we also stopped at Fontevraud Abbey, but by that time the rest of us had had our fill of churches and castles, so Erlinda napped and Eileen and I sat in the sun and drank coffee.

Below are some photos of Chambord castle. It is famous for its size and architecture, less for its furnishings and grounds. The central piece is a double-spiral staircase that may have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci. The famous jack-of-all-trades spent his retirement at nearby Amboise, a guest of the French king François, who had Chambord built.

Next was Château de Chenonceau, a castle built around an old bridge over the Cher River. It is known as the “Château des Dames,” as the wives and mistresses of kings and nobles played a larger part in its design. In contrast to the imposing Chambord, Chenonceau is small, elegant and surrounded by well-tended gardens. Unfortunately the front of the castle was under scaffolding, so I only have the mediocre photo below to illustrate the castle. In the garden photo, see if you can find something hidden…

Our last stop was in Brittany, where we stayed for three nights in a great cottage in the town of Saint Coulomb, northeast along the coast from the city of Saint Malo.

On one of our days, we drove to Normandy and visited the D-Day landing sites. The trip was a repeat of a similar itinerary I followed many years ago with a Canadian friend, including: a couple of towns in the Canadian landing sector, called Juno Beach; the beautiful Canadian war cemetery at Bény-sur-mer; the town of Arrowmanches, where you can still see the remnants of the artificial ports the Allies tried to build on this weather-worn coast; and Pointe du Hoc, a clifftop point of land where US Army Rangers won an amazing battle (

The region was more developed than last time I was there, so the original landing sites are less prominent. This is holiday country in France for visiting Brits, so the French are understandably eager to move the gloomy war memorials off the beaches. There are new museums for every site now, including a Canadian Juno Beach museum that advertises learning about Canadian culture. Only Pointe du Hoc remains largely as it was after the smoke settled, as the French gave the land to the Americans to build a memorial and they left it as it was. It has bomb craters, collapsed trenches and barracks, and empty gun emplacements – enough to impress, despite the blue sky and beautiful views, what an apocalyptic event modern warfare must be for the people in its wake.

I do not know if it is a natural male emotional response to war memorials, but on both my visits, the Normandy sites have left me misty-eyed. Looking at the beaches, I think about those young Canadian men, charging off their transports onto shores far from Canada and their homes, committed but not really understanding where they are being sent or what is at stake. At the cemetery, I am touched by the peace, beauty and sincere memorial to the soldiers, but it is nonetheless sad and tragic to read the ages and ranks on the headstones: so many 19 and 20 year-olds whose lives had not really begun; so many rank-and-file enlisted men relative to officers. At Pointe du Hoc, I am amazed that the Rangers were able to scale the cliffs and take the point, but I am also disappointed that at this and other D-Day sites in France, there are few, if any mentions of the German war dead. I am not thinking of memorials that fly the German flag or celebrate her armies, but just a recognition that many young, scared German men died too. If the American lost some 3,000 soldiers capturing Omaha Beach, how many German soldiers died?

I do not know what choice I would have made if I was of eligible age during WWII, or how I would have felt leaving my family and being thrust into the hell of war. I am simply lucky that I was not born into that generation.

The rest of our stay in the region was happier. We visited Mont Saint Michel, the second-most visited site in France after Paris. It is always busy with tourists and the streets inside the walls are filled with the worst of tourist commerce – plastic swords and shot glasses in every shop – but to see it from a distance, rising from the Atlantic, is magical. I woke early and drove there for sunrise. I was not alone, but it was blissfully quieter than during the day.

The Normandy and Brittany coasts receive some of the most extreme tides in Europe. The morning I was there for sunrise, the most extreme high tide of the year was at 9h00. I shot the above photo from the clay flats of the Couesnon River estuary just after 7h00. When I drove away at 8h30, I estimate the tide had risen by four metres, leaving the spot where I had stood a metre underwater. Here are a couple of photos of the tide after sunrise. The first is the ocean rushing upriver at a rapid clip, about to submerge the site’s parking lots. The second is the main entrance to the site, a metre underwater. Hotel guests and tour groups stood to the left of the photo, scratching their heads, a growing pile of baggage at their side. I had to use the service entrance to escape the town.

On the last day before leaving, we did not move too far from our cottage. The peninsula on which we stayed was beautiful, with a great little beach a short walk away. Brittany has rugged coasts, turbulent weather, beautiful beaches and turquoise water: I could have spent another two weeks exploring the area. In the evening we went to Saint Malo for sunset and dinner and were once again entertained by the extreme tides, which crashed against the city walls and blocked the way to our car.

Mike noted the time on his watch as we left the following morning for the long trip back to Geneva. After driving to return the car, taxi to Gare de Lyon, a couple hours of downtime, the TGV back to Geneva and a taxi home from the airport, Mike’s watch read 12 hours later to the minute.


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