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Queensland, Australia
I'm an Australian author of Contemporary Romance, Romantic Action/Adventure, and Historical fiction. I live in Queensland, Australia. www.noelleclark.net

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Day Trip in Cairns - Tropical North Queensland

Cairns, North Queensland – a day trip

Cairns, Port Douglas, Mossman, Daintree River, Bloomfield Track, Cape Tribulation

Another work trip has found me in gorgeous tropical Cairns in Far North Queensland, roughly a two and a half hour flight from Brisbane. Cairns is the major city for accessing the Great Barrier Reef (one of the Seven Wonders of the World), the World Heritage listed Daintree Rainforest area, and the remote and rugged Cape York Peninsular.

To see everything in one day in and around Cairns is next to impossible. Luckily, in previous trips, I have been on the Kuranda rail trip, spent a day sailing and snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef, and also exploring the verdant rolling farms of the Atherton Tableland.

This time, I have booked myself on a one day 4 Wheel Drive Eco Accredited safari that will take me north from Cairns up the Cook Highway to idyllic Port Douglas, then to the crocodile infested Daintree River, then an exciting 4WD drive up the Bloomfield Track. Our final destination will be Cape Tribulation, the spot where the World Heritage listed ancient rainforests meet with the Coral Sea and the equally important Great Barrier Reef.

The day starts early and I am picked up at the Pacific International Hotel in Cairns where I have a lovely room overlooking Trinity Bay and the Reef Casino. The 4WD safari bus is a strange looking vehicle but is ideal for both bitumen and sandy 4WD tracks in the jungle. We pick up several other tourists at various hotels along the way and drive the spectacularly beautiful Cook Highway, a road which clings to the coast and offers jaw dropping views of white, sandy beaches caressing aqua blue ocean on one side, and thick, tropical rainforest on the other. I am reminded of the amazing coastal drive along the Amalfi Coast in Italy, between Sorrento and Positano. When driving on these coast-hugging, windy roads it is so much better to be a passenger rather than a driver who needs to keep his or her wits about them, as the scenery is a magnet for the eyes.

The last time I visited Port Douglas, the trendy, exclusive and expensive haven for the rich and famous, was in 1978 and I was a bride of just a few days. My, how it has changed. Back then it was a sleepy little tropical village with coconut trees lining the snow white beach, a corner store which sold everything, and a scattering of a few beach houses. Now it has many large resorts and hotels and many restaurants and shops. I notice, however, that the beach is still lined by slender and elegant coconut palms and there is a definite low key feel about the place.

Back on the road and our first stop is for morning tea at a café in the picturesque little village of Mossman. This little town services the sugar cane industry and has a network of narrow gauge cane train tracks through the main street and allows raw cane to be transported to the mill. The main street (which is also the highway) is lined with massive old trees with peculiar mossy growths along the limbs. No one can tell me exactly what it is, but the unusual trees certainly make for a beautiful photograph or two.

Our next stop is at the Daintree River. We climb out of the 4WD and board a punt-like boat for a one hour cruise. The river, along with the Daintree Rainforest encircling it, was given Wet Tropics World Heritage Listing in 1988, an indication of the fragile nature of this pristine ancient rainforest area. There is no bridge across the Daintree, so all vehicles must pass across the cable ferry downstream.

Our cruise is idyllic, peaceful and spectacular, the only noise above the soft purr of the motor is the sound of the water gently lapping the prow of the boat, the screech of multi coloured parrots and numerous other birds that are unfamilar to me. The boat skipper points out some rare ancient and endangered species of vegetation. We see delicate orchids and ferns. We also see some some spectacular wildlife, mostly birds, but also some large snakes sunning themselves along branches which hang out into the river. As we pass silently down the dark green waters of the Daintree River, everyone is keeping ‘croc-guard’ – we all want to see one of the saltwater crocodiles which sleep in the muddy banks and float silently in the shallow mangrove waters at the edge of the river. Sure enough, there it is – our first croc! Cameras snap and everyone crowds the fore of the punt to get a better view. The numbers of crocodiles has risen over the years due to them now being protected, and also due to the isolation and strict policing of the area. Swimming in the river is forbidden and signs everywhere warn visitors not to enter the river or suffer the consequences. A hungry croc will be waiting.

The cruise ends all too soon and we meet up with our 4WD vehicle on the northern bank of the river where it has crossed at the cable ferry. We then drive up the Alexandra Range and stop to take photos of the spectacular coastline where ancient tropical rainforest meets the azure Coral Sea. The driver points out to us Lowe Isles, the site where Steve Irwin died.

Next stop is at the Jindalba National Park where the rangers have constructed an Eco friendly boardwalk through the rainforest. It is a gorgeous walk. Dark, cool and intensely quiet apart from the distinctive crack of the whip bird. The rainforest is full of amazing things to look at. Giant tree trunks reach up to the canopy, sheltering the floor of the rainforest which is alive with birds, lizards, and the most amazing and unusual ferns and fungi I have ever seen. Unfortunately we don’t get to see the unique Southern Cassowary, an elusive and rare bird, although we do find nests.

Back on the road and then we stop at an out of the way café and wildlife sanctuary. Lunch consists of a barbecue of local prime beef steak and salad, cooked by our driver/tour guide. After lunch, we stroll through a wildlife sanctuary where we can see wallabies, kangaroos, peacocks, scrub turkeys and other local wildlife close up.

After taking a gazillion photos, we once again board the 4WD and drive along the Bloomfield Track, a 4WD vehicle only road through the thick rainforest.

We stop at Emmagen Creek, a gorgeous spot, where some of the passengers have a swim in the cool rock pool. We have billy tea and exotic local fruits such as black sapote (chocolate pudding fruit), breadfruit, durian, mangosteen, red papaya and many others, all freshly prepared by our Eco guide John. The rare tropical fruit industry is flourishing in Far North Queensland, and we even stop at a farm to taste the wonderful ice creams they make with rare tropical fruit that you would never find in most cities.

The final stop on this wonderful day is at the pristine beach of Cape Tribulation. This is literally where the rainforest meets the reef. Quiet, unspoilt paradise.

The 135-million year old rainforest of the Cape Tribulation section of the Daintree is the most ancient and primitive in the world. Many species originated when Australia was part of Gondwana, more than 120 million years ago. Although Australia contains less than one thousandth of the world's tropical rainforests, these forests are some of the most significant ecosystems on the planet. Faced with not only the beauty of this area, but also the importance of it to the whole planet, it is rather awe-inspiring to visit such a place and to see for one-self the steps that are being taken to preserve this area, yet open enough to allow people to enjoy it.

The drive back to Cairns finds most of us sleepy and very satisfied with the trip. Cairns is such a wonderful stepping off point for rainforest, reef, and the Atherton Tableland. A bustling tourist city with a beautiful esplanade along the foreshore of the Central Business District. A great place to spend a day, or longer.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Week in Paris - Day 3

I lay in wait for the alarm to go off. It is set for 5am and I know that if we do not get up straight away and get ourselves down to Tuileries, we will miss our tour to Champagne Ardennes. I am not much of a morning person but usually, when I have to get up, I get up. Just don’t talk to me. However, I am travelling with a person who is even less of a morning person than me, so it will be interesting to see how we go.

Matt got home from his night out around 3am, so with only two hours sleep, he struggles to get ready for our much anticipated tour of the Champagne region, north-west of Paris. We manage better than I thought we would, and with a minimum of fuss we seem to be on track to leave the hotel on time.

We walk out of the Hotel Cabourg into the pre-dawn. Dark, cool, misty, hushed. This has to be the best time of the day, if only I saw it more often. The half-light envelopes us as we walk up to Place de Clichy Metro station. Paris is quiet and sleepy, but here and there we can see that she too is peering out with a half-open eyelid, stretching slightly and anticipating the day that awaits her. A garbage truck suddenly intrudes on the peacefulness of this very early morning. As we near the Place we see a few shop owners hosing down their footpaths. Smells of bread baking come from somewhere. Watching Paris awaken this morning will be a memory I will cherish.

We catch the Metro to Champs Elysees station where we have to change lines to get to Tuileries. We are thankful that we had planned this part of our trip well yesterday as it can be complicated trying to change lines. In the dim light, we can see a small, straggly group people gathering at the tour office. We can relax now, we are here with good time to spare. Matt and I are both good at prioritising so we go in search of coffee. One café is just opening. We are drawn like moths to a flame to smells of coffee and croissants. Others also make a bee line and the poor owner is nearly knocked down as he opens his doors wide for the sudden influx of half-asleep tourists eager to get a morning fix. Matt and I order the BEST croissants in all of France that morning. Hot, fresh and oh so buttery. This café is a gold mine. He can charge anything he wants for his coffee and croissants because he has a desperate, captive clientele guaranteed every morning. He is the only café open for miles around.

Many tour buses are filling up and driving off to visit many parts of France that is within a day’s drive of Paris. Our tour leaves at 7am with only six other passengers apart from us. As we drive through the streets of a sleepy Saturday morning it is obvious that there is a heavy fog. We can feel the high humidity, but the tour guide says the fog shows promise of a glorious sunny day – such a relief after the heavy rain and coolness of yesterday.

We drive along the motorway in a north-easterly direction toward Reims, capital of the Champagne Ardennes region in the Marne department. Daylight has arrived but the heavy fog prevents us from seeing too much, and at times I wonder how the drivers can see on the motorway. Guess they are used to it. After a couple of hours we stop at a roadside service station for a comfort stop and a drink. Matt and I have an orange juice. He is starting to look awake now. Back on the bus and we keep going until we see the sign to turn off to Epernay – the major champagne producing town in the area.

As we are now off the motorway and on country roads, we are able to enjoy the view from the bus window. The fog is clearing rapidly and a watery sunshine is reflecting off wet trees, making them sparkle like Christmas trees. As we drive through the Marne River valley we pass through village after village with streets so narrow that our bus cannot pass if another car is coming towards it. I notice the drivers use common sense and good manners to negotiate who will go first. There seems to be no argy bargy about it at all. But, oh, the villages - it takes my breath away to see these little villages with solid stone houses built right up to the roadway, each with window boxes tumbling out bright coloured geraniums, with little backyards growing veges, little gardens full of flowering roses of every colour. Oh, so beautiful. Every village is different, yet each a postcard perfect scene. The sun is out now, smiling warmly down on this vista before me. Bright blue sky, the green of the acres and acres of vineyards. Big smiling sunflowers growing wild along the roadside. This will be one of the best memories of my trip. I can feel a big warm feeling in my chest. To see these little villages, so quiet yet busy, quaint and unchanged, prosperous little villages that supply grapes to the big champagne makers, is having a very profound effect on me.

Our first stop is at the Moët and Chandon cellars in Epernay. We park our bus and walk through the pretty back streets. Before us we see the massive edifice and very fitting monument to the world’s most popular champagne. I can add champagne, particularly Moët and Chandon, to my growing list of what I love about Paris.

We are taken on a guided tour of the building, which until recently was the home to the Moët family. We hear how the Dom Perignon champagne (which I didn’t know was part of the Moët and Chandon stable) was firstly made by monks. Monsieur Chandon joined forces with the Moëts a couple of hundred years ago to work together on making this wonderful drop. We discover that the correct pronunciation of Moët is not Moeee as most Australians call it, but Mo-ett – with the emphasis on the ett. So, it is called – phonetically – Mo-ett ay Chondon.

We descend into the 28 kilometres of cellars which run underneath the whole town of Epernay. Each champagne house has it’s own labyrinth of cellars and they sometimes abutt one another, but never join, as there is fierce competition between each of the houses. The nearest rival to Moët and Chandon is Veuve Cliquot. Other than that, we are told, Moët and Chandon leave all others in this area far behind in quality and popularity. Our tour guide, a terribly English young man whom I am sure is Eton educated, is great – very knowledgeable and interesting. They sell 30 million bottles of the stuff a year. After an hour or so in the 11 degree cellars, we ascend to the tasting room where we are all given a glass of Moët and Chandon. mmmmm
Tasting room at Moet et Chandon cellars

We walk back out into the glorious warm sunshine, through the flowers and gardens of the local Town Hall, and back into the bus. The bus takes us through breathtaking scenery of vineyards and villages. Grape vines, bright green against the deep blue sky to our right and left. I just can’t believe that this gets better with every mile. Just as I think to myself that I have died and gone to heaven, our guide points out to us a hill rising like a pimple from the flat verdant vineyards. On top of the hill I can see a church spire and a few low buildings. That, says our guide, is Mutigny, and we are going there for lunch. I can’t take my eyes off this dot in the distance, a village on top of the montagne. Our bus turns left off the main road and along a narrow, one-lane bitumen road towards the hill, flanked on either side by very healthy looking grape vines. Then a short, steep, windy climb up a little cobbled lane and all of a sudden we arrive in the town square. We are told that Mutigny is a Commune with a population of about 200 which I find surprising as it is a tiny village.

A happy, friendly lady rushes out of the hall and greets us – she speaks no English – and tells us that she will be cooking our lunch but she is not yet ready and asks us to go for a walk first. One cannot imagine how lovely it is, walking up a dirt track through the vineyards, colourful roses blooming everywhere. We are told they grow roses at the end of each vine as they attract the same bugs that annoy the grapes. Such is the sensitivity of these farmers that they use this natural method of pest control rather than chemical pesticides. Big yellow sunflowers smile at us and nod their heads in the gentle breeze.

It is quite warm walking up the hill but we are rewarded with a 360 degree view of total splendour from the top, looking down on the town of Epernay in the distance, but really all we can see for miles and miles are vineyards, the occasional little farm house here and there. My camera (and Matt’s) are working overtime. Not a sound to be heard except our footsteps crunching on the gravel track and the odd bird calling out its greeting. No cars. Just total peacefulness. Our small group lingers for a long while, not talking, just immersing ourselves in this spectacular view.

Eventually we reluctantly walk back towards the town hall, deviating to go down yet another lane where we stumble upon the most beautiful little church I’ve ever seen. This is the spire I could see from the main road as we drove in earlier. I ask the guide about it’s age. It is 15th or 16th Century and I notice the bricks are starting to crumble giving them round edges. The spire is made of slate, and the church is perched right on the edge of the hill with the most wonderful vista surrounding it.

We drag ourselves away. There is a little war memorial by the track with fresh flowers propped against it. Today, 25th Aôut (or August), is the anniversary of the liberation of France in 1944. Today, all over France, there will be ceremonies to give thanks for the liberation that came with the assistance of the Allies. This little war memorial is in memory to ‘les enfants de Mutigny’ and, with sadness, we notice there are about seven or eight names on it. From such a small village, a high price indeed. I look at the fresh flowers – perhaps some heart broken aging mother walked down this lane this morning to place them at the memorial. Perhaps some girlfriend or wife, whose lover never came home.

Matt and I are the last to walk back up the track for lunch. But wait! The lady of the house rushes out again in her colourful apron and says she wants to give us an aperitif – wine tasting of the local brew made from local Mutigny grapes. She has even put on some lovely smoked salmon snacks to have with our wine. We are all hungry and so the snacks and wines are welcome, as is the obvious pleasure the lady is receiving by having this small group visit her town. She has a beautiful smile from ear to ear as she nods to us. ‘Merci, merci beaucoup madame’ we say as we smile back.

Eventually we are ushered into the lunch room and there before us is a wonderful buffet of food that would feed a crowd. We are told it is all local produce and each dish is representative of the local dishes of this region. Matt and I are thrilled and cannot believe that this lady has prepared such a feast. The whole group is impressed that this is provided for us. Fresh local ham, roast beef, home smoked salmon (the whole fish), many cheeses, salads, about four terrines, something that I am sure is tongue in a kind of lentil thing (Matt and I both try it but…well…it is tender and tasty but I’m not into that kinda thing), fruits, grapes of course, vegetable dishes. It is all laid out so beautifully. They have red wine laid on in a little wooden keg, coffee, a lovely dessert of trifle, and of course, le pain. Yes – le pain – no meal is complete in France without bread. We find it amazing how much bread they eat and it is baked several times a day to ensure it is hot and fresh. Long French rolls of course. They give you a HUGE basket of it with every meal. You see people riding their bicycles with French loaves sticking out of their baskets.

Anyway, back to Mutigny. A wonderful, genuinely French meal in a setting that is just amazing. Although the lady who cooked does not speak English, she knows how grateful we are and we all sign her guest book. Her face lights up with our genuine compliments – tres bon, merci beaucoup. We all know we have experienced a very special treat by coming here. Our little group is made up of two New Yorkers (ladies), two Brazilians (men), Matt and I and another Aussie couple (would you believe from New Farm, Brisbane?). We all agree it was heaven on earth and I think I want to go live in Mutigny, if they’ll have me.

So, back in the bus, back into Epernay and to the Castillon champagne cellars where we do another underground tour of the cellars and another tasting. Matt and I think they should do this one before the Moët and Chandon cellars, as it just pales in comparison. However, it is a very informative tour and we get to see the big stainless steel vats and all the machinery they use to make their champagne. Only the Champagne region of France is allowed to call their sparkling wine champagne. Everywhere else must not use that term. I wonder if these vintners here in this beautiful regional area are aware of how popular their wine is all around the world, and how sipping ‘champers’ is synonymous with a celebration.

Time to head back to Paris now, and we travel via Reims, one of the most celebrated gastronomic and wine growing centres of France. We are disappointed that we only get to see the outskirts of this regional capital city, also famous for its World Heritage listed cathedral.

We travel back home along the motorway and arrive in Paris at about 8.30pm. Matt and I go in search of a nice restaurant for dinner and afterwards take the Metro up to Pigalle (the red light district) to see the iconic windmill of the Moulin Rouge all lit up.

We take lots of photos, surprised by the very large crowd of tourists who are all doing the same thing, some sitting atop the shoulders of others to get a better shot. The famous red windmill and flashing neon signs are so much nicer at night and I remember my first afternoon in Paris when I stumbled upon it in daylight and thought it looked rather drab.

Moulin Rouge

Matt and I then stroll the four or five blocks back to our hotel in Place de Clichy. We are tired, Matt especially, but we both agree we have had a day we will never forget. We both loved it so much, especially the visit to Mutigny.

Our hotel, the Cabourg, is in simply the BEST location in Paris. Place de Clichy is vibrant, alive, a real hub with a five or six or seven ways junction and the obligatory statue in the centre. It hums with cafes, restaurants, clubs, and shops. It is alive and colourful and noisy and is within walking distance (yes, really) of the Champs Elysees, L’Opera, Madeleine, Pigalle district, Montmatre and Sacre Coeur. We are a mere five minute walk to our Metro station and there is a supermarket about three minutes away across the beautiful Boulevard des Batignolles. We enjoy walking through Place de Clichy at this time of night and look forward to collapsing into a solid sleep. What a great day we have had. Au revoir for now.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Week in Paris - Day 2

A Week in Paris - Day 2

We wake late, for travellers, to a grey and rainy Paris and go downstairs to the breakfast room for a typical continental breakfast consisting of baguette, croissant, orange juice and very good coffee. Our agenda for the day is to walk our socks off and we enjoy refining our plans over breakfast.

We find that having Place de Clichy as a starting point is a great way to get our bearings. Like the spoke of a wheel, we can choose to venture down any of it’s arms and each one holds untold surprises for the curious tourist, but will always bring us back home. We set off towards the Seine and walk down damp footpaths, enjoying taking our time and window shopping, stopping from time to time to look into the many luthier and violin maker shops, seeing their beautiful handiwork displayed in the windows. I think of my sister who would just love to be here and able to try out the violins, maybe choose one to take all the way back to Australia.

We also find the stores of such luminous Haute Couture and jewellery icons as Dior, Vuitton , Chanel, and the iconic Maxim’s and Tiffany & Co. Their stylish shopfronts don’t beckon me, dressed in my ‘comfortable’ clothes, and the liveried doormen are quick to spot the gawking tourist from the genuine shopper and give them the evil eye. However, that doesn’t stop me from having my photo taken outside them, sans doorman of course, much to the embarrassed disgust of my tolerant companion.

After passing Gare St Lazare we see before us the soaring Roman columns of Le Madeleine, 'L'église de St-Marie-Madeleine'. This magnificent church is dedicated to Mary Magdalene and it took three attempts to get it built, the first being in 1764, then it was razed and re-built in 1777 in the Greek style based on the Pantheon, and then, in 1806, Napoleon commissioned it to be rebuilt again in the Roman style. Today it is an imposing structure with fifty-two columns each standing twenty metres high. I am surprised by the size of these columns when standing up close – they are huge and dwarf anyone standing next to them. I have my photo taken standing next to one and it makes me feel quite slim. Gypsy beggars with hungry-looking babies ask for money, ‘Merci, merci’, on the steps.

The soaring Roman columns of Le Madeliene

We reluctantly move on from Le Madeleine, realising that we have a lot to see. From here it is but a short walk to my personal central point of navigation in Paris – the Place de la Concorde. As this is my second visit to Paris there are some places that bring back strong memories and on which I find myself hanging my hat. This huge octagonal shaped square (sounds odd doesn’t it) is a massive eight hectares, or twenty acres, in size. It was whilst in the Place de la Concorde on 16th August 1977 that my rudimentary French read the headlines of the newspaper, proclaiming ‘Elvis est Mort!’. They say you can always remember where you were when you heard some monumental news, such as I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard that President Kennedy had been shot. I was a child of nine in 1963 and it was a Saturday morning. As usual, Mum was up early doing things in the house. I never really knew exactly what Mum did but she did a lot of it. But Saturday mornings we used to go in and hop into bed with Dad who always slept in. He had the old bakelite radio on next to his bed and he called Mum in to hear the news. Well, I was in Paris, in the Place de la Concorde, when my fellow companions and I were stunned to hear that Elvis had died. It was big news, as big as when we all heard last year that Michael Jackson had died.

There is so much to see in Place de la Concorde that it can be a little overwhelming. The first thing that I notice is the noise that emanates from the tyres as the non-stop heavy flow of traffic drives on the rough cobblestones of the square. There are no lane markings to guide the drivers, but round and round they go, seemingly without a care. We find that being a pedestrian in the Place is a hairy predicament and we are quite nervous about crossing.

The Place has a bloody history. It was the site where the guillotine was installed that was responsible for the beheading of such figures as King Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette, plus the revolutionary Robespierre. In fact, our guide book tells us that no less than 1119 were beheaded here in only a two year period. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination for Matt and I to conjure up the spectacle of those beheadings, especially those of the King. The crowds cheering and baying for blood, shouts of ‘Vive la Revolution’ and the dull thud as the staring head drops into the bucket. After the Revolution in 1830 the square was given its current name.

Matt’s passion for Egyptian history draws him immediately to the Obelisk which stands tall in the centre of the Place. We throw caution to the wind and cross through the busy traffic to see Cleopatra’s Needle up close. The pedestal alone is a fascinating piece of artwork with hieroglyphics describing the transportation to Paris and its installation at the square in 1836, after it was gifted from the Viceroy of Egypt to Louis Philippe.

But the Obelisk itself, a 3200 year old relic from the temple of Ramses II at Thebes and standing 23 metres tall, is a spectacular addition to an already spectacular square. The huge pink granite monolith is covered with hieroglyphics picturing the reign of the Pharaohs Ramses II and III. Matt is as good as a historian on this subject and he allows me see the story behind what I am viewing. History shows that Egypt, willingly or not, gave away many relics such as this obelisk to foreign countries. I wonder, if they had their chance again, would they be so generous. How sad that the Egyptian people cannot see this spectacular monument in their own country.

Surrounding Place de la Concorde are several large bronze statues, each depicting a French city. There are also two beautiful fountains, both installed in the mid-1800s. Today, the Place is grey, wet and cold, but I can imagine that, on a hot Paris summer’s day, these fountains would provide a cool haven for people to dip their feet to cool off.

By now, the rain is getting heavier, but we don’t let it dampen our enthusiasm to explore this beautiful city. We spot the Ritz Hotel, and I am reminded of the TV footage showing Princess Diana and Dodi al Fayed coming through the doorway here, only minutes before they met their deaths in a nearby tunnel. Matt gives me a nudge and I look up just in time to see Pierce Brosnan walking towards us with his son. Oh Paris, what a beautiful city you are!!

By now the rain is heavier and I doubt Pierce Brosnan would be interested in an adoring woman who is wrapped up in a see-through plastic poncho, dripping hair and camera at the ready. Matt left his umbrella back at the Cabourg and so, generous mother that I am, I give him mine as he simply refuses to don what he calls ‘the condom’ and walk around stylish Paris. The things we do.

We now enter the beautiful Avenue de Champs-Elysées. This beautiful promenade loses nothing of it’s magic in the rain. I prattle on to Matt about my last visit to this memorable place in 1977. How the gendarmes back then wore quite different uniforms with hard pillbox hats, how all four lanes were all cars and not pedestrian-only outer lanes as they are now, since the refurbishment in 1994, and how I strolled, as a wide-eyed 22 year old, along here with my companions and soaked up the oh so Frenchness of it all.

We walk the length of this very wide, tree-lined avenue, passing firstly by the Jardins des Champs-Elysées, a beautiful formal garden with fountains. We see the magnificent Grande Palais and Petit Palais (home to the French Presidents since 1873). We stroll along watching the people, seeing the luxury Head Offices of Yves St Laurent, Louis Vuitton, Cartier and others. The imposing Arc de Triomphe looms before us and as we slowly draw closer, we see the sheer magnificence of this monument. I keep pinching myself as it feels surreal to be here.

The Champs-Elysées and Arc de Triomphe are the iconic sites for all major French celebrations. New Year’s Eve celebrations, military parades on 14th July, and the Liberation at the end of World War 2 have all been celebrated in true French style here. I remember in 1977 risking life and limb to cross the mad traffic that rumbles ceaselessly around and around the Arc to go and stand underneath it. These days, there is a subway for pedestrian access to it. Maybe it was there 30 years ago and we just didn’t notice.

The intrepid travellers at the Arc de Triomphe

Matt and I take many photos and, as obvious tourists, get hassled by the beggars – young boys mostly – and we have to learn to firmly say no otherwise we are followed. Matt gets some good bargains in the upmarket clothing stores – very good brands at sale prices. By now we are hungry and find a lovely café with views of the Arc de Triomphe where we sit in the shelter of a canvas awning, damp but not directly in the soft drizzle that still falls. I spot a bargain lunch (hard to do in Paris) and we dine casually on a quick déjeuner of ham and cheese baguette, strawberry flan and iced tea – all for only four Euros! Magnifique!

Jejeuner, French style on the Champs Elysees

We notice there is a McDonalds not far down the avenue from where we are eating this lovely French lunch and feel sorry for the people who have chosen La Grande Mac for their repast.

Feeling satisfied, we stroll back down the avenue again towards Place de la Concorde, heading in the rough direction of the Jardins des Tuileries, and Place Vendôme. A watery sunshine now starts to brighten the day and steam rises from the footpath. We dodge puddles and stride out, happily mingling with Parisians and tourists alike, as happy as pigs in mud to be strolling through Paris – surely one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

We arrive at Jardins des Tuileries, a delightful park full of families, carousels and a very small version of the London Eye. We particularly wanted to familiarise ourselves with the Metro station here, as we need to be here tomorrow very early to board our tour bus for Champagne Ardennes. The gardens are situated very close to the Louvre and were designed in the 1600s by the same man who designed the incredible gardens at Versailles. The site was originally a quarry to make the clay tiles which are so evident even now in the buildings of Paris - (the word tuilerie is clay in French).

We get our bearings, then head towards the lovely Hotel Regina opposite the gardens. This imposing building is in typical French Renaissance style as is the Hotel deVille (which is Paris’s City Hall) opposite. Our own Parliament House in Brisbane is modelled on this Renaissance style of architecture and the resemblance is unmistakable. Outside the Hotel Regina, in Place de Pyramides, is the most spectacular statue in all of Paris (in my opinion anyway). Matt and I are drawn to it for it’s absolute beauty. The gilded statue of Jean d’Arc astride her rearing golden steed! What a sight to behold, and what a strong statement she is making - challenging, brave and heroic. The men must have been so intimidated by her to burn poor Joan at the stake. As with many public squares in Paris, here people were beheaded, quartered, cooked up or burned at the stake.

Statue of Jean d'Arc outside Hotel Regina in Place des Pyramides

Purely to be able to admire the golden statue of Joan of Arc, and not because we feel like some wine, Matt and I decide it must be time to relax in the gorgeous little café right next to it. We have been walking for many hours and a bit of a sit down is called for. What I love about French cafés and restaurants, is that as soon as you sit down, the waiter brings you a basket of bread and a little stone jug of wine each before you have even looked at the menu. How civilised! We sit there for an hour or so, admiring the view, discussing our day so far, and just absorbing more of Paris into our beings.

Time to move again, so we start walking back up towards Place de Clichy. Still some things to discover on our way so, map in hand, we head off to Place Vendôme. We seem to stumble into this massive cobblestone square before we realise it. This now very prestigious and exclusive residential square has a very interesting history, as everything in this city has. The French Revolution was a major turning point in it’s history and so many monuments, statues and buildings were either razed or replaced with the new heroes of the Revolution. This square was also the scene of le guillotine. Ominous black clouds once again roll in and again we are reminded of this city’s violent recent past.

Place Vendôme was first laid out in 1702 and the most striking feature is the verdegris green column in the centre called Colonne Vendôme which was erected by Napoleon to commemorate his greatest victory at Austerlitz in 1805. The sculptor, Bergeret, used metal from cannons retrieved from the enemy to create a continuous ribbon of bronze bas relief pictures depicting scenes from the Napoleonic Wars. The main entrance to the exclusive Hotel Ritz as well as the Hotel Vendôme are here, but the private residences have, in the past, housed such people of note as Chopin and Ernest Hemingway.
Place Vendome and Napoleon's monument

We continue our walk and arrive at L’Opera. What a sight! This beautifully majestic and massive baroque building with it’s green copper dome and twin gilded statues is so visually rich with it’s rose marble columns, friezes and sculptures. Built in the late 1800s, the construction took 13 years because the workers discovered an underground lake which they had to negotiate around so as to make the building solid. The lake still exists and is the legendary hiding place of Paul Leroux’s ‘Phantom of the Opera’. Matt and I are very excited to see this place.

L’Opera’s real name is Opéra de Paris Garnier and was designed by Charles Garnier for the Emperor Napoleon III. Matt and I are not able to go inside, but our guide book tells us that it is rich beyond belief, with a massive marble grand staircase and an interior that rivals Versailles. No longer used for opera performances, this gorgeous auditorium is used for ballet as there is a new opera house elsewhere in Paris.

We are tired now, but in this city we know we could walk all day. It is getting dark and so we walk the last forty minutes back to our hotel. A quick rest, clean up, and then we meet our friend Marc in the foyer who brings with him a bottle of Moët et Chandon. Our hotel manager brings us an ice bucket and some flutes and takes us through to the Cabourg’s private courtyard, complete with gazebo, lovely gardens and tropical fish pond. He shares a glass of Moët with us.

The three of us go for dinner at a nearby restaurant. The meal is fun and our waiter loves the little golden kangourou pin I give him. The boys walk me back to the Cabourg. They are going out to visit some nightclubs in le Marais district. As I am falling asleep, I am amazed at how much we saw today – and we have only just begun. We have a very early start tomorrow morning, and then the next day we will explore the Left Bank. I fall asleep with a smile on my dial – I swear.

bonne nuit

Monday, July 5, 2010

A Week in Paris - Day 1

A retrospective blog from 23rd to 30th August 2007

Day 1
I am leaving a grey and wet London early this morning to start the long bus trip over to Paris. I have chosen the bus rather than the high speed train so that I can see more of the gorgeous French countryside. It is also my first experience of the Chunnel, the 38 klm long tunnel that connects Folkestone in Kent to Coquelles in Pas de Calais, France. By taking the bus, I get to experience peak hour in London, driving right through the south-eastern suburbs and through Kent. Once we reach the Chunnel, I am surprised to see how big the complex is. Many large semi-trailers, buses all line up in lanes, waiting to drive onto the train which will transport us under the English Channel and onto French soil. The wait is long and I feel a little uneasy anticipation of what to expect as we board the hollow cases on the carriages. It is dark and a little claustrophobic. After a long wait in the cocooned bus while we wait for the train to fully load, we suddenly take off. The feeling of motion is slight and it is hard to know if we are moving or not. Within a surprisingly short amount of time – just over half an hour – we see daylight and emerge out of the tunnel in Calais. Amazing!

I settle down now to enjoy the six hours or so drive through the north-west French countryside. As the names of villages and towns pass by the bus window, my mind cannot help but look at the peaceful, green countryside and try to envisage the churned up, trench riddled mess that this ground was during the wars. Village after village pass by my window, each with at least one beautiful church spire dominating the huddle of buildings and homes. Armentières, Bethune, Arras, Bapaume, Amiens. There are several monuments along the side of the highway thanking the Allies for freeing the French people. I can’t help but try to imagine how it must feel to have a foreign country trudge ruthlessly across this verdant and rich countryside, invading villages and homes, and eventually the capital itself. I would feel so violated. It is a testament to the strength of the French psyche that they rebuilt their homes and their lives after such trauma. I peer through the rain-spotted window glass, enjoying the long drive and letting my mind conjure up stories, history and other pieces of knowledge I have acquired over the years about this place I am travelling through.

I arrive in Paris around 2pm and find that my next challenge is to try and get the right Metro (underground train) to Place de Clichy, and then to find the Hotel de Cabourg where I am staying. A kind Frenchman notices me trying to decipher the Metro map and tells me which train to catch. I board the train, tired, and a little nervous (or maybe just excited), but I suddenly realise I am alone in a foreign country. I am amazed that I am such an adventurous person and am quietly pleased with myself.

I alight the train at Place de Clichy Metro station. There are two sets of stairs to take me up to street level. I feel disappointment that there are no escalators, as my suitcase is heavy. I pick one exit – who knows if I am right – and struggle up the stairs. Another kind Frenchman grabs my suitcase and carries it to the top of the stairs for me. Merci beaucoup, monsieur!

I emerge into daylight and find myself standing on an island, complete with statue, in the middle of a five street junction. Traffic rushing around me as only the French can rush, noisy Vespas with long French breadsticks sticking out from baskets flying past, weaving in and out of cars, chaos for my tired and confused mind. I dig my map out and try to work out which road I should venture up. Firstly I need to negotiate the death-defying feat of crossing the road. Pedestrian crossing? Ha, a joke. Crossing the road here is a challenge between who is brave enough to keep going, and who hesitates momentarily. I eventually reach the relative safety of the footpath and set off to systematically walk around the five roads, looking for the Boulevard de Clichy, and from there I know I can navigate my way to Rue du Mont Doré where the Hotel de Cabourg is situated. I eventually find it, and a helpful Parisian woman sees me as an obvious tourist and gives me further instructions on how to find the hotel, despite my lack of French and her lack of English. It is amazing how well humans can communicate even without a common language. I am again pleasantly amazed at the friendliness and helpfulness of the local people.

I find the Hotel de Cabourg, check in, and am pleasantly surprised by the room. Small, but clean and comfortable, and the location is fantastic. It is located in the 17th Arondissement (Quarter) of Paris, in the Batignolles district. It is a short walk to Montmartre, and only 10 minutes by foot to the large department stores (Printemps, Galarie Lafayette), the Moulin Rouge, the Sacre-Coeur church, the Champs Elysees and the beautiful Monceau park! I am a genius at finding great hotels at a great price in a great location – all via internet from Australia!

As always, I take a photo from my hotel window.
I leave my suitcase there and start walking back up to the Place de Clichy where I head straight for one of the sidewalk cafes that I had spotted earlier when I first arrived. I order some wine and a ham baguette and sit there, marvelling at how lucky I am to be sitting in beautiful Paris, the ‘City of Lights’, by myself. Place de Clichy by night
I must be the luckiest person on earth! I am exhausted from my big day, but revel in sitting here watching the traffic go round and round the statue, listening to the people near me speaking French (why am I so surprised to hear this??), and trying to absorb the sheer ‘Frenchness’ of it all through the pores of my skin. After the glass of wine, I am feeling very proud of myself. I know many people my age who would never dare to travel to the Queen Street Mall on their own, let alone to Paris.

After my little rest, I start walking the streets, map in hand. I walk with no particular destination in mind and soon find myself in an area that has some fairly adult content type of shops and establishments. A little disconcerting, however I plough on and it is not until I come to the very familiar landmark of the windmill outside Moulin Rouge that I realise I am smack in the middle of the Pigalle district, Paris’s well known red light area. I feel a little silly, because of all the places I could reach on foot from my hotel, I end up here. Oh well. C’est la vie!

I start walking back roughly in the direction of Place de Clichy, stopping to look in shop windows and generally just sight seeing. I go in search of a supermarket and find one not too far from the hotel. I buy cheeses, bread, paté, grapes, juice and wine. My son Matt is arriving tonight from London and he will be hungry.
Place de Clichy by day
Matt doesn’t arrive until 11pm, tired after a long day at the office, then catching his flight to Charles de Gaulle and then negotiating his way via Metro to the hotel in the dark. We snack on cheese and lovely French wine, and pore over maps and guides well into the early morning, excitedly planning our first real day together in Paris. The last time I was here was 1977 – little did I ever think I would once again return, exactly thirty years later, with my son. Bienvenue à Paris mon fils!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Journey Through Time - Part 4

It certainly is a journey through time...in slow motion I think. I haven't made any real progress with the story for the last week. Work commitments have been extraordinarily full on and am relying on the weekends to write.

However, that doesn't stop my brain from working on the manuscript and I am always thinking about it and mapping it all out in my head.

I have also been putting some effort into networking with other travel memoir narrative writers and have joined several groups for support and advice. See the link to the Travel Memoir Writers Group. Have also found several really good blogs and the topics discussed are all very helpful to me.

Perfect winter weather here in Brisbane. Today (Sunday) is sunny and a chilly morning of about 10 deg, will warm up to about 20. Hard to stay indoors when it is like that. But my goal is to write at least 1000 words today.

I am also on Facebook now if anyone wants to find me there. Can also find me in Twitter.

Ciao for now. Noelle