France – Dordogne Region

There’s much more to France than simply Paris, wine, churches and a beautiful language. For those intrigued in venturing off the well-beaten path, Dordogne is a department (region) found in the south-west and named after the river that runs through it. It was home to four tribes of Gauls in the ancient county of Périgord. Their capital city was Périgueux, (which in Gallic means the “four tribes”).Frame 6Eventually the Romans invaded and surrounded the city with ramparts. St. Front’s Cathedral was built on the site of a church from the 4th century.Frame 5Brantôme is a picturesque town that developed on an island encircled by a sweep of the river Dronne.DSC08529The Abbey of Brantôme and its bell tower is built below the hillside opposite the main bridge to the island town centre.DSC08536Bergerac is another quaint little town in the French countryside.DSC08551For something more imposing, Château de Beynac is a well-restored castle overlooking the north bank of the Dordogne. The 1999 Luc Besson film, Joan of Arc, was filmed here.DSC08482It’s perched high up on the limestone cliffs with dominating views. At the time of the Hundred Years’ War, this French fortress had a dominating position opposite the English-held Château de Castelnaud, not that far away.DSC08497This is a quintessential castle. It’s got enough stone keeps, drawbridges, moats, gates and stairs to conjure up everyone’s childhood fantasies!Frame 4Maybe being a knight wouldn’t be so bad?Frame 5Or possibly a working-class peasant under the castle’s protection?Frame 3The more you travel around the French countryside, the more you realise a château doesn’t just mean a castle or a manor. It could also be the country house of nobility.Frame 6We found this one on a sunset stroll outside the tiny village of Saint-Astier.
You’ve probably never heard of it, or the 6th century saint it was named after.Frame 7It’s just another hidden gem for anyone intrigued enough to look for it.DSC08743Because if you don’t, you’ll probably never discover it for yourself.DSC08758Visited 28th October to 7th November 2014.

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France – Bordeaux

When you think of Bordeaux, you instantly think of wine.
Ever since the Romans introduced it to the region in the mid-first century, it has become the world’s major wine industry capital.Frame 1For us, while we love a decent tipple, this trip was more for the city at the heart of the famous surrounding vineyards.DSC08430Bordeaux is classified as a “City of Art and History” with good reason. It’s on the UNESCO World Heritage List for the significant number of historical monuments dating back from modern to Roman times.Frame 3There are ancient churches, Roman cathedrals and Gothic basilicas reaching to the skies. Frame 2There are grand town halls, columned façades and romantic statues, never ageing.Frame 4There are bustling open plazas that scale down to quieter streets and empty alleyways.DSC08403You might come to Bordeaux for the wine.
But before you leave with a bottle or two, maybe stay for a bit?
You might find another reason to linger over just one more glass… sit back and enjoy.
DSC08371Visited 26th October 2014.

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Luxembourg

Luxembourg? Where’s that?

SEA French JourneyIt’s tucked in between France, Germany and Belgium. It might be a small landlocked country, but it is one of the three official capitals of the European Union.
Frame 1And it’s a wealthy country; a tax haven. The centre of Luxembourg City is dotted with opulent banks and government buildings.Frame 6Officially the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, it has a history that dates back to 963. Count Siegfried I built a castle on some rocky cliffs that tower above the River Alzette. Over the years, the cliffs were reinforced, attacked and rebuilt as armies from all over Europe vied for Europe’s most strategic stronghold.

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Bock Casemates

Warring didn’t stop until the Treaty of London was signed in 1867. Today, only tourists ambush the ruined underground passages for the best viewpoints.DSC08288Neumünster Abbey dominates this historical area as the river sweeps around it.Frame 4The wealth is obvious. Stone walls, buildings, bridges and viaducts everywhere. There is noticeable greenery all around.Frame 3There are grand churches to be found too, amongst narrow cobblestone laneways.Frame 2The wealth is on display inside as well.Frame 7Luxembourg? Where’s that?

Now you know.DSC08297Visited 22nd to 24th October 2014.

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France – Strasbourg to Metz

SEA French JourneyOne of the best things about having family in other countries, is you can visit places that most tourists would not bother with or even know about at all.

Heading due west towards the German border took us into the Alsace region of north-east France.

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Colmar

Colmar is a pretty town with German influences.Frame 2Or it could be a German town with French influences.Frame 1Strasbourg sits on the Rhine River, overlooking Germany itself.

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Strasbourg

The city is a combination of cozy streets…Frame 3and imposing cathedrals.DSC08106In fact, it was the world’s tallest building for 227 years from 1647 to 1874!Frame 4The astronomical clock is one of the largest in the world too.Frame 5On the opposite end of the scale, Kaysersberg is a tiny commune that means Emperor’s Mountain.

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Kaysersberg

The ruined castle overlooks the town, but no emperor lives here.DSC08122Who would want to anyway? There are much more pleasant homes down below!Frame 6With little cafes, boutique stores and a restaurant or two, Kaysersberg is a cool little spot hidden within an up-and-coming wine region.Frame 7Looping back north, Metz sits near the tripoint along the junction of France, Germany and Luxembourg.

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Metz

The city has a rich 3000 year history, passing through many hands; Celtic, Gaul, Merovingian, Roman, French, German, then back to French again. The Gothic Saint-Stephen Cathedral has the largest expanse of stained-glass windows in the world.Frame 9Colmar-Kaysersberg-Strasbourg-Metz. A pretty cool corner of France, don’t you think?DSC08035Visited 18th to 22nd October 2014.

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France – A Maiden Journey

Of course, there’s more to France than just Paris.SEA French JourneyWe took the train due east to the historical and cultural province of Lorraine (yes, of the quiche variety). Andrew’s aunt lives just out of the main city of Nancy.
Liverdun is a quiet riverside village where the old French countryside lives on, seemingly unchanged.

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Liverdun

Nancy is a city that is proud of its changing times.

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Nancy

We always love a good cathedral.

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Nancy Cathedral

There are more impressive buildings surrounding the central Place Stanislas.

Frame 2DSC08171A half hour drive west is the cathedral city of Toul. You can’t miss it, ’cause you’ll see it from a mile away!

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Toul

Toul Cathedral is an imposing example of Gothic architecture. Although it was built over three hundred years, the impressively detailed facade was constructed in the same style.Frame 5The interior is uniquely bright and airy for a Gothic church.

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Toul Cathedral

It seems there are cathedrals in even the very smallest of villages. With wine to match!Frame 6Not a bad way to pass one’s time, don’t you think?Frame 7DSC07900For something less grand, you can visit nearby Grand. Home to a grand old Roman amphitheatre and some well preserved floor mosaics.

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Ancient Roman ruins of Grand

Hidden away deep in the countryside is the village of Domrémy-la-Pucelle (Domrémy of the Maiden). It was originally named just Domrémy.
There was a young maiden, a peasant girl, born here who had received visions from angels and believed that God had chosen her to lead medieval France to victory in its  long-running war with England. She convinced the crown prince to allow her to lead a French army to the besieged city of Orléans, where it achieved a momentous victory. But then she was captured by Anglo-Burgundian forces, tried for witchcraft and heresy and burned at the stake, at the age of 19.

That maiden was Jeanne d’Arc. You might know her as Joan of Arc.DSC07906She was born in this little house.Frame 8Overlooking a nearby valley is the Basilique du Bois Chenu.Frame 11Inside this simple church, her story is shared for all to see.Frame 10Frame 9And never forget.DSC07902Visited 16th & 17th October 2014.

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France – Palace of Versailles

Who couldn’t love Paris, right?
Well it seems the King of France, Louis XIV (known as Louis the Great) didn’t like the capital so much. So he began moving the government in 1678 to his father’s, Louis XIII, hunting lodge about twenty kilometres southwest of the city. Suddenly the small village of Versailles became the political centre of the Kingdom of France.Frame 10The simple hunting lodge was enlarged into a royal palace through several phases of expansion. Wings were added to the original building and renowned architects and designers each added their own flair to create the Château de Versailles (Palace of Versailles).DSC07409The expansions continued right up until 1789, when the royal family were forced to return to Paris because of the French Revolution. That hasn’t stopped some modern additions though.

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Palace of Versailles

The interior was elaborately decorated. Each room had its own style and apparent colour theme.Frame 6Chandeliers hung in every room and hallway and room and hallway and room and hallway…Frame 9It was well presented throughout. No ugly display stands or velvet rope with hanging signs. The original furniture was set out in the rooms like they were only lived in yesterday.Frame 4Frame 3There were long art galleries that looked out across long gardens.Frame 8There was even art under your foot and above your head, inside and outside!Frame 11The Hall of Mirrors is a hall of mirrors and…well yeah.

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Hall of Mirrors

Venture outside and you are met with immaculately manicured lawns, perfect trees and sprinkling lakes.Frame 2Step a bit further back and you’ll meet this.DSC07419And then that.DSC07415It was ridiculous. Seriously.
A gorgeous autumn day, and what better way to spend it than to wander these grand gardens? There was so much to see that exploring without the map was the way to go.Frame 1DSC07474While the gardens and lawns are vast, there are equally small nooks and crannies hidden behind tall hedges. Many of the paths converged on circular colonnades and fountains.Frame 5Tired legs can simply lounge by the many lakes. Just don’t venture too close to the water…Frame 7It truly is worthy of a bucket list.
And for us, it was. (That makes 4 bucket lists items in a row! Score!)

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Royal visit to the Palace of Versailles

The Palace of Versailles is famous not only as a building, but as a symbol of the absolute monarchy of the old Kingdom of France.DSC07783Visited 14th October 2014.

 

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France – Paris – Lost in Paris

There are many ways to see Paris.

Museum-hopping, church-skipping, cafe-dawdling, wine-sampling, garden strolling…
Paris is a big place. Easy to get lost. Not that that’s a bad thing.Frame 2For a more direct route though, one could follow the Paris Meridian.

It’s a meridian line that cuts Paris in half along the north-south axis, bisecting the Paris Observatory. It was used by French cartographers for more than 200 years. Nowadays, the Greenwich Meridian in the UK is used as the line designating 0 degrees longitude on all world maps and globes.

Unfortunately, the Paris Observatory was closed, so we couldn’t visit the Meridian Room, with the line traced on the floor inside. But a statue of the French mathematician, Urbain Le Verrier, who spent most of his career here, stands vigil. His calculations of discrepancies in Uranus’ orbit lead to the accurately predicted discovery of Neptune.Frame 10For the steely eyed travellers (of which Andrew is, but not Lakshi who got over this really quickly!) there are 135 bronze medallions set into the ground all over the city along the Paris Meridian in honour of 19th century astronomer, François Arago, who solidified this as a global meridian. They are hard to locate and difficult to spot when you get there. They can be found in the road, footpaths, even inside and outside the Louvre!

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Arago medallions along the Paris Meridian

Straying off the straight and narrow, we resorted to museum-hopping.

But a modern open-air museum this time in a trendy part of town. Something different?DSC07240Frame 6Next it was church hopping into Saint Sulpice Church.

If it looks familiar, then it is. The author Dan Brown used this sunlight line defining the exact time of Easter on the Gnomon of Saint Sulpice as his “Rose Line” in his book, and subsequent movie, The Da Vinci Code. And according to his story, this brass strip also marks the Paris Meridian (actually close by outside, so not quite).

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Saint Sulpice Church

Atop the highest point in the city is Sacré Cœur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris). This Roman Catholic church has the best view, back and forth!

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Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris

It’s always a popular, crowded spot to watch the world whizz by.DSC07185Cafe-dawdling now. And pretty spoilt for choice to be honest.DSC07818Or wine-sampling?

It wouldn’t be a French business lunch without a glass of Bordeaux’s finest, onion soup, crusty baguette and a snail or six!
Frame 5And finally garden-strolling. Jardin du Luxembourg (Luxembourg Garden) to be exact.

With it’s own Statue of Liberty and incredible fountains, just for show.frame-7frame-8But don’t leave Paris without doing one last thing. It would be pretty hard to not notice the lovely patisseries dotted about, with a tasty selection of desserts to meet anyone’s fancy. Ladurée is the famous luxury bakery of the infamous French sweet delights.

But the cream of the crop is the famous macaron. And the cream of that crop can be found at Pierre Hermé.Frame 9And that takes a bite out of another Bucket List item!

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Sample the delights of French Patisseries

Paris!
What a fantastic city! We were lucky enough to be able to stay in the heart of the city for 10 days to discover as much as we could.

But there’s plenty on offer to seduce you back.DSC07217DSC06749Visited 5th to 15th October 2014.

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France – Paris – Stroll to the Eiffel Tower

Standing out the front of the Louvre is the Arc de Triomphe de Carrousel, a triumphal arch built between 1806 & 1808 to commemorate Napoleon’s military victories. Walk through the arch and Jardin des Tuileries (Tuileries Garden) is amazingly laid out in front of you.

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 Arc de Triomphe de Carrousel into Jardin des Tuileries

Its a beautiful stroll anytime of year. For us, it was bright green with a hint of autumn. After passing Musée de l’Orangerie (again), we reached the busy Place de la Concorde. At its centre is the, somewhat out of place, Luxor Obelisk. This three thousand year old Egyptian granite column arrived here in 1836, a gift from the ruler of Egypt. It originally stood beside its twin at the Luxor Temple. Flanking it here are the famous twin Fountains of River Commerce and Navigation.

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The Fountains of River Commerce and Navigation & Luxor Obelisk at the Place de la Concorde

Continuing on the same Axe historique (Historical Axis), stretches the world’s most beautiful avenue; the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.frame-3With its luxury shops, cafes, theatres and tree lined footpaths, it is a visual dream.
Especially with this “other” triumphal arch marking the end of today’s afternoon stroll.dsc07335Twice the size of the lesser known arch waaaaaaay in the distance, the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile honours those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. There are layers of impressive friezes celebrating different victories.

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Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile

It stands proudly in the middle of Place Charles de Gaulle, a bizarre roundabout with seemingly no marked traffic lanes, which has no less than twelve avenues radiating from it like a perfect clock!dsc07373At least one of those avenues got us within view of the “monument” of monuments…
the Eiffel Tower.

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Eiffel Tower

Sure, we’ve all seen it before.
Sure, we all know it was designed and built by the famous engineer Gustave Eiffel as the entrance for the 1889 World’s Fair, making it the tallest made-made structure of its day.
Sure, we all know ascending this iron tower makes it the most-visited paid monument in the world.dsc07117But for the best view (in the City of Love or course), all you need is a picnic of local cheese, some nibbles and a pop of champagne.frame-4And that’s another Bucket List item!

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Toast champagne at the Eiffel Tower

Oh, and hang around for night-time too.
The tower’s light-show is dazzling.frame-5Visited 9th to 14th October 2014.

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France – Paris – The Louvre

Everyone has heard of The Louvre.
If you haven’t, then go and watch The Da Vinci Code movie, then come back.

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The Louvre

Try not to let the modern glass Pyramid that dominates the entrance courtyard distract you from the grand Louvre Palace that surrounds it.dsc06822Not only is it the second largest museum in the world, its one of France’s historic monuments. (Like they didn’t have enough already!).

The Louvre Palace was originally a fortress back in the 12th century and evolved into a palace then finally a museum in 1793.frame-1As expected, the lines were ridiculously long even though we arrived much earlier than opening time. Finally with tickets in hand, we checked at the Inverted Pyramid below the main glass one then headed on in. (Another Da Vinci Code moment here).frame-2Keeping to the theme, we made a bee-line for the most famous painting in the world:
The Mona Lisa.

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Mona Lisa, Leonardo Da Vinci

While Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece needs no introduction, it was actually much smaller than expected. A large crowd within a large room didn’t help the scale either!dsc06776Somehow we managed to squeeze through the horde of Asian tourists and their selfie-sticks for a selfie of our own (minus said selfie-stick).
And that’s a Bucket List item ticked off!

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Meet the Mona Lisa at the Louvre

That’s as close as you can get. Unfortunately behind thick glass, you can’t really get up close to admire the artwork. Although there’s enough posters in the gift shop for that!

It’s too bad that everyone in the room was clearly focused on this one painting. Because directly opposite it was the largest painting in the Louvre and perhaps the most underrated in the whole museum.

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The Wedding at Cana, Paolo Veronese

Another “must-see” was the famous marble statue of Aphrodite. But you’d probably know it better as the Venus de Milo.

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Aphrodite “Venus de Milo”, Alexandros of Antioch

You cannot possibly see every piece of artwork, for there is an immense number of paintings, archaeological artefacts, sculptures and religious art from all over the ancient world.

So here are our selected favourites:

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The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon and the Coronation of Empress Josephine, Jacques Louis David

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Four Seasons, Giuseppe Arcimboldo

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(R) The Seated Scribe, from Saqqara, Egypt circa 2600-2350 BC

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Assyrian Gate of Sargon II’s Palace, from Khorsabad, Iraq, 8th century BC

It turned into one epic 10 hour day!

As we followed the crowds out into the night-time, we came to a realisation:
At the Louvre, you can see the highlights but you can’t possibly see it all.

But you can try.dsc07015Visited 8th October 2014.

 

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France – Paris – Notre Dame

There is an island in the middle of Paris formed by the meanderings of the Seine River. As early as the 2nd century it was first inhabited by the Gauls parisii, and the island became the centre of ancient Lutetia.

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Seine River

The Romans, led by none other than Julius Caesar, occupied the island in 52 BC. Eventually in the 4th century the great city of Lutetia, or Lutetia Parisiorum, “Lutetia of the Parisii” was renamed Paris.

Today, the island is home to one of the largest and most well-known churches in the world: Notre Dame.

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Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame de Paris; meaning “Our Lady of Paris”, is a medieval Catholic cathedral of French Gothic architecture. It was constructed over the demolished remains of a previous cathedral from 1163 to 1345.frame-2Over the nearly 200 years of construction, each successive architect changed and evolved the design which can be noticed in the different parts of the cathedral.frame-1It continues to be restored to this day. The openly visible façades are mostly clean, while the sides facing the street and the difficult-to-reach nooks and crannies are still very dirty black. It’s also one of the earliest examples of the flying buttress; an arched arrangement that extends from the upper portion of the walls to transmit the great lateral wall loads to the ground.dsc06691It’s only by stepping inside do you really appreciate the monumental scale of its beauty.dsc06659Impossibly high vaulted ceilings held aloft by huge stone columns; it’s an engineering marvel! Although, she’s showing her age with many stress cracks to be found up high.dsc06669We found the interior quite dark, mostly due to the lack of large stained-glass windows letting in natural sunlight. We didn’t complain too much.frame-4Chandeliers hang down the sides, throwing a photogenic mix of mood lighting that would make Joan of Arc proud.frame-3frame-6Among Notre Dame’s other residents, are some very lifelike (and deadlike) statues.frame-5Beneath it all lies the Archaeological Crypt, with historical ruins of the earliest Gaul settlements and some great history displays to read.

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Archaeological Crypt of the Paris Notre Dame

Notre Dame is no ordinary cathedral.

But then again, Paris is no ordinary city.dsc06747Visited 7th October 2014.

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