Everybody has that one favourite T-shirt. Maybe you don’t even wear it anymore, for whatever reason. Maybe it is simply too worn-out or it has shrunk too much under your ageing belly, but you don’t have the heart to get rid of it. I have one too and mine has a quote, accompanied by the face of Nelson Mandela, stating
‘History depends on who wrote it’.
History may have two sides, but sometimes that history is simply so dark, so gruesome, that the different sides to the stories become irrelevant and the horror of the history is the only thing that stands out.
We loaded the grandparents and headed off to such an area, The Somme Valley in North Western France where that infamous battle raged from July 1 to November 1, 1916.
On 11 November this year, at 11:00 it will be the 100th celebration of the end of World War 1. That is the time and date when the armistice was signed between the Allied Forces and Germany – ‘on the 11thhour of the 11thday of the 11thmonth, 1918’.
We started with our round-trip by staying over in the Belgium beach town of Middelkerke. Though we enjoyed pleasant walks on the flat sandy beach with a backdrop of ugly Amanzimtoti style high-rise blocks of flats, I was aching to get into the hinterland and explore some battlefields. We found charming glamping tents on a pig farm Het Zeugekot (saying it like this sounds much less charming than it was), in Belgium near the small town of Beveren (Roesbrugge-Haringe), which was our base for a few days while we explored some battle sights, and the two charming charming cities of Ghent and Ypres. Be careful with some of these European landlords though. We unfortunately left the tent flaps open, as it was a sweltering heat wave of 39° C, and we weren’t back at the tent before a beautiful thunderstorm broke out. The storm did result in a couch cushion getting wet and needing a wash, but that little wash cost us the full deposit – a €150 wash that was!
Ypres (or Ieper in Flemish – it is located in West Flanders and called sarcastically ‘Wiper’ by the English during the War) was heavily involved in World War I as the Battle of Ypres seethed here. War cemeteries and even trenches can be seen and visited all over this area. In the town itself I was mesmerised by the ‘Menin Gate War Memorial to the Missing’. Its a war memorial ‘gate’ where every evening at 20:00 the ‘last post’ is sounded as a gratitude from the people of Ypres to those who sacrificed their lives in battle. Its large Hall of Memory contains names on stone panels of 54,395 Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Salient but whose bodies have never been identified or found – simply missing.
‘it is situated on a fertile plain, far from the mountains, an hour along the track, with large quantities of wine and grain on either side, and the land is good for wheat, onions and other fruit of the garden. This city is the centre of Alsace and is a single league away from Kiesersperg, Ammersweiler, Rechenwyer and Rappoltzweyer, towns that make most excellent wine, the finest of all Alsace’ in the words of one Sébastian Münster in 1552. Yes, 1552! Unfortunately Messieur Münster lived many years too early to be treated to the delicate tastes of Messer’s Pierre Jourdan, Danie de Wet and many more who produce those fine ‘tranquille’ Cabrières, Chardonnays or Sauvignon Blancs way way down south at the tip of Africa. Judging Messieur Münster’s praise for the Alsace wines, I am very sure he would have approved with great satisfaction the younger South African products.
However, he was justly accurate in his description that Colmar is a pleasant city, even beautiful with its stunning, be it slightly confusing architecture. This is France in 2014, but the German Tudor style is in abundance, and beautifully restored, maintained, decorated and neatly painted sitting there just waiting to be photographed or painted. I can’t paint, though. To understand this slightly confusing ‘look’ of this treasure of a French city, I had to ask Google for clarity.
Colmar is first mentioned in 823. Roughly around 1226, Colmar was made an imperial town (city formally responsible only to the emperor in the Holy Roman Empire) by Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, a Roman Emperor. In 1278, King Rudolph of Habsburg gave Colmar its civil rights. Rudolph was originally a Swabian count, but was the man who sort of started the Habsburg dynasty, who ruled much of Europe for nearly 600 years from the 1200s out of current day Austria. Thus, this is the first mention or reason for the German architecture and place names so evident in French Alsace.
Ever since those days, there was a tug of war (pun intended) between the Germans and the French for this beautiful little town. In 1648 the Treaty of Munster handed part of Alsace back to France. In 1871 the Treaty of Frankfurt sees Alsace come under German rule again and a German ‘kommisar’ replaces Mayor Peyerimhoff. In 1883, French is banned from all official documents. On 23 August 1914 a French cavalry rides into town, but hesitantly retreats back into the mountains when the confrontation gets too hot! ‘Zeez French were lovers, not fighters!’ However, on 18 November 1918 the French troops moves into the city and the Tricolor once again is hoisted. It was still not the end, though. June 1940, those dark dark days in European history dawn on Europe and the German troops again annexed Colmar and Alsace. They take it so far that everybody between the ages 14 and 18 is forced to join the Hitler Youth! Then, five years later on 10 February 1945, General Charles de Gaulle marches into Colmar after the battle was one a week earlier.
May 29, 2014, my family and I ride into Colmar after a relaxing full-day road-trip of a mere 440km from Köln through some tiny little roads which included parts of the Mosel Valley, and unpack our weekend luggage. Colmar features as the second town in the recent article ‘The 23 Most Quaint Small Towns You Must Visit Before People Find Out About Them’ on sfglobe.com. So, maybe this post of mine will spoil Colmar for a few future visitors since I can now, after my visit actively promote Colmar as a worthy visit.
‘Quaint small town’, however, is a very loose term for many of these gem towns we so enthusiastically seek out. Europe is really old, as can be seen from the time-line above, which means for a destination such as Colmar, the ‘quaint small town’ is purely the centre old part of town. The village is surrounded by a large busy modern and often ugly outside city which does distract from the experience. In the ‘quaint small town’ of Colmar, we bought our groceries in one of the largest modern supermarkets E.LeClerq I have seen. The E.LeClerq chain is widely spread across France, and I always wonder whether it is the successful result of Messieur Le Clerq, the ‘often disguised as a secret onion seller’ in Allo Allo’s venture.
That centre ‘quaint small town’-part is definitely worth a visit though. It provides ample awe-inspiring old-Europe architecture, the beautiful buildings, people watching, fine cuisine and photo opportunities galore. I often regard the highly spoken of ‘flammekueche’ also known as ‘Tarte de Flambee’ in these parts as a lame effort to copy a pizza and hardly ever order that. This weekend though I was pleasantly surprised by the excellent cheeses the Colmar chefs use to dress their ‘flammekueche’ and I thoroughly enjoyed the local ‘potjiekos’ dish (its more a casserole) called ‘baeckeoffe’
or ‘baker’s oven’ (see the German in this French province). It consists of sliced potatoes, onions (bought from Mssr LeClerq, no doubt), carrots, cubed meat, predominantly beef and pork, which have been marinated overnight in Alsatian white wine and juniper berries before being slow cooked in a traditional sealed ceramic casserole. The taste is further enhanced with leeks, parsley, garlic, marjoram, thyme and time.
As I tend to do, I did drive to the real quaint towns too with a day-drive through the likes of Neuf-Brisach, Breisach, Riquewihr, Hunawihr and Eguisheim. Under the title ‘the most quaint towns’ Colmar can never be visited in isolation. To complete the experience, one has to visit Riquewihr, the fortified church in Hunawihr and the quaint Eguisheim too. Neuf Brisach is a nice to see due to the fact that the town in its entirety is still walled and moated off, but the other three are pristine examples of the feudal medieval towns where the town was build and walled off around the church and market square. Nowadays there are plenty of little bistros, cafés, bars and restaurants lining the streets amongst the ‘vinstube’, cheese merchants and in general typical local merchandise aimed at the tourist market. To complete the picture, these little villages are nestled in the midst of the famous Alsatian vineyards, which prompted me to make a note to visit the area in autumn again.
An environmental feel-good story in this part of Alsace is for sure the breeding of the storks. I remember reading a book in primary school translated from Dutch into Afrikaans as ‘Die wiel op die skool’ (the wheel on the school), which was a story about the school providing nesting to a stork. Well, that is all I remember of the story, or maybe not even. I suppose the name gave me a hint. Nevertheless, I have now seen it with my own eyes. Many a roof in Alsace, even in the centre of towns, have a wheel of some sorts on its roof, with a breeding stork happily returning the stares of the tourists in the streets below while caring for their young.
As a dog owner, the term Alsatian obviously rings an inquisitive bell. I found the explanation rather interesting. The name German Shepherd, for the Deutsher Shäferhund, a breed which obviously originated in Germany, was changed by the UK Kennel Club after World War 1 due to the belief that ‘German’ in the name would harm the breed’s popularity due to the negative sentiment towards the Germans at that time. Thus, the UK Kennel Club officially changed the name to ‘Alsatian Wolf Dog’ after the name of the French German border area of Alsace. Many other international kennel clubs used this name. The name was officially changed back to German Shepherd in 1977, though ‘Alsatian’ is still often used in parenthesis.
The camping scene in Europe is a curious but very healthy industry, which covers a wide range of different vehicles and tents. I was pleasantly surprised to find a real stove-like fireplace in our pitched tent, complete with wood and chimney through the canvass. Novel touch by the French! The most popular camping for the Europeans are definitely the motorhome (various shapes and sizes) and normal caravan. However, tiny tents, from one consisting of only a stretcher bed with a meter high tent on the stretcher to old-timer restored VW Kombis (as we know them in South Africa) and completely fitted Land Rover camper vans grace the lawns with their presence. I wonder if that Swiss Land Rover has ever put rubber to a dirt road. A number of people cycle, others travel by motorcycle and a few hitch-hike with their rucksacks if not using conventional transport. But the travel and sightseeing scene is truly alive and well in the rural areas of Europe.
So, yes, I agree with the article in http://sfglobe.com/?id=908&src=home_feed regarding Colmar. Incidentally I have also visited Annecy and can vouch for that too. And where they state in the article ‘We advise you to plan a trip before they become too crowded!’ I sincerely hope my blogpost regarding Colmar doesn’t make your planned trip too late. However, feel free to contact me for advice when you need advice or help or a chauffeur!
I am so looking forward to our summer tour to Italy in a few weeks.
The Europeans are a classy bunch, well, mostly. The high fashions of Paris, Milan and London are well known across the globe and browsing throung the streets confirm this. At this very moment I’m sitting in Extrablatt am Neumarkt in Köln having a breakfast and I’m amazed at how well dressed every-one around me are. Scarfs, jackets, boots and cardigans of the highest quality, design and fashion are in abundance. Even jeans are wore with style so typical of European way and not in the casual way the Saffas will wear them. Its not always easy to put your finger on the exact difference, but the general look certainly is different.
But, ‘o my word’ the Europeans are bad at beach attire! The men, I specifically mean the men, are incomprehensibly bad when it comes to dressing for the beach. Let me put it clear that I find very little fault with the swimming attire the European beach-going ladies wear (or not wear). But why the men have stuck on wearing only ‘speedos’ or even worse, those tight fitting little trouser costumes with the short straight ‘legs’ sometimes even with the little fish belt and buckle, that I last wore as a five-year old boy back in the sixties, I simply cannot comprehend. As soon as a boy turns 7, the mom should put him in baggy shorts, and nothing else, and that is what he should wear to the beach for the rest of his days. But then again, its probably better for them to wear those ugly costumes, than the few (mostly guys, it seems) who wear nothing and parade around on the fringes of some normal family beaches in the Adam suits. These Europeans surely have some strange habits.
My preference, though is travel, photos and stories, not fashion. So travel I did once more during the past summer holidays. With parents visiting and us having to hit the road all the way to the Costa Brava in Cataluña, that stunning country bordering Spain,
we decided to try out the very popular RV (recreational vehicle) or camper van as they are also called, as means of transport and accommodation. I am used to camping; in South Africa, I own a 4×4 trailer and we have done many off-road camping trips to nature reserves, wild life areas such as Baviaanskloof, Marakele, Mapungubwe, Kruger National Park, Botswana and Swaziland. Take note, these are all remote wilderness type destinations, none are beach holiday ‘caravan parks’, which means the shear thought of camping in the RV in a crowded caravan park where the tent ropes of your neighbour stretches into your braai area was daunting, to say the least. I do, however, believe in trying out new things first and then decide whether its good or not in stead of just writing them off from preconceived perceptions, thus entered behind the wheel of the monster camper with some uncertain anticipation and hit the road.
Many of my travel companions in the past must have rued traveling with me, as I tend to add time and kilometres in curiosity of places and other roads than the obvious straight line. The result of this was that we added 600km to our already 1200km trip from Köln to the Costa Brava but the positive is that we were able to explore the Loire Valley of France and to witness the decadence of the royalty of 16th century France. The architecturally magnificent Chateau de Chambord being one fine example of this decadence. This castle was built for François I in the 1500’s and took 30 years to build. It was built as a ‘hunting lodge’ and apparently with money laundered from the church. Must have been some hunting party when these guys came together to shoot boar as this chateau has 440 rooms. Since it was built in the wild and for hunting purposes, the effort and cost to furnish it was so vast that it was never furnished on permanent basis. Each time it was used, everything was brought with the hunting party; imagine that! No wonder François spent only 7 weeks there in all his life, and no wonder the French revolted some 250 later.
Our end destination was Lloret de Mar (pronunciation lesson nr 14, Lloret is pronounced Joret as double ‘l’ in Spanish is a ‘j’. Disclaimer though for the Capetonians, please don’t start calling Llundudno Jundudno as it is named after a Welsch town, not a Spanish one). Lloret is a smallish town on the spectacular Costa Brava, some 70km north of Barcelona and this is where my daughter decided to spend the next 8 months to learn Spanish. I too asked the question ‘why learn Spanish in Cataluña?’ but when I saw the beauty of Lloret de Mar, any other reason wasn’t required anymore. With beaches (ignore the men in their bathing shorts for proper comprehension here), cafès, villages, parks, horse-riding and Barcelona at her doorstep, it will require some discipline to focus on the studies, thus preparing her well for what lies beyond being able to speak Spanish.
And exactly here, at Lloret de Mar, is where we camped in our RV for a week. The RV camping went well, as its very easy camping with everything in its place. Setting up camp very much consists of
park your vehicle,
turn the fridge from 12V to 220V,
stack out your chairs and table
and open a beer!
Lloret de Mar, as most of the towns on the Spanish coast, stems from old fishing towns where some remnants of the days gone by are still visible. A pristine example of the ‘old town’ still relative intact is the walled old town of Tossa de Mar, a few kilometres north of Lloret. With a sandy stretch of beach lined with multiple restaurants where the tapas, wine and beer are excellent and the view across the sandy beach from your dining table exquisite. To the south the beach is intercepted by a rocky hill with the old walled fishing town and remains of the church still beautifully preserved. Walking the inside path of this old village provides the most stunning views across the roofs of the town to the west, the sandy beach to the north and the pristine rocky seaside to the south, and when we were there, the rising full moon over the Mediterranean to the east.
We had to return home, the holiday was over, and Köln a long drive (10 hours for 450km in the August holiday traffic of southern France just to get to Lyon) away. Then the reality shock of returning home hit me and I realised that my family has now reached that first major change which happens to all families, but for which we were not nearly sufficiently prepared. We had to leave our eldest behind. Cara finished school in June and her first ‘after school’ objective is to learn to Spanish. This is why we headed to Lloret specifically, because this is where my daughter will stay for the next 8 months to learn Spanish before embarking on her university studies. It was one of the hardest parenting duties I have ever had to do, driving back home while your kid stays behind, in another country, nogal!
But then, thinking about it rationally, I realised this is exactly why we moved to Europe originally. We came here for new challenges and opportunities and this has always been a major item on Cara’s bucket list, to live in Spain, learn to speak Spanish and to work with horses. That is precisely what she is now doing. Thus, slowly but surely we are fulfilling what we set out to do, sometimes with a very serious emotional shock accompanying the reality of our decisions, but also with the gratitude and a sense of achievement overshadowing that emotional hesitation. Still, as her younger brother said when we arrived home and the visiting grandparents also left for South Africa ‘our home is suddenly weird’.
… where purple is the reigning colour, kind soft, nice smelling lavender purple! Thus you can see it can never be Prrrôôôvince as the Capetonians would so love it to be.
Rather try the correct Pgôwaañs pronunciation with your lips truly spouted for that French flair effect. And then clutch your baguette under your arm, whether you’re wearing a shirt or not, and munch on your early morning croissant (apply same pronunciation rules as above) with a good, small, strong coffee and just look, smell, drive, walk, photograph and discover the real Provence.
It’s so clichéd to try and write something extraordinary on topics such as Provence and the joys of sniffing out those little-town gems and little mountain roads since even old Julius, Brutus and the other Roman emperors spent their weekends enjoying the Provencal cuisine, baths, gladiator blood-sports, sights and sounds. Jip, this part of the world is truly part of old civilisation, which means there’s so much more to see than lavender. Don’t get me wrong on the lavender thing, though. If you plan to visit Provence, it will be worth your while to plan your visit for late in July, early August, as the spectacle of blooming lavender fields and the ripe wheat fields adjacent are right up there with the likes of Namaqualand, Cape fynbos and Overberg canola fields in springtime.
As with all quality tourist destinations, the big bugging factor is always the tourists! Here it’s obviously continuously present as well and it had me ponder the logic of a big bus tour-package rushing through rustic little roads with hordes of, …. well tourists being dropped off with a ‘be back here in 90 minutes cause there’s still plenty of places to see’ instruction from the guide with the little flag held up high. Provence is not a place for this kind of travel. Provence must be taken at leisure, with a glass of wine, something to chew on and with no fixed itinerary because you never know when you stumble onto that picnic spot that just needs to be tested with your baguette, Provencial sausages and cheeses, olives with herbs, salads and to be finished off with the local nougat for something sweet.
We were very fortunate to have the company of a sister and brother-in-law who accompanied us for a week of traveling Provence, likeminded travellers with very little emphasis on speed and plenty of focus on seeing, learning, tasting, and sipping the local stuff. This resulted in us very quickly becoming too slow and enthralled for our rough initial itinerary, so much so that I had to bully them out of a Paris and Aix-en-Provence stopover to ensure we see the rural area ‘must-sees’.
When I grew up in the 70’s and South Africa started our television broadcasting, one of the household favourites was a French translated series ‘Die meisie van Avignon’ (La demoiselle d’Avignon). South Africa was in love with the series, and probably the ‘mademoiselle’, thus I simply had to see if we could find her in Avignon, and planned our Provence trip to start there. We did not find her, but what I did find was the immaculate walled town, stunning half bridge over the Rhône River and the incredible square and Palais de Papes. This is the papal palace where the Pope Clement V and his court settled when they fled Rome due to political turmoil. From 1309 to 1377 seven French-born Popes lived in Avignon, and even after Pope Martin V returned and settled in Rome, Avignon remained to be an important cultural centre.
But way before the 1300’s this was the playground of the Romans. Though further north in Gaul some little village famously held out against the forces of the Roman Empire (with a little help and nutrition of wild boar and their druid’s magic potion), here in the south the Romans reigned supreme and build roads, aqua ducts, theatres and even an amphitheatre where they quenched their blood thirst on Saturday afternoons before going out on the town for an evening meal. Magnificent remnants of those days are still widely visible with extraordinary views from the top of the amphitheatre over the rooftops of Arles, and a beautiful roman gate at the quaint town of Saint Remy de Provence.
Many years later, here, at Saint Remy de Provence, just over the main street from the roman gate is where Vincent van Gogh voluntarily booked himself into an asylum in May 1889, just after he cut off part of his left ear in some bout of ‘eccentricity’.
Though he was obviously in despair, he continued to be extremely productive, producing more than 200 paintings in a year while living in Arles.
I get itchy for the rural areas and small roads very quickly and thus misused my position as driver cunningly by turning north-east and heading for the quieter Vaucluse area where the lavender fields were in full bloom, in abundance and surrounding age old towns of Gordes, Venasque and the amazing Abbey de Senanque. We pitched base camp in the gorgeous Malemort du Comtat. Malemort is slightly of the beaten track which means you can enjoy time away from the tour-bus tourists jumping into the frame of each and every photo opportunity, fiddling there hair into place, making themselves big into some Alexander the Great type pose just to run off to the next photo shoot, not even taking a look at what exactly was their background in the photo just snapped of them. Here we could spent two long evenings at two different venues amongst locals coming back from a hard days work and sitting down for a semi communal beer drinking evening, observing and interacting with them while enjoying the local herbs and flavours on olives, pizzas and hams (somehow I prefer the term jambon over ham for these local delicacies).
Before heading back north after a hugely enjoyable week in Provence, we had to stop in Carpentras for the weekly market day. Maybe here a tourbus dropping you off and picking you up would not have been such a bad idea due to the parking problem; such is the popularity of the market. From clothes, fish, fresh produce, meats, nougat (extremely expensive if you don’t bargain properly to the amusement of Heleen) to antique tools, baskets and even bunches of lavender are on display in huge quantities.
It was a great week, though a tiring week of traveling roughly 3000km, listening to 355 songs (trust me, I set-up the iPod playlist, it was 355 songs), having a beer or two, scratching many mosquito megabytes, blowing up matrasses, chatting in cafés, awing the lavender, following the Romans, celebrating van Gogh, dipping our toes in the Mediterranean, enjoying pizza and Provencial tastes over a glass of wine or two or six. It was a successful trip.
It was only the western part of Provence and a week was not enough.