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Week 20: Our last week on the continent (for now..)

Mustard, champagne and gay Parisians

What a whirlwind this week has been!
We left Switzerland for France, a little bit sad that this was our last country to visit on the Continent before returning to the UK. We weren't really sure what to expect from Eastern France, but names like Dijon, Paris and the Champagne region had us eager to find out.
We started off staying at a small lake just on the Western side of Les Alpes. It was gorgeous, bush down to the water and lovely clear (but cold water). We ended up going for a run and finding a massive hill climb, so a chilly dip felt pretty good afterwards. Energised, and stoked to be in a country where we could speak at least some of the language, we headed towards Dijon the following day. We stayed just out of the town, near an old town called Beaune, and headed in the following day. We were really impressed with Dijon, lots of cool old buildings, really well kept streets, and heaps of mustard shops! The factory shops even had mustard on tap for tastings!
The countryside around the area was gorgeous also, lots of rolling hills and vineyards everywhere. The next day, armed with lots of mustard, we headed to Reims, heart of the Champagne region. We arrived reasonably late at night and on a whim Andrew suggested that we walk into town after tea, it had been a long drive in the car. We stumbled across the town cathedral and were lucky enough to arrive just in time for a spectacular light show. In Summer, each night the council puts on a show where they project lights and pictures onto the cathedral set to music. The whole thing lasted about half an hour, and several hundred people were wowed along with us.
We took some more time to explore the town of Reims the following morning, it was also packed with beautiful buildings. The town apparently was nearly levelled in both world wars I and II, so has had to be rebuilt twice in the past hundred years, but they have been really well restored and its history is really well preserved.
That afternoon, we headed for Epernay, home of Champagne! We wandered along the Avenue de Champagne, which is a street lined with magnificent buildings which are the flagship buildings for the various champagne houses. We did a tour of the Moet et Chandon Champagne house, which was amazing. Under the street on three levels they mature thousands of bottles of champagne, and we were taken through some of the corridors before doing a tasting. All in all it was a pretty cool visit.
Next stop on our whirlwind trip was Versailles, the royal palace just south of Paris. We had underestimated just how busy this would be. I think we hit a bad weekend, on a public holiday in the last week of the school holidays. We'd bought our tickets online, and thought this would save us some queuing, and I suppose it did, but we still waited about an hour just to get inside. The palace seems like the symbol of the French aristocracy, it is huge, really ornate, and complete with enormous paintings and beautiful furnishings. You can see why the working class people who were finding it tough to afford a loaf of bread might have objected and started the revolution! The famous hall of mirrors was beautiful, as was a huge room which had paintings of all of the famous French battles from about the first to ninth century. We spent the morning exploring inside the palace, and the afternoon walking around the huge gardens, which were beautifully maintained and on a massive scale. I don't think we even walked around half. There was a small vineyard, lots of vege gardens, ponds, lakes, canals, many fountains, and even a small english style village that Marie Antoinette had built to complete her English garden. With aching feet from walking around all day, we headed closer to Paris for the night, excited about seeing some more of the city the following day.
Saturday we set aside for Paris city. We had both been up the Eifel tower before, but couldn't go past a picnic lunch on the lawn in front after a stoll through the city. It's such a fascinating place to people watch, some crazy posing, couples getting wedding photos taking, and thousands upon thousands of tourists. We spent the afternoon wandering the streets soaking up some atmosphere, then had dinner in a little bistro. The dinner was fantastic, delicious steak for a main and of course fantastic desserts! We went up to Sacre Coeur church on the hill in Montmatre to see the city lights, then wandered up the Champs-Elysses to the Arc de Triomphe then across to see the Eifel Tower again at night. Another big day of walking but it seems to be the way we visit cities! During our wandering we came across several groups protesting everything from the current French government to Western involvement in the middle east to (we think) treatment of local African groups. I'm not sure about the validity of the other protests, but the African Parisians had a point, lots of them in Paris seem to be very poor, and we witnessed an old lady in a racist rant to a little girl on the Metro. It was terrible, and I feel so sorry for her if she has to grow up with that.
Sunday morning we went to see the Catacombs, something that we both wanted to do but hadn't had time the last time we visited Paris. It took us over 2 hours in line, but was totally worth it. Paris is built over old stone mines, and apparently the tunnels go underneath most of the city. A few hundred years ago some started collapsing, so hundreds of engineers had to stabilise and reinforce them. Not long after this time, the cemetery had to be closed because it was too full and was becoming a health risk. Someone came up with the idea of exhuming the graves of some 6 million Parisians and putting their skeletons in the underground tunnels, and then about 100 years later someone else thought that this would be a great tourist attraction. Since then, millions of people have made the 2km underground trek to check this out. It is just incredible, the tunnels have a 1.5m central corridor, then bones in stacks about 2-3m deep on either side. They are neatly stacked into designs, femurs with femurs, tibia with tibia, and decorative skulls in between. It somehow managed to be beautiful rather than gruesome.
Looking for something a little more conventional for the last afternoon in Paris, we headed to the Bastille market, which was crazy, lots of beautiful produce, and stall owners yelling over each other about their great deals.
Our time in Paris was all too fast, and we made the long trek back north to Calais, ready to catch the ferry early the next morning to see Mikes play cricket in Canterbury. It was a bit sad getting to Calais again, felt like a lot had happened since our last visit there. We're pretty stoked the Sundancer has pulled through with no major issues, and are looking forward to our last few weeks of holiday before going back home to reality.....

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Posted by Andrew and Lisa 05:28 Archived in France

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