It’s been a long-held ambition of ours to do a canal boat cruise in Europe, preferably in France.  Recently, we bit the bullet, burnt our bridges and booked the boat.  In late September, we set off for France, and the Locaboat depot.  We traveled via Bordeaux and the Gironde region, a beautiful wine-growing region full of charming little villages and marvelous cafés.

We dropped our car in Carcassonne, having decided to take a train from there.  This gave us the opportunity to have a lovely little incident on the Carcassonne railway station. I went to the toilet, which was one of those little round jobs which you feed 30 cents to get in. There was an English woman in there before me, and her husband decided to hold the door open for me so I could have a free pee. Unfortunately, this meant I ended up inside the locked pissoir, being drenched by the washing process. I quickly got out, only to find the machine swallowed my 30 cent piece and wouldn’t let me back in!  Eh bien, fortunately the train had a very nice toilet.

We took the train from Carcassonne to Lézignan-Corbières, and then taxi ride to Argens-Minervois, where we took delivery of our boat, Ognon. Not to be confused with oignon (onion), this dear little tub is named after one of the locks we passed through on our trip.  After some documentation, unpacking and a training course with the technician, we set off for Homps.

In no time, we were at the first lock, a double. They say the first one is always pretty terrible, and it certainly was interesting with only two of us on board. When you’re going “uphill”, one person has to get off before the lock, and race up to catch the ropes from their boat.  For us, this left my poor husband to drive the boat into a restricted space, bring it alongside, then turn it off and run for the bow to throw up the front rope, then career down the blunt end to throw the second rope.  The person on the bank has to loop these around bollards, somehow controlling both, although they are several metres apart!

Fortunately the boat in front was full of friendly Czechs, who came to our rescue and helped us through. By the time we hit lock number three, we were getting the hang of it and I was chatting to lock keepers as I flung ropes around the place.  I have a sneaking suspicion that there was more than a hint of Officer Crabtree (‘Allo ‘Allo) in my Gallic gossip, but the lock keepers managed to smother their mirth.  By this time, the husband was handling the boat like a seasoned pro.

We tied up at Homps for the night. The ports are full of boats, with people sitting out having a wine, or strolling up and down the waterside, having a look at each others’ boats.  The waterfront at Homps is lined with restaurants. We chose to go into one that was a bit set back and not so obvious. It was filled with French people – a good sign. And so it proved to be – a deliciously fragrant and tasty cassoulet au confit de canard was downed by both of us with contented sighs and the help of a robust red from the region.

The bells of Homps are mysterious in their ways. They chime the hour and half hour during the day in the regular way of bells, but at night and at 7am, they perform a joyous romp through what sounds like a children’s nursery rhyme with more than a touch of nar ne nar ne nar nar about it.

Homps is an old town, with narrow streets and stone buildings – homes right on the street with bright coloured shutters. We bought provisions there, riding back to the boat on our bikes, with baguettes and wine in the basket on the handlebars. We then sat at the little table in the bow and had baguettes, jam and cafe au lait. It was getting perilously close to paradise…………..

From Homps to Trèbes was quite a haul, with lots of locks. We took turns at driving the boat, and taking exercise along the towpath at the side of the canal.  I say this insouciantly, but my first driving experience was not without its entertainment – for the other boaties at least.  I managed to maneouvre the boat so it was right across the canal, from bank to bank, with a lot of shouting which owed more to the Anglo-Saxon tradition than the Gallic.

Once you’ve finally got it, driving along in the boat is quite soporific – you cruise along a watery avenue lined with chestnuts, oaks and sometimes pines, and often they form a complete canopy overhead.   I’m sure the first architects to design ribbed vaulting in churches must have been inspired by such a sight.

After a pause for salad and rosé on the boat for a late lunch, we made it to Trèbes in time for the last lock, and moored there for the night – slightly out of town.  There are huge tree roots along the canal, and they make very good mooring points, so you can tie up wherever you feel like it.  We explored Trèbes on our bikes for a while, then went to Moulin de Trèbes, situated right on the lock, for dinner. Wandering back along the canal, we stopped and chatted to people in their campervans – people from all over the place, and all very friendly.

Next stop was Carcassonne, scene of my triumph with the French toilet system. We tied up at about 3pm, having yet another late lunch accompanied by rosé, and talking with various people who came by. One of them was a Frenchman who had shared locks with us during the day. We ended up having about a 15 min conversation in French!  The husband swears he could hear my brain ticking, but we seemed to make ourselves understood to each other!  On the other hand, we could have been talking about two completely unrelated matters……

The next morning, we were invited to the next door boat for coffee. It was a couple who have been living on their boat for about 3 years since they retired. He is retired English naval engineer and she is German. Every now and then they leave their boat moored, and go off to England or somewhere for a break, but then they come back and pick up their nomadic life.  They’ve been all over Europe, and really love living on the canals.

After coffee, we called in to see some English people we’d met, intending to stay for a few minutes before going up to the old city again. Two hours and 2 bottles of very fine vin de pays later,  we wobbled up the steep hill to the old city on our bikes, and had a look at the lovely old (like 1600 years old) Basilica and other buildings, ramparts, battlements, and the other things you have in your grade one medieval village. It was very interesting, with marvellous views out over the rest of the city and surrounding countryside. We had to have lunch and beaucoup d’eau to water down the wine so we could be trusted hurtling back downhill to the boat.

This is kind of how it is on the canal – time becomes a bit meaningless.  The locks close at a particular time but, if you don’t make it through, you just tie up and wait for the morning.  People are really friendly, and keen to get to know you, and getting to know you is a process generally accomplished over a bottle of wine.

Carcassonne was our turnaround point, and mid-afternoon we set off back to Trèbes, where we found the town was shut because it was Monday. In France, that’s a perfectly good reason.  We biked into town the back way, meeting both Australian and New Zealand boaties on the way. We found a little backstreet cafe, which was really nice and a bit less touristy, then lurched back through the dark on our bikes – a few interesting moments in loose gravel, not helped by the bottle of Domaine de La Roque we’d consumed.  The lovely thing about French wine – even when it’s a rough red, it SOUNDS really good.  As does Langue de Boeuf, which the husband ate that night – sounds much more appetizing than beef tongue, doesn’t it?


Lunch on Board our Canal Boat.

Boating into and out of Trèbes, you are escorted by the swan.  A graceful white beast with exquisite manners, it seems to know that boaties love their baguettes fresh, so it’s there to help with recycling the day-old stuff.  It’s worth feeding it, just to watch it angle down graciously to pick up the bread from the water.  The ever present ducks are another matter.  After a few mornings of waking up to the sound of them squabbling as they clean the side of your boat, the words duck and confit just seem to fit naturally together.

Cruising back down towards Homps, we stopped and looked at small villages on the way.  We shared the locks with two boats full of what we took to be English people, and one German couple in a tiny fizz-boat.  He was rotund of belly and red of face, and wore a large straw hat.  She was willowy with masses of blonde curly hair, and didn’t seem to mind when he barked orders at her.  The little boat had a green sun umbrella on top, and looked for all the world like a little cocktail floating down the canal in between penichettes and barges.

We moored between locks at Puichéric that night, and got on our bikes to explore the village for a restaurant.  As we biked over the bridge, we were called to the two boats we’d shared locks with, which contained a party of 9 residents of Guernsey – Guerns, they call themselves.  Onto a boat we clambered, and got to know them over some muscular gins, then a reconnaissance party arrived back to say they’d found a restaurant.  Invited to join them, we found ourselves at a table of 11, stretched right across the tiny restaurant, and having a wonderfully noisy evening.    Yet another wobbly ride back through dark roads – fortunately, these little roads have little or no traffic on them!

We stopped at Homps long enough to pick up some supplies, including some clothes pegs which took no end of ingenuity for me to explain to the shopkeeper.  For future reference, they are known as minces de ligne.  We then set sail for Ventenac-en-Minervois, further east from our pick up and drop off point.  The canal is very beautiful on this stage – tree-lined and tranquil, with vineyards stretching out to blue-purple mountains in the distance, the occasional tower or small village coming into view.  I negotiated with some trepidation the narrow bridge Pont-Canal de Répudre, built by Riquet, the original designer of the Canal de Midi, in the seventeenth century.

We arrived at Ventenac at about 6pm, to find it was closed on the Wednesday.  Tant pis, we had our supplies on board, including a rabbit pie that I had been unable to resist buying in Homps, so we were very happy to eat on the canal, with the water lapping at the sides of the boat, and the soft light of southern France fading gently.  As it faded, black tree trunks stood out in relief, reflected in the still water, the hills smoky ink-blue, and the sky pearly.  It was a magic night.

After a set of breakfast treats from the tiny boulangerie, we set off for Le Somail – our furthest point.  It is a very pretty little town, with a floating épicerie, library, galleries and restaurants.  We biked around the town and saw the Le Somail version of housewives – yet another Audrey Tatou and Brigette Bardot.  The town was full of middle-aged English people obviously on a painting holiday.  They were lined up along the canal with their folding chairs and easels, and there was certainly no shortage of material for them to paint.

Eventually, we headed back up the canal, stopping at Rubia for lunch, then traveling the short stretch to Argens-Minervois.  We stayed just outside the town for the night, so that we could return the boat at the appointed time the next morning.  We biked around the town, up into the old city, and out into the countryside a bit.  This town was also closed, so we ate an odd assortment of food to finish up our supplies, and cleaned up the boat.

Dropping it off the next day was rather sad.  We’d got very fond of our Ognon, and it felt like we were losing a friend when we took out bags off and drove away from the port.  Altogether, we’d had a wonderful time, but we could have stayed longer.  A week is enough time to get into the swing of canal boating, but not enough to really explore the region thoroughly on bikes or foot.   

Often, you feel like you’re living a cliché.  The bikes, the baguettes, the wines, the scenery – it feels like you’re in a movie filled with all the French stereotypes.  You can take side trips, walk or bike along the tow road, you meet lots of people from different countries, you can read, sleep, or just sit there, watching the trees and vineyards glide by, inhaling the slightly rotten, sweet scent of the grape harvest, and dreaming.

If you are in danger of getting bored, there are always the locks, where you see drama and excitement – hell, sometimes you cause it!  The lock-keepers are all different, mostly very pleasant, some surly.  You can buy produce in the locks – honey, wine, fresh fruit and vegetables, and sometimes you can engage the keepers in conversation if you’re brave.  And always you leave with an au revoir, merci, and get an answering wave.

Will I do it again?  You bet – in a heartbeat!  I can’t think of a better way to see a country.


With thanks to a happy traveller of mine for sharing her story with me.

Canards from the Canal du Midi

Diary of a Dilettante

Written by Paddy Austin, Christchurch, NZ


French travel specialist John Reese has invested two decades in changing the way Kiwis feel about France, he tells Cameron Williamson of the Dominion Post Wellington (NZ)

To sit in the garden of Renoir’s house, sketching 1000 year old olive trees and hearing the stories of the land, is John Reese’s kind of travel.

Twenty years into a plan to develop an international business that involved his family, the proprietor of France-The French Way is flushed with success. He and his wife Andrea, a Christchurch caterer, organise French travel for their New Zealand clientele and spend European summers based at their central Paris apartment overlooking Notre Dame.

An Evening with Renoir

He’s as much a storyteller as a tour guide: “The history-histoire is a French word- behind the landscapes and buildings and countryside is the lifeblood of France” he says.

Establishing his travel business in a pre-internet world with a dearth of quality information about exploring France, Reese found his challenge was to confront the “not another bloody Cathedral” scepticism of Kiwi travellers. As a bilingual guide with a deep understanding of la vie francaise, Reese gets his kicks from seeing travellers listening, in a café or pub, to stories of France and thinking “that’s really interesting”.

France-The French Way has grown dramatically in 20 years, but has never stopped being a specialist. While travel agents constantly badger Reese to expand into Spain or Italy, his French speciality is his strength. “Some tours we go past Monaco to Venice and down the coast of Croatia, but it’s Franc we know, and a style of holiday we sell,” he says.

Having lived through Christchurch’s earthquakes, John Reese has seen a change in the way New Zealanders want to holiday: ”It’s a kind of post-depression, post-apocalypse mentality which says “Life’s too short, we want to live well now”. “So rather than being miserable, with money that they were going to give to the kids, they’re looking to spend a month, or two months, or six months in a comfortable village, using the language, eating local produce, living well.”

The Reeses infected their kids with the travel bug early, and at 21 and 23, both are confirmed internationalists. While their son Alexander pursues a cricket business in India, daughter Sarah studied arts and film at Louis Lumière College in Paris, and now directs New Zealand’s resurgent French Film Festival, showing in Wellington until Sunday.

She has invited her father to address the audience at Renoir tomorrow evening to give them a feeling for the inspiration a sojourn in the South of France can offer.

The film is set on the Cote d’Azur in 1915 and visits Pierre-Auguste Renoir in his twilight years, arthritic and sad. When a young girl miraculously enters his world, the old painter is filled with a new energy. The film is reportedly a visual delight and captures the Mediterranean light and landscapes, says Sarah. “It’s the cheapest and easiest way to enjoy a trip to France.”

Shakespeare in Paris


The shopfront of the Shakespeare and Co Bookshop

To be lost in a world of words can be as exciting as a visit to the Louvre.

To be lost in a world of books, is the experience of visiting the Shakespeare & Co Bookshop in Paris.

All tourists make a visit to Notre Dame Cathedral during their time in Paris. But unbeknown to the vast majority of visitors, only two hundred metres away sits one of the most enchanting spots of Paris.

There have been two Shakespeare bookshops in Paris. The first Shakespeare Bookshop was in the St Germain district run by the well know Sylvia Beach. This was a frequent meeting place for authors such as Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, to name a few. The bookshop was forced to be closed by the Nazis during the Second World War and never re-opened.

Books of any vintage are here for you to enjoy!


The second bookshop was by the Notre Dame Cathedral at 37 rue de la Bucherie in the 5th arrondissement, and it was called “Le Mistral”, and owned by a George Whitman. Following the death of Sylvia Beach, he re-named his shop after her, and called it the “Shakespeare Bookshop” in 1964. In the early 80’s following the birth of Whitman’s only daughter, he named her Sylvia Beach Wakeman, after the owner of the original Shakespeare Bookshop. The present owner and manager of the Shakespeare Bookshop is that daughter, Sylvia Beach Wakeman. The original owner, George Whitman passed away aged 98 in December 2011.

George Whitman was quoted as saying,

Some people call me the Don Quixote of the Latin Quarter because my head is so far up in the clouds that I can imagine that all of us are angels in paradise.

For literary students the Shakespeare Bookshop has become mecca for English literature. Within the bookshop there are even beds positioned between the bookcases for students to sleep, providing they help out with chores in the bookshop! There is also a piano on the second floor, where you can often find a young student playing, while another student lies reading on one of the beds.


A visit here is a trip into literary paradise!

For someone who loves books, a visit here is a journey into the past, into the world of Ernest Hemingway. Woody Allen featured this bookshop in his recent movie “Midnight in Paris”, and when you visit the shop you may not stumble across James Joyce, but close your eyes and you’ll hear him typing his latest chapter on the typewriter in the next room!


At any time of the day you will find the shop open to visit.


From the front door of the Shakespeare and Co Bookshop, this is your view to Notre Dame Cathedral

Guts, steely determination, bravery and drinking skills characterised this amazing woman from NZ and Australia, who was at one stage Hitler’s most wanted woman. On the 30 August this year it will be 100 years since her birth in Wellington NZ, and gives us a moment to reflect on one of the bravest wartime heroines over the last 100 years.

Nancy Wake was born in Wellington NZ, but spent her youth living in Australia, and with her desire to see the world she ran away from home when she was 16 years old. With the help of an inheritance she travelled to London where she desperately needed a job. She saw an advertisement for a foreign journalist’s job on the Reuters Arab desk. At her interview, they asked her how her written Arabic was, and remembering her short hand writing course at Sydney before her trip to London replied “it’s very good”, and then proceeded to write in shorthand, fooling the interviewee into thinking she was writing Arabic – she got the job!

She was a knock-out of a lady and turned heads at every corner and bar! She lived in Paris and soon became an expert at balancing her cigarette delicately and sensuously in her fingers whilst drinking from her glass of red wine whilst sitting at a street-side café – a habit that would have been frowned on in Sydney or London at the time, but this was Paris!

Legion d'Honneur awarded to Nancy Wake by the French Government


Just prior to the occupation of France by the Germans in 1940, Nancy Wake married a wealthy trader from Marseille, where they lived. She became heavily involved in the resistance network. This network became harder and harder until the Germans also occupied the south of France and by 1943 life was exceptionally difficult for the French and Nancy Wake in the south. Nancy Wake was heavily involved in the escape network from the south of France, through to Toulouse, and across the Pyrenees Mountains, to freedom in Spain and then the repatriation of escapees to the United Kingdom.  Hitler was personally interested in Nancy’s arrest and placed a large reward on her capture – he was besotted and annoyed by this “Souris Blanc”, the “white mouse” the name by which she was known. She was then required to use the network of escape she had helped establish and after many narrow escapes with the Gestapo she finally managed to cross the Pyrenees in mid-winter to her subsequent freedom in Spain, prior to her return to London.

Whilst is London, Nancy prepared for the Normandy invasion, by learning by heart thousands of codes that would be required once she had been “deposited” by parachute just prior to the invasion in central France. She was parachuted into the Auvergne region and when she landed, she landed hanging from a tree. The local band of resistance fighters came to rescue her from the tree, and one bright spark commented, “I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year,” to which she replied, “Don’t give me that French shit.” Such was her habit of saying just what she thought!

Her honesty was brutal, her good looks were impressive, but her ability to drink the men under a table in evening drinking games was legendary, and helped her in gaining a healthy respect from their initial reluctance at having a lady as their leader. She would be the last to leave a bar after drinking heavily, often finishing at 5am, only to be demanding the troops be on parade early the next morning!

Her role was to coordinate the resistance fighters in this region and to prepare for the invasion. When the invasion occurred she needed to ensure that all the German troops were prevented from rushing to Normandy to assist in the defence of that region, so they became expert at demolishing railway and road bridges, bombing German convoys. The efforts were admirable and played a part in the eventual liberation of France. She fought beside men, she carried out daring dangerous deeds, whilst coordinating the troops of the region. She never hesitated in killing the enemy, sometimes with her bare hands, and as a 92 year old, Peter Fitzsimmons (in his book mentioned below) recounts her saying that the only thing she regretted is that she didn’t kill enough Germans – she didn’t like them!!

After the war Nancy Wake was largely unrecognized although in her later life she was recognized by the French government with their top award of a Legion d’Honneur, and the Australian government officially recognized her achievements. The NZ government offered her no official recognition, although in Wellington there is a memorial post dedicated to her on Oriental Parade, which came about through a local initiative rather than a national recognition! She died on 7 August 2011 at the age of 98.

If you are interested in reading more about Nancy Wake, a recent book which is a “must read” is by the Australian author (and ex rugby player) Peter Fitzsimons.  This is an enthralling book, titled “Nancy Wake, a Biography of our Greatest War Heroine” (by Harper Collins Australia, 2001 (ISBN 0 7322 6919 9)).

It’s been quite a weekend for Europe. A new president for France, and electoral upheaval in Greece, adding to the risks of an unsettled Euro zone.

But for Francois Hollande things couldn’t be better. A man who would be equally comfortable living as a butcher in a rural French village, has now ascended to the Elysée Palace as the new President of France.  Here is a man, who as only a 15 year old once told a school friend’s parent that when he grew up he was going to be the President of the Republic – certainly a few steps up from being a fireman! But there’s nothing wrong with being a fireman, I hear you say!

Flags Fly for New President!

Of course the full picture won’t be known in France until the parliamentary elections take place in the first weeks of June this year.

Hollande has been lucky that his opposition candidate was Nicolas Sarkozy, who has statistically been crowned the most unpopular President of all time. I have heard from many friends who have commented that their vote wasn’t so much a vote for Hollande, but a vote against Sarkozy. But will voting for Hollande have been a clever move for them?

Hollande has several major plans for the future:

  • Head away from “austerity” and instead try and create growth through spending. This alone will create much discussion and tension throughout the Eurozone and where it will lead is uncertain although some commentators fear it will be the beginning of the end of the Euro zone as we know it.
  • Create more than 60,000 jobs in the schooling sector.
  • Reduce the retirement age back to 60 years old. As someone in their 50’s I wouldn’t want to stop working then!
  • More support for the arts and culture.
  • Higher tax rates for the wealthy at up to 75%!

What the reality will be in the next year is anyone’s guess. Whilst running huge deficits and still proceeding with achieving his electoral aims, only time will tell whether these aims are achievable.

As I overheard one man say “they will be ringing the bells tonight, but they’ll be wringing their hands tomorrow”.

Vive la France!




Life on the other side of the world in New Zealand is quietly perfect. New Zealanders read their newspapers and watch their TV news broadcasts of shattering international events. Tsunamis in Asia, civil wars through the Middle East, raging fires and floods in Australia.  We read of airplane and train crashes in all continents and in our peaceful towns our hearts go out to all those who suffer through these terrible events.

Merivale Church, Christchurch

Things changed for us though one year ago on 22 February 2011. The Christchurch earthquakes which claimed so many lives have continued over the last year to tease and stress the citizens. Like a drunken monster the earthquakes refuse to give us a break.

Families live in tents. Professional businessmen live in caravans. Businesses have been lost as 80% of central city buildings are demolished. For the rare few, like myself, our homes have been returned to normal, even though this doesn’t really seem fair to the others.

There are heroes everywhere around me. People who dug strangers out of the rubble, strangers who baked for us, volunteers who helped anyone but themselves. Around me are people, friends, who have survived the most extraordinary natural disaster you can imagine – but here a disaster that doesn’t go away, that doesn’t move off to another victim on the other side of the world. Who knows the next terrifying earthquake could be at the end of this sentence.

Even though I sit here with a heavy heart full of invisible tears, I see superb examples of the strength of the human spirit, a strength that just doesn’t give up, a strength that keeps looking to the future. We all know that this scene from a terror movie will come to an end, and we have this feeling that the bright light at the end of it all will keep our hopes alive. Even though residents are living amidst such utter sadness we must celebrate Christchurch and its citizens and their example of strength and commitment, and if you could give a moment to think of Christchurch on this day, this will help us all!


Local Shops near my home in Merivale - these have now been demolished.


Woops, another earthquake and my office ends up on the floor, again!


Photo Essay Christchurch Earthquakes: (with thanks to Elise Rutherford and Alexander Reese, and Matador Life)

From 29 February – 4 April 2012 a fabulous selection of French films will be gracing New Zealand screens during the sixth annual Alliance Française French Film Festival.

Proudly sponsored by L’Oréal Paris, the Alliance Française French Film Festival offers a comprehensive national programme over five weeks and nine cities, making it the biggest French cultural event in New Zealand.

This year the Festival’s selection includes some of the finest recent French film releases including the Valérie Donzelli’s ‘chef d’oeuvre’ Declaration of War (opening night film), Yann Samuell’s remake of the classic The War of the Buttons, and Christophe Honoré’s new musical Beloved starring the iconic Catherine Deneuve.

Another film that will be making its New Zealand début is Philippe Guillard’s first feature film Jo’s Boyabout a small township in the south of France and their love for rugby. Guillard, a former rugby player himself, promised people that he’d run around the Arc de Triomphe naked if 500,000 people went to see his ‘little film’ about life amongst the rugby people of France’s south-west who recruit a kiwi named Jonah to help save their village team. Little did he know, his guess turned out to be too modest – by half! It is stories like these that make French cinema such a loveable art form.

After attending the Christchurch media launch of the Festival last week, I was not only impressed by this year’s line-up but also at the Festival’s dedication to promoting French language and culture within our New Zealand society.

Declaration of War will be premiered at the Christchurch opening night on Wednesday 29 February.

Film-making is seen as a way of not only protecting and documenting French culture, but advancing it as well. It is truly a treasured form of culture, which the French hold dear. The French inject their values, history and sense of humour into their films, creating a memorable cinematic experience for all involved. The Alliance Francaise French Film Festival is New Zealand’s way of showcasing this French talent, and celebrating their respect for and achievements in the international film industry.

I urge all of you in New Zealand to go out and buy tickets to this fabulous event with all your friends and family. What a perfect (and cheap) way to be transported to France for an hour and a half!

The Alliance Française French Film Festival will open in Christchurch at Hoyts Northlands on February 29, 5:45pm for the 6:30pm New Zealand premiere of Donzelli’s Declaration of War. $25 ticket price includes drinks, nibbles, L’Oréal Paris goodie bags and the screening. Tickets available at the cinema or on www.hoyts.co.nz

For all other information about the opening nights in other cities and the film selection, please visit the official website www.frenchfilmfestival.co.nz

Beloved - the new musical by Christophe Honore starring Catherine Deneuve and her real-life daughter Chiara Mastroianni

South of France + rugby + French cinema = perfection!

Yann Samuell's smash-hit adaptation of Louis Pergaud's 1912 novel, The War of the Buttons


Actually the boys decorated the tree, and cut it from the forest!

Another year has gone by. The tree is decorated and the ham is being glazed as we speak!

I’d like to take this opportunity of thanking you for so loyally following my travel blog through 2011.

I have loved the opportunity of sharing once a week with you my stories and experiences of travelling in France. Christmas is such a special time to reflect on everything.

It has been a traumatic year for my family and friends in New Zealand, and they will all be eagerly awaiting 2012. The continual earthquakes in Christchurch have exhausted everyone and we think at this time of all those still suffering and missing family members. As you will have read we have just had more major shakes on 23 December. It is a very testing time, but Kiwis are very strong people, so we will be OK!

I have been fortunate to travel for several months through France and Portugal, while my family continued to be shaken by quakes back in NZ.

I have loved writing stories for you and this year I have been very happy to be regularly receiving around 1000 plus readers a week. My most popular stories have been:

Carcassonne – I was there in the year 1209.

Portugal Photo Paradise

Edith Piaf – The Sparrow and the Rose

Auvers sur Oise – Dining with Vincent Van Gogh

I am spending Christmas with my family in Christchurch (NZ) and will spend time as well on a secluded beach somewhere warm! But I do love thinking of my friends in Paris and elsewhere in France. There it’s cold, the decoration lights are draped over all the shop fronts, the oyster sellers sell from the footpaths their longed-for Christmas treat, the smell of mulled wine emanates from the man selling his “vin chaud” on the corner of our street, and the queues at the chocolate shop extend out on to the footpath.

Our Christmas tree at home.


Have a wonderful Christmas wherever you are in the world and I look forward to 2012 to share more stories of this wonderful country France, and who knows you may even want to treat yourself to a trip there in the new year.

Joyeux Noel et je vous souhaite un nouvel an d’exception!

Tous mes meilleurs voeux pour un Joyeux Noel et un 2012 d'exception!


Lessons from the Louvre – Part 3

This is the third part of my series on paintings in the Louvre. This is my attempt to cure those suffering from MLS syndrome, and opening your eyes to art highlights other than the Mona Lisa! Over the next month there will be weekly articles on my highlights, which tend not to be the normal selections! I last wrote about the Kim Kardashian of the 1600s, featuring Marie de Medici. If you don’t want to miss out on my next articles on the Louvre please just click on the “Blog Notification” button just to the right.

We all lead very busy lives. There are always deadlines and appointments to make. One of my greatest treats is to be able to visit the Louvre and sit and look at one painting.

The painting I am going to share with you today is “Atala in the Tomb” painted by Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson.

The inspiration of this painting came from the tragic love story of the French author Chateaubriand called “The Two Loves of Two Savages in the Desert”.

This painting tells the story of the Christian maiden Atala, who frees the Indian brave Chactas from his enemies and finds refuge with him in the cave of the religious hermit Father Aubry. Having consecrated herself to God and a life of chastity, Atala takes poison when she fears that she is falling in love with Chactas. After her death, Chactas vows to become a Christian himself.


Atala in the Tomb

Words are not really required to describe the scene. We have a heart-breaking image of purity, beauty, despair and sensuality, as Chactas clings to Atala’s legs refusing to lay her in the tomb, which he has already prepared. I think we have all experienced similar grief at some stage of our lives – the pain of having to say goodbye, of having to let go? We see Atala draped lightly in a white sheet with the last of the day’s sun making her radiate light, as if she were still alive, her hands clasped as if in prayer. She had such a struggle between her spiritual values of faith and her sensual values of love, but we look out of the cave to see the cross on the hill, which in a way reminds the viewer of the Christian promise of eternal life. 

If you click on the photo of the painting you will make out some writing etched on the wall of the cave. These words are from the book of Job and they read in French  “I have faded like a flower, I have withered like the grass in the fields”.

So click on the photo to enlarge it, and take a moment looking at the painting, and feel the pain in this story of forbidden love.

To find “Atala in the Tomb” in the Louvre:

The room where this painting is located is my favourite room in the whole Louvre. You just follow signs to French 19th century! Here you also have stunning collections of David, Ingres et al, as well as this painting by Girodet.

Denon wing
1st Floor (ground floor, first floor)
Room 75

Lessons from the Louvre – Part 2: This is the second part of my series on paintings in the Louvre. This is my attempt to cure those suffering from MLS syndrome, and opening your eyes to art highlights other than the Mona Lisa! Over the next month there will be weekly articles on my highlights, which tend not to be the normal selections! If you don’t want to miss out on my next articles on the Louvre please just click on the “Blog Notification” button just to the right.

You wouldn’t imagine finding Kim Kardashian featuring strongly on the gallery walls of the Louvre.  Or would you? She just dumped her husband of 70 days to the glare of the world press. People have flocked to news sites to read the latest gossip. But you could go to the Louvre and do exactly the same!

Imagine this. Your Dad who is one of the wealthiest men around decides to get you married off. He finds a dapper unmarried man, pays him a fortune to marry his unattractive daughter. She gets married to him by proxy i.e. he didn’t even turn up, but sent his lawyer to sign the documents! He’s a womaniser and regularly has mistresses on the side – sounds like DSK (Dominique Strauss-Kahn)? She has a child, then quietly arranges his murder, then spends the rest of her life telling everyone how brilliant she is, and terrorising her dead husband’s mistresses and son!! It’d be a good reality TV show!

No I think Kim Kardashian is quite tame compared with what we have here. Nothing can compare with this woman in history who features predominantly in the Louvre! 

Marie de Medici - hardly flattering!

This story is about the second wife of the great French king, Henri IV. She, Marie de Medici came from one of the wealthiest Italian families. Henri IV was divorced to his previous wife while king, and so the Medicis family arranged for this “business” connection for their daughter. Their child, Louis X111 was born in the first year of their marriage. For the next ten years she was the wife of the King of France, but wanted to be Queen in her own right, and eventually in 1610 she was crowned in St Denis Cathedral in Paris. But you can’t imagine the next step. Within ten hours of her coronation her husband was dead from an assassination, with Marie having arranged his death. She was to rule as Queen Regent of France until her son Louis X111 was of age (15yrs). She refused this transfer of rule to her son, until her son expelled her from Paris to the Loire Valley when he was 17 years old. Upon her expulsion  from Paris, she promptly tried unsuccessfully, with the help of another son, to plot the overthrow of Louis X111.

So where does this story fit in to the Louvre.

Eventually her son allowed her back in to Paris in the early 1620s. At this time she began constructing herself a home, which became the Luxembourg Palace (formerly the Medicis Palace), and she wanted to decorate the palace with paintings celebrating her wonderful life!

Marie de Medici commissioned the Flemish painter Paul Rubens to paint two large series of paintings; one to celebrate her life, and one to celebrate that of her dead husband. The latter series was never done! So Paul Rubens ended up painting a series of 24 paintings recounting Marie’s life from her birth, through to her reign – these paintings  were enormous being up to 7 metres by 4 metres in size!

But there were two major problems for Paul Rubens. Firstly Marie de Medicis was a most unfortunately unattractive woman, and as she was the one paying the bills it was very difficult for Rubens to portray her in a correct truthful manner. Secondly it was very difficult for the artist to portray this woman who was particularly uninteresting, and never did anything positive or constructive for France.  

This series of paintings used to be displayed in the Luxembourg Palace but now can been see in the Louvre.  So when you look at this collection of paintings you look at the techniques used by Rubens to try and portray the life of Marie de Medici whilst at the same time always trying not to lie, but also trying to even show her up. There are moments for example where during the wedding scene, at her feet can be seen two dogs that are nonchalantly sitting there licking their private parts, or when viewing her arrival by boat to Marseille, in the front of the scene are three voluptuous nude women who completely take over from the presence of Marie – both clever techniques by the artist at “mocking” his subject matter!  

After her wedding in Italy (husband not present!) she arrived in Marseille. Note how the nude voluptuous ladies take over, and Marie is made to not stand out at all.

Below is the largest and most important paintings of all. The purpose of this painting is to show Marie accepting the governance to rule France following her husband’s murder. But you will see it’s not all about Marie! Rubens cleverly features the spirit of Henri IV being carried respectively to heaven – on his way to divine life. Under him is a snake with an arrow threw it, to remind the viewers not to forget that there is a more sinister side to the story. On the other side of the painting Marie is looking fairly insignificant but has the people “celebrating” her ascendency to power, which must have made her feel really good. But if the painting is to celebrate Marie, why is she such an insignificant part of the painting – Rubens is hard at work here!


On the left of this you can see Henri IV ascending to heaven while the people of France celebrate her ascendency to rule France - Paul Rubens really "crawls" to Marie here. We are reminded that Henri has been killed - you can see the snakes with arrows under Henri - just don't forget you arranged his murder!! Copyright Musee du Louvre

These 24 paintings form what is known as the Medicis Cycle and appear in the Louvre in one room exclusively. When you visit here there is no fighting for camera position, as you will be lucky to hardly see  anyone in the room. Sit back and study in detail the life of this reality star of the 17th century, but while looking, understand and observe the humour and struggles of the painter Paul Rubens. I find the series hugely entertaining and impressive, and ask you to make an effort to visit.

To find the Medicis cycle in the Louvre:

Richelieu wing, 2nd Floor,  Room 18


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