Having recently spent a wonderful week in Paris, John Reese asked us to write about the “Velib” cycle sharing system which we used with great success during our stay.  We thoroughly recommend you give it a go. Velib logo3

You’ll see the bikes parked in stations all over Paris – there are 1,800 stations (one every 300 metres apparently).  The bikes are comfortable, easy to ride and a brilliant way to get around to see a lot more of the city than you would just walking.  Some cities provide a similar system for residents only (Barcelona is one example), but in Paris Velib can (and should) be used by tourists as well.

The system is easy to use with an excellent App to help find bike stations, telling you how many bikes are available, or how many spare spaces there are if you want to park a bike.  Inevitably, you’ll sometimes find a station that’s completely empty when you want a bike, or completely full when you want to return one, so it’s helpful to know where the next closest one is – the App is brilliant for that and is highly recommended.

You can set yourself up to use the system at the machines which are at each station, but it’s quite complicated so we strongly recommend doing it in advance on the website which is very user friendly.

The English version of the website is http://en.velib.paris.fr and it will explain everything in full. Velib bike

For a brief overview, here’s what you’ll need to do:

Buying a Ticket for the day

  • Buy either a 1-day or a 7-day ticket on the “How it Works” tab on the website (we used 1-day tickets three times during our week as we didn’t want to bike every day). Note:  You’ll need to do this for each person using the bikes as there doesn’t seem to be a way to buy multiple tickets at once.
  • You’ll be prompted to select a 4-digit PIN number that you can remember
  • The cost of tickets is currently €70 for 1 day and €8.00 for 7 days then you pay for the bikes by the hour (more on that and how to avoid it shortly)
  • You’ll receive an email with a ticket number which you’ll use to identify yourself at the machines at the stations, along with your 4-digit PIN
  • Download the Velib App to your smart phone

Getting a Bike

  • Select a bike (avoid any with the seat turned backwards – that’s the sign that a user has found a fault with that bike and it needs repair)
  • Have a quick look to ensure the tyres are inflated and nothing looks damaged
  • Follow the instructions on the machine (select the language you want right at the start)
  • Identify yourself with your ticket number and PIN
  • Select the bike number you want
  • Wait for the green light, then take your bike, adjust the seat and you’re off.

Returning a Bike

  • Line up the front of your bike with the bike post and push it in firmly. You may have to adjust the angle slightly the first time, but you’ll get the hang of it quickly
  • You’ll see an orange light, then green, then 2 beeps. That means it’s locked successfully.
  • It’s really important that this happens, or the system will think you still have the bike and you can then be charged €150 per day. There are instructions on what to do if you’re not sure.

Do it for Free!!

  • The first 30 minutes is free, so if you return your bike before 30 minutes is up, you can then take it, or another one, for another 30 minutes, and so on, and only pay the initial ticket fee.
  • You must wait about 2-3 minutes after you return a bike before you can take it out again.
  • It’s fun challenging yourself to try to use them free for a whole day – make a game of it and check the time regularly. Be careful not to leave it too close to the time in case you can’t find a spare parking space!

The Cost

  • If you go past the 30 minutes, the charge on top of your ticket fee increases with the length of use as follows:
  • 1st additional 30 minutes: €1
  • 2nd additional 30 minutes: €2
  • 3rd and subsequent additional 30 minute periods: €4
  • As you can see, it can get quite expensive if you keep a bike for a few hours, so it makes sense to return them regularly. No doubt you’ll want to get off and explore things on foot from time to time anyway.

 A few notes about riding in Paris

  • There are A LOT of dedicated cycle lanes which are clearly marked and very safe to use. Some even go the wrong way down one way streets – don’t worry, it works (somehow).
  • If there’s no cycle lane, a lot of footpaths seem to be ok to ride on with care
  • Be confident but careful on roads without cycle lanes – the drivers all managed to miss us! We even biked right up the Champs Elysees without a problem (although we did decide not to take on the circus at the Arc de Triomphe!)
  • Explore places you wouldn’t get to otherwise, stop regularly for refreshments and above all, enjoy feeling like a local Parisian. Enjoy!!

Here’s a fun video of John and his son Alexander biking through Paris!


Happy Cycling in Paris.

Rob and Jane

I have chosen a life which lives in two countries. France. New Zealand.

When we bought an apartment in the Latin Quarter of Paris I was overcome by the fact that our building had been built over four hundred years before. It was this knowledge that made me dream of everything the walls of our Paris home had seen throughout history. Through my dreams I was regularly transported to another time in history.

Eleanor d'Aquitaine

Eleanor d’Aquitaine

Dreams by their nature know no chronology, and as a result found that my dreams were constantly mixing different periods into one. Going to sleep at night allowed me to spend memorable evenings with Henry IV (16th century) and Napoleon Bonaparte (19th century)! Even Jeanne d’Arc (15th century) would appear, while sitting on the banks of the Ile de la Cité with Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Queen of France (12th century). The pleasure of discussing each other’s achievements whilst sitting with someone from Christchurch was an experience to be treasured! These are some of the “friends” I have met while in Paris, all in the landscape of time.

While in Paris, living in the oldest “quartier” has awoken my senses, and at times I almost feel burdened by the events and stories of history. As I walk past buildings, churches and ancient market places I feel the people and events around me. To walk the 200 metres to our local market square, Place Maubert, I can travel for 2000 years and more. In such a short distance I can imagine the Roman settlers heading to the thermal baths nearby and even visit their amphitheatre, and I can see the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims marching along our street to their pilgrimage site in Santiago de Campostella some 1000 years ago. I pass the church which has stood for 1400 years and has constantly given locals guidance and hope for their lives. I see Henry IV, again, some 500 years ago as he rides his white horse, soon to be assassinated at the hands of a paid-assassin. I walk through the square where only 200 years earlier a guillotine was permanently set up to dispense ultimate justice to petty thieves. I pass the school where hundreds of Jewish children were “deported” to their ultimate deaths 70 years ago. I pass the spot where teenage conscripts were shot by snipers in August 1944 as they attempted single-handedly to liberate their home town. I pass where barricades stood in 1968 and where cobbled streets were turned into weapons against government forces protecting the country’s motto of “Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood”.  I touch buildings while I walk feeling the stories of families through the ages, and of their struggles and joys experienced in different times.

Henri IV, King of France

Henri IV, King of France

Walking from my apartment to my market square at Place Maubert takes me on a journey of 80 generations.

A friend in New Zealand once questioned incredulously what my family could possibly do in Paris for a two week period. For me a journey of 200 metres can take merely three minutes in our holiday, but the pleasures and depth of local stories endure a life time. I have begun to realise that the more you learn, the more you realise how little you actually know. So spending a short two weeks in Paris can barely do justice to the tales of time.

How does this leave me feeling when living in New Zealand? Living in such a young country I feel that I have a freedom of spirit, where the lack of history and stories allows me to savour more our own place in the world. We have time to digest the gentle pace and rhythms of nature. But through this we suffer from isolation. Isolation in our own societies and isolation geographically. In our lives one can live entrapped by our 800 square metre fenced sections, where you can go for a week without meeting anyone. Whereas in Europe societies live on top of each other, where you never find yourself more than a few metres from another family – through a wall, beneath you, above you, beside you. In France you will find your bakery, or your butcher only a few minutes’ walk away, and it is these places that become the pulse, the listening post of a nation, the place for the gossip of the day!

I am fortunate because I feel that I live in two places. France is my parallel other existence. Part of me lives there while another self, continues to enjoy and live in the verdant serenity of New Zealand. Wherever I am at any one time, the other self is happily living in the other place. I am lucky.

I’ve calculated that since my children started travelling with my wife and I, we as a family have travelled nearly 5 million kilometres.

That’s a lot of airline meals, and a lot of experiences!

There are three things that I particularly like about travelling with your kids:

  1. Giving your children the opportunity to travel as a family in different countries is one of the greatest gifts you can give a child. You give them the precious opportunity of opening their eyes to different cultures and languages, different attitudes and diets. Using my words, I like to refer to this as the “internationalising” of the young!
  2. Spending extended periods together as a family is to be treasured. Too often in our busy lives we can overlook the chance to spend this quality time together, and being away from home means that there are less distractions for all of us to head our separate ways!
  3. I love introducing the children to history! Travelling through Europe allows you the chance to open their eyes to exciting stories all around you. When my children were 10 and 12 years old respectively I remember taking them to see the Bayeux Tapestry in France. I thought that this could be a little heavy for them, but at the end of learning all about William the Conqueror and his invasion of England, when we exited the museum they both asked me if we could re-visit it on another day. Never under-estimate the mind of your young.

But there are a number of ways when travelling around that can make your life very much easier for you.

That's me with my son in Eguisheim - trying to keep warm!!

That’s me with my son in Eguisheim – trying to keep warm!!

Your Itinerary

I always advise my travellers that the more times you move on your holiday the more likely you will have a mutiny! A constant flow of one or two night stays is a killer to your holiday, even though when planning your trip it sounds achievable from the comfort of your home. Slow down and see more by staying longer in each place.

Your Packing

Only take enough luggage that you can all move with unaided. You will always have to move with your luggage through airports, train station etc. so no matter what the age of your children keep the sizes of luggage and number of extra bags to a minimum. Also for their hand luggage ensure that either it has rollers/wheels on it, or can go on their backs. With hand luggage a common mistake is to overpack! Only take some spare clothes and books/games for the hand luggage, and only enough that it’s not too heavy for them to carry – they have to be able to carry their own bag. Dad won’t thank you if he has to carry three back-packs and a child while pulling two suitcases!

Your Flight

Ensure that everyone wears comfortable clothes, that aren’t too restrictive. There are children’s menus available but before selecting this option just check online what this contains! Nowadays there is plenty of entertainment on a plane, so just let them enjoy it! I’ve seen many kids gorging themselves on fresh orange juice – after many hours of flying the result of this is not attractive after the acid build-up in their stomachs!

Family Travel - up the EiffelTower.

Family Travel – up the Eiffel Tower.


More than ever Security should be at the forefront of any concerns. My approach was always to put in each of the children’s pockets a card with our hotel details, mobile phone numbers, and enough cash for a taxi. This goes as well for the parents – I’ll never forget thinking I had lost my wife in the changing room of a department store, and she had no idea of where the hotel was, let alone what it was called! Of course if they all have mobile phones then this problem is minimised.

The one thing that I have never enjoyed and have avoided with my family – large crowds! Once we went to a fireworks display in Paris and there were nearly one million people present. The sheer volume of people can be frightening and is particularly unsafe if anything goes wrong. Now with terrorist threats this is more so than ever, and we steer well away from these places.


You mustn’t under-estimate your children and what they are going to get out of the things they see. What is amazing is that on a visit with you, they will see something completely different to what you see. For example, at a market place, you will see the ripe Epoisse cheese from Burgundy, whereas your child will have his eyes on the musician next to the cheese-monger. When you make a visit even to a church you will see the beautiful stain glass windows but they may see the Hunchback of Notre Dame climbing through the rafters above! Your children are sponges for learning and they are the luckiest kids alive as you are planning on travelling with them to open their eyes to new experiences and other worlds. There’s nothing more exciting than that!

Escorted Tours 2015: Greek Islands, Italy, France, Portugal and Morocco

For over twenty years I have regularly escorted groups through France and Europe. It is at this time of the year when I love planning where I am going to take people on tour for the following year.

For the year 2015 I have chosen to revisit some of my favourite areas from previous tours. So for next year I will be taking small groups from the Greek Islands, to the “heel of Italy” in Puglia, through to the French Riviera in June. Then in September I will take a small group from the Amalfi Coast through Tuscany to the Italian Riviera and on to Lake Como. Picture perfect! Then for a pre-Rugby World Cup tour I will be travelling through the Dordogne Valley for the first week and then flying to Lisbon, Portugal, to begin 11 days of exciting touring there, before we head to Morocco for the colour and splendours of Fez, Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains.

Why tour with me?

Guide at Work!

Guide at Work!

My passion and speciality over the last twenty years has been France and Europe. Getting to know its people, culture, history, food, wines, festivals and its unique regions better than most. Each tour encompasses many different experiences not just focussing on one thing. I want people to understand the country they are travelling through, to understand the people, and at the same time to be inspired and moved by what they see.  But most importantly I want you to have a holiday – I take the angst out of travelling! I see my role as an educator, an entertainer, and a friend! You can learn more about me here.


So this is what I have planned for 2015:

Greek Islands, Puglia and the French Riviera: 1 to 27 June 2015

We start our tour on the island of Crete where we spend our time exploring and re-living the efforts of NZ and allied troops, before visiting the island of Santorini. From here we are flying from Athens to the south of Italy where we will travel through to the Amalfi Coast for.

Touring in Puglia

Touring in Puglia

While in Puglia we will be living in “trulli” accommodation close to the famous town of Alberobello.

Here we will have one magical week exploring all the area, including visits to the sensational town of Locorotondo and the dazzling town of Ostuni, the cave city of Matera, as well as a day learning how to make pasta! We will then be flying to the south of France for one week staying in the hills around St Paul de Vence. Our focus will be more on the hill towns of the Riviera including the back roads of the Alpes Maritimes seeing places such as Touerettes, Grasse, Gourdon and Vence, than on the waterfront of the Riviera, although we will certainly visit there when visiting some of our favourite galleries.

Amalfi Coast, Tuscany, Italian Riviera and Lake Como: 31 August to 16 September 2015

Positano Perfection!

Positano Perfection!

We will start this tour with five nights staying both in Sorrento and Positano. From these sensational places we will visit Pompeii, buried so horribly by the volcano of Mt Vesuvius. Also we will visit the island of Capri, before heading through to Chianti (Tuscany) for five days where we will explore the region and towns of San Gimigiano, Monteriggione, Siena and Florence, to name a few gems! We will then travel through to the Italian Riviera at Santa Margherita for a stay before we end our tour with three days on the edge of Lake Como positioned in the idyllic Bellagio. We will be ending this tour in Milan.

Dordogne Valley, Portugal and Morocco:  22 September to 18 October

Over the last few years I have travelled often through both the Perigord (Dordogne Valley) and Portugal with a group, and I loved it so much I just had to show more of you these gems. But in 2015 we are going to add ten days in Morocco to the end of our trip.

Village of Limeuil on the banks of the Dordogne River

Village of Limeuil on the banks of the Dordogne River

We will start with 6 nights deep in the Dordogne Valley where we are going to explore the land of Foie Gras, Magret de Canard and perched medieval Chateaux. We are going to explore caves where we will see art work from 20,000 years ago which is as advanced as anything we see today. We will visit the glorious gardens of Eyrignac and enjoy the wonderful rolling green hillsides so rich in forest and fauna. We will see places such as Roque-Gageac, Domme, Sarlat. As we move down the valley toward St Emilion where we will stay at a Chateau amongst the vines we will be in the heart of the vendange (harvest). Tractors laden with grapes will hold us up on the narrow roads as we explore the Premier Cru wines of St Emilion, and Sauternes.

The village of Obidos.

The village of Obidos.

Then we will head to Lisbon, Portugal, where I can’t wait to blow you away with this extraordinary country. We have eleven days in Portugal and we will start in the wonderful city of the great explorers, Lisbon, before travelling to coastal walled villages seeing Obidos and Alcobaca, before heading inland into the rural Alentejo region. Wait to be surprised at this extraordinary land of cork trees and impressive views. Then we proceed to an even greater highlight as we descend in to the renowned Duoro Valley, called the “valley of gold” for a number of reasons. Prepare to have your breath taken away! Then we head to Porto for the last night.

This part of the tour is of exceptional beauty. The scenery and the friendliness of the people take priority over lessons of historical importance, although by the end of our Portugal segment of the tour you will well understand this great country.

Then we fly to Casablanca (Morocco) for the last ten days of our tour. There is the possibility to omit this phase of the tour, in which case your tour would end in Porto on 9 October. In Morocco we are starting in the ancient capital in the majestic Fes, we then travel to Marrakech where all our senses will be thrilled centring around the famous Square Jemaa El Fna’ full of magicians, story tellers, snake charmers and food sellers, and even some lessons on cooking Tangines!  Then we are going to experience the Berber life in the High Atlas mountains getting a taste of a gentle life based around nature. We end our tour at the popular seaside town of Essaouira, with its exciting medina and fish market. What a journey!

There is also the possibility of doing this tour without the Morocco sector included, so you could do just the Dordogne Valley and Portugal from 22 September to 8 October..

Need more information?

If you are interested in joining me on one of these tours, contact me (john@france.co.nz ) and I will send you detailed tour descriptions and prices. Please note that I take between 6 to 8 pers only, so contact me quickly so you don’t miss out on a place!


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)

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