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France 3

18 December

Macca's is much maligned as an obvious example of the globalization of American culture. Like many others we have tut-tutted at the sight of the golden arches at some of Europe's most beautiful and significant sites. But from the back streets of Bucharest to the alley ways of Athens, you can't beat them as a reliable, clean toilet stop! - By the way we have only succumbed to the temptations of an easy standard plastic Mac-meal once!

As the cooler weather bites (thank God!) a certain member of our travelling party requires fairly regular Macca's stops, especially when the consumption of Gluhweiin (heated spiced wine) has been required to ensure the maintenance of the recommended body temperature. And this was definitely the case today. Strasbourg turned on temperatures that hovered around freezing most of the morning until light rain brought a slight relief and a return to 5-6C. Steely grey skies and a cold that bites into your face - great! and just what Christmas is all about here, although...when we checked the weather at a cybercafe today...surprise, surprise!! sunny skies are on their way. We just can't help it. We are Europe's "little rays of sunshine!" 

The city was a bit of a surprise to us. As you would expect, it has a very German appearance. Half-timbered buildings are well preserved throughout the centre of the town. Along side this the city fathers have built what is the most futuristic tram system we have seen. Trams shaped like bullet trains slide through this very compact city of half a million people on a schedule that seems to have a car at any stop within two or three minutes. While its main claim to fame is of course, its cathedral, we found the winding medieval streets interesting as well, especially with the beautiful decorations and lights.

This is the week before Christmas and the 'big spend' is on in full. The cool weather seemed to have no effect at all on the crowds, except for the mysterious disappearance of most of the crowds for 'sleepies' between 12 and 2.00pm. We only intended an over night stop here but we will spend two nights and head off tomorrow on our now very short trek to Paris.

19 December

Drove through Alsace and Lorraine today. Mostly on the autoroute. Evidence of the change of 'landlord' in this area over the past few hundred years is everywhere. Street names are a strange mix of German and French. In some cases streets have two names. The German and French. And one is not just a translation. It is a totally different name! Older buildings are distinctly German and in some villages and towns an obvious effort has been made to retain this influence. Most people here speak German and French and fewer speak English. As a result we have been forced to speak more French than usual. We survive quite well but we still seem to leave some puzzled and amused faces behind us?

A very gloomy day today with fog in the valleys and a light haze elsewhere. Great!  The gloomy weather conditions are counter-balanced by the festive decorations on houses and shops. Santa is much in evidence, climbing ladders to windows, balconies and chimneys - even lounging on window ledges, having achieved his goal! Greenery swathed in red ribbon fills the summer window boxes and big bows of assorted hues adorn the hedges and front doors.

It is getting cold enough not to have to worry about the fridge, which stopped working on 12V some weeks ago. It's fine on 220V when we are in camping grounds and that's usually enough to keep most things cold enough for the day or two that we usually spend in 'freebies'. The only exception has been the beer! On a couple of occasions we have had to force down warm beer! Now, however, the beer we keep in the storage locker under the van is easily cool enough without refrigeration.

Just two weeks ago we were sitting around in shorts and T-shirts at night. Now its full trackies and sox.

20 December

War monuments, particularly those on the scale of those in north-western France, can be seen as either grand nationalistic symbols, or real memorials to those who died on these fields throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Hopefully, in this enlightened age, in the new Europe, they are legitimately seen as the latter.

Millions of Germans and French, thousands of Britons, Americans, Canadians, other Europeans, Indians, Australians, New Zealanders, and Africans lie, mostly in unmarked war graves, within a 150km radius of us tonight.

It is difficult to imagine that the last time we visited Europe, only 13 years ago, the conflicts that caused these atrocities were still a reality in the form of the Cold War and that the trip around continental Europe that we have almost completed would have been virtually impossible.

The battle for the forts around Verdun commenced in June 1916. For 20-30 years before the German advance, the villages around the forts of Vaux and Douaumont, had enjoyed a short period of prosperity as thousands of French garrison troops flooded their small rural villages.

Before the battles of the Great War, the villages were evacuated. Those villages closest to the forts, like Douaumont 5-6kms outside Verdun, first suffered shelling and then, as the battle continued for many months, total annihilation. When the citizens of Douaumont returned to their town in 1919 it was as it is today. 'Not a stone upon a stone.'

Forest growth eventually reclaimed Douaumont, as it did the rest of shell-pocked battlefield. Until 1932, when the French government bought the land in and around the village to establish the current monuments.

Today, the village streets are gravel paths between the shell holes and cleared forest. Small plaques recall the name and occupation of each householder. The village still has a 'charter' and elects a Mayor. It also proudly displays official French town entry and end signs, as does every other city town and village. The descendants of the original inhabitants work on a voluntary basis with forestry workers to maintain the village.....

This is our second visit to Verdun and the sight of the French National monument towering above the thousands of war graves still stops us in our tracks.

On a lighter note, one can't help wondering if the two great wars of the last century had any impact on the German's penchant for roaming over everybody else's territory. They are extremely effective at it today. Every camping ground from the Rhine east to the Bosphorus and west to the Channel is full of them.

21 December 22 December

Charles de Gaulle was our focus for the last couple of days. Having to pick Lizzie up this morning (22 Dec) has been the only fixed date that we have had to work towards for the whole trip so far. We were paranoid! A deadline, for us -the "seasoned travellers" who have roamed the world for the best part of four months not knowing what day it was!

All worked amazingly well. Our planned trial 'dry-run' to the airport ended with us camped in the long-term carpark 'PR', with our own free 5 minute shuttle bus run to the terminals whenever we wished. We took a trial trip yesterday afternoon. Lunch at one of our choice of 20 or so restaurants. A bit of  a shopping and back on the bus to our home by the runway of one of the busiest airports in the world!  -Andů. Oh yes! Charles de Gaulle also has a train connection to central Paris which runs behind carpark PR!

We had planned to get up at 5.40am to jump the shuttle to meet Lizzie's 6.20 flight. As our feet hit the ground at 5.40, the mobile rang with a message: 'I'm here. Where are you?'. All was well. We were fully dressed and 'shuttled' to the terminal just in time for Lizzie's exit from the arrival hall at 6.05.

Fully aware of the pain of jet lag, we dragged her on a quick tour of the villages and towns of the Ile de France. Including Chantilly, which was a very pleasant surprise, and on a nicer day would have warranted a serious look! Then on to the Bois de Boulogne camping grounds in central Paris which thanks to good navigation (for once!) we found immediately. We jumped the bus and Metro into town and 'popped up' at the Arc de Triomphe, shopped the Champs d'Elysees, walked miles, and then realised that poor Lizzie had not slept for 20 hours and was not used to our now frenetic pace... One tired girl is now fast asleep - 4.00pm...

 

23 December

After a cold and overcast day yesterday, we awoke expecting more of the same. But the clear skies had followed us and Paris turned on a spectacular day. While the temperature was only about 10 degrees, at walking pace, this was more than comfortable given the bluest of skies and a bit of warmth from the winter sun.

Parisiennes have a bad reputation for rudeness and in some cases it is well warranted. But the 'big city' principle needs to be applied here. All big cities seem to have more than their proportionate share of 'difficult people' of all types. In Paris, service in shops and most public offices is good. Every now and then though the old 'no-service' for the foreigner seeps in. Such was the case at the camping ground in the Bois de Boulogne, where the - no effort - clause seems to be written into the employment contract!

Shopping filled the first part of the day for the ladies. Those of us with higher cultural sensitivity took in the Georges Pompidou Centre. The National Museum of Modern Art that is housed here may not be to everybody's taste, but the building alone is well worth a look. Seeming more like the inside of a building services well, with pipes, vents and ducts as the exterior walls, the centre is equally loved and hated by locals and visitors.

Climbing the Eiffel Tower is of course mandatory for any visitor to Paris. We dragged ourselves to the second level (which is as far as you can walk) and took the lift to the top. Free entertainment was as usual provided by Italian tourists who enjoy themselves so much and so overtly that all around them are constantly amused. This group of mostly women (of all ages!) giggled and squealed all the way up in our lift - they are a nation of clowns...

The views on a day like today are well worth the pain of the climb  and the cost AUS$9. Despite the usual stories about outrageous prices in Paris, we have found costs no more than you might expect in similar venues at home. The record price we have paid for a beer by the way, is still held by the bar at the Brisbane International Airport - AUS$4.80!

Sunset from Montmartre with the Eiffel Tower, across the city, illuminated for Christmas and the New Year/Millenium is a sight never to be forgotten. Topping the day off with a quick walk up the Champs d'Elysees with its Christmas lights and the attendant crowds we again had to almost carry jetlagged-Liz back home for an early sleep!

24 December

Shopping was again on the agenda today. What else does one do in Paris??

Sundays is a reduced price day at the Louvre, so we had to queue for a short time to enter what is surely the largest collection of European art in the world. Far too much to take in in a day or even a week! We hit the tourist high spots, the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo followed by a 'walk by' of most of the other rooms.

It was much warmer today 12-14C and the coats were a bit superfluous. Crowds had started to build by late afternoon sun for the Christmas Eve street parties in the Champs d'Elysees as we hit the Metro for a quiet evening beside the Seine in the Bois de Boulogne.

If one can express a personal (male) view of Paris - It has consistently marketed itself well and built a romantic aura around sights that in reality are no more or less attractive than half a dozen other European cities. It's a big city with  big city 'buzz'. But I am always at a loss to see the 'magic' that supposedly separates Paris. Could the Paris and its image be in danger of becoming cliche?

The females of the party describe  Paris as a city with a very efficient transport system, ATMs for cash and  buying everything from Metro tickets to entries to museums, wide boulevards for strolling and looking at lights and sights, a huge Metro to "play on", certainly some cool shops, but more importantly, of beautiful buildings and a sense of history. Even the male person of the party was  enraptured (proof in the previous day's entry) by the sight of sunset over Paris from Montmartre!!!

25 December

Christmas Day. Mass at Notre Dame was packed with several thousand people for an impressive ceremony (organ, choir, the works!) on what sadly has been the most miserable day weather wise we have had in 14 weeks! The temperature hovered around 2-3 most of the day and the rain was constant. A perfect day for a visit to the cemetery of Pere Lachaise. Hundreds of famous French men and women are buried here in what, especially on a day like today with cold rain and mist, is best described as Gothic Splendour!

Although not a Frenchman, Jim Morrison's grave seems to be the main attraction. Wedged in amongst eighteenth and nineteenth century family mausoleums, his simple black marble grave was covered in flowers and other strange offerings including half empty bottles of Coke? Devotees can also purchase Jim Morrison tribute T-shirts in the nearby shops.

Probably the most ghoulish tomb was that of a nineteenth century artist which featured a bronze torso, presumably the deceased, struggling out of the grave.

After a rather damp walk up Boulevard St Michel, we called it a day and retired to the warmth of our van. Having phoned greetings to those suffering in the sweltering heat of a tropical Christmas we three are holed up waiting to see whether our Christmas dinner will be yummy things in the rather classy camping grounds' restaurant or a less salubrious fare of tinned German sausages and sauerkraut in the ambience of our campervan, with drying clothes dangling in our faces!

The glumness of the weather has in no way dampened the spirits of the large Italian contingent in this camping grounds. Of the fifty to sixty vans here about half seem to be Italian. This morning an Italian Santa appeared, roaming the streets of the park with a small entourage of kids distributing lollies. As we write, another group have arrived in a huge van, and are amusing all with their antics as they attempt to park their vehicle in a space two cigarette papers longer than the van! Experts of course are in abundance. There is much pointing, gesturing, yelling and shouting. Children of all ages are darting in and out of the paths of the attendant masses and the women have retired to the back of the crowd under a huddle of umbrellas to have a 'bit of a chat!'. - A nation of likeable clowns!  

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