Because this post covers Paris, Brittany, and Belgium I’ll have to keep each section brief.
A Frenchman asked me what I thought of the great “socialist” train systems of Europe. I can’t think too hard about the socialist political system that brought them about without wondering about the back breaking taxes associated with them but the trains themselves, designed by the Japanese (those ingenious fellows!), are remarkable. You can zip across the continent in comfort in almost no time at all. I used the train system to zip from Aix-en-Provence, France, which is very far south, to Paris in about 3 hours – a nine hour drive! Then from Paris to Rennes in Brittany and finally to Brussels (by way of Paris once more). For most of this trip I was travelling alone but did meet up with some other students along the way in a couple of different cities.
Not only are they fast….they are quiet too. Much quieter than typical trains. Amazing.
I only spent a couple of days in Paris for this trip and because I have been to Paris a few times I skipped the Eiffel tower, the inside of the Notre Dame…the usual suspects that I have visited before. I did climb to the top of the Arc de Triumph (completed in 1836) and man was that a climb!
I also visited an art store to pick up a few supplies I can’t seem to get my hands on in Aix-en-Provence.
I was very much hoping to take pictures I could later use as compositions for paintings but, alas, the weather did not cooperate remaining dark, gray and cold the entire time except when it was windy/rainy/snowy in which case it was colder still.
Despite the weather I went out to sightsee but frequently thought up excuses to duck into a café here and there to warm up for a while.
Additionally I ran into stores to warm up. This is inside a major department store in Paris, Galaries LaFayette. It’s a chain but this was the first and is still the flagship store in a beautiful building that was built for this store over a hundred years ago on the Grand Boulevards of Paris (aka “high rent district”) on Boulevard Haussmann.
The Parisians themselves were as smartly dressed as the “Aixois” (Aix-en-Provence) but I did notice more fake tans and for the ladies, shocking pink lipstick. I guess that is the spring color. Oh a note on the famous skinny French woman. From my observation the people of France refrain from severe obesity in general but otherwise they are all shapes and sizes. What I do find interesting is that while there are women of all sizes in France, there is a particular type of skinny woman who is extremely thin. I think these represent the skinny French woman mythos that all French women are very thin. These women are sickeningly thin and while there are plenty of what I would say is a healthy skinny weight these gals are downright unhealthy looking.
In the evening I took some nice pictures of Notre Dame and the Seine. The cathedral was built from 1163 to 1345 and is one of Paris’, an ancient city itself, most famous landmarks.
I also spent last weekend in Paris visiting several museums. Some of us went to the Trocadero to watch the “sparkle” effect of the Eiffel tower that happens on the hour, every hour for 5 minutes. It was really cool, classy, and so French. I mean the whole tower is pretty much useless right? It’s just for decoration really. I remember the first time I came to France I was struck by the way they put artistic flourishes and detail into almost everything they crafted from mailboxes to buildings they pay attention to the aesthetic of the object. So they had the Eiffel Tower constructed in 1889 and now in 1999 at the millennium, they set it to sparkle with lights all over.
I will do a separate post on the art I saw this past weekend.
I was able to visit several areas of Brittany on the Northwest coast of France including Mont St. Michel, St. Malo, and Quimper as well as a number of other smaller villages and a nice drive along the wind battered coast.
Mont St Michel
Ok so you probably have heard of Mont St. Michel but even more so you have surely seen photos of the site. What you may not know is what an effect it has on the landscape. The landscape is rolling and flat up to the coast of the English Channel and the “Mont” stands out and is visible in all directions for 10s of miles around.
Inhabited from at least the 5th century AD the tidal island is a UNESCO World Heritage site today. There is tiny village of restaurants and souvenir shops at the base of a particularly beautiful Abbey. The legend goes that the Archangel Michael appeared in 708 to St. Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, and instructed him to build a church on the rocky islet. Aubert repeatedly ignored the angel’s instruction until Michael burned a hole in the bishop’s skull with his finger! Oh dear, do not mess with Holy Angels. Done and done. The abbey was started 1023. Some pictures from inside the Abbey.
On to other towns of NW France….I visited too many to discuss or show pictures of here but can say it was interesting to see so many Tudor period buildings and towns. I rented a car and drove all over. I wish I had better pictures of it but it was always dark and gloomy. I will show some of the better ones.
- Ya, don’t remember this castle’s name. There are loads of these kinds of castles in Brittany. Not that this one isn’t special but …I can’t remember the name but there were some guys dressed up in costumes sword fighting around the base of this tower for no apparent reason other than I guess it’s what they DO in Brittany.
Belgium was an interesting place to visit. Brussels is in the “French” part of the country and Bruges and Ghent are in the Flemish part. There are distinct differences, including linguistically, between these two parts of the country. All signs are in both French and Nedderlander and frequently several other languages as well. However, in Brussels the first language is French. The people were not as nicely dressed as in France but they were friendly and helpful. Except when they kept thinking I was Spanish. There are loads of tourists in Belgium and apparently more than their fare share of Spanish tourists because everyone thought we were Spanish in Brussels! A couple of the other gals from school who I met up with in Belgium were with me and we were pretty taken aback and thought it was really funny.
There are a lot of sights to visit in Brussels but my favorite is the Grande Place. This is a large plaza ringed by exquisite buildings gilded in gold. I had heard it was the “most beautiful place/plaza in Europe” and I believe it. I could not take a decent picture of the plaza so I got a better one online but it does not do it justice.
Another “sight” to see in Brussels is a famous statue of a little boy that is peeing called the Manneken Pis. I don’t know why people like this so much, it’s kind of cute but it’s no Michaelangelo. Legend states that in the 14th century, Brussels was under siege by a foreign power. The city had held its ground for some time, so the attackers conceived of a plan to place explosive charges at the city walls. A little boy named Julianske happened to be spying on them as they were preparing. He urinated on the burning fuse and thus saved the city. The original version had been in the city since the 1300s but this version was installed in the 1600s. It’s dressed in little costumes a few times a week. The city really loves this statue.
For better, costumed, and closer pictures you can open a new window if you click here.
If you are hungry you can go to this classy establishment nearby.
Brussels seems to straddle both the French and Flemish/Netherlandic architectural styles. It’s a fusion of both. Some buildings look like they could be in Paris and others like they could be in Amsterdam. I was told by a local that the Flemish are more industrious and want France to incorporate the southern part of Belgium because they are tired of supporting them economically. I think it’s weird don’t you? To want to dump a whole section of the country for economic reasons. Americans would consider this on the basis of political reasons but not economic. It’s different for sure.
I also visited Bruges and Ghent which are both medieval cities that seem to have been ignored for a long time and did not receive a lot of modernization until they were “discovered” by tourists who have fallen in love with their old world charm. They are indeed charming. The styles of the buildings are entirely Flemish and the first language is Nedderlander.
Bruges from floating in mid-air (or the top of that giant tower, whichever you prefer.)
They are very green in this part of Belgium I saw lots of solar panels and bikes. Almost everyone bikes instead of drives.
The only word I learned in Nedderlander was “whipped cream”, which is “slagroom”, only because it is offered on waffles. Oh wait I didn’t tell you about the waffles yet! It seems like the whole country smells like waffles and chocolate. No lie, they eat a LOT of waffles. Also, French fries. Mind you the fries are nothing special but they eat a lot anyway. The waffles, however, are special. They are sweet all by themselves and need no topping but that doesn’t stop them from piling on strawberries, chocolate, slagroom…etc.
Waffles with or without slagroom
But I digress, more dark, cold, and cloudy pics are below.
Finally, my apologies for how long it has been since my last post. I was sick over this vacation and the week after. I will get a post on the art I saw in Paris this past weekend and a painting I’m working on out very soon. Merci!
*I do not own this picture.