In the footsteps of the famous

We didn’t plan it this way, if fact we hardly planned it at all. A six week Grand Tour of Europe in our motorhome, visiting places we’d not seen. The rough outline was to start off in Holland, go into Germany and then play it by ear as to where next, with a visit to Weimar high on our list of “must sees”. Leaving in late summer, we were to return in early October. Our default plan was that we would follow the sun. This we did, but we somehow also managed to follow in the footsteps of the famous.

In Hamelin we couldn’t help but be immersed in the story of the Pied Piper. From the campsite by the River Weser it was an easy walk into the town, and once there we appropriately followed the sound of music, as did the children in the famous story. There was a festival in full swing. Live bands ranged from jazz to noisy europop. We’d missed the weekly enactment of the Pied Piper story but we spotted several “Pipers” decked out in full costume. We didn’t see any rats…

Travelling east through the Harz Mountains we reached Weimar, famous for the founding of the Weimar Republic between the two World Wars, and a hot bed for German creativity. The Bauhaus Arts and Crafts Movement was founded there, writer and politician Goethe lived there, as did poet and playwright Schiller. Composer Liszt also lived for some time in Weimar.  Goethe & Schiller

We visited the homes of both Goethe and Schiller, now interesting museums with rooms intact as when lived in by these two cultural giants. Weimar itself has a pleasant cosmopolitan atmosphere, wide leafy boulevards and extensive parkland. The central square is dominated by a statue of its two great men, who were close friends.

In the original rough plan, it was planned that we would continue to head east towards Dresden and then to Saxon Germany with its weird rock formations. But the weather app was reporting highs of 13 degrees there, with rain, so we implemented the default plan and followed the sun south.

Friedrichshafen on Lake Constance appealed and the well-appointed lake shore campsite was a pleasant 10 minute walk from the town. Views across the lake to the Austrian and Swiss Alps were a daily delight, as were the nearby nature trail, cycle path and lakeside bars where we enjoyed our early evening weissbier. Once again we were travelling in the footsteps of the famous. Friedrichshafen is home to the Zeppelin Museum, and is the city where these airships were born. The Museum is well worth a visit, with a mock up of part of an airship. We learned that they were built with large viewing windows on the underside, giving passengers a wide angled panorama of the earth below. After the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, this method of air travel ceased, but it’s still possible to take a trip in a Zeppelin over Lake Constance. It’s a fascinating and impressive sight to see one pass overhead.

We moved on, travelling through Switzerland, Italy and into France where we stayed in St. Rémy de Provence. We knew it was famous for Van Gogh’s painting “Starry Night” but there were only a couple of tatty information boards about this. St. Rémy is also the birthplace of Nostradamus, famous for his prophesies, but we saw no other reference to him at all apart from a side alleyway named rue Nostradamus, and a Banksy-type graffiti image of him on a wall. Did they miss a trick here in St. Rémy by not featuring him more, or are they a bit ashamed of him and his prophecies?

Heading north we stayed at the municipal site in Langres, set on the ramparts of this picturesque hilltop town, once again chancing upon another famous figure. Philosopher and writer Diderot was born here, and Langres proudly celebrates the man who wrote the Encyclopédie, a dictionary of arts and sciences.

Famed for its archiQuiche Lorrainetectural grandeur, Nancy beckoned. The École de Nancy led the Art Nouveau movement in France and the city offers a visual feast to be savoured. Whilst there we sampled one of the region’s famous dishes. I have to question the saying, “Real men don’t eat quiche”. The portions of Quiche Lorraine we had for lunch were so large and rich we didn’t need to eat for the rest of the day!

This edited and updated article first appeared in the Murvi Club in-house e-magazine.

Paradise found

It doesn’t take much to make me happy. Give me a few butterflies and birds to look at, maybe some dragonflies and bees, and I’m in my element. Of course, all this has to take place somewhere warm and sunny and preferably on a campsite which is not just any old campsite, whilst spending relaxing days of leisure in Audrey, our motorhome.

carpenter bee in pollen

One September few years ago this state of relative bliss was achieved. Having travelled south through France via a couple of sites in the Loire region we revisited the Dordogne and the aptly named Camping Le Paradis, a beautiful sub-tropical garden of a campsite with large shaded pitches and immaculate facilities.

Leaving behind the mosquitoes which had feasted on my blood in the Loire, we didn’t encounter any at Le Paradis, in spite of its direct access to the River Vézère, which flows alongside the site. Here I was able to indulge in close up viewing of shiny violet-black carpenter bees as they busied themselves amongst the colourful flowerbeds on site. These solitary bees are alarmingly large and make a loud buzz as they swiftly fly between flowers, seeking out pollen. One of the many I saw was smothered in it. They rarely sting and nest in dead wood, hence the name. In bee-spotting mode, I watched a red tailed bumble bee, also busy with pollen. The black and yellow furry stripes on its abdomen made it look as if it was wearing a frilly ra-ra skirt.

Lush vegetation abounds on site and in addition to the many different kinds of bees, the flowerbeds are visited by hummingbird hawk moths, fascinating day-flying moths which hover as they collect pollen through a long proboscis. They resemble real humming birds, have beige furry bodies and black and white striped rear ends. They’re a delight to watch but are difficult to photograph as they move so fast. Time can stand still just observing these insects go about their daily life.

There were plenty of butterflies to keep me happy as I walked along by the Vézère with views of the historic Roque Saint-Christophe on the opposite bank. This large IMG_3682prehistoric dwelling has numerous rock shelters on five levels, which have been hollowed out from the limestone cliffs. Earliest traces of occupation go back 50,000 years.

Having been to this ancient site, it was the butterflies which demanded my attention. Adonis blues darted across the nearby fields, in and out of the long grasses, and sometimes visited our pitch. They look like bright jewels in the sunshine. Meadow browns were everywhere, mostly where it was sunny, whilst the speckled wood butterflies preferred the shaded areas along by the river.

The high point for me was spotting a lesser purple emperor butterfly feasting on horse dung in a field not far from the campsite’s community herb and berry garden. Seeing this large and rather beautiful butterfly as it tucked into what might be considered a disgusting meal, the interconnectedness of the web of life was demonstrated while its wings reflected a purple sheen like shot silk.

And then, of course, there was the snake. Walking along by the river bank one day, I’d stepped off the path to get a better view of the water as it flowed over some reeds. “Why are you standing next to that snake?” asked husband. Executing a backwards leap that would have had a ballet master shouting “Bravo!” I managed to take in the lazily curled length (50-80cm according to my research) of this smooth snake (rapidly researched when we got back to the van together with its status – non-poisonous), before it quickly slithered into the nearby undergrowth. No photo of this; I was as busy getting out of its way as it was getting out of mine!

We did tear ourselves away from the flora and fauna to go to the nearby attractive town of Sarlat, well worth a visit, but decided to give the Lascaux 2 caves in Montignac a miss. The lure of the leisure time in the sun was just too strong to be ignored!

This edited and updated article first appeared in the Murvi Club in-house e-magazine.

D-Day: a personal 75th anniversary commemoration

I grew up with the photograph on the left in a frame on top of our piano. My mum told me it was my cousin Bertie, who was killed by a sniper along the Rhine, a month before WW2 ended. That’s pretty much all I knew for many years and I didn’t think much about it until I was contacted several years ago by a cousin, Bertie’s sister, who was asking for family stories as she was putting together a family tree.

I’d not seen her for years so I called her to pass on a few details for her project. We talked about the family, which for me was a treat because I’m an only child and very much the baby of the entire family; everyone was and is a lot older than me. I remembered Bertie’s photo and asked about him, and discovered the very dramatic true story of the experiences of this young man who I never knew. He was 23 when he was killed, and he is buried in Hanover War Cemetery.

Bertie was a member of “A” Company of the 8th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment ACC and he was parachuted into France as part of the D-Day operations on 6th June 1944. The weather was bad and the paras, dropping from the gliders which carried them, were blown off course from their target. Bertie, in a group of 40 paras, was found by 17 year old Gaston le Baron who was helping the resistance, and had gone into the marshes near the River Dives to search for the paras who he hoped would help liberate France. Continue reading

The Citroen 2CV meet up

 

P1070064Our son has a 1978 Citroen 2CV named Fiona. She’s bright green. That’s her above.

Staying with the family in Houston, he mentioned that there was a meet up for the local group of 2CV owners one Saturday morning, did I want to go? I decided I could probably manage to hold my own amongst a group of potentially geeky enthusiasts (son is not geeky!) and off we set, roof rolled back, at one point flooring it, doing 80 kilometres an hour along the freeway to meet for breakfast at a diner. Other drivers tended to hoot or wave in appreciation along the way. It was fun.

They were  a friendly group, not especially geeky until the conversation turned to techy stuff beyond my comprehension, but I found myself amongst a cosmopolitan group of Francophiles. Over an American-style breakfast we we talked about Citroen cars, food, wine, cheese, Provencale lavender and French regions we’d visited.

I gather there are probably 17 2CVs in Texas, some rusting in outhouses, some in parts, some in roadworthy condition. Of the 3 that turned up, the one my son had described as “red and rust” needs the most attetnion, but the owner has been concentrating on the parts under the bodywork; attention to the rust and paintwork is yet to take place.

I was happy to be the unofficial photographer for their meet up and took a lot of candid shots and close ups for them. Here are a few of them.

P1070088

P1070061

Purple Emperor

IMG_3746

Emperor feasting on horse manure

I’m currently reading Patrick Barkham’s excellent book The Butterfly Isles in which he describes the summer when, as an amateur enthusiast, he travelled throughout the British Isles seeking out all 59 species of native British butterflies in one year.ButterflyBarkham

Now this may sound a bit geeky and quirky (it is!) but if you like butterflies and have done so since you were a child (like me), reading it becomes a bit compulsive. It kept me quiet over the Christmas holidays.

It’s a well-written travelogue which reads like an adventure/detective story as each butterfly is sought and seen in various UK locations. Some of the butterflies I’ve seen, some I’ve yet to see, and I know I need to get my ID of the various kinds of fritillaries worked out a bit better than they are now. But I can ID quite a few species without help from a book. One of those is the magical Purple Emperor.

I’d seen plenty of illustrations and photos of this magnificent butterfly but, until a few years ago, had never seen one for real. My first sighting of this large, stunning butterfly was in France, in the Dordogne region. It was special. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the purple flash and sheen on its wings. It landed on the ground outside the facilities block on the lushly vegetated campsite I was staying on. With a nearby fig tree already dropping ripened fruit, it may have been attracted by this. I had no camera with me; I was on the way to the loo, but it made my day seeing my first Purple Emperor.

A year or so later, on a rough country path by the same campsite, I saw another Emperor. This time I had my camera and the butterfly ignored me as it gorged itself on horse manure. A royal feast for Emperors – they go in for “disgusting” in a big way.

Having read Barkham’s description and experience of this butterfly, I now see, looking at my photo, what he means about its muscular, hefty body and its yellow proboscis probing deep into the manure as it feasts. A treat for the Emperor, and a treat for me too, to see it at such close quarters.

Wildlife on the Wing

P1060173

Reviewing 2018, I’ve just looked back at some of the photos I took in September in the Dordogne, and have offset some of the current darkness of midwinter with a spot of captured sunshine.

Insects and wild life dominated, and I was transported back to warm sunny days when I watched wildlife on the wing and completely lost track of time as I did so.

There were plenty of butterflies, and on one particular walk by the River Vezere, I noted down the all species I saw (with a bit of help from a butterfly ID book when needed). The list was impressive.

Adonis blue, Banded Grayling, Comma, Meadow Brown, Wood White, Cleopatra, Brimstone (those two are so alike), Clouded Yellow, Large and Small Whites, Scarce Swallowtail (that was a happy, lucky sighting). My camera was out, but it was impossible to concentrate on taking photos of everything I saw; I was happy to stroll, gaze and snap. Some of those insects seemed to know when the lens was on them too – some stayed still, while others decided to move just at the crucial moment.

In addition to butterflies there was the Carpenter Bee I spotted, along with Hummingbird Hawk Moths and Dragonflies patrolling and quartering their patch.

A pair of  iridescent Kingfishers flashed past, close to the surface of the river, and by night I saw a solitary glow worm low down in a hedge, its rear end a bright luminous green, a fat delightful toad on a path near the river bank, while overhead bats were out finding their supper.

Ever faithful

Dogs with bone

When I visited the Basilica of St. Denis, in the Paris suburb of St. Denis (also the banlieu where, a couple of years ago, an armed seige by police took place after a terrorist terrorist attack in central Paris), I came away with plenty of photos of the stunning tombs of the kings and queens of France who are buried there.

It’s an amazing place to visit, especially if you like cathedrals, but this one is full of effigies, each depicting the deceased in repose with symbols relating to their life included in the marble sculptures. It’s like a cross between a cemetery and an art gallery.

The details on the effigies are impressive, giving them a life-like appearance, even in death. Hands, feet, faces and draped fabric all have an aesthetic beauty.

I was particularly drawn to those effigies which had loyal dogs at their feet. This signifies loyalty to the crown and the sovereign, and dogs are usually found beneath the feet of women or children. If the dogs have a bone between their paws, as in the photo above, it means that the body is buried in the tomb.

Some effigies have lions at their feet and these will always be on the tombs of men. Other animals found beneath feet are dragons, a porcupine and there’s a ferret beneath the feet of a count who was reputed to be a great hunter.

The day I visited Saint Denis it was bitterly cold outside and not much warmer inside the cathedral either, but I forgot about the cold, so stunning were the statues.