Oh the places we went!

For the past couple of months we have been scampering around visiting places on our must-see list because a deadline looms: our Paris adventure is coming to an end! Very soon we will be on our way down-under, homeward bound. There are so many experiences to remember and stories to tell about living in Paris for the last four years, but for now let me show you the highlights of our last minute visits…..

As soon as the first hint of spring could be felt we got started on our list with a day trip out to Chateau Chantilly.


I was especially keen to see the room famous for its monkey drawings. These are the drawings that inspired Annie Bouquet (the tapestry artist I met when I was working on the Stitching up Paris book) to create her special collection of monkey tapestries. The artist Christophe Huet did the paintings in the mid 1730s for the Duc de Bourbon in the spirit of poking fun at the duc and his pastimes. The walls are completely covered with enchanting images of monkeys dressed like humans and engaged in human activities.


The chateau has a very interesting art collection – well worth the visit. This is the staircase in the Hall of Honour, apparently used as the filming location in a James Bond movie, I snapped the pic because of the fabulous ram’s head….association with sheep…knitting…you get the picture.


Cool but definitely spring-like for the weekend in Nancy (and Metz) to see the art nouveau glass collections at the Musée des Beaux Arts de Nancy and the Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy. Fancy in Nancy sums it up: exquisitely beautiful colour and form,  these exhibits wowed me. (I felt a connection with knitting yarn colours, especially the fashion for multi-coloured speckled effects and varigations – a really inspiring visit to Nancy.)


Next up a bit further afield – a long weekend in Stockholm staying on board the Malardrottningen Hotel, once a luxury yacht and now permanently moored in the Gamla-Stan district, the old town  of central Stockholm.P1080881

With fabulously warm sunny weather (after a less than warm spring in Paris), we were out and about exploring all over the city and long into the evening. We loved every minute.



Top marks for presentation to the Vasa Museum

Back to France and away to the countryside for the day – Burgundy vines near Beaune in the heart of the wine region were greening up.P1080983 A Wisteria draped nonchalantly over an ordinary stone wall pretties up the picture no end.P1080972

The Hótel-Dieu hospice de Beaune


The day we were in Beaune just happened by chance to coincide with a rally of vintage Citroen cars. Very interesting.P1080939

Of course spring means flowers and for us this year that meant the famous Chelsea flower show in London. We had wanted to do this visit for a long time and we made it – in great weather and with loads of other people.P1090086

Plenty of pretty pinks and purples but interesting to note that beige, brown and peachy coloured flowers seemed to be in fashion – fine by me!P1090103


The garden art was fantastic – hares seemed to be popular – some made of wire, others of bronze and fabulous sculptures made of driftwood. P1090090P1090093P1090097

Probably just as well they were too big for a suitcase…..

Back home and the spring showers that Paris is famous for were a bit too much


The boarding platform for the Batobus is somewhere down there!P1090133

Along with the pleasure of making friends comes the wrench of saying goodbye. We’ve had weekend excursions and picnics and lunch dates in the most wonderful locations to say goodbye to our dear friends. The rain and mizzle kept us company most of the time!




L’Abbaye Royaumont, Asnieres sur Oise

Now it’s time to finish the packing.



Visiting the President at home – France Heritage days

Monsieur le President at home

Monsieur le President

Here in France every year since 1984 two weekend days in September are designated Journées du PatrimoineHeritage Days. Having been started by France as Open Door days when ordinary citizens were given access to visit places normally closed to the public; the President’s palace, the Prime Minister’s residence, France television studios, artists’ workshops, historic buildings and all sorts. The idea was adopted by the Council for Europe and by 1991 became the European Heritage Days; the doors are open all around Europe this weekend.

The Journées du Patrimoine are hugely popular, long queues at the favourite places are legendary. This year I’m confined to barracks with my recent foot surgery but my intrepid DB made it his mission to visit the Elysée Palace – the residence of the President of France – get photos and tell me all about it.

First up, advance research was essential to confirm door opening time and entrance point: 8am at Avenue Gabriel the goal. DB was up early, 6am out the door and en-route via Velib bicycle soon after. He arrived at the entry gate by 7am and reckons from there he walked at a brisk pace for 5 minutes to reach the joining point of the queue out on the Champs Elysées! Four hours, 2 security check-points, a pat-down and metal detector scan later, he gained entry to the palace gardens to join another queue for the palace interior.

20150919_114008Eventually he arrived inside, the tables were all set with fine china, fine linen and pretty flowers and Francois Hollande was in residence meeting and greeting. Alas DB did not get to meet Monsieur le President, but he did snap a photo from the sidelines. DB was most impressed with the fabulous tapestries, the furnishings and the remarkably good crop of tomatoes in the Presidents garden.

Great tomatoes

Great tomatoes

The Elysee Palace has been the official residence of France’s Head of State since 1874. It was worth the wait – once.

A walk on the beach

Time to get up and start holidaying

Good morning Leucate – time to get up and start holidaying

In my younger days I dreamed of visiting places half a world away from my home way down in the southern part of the Pacific Ocean. I pored over travel brochures for Continental Europe and wished myself onto the pages where the blue Mediterranean Sea lapped the shores of elegant beach resorts in the South of France and tiny fishing villages on the Greek Islands. It all looked so exotic, interesting and dare I say it, better than my beach.

I wished hard enough and now 35 years on I’ve been fortunate to visit several of those beauty spots in the Mediterranean holidaying on Italy’s sublime Amalfi coast, at Dubrovnik and Korcula in Croatia, Istanbul in Turkey and before my blogging days on the Greek island of Mykonos. I’ve had tour stop-overs in Barcelona and Nice, a sunny weekend in Marseille and I’ve just spent 2 weeks on the south coast of France near the small village of Leucate, about halfway between Narbonne and Perpignan, basking in the sunshine and swimming in the Med.

The gorgeous blue Med seen from the outdoor cafe at MuCEM.

The gorgeous blue Med seen from the outdoor cafe at MuCEM.

The Mediterranean is undeniably special. It is beautiful, it is steeped in history -the Museum of Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean in Marseille does an excellent job of explaining the fascinating history of the region and the importance of the sea – it is shared by millions of people from twenty nations bordering its shores, and enjoyed by millions more who come to visit.

It is also polluted and over fished. It is in danger from the humans who use it and abuse it. Not all pollution is visible, but plenty is in the form of everyday rubbish plastic bags and bottles, polystyrene boxes, cans, wrappers and junk of all sorts.Rubbish

Last year on our Croatian holiday I was aghast to see the amount of rubbish slopping about in the water and littering the beach. It wasn’t the first time I had noticed the mess in the Med. I started taking a bag to the beach each day, filling it in no time with picked up rubbish. Rubbish bins were few and far between at the bathing areas in Dubrovnik and Korcula. Even more appalling was the deliberate disregard some beach users had for the care of the beach.

Litter left behind

Whoever left their wine bottle and glasses chose this beautiful spot to enjoy their evening and then CHOSE to leave their rubbish behind – how inconsiderate!

This summer I was happy to see that Leucate beach was noticeably rubbish free. Top marks for responsible beach users and the local city council’s rubbish bins every 100 yards all the way down the long beach that were changed every morning. From our apartment right on the beach front we caught the glorious sunrises and then with the sun – and us – fully awake took our daily stroll barefoot along the length of the beach, the sea as blue as those travel brochures promised years ago. The only time I found rubbish to pick up was one morning after overnight gales whipped up the sea and washed plastics and junk ashore. In between swimming, reading and lots of knitting we wandered through the local village, shopped at the market stalls and climbed up the hill above Leucate village to the ruins of the old chateau from which the locals fended off invaders through four centuries from1258 to 1659.

View from the pier at Port Leucate along the beach towards Leucate

View from the pier at Port Leucate along the beach towards Leucate in the distance

We have seen the Med at its most picturesque and shuddered at its trashy spots. Despite the rubbish it remains as beautiful and alluring as the pictures that inspired my travel dreams. I’ve satisfied my yearnings to see it, swim in it and travel on it; now I appreciate that big blue Pacific more than ever.

For a collection of Mediterranean photos visit my Flickr photostream here.

Lille and Roubaix: science and innovation, art and industry.

rue de La Monnaie, Lille

rue de La Monnaie, Lille

I’ve been through Lille many times.  From my seat on the trains whooshing in and out of the station en route between London and Bruxelles or Paris I had gazed disdainfully at the grimy, graffiti covered buildings near the station and decided I was glad to be passing through.

I’ve had a change of heart.

Lille, and Roubaix a little further out to the north east, were once wealthy cities thanks to the textile manufacturing that boomed in the wake of the industrial revolution, but with so many other beautiful towns and villages neither are likely to hold the top spots on a list of France’s must visit places.  But when Lille was my destination she turned out to be beautiful and interesting – rather more so than I had imagined, and Roubaix has a genuine treasure in La Piscine; the Museum of Art and Industry.

The Old City of Lille centred around the Grande Place, now called Place du General de Gaulle, tells the story of its history through the beautiful old buildings surrounding the square; the ups and downs of its fortune, who was in charge and who was fighting whom are reflected in architectural styles and monuments. From the outside facing onto the square the elaborate Flemish renaissance styled Old Bourse (the Stock Exchange) attracted me; a glimpse into the interior courtyard had me curious enough to venture through the arched doorway to check out the antique book sellers setting up their stalls under the vaulted balconies. 

The Old Bourse, 1652-3

The Old Bourse, 1652-3

My inner science geek sparked up when I spotted the wall plaques honouring French scientists, mathematicians, engineers and inventors whose work contributed to the health and economic well being of the region; in fact to people everywhere.  Amongst the notable names I found Louis Pasteur’s, for his work on fermentation, Ampere mathematician and physicist for his work on electromagnetism, Claude Louis Berthollet for his work on the bleaching property of chlorine and its application in whitening cloth and Philippe de Girard, engineer and inventor of many things including a machine to spin linen; all important in the textile manufacturing industries around Lille.  No women’s names that I could see but times have changed since the plaques were put up in 1854 – at the same time the University of Science and Technology at Lille was established.

Gallery honouring the Agents of Change

Gallery honouring the Agents of Change

Following the Old Lille route in the City Walks guide book led us to more gems like rue de la Monnaie, location of the mint built in 1685, and 18th century weaver’s cottages in rue Peterinck.  The picture of old Lille as a thriving city with knowledge and a practical inventive spirit to fuel the textile industry is apparent as you walk the streets.

The main purpose of our trip north was to visit La Piscine, the Museum of Art and Industry at Roubaix to see the Wool War One exhibition.  A 10-minute ride on the Greater Lille metro system Line 2 from Lille’s main train station then a short walk from the Roubaix Grand Place metro stop, its easy peasy to find.  As we meandered through the entrance hall the wall-sized grainy black and white photographs of chaps in their 1930’s styled bathers elicited a smile and a thankful thought that fashions have changed.  Then, the wow factor: the pool room.  The huge sun like stained glass window at the far end beams a golden glow over the sculptures that line the poolside.  It’s no longer an actual swimming pool, but back in 1932 this art-deco styled public bathing facility was described as “the finest swimming pool in France”.  The conversion into an art museum was completed in 2001 to house the collection of the Roubaix National Museum, and it is a sight to behold.  The former changing cubicles are beautifully restored, the light coloured tiles polished clean and the spaces used as novel display cases for different collections including superb Sevres vases and ceramic works.

Interior, La Piscine - Museum of Science and Industry, Roubaix

Interior, La Piscine – Museum of Science and Industry, Roubaix

I oohed and ahhed at the textile samples on display; these were just a small offering of the rows and rows of hefty sample books from bygone eras in fashion that are held in the fabric library.  (The library is open for research by appointment and there is an on-line catalogue too.)

Samples from the Textile Library

Winter 1920 Ribbon Samples  from the Textile Library

Painting (~1910) by Theodore Gueldry: Wool sorting scene

Painting (~1910) by Theodore Gueldry: Wool sorting scene

Lille and Roubaix might not be tourist hot spots, but they’ve certainly gone up in my estimation; science and history, wool and textiles, art and industry, a feast of interesting topics, and the beer was good too, (application of the science of fermentation of course!).  As the saying goes you can’t judge a book by its cover and seems you can’t judge a city by its railway station. More photographs of our visit here.

Wool War One on parade – L’ Adieu aux Armes

On parade

On parade at  La Piscine, Museum of Art and Industry, Roubaix

As military parades go this one is rather small in stature and quiet; so quiet you can almost hear a stitch drop.  No guns, no drums, no machines of war, this is a peaceful parade of 700 hand-knitted soldiers from every corner of the earth.

These soldiers, resplendent in authentic uniform detail, are the work of 500 knitters from 5 continents who responded to the call for help from Madame Delit Maille (Anna), knitting artist in chief of the Wool War One installation at La Piscine, Museum of Art and Industry at Roubaix in northern France.

Back in May 2014, my NZ friend Barbara and I were two of those 500 knitters; we knitted miniature uniforms to help dress the British and Commonwealth soldier dolls.  Through the summer and autumn knitters mobilised to join Delit Maille’s working bees around France and the knitted army came together ready for exhibition in December 2014.

The result is spectacular in its simple symbolism.  Seven hundred soldiers in distinctive uniform; French cornflower-blue jackets, red pompomed Belgians, caped Spahis and helmeted Germans all stand out.  Each figure seems to have his own personality.  Some peep from behind the man in front, others are stooped – weary looking – row upon row of fragile little figures representing all nations despatched to the Great War stand together in this parade.

I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to contribute my knitting to this project.  The exhibition, L’Adieu aux Armes, is a fitting memorial – well done Delit Maille, a clever and meaningful interpretation, thoroughly enjoyable to visit and to have participated in.

The Wool War One exhibition runs until 12th April 2015.  Eleven different artists whose exhibitions have been commissioned to commemorate the centenary of World War I run one after the other from September 2014 through to May 2018 at the museum in Roubaix.  The museum has a wonderful permanent collection of art and industrial archives – particularly relating to the textile industry from the region.  More about the wonderful art and industry museum at Roubaix coming up soon.

Luxury at the Louvre

Louis XIV

Portrait of Louis XIV

Time is my luxury; time to visit the Louvre Museum again and again.  I can make the most of the free entry on the first Sunday of the winter months between October and March to peruse in detail particular collections that take my interest.  Luxury is my interest this time.

The newly re-commissioned space in the Sully wing dedicated to the decorative arts of the 18th century opened in June last year (2014) and is, in a word, sumptuous.  The collection represents an era when the skills for design, creation and craftsmanship of beautiful decorative pieces flourished in Paris with encouragement from royalty and the privileged wealthy.  The exhibition is divided into three time periods:

1660 to 1725 during the reign of Louis XIV

1725 to 1755 the Rococo style, and

1755 to 1790 the reign of Louis XVI, husband of Marie-Antoinette

I especially liked the exhibition style; a mix of expertly selected examples of arts and crafts objects interspersed with faithfully recreated period rooms where newly made soft furnishings together with restored décor pieces provide a sympathetic setting for display of the museum’s collected treasures.

Making my way through the gallery according to the “sense of the visit”, gave me a better appreciation of the evolution of design and style, which is exactly the purpose of this type of presentation; it works.  I savoured the overall impression of the ornate period rooms with their gilded and painted wall panels and cornices, stylish passementerie, elegant porcelain ware and splendid inlaid wood furniture; there are dozens of adjectives that could apply – minimal is not one of them.

period room

Gilded cornices and wall panels

Gilded cornices and wall panels


But with over 2,000 pieces in the entire collection some had to be passed with only a cursory glance, others had me captivated; reading notes, studying the display.  Queen Marie-Antoinette’s necessaire, a travelling kit, fascinated me.  Ninety-four pieces of equipment adorned with her monogram – an intertwined M and A – in a cleverly designed mahogany case to make her journeys comfortable.  Amongst the 94 items there is office equipment, a tray bell and seal, a sewing case, ink well and pounce pot, and compass, items for a light meal including a chocolate pot and beater, 2 drinking glasses, a dish warmer, teapot and tea ball, 2 tea cups with saucers, a broth bowl and small chaffing dish, items for her toilette; a powder pot, cream pot and eyebath, 3 small bottles and a funnel, a mortar and pestle, round mirror, spittoon, and warming pan.


In it’s entirety this is a wonderful collection that provides a real insight into the life of the royals and social elite during the golden age of French decorative arts.  I saw exquisite craftsmanship, elegant and sumptuous decoration, but sensed lives of maddening formality and proper taste at the same time.  It makes you think.

A bright day in Chartres

Rose window in the North transept

Rose window in the North transept

Keen to escape the city for a Sunday excursion we swotted up for a visit to Chartres to see the famous stained glass windows at la Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Chartres.  With a sunny forecast – the windows are apparently seen at their best on a bright day – the planning was finalised; departure time, metro route, train station, walking route from train to cathedral all checked and memorised.  Only the weather required confirmation.

Our apartment is so close to other buildings that we can’t actually see the sky just by glancing out the windows, a weather check is accomplished by leaning out the window and looking up – sky: blue or grey? Clouds: white, fluffy, grey, threatening?

Instead of blue sky we had a thick dose of the grey fog that is one of the less desirable characteristics of Paris, but as both on-line weathermen promised sunshine by 11am we felt confident with Plan A and set off according to the run sheet timetable.

The planning was perfect; the weather forecast was not.  The fog did not clear all day, in fact it was one of the coldest days so far this winter, but we needn’t have worried, the cathedral and its stained glass windows were beautiful anyway.

After only a few minutes walk from the station at Chartres the cathedral appeared above the town centre, its huge shape emerging rather eerily out of the mist.  On the outside the colour scheme is grey; age-old, weathered, blotched with moss and lichen grey.  Handsome grey? Or forbidding grey?


Inside, the dominant impression is anything but grey.  We arrived just as the Sunday morning service was finishing.  We snuck in quietly with a stream of other visitors, immediately impressed by the congregation in full song their voices filling the vast interior of the cathedral.  A vivid array of colour burst from the majestic stained glass windows high above the polished stone floor.  The three large 13th century rose windows, dull on the outside, blazed with reds and blues.  The most famous of the windows here is the Belle Verriere depicting the Virgin Mary wearing a blue robe, her child sitting on her lap.  This window is one of three that remain after a major fire in 1195 which destroyed the earlier cathedral on the site.

Aside from catastrophes like fire and world wars, industrial pollution is the most significant enemy of historic buildings, (and their stained glass windows).  The present day restoration programme is obvious; scaffolding, boarded up areas, the difference in colouration of the stonework between the before and after cleaning sections.  The works-in-progress didn’t diminish our enjoyment of the visit; if anything it affirmed the preciousness of the treasures we’d had the privilege to see and we’re glad to see the effort going into their preservation.