Calidris Reads: France

City of Darkness and Light

Rhys Bowen
4 knots Recommended
First sentence: “Like many Irish people I have always been a strong believer in a sixth sense.”

One in a series of light mysteries set in the first years of the 20th century that centre on the adventures of an Irish woman. This installment has the protagonist in Paris among the artists and philosophers of the period, trying to track down some missing friends and solve a murder. It’s fluffy stuff, but takes you into the fascinating neighbourhoods of Paris and drops lots of famous names. A good plane read.

Five Nights in Paris

John Baxter
4 knots Recommended
Opening (from Chapter 1): “Some years ago, as a change from spending all my time writing, I began taking people on literary walks.”

This book is a mash-up of essays on a wide variety of topics loosely connected to the idea of “Paris at night.” I found the arrangement of the essays baffling and odd. There’s a prologue, followed by five pieces on random subjects. The rest of the book is organized by the five senses: sound, taste, touch, scent, and sight. An intriguing premise, especially when you consider experiencing each of these by night. However, the essays often seem to have little or no relation to the sense they are grouped under. Despite this, I found myself enjoying the book. Baxter’s writing conjures up little-known and fascinating aspects of the famous city. I found the best approach was to simply savour each essay on its own without attempting to make it fit a larger pattern.

Loire Valley:
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide

5 knots Highly recommended

This travel guide series focuses on presenting information in visual formats: maps, site and building plans, photos, sketched-out comparisons between architectural styles, etc. Smallish bits of text are balanced by lots and lots of images. Comprehensive, no, but the format makes for a quick and fun introduction to the chosen area. We used this guide extensively because it is very specific for the area we were covering. Being an old-school bookie, I admit partiality for the thick, glossy pages and high-quality image reproduction.

Portraits of France

Robert Daley
4 knots Recommended
Opening (from the prologue): “There are a thousand years of French history in this book, but it is not a historical treatise; there is much about France’s wars, but only the one battle that changed her forever is described in detail; there is much about religion, but it is not a catechism; much about food and wine, but it is not a cookbook; much about places of interest, some of which may be worth a detour or even a journey. However, it is not a travel guide….Each portrait had to bear on France as a whole. Apart from that I would write about places, things, and people I had stumbled on or gone looking for that had seemed notable to me, that had impressed or in some cases shocked me.”

Confession: I didn’t actually read the entire book but not because I didn’t like it. I simply ran out of time during the trip. However, I did scan sections and read parts of it, really enjoyed the writing and would definitely return to it to get “in the mood” for another trip to France.

France’s Loire Valley in Winter

Chateau de Chenonceau in the Loire Valley in February

France is one of the most popular destinations in the world. Which means that its beautiful places are overrun with tourists much of the year. The Loire Valley, with dozens of historic chateaux, fortresses, villages, and foodie delights like vineyards and farmgate sources, not to mention beautiful natural spaces, is no exception. When we visited in late January and February, we could tell by the acres of parking stalls that the larger sites are braced to receive hordes in spring, summer, and fall.

But in winter, those parking lots were nearly empty. We strolled through any site that interested us on a given day–no need to buy tickets in advance or line up. Once inside, it made no difference what the weather was doing outside. If it was a bit chilly, it made us appreciate more the challenges the original inhabitants faced in keeping warm. One of the chateaux had big wood fires burning in the huge fireplaces, which added to the historic ambience and put a lovely hint of woodsmoke in the air.

Beyond the chateaux, those charming medieval or Georgian streets are still there for your enjoyment, although you might need to bundle up for your stroll and sit inside the cafe or patisserie rather than on the patio (some restaurants do have a heated area outdoors). Cafe au lait or chocolat chaud is especially pleasant on a chilly day and you can savour the French food without guilt, knowing that you’re burning off extra calories when you walk in the brisk weather. And speaking of food, even the tiny gastronomic restaurants have space for last-minute dinner guests and the local farmers’ markets run right through the cold months.

The cooler temperatures and lack of crowds made the whole experience of visiting a site less tiring. I hate it when vacationing becomes an endurance test, i.e., I’ve paid 15 Euros to get in here, I have to stay X number of hours and see the whole bl**dy thing to get my money’s worth, even though I’m overheated, exhausted, and my feet are numb. This scenario is far less likely in the winter.

Whether you’re driving around or taking public transit, everything will be quieter. Parking in the villages will be easy. Churches and cathedrals remain open year-round and you will often have them to yourself on weekdays if you, like me, just like to sit in the pews and drink in the magnificent surroundings.

A few things to keep in mind if visiting in the winter:

  • Some sites are closed, especially in the second and third week of January when apparently many tourist-focused businesses shut so that employees can vacation after the busy Christmas season. Those that are open may have reduced hours.
  • Some amenities are unavailable, such as guided tours or onsite restaurants.
  • If a site’s gardens are a primary attraction for you, this is not the time to visit. The gardens will be immaculately maintained and pleasant to stroll, weather permitting, but trees will be bare and few, if any, flowers out.
  • Yes, it rains. And it’s windy sometimes. The temperatures are much like in the BC Lower Mainland, mostly hovering above zero. I believe that in the four weeks we were there, we had a couple of frosty nights. But we also had gorgeous sunny days with clear blue skies, as you’ll see in the photos.
  • The banks of the Loire (and other local rivers) are frequently flooded in winter. As many of the beautiful walks in the area run along the river shores, some were too wet or muddy to use. However, we never had any diffculty finding somewhere near the river to perambulate, if that’s what we desired.

Willkommen/Bienvenu/Welcome

The next time you travel to an international destination, wouldn’t it be fun to meet a local who could speak your language and would take you on a themed walking tour, telling you all about their beloved home town?

When I stumbled upon the International Greeters Association website during our recent trip to France, I immediately loved the idea. When I found out the service is free, I loved it even more.

The first chapter of what would become IGA was founded in New York in 1992 by Lynn Brook. According to Big Apple Greeter: “On her extensive travels around the world, Lynn realized that almost everyone she met wanted to visit New York City, but some were a little intimidated. She wanted the world to know New York City as she did: a great big small town with diverse neighborhoods, mom-and-pop stores, fun places to dine, and friendly residents who go out of their way to help a visitor feel welcome.”

The concept was a resounding success and the organization now covers 123 destinations, with over 3500 greeters.

The IGA has the following core values:

1) Greeters are volunteers.

2) Greeters welcome individuals and may serve small groups of up to six people.

3) Meeting a Greeter is free of charge.*

4) All visitors and volunteers are welcomed without discrimination.

5) Greeter organizations support sustainable tourism. Programs respect natural and man-made environments, bringing both cultural and economic enrichment to local communities. Programs aim for a lasting positive image of each destination.

6) Greeter organizations create a mutually enriching opportunity for cultural exchange; create links between people in creating a better world.

I connected through the Loire Valley Greeters site, where they feature hosts from six Loire cities, including Amboise, where we were staying. I was also able to specify my language of choice (English, because I’m an ignorant North American monolinguist) and a theme (history). Other themes included literature, architecture, local products, nature, and shopping. Once all those filters were applied, the site offered me several greeter options. I picked a friendly face and sent through my request for a date/time.

I quickly received a confirmation and a contact for our greeter, Charles.

Charles was a delight, full of enthusiasm and knowledge about the history of Amboise. He was well prepared for our visit and even carried a binder with visual materials to illustrate some of his stories. Together, we wandered through the old streets, with Charles chatting about specific houses or the general history of the area. We peered into courtyards and poked around in one of the lovely old churches, Église Saint-Denis. We had the opportunity to ask about things that had puzzled us. It was really like a stroll with your favourite teacher.

We were thrilled to discover this organization and to visit with Charles. My only regret is that I didn’t know about it earlier in our trip so that we could have met greeters in some of the other towns we visited.

*I was contacted later by the Amboise group to solicit feedback and to request a donation. I was happy to provide both, but it’s your option whether to donate.

The Long and Winding Road

So you like long walks in the countryside, right? How about a really long walk in the countryside? Like, say, 800 km across two countries?

If that sounds like a walk in the park, how about trying it with a stroller and a toddler? Or maybe you’d like to do it with chronic pain in your feet and knees? And don’t forget your heavy backpack.

Walking the Camino: Six ways to Santiago is a documentary about six characters who each find their own reason for a journey along the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route to the shrine of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. And as the subtitle suggests, old or young, woman or man, of whatever nationality, each finds his or her own “way” of surviving the trek.

Whether they are Christian believers, wanderers who are searching for some meaning in their lives, or dilettantes who take up the pilgrim’s staff (or in this modern day, walking poles) on a whim, they all walk under the same rain storms, sleep in the same crowded hostels, suffer with similar blisters, and share the same basic needs at the end of each day: food, rest, shelter, companionship. Reducing life to this simple level for the space of 30 or so days makes them comrades in arms, each of them reluctant to see the pilgrimage come to its close.

One theme that emerges is how all of the walkers end up “shedding” something. Some drop physical belongings that begin to seem extraneous (and weighty). Some leave behind anger or sadness or their own expectations of themselves and others. Some find important things like the generosity of strangers or romantic love. But all seem to end up feeling “lighter.”

I don’t want to give away too much of the stories, because, as they say, it’s the journey, not the destination, but you can add into the mix some beautiful footage of the landscapes along the way, enticing enough to make even a creaky body such as myself contemplate the pleasures of such an epic walk.

For a different view of the Camino, check out “10 Reasons Why El Camino Sucks.”