Thursday, September 17, 2015

France: Going solo in lovers' country

It is hard to escape the romantic charm of France, but being alone does not mean you’re missing out

I sit on the rough edge of the farm looking out onto acres upon acres of young vines reaching for sunlight. They are only just sprouting fruit and the harvest is months away. But I could sit here for eternity, a dusty addition to a postcard picture.
France is where the romantics go, holding hands as they walk down broad leafy pavements, kissing under the shadow of a church archway or sharing pastries in a café. What was I doing then, ambling along alone with my day pack for company?
There were just six days to sample a whole country that has been on my mind for years. It was impossible, but I simply had to try.

Back in time in the 21st century
The River Seine
Footing it around Paris is the cheapest, easiest way to get around. So I got off the metro at Châtelet and wandered off into three days of non-stop discovery.
The city was named by a Celtic tribe in the third century called the Parisii, but features exquisite architecture mostly from centuries much later. Amid the notorious French upper crust attitude, perennial stream of tourists and pavements splattered with dog poo, you find that beautiful juxtaposition of history and modernity that marks every ‘old city’ in the world.
The main sites are clustered along the River Seine making it easy for tourists to get from one place to the next. The Tour St Jacques stands inconspicuously, solitary remains of what was probably a majestic 16th century Gothic church destroyed during the French Revolution.
Fete du pain
Nearby is the Hôtel de Ville, which has been the City Hall since 1357. It survived a fire that ravaged the area 200 years ago and features hundreds of sculptures, and beautiful old lamps among the thousands that gave Paris its nomenclature ‘City of Lights’. As I moved on across the river, I became one of the last to see the colourful ‘love locks’ on the Pont des Arts. In June this year, the government removed the thousands of inscribed padlocks left clinging to the heritage bridge by couples as a sign of their love.
The smell of freshly baked bread hung low below the tall intimidating spire of the Cathèdrale Notre Dame de Paris on the tiny Île de la Cité in the centre of the Seine. Spread under a huge white tent in the shadow of France’s most famous church, local bakers showed off exquisite pastry and bread-making skills as hungry tourists devoured excellent samples of French pâtisserie at La Fête du Pain, or the Festival of Bread.
A medieval stairway leads to the Notre Dame tower that explodes into a panoramic view of Paris, the city’s changing scapes watched over by hideous-looking gargoyles and chimera. The gargoyles functioned as run-offs for water, while the chimera are thought to have served as guardians scaring off evil spirits. Inside, the cathedral is filled with awe-inspiring stained glass, carvings, statues and towering organs, the chief one having 7,374 pipes. Built over two centuries, it was the one of the first buildings in the world to use flying buttresses, and continues to remain one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture.
From the cathedral, a walk down the Seine brought me to the Louvre, a day tour in itself, with nearly 35,000 exhibits from around the world including paintings, sculptures, scripts, artefacts, jewellery, tapestries and more. Tourists and locals fill the expansive Jardin des Tuileries in the museum grounds, watched over by sculptures that lead you on towards the Champs Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe.
Model replica of the Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris
A myriad other museums along the way bring you up to the Eiffel Tower which lives up to its fame, but only at night when the lights shine brightly and musicians create beautiful melodies beneath its halo. In the north of Paris, the century-old Moulin Rouge nightclub stands rather stifled among the buildings, its famous red windmill and décor possibly the only remnants of its seductive past. The roads nearby are filled with shops, selling everything from items of wild debauchery to chocolates and curios.
And up the steps of Montmartre, one arrives at the stately Basilica of Sacré-Cœur or Sacred Heart. Although a later construction – built in the late 1800s-early 1900s – the basilica stands tall on the highest point of the city, offering a commanding view of Paris. Faithful come in from around the world to participate in perpetual adoration of the consecrated host which has never stopped since 1885.

Vineyards & Villages
Then I left the city far behind, heading to Burgundy for a sampling of the vineyards and the produce that comes with it. As the wine capital of the district, Beaune felt understated, unrealistically peaceful and almost shy.
Wide, clear roads with medieval walls hidden at intervals, and cute dwellings with no one in sight make it an enticing place for an extended sojourn. I was fortunate to meet Marco Sparacino at the homestay, a young Italian sommelier full of life and bubbling with curiosity. Together, we explored the vineyards of the Cote d’Or, or the Golden Slope, the birthplace of some of the world’s finest wines.
The road south towards Chalon-sur-Saône passed through Pommard, Volnay, Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chagny, with acres upon acres of vines creeping along the slopes, hanging low to the ground on stem supports. Every so often, we’d pass through a village – a small smattering of stone houses where engaging vintners spoke excitedly about their products.
Marco enjoyed animated discussions on the complexity of viniculture, as I explored the producers’ wine caves – dark cellars stacked high with barrels ageing wines of various bouquets. Along the way, I learnt interesting tid bits about wine, saw clos or walled vineyards and had my breath taken away by a sea of cornflowers.
In the town of Beaune itself, there are historic sites including the old market of Les Halles, an ancient clock tower called Beffroi, and the 15th century Hospices de Beaune which hosts France’s main wine auction sometime after the end of summer.
Vineyards in the Cote d'Or
A day in the city of Dijon was most certainly called for, looking for La Chouette – the city’s lucky owl carving on the Notre Dame de Dijon cathedral walls, buying its famous mustard, and taking in the beautiful Ducal Palace and its in-house Musée des Beaux Arts which features a stunning array of medieval art.
Burgundy is the ideal place for some quiet time. It is chic in its strong sense of culture and offers pure experiences untouched by mainstream tourism. There are wine and cheese tours, and even truffle hunts, Michelin-starred restaurants and miles upon miles of tranquillity.

So what was I doing alone in the one of the world’s most romantic countries? I was falling in love, no doubt. With not a care in the world and not a thing to come home to, I was falling in love with living in the moment.

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