Saturday, 29 May 2010

Turning Back Time in Troyes

As the coldness of the European winter recedes and warmer weather begins to emerge, Jules and I set our sights on visiting some of the picturesque towns that lie outside of Paris. One such town to the southeast is the historical village of Troyes (pronounced ‘Twah’). Located in the heart of the champagne region, it was a relatively short train trip away (approximately 150 km) and ideal for an overnight stay. As it is regarded as one of the better preserved 16th century towns in France, we were keen to make our way there. Upon our arrival we were immediately struck by the traditional architecture, which was very different than what we had imagined; looking much like the Elizabethan Tudor style of England with its use of exposed wooden structural beams. Clearly the channel between the two countries was no barrier to the development of this building style. Amazingly many of these particular structures date back to the 1500’s and over the years whole streets had been beautifully restored and maintained. Walking through the narrow cobblestone streets of the old town was indeed like stepping back in time and we were amazed at the way its authenticity has been maintained over the years. We were particularly fortunate to secure one of these heritage buildings as our accommodation for the night. Positioned close to a tree lined canal where narrow boats were moored as they had been for hundreds of years, it was an idealic picture. As we continued to wander around the centre of town we came across the ornate Troyes Cathedral, which could be viewed at close quarters from the town square. This is the heart of the old town, which is lined with numerous cafes, bars and restaurants and is a haven for tourists. In the increasing heat of the afternoon, we couldn’t resist sitting under the colourful umbrellas to quench our thirst with a nice cold beer, while taking in this uniquely French outlook. In fact, it was so good that in the evening we returned once again to eat outdoors and enjoy the ambience of the balmy night. Unlike Paris there was a relaxed atmosphere here that appeared to be less rushed by the modern pace of life. The locals were genuinely welcoming and happy to share the unique qualities of their town and countryside. Certainly, with the champagne region at their doorstep they had much to smile about, although for us the town itself was simply enough.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Remembering the Diggers at Villers Bretonneax

One of our goals while in France was to visit the historic region of the Somme to pay our respects to the fallen Australian diggers who lost their lives during World War One. It was a long weekend, so we left Paris by train on Friday to stay at Amiens. After only a few short hours we arrive at this very pleasant city. Everything was very clean and tidy and there was clearly plenty of civic pride evident. In the centre of the city is Notre Dame Cathedral, which is not quite as famous as it’s namesake in Paris, but is statistically larger and in our opinion more impressive. From here we hop into a taxi for the short trip out of town to Villers Bretonneax and dropped off at the Australian War Memorial that sits on the crest of the rolling hills outside the tiny town. On this site many of our young lads lost their lives as they halted the German advance on Amiens. It remains a pilgrimage destination for many Australians, so not surprisingly we start to hear some Australian accents from those wandering through the rows of headstones. We talked to a lovely couple, who had travelled from Queensland and were moved to tears with discovery of the resting place of a great uncle. The memorial is beautifully maintained and despite the ravages of the Second World War (evident by the bullet holes that still remain on the central tower) it stands proudly as a testament to the enduring bond between Australia and France forged through battle. Similarly this is evident in the township itself with several streets named after Australian cities. We even have coffee at Le Cafe Melbourne before visiting the Franco-Australian museum, which is set above the local schoolhouse built from the donations of Australian school children in the post war period. Looking at the old photos of the area after the devastation of war is quite a sobering experience, but the efforts of our soldiers to rebuild this tiny town makes us proud to be Australian. Amongst the many exhibits was a small bible that had been borrowed (possibly for spiritual comfort) from the local church in 1918 and taken back to Australia by a young surviving soldier. In an accompanying letter written many years later the soldier had felt so badly about taking it that he organised to have it sent back. Such is the respect for a town that it is increasingly being recognised for being as historically significant as Gallipoli.