12-17 September 2005
I picked out our driver, Raphael, without any trouble. The fact that he was holding up a card displaying, ‘PAX’ might have had something to do with it. Each time the air-side doors opened, he would wave the placard with expectancy. Now, I reckon I can pick out the English from a crowd on the continent. We’re not swarthy (like the Spaniards) and not as well dressed as the Italians. Nor are we ‘square-headed’ like the Germans. [It’s a sterotype, I know, but so many Germans seem to fit the bill]. The English look, well, just sort of ‘English’: not particularly badly dressed (though certainly often unco-ordinated as to style or colour) and with a faintly perplexed air. What they don’t look like, to me at least, is ‘foreign’! Raphael, however, was not in the least bit discriminating. Obvious Spaniards, Italians and Germans alike got the placard treatment. They, of course, paid him no attention. Had anyone noticed, they might well have assumed he was a religious fanatic whose tortured soul could only be stilled by wishing a voiceless ‘peace’ upon safely-arrived airline passengers. If Raphael were in any misery, I took it upon myself to put him out of it. Greeting him in long-unpractised 'O'-level French I explained to him that I knew the Pax Escort, Ann, and that he could put his banner down for a bit. Whatever the shortcomings of my French, Raphael quickly assured me it was somewhat better than his English. This gave me courage and I proceeded to entertain him with as much of the language as I could muster. Fortunately for both of us, Ann and her group hoved into view before my linguistic skills gave out completely. There were to be ten of us in Ann and Raphael's care: Catherine (from Oxford), Norah (Greenwich), Henry (Ireland), John (New Maldon), Dorothy and Reg (Quorn), Susan (nr Norwich), Angela (nr Oxford) and Cecile (Clapham). There's the usual mix of Anglicans, Romans and a Methodist.

Having completed my travels, I’ve come to the conclusion that first impressions are not deceptive. You can tell an awful lot from that first meeting. Pay particular attention to how much baggage people bring with them (directly proportional to their insecurities) and where they choose on sit on the transfer coach (at the back, far away from others or luggage on the adjacent seat means ‘keep away – I don’t want to know you, now or for the whole week’. Others have come with libraries of guide books and tourist leaflets. They’re the ones who have either been this way before and will take every opportunity to make you enjoy your every moment with facts from page 224 and figures from appendix D, or they are complete strangers to the location who assume that all others are fellow novices who’ve not done their homework. That’s not to say that you can’t get on with such people – it means, rather, that having sized up your fellows for the duration, it’s a matter of playing to their strengths and not falling victim to their weaknesses. That way, people can get on with each other to best effect. Taking the initiative with demanding people means you can keep some control. Having asked to see the guide book (rather than having it pressed upon you), you can give it back twenty minutes later. Transaction completed: everybody happy. If you start a gentle (and, of course, entirely non-intrusive) conversation with the scared rabbit you can give them a moment of normality before they realise their security cordon has been breached. People who sign up for group travel have a responsibility to the group at least to make an effort to be affable – and it works both ways. In my line of business I’m used to the awkward, the difficult, the misfit. That some of these join group holidays should be no surprise (I guess they lack ‘real’ friends with whom they could otherwise travel) but they are by no means the majority. The rest of us (the non-awkward, non-difficult, non-misfit, naturally) need to make room for them in the group. After all, it’s for our good and the good of us all that the group ‘works’.

We stayed at the Hotel Mercure in Evreux. The location is nothing to look at, unless you like supermarket car parks, but for a mid-price chain the accommodation and the facilities are pretty good. Certainly I had nothing to complain about. The room was larger than average and the bathroom excellent. The food, which included a hot buffet breakfast, was good (apart from the steak we had for dinner one night - cooked way beyond well-done 'for ze Eengleesh', we were told!).


Chartres Cathedral

Our first day (Tuesday) took us to Chartres, about an hour away. I'd been to this delightful city earlier in the year when they were digging up the town centre. Thankfully, they'd finished their work, so a proper sense of peace had returned. Although the Cathedral is the main attraction, the medieval houses down by the river (and the other churches) merit attention. There's also a little tourist train which does all the local sights for €5.50 (2005 price) to give a sense of what's on offer. Our guide at the Cathedral was Malcolm Miller, a long-serving Englishmen with an excellent reputation. In a well-practised routine he took us round the windows (which are among the best in the world), unveiling stories of patrons, explaining techniques and the history behind them. The rose windows are incomparable and the Blue Madonna exquisite. We were just in time (and the only takers) for a tour of the cathedral crypt. A very good Frenchman took us round. The ambulatory was used by medieval candidates for baptism at Easter and there are remnants of the foundations of earlier cathedrals to be seen. A delightful chapel completes the tour.

Wednesday was a tour to Lisieux, home to St Therese. A slightly clinical exhibition centre with a dated display (the cases light up in turn) gives a clue about what's to come later and is worth a visit if you're new to St Therese. A word of warning: the tour comes in a selection of languages, so lurk until an English group comes along. Even then, the lady in charge might prefer to hear the commentary in Swedish for a change! St Therese's family home is reassuringly middle-class with original fixtures and furnishings. The resident guide is strict but kind. Your progress through the rooms is punctuated by classical music which cues you when it's time to move on. The local cathedral (the bishop now resides at Bayeux) is harshly plain and appears unloved but the first communion class, some 50 children, didn't seem to mind.


The Basilica at Lisieux

The Basilica itself was lovlier than I'd expected. Though a much-visited tourist site, there was a sense of peace. The local guide was informative without being long-winded and there was time not just to look round the church but to wander downstairs to the crypt which houses some most informative displays in an atmospheric and beautiful chapel. The gift shop across the courtyard and down the steps has some nice souvenirs on offer.




The Crypt below the Basilica at Lisieux

In the afternoon, we toured the Therese exhibition in St James's Church for just €2. If you've not had enough of the Saint by the end of this visit, you never will. I was pleasantly surprised by the whole experience. Even the sight of part of St Therese's forearm didn't spoil the day. Before returning to the hotel, we took in the Abbey le Bec Hellouin, a very interesting place with a long history and intimate monastic connections with Canterbury. Our French guide spoke pretty good English. The shop was up to National Trust standards (and prices). The little village just outside the abbey is photogenic. Driving along the country roads, it was noticeable that many thatched houses have garden bulbs planted along the roof ridges. Not the first place I'd think for them!
Thursday dawned dull and damp - not a good start to our visit to Monet's Garden at Giverny. When you're on a package tour, though, you're committed to the timetable. Arriving early, we had the gardens to ourselves for the first hour or so. We took full advantage of this to take pictures which were perfect copies of tea towels, jigsaw puzzles, framed prints and the countless other spin-offs that the famous water lilies and green bridge have spawned. Later, we were joined by parties of schoolchilden who seemed to have more interest in chasing each round the narrow paths than appreciating the venue. It's reassuring, I suppose, to find that French schoolchildren don't reserve this behaviour for their trips abroad!
 


Monet's Water Garden at Giverny
 
Monet's Garden is a compact treasure. It's actually in two parts, separated by a road. You can use a pedestrian tunnel, if you like. The water garden is, of course, a familiar classic. Even when the water lilies are shy (as they were for me) they make a lovely pattern on the still water and the pond-side planting is not without interest. The real surprise for me was the garden around Monet's house. This doesn't feature much in the publicity, so I was quite unprepared for the spectacular beds. It's a largely vertical garden: very tall plants - impressive dahlias and sunflowers, yellow, bronze and red. It's a whole cram of colour giving the impression of being random and accidental but surely with a deeply disguised masterplan at its heart. It rewards two or three circuits.

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Sunflowers in Monet's Garden

The house, too, is fascinating. Although the pictures which clothe the walls are copies, they give a great impression of the breadth of Monet's output and seeing them in situ makes sense of them.  The shop, housed in Monet’s studio, is also worth a call.  Much of the stock is pretty general but the Monet-specific goods will be of interest.  We didn’t stay for lunch, though it’s said the Hotel Baudy is a good choice.
 
Instead, we went on to Vernon.  It’s not a very exciting place (at least, it wasn’t that day!) but there’s an attractive old house now used as a tourist office and the local church is attractive enough.  The rest of the day was back in Evreux where a new organ was being installed in the rather plain cathedral.
 
Friday dawned damp, so we doubted we’d see Rouen at its best.  On arrival, I took refuge in the cathedral and caught up with writing postcards.  The tourist trade was very intrusive and distracting, rather similar to that prevailing in an English cathedral.  Seated near the back, and in the absence of anyone is any obvious authority, I assumed the role of verger asking men to remove their hats and keeping the visitors quiet.  Whether it was my boldness or my French (probably the former) I secured some 40 minutes of good order in the church that day.
 
The day brightened up a little for the ride on the tourist train (€6).  Compared with Chartres, this was a disappointing trip.  There were few sights to be seen along the route, which was mainly through dull shopping streets, and the out-of-synch commentary was difficult to follow.
 
Our afternoon guide was Freddy, a Frenchman with an excellent English accent.  He made the cathedral and the town come alive.  He showed us timbered houses and a fine art evening institute housed in a former medieval plague pit and ossory.  St Joan of Arc church is unpromising from the outside but striking within, with evocative glass windows newly designed using glass salvaged from St Vincent’s church.  Outside, a cross marks the place of St Joan’s immolation.

A final day, Saturday, at Versailles. The early morning sun soon gave way to cold and spitting. Undeterred, we queued for our tickets with the crowds. That day was one when the fountains were to play, so it was especially busy.


Fountian at Versailles

Finding the right ticket booth is a bit of a bother. Some sell tickets for individuals, others for groups and yet others for specific exhibitions and attractions. Don't get in the wrong line! For only €20 we bought a one-day 'Passport' which allowed access to all parts - excellent value, though there's so much to see you have to be selective.


The Palace at Versailles

Apart from several sets of formal apartments, there's the Hall of Mirrors (though this was under renovation, so we didn't see it at its best), as well as the gardens (and the many fountains) and Marie Antoinette's model hamlet. For those who can't walk so well, 'buggies' can be hired (€28 per hour for up to four people at 2005 prices), handy for exploring the gardens, at least.