VTDF #5: Rouen

05 - Rouen

The real Tour De France finished a couple of days ago in Paris – Tadej Pogačar from Slovenia won his second Tour De France title, on penalties after extra time, I don’t understand the rules. Well done though, that’s great; he won it last time around too in 2020. Looking at the list of recent winners I recognize a lot of the names, several Brits, and of course Wiggo in 2012. There was someone called ‘No Winner’ who won a lot of them between 1999 and 2005, wonder what happened there, someone with strong arms and stronger legs. But I digress, as you cannot do on a Tour De France. We rejoin the Virtual Tour on stage five, in the region of Normandy and its historic capital of ROUEN

I loved drawing this, as you can tell. Give me a street of half-timbered buildings and I am happy as an appropriate metaphor. Rouen has no shortage of such streets to draw. There are a lot of people too; people add some life to a scene, and create a tangible perspective for us to understand the geometry of the space. Also, a clown with green hair, because every drawing needs a clown with green hair. I have never been to Rouen; I did study the medieval Normans when I was doing my MA in medieval English, my final dissertation focused on the relationship between English and French, in particular Anglo-Norman, the variety of French used in medieval England for a few centuries following the conquest. Specifically I explored the apparent antagonism between the two languages as England moved from French-speaking governance to English-speaking governance, while the English language evolved as it blended with the Anglo-Norman style of French, which itself was becoming seen as a bit of a less-prestigious version compared to that of Paris, even mocked by Chaucer. Rouen, on the river Seine, was the Norman capital – it still is – but was founded by the Gauls, and called ‘Rotomagus’ in Roman times. Famed Rose-Wars-King Edward IV of England was born here. So was famed toilet-sideways-turner Marcel Duchamp, and famed Euro-2000-final-golden-goal-scorer David Trezeguet. And Formula 1 driver Pierre Gasly, which is appropriate because the very first competitive motor-race in the world went from Paris to Rouen in 1894, the “Concours du ‘Petit Journal’ Les Voitures sans Chevaux”. That first race was won by Albert Lemaitre in a Peugeot, although he actually crossed the line second, because the driver who originally came first, Jules-Albert, Comte de Dion, was disqualified due to his engine being ineligible, not the last time someone would win a race in France but later have it stripped for breaking the rules. The Road to Rouen, also a Supergrass album.

You’ll notice Monoprix on the left. Monoprix is a chain of department stores in France that we used to go to all the time in Aix. They had food on the basement floor, clothes on the first floor, upstairs they had TVs and fridges and kids toys, and I would go there for notebooks and pens and stuff. The food was a little more expensive than at Super U but not much, but not as cheap as the cheapy store “Ed”. I remember it would take a long time to find the fresh milk. It felt like doing a fantasy role play quest, trying to find the fresh milk in Monoprix, or any other French supermarket. They like the old UHT over there, but to me that tastes like shite. They make up for it though with their other dairy products, and I really love the French cheese. I remember back in first year French class when Mr Smith brought in a variety of disgusting smelling French cheeses for us to try, and despite being floored by the smell I did like the taste. I remember trying Pont L’Eveque, a cheese from Normandy, and it not being like anything else I’d had before. I do love to go into a cheese shop in France and get the whiff of Camembert whack me in the nose as I walk through the door. Someone asked me once what my favourite French cheese was, I told them I don’t have a favourite French cheese, but if I had to choose I’d probably say my favourite French cheese was ‘Fromage’. Actually in all seriousness I really like Laughing Cow, “the thinking man’s Dairylee triangle”. In French they call it ‘Le Vache Qui Rit’, ‘The Cow Who Laughs’. It sounds like a piece of nouvelle vague cinema. “Le triangle de dairylee de l’homme qui pense.”

And on that note, we sail down the river Seine away from Rouen to the coastal town of Honfleur. Toute à l’heure! 

VTDF #4: Amiens

04 Amiens

Stage 4 of the Virtual Tour de France finds us in the northern city of AMIENS, on the river (and department) Somme. It is difficult to say the name ‘Somme’ without thinking of the historic atrocity of the 1916 Battle of the Somme, in World War I. Three million soldiers fought in that battle, with over a million wounded or killed. Amiens is right in the heart of World War 1 country, and itself saw a 1918 battle that ended in an Allied victory. World War II didn’t exactly pass it by either, with another Battle of Amiens in 1940 when Germany took the town, and later on pretty heavy bombardment by the Allies in 1944 before it was liberated. There were wars and sieges and sackings here in the many centuries before, but Amiens and the Somme are inescapably linked with the awful World Wars.

This is a nice view though, down by the river, looking up at the cathedral. I could imagine coming here and eating lunch by the Somme, before driving on to another town for a bit more history. I found out recently that an ancestor of mine from Dublin fought in World War 1 and was wounded in a gas attack at Loos, not far from Lens. I saw my great-great grandfather’s photo (his name was James Higgins, as was his father, and his son who I think also fought in that war?) and he had the most amazing bushy “General Melchett” moustache. He wasn’t a general though, just a regular soldier. I also saw a postcard he sent home to his wife (my great-great granny) in Dublin from Loos before the battle took place. Fascinating stuff, I never knew he even existed until recently. I never inherited the moustache. It was a big handlebar one with two pointy tails, that reminds me a bit of the Red Bull logo, or two rats fighting. I would not know how to take care of an amazing moustache like that, I would probably get it in my soup, this is why I shave. I only briefly had a moustache, though it was part of a goatee, and that was for a few months in the 90s and that my friend is where for most people goatees should have stayed. Funnily enough I never saw anyone in France with that classic French moustache, the one with the twirly sides, that all cartoon French people have (along with the beret and the onions and the baguette), but I have seen many hipster people in America wear that ‘tache. I couldn’t pull it off.

There does appear what looks like a lifesize Subbuteo figure standing in the river, to the left there. I think it is called “L’Homme sur sa bouée” (“The man on his buoy”). It seems that it’s common for the people of the town to dress him up, put t-shirts on him and so on. He is the work of German sculptor Stephan Balkenhol and was originally installed there in 1993, but being made of wood and manhandled by so many locals it degraded a fair bit over the years and was replaced in 2019 by the artist, this time in aluminium. Or maybe it is still wood but now painted in aluminium, it’s hard to tell. L’Homme sur sa bouée has become a bit of local celebrity in Amiens. There are two other similar statues by the same artist placed nearby against the walls of buildings that the man in the river is looking at. If I ever got to Amiens I will look out for them all. 

After Amiens we leave Picardy behind and head into another part of France famous for its role in World War II: Normandy. So join me on the Road to Rouen. 

VTDF #2: Boulogne-Sur-Mer

02 - Boulogne

Stage 2 of the Virtual Tour De France finds us in BOULOGNE-SUR-MER, a little further down the Côte d’Opale from Calais. This image shows us the town square, with the historic Belfry (a UNESCO world heritage site), the town hall, a cafe, some bins, a cracked plate, a giant watering can, and a massive aubergine, what Americans would call an eggplant. When scouting locations to virtually draw, this was obviously the right choice. Boulogne is a historic town (they all will be, by the way, I’m unlikely to draw a town on this virtual tour and say “yeah, no history here lads”), going back to the Romans, being fought over between the French and the English in that famous war (“100 Years Of Hurt”), and of course during World Wars I and II. Napoleon used Boulogne to amass the Grande Armée ahead of his planned invasion of the Nation of Shopkeepers, but had to abort those plans when he realized those shopkeepers only allow two kids in their shop at a time, to prevent shoplifting. Foiled again, Boney! This part of the world, northern France, saw a lot of action in those wars and its legacy is inescapable. There was a large battle here in 1940 that ended in a German victory, shortly before the evacuation of Dunkirk, but the Allies were back in 1944 to take the town in Operation Wellhit, which is a name I love, because it sounds like WellHard. But of course as with so many other kids from south-east England, Boulogne is synonymous with school trips to France, easy access from Dover and Folkestone. We would go over for the day on a coach, and a ferry, walk about town a bit, take a big group photo, look at some old buildings, then go to the Hypermarkets for an hour or so to buy some cheese or foreign chocolate before driving back to London. I will never forget buying a chocolate bar called “CRAP”. It was probably the greatest moment of my childhood, being about 12 and finding a chocolate bar called “CRAP”. I kept the wrapper pinned to my cork-board in my bedroom for years like a trophy. Other people won football tournaments, spelling competitions, the Duke of Edinburgh Award, I found chocolate bars with funny names. My other favourite as you may remember is Big Nuts, from Belgium. 

We did do a longer school trip here though in around 1990, in the third year, spending several days in a beach suburb of Boulogne called Le Portel. I have many memories from the trip, although at the same time my memory is very foggy. We visited a World War II Blockhaus, a huge concrete fortification from which Hitler and co fired massive rockets to bomb the UK. We went down to Paris one day as well, walked about by the Seine, looked at the Eiffel Tower, giggled at the Pigalle as our coach passed by. It was the first time any of us had seen a cop with a real gun. We all stood behind him waiting to cross the road pointing at the holster on his belt, we had only ever seen cops with guns on American TV shows. I remember we even visited Sangatte, the site where they were building this new thing, ‘Le Tunnel Sous Le Manche‘, an actual tunnel going under the English Channel, which I had thought was a pipe dream (haha) but now it was becoming real, and that meant that of course French rats would crawl through and give us all rabies, so that’s all we talked about. We stayed at a hotel near the beach, the perfect place for groups of kids to misbehave. My friend got banned from all future school trips for doing a ‘moony’ in the hallway. Another friend got his bag stolen off his shoulder in the street by a local kid on a moped, those local kids loved their mopeds and their bag-theft. In general though it was just usual teenage fun and games, mostly staying up chatting too late at night, to the point where our teachers actually had to wait in our rooms until everyone was asleep. It must have been great fun being a teacher on one of those school trips with a bunch of 13-14 year olds, huh. I had a little tape recorder I would bring around and we’d tape ourselves chatting nonsense on the school bus and listen to it later. I remember the tape getting very mangled so everything was distorted, I think we tried to add that mangled noise in to the background of one of our songs a couple of years later when we were trying to be a band. I do remember buying a record on that trip though at a local record shop, a stupid looking French comedy song with a ridiculous cover of classic French beret and mariniere wearing onions-and-baguettes types, I think it was called ‘Vive La France’ , but of course it couldn’t play on my tape player because it was a vinyl record, so I had to wait until I got back to England to discover it was unlistenable shite. It probably put me off French music for years. Apart from that, the memories are a blur, but good memories anyway. I’ve never been back to Boulogne. 

Today is July 14, what we call Bastille Day (but the French don’t), the French national holiday. Right now the real Tour de France is on Stage 17 already, zooming around the Pyrenees from Muret to Saint-Lary Soulan Col De Portet, and should be in Paris in just a few days time. For this Virtual Tour, our next stop will be in the home of the newly crowned French football champions, Lille. A bientôt!

Virtual Tour De France #1: CALAIS

01 - Calais

Last Spring, barely two months into The Pandemic That Still Isn’t Anywhere Near Over, I was so anxious about not being able to travel back to England or anywhere that I developed an insatiable wanderlust. I literally wanted to go everywhere. At this point I wasn’t even going to downtown Davis, I was Staying At Home, Sheltering In Place, Locking Down. So I travelled all over the entire island of Great Britain, something I’ve always wanted to do, and drew it all in one sketchbook, and then wrote silly things about it on here like you do. It wasn’t a real journey of course, same as everything it was Virtual, all done by exploring Google Street View. 66 sketches, because 66 has some magical significance in Britain, or some parts of it anyway (I was hoping 21 might supersede it but oh well). I explored a lot more than I actually drew. You can see an album of the whole thing here. Anyway it was such a fun journey of discovery of my native island that I decided I needed to do another one. This second one was done last summer, much shorter, all around Dublin, home of my forebears and countless distant cousins. That one is here. “So where next?” I thought. I wanted to do a tour of the whole of Europe. Maybe it would be narrower, following only the places I visited on my 1998 round-Europe-on-the-trains trip. That’s a really good idea actually, I might as they say “put a pin in that one”. (Why do they say that? Do they want to burst their balloon?)  But no, I have always dreamed of doing a proper tour of France, or “Tour the France” as they say. Great idea, I thought, and I can finish it by the time the real Tour De France starts and then post the whole thing with stories of my Virtual journey, mixed in with real stories of my own experiences in the Real France, not just the Made Up France (like Emily in Paris). I have a bit of ‘histoire’ with France, although it’s hardly ‘Year In Provence’ stuff. Except no, I did actually spend a Year In Provence, so maybe it is? Maybe – definitely – I don’t really know what I am talking about most of the time, but who does? Peter Mayle? I’m also called Peter, I’m also Male, so maybe I have more in common with him than I thought. I’ll tell you something though that I’ve not thought about in years – I started drawing again while I lived in France, and part of that might have been that I enjoyed the sketched illustrations in the copy of A Year In Provence that I owned at the time that I wanted to draw more myself. So anyway, I plotted out a doable tour of France that would fit into one single sketchbook. I wasn’t going to use the same format as before – these would all be bigger, maybe more detailed drawings across two pages, same dimensions, so that they would all connect. Great idea, I think I will be done in about a year. Where to start? The Great Britain one started in London, ended in John O’Groats, but you can’t start a Tour de France in Paris. You have to end in Paris, cycling up the Champs-Élysées with a sketchbook and a baguette under my arm. For someone from Britain, there is only one place to start, and that’s Calais. So that’s where we begin our tour. And just like passport control and customs checks since the B-word happened, it’s taken us a very long wait to get here.

And of course, today is le 14 juillet, 14th of July, known to us as Bastille Day. No better day to start a tour de France than the French Fête Nationale.  

CALAIS, the first stage of the tour, actually used to be English. That is, it was ruled by England for a couple of centuries until 1558, before “Coming Home” to France (“England’s gonna throw it away, gonna blow it away…” they sang). They called it the “jewel in the English crown” for some reason. Seriously the English monarchs loved it, mostly for its hypermarkets and duty-free ciggies. The area around Calais is called the ‘Pas de Calais’, which I assumed when I first learnt French was because it was the area that was ‘Not Calais’, like this bit’s Calais, this bit isn’t. I thought, surely the whole of France is Pas De Calais? Or the world? Or everything in existence? Those school day-trips to northern France with me were long, I can tell you. We never actually came to Calais on a school day trip, we did go to Boulogne though. I’ll talk about Boulogne next time. In fact, I don’t think I ever actually came to Calais, walked around, asked “où est la boulangerie?”, not once in my life, but I have passed through it so many times. When I used to come back and forth to Europe on the old Eurolines bus, I passed through Calais so many times on the way to somewhere else. That’s what Calais is, a wayfarer’s stopping off point. That bus would get off the ferry at Calais from Dover, the ferry I took so many times, early in the morning, late at night, middle of the afternoon, and the thing I remember most those first few times was the feeling that I was actually abroad. I had passed through the magical barrier from the usual normalcy of England, and now everything was in French, the signs were different fonts, the service station toilets were all different, and of course everyone spoke French, really fast. Not slow, like in Mr. Smith’s French class at school. There were water towers dotted around the Pas De Calais countryside, all unusual shapes and sizes. I will admit, I had no idea what they were for years. Its something you see in America all the time, but not something you come across too often in London. In northern France though they were exotic space-age sculptures saying “you are very, very far from home“, when in fact I was nearer home than if I went to my aunt’s in Norfolk. (though Norfolk always felt very, very far away when I was a kid, so not a great analogy). The thing that stood out in my memory of passing through Calais though was the unusually large clock tower, posing over the town and flexing its stocky neck muscles as it looks out towards England, 27 miles or so away. So that is what drew, the Hotel de Ville, a tall ‘tour’ for the first stop on the Tour de France. 

Once the Channel Tunnel started becoming the route of choice for coaches going over the English Channel, the days of me taking the ferry like in the 1990s were numbered. Now if I go to mainland Europe from London I fly, or take the Eurostar train. I will be honest, I will probably never visit Calais, jewel in English crown or not, it’s always in my mind been a place to go through to get somewhere better, even if the next place on this tour is Boulogne (which I always thought of as the less cool little brother to Calais, the Folkestone to its Dover). I miss the ferry though. It was a real transitional journey, seeing those mossy green White Cliffs get smaller and smaller, sitting in that big area with the bar and the comfy seats while your Eurolines bus driver recognized you from the bus and asked if you could carry in a couple of boxes of ciggies for him so he didn’t have to pay duty on them (actually happened; I told him “no I don’t think so mate”), going up on deck to feel the English Channel air on your face while someone nearby vomits either from seasickness or one too many G&Ts from the ferry bar, going back down to the vehicle deck when it was time to go and looking for where your bus was out of the seemingly hundreds down there, choking on carbon monoxide, yeah no I don’t miss the Dover-Calais ferry as much as I thought I did. Ok, so that is Calais – next stop Boulogne-sur-Mer…                 

A Pair of Days at Disneyland Paris

Disneyland Paris Castle sm
And so after so many places in Belgium and Holland we returned to France, and to our first visit to Disneyland Paris. We stayed at the Disneyland Hotel for that walk-right-into-the-park experience, and we were not disappointed. My wife is a huge Disney parks fan but has only been to the original (like a million times) so this was a novel experience. I have to say I really liked it, it wasn’t as crowded, the sidewalks seemed to be wider, the two arcades behind Main Street were nice and accessible and I really liked the Castle. I had to sketch it. Everything was a bit different from California, Space Mountain for example (which is still Hyperspace Mountain) repeated Star Wars phrases in French (naturally) and had an outside starting point, while Thunder Mountain Railroad was definitely longer and faster, and was located on an island that the ride went under a tunnel to get to. I also really liked Pirates of the Caribbean (“les morts ne raccontent pas d’histoires!”), probably more than the Californian one. The maze of caves near the pirate ship too was so much fun to run around. And of course, serving champagne on Main Street during fireworks (though I didn’t indulge). So yes, we liked it.
Belgium Thalys to Paris sm
Our Thalys train from Brussels to Marne-La-Vallee was, amazingly, on time. I was sketching with the brush pen here, my son wearing his new Charleroi shirt. We spent some of our time on the train playing MarioKart on the Switch (I lost). When we got into Disneyland we had dinner at ‘King Ludwig’s Castle’, a lavishly decorated Bavarian themed restaurant, and we had hearty Bavarian fare (on our first night in France).
Disneyland Paris Fire Hydrant sm
On the other side of the main park, in the place where California Adventure would be, is a second park called Parc Walt Disney Studios. I liked it there, although there was not as much going on, except the incredible Ratatouille ride. That one we enjoyed. In that whole area there were a number of mobile food carts, one from each culinary area of France (crepes from Bretagne, tarte flambee from Alsace, cider from Normandy etc), and then around the corner there were more, but from different European countries (we had some nice sangria and tapas from Spain, while my son went back to enjoying his favourite Belgian waffles).
Disneyland Paris Ping Pong sm
The hotel was incredible. I enjoyed spending time in the pool, and they even gave my son a ball so he could have a kickaround on the grass (that made his trip). Above, I sketched my family playing ping-pong. Below, I tried one more fancy drink this time in the music-themed Cafe Fantasia. It was called the African Dream, made with rum, papaya, St Germain liqueur, lychee puree and bissap, I don’t know, I’ve heard of rum. It was tasty (and expensive), I got it because it looked like a vacation.

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Disneyland Paris Thunder Mountain sm
Above: Thunder Mountain Railroad, on an island in the middle of a lake. I drew this while tired legs were resting, colouring in later.
Eurostar Paris to London sm<
And finally, one more train journey, this time the Eurostar from Marne La Vallee to London, going back to the UK to see the family, go to a Spurs game at the new stadium, and hopefully unwind after a very busy trip.

pottering about paris

Paris Moulin Rouge
I really like Paris, but it has always felt like the city I never really got to know very well, and is better friends with other people. It’s not really very far from London, its history has long been bound up with every other country around it in some way – if Paris sneezes, Europe catches [insert whichever virus is trending that year], and yet from Britain it felt a world away; funny how the British see near neighbours. “Paris m’est inconnue“, a line I remember from Cyrano. My time spent in France was mostly down in the far south, which is why my French accent is so different (see also my time in Belgium, more on that in the next posts) (actually the real reason is that I’m just not that good at French) (I do have a degree in French though). But in all the times I have been to Paris, I realized that I’d only ever been there by myself once, and that was over 20 years ago, for the day, on my way elsewhere. I had been as a 13 year old kid on a day-trip with school, when I first entered Notre Dame and felt the cold ancient stone, and our bus went past the Moulin Rouge. I went when I was about 20 with a girl, that didn’t really work out, and all I really remember now is when I decided to go for a late night wander by myself and walked all over the city, exploring Paris after dark fearlessly and completely without any sort of map. I went another time (with another girl) and I remember going to Pere Lachaise and up Montmartre but little else, it was a long time ago. My solo visit was during the World Cup 1998, as the opening part of my summer-long European rail journey, and I spent the evening watching Brazil beat Holland on a big screen in front of the Hotel de Ville. I never went back, save for changing trains to catch the Eurostar, until my family and I went in 2012 when my son was quite young, and that was my favourite Paris visit, hitting many of the sights, watching Les Guignols in the Jardins de Luxembourg, and taking my son on all the metro lines because he liked being on the train. I really like Paris but have rarely been on a solo trip. And this day, well I was by myself, but it was another day trip. However I was determined to just wander about one area only, the steep hill of Montmartre. I landed at CDG, took an RER to Paris Nord, and set out on foot. And when I arrived on rue Pigalle, on the leafy traffic islands flanked by sexy DVD shops and nightclubs, I saw the one thing that reminded me I am back in France – a man pissing openly in the street, and nobody caring. Some things don’t change. That was a fairly common sight when I lived in Aix, but back then I was not Californian, and didn’t think anything of it. But hey when you gotta go you gotta go. Later that same day I went to Brussels, whose most famous statue is a boy very happily having a public wee.

So anyway, as you can see above, I stopped on Pigalle, and drew the famous Moulin Rouge. It’s so famous that Nicole Kidman made a film about it. It’s so famous that Rod Hull made a TV show about it, although he watered it down a bit. As I mentioned my French isn’t as great as it should be so I think Moulin Rouge means ‘Mussels in Lipstick’ but I didn’t go in to find out, so instead I just drew the big red windmill that is for some reason on the top. I know that the famous ‘can-can’ dance has something to do with this place, presumably it’s about canned mussels (which btw are fine but not as nice as fresh mussels). The can-can was very popular when I was a kid in around 1980-81, I think it had been released in the charts to compete with Shakin’ Stevens, and I remember at parties in our street people attempting to dance a can-can and kick their legs up high. So anyway I drew the windmill because I figured, I am going to be spending a good amount of time in the Netherlands on this trip, this will be the first windmill of many. Spoiler alert, this was the only one I drew. Incidentally, I decided to put a Gnome – a ‘Nain de Jardin’ – on my sketchbook. We all remember that film Amelie, in which there was a gnome that disappeared and traveled the world sending postcards back as you do. That film was set around here, so there’s a photo of me trying to do as the gnomes do (“when in Gnome…”), and failing because I couldn’t get the focus right on the background. This is filed under the chapter “Why I Am An Urban Sketcher (And Not An Instagram Photographer)”. All that said, I will intersperse these stories with the odd photo, such as this one and also the one of the little pixelated wall-sprite, to flesh out the experience. My little gnome, he is in French colours (or maybe Dutch flag colours), and has the sign of the Euro on his belt.
Paris Montmarte Cemetery
I love the big city. The big city is my natural environment. Put me in a big city and I’m like that video that always gets shared of a dog running out of a car into a lake and splashing around. Not that I splashed around in that bloke’s wee, but I just feel energized being back in the urban environment again. Davis, you ain’t Paris. But even I need some quiet time, so I went to Montmartre Cemetery and got all the quiet time I could want. I had never been there before, and it is quite a place, small and yet massive, with secluded corners and grand boulevards. Part of it runs underneath a bridge. I found a bench and sketched while the sound of trees and wind and crows gently muffled out the distant traffic. Peace and calm. Speaking of crows, seeing crows on gravestones was, I thought, the most gothic thing ever. Until I saw a dead crow on a gravestone. I like cemeteries, I am always careful not to walk across any graves and I’m solemn around the dead. We’re all going where they have gone, some way or other. Maybe not this cemetery though, you might have to be quite famous and French to end up here. I looked at the map showing where all the famous corpses were, most of whom I did not know. Except Adolphe Sax, Belgian inventor of the Saxophone. Francois Truffaut is buried here too, but I never watched his films, despite my degree in French, I kinda turned my nose up haughtily at Truffaut, as one of those film-makers that the university wannabes all said they loved at the pub when comparing coolness. “Oh you think that thing’s cool? Then I don’t,” was how I went about things. Even choosing my location for a year abroad, everyone went to France, so I went to Belgium, to be different. So anyway, I didn’t find Truffaut’s grave, and one day I might watch his films. Whoah…Edgar Degas was buried there. I found his grave. Foucault, he’s there too, though admittedly I know Foucault about him. And Emile Zola! I was impressed there. And Stendhal, I looked for his grave too. And the last name I had heard of was Nijinski, though I thought that was a racehorse.

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After a couple of hours spent among the dead, it was time for lunch. I climbed uphill into the windy streets of Montmartre, and found a nice little restaurant called Au Claire De La Lune, on Rue Poulbot. I sat outside, the most Parisian of settings, with a surprising lack of foreign tourists, everyone around me was French. I had sole with bearnaise sauce, and a Kronenbourg 1664. This was a good day.
Paris Rue Poulbot

IMG_3553IMG_3550Paris People

And finally I had to wander the streets around Sacre Coeur. I’m a big fan of Sacre Coeur, although I must admit, I have never been inside. I never gave myself time. I had time to sketch though, and I was pretty pleased with what I drew. The sky had character, and the view up to those white domes is one of the most iconic in the world. The view across Paris is jaw-dropping, but you can see the fire-damaged Notre Dame, missing the famous central spire. I didn’t go down to see what has happened to those ancient stones in that awful fire, but I gave her a nod of respect from afar.


Paris Sacre Coeur

And that was all the time I had. There was a train to catch, the high-speed Thalys, taking me to Brussels, a city I had a lot more history in, a springboard for a few days jaunting about Belgium, that country of rain, chocolate, frites, rain, moules, beer, and rain.

What I didn’t know was that it wasn’t going to rain, but it was going to get hot –  very, very hot.

 

summertime in the low countries

Sketchbook first page
Well it’s time to tell you about my summer. Now that it’s cold and probably wet, and we’ve all aged a bit more than six months in the past six months, let’s take a look back at my summer holiday in the Low Countries. They are called that after one of David Bowie’s albums (though I took so many trains that it should be called Station to Station). Following the tradition of the last three summers, I took a Stillman and Birn Alpha with me and filled in the front page with a hand-drawn map and drawings of various things I ate and drank along the way. This was a longer trip – three weeks, two on the continent and another staying with the family in London, taken in the midst of a whopping heatwave. It’s not the longest or anywhere close to the most journeyed trip around Europe I have ever taken – look back to 1998 for that, the pre-sketching days – but now I’m older it takes longer to recover; I’m not sure I have, even looking at the map makes me tired. It was a fun trip though, full of memories, meeting up with good friends, seeing old places from the past, and finally showing my son that mad country of Belgium I keep talking about. He was just as impressed, it was his favourite place. In the image above you can see some of the food and drink I liked – poffertjes (little Dutch pancakes) in Amsterdam, from a jolly guy called Tony; classic simple waffle from a waffle truck in Brussels, the most delicious waffle I’ve ever eaten; Charles Quint, perhaps my favourite beer, from my favourite bar in Charleroi, still open despite much faded glory; proper Waterzooi from Gent, which I had never tasted before; a bright pink juice called ‘Stress Down’ from Joe the Juice in Amsterdam, which honestly revived my brain after it melted in the heatwave, and got my sketching working again; Belgian frites covered in Sauce Andalouse from Robert La Frite in Charleroi, naturally eaten after midnight, the very best frites in the world; and of course, a 99 from an ice-cream van in England, that’s a soft-serve in a cornet with a chocolate flake, everything seems like it will be ok when you have a 99. Lovely foodly memories. Not to mention the delicious Belgian chocolate.

Suitcase

I got a new small suitcase for the trip, smaller even than my other small case, and I had to pack light. I knew I’d be wheeling it around cities, cramming it into luggage lockers, not unpacking much on my one night here, two nights there hotel stays. Fortunately football shirts don’t take up much room and I wear a lot of those. So, this trip took me to France – Paris and Disneyland; to Belgium – Brussels, Ghent, Liege, Charleroi and Bruges; to the Netherlands – Amsterdam, for the Urban Sketching Symposium; and to England – London, plus a day in Watford and St.Albans. Oh, but I did get to start in an exciting way – I flew first class from LA to Paris. I had never flown first class before, and wow this was an experience. Completely lie-flat seats, amazing food with real metal cutlery, a huge TV screen (I watched Bumblebee, of all movies), and flight attendants calling me by my name ‘Mr Scully’. Oh and a door, and actual door, so I could be in my own little cubicle, instead of my usual squashed-against-elbows flights over the Atlantic. And it didn’t cost us anything, as we got it on points. Very much a one-off experience for me! I was unashamedly excited about the whole thing. People from Burnt Oak don’t often get to do this sort of thing. The only thing I was disappointed in was that the toilet was just like any other airplane loo, I was expecting some huge fancy bathroom or something, golden seat maybe. Also, the old man who went in there before me kind of left it a bit messy. I was a bit worried they might think it was me so I actually tidied it up. Still the champagne was nice, and by the time I landed in Paris I had that unusual sensation of having actually slept well on a plane, so I had plenty of energy to get sketching around Montmartre before speeding off to Brussels – more on that later. But you’ll notice IO flew from LA – I first had to fly from Sacramento down to LAX, which if you’ve ever been there is quite a headache of an airport. Looking forward to the first-class flight made up for that. So, here is what I sketched on the flights, drawn in the small in-transit-sketches Miquelrius ‘Lapin’ book, on the very last pages in fact, a book I had started on a trip to Paris back in 2012.
SMF-LAX
LAX-CDG

I really love travelling, and I really love sketching. I’m not a super fan of hot weather, and there was a fair bit of that, and it made the travelling and sketching much harder at points, but I am always so excited about being on the move in a new place that really, I didn’t care. It wasn’t yet so hot when I landed in Paris though. Join me next time for a description of my day in Montmartre, where I had not been in about twenty years.

 

Notre Dame, Resurgam

Notre Dame de Paris
I can’t quite believe it. When I saw the images yesterday that Notre Dame de Paris was on fire, it was an unreal jolt, as it was with many many other people. I watched the French news channel online, watched as the smoke filled the clear sky, as the flames engulfed the roof and threatened the towers, as the tall central spire burned orange and slowly tumbled, hoped desperately that the Parisian pompiers would stop the fire from completely destroying her. For me, Notre Dame is Paris, it is France, the heart of the country where so much national history has taken place; it was simultaneously a picturesque stone flower on an island in a river and an unbreakable gothic powerhouse. My wife was heartbroken to see the news; it was the very first building she ever visited in Europe. It just didn’t seem real that it could be destroyed like this, having survived so much. Instantly urban sketchers from around the world were sharing their sketches of Notre Dame. I went to sleep early last night, and awoke this morning to find that the building ultimately survived – severely damaged, with a distinct lack of roof, but the structure is for the most part intact, and the large rose windows mostly undamaged. She will be rebuilt, it will take a long time, but she’ll be back. I drew the sketch above while standing on the banks of the Seine one golden May evening in 2012, after a long day of walking and sightseeing. My young son had just been playing in the sandpits next to the cathedral, before my wife took him home on the Metro for some pre-dinner sleep, while I sketched. I love sketching cathedrals. I have a number of them framed  on the wall of my staircase at home. Notre Dame is one of the greatest cathedrals I’ve ever been to. I first went there when I was only 13, on a day trip to Paris during a school trip to northern France. I’ll never forget that day trip; we got off the coach near Notre Dame, and couldn’t believe it when we saw a policeman carrying an actual gun! Not something you saw in Britain. Notre Dame was so exciting for me. My big sister had been about a year before, and brought me back a metal Notre Dame keyring, which I treasured. I got her a keyring when I was there. Going inside I remember how dark it seemed compared to the bright sunlight outside. In those days, Notre Dame itself was much darker on the outside too, stone grey and stained from years of smoke and pollution. That was normal to me. The London I grew up in during the 1980s was full of blackened dirty buildings – when Westminster Abbey was finally polished to a gleaming white I didn’t recognize it. Similarly, when I came back to Notre Dame years later, it was still in the process of a deep cleanse, and I was astonished at its brightness. The things I remember the most from that first trip back in 1989 though were the immense rose windows, pouring in colourful light, so big and round that I could not believe that they were over 700 years old, and the coldness of the stone, ancient stone that I just knew could feel everything around it, that if it could speak would tell us tales of its history. I put my ears to the stone to see if I could hear it. I could hear it calling my name, “Scully! Oi, Scully!” but it turned out to be my mate Hooker telling me to stop hugging the cathedral and hurry back outside, everyone’s off to the Eiffel Tower.

I don’t remember if I ever went back inside, though I always made a point to at least go and see the cathedral every other time I went to Paris, which wasn’t actually many times. I went in 96 with this one girl for a couple of days, that wasn’t actually much fun, then again in 98 during the World Cup, but didn’t stay overnight, then again a year later (or maybe it was it a year before) with someone else I was going out with, and then not again for many years until our family trip in 2012 (those photos above are from then). I’m well overdue a visit to Paris. This year, definitely.

I was so shocked to see Notre Dame burn, but if I know one thing about cathedrals, I know they are built to last. She’ll be back. It may be a long time before I can finally go inside again, but when I do, I’ll bet the old stones have another story to tell me.

all these places have their moments

Map of Strasbourg

And after all those Strasbourg sketches, here is the map. Took me a while to draw, then put together, and there are like no street names, you just kind of have to know. If you click on it you can see it in larger detail. I hope you’ve enjoyed them. I’ve certainly gotten the ‘Must-Sketch-Strasbourg-Now!” thing out of my system now, but I cannot wait to go back someday.

I just blogged a summary-style post on the main Urban Sketchers website: http://www.urbansketchers.org/2015/07/rencontre-strasbourg.html. I say ‘summary’, I do go into great detail about the 842 ‘Oaths of Strasbourg’ and their significance to the written French and German languages, and Europe as a whole. You know, briefly.

And finally, because this has basically been one long trip down several memory lanes,  here are a couple more I wanted to share. First, this is my bus pass student card from my trip to Strasbourg in 1995. Good sensible looking young chap.

95 strasbourg card

Secondly, this is me and my oldest friend Terry cycling past the cathedral on our trip there in 1997, aged 21. Mischievous faces!  1997 pete tel cycling strasbourg

And finally in 2015, the same hairstyle, a bit more portly perhaps. A la prochaine fois, Strasbourg…

DSC04730

toujours strasbourg

Au Vieux Strasbourg Winstub

Here is the final post with my sketches from Strasbourg, though there will be one epilogue with a map. This might end up being quite a long post, so if you like long posts with a few sketches and a lot of talk about things from previous trips that I can barely really remember properly, then this is for you. Or if you prefer just looking at the pictures, you can do that by scrolling past the text, looking at the sketch without all of the barely related context, and you get the same effect. I do like to offer an insight into what might have been going through my mind when I sketch though, which is basically the side of the drawing that I see when I look at it, but you as the non-Pete can’t see. To be sure, you have the undoubted advantage of seeing a sketch just for what it is, while if I post a sketch of, for example, a bike shop in Davis, I can say that it reminds me of a podcast about the Peasant’s Revolt that I was listening to at the time, or the music that was playing in the bar down the street, or the smell of the food someone was eating as they walked past, or it reminded me of the time when my bike broke down and I had it fixed, or the time when and so on and so on.

Take the sketch above, which is of a winstub/bierstub (it’s what they call cute little places where you can drink beer or wine in Alsace), “Au Vieux Strasbourg“. This is just down the street from the Cathedral on what is very much one of the main tourist runs. I stood against a wall and sketched as all nationalities walked by. To my right was a man selling little paper puppets in the street. These puppets would dance, all by themselves, making people (mostly kids) laugh and give money to buy one. At one point, the vendor sat at a table and had a drink at Au Vieux Strasbourg, and another man came long, and tried his best to figure out how the puppet was dancing. He looked at me, a glint of excitement in his eye and said “it’s on a line! I can see it, it’s on a line!” Obviously this was in French. “No,” I replied, “it’s magic. See?” “No, no, no,” he said, “it’s on a line. It’s hard to see, but it’s there.” “It’s hard to see because it’s magic,” I insisted. I don’t know how I became the spokesperson for dancing paper puppets but if there’s a cause I’m willing to stand up for, then well. He scratched his head as if he had made some revolutionary discovery but still didn’t quite believe it. ‘Sacre bleu’ I thought, and just carried on drawing, while the puppet master, still sitting with his cold drink, just shrugged. I actually couldn’t see the line, so it might have been magic. Further down the street, two musicians who had been playing an accordion and, I don’t know, something else, were joined by a middle aged American who decided it would be brilliant if he whistled loudly and in great tune along to their music. It reminded me of the guy Walter from the Muppets movie a few years ago. More puppets. When I was done, I had a cold beer at Au Vieux Strasbourg, and watched the world go by, and the little puppets kept on dancing.

Les Aviateurs, Strasbourg

This is the interior of “Les Aviateurs“, an American-themed bar I had heard of years ago but I don’t think I ever visited. There are model airplanes on the ceiling. As I was walking back to my hotel from the Cafe Atlantico on the Sunday evening, thinking about dinner, I happened across it. So after dinner I made a point of coming here to do a sketch. I was pretty exhausted, so I just had one drink and sketched furiously until my purple pen expired. There was only one other person in there for the most part, other than the barman, who chatted to me in English because, as he said, one needs to practice a foreign language otherwise you really do lose it, it”s not like riding a bike. Amen to that my friend, that’s exactly how I felt with my French on that trip. This bar is cool, and has been here since 1984, so I am glad I was able to find it and sketch it (here is their website). The music was all British indie music from the mid 1990s which was very appropriate.

Rue des Orfevres, Strasbourg

There are a lot of municipal flags of towns from all over Alsace hung above the streets of Strasbourg. At least that is what I presume they are, and I think it’s a fairly good guess.I like that green one that looks a bit like a pair of y-fronts. This was on the rue des Orfevres, also known as Goldschmittgass, and this Foies Gras vendor that I stood next to had a golden goose as its shop sign. Strasbourg however loves its storks, they are the symbol of Alsace and the mascot of tourist shops everywhere in the city. I never sketched those.

Place de l'Homme de Fer

The Place de l’Homme de Fer (above) is the central downtown hub for the Strasbourg tram. It literally translates as Iron Man Place, and the large circular structure above the tram station reminds me a bit of an arc reactor. Twenty years ago when I first saw it, I had no idea what an arc reactor was (and barely remembered anything about Iron Man) so I never made that connection then. This was however, with the exception of the cathedral, the thing I was most impressed with about Strasbourg. Coming from London which at the time had the very old rolling stock of London Underground trains (the old grimy greying trains with the ghostly front face and the partially wooden interior, not the shinier more colourful ones you get now, with their LED screens and automated “the next station with this train is Colindale” announcements), the Strasbourg trams and their futuristic downtown station were a glimpse into the space age. This is what life could be like. I enjoyed riding the tram so much, arriving at ‘Langstross’ and other exciting locations. I’m a bit less easy to impress with futuristic technology now, in this age of smartphones and holograms and teleporters, but on my last day I did take a ride on the tram again just for old time’s sake. I went down to Neuhof, which was where, in 1995, I had been on that exchange trip to the Lycee Jean Monnet. I walked about the neighbourhood for a little while, remembering all the old fun of that trip, all the people that I met. It hadn’t changed very much, though to be honest I could not remember enough to say what would have been different. There was a lot of that in Strasbourg, turning a corner and another distant memory popping up, much in the same way that you remember last night’s forgotten dream the moment you hit the pillow, and then it’s gone again. I passed by the street where my old friend Roland used to live, who I last saw when we watched the 1998 World Cup semi-final on TV, France beating Croatia. There were lots of celebrating fans on the streets that night.

I was hungry, so I didn’t sketch around Neuhof, and just jumped back onto a tram and headed to Les Halles for a Quick and some more shopping (or rather, leche-vitrine, window shopping – my backpack was too small to buy all the cool things I wanted to buy, such as big new Ninjago and Marvel Lego sets at the toystore which even now are not yet available in the US, much to my son’s annoyance).

Place Kleber

And then it was time to go home. my flight back to London was late on a Monday evening (and very cheap too, about $15, plus it took just a few minutes to get to the airport from Strasbourg train station). The Monday was my day of exploration, so I spent time in bookshops such as Librairie Kleber (I love the smell and feel of French bookstores, even if the spines are all upside down), and of course the big store FNAC. The FNAC in Strasbourg was the first ever FNAC I had been to and it hasn’t changed much. I spent ages in their BD section – that’s Bande Dessinee, or comic books. French (and Belgian) BD is amazing, especially the artwork, and often comes in large hardbound volumes. There were a good number I would probably have bought, had I not brought such a small backpack with me (Ryanair carry-on friendly). I did buy one small-ish new piece of Ninjago Lego for my son though, so clawed back a few Daddy Points for all the other Lego and Playmobil I didn’t get (I did buy him some French ‘Pokemon’ cards in Monoprix though, his friend apparently had some German ones from his dad and he wanted to go one better). I bought biscuits in nice little Alsace tins, had a take-out curry dinner which I ate on a bench on the Rue du 22 Novembre, before finishing off with one last sketch of the large Place Kleber, Strasbourg’s big central plaza. The cathedral poked above the rooftops, looking towards Rue des Grandes Arcades. The Marks and Spencer that used to be here is gone, but the McDonald’s is still here. Why mention the McDonald’s? Back in 1997 they gave me a Big Mac instead of a Chicken Sandwich. I didn’t realize until I was already on the coach back to London, so I couldn’t change it (me not being an eater of the hamburgers). My friend Terry ate it instead, and we’ve basically joked about this ever since. We agreed that if ever I went back there, I would go to that McDonald’s, slowly walk up to the counter like a bounty hunter in an Old West saloon and say, “1997, September. You gave me a Big Mac. I asked for a McChicken sandwich. That was one long, hungry bus journey. I’m here to claim my debt.” I didn’t, but it would have made a brilliant BD.