Category Archives: France

A few travel tips

I know that many of you are experienced travellers, but if you haven’t travelled recently, here is some information that may be of interest.

Air Canada now allows just one carry-on bag, plus one “personal item” (purse, briefcase, etc.). These items must fit their requirements for weight and dimensions. And here are the regulations for checked bags.

For any of you who would like to “travel light” and avoid the hassle of checked bags, I’d encourage you to do so! Of course, 17 days may seem a long time to go with just one small suitcase, particularly since you may want some “dressier” clothes for our special evenings out. But it can be done! I almost always discover on returning home that there was something I took and didn’t wear: something to leave home the next time.

I have also discovered though, that those “carry-on bags” cannot be stuffed to their limits, or they no longer fit into the overhead luggage bins. And of course, one needs to leave some room for souvenirs…

On arrival at Charles de Gualle airport in Paris, we will have about a 15-20 minute walk through the concourse to where we will catch the train. It’s all inside, and we will have lots of time to make our connection. For those who may find the walk tiring, we’re looking into the possibility of hiring a “people-mover” or baggage handler.

Once in the train station, there is time for a late breakfast or mid-morning snack. And once on the train, we can all relax (and catch up on sleep) for our two-hour high-speed journey to Lyon through the green French countryside.

Saone river north of Lyon

Saône River valley north of Lyon.


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Paris humour (and a French lesson)

"We can do the maximum, but not the impossible." Our street cleaners clean up behind us. Avoid making a mess behind them.

“We can do the maximum, but not the impossible.”
Our sanitation workers clean up behind us. Avoid making a mess behind them.

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“Something to read in the train,” Part II

“Part I” was mainly books about travelling in France, and a few about French history. Here are some particularly about Paris – or set in Paris – and a couple of literary classics.

Paris, paris (2011), by David Downie. This book is a series of short chapters on places in Paris; the people who live (and lived) there; and the phenomena that give the city its unique colour and flavour. The idea is that “Paris”– pronounced the way we’re used to saying it, and the city as tourists normally experience it – is quite different from par-ee, as it’s known by those who live there. It’s an entertaining look into Parisian life and Parisian secrets.

The Hotel on Place Vendôme (2014), by Tilar J. Mazzeo. My latest discovery! The author, who “divides her time between New York and Paris” tells the story of the famous Hotel Ritz from the time of its opening in 1898, until the end of the second World War. I’m only on page 41 so far, but it’s fascinating! The cast includes Coco Chanel, Hermann Goering, Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, and dozens of others.

Dreyfus Petit JournalA Man in Uniform (2010). Kate Taylor’s first book, Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen, was a quirky balance of fact and fiction. Her latest, is a retelling of L’affair Dreyfus: that sorry tale of anti-Semitic prejudice combined with justice denied. It was a defining moment for France at its critical turn to the twentieth century, and some would say the country is still dealing with the results. For another look at these pivotal years, read the fine historical novel An Officer and a Spy (2013) by Robert Harris.

Mavis GallantMavis Gallant, short story writer extraordinaire, died in February at the age of 91. Many of her finely-crafted, unforgettable stories are set in Paris, where she lived for 60 years. In 2006, she had this to say for the CBC documentary Paris Stories: the writing of Mavis Gallant:

The first flash of fiction arrives without words. It consists of a fixed image, like a slide—or closer still, a freeze frame—showing characters in a simple situation. Every character comes into being with a name (which I may change), an age, a nationality, a profession, a particular voice and accent, a family background, a personal history, a destination, qualities, secrets, an attitude toward love, ambition, money, religion, and with a private centre of gravity.
After the first idea of the story, and your first vision of people in it… the next thing that comes, perhaps a couple of days later, is a flow of dialogue. They speak. And I don’t hear the exact words—I don’t know how to explain this… but I know what they’re talking about and I know what they’re saying. I know what they’re saying, even if it’s in another language.

Many of her Paris stories are collected in Across the Bridge.

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Something to read in the train, Part I

“One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” – Oscar Wilde

It’s not much exaggeration to say that there must be a million books about France. Some of them might even be sensational! If you’re looking for something to read – on the bus, on the ferry, on the plane … even on the train – here are a few suggestions. All will give you something of the history, the atmosphere, the people, or the quirkiness of the places in France we’ll visit this fall.

You really can’t go wrong with books by Peter Mayle. Yes, he’s probably single-handedly responsible for the throngs of tourists that now visit the Luberon region every summer; but his sense of humour is irrestible, and he writes with genuine affection of the people and places he’s come to know very well.

Provence A- Z (2006) An alphabetical compendium of information you just can’t be without. Open it at random, and learn about everything from “accent” to “xylophone.” Amaze your new travelling friends with your Provencal trivia! I found this on the remainder table at Munro’s in Victoria (or was it Russell’s?).

Encore Provence (1999) This is essentially a contuinuation of Mayle’s classic A Year in Provence. The entertaining stories about his neighbours and acquaintances seem truly inexhaustable.

Pont du Gard

Pont du Gard

Another longtime resident of Provence was Lawrence Durrell, brother of Gerald (My Family and Other Animals.) Lawrence’s 1990 book Caesar’s Vast Ghost is a unique perspective on the Roman history of the south of France. More recent, though less poetic, is The Roman Provence Guide (2013) by Edwin Mullins, with four chapters that discuss places on our itinerary. It features a wonderful photo of the Pont du Gard on the cover. Mullins has also written books about Avignon, and the Camargue.

I love the Eyewitness Travel series. Though a little bulky to carry around all day, they’re full of colourful pictures, useful illustrations, and accurate descriptions of anywhere you’d care to visit. Provence & the Cote d’Azur is no exception. I like this guide so much, I photocopy the pages I think I’ll need (or even–gasp!–tear them out ahead of time) rather than carrying the whole book.

I like books about French art and culture that are not just lists of names and dates. Here are three that fill that requirement:

Shakespeare & Co.

Shakespeare & Co.

Time Was Soft There: a Paris sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. The most famous English bookstore in Paris has a fascinating history. This memoir, by Canadian journalist Jeremy Mercer, is based on the few months he stayed there; but it also lets us into the store’s bohemian history, and its connection with the careers of writers famous and not-so-famous from all over the world. Shakespeare & Co. is just a few minutes’ walk from our Paris hotel.

The Angel on the Left Bank, by Jean-Paul Kauffmann. I hope that, while we’re in Paris, we’ll have time to visit the church of Saint-Sulpice, which houses a remarkable painting by Eugène Delacroix, among other marvels. This is the story of the church, the painting, and the art world of Paris in the early 1800’s.

Edouard Manet, "Le déjeuner sur l'herbe" (1863)

Edouard Manet, “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe” (1863)

The Judgment of Paris, by Ross King. A must-see in Paris is the Musée d’Orsay, which specializes in art of the late 19th century, including the Impressionists. This book is a lively retelling of that turbulent, often scandalous, era. “Sensational” indeed!




OK, that finishes Part I of “Jamie’s List of Favourite Books about France.” Part II coming soon!

If you have any suggestions to add to our book list, leave a comment and let us know.

A bientôt!



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More music!

Laurie and I have been making music together for the past 40 years…it doesn’t seem that long! Some of you will have heard us play in Victoria or elsewhere.

I’m pleased to tell you that, as one of the four concerts on our tour, we will perform some of our favourite music for you in a remarkable mansion just across the river from Avignon. The former Abbaye St. André was owned most recently by a curator at the Louvre. Now her niece, Mme Christine Viennet, is in charge of the property, and of her aunt’s extensive collection of objets d’art. Mme Viennet is also an accomplised ceramic artist in her own right. She will give us a tour of the house and gardens, and then Laurie and I will present a recital of music for violin and piano. We’re still choosing the repertoire…any requests? Since the piano is a Steinway from the late 1800’s, we’re thinking of music from that era and earlier: probably some Fauré, Debussy, perhaps some Mozart. The venue is the grand salon,  windows open onto the gardens, with the river and Avignon beyond. Here are a few pictures to whet your appetite!

Abbaye and gardens St. Andre

Abbaye St. André


garden St. Andre

A quiet nook in the Abbey gardens.


salon Abbaye St. Andre

The salon for our afternoon musicale.


St. Andre view to Avignon

View from the St. André ramparts, over the Rhône river, to the Palais des Papes in Avignon.

Click here for audio clips of performances by Laurie and Jamie Syer.




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Music makes life better

What would our tour be without music – either planned or serendipitous? This cheerful-looking busker plies his trade at the top of Fourvière hill, near the imposing church that you can see in a previous post. His sign reads: “A coin or a smile…thank you.” I gave him both.

Lyon accordion

Une pièce ou un sourire. Merci.

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Notre-Dame de Fourvière

On the summit of the highest of Lyon’s three hills stands the monumental Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière. It was built at the same time as Sacré-Coeur in Paris, and for the same reason: in thanks for the deliverance of the city during the late ninteenth-century Franco-Prussian war. Though the building is relatively new, there has been a church or sacred shrine of some kind here for millenia, beginning with a Roman temple – and maybe even the Gauls before that.

Next to the Basilica is another 19th-century structure: a tour métallique completed in 1894, and looking uncannily like the Eiffel Tower. The church and the tower may seem incongruous, but there may be a bit of one-upmanship involved. The top of the tower is just a few metres higher than the tallest spire of the church.


Notre Dame de Fourvière, Lyon.

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Welcome dinner in Lyon

You’ve probably already memorized our tour itinerary… but as you know,  best-laid plans always include a few changes. For instance, the date of our welcome dinner is now Friday, September 26, since that’s when the restaurant can accommodate us. And what a restaurant! L’auberge du Pont de Collonges is the flagship of Lyon’s celebrity chef (and native son) Paul Bocuse.

L'auberge pont de collonges

L’auberge du Pont de Collonges

Now well into his 80’s, M. Bocuse is one of the creators of nouvelle cuisine, which was “new” in emphasizing lighter, simpler, less calorie-filled dishes, with an emphasis on fresh, local ingredients. Through his students and associated schools of cooking, Paul Bocuse became one of the most influential chefs of the 20th century.

Would you rather I tell you what we’ll be enjoying there, or leave you to be surprised?

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Mysterious passageways, hidden towers

The oldest quarters of Lyon are punctuated with mysterious towers and courtyards, connected by street-level or underground passages. Dating back many hundreds of years, these passageways, called traboules, were originally constructed so that residents could more easily get from homes and workshops to the river, and the merchants there. You can often see the influence of the Italian Renaissance architects who came to Lyon at about the same time as the silk trade was developing.

During World War II, Lyon was a centre of French resistance, and the traboules were important as hiding places, and also for communication within the resistance network.

About 40 traboules are open to the public, and still often lead to private residences. We’ll probably see at least one of them during our walking tour.

Lyon courtyard tower

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Lyon on foot

When in Lyon, allez à pied – go on foot, if you can. Sometimes it’s the only way. The narrow streets of Old Lyon don’t take well to taxis and tour buses. Much of the historical area (which is just moments away from our hotel) is for pedestrians only. We’ll explore this part of the city as part of our guided walking tour early in our visit.

The whole of historical Lyon is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The reason is that so many older buildings have been preserved and restored, and from many different eras. The site was first settled even before Julius Caesar arrived. There are extensive Roman remains at the top of the hill of Fourvière, where the Gallo-Roman museum is located (we will have a guided tour of the museum during our visit).

Roman column

Base of carved Roman column

At the bottom of the hill is mediaeval and Renaissance Lyon; across the river: the locations of the printing and silk-weaving workshops of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; near the confluence of the Rhône and Saône: the twenty-first century city, with its impressive museums, shops, and contemporary restaurants.

The city manages to retain this feeling of a collection of neighbourhoods, each with its  own ambiance. When you’ve some free time, search out a quiet park to sit and watch the locals play boules (the French equivalent of bocce); have a drink or a snack at a corner café – especially if it doesn’t display its menu in English! Wander along the base of the Croix Rousse hill and discover the murals portraying Lyon’s history. Or just amble along the river. Lyon has plenty of pedestrian bridges over the river that make walks very easy.

Saone and Fourviere

Along the Saône, below Fourvière hill.


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