Travel Study to France

The following posts will be of interest mainly to those travelling with me to France on a University of Victoria Travel Study tour, September 22 – October 8, 2014. The tour is sold out, but you can still download the itinerary.

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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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Orchestre de Paris — that’s for us!


I’m very pleased to tell you about the fourth of the four included concerts on our tour. On Thursday, October 2, we’ll attend a performance featuring the French pianist, Jean-Yves Thibaudet. He’s been called “one of the best pianists in the world,” and he’ll be performing with the Orchestre de Paris in a programme that includes Barber Adagio for Strings, Gershwin “I Got Rhythm” Variations, and Prokofieff. Here’s M. Thibaudet playing an excerpt from the piano concerto by Edvard Grieg.

The concert also includes a short piano concerto by Chinese composer Qigang Chen, who has lived and worked in France for many years. Er Huang was premiered by the Juilliard Orchestra in 2009, with Lang Lang as piano soloist. Chen’s music is known for its mixing of traditional Chinese music with Western instruments and structure. I’m looking forward to hearing it!

The Salle Pleyel, where the concert is taking place, is near the Arc de Triomphe. We’ll be taking the Paris Métro from near our hotel – about a 20-minute subway ride, followed by a 10-minute walk.

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Sunday afternoon at the Opéra

4030ParigiOperaBastilleThis remarkable building, the “new” Paris Opéra (or Opéra Bastille) was inaugurated on the bicentenary of the French Revolution: July 14, 1989. On Sunday, October 5, we will attend an afternoon performance of one of Giuseppe Verdi’s best-loved operas: La Traviata.

Based on the 1848 play The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas fils (which was inspired in its turn by the life of the mistress of Franz Liszt), Traviata is the story of a courtesan who – contrary to the rules of her profession – falls in love with a young nobleman, Alfredo. But she decides to end the affair in order not to stain his family’s honour. Alfredo does not know why she has cast him off; he thinks she has fallen in love with someone else, and he scorns and humiliates her. He only learns the truth of Violetta’s sacrifice and selflessness as she dies in his arms.

The role of Violetta is one of the most demanding in the soprano repertoire. Listen to this short summary, with excerpts from a performance by the incomparable Maria Callas. In our performance, Violetta will be sung by the acclaimed Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho, whose interpretation of this difficult role has been described in France as ‘a revelation.’


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Our private concert in Lyon

Marcia Hadjimarkos

Marcia Hadjimarkos

The first of the four concerts included on our tour will be on Wednesday afternoon, September 24, the day after we arrive in Lyon. I’m pleased to tell you that we have arranged a private recital by the fine European-American musician Marcia Hadjimarkos.

I first met Marcia last fall, and very much enjoyed her concert of French music, performed on a historic fortepiano built in Frankfurt in 1789. If you know your French history (I’m sure you do!) you’ll recognize the significance of that year – the beginning of the French Revolution. We’ll be hearing music contemporary to the instrument, from the Rococo through the early Classical eras.

salle capitulaireMarcia enjoys performing in “unusual” spaces. For this event, we’ll be hearing her in the beautiful Salle capitulaire of the Eglise Saint-Bruno des Chartreux in Lyon. Marica is an engaging speaker as well as performer, and will talk to us about the music she plays, and the very special instrument on which she is performing.

I’ll introduce you to some of the repertoire we’ll be hearing, during our introductory lectures.

Also on this day: lunch at the fine Lyon bistro Café Epicerie. Dinner is up to you…so many wonderful restaurants to choose from in Lyon!

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The strange and wonderful Camargue

CamargueBright blue sky, olive trees, the colours of sand, earth and water … we must be in La Provence. And the particular part of Provence we will visit, is the Camargue: the delta of the Rhône river. Though much has changed in this area over recorded history, it’s still a place of wild and natural beauty. The flat marshes are punctuated by black bulls, white horses and pink flamingoes, and it’s a haven for a multitude of other birds and wildlife.

A traditional home of the gypsies (now called the Roma people), the Camargue is also a place of strange and wonderful stories. Chief among them, is that some years after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, a boat carrying les trois Maries (and perhaps Lazarus, too) landed at the site of the town now called Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. These “three Marys” were Mary Magdelene, Mary the mother of James, and Mary Salomé: by tradition, the three women who visited the tomb of Jesus on Easter morning. The beautiful small church we will visit is the historical site of this legend. For a peek at our lunch location in Ste.-Maries (and some evocative scenes of the Camargue) visit the website of À fleur de sel. The restaurant’s name refers to another significant product of the Camargue: salt, which for millenia has been harvested from large ponds between the river and the Mediterranean.

While in the Camargue (a day trip from Avignon) we’ll also visit the Musée de la Camargue and the Camargue nature area. We wouldn’t want to spend all our time in the city, would we?

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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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Parlez-vous français?

fleur de lisFor me, a big part of what makes travelling enjoyable is talking with people I meet – especially if I have to try to communicate in a language not my own. Learning French has been a project of mine for years. Sometimes, I think I’m making progress; often, I’m not so sure! But what always spurs me on to greater efforts, is knowing that I’m going to be in a French-speaking environment again. Here are a few resources I’ve found helpful.

#5.  Recorded and printed language courses. One of the most useful for me is called Le français sans peine (French With Ease) published by Assimil. It’s full of dialogues, conversations, stories … even a bit of humour … all supported by CDs. Rosetta Stone also gets great reviews; I’ve only tried their Italian course, and found it was a good way to begin.

#4.  Books and newspapers in French. When Harry Potter was all the rage, I bought the first book in French. Having just read it in English, I found this a good way to increase my French vocabulary, while not having to simultaneously figure out all the details of the story. Asterix in French is a lot of fun (though I miss most of the puns) and there are endless newspapers from France and Quebec available online. Or try books for kids – picture books, especially.

#3.  Apps and other online resources. Duolingo is one of the best. It mixes writing, reading and listening, and keeps track of your progress – it even reminds you, if you go too long between lessons, and you can practise on your computer and on your smartphone. If you’re a member of your local library, also check out Mango languge learning. And the BBC has an excellent French-learning site. Or just google “learn french online” and browse the 720,000,000 results!

#2.  Recently, I’ve been working through the French Learn in Your Car CDs. As someone who often neglects to sit down and “concentrate” on French, listening and speaking as I drive is very helpful.

#1.  But best of all? Find someone to speak French with – a friend, a neighbour, a tutor (check out the Alliance Française in your area). Regardless of your level of learning, there is no substitute for actually having to listen, understand, and respond.

Good luck! Share a comment if you have other resources you’ve found helpful.

A bientôt en France!

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Sur le pont d’Avignon…

Sur le pont d’Avignon
On y danse, on y danse;
Sur le pont d’Avignon
On y danse tous en rond.

pont d'Avignon

Truth to tell, there’s not much left of the famous bridge. The catchy tune is probably its best feature! Originally, its 22 arches spanned both arms of the Rhône river, as well as a substantial island. So the “dancing” went on “sous le pont” …under the bridge, rather than on it.

When the bridge was built in the late 12th century, it was – and remained for several centuries – the only road link between Lyon and the Mediterranean. It also connected the papal state of Avignon, and the Kingdom of France.

In fact, that’s why the Popes came to Avignon in the first place, eventually building the imposing Palais des Papes which we will visit. Avignon in the Middle Ages was not a particularly appealing place: it was cramped, dirty, dangerous and surrounded by marshland. But it was an area owned by the Vatican; so when a French cardinal was elected Pope in 1305 (Clement V) he declined to move to Rome, and instead set up his Papal court in Avignon where it remained throughout the reign of six subsequent Popes, until 1377. The Popes had, at best, an uneasy relationship with France. The monumental Palais des Papes was matched, at the other end of the Avignon bridge, by the Tour Philipe le Bel: a fortress built so that the French King could, at least symbolically, keep an eye on his troublesome Papal neighbours.

These French Popes were great lovers of wine (particularly John XXII, who came from Bordeaux). So it was natural to build a new palace in the hills outside the city walls, where vineyards could be cultivated, and where the Pope and his court could occasionally escape the squalor and politics of Avignon. This became the Châteauneuf-du-Pape – the “new home of the Pope.” The fortified palace is now in ruins, but the famous wine lives on.

Old vine, stony ground, tiny grapes: Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Old vine, stony ground, tiny grapes: Châteauneuf-du-Pape

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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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