Michael Smit

Joined May 2017Living in: Cabarita, Australia
  • Day21

    Nimes - Day 21

    July 20, 2017 in France ⋅ ⛅ 27 °C

    Today was free of tour activities and so we were free to spend the day wandering around Nimes mostly visiting the Roman historical sites, namely the Arena, the Maison Carrie, and the Tour Magne.

    The Arena is the best preserved Roman amphitheatre in the world. It was built to seat over 10,000 spectators to gladiatorial contests. In addition to being open for visits, it is used for concerts and special events, and controversially for bullfights.

    The Maison Carre is a former Roman temple that has been preserved throughout the ages. Inside a short film is run every half hour dramatising the birth of Nimes as the Roman town of Nemausus.

    The Tour Magne is a remnant of the old Roman fortified wall that surrounded Nemausus, and today offers panoramic views of the city. It was the highest of the 80 towers that were part of the wall, which was built in 16AD and was 7km long.

    Walking around Nimes we saw a full sized bronze crocodile in an exotic fountain in the Place du Marche. We learnt that the crocodile and the palm tree are the symbols of Nimes, deriving from early bronze coins minted by the Romans from 28-27 BC onwards, showing a crocodile (symbol of Egypt) chained to a palm tree (Roman symbol of victory) in celebration of the role of its contingent in the Roman army which defeated Anthony at the battle of Actium in Egypt in 31 BC.
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  • Day20

    Avignon and Arles - Day 20

    July 19, 2017 in France ⋅ ☁️ 26 °C

    Today we hopped in the bus and headed to the walled city of Arles (pronounced Arl) for a brief city tour and for a wander around.

    We passed the two-tiered Arles amphitheatre which was being set up for an evening concert. Built by the Romans in 90 AD, it was capable of seating over 20,000 spectators.

    There were many shops in Arles selling Santons (little saints), small figurines made of clay and hand-crafted with loving care. They started as figures for Nativity scenes, such as Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus and the three Kings, but now reflect the life of the inhabitants and families of Provence showing traditional activities of the working men and women of Marseilles, or famous figures from Arles and the Camargue region.

    Vincent van Gogh spent a lot of time in Arles, and captured the light, the colours, and the landmarks in over 200 canvases he painted there (not a single one of which remains today). Van Gogh painted Café Terrace at Night in Arles in mid-September 1888. The subject of the painting is now Le Café La Nuit in the busy Place du Forum, which was refurbished in 1990 and 1991 to replicate the painting.

    Afterwards we went to Avignon, another walled city that was home to the Popes during the 14th century. It is the site of the Palais de Papes (Palace of the Popes) built to keep the Popes in the manner in which they were accustomed to.

    Avignon was busy with the Festival d'Avignon, an annual arts festival held every summer in July. It is the oldest extant festival in France and one of the world's greatest.
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  • Day19

    Paris to Avignon and Nimes - Day 19

    July 18, 2017 in France ⋅ ⛅ 28 °C

    Our journey to the south of France began with a fast train, the TGV, from Paris to Avignon in the Provence region, hurtling along at up to 300kmh.

    On arrival in Avignon we hopped on our bus and headed to the pretty village of Chateauneuf de Pape (literally meaning "new castle of the Pope", from the papal residence located there in medieval times), where we visited a winery to hear about and taste their famous wine.

    Afterwards we went to Pont du Gard, a three level arch spanning a river that was built by the Romans as part of a 49km aqueduct system built around 19 BC providing water to the Roman town that is called Nimes (pronounced Neem) today. 35 arches straddling the aqueducts 275m long upper tier supporting a watercourse designed to carry 20,000 cubic metres of water per day.

    We then travelled to Nimes and checked into our Hotel, the Hotel Imperator. Nimes is quite a lovely little city, and our hotel was historic but was quite old and in need of a revamp.
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  • Day18

    Paris - Day 18

    July 17, 2017 in France ⋅ ⛅ 25 °C

    Today we visited Sainte Chapelle, a holy chapel built by Louis IX in 1248, with stained glass windows all around giving it an ethereal feel. The 15 stained glass windows contain 1,113 scenes depicting the story of mankind from Genesis through to Christ’s resurrection.

    We crossed the Seine on Paris’ oldest and most famous bridge, Pont Neuf (ironically “new bridge”), inaugurated in 1607 and linking the Ile de la Cite with the left and right banks of the river. This bridge is also famous for the padlocks affixed to the fences around part of the bridge, with declarations of love.

    We browsed through the legendary Shakespeare and Company bookshop. We bought a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, a book about bullfighting in Spain, forming a nice connection between our Spanish and French travels.

    Afterwards we wandered through the St Germain des Pres area, where Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus, and later Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Joyce, once hung out in cafes drinking and engaging in earnest debate. These days it accommodates chic boutiques though the legendary cafes still exist.

    We had a pleasant lunch at Café de Flore, one of the oldest coffeehouses in Paris, celebrated for its famous clientele, which in the past included high-profile writers and philosophers. It is located at the corner of Boulevard Saint-Germain and Rue Saint-Benoît.

    Later we strolled through the Luxembourg Gardens, an enchanting park with a large pond, a great place to relax for a while and watch Parisians at play.
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  • Day17

    Paris - Day 17

    July 16, 2017 in France ⋅ ⛅ 23 °C

    This morning we went on a morning city tour of Paris by bus with a local expert. The first stop was the Place de la Concorde, which we had visited earlier in the week, but today it was still being packed and cleaned up after the Bastille Day celebrations.

    The next stop was the Jardins du Trocadero outside of the Palais de Chaillot for an iconic view of the Eiffel Tower across the river.

    After this we were taken to the Esplanade des Invalides in front of the Hotel des Invalides for a tour group photo. This building was built in the 1670s to provide housing for infirm veterans returning from war. Today it houses a military museum and underneath it is the final resting place of Napoleon, the man many French people consider to be the nation’s greatest hero.

    We then headed to Montmartre, the bohemian quarter of Paris, for a walking tour, commencing outside the red windmill, Moulin Rouge.

    We stopped at Le Bateau Lavoir, where the artists Modigliani, Picasso, Kees Van Dongen and Max Jacob lived in an old piano factory.

    We visited a house (in rue d’Orchampt) and heard the tragic story of Dalida, one of France’s most successful and famous singers. Born as Yolanda Gigliotti to Italian parents in Egypt she took on Dalida as her stage name and had a career spanning 30 years from 1956 to 1986. Four men in her life committed suicide, and in 1987 she took her own life, leaving a note saying "Life is unbearable for me...Forgive me." Following her death, a square was dedicated to her (Place Dalida) with a bust of her on a pedestal which we also visited.

    We passed Clos Montmartre, a tiny vineyard that produces around 800 bottles of wine a year, which are auctioned off for charity in October.

    We next visited the Basilique de Sacre Couer (the basilica of the Sacred Heart), which was built to atone for the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1) but not consecrated until 1919. Our guide took us around the rear of the basilica for a unique view away from all the tourists.

    The guide told us that many of today’s inhabitants of Montmartre are known as bobos, which stands for bourgeois bohemians. Bobos are people who make a lot of money but who pretend to live the philosopher’s life.

    Later in the day we took an evening cruise on the river Seine from the Eiffel Tower to Notre Dame and back, after which we ascended the Eiffel Tower to the second level for a stunning night view of the City of Lights.

    All in all a pretty full day!
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  • Day16

    Paris - Day 16

    July 15, 2017 in France ⋅ ⛅ 21 °C

    We bid farewell this morning to our hotel for the last 6 nights, the Hotel du Jeu de Paume, on the Isle of St Louis. A small but very pleasant and well located hotel.

    We travelled to Bercy, in the south eastern part of Paris, and checked into our hotel for the next three nights, the Pullman Hotel Paris Bercy to join our tour of Southern France.

    The hotel was located very close to Bercy Village, a strip of offbeat designer shops, bars and restaurants in buildings that were converted from former wine stores. We looked around the shops and had lunch in one of the restaurants.

    In the evening we met the tour guide, Emmanuelle, and our fellow tour members in the hotel bar and afterwards had a welcome dinner at a nearby restaurant in the village. The tour group were mostly Americans, with a few Australians and South Africans.
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  • Day15

    Paris - Day 15

    July 14, 2017 in France ⋅ ⛅ 21 °C

    Breakfast again with the singing waiter at Café St Regis, after which we headed towards the Champs Elysees as it was Bastille Day, the French National Day, and we thought that we would try and catch the military parade.

    We walked on the southern bank of the Seine, past Notre Dame and on through St Germain des Pres and the Musee d’Orsay, and past Pont Alexandre III and the Hotel des Invalides, crossing Pont des Invalides to head north to the Champs Elysees.

    By the time we got there the parade had started and we were quite a distance from the parade behind a crowd of Parisians. We couldn’t see much of the marchers, except for those whose uniforms had feathers on their helmets!

    We had a much better view of the dazzling display of French military superiority, when the horses and military vehicles (tanks and jeeps and transports and trucks) clattered and rumbled by. Not to mention the flyovers of helicopters and jet aircraft, both big and small.

    Afterwards we went to the Louvre, along with many others, as entry is free on Bastille Day. We looked through the exhibits of ancient Middle Eastern art, admiring the Code of Hammurabi and the winged bulls of ancient Iraq, before visiting some of the galleries of statues and paintings. We were particularly keen to see some of the works of Spanish artists that we had seen in Madrid’s Prado Museum.
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  • Day14

    Paris - Day 14

    July 13, 2017 in France ⋅ ⛅ 21 °C

    We started our fourth day in Paris with a visit to Notre Dame Cathedral, a 14th century Gothic wonder. The interior is 130m long, 48m wide and 35m high and can accommodate more than 6,000 worshippers. its most exceptional features are the three spectacular rose windows, particularly the 10m wide one over the western façade above the 7,800 pipe organ.

    Later we strolled along Rue St Honore, where we came upon Place Vendome, a large octagonal place with a 43.5m tall column in its centre. The column is made up of a stone core wrapped in a 160m long bronze spiral made from hundreds of Austrian and Russian cannons captured by Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. The statue way up on top shows Napoleon in classical Roman dress (as might befit an emperor!).

    We arrived in the Place de la Madeleine and decided to have lunch at the café of Fauchon, a famous shop selling fine food and beautiful cakes. We had a lovely prawn and mango salad and a saffron risotto followed by a beautiful chocolate based dessert.

    After some shopping and further wandering through the boulevards, we headed towards the river again to see what Paris Plages activities were going on. We heard some music playing and discovered a bunch of people happily dancing on a wooden platform beside the river.
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  • Day13

    Paris - Day 13

    July 12, 2017 in France ⋅ ☁️ 20 °C

    On this day we caught a train out to Versailles to visit Chateau Versailles, the political capitol and seat of the royal court from 1682 until the fateful events of 1789. In that year, revolutionaries massacred the palace guard and dragged Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette back to Paris, where they were ingloriously guillotined.

    This place was magnificent and photos can only give some idea of the scale and over the top opulence of the buildings and the expansive gardens.

    We started our tour by going through the rooms of Louis XIV, providing a broad overview of the 17th century, the King, his family, and the Court.

    This was followed by the State Apartments, the ceremonial apartments of the Kings of France at the heart of the palace and the life of the Court. This included the Hall of Mirrors.

    We finished up in the Gallery of Battles, with some 30 huge paintings depicting various historic French battles.

    We walked past Latona’s Fountain and Partierre, down the Great Lawn past the gardens and hidden groves to the Grand Canal and then onto the Petit Trianon.

    This small palace retreat was originally built for the private use of Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour in 1768, but was given to Marie Antoinette by Louis XVI in 1774 and it became her favourite place.

    On the way back though the gardens to the main palace, we stopped at a garden side café for tea and coffee and crepes.
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  • Day12

    Paris - Day 12

    July 11, 2017 in France ⋅ ⛅ 18 °C

    After another pleasant breakfast at Café St Regis, we headed out for another day of walking the streets of beautiful Paris.

    Today we began with a stroll along the length of the Rue de Rivoli, passing the Hotel de Ville, the Musee de Louvre, and the Jardin des Tuileries.

    We arrived at the Place de la Concorde to find that there were some road closures and lots of activity and French flags, all part of the preparations for the French National Day, often referred to as Bastille Day.

    The Place de la Concorde has at its centre a 3,300 year old pink granite obelisk with a gilded top that once stood in the Temple of Ramses at Thebes and was given to France in 1831 by the viceroy and pasha of Egypt, Muhammad Ali.

    We continued along the flag-lined Champs Elysees past the Grand Palais towards the Arc de Triomphe, stopping at some of the shops along the way (Louis Vitton, Gucci, Guerlain, Adidas, Disney, etc, etc).

    While walking we heard the roar of aircraft overhead and stopped to see the flyover of a number of military aircraft, practicing for Bastille Day.

    We returned along the other side of the Champs Elysees and the Rue de Rivoli back to the Marais district. We thought that we would try and find the wine shop of Hana’s niece’s father in law, called Caves du Marais (Cellar of Marais). We found it but found it closed with a sign (in French) in the window. While trying to work out what it said, a young man walked up and explained to Hana that he was on holidays but that this was the best wine shop in Paris!

    We wandered down to the riverside to find that there were a number of open air bars set up there as part of Paris Plages, an annual event each summer that creates temporary artificial beaches along the river Seine in the centre of Paris. We found a nice one and sat and listened to some jazz while having a drink and nibblies on the shore of the Seine.
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