Where were we?
We arrived in Paris last Saturday and spent three days exploring. Then on to Angres, just south of Lille for a night before spending our last day driving through Belgium and most of the Netherlands. A night on a ferry and this is the penultimate sentence we will write of this post. We are back in Scotland… nine miles to go.
Where should we have been?
Even back in January, in those almost unimaginable pre-Covid days, we had plans for this week. We were to head north from Atami, to Matsumoto, and hopefully from there to see some monkeys. Ben’s brother was also planning to come to the Olympics and as a final fling, all eleven of us were going to climb Mount Fuji. We should have summited early on Wednesday morning and spent a night nearby before heading back to Tokyo and the airport for our flight home very late on Friday.
We should have got back to London at lunchtime on Saturday and the plan was to get a train – overland trip, remember – back to Berwick-upon-Tweed. We were hoping someone might pick us up and take us home…
The parallel worlds of our trip have become multiple worlds too. There’s another, also Covid-19 infected, world where we spent our last night in Ghent, eating waffles and wandering the streets. However, with cases rising in Belgium and restrictions tightened, we cancelled that booking last week and stayed in France instead. With the announcement last night that the UK government has taken Belgium off the “no-quarantine” list, that turns out to be a very good decision.
What did we actually do?
Where do you start in Paris? Silly question. You go to the Eiffel Tower. It’s so iconic it’s got an emoji 🗼.
So we did. Ever mindful of the budget, and after lots of practice climbing hills and bell towers, we saved ourselves €30 and got the stairs to the second floor.
After that, the lift is the only option (a good thing), so up we went. It’s one of the most famous buildings, and views, in the worlds, but despite that, it didn’t disappoint: Paris spread out below us.
Then down, and down, and underground. Lucy had read about the Paris Catacombs and asked to visit. There was something rather pleasing about visiting Paris’ touristic high and low points in one day.
We had read the brief history, but nonetheless didn’t really know what to expect: in the late 18th and early 19th century, Paris’ cemeteries, which had been used since the 3rd century, became overfull, and faced with a threat to public health, the authorities decided to move the bodies, all the bodies, into a series of disused quarries that were then outside the city limits.
You descend a spiral staircase and then walk for what feels like a very long time through a series of gloomy subterranean tunnels before coming into an open space. There should be a series of information panels, but they were all covered up to prevent visitors standing around too long, breathing in this enclosed space.
So you enter through a door, into the empire of death:
And there are bones. Wall and walls and endless corridors of skulls and femurs, neatly, sometimes artfully, arranged and grinning at you.
It is estimated that there are more than six million (six million) people here, all jumbled up, with all the other bones piled behind the tidy structures. Some of them will be in the region of 1800 years old.
It is the most extraordinary, quiet and eerie place. Not scary as such, but an inescapable reminder of the brevity of life and very hard to forget.
Our second day in Paris took us to the Louvre, recently reopened with limited visitor numbers.
The Louvre is the biggest art collection and most visited museum in the world. It’s thus a little daunting (and this may explain why Harriet, depsite having briefly lived in Paris, had never actually been inside). Any visit, particularly one with children, can barely scratch the surface.
We gave ourselves a time limit (no more than an hour before we break for a coffee) and a target (Sophie wanted to see the Crown Jewels) and dived in.
Highlights for us: the Raft of the Medusa (Gericault), the Davids and Delacroix, the extraordinary building itself and some cheeky Roman ducks.
If you look up Paris tourist advice on line, much of it is about beating the queues. Of course this is where Covid-19 has been our friend. There were queues at the Louvre, and social distancing seems really to have been forgotten in many cases, despite prominent signage, but we had no issues in getting into anything, and once in, never felt over-crowded. (Although we did draw the line at standing in the line to look at that painting of Lisa Gheradini)
The Louvre is, bear with us on this, a bit like Las Vegas: having got you in, they are reluctant to let you go. It took us a good twenty minutes of increasingly hot wandering before we were finally spat out into the blessed cool and shade of the Tuileries gardens for our sandwiches.
Thus refreshed we went from the massive to to the tiny by visiting the Orangerie. At the best of times, this is a small gallery, but now, under renovation, it has only eight paintings available for viewing: Monet’s massive Waterlilies murals.
Back in that parallel world, we would have been coming to the end of our time in Japan, and we marked this by introducing the children to sushi, in full conveyor belt style. True to form, Magnus ate nothing, but the girls all tucked in and Lucy, in particular, was definitely a convert to the joys of raw fish.
Oddly, given Paris is one of the world’s great cities, we were slightly at a loss for an idea of how to spend our third day: too hot for a bateau mouche, not cultured enough for the Musée d’Orsay… so we headed first to Montmartre and then to the Marais for a bit of a wander and some Parisian relaxation: eating and shopping.
Sophie delighted us by chosing to come into the Basilica, where we enjoyed the splendid mosaics and were amused to find card payment an option for the votive candles, before we found a lovely shady pavement café and settled down for a good lunch.
In the Marais, we struggled to find the quirky interesting shops we had promised the children, but we eventually satisfied everyone’s end-of-trip needs for presents for friends, a new school bag, the jeans they weren’t allowed to bring with them (and given the amount they’ve all grown this was probably a necessary purchase) and some (more) toy cars.
We have got our packing and leaving routine pretty slick now, and leaving Paris would have been no different were it not for Harriet’s dithering desire for a beautiful cake from the pâtisserie at the end of our road. But we left eventually, with cake, and headed out north and east towards Lille.
We were actually staying in Angres, an hour or so south of Lille, but we couldn’t check in to our new house until 5pm.
Almost the first idea we had written on the Tweed to Tokyo whiteboard, on the kitchen wall in Kelso, was La Piscine at Roubaix, a 19th century swimming pool re-purposed as a gallery and museum.
Despite this it hadn’t made the cut onto our original route, being too far out of the way. This was our opportunity.
True to form some of us liked it better than others, but we all found something to enjoy in its quirky and eclectic collection and in particular the main pool, where the tiled changing rooms are themselves windows to cabinet or tiny galleries in their own right.
Angres is a not entirely interesting small French town that is home to a reasonably priced AirBnB for six within an hour of the Belgian border.
It is, though, also the nearest town to Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, the French National Memorial and also the location of the Anneau de la Mémoire.
Almost six months ago, we were in Belgium, visiting World War 1 memorials and cemeteries, so maybe it was fitting that this was our last stop of our penultimate day.
The Anneau de la Mémoire was created in 2014 to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the War. It is unlike any of the other memorials we have seen. It records 576,606 names of those who died in this area of France, of all nationalities and all ranks, listed in simple alphabetical order. We looked for, and found, well-known names, but there is nothing to mark them out. They are simply the fallen.
It is no reflection of how extraordinary the memorial is that we did have a small snigger to notice “Sir….” under S and “The Hon.” under T.
The North Sea and the Road Home
Another day of driving for Ben yesterday as we headed straight through Belgium to the North of the Netherlands. We had been a little concerned about the border crossings but they were so seamless that in one case (Belgium into the Netherlands) we blinked and missed it.
The boat, DFDS King Seaways, was waiting for us when we arrived and, after a little frustration when we first boarded, soothed with a drink and a cake, we had an exemplary crossing. The North Sea was bowling green flat, the bunks/double bed comfortable and all the staff charming and efficient.
The sunset (Ben and Harriet) and sunrise (Harriet only) were an extra treat.
The two hours to get through immigration (not helped by being the third last car off the boat), heavy traffic and roadworks were less of a treat, but even through the grimy car windows North Northumberland was as stunning and familiar as ever.
How was it?
Ben: Paris is a great city, and I have loved each of my trips here. This one was over 4 months late, and didn’t involve a trip to the Mongolian Embassy, but it was great to be there. Our Airbnb was possibly the best of all our non-St Pierre accommodation.
I am pleased we went for delicious Sushi, and pleased too that this joins the list of foods (most of) the children will eat.
I was delighted that Sophie joined me for my last TweedtoTokyo run, fetching the car from its parking at Gare d’Austerlitz.
Our journey home from Paris via Angres, then through Belgium (holding our breath!) and then on to the Amsterdam-Newcastle ferry has been straightforward and as good as it can be, particularly the beautiful flat calm sea at sunset.
The whole trip has been a fantastic privilege. Thank you to everyone who made it so, especially my family, who have been my constant companions, whether they liked it or not, over the last 181 days.
Lucy: I actually quite enjoyed the Catacombs I thought it was really cool. I enjoyed shopping and buying nice things for my friends. The flower ice creams were beautiful and delicious as was some of the sushi. I am glad to be going home.
Sophie: Paris in general was gorgeous but in particular I enjoyed going to Amorino (it’s a ice cream drinks and ice creams in the shape of flowers that’s only in London and France). I found the Louvre interesting although I thought the Mona Lisa was gonna be bigger. My run with daddy was fun. The view from the Eiffel Tower was nice. I am so excited to be home.
Magnus: Going home.
In Paris I liked buying my hotwheels cars. My favourite thing in Paris was the skulls and bones because they were arranged in a cool way.
Aurora: I loved buying my new jeans even though they took ages to find. Going to get sushi was super tasty. I enjoyed shopping for my friends and family and the ice-creams. Going home will be a change but quite fun!
Harriet: It sounds silly to describe the Eiffel Tower as an unexpected pleasure, but it was, in that I wasn’t expecting it to be so pleasurable. The views were astounding and on the sheltered side, even at the top, it was warm and gentle.
Our Paris flat was probably the best we’ve stayed in.
I loved our ferry crossing, particularly watching the sunset with Ben, reflecting on the last six months and pondering the future, as the water reflected turquoise and gold and the dolphins (really) lept.
Aurora:Not having Duplo and going home!
Harriet: I’m still not sure I entirely get Paris. I worked here for a couple of months when I left school and then, although I had a great time, I thought the city itself was dirty, smelly and full of dog poo. I entirely failed to see what all the fuss was about. It probably didn’t help that it was January. I did like it better this time and I can definitely see that it would be a brilliant place to live but I’m not sure it is my tourist destination of choice.
More generally I have, predictably, had moments this week where I have viewed our (very) imminent return home with dread. Sometimes that has presented as anger, sometimes as frustration, only once, briefly, as tears. I got unreasonably both indecisive and emotional over cake.
After crossing 14 international borders over six months without so much as a queue, the nearly two hours it took us to enter the UK this morning was both predictable and depressing. And that’s before Brexit. It wasn’t the best welcome home we could have wished for.
As Aurora wisely said: if I didn’t have friends [and family] I wouldn’t want to go home at all.
In some ways that’s a good thing.
Sophie: I was very sweaty after my run with daddy. The view from the Eiffel Tower was nice but we have seen lots of views so if I saw it 6 months ago I would have been amazed but it was still cool.
Lucy: I am sad to be stopping our trip.
Ben: There have been times this week when our understandable nervousness about our return has simmered over into bickering, snappiness or just resentful frustration. Our souvenir shopping trip got a bit drifty too.
Paris is eye-wateringly expensive, whether parking, museums, food or delicious patisseries. Delicious cakes and melting credit cards may have loosened the belt this week, but this wasn’t the time for belt tightening – that comes next week.
Magnus: I didn’t like the sushi because the idea of raw fish wrapped in seaweed is just “no thank you”
What did we eat?
Sushi! Not in Japan, but nonetheless Japanese and utterly delicious.
We enjoyed beautiful ice creams from Amorini too. Three times in three days…
And after disappointment and indecision, we finally managed to get some astounding looking pâtisseries from the Cyril Lignac pâtisserie at the end of our road. Even eaten slightly melting in an unattractive rest stop of the side of a Northern French motorway they were as good as they looked.
In the next ten minutes or so we will be home, to the house we love and haven’t seen in six months.
The children go back to school on Tuesday. For Aurora and Sophie this will be the start of their High School career.
Ben, having given up his job to go on the adventure of a lifetime, has to find a new one.
Harriet has three weeks to readjust before going back to work (presumably from home) on 1 September. She is also starting to study (part-time) for a Masters in Law (LLM).
We are still determined, jobs, schools and viruses permitting, to travel overland to Tokyo. We still have our Olympics tickets, now valid for next year.
We will not be writing weekly on this blog any more, but we will be documenting some of our re-entry on instagram, so do follow us there if you don’t already. We will be blogging here intermittently too so to be sure of seeing those posts, click the blue subscribe button…
…Tokyo here we come. One day.