Wednesday, January 22, 2014

From French Polynesia to French Flanders

Flying to Belgium from wherever we end up with Irie has rarely been easy or cheap. This time was no different except that French Polynesia is – really – very far away from Belgium and that it is – really – in the middle of nowhere. Nowhere being the vast Pacific Ocean. It took a dinghy, a taxi, a night in Papeete (Tahiti), four planes, about 24 hours of flying, a car, and a few days to make it from Irie in Taiohae, Nuku Hiva to my parents’ house in Berlare, Belgium. The whole journey went as smooth as could be and relatively quick as well and “just like that” I am here! Being in cold Europe, however, feels more surreal than ever before. It is as if I traveled in time and in space, everything being so different from what I am used to back there. It was quite a shock to be part of western civilization again.

After a few days of meeting people, staring at all the choices in the supermarkets, taking very enjoyable showers, using the internet the way all of you do, listening to the noise of city traffic and neighborhood dogs, and getting used to the convenience of jumping in a car, flushing the toilet, putting dirty dishes in a dish washer and grabbing food I love out of the fridge or cupboard, my mum and I left on a five day vacation to northern France, a region called French Flanders.

Our first stop was Lille, where we braved the drizzle to investigate what the city center was all about. We found a few interesting looking buildings and walked all the way out to one of the old city gates. Once in our hotel further south, we enjoyed the comforts of a clean and modern room and an amazing three course dinner with a glass of wine. This was my first taste of the culinary spoils that would follow over the next days. In the morning, we drove out to a very impressive Canadian war memorial, commemorating the 60 000 (!) Canadian soldiers who died during the Great War (WWI). The memorial grounds reminded me of the ones in the US: spacious, clean, park-like and well-kept. We made a detour to the restored trenches which I found very interesting. My hat and gloves complimented my heavy winter coat. All was needed to endure the biting cold of the outdoors.

In the afternoon, we walked around the city of Lens, where the few buildings worth mentioning were spread out. With map in hand, we crossed the city and had our exercise, taking pictures while we were at it. To conclude the day of sightseeing, we stopped at the new addition of the Louvre Museum, Louvre-Lens, the main reason of our trip to the region. All the relics and masterpieces are showcased in one big room, according to a time line. Chronologically, you can compare different styles of architecture and other culturally different art forms, invented and created during the same time period. It was an interesting way of exhibiting, albeit a bit chaotic. Entrance to the museum is free and so are the electronic tour devices with informative commentaries.

After a second tasty and extensive breakfast, we left the hotel near Lens, to trade it for another one in the center of Arras, one of France’s prettiest cities. The historic city center was an easy and not too cold ten minute walk from the hotel. Mom and I explored most of the town that day, appreciating the architecture of the beautifully restored sixteenth century buildings and market squares and the view from the Belfry. Another great dinner restored the calories we lost during our day of walking. The weather stayed dry, so more walking and exploring another part of Arras followed the day after. In the evening, we revisited the two main squares – Place des Héros and Grand Place – where the surrounding buildings were lit up – very cool! - and where we had a yummy dinner in the cellar of one of these beauties.

The weather turned colder and greyer and my tummy could take no more after another buffet breakfast, so we left Arras. But, before returning home, we stopped at the citadel in Lille. We had hopes of visiting the old bastion, but were denied. A regiment of the French Army is stationed there, so we had to make do with a healthy hike around and in between the massive walls. I really like the way these monuments offer exercise and nature so close to the city.

Every area has its highlights, but my favorite in French Flanders is the center of Arras and when Mark’s memories of French Polynesia and the French have faded a bit, I’d love to take him there!

Belgium - near my parents' house - in winter time (when the weather is "nice")

Showing oma where we are located at the moment and where I flew from

Lille - the main square

Lille - the vieux bourse

Lille - one of the old gates into town

The environs of Lens - mining country

Canadian War Memorial on the Vimy Ridge

Some of the 60 000 Canadian soldiers who gave their lives during WWI

The marble monument is quite impressive and touching

Reconstructed trenches at the frontier of one of the big battles

Church in Lens

Old masterpiece in the Louvre-Lens museum: The empire of Time standing on the world, with Fortune holding the sail and Death the rudder... 

Louvre-Lens museum

Arras: Approaching the Belfry in the city center

Arras: Place des Héros - a square full of restored sixteenth century houses

Arras: City Hall with its Belfry on Place des Héros

Arras: For ages, these houses had to conform to a building code - being of stone and brick and with no overhang

Arras: along the same square, the red building on the left is the oldest in Arras, one of the few who survived the extensive bombing during the Great War (1914-1918)

Arras: Painting on the ceiling of the cathedral

Arras: The massive cathedral right behind the abbey

Arras: Mom and the clock of the Belfry

Arras: Place des Héros, seen from the Belfry

Arras: A view from the Belfry gives a different perspective!

Arras: Delicious food at the hotel's restaurant

Arras: Entrance to the town's citadel (built in the 17th century)

Arras: Mur des Fusillérs - a wall near the citadel where over 200 members of the resistance were shot and killed during WWII

Arras: British War Memorial and Cemetery

Arras: Town hall and Belfry at night

Arras: Lit-up historic houses of Place des Héros

Arras: Our last dinner out in the cellar of one of the historic buildings

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