I'd always wanted to go to Paris. As part of my 40th birthday celebrations, sixteen years ago (where has that time gone?) I finally made it. Also on the agenda was travelling around Belgium, The Netherlands, two quick day trips into Germany, and then on to northern France down to Paris. I cried the whole trip, mostly in a good way. It was like finding out Santa was real. But it was also a time of major self-discovery. Travelling will do that to you.
It was mentioned to me on more than one occasion during the trip by my Dutch-English-Aussie travelling partner, Johannes-of-husbands-past, that I was displaying signs of Stendhal's Syndrome, aka, Art Attack. It's a syndrome where you can't help but have extreme emotions like crying or fainting, heart palpitations, etc, after seeing works of art or beautiful scenes.
It's true. I bawled at first sight when viewing an ancient cathedral for the first time in Den Bosch, the first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, breathing in Leonardo da Vinci's artworks in the Louvre, standing in a real French vineyard … It was a lot to take in for this Aussie country girl.
When you grow up as an artist on an island at the bottom of the world (okay, a bloody big island) which feels so remote compared to the jampacked countries of Europe, and everything about the rest of the world comes to you between pages of a book or on a screen, then naturally you are going to feel a little overwhelmed at seeing these things for the first time. It's absolutely like a fairy tale coming to life.
Armed with only an Olympus digital point-and-shoot camera (with very low pixels) I did the best I could with what I had at the time. Just the same, the memories remain with you for a lifetime, don't they. Johannes, Jan, (pronounced Yun) took the photos of me. I was super blessed to have extended family and good friends play host and for that I shall always be so utterly grateful.
Wijk bij Duurstede was my first taste of Dutch life. I hiked around the picturesque town in my pink-suede boots, while my gracious then brother-in-law, David, pointed out the wonders of the neighbourhood. Tip: always pack extra undies and a toothbrush in your carry-on bag. I think it was quite a few days later when my lost luggage finally showed up. In the meantime, this pretty place kept my jet-lagged eyes occupied and happy - a true feast for the senses.
Den Bosch, or more formally 's-Hertogenbosch, was where I had my first sob after visiting St John's Cathedral (St. Janskathedraal). Although we have some crackerjack cathedrals in Australia, you just don't get the centuries-old cathedrals like you do in Europe. I loved the town square, the masses of yellow umbrellas and of course, if you know your art, the fact it'd been the home of Hieronymus Bosch, back in the 1500s. Oh and if you look closely at the pic on the left below, that's me, still in my pink boots and wondering 'where art thou, luggage?'
Maastricht, the home of violin king, André Rieu, and my once father-in-law, sits on the river Meuse. I bought two tiny vintage tea cups from a market there (below), along with a pink leather jacket. The fashionistas lined the streets of the old town and cows lined the fields on the outskirts. Bullet holes from WWII still scar a bridge close to the border of Netherlands and Belgium. Historical, incredibly beautiful, sad in places, memorable. My Dutch was passable enough that I could at least take a bus into town by myself and not get off at the wrong stop. I will never forgive myself, however, for breaking the window-winding handle on the back door of my father-in-law's prized vintage car. Whoopsie. Speaking of fashionistas, it was also the first time I realised that I was squarely a Kmart (Walmart) girl and an obvious fish-out-of-water as far as my wardrobe was concerned - eye-opening Revelation #1.
Nestled between Den Hague and Rotterdam, Delft is famous for its blue and white ceramics called Delftware; the artist, Vermeer (whom the movie and book, Girl With a Pearl Earring was based upon); and for being a mediaeval city with canals and quaint bridges, quiet tiny cobblestoned lanes and an exquisite town square. And yep, pulled out the sketchbook to capture the scene top left, below. Delft was also the place where I saw two grown Dutch men go hammer and tongs at each other (Aussie slang for fight) in the street over a sale obviously gone wrong.
Amsterdam was fascinating for all manner of reasons. While I didn't venture into the infamous "coffee shops", I did, however, wander through the red-light district where the ladies and gentlemen of the night paraded themselves in shop windows like cakes in a display cabinet. The closest I'd ever come to seeing anything like that was driving along Hay St in Kalgoorlie, West Australia, as an eighteen-year old tourist and wondering what the heck the "starting stalls" were for. (Insert wide-eyed naïve face). A trip through the canals of Amsterdam was a true highlight and I'd wished I'd spent more time exploring this marvellous intoxicating city instead of only on the day we were flying home.
As mentioned earlier, I only dipped my toes into Germany twice - once into Aachen, a city near the Dutch border, and another time into Monschau, an incredible fairy-tale town close to the Belgian border, akin to a Grimm Bros story setting.
Although Aachen (below) had to be largely rebuilt after WWII, the old city was charming. The enticing scent of yummy waffles hung in the air. The Domschatzkammer housed the shrine of Charlemagne who was buried in 814 A.D. and the cathedral was another stunner. I pretended to feed a stuffed horse, as you do.
The township of Monschau (below) made for a picture-perfect postcard. It was actually hard to get my head around the fact it was a real working, living, town! A far cry from Fairy Park (a children's attraction depicting fairy-tale scenes in miniature) which was a stone's throw from where I was born and raised, and the closest I'd come to seeing architecture like this.
Belgium & Northern France
I have a lovely fellow Aussie musician mate who lives in Ghent, Belgium, with his beautiful Belgian wife and kids. They met while he was over in Europe pursuing his dream to be a pro cyclist. He was a brilliant host showing the region he now calls home, including the pretty canals of Bruges (Brugge) and the castle in Ghent.
Bruges was undoubtedly beautiful, but I bought something worth, let's say fifty cents, with a ten-dollar-note equivalent and was shouted out of the shop for not having the right change. It was most definitely the rudest direct encounter I'd experienced from a stranger on the entire trip. Revelation #2: Aussies, as a generalised whole, are much more laid back, casual.
Top left image below is of the Ghent skyline, the rest are of Bruges.
Jan's brother, David Scherpenhuizen, and his partner Nathalie van Koot, are Dutch travel writers. If you can read Dutch then please check out their travel books on the Hidden Secrets of France, which you can find through their website. You can also follow their travels on Instagram. Having the pair as personal hosts, translating the language, explaining the stories behind historical points of interest was invaluable. Their time, knowledge, kindness, generosity and hospitality was outstanding.
We travelled throughout the Ardennes, including a visit to where the Battle of the Bulge took place in WWII; they got me out of a pickle in a French-speaking supermarket (I was nervous attempting to speak the language); took me to where Nostradamus had once made his predictions (Orval); escorted us to Reims (where Joan of Arc saved the cathedral); went out of their way to show me Epernay and the champagne growing region (Dom Perignon and Moët & Chandan); and finished with a spooky mind-blowing experience at the St Sulpice in Paris, made famous in The Da Vinci Code book and movie.
[What unfolded at St Sulpice, for me, is a whole other spooky story, but suffice to say, I won't be returning in a hurry. It was only after I was sitting there shaking on the steps outside the church, that David told me its awful ugly history including the possibility of human sacrifice having taken place at that exact spot. It took all of my strength (and a few prayers!) to pull myself together, and make a second attempt to walk around the church. I'd never felt such an evil feeling anywhere (except for Port Arthur in Tasmania) and hope never to again. Oh, and by the way, I'd not seen the Da Vinci Code at that stage and had never heard of the church before.]
I can't quite remember now, the order of towns we travelled through in the Ardennes and border region of Belgium and France, but below are some of my favourite photos of those adventures.
The City of Lights, Paris, the City of L'amour, whatever you call it, it's magical. And overwhelming.
As a teen, I'd dreamt of being a painter in Paris (perhaps a leftover from some past life and the studies of the Impressionists I'd undertaken at high school) and following in the footsteps of masterly creatives over hundreds of years. So, stepping onto the pavement of what was to me, hallowed turf, was the strangest sensation - a mixture of feeling like I'd come home, absolute disbelief I was actually there, and a real awareness that I was a tiny spec in a very big, brash, bold city. The country girl in me was terrified and excited all at once.
Europeans have grown up with big cities and ancient architecture as part of their everyday psyche. I actually had to sit down on a bridge over the Seine and draw breath. The beauty of the architecture is one thing, but the relentless density of buildings is quite another. I never realised, until that moment, how the wide-open spaces of Australia are intrinsically a part of who I am. I was in this beautiful scene and yet I was overwhelmed by its intensity. Revelation #3: I require space around me. A lot of it.
Nonetheless, the major sights were as every bit intriguing, enriching and glamourous as I'd ever imagined. And, of course, the tears flowed for the long-held dream coming to fruition of going to Paris. Overlooking Paris at sunset from the Basilica of Sacré Coeur de Montmartre, picnicking under the Eiffel Tower, sharing blues music with French teachers at a restaurant in the Pigalle district, dancing salsa and jamming with backpackers on the edge of the river Seine, being asked for money by the gypsies in the Jardin des Tuileries, watching a film being made in the Jardin du Luxembourg, staring up at Rodin's famous sculpture, The Thinker, walking through Montmartre where the Impressionists had once painted … all of these things will never leave my heart.
Ironically, in a city renowned for inciting love and magic, it was also the city where I realised my first marriage was about to end. And indeed, it did, less than three months later. Eight months after the relationship ended with Jan, I met my now husband, Rick, in a crowded bar, in Geelong, on my 41st birthday, while we were both watching Le Tour de France. Revelation #4: romance begins in the heart, not a city, though France still had something to do with us meeting. And Revelation #5: Jan had taken a photo of me standing under a neon sign in Brussels, which read "Richard", Rick's real name. A sign of things to come … Life is strange and funny.
Whatever Paris, Europe, brought me, I'll always be grateful for its lessons and revelations, for it taught me some home truths about who I am and what I need to feel alive. Although it was a dream come true to stand in the midst of Paris, completely in awe of the things which made me cry with utter joy, on reflection, I know with all of my soul that I truly am a simple country girl at heart, from the saltpans of Avalon, Australia. And that's okay with me.
(I'll show you around where I grew up in my next blog.)
PS: My Mum made me the cowgirl top in the photo below (me sitting in front of the Notre Dame, Paris). And that's a perfect fit for me.