Author Archives: Thomas Dowson

About Thomas Dowson

Hello, I am Thomas Dowson - a freelance writer and archaeologist living in Normandy, France. My field of expertise is prehistoric art - such as the cave paintings in the Dordogne and South Africa. But I am becoming passionately interested in France more generally, and Normandy in particular, and what this country and one of its very well known regions has to offer people with all sorts of tastes and desires. In 2005 I exchanged a university archaeology lecture room for a Bed & Breakfast in Normandy. More recently I started the Archaeology Travel website; sharing my expertise and love of archaeology and travel with others who also want to explore the many different pasts around the World.

Christmas Markets in Amiens & Rouen, France

One of the things I greatly enjoy about France and December are the Christmas markets. For the big cities, they transform what are otherwise drab and cold streets into the closest thing that a city street can ever be to a Christmas wonderland. Besides the ubiquitous little chalet style sheds, many of the larger markets have various attractions to amuse the children, from carousels, mini-train rides to ice rinks.

In some of the bigger towns and cities, Christmas markets get going at the beginning of December, at the same time when the town gets it decorations and lights up. These then last through to just before Christmas itself. I am spoilt for choice, as I live about half-way between the cities of Rouen and Amiens and both cities have big markets. The one in Rouen actually lasts through to the end of the first week of January. For people living in the UK, the Christmas markets in Rouen and Amiens make a good excuse for an accessible weekend break.

Smaller towns could not sustain a market for such a long period. So they tend to choose a weekend before Christmas, deck out their local town hall with festive decorations and a few stall holders sell anything from regional produce to seasonal arts and crafts.

I have to admit that one does see a lot of tat on sale, but there are some good stalls. I tend to go for those selling regionally-specific produce – there is always a good deal to be had on some delicacy or other from another area of France we do not always see in the shops and supermarkets. And of course, during the winter nights it is good to just take a walk and enjoy the sights, sounds and smells with a cup of mulled wine.

Château de Compiègne, France: Three Museums in One

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the Compi̬gne Forest and the Armistice monuments there. Besides this wonderful forest, there is also a Ch̢teau de Compi̬gne Рwhich was the royal residence for French monarchs, and also for Napoleon and Napoleon III. Since the mid 1300s a royal ch̢teau was cited in the forest because the French kings used it for their hunting activities. But the castle we see today was renovated and remodelled in a neoclassical style during the second half of the eighteenth century for Louis XV, who particularly liked hunting and spent much of his time here. Together with the castles at Versailles and Fontainebleau, Compi̬gne was one of three seats of royal government.

Château de Compiègne.

During the revolution the castle was all but gutted, the furniture was sold off and the art was taken to Paris and the nations central museum. In 1807 Napoleon ordered renovations, and then in the 1850s Napoleon III and his wife used it as an autumn residence. Consequently the castle has both First French Empire (1808-1810) and Second French Empire styles of decoration, although there are traces of earlier monarchist decoration.

Just one of many royal apartments.

Today the château incorporates not one but three museums – well these places are palatial! First there are ‘Les Appartements Historiques‘, in which you can tour examples of royal apartments from the eighteenth century, as well as the First and Second Empires. Then there is the Musée du Second Empire, which is the rule of Napoleon III from 1852 to 1870. This ‘museum’ displays the national collection of paintings, sculptures and other objects from this period in France’s history. And finally, the Musée de la Voiture et du Tourisme. Founded in 1927 this ‘museum’ has well over a hundred bicycles, animal drawn carriages and early cars that tell the history of the car and tourism.

An old fire cart – you can see the hose.

Together with the various attractions in the forest, the Château de Compiègne with its three museums make a wonderful day-trip from Paris. It’s only a 50 minute journey by train from Gard du Nord. Or you may prefer to have a more leisurely visit by staying overnight in a hotel in Compiègne.

For practical information about the castle, see the museums’ website.

More on European Museums

Find out about more museums in Europe on Europe a la Carte.

More on Top Five Attractions in France

Last week I wrote about my top five attractions in France. I knew when I wrote the post that the list would reflect my personal choice of attractions, hence the overt indication to this in the title of the post. So, I was somewhat heartened by John’s comment on the post: “Loads of brownie points from me for making this post YOUR Top 5 Attractions as opposed to THE Top 5.”

Like John, a fellow travelblogger, I do not know how many times I have seen posts on various travel blogs proclaiming a definitive list of ‘top attractions’. Their frequency is perhaps not that surprising, because producing ‘Top XX’ lists is not only fashionable, but blogging gurus recommend aspiring bloggers write such posts. This is partly because people often search for such lists.

I asked readers, and my friends on Facebook, to give me their Top 5 France attractions. I was not surprised to see everyone’s list was as personal as my list was. For example, aforementioned John had the Loire Valley on his list as did I, but otherwise our Top 5s are quite different. I was, in fact, very surprised to see how varied the lists were. But what was more surprsiing is how all of these lists differed quite dramatically to the ‘official list’.

The Eiffel Tower, Paris

The following is a list of the top attractions in France, where entry fees are required.
1. Euro Disneyland, Paris 14.5 million visitors
2. The Louvre, Paris 8.3 million visitors
3. Eiffel Tower, Paris 6.8 million visitors
4. Georges Pompidou Centre, Paris 5.5 million visitors
5. Château de Versailles, near Paris 5.3 million visitors
6. Orsay Museum, Paris 3.2 million visitors
7. La Villette Science Museum, Paris 3 million visitors
8. Pompidou Centre (Modern art museum) 2.6 million visitors
9. Parc Astérix, near Paris 1.6 million visitors
10. Futuroscope theme park, Poitiers 1.6 million visitors

One of the many rides at Parc Asterix, near Paris

The list above was produced recently by the French office of national statistics. Not surprisingly, Paris attractions dominate the list. Assuming Paris has the top spot, here is an edited version of the ‘official list’ with only those attractions that are outside of Paris:

1. Paris
2. Futuroscope theme park, Poitiers 1.6 million visitors
3. Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy 1.2 million visitors
4. Puy du Fou theme park Vendée 1.2 million visitors
5. Lille Zoo, Lille 1.0 million visitors
6. Aquarium, La Rochelle 800,000 visitors
7. Mer de Glace rack-and-pinion railway, Chamonix, Alps 800,000 visitors
8. La Palmyre Zoo, Charente Maritime 700,000 visitors
9. Château de Chambord, Loire Valley 700,000 visitors
10. Boat trip round old, Strasbourg 700,000 visitors

Mont Saint Michel, Normandy

I often enjoy comparing lists of top attractions for given destinations with my own list of favourites – and they often are very different. And they are often quite different to ‘official lists’ that are based on popularity – as my top five compares to the above list. One of the reasons why France is one of the best places to visit in Europe, is because there is so much on offer, for everyone and their diverse range of interests.

A Year on France: My Top Five France Attractions

For a year now I have been writing for the Europe a la Carte travel blog. Besides a post on London and another on the Byzantine churches on Crete, each week I write on some of the best places to visit in Europe that France has to offer. I thought on this occasion I would give you what are my top five attractions in France.

Viewing the Bayeux Tapestry today.

At the top of my list has to be the Bayeux Tapestry РI can not get enough of this amazing artifact from the Medieval period of Europe. Although it is now housed in the Mus̩e de la Tapisserie de Bayeux in Normandy, it is generally accepted to have been made in the south of England sometime during the 1070s. At just over 70 metres long, the tapestry, which is more correctly an embroidery, tells the story of Harold II and William the Conqueror.

The so-called spotted horses at Pech Merle, some 12-1500 years old.

My number two on my top ten list of France attractions is perhaps a biased choice, but valid nonetheless. My expertise as an archaeologist is in prehistoric cave art – and France not only has some of the most well known painted caves, such as Lascaux, Pech Merle and Niaux, but some of these have been instrumental in furthering our understanding of the World’s earliest artistic traditions. The painted caves are to be found in the south of France, and some of the more popular ones (e.g. Lascaux and Niaux) have associated ‘prehisto’ theme parks that are great for children.

‘Maisons de vigne’ in the vineyards of the Loire Valley

When most people think of France two things repeatedly come to mind, castles and wine. And nowhere better do these two come together than in the Loire Valley. The Loire Valley is World renowned for some of the finest wines. And any holiday to this area would be incomplete without visiting the vineyards. You will not be able to miss the castles, they dominate the landscape – they were intended to do just that. For anyone wishing to visit the Loire there is now a great online resource for 19 of the most important castles.

La Cathédrale Notre-Dame, before and after being lit up.

Keeping with the ancient art and architecture theme, my fourth favourite attraction in France is the Cathedral in Amiens. The front façade of the imposing Cathédrale Notre-Dame is spectacular at any time of the day or night, with hundreds of amazing carvings. The façade has recently been restored, and during the restoration process it was discovered that these carvings were once coloured. Now, during from the beginning of June to the end of September, and again during December, just after nightfall the façade of the Cathedral is lit up just as experts believe it appeared in medieval times. It really is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.

Musée de la Louvre.

And of course there is Paris, number five on my list! And, Karen has produced a must-read post for those of you wanting to know about the best things to do in Paris.

These are my favourite places to visit in France, and ones I would suggest no one misses – but they reflect my interest. Share your top five French attractions by leaving a comment below, and I will collate the various responses in a future post.

Armistice in the Compiègne Forest, France

Tomorrow, 11 November – Armistice Day, is observed and commemorated differently around the World today. In France it is a national holiday, and most if not all communes will hold ceremonies at their monuments aux morts where they will remember their forefathers who fought and died for their country during World War I.

This bronze sculpture of a sword that strikes the Imperial Eagle of Germany is set in Alsatian sandstone and inscribed “To the heroic soldiers of France – Defender of Fatherland and of Right – Glorious liberators of Alsace and Lorraine”, photograph by Mark Wilson.

Armistice Day, as we all know, marks the end of World War I, the day the Germans surrendered to Allied forces. Armistice was signed, by the various signatories representing the Allied forces and the Germans, between 5:12 AM and 5:20 AM, Paris time, and surrender was scheduled for 11 O’Clock that day, 11 November 1918. This was the hurried result of what was a desperate and pressured process that had begun towards the end of October when German leaders realised defeat was imminent. After a flurry of telegrams between the German command and Allied leaders, the threat of revolt breaking out throughout Germany forced the issue.

The German delegation was taken to a secret location, and in the Allied Commander-in-chief, Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s private railway carriage the final details of the Armistice agreement were thrashed out for three days. That secret location was the forest of Compiègne.

Photograph by Mark Wilson.

Still today the exact spot in the forest commemorates the signing. Slabs of granite mark the spot where the Foch’s carriages stood, and where the carriage occupied by the Germans stood.

Foch’s train went back into service, but in November 1927 it was returned to the exact spot where the Armistice was signed. The carriage was placed in a specially constructed shelter, known as the Clairiere de l’Armistice. There the carriage remained until 22 June 1940 Hitler, Goering, Keitel, von Ribbentrop and others marched into the Clairier, and in the very same carriage the Nazis demanded and received the surrender armistice from France.

Photograph by Johnny Rooke.

The Clairiere de l’Armistice was destroyed during the Occupation of France during World War II, and Foch’s carriage was taken as a trophy to Berlin. But in the dying days of the Third Reich, Hitler ordered the SS burn the carriage and destroy the ashes – nothing was to be retrievable. But on 11 November 1950 a replacement carriage – itself built in 1913 at the same time Foch’s carriage was built and correct in every detail – was rededicated on a restored Armistice site in the forest of Compiègne.

Compiègne is only a 50 minute train journey to the north from Paris’s Gard du Nord. There are around 20 trains a day. For anyone visiting this great European city, Karen has written produced a great summary of all best things to do in Paris, as included on the Europe a la Carte blog. Beside the Armistice memorials in the forest of Compiègne, there is also the spot where Joan of Arc was finally apprehended. And besides the forest there is the Château de Compiègne, the seat of the Second French Empire – but that will have to be the topic of a future post.

Taking the Children Skiing in France

The snow has been falling, and people are already making their way to the mountain resorts of France for skiing holidays. Marcus has already written a post with tips for those on a budget but still wanting to go skiing in Chamonix, here I provide some tips for skiing with children in France. Far too many are under the impression that skii slopes and children do not mix. The French Ministry of Tourism now supports a scheme that recognises the efforts some skii resorts make to cater for families with children.

Photo by Fergus O’Reilly

The Famille Plus label now replaces the P’tits montagnards (young mountaineers) charter, and is awarded to those resorts that go out of their way to welcome and provide an extensive range of activities for family skiing in France.

To be awarded the new label a resort might provide a crèche to take care of tiny tots aged 6 months and over and have several flexible packages available for parents, or a ski school for three-year-olds and upwards.

The six commitments are:
1. A friendly, personalised welcome for families
2. Entertainment with visitors of all ages in mind
3. Holiday packages with prices tailored for children and adults
4. Both individual and family-based activities for youngsters and adults
5. Nearby medical facilities in the event of minor illness or injury
6. Supervision and tuition of children by professionally qualified staff

Photo by Andrew Cullen.

Anyone thinking about or planning a trip to France for some skiing this winter, the website France Montagnes is the perfect resource, with information in 14 languages. And search for ‘famille plus’ for those resorts that make an extra effort for their younger guests.

The Fortress de Mimoyecques, near Calais: How history could have been so different

A few days ago Jeremy posed the question why is Europe a top destination? The first reason he offered in response was that Europe has been at the centre of some of the greatest battles in history. No matter how one defines greatest, this is surely true – battles have literally raged across the whole continent, and France has experienced more than its fair share. In fact, for anyone interested in the history of warfare, France is one of the best places to visit in Europe.

Jeremy also made the point that there is so much history and culture you could “spend the rest of your life travelling the continent and never learn all there is know … ” Having lived in Normandy for nearly six years now I find this is so true of that part of northern France I explore regularly, let alone the rest of France, or Europe. I frequently travel to and from Calais, and have only recently stumbled upon a World War II monument that I have driven by countless times, a monument that really could have changed the course of history.

One of the tunnels that make up the Fortress de Mimoyecques, and the ‘rail-trucks’ used to remove the chalk from the tunnels (photograph: Sparks68).

The ‘Fortress de Mimoyecques’ is located in a limestone hill not that far from the French entrance to the Channel Tunnel near Calais. This fort comprised a number of subterranean tunnels that were intended to house the Nazi’s ‘Cannon of London’ – the V-3 (Vergeltungswaffe 3). Construction of the fort began in September 1943 in a desperate attempt to stem the tide of Nazi defeat; the V-3 would have been capable of raining bombs down on London – some 165 kms away.

Part of the barrel of the V-3 super-gun, there were to be 25 of these, each 420 feet long (photograph: Late Red).

Slave labour was used to dig the tunnels, and even as the Limestone debris was removed from the tunnels it was painted green so as to prevent the Allied Forces from realising what was going on. Fortunately for the city of London Intelligence Units almost immediately noticed suspicious activity, by comparing reconnaissance photographs taken over a period of time from before construction began. The Allied Forces repeatedly attempted to bomb the fort from November 1943 until August 1944. None of these missions were entirely successful, and the fort was never abandoned, but it was over-run by the Canadians in September 1944.

This year a museum at Mimoyecques was opened on 1 July, which allows visitors to view tunnels in various stages of construction and damage, the remains of guns, a small, scaled replica of the V-3, as well as remains of machinery, rail systems and tools employed by the slaves. There is also a memorial at the site to these slaves and to the airmen lost in action during the various missions to destroy the fort.

For anyone (particularly interested in military history) travelling to or from Calais and needing something to do, the Fortress de Mimoyecques is definitely worth a visit.

Click here for the lowest prices on Calais hotels

Coming Face-to-Face with the Stone Age in Paris

There really is so much to see and do in Paris, something to suit everyone’s tastes and interests. So well featured is this European city on the Europe a la Carte blog that Karen recently produced a post summarizing the Best of Paris Travel Tips as recommended in a number of posts on this blog over the last four years. But it really does not end there. There are still so many more attraction in Paris that make this city one of the best places to visit in Europe.

Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, now the Musée des Antiquités Nationales

The suburb of Saint-Germain-en-Laye is about 12 miles (20 km) to the west of the centre of Paris. The Saint-Germain station can be reached on Line A of the RER, and also on the Paris – Saint-Lazare suburban rail line. For anyone who is particularly interested in prehistory and history of France, this Paris museum is well worth a visit.

One of the main attractions in Saint-Germain-en-Laye is the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye (above), now the Musée des Antiquités Nationales (National Museum of Archaeology). The castle was built in the mid fourteenth century, but there had been a castle fort there for at least a hundred years previously. For a few centuries the castle was the Royal residence and a number of French kings were born there, including Louis XIV. It was Napoleon III who in 1862 had the castle designated a national museum for prehistory. The museum has some amazing exhibits that ranges from the Old Stone Age to the Iron Age (Celtic times).

Napoleon III set up the Musée des Antiquités Nationales in the estwhile royal château. This museum has exhibits ranging from Paleolithic to Celtic times.  One of the most famous pieces in the museum’s collection is the small carving of a woman’s head, sculptured from a mammoth’s tusk about 25 000 years ago. At this age this little carving, the size of a man’s thumb, is currently the oldest dated representation of a human face. This piece is one of a number of Stone Age carvings in the museum’s collection, and on display.

la Dame de Brassempouy – thought to be the oldest representation of a human face

The museum is open every day, except on Tuesdays and public holidays, from ten in the morning to five in the afternoon; with an entrance fee of 6 Euros.

Besides the National Archaeology Museum there is the Saint-Germain forest and a few concrete bunkers built by the Germans during the Second World War.

More on European Museums

Find out about more museums in Europe on Europe a la Carte.

The Port City of Le Havre: A Contemporary World Heritage Site

When in comes to the various port-cities in northern France most people think they are just ferry ports: places where they disembark and embark. But, there is always a lot more to these ports than the ferry terminals. Karen has already written about things to do in Calais and I about Boulogne-sur-mer’s attractions. Following the theme of these other posts, here are some things to do in Le Havre should you have a few hours before your ferry sets sail.

The masts of the many yachts that use the port of Le Havre as a base, with the strikingly modern city behind.

Unlike some of France’s other ports, Le Havre – or ‘the harbour’ – is a relatively new one – replacing some other adjacent ports in the sixteenth century. And today Le Havre is the second busiest port in France, attracting ferries from the United Kingdom and Ireland, cruise liners and commercial cargo ships. The coastal location makes Le Havre great for water-sports enthusiasts. In fact, Le Havre hosted the sailing events for the Olympic Games of 1900 and 1924.

The city is now recognised World-wide for its architectural heritage. But it is not the medieval architecture that one finds in other Normandy cities like Rouen. During the Second World War Le Havre was occupied by the Germans and consequently suffered severe bombing by the allied forces. Over 5000 people were killed and some 12000 homes totally destroyed – almost all of the city. After the war the city was rebuilt from scratch in a modernist style by the architect Auguste Perret. And in 2005 the city was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, one of only a handful of contemporary World Heritage sites in Europe. The city, and its architect, was honoured for its innovative use of concrete and as an exceptional example of post war town-planning and architecture. Given that the city we see today is relatively new, there is a wonderful museum dedicated to old Le Havre.

The very modern City Hall.

It was, however, in pre-War Le Havre that Claude Monet grew up. And it was one of his paintings, of the harbour at sunrise that he titled ‘Impression, soleil levant’, that gave the name to the the Impressionist movement. The Musée des Beaux-Arts André Malraux has the biggest collection of Impressionist art in France outside of Paris – with a good collection of some of the more well-known impressionist artists, as well as a number of lesser-known Normandy based artists who influenced Monet when he was young and starting out. Le Havre today is thought of as the birthplace of Impressionism. Another interesting thing to do in Le Havre is a visit to the wonderful Natural History museum that children love.

Musée des Beaux-Arts André Malraux

Le Havre’s attractions make it a perfect European destination for a short break. There is a great night-life in the city, with some very good restaurants – and there is even a very trendy Latino quarter.

Click here for the lowest prices on Le Havre hotels

Beaujolais Nouveau Day – 18 November 2010

Each year, on the third Thursday in November the Beaujolais wine producers release their Beaujolais nouveau. What was once a very local tradition has in recent decades become an international race to bring Beaujolais nouveau to markets around the world. Beaujolais is a small region to the north of Lyon that has been producing wines since Roman times.

To begin with, the wine producers of the area created a ‘wine of the year’ simply to celebrate the end of harvest. Thus the wine was only fermented for a few weeks, and was intended for immediate consumption, certainly not later than a few months. It was not until the establishment of the Beaujolais Nouveau AOC just before the second World War that the release date for this wine was set at 15 December each year. The release date was changed to 15 November in the early 1950s.

Wine producers began to see the marketing potential of the Beaujolais Nouveau, and by the 1970s the release of the Beaujolais Nouveau and the race to get the first bottles to Paris became a national event attracting considerable media attention. The ‘race’ to deliver the first bottle soon spread to other countries in Europe, in the 1980s, and North American and Asia in the 1990s. And, because of the marketability of Beaujolais Nouveau, in 1985 the release date was changed to the third Thursday in November so as to make the most of wine consumption during the weekend that followed.

Not only is the race to get Beaujolais Nouveau to various destinations the focus of much celebration, but today the town of Beaujeu annually organises a four day fête to celebrate the first tasting of Beaujolais Nouveau. The ‘Sarmentelles de Beaujeu’ is a must for wine lovers who enjoy the history and tradition of wine-making; each year, during the third week of November, thousands of people converge on Beaujeu to be the first to taste this wine – making this the European destination for wine buffs. For 2010, the festival starts on the evening of 17 November and lasts on to midnight for the first tastings.

To be amongst the first to taste Beaujolais Nouveau, the perfect excuse for a long weekend break to the south of France in Autumn! There is still time to plan your break.

The photographs used in the post were taken by gilletdaniel during the Sarmentelles de Beaujeu in 2003.