History is everywhere in France. And so, it seems, is the future.
We’ve been on the road for the past two and a half weeks, traveling first (of course) to Paris, then into central France and finally south along the Mediterranean coast known commonly as the Riviera.
Almost everyone, it seems, who goes to France visits Paris. The city has so much to show and seems to never stop moving. In that way it’s a bit like New York City but it so much older and has had so many twists and turns along the way.
Our traveling companions, my sister and brother-in-law, had been there 50+ years ago as a young couple without kids and camped there (!) and many other places when they were doing “Europe on $5 a Day”. There were no pup tents along this time, however, but we did dive into daily life with sidewalk cafes, the famously packed Paris Metro subway system and a checklist of highlights to see. The lively bohemian neighborhood where we stayed was always on the move and so, it seemed, was the whole city.
History is never far away in Paris. As the center of French government and the focus of the coming of democracy in Europe during the French Revolution in 1789, Paris is where King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette were publicly beheaded with a guillotine at Place de la Concorde (or Concorde Square) in the shadow of a tall, gold-topped obelisk that was taken from ancient Egypt.
It watched as Hitler’s terrible Nazi forces marched in and took control in 1940 and it celebrated as the Allied forces paraded through the Arc de Triomphe, 10 grueling battle-filled weeks following the Normandy invasion in 1944, liberating a city that had been caught off-guard four years earlier.
Many of the world’s most significant cultural icons are in Paris. Some date back more than two millennia, like the armless Greek statue Venus de Milo, and some are only a few centuries old, like DaVinci’s masterful Mona Lisa (with ridiculously long, cattle-herding-like viewer lines), Michelangelo’s Slaves statues at the huge and sprawling Louvre. And, across the Seine River at the sparkling and airy Musee d’Orsay, the fabulous 19th century impressionist paintings of Monet, Manet, Degas, Gaugin and so many others but none more noteworthy than the genius savant Vincent Van Gogh.
A stroll down the Avenue des Champs Elysees, with Napoléon’s huge Arc over your shoulder is a pinch-me-I-can’t-believe-I’m-here-event and walking under Gustav Eiffel’s tower give you the same feeling. The city is simply amazing. There is so much to see and do in Paris that it would take weeks (months?) to visit all the places that any tour book recommends. But we had a schedule to meet and a riverboat trip on the Rhone River ahead so many things had to wait until a next time, if that ever happens.
We joined our small group of riverboat travelers, 41 in all, for two more days of checking out the city and then headed for France’s government-owned, futuristic, high speed TGV train to Macon, on the Soane River. The train reaches up to 200 mph and glides along effortlessly. It’s smooth and very safe. The line we traveled on was opened on an all-new, passenger-train-only, right-of-way in 1981, the first “bullet train” line built in France. There has never been a fatality on the line, which hosts 42 trains per day between Paris and the city of Lyon. It is safe, fast and very comfortable and there’s a train departure about every 25 minutes.
The smooth ride quickly took us out of dense, urban Paris, into rolling farm country with quaint villages and old farms and their stone barns. Cattle grazed on grassy hillsides separated by miles of hedgerows and occasional corn fields. Those fields soon gave way to hilly and unending vineyards and wineries. Seeing these old farms and villages and the old traditions of the wine country glide by our very modern high-speed train windows said a lot about France these days.
The only train station between Paris and Lyon was at our stop on the outskirts of Macon, deep into the burgundy wine country. We had a short visit to a local chateau and sampled their local products along with lunch and then headed to our waiting riverboat. A short afternoon and evening cruise down the Soane River took us into Lyon, France’s third largest city at around 500,000 and second largest metro area (two million).
The Soane flows into the Rhone River at this bustling and very historic city and thankfully our schedule had us there for two days, docked at the foot of the old village, near an amazing marketplace and within easy reach of several historic sites.
That city has four UNESCO-designated world heritage sites, some dating back to the Roman occupation. It was a strong center of the French Resistance during World War II and, in response, the city with two rivers had all its bridges destroyed during that terrible chapter.
It’s all been rebuilt now, with an eye toward that historic heritage but the city is also forward thinking, cosmopolitan and very much on the move. We could have easily spent several more days there, but our boat was soon on the move and heading into the wide Rhone and its historic and vineyard-lined valley. We’ll pick this back up next week after we get through some massive river locks and past 800-year-old villages.
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It’s hard to not mention the interesting and successful season our Minnesota Twins had this year. Even though their booming bats fell mostly silent as they bowed to the detested Yankees this week, their season gives us all high hopes for next year. (How’s that for a Minnesota way of looking at things?).
The last, and only other, time they won 100 games, or more, was when Sam Mele was their manager back in 1965, when they won 102 and went to the World Series. I was in seventh grade and we listened to the games on the school intercom in Jim Klassen’s junior-high math class.
It’s been a long time since then, but their record and their roster promise more good years ahead. I’m already looking forward to spring.