Two Gardens – Versailles

I’ve been back from Paris for a few days now and not had time to post about our last two days there. They were both very special in slightly different ways.

I’ve called this post Two Gardens because we visited two gardens on our last days in Paris – possibly so that we could walk for miles instead of cycling. It felt better using a different set of muscles. But also because Versailles is rather like two gardens in one. (I will post about the other garden, Giverny, tomorrow).

On Saturday afternoon we drove down to Versailles. I do think that often the trick with getting the most out of these places is to do a bit of research and if possible, avoid the crowds. The main entrance is a coach parking lot – there are just thousands of people. As we only had a few hours we decided to cut round the side of the grounds and find parking alongside one of the gates into the park (which is free entrance and open to all). In my opinion, the park is the best aspect of Versailles. The juxtaposition of open meadowland and formally cut lines of trees is wonderfully done. There’s a wonderful sense of scale in the use of trees as hedges – they seem to go up for miles.

Versaille: Hedges made from Trees, and walkways that go to the horizon.
Versaille: Hedges made from Trees, and walkways that go to the horizon.

If you’re not that concerned about seeing the grand palace of Versailles, then do what we did and head directly to the bottom of the garden to see the two summer houses – Grand Trianon, built by Louise XIV, and Petit Trianon, built by Louis XV. Both were built with the same purpose as places where they could escape and relax from the strict etiquette of the palace, and places where they could spend time with their current mistress.

Grand Trianon is more the more formal of the two, with traditional French gardens and standard stately home decor. It is indeed grand and memorable, clad as it is in pink marble. The cost of building this little summer house must have been enormous!

Grand Trianon's approach is impressive and very pink.
Grand Trianon’s approach is impressive and very pink.

From the covered walkway, the garden lies like a carpet of geometric flower beds, lawns and pathways.

Grand Trianon garden is laid out like a geometric carpet of flowers, lawn and pathways.
Grand Trianon garden is laid out like a geometric carpet of flowers, lawn and pathways.

If this is your thing, it’s an impressive view. I must say here, that this is the Trianon that I favour less. For me, the relative simplicity of Petit Trianon, and lushness of it’s garden are far more enjoyable.

The first thing you encounter as you enter Petit Trianon is a courtyard surrounded by covered walkways leading to the house chapel, a wonderfully light space with a sense of great tranquility.

The cloisters at Petit Trianon - a charming place
The cloisters at Petit Trianon – a charming place


The interior of the building has some charming surprises – an impressive staircase, sumptuous footman uniforms, and innovative panels that slide up from the ground floor to screen first floor windows. The garden is a rambling parkland filled with heady scented blooms. If you wander far enough through the gardens, the jewel in the Petit Trianon crown emerges: Hameau de la Reine, a little hamlet built for Marie Antoinette in 1783. It’s a cross between Disney and Hobbiton.  The buildings include the queen’s Boudoir, a dairy, a dove house, a gardeners cottage and a tower. Words are inadequate to describe this place so I’m going to finish my descfription of Petit Trianon with a couple of photographs that I hope capture the nature of Hameau de la Reine.

Petit Trianon's Hameau de la Reine
\ Petit Trianon’s Hameau de la Reine


Hameau de la Reine - Irises growing on the roof of the dove house
Hameau de la Reine – Irises growing on the roof of the dove house


Hameau de la Reine - Flower pots on the stair
Hameau de la Reine – Flower pots on the stair


Hameau de la Reine - Perfection in a veg garden
Hameau de la Reine – Perfection in a veg garden

If you have the change to visit Versailles and you don’t mind missing out on the palace, head straight for the two Trianons and see a side of royalty that might deliver some new perspectives.

Monet’s garden at Giverny will be the topic of my next post.

Nous sommes arrivés!

The final day of the London to Paris bike ride was the longest, in riding terms and in hours.

We set off from the country town of Gournay-en-Bray in glorious weather. The sun was shining, but it wasn’t so hot that the cyclists were melting away. This is what it should have been all week, ideally.

Although we had the overnight stops pegged down from information we’d picked up from the web, and had pre-booked all our accommodation, we were working out the meeting points during the day as we went along.  Ideally we wanted somewhere not too big that it made it difficult to find each other, but big enough to have at least a cafe or restaurant so we could grab a coffee and use their restrooms. We managed to get that sizing badly wrong on the last day.

Our first stop was in Gizor which looked, on the map, to be a small enough town to make it easy to locate each other. We chose a street to meet in, and the cyclist set off ahead of the drivers. By the time we arrived in the car, the town’s market was in full swing and it was utter chaos. Parking was almost non-existent and when we finally found a place that looked just big enough for the car and were lining up to start moving into it, the unpleasant little man parked in the space ahead, switched on his engine and very deliberately shifted his car a foot backwards ensuring that he had plenty of space in front of him, and the space was now too small for us to fit into. His defiant stare at us as we sat in jaw-dropping bemusement that someone could be so small-minded, was evidence that this was an intentional move. For the first time, I encountered a French man who lived up to the reputation given them by the English – that of being rude and selfish.

Now that's a picnic!
Now that’s a picnic!

We recovered from our annoyance when we found the cyclists in a cafe and realised that the market would be an ideal place to gather lunch. They set off and we shopped. Lunch was superb! One of the best meals of the trip – and not a pizza slice in sight.  We ate our French market picnic in a park in the next village we had selected. Perfection. Our only misjudgement was that this place was so small it only had a butcher and a baker. Parking was ample though.  Knowing that the cyclists would need to use them when they arrived, I went to ask if there were any public facilities in the village . ‘Oui’, said Madame Boucherie, and directed me to behind the boulangerie. ‘Non!’, said Madame Boulangerie.  So I practiced my Gallic shrug and searched no further.

We motored on to Poissy and checked in to the apartment we’ve booked for the weekend. Then made a mad dash to the supermarket to get coffee, tea and sugar (and returned with three bulging bags of food).

After freshening up, having a cup of tea and dumping any extra weight, left the car at Poissy and all four of us set off on bicycles to do the last 28km into the centre of Paris together. We were pleasantly surprised by the ease of the ride. The cycle paths which run more than half the way in, were easy to follow and in good condition. And when we hit the main streets of Paris at the tail end of evening rush hour, we found drivers to be very cyclist-aware and considerate. There were a few terrifying moments going round some of the notorious insane circles with no lane markings, but even there, the drivers paused to let us through. We saw surprisingly few other cyclists so perhaps the Parisienne drivers were simply stunned at the insanity of what we were doing.

We reached the Trocadero (our chosen finish point) at 8.30pm, 11 hours after the starting time that morning.

Kiff and Helen celebrating the end of 297 km of cycling.
Kiff and Helen celebrating the end of 297 km of cycling.

Would we do it again? Yes, probably, but perhaps over more days so there would be more time to explore the French countryside. This has been an amazing adventure.

If we have the energy, we’ll visit Versaille today and hope to manage to see Monet’s garden on our way back to Calais tomorrow. It’s a place I’ve wanted to see for years.

London to Paris on Two Wheels

The first two days of our London to Paris trip provided no opportunities for painting. There was just no time, between cycling and getting little sleep on the overnight ferry.

We’ve discovered the Avenue Verte, a rather wonderful series of cycling routes from London to Paris in some of the most beautiful countryside. The French side of the water has far better sign posting and a marvellous cycle route along a disused railway line which is possibly the most pleasant cycling I have ever done.

Setting off to Paris by bicycle from the very English duck pond green
Setting off from the very English duck pond on the green

Kiff and Helen are doing this trip to raise funds for Mind. So far they have raised over £2400 for the charity. Their original idea was to join a big group – one of those organised by a company that specialises in charity trips. After being pressured by the organisers to raise the funds in a very short time, they did some research and realised that if they went it alone, the charity would get substantially more of the funds. Of course, this works far better if you have people who can help you with the organising and transport – which is the point where they turned up on our doorstep and asked if we would be their support team.  It didn’t take much arm twisting for us to agree. Any excuse for an adventure!

So, after months of planning, off we set on Tuesday evening. The first panic happened before we left home when we realised that our bike rack hadn’t been used since we changed cars, and didn’t fit the new car. Mad dash to Halfords to buy a new bike rack and we were sorted. Helen’s suggestion to drive out of London on Tuesday night after the rush hour was a stroke of brilliance. It meant there was only one life threatening moment with a white van man rather than having the nerve-searing experience of dodging London taxis, buses and cars in morning traffic. It then gave them a nice gentle start on Wednesday morning from the duck pond green in front of the hotel.

Wednesday was our only full day of cycling in England. I say ‘our’, when what I mean is Kiff and Helen’s full day of cycling with Marc and me dipping in and out, driving the car and organising everything along the way. We broke the day’s route into three sections and I chose to ride the middle section with them. Oh, how I wish I had looked at the elevation map before I made that decision.

London to Paris bike ride. Day one elevation map
Day one elevation map


I managed to drag myself up the hills and sailed serenely down the other side for about 28km – which, given the fact that I hadn’t actually been on my bike for a year, wasn’t too bad, I felt. The respect I had for Kiff and Helen has increased exponentially every day since we started. This is a trip that is made by many cyclists every year – but make no mistake, it is not for the faint hearted. And when you’re going it alone without the support of a crowd of other riders, it’s even tougher.

Aside from the miles of tarmac, the other challenge has been the weather.  The rain didn’t stop. It drizzled down constantly for the entire day. English countryside is stunningly beautiful, with it’s gently rolling hills. When the misty rain sets in, it becomes almost other-worldy and provided you’re not sitting on a bicycle getting drenched, becomes even more alluring.

English countryside cycle route. Ethereal in the misty rain.
English countryside cycle route. Ethereal in the misty rain.

The pizza consumption at supper times on this trip has been prodigious, and owners of Italian restaurants along the way have been celebrating the end of the downturn, I suspect. Carbo-loading after the fact and in preparation for the next leg, has been the focus of the evening meals.

Our ferry left Newhaven at 11.30pm and we were awakened to disembark at 3.30am. After less than 4 hours of sleep we stumbled along the promenade to find our hotel just before the sun rose, fell back into bed for a few more hours sleep, and then the two intrepid cyclists hit the road again.

Despite the continued rain, Thursday was easier. The Avenue Verte’s marvellous cycle path is the best part of this leg. It goes on for about 45 km of the 77 km stretch and is a breeze in comparison to the hills on the way down to Newhaven.

Campagne française - Day 2 scenery London to Paris bike ride
Campagne française – Day 2 scenery

The gentle upward gradient wasn’t even tough enough to make me struggle over the 35km stretch I joined in. The hill that suddenly appears at the end of the cycle path is a bit of a shock after such a chilled couple of hours, as are the potholes in the roads. But since the end isn’t too far off, it’s manageable.

So far, Kiff and Helen have ridden an impressive 185 km. Today is the final full day. The next stop is Poissy, 28km before the final destination: the Eiffel Tower. If they make it in good time, we plan to cycle the last section from Poissy into Paris all together and go for a celebratory supper (quite possibly of Pizza again).

If you fancy seeing how much they’ve raised on this marathon bike ride, here is their Just Giving page. I can tell you that they have been relentless in their efforts – not only on this trip, but in the cake baking, BBQ-ing and general fund raising efforts leading up to the event to raise funds for Mind.  They have a lot to be proud of.

For those who enjoy seeing my painting posts – I managed to make a start last night in the hotel, although it’s too early to post. Photos will be posted in due course.

On y va!