The Champs Élysées

Text read by Mary Peters

From an ugly duckling to a prestigious avenue

After cycling around many beautiful parts of France, Geneviève arrives at her destination. But what is the story of this avenue?

Four hundred years ago, it was uninhabited land. A combination of wasteland, swamps, and some crops. Marie de Médici, who acted as regent to her son, Louis XIII, wanted to have a long avenue lined with elms and lime trees. The avenue should extend beyond the Tuileries Palace and run along the Seine River. She had heard of the Cours la Reine, a promenade in Florence, that had opened in 1615.

Champs-Élysées means Elysian Fields in English. The name originates from Greek mythology where these fields were separated from the underworld. They represent an area in which only mortals who were connected to Gods and other heroes would be admitted.

In 1670 Louis XIV asked his gardener, to develop this still largely uninhabited area. André le Nôtre, who had designed the gardens of Versailles, was certainly up to the task. Louis XIV wanted to link the Tuileries Palace with his other residences to access them more quickly. The king’s gardener laid out a wide tree-lined avenue. It had lawns in the extension of the Tuileries. It ran from the future Place de la Concorde to the present-day Champs-Elysées roundabout.

Despite all these improvements, the avenue remained unloved by Parisians. During the day, people did not frequent the area and it was much too dark at night.  More critically, another reason was that the avenue followed the course of the former Grand-Égout de Paris. The problem? It stank because égout means sewer in English.

Things changed when in 1777, it was decided to cover the Grand-Égout and post some Swiss Guards along the avenue. People felt more comfortable walking on it. It was not long before the first beautiful private mansions in the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré were built. This in turn attracted boules games, restaurants and lemon stalls.

Louis XV authorised the construction of buildings on both sides of the Champs. A few years later, the Marquis de Marigny had the alleys that would become the Avenue de Marigny and the Matignon drawn. Slowly, the district was beginning to take shape.

However, despite all these investments, the avenue remained unloved. Its population consisted of bandits and prostitutes who were attracted by the low-end guinguettes. This was still a far cry from the vision Marie de Medici had 150 years previously.  

The Avenue des Champs-Élysées did not really gain any importance until the French Revolution. Under the “Directoire”, the avenue was widened, and the guinguettes were closed. They were replaced by luxurious restaurants and cafés like Dupe’s. It was the first restaurant there to attract all the celebrities of the time.

In 1814, the allied European forces entered Paris. Thousands of Cossacks camped on the Champs-Élysées. They stayed there all spring. Cossacks had the reputation of being child-eating savages. Instead, what the French population saw were men who cooked over roaring fires and who stripped naked to wash their horses in the Seine. Instead of savages, they were disciplined, courteous and even visited the museums in Paris. The French loved them.

It was not until 1828 that the Avenue des Champs-Élysées began to change to something more beautiful.  Asphalt sidewalks were laid, and 1,200 gas lampposts were erected. That brought, cafés, restaurants, concert halls and theatres.

It was also during the 20th century that major, prestigious brands set up shop on the Champs-Élysées. Mercedes in 1902, Peugeot and Renault in 1908.  By 1909, more than 22 companies had their shops on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Even today, the major car dealerships are still present on the Champs-Élysées.

 On August 26, 1944, General de Gaulle walked down the Champs-Élysées to celebrate the liberation of Paris in front of more than two million people.

For the National Day, the avenue is absolutely essential because it is decorated with the colours of France and welcomes the famous parade of July 14.

Victories of the French national football team are celebrated here. France said goodbye to its much-loved singer Johnny Hallyday when his coffin was transported along the Avenue. And, of course, the final stage of the Tour de France rolls along the Champs Elysées.

Today, it is considered one of the most beautiful streets in the world.  The Champs-Élysées is a must-see when visiting the capital. It is located in the heart of the 8th arrondissement. Numerous luxury boutiques, such as Louis Vuitton, Montblanc and Guerlain, and famous restaurants, such as Fouquet’s, have taken up residence. The avenue is 1,910-metres long and 70-metres wide and stretches from the majestic Place de la Concorde to the imposing Arc de Triomphe. During the Christmas and New Year celebrations, the avenue is adorned with thousands of lights.

From its uncertain beginnings, the Champs-Élysées is now one of the most visited sites in Paris, welcoming nearly 300,000 visitors every day! Twice a year, the sun sets under the Arc de Triomphe. Like so much else on this avenue, it is an unforgettable spectacle. 

I am in Mantes, my beauty

Text read by Mary Peters

We arrive at the penultimate stage of our Tour de France.

Mantes La Jolie is merely 55 km from Paris. But this is a region packed with things to do. It is situated on a large bend of the Seine between Rouen and Paris. 

It was inhabited in the Gallo Roman period and became a town in the Middle Ages. 

There are a quite few castles (!) and remarkable religious edifices. French kings loved to stay here before Versailles was built. Legend says that Henri IV wrote to his mistress Gabrielle d’Estrées Je suis à Mantes, ma jolie. (I am in Mantes, my beauty), thus giving the town its name. 

The town grew over the centuries, developed industries, and swelled to a population of over 40,000 inhabitants. For the last forty years, it has unfortunately become an area of social discontent. Despite this, the town has managed to preserve its historical heritage and is worth visiting. But this article will not do this part of France any justice. 

Sixteen kilometres away is Giverny. It is where Claude Monet settled with his family from 1883 – 1926. The gardens were a source of inspiration for Monet’s impressionist paintings. In front of the residence is a garden named ‘Clos Normand”. In this garden are many rose bushes. Each spring and autumn, they offer a vibrant array of colours. 

There is also a Japanese inspired garden that Monet created himself. It is called Le Jardin d’Eau. Here you will find the world-famous water lilies he painted so often. There are weeping willow trees, bamboo, peonies and lilies. It is a charming and highly romantic presentation. 

The pink house with the green shutters is a must-see and can be visited from April to November. Inside, you can admire his Japanese prints and soak in the unique atmosphere of the impressionist painter. 

Everybody will have heard of Versailles, this masterpiece of classical art and architecture, constructed in the 17th century by Louis XIII and completed by Louis XIV, the Sun King. It is a symbol of excessive splendour and luxury. French monarchs gave numerous prestigious festivals and events. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, this castle boasts 700 rooms and 2513 windows. 

The absolute masterpiece is the Gallery of Mirrors. There are 357 of them. Books have been written, films have been made – go and visit the castle and its magnificent and huge gardens. 

Vernon, classified as a historical monument, is a town midway between Paris and Rouen. It is famous for the half-timbered houses, especially around the church, saved from former times. 

Before leaving Vernon, go to the “Pont Clemenceau” and its view of the Seine and the old wooden mill with its wooden blades from the Middle Ages. Claude Monet immortalised this view in a painting. 

Vernon is dominated by the imposing silhouette of the Chateau Gaillard. The castle dominates the town, which was once made of two different quarters, little Andelys and big Andelys. 

The town overlooks the Seine Valley. The fortress was built in 1196 and took only 12 months to build. At that time, Normandy belonged to England. King Richard the Lionheart, in his capacity as the Duke of Normandy, authorised its construction. He built it to survey the Seine valley and protect Rouen from the assaults of the French King, Philippe Auguste. The impressive building offers a panorama of the meandering river and chalk cliffs. 

The best time to be here and discover all the other attractions is between mid-March and mid-November. See you in the most famous street in Paris!

Lured by Lure, 1000 lakes, flowers and pretty girls.

Text read by Mary Peters

Geneviève is on Stage 15 of our Tour de France.

Lure is a small town nestled between mountains and where lakes dot the rolling landscape. It dates back to 610 when Saint Desle founded an oratory in a chapel dedicated to Saint Martin. Lure grew into a powerful Benedictine Abbey. Over the centuries, the agricultural industry was replaced by the textile industry. The town was largely destroyed by a fire in 1720. What emerged from the ashes is pleasant on the eyes.  

A stone’s throw from Lure is the town of Ronchamp, best known for its iconic La Chapelle de Notre-Dame-du-Haut. The church was built by the Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier (1887 – 1965). It revolutionised religious architecture in the 20th century. It was built in 1955 and became a listed monument in 1967. Over eighty thousand visitors flock to the church each year. 

A masterpiece in architecture

North West of Lure is the town of Le Thillot. In former times, the Dukes of Lorraine owned the copper mines here. Today it is possible to visit the Rouge Montagne mine. Equipped with a helmet and a mining lamp, you descend into the heart of an underground network. The mine was excavated in granite rocks between 1560 and 1761. This is complemented by a small exhibition.

Visit a copper mine.

While you are in this area, you will come to the Plateau de Milles Etangs, the plateau of a thousand lakes. In actual fact, there are “only” 850 lakes but enough to give the region the nickname “Little Finland”. The whole area covers a vast 220 km² and is an absolute must for nature lovers. About 12 000 years ago, as the Moselle glacier began to recede, small basins appeared. It also became a place to extra peat. In the middle ages, the local population further developed the ponds to use for fish farming. A large amount of water also favoured the development of the textile and paper industry. 

Relax by one of the 1000 (850) lakes

The Ballon des Vosges natural park and the Ognon River is a mixture of woodland, pastures, wetlands, farmlands and plenty of monuments. Despite it being a protected nature park, some 238000 people live in this area. There are also many typical “flowered” villages with charming churches, old-styled “franc comtoises” houses, fountains and washing areas. 

About 35 km south-east of Lure is the charming town of Montbéliard with its Château de Montbéliard, owned by the Dukes of Württemberg who came from what is now South-Western Germany. It reiterates the idea that European history is closely linked to the activities of a handful of monarchies, all somehow connected and influential. The connection lives on today with Montbéliard being twinned with the town of Ludwigsburg, just north of Stuttgart in Germany. Unsurprisingly, Ludwigsburg also boasts an impressive palace. 

Stroll around Montbéliard

We are now in the Territory of Belfort and in the Route des Fleurs. Here, let us focus on the Route des Fleurs. Seventy per cent of all towns in the Territoire de Belfort participate in the prestigious “Flower Competition”, the “Concours des Fleurs”. In essence, the population of a village to a town volunteer and get together to win the coveted and precious label of “Village Fleuri”. They do this by decorating houses, gardens, public places, anything which can store, hold, shelter to nourish flowers. Every town in France can enter the competition, but it is particularly popular in Belfort. 

The competition was introduced in 1959. Within the Ministry of Tourism is a special committee dedicated to this project. Any commune can enter, and the “reward” is a sign at the town entrance displaying between one and four flowers. In 2018 just under 5000 towns had such a sign, with 257 of them boasting the highest recognition of four flowers. 

Welcome to our beautiful village

About 90 minutes north of Montbéliard is the town of Gérardmer. Here, drop by the “Atelier Cuir Vosges” an artisanal leather manufacturer. What makes this place interesting is the willingness to share leather crafting in countless workshops.

This stage of the tour ends in a ski resort with the curious name of La Planche des Belles Filles, which translated means “The board of beautiful girls”. This is quite misleading. Originally it was “belles fahys”, an old way of saying “nice birch trees”. But stories abound, and there is one story dating back to the thirty years war. Young women fled from Swedish mercenaries, escaping definite rape and massacre. They committed suicide by jumping into the lake far below. A soldier is reported to have taken a wooden board and engraved an epitaph for the “beautiful girls”. Today, a wooden statue reminds us of the legend. 

Beautiful women saving their dignity.

Tour de France, Stage 14 – Bourg-En-Bresse

Text read by Mary Peters

Chickens, cheese, frog’s legs.

We leave the Parc National de la Vanoise and stop in Annecy with its beautiful lake. It is also known as the Pearl of the Savoie or Venice of Savoie. The beautiful town is surpassed by the lake, with a reputation of having the purest water in Europe. 

This medieval town, with its 1000-year heritage, is a significant stage for the Tour de France. Not far from are two health resort towns, Thonon-les-Bains and Divonne-les-Bains. 

There, La Bénite-Fontaine is a spring with miraculous qualities, about 1 km from the city centre. It was attested by François de Sales at the beginning of the 17th century for its many healing powers. It is a recognised pilgrimage place. The shaded valley with its pure water offers calm and serenity for meditation, walking and relaxation. 

The tower of the counts of Geneva opens every day from May to September. It was built in the 13th century on an enormous block of rock that gave the city its name. This last vestige of the fortress of the Counts of Geneva is crowned with a breathtaking panorama.

Bourg en Bresse. It is the capital of poultry, home of the Bleu de Bresse cheese, and yes, frogs from Dombes. And we stop at the Brou Royal Monastery. But let us start with the chickens. 

Bresse poultry is well-known for its meat qualities. People say their taste is incomparable. The chickens have been awarded AOC status, which is also extended to poulards, capons and turkeys. The chickens have white feathers, red crests and blue claws. They are raised outside in meadows and are fed on grain and milk products. Each year in mid-December, the Glorieuses de Bresse takes place in several towns. It is a prestigious poultry competition. The animals are given medals and then sold to the public. Each village also has its traditional chicken markets. 

To eat “Poulet de Bresse à la crème” is to experience the height of the Bresse gastronomy.  

The French lawyer, politician and food lover Brillat-Savarin awarded the Bresse chicken the status, The queen of poultry, the poultry of kings. Since then, the label stuck. The name was protected in 1936. Eventually, the chicken was awarded AOC status in 1957. 

Bresse Bleu is a blue cheese made from pasteurised cow milk produced in Bresse. It is a soft cheese; the rind is edible and has an aroma of mushrooms. It tastes rich and buttery. It was created in the 1950s as an alternative to Gorgonzola which is less mild. Traditionally it has a diameter of 10cm, a height of 5cm and must weigh 350g.  

The frog from the Dombes area, with its 10 000 ha of lakes, is an emblem of gastronomy. People in France consume between 3000 and 4000 tonnes (roughly 80 million frogs) per year. French frog’s legs can sell up to €30 per kilo. The cheaper ones, often found in supermarkets, are usually from Turkey or Egypt and Albania. Despite the high consumption, production in France is on the decline. Patrice Francois is said to be the last French producer.

The Monastère Royal de Brou dates from the 16th century. Construction was authorised by Margaret of Austria, Duchess of Savoy, to remind her of her love for her husband, Philibert le Beau, who had died earlier. It is a masterpiece of flamboyant Gothic architecture.

On the church, the roof is coloured and has glazed tiles. The church choir is where you can find the mausoleum of Philibert II of Savoy, Margaret of Austria and Margaret of Bourbon.

Finely detailed sculptures ornate the interior of the building. Margaret of Austria’s chapel boasts beautiful stained-glass windows and an altarpiece made of white marble dedicated to the seven joys of the Virgin Mary. It is definitely worth the visit.

As ever, there is much, much more to see and do, but I must push on. See you on the outskirts of Paris. 

Tour de France, Stage 13 – Grenoble

Text read by Mary Peters

Geneviève arrives in the city of walnuts and discovers some “green stuff”.

Welcome to Grenoble, a university city, a science hub and an official city of art & culture. It is a modern city with a good quality of life. 

Its main attraction is the attractive old town, full of lively squares, shopping alleys lined with old houses. There are a few museums with rich collections. There are parks and gardens to relax in. 

Start in the Saint-André square which is lined with cafés. While you sip a coffee, look at the Gothic and Renaissance facades of the old Dauphiné Parliament Building. The hub of Grenoble life is Grenette Square. There are shops, restaurants, and cafés. 

To get a good view of the town and area, take the cable car from Grenoble to Fort La Bastille. The town offers a wide range of festivals and entertainment. History buffs can use their time in all the museums of which there are quite a few, starting with the archaeological museum and finishing with the contemporary art museum. The wide variety will satisfy all persons. 

Grenoble is the birth town of Henri Beyle, known as Stendahl. (1783 – 1842). His most famous novels are Le Rouge et Le noir. & La Chartreuse de Parme. There is also a museum dedicated to his life and works.

When you are in the region around Grenoble you will probably encounter Chartreuse. Since 1737, Carthusian Monks from the Grande Chartreuse Monastery, about 30 km south of Grenoble, have been producing this liqueur.  

Green Chartreuse is the only liqueur in the world with a completely natural green colour. It is strong stuff, with an alcohol content of 55%. At any time, only two Chartreuse monks know the identity of the 130 plants, how to blend and distil them into this liqueur. They are also the only ones who know which plants they have to macerate to produce the natural green and yellow colours. And they alone supervise the slow ageing in oak casks.

How do you drink it? To bring out all its flavour, it should be consumed very cold, possibly even on the rocks. Traditionally considered as an after-dinner drink, it is being increasingly enjoyed as a long drink. 

You can easily identify the liqueur by its presentation, it is elegantly packaged in a traditional Chartreuse liqueur bottle with the embossed seal of La Grande Chartreuse.  

You can actually learn more about the liqueur in the museum in Voiron. (Closed for renovations until December 2021). Here you can learn about how it is produced today, (the distillery is in Aiguenoire) and also buy and taste it. 

The monastery itself has been around for over 900 years. It is not open to the public, but there is an interesting story here. The German filmmaker, Philip Gröning approached the monastery in 1984 and asked for permission to make a film about life in the monastery. The reply was, “we would like to think about it”. Sixteen years later, permission was given and in 2002 and 2003, Gröning spent 6 months filming everyday life. Another 2 ½ years were spent cutting and editing the film. The result is a 3-hour documentary with no dialogue or sound effects. 

One hundred- and forty-kilometres east is the ski station of Méribel. It was constructed at the end of the 1930s at the behest of the Scotsman Peter Lindsay. The first lift was opened in 1938. 

Méribel is one of the stations in the 3 Valleys (les trois vallées). It is known as a charming Savoyard village. They have kept the chalet which provides a special Alpine flair. From Méribel you and easily reach the resorts of Courchevel and Val Thorens by skiing or by ski lift. In the pretty village, you have a large choice of activities and shopping. Don’t forget to taste the “Fondue Savoyarde” in the evenings.