Tuesday, June 05, 2007

French Holiday

St Quentin

On our way to Normandy we stopped over for two nights at Neuville St Amand, just outside St Quentin. The hotel was classed as a Chateau; French advertising speak for biggish house or possibly manor. It was beautifully situated in a small park with vast lawns and tall, mature trees. The restaurant served excellent food, all rooms were newly refurbished and staff were very friendly, a place to recommend.

On Saturday we explored St Quentin, a town of 65,000 inhabitants. It had some old-looking buildings, but most of them were in fact built in Art Deco style after WW1 when large parts of the town were flattened by artillery fire. This part of France has similar stories to tell, stories of total destruction and great loss of life. What insanity! Every time we go past those big, brown signs with references to the major battles of WW1, I shudder. The thought of so many lives lost, all these young men from both sides whose lives were taken from them, their family and friends, really disgusts me. How many men were sacrificed on the first day of the battle of the Somme? (Wikipedia says: “The British had suffered 19,240 dead, 35,493 wounded, 2,152 missing and 585 prisoners for a total loss of 57,470. Initial casualties were especially heavy among officers, who still dressed differently from non-commissioned officers and other ranks, and whose uniforms the Germans had been trained to recognise.”) (BBC says: “Sixty per cent of all officers involved on the first day were killed.”) (History Learning Site says: “By the end of the battle, the British Army had suffered 420,000 casualties including nearly 60,000 on the first day alone. The French lost 200,000 men and the Germans nearly 500,000.”). And what was achieved? An Allied advance of ca 10 km! Then of course, there was a second war which wasn’t much better. I sometimes think of statistics I once came across in a newspaper article about the Russian generation of 1922. Only 2% or so of those men survived the war. My father, who had a good, long life, was born that year. It makes you think, doesn’t it?

But back to today’s St Quentin. It just happened to be market day, so we mingled with the locals in the big square...

...and explored the basilica.

The market was full of everything; fruit, veg, leather goods, textiles, books, music etc.

Lining the vast square were the Theatre Municipal,...

...the Hotel du Ville (Town Hall)...

...and other impressive buildings. In the basilica we found the mummified hand of the Christian martyr St Quentin himself, creepy!

Then we strolled around in the central area and found, among other objects of interest, La Porte de Canonniers.

Today it is purely residential behind the gate, but some centuries ago it was the quarters of mercenaries, perhaps like the troops of some modern-day warlord. We never made it to the Musée Lécuyer, which has a famous collection of 80 pastels by Quentin de la Tour (1704- 1788). We have to return soon to continue our exploration of that museum and other places.

On Sunday we reached our Normandy house. The garden looked both beautiful…

… and very wild…

After some aggressive strimming it looked a little better?

Snake charmer, moi?

There is always a first, isn’t there? When I did the initial check for signs of mice of the new, not completely finished, upstairs bedroom, I spotted something odd. Along a stone wall, yet to be sealed with the final inner wall, I saw something long and dark disappearing into a crack. I realised quickly that it was in fact a snake in our bedroom slithering into the walk-in wardrobe!

I threw myself down the stairs to get my garden gloves, dashed back up, tried to grab it, failed, picked up a fly swat, opened the wardrobe door, it curled up snakelike (yeah, what else?), tongue flicking, picked it up with the swat a couple of times, shouted for Mrs S to get a towel, covered it with said towel and picked up our slithering serpent friend, dropped it on the bedroom floor a couple of times, could not hold on to it for long, Mrs S opened the low window on the landing, I dropped it out of the window and we went down to see where it had gone.

I stepped outside and the snake dropped on my head from above (must have been hanging on to the window sill or the Christmas wreath nail above the kitchen door) and the bugger bit me on the head as he fell! Where was the hidden camera? This was just one of those moments when you suspect a film team round the corner. After that it moved under the car and we started chasing it out by throwing gravel at it. It did not work so I reversed the car to expose it. Then I started taking photos as it moved its half-metre-long body across the gravel to hide somewhere, it curled up and flicked its tongue at me again. Strangely enough I was not at any moment afraid it was poisonous, I simply tried to copy what I had seen on telly, but I did not have a sack, just an ordinary hand towel. All along I was pretty convinced it was not an adder, since I could not spot any zigzag pattern on its back. Had it been, yours truly Indiana Jones would have ended up in hospital trouble! It was probably a grass snake. See for yourselves!

Natural phenomena

I like to play around with my digi camera and try out its features, in particular the macro function; you know, creep up on the object and get close and cuddly. Well, I don’t usually hug trees or anything but I had to document the prospect of our best fruit crop in six years, delicious Victoria plums and Canada Gris apples. Then I turned my attention to some smaller creatures. Mrs S says I am turning into my old granddad, but I say he used a tripod, which took forever to erect, and then he had to measure the light with another gadget, and then half an hour later he put in the film etc…. I just shoot wildly from the hip, so to speak.

Do you remember Judy Garland, Eva Cassidy and others singing about this? It lasted for over 30 minutes and was the most colourful and luminous rainbow I, or anybody in our area, could remember seeing. Breathtakingly beautiful!

First the sun tried to set.

Then the rain came (yes, those lines are raindrops).

The rainbow(s) appeared as if by magic.

The sky cleared and and all was calm again.

Isn't nature magical?

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