I always grumble at the vulgar sight of tour buses squeezing down narrow medieval streets, belching out diesel smoke among ancient ruins and dumping hoards of semiconscious, noisy people in a mad rush to quickly see and photograph themselves in front of whatever it is they have been told they should see, before filling the souvenir shops to buy a trinket made in China. I could not imagine ever being on such a bus, until we spotted an ad for a weekend trip to Giverny, Barbazon, and Fontainebleu, three places I have missed on previous trips to France. "How bad could it be?" I thought. I get to sit on an air conditioned bus for a few hours and get out in the place where the impressionist master, Monet, lived and worked, no decisions, no challenges, and no getting lost.
Admitting that I occasionally poke fun at "been-there-done-that" tourists, I rationalized this as a small price to pay to qualify myself to speak from experience on tour bus trips. Cost wise, this turns out to be less expensive than doing the same trip by train or auto on one's own. Apparently, competition for this type of tour is hot enough that tour companies pass on some of the group savings to the tourists.
Newmarket Tours, a local tour company and Colin, the bus driver, picked us up in nearby Bedford at 9 AM with a large, comfortable bus, equipped with its own toilet, coffee, and tour guide, Toby. We wound our way through a half dozen villages stopping at Hitchin, Hertford, and Waltham Cross, to pick up additional tourists, about 50 total, taking about four hours to hit the coast in Dover. While taking a little longer than a train trip, viewing the English country side from high up in a bus proved to be a relaxing experience in itself. We had coffee, read the papers, chatted, and the time passed quickly. I could see why this trip is so popular with the English. I was the only non-English bloke on the bus. (Some English words, such as bloke, are so wonderful that I am working hard to get them adopted in America.)
At Dover, we got a good look at the white cliffs as we drove into the bowels of a huge ferry boat that carried six decks of cars, trucks, buses, and hundreds of people for the one and a half hour trip over to Calais, France. This gave us enough time to have a casual lunch overlooking the English Channel.
Back on the bus, Toby gave us a running commentary on the local history and sites we passed. He also told jokes, conducted a quiz, and kept us well informed about where we were and what was next. The rest of the bus trip was comfortable, though admittedly, after 10 hours on the bus, my ass began to ache, and I began to look forward to getting off just about anywhere. We made our way through Paris in heavy traffic and headed for the village of Maurepas, which is one of many completely new villages created in the French countryside in recent years to accommodate the ever increasing number of Parisians. The idea seems valid, although clearly the hotel where we stayed depends heavily on these tours to stay alive. Except for a few cars in the car park, the two buses represented the entire clientele of the Mercure Hotel, which except for its location was a great place to stay. The primary problem for the clients of the hotel was that anything of interest is at least an hour away by bus and impossible by foot. After 12 hours on the bus, this mattered little since most people were ready for bed anyway.
We convened at 8 AM on Saturday, for a typical French breakfast of bread, jam, and coffee, dressed up a little with juice, cheese, and meat. On the bus by 8:45, we headed for Giverny. The first problem of being in such a group began to surface. Unbeknownst to Pauline and me, a small group of ladies who had been sitting near the back of the bus had driven some of the quieter passengers forward, and we found ourselves displaced, sitting amongst a few ladies who apparently spend most of their day giggling and shouting and making as much noise as possible, while paying little attention to anything going on around them.
I have noticed in the universe that certain individuals seem to require making noise. They talk loudly, laugh loudly, incessantly, apparently having little respect for others in their environment; they hardly seem aware of their environment. These, I guess, are the same people who throw trash into the streets and fail to flush the public toilet. Unfortunately, they seem to choose the worst possible places and times to noise up the environment, like an otherwise magnificent restaurant or an otherwise quiet ride on a train. Fortunately, the day was broken into small time slots, giving me enough time between stops to convince myself that the penalty for murder was too severe for a few moments of solitude.
For years I have had mental of Monet sitting quietly in his garden painting the Japanese bridge and waterlilies. My first plans some years ago about visiting Giverny had included staying in a B&B in the village, where I would wander around between visits into Monet's Garden, where I could see myself sitting amongst artists in a peaceful environment making attempts, however incompetent, at Monet's impressionist style.
We were allotted three hours to complete our visit. The bubble began to burst as the bus parked amongst a few other buses and we joined in a long cue entering the group entrance. Our first attempt to arrive at the famous Japanese bridge over the water lily pond was stopped dead in its tracks by a complete gridlock of shoulder to shoulder tourists, every single one of which wanted his picture taken standing on the bridge. At some point I realized that this bridge may collapse under the weight of so many people. There were few places in the water garden that were not jammed with tourists, but anywhere in sight of the bridge was worse. Any notion of actually sitting somewhere in this melee and meditating, let alone sketching, quickly evaporated.
The lily pond is separated from the Château and its gardens by a busy highway with an underpass for tourists to walk between the two. Even though the traffic noise is incompatible with the garden setting, the Château Gardens are truly spectacular with one of the most unbelievably beautiful combinations of color groups I have ever seen. This part of Monet's gardens actually seemed less crowded than the water features so it was easier to enjoy. Unlike the water features, one could actually walk up to a flower and stand without being shoved by someone waiting impatiently to have his picture made in that exact spot.
I could only imagine what Monet himself had experienced here that made him love Giverny so much. I could see and feel the substance somewhat, though the spirit had now been completely obliterated by the hoards of tourists, who were still trying to figure out what it was that they were supposed to see here. We overheard one lady comment irately to her friend, "This place isn't big enough to need four hours." (Apparently the time given by the tour company before returning to the bus.)
The gift shop was even more crowded, and by the time we had stood in line to pay for a few cards, we had fifteen minutes left to see Giverny, the village. We made it about half way to the church where Monet is buried before realizing that we must head for the bus. In retrospect, it occurred to me that given a choice, I might have selected a quiet stroll through Giverny and a meditation next to Monet's graveside, although by now I would fully expect to see droves of tourists with flashing digitals there also. The fate of so many magnificent places in the world is to be destroyed because they draw hordes of people who manage to destroy the very thing they came to see. Giverny is one of the places that should be off limits to tourists who are not really qualified to enjoy it. There really isn't much at Giverny for tourists. Perhaps Giverny could have been saved if people had to earn the privilege to visit.
Next stop, Rouen, a city where Joan of Arc was executed and where Monet painted the many impressionistic of the cathedral in various lights. We had two and a half hours in Rouen. We left the bus at the cathedral and headed immediately by foot for the central Marketplace, saving the cathedral for last. Along the way we passed through pedestrian streets to the town gate and beyond to the town centre, highlighted by a modern church and memorial to Joan of Arc. We returned to the cathedral by a different path that led past the Palace of Justice, a rather impressive relic, before we stopped in to one of the tiny boulangeries that line the square in front of the cathedral. The French bread reminded me how well the French eat; I could have made a meal of the bread alone.
Rouen cathedral is an impressive structure that can be enjoyed by sitting outside or by wandering around inside for hours to examine carvings, paintings, rose windows and, of special interest, the tomb of Richard the Lionheart. The people who are reconstructing Rouen Cathedral deserve a huge amount of credit for a fantastic job. One would hardly know that it was almost totally destroyed during World War II and then damaged again by a tornado in the nineties. Sculptures that fell from the cathedral during the tornado are still in the ambulatory and can be admired close up. Cathedrals like this never cease to amaze and restore my faith in the ability of man to leave something wonderful for his progeny. To think of bombing such a place is sickening. On the other hand, to see it reconstructed so well is heartening.
We spent our last few minutes browsing the interesting arts and crafts shops around the cathedral, and we were unable to escape without adding a very special egg cup to Pauline's collection.
Back on the bus, we began the one and a half hour journey back to Paris, where our next stop was a River Seine boat trip on the Bateaux Mouches, tour boats that handle two decks of tourists packed in plastic seats that make a Japanese Airlines coach class seem luxurious. This may be the quickest way to see and photograph the upper part of almost everything you are "supposed to see" in Paris, but it is about the worst way I can imagine to see Paris. The one thing good about it is the close up view of bridges. These boats operate late into the night and carry huge flood lights that light up the river banks.
As we returned into a glowing sunset, the bus was waiting to take us to the Latin Quarter, where we would have two and a half hours free for dinner. I relearned the lesson of the French meal time allotment. It may sound strange, but three hours is barely enough for a French dinner. After three courses and a coffee, we raced back along the Boulevard St. Germain to the bus pickup.
I had almost forgotten the noisy place on the bus until we began our first night tour of Paris. Two of the ladies sitting immediately behind were making so much noise, giggling, shouting, clapping, and so caught up in themselves that they seemed completely oblivious to the fact that a guided tour was in progress. The ladies giggled and laughed incessantly for the next one and a half hours. Occasionally, one would take notice of something outside the window that Toby had just finishing describing, only to scream out, "Toby, what is that Roman looking thing over there?" Toby would diplomatically describe it all over again. I had seen most of these sights before, but would have enjoyed hearing his description. Periodically, as she drowned out Toby’s monologue, one of us would look back and "Shhhh!" She would hesitate for a few seconds, and then as if having no clue how irritating her noise was, would begin all over, "HA, HA,HA, HA,HA,... WHOOPPEEE, OH DEAR, WHA, WHAH, WHA....." We arrived back at the hotel by eleven PM, and Pauline and I already had our plan laid for the next morning to move back to the front of the bus, even if we had to sleep in the parking lot to guarantee our slot away from this maniac.
On Sunday we were off to Fontainebleu. Pauline and I, having recaptured our original seats near the front, looked at each other and smiled with each rise in the laughter and din from the back. Before heading south to Fontainebleu we stopped at the Eiffel tower to drop people who came on the tour simply as a cheap way to see Paris.
Our second stop was in the village of Barbazon, a place where many of the French Pre-Impressionists lived and worked. Most notable of these were Rousseau and Millet. We had forty five minutes with a choice to walk through the village or to see the forest, which was apparently the main reason artists had chosen to live here. After a quick walk through the village, I returned for ten minutes of forest, where I found several of the tour surrounding and photographing a carving of Rousseau.
Getting back on the bus, we overheard two ladies comparing notes. "There was nothing in the Forest," she exclaimed, "well, except for the trees." The other lady responded that the village wasn't very interesting either. Barbazon is definitely not for tourists. Like Giverny, people should have to apply for a visit.
Fontainebleu was a very pleasant experience. Since we had two and a half hours to visit and since the villa tour takes an hour, we elected to see only the garden and get in a quick lunch. I could see why Fontainebleu was Napoleon’s choice over Versailles, although tourists were not a problem of his. I sat in the garden and painted the château while Pauline strolled around for a closer look at the garden design. We had just enough time to fit in lunch in a sidewalk cafe before racing back to the bus. One really needs two hours for such a lunch; we squeezed it into one by skipping dessert and coffee.
Now it was back to Paris for a visit to Montmartre, Sacre Coeur and dinner. Our first stop was at the Eiffel Tower to retrieve the "Paris" group we had dropped off in the morning. Toby gave the rest of the group two hours to see this attraction. To go up the Eiffel Tower at this time of year begins with a two hour wait in line. That, with the additional consideration that record temperatures were being set in Paris this week, Pauline and I elected to have a cool drink in a small bistro around the corner that we had remembered from our last trip here. As we sat at the sidewalk table, I detected a most unusual accent coming from the table behind us; they were Tennesseans. Just for a moment I thought about identifying myself, but only for a moment. Announcing ones American citizenship in Paris, France in the current environment is not the most intelligent thing one can do.
Driving up the Champs de Elysees (Fields of Heaven) into the famous roundabout at the Arc de Triomphe, Toby explained the roundabout and arch in great detail. The roundabout has sixteen entrances and eight lanes. Entering vehicles have the right of way which makes for an interesting situation. Adventurous drivers come here just for the experience and to say they survived, assuming they do. As we were leaving, we heard Ms. Giggles squeal out, "Oh, look, there is the Arc de Triomphe!' Oh, I really wanted to scream out, "Try shutting your face a while and listening, you dipshit."
We dismounted at Montmartre with two hours for a visit to the church of Sacre Coeur, which is positioned beautifully at the top. To save time we paid the 1.5 Euros to ride the funicular. A service was in process in Sacre Coeur and yet, to my surprise, tourists were still allowed to roam around inside. A group of men were herding them in and pleading with them without much success to be quiet inside. Sacre Coeur is another place that has been completely overrun with tourists. The stunning view of Paris makes it a great place to hang out for a while. I found a good vantage point and produced a small painting of it sans tourists. About half way through the painting it began to rain gently. It was then I noticed an ugly red dye streaming down one of the cupolas. Some peckerhead protester had tossed the dye from a window in protest of who knows what; we never found out what the protest was.
We had agreed to meet Toby and 26 others in the group at 7PM at which time Toby would take us to a special fixed price buffet restaurant he had selected. Upon arriving at the meeting place, and finding no one there, we left to find our own restaurant, thinking we had misunderstood the instructions. To some degree I was relieved, having agreed originally as a kind of courtesy. I have never had a bad meal in Paris and once again we found a wonderful bistro, Table d’Auvers, just around the corner for a quiet meal. I selected duck while Pauline chose the pork in champagne sauce. These were great but the real star of the show was the dessert, which we chose after watching the next table go crazy over it, a dessert of extremely alcoholic cherries. We enjoyed the experience at a pavement table, within sight of the dome of Sacre Coeur. Once again, our nearly three hours time available before meeting the bus was just barely sufficient, and we made it by not lingering over coffee.
Back on the bus Toby, embarrassed at having left us out, apologized profusely, telling us that he had discovered the mistake after arriving at the buffet. Having counted the expected 26 people who showed up at the meeting point, he left early, unaware that two were people who had not originally signed up and had changed their minds and joined in. He had raced back to the meeting site to find us but by that time we had left. We assured him it was no problem. We realized that the universe had once again been extra kind to us after hearing the negative reports on the buffet.
Then began our second Paris by night tour starting with the nightclubs and sex shops near the Sacre Coeur, passing the Moulin Rouge, shopping districts, the Opera, the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower. Each hour at night is marked by flashing lights that run up the Eiffel Tower and our timing for this was perfect.
On the last day we met for breakfast at 8:30. By now the entire bus had segmented into compatible groups of people who chose to eat together and we sat with our regulars, the sane ones. To make sure we got acceptable bus seats, Pauline and I mounted a special operation, where she headed straight for the seats while I dealt with getting the baggage into the cargo bay.
Our return route was a retrace of our arrival. By now Toby was literally basking in his role as a stand up comedian, with a mixture of a few side splitting jokes and as many corny ones that one might expect in a mixed crowd like this.
"One cow walks up to another, looks at her a minute, and finally says, ‘moooooo’. The other cow looks back at her indignantly and replies ‘Geez! That is what I was going to say.’"
All an Englishmen has to do to make me laugh is to begin a joke with `There was this bloke …", and I am cracking up already.
Interestingly, no laughter ever came from Miss Giggles after a Toby punch line. She was oblivious that anything else was happening in the bus outside of her aisle.
A couple of ladies organized a collection for tips for Toby and Colin, which raised a surprising 160 pounds, about $300, not a bad top up to a salary. Our last stop was at a liquor warehouse near the border where we could buy wines, liquors, and a lot of other stuff much cheaper than in England. I bought a bottle of red French wine for about 3 dollars, about a third of what I would have paid in England. It seems that things are cheaper just about everywhere than in England.
At the border I created a minor problem, being the only passenger without a British passport, but fortunately, a nice immigration person came on the bus and determined that I was not employed by Osama Ben Laden, and allowed me back in. Back on the Ferry we enjoyed another meal overlooking the channel. By the time we had eaten, walked around on the deck and made a few photos of passing boats, the white cliffs of Dover appeared into view.
We arrived back in Bedford before dark and walked to the train station for the 15 minute trip back to Flitwick.
In summary, it was a nice experience. Doing it this way allowed me to see a lot more than I would have done on my own, not that I consider that a measure of success, however. I would say that sometimes when you just want to be lazy, it is okay to hire someone to haul you around in a bus and point you at all the things he thinks you are supposed to see. Don’t expect this to become a regular WWT experience, though. As the WWT I am still addicted to an extremely flexible plan that changes according to what the universe places in the path. Wondering around lost and confused in foreign countries, conquering subways, living in the middle of the action, struggling with the language, and looking for a place to pee all make up the challenging ecstasy of travel for me (as well as the rest of living), and I missed that during this episode.