Not being the type to rush things, we gave ourselves another four nights in Paris, staying at the Hilton Paris-Opera, just to enjoy the ambience of this great city as it heads into spring. Maybe spring is coming early, but the February weather was fine and sunny, with temperatures about 5C, with the Parisians obviously determined to enjoy the glorious sunshine. Now that the sun is out, south facing icons enjoy the benefit of fabulous bright but low-level light, irresistable to photographers.
It was a pleasure to be in Paris this time because the public transport strikes are over, and the Metro and other trains are running normally. Workers' disputes with the government are still current, but the unions are orchestrating things to distribute the grief, and maybe minimise the harm to their popularity. Now, professionals are on strike, and we saw a huge protest at the Opera by laywers and medicos, noisy but peaceful without violence, we're happy to say. We took advantage of the stunning weather these few days by wandering the streets, partaking of occasional crepes, cocktails and coffees!
We never quite came to terms with the short 9 hour days in France. Where we were was close to due south from London, but an hour further east in time zones. Daylight never truly arrived until about 09:00, and sunset was about 18:00. Being dark outside meant we slept in almost every day, and had to rush to make it to breakfast (which usually closed at 10:00). In Paris and the bigger towns, it was evident that workers and early birds where up and fully active (in the dark) from about 06:00, but not much happened until daylight in the villages.
We didn't fully relax in Paris, but spent one day getting to Villers-Bretonneux in the Somme river valley, so we could go to the new Sir John Monash Centre at the Australian War Memorial. Plan A was to catch a train to Amiens, and rent a car for the half hour drive to V-B. Amazingly, the rental car offices in Amiens were open such restricted hours that we could not make this work and give us enough time at the SJMC. Trains run to Amiens fairly regularly, but the rental car companies are running to some other playsheet. So Plan B, which we followed, became to drive the whole way (about 160km) from Paris in a rental car. Once we found the Avis office in an obscure underground carpark under Le Madeleine, this plan went off without a hitch. Our car, a Renault Megane had its own GPS, but someone had set its preferences to "avoid tolls" which caused it to recommend a bizarre route. Luckily we had our own navigator which gave more helpful directions. Once we were out of chaotic Paris, we followed the A16 autoroute almost the whole way, at a cost of EUR9 each way, a fabulous road with a speed limit of 130km/hr and not too much traffic.
Graves of 2100 Commonwealth soldiers, many still unidentified. Four hundred died in the Battle of Amiens.
We have made a pilgrimage to this war memorial previously, in 1981, when we were touring Europe with our son. In that long-ago trip we trained to nearby Corbie (with a Eurailpass), could not find a bus, and hiked about 5km to the memorial. Our drive this time was easier, but the memorial is in an obscure location, not very well signposted until you are very close, and we had to zig-zag a bit to zero in on it. Luckily, the memorial is quite tall and visible across the fields. Then no signage to tell us where to park or get in, but once we found the entrance, we were told that signage is controversial but discreet improvements are coming.
The SJMC is a new museum (opened 2018) which is designed to be "subservient" to the war memorial. It is. It is behind the memorial and effectively underground. Its AUD100M was totally funded by the Australian Government, and tells the Australian story of the Western Front in the First World War as well as being a homage to John Monash (1865-1931), "one of the best allied generals of the First World War and the most famous commander in Australian history" (Wikipedia) who planned and co-led the pivotal Battle of Amiens fought and won on these very hills in 1918.
There are some artifacts of war (documents, uniforms, weapons etc) in the SJMC, but it is mostly a state-of-the-art interactive multimedia display. Visitors are guided through it using an app you have to download to your own device and listen to with earphones. It's all very impressive, and would take forever if you watched and listened to the entire program. But with connected screens on all walls and the floor, the visual effects are fantastic, and, of course, sad and depressing. The museum covers everything from call-up to repatriation, and featured some really great imagery. We spent a lot of time in the museum, took a lot of shortcuts, and eventually retreated to the cafe for a pleasant lunch.
We asked and were told that there are about 50,000 visitors to the SJMC, mostly Australians of course. At the time of our off-season visit, there were maybe a dozen people there. It's out of the way and hard work to get here, so we're not surprised that visitor numbers are less than original expectations. Battlefield tour groups must boost the numbers in warmer seasons and around Anzac Day. For us Aussies, it's a pretty moving place to visit.
We drove back to Paris after calling into Villers-Bretonneux, a town devoted to Australia even though none of us can pronounce its name correctly. Famous signage says "Never Forget Australia" and kangaroo emblems are here and there. The museuem is barely a few kilometers out of town. We hope the schools of V-B have excursions to the SJMC, there could be no better way of showing the children what happened in their neighbourhood hardly more than 100 years ago.
A copy of "Mercury riding Pegasus", (1701) by Antoine Coysevox (1640–1720) in the Tuilieries Gardens, original at the Louvre.
The Vendôme Column at the centre of the square was originally erected by Napoleon I to commemorate the Battle of Austerlitz but was torn down on 16 May 1871, by decree of the Paris Commune, to be re-erected later.
Rather lonely florist stalls in front of La Madeleine, a church now but originally designed as a temple to the glory of Napoleon's army.
Finally, it was time to depart Paris and France, back to London on the Eurostar, from the majestic Gare du Nord. Luckily, this time we did not have to walk. The city was operating smoothly, the taxi fare was EUR10, a far cry from the EUR30 we paid to travel a mere 100m in traffic gridlock on our arrival. We enjoyed our last Parisian sunset on a crystal clear evening from the roof of Galeries Lafayette, later with cocktails and champagne!