One for All…

In the heart of Gascony, far from the hustle of metropolises like Bordeaux or Paris, lies a region that until now has largely escaped the transformation by large-scale tourism to which the rest of France has succumbed. Not a single motorway crosses its territory and only a single dead-end railway line connects the extensive French network to the region’s capital Auch. It is through this capital that flows the slow and narrow river which gives the department its name: The Gers.

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But it is exactly this remoteness that has preserved the region. While you can see the Pyrenees  Mountains from afar in a majestic panorama, it has hardly any relief, let alone snowy slopes. Its landscape folds into low meandering hills, like a fabric that has been stretched and released all of a sudden and curled up again. And in that landscape lies the very key to the two largest assets of the Gers: History, and that other concept, for which no English translation comes close enough to embody its true meaning: Terroir. Technically, terroir is a complex combination of geography, soil and natural environment. In the Gers, the landscape translates into pastures, wheat and sunflowers as far as the eye can reach and an enormous amount of ducks and geese. The soil is excellent for vineyards, which not only produce the most exquisite wine but are also responsible for perhaps the most famous export product of the Gers: Armagnac.  But there is more to it than mere technicalities. There is a love for food. Good food. And while this might be true for most of France, it is even more so for the Gers, where it has been elevated into an art. No wonder then that is was the theatre of the One Hundred Year War between England and France. Who wouldn’t want to fight over such a piece of land? That long struggle between two countries has left its traces in the landscape. Fortresses, fortified villages and castles adorn every hilltop, and the region has more of them than any other region in France.  History in the Gers is very much alive. And quite recently, part of that history has given the region a new push.

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Charles de Batz de Castelmore, born in 1611, was the son of a ennobled merchant family in the sleepy village of Lupiac in south of the Gers. History would probably have forgotten all about him if he hadn’t gone to Paris at an early age to join the army. After several exciting achievements in espionage, Charles became a high-ranked officer in the national guard and, eventually, commander of the Musketeers under Louis XIV.  After spending a few years as governor of Lille, where he had a big row with Vauban about the exterior and interior decoration of the citadel, he went back into battle to fight the Dutch near Maastricht in 1672. There, he was killed by a stray bullet and buried in an unknown location.  If some of this sounds familiar, then his full title, Charles de Batz de Castelmore-Comte d’Artagnan,will probably ring a bell.

Why yes, the swashbuckling witty hero of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers was real. But Dumas didn’t really care to check the background story. Instead, he based his protagonist on a book by Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras, Les mémoires de M. d’Artagnan. Now, de Sandras wasn’t really interested in telling the detailed story of d’Artagnan either. His novels were more of a pamphlet against the ruling order, and adding some (fictional) suspense to the tale to amuse the reader was a common tool at the time. Dumas probably knew about the fictional elements in Sandras’ book, but nevertheless used them to write three books. And the rest is history.  Throughout the centuries, the young boy from the small village in the Gers has conquered the world in dozens of film adaptations, comic books, games, manga and hundreds of other derived products.

 So in 1998 Lupiac decided to honour its illustrious  inhabitant by opening a museum in a chapel just outside the village square.  The museum tells the story of d’Artagnan in greater detail, and shows how the man became a legend. And while the village is very well hidden in the gersois countryside, thousands of d’Artagnan aficionados and tourists find their way to Lupiac each year  to honour old Charles.  The success of the museum has convinced the local community that d’Artagnan, despite being an international symbol, really belongs to them in very much the same way as Robin Hood belongs to Nottinghamshire.

Image: Musee d’Artagnan de Lupiac

In 2012, the village of Lupiac decided to organize a festival for the 400 year anniversary of Charles de Batz’ birth. The first of its kind, the festival sent a very strong message: that d’Artagnan is an inherent part of Gascony. And so it began. The sleepy village was cast back into the 17th Century. For several months, all 350 inhabitants of Lupiac devoted part of their time to transform the village, and themselves, into a living replica of d’Artagnan’s era. Flags were painted, costumes were made (by hand!) for every inhabitant, and local craftsmen were asked to present their products from Gascony in a artisan market.

Image: Musée d’Artagnan de Lupiac

Image: Musée d’Artagnan de Lupiac

Image: Musée d’Artagnan de Lupiac

Image: Musée d’Artagnan de Lupiac

To liven up the festival, a fencing group  was called in from Paris to play scenes from The Three Musketeers and to engage visitors into the re-enactment.

Image: Musée d’Artagnan de Lupiac

The festival, appropriately named “d’Artagnan chez d’Artagnan” was a huge success. A few thousand people attended, of which many discovered the real d’Artagnan for the very first time.

What followed was even more interesting. Shortly after the festival in Lupiac, the city of Auch held a topical seminar day entitled “What can d’Artagnan do for Gascony?”.  Around the same time, Condom (a small town in the North of the Gers) held a small poster exhibition on d’Artagnan. Something had changed. Officially, those events were not related, but it is clear that the region is warming to its newly rediscovered local hero. How it will play out this card is not really clear for now. But what’s certain is that the swashbuckling hero, both real and fictional, has the potential to become a much larger symbol for the Gers and for Gascony than he is today.

Those who want to experience it in person are kindly invited to the second d’Artagnan Festival in Lupiac on the 11th of august 2013.

Some useful links:

The World of d’Artagnan – THE source of information on the real and fictional hero, and on Cloak and Dagger in general.

Lupiac Tourist Office

Tourisme Gers

Social Media

Musée d’Artagnan de Lupiac on Facebook

Charles de Batz on Facebook

Monde d’Artagnan on Twitter

Tourisme Gers on Twitter

Travelling the slow way, on iDBUS

These are dark times for European rail travel.

While the annual timetable change on the 9th of December was a memorable day for high speed rail, a large number of long distance trains were shortened, confined to one or two days a week, or axed altogether. No more Amsterdam-Beijing with only one change of trains in Moscow, for example.

I can image that, for a lot of national railway companies, night trains are something of a puzzle. Until recently, France had an extensive network of night trains, bringing you from Paris to every corner of the country with their Lunéa trains. And while they still exist today as ‘Intercités de nuit’, their number has been decreasing each year. Advertising by the national rail operator SNCF ranges from poor to non-existent, as high speed daytime services on the same routes give them easy money and more passenger turnover. Why cater to the slow traveller anyway?

For this reason, among all these cutbacks, it was quite interesting to see SNCF launch a long-distance bus service, iDBUS, which does exactly that: it creates a slow alternative. And, of all routes, they chose Paris-London, and Paris-Brussels. Two routes where Eurostar and Thalys trains bring you from A to B in under two hours. So why would people take a bus that travels 9 hours from London to Paris?

Cheaper?
Well..yes, but not in a spectacular way. At least not if you book two months in advance. I use Eurostar frequently, and if you book a few months in advance, the price difference between iDBUS and Eurostar is not that large. If you want to travel to London tomorrow, however, it becomes interesting. A Eurostar ticket for today or tomorrow costs at least €120, an iDBUS ticket will set you back about €55 for the London-Paris trip. Even 1 hour before departure.

But if you book two months in advance, is it really worth travelling the slow way..on a bus?

To find out, I decided to test it on my way back from Yorkshire to Belgium.  Instead of taking the last Eurostar of the day, I booked a seat on the overnight iDBUS from London to Lille (halfway on the London-Paris route), and made notes along the way:

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22:00 London Victoria Coach Station, Gate 6
Coach stations are quite special. Wherever you go in the world, there is nothing more interesting than a place where people are waiting for a bus. I travelled through quite a few bus station in China, and they were all indistinguishable from each other: Victoria station could easily have been one of them. It is not the most attractive spot in London, and it looks like something from a by-gone age, but it communicates exactly the kind of atmosphere you associate with coach travel.

My coach is not due until 23:30, but I spend my time observing. The next bus at the gate is the 22:30 to Aberdeen. It takes nearly 12 hours to go all the way to Scotland, 7 more than the fastest train, but tonight it is full. Mainly elderly people and students, it seems. The man sitting next to me, a 85-year old northerner from Carlisle, opens a tin of biscuits and tries to seduce the two 70-somethings across the aisle, but they fend off his advances by claiming that Scottish shortbread does not agree well with their false teeth. As the departure bell sounds, both pepperpots and Don Juan de Carlisle stumble off towards the coach outside.

At 23:00, the iDBUS staff arrives, and does a quick passport and ticket check. Perfectly bilingual. Very polite. A few moments later, all passengers (there are only 7) are led towards the coach, where the driver scans my ticket and shows me where to leave my luggage.

One thing that is immediately apparent  when you board the coach is the smell. Everything smells new and leathery. Like an expensive taxi service. I suspect it is part of their client-binding strategy, and a way to distinguish themselves from the 48 hour Eurolines bus to Kiev, but it does work. It creates a sense of security and trust. The seats are excellent and very large. There’s a 220V plug on every seat. And on-board Wi-Fi. Included in the price.

23:30 iDBUS
After a short introduction of the on-board facilities by one of the two drivers and a brief ‘sleep tight’, the bus sets off across midnight London. One of the nice things about night travel, either by train or by bus, is the way you travel through suburbs, cities and countryside as a silent observer. The first hour or so, the coach travels through London, past Battersea, Vauxhall and the southern suburbs towards the M20 to Kent. You can see the city slowly falling asleep, as people leave pubs, walk drunk along (or on) the road, and go home. The best way to see a city alive, is by travelling through it.

1:15 Folkstone Channel Terminal
Here, I should point out the difference between the day services and the overnight service. iDBUS uses the Chunnel to cross the Channel to France, so the time spent waiting at the Channel Terminal depends on the availability and timing of shuttle trains. During the day, this takes only half an hour or so. At night, there’s a 90 minute pause on the parking lot, because there’s one train every 2 hours. But this isn’t really important, as you’re asleep anyway. In very much the same way as night trains sometimes spend a few hours at a station to change locomotives (or simply to stretch time to make you arrive at your destination at daybreak).

3:10 Le Chunnel
The bus drives through Customs (from what i’ve heard, passport checks occur on board on some coaches) and into the awaiting Shuttle train. What follows is all very futuristic. Train closes, spaceship health and safety announcements are made, and 30 minutes later (or 90 minutes, if you count the time zone) the carriage opens up again and you drive off on the wrong side of the road. You can leave the bus during the crossing to stretch your legs, but really, the shuttle train isn’t that interesting. It’s really just a hollow tube on wheels.

6:24 Lille Europe Station
14 minutes later than the scheduled arrival time, the iDBUS pulls into Lille, and stops on the upper part of Lille Europe. The driver makes it a ‘point d’honneur’ of saying goodbye personally to everyone leaving the coach here. In fact, he’s leaving the coach as well, as another chauffeur team boards for the remaining leg to Paris. Nevertheless, it’s a service you don’t get on a TGV.

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The Catch?
There is none, really. Though, if you’re not used to travelling by night in a bus, then it might be a bit tiresome. I admit I didn’t sleep a lot, but that had more to do with the excitement of discovery than my discomfort. As there were only 7 persons on the bus, I could spread my little travel ecosystem over the seat next to me. I can imagine that a full bus is something quite different. Then again, there’s more comfort and leg room than in a 1st Class seat of a TGV.

Overall…
Excellent slow alternative to the Eurostar. Almost spot on time. Well-trained staff. Leg room.
What more can you wish for?

Paris

For very strong reasons that are my own, i love the banks of the Seine on an autumn night, the bateaux-mouche gliding past the reflections of Ile Saint-Louis in the water, their bright spotlights disrupted by falling leaves.
I love the slopes of Montmartre, the view from the Sacré Coeur with a storm breeze clearing the november skies over the blurry skyline, lit by the two million people living and working within those walls. Yes, i even love those cardboard circles they serve up there as pancakes, in the streets of a quarter that’s the hyperbolic depiction of the city that surrounds it.

For those same reasons i love the characteristic whistling crescendo sound of metro line 1 leaving a station, the chaos of Rue Montorgueil and Châtelet on saturdays and the  quiet sounds of Montsouris on an afternoon in spring, when the magnolias of the parc blossom and invite for a picknick on the slopes of the lake. I love the smell of the Treizième in February, the look of Tuileries in March, St-Michel in May and Rivoli in June on a summer evening.

It’s a city filled with clichés about love, history and romance, and you will find those on every street corner. Hey, even Père Lachaise Cemetery has its very own (tragic) love story with Héloise and Abélard. People come to Paris for various reasons. To find architecture, to find art or a piece of recent or not so recent history. But most of all, people come to Paris to find those very clichés…certain they will discover or rediscover love, following rumours that some of the romance of the city will follow them when they leave… rumours of course…but to tell you the truth…

Most of them are true…

My sweetest memories lie there, among the busy streets of Bastille, on the benches of Montsouris, Tuileries and Buttes-Chaumont. On the pigeon-filled boulevards, in the macaron shops, the metropolitain and the RER. On the slope in front of Beaubourg in the sun.

Paris is a memory palace. A city that builds layer after layer of complexity and gets filled with thoughts and memories at each visit. It stores the moments you experience in it, as you store them in your mind. Everyone builds a personal Paris, a vision of the city as you have lived it, as you live it and as you will live it. It’s a microcosm, a blend of worlds..but most of all it’s the kind of place you never leave, a place that keeps a part of you captive and spreads it through its streets, so you will need eternity to rediscover it, again and again.

and again.