By the time you read this, I will be wending my way back to South Africa after spending five weeks in Europe and the UK.
I landed at Manchester airport after what seemed a marathon trip and left for France early the next morning. We chose to drive down to the Channel Tunnel and caught the Eurotunnel Shuttle from Folkestone in Kent. This engineering miracle, that the American Society of Civil Engineers has identified as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, stretches for 50.5 kilometres under the English Channel between Folkestone and Calais in northern France. The system is incredibly efficient and it takes approximately half an hour from the time you drive on to the train until you drive off in Calais.
You may leave your car and wander about the train during the trip and apart from a little discomfort in the ears, there is absolutely no indication that you are travelling under a famous body of water. There may be nothing to see, but the idea that we were travelling under water was incredibly exciting and I was almost disappointed when the train began to slow.
After spending the night in Reims we drove through to Bruyères, a small country town in north eastern France, and booked into our holiday accommodation. The town is situated close to the German border and we ventured into a number of nearby towns, including Colmar in the Alsace region, a large town founded in the 9th century. A well-known tourist hotspot, the older quarter features prime examples of early French architecture as an area that thanks to its numerous canals is referred to as ‘Little Venice’.
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Little Venice in the ancient town of Colmar
One of the benefits of holidaying on the continent is the freedom of movement and a drive over the Rhein took us into Germany and into the ancient town of Breisach with its impressive cathedral. We then drove into Switzerland, got lost and drove straight out again.
The French are rightly famous for their wines and cheeses and we lived on these, supplemented by the occasional fresh baguette, for the entire week. The choice of cheese available in the supermarkets is extensive and even taking the Rand/Euro exchange rate into consideration, incredibly cheap. Overall, France is a vegetarian’s heaven and given the wide variety of quiches on offer (including a divine Roquefort and asparagus masterpiece) I managed to eat extremely well on a shoestring budget.
Visiting France at the height of the European summer is a must. Most of the houses are decorated with bowls of bright red geraniums which add to their overall beauty. The towns are immaculate and the streets lined with containers full of flowers. The architecture in all of the villages and towns was fascinating and because Bruyères is situated within a large rural farming community, many of the properties have a barn incorporated into the bottom of the house. Even the rundown properties have a certain charm -it's quite amazing how much character a window box full of geraniums adds - and the urge for this South African to invest in a property there was almost irresistible.
There is a strong alpine feel to the region and the hillsides are dotted with beautiful wooden chalet-type properties with their steeply pitched roofs which help shed the heavy winter snow that falls in the area.
The countryside is quite magnificent, but sadly there are still many reminders of the wars that have been fought in this country. There are many graveyards scattered among the fields, honouring men from all over the world who died on the battlefields. Interestingly, these graves have not been forgotten or neglected and are beautifully cared for by both the War Graves Commission and local communities.
We stayed in France for a week and even though I could barely understand a word of what the locals were saying, they were extremely hospitable, friendly and helpful. The weather played ball and it was wonderful to spend time in the sun before returning to a somewhat overcast Britain.