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Our recent trip to France (April 2011) - final part

New French vistas, villages and visits (in the North of France)

In addition to the events we attended this trip (part one) and the places we saw in the south of France (part two), the places we visited in the North were just as special probably because of their link to Australia.

On our way back from Provence in the south and before heading to the northern battlefields, we briefly stopped in Paris. The weather continued to be spectacular and we were able to spend some more time in the glorious sunshine, this time enjoying lunch in the same 1st arrondissement cafe near the Louvre that Angelina Jolie had her breakfast in at the start of the Tourist movie. While there was no courier on a bike delivering a letter that would subsequently be set fire to, we were entertained by a string ensemble with a crowd gathered around it in the square in front of where we sat. It was very apt for these talented buskers to be playing the classics in front of the Palais Royal/Comedie Theatre which for centuries dating back to Moliere's time has been the Parisian venue for French artistic expression.


This spot was also very fitting for us as we were staying just around the corner in rue Moliere in the historic Hotel Moliere near the famous playwright's statue/fountain and place he lived/died. Besides being quite taken by this area, we had chosen to stay there as we had booked to go to dinner at Le Grand Colbert bistrot which is on the northern side of the Palais Royal gardens. We had noticed it before as being the restaurant from the movie Somethings Gotta Give starring Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton and Keanu Reeves. In the window of the restaurant is an article from 'the Australian' mentioning this link. The restaurant has a lot of history besides having many movies filmed there (of note French movie ANGEL-A) - opened as a Belle Epoque Parisian bistrot in 1900, it is housed in the restored building of the famous Galerie Colbert, the sister of Galerie Vivienne.


After our stopover in Paris, we headed north to the Western Front battlefields. After the ANZAC Day dawn service, a few warming drinks and photo opportunity with K Rudd at Villers Bretonneux, we made our way to Arras which is half way in between Villers and the Flanders Fields battlefields near Belgium. We had been to Arras before but not stayed overnight. The hotel we chose was right on the main market square which is surrounded by flemish style buildings and the magnificent town hall with spire - our room looked out onto the town hall just metres away and the square. When we were there before it was market day and this square was completely filled with stalls but today there were only diners who we joined to enjoy a meal and drink in the sunshine.


Last time, while I shopped in the markets, David did the underground passages/caves tour which took him through all of the adjoining caves under the square. These were used during WW1 by Allied troops. A few years ago however the separate cellars that made up the passages were given back to the property owners above them which was disappointing for me as I was very keen to see them this trip. We discovered the reason they were able to do this was that more war history underground passages were uncovered on the outskirts of town and had been turned into a memorial/museum.

This was such a worthwhile site to visit - the Wellington quarry tour takes you down 20m to explore the former quarry turned into tunnels, relatively untouched since the war, which almost 20,000 Allied troops occupied while preparing to fight the Germans. Outside the entrance and above the tunnels, a memorial wall lists the names of those who died nearby including many Australian battalions - close to where the poppy wreath dedications were laid out below.

The day after being at Villers-Bretonneux in the Somme, we visited Fromelles, a small village in Flanders Fields near Belgium, the site of the latest Australian war graves to be discovered. After visiting the formal cemetery, David went exploring to look for the actual field the soldiers were found in. As it was a little chilly that morning, we stopped in the one cafe in town for a warm drink. There we met the Treasurer of the little local war museum which opens by appointment only on the top floor of the mairie. He took us through the museum, showed us the German bunker in his own back yard which adjoins the cemetery and pointed out the village's primary school named after the Aussies that helped save their town Ecole des Cobbers - check out the map of Australia on the cushioned matting under the playground (there was also a kangaroo as the school's weather vane with two clocks, one French time one down under time).


The last photo I took on our trip was of poppies in the front yard of the Treasurer's house (with the bunker in the back!). It was a fitting end to the trip I had wanted to involve poppies - all the events we attended and the places we visited pale into comparison when you meet French people (and their villages) like  those who welcome you so openly and are so indebted to the many Aussies who lost their lives so that all French people could live on in freedom. The more you look, the more links between France and Australia you find - we hope they continue to be found and grow.   


Merci France for another truly memorable trip.


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