Hey hi! Check out my newest adventure in France. It’s a bike journey along a historic canal that runs 500 kilometres across the south of France. The canal connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. It’s called Le Canal des Deux Mers—the canal of two seas.
I solo cycle-camped the Canal de Garonne, the Canal du Midi, a section of Mediterranean coastline including the Carmargue, and a bit of the Rhône River.
I drank wine, ate cassoulet, mingled with riverrains, joined some pagans, and slept with four Frenchmen on their canal boat—it’s a story.
VANCOUVER, Canada—It’s 3am in the morning. It’s the third day in a row. I’m home from France and, yes, I have jet-lag.
It’s still dark outside. As usual, I notice how quiet it is here—even the Skytrain is not running this early in the morning. What do I do? Read, run, work? Sip tea and think and write.
I’m glad to be home and that disorients me. In the past, I’ve experienced what I call post-vacation-stress-syndrome. Am I changing, or is it that I’m happier with “Home” now?
Do I need more home with its objects and rituals? Am I becoming less of a traveller? I reassure myself that I’m now a different type of traveller—I adventure “deep, not wide.” Rather than roll through a place, I choose a a home base and ride around it. I do daily rides in different directions to discover its nuances.
But is that the truth? Perhaps I’m just getting old and lazy.
When I rode PH’s bike on the rural backroads of southwestern France, it was like crack cocaine. I loved it.
When it came time to leave, I helped Ian hoist the green bike up to the attic to store it, I felt solid, complete, grateful. The bike would stay in France. With PH.
And now PH’s bicycle rests on the European continent, safe and secure and far away from my own North American continent. I find this thought exciting: I now have a bike in Europe! I can now fly there anytime I want and do it again! Next time, I can bring panniers and gear and keep going—in France, in Europe, in Asia. Who knows?
Next time, maybe I’ll start by riding into Paris. I’ll haul PH’s green cyclocross onto the smooth, Seine cobblestones that Audrey stood on. As a painter looks on, I might rest the bike on its kickstand, stand by the river’s edge, spread out my arms, and give a shout—I’m free!
When I’m done, I might walk the bike to a nearby sidewalk café and sit myself down to a croissant with butter, and a glass of wine. Perhaps a glass of cardbordeaux.
On another floor of the gallery, six-foot-high images by Massimo Berruti showed how the gruelling search for water dominates life in Gaza, the Middle East.
But the Maison show that captivated me the most was Passages, an exhibition of images by photojournalist Bruno Barbey. He seems to have a knack for being in a place when a global political event is about to explode.
The show included 55 years of his work including assignments from LIFE magazine, as well as travel images from repeat visits to Poland, Korea, Spain, Portugal, India, Brazil, and Morocco.
A particular image he shot in Morocco really stunned me—the subject matter, the composition, the colours, the patterns, the light, the moment. It was perfect.
My next stop was near the Louvre, so I stopped at a café for a tartine jambon serrano and sat out a sudden, sunny hail shower. When it stopped, I passed the museum’s famous pyramid with no intention of going in.
Sun and hail on the Rue Vielle du Temple Paris, France.
Pyramid Louvre in winter Paris France
Instead I short-cut through an adjoining courtyard and caught strains of recorded violin music. I kept walking and, tucked under an arch, discovered two string students performing the gorgeous music live. While they played for coins, they kept glancing furtively at the gates. On a break, they told me their performance there was interdit—forbidden…(Video, 0:41)
In fact, it was Halsman who was given the assignment to shoot a group of young starlets in 1949. One of them, the blonde in the front row, caught his eye…
He and Marilyn become friends and she even allowed him to photograph her in her apartment. I was amazed by this image of Marilyn Monroe lifting weights in her home to stay in shape. I’d never seen that side of her before.
Living and photographing in New York from the 1930s to the 1970s, Halsman had a deep interest in art, science, and psychology. He also had some interesting friends with whom he collaborated, most notably Salvador Dali. This exhibit showed the contact sheets for this famous photo shoot:
Halsman also staged elaborate special effects for photo shoots such as this image of writer Jean Cocteau.
The next day, I met fellow writer Hazel Manuel on the Left Bank for lunch and a catch-up. We sat at the suitably bookish Les Editeurs café and I ordered the bar entière grillé—whole grilled bass.
Basically, it was a dead fish on a plate.
But thanks to some practice eating seafood living in both Vancouver, Canada and Goa, India, I was able to dissect, eat, and enjoy the specimen.
Both Hazel and I have travelled to and written about India, and so after lunch Hazel kindly gave me a signed copy of her novel about India, Kanyakumari.
20th century art at Centre Pompidou
I’d saved the most modern of the modern art galleries for last: the Centre Pompidou.
I didn’t have much time, so I went straight to the Collections Modernes 1905-1965. Year by year and room by room, the fifth floor carefully explained and demonstrated the history of modern art to me. It was exhausting and fantastic.
I stood before Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky, Man Ray, the Constructivists, the Dada-ists, the Bauhaus school—all of it. All in one place.
I walked back to my hotel, taking care to investigate interesting-looking sideroads.
On the way, I passed the immense Place de la République square, still charged with the emotions and mementos of the November 13, 2015 bomb attacks. Skateboarders and cyclists weaved around clumps of people staring down at the mementos or staring up at the statue of Marianne, symbol of the French Republic. She holds aloft an olive branch.
My time in Paris had come to an end.
I’d snacked on fast-food and cans of beer, but I had truly feasted on art. It felt like a sustaining, winter meal—the kind that stays in your belly and soul and keeps you alive for weeks and months afterwards.
I didn’t see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, but I did catch a glimpse of her in the adjoining gift shop when I went searching for a toilet. She told me it was okay—I’d done a pretty good job of supporting the arts in Paris without her.
I was standing at the counter of the City of Paris tourism office, staring at a brochure that described how a 2, 4, or 6-day Museum Pass would give me unlimited access to Paris’s museums with no queuing.
“Which museums emphasize modern or contemporary art?” I asked the agent as I pulled out my wallet. She took her pink highlighter pen and underlined two from a list of 60. The venues I had short-listed were not on the list.
I thanked her and put my wallet away. I didn’t want musty, old-man art. I wanted art that rocked the world.
On the way I might stroll by the Eiffel tower, the Louvre, the Seine River, and the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur. I would munch a crèpe here and sip a glass of wine there to sustain me. But here in Paris, it would be art that feeds me.
¡Picasso! at the Picasso Museum
The current exhibition, ¡Picasso! presented two floors of the artist’s work from the early 1900s to his death in 1973. I learned how dabbling with 3-dimensional materials translated into fractured pieces that would be called “Cubism.” I lingered in the museum for hours and was truly moved by the colours, shapes, and range of work.
Click an image to view the photos with comments in a gallery.
Visit in the winter and there are no line-ups at the Picasso Museum in Paris, France.
A painting at the Picasso Museum in Paris France
Portraits of Picasso’s first wife Olga.
Owl in an Interior, 1946. I’ve never seen this work before and loved it.
The Acrobat, 1930. In person, you can feel the suppleness and energy of Picasso’s hand.
Early cubist guitar studies at the Picasso Museum in Paris, France.
Four paintings at the Picasso Museum in Paris France
Next on my list was the Musée d’Art Moderne. It was on the other side of town near the Tour Eiffel. I caught a city bus west, ate a ham-and-cheese crepe under the tower, then strolled along the Seine river to my next art stop.
Warhol and The School of Paris at the Museum of Modern Art
Instead, I proceeded to the gallery’s free exhibition of its permanent collection. It was amazing to wander from room to room and see the evolution of modern art from Post-Impressionism to yes, the Pop Art of Warhol.
I also learned about the “School of Paris.” Art critics of 1923 used the term to describe the foreign artists who settled in the Montmartre and Montparnasse areas of Paris. The School encompassed all the movements of the time—Cubism, Fauvism, Realism, Primitivism, and Expressionism.
On my way out, I stepped around a fresh batch of painters setting up their easels next to the masters’. I snuck a few peeks to see how a student might copy or interprete an original work.
Back on the Seine, I stopped to photograph workers fitting new cobblestones into the river’s famous banks. I was lucky enough to experience (but not get taken in by) Paris’s famous gold ring scam.
“Volez, Voguez, Voyagez – Louis Vuitton” at Grand Palais
Because I know nothing about Louis Vuitton luggage—besides that Bangkok street vendors sell it and wealthy, well-dressed ladies buy it—I thought, why not check out this French company’s free retrospective at the gorgeous Grand Palais?
The exhibition was organized into themed rooms according to the type of travel and use: expeditions, yachting, automobile, aviation, and trains.
This show was about the history of travel luggage, not fashion. It was beautifully-mounted and fascinating. I had to laugh when I saw how early automobilers—like today’s early-adopter bicyclists—were expected to be “protected” in head-to-toe gear in order to participate in this new, novel mode of travel.
Click an image to view the photos with comments in a gallery.
Specially-designed Louis Vuitton bowler hat box.
1925 Citroen expedition luggage by Louis Vuitton.
Yachting exhibit at Grand Palais in Paris France
Yachting steamer bags by Louis Vuitton, circa 1920. They were precursors to the modern handbag.
Original automobile handbags, invented by Louis Vuitton.
Spirit of the West is a Canadian Celtic-folk band. And for some reason during my bus trip from Bordeaux to Paris, the lyrics from their 1990s song Home For A Rest kept going through my head:
“You’ll have to excuse me, I’m not at my best, I’ve been gone for a month, I’ve been drunk since I left. These so-called vacations will soon be my death, I’m so sick from the drink, I need home for a rest…”
I planned to be in Parisian boutique hotel for seven whole days and—I was really looking forward to it. After all, it would be my last bit of vacation before I returned to Vancouver.
I had wanted to travel across France slowly, so I managed to get a 8 Euro bus fare from Bordeaux to Paris aboard Eurolines’ new affiliate, isilines. And far from cut-rate, the nine-hour journey was one of the most luxurious bus rides in my life: a brand new bus, free WiFi, electric and USB plug-ins, fully wheelchair accessible, clean toilets, and a friendly driver.
I used the WiFi to turn my smartphone into a guide book and map. Everytime we approached an interesting-looking place, I would look it up on my phone, read its history on Wikipedia, browse photos on Google Images, and explore the surrounding terrain on Google Maps.
You’ll have to excuse me, I’m not at my best, I’ve been gone for two months, I’ve drunk wine since I left. The patés and pastries will soon be my death, I crave steamed rice and broccoli, I need home for a rest…”
Art and nature, I reminded myself. Art and nature.
There is just one reason I wanted to visit the city of Bordeaux, and it has nothing to do with wine.
In 2007, UNESCO designated the entire downtown area of Bordeaux, France a World Heritage Site. That is, the United Nations deemed the city’s architecture to be of such outstanding value to humanity—right up there with the Egyptian pyramids and the site of Pompeii—that it listed Bordeaux in order to protect it.
A few years ago I researched and wrote about my own country’s World Heritage Sites for Destination Canada, the Government of Canada’s tourism marketing agency. I loved the assignment and I became enamored with the simple idea of preserving art and nature that is of global significance.
Art and nature is what I crave when I travel, and it’s why I usually choose to travel slowly—on foot, by bicycle, by bus, and by train. I arrived in Bordeaux on a train, and as much as I wanted to explore Bordeaux by bicycle, I immediately realized that this World Heritage Site was too rich a canvas for me to take in on two speedy wheels.
Instead, I walked and drifted and discovered.
I learned that my Bordeaux seemed an elegant and ancient city wearing an energetic and fresh layer on the outside; and a hip and relaxed layer underneath. In appearance and behaviour, it was for the people, not the tourism industry.
Unlike Pompeii and the pyramids, Bordeaux has intricate cathedrals, modern-art galleries, fresh food, famous wine, and bike lanes. Not bad for a World Heritage Site.
If you see a lot of bicycles in the photographs, it’s because there are a lot of people cycling in Bordeaux. The bike lane network is extensive and there is a bike share system.
Bordeaux’s buildings, churches, and plazas
Bordeaux’s museums, galleries, and spaces
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