Hello and welcome to the latest blog from the Olivia Rose Diaries on July 1st 2022.
We’ve spent most of the last week on the River Yonne, heading for the point where it joins the River Seine at Montereau. It is a beautiful, peaceful river and we enjoyed it all the more intensely because we knew the nature of our journey would shortly change. We sat on deck at the junction with the Seine and watched the commercial barges lumbering past, the ponderous giants of this major waterway, many of them doubled up, some two abreast. Their wake sent Olivia rocking from side to side, and I could almost imagine that she had perked up, and was ready for a new challenge.
So were we. For the first time in the last three years we were heading into new territory, waters we had not cruised before, joining a very busy route that would take us right into the heart of Paris and out the other side. A particular paragraph in the chart book which would guide us through this region caught my eye and I read it out to Michael.
‘Navigation in the middle of all this traffic must be done with precision. The skipper should keep a constant eye on surrounding boats. No question of playing the tourist, slowing down or zigzagging to take photos while at the wheel.’
I looked at him pointedly.
‘Are you trying to say something,’ he asked.
‘Definitely. You spend most of your time looking anywhere but ahead, which is fine on some rivers, but not on this one. It makes me nervous.’
Now it was his turn to look at me pointedly. ‘Not exactly hard to do.’
Our first stop was the port at Valvins, almost 80 kilometres south of the centre of Paris, and only a short bike ride away from the Chateau de Fontainebleau.
The first thing that struck me about this iconic monument was the sheer scale of it. It is huge, designed to make a statement, to impress and perhaps intimidate. That impression was reinforced by the paintings, artifacts and décor inside the palace itself. I found myself both awestruck and a little overwhelmed by it all: the opulence of the clothing they wore in Napoleon’s era, the ornate sculptures and precise detailing of the woodwork, the sheer size and number of the paintings that adorned every available wall as well as the ceilings.
I couldn’t imagine the level of wealth that would be required to design such a building and then fill it with this amount of possessions. It was a shame that we were not able to see the kitchens and the stables, which would have been the working heart of the palace, and the areas that I always find most fascinating. Somewhere in a past life I must have been of lowly birth!
The second thing that struck me was the obsession with the naked human body at this point in history. It got to the point where I began to long for a sculpture of a man clothed in something more substantial than a poorly positioned fig leaf, or a woman who had been allowed to keep her clothes on while posing for a painting. Obviously it was quite normal at that time and perhaps they would be equally horrified at how modest we have become in the 21st century, for the most part at least.
For such a major tourist attraction it was surprisingly lacking in visitors. If it hadn’t been for hordes of school children, shepherded by harassed-looking teachers, and filling the empty spaces with excited chatter, it would have felt quite empty. We walked through one vast corridor where a small class of young children sat on the floor while their teacher gave them a history lesson. Rather than just talking at them, she was notably talking to them, asking questions and replying to eager little hands raised in the air. These children seemed enthralled by their visit, keen to learn, and it was a heart-warming thing to see.
Back out on our bikes, which we had hidden and padlocked in a hedge, we cycled round the grounds and gardens.
The design of the gardens was for the most part formal in nature, all straight lines and symmetrical shapes, which look their best when seen through drone footage from on high. What was noticeable was the lack of colour, of flowering herbaceous borders, which at this time of year would have been such a treat for the eye. The gardens were without doubt beautiful, just different in style to what I am used to from visiting gardens in the UK.
Our next destination was the Stade Equestre du Grand Parquet. I had seen a poster advertising a showjumping event and thought it might be worth a look. I spent most of my childhood at the local stables, until I realised I was going to fail all my ‘O’ levels unless I spent more time studying French literature and maths and less time on my British Horse Society Certificate in Stable Management. Since then horses have gradually faded from my life but I have never lost my love of these beautiful animals. Michael had his own horse during our smallholding years and so this event was a real treat for both of us.
There were four huge show-jumping rings, each with a warm-up arena, and horses everywhere I looked. I sat on a bench, my head on a swivel, as they paraded past me, their coats gleaming, their ears pricked forward, their powerful haunches bunching under them as they powered over the jumps. Horse heaven.
Eventually we tore ourselves away and headed back to the boat. We have two days to reach the heart of Paris, hopefully without bumping into anything, where we are booked into the Arsenal marina for the princely sum of 55 € per night. I’ll let you know how we get on in the next blog.