Two nights in France
Two nights in France, you've got to be joking, right?
Where do you go for two nights in France?
This was the problem that my wife, Anna, and I were facing while we were on an eight-week working holiday in Holland.
We were restoring an old canal boat during April and May, experiencing what the locals called, "the worst spring in living memory".
We needed a break from the interminable rain coming in from the North Sea day after day, so we stole away in our little Fiat Panda rental car for a brief fling into France.
Driving south through the pastoral countryside of Belgium, we stopped at the beautiful canal town of Bruges before heading into France.
Our first French destination was the historic fortified seaside town of Boulogne-sur-Mer, from where the Roman invasion of Britain was launched by Emperor Claudius in 43 AD. That's nearly 2000 years ago!
We explored the old part of the town inside the fortification walls and gazed up at the peeling frescoes inside the domed Basilica of Notre-Dame de Boulogne cathedral. It was built in 1827 to replace the 12th century church which was demolished after the French Revolution.
We had covered quite a bit of ground but weren't quite ready to call it a day.
So we headed south down the A16, shadowing the English Channel coastline until we picked up the Valley of the Somme and skirted around the city of Abbeville.
We reprogrammed the little portable GPS to "avoid motorway" mode and headed inland using what sometimes seemed like farm tracks across the mainly horticultural terrain.
We didn't feel that we could do justice to these blood-soaked battlefields in the time we had, so we bookmarked it for a later visit and headed towards Amiens.
It is impossible, however, to drive through this landscape without being acutely aware of the tragedy that war has inflicted on these communities.
The scars of both 20th century wars are visible in every village, with fresh flowers laid around the memorials that list the lost generations of men from these communities and in some places shellfire damage still pockmarks the stone buildings.
We finally gave in to road fatigue after travelling more than 200 kilometres and checked into a hotel in the small town of Noyon, for the first of our two nights in France.
The cathedral outside our hotel window bore the damage from WWI shellfire and with a funeral there the following morning, the church bells ringing and mourners shuffling past the small war memorial, we felt the grief that is palpable in these small towns today.
This wasn't really the France we had come to see for two nights, but it certainly put us in contact with our emotions.
Using our very basic high school French we asked the receptionist where we should go and what we should see in this area and she pointed us in the direction of the 14th century chateau in the village of Pierrefonds, about 45 minutes' drive south of Noyon, so that's where we headed.
The landscape changed from rolling farmland to dense forest as we moved through heavily forested hill country, thick with oak and birch, until we finally turned a corner and gazed down the valley at a sight that looked like it had been transplanted from a children's fairytale book.
It was a castle that even Sir Peter Jackson couldn't have dreamed of building, taking centre-stage in a small village nestled in the valley of these verdant hills complete with its own lake and market square.
We parked the car and gazed with disbelief at how beautiful this little village was and felt like time-travelling intruders as we walked down the narrow streets towards the chateau.
It was a beautiful spring morning with the townsfolk already picking their way through the vegetables freshly laid out on the trestle tables in the market square. There seemed to be an absolute absence of tourists.
We stopped for coffee in a cafe beside the lake where children paddled canoes and quacking ducks fought over bread crusts and enjoyed that perfect combination of French coffee and complementary dark chocolate, which prepared us for the climb up to the castle.
Chateau de Pierrefonds dates back to the 14th century when it was built by Louis d'Orleans, but was besieged in the 17th century by the troops of Louis XIII, who almost destroyed it.
Fortunately for us, it was bought by Napoleon in 1810 and subsequently restored by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte during the mid-19th century.
It stands today open to the public as a testament to the architecture and craftsmanship of both the 14th and the 19th centuries.
The entry fee was a steal at €7.50 (NZ$12) each and we spent the following three hours soaking up the atmosphere in this amazing complex of beautifully restored buildings.
To our delight, we seemed to be the only English-speaking visitors there, the rest appeared to be French people on their holidays.
We bought a fresh baguette and a tartine from the village boulangerie on our way down and sat beside the lake eating crispy bread, French butter, salami and fruit tart while the passing locals smiled and wished us, "bon appetit".
It really doesn't get any better than this and after lunch we reluctantly hit the road again, this time heading for the medieval town of Troyes, famous for its half-timbered stone buildings.
This was a reasonable drive of about 180km, as Troyes sits well south and inland of Paris, but we arrived before dark, checked into our budget-priced hotel, (that was a mistake) and wandered through the picturesque, quirky streets of the old champagne town where the buildings lean drunkenly towards each other.
There was a football tournament on in town so we shared the place with pleasantly inebriated French fans and joined them drinking the local bubbly in the many sidewalk bars and cafes.
It was an unusual mix of ancient and modern culture that completed our second night in France. The following day we headed north through wine country and alpine forest until we crossed the France/Belgium border at Givet in the wooded valley of the Meuse River.
We had done a lot of kilometres in our little Panda and seen a huge amount of northern French countryside in our emotional rollercoaster road trip, from the sombre slaughter fields of the Somme to the euphoria of stumbling upon Chateau de Pierrefonds and it seemed like three weeks' travel compressed into three days.
Sometimes it is a good idea to point the car in a new direction and see where it takes you even if it's only for a couple of days.