There can be probably no more macho, masculine organisation than the French Foreign Legion. Each one of the roughly 7,700 members are subjected to the most rigorous training and selection process. They can claim themselves, justifiably, up there with the best of any Special Forces group in the world.

Their mantra that you ‘never leave your rifle on the battle field’, you fight to the death has had many wags commenting that this is in direct contract to the regular French military who have a few surrenders under their belts.

However, there are two women who have made their mark on the Legion. One, Susan Travers actually became a fully-fledged member and the other, Anonymous (a wife of one of the early Commanding Generals) played a significant strategic role in the make-up of the Legion.

British-born, Susan Travers  joined Free French Forces during the Second World War and became a member of the Legion after the war, serving in Vietnam during the First Indochina War. Born in 1909, Travers was the driver/chauffeur/aide of a Legion General Koenig during the Second world War. Although reputed to be more than a mere driver to the General, she was reputedly in the midst of many pitched battles and acquitted herself well. THey served together in Italy, France and Germany after which they decamped into the Indo-China conflict.

After these wars, she changed romantic allegiances and shacked up with a. Adjudant-chef Schlemilch whom she later married in 1947. Travers was decorated for her service in the 1939-1945 war, as well as other commendations and finally the revered French Croix de Liberation.

At the tender age of 90, she co-wrote a book of her life and died in 2003 in Paris.

Susan Travers book.

Our other Legion lady – Anonymous. Way back in the early days of the Legion her husband was a senior officer of the Legion which was then structured into Regiments by language and nationality. Consequently, the Russian Regiment did not understand the French Regiment etc. Our Lady also felt that by speaking their own language, the legionnaires could gossip about her and she would not know what they were saying1 Her solution. Mix the soldiers up and make them all speak French. to this day, this is what happens and it is a vital part of the basic training regime that each recruit has to learn 400 words of basic French and then develop their language skills from there.

The Foreign Legion will, on occasion, induct honourary members into its ranks. The famous American General ‘Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf from the Gulf War is one of them.

Down the autoroute south of Aix-en-Provence and just before you reach the Mediterranean, lies the dormitory town of Aubagne (only 15km from Marseilles). Since 1962, the reknowned French Foreign Legion has been headquartered here after France’s exit from their former colonial outpost of Algeria.

Founded in 1831, the Foreign Legion is just that – regiments plus support companies and troops of foreigners who sign up to join the Foreign Legion for an initial 5 years. Historically, the Foreign Legion has attracted men who could have had a dubious past and the Legion was an opportunity to wipe the slate clean with a new name, new identity and with successful service, French citizenship. The majority of Officers come from the French army ranks but at present, it is claimed that 10% of the Legions’ officers have come through the ranks. Only about 20% of the Legion are French – the balance come from all over the world and are taught the rudimentary ‘400 words’ during basic training (4 months) which will allow them to operate. We saw some new recruits who were from Mongolia.

We visited the Legions HQ and centre for the 1st Legion Regiment in Aubagne. Security was very tight and we were only allowed within the confines of the Museum and on to a top step bordering the Parade Ground. The museum traces the Legion’s history and there is an amazing display of uniforms over the years, weapons, decorations, tributes and several sets of original paintings done by ex-Legionaires. There is an exhibition of famous people who have served in the Foreign Legion. For us, Nicolas van Stahl a revered Menerbes painter served and many will be surprised to learn that composer Cole Porter did his time in the kepi blanc.

The 'kepi blanc' on parade.

One of the -many- areas we were not allowed into was just off the museum – the crypt. A sacred place for the Legion with the walls adorned with the names of over 300 officers who have died in the course of duty (the most recent a couple of months ago in Afghanistan). We were told that it was ‘not possible’ to list al the names of the over 36,000 legionaires who had died in action since 1831. The crypt’s main display is a wooden hand:

The Legion’s website takes up the story: It was in Mexico on 30 April 1863 that the Legion earned its legendary status. A company led by Capitaine Danjou numbering 62 soldiers and 3 officers, was escorting a convoy to the besieged city of Puebla when it was attacked and besieged by two thousand revolutionaries, organised in three battalions of infantry and cavalry, numbering 1,200 and 800 respectively. The patrol was forced to make a defence in Hacienda Camarón, and despite the hopelessness of the situation, fought nearly to the last man. When only six survivors remained, out of ammunition, a bayonet charge was conducted in which three of the six were killed. The remaining three were brought before the Mexican general, who allowed them to return to France as an honour guard for the body of Capitaine Danjou. The captain had a wooden hand which was stolen during the battle; it was later returned to the Legion and is now kept in a case in the Foreign Legion museum at Aubagne, and paraded annually on Camerone Day. It is the Legion’s most precious relic.

(Camerone Day is 30 April and 10,000 visitors are allowed to witness the commemoration ceremony.)

The Parade Ground where the ceremony will be held.

Due to its cosmopolitan nature, the Legion needed to develop an intense Esprit de Corps which is carried out by the development of specific traditions, the high sense of loyalty of its légionnaires, the quality of their training and the pride of being a soldier of an élite unit.

The Legion's motto emblazoned across the wall and visible from all areas.

That’s why each member perceives the Legion as a large family. A man who has left behind his past, his social and family background, transfers to the Legion his need of an ideal and he has a great affection for his job, equating the Legion with that of a homeland. This accounts for the motto on the front of the Legion’s Museum : LEGIO PATRIA NOSTRA. (The Legion is our Fatherland)

The museum of the French Foreign Legion is situated in Quartier Vienot, Aubagne. It is open every day except Monday and Thursday 10h00-12h– and 15h00-18h00.

A further post will discuss the role of two women in the Legion.

Somewhere on his exotic travels, our friend Chommy found this event: a puffadder takes on a cobra – or vice versa:

The French Foreign Legion. Le Legion Etranger. The name evokes wild eyed mercenaries, moustaches bristling tearing over the African desert in pursuit of goodness-knows-what all in the name of preserving France’s colonial status.

Every time we visit Sault up on the Luberon plateau and home to some of France’s most beautiful lavender fields, we pass the Foreign Legion Communications and Engineers Corps HQ. This has often started a mad google for more information about this secretive but much decorated army concept.

Research had drawn us to the non-descript town of Aubagne somewhere down the A52, just south of Aix-en-Provence, where we had discovered that the Foreign Legion now had their HQ after leaving Algeria in 1958. Somewhere at the HQ, was the Legion museum which was open to the public.

We piled into the VW Golf of similarly intrigued friends, the Robeys, and headed off. Now if you touch your tyres on the A52, then it is a no-brainer to go a little further than Aubagne to Cassis for a lunch and a wander. This we did and enjoyed a great lunch without breaking the bank, at Le Cesar, a small cafe on the waterside.

Without the schmaltz and elan of Ninos, Le Cesar serves wholesome food at affordable prices in an attractive and friendly environment. Friday is market day in Cassis, and the cafe was packed to the rafters with locals – always a good sign. The boys discussed the ways of the world in the car park after lunch while the girls wandered, and wandered. But then, what would a visit to Cassis be without a few shopping bags?

Don’t expect to find the Foreign Legion HQ easily. Clive Robey as a retired pilot pronounced the web map provided by the Legion website as a ‘French map.’ We turned north when we should have turned south. However, a friendly lady at a garage drew us a wonderful map with nine ‘rondpoints’ (roundabouts/rotaries) and we suddenly found a signpost. All was well.

The imposing door constructed by Legionaires from the parade ground in to the museum and the Crypt.

The museum is undergoing extensive renovation and will triple in size within the next 18 months. We were welcomed by a Dutch-born Senior Sergeant who showed us where to go and then joined us to answer questions and give us more information about the Legion, some of its traditions and took us to the corner of the Parade Ground to view the imposing Legion monument which had been shipped from its original site in Algeria. The Sarge was courteous and highly informative. We were entranced and gazed at the magnificent exhibition and history which spans nearly two centuries and runs side by side with modern French – and, indeed, world – history. The museum really is an undiscovered gem. Understandably, photo opportunities was severely restricted. In fact, yours truly invoked the wrath of a medal-laden, sinister looking guard at the front entrance. The camera went back in to the car with alacrity.

Entrance wall to Legion HQ

The Legion's memorial to the 'Fallen' - over 32,000 at last count.

Yours Truly and our guide.

A nervous Jan Robey in front of the entrance gates - left background is a white capped Legionaire guard.

The Foreign Legion story deserves another dedicated post – it’ll happen!

The rest of the week was spent mopping up after the Road Trip. Our IKEA/Whirlpool fridge had conked out while we were away and apart from the consequent smelly food, trying to get if fixed (under guarantee) is the subject for another day. Monty Python could not write the script. Power surges wiped out the entire Apple TV database which has had to be reloaded and add to this a few other rushes with the French bureaucracy trying to renew the de Chevaux’s registration, life has not been dull.

Oh! Valentine’s Day. Local troubadours and Menerbes locals, Fran and Duncan performed at the Cafe de Sade in Lacoste for a great Valentine’s lunch. A large table of  bon vivants, gathered to listen to the tunes, quaff rose, chatter and laugh and chew of some not very tender Beef Daube. A great way to spend the day. Cafe de Sade is a partner restaurant to Maxims in Paris – both owned by prominent Lacoste resident, Pierre Cardin. While the furniture, crockery and cutlery bears the Maxim’s insignia, the food certainly does not. However, the company more than made up for it.

The 89-year old Pierre Cardin who now owns 47 buildings in Lacoste and says that he 'does not care' that the locals think he is ruining the village. Pic: NYTimes

We have met a prominent Louramin resident, Jean-Walter and numerous discussions have resulted in some publishing and rental projects which are well in development. More of these at a later stage!

Au bientot: Lovonne and Simon xx

Two pics from the Nice Saturday market

Cleverly cultivated fern plants

Produce - fresher than fresh

For two weeks in February, Nice is Carnival City. An old pagan ritual whereby the King of the Sea arrives amidst much pomp and ceremony.

There is a fortnight of floats, all with strange mechanical creatures on them, Nicoise people pay 20 euro to sit and spray water on the floats, there is music and dancing in the streets. It is regarded as the oldest carnival in France and on the last night, the King is burnt at the stake. All very dramatic but the main aim is to kill off all of last year’s evil spirits and start the new year afresh.

This year’s carnival co-celebrates near neighbour Italy’s 150th year of unification and thousands of Italians are predicted for the weekend of Valentine’s Day.

Carnival City

Further up the road in Menton is the Orange and Lemon festival – a far more sedate affair and celebrates the fact that Provence is the market garden for France and most of Europe.

Orange trees outside the Westminster Hotel

Carnival treats

Orange trees groan with fruit

Candied fruits

Canal in Venice – but, incongruously, a Hard Rock Cafe at the end of the water –

Venezia

By this time, the Touran was more loaded than ever before. The last leg – through the Alps, down the Riviera, a quick stop in Nice and then home.

The autostrada from Verona is an easy run until you reach a point where the turnoff to Genoa is – then the following 74km has 61km of tunnels! With the day being a Friday, trucks dominated the road. Spare a thought for the train passengers who also have a tunnel of 13.1km through the Alps.

It was a very relieved driver and navigator who came through the last tunnel and spotted the Riviera and the lake-like Mediterranean down below.

Out of the last tunnel and Monaco beckons

All roads lead to......

Beaulieu sur Mer

Eat your heart out, Crooksie!

We meandered along the ‘basse corniche’ through the various towns and villages to reach a bustling Nice. Accommodation wise we came right down to earth: from the five star splendour of Verona to parking in a squalid casino car park just off the Promenade des Anglais, and then a 100m hump of now fairly heavy suitcases to the Solara Hotel.

After pressing the buzzer, you enter a small lift (one person sideways and small case) to go up to the 4th floor and a poky hotel reception. Up the stairs to Room 10 – Ikea would regard their beds as upmarket compared to what we found.

A fun stroll through the Nice Old City, the Flower Market, Avenue Jean Medecin (the main shopping street), and the Promenade followed.

Veggies in the Old City market

No-one grows tomatoes like they do in Provence

The Nice Flower Market

Flowers in the Nice market

The Grand Old Lady on the Promenade des Anglais

We were pasta-ed out. We found a fun little Cuban restaurant, La Havanne, which served some adequate Cuban cuisine – what jarred though was the Russian waitress! Not quite the theme.

Decisions were made. A full car. A security risk of a car park. Let’s go home!

Saturday morning saw us on the road – 50km from Nice, direction of Menerbes, the GPS spun, the little car icon rolled 360 degree, it roamed around the countryside and then……..it started to work! Yippee! Well done Apple and Tom Tom.

Let the pictures do the talking:

View of the Cemetry building from St Mark's Square

St Mark's Cathedral

Gathering of gondoliers

Down the canals

A pink palazzo

Faces, masks and shops

Clever bit of merchandising

Venice. Normally packed with tourists and over-zealous touts and vendors is an absolute pleasure in February. Although many places are closed – including restaurants on the islands of Burano and Murano, you are able to wander through the streets at leisure, not have to queue for hours to get into St Mark’s Cathedral, enjoy the banter of the relaxed restauranteurs, and generally live life like a Venetian should.

There are hardly any queues for the public transport (boats) so it is not necessary to hock your house to pay for a water taxi or some other more exotic mode.

The unremarkable Verona station - Venice awaits

We took the train from Verona. Our conscientious concierges advised us, wisely, to take a cab from the guest house to the station. There we boarded the Eurostar inter-city express (18 euro) from Milan and 65 minutes later we were at Venice station and boarding on of the many water ferries (8 euro) which chugged us to a number of stops and eventually reached St Mark’s square 40 minutes later.

Sights on the Grand Canal, Venice

The Grand Canal

What could be more Venice than this?

No tourists meant relatively empty streets and we were able to gape, gawk and generally enjoy the sensation of getting lost in the narrow lanes, knowing all the time that we would reach somewhere familiar eventually.

We decided to lunch at Bistrot de Venise – a few hundred metres off from St Mark’s square and one of Venice’s Top 10 restaurants. It specialises in discovering old recipes and repackaging them as well as marrying art, culture wine and food. A delightful place and staffed by highly professional career waiters and a Maitre who would not be out of place at any top restaurant anywhere in the world.

In front of the actual restaurant room was the bistro bar which was packed with well-dressed locals and businessmen : a good sign.

The food lived up to expectations. Predictably, Madame dived straight into the risotto (with mushrooms) while Yours Truly was attracted to the Menu of the Day – a primi piatti of spaghetti accompanied with pesto, cheese and some delectable tomato sauce concoction; sliced beef and salad and finished off with a little chocolate cake. A magnificent local white wine allowed the food to wash down.

The first course

Dessert - for two

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering, looking, touching, feeling and smelling. It was all too soon when we had to take the boat commute back to Ferrovia station and there we found ourself on a quaintly named ‘fast. regional train’.  We saw life – and enjoyed what we saw. A mere 90 minutes later we were back in Verona and savouring the delights of yet another recommended pizza restaurant.

Palazzo on the Grand Canal

This is for 'next time' in Venice - the Rialto area

The Rialto Bridge

Palazzo near the San Angelo area on the Grand Canal

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