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Tuesday, 2 December 2014

School 'Meet My PenPal' Trip to Epernay, France.

Apologies for the 'blogging absence' over the last six weeks. I've been having a pretty quiet time and pulling my hair out being stuck on day work and school runs, so I'm glad to be getting back out there!

Day 1

I was up early this morning, 4:30am and I have a long day ahead of me, which is going to finish tight on my hours. I arrived at the yard and packed my coach before going to get a coffee in the drivers room. My, very sleepy, boss was on duty this morning. He bought me a coffee and said I was his best [and only] female tour driver and if I were ever to leave, he wanted to clone me first! I think he's after a Christmas present!! So after coffee, I left the yard for the one hour drive to my pick up at the school.

I was in position before any of the group arrived so there was time for 20 minutes shut eye. Three of the teachers arrived first, then all the kids, then the group organiser! The kids are 14/15 years old and they seem to be a really nice group. The teachers seem pretty laid back but the organiser seems a little twitchy! I don't understand why she would be too worried about the trip because she ran the exact same trip 2 years ago, only with half as many students. Nevertheless, I am starting out with a good feeling about the whole thing.

We left the school pretty much on time and pressed on for our channel crossing on the eurotunnel. We managed to get a train 2 hours earlier than we were booked on and didn't have to waste time at the terminal building. For most of the group, it was their first time on the eurotunnel. I had been winding them up, telling them to look out for the fish! As always, the teachers were impressed at how a coach has to manoeuvre to get into that narrow little carriage! About 15 minutes of the train journey was wasted looking for fish before they realised there are no fish!

This evenings meal is being provided at the school by the penpals. According to the itinerary, we are to travel straight to the school in Epernay, to arrive at 19:30, to meet their penpals and eat before going to their hotel and checking in. I am booked into a hotel on the opposite side of town to the group and I need to be off the road by 21:30. I had suggested to the organiser that we press on to enable them to check in at the hotel before going to the school, which she agreed to, so that's what we did. I was starting to feel tired so I appreciated an hours peace while they checked in. 

We left the hotel 10 minutes late to go to the school. We had left everywhere late all day today. Only by a few minutes, but tonight a few minutes will be the difference between me staying legal or not. So I had to lay the law down. All the teachers were aware of my driving hours but they still looked horrified when I said if they were late, I wouldn't be waiting! It's never a good thing to have to do on the first day of a tour! So ten minutes before I was due to take them back to the hotel, I went into the school and gave them their '10 minute warning'! The kids seemed to be having a great time and were really enjoying their evening and I felt awful to be the one breaking up the party. I went back to the coach. After a few minutes, the organiser came out and said they weren't ready to leave and that they would walk back. And that is why I wanted to get them into their hotel first! So I said goodnight and went to find my hotel, feeling like a zombie!

Day 2

The alarm went off this morning and I felt like I still needed another 3 hours sleep. It was going to be another long day, but hopefully a more enjoyable one! 

I joined the group at their hotel for breakfast before leaving 10 minutes late for today's excursion to Paris. 

Last year, I was in Paris at least once a month. This year, this is my first visit there and the year is nearly done! 

We had an easy journey into the city centre and I gave them a little bit of a tour around on the way through to the Eiffel Tower. There is quite a lot to see just from the river banks. One of the teachers on board is French, so I asked her to come on the microphone to point things out to the students. Even if I do say so myself, between us we did a pretty good job! 

We drove in past Notre Dame where we mentioned Quasimodo and the bells! The Montparnasse Tower, one of the tallest buildings in Paris, could be seen when looking down the side streets. The impressive Hotel de Ville could be seen on the opposite bank of the river. We drove past the Musee D'Orsay, famous for housing the worlds largest collection of  impressionist and post-impressionist art, including pieces by Manet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh. On the opposite side of the river, the Musee de Louvre with its most iconic piece being Leonardo da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa'. The Louvre is the worlds most visited museum, receiving more than 9.7 million visitors in 2012.


The obelisk at the centre of Place de la Concorde was pointed out and the National Assembly before having a lovely view down the Esplanade to Hotel des Invalides. 


We came around the bend and were at the base of the Eiffel Tower where I was going to park and the group were going to the top.


Unfortunately, one of our girls was pick pocketed and had her phone stolen just before the group returned to the coach. Obviously this had to be reported and so we were delayed. While we were waiting, I took the rest of the group to Trocadero for a photo opportunity. From here there is the best view of the Eiffel tour and the Champ de Mars.


We collected the teacher and student after them reporting the phone stolen and headed up to the Sacre Coeur via the Arc de Triomphe where I had to drive twice round in order to point out the line of landmarks.


The Grand Arch at Le Defense, the Arc de Triompe, the obelisk at Place de la Concorde and the Pyriamids at the Louvre, which all line up with each other. Driving around the Arc de Triomphe is quite an experience and is always a relief to get off without a damaged vehicle! This is one of the few places where you are not insured to drive because you are so likely to have an accident! Follow the link to see a video taken from YouTube of 'Crazy Paris Traffic' at the Arc de Triomphe. http://youtu.be/TTtsmBYIShA

We drove past the infamous Moulin Rouge where every surrounding shop is a sex shop. The reaction from the students was quite funny as we were sat at the traffic lights next to a shop window full of toys, costumes and accessories!


We arrived at the drop off point where the group then had to walk to the Sacre Coeur for an hour free time while I had to go and find somewhere to park up. I ended up next to where the homeless have made camp under a railway bridge by the Gare du Nord. The whole area is dirty and smelly (not surprising with the amount of people who just wee in the street, and that's not just the homeless) and undesirable. I didn't leave my coach and I was happy to only be there for less than an hour.


I picked up the group and we made our way out of Paris and back to Epernay where we were booked in at a restaurant, Le Sardaigne, for our evening meal. The food was delicious and very reasonably priced and the service was outstanding. I really enjoyed my meal. More so because I hadn't had a proper meal yesterday. It was very well received.

I returned the group to their hotel and was told that I wasn't required tomorrow and that I could have a lie in in the morning. That would be lovely, thank you very much!

Day 3

After a long lie in and a leisurely breakfast I spent a couple of hours on the coach, cleaning and pottering, before walking into the town centre. I have visited Mercier Champagne House on the outskirts several times but never made it into the town centre. I was very pleasantly surprised at what I found.


In the central and oldest quarter of the town, the streets are narrow and irregular; the surrounding suburbs, however, are modern and more spacious, with La Folie to the East, for example, containing many villas belonging to rich wine merchants. The town has also spread to the right bank of the Marne.


One of its churches retains a portal and stained-glass windows from the sixteenth century, but the other public buildings are of modern construction. The most famous street in Épernay is the Avenue de Champagne which features the leading Champagne manufacturers.




After a few cheeky champagne tastings I headed back to my hotel for an afternoon nap before having a takeaway pizza for dinner in my room while watching Netflix! I'd had a nice lazy day!

Day 4

 It was back to work again today. Our first visit was to the Fossier biscuit factory in Reims.


Biscuits Fossier is a Reims based manufacturer of biscuits, gingerbread, sweets and marzipan-based confectionery.

Originating in Reims, Biscuit rose de Reims is a product of the Biscuits Fossier company. It is customary to dip the biscuit in champagne or red wine. The biscuit was created around 1690 in Reims. A baker wanted to make the most of the heat in the bread oven between the two batches, so he had the idea of creating a special dough; cooking it twice, which is where the name "biscuit" or "bis-cuit" meaning "cooked twice" in French. The biscuit initially was white. In order to add flavor to it, a pod of vanilla was introduced into the recipe. This vanilla left brown traces on the biscuit. In order to hide them, the baker decided to add a natural colour based on cochineal, a scarlet dye, to disguise his mistake. From this sequence of events, the Biscuit Rose de Reims was born. The biscuit is oblong in shape, and is lightly sprinkled with caster sugar. Enthusiasts for the biscuit included King Charles X, Leopold II of Belgium, the Russian tzar and the Marquise de Polignac. It is commonly dipped in champagne.
It quickly became a great success in terms of confectionery throughout France. The original recipe of the famous "Biscuit Rose" is still kept a secret by Fossier's confectioners. Despite the basic ingredients that include eggs, sugar, flour, and vanilla, the traditional French recipe demands special mastery and daintiness. The production of the biscuits is largely done by hand and therefore is described as 'artisanal'.


After spending an hour here, we'd had a tour of the factory and time for tasting and shopping. We then made our way into Reims centre.

Reims played a prominent ceremonial role in French monarchical history as the traditional site of the crowning of the kings of France. The Cathedral of Reims (damaged by the Germans during the First World War but restored since) played the same role in France as Westminster Abbey has in the United Kingdom. It housed the Holy Ampulla (Sainte Ampoule) containing the Saint Chrême (chrism), allegedly brought by a white dove (the Holy Spirit) at the baptism of Clovis in 496. It was used for the anointing, the most important part of the coronation of French kings. The cathedral became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1991.


After a brief visit to the cathedral, we had free time for shopping or to look around the Christmas market. 


The Christmas Village at the Place d'Erion is made up of 125 chalets offering beautiful seasonal gifts, decorations and festive delicacies. There is much street entertainment including carol singers, jazz bands and magicians. In his special chalet, Father Christmas is also on hand each day to delight the children. Reims is where the first French Christmas celebration was reportedly held; in 496 three thousand warriors were baptised on Christmas day. The city is rich in noble heritage.


We left Reims and headed back to Epernay, arriving back at the hotel at about 5pm. My days work was done but the students still had plenty to do to keep them out of mischief! They had 1 hour to start their packing and tidy their rooms for room inspections! Then they had to walk to school for their dinner at 7pm before going to the cinema at 8:30.

I went back to my hotel and parked up for the night, had a shower and decided to walk into town to the Restaurant we had eaten in on Sunday. I had just got seated and ordered a large glass of wine when my group came in. I went to join them. It turned out that there was enough money left in their kitty to eat out again tonight, so they were all happy. I was also happy to have some company.

After dinner, I went for an early night while the group walked to the cinema.

Day 5

Today was going to be a boring day. The day travelling home is always the worst day of a tour for me, I just can't wait to get it done!

The group surprised me this morning, for the first time all tour they were on time! We left the hotel and paid a quick visit back at the school to say goodbye to the penpals. Then we were on the road for Calais. The group wanted to visit a supermarket so in order to have the time to do it, we didn't have a comfort break and went 'express' from Epernay to Cite Europe. I've not stopped anywhere near Calais since the immigrant camps were cleared out so I was a little apprehensive of stopping there. I had heard on the grapevine that they now have security at the coach park because they were losing so much business with coaches staying away. Nevertheless, I stood on guard by my coach, broom in hand, making sure I had no stowaways!

Again, we left on time, with no dramas, to check in at the eurotunnel. I was offered a train 30 mins early, so we cleared customs and passport control and went straight round to board the train. We arrived back at the school one hour early. The kids had been messy all week and their time keeping was lowsy, but they are such a nice group of people and I took pleasure in telling them so and thanking them for including me in everything. I hope I have the pleasure of taking this school again. I left the school and headed for home. I knew I had been pushing my luck and only 12 miles from home, I ran out of hours and had to pull over for a 45 minute break. So frustrating! However, we were all home safe and sound at the end of another successful tour.