Monday, March 27, 2017
   
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My ‘Joie de Vivre’ as Trew Friend of France

TO MOST people, the highlight of this summer’s amazing uplift in Franco-Hibernian relations was the consummation of the love affair between France and our well-behaved football fans.

On TV coverage of EURO 2016 night after night, the Green /Green & White Armies were seen to be making themselves very much at home, while endearing themselves to the French population - and police.

For me, the very personal highlight in this summer of sport was to become the first person from Ireland, North or South, to be honoured by the French Government’s coveted accolade to long-serving Travel Professionals, the Medialle du Tourisme.

At a special Presentation in Belfast, the Tourism Medal was described by Agnes Angrand of the French Tourist Board as “an honorary award for outstanding and valuable professionalism, either in France or abroad, to those who have contributed throughout their career to the development of French tourism.”

Agnes flattered me even more by saying: “John is the first-ever person from the island of Ireland to have been honoured in this way. During his long and distinguished career as a newspaper editor, features writer and international travel journalist, he has written extensively about the attractions of France for holidays and events, in particular, We wish to reward him with an appropriately prestigious Medal.”

How I became a lifetime Francophile

I WAS Trewly chuffed to be recognised in this way — especially as the official notification came out of the blue on my 75th birthday when I was already breathless after blowing out the five symbolic candles on my wee birthday scone. I was in reflective mood that day, recalling the half-century (!) I have been a print and internet journalist. Following 30 years as newspaper executive - including seven years as Editor of the Belfast News Letter at the height of the Troubles - I set up a successful business compiling tourism publications for a broad clientele such as tourist boards and local Councils’ tourism initiatives, while also travelling the world as an award-winning travel writer, clocking up more than 300,000 miles.

I won the last Seacat Travel Journalist of the Year award — presented, as it happens, by my all-time favourite transport executive, Diane Poole OBE, now head of Stena Line Irish Sea Services. Believe it or not, I have also been commissioned a Kentucky Colonel (while wearing a hired tuxedo in a fetching emerald green) by former Governor John Y.Brown Jnr, on a jolly St Patrick’s Night at the State Mansion near Louisville…

Nowadays, I confine myself to compiling this Trew’s Travels column, soon due to make its 260th appearance here. Regular readers know only too well that I often write about and photograph holiday destinations in France, a country I have have visited more than 30 times. I first became enchanted with its ‘joie de vive’ on a School Trip to Paris when I set eyes on a pissoir in the street and saw a man cheerfully waving with one hand to his lady neighbour - while going about his business with the other. Not something you would see in my native Ulster - even in these permissive days.

After that memorable trip, I started to understand Ernest Hemingway’s assertion that everyone loves two countries - their own and France, That assertion has been illustrated most recently during EURO 2016 when proud - and loud - fans from Northern Ireland and the Republic endeared themselves to the French people while falling in love with the country themselves. In the process, it is claimed that they contributed more than 50 million euros to French tourism. Regular readers will remember that in three columns since last November I have encouraged more people than ever to go to France this year, regardless of the acts of mad terrorists.

I would like to thank Atout France UK&Ireland, the French tourism agency, for helping me - plus my ever-present driver/photographer/wife Karen - to discover a huge variety of regional delights, from Brittany’s pampering spa resorts to the glorious gardens of the Loire Valley; from the colourful Riviera studios of Picasso, Renoir and Matisse to the sombre battlefield monuments of the Somme; from the world-renowned culinary pleasures of Lyon to the lesser-known treasures of Poitou-Charentes on the Atlantic coast.

Well, somebody has to do it on your behalf!

Sacré bleu! The Editor seems to like this stuff…

AMONG the many lovely messages prompted by my Medal Award (more than 40 on Facebook alone, from friends all over the world) was this tribute I will forever treasure, from the Editor of NI Travel News, Brian Ogle, with whom I have enjoyed a long-standing friendship since we worked together in Morton Newspapers and the News Letter about twenty million words ago.

”John has been writing his regular Trew's Travels for more than 25 years. It is extremely popular with our readers - indeed some of them often quite literally follow in John's footsteps, eating in restaurants he has recommended, enjoying conversations with the same waiters and waitresses, staying in the same hotels and guesthouses, and enjoying the same experiences, more often than not in his favourite country, France. That is the best tribute I can pay to John, a master craftsman of the old school of journalism, for his informative, witty, and revealing articles.”

In addition to Brian’s tribute, my favourite coverage was the headline in my local paper, the County Down Spectator: ‘MEDAL OF HONOUR FOR A TREW FRIEND OF FRANCE’ So I stole it for the headline above!

Quartet emphasises our French Connection

THE PRESENTATION of my Medialle du Tourisme in Belfast was timed to coincide with the Centenary of an event that will forever bind the people of France and this part of Ireland together - the Battle of the Somme.

Indeed, the medal ceremony was preceded by an eye-opening Powerpoint presentation by Edouard Roose of Nord-Pas de Calais Tourisme about the remarkable recent advances in what is now known as ‘Remembrance Tourism 14-18’. I was astonished to learn that more than 2000 events have been going on in France to mark the Centenary of World War I, many of them continuing through to 2018 with the celebration of the Armistice that brought history’s most brutal conflict to an end. I urge travellers and Battlefield Tours group leaders to check out details at centenaire.org/en.

Edouard gave us an excellent overview of how a family holiday in Northern France, in particular, can be combined with tours of WWI Remembrance Sites. He concentrated on British / Irish sites located all over the Northern Sector of the Western Front Sector - from the military training port of Etaples (known to my Granda Rea as ‘Eat-Apples’) inland through the valley of the River Somme to places with now-familiar names inscribed in the blood of Ulster folk history: Thiepval, Albert, Beaumont-Hamel, Bapaume…

Most popular sites with visitors from our part of the world are, of course, THIEPVAL FRANCO-BRITISH MEMORIAL and Visitor Centre, biggest of its kind in the world. You cannot read the names of the 72,205 soldiers remembered here because they had no known graves (ie, blown to smithereens) without being overawed by the enormity of it all.

Closer to home is the famous ULSTER TOWER, a replica of Helen’s Tower which overlooked the training grounds of the 36th Ulster Division at Clandeboye, a mile or so from where I am writing this. As everyone here knows, more than 5,000 of those raw recruits were killed or wounded on that fateful day, July 1,1916 while gaining more ground from the Germans than any other Division. Everyone should visit these wonderful memorials and the immaculate WWI Cemetries along the routes linking them; you will be a better person for it. I promise. After the presentations, we all went to see the very timely production of the LYRIC THEATRE’s revival of the Frank McGuinness modern classic ”Observe the Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme”. I sat beside Edouard and was amazed how much he understood the politico-religious motivations of the eight Ulstermen on stage.

I could not, however, fully explain the symbolism of how they all swopped their Orange collarettes with comrades just before they went ‘over the top’ at the play’s powerful climax…

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