This was the day to leave Rome. We'd seen some sights, but were a bit
ready to move on. There's plenty of Italy we have yet to see, and it
was unfortunate that our time in Tuscant so far had been limited to
a drive in the rain. We had heard that Sienna was an excellent place
to visit, and it was about the right distance to Genoa (where we would
rejoin Claus the next day, as he had a side trip to the island of
Sardinia), with Pisa being only a slight detour.
You are not supposed to drive in the main part of Sienna unless you are a
local. The trick is that if you accidently enter the city by car, it is a
bit of a trap when you try to get out. It turned out that we entered town
from the wrong direction, and missed all of the parking for visitors. Oh
well. We left the car temporarily in one of the important squares (hey, I
wasn't the only one) to find a map.
The tourist office had maps and booked us a hotel in Italian. Very
Thanks to our disorganized start, we were too late for dinner and instead
opted for the local Spizzico. It being Halloween, there were a lot of
firecrackers going off and kids dressed up (in case anyone was wondering
if it celebrated over here - I mean, it makes sense; who wouldn't want
another excuse for some kind of party). The old town was pretty quiet,
though, and we settled in early, which was good because the days of the
trip had been a bit long.
Bri and I had some more touring of Rome today, but at night took it easy in the hostel (one of these Lonely Planet-type spots with all English speakers, as it turned out); a few days of early mornings with serious touring (plus supplemental serious drinking) does tend to wear you down. Well, we did venture out in the direction of a bar (or rather, the direction that Brian insisted had a bar), but after walking past one of the big militray bases and ending up in a fairly grim section of town, a discussion of "reasonable risk" ended up with us heading back from whence we came. I will save the "drinking and wandering around" strategy for smaller places like Bologna (sorry Bri).
We wake up in our new place on the edge of Rome, and go for some breakfast
across the street before starting our touring. It's the usual croissant
and thick coffee in this breakfast bar that has a number of regular
customers coming and going. This included a big guy who had ridden there
on his motorcycle. With his fire-themed helmet still on, he greeted us
with the Italian version of "Bon appetit!" and sat down with his 600mL
beer. He chugged his breakfast, and was off with a smile.
Upon arriving in Rome, we wandered our way over the the Vatican. It only started raining around the time we got there, which was pretty lucky. St. Peter's had a crowd, but not much; we didn't have to wait in line to get in or anything. The place is . . . huge. I liked the marks in the floor that indicate where huge cathedrals from around the world would fit inside.
Next up, the Vatican museum, including the Sistine Chapel. Beautiful, and again, not really crowded. I had heard stories that one might wait a couple of hours to get into the "big show" of the chapel, but we basically got there when we were ready from seeing the rest of the museum, and waltzed right in. Very civilized. So if you want to know if it is busy there in October, it isn't. And this is about the busiest place I have visited over here.
Then, Claus wanted to do some shopping (he didn't bring enough clothes, but this was his plan), so Bri and I headed over to the Colloseum for some fancy photography in the dying light.
Dinner was had back in the little town where we were staying, in fact in the restaurant adjacent to the hotel/hostel. We entered and got a lot of curious looks from what we can only assume were all locals. So this made for somewhat of an authentic Italian dining experience (or at least for this part of Italy).
First, we had three big plates of pasta to split. Then, since I was kind of hungry when ordering, I'd asked for the steak with fries. So this huge slab of meat comes out, with a ton of fries on the side. Then of course some desert, and wine and bread all the way throughout. It makes for a bit of a daunting meal. Of course, we were not eating like the tables around us, where there would be an appetizer beforehand and a whole pizza (I'm serious) thrown in there somewhere. Mama mia.
By now, we'd spent more time in Northern Italy than we had originally
planned, but this was not a problem as we'd been enjoying ourselves in
Bologna. Florence was next on the agenda.
After getting partway to our parking space 3 km away from the hotel (this
took over a half hour by car due to exciting urban Italian traffic), we
pulled over. Morale was at a low for the trip (the pouring rain that
would accompany us back to the hotel didn't help, not to mention some of
us were hung over), and upon reflection, we reached an executive decision
to pull out and head straight for Rome.
We were somewhat smarter in our approach to accommodations and parking
for Rome. We would not drive into the city. Instead, we pulled off the
highway shortly before, ending up in a place called Fiano Romano. We
passed a guy walking on the outskirts of this town and asked him (hooray
for Claus' Italian) if he knew where we could stay. He said he would just
grab his car and we could follow him there, which he did and we did. He
dropped us off at a decent, affordable place, which even had free parking
(a bit of a luxury, we were discovering). We found out we were a fifteen
minute drive from a train that would require 10 minutes get to the centre
of Rome. Perfect.
Venice is flooded when we emerge the next morning. The ground is damp
near our hotel, but then as we get closer to Piazza San Marco (the famous
square), we see a lot more evidence that Venice is sinking. This did make
for some stunning shots of the flooded piazza, and made for a different
experience of the city than we had had the previous day.
We packed up and headed South. We had such a good time in Bologna that we
decided to return, this time a bit earlier in the day (in time for dinner,
of course). We found another hotel, parking for the car, and then looked
for some food. In a refreshing chance of pace, we were a bit too early
at our chosen place, and went shopping across the street to kill time.
The clothes were cool . . . though we were completely mystified by a
sweater that was like one of those university team sweaters, for some
"Kingston University" in Kingston, Ontario (Canada?).
Dinner was excellent. Though it was never really a personal goal of
mine, I have now had spaghetti bolognaise in Bologna.
And of course we would go out again. This time, we start at an English
pub with a very happy Happy Hour, where we learn of yet another pub that
is having an international students night. We figured this would be worth
checking out, especially for Brian and I who are hopeless in the Italian
We met up with a German girl and a table consisting of a couple Belgian
guys and an Irish guy, all three law students. One of the Belgians wanted
to know about Canada, as in where did it come from. I don't think it was
just the many beers; I could not remember the name of the famous battle in
Quebec where the English finally "won" and that shaped the subsequent
history of the country. I learned from him that Belgium essentially
exists because, though it was fought over all the time, was too hard to
hold and so France and Germany just kind of gave up.
I will ask you to remember this point in the story as a marker for later.
Sufficiently boozed up, we head for a club that is to be much less sketchy
than the other night. Actually, this place was great. Quite full, not
too huge, and people were friendly. The three of us got separated, only
to meet up every once in a while, but we all agreed it was a great time.
I did pretty well with just English (and the occasional French).
The return to our hotel was complicated by the fact that the map had
somehow become very difficult to read. But after enough attempts in the
narrow streets, we made it.
We would only find out in the morning that Brian didn't remember this
excellent club or the walk afterwards . . . in fact, his memory ends at
that point in the story I flagged above. Too bad; that place was fun.
Also, we will never really know what he did there for that long.
No rest for the wicked; we were a bit sluggish getting out of bed, but it
was the day to head for Venice, now less than two hours away.
We managed to arrive on the day of the Venice marathon, which meant that
most transportation into the city was closed and the bridge was half
reserved for the runners. Undaunted (and really unable to change plans at
this point), we made the slow drive to one of the large parking towers (no
cars are allowed in the city) and found a nice spot for the night (a good
suggestion by Let's Go: Western Europe).
We had the afternoon to walk around and get lots of pictures. As people
will generally tell you, Venice is gorgeous.
We didn't go far enough from our hotel for dinner, as the other diners
were all English-speaking, but it was okay. Then we used our 24-hour bus
passes (there are no cars, meaning no buses as such; these are boats that
stop all around the city) to tour all the way around the city by sitting
on until the end of the line. Claus did not fare so well in the chilly
air coming off the water; he spent most of the ride inside.
After the usual coffee and croissants breakfast, we resumed our drive to
Italy. It is a long way to Venice from C-F, and involves driving through
the Alps (unless you go along the coast, which we were planning to do on
the way back). We opted for the slightly longer but better route
underneath Mont Blanc, the huge mountain you can see from Geneva that is
close to the meeting of Switzerland, France and Italy (in fact, the border
occurs there for the latter two). We got all sorts of fantastic scenery
on the way through the Alps, including the massive Mont Blanc.
As the day wore on, we decided to stop short of Venice, as we didn't want
a repeat of the night before: showing up late and tired. Claus wanted to
check out Bologna, which was a reasonable target, so we skirted Milan and
made it a little late for dinner but early enough to go out.
The only place we found open was an Italian fast food place, Spizzico
(their untranslated slogan: "Molto fast, very good."), which served
adequate pizza and cheap beer. Then it was time to sample the nightlife.
A couple of local girls were kind enough to point us in the direction of
Via Zamboni. Claus had trouble remembering the name (he had never heard
of a zamboni), but Bri and I were excited to hear a word in Italy that was
familiar (yes, I know the street had nothing to do with zambonies), and
had no problem.
We started out at one of the ubiquitous Irish Pubs before tracking down a
nearby club. There is a pretty decent student population in Bologna, many
of them attending the university there, which claims to be the oldest in
Anyway, the club was decent. Drinks appear to be quite a bit cheaper in
Italy than France (but then, what isn't). I tried some drinking while Bri
and Claus worked their magic on the dance floor, and, as things started to
wind down, had met some people. Claus met one guy who claimed to be
Norwegian, but couldn't respond at all when Claus (master of Western
European languages) spoke some Norwegian to him. Then, as he heard Claus
was with a couple of Canadians, he insisted he was Canadian; when pressed,
his story was instead that his mother was from Vancouver and he had a
Canadian passport (if this is true, it's kind of embarrassing for our
country). Anyway, this poseur (also literally; he is living in Milan and
trying to be a model) got really irritating really quickly.
Then came what would be one of the highlights of the trip. Passing our
least favourite guy off on some of his friends, we tried talking to other
people. Bri approached a group of three girls, and led with a variation
on a classic line: "Excuse me, my friend and I overheard you speaking
English, and we were wondering where you were from?", to which he got the
response: "Actually, we're all from different countries and we're not
interested in talking to you." Too shocked to speak, Bri just kind of
stood there before walking back over to me and Claus to recant the story.
We were stunned, and I could only laugh. The girl's response has since
become one of our favourite things to say.
Meanwhile, Claus had discovered a dance club where we could go as the
current one was closing for the night. Mostly lost and mostly drunk, we
walked for a while in the general direction of the place until Claus' thin
European clothes got the better of him and we looked for a cab. A fairly
attractive girl ( <- an age indicator; don't get all mad at me) who had
just gotten out of a car (she seemed to know the people inside)
gently grabs Bri by the arm and greets him with "Ciao, bello . . ." Claus
was far ahead, and Bri and I couldn't respond in Italian, though we
clearly understood the universal "please get in this car" gesture she was
giving him. We passed up this opportunity (not exactly sure what it was,
though the bet is that she was offering . . . services).
So we get to this after-hours dance club. The place is really not my kind
of place. It's in a sketchy part of town literally on the other side of
the tracks from downtown. It's a concrete warehouse with a few different
flavours of dance music and a bunch of drugged out kids (80% male). Bri
loved it, and spent a great deal of time in the "angry jungle" room.
But it is not so bad. Later, before leaving, I chatted a bit with some
Italian guy (who I am pretty sure was neither gay nor trying to sell me
drugs, just being friendly) while, as it turns out, Claus was being kissed
by some girl and Bri was getting tired and finishing up his thrashing (he
did not have the chemical enhancements of his fellow dancers). It was
time to go . . . 4am or so?
France being as large as it is, and with a lot of mountains getting in the
way on the road to Italy, we decided to stop for the night. We chose one
of France's holiday destinations (not too busy this time of year),
A recent heavy snow made for a very cool drive in the central mountains of
France. Sadly, it was a bit dark for pictures. It was some of the only
snow I am expecting to see this winter, though.
We rolled into town fairly late, and finally found somewhere to take us
in, with parking to boot. Claus was quite nervous about the temperature,
but Bri and I enjoyed the crisp fresh air that you can only get at
Clermont-Ferrand is also a former home of the papacy (the Crusades were
directed from there). Since our furthest distance South will be Rome, we
have Christened this road trip "Pope-alooza 2003". Theme songs include
some wacky Danish Eurodance tracks and the "Return of the Mack/California
Love" sequence on "Now 34".
If you are a terribly bored antiflux user, you may have noticed that I now have a gallery of my very own. It has been sitting more or less empty, but now contains some of the pictures I've taken in the last couple of months. I could try to put everything up at once, but I have a ton of pictures already, as well as being behind in getting this log up to date (and filling in missing entries before I forget completely what happened which day). I'm also told that this creates "buzz". So I'm getting in a big update today, and will have to add the rest soon. This may be helpful to those of you reading at work, as you will have a little something each day instead of a bunch of distractions all in one day.
You may want to review some of the old entries, especially those talking about Geneva and Barcelona. And they now have pictures to go with them in the gallery. My suggestion is to look at the September entries, then the October entries, until you are caught up.
France is still treating us well, but we are heading to Italy for a week, leaving tomorrow. Driving in Italy is supposed to be very exciting . . .
On a rare weekend spent in Bordeaux, Brian and I took a day trip with a
couple of his co-workers, Claus and Sepan, to the famous (surely you have
all heard of it) wine region of St. Emilion. There is St. Emilion
proper, which includes the old town built up around the hermit Saint
Emilion as well as the surrounding vineyards. The first part of our tour,
however, was on one of the sections of St. Emilion known as the Satellites
of Saint Emilion, three subsections that claim a slightly different
set of microclimates and hence different wines.
We showed up and were directed to the wine museum in the town, provided
some nice wine glasses (which would be of great use later on), and given a
brief introduction to the region. Next, it was off to the church square
which had several tents set up that housed local producers of meat,
cheese, preserves, and of course wine. It was a little strange as they
had loud radio music in the square, and Eminem (uncensored, as is the
French custom) was playing when we first got there.
We booked in for a wine tasting workshop. The handouts were quite useful,
and I learned a lot in the hour or so we spent there (this is in contrast
to my three companions, who had all opted to take a wine course for hours
a week the past three weeks). Basically, I now understand a bit about
what is going on with the sniffing and swirling and whatnot associated
with wine tasting.
What followed was a lot of wine tasting in the square outside, and a few
samples of the locally produced food. Brian also talked a bit of shop
with the beef people, learning a bit about the differences in the cattle
industries in Canada and France.
The town of St. Emilion, Claus assured us, is really something to see, so
we took a break from downing wine to pay it a visit. He is right. The
place is a UNESCO World Heritage site, meaning the town is preserved to
look "old". We didn't get the official tour, but resolved to come back
for it, and instead wandered through the cobblestone (rougher than usual)
streets among the many wine vendors. There is also a tower with a great
view of the town and surrounding area, as you can see in the pictures.
Before heading home, we went back to the first town for some more wine. I
was driving, so I had to limit myself to little tastes, but the others got
to drink up while conversing with the actual producers.
This was a quiet day, with some recovering from the driving blitz of France over the previous four days. I sent my NSERC application in electronically, and faxed the pages requiring a signature, with hard copy to follow. Kind of disappointing; as Tim would wonder, when will we finally have this digital signature ability available?
As a side note on faxing in France, there are help-yourself fax machines here at the post offices. You pay using your phone card (Télécarte), which you need to make regular phone calls anyway (almost no pay phones accept coins anymore).
Hotel de la Poste is a great place, the nicest of the hotels in which we stayed. Big room, big bathroom, and most importantly, big breakfast. The help-yourself buffet had meat (!), eggs and cereal along with all the usual stuff. Excellent.
Before leaving town, we walked up the hill to the Chartres cathedral, famous for its blue stained glass. It is a bit of a frankenbuilding; one spire is Roman, the other Gothic (added much later of course). It was to be torn down during (I think) the Revolution, but whoever was in charge ran out of money and/or never got around to it.
One spire Roman, the other Gothic. Which is which? Nobody will ever know.
As it turned out, we misjudged our travel time slightly, and could not make the booked tour in the caves, but we found another cave (turns out there are 300 of these things scattered in Southern France and Northern Spain), actually a replica of one whose paintings are estimated to be even older. The Lascaux site was only discovered about 50 years ago, but after a decade of touring, it was discovered that the tour groups and the modern ventilation combined to produce mold and calcium deposits on the immaculately preserved cave paintings, estimated at about 17,000 years old. The site was then closed to the public, but a replica of the caves was painstakingly built about 100m away in a cave now called Lascaux II. It is not the ultimate in cave tours, but it was still pretty cool to see these things in a more or less natural form (the artists who did the reproduction tried to stay as close to the primitive art tools as possible, and the copy is supposed to be quite faithful).
Finally, it was time to head back to Bordeaux to meet up with Brian for supper (he had been busy at the wine-tasting course). After some ugly traffic upon reaching the city, we were "home", such as it is.
There are a number of memorials in the Somme region. Canada was granted a square kilometre of land on which to build its memorial, and the Canadians at the time decided it would be best to leave most of it untouched. So most of the undulating lawn is fenced off because it still contains mines.
The site is hosted by Canadian students (I have to admit, I found the Canadian English there very pleasing to the ears) that work at the interpretive centre and give tours, including a tour of the shallow part of the tunnel system dug by the British. The site also includes trenches that have been kept up for touring, so that one can get a tiny sense of what the place looked like nearly 100 years ago during the war. We arrived in time for the last tunnel tour of the day with a group of boisterous Welsh boys on a school tour and a few other Canadians.
The tunnels are about 10m down, and you spend a good half hour down there seeing the various tiny rooms where things went on (officers' quarters, planning room, munitions). They packed over a thousand troops down there before the big "Over The Top" assault, and it's hard to imagine . . . it is not great down there even with the modern ventilation that has been added for tours. There is also a system of tunnels at 30m below the surface, which are not considered safe for tours, though they have been explored. The Germans also had tunnels at that depth, and apparently the two systems ran into each other at some point.
Thank you to Patricia from Newfoundland, our guide, who gave an excellent tour and managed the enthusiastic kids very well.
The memorial itself is a massive structure (you may have seen it if you've watched a Rememberance Day service on tv). Walking around it, I found the sense of history and loss very powerful.
I would recommend that anyone, especially Canadians, visit this memorial site if you are anywhere in the area (it is not too far from Paris).
Lest we forget.
This was the new Louvre day. Dad got an earlier start while I finished up my NSERC application, and I joined him at the Venus de Milo mid-morning.
The Louvre is really incredibly beautiful and really incredibly huge. The guide books even tell you not to try too hard to see very much, as you are bound to be disappointed. We could only handle a few hours at a time of armless, noseless sculptures, but made it first through the Roman section, then up to some of the painting gallerys. Of course we had to see the Mona Lisa; I was interested to see it in person to see if the stories I heard were true. The results were mixed. The crowd was not terribly big, though it was more crowded than the rest of the museum (a lot of echoes in the Islamic wing we visited next), but then, that's what you get for visiting in October. And this most famous painting was bigger than I expected, as I'd heard it was quite small (sorry, Jordi).
After a sufficient visit (as we read in one of the guide books, walking slowly with frequent stops tends to wear you out quickly), we headed out of Paris, our goal being to visit the Vimy memorial site during the daylight and possibly catch the tour (we made it for the last tour of the day). I've added this as a separate entry.
By the time you get up to the Somme region, you are within spitting distance of Belgium, so we headed for supper there. It was a quick stop in Tourini, enough time to grab some dinner and read a number of Belgian roadsigns. Not the ultimate way to see a country, but we didn't really have a lot of time at this point. Wanting to be back down South for the next afternoon, we drove to Chartres for the night.
We didn't hurry out of bed, and grabbed the usual petit dejeuner (coffee, juice, croissants, bread, butter, jam) before heading up to Paris. We had a decent parking space right on one of the new metro lines (thanks for the siggestion Nicki) underneath the huge national library in the South East of Paris. It turned out to be a great day for visiting museums; very cloudy and a bit rainy.
This was going to be Louvre day, but it also happened to be Tuesday, the day the Louvre is closed. So we had to make due with another of Paris' major museums.
After convincing ourselves and each other that the large Impressionist art collection had moved across the river from the Orangerie (next to Place de la Concorde), we made our way to the Musée d'Orsay for the afternoon. It is a great place with an amazing collection, if you happen to like, among other things, Impressionist painting. The stated purpose is to take up where the Louvre lets off, covering the period from the mid 1800's through the first quarter of the 20th century.
With Brian back at work for the week, Dad and I decided to make full use of the car and guide books in a four-day tour of France. Well, not all of France, obviously, but we hit some pretty distant destinations. We had booked a cave tour to see some 14,000 year old cave painting back in the South of France for Thursday afternoon.
This first day, we avoided the toll highways on the way to Paris, and set out on a fairly direct route along the free national routes towards Fontainbleau.
Along the way, we passed through the least densely populated part of France, the Limousin region, home to the Limousine breed of cattle. We took pictures of some examples for Laura.
Lunch was had at one of the side-of-the-road picnin areas that seems to be pretty popular (apparently camping is very popular in the summer). These places, including their tourist offices, are mostly deserted at this time of year, so we had our pick of picnic tables to enjoy our (what else) cheese, bread and wine.
Our drive also took us through Limoge, famous for its porcelain (copied from the Chinese, of course). We stopped at a big porcelain factory/showroom and I have to admit they have some pretty nice stuff there, not to mention rooms and rooms of it.
Eventually, we made it up to Fontainbleau and met Nicki for dinner. She took us to this little crepe place she likes (yummy), and we had a great visit. Afterwards, Dad and I tracked down a hotel for the night and got some rest before driving the hour to Paris in the morning.
The plan for today was to stop in Toulouse for some lunch before heading on to fancy castles and such. We were in fact well enough prepared to have brought a fine lunch of cheese, bread and wine. We found a nice public square, got to the food, opened up the wine . . . we weren't exactly clear on public drinking laws, but nobody seemed to mind . . . even though we kind of forgot to bring cups . . . (as such, this entry is devoted to Ben).
Carcasonne, apart from being the name of a nice German board game I was introduced to in Saskatoon this past year, is a heavily fortified old town, which was far enough into French territory by the time cannons were invented to be preserved.
To get to Foix requires a drive down into the Pyrynees. We were partially retracing our steps from the Andorra trip here, but it was nicer to see things with some daylight available and no dense fog on the drive back.
There is a lovely gallery of this stuff here.
Dad, Bri and I decided to start our weekend in Basque country, the extreme Southwest part of France.
Bayonne is (so we hear) a farily typical Basque town, as you may be able to tell from the pictures. They are famous for their pork and chocolate.
Biarritz is more of a resort/holiday destination, and is quite built up in that respect; we didn't go into the casino, but it looked pretty fancy. Sadly, we found rain for the second Saturday in a row, but got in some nice pictures of the coast before it got too wet. This was also the first place I've seen surfers in Europe, though I've since learned that the major surfing spot for Europe is pretty close to Bordeaux.
But don't take my word for it; see the gallery.
For the sunset, we made the short drive to Arcachon Basin. Brian has written an entry, somewhat of a story in pictures, and I do not have much to add. Apparently, a lot of people from Bordeaux head out there in the summer; it is, after all, the closest beach, and only about a half hour away by car.
I will say, it is interesting seeing the sun set over the Atlantic . . .