As one might suspect, this was a day of nursing hangovers. Laura and I also had to sluggishly pack our things, then got a ride to the airport from our gracious host. After a greasy McDonald's lunch, we caught the plane to Aarhus, Denmark.
I don't know if they will read this, but thank you to Darren, Ray and Sue for making our visit to Ireland such a great one. Hope to see you soon . . .
As it turns out, the airport for Aarhus is a converted German landing strip from the war, located in a strategic out-of-the-way location. Claus was kind enough to pick us up, and we stopped by downtown for a bite to eat, finding only the McDonald's to be open; it was the quietest he had ever seen, but this is to be expected on New Year's night, I suppose.
Before going out to party like it's 2003, we headed into Dublin for some more touring. Unfortunely, it ended up being another colder, rainy day.
To combat this, we went to a pub (a fine solution for most things) and tried the day's carvery (lunch buffet). Roast beef, three kinds of potatoes . . . good stuff. It was talking to the staff there, however, that I realized I was having an easier time understanding people in France than in either the UK or Ireland.
As an afternoon indoor activity, we headed to the Jameson's distillery, where we learned many times over that Irish whiskey is distinctive in that the malt is not smoked and the alcohol is distilled three times (as opposed to Scotch, smoked and distilled twice, or bourbon distilled once). The tour concludes with a tasting session. Apparently Bri got to be one of the tasters who all managed to choose an Irish whiskeys as their favourites. I came close to enjoying my sample of the stuff, which is to say I only wished I were drinking beer part of the time.
The drink of choice this New Year's Eve would be martinis prepared by Darren in his new shaker (Bri's thoughtful gift). We made it to Earth (Drogheda's other club) in time for the countdown, and were there for . . . a while? Laura was the star, taking shots and drinks from all sorts of people, breaking hearts and taking names.
As one might imagine after the previous evening's festivities, we slept in, watched movies, and ordered pizza. And what a great day for it: the most rain we'd seen in a while.
At the suggestion of Brian, Ray and Darren, we figured a day trip up to Belfast would be in order. We caught the sunrise (at 8am, remember how far north we are) train to Belfast. The usual ultra-green scenery was covered in frost and fog, which burned off as the ride moved along.
We randomly chose a direction for our walking tour and picked West Belfast first. Not really a touristy area, it is somewhat rundown and even has several relics from the nastier parts of recent Irish history (a huge barrier on one of the main roads that was once used to separate the Catholic and Protestant parts of the city, the huge prison used for poilitical prisoners, to name two).
Around lunch time we wandered in the Crown pub, old and famous for its design. A hundred some years ago there was a cathedral-building boom in Northern Ireland, and a number of Italian artisans were brought up to work on these massive buildings. The Crown's owner paid some of them to moonlight in his pub, and the result is quite a strking effect of stained glass and fancy booths.
The afternoon started with a hike down to Queen's University, another one of these schools that I can't believe is really a school for people anymore. We warmed up (yes, a common pastime in this weather) at the botanical gardens before discovering the nearby Ulster Museum (basically the national museum for Northern Ireland). It had all kinds of displays for all parts of the country's history, including art, primitive cultures arriving some 9000 years ago, local fauna (including skeletons of extinct deer the size of horses), and a whole section devoted to the history of "The Troubles" that included a number of moving stories and displays.
Upon our return to Drogheda (conveniently located before Dbulin on the way home from Belfast), it was time to visit the pubs. I continued my study of the local beer (mostly Guinness) while Laura sampled some whiskeys. We met some of Darren's friends from the hospital, and when the early pub-closing hour arrived, we all headed to Storm, one of the two clubs in Drogheda (the other is Earth, across the street). When that wasn't enough, we headed back to Darren's for one of those classic post-bar after-parties: people have already had too much but pound back beers anyway, people you don't know and really don't want show up, and some people just can't be encouraged to go home at 5am. But all in all, a good time.
Today's touring of Dubin (Sue was kind enough to give us a lift into town)included a quiet walk around some of the city parks (practically deserted this time of year). To warm up, we stopped at the National Art Gallery.
The evening back in Drogheda was pretty relaxing. We met Ray, Darren's roommate, and by the time we all decided to go for a drink, it was practially 11pm. We arrived within view of the nearest pub only to see its doors closing for the night, like its competitor across the street had already done. Undaunted but a bit cold, we tried down the street, and saw a group of guys being let in to one of the pubs after knocking. We tried this strategy, and were able to sneak in. Darren was promptly beeped to the hospital, but Ray say he would stay for "one pint". We managed to squeeze in three by the time they stopped serving, of course. Meanwhile, the table of ten or so people next to us had broken out into a series of Irish drinking songs. They were a bit surprised that we didn't know any of the words ("but surely you've heard this one: . . ."), well, Ray did, but as he said (quietly to me and Laura), they tended to sing different songs up in Northern Ireland (he is from Belfast). In any case, the crowd was super friendly at this packed little pub, and by the time we were all kicked out, we'd downed enough courage for the walk home.
As the city was gradually getting back into the swing of things after the holiday, it was a bit quiet at the tourist office, but pretty much everything was open. We opted for the Dublin historical walking tour, which had a bit less walking than I expected, which was only an issue because it was a chilly day (but clear, can't complain) in Dublin. The guide taught us quite a bit about the local history, and that of Ireland in general, including the great rift that still stands today. His message was optimistic, though on unification. I'll keep my fingers crossed.
In the afternoon, Laura and I made what will likely be the closest I will get to a religious pilgrimage on this whole trip: a tour of the Guinness brewery. From blocks away, you can smell the warm malt. On the way to the front entrance, we wandered through the old brick compound (the brewery owns several city blocks on a 9000 year lease; that man was a genius), crossing over some of the small-gauge rail lines that were once used for transport between the buildings. After finding the tour tower, we paid our entrance, each getting a key chain that contains a drop of Guinness, and wound our way up the various floors, checking out the fancy AV presentations along the way. These people really know what they're doing; the tour concludes at the top of the tower, with a great view of the city, in a circular room with a circular bar in the middle where you get a pint of Guinness on the house. To top it off, we were there for the sunset (coming pretty early at this time of year).
After some gift shopping, it was time to meet up with Darren, our soon-to-be host. Darren is the older brother of on of Bri's best friends from high school. He's very enthusiastic about everything, but in particular about drinking. To this end, we met up with his girlfriend, Sue, and went out for some beers at one pub (this small Dublin suburb has tons of them) and then out for a dinner of tasty steak and more drinks, including the Baby Guiness shot: Kahlua on the bottom, with Bailey's layered on top so it looks just like a tiny pint of Guinness.
I settled in wistfully for my last big breakfast at the B&B. The people there had been very nice, and the rooms were comfortable. Plus we didn't really know where we would be staying the night, only that it would be in Ireland.
Ken and Mabel had us over for some tasty curry before kindly giving us a lift to the Bristol airport. Laura and I had no problem checking in and were excited about starting this part of the trip together.
The flight seemed to be no problem, though I had a bit of a cold. Laura asked me if that was going to bother me, and I said no, thinking it was just a matter of enough kleenex. Then, as we approached Dublin, I discovered that sinuses can be a serious issue when you are in a landing airplane. It started as something like an insect bite on one of my temples; I asked Laura if she could see a bug or something, and she said no. Then it spread to the other temple, and I knew something was up, and it just got worse and worse until I felt like my head was going to explode through my eyebrows. I was sweating all over and nauseous (kept it in, which was appreciated by the guy sitting next to us) and it was the worst pain that I can remember having for a long time (probably because it is right in my head and I don't get headaches). The moral of the story is to take decongestants (which I did religiously after this incident) if you are flying with a head cold.
In Ireland, Christmas lasts for three days in the sense that everything is shut down from the 24th to the 26th (Saint Stephen's Day). Unable to catch any kind of transportation up to Drogheda, we stayed at a hostel in Dublin near the bus station.
Eateries and pubs were also quite limited on this holiday night, but we did find a hotel pub around the corner (one of many, but this one was open and had food) that had a restaurant in the back. I ordered an irish stew that turned out to be nearly the size of my head. Delicious. Then we retired to the drinking area for some . . . drinking. Guinness in Ireland . . . so good . . .
I don't think I've ever been hungover for Christmas, but there you go.
Mom and Dad had their flight back to Canada, so Laura and I had booked in for Christmas lunch at the B&B. Alex, the owner, had a friend helping to make the lunch, and it was delicious and (not surprisingly) very filling. Our company for the meal was a big switch from the usual family and a few well-known friends. Instead, we had a couple from Liverpool who I think were trying not to kill their buzz from the previous night, and a former Army guy who was just moving back from being a driving instructor in Ireland. We mentioned we were going to Ireland and he did a good job convincing us not to rent a car there.
We spent the evening at Ken and Mabel's where we were introduced to some more recent British comedy and played a little "guess the booze" game (whih went over pretty well with my stomach after the big meal, except for the schnappes).
The bed and breakfast Laura and I were staying at is in Weston Super Mar, a resort town South and West of Bristol. We had a walk around with Mom and Dad today, including some delicious fish and chips and of course a stop by a pub for a couple pints. Christmas carols were playing everywhere, as you might expect.
Mom and Dad had booked in for a BBQ elsewhere, so Laura and I met up with Andy, who was stuck working until 10pm or so, in Bristol for a little Christmas cheer. Andy's place was pretty quiet (recently opened under new management), so we stopped by another pub down the street (in fact, this street was all pubs) for some food. I ordered a potatoe with chicken on it, and got more like two and a half big potatoes with a bunch of tasty curry chicken on them. There was a group of maybe twenty people next to us, with one guy who seemed to need to moon everyone every few minutes, but I was quite content to keep drinking the Director's they had on tap.
After treating us to the horrible, horrible red and blue After Shocks, Andy had his pub locked up around 10:30pm and we were ready to head out on the town. This might sound like we had the whole night ahead of us, but not so. Even though (or probably because) the whole country revolves around the pub culture, the pubs all have to close at 11pm. The best you can hope for after that is to be locked in for another hour or so. This is what happened for us at the karaoke bar we drank at. The place was busy and the owners were really friendly to us.
On the way out, a fight started between this guy and the girl he was with. Things escalated as others started to join in. Meanwhile, Andy was having trouble getting his car started . . . we finally decided to book it using a push start (which worked before anybody nearby started throwing anything).
After another huge breakfast, Laura and I met with Mom and Dad to drive up to Birmingham to visit Len and Hazel (Bri, Dad and I saw them at their French cottage in Perigord back in October). This is about a two and half hour drive from Bristol, but when you mention you've made such a trip to English people, it's like you've crossed half the planet.
We had a massive holiday lunch - roast beef and all the trimmings. This was had in early afternoon, and then the rest of the afternoon was left for sitting around stuffed and chatting. And drinking . . .
Len and Hazel have been family friends spanning few generations. Hazel has some pictures from when she visited my grandparents before my Dad was born, so I tried to capture them with my digital so that there is another copy. We'll see how those turn out.
Laura and I were treated to our first English breakfast this morning at the B&B. Eggs, bacon, ham, sausage, potatoes, tomatoes, beans and toast, plus coffee, tea and juice. So excellent.
The four of us went for a bit of Christmas shopping with Ken and his wife Mabel at a factory outlet spot. First order of the day was shoe shopping at the famous Clark's, where I found a pair of boots I'm looking forward to when my current ones give up on me. We also found a Cadbury's outlet, where they had these half-kilo bags of factory rejects for a few pounds. Yummy.
When we needed a break, Dad, Ken and I went for a beer at a nearby pub (as it turns out, when you are in England, there is always a nearby pub). Ken explained the system of pubs: many were outlets for a specific brewery, and sold ale from them only, while "freehouses" carry whatever they like. The ales are fresh draught beer, most of which you can't get bottled (or canned).
That night Laura and I were left in the able care of Andy (Ken and Mabel's son). He is a great guy that bartends in Bristol. Tonight we visited the White Hart, a cozy establishment, where we had fish and chips (but of course) and tried out the available brews. I worked my way through pints of the three Badgers they had on tap. The bartender was a woman who had recently taken over management of the place, and helped us try out some drinks: whiskey for Laura and a wacky Fursty Ferret beer for me.
We also met Andy's girlfriend, Lindsey, who stopped by for a couple drinks with us. The two of them insisted that Laura has a much stronger (Canadian?) accent then I do.
If you happen to rent a car that you want to drop off at the Toulouse airport, be sure to get gas a while before actually reaching the area. I had trouble finding any, and had to return the thing without much gas left (it adds up when you pay the rental rate). The nice thing was, we just dropped the car and got ready for the flight. As we were taking EasyJet, we had some limits on the baggage, so we evened things out, made some decisions about items that wouldn't make the trip with us, and checked in (we discovered that if you are traveling together, they just add up your baggage limit, within reason I suppose).
It is a short flight to Gatwick airport from Toulouse: just under 2 hours. Our tickets ended up costing something like 30 Euros per person. This is much faster and much cheaper than any alternative . . . some day I will find out what these discount airline people are up to.
Once we arrived in England, we were met by a family friend, Ken, who was very kind to pick us up and take us out to Bristol. The highways are incredibly clogged in Britain (not so bad this particular day, however) to the point where they have dynamic speed limits displayed by lit-up signs to alleviate major congestion. I said it must be difficult for everyone as they are forced to drive on the wrong side of the road.
Dinner was at the Orchid in the town of Cheddar, also in the area. To get there, we drove past this Anyway, the food was this amazing Indian buffet and the hosts were super friendly.
To top it off, Laura and I ended up at a nice little bed and breakfast where we each had our own rooms on the top floor.
Today was the last day in the apartment. I took Bri to the airport. Perhaps because of all these wacky discount airlines available, baggage weight scales are available for public use in the Bordeaux airport. So, after some quick repacking to even out his two suitcases (he was about 1kg under the combined limit - nice job), we carted him up to the checkout counter. It was hard to see him off after a really great four months together, but I am really grateful for the time we've had. It was also made a bit easier by the funny check-in guy, who asked if we were flying together, and when Bri said he would be alone, the guy replied: "Oh, comme un grand!" ("Oh, like a big boy!") and then proceeded to give Bri some of the Christmas candy that I think was only supposed to be for kids.
After some final touches on the apartment, the four remaining Codes headed to St. Emilion for lunch and a walk around. We ate at Dominiques, downhill slightly from the main square, which had delicious food and a great house wine (I guess they have an image to protect in that particular town).
We took a stab at driving up to Limoges for the china tour, but due to a bunch of construction we eventually gave up and headed for the night's stop, Toulouse. Our flight was from the airport the next morning, and we wanted to stay in that area.
We happened upon a Formula 1 near the airport, a chain I remembered Claus recommending as a wacky discount hotel. Basically, it is completely automated. They have a person there during the day, and presumably to clean the rooms, but that's about it. There are no keys, just codes for the keypads outside each room (also gets you into the hotel) - this allows automated check in with credit cards at the front entrance if you arrive late (the parking lot filled up considerably by the next morning). The rooms are all identical: a double bed with a single bunk over top, tv sink and square window, all in a roughly cube-shaped space. The bathroom and shower stalls are in the hallway, some for each little quadrant of the hotel building, and are self-cleaning after each use. The price is admittedly tough to beat (something like 25 Euros a room right by the airport for up to three people).
Not too worse for wear after our late-night festivities, and with Claus' no-call signaling he had made it to the plane, we prepared for an exciting day of packing and cleaning while Bri went for his last day of work. Fun chores included:
- taking the wine bottles for recycling. Bri and I had collected 72 bottles, about one for each day we spent in Bordeaux.
- carefully packing four bags for checking on the EasyJet flight the next day (I was worried about the weight restrictions . . .)
- shipping some of Claus' stuff, as well as some of ours to meet us in the UK (again, the luggage restrictions).
Of course, I couldn't have managed all of it in such a short time without the help of the rest of the family (thanks guys).
The evening meal was couscous at a Moroccan restaurant with Abdul Aziz and Hedi (co-workers of Bri) and their girlfriends. Delicious. Basically, you get a tasty vegetable soup and some kind of meat (or in my case, the variety platter of meat - man that lamb was good) and eat it all with a bed of couscous. So good. It was nice spending an evening with them, too, as they are good guys and I had hung out with them a bit at Bri's work.
On the way home, we checked out some of the Christmas lights in Bordeaux. Bri actually got to see some (how different were are experiences of the city), and I grabbed some pictures.
Today I would give my final walking tour of Bordeaux. Having done about five or so of these things, I had my system down, and lots of ideas for a route with Mom and Laura. The big open Place des Quinconces was closed (we later found out this was probably for Jacques Chirac's impending visit to welcome the tramway opening; apparently the mayor of Bordeaux is an old buddy/crony of his), but we still checked out the monument (I have pictures already . . .).
The highlight was the Christmas market, which I hadn't really checked out yet. These are apparently quite common in Europe: the Bordeaux version was all on the centre of one of the main downtown boulevards, with little chalet huts all in a row selling crafts, local food specialties (foie gras, chocolate), lots of little gift-type things like ornaments, wine (of course) and some snack vendors selling crepes and vin chaud (heated spicy wine).
It was the last night in Bordeaux for Claus. The evening would be a quiet one at the apartment, with pizza, some packing, and drinking the leftover booze from both ours and Claus' apartments.
As Brian still had work tomorrow and the parents were off to their hotel, Claus and Laura and I decided to take a crack at the local nightlife. We headed to the Bodegon (Bordeaux's finest underage drinkers? Close enough. All I know is they played that way-o song that I hate and Claus laughed, but I got back at him when they played the robot-talking song he despises). Then it was one last tour to the brasilien club Via Brasil, one of Claus' favourite spots where he knew the staff and owned at the dancing. Sadly, it was quite dead in there, so we made our way home, narrowly missing a serious projectile vomiter after corssing the street. Claus made it home in time for an hour's sleep before the taxi came for him at 4:30am.
In the morning, we had a surprisingly large breakfast (you might call it a North American version of "continental") and made the short trip back to the Mont. There's lots of walking to be done in the little town on the hill, and then there is the monastery to tour. Like many such towns, it was built around a monestary, then later fortified.
We were hoping to get back to Bordeaux that night, which meant heading straight South through pretty much the height of France. While looking for a small town for lunch (getting a bit smarter, aren't I), Mom recognized the name of the town Langon as the home of her maternal grandmother. We knew we were in the neighbourhood, which is to say somewhere near Rennes in the North-West, but had no idea where exactly we were headed. We stopped in, and after lunch nearby (Langon is so small that it doesn't have a restaurant itself, but there is another little town a couple kilometres away where we found a restaurant holding Indian-themed week - yummy, if surprising out in the middle of the French countryside) we stopped at the mairie (town hall) to see if they had any records. We discovered that my great-grandmother and great-grandfather were married at the church across the road and were both from the area (they later left for Canada). We only went back a little ways into the family tree, not because the records weren't there but because they were a bit overwhelming - I think they dated back to roughly 1700, which the lady at the front desk had initially apologized about as being such a short history.
We almost made it to Saint Aubin la Plaine near Nantes, where Mom's paternal great-grandfather came from, but it was late and we needed to press on. Still we were quite happy with our earlier discoveries.
We got into Bordeaux pretty late and hit the Boucherie (restaurant chain) for supper before they closed around midnight. As it turns out, a long drive in a tiny car can get pretty exhausting, and I would recommend a bigger vehicle for anyone in similar circumstances (myself included).
In the planning for this little family venture, my main concern would be this morning's departure from Paris: after seeing how much stuff everybody had brought with them, I was not sure it would all fit in the car I had arranged to rent. I was partly right . . . by ditching an old suitcase (as expected), we were able to cram uncomfortably into the little Peugeot 206. I think this car is designed for four people with two bags, or something like that. We had five with about five.
Somebody (I won't metnion who here) forgot something back at the apartment, so we had to turn around after getting on the freeway. This is only notable because it was my first serious driving experience in Paris, which included one of these quasi-roundabouts that is more like a massive square (10+ lanes of traffic from each direction) where some are going in a circle and some (like us) are cutting across. The bus driver that passed inches from our front bumper was pretty impressive.
Chartres was a great place to stop for lunch. I might have mentioned this before, but don't eat in the big cities; even though a place like Chartres is wel-touristed (though not in this season, of course), good food seems much easier to find. We also squeezed in a tour of the large frankencathedral and its blue stained glass.
Our target for the night was Mont Saint Michel, a medieval town built on a hill in the middle of tidal flats. It is surrounded by water at high tide (a great tactical advantage; it did not fall to the Brits even though the rest of the surrounding countryside did) and has been recommended by almost eveyone who's been there as a top place to visit in France.
We would not be disappointed. We arrived at sunset, too late to really tour around, but we did get a good look from the outside.
There are a number of hotels on the mainland-side of the causeway (and some right on the Mont, though they are a bit fancy), closed during this low season. But there are great bed and breakfast places all around, and we found one where the rooms had an uninterrupted view of the Mont.
Dinner was had at a small local restaurant, one of the few open. I'll try to track down the name . . . the food was excellent, regional stuff including seafood stew and other tasty stuff.
While this was vacation for all of us, it felt less so for me, as I was doing a lot of the same stuff I've been up to for months now. Dad and I had one major chore for the morning: cart Laura's immense duffel bag to Nicolas' for storage until she was ready to leave for Africa on exchange a month later. It did require the work of two people (would have been a long cab ride) to lift and move the thing via two metros and the suburban train to Asnières. After some sweating and some cursing, we dragged ourselves and this massive pack to Nicolas' door, where he welcomed us in for some refreshing water and a chat before we left him to his day.
Next up was meeting the rest of the family at the St. Michel fountain (a common meeting place, I am told). It is surrounded by a university bookstore that is contained in several shops around the square, where Dad and I alternated browsing while waiting for the others (partly to stay occupied, partly to warm up). After they showed up and we had a tasty round of ham/cheese/mushroom crepes, we were off to Montmartre.
Montmartre is a huge cathedral built within the last couple hundred years (practically new by French standards) located on a big hill in sort of the North part of the city. After fending off the many bracelet-makers ("let me just put this on you!") we hiked up the hill for a good view (clear and cold again, pretty lucky) and then the many steps to the top of the cathedral for an even better one that included the sunset.
At the top it is just a circular hallway running around the dome. The place was not crowded by any means, but I ran into someone I knew from the University of Saskatchewan who was stopped over in Paris on his way to Russia. Wacky.
As Bri had so generously offered to pick up our parents on Friday (a three to four hour proposition), I figured it was my turn to head to the airport for Laura's arrival while Mom, Dad and Bri headed for the Impressionists at Orsay Museum. Plus, I don't see Laura very often, certainly less so than the others. I was a bit shocked by the size of the huge duffel bag she had brought (I was the only one with an appreciation for the car we would be squeezing into in a few days' time), but it was good to see her.
We all met up at Notre Dame and climbed the many steps up for the great view (check the gallery for pictures some time). It was chilly but clear. We followed it up with a walk around the cathedral itself, then made the short walk over to Sainte Chappelle and its fancy stained glass.
Bri, Laura and Dad, the photographers of the family, took in the Photography Museum, while Mom and I had a chilly walk to check out the lights and local business (we passed one of the many real estate offices to check out the prices of available apartments in the windows - let's just say you can pay an awful lot of Euros for a few square metres of space) followed by a couple pints at a Scottish pub near the museum. Somehow the others knew to find us there. :)
Then it was time for dinner. We met with our favourite parisien, Nicolas, along the Champs Elysees and found a nearby Hippopotamus restaurant ("Try some Hippo-therapy" one of their signs suggests) for supper. Their specialty is steak (mainly beef, but also with ostrich on offer - sadly no emu) which was just fine by me. It's not something I usually complain about, but the service was quite bad (long waits, forgotten stuff, weird waitress), which Nicolas assured us is qutie common in the City of Light.
While Bri and Dad visited the Centre Georges Pompidou and its wacky modern art museum, Mom and I opted for a visit to the Louvre. We walked down the long corridor of paintings that lead to the Mona Lisa. I got a bit more into some of them. We also checked out some of the Italian paintings further on (the whole place was thankfully still not crowded - I may nver visit in summer). I was struck by a series of paintings of Venice (I'd since been there) and how it really looked pretty much the same a few hundred years ago as it does now (well, when we visited in October), and these paintings are what people had to capture the image back then.
The spaghetti ingredients I had purchased the day before would be used for our evening meal; we were saving up for dinners out with Laura, due to arrive tomorrow morning. The French supermarkets carry a handy version of ground beef: bolognaise-style ground beef, which has a bunch of stuff in it already so that you can cheat and make a really easy meat sauce. I wonder if this is available at home?
After an early morning walk to the train station, Bri and I caught the fast train (is there any other kind?) up to Paris. The train was a bit late picking us up, as there are actually two separate trains that chain together at Bordeaux, and one of them was late. The result was that we would split up upon arrival in Paris; Bri would go find Mom and Dad at the airport while I headed for the apartment we were renting.
As it turns out, this apartment rental is a really good deal if you have several people staying in Paris (I'm sure the same system exists elsewhere, but this was my first exposure to it). We rented through a last-minute deal with Vacation In Paris, and ended up with a great place with enough room for the five of us (Laura would join us soon) and conveniently located near food and (most importantly) a metro stop. A bonus was that the company is American, so we were able to pay in the recently cheaper US dollars.
Once I had the keys, and since the others would still be a while, I set about my usual routine: grocery shopping for the evening meal and some wine, followed by a bit of sitting around (did I mention the last few months have been pretty relaxing?).
Mom and Dad brought all sorts of stuff with them from Canada. Very welcome amongst these were the Christmas treats, especially the shortbread. Of course, it was great for the four of us to be together again, and we were very excited for Laura's arrival on the weekend.
The evening was a quiet one, since we'd all been on the road for most of the day. We had dinner at a little Lebanese place around the corner, and walked around Neuilly-sur-Seine, the suburb of Paris where we were staying that was lit up with Christmas lights.
Well, today I returned our plucky little Renault Clio with its first 12,700km. That is an average of 230km a day over the time we had it, which helped me realize why I still felt like I was moving even on days when we didn't go anywhere.
I can recommend the Eurodrive program to anyone visiting France for any extended period. It was hassle free (mind you, I didn't get in any accidents) and required almost no paperwork on my part.
Apparently this program is quite popular, and ends up making a signifincant contribution of cars to the French market. Renault deals something like 25,000 cars per year through this program, Peugeot 20,000, and another manufacturer (can't remember) some smaller amount. In Bordeaux, the cars are leased by a lot of surfers.
The guy I dropped the car off with was nice enough to take me back into town with him (in Bordeaux, the car had to be picked up and dropped off at the airport). He is a big fan of Canadians as he had a longtime Canadian friend who worked at the Paris embassy.
First up in our tourtoday: the Catacombs under Paris. They had these tunnels,
and at some point, the city was filling up with too many graveyards, so
somebody had the idea to exhume them all and put them underground. This
makes for a really interesting visit if you get the chance. The descent
is 20m via a tight spiral staircase, so you feel like you are very deep
underground (well, I guess you are, even beneath the metro). There are
bones from five to six million former Parisiens down there, with
accompanying engraved slabs with philosophical and/or pithy expressions
No visit to Paris is complete without a stroll along the Champs Elysees.
We made the famous walk from Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe,
and were then ready for a couple of beers before meeting up with Nicolas
Nicolas took us to a restaurant called Entrecote, just off the Champs
Elysees. The specialty there is beef with fries with their tasty sauce
(which must be at least half butter). Very, very good.
Bri and I were treated to a walking tour by our host Nicolas. We several
of the usual Paris sights . . . the gallery offers a better recount.
Nicolas was most helpful in that he knew how to get us into the Sorbonne,
yet another oldest university in Europe. This was cool because I know somebody who went there (hi Megan!) and wanted to check it out, but it is
not exactly a place where you just waltz in to tour around. So we pretended
to be students (there was a conference of some sort, so it wasn't too tricky)
and checked it out. It's another of these places, like the university in
Bologna, where I can't believe people actually attend classes. But there
Nicolas then had to go home, and left us on our own to head to the Eiffel
Tower. I did not do well with the height, which was compounded a bit by
the fact that we only had enough money to take the stairs, as opposed to
the lift. It also meant we only went as high as the second stage, but
perhaps we'll get to the top next time.
That night, it was a gin and tonic party at Nicolas' place and we got to
meet several of his friends. One of the guys, Francois, would enter the
room, and lament in an over-the-top French accent "Oh que j'ai
soif!", which turned out to be some sort of in-joke with these
guys. It cracked me up every time he said it (which is a lot of times
since we all needed a lot of refills).
This was not the most exciting day. We got decent weather for our drive
back to Bordeaux, and collapsed at home after our 10 day road trip.
We got up early enough for a walking tour around Sienna. I got some
decent pictures and Brian happened upon some sexy grappa at one of the
local shops (also available: sexy pasta).
The day's plan was to see San Gimignano, then drive through Pisa (of course
to see the tower), pick Claus up in Genoa, and get back over the French
border to spend the night in Nice in preparation for the return to
Bordeaux the next day. As a lucky coincidence, I would also meet up
with a friend in Nice who happened to get in the same day.
The rain made this plan a bit more difficult. Our walking tour through
San Gimignano was quite wet, though it is a pretty little place. The drive
to Pisa (and in Pisa) was awful, with poor visibility and slow traffic
(not to mention confusing road signs; Italy makes France seem easy). The
Leaning Tower was . . . leaning . . . but we basically just stayed long
enough for a walk around the surrounding square and a couple of pictures
as we had to get to Genoa. This was again a bit slow, though the worst of
the rain was behind us. Claus got in on time, though, and we showed up
almost on time, so it remained for us to get lost heading out of Genoa
before finally making it to Nice. Genoa to Nice is a notable drive in that
it is almost entirely a sequence of tunnels and bridges for a couple
We found a hotel in Nice run by a British lady and her husband. These
sorts of places attract English speakers, so it maybe wasn't a huge
surprise when I returned from going out for coffee that there was a
drunken Australian guy making tea. He offered me some, and we had a chat
about our travels. He was on the road with two friends in a camper van
(the hotel was a special treat on account of one of their birthdays), and
they would basically just park it, or get a proper campground a couple
night a week, and of course drinking all the time. He was locked out of
the room as his friends had not returned (they got separated and he either
left or was asked to leave the bar, I don't think he really knew). I told
him I'd be visiting Australia next year, and he had a suggested itinerary
for me, with the insistence that I "definitely go to Tazzie" (he is
Tasmanian, which also accounts for his very thick accent; when I first got
there, I didn't catch what he was saying in French until I realized he was
speaking drunken Tasmanian English).
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".
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.
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.
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 . . .
I have a pictures in the gallery showcasing our first stop of the day, the massive Sagrada Familia cathedral. You can go up about 70-80m in the tower, but there are not many pictures from up there, as I was not in a terribly great state at the time (really, I felt quite close to the edge an awful lot of the time) . . . shades of Chichen-Itza in Mexico (yes, yes Taylor, we can all hear you).
We had driven in to Barcelona using the fastest route, which heads mostly East and then cuts South into Spain. This has the slight disadvantage that all of the roads used are toll highways. For the return trip, we decided to pass through Andorra, a tiny country in the Pyrenees between Spain and France.
There was some disagreement as to the best direction to head out of Barcelona, and we were short an actual road map for Spain. This turned out well, however, in that our wrong turn ended us up in Montserrat, a great mountain view (see the pictures).
We continued to wend our way North West and finally found the highway up to Andorra. This stretch includes several tunnels, some a few kilometres long. You also are still in Catalonia, as we were reminded when we arrived just after the national police had cleared the roadway of a group of demonstrators (maybe 50 or so?) with big Catalonia flags. A few minutes later, we were two cars behind a car that hit a girl who was crying with her friends on the side of the road. It was time for us to get out of Spain.
Andorra is also part of what used to be Catalonia, and in fact the official language is Catalan, though a lot of Spanish is spoken in the South end, and a lot of French in the North end. They use Euros as currency, but are not an actual EU member, and as such are not subject to the same tax laws. As a result, Andorra has become a bit of a shopping mall (there are a few big ones on the side of the main road) and tourist destination for its cheap goods, including booze and perfume. We took advantage of this and grabbed some gazoil at about two-thirds the French price.
We were also hungry, and stopped in at a small village near the border. They were having a medieval festival that evening, and we bought cheese crepes at one of the little stalls while made-up soldiers marched around and performers wowed the many onlookers in the blocked off street. We realised on our way out of town, however, that there was a long drive ahead to Bordeaux, and so we grabbed some Burger King (go ahead, hate me, but I had a craving and it was fast and open).
The road out of Andorra and up through the French side of the Pyranees was dark, windy, and not very crowded. It is on this part of the trip that I really fell in love with our car. It had no trouble whipping around corners and keeping a decent speed as we drove off into the night. I didn't feel quite as confident as the locals that occasionally passed me, but following them made it feel more like a rally car race anyway.
Coming out of the mountains in France, we hit some dense fog and slow roads for about an hour, and still had hours to go until home. So Bri grabbed some sleep (he had to work in the morning), and I steered us back to Bordeaux for about 2am.
As it turns out, Munich is quite far away from the West coast of France, so our Oktoberfest plans are looking a bit unlikely. We were going to go this past weekend, but instead consoled ourselves by heading to Barcelona, Spain.
One motivation for this particular choice of destination was to see an old friend from high school, Josef, who I recently learned had moved to Barcelona. He was kind enough to take us on a walking tour of the city, despite the fact that it turned out to be the "only rainy day of the year in Barcelona".
The typical Spanish night out, as we are told, starts with drinks/snacks after work, dinner around 10-11pm, then hitting a club until 6am and then possibly an after-club until 11am. Our gracious hosts were happy to accompany us on such an evening.
But first, something arty. We met up with Berta and her friend at a photography exhibit at one of the many, many art galleries in Barcelona. The exhibit was really cool, featuring photography from all parts of the 20th century, including some haunting shots from the various wars. Maybe Bri can remember the name of the guy who's work was on display, but I cannot. The art gallery is right by the fountain where I took many pictures, which we checked out while killing time before dinner.
Drinks before dinner were at a football (soccer) club that you have to ring down at street level to let you in (the door is not marked as such, just found between a couple of outdoor restaurants). This is for the purposes of their liquor license or something, as they are a private club. Not too private, as upstairs we discovered a big table of girls with a couple of their moms all down from England.
Time for dinner. We wandered around many tiny streets and alleys trying to find a place that both looked promising in terms of food and had some space to accomodate our group of five. We stumbled upon a little place around one corner that would take us after about a 20 minute wait, but we could spend that at the bar next door.
This bar was empty at the early hour of 10:30pm, but we were assured it would fill up. The place was decorated with a Catalonia, revoluion now! kind of theme, including a big seperatist flag on the wall. For a while, it was just us sipping on wine and Coke (it's not bad - don't worry Ben, the Coke was an improvement for this wine) while Brian and Josef played some foosball (Brian won, but Joe had to deal with a broken defender I affectionately called "Warren" and a slow, sieve-like keeper I affectionately called "Max"). Then, the place picked up when a group of kids who couldn't have been more that about 14 came in (there are no restrictions on ages as such). They demonstrated why the bar might put a "Please don't do drugs in here" (in Spanish, maybe Catalonian) sign up by visiting the bathroom one or two at a time and coming out checking their noses and snorting.
Dinner was good. I had a regional dish, basically a certain kind of sausage. The waitress was sharp enough that after a brief intial order would speak to Bri and I in English and the rest of the table in Catalonian.
It was still a bit early (1am) when we were done eating, so we made a quick stop by the apartment to change and drop off our daypack. The club we were headed to, The Palerma, had "old people" there until about 2am, and then young people would come in and take there place. This sounded a bit weird, but whatever, we would see.
The club is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and from what I could tell (as if I really know much about this), it was kept similar to its original style. A balcony wound all the way around the room, with a bar on the top floor of course, and the main floor had a big dance floor with tables to the side (used earlier in the evening for dinner). With the huge chandelier in the middle and lots of red velvet around, you could eaisly imagine some sort of turn-of-the-century (you know which one I mean) ball being held there.
The 2am prediction was a bit short, I suppose because the older crowd was having such a great time with the live band that performed a combination of local favourites and some international hits ("Lady Marmalade", anyone?). Anyway, at about 2:30am or so, the band packed up, and there was a crew setting up DJ equipment and a big projection screen on stage. Some piped music played, and this is where the crowd really changed; within a couple of songs, the average age of the place must have dropped 20 years. It had filled up even more by the time the DJ started (3am now?), and it was dancing, dancing, dancing.
We left exhausted around 5:30am so that Berta's friend could catch the first train home and the rest of us could go pass out back at the apartment, which we reached around 6:30am.
Now we have a car.
I told a number of people about this, but just as a refresher, the French car manufacturers Renault and Peugeot have a short-term (two weeks to a year) lease program for tourists. It takes advantage of a tax loophole, whereby the tourists get a brand new car, fully covered by insurance, for less than the price of renting, and the car company gets to sell the car as used when it comes back to them, at what must be a substantially reduced price do to the lower tax on used cars.
I say it must be substantially reduced because you have essentially zero-deductible no-fault insurance on these things. Nicki, who you may recall goes to a school with many other international students in France, knows a girl who's gone through three cars . . .
Anyway, I picked up our Renault Clio yesterday. Our only requirements were that it should have a diesel engine to save on gas costs, so we are essentially getting their cheapest diesel car. Which is true, but every other aspect of the car exceeded expectations. I was expecting a bare-bones (tape player and heater) three-door (that would be a "two-door hatchback" in North American terms), and instead, due to availability, we ended up with a well-loaded (cd-player, air-conditioning, power everything) five-door. Pictures to follow.
In another victory for internationalisation, you can hear, blaring from the radios of other cars or your own (more on that later) around Bordeaux, a wide selection of 50 Cent, including the wildly popular P.I.M.P. in all its unedited glory.
Somewhere in Thailand, a lone Canadian cheers . . .
I updated the log today with stuff from the last couple of weeks. I don't have a good method of adding pictures just yet, but hopefully Bri and I will cook up some system soon. In the meantime, he has added a few in his log.
I also sent out a mass email today, with a brief update and mainly to point people here. If you didn't get it, email me and I've apologize profusely and put you on the list in future.
I have added a new category, Europe, which should contain all my posts in Europe regardless of other category (I'm sure the finnicky among you will alert me if I miss something). So you can click on that link on the right, or on the September 2003 link, to catch up. New entries will of course show up on the main page.
Again, the post date reflects the date something happened, as opposed to when I posted it, so if you notice that you haven't seen anything new for two weeks despite the post dates, that is why.
Tomorrow, Brian and I gain new mobility as we pick up our brand new Renault Clio for road trip purposes.
I tried a new internet cafe today and was not especially impressed (the
trials I face . . . ). The connexion went down at one point, but the main
issue was that I couldn't switch the keyboard to English. I know some of
you have written me on foreign keyboards, and complained about various
discrepancies, but I have to say that the French keyboard is really quite
bad. At the least, this is a country at a severe technological
disadvantage in the interet age since you have to hold the Shift key to
make a period symbol. Symbols in the top row do not require a Shift
(numbers do instead). The left and right parentheses are also about six
keys apart, probably a handicap to any French programming in Scheme or
other Lisp derivatives. And before I leave this topic, I don't know what
would ever encourage anyone to switch the letters "q" and "a", taking "a"
from the home row and putting "q" there. There, I said it.
My other main surprise at the behaviour of what you might call an old
civilization is the unfortunate doggie doo situation, which will be the
subject of a future entry.
France, as it turns out, is a decent-sized country. Feeling a bit tired
and ready to head back to Bordeaux, I passed up seeing more of Switzerland
(Montreux in particular had been recommended) and then, upon reaching
Lyon, found out that the last train to Bordeaux was around 3pm, getting in
around midnight, except for night trains. I was working within the
constraints of the my rail pass (this was the last "day" of use for this
particular pass), and so decided to head home on the fastest route: a
seven-hour train through the middle of France, heading roughly due West
from Lyon to Bordeaux.
Of course, seven hours by train doesn't get you very far if you leave
from, say, Vancouver, but then it is still seven hours. It was pretty
quiet after the first couple of hours (I think I saw one or two people who
went the whole way with me), so I caught up on some sleep and also some
math (my contribution to these papers . . .). The countryside was also nice to look at, I guess. :)
Due to a train delay, I was unable to reach Bri before getting back, so I
cleaned up, wandered around a bit (Bordeaux is much busier on weekend
nights with all these students back) and settled into bed relatively early
(midnight on a Saturday - gasp) with the new comforter acquired during my
time away (thanks Nicki!), which smelled of the incense that ended up
packed in the same bag.
As many of you know, I am a fan of the United Nations. I admit that there
is a long way to go in terms of global unity, but you have to start
Two and a half years ago, I was able to visit the UN headquarters in New
York with Brian. Maybe I'll try to dig up the picture from that one to
make a companion to the one I now have from me in Geneva.
Geneva is home to most of the offices of the UN and its various branches.
In some sense, New York is where the public stuff is taken care of
(General Assembly, Security Council meetings), while the Geneva component
is where most of the work gets done. Conferences for world health and
human rights are routinely held here, as is the disarmament committee of
the UN (they meet in quite a room - see the pictures). My supervisor and
I played hooky from the conference and went to take the public tour in the
If you're visiting, there is a huge park that you cannot enter (it is for
delegates to the UN only), and you have to walk all around it to get to
the entrance. This isn't a big deal; at least you get a view of the park
during the tour.
I will not speculate too much here on the future of the UN in light of
recent events in Iraq, but I would say that despite conflicts in the
Security Council in particular, there is no reason to abandon hope. As
the tour guide informed us, the UN is all about the long view; the
convention of childrens' rights took over thrity years to be completed,
but now there is a (more or less) global concensus on the rights of
children. That doesn't mean that there are no problems for children of
the world, but consider that a hundred years ago no concept of such rights
existed in this ubiquitous a form. It's a start . . . and even
Switzerland is a member as of last year (in fact, all nations now are
except for the Vatican).
Anti-American messages abound in Geneva. From the simple "F**K BUSH"
graffiti to the more subtle "Les skinheads ne sont pas tous des Nazis",
this is a town with something to say. Sadly, I did not have my camera
around when I saw all of these choice bits. I think my favourite, in
terms of "you probably wouldn't see this at home", would be a red
and black poster with an American flag and a picture of G. W. Bush's head on
it, with a crosshairs over his face and the caption "I have a dream."
It's more anti-American sentiment than I've seen in Bordeaux, anyway, but I
don't know how Joe Q. Frenchman feels about the whole situation (though one can make a guess from the news, which may or may not be more useful than the news at home).
Geneva is an expensive place to eat if you are a Canadian. The Swiss
Franc (remember, they are non-EU) is almost exactly the same value as the
Canadian dollar, but the prices are high compared to similar items in Canada (I'd guess roughly 50% to 100% more). Of course, all the places you can eat seem quite nice (they are variations on the sidewalk cafe/restarant theme, of course), and the meals we had were quite good.
We ended up a couple of times, at least for beer, at the Cafe des Amis, located right near our hotel in Carouge.
This evening, the City of Geneva held a reception for those attending the conference. It was located at the Science History museum on the banks of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva). Wine (and probbaly some other drinks) and many little sandwiches were served.
One feature of the museum is that it houses some of the original
equipment from the record-setting experiment of Sturm and Colladon on Lac
Léman that measured the speed of sound in water to a much greater
degree of accuracy than before. Their motivations were not simply for the
good of science; they were attacking a prize problem set forth by the
French Académie des Sciences in Paris. The setup was clever, even
if crude by today's standards: one boat supported a large submerged bell
the would be struck at the same time as a flare was lit to signal the
start time to the other boat some 13km away. The other boat was equipped
with a timer (with a quarter-second accuracy) and a "hydrophone",
essentially a tube with a sounding chamber on the end that was held in the
water facing the sound source.
As the conference did not start until 2pm on the first day, we had some time to wander around Geneva.
Our first stop was a big city park that commemorates the Reformation - Calvin spent most of his time in Geneva - and includes the wall of the fathers of the Reformation as seen below, as well as a museum on the subject at the other end of the park.
Next, it was up the hill to see the Église St. André, which has a great view of Geneva (if you go up in the tower, which we couldn't).
Following that, the waterfront, and the Jet d'Eau, which shoots up to NNNm in the air.
The rest of the tour was dotted with clock towers of various kinds, and we eventually hit a place for donairs before getting to the conference (on time, no less).
After a late brunch (see picture), it was decided that the best plan was
to drive into Paris early so that we might see a sight or two before I had
to get to the train station. What followed was a great driving tour where
we would stop and go around the major roundabouts several times for photo
The high speed train runs most of the way from Paris to Geneva, so the
trip only takes 3.5 hours. I read the little bit about Geneva available
in my travel guide, and otherwise whiled away the travel time. Not much
was open at the train station when I got in around 10pm, but I did find a
bank machine that would give me a 50 Swiss Franc bill (no 20s at this
machine; perhaps an indicator of what spending is like?), a store where I
could buy a no-too-expensive sandwich and drink (hooray) and as a
consequence also obtain change for the tram (a real plus). As promised,
then tram went right to the little hotel in Carouge (techincally not
Geneva, it's a town to the South that grew and was eventually added to
what one might call "Greater Geneva").
I will wait to see what Erin writes for this experience, but the plan this day was to visit the Loire Valley, home of many famous old French chateaux. Our mission: to see the "biggest, best" chateau in all of France.
Erin and I hoofed it to the train station with our large backpacks and
made it in time for our morning train. The three-hour ride was uneventful
as we spent almost all of it sleeping.
The Paris metro is quite impressive. At least on the new lines, it struck
me as a bit cleaner than the New York subway, the only thing I've tried in
comparison. This might be a bit unfair, as it probably depends which line
you take and which stations you visit; in fact, Erin found a pretty nasty
pay toilet in one of stations on our way.
The afternoon involved a lot of walking around. I have a number of pictures to post, with the theme being "Erin and Nicki tour Paris." I am very excited to see the Louvre from the inside next time I am in town.
Supper was had at a great little Indian restaurant in the Indian sectio of
town. We got there quite early (6pm - no respectable restaurant opens
until 7pm or later), but were ready to just sit down, so we took the offer
of free drinks in exchange for waiting a while before being able to order.
The food was certainly worth the wait.
I don't remember much of Fontainebleau as we got there in the dark, but
I'm sure it's quite nice. It was great to see Nicki again (I haven't
spent more than a couple hours with her in the last two years), and we
stayed up late drinking some of the local cider.
I leave it to Erin to describe the Bordeaux tour. You may be interested
in some pictures here; I'll get mine up eventually.
I slept through the night, finally, after only a couple hours of nap
yesterday. That was after my first sampling of our new cereal,
Frosties Choco, a version of Frosted Flakes (it has the
tiger and everthing) with a chocolate coating. Roughly half of the
available cereals in the supermarket here are chocolate-based, whereas I
would say that back home about half the cereals are just sugary. Like
alcoholic beverages, this cereal has its chocolate content listed as 9%.
So you can get fairly jacked up on this stuff (mind you, we're not coffee
drinkers), but it was at the cost of yesterday's mid-morning crash. I'm
expecting to develop a tolerance by the end of the month.
Around noon, I am picking up Erin at the train station. I haven't really
seen much in the way of touristy sights in Bordeaux, but I"m expecting
we'll get some in today.
I've been having trouble getting my sleeping schedule right . . . sleeping
during the day, waking up around 5am with no chance of getting back to
sleep. When I think about it, I guess I have been hitting a number of
time zones recently. A month ago, I was in Halifax, followed by Saskatoon
for a week, BC for a week, and now here.
Today's wine purchase, at a whopping 3.50E, has given us a new frontrunner
in the cheap wine contest (we've been managing a bottle per day so far).
The supermarket has an extensive selection in the sub-4 Euro range.
Brian had the clever idea to order the empty bottles on the shelf so that
we know which ones we like best.
Tonight was laundry night, mostly for Bri, but I got a few things cleaned
in preparation for my week away in Switzerland. We're prety sure that we
read the sign correctly, that the place closed at 22h, but the woman who
worked there came in around 21h, cleaned up, and told us that it was ok we
stayed, even though it was supposed to close at 9 (?), but would we mind
making sure the door was closed firmly behind us so it would be locked up.
I suppose we look like a couple of trustworthy foreigners or something,
but this is not a scene I would expect to see played out in any city in
North America . . . maybe a small town, though I suppose this area has a
bit of a small town feel in the way the shops are all modest in size.
So, here's the plan.
Hang out in Bordeaux this week. Try to figure out where I am in this
city. Possibly even have Erin visit later in the week.
Head to Paris on the weekend to see Nicki and boot around there.
Next week, I'm off to Geneva, Switzerland for a conference commemorating
Sturm's bicentennary. It actually lasts from Monday until Friday (school
starts a bit later in the fall here, so I guess people can make that sort
of scheduling). I will be meeting up with my supervisor and taking in the
two-part conference; some history of Sturm's life and work, followed by
more of a proper Sturm-Liouville Theory conference.
For me, this day began somewhere over the Atlantic as I lost several hours
on route to Paris. I wasn't able to sleep much on the flight, unlike my
medicated American seat companion. The pair of us were lucky to get moved
from a squished pair of seats right beside the bathroom at the far back to
the first row of three middle seats (right behind the final row of four
middle seats, which kept getting banged by the meal cart). I got some
reading done, passed out occaisionally, and enjoyed the free wine, which
they kept serving until it got late and most people were sleeping (don't
ask me how).
I was a bit disappointed in French customs upon arrival. I had a whole
convincing story explaining how, yes, I wasn't leaving for about five
months, but I wouldn't be in France the whole time, so I won't need a
proper visa. But the guy just took my passport, filed away the card I had
filled out saying I was a "student" and "tourist", and handed me back my
passport. I didn't have to say anything. Oh well. Maybe they want
Canadians moving there, looking for work on tourist visas, then returning
to steal French jobs. As some of my friends will attest, this is much
harder to accomplish in North America.
At the airport, I obtained another expensive sandwich and settled in at the train station (conveniently located in the airport) for a few hours before my train to Bordeaux. My prospects for communication bode well: the woman who helps me with my train ticket is surprised to be dealing with me in French.
Taking a bench (these would fill up later in the afternoon), I was reading for a little while until a young woman and an older man sat down in the remaining two seats. They were speking in English, and once they had a chance to rest, I asked where they were from. Of course, they are visiting Europe from Saskatchewan (no wonder their English accent did not sound in any way exotic to me), passing through Paris en route to a famous pilgrimage route in Spain.
As for the train, I can definitely recommend against cars that allow smoking. It is a place not for those who want to smoke in their seats, but also for people from other cars who want to drop in to smoke. Three hours of that is pretty ugly . . . I will avoid such spots in future.
Bri picked me up at the train station in Bordeaux, and took me to our loft apartment. We drank some wine and went for dinner after the sun went down (a great view . . . should be on his web log). The dinner was excellent, particularly the mussels I ordered. Walking through Bordeaux is interesting for me . . . the route we took was one of the popular pedestrian roads near downtown, with shops on the main floor and apartments for two or three floors above (as it turns out, most of the city is like this, except sometimes there are residences on the main floor).
So, overall, the traveling part went pretty well, and since the French government doesn't seem to care, who knows when I'll leave?
After watching American Beauty to stay awake all night and mess
with my internal clock, I stole out of Michal's place in Vancouver at
5:45am. The previous night had involved some, but not too much, booze
(Ritchie and Chris' school-girl/greaser/biker party - I got a drawn-on
tattoo of a heart with a knife through it that said "MOM"), so I was in
decent shape to begin this journey (it's not like I was hitching up the
chuckwagon to ride out to the East coast or something).
I had a separate flight from Vancouver to Toronto on Air Canada's Tango.
Not the best flight experience . . . it's not appreciably cheaper, but is
really, completely without frills. Fortunately, I had brought an
expensive airport sandwich with me to tide me over. No wonder people are
always so excited to be on Westjet flights when I talk to them. I am a
long-time supporter of Westjet, but it just didn't work into my schedule
I made it to the Toronto airport with baggage and self intact. I met Joe
from Winnipeg on the shuttle from Terminal 2 (where, incidentally, I have
spent almost all of my time in Toronto over the years) to Terminal 1. I
would have grabbed food and a beer with him, but instead ended up waiting
over an hour in line due to late-arriving Italians (the line for the Paris
flight was the same as an earlier flight for Milan).
Security notes: Apparently I no longer set off metal detectors now that I
am without magnetic insoles (never added any to my new boots), and my belt
is somehow less metallic than before. Plastic knives, which I couldn't
bring through security in Saskatoon for Thanksgiving, 2001 are available
in the boarding area with my meal, as well as on my international flight.
I bought an expensive but fairly tasty airport pizza at the "Infield
Terminal" (you take a bus there from Terminal 1; it's a building with just
a bunch of boarding areas) from a nice Indian lady who had just finished
serving three middle-aged busybody flight attendant women who demonstrated
pretty much all the feared T.O. stereotypes in a short couple of minutes
(rude to server, catty, wouldn't even bring coffee over to one another
when it was ready) . . . anyway it left a bad impression, especially
considering they were AC flight attendants (not on my flight, as it
Reading material: Avoiding the possible lefty trifecta of Naomi Klein's
No Logo, Michael Moore's Stupid White Men and a collection
of post-9/11 Noam Chomsky essays (I've already read much of the latter two
online), I opted instead for Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of
Human Societies by Jared Diamond and How The Universe Got Its
Spots by cosmologist Janna Levin.
On the plane, I met a pediatrician named Nick from California. He was
surprised that I was from Canada because I "sound American", which is
further support for my theory that Western Canadians have a nearly
identical accent to West Coast Americans, even all the way down
California (extreme surfer dudes excepted).