Back in the US, Back in the US, Back in the US…not USSR

I know that I missed our last blog post on Sunday and as penance, Sue is making me write this one. The past week has been pretty quiet. Last Friday morning, we flew from Nice to Paris, and despite our intention of going into the city for the afternoon, we ended up just sitting around the hotel for the day and watching terrible movies (think Frozen 2). We ate both lunch and dinner in the hotel and were just totally lazy.

Saturday, we flew from Paris to Chicago. The flight was easy and while long, it was very non-eventful. I highly recommend upgrading to the seats that fit an actual adult-size human if you can. Plus, free wine. Unfortunately, on the way out of the airport we saw white, flaky stuff falling from the sky. While my first thought was to turn around and get on a plane anywhere south, we persevered. A quick side note – prior to leaving on our wanderings, we sent a box of warm clothes to our host in Chicago. When we sent them in July it was mid 80s Fahrenheit (30ish Celsius) and we both thought we were sending stuff that would be way to warm…HAHAHA… boy were we wrong. Today’s high temperature is expected to be 28° Fahrenheit (2° C).

We spent Saturday evening with friends and got take out from Libanais, our favorite Lebanese restaurant. Since then it has been a whirlwind of visiting with friends and family. We are, of course, working this week and it is somewhat odd having to wake up in the morning in order to have meetings.  😉

Sorry the post is so short, just not much to report. But I thought I would leave you with a video of the Mediterranean from last full day in Nice

Our last weekend in Nice

Friday was yet another beautiful day on the French Riviera. We took an excursion to another island just off of Cannes. This one is called St.-Honorat and is the home to a monastery and Cistercian monks.  They make (and sell) wine and one a month they offer a tour and wine tasting. To get there, we took the TGV from Nice to Cannes, which was cool even though it didn’t get up to high speeds, then boarded a ferry that took about 15 minutes. Once we were there, we wandered around the island for about an hour before the tour. The tour itself seemed very informative; unfortunately it was in French and we only understood a smattering of it. One person on the tour was using Google translate to get a better understanding, but we looked on this as an opportunity to practice our French and get what we could from the explanation. After the tour and tasting, we wandered around the island, had a picnic lunch and generally enjoyed the peace and quiet.

We caught the ferry back to Cannes and the train back to Nice, and that would normally be the end of the day’s adventures, but Le Flick (the police) had other plans. We had not been asked for our train tickets when we boarded nor on the train. After we exited, Le Flick were checking tickets in a doorway on the way to the exit. Unfortunately, they seemed to be doing it in typical French fashion, meaning no organization at all. Just a couple of guys standing in the doorway with scanners. Imagine a rugby scrum with more people and less order. Anyway, after a minute or two we got to the front and Sue showed our tickets and we were free.

On the walk home, we stopped at the boulangerie for our daily baguette and decided to get an apple tart for dessert. The very nice lady behind the counter let us know that there was a weekend special, which we understood to be buy one get one free, so we added a second apple tart. Well, it was actually buy two get one free. But we had already committed to the weekend special, and that is how we ended up with the lemon tart too. (Steven thinks I didn’t understand that, but I really wanted the extra dessert.) Oh, the trials and tribulations of learning the French language.

Saturday, we decided to go see Èze, a small mountain village just outside of Nice with stunning views of the Mediterranean. It is at about 1,400 feet perched on a sheer cliff. We took the local bus which dropped us off just outside the old portion of the village. We trudged up the last couple of hundred feet, explored the village and visited the exotic gardens. It is a lovely village and Sue took tons of photos, some of which are shown below. 

After a couple of hours of looking around, we had a quick lunch and discussed how to get home. We had two choices: Take the bus back the way we came (cheap, easy, relaxing, and we knew how to do it) or hike a mile and a half down the Nietzsche footpath dropping 1,400 feet to sea level and take the train home (more expensive, no idea how hard the climb down would be, the village is set on a sheer cliff, and there was only a little information about the trail down). Apparently Nietzsche lived in Èze and they have commemorated that by naming the walking path after him. There are a number of signs with his poems along the route – not sure that if I was a resident Nietzsche is who I would want to be known for…but that is their call. Of course, we did the hike – at this point I would like to blame Sue for the decision, but in good conscience I have to let you know that she left it up to me (I wanted to do it, but deferred to Steven’s fear of heights. He turns out to be pretty brave.) and I foolishly thought the hike wouldn’t be too terrible. Actually, it was not terrible at all. It was a fairly steady downhill with only a few very exposed cliff drops (most of which I didn’t realize until I was past them on the lower portion of the switchback). There were, once again, tons of beautiful views and dappling of shade and sun so it wasn’t too hot. It was excellent choice. We arrived down at the station cooled our heels (and the rest of our bodies) for about 40 minutes and the train arrived and took us home. No drama this time at the train station!

At some point in our wanderings of the old town in Nice we found a 24/7 automated pizza machine. Pizza from a vending machine! When we found it, we knew we would have to return and try it out. Saturday night we did just that. It is pretty cool. We used a touch screen to select our pizzas, paid and then Voilà! Trois minutes plus tard the pizza appears. We walked home and sat down to watch a movie, drink wine and eat reasonably good automated pizza. Apologies for the quality of the video and editing.

The Pizza Machine

Our penultimate weekend in Nice

Friday was gorgeous, the sun was shining, and the temperature was in the low 20s.  We walked from our apartment to the Musee Matisse, which is nestled an area called Cimiez that is straight north of where we are staying. Like so much of the French Riviera, Nice is surrounded by hills, so once you leave the shoreline you are heading uphill. The walk was only about 3km with a 100 meter incline – easy compared to Istanbul, but still uphill. The museum is in his house and much of the collection was donated by his wife. You enter through a recent addition that is below ground level and work you way up. The lower floors display earlier works and explain Matisse’s education and influences. The top floor holds most of the collection. I was very surprised by the amount of work that he did in sculpture and other media as I think of him only as a painter.

Just outside his house there is a large park that leads to the monastery’s cemetery, where he is buried. Of course, we wandered through the graveyard until we found his tombstone (it was well marked, and we really just had to follow the signs). Dead person bingo part ??? I don’t remember. I have lost count.

We walked home (all downhill!) and then had dinner at a Portuguese restaurant (Le Barbecue) that one of Sue’s friends recommended. After dinner, we wandered through the old town and found nice bar (where the waiter refused to speak French to us and many others around us were speaking English, feh!), sat outside, had a drink and watched the world go by.

Saturday, Abi was flying home from Marseilles. Our plan was to rent a car, drive to Calanques National Park, hike for a while, drop Abi at the airport and then come home. Unfortunately, the weather gods were not cooperative. It rained all day, and we did not bring our wet weather hiking gear, so we had to abandon our hikes. Instead, we decided we would have a late lunch and then take Abi to the airport. For the first time that I can remember we found that Google had incorrect information about restaurant hours. We tried three different places, all of which were listed as open, but none of which were. We finally settled on grocery store take out. Not our most memorable Saturday, but it is always nice to spend time with my daughter. There were a few successes: we managed to drive a couple of miles into the park and find a nice photo spot, we had an interesting tour of Marseilles including a “road” called Impasse du Moroc – which was nearly one car wide, and our rental car was a sweet little Mercedes. (I think maybe Steven has been convinced to buy a Mercedes in Germany, drive it around and ship it home. Win for me!)

We only have one more weekend left before we return to the US for Thanksgiving. We are really looking forward to seeing our friends and family.

A lazy weekend

We settled into the slower and all together more comfortable pace of Nice. The fruit and vegetable market is open almost every day and the Monoprix has wider selection of foods that we recognize. On Friday, we worked in the morning and then decided to go to the Marc Chagall Museum. It was a 20-minute walk that was thankfully mostly flat. The museum was created by M. Chagall so it represents those things that he felt were most important. It was originally envisioned as holding only artwork that was related to the Bible but has since expanded to cover all phases of his work. They have an audio tour that we could access from our cellphones and that made the tour immensely informative. Unfortunately, some of the rooms were closed, but we were able to see quite a bit of his work, and we had a thoroughly enjoyable time.

Sue found a day cruise that would take us to Ile Sainte-Marguerite, one of the Lérin islands off Cannes. The prison that held the famed Man in the Iron Mask sits in the middle of a fort on the island. However, that cruise was not running, but we could get to the island from Cannes. So, Saturday morning we packed a picnic lunch and headed for the train. Forty minutes later we were in Cannes, we walked over the quai got our tickets and boarded the ferry. The day was gorgeous, about 22ºC and sunny. We sat outside on the back of the ferry and enjoyed the view of Cannes receding for the 15-minute ride. The island is only 3km by 1km and we decided that we would first walk the perimeter. Once we covered about half the walk, we settled down on some rocks on the shore and had our lunch. After lunch, we completed the walk and then visited the fort that holds the prison. The prison is quite small, it has only about half a dozen cells. The island is gorgeous, with lots of secluded coves and nice walking trails.

Once we had our fill of the island we hopped back on the ferry and headed back to Cannes. We wandered around a little bit, but truthfully, it was just more shopping and restaurants. It was much more crowded and after a day of peace and quiet, it didn’t seem fun, so we hopped back on the train to Nice.

When we arrived back at the Nice train station, we found that we were locked in. There was an anti-Passe Sanitaire protest march outside, and the police had locked the station. We hung around for about 10 minutes and then one of the doors opened. We think someone just opened it, but it is possible that it was opened by security or the police. Either way, we all surged toward the door, and we headed for home. Another beautiful and fun day over.

A quick shout out to my older (much much much older) brother who celebrated his birthday on Saturday. Happy Birthday Phil.

Today (Sunday) we headed east to Monte Carlo. Phil suggested we take a helicopter from Nice, but we rejected that for four reasons. First, helicopters really scare me. Second, helicopters are even worse than a boat for Sue’s motion sickness. Third, it would be really expensive (250€ each way). Fourth, by the time we took the tram to the Nice airport, and then took the helicopter – even if we timed it perfectly – it would take longer than the train. I will admit that the train isn’t half as cool, but it is less than 10% of the cost of the helicopter. So, no helicopter.

Once again, we walked to the train and rode the SCNF. Monte Carlo is interesting. First, it is all hills! Yes, of course we want to walk up and down hills again. Although it was only 35 floors today, down from the 50s in Istanbul. But I get ahead of myself. We took the train after lunch and wandered from the train station down the waterside. As we crossed the main port, there was a carnival. It was exactly like the type of carnival you see in the States in every town during the summer. Same rides, same games, and mostly the same food. (American Skeeball!) It seemed so out of place, yet so familiar. We walked past it and up (many many many steps) to the fort, through the gardens, took in the stunning views of the Mediterranean and admired the statutes. It was beautiful and calming. Next, we headed to the Palais Princier de Monaco square and strolled up and down the alleys. We stumbled on the Cathedral of Monaco and while we were there we found Princess Grace’s tombstone (and Prince Rainier, too). An unexpected famous dead person bonus. Sue took more photos in the palace square and  then we headed back to the train. A quick 30-minute walk (up hill the whole way) to the train station and then a 30-minute train ride and we were home. Another beautiful and enjoyable day.

Last weekend in Istanbul

Sue and I had a busy week with work and all, so we decided to spend this weekend doing nothing. We woke up late, sat around drinking coffee and watched TV for three full days.

Not.

Friday our plan was to have street food for lunch, then head for the Dolmabahçe Palace, then walk over to the  Ortaköy Mosque and finish the day off with kumpir (potatoes stuffed with all sorts of interesting things) that you buy street vendors near the mosque.

We relaxed a bit in the morning, and then headed down the big hill to grab lunch. Sue had a takeout balık ekmek (fish sandwich) from a place right on the Karaköy pier and I grabbed a chicken dürüm (a chicken wrap), which we sat on a stone wall overlooking the straits and ate. Yummy.

We rode the tram to the Dolmabahçe Palace, which was simply amazing. It is huge and while it was only completed in the 19th century, so it isn’t old, what it lacks in age it makes up with splendor. You are not allowed to take photos in the palace (seems a little odd that taking pictures in mosques is OK, but not in the palace). (Also, I think we were the only ones following that rule.) It is situated right on the Bosporus Straits and views are incredible. My uncle David would describe the décor as early French brothel, but I would be a bit more generous and say it was decorated fashionably for the time. The chandeliers are incredible. The tour also includes the Harem; which I always thought was only for the women. In reality it is the private quarters of the Sultan, his wives, concubines and his mother. It was pretty amazing and along with everything else there is an audio tour that is well worth getting.

The Ortaköy Mosque

Once we had finished poking around, we headed to the Ortaköy mosque. Sue’s friend, Dana, recommended seeing the mosque, which is also built on the waterfront, and then eating kumpir from one of the food stands. We figured it was only a “short” 3km walk so we thought it would be a nice stroll along the waterfront. The walk was nice, but like everywhere in Istanbul, it was very crowded. We arrived at the mosque at about 5. .pm, went inside for a quick look and then decided to have a drink and a short rest. We bought freshly squeezed pomegranate juice from a stand outside the mosque and sat down on a bench. Neither of us was particularly hungry but the next thing on our agenda was to eat kumpir. We wandered around the town for an hour or so and then decided to head back to the AirBnB. We just weren’t hungry enough to eat and there didn’t seem to be a good reason to stick around for another hour or so.

Our plan was to catch a ferry. We had looked at the schedule the day before and planned taking a ferry from Ortaköy to Karaköy (which is just down the hill from our AirBnB). Unfortunately, we apparently misunderstood the directions because no such ferry existed. We put our heads back into our Trafi App (the official Istanbul public transit app) and found we could go from Ortaköy across the straits to the Asian side and stop in Üsküdar, then transfer to a ferry from Üsküdar to Karaköy. We smiled, knowing we had solved the problem and got on the ferry to Üsküdar. Once there we asked about the ferry to Karaköy; only to be told it was not running. We had somehow misread or misunderstood the directions. A very gruff, but nice man who was working the ferries, told us to wait for about 45 minutes and then there would be another ferry. Another ferry guy told us that there was a different Karaköy so we walked over to that, once again, to find that it was not running. But there was a ferry leaving for Eminönü in 20 minutes. Eminönü is just across the bridge from Karaköy. So we hopped that ferry, walked across the bridge and by the time we got back home, it was 8:30 so we headed out for dinner.

One day, 10.6 miles and the equivalent of walking up 65 flights of stairs. Whew.

Saturday we decided to only go to two places. First a museum call the Sakıp Sabanci Museum and then on the way home, we were going to stop at the Rumeli Fortress.  Once again, we examined our trusty(?) Trafi app and determined that the only way to get to the museum would be to take a bus. We headed to the bus stop and waited. The bus we were supposed to be on did not arrive at all, so we grabbed another that would get us as far as Ortaköy. We quickly amended our plans, and decided that once we were in Ortaköy we would grab lunch. Sue could have kumpir (the loaded potatoes that we wanted to try) and I would have another dürüm, this time with lamb. My potato was delicious!

Once lunch was finished, we waited for the next bus. Once again, the one we wanted didn’t arrive, but another one that would take us to the museum did after about 15 minutes. Back on the bus and after about a 30-minute ride, we reached the museum. It was great. Sue enjoyed the art and furnishings, while I found the rooms on calligraphy fascinating. We somehow thought it was going to be small because it is associated with a university, but it was large and on beautiful grounds.

After a couple of hours in the museum we decided to walk about 30 minutes to the fortress. The walk was really pleasant. It was mostly flat (YAY!) and along the waterfront. The fort was the first incursion by the Ottoman Empire into Europe. It was built in 1452 in order to facilitate the siege of Constantinople. Amazingly it was built over a four-month period and it is situated in the narrowest point of the straits.  The ramparts and towers were closed for renovations, but we wandered the gardens and climbed up to the top of the inside of the fort. The views over the straits were amazing.

Once we had our fill of the fort, we mapped our way home. We had two choices. First option: two buses that would take an hour and 10 minutes, if they came on time and if we managed to get on the right ones. Second option: 20 minute walk to the Metro then a 30-minute Metro ride. Seems like a pretty easy choice. HAHAHAHA! Well what Google did not bother to tell us was that the 15-minute walk was – you guessed it – uphill – all uphill – 400 feet vertical climb over 2km.  The least steep portions were the stairs. As Sue led us on our latest death march, I reminded myself that I chose this option – and that I should check to make sure my life insurance was paid up. We finally reached the top of the hill, found the Metro and (I at least) collapsed into (my) seat.

The Funicular

Another 6.5 miles and 57 flights of stairs.

Sunday we really did decide to take it easy. We walked down the hill just so we could ride the funicular up to the top. We had lunch and then walked to the Dervish museum. It was well done, as all the museums we have been to here have been. We learned about the history of the Dervish and the philosophy. Once we finished that we avoided the draw of wandering through the adjacent cemetery and headed home for the day. Steven neglects to mention that we also decided to get some snacks for our upcoming plane ride even though Turkish Airways actually feeds passengers and we ended up with enough dried fruit and nuts to see us through getting back home in November.

Settling into Istanbul

The days here are long as we tend to get up by 9, head out for some sightseeing until 1 or 2 p.m., then home to work until 8 p.m. and then have dinner. We are generally getting to sleep between 1 and 2 a.m. Long, but really fun days. One thing to note is that Istanbul is built on a series of seven hills, however in a feat of geologic engineering, they have managed to make it so that no matter what direction we walk, we are going uphill.

Monday we acquired train passes. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but if Kafka were going to design a way to sell transit passes, he would have used the Istanbul system as a model, perhaps even deciding it was too complicated and bizarre for one of his stories. It started Sunday evening when we wanted to ride a bus to see a mosque about 40 minutes away.

You can only buy single ride passes at the bus/metro/tram stops and they cost 6 T₺ (which is about $0.67each — the Turkish lira is about 9 U.S. cents). However, the machines only take cash and gives no change. Our smallest notes were 50 T₺ and that didn’t seem worth it. So, we asked the guard where to find the InstanbulKart, the refillable train pass. He vaguely waved in the direction of another tram stop about 10 minutes away. We went there. Nothing. We found a sign to a metro station and walked over to it and it had a tourist information booth. It was empty. (We assumed because it was Sunday evening.) There were machines that apparently sold the pass. However, the language selection function didn’t work and the screen would go blank after about 20 seconds. So we tried a few times to translate as we went and then gave up. We planned to return on Monday. As we were walking out we found a sign that explained that due to COVID you needed a code that registered your card to you and gave instructions (in English!) to get them. We went home, got the code, logged into the app and tried again. Nope. That did work either.

The codes in the app were limited to numbers and ours were alphanumeric. Which brings us to Monday morning. We returned to the station hoping that there would be someone in the tourist booth, but yet again, no luck. We found a guard and asked him. In broken English he said you have buy the card from the IstanbullKart office, which was a few doors down. We found it easily, because it was the place with the line out the door. After about 30 minutes, we were able to purchase the cards and were informed that the card had no balance. To load it, we needed to go back to the station (technically we could load it at any station or tram stop, but the metro station was the closest place). We went back to the station, and tried our luck at filling the card. We were really lucky because after we tried and failed a couple of times, a mann wandered up and was waiting to refill his card. We stepped aside, figuring we would watch him and mimic those steps. He was kind enough to see that we were idiot tourists and showed us how to do it. Hurrah! We could now ride the transit system – at a discounted rate! The tram costs only about 3T₺ (we think).

Tuesday we took the tram (using our InstanbulKarts!) and visited the Turkish Archeological museum. The museum has three buildings. The main one has three floors, the other two are single story. Unfortunately, while the two smaller buildings were both fully open, only the ground floor of the main building was accessible as the others were undergoing renovation. The museum is really well done and houses an enormous collection of ancient statutes, sarcophagi, friezes and other antiquities. The main building’s collection is all from Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, with quite a bit from an excavation in Sidon (in what is now Lebanon). The other two buildings housed collections from Egypt/Babalyonia and Turkish ceramics. It was very impressive and well worth the visit. We purchased the audio tour (4T₺) and while almost all the signs were in both Turkish and English, it was worth having.

Tuesday was also our wedding anniversary, and we had a nice (early) dinner at a Mexican place called Los Altos which had a beautiful view overlooking the Golden Horn (thanks again Dana!). We spent the rest of evening the listening to the Bebop Project at a local jazz club which is about 3 minutes’ walk (uphill of course – both ways) from our AirBnb. It was wonderful.

Wednesday morning we headed for the Süleymaniye Mosque. It was about 25 minutes away on the top of one of the hills of Istanbul. We took the metro for the first time (using our IstanbulKarts again!). I think it took us longer to get down to the trains than the train took for the couple of stops we were on it. The metro is a DEEP subway system. I assume it is because Istanbul is built on hills and the trains run relatively flat, but I am not sure. Suffice to say the next escalator down had a sign over the top saying “Abandon hope all ye who enter.” When we left the metro, we walked (uphill, of course) to the mosque complex. It is only the third or fourth most famous mosque in Istanbul, but is was still extremely impressive. I am not including any of our photos as our amateur ones do not do the place justice. Please look at the photos in the link above.

After wandering out of the complex, we headed for a coffee shop that Dana (Sue’s friend) suggested. The directions were (I am paraphrasing); exit the back of the complex, go across the alley, head down a sketchy looking hallway, up the rickety stairs and the café is there. We followed the directions and found a rooftop café. We have no idea if it was the right one or not, but who cares. The place had huge windows and we had a great view from the Golden Horn looking back on the area where we are staying which is called Beyoğlu (it also had a roof deck, but it was a bit too chilly to eat outside).  We ordered the Turkish breakfast, which was enough food for a small (or not so small) army. It included:

I liken this to having the entire brunch buffet on your table.

bread

french toast

simit (a Turkish bagel)

Two types of jam, honey & nutella

harissa

five types of cheese

cucumbers and tomatoes

two eggs

some sort of processed meat product that was vaguely smoky

hot dogs

french fries

spring rolls (which are like blintzes but made with filo dough)

and a pot of tea.

We also ordered coffee, because we didn’t think it through. We ate and ate and ate, and barely made a dent in the food.

After we finished we headed back on the metro, took it one extra stop and walked an extra kilometer or two to allow some of the food to digest, before we sat down to work. Needless to say, we had a very light dinner of yogurt, fruit and nuts.

On the road again

Today, tomorrow and Saturday are all travel days. Today we drove from Clamecy to Valence and tomorrow we drive to Nice. Saturday we are off to Istanbul.

We have spent the month driving our trusty ride, a Dacia Sandero, all over France. For those of you who have never heard of Dacia, it is a Romanian subsidiary of Renault. We got the car through a program called Auto-TT. For reasons that I don’t really understand there is an incentive to car companies to create short-term leases to non-EU citizens. The leases are tax free as long as they are 21 day or more. For us, it was significantly cheaper than a rental car and allowed us both to drive it. Per the terms of the lease, we “own” the car the for the period of the lease and then simply return it to Renault. Renault provided all the insurance.

A quick recap of our travels included this month:

Paris to Clamecy; Clamecy to Chambery (the Alps); Clamecy to Brugge, Brussel & Chimay (Belgium); Clamecy to Dijon (Mustard); Clamecy to Strasborg (the German border); and now Clamecy to Nice (Côte d’Azur). All in, about 5,000 kilometers (about 3,000 miles).

We have noticed a few things about driving here:

  • The majority of the highways are toll roads and they are relatively expensive. The drive to Strasborg cost about €50 ($60) in tolls.
  • Gasoline is very very very expensive compared to the US. The average litre of gas has been about €1.70 ($7.50 per gallon).
  • The country is much hillier that I expected. We are routinely going up or down 7% grades.
  • The roads seem to be either highways (A roads) or two lane “country” roads.
  • There are rotaries (traffic circles? roundabouts? rond points) everywhere. In Paris, the cars entering the rotaries have the right of way over those in the rotary; everywhere I have ever driven, the driver in the rotary has the right of way.
  • When approaching an intersection, the person on the right has the right of way, unless they have yield or stop sign. That means that if you are on a main road and someone on a side street doesn’t have a traffic sign, you have to let them in.
  • I had forgotten how much I enjoyed driving a manual transmission car.
  • With the exception of a faulty front radar sensor, the car performed admirably.

We had one recurring issue when driving – buying gas. For some reason, virtually none of the gas stations would accept our credit cards. I checked with our banks and they both insisted that the gas stations were declining the transactions before it was passed to the bank for approval. We ended up using a debit card, which worked everywhere, but at the supermarket. We had the very odd experience of paying for groceries with a card, then having the same card be declined trying to buy gas outside the store. Very odd. When we used the debit card, they initially put a charge of $345 on the card, but then adjusted it to the actual amount in a couple of days.

Tomorrow we will complete our drive to Nice, and then return the car to Renault.

Saturday morning we hop an Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul.

This is Saturday — it must be Belgium(*)

This weekend we went to Belgium. We left “early” Friday morning – about 9:30 – and headed to Brugge. It was about a five-and-a-half-hour drive.  For those who do not know, Belgium has two parts (here is brief primer on the divide). The southern part of the country is occupied by the Walloons. They call this area Walloonia and they speak French (Yay, French!)The northern portion of the country is occupied by Flemish people. This area is called Flanders and they speak Dutch and Flemish. Brugge is part of Flanders and so the people naturally speak Dutch. Dutch is related to German and has, to our ears, a very guttural and unnatural sound. (I thought it sounded really funny. Like, laughter funny and very foreign after six weeks of French.) Luckily virtually everyone speaks English as a second language.

We had booked ourselves into the Hotel Academie, and Sue wisely arranged for parking. The drive into the center of town where the hotel was located, was, to say the least, interesting. Small cobblestone streets, which may or may not have been pedestrian only. (Google says they weren’t – the pedestrians all seem to think they were.) Either way, we arrived at the hotel at about 3:30 and pulled into their covered entrance way and then drove straight down into the tightest smallest parking underground parking lot imaginable. To get into our spot, we had to do what seemed like fifty multi-point turns. After a few minutes of playing avoid the concrete post, I got the car parked in a space that was only slightly smaller than a postage stamp. I only wish I had thought to take photos of the garage. (Stay tuned for more on Steven’s excellent driving under scary circumstances.)

Once we had parked, we dumped our stuff in the room and headed right out into the tourist fray. It was madness. We didn’t realize that there was some sort of bicycle race/convention going on. The place was packed and to be pretty honest we were a bit overwhelmed. (Maybe I am becoming a country mouse or maybe I have never liked throngs of tourists.) We did our usual couple of hours of wandering and then reached our limit. We found a nice brasserie off the main market square, ordered some beer and spent the next hour or two watching people and the sun set. It was a great counterpoint to the frenetic pace of the tourist crowds.

We passed a Thai place on the walk back to the hotel and decided we wanted that for dinner. (In case we haven’t mentioned it, food around here is BLAND.) We looked at some reviews and found Sivalai, about a 10 minute walk and, very importantly, in the opposite direction from the maddening crowds. It is run by a husband (waiter/host) and wife (chef) team and it was wonderful. We arrived without a reservation and when we asked for a table the husband/host looked absolutely pained that there were no tables. He asked for 5 minutes and would seat us. We were in no rush so we went for a little stroll and when we returned he had a table waiting for us. The host was fabulous, taking time to talk to us, in parts of English/Dutch, French (and tried to teach us a bit of Thai), running here there an everywhere taking orders, getting the food and keeping everyone smiling. His good nature was infectious. We asked him to make our food fairly spicy as we have been finding the food in France, tasty but mild. He did not disappoint and our food came out spicy, flavorful and delicious.

After dinner we had a wander through the now nearly deserted town and it was wonderful. The canals are gorgeous, the buildings and architecture great. It was such a different experience than only a few hours earlier. (When we arrived, I fear both of us were thinking that Brugge was a bust. We liked it much better when it didn’t resemble Time Square.)

In the morning, we decided to have a breakfast bagel and a place called Sanseveria. We generally avoid bagel places as many do not boil the bagels, they just bake them. This leads to round bread rolls, which are good, but they are just not bagels. However, this place has great reviews, and so we figured we would give it a shot. It was well worth it. We both ordered bagel and egg sandwiches and shared a bowl of fruit. The fruit bowl was exceptional; it had pear, banana, apple, mango, blueberry, strawberry and pineapple in it. (The fruit in Belguim overall was fantastic.)The bagels were good, not great, but overall the sandwiches were delicious and hit the spot.

After breakfast, we went for another wander; it was still relatively early and the streets were still pretty empty. When the crowds started to appear, we headed for our car and drove to a town called Buggenhout, and Browerij Boostels.

The carriage they lent me to carry the beer we bought.

Browerij Boostels is the maker of two of my favorite beers (Tripel Karmeliet and Kwak). When we were planning this trip, we purchased tickets to a brewery tour at 14:00. However, the only tours they do on Saturdays are in Dutch, but we figured what the hell, we did a tour of prehistoric caves in French, how much would be lost doing a beer tour in Dutch? Besides, you get free beer at the end of the tour and beer tastes the same in any language.

We arrived somewhat early (about 45 minutes) and found our way to the tasting room/starting point of the tour. When we introduced ourselves, the tour guide said “Oh yes! I remember you have booked the tour in Dutch, but do not speak it.”  We nodded our heads foolishly and then he informed us that one of his colleagues – Yves, had volunteered to give us the tour in English.

This turned out to be a huge and happy surprise. First, Yves is great. His English is impeccable, he has a great sense of humor and was patient with our (many many) questions. The tour information was really quite interesting – Did you know that hops were added to make the beer last longer? That the yeast is used multiple times? That for a long time beer was safer to drink than water because the water is boiled? So many interesting facts that we would have missed in Dutch! We heard about the history of the Boostel family who have brewed beer on that location for seven generations and earned most of their income in the ’50s and ’60s selling lemonade as Belgian style beer was out of fashion. And of course…the beer tasting.

Once we finished at the brewery, we headed for Brussels which is about a 40-minute drive. Sue is going to finish telling of the weekend’s hijinks on Wednesday’s blog post. But before we go, if anyone is looking for a private tour of anywhere in Belgium, Yves does them under the banner of Beardbarian Entertainment (he is also a musician and plays Celtic music) and I would highly recommend you use him.

(*) Click here for the title reference

Into the Alps

We headed out Friday morning for a town called Chambéry. It is about 4 hours southeast of us and in the heart of the French Alps. For those of you who are fans of the Olympics, it is an hour north of Grenoble (1968) and an hour and a half west of Albertville (1992). Once we arrived, we did as we always do and wandered the town. For some reason there is a giant fountain of elephants in the main square. I will leave it to you to investigate why.

On Saturday morning, we went for a stroll in the market and then headed out for our day’s main activity, a “leisurely” 11.5km (7.2 mile) hike that we found on AllTrails called Circuit of the Bridges. It was in a small village called Saint-Jean-d’Arvey about 10km away. I neglected to notice that it was also 335m (1,000ft) higher than Chambéry.  For those of you who do not know me, I am very skittish when it comes to heights. Driving up and down mountain roads is at best difficult and at worst has me wanting to curl up in the back seat and whimper – even when driving. So the ride up to the trailhead was a little unnerving, but we made it.

The trail started at 600m (2,000ft) and was easy to find, but AllTrails states that the elevation gain is 450m (1,500 feet) which is well within our limits; afterall, we climbed Toubkal in Morocco, which was 16km and 2,500m (8,000ft) in elevation gain – just to the base camp. However, that was 4 years ago, and we had not been sedentary for 18 months due to the pandemic. I found the hike quite difficult. It started by dropping 250m to a single span wooden bridge over a deep ravine. (Oh yeah! Walking across a wooden bridge with a terrible fear of heights! ) I took a deep breath and pressed on. (He’s very brave.) I even stopped for Sue (who has no fear of anything and is a hiking machine) to take a photo of me – I am attempting to smile.

From that point it was an all-uphill hike to about 700 meters (2,300 ft). We had a picnic lunch along the trail and then climbed up and down the ravines.  We made a detour of about 1.5km when we followed an incorrect sign on the path. (Oops! It said Thoiry, but we didn’t notice it also said “the long way.”) The village of Thoiry is about halfway through the hike. We had hiked almost 8km (5 miles) and I was done. Sue graciously agreed to cut short the hike and we took a couple of short cuts and ended back at our car in Saint-Jean-d’Arvey after about 12km (7.5 miles), a bit longer than the original hike length. I still don’t understand how we cut the hike in half and took a shortcut, but still hiked longer than the original long route. Faulty GPS, faulty AllTrails, faulty us? Over the entire walk we saw perhaps 10 people, so it was just us, our cameras and our thoughts. Enough words…Here are photos

Sunday we decided to go to Grenoble to look around. We started by visiting the Resistance Museum. It was very well done (and free, but they did not have a “Viva la Resistance t-shirt — disappointing) and we spent about an hour in it. Afterwards we wandered into the old part of town and were terribly disappointed. Nothing was open (ach, dimanche!) and we just didn’t see anything of any interest. We walked back to the car and headed home.

Google says it is a 4-hour drive on the highway; we drove to Lyon on the highway, stopped for some lunch on the highway and made the grand decision that we were in no hurry to get home. Steven neglects to mention that we took the highway hoping that the rest stops were open since there was no other way to get food on Sunday. We told Google to find us a way home without the highways and off we went on a scenic tour of France. Boy do the French love roundabouts (des rond points). We hit one every kilometer or so. After a few hours we decided to head to a medieval city called Beaune that one of our friends said was pretty (also it is the wine capital of Burgundy). By the time we got there, it was about 7pm and we once again had a wander. (Restaurants were open. Viva la tourisme!) The place was packed with tourists and after about 45 minutes we had enough.

Once back in the car, we decided to go back on the highway and covered the last 130km in about 90 minutes. It was nearly 9pm by the time we got home. A long but very fun day.

A very Burgundy weekend

This was our first weekend in Clamecy. Like so many of our weekends we crammed it full of things to do and see.

We started the weekend with a quiet Friday night. A light dinner and then we attempted to improve our French by watching Independence Day in French. News flash…It is a terrible movie even if you can’t understand the dialog (which we couldn’t) and even if they dubbed everyone’s voices with people who didn’t really sound very much like them. (I didn’t know Will Smith could speak French!) Anyway, we also used the time to plan next weekend’s activities, which we will talk about next week!

Saturday morning we went to market (which is about 20 feet from our front door), to look around and pick up a few things. I bought olives and Sue bought some very interesting looking mushrooms – which I do not believe are poisonous as we ate them for lunch and as of this moment (18:00), I have not started to vomit or hallucinate. (They were chanterelles or girolles here.)

After our quick shop, we headed out to a very nice little hilltop village called Vézelay. It is a UNESCO world heritage site and has an abbey that I believe was started sometime in the 13th Century. The town was very nice, but a bit touristy (even in the off-season). We parked in the municipal parking and there were about 10 Porsche 911s and while we were waiting to pay, their owners arrived and they all drove off in a pack (I know that a group of crows is a murder and a group of wolves is a pack…Is a group of Porsche’s called a Pretender of Porsches, or perhaps a Poseur of Porsches? Anyway – there were a bunch of them there and then they drove off).

We wandered the town, Sue took many photos of the town and the countryside. We bought a couple of quiches at one of the boulangeries and had a picnic lunch. Once we were done we headed off to do some wine tasting…It is Burgundy (well, actually, it is Bourgogne) you know! We stopped at four or five different places, but only one was open. We had a few tastes, bought a few bottles and were on our way.

Along the way, we stumbled upon a village called Saint Père. There was a winery there, but it was unfortunately closed when we arrived. However, there was a gorgeous old church in this tiny village. The construction started in 1240 and completed around 1455.  While the abbey of Vézelay is much larger and more physically impressive, the beauty and accessibility of the church in Saint Père made it more interesting to me.

Heading back to the car we saw a historic marker signed that said Les Fontaines Salées. We were in no hurry, so we figured we would drive over to it, not bothering to translate what Les Fontaines Salées meant. It was only a couple of kilometers, so what did we have to lose? Boy are we glad we did. It is an archeological museum dedicated to the prehistoric and Roman period salt water springs and baths. It was fabulous. They had a museum explaining the history; sure it was in French, but we had the time to read and translate the important stuff. Then we could wander among the ruins and soak up the history. (Also, there were frogs in the water.)

When we finished, we took a long route back to the AirBnB and had dinner. Our friend Suzanne told us about a restaurant called La Guinguette in a nearby village that was having a DJ playing Afro-Carribean music with a drummer. We picked her up and headed over. The night was warm, the beer was cold (at least mine was – the ladies had wine) and the music was great. The video is Sue dancing with the owner (who our friend knows).

All in all a great day.

Sunday we lounged about most of the morning, went for a small wander in Clamecy and then headed for the D’arcy Grottos with Suzanne (who took us through the backroads where we got to see some beautiful scenery and more cute French villages). There are a series of caves that have stalagmites, stalactites and prehistoric cave paintings. (I believe that they are the second oldest cave paintings in France.) We drove through the countryside, taking a long, windy way to get there, but the trip was well worth it. Only one of the caves is open to the public, but it is very impressive, and the paintings are somewhat unreal.

After the visiting the cave, we wandered along the River Cure for an hour or so and then headed back to the AirBnB.

Another great weekend, this one without dead person bingo (although we did see at least two cemeteries). 😉