Sept. 2004
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Check out Weeks ending:   [5 Sep 04] [11 Sep 04] [18 Sep 04] [25 Sep 04]

Week ending 5 September 04 (Bob)

Foray into Belgium - After a day at a 1-star caravan park we headed out of Calais, and soon found ourselves across another European border, this time in Tournai, Belgium.  The town had beautiful old buildings and a belfry that dates from 1100 AD.  Our impression of Belgium is that it is tidier, wealthier, and more industrial than France.  We will have to return later and see more of the country.

Champagne Country - When we returned to France we headed to the Marne, the area where champagne is made.  We visited an up-scale winery as well as a local co-operative and received information overload. We discovered what types of grapes were used, what soil was needed, and the 'recipe'.  Among the factoids:

  • Origin - Champagne was invented by a monk, Dom Perignon in the 17th century.  He determined what grapes to use and how to introduce the bubbles that make it so special.

  • Ingredients - All champagne consists of 3 grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grown in lime-rich soils of the Marne, then fermented in vats and finally in bottles.  Most champagnes are a mix from several vineyards ('crus') and years, but special ones can be from a single year ('vintage') or vineyard ('cru' or 'grand cru').

  • The taste - Ratios of grape, minor additives, sugar variations and quality control account for differences between champagnes.  Most champagnes are turned ('riddled') by machine to collect the sediment in the neck - special brews are riddled by hand.

  • Lots of choice - There are scores of brand names, most consumed within France with the biggies (Mumm, Moet Chandon, etc.) being exported.

  • We will not run out soon - There are MILES and MILES of caves carved in the limestone under the wineries to store the millions of bottles of champagne now maturing to be sold in the next few years.

We visited the Mumm winery - a fascinating tour of the whole process, a peek at the cellars and 50-year old champagne, and finally a tasting.  Of course, we succumbed and carried away with a couple of bottles as 'souvenirs'.

Gay Paree - After the quiet of the countryside, we girded our loins and headed for the big time - Paris!  This fabulous city pops up out of the farmland rather quickly.  The angel in our iPaq tried to direct Bob but fortunately we were also well armed with maps and Judi led us to a soft landing at the Bois de Bolougne camping area on the Seine, a 30-minute ride from downtown Paris.

Week ending 11 September 04 (Bob)

Paris -  We had decided to make this a 'scouting trip' only, and defer real sightseeing to a future trip, hopefully with fewer tourists.  But our resolve weakened and we snuck to a few of the biggies:

  • Arc de Triomphe - this monument at the convergence of 25 streets (it seems like that many anyway) is impressive!  Finished in 1836 it features plaques from all of France's engagements since then and a tribute to the unknown soldier of WWI. From the vantage point of our next attraction, it really stands out against the surrounding streets.

  • Eiffel Tower -  On our first day in Paris we hopped the elevator and rode to the top - what a magnificent view of the city!  Superlatives are inadequate for the image of this structure.  Some believed it was ugly, and the stark steel makes it sort of Spartan, but it struck me a little like Ayer's Rock did in Australia - large and unexpected considering its surroundings.  Buildings in the center of Paris are limited to about 9 stories high, so this 1000' structure really stands out.

  • Seine - We took an obligatory cruise on the Seine, in our case with Vedettes du Pont Neuf that gave us good views of the city from the water level.  Museums, the City hall, and splendid Alexander II Bridge are a few of the highlights of the 1-hour trip.

  • Louvre - So far we have not entered this huge museum, but a quick visit of the courtyard and the Pyramid, newly discovered in the 'Da Vince Code' has us looking forward to several leisurely visits to some of the 400,000 exhibits in its vast interior.

  • Close Encounters - One of our first personal encounters in France was with a lady in a park where we struck up a friendly conversation.  She was from Romania 60-some years ago and had lived in Italy, France, and the US where she taught music at NYU.  She was fascinated with our sea travel and promised to stay in touch via email.  It was a nice introduction to this international city.

'Voyager' Crew - Our friends Peter and Jeanette from Voyager, last seen in Thailand, were passing thru Paris while we were here, so we hopped public transport and met them for a few drinks and stories at a hotel near de Gaulle airport.  The slight headache the next morning was well worth it!

Administrivia - Time moves on and the once-distant dates in our passports and driver's licenses have caught up with us.  So, what is easy to do back in the US has become a chore of international phones calls, courier pouches, (almost) strip searches as we visit the US Embassy, and long application forms.  Now we have to camp in a park in Paris while the bureaucrats do their jobs - tough life, huh?

Week ending 18 September 04 (Bob)s

Paris - We alternated trips to town with relaxing at 'home' and had an enjoyable week without too much 'sightseeing stress'.  Some of the things that stood out this week:

  • Pastries - France can rightly be proud of its culinary products, and we cannot understand why they don't all weigh 300 pounds.  Most 'Boulangeries and Pastisseries' sell bread and baguettes plus sweet delicacies like those shown to the right. 

  • Montmartre - Judi bought a couple of prints and the salesman showed her some featuring Montmartre, so we decided on the spur of the moment to find it.  What an interesting place!  On a hilltop overlooking Paris, Montmartre is home to artists galore (including Picasso at one time) so it was packed with artists with oils, watercolors, sketchpads, and musical instruments.  It was a very lively and exciting spot with lots of places for a spot of wine or cup of cappuccino. 

  • Shopping - Paris has a well-deserved reputation for world-class shopping.  Fashions in all price ranges (from moderate to very, very expensive), shoes, bags, and perfumes make it a heaven for shoppaholics.  Streets are lined with the global names like the GAP and small shops featuring haute couture.  

  • Public Transport - Paris has a world-class transport system.  The Metro (subway) is fast, frequent, clean and well-signed.  It integrates with the bus and train system, so one can go between any two points in the city with ease.  We bought a weekly card for $19 that allowed unlimited travel with the city - a bargain compared to the $10/day we were spending the first week we were here.

  • Parks and Plazas - They are everywhere, making Paris a very pleasant place for walking and touring (we have not tried to drive here).  Concorde Plaza at the right is near the US Embassy and is typical with beautiful fountains, walking spaces and plenty of opportunity for kids to play.  Crossing the Seine just to the south is the Alexander III bridge, ornately decorated with gilded statues and bronze plaques.

  • Opulence - When we visited Romania we were impressed by the gold and carvings in the Peles Palace.  In Paris we are beginning to see what real opulence was by looking at the rooms and gardens of the Louvre.  We have not seen Versailles yet,  but can see how the lifestyle of the Louis' could lead to a revolution and the guillotine for the royals.

The Louvre - This is billed as the largest art museum in the world, and we believe it.  The palace at its core is a quadrangle about 2 city blocks in size, but concealed under the courtyards are 2 more levels which house half of the exhibits, plus ticket and reception area, and a shopping mall.  It is HUGE!!! We decided to visit a couple of days this week, spent 12 hours in its rooms, and probably saw 15% of the exhibits and jogged through another 15%.  Some of the highlights:

  • Mona Lisa - Since it is a 'must see' in the museum, there are signs all over the Denon wing directing the casual viewer to it - so we followed the crowd and gazed at this piece of art with all of the other visitors.  Like many people, we said to ourselves "Is that all there is?"  But it was still special to see this famous painting.

  • Venus de Milo - another world famous woman, in this case over 3000 years old by an unknown sculptor.  It was discovered on a small Greek island in 1820 and brought to the Louvre to be on display.

  • French Paintings - The French paintings were brighter and more alive than the dark paintings by the 'Masters' from Holland and Germany and we enjoyed them more.  One could easily spend several days slowly perusing each one, but as often happens we sort of rushed it and just got an overview.

  • Sculptures - The Louvre has rooms and courtyards filled with sculptures from pre-historic times to the 19th century, and styles to appeal to all tastes.  We found some of the classic Greek and Roman sculptures to be the most attractive -perhaps that is why their appeal has remained so strong over the millennia.

  • Egyptian Room - The museum has done a good job organizing the artifacts from Egypt in chronological order so one can see the progression in form and style for the 3000 years from ancestors of the pharaohs to the end of their dominance as the Persians took over that part of the world. 

  • The Pyramid - Versailles is a traditional 17th century palace with high ceilings, ornate carvings, and a solid feel to it.  When I. M. Pei was commissioned to design a new entrance for the museum, he broke all of the rules and created a steel and glass pyramid surrounded by water in the middle of the museum courtyard.  Many hated it, but it is striking and very functional, and creates lots of interior bright space and is very impressive. 

Bureaucrats come through - In record time (a mere 7 days including 2 trans-Atlantic crossings), the bureaucrats in Maryland and the US State Department did their thing and Judi had her shiny new passport and Bob had the papers to get a new driver's license.  Our hats are off to them!!

 

Week ending 25 September 04 (Bob)

Traveling South - We have an appointment in Calpe, Spain at the end of the week, and so are now making tracks through France on our way to Sunshine Coast.  The countryside south of Paris is mostly flat agricultural land with fields stretching to the horizon.  Two days were on motorways (expensive, good, and fast) and the third day was on 'A' class roads through small towns and villages - slower but free and more interesting.  As we neared Toulouse it became a little more mountainous and beyond we encountered the Pyrenees, that pile of rocks thrown up by Spain/Portugal smashing into southern France.  Tucked away in these mountains is:

Andorra - Another tiny independent country established by its neighbors, in this case France and Spain where a Spanish Bishop and the French President share power as heads of state.  It seems to be a couple of duty-free towns surrounded by ski and camping areas with horrendous traffic.  One has to drive through a 8000' pass over good switch-back roads and great views and then drop into a deep valley. 

 

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