This blog is posted mostly everyday when we take a break from our usual retired Life as former full-time RVer's and travel overseas.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Day in Barcelona

We’re outside, it’s a map, it’s a city guide, but best of all, it’s not raining today. They seem to have many rules about who can give guided tours in cities in Spain, so for our tour of the Gothic Quarter, we got our first dose of English with a strong Spanish accent. At first it was hard to follow what the guide is saying, but as the minutes go by, it got easier to understand at least most of it.

Since everyone except one couple had been on Rick Steves tours before, it wasn’t one of those tours where everyone is tightly clumped to together, and the longer the walk went on, the more pronounced the straggling became. Nygil was like one of those sheep dogs, always keeping a watchful eye and getting the worst of the stragglers back towards the main body.


And then there are interesting things that have everyone paying very close attention. In this case it’s not the building, it’s what is on the building. That’s not a child’s drawing, it’s the only building that has a Picasso on it. As our guide explained, Picasso did not like Franco who was the fascist dictator of Spain, so the design is in subtle ways poking fun at Franco, something we would never have known otherwise. Probably because we do not do guide books very well. As Linda says, she wants to be looking, not reading when we are out.

Now where did that come from? It just goes to prove that not every photo we take is a brilliant piece of composition and a masterful mix of light and shadow. As I was to learn throughout this trip, I have a tendency to push the "take a photo button" before I push the "off button" when I put the camera back in my camera case.

We saw many interesting things during our tour, not the least of which were figures such as these that were for sale in a number of shops. I’ll let you guess what the ones in front represent. The humor of the Spanish people can certainly be interesting.

And just when you think you’ve seen everything, you round a corner and the Sagrada Familia rises up in front of you. Three years ago we had attended Palm Sunday services very near this same spot when we were last in Barcelona. Needless to say, we were excited about being here again, and we joked about once again stopping for a pizza and beer for lunch.

Last time, because of the huge Palm Sunday crowds we did not go inside the Basilica. This year we have been in many of the great cathedrals, but nothing prepared us for the overwhelming sense of awe we felt here. This was what the architects of those medieval structures where trying to attain. There are many books of photos of the inside of the Sagrada Familia, and the really do show what is there. The problem is that to feel what is there you must stand inside and let what your eye sees be transmuted into raw emotion.


The light high above the alter. All was designed by Gaudi. An angel seems to appear within the light. Some say that what Gaudi designed were gaudy. I side with those that say he was a genius far ahead of his time. 

Saturday, September 29, 2012

On to Barcelona



Today we were traveling to Barcelona to begin our two week Rick Steves Spain and Morocco Tour. They say it is 16 days, but since it doesn’t begin until 5 PM the first day and ends immediately after breakfast on the 16th day, it is really a two week tour. Enough of that, what is interesting was our train trip.



For one thing, we were taking three different trains. For another it was raining cats and dogs all day long, with the occasional lions and tigers thrown in for good measure. We had about a half an hour for our two connections, but when our first train was 20 minutes late, it sure didn’t start off so good.


IMG_9658  With the lousy weather there sure wasn’t much to see out the window. Then we ran into some luck, our next connecting train was also delayed 20 minutes, so we had no trouble with that connection. That was at Narbonne, France, and there it was actually raining hippos and elephants, plus the wind was blowing the rain nearly horizontally at times. The inside of the station was so crowed you could barely move.



Linda surprised me by reading a French newspaper on the leg from Narbonne to Figures, Spain.



The last segment was on the AVE from Figures to Barcelona, where we had to take the metro to be closer to our hotel. The Barcelona Sants station is one of those where when you finally get done walking from the train station to the the right metro platform, you think it would have been easier to just walk to the hotel directly.



After our initial meeting in the hotel, we took to the streets for a get acquainted walking tour. Two things were apparent right off, it wasn’t going to stop raining, and a little rain wasn’t going to interfere with our tour. The rain didn’t seem to bother the people of Barcelona either, as the streets were positively crowed with people walking under umbrellas.


IMG_3296  Our tour guide, Nygil, in action. We had read that he was in the top handful of guides, and if first impressions mean anything, he very well could be the top Rick Steves tour guide. Not bad for someone from Chico, California who came to visit Spain years ago and never returned to the States. It promises to be a great two weeks.

Friday, September 28, 2012

A Day Trip to Albi




There are churches and then there are churches. This is the one in Albi France. The one built after the Roman Catholic Church massacred and slaughtered thousands of Cathars because they didn’t believe as the Pope wanted then to believe. To show the power and might of the one true Church, this church, that was more fortress than church, was built. Actually it was to make sure the Cathars toed the Papal line, as much as it was to worship in, though there weren’t a whole lot of Cathars left after the Pope’s butchers were done. Sorry, but history is history, unless it gets rewritten by the victor, as is often the case. Then years or centuries later the real facts come out.



I always love how Catholic Churches display Adam and Eve. The Bible says they were naked but you never see them that way in these churches. Makes one wonder what all else they cover up with their so called faith.



No cover up here, just the plain good food. When Linda eats raw salmon it has to be good. When she eats it all and says it was good, it has to be way more than just good. And that was just our appetizer.

Just to make life interesting I got us slightly lost on the way back to the train station. Normally such a thing wouldn’t be a big deal, but since it was two hours until the next train, Linda was just a tad unhappy with me. We made it in time, plus the train was 10 minutes late, but that didn’t get me out of the doghouse. Guess I should be happy I didn’t suffer the same fate as those thousands of Cathars.


Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Dry Day in Toulouse



As is often the case, it is not what you look for, but what you find that is the most interesting. Earlier we had found the old bridge we were looking for, and it was most interesting, but then we walked through what might might be termed a part of town where tourist don’t often go, climbed a set of stairs and found another bridge.



It turned out this bridge led to the university, and we had a great time walking around the “campus'’. Then we stumbled on this church. Well that might not be exactly true. I saw the back of this church and circled it until we found the entrance. It turned out to be very interesting, and included the usual huge pipe organ. I can’t imagine why every organist in the US wouldn’t want to take a tour that visited many of the great churches of Europe to hear the organ being played. Every one we have ever heard has been so spectacular, and we just stumble on them being played.



This one gave us a real laugh. She was dressed on top like the French, though her pants definitely didn’t have a “French cut” to them. And those shoes, they may be comfortable, but definitely not European. Oh, and she definitely spoke American English. A classic example of an American not trying to look like a tourist and standing out like a sore thumb. We have no problem with the way we dress. Besides, it means the waiter speaks English to us from the get go, instead of us having to ask if he speaks English.



Remember those kids in that first photo all dressed in red and sitting on the bridge? Well here is a close up of two of them. So maybe that wasn’t us on the bridge, but these are the same shirts those kids were wearing.

This is what happens when you keep visiting churches. In front of another church was that same bunch of kids, actually college age, and we found out they were from a tourism school where they studying to be able to work in tourism related jobs. One of their assignments was to interact with actual tourists, so to document that they did exactly that, they took off their shirts, we put them on, and they took our photo, first with their camera, then with ours.

I feel sorry for those tourists who have their list of six sights to see for the day, and zoom from one to the other visiting all six, but seeing nothing. We wander along, going where the streets often take and end up doing things like this. The people who have everything planned out are happy, and we are happy. I’ll not judge them, but then again, I’d sure rather live Life the way we do.



Mealtime begins with a pichet of wine. We compromise on rose since Linda doesn't do red and and I don’t really care for the whites she prefers.



This is the third photo I took like this and the first one where she had her eyes open. I think she was really looking down at her bowl of cassoulet, but claiming they were closed works for her. Another meal, another fantastic meal. Every meal in France is fantastic.



What do you mean, every meal in France can’t be fantastic? Out of my way, I’ve got to wipe that bowl clean with my bread. One could say we like the food in France so much because it is different that food in America, and they’d be 100% correct. Different in the sense it isn’t the same food we get in America, different in the sense it is healthy, and different because it tastes great. And lastly, great because it doesn’t have a bunch of grease dripping off it like most American restaurant food seems to have. In fact it is so good that the scale is probably going to say we gained over twenty pounds each. True, but what an awesome way to pack on the pounds!!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Rainy Day in Toulouse



Off to see some of the sights of Toulouse, we followed along an old friend. The Canal du Midi may not be navigable through Toulouse, but it runs right in in front of of our hotel. The only boat on this section was a permanently moored restaurant, but that still brought back many pleasant memories of canal boat trip of a few years ago.



I have a fondness for stained glass windows, and they are certainly easy to find. Just walk into one of the many churches and look up.



I have to hand it to Linda, she has her own things she is fond of, such as this mounted Koala Bear in the Natural History Museum. Will not bore you with the dozens of other photos she took, but I will say that this museum puts most of the ones we have seen in the States to shame. Plus most of the exhibits were in both French and English.


Why is this woman smiling? Because after a walk in the rain (we did have our umbrellas) we literally stumbled upon a little restaurant that had baked chicken and mashed potatoes as their plat de jour. Talk about the perfect meal, this was almost it.



And this was what made it a perfect meal, a dessert to die for. A hot crepe filled with real whipped cream and topped with thick rich chocolate. It had to be Sara N. Dippity who brought us here because you can’t just stumble onto places like this,



And to think, we could have stopped in here and had a pizza. Nothing like a little touch of home to help you appreciate just how lucky we are are to able to travel.



This plaque is located about 75 feet from the entrance to our hotel. Our friends, John and Judy know what it means in more ways than one. For everyone else, it is for the Bayard lock on the canal and gives the distances in both directions to the next lock. A rainy day at a lock on the Canal du Midi - it was one of those, you had to have been there – some three years ago to appreciate it things. (Like rain coming down so hard it literally filled your shoes to overflowing.)

To those who say they could never drive a boat on a canal in Europe, you’re right. To those who think they could do it, Do It!. It it will be something you will remember for a lifetime. I’m glad there are so many people who say they could never do things, because it makes it less crowded for those of us who do those same things.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Travel, and Little Else

Linda just couldn’t leave Les Eyzies with saying goodbye to Cro-Magnon man, especially since we walked right by the discovery site on our way to the train station. So while I watched the bags, she disappeared up this dirt lane and around the corner. She was gone  a long time and I sure was relieved to see her finally round the corner. I had also been relieved to see the bags were still there when I had returned from my own little neighborhood excursion. Who knows, maybe Linda was relieved to see me still there when she returned, as she knows my propensity for wandering off.

As the clock on the station shows, we were once more leaving at a rather early hour. We weren’t the only ones, as I counted 14 people at the station when the train finally arrived. Finally arrived being the key phrase here. We were not scheduled to arrive at Toulouse until just a couple minutes before one o’clock, but not on this train. We had two connections as part of this trip, both of about 15 minutes. So, when this train arrived 15 minutes late the level of concern in both of us was, shall we say, in a somewhat elevated condition.

To help alleviate any concern that Linda might have, I joked about there always being a next train, though the way I was scrunched up in this seat probably did more in that line than my words. It also helped that our conductor asked everyone aboard about their connections, then spent most of the remaining time of the trip on the phone. Just before we arrived at Perigueux, our first connection point, we were informed which track we needed to go to in order to make our respective connections. We took that as a hopeful sign that even though our connecting train was scheduled to leave just as we were pulling into the station, there was a good chance we could still make it.
It looked like we weren’t the only ones with a close connection, as the seats emptied of passengers as the train began to slow for the station, with everyone crowding around the exit doors. When those doors opened I don’t think I have never seen a train empty out so quickly, young, old and in between all rushing for the stairs. Down the stairs we went, I carrying both Linda’s and my bag, her trailing somewhere behind. The thought flashed through my mind that it would be funny if I made the train she she didn’t, which I instantly realized wouldn’t be funny at all. I had our bags and train tickets, she had all the information on our hotel in Toulouse, not good at all. That caused me to slow down and wait for her. When we climbed the stairs to the right track the bad news was that there was no train. The good news was that there was a mob of people there, meaning the train was late coming in. Sometimes you just get lucky.

The signs were showing the train was 10 minutes late, which was great because it would still allow us to make our next connection in Bordeaux. That was for a TVG, one of the high speed trains, and it was the kind with seat reservations. As the minutes ticked by, more and more people crowded on the platform, but worse was the fact that we saw those minutes making it impossible to make that next connection.
When the train finally did arrive, it was a repeat of the last one, the conductor coming through and asking everyone for their connections. I kept hoping they would make up a little time during the hour plus journey, but every time I thought that was happening, the train would slow for some unknown reason and those hard earned seconds would disappear.

IMG_8750 Once again we were lucky, and the TVG to Toulouse was late arriving in Bordeaux. These are really huge trains, and when it did pull into the station, we were standing within 10 feet of the door to our coach. How far we’ve come from that experience a few years ago that found us in the wrong car going in the wrong direction in Germany.

Another pleasant surprise when we arrived at our hotel, the room was nice and large, plus were on the first floor and right beside the elevator. Out the front of the hotel is the Canal du Midi, and all around are restaurants. Linda sure did another good job of picking a hotel. One thing we don’t do in hotels is book the more expensive rooms with a view. We find those are usually in the front of the hotel over a very busy and noisy street, at least in the hotels we pick. We like the rooms in the back that are quiet. Besides, time spent in our hotel room looking out the window means less to to explore the whole world awaiting outside. Since it was, shall we say, a high stress travel day today, I’ll just sign off here so we can rest up for the next three days in the Toulouse area.
As Linda loves to say, ‘so what if things didn’t go quite the way they were supposed to today. I makes for a good story. May your day have also been as “interesting” as ours. With Calvados nightcap in hand, we bid you Au Revoir.

Monday, September 24, 2012

A Fun Day

Life isn’t just the big things, sometimes it is stopping to enjoy the aquarium in the entrance where you are staying.

Or maybe it is a framers market in a small town in France where the vendors set up on the side of the road and no one minds.

Maybe it taking a road out of town, and discovering that the fence alongside the road is made of concrete.

Maybe it is walking through a cemetery and noting that a number of the graves have reference to a death that took place during World War I. There were over 16 million deaths in WW I, a little over 100,000 of which were Americans. You can not go to any town in France without seeing long lists of deaths in Guerre Mondiale. Armand Delat died in the battle of Verdun. There were over 1,000,000 casualties in this battle of which some 260,000 where killed. We look at the Battle of Gettysburg as being so horrific, yet there weren’t even 260,000 engaged in the battle. Gettysburg lasted 3 days, Verdun nearly a year. In the end neither meant the end of their respective war, and the fighting and deaths raged on. When will we ever learn, when will we ever learn.

It was here, behind Monsieur Magnon’s hotel that the bones of what is known as Cro-Magnon Man were first discovered. Linda stood here, I stood here. Neither of us could put into words the feeling that we had. It is one of those things that just is. And you really do have to be here to understand.

Guess who is going to be getting a smashed “penny”. Actually a smashed 5 cent piece, in the mail? Grandchildren, that’s who. Makes for a happy grandma, it does.

We each had duck for lunch today, Linda had a roasted leg and I, grilled breast of duck. It was the dessert that caused the problem. We carefully took photos of our wine, our first course, and main, but then came dessert, and by the time we thought of taking a photo, this was all that was left. Any meal that starts with foie gras and ends with this has to be great, and it certainly was. San Francisco can ban foie gras, there is more than enough for everyone else here in the Dordogne.
It almost made us homesick, this RV park along the banks of the river that runs through town. Almost, but not quite. We still have Spain, Morocco, Portugal and England to visit. Then we will be heading for home. Until then, there are places to go and things to see.

Window sill with dinner. A small piece of pate, a small bottle of Bordeaux wine, a small tomato, and a small piece of local cheese. It may not be a “Still Life’ painting, but is certainly what makes Life worth Living.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Dream Come True

Breakfast at Mme Bauchet’s, a real honest to goodness French breakfast. And did I ever slather the butter on the most awesome baguette before piling on the preserves. Add in orange juice that is nothing like that in the States, a warm croissant, and coffee to die for, that is a real, even if it is less than a make it to lunch without getting hungry, breakfast. I believe that Linda, the no meat fat woman, would admit that even a greasy piece of bacon would make it even better. I know it would for me.

There is more to that breakfast story than meets the eye. It was served at 7:45, an extraordinarily early hour for Mme Bauchet as we were to learn, but with good reason. You see, we had no reserved tickets for the cave tour, and we needed to be in line by 8:30 to have any possibility of getting tickets. Each day they allow people to reserve a set number of tickets, which are done many months in advance, then at 9:00 each day they sell the remaining tickets for that day. Our host insisted on driving us out to the cave, and who were we to say no.

People with no sense of adventure reserve their tickets to Font de Gaume many months in advance, those that decide too late have to stand in line and take their chance at getting a ticket. We didn’t even know this place existed until early August shortly before we left for Europe, so we fell into the adventuresome, take your chances camp.

Those that plan ahead and have their tickets reserved miss out on such things as the nine o’clock arrival of the goats that mow the grass on the steep hillside leading up to the cave.

They also miss out on standing in the chilly early morning air and discovering that the two women standing in line behind you are from England, even though they are talking to everyone else around you in French because they are French teachers.

Or how about noting how ironic it is that in a few hours it is likely you will be inside these limestone cliffs looking at paintings that are 10’s of thousands of years old, while overhead airliners are painting the sky with their own version of art.

The line ahead.

The line behind. Proving that the early arrivals get the tickets, and that we did! So what if all the English tours, there are two a day, were already filled. We were going to see the paintings, and that was more than enough. Besides, as we learned, there were going to be four women from England on our tour, three of whom spoke French, so it wasn’t looking bad at all. (and it wasn’t.)

Our tour was at 2:30, so allow me to skip most of the day, which was time spent in a World Class Museum that has everything you would ever want to know about the the people who lived in this area those millennia ago and were the ones who created these unbelievable paintings. As far as the modern day was concerned, we took time out for our usual multi-course lunch and topped it off with some seriously decadent desserts. Life is short, Live It. (And don’t forget the retiring early part).

So just which cave should we go in? Just teasing. The opening to the left is where you leave any bags, packs, etc. The one on the right is where dreams come true.

In the cave, no photos are allowed. Outside the cave after the tour was over, the daydream believer signifies that dreams do come true, and they were even better than expected. A guide that gave a tour in French, Spanish and English. Friends made in the ticket line that filled in the parts that weren’t said in English by the guide. A 100 quintrillion watt smile on Linda’s face as she stood in front of the cave entrance after the tour was over. It simply doesn’t get better than this.

Afterward we once again went back to museum, where what we saw meant even more than it did originally. This photo doesn’t do any justice to the actual polychrome cave paintings we saw, but it does let me talk about them. In a dark cave, lit only by torches, 10’s of thousands of years ago, Cro-Magnon man used the natural contours of the walls of the cave to paint 3-D paintings of animals. One can not even imagine how far advanced man would be today had it not been for disease, war and the Catholic Church. Maybe someday we will progress beyond superstition and achieve what humanity is truly capable of achieving.

Mankind is who we are.
Earth is where we are.
Deep space is awaiting.
The Stars our destination.

(With apologies to Cordwainer Smith who wrote what I modestly consider the greatest novelette of all time, The Stars My Destination). 

“Don’t be afraid to love, laugh and retire early.” And to add to that, “To Live Your Dream, Whatever It May Be.”