Settling into Butte Aux Cailles

Having found round trip flights to Paris for $426 pp, the next order of business was to find a place to stay. For this, we ruled out hotels immediately. We needed an apartment. So, time to call up AirBnb to see what they had to offer, which was plenty. Rich and Sis both agreed that they did not want to have to climb stairs, so that limited the search right away. And, it was a quick reminder that in France a first-floor apartment is actually on what we know as the second floor. So you would often see a first floor apartment advertised as being over, say, a bakery. Not what we wanted. We wanted a ground floor place. And, again, there were several available, but we needed to refine the search further.

My brother and I had recently shared a cabin in the wilds of Canada, so we were already aware that ear plugs and ventilation were a high priority. No need to subject Sis to that, so the best bet would be a separate area for her. Surprisingly, many of the apartments had one or more beds on a loft, which meant climbing a ladder to get to them. This was no more welcome than stairs, so the search continued.

And, of course, a further consideration was location. We needed quick access to the Metro. Paris is divided into districts, called arrondissements. The smaller the number, the closer you are to the central city and, generally, the more expensive the accommodations. But, the metro system is so good, you can easily be in the central city from the outlying areas in a matter of minutes.

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After the exchange of several e-mails we settled on a place in the 13th arrondissement near the metro hub called Place d’Italie. First, it was on the ground floor, it had one bedroom separated from the others and three single beds. It also had a nice courtyard, kitchen and bath. Previous tenants gave it rave reviews. I contacted the owner to confirm availability and we booked it. Seven nights for $400 per person, or, $57 per night.

After Air France had changed our arrival time to 8:45 am, I contacted our host, Catherine, to let her know. She said she would have a nice French breakfast waiting for us. That’s when we knew we had found a winner!

Upon arrival at Charles De Gaul, however, we had a few items of business to attend to. The first was to purchase a two-day museum pass, which saves considerably on entrance fees to the great museums of Paris. The second was to purchase a Navigo Découverte pass. This pass gives us unlimited use of all Paris buses and trains. There are two train systems in Paris, the regular metro and the RER, or regional express railroad. This pass was good for both and it cost 23 euro plus 5 euro for the week. The problem with the pass is that it is effective only from Monday through Sunday. Since we were arriving on a Tuesday we had already lost a day, but it was still much cheaper than buying individual tickets. To buy a Navigo card you have to have a photo of yourself, like a passport photo, only smaller. We had done this before we arrived, so we were ready for them. The Navigo is actually a plastic card holder. You stick your picture onto the insert, along with your newly activated card and you are good to go. The purchase and assembly process took longer than we had hope, plus it is about an hour ride from the Airport to the apartment, so we didn’t arrive until about noon. Still, Catherine was waiting for us with a very nice breakfast of baguette slices and croissants with honey and jellies and coffee and very pleasant conversation. I had brought for her a box of Dietz’s chocolates from home, and while it might seem like madness to bring chocolates to Paris, we know Dietz’s can hold their own anywhere in the world, and they were much appreciated.

So, when you get off the train at Place d’Italie, the first thing you see is a whoppin’ big mall. Also, you are in the center of a hub from which seven streets make up the spokes. Our street, Avenue d’Italie ran alongside the mall. The first intersection is Rue Vandrezanne and that is where our apartment was. So, you follow the mall, turn at the end, where there is this mall entrance:

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Across the street you see this:

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The door beside the gate has a pass code, which Catherine had given us. That takes us to DSCF3322

The glass door, for which there is a key, then you go across the courtyard to the apartment entrance, which is the corner glass door:

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The courtyard is mostly decorative. There are no chairs or benches unless you take some out. There are about seven or eight apartments there.

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Then you unlock your door, as seen from the inside:

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Here is the layout:

 

Please note, these are the AirBnB photos which are 100 percent accurate, but which show a much tidier appearance than those in my personal collection. The pink covered boudoir, as you might guess, was the lady’s chambers. The only downside was that it was also the pathway to the bathroom, so, sadly, privacy was rarely to be had. And other perils were all too close at hand.

So, following a very warm welcome by our host and an explanation of the keys and appliances, we settled in. Anticipating the jet lag and time zone fatigue, we did not plan to do much the first day except explore the neighborhood at our leisure.

OK, I believe I have mentioned in previous posts, but will restate: I still cannot get over the fact that I can sit at my little desk in Findlay, Ohio, click a few keys, and, months later, when I walk into the lobby of a hotel in France or Scotland or wherever and there will be a reservation for us just sitting there waiting. How is this possible? Sorcery?

Well, to blow my mind even further, with the assistance of Google maps I can now get a street level view of our apartment in Paris and I can stroll down the street in any direction with the aid of my mouse. I can look at various stores, and whatever as if I were actually there. So, by the time we arrived I had taken many a stroll down Rue Vandrazanne and knew the location of every boulangerie (bread bakery), pastisserie (yummy pastry shop), restaurant and bar in the neighborhood. Just amazing!

The neighborhood we were in is called Butte aux Cailles, which translates to Quail Hill, but is actually named for the Cailles (rhymes with “cry”) family who farmed the area. It used to be a small, independent village, but in the 1800’s it was incorporated into the city of Paris. It still maintains a small-town vibe. It is made up of small homes, surrounded by high-rise apartments. This is not a tourist area, which made it all the more attractive to us. It is where working class Parisians live. And, while we were clearly outsiders, we were made to feel very welcome. Here are a few scenes from the neighborhood:

DSCF3327Just outside our gate, down from the mall entrance, is one of those high rise apartments. There are many, many more to the east of us. But once you get past this one, Rue Vandrezanne is gated off to traffic and becomes a pedestrian gateway.

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There are small parks throughout the area, perfect for enjoying a coffee and pastry.

The most famous place around, though, is the Butte aux Cailles Piscine. There is an artesian spring around that the civic leaders turned into a public swimming pool. People can swim outside year round:

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The other thing Butte aux Cailles is famous for is graffiti, which normally I hate. But here it is done by an association of artists called  ‘Lézarts de la Bièvre’. Here is a sample, which is by no means all, of their work:

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Angel or Devil?

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The most famous of all the street artists is a woman named Miss Tic, whose work is found around the world:

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To the terraces of life the flash of our furious liberty

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I  wave to the man

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The abuse of pleasure is excellent for the health

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The masculine wins but where?

These, of course, are Google translations.

So, after a pleasant stroll about the hood, we were not at all surprised to end up here:

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Le Pub de la Butte!

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Fine cuisine and delightful beverages! Far from being American outcasts, we were warmly welcomed by all the staff, especially the bartenders. One, in particular, took a shine to us and began by offering a free beer to us. Sis declined, but Rich and I took full advantage. We spent a pleasant and relaxing evening here, to say the least!

 

On the Current State of Air Travel for the Commoner, As We Have Experienced It

In October on 2017 my brother, sister and I decided to attempt a family first: The three of us would fly to Europe. With the assistance of Scotts Cheap Flights, we began the search of places to go, based on a list of preferences they provided. I had promised to find flights below $400 per person round trip (which I could have, as it turned out), but when I found a Delta flight from Chicago to Paris for $426.16 we decided to book it. This was a trip with a departure of April 9, 2018 and a return of April 18.

This was such a good deal that I suggested to my wife that she join me in Paris on the 18th, when my brother and sister left and we would stay on in France for another 10 days, returning on the 28th. She agreed.

So, on October 25, 2017, I booked a flight for myself departing April 9 and returning April 28. I then booked two flights for my brother and sister departing April 9 and returning April 18. And a flight for Dianne arriving on the 18th and departing on the 28tth. All was well.

When I booked the flights I had the option of choosing seating for $23 extra. I found three seats together, booked one of them and then e-mailed my brother and sister to do the same so we were all in the same row. They did. And they paid the extra $23. All was well.

Then I booked a flight for Dianne and paid for her reserved seat with me on the return flight.  All was well.

My brother, sister and I were scheduled to leave O’Hare at 7:45 pm on the 9th and arrive at Charles DeGaul at 11:05 am the next day.

Dianne and I were scheduled to leave Charles De Gaul on the 28th at 3:40 pm and arrive at O’Hare at 6 pm. Since we were departing CDG in the late afternoon and we were arriving from Nice, I booked an Air France Flight for the 28th departing Nice at 9:40 am and arriving after 11:00 at CDG which would be plenty of time to catch our flight back to the US. All was well.

Then we received the first of several notices that our flight had been changed. Now, instead of leaving O’Hare at 7:45 pm, we would be leaving at 5:20 pm. Instead of arriving at Charles De Gaul at 11:05 am we would be arriving at 8:45 am.  Then, instead of leaving Paris at 3:40 pm and arriving in Chicago at 6:pm, we would depart Paris at 10:10 am and arrive at 12:30 pm.

OK, the first part was good news as it gave us more time on our first day in Paris. The second part was bad news since this plane would now be departing before we arrived in from Nice. Being ECONOMY we could not change the Nice flight.

This began the first of multiple calls to Delta. I had looked at Delta’s return flights There was a flight directly to Detroit (our ultimate destination) from Paris that same day that would have worked out better than the original. I was told, however, that Detroit is in a different “region” or zone or something and to get on that plane I would have to pay full fare in the thousands. I opted out. Instead we settled on them putting us on the original flight, but a day later, so we got one more night in Paris (and that much more related expense).  So that was the deal.

My brother and sister actually benefited on both end of their flights, so once again, all was well.

Then on February 23, I received this notice from Delta. As if by magic, our Delta flights had now become Air France flights. Now, we had noted the message in previous e-mails that the Delta flights were “operated” by Air France. You see that often with other carriers. It is another thing altogether to be transferred entirely to another carrier. One example of why that is a problem can be found in the notice of seat selection: There wasn’t any.

Once again, I called Delta and told them that I had reserved a seat for both flights. The guy agreed that I had indeed made the purchase, made the correction on his computer and was about to hang up when he said wait until I contact Air France and make sure this is in their records. He came back a few minutes later and said Air France has it. You are good to go.

I called my brother and sister and they made sure the record was straight on their end as well.

Five days later I received a “Reservation Itinerary” which showed my seat as “unassigned”. But, when I clicked on the “Manage My Trip” button that took me to the Delta site, the seats were reserved. I called again. And again, I was assured that the seats were OK. Then I got an e-mail from “Delta-KLM” (KLM, the Dutch airline is now also a Delta partner) with details of our trip showing all seats reserved. All was well.

Then on March 14, my brother and sister both received “Flight Receipts” showing them on Delta flights with the original Delta flight numbers AND no reserved seats. “Manage my Trip”, however showed everything normal. I suggested they handle it. We were now flying Air France.

Finally, on April 7, it was time to print boarding passes! I quickly discovered that I had been assigned to the wrong seat. Thankfully there was an option to change seating. I called up a seating diagram of the plane and called my brother. His seat was nowhere near me. Fortunately, this was not a fully booked flight and there were three open seats together a few rows farther back. I changed my seat and printed the pass. He changed his and our sister’s seats as well and we all, finally, got to sit together. On an 8+ hour flight, this is not a minor issue.

This is the first time we had flown out of Chicago. The advantage was, it was an easy drive from our house and saved the cost of flying into New York. The down side was that it adds at least two hours onto the flight, each way. But, things went smoothly at O’Hare. It took us a long time to find a place to park, and we got there just as boarding was being called, but the flight itself was great. For $426.18 we flew over 8,000 miles, got a free meal with free wine and beer and an after-dinner cognac AND a free breakfast the next morning on both flights. There was a good entertainment system and the flight crew was friendly and attentive. The actual flights were among the best we have experienced anywhere. But, sadly, that all disappears with the ticketing process and the many other issues we encountered on the ground.

So, anyway, we had a wonderful time in Paris.

The day before they were to leave Paris, my brother and sister received notice from Air France that, due to the current round of Air France strikes, their flight was being cancelled (Even though their web site said specifically that no partner flights would be affected.) Air France promised to work feverishly to find an alternative. Their solution was to put them on a flight to Detroit leaving later in the day and then fly them from Detroit to Chicago. They left for the airport about the time they received notice from Delta that their flight had been cancelled and they promised they would find a solution. Apparently, their computers had not been told that Air France had already solved it.

But, as it turned out, Air France had not already solved it. And neither had Delta. When they got to the airport, they were told that their new flight had been cancelled and they would have to stay over at a free hotel provided by Air France and they would leave the next morning on a non-strike day. Which they did.

In the meantime, Dianne had a very good trip over and we had no trouble making connections at Charles De Gaul. We had a wonderful stay in France, as you will see described later. Our flight was scheduled to leave on time and this was a non-strike day, so it looked good for the flight. Then I received an e-mail from Delta saying our flight to Chicago had been cancelled. But as I looked at it, I realized that this was not the flight we would be boarding the next day. It was the original flight we had booked back in October which they, themselves, had changed!

But, the day of our flight WAS a train strike day. In order to make sure we arrived at CDG in plenty of time for the flight, we took a cab from our hotel near Gare du Nord. On train strike days, the cabs charge extra, so we were looking at 65 euro for that trip. And, of course, traffic was terrible. But the driver was able to bypass much of it with his special routes and we arrived at CDG with more than three hours to spare for our flight.

So, we walk into the Departures area of terminal 2E and it is absolute bedlam with people running here and there and long lines to everything. We got into one of those lines to get our boarding passes. In time, we finally got to the kiosk. It scanned my passport and ouila! Out comes a boarding pass. Dianne scans her passport and the machine starts acting funny. Instead of a boarding pass it prints out a notice that looks like a computer glitch. It reads:

Warning! This is not a boarding pass!

Please check the API status in Altea DC.

We show this to an attendant for the machine. She advises us we are in the wrong line. Americans are to use the lines about sixty yards away. Of course, there are no signs and the computer obviously didn’t care what line we were in. However, she agreed to try for us and got the same result. She directed us to a desk, far away, where many people were also in line. This began our many adventures with the maze tapes, the ones where you have to go around and through one row after another for roughly a hundred yards to get to your destination which is 20 feet away as the crow flies. And where people in a bigger hurry than you are, push you at warp speed through these barriers, not caring how your feet hurt of that you are operating on very little sleep.

We finally get to the end of the line and wait and wait and wait for a clerk to tell us what is going on. Which she never does. Instead, we are given another form which is also not a boarding pass. We are directed to another long line where we wait again, all of this with absolutely no explanation of what is going on. Eventually we get to yet another clerk, who looks everything over and gives Dianne a boarding pass.

Now we are headed for the gate, where there is yet another long line. We pass through another gate and are on our way to security, when a guy flags me over. He takes my little carry-ons and weights them. They are 5 kg over! Now we could have distributed stuff to Dianne’s bags or done some other things, but there was no discussion. My carry-on was given a sticker and I was directed to go to yet another desk to have it checked. Of course, this desk was at the other end of the terminal. When I finally got there, I was dreading yet another line but this time there wasn’t one. I still had to go through the maze, but once I got to the desk, fifteen actual feet away, a lady took the bag and gave me a sticker. I was entitled to a free  checked bag, so that was not an issue, but it means having to leave the secure area in Chicago to wait for my bag and going back through security all while hoping not to miss the connecting flight to Detroit.

I returned to Dianne and we proceeded through another maze to get to passport control. Now this maze was set up to handle, maybe, a thousand people. But, there were only a hundred or so. Any one of the “agents” standing around, and there were plenty, could have removed a few of the gates on this cattle drive and we could have proceeded directly to where the actual line was. But, no. Customers are made to walk hundreds of extra yards through these things dragging bags, children, and whatever, while our customer service people check their phones or shoot the bull with each other. If you didn’t already understand it, this is where you finally realize where you stand as an airline customer in the grand scheme of things. You are just one more doggie, and you better be gittin’ along. Customer service? Here’s your customer service: Get your ass up the line or over to that desk. And don’t ask questions.

Then, after passport control, you go through the same thing in security. As we experienced in Scotland a few months previously, while you are waiting in the security line, you are approached by a team of three people, which we now affectionately know as “Trump’s Chumps”.  America is now safe again because these three people look at the same passport that has already been reviewed three times and which has been scanned, to make sure they are in order. Then they put a sticker on the passport over top of the exact same sticker that someone else had already put there before. But we smile and chat and they go away.

We get through security just as boarding is being called. Three hours have been wasted and substantial stress added. The airline people scan the bar codes on our boarding passes. Dianne is immediately flagged for extra security. We head down the jetway, still not sure if we’re going to board. Here there is a small team of airline people with a table set up to go through bags. They take Dianne’s purse and bag. From her purse they pull a half-finished bottle of water, which in all the previous chaos she had forgotten to get rid of. They give her the purse and bag and we are on our way. Why this wasn’t caught in the original security, who knows? We take our seats for the long flight home.

I later learned (because no one ever did tell us) what the cryptic message: “Please check the API status in Altea DC” means. Altea Departure Control is a computer program used by some airlines to control the passenger boarding process from beginning to end. API is “Advance Personal Information”. Now, we always provide the airlines everything they ask for when we buy the tickets, which is usually Name, address, contact info, passport number and expiration date. We did in this case as well, but remember we gave this info to Delta. Could this be yet another communication screw-up between Delta and its partner? Nah. Couldn’t be. Of course, Dianne had already flown from Chicago to Paris on the first leg of this trip without incident. Who knows? Who cares? Nobody we met at Charles De Gaul, that’s for sure.

Fortunately, we’ve traveled enough to know that these are the exceptions. We have never had trouble with TSA and appreciate their professionalism. We have never had trouble at US airports or other European airports. But, at Charles de Gaul, they have a lot to learn and no apparent interest in learning it. At Delta, they were foolish to partner with a strike-happy airline to begin with, but the fact that they could not get their computers on same page before booking thousands of passengers is inexcusable.

For air travelers in the year of our Lord 2018 it is the best of times and the worst of times. The bag fees that have made the airlines rich have introduced a new age of travel where carry-ons are now king. But there is no room for all of them, so, many are gate-checked and handed out in the jetway when you arrive. Most flights are at or near capacity with cramped seats and few services. At the same time fares are cheaper than ever, with many flights to Europe and other destinations in the $300’s. Which, in turn, means more people are flying and the ground systems and security can’t keep up. The miracle is, given the chaos in so many other parts of the industry, that planes continue to fly safely. The most recent incidents involving Southwest Airlines are worrisome.

Each trip is a learning experience, but this one was particularly educational. Although we travel light, we’ll be traveling lighter. We’ll be more strategic about the airports we choose to fly into. We are even now re-thinking our entire approach to travel.  We have to adjust to the times and to our own increasing limitations. Probabilities increase that we are more likely to do certain things and less likely to do others, but one thing above others we have learned is that in travel you never say never. In the end, it is the USD that calls the tune. It is only a question of whether, for how long, and where you choose to dance.

 

 

Aubrey and Eden’s Great Canadian Adventure! Toronto

The return train ride from Montreal to Toronto was made much more enjoyable by green slime, which provided hour of entertainment!

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This trip was shorter than the other one, but still ran late. We always try to be right downtown when we visit a city, but the downtown hotels in Toronto are peericeee! So, instead we looked for a condo. Sure enough, we found a few available that we could swing. One was right down on the waterfront, so we booked it.

Although I had been in touch with the owners to discuss arrival times and so on, as our departure approached I recognized that a few details were missing. Like, our suite number and how to get into the place. So I contacted the owners and they replied with their standard documents which read, in part:

“As this is a high-end condo we must ask that our guests take the utmost care in respecting our property, our neighbors and the building in general. There has been some negative vacation rental stories that have made the news as of late, which is causing property management to be very sensitive to the short term rentals…We kindly ask that you do not speak to front desk staff and if anyone asks, just tell them you are a friend of ours and you are simply visiting us.”

As one who has spent much of his career dealing with local political strife, I can assure you that had this info been provided to us earlier I would have booked elsewhere. It was too late to change now and, since we are not all that rowdy any more, I figured we had a pretty good chance of flying under the radar for two nights.

So, you wanna see what a half million (CAD) Toronto condo looks like?:

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The reason it looks like a construction zone is that apparently it has been so successful they are building another one next door. We were on the 9th floor close to the top. The view was not too shabby.

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Grandma and Grandpa had our own private room and the girls shared the expandable sofa, which worked out fine.

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There was a nice little balcony

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With a fine view of Toronto Island.

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As well as the outdoor pool.

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As soon as the girls saw the pool, that had to become top priority. This complex featured both an indoor pool and the one outside. Since it was just a bit nippy, they opted for the inside.

So, they changed and we headed down. We had been given a pass key to let us into these areas and as Eden and I headed in we passed a gentleman wrapped in a towel. He did not smile as he passed and then turned around a followed us in.

He said, “Excuse me. Do you live here?”

As per instructions I said were were friends of the owners and were staying here a couple of days.

He said that there had been a meeting of the owners and they decreed that rental people (we didn’t even bother with that part of the conversation) could not have use of the “amenities” because they were not insured. He said he would have to report me.

I just shrugged my shoulders and proceeded in. Eden asked if we could swim here. I said of course you can. I said, although that gentlemen seemed unhappy he and I have one thing in common. We both know the meaning of a contract. No one ever came down to question us.

After a nice swim we decided to head up to Chinatown for a dinner. We called a cab and soon we were splashing about in the rain in some of our old Toronto stomping grounds.

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I had not done my Tripadvisor due diligence for Chinatown, so we relied on Yelp. Highest rated in the area was the Yummy Yummy Dumpling, so down we went!

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And, they were yummy!

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Since the arrival of Eden’s adopted sister from China, the whole family has been trying to learn a little Chinese. This restaurant is overseen by a woman, no doubt the owner, who greets each guest and takes them to an available table. Her English was very good, but clearly Chinese is her home language. After she had seated us and left, Eden started with a few Chinese words. She asked if we thought she should try them and we said, of course. So, when the lady returned to take our order, Eden said “Me How” which, apparently, means hello. Well, the lady’s eyes got wide and she stopped what she was doing. “How you know Chinese Me How.” Eden explained the whole story. From that point on, she was in love with Eden. She gave her some other phrases and helped with pronunciation. Clearly, we made her day. It was far better than one of my previous visits to Chinatown when I bought a Chinese newspaper to impress the locals and discovered later that I had been holding it upside down.

After a fine dinner, we went on a shopping spree at one of the area markets.

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Although my supply of white fungus at home is running a little low, I didn’t see how I was going to get 500 grams into the old carry-on. Maybe next time.

Same story on the leechees.-

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Aubrey loved the bracelets and would happily have bought them all. We suggested paring down the quantity to about 3, which she did.

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The next morning we had a fine breakfast and then it was time for their last Big Adventure. It took us a while to locate it, but pretty soon we saw the unmistakable skull and crossbones of a returning pirate ship!

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Once secured to port, about 15 middle schoolers got off, collected their backpacks and boarded a school bus. No one else arrived.

I had purchased tickets long ago for Aubrey and Eden thinking they would be part of a larger group of kids. Not so. We were then advised that at least one adult would have to accompany them. Though I offered the opportunity several times, Dianne declined. It was left up to me to join the girls for a little plundering.

First we had to get into costume.

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Then, some very nicely done tattoos:

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Then a group photo op:

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Soon we weighed anchor for our great adventure!

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It is said there are no small parts, only small actors. And, I was afraid that since it was just the three of us that performance might be a little less than spirited. Not so! These people put their hearts and souls into their roles and gave the girls the show of a lifetime!

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First we had to be made into pirates at a christening ceremony

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Then, the best safety instructions ever!

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Then, through a series of clues, which involved one the pirates being taken over by the ghost of a fallen comrade, we had to solve the mystery of the lost treasure. When we booked this trip we were a little concerned it might be a little juvenile for these girls, but the bought in entirely.

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After many adventures, we solved the mystery and retrieved the lost jewels!

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We arrived back at port victorious!

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Thanks to the spirited crew of Pirate Life Toronto we had a great time!

After this, we decided to hike up to the St. Lawrence Market for lunch and a little shopping:DSCF9554

What better place than Crepe it Up!

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We bought the last of our souvenirs and called it a day.

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Rather than see more sights, we and the girls were ready to chill. We went back to the condo, enjoyed a few more amenities, including the outdoor pool. Then strolled the downtown looking for  dinner.

Of course, we had to sample the offerings of each vendor:

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And pet the numerous dogs:

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Until, finally, on the waterfront, we enjoyed our last poutine.

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It was time to say goodbye to Toronto, at least for now:

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And, to the glorious view from our condo:

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The next morning I picked up the car, drove to the condo to pick up the girls and the bags, and we were soon on the QEW headed west.

Aubrey and I got out at the Buffalo airport and she and I flew back to Virginia. Dianne drove Eden home to Rossford. The next day, Dianne picked me up at the Columbus airport. And that was the end our great adventure.

What charming companions these girls were! They were at an age where they could appreciate what they were seeing and doing and they were such good friends, each looking after the other. They have both traveled with their parents and now they’ve traveled with us. They’ve had a little taste of this big ol’ world. Who knows what adventures lie ahead?

 

 

Aubrey and Eden’s Great Canadian Adventure! Part 2

Our last full day in Montreal began as same as the one before, at Universel for breakfast!

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Just a block away from the restaurant they were setting up for a comedy festival, so we strolled the grounds.

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Montreal is a feast for the eyes. Art is everywhere! All this was a few blocks from our hotel:

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The subway entrance is a small park

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Then we were back on the subway for a trip to the Olympic Park!

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Eden is a big fan of the Olympics. She loved everything about this place.

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Our first stop was to ride to the top of the tower that extends over the Olympic Stadium. To get up there you ride a funicular.

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The view is spectacular!

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You may recall that the pyramid shaped complex is the Olympic Village.

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Here are a couple of Olympic athletes posing for a photo op. We were glad to get their autographs, too.

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The whole park is beautifully landscaped.

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The girls raced each other at every opportunity. Aubrey’s cross-country experience payed off big.

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After spending the morning at the Olympic Park we headed back to the subway for a trip to the site of the Expo 67. The girls thought it would be good to wave at the passing train passengers:

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There is not much left of the original Expo. The Geodesic Dome has become a Biosphere with different exhibits of various ecosystems.

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From here we headed back to Old Montreal, this time with a camera. On the way, we spied a building that Aubrey immediately fell in love with, The Rainbow Building! She wanted a picture taken in front of it. Eden was very cooperative.

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Next we came upon the Notre Dame Cathedral. The girls didn’t know that their surprise for this night would be right here.

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Throughout the Old Town there are buskers and street performers. The girls loved it!

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Sometimes they got into the act!

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Very European!

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Dianne had her heart set on fondue. It didn’t take long to find a place:

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The festivities started with cheese.

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Then the main course

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Finally a chocolate dessert, featuring the queen of chocolate vampires!

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Following dinner, it was time for the next surprise, so we headed back to the cathedral. By the time we got there the line stretched around the block.

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But, once the doors opened we were quickly inside, with a choice of good seats in this massive cathedral

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The event we took them to see is called the Aura. It is an incredible show of light and sound with amazing computer generated graphics. Just when you think your mind is already blown, they start the laser lights. Very well done, and the girls loved it! Here is a sample that by no means, represents the actual experience:

After the show, we headed back to the hotel and said goodnight to a great city.

Along the way Aubrey’s rainbow building was ablaze with color. Time for another pose, without Eden’s assistance!

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Near our hotel was a fountain which featured just water by day, but at night they light the gas jets:

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We capped off the evening perfectly when the girls stopped a lady to ask if they could pet her dog. She was very willing to oblige. We were impressed throughout our trip with how friendly the people here were.

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We definitely will not wait fifty years till our next visit!

 

Aubrey and Eden’s Great Canadian Adventure! Part 1

One of Dianne’s favorite childhood memories is when her grandparent took her and her sister on vacation to eastern Pennsylvania. And now, as two of our own grandchildren have matured the time seemed right to create a similar experience with them.

Some time ago I asked Eden, if she could to anywhere on vacation, where would she choose? She said Paris. Well, that wasn’t going to happen, but it did start the wheels turning. In 1967, yes, centuries ago, Dianne and I attended the Expo ’67 in Montreal. This was our first adventure in another country and, while we didn’t know each other then, we came away very favorably impressed. So, we began kicking around the idea of taking the girls to Montreal, where they would hear plenty of French and see a city with sections as close the European experience as you could get. We ran the idea past both Eden and Aubrey and they were fully on board. And that’s how our great Canadian adventure began.

About the time we began planning, we received an invitation to my cousin, Bill Lafe’s 80th birthday party in Pittsburgh, to be held July 22nd. Since both of our daughters were invited as well, it seemed a perfect opportunity to meet the girls there and then head north. So, that became the plan. Our daughters would then spend a sister’s weekend in Pittsburgh as well. It all came together very nicely.

Seemingly, in no time were were at the Hotel Indigo in downtown Pittsburgh:

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Here is Emily taking pictures of two very excited girls.

And, of course, we greeted Cousin BIll:

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The party ended mid-afternoon. The plan was to drive to Toronto and then take a train to Montreal since the girls had never ridden a passenger train and we wanted to make the experience more European. We didn’t want to go all the way to Toronto from Pittsburgh, so we decided a good stopping place would be Niagara Falls. We arrived in time to catch one of the last voyages of The Maid of the Mist for that day.

We were careful to only let the girls know the basics. They knew we were going to Niagara Falls, but not that we were riding The Maid of the Mist, something we had done with their mothers many years ago. There were lots of questions as we got closer, but we let the details unfold slowly.   IMG_4481

We descended the big elevator, put on our rain gear and headed for the falls:

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Was it fun?

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Because we had gotten there late we still had to cross the border and get to our hotel which was on the Canadian side. Fortunately, the lines at the crossing weren’t too long. However, when it was our turn, it quickly became apparent that the girl’s shiny new passports were not going to be enough. The customs officer made sure our windows were rolled down, so they could see the girls, who, of course, have different last names from ours. Then he wanted to see permission letters written by their parents. We did not have both of them, but in its place we had a medical form of some kind. With that we were admitted grudgingly. The girls got what, unfortunately, was a good lesson that border crossings are no longer the casual events they used to be. We assured them that since we were now in Canada there would be no further questions. Which there were not.

It was now about nine at night and we were all hungry. Fortunately, the hotel had several restaurants  at the ground level, including a pizza place. That was a huge hit.

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Here is what we learned from Eden on the ride to Niagara Falls:

Girls go to collegeTo get more knowledge
Boys go to JupiterTo get more stupider!

Long Train Runnin’

Our train to Montreal was scheduled to leave Toronto at 11:30 am. I takes a little over an hour to drive from Niagara Falls to Toronto, so we were able to have a leisurely breakfast and then head into town.

I didn’t really want to drive into Toronto, even on a Sunday morning. I had hoped we could park in the suburbs and take the metro into Union Station to catch our train. But the metro system only allows 48 hour parking and there were no other parking options available, so we decided to drive into the city and park at one of the “Green P” garages near the train station.

You drive into Toronto on an eight lane highway called the QEW (Queen Elizabeth Way) and then, as you get closer to downtown you split off from the QEW onto the Gardiner Expressway. Everything was going smoothly and we expected to arrive at the train station with over an hour to spare, when suddenly we saw the signs: “Gardiner Expressway Closed”! Apparently, this Sunday was the day of some huge triathlon, so they closed the whole thing! Instead we were re-routed onto side streets with lots of stoplights and heavy traffic. We plodded along at a snail’s pace and now the clock was becoming a factor. In what seemed like forever, we finally found the garage we were looking for. We unloaded our luggage and headed for the station at as high a rate of speed as we could.

At last we found Union Station, but it is a big place that serves not only the rail system, but also the metro and the bus system. We had a fair amount of trouble finding the right entrance, but with the help of many people we finally found it. We arrived at the line for our train with fifteen minutes to spare.

All of our bags were carry-ons and we had hoped to store them overhead, but we were greeted by a guy with a cart who collected them and told us where we could find them when we got to Montreal.

I had pre-printed all of our tickets at home so we quickly found the right car and the right seats. It was a perfect set-up for us: four seats facing each other and a table in between. DSCF9265

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The car showed some age, but was comfortable and the best part was that we could all get up and walk around if we wanted to.

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The girls were very excited to be on the train and there were lots of giggles as we settled in. VIA rail is much like Amtrack. Rather than have dedicated passenger rails like they do in Europe, VIA shares the same tracks with freight trains. So, not only does this make for a bumpy ride, it also results in numerous delays. The trip to Montreal was supposed to last four hours. Instead it lasted five. But, it was still fun. The food was sold from carts, like on airplanes, but it was good and not hugely expensive. Just being able to get up and move around made it a far better way to travel than a car or a plane. And, it didn’t really cost that much.

Montreal

At last, the Montreal skyline came into view. It appeared that they have added a few buildings since 1967.

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Soon we pulled into Central Station. We re-united with our bags and headed for our hotel, which was only about four blocks away. We were soon checked in and ready for action.

The main shopping street in Montreal is Rue Sainte-Catherine, which is only a block away from our hotel. I had hoped to spend some time there on our first night and then go to the top of Au Sommet Place for one of the panoramic views of the city, but it was becoming overcast and we had arrived too late to do much, so we scrapped that plan. Here is what the girls wanted to do first:

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So, after a nice swim we decided that we wanted to try the main delicacy of Montreal cuisine, called poutine. The concierge directed us to a restaurant in Old Town that he said served it. So, off we went. We did not take any pictures on this trip, since we knew we would be coming back. You will see some pictures from Old Town a little later.

We did find some excellent poutine, however, and the girls agreed that it lived up to the hype. By the time dinner was over, it was time to hit the hay.

There were some nice views out of our window:

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The next morning it was raining. We talked over the many things we could do in this city, and we told the girls we had one big event planned for each of the next two days we would be here. Aubrey said the main thing she wanted to do was shop. Eden was on board with that also, but the main thing she wanted to do was go to the Olympic Park. She is a huge fan of the Olympics.

Since is was raining we decided that our shopping adventures would best be experienced underground. Like Toronto, Montreal has a vast network of underground shops, suitable for the coldest winters. This is what we would do. But first, it was time for breakfast. The concierge recommended a restaurant called Universel, up on Rue Sainte-Catherine. It was only a short walk away.

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Art is everywhere in this city:

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The floor had a 3-D effect:

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Even the chocolate milk was classy:

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The best eggs Benedict ever!

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After a fabulous breakfast, it was time to shop till we dropped. But the first order of business was to hit the money exchange:

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The banks would only exchange currency for customers, so we were sent to a nearby exchange house. The rates were reasonable, so each of the girls ponied up their cash. It was a great experience for them.

Now, with their very pretty currency burning a hole in their pockets, it was time to finally get some shopping in. We headed up Rue Sainte-Catherine looking for an access to the underground:

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The first major department store we found had an access point, so down we went:

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Well, the whole place was store after endless store. Surprisingly, the girls proved to be quite thrifty with their new currency. Primarily they shopped for things to bring back to their sisters and their parents. While the girls shopped I was able to get Metro passes for us all for the next two days.

After a fun day of shopping we went back to the hotel to get ready for the first surprise in Montreal.

To get to their first surprise, we had to get on the Metro to go to the section of the city called Griffintown. The map showed about a six block walk from the Metro to the location we were going, plus we needed to find a place for dinner. Fortunately, Yelp made the decision easy. We settled on the Lord William Pub, which was right next to our destination!

Unfortunately, by now it was pouring rain and even though it was a relatively short walk, it was no fun. The staff of Lord Williams made us feel welcome. The pub is famous for two things. Mac and cheese AND poutine.

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The french fries were nice and crisp, the gravy was rich and flavorful and the cheddar cheese curds were soft and creamy. We thought the poutine of the night before was tops, but this was even better!

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After stuffing ourselves at Lord Williams we headed next door to Escape Masters!

Dianne had heard about the popularity of escape rooms while we were planning this trip. We decided it was something the girls would really enjoy. So we looked over TripAdvisor reviews to find one that could both be solved by children and at which they spoke English. This led us to Escape Masters! We had our choice of three mysteries to solve: one involved spies, one involved zombies, and the third was hidden mafia treasure. I called the lady who runs the place and she recommended the Italian restaurant with Mafia treasure as the easiest to solve. We booked it.

On the way down we had to explain to the girls, and not too graphically, who the mafia is and what they do. Now it was time to solve a mafia mystery.

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The lady in charge told us that two mafia families had used the Italian restaurant as a hang-out and trouble had developed between the families. Not wanting to risk their loot, they hid it somewhere inside. We were given an envelope with the starting clues and told we had an hour to escape from the room. We were shown inside the door where the timer had just started clicking. We were told that we could knock on the door three times if we got stuck and they would give us additional clues.

Inside, the room was made up like a restaurant with four tables awaiting guests. There were four hats hung from hooks on one of the walls. There was a bar with four beer taps and other items stored underneath, including a padlocked briefcase. Behind the bar was a wall with an opening concealed by two small sliding doors. The opening would typically be used to pass food from a kitchen to the restaurant. Around the corner from this wall was a padlocked door that led to the the room on the other side of the wall. There was another door perpendicular to that one, also locked.

The first clue had to do with the numbered taps. I started on that one. The girls went after the hats and quickly found that they contained numbered tags, which they pulled out and began to arrange to find the sequence for a pad lock. Dianne found numbered bottle corks. All these discoveries led us to the combination for the brief case which contained a large flexible dentist mirror with and extension on the shaft, another chromed extender which looked like a broken off radio antenna, and a few other items.

We called for our first set of clues about ten minutes in. Eventually we were able to open the sliding doors in the wall, which revealed a kitchen on the other side. Some utensils hanging on the wall of the kitchen were tagged with three numbers. We needed four for the lock to the room. I took the dentist mirror and looked at parts of the kitchen that might have the fourth number. I could not find anything. We asked for our second clue. It turned out that I had not been looking at the right place with the mirror. The staff showed me where to aim it and sure enough, there was the fourth number.

These numbers unlocked a lock box. Dianne remembered instructions in the brief case about the lock. We soon had the door opened to the kitchen. But inside we couldn’t find any clue. So we contacted the staff for our third and final time. Turned out there was a key at the bottom the the drain. The thing from the briefcase that looked like an antenna was actually a magnet. Eden was able to extend the magnet to the bottom of the drain and pull out the key.

The key opened the other door which contained three lock boxes. By now we were out of time and out of helpful assists. But they let us continue and gave us more clues. The first lock box contained the severed arm of one of the mobsters who had tried to steal the loot. The other boxes contained diamonds and similar treasure.

Throughout the game we accumulated masks that the gang wore over their faces while doing “jobs”. As we collected these masks we found that each was numbered and the numbers were in several colors. Eventually the combination of numbers and colors led to the combination of the lock to get our out of the escape room. We took almost an extra hour and a bazillion additional clues but we got it. The girls absolutely loved it! The staff of Escape Masters saved the day. Both Aubrey and Eden solved some pretty difficult puzzles and made major contributions to the solution. What a great time.!

Since it was still pouring outside, I asked the staff to call a cab. That was plenty for one day!

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The Siena Cathedral

Well people, it has taken me so long to write up our trip to Italy that some of you think that either we’ve gone back or we never left. We are, in fact, home. At least for now. As far as these seemingly endless blogs are concerned, we are at about the halfway point of our Italian adventures. If you find the pace tedious, (as does the author) my advice would be to wait a year and read the whole thing at once. Good luck!–MS

On our first full day in Siena we headed for the Siena Cathedral. By the time we got there, a line had already formed and ticket sales were brisk. These were not tour tickets, they were just to get into the place. Groups of, say, 50 were let in at fifteen minute intervals.

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Of course, as we waited at the entrance, it’s not like there was nothing to see:

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At last it was our turn. And, just like so many cathedral visits before, from the first step inside, our minds were immediately blown:

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The entire cathedral inside and out is made up of alternating layers of white and black (or dark green) marble, symbolizing Siena’s color scheme.

Construction of the cathedral began in the 1100’s with much of the artwork being added in the following two centuries. What incredible engineering!

There’s no point in me yammering on. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves:

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The pulpit:

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This is the view looking back toward the entrance:

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As if the place needed more art, in the 1200’s they started to lay mosaics into the floor:

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Then, of course, there is the regular artwork. This is Michelangelo’s Saint Paul:

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And, just as you being to recover your senses, you join a line to get into what looks like a side room. Turns out it leads to the Piccolomini Library:

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The principle purpose of this room is to house rare medieval choir books. Feel free to sing along:

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At last it was time to head out the door:

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We spent one last evening in the piazza, then it was time to head to wine country!

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What an incredibly beautiful city!

Siena

Well, we wound our way our of the hills of San Gimignano and eventually found a four-lane divided highway with a sign pointing south to Siena. Siena is also a walled city, but this one is huge, home to 55,000 people. And, there are only eight places you can get in, called “Portas”. To get to our B&B, which was inside the walls, we had to find Porta Romana, on the south side. Once again the Google blue dot was a little tardy when it came to suggesting an exit and we were soon well past Siena before we figured that out. So, in a few miles we found a way to get back and the exit that looked promising. Sure enough, there was a sign for Porta Romano, which led us to a matrix of interconnecting highways, that once again had us heading south. But this time, it was only a two-lane road so turning around was quicker and easier. On our third try we spotted a tower that a sign confirmed was Porta Roma.

Here is the layout of Siena. The green area is the part that is inside the walls:

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This is where we stayed. The blue X marks the spot:

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Here is Porta Romana:

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Our B&B is called Palazzo Bulgarini, located on Via Pantaneto. When we booked it, months before, the manager said to be sure to let her know the license number of our car so she could notify the police. Well, of course, I didn’t have that number at the time of booking, so on our way out of  San Gimignano I called her first to tell her we were running late, and also to give her the number. Mastery of the English language, however was not her strong suit, but after repeated attempts I discerned this bit of info: Once we got through the Porta Romana we only had to continue straight in and look for number 93. She would call the police and give them my plate number. Then, we would have a half hour to unload, turn around, and get the hell out. After 30 minutes, a ticket and/or towing might be in my future.

So, in through the tower we went. Just as she described, we saw door after door with descending numbers until, at last, we were in front of number 93:

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We rang the bell, the buzzer buzzed and in we went with our bags. In and up:

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Until a door opened onto a rather compact hallway:

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We were a little winded, having dragged our stuff up here, but realizing time was of the essence I was ready to head back down at a moment’s notice. The manager gave us a warm welcome and began checking us in. One of the first things she asked for was my license number. I told I had already given her that info on the phone. Clearly she had not called the police, which substantially increased my interest in getting back to the car. I asked her where I could park. She said to continue in the direction I had come until I came to a street on the left. Turn there and take another quick left. That would put me on the street heading back out of town. Once I got out the gate there was plenty of parking around. We finished the paperwork, Dianne started moving the bags into the room, and I beat feet back to the car.

Her directions were perfect and soon I found myself headed through the Porta and out into the civilized world. Not far from the gate, to my surprise, was a parking place with a number on it. I pulled in. But already my mind started working. Surely this could not be a free space. What was that number for? I looked around. No machine.No sign. I got out and looked at the cars behind me. They seemed to have some kind of sticker that might be a parking sticker. I didn’t like the look of things. I pulled out and kept moving.

Soon I was at an intersection, no parking space in sight. I turned left and ran parallel to the wall. Soon I was driving downhill past Porta Pispini. Not good. A few blocks from there, however, the street widened and became a road. And, not far down that road I found a bunch of cars parked along the side and one free space. I took it.

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Once again, I looked at the other cars. No stickers, no nothing. I decided this was the place I would make my stand. Then I began the roughly mile and  a half uphill climb back to our room. At least it was scenic.

After an extended period of time, I made it to our room. I was eager to tell the manager exactly what I had done and to hear her say, “Good parking place”. But, by the time I got back, in the fine Italian B&B tradition, she was long gone.

I will say this, though, the room was nice:

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And the view out the window was quite pleasant:

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Once I regained my composure, we decided it was time to do a little exploring. We headed down Via Pantaneto. After only a few blocks we found ourselves in a huge piazza called Il Campo, the heart of the city:

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The Piazza del Campo is simply breathtaking, just like stepping back into Medieval times.

The first order of business was to get a little dinner, and, as you can see by the awnings, there is no shortage of places from which to choose. We settled on one nearby:

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The lady in black, with the menu, is the head of sales. You encounter about 15 of them as you stroll around Il Campo. They are happy to invite you in. I won’t go into a meal by meal account of this place, but I would draw your attention to this little delight:

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It is simply melon with a shaving of prosciutto. The two together make for a salty/sweet explosion of flavor. A little mozzarella smooths things out nicely. When we got back from Italy we served up many a helping of this over the summer. Can’t wait for melons to come back!

But, I digress. The Piazza del Campo was laid out in the fourteenth century and, in 1348 it was paved with these:

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From the center, nine lines of marble radiate across the piazza signifying the families in charge at the time. .

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Relations between families in Siena were not so contentious as they were in San Gimignano, so nobody felt the need to build defensive towers. Instead, they chose to compete in a much classier way: The Palio de Siena.

OK, so here is how the piazza looked at the time of our visit:

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Now picture it slightly more populated:

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Every July 2nd and August 16th, people from all over the area and all over the world come to Siena for the Palio, which is a ten-horse race that has been run in this piazza since 1633. In Siena there are 17 Contrades, or city wards. Not surprisingly, given the history of Europe, they are bitter rivals. But, rather than kill each other, long the custom elsewhere, they settle their grievances with this horse race. Because the piazza is limited in size, they only race 10 horses, so they have developed a system for which contrades get to race at any particular Pialo. The race is run for three laps around the piazza, which takes about 90 seconds. It begins with the dropping of a rope:

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For this race, the city, at considerable expense, hauls in tons of special dirt to place around the perimeter of the piazza. The riders ride bareback and the only thing they carry with them is small whip, which serves two purposes: 1) to move their horse along, but more importantly, 2) to whip the hell out of opposing jockeys and their horses, too. This is not intended to be a friendly race and there are plenty of euros being exchanged behind the scenes with race officials to get an advantage in position of whatever.

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Because some of the turns are sharp and because the jockeys are wailing hell out of each other, it is not uncommon for a rider to be ejected from his mount. And some have been seriously injured. Horses have been injured as well, so recently padding, as you see on the left below, has been added to soften the blow. As you might imagine, animal rights people take a very dim view of these proceedings.

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Interestingly, some horses have won the race without their rider attached, which is allowed.

We were not altogether sorry to have missed this event, given our lack of fondness for big crowds. After a very nice dinner we continued our stroll through the streets. Next, we’ll show you what we saw.