Chartres

Some time after Rich and Sis and I had decided to come to Paris, and after we had paid for the apartment at Butte aux Cailles, we convened a planning meeting at the Millersburg Brewing Company to discuss our itinerary and what passes to buy, etc. It was at this meeting the Rich declared that, upon reflection, he determined that he could not let a trip to Europe pass without at least once gazing upon the Alps. Accordingly he had roughed out a side trip that would involve renting a car and driving over to Switzerland for a couple nights. Well, having just paid for the Paris apartment, and having already seen the Alps, I wished him well but declined. I did, though, encourage Sis, since this was her first time in Europe, that it would be a spectacular trip if she were interested. She determined that she was.

I suggested to Rich that he plan this excursion at the end of our week stay, since it would be Sunday and Monday, the days on which many Paris restaurants and bars shutter their door. So, bright and early (by our standards) on Sunday, April 15, they departed for Switzerland, leaving me to fend for myself in the City of Light.

Even though I was able to luxuriate in the now vacated bathroom a real sense of loss permeated the apartment. So, I grabbed my camera and left. I bought a couple pain au chocolates and a cup of coffee and headed to one of the small parks. It was a beautiful Sunday morning in spring with trees all freshly bloomed. I decided to take pictures of the neighborhood, which are the ones you might have seen in the post on Butte aux Cailles earlier in this set. This little bit of photography took up the entire morning.

Since I had lots of advance notice, I had already planned how I would spend my time alone. I studied various places of interest both inside the city and in the area. At last I settled on a day trip to Chartres, which is about 60 miles southwest of Paris. This city is, of course, famous for its great cathedral dating back to the 1100’s. But that’s not the reason I decided to go there. I wanted to see the Chartres en lumieres.

Since the city is that far out, it is not accessible by the Metro. So, I took the train down to Montparnasse Station and bought a round trip ticket on the commuter train that services Chartres. I bought the return ticket for the last train back, 10:30pm. One thing I quickly observed on the ticket was that the train number had five digits and no such number showed up on the big board. The train was to leave in half an hour and, of course, the info office was locked up tight and no railroad official in sight. I finally joined a line of people boarding another train and when I got to the guy checking tickets I showed him my ticket and, in my best French said, “Ou est?” He pointed to the far end of the station and said in his best English, “Tracks 19-24.”

So I’m thinking, well which is it?  But I headed the way he pointed and, sure enough there was a sign pointing to tracks 19-24. Turns out this was in a special section which I then concluded must be set aside for commuter trains. To get in this section you go through a turnstile. So, in I go, ticket in hand looking for a train with my number, now 15 minutes from departure. It is not there.

I saw some guys, friends it looked like, standing around so I went over and showed them my ticket. “Bon jour!” I said, knowing at least something about how to start a conversation. I held up my ticket with my thumb under the train number. “Ou est?” They looked at the ticket and they didn’t see the train either. So they are talking it over and all of a sudden one of the guys hops over a nearby turnstile and walks a little farther down. His face lights up and he points. “Ici!” he shouts. I hopped over the turnstile myself, something I would not have previously thought possible, and with approximately 1,000 “merci”s and “merci beaucoup”s, I ran to catch the train. Apparently tracks 19-24 were occupied when it got there.

It is about an hour and a half run down to Chartres, which passes though a number of charming villages and rolling countryside. Very pleasant. I arrived at about 2:00pm. As soon as I stepped off the train I could hear the slow, dolorous tones of the cathedral bells. Not exactly a pick-me-up given the circumstances. Here is a sample if you would like to hear them:

 

You leave the train station, go up a street or two and here is the view:

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Even though it was mid-afternoon I wasn’t much interested in lunch, so I decided to take  a peek inside the cathedral. When I got there a small crowd of tourists were waiting for admission at the gated entrance.

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To my surprise there were seven or so soldiers armed with AK-47s at the gate also. This is not uncommon these days. You see these people all over Paris. For there to be so many at this cathedral seemed like overkill, so to speak. At Notre Dame there weren’t any, at least visible.

So I joined the crowd and before long the gates opened and we were admitted. As I stepped inside I was more than a little surprised to be greeted by well over a thousand voices singing some glorious hymn at the top of their voices. To behold this magnificent cathedral at the time it lifted by this great music was simply breathtaking. Here is a small sample:

Well, it was 2:30 in the afternoon. I had no idea there would be a mass going on. As I later discovered, it was not a mass. I had happened upon the ordination of a gentleman named Phillipe Christory as the new Bishop of Chartres.

Since I was late, I was relegated to the SRO section in the back and could not have seen the ceremony at all except that the church had provided large screen TV’s at our end of the cathedral so we could see what was going on.

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Needless to say, this was an extraordinary ceremony and I stayed for about an hour. But it was all in Latin and with no seating it became a little difficult to focus. I will say, however, that the Cathedral at Chartres could not have made a better first impression on me.

 

I shouldn’t have waited so long for lunch. I was afraid, since it was Sunday, that all the restaurants would be closed, but just around the corner from the cathedral I found a charming old cafe’ that was more than open for business. I stayed too long and ate too much.

Eventually, though, I was able to push away the plate and decided to see the rest of the cathedral, at least from the outside.

Above the main, or Royal, entrance:

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The north portico:

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The east end of the cathedral, with the Chapel of St. Piat on the left:

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The Royal Entrance:

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The Chartres en lumieres, the principle purpose of my visit, is a series of laser light shows. I still had plenty of time before dark, so I decided to check out the town. It is still very much a medieval city.

Behind the cathedral is an overlook:

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Just about everything was closed.

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A troupe of actors wandered the streets drumming up business:

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Some of the original wall remains.

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When I completed my stroll through the village I found that the ordination ceremony was completed and the crowd had all filed out. I was finally able to go inside:

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Bridan’s Assumption of the Virgin Mary dominates the altar.

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There is much more on line about the cathedral and its history. Now, finally, it was time for Chartres en lumieres.

The Light Show in Chartres is a laser spectacle that occurs each night through the summer and takes place throughout the city. Here is a map:

But obviously, the central feature is the cathedral.

It begins at dark and ends about 1 am. However, since the last train out of town is at 10:30, unless you plan to stay over, the scope becomes more limited. Before I left for France I contacted the very helpful tourist office to make sure that a) it would take place on a Sunday (it does), and, b) that I could actually see something before the train left (I could).

After my various excursions through the town and the cathedral I headed for a small park in front of the Royal Entrance where I knew the prime viewing would be. An hour before show time there was no one there. I was getting a little anxious when all of a sudden a van pulls up to a building beside he park. On the van is the word “Lumiere”. Two guys get out and go inside the building. I a few minutes an upper window opens and out comes this thing:

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I didn’t know what it was, but it looked like the show would go on!

There were a few benches in the park, so I sat down. At the bench next to mine was an Asian woman with an I phone. She did not speak English, but in the way we all communicate she asked me to take her picture in front of the cathedral. Which, of course, I was happy to oblige. She, then, took my picture. Then she sat down on her bench and I returned to mine. Soon she was back to chatting again. Eventually I figured out she wanted to take a selfie of the two of us. Well, why not? So we killed some more time.

Eventually she went elsewhere, but about that time a couple came up to the bench and said, “The light show is cancelled.” That took me by surprise, to say the least. But, armed with my assurances from the tourist office, and having seen the van boys getting set up, I confidently replied, “No, it isn’t.” and pointed to the van and the things sticking out the window. As it turned out, the show was supposed to have its first run of the season the night before, but the same rains that drove us inside our tour boat had caused the show to be cancelled. Apparently, somebody had not taken down the sign. This might have explained the small crowd. They sat down beside me and we exchanged pleasantries.

They were from Chicago and were staying over. It was clear early on that the lady of the house was chock full of opinions on a great many subjects. And, her life’s mission was to yak on and on about every single one of them. I didn’t come thousands of miles to listen to that, so, as soon as possible and socially acceptable I bid them “Abiento” and took up a position closer to the cathedral. Fortunately the crowd was small throughout the performance. Here is how it began:

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Simple enough, but then the place explodes in color. Keep in mind that while this is going on here, there are other shows occurring on two other sides of the building. This part of it lasts about 20 minutes. Here are some samples. I know most of you don’t watch the videos I post, but if you miss these three you won’t quite get what this is like:

 

OK, if you don’t want to watch the videos, here are some pictures:

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Now, of course, you are seeing a little, tiny picture. Imagine this on the wall of a massive cathedral! Your rods and cones well never be the same!

After enjoying the main show I decided to stroll around and see what else was going on.  This was a nearby school.

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Eventually my travels took me around to the south portico of the cathedral. This was the most colorful show of all!

If you don’t watch the video, here are some pictures:

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Incredible!

I would have loved to tour the entire city, but I got what I came for and it was now little more than a half hour to the last train back. I said goodbye to Chartres and here is how it said goodbye to me:

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I wound my way back to the train station. It took a little doing since some of the entrances were under construction. I expected to find a small group of Parisians to join me on the way back. Instead, no one was there.

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Well, an empty train station at night is a lonely place. It can make your imagination play a lot of tricks, some funnier than others. As I waited, a couple of southbound trains went whizzing by. They didn’t even pretend to slow down for Chartres. About twenty after, another guy showed up at the platform. Hard to judge if he was friend or foe, but he kept to his part of the station so I voted “friend”. About twenty-seven after a couple of women showed up, chatting away. I was glad to hear them. At a little after 10:30 I saw the white light on the northbound track. A welcome sight indeed. Although I couldn’t see them, I knew this train had two lights on behind. The blue light was my blues. The red light was my mind.

 

 

 

 

Rue Mouffetard, The Tour Eiffel, and the River Cruise

After a somewhat strenuous experience at Versailles, we decided to spend the next day at one of the market streets for which Paris is famous and then to wrap things up by going on a cruise on the Seine. Rain was in the forecast so we chose Rue Mouffetard,  a market street fairly close to the apartment.  It is so close, in fact, that it made more sense to take the bus than the train. Other than mistakenly exiting from the entrance, we found the bus to be a pleasant experience.

The bus does not go directly to Rue Mouffetard, however. Instead, Google maps took us through a few winding, twisty streets until, at last:

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It did not take long to find the markets! We started out with a few small shops:

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Then we got down to some fabulous treats. First, the fromagerie:

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While we never exactly finished cutting the cheese, the next stop was one of the many open markets:

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Yes, morels were abundant!

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You get chicken and a nice back scratcher at no extra cost!

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Looking for a nice seafood dinner?

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Have a sweet tooth?

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Or, even better:

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Now, what to wash all this stuff down with?

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Well, after a pleasant experience in the various markets, our next stop was to take the train down to the Eiffel Tower. We had no intention of going up into it. The idea was just to get close. I’m sure you know what the tower looks like, so here are some views that you might not see:

 

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There are 72 names of French scientists, engineers, and mathematicians engraved on the tower. So many people hated the tower at the time it was built that Gustave Eiffel hoped adding them as a memorial would quiet people down.

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By the time we had finished our visit to the Eiffel Tower it was time for our sunset cruise of the Seine. Unfortunately the rain clouds had moved back in and we were not permitted to sit on the upper deck. Instead we were confined below:

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You still get a good view, but not like being outside. First, the Musee d’ Orsay:

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Pont de Invalides:

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The Statue of Liberty at the Pont de Grenelle:

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By the time we got home it was just after midnight and we hadn’t had dinner. But, once again Butte aux Cailles was most accommodating. We quickly found a restaurant with a staff that was surprisingly jovial for that time of night. All’s well that ends well.

Chateau Versailles

We juggled our schedule around to avoid the effects of another day of train strikes. Our destination was Versailles, which is about an hour train ride. Unfortunately, that route is run by the regional railway, RER, and not the Metro. It is the RER that is on strike. Which is not to say the RER doesn’t run on strike days. It’s just that there are fewer trains spaced farther apart. We decided not to chance getting stuck out there, so we chose another day.

But, in our usual fashion, we were late. On top of that, there was some kind of disturbance going on in the hood. When I went out for my morning trip to the boulangerie I saw a woman tying these ribbons to an air vent on the sidewalk:

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Other, similar ribbons were stretched across parking spaces on Avenue D’Italie that read something like “Crime Scene-Do Not Cross”.  By this time we managed to get out of the apartment we observed, off in the distance, a protest:

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Probably this was a demonstration by students and their supporters against tuition costs and some other issues. There were demonstrations and strikes all over France on any given day. This one was peaceful.

To get to our train station you go past the front of the mall:

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Unlike many American malls this one is on three floors and is always busy. Across the street is the Metro hub. We had to take the Metro to the Champs de Mars station to pick up the RER to Versailles.

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To get from Paris to Versailles, the train makes a number of stops, the final destination being the Versailles Rive Gauche station.  But, as we entered the city of Versailles the train pulled to a stop at another station called Chantiers. We sat there and waited to go to Rive Gauche. Then somebody outside knocked on our window and said something in French. We smiled and waved back, but unease started to settle in. Then another kind soul tapped on the window and, in English, said, “Last stop!” We scrambled off the train to try to figure out where the hell we were.

At the station they told us the Chateau was only a twenty minute walk and directed us to go over a temporary bridge.

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Then go down a walkway:

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And finally, down Avenue Nepveu to the Chateau. We found it necessary to take a few breaks:

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At last we were in the purview of  The Sun King himself, Louis XIV:

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Seemed like a perfect opportunity for another break:

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The only problem was, that by the time we had gotten this far it was now a little before five-o’clock and in the off season, that’s when this place closes. Fortunately, the hours changed a few days earlier and they now close at six. Well, we knew going in that we would not be traipsing over the many square miles of the grounds and gardens. So, we set our sights on the famous Hall of Mirrors and anything else we saw along the way would be gravy.

When we got our tickets we made sure we wouldn’t miss the last train out. A lady at the sales office had an up-to-date schedule and told us there would be several trains for us to take after closing time. Off we went:

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The palace gate

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The last picture above is where the entrance is. You start out in this pleasant reception area:

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Go up the stairs and then you work your way through room after gorgeous room:

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If you get tired of looking at all the stuff inside, and who wouldn’t, you can always go out on one of the balconies. It’s good to be king!

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Finally, the entrance to the Hall of Mirrors!

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And then, the Hall itself:

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When Louis XIV built the place, he insisted that everything be accomplished with French laborers. Unfortunately, nobody in France at that time knew how to make mirrors. That, apparently, was a skill set only to be found in Venice, which, back then,  was a country, not a city. Louis had his people go down there and “persuade” a few of the mirror-making artisans to re-locate to France. When they found out about it, the Venetian authorities were none too pleased. So, they made arrangements to have the traitors assassinated.  Still, the mirrors were somehow made.

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Those interested in long hikes are welcome to stroll the grounds, which extend well beyond the farthest stretch of water seen below. It also includes at least two other Chateau, one built for the king to escape the pressures of office and the other built by Marie Antoinette, to simulate the simple life of peasants. Unfortunately, not too many peasants were enjoying their simple lives, as she would later discover.

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I would be remiss if I were to leave the Hall of Mirrors without bringing up one of most famous uses of this room, the signing of the Treaty of Versailles:

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This was the treaty, the most important of several, that concluded The War to End All Wars. Key among the provisions of the Treaty were The War Guilt clause requiring Germany to admit to having caused the war, and, more importantly, the reparations clause which required Germany to make restitution for all the damage done during the war, calculated to have been $33 billion (or $2.3 trillion in today’s dollars.) This, of course ruined the German economy throughout the Roaring Twenties. Had any of the signatories of the Treaty of Versailles actually looked into any of those mirrors they would have seen the faces of the people who guaranteed the rise of fascism among the demoralized German public, the rise of Hitler and the slaughter of millions of their children and grand-children. Who knew?

After leaving the Hall we found our way through several more chintzy rooms:

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Last, but not least, we found our way into the king’s bedchamber. I think the thing I found most distressing is how similar it is to my own:

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As we left the boudoir, we observed from the staff the universal language of tapping one’s watch, so we worked our way to the exit.  We walked the much shorter distance to the Rive Gauche station only to discover that is was closed for the day, which is why we got mixed up on the trip in. We guessed the closure had something to do with the strike, a more subtle way to remind John Q Public of their grievances. So, we resumed the long slog back to Chantiers, only a few cartwheels distant for the young and fit. For us, it was like hiking the Appalachian Trail.

 

Wild Souls

Let me assure you that the title of this post does not refer to any of the three of us who visited Musee d’Orsay on our third day in Paris, although it might have described any of us at certain points in time. Instead, this is the English translation of the title “Ames Sauveges” which featured the work of artists from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, a special exhibition.

My first visit to Musee d’Orsay was back in 2012 and at that time I posted some favorite works on Facebook. If you are one of my “friends” and you care to revisit it, you will find it in my photo albums of that year. If you are not on Facebook, or you otherwise don’t want to bother, you can see a very nice representation of the holdings of this incredible museum here:

https://artsandculture.google.com/partner/musee-dorsay-paris

Instead we’ll begin with this iconic view from the museum. This is from the inside looking out over to Louvre to Sacra Coeur in the background:

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This is the central gallery of Musee d’Orsay. Off to either side are multiple smaller galleries featuring some of the greatest artists who ever lived:

Musee’ d’Orsay is a former train station, completed in time for the World Exposition in 1900. As trains got longer, the building proved inadequate and was going to be torn down till somebody came up with the idea of turning it into a museum. The rest is history.

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Although I said I wasn’t going to re-hash the permanent collection, I’ll throw in a few pieces that had special significance:

This is Van Gogh’s painting of his room in Arles, France. Since we would be going to Arles I had hoped we might see the place. Turns out bombers of World War 2 had other plans and blew it off the face of the Earth.

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Having just been here, I liked seeing how it looked in 1901. The artist is Maximillian Luce:

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This is the artist Berthe Morisot, a model and sister-in-law of Edouard Manet, the artist who painted her. The significance of this piece is that a few years ago it was featured with several other Manet’s in an exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art. Good to see her again!

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Ames Sauvages

I have to confess that if I’m looking for great art, my first instinct is not to jump on a plane headed for the Balkans. What I have learned is that if I did jump on that plane, I would not be disappointed.

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The intent of this exhibit is not only to feature Balkan artists, but also to explore their use of symbolism. Unfortunately, there is not much there to explain the symbolism or what it means. Apparently, some of it has to do with folk lore and tradition. I’ll leave that to you to discover if you are so inclined. Instead, I’ll focus on the artists we met for the first time. In the exhibit their works are scattered throughout the hall, but I will group them so you get a sense of their style.

For me, the one who stood out above all the others was

Ferdynand Ruszczyc:

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La Vent D’Automne

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Konrad Magi:

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Portrait of a Norwegian Girl

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Meditatsioon

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I should add, that, looking over other works by these artists when I got home, Konrad Magi’s body of work is the most striking. Here is a look, if you are interested:

https://www.google.com/search?q=konrad+m%C3%A4gi&newwindow=1&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjDv4XhhrrbAhXE6FMKHXmDCP4Q_AUICigB&biw=1628&bih=1086

Johann Walter:

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Peasant Girl

Janis Rozentals

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Princess with a Monkey

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Portrait

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Death

Rudolph Perle:

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Sun

Antana Zmuidzinavicius:

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Tomb of Povilo Visinkio

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Milzinkapiu krastas

Vilhelms Puvitis

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Lettland

Kristjan Raud:

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Dancing with the Stars

So, this is just a small number of the paintings in the total exhibit, one of the best I’ve seen in years. I’m so glad we had a chance to experience it.

Well, in our usual fashion we didn’t arrive at Musee d’Orsay till after noon. We had a nice lunch there as well. By the time we had seen all the exhibits none of us were in the mood to take on any more museums. So, we headed back to the apartment. Not long after arriving there we found ourselves back at the Le Pub de la Butte for refreshment and dinner. In addition to the fine mixed board:

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we decided to kick it up a notch and order some skewers. You had your choice of beef, chicken, duck and mutton. We went with the sampler.

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After stuffing ourselves, we decided to venture out and stroll the hood. We had just made it outside when the young bar tender who had taken such a shine to us, ran out of the bar toward us. “Wait!” he yelled breathlessly, “I have a free digestif for you!”

Now, my brother and I have known one or two bartenders in our time and we like to think we are familiar with their ways. For one of them to run out of a bar to offer us something free was unique in both of our considerable experiences. But, the word “free” translates well in any language and in no time we were back inside toasting our good fortune with limoncellos. The radar was now up, however, and while we were as complimentary and cordial as we could be, we later spent some time trying to figure out what was going on. We never did come to a satisfactory conclusion.

 

 

 

 

 

Île de la Cité

It became apparent, not long after my brother, sister and I exited our plane in Paris, that we are not now the force we used to be. Particularly as it pertains to mobility, we just don’t get around like in the days of yore. And one thing to be said about Paris, it is HUGE, as are most of the things in it. And, while we could get to those things, pacing was the name of the game.

So, on our first full day in Paris we decided to begin with a small geographical area to test our stamina. For this, there is no better place than the Île de la Cité. This is an island in the Seine (rhymes with Ben) that has been continuously occupied since before the Romans, and now is the site of Notre Dame Cathedral, Saint-Chappelle, and the Conciergerie. With all these attractions on one island, it would be easy to get around.

One other thing about three people sharing one bathroom, is that we don’t typically get out at the butt crack of dawn. By the time showers have been taken and coffee and pastries purchased we are lucky to hit the trains by noon. Which is what vacations are all about, except that it does cut into some touring time. Not a problem.

So, we boarded the train headed for the Île de la Cité, which took us under the river and dropped us off at a station called Chatelet, one of the main downtown stations. One thing I did before we came to town was to plot out all the trains we would take to various destinations and put them on a spreadsheet. It was worth the effort. We knew what trains to get on, the direction they were headed and, if needed, the stations to get off and change to another train. This saved a great deal of time and anxiety. But there are multitudes of steps on the different layers of the metro and precious few escalators. So, we took our time. I tried to keep ahead to make sure we were going down or up the right stairs to get us to the right train. Mostly I got it right. Soon, we were back up in the fresh air looking across the Seine at Île de la Cité.

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La Conciergerie

The castle-like structure is the foreground is La Conciergerie, a former royal palace and, later, infamous prison. This was the first place we came to when we crossed the bridge to the island.

Now, I have to confess that my knowledge of the French Revolution is mostly limited to: the obvious fate of Louis and Marie, the musical Le Miserable, and Dicken’s “A Tale of Two Cities”. It was, however, in effect, a French Civil War and a confused one at that. At its heart was the conflict between the wealthy elite, and the poor, who would have been happy to eat cake if they could find any. But, of course it was not as neat and clean as all that. Particularly among the poor and working class there were various factions, the most notable being the Sans-Cullotes (literally “without breeches”) which was a militant radical group representing the poor, and the Jacobins, or the “Society of the Friends of the Constitution” who were even more radical and ruthless than the other guys. Then there were the Royalists and the Girondins who initially threw in with the Jacobins, but found them to be too radical. If you want the details you can look all this stuff up, but to get the point and the role of La Conciergerie: the Jacobins prevailed under the leadership of Maximillien Robespierre. In 1793, the National Convention passed the “Law of Suspects”, the first time that the use of terror was codified into law. It decreed that those “notoriously suspected of aristocracy and bad citizenship” should be arrested. Well, as you might imagine, lots of fingers were being pointed and lots of people were being arrested. They had to be put somewhere and, in Paris, La Conciergerie was the perfect place! A kangaroo court was quickly established under the auspices of The Committee of Public Safety (a good lesson: Beware of grand titles) to deal with the “suspects” and soon heads were rolling all over town.

In all 2,639 people were executed in Paris. Most would have passed through La Conciergerie. 16,594, were executed across France. The French kept meticulous records. The Reign of Terror ended in 1794 when Robespierre’s own head was detached. The revolution ended with the rise of Napoleon that same year. He went on to kill millions.

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The lines weren’t too long.

When you get inside you are in this room, where, in the 1300’s, soldiers worked out of here. The wooden trough is a work of art that takes water from the Seine and pumps it into a waterfall, visible outside.

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This section of the soldier’s quarters has been turned into a book store.

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Roughly 4,000 people were imprisoned at La Conciergerie during the revolution. Not all were executed. The name of each one was recorded in this office.

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This is the prisoners registry.

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In this room prisoners were given a haircut and allowed to freshen up prior to execution. Executions did not take place at La Conciergerie. Instead, prisoner were hauled off in wooden carts to several places, most notably Place de la Concorde, north of the Tulleries, near the big Ferris wheel.

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This is the restored cell of Marie Antoinette, which was off limits to us. Thanks to André Lage Freitas for this photo.

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Commoners were thrown into cells with straw covered floors. The wealthier could buy more comfortable accommodations, paying a large monthly sum to the jailers. Sometimes their stay was cut short, so to speak,  in which case the jailers re-sold the room for greater profit.

Actually, much of La Conciergerie is closed off to the public as many of the rooms are part of the modern day Palace of Justice, a far better justice than was experienced during the revolution.

Sainte-Chapelle

In medieval times, when La Conciergerie was the royal palace, one of the kings, Louis IX, ordered a chapel to be built on the palace grounds. But this was not to be an ordinary chapel because it was being built for an extraordinary purpose: to house the crown of thorns and other relics Louis had acquired. It seems that the crown had been in the possession Baldwin II, the Latin Emperor at Constantinople. However, by the time Louis was ready to cough up a whoppin’ 135,000 livres, it seems that Balwin, being a little financially strapped,  had hocked them to some guys in Venice. Louis, instead, paid the pawnbrokers and brought the relics to France. To house them, he paid another 100,000 livres for a silver chest, the Grand-Chasse, to be built. Then he ordered the construction of Sainte-Chapelle to be their permanent home. The entire cost of construction, including the stained glass, was 40,000 livres, so that just goes to show how pricey authentic Christian relics can be!

Construction of Sainte-Chapelle took only seven years, warp speed back in those days. It opened in 1248. By that time, Louis had also acquired a piece of the actual cross to put into the box as well! (I am reminded of the time when the great Jackie Gleason spent a fortune on a box of ectoplasm, which he could never open or else it would escape!)

So, did we see these relics at Sainte-Chapelle? No. The reason being, that during the French Revolution much of the chapel was destroyed. What we visit today is largely a re-construction. About two-thirds of the stained glass panels are original. The Grand-Chasse was melted down and the relics dispersed throughout France. A few have been recovered and are now housed at Notre Dame. The chapel has undergone years of restoration, which was only competed three years ago.

So, here is where the tour begins:

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The entrance is on the ground floor, already not too shabby:

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The chapel is on the second floor, accessible only by a stone circular staircase, not our favorite thing. But once you get up there:

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The chapel opens onto a balcony which features hundreds of intricate carvings:

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This is one of those places to which pictures will never do justice. There is no substitute for being there.

Well, it had already been quite a day! Time to head over next door to one of the many cafe’s in the area.

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This sandwich is the Croque Madame, a ham, cheese and egg delight available throughout Paris and very yummy. You can also get the Croque Monsieur, which is the same thing without the egg.

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Here is a perfect example of family humor:

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Notre Dame de Paris

After a fine feast at the cafe, we were off to Notre Dame.

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Unlike Saint-Chappelle, Notre Dame took the customary hundreds of years to build, starting in 1163 and wrapping up in 1345. Unfortunately, what it has in common with Saint-Chappelle is that it too was badly damaged during the French Revolution. So much so, that for many years thereafter it was used as a warehouse. It was not until 1845 that restoration actually began. During the second world war stray bullets broke many of the stained glass panels, but they were later replaced as well. Notre Dame does not belong to the Catholic Church. It belongs to the French State who leases it for the exclusive use of the Church providing that the Church operates it, pays salaries, and makes it available for free to the public.

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Some of the interesting things that have happened here:

-Henry VI of England was crowned king of France

-James V of Scotland married Madeline

-Mary, Queen of Scots, married Dauphin Francis, who later became king of France

-The coronation of Napoleon

And lots of other things, too! After Saint-Chappelle was trashed, eventually Notre Dame became the repository, and still is, of the Crown of Thorns, the piece of the cross, and, a later addition: one of the Holy Nails. These are not on display.

Rich and I had both been here before, but one thing we had not done is to visit the Treasure Room, so we ponied up 5 euro and here is a SMALL sampling of what we saw:

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Here are some scenes from the Cathedral itself:

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The outside is also spectacular:

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Originally all these figures and the cathedral itself, were painted. Obviously, it wore off. During the French Revolution many such figures on the west side of the Cathedral were removed and beheaded. Many of the heads were found in 1977 during an excavation nearby, and are on display at the Cluny museum.

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Notre Dame Cathedral was one of the first buildings to incorporate the use of flying buttresses. If you build thing walls too high, they cannot support themselves. You can either brace them from inside, which looks tacky and takes up space, or, you can support them from outside and do it quite beautifully as well!

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Behind the Cathedral is a very pleasant little garden.

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After a nice time there, we left Ile de la Cite, looking back on the other big island in the Seine, Ile St. Lois, which now is occupied by a bunch of cheap apartments.

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A little stroll up the Right Bank and we were soon at the Hotel D’Ville:

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Another cheap joint. That was enough sightseeing for the day. We were soon back on the train headed for Rue Vandrazzane and the comforts of home and the Pub De La Butte!

 

 

 

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.

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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.

Toolin’ Around Tuscany

After returning to our room from our day in Cinque Terre, we were pleased to find that, true to her word, our laundry was waiting for us, clean and neatly folded or hung on hangers. The next morning, when it was time to settle up, the young lady who ran the place would not take payment for her mother’s work. OK. So, we left a tip that far exceeded what a laundromat would have cost, sneaked down the stairs, and we were out.

Thankfully, our car had no tickets waiting for us. We hopped in and made our way out of La Spezia. It was one of those places where, when you leave, you hope to return to some day.

Our next destination was the medieval city of Siena. Typically it would be about a 3 hour trip, if you knew where you were and what you were doing. Unfortunately, we often didn’t know either of these things for most of the trip. Accordingly, it took substantially longer. Here is our route as it may, or may not have been: The red line is to San Gimignano. The blue is from there to Siena.

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At some point in the planning process for this trip I happened to see a Rick Steves video which talked up the romantic qualities of some of the historic Tuscan hill towns. Of these, the one that stood out above all others was the village of San Gimignano (pronounced gym-in-NYAN-o). What made it appealing is that many of the old towers associated with the powerful families of the area, were still visible. It looked like a beautiful place for a stroll, overlooking the Tuscan hillside. So, off we went.

Well, here is what I do know: We took the right exit off SS67 which heads back to Florence. But not long after taking said exit we found ourselves at various intersections that Google Maps had a hard time keeping up with. And, at many of these, decisions had to be made quickly. The net effect was, that we were generally headed in the right direction, South, but certain villages did not appear when they were supposed to. So, when a rare sign came up that would take us to a village we could find on Google, we followed the sign which soon had us winding our way down numerous dirt roads through a large provincial park.

Since we had plenty of time and since it was one beautiful pastoral scene after another we were perfectly happy to be where we were and spent some time slowly enjoying the countryside. Along the way we encountered hikers, bikers (of the bicycle persuasion) and various other outdoor types. Clearly many people were enjoying the first days of Spring. What we did not encounter in our journey was either gas stations or bathrooms. Just when the need for both was no longer amusing, we found a town. And, as it turned out, San Gimignano was not all that far away. Here is a look at some the countryside:

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Now, those of you who have been over the good ol’ USA will recognize from your travels scenery that is just as beautiful. What sets Tuscany apart is the charming and picturesque Italian villas dotting the countryside, with the white stucco and the red-tiled roofs where the grounds are meticulously maintained and where peace and tranquility reign. And, of course, there is the wine.

Well, we continued happily along, once again on a secondary road, and then we came around a corner and there it was, off in the distance: San Gimignano

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Not too hard on the eyes

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San Gimignano has been occupied in one form or another since Roman days. In boom times there were as many as sixty towers like those you see here. Now there are only a dozen. For around a thousand years San Gimignano was a favorite stopping point for pilgrims on their way to Rome and it long flourished as a trade center as well. But, it is a walled city and here was a big problem with walled cities in those times: The Black Death. By the end of  1348 over half the city’s population was dead or dying. San Gimignano never recovered.

In time the town leaders gave themselves over to Florence for governance. To be accepted they were required to tear down their towers, which most did. But, Florence had other issues to deal with and San Gimignano was never developed. Instead, all but abandoned,  it remained in its medieval state until the 19th century when scholars began to realized what a treasure it was. Now, it is given over to the tourist trade.

We arrived there around noon and the first thing we discovered was that the place was packed with tourists. Parking lots are arranged in tiers going up the face of the hill to the outer walls of the city. The first tier, closest to the walls, was full. So was the second. And, the third, no wait, some guy is pulling out. He went out, we went in.

It was quite a hike getting up that hill. But, it was also pretty scenic:

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As we looked out over the countryside, we couldn’t help but note that the sky was getting quite dark. And, the frequent thunder was another clue that there could be problems. We had rain gear in the car, but were in no mood to hike back down to get it. And, my meteorological savvy told me the storm was moving away.

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We continued to the wall:

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Thankfully, there is an elevator that takes you up to this level. From there it is a quick hike to the city, where the first order of business was lunch.

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By this point in our travels we had become fond of meat and cheese plates for lunch. They are flavorful and light, except for the bazillion calories served with each dish.

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We had just finished the last bite when the rains hit:

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They started out light at first and we were able to pass by some nice shops:

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Olive wood is all the rage in the tourist world, as are ceramics.

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But the time for window shopping soon passed:

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Without the benefit of so much as an umbrella, we made a mad dash for one of the piazzas:

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We, and about fifty other tourists were able to find shelter in the alcove below:

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Not only was it pouring, it had turned quite cold. And, while we enjoyed the beautiful view, after about a half hour of this we were ready to abandon ship. One item of note: in the picture below, above the pointy hood of the lady in pink you will see a stone structure with steps on the piazza. It is a cistern. At one time, all the rain water from the roofs of the towers was collected here and provided drinking water for the whole town for a thousand years. See, I did learn something. Two things, actually. I also learned that I do, indeed, have enough sense to come in out of the rain.

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Clearly this was not going to be the occasion for a romantic stroll through the towered city. When the rain let up we made a mad dash for the car. By the time we made it we were plenty damp, but not soaked.

To get out of San Gimignano, the parking tiers all empty out onto a two-lane road. There is a gate at the end of each lane where you pay to exit. I had both credit card and euros in hand, but as we approached the gate I noticed that a woman a few cars ahead, who was actually at the gate, suddenly opened her door and made a mad dash down the parking lot. She returned in a few minutes, fed the machine, the gate opened and off she went. Of course, my comment to Dianne was something to the effect of, what kind of dumbass would approach a gate, with cars backed up to Rome, and not have any change with her?

After what seemed like an eternity it was finally my turn. I approached the machine, rolled down my window, and quickly observed two things: there was not place to put money and there was no place to put a credit card. There was a little slot, so i tried to jamb my credit car into it, but I discerned  from the get-go that this was not going to work. I was absolutely baffled. And, there was no way to back up; no way to turn off.

Suddenly someone came to my window, probably the person behind me. She said, in very broken English, something to the effect of, “Buy ticket”. “Where!!!” She pointed down the parking lot from which my predecessor had made her panicked run. I was off like a shot. And, I must confess to the use of certain colorful language that required no translation whatsoever. Soon I found a bank of machines, slammed in some euro, and grabbed the ticket. Usain Bolt himself would have applauded. In a twinkling I was back in the car, the ticket was consumed by the monster and the gate opened up. Once again the question came to mind: Why did I rent a car?

 

Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre is a series of five villages along a coastline known as the Italian Riviera. They are now encapsulated into a national park. Here is the layout. The blue box down at the bottom is roughly the location of La Spezia:

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We decided that the best approach to visiting five villages in one day would be to go to the farthest one and work our way back. So, early in the morning we were on the train for the 50 minute ride to Monterosso. Even at that early hour, seats were hard to come by:

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It was a pleasant enough ride, though, and soon we found ourselves in this beautiful village by the sea.

Monterosso

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Monterosso is a summer resort, not only for tourists, but also day-trippers and weekenders from Florence and other nearby cities. Of the five villages this is the only one with an extended beach area. It also has the most hotels. It didn’t take long to appreciate the beauty of the place.

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Of course, this time of year it’s a little nippy to be taking advantage of the beach. The first order of business was breakfast.

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It was warm enough to sit outside, so we did. Next to us were four American students who spent the morning arguing about where to go next. Some wanted to go to Venice, others to Florence. And, of course, much of the discussion focused on the cost of going to each location, an expense which increased dramatically due to the fact that they had no plan. But, that’s the joy of being young!

Well, rather than listen to more of that, we had a fine breakfast and then headed to the beach.

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Dianne took the opportunity to dip her finger into the Mediterranean for the first time. That was the extent of our swimming.

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Looking down the coast we could see our next destination, Vernazza.

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Soon we were leaving the fishing boats behind and heading for the train.

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Vernazza

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Vernazza is one quaint and gorgeous little town. It is a simple hike to edge of the sea.

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Of the five villages, only Monterosso was ever a fishing village. The others relied principally on growing olives and grapes. To do that they had to terrace the hillsides. More about that later.

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If you like a hike before breakfast, here’s your spot.

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Here is the lower level

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Even on a relatively calm day, the surf is up.

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Everywhere there is radiant color.

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The Church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, built around 1318, oversees the harbor:

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One thing about Italy, love is always in the air, and often on the street:

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Here is a young tourist making a beeline for one of the gift shops:

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And returning, remembering how much room there is in her suitcase:

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Vernazza is a place that deserves more than a visit of a few hours. But, that’s all we had, so on to Corniglia

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Unlike the previous two villages, this one sits on a cliff. To get there you can either hike up that cliff, or, you can wait for a bus to pick you up.

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The bus drops you off at a nice little central piazza:

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But, if you think that by taking the bus, you have avoided hiking, well, not so:

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Everything is up in this place, which means if you look down you get some fabulous views:

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Here is a view of our next stop, Manarola:

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It was time for a lunch break. We found a nice little spot overlooking the valley:

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Below is the terrace where we were seated:

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Farms on the hillside:

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Here is the story of the terraced farms:

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Just a beautiful place to be:

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Equally charming is the village itself:

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Lemons are grown in many places on the coast.

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You never know what else you may find growing here as well:

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Another incredibly beautiful village. But, time to move on:

Manarola

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To get to this town from the train you have to walk through a long tunnel carved into the cliff. When you finally come out, here is what you see:

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The one feature that is outstanding about Manarola, is that there is a walkway that takes you along the cliff face so you can look back over the village:

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Not too hard on the eyes, that’s for sure.

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Time to move on to our last stop.

Riomaggiore:

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You may recall from my last post that we went here the day before. Unfortunately, since it was a spur of the moment decision, I didn’t have my camera with me. Dianne took a few pictures with her phone. I mixed in a couple from Google to give you the lay of the land.

I can tell you that it is much like the other villages, except that it is built on a hill, so the shops and restaurants sit at an angle. It would not be hard for, say, a beer bottle, accidentally knocked off a table to roll several hundred kilometers before it found its way to the sea.

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Cinque Terre, as you have seen, could easily be a destination on its own and you could spend weeks there and not see it all. I would add this caution, though. Last summer Italy was overwhelmed with tourists. Places like Rome and Florence were better able to handle it than islands like Venice, or small towns in the Cinque Terre. Things got so bad that certain of these places,  Cinque Terre included, began restricting the number of people they would let in. All the more reason to go in the shoulder seasons rather than fight the heat and the crowds.

Next up: A Leisurely Drive Through Tuscany.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bay of Poets

My apologies to all my Italian readers. My little side trip to Cuba and other adventures have, no doubt, broken the spell. So, pour yourself a glass of Chianti Classico and think Italian thoughts. When last we visited Italy, we had gotten our rental car, managed to drive through Florence without getting killed, visited Pisa where I manged to drive straight through the pedestrian piazza, failed to get back onto the Autostrade and instead found ourselves in Carraara, the marble capital of the world. Eventually we arrived at our actual destination, La Spezia, the gateway to Cinque Terre.

La Spezia is a city larger than Canton, OH and it is nestled inside a very beautiful bay on the Italian Riviera.The reason we stayed there is that it is not a tourist town primarily and because it gave us a place to keep the car while we explored Cinque Terre. We’ll get into that stuff later, but since I know there are numerous English majors and/or enthusiasts who sometimes look at this blog I thought I would share with you a story that I sure never heard as an English major at BGSU.

The bay of La Spezia is called the Bay of Poets because it was a popular getaway for the likes, of Dante and Petrarch, then later, Lord Byron, and not least, Percy Byshee Shelley.

 Picture from some travel site.

Not least, because for a time Shelley had a place just up the bay a little bit, in the town of Lerici. One day in 1856 Shelly sailed off with a couple other guys in his new sailboat to meet with a collaborator on one of his projects. On the way back a storm came up and  the boat was swamped and sank. Shelly, age 29, and his two shipmates all drowned.

A day or so later, Shelly’s body washed up on the beach near Viareggio. The sanitary custom of time required on-the-spot cremation.

Painting by Louis Edouard Fournier

So, a ceremony was hurriedly put together. In attendance were Byron, Edward Trelawney and Leigh Hunt, Shelly’s close friends. There are varying accounts of how this happened, but they all lead to the same outcome: Shelly’s heart did not burn. Trelawney fished it out with a stick, wrapped it in a silk handkerchief, and gave it to Shelly’s wife, Mary, the future author of Frankenstein. It is said she kept it in her desk drawer and, years later,  it was buried with the remains of their son.

Sorry to open with this grisly little tale, but it just goes to show that a tourist can happen by here 160 years later, look out over the bay and have no idea of the things that went on.

We arrived in La Spezia with only a general plan on visiting Cinque Terre. Turns out, this is a pretty big city so it took some driving around to get the lay of the land.

Some street scenes:

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Eventually we found the train station, but had much more difficulty finding a place to park. After driving up and down the hills we were able to locate a spot in front of a coffee house, so we stopped in and got our bearings using our phones. We had some time kill before our B&B would be expecting us, so we decided to walk down to the train station, just to plan for the next day.

To get to the train station you enter below and climb stairs to get the the actual entrance:

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A nice station

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Cinque Terre, interpreted literally, is the “Five Lands”, which they no doubt were when they were built hundreds of years ago. But now they are five villages, one more picturesque than the other. The train connects them all, but many people come here for the hiking. Cinque Terre is actually a national park. Hiking, however, was not on our agenda.

We had originally planned to stop in and buy a day pass for tomorrow. But, the guy at the window told us that the first village, Riomaggiore, was only ten minutes away and the train would be leaving soon. Well, why not? So, we jumped on the train and had a very pleasant afternoon there.

In the next post I’ll show you Riomaggiore, along with the other four villages, but instead we’ll keep it in La Spezia for now. By the time we returned our room was ready.

As it turned out, our room was located in a building that might have been a bank or an old hotel. Lots of marble inside. There were steel gates at the entrance. But we rang the bell and were soon greeted by a pleasant young lady, who helped us up the considerable stairs.

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All the climbing led us to a very nice room, one of about four or five on that floor. The lady of the house showed us around and gave us our set of keys. The only slight inconvenience was that our bathroom was down the hall and around the corner. It was not shared by the other guests, so that was good.

The first order of business in La Spezia was to find a laundromat. But, when we asked for a recommendation, our host said that her mother would do it. What? How much would she charge?. “She LOVES to do laundry.”, we were told. She will not charge. Well, we could hardly pass up that deal. So, later that night we treated her mama to a heaping pile of duds.

We then asked if she could recommend any nearby restaurants. She said, absolutely. There is a place called Trattoria Nuova Spezia about a fifteen minute walk away. She made reservations for us for 8:30 and gave us simple directions for finding the place.

Last order of  business, where to park the car. She told us that there is a city lot, about five blocks away. She said be sure to pay the meter and get a time-stamped ticket to put on the dash. Otherwise, we could look forward to paying a huge fine. So, soon I was out the door and retrieving the car from its temporary location. I had no problem finding the lot, but when I stuck some euros in the ticket machine, they came spilling right back out. After several attempts at this I started looking for another machine. I found one come distance away. Same problem. I started looking on the cars and many had tickets, but some did not. I pictured myself throwing myself on the mercy of the traffic court, telling them in English that I had really tried to buy a ticket, but their stupid machines didn’t work. I then pictured myself getting twenty years to life. I searched for yet another machine.

I finally found one, across the street from the parking lot. I prayerfully slammed in my euros for the maximum amount of time. It worked! Out came the ticket. I raced back across the street and carefully placed my ticket for maximum visibility. In the meantime, a lady behind me had observed my success and quickly slammed her euros into the same machine. Out they came. Clearly, the city had performed zero maintenance on these things for some long time. I doubted that they even bothered to check the tickets.

When I got back to our room I was about to raise that question with our hostess, but Dianne advised me she was gone for the day. And so began our first experience with what would be a recurring issue: the absentee host at our B&B’s. Apparently the custom now is, check ’em in and get the hell out. We had an emergency contact number. That was it.

It was now time for dinner, so we headed up the street. I had already gotten a preview of the neighborhood in my walk back from the parking lot. We headed down Via Amendola. It was clean, and there wee people around, but you see graffiti, even though it is everywhere in Europe, and you think gangs. If there are any, we didn’t see them, and we always felt safe.

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When we arrived at the front entrance we pulled on the door and it didn’t open. Another couple was standing nearby and one of them said, “It’s locked!”. Well, that seemed odd. “There are people in there, but they haven’t opened the doors yet,” they told us. So, glad to hear a little English we talked to them for a while. But, no luck on getting in. Finally I peered once more into the window on the door. A waiter happened to be walking by. I knocked. He looked at my haggard, starving face and opened the door right away. “Come in!” he said in English. As it turned out, the door opened to the inside, not outside, so it was open all this time. Once again. I can’t overstate the importance of making a good first impression. Apparently the fire codes in Italy are a little lax.

We told the people at the desk that we had reservations made by our hostess, who they indicated that they knew. We were promptly seated at a nice little table for two. In just a few minutes our waiter arrived. He welcomed us and asked where we were from. When we said America his eyes opened wide. “America!”, he said, “I LOVE America!” He went on to talk about all the things he loved about our country, but it seems he had never been there. From that point on, our names were “America”. He started us off with a small pitcher of house wine, which was excellent, then he came back to take our order. We picked a couple items  from the menu and then he said. “You don’t want that. You want THIS!” he pointed to several options. “THIS is excellent!” Well, his recommendations did sound good, so we went with the program.

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Our waiter, Luciano. That was not our meal. This is from the La Nuova Spezia Facebook page.

Well, in Italy you go through several courses and while, previously, we only picked a couple, here, we went full out. This is a small sampling:

Antipasta, with real anchovy.

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The creature on the left is a lobster.

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Fried seafood with more anchovies and a few tiny octopi in there as well. They were tasty, but, although I had the opportunity for more elsewhere in Italy, this was enough. Anchovies are more like smelt. Very yummy.

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Luciano took our picture before we exploded:

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Well, that was some dinner! While we were sampling away, a large family of about twelve occupied a big round table close by. They all knew the staff and were in an out of the kitchen. Dianne had a clear view into the kitchen, or as clear as you could get through clouds of steam. Carts, with four or five dishes each, were continuously streaming out. Empty carts were streaming in.

Since La Spezia is not principally  a tourist town, a restaurant like this is the real deal. Everybody knows everybody. The energy and noise level are high and the whole experience is an event. Luciano frequently returned and when he came to take our dessert order we said we were too stuffed. But, Luciano would have none of it. Just like the old Monty Python “One thin mint” routine, he offered us dessert on the house. OK. We shared a tiramisu:

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Fabulous! Then Luciano came back with a limoncello, the lemon flavored liqueur and an orange liqueur as well. “On the house!”, he said. We had originally planned to have dinner the next night in one of the five villages, but this place was so good and so fun and so reasonably priced, we made reservations for the next night. When we showed up, the hostess looked at the reservation book, turned it toward me, and asked, “Is this you?” Luciano had written “Captain America.”

The Women’s March on Washington

We knew this was going to be huge when our local paper reported on the morning of Inagural Day, that a woman in our area put out a notice on Facebook that she was looking for enough women to fill a bus to go to DC for the Women’s March on Washington. She received enough responses to fill TWO buses. This, from Donald Trump’s heartland!

The turnpike plaza where we stopped was packed full of women clearly headed to the march. Early estimates suggested there might be upwards of 200,000 demonstrators. Every indicator we saw suggested many more.

The speeches were supposed to begin at 10:00 so we left Emily’s house in Manassas before 7:00 to head for the Vienna/Fairfax Metro station. By the time we got there it was already very crowded. I had pre-ordered a Metro ticket long before the event, but it never arrived. I was afraid the lines to get passes would be around the block, but we were early enough and the Metro had people to help with the machines. There was no problem getting a ticket.

The Vienna station is the farthest out on this leg of the Metro system. Here is what the train was like, with many stops yet to come:

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Everywhere were the pink Pussy Hats, a recurring theme throughout the day. By the time the train arrived downtown, we were packed like sardines.

Because it was early, the barricades and food trucks were still being placed in position.

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The food trucks lined a side street, but were impossible to get to except for those on the fringe.

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Hundreds of porta-potties lined the streets and parks.

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The route they gave us took us down 7th St, right onto the National Mall and right again on 4th St. We could only get as close as the intersection of 4th and Independence, between the Air and Space Museum and National Museum of the American Indian.

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We were joined on this adventure by Jen’s friend Kim (on the left) who drove all the way here from Columbus.

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This is a family that took the picture above. In turn, we took a picture of them. They invited Emily to join them.

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Above is the end of the Air and Space Museum. This was as close as we could get. We arrived before 9:00 and by then Independence Avenue, where the stage was located, was packed. Here is the best aerial photo I could find showing our location:

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In the lower right corner you see a blue box (C-Span bus) and a white box (Holding a big TV screen) We were just off the picture to the right of the white box. That area on the lower right of the picture is 4th St. The long street to the left is Independence.

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Within the hour, our area became much more populated.

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Keep in mind, all the above was going on before the first speaker even started. Here are some of the sounds:

You will note that while this is a determined crowd, it is not an angry crowd. I certainly cannot comment on the behavior of the  hundreds of thousands of others scattered across the area, but where we were people were kind, respectful, helpful and supportive. Believe me, this day stood in sharp contrast to the demonstrations of the sixties and seventies. Maybe the most singular difference was in the attitude of the police and military who provided security. Far from combative, they joked with the crowd and were often helpful. There were no counter-demonstrations  in our area. As far as I know, there were not any. Even when we finally marched, we saw nothing even hostile. It is generally agreed that there were some 500,000 people participating in this march. The Washington DC police reported zero arrests. Better than Woodstock!

From time to time, first responders would have to work their way through the crowd. Everyone gave way.

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By now 4th street was packed all the way back to the National Gallery:

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The speakers started promptly at 10:00. If you have any interest in this event, you have probably already seen clips. Here was our view.

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Interspersed with all these people were a multitude of musical acts and speakers on every conceivable liberal agenda item.

There were problems with the sound system and some speakers could not be heard. Often the pictures of the crowd were pixelated. Those who arrived late, probably neither saw, nor heard any of the speakers, so, based on what we were hearing in the background, it seems they were amusing themselves with various chants, and who know what else.

The march was supposed to start at 1:00. At 2:30 they were still ranting away. After 5 and a half hours of this, while standing on hard pavement in the cold, misty air, and with no end in sight, we were starting to get edgy. And even those with the best of good will were sending echos of “MARCH! MARCH! MARCH!” cascading down 4th St. They fell on deaf ears. Some resorted to just sitting on the pavement if they could find room:

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Apparently (and somebody could have told us), because the crowds were so much larger than anticipated, the leadership first decided to cancel the march. Then, they changed the route from in front of the White House to down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Ellipse. Barricades had to be moved, and so on, and all of this took time.

When you are packed in that tight, you can’t just say, “Well, that was pleasant, but I think I’ll head home.” There is no escape in any direction except by way of endless “Scuse me”‘s. Finally we were given orders to march! But, the question was, which way? The person on stage pointed her finger into the camera and said, “March this way!” Apparently, she forgot that TV screens were facing in all four points of the compass. Eventually we figured it out. Up 4th Street we went.  Now, even more signs (if such a thing is possible), came out:

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Here are some of the sounds:

Mercifully, the route took us past a park:

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My favorite rebel:

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Then, off we went down Pennsylvania Avenue:

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We soon passed the Newseum, which, of course is dedicated to press freedom.

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Then, incredibly, it took us past the Trump hotel.

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Now people, I can guarantee that if this had been the sixties, there would not have been a window left un-smashed in this place. Today, people stopped for selfies. Then moved on.

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We continued on for several more blocks, but the end was still some distance away and it was after 5. Thinking of those long Metro lines to come, we abandoned ship and headed for the nearest station. Others had preceded us, and rather than try to squeeze their signs onto packed trains, they created their own little museum: