EUROPE 2019 -PART 2
Updated: Jun 2, 2022
EUROPE TRIP | April 16th-May 22nd, 2019
Munich To Strasbourg, France \ Strasbourg, France \ Avignon, France \ Avignon to Aigues-Mortes \ Aigues-Mortes \ Biking in the Petite Camargue \ Biking to Arles \ Les Baux and St Remy \ St. Michael Abbey & Boulbon \ Pont Du Gard \ Cycling Villeneuve \ Avington to London \ Sunday in London \ London to Thorpe \ Peveril of the Peak \ A Walk to Tissington
MUNICH TO STRASBOURG, FRANCE
April 29, 2019four
Leaving Munich at 5:15 am. We’re at The Pullman hotel, a moderately upscale joint that seems to be designed to appeal to businessmen and women. The beds were firm, ventilation good, the shower, with its enormous pancake shower head and perfectly modified water temp is likely to be the best we’ll have over the next 3 weeks. The lobby is empty at this time of day. The lobby clerk is doing Twitter at his desk behind the wall. I don’t need to speak with him because I see a taxi outside.
I step out to ask Herr Taximann to wait for CK as she is a few steps behind me. He asks where to? I say Hauptbahnhof. He says, “Sorry,” gets in and drives away. I’m left trying to recall the last time that happened. Answer: zero. I must accept that there will always be questions without answers. I’ll just ask the clerk to call another taxi, which he does. Inside of two minutes another taxi appears. He loads our stuff, we buckle up and…drama! A second cab driver pulls his vehicle in front of ours. He gets out, walks to our cab, opens my door and orders us both out. He’s insisting that we swap out of our cab into his. Our cabbie begins to shout at the insurgent one and a flurry of German epithets commence. After 30 seconds of this I attempt to tell the pirate-cabbie that he should go away. I grab the door out of his hand, shutting us in again. Instead of getting out of our way, the pirate-cabbie runs inside the lobby to plead his case with the desk clerk. He is saying that he deserves to have our fare because he answered the clerk’s summons for a cab. We watch from the back seat of our cab as the clerk comes out. He appears to examine the situation: we are in a cab ready to go but we are prevented from leaving by the pirate aggressive parking. Instead of resolving the problem, the clerk shakes his head and goes back to his office!! Now it’s time for me to get out. I ignore the pirate and go get the clerk out from behind his desk. I ask him sharply if we should call an Uber and let these cabbies have a fist fight or an automobile joust in front of his hotel. He apologizes weakly, then invites the pirate to move his vehicle to let us pass. I’m prepared to wait for 2 minutes to see if he does it. If not, we’ll walk away from this and hail another car. We’ll not ride with the pirate. Our cabbie, the clerk, and I are all glaring at the pirate at this point. This added pressure has the desired effect. The pirate reluctantly moves his cab out of the way to let us pass. On the way to the train station our cabbie apologizes, attempting to explain in a version of English that must be a 5th language for him. He doesn’t make sense. We’re left to guess if the pirate-cabbie thing is an actual phenomenon in Germany or if we just drew the solitary mad-man at 5:20 am Monday morning in Munich.
At the Hauptbahnhof all is in order. There’s plenty of breakfast items and coffee. Our conveyance is on time and waiting at the platform. We roll out on a French train with no further contretemps. Next stop, Strasbourg.
Taxi drama now behind us, the train to Strasbourg seems boring. The four hours slide by in a state of half consciousness. We arrive at about 11 am so we’re only spending half the day in a zombiefied condition. We acquire another cab on the street. This cab driver sports a skin-head style haircut and I’m thinking, oh shit, not again. But this one takes us to the hotel without incident. And now, upon check-in at the Hotel Suisse, we find that our room will not be ready until 3 pm. But we sort of knew it would be that way. We stow our bags in their locker and off we go. CK made sure our room is smack in the Old Town, so we step out the door and we’re instantly in the middle of the tourist zone. We have 4 hours to goof off.
The weather is a little cool but dry and nice. This allows us to grab tickets for the much recommended 1 hour boat tour of the canal system that encircles the Old Town. A recorded tour guide recounts history to us through cheap headphones but it works. It’s a good thing to do, gives us some perspective even though some of the featured buildings are of interest only to a scholar. Strasbourg was a sleepy town without much motivation to grow from the 14th century on up to the mid 19th century. But then the Industrial Revolution hatched along with military adventurism across Europe and the Alsace Lorraine region became a battleground and a production center. Conflict is not new here. This town switched from French to German and back again 5 times since 1681. Quite a mess and a painful one but somehow the city survives. It is now the center of government for the European Union. They meet here to iron out issues for 4 days of every month. The boat putts along slowly giving everyone a chance to pack their SD cards with photos. We get to go through locks twice!
We’re back on land soon enough with plenty of time to do some sightseeing. Not. We need some food so we pick out a touristy spot that claims to be an Alsatian Brasserie, Le Gruber. We get the specialty of the house, something called Tarte Flambee. It sounds sexy but it is really just the Alsatian version of pizza. It is bland but hits the spot washed down with the local beer.
Lunch done, we see that the line into the Notre Dame Cathedral has thinned considerably so in we go. This is a Gothic monster of a church. From 1647 to 1874 it was the world’s tallest building, 466 ft. It’s tres Gothic on the inside, too. Dark, heavy, brooding atmosphere with lots of images of suffering Jesus and his wailing friends. In the curiosities department we have an enormously elaborate clock with an ecclesiastical computer that keeps track of the movable feast days together with various automatonimous features, such as a mechanical rooster and a parade of equally mechanical saints. On the way to this clock one passes over an kind of open grate in the floor that covers a stone lined pit about 15 feet deep, the bottom of which is littered with coins and folding money. This is a hoard worthy of Smaug’s attention. I have no idea how deep the pile is. It was difficult to make a photo of it. I did make an effort.
After the cathedral CK reviews her notes alongside the local map and notes with horror that the museums are all closed tomorrow. This was the day we had programmed for heavy duty sightseeing and museum plundering. No museums tomorrow means that they have to be seen immediately. The one we’re standing in front of is the Palais Rohan. It’s been a residence for cardinals, bishops, and royalty over the centuries. Marie Antoinette and Napoleon slept here, but never together, of course. Now it is a museum.
CK wants to see the Alsatian Museum right away because it won’t be available tomorrow, but I’m not up for it. I’m out of gas, having slept poorly the night before, so I’m back to the room to crash for an hour. Off she goes and I have no pix of any of what she sees.
We have a meal at a different Brasserie near the hotel but it isn’t remarkable. Good food, but nothing spectacular until we stroll out and find an ice cream store still open at 8 pm., Amorino. It is Italian gelato but I’m developing a taste for it. My choice is chocolate chip mint. Wow. This one is even better than the choco-chip-mint we get at La Paon in California. The new gold standard for this flavor of ice cream is here in Strasbourg!
That’s all for today. Yikes. Tomorrow is a full day of tourist activity. Hope I can keep up.
April 30, 2019
We’re waking up in Strasbourg, France in a fairly lazy mood. We have a full day here and it is entirely unprogrammed. All we have in mind is to wander the streets of the old town and see what we can see. Of course, I know that CK will be looking inside of any church that isn’t locked.
Our first wander takes us to the part of town they call Petite France. This was where the city’s tanners, fishermen, and millers set up shop in the middle ages. Some of those old buildings still survive albeit with much renovation and bracing.
Strasbourg was in one of its Germanic phases in the late 15th century. At this time a hospice (Hospice des Vérolés) was constructed to house victims of syphilis. These were mostly Alsatian soldiers coming back from a campaign in Italy. The Alsatians called it Franzosenkrankheit or The French Evil. So, the French Evil became institutionalized in this part of Strasbourg, hence the name Petite France. But those days are gone, thankfully, and our era happens to be a rather pleasant one by comparison. We have cell phone cameras and we know how to use them.
The first church CK plunders is one called St. Thomas. Curiously, like the St Thomas church in Leipzig, this one is dedicated to Bach’s music as well. They give organ recitals daily but you have to attend services. Bleah. Albert Schweitzer worked here for a while and the church organ was designed along his plans. There is also an organ keyboard on display that they claim was used by W. A. Mozart when he played there in the late 1700’s.
We amble on toward two other likely churches which I figure will take the rest of the day to inspect but what ho? Both of them are locked up tight. This leaves us with a short walk to a park featuring a war memorial and 10 gigantic Gingko trees that are about 100 years old. We must be quite a sight for the locals as we stand gawking at what may appear to them to be nothing at all.
We find a lunch stop at an Italian place where the price is right and the red and white checked table cloths are real. The nice young lass takes CK’s order and turns to me. I ask for the gnocchi. She asks me to point it out on the menu. I comply. 10 minutes later she appears with our plates. CK gets her spaghetti and I get ravioli. I eat it because it is good but dagnabbit I wanted to try the gnochhi. She seems to be new on the job so I decline to make a fuss. I don’t want her to take a black mark, you know? For dessert it’s back to that Amorino gelato joint for another choco-chip-mint served in the shape of a flower.
CK wants to do laundry before we drive to Avignon tomorrow, so she’s off to the Laverie while I skulk at the hotel.
We really didn’t seem to do much today except walk around and eat things, a kind of Tour de Dėgustation. There are literally dozens of sidewalk cafe’s, bars, and bistros in the Old Town area. Around 6 o’clock we decide to search for another meal. We have no reservations so we are prepared to dive into anything that (1) looks decent and (2) will seat us. We wander back over the Petite France area. Along one lane we spot a restaurant on either side of us. One of them is packed with 20-30 somethings, chattering away like crows on a corpse, while the restaurant on the other side of the lane is empty. I can’t even spot a waiter. Of course, our bubble of ignorance interferes with a full understanding of this but it may have to do with the ‘Happy Hour’ sign flying in front of the busy one.
But that isn’t where we go. We decide to stick our noses into a place called Maison des Tanneurs. We ask for a table for two and oui! no problem. We even get a personal greeting from the mȃitre d’. The wait staff is dressed in livery and we have real linen table cloths and napkins. The dining room is finished in wood paneling, ceiling too, which mutes the conversation to a pleasant level. No rock music, in fact, no music at all. Yay! But this place isn’t for everyone.
A Russian couple takes a table next to us across a divider, just close enough to hear them carry on. The wife is being fidgety and unhappy. She calls the manager over to ask if this is a Michelin Star restaurant. “No,” he offers. Up they get and they split. 5 minutes later we have new neighbors.
We order Coq au Reisling. It is quite good with a creamy wine sauce and noodles, very different than I expected. We look around and see a dish being delivered to other tables that makes us feel lucky to have ordered what we did. This consists of a big hunk of ham, two immodest sized sausages, a mountain of sauerkraut, and a boiled potato. I’m pretty sure that CK and I could not have finished it on a shared basis.
After dinner we have a few blocks walk back to the hotel with a short detour for ice cream. Then it’s time to get the blog done and pack up for an early departure tomorrow. We’re off to the south of France.
May 1, 2019
This morning we pack our bags and hustle down to the breakfast offered up by the Hotel Suisse. We experienced it yesterday so we know what to expect. At the Pullman in Munich we had some hot meat and cooked eggs to choose from. Not here. This French breakfast is all about baked items, coffee, and tea. Baskets of bread, croissant, plates full of cake and tarts and other things I can’t name. <CK says there are cold cuts of meat> There’s a way to cook an egg in its shell but the process is strictly do-it-yourself in a kind of steamer. When finished there is the additional puzzle of how to pull the shell away from your now-cooked egg. My mind is too muddled to wrestle with an egg so I’ll drown myself in tea and smother myself in fresh croissant. Not so bad.
CK has arranged that we’ll drive to Avignon. The car must be rented at the airport. A taxi takes us there in good order. May 1, in the European Union, is Labour Day. 90% of businesses and all of the government offices are closed. Seems that things are quiet around town. Traffic is non-existent. The airport is practically deserted.
Car acquired, we check our Google Maps and off we go, CK at the wheel. It is easier to drive on the continent than in England where we have to navigate from the left side of the road. We’re on the ‘proper’ side here with less stress about having a brain-freeze, wrong lane, head-on collision moment with an unlucky Brit. We find the main highway and settle in to 6+ hours of automobile travel. I said highway, not freeway. This is actually a tollway. Fees are stiff. By the end of our trip we pay about 60 Euro, 10 Euro per hour.
The scenery is rolling farmland and patches of hardwood forest. Whenever there’s a high ground in the distance we can see ancient fortifications of the medieval 1% or some religious monastery or convent perched high above the flatland. This time of year France is very green.
Every 20 or 30 kilometers along the tollway there is a rest stop called an ‘aire’. Some of them have full facilities: gas, restaurant, showers, and a store. Others are just picnic tables and a loo. And we notice that they are mostly full to the point of bursting with freight trucks. We also notice the absence of them on the road. Our hypothesis is this: Because of May 1, the truckers get time off so they pull over wherever they are at that time and knock off work. But the idea of spending a holiday in a truck-stop seems flat out silly. We quickly run out of data to process on this question and return to the boring drive south with the added bonus of low traffic and no trucks.
Our progress is uneventful until we get to Avignon. Even then we don’t experience ‘events’ as much as we have to deal with our bubble of ignorance. We have two tasks to complete: (1) fill the car with gas before we turn it in and (2) turn it in. CK has scouted a gas station close to the turn-in point. Google navigates us there quite well but we find an auto-serve station with no attendant. Half of it is non-functional and the more functional part refuses our credit cards. Re-program and re-route to another gas station. We find one after a couple of bad turns and confusion but it is un-staffed as well, May Day and all that. We join a queue of cars to use the auto-serve pumps. Whew. We’re gassed up and ready to find the Enterprise rent-a-car joint at the Train Station and get rid of this beast of a Ford with the way-too-sensitive brake system. This turns out to be a Keystone Kops routine as we don’t understand where the rental return area is even though we followed the signs that seemingly point us right to it. This results in looping around to the wrong side of the terminal, our heads swimming with question marks like a Dr Who re-run. Our Plan: I go on foot into the terminal to locate the car return zone, CK will circle the car back around to the front gate. I’ll phone her when I find an answer. Dividing your forces is sometimes dangerous but in this case we’ll risk it. And I do find an answer. It was one that was in front of us the whole time but our bubble of ignorance worked to thwart us. Problem solved.
Car returned, baggage in hand, we hike over to the taxi zone. We need a ride to the hotel. No problem, off we go with a driver who looks like he’s nearly our age, late 60’s. He rolls us along a medieval lane barely wide enough for the car, dodging cafe tables and waiters. He announces that we have arrived. Ok. We see the fare on the meter is €18, We give him a €20. He makes unhappy noises in French. We’re thinking what the Hell? After some bleating, we understand that he wants two more € for handling the bags. I oblige but we feel like he was jerking our chain. We’re beginning to think that a taxi ride with no drama is a thing to celebrate.
Our hotel host speaks English in rapid fire, clearly a speech he has given hundreds of times. We learn how to handle the room key, how to open the door after hours, and when breakfast is served. All is well. After installing ourselves we’re out on the street for a quick meal at the restaurant next door. It’s nice food but nothing spectacular, gazpacho soup and codfish with veg, CK has a risotto dish. A short walk after dinner and we’re back at the hotel for an early turn-in.
We wake up at the Hotel Garlande. Breakfast is very much like the one yesterday at the Hotel Suisse in Strasbourg: baked goods from one end of the counter to the other but this time very little fruit. The egg steamer is here too, It occurs to me that if you want to cook an egg, you must wait until someone else’s egg is done. There could be 4-5 or more people waiting to cook an egg in this solitary steamer. “Get here early,” I make a note to myself. But it is available so I go for it. I follow instructions and steam my egg but it is still in its shell. I spend the next 5 minutes picking the shell off my 4 minute egg trying not to mess it up. CK watches me in painful embarrassment from across the table.
Breakfast is done and our goal is clear: we are going to the Palais des Papes, the Old Papal Fortress from the 14th century. Between 1335 and 1395, 6 Popes reigned here and added to the fortress. Today it is an empty structure, some of it under restoration. There are some exhibits prepared museum style but the most interesting thing about visiting this monstrosity of Gothic architecture is the Ipad they hand you with a programmed guided tour inside it. It tracks which room you’re in, plays an enlightening monologue through the headphones, and does a virtual reality projection of how the room would have been decorated in the 14th century. This is a good way to bring some life to this place because it is very much like a concrete bunker otherwise. The spot that made me say ‘wow’ was the Cuisine Haute, the High Kitchen. The entire kitchen was a fireplace, with a chimney rising above the center of the room 18 meters or 59 feet. An enormous fire was kept in here baking bread, and roasting meat and fish for 500 people at minimum and far more if there were an official party or event. This was where the action was.
Moving on from the Pope’s Palace we come to another church, St Peter’s Basilica, I believe. CK has to go inside. I find it fairly routine as far as these Gothic churches go, dark and oppressive, but this one has a few extra features: an elaborately carved door, an odor that conjures images of medieval zombies, and a white-robed Priest whose job it is to shush people who dare to speak or make a sound inside his church. He is a professional at this. His hissing fills the entire space like Harry Potter’s Basilisk. With the malice of an Inquisitor he shushes an 80 year old woman up close and in her face. Not a nice man.
Time flies by for our only full day in Avignon. Soon we’ll need to find a meal. We’ll take a recommendation from our hotel host.
We are directed to a bistro calling itself “Le 46”. We have a very nice meal, with some criticisms as to how the steak is done (overcooked) and the tuna (overcooked) but overall we have a loverly time. Mostly we enjoy a vin rouges Côtes du Rhône bottle over two hours. CK says she is staggering. Nonsense, I say.
Tomorrow we’re moving again. Aigue-Morte is our next stop.
May 3, 2019
Our day begins in Avignon at the Hotel Garlande. A quick breakfast, including a brief, partially successful battle with an egg steamer, gets us on our way.
No taxi today, we’re doing the classic luggage-drag to the train station. Today is moving day. We’re going by rail to Aigues-Mortes, pronounced “Egga Merta” for all you non Francophones. The Avignon train station isn’t huge but it isn’t small, either. We ask a fellow in uniform for directions because that’s what he seems to be there for. “Platform D, go that way and then keep going,” says he. We find it in spite of such colorful specificity. 5 minutes later an announcement crackles over the P.A. in French. The crowd standing there with us begins to move off in a different direction. CK and I must look like two forlorn bits of stray dustbunny because a young lass steps up to explain that we should move to the opposite platform to catch that train to Port Bou. Many thanks, young lady. We would have been slow to figure it out.
We board the train in good order, wrestle the bags to the overhead rack, find a seat and oy… there’s hot air pumping out of the ventilation with no way to control it. This is going to make for a nasty ride. Luckily, we’re only on this train for about 30 minutes until Nimes, where we hop off and switch trains. At Nimes we look at the schedule screen, find our train, and go to the platform where a group of people have already formed. In no time at all another French voice announces something over the P.A. Again this group of people move in another direction. This time a different young lady offers to tell us what just happened. They changed the train again so we have to go to a different platform. She and her boyfriend are from Mauritius, as it happens, and have been living and studying in Paris. He’s a nice guy. He carries CK’s suitcase up a long flight of stairs because the escalators in these small stations are always broken. He doesn’t ask for Euros. By the way, broken escalator in a small station is a rule that extends beyond France, all the way to Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK. So, we find that we are depending upon the kindness of strangers, apologies to T. Williams, twice. We catch the correct trains despite our bubble of ignorance and conspiracy of the French transport system to try to strand us.
Upon arrival in Aigues-Mortes we are faced with another luggage-drag but it shouldn’t be a bad one. We roll over a bridge crossing a canal, past another carnival carousel, and through the 14th century gates of a walled city. Our hotel is in there, somewhere. Past the gate, we are clearly into a tourist theme park. We walk down a charming street lined with bistros and shops, passing others on our left and right. Turning onto our street, it too is lined with tourist lures. Our Hotel is Chez Carriere. It’s also a restaurant. Our room is ready and on the first floor up. Nice.
After a bit of a rest we’re out and about. The obvious thing to do is to figure out how to get on top of the wall that encircles this crop of buildings. Aigues-Mortes is a walled city that dates back to the 14th century. The ramparts are about a mile long and form a rectangle around a group of houses and businesses. These walls are some of the best preserved in Europe from that time period. It was only besieged once in the 16th century but suffered little, if any, damage. The city walls, as we see them, were ordered by Louis IX, King of France on about 1242, replacing an older fortification left by Charlemagne in 790. Louis’s idea was to expand the French empire to the south and launch the 7th Crusade, both in one stroke. The building of the walled town, he managed, but the Crusade was a disaster. He got his butt whipped over in Palestine. He tried to launch another Crusade, #8 from Aigues-Mortes again in 1270. He didn’t get far. He died of the plague two months after setting sail. That didn’t stop the Church from granting him Sainthood. He became St. Louis, and a city in the US bears this name. His statue stands in the square here in Aigues-Mortes.
But before we walk the walls, we need a bit of sustenance. CK picks out a small Indienne Restaurant. We are its only customer. Our host is very friendly and quick with English for us. During the course of our meal we discover that his name is Shakil and he used to live in Kirkland, Washington. His family used to live in Tacoma and he has a lot of friends in Vancouver, BC. So, how do you like that? We feel like we’ve arrived at the ends of the Earth in a 777 year old antique town and this fellow from Seattle lets us suddenly feel like we’re in a lunch spot on Capitol Hill. He and his wife are very nice to us. We get their pix for the blog. And the food is excellent, too. If you ever come to Aigues-Mortes look up Banaras, Fine Cuisine Indienne. He’ll treat you right.
Our stroll around the ramparts is quite amazing. Our imaginations swim around in thoughts of what this place must have looked like as it was being built. We take a bunch of pix and listen to a recorded history through a rented portable device. We get over the Constance Tower, the main donjon, expecting to climb a tremendous spiral staircase but voila!, there is a lift to the top. From there we get the best views because, guess what, this tower is the tallest thing for miles around. The terrain here is flatter than Lord Combover’s grade point average.
Later we decide to do dinner at a restaurant specializing in dishes from the Petite Camargue Region, which we are in. CK has an omelet and I have rock fish soup and a kind of Beef Bourguignon but without the noodles. It’s good food but we don’t turn somersaults over it. I’ll file this in my database of food experiences to compare with other French dishes.
Tomorrow we have the whole day to goof off in Aigues-Mortes before we begin the next phase of our trip.
May 4, 2019
We’re waking up in Aigues-Mortes, France at Hotel Chez Carriere. We don’t have a room at the top of the stairs! We are only one floor up which makes the luggage-wrastlin’ deliciously painless. Beds are ok and like everywhere we go in Europe, these days, we get duvets instead of the sheets and blankets of old. Very nice.
The room is a bit on the small side. CK has to use part of the wardrobe furniture to set up her laptop. The chair intended for the writing space, where I’m sitting, blocks the route to the door entirely. Bathroom is updated and roomy enough to turn around in but the shower stall seems narrower than a phone booth. Bathroom is generally OK until I notice Le Fourmi on the sink, I see a second one (an ant). And a third. I follow them to the trash can. I lift the lid and voila! There’s a party going on in there. This is probably better dealt with after breakfast, says I to myself.
Breakfast is like all the others in France, so far, baked goods, coffee, tea, juice. Yes there is some cheese and a cold cut slice of processed ham but I regard these things to be a kind of table garnish, not meant for consumption. And the egg steamer is there, too. The big exception here is the presence of Cocoa Puffs. I love that stuff. They are one of my junk food weaknesses. I heroically resist and drink my OJ instead.
Now I should report the issue of ants to our hosts. I locate our hostess who speaks no English but I can’t describe the problem across the language barrier so I offer to show her. Ushering her into the bathroom, I pull out the trash can and open it carefully. “MAIRD!’, she blurts then covers her mouth for saying a bad word (SHIT!). 500 ants are scurrying madly as if they know they have been busted. I offer to leave her to the task of evicting them rather than hover in these tight quarters. “Au revoir”, we say to each other as I back out the door. She is very quick to make it right but we don’t get a discount for being infested. Har. As if.
This is the day we shift to our canal barge, the start of our boat & bike tour. At 11 a.m. we must be checked out of the hotel. We then have 6 hours to spend in Aigues-Mortes before the boat will be ready to take us and our luggage aboard. This is a day for professional wandering.
We walk around for an hour until lunch, then we go to the central square and find a table in the shadow of the statue of Louis IX. CK enjoys a dish of pasta. I’m trying some of the local octopus and potato in aioli sauce. I don’t find much interest in my selection, somehow. It seems unnecessarily greasy. But the wine is nice and the bread is the best part of it. The atmosphere is very pleasant with a cool breeze, filtered sun through leafy trees, children playing around the fountain, and a busking guitarist improvising in a Flamenco style. Very Tré & Twee too.
CK wants to visit churches but she notes that they won’t be open until 2:30. Just as the clock strikes the moment, we’re off to investigate them. They were both built in the 13th century but both were remodeled in the 16th century, pushing out the Old Gothic ghosts. Now they have decoration in the Baroque mode but there’s no lack of imagery of torture and lamentation. Green Man, if he had been there, was banished long ago.
With more time to kill we take a stroll outside the walls for a different perspective on this city-in-a-stone-box. See photos.
With yet more time to kill, we go on a bit of a treasure hunt. CK has in mind a specific kind of strawberry tarte. We hike around to every bakery and confectioner in town but can’t find it. Then I spot the very thing in the window of Restaurant Chez Coco. This place has an ancient aspect, a 19th century interior of old wood darkened by time and the era of tobacco. There are no customers here, even though the street is full of tourists. We take a seat at an outdoor table. CK orders the tarte and I have a tea. All is well.
Then we notice something odd. The waitress, the only person on duty by the way, brings out an empty beer bottle, an empty Coke bottle, two empty water glasses, a used espresso cup with coffee stain, and a plate which recently hosted a raspberry pastry, complete with a dirty spoon. She set them on the table across from us. She disappears. We have a few more bites and sips. We take our time but can’t help trying out ideas as to why she did that. We eventually settle on this: She is trying to lure folks in with evidence that others have eaten here recently. We decide to test idea. We pay for our items and walk away with a plan to return in 10 minutes. If we still see her set-up there and our dishes cleared away, we’ll consider it proved. And voila! 10 minutes later, our things are gone and her dirty dish staging remains in place. Odd but, hey, this is France, right?
At 5 pm we head out of the walled city to the canal where our next excursion begins. We move our stuff onto a barge named Cerise. This will be home for the next week, with 20 other shipmates. Our first day on bikes is tomorrow and we’ll be touring the area around Aigues-Mortes. We’ve been on foot the past two days, so we’ll get to see a lot more with wheels under us.
Sunday morning we wake up on this barge.
May 5, 2019
We awake from a cozy night’s sleep in our closet-sized cabin aboard this river barge, the Cerise. It once hauled sand, coal, fertilizer, salt, or any number of other heavy commodities 30 or 40 years ago. It now carries passengers who want to see a French-flavored corner of the world. So far we haven’t crushed our toes on a corner or given ourselves a concussion by slamming our heads into the ceiling but we are vigilant to the possibility.
Breakfast is similar to others we’ve seen in France, so far. The main exception is an improvement in coffee machines and in yogurt quality. For me, tea, croissant, small bowl of fruit, and maybe an egg. After breakfast we make our sandwiches from the goods supplied by the kitchen and off we go to see the countryside on a bit of a loop that Carlos has planned for us.
This area around Agues-Mortes is alluvial plain, the extreme western edge of the Rhone River Delta. Their name for it is Petite Camargue. When I look at the satellite picture of this area I can easily imagine that the Rhone once ran its main stream through here thousands of years ago. These days it is about 20 miles east. That’s a lot of river delta. Did I mention the terrain, how flat it is? It’s flat. Flatter than roadkill. Flatter than Roseanne Barr’s National Anthem. Flatter than every Game of Thrones character. Flatter than a ticket taker’s smile at the Bijou Theater on a Saturday night. Whatever isn’t flat is less than flat, and filled with water of some kind. Vast swampiness is part of the character of this place.
Our bike group of 16 sets out for a 26 mile loop through this flatness at about 10 a.m. Our first experience is with wind. There’s a 25-30 mph steady breeze out of the NW raking the area with gusts to 45 mph. Back where we live, this would be a serious wind storm. But it’s par for the course here. Wind happens a lot. In the winter they get 60+ mph regularly. They call that The Mistral. But the wind today is far too normal to rate a French title. I’ll call it a pain in the ass. Actually it wasn’t so bad that we couldn’t ride but it threatened to push us two or thee feet sideways on the gusts.
We pass through a handful of villages but all of these look like they’ve seen far better times. There’s plenty of farm crops to admire, particularly the wheat and barley pulsing in the wind like ocean waves. We’re seeing clouds of swallow-like birds feasting on bugs held aloft by the wind. Egrets are hugging the ground trying to stay out of it. And we see Flamingos. I always associated these with Africa or South America but no, here they are, wading peacefully in the swamps, too far away to photograph. And, of course, the sound of wind roaring through the few trees we encounter.
We see white horses, too. This is the Camargue horse, an ancient breed indigenous to the area. It is generally considered one of the oldest breeds of horses in the world and a good number of them are feral. Cowboys around here ride them when wrangling the local bulls.
Which brings up the subject of bulls. These are a particular breed raised for a kind of bloodless bullfighting done here in Southern France. These aren’t the ones used in the Spanish corrida. In France a bull “fights” in the ring with humans for about 15 minutes then returns to the herd and won’t fight again for two or three weeks.
Our leader, Carlos, does a nice job herding us down narrow lanes, across traffic circles, and through baffling village streets. He’s happy that we don’t chatter and shout like Italians. He directs us to a good bar for lunch. We get to sit at a table out of the wind to eat our home made sandwich. Across the room from us, in this bar, is an ancient local watching horse racing on the telly while feeding his Euro to the off-track betting machine. It’s Sunday and the streets are deserted so this is the limit of local color.
Our biking continues, at times becoming effortless when we turn to take the wind at our backs. Crossing a low bridge over a swamp leads to another stone tower, some military installation from the 18th century. It’s the tallest thing around and we can climb it to get a stunning view of the swamp.
Back at the boat, dinner is served by our Italian cook. It is a version of Beef Bourguignon with Polenta. To wash it down we’re cracking open a 5 year old bottle of Chateauneuf-de-Pape. This is really good stuff, a blend of Grenach. It’s €36 or $46 US. In the wine shop on Lopez I might guess Bruce would charge $99+. Bargain!
We look forward to another sleep in our below-decks closet. Tomorrow the boat relocates to Arles. We get off somewhere along the way, then go by bike to meet it. We should have some more to write about then.
May 6, 2019
We’re up early on May 6 to get cleaned up before the boat fires up its engines. We’ll be puttering down a canal up to a certain point where we’ll be put ashore to bike our way into Arles. This won’t be a long day of cycling, only 15.5 miles. That’s ok because we want some time to investigate the town.
We anticipate some more adversarial weather. Skies are clear and sunny but the wind is projected to be fierce, stronger than yesterday. My research is showing that these parts have less than 200 days per year without at least a strong, steady breeze. Interesting. Locals are complaining about the temperature. They say this is the coldest May they’ve had in decades. High today should be mid 60’s. For me and CK it is a perfect temp for biking.
A few miles into the ride, we see that the wind isn’t as bad as predicted. In my opinion it makes the day quite pleasant, keeping us dry and cool on a day when we’d be hot and sweaty without it.
We are distracted again by the local Camargue Horse. A group of them are conveniently lounging along our route. We stop for a chat with them, offering handfuls of grass gathered from just beyond their electrified fence. They seem fairly interested in this and are totally nonplussed by a crowd of strange humans on wheels dressed in lime green walking up to their enclosure. Cameras are flying everywhere.
We arrive in St. Gilles, the home of a particular church St Gilles-du-Gard, a 12th century Romanesque structure that was defaced (not the only one) by the French Revolutionaries in late 1700’s. The facade was recently tidied up and restored to some degree although no repairs were made to the destroyed bits. It’s the new style of preservation. Carlos says we’re lucky to be here now because last year it was all covered up by scaffolding. What we see is a clean front with the heads of several sculpted figures cut off or smashed. The inside is still Romanesque, early Gothic, but they did their best to lighten it up. We pay 3 Euro to visit the crypt. This place is dark, spooky, and a little dank. There’s even a niche where they’ve put a pile of random bones on display. Empty stone sarcophagi occupy one corner. St. Gilles is buried down here, somewhere, probably in the middle where the fancy tomb is. May he rest in pieces.
We peddle on for a few more kilometers to Arles. We’re now in Provence, a part of France that has been immortalized in painting, poetry, literature, and film. In 800 BC a folk called the Ligurans were here. Phoenicians used it as part of their trade network until Romans took over in 123 BC. They connected it to the Mediterranean with a canal. Emperor Constantine liked this town and built baths here. All this just to say that there are plenty of Roman ruins and crumbs to find including an aqueduct, theater, remnant of the chariot race track, water mill, remains of The Forum, and an arena which is still in use.
After lunch we get a tour from a French lady who speaks zee Engleesh with the classic French accent. She’s very well informed and interesting. She takes us to the old theater which is set up for modern performances. We learn about Roman propaganda, techniques, putting current Emperor’s heads on Adonis-like torsos, swapping them whenever necessary. Some things never change. After the Romans were overrun by the Barbarians, townsfolk took shelter inside the old theater and the amphitheater (coliseum), turning them into fortresses against the invaders. This was effective until Arles was sacked in the 8th century.
Vincent Van Gogh lived here for 15 months, February 1888 to May 1889. In that time he made a manic number of paintings and drawings, over 300 pieces. Today much of the town is devoted to tourism in his name. We find the square where the Cafe La Nuit (night cafe) still exists. The entire front is decorated in yellow although it was white in Van Gogh’s day. Van Gogh painted used yellow because he portrayed it at night when the streetlights cast a yellow glow on it, changing its color. Turns out that Van Gogh was an alcoholic and would come to this cafe to drink Absinthe. In those days they would prepare it with up to 90% alcohol. For comparison, Vodka is 40%. Small wonder Vincent had mental difficulties.
Our tour guide gives shows us round to the amphitheater but we don’t get to go inside. There was some reconstruction of it 15 years ago where whole missing sections were replaced. We notice that any concrete with a clean edge is new, all the funky rock is old. They still use this structure for Camargue-Style bullfighting, which is a kind of game of dare. The object is to capture colored cords tied to the bull’s neck over a 15 minute period and not get stomped, gored, or disgraced in some gruesome way. Winner gets a cookie.
Dinner is back on the barge. Tonight it’s Paella, Camargue Style, with chicken and rabbit.
Tomorrow we are scheduled to cycle about 30 miles visiting Le Beaux and St. Remy.
May 7, 2019
We have another bright, sunny day with a chilly morning. But this could be the end of that sort of thing. The weather report for tomorrow says rain without question. But we’ll have to deal with that later. Today we have 30 miles of cycling and several sights to see before we catch up with the boat at Vallabrégues. Along the way we’ll pass through Les Baux-de-Provence, St Remy-de-Provence.
I should point out that we booked this trip through BoatBikeTours.com, based in the Netherlands. They are the booking agency. The actual tours are run by various contractors. Ours happens to be an Italian group calling itself Girolibero < girolibero.it/en/ > The crew is very good to us and they know their stuff. Hearing all this chatter in Italian is new to us and my training in Spanish seems to be of little use in deciphering it. No worries, though. They speak English quite functionally which is 100% better than any passenger’s ability to communicate in Italian. Our Captain, Stephane, and Carlos are polyglots. I think Carlos speaks 5 languages. He says Dutch is the most difficult. That’s funny. Even the Dutch say that.
After 30 minutes cycling, Carlos stops the group near an ancient Roman Aqueduct ruin. This sort of thing causes the imagination to run on a bit. Amazing what they were able to build with iron tools, pullies, and cranes. And slaves. Mustn’t forget the cheap labor.
After a brief stop in Alpilles we climb up to Le Baux-de-Provence. This is one of the reasons we chose this particular trip. Curiosity about this spot was irresistible. The town is perched on a rocky hill. There’s a castle on the top, of course, and houses are jammed in any way they can fit. Only about 440 people live here but the tourists come by the busload in high season, 1.5 million per year. Luckily we are here in shoulder season and not riding a lousy bus! Aside from its very attractive village they offer an immersive multi-media presentation of artwork inside one of the old limestone quarries, Carrières de Lumières is the place. Projections are shown on the walls. There’s almost an entire acre of quarry wall space used for this. There are two presentations: First is art from Japan. Second is one featuring Vincent Van Gogh paintings. We have to get tickets in advance because entry to this thing is metered, we need to have a specific time of day assigned to us. Carlos, our fearless expedition leader, says that last year there was no need to buy tickets ahead of time, the line was non-existent. But all Hell broke loose when someone posted a video on Facebook. Now the place is swarmed. Our entrance time is 12:30 and we’re on bicycles so we mustn’t dawdle along the way.
After the show, we roam around Le Baux’s village. This is another tourist theme park. There are shops for every kind of soap, cake, or trinket you can imagine and multiple copies of each. Everything is scrubbed clean, tikkity-boo absolutely everywhere, perhaps the tidiest part of France we’ve seen yet. I part with some euros for an ice cream. CK’s 6th sense directs her toward the church. And I can confirm that the door was open for her. I went in to collect some pix as evidence.
Little known fact: This is the location of the discovery of Aluminum Ore in 1821, known as Bauxite, so named for the town.
St Remy-de-Provence is the next stop but not before our fearless leader halts the group unexpectedly. It seems that one of our number has pedaled off on her own having failed to heed one of Carlos’ directions. We wait at an intersection for 10 minutes while he sprints off to find her. All is well, the rider is retrieved but we give her the raspberry for sure. Up the road in St, Remy we find the mental hospital where Van Gogh resided for several months, St Paul de Mausole. CK and I decide to skip the tour of that. Instead we inspect another church, quite dilapidated, where I get a pic of their cute statue of Joan D’Arc. Later we find a plaque on a nearby street indicating that Nostradamus had been born here. Another ice cream is acquired, always Menthe Chocolate.
Nostradamus nothwithstanding, our only knowledge of the future is that we will likely ride from St. Remy back to the boat, about 16 more miles. We have a little rest in St. Etiennes but this turns out to be a bit of a fuss. One of the heavier bikes fell over and gave a nasty scrape to a fellow’s leg. Luckily we have a retired nurse in our group and a pharmacy just a block away. Blood is sopped up, the correct bandage is applied and off we go through flower strewn lanes and olive groves.
Back on the boat folks are tired after all the tourist sights and 30+ miles of cycling plus drama. Dinner is crepe and ham. Tomorrow is a loop route and the weather is suspect.
May 8, 2019
Today, the weather prognosticators announced rain. This throws everyone into a panic, searching through their luggage, mining up anything that looks like rain gear. We roll out about 9 a.m. under a solid, gunmetal grey overcast with everyone sporting their sturdiest stuff.
Carlos steers us to an abandoned road running beside the Rhone. Here we get about 4 miles of totally traffic free riding. We depart this, eventually, to winding country lanes which take us to the village of Barbentane. We get 30 minutes break before going back to pedaling, so CK and I set out to explore as much as we can. I spot a sign next to an inviting old tunnel aiming up hill. The sign says “Vieux Village”, Old Village. We have 22 minutes to see what’s up there. We hustle up the crumbling steps between two ancient walls, get to the top gasping for breath and…. there’s nothing. Weeds and shrubs and a space that may be a public park. That’s how it goes in the tourist world. Sometimes all you get is exercise. Whatever the Old Village is, we don’t recognize it.
Back on the road for 5 kilometers to the Abbey of St Michel de Frigolet. This is our lunch stop. CK’s eyes light up as she senses the likelihood of churches. Just inside the gate she spies a chapel. I’m not sure what the difference is between a church and a chapel except size and decoration. In this case, not even CK stays to visit. It’s so dark in this place we feel we may blunder into something if we walk around. We creep forward a few feet but that’s the limit. The odor is definitely of desiccated 14th century monks or perhaps something even fresher. We’re outta there.
Much more attentively appointed is the Abbey Church a few meters ahead. This one looks partially inhabited by live humans despite the usual gruesome scenes of Roman style torture. There’s some craftsmanship to admire. Pictures are taken. We walk around the grounds but there isn’t much left to see except for a group of seven women from boat #2 who found the Abbey Canteen. They are busy chugging a couple carafes of Rosé before the departure deadline. These folks are doing it right.
So far, the rain has only shown itself as a mist or lazy drizzle at most. If we get any moisture the breeze dries us in 5 minutes. No worries so far.
We leave the Abbey scooting downhill to the town of Boulbon. Here we meet with a local guide who gives his tour in French. Carlos does the translation. He’s a venerable fellow in his 80’s, I’ll guess, very enthusiastic about his town. He takes us on an hour long romp around to an old castle on the hill and through an old ramparts from the 14th century now converted into neighborhood. Up at the fortress we meet the owner of the crumbling edifice, a retired gentleman whose career was in the restoration of historic sites. He is doing the same to this one, rehabilitating it so it will be attractive and safe for tourists. I shake his hand. It is 3 times bigger than mine.
Our French guide takes us through the ramparts neighborhood, explaining through Carlos, what we are seeing. Basically, the old walls were destroyed ages ago. The rubble was unsightly so the leaders of the city offered housing in that area to anyone willing and able to clean up the place and restore some order to it. The result is kind of a wonderland of maze-like lanes between houses, micro-gardens, shady nooks, stone paths, and blind corners revealing arches, overhannging almond trees, towers, and more gardens. This is like the Romantic Novel version of Provence, a tourist theme park that is actually for real. The downside is that almost no locals own these homes. They are all the property of foreigners who use them for holidays or investment. Therefore the neighborhood is deserted most of the time.
Back on the bikes after a magical day in Boulbon, about a 25 minute ride back to the boat and still we’ve only had a drizzle to deal with at most. But just as we stow the bikes on deck and grab a beer the sky drops its load. Rain now pouring freely we sit on board safe, dry, and a little smug. We admire our luck.
Dinner is a cornbread muffin stuffed with bleu cheese and wilted endive.
More biking tomorrow. Stay tuned.
May 9, 2019
At 7 a.m. we have fog but the sun is trying to burn through it. It rained with some gusto last evening so we’re hoping that the cold front has left the scene. We have some biking to do today. While the rest of the boat is rousting out of bed I’m having coffee in the ship’s lounge after a Spartan style cold shower in that mini-phone booth of a stall in our cabin. At least it’s en suite. Damn, that was uncomfortable. The first crew member I see is our Italian Chef. I complain very politely about the cold water. He is very nice as he apologizes for the situation. “The electric box was not working”, he offers in a thick accent, “but the problem is fix now.” I make a mental note to remind him tonight after dinner that we would seriously appreciate warm water in the morning.
Today we’re off to visit a monstrous relic of the Roman epoch in France, the Pont du Gard. “Pont” means “bridge” in French but, of course, this isn’t a bridge. It’s an aqueduct. In its day it carried 35,000 cubic meters of water per day. It’s height is almost 49 meters <161 feet>. Length 490 meters <1608 feet>. I’m having a challenge finding out how many cubic yards of stone and concrete are in this thing. I’m guessing a honking lot of it. Clearly, Romans liked to develop cities. Cities need lots of water and things like this delivered it. This one carried water to Nimes across 30 miles of countryside. It’s more work than any of us can imagine. I guess they didn’t have TV and the Internet to distract them.
We’re off cycling under grey skies even though the sun promised, however briefly, to burn through. Nope. We are wearing our windbreakers and gloves. We are passing through Montfrin, one of several towns in this region, most of which have the same general history in antiquity: a Greek colony in the 2nd century b.c., then the Celts invaded, then the Romans took over. In the 21st century these towns look partially abandoned except for the boulangerie (bakery). One could view this as being between boom periods or just plain sleepiness. Take your pick. Amazingly, we continue to get cell tower data here. What a country!
We glide through flat terrain and farm roads except when we pass through one of these towns. There we inevitably intersect some busy automobile route, people in cars going from one place to another, annoyingly in our way. We expect them to wait for us even though sometimes they don’t want to. Generally they are cooperative. Yesterday, a madman in a BMW approached us screaming up on the opposite lane from behind a blind hill at about 130KMPH (80 mph). Scared the peewaddin out of us. Carlos had his adrenalin gland squeezed violently although he’s unlikely to admit it
We arrive at the Pont du Gard ahead of schedule. This is a major tourist venue. We first pass through gigantic parking lots designed for busses and autos by the hundreds. I can’t imagine this place on a summer weekend. It must be impossibly mobbed. But not now. The parking lot is practically deserted. There are probably 1,500 people here but the area is so vast that they disappear into the scenery. There’s a cafe with 100 tables but only about 6 are occupied. And, of course there is the massive aqueduct. We have 2.5 hours to eat lunch, walk around it, examine the graffiti carved into its flanks, take photos, and plunder the ice cream at the cafe (or wine if that is the plan). The thing is that once one examines this aqueduct for two hours, it becomes abundantly clear that it isn’t going to change. It will probably be standing here long after all of us are dead. When the time comes to move on, we’re ready.
Down the road we pass through other seemingly abandoned towns until we get to Aramon. The curious thing about Aramon is that it used to be a port city on the banks of the Rhone. However, recent canal construction and diversion projects moved the river about a kilometer away from the town. Now there’s a parking lot where the river used to be. One can still see the old quay where ships used to tie up at the edge of this paved area.
Back at the ship, our Italian Chef has an olive and anchovy pizza waiting for us to plunder. It’s quite good with beer.
For dinner we have olive tapenade, snails (nope nope nope), and cod. Apple tartin and a scoop of ice cream for dessert.
The boat moves to Avignon where we will make a short 16 mile cycle route on the opposite side of the river. Stay tuned.
May 10, 2019
Weather today starts out cloudy although the weather app promises temps in the mid 70’s this afternoon. This is the last day of cycling, well, the last day of almost everything on this barge trip. The miracle is that we’ve pretty much dodged the rain. Our worst Mistral Wind came on the first day. After that we’ve been free to roam unhindered.
Today’s shower-in-the-matchbox was well supplied with scalding water, a vast improvement over yesterday’s experiment with hypothermia. I’m up early to set up camp in the lounge just as the crew is emerging, rubbing the sleep out of their hair. This is when the fancy coffee machine pulls its weight. I don’t have to lurk around, hoping that soon somebody will fire up the kettle. I just push the cappuchino button and, poof, java! This fancy gizmo grinds the beans to order. It works every time we summon its services, earning the admiration of all the passengers. I have a feeling that somewhere in the UK next week I will miss this thing terribly.
Villeneuve-lés-Avignon is our general target for cycling today. This town is located on the bank of the Rhone opposite that of Avignon. In the 14th century, wealthy church officials and courtiers set up their houses here most likely to be away from the stink and pestilence of the city. As a result there is some antique architecture and old world charm. We can let our imaginations play as we wander through the ancient streets and alleys.
Our cycling route is short but pleasant. We pass across farming roads in between orchards, more vineyards, and even an asparagus patch. The highlight of our bucolic admiration is the appearance of a goat whisperer with some 40 milking goats. This woman is dressed in coarse linen, brightly colored, a staff in her hand. She looks like a red headed enchantress, a lady well disposed to peace and tranquility but don’t piss her off if you know what’s good for you. He allies are numerous, non-human, and they have some serious horn. We don’t understand much of what she says except ‘goat cheese’. We approve. Carlos speaks to her and assures us that she has not cast any kind of wicked spell on us.
After a morning of no-drama cycling we arrive at Villeneuve-lés-Avignon. Lunch is to be consumed around the town square. But unlike other places we’ve been, none of the restaurants here will allow us to eat our sandwiches at their tables with merely the purchase of a drink. So, CK and I surrender to this and order two small tapas plates, beer, and water at a pleasant bistro near a clock tower. It’s ok but our sandwiches go abandoned. And another thing! There’s no gelato anywhere! This is a minor tragedy which must be corrected later.
After food, our wandering leads us up through a charming old neighborhood to Fort Saint-André. They also charge a fee to visit here which we decline. We grab some pix of its 14th century walls and call it good. Just about everything around here was built in the 14th century. It must have been the busiest construction zone in Europe. My curiosity trips out a bit because the Bubonic Plague was peaking in this period. It killed between 30-60% of Europe’s population. There must have been a terrific lack of laborers, skilled workers, farmers, and merchants at a time when the Church was trying to build an entirely new city in Avignon. How they managed it is a small wonder.
CK leads us away from the square to Notre-Dame-du-val-de-Bénédiction, a monastery originally founded in the 14th century, part of the political churnings of the Papal occupation of Avignon. I read the Wikipedia entry on it but it makes my head swim. Pope Innocent the VI is newly elected amidst political controversy. He needs to deflect his enemies a bit so he demonstrates his dedication to Holy Things by directing some of the church’s wealth to create this institution. Somehow this helps him float above criticism. We view its bones from afar because we decline to pay the fee to go inside. Instead we content ourselves with a meditative moment before an unusually nightmarish gargoyle on the gate.
Tour Philippe-le-Bel or Tower of Philip the Fair. This pile of rock was put up in 1307, approximately, to guard the west side of St. Bénezet Bridge better known as Pont-du-Avignon today. We speed straight past it without a thought. Philip the IV is well on his way to oblivion, I say.
We’re back to the boat before we know it. Time to thank the crew, say goodbye, fill the tip jar, and pay the bar bill. Melanie, Stephane, Joseph, Filippo, and Carlos have been very good to us all week. We wish them the best. Our fellow travel mates are lovely group of folks from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, UK, and the US, ages ranging from 40’s to 83. By the end of the week, we’re all in each other’s pockets with jokes and teasing. Excellent fun. We may have to speak more with Carlos about touring in Italy.
Supper is a basil/vegetable soup, breast of duck with ratatouille, and a kind of custard dish for dessert topped with a mild basil sauce.
Tomorrow is an awkward kind of travel day, the end of which should find us in London if all goes according to plan.
May 11, 2019
After one last sleep on this tourist bearing river barge we look forward to a moving day with reserved enthusiasm. We need to move on but, again, this boat was beginning to feel like home. We must resist this tendency to dig in. By evening we plan to be 720 miles north of here. That will be London. But first we get another thrilling, chilling shower due to another water heater failure. Only CK’s unsuppressible optimism can find any warmth in it. She is the Pollyanna of cold showers. I need 5 cups of coffee to recover and the fancy-schmancy coffee robot delivers without complaint. I tuck into breakfast: wheat toast adorned with peanut butter and banana accompanied by a parfait of yogurt, fruit, and granola. It’s all super healthy, for sure, but if there had been bacon and sausage I would have raided it with little regard for either the pig or my cholesterol levels. I survive on cold ham and cured beef.
We have several hours to spend in Avignon before grabbing the high speed TGV. Furthermore we have no idea what to do except, perhaps, find a haircut for me. We’ve already inspected the two big tourist stops days ago: The Pope’s Palace and the Pont. We have 7 hours to moon around town, snapping photos, and haunting cafes. The most serious danger in this is my very current and shockingly accurate knowledge of the location of the best gelato shops.
Now I’m thinking that this is a perfect moment to get my head trimmed, as in haircut. This could be an adventure. We’ll see if my translation app is up to this. And after a short discussion, CK agrees that a lowering of the ears is in order. She springs into action, summoning a French barber shop on Google with the efficiency of an Icelandic credit card reader. It’s just 3 blocks away. At the door, a bearded 20 something with a man-bun greets me in French <imagine that!>. My magic phrase pops out automatically: “Je ne parle pas Francais, desolé.” Now he uses his broken English, which is quite sufficient, to put me on his books for 11:30, a wait of 45 minutes. He has three stylists and all are busy with two guys waiting. Appointment made and off we go.
We go wandering but not far. We soon find ourselves in the Place Pie, a larger square half occupied by restaurant tables and canopies. A Django Reinhardt style gypsy jazz combo is rockin’ the place with some hot chops. Along one side of the square is a single large building with a three story wall covered in live plants. Les Halles d’Avignon, the sign proclaims. We have found the City Market. Inside, the space is as large as a thumping good supermarket but this is no supermarket. This is a collection of expert food specialists and purveyors of meats, fish, cheese, poultry, game, nuts, dairy, herbs, spices, pastries, bread, fresh veg, beer, wine, spirits, and rare delicacies. It’s enough to make the most dedicated foodie weep for gluttony. One has visions of renting a flat with a gourmet kitchen for a month just to plunder this a little bit. But no. I have an appointment with a French barber.
Back at the barber shop 3 chairs are still full and one guy is still on deck. 11:30 comes and goes. 11:45 passes, then the church bells ring noon and nobody has changed position. We are on French Time. Clip, clip, snip, snip while the bluetooth speakers jam out L.A. style hip-hop. I might have fallen into a slumping nap on my bench chair if it weren’t for the noise. “At least it isn’t Jerry Lewis’s Greatest Hits”, I reflect in bored consolation.
At last I am summoned and addressed again in French. I use my magic phrase but this time the customer in the center chair offers to translate. “What would you like?”, is the question. “An Afro,” I quip from under my elderly scruff of thinning white hair. This breaks the ice with a shop-wide guffaw. They still expect a sensible answer so I invite them to just make me look good…”but not like him,” as I gesture toward my translator. Another guffaw and the haircut begins. This takes a while. I’ve never had such a fussy haircut. He must have adjusted his clippers a dozen times before he went to the comb and scissors. CK was getting bored so she ran in on the pretense of getting my photo when she was really trying to find out if progress was being made. At last, c’est fini le coupe du cheveaux. I like these guys.
We don’t expect food on the TGV train to London so we opt for a full lunch. CK orders lamb tagine and I go for beefsteak. Somehow, the food is only average at best. We are still measuring our dining experiences against the meal we had at the culinary school in Bordeaux. Nothing has come close, yet.
Onward by cab to the train station where we are two hours early. CK wants plenty of time to deal with unforeseen circumstances. The only one we notice is an American couple traveling with a two year old girl and a ton of child-wrangling gear. The little girl has discovered her shrieking voice and uses it to provoke frustrated panic in her mother for more than half an hour. We quickly devise a plan of action if these three appear in our car. We can’t share the details but it involves piracy.
Not to worry, though, our car is nearly empty. We get a nice table and plenty of leg room. Shrieking American is far away. The steward brings us tea and cookies. This is going to be a very pleasant trip at 158.5 mph.
The train stops at Lille, France, for a 45 minute shakedown of both passengers and train to sort out mad bombers and anarchists. They don’t find any, so we’re off again.
Arrival at St Pancras Station is thankfully uneventful. We step out of the station into a London Saturday night. On the short luggage drag to the Tavistock Hotel we are reminded that we will be hearing sirens and voices all night. London is like that, yes it is.
Tomorrow is… I don’t know… A Day In London. I fully plan to get some Indian food or a nice dish of pasta.
SUNDAY IN LONDON
May 12, 2019
The TGV from Avignon dumped us out into London late last night. We stumbled in to the Tavistock Hotel about 10:30 p.m. after a bit of a luggage-drag from St. Pancras Station. I actually prefer to avoid the London Tube if I can, so bouncing along the sidewalk is just fine with me if it’s only a few blocks. CK made it happen with her clever bookings. We wake up in London on a sunny Sunday. We only have this one day to pull ourselves together and enjoy a bit of London’s enormity.
An early start gets us to the Hotel’s breakfast spread the moment they lift the flag. We notice that the Maitre d’ greeting us at the dining room entrance is the same fellow who was there last year and the year before. I wonder if he recognizes us. I’m reminded of the waiters at Sardinia Restaurant in Leipzig. I swear those guys know our names. Breakfast is a functional exercise here. Get your protein, roughage, and caffeine and then go. The chafing dish eggs are fresh but rubbery and the sausage is beyond tasteless. It is an egregious insult to the pig who made the commitment. An effort toward improvement could be made by drowning them in HP sauce, I suppose, but I don’t bother.
CK declares that today is laundry day, so we stuff a rolling valise with all our smelly rags and off she goes to the coin-op. She says I’m free to go. O…. K….
I’m off! I don’t bother to grab a Metro card from CK because I plan to be on foot the whole time. Of course, I head toward the bar district, the throbbing cultural heart of the city. In a few minutes I’m in a part of town I don’t recall visiting over the past few years. There’s a lot of bars with some seedier establishments mixed in. It looks rougher than Covent Garden. Somehow, my favorite gelato shop appears (Amorino), the one I discovered in Strasbourg. I dart inside noticing that I’m the only customer. I ask the nice Brazilian lady behind the counter where I am. “Soho district”. Aha. I get my chocolate chip mint gelato and a better sense of place in London.
London is like being everywhere at once. I’m hearing every language on Earth and faces from all parts of the globe just in the space of half a mile or so. There’s just nothing like it, anywhere. I discover that Soho stands right next to Chinatown, which is just a spit away from Leicester Square and Piccadilly. I forget which streets I’m on but one of them has several fancy men’s clothing shops, another street seems to be bling central with jewelry stores butting right up against each other, Cartier putting out the biggest splash.
I must be turning in circles because I’m back at the bar district where a door catches my eye. It’s a tiny red door near one of the Chinatown gates. It says Waxy O’Connor’s. It appears to be a pub. I peek through the glass only to see stairs descending into darkness. That’s it. I’m going in. Down, down, down, well below street level.
It’s like Dorothy stepping out of the farmhouse into Oz. This pub is enormous, set up in a church motif, all done in hardwoods from floor to ceiling. It stretches clear through the building out to the opposite street. It has about 8 separate rooms beyond the main salon, 4 different bars, two with fireplaces, comfy chairs and tables throughout. And there isn’t a pull-tab or blinking gambling machine in the place. No thump-thump music, either. People can actually have a pint and talk to each other. Brilliant.
From here I figure I should walk down to Buckingham Palace just for the exercise. I’ve been there before but so what? It’s a beautiful day and the walking is pleasant. My navigation takes me through Green Park where I discover The Diana Fountain, a thing I hadn’t noticed before which informed me that I hadn’t visited this spot until now. By this time CK is waking up from her rest and is buzzing my phone with text messages. We arrange to meet back at Waxy’s Little Sister, a smaller street level version of the original pub. She’s taking the tube to get there faster. I’m finishing a pint of Guiness and chatting up the Greek bartender when CK arrives.
We stroll up to Covent Garden to see what the buskers are up to. We sit for a drink at Davy’s where the most talented musicians seem to gather to put on a show. This time we have a very worthy operatic tenor singing all the greatest hits of the 18th century followed by a string sextet who sound like refugees from the Philharmonic. These guys are no stiffs. They can play the lights out of anything. The service and drinks are expensive but the scene is worth it.
Time for a meal and I’m ready for something that has more character in it than bread, butter, cheese, and olive oil, the four main food groups of France. And so, what catches our eye almost immediately? The Balthazar Restaurant. A quick look at the menu reveals it to be 100% French. Thanks but no. We decide to hunt an Italian joint. 15 or so pop out of the Google search. There are probably 3 times that, actually. The one we would have patronized, because we know about it, is Giovanni’s but they are closed on Sunday. Instead we go to The Ballerina, so named because of a bronze statue of same across the street in a tiny square. It isn’t the Giovanni’s experience but the food is quite good with actual flavor! The bill is reasonable. But, somehow, it just isn’t the kind of place we’ll make a habit of.
It’s about 3/4 mile back to the hotel and we enjoy the walk. A lazy morning tomorrow because our train isn’t until 11.
Next, the Peak District. Stay tuned.
May 13, 2019
Today is a travel day but we aren’t leaving London straight away. Our train is at 11:30 a.m. We can have a lazy breakfast and take our time.
Breakfast at the Tavistock is a carbon copy of yesterday: a cornucopia of flavor-free items designed to sustain the human body with no hint of culinary interest. I reckon it’s like that every day of the year. The kitchen crew must be able to put this stuff out in their sleep. I should have made a photo of the stack of fried eggs piled in the chafing dish. They were stiff and flubbery like stale, dry pancakes. I wonder how they can even manage to do that. I eat as little as possible, filling any remaining gap with croissant and coffee. Not complaining, mind you. It’s just that I recall owning a sense of taste and I’m not yet willing to abandon the last memory of it to The Bland Side.
Breakfast dealt with, we hustle out to do a bit of shopping for things we’ve run out of, then hoof over to the British Museum for a few minutes gazing at the antiquities. It takes longer to get there than we think and when we arrive we spend 10 minutes in the security queue. That leaves us with about 15 minutes to spend inside before we have to scoot back to the hotel, grab our bags, and do the luggage-drag back to St. Pancras Station for the East Midlands Train to Derby. I grab a few pix in the museum, including an odd construction floating overhead that looks like a paper maché version of the Four Horsemen.
Couldn’t get a good shot, though. “War” reminds me of Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove, riding the nuke like a bronco, waving his hat.
At the station we are flummoxed by the schedule boards. We see our train but it never shows us the platform. At 15 minutes to departure we still don’t see the platform on the screen. CK decides to walk up to a uniform and interrogate him. He explains that the train is just over there, waiting at the platform. They let us through and on we go. I might still be standing there wondering why the train left without me. Well done, CK.
Our car turns out to be crowded and a bit humid. 1.5 hours isn’t much of a ride but I was ready for it to be over. At Derby we meet Barbara who will be walking with us the rest of the week. I should explain that this is the last excursion of our European trip, several days of walking the hills and dales of The Peak District in Derbyshire using the services of HF Holidays in Thorpe. It’s a kind of hotel that caters to walkers. We’ll be using this spot as a home base and ranging out from here. This is different than our usual walking tours which have been point A to point B affairs with a new sleep every night. This version of UK walking will have us staying in the same room the whole time. It’s an all-inclusive deal, too, meaning that they provide the meals.
A 30 minute taxi ride gets us from the Derby Station to the hotel and that’s that. No more moving days for a while. Barbara and CK can’t wait to get started so they grab their hiking sticks and skip down to the Dove Dale stepping stones while I snooze in the room. They dodge the sheep-poo most of the time and get back for tea.
I’m not worth much today. I simply lurk about and wait for someone to appear at the bar, someone authorized to draw me a pint. It eventually happens.
Dinner is a buffet, all highly organized, for over 55 people. There is a creamy vegetable soup that I like very well. Nice veg for salad. The chafing dish entree’s are chicken, beef, and pheasant. In my opinion, all overcooked and dry. I shall be choosing whatever seafood is being offered from this point forward not counting a few test bites from CK’s plate if she consents. We’ll experience the breakfast in the morning.
The ladies have plotted their walking goals for Tuesday. I’ll be there.
May 14, 2019
Sleep number one at this inn calling itself Peveril of the Peak is in the books. Our room is spacious enough for us to move around without stumbling over each other. The age of the building betrays itself in the round brass doorknobs and floorboards that groan under the carpet. Our bathroom is large and tiled. The sink faucets don’t work very well and it puzzles me why not. These things aren’t complicated to get right. The oddest feature of the bathroom is the heated towel rack. We’ve seen these before and when they work, they are very useful. But this one works too well. It is too hot to touch. This can be easily avoided but it has the additional effect of dumping heat out into the bedroom. We can’t control it so our work-around is to leave the exhaust fan on, which requires the light to be on, and keep the bathroom door closed. Hey, it’s an old building.
The name of this place (Peveril of the Peak) irritates me a little. What the heck is a Peveril and what does it have to do with the Peak and which peak is that? It turns out that “Peveril of the Peak” is a novel by Sir Walter Scott much of which is set in Derbyshire. These folks adopted the literary reference for their hotel. I now feel invited to read the novel but somehow I doubt that I will. Even though I’ve acquired some familiarity with Scott’s style from reading ‘Ivanhoe’, I’m not sure I’m ready to read about the intrigue of Julian Peveril and his father concerning the Popish Plot of 1685.
Breakfast is pretty nice here especially if one happens to be into extra large meals first thing in the morning. Pretty much every kind of breakfast dish imaginable is set out and ready to devour. If the cold items aren’t enough, a full English breakfast can be summoned from the kitchen, no chafing dishes are involved. My only criticism here is a mild one. Our croissants in France were superb. Here they are quite edible but measurably inferior to the French version. The coffee could be improved but I won’t complain about it. French coffee may have spoiled me on this issue as well.
With bellies stuffed we must get out the walking sticks and make use of our legs to avoid a food coma. CK and Barbara have a map in hand declaring that the village of Ilam (pronounced eye-lam) is the goal. It’s only about 3 miles away, making a short 6 mile loop. We walk toward a sharply shaped hill called Thorpe Cloud, drop into a swale beyond it and find ourselves on the shores of the River Dove. I find it odd to hear of a hill called a cloud. The answer lies in old words that come from the Dark Age Saxons and Danes. ‘Thorpe’ was a word meaning ‘settlement’ or ‘village’. ‘Clod’ was a term for a hill. ‘Clod’ morphed into ‘Cloud’, and there we have it. English, it’s a pig’s breakfast of odd bits.
Down at the River Dove we cross the famous stepping stones and waltz down into the National Park to the village of Ilam. Here there is a National Trust site, once a manor house and estate commanded by some hemi-semi-demi member of the ruling class. Now it is available to the public for picnics, strolling, and civilized frolics. A river runs through it. On a lovely spring day with the bright sun, cool air, new lambs, and blooming flowers it is bursting with charm. CK spots the church. We must go inside. It is written.
Our walk back to the hotel is equally pleasant even though there’s something of a hill climb in it. There are plenty of hills around here and we’re bound to tackle some of them.
Suppertime is upon us before we know it. We selected from the menu the night before so it isn’t a surprise. I’m getting local crayfish and local trout. It turns out to be excellent. Best meal I’ve had in many days. However, we’re finding out that our hosts like to give 15 minute speeches between each course given by one fellow with a very dense Czech accent and the other with an equally dense Midlands accent. I’m not sure I’m grokking all of it, to be honest. Mostly they are talking about the local sources of our meal together with bits of lore about the Peak District. All this chatter causes me to drink more wine than I had planned.
The ladies have studied our route for tomorrow. I’ll be there.
May 15, 2019
When the hotel fire alarm goes off at 12:45 a.m. I think immediately that someone forgot to switch off the deep fryer in the kitchen. I’m only able to consider that possibility after about a minute of anger management after having been jerked out of a peaceful sleep. It doesn’t take much more sensory data gathering to understand that we don’t really have to march out to the parking lot in our slippers and shorts as given in the emergency instructions. The reaction of the guests is exactly that of everyone anywhere who hears a car alarm going off. Nobody thinks there’s a burglar. Everyone presumes its another annoying malfunction. And that is the case tonight. Only one couple stumbles out into the parking lot. The other 54 do not sense fire and wait until one of the staff can figure out how to turn off the klaxon. Thanks! All quiet again and we can go back to sleep? We hear 5 minutes of rumbling, footsteps, doors closing, random thumping, and toilet flushing throughout the building as folks re-group for sleep again, then quiet. Not! 45 minutes later, the alarm goes off again. This time nobody stirs out of their beds. False alarm #2 gets switched off a bit faster that false alarm #1. Eventually we get back to our sleep, this time filled with dreams of fire drills.
Morning comes and the probability of an enormous breakfast awaits downstairs with something close to near certainty. Egg, muffin, and some oatmeal will do and that seems too much. We’re only going for a walk, not wrestling an iron plow through flinty ground behind an ancient mule all day.
Our walking goal is the village of Tissington. We don’t really know what it has to offer, we’re just going to walk there and back. Nice day for it, too. Another stunner like yesterday. Can’t ask for better.
It doesn’t take long to get to the village. There is a large sign as we enter proclaiming dates for something called “Well Dressing”. We have no idea what that is although I make some silent guesses. There is a church, St. Mary’s of Tissington. Of course CK must inspect it. It’s of 12th century origin as many of the older churches are around here. The Normans were quick to establish their style and culture around England and building churches was one of their methods. This one has been cleaned up considerably. The wall deco is freshly painted, the ceiling timbers are neat and tidy, the 17th century funerary sculptures are scrubbed, the smoke cleaned off the walls, and it doesn’t smell like 900 year old corpses. They are under the grass, all around the building.
After munching our brown bag lunch at the tea shop, we’re off for a wander around the village to see what we can see. Curiously, we are discovering that there is no pub here. Instead, they have two tea parlors and a sweet shop. I discover the sweet shop about two blocks from our lunch spot. ‘Edward and Vintage’ is the name on the door. If you’re ever in Tissington, I recommend you visit this shop. It is tiny but full to the buttons with almost every kind of Whizzing Fizzbie imaginable. And there’s local ice cream on offer. Excellent stuff, some of the best ever. I chat up the proprietor a bit, asking him what life is like here in the summer. “Busloads of tourists”, he offers. “But next week will be Hell on Earth,” he adds with a grin, “It’s Well Dressing Week.” “What’s that?”, says I, “Does everyone dress up in their best tweed and bowtie and walk about taking selfies?” Then he launches into an explanation. Every spring local garden clubs and volunteer groups make tableau scenes on specially prepared clay coated boards using flower petals. These tableaus are mounted over each of the public wells in the village to be admired. The conventional wisdom is that Well Dressing represents veneration of a water source that comes from pagan customs, an offering of thanks to the Cosmic Who-Dat! for a reliable water supply. In these parts much of the underlying terrain is limestone. Limestone is pourous and rainwater drops straight through it. Therefore, any spring, pond, or lake is kind of a thing to celebrate since they don’t occur that often. The festivities begin May 30 through June 5 and the Sweet Shop Owner says the crowds are amazingly thick. We feel lucky to be avoiding it.
There isn’t much left to inspect in the village except for old English charm, a butcher shop, and a couple more of the public wells. Off we go, navigating back to Thorpe. We stop for a pint at the Old Dog, near our hotel. Nice pub, good beer, bad music on the stereo and they put speakers in every corner. Can’t get away from it. But this is frequently the case in pubs. For a recent exception I’m thinking of Waxy O’Connor’s in London which was churchly quiet by comparison.
Back to the hotel, dinner at 7:15. We’re having a pasta and mushroom dish after a starter of delicious tomato soup. The pasta is dressed all in oil. I know some folks think that is fine but it’s actually my least favorite way to enjoy pasta. Drat. I’m ordering the steak and ale pie tomorrow. Sans oil I hope.