Thu Oct 16th, 2008 at 05:29:59 PM EST
Continued from Pt. 1
Time to say goodbye to Venice. I love being romantic as much as the next guy, but getting around this town can be a real pain in the ass. It is a maze. Rick Steve's is flat wrong, you can get lost in Venice. We did so on many occasions, but we weren't stressed to get any place except during our arrival. For our departure, I was determined not to repeat the same mistake. I got up early and had our hotel clerk draw us a map. I went over the route, twice and when we left our hotel to the water bus it was very simple. I speak for Jeanine, though, when we say Venice was our favorite city in Italy. Get here and get lost.
We arrived at the Marco Polo airport in the early afternoon and joined about 10,000 new friends crammed into an airport the size of a high school auditorium. We sat where we could and eventually flew to Lyon for the next phase of our journey, France. A little apprehension set in, a new country, a different language, a new culture. The airport was eye opening. The mens' toilets had no doors so Jeanine had the wonderful vision of me taking a leak. I knew the French were going to be different. We went to Europcar to pick up our vehicle and I really wished at this point I had studied French more than I did Italian. The clerk spoke no English and with people all around we had a difficult time communicating. It started to get a little testy but eventually we got our car and went to driving into Lyon.
At last I have found sensible drivers. The French are aggressive drivers, but follow the rules of the road (are you Italians listening??). Stop means stop. We arrive at the hotel, the Residence in downtown. After our room we walked the streets till we came to a local place (a brasserie) called Le Piccadilly. Wow real French cooking. Jeanine had shrimp cooked in anise and I had a veal dish. We walked in the evening cool breezes all around.
Our intentions today were to go into the country, but we are both exhausted from the constant moving from place to place. We take a walk around town. Lyon has a lovely downtown area that features many streets that have been turned into pedestrian centers. We walk and window shop. I want to get some talcum powder for my feet. We walked into a pharmacist shop and with my limited language skills and even using the guide book our clerk wasn't very helpful. I felt very frustrated and we left the store. We look at the wonderful bridges that cross the Rhone River and admire the architecture. We chose another pharmacist and had a delightful experience because she chose to be helpful and tried to understand what I wanted. There was a vegetarian street fair going on. We tried what best could be described as a tomato brownie. Pretty good.
We decided to go back to the hotel and take a nap. I spent only a few moments in the bed when I remembered I wanted to go to a laundromat. After a couple of weeks some of my stuff and a little of Jeanine's need a good scrubbing. There was a place nearby so I headed there with my book in hand and some euros.
The French idea of coin operated laundry makes some sense in that they avoid the coin box at each individual machine and go with an electronic box that actuates each individual machine from a central area. Met a pianist who plays in an orchestra. They were rehearsing 'West Side Story'.
I returned and we headed out to walk the neighborhood more. The area where we stayed the buildings from the 1800's and early 1900's. There are apartments above and clothing stores, wine shops, jewelers, antique dealers and small grocers and butchers.
About 8 we head for supper. A good rule of thumb, go where the locals go. Jeanine had steak and fries, while I indulged in mussels Provencal. They served them in a covered pot. You remove the lid and discard the shells into the lid. They gave me about 50. Great flavor and all protein. I was under the mistaken belief (thank you Tarantino) that ketchup was not to be found in France. So Jeanine was pretty bored with her meal. When she was nearly complete, the table next to us was served their meal with a bottle of Heinz ketchup. Egg on my face, again, we left the restaurant and walked back to the hotel. In the future, we will ask for ketchup.
Around noon, we left Lyon today and decided to make up for not touring yesterday. Heading east the countryside is beautiful. Little villages dot the landscape as you go up and down hills. The land is a mix of corn, newly plowed fields, and vineyards. The white cow, Charloiex, are everywhere. It isn't long before we are in the town of Berry. Our original plan was to head north to Dijon, but we forgo that to head into the Alps, or at least towards them. The freedom that driving brings is so satisfying when you just want to go and be confined only to time itself. By 4 pm, we are crossing the Swiss border. There is a police officer at the gate and she motions me to pull over to the right. I know she wants my driver's license and I apologize because I keep it in my money belt, which according to Rick Steves we should wear beneath our clothes, tucked between our pants and underwear. In sign language I ask her to close her eyes as I unbuckle my pants and reach for my dl. I'm embarrassed and she is smiling and tells us in French that that was a good place to keep it. We chuckle and head to Geneva.
Geneva is at the foot of the Alps and we get some great views of the mountains.
We head on to Dijon with little incident from there. Our hotel in Dijon is the Campanile, right in the heart of downtown. Nice big rooms but noisy streets. The only confrontation for me on the street was a guy seemingly admiring our luggage as I removed it from the car. We looked at each other for a few moments and he moved on. We walked the streets that evening and called it a night.
DIJON AND STRASBOURG
Today we are sick. Jeanine has a pretty bad cold and we are both tired. Our plans were to view some of Dijon and explore the countryside, but it is raining a bit to boot and the weather is getting colder. This amount of travel is starting to wear us down I'm afraid. I keep reading the news from America and it doesn't look good. I will feel better about things when we return.
In the meantime, we moved through the town a little bit. Old city known for its agriculture, Dijon has retained some medieval charm, but we will have to enjoy it from our hotel bedroom as rest is pretty much in order for the day. We did have some incredible onion soup for lunch though.
We left Dijon with out incident, but on a sunny day. The weather turned sharply cooler and we are anxious to get to Strasbourg. The highway is inviting. We get to enjoy the countryside leaves turning without billboards dotting everything. The Garmin is a big help getting us in the properly situated on the road. We found a little restaurant in the town of Besancon and have lunch with the locals. A very crowded tavern, that offers a fried fish called shraud. Delicious. We converse with the owner and she tells us they never get Americans here, so new hearts conquered and we leave happy.
We drive a little further down the road and I'm getting sleepy. The driving on the highway is easy and there are comfort stations that are amazing. They offer pull off areas where you can shut your eyes, a snack area that has cafeterias and bakeries and a gift shops. Everything is modern and very clean. But you pay when you enter the highways. It cost nearly $20 euros to drive on the highway from Dijon to Strasbourg.
The region we are approaching is the Alsace region, where Jeanine's ancestors are from. The area is dotted with farms and forests. There are fields of cabbages everywhere and the corn is ready to be harvested. Castles can be seen from the road.
We arrive in Strasbourg about 6pm. This is a capital of the European Union and we are set up at the Hotel Cathedral. We are in the same plaza as the Cathedral Notre Dame. It was the largest building in Europe till the 18th century. It personifies Gothic design and is made of a rosy limestone.This is the cities featured attraction and every 15 minutes it lets you know its there. Reminds me of the line from the Blues Brother's movie, where Belushi asks how often the train comes by his brother, Dan Akryod's apartment and he responds, "so often, you won't even notice."
The language is a mix of French and German. The center of the town is nearly devoid of vehicles. People wander everywhere with the local commerce appears to be lingerie and pate'. We wander the streets after settling into our room. We have an Alsatian dinner. Pork and sauerkraut with spaetzle. We are not terribly impressed as they serve the pork cured, like ham. Not at all what we were expecting. But our dinner wasn't all boring as we overheard the torrid affairs of the table next door. One woman was having an affair that the other one didn't approve.
We are strolling the streets after supper around 10pm, when it seems all the bells in the area began ringing at once and it seemed to go on forever. We surmised that that is how they deal with no bells after 10. We head back to our room and did laundry and called it a night. We watch the Kevin Costner movie, "Mr.Brooks"...
We awaken today and head across the border into Germany. Yes, we are right there and pull into a lovely town called Offenburg. There is a fantastic park that borders the Rhine River. Today, Jeanine is placing her late husband, Dennis, ashes into the river. She ascends a foot bridge that crosses the Rhine and releases the ashes. It's about noon.
We return to Strausburg and locate the train station that we will board Thursday morning to get to Paris. We both find it comfortable to know our paths before we set out on anything important. Alsatian cooking is kind of a cross between fine French cuisine with Germanic portions. We have lunch at a bistro where Jeanine sampled the Flamencruchen, a kind of French pizza with onions, cheese and ham. Its about the size and depth of a large Imo's pizza. [Maryb will get that...] I selected a stew of meat and sauerkraut. It has three different kinds of sausage, including Blood sausage, as well as hams and a knuckle. I get the best beer I have ever had, called Fisher's (Alsatian). To all those that like beer, get some. A great lager.
We leave the restaurant and stroll to Petite France. This is the really old part of Strasbourg, dating back to the 14th century. There is very tiny canal with its own dock that raises and lowers tour boats. We cross on a teensy weensy bridge that is manned by two men who block the exits and turn the bridge to allow the tour boats to pass, and then return the bridge to the foot path for people to cross. The homes in this 10 block area are medieval in all aspects, even down to the sewer running down the middle of the street. There are merchants making things to sell to tourists and we buy a few and generally enjoy the sunny day. We tour the Cathedral of Notre Dame and are very impressed with the gothic architecture of this 13th Century building. There is a clock inside that features automated characters that come around every 15 minutes. We got to see a mechanical man drive a cart. We missed the 12:30 show which is supposed to be spectacular. Stained glass is everywhere.
We call it early and head back to our room about 5pm. We are still not feeling well and Jeanine's cold is knocking her around a bit. We doze in and out. About 10pm we are both hungry. I go out to find something I can bring back to our room. The Europeans may eat about 8, but most restaurants are closing about 10pm and with what's left open, I don't think pork knuckles and kraut to go are what the doctor ordered. Thank God for McDonalds that I saw earlier in the day. I return and as she says in her notes, "I have never been so happy as when Paul returned with my Alsatian Happy Meal", a chicken wrap with fries. We call it a night and fall asleep.
We started out for the train station and to bid farewell to Strasbourg. This is like most of the European towns we have visited...impossible to find your way around in, even with the Garmin system.
The next few moments are not very nice. As a matter of fact it has been the worst moment of our journey. We are dealing with Europcar and I have to turn the car in. In retrospect, our Friday, October 3rd, experience should have clued me into what to expect. I said our reception in Lyon was tense. It frankly was frosty. I mean, it was every bad experience I had come to dread about being in France. I mean, I felt when I was at the Europecar desk, I was taking up some very important spot at that desk and they were waiting for DeGaulle or someone to come into the door, but not us.
Returning the vehicle, which I had promptly filled with fuel, as is customary in America, the clerk checked the vehicle and said I can leave. I then said I would like a receipt for the vehicle. That brought all kinds of consternation as to me wanting a receipt. When she produced it, it showed that I was being charge $120 euros for fueling the car. I said it must be a mistake as I had already fueled the vehicle. She insisted it wasn't a mistake, which that was the agreement I had signed for and that was that. Now, nuclear war was pending between me and this clerk, but before I said the Magic word, I asked to speak to the manager. He, of course had overheard everything and said my problem was with Lyon office not his and I should leave. I looked on the agreement form and there it is; a fuel surcharge fee. Apparently, you are to turn the car in empty and there it will serviced by them, au revoir. I leave the office and fall into Jeanine's arms crying.
[For real? They charge you if you fill up the car? Sounds like one of those bad In Soviet Union jokes!]
Well, we had to catch a train and via email I got other people to handle the situation and was told it will be taken care of. We'll see.
I think now is the time to tell a Jeanine bathroom story. I have held off because she has had many European bathroom experiences that she wants to relate to you in her own travelogue, entitled 'The Bathrooms of Europe". But this pretty classic. The bathrooms in the Strasbourg train station are in the lower level. The whole building is massive with stairs akin to a museum. She descends to the area marked WC. It is a wall. An orange wall, in fact, that she is just staring at, not comprehending what to do next. She and a young girl were both staring at it when suddenly the entire wall slid to the right revealing nearly two dozen toilet stalls, beautifully in place, with white tile. As Jeanine begins to walk in, the young girl turns to her and says 'no'. Then from a two-way mirrored area two female guards are blowing whistles and screaming at her to stop. Jeanine is finally saying 'what do you want me to do?' One of the women is screaming, I mean screaming at her, 'You must pay'.
The fee for all this excitement is .50 euro. We recommend it for your fun and pleasure the next time your at the Strasbourg rail station. The mens' room consist of a bucket next to the janitors closet. I passed and decided to wait for the train.
[Europe has the best and worst toilets in the world. The first time I ever saw a self-flushing toilet was in Frankfurt. And Yaroslavl introduced me to the "holes-in-the-floor & no doors on stalls" public restroom. I was actually kicked out of that one for laughing to loudly.]
Paris is looming. I love traveling by trains in France. They move swiftly and without any jouncing around. The countryside is beautiful, with rolling hills and pastures. We go to the bar car and I have a drink while Jeanine has tea. We arrive at the EST train station about 1pm and unload our luggage. As I do so Jeanine is smiling at me. I think she's impressed with my ability to lug our suitcases into the upper shelves of our car. She tells me instead that I nearly took off a woman's head while I was slinging the bags up the shelves.
We get a cab and head to our hotel. What a town. Paris has got to be the most exciting place I think I have ever been. We know we won't see very much of this town, but it pulses with it's own beat. Very urban, very glamorous and cosmopolitan. Streets are crossing and intersecting from seven different directions. We drive past huge department stores, art galleries and fine restaurants. Getting to our hotel we decide to rest for a few hours. We are in an area bordered by Rue de Lafayette and Ave De Clichy. Our hotel has the tiniest elevator we have ever seen. It is so small we had to go up separately, and the doors closed with a clank, and it shuddered up the floors and Jeanine didn't know how to get out by her self and was starting to cry when she remembered the word for push was "pouser" that was on the door, and she did.
The staff is very helpful.
Around 7pm, we decide to leave and visit our neighborhood. It is very vibrant with families living above and shops, mostly food related, below.
We end up at a place with a familiar name, called Chez Leon. That is our favorite restaurant in St Louis. Going in though we discover it is a Morocan restaurant. We think what the hay and are shown to a seat. Music is right out of Raiders of the Lost Ark scene where Indy is meeting Buloch in the bistro, only there are no hukas to smoke. Only a wonderful smell of meat roasting and spices. Jeanine ordered a chicken casoulet that came to her in a large bowl with a lot of broth. This was served with a bowl of couscous which she spooned to thicken the broth to her liking. I had a heavily seasoned leg of lamb with couscous and vegetables that was cooked to perfection. We enjoyed a bottle of Chablis as well. We also met a gentleman seated next to us named Vincent, who worked in France, but lived in Switzerland. He hated France and proceeded to tell us why; the attitudes towards work, the taxes, the regulations, etc.
Before I could produce my Republican party card, he also said he didn't want to go to the US. We talked politics a great deal and he seemed puzzled by our enthusiasm for life in general. We don't think about that too much as I believe we just try to live it, but he saw something that he pointed out in us and it was flattering. We had some drinks and called it a night.
We had big plans this day, but Jeanine was not feeling up to par, so she slept in till 1pm. This room is so tiny, I had to leave it. I explored our neighborhood. There is a guy next door who rotisseries chickens. That's it. Next door to him is an antique dealer, then a book seller, then a beggar, then a sandwich shop (that served a very nice mushroom soup), then a hair salon, then a newspaper stand. I can see why Toscha loves Paris, it reminds her of home in Chicago.
[Aw, now. I'm flattered. But - Chicago, il n'est pas Paris...]
When Jeanine is ready we leave to find Paris. We take the local bus and head towards the Eiffel Tower. It is truly awe inspiring, with the European Union circle of stars affixed to the front. We view it between two museums and are very impressed. Many pictures later, we wander toward the base and decide to not ride to the top. Heights are not our favorite topic and besides, we'll be flying in a few days and can have a great view from our seats.
I'm pretty bushed as we walk down the broad expanse of grass and flowers and decide to settle on a bench where I can have an afternoon nap.
[What is up with the sleeping in public places routine? Well, I don't think there are actually public places in the town they live in. Certainly not one with benches. Certainly not in an area great for people watching. Still - you're paying for a bed, right?]
Let me let Jeanine tell you the next series of events. It is best reviewed with hearing Louie Armstrong playing "Let Me Tell You My Dream" in the background. From her notes:
"I sat on a park bench next to him (Paul). A young man sat down next to me and smiling he says, "Bon jour, mademoiselle....followed by several sentences that I don't understand. Recalling our incident last night in the restaurant with Vincent, I respond in kind, "Bon jour"...followed with "Parlez vouz Anglish". He tried to tell me in broken English, his name was Cedric and he was from Greece. He then asked if I was on tour, I told him no that I was on my honeymoon to Paris, and there was my husband asleep on the bench. He responded with "Oui" and began to put his arms around me and to kiss me, with mouth open. It really took me by surprise. I wasn't expecting any amorous overtures and I shouted "NO!". He then said, "But it is our custom". I shouted, "Well, it isn't mine!", and put my hands up in front of his face. He abruptly got up and went to a young woman across from me and tried the same thing with her. Since the young woman (and everyone else in the park) had witnessed our escapade, she told him in curt French, to get lost."
(I slept through the entire, torrid affair. But wait, we have an encore).
"I was a bit shaken and thought myself terribly naïve, but before I could give it much thought another man came and sat on the bench beside me. This was a much older gentleman. He smiled and said, with a very heavy French accent, "Bonjour Madame, May I be so bold as to buy you a drink". I curtly replied "no" and pointed to my sleeping husband who was still on the bench next to me. He said "I see" and left."
At this point she had had enough and awakened me to tell me about all her latest French cultural exchanges. She felt she was giving off a vibe that she wanted to mess around. The one thing I very much I love about my wife is her friendliness to people she has just met.
[Has any woman not ever been hit on by a stranger in Paris? I think that actually IS their custom!]
With all this excitement, we take the 32 bus and leave the area and headed towards the Champs Elysees. It is as spectacular as advertised. A go-go minute of people moving from store to store and restaurants. The McDonald's is a god send if you have to take a leak. We head towards the Arc de Triumph. It was erected by Napoleon and dominates this part of the city. There is a ceremony taking place this early evening and a military band is playing French martial music. We don't recall, but 100 years ago, this country and Britain and Germany, were the greatest military powers in the world. They re-live their past glory in these displays of the flag and remembrance of fallen comrades.
We walk out to the Arc, and photograph the ceremonies. An old soldier smiles at us as Jeanine snaps away.
We leave the Arc and head back to the Eiffel Tower. It is a comfortable twinkle of strobe lights that dance everywhere on the tower. Kind of like a stationary fireworks display.
We called it a night and catch the last No. 32 bus to our hotel.
Today is a spectacularly beautiful day in Paris.
We leave our hotel around noon and head in search of our tour bus. Earlier we had arranged for a open coach tour of the city to see the sights. We wandered past Rue de Hausmann with all the fine stores right along side of street vendors offering dress shirts for $5 euros. This is an amazing city and I am glad we have come. Unlike Rome, it is busy with a purpose. Rome is chaotic and friendly and happy on its face. Paris is the true cosmopolitan city, with confidence painted on everything yet hiding an illusionary machine that makes certain that things work. It's a serious town, and it knows it. People are not outwardly friendly, but they aren't hostile, They just know what it takes to live hear and they want to be here and are drawn to it like moths to a flame.
[OMG - will our Republican hero become a ... Francophile?!]
We catch the tour bus near the Opera house and arrive at the Louve. We came here for one reason. The museum is enormous with three wings. They were holding 12 exhibits in all. We found the Italian paintings exhibit and entered there. We passed "Winged Victory", a headless statue with wings. As we moved down a large hall, there were numerous pictures of the Madonna with Christ, including one by Bottacelli. We wandered through a few more rooms and then I caught a glimpse of about 100 people crowded in a room, with guards. There on a wall was her, DaVinci's "Mona Lisa". At center point you are about 50 feet from it. It is glassed encased and Jeanine had a devil of a time photographing it. She is smiling and I guess that is the beauty of the work; that you the viewer gets to interact with the painting and ask...
We leave this gorgeous place and take the next leg of our tour to Notre Dame Cathedral. While we were impressed with Strasbourg's size, but this is a much more beautiful building. The engravings outside, and the grounds all lend to a beautiful setting.
While all the reliefs and gargoyles are interesting, my favorite was the flying buttresses that support the walls. We left the mall and strolled the Seine. This is a really lovely sewer of a river with high walls that allow you access to the street above. Tour boats ply the river right along with commercial barges. We hopped aboard the tour bus and headed further on the route, pass the Orsay museum and onto the Place de Concorde.
We ate at a restaurant on St. Lazare where Jeanine had a steaming bowl of onion soup and I treated myself to a dozen Normandy oysters and a Belgian beer. We go to our room and call it a night.
This is our last day in Europe. We decide to do something special. We took the train at St. Lazare station and head North. We are going to the site of the American landings at Normandy. The walk to the station is cool temperature. We pass an old woman who took shelter in the night in a telephone booth.
The train leaves at 10:10 and we aren't gone 20 minutes when it stops at a little town out while the engineers sort out some problem with the engine. Meanwhile we have a little 11/2 year old monster in our car who I call 'Bous-bous'. The little guy delights in running up and down the aisles. That goes on while we wait for the train to get fixed and I'm thinking this isn't such a good idea going to Normandy and all. We hadn't seen all that much of Paris. We tried but couldn't locate a guide, the bus schedule changes on Sunday and all the tours are booked. Before I could be talking to Jeanine about turning back, the train started up again.
We arrive at Caen and 1pm, a full hour late. I begin to look for the bus ticket station, when a man comes from no where and says, "Where are you going?" in a German accent. I look at Jeanine and then at him and I say "We want to go to the D-Day sites". He begins to lay out his price for a private tour. Because of our limited time (we had to be back to catch the 4 pm train), we decide to go only to the American cemetery at Colleville and Omaha Beach. We agree to a $100 euro price.
It took nearly an hour to get there and this guy could have given Italians lessons on how to drive aggressively, His names was Hans and a little about him in a minute.
The drive to the beaches is a winding road that moves through little towns that remind me of the news reel movies of World War 2. There are walls about 10 feet high that border the road.
Our approach to the cemetery is quiet. We walk past the visitor's center and down towards the beach, about 75 yards. As you turn to the left the cemetery arises on the left. We walked towards it and the scene is as you might have seen in movies of the place. There are over 9,000 Americans buried there and from the bluff they have a great view of the English Chanel.
Omaha Beach is to the right of the cemetery. We return to the car and our driver takes us to the beach. It is hard for me to imagine what went on here. It is all so peaceful. There are families playing on the beach and tourists like us wandering and snapping photos. We came here to pay respects and we have done it. As much as my feelings have always been on the surface, there isn't much I have to say now except we are the luckiest people on earth to have had such men as these.
[This is usually the point during family gatherings in which I get up and refill my glass, smoke a cigarette, and if they're still going on about it when I return, I launch into a smug tirade about the Russians defeating the Nazis.]
Hans, our guide, is an interesting fellow. He tells us he was a member of the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, during WW2.
He was 16 when he joined in 1945. He joined the Luftwaffe because he flew gliders and knew that if he had some skills he might avoided being drafted to the infantry. He said he and his mates were in Copenhagen for training. He said they had a large variety of aircraft at that field, almost 300. It wasn't long into his training when the Allies bombed the field destroying most of the aircraft. With no aircraft to fly, he was assigned to the infantry, anyway. This meant the Russian front, so he deserted. He was caught and sent to Dachau, a concentration camp. That experience lasted only briefly when the SS showed up and gave deserters one last chance to enlist. He took the opportunity, but only to avoid prison. He was still going to escape. He deserted again and was picked up by the American Army, he didn't say where. While he waited in the prison camp, a fellow he knew there said the Allies had bombed the camp area where all the newly enlisted soldiers were and had killed many of them.
To save time, he drove us back to the Bayreux train station. We made connections in Caen and returned to Paris. We arrived back about 6 pm and went for supper. We found a bistro where Jeanine had beef dish served in an orange and wine sauce. I had duck confit with garlic potatoes. We returned to our room and packed for home.