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Ok - so this is not a very exciting day. So I will introduce our cast of characters.
Deedy - from Kilgore Texas - home of the Kilgore Rangerettes drill team. Deedy teaches in the HS - French - and is the Drill Team sponsor. She was the person mainly responsible for our trip, she made the arrangements.
Barbara - from Duncanville, Texas. She is an accountant and is a life long friend of Deedy’s. They lived across the street from each other as children. They were married within months of each other and divorced within a year of each other. Their daughters room together at Texas Tech. They are both in their early 50’s.
Me - World traveler and non-French speaking person.
Assorted kids and sponsors. We joined other groups. A large group of kids and sponsors from Iowa, another large group from Russellville Arkansas, a small group from Tampa Bay and a small group from Colorado. And a group from Oklahoma! Not just anyplace in Oklahoma, but from Stillwater - home of the Oklahoma State Cowboys - my college (one of the anyway). All in all - 51 people plus tour guide and bus driver. (I will introduce them later).
I needed a ride to the airport but DFW is much hated here and all my friends were ‘busy’. So I had to take a cab. It cost $60+ to get from Dallas to the airport, so I took the cab downtown and caught the train, which took me to a shuttle bus that took me to the terminal. I had two bags, one a carry one, so I was loaded and wanted nothing more then to check the big bag. We flew on United, which makes no sense at all. American files many hundreds of flights out of DFW and United only a few. The tour company had us routed through Chicago and then from there straight to Paris. Both United and American (and several other airlines) fly from DFW to Paris, so naturally we had to go through Chicago.
OK - here it is a lovely day in June (aw - what is as rare as a day in June?), with not a cloud anywhere, and the Chicago airport is socked in with fog - flight delayed. This is bad. At the last minute United fed us over to American to get us to Chicago. Since we had connections for a transatlantic flight. They did give us priority treatment. We made it to Chicago in plenty of time, which is good since we had to change terminals. And off to Paris on a 7 ˝ hour flight. We flew overnight, losing 7 hours since we were flying east.
I hate long flights - I have a First Class body with a Coach budget. I have to stand up a lot. We did get a nice, new triple 7 (Boeing 777), and I did get a bulkhead seat (yeah), so it wasn’t bad, until the movies started. We had a choice of The Wedding Planner (bad, bad movie - avoid it), Chocolat (incomprehensible movie - avoid it), or Erin Brockovich (good movie - seen it). I watched a cricket match on the BBC. England only needed 176 runs on their last over to beat someone (Pakistan I think) and they did so easily.
We landed at DeGalle Airport at 8:30 in the morning. I was able to sleep a bit, so I was ready for day 2.
2 - Paris
The best way to beat jet lag (west to east anyway, since you lose hours) is to avoid taking a nap and stay up until the next night and then sleep in the next morning. We tried this, but we had a busy day. We met our tour guide, Laurent, at the airport. He is an energetic, competent Frenchman, about 35, short and balding but very fit and athletic. He would lead us on a merry chase for the next two weeks.
We arrived on the same plane as the Arkansas group and we had a bus waiting for us to take us to our hotel. We got checked in - a wonder in itself since we were still early in the morning - and set out (on foot) to see Paris. This was actually a free day, but Laurent was glad to take us wherever we wanted to go - by subway!
The Paris subway is called many things - some of them are even printable - but it is actually a very good subway. It is popular and crowded. The rides all cost the same - about $0.75 - and you can ride as much as you want until you come up out of the subway. One ride - one price. We took the subway (the Metro - or just the ‘tube’) to Sacre Coeur. This is the highest point in Paris and offers a good view of the city and there is a church to view. We climbed steps. And More Steps. Down to the tube, up to the surface, up to Sacre Coeur, back down. And so on. This was the worst day for climbing and the calves of my legs were sore, but it wasn’t bad.
We ate (a lot about food, that was one of the highlights), at a sidewalk stand. This was one of the few days we ate on the run and we had our first brush with the famous French rudeness when a waiter would not let us sit at a table in front of his cafe. We ate crepes - they are everywhere and very good - and I, of course, dribbled part of mine down the front of my shirt. Unfortunately I was eating a chocolate crepe at the time. Good start, Gene. :-)
Next we were off - by tube - to the Musee d’Orsay. We were traveling with the Arkansas bunch and we all went to the museum in the afternoon. This is on the Seine across from the Louvre. The main interest here (for me) was the large collection of Impressionists - Degas, Manet, Monet, Renoir and others. The largest collection of Seurat is here and lots of Van Gogh. This museum houses the famous ‘Whistler’s Mother’ painting and it is much larger then you would suspect. It was a great tour.
Most of the group had dinner and retired early, but not your intrepid travelers three. Deedy and Barbara (D&B) and I went to the Moulin Rouge that night to dinner and the show. We had great seats - right next to the stage. The girls would walk along the edge and hit me in the head with their skirts, boas, feathers or whatever they happened to be wearing - which wasn’t much. :-) Great show - good dinner and we had a lot of fun. I will put my pictures up on a web site as soon as they are developed and show you some of my adventures. Unfortunately the Moulin Rouge would not allow any of us to take pictures inside. Darn!
We were sleepy , and it was difficult to stay awake during some of the variety portions of the show. While the dancers were changing costumes (many, many girl dancers and a few guys) their would be a balancing act, or a ventriloquist, or something like that. I nearly nodded off a few times (although I had no trouble staying awake while the girls were dancing - they were topless a lot of the time) and Barbara almost plopped face down in the ice bucket at one point, but we made it. The show was over about 11 and we took a taxi back to the hotel. Off to a great start!
The next morning we slept late and D&B (Deedy and Barbara - remember?) and I went out on our own. We first went to the Invalides. It has a long history - which I will not go into - but it is one of the landmarks of Paris. It currently is a museum and it houses Napoleon’s tomb. That was what we were mainly interested in, and we visited that. Just a half a block away is the wonderful Rodin museum and it houses a very large collection of his works.
It was here at the Rodin museum that I realized that I was traveling with a mad woman. Deedy had already started her ‘mad buying spree’, but it was evident that she was going to carry shopping to it’s extreme. She not only bought a statue, it was a large (at least judged by the “you have to haul that thing home” criteria) version of Rodin’s Eternal Spring. You can check it out at <http://www.rodin-art.com/>. And it is only day 3!
Anyway - the museum was a treasure and worth the trip. In the afternoon we went to the Louvre.
The Louvre is huge, and it is given over to older stuff than is found in Musee d’Orsy. The paintings and sculptures are the Renaissance period or earlier. We saw Mona (the Mona Lisa, by Di Vinci) and Winged Victory and Venus de Milo and much more. In fact, it was sensory overload. Too much to see in too little time. I think 3 or 4 days minimum would be necessary for the Louvre.
We ate dinner as a group somewhere in Paris and then went on a boat ride on the Seine. This was memorable for a number of reasons. One was - it was actually cold on the water. And we were treated to a flasher on one of the bridges we went under. A guy dropped his pants for us - in fact, he seemed to be completely naked. Some of the girls on our tour missed seeing him, but I noticed they had their cameras ready when we went back on the return. We went past Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower and even the Statue of Liberty.
After that we toured Paris by night on the bus. It doesn’t get dark in Paris until about half past 10 this time of year, so we were out late. We drove by the Eiffel Tower again and took pictures and went to the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs Elysees.
A most interesting day.
In the morning I was off with D&B to the Opera House - De L’Opera. This is one of the most ornate buildings you will ever see, with gold trim on the outside. Actually several buildings in Paris, including the Invalides, are trimmed in actual gold. I found out that this was added in 1989, so it is a new thing for the buildings. And Notre Dame had been cleaned up a lot since I saw it last. They are working on restoration constantly.
Anyway, the Opera House. Huge stage - great place to stage Aida - you could have an elephant on that stage. As I said - a very ornate building. Deedy spent most of her time in the gift shop.
That afternoon we made a trip to Versailles and Louis XIV’s palace (and others). I had been here before, so I was not too enthused, but we also walked down through the gardens - something you get to do with a group of school kids that you don’t get to do with the blue hair tours - and went through the Petit Trianon, which was Madame de Pompadour’s house during the reign of Louis XV and Marie-Antoinette’s house during Louis XVI’s time. Further down is the Hamlet, which was Marie-Antoinette’s play village when she was Queen. Seems as if she wanted to see what it was like to live among the ‘common’ people so Louis built her this cute little village on the grounds of the palace.
That took most of the afternoon, so back to Paris for dinner. We ate at a restaurant on the left bank, just off BD St.-Germain. After dinner D&B and I walked down to St-Germain Des Pres and sat at a sidewalk cafe on the corner. Deedy said it was a famous place where Hemmingway used to come to visit and drink. Seems to me Hemmingway did that a lot of places. I forget the name of the place, but the translation is “The Two Maggots”. My kind of place for sure. By this time Deedy and I were drinking Kir most of the time. It is about one part Blackcurrant liquor to 3 parts white wine. Barbara stuck to the white wine. We had our picture made by a nice Frenchman for us - not all of the French are as rude as the waiters - but alas, that camera did not make it back to the USA. It was lost somewhere. Drinking wine, BTW, in France is almost a given. It is no more expensive then soft drinks or coffee.
We took the tube back to the hotel - our last night in Paris (sob). I love Paris.
We left Paris and headed west - toward the ocean. We had a great bus - a Mercedes no less - and a great driver, Daniel. He was very laid back and relaxed, and a very good driver. Friendly and easy to talk to, the kids enjoyed him too. He never seemed to get upset. He got along well with Laurent, our guide. Their pictures can be seen in the group pictures. I think you can pick them out.
We went to Normandy. Specifically the beaches of the D-Day landing. The British beaches, Orange, Juno, and Sword - the beaches where the British landed - are still pretty much they way they were then. Fortifications can be seen on both land and water. This is not a harbor that is in use today, so the beach is as it was. The Omaha beach is changed and cleaned up. On the flat area above the beach is the Normandy cemetery. In the US area there are over 10,000 graves. It makes you stop and think. Only about 100 are unknown, most of the men were identified.
We next went to the little town of Bayeux. We ate lunch there - D&B and I had crepes - and then we saw a the famous Bayeux tapestry. This is a very old and very large tapestry. It depicts the events leading up to, and the battle of Hastings in 1066, where William the Conqueror defeated King Harold. The tapestry is over 70 meters long. It is interesting to note what history does for the victor of such a battle - William was known as William the Bastard before Hastings.
The rest of the day was spent in traveling on the bus to the walled city of St. Malo. This is on the Atlantic ocean and is an interesting little city. It was one of our most interesting stops. We stayed here two nights.
OK - I left our group in the small town of St. Malo. This is a coastal town with an older walled area that was the old city. Very pretty little town, but as Kimmy pointed out, a tourist town. Not that this is bad. It is just different then most towns. As in most of Europe, when you are in a French town or city you are usually within walking distance of everything you need. Grocery markets, drug stores, restaurants, and other stores and shops of necessity (you know - like bars - which are not dives but more respectable places where people meet and talk and not just drink). St. Malo didn't have the usual array of shops close to the beach, which would indicate that they cater to the tourist. But a nice town nonetheless.
We stayed in the area and returned to St. Malo again this night. The first stop of the day was Mont St. Michel. This is the famous fortress that is off the coast of France in the Atlantic Ocean. By day, when the tide is out it is a peninsula. By night when the tide is in, it is an island. There is a town there, a fortress and an abbey. The visit requires a lot of stair climbing (again) and gives a great view of the coastline and the sea. I wandered off with Kimmy (the sponsor of the Florida group) who was into a lot of picture taking, so we climbed even more stairs in search of the perfect shot. I took some shots of the ocean but they didn't turn out very well. We stayed there for the morning and then went up the coast a bit to the little town of Cancale. Not much to the town except a long shoreline and lots of restaurants. We had a two hour stop here and we needed every minute, as a group of us had a seafood meal. Fresh seafood is the specially of the town, with an emphasis on shelled creatures. I had a go at mussels and I received this huge bowl of the little creatures. Not bad.
After lunch we went back to St. Malo and let the kids (and adults) loose on the beach. It was a little cool here (more about the weather later) and not too many braved the water. This area is like Mont St. Michel, when the tide is out there is a very wide beach area, when the tide is in, the water is well up the sea wall.
After dinner Laurent (our guide) took all the adults in the group (14 of us as well as the bus driver) to a bar and bought us all a drink. I tried some kind of vodka drink but then switched back to Kir. After it got dark (about 10:30) Laurent took the kids to a disco in town. I went for a few minutes, but the smoke got to me fast, so I went back to the hotel.
I might say a word about the weather, the food and smoking here. It rained on us the first day in Paris. Not a hard rain, but I carried my umbrella most of the day and even to the Moulin Rouge. I even had to check it with the hat and coat check girl, they don't let you take anything into the show. After that the weather was clear, no more rain on the trip. Paris was very nice after that, cloudy the second day and then sunny. It was cool at night, especially the night we went sailing on the Seine. When we left Paris and started south, it got warmer every day. By the time we reached Nice it was 85F (30C). The nights were usually cool. Great weather!
The food - in a word -- very, very good. Not as wonderful as the French would lead you to believe but better than most tours and it very well prepared (in most places). Everything was very fresh. Preparation varied and the service was usually very slow - a French trademark. But it was fun and I enjoyed the food. But then I always enjoy the food. As someone said (toward the last of the tour) "Gene never met a food he didn't like." True. :-)
Smoking - all Frenchmen (and most Frenchwomen) smoke. It must be a law or something. And they smoke everywhere. There is no such thing as a 'no smoking' area. Argh! I will never get used to it. Our guide smoked and we got onto him about it. A couple of the adults smoked, but they would go outside away from the kids (and me). This is one of the things I liked least about France.
Most of day 7 was on the road - we started with a 5 hour bus trip. The bus was OK, but European buses put more seats in them than we do. There were places for 57 passengers counting 5 on the back row, and we had 51 plus our guide, so we were pretty packed. The adults stayed mostly in the front and the kids in back. They slept on most of the rides. The adults did too, but not as much. The bus was equipped with a VCR and a speaker system and a jump seat in front for the guide. Laurent didn't like the jump seat so he took the first seat in front, making it even more crowded. B&D would take a seat together, so I had to find a seat mate and I usually sat with Sue, one of the sponsors with the Arkansas group. It worked out well, we had some lively discussions. Luckily she is as liberal as I, her husband is a college philosophy professor. She was not only sponsoring, she had her two daughters with her. I did a lot of reading on the bus too. There was some scenery to see, but mostly it was countryside. The thing about a lot of France in the interior is - it doesn't look all that different from parts of the US. Or Germany. Or England. Or a lot of other countries. So I read. I finished a good book about Stonehenge.
We moved into the interior of France with a couple of rest stops. Now with 50+ people, every stop is an adventure. It takes a good amount of time just to hit the restrooms. Sometimes the RR were much like ours, sometimes not. We had all kinds. In a lot of places in France there is one door for the RR and when you enter you are in the area that contains lavatories for hand washing and drying and there are stalls for toilet use. They are private, but both male and female will share the outer area. In smaller restaurants there is usually only two stalls. It takes some getting used to. Most of the rest stops also sold snacks. That took even longer. I mostly avoided snacks, I was afraid that I would gain weight as it was since I was not working out as usual and eating way more than I do at home. My fears were justified, but I didn't do too bad - only about 4 pounds (2kg). But so far, in spite of my best efforts, it remains. I will have to get serious about losing some weight before school starts. :-)
Anyway we finally made it to Amboise for lunch and a tour of some sights there. (Note - see pictures of our lunch stop). D&B and I (and Sue and her daughter Sarah) found a delightful little out of the way spot and had a great lunch of crepes and Kir. The owner would not even accept a tip. Tipping in Europe is much less than here, you are not expected to tip at all, but you may leave a few coins if you think the service is very good. We usually tipped. Of course the tip is figured into the price of the meal - as is the tax. Tax in the European Union countries is called VAT - value added tax - and as tourists we are not expected to pay it. However, it is not deducted from the price of things but a tourist has to go through a paperwork nightmare to get their money back. Usually you don't bother for small items and costs, only the larger items. The VAT in France was about 20%.
The town of Amboise boasts three tourist attractions and we hit them all. One is the statue of Leonardo da Vinci in a park by the river. It is notable because he is presented completely nude. The kids all wanted their picture with Leonardo. His house is there too. Da Vinci lived in Amboise during the last three years of his life, 1516-19. He was hired by the King (Francois I) to paint and sculpt in Amboise. His house, called Chateau du Clos Luce, is large and has a view of the chateau (palace) and the river. The highlight of the tour of his house was the creation of models of some of da Vinci's sketches. These were put together by engineers at IBM and showed several remarkable ideas that da Vinci was working on.
Earlier we had toured the Chateau Royal D'Amboise. This chateau has a long history, dating back to the 15th century. It was the first of several chateau's we visited and was probably the least interesting, but it was the oldest.
We had an interesting little drama in Amboise. We had lunch and then toured the chateau. When we arrived the bus was parked downtown, but during the time we were touring the chateau, Daniel moved the bus. The reason for the move was the fact that we went from the chateau to Leonardo's house by foot. Daniel parked the bus in a place by Leonardo's house. Of course, no one realized this, so everyone supposed the bus was still downtown. Several of our group skipped the trip to Leonardo's house to go back downtown for various reasons. Missy (sponsor of the Arkansas group) and her granddaughter went back to town to take care of some money matters at the local bank, and D&B went back to town to shop (of course). They had found a great little shop with some copies of famous paintings, framed and everything, at very reasonable prices. This part of France is very much like other Mediterranean countries. Shops and stores often close from noon until about 2:30 for lunch. Very civilized. :-) Anyway - you can imagine their surprise when they went back to the bus - and no bus. By the time we found them they had come up with a plan. Between them they had (a) Laurent's cell phone number (2) The address of our hotel for the evening and (III) enough money for a taxi. But we found them and everything was OK
We stayed overnight in some hotel somewhere - Tours I think. It was unremarkable. I don't even remember which one it was or where we ate dinner that night.
Kimmie sent me an email and reminded me - how could I forget Tours? Also a big apology to the Oklahoma group - I left them out from day 1. It really shows you - your memory is the first thing to go! Anyway - sorry Jackie and the rest of you guys - I have corrected this on day one. And - I did get your group picture in. :-) I don't have a picture of the entire group - if someone has one that is scanned, I would appreciate an email.
So - We arrived in Tours - a good size city and a good sized downtown. We had a hotel just off the main area near the train station and it was unique. The rooms were not numbered, instead they had names. One floor, for example, had rooms named do, ra, mi, fa, so, la, and ti. My floor was named after dances and I was in the reggae room. The rooms were nothing special, but most of them were not.
We did not eat in the hotel, but a restaurant near the train station. It was
pretty good as I remember. (Kimmie help me - were did we eat the next night?)
After dinner some of us wandered off downtown. We followed one street for a
while and almost ran into some kind of political rally or something. So we switched
streets and I got us lost. Barbara and Kimmie and some of the kids and I were
trying to find an area off the downtown that had a lot of restaurants and sidewalk
cafes. I should have known - the streets were like a lot of streets in Dallas
- on one side of the street we were on the cross streets had one name, and on
the other side of the street a different name. We finally did find the square
and it was nice. A nice open area with the square just packed with tables and
chairs under covers of various kinds. Each area was serviced by a different
restaurant. We wandered around a bit and some of the kids had ice cream and
we went back to the hotel. The weather was nice that night and there were a
lot of people out in that square - and it was a week night. - Thursday I think.
I can only imagine what it would be like on a weekend.
A busy day.
Tours is on the Loire River in central France. This area contains bunches of chateaus - all of them open for tour groups. We couldn't hit them all, so on day 8 we went to three. We had visited Amboise on day 7, so we started day 8 with the Chateau Royal de Chambord
This chateau is large and interesting and boasts the largest grounds and park. It was started in 1519, another old one, and it's main feature is a large staircase in the very center of the chateau which is a double-turn spiral. The staircase has two spirals around a hollow core and it is possible to see people on one spiral if you are on the other and you will never meet them. It has been suggested, but there is no proof, that di Vinci designed this staircase. Schools should adopt this design. Several notable kings lived here at one time or another including Francois I and Louis XIV.
For lunch we had a picnic on the grounds. This was a popular activity, other tour groups did the same thing. Laurent and Daniel collected a few Francs from each of us and purchased food at the local market. We had a great picnic - more than enough. One of the highlights of the area for me is the cider. This region is known for it's cider and we had a goodly amount on hand at the picnic. Have I mentioned the wine? France is noted for wine and - this is something all sponsors that bring school kids to France must face - there is not 'drinking' age. High school age kids have no problem getting alcohol in the hotels and restaurants (to say nothing of the mini-bars in their rooms). To their credit the kids on this tour were very responsible. Those that drank stuck to wine or beer and I think the cider was a popular drink. I stuck to either red wine or Kir. :-), or at the picnic - cider.
Our next stop was the Chateau at Chenonceau, called le Chateau des Dames. This was an interesting and different Chateau that extends out over water, a river called the Cher. It also was built in the 16th century and housed several kings including Henry II, but it's most famous inhabitant was Catherine de Medici, who became Regent of France when her hubby, the aforementioned Henry II, died. In effect she ruled France from Chenonceau. The chateau not only extends out over the water of the Cher, it crosses all the way to the opposite bank. During World War II this became a way that the France could flee the Nazis. When Germany conquered France they set up a puppet government in south France. As luck would have it, the boundary between the zones included the Cher. People could enter the chateau at the main entrance, located in Nazi held France, and exit on the other side of the Cher, on the south France side.
Another drama unfolded this day. My traveling companions D&B, were separated. Barbara, a non-teacher, did not go with us this day, but stayed in Tours for a day of R&R. I toured the chateaus with Deedy. At Chenonceau the souvenir shop was located in the guard tower just off the main entrance. Deedy never met a souvenir shop she didn't like, so she hit the shop on the way out. It was crowded and we were the last ones out of the chateau anyway, so I waited outside as she gathered her usual loot. We were about 1/2 way back to the bus (a good distance from the chateau along a tree covered walk-way) when she realized that she had left her camera bag with her video camera in the shop. She ran back to the shop to retrieve it and then ran back to the bus. She made it - only a few minutes late and she did retrieve her camera bag, so all turned out OK, except Deedy rubbed blisters on her feet and had an increasingly tough time the rest of the trip.
Aren't vacations fun. :-)
But then we made a stop that was one of the highlights of the tour - a winery. We toured the area were the wine was stored to age. This particular winery produced red, white and sparkling wine. The sparkling wine is champagne, but can't be called that in the European Union unless it comes from the Champagne region of France. The winery not only had two good looking male cousins that worked there (at least the females in our group said they were good looking - I couldn't see it myself), but we had a wine tasting at the end of the tour. Fun, fun. I didn't much care for the sparkling wine, but I don't like champagne. The whites were a bit dry for me. The blush wines didn't do much for me either, but I liked the reds. I bought two bottle of red wine. I would have bought more, but we were just at half way through the trip and I realized that I would have to pack and tote that wine around the rest of the trip. They traveled most of the way in my backpack, padded with dirty clothes. You will note that outside of food and drink, this is my first purchase. I told everyone before I left - No phone calls, no souvenirs, and no post cards. The wine is for me.
We made a quick stop back at the hotel for a quick potty break and then we were off to dinner in Azay le Rideau. This is another quaint little town in the Loire valley that has a famous chateau. We had dinner there at a small restaurant in town. I don't remember what we had - probably chicken - but the evening was highlighted by our waitress. She must have been German and Laurent and Kimmie had a great time joking with her. This was a pretty good meal as I remember it and it was a nice stop. Later we walked down to the chateau, not to enter and tour the chateau itself, but to see it's famous light show. This was a unique exhibit. The show was without words, but it highlighted the chateau from the outside and proved to be different and effective.
Since it was well past 10:30 before it was dark enough to even start the outside light show, we were home late that night, our last night in Tours.
We were up late on day 8 ( aw gee - a poem. Next I will do some sonnets - or maybe some Haiku) so we slept in a bit and started a little later the next morning. We had a long day of travel to Vichy. This was a day without much sight seeing.
But it was not a day without drama. What would a trip like this be without drama? This time it was supplied by Laurent - our intrepid guide - and a surly hotel desk clerk. The hotel personnel at this hotel had not been particularly friendly or helpful, but the gal that was working the front desk in the morning set new lows for surly behavior. She must have had a bad night or a bad experience before we left. Anyway - she and Laurent got into a shouting match as we were leaving. Most of the group was on the bus and didn't hear all of it, and it was in French and I couldn't understand any of it, but it was fierce. Laurent finally left the hotel shouting epitaphs over his shoulder. I was standing on the sidewalk by Kimmie and she was laughing like crazy. I said "that sounds like a lively discussion" and Kimmie translated for me. Seems Laurent had called the clerk a rather nasty slang name for a female. (roughly translated - 'f---ing c---'). Kimmie has worked as a pastry chef and has worked with some very interesting French chefs and she said that they taught her all the 'slang' French that is not in the textbooks. Later someone said - and this is not substantiated - that the clerk had called Laurent "a runt shorter than a worm". Now Laurent is not very tall, but he ain't that short. :-)
Less you think this was a situation fraught with danger let me say that the French are a very emotional people. Apparently less than friendly exchanges like this take place more often there than here. You could get shot saying things like that to people here. Of course France and all the other European Union countries have much stricter handgun laws than we do. In fact, for the most part, everyone felt very safe in France. Maybe in Paris there were some times when it seemed less than perfectly safe, but we were never in any danger that I noticed. Even the first night when we went to the Moulin Rouge I did not sense any dangerous times, and the Moulin Rouge is supposed to be in one of the 'less desirable' parts of town. A couple of the girls reported some 'friendly' behavior by men in the subway, but the subways were very crowded.
We went on our way - a long day on the bus. We had reached a part of our journey that called for longer bus rides between stops. The kids and most of the adults slept. I read most of the time.
I think we had lunch at a rest stop. Some very good restaurants are at the highway rest stops. This is true throughout Europe. We were on the Motorway (like our Interstate highways) so the scenery was not very interesting - when you've seen one multi-lane, limited access divided highway, you've seen them all.
We stayed the night in Vichy. This is a very nice town in the south central part of France. Unfortunately it was the headquarters for the puppet French government that was set up by the Nazis in W.W.II so it has a bad reputation. The town itself is picturesque and nice. We took a walking tour of the city and stopped at a place were there is natural spring water (not unlike Evian). In fact, it is bottled and available in this country. We also stopped at a church and peeked inside. After the tour B&D went shopping and I tagged along. I didn't buy anything.
We stayed but one night in Vichy. Our dinner was in the hotel. I remember it
as being pretty good. It was a pretty nice hotel. All our hotels were supposed
to be 3 star. Some of them pushed that a bit. This one was nice and even had
a swimming pool. Some or ourkids took advantage of that.
We left Vichy early the next morning and headed toward Nimes. This day we started into the mountains and we started our climb upward toward the French Alps. This was also a pretty long day of travel, but we had several stops for actually sight seeing.
The first such stop was at Le Puy-En-Velay. This town is in the Auvergne of France and it's main features are volcanic "hills" that pop up out the town. These hills are the main tourist attractions and each has a structure on top. One is extremely steep and has a 10th century chapel on top. It is atop a 265 foot (80 m) tall peak.. We didn't go there. We went up to one that contained a statue called Notre Dame. This statue was actually cast in the metal of the cannons captured in the battle of Sebastopol in 1860. It was about 70 feet tall (22,70 m). The climb was not steep but it was lengthy and the route took up through a church, Church Saint-Laurent, which is the biggest church built in the gothic style in the valley. Your intrepid three, D&B and moi, didn't make it to the statue, but we did get to the church. Deedy had to exchange some traveler's checks for francs and it took too long, we got behind the main group and never caught up. Added to our difficulties we had to run a gauntlet of souvenir shops. The speciality of the area is lace and many shops actually had someone out front "lacing" (or whatever you would call it) by hand. Interesting and not very expensive. I didn't buy any. :-) I did get some good pictures at the top. And had Deedy take a picture of me. I didn't add it to the pictures collection so I am attaching it here. It was a little dark, but I am working on it.
We had lunch in Le Puy and by this time we were getting smarter. We stopped at one place and it was obvious that we would not have time to finish before it was time to go so we left and found another place. Deedy asked the waitress what would be fast, so we all had the special of the day. And it went much quicker.
Off again through the mountains to the Pont du Gard. This is a large standing (one of the largest) Roman aqueduct. Built in the 1st century, it is part of a system that delivered water to Nimes from a spring in Uzes about 50 km (31 mi) away. It was powered by gravity and was in use until the 9th century. For more information I found a web site:
I did get some good pictures. Kimmie and a couple of her kids and I hiked up to the top of the hill and got some good shots. Kimmie went all the way down to the river and took some more shots, but this was not one of my more active days, and I didn't make it that far. I caught up with D&B in the souvenir shop (where else?).
That was about it for the day. We arrived in Nimes for a one night stay. I don't remember much about this hotel. I do know we had dinner in the hotel. I must have been tired.
Another travel day, but not a long one and it was certainly an interesting one.
We started our day in Nimes (pronounced nim). It is the origin of a very famous type of cloth that was produced there - call de Nimes or denim for short (a little bit of trivia there folks). We toured a bit of the city before we left for Nice.There is a good web site for seeing the sites of Nimes at:
We went first to another example of Roman Architecture. There was a strong Roman influence in this area. The first stop was the Roman temple Maison Carree. This seemed to be right downtown. It was not a temple we could enter, but it was interesting and well preserved. Within walking distance was a Roman Arena not unlike the Coliseum in Rome, except smaller. And this one was still in use. While we were there they were setting up for a rock concert that night. An interesting thing about the Roman arenas of this type: they were built in such a way that they could empty very quickly. The entrances into the arena were situated so that those folks going to the "cheap seats" in the upper areas would not (indeed could not) go into the areas where the upper classes would sit. The rows of seats are more sloped and not as "straight up" as todays stadiums, also. After taking a few pictures and wandering the town a bit we stopped at a sidewalk cafe across from the arena and had coffee with Daniel, our bus driver. I was once again tagging along with Kimmie and her group. I usually tried to attach myself to someone that spoke French, and Kimmie was very good at the language.
The weather at this point was warm. We were in a part of France that doesn't get as much rain and certainly more sun. We left Nimes and headed toward Nice and the cooling sea breezes of the Rivera.
We had lunch somewhere in Provence, I don't know where exactly, but Missy (sponsor from Arkansas) had stayed in the area before. The ride to Nice was much more exciting then most of our travels, it was through mountains. And we were NOT on a motorway, but on narrow two lane roads. Often there was a nasty drop to one side or the other - but usually there was a rock wall. This road had to be nerve racking for our bus driver, but he handled it well. Not many people tried to sleep this day - the road twisted and turned too much and the scenery was spectacular. Kimmie had the ideal location, the jump seat beside the driver. Some of the more squeamish didn't look out (or down) but most of us enjoyed the change from the motorway. We stopped at one point and took pictures of a mountain lake. It had suddenly appeared before us as we rounded a mountain. Everyone went "oooh" and "augh" at the sight.
The mountains continued until we were practically into Nice. The French Rivera in this area is along a very rocky shoreline and the mountains run almost down to the sea. In some places they do - Monaco for one. We arrived fairly early in the day to Nice. This was on a Saturday and since most everything is closed on Sunday we wanted to hit the shopping area before the shops closed. I didn't or course, but this was one of the last good shopping areas for those that wanted souvenirs to take back home. As luck would have it I was sitting in the jump seat when we first arrived in Nice. And if that wasn't serendipitous enough, we came in on the road that went right by the beaches -- the TOPLESS beaches. I loved Nice immediately.
Our guide, Laurent, was a source of much levity here. He joked about the beaches (which he pronounced "bitches") and so he was always mentioning the "topless bitch" and telling us that we would all have to go topless (not true, of course). He was a wonderful guide for our trip, very patient with the kids and always willing to listen and help. He often would talk with Daniel and between them they would arrange the itinerary so we could see the most things and experience as much of France as possible. This did mean that we often were rushed and didn't get to "savor" every stop as much as we would have liked, but we got to see a lot in a very short period of time, including the "topless bitches", so it was a good trade off. We did a quick picture stop at a Russian Orthodox Church and then off to our hotel.
We stayed in Nice for two nights and our hotel here was a dump, the worst by far that we had. It did have a great location, just a block from the beach. I was on the 6th floor and my room was ok, but small. The elevator (lift) was small and inadequate for the number of people staying there, and before we left, we broke it completely and one of the girls got trapped inside. Luckily it was right at the opening for a floor, so the maintenance man had only to pry the doors open. This happened on the morning when we left, so it could have been worse.
Nice itself is a tourist town, and it has a lot of shops and souvenir places. We shopped in the afternoon and everyone spent lots of money on T-shirts and stuff like that. Except me, I didn't buy anything. We had dinner in a restaurant that not only welcomed "their American friends" but the menu was printed in both French and English. A first! And they were not as slow as most places. After dinner most of us walked down to a "flower market" and outdoor restaurant area a few blocks from the hotel. More souvenir stands (Yipee). D&B and I wandered off to another area called the Old Town that was interesting. We got back in the area away from the beach and the tourist and found the places where more of the locals would hang out.
And then back to the hotel for slumber - another interesting day.
We started the day with a trip to Monaco. This is a small little country - or principality - that is really part of France. I think the reason that it has stayed more or less independent is - France didn't want it. It is all rock. No beaches, and a small harbor, fit for yachts but not for shipping. It was a poor little nothing until they discovered casino gambling (always wondered where the Native Americans got the idea). Now they have no tax - none - whatsoever. As you can imagine, people want to live here, but they have very few "Monacans" (??). [Monacones??]. And they are overly proud of their little space, it cost the bus about $60 to park!
Anyway we are in Monaco. They have no crime there. For a good reason - it
is always 1984 there (Big Brother is Watching YOU). Security cameras everywhere
and cops every few feet. The job of choice is being a cop, I think. Anyway,
we all felt safe. We just walked around a bit and took pictures. We saw the
palace and the church where Princess Grace is buried. I can see why it would
be easy to drive off the roads around there - very steep and narrow.
We even saw the changing of the guard. It is not going to rival Buckingham Palace, but it was a picture opportunity. Monaco is very clean and very pretty.
Our next stop was the perfume factory at Eze. This is the Fragonard Perfume Factory.
It was an interesting tour and, of course, they gave us an opportunity to buy some perfume. I made my second purchase - some real perfume. At least the bottles were not as big and as troublesome to carry as the wine.
We had lunch in a picturesque little village called Eze. It was on a hilltop, with narrow streets and old buildings. I didn't have my camera so there are no pictures here. So here is a web site.
This was a Sunday - Father's Day as it were. The kids all wanted to call home, but had to wait late in the day - we were 6 to 8 hours earlier then the US. But not too much was open. So - we spent the afternoon at the beach - The TOPLESS beach in Cannes. The beach area at Nice is ok, but very rocky. So some of us went to Cannes to the beaches there. The day was hot and the wind was strong, so everyone was sandblasted by the time we returned. I actually didn't spend much time on the beach - topless or not. Deedy and Missy and I found a beach side cafe and had some Kir and food.
We went back to Nice for the evening and had the worst meal of our entire tour. Some meals were better then others, but this one was bad from the start. We were supposed to be there at 7:15, but we got there and they said they couldn't handle us until 7:45. It was after 8 before we were seated, and we were crowded in a small area. And then we waited and waited. The food was ok - not great but adequate - but another tour group came in right after we did and they just had too much to handle. Our waitress was a cute Irish girl, and she was as frustrated as we were. At one point she got bumped and dumped water on my back. I didn't mind too much, it was hot in there too. The entire meal took over two hours, so there was not time to do much of anything else. Some of the kids bailed out early and went across the part to McDonalds. I wasn't that desperate.
Several of the groups were leaving to go home the next morning - so we did go into the park across from the hotel and we took some group pictures. The Iowa, Colorado, and Oklahoma groups all left us early the next day, so we said a lot of good-byes that night. One of the great joys of traveling is getting to know people and traveling with them. We had a great group. Not everything went perfect, but I think we all had a great time.
I woke up early the next morning - a combination of the bad meal the night before and the fact that I had used up all my Tums I brought with me. So I decided to get up and walk along the beach. This turned out to be a good move on my part because I got to say goodbye to the groups that were leaving. They were up early and the bus was shuttling them to the airport in Nice. They had a flight back to Paris and then to Chicago and home. They looked a little tired and some of them told me they had stayed up all night and planned to sleep on the plane going home. I wished them all "good luck" and they were on their way. I then went off to walk the beach. It was nice alone the beach but like a lot of beach and tourist towns, there were those that sleep on the beach. Homeless or passing through I don't know. The park across from the hotel also had extra guests sleeping on the benches. The clean up crews were also out picking up trash on the beach. And runners and walkers and one group of three women doing Tai Chi or something. I walked back by a restaurant that advertised a "full English breakfast". After nothing but the typical continental breakfast for the entire tour, I was ready for the egg and bacon of the English, but alas, it was closed and didn't open early enough to do me any good. I guess the French don't go by the breakfast spot on the way to work. Even McDonald's was closed. So another day of hard rolls and jam. Oh well.
We left Nice on the way to Chamonix and Mont Blanc. This was another long journey, but a good deal of it was Motorway, so even though we were in mountains we could sleep and read. So I did. Read that is - and maybe sleep some too. Our day was mostly uneventful. We were now down to only about 25 travelers, so everyone had a full seat to themselves on the bus and we took full advantage of it and stretched out. Even our guide got a space to sleep. I don't remember that anyone was very talkative much, we had a quiet ride.
Our stop for lunch was in a nice little town and since our group was so much smaller, a group of us found a nice restaurant. Prices were not too high and the food was good and we finished quicker then usual. Deedy needed bandages for here feet (blisters), but the pharmacy was closed for lunch and never did open before we left. Our group did fine, but some of the others ran into another one of the rude French waitress types. Kimmie had a bad meal experience and her waitress called her a "stupid American". And Kimmie speaks French as well as some of the natives. But most of us had an OK lunch.
And on to Chamonix. The area we were approaching was is the French Alps and Mont Blanc is the highest point the Alps, and thus the highest point in Western Europe. Chamonix is the town at the foot of the mountain - actually in a valley between mountains. The drive to Chamonix is beautiful and we passed through Grenoble, site of the famous 1968 Winter Olympics when Frenchman Jean-Claude Killy swept the Alpine events - winning all three downhill skiing events. America's only gold medal was won by Peggy Fleming. We passed within a few miles of Albertville, scene of the 1992 Winter Olympics. For the record, Bonnie Blair won two gold medals for the US that year in speed skating. Anyway - you get the idea, this is winter sport country. And there we were visiting in the summer. But it was nice, and cool and very, very scenic.
Chamonix is a ski resort sort of town and we stayed in a very nice hotel there. Dinner was in the hotel and this time we went to the top floor of the hotel to eat, and we had a wonderful view. We got great service, the best in a long while and we had a very enjoyable meal. After dinner a group of us which included B&D, Kimmie, Laurent, Daniel and I went into town in search of a bar. We found a nice one and enjoyed an evening of comradery and Kir (and other spirits). The night air was very crisp and cool. After coming home and hitting the heat - I want to go back and stay in Chamonix for the rest of the summer.
And our stay in France is almost over. :-(
Our last day in France - and went to the top of the world - well, the top of France anyway. Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in the Alps. Now we didn't climb the mountain, although Laurent said it was actually an easy climb. As compared to climbing Everest maybe but it looked pretty tough to me. Mont Blanc is 4807m. or somewhere around 15,600 ft. Tall enough. Over 3 miles above sea level. No we didn't climb, not even a little bit. We took a cable car.
Several of our little band (now down to 21) were somewhat apprehensive about the cable car, Deedy included. I told them that there was no worry, none of the cables had broken this year at all (aren't I helpful). But they saw the size of the cable car (it held - on I don't know - 70 people or so. We all had to stand). And they decided that they could take it if they stood in the middle of the car and didn't look down. It didn't matter too much, we were among the last ones on the car and we had to stand in the middle. I am tall enough that I could see, but some of the shorter ones couldn't see anything but other people. Luckily there was a group of Japanese tourists on our car (more about them later) and they all seem to be very short.
So off we go. Not too bad, a nice slow ascent - I think it took 10 minutes. Only thing - it was only the first leg of our trip, there was a mid-way station and another cable car to take up closer to the top. We were already in snow - very old snow - at the mid-point and it was getting cold. None of us had any real heavy clothes. I had on layers, but none of them were very thick and I had nothing for my head or hands. So we go to the top - another large, stand up car.
We didn't actually go to the top of Mont Blanc, but a near by peak called Point Melbronner. Or maybe it was part of the mountain itself, I don't know. We went up 3466m (11,300 ft). It was a nice sunny day at the top with a great view of the valley below and the nearby peaks (see picture section). I didn't get any pictures of them, but there were actually people climbing up the mountain. And skiing! Laurent said it was possible to ski all the way down the mountain at this point and, in fact, he had done it twice. It is not for the beginner of the faint at heart, I am sure. We actually saw some skiers as we were going down later in the cable car and there was point on the ski trip down were the skiers had to take off their skis and get out ropes and climb down. Argh. Three or four skiers were together, three of them were in the act of climbing over the rough spot and one was below and skiing again. Laurent said the entire trip down would take 5 to 8 hours . Double Argh.
There were building at our high point and we stayed inside them as much as possible (cold, cold). Deedy was not too keen about climbing around on steps even and Laurent had to trick her into climbing up the highest viewpoint by telling her there was a restaurant there. There wasn't - only viewpoints in all directions. I was just about out of film at this point so I took only a few pictures. Good ones though.
We spent most of the day in Chamonix and on Mont Blanc. I didn't take it, but there was an option to take a smaller cable car across the glacier near the top of the mountain. It's main purpose was for skiers, but those that went said the view was spectacular. Deedy did eventually find the restaurant at the top and we had coffee. And there was a souvenir shop there too (of course). We finally took the cable car down. On the first leg of the trip we saw some skiers going down the mountain and the little Japanese tourists almost tilted the car sideways trying to see. -- A short word about Japanese tourists. They are the rudest people on the face of the earth (not just my opinion, ask anyone that has traveled abroad). They are mostly older and travel in packs ...err groups, and since they can't see anything in a group, they have to push and shove to get to the front. I know the Japanese are supposed to be polite and bow and all of this stuff, but mostly they just push and shove when they travel. Since most of them don't speak English they don't respond to verbal insults, even when spoken harshly - they just look at you like you are crazy and keep pushing. They are so small you feel badly about pushing back, so they mostly get away with it. Maybe that is the idea.
Anyway, the car did tilt and we made it down the mountain and spent some time and had lunch in Chamonix. Since this was our last real lunch in France, we found a very nice restaurant there and had a big lunch. As in most places we picked an outdoor table and I was sitting on the sunny side and I almost got too much sun. Those long lunches will get you.
In the afternoon we went to Geneva, Switzerland. This is not a long trip and we got there in plenty of time to shop. Oh good. :-) Geneva is a very clean city and the largest in Switzerland. The people there speak French but most also speak English, a welcome change. I didn't bother to exchange for any Swiss money since we were there only a short time. We stayed in a hotel close to the airport and had dinner there that night. B&D and I had the earliest flight out since we were headed for Frankfort to catch a non-stop flight to Dallas. The other groups were flying back to Paris and to Chicago. We all said our good byes that night and it was kind of sad to be leaving. We were all tired and in some ways ready to go home, but we also realized that our holiday was over. I, for one, wanted to stay. It was a great trip.
And so we left France - actually Switzerland - and journey home.
We flew Lufthansa out of Geneva to Frankfurt and then caught a flight - Lufthansa again - straight to Dallas. It was a long boring flight from Frankfurt to Dallas - 11 hours - and that is about all you can say about it.
But there are things to say otherwise. I had not acquired much extra stuff, but Deedy did. To help her get her stuff home I turned one of suitcases over to her for books. I started with two bags - one large case I checked and a carry on. I stuck a backpack into my suitcase to have for extra stuff - I had planned to check two bags on the way back and just carry the backpack. But I was able to put a lot of dirty clothes in my backpack - along with my wine (hehehe) and empty the carry on for Deedy. She filled it with stuff and I checked it through. We had to get up early and it was a long day. We had a short layover in Frankfurt, but it wasn't bad. We got on the flight to Dallas about 10:00 European time. For an 11 hour flight. Argh.
We were saved by a couple of things - (1) on transatlantic flights the drinks are complimentary and (2) in-flight movies. Since this is a day of travel headed west, we follow the sun and it is always daylight. Luckily the flight attendants were quick with the wine. Deedy stuck to diet coke, I did red wine and Barbara did white wine. We were toward the back of the plane - a Boeing 767-200 or 300 I think. The middle section, where we were, tapered from 4 seats across to 3 across. Barbara, being the smallest of the three, got the middle. Now this turned out to be a pretty good seat, because she was served from either side - whichever group of flight attendants reached us first. And when they were serving drinks Barbara would get a glass of wine from both sides. Now that is the way to work things.
Movies. We had to watch a monitor - but it was just a couple of rows in front of us, so it was easy to see. The first movie - no choice here - was ---- (drum roll) ---- The Wedding Planner. Argh (see day 1). I watched it. Folks - this movie sucks. Avoid it - it is bad. Next up - Miss Congeniality -- yeah. Now I have seen this movie, but I love Sandy Bullock. I am convinced that if I could somehow get to meet her that she would immediately be struck dumb by my good lucks and charm and we would spend a fairy tale existence together for the rest of our days. Alas - although she lives in Austin, I have yet to meet her. But I am still hoping. I watched this movie.
Next up - Chocolat (see day 1 again). I tried to watch this movie but I kept nodding off. It is incomprehensible. I know - I know - women get it (some women). But I don't think men do (I didn't get the Piano either). Since this was Lufthansa, I amused myself by switching back and forth from German to English. I think it made more since in German. Recommendation - if you want to see Lena Olin and Juliette Binoche in a great movie, rent The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And you get Daniel Day-Lewis too.
Anyway - all things must end, and so we landed at DFW - 95 degree heat (35 c) - and home.
It was a great trip - a great vacation - great companions and a great experience. I loved it (can you tell?). I want to go back!
Kimmie - Deedy - Missy - Susan - anyone - Let's Go Back!!