|Travelogue: France, September-October 1998||
Arrived safely at Charles de Gaulle airport Thursday morning. I gotta say that flying business class internationally is great. The seats are super comfortable, the food is good, and they really stuff you too. It's going to be very hard going back to coach. I also must again sing the praises of United. I've heard that BOAC, Thai, KLM, etc are amazing, but without having sampled their fare, I must say I am pleased with United. Oh, one caveat to that; after hitting me up for an extra $50 for bringing a bicycle (which they told me about on the phone), they dinged me for an extra $115 in Boston because the bicycle was a 3rd piece of luggage (which I had been told would not happen.) I think that will warrant a phone call when I get home.
Customs in Paris was a breeze. In fact, it was non-existent. They didn't even stamp my passport. They didn't even open my passport. Just looked at the cover and waved me on through. No one glanced at my bags. I always worry that I'll be stuck in some room at an airport for hours explaining what all my vitamins are, and where I bought each article of clothing in my bags. Fortunately, it has never happened. I guess I don't look like any of the stereotypes they're looking for.
I managed to do the anti-jet lag thing ala my dad's prescription. I got 4+ hours of sleep on the plane, and then I stayed awake all day Thursday until 11:30pm. I got up at 9am Friday morning feeling weird, but not nearly as lousy as I usually feel after a major time shift (6 hours vs. Boston, 9 hours vs. Seattle.)
In spite of being awake Thursday, I can hardly remember what I actually did that day. Arrived, got settled in, and then had the concierge help me make arrangements for the train on Sunday. I wandered around, up to the opera house, and sat and drank an incredibly expensive espresso while watching people go by. I also killed a lot of time looking for glue and tape and whatnot to fix a piece of equipment that got cracked in my luggage. It really strained my French skills asking people to help me find a hardware store. God bless super glue. Had one other semi-comical screw-up. I needed to get some francs, so I went in search of an ATM. When I found one, lo and behold the keyboard only had numbers on it. My ATM password is letters, and I was so tired I couldn't remember what the number-to-letter translation was. Ultimately I had to go back to my room and look at the phone there to figure out what my ATM password would be in numbers. Duh. On a brighter note, when I finally got the ATM to accept my password, it gave me more money than my daily withdrawal limit is supposed to allow.
The Hotel Inter-Continental Paris is really nice. [Side note: there are two of them, this one is at 3 Rue Castillion.] American Express has a special deal on "Club Inter-Continental" rooms. "Club Inter-Continental" is a special floor with a private concierge, free continental breakfast, incredible hors d'oevres in the evenings, drinks, fruit, etc. All in all, a pretty sweet deal. The rooms are relatively small (given the price), but it is among the quietest hotel rooms I have ever stayed in. My room overlooks a busy street, but with the balcony door closed, I can't hear a thing. Oh, I can't fault the view of le Jardin des Tuileries either!
Lunch the first day was an ignorable pate on baguette and some tea at a café near the hotel named Brasserie Flottes. For dinner I asked the concierge to send me someplace cool, hip, where young people go to see and be seen. She sent me to a place called Barfly. Sure enough it was filled with mostly beautiful women and handsome men, mostly in their late 20's and early 30's. There was a very chic looking bar scene, and pretty good food. The restaurant was near the Champs Elyses, so after dinner I went for a walk over to L'Arc de Triomphe and up and down the street.
Friday morning I got up and had the free continental breakfast in the Clubroom. Two insipid American couples were chatting merrily across the room about handbags, Disney and American TV. It was a beautiful sunny day so I decided to walk around the city. Walked over le Jardin des Tuileries, around the Obelisque, part way up the Champs Elysees and over to the Petit Palais. The Grande Palais is closed, but I went into the Petit Palais, which is an interesting building holding an uninteresting set of artworks. Unfortunately, the area is all set up for the 100th anniversary of the automobile celebration which will be occurring soon. As a result, it's almost impossible to see most of the fronts of these two buildings because there are bleachers set up all along the street. Afterward, I wandered down the Seine, walked around the outside of the Louvre, and then headed towards Ile de la Cite. Crossed the Pont des Palais and meandered over to Notre Dame. I had done the whole Notre Dame tour when Dave and Ted and I were here in the early '80's. I wasn't up for a lengthy Notre Dame visit, but couldn't resist going inside. It is a wonderfully lofty building, and there is no doubt that God lives there, or somewhere like it. In my memory it was even loftier, and even more solemn, but nonetheless it was impressive and the stained glass rosettes are stunning. Continuing down the Seine on the Rive Gauche, I headed for the Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab institute) which Ted had recommended that I check out. It is a really striking modern building. It is all glass, and to control sunlight it is covered with mechanical circular irises like the iris on a camera. The set of irises covering the windows of the building create a wonderfully Arabic pattern. This is visually striking from the outside, but even more dramatic on the inside where the pattern is repeated in sunlight on the floors. I took a lot of photos in an attempt to capture the idea.
I've found one thing very odd about walking around in Paris. Even though I walk on the right, and am not a particularly big guy, and I don't feel like I take up and undue amount of sidewalk space, I find that people keep on walking right at me. Sometimes they will veer out of their way to walk at me. Usually it is men that do this, but occasionally women. For the first day or so, I kept on moving, swerving, turning sideways, etc. to avoid them. Around the middle of the second day, as an experiment, I began not moving out of the way. Sure enough, we bash shoulders. Ever since I have been mostly holding my own space, unless for some reason it is clear that the other person cannot move out of the way. I see the other person coming, and instead of moving I just brace for the impact and bam smash into them. The thing that really surprised me is that about 50% of them apologize. They fail to get out of my clear right of way, or specifically move into my way, we smash our shoulders into each other, and then they apologize. I had imagined that it was some kind of subconscious macho territory thing, so the apologies came as quite a surprise. Maybe someone will be able to explain this to me.
Finally, I ended up walking through Jardin des Plantes, basically an arboretum with various museums of natural history, entomology, paleontology, etc. in it. In the Jardin, I sat for a while and contemplated moving to Paris for a year. I wondered if I had gone on a trip like this in my youth, if I would have paid more attention in French class in school. By this point it was getting late and I needed to get ready for my dinner, so I caught a taxi back to the hotel.
Dinner tonight (Friday) at Le Petit Bedon (38, rue Pergolese). The place is fairly unassuming, the decor is uninteresting to say the least. Add to this the fact that I was the only patron at 7:30pm on a Friday night, and I was starting to wonder if this was really going to be the gastronomic feast I was looking for. I ordered the Menu Degustation (6-course prix fixe menu with 6 glasses of wine.) Let me not keep you in suspense... the food was magnificent. The opening langostinos were great, the seared fois gras was everything I expected ( served with the standard balsamic reduction and some kind of fruity stuff - dates? Prunes? Dunno.) Then lobster in a truffle sauce, unbelievable lamb (with lots of yummy fat), and finally a course of cheese and greens. I think the cheese was some kind of moldy montrachet. For desert, chocolate soufflé. The Soufflé was kinda odd, in that the center was all runny; not what I am used to. Oh, before desert they served me some desert (a tiny crème brulle) while I was waiting for the soufflé. After desert, uh, some desert. An incredible plate of delights. There was one particular sweet worth mentioning for its uniqueness: The fruit of a lantern plant, dipped in caramelized sugar. Yikes. I can't tell you what the wines were, but they were very nice too. After all that drinking, I'm surprised I'm able to write. All in all a very pleasant way to spend 3+ hours.
Traveler's Tip: learned something very interesting tonight. Apparently there is no tipping required in France. That explains why all the taxi drivers have been so surprised when I tip them. It also means that my dinner tonight was actually reasonably priced.
Saturday morning, got up very late because I had a hard time falling asleep. I think the decaffeinated coffee with desert last night wasn't decaffeinated. Wandered over to Musee de l'Orangerie because I wanted to see the Monet Water Lilies. I have a print of one of them that was hanging in my office for many years and always wanted to see the real thing. Overall, Musee de l'Orangerie is a fairly uninteresting museum, and most of the paintings are currently on tour right now anyway. However, Les Nimpheaus are permanently there, and quite stunning. Sadly, it's busy enough that it's very difficult to see the pieces from far enough away to really enjoy them. I couldn't help wondering if Monet considered the fact that it would be very difficult for people to correctly view the pieces. I wonder.
By the time I left l'Orangerie, it was really raining. Hard. I walked through the rain to the Louvre and got totally soaked. Fortunately, it wasn't cold, but it was seriously coming down. Just before entering the Louvre, I bought an umbrella. Not the world's best timing.
Traveler's Tip: If you enter the Louvre through the Pei pyramid, you will stand in a long long line for a long long time. If it's raining, you will be very sad. However, you can also enter the Louvre through a side entrance on rue de Rivoli. Through this entrance you get out of the rain immediately, and the line to enter is quite short.
I have had several friends tell me that I should skip the Louvre and just go to Musee D'Orsay. If anyone ever tells you that, just slap them around, OK? The Louvre is phenomenal. To start with, it is an incredible building. The original building is stunning. The modern additions and restorations are wonderful, even the I. M. Pei pyramid is striking. You must go to the Louvre. On top of that, the Louvre is filled with incredible masterpieces from the history of world art and culture. If the Louvre only contained the Greek and Roman statues, you would have to go. If it only contained the French renaissance paintings, you would have to go. If it only contained the Dutch masters, you would have to go. If it only contained the Rubens', you would have to go. If the building were empty, it would still be a must-see for the architecture alone. Never let anyone tell you to skip the Louvre.
It was really funny watching the crowds of people jamming around the Mona Lisa. I stood off to the side in front of a totally abandoned magnificent Titian, and took photos of people looking at the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa is a great and important painting, but come on, give me a break. There are excellent reproductions that smile just as sweetly. Outside the room containing Mona Lisa, around the corner and down the hall are 5 other de Vinci's which are completely overlooked. They are wonderful, and you can stand there and admire them at your leisure. Go to the Louvre, go see the Mona Lisa, then get the heck out of there and see the many wonderful works of art that the Louvre has to offer. My favorites: Canova's statue of Cupid and Psyche, Michelangelo's "The Dying Slave", the several de Vinci's outside of the Mona Lisa, Vermeer's "The Lace Maker", the Dutch masters in general, and the recreated apartments of Napoleon III. Sorry, Venus de Milo didn't make my top-10 list. Oh, here's something interesting: oriental men always want their pictures taken in front of important pieces of art, but they never smile in these photos. I guess art is a serious business.
After just a couple of days in Paris, I can't help feeling that Paris makes Seattle look like a backward village. Everything in Paris is so grand, so spectacular, and so old. Every building looks important, even if it is just some old apartment building or random city office building. They all have these wonderful carved facades. The streets are lit with magnificent lamps, there are wonderful statues everywhere, where does the eye rest? I've been to many great cities; San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, even New York merely make Seattle look a bit provincial, Paris makes Seattle look like a minor ox-cart crossing.
That night after washing up I headed over towards Place de la Bastille to go to a café that Ted had recommended. Somehow I had the impression that they would serve food there, and I was in the mood for a small café meal. This impression turned out to be incorrect; it was drinks only. I wandered around the area which looked quite fun. Most of the restaurants were serving various ethnic foods, but I wanted French. I chose a nice looking small restaurant, basically at random (Restaurant Relais Du Massif Central on Rue Daval.) It was pretty full, but there were a few empty tables. I asked the proprietor for a seat, but she told me that they were all reserved. At that moment a patron sitting alone looked over and gestured to her with his knife as if to suggest that I should sit with him. She went over and asked if it would be OK if I joined him. He got a horrified look on his face, said "no" in a German accent, and then asked for something. She came back to me and apologized. I walked a few paces away and realized that I had no idea where I wanted to eat now. So I went back and asked her (in my best broken French) if she could recommend some place to eat. She looked around, grabbed my hand and dragged me to the back of the restaurant where she plopped me down at the end of a table of Dutch folks. Before I know it we're all chatting away and swapping tastes of things. They insisted that I had to try their duck stomachs cooked in fat. Yummy, if weird. One of them was a retired English teacher. It was also interesting hearing them speak after listening to French for a couple of days. In spite of the fact that I couldn't understand them, I found the Dutch much more familiar sounding than French. I think more of the phonemes are the same. At the end of the meal we exchanged business cards. Perhaps I'll look them up.
Aside: I like these irregularly shaped European sugar cubes. They evoke the randomness of life. I'll have to get some when I get home.
The next morning I got up, checked out, and headed off for Tours and the beginning of the cycling trip. I asked the English-speaking doorman at the hotel to ask the taxi driver if I could pay him extra to help me get into the train station and to my train with my baggage. What a heated exchange. My god, you'd think I'd asked him to join the German army! So, we drove off to the station and after a while he warmed up enough to be willing to tell me that the Paris police would give him a big ticket if he parked at the train station. Go figure.
The train ride to Tours was uneventful. One interesting note; the information from the Backroads tour people said that you cannot carry bikes on the TGV because there is no room for baggage. This is only marginally true. There is room for baggage on the TGV, but there aren't really official baggage spaces large enough to hold a bike case. What I did was to reserve a seat in the "Salon", which is an area of 8 seats separate from the main compartment. Apparently most people don't like the Salon, so I was able to drag my bike case in there and set it down. In that way I blocked 4 of the seats, but it was completely empty, so it didn't matter. I was worried that the conductor might hassle me about it, but to the contrary he was quite interested in my bike box. Gotta love a country where cycling is the #1 sport. Switching trains in St. Pierre des Cours was a bit of a hassle, but it worked out OK.
Had no trouble meeting up with the Backroads tour group at the Tours train station. It seems that there are 23 people on our trip, 5 men and 17 women, with two female tour guides. We headed off to our first chateau/hotel Le Choiseul in Amboise, and went for a 12 mile ride. Needless to say it was raining, but the ride was quite pleasant in spite of that fact. Showered up, got dressed in my finest, and headed off to the first evening's meeting and dinner. Made quite a splash when I showed up in suit and tie, since I was in my more-usual jeans and T-shirt at the train station. At dinner the first night the waiters were truly rude, I spite of the fact that we had ordered 3 bottles of expensive (and not very good) wine. The local red wines aren't very good, and many of the whites are uneventful as well. It was a very weird and disconcerting meal for me. I had chosen this trip because I love cycling, I love great food, I enjoy good wine, I'm interested in architecture, and I speak a little bit of French. At dinner I was seated with 8 people. Only one of them was a cyclist. Several of them did not own bikes. None of them seemed at all interested in the fine meal we were eating. None of them seemed to know anything about wine. They didn't express any interest in architecture, chateaux, fine dining, or things French. And that seemed to be the case for most of the people on the trip. This kinda threw me for a loop. Why were they here? Why this trip? There's thousands (millions?) of vacations that this big world has to offer. These people chose this vacation, but didn't seem to be interested in its unique features.
My room at Le Choiseul was a room all alone in a separate building named "La Romance". Everyone gave me a hard time about having the honeymoon suite all to myself. Though Le Choiseul was a lovely place to stay, I actually can't recommend "La Romance". The roof leaked in the heavy rains we were having soaking some of my stuff, and the pump for the pool was thrumming away right near my head. Oh well.
The next morning we cycled from the Le Choiseul about 10 miles to a wine tasting/picnic at the caves of a local vintner of Vouvray wines. It was cool and overcast, but a pleasant ride. Picked a lot of grapes off the vines on the way. Yum. The winery tour was fun, but the wines weren't great. Had a really nice picnic. Headed off for the rest of the ride (about 20 more miles), and it immediately started to rain again. Was completely soaked by the time I got back to the hotel. Afterwards, wandered into town and toured Chateau d'Amboise just down the road from the hotel. Back at the hotel had another outstanding dinner, this time with people who actually like to ride bikes! Much more fun. Just 4 of us, and we actually managed to have an interesting conversation. What a relief.
The next day we packed up and put our stuff on the van to be carried to the next hotel, and rode to Chateau de Chaumont. The chateau was interesting, but it was really the gardens that were incredible. It appears that there is a yearly garden design contest (Festival International des Jardins), and the winners build gardens at this chateau. They were amazing. Exciting, innovative, whimsical, fun, funny and wonderful. This is an absolute must-see for anyone who is at all interested in gardening. It only rained for 15 or 20 minutes during the completion of the ride back to the hotel. Along the way sampled more wonderful grapes at their peak of ripeness and some sunflower seeds.
That night we stayed at Chateau de Chissay, which was even nicer than the previous place. Apparently this was the former home of Charles de Gaulle. Cool. We stayed here just one night. Before dinner we all piled off to a distillery named Fraise D'Or ("the Golden Strawberry.") Had an interesting lesson in the difference between different liquors. Apparently they make the liquors from "red fruits" like strawberries ("fraises"), blackberries ("mõre"), etc. by putting the fresh fruit in barrels and covering them with tasteless 97% alcohol - the fruits never ferment. After several months, the flavor of the fruit is in the alcohol. They strain out the fruit and sediment, add sugar and more alcohol, and bottle. By contrast, eau-de-vie's are made by crushing fruits, nuts, herbs, seeds, or whatever and allowing the result to ferment for several months in barrels. The result is then distilled and no sugar or alcohol are added. One exception is Liquor Poire William (liquor of William pears), in which they make Poire William Eau-de-vie, and then add sugar. We had a tasting of several liquors. Their trademark Fraise D'Or was wonderful, as was their crème de cassis. I also sampled several others which were nice, and also a liquor from rose petals which was wild, but a bit cloying. Everyone but me hated the rose petal liquor, and most weren't even willing to try it after smelling it. Dinner that night was again excellent. Had a lovely local fish for my main.
The next day it appeared to be getting clear, and we headed out bright and early for a 5-mile ride to a guided tour of Chateau de Chenonceau. After the tour we were off for a long ride through the countryside. It was overcast and threatening to rain, but there were some sun breaks. After getting rained on for 3 rides, I was really hoping for a dry one. The sun broke out, and all was looking good, but then, the wind began. The sun was out, and it was warm, so a strong headwind wasn't that big a deal. Then we got out of the relative cover of trees and buildings into a land of infinite farmland. The wind was howling across the plains. It was blowing so hard that I couldn't hear anything but the sound of wind in my ears. I was riding my bike with deep-dish aero-wheels, and it was all I could do to stay up. Head down, in the drop bars, hammering with all my might in low gear to crank out 12 mph into a gale wind across the plains. The headwind turned into a gusting side wind that almost knocked me over once or twice. I knew that there was a small town ahead some few miles, so I hammered it out and figured I'd sit in a café for a while in the town. If the wind didn't die down I'd call for a cab. I should point out at this juncture that all along the way the towns have been basically abandoned. This one was no different. It was basically nowhere, and evidently the plague had gotten there before me, since there was absolutely no sign of life. There was a fig tree with one, huge, beautiful fig on it. I picked it and savored the best thing I have ever tasted. Then, off into the empty plains and howling winds. I hadn't seen another rider for some time. There was another small town listed in the directions ahead, so off I went. The next town was also abandoned, but there was a bus stop and a phone booth so I stopped. I waited there for a while wondering where the sag-wagon was. There was no way I was going to continue trying to fight that wind! Eventually other riders started showing up, and then the van went by filled to capacity with exhausted riders. To my amazement, many riders went past continuing the ride. I was very surprised, since few of the people had seemed serious enough to be able or willing to fight that kind of wind. Six of us waited in the shelter of the bus stop for the van to drop off its load of riders and come back to pick us up. Ugh.
The hotel that night was even more beautiful. Chateau d'Artigny in Montbazon was built by the cosmetics mogul Cote. Had another wonderful meal. Here's the menu:
Sandre (a local fish) roti en peau, Rhubarbe et beurre verjute
Mignon de Veau et latitude braisee "Matignon"
Brebis du Lochois affine au miel de Bruyere
Fraises et glace Vanille
Petits fours et mignardises
They had an unbelievable assortment of Armagnac's ranging from 1890 to the present. I chose a 1945 Armagnac that was amazing. Someone pointed out that it was made during World War II. Interesting that the French don't let a little thing like a war stop them from making liquors.
The next day I got up and it was raining and the wind was howling. I ride a couple of thousand miles a year, I don't need to ride in this kind of crap. To my continued surprise, all but 5 of us decided to ride. I decided to ride in the sag wagon the whole day to see the Chateau's. Went to Chateau Villandre, which I really wanted to see because of the incredible gardens. Unfortunately, it was raining, so I just looked at the gardens from the windows of the Chateau. Grief. Then I took the wagon to the next Chateau (Chateau d'Azay-le-Rideau), which was only modestly interesting and to wander around the town there. Of course, it was cold and raining, and everything in the town was closed because of the Noon to 2pm moratorium on commerce that all of France seems to observe. These people don't deserve a strong economy. I tried to stay up beat. I tried to stay calm. I tried to make the best of it. But I was just done for. I couldn't deal with the rain and the disappointment any more. Went back to the hotel and hid in my room for a while. Had a beer. Had a bath. Had a nap. Went out and packed up my bike. Hi Ho.
Dinner that night was disappointing. The appetizer was fantastic though, and the woman sitting next to me wouldn't even taste hers because she didn't like the way it looked. Again, I wonder to myself, why cycle France if you don't like food? Went to bed early. I just couldn't deal. Oh, here's the menu from that night:
Saint-Pierre (a local fish) roti au curry et riz Thai
Filet d'Empereur (a fish) a la crème de petits pois
Turone au chocolat mi-amer
The next day there was an optional 9-mile morning ride, but I had decided to bag it the night before when I packed up my bike. True to form it was cold, raining and windy. Looked like I made a good call on that one. Everyone piled into the bus to return to Tours, most people weren't talking.
Sitting on the bus I couldn't help but continue to wonder what had brought each of these individuals on this trip, and what had motivated them through it. Seventeen women and five men. A couple of them were cyclists, and interested in food, architecture, etc. but this was not the norm. Several of them did not own a bike. A couple had bought bikes only in the last month. One had bought a bike last month but hadn't ridden it yet. Very few showed the least interest in the food. Only half seemed interested in the chateaux we visited. Well, it was a singles trip - perhaps they were there for romance? Evidently not. I was one of 5 men with 17 women (19 if you count the two leaders.) No one was flirting. One of the men was flirting very aggressively but received a cold reception. One of the other men was very fun and outgoing, but commented to me privately that the women were not interested. But moreover, I have always heard that the best way to meet someone of the opposite sex is to just do what you enjoy and thus meet like-minded people. So, if these women wanted to meet compatible men, but they aren't cyclists, don't like French food, and aren't interested in France, why go on a French haute cuisine cycling tour. Why not just go on a cruise? Or stay home? I don't get it. With that in mind though, these people struggled through some horrendous weather rides. Why? They were out there pounding gale force winds when I was in the sag wagon. Some of them did the "long options" on the rides in the pouring rain when I was bagging out at the earliest opportunity. I have no explanation.
Arrived back in Tours uneventfully. I dropped off my luggage at the train station and went off in search of an American Express office to try to get a feel for where in Europe the weather would be good and how I wanted to get there. Guess what, no American Express office in Tours. I should have made my plans by phone the night before, but, oh well. Live and learn. CNN said that it was clear North of France, and South of the middle of Italy. Italy seemed very far away, and I recall having a great time in Amsterdam, so I decided to go there. Turned out it would have been sheer torture to get to Amsterdam that day from Tours, so I bought a ticket to Brussels, then called AmEx (collect) to make a hotel reservation in Brussels. Went off to find a café to eat, think and write.
There's something quite bewildering about France. I'm not sure what it is. Perhaps it's that I can speak a little bit of French, but only enough to get confused. I can ask someone a question, but then I often can't understand the answer. I can read bits and pieces of signs, but not enough to really understand them. It is raining again, and I'm sitting in a café waiting for the train to Brussels. I wonder if I am nuts going north towards Holland. I'm keeping my cool, and I feel calm, but I also feel like I am calm because I have blown my circuit breakers, not because I am genuinely relaxed. I was counting on there being an American Express office here in Tours where I could relax and speak to an English speaking travel agent who would help me figure out where the weather would be good and I could spend a few days having fun. I could plan out the whole rest of my itinerary. Unfortunately, such is not the case. Italy's just too far away, and I can't deal with the idea of going to a place where I really don't speak the language, and the natives really don't speak English. Besides, Italy makes me nervous. I can't picture trying to make my way through an Italian train station with all my stuff without being robbed blind. I thought about going to Paris and dropping my extra bags off at Charles de Gaul airport, but I am told that there is a huge fashion show in Paris right now and there are no hotel rooms to be had. Carrying around a bike makes my options more complicated and more expensive. On the other hand, Holland is a great country for cycling, and having a bike might be a big boon there. I think the main thing I need to learn in my traveling is to be comfortable wearing a T-shirt 3 days running and wearing the same jeans for 6 days. Alternatively, I have to accept the fact that if I want to go sight seeing, and I want clean clothes, I have pay $10 per shirt to have my T-shirts dry cleaned, and that is that. It's not like I don't blow plenty of money on stupid stuff when I travel. Like, how about o take the train from Tours to Brussels. Yikes!
Oh, by the way. As I'm getting on the train to Brussels the sun is shining and the sky is clear. Wonder if it will stay that way?
Things are not going well. Have you ever noticed how when things start not going well, it's very easy for them to then continue not going well? Life has a traveling lesson for me that I don't seem to be learning: when things are not going well, and I am tired and feeling overwhelmed, it is best to stay where I am rather than trying to travel to the next place. Fewer places done well are better than more places quickly. I should have stayed in Tours. I doubtless could have gotten a hotel room in Tours and then headed up to Paris at my leisure and then flown home.
The train ride to Brussels was uneventful, and the Brussels "Midi" train station is very nice. Got in about 8pm, got a luggage cart for my bike box, et als, and negotiated my way easily to the taxi stand. However, I was definitely dragging my ass by this point. The first cab couldn't fit the bike box into his trunk and refused to try to put it in the back seat. Seeing this, the rest of the cabs wouldn't touch it. Finally I found a van sized taxi to go to my hotel, but the driver pimped me for twice what the trip should have cost. Oh well. Checked into the Brussels Hotel Astoria. A very nice looking smallish hotel. Got settled in and then headed out for some dinner. The concierge at the hotel recommended a place whose name roughly translates to "Grand Illusion" (or perhaps Grand Hallucination). It was seriously cold out, and the walk was farther than I expected. Brrrrr. The place was very cool, and filled with interesting looking people, but the food turned out to not be very good and everyone was smoking up a storm. After dinner I decided to walk around Brussels; I figured "What the heck, Friday night in Brussels". If there's something interesting that happens in Brussels on a Friday night, I didn't manage to find it. Seems like a pretty dull city. Along the way I managed to get a serious chill. I also managed to discover that my ATM card expired on the last day of September. I had been counting on using ATMs to get Belgian Francs ("bef"), but no such luck. For the rest of the trip I will be forced to use more expensive ways of getting money. What a pain. Returned very late to my hotel, cold, tired, and unhappy, only to discover that the power in my room was out. I had left the battery in my computer recharging when I went out for dinner, but it had not recharged, and it was too dark in the room even to find the phone to call the front desk. Finally I managed to get the front desk and they reset the breakers or whatever. Then I discovered that the heat in the room didn't work. Another call to the front another wait for someone to come up, but they werent able to fix it. Can you get that? So I went to bed shivering, and then the power went out again. Another call downstairs, which caused them to accuse me of having done something to screw up the power. Give me a break. They moved me to another room, where the power and heat were also off. This was supposed to be a good hotel. They got the power back on in the new room, but it went out about ½ an hour later. It was now about 2am. So much for getting some much needed rest.
Woke up the next morning feeling like hell. Maybe I should have just stayed put in Brussels (at a different hotel), but I decided to continue on to Amsterdam. Called American Express to make a hotel reservation. The only thing they could find was a Holiday Inn on the outskirts of town. Oh well, at least it was cheap. Well, it was supposed to be cheap. It was supposed to be 150 gilders (about $80), but when I got there after a $30 taxi ride, they informed that it was 450 gilders! I could have stayed at the Inter-Continental in the heart of the city for only a few dollars more! But I'm ahead of myself. Let me back up.
Caught the train from Brussels to Amsterdam. The Dutch countryside is very beautiful, even in the rain. First class trains in Europe are really nice, and I had no real trouble dealing with all my luggage and bike box on the train. At the Amsterdam train station, got a porter to help me with my luggage, and checked everything that I didn't need. Quite civilized. The Amsterdam train station is a very "complete" place. Baggage lockers, bag check, even showers. As mentioned, the hotel turned out to be a bust, but by this point I felt like hell. I'm pretty sure I had some kind of intestinal flu or something. I had a huge headache, fever, aches, and serious gastric distress. Having the runs in Europe can get expensive! Everyone wants 25 cents to a dollar to use a toilette. Maybe my hotel room wasn't so expensive after all, since they weren't counting the flushes. Spent the day in bed, and finally dragged myself down to the hotel restaurant for dinner. There was absolutely nothing else anywhere near the hotel, and I sure wasn't about to take a lengthy cab ride back into town. So there I am, in Amsterdam, eating dinner in a f**king Holiday Inn. Yikes. After a dinner that was not worthy of mention, I went back to bed again. Oh, called American Express and had them make me a reservation at the Marriott, about 2 minutes walk from the Rijks museum.
The next morning I got up really late and dragged my ass out of the Holiday Inn to move to the Marriott. Much nicer than the Holiday Inn, right in town, and cheaper to boot! Now, I usually don't prefer to stay at big commercial chain hotels. I'd really much rather stay at interesting, small, unique hotels. Unfortunately, when you are using American Express as your travel agent, it's pretty much big-name chains or nothing. Oh well, the Marriott was fine. I still wasn't feeling well, but I went out into the city in search of Pancakes. One of my fondest memories from my previous visit to Amsterdam was the incredible panencaken. Yum. So, even though I wasn't feeling well, I was bound and determined to have pancakes for breakfast. The concierge recommended a place called "The Pancake Bakery", so off I went. Downstairs at the Pancake Bakery was warm, cosy, and filled with interesting looking people. Of course, it was also full up. So the waitress led me to the upstairs room, which was empty and cold. Is this starting to sound familiar? Isn't it funny how when things start going wrong, they then tend to continue to go wrong. So I'm sitting upstairs at the Pancake Bakery, and the tables are filling up except that 80% of the room is reserved for one large party that hasn't arrived yet. A couple of people came in, but the waitress told them the restaurant was now completely full and the wait was ½ hour. Naturally I invited them to join me. They turned out to be a very interesting couple from Australia, and quite cool. Unfortunately, it also turned out that the woman had the flu (which she told me after shaking my hand - I hate that.) So there I am, in a really cold room in Amsterdam, trying to get over my stomach virus, and eating breakfast with a woman who has the flu. Oh well. Sometimes life just is that way. After breakfast I headed out into the cold, dark day to look for warm clothing. It turned out to be harder than I expected. The streets were swarming with people, and many stores were having sales, so eve g was packed. Getting the attention of sales people was killer. To make a lot of wandering and a long story short, I finally bought (and put on) polypro long underwear, a fleece anorak, fleece hat and fleece gloves. Ahhhh, finally warm again. I also managed to buy a couple of books about Amsterdam so I wouldn't be so in the dark. Oh, by the way, everyone in Amsterdam is either coughing or sneezing. ‘Tis the season.
That night I had a thoroughly uninteresting Dutch meal of bland white fishes and cooked vegetables. At dinner I sat with a guy who looked even more miserable than I felt. He was from Ireland, and was not happy. A friend of his had talked him into going together to Amsterdam, but then backed out at the last minute. The poor guy looked to be in his late 40's, and clearly had never been out of Ireland before. His brogue was amazing to listen to. Amsterdam is a very confusing city, and the streets can be quite a maze. This guy was completely unequipped to deal with a trip to Amsterdam alone. I have rarely seen such joy on a man's face as I saw on his when the waitress brought him a cup of tea. What could be more warming?
Got another good night's sleep and the next morning I actually started to feel OK. Still had the runs, but at least the headache was gone, the fever was gone, and I was warm. Went out for another pancake breakfast, and then over to the Rijks museum. After all the museum-going I've been doing, the Rijks museum is a little bit of a let down. I mean, it's a great museum, but I guess I'm a bit tired of art. In any case, Rembrandt was an amazing painter, and it was wonderful seeing some of his work (of which The Night Watch is one of the less interesting.) For me, the highlight of the museum was the Vermeer's. Wow. I stood transfixed before "The Milkmaid" for quite a while. I had also wanted to see the Breughels, but it turns out they aren't there. Apparently they are in Austria. Go figure.
Dutch painting is kinda odd. Many of the pieces have a weird cartoonist quality, particularly crowd scenes. I wonder what that was about.
After the Rijks museum I went over to the Stedelijk museum of modern art. They are doing a fascinating but disturbing show of the work of a video artist named Bill Viola. If I wasn't so thoroughly overdosed on viewing art, I think I would have enjoyed it more. It did leave me wondering about the meaning of art, and how these images were supposed to inform my life, move me, change me, or somehow reflect on the experience of life. Aside from making me wonder about the role of art, this work did not have nearly the impact of the fine arts in the Reich's museum. Ate some gravlax and a sate at a small café while watching chic Amsterdamers walk by, then packed it in.
Next morning headed back to the Amsterdam train station, got my checked luggage, and took the train to the airport for my Air France flight to Paris. Air France decided to pimp me almost $200 for my extra luggage, on top of the full fare one way ticket price. To be fair, they did lower the fee by about $50, but still, I had trouble feeling grateful.
The flight was an hour late getting off the ground, and the traffic into Paris was unbelievable. Oh, by the way, due to terrorism they have removed all the lockers and baggage check from Charles de Gaul airport. Talk about draconian measures! Couldn't they just have put in X-ray machines or something? So I had to schlep all my bags into Paris, even though I only needed one bag for over night. Didn't get to the hotel ‘till about 3pm, and guess what, American Express screwed up and put me in the wrong hotel. I was supposed to be at the "Left Bank Saint-Germain", but they had put me in the "Au Manoir Saint-Germain des Pres". Took me another hour to find a taxi and get to the correct hotel. Grrrr. By now my day was basically shot. Somehow when things start going wrong, they just keep on going wrong. I had intended to leave my bags at the airport, get into town, and go to Musee d'Orsay for the afternoon. Oh well. Wandered around the very fashionable Pret-a-Port area of the left bank where my hotel was located, had some lovely meals, and packed it in. In the end I might as well have stayed at a hotel at the airport. Hi ho. [Side note: walked by another hotel near the one I stayed at that looked really nice. Its name was Hotel Lutetia. I didn't go in, and don't know anything about it, but it is worth looking into next time I am in Paris.]
Finally the next morning, it's off to the airport again for my final trip home. I can't remember the last time I had a vacation I was so anxious to finish. The hotel had arranged for a limo-van for me, but it was half an hour late because that morning there was a wildcat strike of busses and trains in Paris, so all the streets were packed with cars. Sound familiar? The driver was really great, and he got me to the airport in plenty of time, and now I'm sitting in my wonderful business class seat finishing writing it all down. I've got a big comfy seat, my own video screen, and a belly full of pate and lamb. I don't think I can ever go back to economy class again.
Thoughts on traveling with a bicycle.
traveling with a bicycle doesn't have to be that bad. It does add complications, and time, and some expense. Overall, other than airline charges, it wasn't very expensive to have the bike with me. However, at each juncture it did take extra time. I had to allot extra time to haul my luggage around, and to flag down a taxi that was big enough to carry my stuff. I think it would have been 200% easier if I hadn't been traveling alone. It definitely made me uncomfortable having to throw two of my bags out of a train and then go back for my bike, or throw my bike out and go back for my bags. There were innumerable circumstances in which it would have been much easier to have just left someone with the bags so I could go off and get money, tickets, information, or a cart or porter. In the end it was manageable though, and it would be easier next time, now that I know the vagaries of each place. The Amsterdam train station has porters, but no baggage carts. The Brussels train station has carts but no porters. Train stations in France usually have no porters, and usually do have carts, but you have to have a 10 Franc coin to use them. Two 5 Franc coins won't do. Etc. Etc.
The bottom line is that I will bring my bike with me on trips again, but only if it is a one leg trip. Having the bike on this trip was a pain because I had to bring it to Boston, then Paris, then Tours, then on to Brussels, Amsterdam and back to Paris. That was a hassle. If there had been only one leg involved, and I could have checked the bike otherwise, it would have been much much easier.
Thoughts on Backroads
The Backroads bike tour was very well run, but I don't know if I will travel with them again or not. Clearly the horrendous weather was not their fault, the route of the tour was very nice and well thought out, and the route instructions were excellent. The hotels and chateaux were great, the food was wonderful, and the tour leaders did a fantastic job. I have to particularly compliment them on being upbeat about the trip in spite of the bad weather, but without being obnoxious about it. On the first day they were very bouncy and cheer-leadery. But when it was clear that the weather was going to suck and keep on sucking, they turned down the over-the-top optimism and just showed a good strong positive attitude. So, with that complimentary review in mind, why might I not do a trip with them again? Well, it has to do with the group of people who attended the tour. As I have covered at length, I wanted to travel with people who were interested in what we were doing. It appears that for whatever reason, Backroads attracts this odd group of customers. I had expected and was prepared for dilettantes, but I was not prepared for people with no cycling background, no interested in cuisine, and little or no interest in France. I think I will try another tour group for the next outing. One with a more serious bent, perhaps.
Along the way I drank a lot of wine, of which two bottles were particularly noteworthy: (1) Clement et Fils, Domain de Chatenay, Meneton-Salon 1997, and (2) Chinon "Domaine de la Semellerie 1996.
© 1998, Andrew Sigal, All rights reserved.
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