Idle Thoughts

Document Sample
Idle Thoughts Powered By Docstoc


               Idle Thoughts 


                    written by Thomas Vachuska 
                           and posted on 


T Minus One Week

Itinerary - check
Airline tickets - check
Passports - check
Car Rental - check
TGV Tickets - check
Hotel Reservations - check
Suitcases & backpacks - check
Maps - check
Cameras - check
Phones unlocked – check

While things are falling nicely into place, there are still quite a bit of preparations to be

Yesterday I realized that my intentions of driving around Arc de Triomphe on the way
out of Paris have been thwarted... While I knew that 14th was going to be "Fête
Nationale", I neglected to realize that Champs-Élysées would be closed off for parades!
C'est la vie!


T Moins Trois Jours

Pierre Awoo stopped by tonight to drop off a few
parting gifts. Merci bien, Pierre!



Nous sommes arrivés à Paris...

One hour late, one iPod nano short, but safe and sound. Originally, we had less than an
hour lay-over in Chicago, but due to the bad weather we were delayed landing there.
After a brisk walk/indian run, we were the last to board our plane to Paris. We
considered ourselves quite lucky as the night before there were around 3,000 people
who spent the night at the airport due to delayed and cancelled flights. On the downside,
we think that Ian lost his iPod nano on the first flight. He had not even listened to it, but
it must have fallen out when he was fumbling with his backpack. Oh well... what's done
is done. We shall consider it a gift to the lay-over gods for smiling down on us. :)

The rest of the trip was quite uneventful, which, I have to admit, when it comes to
travels, I prefer it such. The plane was only about third full so there was plenty of space
to sprawl out and take a nap. The taxi ride was fairly smooth and even took us around
Arc du Triomphe before dropping us at the end of the pedestrian section of Rue Cler,
from where we reached our hotel after a
brief walk.

Chang'o presto into some fresher clothes
and off we were to a lunch at one of the
cafes on Rue Cler. After everyone
cleared their plates we thought that
getting some walking in would do us
good... well... at least I thought it would.
The rest of the crew apparently does not
quite subscribe to the 'jump-in-and-get-
it-over-with' methodology of dealing
with jet-lag - that, inspite of the fact that
I was the only one who did not sleep a
wink on the plane.

We did enjoy the walk to the Eiffel Tower, and while we originally intended to go up to
the top, we decided to forgo that idea, at least for now, due to truly enourmous hordes of
tourists and large numbers of school tours. Instead we resorted take a few cliché photos
and went on along the Seine to see the Pont du Alexandre. And this is where the revolt
slowly began to brew.

Apparently, after a hearty meal and a plenty of water, one of the younger crew, who shall
remain nameless, started to receive mother nature's prank calls. And as irony would
have it, restrooms are rare, if not entirely non-existent, along the river. So while the
sights of and from the Alexandre's Bridge are indeed quite pretty, we were able to loiter
around a only a little bit, before making an unwise choice to seek refuge in metro and at
the same time to save our feet.

Under normal circumstances, riding the Paris Metro is quite convenient and it's really
not all that hard - I know as I've done it before a number of times without much
difficulty. However, trying to figure things out while under pressure to locate a
restroom, of which there are none in the metro system, and doing that at Les Invalides
station, which happens to be particularly convoluted knot of several tracks, proved to be
particularly perplexing. And so, after few feeble attempts at locating the correct track,
and mother nature’s incessant calling, we decided to exit the station and walk over to a
nearest cafe to take the call. Thankfully, the respit of the road-side cafe and the calming
effect of a smooth cafe-au-lait put an end to what was sure to be an ugly mutiny.

And so the crew hit the bunks, and I set off on a pirate mission to stow away on one of
the countless unsecured wifi connections and to scribble down the day's events. After
this is done, I'll run downstairs to pick-up a baguette or two, a little of a few cheeses and
a few bottles of wine, to (as JK Jerome wrote) "have a little bit to eat and more than
enough to drink, for thirst is a terrible thing".

I will wake them up, in an hour or two (if this is the last thing I write, you'll know why)
to get some more walking in... and perhaps to see the Paris at night from the Eiffel
Tower - something which I have not yet seen.

Au revoir...

P.S. It should be noted that better sense got hold of me and instead of waking the crew
I opted to sit at a street-side cafe on the corner of Rue Cler and Rue du Champ De
Mars, drink beer and watch the evening bustle, while they soundly slumber four floors


Day 2: Champs Elysees, Arc du
Triomphe, Notre Dame, Saint Chapelle,
Le Marais, not quite Eiffel Tower...

This was quite a busy day and involved quite a bit of
walking and riding metro, which, as suspected, is a
breeze, provided one is not under pressure to locate
the non-existent toilettes.

Since we did not make it in time to be able to visit the
top of Eiffel Tower for a night seeing, we decided to
re-arrange Friday schedule to swap Louvre with
Musee D'Orsay in order to visit the tower in the
morning. We did stay late at night in the park to
watch the light shows... We did not arrive to the hotel
until 12:30 am.
FRIDAY, JULY 13, 2007

Day 3: Eiffel Tower, Car pickup, Musee D'Orsay, evening picnic

Day with sky taken straight out of a Henri Rousseau painting. Preparations for the big
day are visible throughout the city. We'll miss quite a show I'm sure, but perhaps
Versailles will throw a party as well. And, as I write at 1:00am, from the sounds of the
sporadic fireworks outside, it looks like the party has already started.

We are having a great time, although, thus far, we do seem to have an obligatory daily
clash, which are usually triggered by hunger or other mortal needs and then accentuated
by Carol and I reaching for the rudder at the same time. We are getting it down though
and sailing is quite smooth, especially considering the long days and jet-lag residuals.

While all the girls went to the peruse the Latin Quarter, Ian and I took metro in the
opposite direction to pick up our car. Ian proved to be a very effective navigator, and we
made it from Porte de Saint-Cloud to a parking lot by Ecole Militaire without a hitch.
We hopped onto the train and met the girls at the museum.

On our walk from Musee D'Orsay in the
afternoon, we stopped by the little park
by Les Invalides, where the girls played
14 years ago. The little playground where
one of them sat in a blob of Goose poo is
still there, practically unchanged.

Instead of a full on dinner, we got a
bottle of wine, some bread, cheese,
country butter and some country ham
and went to dine and enjoy the light
show by Eiffel Tower again. It was good
to unwind and lay back while Ian
practiced his Diablo yo-yo thingie we got
him the day before.

It's VERY late now and so I have to sign off...



Day 4: Leaving Paris, Giverny, Versailles...

The fireworks sporadically echoed through the night. I woke up a few times to a rapid
fire of a ribbon of firecrackers that someone lit off on our street below. I must not have
been the only one woken up, since the booms were promptly followed by a nearby
vehement objection of an old lady and her cats. I may have learned some new French
cuss words, but I doubt I'll be able to use them.

Thus far we have yet to meet a rude Parisian, or a French for that matter. Thus far we've
been greeted with a smile and a slight friendly wink or a gently grinning nod to our
feeble attempts at exercising the little French we collectively know.

We also noticed the consistently small belt sizes among the French. I suspect this is due
to a three part recipe... 1) unapologetic refusal to pamper ones metabolism, 2) yet
treating it with the 'real' stuff rather than torturing it with less-fat, less-salt, less-
whatever 'substitutes' and 3) by simply walking their arses off. I suppose this could be a
generalization, but I offer it anyway, knowing full well that all generalizations are false!
.... well... except this last one of course.

After our morning coffee, the rumble of a several helicopters hovering steadily high in
the city sky, ushered in the days official celebrations. At least so it seemed from our
vantage point. Their buzzing was soon drowned out by the roar of jets flying in large
formations along the Seine, or more likely, directly overhead of Champs-Élysées and
Place de la Concorde. Some were spilling ribbons of red-white and blue smoke behind
them. It would have been great to see it from the bank of the river, but seeing the aerial
part of the show from our fourth floor hotel room window was not too shabby either.

We had to leave Paris along the Left bank since all the bridges to the Right bank were all
cordoned off - as I suspected they would be. After a brief navigational fumble on the
outskirts of Paris, we did manage to get onto A13 to Rouen and on the way to Versailles.

We got to Versailles shortly after noon
and since our rooms were all ready for us
at the Hotel Cheval Rouge, (former royal
stables), we decided to slightly augment
our itinerary again. As we now had more
time, we opted to drive to Giverny to see
Monet's gardens and leave all of Sunday
for visiting Versailles Palace and
gardens. We even had time to loiter
through the Saturday market that was
going in the local square a stone's throw
away from our hotel.

The Monet's Gardens, all of Giverny really, were as enchanting as I remembered,
although a bit more crowded than the two times Carol and I visited them. I suppose it
could have something to do with it being July rather than May or June.

After getting back and resting a bit, we went off to dine at one of the many street
restaurants lining the outside of the market square. Yet again, we were not disappointed
and even had to fight the kids for escargot... Ian wanted two... go figure.

SUNDAY, JULY 15, 2007

Day 5: Versailles and nothing but Versailles...

I have to say that as we were finishing the breakfast of coffee, bread & butter and
croissants, I was not terribly excited about the prospect of going to the Versailles
Chateau and battling the confluence of Sunday and holiday crowds, especially not being
a very big fan of the French neo-classicism, or pomp for that matter. But it is perhaps in
those low expectations, where the recipe for a surprisingly nice day lies.

Yes, the crowds were there, and just as I
remembered, so was the opulent
artwork and decor, but definitely
impressive in its scale and sheer effort
put into it. Yet for some reason all of us
had a really good time. We really must
have, for otherwise we would not spend
nearly 10 hours in the chateau and the
gardens, especially since our hotel is
only about 10 minutes of leisurely walk

Granted, an hour of this time was spent
on a relaxing lunch, which being on the
grounds of the gardens, set us back only a few limbs. And sure, another hour was spent
riding bikes around the 'cross' lake on the far end of the gardens, but the kids, especially
the little one, were troopers and maintained good spirits throughout the day.

After a brief break, back at the hotel, we capped off the long day with correspondingly
long dinner at a French/Italian place. Tomorrow we can all sleep in as we have a short
travel day to Amboise, via Chartres. Now it's off to bed to grab some well deserved rest.


MONDAY, JULY 16, 2007

Day 6: Travel to Amboise, Rain, Laundry, Quiet...

I was woken up several times during the night by rolling thunder accompanied by
torrents of rain pounding the pavement outside our open window. We slept late anyway
though. So late as a matter of fact, to have no time for breakfast before packing all our
stuff and checking out of a hotel. By the time we checked out, it was too late for
breakfast and too early for lunch. And it certainly did not help that today was Monday,
which is generally a 'quiet' day, when a lot of the stores and restaurants are closed. So,
we decided to abandon our search for food on foot, piled into the car and continued our
quest on wheels. As is the case with all the rules, the 'quiet' day rule also had to have at
least one exception and indeed it did not take us long to find a place where Carol and I
could have breakfast and the kids could have lunch at the same time.

It was there, while sipping our pre-meal coffee, where we decided to make this a 'quiet'
day for us as well. Sure, Charters has a breath-taking Gothic cathedral from the 12th
century, but we did have a busy day yesterday and the next two will be fairly full as well,
so we will all have to wait for another trip to witness the impressive flying buttresses,
carvings and the enormous height of the cathedral. I have never seen it before, but I
have read up on it enough to know that we were going to be missing out. However, as we
were driving by Chartres, with our windshield wipers in overdrive and still having a
tough time keeping up, any tinge of regret I had was washed away.

Carol did a great job of navigating us straight to the hotel, which is basically a very old
villa just a block away from where Leonardo Da Vinci lived at the end of his life. There is
a large grassy courtyard with a small, but beautiful
pool at the far end. We got two rooms across from
each other... wait, no we did not. Apparently the
hotelier made mistake and we had to move to
another, still gorgeous, but not as gorgeous, room
upstairs. Oh well... too bad we had to see the
downstairs one first. :)

Carol, still being full from lunch, and also in dire
need of a break from our slightly bickering kids,
decided to do laundry. So I borrowed an umbrella
from the hotelier, and took the kids to a dinner at a
small place right below the castle, where we enjoyed
our meal in the cozy upstairs room with windows
lined, and in some cases almost covered, with ivy. It
was more than an ordinary umbrella. It kept the
whole town dry... and while we dined, it chased all
clouds away. Let's hope the spell lasts for at least a
few days.


TUESDAY, JULY 17, 2007

Day 7: Chambord, Amboise and Classic French cooking...

Magic umbrella it was indeed. We woke up to a cloudless sky, ate simple breakfast of
coffee, croissants, and bred at the hotel and got on our way to Château de Chambord,
which lies about 55 minutes of lazy drive from here. But not before we had the hotelieur
wake our British neighbour who sloppily parked his Volvo and blocked us in. He came
out, wearing the same clothes as he wore when we passed each other last night. His hair
was standing all weird, and he was probably still half asleep, but was smiling
nevertheless. Whether the smile was genuine or whether it was masking silent curses at
himself or me, shall never be known.

We spend nearly four hours touring Chambord and listening to every nook and cranny
of the audio guide. The narrations and history behind the architecture, construction and
the life at this royal hunting retreat make the hours literally fly by. The iPod headphones
definitely come in handy. Girls and I synchronized most of our listening so that we could
talk about what we learned afterwards. On the return trip to Amboise we took a slightly
different route along the southern bank of the Loire, right past Chaumont chateau.
When we got back, we asked our hotelieur to make a reservation for us at a restaurant
that serves local traditional French food and then headed for a stroll through the
bustling streets of the town centre, just an arrow's flight away from our hotel. Then,
after a round of cafe-au-lait, we stormed the Château d'Amboise, looming high over the
streets we just walked.

Now, rather than being a hunting retreat
and party house as was the case with
Chambord and many other chateaux
along the Loire valley, this is a castle
with a serious purpose of keeping
unwelcome visitors out. Granted, it's not
as serious as other's I've seen, but it's
wall as tall enough to give me willies
when looking over. I had to remind Ian
to keep his feet flat on the ground while
looking over the balustrades. Needless to
say, I felt much more relaxed when we
toured the castle's interior.

After getting back to our hotel, Carol and I enjoyed a little pre-meal wine in the garden
while kinds played. At 8:00 we went to L'Alliance restaurant where we all ordered a
several course meal. Although we took time to study the menu that the hotelieur loaned
us before hand, in order to make sure that we knew at least the primary substance of the
meal's course, that effort proved to be entirely futile as the menu at the restaurant was
different. Apparently they change the menu, despite the hoteliers assurances to the
contrary. So there we are looking at each other, "Now what?" ... Well, we finally figured

it out with a little guidance from the waitress and we did enjoy the meal very much... for
over two and a half hours. It was yet another busy day and a late night.


Day 8: Chenonceau and rest...

Today we went to see Château de Chenonceau, YABC - Yet Another Bloody
Chateau/Castle/Church! :) It's a pretty one, although much smaller than Chambord. Yet
again, the audio/video guides, this time on an iPod video, proved to be tremendously
useful. What would otherwise be a short and most likely only mildly interesting mute
walkthrough, turned out to be very
interesting couple of hours. We did avoid
most of the crowds by getting an early
start at 9:00. By the time we were
leaving, shortly after noon, the buses
started to roll in.

The rest of the afternoon was spent
eating lunch, relaxing in the hotel garden
and shopping for food for our evening
picnic by the river. Milana managed to
nicely cut her finger while carving a
bamboo stick with a knife - so far it looks
like a band-aid and a little bit Neosporin
will take care of it.

P.S.: Should the notes on the blog stop abruptly, it probably means that my laptop has
finally given up for good. Right now it's acting a bit flakey - either the video card or
the mother-board are probably on the fringe of death. Let's hope it does not happen in
the next four weeks.



Day 9: Travel to Sarlat

Yet another breakfast of coffee, croissants, bread and cheese later, we checked out of the
Hotel Clos d'Amboise, where we had to leave a few more limbs as part of payment, and
we were on our way south to Sarlat in the Dordogne region; the land of canard, fois gras,
pre-historic art, the primary stage for the 100-year war and much, much more.

If we ignore the unnecessary drive around Amboise while hunting for a gas station and a
few tiny fumbles while trying to navigate the one way street maze in Sarlat, the drive was
quite smooth. It only took us about five and a half hours, including an hour stop for a
picnic at a freeway stop - no they're not at all grungy like our freeway stops. We did, in
our attempt to vainly short-circuit the inner one way circle around the old part of Sarlat,
take a narrow and steeply sloping alley, which turned a sharp corner and abruptly
turned into stairs. Needless to say, I decided not to continue along that route and with a
only a little spare room in the front and on either side of the car I burned a little clutch
and carefully backed out onto the main street. Once we finally arrived, the tower rooms
at the Le Couleuverine hotel, named after a big-ass cannon, were all ready to imprison
our princesses.

The rooms we got are literally at the top
of an old, very old, guard tower. You
really would have to see this to believe it.
I don't think the pictures quite do the
justice to the character the chambers

We walked through the small maze of
busy streets in the heart of the old town,
between our guard tower and the church,
munched on a few treats of local pastry,
sipped more cafe-au-lait and watched a
few street performers. One of them was
performing what could best be described
as hybrid yoga and gymnastics floor routine, enhanced with the balancing twist of ten-
apples-up-on-top of his head, but they were not apples, but rather glass orbs, and OK,
they were not ten, but "only" three... yeah only three! I have no clue how he did it, but
we do have a video of it.

The room here is part of room and board so the breakfast and the dinner come with the
package and the restaurant serves local cuisine, which means it's strongly biased
towards duck, trout and pork... not that there's anything wrong with that. We are slowly
getting better reading the menus and the little food-oriented dictionary my parents
loaned us for the trip is proving to be invaluable as it helps to provide clues to more of
the nuances of the specific form of meal preparation. We all ordered pretty much
different things and we all cleaned out the plates of every course. Ian, who's probably
been eating most adventurously thus far, unfortunately missed tonight's meal, as he was
absolutely beat - why I don't know, but he was practically falling asleep at the table
before we even ordered, so we just gave him the keys and sent him up to bed. I'm sure he
would have loved the whole menu.

Thus far, Carol and I sampled several different wines... some good and buttery, some so-
so and a bit harsh, but my favourite is Bergerac red, which I had tonight. Carol still
prefers the Saumur Champigny that we drank, per recommendation from Jean-Marc,
the last few nights in Amboise.

So now we're sitting here at the 11th hour, the mellow clang of glasses and dishes,
together with the sounds of Ella Fitzgerals and Luis Armstrong jazz, wafts from the
street below over the balustrades and through our open windows. I'm willing to bet
they're playing the Jazz classics double CD collage from Verve records. Since both the
wireless networks I can reach from here are secured and the local internet cafe closed an
hour ago, I'll have to wait till morning to upload today's small crop of pictures and my
duck-inspired quacking above.


FRIDAY, JULY 20, 2007

Day 10: Lascaux II caves, Beynac and scenic drive...

FLASH, FLASH... KABOOM! The night temporarily turned into day, if only for a few
brief moments, at around two in the morning when I woke up to the sounds of a severe
thunderstorm. The rain was pouring down in sheets. Luckily for us, by the time morning
came, it turned into only a slight drizzle and by the time we finished breakfast, it
stopped all together.

We headed to the Lascaux caves to see the cave paintings from 20,000 to 10,000 years
ago. What we really saw was an extremely faithful replica - the cave relief apparently
varies less than 1cm (1/3 inch) from the original and the pigment is made from the same
materials as the original and the form of application is as close as can be surmised from
the smears, splotches and brush marks of the originals. The real caves had to be closed
in the 1960s as the human traffic through the confined area was starting to decay the
artwork. The replica allows people to see the sophistication of the paintings with their
own eyes without compromising the integrity of the ancient originals. Although I would
love to see the originals, I can see where they're coming from. :)

After the caves we continued to drive along one of the many scenic roads in the area. We
made stops to explore the site of an ancient city & fortification perched high along the
the cliff-side; called La Roque Sait Christophe, which was a place of human habitation
since 55,000 years ago till just a hundred years back or so. Then off we were again,
navigating curvy roads so narrow that cars passing each other at 60-70+ km/h almost
collide with their side-view mirrors. Toss in an occasional tractor or a group of cyclists
to slow things down and then to spice it up, picture a big semi taking up all of his lane
and a bit of yours (oh yeah, but there's rarely a dividing line so who would know) and
moving at full clip with no care in the world.

Next stop was Château de Beynac, a
soaring no-nonsense castle whose
mention first appears in recorded history
around the start of 12th century and
which, like many of its brethren from its
era, unapologetically employs gravity as
an effective defense weapon. Just
walking up from the river bank took us
about 10 minutes and we did not have
anyone lobbying stones, spears, arrows
and fiery sap at us.

Yet again, the lengthy dinner got in the
way of going to the internet cafe to
upload pictures and the blog, so it will have to be postponed until tomorrow morning
when the crew will be sleeping in.


Day 11: Sarlat Market, Canoeing down Dordogne river...

Before I begin, I should mention that as I was parking our car after our scenic drive
yesterday, I noticed big signs announcing Saturday market and declaring the parking
lot, where we had been parking for free, closed from midnight to seven o'clock evening
the next day. So, to make sure I could enjoy my two glasses (or perhaps more) of
Bergerac rouge with dinner, I went ahead and moved the car beforehand. Since I could
not find a parking spot along the street, I drove onto another parking lot, this one not
free, but claiming to be 24/7, and then I went off, carefree, to join the rest of the clan to
savor my Bergerac and undoubtedly some tasty part of a duck.

Before going to bed, I made sure the alarm clock was off, to allow us to sleep in as late as
the rising sun pouring through the windows over the balustrade would let us. As luck
would have it, the sun did not get that privilege. Carol and I woke up around 5am to the
clanging of tables and shade tents being setup for the day's market. By the time the sun
started to fill our room, the clanging was long replaced by the chatter of people in the

The girls managed to continue to sleep through it all, while Carol, Ian and I ate breakfast
on the terrace down below. After that, I went off to the internet cafe, while Carol took
Ian to go browsing through the shops that were crowding not only the parking lot
outside, but all the streets of the old town. By the time I got done uploading the pictures
and blog entries from the past two days, the girls had already met up with Carol and Ian
to shop in the market.

Since the weather looked like it was going to hold and actually even get warmer, we
jointly decided to forgo visiting Roccamadour, a particularly tourist laden place of
pilgrimage about an hour of drive away, and instead we opted to go on a leisurely canoe
ride down the Dordogne river to enjoy the scenery from a slightly different vantage
point. To get to the launch point, we had to drive only 6km out of Sarlat to Vitrac. So we
put on our swim-suits under our clothes, and off we were to get our car. As we rounded
the corner of the church and the parking lot came into my view, a few choice four letter
words suddenly and involuntarily spilled
out of my mouth. I'm not sure in what
order, but that's really not important.
You see, not only did the market sprung
up overnight in parking lot from which I
moved my car, but it also did so in the
parking lot to which I moved my car.

After rubbing my eyes to make sure I was
seeing right and then uttering a few more
four letter words, this time quite
deliberately, I curtly informed the kids
that the canoe trip down the river is off,
as we were currently stuck down a slightly different creek. Then off I went to the nearby
tourist information office to investigate how to find and retrieve my car, which clearly
must have been towed away. Or so I thought until I got a call from Carol that she found
our car in the parking lot apparently right where I had parked it. Only it was nicely
nestled between the shoe shop, a pottery shop, a music shop and a leather goods tent.
On the bright side, however, it did not appear to be sporting any paper slip behind the
windshield wipers. Things were starting to look up!

Now how to get the car out? Even if we were to manage making a few impossibly narrow
passages between shoe-ware and hand-painted pottery, the parking lot exit was blocked
by a van and leaving through the pedestrian exit over two rather tall stairs might make
us leave the muffler and few other important parts behind. So we loitered around the
market for about another hour, while periodically checking whether the shoe store was
showing any signs of packing up as was the case with a few other shops elsewhere. They
did not, and why should they if the business is booming? We did notice, however, that
one of the rails of the parking lot had been taken down for a few merchants to leave so
we at least had a way to exit the lot. There were even fewer clouds in the sky, but were
starting to run short on time to go canoeing. So, after scoping out the scene a little more
carefully, Carol devised a plan which involved moving the least amount of clothes' and
belt racks and I slowly backed out of the maze, under the friendly and often conflicting
directions (in rapid-fire French of course) of three different vendors, and finally out of
the parking lot. Whew! And I did not even have to pay for 20 hours of parking.

We made the launch point with minutes
to spare before 4pm, which is the latest
they will let you go. After shoving
cameras, phones and few other things we
did not want wet into a waterproof
bucket, we were off coasting down the
mellow green waters of Dordogne. The
very first dip of the paddle brought a
flood of memories of running rivers like
this in in Slovakia, Poland, Romania and
of course in Czech, since when I was
about Ian's age, with my parents and
family friends. It was not so much about
conquering class III or class IV rapids,
but about just being on the river, in the nature and away from the red machine. It was
fun. And so was this.

I have to say that only the most obtuse would not immediately guess the building
material of preference for this region. The beige limestone is just everywhere... bridges,
villas, cottages, castles, cliff... well, even the wine shows it really, only in taste rather
than in colour. La Roque Gagenac is an entirely beige village blending into the cliff-side
above the river bank. After passing a handful of castles perched high above the river,
including Castlenaud (mostly controlled by the English during the 100 year war) we
landed below Benyac (mostly controlled by the French during the same period), which
we visited the day before. During a short bus ride upstream, we got a faster, bumpier,
and much less relaxing reverse replay of the same scenery we enjoyed while floating

When we arrived to Le Couleuverine, the parking lot was a parking lot again and no
signs were seen of the market that took over the town just a few hours ago. We were all
starving, which meant that the rabbit, dorado and duck did not rest long on our plates
and the Bergerac rouge filling our glasses met the same timely fate... twice... deja-vu
like. There's no better life than good life, as my parents say.

Tomorrow it's good bye Perigord and hello Provance.

SUNDAY, JULY 22, 2007

Day 12: Travel to Nimes, Spontaneous Frozen Primates...

Yet another simple breakfast later, we checked out of the old guard tower hotel and
rolled out of Sarlat on the narrow wooded roads. The morning sunlight and shadows
were striping the road and strobing in our eyes, while a newly minted music mix from
Michaela was serenading us with an eclectic mix of Muse, Porcupine Tree, Snow Patrol,
Opeth, Arctic Monkeys, Thrice, Peeping Tom, Tool and other good stuff. (Yes, I am fully
aware of the fact that I was just listing, Desiree!)

You see, we did not bring any CDs since the car brochure I read said that the car will
have an AUX jack for our iPods. Well, it does not. "No problem, we'll just listen to the
radio", we thought. While French bread, wine, fois gras, pastries and many other things
are the envy of the world, the music on the radio is not among them. So, knowing we
had a long trip ahead of us, I bought a few blank CDs from the internet cafe last night
and Michaela and I put together a few mix CDs from the somewhat limited music
collection on my laptop.

Ironically, the consensus was that it did not seem to make the trip seem any shorter. On
the contrary, as a matter of fact. Go figure.

We debated whether to stop at Carcassone, an 11th-13th century fortified city, located
smack in the middle of our trip, but we decided to forgo the stop and we did not want to
risk getting ensnared in Sunday and tourist traffic. So we simply appreciated it from afar
for about 15 minutes and then we drove on.

After getting to Nimes, and making one lap around the 1900-year old Roman arena, we
managed to park and find our Hotel L'Amphitheatre, which indeed deserves its name as
it is literally a stone-throw away from the amphitheatre. The hotel keeper said that we
were very lucky to find a parking spot, because of the concert tonight. Apparently, Arctic
Monkeys were going to be playing tonight. Go figure. Well, we planned to see the arena
tonight, just not as part of a concert.

So we went to one of the restaurants right outside the arena to eat an early dinner,
which was occasionally spiced up by the sound check inside. Then we managed to pry
some cash from a reluctant ATM and
used it to buy five tickets for face value
from a scalper. And of we were to see the
Arctic Monkeys - a young rock band and
a very old rock arena... both at the same

If we ignore the short, but intense bicker
spat, which the kids decided to have just
as we're heading to the show, the evening
was really nice and well worth it. It
certainly added a new and unplanned
experience to what would otherwise be
remembered only as one of the travel



MONDAY, JULY 23, 2007

Day 13: Arles, Glanum, Vincent and Les Baux

Today was a full, full day. We visited Arles (it's pronounced as in 'My name is Earl!'),
which is only about 20 minutes drive from Nimes. Just as Nimes, Arles is largely
underwhelming until one gets into the ancient core of the city where lie stone
monuments that have seen a couple of millennia of human generations flash by them.

We spend several hours walking through this old part of town, centered around an
ancient amphitheatre arena, and we ate lunch just outside of its shadow. Then off for
another 20 minute drive, this time along small country roads, lined with tunnels of old
tall trees, and country covered with vineyards, juniper trees and houses with terracotta
roofs against a back drop of rising mountains. In this you see a Van Gogh picture
everywhere you look.

After spending a few hours strolling
through the partially excavated ruins of a
Glanic clan settlement, from 2,300 years
ago, which was after a few hundred years
embellished with fully fledged Roman
architecture and, which again after a few
hundred years more fell into decay for
eternity. And a couple of hundred yards
away, we visited the monastery/mental
ward asylum, where Vincent Van Gogh
spent his final years and from where he
produced most of the works we easily
recognize today.

Somewhere between five and six, we were all getting hungry so we drove a few
kilometers to the south where, perched high atop the cliff lies Les Baux - a medieval
village and a castle. Seeing that we were just a few minutes away from seeing a trebuchet
being fired, we bought tickets and hurried up to the castle. Well, the demonstration took
about 45 five minute and while it was fun to see the bowling ball sized projectile being
flung for several hundred yards, it would have been more fun if we could understand the
presentation from the authentically dressed guide. And it did not help that our stomachs
were all growling with hunger. Nevertheless, we endured the hunger siege for a few
more hours and toured through the castle, before settling down for a nice meal in the
village below.

By the time we made it to our hotel in Nimes, it was 10:30 and we were all running on
fumes, including our car. While today, we managed to stick to our original itinerary
almost to a tee and without really trying, tomorrow, it will be a quiet day. Instead of
Avignon, we will simply mill around Nimes and we will leave Pont Du Gard visit until
Wednesday. Flexibility is the key.

TUESDAY, JULY 24, 2007

Day 14: Lazy day in Nimes...

All quiet on the southern front. Today was spent very inefficiently between breakfast,
laundry, internet cafe, lunch, reading, drinking coffee and eating pastries, getting diesel
for car and water for us.

Yesterday, I meant to mention, but
forgot due to battling with the flakey
laptop, that while we were visiting the
Glanum and St. Paul Monastery, it was
not only against the backdrop of the
Alpilles Mountains, but also against the
backdrop of incessant and intense
chirping     of    cicadas.    Michaela
proclaimed that it's no wonder Vincent
went over the edge and decided to part
with one of his ears. She was surprised
he kept the other one, for the sound of
the chirping was enough to drive one
crazy. But that was so yesterday.

Today, even dinner was lazy. We ate at a pizzeria right beneath our hotel window so we
did not even get to walk off any of our full stomachs afterwards. Tomorrow we're off to
Vaison La Romaine, about an hour north-east of here, via Pont Du Gard.



Day 15: Nimes, Pont du Gard, Vaison la Romaine

Rather than the familiar banging of tables and scratching of chairs which both
serenaded us to sleep as they were torn down and woke us up as they were being setup
for the day, it was the clanging of glass and buzzing of Vespa scooters that woke us up
this morning. We slowly packed up and checked out of the hotel, leaving our baggage
behind while we went to eat breakfast in one of the countless cafes near our hotel.

Afterwards, we browsed the narrow streets of old Nimes long enough for me to find a
USB wireless adapter, which will hopefully allow me to connect in the next few days, as
my laptop's internal one seems to be semi-fried. I know I'll be able to definitely use it to
continue dispatches from Chamonix, Paris and perhaps even from Vaison la Romaine;
and when we get home, I will use it for the kids' computer so it's definitely a good

It was a good thing we skipped going to
Pont du Gard yesterday, as we would not
have had enough time to enjoy it. I could
not count on all my hands how many
times in these past few days I thought of
the line from Life of Brian line 'What
have the Romans ever done for us?'. I
don't think the kids quite fathom the
technical and aesthetic sophistication of
this civilization; I don't think I quite do
and I'm in awe of it. This stuff is 2,000
years old! It's truly amazing. On the
other hand, it is somewhat depressing
and alarming that such an enlightened
and advanced civilization could give way to what by contrast is a barbaric and backward
mess for the next 1,700 years or so. It just goes to show that one should not take things
for granted. After almost 3 hours, we left Pont du Gard, and got back onto A9 in
direction of Orange on our way to our next overnight destination.

As we left Orange and started to approach Vaison la Romaine on a small country road,
the mountains to the east, which first appeared to be just part of the painted backdrop,
slowly morphed into reality. The flat country side started to undulate and on every green
bump of a hill stood either a small castle or a village with a steeple silhouetted against
the clear blue sky. Vineyards were everywhere and every row of road-side bushes we
passed rang with the chirping of cicadas.

The place we're staying, Eveche B&B, is just beautiful. It it nestled on a hill capped by an
old fortress, and is part of a whole medieval village with origins that trace well into the
Roman era, as the name would suggest, and beyond. It's permeated with narrow streets
of cobblestone, stone buildings of almost organic design. Ivy is climbing the walls and
small terraces or cozy hidden courtyards pop into view around every corner. It's really
enchanting. Rather than exploring Orange and seeing yet another Roman amphitheatre,
we have decided to explore Vaison la Romaine and its surroundings tomorrow.


Day 16: Vaison La Romaine

I'm not a picky sleeper, but last night I slept the best since we started our journey. It
could have something to do with the comfy bed, but I'm sure the lack of clanging dishes
and buzz of motorcycles played its part as well.

I'll let you all guess what we had for
breakfast on the lovely terrace with walls
covered by ivy and with the view of the
town and the mountains behind it.
Afterwards, we marched down the hill
into the 'new' part of the town, which is
built atop of old Roman dwellings. A
number of those have been excavated
enough to let one's imagination picture
large courtyards with tall columns, water
pools and promenades lined with
statues. Again, the audio-guides, coupled
with our iPod headsets, proved
immensely helpful in bringing the place
alive and before we knew it, our stomachs collectively announced lunch-time.

After lunch of provencial salad and pizza, and a litre of beer for me, we left the Roman
ruins behind, crossed an old Roman bridge and started to explore the smaller, medieval
part of the town on the hill where our B&B lies. We briefly considered driving to the
north to see the lavender fields, but given my over indulgency on 'le formidable' amount
of beer, we opted to do that tomorrow on our way out of town. Instead, we just milled
around town some more, since it's so pretty. Hopefully the pictures can convey at least
some of its charm.

In the evening we played a few rounds of card and dice games and now everyone is off to
bed to get ready for a long and winding drive to Chamonix. As I'm the driver, I should
hurry up and hit the sack as well, so I'm keeping it the ramblings short today. If all goes
as planned, next entry I write will be from the shadow of Mont Blanc.

FRIDAY, JULY 27, 2007

Day 17: Travel to Chamonix

We woke up reasonably early to yet another beautiful day in Provance. The process of
packing up for the road is getting quite routine for all of us so it did not take us too long
to get on the road. Just to spice things up, Ian decided to trip and slide on his back down
a flight of tile stairs just as I was settling the bill. He has a nice bruise and scrape on his
shoulder blade to show for it. A drop of neosporin and a band-aid later, we were on our
way to Chamonix.

Rather than taking the fastest route to
the freeway, we took a mild detour
through Vinsobres and Valreas driving
the small country roads on the remote
chance that some of the lavender fields
have     not     yet   been      harvested.
Unfortunately, we saw no vivid purple
and yellows, but only greens and
occasional mellow purple of the few sub-
prime lavender fields that were not
worthy of harvest. I suspect that we were
about 2-3 weeks too late for this altitude.
Perhaps if we had driven up the slopes of
Mt. Ventoux, we might have come across
some, but even that is not all that likely as it's almost August and lavender is typically
harvested mid-June to mid-July. Perhaps next time! The detour was still quite worth it
though as the hilly country-side, which is covered in vineyards where it is not lavender
fields or small patches of trees, is really quite beautiful.

Once we finally got ready to join the A7 freeway south of Montelimar, we noticed that it
was completely stopped and that the traffic indicator near the entrance showed red. So
rather than pay for parking on the freeway, we opted to take the state road for a little
while. It was moving, but not all that fast, especially when circling around Montelimar.
After about 25 kilometers of driving along the Rhine, and shortly after passing a four
reactor nuclear power-plant with a giant mural of a playing child on one its cooling
towers, we finally joined A7, the Highway of Sun, which by now was moving at a
reasonable clip. We entered the wormhole.

As we headed north-east, the wavy Provencal hills swelled up to the tsunami of Alps,
which first appeared to be just gray silhouettes, and then slowly turned forest green with
gray-white caps. The mildly sloped terracotta roofs on yellowish stucco houses gave way
to mountain houses with more prominent and steeper roofs.

Navigating        numerous          freeway
interchanges around the cities in its path
went well until a minor faux pas at
Grenoble, which took us through the
city, rather than around it. While I really
did not mind all that much driving
though the city and having to make a
couple of course corrections due to
highly confusing signage, I did make a
mistake of mentioning that this detour
could have easily been avoided if the
requested look-ahead for the next
destination was performed by the
navigator. This resulted in the navigator
resigning her post, citing susceptibility to car sickness and some lame reason about the
road atlas being difficult to interpret across page boundaries.

Due to the slight delay in the beginning of our journey, and now being without a
navigator, I decided not to take the ultra-scenic route through Col des Aravis, the pass
east of Annecy, but rather continue through the faster and easier to navigate wormhole
of the freeway. This was a good choice and was not short on sights either. For the last 30
kilometers or so, Mont Blanc itself was trying to play hide and seek with us, using fluffy
clouds and other surrounding mountains for cover, but was about as successful as a
buffalo trying to hide behind a tumble weed. It's one honking piece of rock indeed.

We finally arrived to Chamonix, not too far off our planned time and not too late to
stock-up on some food stuffs for the next three days of local mountain activities. We
procured most of the essentials, like cheeses, smoked country ham, bread, butter, beer
(dang, I'm listing again) and milk, at a boucherie/fromagerie shop just around the
corner from our condo, which is located a few steps off the main pedestrian and market
street of Chamonix.

After piling the supplies into the fridge, we walked the street, while casually glancing at
the restaurant menus to see if we could spot cuisses de grenouille - frog legs. Since we
did not find any on our third try, we gave up our search and just parked it right there for
another two and a half hour dinner. Time between courses was spent talking, watching a
close by street performer and occasionally sneaking a peek at tomorrow's destination,
the Aiguille du Midi poking its needle tip through the clouds high above the roof tops.


Day 18: Aiguille du Midi, Hiking to Montenvers, The Sea of Ice

Sugar! We forgot to get sugar for our morning coffee! Luckily for us, this place is not as
French as the places we visited before and the nearby supermarket is open on all days
and early in the morning. Chamonix is without a doubt the most touristy - one can hear
Italian, German, Dutch, Czech, and above all English, particularly the British kind. And
of course, there is some French spoken here as well. :)

After a first home-made breakfast in weeks, which we enjoyed on the terrace with the
view of the saw-tooths of the Mont Blanc massif, we walked through the town to the
gondola for the Aiguille du Midi, where we bought a family two-day pass for many of the
local lifts and trams. Twenty minutes and 2,800 vertical meters later, we disembarked
the second swinging gondola near the top of the needle. Ian, as he's gotten used to doing
at the several chateaux we visited, peeked over the railing of the bridge right after the
tram platform and, somewhat to my relief, his reaction was not the usual one. He
quickly moved away from the rail, turned a bit pale and proclaimed that he was scared.
From that point onward it was a bit of a challenge to get him close the the railing for
pictures. So he is capable of fear, our little one. He keeps it hidden well.

The views from the top platform,
reachable by an elevator through the
shaft in the rock, were truly jaw-
dropping. I'll let the pictures speak for
themselves, as best as they can. An hour
later or so, after getting sufficiently
intoxicated by the views and by the thin
cold air, we headed back to the valley for
a quick lunch.

Then we packed a couple of small
backpacks with water and jackets and
headed back up the same lift. A few ear-
pops later we reached the first relay
station where we started an afternoon hike to Montenvers along the trail, which pretty
much follows the 2,300-1,900 meter contour of the Mont Blanc massif to the next valley
to the east. In this valley lies a fairly large glacier called Mer de Glace, or Sea of Ice.
There, at the foot of the glacier, is an inn and a top station of a mountain railway.

Before taking the train to the Chamonix in the valley below, we stopped for a beer and
coffee at the inn and then headed down another small gondola to the foot of the glacier,
which had several tunnels bored into its 50 meter head-wall. Yeah, that's tall, but it's
only one quarter of the glacier's depth. We were able to walk quite a ways, perhaps 100
meters or so, into one of the tunnels. I don't know if you have seen the movie Ice Age,
but inside the glacier, I was reminded of a scene from this movie. The ice was so clear,
you could easily see a foot deep inside the wall of the tunnel. This was in stark contrast
with the outside of the glacier, which is
covered in ash-like dust and rocks,
which makes it hard to tell that this is
actually ice and not a rock field.

After being nearly rocked to sleep on the
bumpy train ride down into the valley,
we left the train station and stopped for
a quick dinner. Today, we definitely
could not withstand a two hour dinner
without falling asleep. So now Ian is
sacked out in his bed, Carol and girls are
watching Gladiator DVD and I, for a
change, am almost done writing today’s
blog entry and it's not even 10pm.

SUNDAY, JULY 29, 2007

Day 19: Aiguille again, Le Brevent...

Despite the shutters being closed, thus leaving our bedroom very dark, my eyes popped
open at 7:00 sharp. I pushed the shutters open and seeing a blue, blue sky, I decided to
wake up the girls to see if they were up to going to the top of Aiguille du Midi again.
Surprisingly, they got up without any grumbles and less than 20 minutes later we were
ready to leave the door. It was at this point that I realized I could not find my phone - I
even tried to call it from Carol's phone. No luck! I must have lost it on the train last
night as I remember vividly checking the time before getting on the train. Doh! This is
not a good trip for our electronics. But I

The tram to the peak was half-empty and
the girls and I were the only ones not
sporting backpacks full of ropes, ice axes
and crampons. The view today was much
clearer than yesterday; we counted 6
separate horizon lines of jagged peaks.
When we could no longer feel our fingers
from the cold, and when we started to
feel slightly dizzy, whether from the lack
of breakfast or lack of oxygen I don't
know, we reluctantly descended to the
valley, where we rejoined Carol and Ian
just before 9am.

A coffee cup and a few pieces of bread and butter later, we were back on our way out;
this time to the opposite side of the valley where lies Le Brevent and right below it
Planpraz, a popular launch point for paragliders. Kids and I hiked about half-way down
to Lac Brevent before I made them turn around as it was getting past lunch-time.

Back down in the valley, we ate lunch on a
terrace of a bistro where Ian had a plate
of cuisses de grenouille with garlic and
parsley. All this looking for frog legs and
the place that ends up having it is the
closest to our condo. Doh!

After lunch we went to have fun riding
wheeled luge down a half-mile track.
While there, we checked whether anyone
found my phone on the train. Still no
luck. Oh well. Bummer! I'll be without
music for the flight back to US, but at
least it was not an iPhone.

Dinner was a simple one and eaten at home today. Carol and the girls played dice and
drank wine on the patio, while Ian spent his evening filing flat rocks into spear tips and
other stone-age tools. Tomorrow at 10am, weather permitting, we have a rendezvous by
the gondola to Planpraz, with 5 guys who will be wearing what will appear to be very,
very large backpacks.


MONDAY, JULY 30, 2007

Day 20: Adventure day of Parapente, Zip-lines and Luge

I was woken up in the middle of the night by Carol, who was in turn woken up by the
sound of heavy rain outside. Dang! I guess our rendezvous at 10am will have to be
canceled. It perhaps was not meant to be. We fell back asleep and by the time the
morning came, the rain was gone, but the fog-like forest vapor clouds were still covering
the valley. By 9am however, holes were beginning to open up to offer glimpses of a deep
blue sky through the air washed by the night's rain and crisp peeks painted with a fresh
coat of snow. At 9:30, the phone rang and Nicolas, on the other end, said that things
were looking up and we should go ahead and meet him at the bottom of Planpraz at 10.
So we did.

By the time we exited the gondola at the top of Planpraz, the clouds were beginning to
tear into ever finer shreds. Mother nature gave us a green light after all. It was a go!
Nicolas, David and three other pilots, unrolled the canopies from their large backpacks,
and checked the lines and rigs. Then everybody strapped into their harnesses and
helmets and we were given brief and simple instructions to start running on the count of
3 and not to stop running until there was no ground touching our feet.

David, Nicolas and the others exchanged a few loud and terse commands in French, to
assure everyone was ready to roll, and once the wisp of a cloud that was surrounding our
grassy runway cleared, it was "Ready... 1, 2, 3". I made two steps and WHOOSH! As the
the canopy unfurled, we were stopped by its drag. Then it rose high over our heads and
we could run again. Ten steps or so later, my feet were treading nothing but air.

As I was settling down in my harness, I heard two more canopies being unfurled. Ian
and Michaela. By the time Carol and finally Milana launched, all within the space of
about 30 seconds after I started running, I was too far to hear anything but the slight
whistle of the air rushing around web of thin lines suspending me and David, my pilot,
under the canopy over our head.

It was a dream-like and extremely
peaceful experience. Nothing like the
nerve-racking and toe-curling feeling one
gets when glancing from heights with
your feet on the ground, whether it's the
Eiffel tower, a tall steeple balustrade or
vista of Aiguille du Midi. It does not seem
to matter to one's mind that the rail is
plenty high and sturdy enough to stop a
charging rhino, nor that it is fastened to
an enourmous slab of concrete atop an
immovable rock. The stomach still
dances and pulse quickens. So why is
there not a trace of that anxiety now,
with the valley floor over 3000 feet below your two dangling feet, suspended mid-air by
nothing but harness, a few dozen of lines and a smartly sown wing of thin nylon fabric?
I, for one, have no clue!

No words can do justice to describing the experience of the 20 minutes spent floating
down to the valley floor. Even the pictures, as nice as they are, offer only a peep-hole
perspective. David and I spoke some, but only occasionally, because as he said, "It's too
much for words... It's like a dream, no?"

I'd do this again in a heartbeat. It literally took hours to get the grins off our faces. Even
Carol, who is not too fond of motion rides, had a blast and suffered only very minor head
woozies about half-hour after her feet touched the ground on a small patch of grass back
in Chamonix. Ironically, this adventure was actually her idea and it took some
convincing on my part. On the way back to our condo, Ian proclaimed to Carol "When I
grow up I will definitely take my kids to do this." That's a pretty clear thumbs-up signal
as far as I'm concerned.

After a quick lunch of butter, cheese and smoked ham sandwiches back at home, we
headed over the to the luge place again, to use up our few remaining rides and to spend
the afternoon climbing ladders onto high platforms in the trees, riding zip-lines and
using tension lines to jump into big nets. On our last run down the luge, Carol managed
to flip her luge out of the track and on the grass. Luckily she did not get hurt too bad and
got away with only a slight bruise. The only permanent casualty appears to be her white
sweater, which has a nice big grass stain on the elbow she bumped.

We capped off the exciting day with the obligatory, and I suspect hunger induced, bicker
spat of our children and by doing a badly needed laundry chore. Tomorrow, we're
packing up and heading to Lyon. Time to go to bed.


TUESDAY, JULY 31, 2007

Day 21: Travel to Lyon, best dinner yet...

By the time we ate breakfast, and cleared out the condo in Chamonix, it was noon. The
drive to Lyon with a short stop to gas up and a slight congestion near Geneva took us
about 2:30 hours. Mont Blanc kept an eye on us pretty much all the way to Lyon.

We got two adjoining rooms on the third floor on a rounded corner of the of Hotel
Carlton which overlooks a large pedestrian square Place de la Republic. Carol was
starving since she skipped her lunch as she was busy cleaning up the condo, so we
almost ate an early dinner at 4pm at one of the nearby cafes on the Place de la Republic.
However, just before we were about to order, we realized that eating here would
sabotage our opportunity for a later and a nicer dining experience, so we got up and left,
but not before getting a dirty look from our waiter who just arrived to take our order.
OK, we definitely deserved that.

Carol grabbed a quick bite to eat from one of the food stands and I went off to drop off
the car at Lyon's St. Exupery Airport. It took me just under two hours to do that as the
airport was a ways away from our hotel at the center of the city and then I had to take
taxi back.

When I got back, I had dinner reservations made at a small restaurant Le Francois
Villon per recommendation from my parents. We got ready and walked to the
restaurant, which lies in one of the small cobblestone streets of the old part of Lyon,
right under the hilltop capped by Basilica Notre-Dame de Fourvière. The buildings along
these streets have many doors which lead to hidden passageways to other nearby streets.
They are almost like streets within the buildings and also serve as access paths to tiny
courtyards and inner apartments. Apparently these passageways were used extensively
by the French resistance during the WWII and gave the occupying Nazis quite a
headache. Since we had only little time before our dinner, we briefly explored only one
of them.

We had much good food on our trip thus
far, but this dinner definitely tops the
list. The place is small and intimate, yet
not fru-fru at all. All five courses from
the entree to the dessert were exquisite
as was the bottle of 420 Nuits rouge.
Even though our young waiter did not
speak any English, we did not have much
trouble figuring things out, until the end
where he was trying to warn us that the
plates of desserts the girls and I got with
our Menu Gourmet were indeed grande.
When I asked him to repeat what he
said, he actually apologized for not
speaking English. I laughed and told him, as best as I could that it should be us who are
apologizing for not speaking better French.

After leaving our table and saying good-nights to our waiter, we walked up the many
flights of stairs leading to the steep street above, which winds to the illuminated basilica
for a view of night-time Lyon under a full moon. By the time we got back, and fell asleep
it was almost 1am. It was a yet another good day. Despite being a travel day, it involved
no argument between the driver and the navigator, nor among the passengers and, as
best as we can tell, we did not suffer a casualty in the electronics department either.


Day 22: TGV to Paris, Touring Sewers and Shopping Rue de Rivoli

Last night won the prize for the best dinner, and this morning at the hotel's breakfast
buffet was, without a doubt, the worst coffee - ever! Gorgeous hotel, terrible coffee! I
had to exercise restraint not to proclaim "WTF!?" out-loud! Really! It was like drinking
sand-paper. Unfortunately, as we were on a time-table to be out of the hotel and at Gare
Lyon Part Dieux to catch our train à grande vitesse at 10am, there was no chance to
remedy the situation right there and then. I vowed to seek reparations and get better
coffee later in the day.

During check-out, Citibank (or someone along the credit authorization route) performed
their routine coin-toss, ended up with tails and thus decided to decline the charge.
Lovely! Luckily we also had Visa and the cash. However, the shuffle caused us to miss a
bus to the train station, which means we had to wait about 10 minutes for the next one.
This was a bit too close for our comfort for getting to the train station on time. I mean,
we still got there over 20 minutes early, but dealing with uncertainties of how long the
bus ride is, how far of a walk it is to the train station and what the process is once getting
there, made me get a little bit nervous.

The train ride was smoother than I
imagined. After the train rolled out of the
station, it started to pick-up speed
through the outskirts of the city and once
we cleared the urban area, it kicked into
high-gear and the countryside became a
blur unless you looked into the distance.
Less than two hours later, as I was
finishing typing up yesterday's blog
entry, we were slowing down again, but
this time on the south-east outskirts of
Paris. When disembarking the train, we
got our first close encounter with a

severe case of BO; enough to make one's eyes water. Being in the close confines of the
coach staircase made the matters only worse.

We got everyone and their luggage off the train and down to the correct metro station in
record time, but then we got stuck. We spent all our change on the bus ride, MasterCard
was still tossing tails and Visa card did not read in many of the automatic ticket
dispensers, which did not seem to be equipped with paper money readers as some tend
to be.

This is when I also encountered the first rude French person on this trip. In my strife to
get change, I bought a bottle of water from a magazine shop and paid for it with 10 euro,
asking whether I could get change back in coins. Despite having a fully stocked drawer
with change, the old tooth-less lady replied that she did not have any, which was a plain
lie. So I told her that I did not want the water after all, after which she got miffed. I just
stood there smiled at her and asked her to give me my 10 euro back, if you please. She
did, and I left the store, followed by a barrage of words I did not understand. Perhaps
she was saying, Welcome back to Paris!. Yeah, that must have been it!

After finding out that we could buy tickets from a person in a nearby booth, rather than
from an automaton, we were on our way to our hotel. Time to procure metro tickets: 30
minutes; time to travel by metro: 10 minutes; time to walk to the hotel: 5 minutes.
Priceless! Doh! Despite this minor delay, we still got to our hotel in time to check-in and
grab a good lunch at Cafe du Marche, where we ate right after we arrived to Paris tree
weeks ago.

After lunch, we went to tour a short section of the Paris sewer system. It was quite
interesting, and while it was not as smelly as I anticipated it to be, when we left, I kept
having a nagging urge to shower. That would have to wait however, as the girls voted to
spent the rest of the afternoon perusing various shops in their quest to buy a few
memorabilia in form of everyday wear. Tagging along was a grueling experience -
enough to make a grown man cry. But I hung in there like a trooper and registered no
complaints. Even Ian faired very well, although I think it did bring him dangerously
close to breakdown. If only I had not lost my phone in Chamonix, we could have safely
parted ways. But I did, and so we could not. Ian and I did make it through though.

After dinner, Carol and kids hit the sack, and I did my daily chore of offloading pictures
from the cameras and posting the two days of blog entries. It's after 1am and time for me
to get some rest. I'll need it for walking the miles in Louvre tomorrow.


Day 23: Louvre and one last evening picnic

The early morning bustle on Rue Cler woke me up around 6:30, so I got up, washed off
and headed with my laptop for a solo cup of coffee and a croissant to finish uploading
previous day’s blog. Just as I finished, the rest of the clan started to arrive downstairs so
I dropped of my laptop and we all headed to a hearty English-type breakfast to keep us
fueled for what was destined to be an exhausting day. And indeed it was.

We got to Louvre shortly before 10am and we did not leave till shortly before closing
time at 6pm. We did refuel by eating lunch at a cafeteria style restaurant in the museum
central lobby but that gave our worn-out feet a reprieve of only about 40 minutes before
we were on the go. Yet again, the audio-guides made the visit much more interesting,
but unfortunately, lot of pieces in Louvre are without a narration - after all, there are
thousands and thousands of artworks and historic artifacts. There were many times we
came across an interesting piece, alas it was without a narration. One day, they are all
sure to have one.

We did lose the kids once, but only for
about 10 minutes. Luckily, they followed
the protocol and stuck together and
headed for the pyramid exit where we
met up. Mona Lisa has moved into a
more upscale neighbourhood since the
last time I saw her, but she is still her old
self and still extremely popular. Ian got
to go past the viewing barrier, as did
several other kids, for a closer look at the
master piece and to pose for a few
pictures with this antique celebrity. One
could easily spend a week here and still
not see it all, not to mention digest it all.

We got back to our hotel via metro with our eyes closed, grabbed a quick dinner and
then off we went, sporting a bottle of wine, a few baguettes, a roll of sheep cheese and a
little bit of smoked country ham to enjoy one last light show at the park by the Eiffel
Tower. It was a long day, but a very good one. And as best as I can tell, on this last eve
here in Paris, the same can be said of our whole trip. Au revoir!



Day 24: Going home...

One last breakfast of coffee and croissants, one more jaunt on a borrowed wifi
connection at the cafe to upload the last day's blog and we were on our way to the
airport. It took four trains and while it went very smooth, it went longer than we
expected. So instead of the expected 2 hours ahead of departure, we got to the airport
1:15 ahead.

Luckily we asked where to check-in for UA flight 943 at the First Class non-existent line-
in and the nice lady looked to her left at the huge mass of people waiting in line,
grimaced and said "Here." And that was a good thing. Although we completely skipped a
massive check-in line and the walk from there to the gate involved 3 different smoothly
going security checks along the way, it was a long walk indeed. We arrived at our gate
just in time for one last visit of toilettes on this continent and then our boarding group
was called. And we thought we were allowing extra time. We'll know better next time.

So here I am, 33,000 ft midway over the
Atlantic    Ocean     heading      towards
Greenland, pecking at what is most likely
the last blog entry for the trip. Girls are
plugged into their iPods, Ian's playing his
gameboy and Carol is reading one of the
magazines that Pierre Awoo dropped off
before our trip.

I hope everyone will remember the trip
fondly. I know I will. While it was
certainly not wrinkle-free, it went for the
most part as planned and we got to taste
a bit of French culture and to see many
different places of this history-laden country. Also, while it was not free of occasional
conflicts among the crew, it was certainly no-more, actually most-likely less, than we
encounter at the comfort of our home. I can safely say that we have managed to avoid
the dreaded submarine-syndrome, which has been reported to sink many extended
trips into oblivion.

Let's hope the rest of the journey back to Roseville will go as smoothly as it started this
morning in Paris. Time to go... battery... almost... gone.

P.S.: Yes, we made it home safely and on time. House is all decked out with TP, tri-
colour and a welcome sign. Pierre Awoo, who we found drunk inside the house, claims
he did not do it. Everyone is fast asleep and I will be too, as soon as I tip-toe around all
the partially unpacked suitcases and lay my head on my pillow. It's good to be home!