Paris – June 2017

We left Tours on Friday, June 23rd and took the TGV to Paris Montparnasse which took a little over 1 hour. Said goodbye to Lisa and Rich at the train station and we went our separate ways. It was great to have spent six days with them as we simply do not see them enough. 

We took a cab to our apartment which is in “Le Marais”. Historically we have always stayed in the “Quartier Latin” but the last time we were here we spent some time in The Marais and in the tiny sector of St. Paul (within Le Marais) and really enjoyed it.

“Le Marais” – It wasn’t until the 17th century that the Marais (meaning marsh) became one of Paris’s sought after neighbourhoods. This was thanks to Henri lV who commissioned the building of Place des Vosges in 1605. The success of the square made the Marais a fashionable area for the aristocracy and led to the construction of many hotels in the area. The popularity began to wane toward the end of the 17th century when the court was moved to Versailles. After the Revolution , the once elegant hotels deteriorated into working class tenements. In 1969, the Marais was the first district of Paris to be declared a historic district and this led to the restoration of its hotels, which are today museums, archives and libraries. 

Today, the Marais which covers the 3rd and 4th arrondissement is sought after again with trendy boutiques, galleries and eclectic stores. One area where stores are open on Sundays. It is also the centre for Paris’s Jewish community and the gay and lesbian community..

We have a comfortable apartment in an building that was a former convent (Couvent des Mimines). It was 27C degrees when we arrived on Friday; was a bit of a relief after the 37 degree temperature we were experiencing in Tours for the last week. Although the apartment is not air conditioned, it has two fans and with the slight breeze and windows opened, is comfortable.

Always know we are back in Paris when you hear the “klaxons” of the police and ambulances….a very distinctive sound!

Once we get settled in, we find the local grocery store and get provisions for our last four days here in Paris. We then head off to discover Le Marais. Out for a couple of hours just walking through the streets and getting to know our way around the neighbourhood. Hot evening, so many people sitting in the cafes’ enjoying an aperitif, and parents and kids in the many “mini” parks in the area. I love the shop windows and signs and can’t help but take pictures of them. I also enjoy peeking in courtyards and through entrances to see what lays behind the doors! I also love the fact that there are all these neighbourhoods gardens and playgrounds, a real must when most people live in apartments. Walked by this incredible “shirt shop” and I took a couple of pictures of the shirts in the windows, but when I saw the shirts inside, I couldn’t resist; I went inside and asked permission to take a picture of the shirts….Incroyable!

Find a Muji store and Robin bought himself some toothbrushes, he really likes them. As I once wrote in a previous blog… husband buys his toothbrushes in New York City, Rome and now Paris! Muji is a Japanese retail company which sells a wide variety of household and consumer goods. 

Saturday morning finds us heading off to the local market that I had read about and especially wanted to go to, “Le Marche des Enfants Rouges”. The market is the oldest covered market in Paris and was established in 1628. The name translates as “Market of the Red Children” and refers to the children clothed in red (the colour of charity) who were cared for in a nearby orphanage. Not too busy as we were quite early. A nice size market with fruit, vegetable, meat and flower vendors and a few eating places. Stopped for a coffee/tea along a side street and always love just taking the time to look at life happening around us. Locals with their baskets going to the market, at the cafe for their morning espresso and croissant, people running errands on a Saturday morning and merchants plying their trades.The Marais is quite a trendy area and one sees many different personal styles, very interesting. We also saw many parents with their children heading off to the local elementary school as seemed to be a celebration for the end of the school year. 

We visit the local “boucherie” (meat market) and have to stand in line as seems to be a locals favourite. The display cases are filled with all sorts of meats (including lamb,rabbit and horse meat), pates, prepared meats/meals, prepared salads, rotisserie chickens and meats prepared to be cooked (brochettes, breaded, etc). Watching the butchers prepare cuts of meat is very interesting, they are very quick and use very sharp knives; do not get in their way.

After a quick stop at the apartment we head off to explore Paris with the end destination being the Petit Palais. Towards the Seine, through the area of St.Paul and Le Marais, by the Hotel de Ville and the Tour de St. Jaques. I always like walking along the Seine were you find all the booksellers, some interesting characters there…..sometimes I think they have been sitting there since the last time we visited! Walk behind Notre Dame, but do not venture onto either Ile Saint Louis or Ile de la Cite, as we have been there many times on previous trips. Many tour boats going up and down the Seine. Can see the Eiffel Tower in the distance, in the same direction we are heading. Pass the Musee d’Orsay, one of my favourites in Paris, and walk pass the Louvre. Spend some time in the Tuileries Gardens and decide to have a quick lunch there. 

Hotel de. Ville (City Hall), Louvre, Eiffel Tower, booksellers along the Seine, Cleopatra’s Needle and the Grand Palais

As we were waiting for our lunch, a young boy about six years old, who had been sitting with his grandfather, got up and went to each empty table and rearranged the menus and ash trays. He was doing this with great concentration, Robin says a future waiter…. very fun to watch.

The cutest waiter in the Tuileries Gardens

Continue on, pass L’Orangerie (visited here the last time we were here, beautiful Water Lilies by Monet) and head toward the Champs Élysées.

 As we cross to go to the Petit Palais, the whole of the avenue between the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais is all cordoned off as is the Pont Alexandre lll (bridge) across the Seine, and we must go through security, including a body pat down (one line for women, the other for men). This area is blocked off and events are happening to publicize the City’s bid for the 2024 Olympics. They want to get the people of the city behind the bid. There are teams of people demonstrating and playing different olympic sports: archery, golf, soccer, hand ball, volleyball, etc. 
We enter the Petit Palais and have to go through another security check. Entrance to the Petit Palais is free. There was a trampoline set us in part of the Petit Palais as part of this Olympic bid event. Both the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais were built in 1900 when Paris hosted the Exposition Universelle. It now displays a collection of paintings, sculptures and art objects from antiquity to 1918. The building is magnificent as is its central courtyard. Mosaic floors, the grand vestibule entrance, the painted ceilings and the beautifully painted Cupola. Especially like the art deco art/glass work, even a whole room devoted to art deco furniture.

Le Petit Palais
We venture back out into the busy area hosting the Olympic bid events and make our way over to the Quai d’Orsay and exit the high security area. Some of the security police are heavily armed and all wearing body protection.; and a sign indicating that one is NOT to take pictures of the police. With everything that has happened in Paris and France in the last few years, the security seen today, probably due to this public event and number of people attending, is not surprising and in all honesty, welcome. We have to go through another security checkpoint to go into the grounds of Les Invalides. 
As we are leaving the area, we spot a Canadian flag flying; so nice to see, really gives one a good feeling. It is the Canadian Cultural Centre. It is closed, but none the less love the flag!

We decide to take the Metro back close to the Marais area. We get on the train and it says it is leaving in 4 minutes, then 2 minutes. We are all waiting and waiting and nothing happens. Now about 4 – 5 minutes after it was supposed to leave and all the doors are closed. All of a sudden two men run toward the front of the train, unlock the door (o.k., we know they work for the train) and then nothing happens. They have left this door open, so a lot of passengers, including us decide to leave the train. A young employee who assists people on the platforms informs us that some “knucklehead” pulled the emergency stop so everything electric(?) had to be reset and the train would leave shortly. We all get back on the train and eventually it leaves.

We decide to disembark at St.Michel and we walk to Ile Saint Louis……Notre Dame extremely busy as usual and so many tourists around. When I see these crowds and experience the heat (27C today) it continues to remind me never to come to Europe in July or August!

Cross the next bridge and a series of three high speed police pontoon boats are speeding down the Seine. Police patrols everywhere and carrying guns….big guns! As I said before, good to see. 

Now late afternoon, so we decide to stop and have a “cold” drink at an outdoor cafe in the 4th arrondissement , our apartment in the 3rd. Well folks, I think we picked the best place we could have, we had free entertainment for one hour. We went to a cafe in a block from the Quai d’Orsay so it wouldn’t be so busy with noise and traffic. The police have just set up a blockade and stopped traffic from entering two streets just by the Tour Saint Jaques. We find out from the waiter that the Gay Pride Parade will be starting later this afternoon, so Rue Rivoli blocked off, and they have rerouted the traffic away from this area. 

Well, let me tell you there is a lot of honking going on and very mad people driving as it is hard for all this traffic to get rerouted to the Quai d’Orsay. There is one policeman and one policewoman here. The traffic is crawling around this corner we are at, trying to all merge toward the Seine boulevard. Some try to stop and convince the police that they need to get into the sector, but these two young police guards are having nothing to do with it, whistle at them and wave for them to continue on their way.The funniest thing had to be a local gentleman who was incensed about this blockade, yelling at some of the drivers about how ridiculous being made to detour and sometimes waiving cars on as if to assist the police. In the midst of all this, motorcycles are weaving in and out between the cars and trucks. 

At one point, the young policewoman gets tired of trying to stop drivers and motorcycles from getting through as the barricade gates did not block the whole street. She finds an industrial size garbage bin and moves it, by herself, so that it forms part of the blockade…, no one can get through! Sometimes it can be entertaining to simply watch the world going by. 

Just a little history on the Tour Saint Jaques. This 52-metre (171 ft) gothic tower is all that remains of the former 16th-century Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie. The church was demolished in 1797, during the French Revolution, leaving only the tower which is now considered a national historic landmark. Apparently also part of the Compostela of Santiago pilgrimage route. Have been by here many times on previous trips, but never knew its’ history…now I do.

Tour Saint Jaques, picture taken on our morning walk before street blockaded in the afternoon.
Paris has a bike sharing program, Velib which seems to be well used by locals and tourists alike. A company called “CityScoot” had now introduced a scooter bike sharing program. It was launches in 2016 and has 1,000 electric scooters. One uses an “app” to find a scooter, get a code and ride (.20 Euro per minute). No, not going to try it! This is one city I for one will not drive in….just too many crazy drivers weaving in and out of traffic…..lots of mangled/scratched cars in this place.

Another great day in Paris, I think Robin’s fit bit is in overtime….not quite as much a Lisa’s though, saw her and RIch’s steps today…yikes!

Sunday we decide to go to the Picasso Museum which is just around the corner from our apartment. When you only have a few days in Paris, you really need to plan your days when it comes to visiting museums as they are closed on various days. As we are entering the museum, a young girl comes up to us and offers us free tickets, she says part of their group did not come and they could not get refunds. We offer to pay her but all I have is a 5 Euro note or a 100 and all Robin has are 50 Euro notes. She takes the 5 and everyone is happy. I told her we would pay it forward when the opportunity presented itself….I do believe in this sort of karma!

The Picasso Museum is located in the Sale Mansion which was built in 1659. It is called the Sale (which meant salty) as was owned by a gentleman who made his money collecting a tax on salt! The museum/mansion was closed from 2009-12 for renovations and they did a glorious job. Our timing was right as we were early so not too many other people around. Beautiful Picasso works covering his career and the top floor had his own collection including works by Miro, Renoir, Matisse and others. It is so interesting to see the evolution of Picasso’s work. We spent a couple of hours at the museum and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Stop for a coffee and Robin informs me that he is going to order a cappuccino. I ask him why, as he has not had a cup of coffee for fourteen years since he overdosed on coffee on a trip to Italy. He says “I just feel like it”, but afterwards he tells me that won’t be happening again anytime soon. Love just sitting in the cafes and watching the people walk by…got some great pictures here of lots of people dressed in their own personal style!

Walking through the Marais in the last few days, we have noticed lots of pop up shops featuring designer clothes for sale, very different styles, definitely not run of the mill shops. Not sure if this is just taking now or if this is ongoing. Interesting to look.

We walk to Place des Voges, which is nearby. This square was commissioned by Henri lV in 1605., and he told the nobility to build their houses around the square, but they had to respect certain rules, such as using brick (quite unusual for Paris). The square was originally called Place Royal until the Revolution. In 1799 it was renamed Place des Vosges after the department of Vosges that had raised the most taxes for the revolutionary wars. This was the first public square in Paris. Beautiful arcades/galleries surround two sides of the square. Spend some time relaxing in the square.

Place des Vosges

Then a little further we arrive at the Bastille and the Sunday market is underway. We stroll through the market and buy some lunch. Doesn’t seem to matter whether or not we need something, still enjoy the experience of going to the markets. Take in the view of the Opera House as well while we are here.

Decide to venture further out and we take the metro to the Champ de Mars, which is the large garden at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. As we are about to cross a street heading towards the Champ de Mars, we get stopped by a young gentleman. He asks us not to cross the street as there is a film scene being shot and speeding cars will be coming through. One of the bystanders asks who is in the film, but he says he is not allowed to say. The speeding cars do come through as well as police cars an armoured vehicle and several police motorcycles. Not very long and we are allowed to proceed. 

Eiffel Tower, Claire at the Picasso Museum and Robin having a coffee after 14 yrs!
Spend some time at the Champ de Mars, walk a while and decide to make our way back to the Marais. We make our way to Luxembourg Gardens. Great to see all the people enjoying the gardens. The Luxembourg Palace and gardens were built in 1612 for Marie de Medici, the widow of King Henry lV. The garden today is owned by the French Senate which meets in the Palace. It covers 23 hectares and is known for its lawns, tree-lined promenades, flowerbeds, model sailboats on its circular basin. The children playing with the sailboats is really an iconic scene. As we are leaving the gardens, we here music. A band is playing in the bandstand so we stay a while and listen to the music, very pleasant. 

Luxembourg Gardens
From the Luxembourg Gardens, we walk back to our apartment down Boulevard Saint Michelle across two bridges and into Le Marais which is packed with people. Another great day in Paris…I think I said this about yesterday as well! 

Tuesday, June 26th is our last day in Paris and weather still great, 27C today. We head off and our objective today is to discover the Montmartre area. We have been before, but just to see the Basilique du Sacre Coeur. Take the metro and start off by having a coffee/tea in Place Pigalle; very civilized. At the end of the 19th century, Montmartre was full of painters, writers and musicians, all of whom were drawn here due to the cheap rents. Still today lots of musicians and painters around. 

We walk a couple of blocks and come across the Moulin Rouge. It was established in. 1889 and was named after the local windmill and one was built above the entrance. The cabaret gained a reputation for highly provocative dancing, most notably the cancan. The Moulin Rouge was the subject of the famous painting by Toulouse Lautrec and the film by the same name. Funny enough, a taxi driver in Rennes told us we must attend the Moulin Rouge as no one can do the cancan as good as French women….somehow I think it is now probably East European women doing the cancan! All right, big assumption on my part.

Incredible the amount of sex shops around this area, but I guess not surprising. Needless to say I did not take pictures of these picture windows…..only suffice to say that the Eiffel Tower played a role in the “sex” toy department. 

Make our way to the Cimetiere de Montmartre. As you walk in there is a chart you can take with you which shows some of the more famous graves and mausoleums. The cemetery was opened in 1825 in an abandoned gypsum quarry. The quarry had previously been used during the French Revolution as a mass grave. It is the final resting place of many famous artists who lived and worked in the Montmartre area. Always interesting to visit these old cemeteries and see the grandeur of some of the graves.

Cimitiere de Montmartre
One of the reasons we chose Montmartre today is that the Salvador Dali museum “Espace Dali” was open. Very near the Basilica but on a side street, one could easily miss it if not looking for it. This is the largest collection of artworks by Salvador Dali in France. Sketches, bronze works, glass work and statues. Dali’s works might not appeal to everyone, but we like to see all genre’s of artwork, must keep an open mind.

Espace Dali
Robin is just reading on the Huffington post that Salvador Dali’s body is to be exhumed for a paternity test…just too weird that he is reading that while I am writing about Dali.

Stop for lunch at a small outdoor restaurant. A beautiful setting on a back street with a lovely arbour. Strike up a conversation with a French couple next to us as she had noticed Robin had a fit bit. She told us she got a fit bit about four years ago and lost a lot of weight; she says she walks at least 10 kilometres every day. Funny what can initiate a conversation. 

Go in to visit the Basilique de Sacre Coeur and now have to go through a security checkpoint; this was new since the last time we visited. A sign indicates that one is not allowed to take pictures inside the church. Everyone is taking pictures inside the church….what is wrong with this picture? On a good point, everyone is keeping quite silent so people can pray. I read that notwithstanding the pollution, the basilica remains white as it is built with Souppes stone ( a creamy white limestone) which is resistant as granite, but it exudes calcium when it comes into contact with rainwater. The construction of the basilica starter in 1875 and finished in 1914 and is built on the highest point in the city of Paris.

Head back to our apartment by metro, pick up something for dinner and pack to return back home to Canada. We have certainly enjoyed our six weeks away and have seen and experienced a lot of new sights. Met some wonderful people along the way, joined by Suzanne, Colin and James for a few days and Rich and Lisa for 6 days. Great company along the way. 
It is always nice to be away, but we are looking forward to getting home. 

This is the end of my blog, until our next adventure. Thanks to those of you who have commented and liked my blog. I enjoy doing the research of places we visit and enjoy writing my blog. Thanks especially to my favourite travelling partner and wonderful husband, Robin. 
Till the next time…..a la prochaine!

Tours and the Loire Valley – June 2017

 I am always interested in what drives the economy of the area we are visiting. The economy here in the Central part of France is mainly agricultural. The main crops are composed of grains (mainly wheat and corn) and grapes. Sugar beet,canola, and sunflowers are also cultivated in the region.

The industrial sector is getting more and more developed, benefiting from the decentralization of Parisian industries. The main manufacturing relates to the vehicle industry, with large tire, parts, and plastics plants.

Orléans, about one hour from Tours, represents a key transport and commercial centre, with production of  chemicals, processed foods, textiles, and machinery. The region is a major provider of nuclear energy. Tourism is also an important aspect of the economy.. 

I am sure that most of you are aware of the recent elections in France where Mr. Macron came into power. On the past two Sundays, the citizens of France have voted for their legislative representatives and Macron received an overwelming majority. Will be interesting to see what happens over  the next few months in France. 

Saturday the 17th of June, we left Amboise and drove to Tours, only 30 minutes by car. We will be staying in Tours for the next 6 days with our son Rich and our daughter in law Lisa. Always a little tense getting to a new city and trying to find your new digs; and today the market was happening in Tours and our apartment is in the old town. Fortunately I had gotten in touch with our landlord and asked him the best place to park so that we could drop off our luggage, as the apartment is located in a pedestrian zone. His instructions were perfect…..parked on a side street, on the sidewalk where construction was taking place! Fortunately it is Saturday and no road work happening, otherwise we would have been towed away! 

The landlord shows us around the apartment. It also has a lovely courtyard for our use. We head off to the local train station to pick up Rich and Lisa. They arrive right on time (Trains in France always seem to run on time…except if they are on strike!). We head back to the old town, but cannot take possession of the apartment until 2:30 pm as it is being cleaned. Actually not an issue, as we are all hungry so we stop for lunch. Then walk toward the Loire river and walk around a bit, then pick up Lisa and Rich’s luggage and head to the apartment. We are parked in a car park, just a few minutes walk from the apartment. 

We need to keep going as Lisa and Rich somewhat jet lagged and from experience we all know you need to adjust to the local time as quickly as possible. The market is over, they normally close up around 1 pm, so we missed picking something up there. We head over to “Les Halles”, which here in Tours is open every day. We decide to eat in tonight and we simply pick up some prepared foods. Stop by the local “Carrefour” and pick up additional groceries and some wine….of course! Very hot outside +31.

Everyone freshens up and we enjoy a nice supper and evening in our outdoor courtyard, very pleasant and great to have Rich and Lisa with us for our time here in Tours. 

Sunday is Father’s day and so great to have Rich with us, not often that Robin is able to spend Father’s day with one of his children as they both live in Toronto. Very lucky!

We head off to Amboise, where we have spent the last five days, as we know the Sunday market is happening. The town is very busy, but we just wanted Rich and Lisa to see it, as it really is quite charming. 

We then drive onto our destination for the day, Chateau de Chenonceau, which is about an additional twenty minute drive from Amboise. 

The chateau was built in the 16th century along the river Cher by Thomas Bohier and Katherine Briconnet by demolishing a fortified castle and mill that stood on the site. They went bankrupt, it passed to Francois l. Later Henri ll gave it to his mistress Diane de Poitiers. After Henri died, his not so understanding widow, Catherine de’Medici expelled Diane and took back the chateau. Well…I can certainly understand that!

Approaching Chateau Chenonceau
The most unusual part of this castle is that it is built upon a bridge, although the bridge does not quite reach the other side of the river. There are two stories constructed over the bridge (plans inspired by the Ponte Vecchio in Venice) with a gallery that runs the entirety of the chateau. There were plans, at one time, to finish the bridge and extend the chateau to the other side, but that never transpired. 

We opted to get audio guides, which I quite enjoyed. We walked through 20 of the rooms. Wonderful floral displays in each of the rooms; the tapestries, the furniture, the fireplaces and the woodwork all in wonderful condition. When visiting these chateaux, one must always to remember to look up and look at the ceilings…..either paintings or beautiful woodwork, sometimes painted as well. Spectacular gardens on either side of the castle…..Catherine’s garden on one side and Diane’s garden on the other. The gardens are built on raised terraces to protect them from flooding from the Cher river.

I loved all the floral decorations in each of the room; stunning!

The beautiful floral arrangements at Chateau Chenonceau

During WWl, Simone Menier (Menier chocolate factory family), transformed the chateau’s two galleries to look after the war wounded. They say that her bravery led to actions on behalf of the resistance during the second World War as well. 
During WWll, parts of the chapel were destroyed which included all the stained glass, so the windows are from the 20th century. The chateau was on the demarcation line in the Second World War…the entrance was on the occupied zone on the right bank and the south door of the gallery gave access to the left bank, so it made it possible for the resistance to pass a large number of people into the free zone. I do have a fascination with everything WWl and WWll related. 

I also enjoyed touring the kitchens, located in the basement of the castle. Not sure I would have wanted to cook during these times, but everything looks interesting. You could even see how worn the wooden cutting boards and can only imagine the knives and cleavers working away on these surfaces, similar to the worn treads of the staircases due to the feet going up and down over the centuries. 

The kitchens of Chateau Chenonceau

Had lunch on the grounds, lovely to sit outside. Very hot today 32C, but fortunate to have a lovely breeze.

We head back to our apartment in Tours so we can freshen up. Lovely dinner out tonight to celebrate Father’s Day, thank you to Rich and Lisa for a wonderful day and dinner!

Father’s Day Dinner at L’Embellie in Tours

When walking home after dinner out the other night, couldn’t help but notice this display in a window. Look more closely and it looks like an ATM. Well, as it turns out you place an order for a pizza, then you come back and pick up your pizza.Not sure how the whole process works, but certainly an interesting concept!

Monday arrives and we head out by car to the local tourist office where we were to meet our guide for a walking tour of the city of Tours. As we find a parking spot, we veer to take it, but unfortunately did not see a small truck and “smash” ; we hit him. The good news is that nobody was hurt. We told Lisa and Rich to go ahead as we would deal with the situation. Well, 6 hours later, many phone calls, a tow truck (we smashed the front panel and bumper of our car and a flat tire so unable to drive) two different car rental agencies and we have a replacement car for the next 3 days. Must say that the people that we dealt with today have been very helpful.

That is the reality of travelling, sometimes these small things happen, but you can’t get mad….go with the flow!

Got back to our apartment around 4 pm and Rich and Lisa had just gotten back. Fortunately they were able to go about their day. It was 37C here today….very hot. A heat wave has struck most of France. 

As we are relaxing later this afternoon, I can’t help but notice Robin and Rich…like father like son….both watching a soccer game while on their computers!

Out for dinner tonight at a restaurant in Place Plumereau, one of the liveliest square’s in Tours.  Walk around a little after dinner, great to see other parts of the town. Always lots of people out having drinks and dinner.  Place Plumereau is a medieval quarter with quaint streets and several wood beam houses.

Chateaux are what is thought of when one mentions the Loire Valley. There are chateaux in other parts of France, but not as concentrated as here in the Loire. There are several reasons for this. 

1) By the early Middle Ages some towns had become prosperous due to trade as they were strategically placed along the Loire. So, for defensive purposes, fortresses were built to protect their territory.

2) Also, the rich fertile land was much desired. 

I read that the King owned a great deal of the land, so the nobility began to build chateaux so they could watch over the King’s land and also to defend themselves against invaders. Interesting fact that even the furniture was built with the notion of defence as well…high back chairs to protect the sitter from being stabbed from behind. Also it is said that the credenza was a table used by the nobility’s official taster to test for poison in the food. Not sure I would like that job….short tenure perhaps!

By the 15th century the Loire was effectively functioning as the country’s capital. When the 100 year war came to an end, King Francois 1, went to Italy and came back with the Renaissance movement. As mentioned earlier, he also convinced Leonardo da Vinci to come to the Loire Valley to continue his work. Due to the influence of the Renaissance movement, the chateaux became more ornate as did the gardens. A great deal of the chateaux are built with a chalky local stone called “tuffeau” (tufa). 

Tuesday find the four of us piling into our new rental car, a fiat 500, very cozy! This was the last available car in Tours yesterday, so really no choice. Also, a basic model so no GPS. I am driving so I solicit Lisa to be the navigator. She does a great job!!

We are on our way to the town of Villandry to visit the Chateau of Villandry, built near the Cher River, some 25 minutes from Tours. It is said to be one of the best examples of the Renaissance era. The chateau was built in 1536 by Jean Le Breton, the Minister of Finance for Francois l. There was a medieval castle that was destroyed to make room for the new chateau. Only one keep (tower) was kept from the medieval structure. In 1754 it became the property of the Marquis de Castellane (from Provence) who built the outbuildings and redesigned the inside of the chateau to bring it up to 18th century standards of comfort. The traditional gardens were taken out in the 19th century to create an English style park around the chateau. In 1906 the castle was bought by Joachim Carvallo and remains in this family today. Carvallo restored the castle and then brought back the Renaissance gardens. 

Villandry, the Chateau and outer buildings

We decide to see the gardens when we arrive, it is already 25+ degrees. There are several different gardens

1) The Ornamental Garden – low boxwood hedge designs with floral centres

2) The Water Garden 

3) The Sun Garden 

4) The Maze – no dead ends, can’t get lost!

5) The Herb Garden

6) The Vegetable Garden

7) The Woods – did not go into the woods

The Group – Robin did not get lost in the maze!
Not sure how many gardeners they have on staff, but there were certainly a great number of them working while we were touring. In one section they were in the midst of taking out bean plants and lettuce. I stopped a young gardener and asked what they did with the plants they pulled out, were they given to the poor? He told me that due to government rules and health regulations, they were unable to do so; a real pity. They are now using modern organic growing methods, even to the point of introducing certain insects to reduce or negate the use of chemical plant treatments. 

Each year, in March and again in June, the planting schemes are changed. The crops are rotated every three years to ensure the quality of the soil is not depleted. Colours of plants are taken into consideration when planning out the gardens. All the water on the grounds is recycled through the various canals and fountains. The gardens are bordered by pear trees; quite a few pears on the trees. All the plants in the vegetable, herb and ornamental gardens are all marked so that one knows what is growing.

The garden plot plans and names of plants used in each area.

We then walk through the rooms of the castle which are furnished. Lovely tapestries and art work. I was especially taken with a wooden ceiling in the Drawing Room. I read later that the ceiling came from a ducal palace which was built in the 15th century in Toledo, and when it was dismantled, it was bought by Carvallo and brought back to Villandry. 
Some interior shots of Chateau VIllandry
The wooden ceiling

So……my thoughts on Chenonceau vs. Villandry…….Chenonceau is a killer chateau in a beautiful setting and Villandry has unbelievable gardens! There it is in a nutshell! In all honesty, these two chateaux are well worth visiting! Enjoyed them both.

We stop for a light lunch in the tiny village of Villandry…..a typical french lunch…a potagier salad for Lisa, a croque Monsieur for Rich and a salad of tomatoes and chevre cheese for me….yummy! It is sooooooo hot; I think around 37C!

We then drive on to the little village of Langeais, which I had wanted to visit; really can’t remember why, but glad we saw it. A sleepy little town with the centrepiece being the Chateau de Langeais and the local church. The buildings in the town looked like they have all been recently cleaned. This little town is so pretty with its flowers on the bridges, a stream running through the town and its winding streets. Funny thing is that it almost looks deserted. We peek into the courtyard of the chateau, but decide enough chateaux for the day. Walk on to the church, not sure of the name, so I try to look it up only to find out there are two churches in this small town….of course there is!

The small village of Langeais
Chateau Langeais

So it was either the Church of Saint John the Baptist or the Church of Saint-Laurent. Inside the church was a banner celebrating the 700th year of the birth of Saint Martin, which took place last year in 2016. Around Tours and the area a lot of mention of Saint Martin, also silver markers in some of the sidewalks in Tours and signposts in the countryside referring to the route of “Saint Martin of Tours” , reminiscent of the markers one sees for the Camino Compostela of Santiago. Saint Martin was a soldier in his earlier life and then became a cleric. When you see the posters or pictures of him, it shows his cloak torn in half. It is said that he once cut his cloak in half with his sword to give to a beggar. Also, Tours was a stop along the Camino of Santiago. In my reading I found out that the Path of Saint Martin is a pilgrimage walk for the towns that Saint Martin had visited. 
The church in Langeais

Back to apartment to cool down and relax prior to dinner. Out to “Mamie Bigoude” for a dinner of galettes and crepe deserts. We opt to eat inside the restaurant as is simply too hot to sit outside. The decor in this restaurant is hard to describe. Seems to be a green and pink theme. One wall is covered with needlepoint pictures and Rich pointed out that on another wall was a needlepoint of a naked woman laying on a sofa. Cuckoo clocks on the wall, light fixtures will balls of wools hanging off of them (not sure why they don’t catch on fire!), an elk head covered with plaid material as is a bike!

After dinner we take a walk to the “Cathedral of Saint Gatien” very imposing, unfortunately it is closed for the evening. Lisa and Rich visited it the following day and said their was was very impressive stained glass windows. 

Cathedral of Saint Gatien, Tours

We continue our walk through a part of town we have not yet seen, another old sector full of restaurants. Everyone is out enjoying drinks, probably trying to escape hot apartments. We saw a couple walking down the street with two fans and the next day came across recycling boxes…all discarded boxes which were at one time holding fans. It is hot, hot , hot!!
Once again, very glad that our apartment here in Tours is air conditioned, able to sleep at night. I know I have already said that; but really… is HOT!

Wednesday we head off early to the city of Le Mans, abut one hour by car on the motorway. We find parking, then the tourist office and we decide to separate. Rich and Lisa head off on their own as do Robin and I. We meet a couple of hours later for lunch. The local market is going on so we opt for some baked goods, then stop for a coffee/tea….in the shade. Walk up to Saint Julien Cathedral and go inside for some contemplation and prayer. It is undergoing some restoration work, but still able to get inside. Beautiful vaulted ceilings with very impressive buttresses on the outside.

Le Mans 24 hour car race held last weekend. Each person who wins imprints their hands and feet and plaques throughout the town.

Walk around the old town, then we head back to Tours around 2 p.m. 

Le Mans old town
When we got back from Le Mans today, the electronic sign at the pharmacy indicated it was 42C. We all think that may have been off a bit, but definitely high 30’s. Those crazy kids…Lisa and Rich decide to continue seeing more sights of Tours; way too hot for Robin and I, we head to the air conditioned apartment. After all, I have to work on my blog!

For the last couple of days we have seen signs posted on the road that there would be restricted parking for the music festival happening this afternoon and tonight, June 21st. Never dawned on us that it was the first day of summer. When we got home this afternoon, we could hear the start of the music. Well, it just got louder and louder. Lisa and Rich went out for dinner and we opted to eat in tonight. I sent a text to our landlord wondering when the music would end………I get a text…midnight or maybe 2! He then knocks on the door and says “Did you not know about this, it’s the first day of summer, this happens all over France” . First I hear of it!

Robin and I venture out and what a sight. The old town (our apartment in the midst of all of this) is packed with people, not only in the old town, but further out and also down by the river. People in all the restaurants and outdoor areas, eating and drinking. Also carrying their drinks while walking down the streets. We came across a group of six policeman walking down the street…I guess making sure things don’t get out of hand. I don’t think the pictures do this festival justice. All kinds of music being played on every corner, sometimes a few doors down from each other. In the courtyard across from our apartment their is a DJ playing very loud Euro techno….oh, by the way, our stone walls are reverberating! Really! We came across a young girl about 10 yrs of age playing a piano in the museum courtyard. Two DJ’s competing, a reggae band, a steel drum band, a drumming group, the Blues Brothers in another square, a guy playing inverted steel drums, an older group of people singing accompanied by a fellow playing an electronic piano and a group of young people playing all types of trombones, saxophones and trumpets. All in all, quite the event. Lisa and I were saying we might have to put in the ear plugs we had for the flight over to Europe. Will give a further report later! By the way……did I mention it is HOT. Soaking wet again after walking around the music festival tonight. 

Just an update on “Le Festival de la Musique”….Lisa put in her ear plugs, Robin fell asleep right away (he can sleep anywhere, anytime), Rich says took him a while and I read till about 12:30 pm and then listened to the thumping music till about 1:30 am. 

Thursday, our last day in the Loire and everyone indulges me. I wanted to see a very small town about one hour from Tours, called Montresor. We are using our IPhone maps to direct us as the Fiat 500 we now have does not have a GPS. The vocal instructions on the IPhone Maps program keeps telling us to continue onto “Mont Razor”….we laughed every time she said that. As a matter of fact, if you are the one chosen to navigate, you must read the written instructions, as you can never understand the pronunciation of the names of the roads/streets/towns. 
We arrive in Montresor and stop for coffee/tea. This small town is definitely not on the tourist route, very quiet. It is almost as if we have landed in a fairy tale. Quiet streets, no one about, a castle and a beautiful stream lined with weeping willows. 
Montresor was marked on one of the maps I had picked up, as one of the prettiest towns in France. A ancient wall, a chateau, a church, ancient Halle from the seventeeth century and a walk along a small steam all add to its charm. 

We proceed to the tiny information centre in Montresor, actually quite a cute little place. They are selling all sorts of local artisans goods. We get into a conversation with one of the ladies and ends up she is English. Lisa and Rich to proceed to pick her brain as to what day trips they can take when they get to London next week. Some good recommendations. 

We continue to Loches, where Robin and I had a quick visit last week. What a difference. When we were here last week it was market day and the town was jammed packed, could hardly find a place to park. What a difference a week makes. It is so hot, we find a restaurant with some shade, unfortunately no breeze anywhere. Walk around the “Ville Royale” and decide to head back to Tours. 

On the way back we decide to stop in Montlouis sur Loire to visit a “cave”. This Montlouis cave des Producteurs is a co-operative of fifteen wine producers. Robin and Rich do some wine tsting while Lisa and I venture into the caves where they keep the wine while it is aging. These caves were dug out when in years past they were quarrying for rock to build. 

Robin and I drop Lisa off near the apartment, then we proceed to return our car rental. Take a taxi back to the apartment and get into a lively conversation with the cab driver. When he found out we were Canadians, he told us he really like Celine Dion and that three years ago he did a motorcycle trip from Las Vegas up through Calgary and the Rocky Mountains. He said he loved Canada. When I asked him if he went on the trip with his wife, he said he wasn’t married, but he had gone on the trip with his “amie”, but he no longer had this “amie”. He now had a new “amie” but she could not have the time off to go on the trip. When he found out where we wanted to go, he laughed and asked us how we slept last night as he knew it was the music festival!

Our last night in Tours and a lovely dinner out with Lisa and Rich, a toast to his 50th birthday (gosh..that is just not possible!). Head back home to pack as we are all of tomorrow morning by TGV off to Paris, a one hour 15 minute ride. We will then go our separate ways. 

It has been a wonderful six days here in the Loire with Lisa and Rich. Saw many new sights and great to spend some quality time together. Thank you to Rich and Lisa for making the effort to come and spend some of their short vacation time with us.

Off to Paris tomorrow morning!!

Amboise and The Loire Valley- June 2017

Left Quimper on Sunday morning, June 11th and arrived in Amboise, in the Loire valley around 2:30, about 5 1/2 hours by car with a few stops. To pass the time, we connected Robin’s iPod to the radio so we could listen to music. I don’t mind most of Robin’s country music, but sometimes a little “honky” so often I push the “forward” button to the next song and he is okay with that. Well today a song comes on and following are the lyrics….”He said, I will love you till the cows come home and I could only wish that the cows go blind”…..well…..I was laughing so hard, I started crying! 

First a little history on the Loire region. The Loire River is France’s longest river…both Robin and I thought it might be the Seine. Still learning things, that is why I like researching where we are and where we are going. The Loire was the region’s principal means of transportation as well as an effective barrier against invading armies. The Loire also divides France in two, both geographically and climate wise. To the north is the moist, temperate climate of northern Europe and southward lies the drier climate of the mediterranean. 

When we think of “The Loire Region” one thinks of chateaux and wine. The wine production includes several regions situated along the river from the Muscadet region on the Atlantic coast to the regions of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume in north central France. Loire wines tend to exhibit a characteristic fruitiness with fresh, crisp flavours. My friend Susan who is very knowledgeable on wines might correct me on the above, so I referred to Dr. Google for some information on the wines in the Loire. 

As far as “Les Chateaux  are concerned there are some 300+ in the Loire Valley. They started as fortifications in the 10th century to the splendour of those built half a millennium later. When the French kings began constructing their huge châteaux here, the nobility followed suit. Their presence in the lush, fertile valley began attracting the very best landscape designers. Numerous chateaux have magnificent gardens, and in all honesty, I look forward to visiting these probably more than the chateaux!

Our first apartment in the Loire is in the small town of Amboise, population about 15,000. Amboise is known for Chateau Amboise and Chateau du Clos Luce.

Chateau Amboise was first built in the 9th century and it expanded over time. This is the part I like….In 1434 it was seized by Charles Vll from its owner, Louis d’Amboise. He was convicted of plotting against Louis X1 and condemned to be executed in 1431. However, the king pardoned him but took his château at Amboise. Once in royal hands, the château became a favourite of French kings. And I say to myself…and their was a revolution why!!!!

The Chateau du Clos Luce is very near the chateau and was built in 1471. It was a summer residence for the royalty. Leonardo da Vinci was invited to spend time at the Clos de Luce by King Francois and he settled here in 1516, and lived here for the last three years of his life. It is said that the King fgave da Vinci an allowance as well as financing his works.  

Met our landlady, Pascale at the apartment which is located in the “Vielle Ville” of Amboise. 
The apartment we are in is called ” La Maisons des Cochers” (The Coachmen’s House). In the eighteenth century, the stage coaches for Tours and points beyond left from the house next door and this house was the lay-over accommodations for the coachmen. The livery for horses and coaches was a bit farther down the street. A very confortable modern apartment with great funky artwork. 

We get settled in and take a walk to the banks of the Loire River, only 2 blocks away, then into the old town to view the castle. We will definitely visit the castle while here. We decide to stop at a cafe for a glass of wine as is late afternoon and very hot. It was 30 degrees when we arrived, quite a difference from the past couple of weeks in Brittany where we have had cool weather +18C. A french couple from Paris are sitting next to us and we strike up a conversation. They were away for a long weekend in Bordeaux to celebrate their son’s birthday and they were taking their time getting back to Paris using the secondary roads. As they were leaving,they warned us to be very careful in Paris regarding the pickpockets. Yes, we said, we are very aware of the pickpockets and the different ruses they use, a good laugh recounting some of these stories. This is the second couple from Paris that we meet in our travels this year, that tell us that once they are retired, they will move out of Paris.  Everyone says too big, too much pollution and too much crime. Our landlady here in Amboise told us she and her family moved here from Paris some eighteen years ago as it was no place to raise children. We still love Paris for a few days at a time, but certainly understand their perspectives.

Lots of tourists in town this afternoon. Amboise is known for its Sunday market and we are told people come from all over to attend the market. Although we missed it, we are hoping to come next Sunday. We will be in Tours by then, but told it is worth coming back to see. 

L’Horloge, Amboise
Monday morning arrives and we head off to grocery store to get our provisions for the next few days. We had bought enough food in Quimper before we left on Sunday as we are aware that most grocery stores closed on Sundays. Good call on our part. Head off by 10 am with our rental bikes and bike along the Loire for a little ways, then the trail winds through the local farmland, vineyards and small towns. About 18 degrees when we head off and by the time we get back four hours later about 30 degrees. A couple of nice encounters along the way. 

We pass by a huge garden and there is an elderly gentleman (probably 80+) and he is weeding in his garden. We stop and I tell him that he has a very big beautiful garden and I ask if he eats what he produces. He smiles and says yes. He then tells us that he has another garden on the other side of the house that is about the same size. My friend Theresa would love working in this garden…a beautiful setting.

Later we stop in one of the small towns along the way for a coffee/tea. In these small towns the local bars are coffee houses early in the day and one goes in to order. I pass by a group of older gentleman having their coffee. Of course, I say “Boujour Messieurs”, smiles all around. So I ask them “Ca va?” ( How is it going?) one of them replies “C’est tres difficile”….(It’s very hard) and he laughs. I just love these encounters, makes the day that much better. Everyday life!

As we headed off on our bike ride today and throughout the day, we came across several people, alone and in groups, who had large backpacks and were travelling along the path. I noticed that hanging off the back of their packs they had large scallop shells. Dawned on us that they were on the Compostela de Santiago. Winn, thought of you today…..this is a friend of ours who did part of the Compostela in Spain last year. 

We cycled 42 kms today cycling through the towns of Lussault sur Loire, Montlouis sur Loire and ended up at La Villes aux Dames, just 6 kms from Tours. Back along the same route. 

Tuesday morning and I decide to get a cappuccino from a small coffee shop right across the street from our apartment. It was closed on Sunday when we arrived and yesterday as well. This coffee shop is unique for France. The young man who owns it grinds the coffee beans as you order, not done before as in most shops. He even asked me if I wanted a single or double shot. I told him not many places in France ask you that. A young lady with her dog in the shop so we speak for a few minutes. She told me she spent fifteen years in Canada and thought my accent was a bit different then what she was used to. She had lived in Quebec and was used to their accent. 

As I was leaving the coffee shop, two elderly gentleman on the street were speaking, so of course I say “Bonjour Messieurs”, they both reply. As I walk by, they are saying goodbye and one says to the other, “Have a nice day” the other man replies “I will try”. So I say to the man that is walking along side me now “He will try to have a nice day” and he tells me that the man he just spoke to is “very poor and struggles in life”. Oh my, one goes along merrily and then the reality that not everyone has things easy in life is indeed the truth. One should never judge others as we do not know what they are going through in life. Once again I am reminded of how fortunate Robin and I truly are!

Off to the bike rental shop and today we are trying electric bikes. We are cycling “La voie royale”….(The royal route). We leave around 9:30 and still cool enough that we needed light jackets. Left Amboise along the Loire, then up through the countryside passing some lovely homes. Through the Foret d’Amboise then arrive in the small town of Blere where we stop for coffee/tea. We are now cycling along the Cher River, which in all honesty seems to be larger than the Loire. A couple of locks along the river, but a local told me that their aren’t any boats along the river. Just some tourist boats near Chenonceaux. 

La Foret Amboise, a lock on the Cher River and a beautiful cross in front of a vineyard.
As we were riding through the forest, we came across some people who were cutting and gathering fire wood. There were also piles of stacked firewood throughout the clearing and they were all numbered or had initial painted on the sides. My guess is this signifies who the wood belongs to.  There must still be a lot of the older homes that use wood for heating, as in our travels we have seen lots of wood piles. 

The Cher River and the town of Blere. Lots of umbrellas hanging above the streets, not sure why!

Continue on our way and make it to Chenonceaux where we stop for lunch. Do not visit the chateau as we will be visiting next week with Rich and Lisa. We are doing a circuit and cycling back to Amboise and there are lots of uphill sections…..great to have the ebikes and we kick in the electric feature going up the hills. Well I think both Robin and I are converts when it comes to the ebikes. Will definitely have to look into converting our city bikes when we get back home. Another great day of riding, gone about 5 hours today. Great day for riding as was not too hot and nice coolness when riding  through the forest..

Another great day for riding in the Loire region.

Rillettes — a new favourite over pate. The preparation of meat similar to pate. The meat is cubed or chopped, salted heavily and cooked slowly in fat until it is tender enough to be easily shredded, and then cooled with enough of the fat to form a paste. They are normally used as spread on bread or toast and served at room temperature.

We decide we want to go to Saumur, but realize when we put the location into the GPS in the car, that it would take 1 1/2 hours and we decide to pass, don’t want to spend three hours in a car today. So we look at our map and decide to go to Loches instead. Wow, talk about a lucky choice. When we get to Loches, which is only some 30 minutes from Amboise, the weekly market is happening. Mind you when this is happening, it’s always hard to find parking, just need persistence…follow someone walking toward the car park! 


Stop by one of the meat/cheese vendors and he gives us a taste of some of his products. Asks us where we are from , when we say Canada, he asks if from Montreal. I tell him we are from the west, so he asks if from Salt Lake City or Vancouver. I politely inform him that Salt Lake City is in the United States. He says, very close to the border though, right! No, we advise him about 1,500 kms from Canada. A good laugh!

The market in Loches
Quite a nice market here and a very lovely town. The town is set above the Indre Valley on a rocky outcrop and is known as a “Cite Royale”. Charles Vll lived here with his amour, Agnes Sorel. Beautiful medieval and Renaissance era structures throughout the town. The Royal City is surrounded by a “donjon”. Had to look up the meaning of the french word “donjon” which came up as “keep”. A “keep” refers to large towers in castles that were fortified residences, used as a refuge of last resort should the rest of the castle fall to an adversary. Joan of Arc and Anne of Brittany also spent time in this town. 

Came across some very different and interesting art work. The town is having an art exposition throughout various venues, showing the art of a Russian artist Mihail Chemiakin.

We walk up to the Collegiale St-Ours church and go in to spend some quiet contemplation time. In the entrance of the church was part of an old tree stump that was full of thumb tacks. Had never seen this before, but was a fund raiser for a catholic organization to help the poor. Pay one Euro and you can nail a thumb tack into the log. I know, different that is for sure, but I donated my Euro and nailed in my thumb tack.

Walk around a corner to a small garden overlooking the valley and we come across a plaque on a wall, which indicated that Jean Chretien (previous Prime Minister of Canada) visited Loches and unveiled this plaque which commemorates his ancestors who lived here and immigrated to New France in 1656. Found this so interesting, what a small world.

Have a wonderful lunch at a small restaurant overlooking the valley. I get into a conversation with the waiter and when he finds out we are from Canada, he told us that as a young boy he dreamt of moving to Canada to build a log cabin in the woods! A little later a police woman comes into the restaurant to speak to the owner. Our waiter comes back and I say to him “What did you do wrong, the police are here?” His quick response back to me…”They are looking for two Canadians!”. Had an aperitif for lunch today…a sparkling white Vouvray with a bit of cassis…..yum, similar to a Kir Royale, but using a local sparkling wine. 

Art work and windows in. Loches
Store signs in Loches
Back to Amboise to meet up with Robin’s sister, Suzanne, her husband Colin and their son James who will be here in Amboise for the next couple of days. They live in England, so quite easy for them to come over, glad they have, we do not see them enough.  
Lovely spending the evening with Suzanne, Colin and James catching up. We will spend the next couple of days with them.
Thursday we head off to Chinon, which is about one hour by car from Amboise, taking the country roads. Love the scenery on the wonderful windy roads….the farmland, the rolling hills, the vineyards and the small towns dotting the hills. 
Arrive in Chinon and the market is happening today, so always a challenge to find parking. Walk around a bit through the market, stop for a quick coffee, then onto the very small town of Crissay sur Manse. 

This town is classified as one of France’s most beautiful towns. Not much to the town, but we spot at the local restaurant for our lunch, a spectacular setting overlooking the fields and vineyards. A little walk around, then back to Amboise, once again taking the back country roads.

James,, Colin and Robin waiting patiently for Suzanne and Claire
Crissay sur Manse
Out to a nice dinner tonight at an outdoor restaurant to celebrate Suzanne’s birthday.
Suzanne, the birthday girl and her big brother!

One thing that I keep meaning to mention, are the local police or tax assesors attending the markets and collecting a fee from all the vendors. At one market even noticed that the police officer was pacing off the size of the booth. Not sure what the tariff is based on,might have to ask a merchant…my curiosity always gets the best of me; I just have to find out!

Love the shop signs
Friday finds us starting off our day with Suzanne, Colin and James, visiting the Chateau du Clos Luce and the Parc Leonardo da Vinci located here in Amboise. The chateau was built in 1471 and is very near Chateau Amboise. The Clos was bought in 1490 by by Charles Vlll and for two hundred years was a royal summer residence of the Kings of France. Leonardo da Vinci settled here in 1516 after being invited by King Francois l. He was appointed “first painter, architect and engineer” of the King. Da Vinci was free to work on his many dreams here and lived in this residence for the last three years of his life. 

The beautiful grounds at Chateau du Clos Luce
We toured the Clos, but in all honesty, the part I liked the best was his workshop and the model room in the basement. Also a beautiful extensive garden where some of Da Vinci’s works are replicated; not only some of his inventions, but paintings as well. It is said that Da VInci got a lot of his inspiration from nature, specifically plants, trees and water. His workshop included many of his sketches for some of his ideas which were very interesting.

Reproductions of some of Leonardo da Vinci’s work
Head for Chenonceaux for the afternoon. Colin wanted to take the boat which goes for a tour in front of Chenonceaux Chateau on the Cher river. A different perspective in which to see the castle. Robin and I will visit the chateau this coming week with Lisa and Rich. 
Chenonceaux from the. Cher river
Our final dinner together in Amboise

Our few days with Suzanne, Colin and James have come to an end. We are so grateful that they made the effort to come over from England to meet up with us for a few days.  Off to Tours tomorrow to meet up with our son. R ich and daughter in law Lisa…we can harldy wait!

Quimper and South West Brittany – June 2017

Left Rennes on Tuesday morning, June 6th and arrived in Quimper around noon. We are in a small attached bungalow house with a beautiful garden. Very cold and blustery today and rain forecast for the afternoon and tomorrow morning. 

What a welcome we received from our host,  Olivier Francois. He stocked the fridge with homemade preserves, a bottle of local apple cider, some local salted butter, a bowl of fresh fruit, a baguette and lobster pate! Super friendly, showed us how everything worked and spent a bit of time with us telling us where we should visit. We hope to be able to use the garden area while we are here.  

A little history on the house we are renting here. In the early 50’s about one hundred families joined together to build their housing. They opened up this hillside, built retaining walls, built roads and built all the houses together. A lottery then took place to see who would reside in which house. Today, we are told that the people in this neighbourhood are very close and watch out for one another. Our host told us that he went on holiday for a few weeks, forgot to lock the house and even left his car keys in the ignition and everything was fine when he returned. Some of the original people still here and now sons and daughters of the original builders have moved here as well. Francois Olivier has redone the interior of the house; very comfortable, beautifully decorated and so well stocked. 

Although showers forecast for the next few days, should not stop us from touring the nearby towns. We always pack our umbrellas and light rain jackets, so we will be well prepared. 

Quimper sits between two rivers, the Odet and Steir. The population of Quimper proper is about 63, 000 and 120,000 for the surrounding area of the city. Quimper is known for its Faience (ceramic/pottery) which is still manufactured by hand in the Locmaria district. In 1690 Jean Baptiste Bousquet settled here as the firewood, clay and water were plentiful, so that he could continue with his craft. 

Quimper was a hub for resistance activity in WW11 and was lucky enough to avoid most of the destruction that happened in other Breton towns. 
Lots of traffic circles here as in other cities in France. Our host told us that Quimper was the one of the first towns in France that experimented with traffic circles. Robin and I don’t mind driving through them at all, just remember that whoever is inside the circle has the right of way! I have a friend (you know who you are) who hates traffic circles and will do anything to avoid them. We only have a handful of them in Calgary. I think they are a very efficient way of moving traffic, makes sense to me. 

First thing we find is the local grocery store to get stocked up for the next few days. It is so great being in Europe where one can buy everything you need, including wine in one location. We walk into the Locmaria neighbourhood and visit the Faience museum and visit a local Faience manufacturing plant. Oldest church in Quimper (X11th centrury) is also located in the Locmaria neighbourhood. 

Faience pottery, a specialty of. Quimper

The pottery’s design reflects a strong traditional Breton influence. Most scenes depict Breton men and/or woman in traditional Breton costumes going about their daily lives, all very brightly painted. In recent years, artists have updated the designs and some we saw at the Faience Museum and a well known factory, HB-Henriot. These artists have taken a more modern take on their pottery designs. One design that particularly caught my eye was a table setting. Each dish design melds into the next, then even into the tablecloth…really quite amazing. Shirley, you would love this!

Have to tell you that since we were in Budapest, Robin has come down with a really bad cough and severe nasal issues. This morning, Wednesday the 7th, I texted our landlord, Olivier Francois, to see if he could recommend a Doctor. Well 5 minutes later, I get a text giving us the name of a Doctor, but not only that, he has already made the appointment for us….WOW! This guy is so amazing! 

We head to the old town of Quimper (Kemper in Breton), referred to as the ” The Bishop’s Town”. The Cathedrale Saint Corentin towers over the old town and its spires dominate the skyline. It is built in the Gothic style and dates back to the 13th, 15th and 19th centuries. Beautiful flying buttresses and an ornately carved portal as one enters the church. Wonderful stained glass windows were made in local workshops. The choir part of the church is built out of line with the nave to accommodate an older chapel, I believe one of the pictures shows this, quite out of the ordinary. Beautiful pipe organ dating back to 1643 and has been restored several times over the years. 

We also make a stop at “Les Halles” (the covered market), which here in Quimper is opened every day, but the big market is on Saturday. Has everything one would need on a daily basis, looking forward to visiting the market on Saturday, which is not in Les Halles, but in a park area near the river. 

The streets in the “vielle ville” are named after the the trades that made their living here centuries ago….Place du Beurre (Butter Square), Rue des Boucheries (Butcher’s street), and so on. These streets are pedestrian friendly, quite narrow and lined with timber framed houses. Creperies definitely rule the restaurant scene here in QUimper and for that matter, all of Brittany. One square we stopped at for our lunch had 6 creperies…not a word of a lie!

La vielle ville de Quimper

Stop at a shop to buy some makeup removers and in my conversation in french with the saleswoman (probably about 50+) she asks me where I am from as I don’t have a Breton accent, and are we on holidays. I reply that we are from Canada we are indeed on holidays, but in fact we are also retired, so really the same thing really! She laughs and tells me she would take either, but would prefer to be retired. 

We find the Doctor’s office which is just on the outskirts of the old town. Robin has been diagnosed with bronchitis! Off to the pharmacy to get antibiotics and other medication and hopefully he will be better in a couple of days. He has had a hard time in the last couple of weeks. He finally listened to me and went to the Doctor!

In the afternoon, we head out of town and drive to the small towns of Pont L’Abbey and L’Ile Tudy. Not much in Pont L’Abbey except an encounter with some school children. As we are passing the school, I hear “Pardon Madame, aidez nous”. They are asking for my help as the ball they were playing with has gone over the fence to our side of the walk. I am about to throw the ball back and one of the teacher’s comes over and asks me if they said “please”. I reply most definitely and throw the ball back…..I get back a “merci” in harmony from all the kids. 

Drive on to the very tiny town of L’Ile Tudy. This is on the ocean and we are so near, wanted to see it. Until the 19th century it was an island until a bridge was built to join it to the mainland. At one time the village was a busy fishing port, but is now a fashionable for out of towners to have a second home, very evident. A class of schoolchildren taking sailing lessons in the harbour. Nice to be by the ocean.

Pont. L’Abbe and Ile-Tudy

Thursday sees us on the road to Concarneau, known as “Ville Bleue” as traditionally the nets that the fishermen used were made of blue twine. The town is still an important fishing port. Historically they fished for sardines and whales but today their catch is mainly tuna. Their is a fish auction every morning held on the docks. The town has a traditional festival every year to celebrate their history of fishing. This festival originated in 1905 as the sardines were fished out and fishermen’s’ families starved as they could not make a living. The nobles and merchants put on a festival to raise money to help those in need. 

The “Ville Close” (walled town) is a charming one. Not very busy in this part of the world, although we are told that in the summer, one cannot move. Lots of tourists and people who own second homes frequent this region. The old town has a fishermen’s museum and mainly restaurants and shops catering to tourists. Robin notes that most of the clothes being sold are nautical (blue and red stripes). I realize I am wearing my blue stripe shirt, who knew I could fit in so well!

 We take a navette across an estuary (took about 2 minutes to get across) and go for a walk along the promenade for about one hour. Not many people about, very nice to be by the ocean. At one point we come across some signage that indicates that Concarneau was occupied by the Germans from 1940 to 1944 and they had built bunkers along the coast. We could see remains of one of the bunkers. 

Cool and cloudy today, but fortunately it has only rained in the evenings so hasn’t cause us any problems. 
After our walk, we stop in the old town for lunch. My first moulles and frites and Robin has fish and chips. On our way back to the car, we stop at a bakery whose specialty is “kouign” and pick up a few to have with our tea later. These are small sweet cakes made of sugar, butter and almonds. Today you can also get those with varied fillings…chocolate, raisins, berries and caramel…..yummmmm. I was told they have “no calories”!

Only home about 1/2 hour when our landlord Olivier Francois arrives. He is checking up on us, mainly Robin. He asks if the house is warm enough, how is Robin feeling and do we need anything. I do believe that in all the years we have rented, he rates right up there. He is so friendly and extremely helpful. 

Meant to mention that when we were in Concarneau, there was a man looking for edible crustaceans in the rock pools as the tide was out.

When travelling by car and visiting small towns in Europe, parking is so varied. In some cases the parking is absolutely free, in other cases one needs to pay…o.k., makes sense so far. Well, you definitely have to look at the signs. Need to pay between 9 and noon, free from noon till 2 pm, then need to pay again from 2 – 6 . In other areas, you can only park for 1 1/2 or 2 hours, but it is free…so…you have to display a little blue time card and you indicate the hour you arrive. Well, when we arrived in Concarneau we parked where we needed to display the card. Unfortunately this rental car did not provide one, so being inventive, I put a small note on the dashboard saying we arrived at 10:30 and drew a picture of a clock. Proceeded to stop at the tourism bureau to get a map of the town and I told them what I did….they all smiled and sold me a time card for 1 Euro and told me to go back to my car and replace my “little note” with the time card!

Friday we decide to head north of Quimper and visit three towns, Le Faou, Locronan and Pont Croix. We got a great book from the tourism office when we first arrived in Rennes and it has been invaluable for pointing us in the right direction for towns to see in the Brittany area. These towns are classified as “Petites Cites de Caractere” or “Ville d’Art et d’Histoire”. 
Our first stop, Le Faou, is about one hour north of Quimper. Pretty sleepy little town at the head of an estuary. Tide is out, so once again we see boats sitting in the mud flats. The town street are being redone and interesting to see them working on them, No, the streets are not being paved, they are redoing it with cobblestones and them putting a cement slurry over the top to bind them….similar to grouting. We stop at a small wine shop as we wanted to buy our host a nice bottle of wine for everything he has done for us. Get into a conversation with the owner and once again when he finds out we are Canadian, he tells us about his two trips to the Montreal area. He tells me I have a nice accent and I don’t sound like a Quebecois. He says he sometimes has a hard time understanding the Quebecers….I just laugh. He also finds out we are headed to the Loire so advises us that we must visit a certain winery there, a favourite of his. A short stop here, although a nice little town, not much to see. As we are leaving he says “Bonne Ballade”….strictly translated this would mean “good walking”, but loosely translated it means “Enjoy your roaming around!” 

Le Faou

The houses in Le Faou are a bit different that the half timbered houses we have become used to seeing. The majority are smaller houses and slate has been used on the front of the homes. Again, as is most small towns in France, an old church stands in the centre of the town. Find the carvings in the stone spires and portals of these old churches to be works of art. 
Hop back in the car (got to use my little blue parking card again……getting my Euro’s worth) and drive on to our next destination, Locronan. The drives we have taken in the countryside here have been so nice. We are taking secondary windy roads, so fun to drive. Beautiful rolling hills, farmland and then the ocean in the background. Looks like most farmers have already brought one crop in and have already planted their secondary crops. Since arriving in Quimper, the weather has been cooler, but it hasn’t stopped us from seeing the sights. 

The countryside
On the way to Locronan we stop in the village of Chateaulin which sits on the side of a canal that runs from Brest on the coast to Nantes, which is in the extreme south east end of Brittany. Some French classify Nantes as part of the Loire. Stop for a tea/coffee at a “sale de the” and indulge in a almond croissant, which we share, by the way! This shop also has amazing pastries and they make their own chocolates. Not unlike other patisseries in France, all the pastries are works of art. Good thing we are walking a lot!

Locronan sits on a promontory and is said to be the religious centre of Breton origin. This town is also classified as one of the “prettiest towns” in France. The houses here are made of bue-grey granite. The town was found in the 15th century and was Brittany’s sailcloth centre, up until the 18th century. The church here is built in the Romanesque style. Went into the church, as we normally do, for some time of prayer, contemplation and thankfulness for the life we are able to lead. Some beautiful statues, carvings and stained glass windows.


Our last stop for the day is Pont – l’Abbe, where we stop for a lunch of galettes. Again a very small town and the main square where we are eating, is where the local workers are having their lunch. This is usually their main meal, and they seem to eat out a lot. Usually a beer or aperitif before their lunch then a good amount of wine with lunch and a desert and coffee. This really is a way of life for the French, no stigma about drinking, just part of their life. We walk through the town after lunch, again some nice stone house, but this place is pretty quiet, not many locals around. Come across two churches within a few meters of each other and the remains of a convent, dating back to the 14th century. The town was known for its embroidery work and they still have a festival each year to commemorate this art. 

I have talked about apple cider and how it is the drink of choice for all Breton’s. Really just dawned on me that every restaurant or cafe that we go to, has the special cups already laid out on the table; they just assume everyone will be drinking apple cider. The apple cider is less than 5% alcohol. 

In this part of Brittany, we have seen very few foreign tourists, mainly just French on holiday or the odd bus tour. 
In Brittany we have seen many, many wind turbines which makes sense as we are near the ocean. In 2016, 72% of France’s electricity was produced by nuclear power. Renewable energy (solar, wind, hydro) only accounted for 18% and the remainder via fossil fuels. 

Went to the Saturday outdoor market today in Quimper. A good number of vendors selling fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, prepared meals (thank you, that is our dinner tonight) and others selling clothing and handmade goods. Just picked up a few things are we are headed off to Amboise, in the Loire region on Sunday morning, the 11th. As we were walking through the market, Robin and I were speaking and an old gentleman, probably in his 90’s was scowling at us and he said in very broken english…”where are you from?”. I reply in French….”du Canada”…his face breaks out into a smile and he walks away!

The Quimper Market
Baskets for sale at the Quimper marke. Locals use these to do all their shopping. Won’t fit in my carry on!
At the market today, we stopped by a “caviste” (wine shop) and picked up a bottle of wine. He had a really good selection of French wines from all over the country. In speaking to him, he told us that one really does not need to spend a lot of money on wine. You do not need to buy a “Sancerre” for example, which is quite expensive. You can buy another type of french wine that will be very close to a Sancerre, but will sell for a much reasonable price…….think this is called marketing on behalf of the Sancerre! As we have found before, the Caviste are well worth seeking out, very knowledgeable. 
Stop for a coffee/tea in one of the local squares, seems to be the thing to do after the market. Nice to see the parents with their kids at the market. This town, although a good size, still has a small town atmosphere about it, people are very friendly. Our host, Olivier Francois, told us that his grandmother always told him that to be polite, one has to always keep their door open (really, she meant, literally…keep the door open) and secondly always have a pot of coffee on the stove. He says having coffee with friends is still very much a way of life here, and you can certainly see this in all the squares and cafes.

Over the years when we have travelled by car in France, I have often noticed signs by the roadway that will say “VIde Grenier” on such a day in such a location. In my mind, I assumed in my own french mind, that this meant a celebration to fill the granaries as they were empty after the winter,and the first crop was in. Well….”grenier” can mean different things and yes it does mean granary, but it also means attic. What a “vide grenier” really means, after I finally looked it up, is a garage sale/flea market. One is never to old to learn new things!

We try to go to the “Musee des Beaux Arts”, but unfortunately it closes at noon and we arrive about 11:40. The attendant tells us we really would only have 10 minutes, as they clear everyone out 10 minutes before closing…o.k.

Drive to Pont-Aven, a town that has been on our list and today is the day, our final day here. A bit more sunshine today, which is nice, but still a cool breeze coming off the ocean. A very lovely town, one of the prettier ones we have seen. At one time in its’ history the town had 14 mills and 15 houses. Today these buildings have all been transformed into hotels, art galleries and shops. The reason for so many art galleries is due to the history of artists in the town. In the 1880’s a colony of painters settled here, one of them being Gauguin. Most of the colony was made up on English or American painters. The reason Brittany was chosen was not only for its lovely landscapes but also that they could live here very cheaply. Gauguin only stayed here for 3 years before moving elsewhere, but the artists colony remained.  

Robin tells me that France is known as a nation of shopkeepers’. This is very evident when you spend time in small towns. There are numerous butchers, bakeries, pharmacies and lots of optician shops. Believe this goes back to the French spirit of independence. 

Have enjoyed visiting this part of Brittany, beautiful villages, wonderful landscapes and very friendly people. Our host here in Quimper was just incredible and this little house made us feel like we were right at home. 

Off tomorrow morning, Sunday June 11th for our next destination, Amboise in the Loire Valley. Should take us about 5 1/2 hours or so to get there. 

Rennes and North East Brittany , France – June 2017

We flew from Vienna to Paris on Wednesday,May 31st, then took the RER train from Charles de Gaulle airport to the Montparnasse area and stayed in a hotel overnight. I got into a conversation with our flight attendant, as his jump seat was just beside us. He was very charming and complemented me on my french…..I love it when this happens, makes me feel good…..he immediately became a best friend! He also gave me a free french lesson while we were conversing as there were a few words I could not remember. My french usually improves after a couple of days in France.

On the RER coming in to Paris an Irish gentleman (probably 40ish) sat across from us. Gotta love the Irish. In the time it took to get into Paris, we knew his life history and had a “great old time” conversing and laughing. He was only in Paris overnight on a business trip…..amazing one can do this in Europe!

We chose a hotel in the Montparnasse area as the TGV to Rennes was leaving from the Montparnasse Train station, a 5 minute walk from the hotel. During this 6 week holiday, this will be the only night we stay in a hotel, apartments the rest of the time. Got in around 7:30 pm and headed out for dinner. Happened upon a wonderful traditional french restaurant which had an unbelievable wine list; hard to choose! We both opted for duck for dinner, our favourite when in France. For the most part we are doing our own cooking and have been out for dinner maybe once a week. 

Forget how small french hotel rooms can be, glad that we choose apartments, certainly the way to go for us, way more comfortable and lots more room. To date we have had some interesting and different apartments.. … in Vienna an apartment with slow internet but great location, a walk up 4 stories in Budapest and somewhat noisy at night but very comfortable with two separate baths, an ultra modern apartment in Krems where one needed a degree to figure out how things worked but a lovely outdoor seating area, a cold apartment in Bad Ischl but very well equipped, beautiful views and balcony and now an apartment in Rennes with uneven floors and tight bathroom quarters but great location. All part of the adventure!

Received a very nice thank you from our landlord in Krems, she actually invited us to stay at their private apartment just above their garage if we visit the area again. We had seen it when we went to her home and she gave us the apricot jam, must say the apartment was very “cute”. Nice to receive this invite. 

We headed off to the train station on Thursday morning and TGV took 2 hours to get to Rennes. They always leave on time, and very comfortable ride. While waiting at the train station, a very elegant older lady sat next to us. So needless to say, I struck up a conversation with her. Found out she owned an apartment in Paris and was on her way to Bordeaux where she had a “little” apartment. When she found out we were on our way to Brittany, she mentioned that she had a “little” apartment in St.Malo. She told me that she had never been in Canada, but still on her list……guess she should buy a “little” apartment there as well!

Brittany is an area of France that we have not been to, so we are looking forward to touring the area. It is said that the Bretons like to say they are Celtic, not Gallic. Others in France say they feel they are in a foreign land when they visit this area. Brittany is divided into two nearly equal parts – Upper Brittany along the Channel Coast and Lower Brittany. We hope to have time to see both equally well. When coming in on the TGV we saw the rolling countryside and many farms around Rennes. The population of Brittany was 3.2 million as of 2014. 

From the end of the 14th century until the middle of the 19th century, the cloth industry constituted one of Brittany’s most important economic sectors. Growth in this area was also helped by its international trade due to its coastal area. In the 19th century this industry collapsed as the middle class had not invested in mechanization. 

Today Brittany is the first agricultural region of France, mainly with porcine production, poultry farming and vegetable cultivation (cabbage, artichockes, potatoes, spinach and green beans are primary with peas and tomatoes second in production in France). They are number one in production of dairy products (21% of French production). 
Brittany represents a volume of 302,000 tons of fresh fish among 15 main ports and represents 90% of the total French seaweed production…..don’t know who eats all the seaweed!

Elaborate half-timber houses (called “colombage” in French) are everywhere in Brittany, relics of the medieval days, when this region along with Normandy, was colonized by the English.

The capital city  of Rennes is classified as the gateway of Brittany. It is a very youthful city with some 70,000+ students and greater Rennes has a population of 700,000+. There was a fire that devastated the city centre in 1720 where unfortunately a lot of the medieval houses were burnt, but on the positive side, a good number still exist. In the 10th century Rennes withstood Norman invaders and this became a symbol of Breton resistance. Rennes has the second largest outdoor market in France and we will be going there on Saturday.

Once we arrive in Rennes, we rent a car…..takes us a while to figure out the GPS, get it changed to English and figure out where we are going. The apartment we have rented is in the pedestrian only section of the old town of Rennes, so we have had to park in a parking garage very near the apartment. Always a little hectic trying to find your way to apartments the first time around! Our apartment is in a 15th century building on the second floor. The steps are so worn, one can sense hundreds of people over the centuries climbing these same stairs. The floors are uneven, bathroom small, but has everything we need. 

The courtyard of our apartment

Once we get settled in we take a walk  around the old town, find the tourist bureau and get some groceries. Stop at a cafe/bar and have a cold drink….27 degrees today. The weather forecast is calling for some cooling down and rain in the coming week. 

Thursday morning we head out to the small town of Chateaugiron, some 20 minutes by car outside of Rennes. There is a castle here which was founded in the 11th century by a knight of Norman origin, and had a son called Giron. The town developed around the castle, which is the norm, and the monks from Rennes established a priory here. In the 18th century the castle was extended and transformed into a residential building. Today it serves as the Hotel de Ville (City Hall). A quaint little place which is part of classification of towns in Brittany “The Cities of the Art”. All of these towns have their own unique character and have preserved their rich architectural heritage. 


We return to Rennes and go out for a short walk and end up at the Cathedral St.Pierre. It dates back to the 16th century but was rebuilt in 1784. Not particularly ornate inside,but very peaceful, a good time for some reflexion and prayer. The exterior is monolithic and austere.

Cathedrale St.Pierre, Rennes

We head out to meet our walking guide, Marie Charrier. She has lived in Rennes for 35 years and was originally from Nantes. Today Nantes is part of Brittany, but people from Nantes still believe they are part of the Loire. Marie is a retired nurse and just a delight. During our time together she discusses the history of Rennes and Brittany. She and I speak a bit of French, but she reverts to English to ensure Robin understands. She is very proud of her city and you can tell she takes pride in showing us its highlights. 

We start off at the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) and right across the square is the Opera House. The way in which the city hall and opera were built (10 years apart) looks like they could fit into each other. 

Performances held at the Opera house throughout the year, with the exception of July and August. This coming week the production of Carmen is on and they will simulcast it throughout Brittany on large screens. Marie told us that Rennes is a centre for technology and the tech sector is involved in this production. 

The Opera House

We continue our walk and Marie shows us some shops and a swimming pool that have wonderful mosaic work. These works were completed by an Italian artisan that had moved to the area. Onward to a compound with a beautiful building which she tells us is housing for the fire fighters and there families, all paid for by the government of France. We come across the fire station and they are on strike, although still working, they are protesting the government to get more firefighters as they feel they are overworked. Only in France would one complain of having housing provided and on the other hand begrudge work conditions, which are usually pretty liberal. 

Go to the Ports Mordelaises, part of the original gates that protected the city in ancient times. One of the only sections of the original walls. Walk along the Bretagne Parliament Buildings which are now the appeal courts for Brittany and the Loire. Marie told us that in 1994 the building had been set on fire by fishermen that were demanding state subsidies! Marie told us that the fire alarms that sounded that night were ignored as they used to go off all the time, so the firefighters simply stayed at the station. The building was rebuilt and they used ceramic roof tiles….smart! What is very ironic is that the Parliament buildings were one of the few that escaped the 1720 fires!

Along our walk Marie takes us in an area where all the students drink in the outdoor cafes. She says this is the “rue de soif”…”street of thirst”. We mentioned that on Thursday night when we were out walking after dinner, all the bars and restaurants were packed with people and asked if this was the norm. She told us there was two reasons for this…firstly, every Thursday night, the students go out drinking as they will be heading home for the weekend on Friday and secondly the unusual warm weather brings out people. She also went on to say that the professors at the University do not like teaching on Friday mornings as the students are either hung over or missing!

Marie said that this warm weather that Rennes has experienced has been unusual but seems to be happening more…who says there is no global warming!

The Breton language had been banned at one time, but is now seeing a resurgence. All the street signs are both in French and Breton. Maire told us that Rennes has a school where all subjects are taught in Breton. Some shops are devoted to the Breton language and all things Breton (Breizh). 

Rennes even has a metro system, one line. Marie says its the smallest city with a metro system! During our walk, Marie also pointed out which restaurants and cafe to frequent, always nice to get these recommendations. 
Robin and I had asked Marie what was the meaning of the word “TY”. We have come across this quite often; as a matter of fact the apartment we rented is called Ty Cocon and the one in Quimper is called Ty Guests, and we have seen this sign often. Well, it means “at the house of” in Breton…..mystery solved. 

At the end of our walking tour with Marie we offer to have a coffee with her, but she declines as she is on her way out of town for the weekend. She asked if we would be in Rennes later next week and invited us for dinner. “Quelle domage” I say, we are leaving on Tuesday morning. So nice to meet these wonderful people along the way in our travels. A memorable afternoon. 

Saturday morning we attend the market in Place des Lices in Rennes, just a 2 minute walk from our apartment. This is the second largest market in France. Fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood and flowers all in abundance. We indulge ourselves and buy some prepared foods for our meals for the next few nights…..some paella, some mixed salads, quiches and fresh green beans. I bought a small melon (melon Charantais) and the vendor asked when we were going to eat it, and chose one for us. In these markets, you do not help yourself. It is the vendor who gathers what you want. If you want a certain cut of meat from a butcher, you simply point to which piece you want. As in all markets, locals seem to have their favourite vendors….no different from our farmer’s market at home, we have our favourite vendors. 

One of the vendors was selling some stuffed peppers (poivrons) and an elderly gentleman beside us asked for one. She asked which colour would he prefer, red or yellow? He replies “red”. She replies “vous devrez etres amoureux”….you must be amourous! Lots of laughter and smiles all around!

The fish mongers in most markets that we have come across in France over the years are always yelling to people to come and see their beautiful fish. Believe me,they do not need loud speakers! 

We come across a local selling wines from around France and his prices are reasonable. We buy a few bottles from him and his young daughter is helping him out. I give her the cash and father asks her to give me my change. A math lesson ensues and I say “A, elle est votre banquiere”…”So, she is your banker”. His daughter thought this was funny…..think she needs a further lesson…took a while to get my change!

Even a line up for a coffee roaster who was roasting the beans right at the market. Not selling coffee, just the beans. Also lots of locals selling their home made apple cider, all very professionally labelled and bottled. Apple cider is very popular here in Brittany. 

I think what is amazing about this market, in addition to its size, is that some of the vendors sell just one item. For instance, one vendor sold just mushrooms, another just onions, another just olives while another artichokes. They don’t just sell one type, they have numerous sizes, types and shapes, etc. 

Very cloudy and cool this morning as we attended the market. Stopped at the local bar just near our apartment for a coffee/tea afterwards. A rugby game was on the tv, so needless to say we stayed a while so Robin could watch the game. A young english couple sat next to us and we started talking. They live and work in Rennes in biotech and are very happy here. They say people in Rennes are very friendly and we can definitely confirm that. This is a bar they always come to so they can watch rugby and football (soccer) matches on the big screen. 

In the afternoon, we head out to Saint-Malo, about one hour from here along the coast. In the 17th century, Saint-Malo was the largest port in France and very famous for its Corsairs. A Corsair is a seafarer, commissioned by the King to carry on naval warfare on his behalf. Authorized to prey on the commerce of foreign ships….sounds like a pirate to me; except has to give the booty to the king! One exert I read said that Saint-Malo had a nickname of “the pirates city” and that the corsairs (or sea dogs) were paid by the french crown to harass the Limeys across the channel!

Saint-Malo sits on a rocky peninsula above the Rance estuary. The town accumulated much wealth in the 17th century through trade. There are ramparts around the old town and these were constructed in the 18th century, but were destroyed and rebuilt after WW11. Today they say that this is the breeding ground for phenomenal sailors, certainly lots of sailboats out when we arrived.  

Various shots of St. Malo

Also a very famous person ..Jaques Cartier, sailed from here and claimed Canada for the crown of France in 1535. Saw a mosaic in the church in Saint-Malo to commemorate this sailing. 

The old town of Saint-Malo are surrounded by ramparts. Most of the city was burnt when the Nazis started a fire as they were retreating. It is said the fire lasted a week. The houses were rebuilt using granite. There are still a few of the ancient homes that were spared during the fire. 

Robin entering the gates of St. Malo
We enter the old town through one of the gates and find it full of restaurants of tourist shops. We decide to find a creperie along one of the side streets. Robin chooses a “super” galette (ham, cheese and egg) and I opt for a St. Jaques (scallops). They are both extremely delicious. The galettes are served with savoury fillings while crepes are served with sweet fillings. The galettes are made with buckwheat flour. We cave and share a sweet chocolate fondant crepe for desert. 

The restaurant “Le Petit Crepier” gets quite busy and the table next to us is taken by three elderly french people, a couple and their friend. I strike up a conversation with the gentleman and his wife and when they find out we are from Canada, they speak of visiting Montreal. They tell us that we have chosen the “best” creperie in Saint-Malo as the galettes and crepes are made in house. They say that most creperies buy their crepes and galettes from large companies. They drive from Rennes just to eat here. 

Walk around the town and take in the view from the ramparts (12th century) , see the inner harbour and on the other side take in the view of the many sailboats on the ocean. Lots of people on the beaches as well taking in the sunshine, yes it is now getting sunny and hot. The ramparts are 2 kms in length and surround the Vielle Ville (Old Town). We wind our way through the narrow streets and enter Cathedrale St.Vincent, where we find the mosaic to Jaques Cartier. We are fortunate as the organist is practicing, so we sit for a while to enjoy the beautiful music. We continue and come upon a memorial to the Resistance fighters and those that went to the death camps. Always find these memorials very moving. 

A message from a survivor of Ravensbruck and a message from Charles De Gaulle to the resistance fighters

Came across some gold inlays in the sidewalks with a picture of an animal. When we were leaving Saint-Malo I asked a policeman what these meant. He told us that the animal was a white ermine the symbol of the city.

St. Malo. – looking onto the ocean

Next stop is the small town of Dinan, another town classified as a “Ville d’Art et d”Histoire”. It is a medieval town and dates back to a feudal castle built in the 11th century and ramparts were added in the 13th century. It was known as a textile producing town and has imposing half timbered houses. A beautiful little town. 

Scenes from Dinan

Sunday arrives and we had decided to leave early to get to Le Mont Saint Michel. We arrive at 9:30 and get a navette (shuttle) to the island…the tide is out. Le Mont Saint Michel is one of those places that you can see from a distance as you are miles away…..just breath taking. This has been on our “must see list” for years, so very happy that we have gotten to visit. A pyramid shape of the abbey and town rise from the tidal bay, quite a sight. 

Le Mont Saint-Michel

The history of Mont Saint Michel is said to date back to 708 when a sanctuary was built here. In the 10th century the Benedictines settled in an abbey and the village grew below its walls. It was impregnable during the Hundred Year War. Its ramparts and fortifications resisted all of the English assaults and the Mount became a symbol of national identity. At one time the abbey was used as a prison in the 1800’s. Classified as a historic monument in 1874 and listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979 (another one on the list!). 

Picture of the surrounding area,, the tide was out. Chapetl on Le Mont,not part of the Abbey

While walking through Le Mont, we noticed the name “La Mere Poulard” several times; one restaurant, one hotel and some tinned biscuits. My research tells me that Mme. Poulard founded a restaurant on Le Mont in 1873; La Hostellerie de la Tête d’Or, finding that customers came and went quickly with the tide. She came up with the idea of cooking giant omelettes in a wooden hearth to make them stay. From then on the restaurant became most famous for its speciality giant omelettes several inches thick, made in hand-hammered copper bowls, and cooked over an open fire.The omelettes resemble a soufflé more than a traditional omelette. In summer 2009 the cheapest omelette on the menu at the restaurant is €18, not sure what they cost today. Seemed to be the well healed eating at the restaurant. There was an older lady dressed in a period costume and indeed, she was whipping up eggs in a large copper bowl. There was also an imposing gentleman at the door, probably to keep out the “unwanted”….us! 

The real crowning glory is a tour of the Abbey and the Mont itself. The streets leading up to the Abbey are now restaurants and tourist shops. We spend a few hours here and very glad we made it. Part of the abbey was a cloister, but was under renovation, still able to get an idea what it must have been like in its glory. Also visited a small church which is part of the complex. By the time we leave, the street are jammed packed; good decision to come early. 

Back to Rennes and In the afternoon, we walk to the Parc du Thabor, a beautiful inner city park which takes of 10 hectares and dates back to the 19th century. The streets of Rennes were pretty empty. In Europe most stores, shops and restaurants are closed on Sundays. This is family time and this is definitely evident as the Parc du Thabor is very busy. Young people simply relaxing in the various grassy areas, some playing games, a lot just enjoying each others company. We spend about an hour relaxing in the park. A wonderful photography exposition in one of the lovely buildings. A building which houses many species of birds and absolutely wonderful gardens. 

Le. Parc Thabor

Monday is a holiday today, Pentecost, so the majority of stores/shops/offices all closed. We decide to visit the last two towns we really wanted to see….Fourgeres and Vitre. 
Fourgeres stands on the borders of Brittany, Maine and Normandy in the heart of the Breton Marches. When Britany was still independent, a dense network of castles was built on the border between the Duchy of Brittany and the Kingdom of France. These fortresses, called the Brittany Marches were a powerful line of defense against many external threats.

Chateau de Fourgeres
Stopped for coffee/tea when we first arrived in Fourgeres, in a small cafe in the square facing the castle. I had gone to use the facilities and Robin asked me where they were. I said, in french, “a la gauche” (to the left). The owner of the cafe told me I said it wrong, it should say ” a gauche” or “sur la gauche”. I love it when the french give me lessons. I told her I was Canadian and don’t speak french at home very often, so sometimes I forget words or phrases. 
 I went on to talk to her more and I mentioned that it was very quiet today as it was Pentecost. She started laughing and said “yes, although I don’t even know what Pentecost is meant to celebrate”, although she knew it was a Christian feast. She told me that her daughter had asked her that morning what Pentecost stood for and wanted to know whether or not her mother would be making galettes and crepes for dinner! Her mother responded that the daughter should look up the meaning of Pentecost and why would she ask about the galettes and crepes because she always makes them. 
We make our way to the ticket office to get into the “Chateaux de Fourgeres”. The young lady and I converse in french and I interpret for Robin. When she heard me speak english to Robin, she asked if we were English. I said no, we were Canadians and there is a big difference. She laughed and responded “that is the same with the French and the Breton….big difference!” May be funny, but it is very true. You can see everywhere that there is a resurgence of the Breton pride.    

The chateau is situated on a bend on the RIver Nancon and was first erected in the 11th century. From the beginning, it was a centre for trade and commerce. It is a great medieval castle with 13 towers. It first started as a simple wooden tower but by the 15th century was the immense fortress it is today. It has been well preserved. Just below the fortress the tanners, drapers and dyers installed their mills on the river. There is still a mill along the moat of the castle which is still working. The tradesmen, craftsmen and bankers set up their establishments on the hill overlooking the valley….of course they did! Ramparts were also built around the citadel. There was a big fire in the 18th century in the upper town and after this a lot of the buildings were reconstructed in stone. A very impressive castle and upper town. Today, the castle is owned by the town of Fourgeres. 

Fourgeres – Upper town in the distance in one of the pics
When visiting the castle we used audio guides, must say, these really help when you are visiting historical monuments or galleries. 
After visiting the castle we stop for lunch at a “creperie”. Must enjoy these while we are in Brittany. We abstained and did not have desert crepes, just our savoury galettes.

Our next destination is Vitre, another “Ville d’Art et d”Histoire”. Here there is an 11th century fortress and prospered thanks to its international trade in “canvas”. A gothic style church (the steeple being refurbished), called Notre-Dame. The “Hotel de Ville” (city hall) offices are located in the fortress. Everything being closed today, we could only enter the courtyard. Simply walked around the town for an hour or so and head back to Rennes. Quite cool and cloudy today, but didn’t  stop us from seeing what we wanted. 

Vitre – very quiet!
We have spent a great 5 days in this northern part of Brittany and tomorrow, Tuesday the 6th, we are off to Quimper. It is located in the southwestern part of Brittany; a 2 1/2 hour from Rennes. 

Bad Ischl, Austria – May 2017

We left Krems on Sunday,May 28th and got to Bad Ischl around 1 pm. If one takes the major route, only takes 2 1/2 hours. We decided that we wanted to take the secondary roads and enjoy the countryside. Part of our route was on the “Romantikstrasse”, the Romantic Road, and we took 4 hours to reach our destination. Very worthwhile, we drove through beautiful countryside, less traffic on the side roads and saw farmers cutting their crops. So much fun driving our little Fiat 500 stick shift on the winding roads. Had the top down the whole way. 

Countryside from Krems to Bad Ischl. Robin enjoying the Fiat convertible!
Bad Ischl (Bad means bath) is located between the rivers Traun and Ischl. It was here that Emperor Franz Joseph chose to establish his summer court and where he met his future empress, Sisi. Bad Ischl was and is known for its thermal waters and people used to come here for these “medicinal saline waters”. Legend has it that the Empress could not become pregnant so spent time in the waters. She had two sons who became known as the “salt princes”. Interesting that a lot of the buildings that were built in the Emperors time are yellow in colour. It is said that yellow represents wealth.

An impressive estate was built, the Kaiservilla. It is here that on 28 July 1914 Franz Joseph signed the declaration of war against the Kingdom of Serbia signalling the start of World War 1. 
The area is known as the Salzkammergut, which means “salt chamber estate” and refers to an area where salt (white gold) was mined. The salt was used in trading with other countries and was under the control of the imperial chamber of Vienna, the Habsburgs. 

There are 76 lakes in the Szlakammergut area with small villages dotting the shorelines and rising above them are the Dachstein mountains. The area was named as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1997. The only economic driver in this area is said to be tourism. The population of Bad Ischl is around 14,000.

When we reached our apartment, we were met by the owners, an English couple ( Mike and Jenny). who have lived in this area for over 10 years. The apartment we are renting was their previous holiday home when they still lived in England. Mike had even emailed us prior to our arrival to remind us that stores would be closed when we arrived, so we ensured that we had enough food to get us through till Monday. We have run across some great landlords on this trip!  The apartment is well furnished and very comfortable and only a 10 minute walk into the town, across the Ischl river. Once we get settled in we head into the centre of town as the annual “Weindorf” is taking place. A festival where local wines are featured. There were. numerous booths were you could sample wine or local foods. A bandstand featured a “swing/jazz” band playing, kind of seemed out of place!

Top picture is the view from our apartment, a beautiful building in Bad Ischl in the main park, Claire enjoying wine at the wine festival when we arrived.
I mentioned in a previous blog posting that the residents of Austria wear their traditional clothing on special occasions. We have learnt through speaking to locals, that a movement is on the rise for Austrians to wear their traditional dress on a daily basis. We have definitely seen more people with their traditional dress on and even among young adults, nice to see. 

On Monday the 29th, we head out to the town of Hallstatt, this has been on my “must see” list for quite some time. It is classified as “the world’s prettiest lakeside village”. It is built within a very narrow space between Hallstatter See (Lake) and the Dachstein cliffs, very picturesque,the oldest community in Austria. It is said that the space in the cemetery is so narrow that the bones of the dead were historically dug out after 10 years and placed in a “beinhaus” (ossuary). Salt was mined here for centuries and was said to be the oldest salt mine in the world. So needless to say,this picturesque village is jammed packed with tourists, lots of tour buses,mainly Asians. Once again we are told that a replica village has been built in China. 
Following are several photos from Hallstatt….it’s hard not to take so many pictures. 

We arrived early enough that most tour buses had not yet arrived. A nice walk through the town and time for a coffee before crossing the lake on the local boat that travels back and forth from the train station (other side of lake) to the town. As we are waiting for the boat, a group of Asians are taking pictures in front of the boat dock….Robin decides to “photo bomb” them,and runs up beside the older Asian woman who is getting her picture taken so he can be in the picture as well. They think this is so funny,so do I. They all start taking more pictures and I captured one of them taking pictures of Robin and his new friend!

Robin with his new best friend!

We did about a 1 1/2 hour hike ending up in the small town of Obertraun at the end of the lake. We had our lunch here and we see a paraglider floating down, lots of them around here…..only problem is that he lands in the lake! Luckily there was a small tourist boat that was nearby and they veered course to help the paraglider as did a small dingy from shore. They get the guy and his chute out of the water. Just after this the local water rescue team arrives, makes sure he is o.k. Quite something to see, important thing is that he was o.k. Imagine this happens on occasion, don’t think I will be taking up this sport. I am afraid of heights and not the best swimmer!

Our hike to Obertraun
Back to meet the boat to return to Hallstatt by early afternoon. We make a stop at the local Protestant Church and there is a plaque on the church that tells the story of the Protestant reformation in this area, very interesting. Definitely time to leave…..way too many tour buses in town!

Drive back to Bad Ischl and spend the afternoon discovering this local town. We have had lovely weather while here, most days +27C to +30C.
Decide to take in another hike on our last day in the area. We leave early once again, as the forecast is for hot weather. We arrive in Altausee which is located on a lake by the same name. We take a walk around the lake which takes us about 2 hours. During our walk we come across school children that are out of class with the teachers. Must be the same around the world…not sure what to do with kids at the end of the school year, so take them out so they can burn off some energy. Once again an enjoyable morning in the outdoors. This was such a lovely area as very few tourists around. We think that this town caters to local Europeans, lots of people our walking, hiking and bike riding. 

Head back to Bad Ischl and walk into town to enjoy a pastry at Cafe Zauner, which is along the esplanade by the river. The guide books say that if you do not make a stop at this cafe, you are missing a true highlight of Bad Ischl. The cafe was founded in 1832 and it is said that Emperor Franz Joseph used to visit every day to enjoy the pastries, when he was in Bad Ischl. I have one of their most popular pastries, a light pastry made with whipping cream with lemon flavouring. The waiter assures me that there were no calories in my pastry. Robin choses a chocolate pastry (no surprise there) with strawberries on the top. Both very delicious. Need to leave Austria so that we quit eating their delicious pastries….oh right…just remembered we are headed to France….croissants and pain au chocolat!
As we head back to our apartment, the skies turn black and a storm is coming in. Not surprising considering the very hot weather for the past few days. 
We head off tomorrow morning back to Vienna and a flight to Paris in the afternoon and will stay overnight. On Thursday, we take the train to Rennes in Brittany, our next stop on this trip. 
We have really enjoyed the Salzkammergut area, absolutely beautiful.

Krems an der Donau, Austria- May 2017

We arrived back in Vienna from Budapest by train (2 1/2 hrs.) mid day on Wednesday, May 24th. Picked up our rental car…Robin is very happy, we have a Fiat 500C convertible! 

We always find that it is such a small world. When we picked up the car, the agent for Europcar told us he had been to Calgary and a place called Red Deer (where he has family). He could not believe the drive from Red Deer to Calgary wherein one drove for 1 1/2 hrs and hardly saw any villages,very unlike Europe.When we told him that our children lived in Toronto and took us 4 1/2 hours by plane to get visit, he was surprised! Could not believe Canada is such a large size.

It took us about one hour to get to Krems an der Donau (on the Danube). Krems, as everyone refers to it, is the largest town in the Wachau region of Austria. We chose this area as this is a wine valley and most importantly all the small villages along the Danube and the ability to bike along the Danube. The Wachau runs from Krems to Melk, a total of 40 kilometres. 
 The Wachau was named as the “Wachau Cultural Landscape” as a Unesco World Heritage site because of its architectural and agricultural history, in December 2000. OK. I get to add another one to the list!

We get to our apartment which is located just above the town around 2 pm. A very modern apartment on the main level, yeah!. A nice garden area in the front overlooking the town and vineyards. We get settled in and drive into town, only a few minutes by car, and buy some provisions for the next few days. 

The view from our apartment in Krems an der Donau
The town of Krems is the major town in the Wachau and is the centre of the wine producing area. A population of 24,000, so a nice size. The Alstadt (Old Town) is quite charming with its pedestrian only cobbled streets. Nice change to be out in the country and out of large cities. 

There are three distinctive types of white wines produced in the valley, Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd. Must say after having tasted some of their wines, they are very smooth.

In addition to being famous for its white wine, this area also known for its apricots (Marille), mustards, saffron and hot peppers. In shops in all the small towns along the Danube one will find marille jam, marille mustard, marille schnapps,marille torte, marille struddle, marille brandy….you get the idea!
On Thursday morning, the 25th, we meet up with the owner in the small town of Spitz about a 20 minute drive from Krems for coffee. Cornelia spent time with us, advising us where to spend time, good restaurants to eat at and in general sharing information on the area. Just as we are about to leave she mentions that she has a gift for us and we join her at her home in the very small town of Schwallenbach, just 5 minutes from Spitz. What a lovely home and the gardens were incredible. Her gift to us was a jar of her homemade Marille jam! By the way, it is delicious.

Meant to mention that when we were having coffee with Cornelia one of the waitresses come over and spoke to us. She is Cornelia’s best friend here in the Wachau. Her friend said they had known each other for years and she was still trying to correct Cornelia on her accent. Cornelia is of german descent and has only been in Austria for 10 yrs. The Austrians and Germans understand each other, but have different pronunciation on certain words. Her friend allowed me to take a picture of her as she was wearing a traditional Austrian clothing. 

After spending time with Cornelia, we head off to Melk another 15 minutes down the road to visit the famous Melk Abbey (Stift Melk – means seminary or cathedral chapter). A little cloudy today, so perfect day for touring. The abbey, yellow in colour, can be seen from afar and is very imposing. 

Since 1089, Benedictine monks have continually been living and working in Melk Abbey. Their motto is Ora et Labora et Lege (Pray, Work, Learn). It is a huge Baroque building situated on top of a rock overlooking the Danube. A reconstruction took place in 1736. Once again, we were not able to take pictures of the interior, but took some exterior shots. A magnificent library was part of our tour, more than 1000,000 books. Also spent time in the gardens adjoining the Abbey. Some interesting art work throughout the gardens.

Melk Abbey
Must say that the most spectacular thing we came across was the church. As we were descending some stairs to get into the church, we could hear some beautiful organ music. Well mass was just coming to a close, but we were able to sit in a pew and listen to the music and celebrate the end of the mass. There were about 6 monks in attendance,most of them quite old. Very moving.

The Gardens at the Melk Abbey

We walk though the small town of Melk, a lovely little cobblestoned main street. We then drive on the other side of the Danube and cross the river on a small ferry. We were the last car on, only 5 cars in total, that’s all that would fit and many cyclists. 

We head back toward Krems and stop in Durnstein, a beautiful village. It is so crowded as the town is a “must see” in this area. The main street, Haupstrasse, is lined with beautiful 16th century residences and the streets are cobblestoned. Many of the river cruise boats and bus tours stop here. The Stifskirche , local church, dates back to the early 1700’s and has a beautiful blue facade. Above the town sit the ruins of the Richard the Lionheart Castle (his name has come up a couple of times!). It is said that Leopold V held Richard the Lionheart here after his capture on his way home from the crusades. Cornelia told us that the Chinese have built a replica of this town in China! 

Streets of Durnstein, and most importantly the Wachau torte, delicious and light!
While in Durnstein we stop for coffee and a local pastry. I had read about the Wachau torte. A very light torte made with apricots (marille – of course), grounds almonds and chocolate. Very, very good!

Cornelia had mentioned that today was Ascension Day. We forgot that in Europe, holy days are still respected and all shops are closed. We arrive back in Krems to find closed shops everywhere. We had planned on buying some groceries to make dinner. Robin, bless his heart, spots a Chinese restaurant in town and we order take out. Can’t remember the last time we had Chinese take out! We were even able to buy a bottle of wine from them!

During the day today, we saw many local Austrians dressed in their traditional clothing, as this was a religious holiday. One sees this clothing sold in most towns and as we were told by our guide in Vienna, their traditional clothing is worn to weddings and festivities as a norm. Wonderful to see.

Friday arrives and we awake to a beautiful sunny day. We head into town and arrange to rent bikes for the day. We head off around 10 am and return around 3:30 pm. What a great day, wonderful to get out cycling. Easy to get out of Krems and find the bike route along the Danube, the Danube Bike Trail (Donauradweg) , you certainly can’t get lost. The route is absolutely wonderful as one cycles through vineyards and small towns. I thank the Lord that I am here and able to enjoy this with Robin. We stop in many of the small towns to simply walk around, have coffee/lunch and cycle to the next town. Such wonderful picture opportunities, this valley is so beautiful! We biked a total of 42 klms. 

The countryside in the Wachau valley
The bike path along the Danube is so busy, and this is still May, would not want to be here in the height of the summer season!  

Along the bike paths and vineyards you see “holy niches” with pictures or statues of saints. These have been built over the centuries to thank the lord for the crops. Also along the way some interesting art!

We stop at the small church of St.Michael in Weibenkirchen. It says that this church dates back to 987 and was the only place of worship in the region. What caught our eye as we rode near, were the burial plots, all so beautifully tended to. One cannot enter the church,  but there are viewing windows. I peek in and see the altar table filled with skulls! I tried to find out why these skulls are on the altar, but could find no information about it. Certainly makes for an interesting sight.

St. Michael’s Church, the graveyard and some niches along the vineyards
As Robin was getting off his bike,he caught his leg on the back carrier and skinned it quite badly. The owner of the bike shop, an elderly gentleman, saw this and insisted on looking after it. By the way, he only spoke German, although the young people in the shop do speak english. He took Robin into a back room where he had a first aid kit. He proceeded to spray some type of liquid on the gash (Robin said it stung a lot!) then covered it with a large bandage. We thought this was so nice. 

After that long bike ride we went to the local beer garden in Krems and enjoyed a cool beverage, great way to end our day. 
We made the decision to cycle for two days while in this beautiful valley and we arranged to rent the same bikes on Saturday. When we arrived at 9 am to pick up our bikes, the owner, who had looked after Robin yesterday insisted on changing his bandage! After he was finished, Robin thanked him by saying in German “Danke, mein Doktor!”. The old guy thought this was pretty funny!

On our way again. Bike path so much busier today as is a weekend,so lots of locals and Viennese here for the weekend. Once again a great day, mainly sunny with some clouds. We make it to Spitz once again. 
Its’ funny, this was our third time in Spitz and only today do we notice a castle on top of the hill. The ruins of the Hinterhaus Castle sit perched above the town and originate from the 12th century. It was a strategic stronghold and from here they were able to rule the entire Wachau valley. 

Hinterhaus Castle with Spitz in the foreground
I did a bit or reading on the Hinterhaus castle. There is a 600 year old legend that says the ruler at the time was unfaithful to his wife, Adelheid. When she died, he remarried two months later, although customary to wait a whole year in those times. They say that Adelheid, dressed in snow white clothing appears at the window of the fortress ruins every year on the anniversary of her husband’s death and constantly wails “Not even a year!”. 

We decide to take the ferry and ride on the south side of the Danube back to Krems. Definitely not as busy on this side. Although not as picturesque, still nice to ride along the Danube on one side and vineyards and orchards on the other. On the north side of the river, one cycles through more towns, so more amenities (coffee shops, etc.). We stop in the small town of Mautern on the way back. 

On the ferry crossing the Danube. Mainly bikes on the ferry, only 3 cars.
Some of the art installations one sees along the bike paths

In each village we have visited, we have seen “maypoles”. The maypole (Maibaum)is a tradition going back to the 16th century. It is a decorated tree or tree trunk that is usually erected on May 1st. It is usual to have a ceremony to erect the maypole on the village green and to combine it with a village celebration. 

While cycling along the bike paths in the last couple of days, we have noticed high water marks on some buildings. The last bad flood they had was 2013 – 10.8 metres above its normal level and prior to that 2002. 
Our last night in Krems and we go out to a restaurant in Spitz which was recommended by our landlord. Very good. We are off tomorrow morning to Bad Ischl for 3 nights,  a 2 1/2 hour drive.
A final picture which I think truly captures this beautiful Wachau Valley!


 The city of Budapest was officially created in 1873 with the merger of the neighbouring cities of Pest, Buda and Obuda. The first permanent bridge over the Danube river between Buda and Pest was built in 1849. 

The revolutions of 1989 brought the end of the Soviet occupation of Hungary, the Socialist Worker’s Party was simply voted out of power, so in effect a peaceful transition. Citizens have the right to own property and establish private businesses, but they say cronyism remains a serious concern. Corruption remains problematical. 
Hungary joined the EU in 2004, but in 2008 the country could not service its short term debt. 

THe IMF/EU/World Bank arranged financial assistance to the tune of $25 Billion. In 2010, Hungary rejected the EU/IMF economic policy recommendations, so they have had to obtain funds on the international market. The government has cut business and personal taxes, but imposed a “crisis tax” on financial institutions, energy and telecom sectors and retailers. 

Hungary’s economy had slowed in 2016, however growth is forecast to pick up somewhat in 2017 with new infrastructure projects. Current unemployment rate is 4.4%. Present population is 9.9 million in Hungary and Budapest’s is 1.7 million (3.3 million in the larger metropolitan commuter area). 
The Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban is increasingly heading towards a more autocratic role. 

In April of this year, the Parliament passed legislation that would force the Central European University to close its doors. Just as an aside, the President of the University is Michael Ignatieff (former shortlived head of the Liberal Party of Canada).The University was founded in 1991 by George Soros (Hungarian born billionaire, investor, policy and currency manipulator!) and was intended to help shepherd a formerly communist Hungary toward free institutions and liberal democracy. Funny enough Orban himself received a Soros funded scholarship to attend Oxford University.  

Buda, on the west side of the Danube is hilly and semi-suburban with winding narrow streets wending their way up into the hills. Pest sits on the plain on the east side and is the urban center of the city. 

It is said that the Hungarian language is one of the hardest to learn. Robin and I always like to try to speak a few words of a country’s language….here are a few words we should master.
Hello …….Szervuztok….(ser-vus-tawk)

Thank you very much….Nagyon koszonom..(no-dyawn keu-seu-neum) 

Do you speak English?… Beszel angolu?…(be-sayl on-gaw-ful)

I don’t understand…Nem ertem…..(nem ayr-tem)

Think we will be using the last two examples quite often!

Arrived around 1 pm and we had  arranged to be picked up at the train station and driven to our apartment. In speaking with our driver George, a native of Budapest (not sure if one says Budepestian!), he confirmed that the economy is improving. When Hungary severed its ties with the USSR, not much happened economically until the country joined the EU. He said the problem was that early on, the politicians simply did not know how to run a country.  I asked George about the Central European University. He smiled,actually almost laughed, and said that the CEU did not have a good reputation…almost like getting a paper degree without really putting in the work. 

While talking to George about the economy and the politics, he mentioned that Hungary has a very different view on the refugee issue, he was almost embarrased when mentioning it. The truth is that Hungary  has taken a very hard stance against immigrants. They have built a fence on the Serbian border and they do not believe that immigrants should be able to travel freely. They now have camps for the immigrants. One news report says that Viktor Orban has been emboldened by the election of the US President Donald Trump and says that Hungary must come first. The country is at odds in this regard with the EU’s stance on immigration.

When we arrive, we find out that our apartment is on the 4th floor…NO ELEVATOR! No mention of this on the website or reviews…oh well! Our host said that due to the construction of these old buildings, they cannot put in elevators. Having said this, the apartment is beautiful and situated right in the central area and just two blocks from the Danube. We unpack and make our way along Vaci Utca, the main pedestrian walkway.

O.K……this is what we see within our first couple of hours.

1) Lots of groups of young men who seem to be here for party weekends! Why do I think this…well they are already drinking, a few places have signs “all you can drink” and many “ice bars”. Kind of reminds us of Prague when you see all the party goers!

2) Lots of “Thai Massage” storefronts. Thought this was very unusual, so I asked “Dr.  Google” the question. Found a forum that had two replies. One says…” Places you would rather your daughter did not work” and the other said ” Touchy subject, you can make your own assuptions”.  I will say no more about the “louts” drunken weekends!

3) Lots of locals riding “Segways” approaching all the tourists to take Segway tours. I can just picture the drunken louts riding through the streets running over small children! O.k.  Maybe I will continue to talk about the louts!

4) Walking down  the pedestrian street, we are approached by hawkers who want to sell us sunglasses…ok…can you not see that we are both wearing sunglasses! Really! 

5) Robin stops to take a picture with our Iphone, and a guy comes up behind us and says he can sell us the new and latest Iphone for 100 Euro’s. Love it… He even has an applebox in his hand.

We find a grocery store and buy our food for the next few days, ate in tonight. 

Robin enjoying his first Hungarian beer and I had local wine,both very good!
After spending the afternoon on Vaci Utca Saturday  afternoon, we were thinking this is just a tourist trap. Well the street itself is, but today got further afield and found that Budapest is indeed a lovely City. Would tell one just to stay off Vaci Street, except the “drunken louts”! Mind you, the guide books say to visit  Vaci Utca.

As we left our apartment this morning, Sunday the 21st of May, the first thing we saw were two local policeman questioning a young (Arab/Muslim?) couple.. Pretty blatant profiling,,   and in addition to this, they were doing it right in the middle of the street. Really, couldn’t they have pulled them to the side and question them….the least they could do is show some respect! A little upsetting, I must say. 
Always find it interesting to see what is in fashion in Europe. Seems that all the stores are selling all types of “silver”shoes and sandals,  and they are being worn by women of all ages.

This morning we join a “Free Walking Tour”. We had done one of these last year in Bruges and found they were very good. Usually young people run these tours and this is how they make or supplement their living. So really, it is expected that one pays a tip to the guide at the end of the tour. Our tour lasted 3 hours. Our guide, Celia was very informative.  She covered the history of Budapest and Hungary,  and added funny anecdotes along the way. I would recommend these tours to anyone who doesn’t know a city, a good way to get a perspective of the layout, then you are set to venture out on your own. 

Before we begin, Celia talks about the transport system, how to use the metro and tram system and taxis and what areas to avoid. Which are tourist traps….the famous Vaci Utca….no surprise to us by now! When speaking of Hungary’s history, she laughs and says they are the world’s biggest losers. The country was always overtaken by different dynasties over the ages and Hungary always seem to come out of things with less than they started with. Sometimes they were left with traditions or foods that were a way of life for the invading tribes. For example the Ottoman’s left behind their tradition of bathhouses, paprika, coffee and kabobs!. The Habsburg’s left behind a beautiful palace up on the Buda hill.By the way , the castle was built for Empress Maria Teresia. Apparently she never came to the palace; guess she was too busy in Vienna raising her 16 children and conquering the world! Today it is the Hungarian National Gallery.

The Buda Castle from the Chain Bridge

In the 1920’s they lost 2/3 rds of their country,  then came the Hitler occupation, then the Soviets. The Soviets  left behind a “Lady Liberty” type statue up on the Buda Hill.  When the Soviet rule relaxed somewhat, Celia said people were finally able to wear jeans and listen to music from the west and drink coca cola!

Then there is a large citadel next to the Palace, but it was never used, beautiful structure though.

The Citadel on the Buda Hill
Local scams to avoid

1) Stay away from the “orange” money exchange  shops, they charge a very high commission. Go to those other exchange shops in the Jewish quarter.

2) Don’t use the “yellow” ATM’s.They charge exorbitant fees.

3)) If you use a taxi, make sure it just doesn’t say “taxi”. It must have a name of a company such as City Taxi, Buda Taxi, etc. Those  that just say taxi are not reputable. By the way all the taxis are yellow.

4)  Don’t go to Thai massage parlors!  (Except  if you are a drunken lout! – no she did not say this, just my interpretation!)

We continue our walking tour and Celia points out the number 2 tram line which runs along the Danube. One can take this line to see most of Budapests’ major sights. Our plan is to take this on Monday. She also mentioned that the number 1 metro line, was the first built in Continental Europe and is very “cute”. 

Hungarian foods and liquor

“Palinka” – An alcoholic drink made from the fruit in the Hungarian plains,  and comes in different flavors. Our guide tells us that it is anywhere from 30% to 70% proof. With one shot you loosen up, two shots one becomes Hungarian, three shots you feel you have superpowers, four shots you think its a love potion and with five shots you think you are being teleported and this is very bad!

“Langos”  – a crisp deep fried potato cake served with sour cream and cheese and sometimes topped with garlic. Now also available in lots of other toppings. Picture below is from the market.


“”Sausages” – all types of Hungarian sausages sold in cafes,  grocery stores and street vendors. Salami is also very popular.

“”Hungarian WInes” – Hungary is the 3rd largest wine producer in Europe after France and Italy. One can buy a very good bottle for about 8 Euro. We have found their wines to be excellent. 

“Kremesh” – a cream filled pastry.

“”Dobos” – torte or sponge cake layered with chocolate buttercream and topped with caramel. 

Turo Rudi” – A chocolate bar found in the coolers of grocery stores,  a soft inner filing of cold curd cheese with a thin outer coating of dark chocolate. Our guide says you will either love it or hate it!

“Goulash” –  The Hungarian goulash is a soup,  not a stew.

“Chimney Cakes” – We had these in Prague. A popular Hungarian street snack, this yeast pastry is coiled around rolling-pin shaped moulds, then baked on a rotisserie until golden, and finally dusted in sugar or other toppings, such as nuts, chocolate or sprinkles. Very good.

We walked to St. Stephen’s Basilica, we will come back to visit interior later. The dome is 96 meters high which is exactly the height of the Parliament Building.  It is built in a neo classical,renaissance and baroque style as three different architects were involved with the building of the Basilica over many years.  The mummified hand of St. Stephen is displayed in the church. Our guide told us that one could see the hand which is in a case. For 1 Euro you can get the case lit up to get a good look at it. She said Hungarian’s just wait till someone else pays the Euro!  Also entombed in the Basilica is  Ferec Puskas, Hungarys’ most famous football (soccer) player of all time. …..only in Hungary!

St.Stephen’s. Basilica
Stopped by the Academia of. Science.  Some famous Hungarian inventions…Rubik’s cube, ball point pen, rotor for a helicoptor, contact lenses, hologram, hydrogen bomb, vitamin C. Many scientists moved away as the country simply did not have the resources to support them.

Another fun fact from our guide regards the Hungarian language. As I had earlier mentioned, it is one of the hardest to learn and sounds very peculiar to outsiders. Apparently the Hungarian language is used in Alien movies. So the language of the Jedi and Yoda is Hungarian!

We walk over the famous chain bridge, the first bridge to be built (1849) across the Danube to join Buda and Pest. Destroyed by the Nazis, but quickly rebuilt. One can take a funicular up to the top of the hill to see the Palace, but our group walks up. 

At the base of the hill is an large oval statue which marks the heart of the country. 

The Palace was damaged during WW11 and when the Soviets settled here, they refurbished it, but unfortunately used subpar materials, window frames are plastic. Must say while walking through the City one sees beautiful buildings, then just next door you will see large stark “Soviet era” type buildings. No redeeming features in these buildings and as a matter of fact a lot are being torn down or refurbished. Following is an example…the. beautiful Basilica with a soviet era building just next door.

Walking around the Castle District we also see Matthias Church, very beautiful. Our tour ends, a great 3 hours…very informative and fun. 

St. Matthias. Church in the Castle District (Buda)

Robin and I decide to take the bus back to the Pest side and end up in the Jewish District. We walk around, stop for lunch and eventually wind our way back to our apartment. Another packed day, impression of Budapest much changed from the first afternoon…..a good change!

Monday night we decide to head to the Jewish District for dinner. As we near the District we hear loud music and come across a demonstration. There must be some 10,000+- people, peacefully walking down the broad boulevard. I stop some of the people walking and ask them what is happening, we see signs that say its time for President Orban to step down. Well folks…..this is another chapter in the CEU (Central European University) story. I speak to another two young men who tell us that Viktor Orban is trying to close down the University, which we already knew. But unlike what our driver told us last week, the truth is that Orban is trying to squash free thinking and progressive views. Think we believe these guys and not the driver! WOW…this was quite the sight. Would we ever see this in Canada?

Democracy at work

Monday arrives and we head off early and catch the subway to the famous Szechenyi Baths. The baths are one of the largest in Europe and the first to be built in the Pest side. I had bought tickets before we left home. A real experience and we really enjoyed taking this in. Glad we went early as it got very busy by the time we left. Spent about 2 1/2 hours at the baths, mostly outside as was again a very beautiful day. When in Hungary do as the Hungarians!. 

Szechenyi Baths

Some of the indoor baths
We take the subway back to the Jewish District for lunch then walk down to the Danube and take the number 2 tram to take in the sights along the Danube on both the Buda and Pest sides of the river. The Parliament buildings are beautiful and immense, plan is to visit them tomorrow. 

On our final day in Budapest, we head off to the Central Market Hall, which is Budapest’s produce market. As with usual markets lots of stalls selling meat, salami, vegetables and fruits. Strawberries and asparagus definitely in season right now. Upstairs are small cafes and souvenir stands.Very crowded with locals and tourists alike. On our way, we venture down some beautiful side streets, nice to get off the busy streets.

Central Market Hall. – had lunch here..very good and the price was right!
Central Market Hall

Take the tram and head off to the Parliament. This building is huge, classified in guide books as a “hulking oversized neo-gothic building” .   The Parliament was built from 1885 to 1902, during the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Overbuilt by today’s standards considering the size of Hungary. It has a striking resemblance to Westminster in London. Referred to as a Neo Gothic Palace with a Neo-Renaissance dome. At one time a huge red communist star sat atop its tallest spire, but needless to say, that is now gone.  Visited the Museum of the History of the Hungarian National Assembly, interesting  history. 

The Budapest Parliament Building. A view from the Buda hill.
We hop on the subway and make our way to Deak Ter (square) and head off once again into the Jewish Quarter. We are on a mission to find a “ruin pub”. I had read about these before we headed out on our trip, and are quite the phenomenon. During WWll this area was heavily damaged and the neighbourhood sat dilapidated and forgotten for decades, even when other parts of the city were being refurbished. They really cater to the younger crowd in the evenings, not our bag, so we decided to go during the day. The entrances to these various pubs look abandoned, but once you walk down a hallway, you will find yourself in a large hall or open courtyard. We went to Szimpla Kert (simple garden). Tiny rooms surround an inner courtyard and seating throughout these areas. I am not sure how to begin to describe these pubs. I hope the pictures below will give one an idea of why I really can’t describe them!

After a drink at the pub, we head back to our apartment, another full day. About one hour after arriving to our temporary home, a rain storm comes in…good timing! 

Once again, did not see everything we wanted!  Overall thoughts on Budapest…..beautiful city, very walkable, transportation very good, lots of history although culturally seems to be somewhat lacking.  Has become more of a party destination. Nonetheless, worth a visit. 
 Tomorrow morning, we take the train back to Vienna and pick up a rental car and head off to our next destination…Krems an der Danau in Austria, along the Danube. 

Chapter Two- Vienna

Day three in Vienna….Robins’ fitbit in overtime! We have certainly put in the steps since arriving. Certainly noticeable that spring is well underway here. The lilacs have already bloomed and the roses are stunning. 

We head off to Schonbrunn Palace this morning using the Underground. So far very impressed by the transportation system here. Easy to get around by underground and tram, and both systems very safe and clean. Having said that, when you enter the underground, there are signs warning of pickpockets… different than in any major city in the world!

Get to add two more locations to my list of Unesco World Heritage Sites that we have visited…The historic Centre of Vienna and the Palace and Gardens of Schonbrunn……yeah!

Arrive at Schonbrunn Palace which is within the city of Vienna, but further from the centre. The Palace was built in 1696 as the summer residence for the Habsburgs’. It was significantly altered some forty years later by Empress Maria Theresia…of course it was! 

The entrance to the Palace grounds are magnificent. We only had to wait about 20 minutes to get our entry tickets. We were told that the wait in the summer can be 2 -3 hours. There are a total of 1,441 rooms and we opted to visit the full forty rooms that are open to the public. We had audio guides which were very informative. Unfortunately one cannot take pictures within the palace itself. Believe me, the interior is quite something, very ornate. Furniture and art work in excellent conditon. Wall coverings and woodwork exeptional. Every room has porcelain heaters which look like fireplaces and are works of art. Of special note was the Hall of Mirrors. Mozart performed here at the age of six for Empress Maria Theresia in 1762 and it is said that after his performance, he climbed up onto the lap of the Empress and kissed her. I wonder how she felt about that….she looks very stern in the pictures we have seen of her! Touring the palace one can peek through the shuttered windows and get a glimpse of the specatacular gardens. 

We spend about 3 hours visiting the Palace and grounds. The grounds include magnificent gardens, a zoo and many exterior buildings. The upkeep of the grounds and buildings must be very time consuming and expensive.  The zoo (tiergarten) claims to be the world’s oldest zoo.

The grounds of Schonbrunn
Back to the centre of the city and our next stop is the Naschmarkt, Vienna’s outdoor fruit and vegetable market. It is said to be one of Europe’s, if not the world’s, great open air markets. It certainly is one of the largest we have come across. It wasn’t very busy  when we were there, as it was later in the afternoon. In addition to the numerous produce stands, there are several snack stands and cafe’s where you can enjoy a meal or drink. Anything from local Viennese cooking, Greek, Donairs, Asian noodle stands, wine bars and a well known fish cafe. 

We decide to walk from the market to our apartment, about a 20 minute walk, discovering new areas along the way. 

We decide to eat in tonight…….lots of schnitzel left over from our dinner out the previous night. Prior to dinner we decide to go out for a short walk and stop at a local outdoor restaurant/bar for an aperitif.  Another lovely evening to be sitting outside and watch the world unfold.  Europe just has a vibe about it, people enjoy the little things in life. A cup of coffee and pastry at their favourite coffee shop or a discussion with friends over a drink before dinner….all taking their time and enjoying these special moments. During our walk in the neighbourhood, we came across a playground full of children.  Some were playing on the swings while others playing games with their parents. Other parents sitting outside the playground keeping an eye on their kids, while visiting with other parents. Great to see this! 

The buildings in Vienna are so varied. On one corner you will have an ancient building and on another corner a modern one. They certainly cannot afford to build in the style they used to as would simply be too time consuming and expensive to do all the intricate plaster work.  The newer buildings mainly due to all the destruction during WWll.

Our apartment building on Burgasse
Another beautiful day dawns and we hop on the underground with the intention of a transfer at Karsplatz to a tram to get us further on our travels.  We decide to stop at a cafe in the park for coffee. Although we had briefly been in this area once before, today we decide to spend some time discovering the area a bit better. The Staatsope (State Opera House) is just across the way. The intention was to visit it today, as one can take a guided tour. A friend in Calgary had visited and was able to get tickets for a concert here and said it was magnificent. When I was planning our trip here, I looked into getting tickets, but they were already sold out….Placido Domingo and other famous  singers are in concert tonight and the opera house was not open today for tours….oh well, can’t see everything when one has limited time. 

Surrounding the the Karsplatz is Vienna’s Technical University and occupies numerous buildings in the area, so lots of young people around.  The Karsplatz was formed when the Danube was redirected in the early 20th century.  

At one end is Karlskirche and a sign indicates that is is the “most important sacral building of the Baroque era in Vienna”. It was built between 1716-1737 on the orders of Emperor Charles Vl, as he had made a vow to have a church built if the plague abated. The church is a rather different looking one.  It has two free standing columns, one greek inspired the other roman and two baroque towers at either end..

Instead of taking a tram we decide to walk the addtional 1.5 kilometres to  the “Belvedere Palace”, our  original destination. The. Palace is actually two imposing Baroque style palaces (the Upper and Lower Belvedere) separated by a 17th century French style garden. Built between 1714 and 1722, these were the summer residences for general Prince Eugene of Savoy. Later they became the residence of Archduke Franz Ferdinand…..we know him right….the guy who’s assassination started the first world war.  Both Palaces are now devoted to Austrian paintings, centering on three preeminent early 20th century painters: Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka. . Klimt’s famous painting “The Kiss” is on display here as are many more. Once again not allowed to take pictures inside, but one is able to take a picture in front of a replica of the kiss. 

The Upper Palace and gardens
The Lower Palace and Vienna in the background

We then hop on the tram back to Karsplatz and decide to go to the Nachmarket for lunch. We stop at “Zur Eisernen” and have traditional goulash.  The picture below was taken from the restaurant menu and is self explanatory. Thought this was interesting…..I love these kind of stories!  Best goulash we have ever had!  Have to mention that whenever we stop anywhere for coffee, lunch or a drink, if Robin has his backpack, he always clips it  to the chair,  never  just hangs it on the chair. He does this to prevent anyone from helping themselves to the backpack, if you know what I mean. Well , while at this outdoor market cafe, the waiter had not noticed that Robin had clipped it on the chair and he said to be careful with the backpack as there were “specialists”  in the area….he meant pickpockets!

Take the subway back to our apartment, lots of walking again today….OH NO!….the elevator is not working. So much for my comments regarding the elevator in my previous blog post. Have to walk up four floors after a long day of walking!

Prior to heading off for our trip, I had booked tickets for a Mozart concert at the Musikverein Concert Hall near the Karlsplatz. We decide to make an evening of it and go for dinner to a local restaurant in our area. What a great choice. The Boheme serves traditional Viennese fare as well as  other mainstream entree. Lucky for us, it is the season for fresh asparagus.  Oh my gosh….Shirley V  you would have loved this. I had grilled prawns with white asparagus risotto and Robin had beef stroganoff with fresh asparagus and spaetzle. While there, a local farmer brought in more fresh asparagus…yum!

Up the alley from where we were having dinner, the young locals were having drinks after their  workweek; it’s Friday night. They spill out into the sidewalk as the pub is full, no one is rowdy, all well behaved. Not sure this would happen in Canada…we carry too many taboos around liquor.

Take the subway to the music hall and get there in plenty of time. We find out that we need to trade our voucher in for our pre-assigned tickets. A bit of a line up and eventually we get called up by one of the clerks. Well, out of nowhere comes an older Asian women who tries to but in, in front of us. Robin used one of his rugby moves and puts a stop to this obnoxious rude woman….well, wasn’t she just put in her place! We enter the hall, simply beautiful. Once again signs everywhere saying you are not allowed to take pictures. This place is filled with tourists and everyone is taking pictures. 

The concert lasts 2 hours and musicians are all dressed in Mozart period costumes. There were two opera singers who accompany the orchestra at various intervals. Should also mention that our tickets were in row 13, only caucasians in this row! We sat next to a delightful young couple from Holland;  they were on a camping holiday and had left their young 2 yr old son with family.  We always marvel as to how easy it is for people living in Europe to visit so many different countries at such a close distance and for a such a reasonable cost.  A wonderful evening out. 

It is our last night in Vienna. Thankfully the elevator is working again.  We arrange for a  cab in the morning to take us to the Vienna train station, the Wien Hauptbahnhof.. We are spending the next four days in Budapest and will arrive there in 2 1/2 hours. Needless to say, the train leaves  right at 9:42 am, got to love the European train system! Better internet on this train than our Vienna  apartment! Just as I was about  to  post. my blog on the train, we crossed into Hungary and no internet on the train while in Hungary. Just arrived at our apartment in Budapest,very lovely.

Loved Vienna!! One could spend a full week here. We did not see everything we wanted, but got a very good feel for the City.

First few days – Vienna, May 2017

Well dear friends and family, we are off once again on another adventure. On this six week trip we will spend our first 4 days in Vienna. We will then take a side trip to Budapest for 4 days, then back to Vienna to pick up a car. Then on to Krems an der Donau, which is along the Danube, then to Bad Ischl, which is in Upper Austria, then back to Vienna for our flight to Paris. An overnight in Paris then the TGV to the Brittany and Loire areas for a month. We will spend our last four days in Paris.

As we are spending a few weeks in Austria, thought I would share a little history of the country. While in Austria we will be spending time in Lower and Upper Austria. On a previous trip, many years ago, we visited the Tyrol and Salzburg provinces.

At its height a century ago, the Austro-Hungarian Empire covered most of central and eastern Europe and was ruled by the House of Habsburg. The 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand resulted in the First World War. The losses of the war resulted in the collapse of the empire. Then German Austria proclaimed itself an independent state. Adolf Hitler annexed Austria in 1938 until 1945.  After the Second World War, Vienna was partitioned and governed by four allies (French, Americans, British and Russians) and then in 1955 became an independent sovereign state. They joined the European Union in 1995. Today, Austria is a parliamentary democracy. 

A Federal Presidential (head of state) election took place in December 2016. There was controversy in the election as it was found that electoral laws were disregarded in regards to absentee votes. In a run off, Alexander Van der Bellen (Green Party) won over Norbert Hofer from the Austrian Freedom Party, in a very close race. The Freedom Party has seen a resurgence in years. They believe that integration weakens Austria’s “cultural identity”. They attract young people and workers. Sounds familiar with a lot of what is happening in Europe!

The Federal Chancellor (head of government) of Austria is Christian Kern, appointed by the President. Although he is head of governeent, he has no power to direct other members of government. 

Austria is made up of 9 independent federal states (Burgenland, Carinthia, Lower Austria, Upper Austria, Salzburg, Styria, Tirol, Vorarlberg and Vienna) with each their own provincial governments. Current population stands at around 8 million and 98% speak German. About 74% of Austrians are Roman Catholic, 5% are Protestant, the rest belong to other faiths. 

Austria survived the Euro crisis in much better shape than many other EU countries, maintaining a lower than average unemployment rate. The services sector forms some two thirds of the GDP and trade and industry the remaining third. Agriculture contributes 2%. Austria ranks among the European Communites richest countries. The most important industry is said to be tourism. Exports are vital to the economy. Main exports are machinery and equipment, motor vehicles and parts, paper,metal goods, chemicals, iron and steel, textiles and food stuff. Exports are mainly to Germany.

Famous Austrians…Strauss, Schubert, Mozart, Liszt, Haydn, Mahler (all musicians and composers), Klimt (artist), Lauda(race car driver), Freud and cannot forget to mention…Arnold Schwarzenegger! Needless to say, Austria is well known for its music. 

Austria is also known for its outdoors… a matter of interest the first line of the national anthem is “Land of mountains, land on the river”. 

We arrived in Vienna on Tuesday around 3 p.m., after a three hour layover in Amsterdam. We have rented an apartment in the Spittelberg area which is only a 10 minute walk to the centre of Vienna. Our apartment is in a very old building, but the apartment itself is very lovely, newly renovated, very modern and quiet. We are in the 7th district, central Vienna is the 1st district and located within the Ringstrasse.

I have to share the instructions for access to our apartment. When one has jet lag, they seemed a little confusing…..

“Your keys will be placed in a key box located on the left side of the door to the building outside. The four digit code to the key box is xxxx, your key box is on the right . After entering the code you can open the box and take your keys. Please make sure to close the door of the key box and change the numbers you entered prviousely so no one can open it again. The key set consists of three keys. The yellow key is for the main entrance door. Once you enter the building please go straight ahead until you reach the can either take the elevator to floor number 2 or walk to the second floor until you see a sign which says “2 Stock”. On your left side is a white door with number 7 on top. Please open this door with the green key where you can enter a corridor. PLEASE MAKE SURE TO ALWAYS CLOSE THIS DOOR BUT NOT LOCK IT. After you enter the corridor please go to the door with a sign A on it. You can open this door with the remaining key without any color.”

It actually made sense when we were standing in front of the door, but sure raised questions when driving in from the aiport. Yes, we did get into the apartment without any problems!

I get a kick out of the sign in the elevator in our apartment building. It says no more than 5 people at a time…..hard pressed to get a maximum of 3. At least we have an elevator, I am not complaining….. we are on the 4th floor. 

Once settled in, we headed out for the centre of Vienna. The major sites of Vienna are within the Ringstrasse. The Ringstrasse ( now a cirular road and tramway street) was previously a wall encircling the city and legend has it that this wall was financed by a ransom paid by the English for the release of King RIchard who was kidnapped en route home from the Crusade by the local duke. 
Vienna has a population of 1.8 million people and is by far the largest city in Austria. The next largest city Gras has apopulation of  300,000.  Prior to the 1st world war, the population of Vienna was in excess of 2 million. 

In our walkabout on our first afternoon here, we came across the Volksgarten (the people’s garden),, which is next to the Imperial Palace, better known as the Hofburg. We entered the Imperial City through the City Gates. This complex was the home to the Habsburgs till 1918.  Today the various buildings are museums, stables and performing arena for the Lipizzaner horses. At the other end of the complex is the Burggarten,  another green space, which historically were the private gardens for the Habsburgs, but are now public gardens. 

Claire in front of gates to the Imperial Palace
As you can see by the picture the weather since arriving has been in the low to mid 20’s.  We are told by locals that they had a very cold, rainy spring. Walked around the main pedestrian streets, lots of tourists around….would not want to be here at the height of summer!  Taking in a lot of the sites, but need to get our bearings to find out what exactly we have seen. Stop at a small cafe for our first “drink”. Robin partakes of a cold dark Austian beer and I opt for a glass of cold white wine, exactly what was needed!

Jet lag has set in so we head back to our apartment and eat in. An early night.

On Wednesday morning, I had made arrangements for a walking tour at 9 am with Global Greeters. This organization exists in a lot of major cities and is made up of volunteers who want to show tourists what their city has to offer and share their knowledge of the cities history, culture, food and show you around to tourist sites and some out of the way places. 

Well I will say that we were very impressed. Helene met us in front of our apartment. 

We spent 3 hours with our guide Helene, a resident of Vienna most of her life. She runs her own marketing research company with her husband, and volunteers with Global Greeters a couple times of month.There is no cost associated with this organization, and although we tried to give her a tip at the end of our walk, she would not take it, she reiterated is was a free tour and she wanted to improve her english, although her english was very good. One can give a donation to Global Greeters.  
Vienna is also known for its coffee culture. Our guide Helene, told us that Starbucks had opened numerous coffee shops, but had to close many of them, with the exception of those in the tourist areas, as locals would not frequent them.  As we have discovered , the Viennese spend many hours in their chosen coffee house. Not only do they enjoy their coffee, they read their newspapers and enjoy a torte or other type of desert. 

All around the city centre, you get approached by young men dressed like Mozart, trying to sell you tickets for Mozart concerts. All the tourist shops are packed with Mozart, Klimt and Empress Maria Theresia paraphernalia. 

During our first afternoon in VIenna, we noticed many teenagers well dressed and all walking together. Our guide told us that they were probably coming back from dancing lessons. Helene also said that at least once a year her family attends one of the many balls held in Vienna during the season. Traditional Austrian clothing is normally worn on these occasions. 
Helene was so informative.

 Helene took out a map of Vienna to get us oriented to the City and where we were about to explore. She explained that the water source that flows through the old city centre is actually the Danube canal. The Danube River is located a bit further out, and would often flood. There was marshland along the river, so the decision was made to dredge this area and widen the river. The soil that was removed during this dredging was piled up in the middle of the river to form an island, “Donau Insel – Danube Island”. Many people flock here during the summer season and many festivals are held on the island. 

She also mentioned that 30% of Vienna was destroyed during the second world war. 

A little side note, we spoke with Helene about the recent elections. She confirmed that the elections were indeed controversial and the citizens voted on 3 separate occasions last year before the final decision was made. 

We started in the  Spittelberg Quarter, our apartment is her. She told us that this area was very rundown many years ago and the city was going to demolish the buildings. Luckily they did not. It is now a perfectly preserved enclave of 18th century buildings/apartments that are sought after and therefore very expensive. Wonderful cobblestone streets with many restaurants and narrow alleys. A little away from the main tourist area, so mainly locals in the area. 

Then walked through the Museum Quarter(locals refer to this area as MQ). This series of 260 year old buildings house various museums and galleries originally  housed over 900 cavalry horses belonging to the Emperor..

Just a few steps from the MQ are two impressive buildings facing one another. The Museum of Fine Art and the Natural History Museum were built during the reign of Emperor Franz Josef in the late 1800’s. Beautiful topiary gardens in front of both buildings. In the centre of the two buildings is a statue of Empress Maria Theresia, including her advisors. Austrians are celebrating her 300th year anniversary this year, so everywhere one sees signs of this event. 
It is said that the Empress was a force to be reckon with. She ruled for 40 years (1740 – 1765) and was the only female ruler of the Habsburg’s dynasty. She had 16 children of which 10 survived into adulthood. She was a devout catholic and ruled with counsel from her advisors. She was instrumental in strengthening Austria’s international standing. She introduced many financial and educational reforms. 

We continue our walk through the gates leading to the Imperial City and further to central Vienna. The street leading from the Hofburg, is called Kohlmarkt which refers to the days that coal was sold in this location. Today it is lined with high end shops. One shop of note that we entered was Demel, VIenna’s best known pastry shop. It was established in 1786. Amazing pastries, but we did not indulge. The window displays area creations made of sugar. Helene tells us that these displays change with the seasons or holidays. 

We find ourselves on the main pedestrian area, the Stephenplatz. In the centre is the Stephansdom Cathedral, dating back to the 12th century. As many churches in Europe it was constructed over several hundred years and styles range from Romanesque to Gothic. Cleaning of the facade is ongoing. 

Peterskirche, a Baroque style church is incredibly ornate, constructed in the early 1700’s. 

Helene told us that all Emperor’s and Empresses from the 16th century on, had followed the practice of having their hearts buried at St. Augustine’s, their bodies at the Imperial Crypt and their inner organs at St. Stephen’s. The only exception was Franz Joseph. 
A few steps from this church is the Pestsaule or Plague Column. Helene told us that we will see these all over Europe. They are reminders of the plague and represent thanks to God for delivering people from the plague. The top figures are the Holy Trinity and further down statues of the saints that people prayed to during this period. 

Robin and Helene in front of the Plague monument

We then visited a monument in remembrance of WW11. It is built on a site where 300 people were killed during the bombing. They had sought refuge in the basement of their building, but unfortunately it collapsed on top of them and they all died. Next to this is a statue of an old Jewish man on his knees being made to scrub the streets just prior to WW11. A string of barb wire is on top of him. Very moving. Further in the same square is a stone column commemorating modern Austria and etched on it are the words of “The New Beginning”.

Though a narrow walkway, which brings us to ancient apartment buildings. All stairways are on the outside of the buildings and have been well preserved. Further on we visit a group of buildings owned by the Teutonic Knights. An order similar to the Knights Templar, but not as secretive. They are made up of priests as well as lay people. In this square we peered into a small music hall where Mozart is said to have performed. 
We finish our walk with Helene by stopping at her favourite coffee house, Cafe Frauenhuber which has been operating since the late 1700’s. Robin indulged in a sachertorte, a traditional Viennese desert. Helene told Robin that it must be ordered “mit schlag” with whipping cream! It is said that Mozart frequented this coffee shop as his residence was nearby.

While sitting there, I gave Robin some cash to pay for our coffee. An elderly gentleman sitting across from us leaned over to Robin and said “Must be nice to have a lady give you money”. We chatted to him for a few moments, very charming. 

At the coffee house. Check out the older gentleman behind us, he was so charming!

We head back to our apartment for a short rest. 

In the afternoon we head off and take the underground to Schwedenplatz to catch a tram bus that takes us around the RIngstrasse. During this ride we see the Parliament buildings, the Viennese University and various museums. A diversity of different building styles. Back to our apartment and we head off for dinner. We went to a local restaurant with outdoor seating. Ordered traditional Viennese Schnitzel. Enough to feed several people, so we brought it home for dinner tomorrow night! Nice to be able to sit outside. 

One thing that we have noticed over the last two days, is the number of adults who use push scooters, some being electric. Vienna also seems to be a bike friendly city with many bike lanes that are well used.
Vienna – post 2 to follow!