Friday, October 31, 2014

Montmartre & Au Revoir to France!

What an enchanting and perfect spot for my last days in France: Montmartre, that north Parisian enclave of individualism high on a hill overlooking the whole city.
On the steps of Sacre-Coeur, looking out over Paris to say goodbye
With Tim’s walk-up apartment as a base (thank you, Colleen & Gunilla) right at the foot of the impressive, glowing white limestone Basilique du Sacre-Coeur, I had an evening and a morning to explore this exciting, fabled Paris neighborhood before heading to the airport hotel for my last night in France. Diana’s staying for several more days.
Five floors down - and up!
We climbed up, up, up steep winding streets and set after set of stairs (engage.core.use.leg.muscles) and down, down winding cobblestone lanes (watch.your.step) to find the still rockin’ Moulin Rouge (home of the can-can) in Place Pigalle and Moulin de la Galette and Au Lapin Agile.
Can't remember seeing neon lights anywhere else in Paris!
Beautiful and historic Cimetiere de Montmartre - RIP, Tim
A visit to the Musee de Montmartre helped us begin to grasp the “Spirit of Montmartre” during it’s days of revolutionary fervor and its late 19th century days of artistic and avant-garde hedonism and free thinking. So special to see original Toulouse-Latrec poster advertisements and iconic posters for Le Chat Noir.
Famous image by Toulouse-Latrec at Musee de Montmartre
Le Chat Noir - the real one? - in Jardin de Renoir

So, au revoir to France! From Provence and the sparkling Mediterranean Sea, to thought-provoking Normandy on the English Channel, to tantalizing Paris - merci beaucoup for a memorable, satisfying, and altogether wonderful trip!

Monday, October 27, 2014

D-Day Beaches & Villages: Success Against Great Odds

We left Paris via train for Bayeux in Normandy to stay for two nights, spending a full, thought-provoking day on a tour of the D-Day landing area.

We stood on the soft, pebbly sands of Omaha Beach, very peaceful, very pretty at mid-tide, with our backs to the English Channel, looking up towards the hills and remnants of concrete bunkers (gun batteries of the Atlantic Front - some of which we climbed down into later), being visually and mentally guided back to June 6, 1944 . . . thinking what it must have been like to come ashore amidst enemy fire in a strange land and fight your way across these sands and up those hills, trying with your life to overcome obstacles and make a difference in the world. And, as we all know, they succeeded.

We drove from spot to spot on the Beach Road, a main thoroughfare through Normandy and the road the troops used towards their mission, hearing stories and gaining insights from our guide Peter.
Peter: One of the worst crimes of the Nazis was “stealing the minds of German youth,” causing a generation to be brainwashed to their cause.
With a sense of awe, we located Colleen’s Uncle Mike Kelly’s grave marker at the American Cemetery: Plot F, Row 15, Grave 18. He was in the 507th Infantry Parachute Division - later we read about the 505th, 507th, and 508th at Ste Mere-Eglise Airborne Museum.
Marble crosses and their shadows lined up with precision at the American Cemetery with Omaha Beach in the background.
Often tears welled up throughout this day, especially at the Airborne Museum when coming upon a memo from a paratrooper: “There is no better place to die.”
Paratroopers jumped out of airplanes (of course - but when we think that planes were a fairly new concept at that time, that’s even more remarkable), landing in the total darkness of dawn behind enemy lines, needing to quickly determine where they were and locate other troops, while fighting off Germans they encountered. Their job was to make the villages safe for those coming ashore later. And again, as we all know, they succeeded.

At Pointe du Hoc, we gazed upon a landscape full of craters and picked our way across destroyed circular concrete bunkers, and then looked straight down the steep cliffs which Rangers scaled in order to take out German troops there. Seems an impossible task, and yet, again as we all know, they did it. So sadly, out of 225 Ranger only 90 made it.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1941: “We, and all others who believe in freedom as deeply as we do, would rather die on our feet than live on our knees.” 
We drove through many other towns in Normandy, noting their memorials to their dead and their symbols of appreciation to the Allies - Longues sur-Mer, (sur-Mer is French for “on the beach”), Commes, Port-en-Bessin, Ste Honorine, Colleville sur-Mer, Ste Lauren sur-Mer, Beuzeville (the only town in this area that did not suffer a casualty - so they erected a memorial to a pilot of a plane that crashed in a nearby field), Foucaville, Le Grand Chemin, Ste Germain, Ste Marie duMont, Angoville au Plain, Carentan.

Now that we’ve actually walked on these beaches and explored these towns, their names will no longer be impersonal settings on a page of history. They succeeded here, and now we and others can live with the freedoms we have today. This day of re-living history was fascinating, sobering, and inspiringly enlightening.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Seine at Night

A Seine River boat cruise capped our last night in central Paris. After dark we re-discovered the City of Light. La Tour Eiffel dazzled in shimmering magic as we left the dock right on the hour. Take a look!

From the river we caught lit-up glimpses of memorable experiences during the last few days in Paris:
  • Musee de Louvre - Arriving early one morning, we saw Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, Coronation of Emperor Napoleon, and Venus de Milo in this impressive former palace before the crowds arrived to shoo us out. The enormous building was aglow after dark.
  • Notre-Dame Cathedral - A gorgeous building, a very special 700 year-old house of worship. We couldn’t see our favorite gargoyles in the dark, but the towers and spires were a sparkling wonder!
Rose Window at Notre-Dame Cathedral.
  • Musee d’Orsay - Weary, and at the end of a long day on foot, we still marveled at the collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings by Monet, Renoir, Manet, Degas, Sisley, Van Gogh … in the same city where these very works were created and where the movement began. At night we enjoyed the sight of this former train station and it’s enormous clocks glowing from within.
Oh, and then there's the Palace of Versailles. We didn't see it of course on our nighttime boat tour, but it evokes very special memories. The Hall of Mirrors is a sight to behold indeed!
We don't know the little boy, but he's clearly as mesmerized by the crystal chandeliers and windows and mirrors as we are!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Night at the Opera in Paris!

What a scintillating, amazing city! How can so many famous streets and astounding monuments and impressive palaces and enormous museums and bridges and buildings and churches be in one place?! 

Turns our our apartment is a hop, skip, & a jump from the Eiffel Tower, so we high-tailed it out the door to find it as soon as we got ourselves settled in. We were already feeling giddy about having an apartment in Paris for gosh sakes, but when we turned a corner and saw the top of the Tour de Eiffel for the first time we jumped up and down and hugged each other with glee! Had to wipe a little tear away!

One of the MANY awe-inspiring places in Paris we viewed from the bus the next day (yes, we had worn ourselves a little thin with exploration on foot in the rain and wind the day we got there) was Opera Garnier. Um huh, it's the palace (too luxurious to call it a building) with a massive dome and underground lake and huge chandelier that inspired Gaston Leroux to write a story called The Phantom of the Opera.

Well, of course we were enchanted and decided to go back later to see what we could see. Turns out there was a performance going on that night. We managed to decipher that there would be an opera by Mozart (an all-time favorite!) called L'Enlevement au serail (never heard of it!) and that we could get obstructed view seats in an otherwise sold-out house for merely 10 euro. Which we jumped at, although with our very limited French language skills we weren't exactly sure exactly what we were jumping at! We just knew we were going inside the sumptuously dazzling place to see an opera! In Paris!

We soon discovered that Opera Garnier is as beautiful inside as it is outside and that our seats were in a box (!) just above the main level, nearly next to the stage! 

Best part yet: The enormously talented performers sang their parts in German (um, not our 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th language). But not to fear because there were subtitles above the stage to translate for us. And of course those subtitles were in - you guessed it - French! (I'm putting my comprehension level at oh, about 12% - but I think Diana's was much higher!)

A night at the opera in Paris! What's next?!!!!!!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Avignon & Arles - Happy Days in Provence

New favorite phrase in French: Tout va bien! All is good!

After two days in Avignon and one in Arles, we are starting to get the hang of being in the south of France. In fact . . .

You know you’re in France when:
  • You order your breakfast in French because there’s no choice of language: Une baguette et un cafe s’il vous plait. And you actually get what you wanted! And the flakiness of the croissant is a work of art.
  • You eat every meal outside at a little table, relishing the sound of people fluently speaking French around you, and the slight chill in the air, and the sound of church bells chiming.
  • You have a glass of local wine with every meal except the one you had the cafe at.
  • You once in a while have a scoop of ice cream for lunch because you can’t figure out what the other items on the menu are.
  • Your legs have gotten very strong without even thinking about a stair master or treadmill workout.
  • You are happy you brought lace up shoes that can handle the cobblestones, and you don’t really care that they look a little dorky.
  • You get to where you rather fully expect that the street names will change every block, I mean every curve.
  • Train announcements are in French, German, sometimes Italian, and English. And the ones in English you can’t really understand.
Rooftops of Avignon through stained glass from Palais des Papes

In Avignon, we’ve walked through the palace where nine different Popes lived for 60 years in the 14th century when they moved out of the Vatican in Rome. We’ve walked on a very famous broken bridge and have been trying ever since to get the song out of our heads! We’ve walked for miles and miles, up and down ramps and stairs and hills to see beautiful views of the Rhone River. We’ve enjoyed fabulous food and great Cotes du Rhone wine. In Arles we’ve marveled at a Roman arena and we've stood at outlooks where Vincent Van Gogh set up his easel to paint. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Glittering Monaco

Hey, let’s take a train to Monaco this morning! We’ll ride along the Low Corniche to see for ourselves those tiny villages nestled along the the Cote d’Azur with harbors sharing space with some really enormous yachts! 

And then we'll arrive in Monaco where even the train station floors and walls are made of marble. (Later we would notice that public trash cans, tree grates, and benches were matching and tastefully decorative. And even later we would read that this place has the highest per capita income in the world. Well no wonder then.)

Monaco is French but not exactly in France. After getting a bit disoriented after emerging from the train station - a situation that for us always involves lots and lots of walking! and of course discovering some lovely areas (but we never did stumble upon Monte Carlo!) - we made our way at last up a tall mountain to the sumptuous palace of the Prince Albert and Princess Charlene of the Principality of Monaco. From that breath-taking vantage point we could look down upon a larger harbor with even bigger yachts. Our pal Rick Steves says “lots and lots of yachts” - mais oui!

And later, as we savored an especially yummy dinner back in Nice, we played the “Happiness is” game. With our families and friends back home as our treasured “givens,” we threw out ideas about today.
Happiness is:
  • The Cote d’Azur looking very azure today. 
  • Ordering our meal and wine in French. 
  • French bread - in France! 
  • French wine - in France!
  • Asking for directions in French and pretending we knew what they’re telling us in return (actually not such a useful strategy for finding the bus back to Nice).
  • Actually finding the bus to take us back to Nice, even though it was so crowded we had to stand up the whole way as we once again experienced the winding Low Corniche.
  • Watching a boule match in Villefranche-sur-Mer (um, nice view of the ocean, guys!) played by young men while a much older man watched and clapped.
  • Reading street signs and making up what they mean based on our teensy bit of French and lots of imagination.
  • Experiencing French Riviera and pinching ourselves to keep believing it's true!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Day of Wonder - Nice, France

When your daylight hours begin at midnight because the sun is already up in the sky and you’ve flown across so many time zones so that it now registers as 7 a.m., you know you’re in Europe! And it’s how you begin a long marvel-filled day.

We landed in Dusseldorf, Germany to spend several hours in the quiet, immaculately clean, precisely ordered airport where everything was in, well, German - and oh, how we’d practiced our French! Yet soon we found ourselves on an AirBerlin flight gazing down in awe over the massive, rocky Alpes Martimes to quickly find ourselves landing practically right onto the sparking, fabled, exciting Mediterranean Sea in Nice, France!

It’s warm! It’s sunny! It’s 75 degrees! Shedding our travel jackets and changing into sandals, we moved from plan A to B and even C when we learned of the bus strike, but we eventually got to our hotel, exclaiming in wonder at the sparking Mediterranean out our taxi windows.

Exploring the city on foot was a marvel - the Sea is right here with its fabled rocky beach, sun-loving clothing-optional fans, four-mile long Promenade des Anglais, quaintly beautiful buildings. And into the old city Vieux Nice, the narrow winding stone-paved streets bringing charm and exclamation around every turn. We stopped for socca (chickpea crepe) and un verre du vin rouge, found a torte au blette pastry to save for breakfast, and thoroughly enjoyed two scoops of gelato in a place we’ll never be able to find again! Not a bad dinner for our first night in France.

Oh, what a joy to enjoy the day the full day through!