Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tuesday morning - plans change

Our cabin was hot and stuffy last night and we slept poorly. In the early hours, it began to rain, and it was grey, wet, and foggy as we sat down to breakfast.

The plan for today had been to bike a round-trip - upriver to Givet, France, then back to Dinant, then cruise downriver a bit, mooring the boat in a secluded place for the night. Mart came up with an alternative plan that was greeted with total approval.

We are cruising up to the Chateau of Freyr, where we can tour with minimal time-pressure. Then we will cruise back to Namur, for a possible short bike ride and a definite opportunity for sightseeing and dining. Everyone loved Namur, so this is great.

Time to read and relax - just what we needed.


Three hours later.

The Chateau and gardens were fascinating, with far too much information about the abundant historic paintings, furniture, and restored rooms.

We wandered the groomed gardens in the light drizzle, especially appreciating the 300 year old orange trees, prune like bonsai.

It is a real treat, after two days of great biking, to be a slug today.

Monday, May 30, 2011

we dined in Dinant

Lovely day biking up the Meuse, ending up in Dinant around 5 pm. You can see lots of photos on the Net, showing the giant bluff with the cool church down below.

We were toasted from the sun, wind, and exertion, so we all showered then headed into town.

Fortunately, the zillion steps up to the citadel were closed by the time we got there, so we spent a few minutes in the old church (begun around 300 AD, and extended and rebuilt many times over the centuries). Lovely stained glass.

We wandered around a bit and ended up at a riverside cafe with outdoor seating. The speciality of Belgium, I was told, was mussels. I asked at last night's restaurant and the waiter said they were not in season, but at this restaurant, they were available.

I hesitated, but the couple next to us had enormous buckets of mussles before them. They seemed to savor them, but I noticed a definite slowing down as they worked their way thru the lot. I had a seafood stew, which had a few mussles as well as other choice bits, in a nice sauce. Also a couple of glasses of wine. No complaints.

We sauntered back to the boat, moored right next to a hotel, so we are poaching WiFi while sitting on the boat, so this is my first entry typed on our netbook, rather than laborously tapped into my phone.

We skyped Ben and Dylan (just got his phone message, as usual) and talked to Lola in Santa Cruz. It's kinda amazing to be able to do this.

Night coming on now. Another day of biking coming up tomorrow. This is all good.

What could be better?

A glorious day, biking leisurely up the Meuse valley, in the sun.

We stopped at a roadside strawberry stand, for a treat.

We continues, past the Chateau de Dave, where we took a photo of Dave.

Now we are sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Profondeville, eating fresh pastries and drinking strong coffee.

What's wrong with this picture? Not a thing.


Two hours later.

We biked up the steep hill at Annevoie, to the (rightly) famous gardens, and spent a long time eating lunch, wandering the paths, and appreciating the incredibly well-groomed landscape, bubbling fountains and picturebook scenes.

It's a very warm day, but this has been a delightful break. Still a bunch of kilometers to Dinant, where the boat, a shower, and tea will be waiting.

A night in Namur

It is now monday morning in Namur. The boat is just waking up - breakfast in a half hour.

We had a splendid evening.

After mooring near the Sambre/Meuse confluence, we climbed the heights of the imposing citedel, as every tourist must. This maze of battlements is one of Europe's largest, and the expansive views from the top, make it clear why there is a city here.

It was late afternoon and the light was perfect. This is a lovely place, with a rich and fascinating skyline. Will our many photos show this?

We descended on trails to a Sambre bridge, and entered the old town. Our destination was a brasserie that was mentioned in the pages of some guidebook, that i had photocopies months ago, near thru church of St. Albin, described in that book as one of Belgium's ugliest.

We never found the restaurant, which is ok, sine the outside garden of Brasserie Francois provided the setting for the best dinner of the trip, so far.

I had a large bowl of a soup of creamed baby peas, seaoned with mint, a scattering of TINY red, sweet tomatoes and a few baby scallops. It was remarkable.

My main was a warm goat cheese salad, nested on a golden crouton, with a sweet dark red dressing, pine nuts, walnuts, and salad veggies. Oh yes, and a very tall cold beer.

You get the idea.

After this amazing dinner, we strolled around this charming city, marveling at the distinctive buildings and busy squares, and losing the women, when Dave and i stopped to poaching some free wifi.

The two of us wandered around the streets, looking for them in vain, until we gave up and headed back to the boat. Crossing the Sambre bridge, we all found each other again, by chance.

By now it was dark, with tbeautiful reflections of the houses and bridges on the still rivers.

Almost breakfast time now, as i sit beneath the citadel heights, feel the warm sun on my face, and tap all this into my phone. wouldn't want to write a novel like this.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sunday afternoon in sclayn

The bus to maastricht took about an hour. I was watching for the netherlands border but never saw a sign. Instead, the signs marched from 100% german to 50/50 to 100% dutch, over a kilometer or so.

At the Maastricht bahnhof, we got a taxi to the boat harbor where, with a minimum of panic, we found the 'Miro'.

We met the captain (not a shy character), got the basic orientation, and soon were off for Liege, Belgium.

The day was cloudy, breezy, and cool. After a while, the rural views were replaced by increasing big industrial stuff, and soon we were in a big city and pulled into a moorage along the Liege seewall.

Captain Mart then led us on a walking tour of old Liege. He surely knew his way around the old, twisty alleys. We followed like the helpless sheep we are.

Eventually we grabbed a quick bit at an always-reliable kebab joint near the Perron fountain, then he led us to an old tavern where we drank beer and listened to the regulars singing their old familiar cabaret-like songs. By then it was after 11 and everyone was toppling over. Back to the barge and bed.

Sunday morning was grey and chilly. We had a welcome breakfast on board, then had an hour or so to wander thru the vast open-air market, where everything from food to electronic gadgets to live rabbits was for sale. Quite a scene - beautiful cheeses and veggies.

We headed out, past steel mills and other large industrial plants. It was very cold on deck and everyone was bundled up, having put on their cold-weather biking gear.

Then, a miracle! As we got past the final lock, the clouds gave way to blue sky and the temperature warmed to shorts weather.

We moored, unloaded the bikes, made the final adjustments and were, amazingly, after all those months of planning and staring at maps, we were actually biking in Belgium.

It was glorious.

We did about 25 km, passing tidy little towns and along quiet, shady stretches of the river.

Eventually, we ended up in Sclayn, as planned, and the Miro soon pulled up, the bikes got stowed, some beers were poured, and it is now almost 5 pm, and we are headed for an evening in Namur.


Friday, May 27, 2011

gothic encounter

At the Aachen train station, a helpful attendant helped us find the group-discount fare to Cologne, and the trip was under an hour.

The Cologne Bahnhof is a one-minute walk from the cathedral, which provided a significant amount of one's daily requirement of buttresses, chapels, amazing stained-glass, gargoyles, and religious images. Even the floor mosaics were astonishing.

No wonder that it took 600 years to build.

We spent quite a bit of time there, and even though there was a large number of fellow gawkers, the place is so enormous that we didn't feel crowded at all.

After a bit, we walked around until we found the perfect place to sit down, drink cappucinos and eat a croissant. Then we headed over to the tree-shaded walkway along the Rhine river, enjoying the views. This is a very big city - so much larger than little old Aachen.

The train back to Aachen was easy and we are now back at the hotel, with our only concern being where dinner is to be.

We leave Aachen tomorrow on the bus to Maastricht, where we meet up with the bike-and-barge tour. We are all relaxed and happy, and why not?

off to Cologne for the day

Just had a nice breakfast at a local cafe, then went to the market to buy goodies to takeaway.

We are heading to the train station for the short hop over to Cologne, to see the cathedral that I first heard about in German class, many decades ago.

We all feel great.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

still enjoying Aachen

More exploration of this low-key, charming town. At the Rathaus early this morning, there was a farmer's market, featuring, among all the usual flowers, fruit and veggies, enormous stacks of white asparagus.

We spent quite a bit of time at the Dom again, both inside to wonder at the incredible mosaics, vaulting and stained glass, and in the Treasury, filled with reliquaries, gold and jewel-Encrusted objects of great value, depending on the context.

This evening, we attended a performance of Don Giovanni at the Aachen Theater. It was done in modern dress, with a minimalist set, in Italian with German text projected above. To further complicate things, one of the singers had a voice problem, so he mimed his part while an understudy singer stood to the side and sang his part. It was all rather surreal.

I found myself able to comprehend most of the German, which gave me an edge over the others, who went in and out of consciousness at times. The orchestra was very fine, and our front-row seats (purchased months ago) gave us great views of the players and singers.

We emerged into a breezy, cool night. Karen is on the netbook getting ready to Skype friends - it is 2 in the afternoon back home.

Tomorrow we may go to Cologne, then Saturday it's off to Maastricht for the beginning of the biking and barging. I am starting to have German verbs in my dreams. All is well.

sight-seeing is hard work

We spent a bit of time at the Aachen Dom and treasury. Incredible mosaics and architecture - so different from anything we saaw in Spain or Italy.

Met up with Sandy and Dave for lunch at some point. Now we are back at our hotel, chilling until dinner tonight, after which we have tickets (purchased months ago) to see Don Giovanni at Theatre Aachen.

Getting cool and windy - maybe rain later? Oops, there's the sun. Oops, it's gone again.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Typo in last post's title

Was it severe jet-lag or aggressive word-suggestion on my phone?

Of course, it should have said 'addled', not 'added'.

It is early thursday morning in Aachen. I think we slept very well, despite the traffic noise (the rooms i had requested, away from the street, were not available). Thank you, good ear-plugs.

Today should have fewer brain-rot moments, he said optimistically.

Aachen is charming.

Somewhat added in aachen

A couple of hours in a pretty fast train got us to our hotel by 3 pm. We unpacked a bit, showered (ahhhh) and started our explorations.

It's disturbing similar to Epcot, only cleaner and more disciplined.

We found a quiet outdoor cafe quite near the amazing cathedral, and had food and beer. Very nice, indeed. Weather is perfect.

By this time we'd all been up for over 24 hours and Dave was near catatonia.

We are back at our room at 8 pm local time, and ready to drop. The sun still shines brightly, but we won't care. We made it.

In and out of Paris in one hour

We had just enough time to take the train from CDG airport to Gare du Nord, find the area where the Aachen train departs, eat ham and cheese omelettes and drink very good coffee at a nice sidewalk cafe outside the station, and have our first Euro sticker-shock when the check arrived.

The train to Aachen was 20 minutes late departing, but we found our reserved seats and are now hurtling thru the French countryside. It's a lovely day - clear, blue sky.

We have been travelling for many hours now, with next to no sleep. However, we are all still reasonably coherent. That could change.

Landed in Paris

Waiting for bags.

Under way

8:30 pm Philadelphia time, somewhere over the Atlantic - dusk.

The first flight was uneventful - our time in the Philly airport was short, but the plane to Paris was an hour late taking off. No problem.

We've had our airline dinner and the Seth Roger 'Green Hornet' is showing.

I look out my window at the growing twilight, deep blue above, nursing a Jack Daniels on ice. This is all pretty good.

We land in Paris in six hours. Hope to sleep at least a little. Very happy.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

getting ready to head out

Here's the plan.

We leave Tuesday morning for Paris, expecting to arrive there Wednesday morning. We'll hop the train to Gare du Nord, and then wander around the neighborhood until noon, when we board the train north to Aachen, Germany.

By the time we get to our hotel in Aachen, we will have been travelling for far too many hours.

We'll be there until Saturday morning, with a few interesting sites and activities planned. We will take the bus to Maastricht, Netherlands, where we will board our barge for this 6-day bike-and-barge trip.

After that, it's the train back to Paris, for 5 days, then back home to Portland, via beautiful Charlotte, NC (4 hour layover). That should be a pleasant day, too.

It's a whirlwind, but we hope to see a lot of cool stuff, including the Lindt Chocolate factory outlet in Aachen (I have done my research well).

Our friend Robert will be staying at the house, watching the cats and supervising the finishing touches on our upstairs remodel, which has been going on for far too long, but that's another story.

I hope to do regular blog posts while we're travelling, so watch this space.

Now, if only the Dollar would continue to gain over the Euro, and that new Iceland volcano doesn't get too dramatic...

Monday, May 16, 2011

the coolest thing in the world (nerd edition)

I don't have an iPad.

When we travel, we take our compact Acer netbook, which nicely does the job of getting to the web for news, maps, and (especially) email, and doubles as a Skype machine, for making virtually-free calls to friends and family.

I've had a 'smartphone' for a long time - several incarnations of Windows Mobile devices, going back to the days when I was writing software applications for Windows CE devices (mostly ArcPad scripts). I've always appreciated the ability to read Word documents on my phone, and, in the past, have often travelled with a (very) small library of essays, short stories, or whatever, stored on the phone's SD card.

These are especially helpful to have on hand while waiting at the checkout areas of stores, while others were shopping.

I used Pocket Word (or whatever Microsoft now calls it) to scroll thru the documents and it worked OK, especially with the dedicated 'down' button on my former phone (HTC Tilt). It was inconvenient not having a 'bookmark' feature, but that was a small price to pay for the reading pleasure.

That Tilt got stolen in Costa Rica last December (long story), and I replaced it with a Tilt 2, running Windows Mobile 6.5 (craigslist - $65), which, actually, I have come to like a lot.

I've looked at a (rooted) Nook Color as a possible Android tablet (I resist 'i' devices - iPhone, iPad, iPod, iZod - stubbornly), but really don't want to carry another device, when we fly to Europe next week.

A few weeks ago, I discovered 'Freda', a free ePUB book reader that runs on various platforms. I downloaded and installed it on my phone (required a .NET common library), then downloaded a couple of ePUB books from Project Gutenberg, and I was hooked.

The Library management and reading tools in this software are great. A single screenful of text is an easy chunk to digest at a glance, and a simple swipe or touch of the screen changes pages quickly or takes you to the menu of options (set a bookmark, see the Table of Contents, etc.).

Project Gutenberg is great, for getting a zillion classic works of literature. I read 'Journey to the Center of the Earth' and some wonderful PG Wodehouse stories on my phone recently, and these were great. I have loaded my phone with a dozen assorted books from Gutenberg, and look forward to many hours of happy reading.

However, what about content that is NOT on Project Gutenberg? This morning, a blog I routinely read referenced a long John McPhee article that appeared some years ago in The New Yorker. Having been a New Yorker subscriber for MANY years, I felt no guilt about calling up that article, doing a 'Select All', pasting it into Word, and saving as a .doc file. So far so good.

An internet search brought up this site. I followed the instructions to have Word save the file as an '.htm' file, then clicked the buttons to upload that file, generate a Cover page, and save the ePub file. It was amazingly fast and easy, and, once I loaded the epub file into my phone and launched Freda, there it was.

A whole new world is now opened up. I find this pleasing. Happy reading.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

asparagus - year 3 at last

Year 3 is the first year you can harvest as much as you want, and there has been a lot of care and effort leading up to this point.

Yesterday, I counted 27 stalks (some just the teeniest bits just emerging) and last night we ate the first half-dozen. Yum.

We should be able to pick enough so that, in two weeks when we leave for Europe, we will be gloriously sick of asparagus.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

no news is good new, right?

I'm in Santa Cruz for a week, helping/watching my 100 year-old mother-in-law while the rest of the Santa Cruz crowd is doing a 3-week Grand Canyon float trip. We heard from them the other day, via a phone at Phantom Ranch - apparently everyone is having a swell time.

We play a lot of cards, go for walks, and do our minimal chores. Yesterday's highlight was finding, at Petsmart, a $7 laser-pointer cat toy, for driving cats nuts. It works great - probably just as good as the $50 one carried by Office Max, and the cat is truly mystified.

Today's major event: HAIR APPOINTMENT!!

In other news, two weeks from today we fly to Paris, for the start of a greatly-anticipated vacation. Watch this space for updates, when that happens!

Back in Portland Friday afternoon.

Monday, May 02, 2011

bye, bye Osama

Yes, it's probably for the best that he's dead, but before we congratulate ourselves for living in a country where incredibly brilliant, subtle detective work finally revealed his whereabouts to patient, determined covert operatives, keep in mind that...

He was ensconced in a luxury compound near the following:

* Islamabad
* an airport where visitors to the compound frequently came and went amid great security
* Pakistan's "West Point" facility
* a hospital, where he could get his frequent dialysis treatments.

Remember the ending of 'Lawrence of Arabia', with Faisal and Allenby negotiating the politics of the situation, while Lawrence (to Anthony Quayle's horror) was dismissed as no longer politically valuable to either of them.

My guess is that folks in the Pakistan hierarchy simply concluded that Bin Laden had become more of a nuisance than an asset, and that it was finally time to make 'the call'.

Mission Accomplished.