Sunday, June 26, 2011

home again, after a few days in LA

Pasadena, to be exact.

Sure was hot down there, and our tomatoes here in Portland are doing fine. Unfortunately, our fruit trees (apples and plums) are producing virtually nothing this year.

Potatoes are flowering - should be ready to dig in another few weeks. Raspberries still about 2 weeks out.

Big party planned here for 4th of July - lots of mowing and weeding to be done before that.

Have gone out to eat dinner every night the past week, with various family members. Odd being the youngest at the table.

There's no place like home.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The long sunset

9 pm PDT, somewhere over the western US.

It's about 24 hours since we woke up in Paris, and just over an hour until we land in Portland.

Long layover in Charlotte, NC - the price to be paid for the great fare that Dave got, last January.

It's been a constant sunset on this entire last leg, but now darkness is taking over and some distant city lights appear far below.

Was just listening to old Beatle songs on my player, and the last ones to come up were 'Long and Winding Road' and 'Two of us (on our way back home)'.

End of trip.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

It's getting very near the end, but...

Amazing things keep happening.

When Dave was in the neighborhood doing laundry the other day, he spotted an attractive, old restaurant, that had a signed photo of Woody Allen in the window.

We went there for dinner, and, of course, this restaurant was in the movie we saw this afternoon.

By the way, the Polidor was fabulous - successfully feeding Parisians since 1845, they also fed us thoroughly and deliciously.

Also, the Polidor's menu solved a mystery from the night before, when I ordered the evening's specialty, and could not manage more than a couple of bites. What I thought was andouille sausage (in all fairness, the waiter DID ask 'do know what it is?') was, in reality, sausage filled with tripe (and covered with a grainy mustard sauce), that probably evoked tender memories in all French folks. For me, not so much.

We walked that meal off, with a big circle thru the neighborhoods surrounding the Pantheon, with the distant Eiffle Tower anchoring the sunset, and a crescent moon hovering above the Odeon as we turned into our street, entered the hotel, and are now preparing for bed and an early departure for the airport.

A final Paris evening.

Home, in our own bed, with our own two cats, tomorrow night.

Stranger things have happened

After the post-catacombs refreshments, we parted company with Sandy and Dave, planning to meet for dinner, three hours from now.

On the first day in Paris, as we wandered without a specific goal, we came upon an antique book/art sale in the plaza in front of St. Sulpice. A couple of things attracted us but we didn't buy then, so we returned, only to find all books gone, and the antique dealers moving into the same space.

We strolled back towards the hotel, and then came to an antiquarian print store, which is what i was hoping for at St. Sulpice. It took but a few minutes to find the perfect memento - a small, authentic (he said) 19th century engraving of Sainte-Chapelle. I am very pleased.

We walked back to the hotel neighborhood, and popped into a quick sandwich place, buzzing with Parisians, and bought and devoured panninis.

Since we still had the entire (rainy) afternoon ahead, I happened to check out the theater next door, and saw that the new Woody Allen film was playing, in an hour, in English, with French subtitles! Even stranger, the film appeared to have 'Paris' in its title.

We walked around the block for a half-hour, then went into the theater.

A lot of commercials were shown, and then the movie started.

Unbelievably, it began with a montage of the very places we have been, the past four days, including (I swear!) the VERY THEATER in which we were sitting.

Not only that, but this is not the first time this has happened, but that's another story.

The film was loaded with places we have just been, including the Monet water-lily murals at the Orangerie.

The film itself was surreal, but so much more so as it ended with Owen Wilson walking in the rain in Paris, and we then walked out of the theater and walked in the rain, in Paris.

None of this was planned. Honest.

Last night in Paris coming up. Can I manage to spend my last 100 Euros in the next 16 hours?

No problem.

I see dead people

We had an early breakfast and headed to the catacombs tour, arriving at 9 for the 10 am opening. We were not first in line, but close and, by 10, the line stretched around the corner.

Creepy and fascinating. You start out descending 100 or so steps, to dim stone-lined passages.

Eventually, you reach the ossuary area, chamber after chamber of neatly-stacked bones and skulls. Millions of them, identified by source cemetery.

First awe-struck silence, then the inevitable 'humor' burst forth.

Since we were the first party in that morning, we were mostly alone. Actually, as with yesterday's Eiffel Tower visit, it was (wait for it...)wall-to-wall people.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Last mango in Paris

Tuesday morning in Paris-when-it-drizzles.

Heading out for breakfast shortly, then to the catacombs, for what should be the final organized tour.

Tomorrow morning we leave for the airport and home.

We made a pledge last night: no more churches, museums, or long walks.

Being a tourist is hard work.

But a great trip is worth the blisters.

They weren't kidding about the sizzling

It's been hot in Paris, especially in the afternoon, when only a VERY large beer can began to reverse the effects of large crowds, tourism-fatigue, high humidity, sardine-like Metro journeys, and sore tootsies.

But, we have seen sights. There have been many great moments, many good coffees and croissants, and, it bears repeating, cold, welcome beers.

Two particular moments:

1) standing in the gravel looking up at the east side of Notre Dame, away from the crowds. This was one place where i can say without any doubt, that i stood exactly here in 1967.

2) a couple of hours later, after a snack and waiting in the hot sun in two long lines (one security and one for tickets), climbing the circular stone steps and emerging into the sublime, mystical astonishment that is the upper chapel of Sainte-Chapelle.

After that, we took the Metro up to Montemarte, and did more touristy things, including a formula tourist dinner at a tourist restaurant in the tourist square (at least the waiter was hilarious), followed by a ride around the butte in the surprisingly-fun tourist train, where we observed the shocking boards of tourists emerging from big busses, only to join the existing line of tourists waiting in line at the (tourist recreation of the long-gone, actual) 'Moulin Rouge'.

That's Paris. A theme-park with many cheap facades, and genuinely-authentic gems of Western Civ, the sort of places that make you aware of people long ago getting motivated to create something truly remarkable, and those that came along later, despite their inclinations for plunder, having the sense to say "don't mess it up".

Last night, safe, showered and confusing in our hotel room, there was a thunderstorm of biblical force. The morning, the air is clean and cool. Breakfast soon, then more tourism. Two full days remain.


MANY hours later.

We did a museum (the Orangerie, filled with Masters of Impressionism).

We walked up the Champs to the Arc d'Triumph.

We metro'd to the Trocadero, for the amazing view of the fountains, gardens, and a certain Tower.

As long as we were there, we figured we might as well join the crowds and take the elevator(s) to the top. Nice view.

Tired now, we hobbled to a metro station and got ourselves back to the hotel, for a very-welcome hour of down-time.

Being a tourist is hard work.

We went back to the neighborhood bistro, where we've happily eaten three or four times.

I couldn't resist ordering the evening's special, which appeared to translate as andouille (sausage) with mustard sauce.

Big mistake. Not as expected. Not something i wanted to finish, after the first three bites. At least the accompanying potatoes were good, as was the glass of wine i had luckily ordered.

Sometimes, in the game of travel dining, you lose big. It was my turn.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Paris, again

Not counting the hour we spent here last week, 'again' means 'after 44 years', for I was here as a 16 year-old in the summer of 1967.

European trains are punctual, and the trip from Liege to Gare du Nord was smooth. We were tired.

Getting from the train station to the hotel, lugging luggage thru the crowded, hot metro cars and stations, was a drain, but thanks to the power of momentum and GPS, we made it, by 9 pm.

By 10, we were refreshed, sitting in a lovely bistro looking onto a VERY bustling boulevard, filled with masses of beautiful, smoking and jabbering people, and eating a perfect late dinner. I had a simple omelette with potatoes and sweet, carmelized onions, and a tall beer. Karen had what she termed 'one of the best burgers ever', which came topped with a lovely fried egg.

We walked thru the twisting, busy streets to the Seine, reaching it just upstream from the Cite. There was the glittering river and above it, as I saw it as a naive kid from Upstate New York (just a bit older now), the soaring, floodlit Notre Dam.


Very tired, we managed to find the hotel, near the Odeon, and got to sleep, thanks to earplugs and eyeshade. It is now 8 am Saturday morning. We are here until Wednesday morning.

Vacation phase 3 begins, with coffee and some certain-to-be-amazing etceteras.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Meandering around Maastricht

We dumped our luggage at lockers in the train station (5,45 for 24 hours, after you figure out the process).

We wandered for several hours, interspersed with breaks for snacks and drinking. We climbed the 218 very narrow, dim, twisty steps to the tower lookout of Sent-Janskerk. Nice view.

Shopping was achieved, and goodies purchased for the train to Paris, later this afternoon. Time to chill for a bit.

Last evening on board

We joined the throngs of people swarming thru the streets of Maastricht.

Near the main square, we snagged a sidewalk table and ordered beers and a small nibble. Very pleasant, now that we've decided to sample several brands of cherry fruit-beer. It's better than it sounds.

We strolled, seeking dinner with wifi, and found both at a pleasant place, Cafe Forum.

We had a spicy, savory onion soup, big chicken caesar salads, and more fruit beer. Now, back on the Miro for the final cruise to the boat harbor, and bed.

Nice day.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

If it's Thursday, we are leaving Belgium

7 am and sunny, as the Miro casts off from the Huy sea-wall and heads north.

We have been rating our restaurant dinners as the trip evolved, and last night's vaulted in position #1.

First, we had beers at an outside table in the main plaz, beneath the town hall's ornate facade. Every 15 minutes, a short tune rang out - La Marsailles, Ode to Joy, etc. The beer was delicious, especially after the day's (relatively) strenuous bike ride, with its attendant butt-soreness.

Then began the ritual hunt for dinner. We wandered, examining menus, prices, and reviews that one Dave's thousands of iPhone apps retrieved.

We searched in vain for one place, lauded as the 'best italian restaurant in Belgium', but either the app or the GPS lied.

We found another place with great smells and lots of people and were thinking that our collective brain-rot would end, but the host turned us away - 'all full.'

I had noticed a menu board outside a place a block or so off the plaza, that looked like it might be ok. We decided to check it out, and were somewhat nervous as we were led into a quietly elegant totally empty room.

Then the magic began.

First came an unadvertised appetizer of a little cup of perfect gazpacho accompanied by a little bread slice, topped with a dollop of absolutely fresh ricotta, seasoned with chives, with a swirl of balsamic on the plate. You get the idea.

My first course was a portion of nicely cooked spaghetti with tender calamari and bits of zucchini. Karen had a gorgeous round plate of tuna carpaccio, with a bit of salad in the center. Sandy and Dave had a scallop appetizer, that was pronounced very fine.

Then the Mains arrived. I should mention that, by this time, the room was filled with very happy people.

Dave had pork, Sandy chicken, Karen lamb. All were pronounced amazing.

I had the menu item that had caught my eye earlier - medallions of kangaroo, dressed with a rich, dark, lightly-vinegary sauce, accompanied by a short stack of alternating layers of polenta discs and red onion, all topped with several leaves of arugala.

Got it?

The name of the place is 'Restaurant Sur Cour'. You might want to check it out the next time you are in Huy.

It's now 8 am and we are tied up waiting to enter a lock. Time for breakfast, then we continue towards Liege and the start of the final bike ride, ending up tonight back in Maastricht.

See you later.


Many hours later.

Despite the persistent, strong head-wind, we had a lovely day biking from Liege to Maastricht.

Much of it was along industrial stuff, but there were many more-peaceful stretches, too. We crossed a couple of large bridges and the area around Vise, the last town in Belgium, was especially nice.

We crossed one last dam and, imperceptibly, the road signs changed from French to Dutch. If there was any sign of a national border, we surely didn't see it, but the bike-path now left the Meuse, and we rode thru gentle, quiet fields and neat little Dutch farmhouses.

We stopped at the castle at Eisjin and spent a quiet half-hour strolling thru the lovely grounds, and sneezing from all the unfamiliar allergins.

By now it was after 2 pm, and we were getting tired. We peddled slowly along the flat, smooth, precisely-labeled path, the last few kilometers back to the boat harbor. The biking part of this trip is over.

The rest of our group is filtering in. We will get cleaned up and then cruise into Maastricht for a farewell dinner.

We have much of tomorrow to see more of Maastricht, before the train to Paris, at 5.

It's all very good.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Wednesday in Huy

It's pronounced 'wee'.

We left Namur around 10 am. A partly cloudy morning changed into a totally clear, warm day.

Our route was partly along the first day's ride. On the day, the head-wind was formidable. Today, three days later, we were going in the opposite direction, with an even stronger head-wind. How could this be?

There were some lovely stretches along the river. We stopped in Ansemme (must check spelling later) for coffee, but the traffic, narrow gobbled streets, and major city commotion suggested that we get out of town soon.

We arrived in Huy around 4, pretty winded. We sat in the old church that is beneath the sinister Citadel of Evil (former prison, concentration camp and place of general nastiness) for a long time, enjoying the coolness, vast space, ancient stained glass and thundering organ practice. Nobody else was there.

Everyone is getting cleaned up for an evening in town. I am definitely ready for a beer or two.

Tomorrow is the last biking day.