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Tuesday, 28 May 2013


First Trip To Europe In 1959
When I was twelve years old I went to Europe with some of my family. We flew on a BOAC jet prop. The captain gave me a little metal badge that had wings on it. It was a very long flight and I threw up on the bus that took us from Heathrow Airport into London. I think we stayed at the Mount Royal Hotel in London (now called Thistle Marble Arch).
The trip was close to 50 years ago and here are some of the things I remember.
In London Wimpy’s was about the only place one could get a hamburger. The Brit’s version of a soft drink tasted kind of bitter. It took a while to figure out the British money. Back then they still had the half penny.  Some buildings were still propped up with supports as a result of the bombing in WW2. Coal was used to heat a lot of houses and buildings had a kind of grey look to them.
We took in a number of the more recognizable sites in London. We went to Westminster Abbey and saw the crypts where a number of famous men are buried. We saw the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. We went on a boat ride on the Thames River and passed the parliament buildings with Big Ben close by. We wandered through The Tower of London. We spent a few hours at Madame Tussauds wax museum and saw an exhibition of various tortures that were utilized in England’s past.
We spent about a week in the small seaside town of Worthing south of London. I had my first fish and chips wrapped in newspapers and got to use something called a padalo boat. After a few more days in London we took a train to Scotland. We saw the estate my father grew up in in Glasgow. We took a bus tour that included visiting the highlands and the Scottish lochs (lakes). A few days were spent in Edinburgh where we visited the castle, walked along Princess Street, and saw The Walter Scott Memorial.
We went to Northern Ireland. It was before sectarian violence broke out several years later. In the Republic of Ireland to the south we visited Blarney Castle home of the Blarney Stone.
We went to Paris and I remember climbing the stairway at the top of the Eiffel Tower. In Holland we visited the gravesite of my mother’s younger brother at Arnhem. He died of his wounds in Holland and was a lieutenant in the Canadian Army. It was a very difficult day for my mother. We also went to Copenhagen, Denmark. Part of my mother’s heritage was Danish. We saw the mermaid on the rock in the harbour and went to Hans Christian Anderson Park. We ate European wieners with hot mustard and ketchup in a market square and pigeons perched on our outstretched arms.

Amsterdam 1959. Me on the far right.
The closest I ever got to going back to Europe was in the early 70s. I had a plan but it fell through, mostly due to the lack of cash. Later on in life, I could afford to go but couldn’t get away from my business for anything more than a week. However, it was always on my bucket list.
I met Linda about 7 years ago on the internet. (Yes it happens.) I was attracted by a picture of her by the ocean in Ireland. I later learned that she had been to Europe twice a few years before I met her and that she had travelled through England, Wales, Scotland, both Irelands, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy.
As I am writing this Linda is in the midst of a month long trip to Africa.
I’ve always been a pretty early riser. There was a period for a number of years where I would watch the Tour de France bike race live as it happened. Part of the fascination with the bike race was the passing countryside. The racers would travel through quaint looking country towns and crowds would cheer them on from the roadside. The aerial shots made the whole thing even more impressive. I remember seeing birds nesting on a church steeple. All in all it left an impression on me and I thought to myself that if there was one country I would really like to see it would be France.………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
Trip To France 4 Years Ago

About 4 years ago, Linda and I started making some plans to go to France. As the more experienced traveller in Europe, Linda started to plot out a route and the things we could see. It seemed to be getting a little complicated with having to coordinate places to stay and transportation. I suggested that it might be easier if we joined an organized tour that would eliminate some uncertainties. In the end we both agreed on this plan. In hindsight it might have been better if we hadn’t taken the organized tour. Live and learn they say.
When all was said and done we planned to be in Europe for most of a month. Our plan included about 4 days in London before taking the Chunnel to Paris and meeting up with the tour group after spending about 4 days in Paris.
We left Canada via the Vancouver airport and arrived in London, England in mid-June. It goes without saying that it was a long flight. Our sleeping arrangements in London were at a youth hostel called The Orient Express. Meals and baggage storage were available down the street where a bar called Belushi’s was located. Belushi’s is named after the deceased Saturday Night Live comedian John Belushi. We were one of the few older farts staying at the hostel. We could feel the excitement and enthusiasm of the younger travellers, many who had never been this far away from home before.
Orient Express hostel
We crammed in a lot in our few days in London. We saw a number of things I had seen on my first trip 50 years earlier. We saw the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, we walked along the waterfront of the Thames River past the odd shaped London City Hall, went over the London Bridge and saw the Tower of London. We saw St. Paul’s Cathedral and walked over the Millenium Bridge and saw a replica of Sir Francis Drake’s ship the Golden Hind. We also toured around the area where Westminster Abbey and Big Ben are located. We had a few beers in local watering holes. For some reason some Londoners enjoy having a few pints in laneways next to garbage dumpsters complete with the smell of stale urine. 
London skyline with Tower Bridge
Buckingham Palace
Trafalgar Square
Westminster Abbey
Big Ben and us
A few pints in the alley
St. Paul's Cathedral and Millenium Bridge

London City Hall
Linda bought tickets for us both to see The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre. It was pretty impressive. We seemed to have a kind of spring in our steps and bouncing around London was a lot of fun.
Her Majesty's Theatre
Linda and some showgirls
We caught the train from London to Paris and spent a lot of the time on that trip talking to a couple of French speaking guys in their late twenties who were seated across from us. In no time we were in Paris. Linda had made reservations at a small boutique hotel in the downtown area close the Champs Elysees.
Our hotel in Paris
Paris is kind of overwhelming with history always moments away. We arrived at our hotel late in the afternoon and after checking in we went for a walk. I gave Linda a nudge. The top of the Eiffel Tower could be seen several blocks away over the buildings. There were lots of outdoor cafes and patisseries in the neighbourhood we were staying in and we ate dinner at one of the cafes.
For the next few days we ventured about Paris. We took the Metro a few times. We spent the best part of a day at the fabulous D’Orsay Museum that is in a converted old train station. We walked along the Seine and saw the barges and houseboats. We saw where Napoleon is buried. We went up to Montmartre and saw artists with their paintings on display. We saw the Arc de Triomphe and walked down the Champs Elysees. For some reason I had images in my mind of Hitler and when France was occupied in WW2. We found the Moulin Rouge and I pictured in my mind the poster artist Toulouse Lautrec being there over 100 years ago.

D'Orsay Museum
Arc de Triomphe

The Seine River
Montmartre artist colony
ABC (another bloody church)
Moulin Rouge
Eiffel Tower
We never did go up the Eiffel Tower. The line-ups were just far too long. Ditto the Louvre. I kind of had a running gag with Linda that I wanted to see Jim Morrison’s gravesite but we never made it there as it was kind of out of the way.
We made our way to a hotel on the outskirts of Paris where we were to meet up with our guide and the bus passengers that we were to spend the next 17 days with on a tour of France. The front desk folks told us that the group was assembled upstairs on the mezzanine in an event room. We wandered in and were a bit taken aback that most of the folks were kind of getting on in age. There were some introductions and we soon learned that most of the group were from Australia. 4 people were from the US including a mother and her hefty daughter and an older Russian couple who had immigrated to New York City.  There was also and older English woman and her mentally challenged son. The only other Canadian besides us was a school teacher from Winnipeg.
Our tour guide was a slender French guy named Simeon who was about 25 years old. The bus driver was a balding muscled middle aged guy named Daniel who had been in the French army. The bus was very comfortable. Each day there would be a rotation as to where people sat. The toilet was out of bounds even for an emergency. Cleaning washrooms is not something bus tour guys are partial to it seems.
Tour bus
Everyone piled into the bus which was owned by Cosmo Tours and we headed north from Paris to the Normandy coast. The 17 day tour started off in the north of France and then we wended our way south to the Mediterranean Sea. Along the way we spent the night in or close to towns and cities like Rouen. Honfleurs, Caen, Deauville, Bayieux, Angers, La Rochelle, Tours, Poitier, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Sarlat la Caneda, Arles, Avignon, Cannes, and Grasse.
On the bus ride north we were told about some of the dos and don’ts that were expected from tourists. Never seat ourselves at an empty table in a café but wait for a waiter to take us to the table was one of the instructions. Simeon also mentioned that one of the few problems in France is that the electric company is nationalized. He kind of left out that the Paris Metro often smells like pee, there are often no toilet seats in public washrooms, broken glass from used wine bottles is a common sight, the streets are one big huge ashtray, an you are likely to be accosted by beggars with scribbled notes near the Eiffel Tower.
Don’t get me wrong Paris is an exceptional city.
Our first stop was Rouen where both Joan of Arc and Richard the Lionhearted are buried. Not together. It was in Rouen where we had our first run in with one of the Aussies we were traveling with. Linda asked an Aussie woman if she could move out of the way a bit so Linda could take a photo of King Richard’s crypt. She asked nicely but the woman got into a snit.
Our next stop was Honfleur which is a pretty port city with old wooden buildings. It was here that Samuel de Champlain set sail for Canada in 1608. For many years Honfleur thrived on trade with Canada, the West Indies, the African Coasts, and the Azores Islands. 

From Honfleur we went to Deauville which is a wealthy seaside city with Louis Vuitton and other expensive stores. The city also has a large casino and Simeon told us that this particular casino was where the heir to the French Citreon car company lost almost all his money.
Our 17 day tour included 5 dinners. A light breakfast was included each day. The rest of the time we had to do some scrambling which could be difficult not knowing much about the city or town we ended up in at night. Sometimes, if the bus arrived at the hotel in the evening, there would be a mad dash to a corner grocery store before it closed. We got tired very fast of eating pate and baguettes.
We went on to Caen where we spent the night. As this night was one of the 5 dinners, we went out with the group to a local restaurant. I had sliced turkey with mashed potatoes and Normandy gravy.
The next day we stopped in Caen which was liberated by the Canadian army in WW2. We went on to Bayeux where Linda saw a 1300 year old tapestry. I took a pass on the 20 dollar entrance fee and went for a walk around town. We spent most of the afternoon at Omaha Beach where 10,000 American soldiers are buried. The site of so many graves is overwhelming. I talked to a couple of American Korean War vets. Seeing Juneau Beach where the Canadians landed was not an option available to us.

Korean War vets at American cemetery near Omaha Beach
Omaha Beach and pillbox remains
We stopped at a biscuit factory and loaded up on cookies before spending the night in a small town close to Mont St. Michel. Mont St. Michel is one of those places that the make post cards for. We could see it rising out of the mist in the distance from our hotel. We were anxious to get a closer look the following morning.
Mont St Michel is an abbey built on a small island. Today it has a little road that connects it to the mainland a few hundred yards away. It was a fortress that was self-contained with vegetable gardens and even a graveyard. The abbey is at the higher level and the church spire is often covered by the frequent mist. Apparently the island is surrounded by quicksand which would have made the place very difficult to attack. Apparently Mont St. Michel only has 42 permanent residents.
Mont St. Michel
Throughout our trip our guide Simeon would tell us historical facts mixed in with some thoughts about French politics. He mentioned that the victors in wars are always the ones who write history. He told us about the French collaborators who were responsible for many Jews going to their deaths and how the French people as a whole have only opened up about this in the past few years. He said that in France it is worse to be called an anti-semitic than a racist today. Simeon also told us about the Gauls and the Vikings and their participation in French History.
The Aussies were starting to become a bit of a pain in the ass. One who was a woman schoolteacher had a cough that sounded close to pneumonia and kept up hacking for what seemed like hours on the bus. An Aussie guy took the liberty of pointing out to me that he didn’t think Vancouver was that great a city because of the druggies on the east side of the city. We also noticed that they pretty well shunned some fellow Australians who were Vietnamese immigrants. We made a number of attempts to engage the Aussies but gave up on it. They were simply too stodgy and conservative. Linda and I got to a point where we agreed that they could just go screw themselves. These folks were not Crocodile Dundee types with shrimp on the barbie. It is kind of strange really because I have met a number of pleasant younger Australians up at Whistler, BC over the

Tour group
Simeon bought a couple of straw fedoras and gave one of them to the mentally challenged British guy. It was a very nice gesture but it would have been nicer if he hadn’t mentioned to the group that he had given the gift.
We stopped in Angers and saw the castle with the elephant feet. We also spent the night in Angers. By this time we were getting tired of being in a group. While the rest of them were off somewhere Linda and I took a train to Amboise and Linda took a tour of the chateau while I wandered around town. There were some interesting homes that were kind of like caves built into the hillsides. As luck would have it we ran into the rest of the group in Amboise.
Castle with the elephant feet

When we got back to Angers we were told that we would have a new bus driver for 2 days and that he would be expecting a tip. We had another of our “free” dinners in Angers.
One day started growing into another. I learned that ABC stood for “Another Bloody Church”. We spent a night in a city called Tours and went on to Poitier and then on to the seaside city of La Rochelle that had a magnificent harbour.
La Rochelle
We took a boat across a narrow river and went to the Hennessy cognac distillery. We spent the night in the city of Bordeaux and had duck for dinner.
The next day we winded our way through a road that had tunnels and found ourselves at Rocamadour, one of the highlights of our trip. Rocamadour is known for its cliffside buildings and narrow passageways. There were some passageways between buildings where only one person could enter at a time.

All the while Simeon was giving us a daily brief of the local history. He talked about the Celts, the Gauls, the Troglodytes (cave dwellers), the Plantagenets, the Huguenots, revolutions, this king and that king. He told us about some kids whose dog fell in a well and that when they rescued him they found cavemen drawings at the bottom of the well.
We spent a night in Toulouse and in the morning I took a walk along the canal. I learned that the canal was privately built over a century ago but is little used now for commercial purposes other than vacation barges.
My memory and my diary get a little clouded at this point. I know we went to a winery one morning and I got a bit of a buzz on. I wasn’t close to being drunk but thought it was kind of funny when I said to Linda loud enough for some close by Aussies to hear “So who wants to fight?”
We spent a day in Arles which is in southern France and saw some Roman ruins including an ancient arena where they sometimes have bullfights. It was in Arles that Simeon said something that I thought was quite profound. A lot of people think that only the wealthy or leaders of the military attended fights to the death between gladiators or men fighting wild animals. The truth is that the poor also attended. It gave them something to talk about the following week instead of being angry about their pitiful lives. Politics today is often a matter of distraction.

Arena at Arles
Tractor race?
We saw a lot of cathedrals, castles, and chateaus and the same thought always crossed my mind. That thought was of the wretched lives the peasants must have lived toiling in miserable conditions to create an edifice for the ungrateful wealthy.
In our hotel rooms we mostly watched the international version of CNN. Michael Jackson’s death was the big news. After a while it started to get a bit tedious. He was a major talent but at the same time pretty whacked.
The weather was getting hotter and hotter as we made our way to the French Riviera. We checked into our hotel in Cannes and after getting ourselves settled took a long walk down to the beaches. Lots of big money in this area, (Monaco is just a few miles away) and the biggest yachts I think I have ever seen. We found a patch of sand and swimming in the Mediterranean was very nice. Linda has a French last name and her father was French Canadian and we were in France so of course…she took her top off.


Beach at Cannes
Our trip back to Paris was a long one and mostly uneventful. We stopped at a perfume factory for an hour or two. We also stopped at Lyon and stayed at one of the nicer hotels on our trip. When we arrived there was a bike race going on that went right by the hotel. No it wasn’t the Tours de France.

We spent one final night at a hotel in Paris with the tour. Throughout the hotel there were large photographs on the wall of French actors like Jean Paul Belmondo and Bridget Bardot. One photo was of Robert Mitchum walking on the beach in Cannes with some French actors.

After breakfast the next day group pictures were taken. The bus driver, Daniel, was given a keg of Heineken beer along with a new tie. He wore a tie every day of the trip. Simeon was given a card and a Bob Marley tee shirt. There were strong hints particularly towards the end of the trip that a rather substantial tip was expected by both the bus driver and the tour leader. My guess is that they raked in about $2000.00 each.  Whatever it was, they made off like bandits.

Simeon in hat and bus driver Daniel
I was never quite sure what to make of Simeon. He certainly was a bright guy and had a good sense of humour. I never could figure out if he was thrilled about some of the passengers. He certainly knew that they were his meal ticket. Just before we left the hotel I saw the Winnipeg school teacher and a younger Aussie waiting in the lobby for Simeon. Groupies? The school teacher was on the hefty side and the last thing I said to Simeon was “more cushion for the pushing”. It took him a moment to understand what I meant before he almost fell on the floor laughing.

We spent a few more days in Paris and tried to see some things we had missed. We went to Notre Dame Cathedral. Believe it or not the cathedral has a souvenir stand inside. Kind of tacky. We tried to get into the Louvre but the lines were too long. We spent a good part of one day mostly walking around. We saw the smaller French Statue of Liberty.

Notre Dame
Mini Statue of Liberty
We made our way out to the De Gaulle Airport and waited for our plane home. We were surprised that there weren’t any souvenir stands or places to get some food at the airport. We sat on a curb and had a smoke. It was time to go home.

So, what did I think of France? There is no doubt it has an incomparable history. It is the #1 tourist destination in the world. In some senses it is also the cradle of democracy. Some of the people can be a bit snobby. At least they aren’t chanting USA, USA! They seem to use their resources well and the concept of eating fresh food daily from the market has its merits. They have a diversified economy and use nuclear power efficiently. You always hear about the great food in France but we didn’t experience much of it. A salad at an outdoor café usually consists of lettuce and little else. I certainly would eat any fish from their polluted rivers. There aren’t very many lakes. Street food like a baguette with processed ham and cheese gets boring pretty fast. The quiches are pretty good. All in all the biggest impact on me was the sense of being in the midst of history. I also had a sense of a class struggle in France continuing. There seems to be some falseness in their lives too. On one hand they are very good at relaxing with a glass of wine at a local café and on the other hand withered old ladies with cleavage and fine clothes just aren’t very attractive. Crosswalks are virtually ignored by motorists. But…if you want to see some amazing bits of history, France is the place to go.
I’m no Rick Steves and far from being an expert about travelling in France. Never the less I will still offer some advice about travelling in France. Of course this advice probably doesn’t apply if you are filthy rich and money is not important to you.
#1 Stay away from long bus tours. Get a Eurorail pass. Trains will take you almost anywhere you want to go. If you feel you need to take a bus tour make it only a day or two. Being on your own should give you a better feel for the country and it makes you engage more with the locals who can also tell you about places you might not see on a bus tour.
#2 If you are a wine drinker slow down the pace and spend a number of days in wine country like around the city of Bordeaux. You don’t have to be knee deep in history every day. A barge trip is another way to soak up the countryside.
#3 Do some research into what you want to see. Paris is obviously a given. The places I highly recommend are as follows: In the north of France….Honfleurs, Mont St. Michel, and the beaches of Normandy and the war memorials at Juneau and Omaha Beach. In the middle of France and further south of Paris…. The Bordeaux region, Rocamadour, Arles, and Cannes and the French Riviera.
#4 Hostels are worth taking a look at. It beats the heck out of hanging out with just old folks. You might be surprised at how accepting some younger people are of older farts roughing it a bit.
#5 Stay away from old conservative Aussies. Most of them are just too anal.
Bonne journee!

Random Photos of France.....


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