Wednesday, July 12, 2006


After much planning and internet research we set off on our long awaited trip to Europe on April 23, 2006. Luckily we had purchased our airline tickets in January. This was before the oil companies decided that we were still suffering from the effects Hurricane Katrina and with future potential problems with that pesky Iran started raising the cost of oil. We saved at least 25% by purchasing them early and on the Internet through AAA. We flew American Airlines to Chicago where we changed to British Airways. We again changed planes in London before reaching our final destination in Lyon, France. Since our trip didn’t include a visit to Paris we settled on Lyon because it is a much smaller airport than Paris and we felt would be less confusing. Turned out to be a good choice. Our scheduled arrival time in Lyon was 11:30 am, but due to a flight delay in Chicago of 3 hours, we missed our connection in London, we finally arrived in Lyon at 7:30 pm.

We leased a new Peugeot through Peugeot Open Europe. The way it works is, if you’re not a citizen of a European country and you plan to stay 17 days or longer, you don’t have to pay the value added tax, which is around 17% in France. The car is brand new and you can choose from various models. The price also includes roadside assistance and full insurance coverage with no deductible. We chose a turbo diesel with standard transmission. Although very small by American standards, it was surprisingly roomy inside and very comfortable. It performed extremely well, cruising the auto routes at 85 mph while getting over 50 MPG.

After picking up the car at the Lyon Airport, I mounted the GPS we had brought with us to the windshield. I had been warned that the GPS might take 15 or 20 minutes to acquire a signal after being transported from the U.S. Well it took a lot longer. After awhile and since it was going to be dark soon, we figured we better start heading towards our B & B. We promptly became lost. We stopped in a small town and I tried to find it on the map. No Luck. Now we were really lost. We decided we better head back to the airport and start over. Just before getting back to the airport the GPS began working, which was a good thing because we had been heading in the completely opposite direction. We would still be looking if it wasn’t for the GPS. It had been 28 hours since getting up at home and we were ready for bed.

Our plan was to stay in B & B’s as much as possible. We had made reservations for the first week of the trip, and it was our intention to either find something a few days before we arrived or on the day we arrived. More about this later. Our first place was located in the small town of Montagny, about 20 kilometers from Lyon. Our hostess Florence and her family were in bed by the time we arrived at 10:30, but she had left the door open for us. The next morning breakfast was a welcome sight. The glass enclosed breakfast room was across the small courtyard from our room. Breakfast consisted of hot chocolate or coffee, juice, chocolate croissants (yummy), assorted breads, with butter and jams and fruit. There was also a cottage cheese kind of thing that we added sugar to. We communicated with Florence in our almost non existence French and her high school English along with gestures and shrugs. Florence, provided us with local information about what to see and where not to eat.

We were staying in the new section of the village Montagny. Our room was in one half of the converted barn with the main house, built around 1850, across what used to be the barn yard. The old town is located on the hill above the new town and most of the buildings there originated around the 1400’s.

Wisteria was everywhere, growing on most of the old buildings and homes. Before breakfast when I first got up, I followed the smell to the local bakery and made my first purchased in France. A loaf of bread for 70E or about .90 cents. Besides the bakery there is a small restaurant/bar, a hardware store, the Hotel de Ville, or the town hall, and on certain days, the butcher who appears in a large truck similar to a roach coach and parks in the town square.

On our first full day in France we drove to the Mid-evil city of Perouges, about 50 kilometers away. The town was founded in 1236 and has been restored. Its existence today is for the tourist, but luckily due to the time of the year, there were few. We ate lunch in the new part of town at the bottom of the hill. We had the plat de jour which consisted of chicken, rice, vegetables, salad, wine and desert of a chocolate and banana crepe. I think we missed the cheese course due to the language problem. To order food we use our menu decoder and Rick Steve’s phrase book, but sometimes it’s a guessing game. We look around at what other diners are eating and point. Total for lunch for both of us was 23 euros.

We next stopped at a supermarket and stocked up on picnic items. The French supermarkets are much like ours only with a much larger cheese department. You bag your own groceries and pay extra for the bag. The cashiers sit at their cash registers, what a novel idea. Our plan is to eat our main meal out at lunchtime and picnic in our room in the evening. Our hope is to stay within our budget of $200 a day.

To get back to our B & B, I programmed the GPS to take us the “Shortest Route” instead of the “Quickest”. Since our destination was on the other side of Lyon, the second largest city in France, the GPS guided us, should I say attempted to guide us right through the middle of Lyon. To make matters worse, it was rush hour. By the time I realized my mistake we were in the depths of the city. Of course being a city, it has tall buildings which tend to block the signal to the GPS. We were having fun now! Wrong turns, one way streets, bus only lanes, dead ends, you name it. The last time I broke so many traffic laws was when I was in a pursuit. In the end we made it safely back to our room and still suffering from jet lag we went right off to sleep.

The next day we went to Lyon on purpose. Driving to the nearest subway station, we took public transit. You purchase your subway ticket at a machine, which allows you to select your language making it a piece of cake. The old center of the city is closed to traffic and the narrow streets invite you to explore.

We took the funicular to the high
point of Lyon and the Fourviere Basilica. Constructed between 1872 and 1896, the interior is richly decorated with mosaics, marble and stain glass windows. The Basilica over looks the city and the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers. We walked all over the old historic part of the city. Found a restaurant and ordered from the fixed price menu, but the waitress attempted to overcharge us for the coffee we did not order. In most of France and Europe, the tip or service charge is included in the price of the meal. When I asked the waitress she told me it wasn’t. I then made her adjust to bill for the overcharge and left a very small tip. In all the meals we ate on our trip, the service charge was always included. This was the only time someone tried to rip us off, at least that we discovered. It was obvious we were in unfamiliar territory, and she just tried to take advantage of us. Travelers beware!

The next morning we left the Lyon area and headed southwest for La Melaine in the Gorges du Tarn, also known as the Grand Canyon of France. The road runs along the bottom of the Gorge next to the river Tarn. The villages in the gorge are constructed ofnative stone and are very picturesque. Our B &B in La Melaine sits against the cliff and overlooks the rooftops of the village.

In the morning we continued our drive down the gorge until it was no more. We head for our next stop, Albas, which is in the south central part of France. This will be our base for the next five nights. Our hosts, Robin and Justin Sanders (she’s American, he’s English) we extremely helpful in answering many questions we had saved up since arriving in France. Robin runs the B&B plus two vacation apartments in their large home which was built in the 1750’s and is built on the face of a cliff overlooking the River Lot. There are places in the house where the cliff face is exposed. Our room is in the tower to the rear of the house and opens onto the terrace. Justin commutes to England, working 10 days at a computer mapping business he owns and then comes home for 4 days. He says he can live in France much cheaper than in England and the weather is better.

Up to this point in our trip, eating as been an adventure. We try to stay away from items on the menu that we a unsure of, like foie gras, which is goose liver, and confit de canard, which is duck that has been marinated in it’s own fat. Justin convinced me that I should try both because according to him they are delicious. That evening for dinner, I ordered both. Wow! What a surprise. The foie gras was just like Justin described it. “It’s melts in your mouth like butter.” The duck likewise was very good, falling off the bone. Cathie continued to be a chicken and wouldn’t try it for a long time. By the time she did, we were leaving France and it wasn’t available anymore.

The house in the center is our B&B

Our room is in the square tower to the rear

Each day we would explore the surrounding countryside and towns. This is wine country and there are vineyards everywhere. The wine is excellent and cheap. We visited several mid-evil towns (seems most towns in France are that old), St Cirq-Lapopie and Rocamadour. Racamadour is interesting as it is build on the face of a cliff.

Cathie checking out the spice vender

at the farmers market in Cahors

The fortified bridge over the River Lot

in Cahors

It was interesting to visit the local farmer’s markets whenever we encountered them. Most every kind of food item is available, from vegetables and fruit to meat and cheese. When we were able we would purchase our dinners here, buying strawberries, sausage, chocolate croissants and whatever else looked good. At the end of a long day sightseeing and shopping we recovered in the local sidewalk café in Albas with beer (Cathie) and wine (Dana) while watching the local men play bols.

Although we would usually eat dinner in our room, at both Robin and Justin’s urging, we had dinner at La Recreation. This is the local favorite in a very small village of Les Arques, about 20 kilometers from our B&B. Located in the town’s old school house, it was a great place to dine. The 28 Euro, 5 course feast is a tasty bargain. American author Michael Sanders wrote about this restaurant in his book, From Here You Can’t See Paris. We had an excellent dinner with Cathie sticking to what she knows, scallops and steak, and I foie gras (of course) and duck prepared 3 different ways, including the heart. It was all delicious. With wine and a before dinner drink it came to $100, the most expensive meal on the trip, but well worth it. We even managed to stay within budget for the day.

After five nights in Albas, it was time to leave and head north. A visit to this area of France is a lot like settling into a favorite armchair, after a satisfying meal. You give out a contented belch. It’s a pleasure you will willingly repeat.

Our next stop was the town of Montresor in the Loire Valley. This area is south of Paris and full of Chateaus, several of which we would visit. The 400 kilometer drive from Albas was done mostly on the back roads after programming the GPS to avoid the toll roads. We really enjoyed the back county drives, many on one lane roads. At times there were delays for slow tractors and flocks of goats or sheep. As we traveled north we began seeing bright yellow mustard fields, and continued seeing them into Germany. There were areas where there was a vast patchwork of yellow and green.

Our B&B in Montresor was in an old water driven mill. The stream which powered the water wheel runs underneath the building and for your entertainment the dining room floor is made of glass.

The next day we visited Chateau Chenonceaux. As you can see from the photo the chateau extends across the river. The surrounding grounds are meticulously kept by an army of grounds keepers. This place is quite a tourist attraction and became very crowded by mid morning with bus loads of Japanese and blue haired ladies. Tours were self guided with the assistance of an I pod providing us with the English translation.

We started having problems with the GPS. It wasn’t working and it took a while to learn that it wasn’t getting any power. We figured out that the plug was defective so in the town of Loches started looking for a replacement. Having no luck, we started to panic. We finally managed to find an electrician of sorts at an electric appliance store. He discovered that the plug had a fuse hidden inside which he replaced. When we plugged it in the car, it promptly blew the new fuse. We finally got it working after several more fuses by being careful not to touch the wire and to just leave things alone.

Our next stop was Normandy near the city of Saint Lo. Our B&B is owned by a retired English lady and is an old stone farm house built in the mid 1800’s. Very comfortable, but small room. From this base we explored Normandy and the surrounding area.

Our first stop was Mont Saint Michel, a rocky cone shaped islet in northwestern France. It is an island at high tide connected by a causeway with the mainland. The islet, celebrated for its Benedictine abbey, has small houses and shops on its lowest lever. Above these stand the abbey’s buildings, many of which date from the 13th century and are considered outstanding examples of Gothic Architecture. The islet is crowned by the abbey church, about 240 feet above sea level. The place was loaded with tourist and the shops catered to them. We shared our first bad meal with about 75, or one bus load, of Japanese at one of the 10 restaurants below the abbey.

We next drove to Arvanches walking around the center of the city. Here there is a memorial to General Patton. On to Omaha Beach with more memorials to the D-day invasion. Lots of American flags and monuments dedicated to the Americans who died there.
The next day, Sunday, we went to Sainte Mere Egliase, a town several miles from the coast. For those of you who saw the movie The Longest Day about the D-day invasion, you might remember this town. In the movie a paratrooper, played by Red Buttons, gets his parachute caught on the church steeple. If you didn’t know, that actually occurred and there is a manikin dressed as an American paratrooper in full battle dress hanging by his parachute from the church. Monday, May 8th is VE day and a major holiday in France. While at the church, a brass band came marching down the street followed by French WWII veterans. They all marched into the church for Sunday services. From the church it is a short drive to the American cemetery at Omaha Beach.

The cemetery is quite impressive with over 5000 Americans buried there. The French government has deeded the land the cemetery is situated on to the American people and the grounds are maintained and operated by the US government. There are present US government employees who live on the cemetery grounds and oversee and manage this hallowed ground.

While at the cemetery, I noticed men in WWII era army uniforms. I spoke to one of them who told me he was a member of a US Army demonstration parachute team and they were escorting WWII veteran paratroopers to places they had fought at during the war. In the photograph below you see these veterans resting on a bench with one of their escorts (3rd from the left)

We visited several other D-day sites including Utah beach and Point du Hoc, the latter where US Army Rangers scaled the cliffs to attack and destroy the German gun emplacements. Several things really stood out while visiting these sites. One was that there were American flags everywhere and the other was these historic sites were packed with Frenchmen and their families. It was obvious to me that the French have not forgotten the sacrifice made by the Americans who liberated them.
The owner of our B&B, Ms Hamilton, is very finicky. She is very worried of our eating in our room. She is afraid the food and the trash will cause the room to smell and insists that we empty the trash each day. I asked her where the trash can was located and she gave us directions to the local dump. She tells us about the three choirs she sings in and then complains that she is stretched too thin. She does make croissants each morning from scratch, so we didn’t judge her too harshly.
One of the things we noticed about the French is they love their dogs. They take them everywhere, including restaurants and tourist attractions. There is dog poop everywhere and no apparent effort to clean it up. It is advisable when traveling in France to wear smooth soled shoes.
We have been in France for 15 days and it is time to head north. Our next stop is Brugge, Belgium. We stayed for just two nights in a very nice B&B in the suburbs. We just spent one day walking the old city of Brugge, a very beautiful city.

The people here use public transportation and ride their bikes. This is one quarter of the bike parking at the main train station. There are bike paths along every road and most streets. They are everywhere and it makes it difficult for a foreigner to drive without running them over. Almost everybody we came in contact with in Belgium spoke English. It seems to be their second language. The only trouble occurs when asking directions and you get the names
of the local streets as evidenced here. Anyone of you who can pronounce this, give me a call. I could never figure it out.

Brugge is a beautiful old city with narrow cobbled streets and canals which were once used for commerce, but now are used to transport the tour boats. We visited the market place in the town square with all its sights and smells. Some of the vendors such as the butcher and the cheese vendor have very elaborate semi truck trailers that convert into their store on wheels.
You can tell we are out of France by the breakfast we were served this morning at our B&B. It started with juice and coffee and continued with yogurt, pancakes, eggs, assorted breads, cheeses and meats. You just couldn’t eat it all. These types of breakfasts continued into Germany and Austria.
Day 18 of our journey and we are in Cochem, Germany along the Mosel River. On our way here we traveled by freeway from Belgium, through Luxembourg. For the first time since beginning our trip we stopped at a Quick Berger for our first European hamburger. Not too bad and not greasy at all. We’ve had rain off and on for the past week, but so far it hasn’t prevented us from sightseeing.

Cochem is situated on the banks of the Mosel River, with a castle on the hill above the town. Narrow little streets which are closed to vehicles during the day, are filled with the day trippers from the tour boats and buses. In the evening the town empties out and the streets become peaceful, with occasional sounds of music coming from the local beer taverns. Our B&B is a short walk uphill from the center of town on a quiet residential street.

The area along the Mosel River is extremely beautiful, with vineyards climbing the steep valley walls and a castle around every bend of the river. We hiked to Burg Eltz, no vehicles allowed, one of the few castles left untouched by Napoleon’s army and pretty much original. After touring a second castle above Cochem, we had a late dinner at a balcony table overlooking the street and the river beyond. What a life! We spent several more days exploring the Mosel and Rhine River Valleys, some of the most scenic areas in Germany.
Next stop was to be Bad Wimpfen on Germany’s Castle Road. The word Bad in front of a towns name indicates that there is a spa with natural springs in the town. We went to the tourist office for assistance in finding a room only to discover there were none available in Bad Wimpfen. The gal at the tourist office located a B&B about 10 miles away in Gundelsteim. Frau Zchtziger spoke very little English, but we managed to agree on a price for our room, breakfast, and use of the washing machine. This is the first room we have had with the bathroom across the hall. As there we no other guests while we were there, it became a private bathroom across the hall. The house was on the hill overlooking the town with a view of the barge traffic through the locks on the Neckar River. Across the street from our house is the community center. In the evenings we were entertained as the town band had their practice. We liked the area so well and our B&B was comfortable so we ended up staying and extra day and pretty much did nothing. Took a drive on some of the back roads and found a small village restaurant for lunch. There was only one other customer. We had a great meal of liver soup (you gotta try it) salad, sausage and sauerbraten, with dessert and wine for 30 Euros for the both of us.
May 16th and we are in Dinkelsbuhl, a medieval walled town that I visited as a child in 1957. We have a B&B just outside of the walled city. This later became known as the Bates B&B. The owner’s son Andy, who is about 40, is still living at home with momma. He speaks some English, chain smokes to the point were his fingers and moustache are yellow, and speaks real LOUD. He seems a little off and perhaps is a brick shy of a load. The house smells of cigarette smoke, but our room is somewhat better. We have reserved a place in another town just in case this one doesn’t work out. Cathie thinks Andy will come in our room and kill us tonight.
It’s morning and we’re still alive! About 3 AM we could hear Andy, whose room was next to ours, on the telephone talking in his VERY LOUD voice. He was speaking in German, so we don’t know what he was saying except repeating, “yah, yah”. He went on for about 30 minutes. Unsure if he was receiving instructions on what to do with the bodies, we never went back to sleep. We had noticed before going to bed, some freshly dug areas in the garden, so we figured it was time to move on.

1 comment:

Julie Gassaway said...

Great idea, Dad! I hope that you will continue to post when you are on your trip to the New England area.