Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Crosswords, not cross words.

The other day I wrote about the L'Arche community and their commitment to mentally disabled adults. I wrote about my experiences with Cameron and friends and neighbours who are involved with the Vanier institute. However, I had forgotten to mention something that happened a few days ago on the subway.

I was coming home from a meeting downtown early enough to have avoided the crowds on the Yonge line. I had a seat to myself in an almost empty car, when a young man in his early twenties came and sat beside me. He had a crossword puzzle from the newspaper and a pencil in his hand. He pointed to the crossword puzzle.

At first I was a little confused, as he was sitting very close and reaching out even closer with the puzzle. Then I made the connection. He wanted someone to help him find the answer. How did he know that I do at least two crosswords a day. Maybe he didn't, but someone out there did. I spent the next twenty minutes with him working on the puzzle. I would suggest the answers and he would write them down. It was actually fun.

When I had to leave at my stop, he wandered over to another passenger, who wasn't as accommodating. The young man then moved onto another car. I wondered if he did this everyday, all day and I wondered where he lived. Was there someone making sure that he got home safely? I now understand the concept of the emotional connection. I finished a crossword puzzle that night, the same one we had worked on earlier. I thought often of that young man.

Have a great day.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Great Vowel Movement.......

In a puerile way, I have always been interested in the term "vowel movement" - not just because it rhymes with bowel movement - but that's part of it. Yes, a lot of s**t comes out of people's mouths, mine included, and people seem to use grunts, groans and "duhs" more than they do words to "enunciate" their feelings or views of the world, these days, sigh!

As a person more interested in words, than, let's say, punctuation, (the Oxford comma be damned) I was "gob-smacked" at dinner the other night, when our guest exclaimed in the delight of a Eureka moment, "Of course, didn't you know, we are in the middle of the great vowel movement."

Apparently, the movement started in the 11th century, but really picked up speed with Chaucer and literally "took off" with the arrival of the printing press - machines do make most things go a little faster :) I can't remember the original comment that triggered the digression, but it must have been related to a New Zealand friend of ours, who had just visited us in Toronto. Maggie was worried that she might go home with a Canadian accent - there are worse things. Diptheria comes to mind :)

Anyway, the door opened to a discussion of vowels, always better than bowels at the dinner table. It wasn't so much the topic, as the odd looks on the faces of the next generation, that provided the entertainment. If this is something that has been going on for over a thousand years, do we really have to worry about it in our/their lifetime. In a world dictated by Kardashians and other puerile (there's that word again) examples of what makes life important, our 20 somethings simply could not relate to the excitement of a change in the pronunciation of a few vowels.

The eye rolling was priceless. Brenda's elevated and animated description of the subtle change from "i" to "e" in some words was classic. And I could reaffirmed my belief, that the microcosm, rather than the macrocosm, is what enriches lives.

The pictures? Not really related, but then when would I ever have had the opportunity to use them in a post. They were the stamps from my sister's Christmas card to me this year and both musicians are/were bards in their time and yes, would that we could all just freeze the moment, as their pictures have done, and never change. Then again a few paltry years measured against the evolution of a thousand or more is rarely enough to change anything.....or is it?

Have a great day!!

Sunday, December 20, 2015


I read an article yesterday in the Globe and Mail about a person I have known for a long time, but have never met. The article, written by Ian Brown, was about Jean Vanier who started L'Arche.  I had first heard of L'Arche from my neighbour, who often spends Christmas in France, at one of Vanier's homes for mentally disabled adults.

Although L'Arche has many houses around the world, that care for people who cannot care for themselves, Brown went specifically to France to look for a place for his severely disabled son. It's Vanier's unique approach that makes these places so special. Everyone is considered equal and valued for the particular emotional connection they bring to the group. Everyone, including visitors and attendants, sit together at a common table for meals and stay in the same simple accommodations.

The article was both humbling and elevating at the same time. The ultimate message was that whoever you are and whatever you do, you have value in this life. You must respect both yourself and others for the uniqueness everyone brings to any situation.

I have another connection to L'Arche, through a very good friend. Her son is the director of the L'Arche houses in Ontario. I have known Leslie since elementary school and remember when she adopted her son and when her husband died leaving her with a two-year-old child. It's a sad story with a happy ending. As L'Arche is a happy ending for people who have had a difficult beginning.

I haven't spent much time with people who are valued more for their emotional connection with people, than their intellectual ability, but I do remember Cameron. Here is an except from a manuscript I wrote a few years ago.

 ".....it’s a reminder that a lot of people out there have had difficult lives, one of the most difficult may have been Cameron's. Cameron lived in my grandmother’s house.  He was born with cerebral palsy at a time before Bliss Boards and places to take people with this condition, that would give them an education and some degree of dignity. Cameron, at the time, was fourteen years old and he lived in a crib in my grandmother’s kitchen.  I also remember that he sometimes lived in the middle bedroom upstairs, but it was difficult to watch him there and as he got older, he got testier and my grandmother was afraid that he might choke or struggle so much that he would break the bed, so she moved him to the kitchen.

My grandmother was paid to look after Cameron. She fed, washed and changed him.  She never, however, entertained him. There was never time. Sometimes, out of boredom, I would talk to Cameron.  I knew he liked this.  He would smile and try to talk back. It was so sad. He was skin and bone; but I knew that he could understand. His body didn’t work; but his mind did. Unfortunately, he couldn’t tell anyone, what he really thought.

One day Cameron’s father came to visit.  He was an older man. Older than my father, so he must have been in his fifties.  He never took his coat off.  He stayed for a few minutes by the crib and I think he was crying. Shortly after, someone came to take Cameron away.  My grandmother said that he was going to a place where there were stronger people to look after him. I often think of Cameron and what it would have been like to be locked in a dysfunctional body that trapped your mind.  No one gave you a second thought because they presumed that your brain was as disabled as your body, but you were, in fact, brilliant."

The pictures? A garden in France.

Have a wonderful day!!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

It's all about the words.....

It's all about the words. This is the inspiration I read in the Globe the other day. It was Russell Smith's column on art, poetry and blogging. It begins by saying:
A blog is a hobby; a blog is a notebook; a blog is a forum; a blog is a piece of art. A blog is unpaid, and so can rewrite our idea of what a journal is, what publication is. It reminds us that, in the age of culturecrat jargon such as “viability” and “private-public partnerships,” we can give away art entirely for free and that art can infiltrate a larger culture and therefore be worth something all on its own.
...... in a sense, all art is about other art, if only in that it cannot help but refer to art that has preceded it. If it is a poem, it echoes all other poems that use the same language; if it is a painting, it exists in a continuum of paintings with the same colours or themes. 
(Art/blogging is) "an exercise …” The words that follow could be anything – line, colour, silence, changing scales, transgression – but the idea of the exercise is constant. (Evelyn Waugh, for example: “I regard writing not as investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed.”)
This is all the rationale I needed to restart my regular blog again.

For me, writing is about this precision in the use of language. It's about bon mots, succinct phrases and the many nuances of words in carefully arranged sentences.

Writing 365 blogs in 365 days, a few years ago, was a challenge. However, I loved it. In fact, I wrote on topics I would never have considered had I not had my back against the proverbial wall.

I think that I have to try that again. Although my blog is called "Life is what happens," life is more exciting, if you make things happen.

The picture? For all those times when I can say that I have seen the light.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

An Über ride!!

OK, we didn't use an Uber taxi for our ride from Arles to the airport in Marseilles. Our quote for the 50 mile trip was €150.00. We decided on a taxi, though, because train schedules can change and we needed to catch that plane!!

As it turned out our driver was quite amazing. He had lived all over Europe, but decided to settle in Arles to raise a family in a quiet town with roots. We picked his brain about places in the south of France, Andorra and elsewhere. He was very knowledgeable - we were getting our money's worth!!

In fact the ride cost about €125.00 euros and he refused a tip!! I compared this with the taxi we took last year to get to the same airport from Aix en Provence, about 20 minutes away. We were quoted €40.00 and it turned out costing us €96.00.  Sigh!!

I can't believe that it has taken me almost six months to write up one of my summer holidays this year. Sometimes it's just difficult to write, even with amazing subject matter. However, I've come across several articles, lately, on blogging and I think that I will be more dedicated moving forward.

Self-doubt, a sense of purposelessness, FB changes that limited or inhibit sharing of posts, ennui - bundle them altogether and you have a roadblock of biblical proportions.


There it's gone! Now I can get on with recording my life - for what it's worth!!

Have an awesome day!!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

When Fantasy meets Reality

To visit the Camargue, that huge delta of the Rhone river which stretches ever further into the Mediterranean, has always been on my hit list. It's not just because there is a Rolls Royce named after it, but it is also because, many years ago I "missed it," while hitch hiking through the south of France. In fact, I hadn't even given it a second thought, as we hopped a ride from Arles to Frejus.

It was at the youth hostel that evening, when someone said, "What, you missed the wild horses of the Camargue!" that a fantasy was born! I dreamed of those wild horses for decades. I likened them to the wild mustangs on the plains of the US. I saw them galloping majestically over wide open stretches of sand and dunes. To me they were unfettered, unbranded and free. I was now going to live my dream.

My husband and I booked a safari tour with a small company in an even smaller Jeep to spend a morning touring the Camargue, looking for wild horses, black bulls and pink flamingoes. Fortunately, there was just one other couple on the tour with us or the Jeep would have seemed very cramped. Also, fortunately, our guide, Sandrine, could speak fairly fluent English, as could the other couple, because our French is virtually non-existent.

Sandrine, who was born in the Camargue, was also a safari leader in Kenya during the winter. We were in good hands. Now, for the reality. It started with the spiffy new highway that runs from Arles to Stes Maries de La Mer at the bottom of the delta. Where were the quaint dirt roads of my dreams?Even though we took side roads most of the time, there was still a strong presence of civilization in the form of co-op farms, small inns and various commercial enterprises. My wilderness evaporated almost immediately.

The horses as it turned out, although wild in the sense that they are never under cover, are fenced, owned by land owners and even branded. They are docile, almost sad, creatures, who stand in small enclosures most of their lives. Yes, some are trained for a spectator sport that involves a bull and pom poms, but the rest are used as training horses for children to ride. Sigh!

We did see the bulls, who were also fenced. We learned the difference between the provencal bull, which is bred for the Course Camarguise competitions and the Spanish bulls, which are bred for the traditional Spanish bull fights, still held in Arles. It was a lovely informative ride, but it wasn't wilderness.

Sts. Marie de Mer, is a Spring gathering place for gypsies from all over Europe, who come to visit the shrine of St. Sarah, a patron saint. It is also full of tourists and those tacky tourists shops. Commercialism aside, though, there are still lots of charming guest houses, a bustling market and long white beaches, fringed with pods of pink flamingoes. I could have stayed longer. However, we were on a schedule - alas, time always intrudes on the dreamer! Sandrine took us through more of the flamingo marshes on our way back. This was probably the highlight of the trip.

Wild horses aside, there is still much to see in the Camargue. In fact, it's an interesting biking venue, although the back roads can be rough with large potholes and little gravel to cushion the impact. However, you do get a chance to come face to face with the denizens of the area, ride the long stretches of beach and dike and spend more time in some ancient towns. You may even hear the old language of Provence spoken by the few remaining elders of the area.

In reality, it's still a lovely place, it just wasn't the wild, untamed pampas of my imagination, but then, really, what ever is.

Have a great day!

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Museum of Arles

The entire city of Arles is a museum unto itself. Yes, there is commerce and village life, but citizens and visitors alike live carefully among the ruins. The ruins, that is, of what was once a great Roman city. A magnificent colosseum, for example, dominates a rise in the centre of the old town, while an amphitheatre, solid enough to hold performances today, forms the entrance to a garden and city park, a few blocks away. In fact, almost everywhere there are testaments in stone, to the greatness that was once, Rome.

The colosseum in Arles
Here Van Gogh painted, as well, so there is still a strong feeling of Provence in the winding streets and charming houses that lead down to the famous Rhone. The nights are quiet in Arles, but  restaurants, in the early evening, are bustling. There is an excellent selection of eateries including many moroccan bistros.

Lunch was often an outdoor cafe. I can't sit outside in a cafe without thinking of artists, writers and the like. Perhaps this is where they garner the ideas for their next work. There is this mixture of  decadence and inspiration that comes from watching other people getting on with their lives, while one just watches and makes notes - or not as the case maybe.

Van Gogh's home in Arles
With only three days left to the end of our vacation, we spent all of our time wandering around the town, getting lost - a favourite activity, and when it was too hot, spending time in the small but perfectly appointed swimming pool, in the walled garden of our hotel, Hotel D'arlatan.

Melon with Port, as a starter
Unfortunately, the Van Gogh gallery would open, after renovations, on Thursday - we were leaving Tuesday. This means, of course, that we have to come back!!

Tomorrow, The Camargue! Have a great day.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

On to Arles

Unfortunately holidays come to an end - a necessary evil. For as Shakespeare said -

If all the year were playing holidays, 
To sport would be as tedious as to work; 

I never want my "sport," vacationing, to become tedious work, so I have holidays that end. However, you can ease the pain, by having an interim or cool down period, where there is still a little mini holiday before you actually have to go home. This is why we often book a return flight mid-week, because we get a few extra days after the full week or more of solid vacation time, to do a little bit extra. Last year, after we left Cannes, we spent three delightful days in Aix-en-Provence. This year we decided to go to Arles, for a few days before flying home.

Saturday was our "check out time" from the apartment we had rented for a week through Home Away. We agreed to meet Victor, our contact, about 10:30am. He would check out the place, make sure there was no damage and return our security deposit - yeah!! Victor is not a walker, so he was surprised that we were walking, with luggage, to the bus stop in Cassis. "It's a good twenty minute walk," he said. We didn't tell him about our many extended walks in the area - no need to brag :) We thanked Victor for his hospitality and set out for Arles on public transit.

First, we took the bus from Cassis to the station, where we waited about thirty minutes for the train to Marseilles. Fortunately "people watching" is a hobby of mine and thirty minutes is ample time to observe the comings and goings of people, spending idle time waiting for a train. What is it about travel that brings out the "crazy" in people. First, there were the three women across the tracks singing in the echo of their waiting area, maybe performers practising. Or the family with six children who were allowed to wander at will, maybe they hoped to lose a few along the way :) Finally, I couldn't help noticing the young men and the old men, always on their own, while rotund women clubbed together, complaining about the lost time. Philosophy in motion.

Boarding trains is always a challenge, for someone with short legs. There were two levels to the platform - one for the newer trains with lower boarding ramps and one for the older trains that would require a giant step up and forward to board, or in our case, fall into the train. I prayed for a new train and took my place on the raised platform. Not only did a new train arrive, albeit a little delayed, but a kind young man offered to lift my bag onto the train for me - never dismiss the usefulness of a few wrinkles and a little grey hair :)

From Cassis to the outskirts of Marseilles was a pretty ride, with glimpses of the mountains and sea. Unfortunately, the ride through the urban sprawl wasn't nearly as nice, so I concentrated on the fact that I was hungry and hoped that the station in Marseilles was near the restored port area, where we might find an interesting restaurant for lunch. Not so. It was at best a taxi ride away and there was a train, almost on the next platform, ready to leave for Arles in ten minutes. My husband wasn't stopping for lunch, so, I guess, I wasn't either.

West from Marseilles is an industrial wasteland with huge docks, refineries, factories and all the seediness that accompanies a port city. Necessary for commerce, but an eyesore on vacation. Closer to Arles the land soften and vineyards appeared, always a good sign. Not all the stops along the way were noted on the train's itinerary. So we had to think quickly and guess accurately, because those that hesitate will be left on board, when the whistle blows. "Ici Arles" stood me in good stead. It was answered with a nod by a pretty woman restraining a massive dog, who was eyeing my leg. The very leg that I needed to step off the train and onto the platform with. Transitions complete, we took a taxi to our "boutique" hotel hidden in the walls of the old town. We would never have found it on foot and on an empty stomach to boot, or something like that :)

More soon.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Happy Bus

Midway through our week in Cassis, we decided to inquire about tickets to Arles. We had to vacate our apartment on the Saturday and planned to stay for a few days in Arles, before catching our flight home on the following Tuesday.

Normally we would just walk to the train station. However, the station in Cassis was a few kilometres away and the weather had become very hot. I don't mind the heat near the sea or on a shaded walk, but this would be a trek near busy roads with lots of buildings. We decided to take the bus and I am so glad we did. The trip gave us a perspective into the lives of the locals.

First we got to meet the bus driver, a young man, who obviously loved his job. He smiled and chatted with everyone, as we boarded. We noticed too that someone always sat in the front seat opposite the driver, to talk with him as he drove the route. Listening to their conversation, was a good way to improve my French.

The bus route, though long and circuitous, gave us a great tour of the area beyond Cassis. Farms and vineyards spread out behind the low rise apartment blocks. Banks of Oleander screened the less attractive commercial buildings and the road always curved up, down and around, making the drive quite scenic. At the train station, we were able to buy tickets to Arles, which could be used anytime on Saturday. Great, we could leave, when we wanted to!!

The bus timed its arrival at the station to meet the next train, so our trip back to Cassis was crowded with people going to the beach. I was particularly taken with a German family, who were travelling with four young children. There were bags, strollers, baguettes, and children, everywhere. This is when you need a vacation from your vacation!!

The people, who came on and got of the bus, were always greeted by the smiling driver. They immediately smiled back, as did the rest of us. In fact one passenger decided that this should be called, "the Happy Bus." We would never have had this experience in a car. Yes, you would have on a tour bus, but that is expected. This trip was just the daily slog for some, made so much better by a friendly driver!!

The pictures? random shots around Cassis.

Have a great day!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Quiet times in Cassis

I mentioned in an earlier post about the quiet walks around the town of Cassis in the south of France. Here are some pictures.

Most of the side streets in the old town near the harbour were very pretty, with lovely flowers, quaint entrances and cobbled walks.

For more activity, there were several beaches close by.

In fact, one day we did some kayaking in the basin of one of the inlets. Yes, that's a man repairing something on his boat! OMG

At the end of a busy day, our apartment was always relaxing, with a beautiful view of the harbour and lighthouse.

Last post on Cassis soon. Have a great day!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Creme de Cassis

For a small village, Cassis has an extensive list of "things to do." I remember telling a neighbour, who had stopped in Cassis for lunch while on a tour of the south of France, that we had stayed there for a week. She was amazed that we could find enough to entertain us for that length of time.

As I have said before, we almost always walk. Although walking takes up a lot of time, you do see much more along the way. For our second day in Cassis, we walked to the calanque that we could see from our window. Again the hike was well over a mile, uphill, however, we managed to walk past an old castle, enroute to the summit, and to marvel at the beautiful views it offered of Cassis' beach and lighthouse.

Fortunately, on our way back down, we happened upon a local winery, Clos Sainte Magdeleine. This had to be the winery from heaven, even if it didn't make altar wine :) Its vineyards cascaded from the upper reaches of the majestic calanque, right down to the cliffs that overlooked the Mediterranean. We immediately booked a tour for the next day. We just had to come back for an inside look at this idyllic spot.

There were the shorter walks too, either around the town or out to the lighthouse. There was also time to just sit with a latte at the many cafes which fringed the harbour or savour an ice cream near a sandy beach.

Creme de Cassis of course :)

We loved the contrasts in Cassis - wild hills beside a seaside town, leisurely strolls after vigorous hikes, sophisticated vineyards near farmers markets, young and old, hot and cold, land and sea!!

More to come. Have a great day!!

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Les Calanques

Les Calanques is the name of the national park between Cassis and Marseilles, which was created to preserve the limestone fjords that jut into the sea at this end of the Cote D'Azur. With their magnificent white cliffs, azure inlets and rugged vegetation, Les Calanques are a national treasure well worth keeping in their natural state.

One of the sad things about the south of France is its rampant development. Dense housing covers most of the mountains that slope to the sea, obscuring any break between the towns along the coast. For the most part the Cote D'Azur could be re-named Le Cote des Maisons. This is why Les Calanques are so special, no one can build there!!

It's true, that before the national park was established, there was a villa or two within the boundaries and one of the inlets is a marina, which moors about 300 sailboats. I also forgot to mention the ubiquitous cafes that crop up here and there as pleasant oases for those who have climbed up and down a fjord or two. Still the park has managed to stop the housing developments of today and the quarry companies of yesterday.

We travel in Europe without a car. This forces us not only to walk a lot more, but also to see a lot more! Hence, we set out one morning to walk to the Calanques, for a walk! Little did we realize that we had to walk about a mile and a half on roads that looped up, down and around the rugged coastline, before we actually got to the gates of the park. We were now ready to begin our walk!! Oddly enough, when you are moving, you tend to keep moving, which is why we didn't stop at one of the cafes for lemonade until we had finished the mile and a half walking trail, because again, oddly enough, it's difficult to get going, once you have stopped.

Fortunately, the additional mile and a half walk back to our flat seemed much less arduous than the one setting out. "Say not (that) the struggle naught availeth."

More on walking and kayaking next post.

Have a great day!!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Cassis 2015

We decided to spend a week in Cassis on a whim. Actually a friend had given us a calendar by an artist who painted beautiful pictures of places in France and Italy. Cassis was one of the prettiest. I decided that it might be a nice place to spend some time based entirely on an artist's interpretation. I have said before that serendipity is my co-pilot.

Fortunately my husband did some research and discovered lots of other reasons to go there -

1. It bordered on a national park - Les Calanques, which has some beautiful walking trails overlooking the sea.

2. It was in a wine area, with several wineries within walking distance of the town.

3. It offered great accommodation options on Home Away. We booked an apartment with a view of the marina, the open sea, the castle and two of the Calanques.

4. There were dozens of great restaurants.

5. Shopping was mixed. There were very upscale stores from Paris located beside a few affordable local shops.

As I have said before, we are not of the "must see everything in one trip" sort of people. We prefer to settle into a place and stay for a while. I could have stayed for months. We ruled out going back in winter for a while, though, when we found out that it could be lower than 10ºC with a fierce wind in January and February.

Still in June it was warm and sunny. There were mussel dishes of every description on the menus of most restaurants, as well as, other local sea food and duck. If you planned to cook at home, the fisherfolk came in each morning with their catches - eels, when available, were snapped up pretty quickly. We ate in twice. In both cases we bought prepared food - quiche one night and a charcuterie of pates, meats, baguette and cheese another night. Ymmmm. The wine was always local and usually Rose´- very trendy here.

We, of course, had to do a lot of walking to work off the calories. More on the walks next post.

Have a great day!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Amsterdam to Marseilles

Somehow, I have always felt that there is a conspiracy between hotel clerks, taxi drivers, restaurateurs and tour guides. When we checked into our hotel on Friday night, we asked when the shuttle train to the airport left in the morning. Our hotel clerk immediately said that the train was not running on Saturday because of repairs, but he could call us a cab. Hmmm, that of course meant a much more expensive ride to the airport. It was a little late to check out his story, so we reluctantly accepted his offer to arrange for a cab at 7:00am the next day.

We had by now, become quite comfortable with our boarding passes on our phones, however, we still preferred to check in our luggage rather than taking it on the plane with us. Behold! self check in. Soon the world will peopled by robots :) What we faced at the airport in Amsterdam was a huge bank of "cupboards," that opened for you to insert your luggage and print your luggage tags. There was, however, a glitch. Not all of the scanners on the respective cupboards could read a boarding pass on a phone. An attendant still had to take our phones, print out our boarding passes and then insert them in the slot for our robotic cupboard to read, weight and process our luggage. Sigh!

I think that I have to try and pare my belongings down to a backpack and start taking everything on board or begin relying on the kindness of strangers. Yes, our cases are small enough to take on board, however, we too are small and lifting a somewhat heavy case into an overhead bin, is no small feat for anyone barely 5 feet tall - all puns intended :)

Anyway, enough of airports and transfers. Our flight to Marseilles was short and sweet. We left very cool weather in Holland - 13ºC and arrived to 23ºC in the south of France, even sweeter. We didn't, however, attempt to take the train from Marseilles airport to Cassis, our final destination. This would have involved a shuttle into Marseilles, a bus to another terminal, a train to Cassis and then another bus into the centre of town. We actually had our contact in Cassis book a taxi for us. So it was that we walked out of the terminal right into a handsome 6 foot stranger holding a sign with our last name on it - we knew we were home!!

Taxi fares aren't cheap, but it does ease the pain, if the drivers are entertaining. Justin gave us a cook's tour with a pretty good English commentary. As we had been told the fare in advance, we knew we weren't going to be charged more. Justin even refused a tip at the end!! Yes, we might have gotten a cheaper fare, if we hadn't pre-booked, but we could also have been ripped off, as we had been last year from Aix en Provence to Marseilles. More on that later!!

The pictures? Random shots by water - love them!

Have a great day!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Good Bye Gouda....

This would be our last day in Gouda and our last day of biking in Holland - sigh!! I do love putting down roots, staying for a while, blending into the woodwork, as it were, and pretending that you have lived in a place all your life. Well, even three days, in a small place, can give you a sense of permanence and a strong reluctance to leave. I made a list of the reasons I had to come back.

1. We had missed one whole itinerary on our biking tour - Day 2.
2. We had missed the tulip fields north of Amsterdam.
3. We missed seeing lots of windmills.
4. We should really go Edam, if we've been to Gouda.

I am having trouble separating, as you can see.

For our last day, we decided on a short biking trip, because we had to travel back to Amsterdam to catch an early flight the next day for Marseilles.  Since, we had cut short our day 1 itinerary, we still had about 10kms of lovely canal and lakeside vitas to see, just North of Gouda. Goudse Hout is more of a vacation area with clear lakes, ancient dikes, small bridges, impressive homes, large gardens and narrow roads. I'm glad, we didn't miss this part of the trip.

The weather changed often from heavy cloud to brilliant sunshine, back to cloud again, but there was, fortunately, no rain. We spent an idyllic hour or two peddling through very pretty scenery and chatting, when lost, to very pleasant people. Around noon, we returned to Gouda, did the necessary checking out of hotel and bike rental, walked to the station and caught the first train back to Utrecht for lunch.

I love returning to places, we've been to. We revisit old spots, find new ones and generally feel like a seasoned traveller. For lunch, we ate inside, because rain threatened even more this time, than last. I can't remember what we ate, but the beer and wine were good!!

Back in Amsterdam, it was raining. We decided to walk to our hotel, which was fairly close to the station, even though we weren't exactly sure where it was. Fortunately, my husband's sense of direction was working and we got to our three star, $300.00 per night - this seems to be the going rate - lodging, without getting totally soaked, by rain that is. Our Home Away apartment, our first week in Amsterdam, cost us about the same, but we got a canal view, two large rooms with kitchen facilities, separate bathroom and toilet and a built in exercise area - 60 stairs to it :)

Anyway, tonight, we were just here to eat, and sleep. We needed to be up at 6:00am for an early flight out in the morning. Across the street from our hotel, we found a restaurant that actually served traditional Dutch fare. I can't remember the starter, but I know it wasn't pickled herring - you get these at the kiosks on the street. I just didn't want to eat herring from a street vendor. I wanted it at a restaurant. Then again, in North America, what better restaurant serves hot dogs as a starter?

Ironically, my main course came close to the proverbial "hamburger," over here. On my plate there was the biggest meatball I had ever seen. Piled beside it was a mountain of mashed potatoes laced with sauerkraut. There must have been some green vegetable some where, I just couldn't see it. I'm sure I had dessert and coffee too. It was all too good to pass up!!

After dinner, we headed back to the hotel for an early night. 6:00am comes way too soon on holidays.

Have a great day!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Is that Moordrecht or Mordor?

Although Holland is technically a flat country, there are head winds. As one cyclist put it, "In a country that builds windmills, you have to figure there is going to be wind." So it was that we peddled back to Gouda into a driving force that kept pushing us back from whence we had come!  Add to the journey, bike paths along dikes that had a 20 metre drop on either side to the farms below. I preferred the paths that just dropped off on one side and had the rest of the farm - orchards, sheep etc raised about two or three metres above you on the other side - very surreal.

Our first day out biking can be summed up in one word "adventurous." Given that we managed only 20kms on our first day, we decided to skip the 40kms ride scheduled for the next day and do our day 3 ride as our day 2 ride - does this make sense? The next day threatened rain, however, we know from other biking adventures that we can bike in the rain, not happily, but there you are. Using our maps and eschewing the GPS, we set out for Moordrecht. Again the exit from Gouda was awkward. Yes, we were on bike paths, but there was traffic on the road beside us and there were stop lights and other cyclists and pedestrians etc, etc. We also had to cycle through an industrial area, which wasn't pleasant.

Once we had extracted ourselves from all the overpasses and underpasses, it, of course, started to rain. In fact, it started to pour. We stopped for shelter under a large tree and waited. Fortune, at this point, decided to send us a little perk. She arrived in the form of a woman in her late 70s, on a bike naturally, and smiling. Somehow, she didn't mind the rain and was only stopping to put on a raincoat. We exchanged pleasantries. "Oh, you're English," she said. "It's raining cats and dogs. I learned that in school." Somehow she welcomed the fact that she could practise her English, even in the pouring rain, well, go figure :) She mentioned that yesterday, was lovely and she had cycled with a group to Rotterdam, about 25kms away. I made a mental note to do more cycling when I got back to Canada.

The rain eased. The lady left for Gouda and we headed to Moordrecht. Again we ended up in a subdivision and had to ask directions to the centre of town. Even under leaden skies, as they say, the town was pretty. We stopped at the first cafe we found for a coffee and a re-group. Did we really want to cycle further away from Gouda, in the rain, the cold and the confusion of an industrial wasteland? No, we did not.

I decided that we could cycle from here back to Haastrecht, which was only about 7kms away. There was method in my madness. Haastrecht had two great restaurants and when we had stopped there the day before, our waitress had asked us if we wanted apple pie. Dutch apple pie, how could I have forgotten, is a real treat. It was too early in the morning to have had it yesterday, but today was another story!! We now had a plan to escape from Moordrecht, which my husband had taken to calling "Mordor."

Our hostess at the cafe, pointed out that we could get to Haastrecht, but we had to cross the river first. Conveniently there was a small ferry which shuttled cars, bikes and passengers across the river for a mere $1.50 each. It was sunny yellow in colour, even if the day wasn't. Our ride to lunch was uneventful, except for the windmill!!  We had seen a few windmills in Holland, but they were either too far away or cramped behind housing developments. This one was a gem. By the time we reached Haastrecht, the skies had cleared, we sat outside where it was warm and sunny and feasted on open-faced sandwiches and Dutch apple pie!!

We knew that we were only about 7kms from Gouda and we knew that we could get back there via a country road, so we could relax. I love adventures, but I also love a safety net. Booking with Holland Bike Tours gave us an emergency phone number, should we have run into any real difficulties. We hadn't so far and tomorrow was our last day and we knew exactly where we were going!!

Have an awesome day!!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Oudewater and the outer limits....

We had cycled to Haastrecht on a bike path that ran parallel to a busy road. No doubt our GPS, had it been working, would have taken us along a pretty country lane that also ran parallel to the road but far enough away that you barely saw or heard the cars. Sigh! Anyway, as we were leaving Haastrecht, we noticed a weathered sign post, with several names on it, including Oudewater, our next stop, how fortunate, a country road from one village to the next.

Country roads accommodate both bikes and cars. Some roads are so narrow, in fact, that two cars cannot pass each other. Technically a bike and a car can pass each other, but unless you have nerves of steel, you may just want to dismount and let the bigger vehicle pass first!! Fortunately, I didn't have to get off my bike too often for cars. We did, though, have to get off every once in a while to figure out where on the planet, we actually were - always a challenge!! However, once we got used to coordinating the map, we had purchased, with the sketchy computer printout we had downloaded before we left Canada, we stopped less often.

Fewer stops, unfortunately means, fewer pictures, sigh! Now I know why some bikers wear a webcam stuck to their helmets. You can record the entire journey without a stop, however, you do end up looking a bit like an alien most of the time :) Speaking of aliens and "funny" looks, we did notice some curious stares from time to time, no doubt because we were actually wearing helmets. Most Dutch cyclists rarely, if ever, wear a helmet and since we didn't look like Tour de France racing material, people must have wondered why we bothered with a hard hat, at all. It's the difference between coming from a North American country, where cyclist too often become roadkill, to biking in a country where cyclists are protected and respected.

There was a market on in Oudewater, when we arrived - what fun!! So much fun, in fact, that we decided to stay for lunch. In spite of the crowds, we found a lovely table outside next to a canal. Here we could watch the street theatre, pedestrians, cyclists, delivery vans, etc., while we wrote their scripts. I loved the couple, whom I presumed were North American. There are subtle differences between Europeans and North Americans! They were on bikes with panniers front and back. I decided that they must have been travelling from village to village toting their gear with them. From the pained look on their faces, I guessed that the journey today might have been a tough one. A group of seventy to eighty year olds were wiser. They had battery assisted bikes.

Once more on our vehicles, we peddled through farmland edged with small canals. Here ducks nested, cattle grazed and flowers fluttered in the breezes - a netherworld in The Netherlands.

More to come.

Have a great day!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

GPS and how to get lost very quickly...

Our train left for Gouda from Utrecht at precisely the time our tickets said it would. There's something to be said about northern Europe's stoic adherence to the mechanics that make things work. There is no throwing up of hands, when trains do not arrive on time - Paris, cursing coach doors that won't close - Rome, conductors that never appear - France, cancelled trains without notice - Italy. No, there is just a certain calm in the knowledge that everything is in order and working according to plan.

So it was that we arrived in Gouda, on time. We walked to our accommodation, a quaint inn near the centre of town, in about fifteen minutes. Hotel De Utrechtsche Dom is a lovely place with a walled garden, bright breakfast area and small but tidy rooms with private baths - a delightful spot to start and end a day of cycling. We had planned three day trips out from Gouda, through a tour group, Holland Bike Tours. They had set the itinerary to various small villages in the area and we were to follow their GPS instructions. Since our cycling wouldn't start until tomorrow, we spent the rest of the day strolling around Gouda, a very pretty town with some lovely old buildings, a canal, lots of cheese shops and a plethora of restaurants and cafes.

Dinner that evening was uneventful, I seem to remember asparagus in season, local lamb and a delicious desert. I'm not sure that we began drinking Rose wine here, but it seems to be all the rage in Europe, so it might have been.

The next day a representative from Holland Bike Tours arrived to give us the bikes we had rented, sign some contracts and explain the GPS system that would obviate our need for maps. The bikes were new, very sturdy, with gears, brakes and panniers - no problems so far. The GPS seemed straightforward enough. Although we don't use a GPS system at home, we did use one once when we did a house exchange in Scotland and exchanged cars as well - their car had one.

After convincing our outfitter that we understood the mechanics of the GPS and would have no problem, he left.  We got on our bikes and headed out. Apparently, though, the GPS didn't like the direction the agent pointed us in (in which the agent pointed us) and told us to turn around, we did. Peddling a few yards in another direction, it told us to turn around again, sigh! After we finally got going along a quiet road with canals on either side, the GPS started giving us conflicting directions, and we ended up in a subdivision!!  At that point we biked back into town, bought a map, ditched the GPS, and headed out to a place called Haastrecht!!

Although this very pretty village was only about seven kilometres away, we were exhausted by the time we got there. That frustrating hour or so fiddling with our non-functioning GPS in Gouda, obviously sapped a lot of our energy. It was now time for a much needed coffee break. We cycled through Haastrecht's main street, which actually wound up one of the few hills in that part of Holland and found a sunny cafe, beside a canal, with a drawbridge. Actually the bridge opened several times, while we were there to let pleasure craft through. Many of these boats had living quarters below deck, as well as bikes for day trips off the boat. I made a mental note to explore the possibility of boating and biking in Holland another time.

More later.

Have a great day!!