Saturday, 28 July 2012

Liberia - From the Files of Traveler8

am delighted to have guest blogger, Traveler8, here to tell us about her recent visit to Liberia, a country which most of us will never get to experience firsthand.  Enjoy Traveler8's journey.

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Liberia – From the Files of Traveler8


I know I am back in Liberia because everyone is calling me Mommy, and while I do have to “process” it every time someone says it, it is nice to hear it. Mommy is an honorific for an older woman, probably closest to "Ma'am" in the southern US. When I first heard it on my last visit I would jump. This country certainly has some of the most cordial people in the world, and it was a pleasure being welcomed back by the hotel and project staff.


Interesting thing on the plane – I was seated next to a Chinese gentleman who started “talking” to me via a recording/translating device. He would write in Chinese characters, and they would be translated to English, and in turn I could spell out words in English and have them translated to Chinese. I did manage to inform him of the cities that I had been to in China, also determined that he was from Wuhan (which I think is near Nanjing). He had a double card, chairman of an import-export trading company, also chairman of a company concerned with international development, although I don’t know if the latter simply means that the China-based company is doing business abroad. I tried to tell him that my company was doing agriculture, cassava, rice (that was recognized) and that I did finance, but I have no idea how much of that translated.

On the way in from the airport we passed one mosque, but mostly there are dozens of little evangelical and pentecostal churches, and religious names on lots of things like filling stations and business centres, which is the term for a business location. A business centre might sell seed grain, for instance – the term is not reserved for a place where you might find a copy machine and an internet connection, for instance. I did also see a Mommy Business Centre, which I got a kick from. 

Just so you know where it is.

Lots to describe about Liberia. This is a really poor country and, except for a few government buildings that apparently have recently been built, everything is totally run down, or was not built much to begin with. The houses in the outlying regions are built of cement blocks, or mud blocks, or have walls of woven raffia, and rarely are these over one story. Roads have lots of potholes, and the side roads are mostly dirt, a red clay that occasionally appears very pink, suggesting a high iron content.

Overall things are fairly flat, lots of palm trees, also fruit trees like mango, and I have been through at least one large rubber plantation (trees are tapped and have a small ceramic cup to collect the dripping latex) owned by Firestone.


(Accreditation: Microsoft Clipart)

In line with the reason for my visit, yesterday I was taken on a visit to meet a rice miller. The owner turned out to be a light skinned black man who looked like he might have some east Asian and/or Lebanese blood, and he was only introduced to me by his first name. As we were getting into the car I was speculating on his background, and one of the Liberians said, "Oh, he's a Cooper." Seems that the family is quite big, and they still own a lot of interests in the country. A colleague of mine (about my age) said that he went to Cornell with Dermot Cooper, whose mother, Sophie, apparently owned the ice cream factory/brand etc in Liberia at the time, and was quite well known. Anyway, I am going to refer my colleague to the book The House on Sugar Beach, by Helene Cooper. The House on Sugar Beach is one I highly recommend. 

Incidentally, I recognized "Sirleaf" as the name of one of Cooper's classmates, so assumed that the President is "Congo", but it turns out that she was a foster child as well, as Eunice is described in the book. I think the book is quite readable and useful for background on Liberia - and as I found out, the Coopers are around and thriving.


President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson


There is a big soccer match on tonight, the European Club championship, between Bayern Munich and Chelsea FC. The score was level at 0-0 until less than 10 minutes to go when Bayern scored. And then, and with less than two minutes left in the game, Chelsea tied it up. We were at a restaurant for much of the game, but were the only patrons who had come for dinner as everyone else was there simply to watch the game on the big screen TVs. Outside the restaurant as we were leaving we saw promos, enticements for watching the match, including “free bong fries”. At last we finally realized that the waiter had been saying that certain dishes came with bong fries, which are cassava fries. A great name, eh?
When I get back to my room I discover that the game has gone into overtime and now they are lining up for a penalty shootout.  The score is– 3-3, and it’s now sudden death.  Whoosh, a German shot hit the post. It didn’t go in. Chelsea’s turn, and they make it. It’s all over. There is much cheering and shouting in the streets outside of my window. Football is big here, and apparently the game was closely watched, and the celebrations go on for some time.

I went out to a farm today with a colleague to talk to a farmer about expanding her rice seed outgrower network (i.e., they grow seed that is used for planting – outgrowers are smaller farm operations that get seed and other inputs and assistance advanced from the lead farmer, and agree to sell all or most of their output back to the lead farmer, some of it used to repay advances). On the way there we stopped at an orphanage to leave off a couple of bags of vegetables from someone else in the project, and they were all gathered together apparently for a prayer meeting. We were asked to speak to the group, and I told them that this was the second time that I had been to Liberia (they applauded) and that our project was working to help farmers grow more to feed themselves and their neighbours. One of my colleagues was asked to explain about the veggies, and pulled them out of the bag, asking what each one was, with kids shouting out – lots of fun, and she and I realized that we did not know what all of them were!


(Accreditation: Microsoft Clipart)



I went up-country a couple of days ago to visit a rubber plantation, and in a meeting we were offered coffee and tea, which came from a jar with instant coffee, tea bags, instant creamer, and a jar of sugar cubes. The guy across from me kept adding sugar cubes to his coffee, I swear must have been at least ten of them. I was reminded of the scene in To Kill A Mockingbird when Jem and Scout invite Walter to come to their house for lunch on the first day of school, and he asks for the syrup, which he pours on his meat and vegetables, and Scout says that she thinks he would have poured it in his milk glass if she had not asked him what in the Sam Hill was he doing. Anyway, I think the guy likes a little coffee with his sugar.

I have not found any good coffee here yet, although I met a Dutchman last time who has promised that he knows of some good stuff being grown. The local coffee is Liberica, which is comparable to Arabica and Robusta, and I know that a little bit of it is grown in Indonesia, where I first encountered it. Turns out that it was developed here, hence the name. It is highly resistant to a rust disease, but it is pretty bland and not very interesting.


(Accreditation: Microsoft Clipart)


A big item of interest to me on the drive was seeing caladiums growing wild in a field. Years ago I grew a couple of these as house plants, and it always amazes me to see anything like that in the wild. Of course, there are also Norfolk Island pines here, so I can happily remember back to when we had one of those, which we used as a Christmas tree.


Mothers' Day in Liberia

The ex-pat staff at the office were invited by one of the local staff members to go to her (Methodist) church this Sunday for a celebration of Mothers’ Day, and I was delighted to be included in the invitation. The church had a big to-do over all the mothers in the audience, honoured several, and had an extended celebration of their Mother of the Year. At one point people were given time to distribute cloth flowers to their mothers, friends, etc. One woman came over and pinned one of the flowers on me – I guess I looked likely.

It was interesting hearing the hymns, which were all the Methodist standards, although with the words occasionally altered, like:

 “Onward Christian Mothers, God has chosen you
Much of Christ’s service, Only you can do.
Loyal to your mission, Through a hundred years
Giving light and comfort, Drying human tears.”

The choir did sing an Amen – Alleluia song that sounded like a simplified version of the Hallelujah Chorus that I liked a lot.

The service lasted for 3.5 hours, which was actually longer than I had estimated, as I thought that just three hours had elapsed. While I don’t want to go again next Sunday, I did enjoy it.

I also do have to comment on the dresses – all the women in the church’s Women’s Organization wore white dresses, often with lace and the like. It did look a lot like bridesmaid dresses (although all white) but the dress style seems to work a lot better on African women. The congregation also included other women wearing typical African dresses made out of traditional African patterned fabric, and complete with ruffles and flounces. These are usually about ankle length and would look ridiculous on me but seem just fine on local women. I started picking out the patterns I liked, including Methodist fabric – a design with the Methodist symbol cross with a flame off to the side – used for both women’s dresses and for men’s shirts.

Sometimes the African print is designed for advertising. For instance, at home I have some President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf fabric that was made up for the election campaign. I also saw that at Rawbank, a bank in Democratic Republic of Congo that I was working with. The female members of staff in the rural areas would wear a length of the patterned fabric as lapas, the two yard wrap-around that you see pictures of rural African women wearing.

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I hope you found this article interesting; I certainly did. Traveler8 has built up a vast store of amazing experiences through her career, and I hope we can look forward to more of these great insights into different cultures.

If you would like to know more about Liberia, I really recommend the CIA World Factbook. I first used the site when I fell in love with Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe and I wanted to know more about her beloved Botswana. The World Factbook was soon my number one go-to place for the lowdown on any country. The link to their Liberia section is:





Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The Highlights of Our First Trip to France

From the journal:



1.   Visiting Catherine’s (of course). Wow, what a shop; what an experience. Cannot wait to go back there. While we were in there a couple of English women with EXTREMELY noisy (read: totally undisciplined) children came in there. The women ignored their little monsters, who were fingering everything, banging on glass shelves, grabbing at beautiful displays etc. The divine French creature serving us – the daughter of the owner – crossed her arms, and in a very French manner said, “We will wait until they leave; they are so noisy”. Oh, I loved that. Imagine the reaction if that happened in a shop here. She was so right, though, as such a shop is a place for indulgence, not a place for brats. 

2.   The Welsh boating couple we met in Nevers who insisted on driving us to a supermarket and welcomed us on board their lovely boat. Such kindness to strangers is just lovely to come across. 

3.   A stunningly elegant Parisienne we spotted near the super-dooper-busy intersection outside the Garnier Opera House. The traffic was, as ever, insane, and then we spotted her, weaving through it, dressed immaculately in a navy blue skirt suit (the skirt almost a pencil, I should add), sheer stockings, high, high, navy blue shoes, with a cigarette in one hand, steering her bicycle with the other, and all the while one shoulder pressed up to her ear as she conducted a telephone conversation on her mobile. C’est magnifique! 

4.   The cheeky young chicky-babe in the very short tartan kilt and white shirt who came bouncing along rue Bonaparte towards us, swinging her articulated hips as she moved and all the while maintaining deep eye-contact with my man, smiling at him with the most ego-boosting come-hither smile – honestly, it was almost R-rated, that smile. Oh, it made his whole trip, I can tell you (he still smiles at the memory), and I just thought it was wonderful.

5.   Cruising up and down the Seine, and walking along under those bridges of Paris.  

6.   Paris by night, the fabulous illuminations, the soft yellow lights on old buildings, the Tower dazzling you with her brightness, the wonderful light shows that play across the face of the Assemblee Nationale. Ahhh, lovely. 

7.   The total peace and serenity of a canal boat trip – need to start planning the next one.Smart-for-Two cars and the crazy parking – don’t think you could fit a travel brochure between their bumpers. 

8.   The ridiculously expensive hair-dresser who gave up on holding a conversation with me and instead handed me a French magazine to read. Oh well, the photos were eye candy, I assure you. The €60 price tag for a shampoo and blow-dry wasn’t.  

9.   That painting in the Louvre – and, no, I don’t mean the Mona Lisa, impressive though she may be. And if you don’t know which painting I mean, you will have to go back and read through my posts again. 

10.  Monet’s stunningly beautiful Giverny. I would gladly go and camp out in those grounds. It gives me a lovely feeling just to think of them – and it helps that as I type this I can look up at the lounge room wall and see display, framed for posterity, some of the photographs we took while there. 

11.  Buying heaps of little goodies for the people we love, and looking forward to wrapping them and handing them over with the hope that they carry with them a little bit of our journey.”

Oh, and sharing the journey with you, of course. Thanks for the company.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

France: Adieu Paris; Bonjour Perth


14/15 May



From the journal:

““I just can’t believe that this is our last day in beautiful, wonderful Paris. The time here has seemed to stretch like a piece of elastic and before-Paris seems so long ago, but at the same time it’s been way too quick and I want to stop the clock. 

After breakfast we just had time for one more walk around, and so we wended our way through the Tuileries, up past the Madelaine to the Garnier Opera, and then back down to the hotel for a coffee and a final check of everything to make sure nothing was left behind. All packed, all secured, all documents checked and re-checked. Time to check out, sadly, from this great little hotel.


Our driver turned up exactly on time and so we were soon belted up in our seats and zooming, together with a German couple, out to Charles de Gaulle airport. We really wished the driver hadn’t turned up and we had caught a cab as he was a full on lunatic of a driver, really appalling. The ride to the airport was bumpy as hell, and all four of us were being flung right, left, right, left. I’m sure that guy even managed to swing us around like a whirlpool even while seemingly going in a straight line. This was one driver who would never earn a tip; probably only ever earn abuse – and well deserved.


Anyway, we were dropped off first at the terminal we needed to catch our Air Mauritius flight out. Check-in was fast and fluid, and we then went through security and immigration and into the business class lounge, where we settled down with some bubbly, some snacks, and a newspaper.

 

We hadn’t been in the lounge very long when our names were called over the PA and we were told that there was some issue with our luggage. We then had to go back downstairs, through customs and immigration – unbelievable – and to the baggage service office. When we arrived there we discovered the German couple who we had shared the minibus with on the way to the airport were also there. Two of our three suitcases were then brought into the room and placed in the middle of the floor, together with one other suitcase which we hadn’t seen before. Our brains were reeling – was this some drug smuggling thing and were we about to be arrested? Were these innocent looking middle-aged Germans actually drug mules or kings of some cocaine cartel? A very serious-looking airport officer pointed to the cases and asked us to identify which were ours, which of course we did, pointing to our two cases.  He asked us a few times if the other case was ours, and naturally we said that, no, we had never seen that case before. He then asked the Germans if the third suitcase was their case, and they also said that, no, it wasn’t.

 


Apparently what had happened was that when the Germans were dropped off at their departure terminal, their case was missing, and so they assumed that we had taken it. Of course, the driver had simply buggered off, not interested at all in what had happened to their case – we think he probably simply didn’t load it into the vehicle when he picked them up. Anyway, of course they then headed to find us, thinking that perhaps we had their case. We were concerned because one of our cases was missing and we were being asked about this third, strange case. After some minutes our third suitcase was located, and so we thought all was now well, although the poor Germans were pretty frantic as they had now absolutely no idea where their luggage was.  We assumed we could now head back to the lounge, but, no, we now had to take our suitcases and check in again, go through customs and security again, the whole rigamarole, and of course by now quite some time had passed and so we only had time to rush back to the lounge for a quick freshen-up and to grab some bottles of water before boarding the aircraft.


The flight from Paris to Mauritius was fantastic. The food was excellent, and the cabin service absolutely faultless. We were looked after by a flight attendant called Mr Barbe, an expert in his profession. The champers was good and flowed freely, as did his smile. We felt pampered and welcome. The pilot flew quite low right down the coast of Italy, pointing out places like the Isle of Capri, Mount Versuvius, and then, finally, Sicily, as we flew overhead. The day was a perfect one, and visibility superb, so it was a real treat.


After that, once we were flying out over the Med, we watched a movie and then slept comfortably until the plane started its descent into Mauritius. Coming into Mauritius with the sun just coming up was absolutely beautiful as the mountains slowly became more and more visible in the lightening sky. Lovely.


We had a few hours on the ground in Mauritius, but couldn’t be bothered going through immigration etc, and so we just spent the time in the lounge where we were looked after by charming staff. At one point one of the attendants – a very young, very thin, very handsome, black Elvis look-alike - brought us coffee and cakes. He waited until we had sipped and tasted, seeming to await our approval. I told him the cakes were “beautiful” and “lovely”, wanting to assure him that we were very happy with what he had brought us. He responded with, “Yes, Madam, it’s always lovely, and beautiful – and usually very delicious as well”. It was all we could do not to laugh, it was just so delightful and charming – and funny, you must admit.
 

At last it was time to board our plane for the flight to Perth. The food, the drinks, the service were all fantastic, but I don’t think you would anywhere find an attendant as good as Mr Barbe of the Paris to Mauritius sector.


It was wonderful to land in Perth, which always looks totally sensational from the air, whether by day or night. We were through customs and immigration really quickly, even with stopping to pick up our pre-ordered duty free booze-ahol.  Out of the airport and into a cab, and we were soon zooming along Leach Highway headed for home.


Home, lovely, lovely little house. We missed you, and it’s just beautiful to be back in you and to fall in love with you all over again. Can’t help but think, though, that it won’t be long before we want to put ourselves in a situation of missing you again as we explore somewhere else.”
 

Thanks for coming on this journey with us.  I will be back with a little summing up – you know, favourite bits, highlights, funny sights. Hope you’ll join me for that.


In the meantime, here's a reminder of why we fell in love with France:


The parks,


 
the flowers,


the river,

the architecture,
















the artwork that is simply everywhere,


the great Metro entrances



and, of course,



the canal trip



and the villages we visited.










Monday, 16 July 2012

France: Final Day, Versailles


13 May


From the journal:


After breakfast we strolled through the Tuileries and across to the Left Bank. Walked along by the river to the Pont Neuf, and then crossed back again, enjoying the wonderful views from the bridge. We stopped for coffee at La Corona, just one last time.



We noticed that we were now right next to the shop where my man had bought his much-loved brown hat, the one which was last seen slowly floating along the surface of the Canal Lateral a la Loire behind our vessel. Happily, the store had another one just the same, and so it was just a lovely happenstance that we went back there this morning and he was able to purchase another hat, identical to the first. To underscore how fortunate we were, it was the very last one in the store. Just meant to be.



We then wandered around the shops, picking up a few more souvenirs and keepsakes to take home – so much to pack – before dropping those bits and pieces off at the hotel, picking up a baguette au jambon et fromage and finding a lovely shady spot in the park – our park – to munch our favourite French lunch while people watching.

At about 1.30 we boarded the coach for the trip to Versailles. Yes, we could have simply caught a train, but this was actually a pretty good deal. We bought tickets for the coach without the guided tour option, which meant we got a bit of commentary in the coach on the way, bypassed the huge queues, picked up our headsets, and spent the afternoon wandering around at our leisure, knowing that at a certain time we could simply make our way back to the coach for the trip back to Paris.


Versailles - nothing prepares you for this place.

 
Nothing, absolutely nothing, prepares you for the opulence and the extravagance of Versailles. No wonder the peasants revolted! This place is fabulous beyond all belief. Initially we had the camera out, wanting to snap lots of photos, but within a very few minutes your eyes protest – they don’t want any barrier between them and what they are looking at. You just have to put the camera away and absorb it all as much as you can. You can buy a book with all the wonderful professional photographs, because this is for experiencing, not for recording. And so, after a handful of shots, the camera is relegated to the bottom of the bag.



Beauty everywhere
 
 
The self-guided tour with the headsets is just the best way to visit the place as you can spend as long or as little in any area as you wish, and you can replay the relevant parts of the recording to go over something which you missed or which is particularly interesting.


And people everywhere

 
Even though you understand why the people revolted, when you stand in the chamber where Marie Antoinette was defended at the last, you can almost feel the fear which she must have felt. Despite yourself, there are places such as these which provoke a real emotional response, which takes you a bit by surprise.



 


You also laugh over the concept that people would pay to watch the King sitting on the throne, and I don’t mean the big throne, I mean, of course, the loo. Apparently watching him eat and watching him get rid of what he had eaten were desirable things to do. Thank God the world has changed.


Stunning

 
When you visit the theatre you are totally blown away. What looks like beautiful carved marble is actually all timber, just painted and cut in such a way that nobody would know that it’s not gleaming, veined marble. It really is quite awe-inspiring.



Nothing is just for function.
 
 
At each bend of a stair you come across more and more and more marvellous artwork, or windows placed so as to give a view that just takes your breath away totally. I think I’d hang around the windows for hours, just going from one to another.



Stunning statues
(with classical music wafting from the greenery)
 

The hall of mirrors is – no, can’t describe it. It is one of the loveliest things you could see in your whole life. You can imagine it with beautifully dressed and wigged women, with their fans and lace handkerchiefs, and bewigged and powdered men bowing low before the women before leading them in a dance, perhaps a minuette, who knows, and wonderful baroque music echoing off the walls. It’s more than the stuff of fairy-stories.


 


One thing which really did amaze us was the water reservoir on top of the building.  At first glimpse you think somebody had added a rooftop swimming pool, but, no, it was part of the original construction. It is really huge, and is there to serve two purposes: (a) because there is so much wood in the building, should a fire break out it is a ready source of water, and (b) in times when rainfall is low, it provides water for irrigating the extensive gardens. What marvellous foresight.
 

Lots of beautiful fountains
 
Now, the gardens are just gorgeous. I really wanted to shout “Fire, fire” or some such thing to make everybody flee so that we could wander freely through the stunning grounds, admiring the beautiful statuary and the lovely classical music which flowed from hidden speakers in topiaries and hedges. The place, sadly, was packed, though, and even taking photographs was difficult – they all looked as though we were photographing people we had never met because it was just about impossible to get a shot of anything without some smiling tourist popping into view.
 



 
Now, there are souvenir shops and there are souvenir shops. This souvenir shop was lovely, and some of the merchandise they sold was absolutely gorgeous – could have spent a fortunate. We did pick up a few really nice bits and pieces, and so more stuff for the suitcase.


And did I mention people?

Was there a downside? Yes. The only bummer, apart from the huge cobbles/settes of the ground which make looking anywhere but at your feet while you walk dangerous, was the solid phalanx of souvenir sellers that you have to squeeze through or past just to get through the gates. When I say solid, I mean they are shoulder to shoulder, all with their huge arrays of leather handbags, shiny Eiffel Towers, Notre Dame snowdomes, etc. That really is, frankly, awful. We walked along the line to the end and got around that way, but we could see that there were some older people who were quite intimidated, and for them to have to go way off to the side to get past this veritable human barrier is really unacceptable. One young American guy tried to engage one of the handbag sellers in conversation, with “Hi there. I just want to talk to you. Can I please just talk to you?” He had no success: he wasn’t buying, and conversation was not of interest. You can look at it as another travel experience, or you can look it at as a really bad aspect of a wonderful tourism site. I think it’s pretty bad, actually.
 


 

In the evening we wandered down rue Saint-Honoré and dined at a restaurant we hadn’t tried before. The food was quite ordinary, and we really wished that we had gone back to one of our favourites. Ah well, such is life.


Village of Versailles over the treetops
 
Before heading back to the hotel we strolled once more, for one final night-time view, over to the Louvre, hoping to keep an image of her and the Eiffel permanently imbedded in our brain. So incredibly lovely.


What an amazing place -  but it is
no wonder the people revolted.

 
And so back to the hotel for our last sleep in Paris before heading back home.”

Catch you tomorrow.



 

Thursday, 12 July 2012

France: Canal Boat Trip Ends, Chatillon-sur-Loire to Gien, Gien to Paris


12 May

From the journal:

“A quick pack, a final clean, a perfectly satisfactory handover back to the Crown Blue rep, and it was time to say goodbye to our lovely Cirrus. We enjoyed her so much, irrespective of how ill we were.



Goodbye Cirrus, et merci beaucoup!

The manager at the Connoisseur office called a taxi for us to take us to Gien, where we would get a train back to Paris. The taxi arrived really quickly and so the canal was soon left behind. The drive to Gien took about half an hour, and was a drive through beautiful countryside, so another enjoyable episode. The lady taxi driver suggested that she take us first to a shop or supermarket before going to the railway station as she said the station was really small and we wouldn’t be able to get anything to eat there. We – stupid us – declined the offer and got her to take us straight to the station.

We had about 90 minutes to wait for the train, and the taxi driver was so right – there was no café or such at the station, only a dispensing machine where you could buy crisps and soft drinks.


I have to say, I did really well buying our tickets. I had been mentally rehearsing exactly what to say, and the transaction was speedy and uneventful, and we had our tickets in our hand in a couple of minutes. It was amazing, though, to watch French people coming in to buy tickets. It was never speedy and uneventful; it was a case of lots and lots of conversation, sometimes consternation, sometimes argumentation, sometimes bordering on confrontation. We were stunned: how could I, a foreigner, find buying a ticket so quick and easy, while for the locals it was almost high drama. So fascinating!

Wandering outside, I spotted a little bar/bistro down the road and suggested we go there to have a drink and a bite to eat. HUGE MISTAKE! We lugged our luggage (like that!), walked inside, and – oooh. It was like some ghastly truckies place, and I’m talking tough truckies. The place smelled sooo bad. All conversation stopped. Everybody in there – all those leather or donkey jacketed men with shaved heads and their friends – turned and just starred at us. No welcoming “Bonjour” here. We sort of smiled, very difficult to do when you’re feeling so conspicuous and uncomfortable.  There was a sort of enclosed verandah where we could see quite a few Asian people sitting, and so we went out there, thinking that perhaps they were fellow tourists and so it may be a more comfortable option. Hm, these were not fellow tourists, these were just more of the sort of people who were inside, except maybe worse because they made me think of the North Vietnamese guys in “The Deer Hunter”, and I was waiting for them to pull out a gun for a game of Russian RouletAnd to make things even worse, if the air inside was bad, the air out here was even worse. God only knows what they were smoking out there, but it just about made my eyes water.  We tried to act really cool, pretended that nothing on the menu appealed, and exited stage left, attempting to do so in a really casual manner and not run, which is what we wanted to do. Phew, when travelling there will definitely be times that take you way outside your comfort zone, times when you really don’t feel at all at ease – I’ve felt it in a couple of country towns here in Australia – and so it had to happen at some time in beautiful France.

So, we walked back down the street to the station, and those dispenser machines looked sooo good to us now. Coke and crisps for lunch, what could be better.

The train was, of course, lovely, and the carriages super comfortable. There was only one other person in our carriage for the whole trip to Paris, so we were free to ooh and aah over the stunning scenery as much as we liked.

The train pulled into Gare de Lyon, and we felt that we had been away for far more than a week. We walked straight out of the station and got a taxi straight away to take us back to the Emeraude Louvre Montana.

Ah, during the cab ride we got to be part of a little play in itself, as at one point we were pulled up at traffic lights and the people in the car next to us wound down their window and asked our driver for directions to somwhere. Like a taxi driver in “The Amazing Race” he gave very long, very involved directions, but then ended up telling them to follow him. And so we swept through the streets of Paris – no, not with the warm wind in our hair – with our taxi driver waving his arm in the air to the vehicle behind us, beeping to say goodbye when it was their time to turn off. It was charming and another example of people going out of their way to help others.


Ah, here she is to greet us.


When we got back to the hotel, it was wonderful to find that we had been allocated the same room we had stayed in before the canal boat trip, and beautiful to have the staff say hello and welcome us back. It really felt like coming home. The Louvre Montana’s management really know how to pick great employees.



What a wave.
 
We dropped our bags in the room and then headed around the corner to rue Saint-Honoré for some lunch at one of our favourite little cafés before heading back to the hotel for a long, long, long bath. Ah, heaven!


Must find out who this guy was, because we walked past
this statue almost every day and I fell in love with it.

In the evening we walked around the corner to Cityrama and booked ourselves onto a trip to Versailles for the 13th, and then wandered along rue de Rivoli picking up a few more souvenirs to take home.

For dinner we – of course – went back to Le Carrousel, and the meal was really fantastic. We had a wonderful, flirty waiter. I couldn’t decide what to have for dessert and so he brought me a whole plate of tiny tasters – no, not café gourmand, there were at least half a dozen delicious delights. Fabulous.
 

She is even more lovely at night.

A final walk over to gaze at the Louvre to our left and the Eiffel to our right in the moonlight, and then back to our room and into that huge, huge super comfortable bed for the best sleep we’d had for days.”


What a great outlook for a restaurant.

See you at Versailles tomorrow.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

France: Canal Boat Trip, Day 7, Lere to Chatillon-sur-Loire

11 May


From the journal:


We both woke up feeling really ill this morning. The day was grey and rainy, so instead of exploring Lere further, we stayed on the vessel, eating delicious eggs, and of course ham, cheese, all the usual, and with good books for company. We stayed like that until mid-afternoon, knowing we didn’t have far to go to reach Chatillon-sur-Loire, but not feeling up to doing much at all. 
 



Looking back

 When we eventually set off from Lere, wonder of wonders, the sun came out again. The air was beautiful, the birds were singing, the sky was blue. It was warm and wonderful sitting up on top of the vessel as it glided, you could almost say slid, along the sparkling surface of the canal. 



Just lovely.


The scenery was really beautiful, with lots of lovely canal-side homes to check out. All of this, of course, overseen by that nuclear power plant. No doubt about it, this is what must be responsible for the obvious affluence in this area.


 
 

Fabulous scenery

This is not an area of old, tumble-down, character-filled houses but of beautifully kept places with lush gardens. 


 

How beautiful are these canal-side homes.
 
 
Coming into Chatillon-sur-Loire was just delightful – absolutely beautiful countryside to enjoy, all to the fabulous soft sounds of jazz playing from the iPod. Forget what music you think you will want, on a slow, lazy boat trip jazz wins hands down, particularly lots of syrupy saxophone or piano that sounds like ice-cubes clinking together in a glass of whiskey.  
 

You would have to learn to bake if you lived here, wouldn't you.
And probably take to wearing aprons, high heels and red lipstick.
And simply have to call yourself Monique or Sandrine


 
As we eased to the end of our canal boat trip, our lovely friend, Monsieur Heron, did one final fly past, and then turned and headed back down the canal again, no doubt to act as the lead for the next boat of happy cruisers. He added so much to this trip as it was fantastic each morning to stand on deck, look around, and see him rise from the bushes and set off, flying low over the water ahead of us, always beckoning us to follow. What a wonderful added bonus to any cruise.


The French government should employ me to
travel around and check out their town halls.


Chatillon is a really large marina/port, and there were boats there of every size and description, which of course the man revelled in ambling around and photographing, no doubt imagining himself captaining some day.  We tied up at the dock in front of Connoisseur/Crown Blue. As I say, the port was really full but there was a really helpful Crown Blue staff member, an Englishman from Norfolk more used to the Norfolk Broads, who guided us in and tied off the mooring lines for us. That was really appreciated when parking the boat in such a tight spot. 




 After securing the vessel, we walked up to the centre ville (centre of town). Chatillon is really a lovely looking place, with some wonderful architecture, and, as with other places we had stopped at along the way, we really wish we had more time to spend here. It’s a good sized town also, with quite a lot of shops. We went into a pharmacy, and, touching my head for effect, I managed to tell the pharmacist “J’ai mal a la tête”. She nodded. I then touched my chest and throat, gave a weak cough, and followed that with “Et j’ai mal a la gorge”. She definitely got the idea. She asked if I had a fever, and I had to confess that, no, it hadn’t reached that point. She gave me/us some cough syrup, headache pills and cold tabs, and we went on our way wishing that we had got such supplies days ago.


I love the purple door on this house
and the old stone cottage behind it.

 
We wandered around for a while, admiring houses, particularly those half-timbered ones, and chatting to cats. Despite the general perception, there are more cats as pets in France than dogs, and you find the friendly little creatures everywhere, and they always ready for a chat. Oh, and there really is no language barrier – a chuck under the chin, a tickle behind the ear is all that’s needed for good communication.



The dining area on our lovely Cirrus
(looks better by candlelight)
 
Discovering quite a big alimentation, we purchased a few goodies – quiche, chicken, more wonderful tomatoes, olives – for our last meal of the trip, knowing that there was no way we were up to dining out. What a bummer. And, how marvellous, we came across the most fantastic patisserie where we managed to pick up the very best medicine of all: cream cakes. Oh, I love this country with its wonderful cakes which are never super-sized but are always super-delicious.



And the perfectly workable kitchen (oops, galley).
 
After dinner on the front deck, we had a few more drinks and then a fairly early night.



And our comfortable bed (but we'll buy some
better pillows in future)

Crazy, maybe because of the medications, maybe because fate was having a good old laugh, whatever the reason, it was the best, and most restful night’s sleep of the whole trip.”


Catch you tomorrow, when we travel by train back to the City of Light.