On the ski hills, on the bike trails, and thru life in general

Archive for October, 2019

Five Days in Madrid

This is a recounting of the third leg of my European trip in September 2019. After the cool and damp weather of Norway, followed by the more temperate and drier Belgium and France, we finished off with the sun and heat of Madrid. The main purpose in going there, besides it being a place we had never visited before, was to see what the Prado offered. We discovered so much more.

Tuesday Sept 24
Paris to Madrid

Today was a travel day. Lucille and I didn’t have an early flight, unlike the others, so were able to have a relaxed routine in the morning before catching the shuttle to the airport. The 2-hour flight to Madrid, via Air France, was uneventful even though there was the possibility of a work stoppage by government workers, such as air traffic controllers, in the almost constant parade of French protests about various complaints.

Once at MAD, we took the very handy express bus to the Atocha terminal in Madrid, then walked the 20-minutes to the B&B that Lucille had arranged. We were greeted by the landlord, given a tour of the apartment and some safety instructions (make sure you lock all 5 deadbolts, the safety chain and, when outside the building, don’t talk to anyone!). The views from the 4th (top) floor unit were not great, just walls on all sides, but the location was very handy for all the things we wanted to do. She gave us directions to the local grocery stores so we went out and bought enough breakfast and snack items to last us for our duration there.

The view from Lucille’s room was, um, limited.

 

At least the view from my window had some greenery.

 

That’s a lot of deadbolts!

Wednesday Sept 25
Madrid

Went for a bike tour of Madrid in the morning. Took about 30 minutes to walk to the Bravo Bike shop from our B&B and get our bikes set up. Nice new Trek hybrids, much nicer than the bikes we used on the barge! Only Lucille and I were in the tour, led by Alex, so it was much easier to follow him in the crazy Madrid traffic than if there were more of us. Narrow streets, lots of cars that don’t give you much room and, of course, avoiding the pedestrians kept us busy and concentrated. Alex took us to most of the interesting sites in the downtown area, covering about 11 km in total. Finished the tour around 12:30 and walked back to the B&B.

We had nothing planned for the afternoon, wanting to save a full day for the Prado, so we went to the much smaller Reina Sofia Museum. A nice bonus was that it was free entry for seniors! We took our time in the museum, going through all the rooms and then walked over to the Parque de El Retiro which we had biked through earlier. It was nice to go at a pace faster than “museum pace” and the park is huge and beautiful. Many people were out enjoying the weather – jogging, walking, biking, picnicking or just lolling around on the grass.

The “living wall” on the side of a building in Madrid.

 

Mike and Lucille by the Crystal Palace in the Parque de El Retiro.

Thursday Sept 26
Madrid

Spent the day at the Prado and got in for seniors rate (€7.50). Perused most of the first floor from 10am to 12, had a small lunch in the cafeteria downstairs, then did about half of floor 0 from 12:30 to 3:30. Finally museumed, and religioned out. Will have to go back on Saturday to do the rest. It is a very nice museum but, unlike in the Louvre, the guards would not let us take any pictures! Not just no flash but no pictures at all. I was able to get a few anyway when they weren’t looking.

We had a rest and a bite to eat back at the apartment then did a 25-minute walk to where we had to meet Yolanda for the flamenco tour. She is a professional flamenco guide as well as a flamenco student and translator. We met her at 6pm and she took us to a tapas bar to have a wine and tapas, then to a flamenco studio (her old one), then to a flamenco guitar maker (one of the guitarists in Supertramp bought a guitar made there), then to a flamenco shoe store and costume store. All of this was to give us a background in the art of flamenco, as well as the history of it. The final stop was at a flamenco bar (Las Carboneras) to watch a show. The place was packed, and we had the best table in the house, right in front of the stage. The show was fantastic – athletic, artistic, dramatic – with the dancers showing off their best moves. It was not something I would have thought of doing so I thank our friends, John and Vida, for recommending it. Definitely a show to remember and well worth the money.

After the show, we walked back home, getting in around 11. A long but satisfying day.

The Prado is a lot less crowded than the Louvre!

 

The alternate Mona Lisa. Said to be painted by da Vinci’s students in the same studio and at the same time as the one in the Louvre. I like this one better.

 

One of the 4 dancers at Las Carboneras flamenco club. Great show!

Friday, Sept 27
Toledo

Chris and Susan had recommended that we take the train to Toledo if we had time. Sounded like a good idea so we got up at 6am and caught the 7:50 train to Toledo, only a 35 minute trip. It was about a 20-minute walk from the train station to the main square downtown. We were way early for the 11am walking tour so we stopped for a coffee at a bar on the plaza then wandered around for a while. Very pretty town, lots of stone walls, castle type buildings and churches, of course.

The walking tour took us to various viewpoints overlooking the city, with the guide (heavy Spanish accent) explaining the history. Combination of 3 cultures – Christian, Arab and Jewish – all reflected in the architecture. We finished the tour around 12:30 so had a beer in the Jewish quarter before visiting the synagogue museum (free for seniors!).

Afterwards, we wandered over to the cathedral, which was recommended by our guide. Supposed to be one of the largest in the world, though it didn’t seem too big from the outside. Not so! The place is enormous, with more naves, chapels and other rooms scattered around. Opulence galore, with gold, artwork, and artifacts displayed all over. Took lots of pictures and spent almost 2 hours in the warren of rooms.

After finding our way out of the church, we found a restaurant that our guide recommended. A non-touristy place with good prices but, unfortunately, the food was mediocre at best. We didn’t linger after dinner and made our way back to the square then down to the train for the trip back to Madrid.

Toledo in the sunshine.

 

Quiet, narrow pedestrian streets in Toledo. And lovely stonework walls.

 

Part of the massive cathedral in Toledo.

 

A wall of gold and gems behind the altar in the Toledo cathedral.

 

The Monstrance of Arfe, a 10-foot tall sculpture of gold, silver and gems.

Saturday Sept 28
Madrid

Another Prado day and we finished off all the rooms that we didn’t see on Thursday. Definitely museumed out now.

We went back to the apartment for a snack then walked to the San Miguel market for a look around. Lots of yummy-looking food and drink which, of course, required more pictures. Lucille bought a bottle of sherry to bring home for €10. Went across the street to the restaurant that Yolanda recommended to have a patate (potato based tortilla) and a beer then back to the room. Finished off the day by relaxing and more games of Farkel.

 

The busy San Miguel market in Madrid.

 

Some of the many goodies available to eat, if you could find a spot to squeeze into!

 

In case you have a sweet tooth…

Sunday Sept 29
Madrid – Amsterdam – Edmonton

Got up at 6am and got to the Atocha station in time to catch the early (7:03) express bus to the airport. Approximately a 40-minute ride, €5, and very handy.

First leg to AMS was on a KLM B737-800, with a window and middle seat. Unexpectedly, got a hot meal, though small.

Schiphol airport is large and the signage was not great to find out which gate our next flight left from. We arrived at B gates and departed from E gates, a long walk away. Glad we weren’t in a hurry! Lost Lucille for a bit but we met up again at the passport control. We tried to change our seats for the next leg – I wasn’t able to choose our seats when I checked us in the day before – as we had the middle 2 seats in the middle 4-seat group of a 2-4-2 configuration. No such luck, the flight was full.

The homeward leg was on an A-330. Comfortable seats but the middle of the middle row sucks! I was surprised that so many people are going to YEG but I’m glad that KLM is able to maintain the route.

Unlike my outbound trip from Edmonton, I wasn’t happy with our plane. I couldn’t get any sound from the entertainment system (using their headphones) and the USB charging ports didn’t work. Fortunately, Lucille had earbuds and the proper 2-prong airplane adapter, so I was able to watch a movie (Rocketman) to help pass the time. I need to remember to bring my adapter next time I travel :/

Afterthoughts

So, what did I like on this trip, after visiting 4 countries and many different cities? Well, everything of course. It was all fun, even re-doing the old bike route from 7 years ago. But the things that really stood out and that will live longer in my memory bank were the unexpected:

  • The spur of the moment decision to, unprepared, hike the 15 km trail between Mt. Floyen and Mt. Ulriken, outside of Bergen;
  • The harp concert in Bruges that we heard about by chance;
  • Biking up the cobblestone hill on part of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the Oude Kwaremont,on the way to Tournai;
  • The string sextet/choir/organ practice in Peronne that we just happened upon.

Some of the planned activities were memorable too, considering that they were completely outside of our experience so had no idea if we would enjoy:

  • The zipline outside of Flam; and
  • The flamenco tour in Madrid.

The common thread uniting all these is the experience of something new. I have always loved being challenged physically, which is why I loved hiking Machu Pichu, so the Bergen hike and the Oude Kwaremont climb, besides being surprises, fit right into that category as well. But a harp concert? And delving into the world of flamenco? Knowing me, who would have thought! The zipline was just pure fun – I knew that I would enjoy that experience – keeping a smile on my face the whole way down.

Note to self, and anyone who happens to read this – aim for the new, be it places or activities, even if they are outside your realm of experience or (within reason) your comfort zone. The greatest fun, and greatest reward, is in expanding your horizons.

Biking From Bruges to Paris

The second leg of my European trip in September was a re-do of a bike-and-barge trip that I had done previously in 2012. I enjoyed that trip so much, probably because it was my first bike-and-barge and my first trip back to Europe since 1973 (!) that I decided to do it again. This trip was with a totally different group of people, though I had biked with most of them for years with our ski club’s biking group, and on a different barge. The destinations each night, where the barge would moor for the night, were pretty well the same as before but I was sure that our daily routes would vary, simply because there are so many bike route options in Belgium and France.

Saturday Sept 7
Bruges, Barge

We spent the morning walking around Bruges. We couldn’t get on the barge until 3 so just sightseed until we could check in. I have been to Bruges twice before and have visited all the top tourist spots so I was fine with the wandering. While walking on the bargeweg, the area where the barges dock, in the morning, we said hello to the captain as he was getting it ready for us. He looked concerned that we might want to board but we assured him that we were only curious and would be back at the proper check-in time.

With only a 20-minute walk from the hotel to the barge, we all dragged our suitcases down the streets instead of taking cabs. The captain met us as we climbed on board the Zwaantje at 3 pm, helping us heft our suitcases down the steep, narrow stairs to the cabins below deck. We were introduced to the crew: Martijn (captain), Andre (guide), Bo (hostess), Gabriel (mate), Frank (cook), and Michael (engineer). We checked out the bikes for proper sizing and made a few adjustments but didn’t do any riding. The last 2 times I left from Bruges, our check ride was out to the town of Damme, a few km out of the city. I guess Andre will just eye us up tomorrow to see what sort of riders we are.

Sunday Sept 8
Bruges to Ghent

It rained during the night and over breakfast but lightened up as we left and didn’t rain the rest of the day. We had a few opening day incidents – the batteries on Susan and Brian’s e-bikes lost all charge after just a few kms. Andre had to get the boat to send out 2 charged up spares. A few hours later, Susan got a flat. Took longer than usual to change it because Andre wanted to patch it instead of just removing the wheel and replacing the tube. That proved unsuccessful – the patch wouldn’t stick properly – so he eventually changed the tube anyway. Don’t know why he didn’t do that to start. Maybe he was more used to dealing with internal hub bikes where removing the wheel is a pain in the ass!

We stopped at the SAR (South Alberta Regiment) memorial, then at a herb garden, where I managed to hit myself in the teeth with the bungee holding my pannier down. Cut my lip and sore but teeth all right, thank goodness. I thought that I had broken a tooth, it hit with so much force. Lucille and I were quite the pair – her with a black eye from her fall on the hike and me with a fat lip!

Made it to Aalter for lunch just after noon. Stopped at a bar in the town square so coffee and/or beer could be ordered to supplement our bagged lunches and to make use of their washrooms. This will be our plan for most days, especially if we don’t stop for coffee in the mid-morning.

Got to the Ghent town square around 3:15. Walked around the old downtown area, visiting the churches. Paid €4 to see the Ghent altarpiece again. Didn’t get the audioguide again though. A group of us then went to a bar before getting back to the square by 5pm, when Andre led us back to the boat. Had another beer on deck, a shower, washed my jersey, then supper at 6. Went for short walk after supper, followed by a game of Farkel. To bed a little after 10. No internet in the cabins ☹️ so I couldn’t do my French lessons. I’ll have to take time during the mornings to do them in the lounge before breakfast. Total riding for day was 57 km.

 

Didn’t take us long to get our first flat! Unfortunately, this was a common occurrence over the next 2 weeks 😦

 

The Belgian version of a corn maze, though no one got lost.

Map of the day’s ride: Bruges to Ghent

Monday Sept 9
Ghent to Oudenaarde

Started off at 9 again with sunny skies but cool temperature. Made our way through the outskirts of Ghent to country roads and forest trails, wonderful for biking. Stopped for a break in Huise. We stopped outside Oudenaarde at the archeological park in Ename to look around. The park has the remains of a Benedictine Abbey that existed from the 11th to 18th century before falling into ruin. All that exists now are the outlines of the foundation walls. We then went into downtown Oudenaarde to visit the biking museum, hoping to be able to buy some souvenir biking shirts. The museum was closed but the store was still open. Lots of pricey jerseys on display but no XXL shirts to fit me! I tried on a L but it was a club fit and waaay too tight for this recreational rider body.  Lucille and Susan, both being small, had better luck and bought the nice black and yellow Flanders lion shirts. Back on the boat by 4pm after 59.6 km of riding.

More of the wonderful Belgian trails

 

Oudenaarde city hall. Also a tapestry museum.

Map of the day’s ride: Ghent to Oudenaarde

Tuesday Sept 10
Oudenaarde to Tournai

Another sunny day and quite warm for a change. Didn’t take long until we were down to just jerseys. We rode to the city hall for a tour of it and the tapestry museum within. I had seen the tapestries last time but not the collection of silver and gold tableware and fine cabinets in the attic. Impressive collection.

After a coffee on the square, we headed off at 11:30 – an unusual late start for our riding day. After about 15 km, we started to climb up out of the valley – this time on cobblestones! The Oude Kwaremont is a section of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, one of the professional spring classics. One website describes it thusly: ”Since 2012, the Oude Kwaremont has been part of the finish for the pros. It’s the penultimate climb challenging the pros. Just as in previous editions of the Tour, this climb may well be the deciding factor. The steepest kilometre has an 11% gradient”. The maximum grade shown on my Garmin was 8.9% but I believe the website. Damn that was hard work – the cobblestones made it seem so much steeper! The e-bikes ate it up, though the rest of us needed a little recovery time once at the top. A little taste of what the pros have to endure, although we had suspension and bigger tires to better absorb the teeth-rattling cobbles.

Not long after, we entered a wooded trail that followed the border between Flanders and Wallonia, the same one we took 7 years ago. I rode behind Andre and he sped along pretty good, and we eventually left everyone else behind. Not sure if he was testing me because I passed him going up the Oude Kwaremont or maybe he was just enjoying the ride. We waited for Carol, who was next to show up, then I waited as a corner as everyone else made their way through the forest. We passed by the restaurant that we ate at 7 years ago (it appeared closed) but stopped at another one a few km beyond. After lunch, we got to do a really nice downhill to make up for that brutal climb.

The stretch into Tournai is a flat towpath beside the Canal du Nord that was a joy to ride. We caught up to and passed the Zwaantje as we rode into the city. Stopped in the square for 45 minutes to look around the Notre Dame church and have a beer, then back to the boat. Total riding for the day was 47.5 km.

With 24 riders, we tended to overwhelm most restaurants that we stopped at, especially the ones with only 1 employee on duty (like this one)!

Map of the day’s ride: Oudenaarde to Tournai

Wednesday Sept 11
Tournai to Bouchain

The barge started cruising at 7 am and moored at a temporary spot outside the town of Maulde at 9:30 to let us off. We started riding in light rain, but it didn’t last too long and it was warm enough to be comfortable. Al and Susan chose to stay on the barge for the day to rest their legs. It was a pretty easy day as the route was flat all day and we made more stops than usual.  We actually disembarked the barge in France, rode back into Belgium and then back into France 8 km later at a little “customs stop” at Rumegies. We stopped for a coffee at 10:30 and lunch at around 1 pm, complete with huge bowls of French fries for everyone to share. We stopped at the mining museum at Lewarde, which I had enjoyed 7 years ago, but we couldn’t get a guided tour for 2 hours so decided to just have another coffee break 😦 That was very disappointing, as I was looking forward to doing the tour again and I was sure that the others would really enjoy it too! Andre knew that we would be going there and should have phoned ahead to ensure that they would be ready for us. Poor planning on his part.

After 15 more km, we met the barge in Bouchain then cruised for another few hours to our evening dockage in Arleux. Total riding for the day was 58.7 km.

Me giving the “customs inspector” a wet willie.

 

Lucille having some fun with the customs guy. He seemed unperturbed.

Map of the day’s ride: Tournai to Bouchain

Thursday Sept 12
Arleux to Havrincourt

We started biking in Arleux at 9 am. After only a km, we stopped at a garlic market in town for a look around and pictures. The town is well known for producing garlic, both raw and smoked. A braid of 10 smoked garlic heads went for €8. They smoke them over peat for 10 days before putting them out for sale.

A little further on we stopped at lock number 1 on the Canal du Nord and watched while the Zwaantje went through. The whole lock system is an interesting process and works very well. Obviously, the barges have to be narrow enough to fit but many barges, like the Zwaantje, have to reduce their height as well. The transom house is the highest part of the barge and most are fitted with mechanical or hydraulic systems to raise and lower the walls as required.

Biking through a small town, we noticed something that we had not seen in Canada – a bread vending machine! Our guide told us that it is a law that every town in France is required to have a bakery to provide fresh bread for its citizens. Obviously, there must be a loophole as the town we were pedaling through did not have a bakery but did have that vending machine to provide bread from a nearby town. There was a proviso though – a sign on the machine said that the bakery is closed on Monday and the bread within was from Sunday!

We continued biking on through hillier countryside to Cambrai where we had lunch and a walk around. Very nice cathedral (Notre Dame de Grace de Cambrai) and worth visiting. We stopped at a Cistercian monastery further on, but it was not open for visitors.

The countryside here is more rolling and we ended up doing more climbing (476m) than previous days. Lots of turns and, with the slowdown on the hills and me generally in front, I ended up being a “corner” numerous times, i.e. waiting for the group to catch up so I could show them where Andre went. Once the sweep was in view, the corner could rejoin the flow of bikers. Whoever happened to be behind Andre when numerous turns were made would be the next “corner” person. I liked doing it because it gave me a nice workout getting back up to the front.

We met the barge on the Canal du Nord pretty well in the middle of nowhere. We will stay here the night and cruise through a long tunnel tomorrow before resuming our biking, ending up in Peronne. After supper, Martijn walked us over to lock number 7, a short distance from where we were docked, and explained the process of how the locks work. Interesting concept with the surge pond to accept the first half of the water when lowering the lock level and then feed that water back into the lock when raising the level again. Total riding for the day was 54.4 km.

One of the garlic shops in Arleux. Pallets of garlic braids ready to be shipped off.

 

The Swaantje entering Lock #1 on the Canal du Nord. Tight fit!

 

A bread vending machine, selling fresh bread daily.

Map of the day’s ride: Arleux to Havrincourt

Friday Sept 13
After tunnel to Peronne

After breakfast, we cruised through the 4.3 km long tunnel. We had to wait to enter for 3 other barges to exit, then took about 40 minutes to get through. Docked just after and started biking from there. Stopped at the South African memorial at Deville Wood, a very impressive commemorative site with museum, cemetery and expansive grounds on the site of the battle. This must be their version of our Vimy Ridge memorial. We stayed for about an hour then biked a km or so to a bar in Longueval for lunch. It started raining lightly just before lunch but finished by the time we did – great timing! Another cemetery stop at the Necropole Nationale in Maurepas, a French one this time.

After that, we did a lot of rolling hills before getting to the bike trail beside the Canal du Nord for the last 5 -7 km. Total riding for the day was an easy 52.8 km.

Leaving the barge, after exiting the tunnel, to start our day.

 

The South African memorial at Deville Wood. A very sombre place for quiet reflection and an impressive memorial and museum.

Map of the day’s ride: tunnel to Peronne

Saturday Sept 14
Peronne

Today was our, and the crew’s, day off. No biking or meals, except breakfast, so we headed over to the large WW1 museum in town. Spent 4 hours wandering through the museum and the market. I have to say that I am getting pretty tired of seeing the always depressing results of war, especially WW1. So much suffering, destruction and death, only to serve political purposes. Which, I suppose, is the whole point of these memorials – not to glorify war but to serve as a reminder that humans have to do better at resolving conflict or risk repeating history.

After a nice group supper at one of the higher rated restaurants in town, Le Bistrot d’Antoine, we broke up into smaller groups and wandered around. Chris and Susan heard some music coming from the St. Jean-Baptiste church, went in and there was a string sextet practicing for a concert next month. Four more of us followed, after getting permission to sit quietly by. They also had a choir and the enormous church organ as accompaniment. That was a nice treat and the acoustics were incredible, with no electric amplification needed. Another unexpected highlight of the trip! No riding today.

The war museum in Peronne.

 

The giant organ in the St. Jean-Baptiste church in Peronne. You can just see the top of the organists blond head below the centre pipes. Glad to have heard it perform in the evening.

Sunday Sep 15
Peronne to Noyon

Headed out at our usual time on a sunny and warm day. We stayed beside the Canal de la Somme on the towpath or on nearby roads, for quite a ways, eventually stopping for lunch in the town of Ham. Found a patisserie a few blocks away to supplement our packed lunch and succumbed to our sweet tooth (teeth?) with a nice dessert. Damn, I’m going to miss good bakeries once back home!

The route the rest of the day was mostly flat and restful – country roads, little traffic, sunny, warm and gentle breezes. Great riding day! We rode into Noyon and spent an hour or so poking around the large ancient cathedral, originating from the 12th Century, and its grounds. Still lots of evidence of war damage in the form of bullet holes and chips in the foundations, possibly left unrepaired on purpose as a reminder of the destructiveness of war. One poignant area was a stitch of bullet holes, positioned at chest height, on a wall in an interior courtyard.

Total riding for the day was 63.7 km.

Rolling along the quiet secondary roads in France.

 

The war damaged church courtyard in Noyon showing an ominous line of bullet holes at chest height on the wall.

 

Old and older and still surviving. If those walls could talk…

Map of the route: Peronne to Noyon

Monday Sept 16
Noyon to Compiegne

Left the barge at 9am. Cool again to start but people were shedding after the first hour. Everybody was anticipating the hill between Tracy le Val and Tracy le Mont, based on what I had told them the night before. I had climbed that hill 7 years before and remembered it as long with a steeper section. It was actually only 1.5 km long and maxed out at 5.6%, kind of like Groat Road North back in Edmonton. No one had any problem with it (maybe because I had sold it as something worse).

We stopped at the Abbey of Ourscamp for a look around and pictures. Old ruins but still a functioning abbey. After the hill, we rolled on up high on country roads with great views of the area. Eventually, we cruised joyfully down a long winding hill to Bitry, the town at the base, and stayed low the rest of the day. Stopped for coffee at Vic sur Aisne, followed by a flat tire by Doug just as we started off again. Andre led us along a path beside the river that was interesting in its, um, closeness. That is the narrowest single track that I’ve been on, ducking and weaving to avoid the branches the whole time and only occasionally successful! This was followed by a really nice rail trail, but it led onto a busy and dangerous main highway for almost 5 km. Andre almost got hit by a semi and informed us that he will not be leading his return group along it!

We had lunch at a grocery store in Rethondes, then a short ride to the Clairiere d’Armastice, where the 1918 armistice was signed. Spent an hour there going through the museum but I am “warred” out. The €7 admission fee was not well spent as I took no enjoyment looking at more war mementos. The ride from there to the dock in Compiegne was quick and pleasant. Total riding for the day was 58.5 km.

More French country roads on a sunny day.

 

One of the wider areas on the single track. Usually the branches stretched across the whole trail.

 

The train car in the Armistice Museum.

Today’s route: Noyon to Compiegne

Tuesday Sept 17
Compiegne to Creil

Started off at 9 again, warmer but cloudier than the past few days. Stopped at Compiegne palace for a few minutes for a look around outside then started off through the woods. Great paved trail for 10 km at least, then headed off to Pierrefonds castle. We stopped for 45 minutes to let people check it out and have a coffee/beer and pastry just off the town square. It is still the best looking castle we have seen, like a movie set.

We had a few minor uphill sections over the day, but it seemed like most of the riding was downhill for some reason. Nice weather, great trails and lots of downhills! What more could a cyclist ask for 😊.

We did a stop at the abbey of St Jean aux Bois (open for mass on the 4th Sunday of every month), as we did on my previous tour, and then at a picnic spot in the woods for lunch. Rather than riding through the traffic-filled streets of Creil, the barge picked us up at Pont Ste. Maxence and cruised down the Oise the rest of the way into Creil. The highlight of the day was John breaking out in a version of Chantilly Lace in the evening 😁🎶 in anticipation of our ride tomorrow.

I was surprised to see the barge that I was on for my Bruges to Paris tour in 2012, the Feniks, docked right behind us in Creil. It was on its way in the opposite direction to us, towards Bruges.  It now has a new owner/captain and has undergone a few very necessary renovations – increasing the room sizes (badly needed) so that it now houses 14 passengers instead of 18. The captain said that they will add air conditioning for next year., also badly needed.

Total riding for the day was 55.2 km.

The lovely bike trail out of Compiegne on the way to Pierrefonds.

 

Our first view of Pierrefonds Castle. Like a movie set.

 

Not all trails are paved but most of the dirt ones are in good condition and fun to ride.

Today’s route: Compiegne to Pont Ste. Maxence

Wednesday Sept 18
Creil to Auvers sur l’Oise

Interesting start to the morning. Around 2:30 am, some thieves cut the cable securing the bikes on the boat. That set off an alarm in the crew cabins, so Andre and Michael ran upstairs and chased them off before they got any bikes. Last year, 6 bikes were stolen while in Creil. Not a good place to dock apparently. The people who went out for a walk last night said that the location was pretty sketchy, and they did not feel as safe as at the other towns that we docked at.

The day started cooler than it has been, around 6C. I wore gloves and a jacket to start but quickly peeled off once up the hill out of Creil. After getting out of the city, we rode on the lovely forest trails to the Chateau de Chantilly. We spent 2.5 hours there roaming the museum (€17), the stables and having lunch. I never got to see it the last time through as it was closed that day, and I am glad I got the chance this time. The place is like a mini Versailles with 100’s of paintings, other works of art and the furniture and accoutrements of life in a palace. The library is also impressive: “The library of the Petit Château contains over 1500 manuscripts and 17,500 printed volumes, that is part of the collection of over 700 incunabula, and some 300 medieval manuscripts, including one page of the Registrum Gregorii (c. 983)” – Wikipedia

After leaving the chateau, we again hit the lovely trails through the forest around Chantilly. Saw a couple of horses being run on the sandy, well groomed, horse trails. Some of our bike trails were a little sandy too, forcing us to pay attention in some sections.

The rest of the day, which turned out to be a nice temperature, was spent on bike paths, busy roads, in busy towns, and single track. Passed through a unique, somewhat diabolical, gate intending to keep motorbikes off the trail in a regional park. Probably 80% of the day was good biking and the remainder required plenty of concentration! Total biking for the day was 59.9 km.

The Chateau de Chantilly.

 

One of the many art-filled rooms in the chateau, like a mini Versailles. The Musee Conde contains one of the largest art collections in France.

 

Part of the vast library, containing books and manuscripts dating as far back as 983.

Today’s route: Creil to Auver-sur-l’Oise

Thursday Sept 19
Auvers to Bougival

Our last day of cycling. Blue skies again and the promise of warmth. We started by riding to Van Gogh’s house in town then up to the cemetery to see his grave. The hill wasn’t nearly as steep as I remembered! We headed back down but took a meandering route through the town to get back to the Oise and the bike trails. After going 14.5 km we stopped for a stretch and realized that Lucille wasn’t with us! Andre called the boat and was told that she was at the tourist office, so he rode back to get her. Don’t know why the boat didn’t call Andre first, as soon as they were aware of the situation! Apparently, there was a miscommunication and Lucille went down to Auvers a different way than we did. She handled the predicament perfectly though – going to the tourist office, calling the boat (which had already departed) to let them know the situation and getting maps of where our lunch stop was scheduled. Andre got back to her just as she was going to leave – good timing.

We all waited in Pont Cergy, having coffee (€4 – welcome to the outskirts of Paris) and relaxing in the sun on a beautiful day. Once they got back, we continued on to Conflans where we had lunch. Conflans is where we docked for the night 7 years ago. Then on bike paths, paved and dirt trails, to St. Germaine, the site of Louis XIVs palace and with a view of Paris in the distance. We stopped for a refreshment and then on for another 7 km to our dockage on Ile de la Chaussee, near Bougival. Total riding for the day was 47.2 km.

 

Fun hard-packed dirt trails after leaving Conflans.

 

Our first view of Paris from St. Germaine.

One of the life-size sculptures in a park near our dock on Ile de la Chaussee. Very well done!

Today’s route: Auvers to Bougival

Total route: Bruges to Paris

Total riding for the trip was 614.4 km

FridaySept 20
Bougival to Paris

Left Bougival at 7am to cruise down the Seine into Paris on a nice sunny morning. Although we were not that far out of Paris, all the bends in the river made it a longer trip than we anticipated. We got to La Defence at 10am and the locks around 10:30. Got to the bridges and Eiffel Tower at 11:30 and our dockage at Port Morland around 1pm.Went for a walk with Lucille, John and Brian in the afternoon. Walked to Notre Dame but the perimeter was completely sealed off as they work at the extensive renovations. Took a few pictures but no good perspective through the fencing and scaffolding. Stopped at a bar on the river walk on the way back for our first, though not last, expensive Parisian beer!

Entering Paris on the barge. View of the Eiffel Tower and mini Statue of Liberty.

 

Mike and the Eiffel Tower.

 

Notre Dame from the Seine.

Saturday Sept 21
Paris

We had on final breakfast on the barge, finished packing, then we all left. Andre had arranged for 3 taxis for 9am and they all arrived on time! Our taxi, with 5 passengers, was €38 to get to the IBIS Opera La Fayette hotel. Brian, John, Lucille and I then went for a walk to check out the sights. We walked down to the Louvre, then through the Tulleries gardens to Place de la Concorde. It was completely sealed off by riot police, anticipating problems from the yellow-vesters, so we headed across the river, past Musee d’Orsay and to the Eiffel Tower. The lineup was too long to waste time in and no one wanted to climb up the tower except for Lucille and me anyway, so we went to a side street, had lunch, and headed back towards the Arc de Triomphe. The closer we got, the more cops lined the streets, many dressed in riot gear. The Arc was sealed off by police, with no entry underneath let alone up top, so we started off towards the Champs Elysees. That is when we got hit by the tear gas. The yellow-vesters had co-opted the climate change demonstration and the hooligan cohort were vandalizing cars, stores, etc. The cops were using tear gas to disperse them, and it wafted up to us. Not a pleasant experience! I can see why the professional demonstrators wear ski goggles to protect their eyes, as well as masks. We made a wide berth around the problem area and finally made it back to the hotel after a much longer walk than we anticipated. It is interesting to note that Lucille and I walked through a climate demonstration in Oslo just a few weeks before. It was completely peaceful – just speeches by the coordinators – and, though the crowd was large, it was more a party atmosphere than confrontational and destructive.

The riders and the crew.

 

Notre Dame from the opposite shore. Couldn’t get close to it due to the construction barriers.

 

Didn’t want to wait in the long lines so took photos of the tower from outside the barrier.

 

The Arc de Triomphe guarded by police. NO access allowed 😦

Sunday Sept 22
Paris

A group of us walked to the Louvre, where we all went our separate ways according to our viewing priorities. Spent the day, from 9 to 3, there and were pretty much museumed out by the end. The place is just too vast, with so much to see, that it is impossible to give it justice in one day. But one day was all we had, so… Mona had been moved from the room she was in 7years ago, due to renovations, to a temporary display area and the room was packed. Guards cycled everyone through in airport security fashion, giving people about a minute for pictures before making them move along. The chaos and jostling disappeared once we left the Mona room. Unfortunately for all the other artwork hung on the walls, none of it was admired, or even able to be admired, by the throng. They only had eyes for Mona Lisa. In our 6 hours of walking around, at a tiring museum pace, we were still able to see almost everything on our list.

The hoard of people trying to get a view of Mona Lisa.

 

The closest I was able to get with an almost clear view.

 

The rest of the museum was far less crowded. Couldn’t use a flash but the guards had no problem with pictures being taken throughout.

Monday Sept 23
Paris

We wanted to go to the Musée d’Orsay but it was closed on Mondays so we decided to take a free walking tour of Montmartre. As usual, we walked from our hotel to an area across from the Moulin Rouge, about 20 minutes away, to meet the tour guide. There were about 15 people in our group, so a little crowded to always hear what the guide was saying, but it was still an informative tour of a pretty area of Paris. From what used to be a low-rent, bohemian district, it is now one of the priciest and sought-after, certainly gentrified, places to live. Our guide took us through many of the side streets to show us examples of present-day art, also pointing out the old studios of masters like Degas, Van Gogh and Picasso, among others. I love the idea of the Love Wall, where “I Love You” is written in over 100 different languages. Her recounting the tragic love life and death of Dalida, when showing us her former house and the statue erected in her honour, showed us that fame doesn’t always bring happiness. The tour ended at Sacre-Coeur which, she stated, was hated by most Parisians, a carry-over from when it was built in the late 1800’s. “It is only loved by the tourists” was her comment.

Later in the afternoon, most of us changed hotels to be closer to CDG airport. Most of the group had early flights to catch on Tuesday morning and didn’t want to fight Paris traffic to get there. We went for a final supper as a group at a restaurant near the hotel, enjoying our last night together.

Our guide in Montmartre beside the statue of Dalida. The breasts are buffed bright because touching them will supposedly bring you good luck in love (much unlike Dalida’s life).

 

The “I Love You” wall.

Summary

Although the bike/barge trip was enjoyable, I did not have the same level of enjoyment as 7 years before. For the most part, the weather was great, the barge was comfortable, the crew of the Zwaantje was outstanding, the routes were interesting and my fellow passengers were a hoot. No complaints in that regard. My main disappointments were that we didn’t get to visit Versailles or La Defense or take the “underground” tour of the Lewarde mine, which I knew that everyone would have enjoyed, even though I had seen all those places before. But the same feeling of wonder and discovery that I had on the initial visit wasn’t there. Somewhat similar to “you can’t go home again”, because it will never be the same. In future, I’ll stick to visiting places that I have never been to before and just savour the memories of the places I have seen already.

 

A Week in Norway

For the month of September, I had planned 3 distinct trips in Europe with a friend and group of friends. The first part was spent in Norway, on an itinerary set up by Nordic Visitor. What follows is my report on that portion.

Thursday – Aug 29
Edmonton to Oslo 1

Picked Up Lucille at 2pm and got to the airport 40 minutes later after missing the turnoff to Calgary Trail! So much for being wide awake and alert in mid-afternoon ☹ Had checked in online the day before and there were no other passengers at the KLM counter so dropping off our bags was fast and easy. My bag was 15 kg and Lucille’s much smaller one was 12 kg. How can I be packing more stuff than a woman!!

KLM had us on an A-330. Nice plane, comfortable seats with seat-back entertainment system and a USB port. We sat in 2nd to last row in back (2-3-2 configuration last 4 rows – rest of plane was 2-4-2). Attendants were friendly and efficient- a very comfortable flight. Arrived in AMS early but had to wait for another plane to leave our gate. Then a pushback truck broke down while pushing, blocking the whole taxiway so had to wait another 20 minutes for it to be moved. Sitting so far back in plane, it took about 15 more minutes to deplane.  So got to the gate about the time we should have! All in all, a nice flight though.

Friday – Aug 30
Edmonton to Oslo 2

Fast walk between D gates and B gates at Schiphol and got to our gate 10 minutes before loading the flight to Oslo. KLM E-190 (2-2 configuration) tight but enough leg room for us. 1 hour 30 minute flight to Oslo. Once there, Lucille bought express train tickets to the city, which departs every 10 minutes, and we caught it immediately. Arrived at Oslo Central Station in 20 minutes. Good, efficient service! We were booked at the Comfort Hotel, which was right in the station, so very handy. They gave us the wrong room by mistake, but after changing to the type we booked we went out for a walk.

Got a map from the tourist info in the station and headed up to the Vigeland sculpture park, about a 4 km walk away. Karl Johan’s Gate is a pedestrian street leading from the train station up to the royal palace. Lots of high-end shops and pubs and crowded, mainly due to a climate change demonstration. Very orderly though – no professional demonstrators or hooligans causing trouble. Passed the National Theatre, went through the grounds of the Royal Palace, and found the sculpture park after a lot of map checking and passerby assistance. Don’t know how we couldn’t find it – it is huge! The sculptures are all nudes – women, men and children in playful poses, as well as fanciful and artistic ones. Nice grounds and we enjoyed walking around.

A small part of the Vigeland Sculpture Park in Oslo.

Started to tire on the return walk, mostly from lack of sleep. Had a laugh while passing through the Royal Palace grounds again. Norway is very “tap” friendly – almost all transactions are done with credit or debit cards, even for small purchases. Most locals don’t seem to use cash. We passed a public washroom where 2 women were having trouble getting the “tap” to work with their card. We tried to help, making light of the situation, but one of the women, with legs crossed, said good naturedly “please don’t make me laugh”. We left before they were successful (or not) getting in, wishing them good luck.

Had a pizza back at the hotel, then to the room. I showered, sorted stuff for tomorrow, did French lessons (lots of sleep-deprived mistakes!) and crashed at 9:30. Lucille asleep before me.

Saturday – Aug 31
Oslo to Trondheim

Woke at 1:30 for an hour (damn jet lag), then, luckily, at 6:30. Lucille had set her alarm for 6 but it didn’t go off because she had mistakenly set it for pm!  Hurried packing and down to breakfast by 7:05. Quick bite and coffee then to track 19 to catch the 7:30 bus for Ringebo. Glad the bus was leaving from the train station.

Sat up top in a double decker bus so had a great view of the countryside. Low clouds, some rain and fresh out. Views are similar to home – forests of spruce, poplar, and birch, and lots of small farms. Except for the road signs in a strange language and the number of roundabouts, very reminiscent of the topography of the Maritimes!

We transferred onto a train in Ringebo for the rest of the journey to Trondheim. Comfortable but no plug-ins to charge up our devices, not that we needed to. The train had a snack car though where we settled in to play some Farkel. And free wifi!

Once we arrived in Trondheim, it was about a 20-minute walk to the Thon Hotel. Google Maps came through again to lead us to the hotel. The hotel, or Nordic Visitor (the tour coordinator), had booked us into a room with only a double bed instead of the twin room we ordered. No other rooms were available. The desk clerk called all the not-yet-checked-in customers to see if they would change to a double and was successful after a few hours What great service! We walked around town and checked out the dock where we had to board tomorrow morning, about a half-hour walk away. Not really a lot of time to get a good feeling for the town or what it had to offer.

Sunday Sept 1
Trondheim to Bergen 1

Had a good breakfast at the hotel then walked down to the ship, the Nordlys. Moderate sized ship, with 7 decks, and our cabin was on #5. Small room but ok. Spent most of our time on deck 7, where the lounge was, playing cards, watching the shoreline, or walking around the deck. The ship was not only a means of transport from port to port but was also a cruise ship. Some passengers had been on board for over a week, having cruised above the arctic circle. To pass the time, and for interest’s sake, we attended a lecture on Norwegian history over the past 1000 years. Well presented, with humour along with the information. This was the last lecture of the trip – all of them set up for the people who had been on the full cruise. Relaxing time though. Hit some rough seas around supper time, making walking around somewhat of a comedy. The ship was not equipped with stabilizers so pitching and rolling in the waves wasn’t tempered at all. Videoed the swivel chairs in the bistro doing a dance.

Not the “Nordlys” but the same type of ship.

The ship docked briefly in several ports during the voyage, usually for a half-hour or so, to on- and off-load passengers and supplies, and we took the opportunity to go for a short shore walk when we got to Molde. They told us to make sure that we were back in plenty of time because the ship wouldn’t wait so we walked quickly. We were able to leave the harbour area and see some of the town, but this was mostly to stretch our legs not sightsee. Felt much better than the strolls around the deck!

Typical shore scene from our cruise on the Nordlys. Much like Newfoundland!

Monday Sept 2
Trondheim to Bergen 2

Hit more rough seas from 1-3 a.m. The motion made sleep a little difficult, though not in a sickly way, so I was tired by the morning. More time spent playing cards and farkel in the lounge until disembarking at 2:30 pm in Bergen. Looked up the Zander K hotel location on Google Maps and followed directions there, about a 20-minute walk. It is located beside the train station, so it will be handy for leaving on Wednesday. I’ve got to give Nordic Visitor credit – they booked us into nice and convenient hotels.

After checking in and stowing our bags, we walked to the funicular and took it up to the viewpoint on top of Mount Floyen to get the lay of the land. We had a full day tomorrow to spend here and wanted to see what the city looked like from that vantage point. It was also one of the recommended things to do while in Bergen. After a look at the vista, and Lucille buying a nice looking down jacket at the gift shop, we rode it back down again. While in the funicular, we talked to a couple of girls who had just completed the hike from Mt. Ulriken to Mt. Floyen, another of the recommended activities for active people. They said the hike was “rocky” and seemed pretty beat so we didn’t get into more detail. We walked through old Bryggen for a while – neat shops and arty places developed in the historic part of Bergen. We had been told to make sure that we visited the fish market, conveniently located right downtown and close to our hotel. It is kind of like a farmer’s market – kiosks selling everything from clothing to food, as well as a few restaurants set up in large tents. We settled on a place that had a good selection of fish dishes and a warm seating area. I had a tasty fish soup but the fish and chips were only so-so.

Looking down the funicular towards Bergen

 

The front part of Bryggen, the historic old part of Bergen.

 

Bergen from the viewpoint on Mt. Floyen

After trying samples of reindeer, moose and whale sausage at one of the kiosks, I bought a package of moose sausage to take back home for Brendan and Rhianne. The taste of the other 2 were a little too gamey for my taste buds. It should survive the upcoming month packed in a suitcase better than other things I could get for them.

Tuesday Sept 3
Bergen

Had a big buffet breakfast at the hotel and then set out for a hike. It was obvious yesterday that the funicular was the quick but lazy way to get to the top of Mt. Floyen. So we walked the switchback route to the top, taking about 40 minutes. At the top, we stopped into the Information booth and inquired about the hike to Mt. Ulriken. The info guy walked around his counter, looked at our footwear (running shoes – we had not packed for any hikes on this trip) and said that it would be muddy, but we shouldn’t have too much trouble. He estimated that it would take us about 5 hours. Five hours! To hike only 15 km? We would show him! We got a map and set off.

The hike is classified as “medium/experienced” or “demanding”, depending on which website you look at, but we didn’t think it would be any problem. The reverse route is easier since it loses 300 metres elevation from Ulriken to Floyen but that didn’t deter us either. After all, we had both hiked Machu Pichu, did a lot of cycling over the summer and were in pretty good shape. Well, the demanding part was right! The first part of the trail was in good condition – wide, packed dirt and crushed stone, easy to follow – perfect for lulling us into a false sense of security. Then it deteriorated significantly after about 5 km. Rocks, mud, streams, constant short but steep elevation changes (i.e. cliffs), and the trail eventually devolving into, um, NO trail! Above treeline, just a series of rock cairns, then skinny steel posts, disappearing off into the distance to give us something to aim for (if we could see them). The route was whatever we figured was the driest and easiest way to the next cairn. Yup, took us almost 5 hours to do it. Lucille went for a headfirst tumble when clambering down one steep rock face and banged her head on a rock. It bled profusely but stopped quickly with a Kleenex and pressure. She was fortunate – that could have been so much worse! Glad to finally arrive at the gondola at Mt. Ulriken to take us back down. Although “demanding”, there were more than a few trail runners bolting past us in both directions, mud and water be damned. Norwegians take their trail running seriously! We got our shoes, socks and pants pretty muddy, as well as blood on Lucille’s shirt. After taking the gondola down from the top, we took a bus back downtown and walked to our hotel.

Lucille, on all fours, “walking” on the trail between Mt. Floyen and Mt. Ulriken

A cairn in the far distance. Get to it however you see fit!

 

Had to clamber up and down lots of these.

 

The boardwalks were nice to come across and some of them were even above the water!

 

View of Bergen from the gondola on Mt. Ulriken

We spent some time in our room getting as much mud off our shoes and clothes as we could then took the clothes over to an adjoining hotel to do a proper laundry. Thank goodness our room had a hair dryer, which we used to try to dry out our shoes! Needless to say, the hike was memorable, and we are glad we did it.

Wednesday Sept 4
Bergen to Flåm

All the clothes that we had hung in the room overnight were dry by morning. Not surprising considering how dry our room is. Raining pretty good this morning but the train station is only across the street, so we didn’t get too wet. Caught the 8:39 train to Voss, a little over an hour away. Transferred to a bus that took us down a series of -18% switchbacks, past a number of high waterfalls, and into Gudvangen, another hour or so trip. Then another transfer to a fjord cruse boat for a 2-hour cruise into Flåm, rain continuing for the whole trip.

Got our room at the Fretheim Hotel and went to the tourist info centre nearby (everything is nearby in Flåm) to find out about the zip line and bike/hike possibilities for the rest of the afternoon. Best choice, considering the wet weather, is to take the train up the mountain (which we were scheduled to do tomorrow as well) to the last stop before Myrdal (Vatnahalsen) and get off. The zip line is about 200 metres to the right. We did as suggested and it was definitely a hoot. The bottom of the 1300-metre long zip line, advertised as the longest in Scandinavia, is at Kårdalen, on the road back down to Flåm. The employees at the top gave us helmets, got us to sign a release (always comforting), strapped us into the slings and set us off gliding through, and out of, the fog into the farmland below. Lucille’s zip line was about 10 metres away and I filmed her the whole way down. Although we couldn’t see bugger all for the first part of the ride, with the whole upper valley enveloped in a cloud, we could still feel the sensation of speed due to the wind whistling past our ears and clothes snapping. It was certainly like flying into the unknown. But, like an airplane coming in for a landing, we broke through the clouds and had a great view of the world beneath us. It took about 90 seconds to travel the 1300 metres, so we never got up to the advertised speed of 100 kph (more like 52 kph) but it was a thrill anyway. The video link of our ride is below. The zip line employee who unhooked us from the apparatus at the bottom also doubled as a goatherd for the Rallarrosa goat cheese farm at the base of the ride. We read later that it had a coffee shop and made wonderful goat cheese, but she never mentioned it so we continued our walk 3 km further down the road to the Blomheller station to wait for the next train back to Flåm. We would have liked to bike the rest of the way, about a 2-hour ride, but it was too wet out and we would have gotten soaked. With no laundry facility in the hotel (we found out the next morning that they DID have a laundry room), we didn’t want to take the chance on our clothes not drying in time for our trip tomorrow.

Riding the zipline

 

The zipline disappearing into the clouds below

 

Goats at the Rallarrosa goat cheese farm enjoying the weather.

Thursday Sept 5
Flåm to Oslo

Our train was scheduled to leave at 12:20 so we just wandered around Flåm, taking a few of the hiking paths around town and looking through all the many clothing stores. We both found jackets that we liked – to be used for x-c skiing this winter – so have even more stuff to take home!

The train ride back to Oslo was 7 hours long and boring, except for the first hour or so when the scenery was beautiful. The rest of the trip just reminded me of home! Arrived into Oslo, had supper and bought tickets for the early express train to the airport tomorrow morning. Early night.

Friday Sept 6
Oslo to Bruges

Up early to catch the train to the airport. The flight to BRU on Brussels Airlines was comfortable enough. Got there in time to catch the direct train to Bruges, so we didn’t have to transfer. It was about a 20-minute walk to the hotel where all 24 of us on the barge trip were staying, along the trail to Minnewater Park and on to Katelijnestraat. Not having any schedule to meet, we stopped for a beer and lunch at a bar on the way. We met some of the group at the hotel, the Ibis on Katelijnestraat. Chris and Susan told us about a free harp recital later in the day near one of the churches and Lucille and I decided to go. Wow! What a good decision. The harpist, Luc Vanlaere, also made the instruments and was definitely a master at them. He played his own compositions on 3 or 4 of his own instruments, without any commentary to break the mood, then did a presentation and a q&a. Very well received by the small (his shop/studio was small) audience of about 25 people. His TripAdvisor reviews give him a rating of 5.0 and I have to agree with them. An unanticipated highlight of the trip so far.

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