Europe 2000

I didn't take many pictures this trip. Taking really good pictures takes time, mostly to get the light right.  Most good pictures are taken during what photographers refer to as the "magic hour", the hour around sunset and the hour around sunrise when colors are saturated.

So, this page is mostly text. You can actually read it, or just look at the pictures, which will be loading while you read this. All the pictures are full-sized, intended for a screen of at least 800 by 600 pixels.

Saturday, May 27.  In the belly of the beast.

Some people think international travel is glamorous.  People with experience at it tend to think differently, at least those of us not fortunate enough to be willing to spend the money to travel first-class in the Concord.

Lisa and I refer to international travel as being "in the belly of the beast".  It's like being swallowed by a large animal, which ingests you on the day of departure.  You spend an unpredictable amount of time in the innards of the beast, getting progressively more tired and more dirty.  Eventually, the beast poops you out at a place that may or not be where you wanted to go.

Our flight out of Intercontinental to London Gatwick was two hours late taking off.  That meant that we would miss our connection to Paris, so instead of getting onto a Paris-bound flight at 9 o'clock on Sunday morning, we were rescheduled onto the first flight leaving after that, which was at 4 o'clock in the afternoon.

Except the aircraft, aided by unusually strong winds in the jetstream, made up the deficit, and we landed approximately on time.  But since our bags had been tagged for the 4 P.M. flight, which there was no way to change, we spent the day in Gatwick airport, rather than spending the day in the Paris airport waiting for our bags.  Ah, the glamour of international travel!

Actually, it wasn't that bad.  If you read my narrative of our last European trip, you'll recall that I got to Paris too tired to figure out the gearshift on the rented car.  This time, I got an hour or two of sleep in the Gatwick airport, and arrived in Paris feeling much better. We had to spend about an hour waiting for our rental car, and we got to have a spirited discussion with the rental-car clerk, who was eager to sell me a lot of insurance on the car we didn't need, about which a note.  If you are relying on your credit card company to supply insurance on a rented car, which many like my American Express Card do, be sure you read the fine print from the credit card company.  For example, Amex's policy is invalid on cars rented in Ireland, Italy, Australia, and New Zealand, among other places.  Also note where the rented car may be driven to - the one we rented could not be driven into former Communist-block countries like Czechoslovakia.

We spent the night in Paris at a hotel close to the airport, since we didn't feel like finding a campsite around Paris.  Next time, we'll go to the lovely campground near the town of Maison Lafitte.

Monday, May 29th.

We were still jet-lagged, though, which led to a poor decision.  We wanted to head toward Avignon, in the south of France, so we started off in that direction, stopping in an Auchan to stock up on food and other goodies we needed, like fuel for our camping stove, which one cannot carry onto an airplane. The poor decision was to drive too far, arriving at our intended destination, the municipal campground in Clermont-Ferrand, 20 minutes after the campground office closed.  We got to spring for another night in a hotel, which would be the last on this trip until our last night in Paris. (Since we had to be at the airport at 5:00 A.M. on the day of departure, camping was not an option.)

It was a nice drive, though, though the mountains of central France.  We stopped a couple of times to look at some ruins, and most of the day was spent on RN roads, the "Routes National" which were the main French highways before the construction of the highspeed divided highways referred to as Autoroutes, the equivalent of U.S. Interstate highways.

We resolved thereafter to stop driving by 5:00 P.M. to find a camp site, as we had passed several nice-looking ones.

Tuesday, May 30

A mercifully short drive to Avignon. We got in around 2:00 P.M., and set up camp in the lovely campground on an island in the river, a 15 minute walk across the bridge to town.

Allow me to remind you that unlike American campgrounds, where the assumption is that most campers arrive in large motorhomes, European campgrounds assume that most people are camping in tents or very small trailers.  Virtually all have nice facilities for washing dishes and doing laundry by hand.  Many have stores selling food, wine, and other essentials, and most are in towns or within a comfortable walk to them.  France, the size of Texas, has 10,000 campgrounds, most of which are run by the small towns in which they are located.  And they're not expensive.  We spent the equivalent of $15 to $20 per night to camp with four people in two tents. If you've priced European hotels lately, you may have some appreciation for what a bargain that is.

And the campgrounds are easy to find in most cases.  Drive into the center of town, and look for signs bearing the international symbol for a campground, which is a tent.

Wednesday, May 31

We spent the day exploring Avignon, afoot.  The Palais du Papes, the Palace of the Popes, is architecturally impressive for a structure built during the 12th century.  I was not aware until reading its history that the Popes of the Catholic Church ever resided anywhere other than in Rome, but they did, and Avignon was one of the places. The girls got to do some shopping on their own in town, while Lisa and I walked back to camp in the late afternoon.

Thursday, June 1, Avignon to Nice, France

We spent part of the day driving down to Nice, the last part of which we drove on the coast road through Cannes, which was very busy. We got surprised by the fact that it was a public holiday, Ascension Day, and the stores were closed.

Europeans, especially the French, observe a lot of holidays which Americans don't, and we've learned to keep some "iron rations" in the car, in case we get surprised by unanticipated store closings and can't buy food. Also, European grocery stores are often completely closed on Sundays, with some being opened on Sunday mornings. Planning for surprises is important.

A good backup if you get caught unprepared is to get on an Autoroute.  The Autoroutes have rest stops, called "Aire" in France, and the bigger ones have stores similar to convenience stores in the U.S. where one can find essential supplies.

In Nice, we set up at Parc des Maurettes, where we stayed on our previous trip.  It's within walking distance of the beach and a big Intermarche grocery store.  Grocery prices in Europe are comparable to U.S. prices for the most part.  French stores have table wine which is cheaper than Coca-Cola, and, of course, baguettes, the bread which is the staple of French life.  We really miss those baguettes, which the equivalent of cannot be found in the U.S. We started out most mornings with baguettes, eaten either with cheese or butter and jam, and coffee.

Nice has the nicest beaches we found in Europe.  They're made of nicely rounded pebbles and rocks, rather than sand, which means your suit doesn't get filled with sand, and have showers spaced every hundred meters or so for washing off the salt.  I could spend a long time sitting on those beaches looked at the lovely, cool, Med, and I intend to in the near future.

Friday, June 2

Went for a run in the morning, and to the beach in the afternoon.  Life is tough.

Saturday, June 3. Nice to Pavia, Italy.

We drove a lovely mountain road up toward Pavia, in the central part of Italy, avoiding the autoroutes.  Nice drive. We followed the campground signs to a nice grassy, shaded campground.  It was quite warm away from the cooling influence of the Med, and there were a few mosquitos in the grass around dusk.

Sunday, June 4. Pavia to Venice.

We drove to Venice, actually to a campground on a peninsula a short ferry ride from Venice. The camp was quite nice, with excellent facilities. Since it was Sunday, we got caught for about an hour in the traffic going to the beach from Venice.  That was kind of frustrating, because a primary reason for going out to that peninsula was to avoid big crowds of people.  That tactic is probably successful, except on Sundays.

Monday, June 5. Touring Venice.

For about $30, we bought a family ticket which paid for our ferry ride to town, plus any public boat transportation in Venice, for a 24-hour period. It was quite a bargain, and we used it to ride all around Venice on the public boats, which are used by the locals like land buses to get from one part of town to another. During one of those rides, we saw a wonderful juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern, a gondoleer paddling his boat with one hand while talking on a cellular phone with the other.

The ruler of Venice in the middle ages was called the Doge, and we touring the Doge's Palace.  It was very impressive, and had lots of art which featured many views of the city during that period.  We also walked across "The Bridge of Sighs" to the prison.  The bridge is called that because that was the sound made by the prisoners as they entered the prison, perfectly understandable after a tour of the prison.

Tuesday, June 6. Touring Venice.

We messed about in camp in the morning, and in the afternoon dressed up for dinner and went to town. We toured the Academia Art Museum before having dinner late.  Dinner for four in a nice restaurant was 172,000 Lira, about $85.00.  It's easy to be a millionaire in Lira. There were lots of tourists after dark in St. Mark's Square, where we had some ice cream, which is reasonably priced in Italy and very good. Venice is wonderful after dark.

On the walk back to camp from the ferry, we stopped to watch a wonderful fireworks display over the city, the reason for which we had no idea.

Italy was hot.  We had intended to go from Venice to Florence and then to Rome.  We decided instead to go to Austria.

Wednesday, June 7. Venice to Vienna.

We packed up, and drove over the mountains, having to stop at the border, exchange currency, and get a stamp which allows passage on the Austrian Autoroutes, which unlike many French Autoroutes, are not toll roads.  The stamp wasn't very expensive.  The Austrian Shilling was about the inverse of the Franc to the dollar.  The Franc was about 7 to the dollar, and the Shilling 14.  It was kind of confusing, and it will be nice when they get currency for the Euro into circulation. European currencies were about 20 percent cheaper with respect to the dollar than on our previous trip, which was nice.  Forget traveler's checks - ATM machines are everywhere, including many larger grocery stores. You may have to look for them, though, as they're not called ATM machines.  In France, the most common term was "Distributeur de billets", which means Ticket Distributer. Beats me.

We camped at Kloster-Neuberg, a short drive from Vienna. Driving in European cities is a hassle, with parking scarce and expensive and street widths often designed for oxcarts.  It's rarely necessary, as public transportation is cheap and mostly easy to figure out.

The campground was great, with grassy sites.  I rigged our 10-foot by 12-foot tarp for the first time on this trip, because we got an afternoon shower. We took a three-person tent for Lisa and me, a two-person tent for the girls, and the tarp for shade and rain protection while cooking and lounging.

Thursday, June 8. Vienna.

We toured the Schonbron, a little 1441-room "hunting lodge" used by Austrian emperors, which was built on what were then the outskirts of the city.  It was wonderfully preserved and furnished, including bedrooms and office furniture used by Franz Joseph, an interesting character and confirmed workaholic, who had trouble with his wife Elizabeth because of the strictures of living in the royal family as well as his work ethic.

An interesting bus pulled into camp.  It was rigged as a mobile hotel for bicyclists, which it was following about.  It had 21 tiny sleeping cubicles rigged crossways in the back, accessible by a canvas-covered platform which lowered from the side of the bus in its road configuration. A canvas-covered kitchen folded out from the sides.  The bus was manned by the cook and a driver, and pulled a trailer for carrying the bicycles when the riders were traveling by bus rather than on their bikes.  It was very well thought-out. The riders traveled mostly on their bicycles, and caught up with the bus at night in a campground.  There are a lot of great roads for bicycling in Europe, and not having to carry camping gear on the bikes makes for a wonderful way to travel, though I'm sure it's not inexpensive.

Friday, June 9. Vienna.

We caught the train into town - the round-trip fare was about $5.60 per person on a daily basis - and toured the Imperial Apartments, which were less impressive than they might have been had we not seen the Schonbrun. Vienna has great churches, including Saint Stevens, which was damaged heavily in WWII.  The smaller Academia church, though, was more ornately decorated.

Vienna to me just seemed like another big city.  I enjoyed seeing it, but I've no personal interest in going back, unlike many of the places we visited.

Saturday, June 10. Vienna to Hallstatt, Austria.

Hallstatt is a little town of 1400 people beside a lake a couple of hours drive from Vienna, closer, actually, to Salzburg, in a mountainous region known as the Salzkammergut popular with vacationers.  The town is very quiet when the tour buses leave in the late afternoon.
This is Lisa and the girls, with Hallstatt in the background. The town is lovely. As many places in the European mountains, the houses are sturdily built to take snow loads and the people seem to really love flowers - many if not most of the houses have flower boxes in the windows and lovely gardens.  Roses seem to be popular and love the cool mountain temperatures.

This is the view from the other side of Hallstatt.  There is a salt mine at Hallstatt.  This area was populated from pre-Roman days because of the salt deposits from which Salzburg derives its name. There is a cable car which goes several hundred feet up the mountain behind town to the salt mine.  We were kind of touristed-out when we got there, and just spent a couple of days in town resting.  The town is small and secure enough for Sarah and Emily to explore without much supervision, and Lisa spent some time one morning making pencil sketches in the town.  It was nice to rest.

We got into town too late on Saturday to get to the market, which closed at noon.  It was closed on Sunday as a matter of routine.  We expected to buy food on Monday morning on the way out of town toward Salzburg, only to find that Monday was another one of those unexpected holidays and the stores were closed. This time, though, we had most of what we needed, and stopped in a Shell station's convenience store for bread and breakfast food on the way.

In the mountains, much heating is still done using wood stoves.  The "storage walls" seen on this shed was a common pattern. 

On Sunday, Lisa and I drove east and south from Hallstatt, around the Hallstattsee, and up the east side of the lake on a lovely mountain road.  We found these kayakers playing just below a dam on the Traun river near Bad Aussee.  They were doing rolls and endos and other maneuvers I don't know the correct names for.

Monday, June 12. Hallstatt to Salzburg, Austria.

Salzburg is the town in and near which the movie The Sound of Music was filmed, but we didn't hold that against the town, and in fact it was our favorite bigger town from this trip, aside from Paris. To encourage the tourists, they sell a "Salzburg Card" with a microchip on it, which allows the holder to see almost all of the common tourist spots in town without additional charge as well as riding the public buses.  It's a bargain.  We saw a lot of things in 48 hours, including the State Apartments, the church and the church museum, which has a gilded cross in it dating from 700 A.D., Mozart's birthplace as well as a later residence of his. We toured the Hohensalzburg Fortress, which rises above the city, and is sufficiently formidable never to have been taken by battle or seige. Standing on its ramparts, one can see why. It also has a nice army museum, with good displays of historic and modern weapons.

The town is very friendly to tourists, with lots of shopping, sidewalk cafes and restaurants, and, most important, conveniently placed public restrooms. Our campground, to the north, had a wonderful view of the town, and one evening we enjoyed a lovely fireworks display looking back toward town.  I chatted at length with an Australian couple who had taken a year off to go touring, and who had come north like us to escape the heat, but from Greece, which was even hotter than Italy.

Wednesday, June 14.  Salzburg to Brunnen, Germany.
What, you might ask, is at Brunnen, Germany? In the picture you will find the tarp we rigged for sun and rain protection while camping. Just over the rear pole holding up the tarp you can just barely see in the distance Mad King Ludwig's castle of Neuchwanstein, which is the castle Walt Disney used for a pattern in creating the Disney "Magic Castle". Not visible is another of the mad king's castles, at Hohenswangau.  The two, a short walk apart, are an enormous tourist attraction.  If you're going to visit them, the best advice is to go early or late, but not in the middle of the day when the lines are long and the parking scarce.

And, aside from driving by to recon the parking lot, we didn't go in them.  We intended to, but things happen...

The day we drove in, there was a furious thunderstorm around 6:00 P.M.  which lasted until 01:10 the next morning - I know the rain stopped exactly then because the absence of it woke me up to look at my watch. The next day, we decided to take a break from touring.  The girls wanted to ride bikes, and rentals were available at reasonable prices, so we let them do that while Lisa and I took a long walk into Schwangau around the lake. Our intention was to tour the castles the next day, and leave the following day.

When we woke up on Thursday, we found the weather had deteriorated - it was about 50 degrees and drizzling, with no sign of a change.  We packed up the tents wet, and blew off the castles, headed toward France which we figured would be dry since it was on the other side of the mountains.  Next time the castles, maybe.

Friday, June 16. Brunnen, Germany to Challon en Champagne, France.

We were right - it wasn't raining in France.  We found the municipal campground by the usual method of following the signs from downtown, and the campground was lovely, with huge grass sites and immaculate bathrooms.  We got all the wet gear dried out, and had a lovely dinner.

Saturday, June 17. Challon to Saumur, France.
Saumur, on the left bank of the Loire about halfway between Angers and Tours, is the home of the French Cavalry School as well as the national School of Equitation. There are also caves there used as wine cellars and for growing mushrooms - three-quarters of all of the mushrooms of France are raised in the caves, some of which are available for touring.

This is the chateau, as viewed from our camp.  Very imposing, it was never captured.  It's a great place to tour - beside the structure itself, it has a horse-oriented museum, including tack and outfits from cavalry units worldwide.  They even have some from Texas "cow-boys", as the label had it.

This is the view of town from one of the windows of the chateau. It's a great walking town, with big pedestrian-only areas of shops and restaurants, and within easy walking distance of the campground which is actually on an island a short walk away. 

On Sunday, June 18, we drove over to Angers.  We intended to go see the one of the caves containing mushrooms, but the road down the riverbank was closed because of a gathering of 30,000 bicyclists.  That's a lot of bicyclists in one place.

The picture is of the gardens of the chateau at Angers.  It's a very imposing structure - the gardens shown here are in what used to be the moat.  The chateau has a nearly intact set of ramparts one can walk around.  The architecture is quite different from other chateaus we looked at, as the walls were built using slate slabs held together by mortar, and the roofs were also slate, which appeared to be still in quite good condition. A note about the word "chateau".  There are two kinds of chateaus.  One kind is country houses for the nobility of France, and these were usually not fortified.  But another use of the word is applied to what are really fortifications or castles, like the one here and the one at Saumur.  The French use "chateau" for both kinds, and so, therefore, do I, but until you see a particular one you may not know which usage applies. This one was sufficiently formidable that Henry III ordered the tops of the towers pulled down after a particularly vexing campaign against the fortress during the 16th century - the tops were originally thirty feet higher. I find European history fascinating, and as I write this I am doing some more reading of it. The intermarriages between the houses of nobility and all of the wars are amusing.

There is also a building on the grounds which was specially built in modern times to house the Tapestry of the Apocalypse, a depiction of the Biblical events which was woven in three years starting in 1375.  It's a wonderful and huge work, 550 feet long and 16 feet wide.

On the way back from Angers, we stopped and had lunch in a McDonalds in Saumur.  It tasted great.

Then we drove over to the chateau at Chinon.  If you saw the movie The Messenger about Joan of Arc, you know that Chinon is where Joan recognized the disguised Dauphin, and started events which led to his coronation as king and, some think, to the modern state of France.  The events also led to her being burned at the stake, alas. The chateau, which is not in very good condition, nevertheless is worth the visit because it has a small but delightful museum dedicated to Joan with some very witty audio commentary about some of the controversy regarding whether Joan really was a messenger from God or just as nutty as a fruitcake, and the commentary is not to be missed.

Monday, June 19. Saumur to Mont St. Michel, France
Many people who have no idea what it is probably recognize the image of Mont St. Michel, which was and is an abbey perched on a rock off the coast of Brittany. It was originally only reachable during low tide, but is now accessible most of the time via a causeway built in 1869 which is only rarely under water. The tides in that area have a peak difference between high and low of 45 feet or about 15 meters.  Watching the tide come in is impressive, which we did in the evening.

There is a small town there, which is now mostly tourist shops and restaurants.  The abbey, though, is worth a visit. It was founded in 708 A.D., though there were structures on the rock prior to that. The abbey was built during three main periods of time, and touring it is a wonderful glimpse into the different architectural periods when it was built. Under the choir loft of the main church, you can see a room with pillars 16 feet around built to support the weight of the church.

This is the abbey. The construction of the wall in the foreground is characteristic of the abbey as a whole.  It's a wonderfully peaceful place to visit.

From Mont St. Michel it was back to Paris, and to our campground at Maison Lafitte on the outskirts of Paris, on the bank of the Seine. The town has a train station with service into Paris.  We saw the Musee d'Orsay, which is chock full of impressionist paintings.  I saw some lovely works by a couple of impressionists I was not familiar with, Odilon Redon and Paul Signat, the latter of whom was a pointillist.  I'm trying to find a print of a painting of Signat's that I particularly liked.

One day we split up.  Lisa and the girls went to the Museum of Fashion, and I went to Napolean's Tomb and the French Army Museum at Les Invalides.  The museum was great, with many suits of medieval armor and lots of weapons from all of France's history. We had a wonderful dinner one evening in town at a small restaurant with a live jazz quartet, and arrived back around midnight satiated.

Paris is my favorite city, and France our favorite country in Europe, though we found Austria to be a close second.

The French have, in my opinion, an undeserved reputation for rudeness with some Americans.  I have found them to be wonderfully tolerant and helpful, though my experience may be slanted because I took the time to learn some French before going, enough to shop in the stores and travel around. A great way to find an English-speaking Frenchperson is to speak to them in bad French - if you start off in English, you may find they refuse to acknowledge having any English. I don't blame them.

I like France, and I'm going to spend a lot more time there in the future. Lisa concurs.  We see no reason to spend any more summers in Houston. General Phillip Sheridan, the military of governor of Texas after the Civil War, said, "If I owned both Texas and Hell, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell." I concur - and in France, table wine is cheaper than Coca-Cola, not to mention that I've yet to find an American bakery which can even come close to matching a baguette which can be bought in any store in France.


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