Sunday, November 30, 2014

France Tour, Return Oasis Transatlantic & Other Cruises

On Sept. 29 we flew from Barcelona to Paris, to start the second part of our land travels in Europe.  We had booked an apartment through for 3 days in Paris, and our host had e-mailed us directions as to how to get to the place on public transportation.  We managed to get there using the metro and train connections, and arrived at the place about 2 in the afternoon.  At first we were disconcerted by the exterior appearance of the building, and then the appearance of the winding staircase to the 4th floor apartment (no lift).  Everything looked very dilapidated.  But the apartment itself had been renovated, and was clean and bright.

  Our host had left the key for us and we were able to relax and enjoy the place a bit before he came over to meet us and solve any issues we had.  Turned out it was exactly what we needed, because it had a washing machine and dryer, ironing board, fridge, TV, etc. and we were very happy there.  It was located in a very mixed neighborhood, with many shops, restaurants, and bars although there were also many Muslim residents.  And it was very close to a metro station.  We spent the time there catching up on resting, laundry, and sightseeing.  The next day we had a free walking tour booked, starting at Notre Dame cathedral, so we took the metro to get there.  Right along the Seine River, was this gorgeous building, which turned out to be one of the municipal buildings.   

It was so picturesque to look down the river and see some of the bridges: 

  We discovered that some of the bridges have become what they call “lock bridges”.   

  Lovers bring a padlock with their 2 names on them, and lock them on the bridge walls to show that they are locked together eternally.  But because the locks are so heavy, they have started to cause the sides of the bridges to fall down.  The city is trying to solve the problem by taking them down and installing Plexiglas sides, but so far they haven’t removed very many of the walls with locks on them.  Of course, Notre Dame is famous for its flying buttresses: 

   Another place we passed on our walking tour, in the Latin Quarter, was the Pantheon, which was under renovation but still impressive.  

 It is modeled on the Pantheon in Rome, but is now basically a mausoleum with some distinguished citizens of Paris buried there.  Elaine and I also enjoyed a picnic lunch at the Luxembourg gardens, which were absolutely beautiful with impressive walkways, flowers, buildings, and packed with people enjoying it all. 

   We also visited the outside gardens and areas of the Louvre.   

We have already been there, so we didn’t feel compelled to visit it later when our tour group had a chance to do an optional visit inside.  At the Place de la Concorde there are impressive fountains, and also this obelisk.  

 It is the largest square in Paris and is at the eastern end of the Champs Elysees, the most famous boulevard in Paris, with the Arch de Triomphe at the other end.  To get to the sights at the other side of the river, we crossed the very picturesque Alexander III bridge. 

   It connects the Champs Elysees quarter and the Invalides and Eiffel Tower quarter.  Besides some nice sculptures, there are beautiful light fixtures on the bridge: 

  With an impressive gold dome, everyone notices the Les Invalides museum, which is a complex that has a lot of war memorabilia, as well as the history of the time it was a hospital, and is additionally the place where notable people are buried, such as Napoleon. 

 Our walking tour ended at the Eiffel Tower, which is always impressive.   It was built by Gustave Eiffel for the 1889 World's Fair, and is the most visited single monument in the world.

  When we joined our Gate 1 tour group at the Paris hotel, it was located very close to the Eiffel Tower, so we were able to go out at night to see it when it was lit up. 

  This was really fun because every hour on the hour at night between 8 and 12, for 5 minutes, they turn on lights that make the entire tower “sparkle”.  It was impressive.  I took a video of it, but I can’t post it here – if you want me to send it to you, e-mail me and I will. 
     The Gate1 tour group was slightly smaller than the Spain group, and about 16 were a bunch of college fraternity guys and their wives who were all over 70!!  They had kept in touch all these years and done previous travels together.  We hung around with everyone else.  On our bus tour of the city with the group, we were able to stop and take some pictures at the Arc de Triomphe:

It honors those who fought and died for France in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, and the names of the generals and battles are inscribed inside the arches.  It is also the tomb of the unknown soldier.  Another impressive sight is the Opera House, which we didn’t see until just before our tour left the city.

The next time we are there, I would like to tour this place.  On one of the days when Elaine and I were on our own, we took the metro to Sacre Couer.   

This is a Catholic church located at the top of the area known as Montmartre, the highest point of the city.  There is a big lawn area on the hill in front of it and it was absolutely packed with people enjoying the warm day.  Sometimes the view is amazing, but this day it was hazy. 
     So we left Paris and had our first stop in Epernay, about 130 km from Paris.  It is the main place in France where champagne is made and stored.  We went to the Mercier Caverns, where the first sight we saw was a huge wooden cask: 

    The history of the house of Eugène Mercier is told in a visual spectacle before visiting the cellars. Then, two panoramic elevators took us 30 meters underground, where a train guided by laser beam helped us discover a part of the 18 km of tunnels, where this is what we saw: 

  The tunnels seem extensive: 

  Then we went back to enjoy a glass of champagne. 
     Next stop was Dijon, the capital of the Burgundy region.  This is one of the main squares:   

  It is an architecturally rich town and has an interesting cathedral with many diverse gargoyles on the front.  Between the 11th and 15th centuries, it was a place of great wealth and power.  One of the interesting streets was this one, very narrow and with many half-timbered houses still there from the 15th century.   

     Of course, the main sight during the drives between places of interest was vineyards and wine estates. 

 One of the main wine centers in France is the town of Beaune, and is sometimes called the “capital of burgundy wines”.  It is a walled city, with perhaps 50% left of it, and has many Roman features remaining.  This is a picture of part of the town:   

  Our group did a wine tasting in an old church there which is now a wine store with wine cellers in the basements under the church. 

   Moving on to Aix-en-Provence, our group had a walking tour starting along the Cours Mirabeau.  It is lined with fine houses and buildings and has many impressive fountains.  The buildings are of a yellow sandstone type which reminded us of the Cotswolds in the UK.  This is a picture of the city hall: 

The next day we took an optional tour to St. Remy, where we saw some very old buildings such as these: 

  It was a quiet place, not heavily visited by tourists, and we had a nice walk there.  This was one of the interesting fountains: 

   The heavy mineral content of the water spilling out the mouth of the sculptures have caused a limestone buildup, and then plants started growing on it to make this display.  Outside St. Remy is the Saint-Paul asylum, where Vincent van Gogh was a patient.  He painted many of the scenes he saw around the building and from his window, and now they are on display there on the grounds:   

  As we drove between villages, there were tree-lined roads:

Les Baux-de-Provence has a spectacular position in the mountains and is crowned by a ruined castle at the top of the town. 

 It is a convoluted town of houses, stores and restaurants all made of rock. 

  It was started as a town in 6000BC and has been continuously inhabited all this time.  This is a view of some houses in the valley below: 

   Now it mostly survives on tourism, although in the past the mineral bauxite was discovered and mined near here.
    Carcassone, one of Europe’s most perfect fully walled cities, and a UNESCO world heritage site, was our next stop. 

  The outer walls and towers are huge and impressive.

  Then there is a huge, dry moat, and here we are at the inner wall:

 There are many shops, restaurants, and houses in the town, and huge old cathedral where we had a musical performance by a group of guys from Eastern Europe who were trying to sell some CD’s.  Many of the houses were very old and built of stone, with interesting facades: 

  On the way out of town, we stopped to take an overview picture of the entire town, but this picture does a much better job of showing the enormity of the whole thing: 

Given its popularity with tourists today, it is surprising that in the mid 1800’s, France almost demolished the whole place because it had fallen into disrepair, and lost its importance as a fortification.  Thank goodness they didn’t!
     For a real change of pace, our next stop was Lourdes.  It is not far from the Pyrenees mountains, and is a major Catholic pilgrimage site.  There are only 17,000 residents, yet they get more than 5 million visitors per year thanks to visions of the Virgin Mary reported by a young girl named Bernadette in 1858.   

  The area near the basilica is full of narrow streets lined with shops selling religious artifacts, and hotels where all the faithful stay.   

 Every evening there is a procession and ceremony on the huge square in front of the basilica and there are hundreds of people there in wheelchairs and in rolling beds who have come there hoping for a miracle.  

  Everyone brings candles, which they light and carry around during the ceremony.  The Catholic church has officially recognized 69 healings which have taken place here.  This is a picture of the huge basilica 

It is built on the top of the grotto where Bernadette had her visions.

     St. Emilion, our next stop, one of the principal red wine areas of Bordeaux, is a very scenic town which specializes in pate as well as wines.  It sits in a bowl, so there are steep streets leading down through town:

  The UNESCO heritage town also has Romanesque churches and ruins, as well as one of the tallest buildings which was this clock tower:  

 We stopped at one of the local places and did some pate, cheese, and wine tasting. 

  It was on the way to the city of Bordeaux, which we were very impressed with when we visited.  It is a large city, but has the old walled city area which has many fascinating buildings and charming squares.  It is the world’s major wine industry capital and is on the UNESCO world heritage list.  Despite the fact that it is a very old city, there is a very modern tram system, even servicing the old historic part of the city. 

  This is the Grand Theater, which was built in the 18th century:

  The Place de la Bourse, is a huge building on a huge square and is the stock exchange.  

 It is located right across the street from the river, which leads to the port.  At the river, there was a re-creation of the tall ship Hermione, General Lafayette’s 18th century ship which helped America win the Revolutionary War.  It is scheduled to sail to America in 2015. 

  Some of the participants were in costume:

  One of the more impressive parts of the old city was one of the old city gates: 

  There was also a very impressive fountain, located at the base of the Column of the Girondins, and this is the sculpture in it: 

  There was a huge carousel and carnival in the nearby park.
     The Baron Otard cognac dynasty was founded in 1795.  It is housed in a medieval chateau in the town of Cognac, which is fascinating to visit.  Originating in the 9th century, this castle went from being a fortress during the Hundred Year War to the home of the Valois family in the 1500s and future King of France, Francois I.  In 1688 the Scottish Baron James O’tard followed King James II into exile in France and acquired the property, where his expensive and delicious cognac is now produced, stored in the cellars and dungeons to age, and bottled. 

  We did a tour and tasting there and were educated about this liqueur, and impressed with the product.   

  One of the bottles cost more than 4000 Euros!!  Here are some of the casks being aged in the dungeon: 

 In order for the liqueur to be called “cognac”, it has to be produced in the Cognac region of France, made from certain kinds of grapes, produced in copper pot stills, and aged a minimum of 2 years.  There are different grades of cognac, and also there is some blending involved by the producer: the 2 year old cognac is VS for “very special”; the 4 year old is VSOP for “very special old pale”; XO is between 6 and 20 years old and stands for “extra old”; and then there are other grades above that.  Of course, the price goes up as the liqueur is aged longer.
     On the way back to Paris, we stopped to visit the Chateau de Blois, in the Loire Valley.  It is a royal chateau because it was the residence of several French kings and is also the place where Joan of Arc went in 1429 to be blessed by the Archbishop of Reims before departing with her army to drive the English from Orleans.  This is just one of the sides:

  Here is another in a different style because it was built at a different time:

  It has 564 rooms and 75 staircases.  The inside is brightly decorated such as it was during the 18th century:

  There are wonderful tapestries:

 And even a Queen’s bedchamber:

  This is the view from the wall towards the Loire River: 

When Elaine and I were touring around Europe in a campervan in 1989 with our kids, we visited a different chateau on the Loire called Chenanceau.  This is a picture of that chateau, which was built over the river so they could stop passing boats and collect tolls: 

  Another interesting chateau we stopped at this time was Chambord: 

  It was not open this early and we didn’t have time to tour it, but it was interesting to see the grounds, and especially the roof tops: 

     Not too far from Paris is the city of Versailles, with the very famous palace of Louis XIV.  Good thing we have been there before because touring the interior was not part of this Gate1 tour.  This is a picture of the front courtyard, and you can see that there was a really long line of people trying to get in:

 Our group was there to tour the gardens, and we had to be there at a certain time because there are wonderful fountains in the gardens, but they are only on at certain times.  This one was right behind the actual palace: 

  This shows the quite extensive lawns and the lake which are in the gardens: 

 This was the sculpture in the fountain just in front of the lake: 

 There were many other fountains but they were very spread out and it was impossible to see them all during the short time they were turned on.  This was very annoying, because the fountains were on all the time when we were here in 1989.  No doubt people finish their tour of the house and want to see them, and they aren’t on!!!!
     So our tour ended in Paris on Oct. 12, and on the 13th Elaine and I took the train to Rotterdam.  This is a very pretty city, and we wished we had more time to explore it, but the weather was not good and it was raining part of the time.  We had enough time to walk around and find the cruise port area, and take this picture: 

 The port is across the bridge and in front of the unique tall building.  The next morning we took a taxi to the port and had a horrible time getting there, because of the traffic, and an even more horrible time getting on the Oasis of the Seas for the return journey to Ft. Lauderdale because of inept staff.  On the ship we had a happy reunion with our friends Bruce, and Doug: 

  The next day a lot of people boarded in Southampton, and they had a bad experience getting on as well.  We weren’t very happy there either, because they made us get off the ship to go through customs, and then sit in the terminal for hours before they would allow us back on the ship.  The Oasis had been in dry dock in Rotterdam and some of the changes they made were not complete, so they continued working on it during our cruise.  We also did not like many of the changes they made, and lots of the good crew members had been taken over to the new ship, the Quantum, and replaced by inexperienced crew.  So the cruise back was not nearly as enjoyable as the one we had taken over to Europe in early September.  There was one stop, in Vigo, Spain.  We got off and explored with Bruce and Doug.  It was a lovely, sunny day and it was fun walking around. This is a statue dedicated to the fishermen of Vigo, because that is one of their major industries:

  Another traffic roundabout had this impressive horse statue: 

     Our good friends, Letty Reeser and Denice Osborne were also on the ship, and here we are having lunch with them, and the guys, in Giovanni’s:

 One of the big events was when our friends Bob and Jon, from Toronto, made Pinnacle.   

 This means that they have acquired over 700 cruise days with Royal Caribbean, and they get extra perks each time they sail.  Towards the end of the cruise, on Oct. 25, we had dinner at Sabor, the new restaurant onboard with the 4 friends: 

  And, since it was our 6th anniversary, they had arranged for a celebratory cake for us:   

 The entertainment on the ship now included the Broadway show, Cats:

  The costumes were good but the performance was too long and a lot of people left at the intermission.  Another gang of friends we enjoyed hanging out with on this cruise was John and Jackie Doherty, and Jackie’s parents, Jim and Julie.  They all were enthusiastic participants on the flow rider, and we enjoyed watching them.  This picture was taken on formal night when we all had dinner at Giovanni’s:

  One of our perks, being Diamond+ members, was having lunch at Chop’s.  Here are some of the friends we enjoyed there:  David, Mary, Charlie, Clare, and Debbie:

  There is also a short zip line that goes over the Boardwalk section of the ship.  Here is Elaine in all the gear, getting ready to zip along: 

 Also on board were some old RV friends, Joe and Carla Calwell, who have now sold their rig and moved to Florida.   

 We had several pleasant visits in the Diamond lounge with them, and other mutual friends, Maddie & George.  The cruise ended on Oct. 27 and we returned to Doug White’s house in Ft. Lauderdale. 
     I had acquired a cold the last few days of the cruise, so I used the 4 days we were there to try to recover.  We also had to wash clothes and repack because we were flying to London in order to board the Independence in Southampton for another transatlantic cruise.  Our flight did not go well, because we spent an entire day in the Miami airport waiting for our flight to leave for Chicago and then on to London.  Finally, we were able to get switched to a Swissair flight to Zurich, and then back to London.  But this put us in at Heathrow at 1:20PM and we only had until 3:30PM to get to Southampton or we would miss the ship.  We had to jump in a taxi and pay 224 pounds (!) but he got us there with 15 minutes to spare.  We are still in the process of getting Choice Air (our booking agent) to reimburse us this money.  The Independence has been sailing out of the UK for years, and this was going to be the last transatlantic, so the ship was very full of Brits.  Also on the ship with us were four friends from the UK:  Sheila and Dave Matthews, 

and Mazen & Sue Khammash:

  We had lots of good fun with them in the Schooner Bar each day doing the trivia quiz – they are experts at it!!!  The pool area on the ship has whimsical statues in it and colorful lights at night:

  We enjoyed several ice shows during the cruise, with wonderful costumes

 Our first port was in the Caribbean – the island of St. Maarten.  It was a lovely, sunny day and very warm. 

  We walked into town and found the Apple store, which was good because we were each having an issue with an Apple product.  Got those fixed and did a little internet there too.  But Elaine was starting to feel bad because she was now getting the cough and cold that I had been suffering with for several weeks, so we went back to the ship.  Good thing we have been to this island before, and explored it fairly thoroughly.  It is the smallest island in the world shared by 2 nations – we were docked on the Dutch side, called St. Maarten, and you can take a public bus to the French side, called St. Martin.  The next port was St. Thomas, and again we never got off the ship.  Then we went to Puerto Rico.  It is a beautiful place to sail into so I took a picture of the fort on the point on the way into San Juan. 

  It is the Castillo de San Cristobal and was built by the Spanish in 1783 to protect the city from attack.  Part of it was demolished to help traffic flow into and out of the walled city.  We walked in the area around the port a little bit, and rested on the ship most of the day.  One of the last nights on the ship we had dinner at Chops with Cecelia Borges, the Loyalty Ambassador.   

  She was on a ship with us before and we had become friends with her.  It was a delightful evening, especially since we were all leaving the ship soon – she was being sent to the Legend.  When we arrived in Ft. Lauderdale, we said goodbye to Sue, Mazen, Dave & Sheila and Doug picked us up from the port. 
     We only stayed with Doug overnight, because we were booked on the Allure which left for a 1 week Caribbean cruise starting on the 16th.  This was so we could experience the Allure before it too goes into dry dock in Europe next year, and they change it, hopefully doing a better job than they did on the Oasis. 

  It was very similar to the Oasis and we enjoyed the Concierge Lounge and some friends that were onboard from other cruises.  One of them was Laura Spyrka, and here is a picture of all of us on the Rising Tide Bar:

 The musical show on the ship was Chicago, and we enjoyed that a lot.  Another performance we liked was later in the week and was called “Blue Planet”.  It opens with a huge tree, and as the music starts, performers start to emerge from where they are on the tree – at first you can’t even tell that it is anything except a tree.  There were 17 people in this tree!!  Can you see them?

 Both Elaine and I were still recovering from our colds, and this is the first cruise we have ever taken where we did NOT go to the gym to work out at all.  Too bad, because there is a huge, well equipped gym and not many people were using it.  We didn’t get off at any of the ports either. 
    When we returned to Ft. Lauderdale, on Nov. 23, we took a taxi to Doug’s house and stayed overnight.  The next day he returned from his cruise, and he drove us to pick up our car where it was being repaired by a friend of his.  Then we returned to our RV in storage and got it set up to start traveling again.  Our last night with Doug, we took him to the Olive Garden near his house for a farewell dinner: 

  He was a wonderful host and we were very fortunate that we could stay with him so many times between our various cruises.  We drove through Florida and had to make a stop at a Camping World to have our toilet replaced.  It was having a couple of major problems.  We stayed at their campground there on the 25th, and that night there was a HUGE rainstorm that went through.  We were in Bartow, not far from Tampa, and there was about 4 inches of rain!!  The next day we parked our rig in the storage area of the Brandon Elks.  Then we drove over to Madeira Beach, not far from Saint Petersberg, where some cruise friends, David & Colleen DeForest have a house 1 block from the beach. They had made arrangements with a nearby hotel for us to park our rig there for $50/week, but we were nervous about driving it across the bridges to get out to the barrier island where they live.  Also, they were leaving on a cruise on Nov. 29.  So we just stayed at their house for several days.  Here is a picture of them with Elaine on the neighborhood walk we did the first night: 

 The next day we did a 3 mile walk along the beach in the morning.  There were many Great Blue Herons hanging around:

  It was a sunny and beautiful day, and here we are with Colleen:

 Thanksgiving Day we had a simple but delicious turkey breast, salad, green beans and baked potato dinner. 

  No one wanted lots of leftovers because of leaving soon on cruises.  The next day I wanted another beach walk, but it was way too cold and windy (in the 50’s), which is unusual for Florida, even at this time of year.  We went thrift store shopping with David & Colleen and then headed back to our RV in Brandon.


dorothy mitchell said...

Great job on the blog you two.. love reading and seeing your adventures.. amazing.. some day we will catch up with you ! love Dorothy and Jeff

Dave Matthews said...

Great blog girls,you do get about a bit. Lol xx

Mike said...

Ahhh..lovely place to visit. You explained very well. Thank you for posting! I will definitely go there...always love reading your experience and adventures. Cheers!
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