No matter what is happening in the halls of power, regular life does, indeed go on, and we are preparing for our spring excursion – hoping that nothing that emerges from Washington (or elsewhere) is going to throw too much of a wrench (or for my UK friends – a spanner) into the works.
This time we’ll be heading mostly inland, mostly to Germany, with some side trips into Austria and Hungary, and in preparation I have been reading Danubia and watching documentaries on the history of Vienna (thank you Fiona!) and have learned more about the Hapsburgs than I ever learned in school (which pretty much consisted of Holy Roman Emperors, Electors, Austria Hungary, Ottoman Empire, War of the Spanish Sucession then there was Fredrick the Great and the Hapsburgs weren’t that important any more until Archduke Ferdinand – and that they married their cousins too much and had bad chins.) I now know a great deal more, and they really did marry their cousins way too much, and have really bad chins, but they also had a number of centuries of dominance over a very chaotic region and the seeds of many of the contemporary conflicts are rooted in the family history.
I am really looking forward to seeing this region and getting to explore some of the historic and scenic areas we will be visiting. I’ve also been fascinated with ‘Mad’ King Ludwig for years and we will be visiting at least a couple of his castles as well (he wasn’t a Hapsburg, though.) In addition, we will be spending some time in and around Munich on our own after our back to back river cruises on the Danube, and I hope to get to see some of the ancestral homes of my mother’s mother’s family, the Killians. I always thought, with a name like Killian, they were likely to have been Irish, but it turns out that a St. Killian, who was Irish, came over and proselitzed to the Germans, and these particular ancestors most likely were from the district around the Cathedral named for him. They were engravers and jewelers, the most famous being a contemporary of Durer and it turns out that his engravings – mostly portraits – are in the collections of a number of notable museums. That particular branch of the family was from Augsburg and I have a day trip planned to go there from Munich, just to see if we can find some traces.
The final stop of the day was at the Sleeping Beauty Castle – Chateau Usse. Like most of the chateaux, this one also started life as a fortification somewhere in the 11th century. It passed through several families and a variety of redesigns, reaching more or less the present form under the ownership of the d’Espinay family, begun by Jacques and completed by his son Charles in a combination of Renaissance and Gothic styles in the 1600s. It changed hands again in the 17th century when Louis de Valentinay demolished a portion of the northern end of the complex to open an interior court to the spectacular over the parterre terrace, a garden design by Andre Le Notre, a famed landscape designer of the period.
It is traditionally held that Usse was the castle that inspired Charles Perrault in writing The Sleeping Beauty, and one of the towers is devoted to the fairy tale and stocked with mannequins illustrating key elements of the familiar story. It is certainly the case that Usse was one of the inspirations for Walt Disney when he designed the various Disney castles.
There are also mannequins throughout the portions of the chateau that are open to the public, dressed in period costumes – our guide indicated to us that these changed regularly, but during our visit, they were done up in costumes of the Belle Epoque. Our guide was unsure as to the authenticity of the costumes – that is if they were really period clothing or reproductions. In either event, they were gorgeous, even if the overall effect was slightly creepy. The rooms are done in period furnishings that have belonged to the family and various items from their travels and collections are also displayed. I was particular taken with a series of miniatures featuring notable monuments and buildings from around the world, but there were also weapons from a variety of locations and cultures around the world, military and other honors, and a vast collection of china.
In 1802, Usse was purchased by the duc de Duras and in 1813 was the scene of a number of meetings of a group of Bourbon loyalists about the possibilities of a Bourbon Restoration following the reign of Napoleon. Other notable guests included Francois Rene de Chateaubriand who stayed at Usse while working on his Memoiers d’Outre-Tombe as a guest of the duchesse Claire de Duras.
In 1885 the chateau was bequeathed by the comtesse de la Rochejaquelein to her great-nephew, the comte de Blacas. Today the château belongs to his descendent Casimir de Blacas d’ Aulps the 7th Duke of Blacas. He and his wife make their principal home in Paris, but maintain a wing of Usse for their personal use and they and their extended family usually spend a few months there each year.
Famed for its picturesque aspect, Usse was the subject of a French railroad poster issued by the Chemin de Fer de Paris à Orléans in the 1920s, and it was classified as a Monument Historique in 1931 by the French Ministry of Culture.
Our second stop of the day was the Chateau de Villandry. Owned by the Carvallo family since 1906, the Château de Villandry is open to the public and is one of the most visited châteaux in France; in 2007 the château received about 330,000 visitors, and while the interior is open for touring, our particular visit was restricted to the gardens, which are the most famous element.
The property was acquired in the early 16th century by Jean Le Breton, France’s Controller-General for War under King Francis I, and, as with Azay le Rideau, a new château was constructed around an older fortification, a 14th-century keep where King Philip II of France once met Richard I of England to discuss peace. The Le Bretons maintained ownership for around two centuries until shortly before the French Revolution when the chateau was acquired by the Marquis de Castellane. He was dispossessed during the Revolution and the property was confiscated and in the early 19th century, Emperor Napoleon acquired it for his brother Jérôme Bonaparte.
In 1906, Joachim Carvallo purchased the property and poured an enormous amount of time, money and devotion into repairing it and creating the famous Renaissance gardens that were our tour objective.
These include a water garden, ornamental flower gardens, vegetable gardens, and a maze. The gardens are laid out in formal patterns created with low box hedges and the vegetables are as ornamental as the flowers, planted for color and shape, not for consumption.
In 1934, Château de Villandry was designated a Monument Historique and it is part of the Loire Valley Chateau UNESCO World Heritage site.
While we were off the ship, it moved from Challones sur Loire to Bouchemaine, the furtherest point of our navigation of the Loire. Beyond Bouchmaine, the river is too unpredictable to be reliably navigable in all seasons. From Bouchmaine, we spent the next day traveling through the Chateau country, visiting the Chateau of Azay le Rideau, the fabulous gardens at Villandry, and touring the small castle at Usse that is said to have been the inspiration for Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. The largest and most impressive of the three is Villandry. The other two are more compact and ‘manageable’ for such a short itinerary – Usse is still a family home and in use, in part, as such by the current owners, a Duc and Duchesse who live most of the year in Paris, but keep a wing for the family’s use and have the rest open for tourism. Azay le Rideau is largely encased in scaffolding on the exterior, but the interior is interesting and gives some insight into what life must have been like for the elite back in the days before the Revolution, as well as giving you a pretty good notion of why the peasants revolted in the first place. There is a lot of evidence of the level of conspicuous consumption that went on in the era of the construction of these great chateaux, particularly when you consider that the ones we are visiting are among the more modest!
The truly ‘great’ chateaux are too far above the navigable part of the river to make a viable day trip, so those will have to wait for another trip. Villandry is the closest we got to a truly royal chateau and it is staggering, but even it doesn’t hold a candle to the likes of Chambord, Cheverny, Chenonceau, and Amboise. Nonetheless, the three chateau we visited here, plus those in Nantes, Angers, and even Clisson, are all part of the over 300 chateau and castles that are included in the UNESCO World Heritage designated Loire River Valley site, and are a real statement about life in royal Renaissance France.
Chateau and castle building in the Loire started in the 10th century, but had its great flowering in the Renaissance when the kings of France built their elaborate residential palaces and where they were followed and imitated by the nobility. Many of the chateau were looted and some were destroyed during the French Revolution, and those that remain today are largely maintained as tourist attractions and historical monuments and museums.
Only such smaller examples as Usse continue in use as even part time residences, and even Usse is largely used as a museum and tourist attraction today. The owners have an arrangement with a local costumer – our guide wasn’t sure if the costumes were period or reproductions – and seasonally, mannequins are set in the various furnished rooms, dressed in period wear to give a sense of what life was like in various eras at the Chateau. During our visit, it was late Victorian/early Edwardian and the clothes, authentic or reproduction, were stunning.
Our first visit was to Azay le Rideau. Never completed as originally designed, Azay le Rideau was constructed between 1518 and 1527 on the site of a 12th century fortification, on an island in the Indre River, a tributary of the Loire. The site was acquired by Giles Berthelot, mayor of Tours and Treasurer General to King Francis I, and he began construction in 1518. The site was difficult, with soft mud and silt into which the foundation had to be sunk, and ultimately, the chateau rests on stilts driven into the mud. Progress was slow, and the chateau was incomplete in 1527 when, due to the arrest and execution of a relative, Giles Berthelot’s political fortunes changed and he was forced into exile. Azay le Rideau passed into the hands of another of Francis I’s courtiers, one Antoine Raffin, who elected to leave the chateau with only two sides of the planned quadrilateral building completed, resulting in the unique L shape that it retains to this day.
The fortunes of the chateau waxed and waned over the centuries, as ownership passed to the Biencourt family, and, after a period of decay during the Revolution, a major restoration was undertaken by Armand Biencourt in the 1800s. The last remains of the 12th century castle were removed and a tower added on the east corner.
In 1899, the Biencourts were forced, by financial difficulties, to sell the chateau to a wealthy businessman from Tours who wanted to sell the contents, including a collection of over 300 historical portraits, for profit, and the chateau was stripped of its furnishings and artwork and then was acquired by the French state in 1905 for 250,000 francs, and declared an Historical Monument
It was nearly burned during the Franco-Prussian war, served as the seat of the Education Ministry during World War II, Today, it is largely encased in scaffolding while renovation and preservation work is being done to the exterior.
Our tour from Ancenis was about an hour by coach to the town of Clisson where we toured and had a wine tasting at the castle of Cassemichere. Clisson is a pretty village with a well preserved medieval castle complex and we had really remarkably good weather, particularly since it had been predicted to be rainy for the whole week in this region.
The downside for this particular day was the inability of our guide to manage the rather demanding group of Lebanese ladies who, at various points, wandered away from the group for extended periods of time, with the result that we missed the interior of the cathedral in Clisson entirely, and interrupted the English portions of the guide’s narratives with questions in French, to which the guide then answered in French. It didn’t help that the guide’s command of English wasn’t that great either, and that she was clearly much more comfortable conversing in French. At one point, we went nearly an hour with nothing but questions and answers in French between the ladies and the guide, with no attempt to keep the rest of us in the information loop. It was so annoying that we complained when we got back to the ship, but there wasn’t much that could be done in the end, although our next guide was much more balanced and did a much better job keeping the group together and moving.
The wine tasting was well conducted, with the small number of English speakers (6 in total on the ship!) given our own private guide. We tasted three regional wines, a dry white Muscadet, a slightly sweeter Chardonnay, and a sparkling – prices were quite reasonable as well, with a three bottle package of our tasting wines going for a reasonable 23 Euros. The French speaking group was conducted by the winery owner, but that was a substantially larger group of around 60 or so.
After our return to the ship, we sailed for Challones sur Loire and our evening entertainment was a clever, largely pantomimed show put on by the female crew members – the wait staff, cleaners and bar staff – some dancing, some comic skits, very cute. It was hard to imagine when they found time to put it together and rehearse as they seemed to be hard at work all the time.
Once we all were boarded it turned out that there were only about 67 people on the ship – the capacity is 96 and we were initially told that there were to be around 20 or 22 English speakers. In reality, we were 6 – Dennis and I were the sole North Americans. We were seated with a lovely couple from the Peak District in the U.K. and the other two were a pair of delightful English ladies from the Hull area in Northern England who had been friends since they were in grammar school. One still lives in Hull and the other lives in Jacksonville Florida where her late husband had relocated for work. Both are now widows and have kept up through the years and make an annual vacation trip together. They were headed to Paris for a follow on Seine River cruise with CrosiEurope when they disembarked. They were to have been seated with a Canadian couple who didn’t show up. We were never told, but speculated that there must have been a number of last minute cancellations due to the terror attacks in Paris and Belgium. In any event we six were it as far as native English speakers, and we were coupled with a multilingual group of women from Lebanon for our tours. Most of them spoke really good English, but they didn’t want to, so our tours were a bit of a struggle as they kept trying to push the guide to do mostly French and there were some occasions where we would go for close to an hour with no English commentary at all. After one particularly bad day, we complained, and the next guide we had was much more balanced, but it did make for some tensions, which were exacerbated, as the ladies were also very interested in shopping and rarely made it back to the bus when told to thus making everyone late and occasionally requiring the tour guide to adjust the tour elements to accommodate, meaning we missed some things that the French speaking group got to see.
After boarding and spending the night going down river to the town of St. Nazaire, we opted for the shipyard tour of the two offered excursions – the other was to a marshy region called Guerande where salt has been made for centuries. Two of our English speaking group opted for that and really raved about it.
I have to confess, the shipyard was my idea, since dad (and all my relatives and most of the dads in the neighborhood I grew up in!) worked at the Newport News shipyard and I wanted to see how things were done these days – it surely has changed a LOT! It just so happened that we were able to see the finishing touches being made to the Harmony of the Seas – the soon to be biggest cruise ship in the world and also to see the beginning stages to her sister ship, due for delivery in another year or so. The Harmony will be delivered to her owners on May 15 and was substantially completed. Seeing the processes that are used to built out components into blocks and blocks into sections and sections into decks was fascinating and we were given a chance to see the process from raw steel plates to the nearly completed product. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take any pictures inside the shipyard, so all the views were taken from the Loire Princesse on our way back to Nantes.
After our tour, we returned to the Loire Princesse and then the ship returned to Nantes for an overnight stay. We commenced an early morning tour the next day of the city of Nantes, visiting the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany and the cathedral, as well as a really interesting shopping area done in the 1800s and some of the better known Art Deco and Art Nouveau landmarks in downtown.
The principal attraction in the cathedral is the tomb that Anne of Brittany had constructed for her parents. It is quite elaborate – as described by Wikipedia “The monument consists of a rectangular sarcophagus, 3.90 by 2.33 m high and 1.27. The gisants (recumbent effigies) of the deceased couple are lying prostrate with hands raised in prayer. Their heads rest on thick pillows held up by three angels. Margaret’s feet are on a greyhound, a symbol of fidelity; Francis’ feet rest on a lion, representing strength. At the four corners of the tomb stand four statues, each representing one of the cardinal virtues: Courage, Justice, Temperance and Prudence. Around the tomb are other delicate sculptures in small niches of pink marble. These represent in turn the twelve apostles; the patron saints of the two deceased persons (Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Margaret); Charlemagne and Saint Louis. Under these statues, huddled in small shell-shaped medallions, we see penitent mourners draped in black. The tomb is a classified historical monument.”
After our city tour we were back on board and commenced our cruise up the river to Ancenis (Ahn-sin-ee) where we passed the night – a typical pattern for our trip on the Loire, which, as it turned out, was a really good idea. No one really slept very well on our first night when we traveled through the night – too much noise and vibration from the paddlewheel! On our arrival in Ancenis, we were treated to a concert in the evening by a Breton musical duo – the Stetrice Band – they both had very nice voices and were talented musicians, and based on the reaction of our Francophone fellow passengers – the guy of the couple was very funny as well. One of the disadvantages of not having really sharp linguistic skills – he was just too fast for me to follow.
It has been so long since we had an internet connection that I’ve lost track of the narrative a bit, but I believe we made it to Nantes after an excruciating long train ride on a Intercities train – an experience we will NOT be repeating. The TGV trains are quite nice, but the Intercities have seen FAR better days and even in first class the accommodations are dirty, tired, smelly and generally unpleasant. Plus, they stop, seemingly at random for up to around 20 minutes at a time, the PA announcements, solely in French are so scratchy and broken up that there is no understanding them at all, the bathroom was, simply put, disgusting. The only good point was that it went direct from Lyon to Nantes without having to make changes at all. The TGV would have required an across town change in Paris, difficult at the best of times, but we may consider it if we ever fancy doing this route again.
That out of the way, we arrived in Nantes, finally, around 11:30 PM and were able to get a cab to our hotel, the quirky Okko – a new chain in France with about 4 or 5 properties, arranged around a ‘living room’ concept for all the pubic spaces. The room was tiny and a little odd with the bathroom basically a glass enclosure with a sort of wooden venetian type blind/shade affair that semi-screened the space. The door opened directly into the shower, and the sink and toilet were on the other side with a sliding glass partition between the spaces. It was decidedly different. The ‘living room’ space had couches and chairs and tables and there was round the clock access to soft drinks and snacks, a full breakfast in the mornings and an afternoon reception with one glass of wine complimentary. The night manager welcomed us with a glass of wine and a bit of quiche from the evening reception menu, in spite of our late arrival. The location was good for where we needed to be in Nantes, and we did some exploring and learned how to use the city tram system after a couple of mis-steps. We explored the Isle de Machines – a Jules Verne inspired exhibit/amusement park with incredible carousels and a giant walking elephant. I wanted to ride on it, but the crowds were substantial and we thought (mistakenly as it turned out) that there would be other chances as the Loire Princesse had a couple of stops in Nantes over the course of the cruise. However, the lines were long all the time, and the number of rides per day were quite limited as was our time during all our stops, and the park closes quite early. A good reason to come back to Nantes some time, though, and we did get a chance to see it walking around several times during our stays.
We had been given a variety of check in times in various documents, from 3:00 PM to 6:00 PM for boarding the Loire Princesse, and were finally told during our ‘dry run’ on the tram to make sure we knew how to find the stop and the ship by one of the deck hands that we could expect to board around 4:30. We checked out of our odd hotel, stored our luggage with them, and did a bit of a walking tour around the pedestrianized old town area and had lunch in a creperie along with the Sunday after church local crowd and then went back to the tram stop with our gear and proceeded to wait (in the overcast cold and occasionally rainy) on the dock for someone to appear. We were gradually joined by other cruisers in ones and twos until there was quite a crowd of us waiting for the port gates to open. At long last a guy (who turned out to be one of the tour bus drivers) came by and saw us all standing there and he found someone to let us in. We’ve done a lot of cruises, but never one where there was so little paperwork or processing. No one bothered to check our vouchers, look at our passports, or verify anything. It was quite surprising, but turned out to be somewhat characteristic of how CrosiEurope runs – or at least how it runs this particular cruise.
The boat was built in the shipyards at nearby Sainte Nazaire, and is an innovative modern side paddlewheel design, drawing less than three feet, and intended for navigating the shallow Loire River. Even so, the Loire is not dredged and is navigable only as far inland as the mouth of the Maine River where it joins the Loire, so the sailing is between Nantes and Bouchemaine and there are substantial bus tours (up to two hours one way) to get to the sites further upriver.
Our tiny hotel room was a good preparation for the ship, as they were close to the same sizes (although the bathroom in the cabin was much more conventional!) and storage was at a bit of a premium. We had packed lightly, so that wasn’t too much of an issue. Some of the more innovative design elements include a tv that is mounted in the ceiling and rotates down for viewing, and the beds are arranged to face the window or sliding glass door to the small balcony. Some of our new friends had cabins close to the housing of the paddlewheels and found that their balconies were unusable, though. The headboard of the bed more or less doubles as a table and behind the bed is a small shelf/desk and storage cupboard and a stool which is the only in-cabin seating other than the bed. The compact nature of the accommodations did tend to make you spend more time in the public areas which were nicely appointed.
Meals are for the most part from a fixed menu, take it or leave it, unless you have made special dietary requests such as gluten free, vegetarian, diabetic and so on. Breakfast was a buffet with fruits, cereals, yogurt, pastries and croissants, and some variety of scrambled eggs and a rather ingenious apparatus for doing self-cooked boiled eggs to your preferred level of doneness. Lunch was, generally, a three or four course set menu, as was dinner. There was one lunch and one dinner buffet during the week. Most beverages were included although there were some extra charge top shelf liquors and wines on offer (but I never saw anyone order them)
Entertainment was minimal – one evening we had a musical duo brought on board, there was a cute crew show put on by the mostly female staff, and the balance of the time there was a keyboardist who played, and some before or after dinner games and quizzes. Space is at a premium so there is no on-board spa, gym, hot tub or pool, guest laundry or the like. There are an assortment of board games and decks of cards available and the ‘gift shop’ – really a case with a few souvenir items, was open for an hour or so a day.
After bidding a fond farewell to our friends after disembarking the ship at Civitavecchia, we boarded the train for La Spezia and the Cinque Terre. The train ride up the coast was uneventful, and we arrived in La Spezia in the early afternoon. We found our hotel – The Hotel Crismar-fairly easily, although it is quite tucked away off the main pedestrian street and down an alleyway. The hotel is family run, quite small, and housed in a former mill. Decidedly two star, but clean and well located about halfway from the train station and the port and in easy reach of any number of good restaurants and bistros and close to the main shopping area as well. Our room was small and lacked any drawer spaces at all, and no black out curtains or shades (and an outside light that stayed on all night and necessitated the use of my airplane eyemask for the duration of the stay)
After a little exploration of the area and an early dinner, we turned in, as we had booked two half-day tours with our Tours by Locals guide Antonella. She arrived promptly at 9 and we set out by train to visit the two most remote of the Cinque Terre towns – Vernazza and Monterosso. We arrived quickly in Vernazza, and learned a little of the history of the Cinque Terre along the way. Although each of the villages has its own personality, all were established as colonies to Genoa (or Genova) in the 1500s. For the most part, although the area was known to the Romans, the Vikings and the Arabs, it was for the most part uninhabited until then. The Cinque Terre were principally outposts with watch towers and fortifications against the pirates and other invaders and raiders, but slowly became agricultural areas concentrating on growing olives and wine grapes as the inhabitants terraced steep hillsides with dry stone walls and painstakingly nurtured gardens. Even today, there is no mechanized farming done in this region, as it is simply too steep and difficult. The vineyards and orchards are maintained, but tourism is now the primary economic driver in the region. From Vernazza, we took the coastal ferry to nearby Monterosso, which is known as the ‘beach’ town – it is the only one of the five with a beach of any substantial size. As an extra treat, Antonella had arranged for us to be able to visit the interior of the monastery in Monterosso. It used to house around 15 monks, but is down to a single friar now (and he was in Genova) but the housekeeper showed us around and through the gorgeous interior courtyard garden where, we were informed, the only bearing avocado trees in the Liguria region live.
Both Monterosso and Vernazza were hit by devastating flooding in the fall of 2011, and there are makers in various places showing the level of the flood waters – in some cases up to the second story of the buildings. Both have made good recoveries, however and businesses and homes have been restored.
After Antonella left us in Monterosso, we enjoyed lunch in a local spot she recommended and wandered about a bit more then headed back to La Spezia for a rest before heading out to the restaurant recommended by the hotel receptionist – a place called Ristorante d’Angelo. Dennis had his favorite pasta with seafood and I had a delicious gnocchi with pesto. We enjoyed it so much, we came back for our remaining two nights in La Spezia, working our way around their varied menu.
The following morning we were off again with Antonella to visit the remaining three villages, Corniglia, Riomaggiore, and Manarola. Corniglia, alone of the five villages, has no port or sea access, and is reachable only by climbing about 400 stairs from the train station, or (as we did) by waiting for the shuttle bus. The town has only a few hundred hearty souls who live there and consists of one small square and a few narrow streets with tall houses clinging to the hillsides and surrounded by the familiar terraced vineyards and orchards. Riomaggiore was our next stop and from the train station, we followed the alleyways downward to the sea for the obligatory picture of the colorful boats of the fishing fleet and the pastel tower houses, and then back to the train for our last stop, Manarola. After a walk around with Antonella, we bid her arrivederci, and had our lunch in a small café before heading back again to La Spezia for nap time before dinner at d’Angelos.
On our own for our last day in Cinque Terre, we headed to the port to take the boat trip around to Porto Venere, and from Porto Venere, to do the boat tour around the Tre Isoles – the three islands, largely uninhabited now, off the coast of Porto Venere. We had a nice day for it, sunny, calm, and warm, and enjoyed seeing the coast from the sea. Porto Venere is a charming small town with a few large-ish hotels and what seemed like hundreds of cafes and restaurants, and a large castle complex, looking to date from the medieval period and hugging the point and high ground above the entrance to the harbor. Fortifications were also visible, looking like they were probably from the WWII era, on the largest of the three islands. We hopped off the ferry and onto the island tour boat and were off a few minutes later for our circumnavigation of them, often coming close into shore to view caves and grottos, interesting rock formations, and nesting areas for a variety of birds. After a pleasant hour or so, we were back in Porto Venere, and it was time to figure out which of the vast array of cafes and restaurants would serve for our lunch. Finally settled on one that looked to have good salads (it did) and then set out to figure out how to get back to La Spezia by bus (as the return boat only runs once in the late afternoon) We only had a couple of misadventures, trying to figure out how to purchase a ticket (the machine was broken and they don’t sell bus tickets on the buses in Italy) Finally, the driver got off the bus with us to walk us to the grocery that sold bus tickets when it became clear to her that her instructions to me were well beyond my very limited Italian.
Home again in La Spezia, it was time to pack up and then go for our last meal at d’Angelo’s . Yesterday morning bright and early (7:38 AM) we set out for our series of trains going from La Spezia to Lyon. Everything went well, although it made for a very long day, and we lacked the patience (at around 7:30 PM) to figure out where we should get the bus so we ended up getting a cab and at long last arrived at our hotel, a bit away from the city center, The Crowne Plaza La Cite, but a lovely hotel, looks quite new, and were happily informed that we’d been upgraded to a suite, which feels quite enormous after our tiny room in La Spezia.
We’re right on the main bus routes and spent our morning today checking out the old town and going to my one and only museum for this trip – a fun one called the Musee Minature et Cinema with miniatures and sets and movie memorabilia of all kinds. There were costumes and sets and whatnot from some favorite films and from lots of movies we’d never heard of, and a vast collection of miniature rooms and sets housed in building dating to the early 1500s. After our visit there, we walked around a bit in Vieux Lyon, then headed back to the hotel as we are both still in recovery from nasty head colds and it is cold and overcast here today (high in the low 50s, which for us is frigid.)
We have another half day here tomorrow, and then in the afternoon we leave for Nantes – another long train ride, but it was the only one that didn’t require us to go through Paris and change stations across town – and we will arrive late at night in Nantes, where we will board our next ship – the Loire Princesse, for our cruise of the Loire River – the final chapter in this journey.
Cold and windy day and two sick people – not an auspicious start to a long tour day! I know I will have to come back here one day, as this trip was pretty much wasted on both of us. Normally, I go into full academic mode on tours and focus and try to retain as much as I can about the places we go to. Yesterday during the about two hour trip from Malaga to Granada, all I remember is olive trees planted by Greeks and Phonecians, blah blah, harvest with machinery into nets, blah, blah, Romans, vineyards, Visegoths hired mercenaries from North Africa in 700 something, turned on them, took over, blah blah, El Cid, Fredinand and Isabella, 1492. And we were there.
Don’t know what exactly I was expecting, but something more spectacular than it was, I think. I guess I thought it was all going to be white and sparkly like the Taj, but it isn’t. Mostly reddish brick, some marble here and there, a combination of Romanesque and Arabic architecture, lots of bits have been destroyed in various cataclysms and wars, Napoleon tried to blow the whole thing up in the early 1800s. The best bits are the original Moorish architecture – the Sultan’s palace and summer palace, the least impressive the palace of Charles V (which was unfinished and never lived in anyway – the roof was put on in 1961 – see, I did retain a few bits of information!)
The gardens are impressive, also in two styles – the Arab style were practical ‘home farm’ type gardens with vegetables and fruit trees, the European ones were ornamental with hedges and flowers, but all are beautifully restored and maintained with a staff of over 50 gardeners. The whole complex is enormous (and when you are more than half sick, a bit much to navigate) and both of us concluded today that we had gone though it in pretty much of a dream state.
Lunch at a local spot in the city of Granada and then another long bus ride back to Malaga, on which we learned that Malaga was the home town of Picasso and Antonio Banderas. Banderas is more popular because he comes back there periodically and is generous with local charities. Picasso, not so much as he never returned to Malaga, but his grandchildren did recently donate some pieces of art for the local Picasso museum so they are redeeming him somewhat in the local esteem.
Today we were in Cartegena – been here before, never got off the ship. Slept in, and have been resting today and will do the same tomorrow, in hopes of being recovered before we begin the ‘ashore’ part of the trip in a couple of days.
Well, in the ensuing days between my last post and our first port, Dennis has contracted ‘the cold’ that inevitably seems to go around all cruise ships, and has been feeling quite miserable.We had booked a Tours By Locals tour of Madeira to be shared with our friends today, and this morning, one of our friends was also unwell so it was looking like I might be doing the tour all by myself, but Dennis dragged himself out of bed to go along.We had a pleasant enough, although abbreviated tour around the island, which we cut short in part due to the weather, which wasn’t great and also because Dennis just didn’t feel like doing anything more.Our first stop was a semi-private orchid nursery – it IS open to the public, but not terribly well known or on the tourist beaten track.It is run by a charming Englishman and he and his mother have been growing orchids on Madeira for a number of years.Phillip was busy, but as he is also a friend of our guide Nicolau, he took time out to chat with us about some of the challenges of orchid growing in this area.From there, we went to visit a small coastal village and it started to rain just as we made our way back to the van, so Nicolau decided we should try the other side of the island.We found that there are many many similarities between Hawaii and Madeira in both vegetation and climate, as well as terrain, as both are volcanic in origin.Interestingly, the two indigenous mammals are also the same – a species of bat and the monk seal, which is locally called the sea wolf and was the namesake of the village we visited.We made our way over the high volcanic hills and visited another village on the other side where Nicolau regaled us with a charming story about the saint in the local church whose image was washed away from the church down towards the sea.It was rescued by the local parishioners and restorted to his place in the chapel, but he preferred his new location, and, according to local legend, left his pedestal and walked back to the seaside, so the villagers built him a small chapel at the seaside where he now resides.We went to see the chapel and had a typical Madeiran lunch in the seaside village and then decided to cut short the day so Dennis could get back to bed.
To catch up on our on board activities over our week at sea – nothing too exciting!I’ve been doing yoga almost every day, we’ve been doing a few miles a day around the decks, and have been using the facilities at the thermal spa pretty regularly.Both Dennis and I are, amazingly, up for the cruise at the casino.We’ve seen a couple of recent movies – The Danish Girl was very intense and very well done, we thoroughly enjoyed Brooklyn, and we found Rewrite with Hugh Grant amusing.We missed Joy, as Dennis wasn’t feeling up to it yesterday, so I guess that will have to wait for Netflix.It has been really great to catch up with our friends, and I’ve been playing trivia with them and we’ve been winning fairly regularly so I’m now the proud owner of a pair of sunglasses, two luggage tags, a couple of HAL destination pins, and a nylon bag that has been handy to take my stuff to the gym and the spa.
We have another sea day tomorrow, and I’m hoping that the extra day of rest will help Dennis feel better before our excursion to Granada and visit to the Alhambra from Malaga Spain day after tomorrow.