And now for something completely different….

Just had to call attention to this quintessential Only In Hawaii Event:

Waikiki Spam Jam Street Festival

Type: Music & Entertainment
Date: Saturday, April 30, 2016-Saturday, April 30, 2016
Time: 4pm-10pm
Price: FREE
Location: Hawaiian Islands – Oahu
Address: Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu, HI, 96815
Summary:
It’s the annual WAIKIKI SPAM JAM Festival, the cultural tradition in Hawaii. The WAIKIKI SPAM JAM Festival, which starts at 4:00 p.m. and ends at 10:00 p.m., and is quickly becoming one of the most popular festivals in Hawaii because of its great food and entertainment in a family-friendly atmosphere.

Local residents and visitors alike have made this an annual tradition. Kalakaua Avenue is closed to car traffic for the event, and two entertainment stages and a variety of Hawaiian crafters are set up on the street. Free admission. This is also a special event that benefits the Hawaii Food Bank, the largest non-profit in Hawaii that feeds the needy.

We’ve got an excellent line-up at the Outrigger Hotels and Resorts stage fronting the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort:

4:30 pm Hiroshima
5:30 pm Waimanalo Sunset Band
6:30 pm Ben Vegas and Maila Gibson
7:30 pm Jeff Rasmussen & Robi Kahakalau
8:15 pm A lucky winner will receive a two-night stay at the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort and tickets to Blue Note Hawaii
8:30 pm Raiatea Helm

Visit the Waikiki Spam Jam website.

http://spamjamhawaii.com

The long road home

At the end of our ‘Day of the Chateaux’ and back on board, the Loire Princesse started her journey back towards Nantes, and our stay for the night was back in Chalonnes sur Loire.

Loire Princesse at her mooring
Loire Princesse at her mooring

The next morning there was another bus tour, and another wine tasting, and a drive along the levees along the Loire know as the Angevine. Given the previous long day and Dennis’ back protesting the idea of another few hours of bus riding, we opted out of the tour and decided to spend the half-day we had in port exploring Chalonnes sur Loire.

typical street in Chalonnes
typical street in Chalonnes

One of the nicer things about this river cruise was how ‘untouristy’ most of the places we visted really were – certainly there were plenty of tourists in and around the chateaux, but the towns themselves haven’t lost their local character and become full of nothing but shops selling postcards, refrigerator magnets and tee shirts.

Bateaux along the riverbank
Bateaux along the riverbank
local flower shop
local flower shop

Chalonnes sur Loire is decidedly NOT a tourist town and we enjoyed just strolling around and checking out the local market, the one tourist attraction – a mini-train vineyard tour, and finding our way into the business district to take care of a few chores like getting some extra Euros for our upcoming train trip.

Train visit to the vineyards
Train visit to the vineyards
the mini-train visiting the vineyards - Chalonnes' primary tourist venue
the mini-train visiting the vineyards – Chalonnes’ primary tourist venue

Like most other of the Loire towns we visited, Chalonnes has the requisite ruined fortifications and a charming riverside pedestrian walk that follows the riverside.

Access to pedestrian walk along the river
Access to pedestrian walk along the river
pedestrian walkway along the river
pedestrian walkway along the river

The public gardens were just beginning to bloom and the weekend market was in full swing.

part of the ruined fortifications Chalonnes sur Loire
part of the ruined fortifications Chalonnes sur Loire
municipal gardens
municipal gardens
The Loire from Challones sur Loire city park
The Loire from Challones sur Loire city park

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After our stroll, and taking care of our chores, the excursion group was back on board, and the Loire Princesse headed back to Nantes, accomplishing the return voyage in a matter of hours with the strong current adding to the speed. Our scheduled arrival was to be at 8:00 PM, we got into the dock by about 5:30, having left Chalonnes at around 1:00 PM.

Our last night on board – the Gala Night – was enlivened by an auction using the tokens won in the various quizzes and activities on board during the previous week, and followed by music and dancing. And, of course, the dreaded packing for departure the following day. We said goodbye to our new friends, as we knew we’d be among the first off in the morning since we had a 10 AM train to catch.

Bright and early, around 8:00, after we had our breakfast, and gathered up the last of our things, we headed out to the tram station right at our anchorage, only to find that there were literally thousands of people milling around – it was the day of the Nantes Marathon.

We took the first available tram, and were somewhat surprised to find it only went one stop further and quit. We (and a lot of other folks with luggage who were also headed to the train station) got out and started about a mile long bag drag (fortunately, sort of…the roads were closed so we had plenty of space and no traffic)

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The Nantes Marathon Route – we were bag dragging in a straight line up the main street.

 

Somewhere along the way to the train station, the marathon started and when we were within a couple of long blocks of the station (I could see it), we, along with about 20 other people who were also making their way to the station, were stopped cold by barricades and race officials who were blocking the road as the marathoners ran on cross streets across the main road. Everyone stood there for a while – maybe five minutes or so, I, at least, thinking that sooner or later the officials would hold up the pack to let all these people (and the crowd waiting was growing by the minute) make their way across to get to the train station. But no. So, a group of young guys just suddenly ran across through the marathoners.

The race officials went nuts, the marathoners were all yelling (in France, apparently, the thing to yell when you are upset is “la, la, la”) and everyone waiting sort of backed off. More time passes, more of the waiting people get restive and cut across, officials are running up and down the streets trying to keep people contained, then another group in our area makes a break and this time, Dennis goes with them. I was paralyzed with a combination of fear of authority and not wanting to be mown down by the runners. Dennis is on the opposite side of the marathoners now, and yelling at me to come on,  while the officials are yelling not to. Finally a little old lady with what looks like one of those shopping wheelie things makes a break for it and I follow her into the mob of oncoming runners who commence with the la, la, la yells. I don’t make eye contact or look left or right, just straight ahead and bag drag across the marathon as fast as I can go and in a few steps, make it to the other side, then we both bolt for the train station. There is one more cross street with runners between us and the station, but, thankfully, there is some modicum of sense in the officials at that cross street, and the marathoners are walking, and it is easy to make the crossing, and, whew, at last, the train station!

We were quite a bit early for our train, but so thankful to have gotten there without further mishap that we were happy to wait. Finally our TGV (very fast train) pulled in, we boarded and settled in for our couple of hour ride from Nantes to Lille, where, finally, we got our passports stamped!

We had heard some stories of people coming in, as we had, via cruise ship, and having trouble getting out of Europe by plane as their passports had never been stamped as having entered. We were happy to finally have it acknowledged that we had indeed been in Europe as we got stamped out of France and into England all in a matter of a few feet in the Lille train station! Then we were on the Eurostar and headed for our last stop, the Marriott at Heathrow, and home the next day.

Our ‘big’ flight, from Heathrow to San Francisco, was great – nice new plane, lie flat seats in business class, all in all as good an experience as you can have flying a domestic airline (most foreign carriers are better and the really good airlines like Singapore and Emirates are outstanding.) However, our San Francisco to Honolulu flight was hideous. The plane should have been retired 10 years ago, nothing worked from the seats to the “entertainment” – which would have been bad even if the sound had worked – to the food, and this was in what was allegedly domestic first class. I shudder to think what the coach folks were experiencing. The only good thing was we were early which made making our tight connection to the last flight of the day home to Kona a little easier, in spite of getting turned around in the Honolulu airport and taking a wrong turn down one of the newer concourses, as United has changed where their gates are in Honolulu. We were both frazzled and really tired when we finally got to the gate for Hawaiian, and really, really glad to get home at the end of our more than 20 hours on planes and in airports.

Usse – The Sleeping Beauty Castle

IMG_2867IMG_2836The 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.IMG_2827 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.IMG_2831

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. IMG_2854IMG_2845IMG_2846IMG_2843 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 IMG_2839series 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.

IMG_2838In 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.IMG_2841IMG_2817IMG_2834

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.IMG_2832

Gardens of Villandry

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.

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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.

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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.

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In 1934, Château de Villandry was designated a Monument Historique and it is part of the Loire Valley Chateau UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Bouchemaine and the Chateau of Azay le Rideau

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.

Plan of the chateau
Plan of the chateau of Azay le Rideau
Tapestry
Tapestry
Detail of salamander crest
Detail of salamander crest of Francis I
Dressing Room
Dressing Room 

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.

Bedchamber
Bedchamber
Mantle with salamander crest Azay le Rideau
Mantle with salamander crest Azay le Rideau

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

Interior staircase Azay le Rideau
Interior staircase Azay le Rideau

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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Azay le Rideau
Azay le Rideau
Azay le Rideau
Azay le Rideau
Azay le Rideau
Azay le Rideau
Azay le Rideau
Azay le Rideau

Ancenis and Chalonnes sur Loire

 

Scenery along the Loire
Scenery along the Loire
Early morning on the Loire from our mooring
Early morning on the Loire from our mooring

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.

 

Clisson
Clisson
Clisson
Clisson
Clisson
Clisson
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Clisson
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Bell Tower, Clisson
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Clisson
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Covered market square dating back to 1500s
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Clisson
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Clisson
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Clisson
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Castle complex, Clisson
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Restaurant, Clisson
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Castle complex, Clisson
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Castle walls, Clisson

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.

Wine tasting at Cassemichere castle
Wine tasting at Cassemichere castle
Castle Cassemichere
Castle Cassemichere
Wine cellars, Cassemichere
Wine cellars, Cassemichere

 

 

 

 

 

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.

The Loire Princesse, Nantes to St. Nazaire, and back to Nantes

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.

St. Nazaire Lighthouse
St. Nazaire Lighthouse
The almost completed Harmony of the Seas - world's largest cruise ship, to be delivered on May 15, 2016
The almost completed Harmony of the Seas – world’s largest cruise ship, to be delivered on May 15, 2016
Harmony of the Seas with two of the largest cranes in the world, used in her construction
Harmony of the Seas with two of the largest cranes in the world, used in her construction
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St. Nazaire waterfront

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.

Nantes square in front of the Academy of Arts building
Nantes square in front of the Academy of Arts building
Academy of Arts building Nantes - now a theatre
Academy of Arts building Nantes – now a theatre
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Square opposite the Academy of Arts building
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One of the Art Deco landmarks of the downtown
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Interior of the Pommeraye Promenade
Interior of the Pomerraye Promenade
Interior of the Pomerraye Promenade
Interior of Pomerraye Promenade
Interior of Pomerraye Promenade
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Each of the statues represents some aspect of life in Nantes – the first one with his arms crossed is supposed to represent music and the other one is agriculture.
The Passage Pommeraye - or Pommeraye Promenade - a shopping area from the 1800s connecting the residential and commercial areas of Nantes
The Passage Pommeraye – or Pommeraye Promenade – a shopping area from the 1800s connecting the residential and commercial areas of Nantes

 

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.”

 

Anne of Bretagne, wife of two French kings
Anne of Bretagne, wife of two French kings
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Exterior of the castle of the Dukes of Brittany
Castle of the Dukes of Bretagne (Brittany)
Castle of the Dukes of Bretagne (Brittany)
Elaborate cover over the castle well
Elaborate cover over the castle well
Ceiling detail, Nantes Cathedral
Ceiling detail, Nantes Cathedral
Tomb of the parents of Anne of Bretagne in the Nantes cathedral
Tomb of the parents of Anne of Bretagne in the Nantes cathedral
Aerial view of tomb
Aerial view of tomb
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Statue of Prudence (one of the four virtues portrayed at the tomb) – female face is said to be modeled on Anne of Bretagne.
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Courage, subduing a dragon
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Cathedral, Nantes

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.

Nantes and the Loire Princesse

 

Nantes Isle des Machines Elephant
Nantes Isle des Machines Elephant

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.

Old town section of Nantes
Old town section of Nantes
Church spire Nantes
Church spire Nantes
Isle of the Machines
Isle of the Machines
Steam Punk Carousel, Isle of the Machines
Steam Punk Carousel, Isle of the Machines
Three story tall Elephant - Never did get to ride on it....
Three story tall Elephant – Never did get to ride on it….
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Carousel
Carousel

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.

Loire Princesse
Loire Princesse
Compact cabin, Loire Princesse
Compact cabin, Loire Princesse
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Even More Compact Bathroom
Balcony of our cabin
Balcony of our cabin

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Lounge
Lounge
Lounge
Lounge
Loire Princesse
Loire Princesse
Lounge
Lounge

Internetless

We have been without access to the internet for days on end and I have a ton of catching up to do since we have just completed our Loire cruise, and only just now have we had internet access restored to us, so there will be a lot of catching up to do! I have a massive number of pictures as well as a lot of commentary on our ports and excursions. I’ll work on it all during our train trips tomorrow and try to get things uploaded once we get to London and our hotel at Heathrow before our flights back to Hawaii!

La Spezia and Beyond

Terraced vineyards near Corniglia
Terraced vineyards near Corniglia

 

 

 

 

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.

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Typical Cinque Terre pastel tower houses – Riomaggiore
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Fishing boats, Riomaggiore
Narrow streets of Corniglia
Narrow streets of Corniglia
Town Square Corniglia
Town Square Corniglia
High water marker, 2011 flood, Monterosso
High water marker, 2011 flood, Monterosso
High water markers in Monterosso
High water markers in Monterosso
View from the monastery in Monterosso
View from the monastery in Monterosso
Square in Vernazza
Square in Vernazza

 

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.

 

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Fortifications in Porto Venere Harbor
Lighthouse on largest of the three islands
Lighthouse on largest of the three islands
Island rock formations
Island rock formations
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Castle ruins, Porto Venere
Porto Venere
Porto Venere from the ferry
Part of military base, La Spezia harbor area
Part of military base, La Spezia harbor area

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.

Vieux Lyon from the Bonaparte Bridge
Vieux Lyon from the Bonaparte Bridge
Vieux Lyon
Vieux Lyon
Shop in Lyon
Shop in Lyon
One of many bakeries
One of many bakeries
Bakery window
Bakery window
One of the many many cafes
One of the many many cafes
All chocolate, all the time
All chocolate, all the time

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Lyon is also famous for marionettes - the French version of Punch and Judy shows
Lyon is also famous for marionettes – the French version of Punch and Judy shows
Another cafe
Another cafe

 

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.)

From the Musee Miniature et Cinema - model used in The Grand Budapest Hotel
From the Musee Miniature et Cinema – model used in The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wand from Harry Potter films
Wand from Harry Potter films
From Gremlins
From Gremlins
From the Johnny Depp Willy Wonka film
From the Johnny Depp Willy Wonka film
Various props and workshop scene
Various props and workshop scene
Mask from V for Vengeance
Mask from V for Vengeance
Various costumes and prosthetics for films
Various costumes and prosthetics for films

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.