Monday, August 27, 2012

Road trips have their advantages—Part II, Montréal

After Burlington we went to Montréal which we had visited briefly about 25 years ago en route to visiting friends in Ottawa. We weren’t all that impressed with Montréal, but then we didn’t really see it. It was hellishly hot and the only thing I recall was visiting Montréal’s amazing Botanical Garden. It was too hot to walk round the garden and we rode through in a little train, with no time to stop and smell the roses. This time it was hot, but not unbearably hot, so we got to really see the garden, including the amazing Chinese Garden.

The jewel of Montréal is its beautifully 17th century old town which for some inexplicable reason we never visited last time.

Twenty-five years ago we were really disappointed with the restaurants. It seemed as if French culinary talent had not managed to cross the Atlantic. We were certainly not disappointed this time and ate very well in Montreal. Although food was affordable, wine lovers in Montréal(and all of Canada for that matter) will experience real sticker shock. Alcohol is heavily taxed with revenue going to pay for Canada’s national healthcare system, so we consoled ourselves that the high prices were in the service of a worthy cause. I’d gladly pay higher taxes in the U.S. for a single payer system.

Canada’s high taxes pay for a variety of public goods, including Montréal’s Museum of Fine Arts which is well–designed and has a good permanent collection which is free to the public. We spent an entire day there. We had intended to combine the Museum of Fine Arts with! Pointe-à-Callière, Montréal Museum of Archaeology and History, but in our senior citizen, slow-travel mode, we decide to see one museum really well and spend the rest of the day hanging out in a café.

Rick had the gratifying experience of being taken for a Quebecois because his French is so good. He was basking in compliments the entire trip. The first tribute came when we were entering Quebec and the border guard asked in surprise, “How come your French is so good?” When we went to the Botanical Garden, Rick asked for two senior tickets and when he looked at the receipt, he realized he had been given the senior rate for Quebec citizens.

We will be back to Montréal. For Francophiles like us, it’s wonderful to get a little taste of French culture without the pain and expense of international air travel.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Road trips have their advantages—Part I, The Hudson Valley and Burlington Vermont.

Pond at Bob and Susan's new house

Road trips have their advantages—no desperately trying to pack enough clothes into tiny suitcases, no pouring toiletries into those small plastic jars that will pass muster with homeland security. We just throw whatever we want in the trunk of the car—including as many hardback books as we want. Kindle books is not my idea of summer reading!

Since we decided to take international trips only off season--thus avoiding the crowds and high prices--we’ve been taking road trips in the summer.

Our good friends in Vermont have moved from southern Vermont to a small town outside of Burlington, right near the Canadian border, so this year we decided to combine Burlington with Montreal. One concession to old age is not to drive 6+ hours in one day. This means driving to Burlington is a two day trip for us.

Our first stop was Rhinebeck , New York. To Philly folks looking for a weekend get-away: consider the Hudson Valley town of Rhinebeck with its many antique stores, trendy boutiques and some very good restaurants. Just outside of Rhinebeck is one of the best B&B’s we’ve ever stayed in—Whistlewood Farm. The setting is idyllic, the owner very friendly and the breakfasts fantastic. On our return tip to Philly we stayed at another charming country inn, the Inn at Silver Maple Farm with Shaker themed furnishing and the friendliest innkeeper ever.

On our way to Vermont, we took the opportunity to visit Eleanor Roosevelt’s house at Valkill. Years go we visited Hyde Park but missed the last tour for Valkill. After reading She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker by Brigid O’Farrell for my feminist book club I really wanted to see Valkill. O’Farrell has documented ER’s contribution to the labor movement which if mentioned at all is often downplayed. The 15 minute film which begins the tour at Valkill emphasizes ER’s concern for the poor but does not mention her very strong ties to the organizations fighting to improve the lives of poor and working class people. The tour guide was very knowledgeable about the minutiae of ER’s life but did not seem aware of her ties to organized labor. I recommended the book to her and she said she’d look into it.

This was the first time we had been to Burlington and it lives up to its reputation as a charming small city. Cities with water fronts are very fortunate and Burlington takes full advantage of its waterfront on Lake Champlain.

Our main purpose in visiting Vermont was to see our friends. For those of you who know Bob and Susan here are photos of their beautiful new houses which sits on 49 (!)acres.

Susan's spectacular vegetable garden!
Bob about to mow their enormous lawn

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Foix, the Pyrenees and Parc de l 'Art Préhistorique, The Langue d’Oc Diaries, Part III

The medieval streets of Foix

Our last stop was the Pyrenees town of Foix, a seriously charming old medieval town. We stayed in an inexpensive hotel in the old town—fine for one night. I had forgotten how beautiful the Pyrenees are; the only downside is there’s no escaping driving through those really long tunnels.

We decided to return to Barcelona by way of Foix because of the spectacular Parc Pyrénéen de l'Art Préhistorique. We had hoped to visit Grotte de Niaux, but the glorious weather we had enjoyed the entire tip changed to cold and rain. The guidebooks cautioned against visiting the caves in the rain as the entrance is slippery and there is no turning back. We decided we weren’t up to it. Slipping and breaking an ankle in one of these caves was too scary a prospect for this senior citizen.

We had visited caves with astonishing prehistoric paintings in the Dordogne, were in awe of the artistic vision of our ancestors tens of thousands of years ago, and wanted to have that experience again. However, it’s much easier to navigate the caves in the flat land of the Dordogne than in Pyrenees --and we were about 20 years younger.

Although we didn’t make ito the Grotte de Niaux, we saw amazing reproductions in the museum Parc Préhistorique.

The museum was organized in way that was very confusing. It reminded us of the American Indian museum in Washington, D.C.-- deliberately non-chronological in the organization of exhibits and, according to the American Indian museum’s designers, mounting a challenge to linear thinking. I don’t know if the designers of the Parc Prehistorique were deliberately trying to create an experience of disorientation, but that’s the effect it had in us. Nonetheless, the museum was a very powerful experience and will stay with me in a way most museums do not.

In addition to the museum, the Parc Prehistorique contains numerous open-air exhibits, including one which demonstrated how archaeologists work. (I think if I were a young person that museum would have made me seriously consider becoming an archaeologist.)Since it was a dreary day, we had the attentions of the young, enthusiastic archaeologist all to ourselves.

Luckily for archaeologists, pre-historic humans did not clean up their campsites and they left a treasure tore of litter for archaeologists to sift through. The exhibit recreated the kinds of objects found at these sites and demonstrated how archaeologists have interpreted the findings to reconstruct scenes of daily life at the campsites. Archaeologists expect to unearth many more caves and campsites and learn a good deal more about pre-historic humans. I hope some of the discoveries are made when I’m still around!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Rediscovering Toulouse: The Langue d’Oc Diaries, Part II

Toulouse, Main Square

Rick and I thought we had shortchanged Toulouse when we visited in August in the mid-1980’s. It was hellishly hot, and we thought if we hadn’t been stumbling about in a heat-induced daze we might actually like Toulouse.

And that’s just what occurred when we returned last Spring. Toulouse, like so many European cities, is an open-air architectural museum. The architecture is very much like that of Paris, but the colors are different. In Paris, it’s gray stone with black balconies; in Toulouse (called the Rose City) it’s Mediterranean colors—-red brick buildings with blue, turquoise, and green balconies.

Street in Old Town, Toulouse

Toulouse is also a clearly a much more prosperous city then it was in the mid-1980’s and is now the center of the French aerospace industry. The old town which I remembered as a little shabby has been cleaned up and is now filled with trendy shops and upscale restaurants and cafes.

There’s much to see in Toulouse: some very good museums and magnificent churches, like San Sernin which has one of the most beautiful towers in Europe and Les Jacobins which contains the tomb of Thomas Aquinas and a gorgeous cloister.

San Sernin Tower
Les Jacobins Cloister

We certainly didn’t exhaust Toulouse in our 3 day stay. We never got to many of the smaller museums as we couldn’t resist the pleasure of hanging out in cafes. I’m always amazed at how much free time the French appear to have. The cafes were always full and most of the peopled were clearly not tourists.

Toulouse is also a very affordable city. Our hotel was half the cost of our Carcassonne hotel and our restaurant bills were considerably lower. I especially recommend Café L’Opera—and old brasserie on the main square with traditional Catalan cooking. We were very glad we made the return trip and came away with a very different impression of Toulouse.