The further north we drove the more autumn gold and red we saw. The closer to the coast we drove the more solid stone buildings we saw. Our destination was Mont Saint Michel, the island citadel topped with an abbey in the Celtic Sea just off the coast of France. When it is high tide, the island is surrounded by water, while low tide leaves the entire island as a monumental rock outcropping. Access at all times is via a raised wooden pier. It is an impressive site that we saw from miles away before arriving at our car park. The citadel is also a small city, and once inside the iron gates, shops, hotels and restaurants lined the narrow walkways up the island mountain. This was a steep ascent followed by, at the end, numerous flights of staircase. The abbey is still active, and those who serve there perform numerous duties. We observed one monk teaching a large number of mid-aged teens Christian theology while gathered around the altar of a church built into the mountainside. Ramparts are built into the rock and very narrow stairs leading to museums or courtyards are a part of the complex architecture of this island. We marveled at the difficulty of building such a beautiful network of life into such a tall piece of stone in such a lonely and ethereal place.
As we drove up the coastal area amongst large dairy herds and cleanly- tilled farms, I had bucolic memories of past days and people. This is what makes travel so enjoyable. WEG
The Loire Valley in central France is filled with old chateaux, all elegant and some magnificent. We drove south of Chartres toward Tours and into the valley along the river. It was an enchanting drive! We drove past vast farm fields, mostly tilled for the winter, but some already sprouting winter grains. The trees were turning yellow gold, and we were thrilled to drive under tree archways along our sometimes one lane roads. Through tidy French villages and towns we passed typical French homes and buildings with stucco and brick (sometimes stone) design. We saw thatched roof farm homes with cattle and horses. It was a delightful drive. In one particularly picturesque village, we noticed a patisserie across from a small park. We stopped and smelled the fresh baguettes from the bakery oven. We could not resist ordering a sandwich of cheese and ham, and we were glad we did—delicious!
Our highlight of the day was our time spent at the grand Chambord Chateau. French round towers with round pointy tops mingled with tall large square chimneys topped with intricate crowns. The impossibly steep roofs added to the splendor. We are talking huge and intricate here! Balconies overlooked lavish gardens, and the rivers were made into canals with grand effect. The interior was just as grand. A massive circular double helix staircase moved you up to the fourth floor—I counted 52 steps between floors—the ceilings are high. Some of the larger rooms had two huge fireplaces. It was wondrous!
We continued to drive past other grand chateaux as we journeyed to Tours. We came into the wine region where large clusters of deep purple grapes hung towards the bottom of the vines. Harvest will soon come.
Our evening meal in Tours was a gastronomical delight. Layers of flavor and intricate mixture of textures were amazing. We ordered two fixed price meals of the chef’s special per couple and shared—Starters: ravioli foie gras on a bed of roasted tomatoes and dark roux with grilled onions, and roasted jumbo shrimp on a bed of small shrimp in cream sauce—Main courses: veal filet with an orange glaze with large morelles in a chopped mushroom sauce, and crisp filet of honey glazed salmon on a bed of scallops in a honey cream reduction—Cheese Plate: seven varieties of French soft cheeses—Dessert: Tart filled with whipped cream surrounded with lingonberries and blueberries with basil, and panna cotta topped with raspberry sorbet surrounded by strawberries and mint. We were also served pre-starter appetizers with wonderful French bread. It will be a meal we will not soon forget. We all fell fast asleep in our hotel since we needed to leave before the huge Tours Marathon began near our hotel the next morning. WEG
On Friday, we drove south from Rouen toward Chartres. It was a comical drive, as we wanted to take the country roads and ended up getting lost several times. However, because the country side was so interesting and beautiful and we were not on a strict time frame, we were happy with the experience. We did stop at a restaurant in one town and were served a wonderful meal. Oh, the French make eating such a pleasure! Kathy and Randy ordered lasagna and Melisa and I ordered calzones. We were in for a delightful surprise! The lasagna was not tomato sauce and meat, but cream sauce and scallops—lots of scallops. The calzone contained a French cheese with ham and for added texture in taste, eggs—baked inside to an easy over consistency. It was all so very tasty and Italian, done with French connotations.
We spent time in Giverny, the favorite place for Claude Monet to paint his masterpieces of Impressionism. We walked past the lily pond, touched the weeping willows, walked the bridge and meandered in the stunning gardens filled with fragrant and heavily blooming flowers and could understand how he found his genius inspiration to paint so many canvases here. His home was filled with his furniture. We were quite happy we had made a slight detour to visit this bucolic place.
The Chartres Cathedral’s stained glass windows live up to the hype. The largest collection of early medieval stained glass remaining were brilliant on this sunny cool day. In a cacophony of blues, greens, reds and golds, the windows told both Old Testament and New Testament Bible stories for the meditation of people because they could not read. One famous set of the windows tells the story of the temptation of Jesus by Satan—Satan is shown in red in the windows. A choir was singing vespers and their blended voices as they chanted the psalms reverberated through the high vaulted ceilings of the cathedral. Later, we enjoyed another great French meal in a brasserie and headed off to a great night’s sleep in our wonderful hotel. WEG
Rouen, France, turned out to be everything we had hoped for–a charming “old” French city with character oozing out of its streets. We were wowed by this forgotten city. Not one, but three, massive churches dominate the skyline. Rouen is where Joan of Arc was accused of sorcery and burned at the stake, and there is much ado about that part of the city’s history. It is also the burial place of the Viking warrior and first Duke of Normandy, Rollo.
We were mesmerized by the wonderful cathedral. It is huge and beautiful with three towers–one known as the butter tower, because it was financed by wealthy people who paid a special indulgence to buy forbidden butter during the Lenten Season. Later in the evening, we watched an illumination presentation on the cathedral’s facade. It was impressive. Moving images told the history of Rouen accompanied by captivating music.
We spent much time roving the narrow and cobble-stoned streets of Rouen. The city is famous for its streets filled with half-timbered buildings. Many are quite crooked but that makes for a charming atmosphere. Bistros with outside seating under brightly colored awnings were everywhere. We stopped for beer or wine and food on several occasions. We all said that Rouen would be a great place to spend much more time. We enjoyed the ambiance of mighty and massive gothic buildings combined with streets stretching out in every direction with medieval buildings. Alas, we needed to bid the city farewell. WEG
Wednesday was a day of hitting the highlights of Paris: Seine River Tour, Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Notre Dame. The Louvre, one of the world’s great museums, was packed with tourists. It was wonderful because of the great art, but not fun making our way following our tour guide through the throngs of people. Trying to see the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Venci’s great work, was next to hilarious. I pushed my way forward to get a good picture with the best of them! Basically, we got to see the greatest works in the collection in this huge former palace before getting out into more people-less spaces.
Our Seine River boat tour was relaxing, moving under beautiful bridges and past majestic buildings–I think Paris is one of— if not the most— beautiful city in the world. It has harmony in style and glorious scope in magnificence. Soon we arrived at the Eiffel Tower—such grace in design—and took the elevator up to our restaurant where we were served a noon meal—the duck liver with foie gras was especially delicious. We marveled at the views over the city.
Our tour boat took us onward to Notre Dame, the iconic Paris cathedral with its flying buttresses on an island in the Seine. Kathy and I have been there numerous times, with our attendance at an Easter service standing out in memory. It was cool and refreshing inside the building. The stained glass stood out as the sun shone brightly outside. We learned that an evening vesper service was soon to begin and, as our tour for the day had ended, we decided to stay for this meditative time. It was uplighting and beautiful.
We found an outside bistro, took a seat and watched the world go by as we enjoyed typical Paris bistro selections. WEG
After we arrived in Paris yesterday at the Gare du Nord train station, we easily made of way to our apartment only two blocks from the Louvre, the world’s largest art museum and central landmark of the city. Our apartment is practical and decently nice, but not elegant. It is a two bedroom, each with en suite and a sitting room and kitchen. Best of all, it has a washing machine. Well, maybe best of all, it is extremely well placed with major attractions nearby and a metro subway station close outside the door. Being one of the better shopping and people areas of Paris, there are a multitude of bistros, outside cafes, brasseries and restaurants in all directions.
This morning the Standly’s headed out to their 8 1/2 hour tour to Versailles, the Royal Palace outside the city. Kathy and I went to the Montmartre area of Paris to visit the Sacre Coeur. We both had great days.
Randy and Melisa could not stop speaking of the wonders of their experiences seeing the opulence of the palace and its 20,000 area gardens and grounds. They were able to see rooms and visit places that most tourists never see, such as the opera hall in the palace and King Louis XIV’s private office. They walked over seven miles! Kathy and I had not been to the Sacre Coeur for 42 years. The imposing white-domed bascillica honors the war dead from the Franco-Prussian war and was built to call Paris back to spirituality. It sits on a high hill overlooking the city.
We chose to eat at a brasserie outside our apartment to recount the day with one another and then walked the area to shop and look at the beautiful architecture of the surrounding buildings. After eating pastries bought at a patisserie down the street and drinking mimosas together in our apartment, we are ready to call it a night. WEG
Inverness, Scotland, is absolutely charming. Tall stone church spires dot the cityscape, and stone buildings with tall chimneys line the streets. The River Ness cuts its way through the center of the city and flows swiftly toward the Loch Ness, one of Scotland’s largest lakes. A castle with strong fortifications sits atop a hill overlooking the scene. On arriving back at the tour bus, Kathy said that I did not have the mini iPad, so I ran back to the Anglican Cathedral where I had last been taking pictures. It was gone! I asked a Cathedral guide to look, to no avail. Upset, I ran back to the bus that was waiting for me, and Kathy sweetly said, “I’m so sorry; it was on my lap under my back pack the whole time!”
We then headed out to look for “Nessie,” the legendary monster that lurks in the Loch (lake). We drove through glens (valleys) and over munros (mountainous hills). Autumn was just starting to show in the leaves of trees turning red and yellow. Tall Scottish pines grew in groves at the higher elevations. The Scottish highlands are beautiful, with rivers and lakes all along the way, and our drive through them was relaxing.
The next morning our ship, the Norwegian Jade, docked in the harbor outside Edinburgh. We had planned no tours since we had been here numerous times and simply enjoyed the day soaking in the atmosphere of the Royal Mile, the cobblestoned street that connects the high on a hill castle/fortification to the Holyroodhouse at the bottom of the long street that is the Scottish palace residence of the Queen of Great Britain. All along the way are restaurants and pubs and souvenir and wool/cashmere shops as well as shops selling the whisky for which Scotland is famous. Randy went to every one that offered free tastings. Entertainers that played bag pipes vied with people posing as statues of interesting figures of history or film all along the way. We found a pub Kathy and I had enjoyed with Allen and Rhonda a few years ago. The fish and chips were superb and the sticky pudding (rich date cake smothered in a caramel chocolate sauce and whipped cream) was divine. The local beers on tap were tasty, too. It was a refreshing day. The evening’s entertainment was awesome. Entertainers fell from the ceiling and swung on trapezes above us, while acrobats performed on stage to live music, and singers performed from lattice work scaffolding from the stage to the balconies. Confetti came from the hands of dancers in the aisles. It was a wow performance!
The next day was a sea day where Kathy bought art, and we lollygagged the day away. Today our cruise ended. We were sad to bid the cruise “good-bye” since we had throughly enjoyed our time visiting Norway, Iceland, and Scotland.
Now we are passing through the Chunnel between England and France and soon our train will be entering Paris. The Eurostar is quite comfortable and we were served a meal with lots of wine. It is now “ooh la la” time in northern France. WEG
Around Tuesday midnight we cruised past the Arctic Circle into the Arctic Ocean north of Iceland. Soon, the winter snows will dominate this part of the world. Wednesday was a great day at sea. Kathy has entered the Sudoku Challenges and is winning! I love walking the expansive deck 7; Randy and Melisa find the entertainers and enjoy the music. Kathy and I also attended a seminar on the “15 Artists You Need to Know.” We all agreed the hot tub in the cold weather was fabulous. We all joined together at the French Bistro for dinner and had an absolutely fabulous meal—mine: mussels in cream sauce; four mushroom soup; bouillabaisse and chocolate Napoleon. Presentation is amazing and service superb. After 2 1/2 hours, we pushed back our chairs fully satisfied. But then, the Beatles impersonators at the theater were very good.
Today, we were delighted to find the Orkney Islands and its capital, Kirkwall, quaint and charming. It was a cold, windy day, and it was rain and then sunshine, and rain and then sunshine, and so on. A part of Scotland, the Orkney’s were founded by the Vikings and long a part of Norway. St. Magnus Cathedral, now a Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) congregation, is known as the Light of the North. Large and impressive, it has a hallowed history. Built in the 1100s, ancient gravestones dot the cemetery that surrounds the building and also line the side walls inside the cathedral. Reading some of the stories of the people over the centuries who were members here was inspirational. The Earl’s Palace next door was equally impressive. Now a partial ruin, we learned how the palace was constructed and how the rooms were used. The main fireplace was easily 25 feet wide and 10 feet tall and deep. Large caldrons were hung over the fire for cooking purposes. All the building was a beautiful red stone. Back on the ship, we now head to Invergorden and Inverness, Scotland, to look for “Nessie” on Loch Ness, among other adventures. WEG
We had no idea of the beauty that awaited us when we left port in Akureyri, far up the coast of Iceland. We had booked another tour for the day and before we knew it, we were treated to one wonderful sight after another. The “capital of north Iceland” sits on a fjord, and soon we were climbing towards higher ground.
The best way to describe the landscape is gold. It is high season autumn and everything is in the height of color. I could breathe in the color because it was so intense. We learned that our ship was the last of the season and we had come at exactly the right time—cool, no rain, and color.
The moss and lichen were in varying intensities of yellow green, and they grew on the volcanic rocks that poked up from the ground. The grasses were light yellow, and the low brush was gold. Large patches of ground blueberry were scarlet red, and the white-barked birch trees were deep gold. Occasionally, a deep red tree would “disturb” the symmetry of gold. The color swept up the hillsides and down into the valleys. It surrounded the lakes and the streams that were everywhere. The majesty of the color was only broken in the highlands where we rode around active volcanoes. Here, steam vents gave out an eerie feel. Indeed, when we stopped at the geothermal site with boiling mud pots and steam vents, we learned that it was the filming site of the last Star Wars movie. It was surreal as we walked amongst hissing steam rising from the vents and heard the gurgling of the 250*F boiling water and saw the multi-colored hot mud flats. Yes, the smell was surreal as well of pure rotten eggs from the sulphur, known locally as “Icelandic perfume.”
We loved the area around Lake Myvatn, the main filming site for the television series, “Game of Thrones.” Volcanic rock, “Christmas trees,” autumn gold and a beautiful meandering lake through the high hills combined for breathtaking scenes. (NASA also used this area to train astronauts for the lunar landing.) Close by was Godafoss, “waterfall of the gods.” Mighty and thunderous and with baby blue water the broad horse shoe-shaped falls plummeted down into a canyon, and a rushing river careened down the valley with more falls along the way. Volcanic rock protruded from the cliffs and volcanic islands dotted the river. It was a “wow” scene.
Back on the Norwegian Jade, we will see the first evening acrobatics show and then go to sleep with beautiful images of the day dancing in our minds. I may set the alarm so that I can get up to see if the clouds and mists have cleared so that the northern lights can be visible. WEG
The greenest and cleanest world capital is Iceland’s beautiful city by the sea. We spent two days at port and enjoyed every minute.
Day One found Randy, Melisa, Kathy and myself on a private 13 hour tour of some of Iceland’s most iconic natural wonders. We saw mighty geysers; boiling and spitting mud in the ground; roaring and rolling waterfalls; green moss-lined landscapes and mountains; glaciers; fields of steam rising from deep within the earth; and valleys formed by glaciers/earthquakes/volcanoes. We walked in a ravine (the only place on the earth where this is possible) with the Eurasian tectonic plate to our left and the American tectonic plate to our right (we could reach out and touch each), realizing that should there be an earthquake we would be “squashed like a Junebug at a summer evening cook out”. We weren’t. We viewed the Blue Lagoon, created by waste from the nearby hydroelectric plant. Beautiful. Our guide, however, encouraged us to swim in the Secret Lagoon, the oldest mineral swim lagoon in Iceland. Lined with volcanic rock and filled with 98*F rich and natural mineral water that came from the boiling 212*F water spouts all around us, we hoped that the cold glacier water that was combined with the super hot volcanic water would keep flowing. The ambiance was exceptional—steam rising from the hot earth, geysers shooting upwards and cavities filled with loud boiling water, and we were there, floating in a lagoon cavity in the earth in the middle of it all. Randy and I made up a story to tell the ladies—I had to be the teller—that the smooth rocks on the bottom of the lagoon were filled with minerals and if you rubbed your face and body with them they would healthfully be absorbed. It ‘twas quite a sight to behold as “they took the bait hook, line and sinker.”
We walked on volcanoes—“who knows when it will blow,” said the guide. Later, we saw a broad white steepled Lutheran Church in the rolling, green countryside. We asked the guide to drive to it. What a blessing! Not only was the church and setting wonderful, but inside a large choir was singing from the altar area, and we became the audience. How grand! The choir was made up of organ students from Iceland and Norway. At the conclusion, I introduced myself to the pastor of the church, and he introduced me to dignitaries from the Icelandic Church and to the Lutheran Bishop of Norway, who also happened to be the conductor of the choir. It was a taste of heaven in this majestic land!
Day Two was Reykjavik. Randy had a mid-morning dental appointment to replace a partial that had broken on our trip. Melisa said the experience was amazing—clean, modern, fast, efficient. Then, we all met up at Reykjavik’s majestic Lutheran Cathedral, the Hallgrimskirkja. Constructed of white concrete, and with a soaring broad steeple, it is the iconic symbol of the city. We enjoyed viewing the beautiful pipe organ, and a soloist sang from the altar so that those inside could appreciate the fine acoustics of a solid and huge concrete structure.
The Norwegian Jade left port early today, and now we sail further north along the Icelandic coast. This island is filled with rugged natural beauty. We are thankful for the blessing of experiencing it. WEG