We could imagine the pomp and circumstance as the Kings of France walked down the humongous aisle of the Reims Cathedral as colored light streamed through the luminous stained glass windows. Over 30 monarchs were crowned here after Clovis, the first French King, was baptized in the 400s. An engraving in the floor marks the spot. The gowns, robes, scepter, jewelry and crown of Charles X are on display in the Treasury of the cathedral, along with other artifacts of the royal extravagance. Heavily damaged during World War I, the cathedral was painstakingly rebuilt. Some of the statuary that was damaged in the war are on display in the Treasury, and that is when we noticed the immense size of the statues. High up on the cathedral’s facade they look much smaller. With much of the stained glass destroyed during the First World War, more recent glass artist’s designs are taking their place. Of particular interest are those of Marc Chagall that grace the rear chapel. The cathedral has intricate stone work, beautiful flying buttresses—the architectural breakthrough that allowed for the massive building size and ability to have large stained glass openings of the grand gothic style—and an elongated nave with soaring ceilings.
Reims is the major city of the champagne region of France. Only sparkling wine that comes from the grapes around Reims can legally be called champagne. There are many champagne chateaux in the region, and we visited Pommery on the outskirts of the city. Impressive. Eighteen kilometers of chalk caverns are below the surface. They contain over 20 million bottles of champagne in the aging process. We saw one million of them as we walked through the cool tunnels connecting the caverns. Our guide explained the complex champagne making process, and we saw bottles from the 1700s. The tour was informative; however, I was not thrilled that we had to walk the steps back up to the surface. Those steps were rewarded, joyfully, with a large glass of “bubbly.”
The weather is amazing. Sunny and cool. Reims is a beautiful French city with wide boulevards, classic architecture and flowing fountains. Our two days here have been wonderful; however, tomorrow we must bid both Reims and France “good-bye” as we head to the Charles de Gaul Airport in Paris for our trip back home. What an amazing adventure we have been blessed to take! God is good. WEG
The liberation of France from German occupation under Hitler in World War II was a pivotal event in the history of that time. The sacrifice of U.S. soldiers in the invasion of the Normandy beaches is well documented. This was our day to visit the historic sites of the invasion. It was a beautiful, cool and sunny day.
We met our tour at the World War Museum in Caen. A bus to the museum left from close to our hotel. As we arrived the flags of the nations that participated in the invasion were flapping in the wind. Caen held a strategic position in the immediate invasion route of the allied forces and over 70% of the city was flattened; hence, the city is quite modern by European standards.
Our first stop was Pointe du Hoc. Here the Germans had numerous cannon guarding the Normandy coast. They could throw a bomb with accuracy 14 miles. Lieutenant Colonel James Earl Rudder, a U.S. soldier, led a small force of GI’s in a stealth tactic to take the cannon out in the early morning hours. They were successful. Rutter later became President of Texas A & M University. The landscape here still contains bomb craters from American aerial bombardment as well as remnants of German concrete underground bunkers and cannon firing ramps. We looked out into the ocean from the high cliffs and watched the blue waves from the English Channel crash the shore and imagined how this beauty was shattered by the ferocious battles here almost 75 years ago.
We drove along the five mile Normandy beach that now has names such as Utah and Omaha and memorial markers along the way. We stopped at the section now known as Omaha Beach and viewed a memorial. The beach is beautiful, but on that day it was lain with land mines and invasion barriers and, on the hills above the beach, machine gun nests and mortar launchers. Many U.S. troops died before they even touched the beach. Eventually, the troops took the hills, and the invasion to retake France and enter Germany began.
Our next stop was the U.S. cemetery just off the beach. It is a beautiful and tranquil setting with trees shaped into large topiaries. A majestic columned entry features a statue of an American youth rising from the waves to protect freedom. (The average age of the U.S. soldiers killed here on that day was 23.) A reflecting pool reaches toward the cemetery where over 9,000 soldiers are buried. White Italian marble crosses are lined up in perfect order—humbling. Towards the end of our stay, taps began to play and the flag was retired for the day. Elderly troops visiting that day were seen visibly weeping—moving indeed!
Our day concluded with a 360* immersive movie of that time that included video and pictures recently uncovered of the invasion forces. We felt sadness for the loss of life, thankful for the sacrifices made, and proud to be American. WEG
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