Loire Valley Trip: Endnotes

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Monet’s garden in Giverny

Just getting around to summarizing our trip to the Loire Valley, here are some thoughts I am left with:

  • Short trip, but: We hear a lot “you went to France for 5 days?” But you’d go to San Francisco or New Orleans or San Antonio or Seattle for a long weekend. The flight to Paris is ~8 hours, but overnight going and part of a required travel day coming back. We’ve done these long weekend trips before, to Madrid and Barcelona. You can concentrate on a smaller geographic region and not feel rushed to do everything. In fact, this was one of our most relaxed trips, because we kept the distances short and took in what we could.
  • Off-line technology: It might come as a surprise to some, but I like being unplugged sometimes. Hey, the trip to Cuba proved I could be off the internet for 8 days and survive. So I chose to use nothing but hotel Internet (and occasional free hotspot). But being unplugged doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of technology. I used 2 apps for the first time that work with no data connection, and can no highly recommend them. I already mentioned Navmii, which is a GPS app. You can download it for individual countries, which then includes all the maps and points of interest. We used it for driving and walking, and it worked wonderfully. The second app I loved was Microsoft Translator. You can take a picture of text (e.g. a sign or a menu) and it will translate it for you. It didn’t work perfectly, but often gave me the gist of something I couldn’t translate myself. Both apps are free and work without data, that’s great for a traveler.
  • Pack light: We both traveled with nothing but carry-on luggage. I used my new Tortuga backpack. 5 shirts, 2 pair of pants, socks/underwear, t-shirt to sleep in. Only thing I skimped on was only one pair of shoes. But being that light helped since we stayed in 3 hotels in 4 nights. And it meant no time waiting at the airport for the luggage to come out.
  • Get Global Entry: Global Entry really paid for itself this time. Now, at least at Dulles, you don’t even half to talk to an immigration agent. And while the line for Customs looked to be around 100-150 people, there was literally no one in the special Global Entry line. So we whizzed through, saving time and aggravation.
  • Keep traveling: Travel is easiest when you are young and healthy. We are no longer so young, but we want to travel our way (independent of tours) for as long as we can. Which is why we are going to keep doing trips like this as long as our health and money hold out.

Thanks for traveling along with us. Next trip is to Peru in early July.


Loire Valley Day 4: Three Châteaus

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For a day, we visited some picture perfect chateaus. And yes, the picture above is real, the frame is set-up to take this postcard-like picture.

Château de Blois was our first stop. We were somewhat surprised that it was an urban chateau. But we really liked it.DSC_0568

Château de Chambord was just too much. A 420 room “hunting lodge”?  It did have a circular staircase designed by Leonardi di Vinci. Not every hunting lodge has that.DSC_0589

I got the same feeling at Chambord that I got at Versailles. Too much. Just too much. The royals sure lived well, but where did the money come from and how did their subjects live? Europe’s history is full of excess

Leaving Chambord, we headed through the town of Bracieux. We were hungry and found a small place for an excellent lunch. We were the only English-speakers there, which we love. We had passed a chocolate factory just before that, Max Vauché. I’m not sure it was a formal rule before, but when you pass a chocolate factory, you stop. So we went back and bought a little bit. I mean, what the heck, we’re on vacation!

Château de Cheverny was of reasonable size. Nice gardens. And hound dogs!DSC_0596

 

Back in town, we had dinner at L’Epicerie. We had a half bottle of local Loire Valley red wine, salmon for Ellen in a creme sauce, steak for me. Ellen had cheese for dessert.

Sadly, we head home tomorrow. We had a full, but not too full, 4 days. We did the things we set out to do, and had some great non-planned experiences along the way.


Loire Valley Day 3: Vinegar and Clutch

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Chateau de Chenonceaux 

We left Angers after breakfast, heading for our first of 2 chateaus.

Our first real adventure came when looking for Chateau Azay-le-Rideau. I might have set the GPS for the town and not the chateau. And it might have a random spot in town when you don’t pick a specific destination. So following the GPS, it wanted us to go down a street that had a steep hill and didn’t look like it lead anywhere. I passed it once, but the GPS said it was the way. Now, I’m not the type to follow a GPS into a lake because it said so, but…

So we went down the hill. It wasn’t a street. There was no way to turn around. It was VERY narrow, with a house on each side. And the Citroen is a 5 speed. So that meant backing up, uphill, while managing not to stall. Which meant riding the clutch. Ellen had gotten out of the car, sort of to direct, but more so to make it easier on me. I kept having to straighten out. Back and forth. Up the hill. The car had the beeping when you were too close on either side. So that helped. Sort of. In the end, I made it up the hill, but the clutch was smoking, and the car was beeping on both sides. It’s easy to laugh…now. Oh, and later I used the windshield wiper fluid, which smelled of vinegar. So the title of today’s blog came from the smells in the car today.

The first chateau we visited was Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau, built between 1518 and 1527. Lots of scaffolding and reconstruction, but still worth the visit.DSC_0533DSC_0523

We drove to Chenonceaux and had a casual lunch. It’s a small town, so it was then just a couple of minutes to one of the most remarkable chateaus.

Chateau de Chenonceau, built over the Cher River, is just spectacular. When you have a painting of a king, where the frame is more of a work of art than the painting, you’ve got something going. DSC_0545

As nice as the chateau itself was, it was the gardens that really made it what it is. DSC_0552DSC_0563

We then drove to our 3rd and final hotel of the trip, Le Manoir Les Minimes in Amboise. We checked in, and then were off to explore town. There’s also a chateau here, just next to our hotel. We had our afternoon beer/coffee, hit a grocery store for some fruit good for Passover starting, and then had a great dinner at Chez Bruno in town.

We have 3 chateaus to hit on our final full day tomorrow. And I bid adieu to the croissants and baguettes that I love. I brought matzah with me, and we’ll avoid bread for the next days, as we remember that we were once slaves in Egypt.

 

 


Loire Valley Day 2: Le Mans & Angers

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We had a wonderful breakfast at our Giverny b&b, and then were off. It’s nice having a 130k/ph speed limit. A little crazy to drive 180km on a highway and pay €25.90 in tolls. But, it’s France!

Our first stop was Le Mans. We chose Le Mans because it was the largest city between Giverny and Angers. We were glad we did. The cathedral above is Cathedral Saint Julien. You don’t see flying buttresses like that every day! We toured the cathedral and then did a walking tour, with the usual half-timber houses and such.DSC_0494

We grabbed lunch at a sandwich place in town (quiche for Ellen, baguette with mozzarella, tomato and salad for me). Then back in the car.

We checked into our hotel for the night 21 Foch. Right on the main street, it has a great location, and modern, Scandinavian style furnishings.

Château d’Angers was our first stop. Its origins date back to 1230. Not furnished, the outside was the best part. DSC_0500

 They do have Apocalypse Tapestry, created from 1377 to 1382. Housed in a dark room to preserve them, the pieces go on forever.IMG_0301
We did a walking tour through Angers, enjoying the narrow streets and ancient houses.DSC_0489
 After an afternoon coffee-and-beer stop, a stop in a department store for Ellen to pick up some Thomas Sabo, we ate dinner at a fabulous little restaurant, off the main square. Au Gré Des Saisons had the evening’s menu on a chalkboard that they brought to each table when it was your turn to order. They served just 3 appetizers and 3 main courses. Ellen had a duck appetizer and filet mignon, I had a raw salmon appetizer with a rump steak main course. The food was delicious, and just the two courses took 2 hours of leisurely dining.
We have more chateaus to hit, stay tuned!

Loire Valley Day 1: Giverny

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Water pond at Giverny

We are on a short 5 day/4 night trip to the Loire Valley. We never tire of Europe or France or travel at all.

We flew from Dulles to Paris on Air France. Plane was on time, we upgraded (if you can call it that) to an exit row so we had decent legroom. The flight was fine and on time. With the short length of this trip, we both made do with carry-on, so we didn’t even have to wait for luggage to get going.

We rented a black Citroen diesel from Europcar and jumped in. I have a new app to recommend, Navmii. It is a GPS navigation app that doesn’t require data. That’s right, I have chosen to forego constant connectivity, no SIM cards this trip. Ellen does have the 100MB plan from Verizon, but I’m just online when there is WiFi and I feel like it. Navmii allows you to download maps in advance, and it gave really good directions to get us from the airport to Giverny.

Monet’s home was our stop for the first day. Ellen booked us in a bed & breakfast a short walk from town. This picture shows our place, it is 2 levels and larger than our house. DSC_0408

The b&b is very near the church in town. It is where Monet is buried. It also showcased a custom we hadn’t seen before, leaving plaques and such on the graves.

 

Monet’s home and garden is well worth a visit. You can see the paintings from the views. DSC_0449

The town is tiny, the main street has no sidewalk, so you walk in the street with bicycles, cars, trucks, etc. The pace is slow and somehow it all works. DSC_0440

We had to find an ATM as the b&b only takes cash. That required us going to the next town over, Vernon. When Ellen checked in on Swarm, it reminded us that we had been here in 2013 as part of our Paris to Normandy river boat cruise. Who can keep track?

We took a brief rest and then walked to dinner in town. Not a lot of choices, but we were thrilled with Restaurant Baudy. We had the prix fixe, salad, main course (duck for Ellen, delicious lamb brochette for me) and dessert. Oh, and since we are in France, wine.IMG_0297

We fear we might be overtired, but the idea is to get a good night’s sleep and move along tomorrow. If you have a particular chateau you have visited and want to recommend, leave it in the comments!

Bonne nuit!


Cuba: Racing Towards An Uncertain Future

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A week in Cuba, I thought, would leave me with a clear picture of where Cuba is now and where it will be in the future. But just like those classic American cars, it’s hard to know what’s underneath the surface.

My wife and I went to Cuba to celebrate our 30th anniversary. We travel extensively, and had our eye on Cuba for some time. Like many after the December 17, 2014 announcement of renewed diplomatic ties, we wanted to see Cuba before it changed much. After visiting, I think people needn’t worry that it will soon resemble an Americanized vacation spot. Change will not come quickly.

This is the first communist country I have visited. I’ve been to former Soviet-block countries that had been communist, including Russia, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. I was expecting Cuba to be somewhat like those, with many drab, utilitarian buildings. I was expecting there to be police everywhere, and have a sense of being monitored. None of that was the case. We felt free to move about, without the sense that we were targets.

We felt completely safe during our entire visit, even when in dark and seemingly dangerous areas. We were told that the sentence for petty crimes was 10 years in prison. We started to wonder if that would help in DC with the recent spike in crime.

We traveled with the tour group insightCuba on a trip centered around the Havana Marathon on November 15. There were about 100 US runners in our group. The race turned out to be just a small part of the overall experience.

Let’s start with Havana. It is a sprawling city, home to 2.1 million of Cuba’s 11.3 million people. Its roads are narrow and rutted. The old American cars are all over the place. The ones in good condition ferry tourists (at higher prices), while the older ones taxi locals. Pedicabs are also used extensively. Overcrowded busses move people longer distances. People walk. Cuba reports a low unemployment rate, but it seemed many were either unemployed or underemployed. You’d see many young people on the streets late into the night.

Can you imagine a place where the only billboards are from the government, touting the revolution? That is how Cuba is.

Cuba is just now starting to experience the Internet, but not widely. It was easiest to spot where the few WiFi spots were at night, as you’d see the glowing screens of people on the street. Internet access costs $3 an hour, but to put that in perspective, the average wage of Cubans is $20 a month. So it is a luxury item.

 

Cuba still uses 2 currencies. The national peso for locals and the CUC, or convertible peso. The CUC was initially intended for tourists, but is now used as a more valuable currency by locals too. Cubans who have access to CUCs, via the tourist economy or relatives abroad, can live a decent life. Those who do not are left scrambling, as the $20 monthly wage does not cover necessities for the full month.

We visited with a theater group in Pinar del Rio and a dance group in Havana. These young people in their 20’s had the same spirit, energy and aspirations as you would see in the US. Their optimism made me feel good about their eventual future.

In all our contacts with Cubans, they were welcoming to Americans. Clearly they like tourists coming and spending money, but Cubans are generally warm people. We saw a spirit of great national pride, optimism and ingenuity. They are determined to make the best life they can in the situation they find themselves in.

And that situation is not easy. Their homes are crumbling. Water and electricity cannot be counted on. There is not enough housing, so there can be 3 (or 4) generations living in small quarters. They are limited in their travel options.

But there are also strengths to the Cuban system. Education is very strong. Healthcare is provided at no cost and there is an extensive system of local clinics close to residents.

When a tourist walks through a market or past taxis or pedicabs, the Cubans are aggressive in offering their services. We never felt hassled though. While not desperate, the Cubans clearly need the money tourists bring. We had both cab and pedicab drivers offer to wait for us to shop or dine, so they would be assured of the return fare as well. A roundtrip pedicab ride of $10 is half a month’s wages in a government job. It is substantial.

I don’t think Cuba is going to change substantially anytime soon. The infrastructure is not capable of supporting substantial growth, since there are problems today. A Starbucks that doesn’t have access to water intermittently during the day is not going to do well. And at best, they could only sell to tourists, as Cubans are not going to be buying $5 lattes anytime soon. There are limited dining options today, so 2000 visitors off of a cruise ship would have nowhere to eat. There are not many shopping options either. We ate at one of the nicest paladars (private restaurants) in Cuba, and the entrance to the building looked like this: IMG_0220

 

 

 

We visited the western province of Pinar del Rio, the area where tobacco is grown. The government directs where it is grown, what pesticides to use, when it should be harvested. Farmers turn over 90% of the tobacco to the government, to be used in the branded cigars. The remaining 10% they can sell themselves, without any brand. We bought some of both kinds, will have to compare.

In tourist areas, Cubans can rent out extra rooms as casa particulars, their equivalent I guess to Airbnb. In a small town with many such places, I asked our guide how guests find one to stay at. When a bus from Havana pulled up, I soon found out. The owners of the rooms were there to greet the visitors, aggressively marketing themselves to somewhat bewildered guests. As a marketing professional, I admired the sales efforts of putting themselves in front of their potential customers.

In experiencing Cuba first-hand, our group of Americans spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it would take to improve the living standard for the average Cuban. There is the need for tremendous investment to repair or replace housing. Electricity, water, transportation all need extensive upgrades. Employment opportunities must be enhanced, and not only in the tourist sector. Cubans need to be able to raise their standard of living. Being able to export their goods to the US market would be a big plus. But that opening will probably only come when their government moves to allow greater freedoms. The history between the US and Cuba is so complicated that I know it will take time to deepen ties. I do believe that people-to-people experiences now possible can help move that process forward.


Cuba Day 7 (November 20, 2015)

 

 

There was one thing on my Cuba bucked list that we hadn’t accomplished, a visit to the iconic Che metal figure on the building in the Plaza de la Revolution. So Ellen and I got up early and took a Coco-cab (sort of a motorcycle with a shell on top) there.

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Our driver waited for us while we took about 10 minutes to take pictures. We were glad we went out there.

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Back to the hotel for breakfast. I emptied and repacked my suitcase, as there needed to be room for rum. The bus took us to the airport. Check-in and emigration was easy. We did our duty-free shopping. Nothing left to do but wait for our flight.

And this time, everything went smoothly. A one hour delay out of Havana. Luggage immediately arrived in Miami. No problems with immigration or Customs. A burger! for dinner at a TGIF at the airport with Margaret. Easy flight to BWI. Overnight at a hotel there, then home Saturday morning.

I am writing my impressions of the trip for NBC4. Once that’s published, I’ll link to it. This was an experience, not a vacation. Overwhelming too, because while we were there, we were exposed to the people and lives of real Cubans. It was amazing. And a little overwhelming.


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