Istanbul, a city where Asia and Europe meet. A city torn between two continents but a hundred different cultures. A place that has had more history happen within its borders than some of the most well-known cities in Europe or Asia. A place where every single adult male seems to smoke. A city where the coffee is thicker than the mustaches – and that is saying something! All that and it has a lot of cats. Like seriously; a lot.
We spent a cold, rainy three days there at the beginning of December, but with the warmth of the people we didn’t feel like we needed those two layers! As we had been chasing the end of summer temperatures down through Europe for the past two months, culminating in what was the longest almost-still-summer season in history, the chill of Istanbul was both a welcome change, but also a wake up that the cooler weather was not far away and we needed to head even further south to continue our version of the Endless Summer (without surfing).
Arrival in Istanbul can be relatively straight forward if you have a contact before you arrive to arrange transport, otherwise you face a barrage of touts looking to get you in their taxi, minibus, car trunk, or other; for a first time traveller it would be a bit overwhelming, but for us it is just an annoyance at this point – as you have to ignore and walk, despite what people offer. For convenience sake we had contacted out Airbnb host to arrange some transport, but really there are a ton of companies online that will do it for you as well, and the price turned out to be similar.
Our flat for the stay was in the Sultanhumet area of old Istanbul, where just across the street was the oldest street in the city, once a connection from the waters of the Bosporus and the city. We were within a 5 minutes walk from the famous Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, and about 12 minutes from the famous Grand Bazaar. The view of the mosque and Hagia Sophia (an ancient church, now museum) was impressive. Both structures are imposing on their own but bookending the plaza they share added to their grand auras. A small light show in the moderate fountain in the plaza made for a nice photo opportunity at night and with a 2 hour time change from Spain, we had no problem staying up late enough to get the plaza almost all to ourselves for photos.
The Hagia Sophia
The Blue Mosque
The next day we again visited the two religious domes, but in the light, they were more grandiose with the hundreds or thousands of people crawling all over the area. We visited each, the Blue Mosque being free to enter, but obviously a revered religious place to the Muslim community so many of the visitors where people there to pray. A modicum of respect was asked, so that people praying could be left in peace, yet few seemed to heed that note and snapped away. Much of the interior of the mosque was under repair or refurbishment, unsure which, so the impressive ceiling was barely visible. The Hagia Sophia was much more impressive with its visible high ceilings (although some was under repair) and internal structure and artifacts. There was one strange, yet popular place in the church that always seemed to attract a line of people. A simple hole, worn smooth in the marble of one pillar, was constantly being probed by people’s thumbs. They would insert their thumb and twist their wrist almost 360 degrees – while making a wish. The ‘weeping pillar’ was supposed to grant wishes – but besides from a wish of a less sore wrist after that twist, I’m not sure how it works.
Inside the Hagia Sophia
Carpet in the Blue Mosque
Enjoying a bretzel in the rain!
So besides those two huge religious places we took a 3 hour boat tour around the Bosporus and wandered around the Grand Bazaar, a market that is hundred of years old and has somewhere around 4,000 vendors. Out of 4,000 vendors, only about 5 or 10 different types of stores were visible, with hundreds of similar stores of each type visible in any direction. Most stores seemed to see either sweets, lamps, dishes, tourist souvenirs (of varying types), some weird assortment of clothes with obviously fakes North American or European brands, jewellery, or carpets. There were of course a few other stores that popped up here and there but if you really liked the lamp you just saw, don’t need to turn back to double check, just keep walking and five other stores selling the same will be right around the corner. The Grand Bazaar was huge, but surprisingly well integrated and almost camouflaged into the city. We didn’t know we had entered or left it until we were literally at a doorway. It was also a nice reprieve to wander the ancient market on a dreary, wet day in Istanbul.
Now, most of our Istanbul adventure was fairly tame. We avoided our flat like the plague, as a horrendous sewage smell was continuously emanating from the bathroom. Apparently, the building was old and as such had old plumbing which would odorously pollute the flat whenever the wind blew – it made for an unpleasant 3 nights. The rest of the time we spent wandering around Istanbul being offered all kinds of amazing food from the seemingly endless supply of restaurants, listening to every single man call our daughters princesses, getting wet from the rain, and most importantly (for the girls anyway) making friends with as many cats as possible!
Istanbul is famous for its street cats as there are thousands and even one of them has a statue – a small statue though! Cats are as much a part of Istanbul as are the churches, temples, mosques, ancient markets and old cobblestone streets. Cats are well fed by many of the city’s residents and are generally friendly. The girls has a blast petting an endless stream of felines that seemed to come out of every nook and cranny when a gentle ‘psstpsst’ was uttered. I was sure we weren’t going to escape Istanbul without at least 2 or 3 of the four-legged furballs stashed in our luggage, especially after we ran into a little kitten, no more than a couple of weeks old, mewing at us as we strolled past. Needless to say, that little guy got a lot of love in a few minutes. I think if we were returning directly to Canada, and not continuing on, we might have been at the airport with a new family member… or three!
Out littlest friend!
Making a friend on the street!
Making a friend at the restaurant!
These of course aren’t the only reasons to visit Istanbul, but with our limited time, we just stuck to one area and took our time there, no need to try to do too much! And to my friend who worked at the restaurant right next to our flat, thanks for the tea, the conversation, and the recommendations for the city. While everyone in Istanbul is trying to sell you something, they need to eat too, be kind to them, as not once did I meet an unfriendly person, even after I said no, or moved on. They all said, ‘see you again soon – come back to see me when you want something’, regardless of what they were selling they all seemed to actually enjoy talking to people.
After our first blast of actual winter (similar to back home in Vancouver!) we were off to Dubai, and our first taste of real heat in months. Until then…
This is a review of our car hire for the 2 months we were in Europe, the 2018 Citroën C-Elysée.
Model: Base, or just above
Engine / Transmission: 1.6 l Turbo Diesel with 5 speed manual
HP / FT-LB torque: Somewhere in the range of 100 HP and probably 150-180 ft-lb but I honestly don’t know.
Seating for 5 (but honestly, no more than 4 adults)
Body Style: 4 Door Sedan
Tires: 4 of them 205/65R16 (ish)
Features: Power windows, inconveniently located near the shifter, power locking doors, with a single lock button on the dash, Apple Car play, Large glove box, confusing cruise control, adjustable headlights, small and oddly shaped center armrest, and mirrors that barely adjust.
A serious review of this basic oil burner would talk about the storage, the handling (G forces), the 0-100 km/h acceleration and braking; but this is a semi-serious review, so I will of course probably not mention most of these.
We had a Citroën C- Elysée as a rental on our recent 2-month road trip through France, Italy and Spain. The C- Elysée, the darling of the Citroën fleet, the workhorse of the French car makers’ models, the most common car we saw… NOT! I honestly think I saw a grand total of about 5 other C- Elysée’s in our two month driving tour, and 4 others were taxis in Spain! I am not sure how many of this model they made, or sold, but I am guessing I wouldn’t have to use more than my hands and feet to count them – based on their prevalence in the European landscape. Unless there is a hidden hamlet somewhere in the lands of barely travelled France, where nothing but C- Elysée’s roam, I would have to believe they made and sold a grand total of 6; ours included. In a continent where hatchbacks and estates (wagons) rule supreme, a four-door sedan wasn’t a rarity, but just not the norm. Us getting a 4 door sedan was not anticipated either – as we booked what should have been a wagon, but car rental companies being what they are, substituted an equivalent car for the wagon. Only thing I have to say about that is… equivalent my a$$.
On to the features. The CE (as I will now call it for simplicity) was likely at the bottom end of the model range. I am guessing the only options we had were the power features and A/C, as I can’t see what else would have been an additional paid add-on. The car had a strange location for almost everything. The cruise control was hidden behind the left side of the steering wheel, on a small stalk with a small selector wheel and two very (very) inconspicuous speed adjustment buttons. These buttons were hard to feel on first pass and I wasn’t sure they did anything at first. Two different settings on the cruise were also accessible from this stock, with one limiting the upper speed of the car, and the other setting the cruise. Not sure the purpose of the first option, as you could adjust the limit to whatever you wanted and it actually didn’t do anything related to the cruise – in that you could still pass the upper limit set. I still don’t know what it that was for. The cruise, once engaged, worked okay. I wouldn’t say it was perfect, as it didn’t seem to understand what a hill was, as descending a hill required a lot of breaking to keep it even close to the pre-set limit. That would be a big fail in my books.
Another strange option was the ability to adjust the headlights. I don’t even know where to start on this one. WHY? When in the history of driving had you wished that you could adjust the headlights up and down? I don’t mean the intensity, but the actual position in front of the car. The headlights could be pointed out as normal, or down so that you could look for spare change in front of the car. I must have missed that in my previous reading of car features, as I had never heard of it, or knew it existed. We only became aware of this completely ludicrous feature about 3 weeks into our rental. After having driven across France and a good part of Italy, we were getting sick and tired of staring at the road about 5 m, or less, in front of the car at night. We literally couldn’t see the car in front of us on a dark night. We thought that car had poorly adjusted headlights and were finally making plans to head to a local dealership to get them re-adjusted, as the darkness came earlier and earlier with the onset of fall and daylight savings time ending. Then one day, by accident, I decided to check to see if the internal light dimmer would do anything. You know, that little wheel on the left side of the dash, near the headlights that usually dims or brightens the dash lights? Well, to my amazement, and astonishment, the headlights of the car pointed up. WHAT? The solution to our evening driving problems was solved, but it is something that should have not needed to be solved. Who thought that this was a key feature to put in a car with a grand total sales of 6? A feature that is probably in a total of 2 cars in the history of the world!! Anyway, now with this new feature under our command, the night driving improved and we could again venture out past 6 pm! Freedom! I would like to hear the sales pitch on this option… ‘Lost spare change? Need to check if you shoes are still on? Trying to look for your dignity? You need adjustable headlights!’ Anyway…
The next key feature of the CE was the power group. The windows and the central locking. Central locking was controlled by a single button on the dash near the radio. No backseat unlocking for your passengers, they are completely under your control. Not the only car with this feature, but probably should be the last. Unless this is a car you use for trapping people – then it is a perfect feature! The power windows did have individual controls, and the backseat passengers could even open and close their own windows… if they could find the controls! Turns out, the front controls (all 4 windows) were clustered forward of the stick shift – like small guards on each corner of the dual cup holders. The back windows were also inconveniently located in the centre console, near the air vents, which made reaching them very difficult unless your arms extended well past the normal length. Our kids in the backseats were able to operate the windows with their feet, but only just barely. Great for stopping them from randomly opening the window at 130 km/h on the highway initiating that ear popping ‘whump whump whump’ pressure sound, but inconvenient almost every other time. The front windows and their central location were equally as mis-positioned as those in the back. Stopping at France’s (or Europe’s) frequent toll booths made for an extremely annoying dance of shifting and opening or closing the window, as doing both at the same time either required cooperation from the passenger, or a third arm. Sometimes neither were an option. Positioning of the window switches on the door makes sense in so many ways, and even after nearly 2 months in this little blue machine I kept reaching for the window switch on the door… I just couldn’t get used to the central location. If you were shorter, or alternatively had your seat way back, reaching for these controls was plain awkward and poorly thought out.
Exciting instrument cluster
Note window controls above the shifter.
The CE had a functional, if not imprecise, 5 speed manual transmission. I assumed that it was like every other transmission on the market today in the mass produced cars, syncromesh – or you didn’t need to learn to double clutch to shift. Most shifts in this car would agree with that synopsis, but every so often, like a double-yolked egg, you wondered what was going on. Second gear and reverse had a stubborn streak that would often require an extra oomph to get them to comply with your demands for movement. I have been driving stick shifts for 25 years or so now, so I am not new to them, nor have I only ever driven top of the line ones. I grew up driving a manual pick-up truck, then an old VW 5 speed, so getting the little stick to do my bidding was not something I even considered as a concern in a ‘new’ rental car. I don’t know this car well enough to make solid assertions on what was going on, but previous experience leads me to believe that someone learned to drive stick on this car, as going into second is usually the hardest jump for a beginner. And as for the reverse that was about as strong as limp toast left in milk, I would have to guess that the clutch and gears have seen better days. Backing up a few small hills in Italy required more than a little coaxing from this people mover and relying on it to get you safely out of areas in the Cinque Terre area was a bit more than I was willing to ask of it. A nice feature missing from this car would have been hill assist, as the actual transmission/clutch seemed to be too weak for the car. A 6th gear would have been a nice addition for cruising at high speeds and additional fuel economy as 5th felt too pushed to be the top end.
The little blue oil burner was a pleasant surprise when it came to acceleration and fuel economy. Even driving at the 130 km/h limit of the French and Italian autoroutes, the economy still came in at a reasonable 5.2-5.4 l/100 km, and it didn’t take that long to get there. The diesel was certainly not the most powerful out there, and couldn’t really overtake anything in a hurry, but did its job when asked. It nimbly moved us around the twists and turns, motorways and hills and country sides of Europe. For a small car I couldn’t have asked much more. I liked the prototypical grunt of the diesel as it took off the line, and the mild knocking as it idled ready for action. It was not a quiet engine and may actually be mistaken for an idling school bus, plus the interior sound dampening between the engine compartment and the cabin was probably made of 1-ply toilet paper stretched thin but if hearing isn’t your best feature, this car would do just fine.
Storage and Space
With a trunk capable of easily holding 4 suitcases and then some, the CE’s storage space was much more than advertised on the outside. Annoying trunk lid arms / hinges set inside the trunk cut into the otherwise ample storage but did not completely deter us from packing it as full as it could get. The trunk was perfectly suitable for a family of four on vacation and would be more than adequate for the average trip to the grocery store, outlet mall, or kids’ sporting event. Inside the car the lack of adequate storage in the backseats (small pockets in the doors and back of front seats) limited what was neatly packed and reachable resulting in a lot of loose items all over the place. The front had slightly more in-door storage, but a tiny centre console where I could put my wallet or my cell phone, but not both, and a lack of a loose change drawer made it a pain to constantly reach for the wallet when paying the numerous tolls across Europe. The glove box was sufficiently deep to store small animals, lunch, and shoes, along with gloves. None of those were necessarily tested.
Space within the car for the passengers was another issue. Perfectly fine for 2 adults and 2 children but putting more than 2 children in the back was a stretch. The middle seat position would of course be the master of the window switches and receive all of the AC but would that make up for the shoulder pain of being squished, probably not.
Score: Storage: 3.5/5; People Space: 2/5
An interesting feature the CE came with was Apple Car Play. Sounds fancy, right? Well, yes, and no. The overall radio system was confusing at first, with at least 3 different selections necessary to get the regular radio to play, and it was even worse when the Car Play was engaged. The radio seemed to change frequency on its own and didn’t always go to the adjusted station. No idea what was going on there – as it did this the whole time we had it. Now, I suppose Apple Car Play is a good idea for a few things; maps being one. It was very convenient to plug in our iPhone and put the directions on the car’s info screen. No issues there, until it stopped working. For no reason, on multiple occasions the Car Play would not work at all and we had to remove the car connection from our phone and reinitialize a new one. Again, no idea why it did this. Other than this, Car Play is just plain annoying if you have someone using the phone with directions on the screen – it constantly changes the screen and mutes the radio. I know this isn’t an issue with the CE directly, but the software, but as Citroen chose it for this car, it fits with the overall experience with this car. Oh yes, and another spectacularly useful feature of Apple Car Play was that while plugged into the system everytime you took a screen shot on your phone, it took a screen shot of the Apple Car Play menu in the car. Extremely useful.
Citroen did their best to make money with this car. I mean they made at least 6 of them, and built it ‘on-the-fly’ without consideration for little things like design or functionality – that has to count for something right? Well, yes, it means this is a car capable of getting you from point A to B, but after hours you will be wondering why point B was so important to get to that I did this to myself? But that won’t matter as you won’t really be able to hear yourself think over the engine noise and the poorly lined windows allowing a steady stream of road noise to fill the cabin. Also, if you were unlucky enough to be the 5th adult in this car, stuck in the middle of the backseat, you will be wanting to be anywhere but where you are, so forgetting about point B and dreaming about your happy place will be the only thing to help alleviate the cramps in your shoulders and knees from being squished. Add to this the Apple Car Play feature that shuts itself off randomly and a radio that changes stations makes for a fun ride.
A sort of half effort seems to have been put into the design and build on this car and it is definitely better off as a rental / taxi vehicle and not something I would even consider buying. I will say that it is a good sized car for Europe’s narrow streets and tight parking spots. We were able to fit it almost anywhere, even considering it has a turning radius of an oil tanker. So after our 2 months with this car I returned it to the heartless car rental corporation and didn’t even look back – good riddance.
As per our last blog, France to Italy, our adventures in Italy began with a trip from Charmonix, through the tunnel under Mont Blanc, and our arrival in Italy was somewhat anti-climatic, as the actual border is somewhere under the mountain in the middle of the tunnel. Not surprisingly, there did not appear to be a difference between Italy and France at first glance! The next few kilometres introduced us to the Italian method of roads, road signs, and driving style – all of which varied somewhat from France.
Also, as described, our first plan for Italy was to head right to the home of Mamboland (as per Marianne!)… Milan! I knew of Milan as the fashion capital of Italy (maybe the world? I’m a little rusty on my fashion news) and assumed that we would be sticking out like homeless people on the red carpet. To our surprise, we were not completely out of place in everyday style – our jeans and such were most certainly not the nicest garments on the street, but didn’t place us in the category of out of touch with fashion foreigners that I expected. However, as the evening descended, and people headed out for their ‘Apperitivo’, it became obvious that the casual attire of the average person from Milan (Milanoan?Milano? Milaninite? Milaninaire?) was a bit above the average back home. We briefly (very briefly) considered donning the shiny shoes and flashy suits of the locals to blend in, but quickly squashed those ideas when presented with the elevated prices – the price to look flashy in Milan is not just your dignity when wearing a shiny zebra striped, two sizes too small, three piece suit with matching shoes, but a large number on your credit card account! Luckily for you readers, the only image of me in that suit is now in your head…
Arrival in Milan went as planned. We found our Airbnb easily after driving for about 3 hours or so on the racetrack, I mean Italian autoroute, where drafting 2 mm off the bumper in front of you is not only acceptable but expected. I am guessing with the way Italians ride your rear bumper they have somewhere to be that is more important than you do or have the reaction time of a fly on speed, but I would probably be just giving them the benefit of the doubt that they don’t deserve. I’ll reserve my actual impression of Italian driving for another time.
We checked into our Airbnb in the Navigli district/area of Milan. It was a sleek ground floor flat on one of Milan’s streets clearly designated for automobile and motorcycle acceleration testing. Day and night cars would come around the corner, pound the throttle to the floor boards and roar past (well, ‘buzz past’ in the case of the millions of scooters) our window, which was apparently made of sound amplifying glass. Also, the entrance door for the complex was right beside our unit, a door that weighed somewhere around 5000 kg and would close with enough force and sound to wake the dead in Japan. A plethora of visitors or residents returning to the building at 4 am certainly made for a restful night sleep! The rest of the flat was equally as functional and awesome. The upstairs bedroom was an open concept flat with a ceiling height around 1.5 m (5 feet-ish), perfect for the girls, while the downstairs kitchen, kitchen sitting area, kitchen couch area, and kitchen door entrance, as well as the bedroom, had a ceiling height of around 8,000 m (26,000 ft). Floor to ceiling cabinets in the kitchen made for a lot of storage! Storing something in the upper cabinets required not only a ladder but fall arrest gear and a parachute. Yet, it gets better. To make things even more convenient, the utensils were stored in a drawer located completely under the in-kitchen table, requiring an arm at least 2-3 times normal human length to reach anything, along with a flexibility level somewhere along the lines of a gumby doll. Glasses were also conveniently located in this section of the kitchen above this table, making everything very user friendly. Yet, everything looked stylish! A trend we would find throughout Italy. While this place lacked a few of the common appliances we take for granted – including a toaster, it did have at least 3 or 4 ways to make coffee, but in no way stopped us from making whatever we wanted to eat. After 4 nights of the Indy 500 outside of our ground floor bedroom (with the windows about 50 m up), we were off again to another location. As said in our last blog, we did do more in Milan that just wander around the apartment.
Ok, here is where the rest of our Italian adventure continues… With Milan in our rear view mirror, we set our sites and our little 5-speed, for the south, to a homestay near Grosseto, a place near the west coast of Italy a few hours above Rome. But, before we arrived we needed to feed the beasts, and no, there were no other animals than our small humans with us.We discovered a place near Bologna called Eataly World.
A place dedicated to Italian foods and food production, and well, to be honest, shopping. There were lots of restaurants and merchants selling pastas and pizzas, wines and beers, olives, and oils and vinegars and almost everything else Italian. A Disneyland-like place for Italian food lovers. You can even get these cool three-wheeled bikes with a front basket, to cruise around with and load up on your Italian must-haves.
A couple of hours later, full of a very tasty thin crust pizza, and with more things to try at our next place, we loaded up and jumped back into the Italian Grand Prix headed south. Past Florence, past Sienna and into the Tuscan hills along the west coast, we found our Agritourismo stay. This is essentially a stay on a working farm. It is similar to an Airbnb, but is a bit more rural. It worked out great. It was a small section off the main house that had all we needed. The farm was run by an older Italian couple who raised horses and ponies. The girls even got a ride on one of the ponies, Tombolino, and you could tell they loved it!
From this area we visited closed wineries, closed farms, closed organic markets, empty beaches (full of garbage), and empty twisty roads. It was like we had Italy all to ourselves. We took one drive around Orbetello, SW of Grosseto that wound its way around a small peninsula. It started off as a twisty, narrow road with 180 degree hairpins, that climbed up and around the hilly peninsula. Soon it turned into a road that would be best described as a mountain bike single track. We triple checked the map, and it was the main route, to my dismay. We continued along at a snails pace, only stopping briefly in a few spots to take in the breathtaking view, before finally reaching the other side and the sweet sound of pavement under our tires again. A restful few days here were appreciated and we left the friendly hosts as we decided to go a bit north again into the Chianti region of Tuscany.
Chianti was much like the rest of Italy. Quiet.
We picked a full house as our next Airbnb, and soon felt the chill of autumn setting in, as the house came without heat. We could of course pay to heat the house, but the host indicated that she didn’t think we would need it, as the days were still approaching 16-18 C. The first night in the house clearly rebutted her idea that it would be fine. We were like meat-popsicles in a fridge. Even I found it chilly – I put on a sweater indoors. So I imagine the girls and Marianne were probably close to hypothermia. We relented and the next day put on the heat –sparingly – yet it still cost us around $45 Euros for 3 days of heat. Crazy, but as gas was expensive there, not too surprising! So from Elsa’s ice palace we set out on our daily excursions to the Tuscan countryside. We went to Chianti en Grieve one day, only to find almost everything closed, although the signs said they were open.
Another day we went o the Cascade del Mulino a Saturnia, a geothermal hot spring that flows into these very cool pools. The water was warm, not hot, it was outdoors, and it was totally free!
So we soaked up the sulfur smell and basked in the human soup for a bit, before returning to the house in the hills of Chianti. Also, at this place was something I had never seen of, or heard of before, a pizza vending machine! Like what? It made you hot pizzas and spit them out in like 3 minutes. We didn’t dare try, as why would we? With so much good food all around in Italy, a vending machine pizza must be pretty low on the list of must haves!
Anyway, over the few days there the only things open were a farmers style market and the impressive Antinori Winery. The biggest in the region. We only ended up buying one bottle of wine there, as everything seemed very expensive compared to the 3 or 4 Euro wine from the grocery store we had been getting on just fine with for the past month or so. A bottle that would not be opened until Dubai and unfortunately did not impress beyond the cheap grocery store wine. On our last day in the region we took a day trip to Pisa to see the famous church. It was quite impressive, with murals and frescoes and paintings, each the size of a wall and of course each being hundreds of years old, along with and lots of decorations made of gold and such – you know, the normal decorations of a humble and benevolent building. Oh yeah, we also saw a tower than had a structural issue – some engineer hundreds of years ago forgot to carry the one, and next thing you know it was leaning. Didn’t want to get anywhere near that in case it fell over – so we stood out on the grass in front, along with hundreds of other terrified tourists, much to the joy of the local screamy guy. He dressed in some official uniform – but I think he was just hired to yell at people, he seemed to enjoy it. He essentially said that we were making his day by standing on the grass – as he got to yell at us, but I am sure he added in something about the signs and getting away from the tower that was about to fall. Anyway, we moved to the side and took a photo of us trying to help keep this old tower from falling over – to show we tried, before moving on.
Our last night in Chianti we stopped on the way home to take in the spectacular sunset, a truly amazing sight!
Also, that night we had a meal prepared by the hosts, a traditional meal of the region – cured meats, olives, their own wine, lasagna, and a chicken in tomatoes dish – all pretty delicious.
Now, after almost 2 weeks in Italy, we headed for the true coastal Italian experience, the Cinque Terre area. Those five villages have become world famous for their cliff side views and colourful buildings set along the Mediterranean Sea. The incredible hiking and perilous driving attracts visitors from worldwide to experience this isolated and unique piece of Italy.
After a brief visit to the walled city of Lucca, on our way to Cinque Terre, where we biked around the city in about 45 minutes, we arrived to find the rugged Italian coast, only to be greeted with more twisty and terrifying roads, each with a speed limit way beyond what would be considered sane. Our Airbnb was located somewhere between two of the coastal towns of the Cinque Terre, Vernazza and Corniglia. The directions to the place were not exactly clear. I mean, trying to see through a fogged up windshield in the fog at night with sunglasses on whilst squinting without lights kind of clear. We eventually found the turn off to the place just as the sun had set and darkness began to take a hold of the area. The road to the guest house was one that I would have assumed lead to immanent death if you did not know there actually was a house there. Also, to make the matters worse was the road was about 1.5 car widths wide, and the turn off was a full 180 degrees hairpin from our current direction. I couldn’t make that turn, just wouldn’t work. So, my options were limited. Luckily we figured it out and got turned around in a widened area down the road so we could drive down the driveway without issue. Of course, halfway down the driveway was another 180 degree turn to stay on the driveway, this time with a steep drop off about 2 m off the edge. A bit of maneuvering and we made it, safely! Yet, the house was still not to be found. The parking was about 200 m away from the house down the rocky, steep hiking trail. A real treat for hauling rolling suitcases along. The house turned out to have spectacular views of the Mediterranean Sea and the cliffs. We could even see the towns to Corniglia and Vernazza from the balcony.The wind was pretty much constant up there and made for a noisy night of sleep– but was a great base for taking in the scenery and starting a hike along the famed Cinque Terre pathway. Day two and we were up and ready to roll with some hiking! We headed along the path from our Airbnb, almost exactly halfway between two towns, towards Vernazza. It was about an hour of constant descending through some pretty rocky and rugged terrain that was called a path! The recent storms in Italy (about 2-3 weeks prior) had done a number on the roads and pathways, minimal efforts had been made to repair this section of path, so some areas were trickier than others to pass. After about an hour all of us made it in good spirits to Vernazza, a well earned lunch in our sights. The village was busier than expected, as tourists and locals mingled about along the waterfront for the mid-day lunching hour. We grabbed some local food, fresh seafood for one of us, and toured around a bit more. Some souvenir shopping and a few minutes later we boarded a train for the most northerly village Monterosso al Mare. Trains run all along the coast here, through tunnels built in the cliffs. It only takes somewhere around 3-5 minutes to go between villages in Cinque Terre, with a voyage from top to bottom taking around 20-25 minutes or so.
We only ended up exploring for a short time in 4 of the 5 villages as we used the train to hop around and were at the mercy of the sun, as our return trip to our guest house was the hike up from Corniglia. Actually, as it turned out, we caught the last possible train to Corniglia, for us to be able to hike in the quickly fading daylight, and had to hike up from the train station at least 100 m straight up a back-and-forth set of stairs before we even reached the village and the start of the path that would lead us to our beds for the night. Our desire for gelato (unfortunately, an unrequited one) after a long day of exploring made our final push to get back a bit later than expected. We hit the final stretch of pathway as the sun started its final decent to the horizon, Helios himself ready to head for his night palace in the east. Les filles, as we call them, were amazing all day long, rarely complaining about the constant up and down hiking over uneven terrain and even making comments on the incredible scenery. They made it all the way along the arguably hardest section of the Cinque Terre hike and loved it! With pathways almost completely empty, temperatures in the high teens, and a brilliant, yet non-punishing solar companion all day long, makes me wonder why so many people flock to this area during the height of summer – only to fight just to get a few seconds of each view, instead of being able to stop and smell the proverbial roses. Now with this natural wonder on our ‘been there done that’ list we pointed our blue metal stallion in the direction of Genoa (just for lunch) and then France, for our second foray into La République Francaise.
Do you remember the song, ♫ “One Night in Bangkok” from the 1980’s, by Murray Head? You know, the one that goes… “One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble … Can’t be too careful with your company … I can feel the devil walking next to me … ” ♫ Well I feel that tune/motif would be a good song to summarize our brief trip to Switzerland.
♫ “One day in Geneva and your bank account tumbles… I don’t seem to have enough money … and I don’t understand why no one will talk to me.. One day in Geneva and the world is pricier … Be careful what you order for lunch… they don’t take cards and it costs a bunch…” ♫
Ok, so I’m no poet laureate, nor do I claim to have Shakespeare flowing through my fingertips, but a description of Switzerland, from our brief encounters would be: clean, friendliness level somewhere between cold and frozen, and essentially looking just like France.
I don’t have much else to say really about Geneva – except for our trip to the LHC (that’s the Large Hadron Collider) at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research). They are doing some amazing work at trying to figure out the universe, its origins, our future, and probably about a million things I don’t know enough about to even pretend to be able to explain. We only wandered around a couple of interpretive sections available for free to the public, as the actual tour of the facility was for adults only! Or at least kids older than ours – so a bit disappointing to not see how the actual scientific work was done, but it worked out okay, as the interpretative areas were pretty interesting. I still think it was worth the day trip from where we were staying (about 1.5 hours each way).
Something that I didn’t know before our trip to the chocolate country was that Switzerland isn’t actually part of the European Union (EU). It is still independent and has it’s own money – very convenient for a day trip, as you can imagine! I just assumed it had at least adopted the Euro… but nope! So, with another colourful bill in my wallet we wandered looking for adventure and food! Not necessarily in that order. Of course, unless you are preparing to climb a mountain, getting dressed up for skiing, or there to embezzle lots of money, it may be a less than exciting place to be! We found a geocache, visited a tiny overpriced bookstore, saw a huge ejection of water, and ate a mediocre to poor (and overpriced!) restaurant in the supposed interesting part of the city. So, while it was clean with cool old buildings and had a big water spout that jetted into the lake, it lacked any kind of feeling as a city I would want to spend anytime in. I’m sure there are a million reasons to visit and spent time in Geneva and locals or others could tell me all the reasons why Geneva is amazing, but from our experience it was something I could have skipped and not missed anything. Just our opinion.
Have we mentioned how weird it can feel for North Americans to travel in Europe? Driving between countries is nothing. No official border crossing, no line up, nobody there to stop you, no delay. No need to declare anything to anyone. That’s travel heaven! Flying in the European Union is just as easy. It’s like flying domestic anywhere! No customs! And with really cheap flights to a lot of European destinations, it’s no wonder why Europeans are so well travelled. They jump on a plane, like we’d jump on a bus or in our car, to get to places for the weekend. I envy them for that.
But our faithful ground-based blue Citron, oops, Citroën is the transportation mode of choice for our European journey. We left Chamonix and France behind on November 6th after two fun days spent exploring the small alpine village, wishing we could snowboard down some of the amazing looking peaks, but alas, tis is not the season…
After an interminable tunnel under Mont-Blanc (~11 km and more than 40 Euros later…), we popped over into a new country: Italy! We crossed several more tunnels on the Italian side. We seriously must have crossed over 40 km of tunnels in the Alps. A few hours drive and another toll road later, we were in Milan, or as they call it here, Milano, our first Italian destination. I had a brief taste of the city in 2017, during my big birthday treat: Mamboland Milano. Salsa fanatics reading this will understand. After 3 days of intense training and dancing, I had only had the briefest glimpse of the city and what it had to offer, so I just needed to visit it again and explore with the family this time.
We somewhat arbitrarily decided to stay in the Navigli district, in an Airbnb (probably no. ~12(?) since we’ve started our trip), a cool loft a few steps from a canal. It turned out to be quite a good choice. I had no idea that Milan even had canals. They were built to help bring materials into the city centre by boat. They say Leonardo Da Vinci himself likely helped improve the canal design when he was in Milan. It is no Venice (no gondolas) but we saw people rowing and kayaking on the canals in the dark with head lamps at night. The streets bordering the canals in the Navigli district are lined with many cool bars, restaurants and shops. Mid-afternoon, things are fairly quiet, but they pick up come 6 pm for “Apperitivo” time. Apperitivo is essentially Happy Hour where you buy a drink and you get food included. So for somewhere from 5 to 15 Euros depending on the place, you can get a drink and munchies at your table or a buffet to choose from which really could fill you up. But this is what Italians do BEFORE they have dinner which is usually quite a bit later.
We opted for just going for dinner with the girls on our first night in Milan. We headed on foot to a nearby restaurant named Taglio that had good reviews and we were bracing for finding a line-up or a place supposedly reserved but seemingly empty… We were almost concerned when we found the place completely empty at the time AND not reserved! Not only were we able to get in the first restaurant of our choice, but Maxine rapidly (like only kids can) spotted a shelving unit full of toys! What a pleasant surprise! It made the wait so much easier! We tried a few local specialties there and had a pretty good meal. We were off to a good start.
What to do in Milan with (or without) kids
We stayed in Milan 5 days in total. The weather was calling for rain on most days so we mostly looked for things to visit indoors. However, the weather was mostly dry with some sprinkles here and there so we certainly spent a lot of time outside too and walked and saw a lot on foot. I think we’ve averaged about 8 km of walking per day. Let’s face it, trying to accomplish this feat with our children in nature would have simply been unthinkable! So with a pretty easy public transportation system to navigate and cooperating children, we were able to see quite a bit. Here are a few of the highlights of our stay:
Science and Technology Museum Leonardo da Vinci. This is a place I had wanted to visit on my previous trip to Milan but had not been able to. The place is massive and includes several buildings and floors. Plan to spend most of your day there if you want to see it all. We spent about 4 hours, and that’s speed walking through a lot of it, and did not even get to some of the sections. Lots of really interesting exhibits, mostly in Italian, but you get the gist of what most things are. There are quite a few interactive displays, games and videos to keep the kids engaged. There is a whole room full of paintings and inventions from Leonardo Da Vinci that were based on his drawings. Topics of the exhibits are broad and range from agrology to space exploration, with transportation as a big focus of an outdoor area and large buildings containing everything that moves including trains, planes, helicopters, boats, even a submarine! For 35 Euros for all of us, that was a worthwhile visit.
Duomo. That’s the giant gothic church, symbol of Milan, in the heart of the city. Hard to miss. We did not visit the inside nor go on the roof but that is apparently something worthwhile doing for the view and to get a closer look at all those creepy little creatures adorning the church’s roof. I enjoyed seeing and admiring it every time we’d pop over in the area, especially at night with all the lights. Beware of the rose sellers. One “gave” roses to the girls but then of course wanted money… An opportunity to teach something about “gifts” offered to the girls…
Just walk around! So many shops, gelato places and picturesque buildings and streets. Milan is a European fashion mecca so if you have time, money and room in your luggage (unlike us), plan on shopping!
Castello Sforzesco. The castle is located in central Milan and houses a number of museums featuring various collections of artworks, furniture, armours and weapons and even musical instruments. For 5 Euros per adult (free for kids), we were able to visit a number of them. Not a bad way to spend a few hours on a rainy day. I would also imagine the gardens would be quite pretty in the summer.
Natural History Museum. Put a bunch of stuffed animals, bugs, fossils and dinosaur replicas under the same roof and you generally have a winner with kids. Most of the info is in Italian only but with kids, who has time to read anything anyways? Again, 5 Euros per adult and free for kids. I like this free-for-kid thing they seem to have for a lot of attractions and museums in Europe.
Apperitivo. Ok, I have to admit that we did this the cheap way and probably did not get the greatest experience possible. I took the family to a hostel called Ostello Bello on a cute street across from the place where I stayed in 2017. During my previous stay, I went for a drink there while waiting for my roommates. I had unintentionally stumbled upon Apperitivo. I had no idea what that was at the time, and, after paying for my 4 Euro glass of wine, was a bit skeptical and pleasantly surprised with the buffet that was “included”. What? Free food??! So I just took the family there for a quick one. A drink and plate of pasta and bread later and that was basically dinner. After walking around all day, that was perfect timing and amount for the kids!
Salsa! Ok, that one is NOT a family activity that we all enjoy but I could not help mentioning it. If you did not know, I am a big salsa fan, not only the edible variety, and Milan is a hot bed of salsa superstars. If you are into salsa dancing at all, depending on your preferred style, you would be remiss to pass on an opportunity to take classes at the schools of world famous instructors such as Adolfo Indacochea (Latin Soul Dancers (LSD) Milano) or at Sosa Academy, Tropical Gem’s school. It was a bit of a drive to Rho but I took 2 back-to-back classes at LSD’s new studio and left extremely sweaty, inspired and content. That’s the kind of lessons that salseros fly all over the world to various salsa congresses to take. I just wish I could teleport myself there weekly… More on salsa around the world in a future blog.
The rest of our time, we managed to fill with crafts, school stuff, cooking some yummy Italian meals, eating, drinking wine and even getting a foot massage!
So this wraps up Milan. After our fill of cityscape, we were looking forward to experiencing the beautiful countryside so we hopped in the car and headed southeast towards southern Tuscany and the coast. Maybe we’d even find a horse or two for the girls to ride somewhere along the way and a bottle of wine…
Allô mes amis, we are now almost into our third full month of travelling and it has been amazing so far! We have driven across Canada (a post that still needs to be written!), visited Iceland, did a quick stop by in Switzerland (which I will get to later!) and are now (still) in France. So, being in France I thought I would open up this post with the first things you need to do when in France … of course they are clichés, but they are so for a reason! Of course you need to eat cheese and bread, drink wine, ride your bike under the Eiffel Tower whilst wearing a white/blue striped shirt and a beret with a baguette in the front basket, and do generally what Parisians do – sit at one of the thousands of local cafés and enjoy the day; but not to be forgotten, as Paris has such a rich history in art and culture, is just wandering the confusing streets of Paris staring aimlessly at the almost infinite amount of statues and historic sites and soaking it in. Visiting the Louvre should also be on the list, if you can dedicate at least 3/4 of a day to wandering those hallowed halls, as even the most uncultured can’t possibly remain unmoved or uninspired by the remarkable selection of some of the most amazing art and artifacts in human history. Be warned however, that the place is huge, and somewhat confusing to navigate at first, so plan well!
Could we be our own exhibit?
Giddy up god-dude!
Well, we have already mentioned the Parisian experience, but of course the last blog left out a few things. One thing that we have experienced a few times now in Europe, is being excluded from restaurants because of our kids. I thought that it was a bit strange the first time, as we approached a completely empty restaurant, save for 1-2 tables, but then the “maitre’d” saw us and our kids, and suddenly the restaurant was full. Ok, I guess that could be reservations that haven’t shown up yet – so we moved on. The next place was a bit less subtle. It was around 8:00 pm on a Wednesday or Thursday, so I understand that it is prime time, but when we got to the next place, the owner was pleasant and started chatting to us about a table, then she saw the kids come in right behind me, and all of sudden the restaurant was full (although it was almost empty). Nothing she could do. Oh, but if we wanted to sit all four of us at a tiny table outside on the 50 cm wide sidewalk next to the extremely narrow, yet active street, on two chairs, away from the rest of the customers (or lack there of) then maybe they could accommodate us. Yeah, nice try… no thanks. By this point the kids were pretty hungry, so sushi to go was the easiest solution to this issue. Yep, strange, but sushi is our kids go-to fast food! Definitely could be worse, so no complaints there – just not necessarily the most economical everywhere! This also happened to us in Switzerland for lunch… albeit in a busier restaurant, but the look from the owner was the same – sees the kids… oh, we are busy, too busy for you.
Anyway, we are over that… so back to our adventures in France! We have (with the exception for Marianne) been trying to be more open to speaking french; Marianne is holding out! She refuses to speak french… kidding, of course! Even Maëlle has been doing her best to make an effort to speak a bit more in french. It isn’t every time, but she is making more efforts than ever before. She is doing well… she has ‘Est-que je peux’ (Can I?) down pat … and is expanding her dialogue everyday!
Ok, so we have learned the keys to speaking french in France (from a barely mono-lingual neanderthal as myself) are:
On your first attempt at saying something hard, just say it low and mumbly….
After that doesn’t work, on your second attempt to get someone to understand what you said, say it quickly with a more nasally sound and make sure you end your sentence with a rising inflection… so that you are almost asking them something.
Now, while they look at you deciding if you have mental issues, the third attempt to get someone to understand your strange accent should be said higher pitched than the previous attempts and with more attitude. Make it seem like they have the issue with understanding, not that you have no idea what you are saying.
When all of that fails, and it will, point at something random and run away quickly or… ask someone who speaks french to say it exactly how you said it and watch the other person miraculously understand what you wanted.
Actually, I have found that my very moderate french skills have helped tremendously in France. I haven’t had too many instances where I was completely lost. There are a few individuals that I have met that speak faster than others – but the majority speak clearly enough for me to understand what they are saying and or why I need to move le car out of the &%$@#$% way. But yes it has been okay… so thank you grade school french, because of you I can find out the time, determine if something is too expensive or not, and ask for the toilette! But really, my time in Quebec and with the extended family has helped the most!
So, what else have we been up to here? We have been in France for about three weeks now and have gone from Paris, to the wine producing regions of Bourgogne, to the foothills of the Alps in Chartreuse, in the eastern part of France, to the Alps near Switzerland.
The fields of vines near Beaune
Inside the wine press room
We thought it was lavender… it was not.
All has been different, but not drastically so from Canada, in that I mean, all of the areas, with the obvious exception of the old towns and cities, are things that we have in Canada. Mountains, check! Farms, check! Highways with crazy drivers, check! Vineyards, check! But the scale of the vineyards and the amount of history from before 1800 here is incredible. I’m not sure anything in Paris was built since the 1800s – and some of the towns we have driven through were likely hundreds of years older than that! I don’t think I would want to live in a 500 or 800 year old building in Canada – winters might be a bit, well, chilly!
Two of the most interesting stops on our journey from Paris to where we are now, were the Château du Clos de Vougeot and the wine caves in the town of Beaune. Pronouced like Boney. Actually, I have no idea how it supposed to be pronounced, but that works. The Château du Clos de Vougeot was a fascinating look back into the history of wine making in France.
The traditions and history surrounding this estate and its wine are etched in France’s history and wine lore. We did the prerequisite visit, and even tried to snag a geocache there (to no avail!), leaning about the history of wine, the role of this estate in wine production for the wars, and its current role. All intricately detailed through the full estate museum. Too bad no wine samples were on hand! But fear not, we were able to right that wrong at the next stop. The next day, in the town of Beaune, we toured the wine caves under the town, and as part of that luxurious tour of the dank caves, were unlimited wine! I mean samples of wine! We were handed a small metallic saucer and told the caves would be found by following the informational path! So off we trudged, through the barrels and buildings until we met the narrow entrance to the wine caves. Apparently this place stores wine – aging it until it is perfect! We saw thousands of bottles! The oldest they are allowed to sell is a 1936 Pinot Noir, for a reasonable €450 (Euros), although they have older. It was quite interesting, and liquidacious! We tried at least 10 different wines (although I may have had thirds on some of them, and pulled a couple of open ones off the shelf and re-opened them… SHHHHH!!!). It was definitely an interesting visit, but of course, the girls were less impressed about wandering in dark, underground tunnels full of spiders and dust… that is until they met a woman with a dog, and then they were happy as clams. So, wine drinking done, we headed for the Alps!
Where the streets go, I do not know, except when in Beaune.
Under the streets of Beaune lay a huge stock pile of wine. I know where I am headed when the end of the world comes!
Why so serious mom?
Not a clue what type or how old the wine is, but there were thousands of bottles.
M4, dust graffiti artists since 2018.
So, i know where I will be in 2094.
Unlimited wine! Wahoo.
So, 44 year old wine… can’t be too bad eh?
The wine of Bourgogne!
And that brings us to now. Right now we are in a small town in northeast France, not too far from Switzerland, called Saint Jean d’Aulps. No idea how to pronounce that last bit correctly. Oh-pas? Oh-l-ps? Owl-ps? Oh-pehs? Oprah? No idea. It is near Morzine, which is easier to say. It is a small, hamlet in the Alps that becomes a hot bed of skiing activity in the winter. If you like to strap long planks of waxed wood to your feet and hurl yourself down a mountain at ludicrous speeds, then apparently this is a good place to be.
Normally, back in Canada, I would expect a place like this to be prohibitively expensive to enjoy, and maybe the accommodations and food in the winter is inflated to meet the demand, but the cost of the actual skiing appears to be incredibly inexpensive in comparison. I saw full winter passes going for around €300 (Euros) with daily rates starting around €20-25 / day. Crazy talk! Sure, there are fewer runs than Whistler’s 200-ish runs, but guess what, almost everywhere else in the world has fewer runs than that! Plus, can you actually ski 200 runs in a day? Unlikely, I mean I can only hit so many trees a day before I am done! So the 50 or so runs these hills appear to have are more than enough for many people. Plus, I have heard the snow here is pretty good! It’s too bad we won’t still be here during the ski season! Ok, if you are now asking why we are in a ski town in the off season, we have a good reason. After we left the Airbnb in St-Pierre d’Entremont, in the Chartreuse area, a chalet owned and run by Marianne’s old neighbour (a story I will leave for our head of small human creation to expand upon), we left for Morzine to pet sit! Yes, we are house/pet sitting! Yes, that is a thing, and no, we didn’t know these people before! We arranged it through a great online site that allows people to go on vacation and have someone come to their home, stay for free, and look after their pets. Win-win. Free place to stay, someone to look after the house, and no dead pets! (Maybe I should talk to their marketing department, see if they have an opening, I feel I could help them out with gems like that!)
An amazing place to stay!
The trials were not marked that well!
Near a monastery – Chartreuse
Beautiful fall day in the Alps
We are pet sitting a grand old lady, a beautiful golden retriever that is getting up there in years. She is around 11 years old, but still has some energy when the kids are around. We are also looking after a 1 year old black cat. It’s a cat, but is actually friendly. Maxine keeps trying to pick her up and carry her around like a baby – and so far, no scratches! I know, wow! The owners are away for 2 weeks, so we get to chill out here, relax, take in the local scene and look after some furry creatures. The girls really want to get a pet after travelling, so this is a great way to determine if they have any ability to look after one! or two! So far, so good! Maëlle has been great at taking the dog for walks so the dog can do her business! We are proud with how she has taken responsibility for looking after the dog.
While we have tucked our weary bones away in this little village for the past couple of weeks we have had the chance to explore a bit and take advantage of the last great weather of the fall. It has been glorious here, up until the last few days (rain!), with the amazing colours of the changing leaves, and the mountain peaks encircling us like pillars in a magnificent open air theatre. We have reveled in hiking and biking in the sun, been contented to bask on the back deck reading and having a glass of tasty beverage, and even have bounced like kangaroos on crack on the trampoline (mainly the girls… mainly…), because, why not?! Also, while the sun was out we explored the area and went to a couple of interesting local markets, historic sites, and seasonal events where we blended and mingled as if we weren’t from here.
The first weekend we ended up at a wine/beer/food event, eating local, drinking local, and enjoying something that should probably be more prevalent in our life than it is. Connecting with friends and neighbours over food and drink harkening back to times when it was more important to make acquaintances and to share, than to get likes or views on your opinions or photos from anonymous strangers online. And just this past weekend we stumbled upon a little market with goods from monasteries from all over France. Handmade, hand crafted, hand brewed, all made by monks who apparently have a lot of time on their hands! But they do make good stuff! We learnt a bit about the local abbey and that monks make a lot of good things! No idle hands there!
So here we are, out in the wilds of the Alps, keeping some very friendly animals fed, learning a bit about our surroundings, including how to drive in the Alps on some crazy twisty roads, and taking in the relaxation that we have been sorely lacking over the past years.
But, we are getting itchy to keep moving, as has been our M.O. for the last 3 months or so. Oh, and while something have changed, somethings have remained the same. The youngest of our brood decided, yesterday, that shoving something up her nose would be fun! Yay! You know the little baby bel cheese? The wax covered ones? Yes, she told us that she rolled up the wax and put in her nose. Why? I HAVE NO IDEA! Anyway, it was stuck so far up we couldn’t see it and of course it was causing her discomfort. She whined and whined and we tried to get her to blow it out, sneeze it out after sniffing pepper, and even pick it out – but nope! It was stuck fast! We gave up, hoping she would just get it out naturally. But after a while, no chance – so Marianne went in. She grabbed the tweezers and gently dug through the mini gold mine to find the red ball of treasure! Success, she seized it with her expert grasp and pulled forth, with a triumphant sigh of relief, the offender stuck deep in the nostril… and guess what? It wasn’t actually the little wax wrapper, it was the WHOLE PLASTIC WRAPPER on the outside of the wax. Like, what, are you kidding me? How the?? Anyway, our smallest, and well, strange little one was free of her plastic plug, free to breathe again! Oh, the joys of children sometimes! I’m not sure this will be the last time we have to do this.
When the next week comes we will be off! Off to different pastures and different mountains, exploring Europe from our little 4-wheeled oil burner. We shall update more later!
M (Undersecretary to the head of lodging, germ removal, and child bearing)
We knew little about what we were going to do in France when we left Iceland on October 8th. All we knew was that some guy we’d never met said he would let us stay in his apartment right in the heart of Paris for three nights… and not just that, for free! Sounds dubious? Yeah, maybe. But let’s back track and let me explain. Long before we left Canada, I (Marianne) started looking into house and pet sitting abroad. With young kids and on a longer trip, we simply can’t realistically move every other night and, you know, staying in Airbnbs or hotels every night in Europe really adds up. I’m not sure how I came across the TrustedHousesitters website but it intrigued me. I also learned that there are several of these websites out there whose sole purpose is to hook up people in need of care for their home or pets while away and people willing to travel and care for them. Our girls are slightly obsessed with animals in case this was not apparent in previous posts, so I thought, perfect! I set-up a couple of accounts and started looking for the right sit(s) for us.
One of our goals in France besides visiting Paris is to stay long enough somewhere that the girls have a chance to make friends and get more comfortable speaking French (and where they do not have a choice!!!). With very little other requirements, it left us pretty open to explore sits in a variety of locations. One of the first ad I came across seemed too perfect! A place right in Paris with 2 cats for 4 nights starting on the day we landed in Paris! The ad, being in a very desirable location, had already had a bunch of applicants so with our lack of previous sits/reviews, I doubted we’d get it but I applied anyway. To our surprise, we were offered the sit after a chat on Skype with the owner and his fiancee! The only thing was that the cats would be at the fiancee’s apartment in St-Cloud, just outside the Paris centre and it would be for 3 nights only. Still sounded good to us so we accepted. Couple days later, the owner contacts us to tell us one of the cats is sick and would need to be given a pill daily during our sit and that, to let the cat have his own space to recover, his new roomate cat would be sent to a catery. Giving pills to a cat sounds like “good family fun” as the owner (Andrew) said. We figured we were 4 so we should be able to handle one cat. No problem! The day before our departure: more news… The trip of the owners to Italy was cancelled last minute due to a health issue. But “not to worry” he said. “you can have my apartment in the centre of Paris and you don’t even have to cat sit anymore”! Say what??? Wow! That almost did sound suspiciously too good to be true but we had a good feeling about this and, with less than 24 hours before landing in Paris, well, that was our only plan! So off we went to meet Andrew at his apartment and we were amazed to find someone at the door waiting for us with keys in hand and beds ready for us in a wonderful renovated “appartement parisien” a few steps from Oberkampf metro station! Unbelievable hospitality! We had a great time in his place as it made for a perfect location from which to explore Paris.
The mandatory attractions
Of course we did the usual things people do in Paris:
The Louvre: We went to the Louvre Museum and walked around the gigantic place for nearly 6 hours with the girls and heard nearly no complaints!!! I KNOW!!! That shocked even them! Saw all the big attractions and the less famous ones. We spent quite a while in the Egyptian section. I think Maxine’s favourite was the section that had the 16th – 18th century castle furniture that Maelle and I had to zoom past to find a bathroom. Maxine loved it so much she wanted to live there!
Tour Eiffel: So the day we arrived, we thought we’d check to see if we could get tickets to go up the tower a couple of days later. Nope! Friendly tip: if you plan on going up the tower, book weeks ahead! There was no way we could get advance tickets… so we thought we’d check to see if we could get a ticket at the tower for that day or even just to walk up to the first level. Yikes! Ticket booths for the elevators were closed and a line about 400 m long stretched underneath the tower full of people with tickets! Even the line to get tickets to climb the nearly 400 steps to the first level was fairly long and, even though Maxine was willing to do it, we decided to continue contemplating it from below. We were warned that lots of pick-pockets work around the city and that if someone approached you to sign a petition, to closely watch your wallet. We did see several people with such “petitions” around the tower. We also saw what happens to the guys selling little Eiffel towers off blankets when the “gendarmes” (French police) on bikes come by. They disappear!
Arc de Triomphe: we did a quick Metro stop by the Arc to go ooh and aah!
Sainte-Chapelle: we decided on a guide’s recommendation to check it out. It is an example of Gothic church which were apparently built to let in a lot of light and the chapelle apparently has one of the largest Rose windows in the world (after Notre-Dame the Paris which we only looked at from the outside). The line to get in late afternoon was not very long, and from the outside, the church does not look that special. When we first got in I was disappointed… Ok, cool arches but where is the light and the glass stained windows? Oh wait, there is another level… Then we went up the tiny, twisting stairs and… Woah!!! There were giant windows lining the walls of the entire room and all of them had intricate stain glass in perfect condition of all colours possible letting the light in. Worth seeing.
Eat crepes: Lots of places make crepes and they are fairly inexpensive. We stopped at a random convenience store that made them and they were yummy! We were not as lucky with our dining out experiences but perhaps Mike will elaborate on that some other time. A combination of poor timing of our meals, no reservations and too much choice resulted in cranky people and some disappointing meals.
The different stuff
I had been to Paris by myself a couple times before, so I had seen some of the sights. With more time, we tried a few different and perhaps unusual things:
Sandeman’s tours: Ever heard of Sandeman’s? We had not. We’re not usually big on tours. An Australian tourist we met in Iceland mentioned that Sandeman’s offers free tours in a lot of cities in Europe. The guides essentially volunteer and design their own tour and you just tip them what you want at the end if you’re happy with the tour. Sounded like a fun thing to do to learn a bit more while still being a low enough commitment that we could bail out early if the girls did not make it through the 2.5 hours. Well, our guide was very interesting and the girls managed to stay entertained through the whole thing! So definitely something I’d recommend.
Staying just outside Paris: After our 3 days at Andrew’s, we thanked our amazing host and said farewell but were also looking forward to our Airbnb. We’d booked a little place in a house right on the Marne River. Why stay there you’d ask? Well, the reviews were great and the owners had kids and a yard that the kids could play in. Our daughters were craving having kid-friendly stuff (after 3 days of no-touching anything at Andrew’s place – as it was too nice!) and other kids around by that point so it seemed like a good idea and it was. The area was super cute and quaint but yet, just 12 minutes to a train station and only about 30 minutes from key attractions. It was nice to take a slower pace and see a different side of Paris. The east side to be exact!
Scooter around Parc du bois de Vincennes: Our Airbnb hosts were kind enough to let us use their “trotinettes”. So we took them out on an outing and headed towards the parc du bois de Vincennes. We thought “cool, there are gardens, a castle and even a zoo”! Sounded perfect! until we hit bumpy/gravelly sidewalks and trails… Not as fun on scooters. And not as fast. So Mike said “Let’s ride on this street” that has limited traffic and was only one-way. Hmmm, weird, there were lots of white vans parked on the side with people inside, oh actually it was just women inside…. ooohhhh! Mike clued in what was going on by about van #2 and I must say we picked up the pace on the scooters considerably! Seems like the proverbial street walkers had stepped it up a notch. Despite our accelerated pace we didn’t get to see the Chateau de Vincennes, nor the nearby zoo (too far) but we had a great time scootering around for a couple of hours. Even Maxine rode for a while by herself but ended up riding with Mike for most of it.
Go salsa dancing! Ok, this one is not a family friendly activity but, for those who know me, it had to be done! So I did a bit of research and asked around and decided on two events: Agua and Latinbox Party. The details will be left for another post on salsa around the world. Stay tuned salsa fanatics!
So that pretty much sums up Paris. We left it on Sunday headed to the parc naturel regional de Chartreuse to visit a friend but not without a pit stop on yet another famous wine road. More on that in our next blog!
We have made it to France. We landed in Paris on Monday and have been exploring the city for the past few days – so much to see and do here. We will have a longer update shortly about the last bit in Iceland and the first few days here in France.
I must say that Iceland did its best to keep us there. Wind storms, ice, early morning flights – everything seemed easier in Iceland when you didn’t have to go anywhere! The morning of our flight we had to get up at 3:30 am and get to the airport for our 7:30 am flight. We were staying in Reykjavik which was about 45 minutes away from the airport, so not too far, but far enough. Also, to make matters more difficult, when we woke up, the temperature had dropped to – 3 C or so, from the 8 C the day before. So everything was frozen and icy! Of course, being in Iceland it should be no problem to go and scrap off the car. But, guess what, yep, no scraper. Seriously? The place is called ICELAND, not warm tropical land; not Greenland (which wouldn’t forget to have a scraper – probably), not anywhere else, but nope… no scraper. So I used the trusty Canadian backup – yep, the credit card. Actually, it was my Aeroplan card. Why do I have that with me? No idea… Maybe for some reason I will fly Air Canada in the next year… nah, no idea really. So, car scraped, and heater going, all set. So I skate back to the apartment we rented to get the bags, slide back to the truck…. go past… then go back and load the bags. So much fun! Anyway, I can say that we are lucky the truck came with studded winter tyres, otherwise it would have been a bit of a slow slippery ride to the airport.
As it is obvious, we made it! Here in France. So far it has been mostly good. Saw a few cool sites, got a Geocache in France, and had a few good meals. Eating out in France is easy-ish, which I will explain later, and people here are definitely trendier than elsewhere I have seen. I mean it is 25 C in the day here and they are all wearing fall/winter clothes – including puffy jackets!? What? I am in shorts and finding it warm… they are in pants and jackets. Crazy.
Ok, we are getting our Europe plans worked out, and post-Europe planned, which will be updated here soon. As promised a longer post coming soon.