It's really long, even after I edited. Elvira is a bit long-winded....
London/Paris/Bordeaux/Parranquet and all stops in between…
Logistics nightmare begins: We must get 11 women from the East Coast and the West Coast to Europe at different times, and at different locations, but in such a way we all meet up. Einstein's hair would've stood on end at the prospect (oh wait it did).
6 Arizona girls grab the non-stop British Air flight from Phoenix to Gatwick on 9/17 evening, all carryons (suitcases, not girls). We had pre-ordered fruitplates (we ate dinner before we left) and they were just what the doctor ordered (actually, I ordered them, and I'm no doctor) for a long dry flight. We put on the nifty little booties, eye masks, drank our melatonin tea ("scuse me, Ms Flight Attendant, may we have six cups of hot water?"), took our Excedrin PM, administered a coupla squirts of nasal saline spray, spritzed our faces with Evian aerosol, sucked on a Vitamin C or two, and bwaynosse no chez, see ner reeter. Woke up about 2 hours before landing for ANOTHER fruitplate (gettin' a little old now) and got everybody coherent enough to disembark (lovely sleep - no crying babies or chatty grownups to interfere. Maybe the signs we wore "disturb me and you'll meet your Maker" helped). Without the hypnotizing effect of the baggage carousel, we were able to get through Customs and Immigration in no time at all, with lots of time to visit a loo whose toilet didn't threaten to suck you into the heavens.
Lovely, LOVELY, Simon met us just outside of Customs (I had ordered a van to pick us up - 6 weary American broads are not good on a city subway), got us to the curb and brought around his van. A little tight, but oh my it was wonderful (HIGHLY recommend you check out a car hire if there are more than 3 of you). Simon was just a delight, and got us to the Roland House where we had rented two apartments. The apartments were basic, with a 2-burner hob (new word I can show off), small oven and refrigerator, and a microwave. Full bathroom, 2 single beds and a sofabed that slept two. Just 15 minutes to the nearest underground stop, with a 24 hour grocer on the way (wine, bread, orange juice, and potato chips - put 7-11 to shame). Bought underground weekend passes for everyone; time AND money saver.
Thames River boat cruise the first evening; I've never seen the city from the river! It was terrific; Parliament, Big Ben, the OXO tower, St Paul's and Tower Bridge (hey did you guys paint it blue? I never noticed it was BLUE before) bathed in ethereal light. London is really pretty, not just majestic.
Hampton Court: it rained, didn't see the gardens or the maze, DID see the kitchens - and the kitchen SHOP (had to buy the elderberry wine - visions of Monty Python's Holy Grail danced in my head). There are guides dressed in Elizabethan outfits, but sorry folks, I couldn't understand a thing she said - sounded like "wah duh whoa har har" - so I bought a book instead. Very easy train ride (station is just across the bridge from the palace) from London.
Buckingham Palace: Wow, very nice very nice. Beautiful furniture, china, silverware - eventhough it's a state palace, you can tell people LIVE there (energy). Talked to a cop who was outside in the backyard (do palaces have backyards?) and asked about the interesting ducks. He said there had been flamingos but a fox got over the wall and ate 'em (flamingos aren't your brightest fowl) so they brought in the ducks. He also asked if we'd take back the Canadian geese that were digging up the lawn "since the States are right next door". Beautiful gift shop - it was nice to be able to buy really nice souvenirs (linens, glassware). They also had the tour of the palace on video, with a US version clearly marked. Very amusing sidebar: I ordered the tickets via fax several months ago, giving my office phone number for contact. About a month before we left, one of my fellow workers answered the phone and yells "Elvira, Buckingham Palace is on the phone for you!" (seems they wanted the list of names who would be using the tickets). I told the gang they were making sure I still wanted to have tea with the Queen - they bought it. Not the sharpest tools in the shed, so to speak.
Tower of London: Pouring rain, we get there, hand-printed sign with drippy, runny lettering "Tower closed due to power outage"….juuuuusstt dandy. So we went into the gift shop and bought stuff.
Harrod's: Bought Michelin maps for about $5 instead the $15 they are in the States, and the new Ruth Rendell mystery (very good, by the way). For a cook, the Food Court is like a glimpse of heaven - like, you can get veal roasts WITHOUT ORDERING A WEEK IN ADVANCE. Gorgeous meat, fish, produce, cheese….I could drool, I mean go, on….
St Paul's - first time inside (sorry sorry sorry) and it's worth the wait. It's so darn - oh - BRITISH. Wren, Wellington and Nelson, all under the same roof. Four of the girls got to St Martin's and loved it - brass-rubbings, concert - and the Crypt for lunch (they said the food was really good).
Dinner at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese - very, VERY good food (British cuisine - one Loon got bangers and mash and dubbed it 'excellent'). We sat in Dr Johnson's and Charles Dickens' favorite spots. Oldest restaurant in London (1667). I like the bullseye glass windows.
Mystery Bus Tour - Evans and Evans runs it, picked us up at Victoria station, took us to Sweeney Todd's shop, all the Ripper sites, London Dungeon, and Cumberland House. This is a tradition with us; each guide we've had has been an actor, so the commentary is very animated (and they can tolerate our shenanigans). We gave the driver (Steven) and the guide (Dominick) our groucho noses/glasses as lovely parting gifts.
Four of the girls went to Beauty and the Beast and raved about the production. The other four of us (the cultural cretins who don't like theatre) went to Starlight Express and thoroughly enjoyed it (I saw it about 5 years ago in Vegas; they've added a lot since then, so it was great fun). Ordered the tickets via the Internet, confirmed by phone, and both theatres' will-calls had the tickets, no problem.
Early morning Eurostar to Paris. Two notes here: 1) one girl joined the trip to Paris just a couple of weeks before we left so had no ticket (I had bought 7 tickets through Raileurope months before) and had to buy at the station - one way was $245!! Then she asked about r/t, and it was $170, but the clerk said "oh I can't sell you that now that I know you're just going one way". You'da thought we were in France… 2) we travel second-class, but one of the guys where I work said he did first-class, and it was worth the extra money. Will have to try it next time…
It was sunny when we arrived, checked into the Delhy Hotel (double rooms have shower/sink in the room, toilet is down the hall) and headed to the Cote Seine for lunch. Had reservations and they were ready for us. GREAT food as always (small place, art on the walls which is for sale, English-speaking staff, le menu for 130ff - a lot for lunch, but for a special meal, it can't be beat). Then to Notre Dame and the Deportation Memorial (open this time - sometimes it's closed) for in-your-face history. The Crypte was closed - we began calling this "the ferme tour" - then some souvenir shopping along the quais. Dinner at a crepe restaurant near Rue St Andre des Arts and then to bed. The next day, early morning pickup by a stretch limo (once again, train vs van vs limo - limo for 8 was only a few dollars more than train tickets!) to take the girls to Versailles (I was laid low by a stomach something-or-other) then on to Giverny. The museum pass worked great at Versailles (they beat the busloads of Bubbas waiting in line). The gardens were still blooming, but the girls were disappointed in the gift shop - no books about the gardens, or seeds, or paint - just prints and cards. Nate says it wasn't end-of-season merchandise, the shop was full. They were hoping to get something Monet to bring back that wasn't available in the States, but no dice.
Chez Michou: A cabaret in Montmartre with female impersonators. We had dinner at the cabaret, and it was terrific (restaurant-quality food, the performers are also the waitstaff). Michou himself greeted us at the door - kiss kiss - and the maitre d' was our waiter (he spoke English). They were very attentive to us (I think 8 American women were a bit of a novelty) and we had a great time. The costuming is exquisite, everything is in French but who cares - everyone has such a laugh that language isn't really necessary. It was pouring rain when we left, that's when we had the problem at Barbes-Rochechouart (four boys were going to mug us until a couple of Metro workers hollered and warned them off) so we quickly left and caught cabs instead.
Louvre: even getting there at 9:00am the line to get tickets was a block long. With our museum pass, we went through a side entrance (maybe a dozen people in that line) and scooted right into the Pyramid and up the escalator to see the Big Three (Nohead, Noarms, Nolowerbody). Then the jewels (what else would 8 full-blooded American women check out?), Egyptian stuff, French paintings, and the really big statues. Pere Lachaise Cemetery (we can't find Jim anymore - his headstone is gone, though he's still there). Has anyone ever found Maria Callas? She's in one of the walls near the crematorium, but I've never found her and two of the girls looked too and couldn't find her. The Eiffel Tower next (no line, maybe 5 people) with the usual oooohhhh reaction when stepping outside on the third level. Had dinner in a bistro in the 5th. We took a long walk toward the 15th, just looking in windows and feeling Paris. She seems to be more beautiful at dusk and dawn, much like a woman is beautiful in candlelight. You can almost hear her sigh as she rids herself of the day's mundane worries and slips into her evening clothes. She is exquisite - she is sexy - and she expects, and receives, the adoration she's due.
Shopping: Printemps and Galeries Lafayette have 10% discounts, free stuff (totebags), and detaxe. They also have some of the niftiest housewares and needlework on the planet (weird, but we bought dishtowels and crochet thread).
Early morning train to Tours to change to Amboise - the lockers and baggage check are closed for security reasons. At Amboise, I find a van/taxi driver, and ask if he can take the girls and their luggage to the Chateau (we figured the Chateau might have someplace to store the stuff; either that, or 2 girls would stay with the stuff, then two more would come out and relieve them so that they could visit the chateau). The driver asks "why not check it here?" I point to the sign and say "ferme"…he pooh-poohs and gets the attention of one of the train clerks, who directs us around to the side where he opens a closet (it had a couple of brooms in it) and had us stack our stuff in it. The van driver takes ½ the girls to the chateau and comes back for us. He wouldn't take their money, he said "oh I'll get the money from the other girls when I pick them up"….that's when I was convinced the Body Snatchers had taken the French. Chateau Amboise is really interesting (not only for the Da Vinci connection, but for its own importance in French history) and, of course, the chapel contains the body of the master. We then walked to the Clos Luce, da Vinci's home - what a happy place. The girls said it was like Giverny - obviously the home of a happy person. Alice pointed out "so, maybe it's the difference between the creative - artists - and the destroyers - kings". Something to ponder the next time you visit a castle or the home of an artist (I felt the same way about the Rodin Museum, too). Had lunch in the little creperie, which was very nice (I made reservations there because it was easier than getting 8 girls back into Amboise to find a place to take us). Then the TGV from Tours to Bordeaux.
Bordeaux: Hotel Studio/Bristol. Not very nice rooms; inexpensive, but not very pleasant. No recommendation here. We picked up two cars at the airport (three girls arrived for the second week) with no problem. Plenty roomy (sat five, but there would be 8 of us for the week, four per car) and stick shift (finding reverse, as always, is an adventure). We had wanted to visit a wine chateau, but we didn't get the chance. Ate dinner at the somethingorother Lion near the hotel - French waitress who spoke English with a slight Ulster accent - she'd worked in Belfast for almost a year to learn English - very amusing! Good food, and lots of it (satisfied a couple of the girls who were missing the all-you-can-eat buffets in Vegas).
Left three girls in Bordeaux as they were returning Sunday; we 8 drove on to the house in the Dordogne. 2 ½ hours later, found the teeny-weeny town of Parranquet, Isabelle at the tabac who had the key to the house, and finally, the house….a 14th century manor house with a view over fields and a meandering lake. The house was perfect; thick, stone walls, a big eat-in kitchen that was fully-equipped (4 burner stove, oven, microwave, two refrigerators, dishwasher), a washer and dryer, 2 full bathrooms, 4 bedrooms, lovely living room - and antiques everywhere. Beds were comfy, lots of blankets, and real pillows. There were a couple of electric heaters in each room (didn't really need them - from London on we had warm weather). Previous renters had left liquid soap, dishwasher soap, laundry soap, mustard, spices, teabags, etc. so we didn't have to buy any of that. In Monpazier (the nearest 'big city') we found a patisserie and boulangerie which we took full advantage of (ok you know baguettes? Well, we found TORPEDO bread. No lie, the thing was 3 foot long and 2 feet around). We'd stop at a supermarche on the way home at night and buy for dinner - great cheese, yummy produce, more wine than you can shake a stick at (if that's your idea of a good time). We would eat lunch out - and usually more than we really needed - then dinner at the house.
Dordogne things to see: the medieval towns: Monpazier, Beynac, Rocamadour, La Roque-Gageac, Hautefort, St Emilion, and on and on. Monpazier is a bastide, a walled city. Nice little café in the center square, a good seafood restaurant further out, lots of good shops (food, glass blower, fabric) and very nice people. Beynac is beautiful, and the castle is stupendous (perched on a cliff - you can see it for miles). Rocamadour was having a balloon (gonfleur type) festival so it was jam-packed. Wonderful city; took the funicular to the top. Fun to watch the balloons lift off!
La Roque Gageac: We'd planned to go canoeing, but the day threatened rain, so we took the gabarre (barges that used to haul wood, casks, and wines) on a trip up and down the river. The commentary was all in French, but the captain gave us a sheet describing most of it in English, and my French was good enough to fill in the rest. It was just dandy! Then, we climbed the stairs to the top of the rock and the cave - I discovered that, not only do I love heights, but I am enthralled with caves. I wanted to wiggle through the small openings to see what was on the other side - only my companions, arms akimbo, tapping their feet "excuse me little miss smarty-pants, just where do you think YOU'RE going???" kept me from becoming a headline in Sud-Ouest.
The Chestnut Tour - in Dournazac, led by Mr Paul Dufrois. What an eye-opener; there is a whole culture and industry around this arcane nut. Did you know there are old-fashioned chestnuts (chataignes) and modern chestnuts (marrons)? That the same disease that destroyed nearly all the chestnut trees in the U.S. nearly destroyed the French growth too? That the prickly covering is called a 'bugue'? We watched the last feuillardier, with his handmade tools, clean and shape the branches and trunks into fence posts and tomato stakes. Then to the husband and wife, who are now retired but used to make furniture from the chestnut wood. Now, they continue to demonstrate the furniture making, but sadly no longer can sell it (we would have ordered living room sets if they were still selling). There's the big steam vat where the branches are softened so that the bark comes away in a strip, and they can be curled and bent into chair legs and arms. She shaves other branches into thin strips which she weaves into chair backs and seats or headboards or drawer fronts. A beautiful loveseat, the color of caramel, had been made 27 years ago for a factory's cafeteria. When the plant closed, they returned the piece to him. It was in as good condition as the day it was made. Later, in St Emilion, we saw that woven style chair, made to look like the chestnut pieces, but it was in molded plastic. Pretty much summed up modern culture.
Went horseback riding! First time for me (ok so I rode a camel for two days in the desert, but I've never been on a horse - I tend to do things in reverse order), and had a horse name Chiquita - so perfectly karma-like for a Southwestern girl (I asked the wrangler - I guess that's what you call 'em - who pronounced the name "shee kee tah" "comme les bananes?" which made her giggle. "ah oui oui!") So Chiquita did just fine; of course, she didn't obey me a tall a tall when we passed under an apple tree and she decided to stop for high tea. But other than that, she followed the mandate "no running, no skipping, no jumping, no hopping, no bucking" just great. I may just try it again on home ground; of course, I only know how to ride French horses…
St Emilion: do stop, whatever your plans. It's a wonderful little town, with really good restaurants and great shopping (as in, no cheesey souvenirs but beautiful paintings and carvings and tapestries). You could spend a couple of days just walking the streets and relaxing in the medieval atmosphere.
Temniac: We made our way there because of the purported fantastic view. The bonus? A chateau, mostly in ruins, that had been owned by the Bishops of Sarlat. Now owned by a husband and wife who are lovingly restoring it, doing it all by themselves. A little sign, in French: follow path for a visit. On this old wooden door, "sonnez pour visiter". So I pulled the string, and there was a clanging - like the bell on a boat. No sound, then the ruffruffsnuffle of a dog, then a woman's voice shushing the dog. The great door opens, and the chatelaine is there. She's quite wonderful, with bright blue eyes and dressed in a sweatshirt and work pants. If she had been dressed in velvet and pearls, she would have been no more impressive. She says she will give us the tour in English, if we don't mind her poor English - which turns out to be nearly perfect. The fascinating story of their work to restore the castle, and learn about its history; that, during the winter, they go to Perigeux to research the archives. They have dug down several feet - by hand - to unearth the ancient foundation. There are old stone walls from early centuries; pieces of mantels and lintels that no longer fit the current fireplaces and doorways, and indicate a hidden past. And the mystery of mysteries: a cistern, with a large cellar beneath, that is constantly filled with clear, clean water. There are no pipes into the vat; the cistern fills during the night, even during droughts. A visitor, who is a geologist, is working on the conundrum - and, as yet, with no results. Next door is an old church, with a beautiful floor done in the "pisan" style (flat stones, SET ON END, to form a mosaic pattern).
Bordeaux: Not enough time in this delicate city. Any place that has shops devoted exclusively to exquisite hats deserves a closer look.
Chateau Hautefort: Lovingly recreated after a fire burned most of it in 1968. It reminded me of the Disney's Fantasyland castle, pretty and made for the tourists. I expected Cinderella to scurry out to greet us (it was, after all, where Ever After was filmed). Where were the coachman mice and the pumpkin carriage? Unless you are in the neighborhood, skip it. There are other chateaux far more interesting, and authentic. Did find out something interesting that might explain a French mystery: seems that in days gone by, people slept sitting up (lying down was too much like being in a coffin, so it was deemed bad luck). That ludicrous log that professes to be a pillow in French hotels would be exactly what you'd need to support your back while sitting up in bed….hmmm….
Romanesque churches: Gothic is stupendous because it is colossal; Romanesque is stupendous because it is a testament to man's ability to think and plan and reason. I like those big domes and small windows. Of course, there are just the little chairs lined up and someone asked "why don't they have pews?". Be thankful they have the little chairs; centuries ago, you STOOD through Mass. That must have been just ducky: hot, crowded….and a bit ripe….and stone floors. I think my only prayers would have been "please Lord don't let me die here".
So there it is, in a chest nutshell, the Traveling Loons' Most Excellent Adventure.
Oh yeah the cow story: 2 cars, 2 girls who regularly drive stick. 2 more girls who haven't driven stick for years. So an Old Hand takes out Rusty driver on the country road to re-teach her manual drive. No problem, comes back like riding a bicycle. Next day, Rusty drives three girls to caves or boats or something, and takes a wrong turn. Ruh Roh Rhonda - we're on a one lane road on a HILL (anybody reading this now who drives a stick has damp pits already, right?). So Rusty starts the three-point turn. Mind you, we are about fifty feet above a cow pasture containing about 2 dozen of the aforementioned bovines. Rusty can't get the car in reverse; each time she touches the gas, we inch closer to the edge of the cliff (notice how 'hill' has become 'cliff' - it's for the drama). Now all the cows have begun to look at us. Finally, she gets it into reverse, but now can't get it into first. Each time she touches the gas, the car rolls further back. By this time, we have the cows' full attention. Finally, the car slams into first, Rusty floors it and lays a strip of rubber about five foot long. Those cows jumped straight up in the air with eyes showing so much white they looked like volleyballs. We figure those cows won't produce milk for a good eight months.
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It's really long, even after I edited. Elvira is a bit long-winded....