It starts with a gentle nudge. The people standing on the platform begin to slowly slide backwards across your window. The rhythmic bumps quicken and the graffiti blossoms on the walls in the outskirts of the station. The tracks converge. The train bends around a sweeping right corner and moves past the the edge of the village. You sink deeply into your over-sized seat as the train smoothly accelerates across open countryside.
Soon the soft hiss of the track and the flashing power poles hypnotize you. You are flying toward a distant horizon and unknown adventures. You have time to talk, to read, to dream-maybe a little wine and some music. The long track defines your movement but not your thoughts. They certainly don’t have to be linear.
Through the Window, Colorful Scenes, Distant Goals
Of course you left on time. You have learned that you better be on the train on time. No particular fanfare. It just leaves. And you have double-checked the destination. At times you still wonder if you are on the right train…. In Morocco the station announcements are in Arabic and French. They are not always loud enough or clear enough over the speakers. You crane to see the first sign in each station and then check your map.
The Beautiful New Station, Fes, Morocco
Long distance train travel is a singularly interesting experience. It is not comfortable nor punctual everywhere. Even a single trip can vary in punctuality as you pass from one country to another. But in some places it is both very comfortable and very punctual. Certainly, at its best, it is like clockwork.
Speaking of Switzerland, one of my favorite routes is from Geneva to Lausanne along the north shore of Lake Geneva. Below the train, vineyards and beautiful homes descend to the lake shore. In the distance the snowy Alps form the horizon.
The long ride from Geneva to Budapest traverses many kinds of terrain. The towering Austrian peaks give way to the flat Carpathian Basin. The signs, the stations, the towns, the people change as your progress. They keep moving.
Your world is inside the train. It is your reference. The rest of the world is on the move.
Sometimes you have an entire train car to yourself. Other times people are standing in the hall and luggage is in a teetering stack above you.
Swiss, Upper Deck, 1st Class, Empty, Win!
You get to see the in-between places. You also see the rough parts of towns. And lots of graffiti. You are passing along an industrial transportation route. It is not always pretty.
Then another world bursts past your window. The pressure and sound hit you like a shock wave. Faces blur through your view. Another train passes in the other direction and just as abruptly disappears.
Train travel can be savored. Well, I savor all travel, but…. You spend a few moments in distant villages and roll through interesting towns. You see the station sign and have a few glimpses down the streets. Then you are in-between again. Moving on.
I enjoy almost everything about train travel. The stations, despite their minor dangers, present a mixture of people that you may not have time to see anywhere else.
Keleti Palyaudvar International Station, Budapest, Hungary
For a travel photographer trains give a tremendous introduction to new countries. If you travel light, it is easy to carry everything that you need on trains. There is usually more room for luggage than on a plane.
Going Light, Going Far, Working to Make Art
You keep moving, rumbling toward your goals. Trains provide a rich setting for anticipation and imagination. Long rides may eventually get a little tiring, but the further you go the more memories you carry. You are more a part of the countryside you are moving through than when you look down from 35,000 feet.
Friends, Castles, Adventures, Une Bonne Vie Dans Le Train, Najac, France
Here comes the train. Find your seat. Store your luggage. Sit back, put up your feet, and savor. Adventure awaits!
Yes, traduction, from the French verb traduire (to translate). I think.
This illustration explains why I haven’t been posting very frequently to this blog recently:
Conjugating and Memorizing....
I am in my second semester of French at Humboldt State University. And I am putting a lot of time into studying and learning. I have had great professors and classmates. Everything is ideal for learning, well except for maybe my aptitudes or abilities. Or my age.
Naaah, it couldn’t be my age.
I would very much like to be able to comfortably converse and express myself in French. I have been able to learn the written material and memorize rules etc. But comprehending spoken French or expressing even simple things in French have been real struggles. I need more opportunities to speak and listen. But it is a hard hurdle to get over.
This is a brief post just to partially explain the infrequent posts recently. I have also been busy with several exhibitions and advance trip planning for upcoming travel. I am getting excited for the next trips! More information soon.
Pickers, pluckers, pryers, and scoopers scramble over the rocks as the tide recedes. Each person has their own favorite tools and positions. Some people concentrate on the rocks, while others wade at the edge of the water. The waders have homemade tools that amount to a stiff butterfly net on a pole. They scrape and scoop in the shallow water filtering out the sand looking for treasures.
Poudrantais, near Pénestin, Brittany, France
The treasures that these Breton villagers are seeking are mollusks. Mollusks play an important role in Breton cuisine and coastal income. The plastic shell buckets on every table in restaurants attest to the popularity of ‘moules et frites’, the pervasive mussels and fries.
When the tide goes out in Brittany it goes way out. The seafloor is gently sloping. The expanse of exposed rock draws villagers who are happy leave their other chores and pick up free seafood.
Mollusks are grown and harvested commercially in many villages. Networks of vertical posts are seeded with mussels. When the posts are exposed at low tide mature shellfish are harvested using a boom on a barge. The barges work offshore while the locals clamor for their own harvest. Some of these posts are visible offshore, in the distance in the upper photo.
Boat Removal, Poudrantais, near Pénestin, Brittany, France
It is very common for boats to settle onto the sand or rocks in bays and harbors with each low tide. When people are done with their boats for the season they are removed by tractors at low tide. The boats are lifted off of the mud onto trailers and taken up the boat ramps to waiting trucks or to nearby storage.
There is plenty of activity at low tide. I sat and watched as people followed the tide out and worked the rocks. The scraping and prying sounds were sometimes drowned out by the noisy work barges as they methodically moved along the posts. In the foreground old tractors moved slowly back and forth extracting boats. Eventually all of this activity moved gradually back toward shore as the tide moved back in. It is an ancient cycle.
Villagers walked up the ramps past me carrying their finds. Their buckets and wire baskets were heaped with mussels. One regular put his mounded basket on the back of his bicycle and pedaled toward town. His rubber boots helped on the rocks and in the tidepools, but they weren’t the best shoes for cycling. He looked like he was there every day, so it must work for him.
While a large group of school children fill the cathedral with chaotic but joyful singing I look straight up at the ceiling. I still feel exhilaration being inside an immense classical Gothic cathedral. There are thousands of tons of stone overhead.
Looking Straight Up at Cathedral Ceiling, Villefranche-de-Rouergue, France
The stones appear to be unsupported. The lime and sand in the mortar couldn’t keep 100+ pound stones hanging 10 stories above.
How do they remain floating overhead? What keeps them in place? How did they construct those soaring curved ceilings? And what about the weight of the stones above the stained glass windows? How did they keep them in place while the mortar dried?
I can understand gravity and mortar holding stones in place in a plain vertical wall. But these stones gradually and symmetrically curve away from vertical and are just sitting there straight over my head!
It seems that through centuries of trial and (cataclysmic) error medieval stone masons, engineers, and architects implemented three key construction features. They were: the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, and the flying buttress. This is a simplification, of course, (gleaned from a PBS Nova program transcript).
The first problem was that with the typical Roman arch the weight of the stones pushed outward. The solution was the pointed arch which directed some of the weight of the stones in an arch downward.
But there was still sideways pressure. The cathedrals were more than 10 stories tall and were mainly supported by columns in the main hall (nave). The columns and outer walls were still being pushed apart from sideways pressure. The solution was the flying buttress which, if placed correctly on the outside of the cathedral, counteracted the sideways pressure.
But that still left these floating stones over my head unexplained!
The solution as you can see in this photo is the ribbed vault. The ribbed vault was a combination of two intersecting pointed arches. The ceiling stones are placed in a convex arch above the ribs placing the weight onto them. And the ribs distributed the weight of the ceiling stone onto the columns rather than onto the walls.
This is a very brief and simplistic explanation. But they are interesting solutions. These advances took centuries to discover and implement. Individual Gothic cathedrals could take several generations to build and the knowledge passed slowly from older stone masons to apprentices.
There are many things I still don’t understand. Did they have to build scaffolding and supports under the ceiling during construction? If so, how long did they have to wait for the mortar to dry? How big of an area of ceiling could they complete before they had to wait for drying? When winter arrived did the rain wash away some of the mortar that hadn’t finished drying?
I look up and around at the ceiling. It is intricate. The stones curve in complex patterns.
The children are still singing. It is a performance of young scouts and they are energetic. Many generations ago their ancestors figured out these engineering problems. They built lasting marvels.
The buzzing of the cicada and the sharp call of the cuckoo nearly drown out the sound of your footsteps on the rocky path. But occasionally you can hear the loose stones scraping underfoot. Your feet and ankles are taking a beating. The air is fragrant with the smells of vigorously growing hardwoods, grasses, and wildflowers.
It is a beautiful, warm day in May and the route ahead will provide long days of walking. Each day will lead you through new country and to a new village. At the end of the day you will be exhausted, but after you do your daily washing and hang your clothes to dry, you get to explore and try local foods and wines. You will find comfort and kind hospitality in small village hotels. These are the rewards of wandering the open trails of France.
Visiting France at a walking pace provides an opportunity to savor the countryside and see things you would never know about if you were traveling by train, car, or even by bicycle. You get to meet interesting people along the way and all of your senses are stimulated and challenged.
Along the trail, at the edge of a remote field, you may find a solitary solid stone hut. It may have been there for centuries. You have time, why not go over and explore? What is it for? Who made it?
Borie near Laramière, France
Most of the trails in the Lot and Aveyron River canyons are dirt but the route is sometimes on country roads. Part of the route passes over limestone plateaus called “causses”. Farmers, shepherds, and woodsmen have dealt with these stony soils for millennia. In order to cultivate the soil or build roads, the rocks have to be removed.
But what do you do with all those stones? Do you just pile them up in a heap at the edge of your field? Or do you use them to make stone walls and multi-purpose huts?
These stone huts provide shelter for shepherds and others. They are called “borie”. Some of them are simple, squat rough stacks of stones. Others are meticulously built stone masterpieces. These are dry-stone constructions, so there is no mortar to decay. The buildings remain upright by the precision of the stone placement. Some of the borie have simple ornamentation along the roof and corners. Many of them are round.
Inside Borie, Roof Construction
The roof is constructed by a gradual cantilever stacking, where each added row of stones slightly overhangs the row below. Most of the weight of each new stone is still on the stones below and increases the strength of the building. The construction must be very time-consuming.
They don’t appear to be used very often. But they have provided shelter for generations of wandering shepherds, hikers, perhaps lovers seeking privacy, woodsmen, and whomever else found a borie nearby as a storm or darkness approached.
They are interesting and varied and fun to explore. And they make a nice break along the trail. But then it is time to head toward that next village. What kind of hotel and restaurant will we find tonight? What other sites will we see along the trail? Let’s go find out!!! Happy Trails!!
[Note: This posting is dedicated to all the supportive and generous people that I met at the Sunriver Art Faire in Oregon this past weekend. Thank you for your kindness! This post is a little longer than usual, but I hope that you enjoy a few moments of escape.]
Day 3, Leaving St.Cirq Lapopie, France
Liberté, égalité, fraternité. This is a brief story about six friends on a walking tour along the Lot and Aveyron Rivers in south-central France. We never actually used this grand-sounding, national French motto, but in thinking back it does describe important aspects of our walk. We were not formal enough to have a motto, we just wanted to have fun and enjoy the French countryside in the spring.
Our emphasis was probably on liberty. There was a tremendous sense of freedom. The hillsides were verdant green and wildflowers were at their peak. It had been a dry spring so this was as lush as it would get this year.
The trail stretched out ahead and our only obligation was to reach the village where we would stay each night. We had planned our route using guide books published by the local departments and by digitizing our route over Google Earth.
Le Tour des Gorges de l'Aveyron
Our packs and our spirits were light. But the warm May sun and the long hills taught us to pace ourselves and take time to savor this quiet country. Small farms filled the narrow valleys but the hills were densely wooded.
On the rich bottomland soils along the rivers we dodged irrigation sprinklers that were encouraging emerging crops. And we passed greenhouses filled with flowers and strawberries. The scent of the heavy warm air pouring out of the strawberry greenhouses was intoxicating. Our senses were being filled and stimulated. There were new smells, sounds, tastes, and beautiful scenes.
We passed through ancient stone villages fortified against invasion, huddled strategically around their cathedral on hilltops and ridges. The imagination was given full license to fill in the daily lives of those villagers. It was not an easy life nor safe. There was not so much fraternity, equality, and liberty for them.
The woods were welcome shelter from the mid-day sun but they also meant tougher terrain. The heat didn’t quiet the cicada. The trees were small and closely spaced as if they had been harvested many times and then re-sprouted. The humorous call of the cuckoo echoed over the hills. We had heard artificial cuckoos so often that it was hard to believe that these were real.
In many places the trail was lined with low stone walls built for miles through the woods. We were passing through private property, but these paths preceded the current owners. Some of the trails derived from Roman roads. The trails are part of the spectacular national trail system called sentiers de grand randonnée which is abbreviated as GR. Each trail is numbered. There are guidebooks and the trails are marked and signed.
Department Trail Marking
We were following GR36 which sometimes shared the route of the pilgrimage path to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. For centuries these trails have provided important experiences of a lifetime for pilgrims. At times the summer pilgrims formed a roving festival of devotion on the way to the tomb of St. James as they walked for hundreds of miles across France and Spain.
Our goals were more mundane, but still left us with experiences of a lifetime.
On our first day, as the reality of a long hill in the full sun set in on us, we had nearly all exhausted our water supplies. We straggled into the shade of a large tree at the crest of the hill. We were drenched with sweat, fatigued, hot, and thirsty. Beyond the tree there was a very well-tended garden and an old stone house. It was the only house we had seen for miles. The sound of our voices brought out the occupants. We didn’t know what to expect as perhaps we would be viewed as nuisances or worse. We soon became friends with two very kind and generous people. They gave us all of the water we could drink and carry, despite the fact their water had to be brought from the closest village. They also gave us a big bag of greens from the garden for our lunch. Our interlude with them was filled with laughter and humanity. We regret not writing down their names and contact information, because they offered to let us come back and stay there and study French with them.
Several miles later at the top of another hot climb we found a shady patch of grass surrounded by old broken stone walls. We all collapsed and sprawled on the grass and against trees. We each had carried lunch items that we now spread out for our first grand lunch. That morning we had purchased a fresh baguette, local cheeses and meat slices. We made massive sandwiches and topped them off with fresh greens. Our new friends had taken care of us. We added yogurt, fruit, cookies and a wonderful bottle of local red wine. The day was full and good.
With a Little Help From Our New Friends
All of our experiences with the rural French people that we met were like this. They worked hard and enjoyed life. They were willing to teach us how to savor life simply and we were ready to learn.
Walking village-to-village on the French trail system is a great experience. The ages of our group ranged from the upper 50’s to 70-somethings. We found the trails challenging but the rewards were indisputable. We remembered how to laugh and marveled at the kindness of country people. I will tell more stories from this adventure in other postings. In the meantime, happy trails!
Roofless, fancy-free, and footloose wandering the trails of France.
Spring fulfilled its promise. The hillsides were lush and green. The sky was deep blue and harmless clouds floated overhead. The weather was warm. The call of the cuckoo echoed through the woods and drowned out the buzz of the cicada. Beautiful red poppies and other wildflowers added vivid colors to the views.
We wandered from village to village along the Lot and Aveyron Rivers in southern France. We had all imagined a gentle stroll along the riverbanks in the shade. It turned out to be quite warm and the terrain was hilly, as they say.
But we were footloose in the French countryside in the spring, who could complain?
Occasionally, when I stopped to photograph, I would take an extra few moments just to pause in the shade and savor the sounds, sights, and smells. Sitting on an old stone wall or on a low branch in a tree (a photo vantage point) I absorbed the warmth and just plain enjoyed the day. I still have the sound of the cicada in my mind (and recorded on my phone). Of course, my moments of idyll caused to me fall behind the other five people in our group.
We had planned our destination villages and made reservations at small hotels, a farm, and a hikers lodge. Our general group goal was simply enjoyment, while my personal goal included taking photographs of rural France. The walk was both, a destination, and our main transportation.
The walk was a ‘destination’ because it was how we spent most of our time. We were on the excellent French national trail system called the sentiers de Grande Randonnée abbreviated as GR. Each trail is numbered, e.g., GR 36. I will describe this trail system more thoroughly in another post. Suffice it to say for now, there are 10’s of thousands of kilometers of organized, marked, and maintained trails with guidebooks and maps. It is a walkers’ paradise.
GR 36 Trail Signs
These photos were taken on the first day as we walked from Cahors to Vers. Perhaps we should have started with a shorter first day to get used to our packs, even though they were light. By the time we reached our country hotel outside Vers we had walked about 22 km (~14 miles). But after showering and getting our clothes washed so they could dry overnight, we rested and had a wonderful long dinner along with several French couples. We slept VERY well.
The next morning we started out early. We were a little sore and a little intimidated by the hills and distance we covered that first day. The ages of our group ranged from mid-50’s to 70 somethings. To experienced long distance walkers that first day would have been a breeze. It got our attention. We had learned a lot. We had seen wonderful scenery and met kind and generous people.
Now all we had to do was enjoy being roofless, footloose, and fancy-free walking through the woods listening to the insistent cuckoo. I don’t think he was calling us names.
Which did you like the best, walking from village-to-village in rural France or strolling the streets of Budapest?
A contrarian answer to an unnecessary choice. They were both wonderful, interesting, and educational. And very different!
This trip is the reason I haven’t posted to this blog recently.
We have returned from a good long walk along the Lot and Aveyron Rivers in southern France. We stayed in small rural villages along the way and met unbelievably kind and unique characters. My main photographic goals were rural French countryside and small village lifestyle.
I also spent a week roaming the streets of Budapest. Each morning I would make a loose plan of where I wanted to be when the sun was at certain locations, adjusted for afternoon thunderstorms, and then I would listen to music and just walk all day. Budapest is a very photogenic place and very stimulating creatively.
In between those two locations I spent travel days in Geneva and Bern, Switzerland.
I have many photos to upload to my online galleries and many stories to tell. We were lucky that the weather in France was spectacular and that each of our lodgings turned out great, in its own way. We stayed on a farm, in a chateau, in a hikers’ gite, and in nice village hotels.
In Budapest I stayed in the Hotel Bristol, which is a short walk from the train station. I always stay near the train station. The Hotel Bristol is a comfortable and modern boutique hotel. The staff is very helpful and speak English, among other languages. You can find them at: http://www.boutiquehotelbristol.com/ or you can book them through booking.com.
I had some great train rides. I got to ride along Lake Geneva a couple times. There is a great view from the upper level of the train and the Swiss trains are so comfortable. The longest ride was from Bern, Switzerland to Budapest. It was over 13 hours but the scenery was spectacular.
The photo above is of the Matthias Church on Castle Hill in the “Buda” part of Budapest. The morning sun was still low enough to light it well and it was a crystal clear day. Castle Hill is a long walk from the train station, but the city is filled with interesting scenes and people. In future postings I will tell some stories and show photos from southern France, Geneva, and Budapest.
The bottom line is that all the travel went well and I am once again addicted to travel. I am ready to go again!
Tides and cultures have ebbed and flowed over the Armorican peninsula (Brittany) of northwestern France. It is a challenging land at the edge of the European continent. It is a place where you can walk along the shoreline and not see another person.
The autumn, after the holiday crowds have left, is a good time to explore the deserted shore. But the weather becomes stronger. Brisk winds sweep across the English Channel.
Walking becomes boulder scrambling. It is made more challenging because your eyes are watering from the wind, and you are cold. (Of course, there are also calm sunny days still before winter.)
The section of Brittany called the Côte de Granit Rose (Pink Granite Coast) is a short length of coast where the sea has met its match. The granite is tough, although jointed. The waves very gradually pry apart and carry away particles of the coarse grained rock along these joints or cracks. Many strange and interesting forms are created by this physical weathering.
The shapes and colors of the rock vary wildly. Some of the forms have been named. Even though it is called pink granite some shades are more orange and brown. The rock is decorated with mollusks and lichens making it even more interesting. No matter how far you scramble you find new and bizarre rock formations.
But this is not untouched wilderness. Nearby there are intact medieval stone villages. Each one gathers around its cathedral. These villages are still vital. Tourism helps them, especially the market towns. The outdoor markets are great! They also have thriving agricultural and fishing industries. Their histories are rich. Restaurants and cafés serve local seafood and produce, and provide relaxing places to pass time and absorb Breton culture. It is easy to find a beautiful little stone village with a great hotel or a rental beach house.
Bretons are great hosts. But you will find them at the ocean when the tide is low. They will be there next to you scouring the rocks for mussels and other shellfish.
This rocky shore is an interesting and rewarding place to spend time.
Following the French revolution in 1792 there was a need for a large public space in which to set up a guillotine. The largest square in Paris was chosen for this chore. And in the subsequent two years more than a thousand people were beheaded in this square, including King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. The square now serves a very different purpose and most people who visit it may never know that it was once a public execution site.
This public square is now known as Place de la Concorde. It is between the Louvre’s Tuilerie Garden and the beginning of the Champs Elysée. It is the home of the Obelisk of Luxor, a 3200 year old monument from the ruins of a temple in Luxor, Egypt.
The Place de la Concorde is octagon-shaped. At each corner there is a statue that represents a major French city. And near the obelisk there are two fountains.
The two fountains honor river and maritime navigation and the industries that depend on them. The fountains were completed in 1840.
What I like about this photograph is the pattern in the water flowing over the lip of the fountain. And I think the distant French flag helps to complete the setting.
I can still hear the pounding of the water falling from the upper fountain into the basin. It was loud enough to almost drown out the traffic noise of buses and scooters in this busy square.
It seems like everywhere that you walk in Paris you discover another timeless monument, sculpture, fountain, or garden. We haven’t read a lot about Paris, well except for Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. But that was fiction and based in another time. Now that we have seen most of the iconic sites, we prefer to walk and discover things and then read about them.
Even though the Metro goes all over Paris, it is easy to walk to most places. Along the way you will stumble upon public art and architecture on small sides streets that most cities would be proud to have. But the thing is that in Paris they are everywhere you look.
It is a great walking city. If you get tired, why not stop at the sidewalk café on the corner and watch the world go by?
When you live in a small town you expect that there is always someone nearby who might know the people affected by what you are talking about. And if they hear what you are saying, they may not remember all of the background or the conditional statements that you carefully explain to your confidant. They will remember, and will repeat, the controversial and sensitive comments that you make about their friend, sometimes with added heat.
But if you live in a big city, say Paris for example, there must be millions of quiet, out-of-the-way places; cafés, stores, bars, museums, and public gardens etc.
Luxembourg Garden is one of my favorite places in Paris. There are so many little distinctive areas, it is like a large collection of specialty parks combined into one big park. In one back corner in the shade there are pétanque courts where men pass long afternoons throwing steel balls to see which team can end up closest to the cochonnet. Of course, there is a crêpe truck nearby.
There are long alleys of grass separated by gravel paths that are used by schools nearby for running tracks. And you can find all kinds of vendors; ice cream, snacks, gifts, toys, and naturally, wine. There is an open grassy area near the old chateau with sculpture and walking paths. And wherever you go in Luxembourg Garden you find the comfortable heavy green steel chairs. There are thousands of them.
Within the Garden there are many quiet little alcoves. These are perfect for reading, napping, or for a private conversation. The two women in this photograph were carrying on a spirited conversation while eating their lunch. I did not eavesdrop and there was nobody else around.
But even in this secret little niche in this massive public garden you may still want to be careful what you say. You never know when someone is lurking in the bushes. If you need to discuss confidential things it is always prudent to look over your shoulder to see if anybody is nearby.
You can see more Parisian photos in the France gallery by following the Photography link above.
Are you brave enough to take the first step on this trail?
And then the further you go the more extreme it gets.
Most trailheads are flat areas beside a road or at the end of an access road. The trail usually starts out gentle or moderate as it leads to terrain that the road doesn’t or can’t reach. There may be several hours of walking along a stream before you reach the big climbs to a peak or a mountain lake or a waterfall. The challenging terrain is usually found after a long walk from the trailhead, in general.
This trailhead is a gutcheck.
The trail leads to climbing and skiing routes. The trailhead is reached by cable car from Chamonix, France up to the top of Aiguille du Midi which is a sheer granitic spire. The elevation is about 12,638 feet (3842 meters). Everywhere you go from the top of the cable car leads to dramatic and dangerous terrain. Too many lives have been lost in these mountains.
As you can see the first few steps over this boot-width trail on the jagged rock are not for the casual hiker. Mont Blanc provides the dramatic backdrop.
A spirited competition among early climbers to reach the summit of Mont Blanc lead to success in 1786. Chamonix became a mountain destination for vacationers but did not have rail service until 1901.
My daughter and I rode the cable car to photograph Mont Blanc on the first sunny morning during our stay. Clouds still filled the valley below. My wife and other daughter chose the comfort of a flat and safe village restaurant terrasse. We weren’t prepared for this kind of hiking/climbing so we stayed on the observation decks of the cable car building. I don’t think I would be able to take that first step on this trailhead anyway. The dropoffs were very intimidating.
There are more photos of the Mont Blanc area in my France gallery. Follow the Photography link above.
Great travel writers like Graham Greene and Agatha Christie wrote of long train journeys.
Greene’s Stamboul Train (1932) told the intersecting stories of carefully crafted characters traveling from France to Constantinople. (This book was also published with the title Orient Express.)
The mystery of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express(1934) unfolded and was solved (by Hercule Poirot) as the train made the journey in the opposite direction. Actually it was stuck in a snowdrift during the most suspenseful part, but it was headed toward France.
Train travel is ready-made for interesting stories. A group of people who would not know each other under other circumstances spend time together enclosed in small rooms traveling across vast distances. Proximity provides opportunity for introductions and there is time for interaction. It is natural to get to know your neighbors even when language is a barrier. So if you are creating fiction it is a great way to mix people together to produce any kind of drama, intrigue, or romance.
For most people though, train travel is routine and uneventful. Modern train travel in Europe is comfortable and clean. There is much more room for you and your luggage than on a plane. Trains are usually on time and they are more affordable. It is relaxing to sit back and watch the countryside roll by. The scenery is interesting although you do also see the back sides of buildings and lots of graffiti that you would not normally see if you were walking around a town. On high speed trains you are only able to see flashed glimpses down streets of the villages that you pass through. But there is no worry about rental car damage or driving stress. And you can get up and walk around whenever you want to-no fasten seat belt sign!
Our longest train trip so far was a full day journey from southern France deep into the Alps. The distance was not great, but because of the route we followed it involved five different trains and transected many different kinds of terrain. We were traveling with our daughters which made it an enjoyable and memorable adventure. We started early in the morning on a local train from Villefranche-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean to Nice. The next train stopped in Marseille for an engine change to convert to a high speed configuration. We stayed on the train during this work and learned about the engine change from the French couple across the aisle from us. The longest segment was to Lyon but as we flew through the countryside we enjoyed snacks from the food service in the next car. There weren’t any mysteries or secret agents on our train (that we knew of) but it was a great time together. From Lyon we traveled to Annecy at the edge of the Alps. As we stood on the platform waiting for the next train I could feel the anticipation building. I love traveling by train in the Alps. Our next train took us through beautiful mountain villages and provided huge and beautiful vistas on our way to St. Gervais les Bains. Now we were really in the mountains. And finally the last train took us to my favorite alpine village – Chamonix.
Chamonix was the home of the first winter Olympics and is at the base of Mont Blanc. It is surrounded by intimidating extreme rock and ice and exquisite mountain scenery. The village is beautifully maintained and is filled with classic stone buildings, colorful shutters, and hanging flower baskets. It is a climbing and skiing center, but you can also take the cable cars to the summits for sight-seeing and hiking. I have written about Chamonix in other postings in this blog so if you are interested you can enter Chamonix in the search box above and see other photos and read more about it.
Now even though we didn’t have any mysteries on our long train ride we did have a little intrigue when we tried to leave Chamonix. On our departure morning we rolled our luggage up through the village to the train station. All four of us had packed into one small backpack and one rolling carry-on each, so we were pretty mobile. When we reached the station it was deserted. We had our passes so we didn’t have to worry about buying tickets, which was a good thing since there was nobody working at the station. Eventually we found a sign on an office door which included the words “Grève Nationale”. We figured that that meant a national strike, but we weren’t sure if it meant all trains were cancelled or how long the strike would be.
We waited for our train to Geneva but the appointed departure time passed and there was no train in sight. We talked to a few other passengers who were trying to figure out how to get to Geneva also. We finally decided that we would have to take a bus later in the afternoon if no trains arrived, IF the buses were running.
We stayed close to the station just to make sure we didn’t miss an opportunity. We were getting a little frustrated as the time approached for the next scheduled train to Geneva. But a few minutes before the departure time a train rolled into the station, the train number was correct and it was on time. So we got on, found seats, stored our luggage overhead and left the station on time. It was as if nothing had happened and we were never given an explanation. There was a national strike, except for when there wasn’t. In our experience this was the only train that was significantly late or cancelled.
When we got to Geneva the train stopped at the French-Swiss border. Everyone was asked to disembark and were told this was the end of the line. We had made a reservation at a hotel by the main train station, but this train didn’t go there. So we had to buy a local tram ticket to get across town. Our hotel was a block from the station as advertised, but we didn’t know the other train stopped at the border on the outskirts of town miles from the main station. But that is the adventure of travel. If we had known more French we would have probably been more aware of what was going on.
We thoroughly enjoy train travel despite these two little episodes. Most of our experiences have been trouble-free and very relaxing. The European transportation system integrates airports, national trains, local trains, city trams, subways, buses, and ferries across lakes. Most of the time they are connected or are only separated by short walks and if you pack light it is easy to change from one mode to another.
You don’t need to have mysteries or espionage to make train travel memorable. But they sure make for good reading. Happy trails!
After days of gray drizzle on the coast the inland hills were bathed in afternoon sunshine.
The picturesque medieval village of Rochefort-en-Terre, France is perfect for strolling or sitting on a café terrasse.
We had driven from Pénestin on the southern coast of Brittany (France) across the Vilaine River and through rolling farmland to reach Rochefort-en-Terre. The clouds slowly opened up and eventually the village was in full sunshine. The village has been restored for tourism but was not too busy in September.
We had seen several buildings being worked on in Tréguier the week before so we knew how much work it takes to refurbish the stone and mortar. Workers used sand-blasting, chisels, and an assortment of power tools to clean the stone and replace the surface mortar. Day after day they worked up on scaffolding and inched along the building. In Rochefort-en-Terre the buildings are all restored and the cobblestone streets have been repaired. Hanging flower baskets and colorful shutters accented all the buildings.
The hotel in this photo looked sunny and inviting. The shutters were wide open to air out the rooms and there was even a little shade on the bench out front. This lane was paved but most of the town’s streets are still cobblestones.
We explored and I photographed along several side streets. The sun gained enough force to lead us to shade. We found a shady vine-covered courtyard and stepped inside to sit and rest for awhile. It was a salon de thé so in order to enjoy a glass of wine we were forced to order food, but it wasn’t so bad to eat the delicious apple tort with our wine. (A salon de thé (teahouse) can not serve wine without a food purchase.) We were the only customers at first but eventually two regulars came in and we were treated to lively conversations and a friendly dog who the owners knew very well, probably from daily visits. This is also where we learned about the small doorways at street level in most of the old stone homes. These were the coal chutes which are no longer used. The courtyard was a very pleasant place to spend some time on a sunny afternoon.
The stone villages and cathedrals of Brittany are very photogenic, especially Rochefort-en-Terre. I have a feeling we will return to Brittany. It is rural and the people are friendly. There are more photos of Brittany in my France gallery. Follow the Photography link above.
A warm evening in Paris. The air is filled with the sounds of conversation, the subtle ringing of glasses, and the clatter of dishes.
As you walk by another restaurant the hostess tries to get your attention and a cook calls for a waiter. The smells are enticing. The menu looks promising, but also produces anxiety. The language is still a challenge.
Walking along the busy narrow streets you pass many restaurants. Each one presents itself along the sidewalk. A colorful awning and crisp white tablecloths. A neatly lettered menu board and a warm greeting in French and maybe also English. The busiest places don’t need someone on the sidewalk to call you in, you have to wait to be noticed and seated.
The first decision is whether to eat inside or on the terrasse. Eating outside on a warm evening is pleasant and provides people watching entertainment and the street musicians are close at hand to serenade. But you are also on display and you are a ready audience for street vendors. It is also the smoking section. But perhaps that has changed with new laws.
You make your choices and hopefully get what you thought you were asking for, but regardless it is reliably tasty. After a long dinner, coffee and dessert you are ready to walk on. Now you are free to ignore the invitations of the restaurants that you pass. You are just looking now but perhaps planning for tomorrow night.
The neighborhood in this photograph is on Rue Saint-Séverin near Boulevard Saint-Michel. There are many restaurants, perhaps too many. It takes on a carnival atmosphere on a busy summer night as crowds stroll along past the pleas of the restaurant hosts and tourist shop owners. But it is located very near the river so it is central for walking most of downtown Paris.
There are more photos of Paris in my France gallery. Follow the Photography link above.
A cold wind snapping the French flag in the predawn darkness.
A harsh spotlight keeping the attention on the vigil. Do not forget.
Quiet, deserted cobblestone streets. The sound of the flag, its cord hitting the flagpole, and the rustling of the bushes are the only distractions.
War is failure. War is loss.
Like our own American memorials this solitary statue calls attention to sacrifice and loss, to duty, to service, to honor, to failure.
Failure of leadership, failure of greed for power and wealth, failure of values, failure on so many levels. A defensive response is required when attacked, as France was in this case, but it is still wider human failure. So much waste, so much loss. Perhaps strength can prevent the trap of greed from producing these failures. It hasn’t so far. Humanity still chooses these follies. As if, this time, there will be a different outcome.
This singular mother represents all mothers who waited in vain for their children to return to their villages from duty during World War I. This memorial is in the Breton village of Tréguier.
I recently read ‘Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort’ (1915) by Edith Wharton. It was written in the first year of WWI and reflected an optimistic view of heroic young men behaving honorably in defense of their homeland against invasion. Edith was a famous writer by then and lived in Paris at the time. She was given unique access to the front lines for reporting and observation. She traveled with an ambulance crew and was given tours of front line trenches and fortifications. There was an eerie detached touristic tone to the descriptions. She described Paris in 1914 which had returned to near-normalcy after mobilization had sent most men to defend against the aggression. In that first year she was able to view the war and its battles from nearby overviews. She acknowledged and described the loss and destruction. But still it was prior to the worst protracted horrors of mud and poison gas and butchery.
And in the villages mothers waited. Men had left their mountain valleys or farms for the first time in their lives to serve their country. The outside world was new to them. Many never returned. I hope your sons and daughters are safe today.
As I stood by my tripod photographing this scene I thought about the mystery and futility and terror that people waiting in little villages like this must have felt.
It was still dark when the first car came up the hill from the river into the village. I could hear the little diesel engine as it approached and then the headlights came through the nearby opening in the ancient fortification wall and flashed onto the scene. The medieval stone wall told of previous conflicts. The car passed and continued into the old town section of shops. Another day was starting. Decisions were to be made here, and in all other towns. They have consequences.
The attached organisms have the small, sandy basin to themselves again. The sprinkling of shells on the rock are exposed to air between tides.
This jointed granite is on the famous Pink Granite Coast of northern Brittany. Sometimes the joints in the rock form regular rectangular shapes like this tidepool, but most of the time they are more abstract.
The coarse sand at the bottom of the tidepool settled out of the wave wash. The fine white sand lining the sides may have blown in at low tide to coat the sides as the water receded, like bathtub rings.
This tidepool is shaped like a window and gives us a view into a small world where these organisms spend their entire lives.
The gently sloping Breton shore exposes vast stretches of this granite at low tide. There is a nearly endless variety of sizes, shapes, and depths of tide pools.
Then as the tide flow returns each of these separate worlds rejoins the Atlantic Ocean and become just an irregularity on the bottom.
Dreaming about travel. Savoring travel. Remembering travel.
Decent and kind people who you don’t share a common language with. Unexpected challenges. A smile. Patience. A comfortable seat at the window on a long train ride deep into the Alps. Curiosity with rewards. Quiet narrow country roads. Wind rustling the leaves of trees along a river whose name you can’t pronounce. Sheep bells in the Pyrénées. A muddy river in spring flood flowing out of a Mexican jungle. Birds with impossible colors.
Menus, mysterious and stressful. The enjoyment of getting what you thought were ordering and discovering that it is so much better than you dared imagine. How do they make it taste so good? Not sure exactly what was in that, but wow. A walk along the beach after sunset in the safety of rural Brittany.
Villages with two names. Road signs. Changing trains, reading the departure board, making the next train with only seven minutes between arrival and departure, trains that are on time, deciphering conductor announcements. Returning the rental car without damage, whew. Base jumpers landing in wildflowers at the base of the canyon wall. Hundreds of football and volleyball games mixed in with the Sunday crowds stretching for miles on Copacabana Beach. Soft white sand, gentle waves, warm humid air. The music of Portuguese or French or … conversations.
Glaciers, waterfalls, stone houses, slate roofs, startling soaring cathedrals, ancient art, life-like sculptures, bigger than life, lines for tickets, listening to animated but unknown languages on the Eiffel Tower observation deck. Watching out for pick pockets and keeping a hand on your luggage in the train station. Trying to tell the taxi driver the location of your hotel. Favelas and community refuse burning piles. Riding the bus to the beach. Riding the tram to the Mediterranean. Riding the bus from the airport, bleary-eyed, tired, disoriented, not understanding the conversations around you.
The Metro stations. Long walks across Paris. TGV. Beach vendors trying to sell horrible looking fish on a stick. Authentic fajitas in a beach restaurant. Traveling by cable car and electric train in the Bernese Oberland. Walking up the hill from the train station through the village to your hotel. Learning about Austria and The Netherlands from the hotel staff. Trying to figure out the street map in Nantes. Failing. Trying the hard cider of Brittany, but not the ‘moules et frits’. Sorry.
Looking down through three floors from a balcony watching samba dancers on a crowded floor. Watching (in person) the televised sheep-shearing contest during the celebration of the return of the sheep from the high mountain pastures in Luz-Saint-Saveur. Seeing the streets lined with piles of plastic wine cups the next morning. The marching group with giant bells on their backs. The brass band marching through town and into a living room and playing inside a tiny stone house. Running for cover from a downpour in Rennes and finding shelter in a brasserie with other storm refugees. Seeing the evil but intact German blockhouses built on the rocky shoreline of Brittany.
Arriving at the Swiss border at Geneva on the train from Chamonix and finding out we had to get off and find our way to another station across town. The end of the line. Looking in vain for art in Geneva, but stumbling onto a choir performance inside the cathedral. Discovering that those white kitchen garbage bags that we packed fit perfectly over our rolling luggage while waiting in the rain for the ferry across Lac Léman. The banners and flags in Bern during the Euro 2008 football competition. The fiddle player and guitarist standing in the bank doorway below our hotel window waiting for customers to emerge with refreshed funding. Their three songs never got tiresome. The organ grinder and his cat who played there in the mornings. Far Breton breakfast treat and espresso. And all that new music and those weird movies.
Trying for a record-breaking long café lunch in Paris but only making it to 52 minutes. Must learn to savor more. An awkward semi-French/semi-English conversation with the family who owned the Gite that we rented at the beach in Brittany. We and they understood each other enough to know that we liked each other and had a lot in common. They had a loving family with two daughters and had a sense of humor. They were kind to us and tried to help us feel at home. We did.
History, geography, literature, art, and humanity are all enriched with travel. They are given context and life. Days are filled with planning and anticipation, then adventure and new experience, then memories and a new outlook and broader view of the world where you are-because of the world that you saw, the people, and the culture that made sense to the families you met. Their culture may be different but they built it because of their history and resources. It works for them.
The challenges of travel encourage growth and reflection. I know that is not an original thought. But it sums up how I am feeling today. I have reduced my travel and use a bicycle for local transportation. But when I do travel I intend to learn as much as I can. I look forward to the next trip with excitement. Although, I probably wouldn’t have the nerve to wear the propeller beany cap.
It had been a pleasant spring day. Sailboats raced across the lake in competition under blue skies, with only a few scattered clouds.
The winds had been moderate along the shore. The sound of the rustling leaves was more of a wind chime than a warning.
We had walked through the village and along the shore and then enjoyed a spring picnic on our balcony overlooking the lake. We didn’t know the weather patterns on Lac Léman (Lake Geneva). We thought it was going to be a quiet evening in the medieval village of Yvoire, France.
But things were changing quickly and the weather was getting serious. The sky was dominated by a wall of darkening clouds moving over the lake toward us. Almost all of the boats had left the lake for the safety of the harbors. The last boat that we saw on the lake still didn’t seem to be running for cover. It stood out against the fading reflection across the lake. The light was strange and ominous.
The weather continued to build until a very violent lightning storm and drenching rain moved in. All through the night we could see flashed glimpses of the boats in the marina below. The French term for this is ‘un orage’. The thunder boomed and streams ran down the steep cobblestone streets.
Lac Léman joins France and Switzerland. The south shore where Yvoire is located is in France, east of Geneva, Switzerland which is at the west end of the lake. If you would like to read more about Lac Léman and Yvoire please enter Yvoire in the search box above (within this blog).
There are other photos of France and Switzerland in my galleries. Please follow the Photography link above.
In a quiet glacial canyon in Les Pyrénées Parc National the tallest waterfall in Europe pounds onto the jumble of rocks at the base of Cirque de Gavarnie.
The Cirque de Gavarnie retains a few remnants of the glaciers that carved the sheer wall. The cirque wall is up to 1,500 meters (~4,900 feet) in height and 3,000 meters (almost two miles) wide. The small glaciers hang in the ledges high above the canyon floor and their melt water feeds the waterfall which is called la Grande Cascade. You can just see the top of the Cascade (white vertical line in the sun) in the distance in this photograph. This view only shows a small part of the eastern edge of the cirque. The stream is called Gave de Gavarnie.
When you are anywhere in the canyon the only things that you hear are the constant crashing of the water on the rocks and sheep bells. For generations sheep have grazed these high mountain pastures and they remain an integral part of the national park.
The small village of Gavarnie is a popular tourist destination and is a great base for mountain hiking. It is not too crowded in September and sometimes the weather can still be great. The close-cropped grasses make great picnicking grounds on the ridges on the sides of the canyon.
The Pyrénées are a rugged part of the Tour de France. These are some of the most difficult high mountain stages of the race. This year the tour starts on July 3 in Rotterdam. After punishing climbs in the Alps the riders will enter the Pyrénées late in the race at stage 14 on July 18. You can be sure that riders are scouting the stages now during June, since the stages change each year through an elaborate selection process.
One of the marquis climbs is the legendary Col du Tourmalet. It is in the heart of the Pyrénées and is near Gavarnie. If you were standing at this point looking at the stream you would just turn around and follow it down the valley to Gavarnie and then drive down through Gedre and turn east at Luz-Saint-Sauveur to reach Le Tourmalet in about a half hour. The roads are very narrow and windy, but it is only 30 km (~18 miles) to the base of the famous climb up Tourmalet. In a perverted twist this year the riders will climb Tourmalet TWICE!
The Tour is one of the toughest and most beautiful sporting events there is. As you watch the race this year and you see the masses of fans along the ridiculously steep road near the summit of Tourmalet, the fat guys with capes and pitchforks, the crazy wigs and costumes, the Elvis impersonators, the club fans, the Breton flags flying proudly, the crush of team cars and motorcycles, the words of encouragement painted on the road, during that brief time as the riders reach the summit and then fly down and away, stop and think about the quiet and remote valleys nearby.
Think of Gavarnie and all the other glacial basins at the top of the Pyrénées. And just over the top of that mountain is Spain. It is a beautiful part of Europe and one of the highlights of the Tour de France.