Friday, March 04, 2016

87 revisiting Europe


Recently we just returned from a month long trip to France & Spain. Under my expert tutelage Joy buys our cheap airline tickets when they are the lowest around fall, then we use our Miles to upgrade to Business Class and fly in and out of Paris. This gives us a few days at the beginning and end of our trip in Paris to hang out at Harry’s New York Bar (@” sank roo de noo”) for a martini and other favorite sidewalk cafes (La Frigate). You probably didn’t know I am a member in good standing of the International Bar Flies (IBF) of Harry’s. At this point our dollar was worth about 75 cents.
Twas not all partying, however, as one of our noteworthy jaunts was to the Musee of Arts & Metiers where we watched Leon Foucault’s Pendulum and learned how he proved the earth rotated on it’s axis. The Orangerie was finally re-opened after a great renovation where Monet paintings are shown. It takes a whole room to show a couple of his 60' long renditions of water lily ponds.

Caught a TGV train to Bordeaux, whizzing through the French countryside in luxurious comfort on our rail pass. Stayed in our favorite Hotel Seze, complete with it’s neon sign outside our little balcon. It overlooks a large park , no grass but trees and decomposed granite only. Do you think the French are going to mow the grass?
Drove up to Cognac one day where we were shown around the Martell distillery, culminating in a tasting of a 100 year old special, and since it was nearly my 77th birthday, Joy bought me a taste of the good stuff. ($1000 per bottle!!).
However, some vandals broke off all my rear view mirrors on our rental car one night so I had the opportunity to see how their Policia system works , needing a police report for the Hertz folks. Traded it in on another Renault and drove to St. Emillion and Pulliac to stock up on a case of wines for our week-long bateau trip. 

Drove to Castelnaudary to pick up our 27' boat , stocked up on food and shoved off for the long trip down through 64 locks. Although this was our third boat trip, we had done it with another couple before, and handling the lines was a real challenge for us, as I had to drive it while Joy learned how to be the lone deck hand. We got pretty good at it until I fell into a lock, which wasn’t all that bad, except knowing that we’ve been pumping our shit into it with all the other boats, I tried to keep my mouth shut. The lock man retrieved me and we moored along the bank afterwards, for a good shower and some medicinal cognac. This particular section of the canal was one of the first ones built in the 1600's by the architect Pierre Riquet and had one series of seven locks hooked together in a stair-step mode (Fonserannes Steps). These are self drive barges (yachts) and are normally pretty relaxing just cruising the back country, meeting other pilgrims, complaining about the damn incredibly noisy motor bikes & motor cycles that are just ear splitting and the dogshit on all the sidewalks from those stupid little French dogs. As they say “There are always mosquitos in paradise”. We had a problem with our domestic water tank that leaked into the bilges in just a few hours but we managed to keep enough to be clean.

Turned the boat in pretty much undamaged (These cost about $50,000 each), drove up to the Milleu Viaduct (“me you” bridge) that was recently finished for about $600 mil and in three years. It spans a valley with several tall pylons (Some as tall as the Eiffel tower, 1000'). It was pretty stormy, winds up to 40 knots and wondered if the bridge would be closed, but no, the English architect, Foster & Partners, had a very clever baffle system for just such occasion. We also drove under it to the little town and found a very cool Information center (Also designed by Foster) next to one of the piers.
Caught a train to Barcelona, with the border guards trying to outdo each other on being obnoxious. The Spanish train system has been upgraded since our last trip here when they had to change the trucks (wheels) at the border due to the difference in width of the French and Spanish tracks. Our hotel was on the main drag, the Passeig de Gracia, only a couple of blocks from two of Antonio Gaudi’s buildins,Casa Batllo and the Pedrara. We met up with our friends, the Dodson’s for the week, slurping up the great Sangria at Qu QU’s sidewalk café and searching for a tapas that was edible. Spent time in the Sagrada Familia, the great unfinished church of Gaudi’s, where workers are still trying to get a handle on how and when to finish it. The Catholic Church will probably be extinct before this building will be finished as what, it’s about 2/3rd finished after 125 years? The creativity of this architect is pretty humbling, as even his structural concepts are just as incredibly unique. Had to visit the Mies van der Rohe pavilion again, originally built in 1929 (Before I was born!) And recently reconstructed. This building looks more modern today than 95% of all new structures!
Flew back to Paris on EasyJet which is a lot faster and cheaper than a train nowadays, and guess what? Nobody has to take their shoes off at the European airports! A last visit to Harry’s , a little shopping at Printemps Department store with it’s fantastic stained glass dome, plus a day trip to Eperny to tour the Champagne works of Castlelaine. Their caves were begun in 1818, hugely encrusted with dripping mold (Yes! All mold is not bad!). It was a great tour, with only us and five Australian guys. Ended with a full glass of their product. Unfortunately, Joy has begun collecting champagne ice buckets, of which they had one she couldn’t resist. Why couldn’t she collect stamps?
As you can imagine, this was all a great deal of work, and we were glad to return home to rest, working full time in our office.

French waiters:
They take your order with a large palm pilot and have a small hand held machine to run your Master Card, which immediately prints out a couple of receipts, one to sign. It’s like they are reaching out to the U.S. (My bank) and picking up the bill.

Begun in 1818, there are now several kilometers of caves extant, the main avenue being a full kilometer. When riddling was discovered they initially stuck the bottle neck first into a sand base. The riddling rack was invented in late 1800's which made it a lot easier to turn 1/4 turn. Their Master Riddler could do 70,000 bottles a day on a 8 hour shift! That’s 2.4 bottles per second, all day! Every once in a while a bottle would explode while aging on the pile or even when disgorging, resulting in the wearing of a leather mask, although I don’t know how many one eyed riddlers that resulted in. But not to be wasteful, the caves are lined with electric lights made from the broken bottles turned upside down as the bottoms blow out and not the tops or the sides.
Everything is covered with mold, sometimes an inch thick and hanging off the walls and piles of bottles. This is good as it keeps the special air to age the champagne. The trademark red ‘X’ is derived from a local battalion of soldiers who wore it on their shields during some war in the 1800's. The huge, strange tower is from 1890, having survived all the wars since then (Too bad!). Our tour group consisted of us and 5
Aussies, our German girl did a great job. Unfortunately, they had a black ice bucket that Joy has a penchant to collect, adding to the one she conned out of a Office de Tourisme in Bordeaux. Why can’t she collect something small, like stamps?

Falling off the boat into a canal is usually not a problem as it is only 6 feet deep and generally about 30' wide, so if you can swim or dog paddle it isn’t far to the bank, where your boat-mate can stop, turn around, and pick you up. Providing she knows how to run the boat. Falling into a lock is another story, however. The water in the locks go up and down about 12' , so if you are going to fall into one, do it when the water is going down and not crashing into the lock in a huge rooster-tail waterfall filling up the basin. By this time I had gone thru hundreds of locks, Joy and I had perfected mooring in a lock as I would steer into the side, bump into the side where Joy would jump off the bow, tie that line while I would shut the engine down, run around and jump off with the aft line and tie around the bollard. Well, I miscalculated the gap and when I jumped off, I pushed the boat away from the quay and dropped into the water. I instantly remembered we had been flushing our toilet into the canal for several days and kept my mouth shut. The canal keeper stopped the water, jumped on our boat, threw me the life preserver hanging on the aft end of the boat, and pulled my out of the water. Checking me over and realizing only my pride was damaged we continued thru the lock where we tied up and took a long hot shower, followed my a good shot of cognac we fortunately had left from our trip to cognac.