31 October 2014

2014 EUROPE by Rail 6 - Mas Baumel

My Aunt and Uncle were both teachers in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. She taught kindergarten and he was the head of the art department at Slippery Rock State College (now University). Being in the art department, on occasion, Uncle earned a sabbatical to Europe to study art. In their visits to numerous countries, France was a stand-out.

So upon retirement they purchased a 350+ year old stone house standing on a 50-acre plot. Stone house is putting it mildly. It is a three story, four fireplace, two staircase, 3-1/2 bath, rustic but well-embellished edifice.

Off the highway, you take a gravel drive down to the concrete bridge and over the now rushing river. As you enter you see a little sign that says Mas Baumel. That is the name of the property. Uncle doesn't know of any translation to English. I tried to find one also and came up with nothing. It's just the name.
Continuing up the driveway to your right is a stone pump house. To the left is a green grass prairie where goats and sheep graze part of the year. Ahead is the stately stone house with an uphill wooded area behind it.

The structure needs some work--repainting of French blue doors and shutters, lath and plaster wall work, kitchen tile repair, more. But these imperfections add to its charm. It is inevitable that updates continue forever on a "grand old lady" like this. Its thick walls give it a solid structure and it will continue to be a warm and welcome home for future centuries to come.

You approach the house by turning left and driving under a grape arbor and into the parking area. On either side is a well-used stone staircase. The one on the left goes up to an open air veranda just outside kitchen doors. Up the right stairs is the bright yellow front door and a large covered veranda. There is also a door here to a separate and private bedroom and bath (ours for a few days.)

The private bedroom annex is spacious and includes a king-size bed, table and chairs, fireplace, and renovated (all the bathrooms have been updated) full bath with oversize shower. Hot water is plentiful. There are two large windows with shutters that overlook the side yard on one side and the grape arbor and prairie down to the river on the other side.

An aside ... I have to say the toilet paper in this bathroom was the absolute best  I ever used in my whole life. One sheet was about 1-1/2 times longer and wider than we have in the US and it was maybe 4-ply. You only needed one sheet for just about any potty duty!!

As you leave our room, you go down a few steps to the bright yellow front door. Upon entering, there is a seldom used study to the right. Now its use is mostly storage, including the wine stash. There is also a fireplace and stairs to the second floor here.

To the left you see a half bath. Except for the original stone sink and French tile back splash, the rest is modernized.

Next comes the living room with a third fireplace and heavy dark wood ceiling beams. It is filled with stacks and shelves of books, photos, sculpture and other works of art. Comfortable seating surrounds the hearth. Lots of odd little niches in the wall to highlight artistic favorites.
Beyond that comes the impressive dining room with yet another fireplace. The long table seats maybe 14 comfortably. The chairs are a mix-n-match purchased from yard sales and antique shops. Walls are a little less decorated, to allow the food served there to be the "art."
Last on this floor is the quaint kitchen where we spent most of our time. It has the original blue and gray French tiles and the original stone sink. There is a gas stove and a little 13"x13"x13" oven (but no microwave). French doors stretch the space out onto the open air veranda. This is where most meals are eaten, but not for us. Rain kept us inside and cozy.

The second story includes another guest bedroom compete with luxurious white duvet, another full bath, and a kind of mixed use TV room. Also, there is a huge master suite with lots of closet space and natural light.

From the master was a little hidden secret. Go through a door and look down the stair case to find a bathroom back on the first floor. It has a double stone sink and a extra long bathtub. The tub could fit Mike's 6'2" frame into it easily. There is a second exit at that level leading back into the dining room.  An unusual set-up, but a private and mysterious addition to the master suit
Outdoors on a sub-level, we found a two-space carport and little "caves." These were actually where the livestock was housed at the time the structure was first built. A half door remains where horses could stick out their heads to smell the country air. These areas are now used for laundry, storage and utilities.

Our impressive tour came to an end and we could see why it was love at first sight for Aunt and Uncle. It seemed destined to be theirs, when they viewed the "estate" as they first spied it through the trees while driving down the highway on the opposite side of the river.

30 October 2014

2014 EUROPE to St Hippolyte du Fort, France 5 - Uncle and Aunt

The ride to my Uncle Bob's (my mom's younger brother) and Aunt Terry's home was about an hour. Only 30 miles but very twisty, turny and narrow two-lane roads. In some places only one-and-a-half lanes.

I have to say right off the bat, I was impressed by Terry's driving. Throughout our visit I felt safe in the car. Sure there were a few close calls, but she was in control and it seemed the norm under the circum- stances. I'm just glad I was not the driver in these stressful conditions.

Their small town of Saint Hippolyte du Fort had recently suffered a huge flood or "tsunami" as Uncle called it. B&T were not home when it occurred, but returned a few days later to find the devastation on the "prairie" area of their 50 acres.

The river in front of their home is a bit unusual in that it is normally fed by underground springs. The river on the upstream side of the bridge is usually dry rock bed. The springs surface under the bridge and so water trickles from there downstream of the bridge in varying amounts depending on the rains.

On this recent occasion the heavy rains caused the river to start raging far upstream from the bridge. It had widely overflowed its banks, leaving rock walls collapsed, sand covering much of the grass prairie. Trees and shrubs uprooted and ruined vegetation wrapped around the trees that were still left standing.

Along the drive to their house, was a lovely garden carefully tended by a neighbor. But it had completely disappeared into a pile of rubble and fallen stone walls. No sign of its previous idyllic beauty.

The saving grace of the situation was that the bridge over the river to their home was still intact and holding strong. It continued to rain pretty heavily off and on during the drive to their home and we hoped they would not experience more flood problems.
The sight of the 350+ year old stone structure with French blue stutters was impressive as we crossed the bridge. (More on the house in the next blog entry.)

After unloading our luggage, Terry recognized that we needed a few minutes to wind down. We sat in the cozy kitchen while Aunt served hot chocolate with marshmallows and cookies. It was a nice warm up because the air was damp from all the rain.

Next we were shown to our very private quarters. We had time to unpack and freshen up with a shower and tooth-brushing. We felt human again. Not tired at all. For some reason (maybe pure excitement) we did not experience jet lag on this trip.

Next was an elegant treat to tide us over until dinner --fresh figs split at the top and stuffed with blue cheese, all baked in a tiny oven and then served over greens. I am not a fig fan, but this combination was absolutely delicious. Mike was already in heaven with this delicacy.

Terry left to teach an English class to two French students. It was in a nearby town and she would return in two hours or so. In the meantime, Uncle, Mike and I chatted about old times on the open veranda outside the blue kitchen doors.

Uncle pointed out the nearby mountain named Montagne de la Fage, which has been the muse for many of his art projects. Today it was overcast and mysterious.

At maybe 19:30, Terry returned and started dinner--a warm egg-drop style soup with chopped fresh mushrooms and potatoes, French bread (just lay it on the table when not in hand), and a fabulous bottle of 2009 Crianza Riojo wine. Nice call. I think this was the best wine of our visit with them. 

The table was just big enough for four to eat and chit-chat about family news, politics, traveling, Stewart / Colbert / Oliver (they are fans also), the sights of the area, and everything else under the sun.

We chatted a bit more and then to bed. Our room was a little more dampish than we are used to, but after a few minutes the duvet warmed us up. The bed was king-size so quite roomy and we were able to leave the shutters and windows wide open. Even though it was raining, the roof overhung so far, that it did not rain inside. No mosquitoes or bugs came in either. We sleep very well that night.

29 October 2014

2014 EUROPE Paris to Nîmes, France 4 - Eurail Express

I felt sorry for those aged or disabled--no moving walkways, lots of up and down stairs, a long stretch to get from plane to Customs. We were huffing a bit ourselves when we finally arrived at Customs.

The officer was pleasant and even smiled as I said, "Merci" on my way through. We breezed through baggage inspection with the wave of an hand. Another helpful officer directed us to the arrivals area for our driver.

The distance between CDG airport (control tower photo above) and Gare de Lyon (Paris-Lyon railway station) was 20 kilometers (a kilometer equals .62 miles). As time was tight for this plane-train connection, rather than take the Paris metro system (with 2 transfers), we had pre-arranged on the Internet in the USA for a personal car to meet and transport us. That was a good thing because we found the metro drivers were on strike and service severely reduced that day.

When we arrived we expected to see a driver in white shirt and black suit displaying a sign with our last name. It was on our bucket list, to be met in this manner. It seemed opulent and made us feel a little richy-richy, even though we are not. We even had camera ready to take his photo. But alas no such thing. No sign, no driver, no car.

Thankfully a very nice fellow recognized our confusion, looked at our paperwork, and called the company for us. Because of the rainy weather, there were multiple accidents on the highway system and our driver was delayed. We hoped this was not a ruse of some sort on we trusting Americans. But, yahoo, about 20 minutes later our driver showed up.

Traffic WAS horrible and we were still unsure if we would make our plane-train connection. It was imperative, because we had no way to contact my aunt and uncle who were driving 30 miles to meet us at the Nîmes train station. Our iPhone and iPad Internet hook-ups were not working in spite of all our preparations.

Traffic was slow and harried. Motorcycles used the lane line as a lane. Our route included many entrances and exits on the major highway, lots of lane changes to anticipate the fastest route, tight corners, impatient drivers, bold pedestrians, police cars with their blue lights and EEE-AAA European sirens still attending to accidents. But our driver was fantastic. I am normally a nervous Nelly unless I'm the driver, but I felt very safe all the way and complimented him at our destination.

The sights along our route were mostly commercial and industrial, dreary looking on this rainy day. But in the last 15 minutes we passed by the lovely old and ornate buildings so reminiscent of classic movies, with wrought iron Juliet balconies, cafes with sidewalk tables, and lots of statuary and fountains adorning the streets.

Gare de Lyon is beautiful and typically what you dream of in Paris. Classic white granite (?) building with ornate decoration and tall clock tower. Once inside we saw "Eiffel" steel work framing the glass canopy protected people boarding the multitude of trains. If you have seen the movie "Hugo" you will get the picture.

Entering the station, we were overwhelmed (hence no photos). We had 35 minutes to catch our train and stymied as to where to head. We had Eurail passes in hand, but needed to get them validated before embarking on a train. We got vague directions from the info counter, but managed to find it anyway. There was a long line in that office, but we discovered the person giving directions could validate our tickets.

Next we had to figure out exactly where to catch the train. We happened into the right hall (there were three), but did not know which of the many tracks to wait by. We saw our train number on the info board, but no track number. We discovered the track number shows up on the info board only about 20 minutes before departure. Its display "announces" it is time to board.

Our tickets not only showed seat numbers but also a coach number, so we were still a bit bewildered. Our coach number was 03, but which train car was 03. Another kind lady took pity on us. It turns out we were traveling on the same train, but to different destinations. She showed us the pictograph near each track that indicated coach numbers and their line up on the train. She walked us to coach 03 and continued on her way.

She said it was important to board the right coach because they did not connect with a walkway. You couldn't just walk between each car. And later some cars would split off--ours going to Nîmes and hers going to Montpelier. She was a tremendous help, as we used that information for the rest of our train journey.

Departure time was 10:07. We had first class for our first Eurail leg--Paris Gare de Lyon to Nîmes in south central France. There were two stops en route--one I can't remember and the city of Lyon. The train was very nice, especially compared to what we had experienced on Amtrak from Elkhart, Indiana to New York City last year.

There were "wings" on the sides of the seats to rest our tired heads without awkwardly twisting our necks. It was clean and spacious, but the best part was the smooth, quiet ride along the tracks. You could hardly tell you were moving on this high-speed train except you could see the countryside whizzing by. The only drawback was that we were sitting backwards--a little distracting to our sight-seeing. Also photos taken were just a blur.

The geography at the start was very flat and reminded us of Ohio. As the lightly rolling hills replaced the flatland, there were herds of white (or light beige) cattle roaming. As we passed the quaint little villages in the distance we saw ancient towers, cisterns, and occasional castle ruins on hilltops. We spotted higher and more rocky terrain the further south we traveled.

In passing we commented on how fun it would be to live here in Europe. Then we thought of the TV show "House Hunters International," which we often watch at home. It shows the process of buying homes in a foreign country and the difficulties involved ... maybe not!

At some point along the way the gray clouds disappeared and sunshine took over. We thankfully arrived at Nîmes on time at 13:06 to the smiling and loving faces of my Uncle Bob and Aunt Terry.

26 October 2014

2014 EUROPE by Rail 3 - Over the Pond

We woke up with great anticipation to start our trip to Europe. Our departure was not until 1:34pm, so we casually finished our packing and prepped ourselves. We had arranged for our niece Teshia to meet us at 10am for breakfast and she would then give us a lift to the airport. Her dad arrived with her.

We treated them to breakfast at Food Dance, an expensive but special event breakie place we enjoy. Tom just had coffee as he was meeting friends for lunch shortly. Teshia and I had huevos rancheros (eggs on black beans and flour tortilla with avocado slices). Mike had a scramble with a large fresh-squeezed OJ. Teshia ordered a bloody Mary and I had a mimosa. We all toasted to a wonderful and safe trip.

When we got to the gate in Kalamazoo, there was a delayed flight to DTW that we asked if we could move up to. They said, "No." Just as well as that flight ended up leaving after our own flight. We left a few minutes after the posted time of 13:34 (switching now to the 24-hour clock used in Europe), but we still had plenty of time to catch our flight out of Detroit to Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport. 

We had not departed from the Detroit airport in years. It was completely rebuilt. It is so huge now, that you take a long colorful hallway from one terminal to another (similar to Chicago-O'Hare).

Mike and I worked at Detroit Metro in the early 80's. That actually was where we first met. It seemed odd that those original terminal buildings appear abandoned now--no planes parked there or cargo carts nearby. We also looked for those we might have worked with way back when, but saw no familiar faces.

Our flight left DTW on time at 17:56. We had a window and aisle seat in Coach class, so fairly happy. Just wish Mike had a little more leg room. Shortly after take-off, it was announced that this was little Sara Somebody's 11th birthday and her parents were taking her to Paris.

Mike reminisced on his 11th birthday trip--a cruise to the dining room table. But to his mom's credit, it was usually a full Thanksgiving dinner as fulfillment of is birthday meal request.

But today I had ordered a veggie meal in advance, which seemed a bit pointless as one of the two normal options was the same meal. Only difference was I got fruit instead of a cinnamon brownie. Mike got the chicken and mashed potato option. A bit before landing they also served "breakfast." It was a mini miniature (not kidding) egg mc (with little m) muffin, a bit of cheese, and a biscotti. I guess you can't expect much from airline meals these days. At least it was warm.
The electronics on the aircraft are really great now. Each person has their own "theater screen" with numerous options--several current and older movies, music videos, TV series for binge watching, games, etc. I tried to watch "How to Train Your Dragon 2," but was too excited and lost interest fast.

We both ended up scanning the flight tracker most of the time. It gave all kinds of graphics and statistics. 

Here was the flight info at the very middle of our trip. It is hard to imagine that at over 38,000 feet we actually experienced temps of -70F degrees, had tail winds of over 100 miles per hour, AND we were traveling over 650 miles per hour. These tail winds helped us arrive about a half hour early into Paris. Incredible!

As we flew the sunset was lovely and the city lights below sparkled when we passed. In the dark of the night and over the Atlantic, the stars lit our way. When we arrived in Paris at 07:00, it was still night skies, rainy and dreary, but we were happy to get our land legs back.

2014 EUROPE by Rail 2 - Communicating with the Outside World

OK, so it didn't go the way we planned with WiFi or Internet access. Couldn't do the travel blog as we went along in Europe. I thought I had properly prepped, but ...

We got a European SIM card for our iPhone through our Eurail pass. It was free and good for 18 minutes of talk time. Figured if we got messed up with train schedules or something I could call the next hotel and adjust arrival. No problem in physically installing the card, but directions to activate did not work or maybe it was operator incompetence.
In Brugge, Belgium we actually found an authorized Apple dealer to help us. The tech guy was able to get the SIM card working (for free), BUT only in Belgium. I guess each country needs a little something different in firmware.

Thank goodness we did not have any delays or major snafus. And we had enough time in this access window to arrange dinner in Berlin with Cory, our niece's significant other. So we used the phone mostly for an alarm clock(!!), with sketchy WiFi hotel access for local information. Next time we will get a burner phone to avoid all these communication issues.

We also set up our iPad for cellular access, but apparently Sprint does not work outside the U.S. because we had no luck there either. The Apple dealer sent us to another vendor to fix this problem. But same deal, they could only set it up to work while we were in Belgium.

So we had access to WiFi / Internet only for about 12 hours in Belgium. That obviously was not enough to enter our travel blog diary. So I will start updating now. Just pretend it is coming out in a timely fashion. Hope you will still enjoy our delayed adventures.

08 October 2014

2014 EUROPE by Rail 1 - Happy Trails to Us

We have been planning our trip to Europe for months. How can it possibly be today and I still have a hundred things to do?! Well, the flight doesn't leave til 1:35pm U.S. or as they say in Europe 1335.

Bags are mostly packed and Bella is on to us. Sits first on one bag, then another. I guess we'll look a little hairy when we get rolling with wisps of fur she leaves behind. I'm so glad we have two great cat whisperers to watch over B while we are gone. Thanks, Lisa. Thanks, Dixie.

Here is our itin. It is not tentative because everything is non-refundable, if we change. So we're not going to change.

8 Oct - Depart Kalamazoo, Michigan
9 Oct  - Arrive Paris, train to Nimes, pick up by Uncle Bob and Aunt Terry, to our final destination today of St Hippolyte du Fort, France
12 Oct - Train to Nice, France
13 Oct (Mike's BD) - Spend the day in Monte Carlo, Monaco
14 Oct - Train to Brugge, Belgium
16 Oct - Train to Berlin, Germany
19 Oct - Train to Amsterdam, the Netherlands
22 Oct - Return home to Kalamazoo

I will try to keep up with the blog as we go, but not sure how accessible Wi-Fi / Internet will be. Not sure how that will work. We have a lot of train time, so I'm hoping much of that will have Wi-Fi. We are not taking the computer, so will try is transfer photos from the iPad to the Blog. If I can't figure that out. I'll just add the pix when I get home.

Alright friends and family, think positive thoughts about all our transportation connections as they are many between plane and trains.