At the beginning of our trip the guest entertainers all expressed relief that they were finally working again after two years of COVID induced hiatus, but more recently these comments have abated, so I assume there are enough ships sailing now that they are back to hopping from flower to flower.
We are coming in to territory which is very familiar to us. Over the past few weeks, the only place we’ve noticed any masking has been in Germany. Virtually none of the new passengers are masked, but many of the long-termers continue to use them as they realize the penalty for testing positive.
Two facts stand out:
KN95 masks, in fact, are effective in protecting the wearer from infection. I can go through a litany of passengers which show that those who wore masks from the beginning have been far less likely to have contracted COVID.
“Quick” antigen tests may be better than nothing, but are far from conclusive. There are enough examples of them showing negative results on people who then tested positive on PCR tests (given because they were symptomatic) that I don’t trust that all of the new passengers who have been boarding are uninfected. Include the fact that they generally are unmasked and I have been giving up group activities, such as bridge and painting, which would expose me to them.
And, today, I heard that they are no longer testing passengers at boarding time or asking whether they have recently been tested (though they do require them to have proof of testing along with them when they first board). Let’s see how that works out. Of course, no one who gets on in Lisbon and off in NYC will get tested at all, so that’s one way to have no infections ?
That said, the last remaining person on our eight person trivia team, other than the two of us to have avoided being infected by COVID just tested positive today. The duplicate bridge game (which I avoided playing in today) had a total of twenty people playing. Two have stayed masked and avoided catching COVID, four were unmasked relatively recent boarders and fourteen have been sequestered for five or ten days each with COVID infections over the past month or two. Doubling the number of passengers by taking on another 250 unmasked newbies in Lisbon out to be interesting.
The cruise lines are no longer publicizing the level of COVID infections aboard their ships for obvious reasons and the majority of passengers currently boarding are not following any sort of COVID mitigation practices for equally obvious reasons. The net result is that cruise ships have shifted from places of refuge from COVID to places where it is likely that, as a passenger, you will be infected by COVID. As part of the minority who have not contracted COVID aboard over the past couple of months – whether by paying attention to the science or just dumb luck – we feel like an endangered species.
It is not that, at this stage of the game, I am particularly concerned about requiring ng hospitalization or worse. We have had two vaccinations, followed by two boosters – the latest of which is from three months ago. While a few who were infected aboard have required oxygen, it is also true that a single J&J vax was sufficient to board. The primary immediate concern is missing a week or two of the cruise simply out of the laziness of not wearing a mask (there is not one of those who have been confined who enjoyed the experience). On a longer term basis, I suspect we will both end up being infected at some point and if there are long-term effects of that infection, I guess we will have to cross that road when we get to it – but I don’t see the benefit to making that any more likely than it has to be.
And today’s new is that, besides a number of guests going into solitary confinement, the Cruise Director has acquired COVID and is isolating. Interestingly, he regularly plays backgammon (unmasked) with the band leader and the ship’s General Manager, so it will make for diverting my curiosity.
On the other hand, the active COVID case count has dropped below 5% (about 30 between crew and passengers right now) and the crew can get shore leave again. Maybe we have finally reached some level of herd immunity against whatever variant has been going around. The FDA has approved a third vax and Moderna has mentioned that they will be mixing an Omicron valent into their fall brew (as it seems nearly pointless at this time to concentrate on the original strain), so I figure we’ll shoot up along with our annual flu shot in September (which will be six months after our second booster).
I’m going through my photos from the trip so far and am amazed at the number which show the Ukrainian flag – sometimes flying on foreign government buildings. The most blatant use was in front of the Russian embassy in Tallinn, Estonia – with a row of baby dolls covered in blood.
We are currently taking what amounts to a sea day as the ship drops people off at the container port in Verdon, France for morning excursions and then takes the rest of the day to reach Bordeaux. While this is advertised as an “overnight” stop and there is a party for the around-the-worlders tonight, it actually only gives us one day of sightseeing in Bordeaux. To add insult to injury, the next day, we were informed that the next port (Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France) had two meter waves which made it difficult to call at and was being skipped. This was advertised as a “second night in Bordeaux” – which. While accurate, since we were going to leave at 4am in the morning meant that it was still only a day-day stand.
Champagne - Lesser Known Brands
As with other French and Italian wines, the fact that a wine is labeled as coming from a region (Bordeaux, Champagne, Asti, whatever) generally means that the wine will be fine. That said, there are frequently well-known brands and then it’s hard to pick from names one has never seen before. The following are a group of lesser-known champagne brands recommended to me by a French chef:
There is a blindingly large number of Bordeaux wines, ranging from red to rose to white. They sell for supermarket prices from 6 Euros and up (and up and up). I have found they are invariably drinkable regardless of price.
Well, on we head to a day stop at Gijon, Spain and then we hit Lisbon which will end this segment and in which we are expecting an additional 250 passengers, thereby doubling the number aboard the ship. The pragmatic changes will be to make it harder to get reservations in the specialty restaurants, increase lines/ques and (since I expect the majority to be unmasked and the quick tests have already proved to give quite a few false negatives) quickly spread COVID infection to many of those who have managed to avoid it so far. Since this is the last segment, I’m guessing we won’t be tested before disembarking. Ce la vie.
The Port of Rotterdam handles more ships and more cargo every year than any other port in Europe – 37,000 ships and 400 million metric tons of cargo. A dredged channel, the Nieuwe Waterweg (New Waterway) connects Rotterdam with the North Sea and forms a 32km-long (20-mile) deepwater harbor known as Europoort. Holland owes a fair piece of its prosperity to the port, which directly employs 60,000 people.
Similar to most other large cities, there are free (tips only) walking tours of Rotterdam available here: freewalkingtourrotterdam.com
The RET (Rotterdam’s transit system) sells tickets (cash or credit card) from vending machines located at Metro, tram and bus stations. A single ride is 4 Euros, a day pass for the city is 9 Euros and a day pass for Rotterdam and the surrounding areas in 14 Euros.
During World War II, Rotterdam was largely destroyed by bombing and although just an hour from Amsterdam by train, if Amsterdam visually is the Holland of the 18th century, Rotterdam is Holland’s most futuristic city, with only a few of the old gabled townhouses left around Delfshaven and Oude Haven.
Rather than try to recreate the old appearance of the city, the way many of the ports we’ve visited have done, Rotterdam looked on its misfortune as an opportunity to look forward. The iconic landmark of its skyline of innovative buildings is the floodlit Erasmusbrug cable bridge.
The building of the Museumpark’s Kunsthal Rotterdam art museum during the 1990s, set the precedent for stylish public buildings.
The center of the city is dominated by the massive futuristic zeppelin hanger-shaped shaped indoor food market Markethal (Market Hall) opened, featuring a massive arched ceiling covered with colorful, cartoonish images of produce.
At one end of the market is the geometric chaos of cube-shaped, custard-yellow Kubuswoningen (Cube Houses designed in the early 1970s stretching towards Oude Haven. One of these lopsided little abodes, the Kijk-Kubus (Show-Cube), Overblaak 70 (www.kubuswoning.nl; tel. 010/414-2285), is open for visits daily 11am to 6pm. (Admission is 3€ for adults, 2€ for seniors and students).
At the other end of the market is the Grote of Sint-Laurenskerk, arguably the most beautiful church in Rotterdam – from the outside at least. The inside is bare and Spartan (though it was endowed with a huge organ). The Laurens church was damaged but not destroyed during the WW2 bombardment of Rotterdam. The Laurentius church is one of the few buildings that was restored after the bombardment of the center of Rotterdam in 1940. It stands tall as the sole survivor in the midst of postwar buildings. You can take an inside look for a charge of 3 euros. Toilet visit is 50 eurocents.
Back in the center city, a huge general market brings alive the Binnenrotte area on Tuesday and Saturday. Part of the market (still 200 stalls!) opens from May to December on Sunday afternoon. Lovers of antiques, bric-a-brac, and old books should make their way to the Sunday market (Metro: Leuvehaven); the market is open mid-May to mid-September Sunday from 11am to 5pm.
Heading in the opposite direction, following the Cube Houses, takes us to Rotterdam’s Old Harbor (Oude Haven), part of the city’s revitalized Maritime District - a boat basin filled with restored historic boats facing the Maritime Museum Rotterdam. Established in 1873, the museum’s large collections cover the history of shipping and seafaring. The exhibits include ship models, a reconstruction of a 2,000-year-old vessel, and numerous seafaring paintings.
We took the Metro to the tiny harbor area known as Delfshaven (Delft Harbor), a neighborhood the German bombers somehow missed. It was from here that the Puritan Pilgrims embarked on the “Mayflower” their trip to found Massachusetts in 1620. Wander into the 15th-century Pelgrimvaderskerk (Pilgrim Fathers Church), Aelbrechtskolk 20 (www.oudeofpelgrimvaderskerk.nl), in which the pilgrims prayed before departure, and where they are remembered in special services every Thanksgiving Day. The church is open irregularly, but at least admission is free.
On the Lijnbaan car-free shopping promenade, you’ll find dozens of small fashion boutiques on and around Witte de Withstraat. The historic Delfshaven area is the place to go for antiques.
For sexy designer lingerie & beachware: Marlies Dekkers, Witte de Withstraat 2 (tel. 010/280-9184; www.marliesdekkers.nl; Metro: Eendrachtsplein)
Department stores are located on Coolsingel and Hoogstraat. The classy De Bijenkorf department store, Coolsingel 105 (tel. 0900/0919; www.bijenkorf.nl; Metro: Beurs), has five floors and opens onto the Beurstraverse shopping mall, which runs below street level and has a mix of chain stores and small stores.
The large supermarket Gimsel, Mariniersweg 9-33 (tel. 010/404-7342; www.degroenepassage.nl; Metro: Blaak or Oostplein), organic or alternative stores in the Groene Passage green shopping center.
For a vast selection of beers, Bier & Co, Abraham van Stolkweg 98 (tel. 31/10-411-2879; www.bierenco.nl; Metro: Blaak or Oostplein), (close to Rotterdam’s curious Cube Houses)
The city’s largest supermarket, plus colonnade of diverse restaurants at Jumbo, Vijf Werelddelen 33, on the south bank of the Nieuwe Maas, in the Entrepot, a 19th-century bonded warehouse
We ate lunch at the restaurant “Fitzgerald” (Gelderseplein 49, Tel: +31 10 2687010, www.restaurantfitzgerald.com). Using a GPS, it may be a bit tricky to find the restaurant. The easiest way, from the Markethal is find the Blaak Metro station and cross the wide street, where a white “arched ladder” heads towards the “Citizen M Hotel”. There’s a tunnel through the building to the marina of the Maritime Museum and you’ll find the restaurant, to the right, towards the end of the passageway (if you see a restaurant named 91 spices in front of you, you’ve gone too far).
The restaurant had a pleasant ambiance and a pragmatic layout with large windows, overlooking a beautiful courtyard garden. The food was designed with ingredients which were chosen to complement each other’s flavors – with hints of half-remembered sensations – as well as providing attractive plates to please the most discriminating eyes. The wine list is encyclopedic and Danny’s knowledge of its contents fascinating.
The restaurant has an outside dining area in the courtyard, as well as slidable partitions which allow them to segment off multiple large parties.
“Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right.” Is the line uttered by F. Scott Fitzgerald that inspired restaurateur/sommelier Danny Gonzalez to name his restaurant it is the motto of his establishment. The harmoniously paired menu and wines from the restaurant’s vast list have resulted in being awarded a Michelin Star and the Fitzgerald won three Gold Stars in the first ever Star Wine List of the Year Netherlands – including the Grand Prix category for best wine list overall. A meal at this restaurant is an experience to be savored and then remembered fondly.
Our menu consisted of (more or less):
Roasted egg, potato and asparagus foam
Ravioli with fennel, green apple, spinach
Red Mullet with carrot, sea buckhorn berry and lemongrass
John Dory with razor clam, fennel and kohlrabi
Veal sweetbread with cauliflower, piccalilli and Iberico
Anjou Pigeon (both breast and stew) with green pea, coconut, ras al hanout wine reduction
Strawberry with rhubarb, timut pepper and buttermilk ice cream
When we think of Holland, we think of a spinning windmill. Kinderdijk (www.kinderdijk.nl), a tiny community between Rotterdam and Dordrecht, on the south bank of the Lek River, has 19 water-pumping windmills (totaling 76 mill sails, each with a 13-meter span) in a spectacle which has placed Kinderdijk on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
By regulating the level of water, Kinderdijk’s windmills guarded the fertile polders (reclaimed land) of the Alblasserwaard, which were constantly at risk of returning to the water. The mills operate on Saturday afternoons in July and August 2:30 to 5:30pm; the visitors’ mill is open March to October daily 9am to 5:30pm and November to February 10am to 4:30pm. A fun way to get to Kinderdijk from Rotterdam is by RET high-speed catamaran (www.ret.nl), from the dock adjacent to the Erasmusbrug; this goes to the De Schans dock at Ridderkerk for the local ferry across to Kinderdijk. If you’re driving, take N210 east to Krimpen aan de Lek, from where a small car ferry crosses over the Lek River to Kinderdijk.
Brugge Belgium (Bruges in French/English)
“Every exit is an entry somewhere else.” – Tom Stoppard
Note: On Sunday, only souvenir shops and canal cruises are open. Almost all other stores are closed.
Brugge is a 14th century medieval gem with gabled buildings, bustling markets and canals. Taking a boat ride along the city’s canals is a popular tourist activity here. This is also a good place to take the train to Ghent (only about another 20 minutes from Brugge by train) or to Brussels a bit further on.
The next morning, we decided to take the train from Brussels for the hour and a half ride to Brugge (Bruges in French/English). After a breakfast of coffee and French pastries at a nearby branch of an excellent bakery named “Paul”, we took the Metro to the Central Station and then had to learn the art of reading the Belgium version of departure boards. The name Brugge could be from a Viking term for “wharf” or embankment or, more likely, from the Flemish word for “bridge”. In the 14th century with the same population as London (about 35,000), it was northern Europe’s main cloth market. As the water channel to Brugge silted up, its port moved a few km away and is now called Zeebrugge (Sea Brugge). The silting of the harbor by the 16th century caused everyone to lose interest and Brugge became an economic backwater where it did not pay to tear down the Middle Ages houses.
There is no direct train from the area of Zeebruges near the cruise ship terminal and fortunately the ship supplied a shuttle bus to the train station in Blankenberge (otherwise the Tram to the train station is 3 € or 5 € for a day pass (purchased from the Spar grocery store close to tram stop opposite the church). Validate the ticket in the tram and press button “1”. The train departs Blankenberge hourly (currently 54 minutes after the hour) for the 5 € round trip to Brugge. While waiting for the next train, we wandered down the pleasant shopping streets of the beach resort of Blankenberge just to kill time.
There is a tourist information office at the train station in Brugge.
There are two routes into the town – to directly walk in or a route utilizing a bus to make the walk to the “good stuff” shorter.
Once in Brugge, the No. 12 bus takes you from the train station to “Central”. While single bus tickets are available for 3 Euros, the most cost effective way for a group traveling together is to buy a 10 ticket Lijn card for 14 Euros and dip it once for each person traveling when getting into the bus (averaging 1.40 Euro per ride if you travel as a group of five). An alternative is to leave the train station on the left side and walk directly into the old city.
The train heading back to Blankenberge currently leaves at 51 minutes after each hour. It is important to get into the first couple of cars as the train is split in two along the route and only the front cars end up in Blankenberge (make sure to check at the station).
Brugge is full of 14th century narrow, twisting cobbled streets, picturesque views of ancient buildings, tree-lined canals and gabled facades. Often called “Die Scone” or “The Beautiful,” the charm of medieval Brugge (or Bruges in French) is that it is smaller and more contained than many other old Flemish cities and gives the impression that you have stepped back in time. It is known for its bustling marketplace, Belfry Tower, photogenic Town Hall and the Chapel of the Holy Blood. The town came into its own in the Middle Ages as a port and became the chief market of the Hanseatic League of mercantile cities for dealing textiles with the English. Being an important banking center as well, the town attracted artists such as Jan Van Eyck who enjoyed the patronage of its wealthy bourgeois. The general prosperity, visible in the opulence of the mansions and civic buildings, lasted until the end of the 15th century.
After you enter the town directly from the train station, make a right turn along the Begjinenvest canal and then hang a left turn when you hit water at the Gunpowder Tower.
Walk along the canal to the Begijnhof, a conclave for religious single women to live together since the Middle Ages. Then cross the canal to the right and head left to the Walplein.
Continue north along the main street (Mariastraat) until it intersects a canal where you will find your first opportunity to take a canal cruise. There will be many other opportunities along the way and they are all following the same canal route, so are basically the same. It is worth taking the time to do a 30-minute canal cruise for about 8 Euros. Sit back and relax in your small boat as you are treated to the scenic waterways of this story-book city.
To your left, you’ll see Oud Sint-Jan (St. John’s Hospital) – which has a public toilet. A bit further on, you will get to the Church of Our Lady, with its tall steeple. The fabulous wealth which was once generated by the church’s patrons allowed the purchase of one of the few Michelangelo’s outside of Italy (a Madonna and Child out of marble) which shares a cathedral with a couple of Caravaggio’s and a pair of incredible tombs of a Hapsburg emperor and his Burgundy wife. The Michelangelo statue has been stolen a couple of times, the latest of which was when retreating German soldiers smuggled it in a Red Cross truck mattress to hide it in an Austrian salt mine during the end of the Second World War.
We continued further to Simon Stevinplein with its chocolate shops. The natural continuation northwards along Steenstraat brought us to Markt.
One of the best photo opportunities of the area can be found at the Markt or Market Square. Situated at the center of the ancient walled city of Brugge, the Market is lined with 17th-century gabled houses and dominated by the 14th-century Belfort or belfry. You can climb the 350 steps to the top of this 270-foot tower for a beautiful panoramic view of the city.
To the east of Markt, is The Basilica of the Holy Blood, which is famous for its relic of the blood of Christ, which, according to tradition, was brought to Brugge in 1150 after the Second Crusade.
To the east of the Basilica is “Burg”, the main square with its City Hall. The City Hall has the oldest Gothic hall in the Low Countries.
It is pleasant to walk Brugge’s quaint cobblestone streets and over its flower-lined canals. We admired the many beautiful bridges for which the city was named and walked past rows of spectacular gothic buildings and attractive gabled homes.
We had a low-carb lunch of French (Belgium) fries, waffles and a sandwich on baguette (French bread). Desert consisted of some handmade chocolates from Pralines - Marie de Bruges, Walstraat, 16-18.
In the city center, the Brugge Museum lobby has free high-speed Wi-Fi.
Brugge is full of lace and chocolate shops. The perfect place to pick up some chocolate (we did – 7 Euros per 250 grams) is Duman Artisanale Chocolatier (Eiermarkt 6). Another popular chocolatier is Leonidas, whose chocolates are truly world class. Around the corner you can wash their incredible chocolates down with a dessert at Australian Ice Cream.
Another find is the great pastry shop called Patisserie Academie (Tom Van Loock, Academiestraat, 4) on the way to Jan van Eyck Plein with a statue of Jan Van Eyck (who’d you expect?) and a picturesque row of 14th century buildings at the base of the canal.
Another local invention is the Belgium waffle. While these are stacked all over town waiting to be reheated, Chez Albert (Breidelstraat, 16 – also at St. Veerleplein, 12 in Ghent) makes them fresh and invariably has a line waiting for a new batch. They taste incredible and, though they can be had with all sorts of toppings, I found a plain waffle without a topping (2.50 Euro) plenty sweet enough.
Belgium is also known for “French” fries with mayonnaise served in a cone of paper. After chocolate, ice cream and waffles for lunch we figured adding fried potatoes seemed a little over the top, but they are worth seeking out if you are hungry (and Brugge is the home of the Fried Potato Museum, after all).
There is no doubt that Belgium is dedicated to its beer since the country offers more than 450 varieties of it. Belgium, with its widely varying landscape, offers a range of beers with the most contrasting tastes and flavors in the world and it is deeply rooted in the local culture and tradition.
Who said calories can’t be fun? ?
Knokkle (Zeebrugge), Belgium
“The most important trip you may take in life is meeting people halfway”. ~Henry Boye
We were picked up in the morning by our friends Thierry and his wife Fabien, who live near Antwerp, for the short drive to the Belgian beach resort of Knokke. This stretch of sand, lined by uber-expensive condominiums, was a bit chilly this morning and the beach itself was empty, but we could see the potential for crowds. As it is Bastille Day, there were a couple of large French flags flapping away on the beach, but as this is a predominantly Flemish part of the country, the mention seemed muted. The original Australian Ice Cream stand is on the beach as well (the company’s locations have spread across Belgium by now). After some random shopping (and being gifted with 500g of Leonidas chocolate to keep us nourished on the trip home, but fighting off an attempt at being on the receiving end of a magnum of Chimay Trappist beer with matching glasses), we retired to eat lunch.
The outstanding beach facing restaurant our hosts had chosen was “Rubens” at Zeedijk, 589. While my wife had an excellent salmon and Thierry had an army helmet sized bowl of mussels in cream and shallot sauce, both Fabien and I had steak tartare. Each of our portions was about a pound (500g) of fresh chopped meat on a mixed salad with condiments consisting of a fresh raw egg yolk, parsley, chopped onions, capers and a variety of savory sauces (Worstershire, Tabasco, ketchup, etc.). This was washed down by a great amber Leffe Belgian beer (8.2%). For dessert, Thierry got me a local Advocaat liqueur that had the consistence and color of zabaglione and tasted like a thick syrup of egg yolks and vodka.
“Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.” – John Muir
Honfleur is a city in the department of Calvados, in northern France’s Normandy region. It’s on the estuary where the Seine River meets the English Channel. Nearby is 15th-century St. Catherine’s Church, a vaulted timber structure erected by shipbuilders.
We started the day with a special prix fix breakfast offered by a local shop: for four€, a hot drink (we chose cappuccinos), a croissant (or chocolate one or a buttered baguette) and an orange juice.
Because the Rouen daily market is closed on Monday, we decided to head out of town and drive through the forests and farms which line the series of meanders the Seine River takes between Rouen and where it enters the English Channel at the town of Honfleur. Along the way along the southern bank (the left bank/rive gauche) we stopped at the very picturesque town of La Bouille, full of centuries old half-timbered houses with slate roofs (warning: the road down to this town is very steep and twisty, so make sure you either have an automatic transmission car, be very familiar with driving a manual transmission or be born with three legs) . It is hard to verbalize what you see in a town where the buildings have not changed much since the days when the King of England ruled Normandy. While virtually everywhere we went today seems prosperous and well maintained, we did see quite a few very elderly waterfront buildings for sale in this town. There was a small cider shop which was giving out samples of Calvados, the local apple flavored brandy (more like whiskey).
Rather than take the high speed AutoRoute (based on the German Autobahn system, but limited to only 130 km/hour – least legally), we wandered down the local roads to the small towns of Aizir and then to Vieux-Port. These were meticulously manicured and the old half-timbered houses had incredibly complex thatched roofs.
Our trip to Honfleur took a bit over two hours instead of the hour it would have if we had taken the AutoRoute, but was filled with the vistas of French farms populated with haystacks, cows and crops as well as river views of the Seine.
We started our wander by picking up a map from the tourist information office which maps out three different walking tours.
Honfleur is wonderfully photogenic. It has hundreds of seafood restaurants, is known for its art galleries and has both a new and an old harbor. It is busy and, full of tourists from all over the world. But it is such a compelling place that it is worth putting up with the crowds and the art students trying to capture the views on paper and canvas. It has winding streets of half-timbered houses which shame movie sets of medieval times.
The scenic quays beacon you to walk past the fishing boats and the 18th century tall, narrow slate-roofed houses that line the Vieux Bassin (old harbor). It was built it 1681 and necessitated destruction of part of the city’s ramparts in order to enlarge the old port. On the north side of the harbor, the former governor’s house, the imposing Lieutenance, dates from the 16th century. The Vieux-Bassin has been a subject for artists including Claude Monet and native son Eugène Boudin.
Honfleur boasts France’s largest wooden church, Eglise Ste-Catherine, place Ste-Catherine, was built in the 15th century to replace a stone church destroyed during the Hundred Years’ War, the Saint Catherine’s Church was built entirely in wood, gathered in the nearby forest. Its original form of overturned double hull boat is due to Honfleur’s workers excellent knowledge of shipbuilding. Its separate bell tower made of oak is visited as an annex to the Eugène Boudin museum. The church is open July and August daily from 8am to 8pm, September through June daily 8:30am to noon and 2 to 6pm.
We stumbled on an alleyway which led to a stream (I suspect formerly an open sewer at some time in the past) flowing through the backyards of a number of homes that had been turned into an eclectic series of fountains and gardens – called “Le Jardin du Tripot”. A bit of research indicated that this area was used by tanners because of the confluence of two rivers at the spot. Their usage of excrement to tan hides probably created an aroma in this area to compete with the worst of cesspools for the hundreds of years they were based at the location. The new park was completed in 2003. It is very worthwhile to search out the entrance if you visit the town.
We elected to eat at a restaurant called “L’Escale” where my wife had a fixed price lunch of salad, chicken with potato gratin and dessert and I had a massive cold platter (suitable for a small army) of all sorts of seafood and critters on a bed of ice and seaweed. These were accompanied by a bottle of “hard” cider (about 5% alcohol).
Normandy is famous for its Calvados and Pommeau, apple-based alcoholic drinks that delight all the taste buds. Cave Normande and the Compagnie des Calvados de la Cave Honfleuraise can supply these as a typical souvenir of the region.
After lunch, we wandered through the old town, showing some interest in some paintings (but resisting temptation) and eventually drove the one hour AutoRoute trip back to Rouen. Frankly, lunch was big enough to cover dinner as well.
La Rochelle, France
This is a beautiful seaside city and it would have been fun to wander around, but it was pouring (seems to be typical French weather this summer, though in Paris the weather was always sunny) and I ended up treating everyone to a meal in a restaurant called Le Bistrot de Meme (Grandma) (27 b avenue des minimes derriere le lycee hotelier et bowling face au part des minimes) which was actually very nice. I had a smoked duck giblets and pate de froi gras salad for an appetizer and steak tartar with anchovies and smoked red peppers with a side of fries for my main course.
On a more recent trip, we ended up eating in Restaurant le Boute En Train (roughly translates to a fun guy/gal at a party) (7 rue des Bonnes Femmes). While this place offers set lunches at 17 Euros, we decided to order ala carte as the meals looked a bit large for lunch. My wife has a salad with slabs of smoked duck and a huge flower made from cheese. I ordered what turned out to be a monstrously large, perfectly made steak tartar (I would estimate about 350 grams of “cannibal sandwich”). While they didn’t give me the pleasure of mixing my own, the identifying ingredients besides beef were raw onions, capers, parsley, a raw egg and some spices.
The town has been a strategic site over the centuries as it roughly sits on the dividing line between the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean. It has been fortified back in the Crusader’s time when the Knights Templar had a temple here, had its walls revamped by Vauban to protect the coast against the English, and yet again during the Second World War German occupation when massive concrete bunkers and submarine pens were built in the port to protect the facilities from Allied bombs.
La Rochelle has two sides: the old town inside the Vauban defenses and the modern and industrial suburbs. The city’s fortifications have a circuit of 5.5km (3.5 miles), with a total of seven gates. It’s an easy city to walk around, or you can rent the yellow bicycles (or electric cars) called Yélo (https://yelo.agglo-larochelle.fr) from stations around the city. There are solar-powered ferries that across the La Rochelle channel from Cours des Dames to La Médiathèque and are called by pressing on a button on the quay side. A 10-trip ticket is 11€, or a single ride is 1.30€, and is also valid on the city’s buses. You can also buy a 24-hr. unlimited ticket for 4.50€.
This is a pleasant town, with little vehicular traffic, to wander in. It was a wide variety of small shops and, while the overwhelming color of the buildings is white, is not a boring place to poke around in.
The town, with its arch-arcaded streets, is great for strolling. The best streets for strolling, each with a 17th-century arcade, are rue du Palais, la Rue du Temple, rue Chaudrier, and rue des Merciers, the latter with its ancient wooden houses (seek out the ones at nos. 3, 5, 8, and 17).
Those looking for a quirky shop will appreciate La Compagnie des Reclames (14 rue du Palais) which specializes in high-quality reproductions of enamel-on-steel advertising signs and similar stuff.
The town’s 14th-century showcase Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) is built in flamboyant Gothic style with battlements. It was heavily damaged in a 2013 fire, but has reopened. The town has a moderately interesting covered market dating back to the 19th century as well as a Protestant History Museum, an aquarium and a naval museum. The main church, the Cathedral of St. Louis is large, but not as lavishly decorated as might be expected.
The port is a fishing harbor and one of Europe’s major sailing centers. If you are here during the summer, try to schedule a visit in time to attend a fish auction (called La Criée aux Poissons) at the Marché Central de la Rochelle, starting at 5am every Thursday from mid-June to mid-September (7€ per person booked through the tourist office).
You can buy a combination museum ticket good for entrance to the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Musée Orbigny-Bernon, Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, and Musée du Nouveau-Monde. Available at any of the museums and the tourist office, it costs 12€, a big savings.
To be honest, we are frequently “museumed-out” (not to mention “churched-out”), so it takes something really special to excite me (three that come to mind are the puppet theatre in Tallinn, Estonia and the national museums in both Stockholm and Copenhagen). The “special” museum in this town is the Musee des Automates (14 rue de la Desiree – between the Vieux Port and Port des Minimes) which displays over 300 pristine automated dolls from around the world – many of which are over 200 years old.
Instead of paying separate admissions to visit each of the three 14th- and 15th-century historic towers of La Rochelle, you can purchase a three-tower ticket for 8.50€ adults or 5.50€ ages 18 to 25. It allows you to visit all three tours (though usually after two towers, only the most die-hard tower devotees press on). Should you wish to visit only one tower, you’ll pay just 6€ for adults and 4€ for ages 18 to 25, free for children 17 and under.
During the French Wars of Religion that raged off and on for much of the 17th century, a large number of both Huguenots and Catholics emigrated from La Rochelle to North America - especially Canada. If you are interested in tracing your own roots here, you could start with the Unicaen Project run by Caen university (no longer funded, but the information gathered in a research project from 2001 to 2006 is searchable on www.unicaen.fr/mrsh/prefen/index.php). Open by request only, the Musée Rochelais d’Histoire Protestante on 2 Rue Saint-Michel (www.protestantisme-museelarochelle.fr; tel. 05-46-50-88-03; 4€ adults, 2€ students and visitors 24–18, free for children 17 and under) has some potentially useful archives.
Bordeaux, Lascaux Caves and Saint-Emilion, France
“The only source of knowledge is experience.” – Albert Einstein
Our ship (Oceania Marina) docked right in the middle of Bordeaux, across from the Place de la Bourse. Not only was this super-convenient, but our overnight stay allowed us to use the first day to take a road trip.
We have a wonderful riverside view of the city as well as the Pont de Pierre (Stone Bridge). The bridge, was completed in 1821 after years of construction work, was the first to span the Garonne River with its 17 graceful arches (to match the letter count of Napoleon Bonaparte’s name) supported by foundation piles that are set into the riverbed to withstand strong currents.
Bordeaux is unexpectedly beautiful and grand. It is the only town in France we have seen that actually compares to Paris in both scope and architecture – and a place we intend to return to order to spend more time.
UNESCO declared Bordeaux a World Heritage Site in 1998 thanks to the city’s wealth of architectural treasures as “an outstanding urban and architectural ensemble” of the 18th century. More than 350 buildings are classified as historical monuments.
In the evening, the bridges and structures of Bordeaux as they glow against the night sky and are very photogenic.
Getting around in Bordeaux is easy by foot, but the extensive tram/bus/river boat system is also convenient and inexpensive. Tickets cost about 1.40 Euro and are usable on all three. They are purchasable from machines at some tram stations or at the scattered Tourist Information offices (the closest to our ship is at the other end of the Quinconces mall). Fares may be paid aboard at a slightly higher cost. The “C” tram shuttle bus takes one to the train station, the “B” tram heads the route of much of the following walking tour and the river boat takes a 45 minute ride to La Cite du Vin wine museum up the river. Both taxis and Uber are also available in town.
Since the new tram has been built, many of the streets are free of cars. You can wander around the old town on your own, because it is fairly compact, or take advantage of the 2-hour walking tour the tourist office arranges daily at 10am (every day except Saturday, Cost is 8.50€ ). A circuit tour map and description of the UNESCO sites is also available from the tourist information offices.
The prettiest and most historic neighborhood in Old Bordeaux is the “Golden Triangle,” defined by cours Clemenceau, cours de l’Intendance, and les allées de Tourny. It is easy to seem the important sites/sights of the old town in a walk of two to three hours:
From the ship it was easy to stroll a block down the river to enjoy the gardens and fountains of the new promenade along the quays. Lining the quays of Bordeaux for a half mile are palatial classical buildings from the 18th century. The most magnificent examples are found at the Place de la Bourse, the former royal square dedicated to Louis XV, which epitomizes the elegance of 18th-century design. In the center of the square is the Fountain of the Three Graces, surrounded by two beautiful pavilion-like buildings: the Palais de la Bourse (formerly the Stock Exchange) and the Musée National des Douanes (Customs Museum – not really worth seeing), the only museum of its kind in France. These graceful quayside monuments overlook the banks of the Garonne River.
On warm days, Bordelais (particularly the youngest ones) come here to splash through the huge 1-inch deep mirror of water that lies between the square and the river, the Miroir d’Eau (Water Mirror) is an outdoor artistic installation created in 2006.
From here, we walked north to esplanade des Quinconces. It was laid out between 1818 and 1828, and covers nearly 12 hectares (30 acres, considered the largest public square in Europe).
A bit further to the west, is the Monument Aux Girondins, a 43 meter column commemorating those ho lost their lives during the French Revolution. The fountain at its base is spectacular.
We entered the heart of Old Bordeaux at place de la Comédie (originally the site of a Roman temple) to admire one of France’s great theaters. The Grand Théâtre, (Place de la Comédie, 05-56-00-85-95; www.opera-bordeaux.com) was built between 1773 and 1780 as testimony to the burgeoning prosperity of Bordeaux’s emerging bourgeoisie. A colonnade of 12 columns, topped with statues of goddesses and the Muses, graces its facade. There are guided tours on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2, 3:30, and 5pm to visit the richly decorated interior. They cost 3€, and you can reserve ahead in person, by phone, or via Internet.
It is time to follow the “B” Tram track along the posh shopping street, lined with high end stores, of Cour de l’Intendance.
Taking a jog off of Cour de l’Intendance on Rue Martignac brought us to the Eglise Notre-Dame, a baroque Jacobin church built during the Counter-Reformation, which has been used as a set in a number of movies.
We continued to follow the tram tracks until they turned onto Rue Vital, walking past the Porte Dijeux. This has been the gateway into the city from the West since the Roman era. It was rebuilt during the 17th century by Louis XIV when it was called the Dauphin’s Gate in honor of the future Louis XVI.
Another place of historical importance in the heart of Bordeaux, the Gothic Cathedral of Saint Andrew, which dates back to the 12th century. It hosted two royal weddings; the first between Eleanor of Aquitaine and the future Louis VII and the second between Anne of Austria and Louis XIII. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this cathedral was part of the Route of Saint James pilgrimage trail. Pilgrims traveled through Bordeaux from the Médoc, Tours, and the British Isles on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. A view of its relics (and a supposed Rembrandt) costs 3 Euros.
Comparable to Notre-Dame in Paris in its grandeur, the Cathedral of Saint Andrew has an impressive facade with sculptures of the Last Supper, the Ascension, and Christ in Majesty. Interestingly, the western front side of the cathedral is completely unadorned, since it was originally too close to the old town walls.
The Tour Pey Berland is a richly decorated tower is the freestanding belfry for the Cathédrale Saint-André. Built in the 15th century for the Archbishop Pey Berland, the tower exemplifies flamboyant Gothic architecture with its ornate details, soaring spires, and angled corner buttresses. As a more recent addition, a 19th-century statue of Notre Dame d’Aquitaine adorns the top of the tower. Visitors can climb the 50 meter-tall tower to the top to enjoy magnificent panoramic views of the city.
Opposite the cathedral stands the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), originally a palace and royal residence (Palais Rohan) built in the 1770s. Designed in the Neoclassical style typical of Bordeaux, the Hôtel de Ville has an impressive colonnaded facade. Set in the pleasant Jardin de la Mairie public park, the Museum of Beaux-Arts occupies part of the Hôtel de Ville. The museum offers a wonderful insight into European art history, with a collection of art spanning the 15th to the 20th centuries. The permanent collection includes masterpieces by Titian, Veronese, Rubens, Delacroix, Renoir, and Rodin, among others.
Continuing along the “B” Tram tracks brought us to the Museum of Aquitaine, which covers the history of Bordeaux and the region of Aquitaine from prehistoric times to the present day. The museum exhibits pieces of antiquity, including the Laussel Venus, an artifact from 25,000 BC, Gallic gold coins from around the 2nd century BC, and a 3rd-century statue of Hercules.
Continuing along the tram tracks on Cours Pasteur for another block will bring you to the city’s Grand Synagogue of Bordeaux (6 Rue du Grand Rabin Joseph Cohen, https://communautejuiveaquitaine.fr/) on the left side which serves the Jewish community of Novelle Aquitane. The visitor’s entrance is around the corner at Rue Sainte-Catherine, 213 and the building is accessible on Monday-Thursday at 2, 3 and 4PM. The internal “ambiance” is that befitting a major religious building. The Synagogue dates from 1882; restored in 1956, it is among the largest and most majestic buildings of its kind and was classified as a historic monument in 1998. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Under English sovereignty from 1154 to 1453, the Jews of Bordeaux were spared the successive expulsion decrees of the kings of France: 1284-1305-1310. The city was an important place of migration due to the arrival of Jews from Spain after their expulsion in 1492. In the courtyard of the building is a large plaque commemorating those who lost their lives during the Nazi occupation. Interestingly, the list is roughly evenly split between Ashkenazi and Sephardic family names. The current community of about 3,000 is largely made up of Jews from North Africa. It is one of about a dozen synagogues in southwestern France.
Walking back a block down Rue Sainte-Catherine and making a right turn on Cours Victor Hugo will bring you to the remnants of 13th century medieval defensive gate of Bordeaux, the Grosse Cloche (Big Bell). The clock features predominantly in the gate tower that was part of the old city hall and the bell is a 7,800kg one cast in 1775.
Walking through the gate on St. James (what seems to be a pretty hip street) brought us to the Place Ferdinand-Lafargue, the former 12th century marketplace, where the pillory was once installed.
Making a left and returning to Rue Sainte-Catherine, the longest pedestrian shopping street in France, allowed us to window shop and look at the wide variety of restaurants on our way back towards the Grand Theatre. As you get closer to the theatre, the stores become more likely to be global chains and the northern end of the street is anchored by a Galleries Lafayette department store (if you accumulate 190 Euros purchase or more in a day, you can apply for a VAT tax rebate, otherwise, as a non-EU resident, you can request an immediate 10% discount in most cases).
There are still unique, sometimes quirky stores along the street. For those who bake or make deserts, there are few stores like Déco Relief (136 Rue Sainte-Catherine) which sells every imaginable mold and device. For fantasies of 3-D folded paper design, I have never seen a variety as that being sold at Agent Paper (158 Rue Sainte-Catherine) which has designs to entertain children of all ages.
While walking along Rue Sainte-Catherine, if you are looking for a local lunch, La P(a)renthese (Rue Sainte-Catherine) serves good Brittany crêpes and galettes washed down with cider at a reasonable price.
The Allées de Tourny, which heads alongside the left side of a park which heads north-west from the Place de la Comedie in front of the theatre, is home to Cadiot-Badie, 26 allées de Tourney (05-56-44-24-22; www.cadiot-badie.com), a must for chocoholics. Established in 1826, their chocolates are considered the best in Bordeaux – and in my opinion, maybe among the best in the world.
If you walk out of the chocolate shop, turn left and walk to the corner, you will see a silver-domed modernistic building down the street to the left which houses the closest Carrefour supermarket to the ship.
Note: The shortest route from the ship to the chocolate shop (and the supermarket) is to walk south along the waterfront to the Esplanade des Quinconces (whose end has a pair of columns with ship prows sticking out of them) and cross it diagonally to the far corner. Take the street you find there to the right and cross the park to the Cadiot-Badie chocolates facing allées de Tourney park.
Other sites of note:
The exquisite Romanesque Basilique Saint-Seurinis, a stop on the medieval Way of Saint James pilgrimage on the route to Santiago de Compostela, is also designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This exceptional 11th century church has a choir, featuring a stone abbot’s throne and ornate stalls built during the 14th and 15th centuries. The oldest part of the basilica is the 11th-century crypt, that is a treasure trove of ancient reliquaries and sarcophagi from the 6th and 7th centuries.
The “Rayonnant Gothic” style Basilique Saint-Michel is dedicated to the Archangel and is another important church on the Route of Santiago pilgrimage trail. Along with the Cathedral of Saint Andrew and the Basilica of Saint Seurin, the Basilica of Saint Michael is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. The basilica took 200 years to build, from the 14th to 16th centuries.
The only remaining vestige of the Roman era in Bordeaux, the Palais Gallien was built in the late 2nd century and was located just outside the town of “Burdigala.” This immense amphitheater, which offered typical brutal Roman entertainment such as gladiator combats, could accommodate 15,000 spectators on wooden benches.
The Musée des Arts Décoratifs features a superb collection of decorative art objects, including furniture, tableware, jewelry, miniatures, and musical instruments from the 18th and 19th centuries. The museum is housed in the lovely Hôtel de Lalande, an elegant mansion built between 1775 and 1779.
Docked alongside the Quai des Chartrons, the Cruiser Colbert was once one of France’s biggest warships. Built in 1953, the ship served until 1990 during the Gulf War. Visitors can tour 75 rooms including the kitchen, engine room, Captain’s footbridge, and the Admiral’s flat for a peek into life on board for the 600 sailors. There’s also the WWII German submarine base on the Chartrons river.
If you want antiques, head to rue Bouffard, rue des Remparts, the garden along allées de Tourney (at least on Friday whebn we saw it) and rue Notre-Dame, where you’ll find an indoor market known as Village Notre-Dame (05-56-52-66-13; www.antiquitesbordeaux.com), housing about 30 antiques stands. Another destination is the neighborhood around Eglise St-Michel, particularly the passage St-Michel, a narrow alleyway a few steps from the church.
OUT OF TOWN:
Lascaux Caves, France
Since I’ve been a small child, I’ve been intrigued by the Cro-Magnon prehistoric cave paintings, dating back around 20,000 years, which were found in 1940 at Lascaux, France. We were given an 11:06 appointment and told to show up 20 minutes early which create a bit of a challenge as the Hertz office opened at 8AM and the drive was over two hours. Adding to the stress was that hertz put down the address of their truck rental lot near the station on our reservation, rather than the proper office located in the basement of the main train station. Misunderstanding the “round-about” instructions on my GPS a couple of times added to the delay and the trip became a white-knuckle race against time to make the deadline.
Well, this was a good news/bad news event. The bad news is that the actual caves have been off-limits to tourists. The good news is that the Lascaux IV – Center International de l’Art Parietal, the foundation responsible for the site, has recreated an exact duplicate of the network of caves, as well as the full suite of prehistoric cave drawings. I‘ll leave it to others to decide if the four hour round-trip is worth it, but I found the site extremely interesting (my wife – well, not enough to justify the drive).
On the way back to Bordeaux, we stopped at the quaint town of Saint-Emilion. You enter the town by passing under the ancient arched gate over rue Cadene, one of the roads into the medieval village, approaching the towering 13th-century King’s Keep and the Collegiate Church and its cloister, whose construction in the Romanesque style began even earlier. The area and its namesake village have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site because Saint-Emilion represents a historic vineyard landscape that has survived intact. Viticulture, in this the heartland of the Merlot grape, was introduced here by the Romans and then greatly enhanced in the Middle Ages.
Surrounded by vineyards, St-Emilion is on a limestone plateau overlooking the valley of the Dordogne; a maze of wine cellars has been dug beneath the town. The town, constructed mostly of golden stone and dating from the Middle Ages, is also known for its macarons, a light-as air cookie made with almonds and egg whites – but the ones we tried did not seem better than others we have had elsewhere…
At the heart of St-Emilion is the medieval place du Marché, also called place de l’Eglise Monolithe, between two hills.
The vines on the “hill with a thousand châteaux”, reach right up to Saint Emilion’s 13th century town walls and surrounding moat, dug out of solid rock. Surrounded by miles of vineyards, this medieval town grabs the eyes, but it quickly becomes apparent that it is a massive tourist trap designed to sell Bordeaux wine at high prices to those who appreciate such things (personally, I’ve never been able to tell the difference between a good $10 bottle of wine and one that costs ten times that, but I suppose there are those who can, and we picked up some seven year old red at a local Carrefour supermarket in Bordeaux for about 7 Euros).
On our 2022 visit, the cruise line (Oceania) arraigned for a cocktail party, followed by a dinner at the Château Giscours vineyard (10 Rte de Giscours, in Labarde, France), a winery in the Margaux appellation of the Bordeaux region of France, in the commune of Labarde. The wine produced here was classified as one of fourteen Troisièmes Crus (Third Growths) in the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855.
We were greeted by shepherds walking in stilts – developed to keep their feet dry in the marshy soil while they worked. The wine was invariably excellent, as was the meal (as well as the companionship).
The first written reference to the domain of Giscours, a deed confirming the sale of the estate, dates from 1330 and refers to a fortified keep. Records of Giscours’ vineyards go back to 1552 when Seigneur de la Bastide sold it to Pierre de l’Horme.
From an estate of nearly 400 hectares, the Giscours planted vineyard area extends 80 hectares spread out over several plots. The composition of grape varieties is 53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 42% Merlot and the remainder Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.
Their wines: Annual production of the Grand vin Chateau Giscours is 25,000 cases, and about 10,000 cases of a second wine, La Sirène de Giscours. A 40 hectare plot of vines adjacent to Giscours outside the Margaux boundary is bottled as Le Haut Médoc de Giscours. Other wines produced by the estate include Château Dutheil and Château Houringe, both Haut-Médoc cru bourgeois properties, the former is vinified at Giscours, the latter is since 1982 operated on a lease.
The major Bordeaux wine districts are Graves, Médoc, Sauternes, Entre-deux-Mers, Libourne, Blaye, and Bourg. North of the city of Bordeaux, the Garonne River joins the Dordogne to form the Gironde, a broad estuary. Some 117,000 hectares (298,990 acres) of vines produce over 150 million gallons of wine a year, some of which are among the greatest reds in the world. (The white wines are less well known.) The general area extends all the way to the Chateau d’Amboise, Chateau du Close Luce, Chateau de Chenonceau, Chateau de Chambord and the Chateau de Blois which we saw earlier in our trip, when we drove from Paris to the Loire Valley. Before heading out one of the many Wine Roads, or Routes des Vins, make sure you get a detailed map from the Bordeaux tourist office.