Friday, September 16, 2005

A long weekend and a short trip in Europe - Part 2

I guess all the margaritas of the previous evening had taken their toll because when we got up on Sunday morning, it was nearly afternoon. We decided to have a very late breakfast at a French cafe and then go cycling. Breakfast was a plain omelette for me (and despite his lack of English, the waiter kept asking if I really wanted it plain - no fromage? no champignons? no jambon? no tomatoes? It took a few firm "NO"s and many negative head shakes before he accepted the inevitable) and two cups of their wonderful coffee.

Oh, I have to say this about the coffee in Europe (at least in the few countries I've visited) - it's FABULOUS!!! Even the motorway service area shops serve the most amazing coffee... my favourite was at "Star Mart" shops in Belgium. Not only was the coffee dispenser state-of-the-art interactive, but the coffee itself was the best I've had - possibly ever. I done drink coffee anywhere in the UK because not even the top-priced outlets - Costa Lotta... I mean, Costa Coffee, Coffee Primo, Ritazza, even Starbucks - manage anything that I find palatable. But at Star Mart I didnt even need sugar in my coffee - it was THAT good! I cant praise it enough.

And I dont need to go on about Belgian chocolates, do I? Even their "off-the-rack" ones seem classy. I found one that was utter bliss - dark chocolate with whole hazelnuts... I'm not crazy about chocolate but if I could have taken home a few hundred bars of that particular confection, I would definitely have done it!

Back to Luxembourg. I have absolutely no idea where we went (didnt have a map) - we just followed our noses, so to speak. But some things did stay in my memory... backed up, of course, with photographs. The Grand Duchesse Charlotte bridge was humongous - each of its "legs" is wider around than one of those luxury tourist buses. Ok, not the best comparison and not the best photograph either, but I couldnt fit it all into my little camera or into the little area of my brain that forms similes. You can see the building down in the valley here, which probably gives a better idea of just how big the bridge is. It felt almost like a hallucination.

We didnt go over the bridge; rather, we rode up the side to reach the Centre Europeen District, which has a lot of embassies and important European Union buildings. The street that we chose had the American Embassy in it - fortified in the extreme. We were watched all the way up by a squat, belligerent looking, fully armed guard in the embassy's guardhouse. He looked so like an escapee troll from Discworld that I mentally christened him Chrysoprase. I would have taken a photo but I was rather worried that he might consider that a security threat to the embassy, Bush and American democracy, and go into "shoot-to-kill" mode. He certainly was armed for it.

There was another bridge (name unknown to me) that we rode across just for the heck of it - and what a good idea it was, because the views of the valley from there were lovely. Like
this one and this. The bridge was different enough that I wanted a photo of it - and here's Pete posing on it. And me.

We also rode down to a particularly lovely park that I think is called Plaza de la Constitution... I had read that it was built in the middle of a former bastion halfway down the Casemate wall. I dont know if that was it, but I certainly saw some solid old stone walls while riding down. (By the way, the Casemates are the massive stone walls that surround the city.)

Pete also took a photo of a bridge that he saw from the top of park (I'd gone way down the path by then, as you can see in this
photo, but I've no idea what the bridge is called. There are quite a few bridges, and lack of a guidebook didnt help identify the ones we saw!

I have to confess that we didnt take our cycles all the way to the bottom of the park - the long climb back to civilisation simply didnt appeal to me, although Pete seemed game enough. So when I noticed the path branching off to a set of steep steps that led to the main road at the top, I was all for going up it. Until I tried to climb them steps while carrying my cycle. Apparently my cycle didnt approve, for it whacked my ankle with the pedal. That was painful, so I tried to adjust my grip on it to prevent it happening - and the handlebar whacked my forehead.

Pete was already halfway up but when he saw that I wasnt making much progress, he came back down, hefted up my cycle on one shoulder and his cycle on the other, and climbed up the steps all at one go. I just about managed a photo of him going up the steps. Awww... my

After that we pedalled through all kinds of side streets - nobody seemed to be around and what shops and business establishments we saw were closed. Well, it was Sunday, after all. So we headed back to the city centre and the cafes. It was pretty hot, so I personally was very happy to take possession of my extra large glass of a citron margarita, complete with salted rim. Nothing that tastes better... unless it be a strawberry margarita!

I did manage to take a photo of this
snoring beauty, though. I could practically see up his nose (and down his throat to his uvula) when I closed in for a macro, but an extra large snort from him kind of startled me - I thought he'd woken up! So I settled for a regular shot instead. I have to say he looked very comfortable...

One last
bridge shot (again, name unknown) and we wandered back to our hotel for a reasonably early night. All that cycling was fun but tiring!


Here's a tip - dont bother stopping at Lille, France. That was a bad choice on my part. We had to get back to France on the Monday so that we'd be in good time to catch the ferry in Calais on Tuesday. Since most of the places I wanted to see in France were too long a drive away, Lille seemed the best choice in terms of being on the route to Calais and being a reasonably big city.

I have to say I was pretty disappointed when we got into the city... there didnt seem to be any pretty parts to it. It all looked uniformly grungy and built-up - rather like Birmingham, actually. The actual city centre square - what the Lilleians called the "Grand Place" - was the only bit that looked passable, with a few open-air cafes. The hotel we stopped at was very close to the Grand Place but the street was really grotty and dirty - enough to make me regret wanting to stop here, and certainly enough that I didnt bother with the camera.

However, dogged as ever, we set off on our cycles to explore what we could of Lille. The one abiding impression I have of the city is that of smelly drains - on the main roads, in the side roads, everywhere we got whiffs of hot stinking sewers. Very reminiscent of the Cooum in Madras, I must say! Their drainage system leaves a lot to be desired - and I suppose the heat and humidity didnt help. Eventually we found our way to a big park by the river that looked promisingly green. It wasnt bad, but as we were to discover, we werent destined to escape the smelly drains - there were pools of stagnant water well inside the wooded areas of the park, although they didnt seem to bother the dozens of joggers.

Anyway, after cycling through what seemed like miles of mushy, muddy park, we eventually reached the back end of a fair. It had some interesting rides, so we went to look at them. I have to say I wasnt tempted to ride any - mainly because I didnt want to go by myself, Pete having excused himself firmly from them all. Cant quite blame him, most of the rides looked pretty vicious! :)

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a creperie that advertised "English spoken here" - a blatant lie because nobody spoke English except Pete and me. I guess the only thing they learnt to say in English was a whopping untruth! But our waitress was a friendly, smiley little thing who looked about 14, and we were happy enough - Pete with his coffee and me with an icecream sundae which I couldnt finish because it was so huge.


Tuesday morning, and I was pretty happy to leave Lille. As a matter of fact I was quite surprised that the cycles were still on their rack on the car - our hotel didnt have its own parking, so we'd parked on the street... and what I'd seen of the street didnt give rise to confidence regarding security. But since the cycles were untouched, I guess I've maligned the Lilleians, for which I apologise.

En route to Calais, we made a short detour to Dunkirk where we went to see the war memorial. Didnt like to take any photos, so we wandered around the huge cemetery looking at the various gravestones and wondering about the people who were buried there - Indians, Belgians, French, Germans, English... so many people who died so young and so far away from home. It was quite sobering.

Just before we went to the port to catch our ferry, Pete decided to take advantage of the cheap prices in Calais and fill the boot with wine and assorted alcohol bought at a big wine wholesaler and retailer. He went looking for wines and I wandered around picking out exotic-sounding liqueurs. At the end of 30 minutes, we'd managed to fill a supermarket trolley with our purchases. That, for Pete, was the perfect ending to a nice short break.

And here endeth this travelogue. Until the next holiday, then.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

A long weekend and a short trip in Europe - Part 1

For a while now, I've been thinking that the ideal holiday would be to drive through a country (whichever one) at a leisurely pace, stopping wherever and whenever, based on a travel plan which specifies only the final destination. Vague but workable, and the long weekend of Aug 27-29 - Monday Aug 29 being the last bank holiday of the year before Christmas - seemed ideal to test my theory. Since I'd wangled Tuesday off from work, it added up to a decent 4 days for a short trip.

Ireland could have been on the cards, but I had Calais on my mind. So we headed France-wards on the ferry to Calais, with the car parked in the bowels of the ferry and our cycles (a fortunate afterthought on Pete's part) parked on the car. I was particularly thrilled about going to Calais because the ferry left from Dover - the famous white cliffs of which I had wanted to see. And now I can say that I've seen the
white cliffs of Dover. They are quite white, actually, but not particularly high. That said, I wouldnt be making that comment about the height if I had been at the top of the cliffs, rather than at the bottom.

I could certainly imagine the feelings of the seamen on British ships during WW2, when they got their first glimpse of home in the white cliffs of Dover as their ships sailed into the harbour. I mean, I used to get the same "I'm home" feeling when I saw my first PTC bus after a trip away from Madras!

Anyway... back to Calais. The ferry trip from Dover to Calais was uneventful, the most remarkable thing being that it started as scheduled at 3.45 a.m. Pete managed to snatch a few winks but as ever, sleeping while sitting upright is not an option for me. So I spent my time memorising (not intentionally, no) the Formula 1 statistics and odd facts that were printed on the walls (why Formula 1 factoids on a ferry? who knows!). Interesting things like: the wear and tear on the brakes of a Formula 1 car in ONE race is the equivalent of 10 years worth on a normal car used normally; From a normal seating position, with all seat belts fastened, and whilst wearing his usual driving equipment, a driver must be able to remove the steering wheel and get out of the car within five seconds and then replace the steering wheel within a total of 10 seconds.

I have more such useless information cluttering my brain but I will refrain from doing the same to this post, out of consideration for the few readers I have - do I hear sighs of relief?

The ferry docked at
Calais port bright and early at around 5.30am. I had thought we would base ourselves there and drive to nearby places, but Pete decided he wanted to drive onward. We were somewhat hampered by the fact that the car was by now running on petrol fumes, so we drove around looking rather desperately for a petrol station. Finally found a tiny one in the middle of Calais that would open at 6 a.m.

Since we had 15 minutes to kill, I took the opportunity to wander around and found the
Town Hall - a colourful building that reminded me of wedding cake. Its imposing belfry looked like it was made of iron, in surprising contrast to the rest of the building.

In front of the Town Hall was the famous
Six Burghers of Calais statue made (sculpted? created?) by Rodin, to commemorate the 6 brave citizens who were ready to give up their lives in return for the safety of the rest of Calais' population when they surrendered to England's Edward III after a year-long siege. (Phew. Talk about history encapsulated. Take the time for a few deep breaths before going on to the next sentence!).

The only thing I found annoying was that I couldnt take a photo of just the statue - the Town Hall building kept getting in the background. On the other hand, I managed to take a photo of a
butterfly that landed on one of the statues' head - taking a rest before targeting the flowers, I suppose. Anyway, it's my one puny effort at Nature photography, haha.

garden around the statue was beautiful - the flower arrangements were exotic (compared to what I see in Shrewsbury) and very, very colourful, a real feast for the eyes.

Even better was a traffic circle which had a bush shaped to look like a
peacock's long neck - and the colourful spread of its feathers was duplicated by multicoloured flowers. I tried my best to get a photo of it as a whole, but again, trees/buildings/power lines/lamp-posts kept popping up no matter what angle I tried. It was the loveliest flower arrangement I've seen on the ground, and the photo does it no justice at all. Especially as it was taken in the early morning light (which wasnt enough).

A few dozen photos later (of which only a few were worthwhile, actually), the car replete with petrol by then, we were on our way again. Our destination was Luxembourg, that little country stuck between France, Germany and Holland. I had been there before and loved the place, although I had not seen enough of it in the short time I spent there. And since Pete had not been there at all, it seemed like a good place to (re)visit.

From Calais, it's a very short driving distance to the Belgian border (or the Dutch one, for that matter). Even if I hadnt seen the big notice that announced "Belgie", I would have known I was on Belgian roads because of the lunatic traffic. Imagine, if you will, the inconsiderate, undisciplined, discourteous Indian drivers - then imagine that sort of driving ethic at speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour (about 130kmph), and you have a pretty accurate idea of Belgian drivers.

It was nerve-wracking to see vehicles muscling in with barely enough space between our car and the one in front, without even a blink to indicate the sudden changing of lanes - and almost the very next moment, the vehicle would move back to the original lane. And I'm talking about those enormous 18-wheeler container trucks playing "tag" with each other in fast-moving traffic. My first impression of Belgian traffic as being terrible was set in reinforced concrete this time around. No wonder you hear police/ambulance sirens ALL the time in this country!

To think Brussels, with its hazardous drivers, is the seat of the EU, the place from which all rules - from traffic to work laws - are handed out to the UK and sought to be enforced. I think Brussels should look to its laws being followed by Belgians before it sets its sights elsewhere!

it was a relief to bypass Brussels and get onto the motorway to Luxembourg. The drive is pleasant in more ways than one - for one thing, the views are spectacular... forests, mountains, valleys, rivers. It was unspoilt and beautiful, at least on the surface.

We reached Luxembourg at about midday. After a drive around the city centre, trying to find a hotel that didnt look like it would charge a year's income for a night's stay, Pete finally decided on one called Le Royal (good decision - it only charged half a year's income, hah). No complaints about the service, the room, the atmosphere - they were all luxurious almost to a fault.

We watched the car disappear into the bowels of the parking lot, escorted by a valet. Then, after a shower, we set off on our cycles. Luxembourg is a lovely city, set in the mountains, so that you get spectacular views off bridges (and there are many) that have been built over the Rivers Petrusse and Alzette.

The old town is in the bowels of the valley, and the buildings there are beautiful - especially viewed from above, they look like
toy models. The modern part of the city is almost as pretty, and neater than any place I've ever been to. Although there were lots of dogs being walked (or carried), there wasnt any poo.

Our cycles really came into their own in the town centre. Had we been in the car, we would have had trouble finding a place to park. And of course, we would have had to curtail our alcohol consumption keeping in mind the driving back part. That is, Pete would have had that problem. But as things were, we cycled merrily around, following road rules and keeping to the cycle paths where possible - but more often than not, riding down footpaths on the wrong side of the road, not even worrying about one-ways.

For the first hour or so, we rode around getting familiar with the city centre, checking out the monuments and shops. A lot of the shops were shut, it being a weekend, but the cafes were all open. The Place Guillaume (I bet my spelling is wrong - bloody French words), the big square with cafes all around, and a stage in the centre, was THE place to be, so we settled there. At Chi-chi, a Mexican eatery and outdoor cafe, on my insistence. Well why not? At least they werent offering up snails for our gastronomic pleasure! And I like Mexican food.

Anyway, the cafe was a perfect choice - we had a VERY good looking
waiter. Unfortunately I dont have a good photo (Pete kindly took this one because I didnt want make my admiration obvious to the waiter!) but it gives a general idea. Whatsisname didnt speak much - any - English but he had a killer smile and understood just fine when we pointed at items on the menu, so all went very well.

It was a nice relaxed evening spent in the shade of an umbrella, watching various kinds of people (some unidentifiable as to gender) walking around, surreptitiously admiring the waiter (Pete declined to join me in this), and slowly drinking a large jugful of wonderful
strawberry margarita. Pete opted for sangria, but margaritas are my special joy.

At the end of the evening, after the band playing live music at the square had gone home and the cafes were closing, we wobbled around town some more on our cycles,l taking some very bad (all mine) night photographs before heading back to the hotel. I think the
national library looks beautiful despite my best efforts!

All in all, it had been such a lovely relaxing day, and we'd still seen so little of the city that we decided to stay all of Sunday as well, and leave on Monday.


Part 2 to follow.