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.

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