The single most enjoyable day of my vacation came right at the end. After a day of visiting the Normandy beaches, we spent the night in the walled town of St. Malo.
St. Malo has one of the weirdest geographies I've encountered. The town itself is a small, walled hamlet right on the coast. The walled portion, the intra-muros as it's known, sits on the northwest side of a set of two, concentric harbors.
If you're thinking about a vacation to Brittany or Normandy, I strongly encourage you to stay in St. Malo. Short day trips to the D-day sites, Mont St. Michel and other sites are all well within reach. I can even recommend a hotel, the Hotel Ajoncs d'Or. The proprietors speak excellent english and couldn't be friendlier. Plus you get to stay inside the walls of St. Malo which is a lot of fun.
That morning, our primary destination was Mont St. Michel. I'd been wanting to visit Mont St. Michel for many years; everyone I'd known who'd gone had raved about it and what could be better than an ancient abbey on top of a rock in the middle of otherwise inaccessible quicksand.
To get up to the abbey you wind your way up to the top through the town below. One of the cool things about Mont St. Michel is that while there is one main route up, you can actually wander a fair bit on your way there. Nelson and I took a less direct path through a graveyard.
As you make your way up, you're continually resetting your eyeline. The rooftops that were above you just a few yards ago are now at your feet. This experience of exploring the space three-dimensionally is what made Mont St. Michel so interesting to me.
This becomes clearer when you make it to the abbey. The abbey itself was built first atop the pyramid-shaped rock of the mount. And, over time, rooms were added below and to the sides based on a complicated system of counterbalancing. I really enjoyed trying to piece together the rooms I was walking through with the mental image I had of the place from the outside (I wasn't terribly successful; that place is complicated).
We spent a good long while exploring the space; stopping for lunch, a friendly chat with some Aussies and a narrow squeeze through an alley. When it was time to leave, I felt that I could easily recommend Mont St. Michel as worth taking a special trip to visit; along with Chartres and Exmoor it was one of the top three things I saw on my trip.
On our drive back to St. Malo, we stopped at Pointe du Grouin to take in the very Californian (to my eyes) coastline. It looked like there'd be a number of interesting beaches to explore should one be spending more time in the region.
We got back inside the walls with a couple hours before sunset and we spent the time walking the ramparts. Another cool feature of St. Malo is that there's a causeway you can take to an outlying island, but this walkway gets washed out at high tide. The combination of old seaside forts, a disappearing road and the putative tomb of Chateaubriand pretty much convinced me that we were going to be attacked by vampires. Instead we saw a great sunset at the beach over an infinite pool.
Sunset over, we headed to dinner at the Duchesse Anne; a recommendation from our friendly hoteliers. Thanks to Nelson, I'd been eating better over the past couple days than I had in quite some time. However, this meal (which featured lobsters with bibs) goes down as my favorite of the bunch.
Nelson deserves special thanks also for planning the entire Normandy/Brittany part of the trip. It was a great relief having planned the first 2+ weeks to let someone else take the wheel (literally as well since he also drove). And we had a jolly good time throughout.
This concludes my European vacation blogging. I took some 1220 photos and uploaded 330 to Flickr. That's a bunch, so there's a smaller highlight set should anyone want to take a quicker fly-by.
October 30, 2006
The single most enjoyable day of my vacation came right at the end. After a day of visiting the Normandy beaches, we spent the night in the walled town of St. Malo.
October 28, 2006
My earliest baseball memory is watching Bruce Sutter strike out Gorman Thomas to win the 1982 World Series. I remember watching it on the big cabinet TV set in my childhood living room and sitting way too close the screen. When the Cards won in '82 they played Celebration by Kool & the Gang, a song so rad I thought it had been written especially for the Cardinals victory.
Now, I'm not the most faithful Cardnials fan. In fact, I was an adamant non-sports fan of any sort all during high school. But I don't think you can grow up in St. Louis without developing some appreciation of baseball. Just like you're expected to like toasted ravioli, you're expected to develop a passing understanding of the game.
I didn't follow baseball closely this year and missed most of the post-season when I was traveling. But I loved watching every out of the World Series and the last two innings of tonight's game was the most stressed I've been in the past couple months. I was IMing with Sutter in New Zealand for most of the game, relaying (mostly unneeded) updates to his dark corner of the Internet. And 24 years after Bruce Sutter's strikeout, Adam Wainwright fanned Brandon Inge to make the Cardinals the Champions of the World once again.
October 26, 2006
At the end of my trip, Nelson and I spent a few days exploring Normandy and a bit of Brittany as well. On the first day, we trained to Caen, picked up a car and drove to Bayeux.
Bayeux is the home to the 1000 year-old Bayeux tapestry which tells the tale of the Norman conquest of England. This was fun as David and I had encountered a lot of William the Conqueror history in London (the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey, most notably).
Seeing an embroidered representation of Edward the Confessor, whose tomb we had seen a couple weeks earlier, made me appreciate my 10th grade world history lessons all the more. It turns out Mr. Sheppard was correct when he stressed that 1066 was one of only two dates you needed to know for a proper understanding of European history (the other being November 11, 1918).
We spent the night just outside of Bayeux in a classy château (not sure if there are unclassy ones). And in the morning we set off to see the Normandy Invasion sites.
There are a number of places you can stop along the way. At Arromanches you can see the remnants of the concrete blocks used to create the so-called Mulberry Harbors that allowed the transport of men and equipment into France. At Longues-sur-mer you can see a number of German emplacements that were bombarded during the invasion.
Most impressive to me was Pointe du Hoc, the site of a famous Army Ranger assault that took place before the beach landings. The entire site is pock-marked with craters. When you look at the cliffs the Rangers had to scale to assault the German artillery it's easy to understand why so many men died. There's a similar feeling standing on Omaha beach and looking up at the bluffs that would have hidden entrenched machine gun nests.
Visiting Normandy was a great experience. As a California liberal pants-wetter I not only believe that all wars are regrettable but that war-making is something we should be able to transcend as a people. So being at the site of justly-celebrated use of American might made me feel a strange mix of emotions.
On the one hand, I believe that the unquestioning reverence given to the Greatest Generation has mythologized their significance to the point where it is no longer accessible. That being said, I can honestly say that in standing there I felt proud of being American for the first time in as long as I can remember. You're looking at a largely intact piece of German artillery and you know that this was the German Army and not the Nazis who were (you try not to over-dramatize) killing your people and you can't help think to yourself "Yes, this is good. It's good that this was destroyed. The people who destroyed this were right and I'm proud of them for having done so."
There's something both undeniably inspiring and simultaneously tragic in visiting the place that marks the last best military accomplishment of your nation.
October 25, 2006
Nelson showed me his MOO MiniCards when I was in Paris and I thought they looked pretty sweet. I got my bundle today and I'm completely impressed.
The idea of making tangible artifacts of the web is an interesting one. In many ways, it's an idea that's easy to screw up. For example, I've not been very impressed by the various services for printing blogs (nor do I really see that type of physical web artifact as desirable).
But the smallness and quality of the MiniCards totally sells the artifact concept. I just wish there was a better societal norm for exchanging small cards that wasn't based on being introduced to people. For instance, I could see myself getting into a game where you were encouraged to collect cards from others.
So, that whole bit where I said it was nice to have the time in Paris to just lounge around ... that was actually a revelation I was forced into after a particularly busy day of sight-seeing.
The weather was fantastic for most of my trip, but one morning it was particularly clear. I decided I wanted to get in as much of the outdoor sights as possible, and this included the gardens at Versailles (a short train ride outside of Paris). I was also keen in taking in the view from the top of Sacre Coeur because of the hazefree skies.
I started the morning, a Sunday, by making it to the top of Sacre Coeur just as Mass was beginning. The place was understandably packed and the line for the sweet-looking funicular was way too long so I ended up hoofing it up the steps to the cathedral and then up the winding staircase to the top.
As I was ascending the steps to the top of the dome, the choir and organ were in full throat beneath me. It made the climb more visceral and more dizzying. I reached the top out of breath and blown away by how much of Paris I could see.
After descending, I fought my way back the Metro (by this time folks were streaming up the streets toward the cathedral) and went to the nearest station where I could hop a suburban rail train to Versailles.
Sunday is one of the busiest days to visit the palace and the line for tickets can be close to 2 hours long. Fortunately, I had a museum pass which allows you to skip the line and gets you into all the major tourist sites in Paris. I cannot recommend this highly enough if you're going to visit Versailles.
I decided to first check out the gardens. Honestly, I had no idea how big they were. I'd heard several first-hand reports that they were amazingly huge, but stories and photos don't really capture the scale. Also, I feel the precise symmetry compounds the effect of all the space. I spent some quality time gaping at the fountains and listening to New Order on my iPod.
Speaking of which, I think you probably get as good an idea of the palace interior from watching Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (I dug it) as you do from going there in person. I agree with Nelson; the overwhelming opulence and over-the-topness of the palace is so ridiculous that it seems pretty grotesque after a while. It is very clear that you are looking at the residence of someone who believed himself to be a god. In other words, a crazy person. Houses of crazy people always feel weird.
So I went back to the gardens and took a long stroll down to the canal. The garishness of the palace notwithstanding, it's worth a trip to Versailles to spend an afternoon watching the boats and exploring the grounds.
Since it was only 3p, I decided not to return to Paris but instead take a train to Chartres to see the cathedral. After some surprisingly difficult linguistic negotiation at the train station (I think used the wrong word for 'return' and ended up saying 'I want to turn around in Paris.') and an hour on the train I was in front of the single-best cathedral I've ever seen.
I saw a bunch of churches on this trip - more than a dozen - but Chartres is special. First off, it's amazingly large. Inside it feels as though whole medieval villages have been swallowed up in its vastness. But it's the outside that really got me. I walked around the cathedral several times and the whole time I found myself on the verge of tears. It sounds silly, but it's one of the most tangible experiences of awe that I've had.
As I was walking away the church bells began to ring and it was the end of very busy but completely rewarding day. (Well, except for the part where I still had to get back to Paris and the trains were late so I ended up watching 24 on my iPod).
October 23, 2006
I spent more time in Paris than anywhere else on my trip; some 6 six days in total. I'd been there once before on my first ever trip out of the country but I only had 24 hours and ended up running around like a madman. It was great to have the option to see a bunch of stuff one day and spend the next mostly reading a book in café.
Paris is also the first city I've visited in some time where I could see myself staying. Not that I'm looking to move to France, but they have a very pleasant pace of life over there. And Paris is both stunningly beautiful and easily accessible at the same time.
- Most of the time I was staying on the Left Bank near Place St. Michel. I can definitely recommend the Hotel Royal St. Michel which was ideally located and quite a comfortable stay. Staying near St. Michel means you're walking distance from the big destinations like Notre Dame and the Louvre but stuff like Panthéon and Jardin du Luxembourg is also quite close.
- Being able to make multiple visits to the Louvre is a real benefit of a longer stay. I particularly enjoyed a more leisurely stroll through the indoor sculpture gardens, Cour Puget and Cour Marly.
- Ste. Chappelle is worth seeing during the day so you can check out the amazing stained glass and worth a second trip at night when they perform classical music concerts. Hearing Bach in a room that once held a piece of the True Cross and the Crown of Thorns is pretty great.
- I was really underwhelmed by the Centre Pompidou, but the free entertainment that goes on outside is highly recommended. Seeing Tuvan throat singing live is like watching an amazing magic trick.
- Get some altitude. Both the Eiffel Tower and Sacre Coeur are among the most touristy destinations in Paris. But whatever, the views from the top are worth the hassle.
- See the catacombs. But be warned, endless subterranean rooms filled with artistically-arranged skulls and femurs turns out be really frickin' creepy.
October 20, 2006
We spent two nights in Exford inside the Exmoor National Forest so that we could spend a full day hiking.
There's a lot of hiking to be had in Exmoor and every local news shop sells an assortment of both glossy, bound and local, raggedy guides. After an extensive perusal I went with the second option as one detailed an 11 mile hike that would start from where we were staying and take us to the highest point in the park, Dunkery Beacon.
I ran into trouble with the guide, not because of poor directions, but because of nouns. An example sentence: "Cross over the stile and strike out across the open moor keeping the combe on your left." Say what now, limey?
Another interesting aspect of hiking in England is that even though this is a national park, you're still crossing through people's sheep pastures. It's quite a different feeling from hiking in California State Parks where its very clear you're on public land (and when cross over onto private land - as I did yesterday - it generally means you've screwed up).
The view from the top of the beacon was well worth the effort, giving us our first ever glimpses of Wales. Also it provided a remarkable and well-documented encounter with the park's famed residents, the wild Exmoor ponies.
David deserves the praise for bringing along sugar cubes with which to tempt the beasts. They, the ponies, proved to be friendly if slightly skiddish.
Following lunch, the weather improved slightly. We had a long stroll through the park, allowing good views of moors, combes and two kindly old folks who provided us with a peak at their map. We weren't exactly lost, but there was a mile or so when it wasn't particularly clear if we were on the path or just wandering quasi-aimlessly in the heather.
In addition to his equine charming skills I must also commend my brother for his good spirits during our hike. This was the most sizable walk he'd taken and, as you can see, he proved himself to be an able bipedal humanoid.
I went on a hike in Samuel Taylor State Park today, up near Lagunitas. The hike up to Barnabe peak is a little steep (some 1500 feet up) but the views from the top are quite stunning.
Today was an especially clear day and you could see quite the distance. Having been out of the brilliant California sun for a little while (it really is brighter here) it seemed all the more vibrant.
It also gave me a chance to check out my new camera, a Sony DSC T50. It's a nice improvement over my old point n' shoot (a T1 in the same line). The auto-focus and light metering is much quicker and more accurate, it's the first camera I've had with image stabilization and the touch screen controls are really quick.
Sadly my guidebook performed less well. I ended up on a private road coming down from the peak and was taken some 3 miles out of my way.
But the Cards are in the World Series and I had my best showing ever at my weekly poker game. So how bad can things be.
And with that, we now return to our regularly scheduled European vacation slideshow.
October 18, 2006
Having enjoyed London for a couple days, my brother and I rented a car and set out to explore the West Country (as an aside, good on ya' Enterprise Car Rental for stocking Priuses).
I nearly killed us a couple times by turning into oncoming traffic (turns out it comes from the right over there). And I got an automated speeding ticket for going 36 in a 30 mph zone. I plan to throw my ticket into Boston Harbor at the earliest opportunity.
Nonetheless, it was a rockin' good time during which we saw:
- Stonehenge. Unfortunately, dirty hippies ruined it with some sorta Solstice LoveFest that went awry and now you can't get too close. Also they give you an audioguide with goofy sound effects of druids clanging on stones. But it's mad old and you can totally work on your Nigel Tufnel impression.
- Salisbury Cathedral. A lovely town and a cathedral you shouldn't miss seeing. I saw something like 8 cathedrals during my trip and only Chartres is more impressive. We also stayed for Evensong services and got to hear their choir which was a treat. All this and they have one of four copies of the Magna Carta and the oldest working mechanical clock in the world. All in all, one of the best places I went on the whole trip.
- Corfe Castle. On the southern coast, this is a total wreck of a castle that was already in ruins before I convinced David to storm it. It's also close to Lulworth Cove which is quite the pretty spot. Incidentally, not everything in England labelled "castle" actually is one. Maiden Castle, for example, is what remains of pre-roman hillfort. What remains are attractive sheep, it turns out.
- Bath. This place has english quaintness baked into every georgian stone. It's quite the designed little town. In one night we went to places named The Pig & Fiddle and The Moon & Sixpense. So as a real-life set from Oblivion, it's pretty cool. Also it's got them Roman bathing deals where you can still take the waters. They don't taste too good however.
October 17, 2006
I'm skipping over Paris for the time being because most of the photos are from there. Instead, I give you a fun bulleted list about London:
- I heartily recommend Covent Garden and the West End as a base of operations and place to stay. You can walk to a large number of tourist destinations and it's incredibly lively on the weekends. The Covent Garden Hotel is a phenomenal establishment but is expensive even for London ... which means lodging is only vaguely purchasable with money. I think they'd prefer precious jewels.
- Seeing Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre was a total hoot. We saw Titus Andronicus which the Globe has staged like a slasher flick; blood, gore, amputations and so on. During the rape of Lavinia, someone actually puked and keeled over. Good times.
- Take the guided tour of the Tower of London. Part of the fun of being a Yank tourist is that everything seems very old in London. The Tower and Westminster Abbey are the epicenters of the mad oldness. But only the Tower comes with a tour by the Yeoman Warders. Our guide, Alan, absolutely knocked 'em dead.
- We saw Children of Men in Leicester Square's 2000 seat Odeon Theatre which has both premium and ticketed seating, both of which I love. The downside is that the good seats are like $30 each. Did I mention London is preposterously expensive?
- The Tate Modern is the only art musuem we stopped in and it didn't disappoint. The way they group the art thematically is a lot of fun and, while massive, it's a very comfortable museum to explore. Also, the Tate has the single best piece of video art I've seen, Video Quartet by Christian Marclay.
- Street names basically change at every intersection and there's no organizational scheme to speak of. This can make navigation ... challenging. But it's a fun place to explore in a wandery fashion so this may as well be seen as a virtue.
October 16, 2006
I made my
triumphant completely exhausted return to San Francisco last night after a full 24 hours in transit from Paris. I'd been gone exactly 3 weeks, the longest trip I've taken in over 6 years.
I had an amazingly good time and I very much want to do more traveling ... but I'm also looking forward to chilling at home and enjoying the last gasp of summer. For example, today I rode my bicycle to pick up my mail and also bought new underwear. Fun stuff like that.
I took over 1200 pictures during the trip and saw all kinds of noteworthy stuff. Processing the photos is gonna be a fun chore but I'm doing it in parts. Today: the St. Louis chapter. I flew home to the Lou on the day after my birthday. During my couple days there we had some really good dinners and enjoyed the best weather I can ever remember in the Mid-West.
The Moms and I also went out to the Missouri Botanical Gardens to check out the exhibit Glass in the Garden (blown glass by Chihuly tucked in with the flowers). MoBat is one of those things that I never really appreciated when I was growing up in St. Louis. And most of the time the weather is so freaking horrible that a leisurely garden stroll isn't really appealing. But on a mild weekday, it's both uncrowded (except for retirees) and quite beautiful. The japanese garden in particular is a lot of fun as there's a pond filled with overfed fish who will happily pose for you.
We also took a quick peak at the new Busch Stadium which is an unbelievably ginormous pile of bricks. The "neighborhood ballpark" style doesn't really work if you don't have a neighborhood to build the park into or build a quadruple deck monstrosity. Still: go Cards!
In another flyby, we dropped by the Harrah's casino that's all of about 7 miles from my house. It's also quite large (many things are in the Mid-West). The poker room was surprisingly packed for a Monday afternoon, but I didn't play. Additionally, they've got some fun signage there.
October 11, 2006
In case it's unclear, I'm not dead, just traveling.
Normally, I try to post quite a bit when I'm on vacation but 1) the keyboards are totally hard to use over here (no period without shift key!) and 2) I've been twittering it up instead (some 45 updates in the past 3 weeks).
I've also taken some 700 photos thus far. That's gonna be a bit of a job.