Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “bus travel”

Freeway-Free in France: Saturday on the Seine

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WB and I took the bus to the Pont Neuf today and walked down to Notre Dame.  Since we had Museum Passes we spend about an hour down in the Crypt, which harbors a number of relics of Gallic, Roman, and medieval times which were exhumed when they built an underground garage under the Pavee in front of the cathedral. Very interesting but fearsomely educational with all sorts of cool interactive 3D computer representations of the Ile de Cite at various stages, the cathedral in various states of construction, etc. We would have spent even more time but it began to feel a little claustrophobic. 

We then strolled across the pavee to the cathedral, where an impressive mass was being held.  We were able to walk quietly around the edges of the church, admiring the wonderful carvings around the sacristy and the gorgeous windows.  

P1030324webThen we went to the memorial to the 200K Frenchmen who were taken away by the Nazis and never returned, which is hidden below ground level at the end of the garden behind the cathedral.  After that, a cup of restorative tea and a couple of scoops of glacé at Berthillon’s seemed in order.  P1030325web

 

 By the time we finished our break, it seemed a strike of bus drivers had broken out, (what is a visit to Paris without a manifestation of some kind?)and we were forced underground to the Metro, which involved a lot more steps and stairs for poor WB’s knee.

 Happily, the Galleries Lafayette has a direct entrance from the Metro at their stop, so we executed some efficient shopping and then went to ooh and aah at the Art Deco atrium and stained glass dome which they acquired when they merged with La Samaritaine a few years ago. 20160924_054841web Next up to the rooftop terrace to admire the view of everywhere we had been and wave at the folks up on the Eiffel Tower.

 By the time we got down, the manifestation seemed to be over, so we caught a bus which nearly took us to where we wanted to be.  Winifred chugged off to the Musee d’Orsay, while I decided to skip the Louvre this trip and check out the Monet water lilies and the Picassos and Renoirs at l’Orangerie.  Lots of lilies.20160924_075112doc

I didn’t feel like going back to the Metro station and there were a whole lot of policemen around, so I walked slowly back to the hotel, stopping here and there to check out some menus for possible dinner tonight, and a little browsing of the clearance rack in the dress shop on the corner.  

 A bit later WB arrived – the buses were stopped again so she had to walk from the Musee d’Orsay.  She is taking an exhausted rest’. We will decide about dinner in an hour.  No word from Dianne, who was planning to spend at least part of the day circling the city on the Route 69 bus – hope she didn’t get marooned somewhere.

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Freeway Free in France: On my Own at the Orsay

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We took our separate paths yesterday as planned.  I strolled around the neighborhood re-familiarizing myself with some of the restaurants I might want to try again, then down the Seine bank looking at all the quayside life to the Musee d’Orsay, home of Impressionism and much else.  The place had been shut down for renovation for a couple of years, with many of its gems traveling to SF, Chicago, and New York for display in the meantime, and I was eager to see what had been done.

Opinion:  the d’Orsay Sculpture Court, that jaw-dropping entry into the museum, has been vitiated into ordinariness by the inexorable forces of pragmatism and logistics.  The expansive view has been cut up into a narrow “Allee” with increased display space in little rooms carved out of each side.   So no traffic-impeding “Wow!” moment as you enter, but a lot of diversionary stops:  Here’s where you get your bag checked, here is a gift shop, here is where you get your ticket checked, here is where you pick up your plan of the museum.

One logistical improvement:  if all you really want to see is the Impressionists, you can walk briskly to the back of the museum, start with Toulouse-Lautrec on Level 0, then take an escalator for a big dose of Van Gogh and Cezanne on Level 2, then return to the escalators for a direct route (no exits on Levels 3 or 4) to Level 5, where the rest of the gang is displayed.   There are some jaw-dropping moments here – a lovely huge Renoir never displayed in its entirely before, and Caillebotte’s Floor refinishers, which I sat and looked at for quite a while.

After a quick visit to the battlements to thumb my nose at the Louvre (which I will probably visit anyway today) I walked down to St. Germain de Pres via the posh Blvd St. Germain and looked in all the shop windows and at all the places made famous by Hemingway and Fitzgerald and “Midnight in Paris.”  I stopped for lunch at a little cafe where I ate a nice omelette with frites, then on down to St. Sulpice, one of the wealthiest and loveliest churches in Paris (featured, to its humiliation and resentment, in Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code”) , and now undergoing restoration which hides some of the malarkey-inducing elements from the frivolous visitor.20160923_062405web

Bus back to the hotel (This is a key discovery for this trip: the bus system near the Rue Cler is great – at least three bus routes come right through – and it is more fun to be above ground than trudging through Metro tunnels.). I Met WB and we went together for a glass of wine and recap of the day at a sidewalk cafe on Rue Cler, then met later for dinner at Au Petite Tonneau – a wonderful meal of Things We Would Not Eat at Home (snails, veal kidneys, toasted goat cheese).  Then we bused over to the Tour Eiffel and managed to get up to the second floor for some great nighttime views, then caught the last bus back to our corner.

Fine day!

 

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Freeway Free in Spain: Toledo Transit

Bus to ToledoWe started off at a good hour for our expedition, arrived at the station in plenty of time to catch the 9:20 train, only to find that it was sold out. Next available train on a busy commute and tourist day was at 12:20. Scratch.

We went back to the hotel by Metro to save energy, I said something about our failed plans to the desk manager, and he replied quickly, “Why not go by bus?” Turns out the express bus leaves every hour, from a station about a half hour away by Metro.

With one thing and another we got to the bus station in time for the 11 AM bus and we were in Toledo by noon. A wonderful town for traipsing around.

The Last Supper - Toledo Cathedral facadeWe started with the awesome (in the original sense) cathedral, a soaring flamboyant Gothic/Baroque structure on the outside, with a wonderful Last Supper going on in sculpture across the front above the main door. If you look at it from the rise of steps across the plaze, you can see down onto the table where the sculpture was careful to provide both bottles of wine and a plate of rolls as required.
On the inside more of the same – a LOT more. In addition to the profligate use of gold from the New World to decorate altars, clothe icons, and create 10 foot-tall monstrances to hold the Host between communions, it contains more great paintings than they have room to hang or light or even identify decently – a whole set of Christ and the apostles by El Greco hung kitty corner to the viewer behind a grate, Titian, Correggio, and Rembrandt hung in a half-lit chapel on a temporary scaffold in front of the altar and again behind a grate.

St John and Cousin Jesus

St John and Cousin Jesus

The most awesome thing about the Toledo Cathedral is the detail – everywhere you look there is an artwork that would be worthy of its own exhibit in any other context.  For example, this mosaic of John the Baptist with his young cousin Jesus – at least 30 feet tall over the door of the cathedral – not even mentioned in the audio guide or anywhere else – but so powerful!

We got halfway through the audio tour and elected to pause for lunch at a vegetarian restaurant Winifred had located online nearby. (We are on a veggie kick since being greens-deprived in our first day in Madrid.) There are good and bad veggie restaurants – Madre Tierra  was excellent – a wonderful salad and then a cream of spinach soup so thick and rich I could have eaten it with a fork.

Virgin and Unicorn - Choir stall - Toledo Virgin M crowning a saint in ivory - Toledo Saint and demon contending- choir stall - Toledo Jacob and Esau? Choir Stall - Toledo

Then back to the cathedral for the rest of the tour of amazing carvings and sculpture.  (See some of the amazingly evocative carvings in the choir stalls above)

The art highlight – the Sacristy- was closed for renovation, which was probably a blessing in disguise. Otherwise we would never have made it to the El Greco Museum, which had a different set of apostles, much better displayed, hung in a setting designed to recreate a 15th century home such as El Greco might have lived in during his time in Toledo – quite charming.

Back to the bus, stopping for Winifred to pick up some mementoes and gifts. The express bus was full, so we took the milk run, whistle-stopping through a series of villages and small towns, letting off matrons who had been shopping for their week’s supplied in the supermercados of Toledo, taking up young people who had been visiting their families for the holiday and were headed back to Madrid – it was fun to make up stories to explain the meetings and partings.

Evening on the bus

Freeway-Free in Trujillo – Local Bad Boys Make Good

Plaza Mayor - TrujilloTrujillo in Extremadura is the hometown of Francisco Pizarro, the Conquistador who accompanied Balboa on his discovery of the Pacific Ocean, then overthrew the Inca monarchy, and was himself murdered by one of his own mutinous fellow- adventurers.  My fellow-traveller W learned most of this history from the Peruvian point of view, which substitutes “betrayed” for “overthrew”, “plunderer” for “adventurer” etc.  So I got a lot of colorful running commentary to accompany the information provided by the local tourist office.

Iglesia de Santa Maria - Ferdy and Izzy were hereFernando and his brothers were rapscallions to the core, and their fellow Trujillanos breathed sighs of relief when they shipped off to the New World in emulation of Cortez. Imagine their dismay when the black sheep returned with piles of Inca gold and an Incan princess under each arm. Most of the Pizarros  eventually died ingloriously in the New World, but not before bringing home a lot of plunder. Some of this was donated to the local church in the form of gold and silver reliquaries and altar pieces in an attempt to buy off the damnation they surely deserved.
Pizarro's PalacioThe survivor, Hernando, probably escaped death only because  during his volatile twenties and thirties he was already serving time in prison for murder.  On release he married his brother Fernando’s daughter by the Incan princess whose brother  Fernando had betrayed and burned at the stake.  The couple corralled the Pizarro fortune and spent it in the old home town on building a lavish public plaza and a huge mansion decorated with bas-reliefs of themselves. and their families . In your face, Trujillo!

The  huge statue of Fernando Pizarro on horseback in the public plaza is actually an impostor.  The statue was originally commissioned by the Government of France as a statue of Hernando Cortez to be presented as a gift to the Government of Mexico.  The French were embarrassed to discover that Mexicans didn’t appreciate being conquered by Cortez and wanted no part of a statue honoring him.  Being both thrifty and resourceful, the French renamed the statue as Fernando Pizarro and sent it to Spain , where Pizarro is warmly remembered despite his wayward youth and unsavory exploits in the New World.Generic Conquistadore - AKA Pizarro of Trujillo

Trujillo’s  old Castillo, originally a Moorish fortification, is  positioned on the top of the  highest hill with its medieval walls either intact or restored.  We walked the entire battlement with some back-tracing and could see for miles across the country.  I understand why the Spanish from this region felt at home in their New World colonies – the green foothills with their rocky protrusions look quite similar to the Sierra foothills of California in spring, even to the serpentine color of the rocks.View from the Castillo - Trujillo

Trujillo is small and walkable and only a 45 minute bus ride from Caceres, so it makes for a perfect day trip with plenty of time for a siesta before venturing out for tapas in the evening.

Freeway-Free in Spain: Around and About in Extremadura

Carpets of wildflowers - Extremadure springAs an American, I thought the whole North/South thing was a side – effect of our 150-year-old civil war, but it seems to be a global prejudice.  Whether it’s a Tuscan speaking of Sicily, or a Parisian of Provence, or a New Yorker speaking of anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line, the general thread is “Oh, those southerners!  They live at such a slow pace!  They are lazy!  And their accents – you can barely understand them!” This also is what the Spaniards of Castile y Leon or Catalonia say about Extremadura, maybe one of the most fascinating places you have never heard of.

“Extremadura” simply means “beyond the Madura River”.  It takes in the broad plains and mountain ridges between Madrid and the Portuguese border. The province is ringed by mountains, so during the Peninsular Wars Wellington’s troops swung north, leaving the medieval fortress walls of Caceras and Trujillo and the  Roman ruins of Merida unscathed. If you dream of going back in time, in Extremadura you can almost pick your century.Sierra de Gredos

The bus ride from Madrid  to Caceras, the center of Extremadura, takes a little over four hours with one half-hour and one five-minute stop.  After an unusually wet spring  it was a lovely ride, with the snowcapped peaks of the Sierra de Gredos rising above the rolling green plains of La Mancha, – only missing some windmills to tilt at.  As we moved into Extremadura the landscape looked more and more like spring in California’s Sierra foothills  – pools of blue flowers that weren’t lupine, shrubs covered with big white flowers that weren’t matilja poppies, recognizable Scotch broom and mustard and unrecognizable pink and lavender flowers, all  painting the slopes beautiful.

Hotel Don CarlosOur home base for the week is the Hotel Don Carlos, just off the Plaza Mayor (Main Square) and steps from the medieval Old City which earned Caceras its World Heritage Site designation.  Our first two nights were spent in a spacious room with a luxurious bath,  facing the narrow cobbled pedestrians-only street, with a cute balcony and view down the twisting lane to the restaurant on the corner.  The first night we slept as befits travelers who have been on the road for twenty hours.  The second night we slept as befits those whose open window is just down the street from a bar patronized by soccer fans who are cheering, drinking, and arguing raucously until at least 4AM.  We asked for a change, which happened seamlessly while we were out sight-seeing.  The following nights were spent in a smaller room facing the inside courtyard, with no balcony or bidet but lots of blessed quiet.

Note to travelers in Spain:  The American work schedule has not penetrated past the Pyrenees.  Spaniards snack at 8 AM, take a two hour lunch break 12-2PM, work til 7PM, hang out on the Plaza until at least 9PM, maybe think about dinner after 9PM, and after dinner hang out some more.  Don’t even think about looking for dinner before 9PM.

On our first evening we walked through the neighboring church plaza spotting storks nesting on the church steeple, swallow chicks chirping in the nests built in cracks in the church facade, swallows swooping and dodging after gnats to feed to the chirping chicks, and lots of folks of various sizes, shapes, and colors strolling, sipping, socializing in the empty open walking and sitting spaces.

Regional cheese - CacerasThe helpful desk clerk had recommended a tapas bar just beyond the church plaza.  Not being accustomed to Spanish hours, we were the first customers.  We  asked for three of the four featured tapas and got enough food to feed four people comfortably, including the best anchovies either of us had ever eaten or imagined, assorted wonderful local cured pork, and a local soft cheese whose deliciousness defies description.   A walk around the Plaza Major shook down enough space within to make room for   a tiny cup of exotically flavored gelato after the post-tapas stroll.

It was 10PM and the Plaza was just getting going, but the lure of a warm shower and a soft bed has us postponing our adjustment to Spanish time for one more day.

Next: Medieval Meandering in Caceras

Canada: the Alien Next Door – Day 5 – Banff Springs

View of Banff from the Cascade GardensThe day begins in a ballroom/classroom in the stately Banff Springs Hotel – we learn that it was originally built by the railroad to lure tourists to western Canada (just as the El Tovar Lodge and Ahwahnee Hotel were built in the US to bring tourists to the Grand Canyon and Yosemite).  How ignominious to know that this World Historic Site is now owned by a consortium fronted by the Fairmont Hotel chain and largely funded by Arabian oil moguls.    You can still see the Beaver logo of the Northern Canadian Railroad engraved  in the archway over the fomer main entrance to the Banff Springs Lodge.

P1040963After the lecture by our Canadian tour leader, we tour the hotel – the Ballroom, the Conservatory, the Cigar Lounge, the Alhambra Room – if a movie is made based on the game of CLUE, here is the natural setting.

Whyte Museum- BanffThen  a bus to downtown Banff and a tour of the Whyte Museum of the Rockies, with a lively introduction to the exhibits by a senior curator.  (I want to live in the Whyte cabin: all natural wood, built-in furniture, and thousands of books.)

After a rain – sprinkled promenade in the town of Banff (think Carmel with an influence of snow) and a lunch at the  Chinook Restaurant (Denny’s with a smile and a view), I walked in the Cascade Gardens overlooking the Bow River.  Sad to say, the historic cascades have dried up along with the maintenance funding, but the flowers are still brilliant, maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers).  The view from these gardens down the main street of Banff to the mountains opposite is post-card pretty (see above.

Steps down to the Bow RiverNext we wander along a shady  trail bordering the Bow river with  lots of wildflowers, a couple of close encounters with grazing elk, and a view of  the Bow Falls.  (Tip: If walking this trail going downriver, turn back at the bottom of the the 200-step stair to get the full effect.)

 There was another 200-step stair which brought up back to the Banff Springs hotel on its bluff overlooking the river.  Now that we had been to the falls, we could hear it rumbling in the background at all times – being a child of civilization, I had assumed the soothing low vibration was  traffic noise or air conditioning – a roaring waterfall is much more exciting!

Tomorrow: Bags are due out at 6AM as we prepare to board the Train.

Canada: The Alien Next Door – Day Two – Edmonton ->Jasper

 Baggage out by 7:30 AM – What kind of vacation is this?  We board the bus after a breakfast of respectable scrambled eggs and hotel fruit and mini croissants with authentic Canadian  bitter marmalade, washed down by a flood of commentary from the indefagitable conversationalists at our shared table.  No shrinking violets in this group!

A bus, no matter how well equipped and well-upholstered, is still a bus, and a bathroom break is still required.  Not even a Stanford brochure could make the loo at Entwhistl’s lone Esso station a four-star experience.  Well, maybe the INSIDE one, but the line was long, so we were directed to the outside auxiliary.

Problem: no window and no lightbulb. Not even the guys could see where to aim.  Happily,  in my day pack was a souvenir key ring from a months- earlier trade show with a miniature flashlight.  We passed this gem around – my former employer EMC got value for its money with this marketing tool!

51st street, Edson

51st street, Edson

Lunch at Epson – at the intersection of 4th and 51st streets. Yeah, right.   A total population of about 8000 people means that about 45 of those 51 streets are merely a gleam in a developer’s eye. A three course meal at the Mountain Pizza and Steak House, then back on the bus all woozy from too much food and not enough exercise. Busing through the anorexic evergreen forest with equally anorexic birch trees crowding together – so much more vertical-looking than the robust pines and aspens of the lower Sierras! Down timber combines with melted snow rotting into mulch across the rolling tundra. The Rockies are a low-lying cloud layer in front of us.Roadside Attraction
Then five minutes down the road we spot a giant – antlered elk on our side of the road, calmly grazing. More photos. Our guide is agog: “Never have I seen so much wildlife in such a short stretch. “ Fine with us!
On a clear day, I can’t imagine a more beautiful place to spend time than Jasper Lodge.  In addition to the breath-taking natural setting, there is  a large central lodge with lots of comfy chair groupings in which to sit and admire the wonderful view across Lac Beauvert toward the mountains. Lots of satellite cabins. Overflowing baskets of petunias and geraniums hanging from every lamppost and over every door. Blue sky, clouds rising and disappearing, mountains reflected in the glassy, forest-rimmed lake. Of the places we visit on this trip, none will invite us back more strontly.

Amenities of our tour include: A 5PM lecture on Glacial Geology by Scott Burns, the official Professor.  Drinks both spiritous and not  on the deck. Dinner of salmon with lentils and asparagus and a monologue on Canadian politics by Barry the Tour Guide.   We escaped to  quiet of our cabin.  Happily, we have another whole day at this bucolic refuge.

Jasper Lodge from Beavert Lake, with happy tourist

Jasper Lodge from Beavert Lake, with happy tourist

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Lounge at Jasper Lodge

Tips on travel with the Oldest Old – Part IV– Trains and buses

Maybe you get seasick in swimming pools.  Maybe you get claustrophobia if there is no escape route from a boat.  A second alternative available in some areas is old-fashioned luxury rail travel.  I’m not talking about AmTrak with its erratic schedules and limited meal service.  There are excellent tours by rail if you search diligently – and are willing to pay.

For example, Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer luxury train starts in either Jasper or Banff and winds its way through the Canadian rockies past glaciers,, wildlife, and snowcapped peaks.  You can choose to travel with three different levels of luxe– a car with picture windows with a box lunch brought to your seat,  a dome car with hot breakfast and lunch served at your seat, or a dome car with an open bar and a dining service below offering a choice of excellent gourmet meals with white tablecloths, crystal glassware, and attentive service.   The train travels only in daylight so as not to miss a scenic moment, and you disembark in the evening to stay in 4-5 star historic hotels  along the route.

Other luxury train travel opportunities are available in the UK, Europe, Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa.

Caveats:

You are likely to have different stopping points each night – lots of unpacking and re-packing

Use of the premium service requires that you must be able to negotiate the  narrow spiral staircase between the sightseeing and dining levels of the rail car.

Options are pricey, pricier, and priciest

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A third alternative – luxury bus travel

Advantages:

Bus tours cost depends on the tour company, but are generally  more affordable than either cruise or rail travel

There is a wider variety of destinations available by bus than by boat or train. A top-end bus tour company will put its travelers into the same hotels as the luxury train might offer, and has more flexibility in offering excursions to restaurants and other attractions outside the hotel.

Caveats:

Bus travel, no matter how well sprung the bus and how insulated the engine, is more tiring than cruise or train travel, with more on-and-offs for trick knees and hips to endure.

Compared to cruise or train travel, there is more “dead time” on the bus between destinations, and less ability to move about.  If you get carsick trying to read on a bus, you have few entertainment alternatives, no matter how many sing-alongs and Draw-the-Moose competitions your tour guide instigates.  And if sing-alongs and Draw-the-Moose competitions are not your thing – so much the worse!

Like train travel,  bus travel is likely to  involve multiple overnight locations.  If you don’t want to pack and repack every day, check   itineraries for tours that have a central hub for overnights with tours branching out to different destinations each day.

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