August 31, 2015

A Visit to Saint-Paul de Vence

We've now been in France for a couple of days and unfortunately, we brought the London weather with us. So far we have spent a couple of rainy days visiting Nice and Antibes, but the weather really didn't inspire us to take a lot of pictures or spend much time doing anything noteworthy, so I'll skip ahead to our visit to Saint-Paul de Vence, which we toured on Day 3, after the sun returned.

It has taken me a couple of days to find my inner Mario Andretti as I face off against the hordes of tourists (both French and other nationalities) that are still enjoying their summer holidays in the now sunny Côte D'Azur. Back in the world of confusing signage and too many roundabouts, I have successfully gotten us lost on more than one occasion and I might have pulled a "Clark Griswold" from European Vacation fame wherein Clark drives around the same roundabout more than once. Let's just say that I might have gone the wrong way through a roundabout exactly 2 times before I found the right "spoke" to exit.

The route to our apartment from Centre Ville has also taken a few days to actually "stick" so that I'm in the correct lane to navigate the sometimes abrupt turns in and out of roundabouts in order to "land" on the right road that leads to our abode. It's not been easy and I've made Sean more than green a few times as well as fearful for his life. But we're still alive and so far, we haven't yet got into an accident.

When we arrived, our landlord did warn us about the "summer tourists" and not only their horrible driving skills, but their inability to follow directions, signage and abide by common courtesies (and laws). This extends to their inability to really give a hoot about someone else and if they want to double park in the middle of the street to enjoy a 2-1/2 hour dinner (while you wait to extract your blocked car), so be it. Apparently it's the French way. We witness this behavior every day and I'm still asking myself "who does that?". I am really surprised that the local police don't start ticketing and towing these vehicles -- think of the extra revenue! But nobody really seems to care except for the poor people whose vehicles are getting blocked in by the more "entitled." It's seriously baffling.

I love visiting medieval villages and Saint-Paul de Vence did not disappoint. This small village perched above the sea was only about a 15-minute drive from Cagnes-sur-Mer where we are staying. It is one of the most intact fortified medieval villages in the area and inhabited by 380 people or so. It's also the third most visited tourist destination in France with over 2.5 million visitors a year.

It is very touristy and there were times that I wished everyone would leave so I could take my pictures without "tourists" in them. I realize I am one as well, but my photos would look so much nicer without all of the alleyways full of people!

The village does have an interesting history. In 1388, when Nice fell to Savoy, Saint-Paul de Vence was founded and fortified as a border town. In 1537, François I (at war with Charles V for 20 years) decided to fortify the cities at the edge of his kingdom. He included Saint-Paul de Vence, which was strongly coveted for its strategic placement within these fortifications.

This was a prosperous period for the city, during which it became known as “Ville Royale”. It was not until 1747, with the wars of succession, that Saint-Paul suffered its first assault of invaders, who destroyed the city.

The fortifications were abandoned at the end of the Empire. However, in 1832, a committee of military engineers decided to restore them. When Saint-Paul de Vence was demilitarized in 1870, the ramparts were sold off at auction. The mayor of the commune, deeming the fortifications of public importance, negotiated with the French government to save them from demolition. In 1872, the commune bought the ramparts for 400 Francs.

With its maze of charming streets, little shady squares, its ancient fountains, gateways and porches, its easy to see why Saint-Paul de Vence is a favorite destination for photographers and tourists alike. I think between Sean and I we took over 200 photos of this picturesque village during our 2-hour visit.

There are lots of shops and artist galleries to browse as we wandered around, but nothing too inspiring to entice us to buy (or we could not afford it). I was just happy to enjoy the beautiful warm weather and the scenery. And the pain au chocolat I purchased from the boulangerie was delicious!

From the back of the village you can see all the way to the sea. Another interesting factoid is that the artist Marc Chagall is buried in the cemetery.

You can view the rest of our photos here.

À bientôt!


August 29, 2015

85 degrees and hot tea - not a winning combination!

It's finally Saturday, our last day in London. Not surprisingly, Friday evening at the racetrack was one of the worst nights. Sean and I tried to get some sleep but it was difficult. We just had to power through a few more hours and we would be on our way to France. Hopefully our villa would be nice and quiet and we could sleep through an entire night; come on, we're not asking for too much here!

For our last few hours in London, we thought it nice to enjoy "high tea" somewhere nice so we could sip tea properly with our pinkies stuck out and snack on itty bitty sandwiches and scones. Of course I had made the reservation when it was raining and 62 degrees and naturally at the time of our 1:00 PM sitting it was 85 degrees out. Not exactly the perfect weather for sipping hot tea.

We arrived at promptly 1:00 PM at the Milestone Hotel, a very swanky boutique hotel across the street from Kensington Palace all sweaty and hot. Before our tea had even arrived, we both had downed a gallon of water, 2 beers and 2 glasses of champagne. We were very hot. And sticky. And wondering what we were thinking . . . but who can ever believe the weather forecast in London? So far we had been fooled by the weather forecast 3 out of 4 days, so I really didn't want to believe the forecast this time when it said the weather would be THIS HOT.

Thankfully the delightful little tea room was air conditioned and after much hydration, sipping hot tea was actually quite lovely. And delicious. Both Sean and I "oohed and awed" over our beautiful tiered serving dish of sandwiches and pastries and still to come, hot scones from the oven.

Served with the hot scones was traditional clotted cream (yum!) and homemade jam. The scones were amazing and I was a bit remorseful that by the time the scones had arrived I was almost too full to enjoy them. Part of this could be attributed to the fact that I had ingested very quickly a few gallons of liquid before I started eating. This would be one of those times that I wish I had a magic stomach expander button because I truly hated to waste the remaining hot scones. And that delicious clotted cream. And that dreamy jam. It was really a shame.

They offered to box up the remaining pastries and scones, but the thought of trying to carry those along with my suitcase and backpack in 85 degree weather through the Tube was more than I wanted to challenge myself with. So we left them behind. Sadly. I'm still dreaming about them . . .

By the time we had finished our afternoon tea, it was time to head back to the apartment and collect our luggage we had left with the concierge. Our flight was leaving Stansted airport at 6:10 PM and we still had to travel via the train to get there.

Luggage collected, we started the long journey to the airport. First there was the Tube from South Kensington to Liverpool Station, about a 40 minute journey that started off first with about a 6-block walk - normally, a picnic. In 85 degree weather with a heavy backpack and pulling/pushing a suitcase, so much. Then there were the flights of stairs to content with at the Tube station. Mon dieu! I know we could have taken a taxi, but sometimes I'm too thrifty for that. Laugh all you want, but I try and save money where I can. We're not feeble - we can manage and power through we did. According to my FitBit, we walked over 7 miles in 85 degree weather on Saturday; some of that with luggage!

Thankfully when our train to Liverpool arrived, it was one of the new, air-conditioned models. And we both found seats, so it wasn't a bad journey and gave us both a chance to cool off and relax a bit. I had purchased tickets on the Stansted Express before leaving home to save us a little money. The train from Liverpool Station to Stansted Airport was about 45 minutes and only made just a few stops. This train too was air conditioned and the gentle swaying of the train as it traveled nearly put us both to sleep.

Stansted is a fairly small airport and it was certainly busy when we arrived. It took us about 45 minutes to get through security, giving us only about 20 minutes before we had to board for our flight. That was just enough time to pound a couple of pints before we were on our way to France.

I'm not a big fan of flying on EasyJet, but there were not a lot of options for direct flights from London to Nice. I did splurge and spend the extra $15 per ticket to actually reserve a seat and was able to reserve the exit row seats so we had a little more leg room for the 2-hour flight.

Customs was fairly quick upon arrival and we had our bag and rental car within 40 minutes of arrival - not too bad! Driving around unfamiliar windy little roads after dark isn't exactly my cup of tea, but after only getting lost once or twice, we found our apartment in Cagnes-sur-Mer in pretty good time; maybe only losing about 10 minutes with my inability to follow the directions coming from Google Maps. I really missed last year's British lady telling me things like "in 400 feet, at the roundabout, take the 3rd exit". Instead, I had to try and pay attention to Google Maps telling where to go and totally mispronouncing most of the street names, so I had to rely heavily on Sean being able to navigate us; he's now my new British lady!

Our landlord lives down the street, so he met us at the apartment and showed us around. He told me the next day that he was also expecting other guests from the UK that evening as well and although they come every year, it took them over 2 hours to find the house . . . so I must pat myself on the back for finding our way.

We found our apartment on VRBO. Originally I had wanted to stay in his other, larger villa that offered more outdoor space and an outdoor kitchen, but it was already booked. Instead, Bruno offered us the 2-room apartment at Villa Pagnol nearby. We paid 820 Euros per week. The apartment was recently renovated and everything is essentially brand new. It's perfect for the two of us.

We were ecstatic to discover that we had both a king sized bead, no racetrack outside and air conditioning! I think we were asleep 15 minutes after we arrived.

À bientôt

August 28, 2015

A Visit to the British Museum

It's our third day in London and I'm pretty cranky. Still not much sleep and we're both exhausted and can't wait to leave for France. Our interest level in doing much of anything in the drizzly weather while sleepwalking is pretty low.

But we must power on . . . so off to the British Museum we went. I've visited the museum in the past, but of course this would be Sean's first visit. Since the museum contains over 8 million works of "human interest" I thought it wise to partake in the "highlights tour" with a museum docent. I always enjoy these tours as I typically learn more about the objects in which I am staring at instead of just reading the little placard. Add sleep deprivation into the mix and I'm sure I would have just wandered aimlessly through the rooms and not read a single thing.

I won't lie and say I "loved" the museum. I will just blame my disinterest in the current state of affairs (lack of sleep). We've been to a lot of museums and it's hard to be interested in the 100th Egyptian artifact I've seen. To be honest, I could visit the Louvre over and over and still be fascinated with its collections, but the British Museum was very "meh" for me. I am sure I didn't give it a fair shake, but let's just say I don't need to visit it again. Don't hate.

I will share with you some of the more interesting exhibits we saw. A pharmaceutical company has an exhibit in the "life and death" room called from "Cradle to Grave" and explores the approach to health in Britain today. The piece incorporates a lifetime supply of prescribed drugs knitted into two lengths of fabric, illustrating the medical stories of one woman and one man.

Each length contains over 14,000 drugs, the estimated average prescribed to every person in Britain in their lifetime. This does not include pills we might buy over the counter, which would require about 40,000 pills each. The "pill" fabric was about 12 feet long by about 4 feet wide.

Some of the treatments are common to both: each starts at birth with an injection of vitamin K and immunizations, and both take antibiotics and painkillers at various times. Other treatments are more specific. The woman takes contraceptive pills, and hormone replacement therapy in middle age. The man has asthma and hay fever when young, but enjoys good health until his fifties. He finally stops smoking after a bad chest infection when he is seventy. He is treated for high blood pressure for the last ten years of his life and has a heart attack and dies of a stroke in his seventies. He takes as many pills in the last ten years of his life as in the first sixty-six. Just wow. 14,000 drugs? That's a lot of pills.

Another interesting exhibit was a collection of artifacts found in a burial mound dating to the early AD 600s located on a residential property in Sutton Hoo, Suffolk in 1939. The landowner was curious to learn more about the many mounds location on her property so she hired an archeologist to excavate the mounds. Most of the mounds revealed little or nothing at all. But they struck treasure when they discovered beneath a large mound the remains of a 27-metre-long ship. At its center was a burial chamber packed with treasures: Byzantine silverware, sumptuous gold jewelry, a lavish feasting set, and an ornate iron helmet.

Tiny fragments showed that rich textiles once adorned the walls and floor, along with piles of clothes ranging from fine linen shirts to shaggy wool cloaks and caps trimmed with fur. The workmanship on this gold belt buckle is pretty amazing.

The dead man’s body had dissolved in the acidic soil, but he was clearly a person of great standing in the kingdom of East Anglia, the local Anglo-Saxon kingdom. He may even have been a king. I thought it interesting that he was buried inside his ship. That must have been a really large mound. No wonder the landowner was curious!

We also viewed one of the iconic statues from Easter Island in Polynesia dating to around AD 1000.

Easter Island is famous for its stone statues of human figures, known as moai. The moai were probably carved to commemorate important ancestors and were made from around AD 1000 until the second half of the seventeenth century, when the birdman cult became more central to the Easter Islanders.

When Captain Cook's crew visited Easter Island in 1774, William Hodges, Cook's artist, produced an oil painting of the island showing a number of statues, some of them with hat-shaped stone 'topknots'. Hodges depicted most of the statues standing upright on stone platforms. With the adoption of Christianity in the 1860s, the remaining standing statues were toppled.

The statue in the museum was collected by the crew of the English ship HMS Topaze on their visit to Easter Island in 1868 to carry out surveying work. Islanders helped the crew to move the statue, which has been estimated to weigh around four tons. It was moved to the beach and then taken to the Topaze by raft. You have to wonder how they transferred something this heavy onto the ship.

As an interesting side note, I recently watched an episode of House Hunters International where a couple were looking to buy a home on Easter Island (the wife was a native). Only native islanders are allowed to own property. Some of the statues are still standing on the island.

That pretty much wraps up my view of the highlights of the museum. After about 3 hours in the museum, we were pretty saturated with information so we called it a day.

Originally we had planned to partake in a "Jack the Ripper" walking tour that evening but the rain kind of put a wrench into our plans. Instead, we had a really delicious meal of Indian food. I had wanted to return to "Balti House" on Brick Lane, which I had visited in 1999 on my first visit to London. As a reality check, I looked up reviews and after discovering many bad reviews, I surmised that what seemingly was "absolutely the best Indian food ever" in 1999 was just my inexperience, or maybe the place had really gone downhill in the last 15 years. Both definite possibilities. I thought we deserved better than 2-1/2 stars, so we found a place in our neighborhood that had excellent reviews. And it was really good! This was our best meal the entire time in London and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to others. The restaurant is called Haandi and it's right around the corner from Harrods.

So that wraps up our last full day in London.

Cheerio mates!

August 27, 2015

London - A Royal and Arabian Affair

It's our second day in London and sleep continues to be evasive. Apparently the main road (Sloane Avenue) right outside our apartment windows is a major drag racing boulevard for the wealthy Arabs who take pleasure in ignoring all speed and noise ordinances during the night. Just when you start to fall asleep you hear the high pitched shrill of a Ferrari's grinding gears. I'm sure that's music to some ears, but not mine at 2:30 AM. We seriously are getting very little sleep and this fact is really cutting into my "fun on vacation Sherry" demeanor.

At first we were a little surprised to see the sheer volume of luxury cars drive up and down our street. We knew Chelsea was an upscale neighborhood, but keeping up with the Joneses in this neighborhood would require that you drive a Bentley or Rolls Royce for grabbing groceries or perhaps a Lamborghini supercar to pick up Davey from school. A Range Rover Sport in this neighborhood was what the poor people drive around. Why drive a "factory" model when you can gold plate it?

Or perhaps purple ultra-suede is more to your liking?

Electric blue anyone?

Apparently many of the ultra-luxury and supercars we saw around our neighborhood and other areas of London are owned by the young rich Arab playboys who like to vacation in London during the summer to escape the intense heat of the gulf. Car owners from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait will happily pay a small fortune - in excess of £20,000 for their metal marvels to be flown around 3,000 miles. I found an interesting article online that details this extravagance.

I can only imagine what their private jets look like.

So while we were among "royalty" we had a date with the Queen to visit the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace. Buckingham Palace only allows visitors during a few weeks per year and we were lucky to be in London during this period. April and I toured the State Rooms about 10 years ago and I was pleased to see that they had added some additional exhibits.

My favorite part of the entire tour were several exhibits and videos providing an overview of how palace staffers prepare for a State dinner in the ballroom for 170 guests. Last year the Queen and other members of the Royal family welcomed more than 62,000 people to the palace.

While in their current incarnation state banquets are largely a 20th-century innovation, Queen Victoria wrote in her diary about entertaining Napoleon III of France in 1855, ‘in the usual dining room’. The following year, after vast renovations, she added a new Ballroom, having appealed to Prime Minister Robert Peel for ‘a room capable of containing a larger number of persons whom the Queen has to invite in the course of a season’. State banquets have been held here since 1914.

A state visit is planned 12 months in advance. The guest country is chosen by the government; the guest list of about 170 is then drawn up between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Royal Household. Invitations issued by the Queen are sent out two months in advance.

I would kill to actually see the kitchens at the palace, but I was completely fascinated with the preamble leading up to a typical State dinner. The displays of the various pantries (from glassware and crystal to an entire drawer system for dessert forks) were everything I wish I had room for. Imagine an entire room full of drawers filled with china of various patterns? Ah, my happy place.


I also loved that the menus they provide at each place setting are written in French. Apparently the Queen knows what great cuisine is all about!

For a banquet, the table is covered with linen tablecloths centered using specially made measuring sticks, napkins are folded into a Dutch bonnet shape, and each guest is allocated 46cm for their setting. Carson from Downton Abbey would have approved! I thought it fascinating that they serve each guest from servers (a footman holds the dish while the guest serves themselves), not a plate with the entire meal already present on the plate. I must step up my "formal" dinner parties now - anyone know of a good footman?

On banquet nights 19 stations are set up around the ballroom each manned by four staff - a page, footman, under butler and a wine butler - who use a traffic light system to co-ordinate the serving of courses.

While the first and second courses – usually fish followed by meat – are served on silver-gilt plates, the pudding, prepared by the Royal Pastry Chef, and fruit course are served on a porcelain service (either Tournai or a Minton service made in 1877). Each guest is served five different wines, starting with champagne, chosen by the Clerk of the Royal Cellars and Yeoman of the Royal Cellars, along with the Head of Government Hospitality. These are bought in for the event and paid for by the government.

Dinner normally takes one hour and 20 minutes. At the end of the meal 12 pipers process around the room – a tradition started by Queen Victoria – and the guests depart for coffee and handmade petits fours in the State Rooms. The room is stripped down in two hours. Washing up is done by hand. Guess you don't want to risk putting the antique service pieces in the dishwasher!

In addition to the State dinners, the Queen also hosts 3 "garden parties" each summer with up to 8,000 people attending. Now that's a party! I do love the sense of tradition that Queen Elizabeth seemingly carries on. Who knows what the next generation will do. Apparently Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip will be the last royals to actually inhabit Buckingham Palace. Rumor has it that Prince Charles will turn it into a museum.

So that wraps up our second day in London and hopefully a long nap (or at least a good night's sleep) will be in my future.

Cheerio mates!

August 26, 2015

Our Summer 2015 European Adventure - First stop, London

Earlier this year we started discussing our vacation plans and both Sean and I agreed "no big trips." We had some projects we wanted to do around the house and thought that investing our time and money into those endeavors should take precedence over a "big trip".

In February we attended the Home and Garden show and while enjoying a delicious lunch at Loulay, one of our favorite French restaurants, we both agreed that we couldn't fathom the thought of NOT going to France this year. So there you have it - a confession of just how weak and easily swayed we are. Forget about the long list of projects - who needs new bathroom flooring? It can wait!

Sadly, I was unable to make miles work for business class tickets this trip, so we plunked down the cost of a new arm and leg on coach tickets. Since our eventual destination was Nice, France and there's really no direct route there, I was finding flight schedules that required us to change planes several times and that did not sound like a good time to me. So I decided a direct flight from Seattle to a European city would suffice and we could then get ourselves to Nice from there, so that's how we looped in a few days in London. Sean has never been to London so I thought that would be a nice departure for him since he can actually understand the language and read the menus.

We did upgrade on Delta to "Economy Comfort" which landed us in a bulkhead with plenty of leg room. It was well worth the $250 and we passed the time during the 9-1/2 hour flight easily between watching movies, reading, doing puzzles and sleeping. We landed at Heathrow at 1:10 PM local time and didn't feel too bad. After clearing customs and collecting our luggage we were off on the underground towards our apartment in Chelsea. Although I hadn't planned this convenience, the tube stop nearest our apartment was on the Picadilly line, a direct line from Heathrow, so it was lovely to not have to change trains anywhere.

I found our apartment rental on VRBO. It was fairly small (330 s.f.), but just fine for the two of us and had all the modern conveniences we could want. I paid £640 for 4 nights, which is about $1,004, which is a big chunk of change for lodging and much more than I would normally pay for a nightly rate, but London is very expensive against the US dollar. You can view our flat here.

By the time we got situated in the apartment, it was almost 3:30 PM and food was calling. We found a nice pub down the street and had a pint and some much needed nourishment.

The weather was partly cloudy with a threat of rain. Unfortunately, the weather forecast had changed from being warm and sunny during our stay in London to wet and rainy. After our meal, we headed to the grocery store that was conveniently a block from our flat and bought some supplies for our stay.

We were really dragging our feet by the time we arrived back at the apartment and a nap was high on our list of activities. As much as you try and avoid the whole jet lag thing, it's inevitable it seems. We easily fell asleep and forced ourselves to get back up two hours later. After a shower and some coffee, we both felt much better, but still a little foggy.

As typical for me, sleep was evasive that first night in Europe. I was awake again at 1:30 AM after only sleeping for less than 4 hours. I passed the time between 1:30 AM and 6:00 AM getting some work done and found myself back in bed for another 4 hours at 6:00 AM. I was a little alarmed when I awoke and it was already 10:00 AM; seemed kind of wasteful given our long list of things we wanted to see and do during our brief stay.

The weather forecast looked like rain would hold off during much of the day so we thought this was our best shot at an open bus tour. I always enjoy these "hop on, hop off" bus tours. It provides a nice overview of the city (without walking miles) and I always learn things about certain landmarks and neighborhoods that I might not have otherwise.

This particular tour included a "live" guide as opposed to the headset kind and he was quite hilarious in his commentary. He filled up our time stuck in traffic with some interesting facts about London that you probably wouldn't find in many guide books.

Cock Lane, near Holborn Viaduct, didn’t get its name due to any association with poultry, but because it was the only street to be licensed for prostitution in medieval times. Other unusual street names in London include Ha Ha Road in Greenwich, Hooker’s Road in Walthamstow, Quaggy Walk in Blackheath, and Cyclops Mews. Street names that sadly no longer exist include Shiteburn Lane, Pissing Alley, and more than one Gropecunt Lane, which as the name might suggest, was associated with prostitution. We snickered every time we were on the Tube and the voiceover indicated we were on a train bound for "Cockfosters." Yes, we are 12.

The nursery rhyme Pop Goes the Weasel refers to the act of pawning one's suit after spending all one's cash in the pubs of Clerkenwell.

The Beatles played their last gig on the roof of Apple Corps at 3 Saville Row. It’s now an Abercrombie & Fitch store.

London has some really interesting architecture. One of their newest skyscrapers has been dubbed the "walkie talkie." You can see it in the picture below on the far right. Then there's the famous bullet-shaped building the locals call "the gherkin" because it was originally lit up with green lights like a pickle.


We also saw some interesting "public art" in some of the parks and squares. Apparently local artists can exhibit their art pieces in these public spaces as a way of advertising they are for sale.

We finished our bus tour and had returned to our apartment just about the perfect time before the rain started. You can view some of our London photos here.

Cheerio mates!