All posts by brucegk

Living on the Canal du Midi

Moving your boat through the locks is an important part of boating on the Canal du Midi. Fortunately, we are navigating downstream so the water level is at the top of the lock when we enter. It takes three people to control the boat in the locks: the pilot, and a person in the bow and stern to hold ropes to keep the boat from drifting. One person, usually the person on the bow, steps ashore and loops the free end of their line around a post on the side of the lock. That person then runs to the stern, loops the rear line around another post, runs back to the front of the boat and hops back on. Skilled rope handlers can throw the rope and lasso the post, but I am not in that category. The two people then use the lines to hold the boat close to the side of the lock as the water level drops. When the water level reaches bottom and it is time for your boat to move, the rope handlers simply pull the lines back on board and off you go.   If we were traveling upstream, we would have to throw our rope to someone at the top of the lock to loop it for us. There is a lock master to cram as many boats as possible into the lock and operate the gates. On smaller canals, the boaters have to operate the lock gates.Lavonne is an experienced sailor so she was the leader in the locks and usually went ashore to get the lines looped.It may look like I am just standing there relaxing, but note how snug the stern of the boat is to the side of the lock.  That was my job!  This picture was taken at the top of a section of five locks together.  These locks are the number three tourist attraction in the area.  You can see spectators in the background.  That put pressure on not to do anything stupid!Daryll was our captain and Susan was our advisor.  Susan went ashore at the set of five locks to loop the lines for us.  At the bottom of the fifth lock, the wind started to move the bow of the ship away from the side of the lock while Susan was still ashore.  Lavonne was at her usual spot on the bow of the ship opposite Susan, who yelled to her “I can’t make it”.  Lavonne just said “Yes you can!” while grabbing her arm as Susan made a mighty jump.  Nice work!Life on the boat is pretty relaxing. On a typical day we navigate for about three hours. There are numerous small villages along the canal to explore. This requires mooring the boat to stakes provided along the banks of the canal.  This operation is similar to that of going through the locks.  Above is our cabin.  While it was cozy, it was well thought out.  We moored along the banks of the canal most nights, so we had to conserve water and batttey power.Our living room/dining room. Our kitchen was equipped with a refrigerator, cook top, and oven.  We ate all our breakfasts and several lunches and dinners on the boats.  We took advantage of a weekly market in one of the towns to get much of our provisions.

We spent most of the time on the top deck.  We had an umbrella for shade, but we had to take it down for the numerous low bridges.  We tried many strategies for handling the umbrella under the bridge, and this was by far the easiest.

By law in France, all boats must be equipped with holding tanks for waste.  Unfortunately, no pump out facilities are available along the canal, so all waste is pulverized and discharged directly into the canal.  Yuck!  I was shocked by this since I always think of Europe as being ahead of us environmentally.  Needless to say, we didn’t swim in the canal.  I also opted not to bring my line handling gloves home.

There were a number of aquaducts where the canal would pass over a stream or other obstacle.  This one at Beziers over a river is by far the longest.  If you look closely, you can see a long boat in the canal over the third arch from the left.
We are now in the Brussels airport bound for Vienna and what should be reliable wifi, so we will try to get caught up on the blog.  Accuweather has a yellow warning for heat in Vienna, so we will either be in a lot of museums or writing a lot of blogs in the afternoons.

The Canal du Midi

The Canal du Midi was constructed in the early seventeenth century under the orders of King Louis XIV.  At the time it was known as the Royal Canal and it gained its present name after the French Revolution.  Louis was at war with Spain and they were charging France a huge tax to sail around the Rock of Gibraltar.  He built the 150 mile long canal through southern France to avoid paying this tax.   The canal is about sixty five feet wide and six and a half feet deep.  It has 130 locks and was dug by shovel by 2000 French workers in ten years.  That seems like an incredible achievement to me.  I would not want to have been one of those 2000 workers!Portions of the canal are lined with plane trees as seen on the left bank. Unfortunately, many of the plane trees have died, necessitating 40,000 of them being cut down.  Many of these have been replaced recently with a different variety of tree.  We saw one section of the canal today where the new trees were being watered with a hose.  When I asked what was causing the trees to die, I was told it was a fungus from America.  After apologizing profusely, they said that pollution in the canal may also be contributing to the problem.There are a number of aquaducts along the canal.This is our boat moored for the night along the bank of the canal.There are a number of charming villages to explore along the canal.This group of buildings is painted on the perpendicular sides of two buildings.  What looks very three dimensional here is in reality two flat walls.  All the shadows and people are painted as well.  It was really amazing.

We are halfway through our journey.  The winds have been very strong the last two days which has made mooring challenging.  We are increasing our skill at going through the locks.  We will try to get some lock pictures, but we are pretty busy in the locks.  Other than wind, the weather has been great.

Return to Cassis 

Those of you with really good memories may remember that we visited Cassis during our transatlantic crossing last fall.  We loved the harbor with all the good seafood restaurants.  Cassis offers boat trips to visit the calanques which line the Mediterranean between Cassis and Marseille.  A calanque or creek is a narrow, steep walled inlet.  Unfortunately, last fall there was not time to take a boat tour of the calanques and we were not there at meal time.  We  immediately added both items to our bucket list and Thursday was the day to cross them both off our list.

When we visited in November last year it was a nice quiet town.  As you may guess, that was not the case in the middle of July.  We drove around for thirty minutes looking for a parking spot.  We finally found one on the street that was only a fifteen minute walk to the port.Susan is standing in front of our tour boat with the port in the background.The variety of pine trees on the walls are able to grow in the cracks between the rocks and require little water.These rocks looked like a stack of giant building blocks.  Kayaking in the Calanques is very popular.  You can see two kayakers at the end of the peninsula.  Following the boat ride we had an early dinner/late lunch at the port of dorado for Susan and sea bass for Bruce.  We both thought it was our best meal in France so far.

We have been doing a lot of driving, so on our last day in Provence we decided on a change in plans; and on the recommendation of a friend, we visited Staint Rémy-de-Provence.   This is of course the town where Van Gogh was hospitalized for one year during which time he painted 150 masterpieces.  That is almost a painting every two days! He was hospitalized in what is now the Monestery Saint-Paul de Mausole.  Their lavender was clearly past its prime.  By the way, with spending three years in Provence, did Van Gogh ever paint lavender fields?The courtyard of the monastery.Vincent’s bedroom.One of the treatments he received while hospitalized here was “shock bathing”.  Apparently the thinking was that immersion in cold water would somehow make you think clearly again.  He shot himself the year after he left the hospital.  He did most of his painting in the last four years of his life.  He created over 700 paintings.

Saint Remy is another beautiful French town with plane trees and classic architecture.This simple building was home to Nostradamus, the physician and seer who is famous for his many predictions.

Saturday we pick up our friends Lavonne and Daryll at the Marseille airport and drive to the beginning of our boat trip on the Canal du Midi.  Fortunately, our friends are experienced boaters and we are deck hands to help in the locks.  It should be quite an adventure; but unfortunately, we will not have wifi so you will most likely get a one week break from posts.  If so, we will pick up in Vienna with a summary of our canal trip.

Lost in Avignon

It had to happen sooner or later.  We are using our Garmin to navigate the roads and roundabouts of France.  Wednesday we decided to explore the city of Avignon.  The heart of the city is still surrounded by walls.  Within the walls are many crooked, narrow, primarily pedestrian streets.  On Tuesday, the Garmin decided it didn’t like the detail view of the route anymore and switched en route to a much broader view.  I found this image much harder to interpret which roundabout exit she wanted me to take.

Avignon is a pretty large city and the streets outside the wall are anything but straight.  Things seemed to be going pretty well until all of a sudden I found myself going through one of the gates of the wall.  I have been to Avignon previously, so I knew this was a bad thing.  Driving inside the wall was your basic nightmare.  The streets were filled with people, bikes, motorbikes, delivery trucks blocking streets to make a delivery, and cars coming toward you on streets so narrow there was no hope of passing.  The Garmin lady was having a fit recalculating, wanting me to make impossible turns from one narrow street to another narrow street, and going for long periods with no route shown.  It seemed to me I was going in circles with no idea which direction to go to get outside the walls – and as Susan will tell you, I really wanted to get outside those walls.

After thirty minutes of driving around like this, I finally stumbled onto a Main Street that led me quickly through one of the gates.  And my luck changed because I came immediately to a large parking lot with lots of spots in a convenient location.  I have never been so happy to get out of a car in my life!

July is Theater Month in Avignon with numerous plays, ballet, movies, opera, music, etc performances in various venues all over town for the entire month.  I am sure that didn’t help my driving problems.  There are probably over a dozen performances each day.Posters for the various shows were everywhere and half the people on the street seemed to be handing out performance ads to the other half of the people.  Thank goodness we arrived before the crowds were in the streets.A pope lived in Avignon from 1309 to 1403.  This is the Papal Palace where the pope resided.  One of the major sites is the Pont d’Avignon of nursery rhyme fame.  It was built in the late twelfth century and was originally 3000 feet long with 22 arches of which four arches survive today (The island on the right did not exist at the time).  Ice and severe flooding kept causing the arches to cave in.  After the last failure in 1668, the bridge was not rebuilt.

We have also visited Arles where Van Gogh lived and painted.  There are a number of easels in town at the sites where Van Gogh painted.  Thus, you can compare the painting with the way it looks today.  Rick of course has a walk to see all the easels, and that was our first activity.Susan is wearing her Van Gogh inspired dress.The bridge, the tree, and the car are new, but the arch over the street, the steps, and the river bank are unchanged.Arles also has a Roman amphitheater.

After Arles, we visited the hill town of Les Baux.  The hill is topped by the ruins of a castle that was built into the rocks.Rooms in the rock were created by cutting out blocks of rock.  These blocks were then used to build other structures such as the tower on the left.The castle had an exhibit of sculptures in the style of the Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo.The view from the castle was a patchwork of vineyards and olive trees.

You may notice a lot of blue sky in the pictures.  It makes for beautiful pictures, but is really hot.  We are getting home each night totally exhausted from the heat – but you can’t help loving Franch towns!

In Search of Lavender and Ochre

If you have ever heard me talk about Provence, you know how badly I have wanted to see the lavenders bloom there.  This yearning began with a screen saver that came with my Windows computer showing a field with rows of lavender in full bloom with a lone tree in the background.  I knew that we might be a little late for some of the fields, but I was hoping that there would still be some in full bloom.The Abbey Notre-Dame de Senanque is a landmark near where we are staying that is virtually surrounded by lavender fields.  Unfortunately, they seemed past there prime.  The abbey is still an active monastery.  We had asked at the tourist information office where we might find lavender blooming and he had suggested the hill town of Sault.  So off we went.Perhaps my favorite view was this one.  They don’t show up that well in the picture, but there is field after field of lavender in the background.  It was a beautiful patchwork of purple, green, and brown (harvested hay fields).Some of the lavender was not planted in rows and had some weeds poking up over the lavender.Other lavender fields were planted in neat rows and seemed weed free,  While I didn’t get a picture to match my screen saver, we saw some beautiful lavender fields.The hay fields weren’t too shabby either.

Ochre is an earth pigment with colors ranging from yellow, to orange, to brown and to red depending on the different iron compounds present in the soil.  Ochre cliffs are found near the hill town of Roussillon. The ochre trail took us by a number of ochre cliffs.

The buildings in Roussillon are various shades of ochre.And what better way to celebrate a wonderful day in Provence than with two scoops of lavender ice cream?

On To Provence

After two stress free weeks on the Viking Star cruising Scandinavia, we must sadly return to the real world.  This was our first time on Viking, and we were very pleased.  The food was excellent.  Every dinner required a tough choice between a number of entrees and appetizers I really wanted to try.  There was no choosing the lesser of the evils.  And all the meals ranged from good to excellent.  The service throughout the ship could not have been better.   To our complete surprise, we also liked most of the evening entertainment more than that on Celebrity.  We expected the much larger Celebrity ships would be able to afford better entertainment, but Viking catered more to our age bracket with songs we knew and singers that didn’t feel the need to scream.  The only worry in the world was getting back to the boat before it left the port.

Our trip to Provence started with a flight to Nice, France.  When we asked where we should check in for our flight, we were directed to a bank of automatic machines.  We soon were holding our baggage tags and boarding passes.  So far, nothing too unique.  Everyone else was putting the tag on their bags, so we did the same.  We then went to the baggage drop, and found a conveyor that was standing still.  We put our bag on the conveyor and scanned the tag we had just attached.  The conveyor started, transferred the bag to the collecting conveyor, and stopped for the next customer.  We had checked in without interacting with another human being.  Wait until Spirit finds out you can do that!

Our plane got into Nice a few minutes early and everything seemed to be going well for meeting our apartment owner to get the keys.  However, Nice is on the French Riviera and it appeared all the families in Europe were going there for summer vacation.  The airport was chaos with children running everywhere.  It took 45 minutes to get our bags.  Then there was the task of getting the rental car which involved a shuttle bus to another terminal and a long walk in the heat lugging our suitcases to find the poorly marked rental car center.  We arrived soaked in perspiration to find a large room full of people in an assortment of lines.  One woman who was in the middle of the longest line claimed to have been in line for two hours!  We had already checked in painlessly at the first terminal, so we only had to find a Hertz guy to give us our key.  I managed to achieve that without standing in any lines, but we did have to stand in line for the elevator to take us to the floor where our car was parked.  Then we had to learn the quirks of a new car.  Our biggest challenge was opening the trunk.  We were finally able to get some lunch about 4 PM and we arrived at our destination only a little over an hour late.

Our apartment is located right in the center of L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue.  It is known as the Venice of France as the Sorgue River splits into many canals running through the town.Our apartment is in the heart of the historic area of town behind a big plane tree and next to an antique store.  Better yet, it is one door from a bakery!  We like everything about the apartment except the stairs.  It is on the European second floor which would be our third floor since their ground floor is zero.  It has narrow steep winding stairs.Let me introduce you to the main intersection of our stair system.  Straight ahead are the stairs winding down to the ground.  To the left is the shower and wash basin.  Note that the floor at this door is fraught with peril.  To the far right are the steps up to our bedroom.  And finally on the right, taking off from the bedroom steps are the steps up to the only toilet.  We have both pledged never to use the steps without holding on to the handrail and to always turn the light on if we go to the toilet in the night!  We woke this morning to find the largest market in Provence beneath our window (this was not a surprise). It stretched throughout the town and had anything you could ever want for sale.  This is a big town for antique stores and one long street had nothing but antique booths.The market even featured two classical cello players beside our front door.  We opened our window so we could enjoy the music.The town still has fifteen water wheels on the canals (down from 44 originally).  We did the water wheel walk this afternoon.  Some of them still turn, but most of them do not.  We are finding it to be another charming French town.

Helsinki, Stockholm, and Onward

This was our first visit to Finland where life seems to be all about the sauna.  They estimate there is one sauna in Finland for every two people.  Most homes and apartments have one.  There is even a ferris wheel in downtown Helsinki where two of the cars are saunas!This is a monument to Finland’s number one composer, Jean Sibelius.The Church in the Rock is one of the most popular sites in Finland.  The church was constructed by blasting a hole in solid granite.  The roof is a coil made from a thirteen mile strip of copper.The Cathedral in the historic area of Helsinki.

The final stop on our cruise was Stockholm, which we both loved.  The city is filled with beautiful, old buildings.  Because Sweden remained neutral in the World Wars, the buildings are mostly original.The old town from the water front.The queen of Sweden celebrated her birthday on Friday, and people are beginning to line up in front of the Royal Palace for the parade in her honor.One of the many squares in the old town.

The Vasa was a powerful warship ordered to be built by the Swedish king both to assist in expanding his territory and to impress the home folk.  It was one of the largest ships at sea when it was built nearly four hundred years ago.  It had rows of cannons located on two levels. Unusual for the time, all the cannons were built uniformly so any cannonball could fit in any cannon.  The ship was lavishly decorated with more than five hundred sculptures scattered around the ship.

The Vasa had its grand launching in Stockholm in 1628 with all the cannons deployed to impress the people watching from the shore.  The two levels of canons and the sleek narrow design made the ship very top heavy.  The ship sank forty minutes into its maiden voyage.  A gust of wind caught the sails and caused the ship to lean to the portside.  The clearance between the water level and the bottom of the holes for the lower row of cannons was only four feet.  Water started to fill the ship through these holes.  Because of the tilt, the crew was unable to pull the heavy cannons back and close the covers.  The ship sank in fifteen minutes killing 30 of the 150 member crew.  The death rate was low because it was close to shore and the water was shallow so the masts were above water so survivors could hold onto the rigging until they were rescued.

The ship sat there forgotten until it was raised in 1961.  Preservation of the Vasa required keeping the wood continuously wet with polyethylene glycol for years.  In 1990, it was moved to a large museum where it is one of the must see sights in Stockholm.  The ship was well preserved in the bottom of the Baltic so 98% of the wood we see today is original.  The preservation is ongoing with rusty iron bolts being replaced with stainless steel.The lion bow of the ship.It was hard to get a good overall view of the ship.  The lighting was quite dim.  I presume this is to protect the ship.This shows the two rows of openings for the cannons with the hatches open as they were when it sank.This is the top of the elaborate stern of the ship.

We are now in our apartment in L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue in Provence.  It wasn’t easy getting here, but more about that in the next blog.

St. Petersburg, Russia

We visited St. Petersburg previously on the same trip that took us to Tallin, Estonia.  Since we visited the most popular attractions previously, we focused on some of less visited attractions this trip.  If you visit Russia without a visa in your passport, you can only go ashore on an authorized excursion.  Since the visa form was onerous and cost as much as taking several shore excursions, we decided not to get one and to take four shore excursions offered by Viking.  You have to go through Russian immigration every time you leave and return to the ship.  The challenge presented to us was to get the immigration officer to smile at us.  I am proud to say that I achieved this three of the eight times!

Also, Susan and I want to state clearly for the record, that while we did talk to Russians here, we never discussed anything related to any election campaign in any country!

Our first tour was to the Hermitage, which we had visited previously; but this tour also included the gold room, which we had not seen.  The Hermitage consists of five buildings, one of which is the former Winter Palace.  The Hermitage has over three million objects to view.The throne room in the Winter Palace.

The next excursion was to the Fabergé Museum and its collection of about ten Fabergé eggs as well as other pieces by Fabergé and other artists.Fabergé went from this simple gold egg painted white with a gold yoke inside to……elaborate eggs such as this one which included a clock.  Many of his eggs also included a “surprise” inside.The Museum had a collection of Russian icons painted on wood and then framed and partially covered in gold.

Viking includes one tour in each port free of additional charge.  In St. Petersburg this was a bus trip with stops at some of the most famous sights.Saint Isaac’s Cathedral.  The top coupola is apparently under repair.

The colorful and elaborate Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.   The name comes from the fact that it was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated.St. Petersburg is filled with monumental, old buildings.  This one is relatively small but I love the color.

Our final tour was to Yusupov Palace.  The Yusupovs were the second wealthiest family in Russia after the royal family.  But the story of the palace is the story of Rasputin and Tsar Nicholas II.  Rasputin was a mystic and self proclaimed holy man.  The Tsar had a child who was a hemophiliac.  Rasputin befriended the Tsar and his wife and convinced them to stop the medical treatments for their son and allow him to treat the child with his teas and potions.   The child began to improve immediately, thus giving Rasputin great influence over the Tsar and particularly over his wife.  In reality, the doctors regimen for treating the child included aspirin, so naturally he improved when the aspirin stopped.

Rasputin was soon using his influence with the royal couple to effectively run the country.  Prince Felix Yusupov and other nobles in the court decided that Rasputin must be eliminated.  Felix invited Rasputin to Yusupov Palace and tried to kill him with wine and cookies laced with cyanide.  None of these seemed to have any effect and there is some evidence the powder they obtained as cyanide was not really cyanide.  Finally, Felix says he shot Rasputin twice in the chest and left him for dead for several hours.  When he returned to confirm his death, Rasputin tried to choke him and ran out of the palace.  In the courtyard of the palace, another nobleman shot him in the head.  They wrapped him in a blanket and dropped his body from a bridge into the nearby canal.  There are a number of versions of the story from there but it appears he ended up in the water under the ice and may still have been alive when he went underwater.  Suffice it to say he didn’t die easily.  Felix left Russia and was never tried for the killing.The basement of the palace had some exhibits related to the killing of Rasputin (on the right).The Yusupovs had their own theater in the palace.  There were box seats on the second floor.A magnificent inlaid wood floor in one of the parlors.The blue parlor.The outside of the palace was nothing special.

We enjoyed our second visit to St. Petersburg.  The only place that felt uncomfortably crowded was the Hermitage and we were able to get in there an hour before it officially opened so it was essentially all ours for one hour.

The Problem with Tallin

We first visited Tallin, Estonia about six years ago on a land tour with Odysseys Unlimited.  At the time we thought the town was overcrowded with cruise ship passengers.  This time we arrived on a cruise ship ourselves and the crowding has only gotten worse.  There were six ships in port and we estimated there were over 10,000 passengers on these ships.  All of these cruise ships arrive in the morning and have their shore excursions in the morning.  Tallin is a small city and the city felt totally overcrowded with tour group after tour group competing for spots at the overlooks and to pass in the streets.  I have read that some cities such as Venice are limiting the number of tourists in a day so as not to destroy the appeal of the city.  In my view, Tallin needs to take similar steps.  I also think the cruise companies should work together to coordinate the port visits to prevent overcrowding in smaller ports.  I know they do this in Antarctica, so I think they can also do it elsewhere in the world.  Editorial  mostly over.  Here are a few pictures of Tallin.This is the main town square about noon time.  I would guess that the only locals here are the tour guides.By 2:00, the square is considerably less crowded and much more appealing.

The Russian Orthodox Church.Part of the original town wall.A view of the lower town from the upper town.This seagull came to visit Ron and I while we were sitting on a wall while the girls shopped.  I really like the red circle around its eye.

A street Scene after most of the cruise ship tours have gone back to the ship.  Gdansk was also crowded, but it seemed crowded with locals which I find perfectly acceptable.

Gdansk Poland

Gdansk has played an important and complicated role in the history of Poland and Germany.  At various times it has been part of both countries as well as an independent city-state.  World War II started here when Hitler decided to take Gdansk back into Germany.  It also was instrumental in the downfall of the Soviet Union with the strikes led by Lech Walensa at the Gadansk shipyard.  Between attacks by Germany in capturing it and Russia and the US and its allies in retaking it, the city was virtually destroyed in WW II.   There were three ideas for rebuilding: leave it in ruins as a reminder of the consequences of war, rebuild as a modern city, or rebuild in the traditional style.  Fortunately, they decided to rebuild in the traditional style with any hint of Germanic architecture removed.  The result is block after block of one of the most charming towns I have seen in Europe.Gdansk lies at the mouth of the Matlawa River.  The tall building with the red roof at the far right is a medieval crane for loading and unloading ships.  The crane had a lift capacity of up to four tons.  And how was this old crane powered?By men climbing steps in two giant hamster wheels!The streets were filled with people and most of them appeared to be locals. 

The real estate taxes are based on the street frontage, so buildings tended to be narrow, tall, and deep.  There were numerous decoration styles on the front of the buildings.

The tall building with the tower is the city hall.This building was formerly an armory.I liked the whimsical water spouts.Our guide called this the prettiest street in Gdansk.   The street was lined with jewelry shops selling amber.  We were completely charmed by Gdansk and have added it to the list of places we would like to return.