Monday, April 23, 2012

Day 24 - Musee de l'Orangerie; Les Arts Decoratifs; Musee du Louvre; Dinner at Le Jules Verne

Thursday 19th April 2012
Right. We’re quite determined not to let today drift away like yesterday.  We’re up bright and early and out the door at 10:20 or thereabouts;  Another walk across the Seine to pick up the no 24 bus and alight further along at Pont du Caroussel.  The Louvre is right in front of us, an imposing and elaborate façade. We stop to play tourist extracting the camera from “our” manbag.  Yes, hubby has found the manbag sufficiently useful for it to graduate from being my bag that he is carrying, to being “our manbag”.  I’m waiting for the day when he’s prepared to say it is his.
As we approach the gateway into the Louvre forecourt, we are approached by dark young women bearing clipboards.  As we have been forewarned about the various scams going on the streets of the city, now that we see these predictable villains it is actually quite amusing.  Just another of the city sights of Paris.  After a few moments I realize I’m wearing a beaming smile and this is not an appropriate Parisian attitude. I try to adopt the appropriately discouraging scowl but am not actually successful and am just getting more amused by the second.  Not to worry. My amused and scornful expression seems to have served just as well as anger and resentment.  We pass through the first wave assault unscathed and pass through the huge gateway arches into the central courtyard where the entrance is located.
Here we find a new wave of greeters.  Africans. At least this is what they have been referred to as at the show last night.  These enterprising fellows congregate in flocks who greet you enthusiastically as you enter the square, hawking little Eiffel tower souvenirs which they carry like musical instruments strung onto loops of wire. The loops of souvenirs are jingle jangled to get your attention: three of the smaller size for a euro. If you prefer to look not quite so much of a cheapskate to the recipients at home, you could opt for the bigger ones that are three for 5 euros.  Visiting the Louvre is getting more amusing by the minute.  Beyond the percussion section there’s a couple of guys with a bucket full of bottles of water. One euro each.  Pretty good deal really.  There’s the hat trick.  I have to say I was disappointed not to have someone try the ring trick, but three of the predicted scam traps in a small area was a reasonable average for the morning’s Parisian experiences :o)
There is a moderate queue standing outside the Louvre but it’s a fine day at last and we and we suspect other people are more in the mood to do the outdoor stuff while the weather is good. We decide to walk down through the Tuileries to the Musee de L’Orangerie and see what is doing there.
The start of the gardens is marked by another large entrance archway where some horses and stray gold leaf have been employed artfully.
The Tuileries is a formal garden in a French style.. well I think of it as French anyway.  Basically long rows of heavily hedged trees and a central path of coarse sand.  It’s not a flower garden though there are sections where there flower beds. Short trees covered in pinky-purple flowers attract our attention.  Judas Trees?  We had a baby one in our garden until our redevelopment project. These specimens in the Tuileries are looking beautiful and I point out what they are to hubby. The only other place I've seen large specimens is in far western NSW. Judas Trees are very drought tolerant.

The major feature of the Tuileries is a long avenue for strolling, the sensual grind of course sand beneath your feet. clipped horse chestnut trees line your way, with a beautiful spring display of flower candelabras
Here and there are found statues.  I particularly liked the fat chick in the buff hiding discretely in a nearby green room. Her hips and bottom are large. Her breasts are large, are arms quite muscular. Her head is small.  Too small.  Perhaps simply exposing the sculptors biases.
There are several cafes in the Tuileries tucked away behind a large expanse of tables under flowering horse chestnut trees.  On a warmer day they would be a lovely spot to sit and people watch.  For those on the go there are a couple other vendors also. At this time of the day we fall into the latter category.  We’ve skipped brekkie so we stop at Paul’s to sample. Ever health conscious, this is achieved by the selection of a Pain au chocolate and an apple turnover.  Of course the apple turnover was named some fancy French terminology, but it was an apple turnover.  A very good apple turnover with not too sweet apple and delicate flaky pastry.
We arrive down at the Musee de L’Orangerie. From here in the gardens we cannot see a queue.  We wander up the stairs past the Reclinging Figure by Henry Moore and around the building looking for the entrance. Past a man who has put a chair in a small sun trap at the end of the building and is soaking up the warmth of the rays… and another who has a chair in a quiet spot and is intent on the phone.   There’s a small queue, nothing alarming. There’s also a priority entrance line with no queue where we can use our museum pass so that is all going very well. The first attraction is the Nymphae series by Monet the entrance to which is in front of you.  We’ve seen some examples of Monet’s waterlilies in Galleries at home. Pppffff!! I say in my best Parisian.  The ones at home must be the rejects.  Here at the L’Orangerie are two oval rooms both seemingly purpose built to house these particular masterpieces.  MASTERPIECES. We walk through a doorway and into the centre of a pond.  It is quieter here than in the sacred spaces of Sainte Chapelle. Noone speaks. They mostly sit in the centre of the pond where a bespoke oval bank sits inviting you to ponder. Golden reflections; dark shadows; clouds in a blue sky; lily pads and flowers.
Through a doorway we breathe deep as we step into a larger pond.  Pendulus leaves dangle to water caressing clouds; A frond passes over the clouds to tickle lily pads. I can almost see the tendrils swaying ever so slightly in a gentle zephyr.  The silence deepens. We join in reverent contemplation with the congregation.  We emerge and only then can we turn to each other at first speechless.  It needs no words, but I exclaim them in any case.  Oh my god. So THAT is Monet’s waterlilies!  Dear reader: disregard what you may have seen in travelling exhibitions or local collections. If you haven’t been to the Musee de L’Orangerie you have not seen Monet’s waterlilies!
Having started with a high we wander downstairs to check out what else is displayed here.  There’s nothing else than can compete, though I note a couple of artists to look up later… Maurice Utrillo and Henri-Edmond Cross… and I rather enjoyed a pastel by Henri Fantin-Latour called Les Filles du Rhin and another by Degas.  We wander into a darkened area that is a temporary exhibition about Debussy.  As I enter I over hear a nasal twang: “I thought Debussy was a composer.”  Filled with a thousand overwhelming sites over the past weeks, and finding that searching for English versions of the information displayed is rather tedious, my brain rebels at the suggestion of any really detailed consideration of what the exhibition is trying to convey. I walk out with some sort of vague feeling that Debussy was some how or other in the picture in terms of the evolution of art nouveau…we’re nearly in the clear when I notice that the exhibition includes one of, or should that be “the” Japanese wave. If you put me on a rack in the tower I would not be able to tell you the artist or the name, but it’s a very famous wave image.. I go back in to have a closer look.  I peer closely.  There seems to be a strange checked pattern all over everything.  What the?  The artifacts in this area of the exhibition, focusing on the art nouveau side of things apparently, have been positioned on a raised dias which curves and flows around the wall.  An angular display would just be wrong of course. However to provide an economical means of protecting the pieces from the hoards they have strung a tight mesh from floor to ceiling so you can’t really see the object as you would like.  We’re in and out of Musee de Orangerie in 40 minutes.
A brief consultation on strategy results in a decision to head to greener pastures: specifically we shall pay a visit to celebrate the birthday of that nattily green clad pachyderm – Babar.   Le Arts Decoratifs is located somewhere along Rue de Rivoli, so we will head across there, and wander down the rue towards the Louvre and see how we go. As we leave the Tuileries we need to climb up a flight of stairs which provides a lovely angle on the gardens nearby and views across to the Eiffel Tower.
Rue de Rivoli had escaped my consciousness in terms of visitor sights but they mentioned it at the show the other night as some sort of shopping avenue.  We find that it is quite upmarket with a swanky hotel, eateries, fashion outlets and the occasional souvenir store. Hubby cracks up as we pass one of the eateries.  “haha did you see that waiter?  He’s exactly as described in the show.. haha”.  How to Become Parisian in One Hour has provided an additional prism through which to interpret our experiences.  We continue along and note that up one of the side streets we look up towards the Place Vendome is a column much like the roman columns that we saw plaster versions of in the V &A. The resemblance is not surprising as the Vendome column is a victory column erected by Napolean and modeled after the Trajan victory column in Rome.
In due course we come to the entrance to Les Arts Decoratifs, wave our Museum Pass and wander in armed with the leaflet on the Babar exhibition and a map.  The museum is located in a section of the Louvre and can be accessed from the Rue de Rivoli or from the large forecourt area where you also gain access to the Musee du Louvre. It appears to be a French version of the V&A. From the brief exploration we did other than the Babar exhibition, it also appears to be not very accessible to the non-French speaker for purposes other than to wander about and look at a range of high quality objects.  We find our way to the Babar exhibition and watch an interesting little video of an interview with the author/illustrator or rather, one of the author illustrators.  Babar was conceived by this elderly man’s mother, and then his father, who was an artist, picked Babar up and ran with him, passing the book to his brothers. Happily the family were publishers and of course Babar has been loved the world over ever since, including by me, obviously. The original author died very young. TB was the villain and it’s victim in this case only 37 years old. Fast forward and in his early adulthood one of the little boys whose parents had conceived the books decided to become an artist himself. Where better to start than with Babar.  He has been documenting the adventures of Babar and his family ever since.
Besides the video there are Babar artifacts. Toys (including an awesome Babar railway set that would be great for the kids about 6 years or under), original art works and design pages for the various books. Most information is in French.  There’s a little information in English on the leaflet. I have enjoyed learning a bit more about Babar, but the exhibition doesn’t take long at all and we’re emerging back into the Tuileries after half an hour forgetting to go by the gift shop and see what Babar merchandise they might have on sale.  Oops. Perhaps just as well as there is limited space remaining in our luggage for souvenirs and what is left is reserved for some specific things we need to look for back in England.
It’s 1.20 when we emerge back into the Tuileries where there are a lot of children playing.  Time for a quick look at the Musee du Louvre.  There is only a fairly short queue lining up but again we can use the priority queue and skip ahead to the front of the line. At this point you need to merge with the queue to go through security. This is just a bag search and a screening thingy you walk through. A young Asian girl is taking photographs of the glass pyramid and the view across to the façade of the palace.  Down a couple of flights of escalator and we’re in the hub of the museum examining our map deciding what to see.  Hubby expresses a view that I rather suspect is shared by most visitors.  You can’t visit the Musee du Louvre without seeing the Mona Lisa.  It would be hard to get less interested in the Mona Lisa than I am but I am rather curious to see the crowds of people who assemble to worship at this small, but infinitely famous painting. 
A bit of a false start as we head to the wrong escalator, but in due course we find our way up a marble staircase of imposing proportions, filled with light and minimal decoration into the Denon wing. I make a spectacle of myself as alone among visitors I stop to capture the scene. Here we find wall after wall of masterpieces that I do not recognize but which are clearly magnificently executed.  We miss having a human guide. We’ve been spoiled by our London Walks tours of the London instutions.  We have opted not to get the audio guide as we are just not in the mood for it. We both struggle with audio guides everything seems tedious when presented in that format.
Looking at the map, we have to do a reasonable tour of the galleries in this wing to get to where we are going.  There is one stand out painting for me in our Louvre wanderings. I stop dead in front of magnificent painting of a young girl clearly about to be executed.  The emotion captured in her expression and posture and the luster of her beautiful complexion and hair convey better than anything else I’ve seen or heard, the youth and tragedy of the event. Towards the edge of the painting a woman is prostrate in grief; the axeman awaits.  I look for a label:  The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche. This painting was formerly in the National Gallery in London, but was apparently at one stage declared destroyed.  Clearly someone has managed to restore it.  No explanation is provided for what it is doing in the Louvre today. I add an underline to my existing mental note that we must visit the National Gallery next time we’re in London.. and take the London walk to do so.
Fine as the multitude of art works are, they are easily matched by the space in which they are displayed.  Fine corridors and large rooms with elaborately decorated ceilings.  It’s hard to conceive of the skill that must be required to achieve such effects.  Stucco statues abound.  Beautifully painted ceilings which to my eye seem more technically proficient than the Verrio ceilings we’ve seen elsewhere.  The setting is truly a star of the show in it’s own right.  
We have been following signage to the Mona Lisa.  Distracted by the sights around us we overshoot a turn.. Double back and finally there is a steady stream of people coming in the opposite direction.  We must be getting close.  Our last sign indicates that the Mona Lisa and the… hmm.. the feast of something or other… (I guess that betrays my level of interest in that one).. are in the same room.  Just into this doorway.  And there it is. There is the pack.  We stand to the back and can see a good deal of the painting.. if we could be bothered.  Hubby makes the predictable comment about how small the painting seems.  It is dwarfed by the setting.  I move away to get an overall shot of the room.  Is there a prohibition on photographs?  You certainly wouldn’t think so in the Mona Lisa room.  We have a little chuckle at the mania on display before us.  A mania I don’t expect I will ever understand. 
OK.  That’s done. What next?  How about a comfort stop and remove some thermals. I’ve dressed for the weather yesterday and today is warmer. I’m dying in this get up.  I locate the ladie’s toilets and woah.. There’s a bigger queue here than to get in to the musee!  I’ll just have to suffer.
Lets go to the medieval section and see the remains of the original fortifications.  We need to return to the hub and head across to the other wing. Map is hard to interpret. We ask for directions when we’ve clearly gone the wrong way.  Entering this other section away from the hub we come to more bathroom facilities.  Maybe here.. woah.. even longer queues here than in the hub.  No, I don’t think I need to queue.
The ramparts. For some of the way there is a steady stream of visitors.  It’s pretty awesome. We’re amazed that it survives in such an intact state.  The further we go into the medieval section the fewer people follow and eventually we find ourselves alone in a dark corner.  Right she says.  Hold this. I’m going to just duck behind this thick column and remove a layer.  This is just completed and we’re organized when a new group of people enter.  Phew. But I’m much more comfortable now. Thank goodness.
We’ve really enjoyed the medieval section and it inspires me to have a brief look at the history of the Louvre galleries that we passed on our way in.  This is well worth a look and contains a series of topographical wall mounted models showing how the Louvre and the Tuileries looked at various key points in history.
We’re done with the Louvre for a first reccie. It’s 2.55 when we emerge so about an hour and a half has been spent exploring in the Louvre. We need some lunch and we have a late dinner reservation tonight that we want to be fresh for, so we head home via the Ble Sucre boulangerie/patisserie for a rest and journaling.
It is 8:20 when we re-emerge and head for the no 87 bus to Champ du Mars from the bus stop up on Rue de Lyon near Bastille. Night is falling as we arrive at the Tour Eiffel bang on 9 oclock and admire the show as the tower “goes off”.  On the hour for 5 minutes the golden lit tower sparkles with an additional layer of white lights. It is simply spectacular.  The bus stop is close by the tower. Much closer than I expected.  The walk feels even closer as all the way we marvel at the marvelous landmark that has come to symbolize the city of love and lights.
The entry to Le Jules Verne is at clearly marked.  As we climb the few stairs we are greeted by a team of friendly, English speaking staff who are clearly expecting us and know who we are.  We are escorted up to the restaurant in the lift and again greeted by a team of friendly and courteous people.  We booked a fair while ago and have been allocated a window seat.  Fantastic!   
The structure of the tower passes across the window enough to really feel where you are, but not such that it significantly blocks our view.  The tower really feels like a presence in our dining.  The view across Paris to the Trocadero and the Arc de Triomphe twinkles.  I suggest that this would be an awesome place to propose to someone.  “yeah. If you want them to ignore you all night to stare at the view.”  He’s right. We both can’t take our eyes of the view. Off the steel beams that make up the tower.
Our maitre d is brilliant. He’s friendly and shares a joke with us. We feel perfectly comfortable.  Our first tasty delicacy is a little bowl of warm cheese puffs. Tender and delectable. We order or meals and drinks.  Disappoint the sommelier. Hubby will have a beer thanks 1664.  He enjoys it. Of course. He hasn’t had a dud beer in the whole trip.  I order.. you ‘ll never guess what I choose.  Still water?  Of course.
You are not deprived of food at Le Jules Verne.  Next delivery is a basket of crusty bread. Too crusty for my taste, but hubby enjoys it.  An appetizer follows.  The description is rattled off more quickly than my ability to retain it, but it was something or other marmalade.  Basically it was like a sort of avocado mousse, with fresh green peas, sitting on a layer of orange puree and topped with some sort of foam and sprinkled with nuts and tiny, perfectly cubed croutons. Delicious.
I have an uncanny knack of choosing the most expensive things and it does not fail me now in my choice of Entrée.  Roasted Dublin Bay prawns (ie Langoustines / Scampi), truffled macedoine and coral dressing. Perfect. These little crustaceans are usually ruined. These were perfectly cooked. Perfectly. Tender, tasty and delicious. Good choice. They tasted even better because I had not noticed they cost 88 Euros!  Hubby started with Crab claws and gold caviar, marinated crunchy turnips.  So far we are even.
At 10pm the tower “goes off” and the lights flicker and sparkle creating fantastic light and shadow show on the walls of the restaurant.  Le Jules Verne is a special place to dine at night. Very special.
What am I up against in the main course?  Hubby has opted for Pan-seared beef tournedos, fresh duck fois gras, souffleed potatoes, Perigueux sauce.  He loves it. It comes with potatoes that have been made to bubble out into little potato balloons.
I have tried to steal hubby’s usual strategy by ordering the duck.  This time it’s Duckling fricassee, buttered cabbage reduction with cider. It’s delicious but very very rich and a very large serving.  More than I can eat all at once, which provides a windfall for hubby.
We’re obliged to play the decider.  Hubby’s choice blows me out of the water.  He’s trying a new approach too and has choses Wild strawberry and mango contemporary vacherin.  I have to say it’s what I wanted to order but I figured someone had to try the Fully chocolate soufflé.  The soufflé was very chocolately. Very light. Very nice.  Hubby’s contemporary vacherin was superb. A clear winner.
It’s beyond 11 oclock when we tear ourselves away, claim our checked coats and offer a sincere merci for the complimentary pack of madeleines and a fabulous evening out.  We have a laugh in the lift with a group of North American’s who have invited us to hop in their already crowded lift.  A couple of us don’t like heights.  We give mutual exclamations of satisfaction that the number of people is great because we can’t see that we’re up in the air.  The lift has a set up where you can see all around and below you very well.  Not my style. Makes my skin crawl. I don’t like heights.
We are out on the street.  How to get home. Too late for the bus back the way we came. We wander around and along the streets looking for a taxi.  Cabs showing a red, not for hire, light are plentiful.  We reach a taxi rank and decide perhaps we should wait there.  Cab drivers in red cabs passing by peer at us intently as they pass, but no sight of a cab turning up.  Green cabs. We come to a little neighbourhood bistro which has patrons gradually filtering out. A couple of them have green cabs pull up and they hop in.  Hmm. We really need to ring for a cab.  Hubby wanders over to ask at the bistrot about it and they tell him to in their best Parisian to wait at the taxi rank.  A cab will see them and stop there.  We wait a while. Our heads full of the impossibility of getting a cab in Paris (from the tutorial in the show the other night as to how to behave like a Parisian when the 5th cab doesn’t stop)… we’re not feeling very smug or well prepared just at the moment.  After a while we decide we will start to walk.  We've not gone far when hubby crosses the road to check out the routes on another bus stop.  I begin to suspect he’s becoming obsessed with bus travel.  And then a miracle.  A green light cab.  Hubby calls me over from the other side of the road.  At 1 AM and thirteen euros later we’re walking in through a total of four locked doors on a bit of a high.  That was a lucky escape from a long walk.  As we travelled past the Tuileries we see one of the couples we’d been joking with in the lift.  The woman is in high heels. She looks very foot sore and is limping slightly. They’ve walked a long way. Ouch.  Of course we realize now that we should have had the restaurant call us a cab.  Hubby saw the signs in the restaurant but being the eternal optimist hadn’t accepted that we couldn’t necessarily just pick up a cab when we’d finished enjoying a walk around.  We just weren’t thinking when we were leaving.  Despite the issues getting home we had a great night.  Dining at Le Jules Verne was a wonderful way to experience the Eiffel Tower.. but it is pricey. Our bill including a couple of beers and me on water was slightly more than 400 Euros.
Getting home so late has a distinct advantage when I realise that it is now the 20th April in Sydney and a civilised time in the morning.  I spend about an hour talking to mum and wishing her a happy birthday. 76 today. Lights out at 2.20 for me 2.40 for Hubby.

Day 23 - Sainte-Chapelle, Conciergerie, Vedettes du Pont Neuf, How to Become Parisian in One Hour

Wednesday 18th April 2012
The manifesto has a detailed and lengthy day of potential activities listed but I let hubby sleep until 9 oclock.  He's edging on sick and I sure don't wanting him getting any worse. I may have mentioned the manifesto before.  This is the name of our itinerary masterplan. It is ridiculously lengthy.  It is packed with hints and maps and transport details. It started at something like 60 pages with an even thicker wad of supporting documentation that has been getting progressively lighter as the trip progresses.  It is the sort of thing that you show to the family and they roll their eyes and laugh.
On a long trip, domestic concerns will persist in raising their ugly head.  Hubby is concerned about the need to wash his socks.  He wants to visit the Laundromat.  He’s checked our information book at our apartment and he’s all set to go. We loiter showering and so on and head out into the cold wet day at about 10:45. There is nothing inviting about this weather.
We struggle with the map but eventually find our target laundromat. It is not manned. The guy sitting in the corner by the door looks more like a homeless person keeping warm than an employee.  Obviously the idea that perhaps we can leave a “bag wash” to pick up later is not a goer.  We decide we’ll just wash the socks and undies in the shower ….now we think about it that is what our well travelled friend suggested we do!
Next target destination: the “real” boulangerie.  The map gymnastics resume. Perhaps they should instigate an Olympic event.  Something like that gymnastics one where the lovely nimble young girls leap and somersault while keeping the ribbon going in graceful spirals. We might need to make the event more inclusive.  Young. Nimble. Hmm.  We find ourselves at the intersection of two major roads that we can easily identify.  Now, if only we could figure out which direction is which.  We’re spinning the map like a game show wheel and bearing perplexed expressions.  Within the space of a few minutes two kind ladies who speak no English try to help us.  The second of the two is able to clearly communicate which direction is “Bastille” and which is “Nationale”.  Merci. Oh Merci! I say with a beaming smile.  We are finding Parisian people to be very patient and gracious.
With our orientation problem solved we quickly locate the bakery we visited yesterday and from there it is just around in the next street to our destination.  The boulangerie is a gorgeous shop and very busy.  We wave people through ahead of us in the line while we figure out what we want.  Two croissant is easy. 4 of these things in the basket that are like light as air choux puffs with a sweet dusting on the top.  A brioche with peel in it.  Not like any peel I’ve ever had before. This is lovely and the brioche is fresh and cake soft.  We’re after a small loaf of white bread like yesterday and don’t see anything likely. Most here looks very crusty.  I really don’t like crusty bread. We decide we’ll head back to the other place and get another little loaf from there. .. Hubby takes the opportunity to try a baba au rhum.  Too au rhum for me I’m afraid.  We have a show tonight so rather than eat out we’ve decided to eat in. For dessert we can’t resist a little tiramisu and a something or other Melba.  Then it’s back to the grocery store to get a few items including some salmon to have with the bread and crème fraiche for dinner.  Done. 
I leave hubby to it and head upstairs to our apartment to unload the many bags we’ve been accumulating.  Poor Man.  There’s a big queue forming in the market as he tests Parisian patience by failing to weigh and put a sticker on the banana.  He races back to weigh the banana and rushes back to the checkout and completes the transaction.  Glad that’s over. How embarrassing! Back at the apartment he walks in with the comment. “That was a disaster” and goes on to relate his tale of woe.  He starts unpacking the groceries.  No banana.  All that and no banana. Oh dear. He figures they’ve got it there labeled with an instruction “if anyone comes to claim this banana ban them from the shop!”
We take a leisurely brunch and eventually I’m caressing the handrail of the beautiful staircase on my way to put my shoes on and heat out into Paris. It is so cold. We’ve finally been driven to donning our thermal underwear, so we’re mostly nice and toasty warm in spite of the weather.  However our faces and lips are cold.  I think to myself that I must adopt the Parisian fashion of wearing a scarf stylishly draped around my neck.
We retrace our steps of last evening and walk across the Seine to the no 24 bus stop and again alight near Notre Dame. It’s even colder here. We head along the island and before long I notice signs directing us to Sainte Chapelle. There are lots of tourists about.  Some people I think may be locals are walking ahead of us. They are dressed well. Oroton umbrellas.  Nope. I hear them speak later. Turns out they are an Australian family.  The queue is long and it is raining but there is nothing else for it. I line up. Hubby follows. “What are you doing?”  “Lining up.”  I’m afraid it is something of family trait to both ask and answer with the bleeding obvious.  Many in the queue have umbrellas and generally people stand fairly close to the people in front. It helps keep us protected and warm.  The rain drips down over the arms of my raincoat keeping my handbag mostly dry.  We’re standing outside some black gates embellished with gold.  It would make a nice photograph, but it’s too wet. I don’t want to get the camera out in this.
I’m getting quite good at this queuing caper and am finding I am tolerating it fairly well.  After 50 minutes wait we’re stripping.  Coats, bags, metal objects. It’s an X-ray security set up here, but we know the drill and the police manning the security check do not have to issue instructions to anyone.  Beyond security there’s no more queuing. We walk through a courtyard with construction hoarding and around a corner where we show our museum pass, then it’s in the door. At Sainte Chapelle you first enter an adjoining space where the ceiling is painted in rich dark blue accented in gold with fleur de lys.  It is nothing short of spectacular. I remind myself to breathe.  Bloody Puritans.  I guess the ceilings in England would have made a somewhat similar impact before the paintings were scrubbed off in cathedrals across the land.
There is a large sign immediately in front of the doors. “SILENCE”.  People are talking, but in hushed tones.  There is a man sitting over to the side reading a newspaper.  His job is to periodically say  “SHHHH Merci” when the visitors get too noisy.  I love this man and I love the people who pay him. 
We head upstairs via a narrow stone spiral staircase.  It’s a shorter staircase than I am expecting and we emerge into a glorious confection of stained glass.  The colour is vibrant. Rich red and blue dominate, but there are figures in green and yellow and purple.  The effect is indescribable.  It is magnificent I photograph but for some reason the reds are tending not to show up.  I resort to videoing to try to get a sense of the glory of this place.  There is scaffolding where a 5 year restoration project is underway.  It will be even more incredible when that work is completed.  As we stand soaking in the the beauty I notice an Asian girl is staring at the floor.  I look down. The whole space is paved with ancient tiles in elaborate patterns. Beautiful.  Hubby finds a large plastic framed page with information about he windows and the subject matter in them. Eventually we figure we’ve had a good look and we should make way for some of those people out in the rain. We head back downstairs.  As we browse the seemingly improvised gift shop: Shhh!! Merci. Shhh Merci.  I look around. The sudden crescendo of noise has died down.  With one last Parisian glare, the Shh man is going back to reading his paper. I guess he’d think me a bit strange if I went over and kissed him.
Our entire viewing of Sainte Chapelle has taken about half an hour – not including the queue, so we have spent about double the time in the queue than we did in the chapel.  Was it worth it?  Yes it was! As we were leaving I noticed that there was an information board about tours being conducted. A range of languages are listed, but only tours in French are scheduled today.
The Conciergerie is just down the street a short way and as predicted, there is no queue.  You enter through a medieval space that was used for domestic staff and therefore is described as very plain.  It may be plain in respect to ornamentation, but it is a magnificently beautiful space with its arched ceilings.  I’m already glad we came in here.  It looks to be in wonderful condition too.  It is very well maintained.  We wander around for a bit admiring the enormous fireplaces. I try to imagine what the place may have been like all those years ago with such a large number of people coming and going. 
To get to the areas that were significant during the revolution we need to go up some stairs.  In the opposite direction is a room with information only in French. That doesn’t take long!  We admire the carvings at the top of the pillars.  Even when not trying they just had to include some detailed work.
Across at the Revolution section we stop at a large screen which gives time line information about the Revolution and the role the Conciergerie played.  There are cells set up to give an impression of the conditions that prisoners of varying means would have been kept in.  The important thing of note is that most prisoners were at the Conciergerie only a short time.  Longer detention periods were usually spent elsewhere.  Prisoners came to this site only shortly before their trial and/or execution.
The information boards in the rooms are generally in French, naturally.  However in each room here there is also a stand with large information cards in various languages, so do look for those.  They help but they do not cover all of the material that is provided in French. Even with just my rudimentary knowledge of the language I can see that the French content would be more interesting. The information cards are worth looking out for though.  One I did take the trouble to read included an excerpt from the diary of a prisoner that talked about the conditions.  This was very helpful for appreciating the women’s yard which you pass through on your way out. 
One of the last areas you reach is the recreation of the cell in which Marie Antionette was kept.  Marie Antoinette was an exception and she was locked up here for weeks. The revolutionary government was trying to use her trial to force Austria to agree to a peace deal. (Marie Antoinette was Austrian obviously). The need to recreate the cell was brought about by changes made to the building after the monarchy was restored.  None the less, the cell as it now stands does cover a good portion of the original cell.  Finally we watch a screen with a presentation about Marie Antoinette. It is basic but useful.
The most moving space of all is the last.  The yard.  As we stand in the quiet courtyard contemplating the events of the Revolution I think how incredible this place would be if they did something like is done at Hampton Court and had actors portraying the revolutionary events that would have gone on here
We’re back on the street in just over one hour. If you have a really great attitude and read every English word provided you might take an hour and a half max.
Things are running pretty smoothly and we now intend to make our way to Vedettes du Pont Neuf for a cruise on the Seine.  This works out beautifully and we arrive at the pier at 5:20pm. Next cruise departs at 5:30.  Excellent.  Despite the bitterly cold weather today, we, along with virtually every other passenger, head upstairs to the open air deck.  The skies have cleared and it’s not actually raining and we have been sensible and worn our thermal underwear, so with hoods up and raingear on, we’re ready.  Commentary along the way is provided in both French and English, but is not always easy to hear.  There are a LOT of bridges across the Seine.  Each one we pass is named and some information about it is provided.  As we pass under each bridge the large group of school children aboard raise their voices to hear the amplification of the sound as it bounces back off the bridge.  Wooooooaaaaahhhhhh starting softly and rising to a crescendo and then back down again as we emerge on the other side. It serves to make the cruise rather festive and certainly hubby and I enjoyed having them on board.  The cruise heads down and does a turn in front of the Eiffel Tower.  As we (the tourists) stand with our cameras aimed only in one direction, the sun breaks through and lights the tower. Perfect timing.
We retrace our route back along the river and notice the Calife at it’s mooring.  We will need to head there in a couple of days for dinner.  On we cruise, past our start point to do a circle around the two islands.  Notre Dame looms over all, but the view of the cathedral is not as good as from the banks of the Seine.  The stand out thing for me on the cruise was bridges.  Old bridges, new bridges, even an old bridge that is called a new bridge; fancy bridges, plain bridges. Stone bridges and iron bridges.  Bridges that were heavily ornamented when constructed and others that visitors insist on ornamenting today with padlocks as a sign of undying love. One bridge is named for a Tzar, another is made from the stones of the Bastille, while a third bears the imperial insignia of Napoleon III.  One thing Paris is certainly not short of is bridges!
As we round the islands and make our way to the pier hubby and I decide we’ve had enough of the cold and head downstairs to get warm.  The commentary is almost impossible to understand inside.  It’s been lovely to explore Paris along the river for the last hour, but now we really need to get home for a break before heading out for this evening’s entertainment.

As we alight from the bus, foot weary and craving some down time, I notice some waist high bushes in the Jardin des Plantes. Rich red and luscious pink frilly confections. Are they tree peonies.  Hubby stands bewildered as I delay our nap time yet again.  Just a quick look.  I have to see the peonies. Spectacular, but I'm as good as my word and admire them briefly, take photos to show mum. Mum would so love this. Then we return to scheduled programming.

Dinner tonight is rather casual: bread, crème fraiche and smoked salmon and the two little desserts we picked up thismorning.  Remember the something or other melba and the tiramisu?  Oh my god, they were sensational! They come in a cute little glass cup.  We figure it would be handier to have 6 than two. Shame we’ll have to eat those again a couple of times to get the glasses.  Tough job, but someone’s got to do it.
We rest as usual until beyond the last minute and race out the door, still in the cold and rain, to find the Theatre de la Main D’or.  I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise that we miss turn for the theatre and walk slightly too far. Turn up.. oh.. it is up the little alley way that looks like it’s way to small for a theatre to be on it.  We are just in time and are shown to two individual seats. Not SO far from eachother but… well… sigh.  Luckily as it becomes apparent an American fellow seated near us took the initiative and rearranged people so that we were together. :o)  Thanks so much :o)
The show was titled How to Become Parisian in One hour.. but it actually takes an hour and a half… not that I’m complaining you understand.  Over the evening Olivier Giraud proceeds to tickle our funny bones with impersonations of both American tourists and Parisians interspersed with entertaining explanations of the two.  Hubby is chuckling away, I alternately chuckle and cringe.  It’s a great night’s fun.  As we laugh and chat leaving the theatre we agree: It must be true. Somewhere back in my ancestry I must have French people… obviously they must have been Parisian. I would have no trouble at all with the required behaviour and attitudes! Clearly more of the world should be Parisian!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Day 22 - Amsterdam to Paris by Thalys; Concert at Notre Dame

Tuesday 17th April 2012
It’s a mad rush to the train. I let hubby sleep as long as possible but now we are paying the price.  We’ve had some brekkie.. been delayed by the tantalizing prospect of one last Dutch pancake. Delicious. I quickly shower and pack the bags. I’m quicker than hubby at.. well…at everything really.  We are out the door at 8:40am.  We are racing up the street to get the tram to Centraal and the Thalys which is due to depart at 9:16. We have no idea where to go at the train station.  Looks like we’re going to miss another train.  Just as we are reaching Hobbemastraat a no 2 tram goes past.  Oh dear.  We hurry across the road in the hope that another tram isn’t too long.  Hubby fossicks for some euros as our pass has expired by now.  A temporary reprieve from pressure as we travel through Amsterdam for the last time. We're too focussed on the task at hand to be melancholy.  When we alight at Centraal the pressure is on. We ask a staff member where to go for the Thalys. Right down the other end of the station. Oh no.  We scurry along as fast as my short little legs allow. We go in. “There’s a lift” says hubby excitedly. “She said to go up”.  I was intent on following everyone else. Noone else is getting in the lift.  I tell my inner harpie to shut it and cooperate with hubby. He’s much better at directions than me in these parts. The lift is slow. So slow.  The doors eventually open. Hmm. Here we are isolated on the wrong platform a long way from where we need to be.  “I think that was a mistake” I say in what was probably a reasonably forced "patient" voice.  We press rewind.  Back in the right place we scurry down to the end of the corridor. A momentary hesitation and I’m just thinking about lapsing into wild panic when the various station entrances peter out at 14, then I see a little sign 15b this way. Phew.  “there’s a lift” says hubby. As far as I can see it’s behind some barriers.  “I don’t care! go up the stairs!” I say picking up my heavy luggage and hoisting them with difficulty up the stairs. We emerge onto the platform. Phew. No train yet.  That buys us time to find out were we need to be.  I leave hubby with the luggage and head off to do a reccie.  I see an older couple examining their tickets.  They don’t look like Dutch people to me, though I couldn't say why.  “Excuse me, do you know how to tell where the particular carriages pull up?”  An Australian voice answers “well the numbers on the platform start at 1 up that end and then after 7 they change into letters. We were told thirteen so we reckon that’ll be about here.. 18 should be down that way, but the important thing is to get on the train. You can walk down through the carriages.”  Makes sense to me so back I  go.  We wander about sampling various standing positions and moving on to try another one and no doubt looking rather like a pair of dills, but end up deciding to stand in a bit where other people aren’t - where we were originally.  We’ve got a good  5 mins to spare. Phew. We look again at the notice board. Train is delayed by 15 mins. Oh. Hubby pipes up. “We could have got the lift.”  “yes”.  We wait.  The sign has changed. Now delayed by 20 mins. Due time approaches. Sign changes to 30 minutes delay. Glad we didn’t skip the pancake.
Suddenly, earlier than now expected, the train arrives. It takes a while for everyone to board. We ask the guard where we should be – last carriage. Time for scurrying again. The people ahead of us are taking their own sweet time to move in from the doorway.  The guard on the platform blows his whistle vigorously.  No better way to say “hurry up you lot”  The people ahead of us quickly move out of the way and ask “are you in?”  “We’re in”.  The doors slide shut and now there’s nothing left but to stow our luggage and make ourselves comfy.  Make that very comfy.  What a delightful train. Comfy seats; powerpoints for the notebook; big picture windows; a large table that folds down from the seat in front that is big enough for e-Notebook, camera, and notebook; and if you feel like it convenient head rests to facilitate napping.  I’m happy as a clam.  Better still the scenery is nothing special for quite a while, and the train is going so fast photos out the window are pointless so I get caught up with lots of journalling.  I say with the manic enthusiasm of the convert  “Why on earth would you fly when you’ve got this as the alternative!!” I resolve to plan for plenty of train travel between destinations in Europe in future.
It seems like we've no time at all before the announcement comes that we will soon be arriving in Paris.  We’re content to be last off the train. I’m happy here with my notebook.  In due course it’s clear everyone else is gone and we get ourselves together and alight from the train. It’s 1.10 pm.  Oh. It’s raining. We stop under cover and pack ourselves up properly for the transfer. 
It is a simple matter finding our way to the tourist information booth, waiting in the queue to buy our Paris-visite card and on the spur of the moment I buy a museums pass as well along with train tickets to Versaille.  The lady in the booth is very good: efficient and helpful. She explains everything very well.  By 1.40 we’re standing wondering where to go for the bus. There is an immaculately dressed woman walking back and forth.  She's wearing killer heels in a glorious rich blue suede. Legs. Matching blue scarf fetchingly draped across the shoulder of a stylish fawn coat. 
There’s a sign for the no 65 bus pointing out the doors.  Nothing looks much like a bus stop. I suggest one of us goes out there and does a reccie. No deal. Hubby says we have to line up and ask the lady. Or rather I have to ask the lady.  We do this.  Go out the doors and over to the right. Having discussed the practical interpretation of the instructions we’ve just received, we locate a bus stop and find it’s not the right place, but there’s a handy map on the bus shelter and we find our way through the rain to the right place.  Mild panic as a number 65 bus pulls up. We’re trying to manage the luggage and figure out how to also put the ticket through the machine.  Bus doors close. Bus drives away. We’re still on the footpath.  Oh. We need to move a bit faster evidently.  Not to worry, here comes another one almost immediately.  We’re ready this time.  Bugger the damn ticket. We just get on. This bus has a lot fewer people too, so it’s all good. I mind the luggage and hubby goes down to the front to try to figure out the ticket machine. He does all sorts of silly things. Holding the ticket against the machine, looking around in puzzlement. The lady driver ends up reaching over and tapping the machine to indicate what he needs to do. Ah. Merci.
We settle in on the bus. Taking over some seats next to our luggage as they are vacated.  We’re studying the stops coming up on the indicator.  Then I suddenly think.  How do we know we’re heading the right way on route 65?  Oh. We discuss and decide if we’ve got that wrong it’s an adventure. I spot the route map on the bus up the front. I go to examine. Phew. We’re heading the right way.  Easy peasy to alight at the stop we’ve been told to use.  Yep. There’s the market just as expected. Now. My Open Paris is in the building next door.  Closed security doors by the look of it.  A lady is going in.  she does not understand our question.  Hmm. Nothing on the signage there about My Open Paris. Hmm.  It’s still raining we’re getting increasingly wet.  We go in the exit of the market.   The beeper thingies go off.  I’m expecting to get told to bugger off out into the rain again at any moment.  But all that happens is a nice black man comes over and in his best English explains that it probably went off because of our clothes.  We ring and are soon rescued by our hostess and we head back to the security doors, which are open; through the green door – which is open; and then she shows us up to our studio and gives us the run down on everything we need to know.  My god, she must think we’re so so stupid.  At any rate she is very polite.
We quickly copy the directions to the recommended patisserie and boulangerie and don our raingear. No shoes are allowed in the house here so we retrieve them from the handy shoe cupboard downstairs (I resolve to photograph it. I need one of those..) and off we trot in the rain. First we head to a pharmacie.  Man Paris has a lot of pharmacies and they are very sure they want you to notice them. They are lit up like Christmas trees.  Thank God.  We need some sinus meds.  We acquire some pseudo ephedrine.  We don’t realize until we get home that it’s double the strength at home and not combined with a pain killer.  Mm. I like this!  
Our pharmaceutical needs met, we head off into the unknown to find the bakery. Every now and then we duck into a handy doorway out of the rain to check our map, but without too much difficulty we find what we are told is one of the best bakeries in Paris.  Everything looks tempting and we are hungry. Excess is bound to ensue.  The first is easy: a croissant, and I’ll have one of those things with apple on the top. Hubby gets a chocolate éclair and a Paris-brest and we also get a small loaf of bread.  We manage to pay and get out of there, I hope without being too horribly rude. We did make a point of saying bonjour and merci. And Pardon when I didn’t quite catch something. All in all. OK. I think we can get the hang of things.
Next we stop by the Carrefours market next door for some basics. Butter.. a little yoghurt and crème fraiche.  Hubby gets some little heart things he likes the look of. We are heading home by ten to four.  We share everything.  Hubby’s eyes sparkle and he bears a large grin as he says.  “Paris-brest was the best…. I win!”.  Yep you win.  We break open the pseudo ephedrine and waste no time about taking some.  Time now to get the internet up and working and have a relax before heading out tonight.  Hubby goes to take some allergy stuff too. No worries done in a trice. Then he says. “There’s day and night tablets.”  “Which ones have we taken?  The night ones no doubt” I reply.   Haha “Yep. We’ve taken the night ones.”  That bodes well for the concert at Notre Dame this evening! Oh dear.
Hubby is delegated the job of making sure we know what bus to catch.  Our hostess has recommended the bus to us and they have provided a bus guide book in the apartment for our convenience with the relevant route pages marked with a flag.  Wow. We sure did the right thing booking My Open Paris.
We hang around at “home” until the last minute. We so don’t feel like going out in the cold and rain tonight, but the tickets are booked and we go.  It’s an easy walk to the stop at ?Austerlitz just across the Seine. We come up to the bridge and there in the distance is our first view of Notre Dame.  It’s probably a dreadful picture but I take it anyway. 
We have a short wait for the bus, but Paris has an extra, convenient feature. On the bus stops is an electronic text device that tells you when the next buses are due and how far away they are!  There are also route maps for the buses that stop here. It’s simply brilliant. 
It’s a short ride to our stop near Notre Dame.  The cathedral is tantalizingly visible through a stand of trees just coming into their spring foliage.  I snap another photo of this process of slow unveiling of one of the world’s architectural masterpieces.  
We walk across the Seine onto the island and the evening  light is perfect for viewing the façade and showing the intricate detail of statuary and ornate ironwork on doors that although it is 8 oclock, remain steadfastly closed.
Nearby is a huge statue of an imposing figure on horseback flanked by two warriors.  I have no idea who they are, but this is a marvelous statue and certainly one of the biggest I’ve seen.
A long queue has formed for entry to the concert so we reluctantly curtail our wandering and make our way to the back of the queue.  A couple of American ladies come up behind us and ask if this is the queue for the concert. We agree that this is the perfect time of day to be queueing here in front of the cathedral. She's a school teacher and has watched the Rabbit Proof Fence with her class. We get into a nice conversation, about our two countries similar history, various issues with policy on indigenous matters and the sights to be seen in the mid west, Colorado, South Dakota and big sky country. She's had lots of friends visit Australia and New Zealand.  We've been quite enjoying ourselves and before we know it we are going through the doors and on to our first sight of the interior of this splendid cathedral. There is a sign erected requiring silence by all who enter.I didn’t see it but Hubby brings the silence rule to my attention.  Most other’s seem not to have noticed it or not able to control themselves, but the grandeur of the place inspires hushed conversation and the atmosphere is one of awed excitement.
As we’ve been admiring Notre Dame we have observed the similarity to Peterborough Cathedral in England. Same square front effect. The similarities are continued as we note the fine high, arced ceilings are constructed of individual bricks similar to Southwark Cathedral, but Notre Dame is much bigger.  The other thing that strikes me is the simplicity of the interior. There appears to be very little in the way of additional memorials or “clutter”.  It is a massive understatement to say that Notre Dame is beautiful.  It is a wonderous sight.
Despite having been behind such a long queue for entrance we are still quite well positioned and sit quietly taking photos (no flash) as we wait.  The concert is due to start at 8:30.  The material is Chant Gregorian et musiques medievales which I would translate as Gregorian chants and medieval music.  The commencement of the concert is announced by a man addressing the audience in French only. I’ve got no idea what he was saying but assume it was an introduction… and probably the request to turn off your mobile phones.  Then it begins.  The first sound is the single note of a hand rung bell. Repeated slowly. Then voices. Glorious voices ring out and reverberate in the cathedral behind us.  A small group of about 7 slowly walk up towards the cathedral and pass right by me.  I am amazed that there are so few of them, their voices fill the huge space so completely.  All the performers are in black and one woman is wearing a long dress reminsiscent of a monks robes. All the while as they proceed in their stately passing, the pure single note of the bell ringing out a slow almost meditative chime.  What an entrance! 
I gaze at the ceiling as the glorious voices fill the cathedral. This is the way to see Notre Dame. It is perfection.  It is a marvel. It is pure and heavenly.  Heavenly.  I feel a new appreciation of the word.  How humbling and awe inspiring such music must have been to the poor and illiterate people in the past.  Surely it must have seemed miraculous that human throats could create such a sound in such a place.
Periodically the performers voices are rested by what seems like more secular medieval music, beautifully rendered on period instruments with a toe tapping beat sounded out on a lightly voiced drum.  Then, after a pause a return to the chanting. 
After about an hour, when there is a break, people start to dribble out of the cathedral.  I guess it is late, but I find it hard to understand why you would take a seat towards the front if you were just going to listen for a while and head out.  Fortunately there is an upside and people from the back, just a few, decide to take the positions vacated for a better view.  At around 10pm the concert concludes.  There has been silent appreciation throughout, and no applause between musical numbers, but now the audience erupts into an enthusiastic standing ovation. I’m on my feet with the rest and in truth, I’m applauding both performers and venue, for this ancient cathedral was as much a player in the musical effects as the ensemble members.
We walk slowly out into the night. Paris is in lights. The Cathedral is in evening wear.  The skies have cleared and the stars twinkle above as Paris sparkles below. Off in the distance the Eiffel tower pokes it’s head above the buildings and a search beam sweeps the sky.  Across the Seine restaurants are lit up.  Sidewalk tables are hunched under overhanging canopies.  We walk towards the cafes, and down the street, I feel like we’re wandering aimlessly, I don’t know where we’re going and I’m finding it hard to care.  We make a left hand turn and I feel an internal gasp as we find a lovely winding alleyway, cobblestones sparkling in the light thrown by period street lights. 
The spell is broken by the feel of hubby’s hand in mine. He is cold.  He is not too well either. We need to get home and warm and sleep.  We wander around trying to find the stop for the no 24 bus. We do eventually find it, but the service has ended for the night.  We could try to find the metro station, but hubby is keen to just walk back along the Seine.  He pulls his hood up on his raingear.  His hand warms a little. I relax a little.  Half an hour along the locked boxes of day time vendors, past the museum en plein air and beautiful views of the cathedral shining in light and shadow and we’re home.  What a start to our time here.  They say everyone falls in love with Paris.  It’s true. We do. 

Day 21 - Dutch Countryside Tour with Key Tours

The sun is shining again, both literally and figuratively.  Quiet, sleep filled night. How glorious. I sleep until almost seven and then groggily get stuck into journaling yesterday’s activity. At about 8 oclock I wake the sleeping spouse and we head to brekkie. It’s always best with breakfast to get it early. We’ll shower and dress afterwards.
We are away on time. We have to be today. It’s only a short walk around the corner to the tour departure point.  Periodically one of the key tours people escorts groups to the busses. It’s a little bit complicated as a route and we’d never find it on our own.  We have a short wait until the bus arrives. We are a mix of half day and full day tourists, but even together it’s still only a small number.
Heading out of Amsterdam we drive past the 1928 Olympic stadium.  “What’s it used for now?” one of the chattier ladies on the tour asks.  “Athletics.”
To get across the north sea canal we need to travel metres underground in the tunnel.  It’s a tunnel like other tunnels. 
Commentary on the tour, like on the canal boats, is given in four languages.  Today these are English, Italian, Spanish and French.  This is not before our guide (Jacqui) has asked if everyone can have the tour in English.  It’s easier for her and a better experience as she can have time to give more detail.  No response. The tedium of multi-lingual for everything is adhered to.  We don’t have an issue, but it seems to confuse some of our American companions who don’t seem to be able to readily tell which is the English portion.  Consquently they, but one lady in particular, proceed to ask questions about things that Jaquie as only just explained. Everything from details about what we are seeing to what time and where to be, whether things can stay on the bus and on and on.  It gets a bit wearing, not only for Jacqui but for the rest of us as well. Our noisy companion also has a tendency to ask reasonably offensive questions.  As the day proceeds Hubby and I feel deeply for Jacqui as she increasingly looses patience with our noisy friend. Who has apparently been taking a tour with Key tours for several days running. “Madam I just told you that.  Please listen so I don’t have to say everything over and over”.  Man, she really earns her money.
As we flew into Amsterdam the view was over a checkerboard pattern of flat fields cut up by narrow strips of water.  Over this terrain back in the 16th and 17th centuries there were thousands of windmills.  The industrial revolution put paid to that. Today there are few windmills left.  This is our first order of business.  Zanse Schans.  This is a rapid fire visit arriving at about 10:20 and we need to stay with Jacqui until after the cheese making talk because she’s paid for us all.  Then we have to be back at the bus by 11:45.
First up is the wooden clog making. Klompen is the name for them in Dutch. It so suits them.  On the way into the shoe making demonstration there are glass cabinets with an exhibition of all different sorts of clogs. Some look like collectors items. It looks interesting but we don’t have time to stop and look over them.  We are set for a demonstration of clog making.
The clogs are made from either poplar or willow and are worked from very wet wood.  Carved by hand a pair of clogs takes 2 – 3 hrs. With mechanical assistance they take 5 mins.  Our demonstration sets out to illustrate this point.  The process is very simple and quick using a simple copying lathe. The proper size for clogs is to have a centimeter around your foot with thick socks on.  The clogs are very practical footwear because they are very strong and protect your foot from damage; insulated so protect your feet from the cold; and they are waterproof.  Once carved the clogs have to dry slowly for 3-4 weeks at which point they can be sanded and finished. 
Demo over we have about 10 mins to buy some souvenirs and then we have to meet outside to go to the cheese making talk.  I note that the wooden painted tulips like I got at Keukenhof are cheaper here. They also have an option of a slightly smaller size. We go for those. We wait outside while an Asian tour group has their private talk. Luckily hubby and I are up with Jacqui in the protected alcover near the door. It’s bitter outside and the breeze that travels across the flat open plains has the jaws of a shark. While we wait we chat about the unseasonal weather.  The flowers will at least last well at Keunkenhof. Apparently it was bitterly cold there yesterday. 
Finally the Asian group is finished and we head inside out of the cold.  The girl who is planning to talk speaks only three languages other than Dutch.  Can everyone have the talk in English? No. Spanish? Oh.  The girls swaps duties with another girl who can cover offer the additional language.  It’s a very quick talk.  Fresh milk each day. Heat to 29C. Add rennet. Cut to a fine curd.  10 litres of milk will yield 1 kg of cheese.  The curd is put in moulds and pressed for a couple of hours. Then into a salt bath, 20% salt for one day. This aids preservation and also adds a nice salty flavor. Finally the cheese is dipped in liquid plastic.  A young cheese has been aged 1 month. A middle cheese for 6 months and an old cheese for 12 months or longer. At 2 years it is very hard and very good for grating over pasta. 
From the talk we move into the next room where there are cheese tastings.  You can of course also buy cheese and other souvenirs.  What a shame we can’t take cheese home. No point taking it to consume in Paris. We loiter a while and decide to have a look elsewhere.  Jacqui gives us our brochure for the windmill that crushes oil out of peanuts and points it out off in the distance.  We enthusiastically hurry to make the windmill.. well… except for the moments when I couldn’t resist the views.
This particular windmill dates from the early 17th century if memory serves. 1600 something I think. A quick hello and welcome at the ticket office and we’re in.  It is seriously wonderful.  There is creaking and thumping and the large millstones are working some peanut paste. Round and round and round.  This is AWESOME.  When we've had a good look, hubby says we should go upstairs for a look.  We clamber like monkeys.. hmm.. obese retarded monkeys perhaps.. up to the next story. There’s a door we’re clearly supposed to use to get outside but I am taking in the scenery here looking at the workings.  COOOOL! I take some photos and at hubby’s suggestion some video as well.  I love this place.  Out on the deck the sails of the windmill are being driven by the wind. A steady thwipe…thwipe.  . We have a look around and take in the views at take some more photos and are heading towards the exits when the wind suddenly picks up speed considerably.  It’s impressive and really a little un-nerving.  More video.  More video. Hubby is encouraged to take responsibility for his own video.  The speed and vigour of both wind and sails is getting a bit more than I can take and anyhow, I want to go and have a look at the sawmill across the way a little. 
Back down at ground level we have 15 minutes before we’re required back at the bus.  We race for it again. This time we need to pay another €3 pp.  The ticket man gives us a very brief run down on the mill.  It is a reconstruction of a windmill that was demolished 60 odd years ago, but back even further, in the 30’s detailed drawings had been made to capture every detail of it.  The rebuilding was completed in 2007 and cost €2 million. It is now a working sawmill and people can order timber from them.  There’s a 10 minute vision only film to go about how to the windmill was built but unfortunately we don’t have time to watch that.  The sawmill may not be 300 years old, but then the windmills in the time before the industrial revolution were not 300 years old either. It’s not possible to go up and outside at the sawmill, but is quite different in layout and very interesting.  The whole mechanization powered by the wind is ingenious.  Unfortunately time is short and we have to rush back to the bus.  We take the longer of two routes and find that it takes us past an intersection with a little street and village.  Many of the buildings seem to be private residences but it’s very cute.  A quick photo and a quick dash to the bus just a couple of minutes late. Luckily I’m not the last to return we wait another 5 minutes for another couple of people.  I could have happily spend another ½ hr to an hr at Zaanse Schans, but I guess it is about opportunity cost and we’re off to see some other things.  For people doing the tour in future, I’d say that if you’ve seen or have access to the series Cheese Slices and/or already know how cheese is made, skip the cheese and spend your time after the shoe making demo heading straight down to the industrial windmills.
11.54 am and we back in the bus heading to Edam for a walk. On the way we drive across a polder and hear a brief explanation about how they are made. They are lakes around which a dyke is built, then the water is pumped out of the lake.  The area of the polder is 4 metres below sea level.  This is the Beemster.  It’s a world heritage site and we are told is one of the most beautiful landscapes in the Netherlands.  Fields of green spotted with black and white cows.  Stripes of vibrant red and slightly shy orange; A faint whisper of pink where flowers are just starting to emerge.  A swan rests on the grass its long neck proving useful as it reaches around to pluck at blades of grass. We have a question from a passenger about when they harvest the flowers.  Here the money is in the bulbs rather than the flowers so they don’t harvest the flowers but wait and dig the bulbs up in August.
We drive through a pretty village called Middenbeemster, which basically just means its in the middle of the beemster.  It appears very pretty and upmarket.  The buildings look new but may be ancient.  Even churches built in the 15th century don’t look old here. Perhaps it’s the bricks, perhaps it’s the careful maintenance. 
Coming out of the polder we drive along the top of the dyke and observe the difference in level between either side.  The dyke is just a huge earthwork. Nothing that looks particularly structural in terms of walls of brick or that sort of thing.
Everywhere there is water.  Canals all over the place.  Often just little drainage canals.  A large flock of waterbirds is flying in the direction from which we’ve just come. They look like cormorants or something similar and have white on their faces but we pass them too fast for a good look.  Soon we are alighting from the bus again.  We’ve pulled up on one side of the town and the bus will head for the other side of town and we’ll rejoin it there. 
Our walk in Edam begins as we wander down past the large church and along a narrow strip of water.  The church dates from the 14th century. The church was subject to rebuilding in the 17th Century so probably that’s the age of what we are looking at.  We don’t go inside. There is an overhanging willow and in the tree are two nests of storks.  Not one, but two nests of storks! Whacko! A parent bird is flying around. With patience I think I could get a great photo, but the group is moving on. I do the best I can in the time.  Or lack thereof.  We walk past the old cheese weighing house which is situated on a large cobblestoned courtyard then make the turn to the centre of town.  Straight through the centre of town runs another strip of water. The oldest building in town is and dates from 1540. 
The impressive town hall is just across the water.  It’s all very pretty.  We head out to the bus on another lane.  Hubby and I are attracted by a display of for sale signs for bicycles in a shopfront window. 
A nearby door has a large wreath which appears to be made from real birds eggs. It sits centred on a very cool door knocker.  It’s all picture perfect.  Our route is well chosen and we pause to a look at a very old restaurant. Achingly pretty.  A very old lady comes past slowly pushing her wheeled walking frame. A couple of men sit at an outdoor table talking. I’m beginning to fantasise about a driving holiday in backstreets Europe and warn hubby of this developing financial threat. It’s not long until we’re stopping again. This time at a set of locks that control the change of water level in the town.
Again we pause, this time to note the two 17th century teahouses on the edge of the water behind two impressive old mansions. Just nearby a lovely bridge and cute little boats tied. I’m all set for taking a photo when a stork comes flying through the arch of the bridge. Oh yes! But I’m about one or two seconds too impatient.  Better than a complete miss though.
Our bus is parked at the local bus station and parking area.  A typically dutch commuter carpark is located near to the bus stop.

It’s only a fairly short drive of about ½ an hour to Voldendam where we have about an hour and a half of free time to get some lunch and look around. The tourist area is on the waterfront of a large lake. It mostly seems to be tourist and souvenir shops in the old buildings, but it is very pretty just the same.  Most of the group seem to head directly for the fish and chips shop which has a glaringly modern interior. Hubby is over looking at the menu board of an old looking place called the Hotel Spaander.  I’ve got my eye on a little café across the road.  They have a sign in the window “Best apple pie” …. Mmmm… apples… I don’t want to leave the Netherlands without having some dutch apple pie.  I raise the option with hubby. We go to look in the window at the menu.  Occassionally the door opens. The place is busy and full of what sounds like Dutch conversation.  The menu is also completely in Dutch no translation at all.  This is the Netherlands so its not that that is inappropriate obviously.  However virtually everywhere we’ve been at least has a fine print English translation.  It seems to me that not having this is either because they want to look more authentic or they are mostly interested in feeding the locals rather than the tourists. .. it’s probably a moot point because Hubby seems very keen on the hotel Spaander. The bells chime the half hour, starting with a nicely melodic series of notes to warn people to be ready to start counting.
Yeah Ok. We don’t have time to procrastinate.  Committed and walking in I then notice the Best Western logo among the other signage on the elaborate façade. Hmmm.  Oh dear.  We wander in and the place is deserted.  Amazing ambience though.  Hubby sums it up well when he says “it’s like a Dutch version of Rules in London”.  Yep.
We walk through to the bar and ask it’s ok to have lunch. Ya.  Just sit anywhere we like out in the area we’ve just come from.  We do. It’s not long before our waitress who is dressed in traditional outfit minus the cap comes over to take our order.  Hubby has decided on the Hollandse biefstuk en roomboter gebakken (dutch steak fried in butter).  I congratulate myself on my sensible choice of a dutch sandwich: Edammer kaas (Edam cheese) and ask for an addition of some Boerenham (farmer’s ham).  Some discussion as the waitress points out the option of a bagette with ham and cheese with salad. No, not a bagette, I really want it on bread. This leads to some extended instructions to the little hand held electronic ordering gadget.  We sup on some hot chocolate and still water and admire the large collection of paintings around the room. In frames, on walls.  Pretty soon we have a paper placemat to read which gives the history of the hotel Spaander.  It was started by a fellow back in the 19th century and he decided he wanted it to be a centre for the great artists to come from all over the world. So he sent them all a postcard.  Consequently many came and this place became a bit of a legend with many of the artists leaving a picture, perhaps in return for board and lodging.  It’s a fantastic place.  We wander about sussing things out. You could do worse than stay here I’m thinking.  We wait.  It starts to get a bit worrying how long our food is taking and hubby goes to follow up.  He’s not back when the food arrives with an apologetic explanation from our waitress that the Dutch steak takes a while to cook.   Well. So how was it?  It was worth the wait. Hubby’s steak is tender and delicious. His accompanying salad and fried potatoes are delicious.  My dutch sandwich is huge with three slices of bread. It’s an open affair with the slices of bread overlain with thinly sliced cheese and ham and a bit of salad on the side. I’ve opted for brown bread and it is dark chocolately brown. Soft fresh.  I’m at a bit of a loss how I’m supposed to tackle this open sandwich layout. In the end I conclude that certainly the best way is to just roll each slice of bread around the filling and get stuck in.  mm delicious.  Great lunch.  I’m enjoying having something so simple and yet so satisfying.  Hubby is emitting noises of satisfaction as he eats his steak.  We’re both really glad we chose to eat at the hotel Spaander.  Our waitress returns “how is everything”  “Worth the wait” hubby replies.
We finish our main course and we really don’t need it, but I am determined not to leave the country without having a Dutch apple pie. We order a serve of Boerenappeltaart met slagroom en vanilla saus (Farmer’s apple pie with cream and custard). One to share.  On arrival it’s a little cool from the fridge, but it is very delicious. Spiced with ample cinnamon. Lovely.  We have about ten minutes until our meeting time so we head back to there and go inside the shop to check out the souvenirs and select a couple of things.  Each place we stop we’re finding that the wooden tulips are cheaper than the last. At Voldendam are the cheapest yet. 6 for €6.50. 
We’ve left our bus behind for now and are taking a boat ride across the lake to Marken.  The weather has closed in and it’s cold and rainy. Large river cruise ships are berthed at the docks of Volendam. Out on the water too far to make a good photo an old boat with distinctive sails is visible.  The boat trip takes about ½ hr. We sit upstairs away from our group who have settled downstairs. Upstairs is much nicer and there’s space available.  We have been informed while on the bus that this lake was once salt water but was enclosed and converted to fresh water a long time ago.  Truly. The mind boggles.  The Dutch must be incredibly clever and hard working people.  To have even conceived of doing what they have done with all the land reclamation over hundreds and hundreds of years. It’s just incredible.  "Hey this land we live on is a bit boggy isn't it.  The problem is the earth and water are all mixed up together. Don’t you reckon it would be good to just dig the earth out and pile it up so that some areas are just water and some just land we can use?? Huge amount of work but pretty good payoff yah?"  … I have to observe that anyone else would have just acquired some weapons and gone and taken someone else’s land.  Full marks to the Netherlands I say.
Marken is a beautiful little village of immaculate dark green and white striped or black wooden buildings.  It used to be an island until a causeway/dyke was built in the late 1950s.   The seafront road has a number of tourist shops and we have about 15 minutes before meeting up to walk to where the bus is waiting.  We wander about and admire an old “Botter anno 1911” which apparently offers short trips. (see ) Looks like fun! Beautiful old vessel.  Gasp. What’s that bird calling on the water.  A grebe!! Yes! This delays my return for the walk to the bus.  I make no apologies!
We retrace our steps back to the bus. The lady who never listens and who hubby has decided must have some sort of problem, perhaps some sort of history of brain injury or something suggests I, is missing.  This leaves me time to admire the interesting dead tree trunk covered in klompen . In each shoe is a coin or several.  Perhaps a wishing tree?
It’s only half an hour or so back to Amsterdam. We travel through Monnickendam and are told that this means dyke built by monks.  We’re back in town by 4:30 and after 15 minutes of stops for people in various locations, central, dam and finally we are dropped at Museumplein.  We take the by now well known path home and gratefully collapse on the bed for a rest before dinner.  I’m worried about hubby. Hes had a little cough recently and now it sounds like it’s freshening into something more serious.  We really don’t feel like going out.  Hubby looks at the bright side. If we don’t go then we may wake in the night hungry.  Dare I say you won’t be surprised to hear that this is a very serious consequence in our world.  We’ll drag ourselves out. 
I’ve misplaced, or perhaps even lost my Amsterdam map guide.  Oh dear. Thank god for the internet. I check the route we need to walk. Thankfully we travelled the same ground the other day and we find Zaza’s easily in Daniel Stalpertstraat and take our seats.  It’s a lovely restaurant with a very modern décor.  We are greeted at the door by a pleasant young man who shows us to our table. We have been allocated a window seat. Is this OK? We agree, and not that it's a problem, but we discover that the windows radiate cold despite the fact that they are double glazed.  Our first tasty morsel is a filo tart of apple ginger and pumpkin.  Just one bite's worth.  We enjoy and happily anticipate the meal to come. Before our selections arrive we are entertained by a scrumptious aioli dip with smoked aubergine, and sun dried tomatoes.  Oh it is so good!  What a great choice of dining for this evening. For a start I select the pan fried scallop  with rosemary risotto, cauliflower  cream and dried pancetta.  This arrives with the dried pancetta sitting like a frill atop a mould of rice resting in a moat of cauliflower cream.  The whole is topped by two beautifully browned scallops.  Ha. Beat that!  Hubby has gone for the Tuna Tempura filled with wasabi mayonnaise and soy and sesame dipping sauce. (E Mmm lovely is the judgement he makes.  We each prefer our own. I have a slight phobia against rare seafood and well, meat too.
Running even we head into the turn.  I have lined up with Chargrilled rib eye with homefried fries, a paremesan filled onion, red wine jus and horseradish cream. I look to hubby for a judgement on his Fillet of venison with a mushroom duxelle and fois gras tartlet, red cabbage, truffle mash a nd red wine & port jus.  We're still level pegging, both meals are delicious. Down to the decider.  Dessert. I have bagsed the Yoghurt and vanilla hangop (a typical dutch dessert) served with strawberry, ginger and orange coulis and sugar dusted crostini.  Actually I don't remember getting the crostini, but the hangop was absolutely delicious.  I am well known for my passionate love of yoghurt and the hangop is a sensational way to have it.  Basically it is a delicously thick yoghurt eaten with a beautiful spicy dried fruit bread. Yum.. Hubby has taken my suggestion of trying the cherry clafouti. It's nice but it isn't in the race with the hangop. I am declared the winner for tonight.  Definitely one of our dining highlights. If you're in Amsterdam, don't skip dining at Zaza's.