A Trip with the Wow Factor Day after Day

In mid June we made our first flight on a Boeing 787 – the Dreamliner as it is called. That name was so appropriate for the trip we were embarking upon, a “trip of a lifetime”.  For us, a perfect journey includes mountainous country, dramatic seascapes and an element of remoteness.  So where better
to go than to the northern Pacific coast of North America, where the mountains and glaciers meet the ocean and where Canada and Alaska are intertwined.

We’ve now been back for nearly a month and there has been time to gather together notes and start to make a coherent tale of our adventures.  The whole trip had been organised from my desk at home with a little help from Flight Centre who got us a good deal on Premium flights to cross the Atlantic and for internal flights in Canada and the United States.  Amazingly, everything worked to plan and we received great welcomes everywhere.  One reason for this turned out to be that we were travelling independently and, as the people we met said, we had chosen to visit their countries, cities, communities and to stay at a particular B&B or use a particular bit of transport.  This was in contrast to the relatively large numbers travelling in organised groups or on cruise ships who are largely insulated from the local people.    

As I started to write some notes on the plane flying from London to Vancouver via Seattle, my train of thought was suddenly interrupted.  Since take-off from Heathrow the flight had been entirely above a heavy cloud base.  Now about 4 hours into the flight the clouds parted and Wow!!!! The mountains and glaciers of Greenland appeared, literally out of the blue. Fantastic. The sea was still completely frozen. Near to us were black, rocky mountains marking the eastern edge of the landmass. To the north was one
vast snow and ice field stretching as far as the eye could see.
 Somewhere up there was the North Pole. I was mesmerized by the spectacle until, a while later, we had crossed the western seaboard of this remote and almost uninhabited country and the plane moved back into the clouds.

Back to the trip. True to the title of this blog, there would be elements of trains and boats and planes.
In addition, there would be bus journeys and a few days with a rental car.  The latter was to get us around an area of Vancouver Island with few buses otherwise everything was by schedules
  And, of course, we would be walking as much as possible although, disappointingly, we didn’t do as much as we had hoped.

Vancouver was our first stop.  We were only there for two nights giving us a chance to get a feel for the city, see some of the main sights, sample the cuisine and walk the Pacific sea wall trail of Stanley Park but not to explore the place in depth.  Next stop was across the Strait of Georgia by one of the regular ferry services, provided by BC Ferries, joining Vancouver Island to the mainland of British Columbia. The island is about 350 miles from top to bottom and 60 miles across.  The length is about the same distance as it is from southernmost point of the Scottish mainland near Stranraer to its most northerly point at John O’Groats.   A big island.  On landing in Nanaimo, a bus took us in pouring rain up the east coast of the island to the town of Campbell River.  Whilst on the island took a sea trip to see whales and other sea mammals.  It was way beyond our dreams with everything from Humpbacks to Bald Eagles to Black Bears.

After six nights, we boarded a ferry at Port Hardy near the north end of the island.  This took us
northwards up the Inside Passage, a sea route that weaves between the coast of British Columbia and the off-shore Pacific islands.
  It was a long day of sailing – 17 hours – to the city of Prince Rupert in northwest British Columbia.  After a couple of days there, yet another ferry took us up the coast of south east Alaska with a number of stops for two nights and three days to the capital city Juneau.  It was there that we encountered glaciers at close quarters. There had been some warnings that global warming has resulted in a less spectacular display than there was just a few years ago.  Despite that the wow factor was high.

If any of you, my dear readers, have watched the recent BBC TV programme Wild Alaska Live, the base for that production, in the Tongass National Forest and the Mendenhall Glacier, featured heavily in each episode, and was where we spent a stunning day. 

After three nights, we took a final ferry journey from Juneau to the town of Skagway near the northern end of this part of Alaska.  In its day, Skagway was the entry point to the Klondike in the days of gold mining.  The main attraction today is the heritage train that took us nearly 100 miles over the mountains to Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territory.  There was dramatic mountain and river spectacles and time spent in high tundra with empty country and stunted trees.

Throughout the trip, we saw an amazing array of wildlife.  Our knowledge of the animal kingdom is fairly
rudimentary so there were lots of other oooh’s and aaah’s, without necessarily a lot of specific species identification. 
We couldn’t help but recognise the magnificent humpback whales and a variety of seals and porpoises.  In the sky there were seagulls, terns, bald eagles and ravens.  And on land we saw black bears, red squirrels, porcupines and various deer.  And, of course, we saw literally millions of trees, the most common being the Sitka Spruce which typically is 50 to 60 metres high (nearly 200 feet).  We were
there in their Spring, so there were plenty of flowers and tree blossom.
  One of the most common plants was the blue lupin.

So that’s our adventure in summary, I’ll be posting some more specific pieces.  Hope you enjoy reading about this fascinating part of the world as much as we did experiencing it a first hand.

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Rambling Round London – The London LOOP

Setting a target

Laziness can be a
bit of a curse.
  You put off things for
trivial reasons.
  Even things that you
really enjoy get left to one side.
having reached the age of 75 at the end of 2016, to ensure that laziness would
not take over, it was time to set a walking goal for 2017.
 Walking is my favourite pastime.

A number of years
ago we had walked a stretch of the North Downs Way – about 50 miles from
Guildford in Surrey to Wrotham in Kent – that follows the high ground to the
south of London.  It was a great walk taking five separate days over
a period of three months.  In the course of the walks, we climbed Box
Hill, looked down on Winston Churchill’s long-time home at Chartwell and had
great views northwards over London and southward over Surrey and Sussex to the
South Downs.  Key to the success of the walk was the public transport that
got us to the start of each section and brought us home from the end.

A bit of exploration
of maps and guidebooks soon identified an excellent candidate for the 2017
project.  A bit more detailed study and the London LOOP, or to give it its
full name the London Outer Orbital Path, became the target.  The walk
covers about 150 miles and circumnavigates London from Erith on the south bank
of the Thames in Kent, to Purfleet on the opposite north bank in Essex. 
It is entirely within the other orbital route, the London Orbital Motorway,
otherwise known as the M25, and seeks to use greenbelt wherever
possible.  Also, and very importantly, the route has been adopted by TfL
(Transport for London) who have produced a series of twenty-four guides
describing the route in detail and showing the transport links to get to and
from every part of the LOOP.  An added bonus would be provided
by our London Freedom Passes that would give us free
transport throughout our adventures.

A mid-term report

It is now nearly four months into the project and it’s
really going very well.
  That is except
for a period near the beginning when Margaret had fallen victim to the ills of
winter and I had to do a few sections by myself.
  We have passed the halfway point and
completed the whole of the route north of the River Thames.
  So, it’s 95 miles down and 55 miles to go.

In real terms, the journey has been substantially
  To get to the start of a section
and back from the end involves buses, trains and the underground and a fair
amount of extra walking.
  That extra
walking has probably added another twenty-five miles to the total so far.
  By the time we have finished, we’ll have
walked nearer to 200 miles!!

So, for the past few months, we’ve been walking the trail
round the outskirts of London to the north of the River Thames.
  It’s been a fascinating amble.  When you live in a big city you don’t realise
how much green land there is and how much of it is accessible.
  We’ve walked through a Royal Park, followed a
tributary of the Thames as it meanders through urban woodland and skirts around
Heathrow airport, passed numerous stately homes (some now just a memory) and
walked along the banks of the stream where Sir Walter Raleigh reputedly laid
down his cloak for Queen Elizabeth to cross the water.

To get to the start of a section or to get back from the end
of it, we have been to places that were just names before, but that now take on
a totally different perspective.
has always been a distant station at the end of the Piccadilly Line underground
  I had no real idea where it was
as those iconic London Underground maps are perfect for route finding but give
no real idea of where a place actually is.
Now, I know that Cockfosters is a fairly swanky suburb in north London
with the London Loop trail passing the station entrance.
  Similarly, with Hainault, a mysterious place
on a strange loop at the eastern end of the Central Line which we passed
through on the train back from Chigwell.
Harefield Hospital is a hospital of world renown in the field of Heart
and Lung surgery, to the west of London.
Little did I know that the bus linking the end of section 12 on the
towpath of the Grand Union Canal to Uxbridge underground station, passes right
through the hospital grounds.
  And as for
Chigwell, of “Birds of a Feather” fame, you could see Sharon and Tracey behind
every set of net curtains and Dorien flitting from one pillared house to the next.
  This was at the end of section 19.

We’ve been impressed by the level of maintenance of the
trail, mostly excellent but very occasionally a disappointment.
  One example was where the trail was using a
designated public footpath across farm fields in a part of Hertfordshire.
  The fields are attached to horses’ stables
and the horses had been allowed to congregate close to a crucial style.
  It was still winter and the London clay was
very claggy.
  The horses had turned the
area around the style into a no-go area.
It only needed a small area to be fenced off and it would have been ok
to cross.
  Instead the only alternative
was across another field and through the actual stable yard.
  The farmer was, to say the least, unwelcoming.

On another day, in the Borough of Havering, what should have
been a very picturesque stream in a wooded valley between areas of housing, had
been allowed to become a rubbish dump and a drinking den, judging by the number
of discarded beer cans.
  The squalor was
only off-set by the presence of a beautiful white egret.
  There must have been a few small fish or
frogs in the stream.

Following the trail is generally straightforward but from
time to time we have had to retrace our steps or, as on a couple of occasions,
realised we had taken a different route and re-joined the official trail a
little further along.
  This has been
caused by missing signs or, in one place, where the sign has been knocked over
and it was impossible to work out which route to take.

Throughout we have used both the Transport for London
internet based guides (
and the National Trails Guidebook for the London LOOP.
  These are invaluable for keeping the walker
on track – more or less – and also for highlighting the points of interest
along the way.
  They are not
  In a big city things are
changing all the time.
  At one point, one
guide said to cross a field to a small hut, the other said to cross a field to
small barn.
  In fact, the hut/barn, we’ll
never know which, has been demolished.
constant problem for writers of guides.

Along the way, we have had to cross many major arterial
roads such as the M1, M11, M4, M40 and A1, all by tunnels or bridges.
  Much more scary, was the A12 Colchester dual
carriageway where the official trail crosses a very busy section.
  Only the traffic lights, ¼ mile or so away in
both direction, caused welcome short breaks in the continuous traffic
  The A30 proved to be a real
barrier and could only be crossed by making a 1mile diversion via a distant
junction with a pedestrian crossing.
apart from those few encounters with the road system of the capital, the route
was well separated from through traffic.

Walking the LOOP

On the 17th January, the project started at the
bus stop opposite our flat in Richmond from where we travelled the five or so
miles to Kingston-upon-Thames.
  This is
the closest the LOOP gets to home.
route is almost a complete circle broken only by the River Thames estuary to
the east of the city.
  The official
starting point is on the south bank of the river at Erith and the finish is on
the north shore at Purfleet.
 Our route
would take us first along the longer, north-of-the-Thames part of the LOOP.
  Later on, we would tackle the southern

Our starting point was at Kingston Bridge where the route
crosses the Thames to the west of London.
Section 9 (out of the total of 24), runs from Kingston Bridge to Hatton
Cross, on the south-eastern perimeter of Heathrow Airport.
  It’s about 8 ½ miles in length, rather more
than we wanted to do in one afternoon.
knew we would be able to break off at a number of points along the way where
the LOOP crosses a bus route or suburban rail route, so we set out knowing that
if time or inclination faded, an escape route would be nearby.

And so, section after section, we have progressed towards
our goal of conquering the London LOOP.
In January, the weather was fine but February and March were wet.  Long sections of the walk were through claggy
London clay.
  Boot cleaning was a serious
activity at the end of each day.

Here’s a random selection of some of the most interesting
bits of the walk.

Early on in the project, two days were spent
skirting Heathrow Airport and weaving through industrial estates that are an
integral part of the Heathrow infrastructure.
Much of this was along the banks of the River Crane.  To the north of the airport, and dwarfed by
junction 3 of the M4 motorway, the LOOP passes St Dunstan’s.
  There has been a church here since Saxon
  The current church dates back to
the 15
th century.  This was,
and still is, the family church of the Berkeleys, an English aristocratic
family of very long pedigree.
constructed of an interesting combination of flint and brick.
  There is a memorial plaque to the late, great
English comedian Tony Hancock and to his mother Lucie Lilian Sennett, who is
buried in the churchyard.
  Such a
fascinating corner in the midst of 20
th/21st  century hustle and bustle.  

A little further north, the LOOP follows, for
the most part, the banks of the Grand Union Canal through Hayes, West Drayton
and Uxbridge, then onto Harefield.
makes for flat walking but underfoot can be very muddy.
  It was along this stretch, at Uxbridge, that
we came upon the General Eliott pub.
This was an excellent, unpretentious, canal-side pub with a good
selection of beers and superb home-cooked food.
A lady, maybe the landlady, gave us a small piece of paper with a
hand-written menu.
  We both chose the
spaghetti carbonara.
  It was the best we
have ever tasted.

Grimsdyke House was built for WS Gilbert, of
Gilbert and Sullivan fame, in fine woodland on the edge of Harrow Weald
  The trail meanders through the
rhododendrons and beside the ponds, in the extensive grounds.
  WS Gilbert loved the place so much that he is
recorded as having declared that he would like to die there on a summer’s day.
  Poignantly that is what happened.  He drowned in one of the ponds whilst
rescuing a young female house-guest. 

Beyond High Barnet are the picturesque villages
of Hadley Green and Monken Hadley.
was here in 1471 that the English Civil War Battle of Barnet took place.
  This was a decisive battle as it was here
that Warwick, the kingmaker, was slain.
Just past the church, there stands the Sir Roger Wilbraham’s Almshouses
built, as it says, for “six decayed housekeepers”.
  Interesting how the meaning of words changes
with time.

On the stretch between Cockfosters and Enfield
Lock, the LOOP follows, for a time, Turkey Brook.
  This is named after the hamlet, now a suburb,
of Turkey Street.
  The “Turkey” is
nothing to do with the bird or the country.
The name derives from the name of the landed family Toke who built some
houses known as Tokestreete, now Turkey Street.
Anyway, I digress.  Maidens
Bridge, over Turkey Brook, is reputed to be the spot where Sir Walter Raleigh
spread his cloak over a puddle so that Queen Elizabeth could cross without
getting her feet wet.
questionable this story may be, it is known that the Queen loved to stay at
Elsynge Palace (long since demolished) which was across the brook on the far
side of the big ponds that the LOOP skirts.

After crossing Enfield Lock the LOOP briefly
follows the River Lea down the Lea Valley.
Here you can see the workers’ cottages of the Royal Small Arms Factory,
the home of the famous Lee Enfield rifles used by the British Army in the Boer
War and in the two World Wars.
  Ahead there
is a high embankment.
  This is part of
the enclosure of the massive King George’s Reservoir, nearly two miles long and
named after King George V.
reservoir, along with its neighbouring William Girling Reservoir, supply over
one quarter of London’s fresh water.

To the east of the reservoirs, the LOOP passes Gilwell
Park, home of the scouting movement.
a comment on modern day obsessions, some well-founded, with security and
unsavoury intruders, the campsites are now enclosed by high wire fences.
  Gone are the days of camping in semi-wild
fringes of Epping Forest.

After leaving Chingford and crossing part of the
Chingford Plain, the path comes to three large buildings.
  The first one is the Royal Forest Hotel.  The last one is the weather-boarded Butlers
Retreat, now a tearoom of which we took advantage.
  In the middle is the 16th century
Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge.
  Now a
museum, it is where the queen would come to view hunting parties in Epping
  The upper floors now have
windows but in Elizabeth’s day they were open balconies.

Shortly before reaching Chigwell, in the middle
of sports fields and parkland, lies a substantial lake with no name.
  It was created in the 1970’s when gravel was
extracted for the construction of the nearby M11 motorway.
  Today it is an attractive expanse of water in
the Roding Valley Meadows Nature Reserve.

And so to Chigwell.  Earlier in the walk, the LOOP passes through
the Moor Park Private Estate, built by Lord Leverhulme and Lever Brothers in
the 1920s, 1930s and, with a break for World War II, in the 1950s.
  The houses are all built on individual plots
with ornamental hedges forming the boundaries between one plot and the
  As the original sales brochure
stated “One may enjoy quietude and seclusion (without isolation} in an old
English park”.
  Today the large houses
sell for in excess of £2m.
  The cars in
the driveways are usually top-of-the-range Mercedes and, to a lesser extent,
  There are classy SUVs but not as
many as you would see in other posh London suburbs.
  Most houses have two or three cars.  All very refined and expensive.

In contrast, Chigwell sets out to be posh but misses the
  For a start, the houses are mostly
very close together with solid walls or fences between them.
  There is excessive use of over-elaborate decorative
  Typical are large colonnades in
front of standard, fairly large estate brick-built houses.
  Mock-Tudor is much in evidence.  As for the cars, SUVs dominate along with
flashy versions of Mercedes and BMWs.
Showing off wealth, or access to money, is obviously important
  “Quietude and seclusion” it is

You can’t go far in England without finding a
connection to King Henry VIII.
  To the east
of Havering-atte-Bower there had been a royal palace occupied originally by
Edward the Confessor and much later by Henry VIII.
  The latter had a house built for his two
daughters Mary and Elizabeth. PIrgo (now spelt Pyrgo) has long since been
demolished and all that remains are a pair of elaborate iron gate posts.
  The LOOP passes through this gateway

And finally, to the Concrete Barges on the shore
of the Thames Estuary near Rainham.
These barges were built during WWII for Mulberry Harbour in France to
support the D-Day Landings.
  They were
then brought back to the Thames to add to the defences of London.
  However, they never found a proper function
and have lain on the banks of the Thames estuary ever since.
  Despite being there for over seventy years
they show no sign of disintegrating.


So, it is now the middle of May and we’ve reached the Thames
  Roughly two thirds of the LOOP
completed and the summer ahead of us.
 Must find out how to get to Erith for the next

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Paris Déjà Vu – Part 2


Friday dawned a much better day, blue sky and very cold.  After breakfast in one of the local café bars, we walked along a few local streets lined with small shops.  If you are looking for expensive shoes, clothes, gourmet food and chocolates, then this is the area to explore.  Our goal was the Jardin du Luxembourg, one of Paris’s best open spaces and home to the Senate, the upper house of the government of France.  On previous visits, there have been lots of people taking part in semi-formal exercise classes.  Today the cold had kept them all at home.  There were a number of school children in groups of three or four with clipboards.  They seemed to be looking for specific monuments, statues, etc and ticking boxes on charts.  A bit like a version of I-Spy.

The Senate is housed in a grand square building, the Palais du Luxembourg. Commissioned by Marie de Médicis, it is a fine example of French classical architecture from the 17th century.  In the 19th century it was remodelled with a garden façade added.  There are discrete, armed guards stationed around the building, mostly in glass-sided sentry boxes.  At least the soldiers had some protection from the cold.  In front of the Palais is a round boating pond maybe 100 metres across.  Normally the pond is home to a hobbyists dream of model boats.  Today the surface was undisturbed, another victim of the cold.

From the Luxembourg Gardens we headed into the avenues of the Rive Gauche (the Left Bank) and, in a series of left and right turns arrived on the banks of the Seine just in time for the rain to return.  A couple of the famous Bateaux Mouches pleasure boats passed by but they had very few passengers.  I have often wondered why these pleasure boats were so named.  It turns out they were originally built in a boatyard in the Mouche district of Lyon.  You live and learn.

Our plan was to lunch around 2pm when we knew our favourite lunch spot would be starting to calm down after a hectic lunchtime.  The rain and the cold wind called for an adjustment of the plan and, although only 1.30 we headed forC Le Martignac in Rue de Grenelle just a couple of streets back from the river and the National Assembly, the home of the lower house of government.  To extract some words from the post of our last visit :-

This is a small bistrot in an area heavily populated by French Government departments including the headquarters of the army and the navy. We found it by chance on a previous visit and were keen to find it again. We hadn’t remembered the name or the address but I knew it was somewhere between the Quai d’Orsay art gallery on the banks of the Seine and Les Invalides with the Tomb of Napoleon. I could remember how we had found it, more or less, from Les Invalides but this time we were approaching from Quai d’Orsay. With the aid of a map and memory we found it with only one wrong turn. Great.

It was lunchtime and Le Martignac, which is very small, is popular with the civil servants from nearby offices. Stepping in through the narrow door we could see that every seat was occupied as were the bar stools. The wife of the husband/wife combo who run the place, called out from behind the bar. We said we wanted a meal. She called to her husband and immediately, by some miracle, he was directing us to a small table near the end of the bar.

The menu, which of course changes every day, was scribbled in virtually uninterpretable words on a board. The patron explained that, in simple terms, the choice was chicken, ham or kalamari. We ordered one ham and one kalamari and within seconds our plates were on the table along with a bottle of water, two glasses of wine and a basket of bread. And whilst he was serving us he was handling several more tables and finding seats for new arrivals. A human dynamo in a beret.

His only help was a young man – his son? – who cleared the tables and an unseen person in the kitchen cooking and plating up the meals. Combined with the patron’s wife who handled the drinks, served snacks to people at the bar and took the money, this must be the most efficient restaurant in Paris or even the world.

Today the experience was very similar except that we had Tagliatelle Carbonara and a little more wine.  When we arrived the place was packed but a very small table was found for us near the door.  Luckily it started to thin out a bit and the patron offered us a four-seater table which suited us fine.  There was no sign of the young man but the wife was still running the bar, producing coffees and taking the money.  After a while, once most of the office workers had gone back to their desks, some ladies appeared and took what were obviously their usual seats at the bar.  The wife then started a well-practised tirade of abuse, largely uncomplimentary to the patron, and the ladies became like Sybil Fawlty with a chorus of “I know, I know”.  This was the signal for the patron to disappear down to the cellar and do whatever he did down there.  The last we heard of him was a voice from the depths.

From Le Martignac our next stop was to be the Pompidou Centre where there were two current exhibitions, Cy Twombly and René Magritte.  Cy Twombly was an American artist who lived much of his adult life in Italy.  To quote from his Wikipedia entry “His paintings are predominantly large-scale, freely-scribbled, calligraphic and graffiti-like works on solid fields of mostly gray, tan, or off-white colors.”  I know he has many fans but his creations did very little for me.  Magritte was a totally different kettle of fish.

Magritte did not like the label “Surrealist”.  He avoided the world of the subconscious and believed in neither dreams nor psychoanalysis but rather considered the mind and logic to be superior.  As an illustration, one work that really makes you think and follow the logic of the situation, depicts an artist sitting in front of a canvas, paintbrush in hand.  On the table beside him is an egg which he is studying.  On the canvas he has painted a bird, the logical outcome of the egg.  He calls the work, very appropriately, “Clairvoyance”.  It’s a work that has the viewer thinking.

Perhaps his most famous painting is entitled “La Trahison des images” (The Treachery of Images).  The painting is of a smoker’s pipe.  Under the pipe are the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” (This is not a pipe).  As Magritte said “It’s quite simple, who would dare pretend that the REPRESENTATION of a pipe IS a pipe?  Who could possibly smoke the pipe in my painting.  No one. Therefore IT IS NOT A PIPE”.

This was a most excellent exhibition, very well curated and with sufficient explanation to guide the viewer into the thinking of the artist.

Having had a very good lunch, dinner was a long way from our minds, so we went back to the hotel and relaxed.  About 8.30 we decided to head out and find a place where we could get a snack.  I remembered a café called Odessa close to an hotel we had stayed in on a previous visit.  It was a short walk from where we were this time.  The Odessa was busy but a waiter soon found us a window table and we settled down.  Looking at the menu we fancied starting with the most famous French soup.   Soupe a l’Onion is a type of soup based on meat stock and onions, and was served gratinéed with croutons and cheese on top.  It was a meal in itself.  I’d explained to the waiter that the soup was just for starters and we would be ordering something else later.  Well we did order something later, more wine and even more wine. By the time we walked out into the night we were ready for bed.

Saturday was our last day and the train was due to leave just after 5pm, so we had a full half day to explore a bit further.  For breakfast we went to yet another of the nearby café bars.  Café de la Rotonde has a famous history.  It was renowned as an intellectual gathering place for notable artists and writers, especially during the interwar period.  Amongst its artist clientele were Pablo Picasso and  Modigliani.  Today, it definitely is a class above some of its neighbours.  Breakfast was well up to standard and no more pricey than at the nearby competitors.

We set out in the vague direction of the River Seine and the Eifel Tower.  As we approached Les Invalides, which started life in the 17th century as a hospital and retirement home for wounded soldiers, the rain returned.  The Les Invalides site is dominated by the large golden dome over the tomb of Napoleon built in 1840.  We bought tickets to see the tomb and to visit a number of exhibitions around the site.

The tomb itself is amazing.  It takes the form of a sarcophagus made of red quartzite and resting on a green granite base.  The whole thing stands maybe 5 metres high.  As you enter the building you are on a high level so that the first view is over a parapet to the tomb below.  Stairs take the visitor down to the lower level and you get a feel for the size of this edifice.  Also in the building are memorials to other great French military figures.

From here we moved out into the great courtyard and climbed up a grand stone staircase to the museum that records French military history, especially through the 19th and 20th centuries.  I’m no scholar of history so my analysis may be well adrift from the reality, but it seemed that France was constantly at war, often in its own territory and frequently on the losing side.  However, it was interesting to see their portrayal of the two World Wars from the French point of view.  Sufficient to say that liberation of Paris towards the end of World War II, concentrates on the arrival of General de Gaulle as though, somehow, he had led the forces of the allies to a great victory and saved the capital.  On a more positive note, the whole museum is very well curated and was well worth the visit.

Time was beginning to run away with us, so, after a short walk through the grounds, we went to the nearest Metro station and with one change returned to Vavin.  We decided to have a quick lunch before heading for the station, so called in to one of the café bars.  Two Croque’s Monsieur, a beer and some coffee and we were ready for the journey back to London.  We collected our bags from the Hotel Chaplain and took Ligne 4 to the Gare du Nord.  There was the usual crush of school parties, mostly English returning home, but the formalities were minimal and soon we were on the train, this time in Standard Class.

It must be said that apart from the fact that there are two seats on either side of the central aisle, as opposed to one and two in business class, the seats were equally comfortable and with plenty of legroom.  The only downside was that there is no table service.  We had to go to the café which was three coaches along from where we were sitting.

Our short break was over but, despite the cold and the rain, we had a great time.  For me, the Magritte exhibition was the highlight followed closely by the impressionists in the Fondation Louis Vuitton.  Once again La Coupole did not disappoint nor did Chez Bebert and Le Martignac.  There may have been a lot of “déjà vu” but we loved it and will be back for more.





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Paris Deja Vu – Part 1

Well it is January so I guess it’s to be expected that it would be cold and wet.  The temperature was well below 10C and the rain rained at regular intervals.  But that didn’t stop us having a great trip.  We visited museums and art galleries, strolled through parks, saw some of the classic places of interest, and, of course, sampled the food and drink for which Paris is world famous.

We were last in the French capital a little over two years ago, in December 2014.  And as then, we travelled by Eurostar.  What other way is there to travel to Paris when you live in London.  But we were in for a very nice surprise.  I’ve been travelling on this route since it started way back in 1994.  In those days, it was mostly for business but, since retiring, the journeys have been strictly for pleasure.  And Paris has lots of pleasure to offer.  However, at the time of our last trip, the original rolling stock was beginning to look a little tired, or more accurately, scruffy.  This time however, those days had gone and we travelled in new coaches with fresh, tasteful décor and more comfortable seats.  A much more pleasant experience.

The trip didn’t start well. When we got to our local railway and tube station.  There were crowds of people waiting for a District Line train in to London, and no sign of a train. The station staff had no idea as to when a train would arrive.  So, we crossed over to the mainline service, along with many in the crowd, and were crammed like sardines into the next train.  No chance of a seat, just plenty of sweaty armpits.  At Vauxhall, where we changed to the Victoria Line, the crowds were even denser and we had to let four trains go before Margaret could get on.  I followed on the next train.  We had anticipated this split journey scenario, so the agreed strategy of staying on the platform at Kings Cross/St Pancras worked.

Once we were through ticket checks, UK exit passport control, France entrance passport control and security checks, we were ready for a seat and some coffee.  The train was soon called and we were on our way to La Belle France.

As the title of this blog post suggests, the trip had serious amounts of “déjà vu”, and no bad thing.  There are so many things in Paris that really can be visited over and over again and still give lots of pleasure and new surprises.  This trip was to be no exception.

We’ve taken to staying in Montparnasse district but never twice in the same hotel.  Getting to know different streets in the same general locale is a delight in itself.  This time we chose well.  The Hotel le Chaplain Paris Rive Gauche, is less than two minutes walk from the Vavin Metro station which is on Ligne 4 direct from Gare du Nord.  It is located on a quite side street but just a few steps away from a busy junction with no less than seven café bars (three visited) and an Irish pub (unvisited).  And, most importantly for us, but six minutes from Chez Bebert, our favourite North African restaurant and three minutes from La Coupole, the very chic brasserie that specialises in seafood.

Chez Bebert did not disappoint for our first evening meal.  The place appeared to be full from outside but they found us a table straightaway.  As with all the tables in Berber, they are very small but we were lucky to be given a four-seater arrangement so could actually stretch out a little.  The menu is simple, either tagine or couscous, with lamb or chicken or both.  We chose couscous and, within seconds, a large plate of couscous appeared quickly followed by another even bigger plate of gently casseroled vegetables that included chunky carrots, potatoes and celery.  Added to this were two bowls, one of chickpeas and one of white beans. All the vegetables had been cooked in spicy broth.  There was also a side dish of harissa to add more heat to suit the palate.  And to wash all of this down we had chosen a carafe of Moroccan White and another of Moroccan Red.  So within less than five minutes of arriving we were digging in to very tasty food.  The meats we had chosen obviously took a little more preparation but even they arrived within about another five minutes.

Our first full day dawned wet and cold.  A very short walk took us to one of the café bars at the nearby major crossroads.  Breakfast consisted of coffee and fresh bread with jam. Then it was across the road and down into the Metro.  We’d decided to revisit the magnificent Frank Gehry designed Fondation Louis Vuitton.  Here are a few words from our last visit.

The Fondation Louis Vuitton is a brand new cultural centre built by the wealthiest family business in France. It’s located in the vast urban park of the Bois du Boulogne right next to the Jardin d’Acclimatation, a recreational area with everything from donkey riding to petting llamas. When we visited it was exactly a month old.

The building is the work of the renowned architect Frank Gehry. The galleries, auditorium, shop and general public areas are relatively conventional spaces. The outstanding part, from an architectural perspective, is the outer shell which is made out of massive curved sheets of glass that give the overall impression of a large ship ploughing through the ocean. The verisimilitude is enhanced by a water feature that makes one think of rolling waves and, along part of one side, is a large bubble of glass containing golden, papier-mâché or moulded plastic fish. The whole building must be over 200 metres from end to end and 100 metres across.

Visitors are encouraged to go out onto the roofs of the galleries which are of varying heights and interlinked by staircases and causeways. You can virtually walk from bow to stern of the “ship” at a high level. It also gives the opportunity to view and admire the steel and wood structures that support the glass of the outer skin. Scattered along the roofs are small beds of shrubs and a few trees. And should you want a wider perspective, there are gaps that give views out over Paris. Of particular note are the Tour Eiffel and the skyscrapers of La Défense.

Apart from one gallery devoted to architectural models of the construction project, the other galleries were all closed to the public whilst an exhibition was being hung. This lack of specific distractions gave us time to descend to the lowest floor. From here you could look out towards the waves of water coming towards the prow. And, as if this isn’t enough, along one side at this lowest level and stretching about half the length is an installation piece by the world-renowned Danish artist Ollafur Elasson. It consists of columns made up of rectangles of yellow light and mirrors and the columns are arranged in a gentle curve that follows the line of the ship’s hull. A stunning end to a memorable visit.

The first thing we noticed on the approach to the building this time, was that many of the glass panels were now coloured to give a chequerboard effect.  This turned out to be an exhibition in its own right, the work of the French conceptual artist Daniel Buren.  It is called “The Observatory of Light”.  To quote from the publicity :-

The twelve “sails”, formed of 3,600 individual pieces of glass, are covered by a staggering array of coloured filters that are in turn punctuated, at equal distances from one another, by alternating white and blank stripes perpendicular to the ground.  The thirteen selected colours make coloured forms appear and disappear, ever-changing with the time of day and with the season.

Unfortunately, it being a very dull day and heavily overcast, there was almost no natural light even in the middle of the day.  Still the colours looked great.

After a half hour queue in the rain (the Fondation provided umbrellas for those who needed them) we got to the ticket desk and then into the building.  The entrance lobby was busy so we headed straight for the main exhibition.  This was entitled “Icons of Modern Art” and is from the collection of Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin, a Russian businessman of the late 19C and early 20C who collected, amongst other works, a large portfolio of impressionist art.  He became very friendly with Matisse and many of his paintings are in the collection.  Other artists’ works included Monet, Degas, Cézanne and Gaugin.  A veritable display of the great artists of that time.

The exhibition was displayed in more than ten galleries moving ever higher up the building until we were at the roof level.  Although it was raining and the canopies of the “sails” did not cover the whole open area, it was a relief to leave the crowds behind and have a bit of space.  And, to help us even more, there was a counter selling hot coffee.  Being Paris, the coffee was excellent and we sat in a sheltered spot and enjoyed the vistas over the city and, much closer to home, the colouring of the glass panels.

We left the building by an exit into the surrounding grounds and walked through the adjoining Jardin d’Acclimatation back, through the rain, to the main drag of the Avenue Charles de Gaulle. Here we found a small café for a snack of Croque Monsieur and a soupcon of vino.  Emboldened by the vino, we decided to strike out across the River Seine towards La Defense but were soon turned back by the force of the wind and the wetness of the rain.  A quick retreat to the Pont de Neuilly Metro station saw us en route back to our hotel.

In advance of this trip, a table had been booked at La Coupole for this evening.  We’ve got into a bit of a rut but it’s a rut we are in no hurry to get out off. On every trip to Paris we have to make a visit to La Coupole, a classic French brasserie where time has stood still. It’s so popular that we have got into the habit of making a reservation at the same time as we book our hotel and travel.

When you arrive, there is a reception desk where they check your reservation and take coats. They don’t reserve specific tables although I’m sure regulars can have favourite tables. We were quickly shown to a table and introduced to our waiter, a cheerful middle-aged man who provided excellent, friendly service.  We chose to eat from the “Josephine” menu which meant that a glass of champagne arrived with a crab appetiser whilst we selected our starters and main courses.  Margaret chose a dish of gratiné scallops whilst I had oysters.  For both of us this was followed by a dish based on Monk fish.  Half was a substantial piece of grilled Monk fish on a crispy risotto and the other part was a Monk fish potato cake in a lobster bisque.  All absolutely delicious. The only negative comment about the whole evening was the number of time the lights were dimmed, all table service stopped and a sparkling birthday cake was carried by a team of waiters to the birthday boy or girl.  After the seventh occurrence patience started to wear a little thin.

After a stop on the way back to the hotel for coffee and Calvados, it was time for bed.

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Newfoundland – The End of a Great Visit

It was our last day in Newfoundland and a very long day it was going to be.  The WestJet flight back to London was not until 11.35 at night but we’d be in Gatwick by 8 the next morning with only a 3 1/2 hour time difference.   We were hoping that the jetlag would be minimal and so it proved. 

During our two stays in St John’s, our guest house rooms were named after local places.  “Cape Spear” is the most easterly headland in North America, whilst “Petty Harbour” is a small fishing port.  Both were within a short drive of the city and they sounded interesting enough to be visited.

Cape Spear, boasts two lighthouses, one the original now in mothballs and the other a modern, automatic system.  Normally, visitors can look around the inside of the older lighthouse but visitor services had decamped for the winter.  The cape is totally exposed to the Atlantic and at the highest points, the cliff edge is protected with barriers to stop people being blown off.

In April 2015, we had stood in the wind and the rain at Cape Baba, the most westerly point in Asia a little south of the ancient city of Troy in South West Turkey.  At Cape Baba you approached the most westerly point through an Ottoman Castle built in the early 1700’s as protection against pirates.  Now, standing in the wind but in glorious sunshine, we were at the most easterly point in North America at Cape Spear. At Cape Spear you approach the most easterly point through WWII gun emplacements built as protection against the German navy.  The irony is that whereas the Ottoman castle had certainly been used in anger, the guns at Cape Spear, despite expensive engineering and construction costs, had never been fired in anger.

Cape Spear is a potentially dangerous place for the unwary.  There are signs imploring visitors to refrain from climbing down to the shoreline where, technically, the most easterly point on land is.  As the notices advise, sudden winds or large waves can blow or wash the unwary into the ocean.  To hammer home the point, a number of deaths are recorded on plaques around the site.  Not wanting to become part of those statistics, we heeded the advice.

From Cape Spear it was only a short drive to Petty Harbour, nestling in the next cove to the south. The port town is centred around the harbour which occupies what I would call a sea loch or, in Norway, a fiord.  The harbour is protected by walls protruding from either shore and leaving a gap wide enough for a small fishing boat.  There was a prosperous, busy atmosphere about the place with boats being re-provisioned in preparation for their next voyages.  We ate at the only restaurant that was open, Chafe’s Landing.  The food – we chose the ubiquitous cod and chips – was fine but not great.

Back in St John’s we had left the most prominent tourist destination till last.  Signal Hill dominates the city to the east where it protects The Narrows, the channel in from the Atlantic to the harbour.  Normally you can drive to the top but the road system is being renewed so we had to park the car about half way up and walk.  It’s not high, about 150 metres, but the views out to sea and across the town are second to none.

The summit is dominated by the Cabot Tower.  The building had been used for flag-signalling to boats and to harbour masters as boats approached and left the harbour.  Today it houses a shop and museum.  The museum is dedicated to the work of Guglielmo Marconi who made communications history at Signal Hill by receiving the first ever transatlantic wireless signal in 1901.  On the hillside around and below the tower, there are gun emplacements with some guns still in situ.  They were there to protect the harbour from intruders.  During WWII, the Americans stationed anti-aircraft guns on Signal Hill.  I don’t recollect that our enemies at that time had the capability of flying the Atlantic and any aircraft carrier trying to cross the Atlantic would have been easily intercepted.

As we left the summit to amble down the slopes, large black clouds that had been ominously making their presence felt, started to deposit their load.  At first it was a light shower but soon it was real rain.  We made a dash for the car and made it just before the heavens opened.  Were we glad, a pile of wet clothes was the last thing we needed before a transatlantic flight.  In need of a light snack we headed back to our favourite coffee house, Coffee Matters.

We set out for the airport in some trepidation bearing in mind how difficult it had been to get out on arrival.  Our fears were unfounded.  Handing back the rental car and checking in took all of ten minutes.  Security to go airside took less than five minutes.  There was plenty of time in hand so time for a drink.

Or so we hoped, but very quickly it became clear that alcohol was not available.  A quick question and it turned out that the only bar in the airport was on the landside.  Then, almost as an afterthought, we were told we could go back to the departure area.  This was a new experience.  An international airport where passengers could move freely backwards and forwards between landside and airside.

And so it was time to say farewell to St John’s and Newfoundland.  It had been a short visit but we had had a great time.  Our lasting memory will be how friendly and helpful everyone had been.  We’ll also remember the fate of so many sealers who were abandoned to an icy grave.

We’d love to go back to Newfoundland but next time we will plan a detailed itinerary.  This trip had essentially been tacked on to the back of a trip to see our family in Minneapolis.  It more than achieved our goal of seeing the province at first hand but it left us realising how much more there is to experience.  And, we’ll make sure it is in peak whaling and iceberg season.


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Seven Days in Newfoundland – Days 4 – 6

It was time to pack our bags and head to the Bonavista peninsula for three nights in a most beautiful place.  The rain rained and the wind blew but also the sun shone and we had a great time.  The Eriksen guest house in Trinity was to be our base.  It had one special feature that we came to love, the large communal sitting-room.  This was shared by the occupants of the six bedrooms on the upper floor.  We got to know some super fellow guests, all Canadian or, in one case, long term immigrants from the UK.

The guest house did evening meals and we dined there on our first night but for the other two nights we went to the Dock Marina Restaurant on the waterfront with some of our fellow travellers.  The Dock Marina was more café style than restaurant with its gingham tablecloths and rambling menu.  Whether you had one course or umpteen course or even just a drink, was up to you..  On both nights we ate the national dish of cod.  It was prepared in many different styles to suit every palate.  Our favourites were the traditional deep fried cod fillets (1,2,3 to suit) and cod au gratin, baked in a white sauce and topped with melted cheese.

On the first visit there were six of us and a good time was had by all but on the second night there was just ourselves and our new found (in Newfoundland!!) friends Peter and Eirian from Calgary in Alberta.  Our waitress turned out to have been hired to run the business side of affairs and the accounts but also liked to work at the sharp end.  Weren’t we lucky.  We were the last guests of the evening and we heard people who were already eating mildly complaining that some dishes were not available.  When two of our party asked for cod au gratin, one of the dishes off the menu, the waitress said “don’t worry I’ll get the chef to make some fresh”.  And so she did.  Whether it was because we had travelled so far or because she took a liking to us is anyone’s guess.

Each time she came to our table she told us, unprompted, another bit about her background and life in Trinity.  It was all fascinating. She had had a child at 17, the relationship with the father deepened and they married. That first baby, a daughter, had her own first child at 17 a few years ago. So we were listening to a grandmother, under forty, whose compelling storytelling was riveting. Along the way she and her husband had acquired qualifications, a good home and a close relationship with their children and grandchild – essentially they were all young together. We all agreed that we had never encountered such glowing contentment.

The Skerwink Trail is a relatively short trail but is one of the most dramatic I’ve been on, if you discount the Cuillin Ridge on Skye which is way beyond my capabilities nowadays.  It’s a relatively short walk and starts tamely across level terrain and into woodland.  Underfoot, the path is very well maintained and way-marking is clear.  After a short distance the path forks.  To the right it indicates an inland variation whilst to the left it says “caution” and hints at high cliffs.  We took the latter.  And within less than a minute, suddenly, there’s a small break in the trees and we’re standing right on top of a sheer 100 metre cliff looking down on a number of sea stacks.  Amazing.

The rock of Newfoundland is largely sedimentary sandstone giving a general flatness to the whole island.  However, at Skerwink Head, the rock has been shifted through 90⁰ and the result is massive slabs of rock pointing skywards.  The Atlantic gales have then done their work eroding the rock and leaving numerous sea stacks and the cliffs.  Most of the headland is covered in conifers and general scrub.  The trees are mature but the constant high winds keep their heights low, typically under 5 metres.

The path skimmed the cliff edge with regular breaks in the trees to get close to the drops.  Some of the gaps had bench seats so you could sit and marvel at the rock formations.  Where the path climbed or descended over bluffs wooden steps had been laid.  And each tread had wire mesh to improve grip in the near constant damp conditions.  This may sound too severely regimented but it was really justified.  Without the clear path the surface would become dangerously eroded, especially so close to the big drops.

After about 4km the trail then descended steeply with steps to a pebble beach.  By now there was a steady drizzle and it was quite cold, definitely only in single figures centigrade.  After a short walk through more open terrain, we were glad to get back to the car and some shelter. What a magnificent walk, only about 5km but with regular stops to enjoy and marvel at the scenery, it took a bit over 2 hours.

Our next stop was to see another lighthouse, Fort Point.  The lighthouse was very visible from Trinity village and we had seen it in the distance from the second half of the Skerwink Trail.  Trinity has a number of sheltered bays all guarded by a long spit of land and together they form one of largest natural harbours in Newfoundland.  Itinerant British cod fishing fleets started to operate from the bays in the 16th century. On Trinity Sunday 1615 the First Court of Admiralty was formally established and the name of Trinity was adopted.  In the middle of the 18th century, a fort was built to protect the British interests and later on, in the middle of the 19th century, the lighthouse was built on the same site.

The next day our travels took us northwards up the Bonavista peninsula for about 50km to the most northerly point at Cape Bonavista just beyond the town of Bonavista.  It was a lovely day though the breeze was quite chilly.  You are constantly reminded that the next landmass to the north is Greenland and the Arctic.  In a couple of months’ time the ocean will start to freeze over.

The Cape Lighthouse was open for visitors.  There is a small museum which covered the early history including a fascinating Scottish connection.  The original lanterns and reflectors had come from the Bell Rock Lighthouse which guards the entrance to the Firth of Tay and that was designed by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson.  A few years later these were augmented by the lanterns and reflectors of another famous Scottish lighthouse, the Isle of May, which guards the approaches to the Firth of Forth.  To keep the Scottish connection going, we were shown around the lighthouse by a lady who hailed from Paisley in Scotland.  The accommodation for the keepers was built as a series of rooms on two storeys round the cylindrical structure of the column supporting the lanterns and reflectors.  Everything had been lovingly restored to as near the original as possible.

Close to the lighthouse is a memorial to John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) who landed there in 1497 and reportedly gave the area the name Bona Vista – Beautiful View.  The memorial takes the form of a large statue of the man himself looking out over the, to him, new found land.  This led us back to the town where a life-size replica of his boat, The Matthew, is housed in a purpose built museum.  The replica was built in Bristol, England, just like the original, and sailed the Atlantic to Bonavista to repeat Cabot’s original voyage.  The boat arrived on the 24th June 1997, the 500th anniversary of the first landing.  The event was considered so significant that none other than Queen Elizabeth II was there to lead the celebrations.  Standing on the deck of the boat it is incredible to imagine sailing the wild Atlantic in such a small vessel.

For lunch we dined at Neil’s Yard, not to be confused with or maybe indeed to be confused with, Neal’s Yard the natural food shop in Covent Garden, London.  The owner of Neil’s Yard originated from London and acknowledged a bit of plagiarism.  Whatever, the food was simple but excellent and very reasonably priced.

The last visit of the day was to a very different museum in the nearby town of Ellison.  The town is scattered over low-lying land along the shoreline.  We were drawn towards a statue cum monument near the beach.  The poignant statue depicts two figures, a father and teenage son, Rueben and Albert John Crewe, embracing each other as they were found frozen together on the sea ice after an ill-fated sealing expedition.  The monument is a memorial to the scores of seamen who lost their lives in two separate disasters during one 1914 storm.

The nearby museum explains the whole disaster.  Essentially, sealers were taken out to the ice-flows and left to make their kills.  Sometime later the boats would return to pick them up.  That worked as well as it could in reasonable weather.  The story of the March 1914 storm is complex but the essential facts are that many sealers were abandoned to an icy grave due in part to the storm but also to the actions of the masters of the two main ships.  Most could have been rescued had it not been for bad decisions made those who could have helped.  In total, 251 sealers died.  Life was very harsh in Newfoundland in those days only 100 years ago.

The next day we said goodbye to Trinity and headed back to St John’s on the Trans-Canada Highway for about half the journey.  Then we turned off to visit a small seaside community with an unforgettable name.  Dildo was given its name by the great naval explorer Capt. Cook who thought that the rounded promontory that reached out into the bay resembled the aforementioned.

This wasn’t the only odd name we came across.  Newfoundland seems to revel in them.  Some examples we saw included Chance, Hearts Delight, Cupids, Pretty Street, Tickle Harbour, Country Road and Placentia.  Presumably most of these names were given in the 17th and 18th centuries as Newfoundland became populated.  However, one was definitely of modern invention.  “No Charge for the View B&B” was on Trinity Bay and had a most spectacular sea view.  A very clever name.

From Dildo we drove across a peninsula to Conception Bay and the small town of Brigus.  The reason for visiting here was that it was the birthplace of Capt. Bob Bartlett, sailor and Arctic explorer.  Bartlett had many claims to fame in his day.  These included the furthest North sailing, above 88⁰ N, and breaking the route through the ice to get the American Robert Peary to a point 150 miles from the North Pole.  Due to rivalries between the two men Bartlett was barred from travelling to the pole with Peary.  With over forty polar expeditions to his name, Bartlett was a real pioneer.  He led a number of journeys to rescue other expeditions that had become stranded in very inaccessible places including the members of the ill-fated Crocker Land Expedition, who had been stuck on the ice for four years.  He is largely an unsung hero outside of his native Newfoundland.

Back in St John’s we checked into the Rendell Shea Manor, the sister guest house of the Elizabeth Manor where we had stayed before.  The Rendell Shea was even more sumptuous.  We were taken to the Cape Spear Room on the top floor.  It was very large with the well-appointed en suite bathroom off a small private hallway.

For dinner we decided to walk down Cochrane Street from the guest house and then turn into the main street parallel to the harbour, Duckworth Street.  The first place to catch our eye was The Bagel Café.  Not an obvious choice for an evening meal but with a look at the menu and the busy crowd inside, we took a chance.  And it was a success.  Very friendly staff, a good choice of dishes, speedy service and an affordable bill.  What more could you ask for.

After the meal our next port of call had to be a bar for a nightcap or two.  As we were passing the lobby of a large bank, out came our friends from Trinity, Peter and Eirian.  What a coincidence.  They had the same idea as ourselves and were heading for an Irish pub, The Ship Pub, where they had read there would be live music.  Ideal.  We joined forces and headed back to Duckworth Street.  Seats were at a bit of a premium but we got a row of four near the back with a good view of the stage.  The music was good, mostly one singer who sang a mixture of folk, blues and rock.  A fine end to a busy day.

Tomorrow was to be our last day in Newfoundland.  We would have to make the most of it as  we didn’t know how long it would be before we returned.

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7 Days in Newfoundland – Days 1 – 3

Newfoundland is a very large island, about half the size of the whole of Britain or one and a half times the size of Ireland.  It lies in the Gulf of St Lawrence off the east coast of Canada.  The population is about half a million of which about two fifths live in or around the capital St John’s at the Atlantic end of the island.  For administrative purposes, Newfoundland is joined with Labrador which is the vast sub-Arctic and Arctic landmass that lies on the Canadian mainland to the north.  Only about 5% of the total population of the Province live in Labrador.  Newfoundland is pronounced by the locals as New Fund Land, three separate words.

These locals are officially called Newfoundlanders which is affectionately, but also sometimes insultingly, shortened to Newfies.  There is a small aboriginal population (First Nations, Metis, Inuit) but the vast majority either originate from other parts of North America or from the British Isles (England, Ireland and Scotland) split roughly 50/50.  English is the dominant language but their dialect could be described as a cross between Canadian English and Irish English and they speak at a rapid pace making understanding for non-natives sometimes very difficult.

“Welcome to The Rock”, said the lady at the Avis car rental desk in St John’s Airport.  She explained that that is what the locals call their homeland.  What she didn’t explain was how to get out of the airport complex.  It is currently undergoing major refurbishment including the replacement and realignment of the road system.  Along with a number of other rental customers we spent what seemed like ages going around and around trying to find the exit onto the main road system.

Our guest house had provided a comprehensive set of driving instructions to get us to our bed for the night, except that they had one small but crucial error mentioning going through three sets of lights on one stretch when it should have said one.  So, it was time to resort to satnav which got us there very quickly.  Earl, the proprietor, had emailed the code for the front door, so although it was after midnight, we were able to get inside.  In the vestibule there were large notices requiring us to remove our shoes before entering the hallway.  So our shoes joined the dozen or so other pairs lined up by the door.

Another notice informed us that our room, “Petty Harbour”, was on the third floor, right at the top of the building.  There was no lift, so getting our luggage upstairs was a bit of a trial.  The door to our room was open but there was no sign of the number for the keypad that locked the door.  This would have to fixed in the morning.  In the mean time we were seriously in need of some rest.

We had only planned the first two nights on the assumption that we could set off and explore Newfoundland, picking up B&B’s as we went along.  There was a notice in the room saying that Earl was happy to provide travel advice.  We decided to take advantage of the offer.

Newfoundland & Labrador has been doing some serious advertising in Canada on the delights of visiting the province.  It has worked.  People were flocking to “The Rock”.  We met people from Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.  What this meant was that when we tried to book accommodation for our first night on the road, a Saturday, there was nothing available.

We called Earl and he came round from his other guest house just a few houses away.  He suggested that the destination we had chosen was much further away than we needed to go to get great sea scenery and walks.  Instead of Twillingate, some 450km distance and about 6 hours driving, we should try Trinity on the Bonavista Peninsula, some 200km distance and not much more than 2 ½ hours driving.  Getting an hotel for the Saturday night proved impossible in Trinity as well, still, there was a nice place that could take us from the Sunday night for three nights.  We booked it straightaway.  Earl said he could put us up for the Saturday night so that was fine.  The extra day in St John’s could be used for some out of town touring.

Within minutes of the hotel are two major historical buildings.  The first is Government House, built in the early 1800’s and first occupied in 1831, the home of the Lieutenant Governor of Newfoundland & Labrador.  It’s a rather grand house with extensive grounds and is used nowadays largely for ceremonial functions.  Normally, the public can see round, but it was closed so we had to be content with a walk round the outside.

The next building along the street is the Colonial Building, which was built to house the government of the colony from the mid 1800’s till 1948 when Newfoundland & Labrador became a province of Canada.  The government is now housed in a modern building, the Confederation Building, that we could see on the hillside a little further out from the city centre.  The Colonial Building has an impressive colonnaded front and a flight of steps extending across the whole front of the building all made of white limestone imported from Cork in Ireland.  The rest of the building was obscured by scaffolding for renovations.

Further along is the National Museum and Art Gallery of the province called The Rooms.  We started walking in the general direction but were working from a rather crude freebie map and couldn’t work out exactly where to go.  We were standing consulting the map when a car going in the opposite direction stopped in the middle of the busy city road and the driver asked if he could help.  Traffic started to build up behind him but no one was upset.  I said we were looking for “The Rooms”, as the building is called.  “Just keep walking, it’s on the right”.  We shouted our thank yous and, with a cheery wave, he moved on.  This episode really epitomised Newfoundlander friendliness and helpfulness.

The Rooms is a fine building opened in 2005 and made of granite, wood, aluminium and lots of glass.  It is the centre for cultural heritage in the province and houses a museum, art gallery, the National Archive and rooms for project work.  We focused our visit on the history of the island and its peoples.  Everything was so well presented and the detail so absorbing that we spent much longer there than planned.  There is also an excellent and popular restaurant on the top floor with superb views over St John’s Harbour and The Narrows, the short, natural channel that links the harbour to the Atlantic.  All the tables beside the picture windows were fully booked and you could see why.  We were happy for any table and ordered two big bowls of the chowder for which they are rightly famous.  For me, this was washed down with a bottle of local Iceberg beer.  Not any old beer, but a brew that uses melt water from passing icebergs.  It’s officially classed as a lager but to my mind it has many characteristics of a light pale ale.  Whatever, it became my drink of choice throughout our stay.

The dominant feature of St John’s is the harbour.  This is a perfect, natural place of shelter from the ravages of the Atlantic.  Until the 1990’s this would have been a scene of hundreds of fishing boats.  But no more.  Cod fishing had always been a major part of the economy but after the second world war the introduction of ever larger super-trawlers resulted in a massive increase in the number of fish landed.  The outcome of this greed and lack of government intervention was inevitable.  Suddenly, around 1990, the stocks rapidly decreased.  A ten-year moratorium was agreed in 1992 and cod fishing stopped.  It actually took till 2011 before cod stocks started to recover properly and now fishing is strictly controlled using small trawlers.

The fishing trawlers, now much reduced in size, can use other, smaller harbours.  St John’s Harbour today seems to be more a base for oil industry supply ships and cable laying ships.  It’s interesting in these days of satellite communications that the laying and maintaining of undersea cables is still a big industry.  In fact, satellites carry a very small percentage of the world’s communications traffic.  Undersea cable is far more reliable and can carry much more data at faster speeds.  Newfoundland is a terminating point for cables that form a worldwide network.  Although we didn’t see any during our visit, the harbour is now used regularly by cruise ships.

Venturing out of the city, we spent a day driving slowly down the coast from St John’s.  St John’s is in the region of Newfoundland known as Avalon.  The road that circuits the southern shores of Avalon is the Irish Loop or Route 10, named in honour of the thousands of Irish who emigrated to the province.  The road heads over forested moor land sprinkled with small lakes.  As we began to learn, this is very typical Newfoundland scenery.  After about twenty minutes we could see the sea appearing to our left and the road descended to the first community of Bay Bulls.  In the summer, especially during the whale season, Bay Bulls and the next bay, Witless Bay, are busy places for tourist boats going out to watch whales and sea birds.  That season was mostly over for this year.

We moved on with the road climbing out of each bay into the forest before descending to the next.  Our goal was La Manche Provincial Park.  The park stretches from a long, narrow channel cum harbour way inland.  On the banks of this channel a small fishing community was established around 1840.  Here are a few words about the demise and final tragedy, courtesy of the Provincial Park website.

In the mid-1960’s the community was under pressure to resettle into larger, nearby towns. The road leading to La Manche was difficult and expensive to maintain, particularly in the winter.  On January 25, 1966 a severe winter storm hit the east coast of the Avalon Peninsula. An enormous tide washed away all the flakes (waterfront platforms for drying cod), boats, anchors and stores of La Manche as well as the suspension bridge which connected both sides of the harbour. Most of the houses were demolished, miraculously there were no deaths attributed to the storm. The entire economy of the village was destroyed so the residents of La Manche agreed to be resettled by the provincial government.”

The ruins of the community have been maintained and the suspension bridge rebuilt as a memorial to the hard lives that people led as recently as fifty years ago.  A signpost indicates the point to leave the main highway and a dirt road leads to a car park.  From here a good trail leads down through woods for less than 2km to the ruins of the village where it joins the East Coast Trail that hugs the Avalon coastline.  All that is left of the village are the stone bases of the houses and the few timbers that weren’t wash away in 1966.  All very poignant.

We walked onto the suspension bridge and had the wonderful sight of two seals sunbathing on the rocks far below.  Following the East Coast Trail which travels northwards across the bridge, we reached the mouth of the La Manche inlet and had a great view along the coast and out into the Atlantic.  It was a lovely, warm, sunny day which made it hard to imagine the storm that destroyed these hardy people’s livelihoods.

Back in the car, our journey took us southwards to the township of Ferryland, an Anglicisation of the original French name of Forillon.  Ferryland was established in the 1600’s as a base for fishing fleets.  One visitor in those days was none other than Sir Walter Raleigh.  Nowadays this is a small community which has become an archaeological site, unearthing the history of the early occupations.  The Colony of Avalon at Ferryland is recognized as the best preserved early English colonial site in North America.  The museum and associated works were closed.

[as we discovered throughout the province, the majority of public sites close on Labour Day (early September) for the winter]

However, we could see a striking lighthouse on a spit of land that stretched out into the ocean.  We parked the car and set out on the 1km rough road to reach it.  The lighthouse is of typical Canadian Maritime style, a red painted stack with a white lantern on top and a red roof on top of that.  The lantern has been automated for some years but the lighthouse keeper’s accommodation has been put to a novel use to raise money for on-going maintenance.  It is now a kitchen specialising in picnics.  And these picnics are so popular that they have to booked in advance.  Today’s picnic had just finished, the guests were making their ways back to their cars.  It was nice to have the place to ourselves.

The headland around the lighthouse is great place for whale and bird watching in the spring and summer but now, apart from the odd seagull, the wildlife has started to migrate as winter approaches.  We were disappointed at the lack of whales but we still could enjoy the wonderful scenery and the walking.

Ferryland was as far south as we went.  Heading back to St John’s the first place we passed was Cape Broyle, a small township where every business seemed to owned by the Daltons.  Earlier we had stopped at Dalton’s Supermarket and bought coffee, buns, granola bars and fruit.  And also, we couldn’t resist buying some famous Scottish “Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers”.  How they came to be on sale in this remote part of the world is anyone’s guess.

Tomorrow we would start to explore further afield.

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