Paris Déjà Vu – Part 2

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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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Flying from Minneapolis to Newfoundland

 After a bit more than two weeks of great family time at our son’s new home in Minneapolis, the wanderlust called.  We travelled in two stages from Minneapolis St Paul’s (MSP) Airport to St John’s, the capital of Newfoundland & Labrador.  It was to be a long day, leaving the house at 6.45am and not arriving at our destination until after 10pm.  At least that was the plan but, as with many plans, things can go awry all too often on long journeys.

I’d read about horrendous queues at airport security in the US and MSP got regular mentions as one of the worst.  Oliver had warned that on his frequent business flights there had been many occasions where passing through security could take an hour or more.  So we were prepared for long queues and boredom.

Once in the terminal we went to the Delta Airlines check-in desk.  We were actually flying with the
Canadian airline WestJet but our flight to Toronto was a codeshare on a Delta Airlines aircraft.
  Check-in is mostly a self-service activity these days and so it proved to be with Delta.  It was all quite simple until we came to a bit where the system asked when we were leaving the country.  That seemed a strange question given we were preparing to board a flight that morning and leaving the US for Canada.  Fortunately help was at hand.  It turned out that the question was “when will you be leaving Canada?”.  Problem solved.  The check-in terminal then produced two boarding passes and the guy who had helped a few moments ago, appeared with two luggage tags, attached the to the bags and the process was over.  Total time from entering the terminal was ten minutes, maximum.  Pretty good.

Next, was the dreaded security fpr which we had allowed plenty of time.  Our boarding passes showed that we had been awarded “TSA Pre-Check” which means that we only need low-level scanning.  No idea why we were given this status but it was very welcome.  There were about six people ahead of us in the Pre-Check line and everything moved very quickly.  We weren’t required to remove liquids from our carry-on bags nor did we have to separate out our laptops and Kindles.  It was easy.  So, as with check-in, in a maximum of ten minutes we were airside and ready to go with oodles of time in hand.

A quick check on the departure screens showed that our flight was scheduled to depart on time, two hours away.  Plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast.  I recognised the name of one eating place, “Rock Bottom”.  They are a brewery chain that install micro-breweries in every outlet.  They’re a Milwaukee based business but we first came across them in Chicago and knew that they served good quality pub food.  Alcohol was not on our agenda so early in the day. 

Breakfast of scrambled eggs with bacon and fried potatoes was served in giant portions.  Why is it
that everything has to be so big in America?
  So we struggled on washing the food down with orange juice and coffee.  A very satisfying breakfast and something that would definitely keep us going through the journey to Toronto.

Before heading to the gate, a quick check of the screens showed that our gate had changed and was now a long way from the main hall of the terminal where we were.  The shuttle train that normally services the distant gates was out of order so we walked travellator after travellator then miles of corridor until we reached the gate area.  Up to this point we didn’t have seats assigned but on asking the gate agent she said, if we wanted them, we could have emergency exit seats which come with much more legroom and at no extra cost.  A definite yes was said to that idea.

A short while later the flight was called and we boarded the narrow bodied commuter jet.  Once we were all in our seats one of the two flight attendants – stewardesses – came down the aisle and addressed the eight of us who were in the emergency exit seats.  “Do you understand the emergency procedures? I need a verbal from everyone individually.”  Then she pointed at each of us in turn and waited for us to say “Yes”.  Ordeal over and the plane could be pushed back from the air-bridge.

I had a window seat – Margaret prefers the aisle – and had a good view over the North American landscape.  The route took us over Wisconsin State, then Lake Michigan, Michigan State, Lake Huron, Lake Erie and the Canadian State of Ontario.  On a bit of a whim, I wondered if the satellite-based mapping system  in my phone worked while in the plane and with airplane mode switched on.  It did, perfectly.  So for the rest of the journey I was able to identify towns and rivers as we flew over them.

The plane landed twenty minutes early at Toronto Pearson International airport.  Normally that would sound great but for us it meant that our timetabled four-hour layover would now be extended.  On disembarking we had to go through Canadian immigration which was very straightforward.  Then it was baggage collection followed by customs and then rechecking our bags for the onward flight.  That used up the twenty minutes so we still had four hours to kill.

In an unfamiliar airport it is always a good idea to have some idea of where the departure gate is located and whether there are enough facilities there to meet your needs.  So off we set and what a good job we did.  After about two miles on travellators, we found ourselves at the top of one of the longest escalators in the world.  Then it was another set of travellators before coming to another escalator going upwards to the sky.  This deposited us in what must have been a satellite terminal.  Fortunately, it was well serviced with cafes, bars and restaurants.  We decided to stay there and got a table in a restaurant.

Nearing time for the flight, we wandered along to the gate only to discover that the flight was going to be delayed.  Although the aircraft was at the stand, we were told that the pilot was en route from Ottawa and his plane had been diverted to another airport.  Every fifteen minutes or so the gate agent announced the progress of our captain.  His plane was on the ground at Hamilton, Ontario.  His plane was last in a queue of seven for take-off.  His plane was in the air.  His plane was landing at Toronto.  He had disembarked and was being transported to the plane.  He was on the plane and doing his pre-flight checks.  The plane was ready for boarding.  Top marks for information, it made the delay less frustrating.

The flight took off one and a half hours late. We’d been on the ground for hours and hours.  Still we were now on the way to St John’s and Newfoundland.  WestJet have great cabin crew and they managed to make a routine airline food and drink service feel personal. I had a window seat again and was able to watch the ground passing below us.  The initial sight was Lake Ontario which we followed to the end of the water.  Then it was the St Lawrence River.  Unfortunately, the plane was passing through increasing cloud and night was beginning to fall.  When you are travelling eastwards, the day turns to night very quickly.

And then, just as it was getting a little boring, the plane started the descent to St John’s.  Adjusting our watches, etc, was a unique experience for us.  Newfoundland is three and a half hours behind GMT so our watches had to be advanced by one and a half hours. (Hope that makes sense!) The plane touched down about ninety minutes behind schedule.  It could have been worse.  However, it was now 11pm and once we’d got off the plane, picked up our bags and found the rental car it was going to be nearly midnight.  It was a good job that the Elizabeth Manor guesthouse we were booked in to, had a keypad entry system so we could get in at any time of the day or night.  It had been a very long day.  A bit of shuteye would be very, very welcome.

 

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Highway 61 Visited

Before the days of Interstates (motorways), the USA was criss-crossed by a series of long, long roads with their lengths measured in hundreds and even thousands of miles.  Probably the most famous is US 66 or Route 66 running from Chicago, Illinois to St Monica, California, a distance of nearly 2,500 miles.  US 61, more often called Highway 61, ran from New Orleans to the Canadian border, more or less due south – north and following the course of the Mississippi.  It was over 1,500 miles long when built but nowadays the route really only exists in relatively short, disconnected stretches.  It is suggested that the original route provided some inspiration for the great singer songwriter Bob Dylan.  It was the route that connected his homelands in the extreme north (Duluth, Minnesota) to the home of the Blues in the deep south. 

Being a lifelong Dylan fan and having been born in the same year as himself and being in Minnesota, a trip to Duluth was a must.  The chance to see the place where he came from and how it may have influenced his music was not to be missed.  So a two day, one night, trip was planned and on Thursday morning Margaret, myself and our son Oliver, set out northbound from Minneapolis on the interstate I35 interstate, which in these parts replaces the old Highway  61.

Our first stop was at Tobies Bakery in Hinckley at about the mid point of the journey.  It is, I have read, a required stop for anyone driving between the Twin Cities of St Pauls – Minneapolis and Duluth and the North Shore of Lake Superior.  I have never seen so much sugar disguised as pastries in my life.  My choice was a caramel roll with pecans.  This was made from a flattened sheet of soggy dough, covered in caramel syrup then rolled into a pastry about 6 or 7 inches across and 4 or 5 inches high.  Pecan nuts were then stuck all over the surface and icing applied over the top.  The whole thing weighed about 10 lbs, or so it seemed.  As for calories, there were at least enough for a whole months bodily requirement.  And all for about $2.50, approx. £2.  Try as we might, none of the three of us could finish our pastries in one go.  We drove in comparative silence for the next hour to Duluth.

Duluth is at the extreme western end of Lake Superior and is a major port.  At the other end is the Canadian town of Sault St Marie where gigantic locks enable passage of ships, some over 1000 ft long, onwards into Lake Huron and eventually to Montreal and the Gulf of St Lawrence.  That is particularly relevant for us as in two weeks time we will be in Newfoundland, smack bang in the middle of that Gulf.

On entering Duluth, we followed signs to the harbour which took us to the oldest part of the city.  The old warehouses and offices have been converted into bars, restaurants and tourist shops.  The dominant feature is the giant metal lift bridge known as the Aerial Lift Bridge.  The bridge is over the entrance from the lake into the harbour.  To let ships through, the roadway is lifted vertically between the two metal structures on either side of the water.  It’s a fine sight watching a whole roadway, about 400 feet long, being bodily raised nearly 150 feet.

We crossed the bridge and drove along a straight road running between two rows of houses that stand on a long sand barrier that separates the lake from the harbour.  The houses ended in some grassy parkland.  We stopped and climbed over a tree covered sand dune to reach the shore of the mighty Lake Superior.  Although it is called a lake, Superior, which signifies it is the “superior” or most northerly of the Great Lakes, has all the feel of a sea.  It is over 350 miles from where we were standing to the other end and about 160 miles wide.  The waves crashing on the shore, on this a relatively calm day, were not quite ocean waves but not far short. There were signs that some swimming took place here, but with an average temperature in the lake of 40F (4C), it was not tempting.

By now the effects of the sugar shots of mid-morning were beginning to wear off.  So we retreated to the restaurant area back over the Arial Lift Bridge.  Our chosen eatery was the Northern Waters Smokehaus, which had rave reviews.  They were not wrong.  It was rather modestly sited on one side of a converted old office block.  There was an option to order for takeaway or to sit on a few high stools beside the window.  We chose the latter.  NWS smoke a wide range of produce and many were displayed in the chill cabinets.  There was smoked hams, smoked salmon, smoked trout, smoked salami, indeed almost smoked anything.  Talk about spoilt for choice.  I had to have smoked trout and delicious it was served in a big slab in a  large ciabatta with fresh salad.  The Smokehaus was the kind of place where you wanted to come back again and again and try out all their products.

While eating our lunch, I noticed a poster advertising  a train excursion along the North Shore.  Being a train fanatic this was very tempting.  To my delight the others agreed.  It was now well after 2pm and the next and last train of the day was scheduled to leave at 3.  A quick car journey and we were at the Duluth Depot, home to the North Shore Scenic Railroad.  Tickets were bought and we walked down to the track.

The train consisted of a series of old railcars, all beautifully restored. The car we entered was a Chicago suburban double decker coach.  We selected upper deck seats so that we could get the best panoramas.

The train had to back out of the station for about ¼ mile to reach the through line.  This first part of the journey took us past dozens of coaches and locomotives waiting for restoration.  Once on the mainline, the train set off through the city and  onto the northern shoreline of the lake.  It bumbled along at no more than 15mph through swanky lakeside suburban housing.  A commentary gave interesting information about the history of the line and landmarks that we passed along the way.  The line is now little used but in the past it had been primarily for goods trains. Today most of the trains are like ours, for tourists.

The journey was not very long, no more than six or seven miles.  The train stopped on the bridge over the Lester River close to the point where it flows into the lake.  It then reversed for about ¼ mile to a point where there was a short stretch of double track.  By chance, we were exploring the train at this time and were in the carriage that was about to be come the lead carriage.  There we got talking to the train conductor who was supervising the coupling of the locomotive.

Jack Kemp turned out to be a retired protestant church minister and messing about with trains was now his absorbing hobby.  When we told him about our Scottish roots, he told us that had met Bob Maclennan, the Scottish Liberal Democrat former MP and now member of the House of Lords.  They were both young men and were travelling in Turkey, a country that we know well.  They got on well and travelled together back to Scotland staying at the Maclennan family seat in Sutherland.  An interesting story.

In the evening, as we were setting out for dinner, our route took us along the side of the harbour.  The Aerial Lift Bridge was open and looming out of the evening gloom there was a 1000 foot plus bulk carrier, the Paul R. Tregurtha.  As I learned later, it is the largest ship operating on the Great Lakes and was carrying coal for a power station in Detroit.  It was a fine sight watching it slip through the gap under the bridge and fade out into the waters of Lake Superior on its five day sail to Lake Huron and along the St Clair River to Motown.

In search of a decent breakfast, Fitgers Brewery seemed to have all that was required.  The brewery is a large brick building of about five storeys overlooking the lake.  Today the brewery part is limited to a craft brewery on the first floor.  The rest of the building is an hotel and gift shops.  We got a seat in the window of the restaurant with a panoramic view over the lake.

And it was here that we came across the first reference to Duluth’s native son, Bob Dylan.  I had been slightly amazed at the lack of references around the city to the great man.  At the end of a rather dark hallway there was a display case advertising the Bob Dylan Way.  This turns out to be a walking trail through the central area of the city establish in 2006 on the occasion of Dylan’s 65th birthday.  Although established with City money, the on going maintenance, signage, etc, is being funded by a few enthusiasts.  All rather low key.

Heading along the North Shore on the original Highway 61, now designated a scenic route, took us to the port town of Two Harbors.  This has the main loading dock for iron ore.  There are two high gantries of around 2300 feet each in length and 80 feet high.  Along the top are four railway tracks that carry the trucks laden with taconite (a form of iron ore) and dumps it into pockets or hoppers suspended inside the gantry structure.  When a boat arrives for a load it simply ties up to the gantry and the pockets are emptied into the holds of the ship.  It’s a very efficient operation as the ore can arrive at any time and so can the boats.

Lake Superior North Shore is a great area for outdoor pursuits.  There are plenty of campsites and log cabins.  Every few miles there are rivers tumbling down from the Iron Range Mountains to the north.  The most dramatic that we saw was the Gooseberry River Falls.  For the last mile, the river descends over a series of waterfalls and rapids.  There are excellent paths that get you to great views on both sides of the river.  Also the underlying basalt rock provides relatively safe climbing for budding mountaineers.

For our last stop we travelled a few miles further along the lakeside to Split Rock Lighthouse.  This lighthouse is a little over 100 years old and was in use from 1910 to 1969.  It stands 168 feet above the lake and the beacon has a range of 22 miles.   The lighthouse was commissioned after a disastrous storm in 1905 which sank or damaged 29 ships in the vicinity.  The anchor of one of those ships, the Madeira, is on display.  The position of the wreck is marked by two white buoys close to a cliff some ½ mile northeast along the coast.

And so we started the journey back to Minneapolis but not before a brief stop at the Castle Danger Brewery to pick up a few samples of their beers.  We bought a couple of Growlers (4 pint glass flagons) and a few other bottles, glasses and memento.  It really was now time to hit the trail.  This time we took the new US 61, a fast road a little inland of the original.

On the drive back there was time to reflect on Bob Dylan or, more precisely, the lack of Bob Dylan.  Apart from the worthy but less than impressive Bob Dylan Way, there was nothing.  When he was quite young his family moved north to the township of Hibbing in the Iron Range Mountains.  The house he lived in there is identified but not open to visitors although the street is now called Bob Dylan Ave.

One of his songs, “Something there is about you” on the album Planet Waves, talks about “the Great Lakes” and “Walking the hills of old Duluth”.  That is the only reference that comes to mind from anywhere in his vast catalogue that talks about his homeland. My guess is that, apart from normal influences of family things, little of his home life influenced his career in music.  But one event that happened in Duluth did change his life. 

On the 30th January 1959 at the age of 17, he went to a concert in The Duluth National Armory.  The star of the show was Buddy Holly.  Also on stage were The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens.  It was two days before the event that has become known as “The day the music died”.  Bob Dylan was mesmerised.  There is a photograph showing him right at the front, clinging on to the edge of the stage with Buddy Holly looking down at him.  He has acknowledged that this was a life changing moment for him.

Later that year he enrolled at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and a year later he dropped out and moved to New York.  The rest, as they say, is history.

I’ve since learned that the Duluth National Armory has been undergoing major renovations.  Next week it will re-open as a music resource centre.  A fine tribute to Bob in his 75th year.    

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