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*** Check out the first post of our trip to England/France and read them in order! ***

Day 2 of the conference began with another enjoyable breakfast down in the restaurant, after which Rose set off for another morning of timber conferencing and Philip set off on his solo adventure of the area on bicycle.

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Looking cool while riding around New Forest.

He rented (hired is the correct British term) a bicycle from the hotel and was given a handful of maps highlighting suggested routes around the New Forest area. After handing him a drawstring bag with some bike repair equipment, a lady from the front desk took him around to a shed out back to grab a helmet and bicycle. This equipment collected, he set off down towards town to get on the trail system.

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Horses everywhere! The young ones are the most fun to watch as they venture away from mom but not too far.

Even at this early stage, things began to fall apart. The maps were not particularly helpful and Philip quickly realized he did not know how to get onto the trail system. He stopped at a bicycle shop near the train station for a bit of advice on where to go. Armed with that new information, but still without much of a true destination in mind, he set off again down a different road and eventually found an entrance to the trails.

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The entrance to just one of New Forest’s numerous bike paths.

New Forest is home to many, many miles of compacted gravel trails as well as numerous other on-road cycle routes. Numbered signposts indicate current location and there are several suggested routes that can be followed and which are called out with arrows on some of the sign posts. Unfortunately, the route Philp happened to find (number 2) did not correspond to one of the maps he had in hand (numbers 1 and 4). On the plus side, he did have a third map of the entire region showing the locations of many of the signposts, though the print was extremely small and it did not show all of the trails and junctions.

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A cool stockade built right along the train tracks but otherwise seemingly in the middle of nowhere in New Forest.

With a general understanding of the geography of the area and the assumption that he really couldn’t get too lost, he set off following route #2 and hoping for the best. It led for a while through the forest, though at one point it went along a country lane for a bit before diving again into the trees. Another rider passed along the way and Philip asked him for some navigation help to figure out where the path was headed. Eventually, the path went through a campground before exiting the forest and out onto a lonely moor. The contrast was quite striking of being in the trees one minute and then out on a barren landscape the next.

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Philip saw this traffic blockage scenario more than once while biking around New Forest.

The route wound along a lonely road with only occasional car traffic. More than once, cycles and cars had to stop for horses and cows crossing the road at their own leisurely pace, which was another somewhat surreal experience. After making a couple of turns at intersections to keep following the route, Philip found himself at a 4-way intersection without any markings for the cycle path. He was pretty sure of his location based on his tiny map, but fortunately the same cyclist from before came riding up behind and was able to confirm and suggest a good path for returning back to Brockenhurst.

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If the cows are allowed to cross the road at will, why not the horses too?

The ride back went through a small town named Beaulieu. After an unintentional detour up a hill to England’s National Motor Museum (and then right back down the hill), Philip finally made his way into the town and stopped at a small shop to enjoy a well-earned ice cream cone (salted caramel to be precise). He ate it out in front of the shop and then set off once again back towards home.

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Nothing like an ice cream stop near the end of a long bike ride!

After a mile or so on road, he turned back onto the gravel bike paths. A very happy dog came running up at one point and of course he stopped to say hello. After a few more turns, Philip came upon another older couple walking towards him with yet another happy (and very wet and dirty) dog. The dog had apparently just gone for a swim and was having the time of its life. The couple asked if Philip was headed to Beaulieu, to which he responded no because he had just come from there. At this point, they informed him that he was in fact riding the wrong direction on this path! Fortunately, they had a much larger map and were able to give him better directions to make it the rest of the way back to the hotel.

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Some of New Forest’s ponies that came within a few feet of Philip near the end of his bike ride.

The path exited onto a road less than half a mile from the hotel. Along the way was a small parking lot, which was currently playing host to about 8 New forest ponies. Philip stopped his bike and one of the ponies walked within a foot or so of him on its way to a new field!

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Not the finest bike in the world but it was sufficient for a 23 mile bike ride.

Just before noon, Philip made it back to the hotel and went to the front desk to return the bike. To his surprise, the lady at the desk (different lady than handled the bike checkout earlier) just handed him the key to the bike shed and did not show any interest in coming along to make sure everything was put away properly. A refreshing shower followed and then the wait began for Rose to get out of her conference.

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Philip’s bike ride. A->B: Ride into town to the Bike Shop for directions. B->C: Ride through the forest and exit out onto the moors (first time asking guy for directions). C->D: Ride along lonely road (meet guy again at D and he suggests return route). D->E Ride towards Beaulieu but errantly venture up hill to Motor Museum. E->F: Quick ride around Beaulieu capped off with an ice cream cone. F->G: Head back home (couple at G with happy but wet dog informed me I was heading wrong way). G->A: Made it back to hotel!

The afternoon was spent on a conference field trip to a wooded area called Hooke Park. Philip was able to tag along and we boarded a coach bus for what we thought was about a 60-90 minute drive to the west. It actually took us two and a quarter hours, partially due to some very narrow lanes and tight turns. At one point, the driver had to go fairly significantly out of his way to make a U-turn and come back from the opposite direction because the road just wouldn’t allow him to make the right turn he needed.

Hooke Park is a center of learning and of experiment in the field of timber structures. Specifically, they place great emphasis on using wood that is considered undesirable and not usable by others. The first three buildings on the site were constructed primarily of just this type of wood. In this case, the forest had been poorly managed for various reasons and never thinned properly. As a result, there were a lot of very tall and very spindly trees that were not useful for most applications. Through creative designs, the builders here were able to utilize this timber to create some very beautiful and unique structures.

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The workshop at Hooke Park, which is one of the three original structures built using only the slender trees usually considered to be waste timber.

The more recent structures are interesting as well, particularly two of the open-walled pavilions. One utilizes short board segments in a complex web to hold the roof. The other is a practical demonstration of the relatively new capability of laser 3D mapping of trees and custom designing around the available materials. This building uses two enormous arches running diagonally, comprised entirely of tree forks. The 3D mapping allowed the builders to plan out exactly where each one would go and to ensure that the two arches had the correct shape and joined successfully at the midpoint.

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A pavilion at Hooke Park built using only short pieces of wood bent into a beautiful structure…Apparently, the failure rate of bending the wood was extremely high at first, but they eventually learned how to select the correct wood grain pattern for success.

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A pavilion at Hooke Park built using 3D scanning technology to choose the correct placement for forked tree limbs.

After a little more than an hour (we could have definitely stayed longer to talk to the guys there and see the buildings in more detail), it was time to pile back onto the coach bus and head back east to Brockenhurst. The trip back went faster, despite the need for some near-miraculous driving from our driver. We were on a one lane road not much wider than our bus with tall hedges on each side when we saw a car coming at us. Fortunately, there was an indentation where the car could pull over so we could just barely squeeze by. Just as we cleared the car, we saw a large tractor lumbering towards us! We’re still not sure how, but the two drivers somehow negotiated the passing without as much as a scratch.

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Beautiful countryside in southwest England, as seen from the bus on the way home from our field trip to Hooke Park.

We also spent some time talking to one of the conference attendees, a mostly-retired man who now lives on the coast of Spain. When we pulled into the hotel, we had a few minutes to rest before Rose headed downstairs for the official conference dinner. This was an extravagant affair at a restaurant a few miles away called the Rhinefield House Hotel. Since we had no desire to pay the 70 pound cost for Philip to join, Rose was on her own for this one.

Once the group left, Philip settled in at a table on the hotel patio to do some writing and to eat one of the more amazing cheeseburgers of his life (most likely due to the “rarebit” topping, which is some sort of flavorful Welsh cheese). His tummy happy and the night air getting a bit chilly, he migrated inside the lobby to sit on a couch there.

At one point, a lady (turns out she was from New Zealand) came by and asked if he would be a signature witness for some legal documents for a power of attorney. He was happy to comply with the request and they joked about an American witnessing a signature in the south of England for legal business taking place half a world away in New Zealand. She was very grateful and even sent a waiter over a bit later in the evening offering to buy Philip a drink.

Rose returned from dinner at 10:30pm and, after chatting with her fellow conference mates for a few minutes outside the lobby, we soon headed to bed. Tomorrow is the final day of the conference and we will be moving on from New Forest in a roundabout route back to London over the next few days.

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Our path for the day. A->A (blue): Philip’s 23-mile bike ride. A->B (red): Conference field trip to Hooke Park. B: Walk around and see cool timber structures. B->A (magenta): Return trip back to hotel…didn’t realize the route was so different until we looked at the GPS track later.

Summary:

  • An enjoyable morning on a bike ride
  • Field trip to Hooke Park to see experimental timber structures
  • Fancy dinner for Rose, amazing cheeseburger for Philip

Stats

  • Distance on Foot: 2.5 miles | 5,000 steps
  • Distance on Bike: 23.4 miles
  • Distance in Bus: 148.5 miles

*** Check out the first post of our trip to England/France and read them in order! ***

Tuesday began with a lovely breakfast including everything from pastries, cheese, and prosciutto to grilled portabella mushrooms and poached eggs. After eating, we wandered along to the back of the hotel so Rose could do her conference check-in and get her bag of swag.

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Even the smokers get pampered at the 4-star Balmer Lawn Hotel. Philip particularly liked the wit expressed with this sign.

The morning was spent with Rose conferencing and Philip sitting in the hotel lobby catching up on a major backlog of blog writing. We have had more challenge keeping up with it on this trip than any of our others, most likely because we have had many more late evenings than usual. Philip also chatted with a Turkish guy for some time whose wife was also attending the conference and he was along for the ride.

Unexpectedly, Philip was able to join the group for a barbecue lunch at the nearby lodge of the company hosting the conference. We all piled onto a coach bus and traveled about 10 minutes to the headquarters of the Wessex Institute, which consists of a lovely collection of brick buildings set into a small clearing in the middle of the woods and goes by the name of Ashurst Lodge.

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One of the beautiful brick buildings at Ashurst Lodge.

A large tent was set upon the lawn and we entered there to get our food and drinks before finding a spot at a small table with another couple. They were from Oregon and she was tagging along just like Philip. After lunch (and dessert) was finished, we embarked on a brief walking tour around the grounds and then climbed back aboard the coach for the trip back to the hotel.

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The setup for our barbecue lunch at Ashurst Lodge, home of the Wessex Institute of Technology.

We spent the afternoon doing more conferencing and a lot more blog writing. The Turkish guy from earlier had asked to borrow our laptop and Philip lent Rose’s to him to use while sitting in the lobby. Apparently, he and his wife had a travel arrangement disaster going on and he was trying to figure out lodgings both here in New Forest as well as in London. Also of great importance is the awesome puppy Philip got to meet while sitting there. She was so full of energy and a love for life and even gave him a few unexpected kisses. The hotel seems to be very dog friendly and the added charge for having a pet is only a few pounds, which is far better than what we have typically seen in America. Most of the hotels in which we have stayed on this trip seem to have a similarly dog-friendly policy.

The conference ran about an hour later than expected, though several people seemed to wander out early near the end. Philip sat and chatted with the Turkish couple and a Slovak couple for a while but then decided that he needed to get up and do something other than sitting. He first checked out the hotel gym, though a lingering bruise on the palm made most upper body weight lifting untenable. The gym has a feeling of relatively low usage by the normal clientele of the hotel (this is a very, very wealthy area of the country and most patrons are elderly). While he did his 15 minutes of weight lifting, the only other visitors were one guy who came in solely to get a cup of water and a young girl who entered twice to work on her makeup using the big mirrors along the wall.

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Horses on the small cricket pitch in front of our hotel.

Since Rose was still not out of the conference, Philip went for a quick run around the cricket pitch on the front lawn and then stopped by the front desk to get recommendations on what to do with his time the next day. He eventually settled on renting a bicycle and exploring the region in that manner.

Once Rose emerged, we hopped in the car and drove a mile or so into the small village of Brockenhurst and quickly settled on a kebab/pizza shop for dinner. While we waited for Rose’s pizza to bake, we had a very amusing conversation with the Turkish guy behind the register at the adjoining convenience store that covered everything from politics to relationships to why we don’t yet have any children of our own (maybe he had been talking to Phil’s mom!).

We took our food back to the hotel and sat in a park next to the grounds to eat. Again, we had been given way more food than we could possibly consume, which seems to be the norm for southern England kebab stands. After finishing, we went back inside so Rose could prepare more for her presentation and so we could get some sleep. This was a much more relaxing and sedentary day than we have had since the trip began. To be honest, it was nice to not push too hard and have a chance to relax and let our bodies recover.

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Our very brief path for the day (we forgot to turn on the tracker at times so some of the paths are approximate). A->B->A: Riding the coach bus to lunch at Ashurst Lodge and then back to the hotel. A->C (including clockwise trip around the triangle): Searching for dinner and stopping at kebab shop. C->A: Driving back to hotel (you can see that Philip missed the turn at first).

Summary

  • Day 1 of the Timber Conference
  • BBQ lunch at the Wessex Institute
  • Hanging out with the Turks
  • Fun conversations at the kebab shop

Stats

  • Distance on Foot: 3.06 miles | 6,199 steps
  • Distance in Car and Bus: 9.98 miles

*** Check out the first post of our trip to England/France and read them in order! ***

NOTE: Diligent followers of our blog may have noticed a significant lag in our posting of these blog entries in the last few weeks and we apologize for the delay. Now that we are back home, life has resumed full force (particularly the unexpectedly time consuming task of rebuilding our deck) and we have struggled to find the time to get these online. We will definitely post the details of the rest of our trip…it just might take longer than usual.

The day began earlier than normal at 6:15am, since we had to be headed out of Amiens by 7 in order to get to Calais in time to check in for our ride through the Channel Tunnel. To our delight, the local pastry shop at the end of the block was already up and running by 7am so we were able to grab some pastries to take with us on the road.

The drive was mostly uneventful right up until the end. Had we just stayed on the highway, we would have been deposited right at the entrance to the Eurotunnel complex. Instead, we followed the directions Samantha (our GPS voice) gave us and embarked on a 15 minute journey around the outside of the fenced complex on dirt roads. It was only after Rose gave up on her and figured out the route on her own that we were able to get back on a major road and into the complex via the correct entrance.

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Our last bit of France before crossing through English border security prior to boarding a Channel Tunnel train.

Check in was very straight forward at the automated machine and we then passed through French outbound passport control with ease. British passport control was a bit more rigorous with the lady asking us several questions about our travel plans and arrival dates in order to verify our authenticity (we apparently got enough of them correct because she let us through!).

We were then routed into the parking lot of a food complex, so we hopped out to take a quick look. Finding nothing of interest to us (though there was a massive duty free store), we hopped back in the car and got into the correct line for boarding our train. After a few minutes, our line started moving forward and we were directed up a ramp and into the top deck of a train car. The drive through the cars to the front was pretty narrow, particularly where the wall juts out to contain the car’s bathroom. As we passed one of these jut outs at a speed of about 10 mph, we may have come an inch or so from losing our passenger side mirror…but since close only counts in horseshoes (and hand grenades), no damage was done.

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One of the rather ugly (but highly functional) trains used when crossing via the Channel Tunnel.

The crew for our journey was British (as evidenced by the accent of the people speaking over the intercom), though we only saw a single crew member during our journey. He hung out in our train car and was chatting with the driver behind us. We mostly stayed in our vehicle for the crossing and used the time to listen to our audio book. We would have reclined our seats to be more comfortable, but as we learned while waiting for the ferry a week ago, the pump mechanism to do so requires something like 100 pumps to recline an inch and we just didn’t have that workout in us.

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Our little car somewhere beneath the English Channel aboard a Channel Tunnel train!

We pulled into the terminal in Folkestone, England in just 35 minutes (way faster than the 1.5 hours for the ferry ride) and drove out of the train car just a minute or two later. The Channel Tunnel cost us about twice as much as the ferry (can be a bit better or much worse depending on when you book and when you travel). With the delay we experienced in our ferry ride, taking the train was ultimately about 3 or 4 times faster all together including the check in process. With the change in time zone, we actually arrived in England 25 minutes before we departed from France!

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The white cliffs of Dover with the port in the background.

We headed back east to Dover to go visit the White Cliffs, which we had deferred last week due to time concerns. Rose switched her mantra back to “drive on the left, drive on the left” and we made it there safely in about 25 minutes. The traffic going the other direction looked pretty slow due to construction and we hoped we would not need to travel through that later in the day.

When we got to the White Cliffs Park, we stopped at the guard booth to pay our 3 pounds for parking at the site. To our surprise, the man informed us that he could not accept our 5 pound note because it was the older variety that had been replaced as of mid-May. He reassured us that it was still legal tender, but we might have to take it to a bank to get it swapped for one of the newer plastic notes as most vendors likely would not accept it anymore. We used a different bill to pay for parking and then headed to the car park.

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The white cliffs tower over the sea.

We stopped by the visitor center to inquire about a tour of some WWII tunnels in the cliffs. We were instructed to walk about 30 minutes to the tunnel entrance and that we could buy tickets there. While tours were limited to only 12 people, she didn’t anticipate us having any issues getting on the first tour and explained that tours launched every half hour so we wouldn’t have to wait too long if we did miss it.

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This thing that looks like a weed is actually a rare type of cabbage that grows in the highly chalky soil of the white cliffs. The park staff have to watch out for “poachers” that will attempt to steal these plants from the park and sell them to high end restaurants in London!

Nevertheless, we power walked our way there and made it in about 20 minutes. This ensured we got on the first group, though it ultimately was not an issue since there were only 3 visitors on our tour. We were a bit early for the first tour at 11am and we spent a while just sitting in the shelter at the tunnel entrance talking to one of the tour guides (named Ken) about all manner of things. Ken used to work for IBM in Dallas and told us all about the world in his thick British accent. Of most amusement were a few statements he made about the French, oftentimes showing his disdain for them. At one point we chatted about the ferries and he explained that there is British ferry company (P&O, which is what we took) and there used to be a French company but they went out of business cause the workers went on strike too often and thus there boats were purchased and are now operated by the Danish.

Ken also explained that he goes to France fairly often, but typically just to buy cheap wine. Apparently, wine is about half price in France compared to England and the English customs allows one to bring in 363 bottles or fewer of wine without needing to declare and pay taxes. We asked him if he ever brought in that many and he assured us with, “no, only a few hundred”.

At about 10 ‘til, we were given hard hats and Ken began a safety briefing for our trip to the tunnels. The highlights were that the ceilings are low in places, the climate is extremely humid to the point of dripping and standing water, and please don’t touch the chalk walls. Those logistics complete, our ragtag group of 5 (1 guide, 3 visitors, and a fairly awkward teenage kid who may have been related to one of the guides and was “training as a guide”). Our guide was a man, probably in his 50’s, whose father had served in these tunnels during WWII. As such, he had not only a lot of information about the tunnels but also anecdotes and stories that he no doubt heard from his father. He also had a reverence and a passion for the history of the war and these tunnels in particular that was touching to see and ultimately made for a great experience.

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Inside the tunnels at the white cliffs.

We descended the concrete stairs carefully as they were very wet and slippery near the bottom. We then proceeded on our 45 minute or so tour of the tunnels, stopping frequently to look and listen. Like many places, the tunnels have a lot of graffiti carved into the soft chalk walls. While some is recent (last 20 years), a lot of it is from the time of the war and was carved by the soldiers. It is easy to imagine a solider standing in a long line for one of the few toilets, absentmindedly carving his name into the wall.

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After the war, a company attempted to salvage some of the steel ribs from the tunnels. They quickly decided it wasn’t worth the effort or danger once the ceiling started collapsing in on them.

Some of the graffiti was a bit more creative, including two poems in the hallway leading towards the outdoor toilets. One said, “I in such a caper having shit and got no paper. Parade is due, I dare not linger. Here goes, I’ll use my finger.” The other rhymed nicely with “When you come into this hall, use the paper not this wall. If no paper can be found, run your ass along the ground.” Apparently, young men have always had a sense of humor that finds poop jokes to be the height of wit.

At one point, we stepped out of the end of the tunnel onto the face of the cliff and saw two acoustic dishes made of concrete. These are parabolic dishes, hailing from WWI (some of the tunnels originated in WWI but were expanded greatly in WWII…all in less than 100 days from start to finish), which are were used as a means to detect incoming aircraft and ships. A soldier would stand at the focus point of the dish with a listening horn and sound the alarm if he heard the sound of the enemy. One of the dishes is tilted upward at a slight angle and was likely used for detecting aircraft; the other is angled a bit more towards the water below, and is thus presumed to have been used for detecting ships. The sensitivity is such that one could supposedly hear a mouse running through the weeds.

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One of the two audio reflecting dishes used for detecting approaching aircraft and boats.

On our way back towards the tunnel entrance, we stopped by the officer quarters. While the officers had a bit more space than enlisted soldiers (and a dedicated bathroom), their sleeping area did have the unfortunate characteristic of being the low point and thus flooding on an annual basis with several inches of chalky sludge.

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The WWII tunnels in the white cliffs had a major problem with humidity. However, this galvanized metal duct work is rust free despite being original from the 1940s.

We exited the tunnels, thanked our guide, and set off a bit further to see the light house at the end of the park. We decided not to spend the time to go up into it, so we stopped well short and headed back towards the visitor center after taking a few pictures. On the way back, we took a lower route at a fork in the trail, which we thought was the marked trail along the edge of the cliff. We became concerned as the trail continued to descend towards the port below rather than climbing back up towards our car.

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Our detour on the way back through White Cliffs Park took us through a horse pasture. In the background is the port of Dover, from which we departed on our ferry to France a week ago.

Eventually, though, we spotted a long ramping trail along the cliff edge and were able to walk up that and emerge into a horse pasture with several horses. Stepping carefully, we crossed the pasture and down a short trail through a tunnel of trees and emerged right next to the visitor center.

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This green tunnel fortunately led us back to the Visitor’s Center.

 

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Our walking path around the White Cliffs of Dover. A->B: Walk to the tunnel entrance. B: Explore the tunnels. B->C: Walk to the lighthouse (almost). D: The actual location of the lighthouse. C->E: Return trip taking the lower fork. E->A: Back to the visitor center via a horse pasture and a tunnel through the trees.

We elected to have a simple lunch at the visitor center and then walked to our car and began the trek west across southern England. Our drive to Bodiam took longer than expected, partially due to the construction traffic and partially due to the back roads we took for much of the trip. Nevertheless, we made it to our destination safely and parked in the car park to visit Bodiam Castle.

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Bodiam Castle sits in the middle of a very impressive moat.

After buying tickets in the visitor center and paying for parking at the automated machine, we set off up the small hill towards the beautiful castle. We started by doing a lap of the large moat (50+ feet wide), taking pictures from several different angles. We also admired a flock of geese in the grass next to us, which were far more attractive than the Canadian geese we typically see back at home.

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The main entrance of Bodiam Castle.

Exploring the inside of the castle was a fun experience and we explored it all, guided by our handy map. Bodiam has the oldest known portcullis (spikey gate that blocks entrance) in England. They are confident in the date of this one because its construction is such that it could not have been retrofitted. It had to have been built in at the same time as the castle wall around it. The map had useful information about each room, and this was often supplemented by signboards telling additional information (like one particularly interesting one about the horrible job of cleaning the toilet chutes…which usually went to children because they could more easily fit in the tight spaces!).

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The portcullis at Bodiam Castle is the oldest in England…they know the date because there is no possible way it could have been retrofitted once the walls were in place.

 

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The inner courtyard of Bodiam Castle as seen from atop a corner tower.

We also saw a small insignia attached to the walls in various places throughout, though it blended in well and took some effort to spot. We were confused by this at first until we came to the conclusion that it was an activity to keep kids engaged while they looked around.

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One of the hidden insignia in Bodiam Castle…it took some effort to spot them all and is a great idea for keeping kids engaged.

We exited back across the moat and returned down the hill towards the car. We decided to hold off on dinner until later and continued west on our journey. It took several hours to get to New Forest, due to the distance and several congested areas with very slow traffic. Perhaps we would have been better following Samantha’s recommendation, though that would have taken us all the way to the outskirts of London and we feared bad traffic around the city. Instead, we stayed further south along the coast, though with the high hedges and trees along the road, the water was only visible for a few minutes during the entire trip. As the evening was approaching quickly, we had to pass on our last planned stop in Brighton to see the royal Brighton Pavilion (next time, I guess).

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Our path strolling around and through Bodiam Castle.

We stopped just short of our final destination for some kebabs, which we took to a nearby park to eat. For 10 pounds or so, we were given an insane amount of food to consume and we did our absolute best but still came up short. While we ate, we saw some of the New Forest horses across a field, roaming around free. New Forest is known for its cows, horses, and ponies, all of which live a truly “free range” life and are not fenced in. As such, drivers must always be careful of any of these animals on the roadway. As a sign on the back of a bus we saw later reminded us, “ponies don’t dent, they die”.

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The view as we sat in a park eating our dinner of kebabs. New Forest has horses and ponies roaming everywhere!

We found our hotel easily and, after fitting the car into a rather tight space, we checked into the nicest hotel of our trip (by far). Thus far, we have focused on finding relatively inexpensive lodgings, which means we have stayed in hostels and one or maybe two star hotels. Our hotel in Brockenhurst (Balmer Lawn) is a four star establishment and is a very nice change for us.

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Wow, what a difference a 4-star hotel is compared to our normal range of hostel to 2-star.

When we walked into our room, we were blown away by its size. You could fit two and a half of our last room in this one. We even have a fireplace with a mantle! It’s amazing to have space to sleep, walk, sit, and store bags…all at the same time. After unpacking, Rose spent some time practicing her presentation for the Timber Conference (the actual reason we came to England in the first place and the reason for the nice hotel). Tomorrow begins our three day stay here in the New Forest for Rose’s conference before we finish out the last few days and head for home.

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Here we are back in England again.

Summary

  • Riding the Channel Tunnel…boring in practice but awesome when you think about the logistics
  • Walking along the White Cliffs of Dover
  • Amusing poetry inside the Dover WWII tunnels
  • The fairytale-like Bodiam Castle
  • A long drive across southern England
  • Kebabs and horses
  • A truly luxurious hotel experience

Stats

  • Distance on Foot: 7.54 miles | 16,080 steps
  • Distance in Car on Train: 31.4 miles
  • Distance in Car (not on train): 282.8 miles
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Our path for the day. A->B: Drive to Calais. B->C: Ride the Channel Tunnel to Folkestone, England. C->D: Drive to White Cliffs of Dover park. D: Explore White Cliffs. D->E: Drive to Bodiam. E: Explore Bodiam Castle. E->F: Drive to New Forest. F: Stop for quick dinner of kebabs in Lyndhurst. F->G: Drive to hotel in Brockenhurst.

*** Check out the first post of our trip to England/France and read them in order! ***

As planned, we were thankfully able to sleep in some and recover from our late night. We had to be out of the flat by 11am but that left us a bit of time to go back to our favorite pastry shop once more as well as stop by the grocery store to pick up some snacks. After a very slow process of extracting our car from its berth in the underground parking garage, we deposited our key in the dropbox and set off north out of town for the hour journey to Beauvais.

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Driving from Paris to Beauvais.

We chose to stop in Beauvais because its cathedral contains a one-of-a-kind astronomical clock built in the 1860s. We did not anticipate the cathedral itself being so interesting, and were pleasantly surprised when we pulled up and saw this massive, if not oddly misshapen building in front of us. The cathedral at Beauvais is incredibly tall, a feature which is exaggerated even more because the nave was never constructed. As such, the building does not have the long horizontal span that normally balances out the visual impact of the height.

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The unfinished Beauvais Cathedral. The plans for adding a long nave to the building never came to fruition.

The highlight inside the museum was of course the clock. We bought tickets from the lady inside and she informed us that the clock presentation would start on the half hour and that are audio guides would automatically play. We sat down in some wooden chairs in front of the clock and waited, along with one other couple (not too crowded on a Sunday afternoon).

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The transept and apse of Beauvais Cathedral.

After much anticipation, the presentation began with a video playing on some TV screen and spotlights accenting different parts of the clock as the audio guide explained what we were seeing. The audio was ridonculously cheesy and was staged as a mock conversation between the clock builder and an inquisitive female who was also already inexplicably knowledgeable about the clock. As such, most of her questions were incredibly leading where she essentially told the clock maker how the clock worked and he got to say simply, “Exactly correct!” and other such phrases.

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The vaulted ceiling of the Beauvais Cathedral feels astonishingly high from the inside. It may be the tallest in the world at 48 meters high and the visual effect is magnified more by the lack of a nave to give length to balance out the height.

Looking past the cheesiness, the audio guide did give a lot of interesting information about the design of the clock and the motivation behind its construction. During the 30 minute presentation, we got to see the clock first chime at the three quarter hour and then also on the hour. Animated figures move around, fire appears and disappears, angels blow trumpets, and myriad other actions occur. All of this happens completely mechanically based on an insanely complex system of gears. 50 or so dials report all manner of temporal information from local time in various major cities to the lunar cycle to the tides to solar eclipses. Again, all of these calculations are implemented strictly through the use of gears! It is even capable of correctly managing leap years, including not assigning a leap year when the year ends in 00 but is not multiple of four (e.g., 1900 is not but 2000 is). This means there is a gear involved in this clock that only revolves fully once every 400 years and which has only revolved about halfway around since the clock was built!

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The incredible clock in the Beauvais Cathedral. It is made of 90,000 individual pieces and uses an entirely mechanical system to control more than 50 dials as well as numerous moving figurines.

Unfortunately, there is no access to the back of the clock so we could not see firsthand very much of the complex innards, but even just walking around the outside was really cool. It was definitely worth the stop to see this thing and we highly recommend it for anyone who is fascinated by ancient technological marvels. This is quite possibly the most complex mechanical machine every constructed and it consists of approximately 90,000 individual pieces.

Still amazed, we eventually left the cathedral and sought out a restroom before leaving town. Next to the cathedral, we saw a free museum which had toilette signs visible from the main entrance. So, we sauntered in hoping to just use the restroom and quickly leave. Before we could do that, though, we were greeted and handed a brochure in English explaining the exhibits.

Not wanting to seem rude, we did a quick lap around the lower floor of the museum, which contained numerous paintings from Italian painters. After finally reaching the restroom, we then checked out the upper floor where we found some modern art displays that were well beyond our ability to comprehend. After what we hoped was an appropriate amount of time in the museum, we exited past the group of four or so workers and back to our car.

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The view as we drove north from Beauvais to Amiens.

Our journey took us next to Amiens (pronounced “ammm-e-yawn”), which is where we would stay for our final night in France. We found street parking right in front of our hotel, but then noticed a sign on the door saying it was closed for check-in until 5pm (despite our booking confirmation saying we could check in any time between noon and 8pm). The door opened when we pushed on it and we wandered inside but couldn’t find anyone to help us at the moment.

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The very Gothic facade of the Cathedral in Amiens…like almost every other large church in France, this one is named Notre Dame, which means “our Lady”.

 

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Like many Gothic cathedrals, Amiens features large quantities of intricate statues on its facade.

We returned to the car, grabbed our day pack, and set out on foot across Amiens figuring we would just check in later that night. After a few minutes of walking, we arrived at the town’s massive cathedral and stepped inside. We quickly realized that the towers could be climbed and, being us, we had no choice but to do so. The ticket office was outside and we purchased tickets for a tower tour beginning in just a few minutes.

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Our trip up the towers of Amiens Cathedral gave us an up close view of the beautiful rose window on its facade.

The “tour”, in this case, consisted of nothing more than a timed opening of the doorway to allows up the stairs. Other than that, we were able to explore the towers entirely on our own (well, along with the other 6 people who also climbed up there at the same time). As expected, we were met with lovely views over Amiens and we were astounded at the number of churches we could see in every direction.

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Looking back at the steep lead roofs and central spire from atop the bell towers at the cathedral in Amiens.

The inside of the cathedral was much like many of the other Gothic cathedrals we have visited. Like the cathedral in Chartres, this one also features a labyrinth on the floor of the nave as the final challenge for pilgrims before approaching the altar. One highlight of the cathedral for us was the large arches separating some of the chapels from the transept. Elsewhere, these same arches hold the stained glass windows that line the exterior. With no glass in these inside ones, we were able to see how relatively thin the stone is and it all seems very delicate. It’s hard to believe it is strong enough to last over time, but hasn’t had issues yet at least.

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The stone arches and circular window in the Amiens Cathedral seem so delicate when they don’t have a window pane set inside.

 

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Beautiful stained glass at the Amiens Cathedral.

We were unable to visit the treasury of the church since we arrived after the single Sunday tour. As such, we missed out on seeing the skull of John the Baptist, which is the cathedral’s most famous relic. We did see a reliquary box in the cathedral that contained the tiniest of fragments of bone, which supposedly came from the skull, but it would have been cool (and probably creepy) to see the whole thing.

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The quire and altar of the Amiens Cathedral

Once we had finished in the cathedral, we walked across the square to a tourist info office to use the restroom (yes, we are doing our best to stay better hydrated than we did in Paris) and to get a map of Amiens since we didn’t know where to go next. The clerk was very helpful and gave us some suggestions about where we could find food and what else might be worth doing for our evening in Amiens. We also learned that the cathedral would be lit up at night, like many others around France…but that it wouldn’t begin until Thursday and thus wouldn’t be an option for us.

We followed our map down the hill from the cathedral and into an area of former marshland that now serves as a very unique botanical garden. We had originally thought to just walk around, but we decided to check in on how much a boat tour would cost. It turns out a boat tour is actually very inexpensive in Amiens (6 euros each for a 45 minute trip) and we happily signed up to do it.

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Riding our small boat around the marshy canals and gardens of Amiens.

After a few minutes wait, we piled into the back bench of a 12-person punt boat (though also with electric motor) and set off around a beautiful network of canals with our guide narrating along the way. Our guide was awesome and was able to answer all of our questions in English and gave us the translated commentary as well. He was from Amiens but his heritage came from further north in France and we could definitely detect a thicker and different accent than we had heard to date.

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The gardens in Amiens are quite lovely and many are only accessible by boat.

The network of canals gives access to a large area of unique gardens. Individual owners maintain each plot, some growing vegetable gardens whilst others have beautiful flowers and whimsical garden art. We floated along in a peaceful bliss, especially thankful that the sun had ducked behind the clouds. Our guide explained that the network of canals goes on for miles and miles and are a mixture of both public and private waterways. Anyone can use the public ones, though the opportunities to get lost are quite numerous.

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One of the pieces of modern art we saw on our boat ride. These are temporary as part of a Modern Art Expo in town.

In a few spots, we saw large modern art structures, which the guide explained were part of an upcoming expo in town. At various points we also saw numerous dogs (including one riding in a boat), multiple types of ducks, and one very excited young kid (perhaps 8 years old) who ran to the edge of his garden to wave at us and then proceeded to do “the dab” about 10 times in a row with a huge smile on his face.

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Each garden was unique, though almost all of them featured colorful flowers.

After an amazing 45 minutes, we docked again and thanked our guide for a lovely time. We then walked around the oldest section of town, which is built around another set of canals and is quite quaint. Hunger was setting in, so we returned to a riverfront area we had seen earlier that had a bunch of restaurants. We walked up and down the row of restaurants, looking at each menu of the day and trying to decide what would be best for the night. At many of the restaurants, a good number of people were sitting out on the patios drinking cocktails in the early evening breeze.

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The quaint and quiet streets of historic Amiens.

Philip (because Rose had absconded decision authority on this one) finally decided on a restaurant and we inquired about a table. At this point we were informed by the British lady running the place that they did not open for food service until 7pm (still an hour away!). It was at this point that we realized the significance of the fact that nobody was actually eating food and instead only drinking.

Disheartened, we headed back to the hotel to check in with the intention of just grabbing something quick for dinner. We had hoped to have an early night since we had an early morning to come in order to catch our ride on the Channel Tunnel. When we returned to the hotel, we found it open and were able to check in for our stay. We also discovered that the hotel had no lift and our room was up two and a half flights of stairs. Through great strength and mental fortitude, Philip got the suitcases to the room and we settled in for a few minutes to relax.

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Our boat guide told us that this building was Europe’s first skyscraper. Some internet searching contradicts this slightly (a building in Antwerp, Belgium seems to hold the title of first “skyscraper”) but it is definitely regarded as one of Europe’s first “tall buildings”.

After some deliberation, we decided that we did desire one more sit down meal in France and so snacked a bit to tide us over. Just after 7pm, we went back down to the river front and back to our chosen restaurant. We took a table alongside the river and settled in for what was hopefully to be another amazing meal.

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The River Somme running through Amiens. We ate dinner at one of the restaurants along the river bank.

While we sat there, we became aware of numerous ducks on the river. We first saw a mommy and daddy duck with four ducklings of adolescent age. These were pretty cute, but had almost reached the point of self-sufficiency and thus had no issue venturing far from mom in search of food in the reeds. Soon after, however, we saw another duck family with four of the tiniest little fluff balls. Being so young, these ducklings were much less confident being away from mom and anytime they discovered they had ventured more than a few feet from her side, they would scurry back to mom as quickly as possible. They were so light that it looked like they ran across the surface of the water to get back to her and it was one of the most adorable things we’ve ever seen. We also had some nice memories of a dinner in Milano eight years ago when we had also sat by a river and watched the duckies.

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We spent a good portion of our dinner watching this adorable duck family swim up and down the river. In unrelated news, Rose had duck for dinner…

There was an Italian restaurant next door to ours and, at one point, an elderly lady wearing slippers appeared in the alleyway between the two buildings and just stood there watching things for a long while. We aren’t sure exactly who she was or why she had no real shoes on her feet, but we joked that perhaps she was owner of the Italian place and was lamenting the lack of patronage at her restaurant at the moment. We also joked that perhaps the reason the restaurant had low patronage was because of the odd lady in slippers staring from the alleyway.

We had multiple waiters throughout the meal and they each worked with us in English as much as possible. Dinner was a slow affair and was definitely tasty, but also definitely not even close to what we had in Chartres. While all of the food was very good, it did not have near the complexity or mastery we had experienced before.

For the entrée (appetizer), Rose had a prosciutto and cheese platter, though we didn’t realize that is what it would be based on the description. Philip tried a local specialty, which turned out to be pastry dough with ham and cheese and then covered in 3 cows worth of heavy cream. For the main meal, Philip had salmon and Rose tried duck for the first time. And no, the irony was not lost on us that we had just been admiring cute ducklings swimming up and down the river next to our table. For dessert, Rose went with an apple tart a la mode and Philip had a very, very sweet chocolate mousse. Again, it was all very good, but just could not compare with dinner in Chartres (though it was a fair bit cheaper as well).

Throughout our meal, the wind picked up as the sun went down and it got downright chilly at our table by the water. Stubborn, we did our best to tough it out rather than giving up and asking to move to a table inside. A waiter even gave us the option directly at one point, but we declined for some unknown reason. After dessert, we stepped inside to pay the bill and asked the English lady to ring up our bill for 5 euros more than the cost to use as a tip. She seemed taken aback that we would leave a tip and the staff was very grateful at the gesture. Our guidebook indicated that a tip of 5-10% is not uncommon at nicer restaurants, but we seem to have surprised the staff both times we did this so perhaps it is less common than indicated.

We also spent a few minutes chatting with the lady and she was delighted to hear that we would next be heading to New Forest, England, which is the area of the country from which she came. We thanked her for a lovely meal and then headed out the door and back towards our hotel.

We took the slightly longer route than necessary in order to walk by the façade of the cathedral in the hopes that it might be lit up for testing. Indeed, a few guys were working on the projection booths when we passed, but the sky was still pretty light at 9pm and we couldn’t have really seen anything even if it had been projecting. Tomorrow, we say au revoir to France and cheerio again to England. We have an early crossing via the Channel Tunnel before we slowly make our way throughout the day to New Forest for Rose’s conference.

One final note: we aren’t sure where the stereotype of French people being rude came from, but we have not seen it in the slightest. Without exception, every encounter we had whether in French or in English was excellent and nobody seemed to take any offense when we couldn’t speak the language very well or when our pronunciation was admittedly awful. We had a lovely time in France and look forward to future visits to see more of this huge and seemingly amazing country!

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Our afternoon and evening in Amiens. A->B (green): walking to and exploring Amiens Cathedral. B->C (green) walking to the botanical gardens. C->C (red, clockwise): riding a boat around the canals and gardens. C->D->A (dark blue): exploring the town and scoping out dinner restaurants (notice the thick path around point D where we walked up and down restaurant row at least 5 times). A->D (light blue): going back out for dinner once restaurants opened at 7pm. D->B->E (light blue): back to the hotel via the Cathedral, just in case they were testing the light show and we could see pretty colors.

Summary

  • Farewell to Paris and our favorite pastry shop
  • Beauvais and the awesome astronomical clock
  • The Cathedral in Amiens
  • A lovely boat tour around the botanical gardens
  • A final French dinner

Stats

  • Distance on Foot: 9.06 miles | 18,195 steps
  • Distance on Boat: 1.77 miles
  • Distance in Car: 91.9 miles
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Our path for Day 9 going from Paris to Amiens with a stop in Beauvais.

*** Check out the first post of our trip to England/France and read them in order! ***

Our second full day in Paris began earlier than intended because one of us forgot to turn off our phone alarm (pretty sure it was Philip but don’t remember at this point). We dressed and then set off to our favorite pastry shop for breakfast before hopping on the Metro.

The first destination of the day was a famous building (at least amongst architects and architectural engineers) called Le Centre Pompidou. This building serves as a flexible museum space, though we were not there to see the interior. What makes the building interesting to us is that almost all of the infrastructure of the building is routed along the exterior and is visible to the public.

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The “inside-out” Centre Pompidou is fascination to behold and beautiful in its own unique way.

Some might find it ugly, but to us it was a fascinating piece of art in its own right with tubes and pipes and air handling and structural elements all serving as the building’s façade. We walked around the back side where most of this was visible to the plaza out front. Here, a staircase climbs from left to right along the front of the building up the 4 or so stories. A crane system on a track is mounted to the staircase and can navigate the entire length of the stairs to provide maintenance access to different sections. All in all, it is very unique building and right up our alley.

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The front of the Centre Pompidou with its exterior staircase.

Rose stepped into one of the public restroom stalls out in front, which are apparently self-cleaning. A sign on the front of the stall explained that after each guest, the bathroom is washed, sanitized, and dried (all in less than a minute) before being available for the next guest. Well, 2 out of 3 usually isn’t too bad and they seem to have mastered the wash stage (pretty obvious) and the sanitize stage (assuming on this one). However, the drying stage leaves a lot to be desired and thus Rose was in for a very wet adventure.

While she experienced the restroom, Philip waited outside and shared a laugh with a French guy about the behavior of his tiny dog who could not seem to decide if Philp was a threat or not. He would alternate between lunging and barking at him and then a moment later acting completely disinterested. Then, it was as if he realized Philip hadn’t gone away yet and would repeat the cycle.

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I.M. Pei’s pyramid entrance to the Louvre. It’s definitely beautiful but seems out of place with the classical architecture of the rest of the building.

We then continued walking along to the Louvre Museum, which was intended to be our major attraction for the day. We entered from the north through the eastern courtyard and then stepped out into the much larger western courtyard where got our first view of I.M. Pei’s infamous glass pyramid entrance to the museum. This pyramid is one of the more controversial architectural works in recent history, not because it is not beautiful, but because its modern design is a stark contrast to the rest of the ancient building.

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The main atrium beneath the Louvre’s pyramid.

On the other side of the pyramid, we saw what appeared to be large crowds already assembled, but were relieved when got over there that it wasn’t as bad as we feared. Our Paris passes gave us priority access to the museum and we entered a very short queue to get through security and into the museum. With this usage, our passes were also more than paid for; highly recommend the Paris Museum Pass for anyone visiting Paris and intending to see a lot of the sights!

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Here she is, the Mona Lisa

 

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…and here are all of the people trying to get a look at her

We made a beeline for the section of the museum containing the Mona Lisa, hoping to see that famous work before the crowds got too large. We found her and spent a few moments admiring, though then moved out of the way to allow the other hundred people in the room to get a view too. She was actually bigger than we expected, which is different than most people’s reaction. We have heard so many times how unexpectedly small the canvas is that perhaps we overcompensated in our minds.

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Beautiful mosaic floors in the Louvre…inspiration for when we remodel our bathroom at home!

As we are not particularly interested in most art (we’re all about the buildings), we moved pretty quickly throughout the large museum, though this still took a few hours. By far, the Italian painters section of the museum was the most crowded, especially with tour groups. Once you get out of that area, the crowds dwindle quickly and there are some areas that are virtually uninhabited.

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The foundations of the original fortress within the Louvre…the building has grown a lot over the years.

One thing we hadn’t anticipated was just how much the building itself is a work of art in its own right. The building which contains the Louvre began as a fortress 1000 years ago (you can walk through a section showing the foundations of that portion of the building) and was expanded into a magnificent palace over the years. Every room has beautiful stone or wood floors and most have ceilings with vibrant murals that could easily serve as the focal point of most other places. This particular building just happens to also have world famous artwork also hanging on the walls!

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The sculptures were the highlight of the Louvre for us.

Other than the Italian painters, the other highlight of the Louvre’s collection is the extensive set of sculptures. Room after room contains beautiful stone (and some bronze) sculpture and these even spill out into several indoor courtyards as well forming lovely sculpture gardens. The most famous sculpture in the collection is the Venus de Milo, which is oddly popular (perhaps it’s her smile…kind of like the Mona Lisa) despite her missing appendages.

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The famous Venus de Milo statue, which is over 2000 years old.

After satiating our need for artwork, we left the Louvre via the underground exit, which passes through a shopping mall complex complete with Apple Store all beneath the surface. We went up the stairs and found ourselves at the west end of the west courtyard, directly adjacent to another large monumental arch called the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. On top of the arch are four large horses, replicas of those that live in Venice atop St. Mark’s Cathedral. Apparently, Napoleon had a fascination with those horses and he looted them from Venice and placed them here in Paris. When he was defeated, he was forced to give the horses back and thus replicas were placed here instead. As an aside, those horses have to be among the most often stolen large piece of art. There were originally looted from Constantinople and brought to Venice in 1204.

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The Arc de Triumphe du Carrousel. Napoleon stole the four horses from St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice but he had to give them back after losing at Waterloo.

Our path continued northwest out of the Louvre courtyard and through the adjacent gardens. We were stopped briefly by an English speaking lady doing research about Air B&B (the non-hotel hotel service). We answered her questions about why we have never tried Air B&B as we swatted away the insects buzzing near the large fountain where we had stopped. People were sunbathing in chairs around the fountain and hopefully having better luck with the bugs than were we.

We kept moving along and made a side jaunt out to one of the bridges over the river where people have attached locks as a symbol of their love. To our dismay as tourists, there really weren’t very many locks attached except for on one small panel of the railing. By all other rationales, however, the lack of locks is a good thing as this “tradition” (only began in 2008 so hard to call it a tradition) has been responsible for damaging several bridges over the Seine to varying degrees due to the incredible weight thousands of locks can add to the bridge structure.

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Locks on a bridge in Paris.

At the end of the gardens, we reached the roundabout at the other end of the Avenue de Champs-Elysees. While not quite as crazy as the roundabout around the Arc de Triomphe, this is still a ridiculously crowded traffic quagmire and we are very grateful to not be driving anywhere near it. In the center of the roundabout is an obelisk; we had originally assumed Napoleon looted it from Egypt but later learned that it was actually a gift from Egypt to the nation of France.

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The massive obelisk at one end of the Champs-Elysees…to our surprise, Napoleon didn’t actually steal this and it was instead a gift from the Egyptians.

We walked towards the river and between the Grand Palais on our right and Petit Palais on our right (big and small palaces, respectively). We sat for a moment on the steps of the Petit Palais but were asked to move because we were unwittingly blocking the walkway. Hungry, we set off around the Grand Palais on a quest to find some food for lunch but had no success in this mission. So, we decided to make our next stop brief and then perhaps find food across the river.

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A beautiful view across the Seine River with Paris’s most famous landmark in the distance.

Our Paris passes got us into the Museum of Discovery, which ended up being a somewhat interesting science museum, though aimed more at children and with less English signage than we had hoped. We did a quick lap of the displays, pausing at a few. Philp was fascinated by one display that showed elliptical orbits, and used a very simple mechanical system for fixing the lengths of the major and minor axes to draw the ellipses.

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Phil was fascinated by this demonstration of elliptical orbits at the Discovery Museum.

Upon leaving the museum, we crossed the Seine and found a grocery store where we purchased prosciutto, a block of cheese, and a loaf of bread. We took our food to the edge of the Esplanade des Invalides and sat in the shade on a bench in the large park to enjoy our meal. It was quite lovely sitting in the shade and sharing a meal reminiscent of our time traveling Italy (all that was missing was the Leatherman for cutting the cheese).

Having eaten more bread and cheese in one sitting than should be allowed (yes, for a second time), we walked a bit further along to possibly the worst stop of our trip. Our Paris passes granted us free access to the Paris Sewer Museum, which for better or worse is actually located in a section of the Parisian sewer system. Paris sewers are a technical marvel and apparently were instrumental in making the city a viable place to live. There were information displays explaining much of this. Unfortunately, the smell was so unpleasant that we had no desire to stop and read any of that information.

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We just couldn’t stomach the intense smell of the Paris Sewer Museum.

We followed the prescribed path fairly quickly and then escaped back to the fresh air of the surface. Had we planned better, we would have instead gone to the Musee des Plans-Reliefs, which supposedly contains “a unique collection of models of French cities and their surrounding countryside commissioned by the state from Louis XIV to Napoléon III.” This sounds absolutely lovely and right in line with our love of architecture and Philip’s inexplicable love of dioramas and scale models…and also unlikely to smell like sewage. We have added this museum to our list to visit when we come back to Paris someday.

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Our massive tour boat for cruising on the Seine…and there were probably 10 equivalent boats like this on the same 3 mile stretch of river at the same time as us.

Our noses still reeling, we crossed the Seine and went down to the nearby boat docks to buy two tickets for a boat tour of the city. We had already seen most places on foot but thought it would be cool and relaxing to get the river view as well. Fortunately, a boat was scheduled to leave in just 10 minutes so we bought our tickets (and a couple bottles of water from the stand out front) and then boarded a ridiculously large river vessel (probably could hold 200 people). We took seats near the front left of the outdoor upper deck and immediately applied copious amounts of sunscreen.

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The backside of Notre Dame at the tip of the Ile de la Cite.

 

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The Conciergerie with its cool towers as seen from our river cruise.

As the boat sailed up the river towards Notre Dame, a recording described the sights on either side of the bank in about 8 different languages. We went around the tip of Ile Saint Louis and back down the river past the docks to the Eiffel Tower. Surprisingly, the boat stopped just a few hundred yards short of where we could see the Statue of Liberty and turned back to its dock. Near the end, we both got pretty sleepy and Philip may have drifted off briefly.

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Just one of the several hundred photos we took of the Eiffel Tower. This one is from the boat as we cruised by on the river.

 

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Baby Polar Bear at the conclusion of an awesome boat ride up and down the Seine River.

After disembarking from the boat, we hopped on the metro and took a multi-transfer ride to Montmarte (mountain of martyrs). We exited at the Angers station (that’s pronounced “awn-jay”, by the way) along with most other people on the train. At the top of the metro stairs, we spilled out into a crowded shopping area with lots of people and vendors. High above, we saw the majestic Basilique de Sacre Coeur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart) rising tall, and set off towards it.

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La Basilique du Sacre Couer on top of Montmarte (the hill of martyrs).

We head heard of a funicular to climb the hill but, frankly, the climb didn’t appear to be all that long so we went on foot instead. We traded a 1 euro coin for a bottle of water from a vendor half way up the stairs and before long were standing at the top of the hill at the base of the church. There was a fairly long line to get in through the security check, but it only took about 10 minutes. While we waited, we took some pictures and listened to the various people around us. A British couple behind us in line was having a heck of a time deciding whether to buy some water from one of the guys walking around and selling them. When they finally decided they wanted water, they couldn’t actually get the attention of someone and it was fairly comical to observe.

We also saw a 3-car vehicular choo-choo train carrying people up the hill. Having not yet seen the funicular, we wondered if this was it and joked about the choice of name. It turns out there actually is a real funicular (inclined cable car) that goes up the left side of the hill, although it is of such a short distance that it hardly seems worth the construction cost.

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The little choo-choo train from the top of Sacre Couer. As we walked down the hill later, we confirmed that there was a real funicular there too.

As we neared the checkpoint, a lady appeared magically in line between us and the British couple. Apparently, waiting her turn like everyone else wasn’t in the plans. We gave her “the look” and shook our heads but didn’t say anything. Once through the bag check, we headed first around the side of the cathedral where we could get tickets to climb to the top (doesn’t matter how tired we are, we always want to go to the top of things).

We climbed up exactly 293 steps to get to the top of the dome. The signage had said 300 steps but Philip’s count came up a few short of that. Yet again, we enjoyed magnificent views over the city and from a different perspective much further north than any of the previous. The Dome of Sacre Coeur is the second highest point in the city due to the height of the building and its location on top of a hill. Only the summit of the Eiffel Tower is higher.

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One of the spires of Sacre Couer with a modern skyscraper and the Eiffel Tower in the background. Where we are standing is the second highest point in Paris!

Upon descent back to the ground, we went inside the cathedral. Sacre Coeur was built “recently” from 1875 to 1919 at the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian war. After seeing so many Gothic cathedrals in recent days, it was refreshing to enter into a building of a very different Byzantine style. Like some of the churches we saw in Venice, this style forgoes the long nave in favor of a more symmetrical layout with four equally sized arms radiating from the central altar.

The stone work in Sacre Coeur is magnificent with an abundance of mosaics (something that is also lacking in all of the Gothic cathedrals we’ve visited). We walked around the interior, rolling our eyes occasionally at the tourists taking photos despite the signs clearly stating not to. We then exited the church and back to the plaza in front.

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Street vendors like these are everywhere in Paris. It is quite impressive how fast they can pack up and move when a cop walks by.

As we came into the plaza, we saw two water vendors at a sprint come sliding into the prime location right in front of the security bag check. We assume that the police had come through a few minutes earlier, causing the vendors to scatter, and they were each competing to get the best spots now that the police had moved along. We laughed along with them as we walked past and headed down the right side of the hill back towards the bottom. Along the way, we finally saw the funicular for the first time, validating for us that the choo choo train was indeed something different. We also watched a father and adolescent boy “shoe surfing” down the hill next to the steps while mom became increasingly more frantic in her pleas for them to stop being idiots (they survived without injury, though dad almost lost it and face-planted near the end).

Absolutely exhausted at this point, we hopped back on the metro and returned to our hotel. Rose laid down for a nap to try and prepare for going back out into town one more time later in the evening.

At 9:30pm, we headed back to the metro so we could go see Paris lit up at night. In a moment of brilliance (though we didn’t yet realize it), Rose suggested that we buy our return tickets as well since we knew we would have to come back home at some point. We then rode the train back to Trocadero Square, which is the location of the wonderful overlook of the Eiffel Tower that we discovered yesterday. Along the way, we passed a stop named “Franklin Roosevelt”, which is pronounced very differently in French than what we are used to in America.

Upon exiting the metro, we quickly learned that we were not the only people in Paris who thought this would be a nice place from which to view the Eiffel Tower lit up at night. It was packed with people and street vendors, this time selling LED light up Eiffel Tower statues and other flashing trinkets. We looked up and saw Rose’s tower in all its glory, bathed in warm yellow light with spotlights rotating horizontally at the top.

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The Eiffel Tower at dusk as seen from the top of Trocadero Plaza.

Barricades had been set up to keep people a few feet back from the railing at the edge of the plaza, though these were mostly disregarded. Multiple people were either sitting or posing for photos on top of the wide banister (a few feet). Realistically, nobody was going to fall, though if they had, it would have been a 30+ foot fall to hard pavement below.

We walked down the stairs on the left and spotted a crepe stand set back along the edge. We stopped and ordered a crepe with sugar and lemon juice, which turned out to be a fun experience. The guy started making our crepe, which took a lot longer than expected. At some point, he trashed his attempt and waited for the girl (seemed like she had more experience) to show him how to make our crepe properly. I know it was just a few minutes of watching people go about their lives at their job, but there was something inexplicably satisfying about observing their interaction.

On a related note, we have now had two crepes in France and we would describe both as “just ok”. They seem to use more batter than necessary and thus they have a slightly spongy texture to them. For the record, Phil’s mom makes a much better crepe.

We found a spot on the grass and sat down to eat our crepe and just watch the tower. We had planned on perhaps hopping over to the Arc de Triumphe and/or the pyramid at the Louvre to see those lit up as well, but quickly decided that nothing would compare with the spot in which we were currently sitting.

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A magical ending to our time in Paris!

As we sat there, we were asked by no fewer than 3 vendors if we wanted a bottle of champagne or beer. Somehow, this feels more illegal than the guys selling trinkets… We also saw at least two people playing with super bright green laser pointers and aiming them at the tower for brief moments at a time. Despite the “coolness factor”, this is actually a really dangerous game because it can do serious damage to someone’s eyes if it catches them right and there were a lot of people up on the tower.

We were just entertaining the idea of heading home for the night when the tower started to sparkle as if hundreds of flashbulbs were firing (this was unexpected to us). Rose glanced at her watch and we saw that it was 11pm on the dot, which is apparently the time when the sparkle show begins. For the next 5 minutes, the tower continued to sparkle at increasing speed, which was beautiful to behold (if not also slightly overwhelming to the senses). When it concluded, the tower remained lit as before with the warm yellow light, but it was clear that the show was over. The mass exodus of people from the park began and we soon joined the crowds heading back up to the square.

Rose’s earlier brilliance was revealed to us when we saw the long line to buy metro tickets. We just smiled as we walked right past it and used our pre-purchased ticket to enter through the barriers and down to the train platform. The platform was packed with people, though they were mostly congregated near the entrance and we found space down at the other end. We were able to get seats in our relatively empty car, but we are certain the cars at the other end of the train were comically stuffed with people like clowns in a car.

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Day 8 and still having a blast! If it weren’t for puppies at home and the need to earn some form of income, we could travel like this all the time.

Tomorrow is Sunday and we plan on sleeping in for the first time in a long time before heading out of Paris. We have also reached the half way point of our travels, though with Rose’s 3-day engineering conference approaching quickly, it feels like we are a lot further along. Paris has been fantastic and we fully expect to come back here someday.

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Our full path for Day 8 in Paris. A->B: Metro to Centre Pompidou. B->C: Walking around Paris and visiting several sites (see zoomed in version for details). C->C (red): Seine River Cruise. C->D: Walk then Metro to Montmarte. D->D: Visit Basilique du Sacre Couer. D->A: Metro back to hotel (this train was above ground for a bit and we actually got GPS tracking). A->E->A: Evening trip out via Metro to Trocadero Plaza to see the Eiffel Tower lit up at night.

Summary

  • Musee Pompidou…the inside out building
  • Visiting the Louvre Museum
  • A brief visit to the Museum of Discovery
  • An Italian lunch in the park
  • We should have known the Sewer Museum would stink
  • A lovely boat ride on the Seine
  • Montmarte and Sacre Coeur
  • The Eiffel Tower at night

Stats:

  • Distance on Foot: 17.13 miles | 35,386 steps
  • Distance on Boat: 8.31 miles
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A: Centre Pompidou. B: Musee Louvre. C: Discovery Museum (after a lot of walking and search for food). D: A bench in the park where we finally ate our lunch. E: The Paris Sewer Museum. F (red): Dock for our Seine River Cruise. G: Metro stop. H->J: Evening visit to the Eiffel Tower.

*** Check out the first post of our trip to England/France and read them in order! ***

Our first full day in Paris began early at 7am with the intent that we could get to the Cathedral of Notre Dame before the crowds. On the way to the Metro stop, we ventured into the pastry shop that we found the night before and ordered our pastries entirely in French! We then went down to the Metro (much more confident now after the challenges of last night) and hopped on the train towards the end of its line at Chatelet. We ate two different variations of sugary bread and chocolate as we rode and before too long were walking out of the Metro stop and towards the Ile de la Cite.

The Ile de la Cite is the oldest section of Paris and consists of a relatively small island in the middle of the Seine River. As an island, it was more easily defensible and has been inhabited back through at least Roman times. We walked quickly over towards Notre Dame and were pleased to find no line for the security checkpoint that would allow us to enter the Cathedral.

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The tip of the Ile de la Cite. This island in the middle of the Seine River is the oldest section of Paris.

Entrance is free and we spent a while exploring the beautiful interior of Notre Dame. Unlike many of the other Gothic cathedrals we have visited, Notre Dame is much more dimly lit and thus has a more mysterious aura than the others. Chapels with beautiful stone work line all of the exterior walls, though there are only a handful of tombs in the church (very different than Westminster Abbey in that respect). One of the highlights of the cathedral is the large rose windows in the transepts and the largest and most famous rose window at the back of the nave.

After completing our touring inside the church, we went outside to walk around the exterior. To be honest, the main façade of Notre Dame is relatively uninteresting. It does not contain much decoration and even the towers are relatively featureless. The sides and back of the cathedral, however, are much more beautiful. Here you can see the flying buttresses so typical of Gothic architecture and so interesting to two engineers like us.

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The south transept of the Cathedral of Notre Dame

While we circumnavigated the church, we were accosted by two people attempting to get signatures for a petition related to deaf people. We aren’t entirely sure what is the whole story behind this (to be fair, we didn’t take time to try and find out), but we politely said no and kept moving. It’s hard to believe that a petition signed by a tourist that doesn’t reside in the country would accomplish anything and we certainly were not going to sign something we didn’t understand.

When we got back around to the front of the church, we attempted to find the marker signifying “Point Zero” though were unsuccessful. Supposedly, this is the exact spot from which all distances to/from Paris are measured, but the marker is relatively small and can be hard to spot, particularly since the square was gaining more people every minute.

Our other goal for arriving so early was that we wanted to be among the first in line for the tours of the towers of Notre Dame, which opened at 10am. We got in line at about 9:30 and there were already several dozen people ahead of us. Last night, we investigated the “Paris Museum Pass” online and determined it would be worth our while to buy two of these since they would ultimately save us some money and, in theory, get us priority access. We believed that we could buy them at the tower tour, but thought there may be a better way. Also, since we had been having credit card issues, we wanted a chance to troubleshoot those in a less hectic atmosphere than this.

So, with Rose holding our spot in line, Philip set off at a jog to the Conciergerie, a different building on the Ile de la Cite that opened at 9:30 and which also sold the pass. He entered without incident and found a very helpful clerk at the otherwise empty ticket counter. As was feared, none of our credit cards (or even a debit card) worked for the transaction so Philip instead ran off to a nearby ATM to replenish our cash supply of euros. With time dwindling before 10am, he ran back to the cathedral at a quick pace.

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The imposing yet beautiful exterior of the Conciergerie

As he arrived at the edge of the square, he came pretty close to a group of four armed military guards patrolling the plaza. Just two days ago, a man had jumped out at a guard (or police officer…not sure) in this same square brandishing a hammer. He had apparently knocked the guard down and was going in for a second blow when he was shot by the other guards. The attacked guard suffered only very minor injuries and the attacker is recovering in the hospital from the gunshot wound. All of that to say, Philip threw on the brakes very quickly rather than be mistakenly perceived to be rushing the armed guards.

By the time he got back to Rose in line, it was 9:55 and the crowds in the square had multiplied greatly. The line to get into the cathedral now snaked around a portion of the square and we were very glad our plan had worked out for getting up early.

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Up in the bell towers of Notre Dame…some of the stone work seems so delicate and yet this building has stood for many centuries.

As 10am approached, two tower tour personnel started counting off people in line and placed a stanchion directly in front of us, signifying we had missed the first group but were first in line for the second group. This only added a few extra minutes and before long, we were climbing up the stairs of one of the towers to the ticket office located high above. This is the only tower ticket office we’ve seen that is actually high up in a tower; typically, they are on the ground. We speculated what would happen if someone came into the tower but then could not pay the ticket price (yes, a Quasimodo joke was made).

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Bridges over the Seine River as seen from the top of the towers of Notre Dame.

We purchased our Paris passes and put them to immediate use to gain access for the tower tour. Then, we climbed the rest of the way up to the walkway between the two towers and went out to enjoy the views over Paris. It was pretty crowded up on top and it was with some difficulty that we were able to move along the walkway. For safety reasons, the entire walkway was caged in with a coarse wire mesh that would prevent people from jumping. Additionally, any place where something could be accidentally dropped or purposefully thrown onto the plaza filled with people below had an additional tighter mesh so that hands could not reach through. While effective, this mechanism definitely hampered our ability to take good pictures and also caused some traffic jams as people lingered at the few rips and tears in the fine mesh to use as camera portals.

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Here we are under one of the massive bells of Notre Dame.

It was also really cool to see the famed gargoyles up close and personal as we walked along. When we reached the opposite tower, we climbed up a bit higher and were able to see the massive bells that hung there. The tour then continued even higher up that tower to a small vantage point near the top and we were able to walk the entire way around the narrow balcony. After that, it was a long descent all the way down the tower to the ground and back out into the now extremely crowded square.

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An interesting gargoyle high atop of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

We made our way to the far end of the square and down into the Archeological Crypt, which was also included in our Paris Pass. This is not a crypt in the traditional sense that it holds a bunch of tombs, but is rather an archeological excavation site beneath the main square. Here we were able to see the remains of a Roman city that stood on this spot. Other than a tour group of young French students, we mostly had the place to ourselves.

In general, the ruins consist mostly of foundations and low walls that have survived the last 2000 years. One of the more interesting items, which we discovered thanks to a helpful signboard, is a long low wall that has been identified as the former bank of the river Seine. That spot is now approximately 50 meters inland from the current bank, showing how much the island has been expanded since Roman times whether through natural silt buildup or through intentional human effort.

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The archaeological crypt containing Roman ruins beneath the plaza in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

After exiting the crypt, we sat for a moment in the square to eat a granola bar and then headed back towards the Conciergerie and the church of Saint Chapelle. We used our Paris passes yet again to gain entry and then navigated our way through some internal courtyards to the church. The signage was not stellar directing the way and we noticed another couple nearby looking equally confused as they also attempted to find it.

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The church of Saint Chapelle…the real beauty lies on the inside.

Saint Chapelle is separated into lower and upper cathedrals. The lower space was used by the servants and common folk. It is beautifully adorned, though relatively dim due to the lack of many windows. The upper space is considered one of the most beautiful in the world and was used by the king and those close to him. Tall windows line the sanctuary letting in copious amounts of light through the beautiful stained glass. Chandeliers add more light to the mix and the effect is dazzling. The stained glass windows tell the story of the Bible starting with Genesis in one corner and wrapping all the way around to the Apocalypse described in Revelation.

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The lower chapel at Saint Chapelle.

We didn’t spend too much time looking in detail at the windows, primarily because the upper room was extremely crowded. Before leaving the church, we saw a signboard explaining that it was originally built to hold two important relics: Jesus’s crown of thorns and a piece of Jesus’s cross. Both of these items are now contained within the treasury at Notre Dame, though we didn’t get a chance to see them during our early morning visit. It’s hard to know the authenticity of relics like these but perhaps we will check them out when we come back to Paris in the future.

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The magnificent upper chapel with its stained glass at Saint Chapelle.

Our path took us next to the Conciergerie, which we were able to enter quickly thanks to our Paris passes. This building served many roles throughout time, but the most infamous role was as the prison for Marie Antoinette. We walked around the rooms of the structure enjoying the cool air. Of most interest to us were the first two rooms: a large room with columns where the guards hung out and the adjacent kitchen where we could see massive ovens built into each corner of the room. Our guidebook had indicated that an 11th century torture chamber was also part of the Conciergerie, but we saw no indication of it on our building map and never saw it (we question if it actually exists).

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The garden inside the Conciergerie where Marie Antoinette spent some time while awaiting execution.

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The main hall in the Conciergerie. The columns and ribbed ceiling give the room a really cool feel.

We then set off across Pont Neuf (New Bridge…ironically, the oldest bridge in the city) and walked along the south bank on a quest for some lunch. Across the river, we saw the enormous building that is the Louvre Museum, which we intend on visiting tomorrow. We also passed multiple street vendors selling paperback books. This is not something we have seen in any other city before and we aren’t entirely sure who is actually buying them, especially because they didn’t seem any cheaper than what you would find in an actual book store.

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We saw several of these pop up book stores while walking around Paris…we have not seen this in any other city around the world.

After a bit of searching, we finally found a sandwich shop near the Musee d’Orsay (a museum occupying a former railway station). With sandwiches in hand, we returned to the steps outside the museum to eat our lunch. Rose had a relatively simple sandwich with meat, cheese, and veggies. Philip went for the “3 Fromage”, which consisted of enormous chunks of three different cheeses crammed onto a moderate sized loaf of bread. We sat and ate and watched the people around us going about their days. An inquisitive and brave pigeon kept eyeing us, though never came close enough to snatch up the small piece of cheese that had fallen from Philip’s sandwich.

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Philip’s amazing lunch: a Trois Fromage (three cheese) sandwich .

Having eaten more bread and cheese in one sitting than should be allowed, we continued along the river and then turned left towards the Esplanade des Invalides, a large park in front of a massive hospital that was constructed to serve wounded military. On that note, France seems to have a very strong passion for serving their wounded war veterans. On the metro trains, the signage for the easily accessible seating lists in priority order who should get access to those seats. At the top are wounded war veterans, followed by others with disabilities, then those that are pregnant, then those with small children.

Our real target was located around the backside of the massive complex (longer walk than at least Philp had expected) and is known simply as Dome Church. This name is applicable because the predominant external feature of the building is a massive and beautifully gilded dome that can be seen from all around Paris. We went through the security checkpoint at the edge of the grounds, where the young military guards seemed to be actually enjoying their jobs. One of them kept talking to us in a mixture of French and English, to which his compatriot would laugh and then help the guy get the right English words for what he was trying to say.

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The gilded dome of Dome Church.

The Paris passes got us free entry through the ticket office at the side of the church and we quickly returned to the front and up the steps to enter the building. Dome Church was built in the late 1600s in the Baroque style (hence the massive dome), but its interior underwent major renovations in the mid-1800s when it was chosen for a special honor. Dome Church was to be the final resting place for the body of Napoleon Bonaparte, whose remains were recovered from the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic 20 years after his death there in exile.

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The tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte inside of Dome Church.

As might be expected, the interior decorations of the church are spectacular with amazing inlaid stone work on floors and walls throughout. Being only 250 years old, the interior is in magnificent condition. At the center of the domed space sits the large tomb of Napoleon. Other smaller (but still very large) tombs occupy the corners of the upper floor gallery, though we personally don’t know whose bodies lay there.

After leaving Dome Church, we exited the complex and set off for possibly the most anticipated destination for our entire trip, the Eiffel Tower. As we approached the large park that sprawls out from it and away from the river, the first thing we noticed was a large wooden structure at the edge of the park that was the receiving end of a zip line. We speculated as we walked about how cool it would be to zip line off the Eiffel tower, but how we were certain that wasn’t really a thing and this was probably just a zip line in the park itself. How wrong we were! As we rounded the corner, we got our first grand view of the entire tower and saw that the zip line actually was attached to the second floor of the tower (pretty freaking high). As we walked along the park towards the tower, we saw a few people come riding down the zip line at high speed, often times screaming at the top of their lungs.

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We just happened to be in town for the one week that people could zip line off of the Eiffel Tower…this looks like quite a ride!

But enough about zip lines (for now). The Eiffel Tower is a magnificent structure, particularly to two engineers who love architecture and buildings. Factor in that one of us has a Master’s degree with an emphasis in structural engineering and we were pretty much in heaven. Unlike many buildings (particularly cathedrals), you really need to see the Eiffel Tower in its entirety to appreciate the structure. We had been getting glimpses of the top of it throughout the day, and frankly, the top of the tower just isn’t that impressive on its own. It’s only when seeing it from the ground up that you can truly appreciate the height of it as well as the wonderfully pleasing curve of the structure as it rises from the four feet to the summit.

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Someone getting ready for their trip down the zip line.

The walk along the park took a while, primarily because we stopped every 3 feet to take another picture of it from a slightly different angle. When we finally reached the base, we went through security (uneventful except for the rather rude latter half of an Indian tour group pushing their way to the front of the line rather than waiting their turn) and were pleased to see that the lines did not appear too long to get in. Access to the first and second floors only is offered at two prices: a more expensive option for those that want to ride the elevator and a cheaper option for those willing to take the stairs. However, for those wishing to go all the way to the top, elevator is the only choice.

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We just kept taking pictures every few steps as we walked closer to the Eiffel Tower…this was our favorite landmark of the trip!

We waited in line for about 10 minutes to buy tickets and had a brief conversation with the two guys in front of us. One was from California and the other from Arkansas, and they were just embarking on a trip around France, Belgium, and Germany on a self-guided war history tour. After purchasing our tickets, we were funneled along to the base of one of the feet and we soon packed tightly into a double decker elevator for the angled ride up.

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The Eiffel Tower is fascinating to behold whether far away or up close.

We alit from the lift at the second floor (it never stopped at the first floor for some reason) and we quickly got in the long line for the second elevator to the top. With the cool breeze and the views, we really didn’t mind standing in line at all. While maneuvering through the stanchions, we came pretty close to the zip line launch point where a very terrified girl was all strapped in and ready to go…and questioning rather seriously her recent decisions in life. It took her several minutes but she finally jumped (perhaps was encouraged along a bit by a push from the worker) and the crowd in line gave her a cheer.

From the moment we saw the zip line, we had an ongoing debate how much such an experience would cost and what price point would be required for us to be willing to do it. We love zip lines but are also frugal. It took several days but finally we looked it up online and learned that this zip line is not a normal attraction. It was a one week special event set up during the French Open by Perrier (the water company). One could not pay to do this zip line because the participants had already been chosen via online submission the prior week. Our trip just happened to coincide.

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Looking up towards the top of the Eiffel Tower from the second floor.

The ride up the second elevator only takes about a minute, though that gave plenty of time for the couple next to us to freak out and also question their recent decisions in life (apparently neither of them cared for heights but were attempting to conquer their fears). We exited out at the top of the tower and were greeted with stunning 360 degree views all over Paris. We spent the next 30+ minutes at the top of the tower, walking around it several times and looking out across the city.

Gustave Eiffel’s office is located at the top of the tower, though you have to look through fairly reflective glass to see inside of it. In the inner room of the top floor, they have marked the directions to many major cities including all (or almost all) of the world capitals. They also included the silhouettes of the largest building in those cities for comparison against the silhouette of the Eiffel tower and it was interesting to walk around seeing the comparisons.

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The large park stretching out from the base of the Eiffel Tower…if you look close along the right side of the grass strip, you can see the zip line running to a platform at the far end of the park.

Eventually (and with some reluctance from Philip), we left our perch at the top of the city and went back down the elevator to the second floor. The signage for the two elevator lines was not very well balanced and we were able to get into the much shorter line and waited only a few minutes for our descent. We explored the second floor, which contains a gift shop and some restaurants (including a famous 5 star restaurant. We elected to take the stairs to get down to the first floor, which we then explored briefly though it did not contain much of particular interest to us. We did, though, buy a bottle of water to quench our thirst after so much time in the sun. Finally, we took the stairs again down to the ground.

We continued west along the south bank of the river, and stopped along the way for a chocolate sauce crepe . After a brief detour due to train tracks, we crossed a bridge and onto a very thin little island in the middle of the river, which is the home of France’s Statue of Liberty. This is a much smaller version of the one sitting in New York Harbor and is aimed to look directly at its larger sibling.

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France’s small copy of Lady Liberty at the tip of her narrow island in the Seine.

We descended from the bridge down to the island and passed through a cool outdoor gym beneath the bridge. Reminiscent of some of the outdoor workout areas Philip saw in Tel Aviv, this one contained various types of mechanical exercise equipment as well as several small bouldering rock walls and was currently being used by perhaps 10 people. A few yards further brought us to the base of Lady Liberty…and to a fashion photo shoot with two male models wearing casual wear and one of them standing awkwardly in a shopping cart.

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The little sister to the one sitting in New York Harbor.

Not wanting to disrupt their shoot, we took a few photos and then quickly moved out of the way. This served as our western most point of exploration and we then began to walk back east along the narrow island. At the east end of the island, we had more nice views of the Eiffel Tower (different angle so lots more pictures!) and then exited to the north bank of the river.

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The Eiffel Tower across the Seine.

From the top of the Eiffel Tower, we had seen another large park complex across the river and that is where we headed now. The Trocadero Gardens climb the hill up to the Trocadero Plaza and offer even more wondrous views of Rose’s favorite Parisian structure (and yes, different angle so lots more pictures). This is obviously a favorite place for people to see the tower because the plaza was quite crowded with both tourists and shady looking guys selling various trinkets (tower statues, selfie sticks, and fidget spinners seemed most common) from blankets. Unlike in London, but very much like we had seen in Rome, this type of activity is not considered legal by police and these vendors are very adept at packing up and dispersing in less than 5 seconds time whenever police are nearby.

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Trocadero plaza and gardens as seen from the top of the Eiffel Tower.

We exited out the plaza and noticed one of the vendors in a conversation with police. Surprisingly, other vendors just 15 or so feet away (but out of sight of the police) were already trying to sell more stuff to tourists. Our next destination was the Arc de Triomphe, the large monumental arch that marks one end of the famed Avenue de Champs-Elysees. Along the way, we stopped at a grocery store for a much needed bottle of water and also picked up a large bottle of tropical juice.

The walk was further than expected (for Rose, at least) but we finally made it to the Arc and the ridiculously crazy roundabout that circumnavigates it. Certainly the most famous rotary in France, if not the entire world, 12 different roads come together at this roundabout leading to a traffic nightmare that is not for the faint of heart. Two underground tunnels grant access to the Arc in the center, though we did not realize this at the time and unwittingly chose the farther of the two to utilize due to the mass of tour buses along the edge of the circle in that area.

When we emerged at the base of the Arc, we saw a ceremony taking place there. A few minutes later at the ticket office, we learned this was the daily lighting of the eternal flame ceremony, where a flame that burns beneath the arch is ignited for the night.

Our Paris passes got us in free yet again and we started the climb up to the inner room at the top of the arch. Having walked almost 30,000 steps by this point in the day, we were not our usual chipper selves bounding up the staircase. The room at the top was larger than we expected and from there we accessed a shorter staircase to reach the viewing platform on top of the arch. Yet again, we were met with beautiful views over the city and we spent some time walking slowly around and taking pictures from every angle (with the cell phone this time because the camera battery gave out on us…perhaps too many Eiffel Tower pictures…if there can be such a thing!).

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Looking back at the Eiffel Tower from the top of the Arc de Triumphe.

Unlike London, which seems to have seamless blended the old and new parts of the city, Paris feels much more separated. There is a distinct modern skyline that is away from the old city. The most interesting part of that skyline, by far, is a gigantic hollow cube tunnel shaped building. We didn’t realize it until later when we looked it up in the guidebook, but the center void in the cube is supposedly large enough to contain the entire Cathedral of Notre Dame! Next time we visit Paris, we will have to check it out.

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The modern skyline as seen from the top of the Arc de Triomphe. Apparently, the hollow cube building is large enough to contain Notre Dame inside

Rose stopped to use the restroom when we returned back to the inner room, and walked out of it soon after with a disgusted look on her face. With the nominal entry charge to the Arc being 12 euros, one would expect that a restroom would be cleaned and stocked with a few key items such as hand soap, toilet paper, and a toilet seat. Apparently, all three of these are not seen as required at this particular bathroom facility.

We came down to the bottom of the Arc and out the other underground tunnel to get some better pictures with the sun at our back. Our original plan was to then walk the length of the Avenue de Champs-Elysees but we were exhausted and decided to head back towards home instead.

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Baby Polar Bear enjoying a visit to the Arc de Triumphe

We bought our Metro tickets and, after a brief assessment, decided to take the A line train to where we could transfer to the Metro line that would take us home. Along the way, Rose realized that we had misread the map and our planned transfer station was not actually served by this train. Fortunately, we could get off a station earlier and do the transfer there and so no harm was done. While we sat there, we enjoyed some people watching and listening thanks to the large Spanish family nearby and their talkative 8ish year old daughter.

Our transfer station involved an 8 minute walk (all underground) but was an otherwise straight forward process. As we rode our final train to home, a man got on at one stop with a sound system and a karaoke mike and proceeded to sing an interesting rendition of John Lennon’s, “Imagine”. He then went seat by seat along the car attempting to get donations. To be honest, he really wasn’t very good, but we did appreciate his more industrious methodology to earning some money when compared to most beggars. It wasn’t clear if anyone gave him any coins but he certainly didn’t make a killing on his song.

It was also on this train that we saw our first actually rude French person, though she wasn’t rude to us. She sat across the aisle from us, and had a somewhat large shopping bag next to her in the aisle. Rather than hold the bag on her lap or put it on the empty seat in front of her, she left the bag blocking ¾ of the narrow aisle and forced no less than 5 people to step awkwardly over it. She was clearly not oblivious that she was causing problems for everyone else; she just didn’t seem to care.

When we got back to our neighborhood, we stopped at the supermarket to grab a few of the cheese cracker snack things we have come to love and then walked into another one of the kebab shops than we had visited last night. We ordered food and ate there in the restaurant two of the most delicious kebabs we have ever had (Doner for Rose, adana for Philip). Admittedly, we were tired and hungry by this time, but even still this was top notch street food!

Finally, we made it back to our flat and got ready for the night. Philip went down to use the telephone in the lobby to call the credit card company and get our “card declined” issues worked out. It took three different people and about 25 minutes, but he was successful and assured that the cards should work for the rest of our trip. By the time he got back to the room, Rose was barely keeping her eyes open and sleep soon followed.

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One week into our trip and still going strong!

Summary

  • Notre Dame and the Ile de la Cite
  • More credit card woes
  • A beautiful church and a prison
  • So much bread and cheese for lunch!
  • Dome Church and the tomb of Napoleon
  • Rose’s Tower…some know it as the Eiffel Tower
  • The street vendors vs. the police
  • Arc de Triomphe and the worst restroom yet
  • The perfect kebab dinner

Stats

  • Distance on Foot: 18.3 miles | 38,804 steps
Day7_Walking

Our walking path for the day. A: Get off the Metro. A->B->C->D->E: Walking to Cathedral of Notre Dame, Archaeological Crypt, Saint Chapelle, and Conciergerie, respectively. E->F: Walking to get lunch. F->G: Walking to Dome Church. G->H: Walking to Eiffel Tower. H->J: Walking to Lady Liberty. J->K: Walking to Trocadero Plaza. K->L: Walking to Arc de Triumphe and back on Metro.

*** Check out the first post of our trip to England/France and read them in order! ***

After a very, very late night, Thursday morning came far too quickly. Philip got out of bed and went down the hill to pay the parking machine so we could avoid a parking ticket during our morning in Chartres. After getting dressed and packing up our things, we set off back up the hill on streets we now knew very well towards the cathedral.

Along the way, Rose began to veer to one side of the street as her nose caught scent of a bakery and we followed the trail into the shop. An entirely French language transaction yielded us two pastries, which we carried the rest of the way up the hill and ate while sitting in the square in front of the cathedral. As we sat there, we noticed a handful of tour groups standing in the square looking up at the façade.

We went inside, intending to purchase tickets to tour the bell towers of the cathedral. To our dismay, we were informed that there were no public tours available until 2:30pm, long after we would need to move on. Since it wasn’t possible to book online, our best guess is that the normally scheduled tours for the morning were cancelled to make way for the various tour groups. It also seems that there was absolutely no way for us to have known this in advance, perhaps short of calling the cathedral or stopping by during tour hours on the previous day to ask in person (i.e., nothing we could do).

Disappointed, we spent some time walking around the interior of the cathedral, which is renowned for its collection of stained glass. Chartres, sitting where it does southwest of Paris, was spared from bombing during the wars. Even still, the irreplaceable windows were dismantled and stored away securely during both world wars to prevent damage. Another highlight of the interior is the stone screen separating the altar area from the walkway around its sides and back. This extremely intricate stone carving is incredible and we spent some time walking along it and admiring the carvings.

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The elaborate screen around the quire in Chartres Cathedral. It seems that some portions have been cleaned/restored (like the section pictured here gleaming white) while other sections are a much darker gray color, probably due to hundreds of years of grime and pollutants in the air.

On our way out of the cathedral, we took a look at the labyrinth stonework in the center of the nave. The labyrinth is used by pilgrims that make their way to the cathedral and consists of a maze pattern inlaid into the floor. The intent is that one shuffles through the entire maze on their knees before approaching the altar at the end of their pilgrimage, a journey that supposedly takes about an hour.

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The labyrinth on the nave floor of Chartres Cathedral.

We left the cathedral much earlier than anticipated due to not taking a tour of the towers. As such, our plan to get lunch from a kebab restaurant in town fell through because it was not yet open. We returned to our hotel room to grab our luggage and carry it down to the car. We dropped our room key in the check-out drop box and then stepped inside the Church of Saint Pierre, which was right next to our car.

Saint Pierre is a rather large church, though it suffers from deterioration. Seeing the state of it gave us a better appreciation for how the buildings degrade and just how much work goes into preserving and restoring the churches and cathedrals we typically see.

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A beautiful stained glass window in the otherwise rundown Church of Saint Pierre in Chartres.

After a few minutes inside, we returned to our car and headed out of Chartres and towards Paris. Our destination was the Chateau de Versailles, which appropriately enough, is in the town of Versailles. To our surprise, the chateau is in the town proper, not out in a field nearby like the Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte that we saw yesterday. As we pulled up to the parking area, we were overwhelmed by the number of people and coach buses sprawling out in front of us. By good fortune, we found the best parking spot in the lot empty and quickly pulled into it (well, quickly is a lie because it took Philip about a 7-point turn to get into the space).

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This was the line to get into the actual chateau at Versailles…we elected to see the gardens first in the hope that the line would lessen throughout the day.

Based on the very large line of people waiting to see the inside of the chateau (we had already waited in a moderately long line just get through security at the main gate!), we decided to visit the gardens first since that was what we cared about most. We hoped that the craziness would die down later in the day and we could visit the chateau then with a lot less pain and anguish. Amazingly, these massive gardens are free to visit and generally open to the public from early morning until the sun sets.

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The Gardens of Versailles as seen from the back of the chateau.

 

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The tall, narrow pathways at Versailles make each new turn exciting. Most pathways end at something worth seeing and some deposit you into truly marvelous spaces.

Our visit to the gardens alone lasted for several hours. Unlike the gardens at Vicomte, which are large but mostly all visible from the chateau, Versailles gardens have much more mystery. Yes, there are sections of flower beds and fountains and topiaries as one would expect. But there are also sections of woodland that have been hedged in or otherwise controlled into a set of paths ready to be explored. Because the hedges and trees are so tall, you can’t see into it from the base of the chateau. This led to much enjoyable time of following paths and stepping out into a grove and finding delightful fountains, Roman-style colonnades, obelisks, etc. Throughout the pathways are sprinkled lots of smaller statues and fountains.

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An awesome colonnade in one of the groves.

 

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One of the unique groves we came upon in the gardens. Unfortunately, we could not enter due to locked gates.

We explored the groves on the left side of the gardens first and then made our way to the Grand Canal section, a cross-shaped body of water much larger than that at Vicomte. Near the front, you can rent row boats to take out on the canal, which several people had done with varying levels of success at rowing efficiency. Off to the right we also saw bike rentals, which looked like an enjoyable way to see the gardens. Perhaps if we come back to Versailles someday, we will rent bikes and get to explore it at a faster pace.

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The Grand Canal is truly massive and perfect to explore by boat. We enjoyed watching the boaters, each with varying levels of skill at rowing…some did not venture very far from the boathouse during their 30 minutes or more on the water.

Lunch consisted of some sandwiches from a small cafe in the gardens (smoked salmon with cream cheese, and a roasted vegetable and ham). We sat in the shade to enjoy them and get a break from the beating sun. Afterwards, we continued our walk further away from the Grand Canal towards the Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon, two additional estates on the grounds that served as getaways for King Louis XV and Marie Antoinette. Grand Trianon is an absolutely massive palace by most standards, just not when compared to the absurdly astronomically massive Palace of Versailles, and we found it comical that this was the “cabin in the woods” for the King when the other house was just too crowded and busy.

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Looking back at the chateau whilst walking the gardens.

Somewhat expectedly, we couldn’t get into any part of that section of the grounds without a ticket. We had also originally intended to circumnavigate the entire Grand Canal, which would have been about a 2 mile walk. However, our legs were telling us otherwise so we decided to take a more direct path back to the main gardens where we could explore the right-hand set of groves. We ran into some issues with certain passageways being blocked by closed gates, but our struggles were rewarded when we came into a large grove with a few more modern looking fountains.

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Yet another impressive grove. We first saw it from the back (where all the people are) but then walked around to the opposite gate to see the fountain face on.

 

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When we walked into this grove the fountains were off. What a different experience it is when the fountains are running. It would be incredible to see the fountains across the entire garden running at the same time.

We were walking around the grove when, all of a sudden, the fountains came to life. It is amazing how much more impressive the grove was with the water features active. To have the entire garden active at the same time must be incredible.

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This part of the garden is to the side of the chateau. We didn’t venture down into it but the views from above are amazing.

After exploring the gardens to our content, we returned to the chateau and back around to the front. Where once had been crowds of people with a line that seemed a mile long, now the plaza was mostly empty. Ecstatic about our crowd-avoidance plan working out so well, we went into the ticket office and purchased our tickets for entering the chateau. We spent a while walking through each room, which unfortunately were still extremely crowded with tour groups despite the lack of a line out front. We may have missed one small section, but by the time we realized it, we were already walking back to the car and decided we were content enough with everything we had seen and did not need to go back.

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Just one of the hundreds of rooms in the Chateau de Versailles. Nearly every single room was adorned with such opulence: intricate floors and stonework; incredible wall paper and moldings; gilded everything; and magnificent painted ceilings.

It is impossible to recount all of the details about our trip through the Chateau but here is the summation of our thoughts:

  • The Chateau de Versailles is just too damn big. It is so large that the proportions when viewed from the exterior are not particularly pleasing. Nobody needs this much space in a house. Vaux-le-Vicomte is a much more pleasing building to behold and is still very large.
  • It was hard for us to see where the influence of Vaux-le-Vicomte affected the building of Versailles. Other than the fact that both feature a lot of classical Roman gods in their motifs, the buildings are otherwise very different. Surprisingly (to us at least), Versailles’ ridiculous level of grandeur does not even include a dome whereas that was a featured aspect of Vaux-le-Vicomte’s architecture.
  • The interior of Versailles is incredibly opulent…almost too a sickening level. Don’t get us wrong, each room is extremely beautiful. But everything is so decorated and over-the-top that it is an assault to the senses and just seems so unnecessary.
  • The Hall of Mirrors, Versailles’ most famous room, is amazing! Unlike so many other rooms which feel darkened due to the use of dark colors and heavy wall adornments, this room is light and airy due to the enormous windows, each paired with an equally sized mirror on the opposite wall. Apparently, mirrors were really expensive back when this room was created and thus there was no other like it in the world.
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The famous Hall of Mirrors inside the Chateau de Versailles…what a lovely space, at least if you can ignore the other hundred people there as well!

After paying our 20 euro parking bill (at least we were super close to the entrance), we set off out of Versailles and into the chaos of Paris roads. We did our best to take a route that would keep us away from the heart of the city, but we still hit pretty bad traffic and crawled along for quite some time. Our route also took us through a series of tunnels that could not have been more than 2 meters (6 feet high). It is really unnerving driving with the ceiling that close and some of these tunnels went for several kilometers.

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Our walking path around Versailles. Green was our path from the car (bottom right) to the far point at the Petit Palais. Blue shows our return journey including visiting the chateau itself. We had originally planned to walk all the way around the enormous canal but thought better of it. Even still, we walked over 14 miles today!

When we eventually got to our hotel, we parked right out in front in an open space and found ourselves faced with a locked door. We had received no special instructions for how to check in (turns out this was our fault for using a misspelled email address when we did our booking) and were a bit flummoxed as to how to proceed. Fortunately, a lady arrived shortly and happened to enter the building and we were able to follow her in. Inside the second entry door, we found a simple table and a telephone, but no human being to help us. On the phone was a number of how to reach the central office so we picked up the handset and dialed.

Thankfully, the guy on the other end of the phone spoke English so we were able to figure out how to get checked in. Our keys for the room and the parking garage were stored in a combination safe on the table and we were given the code to open the safe to retrieve our keys. We were also told at that time that we needed to come down to the central office prior to noon the next day to complete our check in process.

With much help and direction from Rose, Philip was able to navigate the car down a very narrow spiral ramp and into the underground garage below the building. After a 13 point turn, the car was securely in its spot and we were very glad that it could stay there for the next three days and we would only have to do that process one more time when it was time to leave. We walked upstairs and got settled into our rather roomy flat that would be home for the next 3 nights.

Since the central office would be open until 9pm, we decided to try and go take care of the check in so that it wouldn’t interfere with the next day’s plans. On the way to the Metro stop, we checked out a supermarket and then Philip got a kebab from a kebab restaurant to take on our way. Unfortunately, he made the foolish assumption that he would be able to eat it while we walked, though that was too challenging. As such, we mostly just carried a takeout container with a kabob and fries with us as we traveled.

The process of figuring out of the Metro had a rough start. We spent some time pouring over a map on the wall and trying to figure out what kind of ticket we needed to buy to get where we wanted to go. This was complicated by the fact that the map on the wall did not, for some reason, include the station or even the entire subway line through that station. We attempted to seek help from a clerk but she did not speak English and we made no progress there. This was the first time our lack of French language skills really became a problem and it was quite frustrating not being able to communicate.

We were also uncertain about whether to buy a full day ticket or just a single ride, given that we intended to ride the Metro the following two days as well to get around Paris. Since we knew could get help at the hotel office, we opted for just the single ride tickets to get us there and finally managed to make the purchase (in cash, because the machine would not accept our credit cards…this was to become a larger problem throughout our time in Paris).

Moments later, we attempted to go through the ticket barrier and could not figure out how to make our tickets work. After a few awkward attempts at passing them over the RFID scanner, we realized that there are two types of gates: those that accept paper tickets and those that don’t. Moving to the correct type of gate solved our problem and we were finally through and on our way.

We exited the subway at the Arts et Metiers station and climbed up to the street level. We must have looked confused because a passerby asked us in English if we needed help finding our destination. He pointed us in the right direction and we set off. Thus far, everyone we have met in France has been nice and helpful and nothing like the stereotypes of rude and anti-American about which we have heard so many stories.

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By far, Arts et Metiers is the coolest metro station in Paris.

We will agree with others who have said that Paris is dirty. The city has trash everywhere, despite having rubbish bins readily accessible at almost every intersection. The bins are often times overflowing with trash so it is perhaps a more systemic problem than just a culture of littering. London, on the other hand, is more or less spotless DESPITE the fact that you can’t find a public rubbish bin to save your life in many parts of the city. It is interesting (and in one case, disappointing) to see the difference between these two major European cities from this perspective.

At the hotel office, we finally got the check in process completed, though more credit card issues forced us to spend almost all of the cash in euros we had brought with us from Denver. The guy answered some questions about how to use the Metro and then we set off on our way back home. We stopped just outside the metro stop so Philip could finally eat his now rather cold kabob and fries before travelling (with much more ease this time) back to the area around our hotel.

We walked around for a few minutes, checking out what was in the neighborhood and finding another supermarket, two more kabob stands, and a promising bakery for the next morning’s breakfast. Reconnaissance accomplished, we went back up to our flat and called it a night. Tomorrow, we get our first of two full days in Paris and Rose finally gets to see her Eiffel Tower in person!

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Happy travelers enjoying a day at Versailles.

Summary:

  • Morning comes way too quickly when you spend all night looking at lights
  • Chartres Cathedral but no tour of the towers 😦
  • Discovering the Gardens of Versailles
  • Chateau de Versailles: a lesson in overwhelming opulence
  • The most complicated hotel check in ever

Stats:

  • Distance on Foot: 14.44 miles | 32,473 steps
  • Distance in Car: 116.7 km
Day6_Full

The journey of Day 6. A: Walking in Chartres. A->B: Driving to Versailles. B (green and blue): Walking around Chateau de Versailles and its gardens. B->C: Driving to our flat in Paris (the extremely straight stretch of road just north of Versailles was a very long and very low (2 meters high) tunnel. C->D Riding the metro to/from the hotel office to do finish our check in process.

*** Check out the first post of our trip to England/France and read them in order! ***

After our late night, we slept in just a little before checking out of our hotel and heading back to the Cathedral. We parked a little bit closer than last night and attempted to use the automated parking machine to pay. Unfortunately, the machine rejected our card due to the lack of having a pin code for confirmation (this is more typical in Europe, apparently, as opposed to our signature-based method at home). Having only a few euro coins, we bought an hour and 15 minutes of time, and figured we would return to get more time as needed.

We stepped into a bakery and ordered two pastries for breakfast (entirely in French again out of necessity). Rose’s was just ok but Philip’s beignet with Nutella was amazing! We ate as we walked up to the cathedral and went inside. The cathedral is free to explore, but we asked a clerk where we could buy tickets for the tour of the towers and she directed us next door.

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The beautiful rose window above the main entrance of the cathedral in Reims.

We purchased our tickets there (more woes with Philip’s card declining here, though Rose’s worked and it’s the same card number…) and had about 10 minutes until the 1 hour tour would begin. Realizing that we would run out of time on the meter, we walked back to the car with the intent to add more time. We needed change so Philip went back to the bakery. She was unable to make change without a purchase so, beignet with apple in hand, Philip returned from the bakery and we bought more than enough time for parking, which unfortunately overlapped some of the time we had already purchased (consider it a few euro donation to the City of Reims, we suppose).

At this point, Rose glanced at her watch and realized we were almost at the start time of our tour, so Philip hastily placed the beignet in the car for later and we ran up the hill to the cathedral. We made the tour with a minute to spare and soon set off with about 10 other people into the cathedral and up the long, circular climb of the south tower. At the top, we exited into a little stone courtyard area between the two towers and our guide began her explanation in French of many things we could not understand (it’s hard when you only catch one out of every 20 words or so). Thankfully, the guide realized that there were several of us who could not follow her French descriptions and she gave us a brief synopsis in English at each spot on the tour.

One of the interesting facts we learned is that the Reims Cathedral is made of rock that is relatively soft. As such, it is not as strong as some other churches and certainly not as strong as they desire. In fact, they only ring the massive bells of the north tower on special holidays or occasions because they worry that too much repetitive swinging of the bells might cause the tower to fall over!

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The matching towers of Reims Cathedral as seen from on top of the roof. You can see the flying buttresses down below and the lead roof panels on either side.

We went out onto the front façade of the cathedral where we could see up close some of the massive statues of the kings and saints. We also had wonderful views over the city and she pointed out some of the key sights off in the distance.

Our tour then proceeded into the area above the nave, where we could see the complex structure supporting the roof. The structure had originally been made of timber, but had been destroyed in fires caused by bombings during the world wars. When they rebuilt the roof structure, they did so out of concrete instead, though following exactly the original layout of struts and trusses as if the construction was of wood. It was really cool to see the “behind-the-scenes” structural aspects of such a massive building.

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The complex concrete structure of the spire of Reims Cathedral.

At the end of the nave, we saw the bell weights hanging that power the “everyday use” bells that sit on top of the cathedral. Our guide then led us out onto the roof of one of the transepts where we could see the bells themselves and the lead roofing. Apparently, during the aforementioned fire, the lead roofing melted due to lead’s low melting point and began to run like water through the drainage system of the roof. Like most Gothic cathedrals, this drainage system culminates with the exit through the mouths of the various gargoyles lining the edge of the roof. So, during WWII, the gargoyles of this cathedral essentially vomited molten lead…that must have been a terrifying sight to behold.

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The vault above the nave at the Reims Cathedral. All of these members are concrete, but are modeled exactly on the wood structure that it replaced after a damaging fire during WWII…that fire also melted the lead roof panels, causing the gargoyles to vomit molten lead down to the street below!

The tour of the towers was definitely the highlight of visiting this cathedral (along with the amazing external façade). The interior of the church, in contrast, is fairly austere and mostly uninteresting. It does have a fair number of stained glass windows, though some of these are modern (10 years old) and aren’t really our style.

With the cathedral behind us, we returned to our car and set off west from Reims towards Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte. We had originally planned to go to Chateau de Fontainebleu but changed our minds this morning. Vaux-le-Vicomte is supposedly the primary inspiration for the Chateau Versailles and is supposed to be an amazing gem that is not often crowded. On the way, we stopped for our first gasoline fill-up, a process that almost went horribly wrong. Fortunately, we double checked our words and did not put diesel into our petrol-burning automobile! We then hopped on a toll highway again, but fortunately for a much cheaper 8 euros this time.

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Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte in all of its well-proportioned beauty.

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Ascending from the gardens back to Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte. We climbed to the base of the lantern at the top of the dome.

Despite Samantha (our GPS) steering us slightly wrong at the very end, we found the chateau and headed inside to buy tickets. The exterior of the chateau is beautiful, surrounded by a moat and wonderfully proportioned. The large gardens extend from the rear of the chateau and there are numerous out buildings that easily dwarf any house where we live in Colorado.

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The chateau with its surrounding moat.

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An example of the interior of the chateau. Every room was ornately adorned with painted ceilings, elaborate wall paper, tapestries, and beautiful floors.

The highlight of the interior was climbing the large dome of the house. This cost 3 euros extra, but was definitely worth it for the views from above and the chance to yet again see some of the structure of how the house is constructed. The tour of the interior concluded with a trip through the cellars where we could see the kitchen and dining areas for the staff.

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Looking towards the front of the chateau complex from on top of the dome.

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The view of the gardens as seen from the top of the dome.

After exiting the chateau, we spent a while walking around the gardens and circumnavigating canal. Like most formal French gardens of this style, there are various topiaries (pyramid shaped pine trees are popular), statues, massive constructions in stone, etc. This chateau has a very Olympic theme with many statues related to Greek and Roman mythology. Near the end of our walk around the gardens, we came to a signboard explaining the plumbing system that drove the gardens when they were built…and that continues to be used today. Two reservoirs accumulate water over time that is then gravity fed down to drive the fountains. It can take between 1 and 2 weeks to gain enough water to fill the reservoirs, which is then fully consumed by running the fountains for just 6 hours!

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One of the pyramid-shaped pine trees in the gardens at the chateau.

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So much cooler than normal paddle boats!

Our legs definitely tired by this point, we returned to our car and continued our journey across the south side of the Pairs region towards Chartres. We elected to try taking the non-toll road approach for this leg, which put us on more minor highways and made the trip a bit longer. For the most part this worked well, though the truck traffic nearer to Paris was unnerving at best and downright sketchy at its worst.

We stopped at a grocery store in one of the towns through which we passed and picked up a few snacks. First, we found a bar of Lindt dark chocolate (which is what we often enjoy at home), but with a lime zest flavoring. Rose stayed conservative with some sesame breadsticks but Philip found these absolutely amazing cracker things with cheese inside. They taste just like a gourmet cheese ball, wrapped in fresh herbs and spread on a cracker, all in a convenient round shape!

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Our first view of Chartres Cathedral as we drove into town.

We found our lodging in Chartres and snagged the final parking spot along the street out in front. At check in, we learned that our flat was located up the hill a bit…what we didn’t appreciate yet was how much hill there is in Chartres! We dragged our luggage up the hill and found our apartment. Two awkward and curving flights of stairs and a very challenging door lock slowed us down, but we finally made it and checked out our new place for the night.

After organizing our things and recovering for a few minutes, we decided to take advantage of the several hours of remaining daylight and go see the cathedral. We also hoped to find ourselves a nice French dinner and we had a recommendation of where to go from our hotel clerk.

We walked the rest of the way up the hill to the Cathedral and stepped inside. We only wanted to take a peek since we knew we would be back in the morning to see it properly. That accomplished, we wandered around checking out the restaurant options and feeling again overwhelmed by our inability to speak and read French. Eventually, we ended up at the restaurant that had been recommended for us (Le Cloitre Gourmand) and were relieved to see that it featured a very set menu for the night, thus helping eliminate some of the anxiety.

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One of the transepts of Chartres Cathedral.

We went in and were given a table in the small dining area right next to the window. On the other side of the glass was the façade of the north transept of the cathedral, beautifully illuminated by the slowly setting sun. Our waiter (possibly also the owner) was extremely friendly and spoke enough English to make things work. When we first arrived, he picked up the rather large signboard containing the night’s menu and plopped it right in front of our table! He talked to us about the menu and, after determining that both dessert options had nuts in them (no-no for Rose) we decided to just do the appetizer and main course option of the fixed menu.

Since there were only two options for each course, we decided to order one of each so we could share. Over the course of two hours, we sat in the restaurant enjoying amazing food and looking out the window as the sun moved across the cathedral. At one point, a man with an adorable fluffy white dog (akita perhaps), was taking pictures of the dog on the cathedral steps. The dog was amazingly behaved and happy in that way the most dogs are just because they are alive. The guy noticed us watching him with big smiles on our faces because he smiled and waved at through the restaurant window when he and the dog left.

As for the meal, we began with some simple slices of crusty bread. The waiter then brought us two small ceramic glasses (can’t think of a better way to describe these) of a mystery substance and implored us to try it. It turned out to be the most delicious, light, and airy potato soup either of us had ever tasted. One of the appetizers consisted of blanched asparagus in some sort of light sauce, served with a puree of butternut squash (with hints of pumpkin spice) and dotted with fresh currents. The other appetizer was two large shrimp, breaded in the most delicate way and served with guacamole (sounds weird but it was amazing). On the plate also were a few pomegranate seeds and something similarly flavorful but from a different fruit. The complex relationship of tastes of sweet and salty and tangy and citrusy was obviously very well planned out and with great success.

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The appetizer course of our phenomenal French dinner in Chartres.

For the main course, Rose had the filet of beef, served with mushrooms and slightly bitter crisps of something on top. This was served with a different butternut squash puree than the appetizer. The beef was chewy, though not in a bad way and not due to gristle or fat. Philip had two small pieces of white fish, served over top of a third version of the butternut squash puree (Rose described this one as “Thanksgiving flavored”) with a single slice of grilled pineapple. The fish was very good, but the hands-down winner of the dish was the combination of the grilled pineapple and the puree. Each tasted delicious on its own but when combined the flavor profile was absolutely incredible!

By this point, we were very glad we went with the recommendation from the hotel for where to eat dinner. We paid our bill, thanked the chef, and went outside into the evening air. While we were at the restaurant, we only saw 5 meals served (us, one other couple, and a woman dining alone). Not sure if this is typical but it doesn’t seem like enough to sustain a business, though the food was exquisite.

At some point during the day, we had learned that Chartres also lights up its cathedral at night with a light show. In fact, Chatres holds the record for the biggest lighting display of architectural features (or something like that) in the world. Knowing we could not miss out on that, we headed back to the hotel to try and regroup and organize some of the photos from the last few days while we waited for the sun to fully go down.

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Projection equipment used for lighting up the main facade of Chartres Cathedral…when we came back in the morning, all of this was pulled back inside and the window closed.

While at the hotel, Philip spent a bit of time learning the most important French phrase he could think of. No, this isn’t “where is the bathroom” or “how much does this cost” or “help, I’ve been shot and need a hospital”. The most important phrase is, “may I please pet your dog?”. For the record, we think the correct phrase is “S’il vous plaît puis-je épater votre chien” for those that care. Just imagine Philip muttering this to himself over and over again, trying to commit to memory for rapid recall when a necessary situation would arise. (Philip actually did successfully ask to meet a dog a bit later in the evening…but did so in English!).

At 10:30, we walked back to the cathedral just in time to see the light show starting. For the next 15 minutes, we sat in front of the building and watched an amazing projection play across the features of the façade. It didn’t have quite the same depth as what we had seen snippets of in Reims (probably due to the façade itself having less depth than that in Reims), but it was wonderful.

We wandered over to the south transept of the cathedral where another light show was playing and watched that one too. A trip to the north transept followed and thus began a 2 hour walk all over Chartres looking at lighting. Embedded in the pavement around town are solar-powered markers indicating the walk of light. After finding the first building behind the Cathedral on our own (and watching a very weird short video that we assume was based on a French fairy tale about the moon and stars, though awkwardly featured a very voluptuous kangaroo…), we came upon this path and followed it down along the river and around the rest of town.

The climb back to the top of the city led to a pretty large gap between light displays and we then stumbled out of old Chartres and into what appeared to be a modern European city. It was a weird feeling coming out of medieval stone streets one minute and into high traffic intersections and advertisements and such. As we got nearer to the Cathedral, we did find one more large theater decked out with a lighting show, making the long trek up there worth the effort.

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Our convoluted journey around Chartres on foot. Green shows our first walk from the car parked at A to our hotel at B to the cathedral at C to our dinner restaurant at D. Blue shows our late night path of walking all over town to see the various buildings illuminated.

Exhausted after this long walk, and with a 3500 step head start on the next day’s step count, we finally made it back to our room and quickly into bed. Tomorrow, we will go back to the cathedral here in Chartres and then on to one of the most famous of French destinations, the Palace of Versailles.

Summary

  • Bell towers, kings, and gargoyles vomiting lead
  • Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte (aka “Baby Versailles”)
  • Don’t put diesel where petrol belongs…close call
  • An amazing dinner in Chartres
  • Finally, we get a light show!

Stats:

  • Distance on Foot: 11.78 miles | 25,152 steps
  • Distance in Car: 264.9 km
Day5_Full

Our Day 5 journey. A: Exploring Reims Cathedral. A->B: Driving from Reims to Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte. B: Exploring the chateau. B->C: Driving from the chateau to Chartres. C: Exploring Chartres deep into the night.

*** Check out the first post of our trip to England/France and read them in order! ***

We woke up this morning to rain…lots and lots of rain. We figured it would happen eventually given England’s reputation for being wet and we are grateful for the time in London we got that was warm and dry. We prepared for the day, packed up our belongings, and then set off on foot through the rain on the 15 minute walk to Canterbury Cathedral.

We made a quick stop at Costa Coffee (appears to be the English equivalent to Starbucks…one on every corner) and we sat down to eat a chocolate muffin and a bacon sandwich. The muffin was a bit dry but ridiculously sweet with a dollop of frosting on top and more injected into the middle. The bacon sandwich turned out to be simply bread and bacon, which was a bit on the simple side but it’s hard to go wrong with bacon.

After a brief walk in the wrong direction because Rose let Philip navigate, we arrived at the Cathedral and went in. Canterbury Cathedral was once the heart of the Anglican Church in England and the cathedral has a magnificence becoming of that heritage. Unfortunately, we could not see much of the façade because it is undergoing heavy restoration and a lot of it was covered by scaffolding. We were able to explore the interior extensively, though, and marveled at the impressive length of the church from nave to apse.

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Canterbury Cathedral behind tons of scaffolding around its facade. The picture just cannot convey how incredibly large this building is.

We worked are way around the interior of the cathedral and into its numerous chapels along the sides. The altar area of the church sits much higher up than the floor of the nave, higher then what we have seen in most other cathedrals. This allows for the crypt that sits beneath that section of the church to have significantly more windows than most other crypts. This gives the “garden-level” crypt a light and airy feeling that is missing from most others…it’s downright welcoming and pleasant to be in that area.

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A beautiful chapel at the back of Canterbury Cathedral.

The only downside of our visit was the multiple tour groups of high school students that were also there. In fact, this was to be a day filled with student tour groups and our patience definitely rubbed thin by the end due to the apparent lack of personal awareness from which most high schoolers seem to suffer. On that note, we realize we have lamented tourists and their behavior many times already on this trip. Maybe we are just starting to get older and one step closer to standing on the front porch with a shotgun in hand yelling “get off my lawn!”

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The Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral. This would be a lovely space to hold a meeting, which is how it was used originally by the monks who lived here.

After exiting the cathedral, we walked through the rain back up the hill to our hotel, packed up the car, and set off south to our last stop in our England Part 1 journey, Dover. Specifically, we headed to Dover Castle, which sits high on a hill overlooking the city and the English Channel. We bought tickets and decided our top priority was to see the castle itself. There are also several WWII related things to see at the site, but castles are almost always our first choice.

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Our very wet morning excursion around Canterbury. Green shows outbound from our hotel at the bottom and blue is the return trip. The random green offshoot to the left is when Rose foolishly let Phil navigate for a few moments.

The rain had mostly stopped by this point, but the wind was howling at near gale force. We bent over as we walked up yet another hill to the entrance of the castle, our faces struck repeatedly by whatever lingering droplets of moisture the wind could grab and fling our way. It was a hike well worth the effort because Dover Castle is awesome!

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Dover Castle on a rainy day in England…supposedly this is the driest part of the country though our handful of statistically insignificant data points disagree.

The people that manage Dover Castle have done a few things very well. First, the castle is nicely adorned with tapestries, furniture, and other items in many of the rooms, giving it an actual “lived-in” feel. Second, they do not overly constrain visitors by guiding them with ropes like sheep from room to room. Instead, visitors can explore however they choose, using both spiral staircases to move floor to floor. This is the first castle we have seen that combines these two concepts. Usually, you get one or the other. In Ireland, Blarney Castle was awesome because we could explore all around and it and get lost in the process, but it was completely unfurnished. Places like the Tower of London or Kilkenny Castle are wonderfully furnished, but there is no process of discovery to be had. Kudos to the staff and managers of Dover Castle for getting this one right!

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The kitchens at Dover Castle. They did a marvelous job of staging the castle well while still allowing visitors to explore freely and discover the castle in their own ways.

We spent over an hour wandering around the various areas of the castle, trying to ensure we had seen every nook and cranny along the way. Other than the 3 different tour groups of rambunctious and obnoxious students (okay, done complaining for real this time), we otherwise had the castle to ourselves save for maybe four other couples. We also went onto the roof to enjoy views out over the water, though the wind was still howling and visibility was not high.

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The church and ancient Roman lighthouse just outside Dover Castle.

After exiting the castle, we found the entrance to the medieval tunnels, a series of passageways that descend the hillside beneath the castle walls. We also checked out the small church and ancient Roman lighthouse directly next to it, though sadly the lighthouse is not open for climbing to the top. We still had a little bit of time before we needed to head out to catch our ferry (more to come shortly) and so we walked down the hill to check out what we could of the more modern war history of this place.

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Dover Castle sitting on top of the cliffs above the Dover Ferry Port.

Due to its strategic position nearest the European mainland, Dover has been a place of great importance from Roman times through at least WWI and WWII. The British dug secret tunnels during WWII, which are now open to be visited. Unfortunately, we learned upon descending to the entrance that the tunnels could only be visited with a tour that lasts an hour, which was more time than we had available. There was also a shorter 20 minute tour into a hospital bunker, but the start time would not work out for our schedule either. So, with our legs threatening rebellion from all the hills, we set off back uphill towards the car park.

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Rose in a WWI command post near Dover Castle.

On the way, we stopped at a WWI command and observation post. Yet again, this was a well done presentation that contained staged furnishings and other objects setup in the bunker to give context, but also the opportunity to interact and discover in multiple ways. Really wish we had time to also do the WWII tunnels because I’m sure they did an awesome job with those as well.

We climbed the rest of the way to the car and drove down the hill to the docks to bid farewell to England (for now) and hello to France. On that note, we were originally intending to take the Channel Tunnel to Europe rather than a ferry. However, last night our assumption about Chunnel tickets fell apart. We believed that, since the transport through the Chunnel is a train, the ticketing would be similar to train ticketing; that is, there is a price to go from point A to point B and that price is known and relatively fixed. In reality, Chunnel pricing behaves like airline pricing, with prices fluctuating greatly depending on when you want to travel…and more importantly to us, prices not being particularly friendly when you try and book the night before!

Rather than spend over 150 euros for the trip, we decided to take the ferry instead. Pricing is still dynamic, but significantly less so and we were able to purchase tickets for less than 60 euros. We did book a Chunnel ticket for our return trip back to England in a week, which was a much more competitive price since we could book it in advance for a less popular time of day.

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Farewell to England (for now) as we head across the English Channel for a week in France.

Anyways, we arrived at the docks about 50 minutes before our departure, checked in for our trip, and went through French passport control (hooray for a new stamp in our passports!). We were also informed that due to the strong winds, we would be delayed about 45 minutes.

Well, 45 minutes really became about an hour and a half. We parked in the queue of cars in our assigned lane and went inside the ferry terminal to check out food options. It was here that we had our first inclinations that our rental car company had not given us all of the information or accessories required for driving in France. It was an advertisement-style notice on a sign board that tipped us off, reminding drivers that they must carry disposable breathalyzer tests when driving in France. Having never heard of anything like this, we were a bit confused but decided to inquire about it on the boat, because the advertisement had indicated you could buy these onboard the ferries

We returned to the car and spent a while listening to our audio book and possibly even dozing off briefly. Eventually, the cars around us started to move and we were able to load onto the upper parking deck of the largest ferry we’ve ever seen. By the time the ferry was fully loaded for the trip, the entire lower deck was packed full with semi-trucks (lorries!), though it appeared there was still room for more cars.

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Driving onto the ferry.

We went up to the passenger decks of the ship and began walking around to check out the different areas. We also went out onto the back deck of the ship to watch as we shoved off from the dock. As we pulled out of Dover, we could see the famous white cliffs rising in the distance. We watched until they visibility started to degrade (not too long due to the still raging winds) and then went back inside to get warm and continue exploring.

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The white cliffs of Dover as seen from our ferry ride to France.

At one point while walking onboard, we saw a television advertising additional items we would need to be legal driving in France, which we confirmed with a guy at an information desk. It turns out that one needs the following items in France that are not normally needed in Great Britain: breathalyzer test; reflective safety vest and traffic triangle in case you break down on a highway; a kit of spare vehicle light bulbs; a decal to pair with your license plate to indicate the country of origin of the car’s registration; and, for cars set up for British driving with the driver on the right, a set of patent-pending stickers to position carefully over a portion of the headlights to prevent “dazzle” (glare) from blinding oncoming drivers (because headlights tend to throw more light at higher angles towards the driver’s side of the car, this is a problem when driving a car on the right that was designed for driving on the left. Fortunately, the ferry company sells a handy kit containing all of these items for the low, low price of just 35 euros, including a convenient carrying pouch!

Armed with our new acquisitions, we went up to the top passenger deck to the food court and got some food for lunch. We would have preferred to dine on shore but this made the most sense given that we were now an hour and a half later than we had hoped and still had a lot of driving to do in France. The ferry was not particularly full of passengers and there seemed to be only one guy working the food court. He was very soft spoken and disinterested, though we eventually managed to get some fish and chips (with peas as the veg…whole peas not “mushy peas”) and a beef and ale pie. We sat by the windows at the front of the ship to eat and watch for the French coast to appear.

While we sat there, it began to sink in that we would be in France very soon and neither of us speaks any French. Philip is at least comfortable in Italian and Spanish and can fake it well enough to get buy. Our last three trips have been to English-speaking countries. Neither of us has ever had a single bit of experience with French other than RSVPing to wedding invitations and saying the word “chateau”. With work taking up a lot of time and other projects around the house, we just weren’t able to prepare linguistically like we had hoped for this portion of the trip. So, Philip sat and did a very quick crash course on some key phrases and came out of it feeling perhaps even less confident than before due to the challenges of pronunciation.

Ready or not, the French coast was approaching and we followed the instructions over the intercom to return to the car deck and prepare to unload. We took the opportunity to try and make our car legal with the items we had purchases. Our first challenge was that the magnetic sticker that says “GB” on it was not designed for a Peugeot car made, it would seem, entirely of plastic. The packaging assured us that the magnet could stay on at speeds of up to 130 mph; we couldn’t keep it on at 0 mph. We finally figured out that we could tuck the magnet inside the car and wedge it by the back window. It falls out every time we open the rear hatch but works well enough. After several minutes of trying to determine which of the 115 different headlight decal alignment diagrams applied to our particular model of car, we settled on one and Rose put the stickers onto the head lights in hopefully the correct positions to avoid dazzling the French (in automotive ways, at least; she is always dazzling!).

We exited from the ferry and set off south into France with Rose muttering under her breath, “drive on the right”. Surprisingly, it took Philip very little time to get comfortable driving in the awkward configuration of right-side driving from the right-side of the car. In fact, it seems superior in many ways from a safety perspective, though passing on a two-lane road is much more terrifying because of how far you must veer left in order to see if the route is even clear to pass.

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The beautiful landscape of north eastern France. We greatly enjoyed the drive from Calais to Reims and were happy to see windmills dotting the landscape regularly.

The weather improved as we drove south, except for one or two pockets of rain. The countryside is absolutely gorgeous with rolling hills and many collections of modern windmills spinning away on ridge lines. We took the highway south toward Reims, which we knew would take us on a toll road, since most French highways are apparently toll roads according to our guide book. We weren’t quite prepared for the 22 euro toll we incurred, but it was definitely the quickest way to get to our destination, the city of Reims.

Before we go further, some pronunciation is in order. Reims, aka the city of Kings because this is where French kings have been crowned for a millennium, is not pronounced like reams of paper…that would be way too easy for English speakers to sound out. Instead, the correct pronunciation appears to be like the word “France”, except replace the “F” with a throaty “H” sound reminiscent of what you might use when speaking Hebrew, and slur the “n” a little bit into an “m”. This yields something similar to “Hrams”, though we really can’t pronounce it correctly despite our best efforts.

We found our hotel at about 8:30pm (lost an hour when coming to France…don’t worry, we will find it again in a week) and checked in after a very brief French conversation that served only to say “good evening” and ask if the clerk spoke English. We were given a room key that also granted access to a garage down the street where we could park the car, which was a tight but achievable operation.

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Reims Cathedral at dusk.

We had intended to go to bed soon, but the clerk had indicated that the cathedral gets lit up at night with a light show and this piqued our interest greatly given our recent foray into LED light showing for Christmas. So, at 10:30pm (still before dark…summer at high latitude in a time zone one further east than seems appropriate), we hopped back in our car and made the short drive to the Reims Cathedral. We parked on the road leading up to it at the first available spot we saw, an action that turned out to be very unnecessary since there was a lot of parking much closer. But, hey, what’s wrong with a little more walking.

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Reims Cathedral lit up at night. The stereo projection did an amazing job of hitting all sides of the carved statues on the facade.

Unfortunately, the full light show was not to be as we learned it would not start until the coming weekend. However, we were able to see a bit of alignment testing that two guys were doing. The lighting consists of four banks of massive projectors (six each) located at the back of the square in front of the church. The sets of projectors were each spaced about 30 degrees apart, allowing them to render a nice stereo effect. The façade of the cathedral is covered in hundreds of massive sculptures of kings and saints, and the stereo projection technique allows all visible sides of those statues to be lit up giving an incredible effect. We were definitely sad that we couldn’t see the real show, but the few snippets we saw during testing were enough to make the late night trip worthwhile.

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Testing the light show at Reims Cathedral.

After a hike back to our car (why did we park so far away!), we returned back to our hotel via a very unnecessary circuitous route. We had some issues with our navigation and managed to make at least 5 wrong turns on what should have been a brief drive. Nevertheless, we made it back, parked the car, and set off to get some sleep and do some writing.

We survived our first adventure in France and are excited about the week to come. Tomorrow, we will explore the Reims Cathedral and then check out the first of our chateau.

Summary:

  • Rain, rain, so much rain
  • Canterbury Cathedral and the garden-level crypt
  • Dover Castle is AWESOME!
  • Riding the ferry to France
  • 6 things you need to be legal when driving in France
  • A late night in Reims with fancy lighting

Stats:

  • Distance on Foot: 9.75 miles | 21,547 steps
  • Distance in Car: 189.5 miles | 303.2 km
  • Distance on Boat: 28 miles | 45.2 km
Day4_Full

Our total route for Day 4. A->B: Canterbury to Dover. B->C: Taking the ferry across the channel to Calais, France. C->D: Driving through France to Reims.

*** Check out the first post of our trip to England/France and read them in order! ***

After waking up on the morning of day 3, we enjoyed another lovely breakfast at our Bed and Breakfast before packing up our belongings and loading the car. We still had a day to spend in London, but had to be out of the room by mid-morning (thankfully we were able to keep our car parked at the hotel for the day). On the way, we stopped at the front desk to inquire about the best way to get back to Westminster now that the planned maintenance closures on certain Tube stations had lifted. The clerk at the desk seemed surprised that we wanted to take the train/Tube and not the bus, but we knew from yesterday’s experience that the bus would not be fast enough for us today.

While we were having this dialog, a family of 4 people in the lobby happened to overhear and offered to share their cab with us (if we would share the fare, of course). It was expected to be about a 45 minute trip, which we were confident we could beat by taking the trains (and not have to be squashed into a cab as well). So, relying upon our own recollections and wits, we set off to the train station to figure it out for ourselves and make our way to Westminster Abbey.

The train process was actually really simple, though we did ask a transit worker to help us pick the correct all-day pass ticket for what we needed. We then climbed up to the raised platform and hopped on the waiting DLR (Dublin Light Railway) train…not sure why Dublin Railways operates a single line in East London but it worked for us today! After two stops, we reached the end of the line and transferred over to the Tube station to continue our journey on the London Underground.

In just about 30 minutes of total travel time, we arrived right across the street from Westminster Abbey. With some dismay, we noticed what appeared to be rather large crowd already gathered around the building, despite it still being a few minutes until opening time. We hurried over and found the line for those of us who had purchased tickets online in advance (a much shorter line than those needing to buy tickets so score another win for buying online…plus it was 2 pounds cheaper). While standing in line, we struck up conversation with an older couple from California who had also arrived in London the same day as us. At one point, the guy made a statement about “who from America would want to drive in England” to which Philip raised his hand with a smile on his face. Call us crazy, but part of the fun of traveling is jumping headfirst into the challenging aspects of life in foreign countries.

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The facade of Westminster Abbey

Upon entering the abbey, we were struck by a few things immediately. First, this is certainly one of the most beautiful churches in the world. The stonework is incredible and everything has a polished look to it rather than the rougher cut appearance of many other cathedrals. Second, even without people inside, the church is crowded. There are so many memorials and statues and chapels and tombs that it has a somewhat claustrophobic feel despite its massive size. Thirdly, add in thousands of tourists to an already cramped environment and things get crazy very quickly.

After picking up our audio guides (and watching two Dutch ladies get very offended at the mistaken assumption of the docent that they were American), we set off along the prescribed route through the cathedral. Due to the enormous crowds of people, there is a set path that all must follow as they navigate through. We understand why this is necessary but it would have been far more enjoyable to explore at our own pace and path.

As we walked down the side aisle of the nave, we saw tomb after tomb of scientists, including Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton (well, we actually missed Newton’s somehow in the chaos but we have been told it is there). We then worked our way over to some pews facing the elaborate organ screen to sit for a few moments. While there, we noticed an Asian child, perhaps 4 years old, sitting alone. At about the same time, a priest noticed the girl as well and came over to her. Over the next few minutes, the girl became increasingly discontent and the priest became more and more concerned since this girl’s mother seemed to be nowhere in sight. It ultimately took about 10 minutes before the mother was found, with the girl screaming loudly through most of that time.

We explored the various chapels, the transepts, and apse of the church and did our best to not lose our minds from all the horrendous tourist behavior we observed. I know we mention this kind of thing a lot in our writings but that’s only because it really is a problem. It never ceases to amaze us how much common courtesy, decency, and sense seem to evaporate when a bunch of tourists get into a group.

Our audio guide gave us a lot of interesting information about the kings and queens of English history, which we appreciated a lot more later in the afternoon when we visited the Tower of London. Near the end of our journey around the Cathedral, we came to Poet’s corner, a large area taking up most of the south transept of the church that is dedicated to tombs and memorials of various English poets, authors, and musicians. It was fascinating to read the various memorials and see names we recognized like Handel, Lewis Carroll, and Shakespeare, just to name a few.

Our patience withering quickly, we left the main section of the abbey and stumbled upon a very peaceful area called the “Little Cloister”. We weren’t able to explore much of it, unfortunately, because it apparently serves as the active residences of some of the clergy, but it did give us the break we needed from the chaos. Upon returning to the main cathedral, we stopped to see the Coronation chair, a rather large and uncomfortable-looking piece of furniture that gets used during the crowning ceremony for new monarchs.

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Our “little cloister” (actually we think that was the actual name of this place) at Westminster Abbey. This was where we escaped the maddening crowds for a few minutes.

After exiting out the front of the abbey, we made a brief stop at the small St. Margaret’s Church next door. The interior was uninteresting to us, but our real hope was to learn more about the unique “clock” tower outside. Instead of traditional analog clocks, this tower had a different sundial on each side of the tower, presumably custom tuned to tell time accurately for that exact location and angle. The sun decided to be uncooperative, though, and thus we did not get to see the sundials in action.

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The bell tower of St. Margaret’s Church next door to Westminster Abbey. Rather than clocks, it features sundials on each face of the tower…too bad it was overcast this morning and we couldn’t see them in action.

Our second visit to Westminster now complete, we hopped back on the Tube and rode it two stops east to an area of town called The Temple with the intent of visiting Temple Church. I wish we had a better rationale to offer for going there, but the real reason was that Temple Church played a minor part in Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code” and we thought it would be interesting to see.

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Temple Church. You can see the original round church section on the left and the more traditional rectangular one on the right.

 

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The interior of Temple Church.

Temple Church is unique for many reasons. It was the home of the Knights Templar and served as King John’s London headquarters and apparently was the location of the first conversations that led to the Magna Carta. It is really two buildings put together: a round church modeled after the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and a more typical rectangular building. The most interesting piece from a tourist perspective is that the round section contains a dozen effigies on the floor, most of which are in very good shape given they are a millennium or so old. Unfortunately, a few did suffer damage when German bombs hit the church during WWII.

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The stone effigies on the floor of Temple Church, which featured briefly in Dan Brown’s “The Davinci Code”.

After leaving Temple Church, we set off for a little over a mile to see if The Monument (to the great fire of London) was actually open this day. To our delight, it was open as usual and there was no wait at all for us to go inside. We redeemed our online tickets and began the intense climb up 311 steps to the top. From there, we had nice views all around this section of London. The descent back down went much, much quicker and we soon emerged back into the sunlit square. Upon exiting, we each received our official certificate (complete with a blank line where could fill in our very own names!) commemorating our successful summiting of the monument.

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The Monument to the Great Fire of London. We are now proud possessors of real-life certificates with a blank line where can fill in our names signifying our conquering of the tower by reaching its summit!

Our next destination was one we had been looking forward to for a few days: the Tower Bridge. As we walked to the iconic structure, we kept an eye out for some lunch options but nothing available seemed particularly interesting. We climbed up to the ticket office and waited in line for about 10 minutes to go through the security bag check and redeem our online tickets. While waiting, we each ate a granola bar to tide us over until a real lunch could be found.

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Tower Bridge in all its splendor. Various movies have made it seem like this stands just outside Parliament but it’s actually a few kilometers east down the river.

The ascent of the north tower occurs via a lift that holds 20-25 people. At the top, we exited into a room where a guide gave us a brief explanation of the bridge and the places we could visit. We then moved on to the east walkway and started across to the other side.

In the middle of the walkway, they have installed a few dozen feet of glass flooring, enabling visitors to look down to the bridge deck and Thames far below. As might be expected, the floor was littered with people laying on their backs on top of the glass trying to get the perfect selfie…except for the handful of people hugging the wall and cautiously avoiding walking on anything transparent. All along the walls of the catwalk, there are photos/diagrams of famous bridges from around the world.

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Looking down through the glass floor of the catwalk at the Tower Bridge.

When we got to the south tower, we headed back across the river via the west catwalk, but stopped about halfway. In this catwalk, they have mounted large mirrors on the ceiling above the glass floor, which allows people to look down from the perceived safety of the wall…and makes for an interesting photo.

We returned to the south tower and talked to a guide for a few moments about the bridge. He explained that the catwalks used to be a very important aspect of the bridge when it first opened at the end of the 19th century. Back then, the bridge was opened so frequently, that the most efficient way for pedestrians to cross was to do so via the catwalks. A few decades later, traffic on the Thames had slowed so significantly that the catwalks were closed because pedestrians could just cross the bridge at deck level instead without suffering too long of a wait. He also explained, with some amusement, that when the tower bridge exhibition first opened, the south tower contained animatronics and robots that acted out the jobs of the guys building the tower. For whatever reason, this display never made any money. Now that they have installed 50 feet of glass flooring, they are making millions of pounds a year!

After descending down the south tower via stairs and then a lift, we walked the rest of the way to the south bank and entered the engine rooms. This is a display of much of the machinery that was once responsible for raising the bridge, including the coal plants, steam engines, and hydraulic pumps. There are also 2 massive energy accumulators that consist simply of a very heavy cylinder of metal that can be raised into the air. As the steam engines work, they slowly raise those cylinders up, converting the mechanical energy into potential energy. When it is time to raise the bridge, all of this stored energy can be used very quickly so that the bridge can be raised in under 1 minute!

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Tower Bridge as seen from inside the Tower of London.

Unfortunately, we were not able to see an actual bridge raising during our trip, but perhaps we will the next time we visit London. We left the engine rooms and walked along the south bank of the river to get some more pictures and resume our search for food. After an unintentional (and failed) attempt to break into the restricted City Hall cafeteria in a sunken area called “the scoop”, we found ourselves in a narrow and modern pedestrian street with tall buildings on either side and a fountain running down the center. We stepped into an Asian take out place called Itsu and, within 2 minutes, were walking away with some Thai hot pot meals in hand.

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A cool pedestrian area with a fountain down the center. This is where we finally found lunch!

We took our food around the corner to an area with 3 large splash pads and a bunch of large concrete blocks. As the weather was cold and extremely windy, there were no kids playing in the splash pads, just well-dressed professionals eating their lunches and changing positions occasionally when the wind would pick up and hit them with mist from the water jets (we had to move once for the same reason). The food was hot and filling, just what we needed to continue on to the last tourist spot of our day, the Tower of London.

Our walk back across Tower Bridge (via the deck, this time) took no time at all and we quickly purchased our tickets for the Tower of London. We were also pleased to see no real line to gain entry, which was a very welcome sight. The Tower of London would much more aptly be named, the Towers of London, because it is really a large castle consisting of at least 10 separate towers. At the center of the grounds is the castle’s keep, known as the White Tower.

We saw upon entering that there would be a tour beginning in 15 minutes, so we wandered around a bit and then went to the meeting spot for the start of the tour…as did about 50 other people. The tour was led by one of the Yeoman Wanderers, also known as Beefeaters, who are the guard stationed at the Tower of London. We learned during our tour that fewer than 450 people have ever been Yeoman Wanderers in the last 1000 years, making them rarer than astronauts!

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Our Tower of London tour guide, one of the famous Yeoman Warders (more commonly known as “Beefeaters”)

Our Wanderer was an entertaining guy and he walked us both around the grounds and through an often gruesome summary of English History during our hour together. We heard tale of more than a few beheadings that took place within the Tower or just outside its gates, often times involving English royalty. In fact several people buried at Westminster Abbey lost their heads at the Tower of London. The tour concluded in the small church within the grounds and we then set off on our own to explore.

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The White Tower: the castle keep of the Tower of London

We first went inside the White Tower, which was mostly set up with displays about armor and weaponry and wasn’t particularly interesting to us from an architectural perspective. We then wandered along the battlements, seeing several additional towers, each of which showcasing different aspects of the Tower’s history. We also took a brief trip beneath one of the towers to see a display on torture machines, including the Rack (which stretches you out) and the Scavenger’s Daughter (which folds you in thirds and crushes you.

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The Tower of London…a lovely place if you don’t think about just how many people throughout English history were execute here!

Our visit concluded with a visit to the most well-known treasure of the Tower of London, the Crown Jewels. These have been protected at the Tower for centuries and are considered priceless. The line outside the building looked long, but only took about 10 minutes. Unfortunately, it had started to sprinkle more and more during our visit so these were an increasingly damp 10 minutes for us. Once inside the building, we were herded like cattle through a series of rooms explaining the history of the Crown Jewels.

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This is where the Crown Jewels of Britain are kept within the Tower of London

At one point, the pathway widened briefly, only to narrow again soon after. This did not stop a significant number of tourists in line behind us from trying to push forward and save themselves at most 2 minutes of wait time. It did have the effect of causing general chaos and frustrating the heck out of anyone quietly waiting their turn like a decent human being.

Eventually, we reached the set of rooms contained within the Tower of London vault. In display cases we could see various crowns and other items set with hundreds of diamonds and other precious stones. At the very end, we saw the current crown of the queen topped with its 300+ carat diamond. After a minute or so of looking at the crown, we exited the vault area and soon found ourselves back outside.

All in all, the Crown Jewels were mostly anticlimactic. We can check that one off of our bucket list (after adding it first, of course), but neither of us are into jewelry and it just seemed a bit ridiculous in general. Much like what we saw at Buckingham Palace with the Changing of the Guard, the amount of pomp and circumstance when it comes to British royalty is hard for two American-born, practical-thinking engineers to relate.

Exhausted by this point from all of our walking and crowd fighting, we worked are way back around the Tower of London and toward our train station. On the way, we met a beautiful Aussie Shepherd named Maverick and of course Phil stopped to say hello. We split some fish and chips for dinner from a take away stand near the Tower and then hopped on our train back to the hotel to grab our car and move on from London.

Our drive to Canterbury began well…for about 5 minutes. We made it successfully through the first tunnel that had featured our first night in our very long “around the block”. However, tunnel number 2 proved to be our downfall and we went the wrong way at an underground fork. This led to at least a 30 minute detour due to traffic as we tried to get turned around and going the correct direction. Other than that, though, the remainder of the trip to Canterbury went without incident and we found our hotel (more of a hostel, actually) with ease despite the ever-increasing rain.

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Windswept but happy while standing on the top of the Monument to the Great Fire. You can see the ultra modern building called the Shard in the background.

We spent a few minutes working out some of the details of tomorrow’s travels (more on that to come in a future post) and then soon fell asleep (Rose at least, Philip stayed up to write some). We are excited to be out of London and exploring some new areas. Tomorrow we will make the journey into France and begin our week there of cathedrals and chateaux and hopefully much delicious food!

Summary:

  • Westminster Abbey: an experience in claustrophobia
  • The Temple and Temple Church
  • Climbing the Monument to the Great Fire
  • Tower Bridge
  • The Tower of London and our Yeoman Wanderer
  • We got lost again while driving (to Canterbury)!

Stats:

  • Distance on Foot: 9.29 miles | 21,009 steps
  • Distance in Car: 60.8 miles
Day3_London

The London portion of Day 3. A->B: walk to the train. B->C: ride the train to Tower Hill station. C->D: brief walk and then take the Tube to Westminster. D: explore Westminster Abbey. D->E: Tube to Temple. E->F->G->H (green): Walking first to Temple Church, then the Monument, then Tower Bridge, then getting lunch. H->C: Exploring the Tower of London. C->B: Train back to hotel. B->A: Walk from train station to hotel.

 

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Day 3. Note the rather large and seemingly unnecessary offshoot early in our drive from London to Canterbury…we got on the wrong road and could not get turned around for a while due to tunnels and traffic.