With our hotel in Bankside, London – south of the Thames, near London Bridge, and roughly between Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London – we are in an up-and-coming area undergoing gentrification and lots of renovation. It is one of the oldest areas of London, and feels a bit gritty (but safe and pretty cool) with lots of trains and old train tunnels. We are a few steps away from the Tate Modern art museum. It really feels like life is happening all around us. There are lots and lots of tourists in London right now, so everything is busy and crowded. We are discovering why we used to travel in the spring and fall! Summer is crazy.
Even though we did okay with the language in France, able to read menus and signs in French, and say a few phrases to locals – it sure is great to be in a place where English is spoken! We can speak without our brains going through a translation process, sometimes trying to answer in French, but with Spanish coming out (“Oh, you speak Spanish!”), and we can once again order food with items “on the side” and be fully understood.
There are statues everywhere we look, with some shown in our photos. We have walked through Chinatown and past a lot of famous landmarks, including Big Ben. Westminster Abbey charges a hefty 25 pounds ($30.53) to walk inside, but we attended an organ recital on Sunday and so entered for free. But as soon as it was over, the staff was very insistent on everybody leaving right away. Whenever we go into a church for free (none in France charged admission), we always leave a donation, since we feature them in our blog, and since we realize that they incur costs such as electricity and maintenance. Still, we don’t ever donate $61 for two of us to walk through!
Our favorite activity here, as everywhere, is just wandering the streets aimlessly and seeing what we stumble upon. We get to see fabulous architecture, street decorations, statues and monuments, and the other day we came upon Borough Market, with all of its lights, smells, and colors. There is lots here to discover! We still have almost three weeks to continue our life here, and we can’t wait to see more!
Our last full day in France was partially spent in Dijon, which was just an overnight stop as we made our way back to Paris to catch the Eurostar to London. We only had an hour or so to explore the city, so we walked around the old town and got a few photos. We had the opportunity for a home-cooked meal here, as our “hotel” room had a full kitchen with everything we could want, and even a washer and dryer.
You likely known the name Dijon from its famous mustard. Even though it is sold here, of course, it is not made here! The most striking attractions in the city are the half-timbered buildings and the 13th century Church of Notre Dame.
Atop the church is an clock with an automaton that strikes the hour called a Jacquemart. Nobody knows the origin of the word, just that it was being used from 1458. The Jacquemart was sacked from Belgium in 1382, and it was a marvel of its day. A second automaton, depicting a woman, was added in 1651 to alternate with the Jacquemart to sound the hours. The people of Dijon named her “Jacqueline.” (Who says life was hard back then, and people had no sense of humor?) In 1714, a Dijon poet asked the city to provide Jacquemart and Jacqueline with children (even though she was now 63 and he was 332 years old!). And so, Jacquelinet was added to sound the half-hours. In 1884, Jacquelinet received a sister – an automaton named Jacquelinette was added to make the family complete, as she strikes the quarter-hours. Phew! Is that complicated (and cute) enough for you??
France threw us one last curve ball as we returned our car the next day just outside of Paris. When we rented the car in Strasbourg, the agent mentioned the city where we were returning the car and didn’t say anything about it. When we looked at the address the night before, Google Maps showed that the location was “temporarily closed.” We tried calling the corporate office and every branch we could, only to get automated responses and to be hung up on. So we drove to our drop-off address, but the location had been closed for some time. It looked ramshackle, with bugs and flies in the dirty windows and mail piled on the floor. A sign on the door had an alternate address, so we drove there. It was a small back alley filled with rental trucks. We walked around and discovered a yard where men were washing vehicles. They said it was the place to return our car! There was no sign, no office – just a man who completed our paperwork on a table adjacent to cars being washed. The silver lining was that they offered to take us to the subway station and advised us as to how to get to Gare du Nord in Paris to catch the Eurostar. We made it with two hours to spare!!! Lucky us. We were on the last day of our allowed 90-day Schengen Area stay. If we had missed our Eurostar train, we might not have been welcomed back to the Schengen Area (i.e., most of Europe) for quite a while. Disaster averted!
We look at this experience as a positive occurrence, giving us the opportunity to build up more brain cells. Whenever we have to figure out something that is blowing up our plans, we get creative and start thinking out loud about what we might possibly do and how we can solve the problem. We have, so far in our travels of 20 years, averted everything in our paths that could have slipped us up, from trains not running to the city where we had hotel reservations, to train tracks under repair and torn up in entire countries, to being lost (!) countless times, to walking for an hour only to discover it was the wrong way, to missing stops on trains or subways. We’ve also been tricked in Barcelona, where the names of streets in our trusty tour book had all been replaced – Spanish names for Catalan names!! We couldn’t figure out how we were exactly where the map indicated we were, but the street names were wildly different! All of this makes us stronger and wiser, and gives us the experience we need to travel better in the future.
Avignon is famous for the Avignon Papacy of 1309-1377, wherein seven successive popes reigned from Avignon, France rather than Rome. The fabulous Palace of the Popes is actually two buildings that were joined in the 1300s to centralize the administration of the Catholic Church. When the papacy returned to Rome, the palace lost much of its former glory. However, its grandeur and immortality have captured the imagination of people over the centuries. We walked through the interior, but sadly for us, much of it has been taken over for the annual Festival of Avignon, an arts festival, and bleachers and hundreds of chairs have been placed inside, which obscured the openness and views. In addition, there is an exhibition on the Amazon (of all things), so several of the great rooms are not recognizable. We visited here 20 years ago, but today it is nothing like it was then.
The city is one of the few left in France that has retained its old walls surrounding the old town. The wall runs for 2.7 miles and encloses 370 acres. Originally, there were 12 gates that controlled access, but today there are 11 pedestrian entrances and 15 vehicular entrances. Inside the walls, it is vibrant with people drinking, eating, and attending theater shows, and it just has a vibrancy and sense of joy. There was a lot of activity! For us, it was a one-day whistle stop, as our 90 days in the EU Schengen area are up in a few days. Our last several locations were to be a bit longer, but we had to cut back our days in each after we did the math!
Marseille! It is a city that has been mentioned in every history course that we have taken online over the past three years. It has been an international port since being founded by the ancient Greeks around 600 BC, who called it Massalia. The Black Plague likely entered Europe through the boats that docked here. Whenever a trivia question asks about a major, ancient port on the Mediterranean, the answer is always: Marseille.
We found it to be a city with many faces. We stayed in Vieux Port, the ancient port, and it was very touristy and busy, with loads of people walking around. The oldest part of the city is Le Panier, at quite an elevation from Vieux Port, so we huffed and puffed as we climbed a mountain to get there. But when we did, we were rewarded with delightful shops and cafes, little winding pathways and streets, and tons of street art. We drove through the newer part of Marseille as we entered the city, and it looked a little rough. Neighborhoods called Noailles and La Plaine are to the east of the Vieux Port area. They, too, are where the typical working class people live, filled with street markets and street foods. We were a little apprehensive just driving through the close, winding streets.
The cathedral here is huge. It impresses not with its gold and statues and elaborate stained glass windows, but with its size. It is adorned in the signature Moorish red and white stripes, indicating that this is, indeed, an immigrant city, filled with many cultures. It was mostly too hot while we were here to be very ambitious about walking a lot or seeing many places. We are remembering why we never traveled during the summer! We only went out in the heat long enough to see the things that are pictured, but not much more. The sunny photos do make Marseille look like an idyllic vacation spot – but they came at the cost of just being too hot!
Aaaahhhhh – relaxing in the sun-drenched south of France! The world calls it the French Riviera. The French call it Côte d’Azur. We call it Utopia, since there is absolutely nothing to do and not much to see other than the beach and the sea. Oh, and people. Lots of people. We read that the French have been ecstatic that so many Americans have come to France on vacation. There are generally lots of Russians who visit during the summer, but with the war, of course they cannot come this year. Their places have been taken by Americans, with the visitor numbers likely enhanced by Western Europeans trying to cool off in the ocean because of the heat wave.
Our biggest decisions have been what to order at breakfast and what to do about dinner. Since it is so hot, we walk rather laconically and just look around as we get hotter and hotter. It is nice to not care about seeing anything in particular, as we then hightail it back to the hotel for the air-conditioned temperatures inside.
And so, for the first time…no captions under the photos. You can write your own! (Regarding the last photo, though – their idea of a “taco” is very, VERY different than ours!) These have been days of just lazing, reading, doing laundry, walking, sleeping, and catching up in general. We only have three locations left in France over four days before we return our rental car and catch the Eurostar (we found that nobody here says “the Chunnel” any more!) to London. We will be in the same hotel in London for over three weeks, so that will also be a welcome change to moving every few days. But we wouldn’t change our schedule in France for anything, as we got to see so many amazing sights and places that we couldn’t have dreamed of before we arrived.
Lyon! Even though the word lyon loosely translates as “lion,” we haven’t seen a single fountain or building featuring lions. Horses, yes. Fish, yes. Maybe we didn’t look hard enough? But – we got to see one of the most gorgeous, gilded churches we have ever seen, the local basilica. To get there, high on a hill (as you will see in the photos), we took a funicular both ways. We stayed in a part of the city called Presqu’ile – “almost an island.” It is supposedly where everything happens in the city, and is a finger of land between the Rhône and Saone Rivers, built due to a massive 18th century fill project, connecting what was once an island with the rest of the city.
Lyon – Gastronomic Capital of the World!! Unfortunately for us, a lot of their gastronomy features tripe, steak tartare, calves’ brains, and various organ meats, which we do not care for. The cuisine here is heavy on meats, and we tend to like chicken and vegetarian dishes. In addition, we found the perplexing problem of restaurants closing very early in the afternoon and not opening again until much later in the evening. We showed up to one restaurant whose own hours, written on their door, said they were open, only to find it locked up. After that, we called another to ensure it was open, and when we got there (driving several miles), they said it was three more hours before they would be serving food, even though they were “open.” Many of those situations happen to us often in Europe, with seemingly infinite variations. Just when we think we have figured out every question we can ask to ensure that we can eat something, they come up with a new way to foil us. It is turning into quite a game. We should have it mastered in a week or so, the day we leave France for London!
The “traboules” of Lyon almost got by us, but they couldn’t hide from us – we found them. They are Lyon’s own covered passageways from the renaissance, which are fun to discover and walk through (although some that were recommended in articles are boarded shut!). We walked alongside both rivers and felt lucky to see some of Lyon’s famed “frescoes” – buildings that have been completely taken over with painted scenes. Lots of people were standing with us, gawking. And we ventured out to two of Lyon’s sites of Roman ruins. Even though it was very hot, we went to a lot of places. Now we are heading to the Riviera for some beach time and not as much walking as we have been doing. We saw on the news last night that Nantes, where we spent time in May, hit 115 degrees yesterday! Parts of France in the west are experiencing wildfires. It is scorching hot here. We so appreciate air conditioning, when we can get it in Europe!
Bern, Switzerland has a lot more going for it than a clock – the famous Zytglogge – yet that is all we remembered from our one-day visit in 2003! It is on the top of every list of what to see here, but check out our photo and commentary. Yes, it is big; yes, it attracts crowds; but it was a little short on performance, as we were expecting more. We have seen city clocks in Germany that have figurines going around in a circle, and even chasing each other, on the hour.
This time, we took a tour of the National Parliament building. The outside doesn’t do justice to the fabulous interior! It was just magnificent, and the city offers free tours with a great guide, in English. The police checking people into the Parliament Building were gruff and unpleasant, which surprised us for a country like Switzerland. But their unpleasantness didn’t ruin the tour. The tour gave us an up-close and personal look at the building. We have been on tours of many centers of government, including the US Senate and the British Parliament. This is the first time we remember being able to sit in the chairs of the members, which made it a very down-to-earth experience.
While in town we visited some churches and just walked the streets of Old Town. There are statues with fountains, as we show below, in the middle of the streets here and there. The streets are lined with covered arcades, which cooled us from the unrelenting sun and heat. Did you see that there is a heat wave in Europe? It is supposed to reach 100 degrees here early next week. We have been in several hotels with no air conditioning, so that would be most challenging. Good thing we have our small fans! At night, they provide just enough air movement to feel comfortable.
One of the reasons we love having reservations and plans that are cancellable is getting an email from friends saying, “Hey! You should come visit us in Zurich!” We had not included Switzerland in this trip, but we looked at our itinerary and figured we could spend a few days in this gorgeous country. So we cancelled our previous plans, made reservations in Zurich, and headed this way. Driving from Colmar, France, on the back roads as we love to do, we passed through the High Black Forest. In addition to farms and villages, we also drove through an area with crystal-clear lakes and, because we were so high in the mountains, several ski lifts. It was spectacular.
So, for those views, and for a wonderful evening of lively conversation and delicious Lebanese cuisine, we have to thank our friends Yasmine and Onur. They struck up a conversation with us on a subway in Sofia, Bulgaria in 2019, and we saw them again the next day while we were on a tour in the city. We have had an email correspondence since then, so it was great to meet up and talk the night away. They are so interesting and knowledgeable! And, of course, they speak multiple languages fluently – their English is as good as US natives! We told them that we are just the opposite. We have studied several foreign languages, and can get by reading signs and menus, etc., but don’t truly speak any of them.
As is true with most of Europe, Zurich was occupied/founded by the Romans (although settlements 6,400 years old have been found here), who called the city Turicum. You can see the small leap between that name and the present name of Zurich. We found it to be very youthful, open, and utterly delightful. The Old Town is divided by the River Limmat, and the two most ubiquitous flags around town are the Swiss and the Ukrainian (even though Switzerland, of course, is neutral). A free walking tour filled in some extra interesting details that we had been unaware of. We wouldn’t mind coming back for a longer period of time. One note, though – Switzerland is the most expensive country we have been to in the world. You may have seen on the news that because of concerns about the world economy, the dollar has been rising with respect to many foreign currencies. For the first time in 20 years, the euro and US dollar are at par and the Swiss franc almost the same (about $1.02 today). So, a BK fish sandwich combo in France costs 5 euros. Here, the fish sandwich combo is 18 Swiss francs! It is bordering on four times what you will pay elsewhere. Most common meals are in the area of 30-50 Swiss francs, which is eye-popping. But for a few days, we don’t mind at all, as life here is so great. Just advising our readers to be ready for sticker shock!