Matt Grady's European Adventure 2006
September 07 | 08 | 09 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30
October 01 | 02 | 03 | 04 | 05 | 06 | 07

Eiffel Tower, Paris, Matt Grady Photo
Eiffel Tower, Paris
Matt Grady Photo
View my Europe photoalbum on Flickr.

Several friends of mine had backpacked across Europe and for a while I'd been itching to do the same. However, my financial or job situation usually prevented such a window of opportunity—or at least that's what I kept telling myself.

After accepting a summer IT contract with the Naval Reserves, I decided September was as good as time as any: I'd have money in the bank, I wasn't locked in a long-term contract and I had no family commitments. However, not wishing to return penniless, I decided on a month-long trip. And rather than a whirlwind trip across Europe, my focus would be Holland, Belgium, Monaco and France.

Over the summer, I pestered my well-travelled friends for tips and suggestions. Bought Lonely Planet's Western Europe guide and researched several travel and hostel websites. August, I booked a return flight through Air Transat and bought a 10-day Eurail pass. And a week before the trip, I hit up Mountain Equipment Co-op for travel gear.

The morning of the flight, I was nervous as hell, felt woefully unprepared and it hit me just how long a month could be! All part of the adventure...

07 SEP 2006
©2006 Google Maps
©2006 Google Maps
Packed large MEC backpack all morning, booked Amsterdam hostel—only one night available.

Beth drove me to 2 p.m. ferry, took the bus to Vancouver airport. Waiting at the gate in Terminal 3, a girl sat down beside me with same MEC day bag. She was also visiting Amsterdam and Paris, but had read a few more guide books in detail than I had, so seemed better prepared. I should have torn out appropriate city/country sections of my Western Europe guide book.

Air Transat plane departed at 8:45 p.m. PST. Despite booking an aisle seat, rarely had chance to put my feet in aisle due to traffic. Mother with baby in front of me kept tilting back her seat, so little knee room, either. Three movies shown, including Nacho Libre, plus light dinner and breakfast served.

Flight was 9 hrs, arriving at Schiphol airport at 3 p.m. local time. Ran into that Vancouver girl at baggage and caught the train to Centraal Station, where we took seperate trams.

Arrived at Stayokay hostel in SW area of central Amsterdam, beside Vondelpark. Many young Germans staying at hostel—common or for some event?

So many cyclists here, with their own traffic lane. No helmets either.

Have to get up early to get on waiting list for a second night, as all hostels booked up this weekend in Amsterdam for some reason.

Staying in room with 8 bunk beds, 2 shower stalls and toilet. So far, roommates include two Francophones from Montreal.

Walked around the southern end of central Amsterdam for several hours. It rained a bit. The layout of central Amsterdam (Centrum) resembles the layers of an onion, alternating between canals and rows of narrow, 4- or 5-storey brick houses, pubs (called cafés here) and restaurants. No breaks between the houses except at intersections.

Lots of people everywhere. At intersections, not only do you have to watch out for cars, but cyclists and trams as well. Despite that, little congestion.

08 SEP 2006
Went to bed around 11 p.m. Other roommates include a couple from Australia. Got up at 7:45 a.m. and found out at the front desk that a room for the night likely won't happen—same for their other location in town. Called a budget hotel, who also had no beds free. (Some big convention going on during the week, supposedly.)

Checked online and nothing available in Brussels for the night, so booked a room for two nights in Bruges.

Amsterdam hostel provided free breakfast: variety of breads, deli meat, cheese slices, spreads, cereal and jice. Many guests loaded up on sandwich makings, so when in Amsterdam...

Checked my backpack at the hostel (available to guests till 9 p.m. of their departure day) and headed to the nearby Van Gogh Museum.

In Amsterdam, noticed stop lights just for cyclists. Unlike pedestrian stop lights which chirp in Victoria, Amsterdam ones click slowly for stop, quickly for go and a quick triple beat before it switches back to stop.

Warm, sunny day today.

Unlike the grand architecture of the Rijksmuseum, which I only walked by, the exterior of the Van Gogh museum is a plain brick building. The museum owns around 200 of the artist's 800 or so paintings.

©2006 Google Maps
©2006 Google Maps
Paintings are grouped around the museum per era (Netherlands, Paris, Arles, Saint-Remy, Auvers-sur-Oise), despite the fact Van Gogh was only a painter for 10 years.

Very exciting to see the originals of many of my favourite Van Gogh paintings, including several self-portraits, sunflowers and the painting of boats, of which I have a poster in my kitchen.

Picked up my backpack and caught the tram to Centraal Station. Didn't spot a kiosk and other just walked on. So, free ride. Validated my Eurail pass and caught the train to Bruges.

Train cars clearly marked "1" and "2" for class. From Amsterdam to Bruges, the Eurail timetable leaves out the fact that, along with a change of trains in Antwerp, you then have to catch a 40-min. train to Ghent, followed by a 20-min. train to Bruges.

Techno music blaring for a "swing café" at the bus depot. Caught the bus to the Bauhaus Hostel. Roommates include two girls from Red Deer AB and a couple from the U.S.—one from Boston, the other from Maryland.

Chatted it up with my roommates, sampling the wine and beer (Aass) they bought in Norway. Then headed to the hostel pub. Forgot how much your clothes reek with smoking permitted in the bar.

09 SEP 2006
Woke up around 8:30 a.m., had a shower and then headed for breakfast at the hostel pub. Fortunately, few smokers this morning. Could hear the music still blaring the night before at 3 a.m.

No one seems to tip at the pubs in Bruges. My roommates mentioned people tend to round up only at restaurants they'd been to so far in Europe.

Breakfast included hard-boiled eggs, coffee, tea, buns, spreads and cereal.

I then began exploring around Bruges. Canals and a highway runs around the town. Very medieval in flavour, with narrow, 2- to 3-storey brick buildings dotted with towers and churches, plus windmills on the outskirts. Cobblestone streets and many, many shops.

Impressive architecture—the Belfort (belfry) in the central Markt and the nearby Basilica of the Holy Blood and town hall in the Burg.

In Bruges, large central market, with vendors selling clothes, trinkets, food, etc. Many people about—mostly tourists. The town reminds me of Quebec City. Bought cheese, meat and a baguette for lunch in the park.

Many cyclists—no helmets. Either they don't care or drivers have much more respect for cyclists in Europe.

10 SEP 2006
Prince of Belgium was in town. Spotted members of a military band in ceremonial uniforms.

In the afternoon, my roommates and I explored the southern area of town, including a visit to the Church of Our Lady (vaulted ceilings, candlelight, hymnal music) and a brewery tour at De Halve Maan. Good blonde ale. Belgians serve their beer with lots of head—encourages conversation while waiting for the foam to lower... or so the story goes.

We then headed for dinner at our hostel pub. Though, I learned the nearest ATM machine is in the middle of town, in the Markt.

Last night's pizza wasn't the only thing I walked off during my trek to the train station that morning. Good to have roommates who'll look out for you. 'Nuff said.

©2006 Google Maps
©2006 Google Maps
Caught the 11:30 a.m. train to Brussels (quick snooze), then the subway to Rogier Stn. The Sleep Well youth hostel is close by.

Had a couple of hours till my room was available, so dropped off my backpack in the luggage room and went exploring.

Brussels has a big city look and feel: dingy sidewalks, graffiti, sketchy alleys. But nice aspects as well, including murals and cobblestone streets.

Plenty of people around the cafés, pubs and restaurants, most of which have tables on the sidewalks. No bikes around, just cars.

The Galeries St-Hubert is an impressive covered arcade with shops, cafés and a movie theatre.

You then arrive in central square with the Grand'Place and Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall). Wow! Magnificent, statue-adorned stone architecture all around you. There was a brass band playing each time I passed through the square. Spotted a couple of escargot vendors.

Returned to my room for a snooze, then headed back to central square and the surrounding area. It being dusk, I avoided darker streets with few people around. At a grocery store, spotted Coke BlaK—with vegetable and coffee extracts. 'Cause Coke ain't strong enough as is, right?

Room is a fairly spacious 4-person room, with 2 bunk beds, 4 windows, table and chairs. Roommates include 2 South Koreans and a Serbian who moved from Spain to Brussels.

11 SEP 2006
In Brussels, the notices around the hostel apologizing for construction work nearby weren't kidding: hammering, sawing and drilling at 6:50 a.m.

Went to check out the church of Ste-Catherine near the Grand'Place. The exterior looks to have suffered smoke damage.

Street cleaners with high-powered washers and merchants with hoses and brushes out in droves cleaning the cobblestones and sidewalks.

©2006 Google Maps
©2006 Google Maps
Caught the subway back to the Gare du Midi train station. Have to reserve a spot on train from Brussels to Paris. Caught the 10:40 a.m. train and arrived at Gare du Nord train station in Montmartre (north end of Paris). Walked the nearly 2 km to the Square Caulaincourt hostel. Just as sunny and warm as in Brussels.

Walking through the streets, I'm suddenly in all the French movies I've seen. Amélie was filmed in Montmartre. Lots of steep stairways, surrounded by stone brick buildings with wrought iron balconies adorned with flowers. Cafés filled with people, streets filled with cars and music can always be heard playing.

Although I've been eating mostly sandwiches so far, I'm buying lots of water and juice. Milk probably not a good idea on such a warm day.

Hostel check-in not till 4 p.m., so sat on a bench up the hill for a while and then explored westwards, spotting the Eiffel Tower to the south.

Checked in, had a snooze, then headed out again. Climbed stairway after stairway ("And she's buying a...") till I reached the Basilique du Sacré Coeur.

From there, you have an amazing view overlooking Paris. Lots of tourists up here, along with a police car or two. Am keeping pickpocket warnings in mind.

Decided to avoid the Moulin Rouge area till daylight. On the way back, was asked twice for directions. Maybe I'm fitting in?

12 SEP 2006
Roommates include a girl from South Africa and a guy from New Zealand. Woke up in time for breakfast, reviewed my Métro map with my S. African roommate and then went exploring.

Spotted the two Montmartre windmills, including the one atop the Moulin Rouge club in the sex district. Sorry, peep shows not on my itinerary.

Headed to the nearest Métro station and bought a carnet of 10 tickets, then caught the subway to the Arc de Triomphe, surrounded by the Place de l'Étoile roundabout. More impressive and much larger than I expected. From here, you also get your first taste of Paris traffic, which is heavy and anything goes. Traffic lights mean little to pedestrians.

I then ventured down Av. des Champs-Elysées in the direction of the Louvre, passing several brides, the Petit and Grand Palais, the Hôtel National des Invalides, several statues, many cafés (go figure), the obelisk (wonder if the Egyptians want that back?), fountains, arches and then the Louvre and its glass pyramid. Walked back along the Seine river.

Paris seems to have a minimum 10% female model quotient to its pedestrian crowds. Ooh la la.

So muggy out. Always have a water bottle with me.

Caught the Métro back to the stop right near my hostel. The hostel is undergoing renovations. Here's a travel tip: if you bring a towel, make sure it isn't plain white—should at least have stripes. The cleaning staff grabbed mine, as the standard issue hostel towels are white.

Glad I brought along laundry soap (thanks for the tip, Ted), as the laundrettes aren't cheap.

That evening, caught the Métro then transferred to the RER (light trains) to the Eiffel Tower. I arrived around 9 p.m. to see it all lit up. Passed under it, noting the lift price for access to the first, second and top levels, then walked the perimeter of the Champ de Mars, extending east from the Tower. Many youths, families and couples sitting around the park, drinking and having picnics.

Bought a ticket for the second level. Costs €4.20 for level 1, €7.70 for level 2 and €11 for the top. Just as I was about to enter the line for the elevator, at 10 p.m. the Tower began sparkling with strobe lights and the crowds in the park cheered.

As a large group, you pile into the elevator, with pickpocket warning signs all around. At the second level, there are displays about the Tower's history, along with overpriced tourist shops, snack bar and pay toilets. The caged-in viewing deck extends around the Tower, offering a spectacular view of Paris, especially at night when you can't see the smog, thus maintaining the romantic illusion. ;)

13 SEP 2006
In Paris, due to renovations at hostel, shower drainage varies. Often, you have 5 min. before water reaches the lip of the shower stall.

Around noon, headed to the Quartier Latin to check out the Church of St-Étienne-du-Mont, the Panthéon and the Church of St-Séverin. Notre Dame de Paris is close by. Its impressive Gothic architecture draws a sizeable crowd.

I then walked along the Seine, past many book and poster vendors, whose collapsable stalls are attached to the concrete bordering walls.

Entered the Louvre at 3 p.m. Three massive wings, each with four floors and 30-40 rooms per floor. The ideal visit would be spread over two days.

Nearly every room makes an impression in its size and/or design, the paintings and displays aside. I focused first on the Egyptian exhibit. Despite "Do Not Touch" signs, visitors will do it anyway. Many taking pictures. Annoying around the Egyptian carvings and relics. But later on, it becomes a frustration when people use flashes on the European paintings, despite signs not to and it being known the damage flashes do over time. Few museum staff intervene. Oh well.

Every few hours, when you figure your interest has been drained, you'll enter another exhibit and spot the original of a painting or statue you've seen in books.

After 6 hours at the museum, I figure I saw two-thirds of the collection and decided to call it a night.

The Mona Lisa was nice to see, but there are far more interesting paintings in the same room. Paintings by Delacroix, Van Dyck, Renoir, Holbein and Rembrandt were highlights for me, but after so many centuries' worth of still-life, larger-than-life historical scenes, portraits, landscapes and divine depictions, the sculpture exhibits were a welcomed relief.

Leaving the Louvre, I spotted the Eiffel Tower in sparkly mode, then saw three armed French soldiers patrolling the museum compound.

Later that night, had a glass of wine with my roommates (one is from Mordova) at Les Deux Moulins Café (the café in Amélie). It's at 15 rue Lepic, a 10-min. walk from the hostel, near the Moulin Rouge. There's an Amélie movie poster signed by the director on the mirrored back wall of the café.

14 SEP 2006
Overcast day in Paris. Caught the Métro then the RER west of Paris to Versailles to see the Château de Versailles, built by Louis XIV.

Grand, splendorous architecture, with sculptured gardens, orange grove, white gravel pathways lined with marble statues, well-maintained parks as far as the eye can see and cross-shaped Grand Canal dotted with ducks, swans and rowboats.

Areas of the Château and parks undergoing restoration.

Visitors can rent bikes and golf carts to tour the park pathways.

Rather than paying €10 to walk around inside the Château (especially after spending 6 hrs the previous day at the Louvre), I walked the tree-lined perimeter of the Grand Canal, which takes an hour or so. Good way to get away from the crowds, save the occasional cyclist or fellow walker.

I highly recommend Versailles to anyone spending a week in Paris.

Buskers on the Métro and RER, playing guitar, accordion and saxophone. Good renditions of Beatles tunes, but I don't remember Paul or John singing with a French accent—well, except "Michelle."

Another busker played recorder, but in a grade school talent show style. Ouch.

15 SEP 2006
©2006 Google Maps
©2006 Google Maps
Thunder, lightning and heavy rain last night. Saw a news report about heavy storms in Montpellier in the south.

Caught the 11 a.m. train to Lyon, a 2 hr trip. Hotel right near a Métro station. Room includes a sink and a shorter sink for—peeing? washing your feet?

16 SEP 2006
Took it easy yesterday, reading in my room and saving exploring till today. Several markets set up on the sidewalks around my hotel. Bought some lunch supplies and caught the Métro to Vieux Lyon.

Overcast this morning, but gradually cleared and warmed up. Checked out the Cathédrale St-Jean before making my way up Fourvière Hill.

I first came across the Théâtre Romain, the remains of a Roman outdoor stage, where a platoon of Roman soldiers (actors, of coruse) in full armour were performing drill, including attack and denfence formations, with commands yelled in Latin.

I then made my way through the Jardin du Rosaire, up to the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière. From here, a spectacular view of the Saône river passing through the city below.

The interior of the Basilique is magnificent. Mosaic and marble floors, mosaics of religious scenes on the walls, adorned with gold, with stained-glass windows and decorated, vaulted ceiling.

I walked through a nearby graveyard, with family plots dating back to at least the 18th century, before gradually making my way downhill, across the Saône and back uphill to my hotel.

Occasionally, I'll spot someone on the Métro or meet someone at a hostel who totally reminds me of a friend or family member back home. Spotted a guy on a Paris subway who could have been me in 15 years. Didn't look like he was enjoying the domestic life. ;)

17 SEP 2006
L'Hôtel de la Poste in Lyon was decent, save for the yelling and breaking of bottles outside, and the kids running up and down my hallway. I think there was a family living on my floor.

©2006 Google Maps
©2006 Google Maps
Caught the 11:45 a.m. train to Avignon. While waiting in the south end of Avignon for the bus to the hostel, I met two German girls also in town for two nights. Only remembered a few phrases from my grade 10 German class.

Also had a conversation with an elderly local man (in French, of course), who recommended what to check out in town and the Côte d'Azur. He mentioned he visited Quebec, Niagara Falls and New York with his wife and son thirty-odd years ago. Before the man's wife passed away, they'd discussed visiting British Columbia.

I told him I was travelling around the country and would visit the D-Day beaches and Canadian war cemetery near Bayeux. He said he still gets choked up about the war—he was a boy then—but was pleased to hear I was retracing some of my grandfather's steps.

Bus finally arrived (it was Sunday) and I saw the Pont St-Bénezet (aka the Pont d'Avignon) from another bridge crossing the Rhône river. The remains of the Pont St-Bénezet (henceforth referred to as the Pont) only crosses two-thirds of the river.

I arrived at the nearby YMCA (cue Village People) to discover a mass of cars adorned with tissue flowers, as a wedding reception was just wrapping up. I discretely made my way to the kitchen at the back to find the owner, who then took me to reception.

Returned downtown after a shower. Avignon is surrounded by reinforced stone walls (ramparts) dotted evenly with turrets and gates. A drawbridge right of The Friendly Giant connects the wall to the Pont. Parked cars surround the entire wall. You find yourself zig-zagging around parked cars and across sidewalks to avoid oncoming traffic.

Inside the walls, it's not so nice. Dingy, plenty of back alleys and numerous homeless. Otherwise, cafés and restaurants here and there.

18 SEP 2006
Some quick observatons about French cities: Walked upon the Pont for €4, which includes an audio guide. No dancing, I'm afraid. In the '60s, engineers discovered the foundations of a wooden bridge built by the Romans, which were used to facilitate building the first Pont in the 12th century.

I then explored the historical sights in the NW area of Avignon, including the Palais des Papes (pricey to visit inside) and the Cathédrale Notre Dame des Doms. Further uphill, the Rocher des Doms park offers a great view of the Pont, the Rhône, wooded areas west of Avignon and the distant hills and mountains.

Hostel of interest in Marseille booked up, so reserved a bed in Nice for four nights.

Charter bus load of German high school students at the YMCA, swimming in the pool and cranking bad techno music. Is this what happens to cheesy mid-nineties dance music—it resurfaces a decade later in Europe?

Expect the Black-Eyed Peas in 2015. ;)

20 SEP 2006
Yesterday, caught teh 10:30 a.m. train from Avignon to Nice. The Nice Camélias hostel is fairly close to the train station. Waited around till check in at 3 p.m., then headed for the boardwalk along the beaches.

©2006 Google Maps
©2006 Google Maps
Pebble beaches stretch for as far as the eye can see, filled with sun worshippers. The ocean is a light green-blue, hence Côte d'Azur.

Met several Brits and a guy from Vancouver at the hostel. Some are planning to go to school here, while one Brit is teaching English.

Next morning, had a conversation at breakfast with my roommate, an elderly woman from outside Paris, travelling on her own. Good for her—though it pushes the term "youth hostel." :)

The conversation was in French, of course. And at one point, the younger woman at the table asked if I was Quebecois. She was from Montreal. Must have been the way I pronounced some words. See what the Navy's done to me?

Bought a cheap towel and hit the beach for a couple hours. Had to fix my T-shirt tan. Also had a swim in the Mediterranean. Funny to see how others found it cold—try swimming in the Pacific.

Sunglasses are mandator for the brilliant sun—and to keep sightseeing discrete. ;)

Although it takes a moment to get comfortable on pebbles, it's nice no to have to shake sand out of your shorts and towel.

21 SEP 2006
Last evening, bought pasta, sauce, some veggies, a baguette, brie cheese and a bottle of wine— all for €7. Kitchen facilities at hostels are a blessing for those tired of baguette sandwiches. Fortunately, had help with the wine.

Spent the evening chatting with a group of Québécois, two of whom had the same MEC day bag.

Woke up this morning with a bit of bink on my back and stomach. Guess I spent longer drying out after my swim than I thought (didn't reapply sunscreen.)

Oh, and stained-lip special from last night's wine.

©2006 Google Maps
©2006 Google Maps
Caught the 11:15 a.m. bus from Nice to Monaco. Road follows the coast, offering fantastic views of private beaches, docks and well-to-do hillside residences, looking out to the Mediterranean.

Got off at the Casino de Monte-Carlo and walked the perimeter of the Port de Monaco. The Monaco Yacht Show was taking place in the Port, with several dozen multi-million dollar yachts on display. Helicopter landing pads, jacuzzis—you name it.

Monaco rises uphill from the Port, with pale yellow, ochre, rose and terracotta-coloured apartments, condos and estates built into the side of hills and at the edges of cliffs.

Expensive shops, restaurants, cafés, car and yacht dealerships line the streets.

I headed further uphill to walk around the Place du Palais. Terrific view from the Palais grounds, overlooking all of Monaco. Many tourist shops, cafés, etc. share the hilltop. Caught the changing of the guard.

Walked the perimeter of the Port de Fontvielle, then caught the bus back to Nice.

22 SEP 2006
Last evening, went to dinner with an Australian woman and her parents, who were my roommates for the night. Ate outdoors at a restaurant in Vieux Nice. Had salade italienne (greens, mozzarina cheese, tomatoes and raw beef strips, which I avoided) followed by shish kebab beef and potatoes on a bed of lettuce.

In student/backpacker mode, you feel guilty paying €15 for the dinner special, when the menu advertises crepes for €5.

Ended the night at the hostel, chatting with a group of Germans and Bavarians, plus an elderly, opinionated Amercian man. Again, good for him for studying French and travelling on his own in his seventies, but the more he had to drink, the heavier the political subjects he discussed. Buzzkill!

Fawlty Towers came to mind when he started asking the Germans Nazi-related questions. ("Don't mention the war!")

The Nice Camélias hostel staff can be strict about enforcing silence after 11 p.m., but it's an acceptable comprimise being so close to the beach.

Spent the day exploring Vieux Nice. Passing by several chapels and through an outdoor market, I ascended the Colline du Château. A fort once stood there, but was dismantled by order of Louis XIV. Terrific view atop the Colline of Nice, the beaches, the Bassisns and the distant mountains.

Many of the walls and walkways on the Colline are decorated with pebble and stone mosaics of wildlife, Roman soldiers and stylish patterns. There's also the ruins (under excavation) of a 12th century church and a large Catholic, Protestant and Jewish graveyard (still in use).

Navigating the narrow, car-jammed street maze of Nice on motorbike or scooter should be added to the list of extreme sports.

23 SEP 2006
Dinner at the hostel, I chatted it up with a guy from Toronto who appeared on Wind at My Back and Are You Afraid of the Dark? and later invested his earnings in real estate. Also met a girl from San Francisco who briefly dated a guy until she saw his Star Wars themed apartment and he came out dressed as Luke Skywalker. Smooth. Two girls from Quebec and two girls from Switzerland later joined our table.

That night, ended up at a beach party, which drew travellers from all over staying in Nice. Ran into a couple of girls from Brantford, Ontario, where I lived for three years as a kid. It's Wayne Gretzky's hometown.

©2006 Google Maps
©2006 Google Maps
Saturday morning, managed to wake up at 8:30 a.m. and caught the 10:30 train to Nîmes, with a change of trains in Marseille. Was there for two hours. I've heard it's nice near the beaches, but the area around the train station is littered with garbage. Some sketchy types around, too. Also received a pickpocket warning or two.

Sitting on a large stairway to the train station, I saw a police car chase after a moped through the winding streets.

After getting my bearings in Nîmes with a bus map, arrived at the hostel at 5 p.m., situated NW and uphill from the city centre. The Chemin de la Cigale hostel is surrounded by a botanical garden. Friendly, social group staying here presently, including a Moroccan, a few Americans, a Brit, a German and a Spaniard.

Rained all night.

24 SEP 2006
If you're a guy staying at hostels, you're almost guaranteed to have a roommate who snores. One of roommates last night had the scariest snore I've heard in my life – an amplified, spastic chainsaw.

Overcast this morning, so packed a raincoat as I went exploring around central Nîmes. Saw the Maison Carrée, a first century AD Roman temple; the Arène de Nîmes, a Roman amphitheatre; and the tranquil Jardins de la Fontaine, inhabited by ducks and swans. Also passed a few cathedrals, including the 11th century Cathédrale de Notre Dame et St Castor.

By this point, it had begun raining, but not a problem with my raincoat. I then headed north in the direction of the Castellum. However, during my trek uphill, it began pouring.

Had to duck under a few garage door overhangs. Water quickly rose at the roadsides. I'm pretty sure car drivers sped up just to splash me. My pants and shoes soaked, I retreated back to the hostel, sloshing through some ankle-deep puddles.

No grocery stores open on Sunday, only the restaurants, produce vendors and bakeries (the latter two close early in the day).

An English girl staying at the hostel had a Whitby Public Library tote bag, which an aunt from Toronto had given her. Having grown up in Whitby, my mom had the same bag. Small world, indeed.

25 SEP 2006
Rained all night. Overcast again this morning. First checked out the Roman Temple de Diane, located in the Jardins de la Fontaine. Many have scratched their name and the year into the walls. Spotted a few dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries.

I then followed the path uphill to the Tour Magne, a Roman tower which overlooks the city. Two of three storeys remain preserved. To access the top (32 m up), you climb a spiraling staircase inside. Acrophobia kicked in, especially when the staircase scene in The Haunting (1963) came to mind. Fortunately, the only scare that awaited were all the pigeon droppings. Terrific view from the top though. Just wipe y our shoes on the grass outside.

Clouds soon cleared and rest of the day was sunny and warm.

Another observation about French cities: rather than video stores, they have automatic kiosks from which you can buy or rent DVDs.

From the Tour Magne, I headed east to the Castellum, a circular tank at the terminus of the Roman aqueduct, where lead channels would have carried water to the city districts.

Next, headed south to the Maison Carrée, where they screen a short 3D movie about the history of Nîmes. The jousting stick darting from the screen was the coolest 3D moment. Count Floyd would have approved.

Last up was the Arène de Nîmes, "the Roman world's best-preserved amphitheatre." It would have seated 24,000 spectators in its day. The electronic audio guide is quite interesting and informative, especially details on gladiator games and which aspects are Hollywood myths.

The amphitheatre, besides being a tourist attraction, is still used for bullfights during the three annual Nîmes férias (festivals).

You can buy a baguette and a 200 g wedge of brie for €2 in France. No idea why I'm being gouged for cheddar back home.

One of my roommates is a Scot, also with a computer science degree.

26 SEP 2006
©2006 Google Maps
©2006 Google Maps
Clear sky this morning, though windy. Caught the 10:15 train to Arles, only a half hour east of Nîmes. Spent the day exploring Vieux Arles, which borders on the Rhône. Sights of interest include the Roman Amphitheatre (like Nîmes, still in use for bullfighting) and the Théâtre Antique, the Jardin d'Été and Place de la République.

Many churches, interesting shops and cafes tucked away in the maze of small streets. Spent a moment in the Église Saint-Césaire, as it was clear of people save an organist practising hymnal pieces.

My main reason for coming to Arles was the fact Van Gogh painted many paintings here. In Vieux Arles, the Café Terrace (now Café Van Gogh) and the gardens of the former hospital (now Espace Van Gogh) have been preserved to resemble their painted counterparts.

I walked half an hour south of town to see the Langlois bridge, which Van Gogh also painted. It's now called, appropriately, Pont Van Gogh. Returned just in time to catch the 3:45 p.m. Train back to Nîmes.

At the Nîmes station, I ran into the two Swiss girls I met at the hostel in Nice, so gave them directions to the hostel here.

27 SEP 2006
More random observations:

Last night, I experienced Swiss rap music. Couldn't understand the lyrics, so wondered if the rapper rhymed about his clock not keeping time, spilling fondu on his Adidas, or his grandfather in the Alps never hugging him. :) (Just kidding, Céline and Olivia.)

©2006 Google Maps
©2006 Google Maps
Caught the 11 a.m. train to Bordeaux with a two-hour stopover in Toulouse. Explored a bit of the city, spending some time in the Basilique Saint Sernin, which stood out for its red brick construction. Frescoes and stained-glass adorn the large, vaulted interior. Brickwork inside is covered with a layer of limestone(?) , which has crumbled away in several spots.

From Toulouse to Bordeaux, you get an engrossing view from the train of large vineyards, fallow fields and rows of cedars, with green, rolling hills in the distance.

Arrived in Bordeaux after 6 p.m. The hostel is within 1 km of the station. Throughout France, tourist information offices usually located in the train stations or a short walk away.

My Lonely Planet guide gives rough directions or the closest metro/bus station for many of the hostels I've stayed at, and the Hostelling International chain offers a free guide of their hostel locations. (However, I would later discover the entry for Bayeux gives an address which is actually located 6 km east of Paris! Glad I didn't try to find it....)

28 SEP 2006
Woke up early to spend the day exploring Bordeaux. Saw the Place de la Victoire, the Église Protestante Temple du Ha, the École de la Magistrature (with its strange granary-like structures within the glass building), the Tour Pey-Berland and the Gothic Cathédrale St-André. Impressive stained-glass windows, statues, paintings and pipe organ arrangement within.

France's wealth of Gothic and Romanesque cathedrals were definitely a highlight of my trip.

Also saw the bronze sculptures, including horses with webbed feet, in the fountain at the Monument aux Girondins. Walked along the Garonne river, past the Place de la Bourse (another sculpture-adorned fountain) and then to the tourism office.

Many wine-tasting tour at the prestigious châteaux (i.e. vineyards/wineries) surrounding Bordeaux. However, the two tours I saw advertised for today were €28 and €80 (including lunch) per person. Having been content to drink €3 bottles of wine to date and having seen several vineyards from the train, I decided to pass. Perhaps if I make an exclusive trip to Bordeaux in the future....

Bought some lunch supplies and headed to the Jardin Public, which reminded me of Beacon Hill Park in Victoria. The site includes a large Jardin Botanique. Numerous artists around, painting and sketching.

29 SEP 2006
Train trips within France requiring reservations cost €3 (first or second class) extra for rail pass holders. A second class reservation from Paris to Brussels or Antwerp costs €11 extra for second class, €22 for first.

©2006 Google Maps
©2006 Google Maps
Caught the 8:30 a.m. train to Paris, then had 40 min. to cross town by Métro to another train station (there are at least four in the city) and catch the 12:30 train to Bayeux. Caught an insane puppet show on the subway. Could only bring myself to watch for a couple seconds without bursting out laughing. Choice between the 3 km/hr and 9 km/hr conveyor belt leading to St-Lazare station. The 9 km/hr one first speeds you up and then slows you down at the end.

In Bayeux, met two guys from Ottawa at the station and we walked to the hostel, a renovated 17th century manor house with a courtyard that includes an oversized, inlaid chess board.

Took a walk downtown. Many cafés, pubs and bakeries, plus a surprising number of lingerie shops. Then again, Bayeux is world-renowned for its lace.

Most of the Americans I've met at hostels have been good, friendly people, but I've encountered several middle-aged, brash American tourists who fit the stereotype – including today at the grocery store. A man yelled at his wife across the store, “What the hell are you buying now?” And best of all, an older woman, from Texas I assume, asked the French check-out clerk, "Mañana, what time are you open?"

Around Bayeux fly the French, British, American, Belgian and Canadian flags.

©2006 Google Maps
©2006 Google Maps
30 SEP 2006
Breakfast was served on a large wooden dining table near the kitchen. Best spread of all the hostels I've stayed at: baguette slices, cheese, cereal, milk, jam, salami, orange juice, coffee and hot chocolate – all laid out like a meal.

The two Ottawa guys and I spent the morning figuring out how to get to Juno Beach and the Canadian war cemetery at Bény-sur-Mer. The local bus takes an hour and you'd only have an hour to explore due to limited Saturday bus times. There are half-day tours for €45, but the tours of Juno Beach leave at 8 a.m.

Our first thought was to rent a car, but automatic is rare in France and none of us could drive manual (a given for me). We ended up renting bikes from the hostel for €10 each. (There was a rental place with nicer bikes in town, but you had to leave them your passport as insurance – no dice.)

©2006 Google Maps
©2006 Google Maps
It's 20 km from Bayeux to Courseulles-sur-Mer (Juno Beach). Nice day and a scenic bike ride through the countryside, though riding a racing bike without a helmet was intimidating. Stopped at the Canadian war cemetery in Bény-sur-Mer, near Reviers. The cemetery is well-maintained, with a variety of flowers growing between the white headstones and maple trees spaced out evenly around the site. Very quiet, aside from the rising wind.

We then rode to the Juno Beach Centre. It's an interesting, informative exhibit, with pictures, video, write-ups and memorabilia about life in Canada from 1900 to 1945, including the actions and milestones of the Canadian Armed Forces during World War II.

When I exited the Centre, it was raining, but we rode 10 km west to Arromanches-les-Bains (Gold Beach) wearing only shorts and T-shirts. Stopped at a few spots along Gold Beach before riding the 10 km back to Bayeux.

Fortunately, the rain cleared up somewhat along the way and, despite being drenched, my passport, Eurail pass remained dry in my money belt, as did my camera in my day bag. Got a nice bike chain grease stain on my pants, too. (For future reference, it's recommended to soak grease stains in dish soap prior to washing!)

01 OCT 2006
Start of my last week in Europe! Cool day with occasional showers. Went to see the Bayeux Tapestry, an illustrated 11th century account of the 1066 Norman invasion of England. Seventy metres long, it used to hang around the nave of the Bayeux cathedral, but is now displayed behind glass in a museum.

Display prior to the Tapestry give historical context to the images depicted. King Edward the Confessor appointed Guillaume le Bâtard (William the Bastard, later the Conquerer) as his successor and sent his brother-in-law Harold to proclaim such. Harold even swore an oath of allegiance to William. But after Edward's death, Harold assumed the throne a day later. This didn't sit well with William, hence the Battle of Hastings.

Had a bite to eat at a creperie – a honey and almond crepe. So good. In France, there are also galettes, buckwheat pancakes with meat, cheese and other savoury ingredients.

Next, I visited the Battle of Normandy Memorial Museum. Large museum with ample information, pictures, memorabilia, weapons and uniforms from the period of June to August 1944. Many write-ups on the actions of the Canadian troops, too.

Across the street is a British war cemetery, which includes 500 graves of soldiers from other countries, Canada being one of them.

02 OCT 2006
Missed the early morning train to Pontorson, the closest train stop to Mont-Saint-Michel. Was considering a visit to Caen, but the war museum there costs €16.

Visisted the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux, built in the 11th century and renovated over the centuries. Curious mix of several centuries' worth of sculptures, stonework, paintings, stained-glass windows and catacomb frescoes.

I then caught the noon bus (only €7 return) with a Brit staying at the hostel to the American war cemetery and Omaha Beach. The Brit was extremely knowledgeable of the D-Day beaches and wartime events.

Beautiful presentation at the American cemetery, with large displays of the Allies' movements from D-Day till the end of the war. Unlike the headstones at the Canadian cemetery, the ones here are marble crosses (or stars of David).

The Niland brothers, who story inspired Saving Private Ryan, are buried here, along with Roosevelt's son, a Medal of Honour recipient. Four Canadians, one Brit, one Scot, one Mexican and four women, including a sergeant in the women's army, are also buried here.

Walked along the entirety of Omaha Beach, spotting several German bunkers. Down some steps from one bunker is a plaque commemorating the 31st Canadian minesweeping flotilla which cleared routes across the English Channel from the beginning of May till June 6, 1944.

Today, Omaha Beach is a beautiful stretch of sand (it took several companies till the '50s to clear 150,000 tons of metal debris), and the hills and bunkers are overgrown with vegetation.

03 OCT 2006
©2006 Google Maps
©2006 Google Maps
Caught the early morning train from Bayeux to Pontorson with an American girl (a budding photographer) from the hostel. Then caught the local bus to Mont-Saint-Michel, dominated by a medieval abbey built upon a hill in the bay.

Frequented by many, many tourists, the lower levels leading up to the abbey are filled with shops and eateries. Fascinating architecture in the stacked rooms of the abbey, with a view overlooking the apparent desert surrounding the hill at low tide. Atop the abbey's spire is a golden statue of the archangel Saint Michael.

To escape the crowds, it's worth circling the walled base of the hill.

Had my first coffee in Europe at a restaurant among the shops on the hill. A small cup, but very strong.

Caught the 5 p.m. train back to Bayeux, while the American girl went on to travel through Brittany.

04 OCT 2006
©2006 Google Maps
©2006 Google Maps
Caught the 9 a.m. train to Paris. Gare du Nord station was being patrolled by armed soldiers. Took the noon train to Antwerp. Met two Turkish men returning home from France.

In Antwerp, got a single room at Scoutel, a Scout's residence that welcomes travellers and is close to Centraal Station. Right beside the station is the Anterwerp Zoo – the inspiration for U2's "Zoo Station"?

Also near the station is the diamon district (300 diamond cutting workshops within one square km) and the Jewish district. The first time I've seen men in traditional Jewish attire in person.

Antwerp is a big city like Brussels, but much more open in layout. Less intimidating in the evening, too.

05 OCT 2006
Spent the morning exploring central Antwerp, taking in the Onze-Lieve-Vrou wekathedraal (Cathedral of Our Lady) and the nearby statue of Rubens, the Grote Markt, Stadhuis (town hall) and the Nationaal Scheepvaartmuseum (National Maritime Museum), which occupies an medieval fortress bordering the Schelde river.

The 11:30 a.m. train to Amsterdam was cancelled, so had to travel to Roosendaal (near the Belgium/Netherlands border) and change trains there.

Weather alternated between overcast and rainy today. Took a walk around the northern end of central Amsterdam, including the Red Light District. Tough not to chuckle at times. All manner of people walking about the area: tourists, businessmen, couples, teens, etc. Expect to be approached by beggars and dealers. Was surprised to see a Christian youth hostel in the middle of the District, right beside a "display window."

Had dinner at an affordable Italian restaurant. Smoking permitted there unfortunately.

Best laundry deal of my whole trip at the Stayokay Vondelpark: €4.50 for washer, dryer and free soap. In France, expect to pay €3-4 for the washer alone.

06 OCT 2006
©2006 Google Maps
©2006 Google Maps
Light to heavy rains all day. Went to the Anne Frankhuis (Anne Frank's house), the interior of which has been well-preserved. Respecting Otto Frank's wishes, the annex where the Frank family and four others hid, hasn't been refurnished since the Nazis had all the furniture confiscated.

The annex, which sits above the warehouse, is surprisingly spacious, with excerpts from Anne's diary printed on the walls, plus memorabilia, pictures and videos on display. Glad I arrived early, as there was a line-up extending around the corner when I left.

Spent the rest of the day exploring central Amsterdam, including the Magna Plaza (trendy clothing stores), the Koninklijk Paleis (Royal Palace), the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), Rembrandtplein (with a statue of the artist) and a walk along the Binnen-Amstel river, with its series of bridges and sluice-gates.

That evening, went to a nearby theatre to see a stage adaptation of Wim Wenders's film, Wings of Desire. (Avoid the horrible Hollywood remake, City of Angels.) The play was about half English, half Dutch. Fortunately, I'd already seen the original German film a couple times.

Saw the play with an girl from South Africa staying at the hostel. Back home, she's a script supervisor in the film industry. She was surprised I knew the duties of her job (script/scene continuity). Helps from watching all those behind-the-scenes extras on DVDs! :)

07 OCT 2006
In central Amsterdam, they have open-air, portable urinals. What's a woman to do? (Similar urinals are now used downtown Victoria after-hours on weekends.) Worst I saw was the hole in floor with footpads at the Bayeux train station.

Last night, Brit roommate smoked, drank and stumbled about the room loudly well after 11 p.m. What a wanker.

Took an hour-long walk through Vondelpark, passed by many runners and cyclists.

I then headed to the Schiphol airport for noon, flying out of Amsterdam at 4:30 p.m. Seated near the emergency exit, I had plenty of leg room this time. Just had to ignore the line-ups of people outside the washrooms. On flight movies included The Break-Up (more depressing than funny), The Legend of Zorro (missable) and X3 (finally got to see the post-credits scene). After a brief stopover in Calgary, arrived in Vancouver at 7 p.m. local time – about 10 hours of flight time.

Looking forward to hitting Europe again very soon....

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