Drew’s special day

Our grandchildren have been blessed with an abundance of toys, games, and books so when two of them had birthdays this spring, we decided to be creative. Our gift to each of them was a special day on their own with Gram and Grandpa once school was out for the summer. Yesterday was 11-year-old Drew’s day.

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We left his Calgary home early in the morning and headed for Banff National Park where our day started with a hike in beautiful Johnson Canyon. Drew was beyond excited when we spotted a black bear crossing a hillside shortly before we arrived at the trailhead. The bear was too far away to get a good photo, but the entertaining little ground squirrels (like the one shown above) and red squirrels along the trail certainly weren’t!

Catwalks affixed to the limestone cliffs make the canyon easily accessible to everyone and the 1.1 km trail to the lower falls involves very little change in elevation.

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At the lower falls, a bridge crosses the creek allowing both an excellent spot from which to view the falls and access to a water-formed tunnel through the rock to a closer viewing platform.

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The crowd thinned out a little as we moved on toward the upper falls, another 1.5 km up the trail. Spectacular views continued to surround us as we climbed.

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We knew that the water level was much higher than when Richard and I did the same hike almost three years ago, but I didn’t realize how much until I compared photographs. Considering how much rain Alberta has been getting this season, I guess it shouldn’t be surprising.

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August 2016

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After reaching the spectacular upper falls, we stopped to enjoy our picnic lunch before continuing our adventure.

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As we started back down the trail Drew announced, “This is the best birthday present ever!” It was then that I realized that the day was as much a gift to ourselves as it was to him! It definitely filled my heart to overflowing.

In addition to the hike, Drew had been eagerly looking forward to relaxing in the Banff Upper Hot Springs. I love this photo of his “floating head”!

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After soaking our tired feet and muscles in the hot pool, we made a quick stop at the Bow Falls Viewpoint then ended our day with a delicious restaurant dinner and a browse through a few gift shops before bringing a very tired boy home!

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Tomorrow we have a completely different agenda planned for his 9-year-old sister’s special day.

Amsterdam by bus, boat, and on foot

Just like the other European cities that we’ve visited, Amsterdam has major museums and galleries, but for our last two days before heading home, we were looking for something more laid back. We spent most of the day yesterday touring the city via Hop On, Hop Off bus and boat. We didn’t hop off a lot. We just took in the sights and got a feel for the city.

Amsterdam is sometimes called “Venice of the North” and actually surpasses Venice for number of canals. In fact, it’s the most watery city in the world with over 100 kilometres of canals and more than 1500 bridges.

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The tall elegant canal houses with their many different gable styles are so picturesque.

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Did you notice the beams extending out from some of the gables? Because the houses are so tall and skinny, staircases are steep and narrow. Moving furniture up and down them is often impossible, so the beams have hooks on them and winches are used to lift heavy or bulky objects to the upper storeys. There are very few private canal homes anymore. Most either contain offices or have been divided up into apartments.

Houseboats also line the sides of many of the canals. Some were clearly built as floating homes while others are old canal boats that have been converted for the purpose.

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Watching canal bridges open to let larger boats through was interesting.

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After yesterday’s tour of the city we enjoyed supper at the very popular Pancake Bakery in what was once a 17th century warehouse owned by the Dutch East India Company. The restaurant is just 300 metres from the Anne Frank House where young Anne, her family, and four other Jewish people were hidden in a secret annex for 25 months before being discovered by the Gestapo on August 4, 1944. Only Otto Frank, Anne’s father, survived the war. Photography is not allowed inside the house, but I would urge anyone who visits Amsterdam to see it for themselves. It’s a sobering, but very worthwhile experience. Just be sure to book your tickets and time slot well in advance.

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In her diary, Anne wrote about hearing the bells of Westerkerk, this nearby church, from the hiding place.

Before arriving in Amsterdam, we learned that there would be a nation wide public transit strike today. Buses, trams, and trains would not be running. As our hotel is some distance from the central part of the city, that presented a challenge. We didn’t want to spend our last day in Europe holed up in our hotel and we knew that taxis are expensive and that waits would be long, so we walked. And walked. And walked! According to Google Maps, we walked approximately 10 km! Fortunately, Amsterdam is flat!

Our main goal was to get to Museum Ons’Lieve Heer Op Solder, also known as Our Lord in the Attic. Built in 1630, it looks like any other canal house from the outside, but inside it contains a hidden secret, a church in the attic! Roman Catholicism and other non Protestant faiths were banned in Amsterdam during the 17th century, so people turned to small house churches hidden from the public eye. The authorities knew that they existed, but looked away. Well-to-do merchant, Jan Hartman, came to Amsterdam from Germany in 1661 and bought not only the canal house on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal, but also the two houses behind it. He had the top floors of the three buildings connected and they became the spectacular attic church. The museum, complete with 17th century furnishings throughout the houses, provides an interesting and thought provoking glimpse into history.

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We saw some other interesting things on our long walk today. This statue is located just across the road from our hotel. The inscription, “de verdwenen boer” means the missing farmer. As Amsterdam grew during the last century, the city annexed surrounding villages. Families who had been farming here for generations were bought out or had their land expropriated and were forced to move. Children and grandchildren of these displaced farmers had the statue erected as a tribute to them.

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Windmills are almost synonymous with the Netherlands and there are still a few of them in the city. We saw one while on the bus tour yesterday, but I was able to get better photos of this one when we passed by this morning.

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While we enjoyed Amsterdam by bus, boat, and on foot, we didn’t try the most common form of transportation; bicycle. Everyone here seems to ride a bike. In fact, there are more bikes than people in Amsterdam and far more bikes than cars! There are fabulous bike lanes everywhere and there are even traffic lights for bicycles!

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Backroads of Belgium

At nine o’clock on Saturday morning the taxi dropped us off at the Avis car rental office in Bruges, Belgium where we picked up our wheels for the day, a brand new SEAT Ibiza with only 61 km on it!

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Sticking to smaller highways and backroads, we set off across country to the small community of Verrebroek, not far from Antwerp. It was from Verrebroek that Richard’s great grandfather, Joseph Leopold DeBock, emigrated to America as a young man. Here’s the very first thing we saw when we pulled into town!

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A bit of online research prior to our trip had taught me that there were large De Bock businesses in the area, but unfortunately they’re closed on Saturdays or we would have dropped in to say hello. Interestingly, the North American branches of the family that descended from Joseph Leopold spell DeBock without a space between the e and B while in Belgium it’s spelled with a space. We assume that, as often happened in the past, immigration officials probably made an error in recording Joseph’s surname when he arrived in the country.

We visited the Verrebroek cemetery and found a number of De Bock graves. Clearly, there must be an older cemetery somewhere in the area, but everyone we talked to directed us to the one we visited. One of the oldest graves there belonged to Leopold De Bock who was born in 1883 and died in 1960, no doubt a relative.

After eating lunch in a little sandwich shop in town, we set off again retracing our path partway back to Bruges and then turning toward the ocean and following the coastline. Just past Zeebrugge, we stopped to spend some time strolling on the wide expanse of sandy beach that seemed to go on forever. This misplaced coastal girl needs a bit of sea air once in awhile!

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Everywhere we went in Belgium, we saw bright red poppies blowing in the breeze. I took this picture beside the road where we parked when we visited the beach. As I walked the sandy beach trail, I recited bits of John McCrae’s famous poem, In Flanders Fields. Little did I know that within a couple of hours, I’d be standing by his grave!

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Just past Oostende we turned inland again and headed toward Ypres. Belgium is a beautiful country; a lush coastal plain where we saw sheep, goats, and dairy cattle and small fields in every stage of growth from recently seeded to approaching harvest. The easiest crop for us to recognize was the bright yellow canola in bloom. Belgium hasn’t always been so pastoral though. Our main purpose for visiting Ypres was to see the World War I cemetery there, a sober reminder that the beautiful countryside has been torn by war on more than one occasion. We weren’t sure how to find the cemetery, but suddenly before we reached the town, there it was.

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It would take hours to read every headstone and many of them are weathered to the point where it’s difficult to make out the names, but of the ones I read, there were some that stood out to me.

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“A Soldier of the Great War”

Like the other unidentified soldiers in the cemetery, the inscription at the bottom of the headstone says “Known Unto God”. All that is known for sure is that this young man was a member of the 72nd Canadian Infantry Battalion. Whose son was he? Whose brother? Which family was left wondering what had become of their loved one? Where his body lay?

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These three newer headstones stand separately at one side of the cemetery and don’t actually mark graves. They have names on them, but the one on the left says “Known to be buried in this cemetery” across the top and the other two say “Believed to be buried in this cemetery”.

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This one says “Ein Unbekannter Deutscher Krieger” (an unknown German warrior). He was the enemy, but he was also someone’s son, someone’s brother. In death they’re all the same.

Visiting the cemetery and seeing the graves of so many young men was sobering, but realizing that a kilometre or so down the road, there was another one with more than 1200 more graves in it was overwhelming. This was the Essex Farm cemetery and it was in this vicinity that Doctor John McCrae penned his famous poem while working at the medical station that had been set up there. It was also here that I found his grave.

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Just over the rise behind the Essex Farm cemetery is this beautiful scene, but notice the white sign on the nearest tree.

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Here’s what it says:

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When we left the second cemetery, we turned back toward Bruges. We returned the car 11 hours and 327.5 km after picking it up. With the help of a paper map and the vehicle’s navigation system which didn’t speak any English, we’d covered a significant portion of Belgium and managed not to get lost!

More of beautiful Bruges

When we set out to explore Bruges after arriving yesterday afternoon, we had the Market Square (Markt) in mind as our goal, but like most of the European cities that we’ve visited, it isn’t laid out on a grid, and even with a tourist map in hand, we got completely turned around! That didn’t matter at all because every time you turn a corner in Bruges, there’s something beautiful to see. We simply wandered the narrow cobblestoned streets with names like Katelijnestaat, Zuidzandstraat, and Zoonekemeers and eventually ended up back at our hotel.

Today, we finally figured out the map and spent several hours strolling at a very leisurely pace. This time we had no problem finding Market Square which is dominated by the 13th century Belfry of Bruges tower. We have no doubt that the view from the top would be astounding, but we decided to forgo the 366 steps it would take to get there and limit our views to ground level.

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Its many canals add to the beauty and charm of Bruges and we walked along many of them today.

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This bend in the canal is known as the Quay of the Rosary (Rozenhoedkaai) and is apparently the most photographed spot in Bruges. Though I can’t deny that it’s lovely with the belfry tower in the background, I think some of the other scenes I’ve photographed rival it for beauty.

As one who loves reflections on water, this spot was one of my absolute favourites.

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A visit to Bruges would be incomplete without taking one of the half hour boat tours of the canals. In addition to seeing this magnificent city from a different angle, the captain’s commentary was informative and interesting.

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The weather has been absolutely lovely since we arrived here and we’ve had little desire to spend time indoors. I did want to spend a little while in the Church of Our Lady though to see Michelangelo’s magnificent marble carving, Madonna With Child. Created in about 1503, it was the only one of his works that left Italy during the artist’s lifetime when it was brought to Bruges by a wealthy merchant. It was stolen for the first time by the French occupiers in 1794, but later returned after the defeat of Napoleon. It was removed a second time by the Germans toward the end of World War II, but once again it found its way home to Bruges where it is highly treasured.

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Bruges is known for chocolate, beer (there are two local breweries), lace, and the swans that have graced the canals since the 15th century.

If it’s Thursday, this must be Belgium!

If you’re of my generation, you probably remember the 1969 comedy, If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, about the humorous adventures of a group of American tourists taking an eighteen-day guided bus tour of nine European countries. Thankfully, our trip hasn’t been quite that frenetic, but today we took the train from Paris to Bruges, Belgium and had only twelve minutes to change trains in Brussels!

I’d been told how beautiful Bruges is and had seen lots of pictures, but nothing really prepared me for what I saw as we set out to explore. I felt as if I’d been dropped into a fairy tale! What an amazing place!

Come take a walk with me.

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I can hardly wait to go out again tomorrow, but first I’d better get some sleep!

 

Final day in Paris

After two very intensive days visiting the Louvre and the Palace of Versailles, we wanted our final day in Paris to be more laid back and relaxed; a day of exploring a couple of interesting parts of the city and soaking up the ambiance. We had the pleasure of doing some of that with one of my former students who’s been living in Paris for the past five years!

We met Crystal midmorning to tour Montmartre, one of her favourite areas of the city. In the 1870s, Montmartre became a centre of bohemian life inhabited by impoverished artists and poets and visited by Parisians who came for its cabarets, cafes, and dance halls. Today it is officially designated as a historic district with limited development allowed in order to maintain its historic character.

Crystal told us the stories behind a number of the district’s best known establishments like the cabaret, Moulin Rouge, and the little pink restaurant, La Maison Rose, that has been immortalized by many painters over the years.

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She told us Marcel Aymé’s tale about the man who could walk through walls. You can read an English translation here.

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We climbed the steep, narrow cobblestoned streets up the hill that is Montmartre to the beautiful Sacré-Cœur Basilica at the top. Visible from almost anywhere in Paris, it is one of the city’s most famous landmarks.

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Though there was a service going on inside, tourists were allowed to enter and walk around inside as long as we remained silent and didn’t disturb the worshippers!

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After leaving the church, we enjoyed a lovely lunch at a sidewalk cafe in nearby Place du Tertre, a large open market area where artists worked on portraits, caricatures, and paintings of Paris’ most famous landmarks.

On our way back down the hill, we enjoyed beautiful views of the city like this one from below the Bascilica.

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After saying good-bye to Crystal, we took the metro to the Latin Quarter, centre of university life and home to many bookshops and cafes. There we walked to the Luxembourg Gardens where we spent awhile simply sitting in the sunshine. The Luxembourg Palace overlooking the gardens was built between 1615 and 1645 as a royal residence for the mother of King Louis XIII. Today, it houses the French Senate.

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Before returning to our hotel to begin preparing for today’s departure, we stopped briefly at the Pantheon, the final resting place of some of France’s “great men” including Voltaire, Rousseau, and Victor Hugo.

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Burning the candle at both ends

Yesterday morning we got up at 6:30 AM to make our way by train to Versailles in time for our prebooked 10:00 AM entrance time. The Palace of Versailles was the principal royal residence of France from 1682, under Louis XIV, until the start of the French Revolution in 1789, under Louis XVI. The incredible opulence of the place, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is quite overwhelming! Is it any wonder that the populace rebelled when their royal family were living in such luxury while they struggled to get by?

At this time of year, visiting Versailles on a Tuesday has its pros and cons. It’s definitely one of the busiest days of the week due to the fact that the Musical Fountain Show in the palace garden takes place only on Tuesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. That’s one of the reasons that we chose to go yesterday.

Before we even entered the Palace, we were blown away by the grandiose exterior.

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Inside was no different. After spending some time in the first section which focused on the history of the palace, we moved on to the royal apartments. Many of these rooms are now a gallery of portraits and paintings, but we also caught glimpses of how the royal residents lived. We could only peer through the doorway of the two storey royal chapel, but imagine having this in your house!

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Of course, as king and queen, your bedrooms would also be extremely lavish.

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By far the most amazing room is the incredibly ostentatious Hall of Mirrors, clearly a place meant to impress visitors to the royal residence.

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After making our way through the extemely crowded halls of the palace, it was lovely to exit into the gardens, but again, we were amazed by the extravagance. Imagine that this was your backyard and that it extended well beyond what you can see here.

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In addition to the palace and the gardens, we also visited the Queen’s Hamlet, a quaint and rustic little village retreat commissioned by Queen Marie Antoinette as a place for her to get away from life at the palace. Apparently she would stroll around her perfect little world in simple peasant garb accompanied by her children totally out of touch with how the rest of the world lived.

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Nearby there’s also the Grand Trianon, a pink marble palace built as a retreat for King Louis XIV and his mistress.

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After spending most of the day at Versailles, we returned to our hotel and rested awhile before taking an after dark boat cruise on the Seine to see the city lights. Most remarkable was the Eiffel Tower. It sparkles for five minutes on the hour every hour so that was happening as our boat pulled away from the dock at 10:00 PM and again as our cruise ended an hour later. Definitely magical! Even when it’s not sparkling though, it’s something to behold all lit up at night.

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Second day in Paris

Located on the Île de la Cité, just a stone’s throw from Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, the Conciergerie served as a royal residence in medieval times and later a prison. That’s where we started our day yesterday.

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I was enthralled by the vast Salle des Gens d”Armes (Hall of the Soldiers). Constructed in 1302, it’s a great example of Gothic architecture.

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During the French Revolution of the late 1700s and the Reign of Terror that followed, part of the old royal palace held prisoners including Marie Antoinette whose prison cell was later converted into a small chapel in her memory.

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This painting shows the queen ascending the steps from the Conciergerie to the courtyard where she would be transferred to an open cart pulled by horses that would take her to the guillotine located in the Place de la Revolution, now Place de la Concorde.

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Looking serene today, this was the women’s courtyard. Surrounded by two floors of cramped cells, it was used by the female prisoners to take daytime walks.

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Our visit included Sainte Chapelle, the church built within the palace walls. I thought by now we might be getting tired of churches, but not so. I continue to be amazed by each one that we step into.

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Absolutely nothing could have prepared me for the sight that greeted me when I reached to top of the narrow winding staircase to the upper chapel.

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If you read my post about our afternoon in Milan, you’ll know that I love stained glass windows. Never in my life could I ever have imagined something like this though! Photos simply can’t capture the magnitude of what surrounded us.

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Later in the day, after eating crepes from a street vendor and treats at a nearby bakery then taking an elevator to the observation deck of the 56 storey Montparnasse Tower for panoramic views of the city, we made our way to Place de la Concorde.

 

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It was here that the guillotine stood; here that Marie Antoinette, King Louis XVI, and many others lost their heads. From there, we strolled 2.3 km up the Champs Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe enjoying the Sunday afternoon crowds.

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First glimpses of Paris

We spent most of Friday on the train traveling from Milan to Paris with a quick stop to change trains in Zurich. Yes, we were in Switzerland, but not for long! It was difficult to get decent photos from the window of the train, but here are a couple that turned out well.

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By the time we arrived in Paris and found our way to our hotel via the metro, the day was nearly over and we were tired. We enjoyed a delicious dinner at a little restaurant just down the block from our hotel, but our first real glimpses of Paris would wait until we’d had a good night’s sleep!

We spent most of the day yesterday getting an overview of the city and seeing some of its most famous sights via the Big Bus Hop On, Hop Off tour. The commentary was excellent and gave us lots of interesting background information.

We first hopped off close to Notre Dame Cathedral. It’s inaccessible, of course, as a result of the devastating fire of April 15th that left the city in shock. Though it isn’t what it once was and it will likely be several years before restoration is complete and it’s open to the public again, it’s still a very impressive structure.

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We managed to get ourselves a bit lost and ended up on the wrong side of the river to hop back on our bus, but getting lost just means you have to find yourself again and you might just see something unexpected and interesting along the way! Parisians are friendly and helpful, so it didn’t take long for us to get our bearings and find our way back to the bus stop.

We hopped off again at the Arc de Triomphe, another one of Paris’ most famous monuments and took the obligatory photographs.

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At the Trocadero, just across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, we left the bus again. After taking in the view we enjoyed lunch at a nearby sidewalk cafe before rejoining the bus tour and continuing on.

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Of course, we had to get off the bus again for more photos closer to the tower!

The Eiffel Tower was built for the 1889 World’s Fair. When it was inaugurated, it was the tallest building in the world. Amazingly, the original plan was to allow it to stand for 20 years and then tear it down! Only the fact that it could be used as a telecommunications tower saved it from destruction. Apparently two and a half million rivets were used in its construction. That’s not at all difficult to believe when you take a close look at it!

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I took the next photo of the church at Les Invalides, Napoleon Bonaparte’s final resting place, from the bus. Its glittering golden dome is an unmissable landmark in the Parisian landscape. I love the sky in this shot!

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We next hopped off the bus at the Palais Garnier, probably the most famous opera house in the world and the setting of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, The Phantom of the Opera.

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Our bus route was altered somewhat yesterday and we were unable to visit a couple of the areas that are usually included because of the “yellow jacket” protesters, so called because of the fluorescent vests that they wear. Yesterday marked six months of weekly protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s policies. We didn’t see any of the protesters or the destruction that they have caused, but we certainly saw a strong police presence when we got close to the parts of the city where they were gathered. For the most part though, Paris seems to be going on with life as usual. Apparently, tourism is down, but there were certainly lots of us hopping off and on the Big Buses yesterday!

 

Afternoon in Milan

It wasn’t originally part of my plan for us to visit Milan while we were in Italy. I had hoped to book a day of train travel all the way from Florence to Paris, but since that wasn’t possible, we had to overnight somewhere along the way. We didn’t want to take an overnight train as our main reason for choosing to travel by train instead of flying was to see a bit of the countryside.

We arrived in Milan early in the afternoon the day before yesterday and had the rest of the day to experience a bit of the city. Milan is a financial hub as well as a global capital of fashion and design. At first glance, it looks much like any other modern city, but it has a historical side as well.

As soon as we were settled into our guest house near the train station, we jumped on the metro and headed for the Duomo, the Milan Cathedral. Dedicated to the Nativity of St Mary, it is the seat of the Archbishop of Milan. We’ve seen a lot of amazing churches on this trip, but emerging from the metro right in front of the Duomo was definitely another breathtaking moment!

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The sheer immensity of the cavernous interior was amazing. Look at the size of that pillar!

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It was the stained glass windows that most astounded me though. There was no way to truly capture them in photographs. This shows just two of the three enormous panels at the front of the building and there were many more narrower ones along its sides.

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Each section depicts a scene from the Old or New Testament. The ones toward the top are so high up that we couldn’t even see the details in them.

After visiting the interior of the church, we took an elevator to the rooftop which was without question the highlight of our short stay in Milan. We could have saved the price of a ticket and climbed the approximately 250 stairs, but our old knees have had a major workout on this trip and the elevator was worth every cent. It also saved us time which we didn’t have a lot of.

After leaving the Duomo, we walked through the gorgeous and glitzy Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a very high end shopping mall. With it’s glass ceiling, the whole place has a light, airy feel.

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The entire floor of the gallery is mosaic and near the centre is the image of a bull. Tradition has it that good luck will come to anyone who places their heel on the bull’s testicles and spins in a circle three times. Of course, I had to place my heel in the indentation that has been worn into the floor in that spot and spin myself around!

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Our final stop in Milan was Castello Sforzesco, a medieval castle in the middle of a mostly modern city. Built first as a fortress in 1368 and later transformed into a magnificent palace, it now houses many museums. We didn’t have time to enter any of those, but we enjoyed a quick exploration of the grounds.

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The next morning, we were back on the train on our way to Paris but very glad that we’d had to stop in Milan!