Thursday, May 23, 2019

Chasing Tulips and Windmills in Holland

Black swans we saw in Holland. Not too many of these in Montpellier...

What have we been up to lately? Well, among other things, we we went to Holland. We went expecting to see field after field of tulips, stretching to the horizon with colorful flowers. What we found wasn’t quite that extreme, but was still quite spectacular. Tulips, and windmills. We learned more than I expected about both of them.

First, the flowers. It turns out those flowers aren’t grown merely as a tourist attraction. They’re actually grown to make money for the farmers. Imagine that! And most of the money is not made selling the blooms, but rather the bulbs, so that someone else can have the joy of growing these extraordinary flowers. But healthy blooms detract from healthy bulbs, so the flowers are cut to allow the bulbs to grow. Each plant will have maybe three or four bulbs, which are harvested in the fall. This year, the year we visited, there was some very fine warm weather early in the spring, causing the flowers to pop out, resulting in an early cutting. What we saw were vast fields of flower stems. Awesome, but not quite what we were hoping for!

Some of the many, many varieties we saw at the farm we visited.

A VW bus cutout down on the farm. (They also had fabulous apple pie and coffee!)

We chose not to go to Keukenhof, The large garden park that IS just for tourists. The photos look fabulous, but crowds numbered in the 10,000s deterred us. Instead, we drove along the very narrow roads giving access to the fields, and we visited one farm with a demonstration garden. I never would have imagined there were so many types of tulips! And many with delightfully imaginative names.

Ice Cream Tulips! How cool is that?! (yuck yuck)

We stayed at an Airbnb apartment in a rather nondescript building on the outskirts of Leiden. (The Netherlands* is small enough that it doesn’t really matter where it is, it’s close to everything). We found Leiden a totally charming town. We were in Amsterdam last summer, and while it too is charming, it’s also crowded, expensive, and, during our visit, hot (ok, so that doesn’t happen much!). Overall, a mixed experience.

 * To clear up a misunderstanding I had: the name of the country is The Netherlands, which means, essentially, the Low Countries. Holland is in the western part of the country: the provinces of North Holland and South Holland can properly be called Holland; since we spent our time in these provinces I feel OK about using Holland as a designator for where we were. Glad I got THAT cleaned up…

There were a few fields left!

Us, near the flower fields (the farmers really don't like it when you walk into their fields to take selfies...)

The canals in Leiden were every bit as charming as those in Amsterdam (although there are fewer of them!), the cafes just as refreshing, the people no less friendly, and the bicycle culture also amazing. But perhaps having less of everything helped us appreciate it more (particularly when trying to avoid getting run over by the bicycles!).

Scenes from Leiden, a very pretty city (well, the old town is; the new part, not so much...)

Another place we didn’t go was Kinderdijk, the windmill museum. Apparently it has a collection of windmills with extensive demonstrations and explanations. Instead we drove around and found three mills in a field, very picturesque! It’s what we came for, why look further? Actually, to get a better understanding of how the mills were constructed and used, we walked across Leiden to the Museum De Valk, a re-built windmill open to the public for a modest fee (5€, I think). There we saw a brief video on windmills in the Netherlands, where I learned that these mills were essentially Holland’s entry into the Industrial Revolution. Originally used to pump water to drain fields (polder mills), they were also used to grind grain and eventually became prime movers for a number of industrial processes. The rapid development of the steam engine, though, quickly replaced windmills for many applications.

The Museum De Valk, in Leiden. Once up on that platform, those turning arms look very dangerous...

The ground floor of the multi-story Museum De Valk mill consisted of a house for the miller, also restored and available to visit. The life of a miller was not an easy one. In addition to lugging the heavy bags of grain and flour, and overseeing the grinding operation (which included removing and dressing the heavy stone grinding wheels every couple of weeks), the miller had to watch the wind and constantly orient and adjust the sails. (Electric motors are SO much easier…). I must admit, being on the top floor of that very high mill and watching the sails turning and those big wooden gears spinning made me glad I could just leave at any time! Being up there in a storm would have been no fun at all…

Molendriegang, three ploder mills near the village of Leidschendam built in the 1600s

A closeup of one of the polder mills, and wooden gear from the Museum De Valk mill. The finely-turned wooden machinery fascinated me! (That big wheel on the polder mill? It pulls on a chain so the mill can be turned into the wind.)

Me, with one of the stone mill wheels in the Museum De Valk.Imagine pulling this out every couple of weeks to "dress" it!

What else has been happening? We've been living in our classic apartment in Montpellier, visiting with the people we’ve met here; viewing apartments in town as potential rentals when we return; and certainly enjoying what the city of Montpellier has to offer. Oh, and preparing for our canal boat trip, long in the planning, that’s coming up next week.

Our time here in Montpellier draws to a close, and we are very sorry to go. Although admittedly, we've been too busy getting ready for our canal trip, and the arrival of Paula's brother and sister-in-law, to be feel sad. We've still got a month in France, and we will make the most of it!

Friday, May 10, 2019

We Went to Paris

It was a bit of a stretch, squeezing four more days into our already crowded Schengen stay. As we come and go we’ve been counting our days in and out, because we don’t want to overstay our time. Stories vary as to what happens if we do, but we’d rather not find out!

Now, how did we end up in Paris? It all started six months earlier, in November. We were in our “bird’s nest” apartment in Alicante, Spain, at the top of a 13-story building, when we stumbled on a Netflix video of Loreena Mckennitt playing at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. (It's available on YouTube here.) We checked, and found that Loreena McKennitt would be playing in Paris in April. So, we bought tickets not knowing where we would be by then.

The Arc de Triomphe also impressive from a side street

We continued with our travel plans, with all our ins and outs—Spain, Malta, Croatia, Spain (again!), Morocco… Then in April we flew in from Turkey and had four lovely days in Paris, staying at an Airbnb in a classic building in the 8th arrondissement,not far from the Arc de Triomphe. Here’s some things we did, in no particular order:

Met up with Bernard and Claude, two fellows we met three years ago in Montpellier. Claude has an apartment in Paris, where his aging father lives. It was fun to see them in the big city!
A lock on the Canal Saint Martin in Paris, and a boat in a lock (not the same lock,though; there's more than one!)

Strolled along the Canal St. Martin, near where we stayed for five weeks in 2015. Re-visited the former lock-keepers house that’s now a delightful café (where they serve fabulous hot chocolate—particularly good with a shot of espresso!)

The lock keeper's cottage along the Bassin de la Villette, part of the Canal Saint Martin

Inside the whimsical cafe, the former lock keeper's residence, each room has a different theme

Had a fine lunch in a classic Parisian café on the Left Bank, near the Boulevard Saint Germain.

The Arc de Triomphe seen as we were heading home one night
Strolled down the Champs Elysees (one of the most prestigious addresses in Paris) and were astonished at the broken windows and smashed storefronts, a result of on-going demonstrations by the Gilets jaunes, protesting French tax policies. Since last October every Saturday they have taken to the streets, with oftentimes violent results. (Here in Montpellier there are also cracked and boarded up windows from local Gilets jaunes protests.)

Smashed store fronts along the Champs Elysees in Paris

Visited with some Americans we’d met here at an event in 2015. They’ve been living in Paris for 25 years. Lots of interesting stories!
Ran into an impromptu auto show on the street in front of the impressive golden dome of Les Invalides. There were huge American cars, older European models, even a Maserati or two. What was interesting is that it all seemed ad hoc; there were no placards extolling the value of the vehicles; no fawning owners eager to tell all about their restoration experiences; no organization taking credit. Just a bunch of guys hanging around on a Sunday morning.

A Boss Mustang in the streets of Paris...

And then, of course, the concert. We really enjoyed it. We’ve been listening to McKennitt’s music for decades. Sitting in the theater as it slowly filled prior to the concert, though, I thought about how we came to be here. Six months earlier we had only a limited idea of where we would be or what we’d be doing. Our lives have been anything but consistent in the last year. But we had the confidence in our planning and travel abilities to know that we’d be able to handle whatever came up, and we’d be sitting in these seats on the appointed night. Yes, the music was great, but the real thrill came from the fact that we were there.

At the concert, Salle Pleyel in Paris

Obligatory photo of Gustave Eiffel's famous tower

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Back in France!

Yes, we’re back in France, and in fact back in Montpellier, the town where we started our European travels three years ago. We’ve settled into a large pleasant apartment in the old town, just a block from a park. It’s quiet on this street, since our neighbors are a monastery, a church, and a museum (the Musée Fabre, to be precise). We are thrilled to be here, and looking forward to upcoming adventures.
Place de la Comedie, the main square of Montpellier, with the opera building at the far lift.
But first, the Big News. We will be coming back to our home on the Central Coast at the end of June, June 25. Then, we’ll be returning to Europe in early October. After months—years?—of discussion and hesitation we have decided to get a long-stay (one-year) visa in France. So during our three months home in California we will go through the application process. (While there are countries were the paperwork is worse than in France, don’t forget that bureaucracy is a French word!) Part of our time here will be spent laying the groundwork for the application that must be made from the States.

The Three Graces, centerpiece of the Place de la Comedie, with the opera in the background.

Montpellier's Arc du Triomphe, a 17th Century landmark
So what happens between now and June, besides improving our knowledge of French language, culture, and cuisine? Well, Paula’s brother Mark and his wife, Brenda, will be joining us early in June for a week on a canal boat on the Canal du Midi. We’ve got our boat reserved, and will finally scratch (or further irritate) an itch we got 15 or 20 years ago. Then the four of us will spend six days touring the villages of Languedoc and Provence. After Mark and Brenda leave we will continue our car tour for two more weeks to travel to some of our favorite parts of France, including the Dordogne. Along the way we plan on visiting with other American expats from SLO to get their view of life in France.

Our large and comfortable living room, overlooking the neighbor's garden. Sweet!

We haven’t yet talked about our four days in Paris and the Loreena McKennett concert, nor the two weeks we spent in Rovinj, Croatia. We will be catching up, though! Watch this space….

The Water Temple, termination of the aqueduct bringing water to Montpellier in the 18th Century, in the city park at Peyrou.

Gotta go now, we're planning a trip to the tulip fields and windmills of Holland next week! (One of the reasons we're keen on living here: lots of interesting places near by...)

By the way, while you're here check out this blog by our good blogging friends Frank and Lissette (aka Barbeque Boy and Spankie). This one's got an interesting interview, and you just might recognize some of the responders!