December 2 6:30pm

I guess thinking back on a good time is a moment to look at changes and goals accomplished.   I was really struck by the kids in the restaurant today- both of them ordering their food alone in French.  They have come so far!  Oscar, especially, who on our first day in Paris, threw his menu down and exclaimed “I can’t eat anything here.  It’s all in French!”  Imagine him this afternoon, “using his imagination” (which means talking and playing to himself) in French!

Today, Sunday, was the first day of our trip around northern France.  Originally, our plans were to leave on November 30 and see Fontainebleau on the 1st, but unfortunately Gerry Sr., Oscar and I came down with a stomach virus that not only kept us in Paris, but kept Oscar and me in bed for two days.

That being pretty much cleared up, we left Paris this morning (noon really) and drove our nifty new car to Chartres (68 km).

First – the car!  It is a silver Renault Espace with a navy interior.  Trés comfortable!  I sit in the back.  That is a holdover from the days that Gerry Jr. got car sick and had to sit in the front.  Now he just thinks it is his place in the world.  I don’t really mind.  I get to sit in the back with Oscar, who is always entertaining (translation: never stops talking) and it prevents the kids from being together (fighting) in the back seat.  The rear seats are very high, so we actually look over the heads of the front seat passengers and we have lots of room, and a little table that folds out from the back of the front seats like on an airplane.  Very nice!  The car is great.  We bought the car, but with a guaranteed buy-back from Renault at the end of our trip in May, at a guaranteed price, so economically it works out like a rental, at a much better rate.

Saying goodbye to Paris was hard.  I don’t think I would have had enough time to do everything that I wanted to in Paris if we had stayed a year, but even a month left me with things to go back for.  I think it was hardest of all for Gerry Jr. to leave.  He made some nice friends through the church activities, and even got up early this morning to go to Sunday school before saying good-bye for real.  I just hope that we will have similar good luck in Rome.

The drive to Chartres was cheerful despite our saying goodbye to our first French home…We were all excited with the new car and eager to be on the go after those slow, in-between days.  The day was pretty foggy, but it hasn’t been as cold recently as it was a week or so ago.  We arrived in Chartres in almost no time (actually about an hour), and spent a long time looking for a parking place.  First item on the agenda (especially for a Cumpiano family): Find Lunch.  A delicious pizza and a bier later, we were off on foot through the very narrow streets of Chartres toward the cathedral.  Since it is the Christmas season, the streets were full of shoppers and the Christmas decorations are all up.  It was quite festive.

By contrast, the cathedral loomed gloomily above its bare square, with fog threatening the top of the spires.  It really looks old!  And it is! (Built in the early 13th century, it is said to be the most perfect example of Gothic architecture in France.)  My one piece of advice about visiting gothic cathedrals:  Try to go on a sunny day.  It is really hard to appreciate them in the dark, and you really need them lit from the outside to appreciate the glass and the windows.  One of the main reasons to visit Chartres cathedral is the stained glass windows, which even to an untrained eye on a gloomy day, are incredibly beautiful.  It is hard to decide whether to admire more the geometry of the windows, the colors, or the pictures in them.  Every aspect draws you in to look closer and closer.  Even on a foggy day, the colors were vibrant and alive.

Despite the attractiveness of the town, we decided to move on toward Orléans.  Our stomachs are not 100% trustworthy yet and there were ominous rumblings after our lunch.  The drive to Orléans was 62 km and took us again about an hour.  As we drove along, the fog was lowering and with the dusk, it was hard to make out if objects in the distance were church spires or trees or what.  Usually they were huge power poles, making me feel like Don Quixote with his windmills.

We are camped outside Orléans for the night, planning to feast on Jeanne d’Arc stuff tomorrow.

December 5    7:30am

“Trucker hotel”  is what the kids called it, but it actually was something even stranger.  It gave you the impression that everything was metal, because the “decor” used a typeface that reminded me of army writing on metal boxes and such.  It was bright and clean, though the rooms were small.  It was a strange place.

Monday morning we packed up from our “trucker” hotel and drove into Orléans, ready for some Joan of Arc.  The city was very quiet and in fact, everything was closed, including the Joan of Arc museum.   We did see a huge statue of her on a horse, surrounded by (closed) Christmas kiosks, and we visited the cathedral there.  The Orléans cathedral was a gothic cathedral originally, but was destroyed and rebuilt in “the gothic style” in the 19th century.  It has a gothic-sort-of feeling but some very non-gothic details, like a huge porch.   Inside there are 10 stained glass windows from the 1890s that depict the life of Joan of Arc.  She’s very much the patron saint of this town – her image and name are everywhere.

The weather wasn’t great so we decided to move onward on our itinerary, to the Loire valley to see chateaus.  First on our list was Chambord and we arrived in time to see it in the afternoon.  I expected to see castles in England, and we did see some, but nothing in my memory compared with the number of huge castles there are in this part of France.  Practically every little town along the Loire is a remnant of a village that surrounded a big castle built from the 12th-16th centuries.  Some are very grand and royal and incredible in scale, and others are more modest – but only in comparison!  Chambord is supposed to have 440 rooms and 365 fireplaces!

Chambord is impressive, no doubt because it was the hunting lodge of Francois 1er.  It sits amidst the largest enclosed forest in Europe, boasting a population of 3,000 wild boar and innumerable stags.  December is not a month to be taking big advantage of the forest, or the grounds really, but from the roof of the chateau you can admire them and appreciate the size of the estate and the power of the king (he had a river diverted to flow to the chateau).  Inside, the building is quite remarkable for a double spiral staircase designed by Leonardo da Vinci that sits right in the center of a Greek-cross-shaped plan.  On the ground floor, the arms of the cross are enormous open rooms with huge fireplaces, perfect for the men-at-arms with all their gear and noise.  On the upper floors they serve as huge hallways and reception areas.  Filling in the corners are the apartments, or the rooms, for the inhabitants.  Some are furnished and others are now part of a museum of hunting and animal art.

Another interesting feature of this chateau is that the roof is designed as a terrace, and following the double spiral staircase up, you go outside into a world that feels a little like part of Alice’s Wonderland.  Above you the building still stretches, but now in the crazy gabled shapes of domes, chimneys, towers, and minarets decorated in the white, local stone and black.  It is fantastic!  Of course, the views of the grounds must have been very pleasant for Francois’ guests, too.

We found a nice little hotel in the next town on our list, Cour Cheverny, and ended up staying 2 nights.  The proprietors were very nice and the rooms were pretty and comfortable.  Unfortunately, our stomach virus is still with us so we could not fully appreciate the restaurant.  We did accomplish some schoolwork both nights, a first for us while on the road.

Tuesday, Gerry and I went out to see Cheverny in the morning, leaving the kids in the hotel.  This property doesn’t seem so large, but considering it hosts a stag hunt involving 1,000 dogs and as many horses and riders, you know appearances must be deceiving!  This chateau is still inhabited by descendants of the original owners and is fascinating because it is completely decorated.  In addition to furniture, paintings and armor, there are pictures of the modern family and their treasures, too.  There is a very human face on this property,

The other interesting feature of this chateau is the pack of 100 specially bred stag hunting dogs.  They are a cross between a type of English hunting hound and a French hound, and have long, thick legs and huge paws.  Their faces are long, skinny, sad hound faces. Very cute.

After Cheverny, we went back to get the kids, ate a sandwich in the hotel, and then drove to Chenonceau. Gerry Jr. had visited this before, during his trip with St. John’s School last April, so he was our tour guide.

This is a really remarkable house, too – built right out into the river!  I loved the kitchens!  High ceilings, gleaming copper pots and pans, roomy – just great!  And probably the warmest place in the house in the winter.  These big chateaus all were hung with tapestries but just try to keep the damp chill of December out.  Good thing they had servants to keep the fireplaces filled with logs.

From Chenonceau, we drove to Amboise to see the Clos Lucé, Leonardo da Vinci’s home for the last four years of his life.  In addition to the house, there is an exhibit of the models for many of his invention-drawings:  parachute, tank, movable suspension bridges, telescoping ladder, and much more.  Talk about a person who never stopped using his imagination!

Our final day in the Loire valley, Wednesday, had us seeing one final chateau, Langeais, and the Abbey at Fontevraud.  Langeais was the best of the chateaus for me, because it is the earliest and therefore still medieval (the others are all pretty much French Renaissance).  It still has a working drawbridge (but not over water) and portcullis.  The rooms are large, dark and intriguing, and there is a 10th century ruin of an earlier castle on the same spot in the backyard.

The abbey is the sight of some major reconstruction work, and it is iffy as to whether completed, it will improve the site…The restored parts are too perfect and too clean to give you much atmosphere, though you can imagine how it was at the abbey’s height.  The grand scale of some of the buildings is made more impressive by the stark white stone, but I remain unconvinced. I like to see the evidence that people lived and worked here in times long past.

The weather has not been the best, and neither have the children, so we decided not to dawdle any longer in the Loire.  We drove about two hours to find ourselves in the Victor Hugo Hotel in Rennes for the night.  Today, our plans take us to Mont St. Michel and tomorrow to Normandy.  That should quiet down the complaining from Oscar for a few days at least.

December 8, 7:30pm

The last few days have been a pilgrimage of various sorts.  We have been driving through some very appealing French countryside for the last week.  Rain or shine, December notwithstanding, the stone farmhouses and their outbuildings are straight out of the tourist posters – just beautiful!  It is also very similar to the Cotswolds because of the re-use of the same stone in town after town.  It gives you the sensation that nothing changes, that time seems to standstill.

The weather is sunny, but has turned bitter cold.  We did visit Mont St. Michel on a gorgeous afternoon, when it was still fairly mild.  We got a late start that day because we got caught up in Rennes!  Gerry Sr. and I went out for an hour’s walk in the morning after an early breakfast and found much about the town to truly fall in love with.  Lots of half-timbered buildings, in various colors – red, gray, blue, green and, of course, brown.  We were in the old city section of town and there were many little alleys and pedestrian streets to explore.  We also stopped in an internet cafe to catch up on news from home.

From Rennes we drove up to Mont St. Michel.  Yes, it is spectacular as you approach it from the highway, and the (soon to be demolished) causeway.  Better yet is climbing the winding labyrinthine streets to the abbey at the summit.  We took a guided tour (thanks to the season, it was a private guided tour!) and it was excellent.  Our guide was quite a historian and an archeology and religious history buff so we got a tour that was perfect for all of my interests (and the things I had been trying to teach the kids.  They were very avid participants in the tour and showed off their accumulated knowledge of history and religious doctrine.  I was proud of them!)  The abbey is really interesting, and certainly got me to thinking about pilgrimages:  People who had (usually) committed some crime, for penance, left everything behind and made a trip to one of the four big pilgrimage sites, of which Mont St. Michel was one.  Well, there we were…you could say we left almost everything behind (though no crimes were committed!) and made it to Mont St. Michel.  Thank God we did not have to cross the quicksand to get to the mont…just a drive up the causeway and a climb up the mountain…all on asphalt!

We spent the night in a very nice guest house near enough to see the abbey by night (illuminated).  There are advantages to seeing these sites in December – almost no fellow tourists – but disadvantages, too – 9 out of 10 places to eat and sleep are closed for the season!  We drove back to the mont after dark to eat and enjoyed the star-studded sky, the fitting backdrop to the magnificent site of the abbey lit by night.

The following day we reluctantly left our B&B (the hosts were wonderfully friendly and welcoming) and headed for Normandy.  Again, we had a delightful drive through the French countryside in the sunshine.  We arrived at the town of St. Mére Eglise in time for lunch.  (Another practical fact about traveling in France in December…Everything closes from 12-2 for lunch.)  We lunched in the only place open – a brasserie off the main place.  Once it was determined we were Americans, we were introduced to the resident WWII vet (from Massachusetts).  That was a strange experience.  Oscar was in awe – to actually meet someone who was in the D-Day invasions – but who was not exactly rational in his conversation with us.  He left the kids feeling a bit awkward about their WWII enthusiasm.

Boy was there a lot to learn about D-Day in this area!  I could write a book about all I have learned, but I’ll spare you.  Just suffice it to say, that if you want to visit this area thoroughly, give yourself 3 full days.  We couldn’t visit any of the landing museums but one, as they were all closed for the winter, and still tomorrow we’ll be already on our day three.

My pilgrimage metaphor continues easily from Mt. St. Michel to the Normandy beaches.  It is very hard not to pay homage to all the American, British and Canadian soldiers who fought on D-Day to free Europe from Hitler.  Evidence is everywhere – most movingly so at the American cemetery. There is not one bone in my body that does not understand fully the importance and necessity of D-Day and the Allied invasion, but those rows and rows of silent white crosses show the price we had to pay for freedom in the world…and it is overwhelming.  The view of Omaha beach from the cemetery is poignant.  Its wild vegetation swarming the slope gives way to the silence of the cemetery, and no more need be said.

The dignity and peace of the cemetery contrast sharp with the landscape we saw next at Pointe du Hoc, the place the Rangers came ashore.  There the German battery was bombed to bits.  The craters and blown apart cement bunkers lie in silent witness to the ferocity of the battle.  The site reminded me of Stonehenge:  The drama is gone, but not the power.

In the midst of all this WWII stuff, the kids and Gerry did take a break to play a few holes of golf…They returned happy but frozen and wet!  It really has gotten bitterly cold, and should be even colder tomorrow, when we finish our Normandy beaches tour and then head for Rouen.

December 9   8:00pm

Another emotional day!  Our first and only visit of the day was a very long visit to the Peace Memorial in Caen.  This is a museum dedicated to peace and focused on the history of the 20th century.  The museum leads you through the chronological sequence of events following the Armistice of the First World War, or the “failure of peace,” explaining the circumstances that lead to the stock market crash, the Great Depression and the rise of Nazi Germany.  It is all pretty dispassionate, leaving each person to provide the emotion he or she finds appropriate.

Things get a little less dispassionate when life under the Nazis is explored, especially how the French were forced into their collaboration.  The plight of the European Jews is movingly presented in a short, powerful exhibit…The efforts of resistance leaders all over Europe ends with the photograph of the hanging of a 17-year old girl.

The final part of the historical record is a trilogy of excellent films.  The first is a montage of footage of D-Day.  The Allies’ footage is juxtaposed to simultaneously running Axis footage…and footage from German planes as they strafed the men landing on the beaches is interspersed with footage from a plane flying over the beaches today.  The final sequences are of the graveyards, the American graveyard with its thousands of white crosses is tremendously effective.  I don’t think there was a person capable of speaking by the end.

The second film was about the Battle of Normandy.  This film employed a different technique:  Computer models showed the movement of the troops of both sides as the battle unfolded, and still pictures showed the towns before and after they were liberated.  (They were totally destroyed by the bombings.) Still, amid the rubble of their homes, the French were jubilant.

The final film was a montage of footage about all the wars that have been fought since WWII.  There have been so many it is depressing.  The final part of the film contrasts the wealth of the West to the poverty and starvation in Africa.  It leaves you wondering if we will ever see the world at peace.

We really didn’t have the heart to go to more Normandy beaches after that so we headed to Rouen, but mid-way we changed our plans and came here, to Amiens.

December 10 7:45pm

In the course of events, it is always fascinating how a simple change of plans can offer a new, unique experience…And that is what happened to us.  I was disappointed to skip Rouen, but I was the only one.  On our trip today, just at lunch time, the city of Laon beckoned us to come and eat.  What a wonderful surprise!  We had a nice lunch (is there any bad food in France??) and then visited the cathedral.  This is yet another in the seemingly unending procession of Gothic cathedrals dedicated to “Notre Dame” but this one was well worth a visit.  We were there at about 2 pm on a sunny day, so the interior was brilliantly lit, helped by the whiteness of the recently cleaned stones.  This church is earlier than most of the really famous cathedrals and as such has some interesting features – a very, very long nave that ends in a flat wall, rather than a curved apse.  The side chapels were added later, so some show the walls of the formerly outside buttresses and the entrances to the chapels were once window frames.

it was also very interesting to see it and the Reims cathedral on the same day.  Plenty of differences when you see them so close together – and Reims was only started 30 years later.  The Reims cathedral has the only reverse portal I have seen.  The inside of the front portal wall is covered in stone carving that echoes the themes of the carving on the exterior.  The exterior is being eroded incredibly by acid rain (we think that is what it says in French).  It is horrible the way the stone has been eaten away – as if it were soap under a stream of water.  There is some heavy duty restoration being attempted – I wonder where they get people with the skills to replace the statuary?  We’ll have to visit the cathedral again tomorrow because there are stained glass windows by Marc Chagal there as well as some other notable old windows.  Though the lighting at night produces a beautiful ambiance in the interior, it is impossible to really appreciate the windows or the play of light that you get during the day.

Reims is champagne country so we are planning to visit a few of the “houses” tomorrow.  I’m looking forward to some good food and wine for the days we are here.

December 13 11:15pm

Our dinner in Reims is one I won’t forget soon.  Since it was cold, we didn’t venture far from our hotel.  Oscar and Gerry ordered crab thinking, I am sure, that having seen all the fresh fish at the entrance that seafood was the right choice.  Well, the crab was gone so Gerry Sr. encouraged Oscar to order a fisherman’s platter – a huge selection of all kinds of shellfish.  First, we were overcome by the size and quantity of what arrived – and second by what was actually on the tray!  There were large snails, and small snails, langoustines, shrimp and small shrimp; oysters and mussels and clams (all raw), and all of it cold.  I have to give Oscie credit – he tasted it all and ate more than half – and his only comment was “Boy, the French sure eat some weird stuff!” I couldn’t have agreed with him more.

Our visit to champagne country was great.  We visited four different champagne houses the two days we were in the area…Maxim’s and Taitinger in Reims itself, and the following day, Castellane and Moët & Chandon in Epernay, the real heart of the vineyard region.  Each tour was distinctive in one way or another:  Maxim’s had the best explanatory video; Taitinger had the most simpatica guide;  Castellane was notable (to me) for the amount of mold growing in the caves; and Moët & Chandon, was hands down the “elegance” winner.  We learned a lot about the making of champagne and got to taste enough different bottles in a short period of time to definitely note the difference between them.  That was something!  We also had an excellent lunch in Epernay (we were looking for a famous restaurant that had gone out of business 5 years earlier, but found an excellent replacement at the same address).  What was really fun about the lunch was being served champagne instead of wine with our food.

The tours took up the better part of both Tuesday and Wednesday.  Wednesday afternoon we then drove to Verdun.  We wanted to get a little WWI history to complement our overdose of D-Day…But our plans were again foiled by the season.  December is not the time of year to find all the lesser known tourist sites fully open.  We did get to see the battlefields around Verdun and visited some of the underground fortifications.  It was interesting to note the differences in the ways the two world wars were fought.  WWI was far more brutal physically (short of dying) yet seemed more honorably fought, especially the way the two sides treated one another.  At least the heroism and bravery of the defeated was honored by the victors at Verdun – a gesture that gave meaning to the hundreds of thousands who died there.  I found the museums and memorials very even handed in their treatment of the Germans.  They even seemed to emphasize that the war was basically the same horror for both sides.

We also visited Verdun’s “Disney-esque” attraction – the underground citadel.  We sat on a moving “train” car that was guided by wires in the floors and, traveling around in the tunnels and caverns underground, saw various scenes about the war and particularly the parts of it that were waged in Verdun (the Western Front).  Unfortunately a reprise visit to the local tourist office confirmed that the Maginot Line sites were all closed for the winter, so we changed our plans and headed for Strasbourg.

Tonight we are staying in a beautiful hotel in a tiny place, Brumath, about 25 km from Strasbourg.  We had a truly fine dinner right in our hotel and now are settling for a luxurious sleep.  Tomorrow we’ll visit Strasbourg and begin our visit to the Alsace wine region.

Gerry Jr. has been keeping up to date with his history as we travel and interestingly enough, his reading on the middle ages coincides with many of the areas we have visited in the last two weeks.  He seems to be learning it more effectively, knowing that we have just visited the places that are mentioned, or will shortly.  He remains focused on Italy.  First, Christmas with cousins and New Year’s with friends in Florence and then five weeks in Rome.  His dream of playing basketball in Rome looks like it will become reality and he is really excited about that opportunity.

Oscar is coasting just now.  I have been trying to get him to write more and he is working simultaneously on several web pages, which we will get posted slowly, but surely.  The computer game playing is such a distraction!  He has managed to finish his third Orson Scott Card book from the Ender series, a real accomplishment for a boy who “hated reading” just four months ago.

December 15 8:20am

Thanks to the museum which has the originals, I saw the statues from a part of the facade that has an allegory about the Seducer and the Wise and Foolish Virgins.  The figure of the Seducer looked normal from the front, but from the side you could see toads and snakes under his clothes!  When we passed the facade on the way to lunch, I just happened to look up at the building just as I passed this part of the facade and saw it as it was intended to be seen.  Very cool!

The single most outstanding feature of the last few days is definitely the temperature!  It is so cold!  I know I told you it was cold back in Paris when the temperature was about 8°-9° degrees, but that would seem like a heat wave now.  Yesterday, during the day, and it was a sunny day, it was -10.  (These are Celsius temperatures, so it was 18° F).  Unfortunately it was windy, too…We stopped for lunch yesterday and I could have sworn I was in a ski lodge just looking at the amount of clothing everyone was taking off and putting on.  Unfortunately, it has really put a cramp in what we can do, since being outside is not one of them!

We visited a little of Strasbourg yesterday.  We skipped the wandering around the old town and the cathedral quarter on foot because it was just too cold.  We were able to find a parking place just across the square from the cathedral, and by pure luck arrived at the cathedral just in time to see the Astronomical Clock chime for midday (12:30).  The area around the clock was packed with people in their heavy coats, so we wormed our way right into the warm center of the mass of humanity, and enjoyed the procession of saints.  This is not the first clock of this type that we have see, but it is still a pretty amazing piece of machinery.  Built some 500 years ago, it is still accurate, with the day of the week, the date, and the hour and minutes.  The clock chimes every 15 minutes, but on the hour, it is the figure of Death who strikes the bell and at midday, the apostles process out of one door, turn to acknowledge Jesus and then continue on to the other door on the other side.  Be sure that you imagine this clock the right size.  It takes up the height of a 1-2 story wall inside the church.  The procession we were watching was way up near the top.

The cathedral is quite unusual compared to others we have visited.  It is the latest Gothic of them all (14th century).  It is made of a reddish stone with various colorations, so the walls were not the stark white we have seen elsewhere.  The traces of ceiling paint did not reveal dark coffers with stars, but beautiful floral motifs on a creamy white background.  The nave was hung with tapestries and the choir and altar backdrop was a huge curved wall of gilded painting, rather than arches filled with stained glass.  The stained glass in this church was, by far, the most spectacular I have seen on this trip or ever.  Both the luminosity of the color and the amount of detail and decoration in the scenes were remarkable.  (The kids were not impressed. They wanted lunch.)

We left the church and were not ready to really brave the temperatures to run around and see the facade, so we headed back towards the car, which was parked in front of a museum called “The Works of Notre Dame”.  I discovered later that this excellent little museum of medieval art was the home of the guild responsible since 1400 something for the maintenance and restoration of the cathedral.  The guild still exists today!  The museum houses the originals of many of the exterior statues, those on the building itself are copies.  At least this way they avoid some of the horrible effects of acid rain that we saw last week.

After the museum, we did look for a place to eat (and managed to see part of the facade, too).  We are in Alsace, a strip of territory that borders Germany and which at various times was actually controlled by Germany.  There are German influences everywhere:  Street and place names are in German, radio stations in German, and the Alsatian dialect sounds like German though they say that German speakers cannot really understand it.  So when we stopped for lunch we had typical Alsatian food – sauerkraut and pork!

After lunch, much as we wanted to explore the area around us – all pedestrian, tiny streets lined with half timbered houses – it was just too cold.  We also had to forego a nifty Christmas fair that was set up all around the cathedral square.  We did get to see some of Strasbourg as we wended our way out of the narrow streets of the city center.  This is definitely a place to visit again, at a warmer time of year.

Not really sure of where we were going now or what to do…we headed south.  Our original itinerary had us driving and stopping at wineries in this region, but the cold dampened, or perhaps better said, froze our interest in doing that.  However, as we headed south I found that one of the towns along the way is a national heritage site (the whole town) so we decided that might be worth a look.  Consequently we got off the highway at a place called Ribeauvillé and drove through it.

What a beautiful town!  We drove right through the center of it – the oldest part – where the half-timbered houses crowd the streets.  All of them were decorated for Christmas and it was really lovely.  And this isn’t the national heritage town!  So now we were really excited to get to Riquewihr, which is where I am as I write this and where we found a hotel to spend the night.

Technically we are outside of Riquewihr, because cars can travel on the streets here.  Inside the walls of the town, there are (supposed to be) no cars.  Last night for dinner, we did drive up to the walls and walked inside to find a place to eat.  No wind at night, so we weren’t as cold as we had been during the day.  As I look out of the windows of the hotel this morning, I see that we are literally surrounded by vineyards! The sun is shining again and we are all digging extra layers out of our suitcases, so we won’t be foiled by the weather again.  Both because it is Saturday and I saw what looked like people assembling booths last night, I expect we will find a Christmas Fair in Riquewihr today!

December 17   9:00pm

We did find a fair in Riquewihr on Saturday and it was crowded!  It’s hard to imagine that in a little, out-of-the-way place like that, where you couldn’t even park inside the city walls, we wouldn’t be able to find a parking place. But, the parking for the tour buses was full!  It was a nice fair – lots of fun things for Christmas and very festive, but cold, cold, cold!  We couldn’t get in anywhere to eat lunch and ended up driving back to Ribeauvillé to get something to eat.  After that it was fairly late in the afternoon, so we decided to head straight for Dijon.

Sunday, we explored Dijon just a little and then took the ‘Route des Grands Crus’ south from Dijon through the Côtes des Nuits region, heading towards to Beaune.  Yet again we ran into the situation where just about everything was closed, either because it was Sunday or because it was winter.  The scenery was very nice.  It is interesting to look at a vineyard in the winter.  The vines are cut back to just stumps – old, gnarly stumps – and you can really see the red-brown earth that gives ‘Burgundy’ its name.

We arrived in Beaune in the early evening.  Gerry Sr. and I decided to take a walk.  The day had been a little warmer than some of the previous days, but by the time we got out for our walk, the temperature was back below freezing, and the wind was up.  It was really cold.  We did manage to walk around the central city (this is another really small town).

This morning we got out of our hotel before lunchtime and were able to visit the Museum of Winemaking before everything closed for lunch.  After lunch we visited an establishment called ‘Patriarche’ and got a tour of their caves and an extensive tasting.  We all agreed that we tasted a lot of wines we didn’t like!  However, we did taste a few of the premier crus and those were definitely good.  All that wine after lunch had a mildly soporific effect, but nevertheless we piled in the car and headed for Geneva.

We didn’t exactly make it to Geneva, and by design.  We are staying just outside Geneva and Switzerland, still in France. Tomorrow, we will drive in early to visit the city and head back to France and Chamonix tomorrow night.  If you can’t figure out how we are doing this, (and neither my husband nor my children could) check a map!

It is hard to finally be leaving France.  We have really come to feel that we know what is going on in France – the children are comfortable ordering their own food and asking questions in the restaurants, we have a system for finding decent hotels, we can all read the road signs and manage the currency…and now we’re headed into a new country, where we’ll start anew with Italian!  I just hope I can remember enough of it to get us around as well as Gerry has with his French. The one thing I hope I won’t forget about this trip to France is what a beautiful country it is.  It is really very rural, and it is no surprise that so much of what we associate with France is food – a very large part of the countryside is devoted to agriculture and hunting!  I won’t forget the beautiful sunsets we have witnessed on these very cold days – a burning ball of orange and pink, setting behind blue and gray mountains, framed with black silhouettes of pine trees.  Villages made up of a few farmhouses and outbuildings, all made of the same color stone, all decorated with flowers or greenery…It is so picturesque!

Italy, here we come! Check your map again and you’ll see that Chamonix is right at the Mont Blanc pass into Italy.  We hope that it is open and that we will be able to take it (12 km tunnel!) on our way to Milan on Thursday.  By Saturday, we’ll be settled down in Florence until after New Year’s.

December 19 9:00pm

For my birthday (the 18th), I got to be queen for a day and that included picking the activities for the day.  The first thing I asked for was that the children not fight, which miraculously they did manage for a full day!  But just that one day…By today, they were back at it.

The activities I picked were all in Geneva, so we got up early (another request) and all went to breakfast (yet another request) and were on our way to Geneva by about 10:30 am.  Unfortunately our trip to Geneva was almost a total bust.  I wanted to visit just a few things:  The Greek Orthodox Church (which we saw), the Petit Palais – an art museum (closed for restoration), The International Red Cross Museum (closed on Tuesdays), and the United Nations (closed unexpectedly until after New Year’s).  Despite this, we did get to see a fair bit of the city both walking and by car, and came to the conclusion that it is really a nice city because of the very elegant shopping district, and the small stores, too, which had beautiful merchandise.  The city was decorated for Christmas, which made everything more festive than usual, because once again it was very cold!

After lunch and finding all our afternoon activities closed we finally decided to just leave Geneva and head for Chamonix.  That was a good decision, because we were driving in the early afternoon, a perfect time to admire the beautiful view on our drive up into the mountains.  The sight of Mont Blanc was spectacular!  Though it is very cold, it hasn’t actually snowed.  But along the way, we were driving looking up at white-capped mountains, when we went into a tunnel.  When we came out on the other side, everything was covered with frost so thick it looked like that flocking they use to make fake snow covered trees at Christmas. The frost is so thick in places it looks like snow, but you can tell the difference close up.  The tops of the mountains are completely snow covered and it is amazing to look up and actually see the glaciers.  We oohed and aahed all the way to Chamonix (about an hour’s drive from Geneva).  We found a nice hotel in Chamonix (the place is deserted because of the lack of snow) with an indoor pool and a sauna.  It was very relaxing to go for a swim and sit in the steam room, knowing that outside it was -14.  Gerry and I walked around the village just a little, marveling at all the ski equipment just begging to be bought.  It was tempting to THINK about skiing, but one look at the mountains and we couldn’t visualize four little dilettantes from Puerto Rico even attempting a descent!

This morning we woke up and did our laundry.  Had a bit of a disaster – namely a ball point pen in some one’s pocket got washed in the whites load, and we ended up with the “blue Dalmatian” look on most of our whites!  Fortunately, at this time of year that means mostly underclothes, but since we are traveling with restricted wardrobes, any loss is fairly disastrous. Oh well.

We were out on the road by noon, but we weren’t able to take the Mont Blanc Tunnel, as it is still closed, I think from an accident last year (?).  Instead we headed north to take a route that went over the mountains doubling back to the south after the pass…This route was only passable because there was no snow.

It was a spectacular drive!  At times, it was more thrilling than a roller coaster.  We were on a two lane road, sometimes with a barrier, but mostly without, driving first up and then down roads with hairpin turns.  I was on the passenger side of the car and looking down over the edge of the road would give me vertigo.  Poor Gerry who was driving was practically frozen with fear, and we wouldn’t let him look at anything but the road!  The mountains were indescribably beautiful.  Our route took us back into Switzerland once again and we had lunch at a place called the Grand Saint Bernard.  (Yes, they did have stuffed dogs for sale, but no, we didn’t buy any.) The name didn’t come directly from the dogs, but from a tunnel to Italy called appropriately the Grand Saint Bernard Tunnel, about 5 kilometers long.

Driving down from the mountains in Italy and to Milan was fairly uneventful (though the scenery remained very interesting), until we got to the outskirts of Milan where we encountered a huge traffic jam.  Stupidly we didn’t get off the highway then and find a place for the night, but doggedly continued to drive into Milan to try to find a hotel for which we had an address, but no adequate map.  Well, two hours later, exhausted, testy (the maximum possible), and scared to death from near death experiences with Milan traffic, we stopped at the first hotel we saw, and took two rooms, no questions asked.  Everything turned out just fine in the end, but if you had asked us at that moment about our first impressions of Italy…we’ll you can imagine the answer you would have gotten.

This is the end of France travel journal!  Now it’s on to Italy and the Christmas Journal!  Ciao, ragazzi!

 

Keep reading here.

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