European Vacation

European Vacation

By the time I got to the airport after work on Friday, October 7th (cutting the time close, of course), I was utterly exhausted. I accepted the middle seat I was given as my penalty for being late. I was just glad to start my three-week vacation in Europe with my boyfriend. I was flying into Amsterdam, spending some time with him in Utrecht, and then we were taking his mother’s car and driving to Spain.

After the summer I’d had, I needed a vacation. All summer long I’ve been working on this book for work, a book that was supposed to be finished in July, and wasn’t. But completion always seemed right around the corner, inspiring me to work crazy amounts of overtime to attempt to get it done by September (it’s in its final stages now, but still not done).

On the positive side, I also had the joy of having a group of friends in town for a week in July, followed by two fantastic weeks of my Dutch boyfriend visiting from the Netherlands – he got to meet my family while my sister was in labour with my first nephew, another wonderful event.

Then August meant more overtime and a family reunion. September meant gearing up for my organization’s annual convention, more stress and work. All of this meant I really didn’t have time to go on any rides between the beginning of July and September. The only ride I got on was Julia’s ride in September. Convention was the last week in September – a very full week – and then I had one week to prepare to go and get as much done at work as possible. No small wonder I was exhausted.

Now, when I get on planes, I like to wait until the last minute since I hate the shuffle of standing in the aisle waiting for people to get their stuff in order. Plus, I see waiting in the line to get on the plane as somewhat pointless. After all, it’s not like lining up gets me a better seat or anything. Plus, I was trying to set up my cell phone for international calling before I got on the plane, and I kept getting cut off. So, I was one of the last people on the plane. But when I saw my seat I almost started crying: one of my seat companions for this 10-hour flight was already in half of it, or at least his hairy, sweaty rolls of fat were. I almost sat down, but then saw the flight attendants a few rows back and went back to quietly ask them for somewhere else to sit. They gave me three seats to myself until Calgary and said they’d do their best after that. I instantly fell asleep for the flight to Calgary, but spent the layover in Calgary nervous with anticipation: would I get a different seat or would I be smothered with someone else’s fat for 9 hours? In the end I got a window with an empty space between me and the aisle passenger, so managed to sleep a little more, after watching March of the Penguins, which was surprisingly entertaining. Though I was surprised at how sensual they could make penguins, but that might have just been my state of mind.

The airport reunion was all that a romance movie could want and we’re lucky my bags weren’t stolen because we probably wouldn’t have noticed.

We spent the next several days in what the boyfriend called the workaholics recovery program (he’d just finished his PhD thesis the night before I got there, so he qualified as well). This program involved a lot of naps and group hugs and long chats about nothing. We also had a full schedule of socializing. We met with his sister and her boyfriend, and it was nice to see her again (I’d met her when I met my boyfriend in St. Petersburg last year).

I also met a friend of mine in Amsterdam and introduced her to my boyfriend – it was a laugh-filled dinner.

We also met some of his other friends who I’d met the previous year, including these two.

I also started meeting his extended family, which was new. Luckily they liked me (and I them), so it worked out well. We went down to see his aunt-uncle-cousins for his cousin’s 15th birthday – it was a bit surprising to me that his parents were talking about what kind of alcohol he liked best, and were going to redecorate his room so he could have friends over to drink before they went out. But it does seem to make more sense than our denial that such things go on and our hide-it-away policy of underage drinking, which only seems to promote irresponsible and uncontrolled drinking.

We also had to pack up my boyfriend’s room as he was moving to a sublet at the end of October. Dutch living quarters are quite small by North American standards.

On Thursday, my boyfriend’s parents came up to help him move his belongings to their place in the south and to drive us down there. The drive was about an hour, but we crossed through four provinces and ended up in an area which supposedly has quite a different accent (I can’t really distinguish accents in Dutch yet – I’m still having problems with basic sounds). It was my first time meeting his parents and his other sister as well, but that also went well and there was mutual liking.

On Friday we set out on our journey. Of course, in a move that was to set the tone for the rest of the trip, we got a late start. This one was especially late since I wanted to send off a conference presentation proposal before we left, so we didn’t get going until about 4 pm. Which meant we hit Maastricht at rush hour. By the time we went off-freeway just past Lieges, it was getting dark. I had just read in my Lonely Planet that Belgium was especially well known for its mussels, so I wanted to try some, but alas, although the place we stopped at advertised having them, they didn’t, so I was denied.

After dinner we kept driving, and had our only run-in with the law. My boyfriend missed a red-light in a construction zone (it was hard to see – I didn’t see it either) and his luck is such that there was a police van just behind us. We were quickly pulled over, and had to pay the €175 fine on the spot. Ouch.

We decided to spend the night in La Roche en Ardenne, which was quite a lovely little town, and with the help of the LP we found quite a nice little B&B for a good price.

We wandered around for a bit and saw some odd signs.

Then we went for beer, and I can really see why the Belgians are renowned for theirs. So, so good, and each kind is served in a specific type of glass, including one yummy kind served in about quarter yard glasses. And by avoiding the bars filled with “old” people, we found the bar where the high school kids hung out, and got to observe that. Again, it seemed weird to see 16 year olds ordering beer, but again, it seems to make sense as they were drinking no more irresponsibly than most of my friends.

We also saw a group of Dutch motorcyclists arrive in town, filled with that exhilarating glee that you get after an awesome ride. In a theme that the boyfriend was to get a little tired of, I was filled with envy. Throughout the trip, the roads were such that I longed to be on my bike and let out little sighs when I saw bikers enjoying them. Luxembourg especially has wonderful roads – they’re so rich that the pavement is perfect. Belgium’s pavement is dreadful and France and Spain are variable. But throughout, the twistiness of their roads makes most of ours look entirely straight, and they twist through gorgeous landscapes. I really must go back over there with a bike and a lot of time.

The next morning we were off to Luxembourg, which is surprisingly adorable. I really had no idea what to expect, so was pleasantly surprised. Asch-sur-Sûr was especially cute.

My boyfriend (I really do have to figure out a good screen name for him) was mostly intrigued by their language – he speaks five languages plus a dialect, and is fascinated by dialects and accents. We hopped over the river to Germany at one point, just because. Of course, I walked back out on the bridge to do one of the “now I’m in Germany, now I’m in Luxembourg” things.

We stopped for a lunch of bread and cheese in Echternacht, where we stumbled on an apple festival and sampled the fresh apple juice and apple pastries.

Our last stop in Luxembourg was in Schengen, where they were celebrating 20 years of the Schengen Accord, which allows passport free travel within signing countries (most of Europe).

We then pressed on to Dijon, arriving at night, to circle through endless one-way streets trying to find the LP recommended hotel without a great map. We finally got near, and then I suggested one of those things that sounds great when you first say it, and then about 30 seconds later you realize how stupid it was. I said, “why don’t I go wait over there [through that pedestrian only part of the street] and you drive over there to meet me – that way you’ll know when you’ve gotten there.” Needless to say, he couldn’t figure out how to get half a block away and nearly couldn’t get back to the same place. And, when we figured that out, we went to the hotel to find out that it had gone up significantly in price since the LP write up, and went to another place that the receptionist recommended. By that time, we just had time for dinner and bed. We left in the morning without really exploring Dijon, which was probably a mistake, as it was really beautiful.

But then, so was the country we headed into, the Côte d’Or. We took the regular highway to Beaune, and the autumnal vineyards really were golden, and sprinkled with old chateaus and churches and little villages.

We stopped in Beaune.

In Beaune, I felt compelled by one of my undergrad majors (History of Science and Medicine) to go to the Hôtel Dieu museum, which was very interesting and well-done. It was such a luxurious charity hospital, erected during the early Middle Ages and operating since then.

We then went further off the beaten track, taking only the secondary roads, heading diagonally towards Andorra. The secondary roads wend and wind their way through more gorgeous countryside.

We saw this sign (which was also marked by a dramatic change in paving quality: “Here ends France, here begins L’Auvergne” – separatist feelings?

And we stopped to take pictures in Thiers.

Of course, we couldn’t find any hotels when we wanted them, but that was OK, because he’d told me about these Formule 1 hotels that I wanted to try.

They’re made modularly and then stacked on a cheap piece of industrial land.

Every room everywhere is exactly the same.

The bathrooms and showers are self-cleaning – they rinse themselves after each use.

We signed up for breakfast, but then we slept in. However, the proprietor of the hotel was having none of that, and came by to tell us that breakfast would soon end several times, including after the 9 am cut-off. After the second 10-minute warning (in English, and 10 minutes after the first one in French), we knew we wouldn’t be able to escape our breakfast. We stumbled out there, and found breakfast there, set out for us, with everything cleaned up around it. So, we ate (and I had my life-infusing coffee) – and the owner cleaned up around us as we finished each thing. He didn’t respond to my friendly overtures (in French) – he obviously couldn’t let us not eat the breakfast we’d paid for, but he couldn’t relax and leave us to it either. We decided later that he was a trans-national, a German born in a French body.

We then headed off for more back road adventures. More beautiful scenery as we traversed the Massif Central.

We had lunch by some cows, who all wore old-fashioned cow-bells that clanged musically as they browsed.

Then more gorgeous countryside, and an interesting sign.

Then some beautiful medieval villages. At the first one, Entraygues-sur-Truyère, we just stopped to take pictures.

At at the second one, Estaing, we were lured by the claim of “un de la plus belle villes de France” on the welcome sign and stopped to wander around.

We were so enchanted we decided to stay the night, even though it was only early afternoon. Of course, that wasn’t as easy as it sounds. The entire village was closed because it was Monday – this including the two hotels. We even walked 1.5 km out of town to find the campground, but it was closed for the season (we could have driven, yes). But luckily, the boyfriend noticed an old community hall type building and went over to find out what it was. It turned out to be a Gites d’Etap, or a kind of dorm for travellers (we found out later that these were supposed to be those without motorized transport and school groups, but oh well). It was a great old building, which we assume was built to hold pilgrims, seeking the water of the blessed well across the street, the saint of which was framed by the end window of the building.

That night we had dinner at the only open place, a small cafe with a limited menu – they managed to make a salad for me. We then wandered around some more.

We then returned to the Gites to play cards and drink pastis on the outdoor rooftop patio. We turned out to have our very own pilgrim roommate – a Dutch backpacker who apparently had a badge indicating he was on a pilgrimage involving walking from the Netherlands to Spain. But we never actually spoke to him and all we ever heard from him was swearing, in Dutch, first in the shower (he hadn’t figured out the hot water control) and then when we weren’t a quiet as he would have liked heading to bed.

The next morning we wandered around Estaing some more.

Pressing wine by the Gites. People kept coming by with containers.

Just as we were leaving it started to rain – the only rainy day we had all trip. We continued through the country, heading for Carcassone, which I wanted to see. We ended up on more winding roads, including this one lane road – note the two trucks meeting – one’s backing up.

I think it was at the entrance to this road that we saw the best road sign, which unfortunately we neglected to capture – it was a triangular caution sign showing a car rounding a corner on two wheels and hitting a very surprised stick figure with wild hair.

The countryside remained gorgeous.

Again, we’d gotten off to a late start, and when dark hit we were in the mountains, on a narrow winding road where it was hard to get out of second gear. And then we hit the fog. My most vivid memory is rounding a corner to see an owl sitting smack-dab in the middle of a road, looking confusedly into the headlights but not moving an inch. Of course, at this point, there weren’t any hotels. Well, we found one, but it was too pricey, so we kept going. Then we saw a sign for another and headed off the road, only to find this deserted looking model village with fog sliding along the ground. We found what we think was the hotel, which had a huge iron gate, complete with a long ringing bell that no one answered. Actually we were relieved that no one answered, because we were pretty sure if they had, we would have found ourselves in a horror movie. We kept driving and ended up spending the night in a truckers hotel, which was OK, except for the bed, which sagged in the middle, leaving us holding onto the edges trying not to get swallowed by it.

We then headed for Carcassone and explored the city and the castle. Both were beautiful, but I really only took pictures of the castle. We did see our first bus tourists there though, a population who would plague us in several other places.

After that it was off to Andorra, along some more roads calling for motorcycles, especially the up-the-Pyrenees approach to Andorra.

Andorra turned out to be another of those rich little countries, with construction cranes everywhere. The whole country is mountains and v-shaped valleys, with no flat land to speak of. So buildings are tall and narrow and hug the bottom of these valleys. We headed off into the hills in search of a place in Llorts mentioned in the LP. We found it, and it was good. Then we went off in search of dinner. We first ended up in the only open restaurant in Llorts, which wasn’t quite open as it was only 8 pm. The restauranteur let us in nonetheless and we quickly figured it might not be right. We asked for a menu, only to find that there wasn’t one – it was just whatever he decided people were eating – unfortunately, this was heavy on the meat, so we decided to drive elsewhere. We randomly stopped at another restaurant, which turned out to have a very friendly waiter working on his English, and very good food – I had an amazing dorado after a fresh mozzerella, tomato and avocado salad.

It was nice to wake the next morning and hear nothing but birds, a mountain stream and a guy sharpening something and to feel the crisp mountain air.

We headed into the town of Ordino for a brunch in a cute little cafe, which was quickly invaded by a particularly obnoxious busload of Spanish tourists – loud, demanding and impatient. I felt sorry for the proprietor. We then headed into Andorra la Vella – I wanted to look at the prices of cameras and mp3 players (I’m jonesing for a new one of each) and see if I could get a snow globe for a friend. Unfortunately we hit the city at siesta time – from the few open stores I found that the prices for electronics were good, but decided against both as I don’t really need a new camera and didn’t find the particular mp3 player I want (for riding). I never did find a store full of tourist stuff – apparently, the only things to buy there are booze, cheese, chocolate, electronics and fancy designer things (it is duty free). We did wonder where the locals shopped. Apparently the Spanish enjoy shopping there very much, as we had to stop at Spanish customs on the way out – something I was much more accustomed to than the boyfriend.

We then headed to Sitges on the recommendation of my boyfriend’s sister, who’d been there on a package tour. Again, we stuck to the secondary roads, and I was impressed by how different the scenery was from France. Where France was green and lush and cultivated to the last inch, Spain was dry and brown and more wild-looking. The style of architecture and the urban form was entirely different as well. Spain in general reminds me of a slightly more prosperous Central America, though I suppose that’s not really too surprising.

When we got to Sitges, though, we found that while it might have been good on a package, as a regular tourist it was absolute tourist hell. One of those places where people really go when they want their home country with some sun and a wee bit of very controlled exoticness. And the hotels were all on the pricey side, and with no parking, which added a lot more. So we decided to have dinner there (and had a very nice seafood paella), and then go to the Formule 1 in Barcelona.

We’d already determined that the French really are much better at signage than the Spanish. In France, roads are impeccably signed and the common destinations are used along the way, with special ones on green signs. In Spain, having the highway number on the road sign seems to optional, let alone signing all the outlets from a traffic circle or using the same destinations consistently. And on the expressway, this doesn’t change – the same expressway is given various numbers and points to destinations that are quite clearly in opposite directions, making you wonder if you missed an invisible exit somewhere that you really ought to have taken. Despite this we got to the general vicinity of the Formule 1, only to find out that the directions in the booklet (from the chain), were impossible to follow. We attempted them from three different directions on two different highways before giving up and asking at a different hotel, which got us there. Phew.

In the morning we decided to take the train into Barcelona and wander around. This we did, and it was good. We basically saw Las Ramblas and Gaudí buildings. After a brunch from the market we headed for the Sagrada Familia (where we did our best to avoid the plagues of bus tourists of many nationalities – they swarm so noisily). In the best cathedral tradition, the Sagrada familia is not finished – there’s a feeling that when it actually is, Barcelona will come to an end.

The boyfriend is fascinated by political activism and how prevalent it was there – we saw a lot of separatist slogans and anarchist slogans – even a special licence plate nationality sticker: CAT for Cataluña rather then E for España.

Aren’t we cute?

We then walked along the Gaudí way to the hospital, also designed by Gaudí and still used, but with grounds open to the public.

And then to Parc Güell, which is an amazing park, originally supposed to be a fancy gated community. Gaudí’s forms are all natural, and the vegetation is selected for the habitat. There’s the famous plaza.

The walkways and grottos are curved and shaped of natural materials.

Our favourite part was sitting in a grotto along Viaducto de los Enamorado making up stories about passersby.

The buildings at the entry.

On our way down, at dusk, we were surprised to hear a capella music – it turned out that the Swedish National Choir was practicing for a competition in the columned area under the bench plaza, which has wonderful acoustics, something their hotel was apparently lacking. We stopped to listen to them for a while before heading out, stopping to take a picture with the famous reptile, and of the entry.

We went back down to Las Ramblas for dinner. We had to catch the last train back to our suburb at midnight, so we couldn’t stay out very late, but we decided that the next day we would find a hotel in the city so we could go out dancing.

In the morning, we again slept in, and then spent some time trying to help a stranded traveller, so we got into town a little late. We stopped at the market for a picnic lunch of olives, fish, bread and cheese and took it back up to Parc Güell because the boyfriend wanted to see the Casa-Museum Gaudí museum that we’d missed the day before. This time, however, we took a different subway exit, and instead of getting lost and trekking up a long hill, we found the outdoor escalator that took us several blocks uphill to a park entrance. Ate lunch looking at Barcelona spread in front of us.

We then went to the museum, which was OK, but could have used more information about Gaudí’s life and works – it was basically just a collection of his furniture and that he’d designed for others.

We then headed down to do the other things we’d planned, which were ride the funicular railway to the top of Montjuïc and then take the cable car over to the beach. Except that we got to the funicular to find it closed for repairs, and a much less exciting bus replacing it, and then walked over to the cable car to find we’d just missed the last ride.

So, we took the bus back off the mountain and went back to the hotel. At this point we were both really tired, but I still wanted to go out – the boyfriend not so much. We decided to go out to dinner and ended up in a tourist place with lackluster tapas, and then we wandered around some more and had another drink outside on a side street. By this time I was ready to admit I was too tired to go out dancing, and we crashed at the hotel. However, the walls were paper thin, so I got almost no sleep, which made me too tired to really enjoy anything the next day.

In the morning we had breakfast, then decided to see the city museum, which was somewhat interesting, but would have been much more so if we were really, really into archeology. We also few more Gaudí buildings on our way out of town. I wondered how it would affect us if we lived in an entire environment made up of buildings formed like these ones instead of our straight lines.

We also found a book vending machine in the subway.

We got back to the car, and then headed to the Costa Brava to camp.

After realizing that we had missed the first place we thought would have an open campground, and seeing how touristy everything was, we decided to stop in San Feliu de Guíxols. We found a nice European style campground, which meant that spaces were really close together, and it had all the facilities, including a pool. Luckily, there were few others there, so we had no close neighbours. The first night, after setting up, we walked into town to find a restaurant. We found that most things were closed, but were lured in by a place that advertised a menu (a full meal) for two for €30. We ordered that, and began to be pleasantly surprised when they pulled up an extra table, upon which they placed a full tray of about 15 tapas, all but one of which I could eat, and which were all good. Then we got the main course, which was also amazing, and finally dessert. It wasn’t until we got the bill that we realized that the price was €30 each, but we didn’t mind so much because the dinner was worth it. Pleasantly stuffed, we walked back to our tent.

The next couple days we didn’t do much – just reading, walking to the beach (which was 800m away). The first day we didn’t make it to the beach until late afternoon and the next day it was actually cloudy and a bit chilly, but it was still a nice place to hang out, with very few others around. Doing nothing is so much fun.

Then Wednesday came, and it was time to leave, something neither of us really wanted to do but we had two days to make it back to the boyfriend’s parents’ place. We packed up and drove to Figueres, where we wanted to see the highly recommended Teatre-Museu Dalí. It was quite interesting, and surreal – I hadn’t realized the scope of Dalí’s works.

After the museum I persuaded my boyfriend to make one more back-road expedition as I felt I hadn’t fully seen the Costa Brava, and I hadn’t been in the Mediterranean. He agreed, as long as I promised I would go in for sure, and I’d drive the coast, since I am a faster driver (and have a lot more driving experience). I agreed. When we got to the coast, it was windy and a bit chilly, but I kept my promise and went it – it’s warmer than the water around here anyway. The coast was quite stunning as well, and the road was corkscrew twisty.

Then, we were back in France and onto the expressways, which are as boring and personality-less anywhere else. Though I was amused by the brown signs telling you what area attractions you were speeding by – they didn’t offer any way to actually go see them and often there was no exit anywhere nearby – just a sign telling you that there was a chateau or other thing that you’d never see. We planned to stay just past Lyon so we wouldn’t have morning rush hour traffic, and managed to do that, despite getting to Lyon and figuring out that the tunnel through the city was closed, forcing us to find our way through the actual city. We managed though, and got to see that Lyon also looks like a nice place to go spend some time. However, when we got to the hotel, it was 11 pm and both the Formule 1 and the Etap (like Formule 1, but slightly better) were full. We stayed at a slightly pricier Formule 1 ripoff (modules in wheels, with internal bathrooms), which probably had the most comfortable bed of anywhere we stayed on the trip. Got on the road again in the morning, stopping for dinner at the small town on the Belgian side of the Dutch-Belgian border that my boyfriend’s grandfather had lived in the early part of last century. Then to his parents’ place and sleep. Our trip was over – we did decide that we needed several more months to do just France, Spain and Portugal they way they ought to be done. The map of our trip:

Friday morning we were off to Utrecht, as my boyfriend had a meeting for his new job. My friend in Amsterdam came down to visit and we had a most enjoyable afternoon eating pancakes on the canel and poking around in small shops around Utrecht.

And the post office:

Then, my boyfriend and I had drinks along the canel.

And, then we finally had mussels at this great bar in an old castle – they were delicious – a huge pot of them with a side of frites. Then home for our last night together, as I flew out the next afternoon. Packed in the morning and got the bus to the station – taking one last picture of the street he lived on.

However, as usual, I was cutting it a bit close, and when we got to the train station to find out that the trains to the airport weren’t running, there was a bit of a panic. There was a bus, but we had to wait 25 minutes for it, and I started to worry. However, it turned out to be all right and I got to the airport in time – we even had quite a while to say goodbye.

It seemed that sad couples saying goodbye was the theme of the day. We saw one couple doing so from the bus window, another in the seats ahead of us on the bus, and several more at the airport. And then I got on the plane to find that my seatmate had just been over for a week visiting her lover, and was also sad. It was a quiet trip back reflecting on these experiences and how much I missed him already. We’d had such a good time – a beautifully relaxing vacation and a great time together.

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