Thursday, December 15, 2016

Bruges Fun with our Grandsons


October 28-31 2016

To see photos of Bruges in a Google Photo album, click the following link

I originally requested four nights starting Oct 24 for the houseboat in Amsterdam and three nights starting Oct 28 for Bruges but was told that the Amsterdam booking was only available starting Oct 25. I was able to change the Bruges booking to Oct 27. That was fine except that when it was time to book train reservations, several months later, I read the requests incorrectly and had Erica book our trains based on the earlier Oct 24 departure from Paris. I didn’t discover the problem until we were in Paris, so last minute changes were necessary. I was able to change the Amsterdam booking back to an Oct 24 start, but could not change the Bruges. The landlady had booked a family into the house for a week starting Oct 30 and it couldn’t be changed. That meant we had to find another place in Bruges for the last night, Oct 30. At least the Ibis next to the train station had rooms available.
Our train from Amsterdam to Bruges involved a change in Rotterdam, which worked well. Arriving in Bruges we found our way easily to our small, rental house near the center of town. The house was certainly more luxurious than our houseboat, with 2 bedrooms and a set of bunk beds on the upper 2 floors. The boys immediately chose the top floor that had a big king-sized bed and lots of space. We had the master bedroom on the 2nd floor with the main full bathroom next door. We didn’t have to use the extra bunks which were on the 2nd floor landing. The main floor had a nice living room with dining area and a compact, well equipped kitchen. There was also a small outdoor space off the living room with a 2nd toilet. The house was on a quiet street very close to the center of town so we were able to walk everywhere.

The first day we walked through the Arendts gardens, very close to our place, to the Burg. Ray and I especially enjoyed the Basilica of the Holy Blood in the Burg. The boys were less enthusiastic. They really wanted to go to the Chocolate Museum. They waited outside while we explored the church with its ornately carved exterior and ancient, beautiful treasures inside.

So it was the Chocolate Museum next, which lifted the kids’ spirits. Roman had been in a funk and the chocolate treats were just what he needed. The exhibits were well distributed with questionnaires to keep the boys on track.

Lunch was nearby, a good antidote to the chocolate consumed. we made it to the Markt (the Market Square). We headed for the Historium which tells the history of Bruges from Medieval times through a mixed media story. Visitors are led from room to room to get the next chapter in the story of a young apprentice to the artist Jan Van Eyck, who painted the famous “Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele”. The mixed media show, ended in a series of rooms relating further history of Bruges to what we had gathered from the story. It was very well done. A door from these last display led to an outdoor terrace giving excellent view of the entire market square.

The next day we took the boat tour of the canals in Bruges which was appreciated by all of us. Roman asked if we could rent bikes again, which we did. We rented from a recommended shop near the Gentpoort gate. It was Sunday and we got to the shop just in time as the owner was closing at 12:30 for the afternoon but would be back to retrieve our bikes before 5 PM.  We started out along the bike paths next to the canal marking the perimeter of old Bruges. We had a great ride passing three windmills, several gates to the original city walls which ended with a circumnavigation of Bruges. We got back to town in time to have a treat of Belgian waffles topped with your choice of ice cream, whipped cream chocolate or fruit. It was rich and tasty. That gave us energy to ride back to the bike rental shop and returned the bikes.

We had checked out of our rental house and checked into our two rooms at the Train Station Ibis before our bike ride. That meant only a short walk to our room for the night. Each Ibis room was just big enough for two people so the boys had their own room. They thought that was super. The next treat was takeout pizza for dinner from the shop at the station. There was even enough Pizza left over for lunch for the boys on the train ride home the next day. All in all Ray and I, Atticus and Roman declared our trip a success.

Amsterdam with our grandsons


October 24-28 2016

To see photos of Amsterdam in a Google Photo album, click the following link
See Amsterdam photos

How appropriate to stay in a houseboat on a canal in Amsterdam! The TGV train from Paris took us straight to Amsterdam in just three hours. We followed the directions and took a bus that stopped just a block away from our home for the next four nights. The houseboat was moored permanently on Singlegracht canal, about a 15 min walk to the center of town. It took no time at all for the boys to explore the boat and chose their room. There were 2 small bedrooms, one at either end of the boat, with the living area, kitchen in between. The one bathroom with shower was next to our bedroom. The boat was clean and comfortable for the 4 of us. We found the grocery store and bought food for breakfast and dinner that night, which we ate in the houseboat. I had borrowed Erica’s copy of Anne Frank’s Diary and read enough to have time on the train and the evening before visiting Anne’s house to give the boys the basics of why were visiting the house and why her family was hidden for several years before being discovered and sent to a concentration camp where all died except for Anne’s father.

The next morning we walked to the Anne Frank house for which I had ordered tickets to visit at 10:30 AM. We found out everyone already in the long lineup had early time slots than we did. We were early, so we walked around the area ensuring that we arrived back no earlier than 15 minutes before our designated time. There was still a long lineup but it moved efficiently and we made our way inside. It was a bit crowded at first but we weren’t rushed, so we all had time to see as much as we wanted. They seemed to understand well and were not frightened about the story. The exhibit is in the exact rooms used by the family and included additional videos and displays promoting acceptance of people with different religions and ideas.

Roman had requested that we go biking in Amsterdam. It was a nice day to go cycling as it was rapidly warming up in the afternoon after a cool start. Ray was concerned that the boys were not experienced enough to handle the bike traffic on the streets. He suggested we go to Vondelpark where there were lots of roads to ride safely. We headed to a bike rental shop right next to the park, stopping for lunch at an Italian restaurant on the way. It was still early and the restaurant looked somewhat upscale but they had pizza to satisfy the boys and pasta for Ray and me. The pizza was on a very thin crust and was proclaimed to be the best they had ever eaten. Our pasta was good too.

The bike shop had bikes for each of us although the regular size was too big for Roman and the smaller one was a bit small. Regardless, he rode it well and everyone had a great time in the park. The park had three children’s play areas that were challenging enough to suit both of them.  Our first stop was at the southern end of the park, where the boys spied wooden structures with two long tubes protruding from one side. The boys parked the bikes and ran over to climb inside one wooden tower to get to the slide entrance. The first slide was taken a bit gingerly but they quickly adapted. Back on the bikes we approached a large open area with a water play area that was closed for the season, but had a collection of swings to try out. There were single swings, a double one and a big rubber ring with a net seating area that one or more could share. They did it all. As we were getting ready to leave on the bikes again, a local woman recommended another play area. We followed her instructions past a dog obedience class area and found several raised wooden structures, each connected by netted walkways or wooden ladders, in a wooded area. It was another hit. The excursion was such a hit that we went back for a second trip two days later, with equal success.

The next day we walked to the Dam, where the Royal Palace, large churches, Madam Tussauds and other tourist delights were located. Roman was invited to a sleep-over on Halloween evening, the day we were to return to Paris and he wanted to get a mask for his costume. Halloween is not very popular in Holland and we didn’t pass any stores advertising costumes. Finally, I saw a toy store where we were directed to one area that still had a few masks. Roman had the choice of a monster mask or The Scream, from the painting by Edvard Munch. He chose the Scream and was thrilled.

We were on our way to lunch on the Pannenkoekenboot. It was a tour boat that travels around the harbour, not the canals, and offers a buffet meal of all you can eat pancakes, just up the boys’ alley. We took a free ferry from behind the train station to the mooring place on the other side of the harbour. On board we were directed to a table for four next to the window. The boys didn’t pay much attention to the scenery, they concentrated on the pancakes. There was a choice of pancakes with bacon, or apples or plain. The toppings and syrups were mostly super sweet but I managed to eat 2. The boys were on their third pancake when it was announced that the ballroom (similar to IKEA) was open below deck. They had a grand time jumping into the pile and tossing balls at each other.

When the tour was over, we took the ferry back to the train station and persuaded the boys to walk over NEMO, the science museum aimed at kids. It didn’t take much to get them involved. We made our way to the top floor and sampled as many of the interactive displays as possible. It was after 2 PM when we arrived and the museum closed at 5:30 PM. That seemed like plenty of time but we were almost the last to leave and we still hadn’t seen everything. We walked back to the station, missing the first bus stop but finally getting the right number to ride back to the boat. It did save another 1.5 km of walking.

Our last day started a bit late so we got to the Van Gogh museum right when everyone else did. We had to line up for more than 20 minutes just to buy tickets, then line up again to go in, but there were no complaints from the boys. It was free admission for the boys and we intended to get kid-oriented audio guides for them. They had a family rate so we all got the guides. That was a good move. We all enjoyed the exhibits, especially with the extra commentary.

I could have stayed even longer than the others but the boys were ready to go. They persuaded us it was time to rent bikes again and return to Vondelpark, which we did. They had an equally good time in the park but Atticus declared he was ready to try biking on the street bike paths next time.

Alsace Wine Route Side Trips from Strasbourg

Alsace Wine Route Towns

Who wouldn't want to visit the "Prettiest Towns in France"? Alsace has several, with flowers from every window and floral displays in front of several of the medieval buildings. Besides the towns are just a short drive or train ride from Strasbourg.

Riquewihr town gate
We rented a car twice and took a train another day, to visit towns south of Strasbourg along the Alsace Wine Route. The first day we visited Riquewihr, a favourite of tourists with its flower bedecked half-timbered houses surrounded by vineyards. We bought three bottles of local wine and had them with our meals back in Strasbourg.

Hunawihr, our second stop, was founded in the 7th C by Hunon, whose wife, Hune, is the saint of washerwomen. The small church, surrounded by fortified walls, had old murals on the walls of a small side chapel.

We made it to Ribeauvillé for lunch in an old wine cave. I had good rabbit stew. In the Middle Ages, Ribeauvillé was the seat of the Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre who built 3 castles, the largest, Saint Ulrich, can be seen from the main street in town.

After lunch, it was up into the hills to visit Chateau Haut-Konigsburg. The castle is first mentioned in 1147 documents when the monks complained to King Louis VII of France about its unlawful construction by the Hohenstaufen duke. By the middle of the 17th C the castle was left in ruins after changing hands and being burnt several times. The castle came into the hands of the Germans as a result of the Franco-Prussian war in the 19th C and the German Emperor Willhem II contracted to restore the castle to its Alsatian grandeur of the Middle Ages. He completed the restoration in 1908 and it is now a popular tourist location. The site, at the top of high pinnacle overlooking the villages below, is spectacular, even shrouded in mist as it was the day we were there. We spent quite a long time exploring the many rooms and views.

Our last stop on the route back to Strasbourg was Dambach-la-ville, another pretty Alsatian town.

To see photos of our drive to Riquewhir and other towns, in a Google Photo album, click the following link

House of Many Heads in Colmar

Colmar, one of the largest and prettiest towns in the area, is a direct train ride from Strasbourg. We planned to spend the day exploring just one town so we wouldn’t need a car. It was an easy half-hour that landed us within a short walk to the center of the historic town. We wandered the streets, admiring the many large Alsatian buildings, churches and museums. A band from another town arrived and set up a corner in the center and treated us to a selection of marching and waltz tunes. Other musicians entertained us on a corner by the canal and beside an outdoor patio where we were enjoyed our afternoon refreshment. Boat tours are always fun and the canal running through Colmar was no exception. The slow ride along the waterway gave us a different view of the towns many half-timbered Medieval and Early Renaissance buildings. We skipped the museums but did visit the interior of some of the many churches, each with something unique to entice us in.

To see photos of our visit Colmar in a Google Photo album, click the following link see Colmar photos

Our second car trip started in Mittlebergheim, which claims to have been wine producers for 4 centuries. We had our only wine tasting and ended up buying a bottle to drink that night in our apartment and two bottles of the local Cremant, their version of Champagne to bring back to Paris. The architecture was different. Instead of half-timbering, many houses a high steep pitched roof and gateways opening to central courtyards.

Andlau, not far away, was the home of Andlau Abbey, founded in 880 AD for women after Richardis, later Saint Richardis, saw a she-bear scratching at the soil; a bear is one of her emblems in reference to this. The former abbey church survives as the parish church of Saints Peter and Paul. There are several carvings dating from the 12th C next to one of the entrances to the church.

As we did on our first drive a few days before, we headed up into the hills, on our way to Mont Ste Odile. It was lunch time when we reached a small village, more popular as a ski resort. We lucked out as the only restaurant open in town provided an excellent three course meal, one of the best we had.
Mont Ste Odile Abbey
 Mont Ste Odile Abbey, also known as Hohenburg Abbey,is a popular pilgrimage spot, built on a 760M high peak in the Vosges mountains. The abbey was founded about 690 by Saint Odile, daughter of the Frankish duke Adalrich of Alsace at Obernai, who also was its first abbess. On the eastern slope of the Mont Sainte-Odile she built a hospice called Niedermünster or Nieder-Hohenburg, which afterwards became a house for ladies of nobility until it was destroyed by lightning in 1572.

We parked and took a path at the base of cliffs beneath the main building. Stations of the Cross were carved into the cliffs, along with a grotto commemorating Saint Odile. At the last station we followed a path up to the gardens of the abbey. Two small chapels had beautiful mosaics on the ceiling and walls. The Abbey itself is very large and as well as accommodation for the few remaining nuns, includes a restaurant and rooms for pilgrims to stay.

Down the narrow twisting road we drove to the town of Obernai, the birthplace of Ste Odile, who would become the Patron Saint of Alsace. Obernai is in an importance wine district and the town is full of half-timbered houses festooned with flowers. There were nice walking paths alongside the old walls of the city. On our way back to Strasbourg we stopped briefly to admire yet another “prettiest towns” Rosheim.

To see photos of our drive to Mittlebergheim and other towns in a Google Photo album, click the following link
see photos of Mittleberheim and towns nearby

Strasbourg Oct 2016


October 10-19 2016

To see photos of our visit in Strasbourg in a Google Photo album, click the following link See photos of Strasbourg

Why did we go to Strasbourg? Well, we had never visited the Northeastern part of France and anyone we talked to about Strasbourg had nothing but rave reviews. They were spot on. We spent nine nights in Strasbourg, touring the city and taking day trips to some of the towns on the Alsace Wine Route.  We still have more towns to visit on the Alsace side and never made it just across the border to the German side.

Ray and I took the train on Oct 10 to Strasbourg and stayed in a one bedroom apartment between the train station and town for 9 nights. I bought a 3 day Strasbourg pass online which included free or half-price admission for several museums and a half day bike rental. The apartment was convenient and comfortable. We bought food at a local small grocery store for breakfast and a salad supper. Our main meal was lunch at a restaurant offering Menu du Jour. We sampled all the local delicacies and found the food uniformly excellent.

We spent a lot of time in the Cathedral snapping photos of the stained glass window, carved pulpit, side chapels and decorated ceiling. The famous astronomical clock was fascinating. A movie told us about the history and illustrated several of the carved and painted decoration. At noon, the cock crowed and the figures made their rounds, much like the Glockenspeil in Munich. It was very well done. Next to the clock was one of my favourite sculptures in the church. The Angel Pillar has 12 sculptures, supposedly climbing the pillar to reach the Christ figure perched on the top. Another reason to visit the cathedral is to climb the 300 steps to a terrace under the bell tower to get the view of the city from the roof of the cathedral. Visitors several centuries ago carved their names and place of birth on the sides of the terrace walls.

The Palais Rohan, next to the Cathedral now houses three museums. We toured the interesting history museum to learn about the difficulties of living on the border with warring principalities. As a result, Strasbourg has had its language and allegiance changed between France and Germany multiple times over the centuries.

Petite France, with its many half-timbered buildings, most decorated with overflowing flower baskets, made an interesting walk along the canal, part of the River L’Ill. We took a boat tour on the River, and rented bikes for an afternoon to go farther north where the EU Parliament, Council of Europe and Human Rights buildings are found.

Our last night in Strasbourg we had a treat. Earlier in the week we saw a poster advertising the last in a series of classical concerts. Mozart’s Requiem was to be performed in a church near our apartment by National Opera orchestra and choir plus four soloists. We had general seating tickets, still expensive, but well worth the money. We found great seats on the side right near the front with perfect acoustics and upfront views of the musicians.

Paris in October with the Auerbachs

Paris in October

October 6 2016 – Nov 3 2016
Roman, Atticus, Andrew and Erica
To see photos of our visit in Paris in a Google Photo album, click the following link
See Paris photos

Coming to visit our daughter and family in October in Paris is becoming a tradition. We like to schedule our visits to include at least part of our grandsons, Atticus and Roman, two week school break, which is approximately six weeks after the start of the school year. They are old enough now that we can take them on a trip without their parents and the parents, Erica and Andrew, get time to themselves. It is a win-win situation.

This year we arrived in Paris early in October for a few days with the whole family before Ray and I took a side trip to Strasbourg, after which we returned to Paris for a weekend and then took the boys with us to Amsterdam and Bruges.

As usual, Erica had done some research and was able to suggest several outing in Paris. There was a special exhibit of Mexican Art from 1900-1950, featuring Diego Rivera, Freda Kahlo and contemporaries at the Grand Palais. Mike and Edith Sims, Vancouverites who are good friends of Andrew’s father Herb, played the piano during the memorial service for Andrew’s mother last June in Vancouver. Mike also arranged for Ray and I to stay in his son’s basement apartment for our June visit. We arranged to meet them at the Grand Palais our first Saturday in Paris and spend part of the day with them. Ray and I spent an enjoyable time recognizing several of the paintings we had become familiar with in Mexico and learning more about the depth of talent in Mexico. As we were finishing, Ray, Erica and the boys took advantage of interactive dispays by posing for photos wearing Mexican masks and then getting the boys to pose in life-sized figures of a Mexican girl soccer player, taken from one of Rivera’s paintings.

Lunch was to be in a Chinese restaurant Erica and Andrew were familiar with. We took the Metro to Notre Dame Cathedral and walked through the grounds on the way to the restaurant, passing several couples having wedding photos taken, before crossing a bridge to the Saint Germain area where we had a Chinese feast. Roman’s favourite gelato shop was nearby. We wandered down several streets that Mike said were very familiar to him. He had lived in Paris about 50 years ago where he supported himself by playing jazz piano in a club. Mike found the Caveau de la Huchette, still in the same building, so of course we took Mike and Edith’s picture in front of it. The gelato shop was just down the street. I had a small cone but Roman got his price. He had a large cone with 3 flavours artfully arranged like a flower.

The next day, Erica, Ray, Atticus, Roman and I took the Metro to Parc de l’Isle Saint Germain, on the River Seine. There banks of the Seine were lined with a variety of house boats, both big and small, and several working barges. The island is a popular park with walking and jogging trails fields to play soccer, and a hill, on top of which is a huge, multi-coloured pillar sculpture, the Tour aux Figures by Jean Dubuffet.

On our return to Paris from Strasbourg, (see the separate blog of our trip to Strasbourg and the Alsace Wine Route) we took the boys to visit the Musée des Arts et Metiers with its collection of scientific instruments and old and new transportation vehicles. Ray and I appreciated the scientific instruments and their history, but the boys preferred the old cars, buses and WWI planes hanging from the ceiling of a deconsecrated church that is now part of the museum.

The next day the boys were back at school so Erica, Ray and I rented a coop car and drove to Poissy, just outside Paris to see Le Courbusier Villa Savoye house, built by the Swiss architect and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, between 1928-1931 using reinforced concrete and very modern flat roofed design.

We also went to the nearby town of Saint Germain en Laye where we had lunch, and visited the pretty center of the town. We also visited a museum dedicated to the artist Maurice Denis, housed in Denis's former home. Both the house furnished as it had been when Denis lived there, and gardens were on display. I especially liked the small chapel built and decorated by Denis.

We ended our day in Saint Germain by walking on the grounds of the Royal Chateau de Saint Germain en Laye. The chateau was first built by Louis VI around 1122, burned by the Black Prince in 1346, rebuilt by Francis I in 1539, and expanded several times since then. Louis XIV was born there. The gardens, a popular destination for locals on this weekend afternoon, were one of the first in France in Italian style, similar to the gardens at Versailles. One man was flying a drone over the crowd enjoying the view of Paris from the edge on a cliff at one side of the property.

Ray and the boys and I took the train to Amsterdam October 24 , where we stayed for four nights before travelling by train again to Bruges where we spent another three nights before returning to Paris (see separate blogs for our visits to Amsterdam and Bruges).

Our last Sunday in Paris, we all went to the Louis Vuitton Foundation Art Gallery on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne.  Designed by American Frank Gehry of coloured glass sails, curved to billow out and encompass the galleries underneath. The design was inspired by the glass Grand Palais. Sunday was the opening day of a new exhibit featuring the modern art collection of Russian art dealer Shchukin. It was a capacity crowd forcing us to line up for ½ hour to get in, even though we had timed reserved tickets. The collection was huge, including 20th C French artists and Russian artists inspired by the European masters of modern art. Ray and I spent quite a bit of time on the roof terraces, covered by the colourful glass sails. There were good views of Paris from the top and also the adjoining Bois de Boulogne Park.

Touring the Louis Vuitton Gallery made us hungry. The family favourite Sushi restaurant was within walking distance and the boys especially love sushi. The small restaurant is designed with the cooks in the center loading small plates onto a conveyor belt that circles between the cooks and the tables. You just grab an interesting looking dish from the conveyor belt as it winds past your table. Everything I chose was delicious. The total cost at the end of your meal is calculated by the number of dishes you consume, the same principal used at a Chinese Dim Sum or Spanish tapas restaurant. 

Family and Friends in September

Maine and New Brunswick, thenPrince Edward Island and the Magdalene Islands

September 1 - 14 2016

The Magdalene Islands? It hasn't been on our bucket list, but how could we resist? How often do we have the chance to get together with all the Burnham siblings? It was April 2016 and Ray's older brother, Dick, had just phoned and offered his suggestion for a rendez-vous in September 2016. Usually we try to get together every five years. Obviously the visit in September 2015 in Ellicottville, NY to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversaries was so successful that we will get another chance in 2016.

Ray took the lead and booked accommodation for one night, September 9 2019 in Souris PEI, where the ferry departs for the Magdalene Islands and four nights on L’Isle de ???, one of the Magdalene Islands, for all four couples; Dick and Charlotte, Ray and me, Jack and Jenni, Carolyn and Lorie. Carolyn phoned us all and suggested, since we would be going by ferry from Souris, PEI, that we should book a special dinner at Michael Smith's Inn at Bay Fortune. It sounded like a plan.
Paul, Dom, Ray, Debbie, Andrea, Claudia, Jean

Before we knew it, September arrived and we were off on a road trip, first to spend Labour Day weekend with my sisters, Mary Douglas, Debbie Scipio and her husband Dominique Scipio, at their summer homes on Peaks Island, in Casco Bay, just a 15 minute ferry ride from Portland, Maine. My cousin, Andrea and her husband Paul Terni and family friends, Claudia and Jean Vaucher, were to be there as well, so it was a family and friends celebration. Fish and lobster were on the menu for dinner, lots of chats, walks and bike rides around the island, scrambles over the rocky shoreline and invigorating but cold swims in the ocean, rounded out our time together.

At the end of the weekend, we said our goodbyes to everyone and drove north to Ray's birthplace, Florenceville, New Brunswick. We managed visits with the few remaining relatives still living there and walked around the village noting how some things never change and how many other things had changed from our last visit a few years ago.

It was an easy day's drive from Florenceville to Charlottetown, PEI. We had a day to walk around the historic area where political leaders of Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia met in 1864 and signed an agreement to form the new country, Canada. It took another three years of negotiations to complete the process in 1867 so preparations are in place to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canada all across the country.

Phone calls between the Burnham siblings confirmed that everyone was soon to arrive at our B & Bs in Souris. The reunion had begun. We checked into our rooms and got ready for the big night ahead. It was a short drive along the coast to the Inn at Bay Fortune where guests, who like us, had booked months before for the one sitting per evening meal. 

The property, prettily situated above the ocean, consisted of the original house and two new additions for guests who chose to stay overnight, or just enjoy the countryside. We had arrived at 6 PM to take advantage of four different appetizer stations, situated both on the extensive grounds where herbs and fresh vegetables were grown for the dinner table and inside the main building. It was a beautiful, still sunny evening and perfect for strolling the grounds, drink and appetizer in hand. I must admit, my favourite appetizers were fresh oysters on the half shell topped with a frozen Bloody Mary sauce. Ray preferred the smoked salmon, although if any kind of salmon is on the menu, that will be his choice. The rest of the meal, all five courses, was served to us at a table seating 20 guests on the screened in force facing the sea. It was the perfect place to watch the sun go down. Ray and I thoroughly enjoyed the evening.

The next day we had time to walk on the beach at Basin Head Provincial Park and visit a lighthouse before returning to Souris in time for the ferry to the Magdalenes.

To see photos on Google albums of our visit to PEI, click the following link

The Magdalene Islands, the most easterly settlement in the Province of Quebec, are situated NE of PEI and west of Newfoundland, in the golf of the St Lawrence River. You can fly to the islands, if the winds are cooperating, which is not often the case, you can take a cruise ship from Montreal and Quebec City, with a side trip to the Saguenay River, past the Gaspe peninsula to the Magdalenes, or you can take the 5 hour ferry crossing from Souris, PEI. We took the 1:30 PM ferry from Souris. The seas were calm, the sun shone and we spent a relaxed five hours in comfort before reaching the Magdalene Islands. A half-hour drive took us to Isle Havre Aubert and Auberge Chez Denis et François, where we checked into our large, comfortable rooms and were just in time for our dinner in their excellent restaurant. We all proclaimed that Ray had picked a gem for our visit.

We spent the next three days roaming the five islands that make up the Magdalenes. Yes, the wind always blows over the mostly flat islands, connected by sand bars, and our first day was partially rainy. Despite that, we all were charmed by the wild scenery, the friendliness of the people and the consistently excellent food in all the restaurants we sampled. We stopped by the roadside to watch kite-surfers and wind surfers take advantage of the winds in the bays and inland lakes. We walked the beaches, explored the many art galleries and craft shops, visited the excellent museum close to our Auberge, and hiked to a light house on one of the other islands.

Our return ferry ride to PEI left in the late morning, allowing us to have an excellent lunch in the ferry dining room. It made for a very congenial ending to our visit together. The PEI dinner and visit to the Magdalenes was an excellent choice for our group and we highly recommend the islands to everyone.

To see photos on Google albums of our visit to the Magdalene Islands, click the following link

Friday, April 15, 2016

Semana Santa (Easter Week) in San Miguel

San Miguel de Allende March 18 - 27 2016
Our Lady of Sorrows Altar

Click Samana Santa to see more photos on Picasa

San Miguel must have the most festivals and processions to mark Semana Santa (Holy Week of any other town in Mexico. We scheduled our stay this year to take in as many of the Holy Week events as possible. The week before Easter started with sorrows and built up to a big bang on Easter Sunday.

Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, Our Lady of Sorrows, is relatively unknown in much of Mexico but is one of the highlights of Holy Week in San Miguel. All over town, San Miguel de Allende's families and business owners have constructed altars dedicated to the sadness of the Virgin Mary for the loss of her son. For one night private homes and entrances to businesses are opened to the public to display elaborate altars, decorated with flowers, candles, bitter oranges and small pots of sprouting wheat. Our local newspaper, Atencion, lists most of the best places to visit on the Night of the Altars when all the candles are lt and visitors are treated to a fruit juice, a frozen Popsicle or other treats. 

We had started our evening with a guitar concert at the Biblioteca. The concert ended just in time for us to make the rounds of the Altars. The street next to the Biblioteca had been closed to traffic so that everyone could safely see a huge altar built in the middle of the street. We were attracted by loud music just a block away. A big dance area had been roped off in front of the Temple of the Oratorio and crowds of people were surrounding costumed dancers were putting on quite a show. Clowns handed out candies to the children and nearby booths provided free fruit juice. That was just the start. We snacked our way around to see several altars in private homes. In one we accepted a glass of pineapple juice, and in another house with an elaborate altar we ate a small cup of tasty rice pudding. 

Back in the Jardin area there was a concert was in progress in the Temple of San Rafael, next to the Parroquia. Candles on the floor led to an elaborate gold altar in front of which sat a small string orchestra, accompanying two excellent sopranos with a program of sacred music. After a short intermission we were treated to a second concert with a pianist and a baritone. There were still several more altars to visit on our way back to our apartment and more snacks to eat. This was an event not to be missed.

Two days later was Palm Sunday with two processions, one right after the other, to see. The first procession, led by clergy and altar boys and girls, walked from Santo Domingo Church down a hill to the Temple of San Francisco. Parishioners, including several people dressed as pilgrims and a man dressed as Jesus riding a donkey, filled the street while we Gringos snapped photos. 

Once the group were safely in the church to celebrate a mass, we hurried to see the second, larger procession, due to start shortly. Ray and I went down Sollano Street, where the procession would make its way from Juarez Park to the Parroquia. The doors and windows of many of the houses on the street were decorated with flowers, the ground was strewn with sweet smelling herbs and archways covered with palm fronds and flowers reached from one side of the street to the other. Finally the procession started up the street with each group of parishioners carrying palm decorations woven in elaborate patterns and a large statue of Jesus riding a donkey and another Sorrowing Mary. I followed beside the faithful as long as I could but finally broke off into a side street to take an alternate route to the Parroquia where I got a good vantage point to see the procession make their way into the church for a mass. That was enough for one day.

There were other processions during the week in neighbouring towns, re-enacting the events before Good Friday. We decided to limit our viewing to the next weekend. That was a good decision. We were awakened early on Good Friday with the booms of multiple firecrackers. Later in the morning the neighbouring homes were decorated and the street in front of our apartment was covered with sweet smelling herbs in anticipation of a small procession from nearby San Juan de Dios Church through the streets and up to the Parroquia. Angelitos,little girls in white dresses and angel wings, led the procession, strewing chamomile onto the pavement. Little boys with painted mustaches and shepherds cloaks came behind. Parishioners carrying a statue of a bowed and bloody Christ followed as did the statue of Sorrowing Mary and Saint john, the patron saint of the Parish of San Juan de Dios.

That was just the first of three processions that day. Noon brought the crowds to the Jardin and the area in front of the Temple of San Rafael, next to the Parroquia. There was an enactment of Jesus, betrayed by Judas, being given a death sentence by Pontious Pilate and being led away by Roman guards. Once found guilty, the procession, led by a large choir, emerges from the church and winds around the Jardin, ending at another Church, the Oratorio, a few blocks away. The two thieves, destined to be crucified next to Jesus, are led by Roman soldiers brandishing whips, adding to the bloody sores painted on their torsos. Several pilgrims, dressed in blue sack cloth and wearing crowns of nails, follow behind. Then the statues appear, San Roque with an ulcerated leg and accompanied by his faithful dog, Mary Magdalene, Saint John the Baptist, a Judas,Saint  Veronica with the image of Christ on a cloth, several other saints, the sorrowing Mother Mary and Christ carrying a Cross. The faithful, who have been in the Temple of San Rafael, follow behind. It is a huge procession. 

After a lunch at a restaurant with are friends, we are ready to take on the most solemn procession, enacting the death of Jesus. The circular route starts about 5 PM and ends after dark back at the Oratorio. Streets leading to the Oratorio and around the Jardin are closed off to allow the hundreds of spectators room to observe the spectacle. Clowns walk around making balloon animals to keep the children amused before the procession arrives. Finally, the first group of parishioners arrived, all dressed in funereal black, the women with black Spanish Mantillas on their heads. All the statues from the noon procession, and then more, were there. The parade moved slowly, stopping frequently for prayers. Shortly before Christ arrived in his bier, a man and a woman, standing on a balcony across from the Jardin. Organ music played from inside the room and the two singers burst into song. It was an added extra to the procession. We didn't accompany the faithful back to the Oratorio. We had seen more than enough for one day.

The day everyone was waiting for came on Easter Sunday. The traditional name is the Burning of Judas, but the ritual has evolved into more of a political statement, focusing on Politicians currently out of favour with the populace. We arrived, along with a good portion of San Miguel citizens and tourists, to find Calle de Canal in front of the Jardin lined with about 25 Papier Mache figures, sponsored by various companies and restaurants in San Miguel, leaning against the Old City Hall building. I didn't recognize a Judas figure, but there were two devils, a witch, two Donald Ducks with orange hair and bright, blue suits, and a figure that was more recognizable as The Donald himself, who is not a friend of Mexicans or the mostly liberal tourists. 

The figures were strung by a loop on the head to ropes extending from trees in the Jardin to balconies on the building across Calle de Canal. The spectators were kept back at a safe distance from underneath the figures and the fun began. Event officials lowered one figure and lit a fuse attached to a bamboo belt around the waist of the figure, and raised the figure above the street. The fuse lit a firecracker that caused the figure to slowly twirl until the fuse lit the second firecracker and finally reached a third firecracker. A few seconds later the figure to explode with a loud boom. There was clapping by adults and fear in the eyes of young children. One by one the figures were exploded. The cheering got loader while the audience waited for The Donald to take his turn. A chant of "Trump, Trump, Trump" spread within the crowd. Finally it was The Donald's turn. The fuse was lit, The Donald twirled, once, twice and a third time before exploding with a gigantic boom. The crowd let out the loudest cheer yet and high-fived the performance. Even if this was only a symbolic victory, the crowd had made its point. The Donald was not winning any votes in San Miguel de Allende. The fun was all over except for the rush for souvenir body parts on the street below the now exploded figures. The children especially had a grand time claiming a leg or arm to take home. It may be a prized possession until next year. 

And so ended the official Holy Week. We were glad we had been able to be here to see all the festivities. It was unlike anything we had ever seen before.

Click Samana Santa to see more photos on Picasa

Friday, April 8, 2016

El Señor de la Columna (our Lord of the Column)

San Miguel de Allende Sunday March 19 2016

Click Lord of the Column to see photos on Picasa.

San Miguel has more than its share of Festivals. Last year we were told about the procession of El Señor de la Columna (our Lord of the Column) just the night before the event. We were there to see it and made sure we didn't miss it this year. It lived up to all our expectations. It wasn't just the number of faithful who turn out each year to join a religious procession, it wasn't the fact that many had walked all night from the town of Atotonilco, a town about 18 km from San Miguel, it was the the elaborate decorations residents had spent hours overnight creating just so the procession could walk all over the art work.

It all started in 1800. An serious epidemic had broken out in the San Miguel region. After years of no end in sight for the epidemic, Father Remigio Angel Gonzales, the parish priest of Atotonilco, decided that action was needed. He carved the figure of a bloodied Christ leaning on a gilded column of wood. By 1823 it was ready. Father Gonzales organized his parishioners to bring the sculpture in procession from Atotonilco to San Miguel de Allende. Their prayers were answered and the epidemic was finished. The procession has been repeated each year on the Sunday before Palm Sunday. The statue of El Señor de la Columna, along with statues of the Virgin Mary (Our Lady of Sorrows) and St John are carried by hundreds of pilgrims starting at midnight from the church in Atotonilco, arriving about 8 AM at San Juan de Dios Church, just a few blocks from our apartment in San Miguel.

We were up early enough to walk past San Juan de Dios Church where the faithful have camped overnight and are waiting, wrapped in blankets against the chill of the morning. Booths were being put up to provide breakfast for the waiting crowds. We continue on to the main street along which the procession will come towards San Juan de Dios Church as soon as the sun came up. Residents were busy putting the finishing touches on carpets of coloured sawdust, flower petals and sweet herbs, decorated with religious figures, over which the pilgrims would walk. Standards of flowers line the sides of the streets and strings of purple and white paper flowers, banners and balloons form archways over the street.

As the sun came over the buildings, the imminent arrival of the procession was announced by explosions of large firecrackers set off on the rooftops on either side of the street. The procession, including a costumed pilgrim, Roman guards, a band playing mournful tunes, small children in first communion outfits, altar boys and girls waving incense, three priests and groups taking turns carrying the statues, came into view. The crowds grow and fill the streets on either side of the procession, walking to keep pace with the statues. Ray and I join the throngs and try to get additional pictures of the procession and the statues. Finally we make it to San Juan de Dios Church where a mass will be held. We decide that breakfast at our favourite restaurant Café Monet is the perfect way to end the morning.

A March Tradition: Concheros Dancers

San Miguel de Allende Friday 7 March 2016

How can I resist a festival, especially one with dancers in the most elaborate outfits I have ever seen.

The first Friday in March is the annual gathering of the Concheros, who come, dressed in pre-Hispanic outfits, from small towns near San Miguel to dance all afternoon and into the evening in the Jardin, the central meeting place of San Miguel. Properly called, El Señor de la Conquista (the Lord of the Conquest), the event commemorates the conversion of the indigenous people to Catholicism by the Conquistadors. When the Spaniards attempted to eliminate all pagan traditions, the dancing could not be stopped. Hence the event, with traditional dancing, was incorporated into a Catholic Holiday.

Crowds of San Miguel residents come to the Jardin to await the dancers. One by one the groups of men, women and children arrive to the beat of drums and take their places on the streets surrounding the Jardin. We watch the dancing and take photos of the elaborate costumes and huge feathered headdresses. The groups get a break to file into the Parroquia and receive the blessing of the clergy. Then they take their places again and continue dancing, almost without stop into the evening.

Click Concheros to see photos on Picasa

So Much To Do In San Miguel

San Miguel de Allende Feb 26 to 2 April 2016

The Parroquia
Click San Miguel de Allende to see photos on Picasa. Close the window to return here.

There is no time to get bored in San Miguel. Every Friday the local newspaper, Atencion, is published with write-ups and schedules of the events for the coming week. There are documentary films with discussions in the San Miguel Biblioteca (Library and small theatres) and Posada Quinta Loreto Hotel. Concerts are offered at the Biblioteca, at the Angela Peralta Theatre, sometimes at the Centre de Bellas Artes, at the small Shelter Theatre and in St Paul’s Anglican Church, arranged by the Pro Musica group. A semi-professional group offers plays at the San Miguel Playhouse and an amateur group does play readings at St Paul’s Church. If that is not enough there are recent run and classic movies at the Petit Bar AKA Pocket Theatre, and at Cine Bacco in a local hotel. Instead of paying a fee to see the movie, which is on a legal, or copied DVD, your entrance ticket gives you a bag of popcorn and a drink of your choice.

We took advantage of many of the offerings, sometimes two per day. In between we had dinners and lunches with a group of Canadian friends, introduced to us two years ago by David and Suzanne Andrews. Ray and I attended a Bird Walk in the El Charco Botanical Garden. The walk is led by very well qualified Canadian and American volunteers, many of whom have settled permanently in San Miguel. The Botanical Gardens is interesting enough on its own, with its collection of cactus and other native plants, that we make a point to visit it at least once per year.
Jacaranda in bloom on the way to Aquafit
Plus, every Tuesday and Thursday mornings, I attended Aquafit classes in the heated outdoor pool of Posada de la Aldea Hotel and I took a very instructive afternoon Photography walk with Gracie Skylar, a talented local photographer. Now I need to practise all that I learned with Gracie.

Then every Saturday there is an excellent Organic market where we can buy artisan cheeses, herbs and vegetables, specialty mushrooms, home-made soaps and herbal remedies, breads, quiches and lots more. To take a break you can buy lunch of Mexican specialties and eat it accompanied by strolling musicians. If you still have time, there is an Artisan Market next door that operates both Saturday and Sunday. My favourite was Margaret Burbidge who makes wonderful necklaces, bracelets and earrings from silver, turquoises, coral, fossils and other stones, many of them bought in an annual gem market in Tucson Arizona. I couldn’t resist and bought two of her creations.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Moveable Feast in Zihuatanejo

Zihautanejo  25 February 2016
Goose-neck Barnacles appetizer
 “This is the most unusual crustacean I have ever seen”, I said to our waiter at Marisquería Leo, “but what is it?”
“Madam, they are barnacles” our waiter told us.
He had brought us a plate to be shared as an appetizer. It didn’t look like the barnacles I was used to seeing on rocks. Picture a cluster of dark brown, flexible fingers each topped with a giraffe-patterned triangular shell for the finger end.
“How do we eat it?” we asked. “
“You just make a cut at the base of the shell finger end through the soft finger and draw out a long string of tender meat”, he told us. We all tried and despite the weird appearance, found it went down easily and was quite tasty, although it might not have rated number one in appetizers, but that was not the end of surprises for the evening.

There is an abundance of good restaurants in Zihuatanejo and we kept getting recommendations for terrific restaurants to try. We had been to two excellent ones, La Terracita and Mito’s, when the Andrews and Sheila and Barry were in Zihua. We also had a very good dinner at La Arrayan on Adelita, the street just below Casa Azul, but they didn’t compare to the unique experience Ray and I and Don and Joyce Kaplan, friends from Minnesota, were having.
Don and Joyce Kaplan
 The Kaplans had heard rave reviews for Marisquería Leo, a seafood restaurant, and invited Ray and I to join them for dinner one Friday. It wasn’t close enough to Casa Azul, our apartment, for us to walk, so we went by taxi. Thank goodness the taxi driver knew where he was going. The restaurant was on an obscure side road way up in the hills at the far north end of Zihuatanejo Bay. The first person Don and Joyce saw when we arrived was a young lady who greeted them with hugs. She was the ex-wife of their first property manager for the apartment they own at La Madera Beach and now worked for their lawyer in Zihuatanejo. On top of that, her uncle Leo was the owner of the restaurant. Boy, did we have star treatment after that.

We chose a table at the edge of a balcony with a view over Zihuatanejo Bay. As we looked at the menu and listened to recommendations from the staff, we were offered an ‘amuse gueule’ of a small glass of broth with small cubes of seven different varieties of fish. We added chopped onion and hot sauce to taste and proclaimed the dish a success. Our next course was those barnacles, which I found out by Googling them on the internet, that they are Goose-neck Barnacles (Pollicipes polymerus), that attach themselves to wave-swept rocks. There was even a video of a fellow demonstrating how to eat them. Our waiter said they had been collected by local divers just north of the restaurant.
Octopus Leo, a specialty
We all made our main course selections; lobster for Don, shrimp for Joyce and sailfish for Ray. I chose one of their specialties, Pulpo (octopus) Leo. Our meals arrived and I looked at my selection. It was an entire octopus, minus the eyes, artfully arranged on my plate with vegetables and rice. Our waiter told us the octopus was boiled until the meat was tender, given an initial frying, and finally fried again after being covered with a spice mixture. The tentacles were incredibly tender and tasty, although the body, which I tried, were too chewy for my taste. The dish earned my highest rating and certainly deserved to be a repeat order. A small glass of tequila ended our meal.

There is an alternative to sampling all those great restaurants. You can buy fresh fish or seafood direct from the fishermen and cook it yourself. The fishermen return from overnight fishing early each morning and pull their boats onto the La Principal Beach, the original Zihua beach. The fishermen store all their equipment in large wooden boxes on shore and set up tables or display their catch on top of the storage boxes or on tarps on the sand. You need to go early for the best selection for the restaurant owners and those in the know will be there to get the best selection.

Rooster Fish and 2 yellowfin tuna
We got to the fish market shortly after 8 AM on a Wednesday. That day there was yellowfin tuna, red snapper, sailfish, shrimp and even a shark, variety unknown. I took a photo of a 2 tunas and a rooster fish with long spines on its back.
filleting the shark, next to sailfish
We had been told the rooster fish was a popular game fish but was not very good eating. Most sport fishermen catch and release but it can be sold to those unfamiliar with the fish. We bought some shrimp and a piece of shark, carved to our requested size by the fisherman. We ate the shark that night. I put some mild curry powder on it and fried it first with onions and poblano peppers, than added zucchini and tomato. It was a very firm fleshed fish and tasty. The shrimp made another excellent dinner the next day. There is nothing like freshly caught fish.

Don and Joyce persuaded us we had to experience a Thursday Pozole lunch at Santa Prisca restaurant. To prepare for this event, I determined that a massage on the beach was in order. The women offering this service are excellent and the price at 200 pesos (about $18 CAD) can’t be beat. This would be my second massage and next year I am going to make it a weekly session.

Six of us went by taxi to Santa Prisca restaurant, The Kaplans, Ray and I and Leanne and Candace, two women who were renting the apartment owned by the Kaplans. The weekly Thursday event is very popular so we were there early to get a good seat with a view of the stage where the entertainment would be. Ray and I had tasted Pozole, which means "hominy", is a traditional soup from Mexico. It is made from dried corn, with either pork or chicken, and can be seasoned and garnished with chile peppers, onion, garlic, radishes, avocado, cabbage, salsa and limes. This pozole earned Ray’s approval. The smallest bowls of soup are large so each pair shared one order and came accompanied with a variety of garnishes. We ordered side dishes of tamales, tacos and stuffed peppers.
Santa Prisca Band
We enjoyed this sumptuous meal to the music of a five piece band, including a vocalist who has become the favourite of several women who come every week. The band played jazz and salsa music for the next two hours and were replaced by an excellent Spanish guitarist, who is a regular of the annual Zihuatanejo Guitar festival coming up in early March.
Santa Prisca Guitarist
So ended our 2016 visit to Zihuatanejo. We had discussed what the 2017 trip would be and at this point it will include a February trip to Zihuatanejo. We cannot beat the climate, beach experience, good markets and the restaurants, plus friends to share the experience.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Sting

Zihuatanejo February 16 2016 

I love to swim. I especially love to swim in a warm ocean where the buoyancy of the salt water makes it so much easier. I especially love to swim unimpeded by the length of a swimming pool. La Madera beach, and La Ropa Beach, in Zihuatanejo meet all those conditions.

 Our usual routine is to go for a swim before and after lunch. I swim as far as I feel like across the bay and back to where Ray, who has swum a shorter distance is waiting for me. That routine had served us well until one morning when I waded into the shallows of La Madera beach and felt something puncture my heel. It was not painful so I considered just continuing into the water. I knew something was not right and I was suspicious as to the cause. I told Ray that I had better return to shore and find out what had happened. I walked out of the water and back to one of our favourite beach restaurants, Chinciquira. By that time the puncture had started to bleed and it was somewhat painful. The staff of the restaurant got a dish of water to bathe my foot and a first aid kit with rubbing alcohol to clean my foot. The bleeding eventually stopped but my heel was becoming swollen and red. The pain I was experiencing was certainly manageable, more like a severe bee sting. Ray brought me some Benadryl and others at the restaurant suggested ice to bring down the swelling.  I just sat back and relaxed and let the treatments take their course.

The obvious cause was that I had been stung by a stingray burrowed into the sand at the water’s edge. We had been warned that this was the season for stingrays to come ashore to give birth to babies. The advice had been to shuffle your feet as you entered the water to give the stingrays warning to get out of the way. The waves cresting on the shore on La Madera stir up the sandy bottom, obscuring whatever lies below. I consider I got off very easily. The stingray must have been very young and struck me on the back of my bony heel.

It took several hours, but by the time we had finished lunch the pain had subsided. One man from Saskatchewan and a man from Inuvik starting tuning up their guitars. It was going to be another jam session. I had to get some photos today as I didn’t have my camera with me when they played the previous week. I walked back to Casa Azul to retrieve my camera and realized the pain had really 

By the time the jam session had finished and I had snapped a few pictures of the two guitarists, I was

set to brave the waters once more. I made sure I shuffled into the ocean but there were no more stingray incidents. I was glad because I certainly didn’t want to give up swimming.