Fridayday, August 31, 2007

Hello People,

What is it which takes 41 buses, 22 trains, 12 ferry boats, 11 subways, 11 taxis, 3 airplanes, 2 funiculars, 1 water taxi, 1 private car and a punt? Hint, it also took 57 pizzas? Well, that was our trip across Europe. It also took us through 7 hostels, 5 hotels, 2 campsites, a B & B and a night in a sleeper car on a train.

The whole plan started with a few constraints. Kristina was going to Australia at the beginning of August, and the boys and I were interested in going to the Scouting World Jamboree in England at the same time. Then there was this idea of linking that up with our family vacation along the Mediterranean, and maybe mixing in a volcano or two. Somehow contrasting our time in the Arctic in July with the heat of the Mediterranean in August seemed to add balance to our European experience - or at least that was the idea.

We also wanted to just make the whole trip different from a vacation in the US or Canada, maybe try to be in with people of various languages and from a variety of places. Also maybe a mix of village and city, mountain and sea, as well as the smorgasbord of means of transportation.

The trip is too long and too many things happened for a single report. So I will describe it as two phases, from Stockholm, through England and France to Venice in this report. In the next I'll describe meeting up with Kristina in Venice and our travels the length of Italy and back home.

DAY 1 - Friday, August 3, 2007
Stockholm - Lee Valley Youth Hostel / Cheshut, England

We just missed the local #2 bus which we know so well, but caught the #515 to Odenplan, the subway to T-Centrelum, and then the bus to Västerå Airport. We are flying Ryan Air to England, and they seem to like these small and less developed airports. It was an hour and a half bus ride through rolling fields of Sweden to there. As you can see already this is a trip about many types of transportation and we have yet got out of Sweden.

We had an uneventful flight and after two trains found ourselves at the Cheshut station, about a two minute walk from Lee Valley Park and Youth Hostel. We have Youth Hostel membership from Sweden, which more then paid for itself on this trip - but always confused people ("So are you Swedish or Americans?"). When I told the receptionist that we were going to the Jamboree she said that she had seen more "scouts, cubs and brownies" that week then she thought possible. The whole country side is overrun with them.

Our room also contained a scoutmaster from near Chester, the rest of his troop committee were three buildings over. The two buildings between were filled with German scouts leaders, and there were also a family with two French Girl Scouts.

That evening I took a walk along the old canal which runs down the center of Lee Valley Park. There were a number of canal boats there which are now summer homes, sprouting ferns, flags and fancy trim. Or some there are more gypsy like and there are even few rusty hulks.

Map of Southern England

Stansted Airport - Welcome to England

DAY 2 - Saturday, August 4, 2007
Lee Valley, Cheshut & World Jamboree

It was two trains backs to Stansted Airport and then two buses to the World Jamboree site in Chelmsford. There are 40,000 scouts camped here from 184 nations. There are also about 10,000 day visitors every days. I was impressed with how smoothly the whole thing flowed.

In the center of the Jamboree are a series of pavilions, one for each nation telling you about about their country or their scouting program. One of the most impressive was from Sweden which had a ferris wheel which was made of wooden poles lashed together and operated by scouts on the ground pulling ropes.

We also went to the "stage" area and watch a song and dance show put on by scouts from the UK, the host country. And then we ate ices from Finland and lunch from Austria. We talked a while with a scout from Venice who told us that we really should visit Perugia.

As day visitors you are suppose to stay in the central area, but we meet people from the Chester troop who told us we should also visit the activity areas of their sub-camp. So off we went. The best thing here was an bamboo instrument from Indonesian, which Will figured out how to play.

We stopped at the "World Faiths" area. We first stopped for water at a tent/abbey run by nuns who wore habits and neckerchief. They were all former scouts from Germany whose chief mission was to supply water and a cool place out of the sun. We also went into the Islamic tent. The three themes here was that Muslims were peaceful, they believes in science and that accepted Jesus and Mary as having an exceptional role.

Back at the hostel we all walked down the tow path along the canal to Waltham Abbey and looked for a pub for dinner, but they all seemed to only serve lunch or be closed. We ended up at an Italian restaurant and had pizza and pasta.

Tradition says that Waltham Abbey is where King Edward the Confessor is buried. The boys found this a curious name, and since we kept encountering him as we trekked across England we eventually refereed to him as "Ed 'yah I did it'". We walked about the abbey grounds, which are now a nice town park.

Jamboree Entrance
Swedish Ferris Wheel
Will At Performance
Bamboo Music
At The Jamboree
Church At Waltham Abbey

DAY 3 - Sunday, August 5, 2007
Lee Valley, Cheshut - London

We hopped on the train to London this morning. Our train ticket also will work as a subway pass for the day, which is fortunate as we criss-crossed the city. First we made our way to the Youth Hostel at Earl's Court and left off our backpacks. Then we took the underground to Tower Hill and had lunch. Afterward we turned the corner and there was Tower Bridge - one of those icons of London

We then went through the Tower of London. I think the boys saw it as a bit of a mix. The crown jewels are cool, but they are located in "The Waterloo Block", a 19th century building in the midst of a medieval castle. We went through the Armory in the White tower, which is a curious collect of anything related to - well - armor.

We walked to St. Paul's, but since it was Sunday the tower was closed to tours. It is a hot day and the shade of the church yard was very nice. We then took the underground to Trafalgar Square. We walked over to the Admiralty Arch so we could see Buckingham Palace in the distance. But the day is hot and long. So instead we walked down Whitehall. Around every corner is a building you have heard of. The Admiralty, the Horse Guards, the little dead-end street called Downing, and at the south end, Parliament (Westminster Palace), Westminster Abbey and Big Ben. All this in a fifteen minute walk. The light which comes through a wing of the Abbey, in one stain glass window and out another to the street is so very colorful. But it also reminds us that the day is winding down. We head back to the hostel, and eat at a local fish-n-chips shop ("chip shop").

Tower Bridge
St. Paul
Robin In London
Will And Westminster Abbey

DAY 4 - Monday, August 6, 2007
London - Oxford

We took the "tube" to Paddington Station and caught the 11:22 to Oxford. There the hostel is near the station, but it still took us 15 minutes to find the right 50 meters to walk. After dropping our gear we went in search of a book store. I had a dim memory of "Blackwell's" from 30+ years ago, but had it on the wrong side of the Bodleian Library. Still we found it. Robin is in desperate need of something to read while we travel, and Will bought Harry Potter - in Latin! I guess that is the effect of Oxford?

We walked through "New College", which was founded in 1379, with most of it build by 1400. We went to New College because I have a former student who is now doing her graduate work there. This week, however, she is taking shifts at a radio astronomy observatory in the Netherlands. Still, she advised me that her college was the best to see. Not quite the biggest or oldest, and so not quite as over run with tourist.

I always like walking through cloisters. They have a quite, meditative feel about them. I sometimes wonder why we no longer have them, and then I think about our winters and how they may only have a short season of use in North America. These cloisters were used in the Harry Potter movies as part of "Hogwarts".

We also walked through the chapel and the Great Hall where there were setting up for a conference dinner. One of the name tags on a plate said "Geneseo", my Alma Mater! And then we sat in the Fellows Garden for a while.

We walked over Magdalen Bridge and went down to Angel Meadows, an island in the Cherwell River. The meadows still showed signs of the recent flooding. We had planned on hiking along the Thames canal tomorrow and camp on its banks, but with all this mud I later asked at the hostel about staying there an extra night.

DAY 5 - Tuesday, August 7, 2007

In the morning we went through Christ Church College, which was the home of Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson). It is a large and splendid college. Apparently a number of Hogwarts scenes were also shot here and you can take whole tours of Oxford connecting scenes from that movie.

Back at our hostel there is a list of places in Oxford associated with films and book. There is a list of where "Inspector Morris" was filmed, and mention of where Lord Peter Wimsey went to school (Balliol College). I never did find the pub where the "Inklings" met. The "Eagle and the Child" is on St. Giles', but I could not remember its name at the time.

We had a picnic lunch on Christ Church Meadow and then walked over to Magdalen Bridge to rent a punt. Because of the flooding the current is too strong for punting on the Thames (or "Isis" as it is called in Oxford). So we took our twenty-five foot long punt down the Cherwell. Going downstream was not so bad, and we all took turns. We stepped a shore for a while and when Robin came running back he skated across the clayey mud and ended up knee deep in the river. This reminded us of one of the scenes out of the "Golden Compass" where the main character gets in a clay fight near Oxford. This city is as much a collection of literary references as it is a collection of colleges.

Going up steam was tricky, and then we met the "foreign language school". Dozens of punts coming down-steam guided by people who had no idea what they were doing. It made things interesting as directions are called out in a dozen languages, and these heavy, twenty-five foot boat were being push by a strong current and poled stochastically about the river. Somehow we managed to weave our way among these amateurs and get back to Magdalen Bridge.

Merton College, Oxford
Will In A Punt
Robin Poling Punt

DAY 6 - Wednesday, August 8, 2007
Oxford - Burbage

We took a bus from Oxford to Swindon, had lunch and then continued to Burbage. Burbage is a corner of England you might never hear about except for this report. It is a town with a population of a thousand in Wiltshire. It has one church, one store and two pubs. It also has a Scout Hut which was opened to us to use!

The Scouts (or their leader - Anna Cox) opened the hut to us and gave us a key. We pitched our tent outside, but used the kitchen, bathroom and table for playing cards in the evening. Anna also lent us Ordinate Survey maps of the region.

That We fallowed one of these maps and the public foot path across some farm land and down to the "Kennet and Avon Canal", where we had hoped to see the Crofton Beam Engine. This is one of the oldest steam engines (1809) which is still working. It was used to pump water uphill into the canal. We, unfortunately, got there shortly after it closed. These long and lazy summer days can make you lose track of the time.

On our way home we followed the canal for a while. There was a canal boat making its way through a series of lock. These were hand operated, and so we helped open and close a few of the gates.

Back in town we went to the "White Hart" pub for supper, and then back to the scout hut. The hut is also used for a martial arts class. So we played cards in the kitchen while the class used the main hall.

Map of Burbage

Will, Robin And Canal
Walking In Burbage

DAY 7 - Thursday, August 9, 2007
Burbage & Avebury

We told people that we planned to go to Stonehenge, but local people kept telling us that it was over rated and that we should go to Avebury instead. We have an extra day in our schedule, so today we are off to Avebury. It takes two bus and then you are dropped off at the Red Lion Pub, right in the middle of the stone circle.

This circle is bigger then Stonehenge, but the stones are well spaced and do not have horizontal stone bridge between them. The circle is over 300 meters across, and beyond that is a ditch and dike, an impressive bit of pre-historic earthworks. It is an old place (3000 to 2500 BC), but what I think really makes Avebury interesting is the variety of per-historic contraction. There is the stone ring and the ditch and dike. There are also two "stone avenue", double columns of stones which march off over the downs for over a kilometer. There is also Silbury Hill, a man-made mound 40 meters tall and 170 meters across. And there are "Barrow", long burial mounds.

As I said before, we were dropped off at the Red Lion pub, in the middle of the circle, which is another major difference from Stonehenge. There is a village inside the circle, and the intersection of a country road and a major highway - the A4361. After lunch we walked around the dike and then took a public foot path two kilometers across the downs past Silbury Hill, to the West Kennet Long Barrow. The mound is over 100 meters long, and you can go part way into this burial mound, but not too far.

We took the buses back to Burbage and again ate at the "White Hart". The publican knows us now and we are starting to feel like regulars.

Robin And Red Lion Pub
Robin And Will At Avebury
At Avebury

DAY 8 - Friday, August 10, 2007
Burbage - Stonehenge - Salisbury - Braggers Woods

Anna and her husband met us this morning to collect the key to the scout hut. We had originally wanted to take a bus to near Stonehenge, and then hike into it. But apparently a great deal of the Salisbury Plains are part of an army training facility and there are not any public foot paths where we wanted to hike. Anna also said that they were headed to Salisbury to go shopping and would be happy to drop us off at Stonehenge. We were most grateful. The alternative was at least two buses and two hours.

It is another hot English day with barely a cloud in the sky. Anna's husband again warns us, "Be prepared to be underwhelmed." I told the boys about seeing Stonehenge when I was a boy. We were driving across the Salisbury Plains, when all of a sudden, out of the thick, gray, cold and clammy mist, the stones appeared. But my biggest fear is that now it would be surrounded by fences. I had seen photographs of it being overwhelmed by "new age pagans/mystics", and then a chain link fence raised around it a few decades ago.

We were impressed with the way Stonehenge is presented today. They do not let you wander in among the stones, but you view is not obstructed. The stones themselves form a circle about 50 meters across, and then there is a path around the whole circle, about 100 meters across. In between the path and the stones is a simple rope, which is held up on post only 30 centimeters tall. There are a number of interpreters who will answer questions, but also call you back if you step over the rope.

Outside the path is grass, and we sat for a long time just pondering these ancient stones. They are about as old as Avebury (3000 BC for the earthworks, and 2500 BC for the stones). Even thought the circle is smaller then Avebury it is more impressive because with the cap stones it all seems to hold togather as a single structure. Also, since the stones are dressed and squared it looks much newer then Avebury.

There were also at least half a dozen scout groups which came through while we sat there. They were from all over. France, Italy and Scotland were easy to identify. There was also an east European group, an Arab group and a southeast Asian group. The Scottish group stopped near us. They had a guide who told them all the archaeological fact which I had read, but then tried to get them to use divining rod to see the "lines of Earth Energy". I thought it curious to watch. At first all rods went every which way. But after their "guide" told them which way they should point, the people whose rods were pointing that way immediately archived a higher status in the group.

We then took a double decker bus to Salisbury. The cathedral here is really nice. But I think my favorite part was that in the chapter house is an original copy of the "Magna Carta". What amazed me was that this document, one of those basic corners stones of common rights and even government, is housed in a thick steel box with thick glass - and nothing else. It is not in a vault and surrounds by armed guards. If I could read Latin, as well as understand that script I could have stood there tracing my fingers across the glass and read the "Great Charter".

Two more buses are we are dropped off at the cross roads of "Thorney Hill", someplace north of Christchurch. Off we head down a small road to the west, eating blackberries as we go (a lot of beautiful, juicy berries). Down in a valley we find "Braggers Wood", a local district scout camp. The camp is run by Mike with one assistant. When we are there there are half a dozen scout packs and troops camped, but a week befor, for "Sunrise on Scouting", there had been well over a thousand scouts in this small camp. After setting up our tents we walked into the nearest town, Bransgore, for a fish n' chips supper.

Back at the camp we joined the scout group who were camping next to us for there campfire. They are from near Norwich (England - not Vermont). They did skits, which included getting me wet, and sang songs. Robin and I also lead a few songs. Scouts really do the same types of things, telling similar jokes and songs, the world over.

Map of Braggers Woods Area

Burbage Scout Hut With Anna
Will, Robin And Stonhenge
In Salisbury Cathedral
Robin The In Bus
Will The In Bus
Will Near Braggers Wood

DAY 9 - Saturday, August 11, 2007
Braggers Woods, England - St. Malo, France

We hiked out past the blackberries and caught two buses to the town of Poole. Here the ferry was delayed, apparently partly because it was hard getting in and out of the harbor because of all the weekend, small boat traffic. But also they allowed extra time because cars were having a very hard time getting to Poole because of weekend traffic. Even our bus was delayed, taking nearly twice as long as scheduled.

Poole is a massive harbor, with "Brownsea Island" in the middle of it. Brownsea was the location of the first scout camp 100 years ago where Baden-Powell tested out his ideas for scouting. The Jamboree we were at was the centennial celebration of the camp at Brownsea.

As our boat - a high speed ferry - left the harbor, we were followed by a number of jet-skis which speed along and jump over our wake, getting "air".

Because of a delay when I booked our passage we end up in "Club Class", which was 10% more expensive, but was very nice as tea and soda was brought to us and instead of fighting our way to the snack bar, our dinner was brought to us on china. Even if it was the same food from the same kitchen as the snack bar, it was very nice.

We stopped at the island of Jersey, but still landed at St. Malo after only 4 1/2 hours. Not bad for a 250 kilometers voyage.

St. Malo looks like a really interesting town. It has a lot of the same stone architecture we have seen in Quebec. It is also a old seaside resort and I think that some day I would enjoy exploring this area. But it is getting late and the sun is setting. So we shoulder our packs and hike across town (2-3 kilometers) to our hostel.

Tents At Braggers Woods
Morning At Braggers Woods
Brownsea Island
Robin And Poole Harbor
Jet Skis
Tim Leaving England
Water Jets From Ferry
St. Malo, France
St. Malo Sunset

DAY 10 - Sunday, August 12, 2007
St. Malo - Mont St. Michel

We have been traveling and sweating for ten days and we need to do some laundry. So as soon as the hostel office opens I start a load, which we finish and toss in our packs ten minutes before the bus to Mont St. Michel passes the hostel. We make it with minutes to spare.

I really like the #17 bus to Fougeres. It leaves St. Malo hostel at 10:00 and takes an hour to get to Pontorson, where we switch to another bus. But that hour is peaceful is we roll through St. Meloir, St. Benoit-des-Ondes and Hirel. At this point we are following the coast of Brittany. It is a wide open space with sand dunes, salt grass and small villages. And then, 25 kilometers (15 miles) away, we can see a distinct profile of a sharply peaked island across the bay and tidal plains. Mont St. Michel.

We wind inland past a few more villages, and then switch buses at Pontorson. It is only a fifteen minute ride to the island from here. As you approach the island there are a number of hotels, and even motels, miniature golf and other holiday detractions. But most of that stops at the start of the causeway.

Mont St. Michel is no longer truly an island, it is connected to the continent. But they is no space inside the town walls for car or any vehicles. So you can drive across the causeway to make delivers, or the bus can drop you off. But most cars are left in a parking lot on the mainland, a little less then a kilometer away.

The island historically was divided into two parishes, the lower parish, or the "Town of Mont St. Michel", and the upper parish, or the Monastery. The town has one major business street which is crowed and full of restaurants, gift shoppes, galleries and a few hotels. Even if you could get a car through the wall and gate into the town, the crowds would block you, the street may be too narrow and after awhile it rises up the "Mont" in steps. And all the side streets are much narrower and full of more steps. I saw more then a few people with strollers look at the staircase in dismay.

We ate and then circled the crushing crowed by climb up to the town wall. We walked to the monastery and after waiting 20 minutes in line, got tickets and went in.

The challenge to the architect of this monastery was that they wanted to build a great chapel on top of a pointed rock which had no flat spaces. So they encased the peak in a series of building. The flat roofs of these buildings became the courtyard of the chapel and cloisters (yes I still like cloisters). It is Sunday and mass was just finishing as we arrived. We sat for awhile (with our backpacks) and looked about the chapel. Then we wound our way around the peak of the Mont, going lower and lower into the monastery. After the cloister was the refectory where the monks would eat. Since they were Benedictine they would not talk while eating, but one monk would read aloud. I told the boys that I understood that the would have a chapter from the Bible, part of the Rule of St. Benedict, but then something else, even sometimes a novel.

The other room I liked was the Scriptorium. This was a light room which was also heated so that the monks could work. I think it was also a beautiful room. We then left the build and wound down the Mont through the grounds of the monastery.

I sat with the packs for awhile and set the boys off to explore and to find a pastry shop. But one pastry is not enough, and this place is famous for crepes. So we each had a desert crepe before we left.

Robin said about Mont St. Michel, "I like the idea of an old town which can't grow any more, so the old is not surrounded by new stuff, like every other place we have been to." I think Will and I both agree with him, and Mont St. Michel might be the coolest place we visited on this whole trip.

We caught the bus to Pontorson. Originally we were to stay at a hostel in Pleine-Fougeres, because I had been unable to contact the hostel in Pontorson. But when we walked into the Pontorson hostel to ask for directions to Pleine-Fougeres they were very helpful in just finding us beds under their own roof and canceling the other reservations.

Map of Mont St. Michel Region

Mont St. Michell Cloisters
Tidal Plains
Monastery Passageway
Out To Sea
Up To The Chapel
Robin And Tidal Flats
Down On The Town
A Narrow Walkway
Up And Up
Mont St. Michel

DAY 11 - Monday, August 13, 2007
Pontorson - St. Malo - Paris - train to Venice

Today is a long day, with lots of traveling. We caught the #17 going back to St. Malo. Our train doesn't leave until the middle of the afternoon, so we have sometime to poke about this town. The old city is completely walled! We bought sandwiches and took them up on the wall overlooking the sea. Then we wandered the streets some more. Will bought a pirate flag and Robin bought a hat to be ready of the Italian sun.

We caught a locale train to Rennes and then a TGV to Paris. On the TGV a girl, about Wills age, sat next to him and asked him a question. Will replied, in French, "I'm sorry I don't speak very much French." This surprised her so much that be burst out giggling. She was then so embarrassed that she wouldn't even look at Will.

The TGV on straight stretches is very fast! We were soon at Mont Parnasse Station, but needed to get to Bercy Station. It is just a simple bus ride (almost) from Mont Parnasse to Gare de Lyon - and we are now comfortable and at home in Paris (see Report #12). So we board the bus in rush hour and hung onto ceiling straps as we bounced with our backpacks across the "City of Light". I think "Gare de Bercy" is the overflow from "Gare de Lyon". In any case it was a long walk to get past the switch yard of Gare de Lyon to Bercy.

The train to Venice is run by "Artesia", which is the international division of the Italian train system. When we entered our compartment we meet a family of three who turn out to be strange travel-mates. they were a couple in their late fifties with their daughter who is in her mid thirties. I think the mother assumed they had the compartment to themselves and was not very pleased to see three American trundled in. She immediately folds out the middle bunk and lied down on it. It was about six o'clock in the afternoon. That means that I could not sit in my seat. I turned to the daughter, who spoke some English, and asked her if she would like to switch seats with me, we would have one side of the compartment and they would have the other. She readily agreeed but this also means that she and her father have no seats and ended up standing in the corridor for an hour or more.

After a while the boys and I go off to the dinning car and have dinner - which is very good. We sit and talk for a long time to let the other three in the compartment get settled. When we return it is 11:30 and they are all asleep. We fold out our bunks and also go to sleep.

Music In St. Malo

DAY 12 - Tuesday, August 14, 2007
train to Venice - Venice

The train seems to start and stop often in the night for no obvious reason. And then at one point the ventilation turns off and the compartment starts to get hot. I went out into the corridor and get one window open, and then opened the door of our compartment. But the man on the other bunk kept trying to close the door - so I stuck my sandal in the doorway.

The ventilation returns as we pass through Milano. In fact a number of compartments empty out there in the early morning, so when I get up I went to a vacant compartment next door to read for awhile. Finally, at about 10:00, we roll into Santa Lucia Station in Venice (Venezia).

Venice is a maze. It may be also amazing, but it is first and foremost a maze of streets, plazas, canal, islands and bridges. It was immediately apparent to me that we needed a map. So I bought a map which included a nice guide - unfortunately they were out of the English guides, leaving me a choice of Italian or Spanish. I picked the Italian, because at least the words would match the signs (maybe).

We shouldered our packs and tried to make a straight line toward Piazza San Marco. Of course you can not really make a straight line for the city is a labyrinthine, and so some place in the middle of the San Polo district we stopped for breakfast/lunch. In many ways this city reminded us of Mont St. Michel in the way that the streets are for people and not vehicles, and there is very little order in their arrangement.

Finally we discover Piazza San Marco, which is full of people and pigeons. The Basilica of St. Mark (San Marco) is unlike anything we have seen in Sweden, England or France, (and we will not see anything like it in the rest f Italy). It shows a great deal of eastern influence. It is almost Byzantine, with peaked arches and mosaics of blue and gold.

We are tired and soon take the water-bus to the island of Lido where our hotel is. In the afternoon we went to the beach and swam in the Adriatic. It is a greenish-blue, almost a turquoise color and very salty. It is also very warm and we float for a long time.

The sun is very intense and at sun down we start to wake up again - and then Kristina arrives! We went out to eat and took her to the beach at midnight - and then to bed!